Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

Pitre: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary

December 12, 2019

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary
Brant Pitre
(Image, 2018)
240 p.

Mary, Mother of God, Blessed Virgin, Theotokos, Our Lady, Queen of Heaven — she has, in Catholic and Orthodox theology and devotion, an honoured and prominent place. Protestants, on the other hand, generally pay her little attention, and, when they do, tend to regard the Marian doctrines and Marian piety as pseudo-pagan survivals or medieval corruptions of Bible-based, New Testament Christianity. Brant Pitre’s fascinating book throws a spanner in those works by making the case for the Catholic and Orthodox view solely on the basis of Biblical texts.

The key to his approach is reliance on Biblical typology: the ancient practice, embedded in the New Testament itself and common among the Church Fathers, of reading the New Testament in light of the Old. Jesus, for instance, is presented in the New Testament as a “new Adam” or a “new Moses”, and those connections are meant to help us understand him. In a similar way, Pitre argues that the New Testament authors — and he draws principally on the Gospels and the Book of Revelation — present Mary in a way that intentionally connects her to a variety of Old Testament figures and motifs, and that the Marian doctrines (Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, Mother of God, etc) are rooted in these same Old Testament types. Essentially he asks us to read the New Testament as it would have have been read by a first century Jew, who would have known the Old Testament well and would have noticed the allusions and resonances that we often miss, and then to hear in those resonances the distant but unmistakeable sounds of Marian piety as it would eventually unfold.

And so, for example, he argues that just as Jesus is presented as the “new Adam” so Mary is presented, especially in St John’s Gospel and in Revelation, as the “new Eve”, a woman who contradicts and undoes the damage wrought by Eve, and then he proceeds to argue that her status as the “new Eve” is the seed of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Or he argues that Mary is associated (in St Luke and in Revelation) with the Ark of the Covenant, for she bears within herself the Word of God, just as the Ark contained the words of God on stone tablets. Mary’s special role in the Church as universal intercessor (“pray for us, now and at the hour of our death”) is rooted in her role as Queen Mother of the Church; the New Testament connects her with the Queen in the Davidic kingdom (who was indeed the mother of the king, not his wife). He makes a very interesting case that the New Testament also presents Mary as a “new Rachel”, who was, in the first century, seen as a mother figure for all the children of Israel, just as Mary is honoured as mother of all Christians.

The strengths of Pitre’s close reading of the New Testament texts are most evident in a chapter on Mary’s perpetual virginity. Protestants deny this doctrine in part because the New Testament makes a reference to “the brothers of Jesus”. The usual Catholic response to this objection is that “brothers” did not, for the Gospel writers, necessarily mean siblings, but could mean cousins or other relations. Pitre puts meat on this answer, however, by showing that the same men who are called Jesus’ “brothers” are, in other Gospels, said to be the sons of “the other Mary” who, we learn from yet another Gospel, was “the wife of Clopas”. An early Christian source tells us that Clopas was the brother of Joseph, which would explain why, in another place in the Gospels, “the other Mary” is called “the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus” — they were sisters-in-law, in which case the “brothers” were actually cousins. QED. I’d never seen those dots connected before.

There is a lot of Biblical scholarship in the book — copious footnotes, many of them, I noted with interest, from Protestant scholars — but the main arguments are presented accessibly. It is a book meant for wide readership. The nature of the argument it is making — that the New Testament contains allusions to the Old Testament — is necessarily a bit slippery, but he bolsters his case by showing how his understanding of these texts and their significance was part of early Christian theology.

The most important conclusion to be drawn from the book is that, if his arguments are correct, the New Testament authors already saw Mary, in nascent form, very much as Catholic and Orthodox Christians see her today, and that the long tradition of Marian doctrine and piety in the Church is in strong continuity with the New Testament. It’s a stimulating read.

Propertius: Poems

December 7, 2019

Poems
Sextus Propertius
Translated from the Latin by Guy Lee
(Oxford World’s Classics, 1994) [c.30-15 BC]
xxv + 205 p.

Propertius is one of the lesser-known poets of the Latin Golden Age. Born in about 50 BC, he was just a young lad when Caesar was assassinated, and was about 20 years old when Octavian finally defeated Marc Antony to bring the civil war to a conclusion. He was brought under the patronage of Maecenas, and so moved in the same circles as Virgil and Horace. While in his 20s he published three books of poetry that, as we’ll see, constitute something like a single artistic project, and then, in about 15 BC, he completed a fourth book of poems. We know little about his later life; a reference to him in a poem of Ovid, dated around 1 BC, implies that he had by then died.

Propertius was primarily a love poet, and his first three books all focus on his love for a particular woman, Cynthia. Who she was, or even whether she was a real person, we do not really know, but Propertius’ obsession with her gives his poems an intensity and a unity that make them very accessible and engaging. It is passionate poetry, much after the manner of Catullus’ great Lesbia poems.

Just as the course of true love never does run smooth, so also the course of ill-fated, inconstant, unhealthy, and uncertain love can be a rough ride. Propertius’ experience with Cynthia has convinced him that love is mad and painful, a “wound”:

Whoever he was who painted Love a child
Don’t you think he had marvellous hands?
First he saw that lovers live senselessly
And that light passions lose great goods.

Nor was he mistaken in adding flighty wings
And making him a god who flies from human hearts;
For we are tossed about on alternating waves
And the breeze, for us, keeps changing direction.

Rightly too is Love’s hand armed with barbed arrows
And a Cretan quiver hangs down from each shoulder:
For he strikes while we’re off guard, before we see the foe,
And after that wound no one is well. (II, 11)

He has moments when he is inspired by the glory of love, when he professes his unfailing faithfulness to Cynthia, and imagines her echoing the same to him:

There let them come in troops, the beautiful heroines
Picked by Argives from the spoils of Troy,
No beauty of theirs for me could match yours, Cynthia —
Indeed (may Mother Earth in justice grant it)
Though fate remand you to a long old age,
Yet to my tears will your bones be dear.

If only the living you could feel this for my ashes,
Then death, wherever, for me would have no sting.
Ah Cynthia, how I fear that love’s iniquity
Scorning the tomb may drag you from my dust
And force you, though loth, to dry the falling tears;
A faithful girl can be bent by constant threats.
So while we may let us delight in loving;
No love is ever long enough. (I, 19)

But it is telling that he can imagine Cynthia faithful only to his bones and ashes, for in life she gave him little enough satisfaction. The poems relate how she absconded with a rich rival suitor, went away on holiday without him, failed to visit when he was ill, tormented him with false promises, locked the door against him, and generally treated him like rubbish. His hapless love for her remains, however:

Happy the man who could weep in his girl’s presence
(Love can enjoy the sprinkling of tears)
Or who, when scorned, could redirect his ardour
(There is also joy in bondage transferred).
My fate is neither to love another nor break with her:
Cynthia was first and Cynthia shall be last. (I, 12)

He suffers fierce bouts of jealousy, issuing warnings to other men who come within her orbit:

She’ll prove no flighty girl in the encounter;
You’ll find her anger is no joke.
Even if she’s not resistant to your prayers,
She’ll still bring you troubles — by the thousand.
You’ll sleep no more. Her image will not leave you.
Her moods make proud men puppets. (I, 5)

Bereft of her affections, he comes to cherish her abuse and anger as a sign, he hopes, of concealed love:

Sweet for me was the fight by yesterday’s lamplight
And all the manic abuse you voiced
When, mad with wine, you overturned the table and flung
Full wine-cups at me in your fury.
Come on then, don’t be afraid, attack my hair
And scratch my face with those beautiful nails.
Bring fire and threaten to burn my eyes out.
Rip my tunic, strip my chest bare.
Naturally I diagnose true passion; no girl
Not deeply in love is so upset. (III, 8)

But at times when even these slender hopes desert him, his thoughts turn startlingly dark and violent:

But you shall not escape; you have to die with me.
The blood of both shall drip from this same blade.
Though such a death for me will be dishonourable,
I’ll die dishonoured to make sure you die. (II, 8)

Mercifully this dark fantasy remains only a fantasy, but the third book concludes the cycle of Cynthia poems with a vicious farewell curse:

Farewell now to the doorstep that sheds tears at my words
And the door I never smashed despite my anger.
But you — may age and the years you’ve hidden weigh you down
And wrinkles come to spoil your beauty!
May your desire then be to root out the white hairs,
While the mirror, alas, accuses you of wrinkles.
Excluded in your turn may you suffer pride’s disdain,
A crone complaining you’re done by as you did!
These curses my prophetic page has sung for you;
So learn to dread your beauty’s aftermath! (III, 25)

*

This is good stuff: high drama, wrenching passion, flights of fancy, bitter disappointment! His preoccupation with Cynthia, examining their affair from this angle and then from that, gives the whole collection a cohesiveness that makes the poems read something like a diary. I really enjoyed them.

The fourth book, in which he moves on to other subjects (although Cynthia does show up a few times, a memory and ghostly presence), was less attractive to me. The poems are on mythological or historical subjects (including one about Octavian’s victory over Marc Antony at Actium), or spoken in the voice of imagined characters rather than his own, and I found them markedly less interesting.

*

Like Horace, Propertius has a talent for personal, small scale poetry. In one amusing poem he imagines himself setting out to write an epic poem on an important subject, but just as he stoops to drink from that noble stream of inspiration he is interrupted by Apollo:

‘Idiot, what right have you to such a stream? And who
Told you to turn your hand to epic?
There’s not a hope of fame, Propertius, for you here;
Your little wheels must groove soft meadows.
Let your slim volume be displayed on bedside tables
And ready by lonely girls waiting for their lovers.
Why has your page diverged from its appointed round?
You must not overload the rowboat of your wit.
With one oar feather water, with the other sand,
And you’ll be safe. Most flounder in mid-ocean.’ (III, 3)

In other words, he knew his own limits. The introductory essay to this volume discusses the political side of his poetry, which is not entirely absent. (Anyone moving in Augustus’ circle was writing politically charged poetry whether they wanted to or not. Propertius seems to have navigated those treacherous waters adeptly.) His ambitions were not to be great, as some measure greatness, but to be a great poet who would be remembered:

Yet what the envious crowd withholds from me in life
Honour will pay me after death at double interest.
Everything after death is magnified by age:
A name beyond the grave sounds better in the mouth. (III, 1)

Poignant words, considering that he was largely forgotten for a long time, cast into the shadow of his great contemporaries. Renaissance scholars took some interest in his work after long neglect, and the poetry of Petrarch and Goethe was influenced to some modest extent by him. Ezra Pound wrote a cycle of poems in “homage” to him, and he has received a number of English translations in recent decades. Still, it is hard to think that this flagging and marginal fame was what he hoped for.

Let’s do our small part to remember him by reading one poem in its entirety, a poem in which he celebrates the immortality to be hoped for in poetry:

Let us return meanwhile to our song’s familiar round —
To touch and delight a girl with its music.

Orpheus, they say, bewitched wild animals and held
Back rushing rivers with his Thracian lyre.
Cithaeron’s rocks, hustled to Thebes by music’s art,
Of their own accord combined to bond a wall.
Yes, and below wild Etna Galatea turned
Her spray-drenched steeds toward Polyphemus’ songs.
What wonder, by the grace of Bacchus and Apollo,
If girls in plenty worship my words?

Though my house is not supported on Taenarian columns
And has no ivory room with gilded beams,
Nor do my fruit-trees match the orchards of Phaeacia
Nor artificial grot drip Marcian waters,
Still the Muses befriend me, my songs are dear to readers
And Calliope unwearied by my dances.
Lucky the girl who is celebrated in my book;
Each song will be a reminder of her beauty.

Neither the expense of Pyramids reared to the stars
Nor Jove’s Elean home copying heaven
Nor rich gold fortune of the Mausoleum
Escape the extreme necessity of death.
Or flame or rain will dispossess their honour, or
They’ll fall by thrust of years and their own weight.
But age will not destroy the name achieved by talent;
Talent’s glory stands — immortal. (III, 2)

Jonson: Plays

November 26, 2019

Volpone, or The Fox
The Alchemist
Ben Jonson
(Random House, 1938) [1606, 1610]
225 p.

With these two plays I launch a modestly scaled reading project in early(ish) modern drama which begins in Shakespeare’s London and will eventually spread to cover England, France, and perhaps Spain up to roughly 1800.

Jonson was a slightly younger contemporary of Shakespeare, and the two were, I am told, rivals to some extent. (“Volpone” actually premiered in 1606 at the Globe Theatre in London.) I wanted to read a few of his plays in part because I am interested in getting to know Jonson for his own sake, but also, I admit, as a roundabout way of getting to know Shakespeare better, by seeing how his own style and approach differed from those of a close contemporary.

These two plays were written when Jonson was in middle age, already an accomplished playwright and poet. Both are classified as comedies, although the comedy on offer is far removed from the happy whimsy of plays like “As You Like It” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; a closer Shakespearean analogue might be “Measure for Measure”, inasmuch as the comedy is often dark and admixed with serious dramatic material.

In a certain sense, “Volpone” and “The Alchemist” are the same play — which surprised me. In both, a scheming pair, master and servant, attempt to con a variety of gullible parties in a bid to enrich themselves, and in both they are eventually discovered and undone.

Volpone and his servant, Mosca, have amassed immense wealth, and use the promise of a future bequest to lure sycophants into giving them more and greater gifts. They accept bribes and are not above a cunning extortion. Mosca, in the traditional role (traceable all the way back to Plautus, whose influence on these Jonsonian comedies is striking) of smooth and crafty servant, is a wonderful creation, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Iago for the depravity of his imagination, shamelessness of his impostures, and creativity of his conniving; he is the character whom I think I will best remember from these plays.

In “The Alchemist” the artful pair are Subtle, a pretended alchemist, and Face, his confidence man. Dangling the conventional alchemical promise of transmutation into gold before their clients, they too amass gifts and goods on credit. They seem much less intelligent than their counterparts in the earlier play, having (for instance, and as far as I could tell) no clear escape plan from the web of contradictory promises they make to all and sundry. As in “Volpone”, Jonson mercilessly skewers the grasping greed of his characters, none more memorably than Ananias, an Anabaptist deacon on whose hypocrisy and narrow moralism Jonson plays with a cackling delight that feels personal. (Jonson had converted to Catholicism a decade earlier, although he returned to the Church of England at around the time “The Alchemist” was first staged.) All of Subtle’s subtle subterfuges come to nought, however, when the master of the house returns unexpectedly from foreign lands.

Coleridge apparently praised this play for having what he considered to be one of the most perfect plots in all literature, but I thought it was ripping off Plautus’ “The Haunted House”.

*

Comparisons to Shakespeare are inevitable, since he is our pole star for the drama of this period. I have already said that I found Jonson notable darker and more malicious than Shakespeare. There is a difference in the language too; they both wrote in iambic pentameter, but Jonson feels more cramped, lacking the airy spaciousness and aphoristic wealth of Shakespeare’s verse. I also found Jonson’s verse, on the whole, more difficult; one of those Shakespearean scenes of lower-class characters (think of Falstaff at play) in which the jargon and repartee are so quick and opaque that we’re puzzled to death gives an exaggerated but decent idea of how Jonson’s plays read. I was fortunate to find a filmed performance of “Volpone” from London’s Greenwich Theatre, which I watched as I read the play, and this improved by enjoyment and understanding of the play immensely.

Jonson doesn’t rely on soliloquy as Shakespeare does (at least not in these plays), but he does rely on the play-concluding address to the audience that is familiar from Shakespeare:

VOLPONE: The seasoning of a play, is the applause.
Now, though the Fox be punish’d by the laws,
He yet doth hope, there is no suffering due,
For any fact which he hath done ‘gainst you;
If there be, censure him; here he doubtful stands:
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.

This must have been a convention of the theatre at the time.

*

I have enjoyed this brief sojourn with Jonson, and might consider reading another or two of his plays in the future, should they come recommended.

Pieper: Leisure, the Basis of Culture

November 14, 2019

Leisure, the Basis of Culture
Josef Pieper
(Fontana, 1965) [1948]
140 p. Second reading.

To a certain way of thinking, the idea that leisure might be the basis of culture is akin to the notion that leisure suits might be the basis of fashion — appealing, but probably not true. But of course much depends on just what one means by “leisure”, and among the many wonderful things about this book is its excavation of an older, nearly forgotten sense of the word that has deep roots in our history.

*

In one sense, the common meaning of “leisure” — understood as “not work” — resonates with the meaning that Pieper is after. But any hint of slovenliness, triviality, or frivolity must be dismissed: for Pieper, leisure is a high and important business, the highest activity, indeed, that human beings are capable of participating in. Its domains are not sand beaches or movie theatres, but philosophy, poetry, and prayer.

Pieper approaches his subject through a series of traditional dichotomies.

Medieval schoolmen, for instance, made a distinction between two types of intellectual activities which they called ratio and intellectus. Ratio was discursive reason, “reasoning” in the prevailing sense, thinking logically from premises to conclusions. Intellectus, on the other hand, meant understanding, perception of the meaning of abstract concepts, intentionality, and knowledge of truth. The two are different — though not opposites, certainly, for intellectus is a precondition for ratio, which it underlies and informs. Ratio, like our ‘ratiocination’, is what a computer can be made to do — or could do, if it had intellectus, which it does not. To the medievals, ratio meant toil and labour, but intellectus meant illumination and possession. Ratio was a human activity, necessary in practical and speculative matters alike, but intellectus was on the boundary between humanity and higher realms, a kind of spiritual vision, undiscursive and unmediated, not earned by diligent effort, but received as a gift.

Perhaps this sounds esoteric, but I think the distinction in question is intimately familiar to all of us. It is one thing to laboriously work out the value of an integral, but quite another to understand the meaning of the number 3. It is one thing to prove a theorem about triangles, but another to understand what a triangle is. The two aspects of reason are both constantly present to our minds.

A related dichotomy which the medievals observed was between liberal and servile arts. Servile arts were practical in nature: farming, shoemaking, weaving, planning. There was nothing ignoble about them, for they required real skill and knowledge to do well, and, when used to the benefit of the common good, were good. But they were practical, means to certain specific ends, and derived their value from those ends. They were in that sense constrasted with the liberal arts, which had no such practical aim, required no economic justification, but were done because they were good in themselves, and were their own justification. Does such a sphere of activity really exist? There may be — there are — those who say that it does not, but the tradition of “leisure” is founded on the belief that it does. The liberal arts are rooted in leisure.

Or consider a third contrast — the most surprising thus far — which the tradition draws between leisure and sloth. We are today in danger sometimes of seeing these two as synonyms, but in the tradition they are antonyms. For St Thomas, for instance, sloth is closely related not to rest, but to restlessness, mindless activity. It is the condition of boredom, that peculiarly modern affliction that Pieper identifies as a consequence of the loss of the ability to be leisurely. The besetting vice of a workaholic is sloth, toil not ordered to a suitable and worthy good. The cardinal sin underlying sloth was called ‘acedia’, a word that has unfortunately no obvious cognate in English. Pieper relates it to Kierkegaard’s ‘despair from weakness’ (in The Sickness Unto Death): an unwillingness to be what one really is, a dis-integration of the self, a sadness in the face of one’s nature as a creature made by God. The opposite of acedia, and therefore of sloth, is not work, but instead happy affirmation of one’s being, love for the world, and love for God.

The highest form this affirmation can take is the festival, the communal celebration of the goodness of the world, and the highest form of the festival, in turn, is divine worship, praise of the Creator, which is the most intense form of affirmation of the world available to us:

“The most festive festival it is possible to celebrate is divine worship. And there is no festival which does not draw its vitality from worship and that has not become a festival by virtue of its origin in worship. There is no such thing as a festival ‘without Gods’ — whether it be a carnival or a marriage.”

We are not surprised to learn that festivals and divine worship are both closely allied to leisure as the tradition has understood it. (This angle is treated at greater length in Pieper’s wonderful book In Tune with the World.)

*

What, then, is leisure? Pieper unfolds the concept slowly, showing one aspect here and another there, but gradually a picture emerges. It has something to do with contemplation: leisure means “to open one’s eyes receptively to whatever offers itself to one’s vision”. It has about it a kind of passivity: “A man at leisure is not unlike a man asleep”. It is something that we can prepare for, but not something we can will to do; Aristotle said that a man could experience leisure “not to the extent that he is a man, but to the extent that a divine principle dwells within him”. Like intellectus, it is effortless apprehension and possession of truth, or goodness, or beauty. It is an end in itself, a step outside the everyday world of ends and means. It reverences the world as something surpassingly good, and, especially through divine worship, embraces everything essential to a full human life.

The primary examples Pieper gives to illustrate what he means by ‘leisure’ are aesthetic experience, artistic expression and enjoyment, philosophical reflection, love, and religious acts such as prayer and worship. These useless things are the highest to which we can aspire.

Reverence is essential: it is only possible to be leisurely, in this ancient sense, if we can look upon the world as something deserving our reverence, something on which we refuse to impose our will but are disposed to simply receive and behold. We allow our will to be formed by what we encounter, rather than the other way around. This is a reason why we in the modern West have lost touch with the tradition Pieper shows us: the whole thrust of modern thought since Bacon and Descartes has been in the opposite direction: “knowledge is power” and the main thing is to impose our will on the world so as to attain mastery over nature. But the older tradition valued doing and making less than seeing:

“Man’s real wealth consists, not in satisfying his needs, not in becoming ‘the master and owner of nature’ [Descartes], but in seeing what is and the whole of what is, in seeing things not as useful or useless, serviceable or not, but simply as being. The basis of this conception of philosophy is the conviction that the greatness of man consists in his being capex universi.

The ultimate perfection attainable to us, in the minds of the philosophers of Greece, was this: that the order of the whole of existing things should be inscribed in our souls. And this conception was afterwards absorbed into the Christian tradition in the conception of the beatific vision: ‘What do they not see, who see him who sees all things?’ [St Gregory the Great]”

*

Pieper saw leisure as imperilled in his own day, embattled and eroded, of course, because of modernity itself, but facing a particularly acute challenge in his own time and place — post-war Germany — when an ideal of “total work” was gaining political and cultural strength. As the country tried to reconstruct itself, of what possible value could anything not contributing to that effort be? He saw leisure, with its children, philosophy and art, being attacked or discarded as useless. His distress at this turn, in fact, seems to have occasioned the writing of this book.

Today we are less threatened by a regime of “total work” — though I suppose that those required by their employers to carry around a cell phone might disagree. We are less threatened, at least, by this idea as a civic duty or moral obligation. But another threat has taken its place, especially in recent years. Let’s call it “total politics”. This is the view that no field of human action is finally apolitical: power and privilege infect all. It comes mostly from the left wing, where the premise is more widely accepted. Even a disinterested pursuit of truth, to this way of thinking, betrays an unjust privilege, for who but the privileged could afford to be disinterested? But if devotion to truth is just disguised oppression, then all is lost. By a self-fulfilling prophecy, we can fall back only on will and power. Moreover, if intellectual work is really always implicitly political, why should it not be explicitly so? Hence the drift of whole academic departments into advocacy. And art, too, finds it must pass muster with Vigilants, who police for compliance with political nostrums. And so the capacity for human activity to step outside the political, outside the kingdom of ends, becomes constrained. Those borders are patrolled. And leisure, in consequence, cannot unfold its wings.

We also, of course, face a juggernaut of “total distraction” powered by our communication technologies, an ocean of mental noise that drowns out the inner life and smothers leisure. But this is obvious.

It is a very real question whether intellectual work and academic freedom can, or should, survive in this kind of environment. Pieper in his day already perceived a devaluation in the very concept of “intellectual work”, as though one could hire a philosopher the way one hires an electrician. (We have heard of companies hiring ethicists to evaluate controversial practices. “The best ethicists money can buy.”) He saw academic freedom as contingent on the philosophical — that is, leisurely — character of academic work, and judged that it was abdicated to the degree that academic work became merely political or practical.

*

If leisure is as important as Pieper thinks it is, and is as embattled as it appears, we will naturally ask what can be done to improve its fortunes. And here we run up against a conundrum, for we have already said that leisure is precisely that realm of human experience which is its own justification, an end, not a means. But this implies that we cannot cultivate leisure “in order that” this or that good result may be achieved or this or that bad result avoided:

“When a thing contains its own end, or is and end in itself, it can never be made to serve as a means to any other end — just as no one can love someone ‘in order that’.”

We are concerned with a realm of human activity that cannot be instrumentalized without destroying it; it must be sought simply for itself. The only path, therefore, or at least the clearest, to a recovery of leisure seems to me the personal: to love it and live it. As a practical matter (so to speak), it means setting aside time for encounters with beauty; it means pondering questions that admit of no technical solution; it means reading widely and deeply in the best that has been thought and said; it means developing a practice of prayerful and attentive silence, and, preeminently, it means honouring and praising the Creator for the goodness of the world given to us.

Or so it seems to me, and in truth I do, in my own life, in a manner consistent with my other duties and undoubtedly hampered by my many faults, try to do all of these things. I do so in some significant measure under the influence of this very book, which I first read many years ago. It would even be fair to say that this blog, for lo! these many years, has been one means by which I have tried to “work my leisure”, to use a phrase from Aristotle. Without claiming that I have been notably successful, for it is always sobering to contemplate the disparity between one’s ambitions and efforts and one’s actual progress, I nonetheless own a debt of gratitude to this book for its, on the whole, good effects in my life. It has been a joy to read it again and find its wisdom undiminished.

Stevenson: The Master of Ballantrae

November 6, 2019

The Master of Ballantrae
A Winter’s Tale
Robert Louis Stevenson
(Eveleigh Nash & Grayson, 1910) [1889]
330 p.

When we think of Stevenson we think first of Treasure Island, or Kidnapped, or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or, if in winter we get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight, A Child’s Garden of Verses. All were already behind him when, in his late 30s, he wrote this intriguing historical novel, The Master of Ballantrae.

Its story begins during the Jacobite uprising of 1745. A noble Scottish family has two sons; not knowing whether the rebellion will succeed or not, the family hedges its bets: one son, the elder and Master, fights for the Bonnie Prince, while the younger sides with the king. During the conflict the elder son disappears (captured, as it turns out, by pirates) and the younger inherits the estate and marries the woman whom his older brother had loved.

When the Master does eventually return, he finds himself barred from the life he had hoped for, and is understandably resentful. So begins the novel’s long, intricate tracing of the sour rivalry between the two brothers. The Master is cunning and charismatic, a man of great courage and resourcefulness, and he bends all his considerable will to undoing the happiness of his younger brother, a comparatively dull though well-intentioned man entrapped, as it were, by his good fortune.

The book uses an unusual narrative technique. The story is told principally through the voice of a family servant, and is cast as a memoir into which he has pulled relevant material from letters and other sources. The story takes place largely in Scotland, but partly in France, and the long final act actually occurs in New York — first in the city and then, finally and fatally, in the wilderness of the Adirondacks.

Stevenson is, of course, a wonderful writer, with the sturdiest prose and an unerring ear for the right word at the right time. This book is particularly notable for the complexity of the two central characters. The elder brother, whose path in life is beset by so many obstacles and injustices, and who behaves toward his family as the most resolute of devils, is nonetheless portrayed as possessed of an unmistakable nobility of bearing and gifted in abundance with all of the secondary virtues — the ones that can be turned to good or ill. And his brother, less winsome but intelligent and conscientious of his duties, is slowly frayed by a besetting fear of what his brother might next attempt.

There are several references in the novel to the fraternal rivalry of Esau and Jacob, and the book could be read as an echo and elaboration of that Biblical motif.

Wodehouse: Heavy Weather

October 30, 2019

Heavy Weather
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2002) [1933]
321 p.

Beginning a day or two after the events of Summer Lightning, this novel features most of the same characters and even a similar plot: Ronnie Fish and Sue Brown still want to marry over the objections of the family, Gally’s tell-all memoir is still attracting thieves of all descriptions, and the Empress of Blandings is still contentedly feeding on all that comes within reach of her terrific, plump snout.

The principal new characters are Ronnie’s mother, Lady Julia, who rushes back to Blandings Castle intent on quashing Ronnie’s engagement to Sue, and Lord Tilbury, a publishing magnate with the rights to Gally’s memoir and determined to make good on them.

Much of the comedy arises from the sheer number of people trying to lay hands on the memoir: some want it destroyed, some want it published, and some just want to sell it to the highest bidder. As the convoluted hunt proceeds, the manuscript itself is passed, like a covert hot potato, from person to person, each with his or her own motives for guarding it. It’s a triumph of character-driven circumstantial humour.

As always with Wodehouse, the plot has been conscientiously constructed, but the real joy of the book is in the writing, which bubbles with wit. It’s a splendid read.

Tibullus: Elegies

October 22, 2019

Elegies
Albius Tibullus
Translated from the Latin by A.M. Juster
(Oxford, 2012) [c.26 BC, 19 BC]
xxxiii + 129 p.

In the ranks of the Augustan poets, Tibullus has a lesser reputation than his contemporaries Virgil and Ovid. In fact, until recently I’d never, to my knowledge, heard of him. Nonetheless, he was an Augustan poet, he did live and write alongside Virgil and Ovid, and he has been published by Oxford World’s Classics. The time being ripe, I took a chance on him.

He left us two books of elegies before his early death, in 18 BC, when he was not yet 40 years old. The elegy was a poetic form with a distinctive metre — lines of hexameter alternating with lines of pentameter — that the Romans had adopted from the Greeks. The greatest Roman elegist before Tibullus’ time had been Catullus, who used it in his famous Lesbia poems, but both Ovid and Propertius, another of Tibullus’ contemporaries, wrote in the form.

His books show signs of careful construction as unified artistic projects. The first book, consisting of ten poems, trace the slow dissolution of his romance with a woman, Delia, and his fruitless attempts to attract a boy, Marathus. The first poems are hopeful and idealistic, describing his affection for country life and a happy family, but things do not go well. A few poems in, we find him camped out before Delia’s door, denied entrance. By the end of the first book, he has given up hope and is being conscripted, kicking and screaming, to march to war.

The second book continues the downward spiral, though this time the object of his romantic attention is Nemesis, a woman with a reputation befitting her name. The poet is still aware of those ideals he expressed before, but now he’s willing to sacrifice them to win Nemesis’ love. But to no avail: he sells his soul and wins nothing. The book of six poems ends with this malediction:

‘Madam, I pray you’re cursed. You’ll live with ample dread
if something in my prayers affects the gods.

**

There are some interesting nooks and crannies in these poems. For instance, in Book II, the fifth elegy, written to commemorate the ordination to the priesthood of his patron’s son — even here, he finds a way to complain about Nemesis! — includes a brief recounting of the history of Rome, a passage that put me in mind of the similar (but much more extensive) passages in Virgil’s Aeneid. The notes of this edition point out that although Tibullus died before the publication of Virgil’s epic, he might well have heard those passages read aloud by Virgil himself during the poem’s composition. Speculative, but intriguing.

Tibullus’ fortunes have occasionally waxed, but mostly waned, over the centuries. He was well enough regarded by his poet-friends that Ovid wrote a poem — Amores 3.9 — in his honour when he died. Quintilian, writing about a century later, thought him the greatest Roman elegist, but references to him gradually declined, and we know of none between the fifth century and the Renaissance, when he enjoyed a revival alongside all things antique. He was known to Herrick, Montaigne, Rabelais, Ariosto, and Tasso. But he has never had a high profile in the English-speaking world — a state of affairs that this Oxford edition is meant to help remedy.

The translator is A.M. Juster, whose work I have appreciated in the past. It is always hard to judge how much of the poetry is the poet and how much the translator, but I can say that, by and large, I enjoyed Tibullus-via-Juster considerably less than I enjoyed Horace-via-Juster. Tibullus just seems flatter, less witty, more prosaic — in both the literal and the figurative senses of that word. His poetic voice never quite captured my imagination, apart from a few striking passages (appended below). I don’t want to blame Juster for this, because I know he’s a wonderfully versatile translator, so I guess I’m stuck blaming Tibullus.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I read the book. Reading a lesser poet helps us better appreciate the greater poets. And the book is not long — fewer than 100 pages if we exclude the notes, and that includes Latin on the facing page!

***

[Farms and civilization]
I praise the farm and gods of farms; with them as guides,
life meant not fending hunger off with acorns.
They first taught men to join the rafters and enclose
a humble dwelling with some leafy boughs.
They say too they first taught that bulls were made for work
and placed a wheel beneath a vehicle,
then savage foods were lost, then seeds for fruit-trees sown,
then fertile gardens drank from channelled streams,
then golden grapes released their juice to stomping feet
and sober water mixed with carefree wine.
The country yields the harvest when the scorching star
of heaven strips the earth of golden tresses.
In spring swift country bees are busy bearing flowers
to the hive to fill combs with sweet honey.
(2.1)

[The coming of night]
Play! Night yokes horses now; a lusty choir of golden
stars pursues its mother’s chariot,
and following in silence, wrapped in gloomy wings,
comes Sleep and murky Dreams on spectral feet.
(2.1)

Lewis: The Abolition of Man

October 17, 2019

The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis
(Fount, 1978) [1943]
63 p.

Lewis mounts a critique of the view that moral judgements are not objective, and defends what he calls the Tao: the basic, objective moral order that underwrites and secures our practical moral reasoning.

His argument is partly empirical, inasmuch as he compiles a raft of citations from texts, philosophical and religious, from Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, and Indian cultures to argue for cross-cultural agreement on basic moral norms regarding beneficence, duties to parents and ancestors, duties to children and posterity, justice, truth-telling, mercy, and magnanimity. These we may, for the sake of the argument at least, take as the content of “the Tao”, although not exhaustive. Synonyms in world traditions for this body of moral norms are “Natural Law”, “First Principles of Practical Reason”, or “First Platitudes”. The Tao consists of the axioms of moral reasoning, on which all moral judgments ultimately rest.

His main line of argument, however, is not just that the Tao is common, but that the Tao is inescapable, and that attempts to deny it are secretly relying on it at a deeper level. (He thus accuses moral relativists of committing a particular fallacy — denying your opponent a premise that you yourself rely on — that I’m sure must have a name, but that I cannot think of.) Those who profess to debunk objective values themselves harbour values that they think immune to debunking. To be sure, their values are not always precisely those which they deny, but Lewis contends that all the first principles of moral reasoning are equally self-evident, and that therefore every effort to pit one against another can be motivated only be desire, not by reason. The Tao is a unity that stands or falls together.

This is not to say that criticism of the Tao is not possible, but he distinguishes two types: from within and from without. Criticism from within he compares to a poet using the resources of a language to enrich it. Distinctions are made; understanding is refined. Criticism from without is mere “debunking”: a clumsy exercise in arbitrariness and a failure to understand what is being destroyed, for “only those who are practicing the Tao will understand it”.

His point is that moral judgments of any kind rely on there being a moral reality: the kingdom of “ought”, the realm of obligation. This is the Tao. Without it, there can be nothing obligatory at all, nothing properly moral. We cannot derive it from any consideration of utility or appeal to instinct, for these cannot generate an “ought” without implicitly relying on one. We can’t get here from there. Any “ought” — including the claim that we ought not to make moral judgments, or that we ought not to believe things that are not true — affirms the Tao and the objectivity of value. Those who try to escape it have nowhere to go:

“Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.”

The only course, therefore, open to those at war with the Tao — and there are, of course, many — is the total refusal of it, an abandonment of a relationship between reason and action, exile from the kingdom of ought. What remains to them is only strength and will — a will, ex hypothesi, bereft of any reference to “good” or “bad”, and therefore either arbitrary or governed by appetite. In human society, this would devolve to some class of persons exercising power over the others, conditioning the populace, using techniques savvy or crude, for its own purposes, a world of social engineering and the reduction of human persons to artefacts:

“Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”

If this is so, I should be motivated to honour and uphold the Tao. I should acknowledge the objectivity of moral judgments — not always their correctness, of course, but even incorrectness only makes sense within a realm of objectivity. The horizon of the good is the background against which my moral life is lived out; I should respect and love it, for the intelligibility of my moral life depends on it. Paraphrasing Lewis: things merit, and do not merely receive, my reverence or contempt. I should abandon the pretence that my will can define what is right or wrong. In our time, we fall under a particular obligation to clear the mind of cant.

Indeed, the nature of the interior moral life is dramatically dependent on whether or not one accepts the objectivity of the Tao. St Augustine — who lived under the Tao — defined virtue as ordo amoris, ordered love. Ordered to what? To real value. The moral life is loving more worthy things more and less worthy things less, and progress in the moral life consists in conforming ourselves more and more to this objective order, so that we live in greater harmony with it, rather than trying to bend it to our will.

Augustine’s framing of the moral life in terms of love — rather than, say, duty — is important, because virtue consists not merely in thinking rightly about goodness and badness, but in feeling rightly about them. Moral education, in fact, consists largely, and maybe preeminently, in training ourselves to have the right sorts of emotions about things: love and affection for good things, and repulsion and disgust for bad things. And this is the consistent testimony of our pre-modern inheritance:

Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

I am going to pause and read that again.

Apart from the Tao, our emotions cannot be fitting or just, and we cannot have reasons (real rational reasons, not just desires) to prefer them in ourselves or encourage them in our children. But without just and fitting healthy emotions, human beings have a tendency to fall apart: some into their heads, where they suffer that particular lunacy which, as Chesterton said, “consists in losing everything but their reason”, and others into their bellies, the realm of appetite. It’s all there in the Republic:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

This image is the origin of Lewis’ famous coinage, from this book’s magnificent first chapter, of “men without chests”, meaning those without appropriate emotional responses rooted ultimately in respect for what is real.

**

Two apparent weaknesses in the argument deserve some scrutiny. One is the claim that the moral realm is entirely distinct from the realm of “fact”, and that no bridge between them is possible. No “is” implies an “ought”. But Aristotelian moral philosophy, based on the virtues, seems to be an effort to establish such a bridge, and an impressive one. For Aristotle, morals are derived from observation of what is good for human beings, what allows us to flourish as the kind of thing we are, together with the premise that we “ought” to do those things — a very modest premise which all other creatures endeavour to follow naturally. It does rely on some conception of what is good for us, but Aristotle, I believe, thinks this can be discerned by a careful study of our nature. It is not clear that this moral theory can survive a thoroughly materialist Darwinism, but, averting that course of hari-kari, seems to me a challenger to Lewis’ general account of things. Perhaps he is right, though, that Aristotelianism moral counsels never do quite rise to the level of obligation, but are always counsels of prudence, and, if so, this does seem to be a weakness.

The second weakness is his claim that the Tao, consisting of a set of basic moral premises, is indivisible and one, such that one cannot use one part of it to deny some other part. In logic, of course, it is always possible to reduce the number of independent premises one reasons from, so his claim cannot be strictly logical. His principal justification for the claim is that the basic premises are equally self-evident, and so there can be no rational grounds for pitting one against another, or for accepting one and denying another. But are they equally self-evident? How many basic premises are there? (St Thomas thought that the basic moral premise was “Seek good and avoid evil.” Lewis seems to think the Tao is more elaborate and specific than that.) How do we know that a particular moral principle is truly basic and therefore immune to further analysis? At what deductive distance from the basic premises do moral counsels become susceptible of doubt and scrutiny? None of these questions are really addressed by Lewis, but I suspect he would answer that such is the subject matter of moral philosophy. Indeed, if we peer into St Thomas we might well discover the answers we seek.

**

Lewis argues that if the Tao be rejected then the consequence, at a societal level, must devolve to the exercise of power of a few over the many: a tyranny of social engineering. But this is to see it from the point of view of the few, who see and understand what they are doing. But what would it look like, and feel like, to the many? This is a question that Lewis doesn’t really address, but it seems to me an interesting one. The many would be governed by behavioural norms imposed by their elites, which, though not properly moral norms, might seem so to the unreflective or uninformed. An appeal to the “good”, cynically made for the sake of social order or to achieve a certain end, might seem genuine to those to whom it was addressed. But appeals to something that might be mistaken for a transcendental good would be dangerous for the powers that be, so undesirable behaviour or thoughts would be best enforced by social means, perhaps through appeals to the importance of getting along, cultivation of a taboo against moral judgment in those realms where the regime is at odds with the Tao, or through shaming or intimidation. Evidence that one was living under such a regime would be that moral norms would be protean, always evolving, or, to use a suggestive term, progressive.

**

It’s a small book, but one on which the commentary has been voluminous. As a critique of what Alastair MacIntyre would later call “emotivism” in morals, as a defence of the natural law tradition, broadly speaking, and as an eloquent presentation of the metaphysical preamble to moral education it is justly honoured. And it’s beautifully written too.

**

[Education and the Tao]
The educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’. The latter course involves them in the questionable process of creating in others by ‘suggestion’ or incantation a mirage which their own reason has successfully dissipated.

[Magic and science]
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…

The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins.

Wodehouse: Summer Lightning

October 9, 2019

Summer Lightning
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2003) [1929]
320 p.

At the end of the previous Blandings Castle adventure, young Psmith had replaced Baxter as Lord Emsworth’s personal secretary, and a principal question on my mind was whether he would continue in the post long enough to play a role in this rollicking tale. Sadly, he did not. Baxter, in fact, was back, or coming back, in his own efficient manner.

The intertwining stories in this book require close attention to keep straight. There is, of course, the matter of the prize pig, Empress, whose gigantic, near-spherical form doesn’t prevent her going missing. Then there is the Hon. Galahad Threepwood’s project to write his tell-all youthful memoirs, an occasion of sure embarrassment for all the Shropshire nobility. Then there is young Ronnie, the nephew of Lord Emsworth, who has fallen for a London chorus-girl, and there is his cousin, Millicent, who, though intended for Ronnie, has eyes for a member of the domestic staff. And there is the private detective who lurks in bushes and climbs drain-spouts to no great effect. All pile in and are swirled around to create something delectable. Amazingly, Wodehouse hit upon a single brilliant stroke in the final chapter to resolve all of the competing interests. It could not have been more elegant.

Usually the American versions of Wodehouse’s books were given inferior titles, but in this case the American edition was called Fish Preferred, which is not half bad.

Shikibu: The Tale of Genji

October 3, 2019

The Tale of Genji
Murasaki Shikibu
Translated from the Japanese by Edward Seidensticker
(Everyman, 1993) [c.1000]
1224 p.

The Tale of Genji
A Reader’s Guide
William J. Puette
(Tuttle, 1983)
196 p.

A thousand years ago, at a time when European high culture had precious few ornaments in its crown, and was slowly emerging from a long time of trial, a woman in the Japanese imperial court wrote this intricate and refined story about the world in which she lived, a world worlds away from anything known in the West at that time, and quite different in tenor from even the high cultural achievements of Western antiquity.

The Tale of Genji has been called “the first novel”, and indeed Murasaki Shikibu’s careful tracing of psychological complexities and social niceties are worthy of Henry James, but it’s not clear that the designation is quite apt. The book lies wholly outside and antecedent to the tradition of the novel. Though it has roots in Japanese literary traditions, it stands apart as a staggeringly ambitious, in both scale and subtlety, attempt at literary realism. It is, I am told, considered a great classic of Japanese literature, and I am not surprised; had we something of comparable vintage and comparable greatness we’d consider it a classic too.

Although it is sweeping in scope, with over 400 characters, at least a few dozen of them having some claim to being central, the story mostly follows Hikaru Genji, “Shining Genji”, a son of the Emperor and a concubine, whose parentage makes him a rather minor member of the imperial court. We follow his many romantic dalliances with ladies in and around the court, his marriages (for this court is determinedly polygamous), and then, as the story progresses, the lives of his children, for whom he does his best to provide, a faithful if distant father. A convenient prècis of much of the story might be this:

It was a difficult world, which refused to give satisfaction. Among his ladies there was none who could be dismissed as completely beneath consideration and none to whom he could give his whole love.

The setting of the story, the Heian court circles, is one of immense delicacy and refinement. Manners are impeccable, conversation is elaborate and polite, voices are hushed. Women remain veiled from sight behind screens. Letters, carefully written and scented with perfumes, are exchanged quietly. I was startled when I realized that most of the social action of the story takes place at night, when all is a play of shadows and light.

This delicacy carries over to the prose, at least in the translation I have read, by Edward Seidensticker. (There are now, I believe, four English translations available.) The voice Seidensticker gives Shikibu is fragile and minimal, smooth, and emotionally stable. I actually found myself turning the pages of the book gently and with unusual care, so as not to ruffle the placid surface, nor disturb the mood with something so rough as a rustling page. As time went on, and I night after night returned to Genji’s tale, I found myself looking forward, with real appreciation, to entering that quiet, carefully managed world again, as though I were entering a poem.

And thoughts of poetry are fitting, for though the story itself is told in prose, the pages are sprinkled with short poems — about 800 of them, I believe — which characters compose for letters or, spontaneously, in conversation. These poems are of a particular type, the tanka, consisting of 31 syllables, and have a literary effect not unlike that of the haiku. Seidensticker in his translation converts these poems into two English lines, confessing that much of the wordplay and poetic resonance is inevitably lost. They are often magnificently oblique, it being a kind of impoliteness, it seems, to come right out and say what one means.

I can perhaps give an impression of the style by providing a short example. This passage begins with Genji entering a room where a woman, Chujo, has been sleeping, whereupon they exchange poems:

Chujo was having a nap in one of the east rooms. She sat up as he came in. A small woman, she brought a sleeve to her face, bright and lively and slightly flushed. Her thick hair, though somewhat tangled from sleep, was very beautiful. She was wearing a singlet of taupe-yellow, dark-gray robes, and saffron trousers, all of them just a little rumpled, and she had slipped off her jacket and train. She now made haste to put herself in order. Beside her was a sprig of heartvine.

‘It is so long since I have had anything to do with it,’ he said, picking it up, ‘that I have even forgotten the name.’

She thought it a somewhat suggestive remark.

‘With heartvine we garland our hair — and you forget!
All overgrown the urn, so long neglected.’

Yes, he had neglected her, and he was sorry.

‘The things of this world mean little to me now,
And yet I find myself reaching to break off heartvine.’

There still seemed to be one lady to whom he was not indifferent.

The rainy Fifth Month was a difficult time.

Suddenly a near-full moon burst through a rift in the clouds. Yugiri chanced to be with him at this beautiful moment. The white of the orange blossoms leaped forward in the moonlight and on a fresh breeze the scent that so brings memories came wafting into the room. But it was only for a moment. The sky darkened even as they awaited, ‘unchanged a thousand years, the voice of the cuckoo.’ The wind rose and almost blew out the eaves lamp, rain pounded on the roof, and the sky was black once more.

‘The voice of rain at the window,’ whispered Genji. It was not a very striking or novel allusion, but perhaps because it came at the right moment Yugiri wished it might have been heard ‘at the lady’s hedge.’

‘I know I am not the first man who has had to live alone,’ said Genji, ‘but I do find myself restless and despondent.’

The two poems set off by line breaks are in the tanka form, but the other poetic fragments (three of them in this section) enclosed in quotation marks are allusions to extra-Genjian poetry, with which Murasaki Shikibu seems to have been intimately familiar, and with which she expected a comparable familiarity in her reader.

*

By almost any measure, The Tale of Genji is a masterpiece. Like many great achievements, it is not easily enjoyed; much is asked of the reader. I have already mentioned the many characters, the mastery of whom is complicated by the fact that the same character is often referred to under several different names or titles; most of the names, in fact, seem not to be proper names at all, but names of flowers, which characters have adopted as monikers. Seidensticker errs in the direction of greater naming consistency than do some translators, and this was a mercy. Even so, I found it difficult to keep track of all Genji’s lady friends, most of whom ended up blurring together in my mind. The great exception to this rule was Murasaki, his concubine and greatest love (but this relationship posed difficulties of another order, for Genji first fell in love with her when she was only ten years old).

Then, too, the story cannot be said to have a superabundance of narrative momentum. Much is revealed by the existence of a scholarly dispute about whether the chapters were composed in order, for although there are narrative threads that span the life of Genji, and a legion of recurring characters, the story is somewhat episodic, each chapter being only loosely tied to its neighbours. There is also a dispute about the story’s ending: intentionally abrupt or unfinished? Without any claim to expertise in literary conventions of the period, I feel confident saying that a modern reader is going to find the ending abrupt in an unfinished kind of way.

Finally, the book’s overall effect seems to me marred by a tremendous disruption in the narrative that happens about 800 pages in. Remember how in Les Miserables there is a narrative gap in which we transition rapidly from young Cosette to adult Cosette, and are introduced to a new set of young revolutionary characters, and so many things have changed that we are tempted to put the book down? The problem here is similar, for we leave behind Genji and focus instead on the romantic escapades of Kaoru, a son of one of Genji’s nephews. Granted, this part of the story has certain resonances with the story of Genji’s own youth — in some sense, it could still be read as being about Genji — but I found it difficult to make the transition, and I confess I didn’t read the last chapters of the book as attentively as the first.

*

Many of the difficulties of the book were ameliorated for me by keeping William Puette’s A Reader’s Guide on my bed-table. He provides a brief introduction to the historical setting, describes the poetic traditions which Genji draws on, provides lists of characters and clues to their relationships, comments on the relative strengths of the English translations (only Seidensticker and Waley, those being the only two available at the time the book was published), and, best of all, he gives chapter-by-chapter summaries of the story. I found the book helpful, a valuable safety net, and am not sure that I would have persevered without it.

It is natural, I think, having finished a novel that competes in scale with War and Peace, to speak well of it; the alternative is to admit that many precious hours of life were wasted. Determined to be unswayed by such thoughts, I will, nonetheless, speak well of The Tale of Genji, and allow its long-standing reputation to justify my praise, rather than the other way around.