Archive for the 'Books' Category

Smith: How (Not) to be Secular

November 25, 2015

smith-taylorHow (Not) to be Secular
Reading Charles Taylor
James K.A. Smith
(Eerdmans, 2014)
160 p.

It was the toast of many a publishing season: people were seen hunched over it on the subway each morning, others absentmindedly wandered into traffic while poring over its pages, neighbourhood book clubs spontaneously formed so that readers could share their insights, and Facebook was flooded with pithy quotations — I speak, of course, of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Alas for me. As much as I might wish to find my place within that circle of satisfied readers, I have had to take a sobering look at my circumstances and accept that a 900 page text on culture and philosophy is not a realistic ambition for me at present.

And so, instead, I have turned to this attractively slim précis, in which James K.A. Smith takes the reader by the hand and guides him through the various stages of the argument of that unattainable magnum opus.

A Secular Age is, in part, an historical analysis of how Western culture became “secular” during the past five hundred years or so, and, in part, an analysis of what that secularity consists in and feels like for those who are living through it, and, in part, a critique of the secular age and its particular pieties. I have placed “secular” in quotation marks here (but not hereafter) because, as Taylor points out, the word has multiple senses, and he intends it in a particular sense. There is an older sense of secular (which Taylor calls secular_1) which was used simply to distinguish something from the sacred, without necessarily implying any opposition: things of this world, such as politics, agriculture, and friendships could be described as secular_1. Pushing the boundaries a little, people even used to speak of “secular priests”, meaning priests not affiliated with a religious order. But a second sense of “secular” (predictably enough, secular_2) gradually developed which was conceived as the realm of neutrality and objectivity with respect to religious or metaphysical claims. Yet Taylor points to a third sense of secular — secular_3 — which he takes to describe a society in which religious belief has become actively contested, and our age is “a secular age” in this third sense.

To begin with, Taylor wants to challenge the way we think about our secular age. There is a tendency today to believe that secular society is just what remains when religion, superstition, and credulity are stripped away. Its principles are thought to be obvious and clear to any rational person; they are, in some sense, the “natural” principles governing social and intellectual life when those are unsullied by irrational traditions. (President Obama nicely illustrated this in his remarks following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which he described as “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share”. Granted, this was boilerplate liberalism, but that’s just the point: he reflexively described his own values as universal, which, in light of the obvious fact that they are not actually universal, can only make sense if they are conceived of as somehow the natural or default position.)

But Taylor sees secularity in quite a different way, and the first part of his book is dedicated to describing why. He argues that Western secularity is an achievement, a view with a positive history of its own, with its own particular assumptions and values. It is not a default position for rational people, but rather a contingent position that happens to thrive in a particular time and place. I can but sketch the basic outlines of this constructive process by which modernity emerged from the medieval world: whereas for medieval people things in the natural world were experienced as in some sense signs, grounded in a higher reality and full of meaning, the modern view is determinedly disenchanted. For modernity, meaning retreated from things into minds, any intrinsic purposes being expelled. The interior life became impermeable to the natural world or to higher realities (giving birth to what Taylor calls “the buffered self”). Society dissolved into a collection of individuals (what Taylor calls “the great disembedding”). The conception of the good life ceased to be oriented toward the transcendent. This general withdrawal from a world of intrinsic meanings and purposes Taylor, exhibiting a kind of genius for neo-logisms, dubs “excarnation”. But since people cannot actually live without meaning, modernity substituted for the realm of intrinsic meanings a cultural project to locate meaning immanently by reference to moral notions such as “benificence” or “mutual support”, all of which Taylor gathers up under the umbrella of “exclusive humanism” — exclusive of the transcendent, presumably.

The overall effect of all these changes — changes in the way the world is actually experienced — has been a shift in the plausibility conditions for religious belief. For many people it was, and is, no longer obvious that belief in God is compelling or even responsible. At the very least, religious belief and practice are contested in the modern world.

Contested, but not routed, because for Taylor it is characteristic of our age that everyone’s position is experienced as doubtful. Believers realize that their account of things is one option among others. Unbelievers, meanwhile, experience a sense of loss, a feeling that there must be “something more”. We feel the strange pressure of an absence:

“our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance. There is a deeper resonance which they lack, which we feel should be there.” (Taylor)

The origin of this sense of loss is ambiguous on Taylor’s account. It might be an “historical” pressure, simply a residue from old habits, or it might be a real “transcendent” pressure, caused by what Taylor calls “solicitations of the spiritual”. In any event, these “cross-pressures”, which constantly buffet against our sense of secular complacency or religious security, are, in Taylor’s view, experienced by nearly everyone, and the prevalence of such experience Taylor takes to be the defining feature of our secular age.

In his view, cross-pressures arise from three principal sources: the experience of personal agency (“the sense that we aren’t just determined, that we are active, building, creating, shaping agents”); from ethics (the sense that our ethical motives are more than just disguised biological instincts); and from aesthetics (the sense that art has meaning and significance for us). Now, it seems to me that these cross-pressures, so enumerated, pertain especially, or even exclusively, to the secular side, for it is precisely there that determinism, relativism, and meaninglessness are most likely to find a footing, and so it precisely there that the experience of freedom, goodness, and beauty can trouble one’s complacency.

Indeed, if I have understood Taylor’s argument correctly there is an interesting asymmetry between believers and unbelievers when it comes to cross-pressures. For the believer they arise largely because of social factors — roughly speaking, there are atheists and agnostics to contest belief, and a political order has been erected without reference to religion, which unsettles the confidence believers have in the necessity and reliability of their religious traditions and experiences — while for unbelievers the cross-pressures arise directly from the intrinsic features of human experience. It would seem to imply that a religious society untroubled by cross-pressures is a theoretical possibility, but that a parallel unruffled secular society is not. But perhaps this is too simple, for the many transitions that drew the modern world out of the medieval did indeed affect the way that religious believers conceive of and relate to God and to the traditions to which they belong, and the overall tendency of those changes has unmistakably been to undermine or occlude the religious ethos. Religious faith today is more of an achievement, more subject to struggle and trials, than it was for our ancestors, and this is so not just because my neighbour is an atheist. But I am not convinced that the sources of cross-pressure which I listed in the previous paragraph are relevant to the believer’s discomfort.

The next stage of Taylor’s account features another memorable phrase: “the nova effect”. The idea is this: in a secular age, as both faith and doubt become contested, there arises a cultural “explosion of options for finding (or creating) significance”, or what he describes also as “a galloping pluralism on the spiritual plane”. The dynamics of the cultural cross-pressures drive the creation of a host of alternatives to both orthodoxy and unbelief. For the most part, these alternatives seek a remedy for the sense of loss, but do so within the immanent frame (that is, without reference to the transcendent), as in the Romantic notion of “the sublime”. Indeed, the Romantic movement in the nineteenth-century can, I think, be fairly understood as an instance, and a particularly impressive and important one, of this attempt to recover meaning apart from transcendence by investing the arts and human feelings with the highest ideals and significance.

In contemporary society, “spiritual but not religious” can reasonably be understood as a rubric under which the nova effect continues to generate tailor-made substitutes for religion. In a world sundered from transcendent sources of meaning and authority, the spiritual quest is left without referents, and people feel justified in finding their own path to whatever meaning and significance they discern. Hence arises the topsy-turvy notion that one can pick and choose to adhere to those elements of a religious tradition that make a personal appeal, and disregard the rest. “Authenticity” is in the ascendent, and the religious impulse is turned inward to serve the individual, his interests, and desires, adorning them with blossoms plucked from the vineyard of the Lord.

It is also possible, of course, that one of the options produced by the nova effect is a return to traditional religion, as cross-pressures propel one back toward the transcendent. This could be seen, and even intended, as a rejection of the nova effect and all its empty promises. But, as Taylor stresses, things are not so simple, for even those who want to reject this view of things are nonetheless embedded within it, and must contend with it. Given that expressive individualism is an option, it can be rejected only by choosing to reject the priority of choice, which, at the very least, puts one in a paradoxical position. Which is a rather sad thought, but it highlights the difficulty: we cannot escape the disenchanted world; we live in it.


Taylor deploys this distinction to good effect when considering attitudes toward transcendence in our secular age. We can be either open to transcendence, or we can be closed, but in either case we can adopt a take or a spin. Taylor himself has a take on an open frame: he is a practicing Catholic, but he is aware of and interested in the cross-pressures that he feels. But there are others who have a spin on an open construal of the world: they are dismissive of the real difficulties that a religious sensibility faces in our culture; they are perhaps combative with respect to the surrounding culture and uncomfortable with doubt. Similarly for those with a closed construal of things: there are those, as I said earlier, for whom the secular view is “just the way things are”; this is a spin on closure. Taylor argues that it is “hegemonic in the Academy”, and not uncommon beyond. But the fourth quadrant of this little chart is occupied by those who have a take on a closed frame. They are oriented toward the immanent, but are aware of “dispatches from fullness” that hint at deficiencies in their own position. (An honest question: who fits that description?)

Having laid out these distinctions, Taylor devotes a considerable number of pages to interrogating the secular confidence that a closed construal is “obvious” or “natural”. In our culture tendencies toward a closed construal are reinforced by what he calls “closed world structures”, which place constraints or pressures on our construals. These “closed world structures” pretend to be discoveries, but are actually creations, and they are typically value-laden. For example, most of the “closed world structures” of modernity rely on associating modernity with “adulthood” and alternatives to modernity with “infantile” notions like authority and comfort. Such associations coax one toward a modernist affiliation, for who wants to be childish?

Other, deeper, “closed world structures” include a false dichotomy between religion and humanism, philosophical materialism, which denies the existence of the transcendent and claims for itself the authority of science, and modern epistemology, which structures knowledge in such a way that inferences to the transcendent stand at the most remote and tenuous position relative to what can be known with certainty. “The inclination to believe…is no longer the impetus in us towards truth, but has become rather the most dangerous temptation to sin against the austere principles of belief-formation” (Taylor). I won’t go into detail, but I think the idea is clear. We stand at the far end of an immense cultural project to make a closed construal seem natural, and it is little wonder that it succeeds to a great extent.

What is perhaps surprising is that a closed construal still has chinks in its armour. Taylor devotes the final sections of the book to a critique of our secular age, drawing attention to its weaknesses and highlighting those spaces where it is susceptible to “fullness”, which is his term for a kind of rumour of glory, an echo or image within our immanent frame of the transcendent realm beyond it. It is here that Taylor’s Catholicism is most evident, for, as Smith helpfully points out, his critique typically begins with him “levelling the playing field” by describing how both secularism and Christianity face similar problems, and then arguing that Christianity deals more effectively with them.

For example, both Christianity and secular modernity acknowledge that not all is well with the world, but one of the principal transitions in modernity has been from seeing evil as sin to seeing it as sickness. This was supposed to be a liberation from feelings of guilt, but its practical consequence has been that therapy has been translated from the moral plane to the technical plane; instead of submitting to a priest one now submits to a therapist, and personal responsibility has been replaced by a sense of victimization. Which is better?

Or, to take another example: a standard modernist critique of religion is that it suppresses or mutilates human desires in pursuit of some transcendent good. But Taylor points out that the same charge can be made of secularism, which also has moral aspirations which require the discipline and denial of desires. The problem, in fact, is more acute for secularism because all of the pressure is “on us” to succeed; if we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Having surveyed a number of such cases, Taylor comes around again to the possibility, and desirability, of religious conversion. He considers several notable examples of “those who broke out of the immanent frame”, or at least moved from a closed take to an open one, including Illich, Maritain, Peguy, Havel, and Hopkins — which is a pretty good list. Despite the hazards of this turn to the transcendent, outlined earlier, he finally endorses it not just as a possible course, but as the most fully reasonable one:

“In our religious lives we are responding to a transcendent reality. We all have some sense of this, which emerges in our identifying and recognizing some mode of what I have called fullness, and seeking to attain it. Modes of fullness recognized by exclusive humanisms, and others that remain within the immanent frame, are therefore respondent to transcendent reality, but misrecognizing it. They are shutting out crucial features of it. So the structural characteristic of the religious (re)conversions that I described above, that one feels oneself to be breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field, which makes sense of things in a different way, corresponds to reality.” (Taylor)

And that, it seems to me, is a good place to stop.


Or nearly so. As I said at the beginning, I didn’t actually read Taylor’s book; I read Smith’s summary, and so everything I’ve said here has been filtered through him. I found his book, which would ideally be read alongside Taylor’s book, to be clear and well-structured. He has an accessible style, and seems to know what he’s talking about. I am grateful for his book, which has allowed me to learn about, and learn from, a rather important contribution to the ongoing conversation about our secular age, and all without breaking a sweat.

A wee bit here, a wee bit there

November 20, 2015

A few wee bits of note:

  • The recent Synod on the Family in Rome hasn’t, by and large, been a laughing matter, so this provides welcome comic relief.
  • Fr Longenecker, a long-time blogger at Standing on my Head, has recently launched a new blog: The Suburban Hermit. If you’ve an interest in things Benedictine, or like to look at old abbeys and read old books, it might be for you. Just today he wrote about our sort-of patroness, St Julian of Norwich.
  • Canada has a new Prime Minister, and he’s setting a new tone in international affairs.
  • Janet Cupo is planning to host an online book club during Advent this year; we’ll be reading Caryll Houselander’s The Reed of GodThere’s probably still time to get a copy if you’re interested; mine arrived in the mail today.
  • My day job, in part.
  • Wouldn’t it be great to have a school like this in your neighbourhood?
  • On a similar note: Russell Kirk on why one might want to learn Latin? I studied it for a year. Avis, avis, avis.
  • One possible reason: to realize more clearly that English is not normal.
  • Did you know there is an animal that can survive being dehydrated for 10 years, being kept at 200 degrees below freezing, and going to outer space? Meet the mightiest wee bit of them all: the tardigrade.

Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love

November 13, 2015

Revelations of Divine Lovejulianofnorwich
Julian of Norwich
(Penguin Classics, 1998) [c.1410]
235 p.

Given that this blog has, since its inception, held its motto (“All manner of thing shall be well”) from Julian of Norwich — by way of T.S. Eliot — it is high time that I finally got around to sitting down with Julian herself. She was an English anchoress born in the mid-fourteenth century, and has come to be seen as one of the chief glories of the remarkable flourishing of English mysticism that distinguishes that time. (The writings of Margery Kempe and of the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing would be others. In fact, it is worth noting that Julian herself is also anonymous: we call her “Julian” only because her cell was within the wall of the church of St. Julian in Norwich.)

Revelations of Divine Love has its origin in a powerful mystical experience which Julian had on 8 May 1373, when she was about 30 years old. She was gravely ill, and in preparation for her death a priest entered her room carrying a crucifix aloft. Upon viewing the crucifix, Julian experienced a series of sixteen visions, or “showings”. She afterwards recovered from her illness and, after meditating on the visions for some twenty or thirty years, finally wrote about them. The Revelations comes in two versions: short text and long. This volume from Penguin Classics includes both.

The showings themselves range from visions of blood trickling from the wounds of Christ upon the crucifix to intense experience of sorrow and joy to a vision of God in His glory. Julian’s piety focuses on the suffering of Christ, his wounds, his blood, and his sorrows, over which she lingers with great tenderness. This is a kind of piety which I myself do not share to any great extent, but which I respect as having a long history within Catholic devotion. Like the author of The Cloud, she is refreshingly plain-spoken and down to earth.

She is also remarkably sanguine and cheering; her saying that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well” is a fair summation of her attitude. She is possessed of a great confidence in the goodness of the God who is love. Writing about repentance, for instance, she says,

When we fall through frailty or blindness, then our kind Lord touches us, moves us and calls us, and then he wants us to see our wretchedness and sinfulness and acknowledge it humbly. But he does not want us to stop at this point nor does he want us to be very anxious to accuse ourselves, nor does he want us to be inwardly miserable; but he wants us quickly to turn our thoughts to him; for he stands all alone and waits for us, sorrowing and lamenting until we come, and is impatient to have us with him; for we are his joy and his delight, and he is our balm and our life.

She makes no attempt to deny the evil of sin nor the wretchedness of the sinner, but these things find their place within a basically happy framework: “our kind Lord” stands ready, calling us to himself, and rejoicing in our return. Speaking as one who has yet to develop a good relationship with the confessional, I find her rather encouraging.

She is quite good on prayer as well. Prayer raises questions. Do our prayers really affect God’s actions? Would God not act providentially but for our prayers? If God’s will is immutable, what can be the purpose of petitionary prayer? Is it true, as Augustine said, that prayer is really about us, being God’s means for slowly conforming our wills to his own? Is prayer our reaching out to God or God speaking through us, cor ad cor loquitur? Julian reports, rather strikingly, that in one of her showings Jesus spoke to her in these words, “I am the foundation of your prayers,” and then she goes on to describe what she believes is happening in genuine prayer:

God teaches us to pray, and to trust firmly that we shall obtain what we pray for, though everything which is done would be done, even if we never prayed for it. But the love of God is so great that he considers us sharers in his good deed, and therefore he moves us to pray for what it pleases him to do…

So she seems to be in agreement with Augustine: God’s will is what it is, and it does not bend to our whims, and we pray in order to learn to see things as he sees them. In another place (see below) she goes so far as to say that we only pray for specific outcomes when we are in some way distant from God. What I particularly like about her view of the dynamic of prayer is its sense of unity and shared joy between the soul and God.

It has taken me quite a few months to read Julian’s Revelations. I started it about six months ago while on retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee, and I have slowly pegged my way through it during my private devotions. It has been a good companion.

A few extended quotations from the book are appended below. See also here.

[Three touchstones]
Man relies on three things in this life, three things by which God is worshipped and we are helped, protected and saved. The first is the use of man’s natural reason; the second is the general teaching of Holy Church; the third is the gracious inner working of the Holy Ghost; and these three are all from one God.

[A vision of God]
When our courteous Lord shows himself to our soul through his grace, we have what we long for; and then for a time we are unaware of anything to pray for; our only aim and our whole strength is set entirely on beholding God; and to me this seems an exalted, imperceptible prayer; for the whole purpose of our prayer is concentrated into the sight and contemplation of him to whom we pray, feeling marvellous joy, reverent fear and such great sweetness and delight in him that at that moment we can only pray as he moves us. And I know very well that the more the soul sees of God, the more it longs for him, through his grace.

But when we do not see him in this way, then we feel a need to pray for a particular purpose, because we lack something, and so as to make ourselves open to Jesus; for when the soul is tormented, troubled, and isolated by distress, then it is time to pray and make oneself pliable and submissive to God. But no kind of prayer can make God bend to the soul, for God’s love is always the same. And so I saw that when we see something we need to pray for, then our good Lord follows us, helping us in our entreaty.

And when though his special grace we behold him plainly, seeing no other need, then we follow him and he draws us into him by love; for I saw and felt that his marvellous and abundant goodness fills up all our faculties; and then I saw that his continual operation in all manner of things is done so kindly, so wisely and so powerfully that it surpasses all our imagining and all that we can believe and think; and then we can do no more than contemplate him, rejoicing, with a great and powerful longing to be completely united with him, resting in his dwelling, enjoying his love and delighting in his kindness.

And then we shall, with this precious grace, through our own humble and continual prayers, come to him now in this life by many mysterious touches of precious spiritual revelations and feelings, apportioned to us as our simplicity can bear it; and this is done and shall be done, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, until we die in longing for love.

And then we shall all enter into our Lord, clearly knowing ourselves and fully possessing God. And we shall all be unendingly held in God, seeing him truly, feeling him fully, hearing him spiritually, smelling him delectably and swallowing him sweetly; and then we shall see God face to face, fully and familiarly; the creature that is made shall see and endlessly contemplate God, who is the Maker.

[Closing thoughts on love]
This book was begun by God’s gift and his grace, but it seems to me that it is not yet completed. With God’s inspiration let us all pray to him for charity, thanking, trusting and rejoicing; for this is how our good Lord wants us to pray to him, as I understood from all that he conveyed, and from the sweet words where he says very cheeringly, ‘I am the foundation of your prayers’; for I truly saw and understood in what our Lord conveyed that he showed this because he wants to have it better known than it is. Through this knowledge he will give us grace to love and cling to him; for he feels such great love for his heavenly treasures on earth that he wants to give us clearer and more comforting sites of heavenly joy as he draws our hearts to him, because of the sorrow and darkness which we are in.

And from the time that this was shown, I often longed to know what our Lord meant. And fifteen years and more later my spiritual understanding received an answer, which was this: ‘Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.’

This is how I was taught that our Lord’s meaning was love. And I saw quite certainly in this and in everything that God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall. And all his works were done in this love; in this love he has made everything for our profit; and in this love our life is everlasting. We had our beginning when we were made; but the love in which he made us was in him since before time began; and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen.



Update: It seems that Julian’s writings are available in a handsome Middle English edition; were I to begin again, I would seriously consider it. Also, if I could choose one book to read about Julian it would be this one by Denys Turner.

Another point about Julian that is worth noting is that some of her statements are theologically controversial. Her showings revealed, to take an instance, that God does not attribute our sins to us as personal faults; I was not able to clearly apprehend to what she thinks God does attribute them. This is one of the perennial problems with private revelations: they have idiosyncracies. Meanwhile she denies that her showings were private, in the sense of being intended for her alone, and resists any suggestion that they are in conflict with Church teaching, which introduces some interesting tensions into her writing…

Childs: God’s Traitors

November 7, 2015

childs-traitorsGod’s Traitors
Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England
Jessie Childs
(Bodley Head, 2014)
463 p.

I have discussed books about the history of Catholicism in England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I before. Jessie Childs has written a very interesting and well-researched volume covering the same period. What distinguishes hers from others, and what gives it considerable appeal, is its focus on several generations of one prominent recusant Catholic family: the Vaux family. They figure in any competent account of the Jesuit mission to England, for they were key players in protecting the priests and sustaining the mission, but putting them at the center of the story has the advantage of letting us see more clearly how the swirling religious and political controversies of the period affected real people.

In the case of the Vaux family, the most important figures were women: Anne and Eleanor, especially. They harboured priests, allowed Catholics to meet in their homes, had hides built into the walls and staircases of their manors, and provided whatever support the Jesuits needed. There is a certain irony in the fact that the prominence of women in this story is largely a result of the social and legal position of women in Elizabethan society. Because they could not own property, they could not have their property confiscated. Because they did not have careers in public life, they were not subject to the variety of impediments facing Catholics in public life. Their private social roles allowed them to act with a freedom that was simply not possible for men.

Childs brings her story up to the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. She is rather critical of the actions of Henry Garnet, SJ, who was the Jesuit Superior in England during most of the period she covers. Garnet learned of the Plot — or at least knew that something was afoot, even if the details were hidden from him — under the seal of the confessional. While acknowledging the inviolability of the seal (and, generally speaking, it should be said that Childs is even-handed but sympathetic in her treatment of Catholicism), and acknowledging that Garnet did take some action to avert the disaster, she ultimately judges him to have done too little. It’s a difficult point, with reasonable arguments on both sides.

Needless to say, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot was a calamity for Catholics throughout England. Whatever lackadaisical tolerance they might have enjoyed disappeared overnight. Numerous Catholics, priests and lay-people, including Henry Garnet himself, were captured and executed. Those tenacious Brits still burn Guy Fawkes in effigy every November 5. When it comes to the burdens English society placed on Catholics, on the other hand, and to the lives of the roughly 200 Catholics who were executed under Elizabeth in the years preceding the Plot, it is fair to say that they do not remember. Books like this one do the good service of reminding them, and us.

Seeking and finding

October 29, 2015

The seeking is within everyone’s reach; everyone may have it by God’s grace, and ought to have it by the Church’s wisdom and teaching. It is God’s wish that we should observe three things in our seeking: the first is that our search should be committed and diligent, with no laziness, as it may be through his grace, glad and cheerful without unreasonable depression and unprofitable misery. The second is that for his love we await him steadfastly, without grumbling and struggling against him, until our life’s end, for life lasts only a short while. The third is that we should trust him utterly with sure and certain faith, for that is what he wishes.

We know that he will appear suddenly and joyfully to all those that love him; for he works secretly, and he wishes to be perceived, and his appearance will be very sudden; and he wants us to trust him, for he is most kind and approachable — blessed may he be!

— Julian of Norwich,
Revelations of Divine Love.

Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

October 24, 2015

Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy
(Modern Library, 1940) [1877]
950 p. Second reading.
Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It is one of the great opening lines, and it is fitting that it comes from one of the greatest novels. I first read Anna Karenina about 15 years ago, and thought that the time had come to revisit it. I am glad that I did. I had forgotten a great deal, and of course the sections about marriage and fatherhood mean more to me now than they did in my bachelor days.

I had not remembered, for instance, that, despite its title, the book is largely two stories told in parallel: those of Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin; the reader is invited to set the two lives side by side and compare them. As the novel unfolds, Anna spirals down and down, making one poor decision after another, while Levin, in contrast, finds himself grounded more and more steadily, finding his place in the world by attending to his duties as husband and father:

In former days—almost from childhood, and increasingly up to full manhood—when he had tried to do anything that would be good for all, for humanity, for Russia, for the whole village, he had noticed that the idea of it had been pleasant, but the work itself had always been incoherent, that then he had never had a full conviction of its absolute necessity, and that the work that had begun by seeming so great, had grown less and less, till it vanished into nothing. But now, since his marriage, when he had begun to confine himself more and more to living for himself, though he experienced no delight at all at the thought of the work he was doing, he felt a complete conviction of its necessity, saw that it succeeded far better than in old days, and that it kept on growing more and more.

The long denouement in which Levin confronts the spiritual and personal poverty of the views he has held through most of his adult life deserves to be remembered as one of our finest fictional treatments of religious conversion. It is nuanced and tentative, and left incomplete at novel’s end, but what we have is nonetheless quite excellent. “He was in the position of a man seeking food in toy shops and tool shops.”

I was also struck, on this reading, by the numerous comments Tolstoy makes about the effects of moral choices on our notions of what is “rational” and “reasonable”. For example, Stepan Arkadyevitch, whose affair with his children’s governess opens the novel, forms his political alliances based largely on how those alliances judge his own personal conduct:

Stepan Arkadyevitch had not chosen his political opinions or his views; these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves, just as he did not choose the shapes of his hat and coat, but simply took those that were being worn. And for him, living in a certain society—owing to the need, ordinarily developed at years of discretion, for some degree of mental activity—to have views was just as indispensable as to have a hat. If there was a reason for his preferring liberal to conservative views, which were held also by many of his circle, it arose not from his considering liberalism more rational, but from its being in closer accordance with his manner of life. The liberal party said that in Russia everything is wrong, and certainly Stepan Arkadyevitch had many debts and was decidedly short of money. The liberal party said that marriage is an institution quite out of date, and that it needs reconstruction; and family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevitch little gratification, and forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which was so repulsive to his nature.

A very similar dynamic is evident later in the novel as the affair between Anna and Vronsky matures. The open adultery bars them from respectable social life, and in consequence Vronsky’s views on what is and is not scandalous behaviour begins to evolve:

One would have thought he must have understood that society was closed for him and Anna; but now some vague ideas had sprung up in his brain that this was only the case in old-fashioned days, and that now with the rapidity of modern progress (he had unconsciously become by now a partisan of every sort of progress) the views of society had changed, and that the question whether they would be received in society was not a foregone conclusion.

This same process, which I believe is rather prevalent, has been recently treated with some fine insights in Jay Budziszewski’s The Revenge of Conscience.

Obviously Anna Karenina is a great novel. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to read it again.

All about Bob

October 9, 2015

Chronicles, Vol.1dylan-chronicles
Bob Dylan
(Simon & Schuster, 2004)
293 p.

Revolution in the Air
The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-73
Clinton Heylin
(Chicago Press, 2009)
496 p.

Still on the Road
The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1974-2006
Clinton Heylin
(Chicago Review, 2010)
544 p.

As a supplement to my ongoing pop music odyssey, which, if I recall correctly, is focused around the discography of Bob Dylan, I thought that I would dig out this first (and, so far, only) volume of his autobiography. I’d meant to read it years ago, but somehow never got to it. Well, I enjoyed it thoroughly, needless to say. I would enjoy reading Bob Dylan’s laundry receipts, and the book is a good deal better than that.

A peculiarity is that the story he tells skips over the two periods in his career which have attracted the most attention: those years in the mid-1960s when he made that string of brilliant records from Freewheelin’ up through John Wesley Harding, and his Gospel period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he tossed out his songbook and, for a time, sang only about Jesus. Of this latter period we hear nary a peep in the book, and the former period is alluded to only in a passing reference to his later songwriting difficulties (“I couldn’t get to those kinds of songs … To do it, you’ve got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I had done it once, and once was enough.”).

Instead, Dylan writes about growing up in Minnesota, his early days in New York City prior to his first record contract, his personal and professional challenges in the early 1970s, and the recording sessions for Oh Mercy in the late 1980s. It’s a strange selection that must have raised a few eyebrows at the publisher’s house. If one wanted to write about Dylan while studiously avoiding writing about Dylan, one could hardly do better.

Still, the book manages to be quite fascinating on its own terms. I learned, for instance, how he got from his real name to his stage name: Robert Zimmermann -> Robert Allen (from his middle name) -> Robert Allyn -> Robert Dylan (after Dylan Thomas) -> Bobby Dylan -> Bob Dylan. And while of course I knew the importance of Woody Guthrie during his early years, I did not know that the great bluesman Robert Johnson was also a decisive influence — that is, assuming that such claims are actually true; with Dylan, one is never quite certain that the narrative is free and clear of bluff.

Among the most interesting sections of the book, for me, are those which relate the troubles that beset him in the early 70s: a kind of artistic impasse, writer’s block, and the plague of fame. He confirms what I have long maintained: that casting him as the “voice of the generation” leading the cultural revolution in the 1960s was a misapprehension of his true character and ambitions. “I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation that I was supposed to be the voice of,” he writes. “I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs.” And, sounding just a bit like the sage despite himself: “Privacy is something you can sell, but you can’t buy it back.”

He then goes on to claim that his four or five subsequent records — widely regarded as including some of his worst music — were a calculated effort to throw off the mantle that he had been made to bear. It’s worth quoting him at length on this point:

My house was being battered, ravens constantly croaking ill omens at our door. What kind of alchemy, I wondered, could create a perfume that would make reaction to a person lukewarm, indifferent and apathetic? I wanted to get some. I had never intended to be on the road of heavy consequences and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation, and that notion needed to be pulled up by its roots. Liberty for myself and my loved ones had to be secured. I had no time to kill and I didn’t like what was being thrown at me. This main meal of garbage had to be mixed up with some butter and mushrooms and I’d have to go great lengths to do it. You gotta start somewhere.

I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist. This helped a little. Coming back I quickly recorded what appeared to be a country-western record and made sure it sounded pretty bridled and housebroken. The music press didn’t know what to make of it. I used a different voice, too. People scratched their heads. I started a rumor with my record company that I would be quitting music and going to college, the Rhode Island School of Design–which eventually leaked out to the columnists. “He won’t last a month,” some people said. Journalists began asking in print, “Whatever happened to the old him?” They could go to hell, too. Stories were printed about me trying to find myself, that I was on some eternal search, that I was suffering some kind of internal torment. It all sounded good to me. I released one album (a double one) where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it, and then went back and scooped up everything that didn’t stick and released that, too. I missed out on Woodstock–just wasn’t there. Altamont–sympathy for the devil–missed that, too. Eventually I would even record an entire album based on Chekhov short stories–critics thought it was autobiographical–that was fine.

The references here are to Nashville Skyline (“a country-western record”), Self-Portrait (“whatever stuck”), and New Morning (“everything that didn’t stick”). The last remark, which can only be an allusion to Blood on the Tracks, I take to be one of the more brazen examples of bluff within these pages.


Alongside Chronicles, the Dylan thread of my pop music odyssey has been much enriched by Clinton Heylin’s two hefty volumes about his songs. All of them, you understand, all 600-odd. Heylin, who has written one of the more well-regarded biographies of Dylan (unread by me) and is, I gather, among the more sensible and sober of the (generally slightly mad) Dylanologists, here devotes a page or two (or ten) to every song Dylan is known to have written. I’ve consulted it over and over again as my odyssey has progressed, and I’ve not been disappointed.

Heylin is not much interested in interpreting the songs, and although (given how much time he devotes to his subject) he must be a rather fervent admirer of Dylan, his tone is generally flat and factual: he tells us when and where the songs were recorded, when they were first performed live, sometimes discusses alternate takes or alternate lyrics, discusses the circumstances in which the song was written, and gives an overview of how it has fared in his live sets over the decades. I found the books consistently interesting. (I was genuinely surprised to see the middling reader reviews at Only after reading a few did I realized that jealous nit-picking is evidently a common pastime among your die-hard Dylan enthusiasts. There may be some factual errors in the books, but not enough to allay my enjoyment.) One of the unexpected things I learned from the books is that a large number of Dylan’s songs were not performed live for years, sometimes decades, after they were first recorded and released.

I will say that Heylin seems to grow more intemperate as he nears the end of his survey. It is clear that he dislikes Daniel Lanois’ involvement in Dylan’s record-making (on both Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind, which to my mind are his two best records of the past 30 years), and he seems to really dislike Love and Theft. It’s fine to dislike the records, of course, but are they really so much worse than the dross Dylan dribbled out through much of the 1970s and 1980s? Not to my mind. But every man, Heylin included, has his ups and downs, and a little distemper cannot overshadow what is a fine achievement. I’m grateful to have these volumes on my shelf.

Dylan aficionados will have picked up on the fact that the titles of Heylin’s books are taken from phrases in “Tangled Up in Blue”. If, as I fondly hope, Dylan has a long life and dozens of albums still ahead of him, future volumes in this series might well include A Different Point of View: Songs of Bob Dylan, or In the Spotlight so Clear: Songs of Bob Dylan, or perhaps Heading for Another Joint: Songs of Bob Dylan, and even, I suppose, someday, Something Inside of Him Died: Songs of Bob Dylan.

As an envoi, let’s hear a song that I didn’t know about until reading Heylin’s books. This is “Caribbean Wind”, from the Shot of Love sessions. It’s a fantastic song:

Good Catholic books for kids

October 2, 2015

Not only am I a busy father, but I am also a busy godfather.  It is sometimes hard for me to keep track of all my godchildren, but I am pretty sure I could field a baseball team by now.  Our team would probably be called the Discalced Crusaders, or something similar.

(Incidentally, I have a hard time thinking of a good way of incorporating Catholicism into the name of a baseball team.  Think of baseball words: ball, bat, base, diamond, catch, pop, run, out, strike.  I can’t think of a way to pun on any of them in a religious sense.  When I was on the physics department’s baseball team we were called the Magnetic Fielders; I wish I could think of something with that kind of wit.  This might explain why baseball is not popular in predominantly Catholic countries.)

Anyway, one of the pleasures of being a godfather is that I get to give gifts to my godchildren from time to time, when the fancy strikes me, and I am fond of giving books.  The trouble is that when I go to my local Catholic bookstore and peruse the books for kids and young adults (my godchildren range in age from 4 to 21) I can’t help noticing something: there’s a lot of crap.

So I am looking for recommendations of good Catholic books for kids and teenagers. (I don’t have as much trouble with adults.) Suggestions are most welcome.

Let me mention a few of my own favourite books of this kind:

cooney-jugglerThe Little Juggler was adapted by Barbara Cooney from a French legend, and was first published in 1961. It tells the story of a young boy in medieval Europe who wants to serve God but only knows how to juggle. The story has been adapted, with some differences, by others (such as in Tomie dePaola’s The Clown of God), but this one is the best. The illustrations are wonderful, and the text is elegant and moving.

hodges-christopherMargaret Hodges has adapted a few classic tales about saints for children, and I really like her Legend of St Christopher. The story, which comes from The Golden Legend, tells the story of a strong man who wants to serve the world’s most powerful king. He first serves in the court of a great ruler, then he serves the devil, and finally he serves Christ. The illustrations are superb; they were done by Richard Jesse Watson.

gubbio-bedardThere are shelves of books about St Francis, but my favourite (of those I have seen) is The Wolf of Gubbio by Michael Bedard, with illustrations by Murray Kimber. It tells the story of how Francis tamed the wolf of Gubbio. Once again, the illustations are a big part of the draw here; they are fantastic.

One begins to discern the limits of my knowledge: these are all picture books suitable for young children. They are all narrative and quasi-legendary, rather than Biblical or catechetical. I’m not saying that’s a problem, but it is a limitation.

I’d be grateful for recommendations of other good books for Catholic children.

Apuleius: The Golden Ass

September 14, 2015

The Golden Ass
Translated from the Latin by Sarah Ruden
(Yale, 2012) [c.180]
288 p.

Apuleius’ title for his rollicking tale is Metamorphoses but in English it is usually called The Golden Ass, after St. Augustine’s derisive reference to it in The City of God (viz. Asinus Aureus). It is a work of some historical importance, being the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety, and being a relatively rare example of comedy surviving from the classical period.

The story is about one Lucius, whose immoderate interest in magic results in his being accidentally transformed into an ass. To undo the magic he must eat roses, but unfortunately for him they are in short supply, and the book recounts the many adventures (or, better, misadventures) he endures in the meantime. Embedded into Lucius’ own story are a number of independent stories told by characters he meets, so that the book has a structure reminiscent in some ways of The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, though for Apuleius the tales-within-the-tale emerge more haphazardly. The longest of these embedded stories, accounting for roughly one-fifth of the total length of The Golden Ass, is the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which apparently makes its first appearance in (surviving) Western literature here.

Sarah Ruden says in her introductory remarks that she tried, in her translation, to capture the colloquial, sometimes obscene character of the original, and, whether she in fact succeeded or not (which, being no Latinist, I am not in a position to judge), her version certainly has those qualities. Though Lucius’ trials are often hilarious, there was more than one occasion on which I simply grimaced and flipped to the next page. For the most part, however, the storytelling is amiable, if not altogether engrossing, and the tales are recounted with considerable verve and wit.

In the last of the eleven books the tone changes markedly as Lucius, in a final bid to regain his human form, appeals to the goddess Isis, and indeed is granted several splendid visions of her. Here the writing achieves a grace and beauty at which the earlier books had only hinted. David Bentley Hart considers this final section of the book in detail in an interesting essay that is worth your time.

El Cid

August 11, 2015

El Cid
Translated from the Spanish by Burton Raffel
(Penguin Classics, 2009) [c.1200]
284 p.

The Cid was an important figure in the Spanish Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula in the eleventh century. He was a gallant warrior around whom men rallied and about whom legends sprang up. This famous account of his life was written about a hundred years after his death, and it is generally considered to be one of the early masterpieces of Spanish literature.

The poem survives only in damaged manuscripts, so that it is incomplete as it stands. Most notably, there is a significant chunk missing from the beginning, and the ending is also lost. The poem we have opens in media res with the Cid — or, as he is usually called in the poem, my Cid — being exiled from Castile. Turning his lemons to lemonade, he takes the opportunity to make a name for himself in the wide world. The principal arc of the poem’s narrative concerns his roaming forays against Muslim towns, his eventual assault upon and triumph over the great coastal city of Valencia, and his defence of the same against Islamic efforts to dislodge him. Once established, he marries his daughters to some noblemen — who turn out to be strikingly ignoble in their treatment of their wives. The last act of the poem is concerned with the Cid’s revenge upon his scoundrel sons-in-law.

Naturally there is a good deal of military glory on display in the poem, and precious little cross-cultural toleration. In light of recent clashes between the Islamic world and the West, it certainly makes for interesting reading. The poem is unapologetic about the Cid’s ambitions to drive the Muslims out of Spain, but neither does it paint the conflict in the clear black and white that one might expect: Islamic warriors are honoured by the poet if they act bravely and nobly, and Christians — like the aforementioned scoundrel sons-in-law — are denounced if they merit it. But, still, when we read that

Bishop Don Jeronimo, as good a priest as could be,
Swung weapons with both hands: when he’d finished fighting
He could no longer count the Moors he had killed.

we might justifiably wish for a little more peace, love, and understanding.

I don’t want to come across as facetious. There is actually quite a lot of nuance in the text, and a considerable amount of tenderness to balance the violence. On one level the entire poem is a kind of domestic drama in which the Cid is only trying to secure good marriages for his daughters — a kind of cross between Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice. It is jarring to modern sensibilities, but arguably that is part of its appeal.

The truth is that of the major works of medieval literature that I have read — admittedly more or less limited to Chaucer, Dante, Chretien de Troyes, and Beowulf — El Cid is the one I have enjoyed the least. Its political incorrectness was not part of the problem for me — quite the opposite, if anything (I am sorry to say). The translation may be part of the issue, although I admire Raffel’s translations of Chretien de Troyes. Somehow the poem never really came to life for me. The Cid himself seemed a distant figure, dashing and brave, but thin. I worry that the poem’s fame is due more to its mere survival of the ravages of time than to its intrinsic merits. But one should not be overhasty with such judgments, especially when reading in translation.

Incidentally, the word “Cid” is a gloss on the Arabic “sayyid”, meaning, in context, something like “lord”.


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