Archive for the 'Books' Category

Dickens: Dombey and Son

February 4, 2016

Dombey and Son
Charles Dickens
(Oxford, 1988) [1848]
960 p.

I came to Dombey and Son knowing nothing about it, but with the reasonable presumption that it would be about Dombey and his son — and this was wrong. Since I’d heard very little about it I assumed that it was probably not all that good and might be a chore to get through — and this was wrong too. It was for me a story full of surprises. I am happy to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly.

In the introductory notes he wrote for the novel, Chesterton points out that Dombey and Son occupies an important place in Dickens’ authorship. It was preceded by Martin Chuzzlewit and succeeded by David Copperfield, two very different books. In his early books, of which Pickwick is the immortal exemplar, Dickens was really an episodist and caricaturist, not a novelist; his ‘story’ was a long string of mostly disconnected stories, tied together by amusing and endearing characters. In Nicholas Nickleby he took some steps in the direction of novel-writing, though there too the story was mostly episodic, and he continued largely in this vein up through Martin Chuzzlewit. Yet David Copperfield is unquestionably a novel in the full sense, so we might expect Dombey and Son to be a transitional work between the early, episodic Dickens and the late, novelistic Dickens. And we would be right.

In fact, it’s a good deal closer to Copperfield than Chuzzlewit. There are character arcs — especially for young Florence Dombey, whom I would defend as one of Dickens’ greatest and most affecting heroines — and, to a lesser degree, for Edith and for Mr Dombey himself, though his ‘arc’ is a rather abrupt one. The story as a whole has clearly been carefully planned on the large scale, and it holds together nicely, even if the most important of the long-range developments were rather obvious and, in a sense, necessary.

But Dickens the novelist is still Dickens, and Dombey and Son has its fair share of delightful Dickensian comic characters, the sorts of figures for whom one would happily clear the deck to let them hold forth for chapter after chapter. (Chesterton: “One good character by Dickens requires all eternity to stretch its legs in.”) Of these my favourites were Captain Cuttle, whose good heart and penchant for speaking in impenetrable naval metaphors endeared him greatly to me, and Mr Toots, whom Chesterton praises in lavish terms that are worth quoting:

Lastly, there is the admirable study of Toots, who may be considered as being in some ways the masterpiece of Dickens. Nowhere else did Dickens express with such astonishing insight and truth his main contention, which is that to be good and idiotic is not a poor fate, but, on the contrary, an experience of primeval innocence, which wonders at all things. Dickens did not know, anymore than any great man ever knows, what was the particular thing that he had to preach. He did not know it; he only preached it. But the particular thing that he had to preach was this: That humility is the only possible basis of enjoyment; that if one has no other way of being humble except being poor, then it is better to be poor, and to enjoy; that if one has no other way of being humble except being imbecile, then it is better to be imbecile, and to enjoy. That is the deep unconscious truth in the character of Toots — that all his externals are flashy and false; all his internals unconscious, obscure, and true. He wears loud clothes, and he is silent inside them. His shirts and waistcoats are covered with bright spots of pink and purple, while his soul is always covered with the sacred shame. He always gets all the outside things of life wrong, and all the inside things right. He always admires the right Christian people, and gives them the wrong Christian names… He forgets who they are, but he remembers what they are. With the clear eyes of humility he perceives the whole world as it is.

Surely any book of which such things can be said of even a minor character must be very much worth reading, and that is certainly true of Dombey and Son, a book that surpassed my expectations in virtually every respect.

Dickens: David Copperfield

January 24, 2016

I recently finished reading Dickens’ Dombey and Son, and while writing up some thoughts I was surprised to realize that my brief notes on David Copperfield never made the transition from my old web log to this one. So, for no very good reason, here they are. These were written ten years ago, when I was just getting to know Dickens. (David Copperfield was the second of his books I had read.) They sound a little naive to me now, but they are a faithful record of what I thought at the time.

**

David Copperfield
Charles Dickens
(Duckworth & Co., 2005) [1850]

871 p.

I am always charmed by the Victorian habit of granting long, flowery names to books. A novel that is known to us only as David Copperfield was published then under the elaborate title The Personal History, Adventures, Experience & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He never meant to be Published on any Account). This title, both in its length, and in its poised but unhurried manner, is a remarkably faithful model of the novel itself. But to profess admiration of Victorian eloquence in a book’s title is very different from professing enthusiasm for an entire book in the same style. Some beauties are best enjoyed at a distance. And it is this wariness, I think, that had led me to avoid the novels of Charles Dickens in the past. I knew too that Dickens published his books serially, and I suspected that a certain pecuniary interest must have inflated his books beyond an appropriate size. And, in a sense, I was right: David Copperfield is long, much too long, meanders, strolls with hands in pockets, whistling, quite unconcerned about getting to the point. Yet it is a splendid book.

Written as an autobiography — and apparently sections are based rather closely on Dickens’ own life — the novel recounts the life of David Copperfield, beginning just prior to his birth, and finishing in his old age. David is a wonderful narrator. He’s a sensitive man, generous with others, and even in recounting his own follies he brings a warm, compassionate understanding to bear. He is not drawn as sharply as other characters in the novel, and we never see him as clearly delineated as we do them, but the entire story is suffused with and filtered through his gentle, perceptive sensibility.

Dickens seems to have excelled at creating memorable personalities out of just a few light touches: his mother, so kind and loving, but tragically timid; his aunt, imposing and proper, but leavened by an enduring rage at trespassing donkeys; Mr. Dick, a happy simpleton whose mind is continually in danger of tending to that of Charles I; the magnificent Mr. Micawber, an eloquent giant of a man whose constant financial desperation finds voice only in his hilarious valedictory letters; Mrs. Micawber, his tenacious and argumentative wife; Mr. Peggotty, a weathered, poor, and good man who wanders the world to find and forgive little Em’ly, his lost sheep; Dora, David’s ‘child-wife’, whom he loves in her silly simplicity; Agnes, his second wife, whom he loves with all of his mind and heart; the wicked Uriah Heep, who masks his cunning and malice behind false humility; and others. I admired the way Dickens was able to plausibly reverse our understanding of some characters simply by re-presenting them from another perspective. This happens, for instance, with David’s aunt, whom he desperately fears in his childhood, but whom he later discovers to be a truly loving, motherly figure to him. Another example is his school friend Steerforth, a dashing, brave boy, but a reckless, foolish man.

There were a few things that surprised me about this book. I was certainly not expecting it to be as funny as it was. Having read The Pickwick Papers, I should have known that Dickens had a ready wit, but I admit the comedy took me very pleasantly by surprise. And I was also impressed by the sheer craft of his writing. I expected to encounter serviceable but unremarkable prose — something like a 19th century John Grisham — but I was badly mistaken. He’s an excellent writer, very articulate, conveying complex scenes and feelings with economy. And on the large scale, too, despite its length and serial production, the story exhibits a pleasing shape and structure.

The copy I bought was produced by Duckworth & Co., and it is a beauty. It is a facsimile edition of The Nonesuch Dickens, a limited edition originally published in 1937. The book is large, hardback, illustrated, includes Dickens’ own marginal notes, has quality pages, a ribbon, and a classy spine. Duckworth is planning to issue a twenty-three volume set of Dickens’ works in this same handsome format. It looks like I’ll be reading Dickens from now to eternity.

Weaver: Ideas Have Consequences

January 14, 2016

weaver-consequencesIdeas Have Consequences
Richard M. Weaver
(University of Chicago, 1948)
175 p.

“This is another book about the dissolution of the West.”

Such is the desultory opening sentence of a book that has, I think it is fair to say, achieved the status of a minor classic of contemporary conservatism. It is a curious book in some respects, rather uneven, but at its best it’s very good indeed. The title serves as an apt reference point for the book as a whole: ideas do have consequences, and Weaver takes us on a tour of the generally bad consequences that have followed from the generally bad ideas that animate the contemporary West.

The structure of the book is fairly loose. The chapters are arranged thematically: one about the modern aversion to hierarchy, another about the fragmentation of culture, one about modern media, another about political entitlements, and so forth. To the extent that there is an over-arching argument, it proceeds roughly as follows: key intellectual developments in late medieval Europe gave birth to a set of ideas that have animated the West for the past half-millenium, and those same ideas are progressively destroying the culture to which they gave rise. At the end, he speculates on what we ought to do about it.

The book is better on the small scale than on the large. Weaver must have been a world-class grouch, and he has a deliciously acerbic wit. His writing is often pungent, and cries out to be quoted. I’ll append a string of my favourite quotations to the bottom of this post.

Weaver famously identified the canker at the heart of Western culture with the nominalism of William of Ockham in the 14th century. Nominalism denied that things have real natures apart from the human mind, or at least denied that we can know them. This made possible the belief, at the heart of modernity from the beginning, that “man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals”. Weaver sees following in its train a host of distinctly modern ideas: a new theory of nature as a self-operating mechanism, the rise of empiricism, materialism, dialectical materialism in economics and politics, behaviorism, and on down the line.

Weaver is particularly good when he plucks at our culture’s aversion to social hierarchy and the making of distinctions: “The most portentous general event of our time is the steady obliteration of those distinctions which create society.” The problem has only gotten worse since he wrote, so this is prescient. Conservatives have long argued that when equality is taken as the highest good, the result, intended or not, is likely to be strife and conflict, for expectations of equality give rise to envy in the face of even natural and spontaneous degrees of distinction. Moreover, if all desires are held as equally worthy then the clash of conflicting desires can only be understood as a contest of wills, a struggle for power, rather than something judicable by a higher authority or standard. Weaver cites Shakespeare to this effect:

O, when degree is shak’d
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick!…
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. [Troilus and Cressida, I.III.]

And he is himself quite good on the relative value of equality and fraternity as social ideals:

The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chimerical notion of equality, but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it (equality) in history because it (fraternity) goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical. It demands patience with little brother, and it may sternly exact duty of big brother. It places people in a network of sentiment, not of rights — that hortus siccus of modern vainglory.

In any case, the emancipators attack social hierarchy but tend to then replace it with bureaucratic hierarchy. This we have in abundance.

Some of Weaver’s other points, such as his observation that specialization cuts against the ideal of the well-integrated mind and contributes to the fragmentation of a common culture, or that we lose perspective when immersed in a clamouring media environment, are quite obvious and have by now become commonplace. There are times when his disdain for modernity gets the better of him, as when he describes jazz as “the clearest of all signs of our age’s deep-seated predilection for barbarism.” Far be it from me to give a positive defence of jazz, but this does seem excessively grouchy. But even this comment takes place in the context of an overview of the trajectory of serious music since 1900 which is, on the whole, astute and defensible.

Toward the end of the book he considers resources for renewal. He stresses the importance of private property rights, which he, rather surprisingly to me, describes as “the last metaphysical right”. He explains: “We say the right of private property is metaphysical because it does not depend on any test of social usefulness.” It is interesting that he sees private property in this light, rather than simply as a buttress against governmental power.

But even more than this Weaver recommends a revival of piety, which he defines as “a discipline of the will through respect”, arguing that piety is necessary on three fronts: toward nature, toward others, and toward the past. Modernity, conceived of from the beginning as a means to power through knowledge and of emancipation from the past, has always had intrinsic difficulty with the first and third. Piety toward nature would include a sincere concern for the integrity and health of our natural environment (and thus a corrective to the political right, broadly speaking) as well as, for instance, respect for the human body and the legitimate differences between the sexes (and thus a corrective to the political left, broadly speaking). Hostility toward the past is practically a defining feature of modernity: “I would maintain that modern man is a parricide. He has taken up arms against, and he has effectually slain, what former men have regarded with filial veneration. He has not been conscious of crime but has, on the contrary… regarded his actions as a proof of virtue.” This pride that modernity feels in its destructive actions is a real phenomenon, and it makes the case for recovery seem hopeless. But for those of us who must live our lives in this particular time and place, we must salvage the fragments we have shored against our ruin, and Weaver’s counsel, though limited, does seem very much on point.

***

Now let me gather up some of the juicier quotations that I gleaned while reading:

“The final degradation of the Baconian philosophy is that knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite.”

“Comfort becomes a goal when distinctions of rank are abolished and privileges destroyed.” (De Tocqueville)

“The very notion of eternal verities is repugnant to the modern temper.”

“Fanaticism has been properly described as redoubling one’s effort after one’s aim has been forgotten.”

[Lost perspective]
Our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility which increases with their degradation. Loss is perceived most clearly at the beginning; after habit becomes implanted, one beholds the anomalous situation of apathy mounting as the moral crisis deepens. It is when the first faint warnings come that one has the best chance to save himself; and this, I suspect, explains why medieval thinkers were extremely agitated over questions which seem to us today without point or relevance… We approach a condition in which we shall be amoral without the capacity to perceive it and degraded without means to measure our descent.

[Importance of sentiment to reason]
When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder, we are affirming in effect that sentiment is anterior to reason. We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest. In the cultural life of man, therefore, the fact of paramount importance about anyone is his attitude toward the world. How frequently it is brought to our attention that nothing good can be done if the will is wrong! Reason alone fails to justify itself. Not without cause has the devil been called the prince of lawyers, and not by accident are Shakespeare’s villains good reasoners. If the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good.

[Conservatism as respect for existing forms]
We invariably find in the man of true culture a deep respect for forms. He approaches even those he does not understand with awareness that a deep thought lies in an old observance. Such respect distinguishes him from the barbarian, on the one hand, and the degenerate, on the other. The truth can be expressed in another way by saying that the man of culture has a sense of style. Style requires measure, whether in space or time, for measure imparts structure, and it is structure which is essential to intellectual apprehension.

[Psychology of progressivism]
Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom.

[Majority rule]
The Federalist authors especially were aware that simple majority rule cannot suffice because it does everything without reference; it expression of feeling about the moment at the moment, restrained neither by abstract idea nor by precedent.

[Metaphysics and sentimentality]
our conception of metaphysical reality finally governs our conception of everything else, and, if we feel that creation does not express purpose, it is impossible to find an authorization for purpose in our lives. Indeed, the assertion of purpose in a world we felt to be purposeless would be a form of sentimentality.

[Specialization]
It is just as if Plato’s philosopher had left the city to look at the trees and then had abandoned speculative wisdom for dendrology. The people who would urge just this course are legion among us today. The facts on the periphery, they feel, are somehow more certain.

[A man of understanding]
The man who understands has reason to be sure of himself; he has the repose of mastery. He is the sane man, who carries his center of gravity in himself; he has not succumbed to obsession which binds him to a fragment of reality. People tend to trust the judgments of an integrated personality and will prefer them even to the official opinions of experts. They rightly suspect that expertise conceals some abnormality of viewpoint.

[Modern provincials]
Many modern people to whom the word “provincial” is anathema are themselves provincials in time to an extreme degree. Indeed, modernism is in essence a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment, just as a countryman may view with suspicion whatever lies beyond his country.

[Rights and obligations]
Since under conditions of modern freedom the individual thinks only of his rights, he does not refer his actions to the external frame of obligation. His wish is enough. He cannot be disciplined on the theoretical level, and on the practical level he is disciplined only by some hypostatized social whole whose methods become brutal as its authority turns out to be, on investigation, merely human.

[Medieval ego]
Under the world view possessed by medieval scholars, the path of learning was a path of self-deprecation, and the philosophiae doctor was one who had at length seen a rational ground for humilitas. Study and meditation led him to a proper perspective on self, which then, instead of caricaturing the world with the urgency of its existence and the vehemence of its desires, found a place in the hierarchy of reality. Dante’s “In la sua voluntade e nostra pace” is the final discovery. Thus knowledge for the medieval idealist prepared the way for self-effacement.

[Modern media]
In our listening, voluntary or not, we are made to grow accustomed to the weirdest of juxtapositions: the serious and the trivial, the comic and the tragic, follow one another in mechanical sequence without real transition… Here, it would seem, is the apothesis; here is the final collapsing of values, a fantasia of effects, suggesting in its wild disorder the debris left by a storm. Here is the daily mechanical wrecking of hierarchy.

[A mental habit]
The habit of judging all things by their departure from the things of yesterday is reflected in most journalistic interpretation… The touchstone of progress simply schools the millions in shallow evaluation.

[Reflection and judgement]
The absence of reflection keeps the individual from being aware of his former selves, and it is highly questionable whether anyone can be a member of a metaphysical community who does not preserve such memory. Upon the presence of the past in the present depends all conduct directed by knowledge.

[Mind and religion]
The Greeks identified God with mind, and it will be found that every attack upon religion, or upon characteristic ideas inherited from religion, when its assumptions are laid bare, turns out to be an attack upon mind. Moral certitude gives the prior assurance of right sentiment. Intellectual integrity gives clarity to practice. There is some ultimate identification of goodness and truth, so that he who ignores or loses faith in the former can by no possible means save the latter.

 

Favourites of 2015: Books

December 28, 2015

Today I kick off my annual “favourites of” series of posts, in which I’ll be writing about the best books, music, and movies that I had the good fortune to read, hear, and see this year. These are not “Favourites of 2015” lists in the usual sense, because most of what I’ll be discussing is not of recent vintage. The theme for today is books.

**

shakespeare-234x300At the beginning of the year I set myself a modest personal challenge: to read one Shakespeare play each month. I had noticed that years were slipping by in which I hadn’t read even one, and it didn’t seem right. I’m happy to say that I met the challenge, and then some. I treated myself to a few of my favourite plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest), dipped into the historical plays (Richard II through Henry V), read a couple of the great tragedies (Macbeth and Hamlet), and also enjoyed several of the less well-known plays (The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus, for example). The experiment was such a success that I’m going to continue it in 2016. At this rate, it will only take about 4 years for me to read all the plays. I am also, inspired by this book, going to make an effort to memorize at least a few Shakespearian passages this year.

I know a place where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
All overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet muskroses, and with eglantine.

Not bad for a start. We’ll see how it goes.

This was also a year in which I made a few tentative steps into the world of e-books. I had noticed, with some dismay, that much, or even most, of my reading time was in the dark. I made the most of it, but my flashlight was waking up the baby and annoying my wife. And so I loaded a few books onto my phone (I use the Marvin reading app); in night mode it seems not to bother anyone, and in consequence I have been able to read more, and sleep less, than I did formerly. I’ve been raiding Gutenberg for free books. I read a lot of Chesterton this year in this format, and some classic novels too.

Speaking of novels, I’m sort of surprised to find that I read only a handful this year: Dostoyevsky (The Adolescent), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Dickens (Dombey and Son), a few of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, and … I think that’s it, leaving aside books for children. The novel I got for Christmas last year, Nabokov’s Pnin, I see is still sitting there. Soon, soon.

sutcliff-arthurI did read a lot of children’s books this year. Untold numbers with the children themselves as bedtime reading, but I also enjoyed a fair number on my own. In my mind, I am “scouting ahead” so as to be in a position to put good books in their paths as they grow up, but to tell the truth I’ve enjoyed these books on their own merits, quite apart from the satisfaction of being a good parent (or my best imitation of one). My focus this year was on medieval- and classical-themed books for kids, and I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s Arthurian trilogy along with her novelizations of Homer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales from Greek mythology in A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, other Greek and Roman myths rendered by Padraic Colum and Charles Kingsley, legendary tales about saints from William Canton, and a few collections of fairy tales too, including the Grimm one. It was good stuff, for the most part, and I hope to write in more detail about it in the near future.

Before leaving the topic of children’s books, let me praise the picture books my kids loved most this year: Aaron Becker’s Journey and Quest. They are wordless picture books, so the children take an active role in telling the story, rather than just listening. We’ve read other wordless picture books in the past, but none of them matched — indeed, none of them came close to matching — the incredible enthusiasm that Becker’s books produced in our kids. The stories are about two children transported to another world in which they must … well, just what they must do is one of the things the readers have to puzzle out. Each child is in possession of a magical pen; the things they draw with the pens become real. There are kings, soldiers, mountains, castles, undersea cities, mysterious maps, and all the ingredients of a great adventure. Becker’s watercolour illustrations are enchanting: full of interesting detail, beautiful to look at, and subtly composed to further the story bit by bit. Journey and Quest are the first parts of a projected trilogy, so we are eagerly awaiting the conclusion.

becker-journey

This year the kids also sank their teeth into Super Shark Encyclopedia and Super Nature Encyclopedia. For months on end these were our exclusive bedtime reading, and (mercifully) the books are very well done.

chestertonOn the non-fiction side, I read (as I said above) a lot of Chesterton, going more or less in chronological order, hitting some of the lesser-known books and discovering in most cases that they are lesser-known for a reason. Still, even when Chesterton is not at his peak he’s still pretty good. I think I’ve gleaned enough quotations to keep The Hebdomadal Chesterton going for another couple of years, at least. Inspired by my pop music odyssey I read a few books about Bob Dylan (by Clinton Heylin and Mr. Zimmermann himself) and Van Morrison (Hymns to the Silence, by Peter Mills).

FooteVols1-3I read some history, and among the chief triumphs of my year in reading was the completion of Shelby Foote’s massive The Civil War: A Narrative. I actually started reading this back when the Civil War began — sorry, when the sesquicentennial of the war began, in 2011 — and kept pace with the events of the war as they unfolded, finishing up just in time to mark the sesquicentennial of the end of the war. This was a great way to read this history, and I would recommend it to everyone if it weren’t too late to do so. Foote’s history focuses principally on the military side of the war experience, with occasional forays into politics, and very occasional glances at civilian life during the war. He digs into the tactical details, really putting the reader on the ground and explaining how battles unfolded. Foote is broadly sympathetic to the Confederate side of the war — not to slavery, but to other aspects of Southern life and culture that were destroyed by the war. The fact that Foote is often showing us the war from the Southern perspective helps to complicate an over-simple picture. Anyway, it’s a great book. Sometimes history is written not by the victors, but by the best historians.

boswell-johnsonlifeWhat else? I dipped in and out of Plutarch’s Lives. I relished James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (which actually took two years to read). I read a few long-ish format poems, by Goldsmith, Newman, and Dryden. I burrowed into a handful of books on politics and culture (by James Kalb, Richard Weaver, and, by proxy, Charles Taylor); I’ll write more about those at some point. It appears that the only philosophy I read this year was the Gorgias, plus Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, if that counts as philosophy. It was a particularly dismal year for theological reading; only Julian of Norwich qualifies, if she qualifies. Oh, and Edmund Campion at year’s end, if he qualifies. Oh, and The Cloud of Unknowing, if that qualifies.

If you could see the list of books I set for myself at the beginning of the year, you’d be forced to conclude that 2015 was a calamitous failure, reading-wise. But I’m not going to show you that list. All in all, it was a pretty decent year of reading.

****

Favourite fiction: Anna Karenina

Favourite non-fiction: The Civil War (Foote)

Favourite biography: Life of Johnson

Favourite play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Books published in 2015 and read by me: 0

Most gruesome children’s book: Jack the Giant-Killer, by Richard Doyle

Most books by a single author: William Shakespeare (14), G.K. Chesterton (12), Rosemary Sutcliff (5), Patrick O’Brian (4).

Least favourite fiction: The Club of Queer Trades (Chesterton)

Least favourite non-fiction: The Appetite of Tyranny (Chesterton)

****

Given that I was reading quite a few Gutenberg books this year, all of which are rather old, it’s interesting for me to see if I’ve been able to shift the center of gravity of my reading out of the twentieth century. Here is a histogram of the original publication dates of the books I read this year:

books2015

No. The coverage of the last 500 years isn’t too bad, but still the 20th century emerges triumphant. I did very badly indeed in my classical and medieval reading. (I’ve also been having trouble with my graphics drivers since I upgraded to Matlab 2015b; hence the diagonal lines in each bin of the histogram.) Here’s a closer look at the books published since 1800:

books2015only19th20thc

This looks more promising. There are actually more books in the period from 1840-1940 than in the 75 years from 1940 to the present. I’m going to bend the rules a little and declare this a victory.

I think we’ll look at my 2015 in popular music next time. In the meantime: Tolle, lege, and may many good books come your way in 2016.

Feasting on Chesterton

December 27, 2015

As the end of the year approaches, I am cleaning up my desk. Here are brief notes on an armful of books I read this year, all by Chesterton, and arranged in order of publication.

gkc_saint

Twelve Types
G.K. Chesterton
[1903] 100 p.

These twelve brief biographical studies were originally published as part of Chesterton’s journalistic work when he was in his 20s. These were still his formative years, but the work feels like it comes from the pen of the Chesterton we know and love. He would go on, in fact, to publish whole books on several of the people sketched here, notably Tolstoy, Stevenson, Carlyle, and, most interestingly, St. Francis. We also get enlightening essays on the Brontes, on Walter Scott, on Byron and on Pope, and on historical figures like Charles II and Savonarola, as well as some lesser figures such as William Morris and Edmond Rostand. It’s a very quotable collection, with quite a number of Chesterton’s striking aphorisms:

Humanity, if it devotes itself too persistently to the study of sound reasoning, has a certain tendency to lose the faculty of sound assumption.

or

We should all like to speak poetry at the moment when we truly live, and if we do not speak it, it is because we have an impediment in our speech.

or

It may be easier really to have wit, than really, in the boldest and most enduring sense, to have imagination. But it is immeasurably easier to pretend to have imagination than to pretend to have wit. A man may indulge in a sham rhapsody, because it may be the triumph of a rhapsody to be unintelligible. But a man cannot indulge in a sham joke, because it is the ruin of a joke to be unintelligible.

or

The superficial impression of the world is by far the deepest. What we really feel, naturally and casually, about the look of skies and trees and the face of friends, that and that alone will almost certainly remain our vital philosophy to our dying day.

and so forth. This is not one of Chesterton’s books that draws a large number of readers these days, and it is true that it should, by his standards, be considered minor, but it is still very much worth getting to know.

***

All Things Considered
G.K. Chesterton
[1908] 200 p.

This is another collection of Chesterton’s essays; he seems to have issued one every few years. In the preface he describes the book in this way:

It is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current or rather flying subjects; and they must be published pretty much as they stand. They were written, as a rule, at the last moment; they were handed in the moment before it was too late, and I do not think that our commonwealth would have been shaken to its foundations if they had been handed in the moment after. They must go out now, with all their imperfections on their head, or rather on mine; for their vices are too vital to be improved with a blue pencil, or with anything I can think of, except dynamite.

Naturally this is mere playful self-depreciation. The essays are better than those that you or I would write. The topics are truly all over the map: politics, sport, literature, education. There are about two dozen in total, and they include a few Chestertonian classics: “On Running After One’s Hat” and “Fairy Tales”, and there is also an excellent essay on Henry Fielding. Much to enjoy, as usual. I have reaped a plentiful harvest of quotations which will eventually find their way to The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

***

Alarms and Discursions
G.K. Chesterton
[1911] 110 p.

A collection of short essays on a variety of subjects. Presumably these were originally published separately and later collected, but I do not know the story behind it. The essays are of variable quality, and some are very good indeed (“The Chorus”, “The Appetite of Earth”). They are, in general, less polemical than is typical with Chesterton. One gets the impression that they were written at idle moments, when he was day-dreaming, or when alone. There is a relaxed quality to them, and a gentle geniality, that is quite appealing. And he gets in a few good aphorisms too: “The most sentimental thing in the world is to hide your feelings; it is making too much of them.”

***

The Appetite of Tyranny
G.K. Chesterton
[1915] 70 p.

This is the same book as The Barbarism of Berlin, with the addition of some additional material under the heading “Letters to an Old Garibaldian”. Note well the date of publication: it is part of his war-time propaganda campaign against the Prussian forces. I have found it to be among the least interesting of Chesterton’s writings, and for almost the first time I felt that Chesterton was more interested in scoring points than in presenting a balanced and truthful view of a matter. Disappointing.

***

The Crimes of England
G.K. Chesterton
[1916] 75 p.

Another of Chesterton’s wartime propaganda books, The Crimes of England finds him attacking the Germans by attacking all those times and ways in which England has been a friend to Germany:

On many occasions we have been very wrong indeed. We were very wrong indeed when we took part in preventing Europe from putting a term to the impious piracies of Frederick the Great. We were very wrong indeed when we allowed the triumph over Napoleon to be soiled with the mire and blood of Blucher’s sullen savages. We were very wrong indeed when we allowed the peaceful King of Denmark to be robbed in broad daylight by a brigand named Bismarck; and when we allowed the Prussian swashbucklers to enslave and silence the French provinces which they could neither govern nor persuade. We were very wrong indeed when we flung to such hungry adventurers a position so important as Heligoland. We were very wrong indeed when we praised the soulless Prussian education and copied the soulless Prussian laws.

He proceeds, chapter by chapter, taking the historical material case by case, and arguing that whenever England had sided with Germany it had sided with tyranny, oppression, deviousness, and other German things. Putting it that way gets at my main complaint: this is not nuanced. Chesterton sees the Germans as the clear villains of the war, and (in consequence?) he has nothing good to say about them. They are toxic through and through, and in his eyes England has always been weakened and shamed by its associations with them.

After recounting case after case of England’s simpering acquiescence to German malice, Chesterton takes up in his last few chapters the English response to Germany at the start of WWI, which is the context within which he is writing. Here he sees a break with the historical pattern: here England, and especially the common English people, rose up against Germany. He writes to rally the troops and praise their courage. He is rather good at painting the terror of the German advance:

It is almost impossible to repicture what was, for those who understood, the gigantic finality of the first German strides. It seemed as if the forces of the ancient valour fell away to right and left; and there opened a grand, smooth granite road right to the gate of Paris, down which the great Germania moved like a tall, unanswerable sphinx, whose pride could destroy all things and survive them. In her train moved, like moving mountains, Cyclopean guns that had never been seen among men, before which walled cities melted like wax, their mouths set insolently upwards as if threatening to besiege the sun. Nor is it fantastic to speak so of the new and abnormal armaments; for the soul of Germany was really expressed in colossal wheels and cylinders; and her guns were more symbolic than her flags.

And it was this imposing force that the English and French armies confronted at the Battle of the Marne (known to us, though not to Chesterton at the time of writing, as The First Battle of the Marne), a battle which Chesterton saw as decisive not necessarily for its tactical value, but for its moral value, as a sign that German aggression could be resisted successfully:

Much was to happen after—murder and flaming folly and madness in earth and sea and sky; but all men knew in their hearts that the third Prussian thrust had failed, and Christendom was delivered once more. The empire of blood and iron rolled slowly back towards the darkness of the northern forests; and the great nations of the West went forward; where side by side as after a long lover’s quarrel, went the ensigns of St. Denys and St. George.

It’s a lovely image, but a premature one, for even Chesterton could not have foreseen just how much murder and flaming folly and madness in earth and sea and sky was in store.

***

Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays
G.K. Chesterton
[1917] 130 p.

This collection of essays is centered around a longer piece which gives the collection its title. Like the title essay, most of the topics treated herein are social and economic, the main target being capitalism.

Attacks on capitalism are not rare in Chesterton’s corpus, but I sometimes wonder just what he meant by it. The fact that he has a tendency to cast specific aspersions at Rockefeller and Ford suggests that his complaint is with “big business”, with millionaires, rather than with (what is equally capitalism) people making a living by starting businesses and providing goods or services. He objects to the power big employers have over their employees and to the concentration of wealth in a few hands.

In “Utopia of Usurers” he sets out

to take, one after another, certain aspects and departments of modern life, and describe what I think they will be like in this paradise of plutocrats, this Utopia of gold and brass in which the great story of England seems so likely to end. I propose to say what I think our new masters, the mere millionaires, will do with certain human interests and institutions, such as art, science, jurisprudence, or religion—unless we strike soon enough to prevent them.

In other words, if wealthy capitalists gain enough power in society, how will they shape society? In our own time, where big businesses are bigger than ever before, when they make substantial financial contributions to university departments, and when they endorse political positions on even social issues, the question seems relevant.

For instance, he predicts that the arts will be assimilated more and more to advertisements:

The improvement of advertisements is the degradation of artists. It is their degradation for this clear and vital reason: that the artist will work, not only to please the rich, but only to increase their riches; which is a considerable step lower. After all, it was as a human being that a pope took pleasure in a cartoon of Raphael or a prince took pleasure in a statuette of Cellini. The prince paid for the statuette; but he did not expect the statuette to pay him.

On the other hand, certain of his speculations (“I think Prison will become an almost universal experience”) sound ridiculous.

Not one of his first, or even second, tier books, “Utopia of Usurers” was nonetheless worth a quick read, if only as a respite from the unrelenting wartime propaganda of these years!

***

A Short History of England
G.K. Chesterton
[1917] 140 p.

Chesterton set out to write a kind of everyman’s history of England, a history “from a standpoint of a member of the public,” a history to treat of the big and obvious features of the nation’s past rather than the minutiae and special interests that might reasonably be thought the preserve of professional historians. Academic histories are just so German.

In typical Chestertonian fashion, his book is almost entirely devoid of dates; I counted, I think, only 2 or 3. In fact, there is a sense in which this history, whether intended for everyman or not, is not intended for those everymen who come to the book innocent of history. One could learn some history from Chesterton, of course, but admixed with so much commentary and (occasional) polemic that one would do better to read Chesterton as a gloss on a more sober survey.

He begins with the Roman influence on England (“The important thing about France and England is not that they have Roman remains. They are Roman remains.”) and proceeds forward, covering the major epochs and prominent figures (St Augustine of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, St Thomas More, Lord Nelson, and so forth). Round about the 18th century, where my prior knowledge is weakest, I lost the thread for a while.

As in so many of his books written while the Great War raged, Chesterton finally brings his history around to what one suspects may have been its original motivation: an attack on Germany and the Germanic influence on England. That final chapter weakens the book as a whole, not necessarily because the argument it makes is flawed, but because it feels inorganically related to the whole. One sympathizes with his motives, but laments the “topical” intrusion.

***

The New Jerusalem
G.K. Chesterton
[1920] 175 p.

In all my reading about Chesterton over the years, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone make reference to The New Jerusalem; I assumed it was one of his minor books. And, when set against Orthodoxy or Charles Dickens, it is indeed minor, but when set against the average Chesterton book — against the ones described above, for instance — it compares rather favourably. It is an account of a journey he took to Egypt and (as it was then called) Palestine, to visit the Holy City.

The first thing I noticed is that the book is unusually well-written. Chesterton was never — well, rarely — an outright bad writer, unless you have a strong alliteration aversion or pun problem, but he wrote so voluminously that although he is not dull he is often unpolished and a trifle slapdash. Here, however, he sounds more patient, writing quite beautifully at times, and has invested his account with more structure and craft than was typically the case. I suppose it is possible, or even likely, that he was writing as he travelled, and was therefore at some distance from the usual interruptions and pressures of Fleet Street.

The opening sections of the book approximate to a kind of travelogue, a series of impressions about the places he visits — the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, the Holy City itself, Gethsemane, the Dead Sea — and about the people he sees. He takes a keen interest in the close abutment of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic civilizations in Jerusalem. The middle section of the book looks back at the history of Jerusalem, and in particular at the era of the Crusades, when the city’s configuration of religions and cultures first took something like its current form, and when the seemingly irresolvable triangular conflicts between them first attained something like their current shape. The final sections of the book, which, from our vantage point a century later, are much the most uncomfortable for the reader, grope toward possible means of resolving the tensions.

I will not dwell here on the travelogue and historical sections of the book; I’ve harvested a host of excerpts for eventual airing at The Hebdomadal Chesterton. There are juicy bits about the hazards — the poetic and spiritual hazards — of sight-seeing, alongside some lovely descriptions of the impressions the sacred sites made on him. The historical material is enlivened by a quite gripping account of the Crusader’s siege of Jerusalem, and again of the eventual fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187. (Not that Chesterton gives us any dates, of course.) He speculates that the failure of the Crusades to accomplish their objectives, and in particular the fall of Jerusalem, was so discouraging to Christendom that it deflated the whole cultural project of the High Middle Ages and led, in time, to the collapse of its ambitions and the transition to early modernity. It’s a tough thesis to defend, and he is candid that it is based on little more than intuition. It is perhaps best to leave it at that.

As I said, in the final chapters of the book Chesterton turns his attention to the religious and cultural tensions woven into the fabric of Jerusalem, and in particular to what he calls “the Jewish problem”. Right off, this strikes the modern reader as a most unfortunate choice of words, bearing, as it does, such a close resonance with “the Jewish question” to which the Nazis offered their unconscionable answer. To be sure, for Chesterton “the Jewish problem” is not a problem with the Jews, but a problem for the Jews: namely, how can Jews be a coherent, unified people without having a homeland? He thought that a homeland would make it much easier for them to live as Jews, and so he supported the creation of such a homeland. And he thought it would be good, for their own sake, if Jews would move there. Therefore, by implication, he thought it would be good if Jews would move away from England, France, America, Germany, and wherever else they had been scattered. For this he was at the time, and has continued to be, regarded by some as an Anti-Semite. As luck would have it, in The New Jerusalem he responds to the accusation directly:

There is an attitude for which my friends and I were for a long period rebuked and even reviled; and of which at the present period we are less likely than ever to repent. It was always called Anti-Semitism; but it was always much more true to call it Zionism… It was in substance the desire to give Jews the dignity and status of a separate nation. We desired that in some fashion, and so far as possible, Jews should be represented by Jews, should live in a society of Jews, should be judged by Jews and ruled by Jews. I am an Anti-Semite if that is Anti-Semitism. It would seem more rational to call it Semitism.

There was nothing unusual in the fact that he advocated for Jews to live together in their own, self-governed state. Against the ambitions of his own country he wanted the same for the Irish. He wanted the same for the Boers in their struggle against England. Readers of his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill will know that in his fancy he would extend this independence and self-rule even to the distinct neighbourhoods of London. So I am inclined to believe him when he says that his support for Zionism was, in his own mind, support for Jews. He understood himself to be supporting what Jews themselves would, naturally, support. And, indeed, as we know, some Jews did support it. But had Chesterton lived to see the founding of the State of Israel, I think he would have been surprised to discover how many Jews did not emigrate there.

In the light of that historical fact, and especially in light of how (rightly) sensitive we are to criticism or stereotyping of Jews, it is undeniable that Chesterton’s comments about how Jews are strangers in European society, and his light-hearted digression on the advantages of Jews wearing distinctive clothing, and his suggestion that Jews live in designated enclaves — well, it all makes the reader cringe. But, in fairness to him, we must do our best to imagine ourselves back to his own day, before anyone imagined the Holocaust, and also do our best to read such comments in the light of his own consistent political ideal of self-governing, religiously unified, and culturally distinctive peoples. I’m not saying it’s easy.

In this connection, I note that a new book, Chesterton and the Jews: Friend, Critic, Defender, by Ann Farmer, has recently appeared. I haven’t read it, but it appears to treat this question in some detail.

Apart from these reservations about the closing chapters of the book, I am happy to recommend The New Jerusalem as a delightful read, a very interesting window into the way Jerusalem looked and felt a hundred years ago, and a good opportunity to spend some time on the road with Chesterton.

On Samuel Johnson

December 13, 2015

The Life of Johnson
James Boswell
(Everyman’s Library, 1993) [1791]
1344 p.

Samuel Johnson
W. Jackson Bate
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975)
668 p.

“Fate wings with ev’ry wish the afflictive dart”
— “The Vanity of Human Wishes”

Samuel Johnson is one of those rare figures who can take up a permanent place in one’s moral and imaginative life. A colossal genius, one of the English language’s great masters, a probing moralist, and a man of great personal courage and fortitude, one can walk around him and find something admirable from every vantage point. In his excellent biography, W. Jackson Bate comments that as our familiarity with Johnson improves “we begin to think of him as almost an allegorical figure, like “Valiant-for-Truth” in The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and this I have found to be quite true.

johnsonI dare say Johnson is unique in English letters for having a reputation derived to a very great extent from things he did not write down. We admire his writing, of course — his great Dictionary, his “Preface to Shakespeare”, his many moral essays, his novella Rassalas — but Johnson himself towers over his pen. And we know about Johnson the man principally through the massive Life which James Boswell assembled over the course of their long friendship, and in which, with quiet tenacity, he faithfully recorded Johnson’s conversation at table, among friends, or in London society, or at home. The Life is one of our great biographical treasure troves. For my private enjoyment I’ve assembled page after page of memorable quotations and winsome stories plundered from its pages.

In fact, so central has been Boswell’s role in bringing Johnson to later generations, it is a little startling to be reminded, as Bate reminds us, that Boswell did not meet Johnson until he (Johnson) was already in his 50s, and that over the 21 years of their friendship they were actually in one another’s company for only about 300 days (excluding their several months’ excursion to Scotland). Fully half of the Life covers just the last 8 years of Johnson’s life. There were social connections important to Johnson, such as that with the Thrale family, of which Boswell had little direct knowledge. Even the common honorific “Dr Johnson” is due mainly to Boswell’s influence; Johnson himself preferred to be called simply “Mr Johnson”. In this respect a biography like Bate’s is valuable for filling in the background and rounding out the figure.

To be fair, there is a good deal more to Bate’s biography than just “filling in” and “rounding out”. It is an ambitious effort to come to grips with Johnson in all of his considerable complexity. Because of the wider variety of sources informing it it arguably tells us more about Johnson than Boswell does. Bate is a sensitive reader, and seems to have a secure footing even when stepping through the murky waters of Johnson’s slough of despond. Having said that, in the end Boswell will bury all other biographers.

Johnson was praised in his own day for his originality (“He said even the commonest things in the newest manner”), his courage and honesty, his humour (“the size of a man’s understanding might always be justly measured by his mirth” [Johnson]), and his intellectual range. In his biography of Francis Bacon, Johnson described Bacon as “a strong mind operating upon life,” and admirers of Johnson have found the phrase just as apt when applied to Johnson himself. Boswell summarized this aspect of Johnson’s character thus:

“His superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge which we often see to be no better than lumber in men of dull understanding, was in him true, evident, and actual wisdom.”

Johnson suffered greatly throughout his life. He was, from childhood, afflicted with serious physical ailments, including blindness in one eye and more or less continual pain. Despite his intellectual gifts, his finances prevented his obtaining a university degree. He struggled with self-discipline, constantly renewing his resolve to rise early, work diligently, and retire early to bed, and constantly failing in his resolve. He battled a lasting fear of insanity, and suffered recurring black humours that today we would probably call depression. He was ever alert to the dangers proceeding from “the treachery of the human heart.” He combined a trust in Providence with an unsentimental appraisal of the hardships of living, and was known to become very angry with anyone who ventured to deny the unhappiness of life. Perhaps because of this suffering, he was generous and compassionate with those in need. He lived modestly, and took into his home a rotating group of destitute guests.

On 17 June 1783, Johnson suffered a paralytic stroke, an injury from which he was never to fully recover. Of this experience he wrote, rather endearingly, that “I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse.” Some months later, on 13 December 1784, he died. Boswell writes that it was William Gerard Hamilton who best expressed the feelings of Johnson’s friends upon his passing:

“He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. — Johnson is dead. — Let us go to the next best: There is nobody. — no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

It is a fitting encomium on a life well-lived.

Campion: Ten Reasons

December 1, 2015

campion-rationesTen Reasons
Proposed to his Adversaries for Disputation in the Name of the Faith and Presented to the Illustrious Members of our Universities
St Edmund Campion, S.J.
[1581]

Campion’s Decem Rationes was written covertly and published illegally in 1581. Campion himself had become, by that time, a notorious (or celebrated, depending on one’s allegiances) figure. He was the most well-known of the Jesuit priests who had slipped into England, under threat of death, to minister to England’s beleaguered Catholic minority. He travelled quietly around the country, often under an assumed name and in disguise, and was something of a thorn in the side of the authorities.

Ten Reasons was given a memorable launch: copies were painstakingly printed and assembled using a mobile press, and, once ready, were taken to Oxford University and slipped into the seats of a hall in which an academic meeting was scheduled. When the attendees arrived and it was discovered, it caused a tremendous stir.

Campion’s purpose was to set forth arguments — ten of them, naturally — against Protestantism. Since his arrival in England some years before, he had been challenging the Anglican churchmen and academics to debate, but thus far none had accepted. The publication of Ten Reasons was his way of forcing the issue.

The ten reasons are gathered under headings: Holy Writ, the Sense of Holy Writ, the Nature of the Church, Councils, Church Fathers, the Grounds of Argument assumed by the Church Fathers, History, Paradoxes, Sophism, and, finally, All Manner of Witness. Because he wrote at a time when Protestantism was new, he had a particularly keen sense of how it was undoing the integrity of the faith, and several of his arguments are probing. His manner is, by turns, jocular, satirical, passionate, and exasperated; the book is a very entertaining read. He was writing to those whose declared intention was to capture and kill him, and he was not inclined to be docile.

I won’t rehearse the arguments themselves here; the book is brief enough that an interested reader could get through it without too much trouble. Basically they boil down to the claim that Protestantism, by rejecting some but not all of its Catholic inheritance, finds itself in a very confused state indeed.

One month after Ten Reasons was published, Campion was captured. He was held in the Tower of London for several months, tortured on the rack, and finally hanged, drawn, and quartered, alongside Fr. Ralph Sherwin and Fr. Alexander Briant, on 1 December 1581.

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.

***

Part of the value of Taylor’s book, it seems to me, is that it introduces a set of terms that can be used to talk about the world we’re in, and among the most useful is a distinction he makes between a “take” and a “spin”. A take is “an over-all sense of things” that “anticipates or leaps ahead of the reasons we can muster for it” (Taylor); I think it would be fair to describe it as an “interpretation” of evidence, somewhat tentative in nature but careful and honest. A spin, on the other hand, is characterized by overconfidence and brusqueness, a dismissal of the complexities of the situation. 

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…

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