Archive for the 'Books' Category

Johnson: Preface to Shakespeare

April 23, 2016

Preface to Shakespeare
Samuel Johnsonshakespeare-234x300
[1765]

Johnson, together with George Steevens, edited and published an edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1765, and included in it this prefatory essay, surely one of the most famous examples of literary criticism in English letters. I had previously read it, years ago, but, being a noted dullard, did not remember much about it, and I am happy to have had the opportunity to read it again.

johnsonThe first thing I’ll note is that Johnson’s views on Shakespeare are far from being boiler-plate. We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing Shakespeare spoken of in exclusively laudatory terms, as the greatest literary figure in history, as the Bard, that it can be a little shocking to read what Dr Johnson has to say:

The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.

or, even more startling:

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.

That Shakespeare should be an author accused of writing “cold and weak” speeches seems almost comical, for is he not especially treasured for his famous speeches, and is there anyone to match him on that terrain? And Johnson makes other statements that are more or less the opposite of the received wisdom, such as that Shakespeare, the most eloquent man in England, was especially adept at capturing the texture and tones of common speech:

The dialogue of this authour is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.

This is all intensely interesting, but I’m honestly not sure if it tells us something about Shakespeare or about Johnson, who goes on to argue that Shakespeare — the author of Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar — was a greater comedian than tragedian:

In his comick scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragick scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.

This, too, is a fascinating judgement, and let’s pause a moment to appreciate how elegantly it is expressed (“produce without labour, what no labour can improve”). But I’m not sure if its contradiction of the common view tells us more about Johnson or about ourselves. I rather like what Johnson says here, though, because I do feel that our appreciation of Shakespeare as a comedian falls short of what he deserves, and partly so because we, as a culture, lack something, some spiritual capacity, that would allow us to comedy of comparable stature. I can’t resist quoting Chesterton, who echoed this point:

No audacious spirit has dreamed or dared to imitate Shakespeare’s comedy. No one has made any real attempt to recover the loves and the laughter of Elizabethan England. The low dark arches, the low strong pillars upon which Shakespeare’s temple rests we can all explore and handle. We can all get into his mere tragedy; we can all explore his dungeon and penetrate to his coal-cellar; but we stretch our hands and crane our necks in vain towards that height where the tall turrets of his levity are tossed towards the sky. Perhaps it is right that this should be so; properly understood, comedy is an even grander thing than tragedy. (The Illustrated London News, 27 April 1907)

Shakespeare has often been praised in our day for his even-handed approach to moral issues: Shakespeare doesn’t moralize, and all but disappears into his characters so that we’re never quite sure what he thinks. This quality might account for some of his appeal to an age seduced by moral relativism. Johnson perceives much the same quality in Shakespeare, but he is clear that this is a fault:

He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independant on time or place.

Naturally it would be misleading to give the impression that Johnson makes none but critical remarks about his subject. Qualities which he selects for approbation are Shakespeare’s tonal range:

Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.

and his talent for creating memorable characters:

Perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other.

Indeed, what author author, save perhaps Dickens, has given us an array of characters to match Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Iago, Desdemona, Romeo, Juliet, Marc Antony, Bottom, Shylock, Miranda, King Lear, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Rosalind, Beatrice, and Benedict? Although in this connection Johnson also makes another judgment which I don’t quite know how to interpret:

In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

At first blush this seems to contradict his judgment immediately above, for are not individual characters more likely to be distinct from one another than are species? Well, perhaps not; species are, almost by definition, more different from one another than are individuals of the same species. I’ll hazard that the modern idiom of “he’s an individual” to denote his peculiar distinctiveness was not current in Johnson’s time.(Parenthetically, is it not wonderful to see “individual” used by Johnson with a slight perjorative sense. Let us raise a glass to old books.)

Moving on, we find another surprise: Johnson claims that the standard five-Act structure of Shakespearean drama is “void of authority,” and is merely a convenience introduced by editors. Can this really be so?

Not that we should speak disparagingly of the labours of editors, for Johnson reminds us how our possession of Shakespeare’s plays in anything like their current form and extent is largely due to the interventions of editors, the playwright himself having taken little interest in preserving his work:

It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he solicited no addition of honour from the reader…

So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little “declined into the vale of years,” before he could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.

Of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare in the late editions, the greater part were not published till about seven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the authour, and therefore probably without his knowledge.

There’s a delicious irony here, of course, that the most eminent literary man we have didn’t particularly care for literary eminence, and that our most famous writer should have cared so little for fame. Certainly it makes a marked contrast with the giants writing in other languages. (This interesting essay on Goethe brings out the contrasts well.)

***

Apart from these remarks specifically about Shakespeare, the Preface includes a number of characteristically Johnsonian — that is, characteristically pugnacious and eloquent — pronouncements about literature more generally.

We find, for instance, his famous dictum that

The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.

Maybe. Or rather: yes, sometimes. I once knew someone who argued that the purpose of art was to provoke self-reflection and teach self-knowledge. Yes, sometimes. But art might also be for the sheer joy of it, or ad majorem Dei gloriam, and what goes for art in general goes for poetry in particular. I wonder what Johnson would have thought of T.S. Eliot?

Speaking of Eliot, if you’re sitting down with a gigantic scholarly edition of his poems and you’re wondering if you should just read the poetry or dig into the line-by-line commentary, Johnson has some advice:

Parts are not to be examined till the whole has been surveyed; there is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the comprehension of any great work in its full design and its true proportions; a close approach shews the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the whole is discerned no longer.

And as one labours toward “the comprehension of any great work,” one is naturally always engaged in forming a judgement about its merits. Johnson gives his view of how such judgement is developed and matured:

Judgement, like other faculties, is improved by practice, and its advancement is hindered by submission to dictatorial decisions, as the memory grows torpid by the use of a table book. Some initiation is however necessary; of all skill, part is infused by precept, and part is obtained by habit.

This seems of such general application for education in general that I think I’ll commit it to memory. Or maybe I’ll just write it here in this table book. What was I saying again?

Ah yes: the formation of judgement. I’ll close with Johnson’s views on how the collective judgement of readers through time gradually establishes particular literary works as masterpieces. Apparently he had never heard that it was all a conspiracy of white males to project their power. He writes:

…to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour…

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.

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I hope it is clear from the length at which I have written that this Preface to Shakespeare is a very stimulating and enjoyable read. It is always a pleasure to spend time in the good Doctor’s company.

Kalb: The Tyranny of Liberalism

April 12, 2016

The Tyranny of Liberalismkalb-tyranny
Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command
James Kalb
(ISI, 2008)
317 p.

To judge by its cover, and by its title, and especially by its subtitle, this is a book to which I would normally give a wide berth. I haven’t any interest in reading partisan political rhetoric. It was only on the recommendation of several friends whose judgment I respect that, with my eyebrows forming a skeptical arch, I sat down with it to have a look. I am glad that I did so. The book is not only good, but unusually good: perceptive and clear, written in a close analytical style, and devoid of partisan rhetoric. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

In a sense, it was easy for Kalb to remain non-partisan, because the liberalism he criticizes is found across the spectrum of contemporary Western politics. “What pass as battles between liberals and conservatives are almost always disputes between different stages or tendencies within liberalism itself,” he writes. This makes his critique a radical one, of course, and even perhaps quixotic, since it contests nearly every animating principle of contemporary political and intellectual life. But it is also an honest and incisive one, and worthy of a hearing.

Before getting into the details, it might be worthwhile to pause over an initial difficulty: the very word “liberalism” may be an impediment. I don’t know how it is where you live, but where I live (in the frosty true north, strong and free), “liberal” is a kind of synonym for “good”. “Liberal” means welcoming, generous, and kind. To be against liberalism is like being against smiles and free daycare. So I had occasion more than once while reading to wish that we could have replaced that word “liberal” and its cognates with “X”. It would be easier to see the thing as Kalb wants us to see it if all of the associations of the word weren’t creeping in from the margins. The reader must be prepared to make the extra critical effort to treat “liberal” as a mere descriptor, not a word with an aura around it.

Kalb argues that liberalism is committed, at bottom, to one principle: equal freedom. Liberals believe that governance committed to equal freedom will be just and rational, and Kalb acknowledges that their intentions are, by and large, good: “Liberalism is inspired by the dream of political principles that rule without oppressiveness because they have the universality, transparency, and power of logic.” However, the very simplicity of liberalism means that it lacks balance:

Freedom and equality are abstract, open-ended, and ever-ramifying goals that can be taken to extremes. Liberals tend to view these goals as a simple matter of justice and rationality that prudential considerations may sometimes delay but no principle can legitimately override. In the absence of definite limiting principles, liberal demands become more and more far-reaching and the means used to advance them ever more comprehensive, detailed, and intrusive.

The trouble is that human life is complicated, and resistant to liberal requirements. There are things people think are important, such as ethnicity, sex, religion, nationality, and family ties, all of which liberalism cannot permit to matter because they treat people unequally. Since we have a natural tendency to behave as though such things do matter, a liberal social order requires constant nagging interference to ensure things run “correctly”. And because there are always new things to “correct”, and because liberalism has no built-in moderating principle, it cannot help but go on “correcting” them:

Liberalism loosens and disorders the connections and particularities on which it depends. It cannot keep from doing so, because it is progressive and idealistic… As liberalism develops, consciousness is raised, the remaining illiberal aspects of the social order become plain, and liberals, in order to remain liberal, must attempt to eradicate them. Attempts to get rid of particular inequalities bring to the fore others, so that liberalism continually radicalizes itself.

The result is the creation of a politically correct managerial regime to ensure that traditional social distinctions and institutions give way before rational ones: a liberal tyranny. This, in a nutshell, is the argument of the book.

**

It is worth taking a closer look at the reigning principle of liberalism: equal freedom. It implies that within a liberal framework all preferences, being equally preferences, must be accorded equal value and respect. This means that hierarchies of preferences, or moral evaluations of preferences, have no legitimate place. Hence liberalism must deny the value of both tradition and transcendent authorities, both of which typically favour certain desires and disfavour others. Only individual desire — the will of man — enters into consideration for liberalism, and the goal of a liberal social order is to ensure that as many as possible of these individual preferences are met: in Kalb’s words, mature liberalism is “a universal, technically rational system for the equal satisfaction of desire.” Thus it comes about quite naturally that the basic moral goods in a liberal society are “equality, autonomy, and hedonism” (this latter being understood in the literal, rather than the pejorative, sense).

Because liberalism admits no substantive or transcendent goods, appeals to such goods must appear, within the system, as mere power plays, rhetorical ploys intended to disrupt the system. “Traditional morality, which makes some desires superior to others, is thus understood as a devious effort to control others and becomes a stock example of immorality.” The world is upside down.

Of course, in practice not all desires can be satisfied without conflicts, and so some measure of control and discrimination is necessary for peaceable governance. In cases of conflict, liberalism gives preference to “neutral” goals which interfere minimally with others. In this way, “neutrality” becomes a secondary, but crucial, substantive principle within liberalism.

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Kalb’s Dictionary

discrimination: “the recognition of serious nonbureaucratic and nonmarket distinctions”

tolerance: “indifference or aversion to traditional distinctions not required by liberal institutions”

intolerance: “the recognition that not all values can be turned into mutually independent and interchangeable commodities”

fundamentalism: “recognition of an authoritative principle that cannot be reduced to a unified rationalized process”

multiculturalism: “the comprehensive effort to detach social life from particular culture and inherited community”

*****************************************

Certain institutions are characteristic of liberal societies. The liberal stress on satisfaction of preferences makes it friendly to markets, and the need to manage social life so that it respects liberal principles generates bureaucracies. Courts are required to enforce the standard of equal freedom. The usual political form in liberal societies is representative democracy, but, Kalb argues, the democratic process is required to operate within definite and, if the argument about the steady creep of liberalism is sound, steadily reduced limits. The abstract commitment to freedom and equality overrules the commitment to democracy:

The insistence that concept trumps substantive choice has consequences that are greatly at odds with claims that liberalism is democratic. It means that liberalism has right and wrong answers. Since the people often choose the wrong answers, their actual views cannot be taken seriously and must often be ignored.

An important plank in the enforcement of liberalism is “human rights”. I remember reading an essay some years ago by, I think, Joseph Bottum, in which he remarked that during the Cold War the prevalence of Communist organizations bearing the word “peace” in their name gave rise to a wry observation: “Peace is a Communist plot”. Something similar might be said today about human rights vis-à-vis liberalism. Human rights are the legal form under which “equal freedom” has taken shape, and in our society they have the highest authority. Who could be against human rights? But according to Kalb such rights are understood today in a peculiarly liberal way: the dignity of the human person is rooted in the ability to satisfy desires, the freedom which human rights protect is the freedom to pursue the satisfaction of desires, and justice means equal claim of desires to be fulfilled. I don’t doubt that human rights function today to enforce liberalism and advance the liberal vision of the good, but it is not entirely clear to me how that advance is connected to “preference satisfaction” specifically. But Kalb’s main conclusion is clear enough: “As now understood, human rights are religiously and culturally intolerant in a peculiarly radical way.”

**

Obviously liberalism is the dominant force in contemporary Western politics. As I said earlier, it applies across the spectrum, albeit with different emphases. There do not seem to be any alternatives; liberalism’s position is unassailable. But Kalb believes that it is not so strong as it appears, not because there is an able challenger at present, but because it has intrinsic weaknesses. For one, it is not possible to govern without exercising authority, but liberalism has trouble making sense of authority: “if man is the measure it cannot be right to tell him what to do”. This was fine so long as liberalism was a critical perspective, but as it moves into the driver’s seat the tension between its ideals and its social role grows. Therefore liberalism must disguise the fact that it exercises coercive power. It does this, typically, by declaring alternatives out of bounds and itself the default winner, but this is a rather weak defence.

One very obvious problem with liberalism is that making freedom the highest good is non-sensical: “Freedom is always freedom to do something, so it must be subordinate to some other good that motivates it and makes it worth having.” We all know this to be true in our own lives. Of course, the whole idea of liberalism is that it is agnostic about questions of the good; it lets everyone pursue his or her own vision; and this is, with some justice, held to be one of its great merits. But the corollary is that all those visions of the good, no matter how passionately held or how compelling, cannot be allowed to really matter. They cannot be allowed any influence over social life, and, in practice, can only be contained by a battery of regulations, re-education, stigmatization, and bureaucracy. Many aspects of individual identity — “sex, religion, historical community, particular culture” — which have always been important to friendship, love, and family, and have been enduring features of most societies, are consistently suppressed and marginalized in a mature liberal culture. This makes it narrow rather than broad.

Kalb believes that the internal contradictions of liberalism, and its inability to moderate itself, will weaken and destroy it in the end: “The principles of liberal modernity are too simple and authoritative and their implications too clear to allow for changes even when those principles become obviously self-destructive.” Granted, this seems a long, long way off.

In the later part of his book, Kalb presents a case for an alternative to liberalism. He reviews various flavours of conservatism — this is actually one of the most interesting sections of the book — and, weighing their relative strengths and weaknesses, opts for a kind of traditionalism as the most promising option, principally because a social order rooted in traditions provides social continuity, can accommodate the complexities of lived experience because it doesn’t try to articulate clear abstract principles, is independent of any one group of people and so takes the focus off party politics, and can recognize standards of right and wrong, personal obligation, and so on.

But the main value of The Tyranny of Liberalism, it seems to me, is in its clear and systematic treatment of how a liberal order takes shape from the seed of its primary commitment to “equal freedom”, and its account of how that commitment gradually spreads to affect more and more aspects of life, inexorably undoing traditional, nuanced, and intuitive ways of doing things and replacing them with rational ways, narrowly understood, with a rearguard of regulations, education programs, speech codes, and stigmas to shore up its position. In the end, “only committed liberals are allowed to live as they choose”.

**

As interesting as Kalb’s argument is, there are naturally reasons to be critical of it too. Here is a summary, with links, to an interesting symposium on the book in which a variety of critical arguments are raised, to which Kalb himself responds. (Thanks, Maclin.)

Donne: Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

March 18, 2016

JohnDonneDevotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and Death’s Duel
John Donne
(Vintage, 1999) [1624, 1630]
234 p.

Donne wrote his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions while he lay a-bed of a serious illness. It is a work of moral and spiritual reflection on sin, sickness, and death — which makes it perfect Lenten reading.

The book is divided into twenty-three parts which, arranged sequentially, follow the progress of a sickness from its onset, through the development of symptoms, the consultations of physicians, and their treatments, to the early stages of recovery. Donne writes at one level about a physical sickness — perhaps his own — but there is a also a metaphorical spiritual interpretation running in parallel, the sickness in his soul mirroring that in his body. Each part of the work is divided into three smaller parts: an initial meditation, an “expostulation” in which the theme of the meditation is expanded upon, and a concluding, though often quite lengthy, prayer in which Donne offers the fruit of his meditation to the Almighty.

It is written in a dense and somewhat difficult style, almost like a prose poem, and it requires a good deal of concentration to follow the often highly elaborate grammatical constructions (and all without paragraph breaks). To give a flavour for the book, here is a passage chosen more or less at random:

When wilt thou bid me take up my bed and walk? As my bed is my affections, when shall I bear them so as to subdue them? As my bed is my afflictions, when shall I bear them so as not to murmur at them? When shall I take up my bed and walk? Not lie down upon it, as it is my pleasure, not sink under it, as it is my correction? But O my God, my God, the God of all flesh, and of all spirit, to let me be content with that in my fainting spirit, which thou declarest in this decayed flesh, that as this body is content to sit still, that it may learn to stand, and to learn by standing to walk, and by walking to travel, so my soul, by obeying this thy voice of rising, may by a farther and farther growth of thy grace proceed so, and be so established, as may remove all suspicions, all jealousies between thee and me, and may speak and hear in such a voice, as that still I may be acceptable to thee, and satisfied from thee.

Meditation XVII is the source of two of Donne’s most enduring aphorisms: “No man is an island”, and “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Interestingly, the second actually appears in a slightly different form; the brief section which includes both runs as follows:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away to the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

These sayings, famous as they are, have become perhaps a bit hackneyed by being so frequently pressed into service to express human solidarity. Their undoubted eloquence and lack of religious references have made them attractive to a secular-minded people. But, needless to say, Donne was not secular-minded, and one has only to cast one’s eyes around on the same page to find the Christian foundations of the sentiment he expresses:

The Church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

All this from Meditation XVII, which to my mind was among the best. I will confess that, by and large, and with some exceptions here and there, I found the book as a whole rather dry. I love Donne’s poetry for its muscular, vigorous qualities, and the same unsparing intensity is found in many of these meditations. But when I try to call to mind particular insights gleaned from its pages, I am almost empty-handed. I say this being uncertain whether the blame lies on the page or within me, though I incline toward the latter.

Does the title of the book intrigue you? What are these “emergent occasions”? I believe “emergencies” would be a fair way to translate them into a modern idiom.

***

The short piece, “Death’s Duel”, which is also included in this volume, was the last sermon Donne preached at Whitehall “not many days before his death” in 1630. It was highly regarded in his own time (the preamble, written by an admiring contemporary, states that “as he exceeded others at first, so at last he exceeded himself”), but again I found it fairly dry. For me the principal interest in reading it was to see how linguistically rich and complex even his sermons were! We don’t hear preaching — nor, for that matter, any public speech — on that level anymore.

***

Another excerpt:

And since sin, in the nature of it, retains still so much of the author of it that it is a serpent, insensibly insinuating itself into my soul, let thy brazen serpent (the contemplation of thy Son crucified for me) be evermore present to me, for my recovery against the sting of the first serpent; that so, as I have a Lion against a lion, the Lion of the tribe of Judah against that lion that seeks whom he may devour, so I may have a serpent against a serpent, the wisdom of the serpent against the malice of the serpent, and both against that lion and serpent, forcible and subtle temptations, thy dove with thy olive in thy ark, humility and peace and reconciliation to thee, by the ordinances of thy church. Amen. (Devotions, X, Prayer)

Barfield: Saving the Appearances

March 3, 2016

Saving the Appearances
A Study in Idolatry
Owen Barfield
(Harcourt Brace, 1957)
190 p.

I forget exactly how it came about that I added Saving the Appearances to my reading list some years ago. I expect that it may have been under the influence of C.S. Lewis, who knew Barfield well and once called him “the best and wisest of my unofficial teachers”. One of the more memorable sections of Lewis’ wonderful book The Discarded Image appears to have been inspired directly by the present book, so perhaps that was the connection that brought me here.

Saving the Appearances is a book that digs down to bedrock, and then keeps digging. Things you may think of as basic and uncontroversial are interrogated and made doubtful. As he says, “a great deal of the complexity of my argument is due to the deep-seated error, with its consequently innumerable ramifications, which that argument has sought to unravel”. It’s a rather difficult book in that respect, full of unfamiliar ideas — unfamiliar to me, at least. One of the many questions I have about the book is whether the ideas he presents, and the language in which he presents them, are original with him or are part of a larger conversation that I’ve not been aware of until now. Sprinkled through the text are references to anthropologists like Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl, so perhaps his jargon and his approach is borrowed, at least in part, from them.

Roughly speaking, the book is an examination of how modern Westerners experience the world, and how that mode of experience differs from that prevalent in other cultures and earlier periods in our own culture. And by “experience” I mean something very basic: the very way in which we perceive things, prior to any conscious or reflective engagement with them. It is a book about philosophy of perception, philosophy of nature, epistemology, culture, history, and religion. It covers a lot of ground in a short space, and raises more questions than it answers.

Barfield begins by defining a few terms on which he relies throughout, and I cannot see how to summarize his argument without first doing the same.

One basic idea is that of a “representation”, which he variously defines as “something I perceive”, or “something experienced”. It is not the thing itself (which he calls, by contrast, “the unrepresented”), but a mental construction which, generally below the level of consciousness, folds in sensory data, beliefs, memories, imagination, and feeling. We do not perceive with our senses alone, but with our whole being. As we mature we quite naturally compare our private representations with those of others, and adjust them accordingly. The result is a set of “collective representations”, which are cultural in scope, and which reflect those aspects of things which a particular culture thinks worthy of attention. Collective representations affect our most basic apprehension of the world; they are the phenomena we experience. For Barfield, the world as we experience it is a system of collective representations.

A second key idea is what he calls “participation”. It is more difficult to grasp, for reasons that will become clear shortly, but it means something like this: the activity of the mind whereby things are experienced as full of meaning, charged with a significance that is at once natural and also personal. A participating consciousness experiences an object not simply as an inert thing, but as a kind of window into another or deeper reality, a reality within which a being like us faces back toward us, as in a mirror. Again, participation is not, at this point, to be thought of as a self-conscious or reflective process, but as an immediate one. In participation, there is a general “entanglement of subject and object, of psychology and natural history, of divine and human, of word and thing.”

It might also seem a strange idea, but he, citing the work of anthropologists, argues that in fact it is the near-universal mode of consciousness for humanity. Consider, as a case in point, medieval Europe. Their sensory experiences were the same as ours, naturally, but their collective representations were different, and their consciousness was participatory. They thought it natural that literal and symbolic significance be conjoined in things. Barfield argues that they not only attributed symbolic meaning to things, but actually experienced things as having symbolic resonances. To them this was not, as it seems to us, a superfluous patina on top of raw experience; it was raw. For a medieval person, “the ordinary way of looking at, and of thinking about, phenomena, was to look at and to think about them as appearances — representations. For which, therefore, knowledge was defined, not as the devising of hypotheses, but as an act of union with the represented behind the representation.” Reading this, anyone with experience of medieval Scriptural exegesis or medieval epistemology is going to feel the hair on his arms standing up, because this is exactly right. And since participation involves one in a personal encounter with significance-laden phenomena, it naturally informed and influenced their religious experience. “For medieval man, then, the world was a sort of theophany, in which he participated at different levels, in being, in thinking, in speaking or naming, and in knowing.”

(It as at this point that Barfield makes the suggestion that the reader might walk out at night and make the imaginative effort to put oneself in the mindset of a medieval person looking at the starry sky, a suggestion followed up and realized so memorably by C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image.)

On the other hand, our culture — and by this I mean Western modernity — is distinctive, and perhaps unique, in this respect: we are generally not aware that our representations are representations. We do not think that we participate in phenomena; to us the things we encounter in the world are independent of us, and intrinsically meaningless. They are “facts”. Such representations, which are not experienced as such, Barfield calls idols. The term is potentially misleading, as we’ll see in a moment, but what is gained by its use is the resonance with “false idol”, because for him the most important feature of our presumed-to-be-just-there representations is that they are false.

I think Barfield is right that we do take the phenomena of our experience in this way, at least most of the time. But if that is so, why is it so? If we are different from other cultures in this respect, how did we come to be different?

Barfield argues that there have been two historical movements that have undone the psychology of participation, and we have been influenced by both. The first is the one that comes immediately to mind: the scientific revolution. The scientific revolution was a movement from an awareness of the meaning of phenomena to a preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. Its architects aimed to abstract those aspects of the natural world that could be treated mathematically, and were therefore “objective”. All else receded into the mind and the realm of the “subjective”. And, as Burtt argued so convincingly in his history of early modern science, what began as a methodological tactic soon became confused with an ontological judgement. To wit: only the mathematical structure of things is truly real. Since purposes (final causes) and essences (formal causes) could not be mathematized, they were judged not objective. On such a view, the objects we experience “out there” in the world must be independent of us; they are defined that way. Were we to attribute meaning of any kind to them, we would be making a blunder. In such a world a participating consciousness is throttled.

But there has also been a second cultural stream tending against participation: Judaism. Barfield explains:

The children of Israel became a nation and began their history in the moment when Moses, in the very heart of the ancient Egyptian civilization, delivered to them those ten commandments, which include the unheard-of injunction: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This is perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened. As far as we know, in every other nation at that time there prevailed unquestioned the participating consciousness which apprehends the phenomena as representations and naturally expresses itself in making images.

For Israel, the natural world is not God, nor are the names of things names of God. The “entanglement of subject and object” which is the mark of participation meets an obstacle. Rather, the natural world was created by God as something independent of and distinct from Him, and it lacks the quality of personal disclosure that is perceived by a participatory mind. The many injunctions against idol worship in the Hebrew Scriptures take on fresh significance in this light: for Israel’s neighbours, idols were not merely objects, but entities charged with meaning, for such they naturally appear to a participating consciousness. But the Psalmist insists, over and over again, that idols have no “within”; they are merely things, dead in themselves, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Such phrases were not empty rhetoric; they were aptly phrased assaults on a prevailing temptation.

Now, there are certain advantages to idolatry (in Barfield’s sense). There is no doubt that the methods and abstractions characteristic of our scientific age have given us an unprecedented ability to manipulate nature for our own ends, and we have all benefited in many ways from that ability. The modern attitude to nature has also opened up a new way of relating to it emotionally, a way in which her difference from us is part of the attraction. Think of a naturalist’s selfless and attentive love for the natural world. But we have lost something as well, not least a sense of continuity with our ancestors. Take again the case of Scriptural interpretation, a practice which straddles the historical divide between the ancient world and ours. For a non-participating consciousness like ours, a text is either an historical record or a symbolic representation, but not both. For earlier readers in our tradition it could be both. In fact, the traditional account of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments assumed a participating consciousness, so much so that Barfield concludes that “in one most real sense, the Old Testament was lost with the Reformation”.

Barfield perceived a kind of revival of participation in the early twentieth-century. Not that it was entirely dead prior to that, of course. He points to Blake and Goethe as major figures who had very strong instincts toward participation, and such instincts set them very much at odds with their times. But he caught the scent of participation — an appreciation that things can bear intrinsic symbolic content — especially from Freud and Jung, and he thought this significant because their ideas caught on widely on a cultural level in very short order. Granted, even they made only partial steps: for Freud, symbolism was still always in the mind alone, without a real connection to the outside world; Jung, with his ideas about the collective unconscious, went further but not all the way. And, in any case, I think it is fair to say that the Freudian and Jungian moment has passed, leaving little more than a residue. Is participation deader than ever?

Well, maybe not. At the end of the book Barfield raises the prospect of something he calls “final participation”. The idea seems to be that here, on the far side of idolatry, a new kind of participation becomes possible based precisely on a conscious awareness that phenomena are representations. In final participation the percipient knows that he is involved in creating representations, and his imagination enters into the process directly. How this can elude the veto cast by the non-participating mind is hard to understand: isn’t this exactly the “gloss” that the parsimonious literalist objects to? But Barfield contends that either we will find a way to final participation or proceed further and further into idolatry and the elimination of participation, but elimination of participation is the elimination of meaning and coherence from the cosmos.

In his final pages he turns to consider the sacramental system of Christianity, one of the very few contexts in the modern world where things retain a sense of the “within”, of being more than just themselves, that is characteristic of participation. “The tender shoot of final participation,” he writes, “has from the first been acknowledged and protected by the Church in the institution of the Eucharist… In the physical act of communion as such, men can only take the Divine substance, the ‘Name apart’ directly into the unconscious part of themselves”. If true, the sacraments are thereby one of the keys to the recovery of meaning and the return of an enchanted world.

***

As I said at the outset, the book raises more questions than it answers. Foremost among them in my mind is a doubt about the meaning of “participation”, which is obviously central to the whole book. I suppose he would say that it is natural for one raised in a non-participatory culture to have trouble with the concept, especially since it is, properly speaking, not a concept at all. Still, I’d have benefited more from the book if it had spelled things out more clearly on this critical point.

Lying beneath this complaint is another set of questions about the metaphysics of “representations”. The usual philosophical bifurcation is between realism and nominalism; in the former, things have real, particular natures independent of human minds and knowledge consists in knowing those natures, and in the latter our categories of thought are mere conventions without any real corresponding structure in the nature of things. The notion of representations seems most consistent with nominalism: on the one side is “the unrepresented”, atoms and the void, which we can never know in itself, and in which there is nothing to know, and on the other side is phenomena, consisting of mental constructions folding together sensory inputs and a variety of mental resources and ingrained habits. Yet at the same time Barfield seems to be taking the position that it is through participation that we know the world most fully and truly, and that idolatry, our besetting sin, alienates us from truth. I worry that he concedes too much to the metaphysics of the materialists when he characterizes “the unrepresented” as merely atoms and the void.

Another question arises from his account of how idolatry triumphed over a participating consciousness in the West. He attributed the victory to the combined efforts of two forces: Judaism and the scientific revolution. Yet we know, from his own arguments, that medieval Europe had a participating consciousness, so it would seem that the scientific revolution was the decisive factor, and that Judaism, despite its influence on Christianity, had little to do with it. And this makes a certain amount of sense, because insofar as participation is naturally expressed through the making of images and the death of participation is accomplished by a prohibition on the making of images, the very fact that in Christianity the prohibition on images was relaxed points to a relaxation of the assault on participation. The same comment can be made about sacramental theology, which seems positively to encourage a participatory consciousness. The possibility remains that Judaism condemned a certain kind of participation (as expressed through the making of idols) but that Christianity permitted another kind. Indeed, Barfield’s closing remarks about the Eucharist, cited above, connect the sacraments to “final participation”, which one only arrives at after having gone through the long dark.

But why does he see in the sacraments a “tender shoot” of final participation, and not a hangover from original participation? After all, the sacraments pre-date the scientific revolution.

I’ve gone on long enough. There is an odd, but interesting and stimulating book.

 

A publishing event

February 29, 2016

I find it hard to imagine any list of great literary figures of the past century that does not include T.S. Eliot at or near the top. Therefore it seems worth noting, and celebrating, the recent publication of a massive annotated edition of his poetry, in two volumes, from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Volume 1 contains the verse for which he is most admired: Prufrock, The Wasteland, Four Quartets, and so on. In this edition we get about 300 pages of poetry, handsomely and spaciously presented, followed by a whopping 1000 pages of notes. Volume 2 is shorter — a mere 700 pages — and mostly contains his less-known poetry, plus his poetry for children.

Because of complications with publication rights and access to Eliot’s private papers, this is the first time that a full scholarly edition has been put together. It’s a major monument to one of our major writers.

I was able to borrow the first volume from our local library. During Lent I have been slowly working my way through Ash-Wednesday, and enjoying myself greatly.

The University Bookman has a nice review.

Books briefly noted

February 23, 2016

A few quick notes on books I’ve read recently. The theme for today is Books With Subtitles:

veryshort-medievalMedieval Literature
A Very Short Introduction
Elaine Treharne
(Oxford, 2015)
144 p.

I acquired this book in the hopes that it would help extend my list of “to read” medieval literature. I was interested in learning about medieval masterworks a little off the beaten trail (viz. not Dante, Chaucer, or Malory). As such, I was fairly disappointed with the book, which makes only brief mention of particular works. Instead, the book takes a wide view of medieval literature, discussing its social context, some principal themes, methods of book production, and so on. It has a rather academic tone (“Literary spaces, literary identities” is the title of one chapter, for instance). This is fine; no doubt it was what the author was going for. It just wasn’t what I was looking for.

veryshort-classicalClassical Literature
A Very Short Introduction
William Allan
(Oxford, 2014)
135 p.

This is more like it. In an effort to organize my Greco-Roman reading lists, I nabbed this brief volume to get a bird’s eye view. I could hardly have done better. Allan gives a brief introduction to the historical and social context for classical literature, and then proceeds by genre — epic, lyric poetry, drama, historiography, oratory, pastoral poetry, satire, and novel — summarizing the principal features of each literary type and highlighting a few of the principal works. I didn’t need him to tell me about Homer or Herodotus, but I’m happy to have a better understanding of where Horace and Juvenal fit into the picture, not to mention Plautus and Petronius. My reading list is now in pretty good shape, I’d say. I faint to think how long it will take to get to all these books, but it is nice that there is always more to look forward to.

kapilow-what-makesWhat Makes It Great?
Short Masterpieces, Great Composers
Rob Kapilow
(Wiley, 2011)
314 p.

Rob Kapilow takes about twenty short pieces of music, mostly excerpted from larger works, and examines each of them in detail, highlighting the compositional techniques and describing the musical structure. The pieces are presented chronologically, beginning with the early eighteenth century (“Spring”, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) and finishing with the early twentieth century (“…Des Pas sur le Neige”, from Debussy’s Preludes). They range in length from about one minute (the ‘Trepak’ movement from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite) to ten minutes (Wagner’s prelude to Tristan und Isolde), with the median being around 3-4 minutes. The book is written at a level appropriate for a general reader with some musical education: each piece is illustrated with numerous excerpts from the score, so he assumes a competence with musical notation, and he uses some, but not too much, technical language to describe what the composer is doing. This is just the sort of mini-listening project that I relish, and it was enjoyable for me to see the musical logic of the various pieces unveiled. For instance, the piece by Debussy is one that I’ve heard numerous times, but I’d never stopped to appreciate the fact that it is based on such a simple musical idea, suitably varied and lavishly harmonized. Likewise, I’d not discerned the musical reasoning informing a little piece like Schumann’s Traumerei, or the way in which Bach’s Prelude in C grows from a tiny musical seed. The book is full of little insights into the craft of musical composition, and I found it very enjoyable.

physics-on-your-feetPhysics On Your Feet
Berkeley Graduate Exam Questions
Dmitry Budker & Alexander O. Sushkov
(Oxford, 2015)
216 p.

This was great fun. I did not have to take many oral exams during my graduate studies, but this book gives a flavour (minus the stress) of what I might have encountered. The authors have selected about sixty oral exam questions given to Berkeley grad students over the years, providing both the questions and, on the flip side, the solutions. The questions are drawn from across the spectrum: mechanics, fluids, electromagnetism, squalid state, nuclear & particle, astrophysics, optics, and molecular physics. Because of the oral exam context, none of the questions can call for lengthy calculations; more often they lean on physical intuition, approximations, and a basic (but wide) knowledge of principles. Which is not to say that they are easy! Admittedly, I have been out of the game for a decade now, and I am getting rusty, but these questions are meant to be challenging, and they succeed. Still, I enjoyed trying my hand at one question each day. I’d like to find another such book and continue the practice.

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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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