Archive for the 'Books' Category

Kelly: Rediscover Catholicism

March 19, 2017

Rediscover Catholicism
Matthew Kelly
(Beacon, 2011) [2nd ed.]
336 p.

Matthew Kelly is by reputation a lively and engaging Catholic speaker and author. When an opportunity arose to peer into one of his books, I took it. This particular book, I understand, has often been given away at parishes, and is one of his most popular.

Based on the title, one would expect the book is written to half-hearted or lapsed Catholics who have to some extent lost their faith and need to rediscover it. And there are sections that seem to be written to that audience. But the book also seems to be intended for dedicated Catholics looking for ways to improve their spiritual life and to bring others to the faith.

The best part of the book for me was the long central section on “the seven pillars of Catholic spirituality”, which Kelly enumerates as: Confession (and he even calls it “Confession”!), daily prayer, the Mass, the Bible, fasting, spiritual reading, and the rosary. I’m sure we all have room to improve our relationship with these touchstones of Catholic life, and his remarks about them were instructive and encouraging.

Kelly appeals throughout the book to a rather chipper formulation of the goal of Catholic life: “to become the best possible version of yourself”. I’m sympathetic to this way of framing the matter (viz. the Biblical idea that Christ came “that you may have life, and that more abundantly”, or the Thomistic notion that the implicit objective of all human action is happiness, or the counsel of St. Irenaeus that “the glory of God is man fully alive”). But somehow Kelly’s formulation also grates on me.  Naturally I do want to become the best possible version of myself, and yes, I do think that my Catholic faith helps me to do that, most importantly by teaching me what that means — but his way of putting it still has for me too much of the self-help / personal-actualization aura about it.

My other criticism is that the book is long-winded. Asked what I was reading, I might well have answered as did the young prince: “Words, words, words”, in plenty. Although you’d never guess it from my gregarious manner on this blog, as a reader I generally favour compression and concision, and in consequence I confess I skimmed through much of this book. But the parts that were good were really quite good, and I think I would recommend it with only slight reservations.

Benson: The Dawn of All

March 13, 2017

The Dawn of All
Robert Hugh Benson
(Aeterna, 2005) [1911]
226 p.

In Lord of the World, written a few years prior to the present novel, Benson had imagined a future confrontation between the Catholic Church and a global secular power, a conflict in which the Church was, in its capacity to assert strength at least, severely over-matched, and reduced to a scattered remnant. The Dawn of All is in many respects a companion piece, a thematic complement to the earlier book, for in it Benson again imagines a global future, but in this case the power balance is reversed: the Church is ascendant, nearly the whole population of the earth has been converted to Christianity, and its truths are taken for granted in all spheres of life.

One might think that for Benson, a Catholic writer, this would be an opportunity to paint an attractive portrait of a harmonious world informed by the truths of the Catholic faith, and one might think that such a portrait would appeal to Catholic readers. Strange to say, this isn’t the case. It is an odd, odd book, either too inept, or too cunningly sly, I’m not sure which.

Our central character is an English prelate, Monsignor Masterman, who, in the opening scene of the novel, finds himself in the middle of a public ceremony with no idea what is happening or what he is doing there. It turns out that he has suffered a sudden amnesia, and remembers nothing of what has happened for at least a half-century. Everything seems strange to him.

Everything seems strange because so much has changed. The wholesale conversion of the world’s peoples to Catholicism has taken place more or less entirely in the interim, so that he finds himself, psychologically at least, suddenly transported from a world like our own, in which Catholicism vies alongside other religions and is largely sidelined in halls of power, to a world transformed, in which Catholicism reigns supreme, occupying a place in culture, law, and government much like the place liberalism occupies in our own, “the centre and not merely a department of national life”.

This amnesia is a — well, I’ll stop short of saying it’s “effective”, but it is helpful — a helpful literary device, because of course the reader is in precisely Masterman’s position, transported suddenly to a world unlike that we know, and it gives Benson a plausible reason to dump a lot (a lot!) of exposition on the reader without being too tedious about it.

Benson has to give us some explanation of how Catholicism suddenly conquered the world, so to speak. This he does by annexing, more or less, the authority of the sciences, for he argues that the findings of maturing sciences, especially medicine and psychology, began to corroborate the claims of Catholicism. Illnesses, it is discovered, are almost all psychosomatic, and it is Catholicism’s cure of souls that is found to most effectively cure the body too. Miracles are confirmed by scientific observation. And so the Catholic faith comes to be generally accepted, but not really on spiritual grounds. It’s just due to an objective finding, rather than an interior conversion.

Is this a problem? I have to be careful here not to prejudge. The scenario Benson describes, for instance, is perhaps not so different from how things looked in medieval times, when the Church was powerful and generally acknowledged as a teacher of truth, and when there was harmony between faith and reason. People believed in the Church more as a brute fact, like we view the political sphere, yet weren’t always greatly devout in consequence. By contrast, a common line in Christian apologetics since at least Pascal has been that the claims of faith are possibly but not certainly true, and that this in-between status is important, indeed essential, to the Christian faith, for had they not that status the appropriate response would be something other than faith, other than trust in God; it would be knowledge or irrationality. But is it really the case that having faith is preferable to having knowledge? To claim so strikes me as, possibly, an instance of using lemons to make lemonade. Indeed, it is contradicted by Catholicism itself, which says (for instance) that the existence of God, at least, can be known by reason, or, to make the point more forcefully, that ultimately the articles of faith, which we see at present through a glass darkly, will become knowledge.

Benson anticipates this response in his readers, and Masterman himself wrestles with these questions, for he too is taken aback. He struggles to adjust to a world where religion is “concrete and effective”:

“somewhere in the back of his mind (why, he knew not) there lurked a sort of only half-perceived assumption that the Catholic religion was but one aspect of truth—one point of view from which, with sufficient though not absolute truth, facts could be discerned.”

And so I am wary of my own initial response to Benson’s setup — that the “conversion” it contemplates is superficial and disappointing. Perhaps then, at a deeper level, I find his scenario discouraging simply because this coincidence of science and religion that he imagines does not seem to be true. Not that I think there is irreconcilable disharmony between them, but we have witnessed nothing like the “hand in glove” relationship between them that he puts into his book.

Setting aside how the world came to be as it is, what does Benson imagine it is actually like? The best part is that Ireland has become an island inhabited almost exclusively by religious orders, full of monasteries and retreat houses. This is nice — although also rather depressing when compared with the contemporary reality. Family life is strong and healthy: divorces are rare, large families are common, and adultery and fornication are censured. But Benson’s picture of what Catholic society would look like is not wholly attractive: there are heresy trials, monarchic government (no more the “intoxicating nightmare of democratic government”), and an educational test for the vote (only 1 in 70 pass).

But the bigger problem for Masterman is that as the Church becomes authoritative for society, and as her power increases, she must exercise that power, and doing so seems to Masterman to be inconsistent with her nature. He believes that the Church, like Christ, must be always ready to suffer, not to inflict suffering. He witnesses a heresy trial, for instance, which greatly disturbs him, all the more so because the man condemned fully accepts the verdict and the authority from which it issues.

The principal action of the novel, insofar as there is action in the novel, addresses precisely this worry of Masterman’s. Has the Church forgotten how to suffer after all? There is a plotline involving the Holy Father and a small group of rebels holding out against the Church that speaks directly to this point, and does so fairly satisfyingly.

**

An oddity about The Dawn of All is that it spends a great deal of time fascinated by volors. These flying ships, sort of like airborne trains, I believe, appeared in Lord of the World too, but peripherally. Here they sometimes seem to be the main attraction, as Benson returns to them time and again, dilating on exactly how they work, how they dock at platforms to let passengers on and off, how it feels to ride on one, what can be seen from one, how quickly they travel, and so on. I grant that thinking about flying machines is interesting, but Benson’s interest in them, or the interest he presumes in his readers, begins to feel excessive.

**

In the end I found The Dawn of All to be disappointing, partly on account of its leaden plotting and long exposition, partly because its portrait of a Catholic society seemed unappealing, and also partly because I felt cheated by an eleventh-hour revelation that cast a different light on much of the novel, and in an extremely annoying way.

**

Some passages:

[Welfare, from Church and state]
The State can only give for economic reasons, however conscientious and individually charitable statesmen may be; while the Church gives for the Love of God, and the Love of God never yet destroyed any man’s self-respect.

[The family as the model of society]
The Socialist saw plainly the rights of the Society; the Anarchist saw the rights of the Individual. How therefore were these to be reconciled? The Church stepped in at that crucial point and answered, By the Family—whether domestic or Religious. For in the Family you have both claims recognized: there is authority and yet there is liberty. For the union of the Family lies in Love; and Love is the only reconciliation of authority and liberty.

[Two poles]
The Pope attended by princes—the Pope on his knees before a barefooted friar. These were the two magnetic points between which blazed Religion.

Here and there

March 10, 2017

A few interesting, art-related things I’ve seen in the past few weeks:

  • The Christian moral imagination of Cormac McCarthy.
  • Alex Ross writes, in one of his increasingly rare non-politically-inflected columns, about Bach’s religious music.
  • The wonders of digital signal processing recreate the acoustics of Hagia Sophia in a modern concert hall.
  • The cultured life is “an escape from the tyranny of the present”.
  • In a similar vein, Roger Scruton praises the virtue of irrelevance, with special attention to the art of music.
  • Finally, a group of mad animators have brought to life Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:

 

Johnson: Life of Savage

March 2, 2017

Life of Mr Richard Savage
Samuel Johnson
[1744]

On a bulk, in a cellar, or in a glass-house, among thieves and beggars, was to be found the author of “The Wanderer,” the man of exalted sentiments, extensive views, and curious observations; the man whose remarks on life might have assisted the statesman, whose ideas of virtue might have enlightened the moralist, whose eloquence might have influenced senates, and whose delicacy might have polished courts.

johnson-savageCases in which one reads a biography principally from an interest in the biographer are comparatively rare, but here is one. Nothing against Richard Savage, of course, who was a friend of Johnson’s and an accomplished poet who lived a noteworthy life, but I, at least, decided to read his biography mainly from a desire to spend time with Johnson.

Richard Savage came into the world the son of a vindictive woman who, in a strange reversal of natural inclination, did all in her power to ruin him from the outset, first by refusing to care for him, later by attempting to disinherit him and, later still, scheming to send him into exile. When a man and finding himself accused of a crime, his mother entered the lists to testify against his good character. He never knew the love and comfort of a home.

Johnson, in a sally of dry wit, traces the influence of this harsh childhood on his later vocation as a man of letters:

[He] was reduced to the utmost miseries of want, while he was endeavouring to awaken the affection of a mother. He was therefore obliged to seek some other means of support; and, having no profession, became by necessity an author.

Savage become a poet, specifically, though never a greatly successful one in the commercial markets, and, like Johnson himself, never quite successful at obtaining the patronage of the great. He lived the life of a vagabond, drifting from one “situation” to another, dependent on the charity of others for his basic needs. He was inconstant and heedless in his handling of money; writes Johnson:

To supply him with money was a hopeless attempt; for no sooner did he see himself master of a sum sufficient to set him free from care for a day than he became profuse and luxurious.

And he was generous not only to his friends. Johnson relates the story, already alluded to, of Savage’s arrest over a violent altercation, for which he stood trial under penalty of death. A woman testified falsely against him during the trial, yet, upon his eventual acquittal, she, being destitute, nonetheless approached him to beg assistance, to which he responded by giving her what money he had, on which act Johnson comments:

This is an action which in some ages would have made a saint, and perhaps in others a hero, and which, without any hyperbolical encomiums, must be allowed to be an instance of uncommon generosity, an act of complicated virtue, by which he at once relieved the poor, corrected the vicious, and forgave an enemy; by which he at once remitted the strongest provocations, and exercised the most ardent charity.

It is hard not to feel admiration and affection for a man capable of such a gesture, and Johnson certainly did feel both for him. He is praised especially for his good heart, keen intelligence, fine if modest poetic gift (Johnson is, as ever, an honest judge), and eloquent conversation. Yet such sentiments were not universally held, for Savage’s wayward manner of life, moral courage, and sharp wit variously earned him enemies in many quarters:

Those who thought themselves raised above him by the advantages of riches hated him because they found no protection from the petulance of his wit. Those who were esteemed for their writings feared him as a critic, and maligned him as a rival; and almost all the smaller wits were his professed enemies.

Johnson doesn’t overlook his friend’s faults, and indeed part of the appeal of this biography is the combination of frank criticism and tender affection with which the biographer views his subject. Savage was a complex man, and his biographer is a match. It is precisely the manner in which he tempers justice with mercy that makes Johnson such a superb chronicler of a difficult life:

Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty; nor will any wise man easily presume to say, “Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage.”

**

One interested in reading some of Savage’s poetry might follow the link above to his poem “The Wanderer”, or, for a shorter example, to “The Bastard”, a witty, autobiographical ode to his ruthless mother:

O Mother, yet no Mother!—’tis to you,
My Thanks for such distinguish’d Claims are due.

**

The Life of Savage was written in 1744, one year after Savage’s death, and was later collected in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.

**

In closing, here are several jewels of Johnsonian moral judgment and observation gleaned from these pages:

[Power and resentment]
Power and resentment are seldom strangers.

[Gratitude and resentment]
Those who had before paid their court to him without success soon returned the contempt which they had suffered; and they who had received favours from him, for of such favours as he could bestow he was very liberal, did not always remember them. So much more certain are the effects of resentment than of gratitude. It is not only to many more pleasing to recollect those faults which place others below them, than those virtues by which they are themselves comparatively depressed: but it is likewise more easy to neglect than to recompense. And though there are few who will practise a laborious virtue, there will never be wanting multitudes that will indulge in easy vice.

[Judgement and flattery]
He contented himself with the applause of men of judgment, and was somewhat disposed to exclude all those from the character of men of judgment who did not applaud him.

[Virtue, in love and in life]
The reigning error of his life was that he mistook the love for the practice of virtue, and was indeed not so much a good man as the friend of goodness.

[Judging degrees of understanding]
As many more can discover that a man is richer than that he is wiser than themselves, superiority of understanding is not so readily acknowledged as that of fortune.

Carpe diem

February 27, 2017

Toward the end of World War II, Pieper was imprisoned and took the occasion to read through the fifty volumes of Goethe’s collected works.

— Ralph McInerny, introducing
Josef Pieper’s The Silence of Goethe

Serraillier: The Ballad of St Simeon

February 23, 2017

The Ballad of St Simeonserraillier-st-simeon
Ian Serraillier
Illustrated by Simon Stern
(F. Watts, 1970)
28 p.

The subject of this poem is St Simeon Stylites, who, because “his ways were lonely and he loved God”, leaves ordinary life behind and, of all things, lives atop a pole for most of his life. He suffers exposure to the elements, and the jeers of those below, but he offers counsel to humble souls as well, and when a fearsome dragon threatens the city it is St Simeon whose prayers save the day.

In this large-format edition the poem is illustrated by Simon Stern. The drawings are charming and a bit amateurish, and clearly pitched at young children. Not so the poem itself, I dare say, which seems to me addressed to fairly accomplished readers:

Years Simeon stood, sat, slept
on his pole, communed with God and wept
for the sin-smudged city. Some, not many,
brought him their troubles and he offered
prayers for them but could do no miracle.
How he suffered!
The seasons steam-rollered him. In summer
the flaming sun made him boil
and the pole pain bubble and pop, and
when winter was a turmoil
of flying icicles, in spite of his mother-knitted clothes,
his goose skin hugged his skeleton. So cold was it
that chilblains marbled and the people’s oaths
froze on the air (thawing out in Spring
with a bang).

There are rhymes here, both at line ends and internally, but the rhythm is irregular and a bit tricky, and the poem doesn’t condescend. Somewhat to my surprise, therefore, my 5 year-old son loves it, and has had me read it to him numerous times over the past few weeks. Does that mean I’ve succeeded in finding its music?

As far as the subject matter goes, it’s a good story, and it is well told. Sometimes modern authors treating saints’ lives are tempted to skirt the religious elements, especially when there’s something as distracting as a dragon in the tale, but Serraillier doesn’t do this, and in fact the poem contains Biblical allusions that will render it partly unintelligible to readers without a decent religious formation. A similarly demanding poem, and a poem demanding in a similar way, would probably not be published today in this format. Let us raise a glass, once again, to oldish books.

Benedict XVI: Last Testament

February 14, 2017

benedict-xvi-last-testamentLast Testament
In His Own Words
Benedict XVI, with Peter Seewald
(Bloomsbury, 2016)
xx + 257 p.

This is the latest, and reportedly is to be the last, in a series of book-length interviews which Peter Seewald has conducted with Joseph Ratzinger. The first was The Ratzinger Report, issued when he was Prefect of the CDF, and now, of course, he is our Pope Emeritus. This week marks the fourth anniversary of his resignation from the papal office, and seems a good opportunity to reflect on his life and contributions to the Church.

Given the drama of his resignation from the papacy and the turmoil that has roiled through the Church during Francis’ pontificate, this is a remarkably even-keeled and unsensational entry in the series. They do discuss his decision to resign, putting to rest worries that he was somehow pressured to do so, but for the most part the focus is on Benedict’s biography: his childhood, his decision to become a priest, his theological training, his participation in Vatican II, and his eventual move to Rome. In this sense it retreads, to a certain extent, the ground covered by his memoir, Milestones, but it was good to be reminded of certain details that I had forgotten, or had never known in the first place.

Among these was the surprising discovery that he had had a fairly close relationship with Hans Küng in the early days; they had taught courses together in Tübingen. At that time, they were both considered “progressives”, but obviously their paths parted as the years went on. I was also surprised to learn that when teaching in Münster Ratzinger had been friends with Josef Pieper, meeting at his home, with others, every Sunday afternoon for conversation. I suppose it makes sense that these two great Catholic intellectuals, being contemporaries and both Germans, would know one another, but I hadn’t known it to be actually the case.

One of Benedict’s acts as Pope — one of the more striking and unexpected — was to canonize and elevate to a Doctor of the Church the medieval mystic and composer Hildegard of Bingen. In this interview we learn that he has had a fascination with her since childhood: “The figure of Hildegard always followed me; it was always engaging, always precious to me.”

About his papacy, which Seewald’s introduction aptly describes as “the great retreat the Church needed, to buttress the interior castle and to strengthen her soul”, his modesty is remarkable — or would be remarkable, did we not already know the man. He reiterates his statement that his election in 2005 was like “a guillotine”, which he accepted strictly from obedience to the Holy Spirit and not from anything remotely like personal ambition. It’s well-known that he repeatedly asked John Paul II if he could retire from the CDF and return to academic life, but his request was always denied. When Seewald asks him what he’d really liked to have done in his life, he answers:

“I would have liked to have worked intellectually more… But I’m nevertheless content with the other turn of events, with what has happened… What I could do, as I said, is something other than what I wanted — I wanted my whole life long to be a real professor — but afterwards I see it was good how it went.”

Understand that by “what has happened” he is referring to his being Pope. This indifference to power is one of the aspects of his personality that endears him to me, and to many others. Another is his self-effacement. When asked to compare himself to St John Paul II, he said, with some wit, “I had a different sort of charisma, or rather a non-charisma”, and when asked, a bit cheekily I felt, how the papacy of Francis “corrects” his own, he answered good-naturedly, averring to his preference for solitude: “Perhaps I was not truly among the people enough”. I wish Seewald had asked the same question the other way around, but he didn’t.

About his resignation, Benedict is straightforward: he was tired, and felt he could not adequately manage the many responsibilities. He recalls, with tears in his eyes, his last day as Pope, being airlifted out of the Vatican while all the church bells of Rome rang out below him.

All in all, the present volume is probably a rather minor entry in this important series of interviews, but it is one of the most personal, and for those of us who feel a filial affection for the man, it is a wonderful opportunity to spend time in his company.

Children’s books: beasts and beasties

February 3, 2017

farwell-brownThe Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts
Abbie Farwell Brown
(Kalavela, 2010) [1900]
146 p.

Teaching children about the saints is a worthy labour, and I take the view that it is good they learn the fancies as well as the facts, because the fancies, too, tell us something worth knowing about kindness and goodness. In stories about saints we imaginatively explore the happy side of life. In this book, first published over a century ago, Abbie Farwell Brown collects two dozen tales about saints and animals. The most famous of these in Christian tradition are undoubtedly those involving St Francis of Assisi, and the book closes with them, but Brown also treats us to tales about St Rigobert and the goose that followed him everywhere, about the fish who built a breakwater to shelter St Gudwell’s hermit cave, about St Launomar’s cow which was stolen but then led the robbers through the dark right back to his home, about St Kentigern who restored a robin to life, and numerous others. The stories are not especially religious in tone or content, except insofar as they are about saints. Two or three of the stories are told in verse. All are gracefully written, and were a distinct pleasure to read. My children concur; I read the stories aloud to them, and they were always clamouring for more.

***

nesbit-itFive Children and It
Edith Nesbit
(Puffin Classics, 2008) [1902]
288 p.

I assumed that the nameless “It” was nameless because frightening, and I wanted to read the book before passing it to my children, just to ensure that it was not too frightening. I needn’t have worried. The It is a cute little creature, with a furry, pear-shaped body, antennae-mounted eyes, and gangly limbs. It is easily annoyed, but harmless — at least in Itself.

But the catch is that It has the power of granting wishes — just one each day, and only until sunset — but wishes nonetheless, and for the children who find It that power might not turn out to be entirely benign. If there were ever a book to illustrate the wisdom of the old counsel to “be careful what you wish for”, this is it.

It’s quite a funny book, in its way, as the children make accidental wishes, or wish without thinking things through, and end up in pickles. I enjoyed reading it, and I think most children would enjoy it too. Of the five children, only the baby emerged in my mind as a really distinctive character. The book is well-written, and not too difficult. Nesbit hints on the last page that more adventures are to follow, and I see that she did write a few more books about the same children.

Although I enjoyed the story, and suggested it to our 7-year old, she abandoned it after a few chapters. This was precipitous, in my view — after all, not every book can be as good as the Magic Tree House books! — but the fault is partly mine: probably I gave it to her too soon.

***

grahame-windThe Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame
Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1908]
249 p.

Kenneth Grahame lived what seems a rather ordinary, if perhaps unhappy, life: his mother died when he was young, he was unable to attend university and worked his whole career in a bank, and his only child was sickly and committed suicide as a young man. Yet Grahame gave the world one of the great classics of children’s literature, a book so replete with humour and fresh adventure and beauty that it rejoices the heart of the reader each time it is opened. Would that we all could give such a gift.

The book is widely beloved and hardly needs me to praise it. I will just say that as I read it this time I was as dazzled and charmed as ever. It was wonderful to see Mole and Rat again, and I relished the chance to exclaim again over the foolishness of Mr Toad. Most of all, I was grateful for the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”; one doesn’t expect the numinous to come shimmering through the pages of a children’s book about talking animals, but there it is, luminous and alluring.

I am sorry to say that I have not read any other of Grahame’s books. He wrote two memoirs of childhood — The Golden Age and Dream Days — both of which were well-regarded when published (and both of which I own). I’m going to make an effort to read them sometime soon. The man who writes The Wind in the Willows is a man worth getting to know.

Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

January 26, 2017

childeChilde Harold’s Pilgrimage
George Gordon Lord Byron
(Oxford, 2008) [1812-18]
188 p.

She walks in beauty, like the night, and my ignorance of the life and poetry of Lord Byron is rather like the night too: dark and comprehensive. Nonetheless I took up this long poem with considerable interest. I’d come across excerpts from it here and there in my readings about Rome, and I thought I’d take a closer look to see what else, if anything, the poem has to say about the Eternal City.

That’s a narrow keyhole through which to approach a fairly wide-ranging poem, which recounts the travels of one Harold, a young and dissolute Englishman, as he rambles across the European continent. He lands first in Spain, makes his way east, stopping in Albania, and Greece, and eventually comes to Italy, where he visits, among other cities, Venice, Florence, and, yes, Rome.

The poem is allegedly based on Byron’s own European travels, which he undertook in the years 1809-11.

Harold is melancholy, undisciplined, and a rake:

Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
(1, II)

In other words, we have here a Byronic hero, such as he is, and the poem, which was the first to bring Byron wide fame, is a notable example of English Romanticism in full flower. (Note that it was published just a few decades after the famous volume by which Wordsworth and Coleridge are said to have inaugurated Romanticism in England.) We find, for instance, the characteristic Romantic sense of the sublimity of Nature:

All heaven and earth are still—though not in sleep,
But breathless, as we grow when feeling most;
And silent, as we stand in thoughts too deep: —
All heaven and earth are still: from the high host
Of stars, to the lulled lake and mountain-coast,
All is concentered in a life intense,
Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost,
But hath a part of being, and a sense
Of that which is of all Creator and defence.
(3, LXXXIX)

I was surprised to find that the anti-hero of the poem, whose brooding self-consciousness and jaundiced eye are supposed to seduce and repel us at once, was not so brooding, and especially not so jaundiced, as I had expected. When he comes to Greece, for instance, he is overwhelmed by the solemnity and glory of what once was, and says:

Where’er we tread, ’tis haunted, holy ground;
No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,
But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,
And all the Muse’s tales seem truly told,
Till the sense aches with gazing to behold
The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon:
Each hill and dale, each deepening glen and wold,
Defies the power which crushed thy temples gone:
Age shakes Athena’s tower, but spares gray Marathon.
(2, LXXXVIII)

and then cries out with sincere admiration:

Yet to the remnants of thy splendour past
Shall pilgrims, pensive, but unwearied, throng:
Long shall the voyager, with th’ Ionian blast,
Hail the bright clime of battle and of song;
Long shall thine annals and immortal tongue
Fill with thy fame the youth of many a shore:
Boast of the aged! lesson of the young!
Which sages venerate and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore.
(2, XCI)

One has the distinct impression that Harold counts himself among the youth filled with Greece’s fame, himself a pensive pilgrim honouring the remnants of its splendid past.

In fact throughout the poem Harold shows a real desire to admire the great monuments, and to commune with the great tradition on which he has been nurtured. He is no mere tourist, no cynic in such matters. In comparison to twenty-somethings whom I have known, he comes across as positively effusive in his earnest praise:

Italia! too, Italia! looking on thee
Full flashes on the soul the light of ages,
Since the fierce Carthaginian almost won thee,
To the last halo of the chiefs and sages
Who glorify thy consecrated pages;
Thou wert the throne and grave of empires; still,
The fount at which the panting mind assuages
Her thirst of knowledge, quaffing there her fill,
Flows from the eternal source of Rome’s imperial hill.
(3, CX)

I hear in such verse more humility and sincerity than ironic sophistication. I may even say that I found in Harold, at least at such moments, an echo of my own feelings towards the European past, which is my cultural inheritance, and which I have laboured, here and elsewhere, to appropriate. This has been rather gratifying, not only inasmuch as Harold provides me with an eloquent — an, if anything, too eloquent — expression of my own feelings, but also inasmuch as it allows me to imagine myself a Byronic hero, a wholly unlooked-for denouement!

***

As to Harold’s sojourn in Rome, it was indeed the highlight of the poem for me (“O Rome! my country! city of the soul!”), and I cannot resist quoting some of my favourite stanzas. There may be no better image of the spirit of Romanticism than that of Byron — sorry, I meant Harold — standing in the moonlight gazing at the ruins of the Colosseum:

But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
And the low night-breeze waves along the air,
The garland-forest, which the grey walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Caesar’s head;
When the light shines serene, but doth not glare,
Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
(4, CXLIV)

Here he wanders a bit north, into the warren of cobble-stoned streets of Old Rome, emerging into the piazza before the Pantheon:

Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime—
Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,
From Jove to Jesus—spared and blest by time;
Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods
Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods
His way through thorns to ashes—glorious dome!
Shalt thou not last?—Time’s scythe and tyrants’ rods
Shiver upon thee—sanctuary and home
Of art and piety—Pantheon!—pride of Rome!

Relic of nobler days, and noblest arts!
Despoiled yet perfect, with thy circle spreads
A holiness appealing to all hearts—
To art a model; and to him who treads
Rome for the sake of ages, Glory sheds
Her light through thy sole aperture; to those
Who worship, here are altars for their beads;
And they who feel for genius may repose
Their eyes on honoured forms, whose busts around them close.
(4, CXLVI-CXLVII)

Does your heart beat high? Do you feel nobler, even taller? Later he goes across the Tiber to St. Peter’s. Earlier in the poem he had let drop the casual anti-Catholic sentiments of an ordinary Englishman:

But here the Babylonian whore had built
A dome, where flaunts she in such glorious sheen,
That men forget the blood which she hath spilt,
And bow the knee to Pomp that loves to garnish guilt.
(1, XXIX)

but confronted with the glory of San Pietro he seems to forget himself:

But thou, of temples old, or altars new,
Standest alone—with nothing like to thee—
Worthiest of God, the holy and the true,
Since Zion’s desolation, when that he
Forsook his former city, what could be,
Of earthly structures, in his honour piled,
Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty,
Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty, all are aisled
In this eternal ark of worship undefiled.
(4, CLIV)

As he ponders it, walking beneath its sublime canopy, he senses the challenge it poses to his own soul, and he struggles to rise to it:

Not by its fault—but thine: Our outward sense
Is but of gradual grasp—and as it is
That what we have of feeling most intense
Outstrips our faint expression; e’en so this
Outshining and o’erwhelming edifice
Fools our fond gaze, and greatest of the great
Defies at first our nature’s littleness,
Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.
(4, CLVIII)

Who among us, confronted by a great work of art, has not experienced, or at least wanted to experience, such a thing? Even granting that an aesthetic experience is not the highest experience one might hope to have in a holy site, it’s nothing to sneer at.

I suppose I risk giving a lopsided view of the poem. It’s not all Rome, not all Italy. He doesn’t like Spain so much. And much of the poem is brooding, especially on the personal wreckage he left behind in England. But I came to the poem with something particular in mind, and I departed well-satisfied.

**

A word about the technical aspects of the poem. As is evident from the sections I’ve quoted, it is composed in Spenserian stanzas: ababbcbcc in iambic metre. It is a long poem, with nearly 500 such stanzas, split into four cantos of uneven length, and a few interpolations of verse in other metres and rhyme schemes. The poetry is astoundingly accomplished, technically. I haven’t actually tried it, but I imagine I’d have a horrendous time trying to produce even one such stanza of non-doggeral verse. To have the facility to write stanza after stanza, expressing and developing thought along the way, is a remarkable gift.

***

For my own benefit, I here append some other of the stanzas I appreciated most:

[Lament over Greece]
When riseth Lacedaemon’s hardihood,
When Thebes Epaminondas rears again,
When Athens’ children are with hearts endued,
When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men,
Then mayst thou be restored; but not till then.
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shattered splendour renovate,
Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?
(2, LXXXIV)

[The natural beauty of Greece]
Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild:
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olives ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honeyed wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli’s marbles glare;
Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.
(2,LXXXVII)

[Rome and Italy]
The commonwealth of kings, the men of Rome!
And even since, and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.
(4, XXVI)

[Praise of Tasso]
Peace to Torquato’s injured shade! ’twas his
In life and death to be the mark where Wrong
Aimed with their poisoned arrows—but to miss.
Oh, victor unsurpassed in modern song!
Each year brings forth its millions; but how long
The tide of generations shall roll on,
And not the whole combined and countless throng
Compose a mind like thine? Though all in one
Condensed their scattered rays, they would not form a sun.
(4, XXXIX)

[Laocoon]
Or, turning to the Vatican, go see
Laocoon’s torture dignifying pain—
A father’s love and mortal’s agony
With an immortal’s patience blending:—Vain
The struggle; vain, against the coiling strain
And gripe, and deepening of the dragon’s grasp,
The old man’s clench; the long envenomed chain
Rivets the living links,—the enormous asp
Enforces pang on pang, and stifles gasp on gasp.
(4, CLX)

McCarthy: No Country for Old Men

January 16, 2017

cormac_mccarthy_nocountryforoldmenNo Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy
(Vintage, 2005)
309 p.

I’d seen the Coen brothers’ film, of course, and admired it, and was curious to get to know the source. Also, it had been several years since I last sat down with a Cormac McCarthy book — I won’t say that I missed him, exactly, but encountering his voice again — arid, compressed, and bereft of punctuation — was like slipping into a familiar, if thorn-lined, shirt. There’s nobody quite like him.

The set-up is superb: a man out hunting comes upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong, with bodies and bullets everywhere and a bag of money for the taking. He takes it, and the action of the novel unfolds. It’s a violent and sometimes brutal affair, but it has its moments of humanity as well, especially in the person of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (of whom we hear a good deal more here than in the film adaptation).

In movie circles, Anton Chigurh is sometimes named as one of the great screen villains of all time; it is a testament to Javier Bardem that he was able to bring McCarthy’s character to such chilling life. He’s chilling on the page too, but not, I think, to the same extent, and I found that I had always to call Bardem’s performance to mind to capture his full potential.

Chigurh is a character worth pondering. As usual with McCarthy we are given no insight into his private thoughts; we see his acts and we hear him speak, and that is all. Yet because he is such an unusual character — unusually cruel and inhumane — ascription of motives is more difficult than usual. As a result, Chigurh is perceived as something like a force of nature, or as fate, and he himself seems to agree with this perception, for more than once he speaks about how his actions just happen, or he determines his course of action based on the outcome of chance events — either way, he avoids personal responsibility. Yet, at the same time, he adheres to a certain moral code, or, if that adjective seems abused in this context, then to a code of conduct. Witness his rendezvous with Carla Jean, simply because he had made a promise. And, deeper down, there lurks the question of what motivates him in the first place. It is not lust for wealth, for he surrenders the money without hesitation. Nor does he seem to act from loyalty, for he turns on his employer when his employer turns on him. At best, he might act from a very personal sense of duty, bound by having given his word. But it is hard to be sure.

The book is more than just a thriller or an exhibition of violence. Threaded throughout are observations and reflections, sometimes hard-bitten and always terse, on law, human relationships, and the dissolution of society and virtue. It’s a sad and dark vision, and would be intolerable but for Sheriff Bell, who hasn’t entirely given up hope.