Archive for the 'Books' Category

Vodolazkin: Laurus

July 14, 2016

Laurus
Evgeny Vodolazkin
Translated from the Russian by Lisa Hayden
(Oneworld, 2015) [2013]
362 p.

The press surrounding Laurus has been so positive, and the book made to sound so intriguing, that it succeeded in coaxing me out from under my rock to buy a copy. First published in Russia in 2013, it accumulated a pile of literary awards, and the English translation appeared last year, accompanied by a chorus of praise.

The novel is about a fifteenth-century Russian healer named Arseny. He is a physician, of sorts, though he himself is uncertain how much of his success is due to his medicines and how much to the touch of his own hands. He travels from place to place, even making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His name changes several times; he accepts whatever name those around him wish to use, but it also happens that each name change corresponds to a change in his way of life.laurus-book

It is probably fair to see Arseny as an example of a “holy fool”: a saintly figure whose eccentricities both divide him from others and endear him to them. He lives alone much of the time, often under very ascetic conditions, on the outskirts of towns, even in a graveyard. He dresses in rags, his hair is dishevelled, he eats hardly at all, he seeks the company of the dead, yet he has a penetrating knowledge of hearts, and of the future, and people stream to him for cures.

Figures of this sort have appeared in sacred tradition, but, unless I am mistaken, there is usually something opaque about them. They fascinate precisely because they are so out of the ordinary; we can hardly imagine what is going on in their heads. Laurus is a remarkable example of an attempt to get inside such a character.

One of the more interesting aspects of the story is how it plays with time: telescoping it, folding it back on itself, collapsing the distinction between past and future. Several characters in the story have foreknowledge of future events, and Arseny sometimes simultaneously experiences himself at different stages of his life. The language of the book reflects this: the narrator speaks sometimes in Chaucerian English, sometimes in a traditional narrative voice, and sometimes in modern slang, sometimes all of them in the span of a single sentence. This is an intriguing literary device, although I admit that I am not quite sure why Vodolazkin has done this. It might be an attempt to suggest that a saint, as he approaches God, begins to experience something like the Eternal “now” of God’s timelessness.

Early in the book Arseny does something which leads to the death of one whom he loves, and this becomes the catalyst for his internal transformation, as he seeks to atone for his sins and those of his beloved. His life becomes one long exercise in the extinction of his ego, until he becomes a kind of window through which others see something radiant. He himself does not really see it. This course of self-denial reaches an apex in a remarkable scene in which he is given an opportunity to re-live that original, fatal decision, and when he chooses rightly it is at the cost of his last shreds of self-possession and respectability.

There is a good deal of religious content in the book. Some have claimed that the experience of reading it has led them to prayer, but I cannot say that was true of me. In fact, although Arseny is clearly an Orthodox Christian, there is relatively little Christian language in the book (there is some), and his spiritual life is not especially clearly focused on traditional Christian elements (as, for example, Christ, or the Church, or the Blessed Virgin, or grace). Alan Jacobs, usually an astute commentator on literary matters, described the book’s spiritual climate as being closer to Hunduism than Christianity; this strikes me as an odd and overly strong claim, but there may be a hint of something to it.

What bothered me most about the book was its tendency to be a bit quirky. I kept thinking of the magical realism of writers like Salman Rushdie or Umberto Eco — wonderful writers (and Vodolazkin, to the extent that he can be judged in translation, is a very fine writer too), but lacking in heft.

Overall, though, I did enjoy the novel, and I found that it improved as it progressed. I’d recommend it.

**

This review, from the New Yorker, is quite good.

Heidegger

July 10, 2016
martin_heidegger_1939585

By Davide Calandrini

Introducing Heidegger
Jeff Collins and Howard Selina
(Icon, 1998)
173 p.

Heidegger
A Very Short Introduction
Michael Inwood
(Oxford, 2002)
160 p.

Many years ago I embarked on a reading of Frederick Copleston’s eleven-volume history of philosophy, with the intention of reading it alongside a judicious selection of primary sources. Somewhere along the way — roundabout Volume 7, I think, or, put another way, roundabout the time I became a father — that project stalled. Consequently, I never did get to Martin Heidegger.

It would be fair to say that my preparation for reading Heidegger has been inadequate. I have no particular grounding in continental philosophy. I’ve never read Husserl or the other phenomenologists who influenced Heidegger. I’ve not read Foucoult or Derrida or the other gurus whom Heidegger influenced. For some time, however, I have become interested in him on account of the frequency with which his name has appeared in interesting contexts: in connection with Terrence Malick’s films, for instance, or in the philosophical theology of David Bentley Hart. From those sources I had inferred that Heidegger was, in some sense, the modern philosopher of being. Therefore I had mentally paired him with Aquinas, whom I think of as the medieval philosopher of being, and I surmised that reading him might contribute fruitfully to my more-or-less haphazard but more-or-less persistent ruminations on being, beauty, contemplation, and love.

**

Heidegger has a reputation as a difficult thinker. Insofar as I can tell, this is well deserved. In a sense, his writing is intentionally confounding, for one of his objectives was to subvert and overcome the conventional thinking of the Western philosophical tradition, most especially in its rationalist streams, and so he adopted a quasi-poetic, non-dialectical, non-analytic manner. This was not totally unprecedented in our tradition; arguably, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche adopted similar, if far more elegant, methods, but Heidegger himself seems to have looked to the pre-Socratic philosophers, like Heraclitus, for inspiration.

**

Both of these short introductory volumes emphasize that Heidegger’s central question was: what is being? (Thus confirming those rumours that had drawn me hither.) He thought that the West, starting with Plato, had forgotten being, and had instead devoted itself to mastering and manipulating (even if only through understanding) beings. We habitually focus on what things are, rather than on the fact that they are. Heidegger believed that the proper task of philosophy should be to draw attention back to this more fundamental question: what is being?

His pursuit of an answer — if indeed he pursued an answer in the conventional sense, which is doubtful — took him in directions that were surprising, at least to me. I would have expected that to answer his foundational question he would have turned to metaphysics, as Aquinas did, but, as I have learned, this way was blocked to him, for metaphysics belonged to the tradition he was challenging. He took a different tack: he focused on experience. He put human beings, and their particular ways of being in the world, at the center of his project. He used an odd word, Dasein, which means literally “there-being”, to refer to the thing we are — an unfamiliar word which he could proceed to define according to his own vision. He did not mean by this word a biological creature, but something expansive: “Dasein [is] that entity in its being which we know as human life; this entity in the specificity of its being, the entity that we each ourselves are, which each of us finds in the fundamental assertion: I am.”

And so he situates himself not in a lofty or abstract vantage point, but within the experience of being alive and conscious and human, and he starts there. His is therefore a philosophy “from the inside out”, if I can put it that way. It is here that the phenomenologists, with their careful attention to the shape and texture of lived human experience, inform his philosophy directly. For instance, when he discusses time — a very important part of his philosophy, as reflected in the title of his most important book — he challenges the linear model of time and its usual division into past, present, and future, for time is not actually lived in that neat way. Instead, the past is always present to us, both in memory and in the world as we receive it, and the future is present to us as we ponder its possible not-yets. The flow of time, too, is more flexible than the objective scientific view would indicate, for sometimes — in the company of good friends, for instance — time is experienced as passing quickly — but at other times — when attending a lecture on Heidegger, for instance — it is experienced as crawling along slowly. Or, to take another case, we do not experience space as geometric in the Cartesian manner, but a person who is distant can be brought near in experience if we see their photo or hear their voice on the phone.

Now, to a certain way of thinking, approaching fundamental questions about being in this way seems misguided and counterproductive. Instead of using the resources of objective, abstract reason, Heidegger has intertwined his inquiry with the peculiarities of human psychology. It’s a muddle. I am sympathetic to this appraisal, but, at the same time, I do not want to jump to conclusions. Before judging, we must do our best to really understand him, and this means taking seriously his critique of the “objective, abstract” principles on the basis of which we would judge him. I admit I’m not sure how to do that, but I if he is truly digging out the foundations, and succeeds, then the objection may not stand. And, to be fair, there is something inside-out about the rationalist tendency to give priority to objective, “scientific” concepts over subjective experience, when those very concepts have been formulated entirely within the framework of such experience, and are only ever present to us in the prior and enveloping context of such experience. Perhaps it is right, therefore, to see the experiential side as philosophically prior, and the objective side as a more or less brittle gloss. (I stop short of claiming this to be Heidegger’s reasoning; I’m simply not sure what he would say about it.)

Speaking of digging out the foundations, Heidegger challenged the usual notion of truth as “correspondence” between ideas and things, along with the concomitant notion that ideas are true or false. (Alarm bells begin to ring; this is a classic self-defeating view. But wait…) Instead, he proposes the notion of truth as “unconcealing”, in which beings are revealed to us in one or another of their aspects, and to varying degrees, at different times and in different contexts. On this view, truth is not saying or thinking the right things about objects, but a process or experience of disclosure or revelation. Our proper attitude is one of reception and attention, rather than judgement. We open ourselves to being, rather than imposing a conceptual framework upon it. Crucially, this is not actually a contradiction of the “correspondence” idea of truth, but rather a preamble to it, conceptually and experientially prior, for unless beings first disclose themselves to us, in the play of light and shadow of unconcealing, in the “field of relatedness”, we cannot know them at all, much less formulate true or false propositions concerning them. On the other hand, this notion of “unconcealing” is not one that we can test empirically to see if it is right, for this would put the cart before the horse, trying to slip the correspondence theory of truth into a crack where it cannot fit. Unconcealing can only be experienced, not verified.

As these reflections suggest, implicit in Heidegger’s view of being is a critique of technology — not of any particular technology, but of the technological mindset. For the tendency of the technological approach to the world, informed as it is by the long tradition of empiricist and rationalist philosophies of nature, is to obliterate the awareness of the truth of being as Heidegger conceives it. It is to approach things in a spirit of domination, rather than devotion. It is to demand, rather than to wait upon. It is an exercise of power, rather than contemplation. For Heidegger, technology leads us away from being toward oblivion. Therefore by advocating the view of being and truth that he does, he lays down a profound challenge to the whole modern project, more or less root and branch, which was explicitly founded on the principle that “knowledge is power”.

But there is one kind of “technology”, one way of “making”, that does not, or at least need not, fall prey to the danger of forgetting or obscuring being, and that is art. On the contrary, art has the power to reveal being with an unusual power insofar as it is attentive to being, “conferring brightness on the light itself”. This view of art seems to me to plumb deeply, a depth made all the more evident by contrasting it with the view of art which emerges most naturally from, say, an empirical, materialist worldview, in which it is extremely difficult to make any sense of art, or even of a particular work of art as a coherent unity, and of the experience of art as anything other than a peculiar neural epiphenomenon. And this suggests a paradox: namely, that a philosophical project founded on the priority of objective reality and public knowledge finally fails to deliver a world that makes sense, whereas a philosophy deeply grounded in the subjective experience of the world turns out to have further reach and richer resources.

**

Another aspect of Heidegger’s commitment to doing philosophy “in the first person,” as it were, giving subjectivity its full weight, is that he discusses matters that I associate with Kierkegaard and his existentialist offspring — matters of personal import about the interior life and relationships with others and with society. For instance, Heidegger has a good deal to say about the experience of being temporal. We are temporal creatures, living our lives in one direction, with our births and our society’s history behind us, and our future decisions and, at some point, deaths ahead of us. We have a certain amount of freedom to shape our own lives, but this freedom is hedged about by factors we cannot control. Our finding ourselves in this situation he calls “thrown-ness”: we are thrown into the world, confronted with forces and facts beyond our control. Yet we look forward, planning, preparing; this he calls “projection,” a kind of mapping out of the possibilities of our lives, including, eventually, death and the end of such possibilities. As I mentioned already, Heidegger is not greatly impressed by the old idea that the past and future do not exist, and that the present, which does exist, is but fleeting and ephemeral. For him, the past and the future are present, in experience, and both greatly enrich and influence that experience.

Yet the present retains a special status, for even if we remember or contend with the past and anticipate the future, each day we live now, today, and now is when the past and the future mingle. Heidegger identifies a temptation that arises in living out the present moment which he calls “fallen-ness”: a temptation to fall away from oneself and into society. A person who lives in this fallen state is one who lives, as it were, by proxy, taking their cues from those around them and “going with the flow”. It manifests itself in idle talk (such as one finds on weblogs like this one, for instance), curiosity, and something translated here as “ambiguity,” by which he seems to mean something like a falling away from deep understanding to surface chatter. Living in fallen-ness is the default state for most people most of the time, he says. But living in fallen-ness obscures Being; instead, one is immersed in and preoccupied with superficialities, alienated from true understanding, care, and moral responsibility — from what he calls “authenticity”.

Now, this language of “authenticity” has been so abused to justify a willfulness that is itself a flight from true understanding, care, and moral responsibility that we might justly groan when we hear it, but I do think that there is a hard kernel of wisdom here which no army of adolescents (of whatever age) can efface. There is an important difference, known to anyone who has tried it, between just going along with society, on one hand, and trying to live with integrity out of one’s commitments to truth and goodness, on the other. Where does society rub up against you?

**

Speaking of going along with society, Heidegger was a Nazi. He joined the Party in the 1930s, and remained in Germany during the war. Perhaps on analogy with Diogenes of Sinope and his bathtub (and perhaps not) some of his writings seem to try to integrate the aims of National Socialism into his philosophy. Most damningly, despite having lived until 1976, he never publicly disavowed his association with Nazism or condemned Hitler. This personal history has complicated Heidegger’s position in philosophical and cultural circles, to say the least. Was he a true Nazi or not? If he was, to what extent does this undermine or invalidate his philosophy? These are matters of controversy. The two books which have occasioned these notes take different positions: Michael Inwood argues that Heidegger’s philosophical eminence is not seriously impaired by his regrettable political life; Jeff Collins adopts a more ambiguous position.

**

These two books, by the way, which I turned to because I do not have leisure to read Being and Time itself, and also because I am afraid of it, served me quite well — insofar as I can judge of the matter. Both give overviews of Heidegger’s life, the currents of thought that influenced him, his main interests and ideas, and his influence on other philosophers. The volume by Collins is part of a series (“Introducing …”), and it reads more like a graphic novel than a regular non-fiction book: each page contains illustrations (by Howard Selina) with a paragraph or two of text. (Illustrating a book on Heidegger involves drawing quite a few pictures of a man sitting, looking thoughtful.) The book by Inwood is also part of a series (the Very Short Introductions), and it reads more or less in the usual way. Of the two, I much preferred the former. Not only was it shorter, but I found it significantly clearer, and it spent more time on topics of greater interest to me, such as Heidegger’s philosophy of being.

**

It was St Augustine who said that he wrote in order to find out what he thought, and this has been my experience while writing these notes. When I began, I was confused by these books and thought I’d write a cursory paragraph of two in vague summation. But as I wrote I began to see more clearly, enough at least to write what I have written, and I finish these notes in considerably better spirits than when I began. Naturally my understanding is still rudimentary, but I do feel that I’ve emerged from this exercise clutching more than just a handful of dust.

Moser: Most Ancient of All Splendours

June 13, 2016

Most Ancient of All Splendoursmoser-ancient
Johann Moser
(Sophia, 1989)
94 p.

I do not read a great deal of poetry, not as much as I should, certainly, and, having never shed my preferences for strict metrical and rhyme schemes, I read very little contemporary poetry. In theory, therefore, I shouldn’t have read Johann Moser’s collection of poems, and, having read it, I shouldn’t have liked it, but I did read it, and I did like it, and sometimes the world is a surprising place.

These poems reveal a poet steeped in history, with wide interests and sympathies. There are poems about Alexander the Great, about the great medieval monastery of St Gall, about Mozart, about Venice, about Gilgamesh, about Galileo, about World War II, about Erasmus, about Solzhenitsyn. There are poems based on musical forms — the caccia, the barcarolle, the berceuse — and there are poems of lament and poems of praise.

There are no poems of rhyme.

Moser is obviously a man of wide education, and an educated reader will be better positioned to understand and appreciate the poems, but they are far from dryly intellectual. On the contrary, a notable qualities of many of these poems is their sensual tangibility, the way they conjure up sights and scents, so that the reader feels present in the past:

Over studded mountains,
\, High-timbered slopes of the Absaroka,
Hear:
\,  Storms of summer, swarthy-throated,
\,  \,  thundering down the valleys.
Hayfields buckle,
\,  Dust whirls on sagebrush hills,
Lightning brindles blackened skies.
And rain:
\,  Rain over grassy tablelands and wooded hollows,
Over white-bouldered rivers
\,  and bottomlands of cottenwood and aspen;
Slender sheaves of rain —
\,  Purple, gold, across the wilderness,
Trailing to bronze-rimmed prairies eastward.
And now,
\,  The glittering pinnacles of cloud and sun;
Glad arroyos splash,
\,  \,  dazzle amid canyons.
Sunlight showers
\,  through tender-dripping forests
And wet bark of giant spruce,
\,  \,  \,  \,  ponderosa —
\,  Fragrant in the valley winds.
Among clusters of gooseberry leaves,
\,  A black bear shrugs his dusky hide;
A puma sniffs the clear, cool air.
And listen:
\,  Birds are singing in the mountains.

— “Wyoming Rain”

That’s a highly irregular meter to deal with, but it certainly reminds me of the rain storms I experienced as a child on the prairies; I can feel the wind and hear the rain as they sweep across the land.

Here is an excerpt from a more metrically regular (and in that respect also more characteristic) poem, about the Battle of Riade between the Franks and the Magyars:

Then, at Riade, we mustered our brave legions,
\,  Mounting high before us the lofty Whalebone Rood
and Holy Lance of Imperial Constantine.
\,  Over us, unsteady heavens of storm and sunlight;
Packed battalions sloshed in river shallows,
\,  Their kirtles soaked and steaming in the morning heat.
The thud, flash of weaponry; shouts, assaults,
\,  Trumpets honking like wild geese within the bracken,
Sword-hilts slippery with blood and rain
\,  As thick carnage clotted marshy rivulets and streams,
And mounted spearmen butted, wallowed in the mud.
\,  Finally, rearing our banners upwards, we invoked
Lord Saba-ôth, Hoarder of Sky’s Kingdom,
\,  From whose stout-thonged, strong-thewed gauntlet
Angelic Mika-El, fierce sparrow-hawk,
\,  Swooped downwards through thunder-driven clouds,
Bearer of Sun’s blazoned baldric,
\,  Golden-armored, Barb of the Sacred Tempest,
Felled before him the heathen host
\,  That fled to craggy tors, the dense holt and hinterland.

— from “Henry the Fowler”

If, like me, you’d not given much thought to the Battle of Riade, or even, like me, never heard of it before, perhaps you find, as I do, that the poem is nonetheless evocative and exciting. It is rare to find modern poetry that can summon religious imagery and language without losing for a moment its muscular power, but Moser does it here. Just as rare is a poet who both knows and loves the long cultural tradition we have inherited — or could inherit, with enough labour, attention, and love.

I see that this volume has been reviewed at The University Bookman by Thomas Molnar, and his review is better than what I have written here. I recommend you now go there.

MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin

June 5, 2016

The Princess and the Goblin
George MacDonald
(Everyman’s Children’s Classics, 1993) [1871]
340 p.

Our oldest children are now 4 and 7, and for some time I’ve been looking for a way to transition our bedtime reading from picture books to novels. With The Princess and the Goblin I think we might have finally managed it. The kids loved it.

The story is about a princess who lives in a mountainside castle, where the local peasantry are miners, digging tunnels deep into the mountain. Yet there is more activity under the hill than you might expect: long ago a group of disaffected subjects retreated under the mountain, and have nursed a hatred for the royal family for many generations. These goblins — for so they have become, hidden away from the sun and the fresh breezes — are also miners, and it is almost inevitable that at some point their tunnels will encounter those of the kinprincess-grandmotherg’s loyal subjects, and the ancient malice against the royal house break into the open…

This book was a favourite of C.S. Lewis, who was a great admirer of MacDonald. And G.K. Chesterton accounted it one of the books most formative of his whole outlook on life:

But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I ever read … it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald…

It really is a beautiful book, informed by courage and faith. On one level it is a rousing adventure story, of secret missions and clashing armies, but it has a mysterious register as well, a spiritual aura of goodness that emanates from Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother, who lives, under enigmatic conditions, in the little-frequented upper passages of the castle.

I do not know much about MacDonald’s theology, but for me the “great, huge grandmother” is redolent of the Blessed Virgin: a loving, maternal figure, clad in blue, surrounded by stars, and possessed of a rare grace and quiet power. She makes an effective contrast with the horrid goblins who dwell under the ground.

MacDonald wrote a sequel to this book, called The Princess and Curdie, which does not seem to be as widely read. But we enjoyed this one so much that we may try it.

Chesterton: What I Saw in America

May 29, 2016

In celebration of Chesterton’s 142nd birthday, here are some notes on one of his lesser-known books.

What I Saw In America
G.K. Chesterton
(Ignatius, 1990) [1921]
230 p.

This book was the fruit of a speaking tour of America which Chesterton undertook in 1921. He visited New York, Washington, and a few other cities, including a number of small towns, if I am not mistaken. Being a famous person on tour, his experience of America was a peculiar one, and he was the first to admit it. Yet the book contains a number of interesting observations about the differences between England and America, as he saw them, along with (of course!) interesting asides and diversions.

Two of Chesterton’s most beloved witticisms are to be found in this book. Upon being asked by a customs official (as visitors to the US are still asked) whether he intended to overthrow the government, he responded with good humour that “I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.” And later, upon reaching New York and being shown the neon lights of Broadway, he wrote:

I had looked, not without joy, at that long kaleidoscope of coloured lights arranged in large letters and sprawling trade-marks, advertising everything, from pork to pianos, through the agency of the two most vivid and most mystical of the gifts of God; colour and fire. I said to them, in my simplicity, “What a glorious garden of wonders this would be, to any one who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”

Even apart from these chestnuts, there is a good deal to like about the book. Chesterton is much interested in the differences between American and English national tempers, and between American and English ways of life. He remarks on the skyscrapers of New York with evident appreciation, and professes astonishment at seeing whole towns constructed from wood. He spends some time exploring the differences between British and American English, and he takes one chapter to critically examine Dickens’ portrait of American in Martin Chuzzlewit (which, to infer from what he wrote, was a kind of cultural touchstone for the English at the time vis-à-vis America).

It is evident that, in some respects, a great deal has changed in the century since Chesterton wrote. There are still many differences between the two nations, of course, but I think there is greater familiarity on each side. It is doubtful that a modern Englishman visiting America would be astounded at wood construction. But a modern visitor to New York might well encounter attitudes just like those Chesterton encountered:

I heard some New Yorkers refer to Philadelphia or Baltimore as ‘dead towns.’

You don’t say? He goes on to explain:

They mean by a dead town a town that has had the impudence not to die. Such people are astonished to find an ancient thing alive, just as they are now astonished, and will be increasingly astonished, to find Poland or the Papacy or the French nation still alive. And what I mean by Philadelphia and Baltimore being alive is precisely what these people mean by their being dead; it is continuity; it is the presence of the life first breathed into them and of the purpose of their being; it is the benediction of the founders of the colonies and the fathers of the republic. This tradition is truly to be called life; for life alone can link the past and the future. It merely means that as what was done yesterday makes some difference to-day, so what is done to-day will make some difference to-morrow. In New York it is difficult to feel that any day will make any difference. These moderns only die daily without power to rise from the dead…

Tradition does not mean a dead town; it does not mean that the living are dead but that the dead are alive.

That last bit is a good example of Chesterton’s aphoristic powers, not quite as powerful in What I Saw In America as a decade earlier, but still pretty potent. Numerous quotations from the book will eventually make their way to The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

Leithart: Shining Glory

May 20, 2016

Shining Glory
Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life
Peter J. Leithart
(Cascade, 2013)
88 p.

Because I like to do things in the wrong order, I bought this book after writing about The Tree of Life for the 52 Movies project. Perhaps it’s just as well; the temptation to discuss the book’s many insights would have made my review too long.

Leithart is a Biblical scholar, not a film critic, and he admits as much up front. He was so enchanted by Malick’s film, however, and so impressed by its theological weight, that he felt compelled to write about it. He recommends that readers see the film at least three times before taking up the book, and that sounds right to me.

If you haven’t seen the film at all, not only will Leithart’s book not be very meaningful to you, but this post might spoil things too. Not that it is the sort of film to suffer from spoilers, but some people are sensitive about such things…

tree-angel

The book covers many topics in its short compass. I was not surprised to see him writing about music, memory, and family as treated in the film, but he also treats several topics that I had not considered before, such as the way Malick uses water imagery, or the way he focuses on hands, or his use of doors and windows. For me the most valuable parts of the book were the discussion of the film’s overall structure, of the relationship between the film and the Book of Job, of the themes of nature and grace, of the role of evil in the film, and of that long, vexing final sequence on the beach.

The Tree of Life opens with a mysterious, flame-like image that fades in and then out, and the same image recurs at three other points in the film. The first divides that moving opening segment of the film set in the late 1960s from the Sean Penn segment set in the 2010s. The second occurs soon after, dividing the Sean Penn segment from the creation sequence, and the third occurs at the very end of the film. Leithart argues, quite rightly I think, that it is significant that the flame does not divide the creation sequence from the long section of the film set in the 1950s, suggesting that Malick intends them to be taken together, as related to one another, and this provides guidance as we try to interpret what the creation sequence is doing.

On this question Leithart proposes a few answers which were not new to me. He notes (what is my favoured interpretation) that the creation sequence could be taken as an echo of God’s “Where were you when I laid the foundations?” response to Job. (And Leithart notes that the film’s main (and only named) character is Jack O’Brien, whose name actually contains an echo of JOB’s name.) As in Job, God’s answer to Job’s questions is not a direct answer; God does not justify his ways to men; but it is an answer “on the slant”, asking the one who pleads to consider God’s power and providence. Or, by setting the ordinary drama of the O’Brien family against a cosmic backdrop, Malick might be raising another Biblical question: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” Yet the fact that the film itself is certainly mindful of the O’Briens makes us think about what the answer might be.

the-tree-of-life-jessica-chastain

Leithart has also helped me to appreciate much more clearly how well-structured the film is as a whole. On first viewing(s), The Tree of Life can seem like a disconnected collection of chunks: the bit in the 60s, the long bit in the 50s, the bit in modern times, the creation bit, the beach bit. But Malick has subtly tied these parts together. For instance, in the very first moments of the film, when we see the mysterious flame for the first time, what we hear are the sounds of water on a beach, an obvious anticipation of the film’s closing beach sequence (but not so obvious that I hadn’t missed it before). And, crucially, in the early Sean Penn sequence there is an insert shot of his younger brother, R.L., standing on that same beach, and he speaks the words, “Find me”. I might almost say that this brief shot, which lasts less than a second and which I had hardly noticed on previous viewings, is an interpretive key to the whole film, for it is this “Find me” that sets in motion the descent into memory and the wrestling with God and death that constitute most of the film and determine its course.

Indeed, R.L. (whose initials we know only from reading the credits) emerges from Leithart’s analysis as a key character. His birth is the first disturbance to the happiness of his older brother Jack, who begins to experience jealousy and feel temptations to violence. He is a graced character, following his mother’s lead much as Jack follows his father’s, and so permits Malick to set up the nature / grace contrasts in both generations of the family. And it is R.L.’s forgiveness of Jack’s cruelty which, late in the film, begins to heal the wounds that were threatening the family’s life together. It is in light of R.L.’s place in Jack’s life that I begin to discern the overall structure of the film and its meaning, for that initial “Find me” on the beach is finally answered in the long beach sequence in which Jack does find him. The beach sequence is not just a strange add-on, but a fulfillment and completion of what came before. (Watching the film again after reading this book, I was surprised to find, for the first time, that this beach sequence actually brought tears to my eyes.)

Most interesting was Leithart’s analysis of the elements of this beach sequence. He points out that it is actually divided into two parts: a ‘resurrection’ part, with imagery of candles, processions, and figures rising from coffins, and a ‘reunion/restoration’ part, taking place on the beach. The two are separated by a shot in which the adult Jack passes through a doorway erected in the desert. In a long footnote, he cites evidence that the ‘resurrection’ part was originally planned to be much more extensive, and that Malick spent a lot of time filming material for it. It gives me another reason to want to see that rumoured 6-hour director’s cut!

tree-resurrection

Most commentators on The Tree of Life highlight the themes of nature and grace, and Leithart is no exception. He argues that as used in the film they don’t map readily onto Christian theological understandings of either. In the film, ‘nature’ stands for domination, competition, and control, whereas ‘grace’ stands for receptivity, contemplation, and love. Nature could be taken as representing modernity, while grace presents us a vision of an earlier order, or later (the influence of Malick’s beloved Heidegger is probably felt most strongly here). Grace is attention to being, which cannot be controlled or managed. Indeed, it is Mrs O’Brien’s openness to grace that makes her so vulnerable to loss and evil. Leithart also reminds us that Malick is himself a famously “graced” filmmaker, often working without a script, using reams of film in the hopes that something special will be captured fortuitously.

The film closes with two odd images: one of a field of sunflowers, and the second of a bridge. The latter is hard to love, being just a rather pedestrian shot of a suspension bridge, but Leithart argues that it is itself a symbol of reunion, uniting what had been separated, and therefore echoing the action of the film, and I suppose that is fair enough. (Perhaps not incidentally, Heidegger pontificated (if I may) about bridges.) The field of sunflowers is richer; Leithart calls it “the perfect image of the way of grace”, for a sunflower is rooted in the ground, but follows the arc of the sun with its face. It is indeed a beautiful, and beautifully apt, image.

Tree-of-Life-sunflowers2

Langland: Piers Plowman

May 13, 2016

Piers Plowman
William Langland
Rendered into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson
(WW Norton, 1990) [c.1380]
288 p.

Over the years I’ve dabbled in medieval literature, enjoying Chaucer and Dante, Chretien de Troyes and Beowulf. Naturally, some works have been more challenging than others, and for a variety of reasons: themes, structure, language. Piers Plowman is as difficult as anything I’ve come across, and then some. I’m tempted to say that there is nothing simple about it.

The work is an allegorical drama in which the main character, Will, wanders through the world populated with a variety of characters — Conscience, Truth, Scripture, all seven of the Deadly Sins, Reason, and so forth — on a journey to discover Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best. The characters offer Will advice, upbraid him, and encourage him on his moral quest, rather like a medieval Pilgrim’s Progress. The story is complicated by a series of dream-visions, and even dreams-within-dreams, that add layers of interpretive difficulty to a book already beset with vexatious challenges.

The poem is written in alliterative verse, similar to that written by the Gawain poet. The author (identified, apparently rather tenuously but tenaciously, with William Langland) writes in a dialect of Middle English that is rather different from Chaucer’s more familiar dialect. Here is a passage from the Prologue to illustrate how it reads:

Pilgrymes and palmers · pliȝten hem togidere
To seke seynt Iames · and seyntes in rome
Thei went forth in here wey · with many wise tales
And hadden leue to lye · al here lyf after
I seigh somme that seiden · þei had ysouȝt seyntes
To eche a tale þat þei tolde · here tonge was tempred to lye
More þan to sey soth · it semed bi here speche
Heremites on an heep · with hoked staues
Wenten to walsyngham · and here wenches after
Grete lobyes and longe · that loth were to swynke
Clotheden hem in copis · to ben knowen fram othere
And shopen hem heremites · here ese to haue

It’s not impenetrable, but there are enough unfamiliar words — “pliȝten”, “ysouȝt”, “lobyes”, “swynke” — that progress is slow. I was grateful, therefore, for E. Talbot Donaldson’s translation, which tries to preserve the alliterative verse but updates the language for modern readers. Donaldson is a respected medievalist who has also produced an edition of Beowulf and published a book on Chaucer. His rendering of the passage above reads this way:

Pilgrims and palmers · made pacts with each other
To seek out Saint James · and saints in Rome.
They went on their way · with many wise stories,
And had leave to lie · all their lives after.
I saw some that said · they’d sought after saints:
In every tale they told · their tongues were tuned to lie
More than to tell the truth — such talk was theirs.
A heap of hermits · with hooked staffs
Went off to Walsingham · with their wenches behind them.
Great long lubbers · that don’t like to work
Dressed up in cleric’s dress · to look different from other men
And behaved as they were hermits · to have an easy life.

It’s wordier (as modern English usually is in comparison to Old or Middle), but certainly much easier to follow.

Langland’s style in Piers Plowman is quite unusual. Though this might seem a wild comparison, as I read I kept thinking of Dostoyevsky, not for his interests or his genre (naturally) but just for that unhinged quality, as though the characters are a little wild-eyed, prone to do or say anything. Langland jumps from one thing to the next. He salts his poem liberally with Latin phrases, fragments of Scripture, and quotations from antiquity. He is going somewhere, but unsteadily, with numerous rapid detours. The language is thorny and angular.

I haven’t said anything yet about Piers Plowman, the title character. Will meets him at several points in the poem, always, I believe, in a dream. At various points Will meets him riding into Jerusalem, or in the guise of the Good Samaritan, or offering a pardon for sins. Will speculates that he is Christ in disguise, and, given his characteristics, this seems reasonable to me.

Commentators on Piers Plowman stress its moral seriousness and its satiric edge. Of the former there is ample evidence, for the poem contains many scathing criticisms of Church and society in his day, but of the latter I confess I was able to detect but little. Satire is a tonal matter much of the time, and that’s hard to convey in a translation and hard to detect in an unfamiliar dialect.

In the end, I am pleased to have read the poem, though I confess I did not greatly enjoy it. It is one of those hurdles that anyone wanting an education in medieval literature will have to clear, and it feels good to have cleared it (more or less!), but, unlike Chaucer or Dante or the Gawain poet, I doubt I’ll return to it for pleasure.

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.

***

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.

**************************************
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)

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