Archive for the 'Books' Category

Petronius: Satyricon

October 19, 2021

Satyricon
Petronius
Translated from the Latin by William Arrowsmith
(Univ Michigan, 1960) [c.60 AD]
225 p.

The Satyricon of Petronius has a singular place in the Roman literature that survives to our time; its nearest rival would be Apelluis’ The Golden Ass, written a few generations later, which still does not manage to out-Petronius Petronius. The Satyricon is an anti-epic — a huge, sprawling, shapeless, irreverent, disgusting mess of a book that nonetheless manages to cast a different, and therefore, in its own way, valuable kind of light on Roman life in the first century.

The story, such as it is, concerns the antics of Encolpius and a few companions who wander from misadventure to misadventure in search of food and sex — both in a profuse variety limited only by the imagination of the author. The joke on Encolpius — whose name means something like “crotch” — and the running joke through the entire work, is that he is impotent. No matter what shenanigans he gets into it, no matter how careful the plotting or how tantalizing the young boy, he’s left tending naught but a wilted lettuce. Ha ha. There you have the Satyricon in brief compass.

Many readers have found in the work an attractive free spiritedness, a liveliness of invention, a fascinating window into first-century Roman sexual mores and the lives of the lower classes, a refreshing buffoonery and light-heartedness, and a diverting satirical tone that clears away the formality of the Roman poets who otherwise dominate the literature. There is something to be said for the Satyricon on these grounds.

The work, as we have it, is fragmentary. In fact, it might be better to say that we have only fragments of the work. Though it runs to a couple of hundred pages in a modern edition, I am told that scholars speculate that we might have only about one-tenth of the original whole. Weeping is not warranted, however; we have enough. A little pederasty goes a long way, and my appetite, at least, for peppered dildos shoved where the sun don’t shine is easily satisfied by the merest morsel.

If asked to speculate, I’d have guessed that the author was a ne’r-do-well from the provinces who tried to make a name for himself by scandalizing the reading public. But in fact Petronius was a notable Roman, a governor and even a consul, who held an honoured place in Nero’s court. The Satyricon, it seems, was just what passed for keen entertainment in Nero’s company. The most intriguing reading of the Satyricon I’ve yet come across holds that its anti-hero, Encolpius, may have been a subtle satire on Nero himself; if true, it would do much to redeem the nearly unfathomable scurrility of the work.

The book has been a black sheep for most of the interval between its writing and today. It made a comeback in the late nineteenth century when the Decadent movement took up its standard: J.K. Huysmans in France championed it, especially in his novel À rebours, and in the English-speaking world it made its first big splash in a pseudonymous translation by Oscar Wilde. One can surmise what attracted these writers to the book. It is worth noting, I think, that both these authors later converted to Catholicism. If enthusiasm for the Satyricon is a stepping stone in that direction, it gives us another, perhaps surprising, opportunity to affirm that nothing in this vale of tears is wholly bad.

Beaumont: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

October 5, 2021

The Knight of the Burning Pestle
Francis Beaumont
(Methuen, 2002) [c.1607]
224 p.

Chivalric romance is the genre of The Knight of the Burning Pestle — or, better, chivalric romance is the target, for this play is a good-natured satire on the genre. For modern readers it is bound to remind us of Don Quixote, and perhaps with very good reason: the first part of that great work was published in 1605, and (I am told) Beaumont was an adept in the Spanish tongue. Although I gather that some controversy swirls around the question, I think it plausible that the play was inspired by Cervantes.

But it is more than just a quixotic satire: it’s a fun meta-play too that experiments with the conventions of play-going. The Don Quixote character, Rafe, isn’t even part of the play that the other actors have come to perform — that play, called “The London Merchant”, is a romance about a young couple planning to elope. But early in the play a boorish grocer and his wife, in the audience, clamber on stage, interrupting the show and asking if their young apprentice, Rafe, can join the play. He, dubbing himself a ‘Grocer-Errant’, likes the idea and wrangles two friends into being his squire and dwarf — indispensable accoutrements for any chivalric knight:

My beloved Squire, and George my Dwarfe, I charge you that from henceforth you never call me by any other name, but the Right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle, and that you never call any Female by the name of a Woman or Wench, but fair Lady, if she have her desires; if not, distressed Damsel; that you call all Forrests and Heaths, Desarts, and all Horses Palfries. (1.1)

And so, for the remainder of the play, Rafe, as the valiant Knight, embarks on a variety of adventures to rescue ladies in peril, adventures which periodically bring him back to the playhouse, where he interrupts the action of the play the other actors are trying to perform. It’s a nice re-imagining of Don Quixote’s delusional tendencies for the play-house.

I will admit that the convention of having on-stage characters comment on the action of another play, as happens, on a lesser scale, in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is one that I grudgingly accept rather than appreciate, and here too I found the stream of commentary from the grocer and his wife kind of annoying. But I didn’t feel the same about poor Rafe, whose commitment to his role, and success in assuming it, was sufficiently gallant and sincere as to exclude criticism:

Ralph. My trusty Dwarf and friend, reach me my shield,
And hold it while I swear, first by my Knighthood,
Then by the soul of Amadis de Gaule,
My famous Ancestor, then by my Sword,
The beauteous Brionella girt about me,
By this bright burning Pestle of mine honor,
The living Trophie, and by all respect
Due to distressed Damsels, here I vow
Never to end the quest of this fair Lady,
And that forsaken Squire, till by my valour
I gain their liberty. (2.1)

*

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a play unlike any other that I’ve encountered in this reading project, and I’m pleased to have read it. It would be fun to see staged (and it has been occasionally revived).

Wodehouse: Cocktail Time

September 14, 2021

Cocktail Time
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2004) [1958]
244 p.

It all began with a Brazil nut aimed squarely at a top-hat at the Drones Club. In time the repercussions of this mischievous incident unfolded themselves and covered the earth, or at least that portion of it in and around the sprawling estate of Dovetail Hammer: books were written; authorship was disavowed, sold, and reclaimed; scandals erupted; imitation walnut cabinets became hot commodities; unsuspecting nephews were biffed on nappers with coshes; butlers locked their employers into cellars; and the world, to sum up, spun madly out of control.

Into this melee comes Lord Ickenham, aka Uncle Fred, who sets to work to bring order from chaos, sweetness and light from confusion and consternation, and harmony from discord — though not without causing a few problems of his own in the process. Wodehouse is in fine fettle once again, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. This is one of the few Uncle Fred books not intersecting with the Blandings Castle series, so we have an entirely new set of characters to get to know. Delightful.

Statius: Thebaid

August 22, 2021

Thebaid
Statius
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1992) [c.90 AD]
lv + 371 p.

You will recall that in the later stages of the ascent of Mount Purgatory, Dante and Virgil are joined by a third traveller, the poet Statius, who accompanies Dante as far as the terrestrial paradise, remaining even after Virgil has made his farewell. “Who is this Statius?” you might well ask. And I can answer: He was the screenwriter of Seven Samurai. Or rather — pardon me — he was the author of the Thebaid, an epic poem completed in Rome toward the end of the first century AD.

***

The strife of brothers and alternate reigns
Fought for in impious hatred and the guilt
Of tragic Thebes, these themes the Muses’ fire
Has kindled in my heart.
(I, l.1-4)

His poem takes us back to the early days of Greece, before the Trojan War, to a conflict between two brothers that arose in the city of Thebes. When their father, Oedipus, stepped down from the throne, Polynices and Eteocles were to share governance of the city, and they, under guidance of the gods, settled on a scheme of alternating years in power, a scheme that immediately led to strife, for Eteocles, enjoying his first year in power, refused to relinquish the throne to his brother at the appointed time.

Polynices, therefore, sent into exile, travelled around cultivating allies and building an army to help recover the throne of Thebes. He found assistance especially in the city of Argos, where he pieced together a force led by — you guessed it — seven able commanders, each with his own distinctive character: there was Tydeus, a small but immensely strong warrior prince prone to outbursts of uncontrolled wrath and capable of slaying dozens of enemy soldiers; there was Hippomedon, a valiant horseman; and Parthenopaeus, a talented but young and inexperienced archer; he recruited also Amphiaraus, a seer who provided both divine counsel and military prowess on the battlefield; there was Capanaeus, a boisterous atheist who shouted insults at the gods and killed Thebans with joyous abandon; in the background there was Adrastus, the king of Argos, who provided leadership; and, finally, of course, there was Polynices himself, the man for whom the whole pot was boiling.

**

And so, as I said, Statius really did write the screenplay for Seven Samurai — and, by extension, for Ocean’s 11, and The Avengers, and all those movies in which a cast of characters is assembled to accomplish a great feat together. Although I suppose that he himself might well have been looking backward, to Jason and the Argonauts perhaps.

Except that Statius’ vision is bleaker than just about any of his imitators, for when, in the second half of his poem, his seven great men begin their great work, they meet with defeat on defeat. A seer, foretelling the disaster to come, puts it in avian terms:

One, soaring high,
The sun’s quick blaze ignites and his high heart
Is humbled; one, attempting to keep pace
With stronger birds, his frail young wings let sink;
One falls locked in his foe’s embrace; one flees
In whirling flight and leaves his friends to fate;
One dies swathed in a rain-storm; one in death
Devours his living foe. A spray of blood
Spatters the hollow clouds. Why hide your tears?
(Book III)

One by one they fall, bloodied and beaten, until none but Polynices remains, all his efforts turned to ash. And then, in the poem’s climax, the two brothers meet on the field of battle, with predictably tragic consequences for both.

*

An interesting aspect of the poem is its attitude to the gods. As I’ve already mentioned, one of the central characters, and one of the most colourful and likeable, is a militant atheist, brash and belligerent. The poem seems to be very much on his side, treating his atheism with bemused toleration — until his death scene, which is marvellous. As Capaneus scales the walls of Thebes he is struck down — literally struck down — by a bolt of lightning hurled by Jupiter. Take that. It’s a wonderfully wry, bleakly comic moment.

Statius granted the gods a victory in that case, albeit a somewhat cheap one, but the poem as a whole seems to adopt a sceptical, and even critical, stance toward divine powers. The gods intervene in the action throughout the poem — this is normal for epic poetry — but more often than not their actions lead to disaster, either by malice or incompetence or insensibility to the sufferings of humanity. The two brothers, for instance, are ready in the beginning to share the throne of Thebes peaceably; it is Jupiter who incites jealousy between them, spurred by a grudge he nurses against their father Oedipus. Later, after Polynices sends a peace embassy to his brother, which is rebuffed (and then some), it is again Jupiter who commissions Mars to incite a lust for war in the people, so that the conflict between the two brothers will catch fire and grow into a conflagration. There is a dark vision being drawn for us, in which the troubled affairs of men are stoked by the will of the gods. It is a kind of reverse Providence.

*

Another very striking feature of the poem is its wary stance toward warfare itself. Epic poetry, in the tradition, is war poetry: the Trojan War, Odysseus’ bloody triumph, Aeneas sinking his sword hilt-deep in the chest of Turnus — and the high points of the poems of Statius’ forebears are the victories of the heroes over their adversaries. I think that’s a fair reading of the tradition, although I would not go so far as to say that there is no nuance in the attitudes of Homer and Virgil to war.

I’ve already said that in Statius’ poem there is no final military triumph. There are partial victories here and there, yes. In one of the early books Tydeus is ambushed by a group of 50 Theban assassins, and he kills them all. This is Marvel movie material, and Tydeus himself, certainly, conveys no nuances about the tragedy of violence in his angry tirade over the bodies of his adversaries. In the same vein, each of the seven united against Thebes sports some kind of military prowess, and there are plenty of passages in which spears are thrown, bodies are pierced, horses fall, arrows fly, and bodies are mutilated.

Far spread the field, a hideous expanse
Of boundless blood; abandoned there lay arms
And steeds, once proudly mounted, mangled limbs
And corpses unregarded and unpyred.
(Book X)

But, even so, Statius strikes a markedly different note from the tradition in which he is working. I was surprised at the way in which he includes in his account of the battles their effects on non-combatants. In the early going, for instance, in the aftermath of Tydeus’ heroics against the massed assassins, we are given a remarkably moving passage in which the women and elderly citizens of Thebes come to the battlefield to recover the bodies of the fallen. It goes, in part, like this:

Now from the city wives death-pale and children
And ailing parents poured by broad highways
Or pathless wastes in piteous rivalry,
All rushing to their tears, and thousands more
For solace’ sake throng too, and some were hot
To see that one man’s deeds, that night’s travails.
The road was loud with wailing and the fields
Re-echoed cries of grief. Yet when they reached
Those infamous rocks, that ghastly wood, as though
None had bewailed before, no storm of tears
Had streamed, as from a single throat there rose
A cry of utter anguish. When they saw
The bloody carnage, frenzy fired them all.
Grief, flaming fierce, with bloody raiment rent,
Stands there and beats his breast and leads along
The wives and mothers. Helmets on cold heads
They scrutinize and point to bodies found,
And over friends and strangers lean alike.
Some steep their hair in blood and some seal eyes;
Deep wounds are washed in tears, a hand withdraws
A spear, vain mercy; gently, severed arms
Are set in place and heads rejoined to necks.
(Book III)

This is both tragic and humane. “Helmets on cold heads.” And there is, later in the poem, a stirring section in which the poet describes the panic that grips the civilians of Thebes as the armies of Polynices approach the city:

The scene within was ghastly. Mars himself
Would scarce enjoy the sight. Fury and Grief
And Dread and Flight, swathed in blind darkness, rent,
With discord many-voiced, the maddened city,
Reeling in frantic horror. War, it seemed,
Had entered. Back and forth they seethed around
The citadel and clamour blocked the streets,
As everywhere they imagined fire and sword,
Imagined themselves clamped in cruel chains.
Fear feels the future now: temples and homes
Are thronged and their ungrateful altars ringed
With lamentation. Young and old alike
Were seized by the same terror. Age cried out
For death; youth burned and blanched by turns; the shrieks
Of wailing women shook the echoing halls,
And children sobbed and knew not why they sobbed,
Only afraid because their mothers wept.
(Book X)

It is a scene that must have been repeated many thousands of times in history, and he evokes the sense of panic and futility powerfully. Statius, it seems to me, is a poet who sees the human cost of war, and even though he is working with mythological material and within a tradition that celebrates, at some level, violence and victory, he finds a way to show us suffering human hearts, and in such a way that, for me at least, it was those hearts that remained in my mind when the dust settled.

*

And so, sitting here, in the settled dust, I circle around once again to the question that partly motivated my picking up the Thebaid in the first place: why did Dante give Statius such an honoured place in his poem? Unlike the case of Virgil, whose sixth book was an obvious influence on the Inferno, I can see no particular thematic or dramatic connection between the Thebaid and The Divine Comedy. Dante idolized Rome, and Virgil, as the great poet of Rome and her history, was naturally precious to him, but he had no, so far as I know, comparable attachment to Thebes.

The truth is that I don’t know the answer to my question. It may have been simply that Dante greatly admired Statius’ poetry, and why not? True, I found the poem sagged at points — there are fully two books given over to a subplot that appears to go nowhere in particular, and numerous briefer passages, particularly those reporting the minutiae of battlefield encounters, in which my attention nodded — but, then again, I do not read Latin with anywhere near sufficient competence to appreciate its literary merits, and so whatever such merits Statius possesses are lost on me, as they were not lost on Dante. So maybe that’s it, or maybe not, but I am happy to have read the Thebaid in any case: a little-known bridge between Virgil and his medieval admirers, a fascinating and instructive window into Roman attitudes to warfare in the first century, and a cracking good tale too. Somebody should make a movie.

[Night]
Now in the vault of heaven, when the sun
Had given his service, rose the queenly moon,
Borne through a silent world on dewy wheels,
The soft air limpid in her cooling balm.
Now beasts and birds are silent, slumber steals
O’er greed and grief and, nodding from the day,
Brings sweet oblivion to lives of toil.
(Book I)

[Aphorism]
To faint hearts nothing’s false.
(Book VII)

Plays, briefly noted

August 7, 2021

A few quick notes today on several plays I’ve read as part of a survey of early-ish modern drama.

***

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Robert Greene
(Ernest Benn, 1969) [c.1590]
xxxvi + 95 p.

An early example of a romantic comedy for the English stage, Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is an entertaining play that would be fun to see staged. I was surprised to discover that a significant group of the characters are based on real historical figures — King Henry III and his son, the future Edward I, and Elinor of Castile; I didn’t expect to encounter such a precise historical setting in a comedy, although, on reflection, I suppose there is no good reason that it should not be done. Even the titular Friar Bacon, although the connection is not explicitly made, is thought to have been based on the Oxford master Roger Bacon.

The play is notable for its double-plot, which was to become a staple of Shakespeare’s comedies, but which had been previously rare. In one, Prince Edward, intended in marriage to Elinor, falls in love with a fresh-faced peasant girl, the Fair Maid of Fressingfield, but a love quadrangle arises when an Earl also falls for her. In another plot, Friar Bacon uses magical arts to assist various characters to achieve their particular ends: he teleports them, allows them to see events far removed (using something like a palantír), and conjures devils. This portrait of Bacon was among the most intriguing aspects of the play; C.S. Lewis often remarked on the close relationship of magic and science in the early modern period, and this play is a good exhibit of the tendency. Bacon is the university scholar and experimentalist par excellence, and within the play that essentially means that he is a master of dark arts.

Friar Bungay is a secondary character whom, one suspects, was vaulted into the play’s title primarily for alliterative effect. The play is written mostly in blank verse — one character speaks in rhyme to good comedic effect — but to my ear the verse is not particularly distinguished.

***

The White Devil
John Webster
(Oxford, 1996) [1612]
102 p.

I enjoyed Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi so much that I was greatly looking forward to reading this play, written just a couple of years earlier. Its Roman setting, its plot driven by high church intrigue among the Medicis, and its good press had me expecting another success.

Alas. Alas for me, no doubt. I had enormous difficulties following the story, could not seem to remember how characters were related to one another, failed to grasp why characters killed other characters, and arrived at the last page without having marked a single passage as being of special interest. If pressed, I am not sure I could say what the white devil happened. I am ready to heap the blame on my own head, for it is undeniably true that I have been reading under inauspicious circumstances (ie. tending to sudden, though inadequately prolonged, bouts of unconsciousness). It’s probably a fine play; you should read it and tell me about it.

***

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1613]
52 p.

The title, as I understand it, is as much to say, “A snowball in hell”. We have here a riotous comedy of London life in which the social classes are caught up in a melee of adultery and procreation. We learn, along the way — although one hates for superficial prejudices to be confirmed — never to trust a man surnamed “Whorehound”.

There actually is a chaste maid, just as there is, they say, a slender chance of a Hadesian snowball. She wants to marry a fine young man who loves her truly, but is under pressure to accept the proposal of the aforementioned Whorehound. Under such circumstances, there’s but one thing to be done: run away! And, failing that, the play indulges in a rather sweet, Much Ado About Nothing-style feigned death to bring everyone to their senses.

My favourite character was the elder brother of the fine young man, a married man who, in desperation, plans to separate from his wife to avoid impregnating her again:

But as thou sayst, we must give way to need
And live awhile asunder, our desires
Are both too fruitful for our barren fortunes.
How adverse runs the destiny of some creatures–
Some only can get riches and no children,
We only can get children and no riches;
Then ’tis the prudent’st part to check our wills,
And till our state rise, make our bloods lie still.
Life, every year a child, and some years two,
Besides drinkings abroad, that’s never reckoned;
This gear will not hold out.

I can relate. Mind you, he goes on to offer his impregnation services to whomever wishes to take advantage of them, a course to which, though my virtue be but little, I cannot relate.

Anyway, it’s a fun play, stuffed with double entendres and outlandish characters, and it all wraps up splendidly.

Beard: SPQR

August 1, 2021

SPQR
A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard
(Profile, 2015)
600 p.

A feature of my ongoing Roman reading project has been that I read primary sources only: ancient Roman history as told by the ancient Romans. But this strategy, sensible as it is, does have one drawback: the ancient Romans didn’t always fill out the context adequately for readers twenty centuries removed from them. So, as a concession to such shortsightedness, I decided to choose one good, modern history to give me a high-level overview and background, and I chose this fat volume by Mary Beard.

I think I chose reasonably well. She covers roughly the first millennium of Rome’s history: from the city’s beginnings down to about 200 AD, when the city ruled a far-flung empire, hitting the main historical highlights, and providing interesting context from archaeological evidence.

She relates the development of Roman law, from its rudimentary beginnings in the Twelve Tables; she discusses the strategies the Romans used as they expanded to bring new peoples under their political control (they focused on establishing dominion over “people, not places”, and never did really gain strong territorial control over the periphery of the empire); she describes the shape of the Roman political system, which, in the offices of consul, senator, and tribune combined elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, respectively; and of course she talks about the transition from republican Rome to imperial Rome, and the personalities of the most famous, and infamous, emperors. (She makes a modest attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Caligula, on the plausible but weak grounds that he probably wasn’t quite so black as he was painted.)

The archeological evidence she brings to bear I found quite interesting, on account of its being new to me. She claims, for instance, that the famous burning of Rome by the Gauls in about 390 BC, which Livy relates, is not well supported by evidence. Archeology also reveals much to us about the living conditions in the city over time. I was interested to learn that in Roman “high-rises” (of a few floors) it was, opposite to today, the poorest people who lived on the top floors on account of their being at greater risk in case of fire. And physical evidence, in statuary and inscriptions, also survives that gives us insight into what “being Roman” meant as one went further and further from the city.

Later chapters, expanding on this theme, delve into what she calls “Rome outside Rome”: what was it like, and what did it mean, to be “Roman” to the people — the great majority — who did not live in and around the city? The Romans made modest demands on those whom they brought into their empire: pay taxes, honour the emperor and the Roman gods, but retain your local customs, language, and religion. We can imagine that to those in the far-flung corners of the empire, “being Roman” might have been little more than a formality.

But there were some for whom even the modest Roman demands were too much. The Jews, of course, refused to honour the Roman gods and famously refused to admit a representation of the emperor into the Temple in Jerusalem. The Romans seem, for the most part, to have treated this intransigence with bemused toleration, at least until there was outright revolt in the late 60s AD, which occasioned a siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70.

Christians, likewise, were a problem for the Romans, for not only did they inherit from the Jews a fierce rejection of Roman religion, but they were not confined to a particular ethnic tradition: they spread, and converted people as they went. At first, of course, they were little more than a curiosity, but popular animus developed, so much so that Nero thought it a winning strategy to blame the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. Beard reminds us that the persecution of early Christians was sporadic and on a modest scale, for the most part; this may be true, but it was nonetheless formative for the fledgling faith. A litany of those killed in Rome is still part of the prayers at every Mass throughout the world.

These difficulties notwithstanding, the success of Rome, Beard argues, is in no small part due to the modest demands they placed on those whom they conquered. There were distinctions, of course, between slaves, and free men, and citizens, but these distinctions very gradually declined in importance. Her history ends, in fact, with Caracalla’s decision to grant citizenship to every person in the empire — the apotheosis of Roman expansion, as it were. Naturally the story continues — all histories do — but this seems a fitting way to conclude her account of how a great thing called Rome arose from humble beginnings.

Wodehouse: Service with a Smile

July 16, 2021

Service with a Smile
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2010) [1961]
256 p.

Every visit to Blandings Castle is a delight, but this is especially so when the Earl of Ickenham, known to his relations simply as Uncle Fred, is in the party. As usual, the extensive grounds of Blandings are fertile soil for young, tenacious romance, on the one hand, and pig purloining, on the other.

Difficulty and confusion are the order of the day. Poor Lord Emsworth is plagued by the stern attentions of his new secretary, Lavender Briggs; poor Bill Bailey finds his efforts to elope with an heiress millionaire thwarted by miscommunication; poor Lord Tilbury, magnate though he is, cannot find happiness until he possesses a pig capable, at least, of winning the silver medal at the Shropshire Agricultural Show; and poor Archie Gilpin has the misfortune to be engaged to two girls at once.

Into the fray, dauntless as always, ventures Uncle Fred, whose genial genius for hatching plots, setting traps, and lying through his teeth eventually, after much hilarity, brings about a happy resolution for all. But then we already knew that would happen.

Wodehouse is in good form. The Blandings novels are constructed from familiar elements — you would think that the Empress of Blandings would have a full-time security detail by now — but the light-hearted lack of stakes is part of the appeal of these effervescent performances. Wodehouse is a craftsman whose elegant creations are meant to charm the ear and delight the intellect, rather than wring the heart. Carefully constructed, yet unassuming, they are a literary equivalent of a Mozart divertimento or a particularly capering fugue by Bach. The only sadness, and it is a real one, is that this was the last of the novels about Uncle Fred, a character who was certainly, in my view, one of Wodehouse’s finest creations.

Taylor: Death Comes for the Deconstructionist

June 17, 2021

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist
Daniel Taylor
(Cascade, 2014)
198 p.

First the Archbishop, and now this.

It’s an odd sort of murder mystery that Daniel Taylor has written. There’s a dead body, for sure — that of Richard Pratt, a fast-talking literature professor who falls from a hotel balcony with a Moby Dick-themed letter opener in his chest — and there is a detective — Jon Mote, a laconic, psychologically unstable and unmotivated former graduate student in Pratt’s department who gets hired as a PI by the dead man’s wife when the police investigation goes cold — and a Watson character — Jon’s mentally disabled sister Judy, who tags along with him as he meanders from interview to interview — and a constellation of possible suspects, as there must be. So far, so good.

But what is odd is how it plays out. Our detective isn’t really that interested in solving the mystery; he goes about it in fits and starts, out of a sense of obligation more than anything. He takes a lot of breaks. (I was envious!) Most of the time he’s more preoccupied with his own psychological, and, perhaps, spiritual health than in figuring out whodunit. There’s more than a dash of noir in the novel’s tone, as Jon drops wry and self-depreciating remarks the way Sam Spade dropped cigarette butts. I generally prefer my murder mystery detectives to have some personality, but here it’s more that a personality happens to have a mystery. I liked that about it.

Given that the detective is a former graduate student, and the stiff is a professor, there’s a good deal of dark academy humour in the book, and to my mind this is the best thing about it. As a campus comedy, it works very well. Pratt is a deconstructionist, which means, effectively, that he pours acid on things, and avoids pouring acid on his own self only insofar as he can maintain a mercurial, fleet-footed dance around his subject matter, one step ahead of his path of destruction. Taylor is really very good at satirizing this sort of thing — an easy target, maybe, but not one that I’ve often seen given the treatment, and it’s really funny.

The least successful aspect of the book, for me, was the sidekick character Judy. Conveying verbal mannerisms in print is no easy task, and I was never sure how she should sound. Perhaps I’m heartless, but she was for me an awkward presence that simply got on my nerves after a while.

As all mystery novels do, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist comes to some kind of conclusion about the death of its victim. And, as almost all mystery novels do, it fizzled in the process. It is because of this fizzling that my attitude towards the genre hovers somewhere between mild interest and active dislike, so maybe don’t listen to me. If you like this sort of book, you’ll probably like the ending better than I did. But I enjoyed getting there.

Pliny: Natural History

May 30, 2021

Natural History
A Selection
Pliny the Elder
(Penguin Classics, 1991) [c.79]
450 p.

Pliny’s Naturalis Historia is one of the charming oddities of ancient literature: a vast compendium of knowledge, legend, and speculation about the natural world as seen by the Romans in the first century after Christ. Pliny was himself a successful statesman, but his avocation was as a man of apparently boundless curiosity. He did his duty during the day, and at night wrote his many books — sleep, he is reported to have said, is like death, and to be avoided as much as possible.

His Natural History was, he said, “written for the masses, for the horde of farmers and artisans”, rather than for scholars. It consists of 37 books, all of which, I believe, have survived, although the single volume under consideration here is but a sampling. Pliny himself claims to have consulted 2000 sources in compiling his book; modern scholars, I read, judge the number to have been higher still.

It is a well-organized but rather artlessly executed work. He is careful to keep his thoughts about birds or medicine separate from his remarks on metalwork or planets, but on any particular topic the subject matter ranges from lists of interesting facts to anecdotes to moral reflections. It’s the sort of book for which “hodge podge” seems the right designation — or, I suppose, hodgus podgus in this case.

He begins at the beginning: with astronomy and cosmology, which is of course quite interesting. The natural world, he tells us, is “a deity, everlasting, boundless, an entity without a beginning and one that will never end” (2.1). He knows that the earth is a sphere that rotates every 24 hours — it is interesting that one of the arguments he gives (1.164) is the same one given in St Thomas’ Summa; I think it possible that that example had by then become canonical, or perhaps it simply meant that Thomas had himself whiled away a few pleasant hours in Pliny’s company, which is a happy thought indeed. He has a basic understanding that if the earth is a sphere it relativizes our usual understandings of “up” and “down”:

Scholars assert that men are spread out all round the earth and stand with their feet pointing towards each other and that the top of the sky is alike for all of them and that their feet point down towards the centre of the earth from wherever they are. An ordinary person, however, inquires why men on the opposite side do not fall off – as if there is not an equally good reason for them wondering why we do not fall off. (1.161)

He gives the ancient estimates for the circumference of the earth; that of Eratosthenes was off by only about 15%.

About God Pliny does not have much of interest to say; he conceives of God as a super powerful being, as the Romans tended to do, of whose existence he is doubtful, and, even if God does exist, Pliny wonders why he would care for humanity.

Of mankind he has a jaundiced view. “This alone is certain, namely that there is no such thing as certainty, and that nothing is more wretched or more conceited than man” (2.25). “The only thing he knows instinctively is how to weep” (7.4). He does admire the great men of Roman history, notably Caesar and Pompey, but overall sees us as pitiful creatures cruelly subject to changes of fortune and sudden deaths, tormented by the knowledge that we will die.

He takes us on a whirlwind tour of the known world, hitting the geographical and cultural highlights of Italy, Spain, Britain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Judaea, Asia Minor, China, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, and Ethiopia. In a long series of books he describes animal life, and these are among the most entertaining sections of the work: elephants (which “have qualities rarely apparent even in man, namely honesty, good sense, justice, and also respect for the stars, sun and moon” (8.1)), crocodiles, hippos, and apes, sharks, octopus (including a story about one that climbed a tree), and crabs. He takes time to rail against the “purple fish” which has fostered an unbecoming appetite for luxury among Romans (who used it to dye cloths purple). We read of eagles, ostriches, ravens, and parrots. Of insects he is most fascinated by bees, about which the Romans knew a great deal. He notes that most animals have bad breath.

On and on it goes: trees, shrubs, perfumes, metals, farming practices, making of pigments, and medicines all come up for discussion. He doesn’t think much of Roman medicine, and especially of Roman doctors (“Doctors learn by exposing us to risks, and conduct experiments at the expense of our lives. Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity” (29.18)). He does think highly of Greek artists, and makes particular note of the famous Laocoon sculpture, “a work superior to any painting or bronze”, which has survived to the present day in the Vatican collection.

Naturally not everything Pliny records is as accurate as Eratosthenes’ estimate of the circumference of the earth. He thinks earthquakes are caused by either lightning or wind. But even that speculation, wayward as it is, tells us that he’s trying to be careful — it’s either lightning or wind, he’s not sure which. And he does make an honest effort, throughout, to sift what is reliable from what is fabulous. (After noting reports of basilisks and werewolves, he says, “It is astonishing how far Greek gullibility will go. There is no occurrence so fabulously shameless that it lacks a witness” (8.82).)

There are several famous anecdotes in the book; I do not know if we know them principally through this book or not, but it is nice to read them in any case. Among my favourites is this one, about Cato and his fig:

Burning with a deadly hatred of Carthage and troubled with anxiety about the safety of his descendants, Cato used to shout at every meeting of the Senate: ‘Carthage must be destroyed!’ Now one day he brought into the Senate House an early ripe fig from Africa, showed it to his fellow senators and said: ‘I ask you, when do you think this fig was plucked from the tree?’

All agreed that it was fresh, so he said: ‘Know this, it was picked two days ago in Carthage; that’s how near the enemy are to our walls!’ Immediately they began the Third Punic War, in which Carthage was destroyed. (15.74-75)

It’s a fun book, then, though not one to read closely for long periods. It has been known and read throughout the centuries from Pliny’s day to ours. I am sure that for historians it is a gold mine of details that help them resolve questions about Roman engineering and the material conditions of life at the time. For the rest of us, it’s a cornucopia of trivia, good stories, and often amusingly refracted scientific ideas, written with a good deal of personality. It ends with this salutation:

Greetings, Nature, mother of all creation, show me your favour in that I alone of Rome’s citizens have praised you in all your aspects.

I hope that his wish was granted.

[Hangovers]
Even in the most favourable circumstances, the intoxicated never see the sunrise and so shorten their lives. This is the reason for pale faces, hanging jowls, sore eyes and trembling hands that spill the contents of full vessels; this the reason for swift retribution consisting of horrendous nightmares and for restless lust and pleasure in excess. The morning after, the breath reeks of the wine-jar and everything is forgotten – the memory is dead. This is what people call ‘enjoying life’; but while other men daily lose their yesterdays, these people also lose their tomorrows. (14.142)

von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

May 18, 2021

Trojan Horse in the City of God
Dietrich von Hildebrand
(Sophia Institute, 1993) [1967]
332 p.

Writing shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, von Hildebrand issues in this book a passionate critique of the changes being wrought in the Church’s life in the name of the Council. He must have been one of the earliest voices to point out the marked difference between the letter and the putative “spirit” of the Council:

It would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.

Hildebrand saw the Council as having the potential to enrich the Church’s life by correcting imbalances that had grown up over the years since Trent. He thought that an “ossification and legalism” had come to characterize the Church in her own life and in her relationship to the world, and that the Council was trying to correct this. He saw traditional Catholic teachings on certain subjects as needing rebalancing by complementary truths: the Church stressed the value of religious life, to the relative neglect of married life; she stressed love of God, to the relative neglect of love of neighbour; she valued supernatural goods but undervalued natural goods; she practiced certain forms of Scriptural interpretation but neglected others. There were partial truths in need of completion.

Yet a partial truth is a truth, not an error, and the proper response is to add to it, not to repudiate it. He wrote because he saw in what was then already called “progressivism” a rejection of what was true in tradition in favour of the opposite half-truth: preference for married over religious life, substitution of love of neighbour for love of God, an overemphasis on natural goods, and a neglect of sound, traditional Scriptural interpretation. Above all, he saw the Church, in the name of the Council, being captured by the secular spirit of the age:

Enamored of our present epoch, blind to all its characteristic dangers, intoxicated with everything modern, many Catholics no longer ask whether something is true, whether it is good and beautiful, or whether it has intrinsic value. They ask only whether it is up-to-date, suitable to modern man and the technological age, challenging, dynamic, audacious, or progressive.

The bad fruit of this attitude was, already in 1967, beginning to become evident, and von Hildebrand surveys its many aspects. He saw traditional Catholic philosophy being abandoned in favour of philosophies, such as relativism and historicism, flatly incompatible with the Church’s teaching; he saw the evangelical imperative to present the Gospel in a manner suitable to our time and place being perversely interpreted as a requirement to change her teachings to suit the times; he saw the emphasis on religious pluralism and ecumenism betraying the Catholic commitment to religious truth; he noted a false, and characteristically modern, view of freedom disrupting the Catholic view of the moral life; he saw a turn from a transcendent to an immanent frame of reference for the Church’s life and activity; in the Church hierarchy he saw a reluctance to condemn heresies and errors as betraying either a lack of charity or a lack of faith, or both; and, perhaps above all, he saw the Church captured by a superficial optimism that the world was, somehow, bound to improve, such that whatever was happening must be good.

In 1967 the most obvious on-the-ground effect of the Council – the replacement of the Latin Mass by the new, vernacular Mass – was still in its nascent stages. Nonetheless von Hildebrand found reason enough to decry the loss of beauty and the disruption of the sacred atmosphere of the liturgy that was being pushed in parishes. He is not specific, so it is hard to know precisely what he was objecting to, but it is noteworthy, I think, that he already felt it was necessary to sound the alarm and defend the value and integrity of the Latin Mass. Little good it did us.

Against this “progressivism”, he argues, sensibly, that every age is a mixture of things better and things worse, that the newness of something has no bearing whatever on its truth, and that by denying the value of their tradition, progressives deprive themselves of the resources and advantages that those traditions provide.

He also rightly argues that “progressivism” in Catholicism, while it might, arguably, have a certain limited role to play, cannot be allowed free run of the house.

Even a man in no way conservative in temperament and in many other respects progressive must be conservative in his relation to the infallible magisterium of the Church, if he is to remain an orthodox Catholic. One can be progressive and simultaneously a Catholic, but one cannot be a progressive in one’s Catholic faith because the Church’s faith, and any true reform, is founded on unshakable faith in Christ and in the infallible magisterium of his Holy Church. It admits no possibility of change except … the explicit formulation of what was implicit in the faith of the Apostles or of what necessarily follows from it… This is simply the Catholic position, without further qualification.

*

The book is valuable not only because of when it was written – a dispatch from the front – but by whom. Von Hildebrand is normally associated with the reformers, not the embattled reactionaries. Yet here he lays out a sustained case against the principles and ambitions that have guided the “spirit of Vatican II” in the intervening decades.

Almost all of the problems he identifies are still with us. The young priests who came of age after the Council are now our senior churchmen, and, as is well known, many of them remain fond of this silly season. In some respects the battle has died down today, sometimes because issues faded in importance, and sometimes because trenches were dug and people got comfortable in them, but in other respects the conflict he describes remains timely, though the flashpoints have changed. But the book remains relevant. It would be great if the publisher would issue a new edition, because it is very hard to find.

Von Hildebrand knew Joseph Ratzinger in Germany when the latter was a young priest, and Ratzinger’s respect for him is on record. I’m not at all surprised to learn this, because the position von Hildebrand stakes out – openness to reform, love for tradition, and mistrust of sunny appraisals of modern habits of thought – reminds me in many respects of Ratzinger’s own.