Films of the new century

August 31, 2016

The BBC polled a reel of film critics and assembled a list of Top 100 films of the 21st century (so far). I find such lists irresistible.

My first observation is a personal one: because I don’t have a great deal of time to watch movies I try to be discriminating when choosing one, and, to judge by this list, I have not been doing too badly in that respect. To wit: I’ve seen two-thirds of the films on the Top 100, including 24 of the top 25. It’s gratifying to know that I’ve not been wasting my time — not utterly, anyway.

The fact that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive came out on top has raised some eyebrows. The first time I saw it I was befuddled — a not uncommon reaction, I think, and no doubt I was even more befuddled than most. After my next foray I was dazzled by its brilliance; Naomi Watts’ performance, in particular, I thought one of the best I’d ever seen. But when I returned to bask again I found it a mess; I simply couldn’t make sense of it, and that unnerving Lynchian magic seemed to be gone. I still love Naomi Watts in the lead role, but right now I’m pretty sour on Mulholland Drive. Perhaps I need to see it yet again.

I was delighted to see Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love take second place. Has anyone actually seen this film? It’s an unusual love story, saturated with an elegiac tone and filmed with stupefying beauty. I’ve been meaning to go back and watch it again, and perhaps its high ranking on this list gives me the occasion I’ve been looking for.

Naturally, there are some head-scratching elements. How did Yi Yi (#8) crack the Top 10? Sure, it’s a lovely film, but I wouldn’t have thought it Top-1o material. The high placement of Linklater’s Boyhood (#5) annoys me, as does the mere appearance of The Social Network (#27).

I wonder which directors have the most films in this Top 100? I see the Coen Brothers have three (#10, 11, 82), as do the Andersons (P.T. at #3, 24, 75, and Wes at #21, 68, 95). And Michael Haneke (#18, 23, 42) and Christopher Nolan (#25, 33, 51) are in that elite group too. I count 5 animated films on the list, 4 of which are from Pixar. Well, they deserve it.


As an envoi, I’ll propose my own Top 10. As it must be, this is a rather personal selection. In rough descending order, and with the corresponding placement on the BBC list in parentheses, I vote as follows:

The Tree of Life [Malick, 2011] (#7)
No Country for Old Men [Coens, 2007] (#10)
Die große Stille [Gröning, 2005] (-)
Остров [Lungin, 2006] (-)
Adaptation [Jonze, 2002] (-)
Ida [Pawlikowski, 2013] (#55)
In the Mood for Love [Kar-wai, 2000] (#2)
Sudoeste [Nunes, 2011] (-)
Kill Bill [Tarantino, 2003/4] (-)
Brooklyn [Crowley, 2015] (#48)

Some others that might have made the list on another day: The New World (Malick), 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Mungiu), The Secret World of Arriety (Yonebayashi/Rydstrom), The Departed (Scorcese), Gosford Park (Altman), Stations of the Cross (Brüggemann).

Newman: Loss and Gain

August 25, 2016

Loss and Gain
Bl. John Henry Newman
(Ignatius, 2012) [1848]
432 p.

This was the first book Newman wrote after his conversion to Catholicism at Oxford in 1845, and, given its theme — about a young Oxford man, Charles Reding, who converts to Catholicism — it is natural, and probably justifiable, to see it as an autobiographical novel. It would be interesting to compare it to his Apologia pro vita sua — this is left as an exercise.

Enthusiasts for books about Oxford men named Charles who convert to Catholicism will note the similarities with their other favourite book, Brideshead Revisited. (Indeed, in this Ignatius Press edition an accompanying essay by J.C. Whitehouse uses the phrase “Brideshead Previsited”, which earns full marks from me.) But (not having read that essay) I would say that the similarities between the two books are fairly slight. Waugh’s novel is a character study in which theology hardly registers (that hilarious scene of Rex’s catechism notwithstanding), whereas Newman’s novel, though not without characters — especially in the sense of “representatives of a view” — is deeply and directly concerned with theology. The book is full of conversation set-pieces in which theology and history and ethics are discussed.

John_Henry_NewmanThere is something didactic about this, and the extent to which it is tolerable will depend on how interesting the reader finds the topics of conversation. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed almost all of them. I expect that anyone who has thought much about religious conversion, or, better, who has experienced a long, drawn-out, and at least partly intellectual religious conversion himself, is likely to find the book quite absorbing and insightful about the process.

Charles is an undergraduate as the book opens, and as near as I can determine it more or less covers the period of his undergraduate career. The Oxford of his day differs from the Oxford of ours inasmuch as religion is for him a focal point of campus life, and religious ideas are matters of general discussion and controversy. When Charles visits the room of his friend Willis for the first time, he finds:

there was much in them which shocked both his good sense and his religious principles. A large ivory crucifix, in a glass case, was a conspicuous ornament between the windows; an engraving, representing the Blessed Trinity, as is usual in Catholic countries, hung over the fireplace, and a picture of the Madonna and St. Dominic was opposite to it. On the mantelpiece were a rosary, a thuribulum, and other tokens of Catholicism, of which Charles did not know the uses; a missal, ritual, and some Catholic tracts, lay on the table; and, as he happened to come on Willis unexpectedly, he found him sitting in a vestment more like a cassock than a reading-gown, and engaged upon some portion of the Breviary.

I’m not saying this scene is absolutely impossible today, or that it was usual in Newman’s day — we know from Charles’ reaction that it was not — but it is more the specific nature of the religious artifacts that excites Charles’ attention, whereas today it would be the mere presence of religious artifacts.

For Charles religion is not about feelings or wishes, but about truth (in this he is certainly Newman’s avatar), and his spiritual journey is in significant measure an intellectual one, a journey toward right belief:

He had now come, in the course of a year, to one or two conclusions, not very novel, but very important:—first, that there are a great many opinions in the world on the most momentous subjects; secondly, that all are not equally true; thirdly, that it is a duty to hold true opinions; and, fourthly, that it is uncommonly difficult to get hold of them.

And again, in conversation with a friend, Charles contends that:

“I did not say a creed was everything […] or that a religion could not be false which had a creed; but a religion can’t be true which has none.”

An interesting issue that the book addresses is the paradox of private judgement in Catholic conversion. If one talks to converts from Protestantism, a common rationale offered in favour of the conversion is that the reign of private judgement on religious matters in Protestant circles leads to religious chaos — each man his own Pope. Catholicism is chosen as the antidote to such chaos, for the Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, dividing truth from error with Christ’s own authority. But there’s the rub: for a convert — and, in a religiously contested age like our own, for cradle Catholics too — Catholicism is chosen, which means that private judgement isn’t quite out of the picture, and indeed stands disconcertingly close to the root. Charles ponders this problem at some length:

Now it need not be denied that those who are external to the Church must begin with private judgment; they use it in order ultimately to supersede it; as a man out of doors uses a lamp in a dark night, and puts it out when he gets home. What would be thought of his bringing it into his drawing-room? what would the goodly company there assembled before a genial hearth and under glittering chandeliers, the bright ladies and the well-dressed gentlemen, say to him if he came in with a great-coat on his back, a hat on his head, an umbrella under his arm, and a large stable-lantern in his hand? Yet what would be thought, on the other hand, if he precipitated himself into the inhospitable night and the war of the elements in his ball-dress? “When the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man who had not on a wedding-garment;” he saw a man who determined to live in the Church as he had lived out of it, who would not use his privileges, who would not exchange reason for faith, who would not accommodate his thoughts and doings to the glorious scene which surrounded him, who was groping for the hidden treasure and digging for the pearl of price in the high, lustrous, all-jewelled Temple of the Lord of Hosts; who shut his eyes and speculated, when he might open them and see. There is no absurdity, then, or inconsistency in a person first using his private judgment and then denouncing its use. Circumstances change duties.

And I do think that the apparent paradox has to be resolved in something like this way: a convert’s judgement gets him so far, as it must, for at that point he has nothing else to go on — unless it be grace, about which more below. But once inside it is foolhardy, and certainly counterproductive, to be standing in judgement over every jot and tittle when his attitude ought rightly to be one of docility and receptiveness, for if the Church is what she claims to be then he can only benefit from opening his heart and letting her graces and truths form him. In the process of transition, a good deal of prudential judgement is called for to get this balance right.

And though it seems that private judgement in religion is a part of the conversion process, there is something futile and even comical about it to one whose conversion is further advanced. Commenting on the tendency of Protestants to claim to discern whether and how Catholicism has corrupted the faith, Charles’ friend makes a good point:

Willis said that he supposed that persons who were not Catholics could not tell what were corruptions and what not.

That is very well said.

Yet it would be a mistake, I think, to characterize conversion — conversion to Catholicism, at any rate — as a principally intellectual process that one undertakes on one’s own. Faith is not something one musters up or merely wills; faith is a gift. It comes to us; we are encouraged to ask for it. Charles’ friend Willis makes the same point to him:

“What you want is faith. I suspect you have quite proof enough; enough to be converted on. But faith is a gift; pray for that great gift, without which you cannot come to the Church.”

I have myself cautioned friends not to pray for faith unless they are serious, because in my experience this particular prayer has a startling likelihood of being answered, and then there’s no telling what might happen.

Even when we receive this gift, though, conversion is slow. We may have moments of particular significance along our way, but nobody, I think, can truly be converted in a moment, for it calls for a renewal and re-alignment along many dimensions, and it takes time to discover them all even when we are pliant — and we are not always pliant:

Conviction is the eyesight of the mind, not a conclusion from premises; God works it, and His works are slow. At least so it is with me. I can’t believe on a sudden; if I attempt it, I shall be using words for things, and be sure to repent it. Or if not, I shall go right merely by hazard. I must move in what seems God’s way; I can but put myself on the road; a higher power must overtake me, and carry me forward.

What I like about this passage is the sense it conveys of the convert being accompanied. Can one who truly feels alone be converted to Catholicism? The name of the Paraclete, I am told, means ‘one who comes alongside’, and in my experience this is what a prospective convert actually experiences. One has the sense of being on a road, going somewhere, but also of the road itself having been somehow prepared in advance. To my delight, Charles makes exactly this point:

He could not escape the destiny, in due time, in God’s time—though it might be long, though angels might be anxious, though the Church might plead as if defrauded of her promised increase of a stranger, yet a son; yet come it must, it was written in Heaven, and the slow wheels of time each hour brought it nearer—he could not ultimately escape his destiny of becoming a Catholic.

This is putting it a little more strongly than I would, but I think he is here undoubtedly describing the real quality of the experience that at least some converts have.

For Charles, living in the time and place that he does, the decision to become a Catholic is not without cost. He becomes estranged from his family and from respectable society. “Yes, I give up home, I give up all who have ever known me, loved me, valued me, wished me well; I know well I am making myself a by-word and an outcast.” He can no longer continue at Oxford, so departs for London, not really knowing what will become of him. In the final act of the novel he lodges in London with a friend, just prior to approaching a priest to request reception — at this point, he still doesn’t know any priests! — and Newman stages a kind of parade, as person after person, having heard of his intentions, knock at his door with the intention, apparently on the principle that someone who gives off believing one thing is ready to believe anything, of diverting him to their particular systems of belief. This section of the book is diverting, but not very successful beyond that. The finale is rescued by the final scene, in which Charles is finally received into the Church:

“Too late have I known Thee, O Thou ancient Truth; too late have I found Thee, First and only Fair.”


[Aphorism touching Church authority]
When an oracle equivocates it carries with it its own condemnation.

[Pondering the Anglican and Catholic churches]
“Now common sense tells us what a messenger from God must be; first, he must not contradict himself, as I have just been saying. Again, a prophet of God can allow of no rival, but denounces all who make a separate claim, as the prophets do in Scripture. Now, it is impossible to say whether our Church acknowledges or not Lutheranism in Germany, Calvinism in Switzerland, the Nestorian and Monophysite bodies in the East. Nor does it clearly tell us what view it takes of the Church of Rome. The only place where it recognizes its existence is in the Homilies, and there it speaks of it as Antichrist. Nor has the Greek Church any intelligible position in Anglican doctrine. On the other hand, the Church of Rome has this prima facie mark of a prophet, that, like a prophet in Scripture, it admits no rival, and anathematizes all doctrine counter to its own. There’s another thing: a prophet of God is of course at home with his message; he is not helpless and do-nothing in the midst of errors and in the war of opinions. He knows what has been given him to declare, how far it extends; he can act as an umpire; he is equal to emergencies. This again tells in favour of the Church of Rome. As age after age comes she is ever on the alert, questions every new comer, sounds the note of alarm, hews down strange doctrine, claims and locates and perfects what is new and true. The Church of Rome inspires me with confidence; I feel I can trust her. It is another thing whether she is true; I am not pretending now to decide that. But I do not feel the like trust in our own Church. I love her more than I trust her. She leaves me without faith. Now you see the state of my mind.”

[A description of Rome]
It was so dreary, so melancholy a place; a number of old, crumbling, shapeless brick masses, the ground unlevelled, the straight causeways fenced by high monotonous walls, the points of attraction straggling over broad solitudes, faded palaces, trees universally pollarded, streets ankle deep in filth or eyes-and-mouth deep in a cloud of whirling dust and straws, the climate most capricious, the evening air most perilous. [Ed. — Personally, I don’t recall the climate being all that capricious.]

[On the experience of Mass in the old Rite]
Each in his place, with his own heart, with his own wants, with his own thoughts, with his own intention, with his own prayers, separate but concordant, watching what is going on, watching its progress, uniting in its consummation;—not painfully and hopelessly following a hard form of prayer from beginning to end, but, like a concert of musical instruments, each different, but concurring in a sweet harmony, we take our part with God’s priest, supporting him, yet guided by him.


Lecture night: psychology and politics

August 23, 2016

Jonathan Haidt is an unusually interesting academic. He is a psychologist who has in recent years turned his attention to matters of public import, and has especially emerged as an advocate of greater “viewpoint diversity” in the academy. To that end, he has founded Heterodox Academy, a forum for highlighting findings that run counter to received opinion in academic disciplines, particularly in the social sciences.

Earlier this month he gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Assocation. His lecture is entitled “What’s Happening to Our Country? How Psychology Can Respond to Political Polarization, Incivility and Intolerance”, and in it he considers a number of long-term polarizing trends in American society and what to do about them.

He’s an engaging speaker. If you’re interested in understanding the Trump phenomenon, or fancy the thought of seeing a crowd of left-wing academics called out for bias by one of their own guild, this lecture might be for you. If you’re of conservative temperament, you might be pleasantly surprised to hear that an eminent academic considers you anything other than roadkill on the upward way of enlightenment. As he says in the lecture, every healthy society needs a party of order and stability as well as a party of change and progress. It sounds sensible to me (except the bit about change and progress). The lecture is about 50 minutes long, once the introductions are over.

If you enjoy this talk, you might also enjoy a TED talk he gave on the respective moral motivations of liberals and conservatives.

Books briefly noted

August 16, 2016

Usually I try to post these short notes in thematically-related groups, but I can’t spot the theme in this batch.


lyrical-balladsLyrical Ballads
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(Penguin, 2007) [1798]
128 p.

This slim volume is, by reputation, one of the heavyweights in the history of English poetry, being generally acknowledged as having overturned the then-prevailing poetic conventions and inaugurated the Romantic period of English verse.

Wordsworth and Coleridge challenged the idea that poetry should attend only to lofty subjects, writing poems instead on humble, but far from trivial, matters: a lost boy, a woman dying alone, a peasant family. Many, though not all, of the poems are narrative, and the poetic forms matched their subjects: simple forms, with clear and musical rhyming schemes, such as those characteristic of folk songs.

That, at least, describes a considerable number of these poems, but there is another type too: metrical verse on personal themes, in which we are taken inside the mind of the poet as he ponders something. If you’ve any experience with Wordsworth, you’ll be content to describe these as “Wordsworthian”, and wonderful they are. They made me realize how much I’ve missed him; it has been years since I read his long poem “The Prelude”, which I loved at the time, and perhaps I am due to revisit it, or his poetry more generally.

Although authorship of the individual poems is not attributed within the book, Wikipedia says that only a handful of the twenty-odd poems are by Coleridge. The two most famous poems in the collection are Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, being, respectively, outstanding examples of the two poetic models I just described.


classical-mechanicsClassical Mechanics Illustrated by Modern Physics
42 Problems and Solutions
David Guéry-Odelin and Thierry Lahaye
(Imperial College, 2010)
268 p.

Most symmetric potentials will be quadratic to a first approximation, which is why the simple harmonic oscillator is such a useful model in so many areas of physics, and if there were ever a book to illustrate that wide usefulness it might well be this one, in which concepts usually associated with classical mechanics — including an abundance of simple harmonic oscillators — are applied to problems in modern physics. The range of topics is quite wide: gravitation, friction, fluids, electromagnetics, astrophysics, atomic physics, relativity, and more. One of the most interesting sections to me was on experimental methods for cooling clouds of atoms: Zeeman cooling (my favourite), doppler cooling, and evaporative cooling. The problems are each marked with a level of difficulty, and the solutions are worked in detail sufficient for relatively easy comprehension. The book as a whole is very clearly written, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.


guarendi-disciplineDiscipline That Lasts a Lifetime
The Best Gift You Can Give Your Kids
Ray Guarendi
(Servant, 2003)
306 p.

A few months ago we went to hear Ray Guarendi speak on parenting and discipline. His talk turned out to be a comedy routine that was light on substance (and rather light on laughs too, I’m afraid), so I figured I’d better read one of his books if I wanted to learn something. This particular book is epistolary: he answers questions from parents, real or imagined. It’s still comedic, but the humour works better for me on the page. What I like about Guarendi is that he gives no-nonsense advice. Discipline is necessary, both for parental sanity and for kids’ formation. If you discipline, everyone will be happier in the end. He has some good ideas about techniques: blackouts, house rules, chore charts, and so on. We’re going to try a few of them. Our kids are savages.

Yonder and yonderer

August 10, 2016
  • The bump that launched a thousand papers was just a statistical anomaly, says CERN. The world of fundamental physics research may well be finding itself in the nightmare scenario.
  • Damian Thompson critiques the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ concert series, arguing that the prejudices of its planners undermines its interest.
  • Ever wonder if there might be something more to Brexit than raw xenophobia? Roger Scruton — make that Sir Roger Scruton — makes a number of good points about the possible motives of ‘Leave’-ers.
  • David Warren writes in brief appreciation of The Cloud of Unknowing.
  • The always wonderful Whit Stillman has a new film, Love & Friendship, based on a little-known Jane Austen novella. Stillman and Austen: it’s a match made in heaven.
  • Speaking of films, rumours are that Terrence Malick’s next project (after this fall’s Voyage of Time and next year’s Weightless) will be Radegund, about the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector and martyr under the Nazis.
  • Giving the lie to the notion that the Vatican moves slowly, the modest suggestion from Robert Cardinal Sarah that Catholic priests of the Roman rite return to the customary practice of celebrating the Mass ad orientem received a rapid slap-down from high-ranking Vatican prelates, including the Pope. The reasons for this are worth thinking about — try this or this, for starters — but in the meantime I recommend reading Cardinal Sarah’s full address, which is quite beautiful.
  • Rowan Williams has written a play in which he dramatizes a meeting between St Edmund Campion, a Catholic martyr under Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare, a possibly-maybe-recusant Catholic. It’s an interesting choice of subject matter for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to say the least. The play, entitled “Shakeshafte”, is playing in Swansea, Wales, and neither you nor I will get to see it.
  • Orwell submitted his manuscript for Animal Farm to Faber & Faber, and received in response a rejection letter written by T.S. Eliot.

The wind began to howl

August 8, 2016

Here is an informative exploration of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, which is surely one of his greatest songs:

(Hat-tip: The Music Salon)

McGunn on the Summa Theologiae

July 25, 2016

Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae
A Biography
Bernard McGunn
(Princeton, 2014)
272 p.

The idea of writing a “biography” of a book is an odd but interesting one. Books, like persons, originate in a particular time and place, have a particular character and range of interests, and exert a certain influence in the world. Unlike the life of an individual person, the life of a great book continues over many generations, and the book has the potential to become a permanent cultural possession.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is an especially daunting book. The edition I own runs to about 3000 double-columned pages in small type, and though I have often entertained the idea of reading through it in a systematic way — it is structured in such a way as to accommodate brief, step-by-step encounters — yet to this point I have done little more than dabble. Probably I’ve spent more time reading about the Summa than reading the thing itself.

mcgunn-summaMcGunn discusses Thomas’ life and the circumstances under which the Summa was written. He talks about Thomas’ motives in undertaking such a massive effort and about the readers for whom it was written. He discusses several important questions relevant to our understanding of the Summa as a whole, such as Thomas’ understanding of the nature of theology, and of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Although many books on Thomas and the Summa focus on Thomas’ contributions to philosophy — his epistemology, his metaphysics, his ethics — it is fair to say that McGunn is at least and possibly more interested in his contributions to theology. This is fitting; the Summa is a book of theology.

A middle section of the book gives a superb overview of the structure of the Summa, outlining the content of its various parts. Embedded in the pages of the Summa are a variety of focused investigations of specific topics: law, ethics, creation, sacraments, Christ, and so on. McGunn helps us to see how these pieces fit together into the overall logical structure of the work.

The last half of the present book is devoted to the “biography” — that is, the history of the book and its reception after it was completed (or, in the case of the Summa, not completed). Initially Thomas’ Summa faced serious obstacles, mostly on account of his decision to couch his thought in Aristotelian terms, which were viewed with suspicion in some quarters, and certain of Thomas’ propositions were condemned by some ecclesiastical authorities. But the Dominicans took a special pride in Thomas’ accomplishments, and adopted the Summa for educational purposes from an early date. By the sixteenth century Thomas’ star had risen high enough for Luther to designate the Catholic Church as “the Thomistic church” (and, with his usual perspicacity, he identified St Thomas as “the source and foundation of all heresy, error, and obliteration of the Gospel”). The rumour (repeated by Pope Leo XIII) that the Summa was on the altar next the Bible at the Council of Trent McGunn says is false, but Thomas did continue to accumulate honours: in 1567 Pope St Pius V named him a Doctor of the Church — the first person to be so honoured since the patristic period — and toward the end of the sixteenth century the Jesuits adopted Thomas as their official theologian; several of the most important commentaries on the Summa were written by Jesuits (viz. Suarez). But with the passing of time the Summa eventually fell on hard times. The work itself was eclipsed in the scholarly mind by commentaries upon it, and these eventually grew so weighty and dry that they became, in the early modern period, objects of scorn. The rise of modern philosophy occurred without the Summa being a point of reference (except perhaps for Descartes, at second or third hand). McGunn says, incredibly, that when, in the mid-nineteenth century, John Henry Newman wanted to read it, he couldn’t find a copy.

These declining fortunes were reversed by the election of a Thomist to the papacy in the latter-half of the nineteenth-century. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, in which he praised St Thomas as the Christian philosopher par excellence and recommended not only his example but also his particular ideas as of special and enduring value to the Church. From this point, Catholic intellectuals began to engage with the thought of St Thomas again in an especially intense way. Intense, but far from uniform. The hope of Leo XIII that Thomism could provide a united front with which the Church could contend against the manifold errors of the modern world was not realized, for there turned out to be not just Thomism, but Thomisms, and an interesting section of the book traces these different schools over the course of the twentieth century. There were those who saw Thomism as a kind of trans-historical philosophical vantage point, such as Garrigou-Lagrange. There were those who sought, on the contrary, to understand St Thomas and his contributions in historical context while retaining an interest in his modern relevance (Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain). And there were others who sought to put Thomas into conversation with modern philosophy (Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner). These names are all familiar — I am especially fond of Gilson — but it is helpful to see them placed on a map.

Vatican II, inadvertently or not, brought about a decline in the centrality of St Thomas for Catholic thought. It is tempting to see this as another instance of the oft-repeated pattern whereby the post-Conciliar Church, by a kind of infallible clumsiness, allowed her treasures to fall into neglect. I don’t think it healthy that the Church’s intellectual life be identified strongly with one particular framework, but of all possible frameworks which could maintain a lively presence in the Church’s intellectual life, that of St Thomas is a rich and worthy one. In Fides et Ratio, Pope St John Paul II taught that the Church has no official philosophy, but recommended St Thomas as an exemplar of Catholic intellectual life.


I read the book at a leisurely pace, and enjoyed it very much. McGunn is not himself a Thomist, so he brings an outsider’s perspective, which might be advantageous in some respects. Of course, nobody is free of prejudices, and some of his do come through, not all of which were appealing to me. I got the general feeling that McGunn doesn’t love Thomas quite as much as he ought to. But overall I did find it a worthwhile and interesting book.

The cover of the book, shown above, reproduces Filippo Lippi’s The Dispute of St Thomas, which one can see in the Cappella Carafa at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, a chapel which I have visited every time I’ve been to the Eternal City and which is dear to my heart.


This volume is part of an ongoing series issued by Princeton University Press of “biographies” of great religious books. Other entries in the series include the Book of Common Prayer, Augustine’s Confessions, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and books from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition too, such as the Bhagavad Gita. I expect many of those would be worthwhile too.

Vodolazkin: Laurus

July 14, 2016

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.


July 10, 2016

By Davide Calandrini

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

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,
\,  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.