The Waste Land, slightly clarified

July 30, 2018

I count myself an admirer of T.S. Eliot; quite a few of his poems have been important to me — PrufrockThe Hollow MenThe Journey of the Magi, Ash Wednesday, and especially Four Quartets. Yet the poem that many people consider to be his greatest — The Waste Land — has been a tough nut for me to crack. I’ve picked it up from time to time, puzzled over it, and let it go again. It has remained essentially opaque to me. If pressed, I’d have had a difficult time saying a single sensible thing about it. I’d mutter, “These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” and look the other way.

A few weeks ago I was listening to a professor who teaches the poem, and she said something that startled me: she said that it is an Arthurian poem. Arthurian as in Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, Guinevere, the Grail, and the Round Table. Never had that occurred to me, so I decided to read it again. Alas! Once again, not only did I not see Arthur, but I could make neither heads nor tails of it.

I turned then to YouTube for assistance, and I found an excellent set of lectures on the poem by Victor Strandberg, professor of English at Duke. If you’ve admired the poem, or admired the poet and wondered why you didn’t admire the poem, I can recommend these lectures to you. He draws out the (sure enough!) Arthurian elements, but also walks us through the overall logic of the poem — there is a logic to it! — and makes a convincing case for its being “the central poem in English in the twentieth century”. It remains a poem of great relevance to our times, for we still live in the Waste Land, even if, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” we, perhaps, notice it less than people once did.

Here is the first lecture, on the background and context of the poem:

The other parts are:

And these are just parts of a larger series of talks on all of Eliot’s major poems; I plan to listen to some of them as opportunity allows.


Montaigne: On Education

July 23, 2018

On the Education of Children
Michel de Montaigne
Translated from the French by Charles Cotton
(Doubleday, 1947) [c.1580]
40 p.

In an essay on sixteenth-century literature C.S. Lewis, describing the Essays of Francis Bacon, makes the observation that

if Bacon took his title from Montaigne, he took nothing else. His earliest essays resemble essays by Montaigne about as much as a metallic-looking cactus raised on the edge of the desert resembles a whole countryside of forest, filled with light and shade, well stocked with game, and hard to get out of.

which, of course, disinclines one to read Bacon ( — as does another of Lewis’ memorable witticisms at Bacon’s expense: “Everyone has read him, but no-one is ever found reading him”). At the same time, his comment suggests, by the art of subtle implication, that the essays of Montaigne might be quite delightful, rather like a whole countryside of forest, filled with light, etc.

On the strength of this recommendation, I, some years ago, purchased a volume of Montaigne’s essays and now, some years later, have read one of them. This particular essay is in the form of a letter to Madame Diane de Foix, Comtesse de Gurson, counselling her on the education of her son.

*

Montaigne’s own education, it comes out, was an odd one. His parents assigned him a Latin-speaking tutor, and kept him (Montaigne) isolated from other children, with the consequence that he grew up speaking Latin as his mother tongue. Little good it did him, in the long run, for, as he tells us, when once he left the tutulage of his master and began to speak French, he rather quickly lost his Latin and retained little into adulthood, an experience that will be familiar to many children of immigrant families.

Among the most contested questions in the history of thought about education is whether we should tell the little darlings what they should find interesting and important, or whether the little darlings should tell us what they find interesting and important. There are arguments on both sides, and Montaigne comes down decisively in the mushy middle. On the one hand, he tells us that we ought not to pay too much attention to the learning objectives of the young:

…I am clearly of opinion, that they ought to be elemented in the best and most advantageous studies, without taking too much notice of, or being too superstitious in those light prognostics they give of themselves in their tender years…

On the other hand, the education a child receives should be responsive to that child’s abilities and inclinations:

…children are to be placed out and disposed of, not according to the wealth, qualities, or condition of the father, but according to the faculties and the capacity of their own souls.

It seems that as to the matter of education Montaigne holds that children should be guided and instructed, but as to the manner, they should be seduced — that is, made to think that they themselves have chosen that which we have chosen for them:

Education ought to be carried on with a severe sweetness … tempting and alluring children to letters by apt and gentle ways.

There is nothing like alluring the appetite and affections; otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books; by dint of the lash, you give them their pocketful of learning to keep; whereas, to do well you should not only lodge it with them, but make them espouse it.

And so students should be lead on, not wholly receptive, but engaged in a dialogue with the material, and the teacher

permitting his pupil himself to taste things, and of himself to discern and choose them, sometimes opening the way to him, and sometimes leaving him to open it for himself; that is, I would not have him alone to invent and speak, but that he should also hear his pupil speak in turn.

In this way, the student will appropriate the material he learns, making it his own, so that he can make use of it naturally and readily, as the body makes use of food:

‘Tis a sign of crudity and indigestion to disgorge what we eat in the same condition it was swallowed; the stomach has not performed its office unless it have altered the form and condition of what was committed to it to concoct.

Montaigne himself sets a good example of this art of appropriation, for he liberally salts his essay with passages from ancient authors — Horace, Virgil, Lucan, Seneca — but in each case the authority has been turned to purpose, saying aptly what Montaigne needs him to say.

In all of this, the teacher is obviously of the greatest importance for the student, acting now as Solon and now as Socrates. Montaigne counsels that parents seek a teacher “who has rather a well-made than a well-filled head”, and, interestingly, he counsels against mothers instructing their own children:

A child should not be brought up in his mother’s lap. Mothers are too tender, and their natural affection is apt to make the most discreet of them all so overfond, that they can neither find in their hearts to give them due correction for the faults they may commit, nor suffer them to be inured to hardships and hazards, as they ought to be.

Such hazards may be greater for boys than girls, and would be more concerning for only children than the abundantly-siblinged. And Montaigne perhaps did not foresee our schools, in which elementary school classrooms, at least, are almost uniformly peopled with female teachers not widely noted for the hardships and hazards they impose upon their charges. But, even so, it is noteworthy that Montaigne thinks sternness more salutary than gentleness.

If the Comtesse de Gurson was hoping to be provided with a well-organized curriculum for her son, she would have been disappointed with Montaigne’s letter, for he has relatively little so say about what the child should study. He recommends poetry for its pedagogical value:

…as Cleanthes said, as the voice, forced through the narrow passage of a trumpet, comes out more forcible and shrill: so, methinks, a sentence pressed within the harmony of verse darts out more briskly upon the understanding, and strikes my ear and apprehension with a smarter and more pleasing effect.

and he testifies to the good done by reading old books:

[The student] shall, by reading those books, converse with the great and heroic souls of the best ages.”

[…]

I never seriously settled myself to the reading any book of solid learning but Plutarch and Seneca; and there, like the Danaides, I eternally fill…

More important than the specific content of the child’s learning is the moral formation of the child, which he argues ought to be first both in priority and in sequence:

After having taught him what will make him more wise and good, you may then entertain him with the elements of logic, physics, geometry, rhetoric …

(This last remark informs us that the education he has in mind, as to content, is a traditional classical education, such as is hard to get these days.)

This method of moral instruction first was that followed by Aristotle when he served as tutor to Alexander:

Aristotle did not so much trouble his great disciple with the knack of forming syllogisms, or with the elements of geometry; as with infusing into him good precepts concerning valour, prowess, magnanimity, temperance, and the contempt of fear.

Among the virtues to be taught is, first, a love and respect for truth:

Above all, let him be lessoned to acquiesce and submit to truth so soon as ever he shall discover it, whether in his opponent’s argument, or upon better consideration of his own.

To the intellectual part of learning Montaigne would have us conjoin a regimen of physical exercise and social decorum, out of respect for human nature:

I would have his outward fashion and mien, and the disposition of his limbs, formed at the same time with his mind. ‘Tis not a soul, ‘tis not a body that we are training up, but a man, and we ought not to divide him.

*

Education is, as he admits, “the greatest and most important difficulty of human science”, and it is correspondingly difficult to speak sensibly on the subject. I find nothing wholly new in Montaigne’s advice to the Comtesse, nor nothing absurd. His advice, in miniature, is stout and solid: teach the tradition by means of charms; let the child appropriate what he learns; promote moral formation; discipline the body; honour truth above all.

Or, by implication, education ought not to be rote, not faddish, not value free, and not skeptical.

We can be gratified, at least, that our schools do not teach by rote.

*

I fear that in making the above summary of this essay, I have been unable to resist liberally quoting from it, disgorging what I ate in the same condition it was swallowed, and this is indeed a fault. Montaigne knows this vice, and has some choice words about me which, not without a certain perversity, I cannot resist quoting in full:

The indiscreet scribblers of our times, who, amongst their laborious nothings, insert whole sections and pages out of ancient authors, with a design, by that means, to illustrate their own writings, do quite contrary; for this infinite dissimilitude of ornaments renders the complexion of their own compositions so sallow and deformed, that they lose much more than they get.

This is just and true; my writing is a sallow and deformed thing when set beside the writing of many of the authors from whom I learn, Montaigne included. Though I read in translation, I found his style robust and pithy, with strong bones and little ornament. Were I to venture a metaphor, I should say that it resembles a whole countryside of forest, filled with light and shade, well stocked with game, and hard to get out of.

*

Montaigne is a writer who makes frequent asides and forges neat aphorisms with apparent ease. Here, indulging my vice for regurgitation to a truly revolting degree, I proffer some of these choice morsels:

[Sport and spectacles]
Well-governed corporations take care to assemble their citizens, not only to the solemn duties of devotion, but also to sports and spectacles. They find society and friendship augmented by it.

[Rote learning]
To know by rote, is no knowledge, and signifies no more but only to retain what one has intrusted to our memory. That which a man rightly knows and understands, he is the free disposer of at his own full liberty, without any regard to the author from whence he had it, or fumbling over the leaves of his book. A mere bookish learning is a poor, paltry learning; it may serve for ornament, but there is yet no foundation for any superstructure to be built upon it.

[Truth as common ground]
Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after.

[Wisdom and serenity]
The most manifest sign of wisdom is a continual cheerfulness; her state is like that of things in the regions above the moon, always clear and serene.

[Lady Philosophy]
It is she that calms and appeases the storms and tempests of the soul, and who teaches famine and fevers to laugh and sing; and that, not by certain imaginary epicycles, but by natural and manifest reasons. She has virtue for her end, which is not, as the schoolmen say, situate upon the summit of a perpendicular, rugged, inaccessible precipice: such as have approached her find her, quite on the contrary, to be seated in a fair, fruitful, and flourishing plain, whence she easily discovers all things below; to which place any one may, however, arrive, if he know but the way, through shady, green, and sweetly-flourishing avenues, by a pleasant, easy, and smooth descent, like that of the celestial vault.

[Virtue and reward]
The height and value of true virtue consists in the facility, utility, and pleasure of its exercise.

[Actions and beliefs]
The conduct of our lives is the true mirror of our doctrine.

[Speech and truth]
“Let the language that is dedicated to truth be plain and unaffected.” — Seneca, Ep. 40.

[Exhortation]
“Dare to be wise; begin! he who defers the hour of living well is like the clown, waiting till the river shall have flowed out: but the river still flows, and will run on, with constant course, to ages without end.” — Horace, Ep., i. 2.


Ave verum corpus

July 18, 2018

Here is a beautiful performance of one of the crown jewels of sacred polyphony: William Byrd’s Ave verum corpus.

The singers are Ensemble ZENE, a French group new to me. They sound terrific.


Appian: The Civil Wars

July 14, 2018

The Civil Wars
Appian of Alexandria
Translated from the Greek by John Carter
(Penguin Classics, 1996) [c.150]
xliii + 436 p.

Lives of the Noble Romans
Gaius Marius, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cato the Younger, Brutus, Antony, Cicero
Plutarch
Translated from the Greek by John Dryden
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]

Livy’s surviving history broke off in the 160s BC. At that time the Roman Republic controlled the Italian peninsula, most of Spain, Asia Minor, and Greece, along with the swath of Northern Africa formerly held by Carthage. It was the end of a long period of consistent triumph for Rome. But fortune’s wheel turns, and the next 150 years were a time of tumult, trial, and war, a period, as Appian says,

well worth the attention of any who wish to contemplate limitless human ambition, terrible lust for power, indefatigable patience, and evil in ten thousand shapes. (I, 6)

It resulted finally in the collapse of the Republican government and the emergence of Imperial Rome.

Appian’s history of the Roman civil wars covers the period 133-35 BC in five Books; it is but a part of his more comprehensive history of Rome, but it attracts special attention, despite his defects as a historian, because it is our only surviving ancient source for the period 133-70 BC, years of great interest and import for what happened later.

“The hour calls forth the man” is a proverb (and, if it isn’t, it ought to be). In previous periods of Roman history one could usually focus on one or perhaps two main threads and major figures at any one time, but as the first century BC progressed and the political crises deepened they seemed to summon up a crowd of powerful personalities — in the year 50 BC, for example, a list of important political figures then living (if not all then in power) would include Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Octavius, Marc Antony, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, and Cato — so that any adequate account has to slow down and descend into the details — which Appian certainly does, devoting about half of his history to the two or three years surrounding the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC. Obviously I can’t do the same in this forum, but I will try to sketch, in rough outline, how things developed as the Republic slowly crumbled.

The faltering Republic was beset by an abandonment of political traditions and breakdown of the rule of law. We can look, for instance, at the careers of the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, who were grandsons of the great general Scipio Africanus. Tiberius became tribune and proposed a number of reforms — specifically to redistribute land from the wealthy to the poor and to extend Roman citizenship more broadly to the conquered peoples of the Italian peninsula — and, when his programme encountered resistance, broke with both longstanding tradition and law by standing for (and winning) a second term as tribune. When Tiberius was opposed by the Senate, he simply sidestepped them — after all, their ratification was only customary, not necessary. And when he was opposed by another tribune during a vote, Tiberius had his opponent forcefully removed from the Forum, in flagrant violation of the long tradition of holding the person of the tribune sacrosanct. Harmless enough, you might think, and in the service of a good cause, perhaps, but the Roman tradition of rotating political offices every year was one of the oldest and most venerable political traditions they had, and the immunity of the tribune from violence or prosecution was quasi-sacred in nature; both had always been understood as safeguards against political tyranny. His younger brother Gaius was even more radical in his political programme and in his conduct: he held the tribunate for three years. Both brothers met violent ends at the hands of mobs, another sign that Rome’s political life was straining.

These trends continued in the career of Marius, who was first consul in 107, but who went on to hold the consulship a record seven times. Marius was a military hero who rose to prominence from an undistinguished background on the strength of his generalship. His greatest military achievement was, perhaps, his reform of Roman military tactics; he abandoned the maniple system Rome had used for centuries in favour of a new, three-line system that ensured that fresh troops would rotate to the front on a regular basis, and he achieved great success in the field. When in 91 the so-called Social War broke out between Rome and the subject peoples of Italy — a war that sounds more genteel than it was — Marius led the effort to put down the rebellion. But then, for complicated reasons, he returned to Rome and allowed his army to pillage the city, taking up residence as something like a military dictator.

He was opposed by Sulla, one of the most intriguing men to enter this history. He too had military success, in battles against Mithridates in the east, but when Marius occupied Rome Sulla returned with the intention of dislodging — and, as it turned out, displacing — him. Comments Appian:

“In this way the episodes of civil strife escalated from rivalry and contentiousness to murder, and from murder to full-scale war; and this was the first army composed of Roman citizens to attack their own country as though it were a hostile power” (I,60)

As it turned out, his job was done for him: Marius died, and Sulla moved in, declaring himself — or having himself declared — dictator. The office of dictator had been an official political role early in Roman history, invoked in periods of crisis, but it had always been understood as being limited in term to about 6 months or a year. Sulla was declared dictator for life. It would be hard to come up with a more radical upending of the Roman political system, but for Sulla it was just the beginning. He published proscription lists of his enemies; they were to be captured and executed, along with anyone who might try to help them escape. Sulla’s was a reign of terror. The paradox is that he was essentially a conservative figure: his radical measures aimed to restore the proper functioning of the Republican system. He saw that system buckling under strain, overtaken by violence and revolution, and he sought unrestricted power to shore it up. He broke the law in order to restore the law. And, in one of the most surprising turns in this or any other history, once he thought he had achieved his goal he relinquished his absolute power, walked away from political life and retired to a quiet country villa. But he had not achieved his goal, for what the next generation took from Sulla were not his objectives, but his methods, and those could be used against the Republic at least as effectively as Sulla had used them for it.

In Sulla’s conflict with Marius for control of Rome, he had been assisted by two able men: Crassus and Pompey, and in the aftermath of Sulla’s rule a rivalry between them brought both to prominence in Rome’s public life. They collaborated to put down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus in 73-71, but were thereafter at one another’s throats, jockeying for political position.

Into this fraught conflict came one Gaius Julius Caesar, a man of relatively humble station (patrician, but poor), who convinced the two that they would be stronger in partnership than in conflict, and that he could help them to achieve together both wealth and power. Thus was born the ‘first triumvirate’ — a rather distinguished title for what Mary Beard opts to call The Gang of Three, and what Varro called The Beast with Three Heads — an alliance that Caesar was to use to propel himself not only to an equal rank with Crassus and Pompey, but to the first rank, and that would effectively bring an end to the Republican government of Rome.

It all happened fairly rapidly. The alliance was formed in 59. Caesar took an army to Gaul where, for ten years, he fought his famous campaign (recounted in his Gallic Wars) that nearly doubled the size of the Roman empire, and brought Romans to Britain for the first time (albeit briefly), bringing Caesar immense wealth and popularity in the process. Crassus led an army to Parthia where, however, he was killed in 53, leaving Caesar and Pompey as the leading men of Rome. And, on the principle that “Three is company, but two is a crowd”, the alliance degenerated into a rivalry once again. In 49 Caesar returned to Italy, crossing the Rubicon with his army in violation of Roman law and setting the spark to inflame civil war. (Parenthetically, I was surprised to learn that historians do not know which river was the Rubicon.) Pompey, taken by surprise, took his army and fled to Greece, there to regroup, and Caesar occupied Rome.

Not resting on his laurels, Caesar pursued Pompey and they met in August 48 at the Battle of Pharsalus, at which Pompey went down to defeat. He fled to Egypt, where he was killed while going ashore by order of Egyptian authorities eager to get into Caesar’s good books. They, along with everyone else, could see the writing on the wall. Caesar was evidently the great man of the age, whom Appian describes as

“a man extremely lucky in everything, gifted with a divine spark, disposed to great deeds, and fittingly compared with Alexander.”

(Indeed, he goes on to compare Caesar and Alexander at some considerable length. [Book II,149-54])

But Caesar’s rule, as we know, was short. There were yet those in Rome who wanted to restore the Republic, and who resented these great men bent on treating Rome as their personal property, and of course Romans had a long-standing horror of kingship. Caesar appeared to them to be a king in all but name. And so it was that in 44 a conspiracy of about 10 men, led by Brutus (thought by some to be Caesar’s biological son, and certainly a man greatly favoured by Caesar) and Cassius, was formed to assassinate him. This assassination, narrated by Appian in Book II, 117, and in more detail by Plutarch in his life of Caesar, is of course well-known to us from Shakespeare’s play.

Following Caesar’s death, the conspirators fled, and much of Appian’s history is occupied with tracing what became of them, as, one by one, they were picked off. Brutus and Cassius met their end in 42, at the Battle of Philippi. Of them, Appian says in tribute:

“They were Romans of the highest nobility and distinction, and of unchallenged virtue, without a single stain…” (IV, 132)

which is slightly odd, because elsewhere he tends toward apologetics on behalf of Imperial Rome, and I would have thought that he would have consequently disapproved of Caesar’s assassins, as Dante did.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, the power vacuum left by Caesar’s death and the departure of the conspirators begged to be filled. The natural man for the part, in his own eyes at least, was Marc Antony, a man who, though given to drunkenness and debauchery, had a proven record of military prowess and had been Caesar’s protege. But when Caesar’s will was read it was discovered that he posthumously adopted as his son and heir his great-nephew, Octavian, then just 19 years old. Naturally this precipitated a rivalry between Antony and Octavian, a rivalry temporarily set aside in 43 by the formation of another alliance of convenience, the so-called ‘second triumvirate’, composed of Antony, Octavian, and Lucius Lepidus, one of history’s most notable third wheels.

This second Gang of Three began another, even more frightful, reign of terror to purge Rome of their enemies. Proscription lists were once again published in the Forum, and Appian devotes a long section (Book IV, 1-51) to stories, both happy and tragic, about what happened to those whose names appeared on these lists: betrayed by their wives, perhaps, or saved by their slaves. Perhaps the most famous name to appear on the list was Cicero’s; he had initially sided with Octavian against Antony, and with the formation of the triumvirate Antony insisted on his execution. He, who was by some reasonable measures the greatest of all the great men swaggering through this episode of history, was captured and killed in December 43.

In subsequent years the uneasy alliance within the triumvirate continued. Appian describes the relationship of Octavian and Antony in these terms:

“Their behaviour constantly swung between suspicion, arising from their desire for power, and trust, arising from their current needs.” (V, 94)

They fought together against Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey, who led an effective naval blockade against Rome that prevented grain reaching the city. Antony went east on campaign where he fell under the spell of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

Appian’s history of these civil wars comes to an end in 35, with the finale of the story yet untold. From other sources we know that, soon enough, open war broke out between the two, and in 30 Antony, seeing that he was beaten, committed suicide, leaving Octavian, at 28 years old, the unchallenged leader of the largest Empire the world had ever known.

It is said that Octavian went to Egypt after Antony’s death, and, like many before him, stood at the tomb of Alexander the Great. He was perhaps the only person in history who could do so without feeling humbled at the comparison. He returned home, and three years later took the name Caesar Augustus, the first unequivocal emperor of Rome.

**

Almost everything about this history has been fascinating. Of course I knew bits and pieces of it, but I had not before seen them all put together, with the gaps filled. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Appian is not a historian with the talents of Livy — how I wish Livy’s account of this period had survived! His account is sometimes disjoint and he makes mistakes of fact — the latter not such a problem in this Oxford edition, which is festooned with copious notes. My main complaint is that he is not good at conveying the character of the people whose actions he describes; they rarely come to life as real historical people. I supplemented my reading, therefore, with a number of Plutarch’s lives, and, for good measure, with Shakespeare’s plays on Caesar and Antony (and Cleopatra). I would recommend the same sensible and rewarding course to others interested in this period of history.


Feast of St Benedict

July 11, 2018

Listen carefully, my child, on this festive day, to the sons of St Benedict at Pluscarden Abbey:

(Tonsure-tip: Sacred Miscellany)


Chagall in noise

July 4, 2018

Poems about Olivier Messiaen are not plentiful; it’s a pleasure to read one. Micheal O’Siadhail begins in this way:

I hear the bells and singing stained glass birds
As, Olivier Messiaen, you shift the scale
Of chirps from semitones to tones or thirds
For tawny owl or tenor nightingale.

There’s a good deal of solid matter in the poem — references, direct and oblique, to quite a few of Messiaen’s pieces, to his synesthesia, to the musicians and instruments with which he was associated — but most of all the poem communicates a love for him and his music, a love that I heartily share.

There is a line that I cannot parse:

Our spirit’s here and there both correspond;

Perhaps it’s just because I haven’t slept properly for a while, but I can’t see how that apostrophe doesn’t spoil the sense of the line. Please correct me.

Our envoi has to be Éclairs sur l’au delà — which is not about desserts.


Johnson: Life of Swift

June 29, 2018

Life of Swift
Samuel Johnson
(Bigelow, Smith & Co, 1929) [c.1780]
50 p.

For me the appeal of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets is more Johnson than the poets. That said, Jonathan Swift was a man worthy of this great moralist’s attention. His Life begins with a chronological overview of the main events of Swift’s life and of his principle literary works, and then concludes with an appraisal of his personality and literary merits.

Swift was born in Ireland, and lived most of his life there, with occasional residence in England. He was a late bloomer; his first major literary work (“Dissensions in Athens and Rome”, now mostly forgotten) was not published until he was in his mid-30s. He earned his reputation as a critic and satirist, and became a sort of public figure without ever holding an official public office. Indeed, he entered into the life of a clergyman to earn his daily bread — something that I knew, but had forgotten, and was surprised to learn again. He eventually became the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a church of the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland, and “much against his will commenced Irishman for life”.

Although he had preferred to be in England than Ireland, he became a friend and champion of the Irish people against the English, putting his wit and his influence to work on their behalf. The famous essay “A Modest Proposal” (which Johnson does not mention) is an example of his method. For this advocacy he was widely admired by the Irish.

Swift’s was a difficult personality. Johnson describes him in this way:

He is querulous and fastidious, arrogant and malignant; he scarcely speaks of himself but with indignant lamentations, or of others but with insolent superiority when he is gay, and with angry contempt when he is gloomy.

And, in another place:

His asperity continually increasing, condemned him to solitude; and his resentment of solitude sharpened his asperity.

He was a man whom few dared to cross, possessed of “a countenance sour and severe, which he seldom softened by any appearance of gaiety”. He was not given to laughter, but of course not entirely without humour; his Saharan-grade dry wit served his satirical talents. He was a religious man but he hid his devotions from the view even of his friends. He had a “dread of hypocrisy. Instead of wishing to seem better, he delighted in seeming worse than he was.” He carried on for many years an ambiguous relationship with a woman much his junior, Esther Johnson, whom some believed he had secretly married — Johnson certainly believed it. Upon his death he was buried beside her in his cathedral.

When we think of Swift, we probably think first of either “A Modest Proposal” or Gulliver’s Travels, the two works on which his fame largely rests. About Gulliver Johnson writes that

it was read by the high and the low, the learned and illiterate. Criticism was for a while lost in wonder; no rules of judgment were applied to a book written in open defiance of truth and regularity.

He does not specify how it was read by the illiterate, but the point is clear: it was a popular success that defied categorization. It is notable that in our time it is often classified as a children’s book, an indication that we still don’t really know what to make of it. In Swift’s poetry Johnson judges that “there is not much upon which the critic can exercise his powers” — perhaps a surprising judgment given that we are here reading from the Lives of the Poets, but so be it. I myself read a volume of Swift’s poetry a few years ago and I agree with Johnson. (Woe betide him who does not!)

For Johnson, Swift is principally admirable for his use of satire in just causes — he “showed that wit, confederated with truth, had such force as authority was unable to resist” — and for the distinctiveness of his literary voice, for

perhaps no writer can easily be found that has borrowed so little, or that, in all his excellences and all his defects, has so well maintained his claim to be considered as original.

**

As I said above, much of the appeal of reading Johnson comes from reading Johnson, whose pen drips aphorisms and pithy judgments as readily as trees drop leaves in an autumn wind. Here is a sampling:

[On criticism of public figures]
Where a wide system of conduct, and the whole of a public character, is laid open to inquiry, the accuser, having the choice of facts, must be very unskilful if he does not prevail.

[On irresolution]
He that knows not whither to go, is in no haste to move.

[On flattery]
He that is much flattered soon learns to flatter himself.

[On peculiar habits]
…singularity, as it implies a contempt of the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes the hostility of ridicule; he, therefore, who indulges peculiar habits, is worse than others, if he be not better.

[On fruit]
Almost everybody eats as much fruit as he can get, without any great inconvenience.


Big Apple music

June 19, 2018

Last week we were in New York City for a few days, and while there were able to hear New York Polyphony in concert. This is an ensemble I’ve admired for years, and it was good fortune that they happened to be singing in their hometown during our brief sojourn in the city. We made the trek up to the 92nd St Y to hear them.

They normally pivot between Renaissance and modern music, but on this night we heard only one piece from the sixteenth century — a chanson of Lassus — with most of the programme devoted to nineteenth and twentieth century repertoire: part-songs of Schubert up through part-songs of Parry, with a few modern pieces to add spice. Of the latter, my favourites were Ivan Moody’s challenging settings of Canticum Canticorum, which called for, and received, impeccable tuning and finely controlled ensemble singing. But then we’d not have expected anything less from New York Polyphony. It was a wonderful night of music.

Here is one of the pieces they sang at the show: Joseph Barnby’s Sweet and low.


Ratzinger: In the Beginning

June 17, 2018

In the Beginning
A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
(Eerdmans, 1986)
100 p.

Based on four Lenten homilies given in 1981, this book examines the first three chapters of Genesis in the light of both the Church’s enduring teaching and our contemporary situation.

It is a theological study, not a scientific one, but Cardinal Ratzinger does grapple with how the sciences have affected our theological understanding of these foundational texts. He makes a basic point — basic, but nonetheless often forgotten — that the Bible is not a scientific text, and should not be read as one. Scripture itself varies its images of God’s creative action, even giving two distinct creation accounts, so that we are to understand that we should distinguish the content — what is being said — from the form in which it is said. And what is being said is something theological:

Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became — in the Word — the power of creation. All of this comes from the same Word of God that we meet in the act of faith.

For Christians, by long established tradition, the Scriptures are read and interpreted with the understanding that they form a unity, a unity founded on Christ: the whole points to him. Applied to the Creation accounts, this means that we should not be surprised to find that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who in that particularity might be thought a kind of local deity, is actually the Creator of all things, the God and father of all, whose salvation is ultimately intended for all — and that this universal fatherhood is precisely what Christ came to make manifest. The creative action of God is mediated by his Son, the Word, by whom and in whom the rational structure of reality is constituted — and this order in things is itself one of the principal truths the creation accounts are meant to teach.

The idea that the world is made according to a rational order Ratzinger finds reinforced by the use of numbers in the creation accounts. There are the 7 days of creation, of course, but also instances of three and four, and the phrase “And God said” occurs ten times, which he (following a tradition?) argues is meant to remind us of the Ten Commandments, suggesting a harmony between the physical and moral orders, as both proceeding from the same source.

But what does it mean to talk about Creation in an age that can give a thorough and persuasive temporal account of how the world came to be the way it is? Is it still reasonable to speak about “Creation”? The Catholic tradition says that it is reasonable, for the good and obvious reason that being does not explain itself. The state of things may be, at some level of explanation, explicable in terms of some underlying order, but that underlying order does not account for itself. Scientific explanations of the physical order, no matter how elaborate and ingenious and praiseworthy, are ultimately incomplete, because powerless to account for the principles operative within that physical order. This is an inescapable conclusion derived from the empirical nature of the sciences. Moreover, there are aspects of the world, such as the moral order, which the sciences are not equipped to investigate.

Cardinal Ratzinger takes a special interest in the passage in Genesis 2 (v.4-9) in which God makes man from the dust of the earth. What does this teach us? It does not explain “how human persons come to be but rather what they are”. He identifies at least three things we should notice: first, a man is not God, he is made and does not make himself, he is contingent and not necessary; second, a man is neither a beast nor a demon (as could be inferred from some other, non-Biblical creation stories), but good, as being the special creation of a good God; and third, all men are equal in dignity and, in their common origin, unified. This unity is underlined and augmented by Christianity, for the Incarnation united our common nature to God himself, thereby further uniting each of us to one another, and in a most exalted sense.

In the story of the Fall, we see that humanity, made good in its essence and oriented to God, also lives under limitations imposed by the nature of good and evil. We have freedom, but must not use that freedom in certain ways. Denial of those limitations — which he argues is “a fundamental part of what constitutes modernity” — means a denial of the reality of things as they actually are. When we live in that way, rejecting creation and not acknowledging that things have natures independent of our will, we live in untruth, which the Scriptures call the realm of death. This same denial — called sin — destroys our relationships with one another, with the world, and with its Creator, a destruction that can ultimately be repaired and restored only by the Creator himself, and this is the meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection: to re-establish relationships. Christ, once again, is at the centre.

*

[Creation and humility]
The fundamental Christian attitude is one of humility, a humility of being, not a merely moralistic one: being as receiving, accepting oneself as created and dependent on love.

[Doing and seeing]
People recognize the good only when they themselves do it. They recognize the evil only when they do not do it.


Brown: Magnus

May 28, 2018

Magnus
George Mackay Brown
(Berlinn, 2018) [1973]
208 p.

Just why it is that the Orkney Islands exercise such an outsized influence on my imagination is hard to say. Maybe it has something to do with their remoteness, dropped in a swath of cold, wild seas, in combination with their proximity, both geographically and culturally, to the familiar terrain of Scotland, which together give them the character of a borderland, not wholly alien, but still distant and mysterious.

George Mackay Brown was a poet and novelist who himself hailed from those islands, and here he novelizes the life of St Magnus Erlendsson, a twelfth-century Earl of Orkney. Magnus is not a conventional saint; he is a powerful man embroiled in a succession dispute in a violent age. There are few scenes of gentleness or cheerful piety; this world is hard and stern. Yet even so, Magnus stands out. In one memorable scene he goes to war in a longship; surrounded by brutal violence on all sides he stands, courageously, reading aloud to the men from the Psalter. But, as Earl, he bears not only his own interests, but also the interests of those who depend upon him for their livelihood, safety, and welfare. This responsibility he cannot escape, and it drives him forward, tragically.

The story is told unconventionally. We never, unless I am mistaken, get very close to Magnus himself. Rather the tale is told by those around him, or those under him: monks, tinkers, farmers. Sometimes the story wanders, following the trials and travels of these other figures in apparent forgetfulness of its main subject. But Magnus is always there, in the background, in fragments of conversation that refer to him, or simply inasmuch as he is responsible for the conditions under which these, his people, live, work, and suffer.

As one might expect from a poet novelist, the writing is superb. Brown is exquisitely sensitive to tone, and he varies it effectively as he switches from scene to scene. For the most part the prose is unadorned, as befits the rough condition of his setting and characters. Here is a passage chosen at random:

Mans the peasant from Revay Hill in Birsay laboured at the rowing bench. His clenched fists made circles. His oar rose and fell. He sweated. His face went from bilgewater to the gulls above the mast, then back again to the swilter and glug of foul water among the bottomboards.

That gives a sense of the style in which much of the book is written, but there are numerous exceptions. The opening chapter is a beautiful description of a bridal party preparing the bride — Magnus’ mother — for her wedding night, a sequence that concludes with a scop composing bridal songs:

Blow out the lamp now. There is a hand at the latch. Now I pray to Christ and the Blessed Immaculate Virgin and to all saints and martyrs that this shape I imagine in my body, this boy, may wear the white coat of innocence always. War to redden it, intrigue to fray it, lust to filthy it, treachery to tear it: these things must be. But I pray that his soul may never be wrapped in the seamless flame of eternal loss. I pray that he may bring his white weave continually, this Magnus, to the waters of grace, and in the hour of his death to the last brightest rinsings of absolution.

A miracle of imaginative fiction is that by it we see the world through the eyes, and with the sensibility, of another, and this whole bridal sequence is an outstanding example of an author allowing us to see and feel how our ancestors saw an intrinsic connection between marriage, sexuality, love, and fertility.

There is another marvellous section in which Magnus prays through the night in a church, meditating at length on the Mass and the nature of sacrifice in religion. It is a beautiful piece of writing in itself, but I recommend it particularly to Catholics, whom I think would appreciate it both aesthetically and spiritually, as I did.

Returning to the tonal variations: at one point the authentic ring of Anglo-Saxon verse can be heard:

I must tell now concerning the jarl Hakon Paul’s son, how he summoned about him an host, and set them in eight war-hungry ships. Then those tryst-men heard a great boast, how that from the meeting in Egil’s Isle but one jarl would fare him home at sunset, and that not Magnus. A death-lust on listening faces about the mast, a weaving of warped words. Sigurd and Sighvat were the blackest mouths in all that hell-parle. Fierce sea stallions trampled the waves.

And, finally, there is one virtuoso example of tonal shift, dramatically placed at the climax of the story, that put me in a state of wondering admiration, not only at how Brown subtly transitioned from medieval to modern times, his setting and characters gradually transforming into something else, creating a literary effect very much like a cinematic dissolve, but also for how his doing so greatly expanded the book’s range and ambition. I’m strongly tempted to write about this in detail, it being, in some real sense, the centrepiece of the novel, but out of consideration for those who might like to read the book and be surprised, I will not.

When I closed the last page of Magnus I wanted to go back to the beginning and start again. As it happens, I did not actually do this, but over the intervening weeks it has lingered in my imagination, and I may return to it again before too long.

From the book’s Wikipedia page I have learned that Peter Maxwell Davies adapted this novel into a 1977 opera. I’d like to hear it.