The Tallis Scholars, in a rare foray outside of their usual Renaissance repertoire, have just issued a disc of Arvo Pärt’s music. Here is the group’s long-time leader, Peter Phillips, describing some of it. The video has a nice way of visualizing the music by showing which singers are singing at any one time. It’s entrancing.
- Roger Scruton has had his ups and downs, but has learned something along the way, about love, about parenting, about education, and many other things that are part of becoming a family. This old essay is well worth reading:
What we have discovered through marriage is not the first love that induced it but the second love that follows, as the vow weaves life and life together. Western romanticism has fostered the illusion that first love is the truest love, and what need has first love of marriage? But an older and wiser tradition recognizes that the best of love comes after marriage, not before.
- The Academy Awards came and went. I note that Ida, one of my favourite films from last year, won in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Well done, Academy.
- That film about Alan Turing was nominated for Best Picture, and lost. In much the same spirit, Ed Feser took a close look at the Turing Test and gave it a failing grade.
- I did not see any of the films nominated in the Best Animated Feature category, but, just based on the trailer, I’m pretty sure I know which should have won. Check this out:
Over the past few months I’ve been listening in on a very interesting long-term podcast series: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, by Peter Adamson. After covering Greek, Roman, and Islamic philosophy the series has recently reached its 200th episode and has begun to explore medieval philosophy. The podcast is very well done; each episode is about 20 minutes long, with a new episode every week or so.
The “without any gaps” modifier is part of the appeal. For instance, a typical survey of philosophy makes a fairly cursory mention of St. Anselm and his ontological argument for God’s existence; Peter Adamson devoted three or four episodes to exploring various aspects of Anselm’s thought. He also gave a few episodes to the 9th century metaphysician John Scotus Eriugena, who is often skipped entirely. Yet despite this level of detail the podcast is clearly pitched at non-specialists. The discussion is generally clear and often enlivened by an endearingly corny wit. I find it very enjoyable.
I can’t help wondering how far Adamson has charted his course into the future; he makes occasional jokes about the series never actually coming to an end, but the joke has a point. If Anselm gets four episodes, how many will Aquinas get? And Kant?! Well, with a podcast this interesting I can hardly complain.
The Ball and the Cross
Introduction by Martin Gardner
In this, one of his earliest novels, Chesterton tells the story of two Scotsmen, MacIan and Turnbull, the former a Catholic and the latter an atheist, trying to settle their differences not through argument but rather by that time-honoured tradition: the duel. But each time they find a quiet place to conduct their business, they are interrupted at the last moment. The characters who wander between them roughly represent different philosophies and views of life, and so the book is a sequence of scenes in which the Catholic and the atheist argue with a wide spectrum of opponents, all the while wanting only to fight one another. In the end the two find that, despite their differences, they can indeed fight side by side, for they share one conviction not shared by the others: devotion to truth.
It is not one of Chesterton’s best books; he himself claimed later in life that he did not like it, even penning a little verse on the subject:
This is a book I do not like,
Take it away to Heckmondwike,
A lurid exile, lost and sad
To punish it for being bad.
You need not take it from the shelf
(I tried to read it once myself:
The speeches jerk, the chapters sprawl,
The story makes no sense at all)
Hide it your Yorkshire moors among
Where no man speaks the English tongue.
His judgement is basically sound: little effort is made to disguise the fact that the minor characters exist only as an occasion to critique one worldview or another. It has some structural problems, too; one gets the impression that he didn’t know from one chapter to the next what would happen; his attempts at probing the deep significance of the conflict between MacIan and Turnbull through their dreams are failures. Yet, even so, I would not be as hard on the book as Chesterton was. There are some good things in it. The premise that a metaphysical dispute can and should be settled by a brawl or duel is itself a Chestertonian joke. Like all of Chesterton’s work, the book is full of good humour and that joie de vivre with which he was so generously endowed.
Chesterton frequently defended the merit of fighting for religious ideas. Here is a passage in which MacIan, the Catholic, recalls the reason for the duel and defends it to a judge:
If he had said of my mother what he said of the Mother of God, there is not a club of clean men in Europe that would deny my right to call him out. If he had said it of my wife, you English would yourselves have pardoned me for beating him like a dog in the market place. Your worship, I have no mother; I have no wife. I have only that which the poor have equally with the rich; which the lonely have equally with the man of many friends. To me this whole strange world is homely, because in the heart of it there is a home; to me this cruel world is kindly, because higher than the heavens there is something more human than humanity. If a man must not fight for this, may he fight for anything?
Chesterton made his living in journalism, and here he makes some amusing remarks about that profession:
…there exists in the modern world, perhaps for the first time in history, a class of people whose interest is not that things should happen well or happen badly, should happen successfully or unsuccessfully, should happen to the advantage of this party or the advantage of that party, but whose interest simply is that things should happen.
It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding.
The two would-be duelers meet a character – a `Tolstoian’ – who advocates non-violence, mutual understanding, and love. MacIan responds with memorable vehemence:
Sir, talk about the principle of love as much as you like. You seem to me colder than a lump of stone; but I am willing to believe that you may at some time have loved a cat, or a dog, or a child. When you were a baby, I suppose you loved your mother. Talk about love, then, till the world is sick of the word. But don’t talk about Christianity. Don’t you dare say one word, white or black, about it. Christianity is, as far as you are concerned, a horrible mystery. Keep clear of it, keep silent upon it, as you would an abomination. It is a thing that has made men slay and torture each other; and you will never know why. It is a thing that has made men do evil that good might come; and you will never understand the evil, let alone the good. Christianity is a thing that will only make you vomit, until you are other than you are. I would not justify it to you, even if I could. Hate it, in God’s name…It is a monstrous thing for which men die.
Which, to put it mildly, is not usually the way one thinks about it.
One of Chesterton’s favourite themes — even here, a full 15 years before his conversion — was the continuity and endurance of Catholicism contrasted with the ephemeral careers of all those doctrines attacking her. Thus, MacIan says to his opponent, James Turnbull:
I begin to understand one or two of your dogmas…and every one that I understand I deny. Take any one of them you would like. You hold that your heretics and sceptics have helped the world forward and handed on a lamp of progress. I deny it. Nothing is plainer from real history than that each of your heretics invented a complete cosmos of his own which the next heretic smashed entirely to pieces. Who knows now exactly what Nestorius taught? Who cares? There are only two things that we know for certain about it. The first is that Nestorius, as a heretic, taught something quite opposite to the teaching of Arius, the heretic who came before him, and something quite useless to James Turnbull, the heretic who comes after. I defy you to go back to the freethinkers of the past and find any habitation for yourself at all. I defy you to read Godwin or Shelley or the deists of the eighteenth century or the nature-worshipping humanists of the Renaissance, without discovering that you differ twice as much from them as you differ from the Pope. You are a nineteenth century skeptic, and you are always telling me that I ignore the cruelty of nature. If you had been an eighteenth century skeptic you would have told me that I ignore the kindness and benevolence of nature. You are an atheist, and you praise the deists of the eighteenth century. Read them instead of praising them, and you will find that their whole universe stands or falls with the deity. You are a materialist and you think Bruno a scientific hero. See what he said and you will think him an insane mystic. No, the great freethinker, with his genuine ability and honesty, does not in practice destroy Christianity. What he does destroy is the freethinker who went before. Free-thought may be suggestive, it may be inspiriting, it may have as much as you please of the merits that come from vivacity and variety. But here is one thing free-thought can never be by any possibility – free-thought can never be progressive. It can never be progressive because it will never accept anything from the past; it begins every time from the beginning, and it goes every time in a different direction. All the rational philosophers have gone along different roads, so it is impossible to say who has gone the furthest. Who can discuss whether Emerson was a better optimist than Schopenhauer a pessimist? It is like asking whether the corn is as yellow as the hill is steep. No; there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill or down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church.
Do I hear an Amen?
It’s the moment some have been waiting for: Terrence Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups, had its premiere this weekend at the Berlin Film Festival. Here is the trailer:
Reactions to the film have started to come in from critics, and Jeffrey Overstreet is doing a good service by collecting and excerpting them. So far the reviews have been all over the map, from
With vacant eyes and mouth agape, man continues his seemingly irrevocable fall from innocence, in Terrence Malick’s eternally juvenile seventh feature Knight of Cups. (Michael Pattison)
The most anticipated film of Berlinale 2015 looks set to be the best one. It’s hard to imagine equivalent notes of grace and meaning being struck in this competition or indeed in this world. (Sophie Monks Kaufman)
I’m not all that surprised. Malick is such an unusual filmmaker — both technically and thematically — that not everyone appreciates him. This was even true of his greatest masterpiece (to date), The Tree of Life, which I know some people, unaccountably, judge to be something less than the greatest film ever made.
I don’t know when the rest of us will get to see Knight of Cups, but I’m hoping that it will be sometime this year. So far as I know there’s no distribution deal yet. In the meantime, we can watch the trailer again.
Speaking of Malick and knights: did you know that some years ago he was tossing around the idea of doing a film of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Can you imagine! Apparently the project has now gone cold. I do believe I’m going to be sad for the rest of the day.
Over at Light On Dark Water Maclin Horton has organized a year-long blogging project called 52 Authors. It’s a community effort: each week either Maclin or one of his regular readers will contribute a short appreciation or overview of the work of a favourite author. I might even contribute myself if I can find some time.
The project started at the New Year, and so far we’ve had posts on Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Howard, Salman Rushdie, Mark Helprin, and, today, Henri de Lubac. If you’re a reader — and if you’re not, what the heck are you doing here? — I recommend taking a look. Oh, and it might be time to invest in some new bookshelves.
My central complaint about Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels was her “mean-spirited and calumnous” treatment of Thomas More, whom she portrayed as “a remorseless kill-joy and sadist.” (I am quoting myself.) At the time I recommended Peter Ackroyd’s biography of More for its more balanced appraisal.
Today I came across an even better, because more intimate, assessment of More’s character:
In a word, if you want a perfect model of friendship, you will find it in no one better than in More. In society he is so polite, so sweet-mannered, that no one is of so melancholy a disposition as not to be cheered by him, and there is no misfortune that he does not alleviate. Since his boyhood he has so delighted in merriment, that it seems to be part of his nature…
In human affairs there is nothing from which he does not extract enjoyment, even from things that are most serious. If he converses with the learned and judicious, he delights in their talent; if with the ignorant and foolish, he enjoys their stupidity. He is not even offended by professional jesters. With a wonderful dexterity he accommodates himself to every disposition. As a rule, in talking with women, even with his own wife, he is full of jokes and banter.
In other words, hardly the crabbed old vulture of Mantel’s imagination. These words come from the pen of Erasmus, the great humanist of the age and no sycophant. Read the whole thing at Supremacy and Survival.
From the same source I learn that there is a new television programme based on Mantel’s novels, which more than justifies a renewed critical look at her portrayal.
(Incidentally, to base a television programme on those books seems an odd choice considering that their greatest merits are distinctly literary: their tone, diction, and even grammar, none of which translate well to the screen.)
Today I’d like to share a couple of curiosities that I have encountered during my pop music odyssey. I am currently working my way through the music of the early 1980s, which means that I am shuffling into the deck, for the first time, the music of Nick Cave. Tonight I began listening to his debut solo album, From Her to Eternity, the very first song of which is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche”.
This is interesting because although both Cohen and Cave are singing the same song, the songs are radically different. Each singer has stamped it with his own distinctive personality. Cave, in particular, has taken the song and made it totally his own. In my experience, this degree of assimilation of a cover song, in which a singer seems to inhabit and alter a song that we already thought we knew, is quite rare. And I like it.
Actually, to be strictly honest, I don’t like Cave’s version, just as I don’t like being threatened and frightened in a dark alley, and for much the same reasons. Cave scares me. But I admire what he’s done; I like that he is a force to be reckoned with.
Let’s hear the songs. Here is Cohen’s original:
And here is Cave’s version:
This is not the first time this phenomenon of the absorbed, pondered, and reborn cover song has impressed me during my odyssey. Back in the early 1970s I came across a Van Morrison song that I had not noted before, and I loved, loved, loved it. The song was “Purple Heather”, and it was a thing of beauty:
I heard the song numerous times before I realized that it was a song I already knew: the old folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme”, but so thoroughly and idiomatically reinterpreted so as to be almost unrecognizable. It’s a wonderful thing.
If you don’t know the original, here it is, sung by Emmylou Harris, Dick Gaughan, Rufus Wainwright, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. That’s a room full of talent if I’ve ever seen one.
The Flying Inn
(Dover, 2001) 
There are people who judge The Flying Inn to be one of Chesterton’s better works of fiction — and perhaps it is, though that would not be saying all that much. Is it a philosophical comedy? A farcical dystopian vision? A profound cultural critique? A mere excuse to string together drinking songs? It’s a little difficult to get a clear reading, because the dang thing won’t sit still. My view is that Chesterton was going for something like the good-natured adventuring of Pickwick, but this time through a landscape in which everyone but Pickwick and friends — sorry, Dalroy and friends — have forgotten what England is all about.
The story takes place at an unspecified time in the future, in which English society, and in particular the elite class, has fallen under the exotic sway of Islam. It’s simplified theology, the sumptuous aesthetic appeal of Arabic carpets and purfumes, and the ascetic appeal of teetotalism have endeared it to people who matter. The kinds of arguments on behalf of Islam that appeal to them are superbly half-witted (much more so than any such real-world arguments would be). Most significantly for the story, the English Parliament has passed laws shuttering all pubs that do not have a sign in front, and the signs have been confiscated — mostly. Captain Dalroy and his friends still have one, and the book is a record of their wild romps over rolling English roads with a sign, a barrel of rum, and an armful of cheese. They plant their sign in the unlikeliest of places, serve up warm cheer to the common folk who gather around them, and then abscond again before the authorities catch up with them.
The story is punctuated by spontaneous song-making on the part of the characters, and some of Chesterton’s better-known warm-hearted poetry comes from this book: “The Rolling English Road”, “The Logical Vegetarian”, “The Song against Songs”, “The Song of Right and Wrong”, and “Wine and Water”, among others. It’s not great poetry, but it is the sort of thing one would enjoy singing while drinking rum and running from the police (or so I imagine).
Considered as cultural criticism, The Flying Inn is vexing. The face of Islam presented in the book is a largely aesthetic one: only those aspects which appeal to the “progressives” have been adopted, and it seems to me that the real target of his satire is modern secularism. The character of the novel’s central villain, Lord Ivywood, bears this out; in his notes on the book, Dale Ahlquist summarizes Ivywood well:
Lord Ivywood is one of Chesterton’s best bad guys. He represents everything that is wrong with the world. He is not only the personification of Big Government and Big Business, he is the loss of Western religion, the unreflective acceptance of Eastern religion in the wake of that loss, and he is the mood of modernism in art, philosophy, and love: “I see the breaking of barriers,” he says. “Beyond that I see nothing.”
As such, it is not really clear what the quasi-Islamic background adds, unless it be simply its value as a foil. Maybe Chesterton needed something to oppose the traditionalism of his protagonists, and an unadulterated secularism was just too bland. Certainly the prospect of a marriage of progressivism and Islam has comedic value. Oh, did I mention that the book lies well out of the political correctness safety zone?
As a road novel, the book inherits the weaknesses inherent to its genre: a general shapelessness, haphazard action, and transient characters. I imagine Chesterton writing his episodes on napkins in pubs, puffing on a cigar and laughing to himself, and finally delivering the stack of napkins to his publisher. The book is witty, disorganized, genial, tedious, and sort of fun. I’m glad I read it, and please God I’ll not read it again.
Every year I like to survey the major composer-related anniversaries that the upcoming year has in store. There’s a comprehensive list here. (Thanks once again, Osbert.) Those I am likely to observe in one way or another are:
- Philippe le Chancelier (c.1165-1236)
- Richard Davy (1465-1507)
- William Cornysh (c.1465-1523)
- John Sheppard (1515-1558)
- Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565)
- Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) [17 March]
- Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) [8 December]
- Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) [10 August]
- Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) [9 June]
- David Diamond (1915-2005) [9 July]
In my books, the big birthday this year is Sibelius’ 150th; I’m planning a fairly extensive listening project to celebrate it. I have long wanted to be better acquainted with his symphonies, and this is a good chance. I include Jacquet de la Guerre because she is one of a very few female composers to have entered the ranks. Sheppard and Rore are polyphonic masters; I never need a good reason to listen to them, but I’ll take one anyway. The same should be said of the lesser-known English composers Davy and Cornysh, who belong to the deliberately obscured generation writing just prior to the English reformation. Philippe le Chancelier was a poet whose work influenced the Notre Dame school of polyphony; whether he was himself a composer is not clear, but it will be nice to remember his birthday anyway.
- Bertrand de Born (c.1140-c.1215)
- Ramon Llull (1232-1315)
- Antoine Brumel (1460-1515)
- Cipriano de Rore (1515-1565) [September]
- Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) [27 April]
I suppose the big memorial for this year is Scriabin’s. It will give me a chance to re-visit that big set of piano sonatas (with Marc-Andre Hamelin at the helm). Maybe, just maybe, I’ll even listen to the Poem of Ecstasy. Rore also has a memorial this year, so it will be doubly-difficult to overlook him. Ramon Llull was a polymath but not principally a composer; nonetheless, a contemporary source indicates that he “was given to composing worthless songs and poems”, so he makes the list. Bertrand de Born was one of the most eminent troubadours of his age; I certainly intend to spend some time with him and his music this year.