Favourites of 2015: Popular music

December 29, 2015

This year almost all of my popular music listening was devoted to that on-going pop music odyssey, and I didn’t go out of my way to listen to a lot of new records. In other words, to the extent that there was any good popular music this year, I probably don’t know about it. As such, you might wish to stop reading now.

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dylan-shadowsIt was a good year to be a Bob Dylan fan. Early in the year he released Shadows in the Night, a disc devoted to covering songs associated with Frank Sinatra. If that seems like an intriguing combination to you, and if you’re keen to transmute a voice of gold into a voice of lead, you’re not alone: it received good reviews. I confess it is not really my thing. Sinatra’s music is a big blind spot for me, and Shadows in the Night hasn’t convinced me to rush to change that. I think of this record as a minor side-project, rather like (though not nearly so loveable as) his Christmas album.

dylan-cuttingNo, the really exciting Dylan record this year was The Bootleg Series, Vol.12: The Cutting Edge, 1965-66, a set of studio outtakes from the recording sessions for Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Popular music doesn’t get any better than those three records, and exploring these alternate versions and previously unreleased songs has been a thrill. The Cutting Edge has been issued in a 2-disc sampler version, a 6-disc “deluxe” edition (which is the one I have), and, if you can believe it, an 18-disc collector’s edition. Included in the set are a long-rumoured but heretofore unreleased electric version of “Desolation Row”, a full-band version of “Mr Tambourine Man”, a superb acoustic “She Belongs To Me” taken as a gentle andante, and many other delights. One disc is devoted entirely to outtakes of “Like A Rolling Stone”. There are even a few songs (some fragmentary) in this set that I’d never heard before: “Jet Pilot”, “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”, “California”, “Medicine Sunday”, and “Lunatic Princess”. One of Dylan’s most famous unreleased songs — and, I am tempted to say, one of his best — is “She’s Your Lover Now”, a version of which appeared on the very first Bootleg Series issue back in the 1990s, but on this set we get a handful of other takes, some of them quite different. For years it has been an entertaining parlour game to try to complete the stanza in which the previously-released recording faltered and broke down:

Your mouth used to be so naked,
Your eyes used to be so blue,
Your hurts used to be so nameless,
And your tears used to be so few.
Now your mouth cries wolf
While…

While what?! On The Cutting Edge we finally find out how it ends. And if you’ve ever dreamed about what it would have been like to eavesdrop on Dylan as he first strummed out one of his masterpieces, the very last track in this set, a quarter-hour long, tentative first airing of “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, will be a dream come true, as it was for me.

To move from Dylan circa 1966 to anything else is inevitably to make a precipitous decline, but let’s look around and see what else came my way this year.

sufjan-carrie-lowellSufjan Stevens returned with Carrie & Lowell. After pulling out all the musical stops on his previous record, The Age of Adz, here he retreats to a quiet, dark corner to pluck out a collection of intimate songs about memory, family, and death — the record was written, I believe, following the death of his mother. It is a difficult record, thematically, though sprinkled with moments of grace here and there, and all that pain is transmuted into a quiet beauty by the simple arrangements and gentle melodies. When I first heard the record I did find it disappointing, not because of the spare sound (which I generally prefer to something more ambitious), but because the songs sounded too much alike. On further acquaintance, however, I withdraw this objection, and the record has been growing on me. And if I want to cleanse my pallet at record’s end with something more jovial, I can always take a ride on the “Christmas Unicorn”.

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fullbright-songsIt is fitting that John Fullbright’s sophomore record (from 2014) is called, simply, Songs; he is a young songwriter of considerable gifts. Blessed with a nicely-rounded baritone, an instinct for good melodies, and enough heartbreak and melancholy to satisfy even the most exacting critic, he comes across as a genuine artistic force to be reckoned with. Most of these songs, influenced variously by the blues and the classic American songbook, are on the quiet side, with acoustic guitars and pianos in the foreground, though a few tracks do get the full band treatment. There is an intensity and a modesty — nothing too flashy — about his songwriting that I admire, and I’m going to be keeping an eye on him in the future.

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The biggest disappointment of my year was unquestionably Mumford & Sons’ Wilder Mind. The first disappointment was that there was to be a third Mumford & Sons record at all; as much as I’d enjoyed their previous work — and I had — it was, and is, my view that Mumford would do better if he disinherited his Sons. Nonetheless, if there must be a third record, I was keen to hear it. I bought it. I listened to it, once, and couldn’t bring myself to listen to it again for the next six months. Nearly all that had made them distinctive and interesting was thrown overboard in favour of amped-up stadium rock of the kind you can hear any hour of any day on your local Bland FM station. I could hardly believe my ears. What possessed them to do this, I don’t know — though I $uppo$e I can think of $ome po$$ible rea$on$. Late in the year I have returned to Wilder Mind to give it another chance, and I will say that it’s not quite as bad as I had initially thought. There are some catchy tunes, and a couple of the songs I rather like (“The Wolf” and “Only Love”, principally). But there’s no denying that it’s still a big disappointment.

**

adams-1989Perhaps the oddest release of the year was Ryan Adams’ 1989, a track-for-track cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989. He says he became interested in what it would sound like if Nebraska-era Springsteen were to sing Swift’s songs, and so he decided to find out himself — and a very creditable imitation he does too. Now, I am one of those who think that Nebraska-era Springsteen could sing any old dreck and it would sound pretty terrific, and Adams’ 1989 vindicates me to a considerable extent. Some of the songs succeed better than others, naturally. In any case, Adams is one of those singers whom you can’t help but respect: he’s been toiling away in the indie rock world for years now, famously prolific, but never hitting the big time. I can only imagine that this little project, in addition to being an interesting experiment, will do wonders for his bottom line, and I hope so.

**

Children’s Music: Let me put in a good word for Justin Roberts, who has a respectable stack of children’s records under his belt, but whom we just discovered this year. It was his Pop Fly record that we found first, after I heard it described as “the Sgt Pepper of children’s albums”. We all enjoyed it tremendously. From there we got Jungle Gym, and then Meltdown!, and with each new record my appreciation of his talents has grown. roberts-pop-flyHe writes songs that the kids can relate to: songs about field trips, having a broken arm, getting lost in a store, playing in a treehouse, playing baseball, crossing the street, having an imaginary friend, going to bed, liking trucks, riding a bike, getting a new baby sister, having a birthday, and that sort of thing. He has a wonderful way with words too; if your typical pop music songsmith was half as witty the world would be a better place. What really sets him apart, however, is the quality of his music: the melodies are catchy and the arrangements are often impressively intricate. It’s rare to hear this level of craftsmanship from a children’s entertainer. So: Justin Roberts, thank you for a good year; our van singing would not be the same without you.

**

Other good records I heard: Josh Garrels, Home; Josh Ritter, Sermon on the Rocks; Andrew Peterson, The Burning Edge of Dawn; David Ramirez, Fables; The Innocence Mission, Hello, I Feel The Same; Robby Hecht, Robby Hecht.

Songs, Both Ear-Worms and Things More Substantial: Sinead O’Connor: “Take Me To Church”; Tim McGraw: “Losin’ You”; John Fullbright: “All That You Know”; Lee Ann Womack: “Chances Are”; Justin Roberts, “Fruit Jar”; Robby Hecht, “The Sea and the Shore”; The Collection, “Scala Naturae”; Ashley Monroe, “Has Anybody Ever Told You”; Jason Isbell, “Flagship”, Josh Garrels, “At The Table”.


Favourites of 2015: Books

December 28, 2015

Today I kick off my annual “favourites of” series of posts, in which I’ll be writing about the best books, music, and movies that I had the good fortune to read, hear, and see this year. These are not “Favourites of 2015” lists in the usual sense, because most of what I’ll be discussing is not of recent vintage. The theme for today is books.

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shakespeare-234x300At the beginning of the year I set myself a modest personal challenge: to read one Shakespeare play each month. I had noticed that years were slipping by in which I hadn’t read even one, and it didn’t seem right. I’m happy to say that I met the challenge, and then some. I treated myself to a few of my favourite plays (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest), dipped into the historical plays (Richard II through Henry V), read a couple of the great tragedies (Macbeth and Hamlet), and also enjoyed several of the less well-known plays (The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, and Coriolanus, for example). The experiment was such a success that I’m going to continue it in 2016. At this rate, it will only take about 4 years for me to read all the plays. I am also, inspired by this book, going to make an effort to memorize at least a few Shakespearian passages this year.

I know a place where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
All overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet muskroses, and with eglantine.

Not bad for a start. We’ll see how it goes.

This was also a year in which I made a few tentative steps into the world of e-books. I had noticed, with some dismay, that much, or even most, of my reading time was in the dark. I made the most of it, but my flashlight was waking up the baby and annoying my wife. And so I loaded a few books onto my phone (I use the Marvin reading app); in night mode it seems not to bother anyone, and in consequence I have been able to read more, and sleep less, than I did formerly. I’ve been raiding Gutenberg for free books. I read a lot of Chesterton this year in this format, and some classic novels too.

Speaking of novels, I’m sort of surprised to find that I read only a handful this year: Dostoyevsky (The Adolescent), Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Dickens (Dombey and Son), a few of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, and … I think that’s it, leaving aside books for children. The novel I got for Christmas last year, Nabokov’s Pnin, I see is still sitting there. Soon, soon.

sutcliff-arthurI did read a lot of children’s books this year. Untold numbers with the children themselves as bedtime reading, but I also enjoyed a fair number on my own. In my mind, I am “scouting ahead” so as to be in a position to put good books in their paths as they grow up, but to tell the truth I’ve enjoyed these books on their own merits, quite apart from the satisfaction of being a good parent (or my best imitation of one). My focus this year was on medieval- and classical-themed books for kids, and I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s Arthurian trilogy along with her novelizations of Homer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales from Greek mythology in A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, other Greek and Roman myths rendered by Padraic Colum and Charles Kingsley, legendary tales about saints from William Canton, and a few collections of fairy tales too, including the Grimm one. It was good stuff, for the most part, and I hope to write in more detail about it in the near future.

Before leaving the topic of children’s books, let me praise the picture books my kids loved most this year: Aaron Becker’s Journey and Quest. They are wordless picture books, so the children take an active role in telling the story, rather than just listening. We’ve read other wordless picture books in the past, but none of them matched — indeed, none of them came close to matching — the incredible enthusiasm that Becker’s books produced in our kids. The stories are about two children transported to another world in which they must … well, just what they must do is one of the things the readers have to puzzle out. Each child is in possession of a magical pen; the things they draw with the pens become real. There are kings, soldiers, mountains, castles, undersea cities, mysterious maps, and all the ingredients of a great adventure. Becker’s watercolour illustrations are enchanting: full of interesting detail, beautiful to look at, and subtly composed to further the story bit by bit. Journey and Quest are the first parts of a projected trilogy, so we are eagerly awaiting the conclusion.

becker-journey

This year the kids also sank their teeth into Super Shark Encyclopedia and Super Nature Encyclopedia. For months on end these were our exclusive bedtime reading, and (mercifully) the books are very well done.

chestertonOn the non-fiction side, I read (as I said above) a lot of Chesterton, going more or less in chronological order, hitting some of the lesser-known books and discovering in most cases that they are lesser-known for a reason. Still, even when Chesterton is not at his peak he’s still pretty good. I think I’ve gleaned enough quotations to keep The Hebdomadal Chesterton going for another couple of years, at least. Inspired by my pop music odyssey I read a few books about Bob Dylan (by Clinton Heylin and Mr. Zimmermann himself) and Van Morrison (Hymns to the Silence, by Peter Mills).

FooteVols1-3I read some history, and among the chief triumphs of my year in reading was the completion of Shelby Foote’s massive The Civil War: A Narrative. I actually started reading this back when the Civil War began — sorry, when the sesquicentennial of the war began, in 2011 — and kept pace with the events of the war as they unfolded, finishing up just in time to mark the sesquicentennial of the end of the war. This was a great way to read this history, and I would recommend it to everyone if it weren’t too late to do so. Foote’s history focuses principally on the military side of the war experience, with occasional forays into politics, and very occasional glances at civilian life during the war. He digs into the tactical details, really putting the reader on the ground and explaining how battles unfolded. Foote is broadly sympathetic to the Confederate side of the war — not to slavery, but to other aspects of Southern life and culture that were destroyed by the war. The fact that Foote is often showing us the war from the Southern perspective helps to complicate an over-simple picture. Anyway, it’s a great book. Sometimes history is written not by the victors, but by the best historians.

boswell-johnsonlifeWhat else? I dipped in and out of Plutarch’s Lives. I relished James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (which actually took two years to read). I read a few long-ish format poems, by Goldsmith, Newman, and Dryden. I burrowed into a handful of books on politics and culture (by James Kalb, Richard Weaver, and, by proxy, Charles Taylor); I’ll write more about those at some point. It appears that the only philosophy I read this year was the Gorgias, plus Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, if that counts as philosophy. It was a particularly dismal year for theological reading; only Julian of Norwich qualifies, if she qualifies. Oh, and Edmund Campion at year’s end, if he qualifies. Oh, and The Cloud of Unknowing, if that qualifies.

If you could see the list of books I set for myself at the beginning of the year, you’d be forced to conclude that 2015 was a calamitous failure, reading-wise. But I’m not going to show you that list. All in all, it was a pretty decent year of reading.

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Favourite fiction: Anna Karenina

Favourite non-fiction: The Civil War (Foote)

Favourite biography: Life of Johnson

Favourite play: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Books published in 2015 and read by me: 0

Most gruesome children’s book: Jack the Giant-Killer, by Richard Doyle

Most books by a single author: William Shakespeare (14), G.K. Chesterton (12), Rosemary Sutcliff (5), Patrick O’Brian (4).

Least favourite fiction: The Club of Queer Trades (Chesterton)

Least favourite non-fiction: The Appetite of Tyranny (Chesterton)

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Given that I was reading quite a few Gutenberg books this year, all of which are rather old, it’s interesting for me to see if I’ve been able to shift the center of gravity of my reading out of the twentieth century. Here is a histogram of the original publication dates of the books I read this year:

books2015

No. The coverage of the last 500 years isn’t too bad, but still the 20th century emerges triumphant. I did very badly indeed in my classical and medieval reading. (I’ve also been having trouble with my graphics drivers since I upgraded to Matlab 2015b; hence the diagonal lines in each bin of the histogram.) Here’s a closer look at the books published since 1800:

books2015only19th20thc

This looks more promising. There are actually more books in the period from 1840-1940 than in the 75 years from 1940 to the present. I’m going to bend the rules a little and declare this a victory.

I think we’ll look at my 2015 in popular music next time. In the meantime: Tolle, lege, and may many good books come your way in 2016.


Feasting on Chesterton

December 27, 2015

As the end of the year approaches, I am cleaning up my desk. Here are brief notes on an armful of books I read this year, all by Chesterton, and arranged in order of publication.

gkc_saint

Twelve Types
G.K. Chesterton
[1903] 100 p.

These twelve brief biographical studies were originally published as part of Chesterton’s journalistic work when he was in his 20s. These were still his formative years, but the work feels like it comes from the pen of the Chesterton we know and love. He would go on, in fact, to publish whole books on several of the people sketched here, notably Tolstoy, Stevenson, Carlyle, and, most interestingly, St. Francis. We also get enlightening essays on the Brontes, on Walter Scott, on Byron and on Pope, and on historical figures like Charles II and Savonarola, as well as some lesser figures such as William Morris and Edmond Rostand. It’s a very quotable collection, with quite a number of Chesterton’s striking aphorisms:

Humanity, if it devotes itself too persistently to the study of sound reasoning, has a certain tendency to lose the faculty of sound assumption.

or

We should all like to speak poetry at the moment when we truly live, and if we do not speak it, it is because we have an impediment in our speech.

or

It may be easier really to have wit, than really, in the boldest and most enduring sense, to have imagination. But it is immeasurably easier to pretend to have imagination than to pretend to have wit. A man may indulge in a sham rhapsody, because it may be the triumph of a rhapsody to be unintelligible. But a man cannot indulge in a sham joke, because it is the ruin of a joke to be unintelligible.

or

The superficial impression of the world is by far the deepest. What we really feel, naturally and casually, about the look of skies and trees and the face of friends, that and that alone will almost certainly remain our vital philosophy to our dying day.

and so forth. This is not one of Chesterton’s books that draws a large number of readers these days, and it is true that it should, by his standards, be considered minor, but it is still very much worth getting to know.

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All Things Considered
G.K. Chesterton
[1908] 200 p.

This is another collection of Chesterton’s essays; he seems to have issued one every few years. In the preface he describes the book in this way:

It is a collection of crude and shapeless papers upon current or rather flying subjects; and they must be published pretty much as they stand. They were written, as a rule, at the last moment; they were handed in the moment before it was too late, and I do not think that our commonwealth would have been shaken to its foundations if they had been handed in the moment after. They must go out now, with all their imperfections on their head, or rather on mine; for their vices are too vital to be improved with a blue pencil, or with anything I can think of, except dynamite.

Naturally this is mere playful self-depreciation. The essays are better than those that you or I would write. The topics are truly all over the map: politics, sport, literature, education. There are about two dozen in total, and they include a few Chestertonian classics: “On Running After One’s Hat” and “Fairy Tales”, and there is also an excellent essay on Henry Fielding. Much to enjoy, as usual. I have reaped a plentiful harvest of quotations which will eventually find their way to The Hebdomadal Chesterton.

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Alarms and Discursions
G.K. Chesterton
[1911] 110 p.

A collection of short essays on a variety of subjects. Presumably these were originally published separately and later collected, but I do not know the story behind it. The essays are of variable quality, and some are very good indeed (“The Chorus”, “The Appetite of Earth”). They are, in general, less polemical than is typical with Chesterton. One gets the impression that they were written at idle moments, when he was day-dreaming, or when alone. There is a relaxed quality to them, and a gentle geniality, that is quite appealing. And he gets in a few good aphorisms too: “The most sentimental thing in the world is to hide your feelings; it is making too much of them.”

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The Appetite of Tyranny
G.K. Chesterton
[1915] 70 p.

This is the same book as The Barbarism of Berlin, with the addition of some additional material under the heading “Letters to an Old Garibaldian”. Note well the date of publication: it is part of his war-time propaganda campaign against the Prussian forces. I have found it to be among the least interesting of Chesterton’s writings, and for almost the first time I felt that Chesterton was more interested in scoring points than in presenting a balanced and truthful view of a matter. Disappointing.

***

The Crimes of England
G.K. Chesterton
[1916] 75 p.

Another of Chesterton’s wartime propaganda books, The Crimes of England finds him attacking the Germans by attacking all those times and ways in which England has been a friend to Germany:

On many occasions we have been very wrong indeed. We were very wrong indeed when we took part in preventing Europe from putting a term to the impious piracies of Frederick the Great. We were very wrong indeed when we allowed the triumph over Napoleon to be soiled with the mire and blood of Blucher’s sullen savages. We were very wrong indeed when we allowed the peaceful King of Denmark to be robbed in broad daylight by a brigand named Bismarck; and when we allowed the Prussian swashbucklers to enslave and silence the French provinces which they could neither govern nor persuade. We were very wrong indeed when we flung to such hungry adventurers a position so important as Heligoland. We were very wrong indeed when we praised the soulless Prussian education and copied the soulless Prussian laws.

He proceeds, chapter by chapter, taking the historical material case by case, and arguing that whenever England had sided with Germany it had sided with tyranny, oppression, deviousness, and other German things. Putting it that way gets at my main complaint: this is not nuanced. Chesterton sees the Germans as the clear villains of the war, and (in consequence?) he has nothing good to say about them. They are toxic through and through, and in his eyes England has always been weakened and shamed by its associations with them.

After recounting case after case of England’s simpering acquiescence to German malice, Chesterton takes up in his last few chapters the English response to Germany at the start of WWI, which is the context within which he is writing. Here he sees a break with the historical pattern: here England, and especially the common English people, rose up against Germany. He writes to rally the troops and praise their courage. He is rather good at painting the terror of the German advance:

It is almost impossible to repicture what was, for those who understood, the gigantic finality of the first German strides. It seemed as if the forces of the ancient valour fell away to right and left; and there opened a grand, smooth granite road right to the gate of Paris, down which the great Germania moved like a tall, unanswerable sphinx, whose pride could destroy all things and survive them. In her train moved, like moving mountains, Cyclopean guns that had never been seen among men, before which walled cities melted like wax, their mouths set insolently upwards as if threatening to besiege the sun. Nor is it fantastic to speak so of the new and abnormal armaments; for the soul of Germany was really expressed in colossal wheels and cylinders; and her guns were more symbolic than her flags.

And it was this imposing force that the English and French armies confronted at the Battle of the Marne (known to us, though not to Chesterton at the time of writing, as The First Battle of the Marne), a battle which Chesterton saw as decisive not necessarily for its tactical value, but for its moral value, as a sign that German aggression could be resisted successfully:

Much was to happen after—murder and flaming folly and madness in earth and sea and sky; but all men knew in their hearts that the third Prussian thrust had failed, and Christendom was delivered once more. The empire of blood and iron rolled slowly back towards the darkness of the northern forests; and the great nations of the West went forward; where side by side as after a long lover’s quarrel, went the ensigns of St. Denys and St. George.

It’s a lovely image, but a premature one, for even Chesterton could not have foreseen just how much murder and flaming folly and madness in earth and sea and sky was in store.

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Utopia of Usurers, and Other Essays
G.K. Chesterton
[1917] 130 p.

This collection of essays is centered around a longer piece which gives the collection its title. Like the title essay, most of the topics treated herein are social and economic, the main target being capitalism.

Attacks on capitalism are not rare in Chesterton’s corpus, but I sometimes wonder just what he meant by it. The fact that he has a tendency to cast specific aspersions at Rockefeller and Ford suggests that his complaint is with “big business”, with millionaires, rather than with (what is equally capitalism) people making a living by starting businesses and providing goods or services. He objects to the power big employers have over their employees and to the concentration of wealth in a few hands.

In “Utopia of Usurers” he sets out

to take, one after another, certain aspects and departments of modern life, and describe what I think they will be like in this paradise of plutocrats, this Utopia of gold and brass in which the great story of England seems so likely to end. I propose to say what I think our new masters, the mere millionaires, will do with certain human interests and institutions, such as art, science, jurisprudence, or religion—unless we strike soon enough to prevent them.

In other words, if wealthy capitalists gain enough power in society, how will they shape society? In our own time, where big businesses are bigger than ever before, when they make substantial financial contributions to university departments, and when they endorse political positions on even social issues, the question seems relevant.

For instance, he predicts that the arts will be assimilated more and more to advertisements:

The improvement of advertisements is the degradation of artists. It is their degradation for this clear and vital reason: that the artist will work, not only to please the rich, but only to increase their riches; which is a considerable step lower. After all, it was as a human being that a pope took pleasure in a cartoon of Raphael or a prince took pleasure in a statuette of Cellini. The prince paid for the statuette; but he did not expect the statuette to pay him.

On the other hand, certain of his speculations (“I think Prison will become an almost universal experience”) sound ridiculous.

Not one of his first, or even second, tier books, “Utopia of Usurers” was nonetheless worth a quick read, if only as a respite from the unrelenting wartime propaganda of these years!

***

A Short History of England
G.K. Chesterton
[1917] 140 p.

Chesterton set out to write a kind of everyman’s history of England, a history “from a standpoint of a member of the public,” a history to treat of the big and obvious features of the nation’s past rather than the minutiae and special interests that might reasonably be thought the preserve of professional historians. Academic histories are just so German.

In typical Chestertonian fashion, his book is almost entirely devoid of dates; I counted, I think, only 2 or 3. In fact, there is a sense in which this history, whether intended for everyman or not, is not intended for those everymen who come to the book innocent of history. One could learn some history from Chesterton, of course, but admixed with so much commentary and (occasional) polemic that one would do better to read Chesterton as a gloss on a more sober survey.

He begins with the Roman influence on England (“The important thing about France and England is not that they have Roman remains. They are Roman remains.”) and proceeds forward, covering the major epochs and prominent figures (St Augustine of Canterbury, St Thomas Becket, St Thomas More, Lord Nelson, and so forth). Round about the 18th century, where my prior knowledge is weakest, I lost the thread for a while.

As in so many of his books written while the Great War raged, Chesterton finally brings his history around to what one suspects may have been its original motivation: an attack on Germany and the Germanic influence on England. That final chapter weakens the book as a whole, not necessarily because the argument it makes is flawed, but because it feels inorganically related to the whole. One sympathizes with his motives, but laments the “topical” intrusion.

***

The New Jerusalem
G.K. Chesterton
[1920] 175 p.

In all my reading about Chesterton over the years, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone make reference to The New Jerusalem; I assumed it was one of his minor books. And, when set against Orthodoxy or Charles Dickens, it is indeed minor, but when set against the average Chesterton book — against the ones described above, for instance — it compares rather favourably. It is an account of a journey he took to Egypt and (as it was then called) Palestine, to visit the Holy City.

The first thing I noticed is that the book is unusually well-written. Chesterton was never — well, rarely — an outright bad writer, unless you have a strong alliteration aversion or pun problem, but he wrote so voluminously that although he is not dull he is often unpolished and a trifle slapdash. Here, however, he sounds more patient, writing quite beautifully at times, and has invested his account with more structure and craft than was typically the case. I suppose it is possible, or even likely, that he was writing as he travelled, and was therefore at some distance from the usual interruptions and pressures of Fleet Street.

The opening sections of the book approximate to a kind of travelogue, a series of impressions about the places he visits — the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, the Holy City itself, Gethsemane, the Dead Sea — and about the people he sees. He takes a keen interest in the close abutment of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic civilizations in Jerusalem. The middle section of the book looks back at the history of Jerusalem, and in particular at the era of the Crusades, when the city’s configuration of religions and cultures first took something like its current form, and when the seemingly irresolvable triangular conflicts between them first attained something like their current shape. The final sections of the book, which, from our vantage point a century later, are much the most uncomfortable for the reader, grope toward possible means of resolving the tensions.

I will not dwell here on the travelogue and historical sections of the book; I’ve harvested a host of excerpts for eventual airing at The Hebdomadal Chesterton. There are juicy bits about the hazards — the poetic and spiritual hazards — of sight-seeing, alongside some lovely descriptions of the impressions the sacred sites made on him. The historical material is enlivened by a quite gripping account of the Crusader’s siege of Jerusalem, and again of the eventual fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187. (Not that Chesterton gives us any dates, of course.) He speculates that the failure of the Crusades to accomplish their objectives, and in particular the fall of Jerusalem, was so discouraging to Christendom that it deflated the whole cultural project of the High Middle Ages and led, in time, to the collapse of its ambitions and the transition to early modernity. It’s a tough thesis to defend, and he is candid that it is based on little more than intuition. It is perhaps best to leave it at that.

As I said, in the final chapters of the book Chesterton turns his attention to the religious and cultural tensions woven into the fabric of Jerusalem, and in particular to what he calls “the Jewish problem”. Right off, this strikes the modern reader as a most unfortunate choice of words, bearing, as it does, such a close resonance with “the Jewish question” to which the Nazis offered their unconscionable answer. To be sure, for Chesterton “the Jewish problem” is not a problem with the Jews, but a problem for the Jews: namely, how can Jews be a coherent, unified people without having a homeland? He thought that a homeland would make it much easier for them to live as Jews, and so he supported the creation of such a homeland. And he thought it would be good, for their own sake, if Jews would move there. Therefore, by implication, he thought it would be good if Jews would move away from England, France, America, Germany, and wherever else they had been scattered. For this he was at the time, and has continued to be, regarded by some as an Anti-Semite. As luck would have it, in The New Jerusalem he responds to the accusation directly:

There is an attitude for which my friends and I were for a long period rebuked and even reviled; and of which at the present period we are less likely than ever to repent. It was always called Anti-Semitism; but it was always much more true to call it Zionism… It was in substance the desire to give Jews the dignity and status of a separate nation. We desired that in some fashion, and so far as possible, Jews should be represented by Jews, should live in a society of Jews, should be judged by Jews and ruled by Jews. I am an Anti-Semite if that is Anti-Semitism. It would seem more rational to call it Semitism.

There was nothing unusual in the fact that he advocated for Jews to live together in their own, self-governed state. Against the ambitions of his own country he wanted the same for the Irish. He wanted the same for the Boers in their struggle against England. Readers of his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill will know that in his fancy he would extend this independence and self-rule even to the distinct neighbourhoods of London. So I am inclined to believe him when he says that his support for Zionism was, in his own mind, support for Jews. He understood himself to be supporting what Jews themselves would, naturally, support. And, indeed, as we know, some Jews did support it. But had Chesterton lived to see the founding of the State of Israel, I think he would have been surprised to discover how many Jews did not emigrate there.

In the light of that historical fact, and especially in light of how (rightly) sensitive we are to criticism or stereotyping of Jews, it is undeniable that Chesterton’s comments about how Jews are strangers in European society, and his light-hearted digression on the advantages of Jews wearing distinctive clothing, and his suggestion that Jews live in designated enclaves — well, it all makes the reader cringe. But, in fairness to him, we must do our best to imagine ourselves back to his own day, before anyone imagined the Holocaust, and also do our best to read such comments in the light of his own consistent political ideal of self-governing, religiously unified, and culturally distinctive peoples. I’m not saying it’s easy.

In this connection, I note that a new book, Chesterton and the Jews: Friend, Critic, Defender, by Ann Farmer, has recently appeared. I haven’t read it, but it appears to treat this question in some detail.

Apart from these reservations about the closing chapters of the book, I am happy to recommend The New Jerusalem as a delightful read, a very interesting window into the way Jerusalem looked and felt a hundred years ago, and a good opportunity to spend some time on the road with Chesterton.


Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2015

Master of Salzburg, c.1400

Wishing you and yours a very happy
and blessed Christmas season.

*

 


♪ ♫ Have yourself a very little Schoenberg ♬

December 23, 2015

Doing my best to avoid “dangerous and disgusting habits”, I am sticking with Advent music for another few days. Here is a nice discovery: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” arranged by, of all people, Arnold Schoenberg.

(Hat-tip: Ivan Hewett)


Rise up, my love, my fair one

December 21, 2015

A beautiful setting, by Healey Willan, of the first reading for today:


On Samuel Johnson

December 13, 2015

The Life of Johnson
James Boswell
(Everyman’s Library, 1993) [1791]
1344 p.

Samuel Johnson
W. Jackson Bate
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975)
668 p.

“Fate wings with ev’ry wish the afflictive dart”
— “The Vanity of Human Wishes”

Samuel Johnson is one of those rare figures who can take up a permanent place in one’s moral and imaginative life. A colossal genius, one of the English language’s great masters, a probing moralist, and a man of great personal courage and fortitude, one can walk around him and find something admirable from every vantage point. In his excellent biography, W. Jackson Bate comments that as our familiarity with Johnson improves “we begin to think of him as almost an allegorical figure, like “Valiant-for-Truth” in The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and this I have found to be quite true.

johnsonI dare say Johnson is unique in English letters for having a reputation derived to a very great extent from things he did not write down. We admire his writing, of course — his great Dictionary, his “Preface to Shakespeare”, his many moral essays, his novella Rassalas — but Johnson himself towers over his pen. And we know about Johnson the man principally through the massive Life which James Boswell assembled over the course of their long friendship, and in which, with quiet tenacity, he faithfully recorded Johnson’s conversation at table, among friends, or in London society, or at home. The Life is one of our great biographical treasure troves. For my private enjoyment I’ve assembled page after page of memorable quotations and winsome stories plundered from its pages.

In fact, so central has been Boswell’s role in bringing Johnson to later generations, it is a little startling to be reminded, as Bate reminds us, that Boswell did not meet Johnson until he (Johnson) was already in his 50s, and that over the 21 years of their friendship they were actually in one another’s company for only about 300 days (excluding their several months’ excursion to Scotland). Fully half of the Life covers just the last 8 years of Johnson’s life. There were social connections important to Johnson, such as that with the Thrale family, of which Boswell had little direct knowledge. Even the common honorific “Dr Johnson” is due mainly to Boswell’s influence; Johnson himself preferred to be called simply “Mr Johnson”. In this respect a biography like Bate’s is valuable for filling in the background and rounding out the figure.

To be fair, there is a good deal more to Bate’s biography than just “filling in” and “rounding out”. It is an ambitious effort to come to grips with Johnson in all of his considerable complexity. Because of the wider variety of sources informing it it arguably tells us more about Johnson than Boswell does. Bate is a sensitive reader, and seems to have a secure footing even when stepping through the murky waters of Johnson’s slough of despond. Having said that, in the end Boswell will bury all other biographers.

Johnson was praised in his own day for his originality (“He said even the commonest things in the newest manner”), his courage and honesty, his humour (“the size of a man’s understanding might always be justly measured by his mirth” [Johnson]), and his intellectual range. In his biography of Francis Bacon, Johnson described Bacon as “a strong mind operating upon life,” and admirers of Johnson have found the phrase just as apt when applied to Johnson himself. Boswell summarized this aspect of Johnson’s character thus:

“His superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge which we often see to be no better than lumber in men of dull understanding, was in him true, evident, and actual wisdom.”

Johnson suffered greatly throughout his life. He was, from childhood, afflicted with serious physical ailments, including blindness in one eye and more or less continual pain. Despite his intellectual gifts, his finances prevented his obtaining a university degree. He struggled with self-discipline, constantly renewing his resolve to rise early, work diligently, and retire early to bed, and constantly failing in his resolve. He battled a lasting fear of insanity, and suffered recurring black humours that today we would probably call depression. He was ever alert to the dangers proceeding from “the treachery of the human heart.” He combined a trust in Providence with an unsentimental appraisal of the hardships of living, and was known to become very angry with anyone who ventured to deny the unhappiness of life. Perhaps because of this suffering, he was generous and compassionate with those in need. He lived modestly, and took into his home a rotating group of destitute guests.

On 17 June 1783, Johnson suffered a paralytic stroke, an injury from which he was never to fully recover. Of this experience he wrote, rather endearingly, that “I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse.” Some months later, on 13 December 1784, he died. Boswell writes that it was William Gerard Hamilton who best expressed the feelings of Johnson’s friends upon his passing:

“He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. — Johnson is dead. — Let us go to the next best: There is nobody. — no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

It is a fitting encomium on a life well-lived.


Campion: Ten Reasons

December 1, 2015

campion-rationesTen Reasons
Proposed to his Adversaries for Disputation in the Name of the Faith and Presented to the Illustrious Members of our Universities
St Edmund Campion, S.J.
[1581]

Campion’s Decem Rationes was written covertly and published illegally in 1581. Campion himself had become, by that time, a notorious (or celebrated, depending on one’s allegiances) figure. He was the most well-known of the Jesuit priests who had slipped into England, under threat of death, to minister to England’s beleaguered Catholic minority. He travelled quietly around the country, often under an assumed name and in disguise, and was something of a thorn in the side of the authorities.

Ten Reasons was given a memorable launch: copies were painstakingly printed and assembled using a mobile press, and, once ready, were taken to Oxford University and slipped into the seats of a hall in which an academic meeting was scheduled. When the attendees arrived and it was discovered, it caused a tremendous stir.

Campion’s purpose was to set forth arguments — ten of them, naturally — against Protestantism. Since his arrival in England some years before, he had been challenging the Anglican churchmen and academics to debate, but thus far none had accepted. The publication of Ten Reasons was his way of forcing the issue.

The ten reasons are gathered under headings: Holy Writ, the Sense of Holy Writ, the Nature of the Church, Councils, Church Fathers, the Grounds of Argument assumed by the Church Fathers, History, Paradoxes, Sophism, and, finally, All Manner of Witness. Because he wrote at a time when Protestantism was new, he had a particularly keen sense of how it was undoing the integrity of the faith, and several of his arguments are probing. His manner is, by turns, jocular, satirical, passionate, and exasperated; the book is a very entertaining read. He was writing to those whose declared intention was to capture and kill him, and he was not inclined to be docile.

I won’t rehearse the arguments themselves here; the book is brief enough that an interested reader could get through it without too much trouble. Basically they boil down to the claim that Protestantism, by rejecting some but not all of its Catholic inheritance, finds itself in a very confused state indeed.

One month after Ten Reasons was published, Campion was captured. He was held in the Tower of London for several months, tortured on the rack, and finally hanged, drawn, and quartered, alongside Fr. Ralph Sherwin and Fr. Alexander Briant, on 1 December 1581.


Sing, but keep going

November 28, 2015

A favourite passage from today’s Office of Readings, which comes from a sermon of St. Augustine (and which I have posted before):

O the happiness of the heavenly alleluia, sung in security, in fear of no adversity! We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country.

So, then, my brothers, let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do — sing, but continue your journey. Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable. Sing, but keep going. What do I mean by keep going? Keep on making progress. This progress must be in virtue; for there are some, the Apostle warns, whose only progress is in vice. If you make progress, you will be continuing your journey, but be sure that your progress is in virtue, true faith, and right living. Sing then — but keep going.

Tomorrow marks the start of a new year. Sing, but keep going. I wish you a good Advent.


Happy birthday, General Relativity

November 25, 2015

einstein-paper

One hundred years ago today, on 25 November 1915, Einstein first presented the field equations for General Relativity during a lecture in Gottingen. GR is regarded, with justice, as among the most beautiful and creative achievements in the history of science. I know of none greater, and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to spend many happy hours working with the field equations — and some unhappy ones too, of course, because they are fiendishly difficult to solve!

On the same date, 25 November 1915, Einstein’s paper on the perihelion advance of Mercury was published in Königlich Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften. This was the first, and is still one of the most important, experimental tests of General Relativity.

Einstein-equation


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