Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Esolen’

Way over yonder

June 16, 2017

A few interesting items I’ve stumbled upon in the last few weeks:

  • When Mother Teresa was canonized last year, I missed this superb reflection on her life by Fr George Rutler, who knew her personally. “The canonization of Teresa of Calcutta gives the kind of satisfaction that comes from having your mother declared Mother of the Year.” It’s a quite beautiful tribute to her and her significance for the rest of us.
  • Bob Dylan’s Nobel lecture finally appeared, and it’s well worth a listen (or, if you must, a read). Fr Schall has interesting things to say about it, both for better and worse, although I think he underestimates the degree to which Dylan’s body of work has a transcendent dimension.
  • Speaking of Dylan, one of the best things I’ve read about him since he won the Nobel last year is this essay by Carl Eric Scott, published in Modern Age. Scott selects “To Ramona” as one of Dylan’s most underrated songs, a judgement with which I heartily agree.
  • At City Journal, John Tierney writes about something we don’t hear much about: the left-wing war on science.
  • Ben Blatt has written a book called Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, in which he subjects famous works of literature to statistical analyses. It prompted one of the most enjoyable scathing reviews that I’ve seen in a long while, from Matthew Walther: “Never, I think, has a purported piece of “literary criticism” been so disconnected from literature and non-suggestive of all the things that might, and very frequently do, induce people to read.” The review was so withering that I actually got the book, just to see how bad it was. It’s tremendously bad.
  • In the midst of a stew of troubles, Anthony Esolen wrote a graceful critique of illiberal habits of education. It was an elegant farewell note to Providence College.
  • And finally, from New Criterion, a very interesting biographical essay about Fr Reginald Foster, an American priest who was for many years the Vatican’s chief Latinist.

For an envoi, here is Bob Dylan singing “To Ramona”, live in Manchester in 1965:

Wonder and imagination

March 10, 2016

Here’s a quite wonderful lecture by Anthony Esolen on education and the imaginative life, in which he circles around that most wonderful of plays, The Tempest.

Books briefly noted

July 11, 2014

A few quick notes on books I’ve read over the past few months:

wolfe-backtobloodBack to Blood
Tom Wolfe
(Little, Brown, & Co., 2012)
720 p.

Tom Wolfe returned after an hiatus of nearly ten years with this cheerful mess of a novel about life in the city of Miami. It’s a diffuse sort of story, but to the extent that it has a central character that character is Nestor Camacho, a young Cuban-American police officer with an unwitting talent for stirring the racial tensions present just beneath the surface of the city’s life. Unlike Wolfe’s better novels, the central plot of Back to Blood feels disconnected from the social and moral issues that he wants to explore — principally multiculturalism in a modern urban center. Though patchy at times, it is a lively story, told with Wolfe’s usual half-unhinged winsomeness. There is a most regrettable subplot — totally inessential, as it turns out — about pornography addiction; sure, it’s “topical”, but it feels shoehorned in and I, for one, could have really, really done without it. Really.

Bring Up The Bodiesmantel-bodies
Hilary Mantel
(HarperCollins, 2012)
432 p.

Last year I wrote with mixed impressions of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which followed Thomas Cromwell’s life from his childhood up to his establishment in the court of Henry VIII. It was from that lofty perch that he presided over Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and the executions of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. This sequel, which, like its predecessor, won the Man Booker Prize, has a tighter focus: the action covers the period 1535-36 and Henry’s waning devotion to Anne Boleyn as his hopes alight upon Jane Seymour. As the title of the book suggests, this volatility in the royal affections results in a bloodbath, including, of course, in the final pages, the execution of Anne herself.

Given that gruesome terminus, it might be perverse to say that I enjoyed this panel of the story, and enjoyed it more than the first, but it is nonetheless true. I objected in Wolf Hall to what I took (and take) to be Mantel’s unjust portrait of More, but here I had no reason to take such offense (perhaps simply because of my own ignorance; I make no special claim for this novel’s historical accuracy). Interestingly, one of the literary aspects of the previous novel that I had praised — namely, the way in which Mantel, through artful use of pronouns, saturated the very grammar of her story with the force of Cromwell’s character — is downplayed in this second volume; there are an abundance of clarificatory “he, Cromwell”s to steady the reader, and this I found a little disappointing. I leave open the possibility, however, that it was done precisely to begin eroding our confidence in his competence and security.

Mantel does seem to be preparing us for his eventual downfall. There is a moment in Bring up the Bodies when his position in the court is suddenly shown to be very precarious indeed, and it comes as something of a shock to realize that even so expert a political animal as Cromwell can find himself outmaneuvered by events. He has the wit to call himself “a man whose only friend is the King of England,” but there is a hard truth behind the jest that will, I expect, be brought into the foreground in the projected next volume. In the meantime, Mantel’s traversal of this much-travelled historical territory makes for engrossing reading.

esolen-ironiesIronies of Faith
Anthony Esolen
(ISI, 2007)
420 p.

Irony might be thought to be the special province of post-modern skeptics, who have made much hay with it: cool detachment, hip knowingness, cynical distance. Irony can be, and has been, deployed as a kind of “universal solvent,” an engine of deconstruction. But Anthony Esolen wants to rescue irony from those associations and recover its place — a joyful, enriching, surprising place — at the heart of Christian devotion. In this book he plumbs great Christian literature for ironic themes and presents them for our consideration.

Is it surprising that there should be a place for irony in Christianity? This is a religion that plays endlessly with interchanges of first and last, mighty and lowly, strong and weak; it identifies a little baby with the Creator of all things, and worships as Lord an executed criminal. Esolen wants to stress that deep irony does not arrive from mere cleverness, but is rooted in a problem of knowledge. Irony arises, he argues, when an author reveals to the reader “a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows,” and he finds it pervades the Christian imagination.

The book ranges widely, with chapters devoted to Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Spenser, Dostoyevsky, Hopkins, Tolkien, and many others. Some authors — Francois Mauriac and Alessandro Manzoni, for instance — I am not familiar with, and I confess I skipped over those chapters; I’ll return to them when the time comes. There is a very fine closing chapter devoted to the anonymous medieval poem “Pearl”, which Esolen calls “the greatest religious lyric in English”. It is indeed a superb poem, and this is the best and most accessible introduction to it that I have seen.

Literary criticism is not really my thing, but I found this book rewarding nonetheless, not so much for its ironic insights — irony is not really my thing either, I must admit — but for its thoughtful exploration of literary works that are deeper and richer than my reading can plumb. This is literary criticism born of love and informed by a long tradition of moral reflection. It is a very worthwhile book.

Esolen on Fox: Homo ludens meets TV

November 27, 2012

Anthony Esolen appeared earlier this week on a Fox News program called “Fox & Friends” to talk about his wonderful book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He took a risk, adopting for the interview the Screwtape-inspired perspective from which the book is written: up is down, black is white, left is right, the Left is right, etc. Evidently this proved too much for the hosts:

The befuddled looks and hasty retreat make his point for him. It’s a missed opportunity to promote an excellent book, and I am sure he was not pleased with the outcome — and, in fairness, he did stumble a little out of the gate — but I hope he laughed on his way home anyway.


Obviously this curtailed interview didn’t allow time for Esolen to say much of anything. Happily his pen has been busy:

  • At Crisis Magazine, he has launched a projected series on Catholic social teaching:

    I’m sick of it.  I’m sick of hearing that Catholic teaching regarding sex and marriage is one thing, in that old-fashioned trinket box over there, while Catholic teaching regarding stewardship and our duties to the poor is another thing, on that marble pedestal over here.  I’m sick of hearing that Catholic teaching regarding the Church and her authority is one thing, the embarrassing Latinate red-edged tome tucked away in that closet, while Catholic teaching regarding the laity is another, and pass that bread this way!  No, it is all of a piece.

  • Also at Crisis, a piece on cultivating a culture of courtship and romance within the Church:

    It is irresponsible in us, then, to let our youth muddle and meander; to suppose that marriage will eventually “happen.”  For my whole life, the ecclesially minded have asked, “What can we do to keep our youth in the Church?”  And their attempts haven’t worked, because they have viewed young people as consumers of a churchly product, rather than as boys and girls, young men and young women, with obvious natures and needs.So then—I call upon every parish in the United States to do the sweet and simple and ordinary things.

  • And at Front Porch Republic he has been writing a provocative series on education called “Life under Compulsion”:

    Why do people invariably enjoy visiting old one-room schoolhouses?  They are human places, on a human scale, for the education of little human beings.  It isn’t just that one knows, without having to think about it consciously, that the planks and joists where pegged together by the hands of the same people whose children would go to school there.  It’s that the whole idea of the school is founded upon their natural desires and intentions.

But I doubt Fox will have him back to talk about those things.

Nine of Ten Ways

June 15, 2011

For the past few months I have been slowly reading through Anthony Esolen’s latest book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. It is so packed full of (inverted) good sense that I thought I would try to get it a little more exposure: I asked our local city library to acquire a copy. To my delight, they ordered nine. Today I went to see if anyone has noticed them, and, to my even greater delight, I see that they are all in active circulation (except for one, which is apparently already lost).

I do believe that I have done a good deed, and made this city a little better than it was before. (It doesn’t take much.)

On the contrary

November 6, 2009

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization
Anthony Esolen (Regnary, 2007)
340 p.  First reading.

Normally I would not bother with a book that flaunts its “politically incorrect” credentials.  It is almost certainly going to generate more heat than light.  My native reluctance was overcome in this case because of the author. Anthony Esolen is a translator, essayist, and author whom I admire.  He is robustly politically incorrect, to be sure, but in a thoughtful and eloquent way, and I thought the book would be worthwhile.

By and large, I was right.  There are a few cases in which he goes a little too far out of his way to get in a “zinger”, and the tone does occasionally tip over into stridency, but those are exceptions.  Essentially the book is an accessible but intelligent survey of Western culture, from the Greeks through to the present, in which Esolen systematically challenges received wisdom.

He admires the achievements of the Greeks and the Romans and acknowledges our debt to them.  In some circles that is already politically incorrect, especially when accompanied (as here) by the claim that Greek and Roman culture was, in various ways, superior to that found among other peoples.  Going a step further, both in historical chronology and in political incorrectness, he then argues that our debt to the Jewish people and to Jesus is at least as great as that owed to Greco-Roman civilization. This is a truth which a great many people today would rather forget. His discussion of the medieval era is perhaps a little rosier than is strictly warranted, but this is a justifiable strategy given the absurd views most people have about the period.  He challenges the common view of the Renaissance as a triumph of reason over superstition, and argues that the Enlightenment laid the groundwork for the tyrannies and violence of the last 150 years. Both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries he sees as periods of decline and decadence, characterized especially by debasement in politics, the arts, and education.  By our own day, the West has become alienated from itself, embarrassed of its origins and its history, and is consequently dying — in some quarters, literally so.  There is no joy in Esolen’s prognosis: he loves Western culture and would see it restored if possible, but he believes that this cannot happen unless we return to our roots.

As in any good story, there are villains and heroes.  Among the villains are Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, and Dewey; the heroes include Plato, Aquinas, Pascal, Johnson, Shakespeare, Browning, Dostoyevsky.  Esolen praises those who have honoured tradition, taught the importance of virtue, conscience, and community, defended human dignity, respected the natural law, and sought to preserve an expansive liberty for a man to shoulder his own responsibilities and to order his life, in concert with those of his neighbours, as he thinks best.  Consequently, he opposes those who seek to sever us from our traditions, who regard human beings as mere animals, who despise religion, who regard our nature as malleable and our customs as prejudices, who deny the moral law, and who would cede their rightful liberties and responsibilities to the state in exchange for security and creature comforts.  Clearly, there is a certain kind of reader who will find this very unpalatable.

For me the best part of the book was the early chapter on Israel.  It follows chapters on Greece and on Rome, and as much as I enjoy reading about Aristotle and the Stoics and Roman civic virtue, there is something missing. When we turn to the Jews, we find a world of fresh wind and fire: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing,” said God to Abraham; “Be of good cheer: I have overcome the world,” said Jesus.  Socrates, for all his merits, never said anything like that.  Esolen does a superb job is showing how the faith of Israel brought a new thing into history, one that affected a deep change in our understanding of the human person, of the nature of political power and of nature, and of the possibilities of human life.  More than that — and here we reach a fevered pitch of political incorrectness — Esolen believes that this inheritance is the most important element of Western culture, and that only if we cease our rebellion against it will we restore our health.

I share Esolen’s love for Western civilization, and I have dedicated many hours of study to the hope that, in some real if modest way, this great inheritance will find in me a receptive heart and mind able to pass it forward to the next generation as a living thing.  I am startled to realize that, if Esolen’s thesis is correct, this love and this commitment make me politically incorrect.  Well, don’t tell anyone.