Please use the comments on this post to discuss your favorite books, music, movies, etc. of the year. This post won't be at the top of the blog for very long, but there's a link to it in the "Here" section of the sidebar.
Please use the comments on this post to discuss your favorite books, music, movies, etc. of the year. This post won't be at the top of the blog for very long, but there's a link to it in the "Here" section of the sidebar.
I'm beginning to suspect that Jean-Luc Godard is an over-rated filmmaker. Or at least that I don't care very much for his work. Maybe ten years ago I saw Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part), and really liked it. But I suspect that may have been only because of a few charming scenes involving the beautiful and charming Anna Karina. I haven't seen it again so I'm not sure. Then I saw Breathless, and came pretty close to disliking it. I don't have a lot of patience any more for the romantic and glamorous criminal business. Yes, I suppose that has something to do with the fact that I'm not romantic or glamorous or criminal, but even in my old age I find it a little depressing that chicks go for that type. (I also saw Weekend sometime back around 1970 or so, and thought it was sort of crazy, but I'll withhold current judgment on it until or unless I see it again.)
And then this week I saw Alphaville. I had put it on our Netflix queue years ago. Really, years--I put it on there in a burst of enthusiasm when we first signed up, but then kept putting other things ahead of it. And it finally made its way to the top only because I forgot to put the next series of Vera ahead of it.
It's a sort of science-fiction movie with a few film-noir trappings. The city of Alphaville is the totalitarian governing metropolis of some sort of giant civilization, apparently an interplanetary one--the term "galaxies" is thrown around but in a way that doesn't make much sense. A secret agent from the Outlands has been dispatched to the city with orders to assassinate a scientist who is in charge of a computer called Alpha 60 which is in the process of becoming the real governing entity.
There's nothing wrong with that as the premise of a movie, but I don't think this one is very well executed. There are absolutely no special effects, and all the action takes place in what is obviously a contemporary (that is, 1964) city. The secret agent initially appears driving a Mustang. I don't know whether Godard wanted to do it this way or just didn't have money to build some sort of futuristic environment. And maybe that's just as well, considering the state of special effects etc. at the time. But it lends a slightly ludicrous quality to some of the dialogue. More fundamentally, if the story was meant to be genuinely exciting, it certainly failed for me. Almost everything about it was unconvincing to me. There is a lot of fairly conventional sermonizing about mechanization, automation, control, dehumanization, etc., mixed with heavy 20th-century-French profundity. I actually laughed out loud when our hero said, in an interior monologue:
Yes, it's always like that. You never understand anything. And one night you end it in death.
There were a few things I liked, most of all some really evocative photography of nighttime cityscapes and the cold empty interiors of office buildings and hotels. Anna Karina is there, playing Natasha, the daughter of the scientist, and there are many long looks at her lovely face. There is a long, really too long, scene, where the hero and Natasha are in a hotel room philosophizing and falling in love. And one device of the Alphaville environment struck me as a distinctive and still telling insight: dictionaries are treated like Bibles, but are constantly replaced with revised editions that omit some words as no longer permitted and add others that are now required. The hero finds that Natasha does not know the word "conscience." He tries to explain it to her, and she says something like "I feel that I know this word although I have never heard it." Yes--it's one of the things we can't not know.
Looking around on the net, I find that my view seems to be in the minority. Here's a more typical one, if you're interested. There is apparently some cultural context that I was not aware of: the agent is named Lemmy Caution, and is played by an American actor, Eddie Constantine, who was well-known for playing the same character in a series of crime dramas.
Years ago (I mean something like forty years) when I worked in a bookstore, we stocked the fiction of B. Traven. Or perhaps I should say The Mysterious B. Traven, as he is often described. Here is the beginning of his Wikipedia entry:
B. Traven (Bruno Traven in some accounts) was the pen name of a presumably German novelist, whose real name, nationality, date and place of birth and details of biography are all subject to dispute. One of the few certainties about Traven's life is that he lived for years in Mexico, where the majority of his fiction is also set—including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927), which was adapted for the Academy Award winning film of the same name in 1948.
I remember picking up one of his novels, The Cotton Pickers, one night in the store when nothing was going on, reading a little, and feeling a bit let down, because it didn't seem to promise anything as exciting as the vague mythology surrounding the author suggested. Then I got interrupted, and never went back to it. A month or two ago I saw The Cotton Pickers and another book, The Night Visitor, on the discard table at the local library, and grabbed them.
Now I've read The Cotton Pickers, and that initial hasty impression of forty years ago seems to have been fairly accurate. I enjoyed it, but it's not a dramatic narrative, nor does it reach great psychological or philosophical depths. Insofar as it seems to have any aim beyond the picturing of a place and time and the telling of a story, that aim seems to be political: it is concerned with the oppression of the poor in Mexico (and by implication in the whole "capitalist" world). But it's not strident or plainly ideological, nor does it picture saintly poor people up against evil capitalists, so you never feel like you're reading a tract, but simply seeing things as they are. And in fact I would recommend it precisely as a social document, because it has the ring of truth, and it's good to be reminded sometimes, if one is inclined to forget it, of how deeply serious injustice is embedded in the world.
The story is set in rural Mexico, presumably in the 1920s when the novel was published. It's a loose first-person narrative of some months in the life of Gerard Gales, of whom we know nothing much except that he is "a white man," presumably American but possibly European, and is a vagabond without money or apparently any sort of stable life. The story opens with his arrival in a village where he desperately needs to find work. With a few other equally poor men he goes to work picking cotton. A good third or more of the book describes that experience. Later he puts in a bit of time at an oil field. He stays for a while in a little town, where he works in a bakery. He takes a job driving a herd of cattle to market.
And that's it. There's no cumulative narrative, just a series of incidents peopled by characters who come and go. Only at the very end of the book is there a suggestion that there may be more purpose in his wanderings than meets the eye, and I'm not sure about that. It's very low-key, and Gales's voice is wry and ironic. I might even call it light, but in retrospect, I'm left with a cumulative effect of seriousness, as much picture as story, and a very vivid one. A blurb on the dust jacket of my copy says that Traven does what Hemingway only tried to do, but this book, at least, doesn't strike me that way. It doesn't have Hemingway's grim seriousness and self-conscious heroic fatalism.
Now I want to read Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which unfortunately was not on that discard table.
One reason I read this book before the other is the subject, with which I have a personal connection: I'm one of a dwindling number of people in this country who have actually had the experience of picking cotton all day. The title in German is amusing: Die Baumwollpflücker. Good thing I never called anybody that in the cotton field.
I can deal with people making cheap political points by way of slogans, "memes," and the like. Well, that's not entirely true. I can't really deal with them, but I can usually manage to change the mental subject and ignore them. What really drives me up the wall is when they think they've made a point, but it doesn't even make sense. I've long thought that "Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries" was some kind of champion among that species. But I saw one a day or two ago that beats it: "The Constitution Has No Alternative Facts." The one about rosaries makes no direct sense; it's only word-association, but at least you can discern a connection between the words and a sentiment: the Catholic Church is trying to oppress me. I cannot find anything resembling a thought in the new one, though. I know what it means, of course: I don't want Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. But is there any connection between that and a dig at Kellyanne Conway's "alternative facts" remark about the size of the crowd at Trump's inauguration? Well, there I go, doing what I really must stop myself from doing: trying to point out illogic in a context where logic is irrelevant. It's a trap.
More and more often, in journalism and in the writing of young people in general (not real writing, but Internet postings of one sort or another), I notice misspellings indicating that the writer has only heard the word, not seen it in print, and is spelling it phonetically. This one caught my eye in a local news story the other day:
“She goes bizzurk, stabbing a gas station attendee in the neck and then goes across the street and attacks a female pharmacist, literally beating her to a pulp,” Nancy Grace said during a 2010 show.
I'm assuming this was the reporter's transcription, not an official one from the TV network (Nancy Grace is a TV "personality.")
January 9, 2017
Back in early 1970, during my last official undergraduate semester of college, I read Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (1966) for a class. "Religion in the Contemporary Novel," or something like that. I had only six months or so earlier become really acquainted with his music, by way of the album Songs From A Room. I had heard a bit of his stuff before, including and especially "Suzanne," and didn't especially care for it. Songs From A Room changed that, and by the time I read the novel I was a fan, and had hopes for the book.
The hopes were disappointed. The book seemed more or less insane, and I couldn't make much sense of it. I have no memory of anything I might have learned or said in classroom discussions of it, if there were any. I soon forgot it, except that I remembered a really deranged scene involving what we would now call a "sex toy" that had a mind of its own.
Recently, writing about that period of my life for the memoir-ish-sort-of-thing I'm writing, and maybe also prompted by Cohen's recent death, I decided to read Beautiful Losers again and see if the experience of forty-five years or so, as well as a deep love of Cohen's musical work over the period, would help me make more sense of the book, and perhaps appreciate it.
Well, no, not really. I have a better sense now of what Cohen was about, and in a very very broad sort of way what the book is about. But it still seems fairly deranged, and I still don't understand it very well. Anyone familiar with his songs is aware of the way he weaves together the spiritual and the erotic. In this novel he takes that extremes: it is saturated with fairly detailed and often unpleasant descriptions of sex, or maybe I should say descriptions of unpleasant sex, such as the sex toy scene I mentioned above. And its spirituality is focused on the extreme penances of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, with a number of digressions about the tortures perpetrated by the Indians on their own and on missionaries like St. Jean de Brébeuf. There are some beautiful passages, and beautiful or clever sentences in the midst of the craziness. There is a profusion of imagery and obscure pronouncements that made me think of the songs Bob Dylan was writing at the time: it may be profound or it may just be a kind of surrealism that is sometimes vivid and powerful but not necessarily intelligible. I didn't spend a great deal of time trying to understand it. I'd say he had great potential as a novelist and writer of prose generally. But I really can't recommend this book.
There's not a very clear story involved, but such as it is it involves an old scholar with an obsessive interest in certain Indian tribes and in St. Kateri, his friend and lover F. (male), and his wife Edith, who is also sexually involved with F. (whether that involvement is also romantic in any normal sense is a little unclear). It is a very weird triangle. F. exercises some sort of psychological power over both the scholar and Edith, and is somehow training or educating the scholar in some sort of psychological or spiritual discipline, something which savors of the notion that seemed to turn up a lot in the '60s, that something like salvation can be obtained by obliterating reason and surrendering to the extremes of experience. Or perhaps F. is just pushing him around. To tell the truth, as with the cryptic flights, I can't be bothered trying to figure it out.
But let me quote a passage which will prove that Cohen really could write. This is the closing paragraph of the book, but it doesn't give away anything. For much of the book, the scholar is writing the deaths of F. and Edith. For another large part, F. is speaking through a letter which he left behind. On the basis of the last sentence, this seems to be the voice of F.
Poor men, poor men, such as we, they've gone and fled. I will plead from electrical tower. I will plead from turret of plane. He will uncover His face. He will not leave me alone. I will spread His name in Parliament. I will welcome his silence in pain. I have come through the fire of family and love. I smoke with my darling, I sleep with my friend. We talk of the poor men, broken and fled. Alone with the radio I lift up my hands. Welcome to you who read me today. Welcome to you who put my heart down. Welcome to you, darling and friend, who miss me forever in your trip to the end.
Oh, and I have to note that this made me laugh. F. and the scholar are passing through a separatist rally in Montreal:
--This is an ugly crowd, F. Let's walk faster.
--No, it is a beautiful crowd.
--Because they think they are Negroes, and that is the best feeling a man can have in this century.
Last Fairhope Film Festival movie: L'attesa, English title The Wait. I will tell you right off that I did not understand it, assuming that there is some large Idea there to be understood. It stars Juliette Binoche, and it has now been almost twenty-five years since she appeared in Blue. She's now middle-aged, and I will also tell you that to me many women are at their most beautiful in middle age; what they have lost in youthful bloom they've gained in depth. It also stars a beautiful young woman, Lou de Laâge.
The basic story is slight, and simple. Anna, played by Binoche, has just lost her son, Giuseppe, in some sort of accident (the film is set in Sicily and Anna is a French expatriate--I think). Giuseppe had a girlfriend, Jeanne, who had been invited to visit the family over the Easter weekend. No one has told Jeanne of Giuseppe's death, and she arrives expecting him to be there. At first Anna doesn't have the heart to tell her. Then Anna finds that she cannot tell her at all. Days pass. Still Jeanne asks about Giuseppe, and still Anna avoids telling her the truth, though it slowly begins to slip out.
There's really not a great deal more to it than that. From my point of view the fact that these events occur during Holy Week seems as though it must be significant in some way, but I'm at a loss as to exactly how. A strange and very picturesque Sicilian procession, which I think but am not sure occurs on Holy Saturday, provides some striking imagery but again I'm not sure what its significance is. It may be that the director just liked the imagery.
Anyway, I would recommend this if only for its visual richness, of which you can get a taste in the trailer.
Maybe it's just my somewhat pedantic urge for precision and accuracy in language, but the admonition to "Make a difference!", unqualified, drives me a bit crazy. Similarly with the politician's call for "change," unqualified. Donald Trump is making a difference, and introducing change. I always want to point out that one could make a difference by, for instance, blowing up the Wallace Tunnel in Mobile, which would put a big crimp in Interstate 10 traffic (even more if one also blew up the Bankhead Tunnel). But as a rule the people who use these phrases have in mind a very specific sort of difference and sort of change that they want, and not others. They did not, for instance, have in mind the substantial difference Donald Trump is making; in fact they are wailing over it. I mention this because the choir at our parish church often sings a "worship song" which is mainly the repetition of the words "Go make a difference." Ambiguous advice at best.
I still can't read the words "President Trump" without laughing a little.
Several book reviews by people who read and comment here have appeared in the past week or so:
At The University Bookman, Rob Grano reviews The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel.
And Craig Burrell has done something unusual: read all of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
Mean old meanie Kevin Williamson (National Review) on the self-styled "Resistance" to Trump:
This isn’t Nazi Germany, none of you ladies and gentlemen in the pink hats is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the history books will not tell of acts of courage at the Battle of Soy Latte.
On Monday my wife and I watched the last episode of the second series of Man In the High Castle, the TV series (if that's the right term for a multi-segment drama released all at once for Internet streaming) based loosely on Philip K. Dick's alternate-history novel in which the Germans and Japanese win World War II. I can't say anything about the show's relationship to the book, which I haven't read, but I get the impression that there isn't a great deal of connection apart from the basic idea.
I thought Series 1 did an excellent job of portraying that might-have-been scenario, in which the Nazis rule the eastern half of the country, the Japanese rule roughly a third on the western side, and the rest, called the Neutral Zone, is independent and somewhat anarchic. The plot is complex and didn't seem entirely coherent, but that could be my fault. It revolves around a film or films that depict an alternate reality (alternate to the story's world, that is) in which the Allies win. For reasons that were never clear to me these films are very important, and they have some connection with the mysterious Man in the High Castle. Various people get involved with them and various things happen, many involving a resistance force that operates in both the German and Japanese sectors. There are a lot of subplots, and they make sense, but I was left unsure what the story as a whole was all about. The second series is better in that the bigger picture seems clearer and the whole thing more coherent (again, maybe that's just me).
In both, the portrayal of what life in the U.S. might be like under Nazi or Japanese rule is very convincing. One major character is Obergruppenführer John Smith, a former U.S. Army officer who has managed to do quite well for himself as a Nazi. The story takes place around 1960-'62, I think--and the everyday fabric of American society is not too dissimilar from what it actually was, which is to say that it's very 1950s-ish. (There is no rock-and-roll, however--"Negro" music is entirely forbidden.) Nazi evil is very domesticated: it's generally accepted, for instance, that racial hygiene requires that defective persons be eliminated, and the insertion of that sort of thing into a middle-American setting is disconcerting, to say the least. Smith is married with three children and has a nice home in a nice neighborhood and leads a life that looks in most ways normal for its time. But he goes off to work every day to help advance the Reich. And one supposes that such a world really could have come to seem normal.
Anyway: what I actually started out to mention is a little speech given by a very-high-up Nazi to a younger one who is having misgivings about the whole world-conquest thing. What he says is striking because he describes the goals of the Reich not in terms of the sort of grandiloquent and apocalyptic rage for domination that we associate with Hitler, but in a way that sounds more like John Lennon. "We are trying to build a better world. Don't you want to be a part of that? Imagine a world at peace, unified at last under one global government." It's easy if you try!
In those sentences he sounds much like an ordinary progressive. And that brings me to a book I've been meaning to mention for some months now: Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. You may have heard of it. It was published ten years or so ago. I read a few excerpts at the time, and they didn't seem especially good, so I didn't read the book. But a couple of years ago my friend Robert talked me into giving it another look. Also, in the intervening years I'd become more aware of and interested in the tendency in progressivism to want to exercise very tight control over many aspects of life as part of the march toward that better world, to compel participation in the vision. So I gave the book another try, and on the whole I found it impressive.
It's flawed in some ways, and the biggest flaws are visible here:
I mean the title and the cover. They give the impression that the purpose of the book is to call liberals fascists, and that its contents would be about as superficial as any book on contemporary politics with the word "fascism" in the title. And that's exactly the way it was treated by many. But the title actually comes from H.G. Wells, and it was a prescription. Here is the abstract of a paper discussing the concept in Wells. The use of the phrase is, therefore, justifiable intellectually. But as a matter of marketing it seems a bad choice for the title (not that I can think of a better one).
Aside from the bad impression given by the title and the cover, the book also seems somewhat unfocused to me. There is an awful lot of detail, but I was often unsure exactly what it all added up to, apart from demonstrating the historical connections between fascism and progressivism. That may have been my fault, but then the ten-year-anniversary edition, which is the one I read, has a new afterword in which Goldberg states his purposes explicitly, so apparently I wasn't the only one.
In spite of any reservations, though, I found it fascinating and instructive in part because for a long time I've thought that the political taxonomy which has fascism on the extreme "right" and communism on the extreme "left" is wrong, that those two things are much more alike than they are different. My pat one-sentence summary is that fascism is national socialism and communism is international socialism. Those on the left seem to think that the word "socialism" in "National Socialism" is some kind of accident, but it is not.
From my point of view then, the most important aspect of the book is that it shows historically that the two ideologies are members of the same family, siblings or first cousins, and that what we now call liberalism or progressivism has roots in both. All are responses to the decline of religion in Western culture, and involve a quasi-religious attempt to find meaning and hope in secular politics, which inevitably means in the state, to some degree.
It also--and this is one of the theses stated in the new edition--refutes--refudiates, to use Sarah Palin's wonderful accident--the association of American conservatism with fascism, detailing the left-progressive roots of characters and movements now ignorantly spoken of as conservative: for instance, Fr. Coughlin. American conservatism may be a good thing or a bad thing, it may be fundamentally confused in its attempt to mate classical liberalism and traditionalism, but it is not fascist, or generally sympathetic to fascism and linked to it in the way that progressivism is sympathetic to totalitarianism, whether described as "left" or "right."
I can't remember the context, but I'm pretty sure that somewhere along the line here we've discussed the interesting quasi-English accent of upper-class Americans in movies prior to 1950 or so. A few days ago I ran across a page at Vintage News that claims to explain it: that it was not exactly a natural phenomenon, but something deliberately cultivated. Having read that, I resorted to Wikipedia, which gives considerably more detail.
I'm afraid I've become one of those people who tends to get a little depressed during the "holiday season." This has been growing little by little for some time. It's not the sort of misery that apparently afflicts some people, and that seems to drive them to therapists and such--just a certain degree of melancholy. My medication for this, which I providentially discovered around the time the syndrome began to manifest itself, is to read P. G. Wodehouse, whose writing tends to make me feel for a little while the way champagne looks. This year it was Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. I read a chapter or two most evenings over a couple of weeks, and the effect was salutary, as usual.
One evening, along about page 83, Bertie described his Aunt Dahlia (she's the one he likes, if you recall) as speaking with "the explosive heat which had once made fellow-members of the Quorn and Pytchley leap convulsively in their saddles." Usually when reading Wodehouse and coming across some obscure reference like Q and P, I just move along. The name is amusing, and it apparently has something to do with hunting, and I figured that was enough to know. And besides, how would one ever track it down? But my iPhone was handy, and I decided to ask Google about it. Not surprisingly, it turns out that they--two different things--are the most well-known hunts in England (see Pytchley Hunt and Quorn Hunt in Wikipedia).
So what? So I found the meaning of those at a very wonderful web site, Madame Eulalie's Rare Plums. If you've read The Code of the Woosters, you know the reason for "Eulalie" (to explain it would spoil the plot), and "Plum" was Wodehouse's nickname, derived from a childish pronunciation of "Pelham" (the "P" in "P.G."). At Madame Eulalie's you can find annotations for several Wodehouse novels, including The Code of the Woosters, which also contains a reference to Quorn and Pytchley. This is a great service. For instance, perhaps in reading Code you wonder what exactly Anatole, Aunt Dahlia's treasured chef, has done when he prepares nonettes de poulet Agnès Sorel. Well, now you can consult Madame Eulalie's plums and learn that
Nonettes are small honey cakes, filled with marmelade or another preserve. They are not made from chicken (poulet).
Agnès Sorel (1421-50), was the mistress of King Charles VII of France. She also has no connection with chickens.
If Anatole's dishes are as creative as the names he bestows on them, it's easy to see why Aunt Dahlia is reluctant to lose his services.
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit also takes place partly at Aunt Dahlia's, and half a dozen or so of Anatole's dishes are mentioned. It had never occurred to me that the names are meant to be funny.
I guess many of us have had the experience of becoming estranged from friends and family over differences of religion and politics. The traditional counsel says not to discuss them on social occasions, and I've always resisted that, because those things are among the most interesting topics available, and I don't like small talk and am not good at it. It is, unfortunately, wise counsel if you want to continue to have good relations with the people involved.
I've never intentionally and directly cut someone off because of those differences, and it's hard to imagine something that would make me do so. (Since the election I've seen a number of Facebook posts and other online statements from liberals saying they want nothing further to do with Trump supporters, on the grounds that support for Trump is not just a political disagreement but an embrace of real evil. I can imagine applying the same logic though I can't think of any present issue that would provoke me to do so.) But in many instances there has been a slow drifting apart, for which I accept at least half the responsibility. Both parties cease making the effort to maintain contact, because it's just awkward. Or at least that's how it's looked from my side. This post from Neo-neocon describes the process very well. Social encounters that exist for enjoyment become strained, and not enjoyable, and so lose their reason for existing, and dwindle away. It's unfortunate and it only increases the polarization. But one tires of being in the position she was in at that party, and begins to avoid it.
It's surprisingly good--and not-weird. There is a famous speech that he gave at some award thing--Grammy awards maybe--that is quite weird. But it is funny that he felt obliged to tell us that Shakespeare is a "great literary figure." Maybe he thought they might not have heard of Shakespeare in Sweden. (Thanks to Stu for pointing this out to me.)
Oh, here's the weird one: 1991 Grammy awards. Not exactly a speech, just a...remark.
I've had this book on my shelf for a couple of years or so but only recently got around to reading it. That was partly in response to replies to the question I posed a couple of months (?) ago asking for recommendations for excellent contemporary prose stylists. Hart's name was mentioned, and I'd been wanting to read this book for a while, so I dug in.
It's excellent. And it is indeed very well written. It's in part an attempt to counter the shallow arguments of the so-called "New Atheists" (Richard Dawkins et.al.) on what they call "religion," and their mistaken notion of the nature of God as understood in classical monotheism. They think that Christians (their main target) believe in a God who is a discrete and specific being within the universe, not in that respect different from the tooth fairy, whose existence could in principle be demonstrated by empirical methods, and who, since no such demonstrations are available, "almost certainly" (to quote Dawkins) does not exist. This results in some very muddy controversial waters indeed. The fact that some Christians do apparently have this inadequate conception of God is okay--we aren't saved by the precision of our theology--but it does muddy the waters further, especially if they engage in public argument. (And especially especially if they argue from scripture.)
The atheists don't seem to realize that they've vanquished a straw man (at most). It's as if an attacking army has mistaken an outlying village for the enemy's capitol city, conquered the village, and declared victory, while life goes on as usual in the capitol. Hart's rejoinders are sharp and often amusing, but quite serious.
That's not all the book is about, though. I think any believer who is not already immersed in the ideas Hart advances would find his understanding stretched and strengthened. It's not concerned with specifically Christian ideas about God, but with the conception of one absolute God which is common not only to the Abrahamic religions but, Hart argues, present behind the pantheon of Hinduism. It does require some familiarity with basic philosophical and theological terminology, but I think it's within reach of those who, like me, have only a little.
The title seems just a bit misleading to me. I would expect it to refer to personal mystical experiences, but I think rather it's meant to suggest that the foundation of our conception of God lies in the direct experiences of reality and of our own consciousness, as implied in this sentence from the introduction:
God is not only the ultimate reality that the intellect and the will seek but is also the primordial reality with which all of us are always engaged in every moment of existence and consciousness, apart from which we have no experience of anything whatever.
And with that I'm going to turn the floor over to Craig Burrell, who has a lengthy and excellent discussion of the book at All Manner of Thing.
I have been enjoying this book occasionally since the late 1970s, but have still not read it in its entirety. I pick it up, read a few bits here and there, then put it down again, sometimes for years. I was looking at it recently and it occurred to me that I should mention it here, as it would make an excellent Christmas gift for anyone who loves English literature.
Arranged in chronological order, the subjects of the stories begin with Caedmon and end with Dylan Thomas. There are a good many very minor figures whom I've never otherwise heard of, but it doesn't matter whether it's Johnson or Thomas Birch, if the story is good. Some are funny, some poignant, like the long account of Shelley's death and cremation, and some just odd and striking.
There is a newer one, called The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, and it appears at the Oxford University Press web site that the old one is no longer in print. But I see used copies for sale on Amazon. I haven't seen the new one, though I cynically suspect it isn't as good. It does apparently broaden the field to include non-English writers and...Bob Dylan. I don't know whether it includes any of the material from the original or not.
Here's a sample. It appears in the section on Tennyson, but the worlds of science and literature meet in it: Charles Babbage, along with his patron Ada Lovelace, invented a calculating machine, the "difference engine," which would have been the world's first stored-program computer if it had ever been completed, which, because of its cost and complexity, it was not.
Every minute dies a man,
Every minute one is born.
drew from Babbage the remark that the world's population was in fact constantly increasing. 'I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: "Every minute dies a man / And one and a sixteenth is born". This figure, he added, was a concession to metre, since the actual ratio was 1:167. Tennyson did eventually blur his assertion to the extent of changing "minute" to "moment."
Ok, one more. If my copy were not a forty-year-old mass-market paperback and could be laid flat for easier copying, and I had nothing more pressing to do, I could sit here all afternoon typing out one after another. About P.G. Wodehouse:
A nice old lady sat next to Wodehouse at dinner one night...raved about his work. She said that her sons had great masses of his books piled on their tables, and never missed reading each new one as it came out. 'And when I tell them,' she concluded, 'that I have actually been sitting at dinner with Edgar Wallace, I don't know what they will say.'
Still reading The Seven Storey Mountain, and liking it a lot. This passage struck me. Merton is making a Holy Week retreat at Gethsemani, prior to entering the Trappist order. Observing the other guests, he notes these:
...and there were three or four pious men who turned out to be friends and benefactors of the monastery--quiet, rather solemn personages; they assumed a sort of command over the other guests. They had a right to. They practically lived here in this guest house. In fact, they had a kind of quasi-vocation all their own. They belonged to that special class of men raised up by God to support orphanages and convents and monasteries and build hospitals and feed the poor. On the whole it is a way to sanctity that is sometimes too much despised. It sometimes implies a more than ordinary humility in men who come to think that the monks and nuns they assist are creatures of another world. God will show us at the latter day that many of them were better men than the monks they supported!
My wife is the archivist for the local archdiocese, and has told me several stories of people like this she's come across in her researches: men and women who were prosperous in the world and who gave much or in a few cases all of their wealth to support orphanages, hospitals, and the like in the days before government agencies were the main providers of those services. It was interesting to me to see that it was a not-unusual pattern.
The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.
I'm reading The Seven Storey Mountain for the first time, something I've been meaning to do for maybe thirty years. And it's really good. Sorry I didn't get to it sooner.
For literature? Here's one of many news stories on the announcement that are out this morning.
Much as I love much of his work, I don't really think so. If there were a Nobel Prize for popular music, absolutely yes. But something called "literature" should be able to stand alone on the page, and I don't think his lyrics do. It's almost impossible to read them without hearing them in their musical setting, or at least it is for me. But if I could read his lyrics as pure text on a page I don't think they would make that much of an impression.
But no doubt there have been less worthy recipients of the prize.