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February 2015

Of Course

I saw this headline on Google News yesterday:

Huge New Holes In Siberia Have Scientists Calling For Urgent Investigation Of The Mysterious Craters

and immediately thought "Someone will blame it on global warming/climate change."

I clicked on it and read the story, at the Huffington Post. Sure enough: 

The leading theory is that the holes were created by gas explosions triggered by underground heat or by rising air temperatures associated with climate change, the Siberian Times reported last December.

 


The Searchers

You have to make allowances for movies made in the 1950s and earlier, I know. Well, you have to make allowances for movies in general, but it was sometime in the 1960s that movies (American ones, at least) made a noticeable turn toward a greater realism, or at least believability (not necessarily the same things). Part of the change, I suppose, was technical. Perhaps part of it was just an increase in skill. In any case a movie like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) seems realistic in a way that few films of the 1950s and earlier do, in spite of its factually inaccurate portrayal of the title characters. It's not just the realism of the violence, which was shocking. It's in the details--the way the people look, the way things look, the dialog, the acting. Maybe in the latter case it's an increasing distance from the acting styles of the pre-cinema stage.

But anyway: I don't generally have much difficulty in making whatever allowances are required for movies of the '40s and '50s that are set contemporaneously. Considered with detachment, Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade is not really believable as a person whom you might actually encounter. But I accept the character...well, perhaps there's a touch of irony in that acceptance, but it doesn't stop me from entering into the world of the film.

Westerns, though, are another story. I've seen a few of the old classics over the past decade or so, and have been a little disappointed. The Searchers has been on my list for a long time, and since it's widely considered the greatest Western of all time I expected to like it.

TheSearchers

But I found myself unable to overlook the many unconvincing aspects of it. I got off to a bad start with the fact that the story is supposed to take place in Texas, and the door of the cabin opened onto what I was pretty sure was no Texas landscape (it's Monument Valley, Utah). The cabin is made of brick and heavy timber that seem unlikely building materials for an isolated house in a remote desert, and in any case too comfortable and substantial for the time and place. "Outdoor" scenes that were shot in the studio are too obviously fake--one reviewer at the time said that the campfire scenes could have been shot in the window of a sporting goods store. Most of the actors are unpersuasive, and I have to include John Wayne in that group. One minor character, Charlie something, has the most ludicrous fake southern-western accent I've ever heard, and that's saying a lot. The Indians, at least those with speaking roles, mostly seem like caricatures. (What I thought was the worst Indian portrayal, the chief Scar played by a blue-eyed actor named Harry Brandon, may not be that at all: there is a plausible argument that the character is meant to be a white man taken captive as a child.)

The story is powerful, and unsentimental to a degree that surprised me a little. The search alluded to in the title is for a girl taken captive by Comanche raiders who have killed the rest of her family. She is the niece of Ethan Edwards, John Wayne's character, who spends years searching for her. He has a grim hatred of the Indians and speaks of them in viciously racist ways that are a bit shocking today. And the Indians as portrayed are not entirely undeserving of his fury. But probably one of the things that has made the film's reputation is that it doesn't leave the picture--either Edwards' hatred or the savagery of the Indians--entirely as it first appears.

If you are an admirer of The Searchers, you can put the blame on me rather than on it for my lack of enthusiasm for it. I wanted to like it, and I really did try to overlook what was unconvincing, but it just got in my way too much, too much for me to feel entirely the impact of the narrative.

What I did like, very much, maybe enough to make me see it again, was the landscape, and the way it was filmed. Never mind that it's not Texas; it's stunning, and magnificently photographed.

TheSearchers2


52 Authors, Week 8: Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)

I read Theology at Manchester University in 1979-1982. I was a book lover, and I spent most of the summers reading the book lists for my courses. I planned to take Christology in my third year, so in the summer of 1981 I read The Myth of God Incarnate. That’s a collection of essays published around that time by Anglican professors, which argues that, as one of them puts it, the traditional idea of the Incarnation as God literally assuming humanity is a ‘square circle’. It’s a ‘square circle’, the author and editor of the book, John Hick, argues, because the idea of God becoming incarnate in humanity is a contradiction in terms.

I was a bit of a contradiction myself at the time. Even if being contradictory is part and parcel of the human condition, that was no excuse. Because I thought the arguments in this book were weak and silly, but I did not myself believe that Christ is God. This contradiction pressed in on me, as the summer wore on. I realized I could not dodge the question, that I had to say ‘yes Christ is God or no he is not.’ I decided to say, yes, Christ is God. I began to attend an Anglican church, and then a few months later, after returning to University, I decided to become R.C.

Later in the same year, this person who had seldom voluntarily taken her nose out of a book had to decide what to do when University ended, so naturally, I opted to apply for grad school, and write a PhD. In Great Britain, the Ph.D program in the humanities consists in writing a long dissertation – about 300,000 words. My plan for my PhD, which I submitted, was to write a refutation of The Myth of God Incarnate.

The refutation was going to be based on art. It’s hard to reach back into the intuition my twenty-two year old self had without improving on it and falsifying it. I think the intuition for the PhD was that beautiful things, especially paintings or poems, have something of ‘the infinite’ or ‘the divine’ in them. But they are also just finite blocks of wood or texts with a beginning, middle and end. This seemed to me to disprove the ‘square circle’ contention: if finite works of art can be beautiful, that is, have something godlike about them, then is it a contradiction in terms to say that God assumed a human nature? I’m not putting my intuition up there for approval now! I can see it has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese.

My idea was less intended as a refutation than as a description: I wanted to say that people who came up with the idea that the incarnation of the infinite God in one particular human being has to be ‘just a myth’ are, so to speak, poorly educated or philistinical. I know that sounds snobbish but I was snobbish, especially about art! If only they had spent time in meditating on the incarnation of meaning in paintings and poems, I wanted to say, these Anglican clergy folk would have been seen right off that the Incarnation of God in human flesh makes perfectly good sense. Now I’m not improving on my intuition but mocking it by way of deprecation.

PhDs cannot just be about intuitions. They have to have chapter plans. So I was to have a chapter on Maritain on Art, and one on Gilson on beauty, and chapters on the Southern Fugitive Agrarians on Art, and a Chapter on William Lynch, author of the great Christ and Apollo, and … a chapter on Hans Urs von Balthasar. I included Hans Urs von Balthasar at the suggestion of Michael von Waldstein, who wrote his PhD on him.

It was 1984. Von Balthasar’s great ‘Trilogy’ was then just being translated and published in great violet-grey hard-back tomes by Ignatius Press and by T and T Clark in Scotland. The ‘Trilogy’ is three sets of books. The first is called the Theological Aesthetics and it's about Christ as the revelation of the beauty of God. The second ‘set’ is the Theo-Drama and it's about Christ and his action, saving us by his life, death and resurrection, as the revelation of God’s goodness. The third set only came out in English much later: it’s the Theo-Logic, and of course it’s about Christ as the Truth of God. You can see that I was getting into way, way more than I bargained and planned for.

As I began to feel my way into the first of those violet-grey volumes (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I Seeing the Form), I experienced another flash of light. My second insight was that Christ is ‘finite form and infinite light.’ The insight is that Christ is beauty, and beauty must be defined as ‘light and form,’ That’s not an intuition, you may say, it’s a metaphor. The ‘form’ is the particular human flesh of Jesus, born in one place and time. It’s the figure of Jesus as he appears in history, in that one province of the Roman empire. Jesus as ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’, as the creed puts it. The light is Christ making himself intelligible as who he is, as God made man.

Every art work has a structure, a particular form, but it also has a dense and bottomless intelligibility. In a painting the ‘form’ is the colours and the figures; in a poem or novel the form is the structure the words take on. But the light is its self-communication, the way it grips a viewer or reader, with its layers of meaning which go on and on like a bottomless stair. I’m not sure if I can explain ‘light’ except with more metaphors, like ‘staircase to the work’ or ‘bridge to the work’. There’s only so far metaphors can be unpacked, because there’s a reason one uses them to articulate an idea - it can’t be explained any other way. Something mysterious happens when a work of art shows us its beauty, and this mystery is netted if not pinned down with metaphors such as ‘form’ and ‘light’. Form is the solidity of the work of art and light is its hypnotic, transporting quality which fixes our gaze upon it and draws us into it.

C.S. Lewis has an essay called ‘The Parthenon and the Optative.’ Or maybe he doesn’t and he just has an essay where he talks about those grave matters. It opens with a school master grimacing over some exam scripts and saying to a colleague, ‘These boys know too much about the Parthenon and too little about the optative.’ That means: the school boys’ masters have spent too much time dwelling on the glories of Greek culture, and endued their pupils with the ability to chatter about the splendour that was ancient Greece; and they have spent precious little time inculcating them with knowledge of the optative, the Greek verb form meaning ‘he would do so and so’. And of course, one cannot really ‘get inside’ the Parthenon, or understand Greek culture from within, without a sound grasp of Greek optative verbs.

For several centuries, our culture has been a mixture of the ‘classical-empirical’ and ‘the Romantic’, with the Romantic winning out in pedagogy and the hard-headed classical-empirical winning out in business and economics. So a lot of Christian rhetoric wants to chose one side or the other, with liberal Christianity going with the ‘Parthenon’, Romantic side of things, with a very drippy God, and the more conservative Christians buying into the empirical-classical, and speaking of Christianity as if it were a mixture of facts and conclusions that can be reached by logical analysis. So now, von Balthasar, with his idea of Christ as ‘form and splendour,’ is, as it were, saying that Christ is where the Parthenon and the optative meet. Christ is where the splendour of God speaks through the grammar enfleshed in one Jewish man. And this communication of splendour in human words shows us how to believe in him.

No one can see the form of Christ without faith. He simply does not add up without the light of faith: he is a ‘square circle.’ Faith is a kind of seeing the meaning of things. The act of faith has traditionally been described using the metaphor of light. So what von Balthasar is doing here is to explain what we mean by the act of faith – what we mean by ‘seeing Christ with the eyes of faith’ – by reference to how we understand a beautiful object. As I drove home this evening there was a sign outside the Church of Christ which said, ‘Jesus is the light which only your heart can see.’ That is lovely but it is not what von Balthasar means here, or precisely what any Catholic would want to say. For a Catholic ‘the light which only your heart can see’ is not only subjective sounding. It’s Pelagian sounding – as if some special power within us did the seeing. In the Catholic tradition, von Balthasar would say, rather, ‘Jesus is the light who illuminates your heart.’ So to have faith is to have illuminated vision. And in von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics, it is Christ doing the illuminating, showing us the meaning of his ‘form’ and using it to transport us into ever deeper love and appreciation of him.

I did find those big gray-violet tomes of The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics reassuringly solid and dense. In my first job, at Manchester University, toward the end of my PhD writing, I had a single student taking a ‘Special Paper’ on Hans Urs von Balthasar. I made him read all seven volumes of The Glory of the Lord. It never occurred to me to do anything else. I thought anyone would want to read them straight through. I taught students about von Balthasar by setting little chunks of The Glory and the Theo-Drama and the Theo-Logic for the next twenty years or so.

It was only when I came to teach in the United States that I read on one of our grad student's blogs that most people who begin on von Balthasar through ‘The Trilogy’ abandon the enterprise and never read any more of him. I took note, and now I would recommend that you begin with one of the many ‘little’ books von Balthasar wrote. For instance, Elucidations (both I and II are fine), and Does Jesus Know Us, Do We know Him? There are also some middle size ones – the book called Prayer is not too difficult for anyone who reads this blog. Nor is Love Alone is Credible – but you should skip the first three chapters unless you like great dense chunks about the history of metaphysics.

Here is a quotation from Elucidations to show you the kind of thing it is and how important metaphors and symbols are in von Balthasar’s theology:

The communion of saints can only be an open circle of those who ‘give without counting the cost,’ who let their light shine into the world without looking for its reflection. ...if one equates the communion of saints with the ‘Holy Catholic Church,’ then there will indeed be many profiteers whom one has to count among its number. ... Who, even among the true saints, does not profit from Mary’s word of assent? ...We all take shelter under her cloak. But there are others within this cloak who themselves have smaller cloaks, and they do not know who it is that finds shelter under them, for, at least on earth, only God knows what the extent..of the fruitfulness of the saints may be. Then by stages we come to those in whom sin grows and takes the upper hand but who nevertheless contribute a few drops of blood to the general circulation. Perhaps they take more than they give, but all the same they do give something. The serious sinner is the one who absorbs all grace for himself without giving anything at all away. ...the goal of the communion of saints is not properly the communal struggle against evil ...but ..the dissemination of the good; indeed, not even that, for the good disseminates itself; the aim is quite simply to hold oneself ready; the aim is the abandonment of all aims of one’s own, in order that God’s aim may be fulfilled through his own people.

--von Balthasar, Elucidations, pp. 96-97

--Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.


Internet Mobs

There are such things, and they are frightening. Someone mentioned here a while back the case of Justine Sacco, who said something stupid on Twitter, and was ruined for it. You can read the whole story in this New York Times piece, which also includes stories of other people who made the wrong sort of joke in the presence of the wrong sort of person and paid for it with their jobs. Possibly the most striking thing in the piece, though, is that the author is a former participant in such mob actions, and thought them entirely justified when aimed at "powerful institutions and public figures." And it wasn't clear to me whether or not he still sees it that way.

I have to admit that I was slightly shocked that people deliberately stir up these things. I had supposed they were more spontaneous than that. Most disturbing, there are in fact groups who monitor the internet activities of their ideological enemies and attack them at every opportunity. Here is the account of one victim, Robert Oscar Lopez, a bisexual man who "had nothing against gay relationships, but didn’t think same-sex parenting was fair to children." 

The idea that bringing people closer together is a step toward peace always was a bit naive.


Why Argue About Same-Sex Marriage?

Why even bother? Why bother thinking about it at all, since it seems pretty clear that it isn't going to be stopped. A large segment of the country, including those all-powerful federal judges, have accepted the dogma that defining marriage as a union of two people of opposite sexes is morally and intellectually identical to racism. In a few months the matter will come before our nine popes without a God, and  it seems likely that they, in their recently-adopted role as law-givers to the tribe, will declare that every state must adopt the official view that there is no difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality.

So why not just let it go, quit talking about it, and try to keep one's distance from the new order? Because this is not just a change in the language on marriage licenses, and a means of allowing homosexual couples to adopt children, or to be counted as relatives for the purposes of hospital visits and the like, or to get the tax benefits of marriage. It is a redefinition of some fundamental aspects of what it means to be human, and although many of its effects will be slow to develop, they will be profound.

One of the most obvious effects, and one that probably won't take long to become visible, is a change in the relationship of Christianity to the state in post-Christian societies. There is an excellent piece at First Things on that subject, The Civic Project of American Christianity. Thanks to Rob G for pointing it out. Here's a sample:

...we must see that the sexual revolution is not merely—or perhaps even primarily—sexual. It has profound implications for the relationship not just between man and woman but between nature and culture, the person and the body, children and parents. It has enormous ramifications for the nature of reason, for the meaning of education, and for the relations between the state, the family, civil society, and the Church. This is because the sexual revolution is one aspect of a deeper revolution in the question of who or what we understand the human person to be (fundamental anthropology), and indeed of what we understand reality to be (ontology).

All notions of justice presuppose ontology and anthropology, and so a revolution in fundamental anthropology will invariably transform the meaning and content of justice and bring about its own morality. We are beginning to feel the force of this transformation in civil society and the political order. Court decisions invalidating traditional marriage law fall from the sky like rain. The regulatory state and ubiquitous new global media throw their ever increasing weight behind the new understanding of marriage and its implicit anthropology, which treats our bodies as raw material to be used as we see fit. Today a rigorous new public morality inverts and supplants the residuum of our Christian moral inheritance.

This compels us to reconsider the civic project of American Christianity that has for the most part guided our participation in the liberal public order for at least a century.

One of the reasons the redefinition of marriage is succeeding is that the arguments for it are simple and emotionally appealing and deal with the immediate satisfaction of desires and the immediate resolution of difficult situations. Who wants to be the mean old person saying "no" to those nice lesbians who want to adopt a baby together, especially if he is going to be publicly despised and perhaps punished for it? The arguments against it, on the other hand, deal with bigger and less immediately personal matters, and are based on long-term implications and effects. But it's just because we are losing the political battle that it is important to understand what is happening, and what is likely to happen in the coming decades.

Same-sex marriage is an attempt to deny, by linguistic and legal fiat, the fundamental reality of sexuality and the social structures which stem from it. In the long run, reality will reassert itself. In the meantime, it may be difficult at times to resist acquiescence in official falsehoods. We're going to need clear heads.

Addendum: a long statement of the case, also at First Things, by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, with a notable list of signees.


Dear brothers and sisters, how greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!

 --Pope Francis


52 Authors, Week 7: P.G. Wodehouse

The most difficult thing about reading P.G. Wodehouse is the attempt to fix in one's mind that it's Woodhouse, “wood” as in “wood,” and not, as it plainly should be, Wodehouse, as in “We wode the twain.” After many years of reading him, this still bothers me. It would be easier if his name were one of those odd British names that are spelled so differently from the way they're pronounced that one soon begins to ignore the spelling and see the word as a whole as representing its sound, such as Worcester. Or Chalmondely. (All right, I admit I haven't really got the last one down yet, but the need doesn't arise very often.)

Perhaps it was some awareness of the many mental stumbles that would be caused by his name that made Wodehouse call one of his two most famous characters “Wooster” rather than “Worcester.” Bertie Wooster and his valet, his “gentleman's gentleman,” Jeeves, are probably about as well-known as any characters in literature, except perhaps for superstars like Hamlet, in part surely thanks to the Hugh Laurie-Steven Fry adaptations of some of the Jeeves and Wooster stories for the BBC.

Bertie, as you probably know, is an idiotic, idle, rich young bachelor for whom Monty Python might have coined the phrase “upper-class twit.” He's always getting himself into trouble, and Jeeves is the almost supernaturally shrewd counselor who's always getting him out of it, while feeding him, dressing him, curing his hangovers, and generally running his life for him. It is by way of a miraculous hangover remedy that Jeeves first makes himself indispensable:

“I was sent by the agency, sir,” he said. “I was given to understand that you required a valet.”

I'd have preferred an undertaker; but I told him to stagger in, and he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr.... He had a grave, sympathetic face, as if he, too, knew what it was to sup with the lads.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said gently.

Then he seemed to flicker, and wasn't there any longer. I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he came back with a glass on a tray.

“If you would drink this, sir,” he said with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. “It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its color. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me that they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.”

I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life-line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

“You're engaged!” I said, as soon as I could say anything.

—“Jeeves Takes Charge”

Jeeves polices Bertie's dress for any deviations from perfect taste:

“Pardon me, sir, are you proposing to appear in those garments in public?”

I had been wondering when my new plus-fours would come under discussion, and I was prepared to battle for them like a tigress for her young.

“Certainly, Jeeves,” I said. “Why? Don't you like them?”

“No, sir.”

“You think them on the bright side?”

“Yes, sir.”

“A little vivid, they strike you as?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, I think highly of them, Jeeves,” I said firmly.

—“Jeeves and the Kid Clementina”

But by the end of the story Bertie will lose this battle, as he always does.

Jeeves even looks out for Bertie's intellectual development, though that of course is too strong a word. In an early story, “Bertie Changes His Mind,” which as far as I know is the only one told from Jeeves's point of view, Jeeves describes Bertie as “mentally negligible.” Nevertheless, he tries to preserve him from bad, or perhaps merely taxing, influences. Having cured the hangover in “Jeeves Takes Charge,” Jeeves saves Bertie from a disastrous engagement to a girl who “was particularly keen on boosting [him] up a bit nearer her own plane of intellect. She was a girl with a wonderful profile, but steeped to the gills in serious purpose.” Having disengaged Bertie from her, Jeeves explains:

“I think you would also have found her educational methods a little trying, sir. I have glanced at the book her ladyship gave you—it has been lying on your table since our arrival—and it is, in my opinion, quite unsuitable. You would not have enjoyed it. And I have it from her ladyship's own maid, who happened to overhear a conversation between her ladyship and one of the gentlemen staying here—Mr. Maxwell, who is employed in an editorial capacity by one of the reviews—that it was her intention to start you almost immediately upon Nietzsche. You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

—“Jeeves Takes Charge”

This is not, clearly, fiction for those who want naturalism, much less deep thoughts and big ideas. It's pure innocent enjoyment, like a Mozart divertimento. But, as with the divertimento, that doesn't mean that it isn't the very skilled work of a very fine artist. Wodehouse's touch may be light, but it's the touch of a master. The comparison to Mozart is apropos: Wodehouse is a virtuoso. Another comparison that comes to mind, unlikely on its face, is to Charlie Parker. I've been listening to him lately, and although I don't know exactly what he's doing technically, I apprehend his solos as a wild and roundabout ride getting from point A to point B by entirely unexpected routes. A Wodehouse sentence or paragraph is often similar. His language is a fast-moving stream of formal English, biblical and literary allusion, and both English and American slang. Sometimes you—well, I, anyway—just have to guess at the meaning of the slang, since it was probably current no later than the 1920s, but usually the context makes it reasonably clear. And although a contemporary reader is not likely to recognize allusions to popular novels of Wodehouse's time, it is pretty clear when he is making sport of sentimental literature. I sometimes wonder how he could be translated, but he is, and seems to have many fans who don't read him in English.

Here is Bertie, on his way to a country cottage (“Wee Nooke”) crossing the path of an old acquaintance, G. D'Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright,who views him (erroneously, of course) as a romantic rival:

All along, I had been far from comfortable when speculating as to what this Othello's reactions would be on discovering me in the neighbourhood. The way in which he had received the information that I was an old acquaintance of Florence's had shown that his thoughts had been given a morbid turn, causing him to view Bertram with suspicion, and I had been afraid that he was going to place an unfortunate construction on my sudden arrival in her vicinity. It was almost inevitable, I mean, that the thing should smack, in his view, far too strongly of Young Lochinvar coming out of the West....

Joy In the Morning

JoyInTheMorning

The literary allusions in that paragraph are a bit different from Bertie's usual, in that they are complete and coherent. More often they're mangled, or paraphrased in Bertie's vernacular: “As Shakespeare says, if you're going to do a thing you might just as well pop right at it and get it over.”

Here he is stealing, with the help of a female friend named Bobbie, a dog called McIntosh (“an Aberdeen terrier of weak intellect”). The plan, devised of course by Jeeves, involves Bertie sprinkling his trousers with aniseed:

On the present occasion everything went absolutely according to plan. I had never realized before that dog-stealing could be so simple, having always regarded it rather as something that called for the ice-cool brain and the nerve of steel. I see now that a child can do it, if directed by Jeeves. I got to the hotel, sneaked up the stairs, hung about in the corridor trying to look like a potted palm in case anybody came along, and presently the door of the suite opened and Bobbie appeared, and suddenly, as I approached, out shot McIntosh, sniffing passionately, and the next moment his nose was up against my Spring trouserings and he was drinking me in with every evidence of enjoyment. If I had been a bird that had been dead about five days, he could not have nuzzled me more heartily. Aniseed isn't a scent that I care for particularly myself, but it seemed to speak straight to the deeps in McIntosh's soul.

—“Episode of the Dog McIntosh”

When I say that Bertie is always getting into trouble, I don't mean real trouble, of course. The possibility of being punched by Stilton Cheesewright is about as close to real danger as he gets. Mostly he is at risk of receiving a tongue-lashing from his Aunt Agatha—frightening enough, to be sure—or from one of the fierce old men of Agatha's set, such as her husband, Lord Worplesdon, or of being embarrassed, or of getting married.

As the ones just mentioned suggest, many of the names in Wodehouse alone are enough to make you laugh. Boko Fittleworth. Tuppy Glossop. Gussie Fink-Nottle. The Rt. Hon. Freddie Threepwood. Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright. There is a place called Steeple Bumpleigh. And one called Market Snodsbury, near Droitwich. The name of Bertie's club is, wonderfully, the Drones. And on and on.

Although the Jeeves and Wooster stories and novels are the most widely known of Wodehouse's work, there is a great deal more—roughly a hundred books, of which I feel safe in supposing that at least fifty are worth reading. I can testify that several of the Blandings Castle series are as good as the best of Jeeves and Wooster. Of the rest, I've read only a fairly early novel, Picadilly Jim, which is enjoyable but not in the class with the others.

I didn't take to Wodehouse immediately. It's possible that my memory is deceiving me, but I think I listened to an audio version of one of his novels sometime in the 1980s, when I was in my thirties. I have a vague idea that there was an obnoxious boy in the story, which certainly lends support to my vague memory that it was a Jeeves and Wooster story; perhaps it was Joy in the Morning, which features an obnoxious boy. But it did not make a strong impression on me; the fact that I'm not quite certain that it was Wodehouse is evidence enough of that.

It was ten or fifteen years later that I gave him another try. There were a number of difficult things going on in my life then, and I was in pretty low spirits much of the time. I had a Wodehouse paperback or two lying around the house, and one day I picked one up. It was a Jeeves and Wooster book, a story collection I think, but I don't remember which one.

After a few pages, the low spirits began to rise. Sometimes I smiled, sometimes I chuckled, sometimes I laughed aloud. A couple of stories in, I realized that I had found a remarkably effective anti-depressant. I have often compared the sensation of reading Wodehouse to that of drinking champagne, but champagne is, after all, a form of alcohol, and its effects, apart from the immediate sensation of tasting it, are the same as those of other forms. Reading Wodehouse is better. It makes you feel the way champagne looks, the way champagne ought to make you feel: bright and sparkling, with tiny bubbles of levity continually forming, rising, and bursting.

Although Wodehouse has his millions of enthusiastic readers, I didn't know that the particular therapeutic effect that his work has on me was common until recently, when I began reading Robert McCrum's 2004 biography, Wodehouse, and found this in the prologue:

In the past hundred years, his admirers have included T.S. Eliot, Kaiser Wilhelm, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Balfour, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Ludwig Wittgenstein [ed: !], Eudora Welty, Ogden Nash, John Le Carre, H.L. Mencken, Cardinal Basil Hume, Salman Rushdie, and two contrasting Adamses, Douglas and Gerry [ed: !!]. To all his readers, high and low, Wodehouse still promises a release from everyday cares into a paradise of innocent comic mayhem, narrated in a prose so light and airy, and so perfectly pitched, that the perusal of a few pages rarely fails to banish the demons of darkness, sickness and despair.

As Jeeves would say, “Precisely, sir.”

WodehouseShelf

For lack of space and time, I've said nothing about Wodehouse the man—his life, the sources of his work, his career; for that, I leave you to Wikipedia

—Yr hmbl srvnt, the proprietor of this blog.


Alabama Jubilee

For, as the course goes on, the movement turns centrifugal; we rejoice in our abandon and are never so full of the sense of accomplishment as when we have struck some bulwark of our culture a deadly blow.

--Richard Weaver

It's been obvious for some time that traditionalists, or realists, or whatever you want to call us, were going to lose the same-sex marriage battle. But I had thought that the more conservative states might be allowed to hold out for a while longer. I'd forgotten that all it takes is one federal judge who wants to snuggle up against that famous right side of history.

There is a certain grim satisfaction in knowing that this god of history that they worship will most likely one day turn on them, and hold them up to the ridicule from which they thought they were preserving themselves.


52 Authors, Week 6: Robert Sheckley

Robert Sheckley, who died a few years ago in 2005, was an author of (mostly) science fiction, very prolific with short stories, very snarky and tongue-in-cheek. In my experience short story collections tend to be hit and miss with most authors, and Sheckley wasn't an exception; but if the author's good, it's worth the misses for the hits, and a collection of Sheckley stories always had something thought-provoking, surprising, and amusing. Sheckley wasn't a sci-fi author who was in it for the science (as opposed to the hard sci-fi types like Larry Niven or Isaac Asimov); his focus was on the human and social angle, and he treated scientific issues with all the technical rigour of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Technology is there to provide interesting props, as in “Bad Medicine,” where a man treats himself with a psychotherapy device designed for Martians. Dystopias are a frequent theme, and numerous short stories and novels feature death sports, often televised – anticipating “Battle Royale,” “The Hunger Games,” and the rise of reality TV by some decades (“The Never-Ending Western Movie” is a good example).

One of the most memorable of his works, and a good showcase of the Sheckley attitude to things – barbed, cynical, full of twists and turns – is the short story “The Same to You Doubled” (found in this collection). This is actually a spin on an old Jewish story: in the original, a man finds favour with God, an angel is sent to give him three wishes, and whatever he wishes for, his neighbour gets double. The first two wishes go towards ensuring prosperity, but the sight of his neighbour getting twice as rich eats away at him – so he wishes to lose an eye. The Sheckley version involves a man getting three wishes from an agent of the Devil (Hell, it turns out, occasionally gives out bonuses to potential customers), with one drawback: for each wish, his worst enemy gets double (and there's another catch when he learns who his worst enemy is). Sheckley inverts the conclusion as well: instead of the man turning Divine bounty to evil, Sheckley's protagonist, driven to despair by the Devil's gift, finally finds refuge in prayer – although the sense of peace this grants him isn't quite the conclusion...

In terms of full-length novels, Sheckley didn't tend to do such a good job. He did some respectable straight-faced thriller/espionage novels (I only read one of them, and can't remember what it was called now), and some action novels with sci-fi elements and a good dose of humour, particularly the novels involving people hunting each other for sport (which have “Hunter” and/or “Victim” in the title); but when his sci-fi novels try for the wit and energy of his short stories, they often fail to cohere, or peter out at the end. There are one or two exceptions, though: “Immortality, Inc.” is a lot of fun, and describes a world in which procedures to ensure the survival of the soul after death have become available... if you're very rich (Amazon link); and my favourite of all his works, “Journey Beyond Tomorrow”, a.k.a. “Joenes' Journey” (Amazon link), manages to retain the virtues of his short stories by being structured as a set of short tales from an oral tradition.

“Journey Beyond Tomorrow” is the story of an innocent and naïve fellow called Joenes, and the adventures befalling him as he tours an anteäpocalyptic America – as related by the oral storytellers of a postapocalyptic Polynesia. It's highly satirical, although a little dated in that regard (published in 1962), and a lot of the satire went over my head when I first read it – probably still does – as I didn't recognise the targets (in particular the story of the three truck drivers left me bemused – the “religious” truck driver didn't adhere to anything I recognised as religion.) But the story is fast-paced and as full of outrageous and absurd goings-on as any of Chesterton's picaresques, which makes it highly readable even when the satire is dated or obscure. This is helped by the cheerful garbling of American culture by the storytellers of Polynesia: after Joenes falls foul of a ludicrously exaggerated McCarthy-style hearing, he is saved from being sacrificed on the Electric Chair at Delphi only by his mixed Spartan/Athenian ancestry and the symbolic importance of Hellenic unity in American politics. (Sheckley was fond of the occasional bit of ancient-Greekishness in his stories.)

I feel the need to post an excerpt or two. When Joenes visits a lunatic asylum, he meets a doctor with a rather unorthodox approach to psychiatry:

"I merely have what some call a questioning mind... when I see a grown man crouched with shut eyes in a foetal position, I do not instantly apply massive radioactive shock therapy. I am more likely to ask myself, 'What would happen if I constructed a huge artificial womb and put this man inside?' That is an example from an actual case."

"What happened?" Joenes asked.

"The guy suffocated," Lum said with a laugh.

"I have never pretended to be an engineer," the doctor said stiffly. "Trial and error are necessary. Besides, I count that case a success."

"Why?" Joenes asked.

"Because just before the patient died, he uncurled.”

He then goes on to describe the most fascinating of his cases, which inoculated my younger self against certain ideas prevalent today by performing a brutal reductio ad absurdum of thoughtless knee-jerk scientism. (Thoughtful intelligent scientism is another matter but I only became aware that this existed in the last few years; though admittedly I wasn't paying much attention.) Also of note are the Soviet party official ripped from the pages of Dostoyevsky, the trigger-happy policeman, and one of Sheckley's favourite themes: friction betwixt man and machine.

Voig, studying the five alternatives before him, was aware of the problems of modern warfare, and sadly recognized how dependent he was on information upon which to base a sound decision. He also knew that most of his information came to him from extremely expensive machines that sometimes could not tell the difference between a goose and a rocket; machines that required regiments of highly trained men to minister to them, repair them, improve them, and to soothe them in every way... The creations were no better than the creators, and indeed resembled them in many of the worst ways. Like men, the machines were frequently subject to something resembling emotional instability. Some became overzealous, others had recurring hallucinations, functional and psychosomatic breakdowns, or even complete catatonic withdrawals... the more suggestible machines were nothing more than extensions of their operators' personalities.

General Voig knew, of course, that no machine possessed a real consciousness, and therefore no machine really suffered from the diseases of consciousness. But they seemed to, and that was just as bad as the real thing.

Now, Sheckley, while very entertaining, is seldom what you'd call “edifying”. But the last story I'd like to mention, “The Mnemosyne”, (from the same collection as “Same to You Doubled”) is an exception, and unwontedly serious (by Sheckley's standards). It's set in a calm, orderly society which has achieved tranquility at the expense of art:

Right-thinking men agreed that most literature was superfluous at best, subversive at worst... Did we need to retain a thousand divergent opinions, and then to explain why they were false? Under such a bombardment of influences, how could anyone be expected to respond in an appropriate and approved manner?... Therefore, history was to be rewritten, and literature was to be regularized, pruned, tamed, made orderly or abolished entirely.

Of course, not everybody is on board with this program. The idea is simple, and has probably been done before, and for all I know better; but Sheckley does a good job of getting across his vision of art as causing doubt and pain and disruption, but still a necessary part of being human.

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All of these are several decades old; I grew up reading copies my parents had found round second-hand bookstores, and continued to read him by acquiring my own second-hand copies. It was only a few years after his death I found that he'd actually kept going into the 21st century, putting out new stories all the while. The only latter-day Sheckley I've read was a short story entitled “Agamemnon's Run”, about lucky lottery winners somewhat lethally reënacting Greek mythology for the edification of mysterious aliens, which was pretty good but not sufficient for judging how, or whether, his work had evolved over the years.

A few of his works, mostly short stories, are available at Project Gutenberg, and the rest seem to be mostly available on Amazon. Robert Sheckley, 1928-2005, R.I.P.

--Godescalc is the pseudonym of James Asher, who works as an English teacher and theoretical chemist in Bratislava, Slovakia. He also dabbles in songwriting and art, the results of which can be seen at his blog, Inadaptation.