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52 Authors: Week 13 - Dean Koontz

In all the many books that I have read, there exists much truth and wisdom, but in not a single volume has the truth of lovemaking been revealed. When I lie in the arms of [my wife], in ecstasy, it is essentially not about sensation but about passion, and passion is not of the flesh but of the mind and heart. No writer ever told me there is no self in the act, that the desire to give drives out all thought of receiving, that lovers become one, transported, that I am her and she is me, that we find ourselves not engaged in seduction and surrender but in the throes of creation, not consumed by desire but by astonishment, given for a moment the very power that brought into existence the universe, so that we, too, can create life.

—From a novel by Dean Koontz

Eight years ago when my friend Ann asked me if I had ever read anything by Dean Koontz, I thought she must have lost her mind. I didn't really know anything about Koontz at the time except that he wrote horror novels and that they sold his books at the grocery store. I had been in some serious discussion groups with Ann, and I didn't have her pegged for a horror aficionado. It turned out that she had read an article somewhere about Koontz that talked about the Christian influence in his novels and the fact that he was Catholic. That got my attention, and so I read my first Dean Koontz novel, and then my second and third, and then everything that he had written between the year 2000 and that time.

I soon found out that one can't place Koontz’s books in any one genre. Some of them, in particular his earlier works, are horror, but some of the novels are sci-fi, some supernatural and some not, some suspense/thriller, and some almost mystical. Almost all of them are filled with great tension of one sort or another and they hit the ground running. In very few of them do we get through the first chapter without finding ourselves in a battle to death.

It has been noted in the comments on this blog that Koontz's novels are pot boilers, and while I can't deny that there is usually a pot on the back burner, that's not all there is to his books. His battles are not just between a protagonist and an antagonist. They are not just about the people that we pull for and the ones we're against. His later novels, especially, are always a battle between authentic good and that evil who is at the root of all evil. Koontz increasingly demonstrates that he reveres the Culture of Life, and recognizes and abhors the Culture of Death, and that he knows their sources, and this is what most sets him apart from the majority of popular authors.

The more familiar I became with Koontz's work, the more evident it became to me that he has a vision, and that he shares that vision with and in some ways derives that vision from many of the authors that we have discussed on this blog. He talks about Lewis and Chesterton; there is a scene in one of his novels that is pure Percy—almost to the point of plagiarism; he quotes Eliot a lot. The author that seems to influence him the most, though, is Flannery O'Connor. While Koontz does not approach Miss O'Connor in subtlety or mastery of the language, he appears to be adhering to the means of writing for a deaf audience that she talks about in her essays in Mystery and Manners. His villains are certainly grotesque and over-the-top (although unfortunately reality will probably surpass them soon). His hyperbole seems calculated to shock us into realizing that something is wrong.

Another influence that has assumed more and more importance in both Koontz's work, and, I deduce from interviews, his own life, is his Catholic faith. Koontz, who grew up in a less than salubrious family situation, converted to Catholicism after becoming a part of his wife Gerda's close, loving, and very Catholic family. Sometimes this influence comes out in a sacramental way that is probably opaque to most readers. For instance, in one of the novels the main character is being pursued and methodically wounded in different ways by an enemy, and pretty soon I realized that the wounds were the wounds of Christ. Sometimes he throws in references to the Church. One book is set in a monastery. In the latter books, many of the characters are Catholic.

There are many recurrent elements in Koontz's work that reveal his recognition of the sanctity of life. One of his novels is centered around a man who is desperately trying to save his comatose fiancée from those who are trying to euthanize her. Another is about ethical problems surrounding questionable organ “donation.” Frequently, there are characters with some sort of disability in his narratives and they are likely to be pivotal characters. There is a love and concern for children. There is a respect for marriage and the family, and an awareness of the true tragedy of broken homes.

Koontz's most popular character, and the one about whom he has written the most books (eight), is a young man named Odd Thomas. Flannery O'Connor is often quoted as saying, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” I wondered for a while if this quote had influenced Koontz in the selection of Odd's name, but from what I've read, the line, “My name is Odd Thomas,” came to him in the manner of Lewis's faun. Miss O'Connor's quote is appropriate, though.

In A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, Benedict XVI quotes Romano Guardini as saying, “Jesus' entire existence is the translation of power into humility...into obedience to the will of the Father.” This pretty well sums up the character of Odd Thomas. Odd has supernatural abilities. He can see dead people who come to him for help in moving on to the next world, which frequently involves his getting involved with their murderers. He has dreams that come true and something he calls psychic magnetism that leads him to a person or place that he needs to find, but he accepts and uses these gifts in true humility, and never for himself.

According to an article in the National Catholic Register, after reading the first two Odd Thomas novels, a friend of Koontz's, bioethicist Wesley Smith, told him, “You know what you're writing about here? You're writing the life of a saint.” Koontz at first rejected that idea, but soon began to see that this might be true, and got more serious about Odd's character. As Odd's story progresses, we see him grow in virtue. He picks up the cross of his abilities and carries them without complaint. One aspect of his virtue that stands out for me relates to the necessity of his taking human life. In the course of his mission, he sometimes has to kill people, but he never desires to kill people, and he is always sorry that he has had to do so, particularly when he has to kill women. He has a reverence for life and he realizes that the taking of a life diminishes his innocence.

Now all this sounds very fine and noble, and it is, but it takes place within a narrative that is often bizarre and outlandish and brutal. It is often quite humorous, too, but sometimes the humor is puerile, which I really dislike. I don't remember, though, Koontz using this kind of humor much in his other books, and I almost wonder if he does it to emphasize Odd's youth and innocence. There's nothing lewd or suggestive in the things I'm talking about—just, well puerile. And then in the midst of the violence and puerility, we come across something like this:

Beyond lay a large room softly illuminated by five oil lamps.

One lamp rested on a dinette table at which stood two chairs. Annamaria sat facing the door.

She smiled as I crossed the threshold. She raised her right hand to motion me to the empty chair.

... the humble furniture included a narrow bed in one corner, a nightstand on which stood a gooseneck desk lamp, a worn and sagging armchair with a footstool, and an end table.

Distributed around the room, the five oil lamps were squat, long-necked glass vessels in which floated burning wicks. Two were the color of brandy, and three were red.

When I sat across the table from her, I found dinner waiting. Two kinds of cheese and two kinds of olives. Tomatoes cut in wedges. Circlets of cucumber. Dishes of herb-seasoned yogurt glistening with a drizzle of olive oil. A plate of ripe figs. A loaf of crusty bread.

Odd Hours, Dean Koontz

There's more to this, but I hope I've quoted enough to give the feeling that I think this scene evokes. When I read this passage, my mind automatically flew to medieval paintings. There are images here that are common in pictures of the Annunciation.

Annamaria is an 18 year old woman who is pregnant, and has no husband and no visible means of support, but she is completely peaceful and people always give her whatever she needs. She wears a small bell on a chain around her neck. Odd thinks of her as the Lady of the Bell. My husband tells me that in the seminary they taught him that the voice of the bell is the voice of God. I don't know if Koontz had this in mind, but subsequent events make it seem likely. Annamaria is a woman of mystery and she remains mysterious throughout the rest of the series, so I think I'll just leave you with the mystery.

A couple of months ago, I had decided not to write about Koontz in this series of posts. It had been a long time since I'd read one of his books. I didn't care for the last one I read, and I had forgotten many of the things that attracted me to the novels. Then while looking for something else, I came across this interview with Raymond Arroyo about Koontz's novel Innocence. The interview is thirty-five minutes long, so I doubt you will want to listen to it, but it seemed from the interview that the new book was something different for Koontz, and something better.

I mentioned earlier that Koontz is not the writer that Flannery O'Connor is. He has some habitual flaws, and I never quite enter the narrative completely the way I do when I read really good authors. I have always wished that he would write a novel in a completely different style than his usual work—something without the pot in the background. Innocence is not exactly the novel that I would like to see Koontz write, but it is a great stride in the right direction.

This book is much slower paced. During his interview with Koontz, Arroyo kept using the word lyrical, and there are many places where the narrative is indeed lyrical, and in some places quite beautiful. The protagonist, Addison Goodheart, is miles away from some of Koontz's characters who rely heavily on weapons, and even from Odd who only uses weapons as a last resort. Addison will not use a gun or defend himself in any way that will harm anyone, although, through no fault of his own, everyone who sees him wants to kill him. The real strength of Innocence, however, is the metaphysical concept at the heart of the story.

One of the things I am always looking for in books and movies is grace in unexpected places. I’m sure that this is the reason that I was drawn to Koontz’s books. The idea that someone who is writing genre fiction for a popular audience that is searching for horror, action, and mayhem, underlies his narrative with a subtext of grace and redemption fascinates me, as does the process of watching the mayhem subside while the grace grows. His most recent novel, The City, has a 10 year old boy as its protagonist. There is no graphic violence, and the novel is more about the life of this child—his love for music—his family and friends—than about the danger that threatens him. I wonder how Koontz is going to keep his audience if he continues in this direction, but I hope he persists.

Yet the human heart is disheartened by the most unreasonable self-judgments, because even when we take on giants, we too often confuse failure with fault, which I know too well. The only way back from such a bleak despondency is to shape humiliation into humility, to strive always to triumph over the darkness while never forgetting that the honor and the beauty are more in the striving than in the winning. When triumph at last comes, our efforts alone could not have won the day without that grace which surpasses all understanding and which will, if we allow it, imbue our lives with meaning.

Odd Interlude, Dean Koontz

Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

Ravages of Climate Change

I found this poor creature, apparently some terribly malformed waterfowl, perhaps an infant, washed up on the beach a few days ago. It couldn't have lived very long, having apparently no internal organs at all. And of course I  immediately thought: Climate change!


I'm not completely inventing this fear, either.

I've always described myself as agnostic on the question, but I lean more and more toward skepticism. I suspect this alarmism is going to be laughed at fifty or a hundred years from now. It's not that I don't believe that there has been a warming trend since 1880; if the people who study such things say that's what the measurements show, they're probably right, though I wonder if we really can attribute that much precision to measurements which purport to tell us temperature across the entire surface of the world. I'm willing to believe that human activity is at least partly responsible for it. 

But we're talking about less than one Celsius degrees, less than one and a half Fahrenheit degrees. The attribution of all manner of calamities to that amount of change is simply implausible on its face, and the manifestly emotional-religious fervor of the climate change activists, as well as the fact that their proposed responses happen to match what they wanted to do anyway, suggests that skepticism is warranted. It's not a good sign that they now respond to doubters by branding them as Very Bad People, possibly cut from the same cloth as Holocaust deniers, which in turn puts one only a step away from being a Nazi.

I wonder, too, if anyone really believes we can fine-tune the global climate in the way that seems implied by the clamor for action. Suppose we took some drastic action, and it lowered the global temperature. What if we didn't get it exactly right, and the temperature dropped by .8C from its apparently optimal 1880 level? Wouldn't that be a crisis, too?

52 Authors: Week 12 - Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings has been such an important component of my psychic make-up for so long, that I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve read and reread LOTR many times, including at least twice out loud to my kids. I also love the short stories, especially “Leaf by Niggle” and “Farmer Giles of Ham.” Most of the back story stuff edited by Christopher Tolkien, not so much. I’m not THAT kind of geek. The exceptions are the parts of the back story that are most like a story, like The Children of Hurin and “Aldarion and Erendis,” both of which are heart-wrenching, if not gut-wrenching.

So, I’m just going to make a few random observations. By the way, if for some reason you haven’t read them and think you might, and haven’t seen the movies, spoiler alert. It is hard to talk about the LOTR without giving something away. If you don’t read past page 240 of volume three, you really aren’t going to get what the book is really about.

Tolkien’s work clearly falls in the category of Romance, rather than Novel, using Northrup Frye’s categories. No one, for instance, gets up and leaves the fire to go “water the grass.” He does not spend a lot of time exploring the inner psychological struggle of the protagonist or other characters. Kristin Lavransdatter is much more of a novel in that respect.

This does not mean that Tolkien’s characters are not complex, or “round.” I would argue that the complexity that we look for in a character in a novel is present in Tolkien’s mind, but only comes through indirectly in their words and actions. Tolkien has known these characters for decades and they sometimes have a history of millennia. Galadriel, for instance, is a complex character with a long history of hubris, defiance, exile, and humiliation. This background only show’s itself in glimpses during her appearance on stage. It also gives a lot of poignancy to her conquest over the temptation to take the ring that is offered her. The idea that Galadriel is the Blessed Virgin Mary is misguided, even if somewhat countenanced by Tolkien himself. She is a fallen woman who is given one more chance to receive grace and redemption. Perhaps she is Eve redeemed, and so an icon of Our Lady, like all of us whom grace transforms.

I’m not so much taken up by the Grand Myth as the human story. I don’t care so much for The Silmarilion and all those books edited by Christopher Tolkien as I do for the short stories. Even his more comic and childish pieces contain profound reflections on fundamental human themes. “Roverandom” treats the meaning of true love and devotion. The Hobbit the meaning of valor. “Leaf by Niggle” the relationship between art and charity. The book Tales from the Perilous Realm contains most of these short stories, as well as a collection of poems, some of which are light-hearted, but some of which have a mysterious darkness and brooding and even enigma about them. It also contains the famous “On Fairy-Stories,” which explains why he thinks fairy tales are even more important for adults than for children. This is where he discusses his concepts of “Eucatastrophe,” subcreation, enchantment, and recovery and escape.

One of the insights of Tolkien is the priority of real, personal relationships over grand schemes. Aragon fights the great war and takes the mantle of kingship not because he has a grand vision of Numenorian justice for Middle Earth, but because he loves Arwen. Eowyn trades her desire for “manly” heroism for the love of a real hero, Faramir. And, of course, Sam’s turning point is when he realizes that his duty is not to heroically continue the Great Quest, but to stay loyal to the master whom he has grown to love and honor.

With a dreadful stroke Sam was wakened from his cowering mood. They had seen his master. What would they do? He had heard tales of the Orcs to make the blood run cold. It could not be borne. He sprang up. He flung the Quest and all his decisions away, and fear and doubt with them. He knew now where his place was and had been; at his master’s side, though what he could do there was not clear. Back he ran down the steps, down the path towards Frodo (II, 389-90).

Since I think Sam is the protagonist of the whole story, to me this is the turning point. The climax, of course, is on Mt. Doom.

Another major focus of his work is the fell power of eros. In fact, much of The Lord of the Rings is colored by romantic energy—Aragorn and Arwen, Eowyn and Faramir, even Rosie Cotton and Sam. One dark fragment in Unfinished Tales, “Aldarion and Erendis,” in which a great prince is torn between his urge to be a great sea captain and warrior and his fateful love for a woman who does not love the sea, although the power of love draws her to him as she longs for his return. It is a very dark vision of the confusion between eros and self-sacrificing love.

Tolkien’s social commentary was almost Dickensian, with a Chestertonian twist. This can be seen especially in “Farmer Giles of Ham,” which explores issues of authority and justice. “The Scouring of the Shire,” of course, is a pretty pointed critique of trends in England of his day, if not in the industrial world as a whole. Then, there’s the chilling closing scene of “Leaf by Niggle,” when Tompkins, Atkins, and Perkins discuss the “utility” of a man like Niggle.

’No practical or economic use,’ said Tompkins. ‘I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away. I should have put him away long ago.’

‘Put him away? You mean you’d have made him start on the journey before his time?’

‘Yes, if you must use that meaningless old expression. Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap; that’s what I mean.’

Tolkien’s social critique was dark and intense because of its situation in an apocalyptic vision of human history and a deeper conviction of the archetypal struggle between good and evil, being and non-being, submission and self- assertion, God and nothingness.

Tolkien’s attitude towards war is complex, but it is clear he does not worship, admire, or romanticize it. Tolkien, who had experience the ravages of battle field during World War One, did not glorify war. Faramir, one of the most sympathetic characters in all of his writings, says:

War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor, and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise

Tolkien was acutely aware of both the dangers of unleashing the fury of war and the dangers of refusing to engage. A king of Númenor, in response for a plea for aid from the Elves of Middle Earth to fight the newly arisen Sauron, said:

I am in too great doubt to rule. To prepare or to let be? To prepare for war, which is yet only guessed: train craftsmen and tillers in the midst of peace for bloodspilling and battle: put iron in the hands of greedy captains who will love only conquest, and count the slain as their glory? Will they say to Eru [the One]: At least your enemies were amongst them? Or to fold hands, while friends die unjustly: let men live in blind peace, until the ravisher is at the gate? What then will they do: match naked hands against iron and die in vain, or flee leaving the cries of women behind them? Will they say to Eru: At least I spilled no blood? (Unfinished Tales, 201)

I love Tolkien’s use of descriptive language. It is not flowery or even particularly intricate, but it is all the same evocative, conveying much more using basic words, such as “stone” and “leaf,” than one would think possible. Note the simple use of colors in another passage from “Niggle” (obviously one of my favorite works).

The train moved off at once. Niggle lay back in his seat. The little engine puffed along in a deep cutting with high green banks, roofed with a blue sky. It did not seem very long before the engine gave a whistle, the brakes were put on, and the train stopped. There was no station, and no signboard, only a flight of steps up the green embankment. At the top of the steps there was a wicket-gate in a trim hedge. By the gate stood his bicycle; at least it looked like his, and there was a yellow label tied to the bars with NIGGLE written on it in large black letter.

I think of Tolkien as a verbal iconographer. The subtle, seemingly stylized simplicity allows the glory, the splendor that is hidden deep in our sensible world to flame out [like shook foil?]. It is from Tolkien’s Catholic heart that is the spiritual depth, the complexity, the transformation by grace that flashes forth in glimpses.

Much of Tolkien’s vision is dark—as dark as any modern novel, but never without some hint of far-off possibility of redemption. One of his darkest works is The Children of Hurin in which the self-will of a gifted man with a sense of high purpose and destiny leads to greater and greater tragedy that brings woe to everyone he encounters. There’s not much light in this one. The need for human redemption is written very large in much of Tolkien’s work.

I’ve often wanted to make a collection of Tolkien’s “wise sayings.” Some of my favorite quotes:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.

"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

* * *

Deserves it! [death] I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

* * *

Jackson misses or distorts much of it. It is unfortunate that for most people their first introduction to LOTR is through the movie. There is no substitution for approaching the Cracks of Doom with Frodo and Sam after having gone through 1000 pages and chapter after chapter of slogging through Mordor. I don’t think you can appreciate the monumental significance of what occurs there, even after two and a half movies. Don’t get me going on Galadriel!

—Robert Gotcher and his wife, Kathy, live in Milwaukee, where they've been raising their seven children, four of whom are "out of the house" more or less. He teaches writing and Latin at a seminary.  He wrote his dissertation on de Lubac and Vatican II. He is originally from Oklahoma, but has lived in Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Innsbruck, Austria.

From The Lark In the Morning

In that recent discussion about Dylan, which led into a discussion of folk music, Daniel Nichols described his youthful discovery in a library of a recording of authentic Scottish folk music, and his immediate enthusiasm for it. That reminded me of an album I bought in the late '60s  called The Lark In the Morning, a recording from the 1950s of amateur and semi-professional Irish musicians. It was one of several recordings of actual folk music that I found more or less accidentally back then. I listened to it a few times and liked it, but was much more taken with other things, such as Appalachian music and the ballads of Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd, and didn't listen to it very much. I can't remember the last time I did; probably it was in the early 1970s.  But I've hung onto it, like I've hung onto hundreds of other LPs. And this conversation prompted me to dig it out and listen to it again.

It turned out to be great. Here is one of the best things  on it, Paddy Tunney singing "Róisín Dubh" ("Little Black Rose"):


There's a translation of the lyrics here. The album itself apparently has a reputation of which I was unaware: it even has a Wikipedia page, and has been re-issued on CD, though it appears to be out of print again now.

Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky

David Bentley Hart compares them as novelists, and puts Tolstoy higher. I can't give a very respectable opinion on that, because the only Tolstoy I've read was Anna Karenina many years ago, in my twenties. But I'm going to venture tentative agreement with him. In reading or re-reading Dostoevsky's major novels--Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Devils--over the past four or five years, I've been struck by their defects as novels. They're great and fascinating works, to be sure, but they don't entirely persuade me, in either character or plot. I want to read War and Peace sometime in the reasonably near future.

52 Authors: Week 11 - Imre Madách

Imre Madách was an Hungarian romantic poet and playwright of the 19th century. He wrote one major work, and some lesser works which are now only of interest because of it. His magnum opus is The Tragedy of Man (Az ember tragédiája) – a play which ranks as one of the most important works of Hungarian literature, and can best be described as “Paradise Lost with time travel.”

The story of the Tragedy treads familiar ground for the first two acts: God creates the world; Lucifer rebels and obtains permission to test the newly-made Man and Woman; Man and Woman fail the test, and are cast out of Eden (still in the company of their tempter). Then Madách gets original – Adam complains that Satan's not keeping up his end of the bargain:

You speak in riddles. You promised wisdom -
I put aside instinctive joys,
Prepared to struggle, to be great. What for?

Lucifer's response is to discourse upon the elemental forces of the Earth, but Adam wants more – he wants to peer into the future. Lucifer assents.

So let it be. I’ll cast a spell on you
And you will see unto the end of time
As in a dream, in fleeting images...
And to maintain your courage in the battle –
A tiny ray of light there in the sky,
That you might think the whole dream was a mirage.
That tiny ray of light will be called Hope.

This sets the stage for a very strange pas de trois between Adam, Eve and Lucifer. The play becomes a breakneck tour of human history, with (almost) every scene being set in a new time period, whose basic ideals are enacted and then discussed. Adam, as the embodiment of Man, serves as protagonist, unable to rest without striving and believing in something, driving the play forward by his chronic idealism. Lucifer is the deuteragonist, a snarky sidekick who spends his time poking holes in whatever Adam holds sacred at any given time. Eve, as tritagonist, serves as Adam's companion, love-interest, inspiration, and – at the end – rescuer.

Each scene (though this pattern varies near the end) sees Adam pursuing some vision or embodying some concept – which, however, soon presents problems, and must be discarded and replaced. This is the tragedy of the title: he cannot live without ideals, but they all turn out to be flawed. The first of these scenes sees him, as patriarch of all humanity, in the authoritarian role of Egyptian Pharaoh, watching as millions of slaves labour on his pyramids; but after falling in love with Eve (as the widow of a dead slave) he begins to hear the cry of the common people. He abandons absolute power and enthuses about democracy, and in the next scene becomes Miltiades in ancient Athens, defending a city which turns on him at the urging of the demagogues. Disillusioned with that, he opts for hedonism, which he pursues in ancient Rome, and then proceeds to work through Christianity, apathetic stasis, catastrophic revolution, capitalism, science, and abandonment of the body to become a pure spirit. None of this ends well.

In all of this, Adam is accompanied by Lucifer, who seldom refrains from pointing out the flaws in Adam's thinking. The traditional Christian picture of the Devil is an angel who has rebelled through pride, in contrast to the obedient humility of the angels and saints. Madách's Devil is no less proud, but manifests his pride not in armed rebellion but in cynicism, in contrast to Adam the Romantic. Milton's Devil turns into Ha-Satan, “The Adversary”, because he wants something and must rebel to get it; Madách's Devil is Ha-Satan as a primary character trait: he contradicts people as a knee-jerk reflex, starting with God and working his way through human ideals as an afterthought. The first scene even sees Lucifer declaring his contrarian nature to be coëternal with God, defining himself as that void in Your conceptions, that barrier to every mode of being whose very presence compelled You to create – an astonishing level of chutzpah, which doesn't let up when he's banished:

No, not so fast – I won’t go just like that,
You can’t discard me like a broken tool.
We are both creative spirits – I demand
My portion.

THE LORD [scornfully]
Just as you wish. Look down to earth:
In the heart of Eden stand two slender trees.
I curse the pair of them: now they are yours.

The result of all this is that Lucifer is a weirdly contradictory character. His opening scene shows him so defined by negation that he picks a fight with Infinite Goodness, so he's naturally untouched by the various ideals Adam keeps chasing. But it's impossible to poke holes in someone's ideals without affirming something else, directly or indirectly; and while Lucifer usually praises sin, depravity, pride, or lowbrow taste, occasionally he makes references to what is actually good and true and proper – although of course he won't ever act on this. For instance, Adam's Christian-and-chivalrous phase comes crashing down when, as a crusading knight, he meets and falls in love with Eve – but her father's given her over to a convent and she doesn't want to disobey him or God by leaving. Comparing this with Adam's previous hedonist phase, Lucifer comments:

You see the foolishness of all your kind
Who regard a woman merely as an object
Of passion, and brush the bloom of poetry
From her brow with horny hands, and rob yourself
Of love’s most tender and enchanting blossom;
Then raise her, like a goddess, on an altar
And bleed for her and struggle pointlessly
While her kisses languish in sterility. -
Why not respect and honour her as a woman
Within the appointed sphere of womanhood?

That's a very good question. Of course, applying this to himself is another matter – in the same scene, Eve's maidservant (also in the nunnery, though less scrupulous) shows an interest in him, which he finds fearful.

Helena’s on her way, what should I do?
Should the devil go canoodling with a wench
He’d never live it down as long as he lived...
It’s strange how men with passion in their hearts
Will long and languish constantly for love
And reap mere pain. The devil’s heart of ice
Escapes it only in the nick of time.

The surface appeal of the play is in the breadth of subjects discussed, and the humorous nature of the banter – Lucifer's gleeful puncturing of Adam's high-minded rhetoric can be very funny. (I myself have definite tendencies towards flippancy and cynicism, which puts me on Lucifer's wavelength here.) This makes it very easy reading. But although it addresses a wide range of subjects, it necessarily does so in a hit-and-run manner more conducive to one-liners than to any real depth (one scene to analyse democracy, another to analyse capitalism, etc.) Its main power is in what it doesn't quite spell out regarding idealism and cynicism. Lucifer initially seems amusing, witty, insightful – when he and Adam see a murderer taken to be hanged, see the victim's father being driven to madness by grief, and then learn that the murderer had very serious extenuating circumstances, they comment:

I thank my lucky stars that I’m no judge.
It’s easy to write laws in easy chairs –
It’s easy to pass judgment from on high,
But how much harder to explore the heart
Or fairly analyse its dark procedures.

Such principles would make for endless trials.
No one does wrong simply because it’s wrong,
Even the devil has his alibi,
And each man thinks his own the most important.

He comes across as so genial, and often so accurate, in his cynicism (the scene where Adam and Lucifer tour the scientific phalanstery is hilarious) that his contradictory statements and attempts to destroy Adam seem out of place – as if Madách felt the character of Lucifer were threatening to run away with him, and he had to keep giving him evil deeds to stop him from leaving the “bad guy” pigeonhole. But then, most human cynicism is limited, and tends to have standards of goodness it tacitly leaves uncriticised; or it melts when presented with simple, uncomplicated goodness. Madách's Lucifer is a cynic thoroughgoing enough to be leery of any and all standards, and icy enough to be unimpressed even by the Beatific Vision; he can have no standards of goodness himself, so for all his geniality he is necessarily untrustworthy, inconsistent, and dishonest, even to himself.

Adam, meanwhile, spends all his time between the Fall and the end of the play estranged from God: he goes through a sequence of ideals in a state of unresolved rebellion, seeking and striving for glory and greatness – My God is me, whatever I regain is mine by right. This is the source of all my strength and pride. In his own way, he's as obdurately self-willed as Lucifer, but in a manner that at least seeks to create instead of tearing down. (Both are condemned to continuous frustration, as well, Lucifer by the verdict of God while Adam's frustrations form the bulk of the plot. Lucifer, for all his wit, doesn't possess enough irony to notice the symmetry.) But by the end of the play he has been humbled and some measure of reconciliation effected, and the coming of Christ is looked forward to as a source of hope – despite the fact that one of Adam's abortive and disastrous phases was pursuing Christianity! At this, what initially looked like Romanticism in overdrive with religious trappings and incoherent motions of reverence to the Deity becomes a study in how the age's Romantic obsessions – passion, love, ideals – lead to futility if pursued apart from God's grace – even when those ideals include pursuing God. (Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa I. 63: “But he would sin were he to desire to be like unto God even in the right way, as of his own, and not of God's power... if he desired as his last end that likeness of God which is bestowed by grace, he sought to have it by the power of his own nature; and not from Divine assistance according to God's ordering.”) The paradox may be explicable to anyone who's decided to obey God or pursue some ideal and later realised they were at least partially doing so as a lifestyle accoutrement, or for the satisfaction of doing God a favour, or in some other way proceeding from their own self-will. As a chorus of angels puts it,

...Do not be dazzled by the thought
That God is honoured by your efforts,
His Glory with your prowess bought,
Or that in some way He depended
On you to carry through His scheme:
Think rather that He does you honour
Allowing you to act for Him.

The play concludes with the verdict of God: Man, I have spoken: strive on, trust, have faith! At which Humanity becomes Balaam writ large: chastised, humbled, reconciled, and ready to remount its donkey and carry on.

The translation I quote can be read online here: Wikipedia also has an article ( on the Tragedy.

—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.

Richard Thompson on Front and Center

If you're a Richard Thompson fan, you really want to see this. Front and Center is a one-hour concert series on PBS (APT? what's the difference?). This one is the same trio that's on the Electric album, and is maybe better than the album, because the choice of material is broader. In my opinion RT's current songwriting doesn't match his earlier work, but as a guitarist he's just amazing, if anything better than ever. The show's page at the Front and Center web site contains a couple of YouTube clips. 

Of Interest to Dylan Fans

In the guise of a review of the recent Basement Tapes re-issues, and in an unlikely place--The Weekly Standard--this is one of the better things I've ever read about Dylan. It's called "AWOL from the Summer of Love." And in case you don't read it, here's what seemed to me a very significant bit (in part, I admit, because I came to the same conclusion a while back): 

If Dylan was the voice of a generation, it was not of the generation we think. He belonged to the generation before the one that idolized him, as did The Band. For them, the pre-baby boom frameworks of meaning were all still in place, undeconstructed and deployable in art.... His virtues are not so much of the world he left us with as of the world he helped usher out.

I've heard most of the Basement Tapes stuff on bootleg LPs, and really didn't think I was that interested in hearing it again. But now I'm thinking about that 2-CD set.


If our communication with the divine is stopped we begin to have strange dreams....

--Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.

There's more to the sentence but I like it that way.

...and set up false gods--success, people, new orders, and so on.


52 Authors: Week 10 - Larry McMurtry

I feel ill-prepared to write about Larry McMurtry though of course I picked him for this project. It has been 20+ years since I read a bulk of McMurtry’s oeuvre, so why did I decide on him as a subject? Because not too long ago (within the past two years) I re-read Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo. I just looked over his bibliography on Wikipedia because I thought I would be able to write “the bulk of,” but there are so many books there and I only count around 15 or so that I’ve read. For someone who puts out a quality product, he is quite prolific. Or was – at 78 he is slowing down some.

Growing up in Miami, Florida, as a child I yearned to be anywhere else. This is probably not unusual. I also spent a lot of time watching westerns on TV, and wondering how close to reality they might be. I was a reader, and found my way to Max Brand, Zane Grey, and Louis L’Amour; enjoying all of them. By the time Lonesome Dove is published I am in college. I don’t know if someone pointed me towards it, or, I just picked it up in a bookstore on my own. It is grand, picaresque, lovely, funny, poignant, sad, hilarious, and contains characterizations that to me there is no superior to in literature (at least that I have read). Augustus McCrae is my hero, and the greatest character I have ever enjoyed reading about; and Woodrow Call is not half bad.

Many may have watched the TV mini-series starring Robert Duvall as McCrae and Tommy Lee Jones as Call. It is indeed great; but it’s not the book.

Others have mentioned books by authors where the reader arrives at the end and turns back to the beginning, reading the first 50 or so pages before putting it down with a sigh. Lonesome Dove is one of those books.

I went crazy a while back, thinking about having to write this, looking for a small line in LD that I thought wonderful. Eventually I found it in Streets of Laredo (sequel to LD). “The look on his face said more than Clara wanted to hear or see or know about one human missing another.” When I got to that line it was so well written, and said so much about characters who at this point you have known for the length of one long novel and then into another slightly shorter one, that I wanted to cry. Small jewels like these are sprinkled amongst McMurtry’s novels.

My OCD nature has me write notes after I read novels. I started with notecards several years ago, and now I have moved on to Goodreads. Here is something I wrote back when I re-read LD two years ago: “It is a masterpiece and a miracle of fiction that McMurtry is able to so fully realize a world full of people so true to life. Some of them are more real than people I have known for years.” Then, “Lonesome Dove is one of those books that you tell everyone to read and then are grumpy with them if they don’t have the same experience with it as you did.” Okay, I’ll stop writing about this one novel.


 Stu likes Lonesome Dove so much that he bought me this copy from the college library's used book store. I did not make him grumpy. —Mac

Glancing back at his bibliography, it is fair to say that about half of his fiction are westerns in the sense of Louis L’Amour, etc. The other half are still westerns, but modern ones, taking place in Texas and elsewhere and probably in some ways representing McMurtry’s life as he might have lived it, as he idealized it after the fact, as he fictionalizes it and changes it for the reader. Much like so many other writers of fiction.

The eponymous protagonist of Cadillac Jack lives in Washington, D.C. buying antiques that he returns to his native Texas with. At one point in McMurtry’s life he also lived in D.C., but returned to Archer City, Texas with books instead, opening up huge bookstores in his small hometown near Wichita Falls that amounted to his enormous and ever-growing book collection. I have enjoyed many of these modern westerns too, in particular the “Houston” books which include Terms of Endearment. McMurtry has been fortunate with Hollywood, and also quite involved with the final product. Most people my age or older would have a hard time forgetting the heart-wrenching movie made from this book, or Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, and Jack Nicholson’s performances. I loved the book, and its sequel The Evening Star, but the ToE movie is more effective.

McMurtry has also written a reasonable number of non-fiction books, about highways, about books, about historical figures that may have made their way into his fiction, about his experience in Hollywood. He famously shared an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay with his sometime writing partner Diana Ossana for Brokeback Mountain.

Back to my childhood, Miami, Texas, and western movies. I eventually was able to leave Miami and spent some years in Texas and some other years in New Mexico. Parts of the Southwest are just as magical as McMurtry’s writing. Hiking in the wilderness, or even driving in the vast and empty areas of this region, not only do you remember the western movies and television shows of your youth, but also the writing about these areas that may have had a profound effect on you in your formative years. Larry McMurtry stands alone in American Literature in his accomplishment of being a narrator about his home state of Texas and the American Southwest.

—El Gaucho is a pseudonym of Stu Moore. Stu spends his time considering Registrar-related activities at a small liberal arts Jesuit college in the South, and how they might relate to his background in English and Theology.


A Bruised Reed

You may have seen the story at The Daily Beast in which Ana Marie Cox explains why she's coming out as a Christian. It's a touching statement, and my first thought was I hope the bruised reed won't be broken.

I thought I recognized Cox's name. She was the originator of a blog called Wonkette, which I recall reading a few times ten years or so when blogs were still fairly new. I didn't like it. If I remember correctly it was mainly the sort of liberal snark with which I have very little patience, even less now than then. The tone of this piece--open, direct, humble--could hardly be more different from what I recall of Wonkette. I would really like to know more about her conversion.

The bruised reed reference, as everyone who reads this blog probably knows, is to Matthew 12:20, which in turn is a reference to Isaiah 4:23 (and no, I don't have those citations in my head--I looked them up):

A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory.

I've never been entirely sure what that means in its context, but the image of someone taking care not to break a fragile thing always comes to mind when I meet or hear of someone coming into the faith from outside. I always fear for them a little.

Who might do the breaking here? Well, it could be her secular leftist peers--it's hard, obviously, to go against the consensus of your friends and family. But much more disturbing is the possibility that it could be us, her fellow Christians. There are a lot of ways we could do this, of course, starting with basic old-time self-righteousness and the normal failure of Christians to live up to their calling. The one that really worries me in this case, though, is the association of Christianity and right-wing politics. There are far too many Christians who think that the one requires the other.

I'm a conservative myself ("conservative but not right-wing," I like to say) and am confident that my political views are compatible with the principles of my faith. That doesn't mean that the two are one. I'm always a little surprised when I come across someone who seems to believe that conservatism follows necessarily from Christianity. It shouldn't even need to be said that one can be on the political left and still be a faithful Christian. But it does, in some circles at least. 

There are good reasons in the history of the past hundred years for the association of orthodox Christianity and conservative politics. But we should never mistake that accident of history with ultimate principles. In the end--another thing that really shouldn't need to be said--the faith always transcends all earthly political views. And for that matter, no set of political opinions really encompasses the whole truth about even mundane matters. 

Say a prayer for Ana Marie Cox. 

(Out of curiosity, I looked to see if Wonkette is still active. It is, under new management, and seems to have gone from snarky to venomous.)

Climate Change Is A Factor in Everything Bad

New Picture


(Click on the image if you're having trouble reading the text.)

That the drought has been a factor in the war is easy to believe. That the drought was caused by climate change is almost surely a much shakier assertion. I remember a conversation with a climate change affirmer in which she said something similar. I said that the relationship was probably too complex to warrant such a broad conclusion. She said that a raindrop falling through warmer air would be more likely to evaporate before it reached the ground. That of course explains the belt of desert circling the globe at the equator.


(Map courtesy of Ok, well, maybe not "courtesy of". "Swiped from.")


52 Authors: Week 9 - Ronald Blythe

Ronald Blythe, born in 1922, published his first book in 1960 and more than half a century on is still at it. His most recent release was a privately printed collection of poems, which came out late last year. In the interim he has written fiction, literary criticism, biography, and nature and travel books. And since the 90s he has written the column “Word From Wormingford” for the Church Times in England, and many of these essays have been combined and released in book form.

I first came across Blythe’s work in the late 90’s in the much-lamented Common Reader catalog. I didn’t actually read him, however, until about five or six years ago. Word From Wormingford (the book) had sat on my shelf for nearly ten years without my having looked at it, and when I finally did pick it up, I did so because I had been reading a lot of Wendell Berry at the time, and I had the notion that Blythe was a sort of English Berry. Although there are some similarities I was mostly wrong, although I would say that folks who like the one would probably like the other.

What you find in Blythe is a rare combination of literary erudition, keen observational skills regarding both men and nature, and a sort of peaceful piety that borders on the devotional. When one reads one of his pieces, he is as equally likely to come away with a recommendation for an unknown poet or novelist, as with a desire to learn more about some forgotten English saint or a wildflower that you recognize but never knew the name of. What is most appealing to me about his work is his obvious love for everything he writes about–literature, nature, the cycle of the Church Year, his particular place in rural England. His writing exudes charity, in the original and best meaning of that word.


Three examples, chosen rather at random, from Word From Wormingford:


The old don’t like to be hurried away after the service. They want to huddle and chat and beam and ‘belong.’ My dreams take a sociological turn and I think, looking at the aged women, there go the last of the gleaners, and the last of those who rang for tea. ‘Eighty – why that’s nothing these days!’ But it is and they know it. They know it by their prayer… George Herbert was only thirty-nine when he found words to say, ‘The day is spent and hath his will on me:/ I and the sun have run our races.’

During a nighttime Lenten walk:

A Quaker friend apprenticed to horse farming in the thirties remembers his master getting up at two o’clock sharp every morning to reassure his beasts. A word here, a pat there. And I can recall the stockmen’s lanterns as they made their rounds. ‘Fareyouwell, then.’ Max the cat will accompany me on these strolls when he feels like it, now and then shinning up a tree to show off. On a light dark night I can just make out a Norman church whose windows, wrote Adrian Bell, ‘are no more than dream holes, the walls so thick that the light has the effect of being poured in through a funnel’. Well, that is how they liked it, our ancestors, a bright Saviour in a richly gloomy cave.

The autumn equinox:

St. Matthew’s collect contains a favourite finger-wagging word–‘inordinate.’ It is getting at the apostle’s past as a taxman. Not for us covetous desires and inordinate love of riches. Nor for us inordinate affection, although quite how one is to keep this within bounds I have failed to understand. Some friends, the cat, some books, this landscape familiar to me since boyhood, are all in receipt of my inordinate affection and the cat would not be pleased with anything less. But if I am not covetous, it is because I have all I need. So no virtue in this. The epistle is far from equinoctial. No equality of light and night there. Light reigns. The autumn days are days to savour. There is a sweet rot in the air. Grey squirrels are allowed to do what we must not do, lay up treasure in the earth.

All of Blythe’s “Wormingford” writing has this quality. I’ve not read any of his fiction, but his literary criticism and biographical writing carries it as well. In a way, he’s like a meeker, milder C.S. Lewis – similar sensibilities, but more heartfelt, less strictly rational. He’s a very “peaceful” writer, and makes a wonderful companion at those times when you want to slow down and enjoy something for its own sake, even if you do learn much in the process.

For the “Wormingford” writing Word From Wormingford is the place to start. It has been followed up by many volumes, but it started off as a trilogy, the second and third books being Out of the Valley and Borderlands. As far as the literary writing goes, I’d recommend Characters and Their Landscapes (also known as From the Headlands) and Divine Landscapes. His most famous book is Akenfield, which is a fictionalized account of the life of an English village from 1880 to the mid 60s. It’s very good but a little different from his other works, as it is somewhat journalistic in style.

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.