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April 2015

A Conversation Piece

I've been reading Robert McCrum's biography of P.G. Wodehouse (Wodehouse, 2004). In passing, discussing Wodehouse's decision to try writing for Hollywood in the late 1920s and early '30s, the author mentions this:

According to George Cukor, the premiere [of The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture], on the night of 27 December 1928, had been 'the most important event in cultural history since Martin Luther nailed his theses on the church door'....

My first thought on reading that was "What a ridiculous thing to say"--just the sort of thing you might expect of some self-important entertainment industry executive. My second thought was "But now that I think about it, I guess it was pretty significant." (And Cukor was not an executive, but a director, trained in the theater, who went to Hollywood at about the same time Wodehouse did.)

And my third thought was, "You know, I think he might be right." Whether or not the Luther comparison is accurate, it is true that moving pictures, especially after they became speaking pictures as well, are something never before seen in human history, and that they've had a huge influence. And it seems entirely possible that their cultural effect may be as great as some of the big philosophical shifts in civilization. Never before had the human race seen itself this way. There had been theater, of course, but as the early movie producers soon realized, that is a very different thing. Actors on a stage remain human in scale, and in the same real world as the audience. Movies, in comparison, are simultaneously much more and much less real--literally larger than life, and at the same time, and no doubt in part for that very reason, creating a stronger illusion of reality, and all the more illusory because it's heightened and intensified.

I haven't really thought about this at length, but surely others have. No doubt there are books exploring the idea. At the moment I'm just tossing it out for discussion--what do others think? As a cultural influence, has it had an effect on the mind of a civilization comparable to that of the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment, or industrialization? 

52 Authors: Week 17 - Christopher Derrick

I was never shot down into Occupied France. But in my distant R.A.F. days, I was carefully briefed about what I was to do in that event; and it struck me at the time that my situation then would be closely analogous to what 'being a Catholic' means ... But it's a bad metaphor in two ways. In the first place, while it's a disaster for any pilot to be shot down, it's no kind of disaster for a human being to get himself born into this world, enemy-occupied though it is ... Then, while it was that pilot's sole business to get back to England as soon as possible, it is not the Christian's sole duty to get to Heaven in the shortest possible time. ... So perhaps we should vary it with a different wartime picture – that of a secret agent, let us say, who is parachuted into France quite deliberately for an extended period. ... He also looks forward to a return home and his Sovereign's approval. But in the meantime, here in France and in the face of the enemy, he has been given a job to do – some specific job of which he may fail to see the point, but for which he is uniquely qualified.

– Christopher Derrick, That Strange Divine Sea (1983), p. 102.

Christopher Derrick was not a novelist but an essayist. In the 1950s he worked as an editor and publisher's reader, and as printing officer for London University. He published three books in 1969, at the age of 48, and thereafter a new non-fiction book perhaps every two or three years until 1987. These touch on many of the hot topics of the day: liturgy, contraception, population, ecology, education — none of them topics that have lost interest, although the terms in which they are discussed may have changed somewhat. He died in 2007, 20 years after his last book was published, and I wrote his obituary for an obscure magazine called St Austin Review, edited by Joseph Pearce. I did so because of one of those coincidences that it is hard not to take as a sign: I had met him a dozen years before, read a couple of his books not long after, and for no discernible reason suddenly felt a strong urge to find out more about him. Searching on the Internet, I discovered that he had died a fortnight before.

As a student in the mid-1990s I used to attend the evening guest lectures organised from time to time by the Newman Society. At one of these the invited speaker was a man I had never heard of, and the topic was something like "Catholic attitudes to sex". I went to the lecture steeled to be appalled — fully expecting something either abstract or sentimental, and possibly both. Instead, a vigorous old man with a long white beard exhorted us about the power, majesty and blood-lust of the goddess Venus — not as a deity to be worshipped, but certainly to be regarded with awe and respect, and above all caution. Nothing that he said was in any way contrary to Catholic faith or morals, but he managed to combine down-to-earth good sense with a high mythic style. A hint of it can be caught from a piece he wrote for America in 1981, The Desacralization of Venus, although that is more deliberative in tone, and much more directly aimed at responses to Humanae Vitae. Perhaps the sentence that gives the best feel of the later lecture is: "Cleverer people than myself will be able to specify . . . the exact sense in which she (or, perhaps, any other pagan "god") might be said to die and rise again in Christ and so attain real divinity as a partaker in His." It reflects the emphasis of a collection of essays on inter-faith ecumenism that he edited in the mid-1960s, entitled Light of Revelation and Non-Christians.

When the talk was over, a number of us hung around to hear more. The conversation touched on G.K. Chesterton, who had been a friend of Derrick's father, and as I was just in the process of discovering Chesterton this made me listen carefully. One thing that Derrick said was: "I knew Chesterton, not merely as an acquaintance but as a family friend, and while I would rise up and smite down anyone who said a word against him, he was not by any means a saint". A couple of American students were particularly eager to make his acquaintance, and to quiz him about C.S. Lewis. They had heard of him, and knew he had been one of Lewis's students in the 1940s. Ignatius Press had published his C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome in the early 1980s. What they perhaps did not know, and I found out only recently, is that Derrick had been the publisher's editor who gave final shape to the memoir and edition of the letters of C.S. Lewis produced under Warren Lewis's name in 1966 – "Warnie's" debilitating battle with alcoholism making considerable further editorial intervention necessary. The American students wanted his opinion of A.N. Wilson’s just-published biography of Lewis, but he simply dismissed Wilson as a "fribble" – an apt and evocative word that I had never heard before, and have never heard since.

At the end of the evening, when the officers of the society decided it was time to usher us out and lock up, they proffered the speaker a cheque for his fee. He declined to accept it and sent his host out into the evening drizzle in search of a cash machine. He fixed me with a glittering eye, and said, "Always get it in cash if you can. A cheque just disappears into the overdraft."

A few weeks after the lecture I happened upon one of Derrick's books in a second-hand bookshop, Trimming the Ark: Catholic Attitudes and the Cult of Change. Published in 1969, it is a level-headed book about what has come to be called "the Spirit of the Council", deprecating both over-eager modernizing and over-reaction against it ("trimming" being a nautical term for keeping balance while changing direction), and in particular gently deflating the "evolutionary fallacy" of thinking that change is either always necessary or necessarily an improvement. Some time later I read Escape from Scepticism, a book-length essay on education inspired by a visit to Thomas Aquinas College. Only when writing up his obituary did I hunt down The Delicate Creation (on ecological issues) and The Rule of Peace (on the applicability of the Rule of St Benedict to modern secular life).


One book of his I have bought several copies of second-hand, and given away to various people in turn, is quite unlike the others. His Reader's Report on the Writing of Novels has nothing to do with Catholic responses to modern enthusiasms, but draws on his experience as a publisher's reader to provide practical advice to aspiring novelists. On page 33 he describes his motivation for writing the book:

For the sake of my bank balance, I want a great many novels to be written and submitted; for the sake of my day-to-day comfort, I want them to be tolerable reading at least; and for the sake of my reputation and pride, I hope one day to discover a masterpiece.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

A Young Girl in Red, 1913

There are several sets of photos similar to this one that I've seen here and there on the net, color photos taken at a time when color photography was almost unknown. I think they're fascinating, and very valuable, because early photography, in ironic contradiction of what was thought to be its startling realism, has given us a very distorted mental image of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even now, I suspect too many people think that everything in the 1950s looked like a faded Kodacolor print. At any rate a lot of movie-makers seem to think it's appropriate to use those tones for that period. Anyway: 1913: Christina in Red.


When I got this off the camera I thought it was more purple than it should be. Still pretty, though. I remember as a child with a coloring book and crayons coloring something dark green and dark purple, and someone telling me those colors didn't go together. Every now and then over the years I've seen that combination and thought "Yes they do."


Anybody planning to have a piece for the 52 Authors series this weekend?

I don't have anybody on the schedule but maybe I just forgot to update it. If no one else has anything, I think I'll go ahead and do Eliot. I had sort of intended to read some of his prose that I've either never read or only read once long ago, but I could do something on the poetry without much prep. 

And if somebody has signed up, I will try to get myself to go ahead and work on a couple of these. There is a long empty stretch on the schedule ahead.

52 Authors: Week 16 - Madeleine L'Engle

[Editor's note: most people reading this blog have probably read A Wrinkle In Time, but in case you haven't, be aware that this contains spoilers.]

I’m guessing Madeleine L’Engle was a loosey-goosey Episcopalian. This may be to misjudge her. It is a guess which is largely based on the way her novels border on depicting a gnostic cosmos in which goodness and love endlessly battle the near-equal power of Evil and Darkness. C.S. Lewis seems straight-laced alongside L’Engle. She seems more open to sheer invention. All of Lewis’ fiction, I think, takes place in realms that are more or less direct analogues of the actual Christian cosmos. In L’Engle’s stories it's as if the Book of Revelation had got a bit out of hand.

I’m confidently talking about L’Engle’s novels but in fact I have read just two books by her and I keep having to look up the name of the second one to remember its title. One is A Wrinkle in Time and the other, truly unmemorable one is …. The Young Unicorns. I like it that way. In the days before Amazon, whenever I came over from England to North America, I would root about in the Children’s Literature shelves in a bookstore, just to see if Louise Fitzhugh had written any successors to Harriet the Spy. Once on a trip to Toronto in 2000 this ferreting amongst the children’s books led me to the horrified discovery that A Wrinkle in Time had become one of a series. I was dismayed and thoroughly disgruntled. I did not want Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace to go tessering into more and more adventures, visiting planets and talking to angels and bringing light to darkened planets. It spoiled the uniqueness of the book. To me, the penultimate scene of A Wrinkle in Time had to be absolutely climactic. It had to remain unsurpassable, ‘the end,’ a true finale and not the ouverture to a melodramatic series of new transformations. L’Engle must have written the sequels to please the many admirers of the first book. The generations who have grown up on the Star Wars Trilogies will have no idea what I’m talking about! For them, climaxes are made to be repeated.

I very much hope that I was nearer eight than nine when I first read A Wrinkle in Time. That’s because I found the book quite difficult. I remember I struggled with ‘Charles Wallace,’ because he is sometimes given this double-barrelled moniker, but other times he is just called ‘Charles.’ I had to read the novel a second time before I was sure that there is just one character named ‘Charles Wallace’ in this book, not a ‘Charles Wallace’ and a ‘Charles.’ It does not help that ‘Charles Wallace’ is supposed to be a five year old boy but talks like an old man. The words that come out of his mouth are not the language of a small boy. Of course, they are not supposed to be, fully, because Charles Wallace is presented as having ‘telepathic’ powers, and as having the outward look of an idiot but the inner life of a genius. He is precious, and we get to like him not because he is likeable but because he is so precious to his sister Meg. One of the first things we hear about Meg is that she has been in a fist fight when someone at her school snarked her baby brother. Even so, the characters are a little ghostly, maybe, a little more soul than body.

Likewise the method of interplanetary travel the book requires is very vague. When Mrs Whatsit explains to the children, “‘We teser. Or you might say, ‘we wrinkle’”, Calvin reasonably complains, “‘Clear as mud.’” It comes down to travelling in the fifth dimension, we later learn. It comes across a little bit like thinking very hard and wishing one could be on another planet and landing there. I don’t often like books with spaceships so perhaps that was a plus for an eight or nine year old girl. Re-reading the book lately, the way the characters cross the universes by slipping through ‘wrinkles’ in time reminded me of the time travel in the Sci-Fi movie Interstellar. But whereas the message of Interstellar is secularist, that of A Wrinkle is decidedly spiritualist.

I had better get into telling you something good about this book, or else you will be thinking that I chose L’Engle as one of LODW’s 52 authors of the year in order to have a go at the Anglicans, with their angelism, disembodied imaginations, borderline Christian Science dysfunction and broad tendency to melodrama.

The story begins on a dark and stormy night. Meg, heroine, sleepless in her attic, decides to go downstairs and make cocoa: but on arriving in the kitchen she finds that Charles Wallace already has the milk on the stove. Thus we learn that he is a mind reader. I think that as a child I found this as difficult to make sense of as his double-barrelled first name: was he really supposed to read minds? It seems that both of the children’s parents are scientists, and that their father, Dr. Murry, has disappeared on a mysterious mission.

As Charles Wallace, Mrs. Murry and Meg sit drinking their cocoa and eating sandwiches a lady tramp appears in the kitchen: she seems to know about ‘tessering.’ This disturbs Mrs. Murry, and gives the reader a steer as the secret of Dr. Murry’s mission. He seems to have tried it and landed somewhere he cannot so easily leave. The plot moves very fast from here: Meg has just one day at school, in the course of which we realize that she is a misfit, too bright for her school but too impetuous to be a success. The world of school is inhospitable to a Meg who is entirely absorbed in her family drama of the lost father. Meg is a very appealing heroine, because her inability to fit in masks a secret genius for maths. Children from turbulent families can very easily identify with Meg and her bohemian family. Many scenes had stayed with me in the forty years between my readings of the book. One of them was Mrs. Murry making a delicious dinner for her children on a bunsen burner, while she works on some scientific experiment.

Other features of A Wrinkle in Time came as something of a surprise when I re-read it this past month. I had no idea when I read it the first time in 1968 (we hope), that it was full of scripture. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who are three angels disguised as witches, and they quote and sing Scripture. Raised in a non-Christian home, I had no way of recognizing these passages as Scripture and nor would many of today’s young readers – of whom it must have quite a few, since I easily picked it off the shelf in Barnes and Noble. I had entirely forgotten the visit to a ‘beautiful’ planet full of flowers, rainbows, and psalm-singing mythical creatures. Meg, Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin are taken there on their way to the dark planet where Dr. Murry is being held ‘in a cloven pine.’

I had a vivid memory of the scene where the children first land on Camatzotz. Like most writers, L’Engle is much better at Dystopia than Eden. Camatzotz is a planet which has yielded entirely to the dark power. Its citizens march to a single beat. In these post-anti-Communist times, the description of the enforced conformity and uniformity of Camatzotz will seem to many adults like a cliché. But to me as a child of the 1960s, encountering this place was a very intense encounter with a fictional ‘badness’ I could recognize:

As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball. As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball. Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers. Then the doors of all the houses opened simultaneously and out came women like a row of paper dolls.

The three children observe one little boy who fails to bounce his ball in time. They will later see him being punished for his misdemeanor by IT, the delegate of the Evil One to whose mechanical heart beat every person on Camatzotz is attuned. A Wrinkle in Time is an allegorical novel about the evil of collectivism, and how to fight it.

So a lot of the physical mechanisms of the novel puzzled my literal-minded nine year old self very much. How do the children ‘walk right into’ the glass column in which Dr. Murry is imprisoned? Of course the novelist gives them a means – Mrs Who’s glasses have magical powers. The spectacles are amongst the ‘magical’ gifts which the three ‘angels’ give the children as they embark on their rescue mission to the ‘darkened planet.’ In fact, beneath the Science Fiction, A Wrinkle is a fairy tale, and a well written and compelling one. L’Engle does know how to write a story – perhaps to her cost. Perhaps the talent for story ended up muffling her other gifts. But it helped her make a living writing children’s books.

By the time the children retrieve Dr. Murry from his glass prison Charles has fallen foul of a telepathic battle of wits with IT. Failing to heed the three ladies’ warning not to trust in himself, Charles Wallace tried to ‘go head to head’ in mind reading combat with the Collective Mind who rules the lost planet and was drawn into the demon’s ambit, losing his freedom and ability to think for himself. Calvin, Meg, and Dr. Murry then battle the monster, repulsing IT’s efforts to mechanize, absorb and control their thoughts by doing mathematical equations and reciting poetry, that is, using their own minds. Finally, as IT moves to absorb them, they ‘tesser’ off the planet. Charles is left behind.

Meg is nearly lost too: she has been frozen by the encounter. A ‘furry beast’ (Aunt Beast) warms her. Meg is, however, almost as angry as she had been back on earth. Why hasn’t the retrieval of her father solved everything? How could Charles Wallace have been left behind in their flight? Meg wanted her father to take responsibility, and all that has happened is that her darling younger brother has been lost, left behind in the grip of IT on Camatzotz. And then the three angels return. Meg is told roundly that she must take responsibility herself, and that she alone can rescue Charles Wallace. This time there are no magical ‘gifts’: Mrs. Who tells her she must use her faults, Mrs. Which tells her to find out what it is that IT does not have; Mrs. Which quotes some long Scriptural passage about the wisdom of this world; all Mrs. Whatsit has to give, as Meg embarks on her mission, is her love.

And so Meg returns alone. The story moves here very fast to the climax. Returning to the ‘engine room,’ Meg finds that her brother is now wholly a creature of IT. Reciting the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence cannot help them now. The drum beat has drawn Charles Wallace in beyond equations and poetry and declarations about liberty and equality. And now it wants to take Meg. At first Meg’s impetuous anger is a weapon and a shield. But not for long. And then Meg realizes that the one thing she can do, which IT cannot replicate, is to love.

‘Mrs Whatsit hates you,’ Charles Wallace said. And this was where IT made ITs fatal mistake, for as Meg said, automatically, ‘Mrs Whatsit loves me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,’ suddenly she knew.

She knew!


That was what she had that IT did not have. …But she …was incapable of loving IT. But she could love Charles Wallace. She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace.

This is what Meg does: she stands there and loves Charles. That is how she unties the knots which bind him to the evil force, and that is how they make their way out of the dark planet and home. It is such a triumphant scene that thirty years later I did not want it clouded over by more adventures.

I read all the good children’s literature of the 1960s. I read many better books, including John Tremaine, Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. But this book is most certainly the one which lit the flame in my mind which led me to the Trinitarian God of love. I did not recognize the Scripture quotations in the book as Scripture and of course I did not know I was reading an ‘allegory’ (if I was). I recently bought this novel for a god-daughter on her confirmation. I don’t know how much it would move someone who reads it for the first time in adulthood and in any case I have wrecked the story for you by telling the ending. But it’s a very good book to know about, to give to young children. It is a kind of Christian fairy story. It is worth reading, even if you know the story, because everyone needs to remember the power of love.

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

"Notoriously dismal"

James Dickey (poet, 1923-1997, and author of the novel Deliverance): "The history of poets pronouncing on public issues is notoriously dismal."

Dickey is quoted by Neo-neocon in a post on the topic of poets, celebrities, and politics. I agree entirely with Dickey, and it's slightly painful to say so, because I've always been inclined to credit artists with some sort of special insight into cultural and political affairs, and decades of exposure to demonstrated idiocy have not completely rid me of the impulse. Besides, I'm an occasional poet and constant reader given to making my own quite definite political statements, which of course I believe to be more insightful than most.

And if it's mistaken with respect to poets, who generally are (or were?) at least men of letters capable of reflection, it's completely off the wall with respect to celebrities, entertainers, and in general those involved in the performing arts. I think the latter are not only, as Dickey says, no more qualified than anyone else to make political pronouncements, but perhaps less, because they tend to see everything as an occasion for dramatic passion.

The elevation of artists and intellectuals to some sort of prophetic status in a spurious religion seems pretty clearly related to the decline of Christianity's role in our culture. Neo-neocon focuses on Shelley, who was among the first artists to assume this status. I credit myself with having disliked Shelley as a personality almost as soon as I knew anything about him. He seems now an early entrant in what has become a long line of radicals of privileged background who preach universal benevolence and tear an unrepentantly destructive path through life. I left this comment at Neo's:

Looking back now, it occurs to me that my early dislike of Shelley presaged my conservative cultural and political turn.

For me, Shelley’s most telling legacy was a remark made by Mary Shelley years after the tumult and the shouting had died. The person who claimed to have heard it relayed it to Matthew Arnold, who preserved it. Mrs. Shelley was looking for a suitable school for her son and asked the advice of a friend, who said “Oh, send him somewhere where they will teach him to think for himself.” Mrs. Shelley answered, “Teach him to think for himself? Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people!”

It also strikes me as the legacy of many revolutionary movements, such as the one of the 1960s.

The story about Mrs. Shelley is found in The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, a wonderful book.

Giotto's Virtues and Vices

Not his personal ones, but the ones he painted, a series of fourteen on the seven virtues and seven vices. Janet is doing a series of posts on them, and they're fascinating. I have much less interest in the visual arts than in literature and music, and I rarely pay truly close attention to paintings. I don't think I've looked at anything as closely as Janet is doing in these posts since I took an art history class in college, and I'd forgotten how much there can be to see. And in this case, Giotto being a great Catholic artist, there is wisdom beyond the simple visual interest. This link will take you to a page containing the whole series. They're in reverse chronological order, so you might want to start with the one at the bottom, since later posts may refer to earlier ones.

52 Authors: Week 15 - Hilaire Belloc

The other day I noticed that my Muse, who had long been ailing, silent and morose, was showing signs of actual illness.

Thus begins Belloc's essay "On the illness of my Muse."

I'm sure some of you will be able to relate to that.

The essay describes his Muse's terrible state and Belloc is compelled to call for a specialist doctor:

The great specialist approached with a determined air the couch where the patient lay, awoke her according to the ancient formula, and proceeded to question her upon her symptoms. He soon discovered their gravity, and I could see by his manner that he was anxious to an extreme. The Muse had grown so weak as to be unable to dictate even a little blank verse, and the indisposition had so far affected her mind that she had no memory of Parnassus, but deliriously maintained that she had been born in the home counties—nay, in the neighbourhood of Uxbridge. Her every phrase was a deplorable commonplace, and, on the physician applying a stethoscope and begging her to attempt some verse, she could give us nothing better than a sonnet upon the expansion of the Empire. Her weakness was such that she could do no more than awake, and that feebly, while she professed herself totally unable to arise, to expand, to soar, to haunt, or to perform any of those exercises which are proper to her profession.

I also discovered this next essay "On a House" recently and only include this passage because it amuses me:

The fire-place and the mantelpiece were of white marble and had on them two white vases picked out in bright green, a clock with a bronze upon it representing a waiter dressed up partly in fifteenth-century plate and partly in twelfth-century mail, and on the wall were two Jewish texts, each translated into Jacobean English and illuminated with a Victorian illumination. One said: “He hath prevented all my ways.” The other said: “Wisdom is better than Rubies.” But the gothic “u” was ill made and it looked like “Rabies.”

Wisdom is certainly better than Rabies.

I have a few of Belloc's books and have read a few others and will happily recommend the following: The Servile State, The Free Press, The Crusades, How the Reformation Happened, Survivals and New Arrivals, The Path to Rome, The Great Heresies. Belloc wrote a large number of books, but one of my friends cautioned me that many were pot boilers. The man had to earn a living. But so far my favourite book is simply his collection of essays Essays of a Catholic published by TAN Press. I had thought my copy of this book, with all my pencil markings in it, was irretrievably lost, but St. Anthony found it for me. Here is one of my favourite essays:

"Science as the Enemy of Truth"

What on earth could he be thinking?

This is his summary of the essay:

Science cannot be opposed to truth, for it is no less than a part of truth itself, as discovered in a particular sphere. But those who practice physical science may have a corporate spirit which is warped, opposed to true philosophy and therefore to beauty and to goodness. That is exactly what has happened in the development of physical science and of the so-called "scientific" criticism of documents during the last two centuries. The misfortune has happened because the advance in scientific method came after the break-up of Europe and of our common religion. The Process is now reaching its climax in an effort to persuade men against the belief in a beneficent conscious omnipotent Creator, the moral sense and the freedom of the will.

Some of the highlights of that essay for me are those things which I had observed or experienced myself:

On seeing a passage beginning, "Science has proved . . ." or "There is no scientific evidence for . . ." or "Examined in a strictly scientific spirit . . ." and so forth, men are becoming more and more predisposed to quarrel with what follows. They are filled with an "I know all about that!" feeling. On hearing of some method that it is "Scientific" they are at once prepared to find it leading to ridiculous conclusions. They do not feel instructed; they feel warned. Habits of eating, clothing and everything else suggested in the name of "Science" they constantly discover to be inhuman, degrading or simply silly. The term "Scientific" applied to some recommended habit is beginning to have something grotesque about it...
Further, this word "Science" and its derivatives is beginning to be associated with unreliability. The high priests of science yesterday loudly affirmed as eternal truth what today they have to be silent upon because it has been proved false. Yet the new supplanting doctrine is as loudly affirmed today as was the discredited one yesterday-----and as it will itself be denied again tomorrow.

Just think of all the "diets" you've outlived!

The modern scientific spirit as applied to daily practice, to life, and to letters, and, above all, to religion, is the enemy of truth...The Modern Scientific Spirit being the enemy of truth, is the enemy of right living and of human happiness, and if it is not tackled, humbled and set right, will lead us to misery.

Ask some faithful Catholic mothers what they think of the doctors and nurses who attended them during pregnancy and childbirth!

For more essays online see this page. On my computer, at least, the webpage is a mess, so I apologise if that's true for you too.

I'm not necessarily endorsing the site, but this is a handy page.

Belloc is not everyone's cup of tea, of course, but I certainly enjoy reading him, especially since he writes so clearly. His histories are also very enjoyable and he expresses his ideas very well, I think. For example, to give the reader an idea of what was happening at any given time, he will often use phrases such as “in the space of one life time” (roughly 70 years) or “for the greater part of a working life time” (roughly 40-50 years). This kind of expression really helps to give a sense of how things must have seemed to the people of that era. One gets a sense of how different things were for the grandchildren in an era and how much changed from the time of their grandparents' youth.

Some other favourites in his collection of Essays are as follows:

The Conversion of England

The conversion of England would seem impossible of attainment. If it is to be attained it can only be attained by recognizing the nature of the obstacles to it, much the strongest of which is the patriotism of the English people; the Faith is in their eyes alien and therefore something inferior as well as something to be hated. Approach through the gentry is no longer possible, for the gentry have ceased to govern, our efforts must be upon the bulk, the chaotic masses of town population. Such small chance as it has lies in two forms of action-----exposing the insufficiency and absurdity of the official anti-Catholic history and philosophy-----that is, undermining the opponent-----and, on the positive side, creating a fashion in favor of the Faith, or at any rate of sympathy with the Faith.

I think parts of this essay are even applicable to the various English speaking countries we come from or live in and I think it would be worthwhile for any of us to read it, especially the fourth section. It is not relevant in its entirety, of course, but some parts are definitely applicable and others are at least interesting. For example, the part which describes why it is so hard to convince an Englishman to convert from the Church of England to the Catholic Faith is probably still exactly applicable.

I was initially very skeptical about Belloc's claim that Englishmen are very imaginative and emotional, but am now almost wholly convinced it is so, for example, with regard to their views on animals. I'm inclined now to think the whole “stiff upper lip” phenomenon is entirely due to the need to keep such strong passions under control, for fear of being even more volatile than either the Irish or Italians!

The Catholic Church and the Modern State

The thesis that the Catholic Church is incompatible with the Modern State is in part true. Three fundamental reasons are urged to show this incompatibility. The first-----that the Catholic section of a state claims the right to destroy all religious bodies in disagreement with it-----is unsound, being based on a misconception which can only arise from an ignorance both of Catholic doctrine and of the history of Catholic peoples.

But the other two reasons given are sound: one is that obedience to an external authority is contrary to that ideal of citizenship, which in the Modern State is based upon two ideas-----that each citizen individually forms his decision and that a majority of these decisions binds all; the other is that the claims of the Church tend to conflict with the similar claims of the modern laical, absolute State. Hitherto the truth of these two reasons has been masked by the fact that the bulk of Catholic moral teaching has been retained in non-Catholic states. But this is changing, and conflict will result.  

Does this sound at all familiar?

The Schools

The right of the parent over the child is prior to the right of the State. Where the State compels the parent to send its child to an institution which he must attend for many hours of the day and by which his mind cannot but be formed at the most critical period in its development, the parent has a right to demand of the State that the institution shall be of a kind he approves of. In the particular case of the Catholic parent living under the authority of an anti-Catholic state such as England, the members of the Catholic body have a full political right to claim that the whole expense incurred in the compulsory education of their children shall be defrayed by the State but shall be in Catholic hands-----subject of course to the condition that money levied for a particular purpose must be spent on that purpose and that money levied for education must be spent on education.

Whether it be possible in practice to obtain the whole of this rightful claim has nothing to do with its righteousness. We must always present the full claim and never compromise on it as a principle, whatever we may have to accept in practice. By steady insistence on the full and reasonable right, we can familiarize opponents with the idea of that right. The current and meaningless phrase, that "sums paid out of public funds must remain under public control" is as easy to expose as any other parrot-cry. The Catholic schools have a rightful claim to complete independence from the anti-Catholic state under which they exist. To talk of "neutrality" in this connection is silly or false, according to the character of the man who uses the word.

The New Paganism

Our civilization developed as a Catholic civilization. It developed and matured as a Catholic thing. With the loss of the Faith it will slip back not only into Paganism, but into barbarism with the accompaniments of Paganism, and especially the institution of slavery. It will find gods to worship, but they will be evil gods as were those of the older savage Paganism before it began its advance towards Catholicism. The road downhill is the same as the road up the hill. It is the same road, but to go down back into the marshes again is a very different thing from coming up from the marshes into pure air. All things return to their origin. A living organic being, whether a human body or a whole state of society, turns at last into its original elements if life be not maintained in it. But in that process of return there is a phase of corruption which is very unpleasant. That phase the modern world outside the Catholic Church has arrived at.

This article by a friend of mine will certainly give you an idea of some of Belloc's faults, if you didn't already know them, while also giving reasons to think that “Belloc still matters.” I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

R.J. Stove: Why Belloc Still Matters.

An author too robust and significant to be wholly un-personned can still be marginalized…

If Belloc’s entire literary merit lies in his having catered to the A.A. Milne and Edward Lear demographic, we need no more bother ourselves with his wider aims than seek deep epistemological insight from re-reading about Pooh Bear or The Dong With The Luminous Nose...

Malcolm Muggeridge complained, “although he has written about religion all his life, there seemed to be very little in him.” Six years before the Latin Mass’s recent anti-Belloc enfilade, St. Louis University’s James Hitchcock (in the May 1996 issue of Crisis) likened Belloc to “a man with a machine gun—by spraying shots everywhere he inevitably hit some targets, but many of his bullets went astray.”

Far worse indictments follow, but then were are told why, after all, Belloc still matters:

What case for the defense can outweigh it? There actually exist two such cases: first, Belloc’s daunting percipience; second, his equally daunting versatility as a poet.

Given Belloc’s prophetic skill, it comes as a severe jolt to recollect that he was born back in 1870. (He died in 1953, but a stroke robbed him of his authorial powers in 1942.) Almost every major political trend of the last hundred years—whether the Third Reich, or the bipartisan welfarism familiar from our own experience, or the socialization of agriculture, or incessant Middle East massacres, or the spirit of jihad, or the willful confusion between legitimate private enterprise and piratical paper-shuffling, or the sexual revolution, or mad-scientist genetic technology—Belloc predicted. His output retains an immediacy for our time that is impossible to discern in most of his journalistic confreres. At a time when H.G. Wells, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell counted as forward-looking thinkers—while notching up an almost 100 percent failure rate when it came to even the least contentious prophesying about global trends five weeks, let alone five years, down the track—Belloc plodded on, fortified by nothing more glamorous than preternatural energy and a worldview too European and synoptic to countenance the least parochialism. Plodding of that type seldom facilitates benignity, genial tolerance towards opponents, or leisurely musings on the joys of artistic creation. Nor does life in the House of Commons, where Belloc sat for four dispiriting years (1906-1910) as a maverick Liberal parliamentarian.

Little wonder that Belloc at times bullied when he should have insinuated, at times cut corners on fine detail when he should have checked and rechecked a specific datum.

I can't end this without at least some small offering from his marvellous Cautionary Tales:


Young Algernon, the Doctor’s Son,
Was playing with a Loaded Gun.
He pointed it towards his sister,
Aimed very carefully, but Missed her!
His Father, who was standing near,
The Loud Explosion chanced to Hear,
And reprimanded Algernon
For playing with a Loaded Gun.


If you have happily (or begrudgingly) read this offering, I thank you! I hope it has done some justice to a man I look up to and even consider to be a spiritual father.

Blessings to all this Eastertide!

—Louise is an Australian homeschooling mother of six, currently living in Texas.

And Two Not-So-Classics

I mention these as more or less curiosities. I wouldn't recommend them for their merits, especially not the second one, but if you're interested in the authors and books which are their sources, you may find the films interesting.

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

I suppose zealous Austen fans have seen this. It's certainly worth a look for them, and not only them: it's really surprisingly good. Or at least I was surprised. Naturally it leaves out a lot, but I don't think it seriously distorts the book in the way that movies of the classics sometimes do. Laurence Olivier is Darcy, and Greer Garson is Elizabeth. Most of the acting is good, though in a few instances (e.g. Mrs. Bennett) pretty well over the top. Mr. Bennett is excellent. Aldous Huxley shares credit for the script, which, while greatly reducing the complexity of Austen's dialog, is still sharp. 

Those who know the book really well may find more to complain of than I did, but I only noticed one thing that I was pretty sure was a complete distortion of Austen. And upon checking later I found out that it was. It's in the nature of making something sweet out of something which is in the book quite nasty, and I suppose it represents Hollywood's pandering, which is surely one element in the entertainment industry which has remained unchanged since the beginning. 

Here's the trailer.


Decline And Fall...of a Birdwatcher

What?! I saw this title listed in the schedule for the Fox Movie Channel, which I can't remember having ever watched before, and the first three words caught my eye. Then I read the brief description of the film, and was left with no doubt that this was indeed some sort of adaptation of Waugh's Decline And Fall. I had never heard that such a thing existed, and although the "birdwatcher" business didn't sound promising, of course I had to watch it.

I'm sorry to report that it isn't very good. It was made in 1969, which might have seemed a propitious moment for a revival of Waugh's satirical method--or, on the other hand, perhaps a notable unpropitious moment, as it could have turned into...well, some kind of '60s mess. In any case, it's really neither. I don't think the filmmakers got the spirit of the thing entirely wrong, and I think it's a good-faith effort to bring the "ruthlessly comic" (John Mortimer) troubles of Paul Pennyfeather to the screen. But, to my taste at least, it doesn't work. The appalling casualness with which Paul is ruined, and then un-ruined, just doesn't come through. This one I can only recommend as a curiosity.

I don't see any trailer or scenes on YouTube, but here is an 8-minute selection of the music, including a number of posters and still shots.


Two Classic British Films

I recorded both of these some time ago, and by "some time ago" I mean at least a couple of years. Probably they were on Turner Classic Movies. They were two of many that I recorded out of a slight sense of duty--"Oh, I've heard of that, the critics talk about it, I should see it." That was why I recorded them, and that was why it was a long time before I watched them. 

It's been several months now since I watched the first one, which was followed closely by the second, because the first was much better than I expected. Both star Tom Courtenay as an alienated young man, both were made in the early 1960s, and both cast an interesting light on the culture of the times, apart from their considerable artistic merit. But they are very different, and different in interesting and significant ways. 

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

I've never read the equally well-known Alan Sillitoe short story of which this is a dramatization, so I can't say how well the film treats the story. But it's excellent in its own right. Courtenay plays Colin Smith, a working-class youth serving time in a reform school (as we would call it in the U.S., or used to), or borstal (as it's apparently called in Britain, or used to be).  In flashbacks we see how he came to be there. With his father recently deceased and his mother having taken up with a creep and spent the meager insurance money on a TV and other indulgences, and life generally looking very bleak, he takes to petty crime, and is arrested for burglary and convicted.

The governor (or warden as we would call him in the U.S.) of the prison wants to rehabilitate the boys by the usual remedies of sports and work. It is discovered that Colin is a gifted runner, and the governor hopes to have his efforts justified by Colin's success in a track meet against a nearby public (or private as we would say in the U.S.) school. Colin's reaction to this constitutes the film's present-day story.

Alan Sillitoe was counted as one of the Angry Young Men of 1950s Britain, and this is an angry movie. But there are poignant moments of sweetness. I guess I'd say it's of interest at least as much as a document of its time as for its art; it's the sort of work that is pretty clearly a commentary on Social Conditions. But the same could be said of some of Dickens's work. At any rate this struck me as something anyone interested in cinema and/or the cultural history of the past century or so would want to see.

Here, with compliments to TCM, is the trailer; it will certainly tell you whether you want to see it or not. 


Billy Liar

In this one Courtenay plays a young man of about the same age as Colin, but vastly different in personality and circumstance. His life is fairly comfortable, if humdrum, and his disaffection takes the form of escapism rather than open and angry rebellion.  He's called Billy Liar because he can't accept the limits and challenges of the real world. The scenes where his fantasies become cinematically real make it a funny movie, but in the end it's much sadder than Runner

Again, I find this film difficult to discuss without touching on the times in which it was made. One fascinating aspect of the juxtaposition of these two is that in Billy Liar you can see the beginning of what was soon to become the swinging '60s, the British variant of the great youth upheaval of those times. The mood is alienated and cynical, in fact contemptuous of its world, but an element of zaniness is emerging, a suggestion that a sense of comic absurdity is an understandable and perhaps necessary response to a society seen as inhuman.

Billy Liar is also notable as the first big film success of that classic '60s woman, Julie Christie. Here's the trailer. It's interesting that the trailers for both these films give away so much--again, this will definitely tell you whether you want to see it.


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was directed by Tony Richardson, Billy Liar by John Schlesinger. Both had fairly big careers following these films--here is Richardson's filmography, and here is Schlesinger's.

52 Authors: Week 14 - Rosemary Sutcliff

My sisters and I grew up surrounded by excellent books, all chosen by our mother and almost all of them British classics. (I have often wondered where my mother, a Chinese immigrant to California, acquired her knowledge of English children's literature.) As children, we didn't know that they were classics. They furnished the imaginative landscape we took for granted among ourselves. At the same time, the Britishness of that landscape set us apart from both our French Canadian schoolmates and our American cousins.

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of the authors on our shelves. She wrote retellings of many legends—Greek, Celtic, and Arthurian—but her best-known works are The Eagle of the Ninth books, a sequence of historical fiction novels for children whose protagonists are descendants of the hero of the first book. It would be misleading to call them a series, as each of them is an independent story, unconnected to the others except by the genealogical tie. It's even slightly misleading to call them historical fiction for children, because her books stand on their merits as fiction, unqualified by age range or educational content. She prided herself on not writing down to children; as an adult, I have enjoyed reading her for myself at least as much as my kids have enjoyed my reading her aloud to them.

One reason for this is that Sutcliff successfully avoids the didactic tone that plagues a lot of historical fiction. Her goal is clearly to tell a great story in a particular historical context, not to inculcate historical knowledge of that context. She never creates an ignorant character just so his ignorance can be remedied for the reader's benefit. Not for her the traveler asking about local customs, or the child puzzled by adults' doings, unless the narrative demands one. Not for her the lecture in reply, but rather a natural conversation. (Reading Bonnie Dundee, in fact, I gleaned so little explanation from the text itself that I kept having to consult Wikipedia to keep track of the shifting religious and military/political enmities.)

For example, at the beginning of The Eagle of the Ninth, the protagonist arrives to take over command of a Roman garrison in Britain. Being new to command and new to the country, of course Marcus has questions for the outgoing commander, and the answers are as helpful to the reader as to him. However, his inexperience and foreigner status are not mere devices set up to make space for the answers; instead, they are among the driving forces of the whole story. The conversation itself is written entirely naturally, with both men taking part and wandering from one topic to another. Their shared assumptions are left unstated; the reader has to infer, for instance, that to these legionaries “home” always means “Rome.”

Another reason why adults can enjoy Sutcliff is the attention she gives to place and landscape. The details of weather, topography, and human construction are concretely and specifically described. They play a vital part in the story, influencing and reflecting both the action and the characters' states of mind. Here is Marcus's first view of his new post:

The British town was spread below the southern scarp of the Mount; a sprawling huddle of reed-thatched roofs, every colour from the gold of honey to the black of dried peat, according to the age of the thatch; with the squared, clean lines of the Roman forum and basilica looking oddly rootless in their midst; and the faint haze of wood-smoke lying over all.

The contrast between the irregular, vivid British houses and the precise, geometric Roman buildings will be echoed throughout the story in the encounters between Britons and Romans, and especially in the relationship between Marcus and his British slave. By the end of the story Marcus's feelings about the landscape have changed.

Standing there with the last cold spattering of the shower blowing in his face, he thought, 'I can go home,' and saw behind his eyes, the long road leading South, the Legion's road, white in the Etruscan sunlight; the farmsteads among their terraced olive-trees, and the wine-darkness of the Apennines beyond. He seemed to catch the resiny, aromatic smell of the pine forests dropping to the shore, and the warm mingling of thyme and rosemary and wild cyclamen that was the summer scent of his own hills. He could go back to all that now, to the hills and the people among whom he had been bred, and for whom he had been so bitterly home-sick, here in the North. But if he did, would there not be another hunger on him all his life? For other scents and sights and sounds; pale and changeful northern skies and the green plover calling?

That excerpt illustrates a recurring theme in Sutcliff's writing, the individual undergoing a change both personal and collective. Her characters are uprooted or cut off in one way or another and lose their identity: they are orphaned, they are captured as slaves and renamed, they are cast out from their tribe, they are invalided out of the Legions. Eventually they forge a new identity, but the pain of the loss remains with them. Sometimes the specific loss is forced upon them, and sometimes circumstances dictate that loss there must be, but the character decides which one: to make his home under the pale and changeful northern skies, Marcus must leave his hunger for the pines forests unsatisfied. Either way, the loss is irrevocable. As another character says, “There is no way back through the Waters of Lethe.”


The changes in identity are mediated by the characters' allegiances to other individuals. Unavoidably, then, these shifts bring conflicting loyalties, in which the personal usually overcomes the tribal. In The Lantern-Bearers, Aquila's sister is carried off by one band of Saxon raiders and he is enslaved by another; years later, she helps him escape but will not go with him, because of her love for her Saxon husband and child. When Aquila offers his wife, a Welsh chieftain's daughter, the chance to return to her people, she too says, “I used to dream night after night of being free; free to go back to my people—my own people... But it is too late. I belong to you. […] I am betraying my own people—my own world—to stay with you.” However, through the personal attachment, there can come a later attachment to the tribe and a new collective identity. Thus a Roman centurion who deserted and married a local woman many years ago can now say, “I am of the Segoviae.”

The shifting identities in the Eagle sequence carry a startling revelation—startling, at least, to me—of how much British history there was before England ever existed. In the first book, the Romans are clearly outsiders, an occupying power opposed to the British (Celtic) tribes. In later books, their descendants have come to consider themselves British as well as Roman, indeed to consider British a species of Roman. In almost all the books, the Saxons are the invading barbarian enemy. For a long time, I hadn't clearly distinguished between British and Anglo-Saxon, so despite her non-didactic books, Sutcliff has been very educational for me.


"I'd be buried in Georgia, if I could have my way, but it's a far piece to Georgia and nobody's gonna tote me. So I'll be buried up here in this cold," he added. "I don't like this cold. Of course, they say when you're dead the temperature don't concern you, but who knows the truth on that?"

"I don't," Call said.

"People got opinions, that's all they've got," the old man grumbled. "If somebody was to go and come back, now that's an opinion I'd listen to."

--Larry McMurtry, from Lonesome Dove

Good Friday, and All of Holy Week In Art

I know I said I wasn't going to post till Sunday, but I think it's appropriate to pass this on. Janet Cupo has been doing a series of Holy Week posts based on the art of Giotto, and it's really good. I was especially touched by the Good Friday series. I will make a confession: I have never cared much for Stations of the Cross. I've never been moved by it in the way I'm supposed to be. These paintings, and Janet's commentary, are more effective for me.

Here's the whole series:

Palm Sunday

The Raising of Lazarus

The Betrayers

Spy Wednesday

Holy Thursday

Good Friday

Or all on one page, latest first.

Between God and the individual soul...there are no insignificant moments.

—Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, S.J.



Tomorrow is Holy Thursday, and I probably won't be posting again until Sunday.