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May 2015

52 Authors: Week 22 - Laura Ingalls Wilder

I received two beautiful hardback copies of Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie for Christmas, 1967. I would have been just short of my eighth birthday. I loved these books, with their beautiful illustrations. Over the next three years, I read the rest of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series: seven books about her own childhood in ‘pioneer country’ in the mid-19th century, and one, Farmer Boy, about her husband, Almanzo as he grew up on a prosperous farm in New York State. The books begin when Laura is about seven and they end with her marriage, at the age of about eighteen, to Almanzo Wilder – and, many would say, to his beautiful ‘matched pair’ of horses, Prince and Lady. The whole set shaped my imaginative world as a child. I created a dolls’ village, made of shoe boxes, modelled after the ‘Little Town’ of Little Town on the Prairie. Above all, providentially, it was Little House in the Big Woods which taught me to pray. Like many childhood readers, I emulated the heroines of my favorite books. Now Laura says before she goes to bed each night:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee Lord my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake,
I pray thee Lord my soul to take.

I had never come across a prayer before, and any fool could see that this was not merely a prayer but a poem: it rhymes! So I imitated Laura: I said this prayer at night before I went to sleep. Not every night, certainly, but still often enough to call it a habit of my childhood, and a little piece of providence.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series follows Laura as she grows up, and likewise the books become progressively more difficult and attuned to an audience of older and older children. As the series begins, she is in the ‘Big Woods’ of Wisconsin. In the beginning of the second book, the family travel in a covered wagon to – where? I am not really sure. They live on a Prairie in a log cabin made by Pa. Or several of them, because they are forced to move on by the government after settling in land that had been designated as Indian territory. Fear of Indians, their nakedness and their scalp hunting propensities, is an important theme of the books. Laura is sometimes rebuked by Ma for looking like a little Indian, because she wants to go about bare foot and without her bonnet. It is in Little House on the Prairie that Indians come to the cabin when Pa is away and demand food from Ma; the family also witness a mass exodus by an Indian tribe, riding on horseback past their wooden domicile. One of the fascinating things about the books is that the family seem to make so many of their possessions. Ma sews their clothes while Pa fashions their houses. In the third book, which is perhaps my favorite, On the Banks of Plum Creek, the family are living in a mud ‘dug-out’ alongside a river. By now the family is Ma, Pa, Mary, the eldest, Laura, and baby Carrie. Pa is often absent, because their crops are eaten by grasshoppers, and he must go West to find work. There is a repeated drama of counting the days for Pa to return, through ice, sleet, and snow, to the dugout.

By the Shores of Silver Lake begins with what was, for my generation, perhaps the saddest scene in literature: the death of faithful Jack, the bull dog who has followed the wagon for hundreds of miles, and protected the womenfolk whenever Pa is away. At the beginning of By the Shores of Silver Lake, faithful Jack, who always turns around three times before he goes to sleep at night, dies of old age, but it happens when all the family are down with scarlet fever, and Laura has been too sick to care for him or even to notice that he is sick himself. Laura had forgotten to clean Jack’s bedding for weeks before he died and she bitterly rebukes herself with this when one day his body is found cold and dead. Jack’s death was, for me, much sadder and more heart-rending than the death of Beth in Little Women. If my generation disbelieved in hell and believed in animal immortality, Laura Ingalls Wilder must take some responsibility. Jack’s death taught even rational members of my generation that there is such a place as ‘The Happy Hunting Ground’ and it is not empty. After this sad beginning, the family take a train West and I cannot remember a single other thing that happens in the book. Very little happens in The Long Winter, because the family, bereft of Jack but now including baby Grace, spend most of the book holed up in their ‘town house’ trying not to freeze or starve to death through five months of brutal snow storms. It’s very memorable, especially the scenes where Pa tries, and sometimes fails, to play his omnipresent fiddle against the howling of the wind. In Little Town on the Prairie Laura has become a young lady of fifteen, and there are many scenes of fun and incipient romance: I loved this one for the ‘school’ scenes, and also for the detailed descriptions of Laura’s clothes. In These Happy Golden Years Laura becomes a school mistress and is courted and won by Almanzo, Prince and Lady.

Because the ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder’ books are so realistic and so carefully aimed not just at ‘children’ but at children in a specific age range, one seems less likely to read them again as adults. I have discovered that they have a ‘continuing adult’ fan club, but I myself find that a little odd, as I do, for instance, grown women who collect dolls or doll furniture. I mean less likely than, for instance, fantasy books with allegorical aims. It’s like dipping back into one’s childhood to read them again. I might have never looked at them again if, passing through London twenty five years ago, I had not found a biography of Laura in a friend’s guest room. I read it before I left in the morning. It told me two things I had not known. One is that it was commonly supposed that Laura’s only daughter, Rose, practically co-authored the books. Second, Laura ‘cleaned up’ and idealized the families travels: rather than heading out of Wisconsin and make a bee line for Dakota, where the ‘Little Town’ is, they meandered back and forth. And she left out some things: along with Jack, the other victim of the scarlet fever ‘by the banks of Plum Creek’ was a baby brother Charles. For a ‘Little House’ literalist it was interesting to learn, not that Laura ‘invented’ the story – because she did not, but that she condensed and clarified it rather a lot. During the harsh winter of 2014, I felt an impulse to re-read The Long Winter and bought a box set. I’ve re-read The Long Winter twice now – again in 2015! The box set contained one volume which was unknown to my childhood: The First Four Years, Laura’s failed attempt to write about the very hard first years of her marriage, in which she lost a baby son, Charles (named like her Pa and her lost brother). Overall I’ve come to realize that Laura’s life was much harsher than the image a child takes away from the novels. It not that she deliberately makes anything ‘rosier’ than she remembers: it’s that the books are the opposite of a ‘Misery Memoir’ and she gives the ‘truth’ of what she herself experienced as a happy childhood, whether it was ‘objectively’ a good childhood or not. After re-reading The Long Winter in 2014 I felt the urge to consume another Laura biography. This one rehabilitates Laura’s claim to have written the books with her name on them (even suggesting that Laura had more literary influence on her daughter Rose than vice versa). But in its own way it seems to ‘demythologize’ the ‘Laura legend.’ So for instance it begins with pages of statistics about the apparently large log industry in Wisconsin in the 1860s and 1870s. The point is to show that the picture Laura paints of being a child in ‘the big woods’ is legendary or mythological. This put my back up: the ‘truth’ of the books is that it felt to a five year old girl like their little house was isolated in the woods, with only bears and deer for companions. Laura is describing what her subjective ‘world’ was actually like to her, as a child; she is describing how she perceived her childhood world, not describing the ‘objective’ world of the statistician. Only a theologian would put it like this, but I’ve learned a fair amount about how ‘objective history’ relates to the gospel lives of Jesus from thinking about how the ‘real’ Laura of the biographers relates to the ‘Laura’ of the biographical book series. So I did not leave the books behind in my childhood after all.

The scarlet fever which strikes the family at Plum Creek takes away Laura’s sister Mary’s sight. Mary, the good, docile, well-behaved blonde older sister is a pivot of the books from the very start. The contrast between the brown-haired, strong-willed Laura and her more ‘lady like’ older sister is one of the things which ‘makes’ the books – giving them a creative tension. An episode which every reader will remember from Little House in the Big Woods is when Laura slaps Mary and, in response, Pa whips Laura. The scene was probably struck from the TV series (which I never saw). It is the only time in the books that we see Pa or Ma strike the children, though it is likely that they were disciplined more than once - Laura did not only make the books ‘rosier’ when she encapsulated her life story in this symbolic narrative! Laura’s being disciplined – no, one should be blunt and say whipped – by her beloved Pa for losing her cool and slapping is symbolic of the conflict between Laura’s relatively unruly, barely controlled emotions, and Mary’s more self-contained or ‘stoical’ front. After Mary goes blind, Laura becomes her ‘eyes,’ describing every scene to her. So the conflict abates, as Laura becomes ‘the strong one’: but the contrast is still there. Later, Laura’s school teaching, sewing, and sundry odd-jobbing in the ‘Little Town’ helps to pay for Mary to go away to a College for the Blind. There is a beautiful scene where Ma and Mary sew a blue cashmere-silk dress for Mary to take to College. The night before Mary leaves for College, she and Laura go out for a walk.

They went walking past the stable and up the low hill beyond. The sun was sinking to rest, like a king, Laura thought, drawing the gorgeous curtains of his great bed around him. But Mary was not pleased by such fancies. So Laura said, ‘The sun is sinking, Mary, into white downy clouds that spread to the edge of the world. All the tops of them are crimson, and streaming down from the top of the sky are great gorgeous curtains of rose and gold with pearly edges. They are a great canopy over the whole prairie. The little streaks of sky between them are clear, pure green.’ Mary stood still. ‘I’ll miss our walks,’ she said, her voice trembling a little. ‘So will I.’ Laura swallowed and said, ‘but only think, you are going to college.’”

Little Town on the Prairie, pp. 110-111.

And then I stopped and read on, expecting the scene where Mary and Laura discuss their childhood rivalry and forgive one another. Of course I had misremembered and conflated several scenes. After a lot of searching, I found one of the passages I remember best in the books:

‘Sheep sorrel tastes like springtime.’ Laura said. ‘It really tastes a little like lemon flavoring, Laura,’ Mary gently corrected her. Before she ate sheep sorrel she always asked, ‘Did you look carefully? You’re sure there isn’t a bug on it?’ ‘There never are any bugs,’ Laura protested. ‘These prairies are so clean. There never was such a clean place.’ ‘You look, just the same,’ said Mary. ‘I don’t want to eat the only bug in the whole of Dakota territory.’ They laughed together. Mary was so light-hearted now that she often made such little jokes. Her face was so serene in her sunbonnet, her blue eyes were so clear and her voice so gay that she did not seem to be walking in darkness.

Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it. But now she seemed different. Once Laura asked her about it.

‘You used to try all the time to be good,’ Laura said. ‘And you always were good. It made me so mad sometimes, I wanted to slap you. But now you are good without even trying.’

Mary stopped still. ‘Oh Laura, how awful! Do you ever want to slap me now?’

‘No, never,’ Laura answered honestly.

‘You honestly don’t? You aren’t just being gentle me because I’m blind?’

‘No! Really and honestly …. I wish I could be like you. But I guess I never can be,’ Laura sighed. ‘I don’t know how you can be so good.’

‘I’m not really, Mary told her. I do try, but if you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.’

‘I can see what you’re like inside,’ Laura contradicted. ‘It shows all the time. You’re always perfectly patient and never the least bit mean.’

‘I know why you wanted to slap me,’ Mary said. ‘It was because I was showing off. I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud and I deserved to be slapped for it.’

Laura was shocked. Then suddenly she felt that had known that, all the time. But, nevertheless, it was not true of Mary.

That is what I remember of the scene: the confession that all along, Mary had been, as Laura once puts it (of herself), like the cup which is clean on the outside and dirty within. Then Mary tells Laura that ‘We are all desperately wicked … But that doesn’t matter.’ How could it not matter? What matters, Mary explains, is 

‘Just being sure of the goodness of God.’ Laura stood still, and so did Mary, because she dared not step without Laura’s arm in hers guiding her. There Mary stood in the green and flowery miles of grass rippling in the wind, under the great blue sky and white clouds sailing, and she could not see. Everyone knows that God is good. But it seemed to Laura that Mary must be sure of it in some special way.

‘You are sure, aren’t you?’ Laura asked.

‘Yes, I am sure of it now all the time,’ Mary answered. ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters. I think that’s the loveliest Psalm of all. Why are we stopping here? I don’t smell the violets.’”

--Little Town on the Prairie, pp. 10-13.

The religiosity of the Little House books is individualistic. Mary knows what she knows because she knows her Bible by heart. The family go to church when they can, and are very glad when a preacher settles where they are, and there is ‘church.’ Their Christianity comes over as individualistic because there does not seem to be anyone or anything organizing it over and above those local preachers, some crazy (like the adoptive father of Laura’s friend Ida) and others Godly. When Laura and Almanzo decide to get hitched, they tell Ida’s adoptive father, their minister, and shortly thereafter, he marries them (without using the word ‘obey’, which both he and Laura dislike). They roll up and get married with Ida as their witness. I must admit this non-sacramental and uncollectivist Christianity is very appealing to me.

When I look back over the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, I remember many touching scenes. There is the dreadful business in On the Banks of Plum Creek when Ma gives away Laura’s doll, to a neighbor’s spoilt little girl, thinking Laura too old to care about such things. Perhaps one has to read that the first time when one’s doll is still ‘a person’ to one to feel the drama of the loss and recovery of the doll. All the scenes where Laura has to fight for respect as a sixteen year old school teacher will etch themselves in a child’s memory. Her battles against Nellie Olsen, who really is everything Mary accuses herself to be, are likewise moments of great drama. Perhaps the most striking symbol in all the novels is Ma’s china doll. The china doll goes with the family in the covered wagon from Wisconsin, through all their journeys in dugouts, claim shanties and wooden cabins and ‘town houses.’ However bare the surroundings, the china doll is there, standing for the triumph of culture over nature.

—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

"No matter what the Church did, he was done with it."

My friend Robert W sent me a link to this piece by Rod Dreher which in turn refers to this piece by Matt Walsh which is pretty well summarized in its title: "Maybe Christianity In America Is Dying Because It’s Boring Everyone To Death":

And this is the problem with Christianity in this country. Not just inside our church buildings, but everywhere. It often has no edge, no depth. No sense of its own ancient and epic history. There is no sacredness to it. No pain. No beauty. No reverence. Or I should say Christianity has all of those things, fundamentally and totally, but many modern Christians in every denomination have spent many years trying to blunt them or bury them under a thousand layers of icing and whipped cream and apathy.

Well, yes. And Dreher says:

Walsh says that the lameness of the service he attended surely has something to do with the Pew numbers out this week showing that Millennials are abandoning organized religion. If the only thing I had to go to on Sunday morning was services like the one Walsh describes, I would stay at home. There’s no there there. Catholics have their own version of this kind of thing, and I used to patiently endure it by silently repeating the mantra, “Ex opere operato.” It’s beyond tragic that so much of the Catholic Church in the United States has cast aside the treasures of spiritual and aesthetic depth in its patrimony. 

Well, yes, again. There are quite a number of us who fully grasp these problems, and to tell the truth are weary of talking bout them. They're real. But I've come to the conclusion that even if the liturgy were always reverent and beautiful, and all the clergy and faithful were shining lights of truth and charity, the basic situation of the Church in the formerly Christian world would not be much different. The fundamental problem is succinctly stated by a commenter on the Dreher piece who signs himself "Dominic 1955":

There is no man so blind [as] those that do not want to see and no man so deaf as those that do not want to hear-which is ultimately the problem with “Modern Man” (which in turn is a fantasy like the New Soviet Man) in that no matter what the Church did, he was done with it.

That's part of a long comment which I encourage you to read (that link should take you straight to it). Casting doubt on the whole Vatican II reach-out-to-the-modern-world enterprise, he concludes, somewhat chillingly:

We are dealing with a scourge of God, a hardening of hearts the scope of which probably hasn’t been seen before, not something to dialog with.

A while back I read a piece in America describing all the things the Church does to alienate young people. Some of it was fair criticism, some not, but I found myself becoming impatient with the whole premise: if young people leave the Church, it must be the fault of the Church, and when we figure out what they don't like and stop doing it, and start doing what they do like, they'll stop leaving. Young People--who collectively are treated as a semi-mythical entity somehow continuing to exist in the same essentially callow state for decades on end--thus escape all blame for the situation, absolved of responsibility for their own fundamental choices. This is both mistaken and futile. 

The more typical truth, I have little doubt, is that young people leave the Church because they're much more interested in other things and because it tells them they can't do what they want to do. And what they want is to enjoy sex and the many other pleasures and comforts which life in a rich and licentious society has to offer. That is to say, Young People are Modern Man in his youth. Sometimes I think the solution to the mystery of the great apostasy is that our material progress has made life so comfortable for so many that they no longer see the point in paying much attention to the spiritual life, except in a consumerist or therapeutic sort of way. No, that's not the whole story, either, but it's an important factor. 

There is just not a great deal that we can do to make the faith attractive to people who simply don't see, or want to see, the need of it. And they don't see the need of it because they don't see the need of salvation.


Addendum: another piece of the puzzle, probably as big as the lure of the pleasures of the world, is the triumph (or seeming triumph) of technology over so many of the ills that have beset mankind since the beginning, and the support which this triumph gives to the elevation of science to the position of explainer-of-everything, and explainer-away of religion. If my memory is correct Newman described a "deep and plausible skepticism" driving out all else. As illogical as the idea that advanced technology and "the modern world" in general somehow make the idea of God implausible may be, it seems to be very powerful.

52 Authors: Week 21 - Elizabeth Goudge

Since no one else has submitted anything for this week, I'm assembling this from several blog posts on Elizabeth Goudge that I did over a period of a couple of years beginning in 2009, when Janet Cupo introduced me to her, for which I am very grateful. 

Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984) should have been an Inkling. At least from the literary point of view she fits perfectly with those gentlemen who gathered in Oxford at the Eagle and Child, and I’d like to think they would have enjoyed her company, and she theirs. But in any case her work is like theirs on a very deep level, though very different from them all on the surface. As the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams, all vastly different from each other, are connected at the deepest level, so Goudge’s work resembles none of theirs, but shares with theirs a 20th century English Christian sensibility which is, to my mind, one of the great flowerings of Christian culture, and to me personally the most attractive of all....

...Goudge is what seems to me a very rare religious bird: an Anglo-Catholic who is genuinely Catholic. Perhaps real Anglo-Catholics are, or at least were, not so rare in England as they seem to be here; in this country Anglicanism seems mostly divided between those who lean toward the combination of doctrinal skepticism and social activism characteristic of liberal Protestantism generally, and evangelicals, who are more orthodox in fundamental doctrine but very definitely Protestant. Had she been an Inkling, Goudge would be known as the most Catholic of the group, notwithstanding Tolkien’s position as the only Roman Catholic. The Catholic spirit of his work lies so deep that it escapes the notice of those who don’t know the faith, but not so with Goudge: she deals with it explicitly, and with an obvious deep and real understanding, an understanding which I think would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without the actual practice of it. of the most admirable characters in [Pilgrim's Inn] is a clergyman, affiliation unstated but presumably Church of England. It is the sort of Anglicanism that could hold C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot, despite their Catholic leanings, and which I suppose is now approaching extinction....

On Pilgrim's Inn

Superficially this novel seems a domestic drama of the sort that I would not ordinarily find very interesting. To summarize the bare facts of the narrative would make it sound as if nothing much happens: a family buys a house, and various troubled relationships in and around the family and its new home arrive at some degree of resolution. Normally that sort of novel is not my cup of tea—not at all. But a narrative summary does not begin to do justice to the richness of the novel’s vision.

I could begin to describe the difference between this and the typical naturalistic novel of manners by saying that this is a thoroughly Christian work, but even that does not do it justice. In fact such a description is an injustice, because it suggests that “Christianity” is present in the novel in the form of an idea, as a more or less abstract answer to various moral and philosophical questions posed by the narrative.

It would be better to say that everything in it is suffused with and transfigured by the presence of God, and that the plot is a working-out of God’s providence. Not all the characters are conscious of this, but all are caught up in it.

Two comparisons occur to me, and both seem superficially unlikely, but both illuminate the way Pilgrim’s Inn transcends the limits of what appears at first to be its genre. First, some of the films of Ingmar Bergman: Wild Strawberries, for instance, or Autumn Sonata. The work of the atheist Bergman may seem an odd comparison to that of the Christian Goudge, but it presents itself to me because I’ve often thought that by my usual tastes I shouldn’t like certain of Bergman’s films, because they are exactly the sort of nothing-much-happens study of family relationships that usually makes me impatient, and maybe downright uncomfortable. But the work of both Bergman and Goudge is distinguished from these, and made fascinating, by the way they reach down into the depths. The human relationships are not only that; they have powerful spiritual and philosophical implications. A story like Wild Strawberries, for instance, deals not only with the problem of an old man’s relationships with his son, his daughter-in-law, and his dead wife, but with the question Is there mercy?

The other comparison is to Charles Williams. At first glance the two, Goudge and Williams, could hardly seem more different. Williams is often dark in both the literal and symbolic senses in a way that Goudge is not, and he is often obscure in every sense, while Goudge is lucid. It is, for instance, not always easy, and sometimes not even possible, to see what Williams is describing—I mean at the fundamental level of forming a mental picture of a scene or an action. Goudge, in contrast, presents a skillful and detailed visual rendering of everything....

The similarity to Williams lies on a deeper level. Principally it’s the sense, first, that the natural and the supernatural are not really separated from each other and are in constant interaction. And second, that the universe, in both its physical and material aspects, is what Christian thought conceives it to be. This is another way of approaching what I said earlier about the presence of God in the work. The operations of the individual soul and of the world and of God’s providence are represented as Christian in as natural a way as physical events are Newtonian in any novel; in both cases laws, spiritual in the one case and physical in the other, govern implicitly, and need not be much remarked upon. It is hard to see how anyone could enjoy this book without at least grasping the idea of the Christian God. (I am sure it is possible, and is in fact done, just as people frequently miss the essence of Flannery O’Connor’s work; I just can’t quite understand how.) both authors, love is a real thing, a sort of force or substance comparable to a physical force or substance. It is not an emotion—it produces emotion, but is not identical with it. It is the essential element of the world of the spirit and has its own laws of action and reaction just as the physical world does. A love which is not returned is not, as we might think of it, a useless fit of passion something like what happens when one stubs a toe on a rock and breaks out in useless curses. When someone loves, something has happened, an event, which, like a rock thrown into a pool, will have an effect. And this is true no matter how the love is received, or even if it is kept completely secret and leads to no external action. Love is God’s word, and it does not return to him in vain.

Some would say that Pilgrim’s Inn is sentimental, that all the difficulties work out too neatly. And on the naturalistic level there is some justification for that complaint. But it misses the essence, which is the promise that this is, in the end, how the world works. Just as the strands of troubled lives are gathered together for the good, though temporarily and incompletely, in the novel, so they will be gathered for the good permanently and completely in God’s reality—will be, and are being.

...Pilgrim’s Inn may indeed be the novel of manners it first appears to be, but it is not a realistic or naturalistic one. It might be called a novel of supernatural manners.

On Gentian Hill

One way of looking at this book is to say that Goudge does here for the historical romance novel something akin to what Lewis did for science fiction. “Romance” can be applied in two senses: conventionally, to denote a love story, or in the older sense, referring to a long story of marvel and dangers, generally with a reasonably happy ending. I can imagine someone considering Gentian Hill to be romantic in a bad sense, sentimental and unreal. But that would be a great misjudgment. It is not naturalistic, but it is spiritually realistic.

Anyone who has read science fiction has come across the idea of parallel realities or alternative histories which resemble our own in many ways but in which some major event—World War II, for instance—turned out differently and brought us to a present very different from the one we know. (Presumably ours is the only one there is in fact, although some scientists maintain that the alternates really exist, thus explaining why ours is so well suited to producing and maintaining life.) I have sometimes entertained a similar idea, but with the separation existing on the vertical and spiritual axis rather than the horizontal and temporal one: I’ve toyed with the idea that the world we know also exists at spiritual levels above ours. (It seems almost universally impossible to speak of spiritual things without using words like “above,” “below,” “higher,” and “lower.”) At these higher levels—I’ve preferred not to dwell on the lower possibilities—the earth and the life and history we know are recognizable, but cleaner and clearer. They are not devoid of evil, but good and evil are more plainly recognizable, and good is stronger and more pure, less thoroughly tainted with the petty moral and physical squalor that seems to define so much of everyday life. The earth itself has a freshness less touched by decay, and a more direct correlation with the spiritual. In short, these worlds are fallen, but not as far fallen, as ours. I imagine these levels ascending, each one more pure and beautiful than the one below, and having less of evil in it. This progress breaks down at some point; it cannot be thought of as having at its summit an unfallen world, because an unfallen world could not resemble ours in its history, because the Fall is our history.

I don’t take this idea seriously as fact. It’s really only a way of thinking about the Fall, and of what might have been lost, as we don’t really have the means of imagining an entirely unfallen world.

It seems to me that Elizabeth Goudge does something like this in her novels. This book appears at first glance to be intended as a normal naturalistic modern novel, and one who expects it to be such might dismiss it as sentimental. The world of the book is better than ours, and most of the people are better than we are. But this better is achieved not so much by eliminating evil and pain as by drawing out truth and goodness, showing us what the real relationship between good and evil is—that is, that goodness is overflowing richness and joy, while evil is paltry, empty, and dull. And as for pain: there is much pain inflicted by evil in the story, but there is just as much caused by good—I don’t mean pain inflicted by a misunderstanding or misdirection of good, but pain as the direct and necessary action of good, the natural effect of the perfect on the imperfect.

I don’t actually want to say very much about the specifics of the story, because I assume the book will be new to most people who read this, and I think it’s better to come to it fresh. But, to sketch out the basic situation: Goudge tells us in a brief preface that it is “a retelling of the legend of St. Michael’s chapel at Torquay[, b]uilt in the thirteenth century....” The legend begins with a sailor rescued by monks from a shipwreck, who, with their help, builds the chapel and lives out the rest of his life as a hermit there. He has a particular concern for young lovers separated by wars and oceans, a concern that continues beyond his physical death. Goudge’s story is set in the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic Wars. One of the principals is a teenaged midshipman in the English Navy. He is one half of the couple who make the word “romance” in the conventional sense applicable to the book. The other is a ten-year-old girl. It may be hard to imagine, in our debased cultural atmosphere, that such a situation could be portrayed as sexual but not as perverse. I assure you that it is not only not perverse, but holy and beautiful. It is not carnal, there is no question of physical sexual contact, and yet it is an extraordinarily rich depiction of the masculine-feminine duality at the heart of things.

The girl, Stella, is the adopted daughter of a farming couple, Father and Mother Sprigg. Among the pleasures of the book is the portrayal of their life, which forces one to consider how necessary a part of a healthy culture is life on a well-run farm. How Stella came to Weakaborough Farm, the mystery of her parentage, and especially the love between her and the boy Zachary, are the principal strands of the narrative. It ranges back and forth in time, encompassing another pair of lovers and another hermit, not long after Henry VIII made the monastery and the chapel desolate, and a French couple who had escaped the Revolution’s terror ten years earlier.

If the ways in which these strands are woven together sometimes seems a little too dependent on coincidence, remember what I said about naturalism above, and remember, too, that it is generally not possible to distinguish with certainty coincidence from providence.

...I’ll close with a passage that can serve as a brief exemplar of the novel’s theological and aesthetic sensibility:

At that moment he believed it was worth it. This moment of supreme beauty was worth all the wretchedness of the journey. It was always worth it. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” It was the central truth of existence, and all men knew it, though they might not know that they knew it. Each man followed his own star through so much pain because he knew it, and at journey’s end all the innumerable lights would glow into one.


Propaganda in the Catholic University (or College)

Francesca Murphy has written a fascinating piece for First Things about the push for revision of the curriculum to make it more "goal-oriented." Like most bits of educational jargon, the phrase seems vague and harmless on its face, but in fact means, for those who are in the trade, something more specific. In this case it seems to be in part an attempt to get all that useless intellectual stuff--in particular theology and philosophy (at Notre Dame)--out of the way of the vocational training which is what most students go to college for, and in part--the bigger part, I suspect--a justification for propagandizing, which no one will be surprised to find directed toward the inculcation of standard secular liberal views. It requires only the slightest familiarity with contemporary higher education to know that one of the more popular goals, "critical thinking," is likely to involve, for instance, rather more criticism of patriotism than of the United Nations, and more of colonialism than of communism.

Who could argue with the idea that education ought to have a goal, or goals? The goal of a course on Shakespeare is for the students to read and understand Shakespeare; one hopes that they will appreciate him as well, but the reading and understanding are the course. But this sort of goal is apparently not a goal in the sense that the curriculum revisers use the word. For them the goals of education are, as Dr. Murphy bluntly puts it, "right-mindedness." 

Catholic higher education has in modern times been considered to have a very dubious relationship to the pursuit of truth, to be more concerned with inculcating Catholic belief than with real intellectual achievement. Supposedly that ended after Vatican II; the universities declared themselves independent, proudly announced that they were not in the business of catechetics, and in practice often not only neglected but actively opposed the idea of a duty to transmit the faith. No doubt there were serious defects in what they were reacting to. But one might suppose that the old desire to teach correct doctrine did not disappear, but only adopted new doctrines. This is implicit in the arguments against the deep thinking and learning required to become literate in specific disciplines with definite content.

In a shift that reflects trends in higher education more broadly, the [curriculum] review questions the very idea of discipline-oriented requirements that specify courses taught by particular departments. Are disciplines the building blocks of university education and thus the proper focus for a core curriculum? Or should we recognize that academic disciplines are “artificial” and reorient our thinking around curricular “goals” such as “critical thinking skills,” “effective communication,” “ethical decision-making skills”? Or the capacity to “comprehend the variations of people’s relationship with God and develop respect for the religious beliefs of others,” as one Catholic university defines a distinctively religious goal?

The article demonstrates at some length that this represents, implicitly if not explicitly, a shift away from liberal education and toward propagandizing .

Rather than pursuing the truth through missteps, failed experiments, and odd hypothetical suggestions, the propagandist defines the learning goal, and then designs courses and textbooks to get the students there efficiently. We recognize the propagandizing mentality easily wherever it appears by its illiberal mien, suppressing questions and punishing dissent. But it’s also present when students are taught to assent too quickly to easy moralisms, substituting self-righteous feeling for serious ethical reflection, something that’s only too easy to imagine when one reads the social justice or “global engagement” goals of many Catholic universities.

I've only given a bare introduction to the article, and you really need to read the whole thing. Since I'm not involved in these curricular battles, what strikes me is that this matter is bigger than Catholic education, and bigger than education in general: it is an aspect of the increasing predominance of a secular religion which is as confident as Christianity is defensive, and which does not question the universal applicability of its doctrines and a consequent duty to go into all the world and preach them.

52 Authors: Week 20 - Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916–2000) started her writing career rather late in life at the age of 58, shortly before her husband died. She was a member of the very accomplished Knox family, which included her father, who was the editor of Punch, and his three brothers, one of whom was the famous convert to Roman Catholicism, Monsignor Ronald Knox. She herself took an Oxford First and also seemed set to accomplish much. But then she went to work at the BBC during World War II, married shortly thereafter, had three children, and held on through a difficult marriage that found her having to provide most of the family’s economic support. She even lived in public housing for a long spell, and she wasn’t able financially to quit working as a teacher until she was 70.

Fitzgerald is not considered a Christian writer, but I think she should be. Most critics, at least, have missed that as the wellspring of her novels. They’ve found them little jewels, beautifully written in a spare, incisive way, with touches of subtle wry humor, but they’ve also been mystified by what they’re supposed to mean, and often come away thinking hers is a pessimistic vision of the human lot. I can see why this happens if her Christian belief is not taken into consideration because she does usually leave things hanging in mid-air, unresolved, events seemingly more due to chance than anything else, and so her books have a rather unsettling effect overall. But if a belief in Divine Providence and even the possibility of miracles is put into the mix, things look different, even if still not super clear.

Fitzgerald unfortunately didn’t help to dispel this confusion because, as even she admitted in a couple of interviews, she’d not done her best to get her Christian perspective across, and she blamed that on a lack of courage on her part, since belief was considered ridiculous to many, or even most, folks nowadays. I would think, though, that the settings she chose for her later novels, the ones critics think most highly of, would have given a hint of that Christian perspective. I’ve read only one of her early novels, Offshore, the one for which she got the Booker Prize, and it is based on her own life, the time she spent living with her family on a barge on the Thames. It’s mostly about the eccentric lives of those in the barge community in the changing world of the late 1950s/early 1960s , and there’s not much about belief in it, other than the fact that the children in the book attend a religiously run school and a small appearance by a priest concerned with the children’s lack of regular attendance there. But the three later novels I’ve read—The Gate of Angels, The Beginning of Spring, and The Blue Flower—all feature faith lived or at least faith talked about.

The Gate of Angels is set in 1912 Cambridge and London and spends quite a bit of time talking about the effect of science on belief. Its main character is a young man who has lost his faith and is set to spend his life as a celibate don, until he is knocked unconscious in a bicycle collision with a young woman, wakes up in bed beside her (they’d been put there by the man who found them injured, thinking them married), and immediately falls in love with her. She is a young, disgraced nurse from London, and soon is shown in a court case to have engaged in sexual misconduct. The romance is nipped in the bud, the broken-hearted young man is back on the don career path, and she is leaving town. But then something happens and …; well, I won’t give away the ending, other than to say that we’re left to wonder about the blind chance of it all. Or maybe not so blind, if we can see Providence in there somewhere.

In The Beginning of Spring (my favorite of her books) the setting is Moscow in 1913, at a time when life there was still thoroughly infused with Orthodox Christianity. Its protagonist is a man born to English parents who had come to Russia to set up the printing business he now runs, who is faced with his English-born wife’s suddenly leaving and taking their children with her and then sending the children back to him. First, a taste of how Fitzgerald can perfectly capture setting with the sparest of strokes:

Up until a few years ago the first sound in the morning in Moscow had been the cows coming out of the side-streets, where they were kept in stalls and backyards, and making their way among the horse-trams to their meeting-point at the edge of the Khamovniki, where they were taken by the municipal cowman to their pastures, or, in winter, through the darkness, to the suburban stores of hay. Since the tram-lines were electrified, the cows had disappeared. The trams themselves, from five o’clock in the morning onwards, were the first sound, except for the church bells. In February, both were inaudible behind the inner and outer windows, tightly sealed since last October, rendering the house warm and deaf.

Here in the description of the blessing of the printing business is an example of the way she circles around the matter of faith:

The priest came out in his stole, the deacons in their surplices. The censer was lit with a piece of red-hot charcoal from the canteen samovar. The fragrance of the smoldering cedar of Lebanon reached every corner of the room where men, women and children stood motionless.

Some of them, Frank knew, were agnostics. The storekeeper had told him that, in his opinion, soul and body were like the steam above a factory, one couldn't exist without the other. But he, too, stood motionless. The priest offered a prayer for the God-protected Tsar and his family, for the Imperial Army, that it might put down every enemy of Russia beneath its feet, for the city of Moscow and for the whole country, for those at sea, for travellers, for the sick, for the suffering, for prisoners, for the founders of the Press and the workers there, for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, visitation, pardon and remission of sins.

Because I don’t believe in this, Frank thought, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. He tried to call himself to order. Thomas Huxley had written that if only there was some proof of the truth of religion, humanity would clutch at it as a drowning man clutches at a hencoop. But as long as mankind doesn’t pretend to believe in something, they see no reason to believe, because there might be an advantage to pretending—as long as they don’t do that, they won’t have sunk to the lowest depths. He himself could be said to be pretending now, still more so when he had attended the Anglican chapel , with the idea of keeping [his wife] Nellie company. Why he had felt alarmed when [his daughter] Dolly told him that her teacher said there was no God, he didn’t know. The alarm suggested that as a rational being he was unsuccessful. Either that, or he had come to think of religion as something appropriate to women and children, and that would be sinking to a lower depth than Huxley had dreamed of. Perhaps, Frank thought, I have faith, even if I have no beliefs.

Dignity and solemnity, a religious urge, followed by confusion, almost dismissal, and then not, or maybe. The use of “motionless” in that passage, by the way, said it all for me.


The Blue Flower, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997, was Fitzgerald’s last novel. Although it is the one most highly praised by critics, I find it the most mystifying of all. Set in Germany between the last decade of the 18th century and the first of the 19th, it follows the short life and tragic love of an actual German Romantic poet named Novalis, who falls in love with a girl of 12, waits years for her to reach marriageable age, but then she dies a horrible death from tuberculosis before that can happen, and then more family members die terribly young, and then the young poet himself dies. That all sounds very sad, but it didn’t leave me feeling hopeless, just confused about what I should feel. Although there’s some talk of faith, as usual with Fitzgerald it’s ambiguous, so that’s not why the sadness didn’t overpower. Maybe it’s because we get caught up in Fitzgerald’s marvelously rendered details of life in that long-ago time, or maybe the characters are simply too archaic and their concerns therefore don’t seem quite real. Anyway, I’ll leave this with the much-quoted opening of the book:

Jacob Dietmahler was not such a fool that he could not see that they had arrived at his friend's home on the washday. They should not have arrived anywhere, certainly not at this great house, the largest but two in Weisenfels, at such a time. Dietmahler's own mother supervised the washing three times a year, therefore the household had linen and white underwear for four months only. He himself possessed eighty-nine shirts, no more. But here, at the Hardenberg house in Kloster Gasse, he could tell from the great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard, where grave-looking servants, both men and women, were receiving them into giant baskets, that they washed only once a year. This might not mean wealth, in fact he knew that in this case, it didn't, but it was certainly an indication of long standing. A numerous family, also. The underwear of children and young persons, as well as the larger sizes, fluttered through the blue air, as though the children themselves had taken to flight.

—Marianne lives in New Zealand

Week 20

Update: someone has come through with a nice piece, and I may be able to post it Monday night. Most likely not before then. I'll let the name of the author be a surprise.


There's nobody on the roster for the upcoming week. I'm going to be out of town Friday through Monday and will have limited at best access to a computer (although I will have an iPhone, so I'll be able to read stuff online). So unless someone has something in hand and can send it to me right away (like tonight, Thursday the 14th), I'm going to republish something I posted here several years ago. 

Well, I suppose if you sent me something over the weekend, I'd be able to post it by Tuesday night, which wouldn't be so bad. But anyway I do have a Plan B.

52 Authors: Week 19 - Etienne Gilson

Etienne Gilson (1884-1978) was a Christian philosopher. Between the publication of his PhD thesis in 1909 and his last works of philosophy in the late 1960s, he helped to create genuine historical research in Mediaeval philosophy and theology, he wrote dozens of sparkling works of history and of philosophy, and he pugnaciously championed the influence of Christian faith on philosophical reason.

Gilson’s great achievement was to make the theology and philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas interesting to people who are not trained Thomists, or professional scholastics. Back in the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII had pushed forward a revival of Thomism with his encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879). Between 1879 and 1914, the ‘Leonine’ revival of Thomism made Thomism fascinating to an elite handful of seminary professors, deeply boring to hundreds of seminarians the world over, and a ‘Name’ which stood for ‘Dry’ to everyone else. To the ordinary folk, Thomas was Saint Trés Sec. The seminary professors were intoxicated by the very thought that Thomas’ ideas had been bottled in the Middle Ages and were thus free from the impurities of rationalism, of empiricism and of German romanticism. Bottled so long ago and laid up in the ancient Cathedral vaults to await the thirst of modern times, Thomas’ thought was, the professional scholastics claimed, not merely of its own time, not just ‘Mediaeval,’ or ‘Vintage 1255’ but a perennial wisdom which existed outside and beyond the temporal vicissitudes of philosophy and theology.

Gilson was born in Paris in 1884. He had deep roots in Burgundy and a love of the Romanesque Cathedrals of that region, like Vézelay. Once when I tried to probe one of his surviving Toronto colleagues about where Gilson stood in a dusty quarrel of the 1950s, the old man stonewalled by saying, ‘all Gilson and I ever talked about was wines and cheeses’. Gilson brought the mediaeval thinkers like Thomas and Bonaventure and Scotus to life for his non-scholastic contemporaries. He did this by treating the mediaevals, especially Thomas, not as ‘marble’ exemplars of perennial truths but as living teachers who address our modern conundrums. By the way, Gilson would not like like this line in eulogy. He called himself as a paleo-Thomist, and saw his own approach to Thomas as very different from that of Jacques Maritain, the self described ‘apostle of saint Thomas for modern times.’ Gilson’s approach to Thomas was much more rooted in Thomas’ texts than that of Maritain. He did not put words into Thomas’ mouth or put anachronistic questions to Saint Thomas and invent answers for them.

But nonetheless, Gilson perceived the connecting threads between ancient and modern problems. He was beloved in the secular bastion of the Sorbonne, where he taught for fifty years, invited to give prestigious lectures at Harvard, in Indiana, at Princeton and at Aberdeen (where he gave the Gifford lectures) and read by his educated contemporaries because he brought the mediaeval ‘Age of Faith’ to life before their eyes. He was a genuine philosopher, driven by authentic fire to know, and he communicated his delight in thinking things through from first principles.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Gilson was prized by the secular Universities for his defence of the compatibility of faith and reason. In those same years, many of his Catholic peers amongst the professional Scholastics regarded him as as unduly fideist, too prone to insist upon the theological sources of the reasoning of Christians like Thomas Aquinas. And this was the paradox: those very Scholastics insisted upon Thomas’ Aristotelianism with a view to ensuring a hearing for Thomas amongst the seculars, and yet it was the ‘fideistic’ Gilson who brought Thomas, and even Aristotle, to life for his contemporaries. Gilson claimed that Thomas’ thought does not simply rest on Aristotle’s reasoning: rather, Thomas turns the ‘water’ of Aristotle’s philosophical thinking into the wine of theology. Gilson said, in 1959:

Christian mystery ... does not follow reason, it precedes it, accompanies it as it moves along; it wraps it round and eventually shows it salutary perspectives which reason left to itself would never suspect possible. ….I rememb[er] a passage in ... Thomas’ Commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius. St. Thomas was (even then) being accused of pouring the water of philosophy into the wine of Holy Scripture. He replied simply that theology was not a mixture in which a constituent kept its own nature. A theologian doesn’t mix water with wine, he changes water into wine. We ought not to be disturbed by this manifest allusion to the miracle at Cana. St. Thomas is speaking for all theologians conscious of the supernatural function they are performing.

Gilson argued over and again that, that, as a theologian, Saint Thomas turned the water of philosophy into the wine of theology. Theology is not watery wine - wine with a little bit of the water of reason thrown into it. It is water transformed into wine by the touch of faith.



[Ed.: This is my own copy of a Gilson book, the only one I own, unread these many years. Now I'm inspired to read it.]

Which of Gilson’s books should you read? Some of his books are for the professionals, such as Being and Some Philosophers or – I would say – The Christian Philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. I love both of those books but it is difficult to imagine someone reading them purely for the pleasure of it, without intending to write a paper or an essay about them. Some of Gilson’s writing is dated, like his book about Dante. Some of his philosophical writing is too difficult for amateurs and some of his history writing is out of date. Nonetheless, a surprising number of his books remain in print, and some of his books are still being translated from the French down to the present. Here are two or three books by Gilson which many people with a taste for philosophy could enjoy.

The Unity of Philosophical Experience was given at Harvard in 1936 for the ‘William James’ lecture series. It is about a series of ever graver assaults on the possibility of metaphysics – at the hands of psychologists who reduce metaphysics to psychology, worshippers of mathematics who think maths explains everything, ‘theologists’ who reduce metaphysics to theology (making God everything and nature nothing) and ‘sociologists’ who reduce metaphysics to the study of society. And yet, every attempt to kill metaphysics and replace it with some supposedly higher discipline (sociology, psychology, mathematics, even theology) fails: metaphysics defeats its ‘undertakers’ because, Gilson argues, questions about being and reality will not lie down and die on command. Philosophical experience is rooted in reality, in existence. The laws which unify philosophical experience root it in existence. Existential questions, or questions about being, ‘what is,’ are the ones which drive metaphysics. Existence is a vital reality which is larger than any of the tombs prepared for it, by the particular disciplines like psychology or sociology. I have never succeeded in describing The Unity of Philosophical Experience without making it sound more difficult than it is. It is a bit like C.S. Lewis’ A Pilgrim’s Regress: it’s about a series of reductionist attempts to say ‘metaphysics is ‘really just’ something smaller than the effort to respond to being as a whole.

I first read The Unity of Philosophical Experience as an undergraduate, and I thought it was a history book, detailing the decline of philosophy as a result of a sequence of disasters, beginning with theologism, with its nominalism and voluntarism, on through the psychologism of William of Ockham, the Mathematicism of Descartes, the moralism of Kant and on to the ‘sociolatry’ of Comte. A little later I came to ‘Grad School’ in the States and was taken aback by the venom with which a CUA graduate responded to my reference to Gilson. Like me, he had mistaken The Unity for an historical narrative. Unlike me, he was sufficiently sophisticated to be repulsed by the one sided caricatures of Avienna, Scotus, Bonaventure, Descartes and Kant which he found in it. In fact, Gilson says very clearly that the Unity (and likewise Being and Some Philosophers and God and Philosophy) are not history books at all, but works of philosophy. As in A Pilgrim’s Regress, the figures which Gilson treats are ‘allegorical,’ meant to stand in for certain tendencies or ideas. The ‘Ockham’ or the ‘Scotus’ of The Unity is not the real, three-dimensional Ockham or Scotus, but one aspect of those thinkers, studied from very close up and detached from the wider body of their thinking. I give The Unity of Philosophical Experience as an example of a book which any educated person could enjoy because it deliberately simplifies and paints a philosophical story in primary colours. The reason Gilson’s books have lasted is his aesthetic sense, his ability to paint a picture which draws the eye to the center of events, their existential core.

The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy is Gilson’s ‘Gifford Lectures’, given at Aberdeen in 1931-1932. Starting with the apologists and Athenagoras, and running right down to the Franciscan Scotists and William of Ockham himself, Gilson argues that the ‘spirit’ of mediaeval philosophy is Christian faith, and that this faith enabled it to delve deeper into existence and its mysteries than any previous human thinking. Now, I’m a theologian and I use words like ‘delve’. But what Gilson means to say is that the theological genesis of mediaeval philosophy enables it to argue and reason to intellectual heights which had never hitherto been assaulted. The philosophers of the Middle Ages believed themselves to be living in a created cosmos. This enabled them to perceive that things are good, that they are oriented towards ends, that they are knowable, and above all, that things exist in and of themselves.

Living in a cosmos they believed (from Genesis) to have been freely created in time by God, the mediaeval philosophers woke up each morning feeling lucky to be alive. So they noticed that things are not just in here (as concepts), and not just out there (as objects) but exist, as individual acts of being. Every existent thing is like a ‘one off’ art work: it exists at all not just because stuff is out there but because God created it. God does create kinds of things – he does a line in trees, say, and a range of fish. But that there are kinds and ranges of things is not just a given, because God creates natures and kinds of things by making them exist. The mediaeval philosophers were able to notice existence because they could ‘see the Masters hand’ working in and through their ‘sacramental cosmos’.

The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy is a book length defence of the influence of Christian faith on philosophy. It is a defence of the possibility of ‘Christian philosophy,’ the product of believers’ reasoning. The old Heineken advertisments used to claim that this beer ‘reaches parts other beers cannot reach’. This is Gilson’s claim for philosophizing within a Biblical, sacramental cosmos: it will reach parts other philosophies cannot attain. Faith gave the Christian thinkers the ability to articulate the metaphysical, existential intuitions common to all humanity. The Spirit is not a ‘faux history book which is a philosophy book in disguise. It is a genuine history of mediaeval thought which uses that history in defence of the possibility of a fruitful and provocative relation of faith to reason.

Thirdly, I would recommend Painting and Reality. Well, I would doubt that any one who does not work in a university would have the time to read Gilson’s Painting and Reality from beginning to end. A few chapters of it would suffice. This is the book in which Gilson combines his great aesthetic sense with his interest in existential questions. He studies art and painting as examples of pure acts of ‘existing’ which come forth from their creator’s hands as physical objects, as ‘kinds of things’ and as ‘existential personae’, characters in the drama of existence. Gilson stresses that paintings do not merely flow from concepts in their maker’s minds, but physically, from the maker’s hands. Many of the people who read this blog would enjoy a few chapters of this master piece.

—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

American Institutions

I've been reading a collection of Nat Hentoff's music journalism, American Music Is, and came across this great anecdote:

When Mr. [Robert] O'Meally was a student at Harvard, he approached [Ralph] Ellison, who was giving a talk, and asked: Don't you think the Harlem Renaissance failed because we failed to create institutions to preserve our gains?"

Ellison looked at this young black man in a dashiki and said, "No." Then, Mr. O'Meally recalled, "just before being led to the stage, he paused to look at me with steely eyes. 'We do have institutions. We have the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And we have jazz."

While I'm at it: Nat Hentoff is a treasure, an American institution himself. I've been reading his liner notes on jazz albums since the 1960s, and there is no one who loves jazz, and American music in general, more than he does. He's been writing and broadcasting about it since the late '40s, and knew many of the giants of that time. And he's an atheist civil libertarian whom one can respect. From Wikipedia:

Hentoff espouses generally liberal views on domestic policy and civil liberties, but in the 1980s, he began articulating more socially conservative positions—opposition to abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and the selective medical treatment of severely disabled infants. Hentoff argued that a consistent life ethic should be the viewpoint of a genuine civil libertarian, arguing that all human rights are at risk when the rights of any one group of people are diminished, that human rights are interconnected, and people deny others' human rights at their own peril.

52 Authors: Week 18 - T.S. Eliot

(T.S. Eliot's first importance is as a poet, but he is also a major figure in criticism, and a significant, possibly under-rated, one in cultural and social commentary. I'm only going to consider the poetry here, and that excluding the plays, for the simple reason that I haven't read any of them except Murder in the Cathedral. If there is need later in the year, I might do an Eliot 2 on some of the prose works.)

I don't know whether “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was the first poem that ever thrilled me, but it was certainly among the first. And my reading of it may have been the first occasion on which I was conscious of the experience as an experience specifically of poetry. At any rate I do remember my first reading of it. I was in my teens, I think not more than sixteen. And I think I had sought out “Prufrock”because I had read that it was very modern and advanced, which I wanted to be. I must have gotten a Selected Poems from the library, as I doubt that “Prufrock”would have appeared in a textbook (though in high school “The Hollow Men” did). I distinctly remember opening the book, and the pleasure of those opening lines; there was a physical pleasure, centered in the chest, and an emotional pleasure that was a sort of sad yearning, both arising from the music of the words and the images they invoked. And there was something that occurs more rarely: the exhilaration that comes from encountering a work of art that is not only very good but also seems to touch some deep part of one's own soul.

Sound and sense, then, but at a pretty basic level: there was no intellectual pleasure, really, apart from the process of comprehending the literal sense of the words. That is, I did not understand it in any sense beyond the fact that it was the voice of an unhappy man. I certainly didn't get the significance of Prufrock as a type, or his situation as a commentary on the state of his civilization. A few years later I learned about all that, and it was fascinating, and I grasped the place of the poem in the history of our culture. But on that first reading it was only the poem itself.

Now, fifty years later, it is once again only the poem itself that matters very much. The cultural history is interesting, to be sure, but it is history: the battles of early modernism are long since over. The modernist revolution has come—but not gone. It has permanently altered our culture, and become normal; it no longer agitates us. The alienation of modern man has been described and discussed so much that it is as much a part of our mental furniture as Duty was to a Victorian. As the shade of Dante says in “Little Gidding”: “These things have served their purpose: let them be.” But the poem is still very much alive. When I read it now, the sensation it produces is little different from what it was then.

Anyone who has even a slight interest in poetry has heard of “Prufrock” the poem, but I've just now looked over Prufrock the book (Prufrock and Other Observatiosn, 1917) for the first time in many years, and am struck by the fact that every poem in it is first-rate. There aren't many of them—Eliot was never prolific—but although they are not all equal they are all very fine. I had forgotten that the book includes “Preludes,” among my favorites of his shorter poems, which contains these lines, an image which has recurred to me now and then for decades:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Only five years after Prufrock came the poem which is probably what most people would think of first when they hear Eliot's name, if they recognized it at all: The Waste Land. Yes, it is a landmark of literary modernism, and even if you came to it with no knowledge of its reputation it would be a very striking work. But I've never considered it a great work, except by virtue of its fame and influence. Or say perhaps that it is a great work, but a singular one, like Ulysses: an end rather than a beginning, and a constriction rather than an expansion. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”—yes, I understand, but fragmentation has definite limits as a poetic technique, however fragmented the world appears to the poet, and Eliot himself saw that his technique in this poem was not a foundation upon which he could continue to build. The poem itself, and the poet, seem all but buried in those ruins; you have a sense of a partially collapsed structure, with walls rising out of rubble from which someone is trying to dig himself out. Still, there is a great deal of wonderful poetry in it:

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Between Prufrock and The Waste Land there were a handful of shorter poems that I've never been very enthusiastic about, with the exception of “Gerontion.” “The Hollow Men” (1925) is a relatively straightforward poem which probably encouraged a lot of literary adolescents in the mistaken belief that it is easy to write free verse (I was one), and also gave us a famous (and now overused) verdict on the modern world:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Then came a movement toward both poetic and spiritual stability which bore fruit in “Ash Wednesday” (1930). “Ash Wednesday”gets less attention than it deserves—or perhaps I'm only describing my own habit. It's not a big and intense statement like The Waste Land, and although it's hardly traditional in form there's nothing startling about it, no juxtaposed fragments, no interjections of lines from Elizabethan drama, almost no French or Italian or German or Greek or Latin or Sanskrit.

Eliot had been received into the Church of England in 1927, turning his back on the watery liberal Unitarianism of his background. It was around this time that he described himself as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” (according to Wikipedia, the lower case “anglo-catholic” is Eliot's). In the 1920s the Anglo-Catholic party within the Church of England was a significant presence, and it was no doubt less difficult to see oneself as truly Catholic within it then than now. In any case, “Ash Wednesday” is a very Catholic poem, a poem of Marian devotion in fact, full of addresses to Mary and quotations from the traditional prayers to her.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee

If you have somehow escaped reading Eliot, or perhaps remember only being bewildered by The Waste Land in school, “Ash Wednesday” might be a good place to start, especially if you're a Christian, though I suppose the Marian slant would put off some Protestants.

Or perhaps the “Choruses from The Rock” (1934). These are a set of rather prosey, openly didactic commentaries on the state of things in the de-Christianizing civilization of England. They were spoken by a chorus in a sort of pageant called The Rock, which I don't know much about. They are not Eliot's best work, and they are not a great work, but they are unmistakably in his voice, and what they have to say is still very much relevant, and often memorably said:

Do you think that the Faith has conquered the World
And that lions no longer need keepers?
Do you need to be told that whatever has been, can still be?
Do you need to be told that even such modest attainments
As you can boast in the way of polite society
Will hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance?
Men! polish your teeth on rising and retiring;
Women! polish your fingernails!
You polish the tooth of the dog and the talon of the cat.
Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of system so perfect that no one will need to be good.

To a contemporary in 1935 it might have seemed that Eliot's career as a poet had run its course, and that he might be one of many who have produced brilliant work early in life, but then fallen into repetition, or faded away altogether. The Prufrock poems were written when he was in his twenties, The Waste Land in his thirties. His forties (1928-1938) produced fewer poems, and those less notable than his earlier work. If you had read “Choruses from The Rock” when it appeared, and been unsympathetic to their very direct and not very “modern” Christian statement, you would probably have thought that he was finished.

But in 1935 he published the first poem in the series that would become his greatest work, and in my opinion the greatest single poetic work in English of the 20th century: the Four Quartets. “Burnt Norton” first appeared in Collected Poems 1909-1935. The other three poems, “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding” were written and published during the early years of the Second World War. I don't know enough literary history to know how many readers and critics recognized the greatness of the achievement in those first years—or, never mind greatness, how many simply liked them. But I do know that my opinion of them is not unusual, though it is probably not universal, either. Eliot said "I stand or fall on them." I believe the majority of critical opinion says that he stands.


I first read the Quartets in the early 1970s. I had no real idea what they were about, nor did I fully recognize the Christian theology and philosophy in them. But I loved them almost immediately. I recall reading them in a time of intense personal distress and finding them comforting, although I didn't understand them. The sound and imagery in the descriptive passages, and the sense of serenity conveyed in the philosophical ones, gave me a sense of peace which didn't depend on a full grasp of meaning.

Forty or so years later, having read the poem, I suppose, at least a dozen times, and having come to cherish it, what I just said is still applicable. I'm still more than a little puzzled by some passages, and could certainly not produce an answer to the question “What is Four Quartets about?” that would be both brief and useful. The Waste Land is of course known as a difficult poem. But Four Quartets may be more so. The former is difficult in great part because of its technique—its fragmentation, its dependence on allusions which the reader may not get (thus the famous or infamous notes, which I have read may have been intended as a joke). The latter is difficult because it deals in complex ideas. There is some difficulty of the modernist poetic sort, beginning with the question “what are the voices or instruments comprising the quartets?”; the answer is not at all obvious. But the greater difficulty is intrinsic: the “complex ideas” of which I just spoke are probably not even best described as ideas. I'll call them instead, simply thoughts, mindful that the word is one frequently used in a banal way. Perhaps it would sound more dignified if I said “thought”, singular. A newspaper columnist offers us his thoughts, a philosopher his thought.

At any rate what I mean is that what is being expressed is not an idea or set of ideas that can be stated in a straightforward manner, but the full product of consciousness, which includes propositional sense, intuition, emotion, and sensual apprehension. This is always true of poetry, of course, but in the Quartets the object of consciousness—not necessarily the object obtained, but the object sought—is metaphysical. And so the poet as well as the reader finds himself in difficulties. There are two or three passages in which he complains:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

I see I'm over two thousand words here, which is enough to ask of people reading online. And anyway it would be foolish of me to attempt much commentary on the poem without a good deal of study and thought. So I'll end this with one remark, and another quotation. The remark: Four Quartets is an extended and profound meditation on time, eternity, consciousness, history, culture, faith, and the Incarnation, and it is more important to me than any work of theology. The quotation, which begins where the preceding one leaves off:

                                                                And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps there is neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

—”East Coker,” V

By the way, I did not forget Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. It is a perfect work and needs no commentary.

—Yr hmbl srvnt, the proprietor of this blog.

Glitches, Maybe

Tomorrow, Saturday the 2nd, I'm hoping to do something that's about five years overdue. I think it was 2010 when I moved this blog from Blogger to Typepad. I have a domain name,, which still points to the old blog, though if you go there it redirects you here. I need to point that URL to this blog, and if nothing gets in the way, I plan to do that tomorrow. Those changes can take a day or so to propagate all around the net. So depending on how you go about getting here, there could be some odd behavior till things settle down.