52 Authors Feed

52 Authors: Week 52 - Jean Daniélou

Jean Daniélou was a French Jesuit. He was one of the famous group of French Jesuits who passed through the Jesuit house at Fourvière (in Lyon) in the 1920s and 1930s. The greatest member of the group was, without doubt, Henri de Lubac (who has received a very fine tribute from Robert Gotcher in our 52 Author’s series). Many others were also memorable, including Gaston Fessard, a great Hegel scholar, and Yves de Montcheuil, who became a chaplain to the French Resistance and was murdered by the National Socialists in 1944. Henri de Lubac gathered the writings of some of his confrères in one of those many de Lubacy Ignatius Press books, called Three Jesuits Speak, a sort of tribute volume, but worth reading.

Jean Daniélou was not in the same league as de Lubac, but he wrote one great book which will continue to nourish Catholic’s understanding of Scripture and the Liturgy for many generations to come.

De Lubac’s squad of Fourvière Jesuits are famous for three things. One is that they all admired the writings of the French philosopher Maurice Blondel. Blondel himself had written a Pascalian tome of philosophy called Action, which argued that human beings put infinitely more energy into their actions than they can ever use in finite circumstances. Human beings have a choice, a basic ‘option,’ Blondel called it, between admiting that the infinite in them comes from God, and actively cooperating with the divine input, or refusing outside help, and remaining independent forever, eternally, living off the fruits of selfish egoism. The young Jesuits of the 1920s and 1930s loved Action, because it was all about acting. It seemed more energetic than the circular logic of the neo-scholasticism of the time. Their elders detested it, because it was all about acting, and not about logical truths which stayed the same for ever. Dominicans in particular disliked it, especially the evil and destructive Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP.

The second thread to the story is that the infamous Garrigou-Lagrange detested the lot of them so much that he had them silenced. To explain how that came about we must mention a third element in the legend of the Jesuits of Fourvière. They loved the Patristics, the early Church Fathers. They started a series of Patristic texts, called Sources Chrétiennes, still being published by Cerf today. These books have the Greek or Latin text on one side, and the vernacular (French) on the other. Danélou was the editor, and as de Lubac later kindly but ruefully observed, he had a series to sell. The series had set off in 1942, and in 1946 Daniélou published an article to advertize it. Daniélou’s article was called “Les orientations présentes de la pensée religieuse,” and it was published in the spring of 1946. This piece, full of Blondelisms about dynamic action and energy, and wholly innocuous in its theological content, became known as the ‘Red Rag to the Roman Bull.’

Later that same year, the Roman bull, in the form of Garrigou-Lagrange charged. He published “La nouvelle théologie où va-t-elle?”, where is the ‘New Theology’ going. It was, by the way, Garrigou-Lagrange who christened the new movements as ‘New Theology.’ He argued that this talk about the Patristics and their dynamic energy was leading the Church back to Modernism, that is, back to subjectivism and historicism. He didn’t like all this chatter about the Patristics because he thought himself a Thomist. No, the logic of that cannot be explained. ‘Because Thomas’ doesn’t work, since Thomas himself loved the Early Church Fathers.

Unfortunately for several generations of Catholics, this evil, unimaginative and rather unintelligent man was second in command at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He had the whole squad silenced, removed from their teaching positions, and shifted around from pillar to post. For nearly fifteen years before the second Vatican Council, the greatest minds in the French religious orders – for example, Daniélou and De Lubac amongst the Jesuits, Marie-Dominique Chenu amongst the Dominicans – were forbidden to teach the upcoming generation of seminarians. Those are just the great names: there were many other lesser men of their ilk who could not enable faith to seek understanding. The generation of priests who greeted the documents of the Second Vatican Council had not had decent teachers for nearly two decades. The result was exactly the thing which Garrigou-Lagrange had feared, and which he had himself engineered by repressing the orthodox apologetics of the Fourvière Jesuits: a return of modernist subjectivism, fideism and historicism in the Catholic Church.

One thing which suffered greatly after the Vatican Council was the liturgy. A poorly educated clergy was easily infected by a profound amnesia rning the immense poetry of the liturgy. The texts of the Vatican Council had encouraged the Church to put the Bible at the center of Catholic life: but no one had been taught how to read the Bible, especially not the Old Testament. No one knew what to do with the riches which were suddenly poured at the feet of Catholic parishioners, and like lottery winners, they squandered their gains.

One book which should have taught them about that immense poetry was Daniélou’s The Bible and the Liturgy. This book shows how the actions Old Testament prefigure the New Testament, and how these types, and the power they contain, are carried forth today in the dynamic actions of the Liturgy, its sacraments. Its full of quotations from the early Church Fathers, showing how the early Church knotted together the Old and the New Covenants, and how it read every gesture of the liturgy as energetic signs of Biblical events. Daniélou writes that, “the sacraments were seen as great events in sacred history, the mirabilia which fill the sphere between the glorious Ascension and the glorious Parousia, their course constituting that shining train of divine works whose splendour the very angels cannot endure, which fills them with wonder” (p. 199).

The book treats the symbolism of the liturgy as it should be treated, as a revealed system of aesthetic echoes and resonances which carry the drama of the Bible into the life of the Church. Daniélou reminds the reader that “The first type of Baptism to be found in the most ancient Catechesis is that of the primitive waters of Genesis. At first glance this comparison may seem startling and artificial, but we must always be careful to look behind the ‘illustrative’ resemblances which are concerned with images for the theological analogies which constitute typology properly speaking” (pp. 71-72). This great book can be read with pleasure by any one with an aesthetic sense. You do not have to be a liturgy buff or especially pious.

Daniélou was one of those who were left to fight the tidal wave of misinterpretation of the Vatican II documents. The one time ‘modernist’ New Theologian now gained a reputation amongst his fellow Jesuits for being a reactionary. He lived very modestly, sleeping in a simple cell on a very bare board of a bed. Most of his money was given way, to homeless people, beggars and prostitutes. He paid for his valor against post-Vatican II Modernism with his reputation. Long before, he had offered God a shameful death in return for the conversion of his brother, a specialist in the Hindu religion. He got it. Visiting the flat of a prostitute whose protector was in prison, the aged Jesuit dropped dead, the money he had brought with him to give her in his hand. His brother Jesuits apparently knew the truth but made no effort to defend his reputation. Until very recently, Daniélou’s name could only be mentioned with giggles, as the New Theologian who died in the arms of a tart. The motto of the Dominican Order is ‘Veritas,’ and with his habitual concern for the charism of his Order, Fergus Kerr repeats the ‘death in a prostitute’s flat’ story in his recent book on modern Catholic Theologians.

This past spring (April 2015), the slurs began to be corrected. For the first time in forty-five years, Jesuits publicly told the truth about the kind of man Daniélou was, and about how he died. The true story is repeated here (and other versions are available elsewhere on the web) as told by Joanna Bogle.

—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

52 Authors: Week 51 - David Hume

It is very surprising that Christians who are conservatives do not generally espouse a great admiration for David Hume (1711-1776). It’s true he was a critic of the religious apologetics of his time. But in its context, the natural theology of Hume’s time was rationalist. And if there is one thing which conservativism is against, it is surely rationalism. So it’s a mystery why Christians mostly do not unite in admiration of Hume’s onslaught on the rationalism of his time. There are great exceptions: the great Presbyterian theologian T.F. Torrance observed that Hume’s criticisms of the arguments to God’s existence of his contemporaries are useless. But most Catholics fall in with Elizabeth Anscombe’s misjudgement that Hume was simply a bad man. If he was a bad man, and unlike Anscombe I don’t profess to know, he has done a great deal of good for this Catholic. Hume has done more for my faith than many of the theologians who have starred in the 52 Authors series. Even though our starring theologians have all been ‘greats,’ I have to confess that Hume has done more for me, in freeing me from my own spiritual sluggishness. What follows is a lightly disguised excerpt from the chapter on Hume in the book on ‘Illuminating Faith’ which I co-authored last year. I wrote this chapter.


Back to the Middle Ages proponents of ‘faith’ and of ‘reason’ jousted in fair weather.. What happened between 1690 and 1740 was epic: a whole society experienced contradiction between faith and reason. Dismissal of faith and adherence to rationalism became commonplace. The turn to rationalism was engineered not by atheists or Deists but by Anglican ministers and pillars of the established Church of England. Bible Miracles were taken as evidence that the Bible is God’s revelation; Locke argued that we may infer from his miracles that Jesus was sent to us from God.

In the 1618-1648 ‘Wars of Religion,” European Catholics and Protestants butchered one another, and savaged the credibility of faith. The English Civil War made soldiers of fanatical charismatics, who believed themselves agents of the Holy Spirit. The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 deflated enthusiasm. The great Dr. Johnson professed himself ‘no friend to enthusiasm.’ Was that because, at the time, enthusiasm was a greater enemy to Christian faith than scepticism?

The 1662 Press Act opened English printing presses to publishing satirical tracts, including religion in the mockery. Writers used irony to mock religion, just as in the former USSR and its colonies, ironic jokes circulated. Irony is invisible, or at least deniable. What did Jonathan Swift mean when, in “An Argument against Abolishing Christianity” he argued that abolishing the Established Church would sink the Bank of England? Swift’s tract mocked the rationalist Unitarian, John Toland, but it also seems to make light of Anglicanism. Swift was a Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. In Swift’s fantasy novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the hero lives amongst purely rational horses, the Houyhnhnm, whose serfs are degraded human beings, Yahoos. ‘Houyhnhnm’ is onamatopoiec, representing an equinine neigh: it means, in their language, “the perfection of nature.” Did their author regard the Houyhnhnm as ideal creatures or monsters? Swift’s irony makes his writing two-sided and opaque.

What about Hume himself? Most people think that David Hume was on the side of the devil when he claimed in sweetly ironic tones that it takes faith to believe in miracles. They were not amused then and they still think he must have been a bad man to say those things.

The turn to rationalism started when the Polish Anabaptists Lelio Socinus and his nephew Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) assumed leadership of the Polish Brethren. The Brethren were a non-magisterial Protestant sect, who later became known as Socinians. Lelio and Faustus rejected faith in the divinity of Christ and in the Trinity on the grounds that these traditional articles of faith cannot clearly be reasoned out of Scripture. By 1601 Faustus’ ideas were enshrined in the Racovian Catechism, which states that reason ‘is …of great service, since without it we would neither perceive with certainty the authority of the sacred writings, understand their contents, …nor apply them to any practical purpose. When ... I stated that the Holy Scripture were sufficient for our salvation … I certainly assumed its presence’ [i.e., the presence of reason]. The Socinians were Protestants who took the sola Scriptura principle to a logical conclusion. They replaced faith with ‘what can be reasoned out of Scripture.’

By the way, one of my co-authors on Illuminating Faith is a Protestant, and I originally wrote that this practice is a distortion of Protestantism: Luther surely didn’t expect people to be writing to their bishop and demanding to be shown exactly where the doctrine of the Trinity can be demonstrated from Scripture? I’m ecumenical that way! But my co-author insisted that from its very origins Protestantism requires that doctrines can be demonstrated from Scripture. So I withdrew my claim that Socinianism and Deism are distortions of the Protestant sola scriptura principle.

What had hitherto been termed, variously, the rule of faith, the light of faith, and the articles of faith now for the first time was equated with ‘what a rational individual can find in the Bible, read literally.’ Socinianism was identified with ‘Unitarianism,’ that is, anti-Trinitarian theism. What it comes down to is rationalist Bible-literalism. Anglican apologists attempted to combat Unitarianism with the weapons of reason and the Bible.

So Socinianism influenced the Established Church of England. Disputing Catholic claims that one needs the faith of the Church to recognize Scripture as divine Revelation the Anglican Archbishop, William Laud (1573-1645) argued that faith is assenting to what reason can see in or deduce from the Bible. But what can be deduced from Scripture? Is the Trinity in Scripture? The divinity of Christ? The fall of Adam? Original sin? Anglicans had landed themselves with the job of demonstrating the Trinity out of Scripture read without the guidance the Holy Spirit, and without the perspectives of ecclesial faith.

In fact, though religions are not based on what their sacred texts say, but on what believers think these texts say. Unless one already believes in the Trinity by other means, say, because it is the historical faith of the church expressed in the creeds, one will not find the Scriptures to speak of Father, Son and Spirit as the three persons of one God. Anglican apologists committed themselves to a circular argument. The Bible miracles, especially the miracles Jesus performs, were thought to give the Bible rational credentials, as God’s revelation. The miracles were supposed to give Jesus a good credit rating with other people, so that we lent credence to all his claims. That is what Locke tells us.

Who was he? John Locke (1632-1704) was the most equinine philosopher of the epoch.

Locke demonstrated that faith contains nothing unreasonable by defining faith as dutifully obedient to reason. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding he defines “faith” as “nothing but a firm assent of the mind; which if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason”. Locke says that Reason is “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deductions made from such ideas which it has got by the use of its natural faculties, viz. by sensation or reflection.” Reason works on ideas, which emerge from sensations. It deduces propositions from ideas which originate in sensations. Faith, by contrast, does not derive from deductions from ideas which are themselves virtual versions of sensations. Rather, says Locke, “Faith ... is the assent to any proposition ...upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God in some extraordinary way of communication. This way of discovering truths to men we call revelation.” Rather than buying the item ‘cash down’, on the basis of ideas emerging from sensations, one buys the truths of faith on credit from God. But why is it reasonable to buy truths on credit from God? What makes it rational to believe the Bible is God’s Word? Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) claims that the ‘proposer’ is Jesus Christ, in the Gospels, and the evidence Jesus offers, making it rational for us to credit that he is God’s emissary, is his miracles and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Jesus’ miracles are his good credit rating, making rationally credible his claim to speak on God’s behalf. Jesus showed himself to be the Messiah by his miracles and by claiming the prophesied Kingdom of God had come. Locke does not think Jesus said he was the Messiah, but he thinks the Gospel writers say so. Locke’s ‘article of faith’ is that Jesus was the Messiah. It is reasonable to have faith that the Bible is God’s Revelation because, in it, Jesus the Messiah performs miracles, acts which are evidence that he was on a mission from God.

The problem with Locke’s view is that, if we think it implausible that God’s revelation would contain any unreasonable propositions, we would have to think the doctrine that God is three persons in one substance is reasonable before we could find it in Scripture.

For Locke, Jesus is the Messiah, but is he the second person of the Trinity? If, on Locke’s account, we make an inference from Jesus to God, then Jesus is not God. The Reasonableness of Christianity does not mention the Trinity. When called on this, Locke both denied that he was a Unitarian, and sarcastically demanded to see a different Bible which refers unequovically to the Trinity: ‘My Lord, my Bible is faulty again; for I do not remember that I ever read in it either of these propositions in these precise words, ‘that there are three persons in one nature, or, there are two natures in one person’. When your Lordship shall show me a Bible wherein they are set down, I shall then think them a good instance of propositions offered me out of Scripture …. they may be drawn from the Scripture: but I deny that these very propositions are in express words in my Bible.’ Scripture exegesis becomes the test which faith must pass, and we know in advance that Scripture will not offend our reasoning minds by deciding to read it as a string of literal propositions. Faith does not, according to Locke, assent to any proposition it does not understand.

Locke’s writings proved an inspiration to such Deists as John Toland (1670-1722) and Matthew Tindal (1653-1733). A year after Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity, Toland published Christianity not Mysterious (1696). Rejecting the presence of miracle or mystery in the Scriptures, Toland claims that, “Reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude, and ... nothing reveal’d ..is more exempted from its Disquisitions, than the ordinary Phenomena of Nature. Wherefore, there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to Reason, nor above it; and that no Christian doctrine can be properly call’d a Mystery.”

Few of Jesus’ miracles make prosaic sense, so countless Deist tracts mock the sheer irrationality of Jesus’ miracles, such as cursing the fig tree for not blossoming when figs were not in season. Why take anything on credit, when we can get cash down in nature for a religion of reason? Tindal noted, with sardonic irony, that if Scripture is as reasonable as the Anglican apologists claim, *The truly illuminated books are the darkest of all.”

As moderate Anglicans saw it, reason first demonstrates, from Design, that God exists, and then reason is led to accept the Bible as this designer God’s revelation on the evidence of Jesus’ miracles. There are two stories, reason as foundational, and revelation stacked upon it. Joseph Butler declared, “Reason can, and it ought to judge, not only of the meaning, but also of the morality and the evidence of revelation.”

This is the context in which David Hume criticised religious rationalism! Hume set light to the bonfire of vanities of Bible-rationalism by asking on what evidence people believe in the Gospel miracles. Hume’s ‘Essay on Miracles’ opens by noticing the difference between the Anglican theologian Dr. Tillotson’s attitude to the ‘real presence’ and to eye-witness testimony. Dr. Tillotson rejects the absurd Catholic doctrine of the “real presence” of Christ in the consecrated Eucharist, as contrary to the evidence of the senses: no Scriptural reference can demonstrate what runs counter to the senses of every rational man. But Dr Tillotson owns eye-witness testimony as backing Bible miracles. Hume nails Tillotson to his refutation of the ‘Papist’ doctrine of transubstantion: if sensation and experience rule out the real presence, then how much more should they exclude belief in the testimony of the Gospel writers to miracles? Our concurrence in an event occurred on the say-so of others, that is, on the basis of testimony, will always be “weaker” than our concurrence in the veracity of what we experience for ourselves. The testimonies of “probable” evidence in comparison with the direct proof of our own experience. And miracles run counter to our own experience: no testimony can outweigh our direct experience that the course of nature runs smooth and straight. For miracles to authorize Scripture, the occurrence of miracles would have to be credible.

Hume notes other irrationalities in the proposal of Jesus’ miracles as authorizing the reasonableness of assent to Scripture as God’s Word. Why is this host of miracles isolated and elevated above the miracles of the Muslims and Hindus, as the sole showing of divine revelation? Why, within Christianity, are the Bible miracles isolated and elevated above the host of miracles claimed by Papists for their saints?

Hume conclude that it is a sheer miracle that anyone believes the Bible miracles: “the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity; and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.” With these words, Hume, speaking as a kind of Catholic atheist, restated the traditional doctrine that faith is a supernatural virtue, a gift of the Holy Spirit.


The Houyhnhnm philosophers had hung too much weight on inference. In The Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion Hume asks how one can know that a domesticated Designer stands at the end of a chain of causal inference from design in the cosmos to its producer. Mediaeval Christians who argued to the existence of God avowedly knew by faith for whom they were looking; as Hume notes, his contemporaries supposed themselves simply to know, by analogy, that the Designer of the Universe would, like the designer of a house, reside at the end of the chain of causal inference. Hume’s Cleanthes professes himself “scandalised ... with this resemblance, which is asserted between the Deity and human creatures; and must conceive it to imply such a degradation of the supreme Being as no sound theist could endure.”1 Hume’s argument shows that the two stories, of faith and reason, do not work unless they mutually reinforce each other. This is precisely what we read in John Paul II’s great encyclical Fides et Ratio.

On the English Empiricist account, sensations are also the beginning of a long line of causal inferences. For Hume, “without the authority either of the memory or of the senses our whole reasoning would be chimerical and without foundation.” Every testimony to which we give credence can be traced back to a sense impression: our belief that Julius Caesar “was kill’d in the senate house on the ides of March” traces back to our sense impressions of the history books in which we have read the eye-witness testimonies to this event.2 We cannot know for sure what causes these impressions: it could be the direct action of God (as the Occasionalists say) or physical objects, or something else. Like Locke, Hume subscribes to the representative theory of perception. He states: “....’twill readily be allow’d, that ... nothing is ever really present to the mind, besides its own perceptions”.3 Hume does not think of impressions or ideas as mediating realities to us, but, as it were, of substituting for realities in our consciousness. Unlike Locke, Hume grasps the consequences of this. Since we do not know what is the real cause of our impressions or what lies beyond them, believing in the veracity of some impressions and not others, or the reality of some external objects and not others, cannot be a matter of rationality. The first act judgement makes is to believe. Ideas are simply weak impressions, while beliefs are very strong impressions. Hume did not only eviscerate Bible-rationalism. This Yahoo struck at the foundations of rationalism, by arguing that, “all probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. ‘Tis not solely in poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy. When I am convinc’d of any principle, ‘tis only an idea, which strikes more strongly upon me.”4 It follows then that belief is the source of all of our ratiocination. All reasoning rests on belief.

1 Dialogue, p. 49.

2 Human Nature, p. 83.

3 Human Nature, 197

4 Human Nature, 103.

—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

52 Authors: Week 50 - George Orwell

Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

—Orwell, “1984”

This quote was very startling when I first read 1984 only a few years ago. I'm not very qualified to write about George Orwell, not least because I have never read Animal Farm. I often feel as though I have read it, because it has come up in conversation and articles quite a bit over the years. I'll have to add it to my growing list of Things To Read In The Next Twenty Years. At any rate, I saw 1984 on a friend's shelf a few years ago and asked if I could borrow it. It was a great story. I like reading about dystopias, for some reason, maybe because they usually seem worse than the time in which we live, so it helps me to be grateful for what we do have. Also, there are aspects which highlight various problems we now have. It's been a long time since I read Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, but even as a sixteen year old, back in the eighties, I remember that some aspects of those stories highlighted things already underway. There were the illiterate society infatuated with mass media in Fahrenheit 451 and the shallow and hedonistic lifestyle of BNW which have remained enduring impressions for me.

I'm sure we've had the discussion here which said that Brave New World is perhaps a better description of the trends we've seen than 1984. Certainly the current attitude towards sex is more like that of BNW than 1984, where sex is prohibited outside of marriage and this aspect of 1984 was extremely hard to imagine when I read it.

Another criticism is something I could not put my finger on at the time of reading, but my friend, Rob Stove, once sent me this quote from a letter Evelyn Waugh wrote to Orwell in 1949:

I think it possible that in 1984 we shall be living in conditions rather like those you show. But what makes your version spurious to me is the disappearance of the Church. I wrote of you once that you seemed unaware of its existence now when it is everywhere manifest. Disregard all the supernatural implications if you like, but you must admit its unique character as a social & historical institution. I believe it is inextinguishable, though of course it can be extinguished in a certain place for a certain time. Even that is rarer than you might think. The descendants of Xavier's converts in Japan kept their faith going for three hundred years and were found saying ‘Ave Marias’ & ‘Pater Nosters’ when the country was opened in the last century. The Brotherhood which can confound the Party is one of love – not adultery in Berkshire, still less throwing vitriol in children’s faces. And men who love a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.

I read this and thought “Yes! That's it exactly.”

But in spite of these defects, as I see it, 1984 was still a great story and is a cautionary tale, I think. Surely the best things about it were the main themes and all the wonderful, clever neologisms, so many of which are sometimes used for the purposes of criticising negative aspects of our own time.

Here is a rather handy Newspeak dictionary. I'm not sure I would recommend it for those who have not yet read the book, but it's great to refresh one's memory. I have often thought of Facebook (which I still enjoy) as being my “Prolefeed.” Now that I think about it, FB can be quite a good venue for the Two Minute Hate. Other wonderful expressions I've enjoyed using or seeing in articles are newspeak, thoughtcrime, facecrime, doubleplus ungood, and memory hole. I should probably bring “bellyfeel” (for “full emotional understanding” and “blind, enthusiastic acceptance of a concept.”) into my vocabulary.

Themes include perpetual war, control of history by lies, extreme control of language and thought by the imposition of newspeak, total lack of privacy, extreme nationalism, and effective eradication of the individual. Like most – or all – dystopias, the family is under severe attack. In this novel, the family is under attack in that children are encouraged to report their parents for any “crimes” they commit and sex is only permitted for the procreation of children for the State.

The fact that torture, conducted in Room 101, is performed at the Ministry of Love (MiniLuv) is an excellent example of something Orwellian:

an adjective describing the situation, idea, or societal condition that  George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It denotes an attitude and a brutal policy of draconian control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past.



If You Read Nothing Else By Orwell, Please Read This

The Orwell work I really can't live without is his wonderful essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

It begins:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes. (my emphasis)

I think the opening paragraph just about says it all. He is confining himself to the use of English in non-fiction, of course. The homeschooling mother who runs our children's debating club recently said that language is a precious gift and we must use it rather than letting it use us. That struck me forcibly and renewed my commitment to do all I can to keep my own writing to the highest level I can and to do all I can to improve it. I can choose to use the language well and shape it for my own purposes, which ideally, will be in line with God's purposes.

This essay is one of the few things I really want all my children to read and absorb (apart from the small piece of anti-Catholicism in the section on “Meaningless Words.”)

His rules for clear writing are as follows:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This bit on the not un- formation has almost cured me of the habit: “...and it should also be possible to laugh the not un- formation out of existence ...One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” 

More gems:

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind (my emphasis). One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs. 

This essay is the greatest reason for my admiration of Orwell's work. I hope my little article does some justice to his talent and industry. As a little sober reminder of the fragility of our earthly life, George Orwell died in 1949 at the same age as me, 46. God be praised for the gifts He gives to us!

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

52 Authors: Week 49 - Thomas Merton

Week 49-Merton-Robert Gotcher_html_10d39667

This is the condition of my copy of No Man is an Island.

If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn (New Seeds of Contemplation, 105).

I wanted to write about Merton at this time because December 10th is the anniversary of his death in 1968 in Bankok and the anniversary of his entry into the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, in Kentucky, in 1941. This year is also the one hundredth anniversary of his birth in France during World War I “under the sign of the Water Bearer,” as he says in The Seven Storey Mountain (p. 3).

I am indebted to Merton for guiding me during the infancy of my new-found enthusiasm for the Catholic faith my senior year in college. The three big influences in that formative time were St. Bonaventure, Bl. John Henry Newman, and Merton. I am especially attracted to his writings on prayer, contemplation, and spirituality and to his early journals. I’m not so much interested in his poetry, his social commentary, or his exploration of eastern religions. With Bishop Barron I can say, “For many people of my generation, Merton opened the door to the wealth of the Catholic spiritual tradition” (Barron)

Merton was a spiritual writer, a monastic reformer, a social critic, a poet and novelist. He was a prolific writer, not only writing dozens of books, but volumes and volumes of letters and private and public journals, all of which have now been published. Merton was also a controversial figure for reasons that I will address further on. His best writing was in the form of journals and letters. He specialized in short, pithy reflections of one or two paragraphs, or even a page or two that are loosely ordered into topical chapters. His journals read like a blog, especially ones that are “topical,” like Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. His attempts at a full-length technical treatise on one subject, such as Ascent to Truth, or his history of the Cistercian Order (The Waters of Siloe) are less satisfying. Ascent was insightful, but it seems a bit strained and drawn out. He is better as a journalist in the root sense of the word. The avant-garde poetry stuff does nothing for me, but that’s my problem, not his.

One is impressed with the “enormous range of his reading and intellectual interests” (Barron). A quick scan of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander produces the following partial list of those he refers to or cites: Kabir, Traherne, Barth, St. John Perse, Mark Van Doren, Carrero Andrada, Ernesto Cardinal, Alfonso Reyes, Diodochus of Photike, Marcel, Ghandi, Chuang Tzu, Von Hūgel, Marx, Newman, Fénelon, A.K. Coomaraswamy, Gilson, Dalai Lama, Jean Giono, Mounier, St. John Chrysostom, Meister, Eckhart, Camus, Bonhoeffer, Brecht, Berdyaev, Einstein, A. Mirgeler, Auden, Aqinas, Lewis Mumford, Milosz, Satre, Malraux, Orwell, Julian Green, Louis Massignon, Vinoba Bhave, St. John of the Cross, Bernanos, Origen, Dawson, Confucius, Pieper, Ibn al’ Arabi, Tavard, Lanza del Vasto, Cassiodorus, John Wu, Heidegger, Rumi, Jacques Ellul, Maritain, Rose MacCauley, D.T. Suzuki, St. Hilary of Arles, Thoreau, Jung, Daniel Berrigan, Bl. John XXIII, Nicholas of Cusa, Hannah Arendt, Heisenberg, Guardini, J.A.T. Robinson, St. Anselm, Zoē Oldenbourg, A.M. Allchin, Paul Evdokimov,

He is deeply grounded in the Church Fathers and Doctors, especially Berrnard of Clairvaux and St. John of the Cross. His is a monastic, symbolic theology, rather than dialectic, which has much in common with that of, say, de Lubac and the other ressourcement writers. His writing was always grounded in orthodox Trinitarian theology, Chalcedon Christology, and solid Pneumatology:

Finally, mystical contemplation comes to us, like every other grace, through Christ. Contemplation is the fullness of the Christ-life in the soul, and it consists above all in the supernatural penetration of the mysteries of Christ. This work is performed in us by the Holy Ghost substantially Present in our soul by grace, along with the other two Divine Persons. The highest peak of contemplation is a mystical union with God in which the soul and its faculties are said to be “transformed” in God, and enter into a full conscious participation in the hidden life of the Trinity of Persons in Unity of Nature” (Ascent to Truth, 13).

His writing was often peppered with a “playful and ironic sense of humor” (Barron).

The Red Cross came for blood, and Brother C--—, one of the novices, was very happy because he was the one to give the first pint. I was happy because he was happy. I don’t know what pint I gave, but I felt lighter after it. On the way in they told me, for the first time, that I had high blood pressure and called the doctor (one of the monks) to check it. I forget the adverb he used for how high it was and was not. Anyway, not that high. And my pulse was fast, but not that fast. You know how high that is, and how fast that is (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 223).

Sometimes, however, he can slip into a more ascerbic, almost self-righteous tone.

Merton’s writings can be divided into two phases. The first phase was one in which he was primarily exploring the depth of the Catholic spiritual tradition. He embraced the contemptus mundi of the monastic tradition. He had a strong sense that he had made a radical change (or God had made a radical change in him) that set him apart and led him to reject much of what he saw in the world:

Most of the world is either asleep or dead. The religious people are, for the most part, asleep. The irreligious are dead. Those who are asleep are divided into two classes, like the Virgins in the parable, waiting for the Bridegroom’s coming. The wise have oil in their lamps. That is to say they are detached from themselves and from the cares of the world, and they are full of charity. They are indeed waiting for the Bridegroom, and they desire nothing else, but His coming, even though they may fall asleep while waiting for Him to appear. But the others are not only asleep: they are full of other dreams and other desires. Their lamps are empty because they have burned themselves out in the wisdom of the flesh and in their own vanity. When He comes, it is too late for them to buy oil. They light their lamps only after He has gone. So they fall alseep again, with useless lamps, and when they wake up they trim them to investigate, once again, the matters of a dying World.” (No Man is an Island, 44)

The second phase was marked by a positive, but highly critical turn to the world and a turn to the Eastern Religions for dialogue. The turning point seems to have been an experience he had in 1958 during a visit to Louisville.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time” (Conjectures, 140).

This is a beautiful passage with deep spiritual insight. I can believe that it was liberating for him. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether the experience didn’t take him in the direction of a somewhat uncritical openness to the world, including a hermit life that borrowed more from the bohemians than from the desert fathers, that somewhat lost its moorings in the Catholic spiritual tradition. Nonetheless, I never saw any evidence that he lost his grounding in Dogmatic Catholicism, even if he would wax eloquently about Buddhism and use that vocabulary.

I favor the writing in the first period because his interests at that time more closely corresponded to mine. I’m not so interested in dialogue with Buddhism, since I find ample material for spiritual growth within the Catholic tradition, the depth which I have only begun to plumb. I find his social commentary to often be somewhat simplistic, such as when he tries to describe the difference between conservatives and progressives in American Politics:

The conservative position retains a certain element of traditional contemptum mundi. We keep up our cohesion and morale by fulminating against certain typical issues~—especially lax sexual morals, birth control, divorce, pornography, which are not only obvious but also typological—that embody in themselves all that we mean by “the world” and “sin.” (Here we tend to forget that they typify the “flesh” rather than “the World.” The world, in the triad world-flesh-devil, represents greed for wealth and prestige, and this is seldom attacked. As a matter of fact, it is precisely here that, having “satisfied” the Christian conscience by anathemas directed at the flesh, we can come to terms with the world which, let us admit it, offers us a prestige which we believe to be essential for the dissemination of the Gospel. The message of the priest who drives an Oldsmobile is surely more credible than that of one who rides in the bus!)

The liberal attitude, on the other hand, makes a different choice of symbols. Less exercised on the problems of the flesh, it concerns itself more with symbolic social issues, and having taken an edifying stand (somewhat late) in questions of civil rights (in the United States) or labor (Europe) it explicitly declares that the Church has much to learn from “the World” in these matters, and that the insights of the most modern and advanced social thought are more relevant to Christianity than the platitudes of a theology that has still not caught up with the twentieth century.

For the liberal, the message of the Church will become credible to the modern world if the priest is seen on the assembly line—or if he is arrested in a sit-in. There is no question that this position is somewhat more relevant to the times and implies a more real sense of man’s need than the position of those who reduce contemptus mundi to anti-Communism and the readiness to shower Russia with H-bombs in the name of Christ. But does the ancient, ascetic idea of renunciation of the world have no meaning at all in the present context? (Conjectures, 35-6)

I get and agree with the point, but I think he oversimplifies, for instance, the distinction between the flesh, the world, and the devil, which are often found intertwined with each other. I also don’t think people are as cut and dried in one camp or the other as he and many pundits seem to think. I know I’m not.

His social doctrine, however, is not Pelagian. He is quite aware that no social progress can happen unless persons are interiorly transformed by grace:

If the salvation of society depends, in the long run, on the moral and spiritual health of individuals, the subject of contemplation becomes a vastly important one, since contemplation is one of the indications of spiritual maturity. It is closely allied to sanctity. You cannot save the world merely with a system. You cannot have peace without charity. You cannot have order without saints (Ascent to Truth, 8).

This is an early text, but he said much the same kind of thing in even his latest writings.

He frequently described life in the monastery, which at that time had a very archaic form, with lots of Latin and strange clothing and odd practices, such as “the discipline.” For a romantic like me these little snippets were like little bits of praline which I relished when I read them, making me long for that kind of life. This way life would be soon swept away, and to no little extent because of the influence of Merton. When I visited Gethsemane in the early 1980s I was deeply disappointed.

His spiritual reflections can be quite poetic:

God’s will is a profound and holy mystery, and the fact that we live our everyday lives engulfed in this mystery should not lead us to underestimate its holiness. We dwell in the will of God as in a sanctuary. His will is the cloud of darkness that surrounds His immediate presence. It is the mystery in which His divine life and our created life be- come “one spirit,” since, as St. Paul says, “Those who are joined to the Lord are one spirit” (I Corinthians 6:17). (No Man is an Island, 52)

He is clear that the authentic Christian life is not a matter of conformity to abstract principles, but to a Person:

If, in trying to do the will of God, we always seek the highest abstract standard of perfection, we show that there is still much we need to learn about the will of God. For God does not demand that every man attain to what is theoretically highest and best….The dying thief had, perhaps, disobeyed the will of God in many things: but in the most important event of his life He listened and obeyed. The Pharisees had kept the law to the letter and had spent their lives in the pursuit of a most scrupulous perfection. But they were so intent upon perfection as an abstraction that when God manifested His will and His perfection in a concrete and definite way they had no choice but to reject it. (No Man is an Island, 67)

Merton’s life is surrounded with controversy. People were so uneasy that the USCCB had to withdraw an essay about him in the United States Catechism for Adults that they produced in 2005. Two factors contribute to the unease some people have with him, his moral failings and his dialogue with the East.

First, late in his life he had a seemingly platonic love affair with a student nurse he met in Louisville. For many this was a clear sign that Merton’s grounding in the Catholic spiritual tradition may have been more intellectual than personal. Others, such as Bp. Barron and Ralph McInerny, were more willing to see the episode as a successfully negotiated temptation in a very confusing time in the Church. McInerny said:

Frankly I was shocked when I read of this faltering, but on reflection I have come to think that it is an essential element in Merton’s influence. We lay people are wont to place impossible demands on the clergy and religious, as if they were already in patria rather than in via with the rest of us. There is something pharisaical in our surprise that even those who have given their lives in the quest of perfection often fall short. (McInerny)

I’m not quite as sanguine as Bp. Barron and Dr. McInerny, but I have not found that the incident has interfered with my benefiting from Merton’s very profound spiritual teachings.

The other area of controversy is his dialogue with Eastern religions. Some seemed to think that he had begun to drift into syncretism or would have become a Buddhist had he not died while on a trip to the Far East. I didn’t see any evidence of this in even his later writings. His thought does not seem to have become as problematic as, say, that of Bede Griffiths, the Benedictine monk who started an ashram in India. It does not bother me, for instance, for a person to use vocabulary from Hinduism or Buddhism to help explain their own Catholic spiritual life, so long as it is done intelligently and cognizant of the real differences between the traditions. On the other hand, perhaps his dialogue was not as careful as it might have been. A friend of mine, who is an expert on Catholic-Buddhist dialogue, tells me that the Zen that Merton was in dialogue with, that of D.T. Suzuki, was an outlier. His particular emphasis on the non-rational and on emptiness is not necessarily a part of mainstream Zen.

The ultimate question for many, though, was whether he remained orthodox to the end. A good example of the critic can be found in Anthony Clark’s essay, “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?

One of his most famous texts is a prayer that has sustained many. It bears a resemblance Lead Kindly Light of Bl. John Henry Newman:

My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thoughts in Solitude, 79)

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

52 Authors: Week 48 - Mary Renault

Although Mary Renault was not a trained historian, she is best known for her historical and mythic-historical novels set in ancient Greece. I won't say much about the mythic-historical novels, which read like historical novels but are distinguished by the presence of characters from Greek mythology. They feature clever inventions that satisfy both naturalistic storytelling and the myths that have come down to us. For instance, Minos is the title of the Cretan king and he wears a mask shaped like a bull's head; the labyrinth where Theseus kills him is the underground warren where captives are trained to dance with bulls. In these books, Renault indulges in some Christian prefiguring. There is much discussion of the need for the king to go willingly to be sacrificed for the sake of his people. There's a boy from "the back hills beyond Jericho," whose people are so simple that their god has no sons, and they think he is concerned only with them. Otherwise, these books are interesting for the same reasons as the straight historical novels.

Paul will wince at this: when my husband was a graduate student in philosophy, Renault's historical novels were recommended to him as a way to get a sense of the world in which the Greek philosophers lived. That is indeed the best aspect of Renault's work, to my mind. The historical accuracy is almost irrelevant, because what's really fascinating is the vividness with which she conveys certain aspects of ancient Greek life and the techniques she uses to accomplish that.

Her foundational virtue is that her characters clearly share our human nature, while having vastly different priorities and motivations from ours. Like us, they consider what their actions say about them; but instead of caring about whether they are being kind, for instance, they care whether they are acting nobly and in keeping with their station. Like us, they care about religion to varying degrees: some of them participate in rituals more for social than for devotional reasons and some of them pray fervently. But their prayers include blood sacrifices to gods whom they claim as their progenitors, and their petitions may be for dynastic vengeance.

Here's one of my favorite examples. In the contests for control of Alexander's empire after his death, Alexander's mother Olympias captures Alexander's cousin Eurydike and has her husband butchered before her eyes. Murder in the pursuit of ambition is recognizable to us, but we don't send messengers who say to our captive foes, "Eurydike, daughter of Amyntas. I act under command, do you therefore hold me guiltless before the gods.... Because you were born of royal blood, ... [Olympias, Queen of the Macedonians,] gives you leave to end your own life, and offers you a choice of means." Eurydike chooses hanging, but first makes the guard wait while she composes her husband's body. We recognize, as something we could share, Eurydike's loyalty to her husband and the familial loyalty that originally drove her to join the blood feud. But we would not seek to pursue such a feud as she does, stretching out her hands over the bloody earth and mangled corpse and crying out, "Witness, you gods below, that I received these gifts from Olympias. I call upon you, by the waters of Styx, and by the power of Hades, and by this blood, to give her in her turn such gifts as these."

In keeping with the genre, most of the historical novels have a first-person narrator who's a spectator to or a secondary actor in the historical events. The presumed audience are the narrator's contemporaries, which means that familiar events and customs are referred to without explanation. For the reader this device can lead to confusion at first (What's a hetaira?), but eventually it makes for a more immersive experience. The Last of the Wine opens with these words:

When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.

You will say that there is nothing out of the way in this.

It goes on to detail the circumstances of war and plague through which the narrator was given to a wet-nurse (instead of being exposed as his father had ordered) and that killed his mother, brother, and uncle. When the father returns from the war, he decides to bring the boy up after all.

He had been, I believe, fond of my mother; I daresay too he called to mind the uncertainty of life, and thought it less disgraceful to leave even me behind him, than to perish without offspring as if he had never been.

The Greek world is also conveyed through encounters with other cultures. This is, naturally, an important theme in the books about Alexander the Great, especially The Persian Boy. Bagoas, the boy of the title, is a slave in King Darius's household when the time comes to march against Alexander. "We started in a week. It was without precedent, for the Household to move so fast. The Palace was in an uproar...." Later, having been given as a present to Alexander, he sees the Greeks set off: "We moved camp soon after. The speed of it amazed me. When the trumpet sounded, everyone seemed to know his task without orders.... We were on the march, an hour before Darius would have been wakened."

If he's awed by Greek military efficiency, Bagoas is scandalized by the informality of Alexander's court. Alexander's companions address him by name and even contradict him. Sent to carry a message, Bagoas finds Alexander playing ball with his friends—and they're all naked! "It is something, I thought, when a king can put a courtesan to the blush." Alexander visits the sick tent, gets blood and pus on his clothes, picks up a stool with his own hand, and lets a man undergoing surgery clutch at him for support--"the sacred person of a king!"

Renault loves heroes, and her Alexander is a hero through and through. From his boyhood, he is marked out by his radiant good looks, his athleticism, his delicacy of feeling, and his intelligence. He epitomizes Greek excellence, in contrast both to the effete Persians and to his coarse Macedonian forbears. In Fire from Heaven, Philip of Macedon receives a deputation from Athens that includes the great orator Demosthenes. Early in the morning, Demosthenes unwittingly meets the boy Alexander and insults him. When Philip later learns of this, he asks, "Why didn't you tell me?" But Alexander has meanwhile devised a humiliation, a much neater revenge than anything Philip could exact on a diplomat: he revealed his identity just as Demosthenes began his oration, thereby frightening him so much that he became completely unable to speak.

Enthusiastic as I am about Renault, there is one area about which I am somewhat suspicious. Probably not coincidentally, it's the area about which she has been accused of writing with an agenda. Renault lived most of her adult life in South Africa, where her long-term relationship wth another woman was more tolerated than in her native UK, and almost all her books feature a homosexual relationship that is everything relationships are supposed to be: close, affectionate, long-lasting, faithful, mutually respectful, etc., etc. Family life, on the other hand, gets short shrift. I think The Last of the Wine is the only book that includes any normal domestic scenes of a husband, wife, and child. Well-developed female characters are rare; those that exist are mostly unpleasant and their actions are almost all driven by political ambition.

My personal favorite of her books is The Mask of Apollo. The narrator being an actor, we get lots of backstage views of Greek theater. He's a sympathetic character and truly pious in his devotion to Apollo. Perhaps I also like it because I'm completely ignorant of the political background (the attempts to rule Syracuse under Plato's influence) and don't feel the need to worry about whether it's accurate.


--Anne-Marie is a math tutor and homeschooling mother who lives just outside Washington, DC.

52 Authors: Week 47 - Walker Percy

I've read all of Walker Percy's books, some of them two or three times, with the exception of the non-fiction Message in the Bottle. (I consciously chose not to read it because I was under the impression that it was a fairly technical piece of philosophy and linguistic theory, but I've been told that I'm mistaken about that and should read it.) But it's been quite a few years since I read most of them. The most recent was Love in the Ruins, and that was ten years or so back. So what follows represents views formed ten to thirty-five years ago. I'm just going to list the books in order of publication, with a brief opinion.

First, a very quick biographical note on Percy, because his life is more directly and obviously relevant to his work than is sometimes the case. You can't read more than one of his novels without surmising that his main character is pretty similar from book to book and is most likely pretty similar to the author as well. Moreover, the novels are, as Percy himself said, novels of ideas, and the ideas are also connected to his life in a very straightforward way.

So: he was born in 1916, to an affluent family in an affluent suburb of Birmingham (Alabama). When he was thirteen, his father committed suicide, as had his father before him. When he was fifteen, his mother was killed in an automobile accident that may have been suicide. Thereafter he and his two brothers were raised by "Uncle Will," William Alexander Percy, actually a second cousin, a Southern aristocrat with significant literary talents and interests. Walker Percy went to medical school at Columbia, graduating in 1941. Not surprisingly, he had psychological troubles, and undertook psychotherapy around this time. In 1942 (I think) he contracted tuberculosis while working in a hospital. He spent several years recovering, during which time he did a great deal of reading and thinking.

In 1946 he married. In 1947 he and his wife ("Bunt"--very Southern) were received into the Catholic Church. He never got around to practicing medicine--family money, I suppose--but began writing, and in 1961 published his first novel, The Moviegoer. He published more books over the next thirty years and died in 1991.

One more thing before I look at the novels: Percy's scope is limited, and the Percy Protagonist (henceforth PP) is fundamentally consistent throughout the six novels. He is an upper-class Southerner in comfortable material circumstances but in psychological difficulties, sometimes quite serious. He feels himself disconnected and disoriented in the world, unable to participate in it as other people seem to do, finding himself miserably at sea in everyday life but exhilarated at times of crisis: he often feels bad when he should feel good, and feels good when he should feel bad. And he's trying to figure out what's wrong with the world, and what's wrong with him, all the while observing both carefully with a dry and whimsical humor, and a very sharp eye for the physical detail, not to mention for southern culture and manners. 

The Moviegoer (1961) won the National Book Award. The PP here is Binx Bolling, a New Orleans stockbroker, fairly young and single.

The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

The movies are more real to him than real life, but this is not the simple case of escapism that you might suppose. It's not that his life is miserable, and so he prefers fantasy to reality--his life is entirely pleasant--or that he's delusional and can't tell the difference--he is all too well aware of the difference. It's that reality and movies have swapped ontological status. The supposed actual has been emptied of its actuality, which is now possessed by the movies. 

I consider The Moviegoer to be Percy's best novel in purely literary terms. It's not necessarily my personal favorite, but it is a beautifully polished gem.

The Last Gentleman appeared in 1964. It's a much longer and more rambling book than The Moviegoer. The PP is Will Barrett, and he's considerably more messed up than Binx Bolling. 

He began to get things backward. He felt bad when other people felt good and good when they felt bad. Take an ordinary day in New York. The sun is shining, people live well, go about satisfying their needs and achieving goals, work at creative jobs, attend cultural attractions, participate in interesting groups. This is, by every calculation, as it should be. Yet it was on just such a day as this, an ordinary Wednesday or Thursday, that he felt the deepest foreboding. And when his doctor, seeking to reassure him, suggested that in these perilous times a man might well be entitled to such a feeling, that only the insensitive did not, etc., it made him feel worse than ever. The analyst had got it all wrong. It was not the prospect of the Last Day which depressed him but rather the prospect of living through an ordinary Wednesday morning.

He is a southerner living in solitary exile in New York City. Having worked for a while as a "maintenance engineer" running the heating and air-conditioning equipment at Macy's, he is, from the point early in the narrative where this fact is revealed, referred to as "the engineer." I seem to remember that there is some explanation for this, that it's an ironic way of describing his effort to assemble the pieces of his personality and the world around him. Or perhaps that's something a critic said. At any rate, it seems applicable.

It is a strange wandering story which, to tell the truth, I could not begin to reconstruct. It opens with Will at the eyepiece of a telescope through which he hopes to spot a peregrine falcon, but which instead brings into his vision a girl named Kitty. Kitty is also a southerner, and the engineer gets very involved with her and her family, the Vaughts: Sutter, a sort of nihilist who wants to kill himself; Val, a nun; Jamie, the youngest, who is dying. As you might imagine from that setup, the theological and philosophical stuff gets fairly thick, and the engineer ends up in Birmingham dealing with the entire Vaught family at Jamie's deathbed. 

I've often named Love in the Ruins (1970) as my personal favorite of Percy's novels. As a novel it isn't the best, but it's certainly a lot of fun. Subtitled "The Adventures of a Bad Catholic At a Time Near the End of the World", it could perhaps technically be classified as science fiction. It is very much a novel of the 1960s, dealing with all sorts of topical matters: liberal vs conservative politics, race relations, sexual liberation, hippies. The PP is Dr. Thomas More, a Louisiana physician whose wife, now deceased, had taken up spiritual chicanery of the sort that would soon be called New Age-ism. He has invented a device called the ontological lapsometer, which measures how far a person has fallen (from grace?). Unfortunately he goes a step further and gives the device the capability of remedying that fall by tweaking the chemistry of the brain. The story which follows is preposterous but very entertaining, involving the intrusion of the, or perhaps just a, devil, who is very interested in promoting the wide distribution of the lapsometer. A motif which I believe is mentioned in the earlier books comes to the forefront here: the longing of a middle-aged man to escape the dreariness and decay of middle-class life and, with a younger woman, start not just a new life but a new society. (Yes, the recurrence of this motif does cause one to worry a bit for Percy.)

The first three novels are, in my opinion, his best. The remaining ones show a definite falling-off, though they're still very much worth reading if you like Percy, and to my taste much more worth reading that most fiction of our time.

Lancelot (1977) is a very dark book. The PP, the Lancelot of the title, is in prison, and for good reason. The first-person narrative is addressed to a priest who visits him in his cell. Lancelot is angry, disgusted by the emptiness and moral squalor of the modern world--if my memory is correct, there is some pretty effective satire of the combination of moral pretension and corruption which were making the entertainment industry so loathsome by the 1970s. 

The Second Coming (1980) brings back Will Barrett, now twenty years older. He did not marry Kitty, nor did he join the Vaught family's Chevrolet dealership in Birmingham. He married a New York Episcopalian, became a corporate lawyer and made a lot of money, led a normal life, but is beginning to come apart again. His father, like Percy's, committed suicide, and this book deals with that trauma in a painfully direct way. His wife is, like Thomas More's, now dead--conveniently for the younger woman/new world dream--and Kitty has re-entered his life. But middle-aged Kitty is a somewhat crass woman, and it's not she but her schizophrenic daughter Allie for whom Barrett falls. The climax of the book is an elaborate plan set up by Barrett to force God to prove his existence. Leafing through the book now, I wonder if it might be better than I originally thought. But I also notice that it is, as I recalled, more harsh and crude than the first three. I doubt that I'm going to change my view that it isn't quite up to them, but I do want to re-read it.

Lost In the Cosmos (1983) is a delight and a triumph. Subtitled "The Last Self-Help Book", it's not a novel, but a unique mix of psychology, humor, philosophy, theology, and narrative. It is unfortunately not practical for me to reproduce as much of it here as I would like to in order to communicate to you the combination of amusement and enlightenment to be found here. I'll give you a bit of the opening.



The Strange Case of the Self, your self, the Ghost which Haunts the Cosmos


How you can survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians


Why it is that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos--novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes--you are beyond doubt the strangest


Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you've been stuck with yourself all your life...

Most of the book consists of a

Twenty-Question Multiple-Choice Self-Help Quiz to test your knowledge of the peculiar status of the self, your self and other selves, in the Cosmos, and your knowledge of what to do with your self in these, the last years of the twentieth century.

The twenty questions each constitute a chapter of the book, and to communicate the outrageous humor and acuity of these questions would require typing in the entire chapter. But each one begins with a statement of the general ground covered by the question, and here is one:

(9) The Envious Self (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self--though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill--in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces

There is also an "intermezzo of some forty pages" about halfway through, and these are among the most important forty pages in Percy's work. They lay out in a way that the average reader can understand "an elementary semiotical grounding of the theory of self taken for granted in these pages." It is the answer, or at least a crucial component of the answer, to the question "What is Percy driving at, really?" that plagues the reader of the novels. If someone who had never read Percy at all asked my advice, I would say "First get Lost in the Cosmos and read the semiotic primer that lies between chapters 12 and 13. Then take your pick of The MoviegoerThe Last Gentleman, and Love in the Ruins."

 The Thanatos Syndrome (1987) was Percy's last novel. I have to say that I don't remember it very well. I may like it better than The Second Coming, but I'd have to read both again to be sure. If my very general memory is correct, it's different from all the other novels except Love in the Ruins in being about more than the psychology of one man. Both are more external, more social stories, with a stronger component of social commentary--not that it's absent from any of them, but it's more in the foreground in those two. And the PP is the same in both. In Thanatos, Dr. Thomas More returns. He has settled down and married Ellen, one of his three girlfriends in Love in the Ruins. He practices medicine in a reasonably conventional manner (apart from a short prison term, I think for selling prescription drugs illicitly) in a small Louisiana town. He discovers that something sinister is going on. Someone is tampering with the water supply, with the purpose of chemically shutting down those troublesome elements of the human psyche that cause envy, depression, anxiety, reckless love affairs, wars, and all the rest of it. There's actually an element of mystery story here, even a touch of thriller. 

Signposts in a Strange Land (199) is a collection of short non-fiction pieces published over a period of 35 years or more. They're a mixed bag, but while I wouldn't say the book is essential reading for those who are not devotees of the author, many of them are worth reading anyway. And Percy enthusiasts most definitely shouldn't miss them.

To tell you the truth, writing this post has been, is, a frustrating experience. There is just far too much to be said in too little space and too little time. I have about 2500 words already, and I can think of a dozen more points that should be made. And although I've covered all of Percy's fiction I haven't really given you a very good idea of what it's like. I haven't communicated the sheer pleasure of reading him at his best. So I'm going to close by turning the lectern over to Percy. Here is the opening of Love in the Ruins:

In a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate cloverleaf

5 P.M. / July 4

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happend at last?

Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won't and I'm crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.

Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.

Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.lS.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

It is still hot as midafternoon. The sky is a clear rinsed cobalt after the rain. Wet pine growth reflects the sunlight like steel knitting needles. The grove steams and smells of turpentine. Far away the thunderhead, traveling fast, humps over on the horizon like a troll. Directly above, a hawk balances on a column of air rising from the concrete geometry of the cloverleaf. Not a breath stirs.

 If that doesn't make you want to read on, I don't know what's wrong with you.


--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Authors: Week 46 - Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy_html_363b1ede

Christopher Plummer as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station

I am not a Tolstoy expert, but I sometimes play one in my personal life. But really… I have only read War and Peace once, Anna Karenina 2.5 times, and The Death of Ivan Ilych (once also); and that’s it. At the time I read War and Peace, around seven or so years ago, I felt like it changed my life. That is too broad a statement – perhaps (and more likely) it changed the way I look at the world, and literature, and writing in general. Teen-agers sometimes read big books and they’re proud. When I was in high school I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and I suppose I thought I was something. Yeah, you may have slogged your way through The Stand by Stephen King, but try a little Ayn Rand on for size! Or don’t, really, there’s no reason to. I think young people these days, or maybe days several years back now … might feel that way about Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. A big book about something, ideas maybe? You haul it around and impress people with its girth.

War and Peace is the real thing. Back immediately upon finishing it, when I strutted around the Spring Hill College campus (to Mac’s office among other places), I probably made grandiose statements like “all of life can be found in War and Peace”. As annoying as it is for someone to show up to your office and say this, it is true. Tolstoy takes the Napoleonic Wars as his centerpiece and displays Russian society, as much as he can tell you about them, while the French army marches towards Moscow. Upper-class Russians at this time are very French in their behavior, language, mannerisms … they want to try to be European. Moscow is so far from everything, it seems just barely part of Europe. The first sections of the novel are full of characters speaking to each other in French and in English. Oh, well, I suppose it is French and Russian, but in my volumes there are no Cyrillic characters. As the novel progresses you see less and less French, for obvious reasons.

This brings me to one of my favorite subjects – which translator of Russian literature is your favorite? There are of course the old standards: Constance Garnett (she met Tolstoy once), and Louise and Aylmer Maude (they knew Tolstoy!). Of the new ones, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are currently all the rage. The War and Peace I read is the Penguin edition translated by Anthony Briggs. Ever loyal, I had first begun Garnett’s version because I had found her Anna Karenina to be quite nice. Sadly, I had to give up after a few hundred pages and go elsewhere. In one of the many magazine internet articles I have read on the subject of Russian Literature in Translation I learned that Garnett translated War and Peace very late in her life when she had pretty much gone blind, having the Russian read to her and then reciting it back to her clerks/transcribers in English. It does not read as nicely as many of her other translations do. If you go with Pevear/Volokhonsky, be advised that they decided to leave in all the previously mentioned French, with the English translation on the same page below the text of the novel. I do own this edition (see picture) and plan to read it at some point in the future; but this does make slow going (unless you can read French). I found Briggs to be fine, easy reading; complaints about him tend towards Russian soldiers speaking in cockney – I did not notice. I have this (probably) ill-informed, and (certainly) non-scholarly opinion that Tolstoy is such a great writer that the translator does not matter. Whereas Dostoyevsky (for example) had a way of writing that is very different, and certain translators just don’t seem to be able to effectively express his prose in English.

Pierre, the main character, has a conversation with a Freemason about his lack of belief:

“He [editor: “God”] is not apprehended by reason, but by life,” said the Mason.

“I don’t understand,” said Pierre, fearfully sensing doubt arising in him. He feared the vagueness and weakness of his interlocutor’s arguments, he feared not believing him. “I don’t understand,” he said, “how is it that human reason cannot apprehend the knowledge you speak of?”

The Mason smiled his meek, fatherly smile.

“The highest wisdom and truth is like the most pure liquid, which we want to receive into ourselves,” he said. “Can I receive this pure liquid in an impure vessel and then judge its purity? Only by purifying myself inwardly can I keep the liquid I receive pure to some degree.”

“Yes, yes, that’s so!” Pierre said joyfully.

“The supreme wisdom is based not on reason alone, not on the secular sciences of physics, history, chemistry, and so on, into which rational knowledge is divided. The higher knowledge has one science – the science of the all, the science that explains the whole universe and the place man occupies in it. To contain this science, it is necessary to purify and renew one’s inner man, and thus before one can know, one must believe and perfect oneself. And to achieve that, a divine light, called conscience, has been put in our soul.”

“Yes, yes,” Pierre agreed.

This is just one little part I found that I love so. There is so much in War and Peace; so much that is quotable. Napoleon is a character! Pierre is in a duel! There is dancing, and singing, and travelling, and drunkenness. All of life. A scene that I am unable to find has a family ready to leave for a trip. Before doing so they all stop and sit in the front room together. Is this a Russian custom before travelling? One of many incidental moments in the novel that I loved.

Anna Karenina is different. Tolstoy said that Anna Karenina was a novel, while War and Peace was not. The latter is certainly a historical novel, and the former a novel more contemporary to the period in which Tolstoy wrote. Anna Karenina is about adultery, families, love, men and women. But of course there is so much more. Re-reading the novel recently I was struck by how sympathetic these adulterers are: Anna – lovely, loving, stuck in a loveless marriage; and Stiva (her brother) – a happy man, whose good nature is catching to all around him. His is the unhappy family described in the first sentence; but of course that first sentence is about more than him and Dolly and the governess. They are sympathetic in a way in which Emma Bovary is decidedly not. Gustave Flaubert is not wishing to express the same love for his characters as Tolstoy displays here.

Stiva and Dolly’s story is almost comic-relief for the plot of Anna Karenina, though melancholy for Dolly who must come to terms with the fact that her husband will always be a charming philanderer. More intense are the stories of the other couples: the love triangle of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky (both men are named Alexie); and the story of Kitty and Levin. Kitty is initially fascinated with Vronsky, but later realizes Levin is the one for her.

Alongside all of this Harlequin Romance soap-opera drama resides the fabric of life in Moscow, and in St. Petersburg. There is the question of the serfs, and whether or not they should have more rights. There is life in the country as opposed to life in the city, and which is more worthwhile for your soul. There are upper-class people, and those who are not; intellectuals, and people who are moved by their emotions instead.

One of the wonderful pastoral passages in Anna Karenina occurs when Levin is back at his farm with the peasants. He has been rejected by Kitty and is scornful of her, of Moscow, of his friend Stiva, of anything that in any way reminds him of the woman he loves. In order to not think about all of this he joins the workers in the field:

He thought nothing and desired nothing other than not to lag behind the peasants and do the best work he could. He heard only the clanging of the scythes and in front of himself saw the erect figure of Titus pulling ahead, the semicircular mown swath, the grass and the blossoms near the blade of his scythe bending in slow waves, and ahead of himself the end, the road, where his rest would come.

Without understanding what it was or where it had come from, in the middle of working he suddenly experienced a pleasant sensation of cold across his hot, sweaty shoulders. He glanced at the sky while they were sharpening the scythes. A low, lumbering cloud ran up and rain came pouring down. Some of the peasants went for their caftans and put them on; others like Levin merely shrugged their shoulders in delight under the pleasant refreshment.

This passage is like something out of Thomas Hardy, except in a more warm and inviting setting.

As mentioned before, Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenina is perfectly fine. As is Rosemary Edmonds’ translation. I have the Pevear/Volokhonsky edition and have read passages in comparison, and theirs seems a little clunky. The other “half” I read was one of the two new (2014) ones, Marian Schwartz; hers reads very nicely as well. Rosamund Bartlett translated the other 2014 edition.

I had intended to read A Confession and Other Religious Writings in preparation for writing this blog post on Leo Tolstoy. I bought it, and it is a slim volume of essays which of course I have not yet read. Tolstoy is noted for his thoughts and writing on non-violence (he is said to have influenced Gandhi), the Gospels, love, morality, and more. I did find one small quote which I will close with:

‘The soul of man is the lamp of God,’ says a wise Jewish proverb. Man is a weak and miserable creature when God’s light is not burning in his soul. But when it burns (and it only burns in souls enlightened by religion), man becomes the most powerful creature in the world. And it cannot be otherwise, for what then works in him is not his own strength, but the strength of God.

This takes us nicely back to the freemason speaking with Pierre.

—Stu Moore inexplicably moved from New Mexico to Mobile, Alabama thirteen years ago. He remains there surrounded by books, which concerns his wife.


52 Authors: Week 45 - Jane Austen

I love reading Jane Austen and have read all her novels, but I wouldn't want to be the subject of her satire! I think I'd be scared to death, if I had ever met her, which thankfully is not possible in this life. I first read Pride and Prejudice when, unaccountably, I checked a book out of the school library. I say unaccountably, because I didn't read very many books until I was in my twenties and those I did read were mostly for school. Until then, Pride and Prejudice had been just a name to me, but I'm glad I read it.

I didn't do anything more about reading the lovely Jane Austen until after I watched the BBC's (Firth/Ehle) Pride and Prejudice in the mid-nineties. I had forgotten almost the whole story by then, but the production was every bit as enjoyable as my first reading had been. The children and I still like to watch it. Within a few years, I had read Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. The last three are not my favourites and Persuasion least of all, I think, but I'm not yet sure why. I think the characters of the first three I named were more appealing to me and perhaps the story-lines too.


I'm not surprised that there are men who don't like reading Austen. It is after all, mostly ladies sitting around in parlours talking, or taking walks in the country-side, talking. Sometimes the ladies “murmur gently” at one another and sometimes they are confiding in each other and at other times they are ridiculing the hero, as yet unknown to them as the hero. When put like this, it's terribly dull stuff, but if I let the author and characters speak for themselves it might create more interest.

Before I do, it came to my attention recently that someone I know of had given up trying to read Austen after trying P&P for the third time and not being able to get into it. If I ever have the chance, I will probably suggest to him that he try Emma and to give the story a good three chapters or so before giving up on it. I once made a couple of attempts at Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, but the third time I skipped to the second chapter and never looked back. Today I make it a rule to read at least a few chapters before giving up on a novel which does not appeal at first.

The introduction to Northanger Abbey is pretty amusing.

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard — and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings — and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on — lived to have six children more — to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any... she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.

Such was Catherine Morland at ten. At fifteen, appearances were mending; she began to curl her hair and long for balls; ...“Catherine grows quite a good–looking girl — she is almost pretty today,” were words which caught her ears now and then; and how welcome were the sounds! To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.

...But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.

This is probably my favourite opening chapter of Austen's. I really wish I could quote the whole chapter, but you can find it here.

Here are some quotes from Emma:

“Better be without sense than misapply it as you do. ” - Mr. Knightley to Emma.

“Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.” - Mr. Knightley to Emma.

“The ladies here probably exchanged looks which meant, 'Men never know when things are dirty or not;' and the gentlemen perhaps thought each to himself, 'Women will have their little nonsense and needless cares.”

“Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton's beginning to talk to him.”

“Miss Bates…had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal goodwill and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body’s happiness and quick-sighted to every body’s merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body and a mine of felicity to herself.” 

“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.” - Emma to Mr. Knightley

The following section (about 1100 words) was written by my daughter, Eilidh, for one of her English assignments. She was required to write a Marxist-Feminist analysis of Emma. I included it because I found it enjoyable, and I am a proud mother and also the concept of a Marxist-Feminist reading of Austen is a hoot! But perhaps don't read on if you haven't yet read Emma, as there might be a bit too much information in it. I'm not sure it really includes spoilers as such. My contribution now over, I do hope someone is inspired to give Jane Austen a try!



Equality and Inequality between Emma’s Romantic Leads: A Marxist-Feminist Analysis

The relationship between Emma and Mr Knightley, in Jane Austen’s Emma, is as endearing to the Marxist-feminist reader as it is to the Austen-loving romantic. The two characters, perhaps unusually for their time, are equal in many respects, such as verbal intelligence and social power. The chief inequality between them is one of morality, and this stems not from gender or material circumstance, but age.

Emma and Mr Knightley's relationship, in general, is one of mutual respect and affection. Knightley is “a very old and intimate friend of the family...the elder brother of Isabella's husband” (Austen, Emma 8). This suggests that he and Emma have a warm, sibling-like relationship. And since he has a “cheerful manner” (9) and she a “happy disposition” (5), it comes as no surprise that they like to tease each other: “Mr Knightley loves to find fault with me you know—in joke—it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another” (9). It is significant that, in a story where conversation is so important, Emma and Knightley have a comfortable, bantering relationship—as is demonstrated, for example, during their first scene together (9-12), the Coles' party (167-8), and when discussing Emma's childhood (362-3). Emma can also hold her own in an argument against Knightley; when they disagree about Harriet (48-53), it is Knightley who gives up (albeit out of anger), and although “she [does] not always feel...entirely convinced that her opinions [are] right” (53), Emma makes a reasonable case for her actions. In verbal intelligence, therefore, Emma and Knightley are equal, and this is emphasised by their sibling-like relationship.

A primary theme in Emma is marriage. Significantly, Emma, unlike the novel’s other female characters, “does not need to marry” (Pinch, Introduction ix). In her own words: “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature” (68). When Emma does marry, it is because her mind has changed, not her circumstances; she marries purely because she wants to. The same can be said of Knightley, who “sacrifice[es] a great deal of independence” (353) in giving up his home for her. Regarding courtship and marriage, then, the power dynamic between the two is, on the whole, equal.

Another important theme is Emma's moral development, which is strongly influenced by her relationship with Mr Knightley. As part of “the town's traditional elite” (Pinch, Introduction xiv), Emma and Knightley have fairly equal material and social power. Knightley is not dependent on his father, but then, Emma's “privileged social position” allows her to view “[t]he hard facts of economic life...with complaisance” (Pinch, Introduction viii). However, unlike Knightley, “Emma uses her wealth and position, her charm and her attractiveness—her real power—to coerce others” (Juhasz, Reading Austen Writing Emma), and “[she] blunders through the novel, misjudging the motives and best interests of one character after another.” (Craig, “The Value of a Good Income”: Money in Emma).

Emma is essentially a spoiled brat, “having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (Austen, Emma 5). Conversely, Knightley is “a sensible man about seven or eight-and-thirty” (8), so he “has the advantage of age, and thus perspective, a perspective both critical and rational, but also empathetic” (Jackson, The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values). This, in addition to their sibling-like relationship, gives Knightley the “privilege” (Austen, Emma 294) to hold Emma accountable for her actions. Knightley is “one of the few people who [can] see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever [tells] her of them” (9-10). While this “privilege” may be “endured rather than allowed” (294), “[Emma has] a sort of habitual respect for [Knightley's] judgement” (52). This is shown when Knightley challenges her behaviour towards Miss Bates (294-5), “which finally forces Emma to acknowledge her own folly and to grow as a human being” (Craig, “The Value of a Good Income”: Money in Emma): Emma deeply regrets having “exposed herself to such ill opinion in [someone] she value[s]” (Austen, Emma 296).

Knightley shows Emma respect by confronting her about her behaviour instead of condemning her behind her back. He “loves the person who is both beautiful and not” (Juhasz, Reading Austen Writing Emma). As he says: “This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,— I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by faithful counsel” (295). And Emma admits that she “was very often influenced rightly by [him]” (363). However, she usually feels free to question his judgement or ignore his advice—regarding Harriet, for example (54)—and although this never turns out well, it shows that she considers him a trusted advisor, but does not permit him to have absolute power over her.

The theme of moral development is linked to that of marriage, as many of Emma’s mistakes revolve around love, marriage, and motivation. Juhasz (Reading Austen Writing Emma) writes:

If Emma began her novel self-absorbed to a fault...thereby abusing [her social power], she needs to be able to use that power responsibly. To do that she needs to be able to feel as well as think, and to let the actuality of others’...subjectivity, affect her, rather than...inventing them as creatures who can do her bidding. Falling in love, for the Emma who says she never will, is precisely an experience of vulnerability to another which will allow for this kind of maturation. It is of course her very own true love who says, “‘I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good’” (41).

So, although Emma and Knightley are equal in many things, they are unequal in moral development—an inequality caused not by gender, or lack of social power on either side, but by age and differing levels of experience. But since it is alleviated by mutual respect, lessened by the end of the novel, and will likely continue to diminish as Emma ages, it is an inequality that is not intrinsic to the relationship, but eradicated by it.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1815. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Craig, Sheryl. “‘The Value of a Good Income’: Money in Emma.” Persuasions On-Line 22.1 (2001): n.pag. Web. 30 August 2015.

Jackson, Karin. “The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Values.” Persuasions On- Line 21.2 (2000): n.pag. Web. 30 August 2015.

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Reading Austen Writing Emma.” Persuasions On-Line 21.1 (2000): n.pag. Web. 30 August 2015.

Pinch, Adela. Introduction. Emma. By Jane Austen. Ed. James Kinsley. Oxford UP, 2008. vii-xxix. Print. Oxford World’s Classics.



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

52 Authors: Week 44 - Rumer Godden

Because it’s timely.

“I always wonder,” said Lise, “why, in Britain and America, we make Hallowe’en into a frightening thing with, for children, ghosts and skulls, witches, spiders and black cats, when it is the eve of one of the most radiant feasts of the year—All Saints, all those men and women who have shone out light and goodness, courage and faith into the world.”

“And All Souls is radiant too,” said Soeur Marguerite—it followed the next day. “For us there is loss, but for the dead, for him or her, it is the culmination, the crown . . . .”

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, Rumer Godden

I first heard of Rumer Godden from my grandmother. She had been reading In This House of Brede and she couldn’t quit talking about it. My grandmother, although Catholic, wasn’t a person who talked a lot about the faith, but she was a serious reader and knew a good novel when she read one. I, being about 19, and not too interested in nuns, didn’t read the book at the time, but I respected my grandmother’s opinion and long ago I came to share it.

I have read many of Rumer Godden’s novels over the past 30 years or so and several of her children’s books. However, before I wrote about them, I wanted to read some of her autobiographies to get some idea of what formed the woman who could write such beautiful and mysterious, and sometimes terrifying fiction. Pretty soon I was completely caught up in Ms. Godden’s own story which is as fascinating as any novel, and so it will be largely about her three autobiographical works that I write.


I chose this picture because Rumer Godden loved Pekingese. She had something over 50 during her life.

In one of the autobiographies, A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep, Ms. Godden writes this:

Indians have a custom of taking ‘darshan’ which means, with a temple, a place, a holy cave or a renowned view such as the sight of the Himalayan snow peaks, Everest or Kanchenjunga, or a notable person--for instance Gandhi or the President--they will travel miles, make pilgrimages simply to take ‘darshan’ of that person or place, not trying to make contact or speak--certainly not taking photographs as we do--but, simply by looking, to let a little of the personality, sainthood, holiness or beauty, come into their souls. They go away, usually without speaking and so keep it for the rest of their lives. Innately, from the time we were children, we had done the same thing; it was perhaps our deepest delight.

As I read these three books, I got the feeling that after having taken darshan for many years, she was sharing all she had learned with me.

Two Under the Indian Sun, written by Rumer and her older sister Jon in 1966, tells the story of their childhood in India. It is not, they say, “an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone.” And that it is. They present us with a vision of India from the viewpoint of a child, and that vision evokes a yearning for beauty and mystery.

English children in India were usually sent home to school about the age of six; however, Rumer and Jon (ages 6 and 8) after a year with rather straight-laced aunts in London were sent back to Narayangunj (now in Bangladesh) in 1914 “because of Zeppelins.” Here they lived with their Fa and Mam, Aunt Mary, and younger sisters, Nancy and Ruth, and a number of Hindu and Moslem servants until 1920 when they went back to England to be educated.

The Godden children did not live entirely without structure, they had to do lessons with their mother and aunt, but they seem to have had a great deal of freedom for rich, imaginative play and to visit the colorful and fascinating bazaar filled with colorful paper garlands, rich silks, wonderful kites, every kind of food, and sacred cows. They lived near the river, and their father, who was an agent of a steamship navigation company, had a boat, The Sonachora. Some of the loveliest passages in the book take place on the river. For instance, on the nights of the Hindu festival Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, Hindus light thousands of little “earthenware lamps shaped like leaves or tiny boats,” and set them everywhere, under trees or on the rooftops or anywhere else, to help Kali in her battle with the evil one. On these nights the whole family boarded the Sonachora to view the flickering lights from the river. Another time, they took a long trip—weeks—as the only passengers on a larger steamer, through the Sundarbans, the river jungle of the Ganges Delta. They tell of long, languid days watching the banks for tigers that they heard along the bank, but never saw. Nevertheless, there was plenty of wildlife to be seen and they tell of crocodiles, monkeys, porpoises, and myriad river birds: osprey, eagles, ibis, storks, and kingfishers. Their days on the river were full of lush beauty and peace.

There was, of course, a dark side to their time in India. There was dirt, squalor, and violence—including a murder in their own household. I’m sure that their mother’s view of India wasn’t nearly as sanguine as theirs, but this is memoir of children, and the wonder overshadows the tragedy.

A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep begins with Rumer’s return to England for a formal education. Neither she nor Jon was prepared for life in a girls' school either academically or temperamentally, and they failed at more than one. Finally, and thankfully, at the Moira House Girls’ School, Rumer found that one teacher, Mona Swann, who recognized her talent, and spent the next six terms drilling her relentlessly in the disciplines of writing. It is fairly certain that Ms. Swann was responsible for the excellence of Rumer Godden’s future work—and it was going to be not her present, but her future work.

After leaving Moira House, Rumer had to make a living, and for some unfathomable reason, and although she herself could not dance well, she trained as dancing teacher, and appears to have been a good one. For the next several years she had her own schools, and although she never made a very substantial income, seems to have really enjoyed her work and her students, and managed to support herself.

During this time, she became pregnant and in 1934 married Laurence Foster, the father of her expected child. Although Laurence and Rumer were not really compatible, they got along well enough for several years, and it was during this time that her first books were published, but shortly after her first great success, The Black Narcissus, Rumer came home in 1939 to find that Laurence had gone to the army, leaving her with enormous debts which consumed almost everything that she made on The Black Narcissus, both book and movie.

The remainder of the book, the meat of the book really, tells of her struggle to make a life for herself and her two young daughters in India during World War II. This part of the book tells of a time of poverty and exhausting struggle and sadness, but also of a time of peace and beauty in her small home, Dove House. Unfortunately, this idyll ends in violence.

Ms. Godden wrote 24 novels, 11 works of non-fiction, and 28 children's books. I have read only a few of these. The reason that I was curious about her life though, is found in her novels about India. They seem to suggest that even with the best of good will, there is something in the atmosphere of India that is inimical to westerners. In The Black Narcissus the earliest novel that I have read, the menace seems to be only connected to a certain place, the building that has been given to an order of Anglican sisters for a convent. In The Peacock Spring, and Kingfishers Take Fire it is more omnipresent. I found this a mystery since all her life she thought of India as home; however, the answer to this mystery lies, I think, in the violent event that ended her stay in Kashmir during the war.

Although Rumer was surrounded by people of many different faiths during her life: Hindus, Mohammedans, Buddhists, Protestants and one Catholic nanny, religion did not play much part in her life, although she was made to say her prayers and had some passing knowledge of the Bible. Then on page 174 of A Time to Dance…, we suddenly come across this passage.

Thinking about religion brings me to the thought of the Catholic Church; it seems to me to be one of the solutions—maybe the only solution. It is universal, it has a common tongue. It was founded by Christ, not man. This does not mean I want to become a Catholic now, does not because, to become one, I would have to shut my eyes to many things—or see beyond them and at the moment I cannot see. There is though, this: I sense that no-one can appreciate the Catholic Church until they are part of it.


There is an Indian proverb or axiom that says that everyone is a house with four rooms, a physical, a mental, an emotional and a spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time, but, unless we go into every room every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not a complete person.

This brief introduction is found at the beginning of A House with Four Rooms. Resuming where A Time to Dance . . . left off, this final autobiography begins with Rumer’s arrival back in England with her two daughters, Jane and Paula. It is here that she gradually finds some stability, and picks up the threads of her literary career which had become pretty thoroughly unraveled during the war. She had come home with a finished novel in hand, and it was The River which brought her back into the public eye. Not only was the book a best seller, it was made into a film by Jean Renoir, son of the painter Auguste Renoir. The movie which was based an event in Rumer’s childhood can be seen on Amazon video. Rumer worked closely with Renoir during the making of the film and she was very happy with it because every detail (almost) was authentic. It was a critically acclaimed movie, but it would be worth watching, even just to see portrayals of the Indian festivals.


Diwali, from The River

 It is in this book that Rumer meets James Haynes Dixon, who was a civil servant, albeit more successful than that title would suggest. After a long courtship, and having been given an ultimatum by James, Rumer married him on November 26, 1949. Rumer did not want to be married, but she could not imagine being without James. They had a long successful marriage, full, of course, of the vicissitudes which fill every marriage, which lasted until James's death. On October 10, 1973, the day of his death, Rumer wrote in her diary, “James died in Hastings Hospital. I do not want to be consoled—ever.”

This also is the book in which Rumer converts to Catholicism. She does not talk about this much, but throughout the book, you find little indications of interest. They visit a monastery, they meet a priest, they meet some nuns, and finally they come in. There is a bit about her reasons in A House with Four Rooms, but we get a much better look at her spiritual journey in the last two novels I want to write about.

The first of these is the one with which I began this essay, In This House of Brede. It's been a year or so since I read it, so I'm a bit foggy on the details, but this is the story of Dame Philippa Talbot, a successful career woman who enters a cloistered monastery. There are different story lines that take place throughout the book which are resolved, and we learn to know the sisters there, but I don't think that it goes into great spiritual depth. During the writing of this book, Ms. Godden visited the monastery frequently over a period of five years. She interviewed the nuns who were sequestered behind bars. She had a floor plan of the monastery so she became intimately acquainted with all the nuns comings and goings and the daily rhythm of their lives. When the book was finished, she sat with a panel of three of the nuns who went over every detail of the story until all their objections were taken into consideration.

Ms. Godden wrote:

People who have read In This House of Brede have told me they could not put it down. I could not put it down either, not for those five years. “Promise me” said James, “you will never write another book about nuns. Write one about a brothel.”

Ten years later I wrote a book about both.

The book that Ms. Godden wrote is Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. I first read it about 30 years ago before I had developed my current taste for finding grace in the midst of the darkness. I was looking for a nice Christian story, and found a story about the madame of a house of prostitution. I just didn't get it. Reading it again last week, I was amazed. As I read about the transformation of Elizabeth Fanshawe, military chaufeur to Lise Ambard, Mère Maquerelle of the whorehouse to La Balafr>é>e, notorious murderess, and finally to Soeur Marie Lise de Rosaire it was evident that Ms. Godden's conversion was very deep indeed, and that she had a profound understanding of the power of the grace of God and the intimacies of the spiritual life.

Soeur Marie Lise is a member of the Dominican Sisters of Béthanie, an order founded by Fr. Jean Joseph Lataste in 1864 to serve women in prison. The communities are (or were, I'm not sure there are any left) made up of both sisters who enter in the regular way, and sisters whose former lives were seriously sinful. No one but the superiors of the order know which is which.

Aside from the stories of spiritual transformation in the novel, there is a wonderful sense of the flow of the Church year with all of her feasts and fasting. The reader also enters into the rhythm of the work and life of the monastery from day to day, and from season to season. Of all the books that I have read for this authors series, and there have been 50 or more, this may be my favorite.

I will end this post, and my contribution to the 52 Authors series with the final paragraphs of House with Four Rooms.

Like everyone else I am a house with four rooms. As a child the physical room was barred to me, I had to fight my way to get into it. The room of the mind has always been mine. In the emotional, I have been enormously lucky; with the spiritual, it was a long time before I would do more than peer in; now it is where I like best to be alone.

All of us tend to inhabit one room more than another but I have tried to go most days into them all—each has its riches.

My house is, of course, slightly worn now but I still hope to go on living quietly in all of it, finding treasures, old and new until the time comes when I shall have, finally, to shut its door.

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

52 Authors: Week 43 - Madison Jones

I first came upon the name Madison Jones ten or so years ago while reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters. In a letter to “A” dated July 6, 1963 Miss O’Connor says that she was currently reading Jones’s new book, and goes on to say “It’s a shame about his books. They are excellent and fall like lead clear out of sight the minute they are published.” Trusting her judgment, I got a copy of his first novel, The Innocent, and jumped in. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Jones, born in Nashville in 1925, was almost an exact contemporary of O’Connor, the two of them born within days of each other. Jones attended Vanderbilt, where he studied under Donald Davidson, one of the Fugitive poets and “Twelve Southerners” of I’ll Take My Stand fame. He went on to get his Master’s at the University of Florida under Andrew Lytle, another one of the twelve. Jones had several short stories published in the 1950’s, but his first novel did not appear until 1957. He had in the meantime become a friend and correspondent of O’Connor. Jones went on to write eleven more novels over the next 50 years, his last one appearing in 2008. He also taught writing at Auburn from 1956 to 1987. He died in 2012.

Although he received several major writing awards Jones largely flew under the radar of the contemporary literature scene. One can probably mark this down to several things, including his conservative Southernness and the stark traditional morality apparent in his writing, neither of which tends to get you positive attention from the literary movers and shakers. Critical attention to him is therefore largely lacking, and only one book on him has appeared, a collection of essays by various hands published by the University of Southern Denmark (!). In any case, Jones does write excellent books as O’Connor said, and they are well worth reading.

Of the twelve novels that he published I’ve read nine. Often he reads like something of a cross between O’Connor and Mauriac – he’s got some of the “Southern gothic” imagination of the former combined with the psychological insight of the latter. But he’s more readable than Mauriac in my opinion, and his plots and characters aren’t as outré as O’Connor’s sometimes are. He wasn’t a Catholic, but a Calvinist, and although his work isn’t often explicitly religious, there is a deep sense of the understanding of original sin present in all his works. Many of the books follow a roughly similar plotline: a man makes a moral error, usually involving either a woman, money, or both, and we watch him unravel as he tries to justify and/or cover up his sin. His great theme seems to be, “What you sow you shall reap,” and where he is masterful is when he shows the interior effects of this on his characters.

A good example of this theme is his short novel An Exile (1967). A small town sheriff, bored in his marriage, has an affair with the much-younger daughter of a local moonshiner. In order to protect this secret he begins having to steer police attention away from her father, causing him to lie to his fellow officers and misuse his police power. Things rapidly go out of control, and his attempts to fix things just make it all worse. (This book was made into an okay but not great film with Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld, I Walk The Line. The title song by Johnny Cash is much better known.)

Two of his better known novels actually veer away from these themes, however. Nashville 1864, which won the Shaara Award for Civil War fiction in 1998, concerns a young boy searching for his father in the aftermath of the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. And A Cry of Absence, set in 1957, has as its protagonist a middle aged woman who comes to believe that her son may have committed a terrible crime. When it appeared in 1971 it was hailed as one of the great recent novels about racial issues. But the rest of the books that I’ve read tend to follow that rough “sowing and reaping” template. One might think that this would get monotonous or predictable from book to book, but Jones always manages to make things interesting, and his characters come across as real people, not just cutouts to fit the template.

Jones’s prose style is straightforward but well-crafted; his writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but particularly good sentences or paragraphs nevertheless often jump out at the reader. In the main, however, the writing serves the story in an almost perfect balance.

For the newcomer to Jones I’d recommend The Innocent, A Buried Land, or A Cry of Absence. Or for a good shorter introduction you can go with An Exile, which runs to about 130 pages. The combination of great craftsmanship with a strong moral sense and profound character insight makes Madison Jones a unique and appealing figure in late 20th century fiction.


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

52 Authors: Week 42 - Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

Hopkins ranked with Yeats among the poetic enthusiasms of my college years. This was in part the result of the influence of my roommate, who was a couple of years older than I, and of a teacher for whom we shared a great admiration. At the time it meant nothing to me that Hopkins was a Jesuit; I could not have told you coherently what the word meant. It also meant nothing to me that he was a late Victorian convert, and thus in continuity with the movement from Canterbury to Rome which had attracted so much attention a generation earlier, most prominently in the person of John Henry Newman, who crossed over to Rome in 1845, the year after Hopkins was born, and in 1866 received the twenty-two-year-old Hopkins into the Catholic Church. I did at least understand that he was a Christian, but I was not particularly interested in that fact.

What I was interested in was the special intensity, the almost ecstatic quality, of his poetry, which was the result of (among other things)

  • an unnatural compression of meaning (unnatural in the sense of being far from ordinary speech, even by the standards of poetry), often involving the use of short, forceful, archaic, or arcane words and invented compounds;
  • an exaggerated music which uses alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme well beyond what would generally be acceptable, going right up to the edge of the ridiculous, but made effective by precision, and by mastery of the whole;
  • stressed and contorted syntax;
  • an irregular but highly controlled meter which he called “sprung rhythm”.

These effects are easier illustrated than described. Here is stanza 26 of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”:

   For how to the heart's cheering
      The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
   Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
      Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky way,
      What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

Among Catholics a few of his poems have become fairly popular, for me to the point of over-exposure. “God’s Grandeur” (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God...”) is probably the best example, and then perhaps “Pied Beauty” (“Glory be to God for dappled things...”). Supposing that most of my readers will be familiar with those, I’ll include here one not quite so well-known, but which, if my memory serves, was the first of Hopkins’s poems to impart to me something very much like the sensation described in the last line.

Hurrahing In Harvest

SUMMER ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Hopkins’s technique is at the service principally of two subjects: an intense religious devotion, and an equally intense love of nature which tends to focus on precise individual details captured as precisely as possible. Individuality—”all things counter, original, spare, and strange”--was both an aesthetic and a theological matter for him, and are nowhere better expressed than in this poem, left untitled by the poet but generally known by its opening phrase:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Hopkins didn’t write very much. Given his technique, it’s hard to see how he could have. Moreover, he died young (in 1888, at 44). And upon entering the Jesuits at the age of 22, he gave up poetry entirely, as being incompatible with his vocation, and wrote nothing for seven years, until a superior expressed the wish that someone would write a poem about the deaths of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck. Taking this as permission, Hopkins produced a striking, even astonishing, classic, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” I would like to be able to say something like “He burst upon the literary scene...” with this poem, but in fact the only publisher that saw it, a Jesuit monthly, turned it down, apparently because it was too strange—and it is strange. After this a little less than fifteen years of life remained to him. In that time he produced, in obscurity, the few dozen poems that, when finally published in 1913 by his friend Robert Bridges, left open only the question “whether he is a great lesser poet, or a lesser great poet.”

At one time I would have not hesitated to choose the second of those characterizations. I’m not quite as enthusiastic as I once was about some of these poems as poems only. I now find myself a little impatient with the obscurity and compression of the poems that are less than entirely brilliant, or are so obscure that I’m still puzzled by certain passages (and a few whole poems). And in encouraging those qualities on the part of 20th century poets, I think Hopkins’s influence was not 100% for the best; this has retroactively, and quite unfairly, colored my view of him.

Nevertheless: the best of these poems are among the best ever written. There’s pretty general agreement on that, and I’d still say “lesser great” rather than “great lesser.” And if one share’s Hopkins’s faith, the enjoyment and appreciation naturally go much deeper than for one who does not: we read his poems not only as elegant verbal artifacts unfortunately attached to an obsolete “belief system,” but as expressions of truth. We feel something of what he feels, not as a moment of openness produced by the poem, but as an aspect of our relationship to the real world. This is not the usual experience of a Catholic with the art of the past couple of centuries, and it’s pleasant not to have in the back of one’s mind a voice saying “Of course one can’t take his philosophy as-is...”, which I at any rate often do.

The joyful contemplation and adoration encountered in Hopkins’s most popular poems was not the whole of his work, just as it is not the whole (to say the least) of ordinary Christian life. There is a set of poems written fairly late in his life which are know as “the terrible sonnets” because of the desolation they describe. He had difficulties with his vocation (of course). And the work he was given, and the places where he was required to do it, were sometimes ill-suited and uncongenial to him. It’s hard to imagine him as a parish priest. I believe some of these poems were written while he was in Ireland, where he apparently found himself at odds even with his fellow Catholics over Irish-British politics.

I had intended to include one of them here, but they are so dark, and so intense, that to toss one in to be read casually seems wrong, to both reader and poet. So I’ll give you a link to No. 42, “No worst, there is none...” and suggest that you read it at leisure

W.H. Gardner’s Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose gives the non-specialist all the Hopkins he will need in a single volume: all the completed poems, significant fragments, and a selection of prose from journals and letters. Gardner’s introduction is an excellent brief biography and a sympathetic view of the poetic and theological matters with which the poet was concerned, and of the tension between his vocation-by-grace as Jesuit and priest and his vocation-by-nature as artist. Wisely, and happily for the reader weary of contemporary obsessions, he notes the likelihood that Hopkins was troubled by sexual tensions (as most celibates naturally are), but declines to speculate further. I could have used a bit more help with some of the obscurities in some of the poems. Hopkins said “Obscurity I do and will try to avoid so far as is consistent with excellences higher than clearness at first reading.” He certainly sacrificed nothing to that latter consideration.



If even after a couple of readings you're baffled, or half-baffled, by certain poems, my advice is to give up on them for the moment and try them again now and then at long intervals. That seems to have worked for me, at any rate. It's a concession to my laziness, I admit, but there is a point in struggling with a poem where frustration overpowers enjoyment, sometimes fatally for the moment. In that case I find it better to let it go for a while, and to read it again occasionally without making any great effort at puzzling it out. The words sink in, and on one of those subsequent readings come together. I recall years ago finding "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire, and of the comfort of the Resurrection" more or less unintelligible, except for the last two lines. Then a decade or so ago I heard it read by a Jesuit expert on Hopkins whose name I can't remember now, and it made perfect sense.  

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Authors: Week 41 - Louise Fitzhugh

In researching for this piece, I discovered that Louise Fitzhugh (1928-1974), the author of two of my favourite childhood books, was a lesbian. The two books, Harriet the Spy (1964) and its sequel, The Long Secret (1965) are peopled by strongly drawn eccentric characters. Few of the figures in her novels are simply ‘eccentrics’, but most are ‘eccentric characters,’ that is, not people living in their own private world (‘eccentrics’) but rather people whose eccentricity is played out in public, adding to the gaiety of the nation. Another word for such ‘eccentric characters,’ at least in the period of which Fitzhugh writes, is ‘native New Yorkers.’ Much of the genius of Harriet the Spy lies in its realistic capture of a certain Manhattan milieu, in the early 1960s, when eccentricity was still recognizable as such, and high rents had not driven the odd balls from the city. Although it depicts the wealthy ‘Upper East side,’ the world of Harriet the Spy was directly recognizable to myself and to my contemporaries at P.S. 41, on the opposite side of Manhattan, as our own. The oddest characters on whom Harriet spies, like Harrison Withers with his 26 cats, are the kind of person one could see through a skylight, making Victorian bird cages, in this city, in 1967.

Since I want to say that the glory of Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret is their realism, we need to get the notebook out of the way. Harriet has been told by her nurse, Ole Golly, that if she wants to be a writer, she must observe and write down her observations. Harriet takes this advice literally, carrying a black and white A4 notebook in which she describes her reactions to everything she sees at home and at school. Harriet also operates a spy route, in which she follows the routines of half a dozen victims, such as Harrison Withers, and the Italian Dei Santi family, who run a delicatessen which is regularly plundered for provender by their delivery boy, Joe Curry.

He was always eating. It was strange the Dei Santis made any money at all the way Little Joe ate. Harriet peeked in. He was sitting there now, when he should have been working, eating a pound of cheese. Next to him, waiting to be consumed, sat two cucumbers, three tomatoes, a loaf of bread, a custard pie, three quarts of milk, a meatball sandwich about two feet long, two jars – one of pickles, one of mayonnaise – four apples, and a large salami. Harriet’s eyes widened and she wrote: WHEN I LOOK AT HIM I COULD EAT A THOUSAND TOMATO SANDWICHES.

Many of us read Harriet the Spy at a time when we didn’t really know what fiction is. Fiction is a narrative enacted in an imaginative world in which one can, for instance, carry around an A4 notebook and write in it. Reader, this is not possible, and I know because I tried it, as did many of my contemporaries. Enthralled with Harriet, we tried to become note-book writers like her. It cannot be done. One cannot carry on with daily life while writing down one’s observations of ones friends, family, teachers, and spy-victims in an A4 notebook. One’s interlocutors, and school teachers, and friends, simply get in the way of it. We tried, and it doesn’t work. Louise Fitzhugh, with her genius for exaggerated realism, makes it look possible. But it’s not. Today, of course, the obvious parallel to the notebook is the smartphone which possesses nearly every one. But a phone is a quarter the size of Harriet’s notebook, and you don’t need a pen to write in it. Harriet the Spy captivated us in a way that made eight year old girls want to emulate the heroine. But that’s not exactly how fiction works. The only way in is through the author’s imagination, and the key to the door of Louise Fitzhugh’s imagination went up in smoke when she was done with these stories, as do the keys to all the fictive worlds of every author in history.

It’s obvious even to an eight year old that Harriet is the hinge of it all. In studying for this piece, I read that when Louise Fitzhugh first took her jottings to a publisher, all she had to show the editors at Harpers were the contents of the spy’s ‘notebook,’ and those fine ladies made Fitzhugh turn the notebook’s majuscules into a story.

The story of Harriet the Spy tells how our heroine has two best friends, Sport, whom she intends to marry when they grow up, and Janey, who intends to blow up the world. Ole Golly is her nurse. This lady quotes Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, but seems to have a perfect understanding of children. She is the true authority figure for Harriet in this book: both her parents seem loving but uncomprehending. The parents are distant in the way that the parents of that generation in fact were. The crisis is precipitated by two events. Ole Golly departs to marry a delivery man, Mr. Waldstein. Harriet is thus caught rudderless at her moment of trial, when her notebook is lost during a ‘tag’ type game at school, and read by her school acquaintances, enemies, and best friends. They gang up against her. Harriet learns that they have a secret plan:

A PLAN. THIS IS SERIOUS. THEY MEAN BUSINESS. IT MEANS THEY HAVE BEEN TALKING AMONG THEMSELVES. ARE THEY GOING TO KILL ME? IS THIS MY LAST VIEW OF CARL SCHURZ PARK? WILL THERE BE NOTHING LEFT HERE TOMORROW ON THIS BENCH? WILL ANYONE REMEMBER HARRIET M. WELSCH? She rose stiffly and walked slowly to school. Everything looked very green and holy in that sad light before a rain. Even the Good Humor man on the corner, the one with the ridiculous nose, looked sad and moody. He took out a large blue handkerchief and blew his nose. It was somehow so touching that Harriet had to look away.”

This is the nadir of Harriet’s fortunes. The book uses comical exaggeration but it touchingly depicts the loneliness to which a writer is exposed when she tells the truth in a hurtful way.

Only an idiot would not guess the secret of The Long Secret, and one would have to confess that it is only at our most recent re-reading of the novel that it struck us how obvious it is who is leaving ‘notes’ around the upstate New York summer resort of Water Mill. The identity of the Bible-quoting note leaver is not just obvious but blindingly so. The twin heroines of the book are Harriet, again, who spends the book trying to discover the identity of the hard-hitting note leaver, and Beth Ellen, the blushing, shy ‘Mouse.’ Beth Ellen has lived with her grandmother ever since the disappearance of, first her father, and then later her jet-setting mother. The re-emergence of the stunningly beautiful Zeeney, along with Wallace, her new husband, whose vocabulary consists of the words ‘hup, hup, hup’, forms the center-piece of the book. Beth Ellen learns that she has the courage to fight for her true identity.

The girls are now twelve, and they learn about how their bodies work. The last time I spoke about The Long Secret in public was in 1969 when I delivered a book report on it to a class. I had skipped three grades during the school-teacher strikes of the previous years, and now found myself a nine year old, surrounded by young teenagers. Not for the last time, my lecture evoked unintended hilarity in its audience. That evening, in the car with my parents, I told them what happened, and the mystery of the other children in my class breaking into uncontrolled laughter when explained to them, ‘she gets this thing called menstruation…’ My father explained to me what that meant as he drove us through the Lincoln tunnel.

When I looked for the books in Barnes and Nobles to write up this second report on them, perhaps in memory of that experience, I looked in ‘Young Adults’. But they are still, rightly, classified as children’s books. They are not about the teenager’s world, but the child’s world, the world in which, for that generation at least, adults were omnipotent and yet foolish and outlandish aliens.

The ostensibly ‘pious’ character of the notes spurs Harriet to question her parents about God, prayer, and faith. She learns from her father that he does not pray, but figures one should ‘never laugh at anyone’s religion, because whether you take it seriously or not, they do.’ Next, Harriet interrogates Beth Ellen.

‘What does it feel like when you believe in God?’ asked Harriet into the darkness. ‘I don’t know,’ said Beth Ellen. I’ve never really thought about it, she said to herself. ‘Oh, Beth Ellen, what a funny mouse you are,’ said Harriet with rather kind disgust. She turned over noisily in bed to indicate that the conversation was ended and she would soon be fast asleep. Beth Ellen began to think about the beginning of the world, the beginning of time. Who started it all anyway? She let her mind creep back to the cave men. A cave. At the end of the cave, God. She was falling asleep. Right before she fell asleep she turned a corner in the long winding path of the cave and came to the end. At the end there was a clay shelf. Spread on the shelf was a fur blanket and on the fur was a tiger, a huge tiger who said not a word but stared at her. God? Then who made the blanket?

Even before I knew what menstruation is, that struck me as a somewhat unsatisfactory question.

Of course, what Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret have in common is the theme of truth telling. Both the spy Harriet and the note-leaver use language to tell the blunt truth. And yet both of them are misusing language, because they are using it in the service of anger. ‘Truth’ can be too blunt an instrument for the exposition of moral character.

These books both delighted me as a child. Later, when I was really too old for it, in 1974, just before she died, Fitzhugh published another novel, Our Family is Never Going to Change. It’s about the ambitions of the children of a middle class African American family. As I recall it, the boy wants to be a dancer, which could not be further from his parents’ dreams for him, and the girl aspires to be a lawyer. I remember this book as being on the moralistic side. It seems that Fitzhugh left her original publisher, Harper, and was never able to recapture the editing and ‘nursing’ she had received from them, with Random House and other houses. I may some day read Sport, another companion which Fitzhugh wrote to Harriet the Spy, but then again I may not. Fitzhugh probably lost the key after The Long Secret was published.

Fitzhugh also wrote a novel about a relationship between two girls, which was lost and never published. I’m glad she did not live to write the kind of books she might write today. That’s because I think that self-censorship belongs to great imaginative creativity. When authors feel free to expose the ‘whole blunt truth’ they write less well than authors who express the truth in more guarded ways. What is fiction if not a means of telling the truth in a roundabout way?

Fitzhugh’s characters inhabit a fictional world, but at least two of them get hurt because they tell the truth, as they see it, about real life situations. Language is powerful in fiction, and even more so in relation to reality. Censorship by external authorities is problematic, and raises the question, ‘who guards the guards?’ But the habit of self-censorship often makes for better writing, and better thinking, whether the subject is sex or the Pope. The habit of self-censorship in speech and in writing reminds us of our obligation to use language with due reverence.


—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

52 Authors: Week 40 - Mary Douglas

Week40-Mary Douglas-Paul_html_1e021b8d

In the late 1940s Mary Tew, an Oxford doctoral student in anthropology, was looking around for a suitable place to do fieldwork. These days that could mean anything (Kate Fox’s Watching the English is an entertaining example of turning an anthropologist’s eye on one’s native surroundings), but in the 1940s, in a European context, it meant trying to understand the foreign thought-worlds of less developed communities in far-flung parts of colonial empires. She later wrote that her choice fell on the Lele people of what was then the Belgian Congo because she had been given to understand that they practiced not just polygyny (a relatively widespread form of polygamy) but also polyandry (much rarer), and she was intrigued by the idea of a woman having more than one husband.

By the time her doctorate was published as a book, in 1963, she had been married for about a decade and was working under the name Mary Douglas. (There is a Wikipedia entry, but it is not very informative.) The Lele of the Kasai is a readable observation-based analysis of a vanishing way of life in Central Africa, but it would be of little interest to those outside the academy. So far as polyandry was concerned, the Lele might have been something of a disappointment: male elders controlled access to brides, but there was also a ‘village wife’ who would take turns with the available men. This is not quite the harem of husbands that the word ‘polyandry’ might bring to mind, and missionaries regarded it as a form of prostitution. Mary Douglas, however, saw elements of honour and agency in the village wife’s status that gave her a key role in village life, not the sort of marginalised status one would associate with a prostitute in Western societies.

It might have been polyandry that first piqued Douglas’s interest in the Lele, but once living among them her intellectual engagement shifted to beliefs and practices relating to divination, sorcery, witchcraft, and notions of pollution and ritual purity. The fruit of her reflection on pollution and purity, encountered among the Lele but explored intellectually for over a decade once back in Britain, was the book for which she is probably most famous, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.

The book is the work of a brilliant mind, honed in the intellectual discipline of social anthropology, broadened by life among an utterly alien people, reflecting not just on theoretical questions but on the everyday concerns of a wife and mother. Douglas ranges widely through anthropological literature of all kinds, on castes in India, Nigerian smallpox priests, sexual taboos in New Guinea, to her own fieldwork among the Lele, but questions that she addresses include why it should be thought shameful to serve a guest tea in a chipped cup, and why we happily let children play in the sea, knowing that it houses many corpses, when we would not let them into a swimming pool with a single corpse in it. At what point is pollution perceived, and at what point is it perceived as a danger?

This is a question that has bearing on ecological questions as well, and Douglas explored these implications in Risk and Culture (1983), written with Aaron Wildavsky, although this made her unpopular with some ecologists who felt she had described them as a tribe whose beliefs about purity could be understood anthropologically (Roger Scruton, in contrast, says that the book 'captures tendencies within social and political thinking that help to show why there is a real, lasting and rooted difference between "left" and "right". And it provides a language with which both left and right can discuss their shared concerns without regarding their opponents as inhuman.')

To return to Purity and Danger, one of the most famous aspects is her discussion of Jewish dietary laws. She takes issue with the 19th-century idea, still apparently widely prevalent in the mid-20th century, that the dietary prohibitions of the Mosaic law were primitive regulations of health and hygiene, designed for the avoidance of disease. Instead, she seeks to understand them through notions of ritual purity. She points out that Jews are permitted to eat animals of the land, water and air that clearly fall into the category of a herd animal, or a fish, or a bird that does not eat carrion, but not those that lacked some of the key defining characteristics, or had ‘mixed’ features. Pork became the symbol of Jewish difference because it was the one animal prohibited that was widely eaten by neighbouring peoples, but the reason it was prohibited was not hygienic but conceptual: it shares some but not all of the key characteristics of herd animals as a set. This was a modelling of the body on the sacrificial altar: humans could eat only those animals that they would be permitted to give to God, and should avoid even physical contact with the rest.

If the proposed interpretation of the forbidden animals is correct, the dietary laws would have been something which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, surety and completeness of God. By the rules of avoidance, Holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and at every meal.

Later she revised her view on the dietary rules, in two books I have not read, In the Wilderness (1993) and Leviticus as Literature (1999). When this series was mooted late last year, I put my name down for three authors (Christopher Derrick, Mary Douglas and Edith Stein) thinking it would encourage me to read those of their works that I had been meaning to get round to reading. So far, this has not actually happened. If anything, I have been reading what others have written about, rather than what I am supposed to be writing on. I gather indirectly that in her later thinking the concept of ‘covenant’ came to the fore: the ancient Israelites ate only those animals that did not eat other animals and that humans could in some sort raise. But this is something I may have misunderstood.

Douglas’s writing is fascinating for the broad themes she addresses, but also for the many anthropological details she fishes up from the literature as well as from her own experience both of fieldwork and of life in the United Kingdom (unlike most of her academic peers, she was herself consciously involved in making rituals happen, as a parish volunteer, and knew how much thought and work went into them each time, even when they were ‘traditional’). A lot of her books are relatively pricey (as academic books tend to be) and sometimes hard to get hold of, but the two major works, Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols, are both still in print in paperback editions.

This latter, Natural Symbols, published in 1970, examines the importance of shared symbols to social cohesion. It is a logical next step (in the Jewish case, having thought about why the prohibition on pork arose, she was now thinking about how it set them apart as a people; and also about how Friday abstention from meat set Catholics apart from non-Catholic neighbours.) As a social anthropologist she was convinced that ‘There is no person whose life does not need to unfold in a coherent symbolic system. ... it is an illusion to suppose that there can be organisation without symbolic expression.’ She placed both symbols and societies on spectra of hierarchy and informality, seeking to correlate world-view and life-style through a plethora of contemporary and historical examples.

One of the insights of Douglas’s work is that people have a remarkable tendency to model the concept of the person on the concept of society, and to regard people who do not fit standard social categories as being dirty people (disease-bearing sexual delinquents who will cheat you or steal from you and who eat disgusting food) — who can then be labelled as lepers, witches, an underclass, ‘dirty foreigners’, or whatever else might fit the circumstances. This fits with her earlier work on sorcery and pollution, but questions of symbol and community also bring her to consider the sacraments. Writing of the modernizing liturgists and catechists of the day, she says:

The mystery of the Eucharist is too dazzlingly magical for their impoverished symbolic perception. Like the pygmies (I say it again, since they seem often to pride themselves on having reached some high peak of intellectual development) they cannot conceive of the deity as located in any one thing or place. But ... vast unlettered flocks scattered over the globe do not share this disability. ... What is too strong meat for the pastors is their natural food. ‘The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.’ There is no question now that the flocks are neglected by jolly, hunting parsons bent on pleasure. But there seems to be a case for arguing that serious, well-intending pastors misunderstand the need for a nourishing food, because it does not seem to suit their own digestive systems.

Speaking personally, to find an intra-ecclesial polemic such as this in the midst of a learned book that discusses every possible type of symbolic action and social system was exhilarating and breath-taking. (Perhaps this post should include a spoiler alert?)

Much of social anthropology as it developed up to the middle of the 20th century was, directly or indirectly, part of the colonialist project to understand what made the natives tick. There was a sense that our behaviour made sense, while that of other societies needed explaining. If there is a single main point throughout Douglas’s writing it might be that ‘primitive’ people (whether backwoods African tribesmen, or Bronze Age Israelites, or anybody between) are no more stupid than the rest of us: their behaviours make perfect sense, and are perfectly rational, when understood in the light of their societies and their preconceptions; and our own behaviours are just as much conditioned by the presuppositions we imbibe from our societies.

As Risk and Culture puts it: “standing inside our own culture, we can only look at our predicament through our culturally fabricated lenses”. Social anthropology gives us one way of getting a longer perspective on our own culture. This aspect of her writing has led some to label her a ‘postmodernist’, but don’t let that put you off. All it means is that she could see through modernism. She had none of the anti-humanism so typical of literary postmodernism, and she certainly didn’t take the view that people are prisoners of their cultures: a culture makes it possible to be human, providing the tools with which people respond to their environment; but the different ways in which people respond are conditioned by what tools they have available. Mary Douglas herself provides some of the sharpest tools one could wish for. While not a novelist, Mary Douglas is a writer who engages the sympathetic imagination at every turn, in helping to understand social behaviours and beliefs that are sometimes amazingly foreign.

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

52 Authors: Week 39 - Graham Greene

Christ-haunted. In the past couple of months I’ve read 7 ½ novels by Graham Greene and that phrase has occurred to me over and over again. And recently, when I re-read a post that Maclin wrote in 2011.

It is the world as viewed from within the Church that fascinates me, and what fascinates me most of all is the dialogue between belief and unbelief. Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy dramatize this encounter in the most memorable ways. But people on the other side—artists and others—often shed their own sort of light upon it. Even in unbelief they may present the essential questions in powerful ways, or express, as well or better than a believer, the longing for pure unattainable love and beauty which is what I seem to have in place of the sense of the presence of God.

Over and over again in the novels I read, there is a man who is haunted by a desire to believe, or a resistance to belief, or, most frequently, by the Catholic Church. There is a group of four novels that are frequently referred to as “The Catholic Novels:” Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair, but some of his other novels are no less Catholic than these. We are constantly being reminded of the Church. Even in The Third Man which is the least Catholic of all those I read, we find the protagonist, Rollo Martins, confronting the evil Harry Lime with, “You used to be a Catholic,” and Harry replies, “Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that. I’m not hurting anybody’s soul by what I do.” And they all do believe, whether they wish to or not.

In preparation for writing this post, I planned to read Graham’s first and last novels, his four “Catholic novels,” and The Third Man, because the movie is so well-known. I also read part of The Honorary Consul because it was the only unread Greene novel that I had in the house at the time. Unfortunately I found that his last published novel, The Tenth Man was one that he had written many years earlier as an idea for a movie, and had completely forgotten until it was brought to his attention by a movie company, so except for the first half of The Honorary Consul, I haven’t read any of his later work which largely consisted of stories of international intrigue.

Graham’s first novel, The Man Within, begins with a man on the run. His pursuer has a sort of sixth sense that tells him where his prey will be. The reason for his uncanny ability is that the pursuer, Carlyon is the man’s best friend, indeed, the only friend he has ever had in his whole life. The reason for the pursuit is that our man, Andrews, has betrayed the band of smugglers of which he was formerly a part. This book, written shortly after Graham converted to the Catholic Church, contains all of the recurrent themes that are found in Graham’s novels. Repeatedly we find a man who is beset by his own faults and doubts, and frequently on the wrong side of the law; a deep and troubled friendship between two men; the presence of God hovering, or pursuing, or being rejected; and a woman who makes a difference. On the surface, faith is on the perimeter of this novel, but looking back you can see its pervasive influence, and it just now occurred to me that that one could make a good case for Carlyon’s pursuit of Andrews being analogous to the pursuit of God for the man within.

Week39-Graham Greene-Janet_html_Brighton

 The name goes all the way through Brighton Rock candy .

In Brighton Rock, the first of the so-called Catholic novels, we meet Pinkie, the most vicious and murderous 19 year old mobster that one can imagine. He carries a bottle of vitriol (sulfuric acid) in his pocket. He is filled with hate and loves to hurt, and yet, music moves his soul. And the dance music of Brighton is mixed with the music of his past.

…suddenly he began to sing softly in his spoilt boy’s voice: ‘Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.’ In his voice a whole lost world moved—the lighted corner below the organ, the smell of incense and laundered surplices, and the music. Music—it didn’t matter what music—‘Agnus dei,’, ‘lovely to look at, beautiful to hold’, ‘the starling on our walks’, ‘credo in unum Dominum (sic)’—any music moved him, speaking of things he didn’t understand.

The very seed of his hatred seems to come from the experience of watching the ungainly coupling of his parents from his own bed in their room every Saturday night. The thought of sex is nauseating to him, and Graham often writes of Pinkie’s soured virginity. In the course of events, though, Pinkie is forced to marry a plain, young woman, Rose, to keep her from testifying against him in court. Because of their youth, they have to lie to marry and, of course, they, both Catholic, cannot marry in the Church. They talk repeatedly about the fact that they aren’t really married—that they are living in mortal sin—and they deliberately choose it. This is the first instance I found of this deliberate rejection of grace in Greene’s work, but it’s by no means the last.

However, even though their marriage is far from ideal, the marital act begins to change Pinkie. He begins to feel a tenderness toward Rose. He feels that she completes him in some way. And though there is an outward narrative involving Pinkie’s disintegrating mob, the real tension in the story is Pinkie’s inward struggle. Of all the Greene novels that I read, this is the most psychologically complex, and the most chilling.

The Power and the Glory is aptly named. It is indeed very powerful, and the glory, although hidden under a mountain of misery and corruption, shines through. It takes place in Mexico in the time when priests were hunted down and forced to either marry and deny the Faith, or face death. The protagonist is the last priest in the state, I can’t remember if we even know his name, and he is not a good priest. Before the persecution, he was filled with pride, and cared more for the honor that came to him because of his priesthood than he did about the souls of his congregation. He has gradually come to neglect his prayers. He is a drunkard, and in one meaningless violation of his vow of chastity, he has fathered a child. However, he knows and believes the truth.

Throughout the novel, the priest confronts the fact that he will be damned because of his fall from grace, and his inability to confess as there are no other priests, but he never fails to serve the people with whom he comes in contact even though he is on the run, exhausted, and spiritually spent. He, alone among Greene’s protagonists, is friendless. The woman who makes a difference for him is his own child. Unlike the others, his opposition to the law is not of his own making. His struggle is not a struggle to believe—he believes intensely—but to endure in the knowledge that he himself is lost.

Week39-Graham Greene-Janet_html_Heart

The Heart of the Matter is, I believe, the heart of all Greene’s work. In Book I of the novel we meet Henry Scobie, a British intelligence agent in Sierra Leone during World War II. “Squat, grey-haired,” his Commissioner laughingly calls him “Scobie the Just.” He is scrupulously honest in his business dealings. He loves the country, and the people of the country. He wants to remain in his job even though he is passed over for the promotion that is rightly his. He also scrupulously fulfills his duties to his wife, but he is probably a man who should never have married. He is happiest when he is alone.

And from this point we watch the slow dissolution of Scobie’s life. As I read, I was forcibly reminded of Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell. Just as surely as Lawrence Wentworth wrapped himself in the darkness of his own self, Scobie, bit-by-bit descends into his own little self-made hell, but by a different path. I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my mind around exactly what people mean when they talk about “the tenderness that leads to the gas chambers,” but it is through a perceived tenderness and care for others that Scobie makes his way to that eternal crucible. At every misstep, it seems to him that he is sinning in order to help another person, and that he must help them in this way. It is a type of despair—the belief that God’s mercy is insufficient to heal the other person without Scobie’s misled compassion.

In what might be the saddest passage I’ve ever read, Scobie receives Communion in a state of mortal sin to hide the fact of his infidelity from his wife.

“To order our days in thy…peace that we be preserved from eternal damnation…” Pax, pacis, pacem: all the declinations of the word “peace” drummed on his ears through the Mass. He thought: I have left even the hope of peace forever. I am the responsible man. I shall soon have gone too far in my design of deception ever to go back.


“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.”

“I’m all right,” he said, the old longing pricking at the eyeballs and looking up towards the cross on the altar he thought savagely: take your sponge of gall. You made me what I am. Take the spear thrust. He didn’t need to open his Missal to know how this prayer ended. “May the receiving of Thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I unworthy presume to take, turn not to my judgment and condemnation.” He shut his eyes and let the darkness in. Mass rushed towards its end: Domine non sum dignus…Domine, non sum dignus…Domine, non sum dignus….


Only a miracle can save me now, Scobie told himself, …but God would never work a miracle to save Himself. I am the cross, he thought, He will never speak the word to save Himself from the cross, but if only wood were made so that it didn’t feel, if only the nails were senseless as people believed.


But with open mouth (the time had come) he made one last attempt at prayer: “O God, I offer up my damnation to you. Take it. Use it for them,” and was aware of the pale papery taste of an eternal sentence on the tongue.

Now we have moved from the priest who offers his damnation because he has no choice to the man who chooses his own damnation.

Any given day might find The End of the Affair in the list of my ten favorite novels. While Maurice Bendix, the narrator of the novel, is agnostic, or perhaps even an atheist, he can’t deny that he is watching the making of a saint. However, as the nascent saint is his former mistress, Sarah Miles, he’s more angry than inspired. However, the story of Sarah’s conversion, and its testament to the power of the Sacraments is inspiring. I read everywhere that this novel, written in 1951, was influenced by his affair with Catherine Walston which lasted from 1946 until 1957. Bendix, so it seems, speaks from Greene’s point of view. His house was bombed during the Blitz, and a similar event is the turning point of the novel. However, one wonders what Greene was thinking when he used the affair which was far from over to tell the story of a man whose lover leaves him for God. I thought, before I read the other novels, that I would have a great deal to say about The End of Affair but reading the other novels has changed the way I look at it, and the ending, which seemed very clear to me when I read it before, seems more ambiguous now. Before I move on, though, I want to say that you should not watch the movie and if you have seen the movie, you should forget it. It is a dreadful turning inside-out of the book.

Both The Third Man and The Tenth Man were written as ideas for movies, so they are very short—The Third Man is less than 100 pages. Anyone who is interested in classic movies would be familiar with The Third Man and I will say here what I have never said before in my life, which is that you should watch the movie first, and perhaps skip the book altogether. It’s an all right story, but the characters in the book lack definition and motivation, whereas the script, the camerawork and the acting in the movie are excellent.

I watched a movie of The Tenth Man with Anthony Hopkins a few years ago, and I liked it very much. I had no idea that it was written by Graham Greene. The book is only 160 pages long and it isn’t as complex as most of his work, but it’s a good story. Of all the novels, it’s the one which most clearly speaks to repentance and redemption, although the Church is barely mentioned. It doesn’t have a happy ending—Greene’s novels are very short on happy endings, but it does have a very satisfying ending.

Returning to Maclin’s quote, specifically this part, “Even in unbelief they may present the essential questions in powerful ways, or express, as well or better than a believer…,” the question is, “On which side of the fence does Graham Greene stand?” Some sources suggest that he only converted to Catholicism because he wanted to marry a woman who would only marry a Catholic, and that he never really believed. After reading these novels, though, I would find it inconceivable that he didn’t have real faith, at least for a while. He not only knows facts about the Church, he seems to have a deep understanding of the way that God moves on our souls.

What is terrifying to me about this is that Greene also really seems to understand the determined rejection of grace. The passages that speak of this, like the one quoted above, ring with authenticity. He led a very dissolute life (which you can read about here if you wish to be distressed), and died estranged from his wife and children.

In the article from the Daily Mail he is quoted as saying, “I think my books are my children.” I’ve been thinking about this and about how it is the duty of children to pray and intercede for their deceased parents and perhaps in some way Greene’s books can intercede for him, or at least encourage his readers to pray for his soul. I’ve been praying.

Once again I found some biographical information at Wikipedia.

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

52 Authors: Week 38 - Chaim Potok

When I was fourteen we took a trip to Chicago to visit a friend of my mom’s. On the way we stopped to visit my mom’s “St. Louis relatives.” I had previously met my Great-uncle Theo, who was deaf, but had not met any of his progeny. Almost immediately upon entering their house it dawned on me that they were Jewish. For one thing, they served bagels, a rarity in the Oklahoma I grew up in. As it turned out, my grandfather was one of ten children of a former rabbinic student from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. None of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters that I knew practiced any religion, much less Judaism. My Uncle Theo was the only one.

Soon after that I was in a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. I was hooked. Ever since then I have been very attentive, curious, and fascinated by all things Jewish. I also have a reflexive and perhaps irrational defensiveness about the Jews which may blind me to the dark side of Jewish reality (in Israel, for instance). It doesn’t help that I’m a romantic sentimentalist.

Many years later I discovered Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise. I don’t remember when or how. I just know that they instantly took their place among the handful of books that I could reread on my own, with The Lord of the Rings and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I later read My Name is Asher Lev and one other novel, the name of which I can’t remember. All I remember about it is that there was a scene in which burly Jewish men play some kind of sport in Central Park.

For me one of the big draws is the peek into the Jewish world which fascinates me. I feel like I’m really in that world of the tsaddik, earlocks, yeshivas, gematria, Hasidim, the Talmud. It is like Fiddler on the Roof on steroids.

I am always drawn to Potok’s portrayal of the intellectual life—the study of the Torah and the Talmud; the intense scholastic life of a young Jew; the debates over the interpretation of the text. That is the model of academic life that I love, cultivated in the Great Books program at Notre Dame. Perhaps there is a familial memory of my great-grandfather’s rabbinic studies in the Old World?

The Chosen tells the story of the friendship between Reuven Malter, the son of an Orthodox Talmud scholar who uses modern scientific methods, and Danny Saunders, the son and spiritual heir of a Hasidic tsaddik, or spiritual leader. The tension comes when Danny, a brilliant Talmudic scholar, wants to study secular, Freudian psychology rather than follow in his father’s footsteps as leader of his Hasidic community. Reb Saunders is conflicted because he wants Reuven and Danny to be friends, but is strongly opposed to Reuven’s father’s method of Talmudic studies and his Zionism.

The Promise is the sequel to The Chosen, in which Reuven and Danny get involved in the psychological struggles of a disturbed 14-year old son of an "unbelieving" Jew. Reuven himself struggles with studying the Talmud with a teacher who will not accept his father’s scientific method. To complicate things, Danny and Reuben are involved in a love triangle with Rachel Gordon, the cousin of the boy. Danny seeks to figure a way to reach the disturbed boy and finds the tools he’s been given by his psychological training are inadequate. Can he perhaps find tools from his tradition? This description sounds more like a soap opera, but it really isn’t. It is as rich and insightful as The Chosen. It also inspired my daughter to study psychology.

My Name is Asher Lev is the story of a boy being raised in a strict Hasidic community who discovers early that he has a talent for drawing and painting—and an attraction to modern art. This causes tension with his father and with his teachers, who believe that representational art is not compatible with Jewish piety and who aren’t thrilled by the likes of Picasso. The real focus of the book, though, is the suffering that Asher Lev’s mother experiences as a result of the tensions Asher’s gift causes in his relations with his father and with their community.

The Chosen is at first blush a coming of age novel. Beginning with the incident on the baseball field that brings Reuven and Danny together, both boys begin to learn what it is to be a man in the world and a true friend. The transformation from childhood to the beginning of adulthood begins in the blink of an eye:

Somehow everything had changed. I had spent five days in a hospital and the world around seemed sharpened now and pulsing with life. I lay back and put the palms of my hands under my head. I thought of the baseball game, and I asked myself, Was it only last Sunday that it happened, only five days ago? I felt I had crossed into another world, that little pieces of my old self had been left behind on the black asphalt floor of the school yard alongside the shattered lens of my glasses.. Pp. 102-3

Other themes are the nature of true friendship and the difficulties a father has in raising his children and the difficulties children have being raised by their imperfect fathers.

The meaning of silence plays a significant role in The Chosen and The Promise. Danny’s father has chosen for reasons that are explained at the end of the book to raise his son in silence. He only talks to him when discussing the Talmud. “Why have you stopped answering my questions, Father?” Danny asks. Reb Saunders responds, “You are old enough to look into your own soul for the answer” (Chosen 280). Eventually Danny begins to understand: “‘You can listen to silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.’” (Chosen 162)

Potok explores the tension between a commitment to strong, clear, comprehensive religious tradition, such as Hasidic Judaism, and engagement with the world. This question is a live one for those of us involved in homeschooling. It has also been brought to the fore recently by Rod Dreher’s proposal of what he calls “The Benedict Option,” which has been countered by others who propose an “Escriva Option.”

Potok clearly values the tradition. Even though Potok is a conservative rabbi, he can speak of the Hasidic vision in almost glowing terms. Reb Saunders explains his religious vision to Reuven:

A man is born into the world with only a spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul. The rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell, Rueven. Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.” (Chosen 276)

A dark, almost Augustinian vision which I tend to resonate with, despite my attraction to Thomism.

Reuven’s dad explains the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, this way:

He taught them that the purpose of man is to make his life holy--every aspect of his life: eating, drinking, praying, sleeping. God is everywhere, he told them, and if it seems at times that He is hidden from us it is only because we have not yet learned to seek Him correctly. Evil is like a hard shell. Within this shell is the spark of God, is goodness. How do we penetrate the shell? By sincere and honest prayer, by being happy, and by loving all people. (Chosen 110)

When Asher Lev, a Hasid Jew, is given permission by his Rebbe to pursue the study of art, the Rebbe clarifies that fulfillment as a religious man, is not primarily about religious practice or intellectual study of the Torah or the Talmud: it is about what you make of your gifts and of your life—what you do anything for:

A life should be lived for the sake of heaven. One man is not better than another because he is a doctor while the other is a shoemaker. One man is not better than another because he is a lawyer while the other is a painter. A life is measured by how it is lived for the sake of heaven (Asher Lev,184).

Fulfillment may even involve going outside the tradition at least to engage it.

It is a pity [Reb Saunders] occupies his mind only with Talmud. If he were not a tzaddik he could make a great contribution to the world. But he lives only in his own world. It is a great pity. Danny will be the same way when he takes his father's place. It is a shame that a mind such as Danny's will be shut off from the world. (Chosen 150).

So, Talmudic studies take advantage of the scientific method; Danny, in order to be the compassionate tsaddik (righteous one) that his father wants him to be, must turn to secular psychology. Asher Lev must go outside the Jewish tradition “because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment” (Asher Lev 313).

Yet, going beyond the tradition involves first being thoroughly grounded in it so you don’t lose the treasure that has been handed down. As Asher Lev’s art teacher tells him about the “tradition” of painting:

I will force you to master it. Do you hear me? No one will listen to what you have to say unless they are convinced you have mastered it. Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it. Do you understand me, Asher Lev? (Asher Lev 204)

Potok is interested in the meaning of the soul and how it is cultivated. It is more than the intellect. In fact, the intellect can be a barrier to compassion, to carrying the pain of others. Only a soul that suffers has compassion. How does one raise children to pay attention to their soul? Reb Saunders decides to raise his son in silence when he discovers that the four year-old Danny is “without a soul,” without compassion. Danny himself later asks, after he has enrolled in a program that emphasizes experimental psychology, “What do rats and mazes have to do with the mind?” (Chosen 207). For him, the mind has come to transcend the mere intellect, and the empirical.

I love Potok’s descriptions. They are lush and sensual, yet they pay attention to little psychological details:

It was a warm night, and the window between the stove and the sink was open. A breeze blew into the kitchen, stirring the ruffled curtains and carrying with it the odors of grass and flowers and orange blossoms. We sat at the table dressed in our Shabbat clothes, my father sipping his second glass of tea, both of us a little tired and sleepy from the heavy meal. There was color now in my father's face, and his cough had disappeared. I watched him sip his tea and listened to the soft rustling of the curtains as they moved in the breeze. Manya had done the dishes quickly after we had chanted the Grace After Meals, and now we sat alone, embraced by the warm June night, the memories of the past week, and the gentle silences of the Shabbat. (Chosen 104)

Potok’s paints a rich, but stark picture of Reuven’s first introduction to the world of the Hasidim.

A block beyond the synagogue where my father and I prayed, we made a right turn into a narrow street crowded with brownstones and sycamores. It was a duplicate of the street on which I lived, but a good deal older and less neatly kept. Many of the houses were unkempt, and there were very few hydrangea bushes or morning glories on the front lawns. The sycamores formed a solid, tangled bower that kept out the sunlight. The stone banisters on the outside stairways were chipped, their surfaces blotched with dirt, and the edges of the stone steps were round and smooth from years of use. Cats scrambled through the garbage cans that stood in front of some of the houses, and the sidewalks were strewn with old newspapers, ice cream and candy wrappers, worn cardboard cartons, and tom paper bags. Women in long-sleeved dresses, with kerchiefs covering their heads, many with infants in their arms, others heavily pregnant, sat on the stone steps of the stairways, talking loudly in Yiddish. The street throbbed with the noise of playing children who seemed in constant motion, dodging around cars, racing up and down steps, chasing after cats, climbing trees, balancing themselves as they tried walking on top of the banisters, pursuing one another in furious games of tag-all with their fringes and earlocks dancing wildly in the air and trailing out behind them. We were walking quickly now under the dark ceiling of sycamores, and a tall, heavily built man in a black beard and black caftan came alongside me, bumped me roughly to avoid running into a woman, and passed me without a word. The liquid streams of racing children, the noisy chatter of long-sleeved women, the worn buildings and blotched banisters, the garbage cans and the scrambling cats all gave me the feeling of having slid silently across a strange threshold, and for a long moment I regretted having let Danny take me into his world. (Chosen 123)

Those sycamores play an important role throughout The Chosen, as can be seen in this passage:

On the afternoon of the first day of Passover, I walked beneath the early spring sycamores on my street, then turned into Lee Avenue. The sun was warm and bright, and I went along slowly, past the houses and the shops and the synagogue where my father and I prayed. I met one of my classmates and we stopped to talk for a few minutes; then I went on alone, turning finally into Danny's street. The sycamores formed a tangled bower through which the sun shone brightly, speckling the ground. There were tiny buds on these sycamores now and on some I could see the green shoots of infant leaves. In a month, those leaves would shut out the sky, but now the sun came through and brushed streaks of gold across the side- walks, the street, the talking women, and the playing children. I walked along slowly, remembering the first time I had gone up this street years ago. Those years were coming to an end now. In three months, in a time when the leaves would be fat and full, our lives would separate like the branches overhead that made their own way into the sunlight.” (Chosen 273)

Potok is also a master of dialogue, paying attention to the faces of the speakers and how they express their psychological experience. A great example is the scene in the first chapter of The Promise, where Michael Gordon, the disturbed boy, reacts violently to being cheated by a Jewish owner of a carnival game. You can feel the boy’s disturbance, plus the disturbance of Rachel and Reuven—not to mention the cynical evil of the carny.

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

52 Authors: Week 37 - Alexander McCall Smith


We don't forget, thought Mma Ramotswe. Our heads may be small, but they are as full of memories as the sky may sometimes be full of swarming bees, thousands and thousands of memories, of smells, of places, of little things that happened to us and which come back, unexpectedly, to remind us who we are. And who am I? I am Precious Ramotswe, citizen of Botswana, daughter of Obed Ramotswe who died because he had been a miner and could no longer breathe. His life was unrecorded; who is there to write down the lives of ordinary people?

I first heard the name Precious Ramotswe from my friend Barbara who was having a conversation with her daughter. The expression on their faces while they were talking about her was the expression that people have when they are talking about someone they love. I asked Barbara about the book, and thereby came to read The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I can remember that I found the book in our library, and sat down in my favorite chair in the children's section to wait for my daughter to finish selecting her books. By the time she was ready to go, I had a hard time closing the book.

Mma Ramotswe is a traditionally built Motswana (a person from Botswana). After the death of her beloved Father, Mma Ramotswe uses the proceeds from the sale of his cattle to open the the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Having amply prepared herself for her true vocation by studying that exemplary text, The Principles of Private Detection, by Mr. Clovis Andersen, she launches herself into her new life.

[Mma Ramotswe] was a good detective, and a good woman. A good woman in a good country, one might say. She loved her country, Botswana, which is a place of peace, and she loved Africa, for all its trials. I am not ashamed to be called an African patriot, said Mma Ramotswe. I love all the people whom God made, but I especially know how to love the people who live in this place. They are my people, my brothers and sisters. It is my duty to help them to solve the mysteries in their lives. That is what I am called to do.

The world of Mma Ramotswe is not always happy. The books deal with many serious subjects: the working conditions of the Kalahari diamond mines, the AIDs epidemic and the many orphans who suffer as a result of the epidemic, spousal abuse and infidelity, and people who have given themselves over to evil. Both Mma and her beloved country have sad and troubled histories. Nevertheless, the overall impression that one takes away from the series is one of joy. The books are funny with a gentle, understated humor, and the overall atmosphere is one of contentment and peace.

During the course of the series we become familiar with the people who surround Mma Ramotswe. First,there is her indomitable secretary, Mma Makutsi, a widow who has just graduated from the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with an average of 97%. And then, there is Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors; he is her always trustworthy and dependable friend, an excellent man in every way and eventually, her husband. (Yes, this is a spoiler, but not much of one since it's pretty evident from the beginning.) We meet Mma Potokwane, the matron of the orphanage, who has her own irresistible way (cakes being a necessary incentive) of getting people--especially Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni--to do whatever she needs done for the children, and Mr. Polopetsi, who assists the ladies in their detection. There are also Mma Makutsi's nemesis, the evil Violet Sephotho who was an academic failure at the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills, but who succeeds wildly in her profession because of her physical charms and lack of scruples, and Note Motoki, Mma Ramotswe's selfish and unprinicipled ex-husband.

Mma Romotswe's character is beautifully drawn. She is wise and fair and generous. She is a loyal friend and a just opponent. She's the sort of person with whom I would like to sit down and have a cup of red bush tea, had I not a deep suspicion of a substance called red bush tea. She reminds me of my two African women friends, and her voice seems to be an authentic voice, which is why I was a bit taken aback when I saw this.


I must have know the name of the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, because I found the book in the library, but somehow it didn't really register with me, and it wasn't until I was well into the book that I realized that the creator of Mma Ramotswe's voice was a white (very white) man in a kilt, no less.

Despite the name and the kilt, McCall Smith comes by his knowledge of Botswana honestly. He was born in neighboring Zimbabawe, what was then Southern Rhodesia. Eventually, he received a PhD in law from the University of Edinburgh, and later returned to Africa where he helped to found the University of Botswana. He currently lives in Edinburgh.

He is the former chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee (until 2002), the former vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the United Kingdom, and a former member of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO.

(All this biographical information and more can be found in Wikipedia. I tried to find another source but since I am writing this literally at the last minute, I can't be too choosy.)

Very occasionally, Mma Ramotswe will say something which I think is out of character, most notably she once said that sometimes a woman must have an abortion, but when this happens, I just tell myself that McCall Smith is just putting words in her mouth.

McCall Smith is a very prolific writer. Since The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was published in 1998 he has written 15 more books in this series and published at least 15 other novels, some short stories and at least 2 children's books.

Another series, The Sunday Philosophy Club series, features Isabel Dalhousie, the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, and hostess of the eponymous club, although the club does not often appear in the books. I do not like these nearly as well as I do the Mma Ramotswe books, but I like them well enough. They are mysteries, but the mysteries are merely a background for the story of Isabel's life and material for her philosophical pondering about—well, everything.

There are also the 44 Scotland Street and the Corduroy Mansions series. I have read at least one of the former and perhaps I have also read one of the latter, but neither of these left much of an impression on me. I can't remember what they were about, nor can I remember much of anything about any of the characters.


Last but not least, series-wise anyway, and totally different from any of McCall Smith's other series is the small, but entirely delightful series about Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. Originally published as, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, and The Villa of Reduced Circumstances, it was later released in a single volume called The 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom. This short trilogy (the entire series runs to about 400 pages) follows the personal and professional life of Professor Dr von Igelfeld, famous in his field for his 900 page exegesis of Portuguese grammar, and “pillar of the Institute of Romance Philology in the proud Bavarian city of Regensburg.” and I found it to be hilarious. I think that anyone who has had any involvement in the drama of academic life (even anyone who has been merely on the sidelines, as I was) will appreciate these books. I see that a new, and longer (224 pages) addition to this series was released in 2013, and I'm planning to listen to it on vacation.

As far as I can remember, while the morality of the characters in these novels is not always up to Christian standards, there are no titillating passages, graphic sex scenes, or disturbing sexual relationships in any of them, and all of them are fairly positive books. This cannot be said for the one collection of short stories that I have read, The Heavenly Date and Other Flirtations. It has been a long time since I picked this book up in the library, and I did not read all the stories, but my overall impression of the stories is that they were dark and perverse throughout. They show a side of McCall Smith that I was not particularly eager to see. They are probably well-written, but I wouldn't recommend them.

All-in-all though, I have found McCall Smith's books perfect reading for those days when I want to read for pure enjoyment and relaxation. I can't say that the series are not somewhat formulaic, but there is enough variety in the stories to overcome the formulas, and there are times when you look forward to a certain dependable sameness in a story, the same way you sometimes appreciate a favorite restaurant chain after you have been on a trip where you have been eating somewhat experimentally.

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

[Editor's note: special thanks to Janet for writing this on very short (24 hours) notice. We were about to miss a week. If you've signed up for an author and know pretty definitely that you aren't going to be able to do the piece, please let me know (email address on profile page).]

52 Authors: Week 36 - Charles Dickens

Week36-Charles Dickens-Stu_html_m1fb16199

I am not an expert on Charles Dickens, but I do enjoy his writing immensely. I have gone through periods where I thought I liked other Victorian authors more: Anthony Trollope and George Eliot notably, but I always return to Dickens with vigor and realize that he is the best. Wasn’t there an old McDonalds ad which stated “30 Million Customers can’t be wrong”, or something like that? Maybe it’s not a good analogy, and perhaps being loved by the masses isn’t always best. I try to imagine what you read about that period of the 19th century and boats showing up at the port of New York that are carrying copies of the latest serial installment of a Dickens novel with near rioting on the docks. So many things in history are so hard to imagine that it is hard to even make an apt comparison.

Lately I have been going out of my comfort zone and reading mystery novels. To generalize them a little, they tend to be less than 400 pages, many less than 300. They are “quick” reads, and for me that not only means that you read through them quickly but also that I need to read them quickly, otherwise I will certainly forget important clues, plot devices, minor characters, settings … all of these things are so important in your average mystery read. I don’t think I have a terrible memory problem when it comes to reading, but I do think my memory is better with gradually delineated details rather than quick and minute ones. I am fine with a huge cast of characters as long as each character is very well explained to me by the author.

Your average 19th century tome spends a great deal of time with character development, plot development, making sure that the reader gets a very good impression of the setting, theme, mood … much of this may not be important to a 20th/21st century reader. With little else available for “self-entertainment” back in the pre-electronic age a reader might not necessarily want things to go quickly. I have so many of these classics on my Nook device (ironically) because I pick that up when I am lying in bed before sleep; these novels are warm, comfortable, cozy, and leave me feeling quite restful and pleased. I am like a hobbit in his warren and life could not be better. Quite a good way to be before falling asleep.

Charles Dickens only lived to be 58 years old, but he managed to complete fourteen novels, novellas, non-fiction, some “sketches”, and almost finish a murder mystery there at the end. He apparently was very much committed to reading his work in a public forum for his fans. Several sources seem to indicate that this hastened his ultimate demise; he became sick and was weaker and continued to read for his public. Without looking up the specifics, I believe he was married with several children, began an affair with a much younger woman and left his wife for her. Apparently celebrities are celebrities in any age. We seem to forgive celebrities their “sins” dependent upon their possible good nature, and perhaps with regard to the superiority of their product.

I mentioned in one of our recent posts how Dickens’ works can sort of be divided. If you look at a list of the novels and include The Mystery of Edwin Drood on that list, then David Copperfield takes the middle position, at number eight. The seven novels prior to DC are those of a younger novelist who is experimenting and learning his craft. The seven novels after DC are of a more experienced novelist, are seen as more realistic, have plots less likely to include fantastical coincidence, and can be a little more grim. As the reader completes Copperfield and dutifully moves to the next book he or she is faced with the grand opening chapter of Bleak House, which begins:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

I believe that this chapter acts as an introduction to a new Dickens experience. There is nothing here remotely like what has come before. Yes, Oliver Twist certainly has its disturbing aspects, but by and large it is the story of an innocent young boy with little personality whose story will inevitably take us to a happy conclusion regardless of Fagin, the Artful Dodger, and the terrible Bill Sikes. Dickens’ main characters certainly become more interesting as the novels are written, and the latter half of his oeuvre holds those which are more complex.

Week36-Charles Dickens-Stu_html_156eea4b

But where does that leave us with the beloved middle book, David Copperfield? I will resist any discussion of my personal favorite, Great Expectations, in lieu of what has already been discussed recently on this blog. But having just completed DC recently for a second time I can mention a few aspects of it which come to mind before ending this post.

With a shout-out to William Blake, if the first half of the Dickens canon is innocence (The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son), and the second half is experience (Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), then DC is a tale of a young man moving from innocence to experience. The first half of the novel shows the protagonist relaying the years of his life in which he is a very young man being bullied about by the forces of his fate as an orphan – the Murdstones, James Steerforth, and Uriah Heep most notably. Then at some point in the novel young Davey grows up and starts to fight back to some degree, and thus enables his own fate to be made. He in particular takes action against Uriah Heep which made this reader even feel a little sorry for that despicable character. I think I could write a rather long research paper on this innocence/experience idea.

This sets David Copperfield (the character) apart from characterizations in earlier books, most notably Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby (again, the characters). Oliver takes no real action, and as I mentioned before has little personality. Nicholas is simply the perfect protagonist, which also makes his character lacking to some degree. Nickleby and his sister are so wonderful and perfect for the entire book that they sort of make you sick. What saves the stories of both of these eponymous heroes are the supporting characters who surround them, and the travails they must go through to reach the end of the novel and encounter their happy ending. Destiny is more in the hands of the character of David Copperfield. This may be why Dickens is said to most prefer his middle novel, and of course it is the one modeled after himself. G.K. Chesterton is a tad more critical of David Copperfield, writing that the first half of the novel is perfect and harkens the reader back to the earlier novels, while the second half not so much. Chesterton is more of a fan of the “fun” Dickens novels. In David Copperfield, Chesterton says, Dickens is “making a romantic attempt to be realistic”.

I feel that I am not doing Charles Dickens justice in this post, and I have only given one quote which most of you have most likely already read. Even in my discussion of DC I do not give it its due – no mention of Wilkins Micawber, or Betsey Trotwood – two wonderful characters (Micawber is pictured above). Then there are the wonderful illustrations in many of his novels. I believe these were commissioned due to his immense popularity, first by George Cruikshank, then by Phiz. These illustrations are wonderful and fun to look forward to when reading, and even come through nicely on my Nook! No one needs a recommendation from me. The books are there. There are the very popular, the less popular, and then Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit (who has read these besides Chesterton?).

Many many years ago Eric Clapton was coming to Miami for a concert and friends had to convince me that it would be a worthwhile experience. I went, it was amazing, and I thought, “Well, I guess that’s why he’s Eric Clapton!” Perhaps that analogy is better than McDonalds.

—El Gaucho is a pseudonym for Stuart Moore, who used to work for a small Jesuit, Liberal Arts college in the South and now works for a small Baptist, Liberal Arts university in the South. He is either confused, seeking, or simply working for the greater glory of God with whomever he may.

52 Authors: Week 35 - Sydney Taylor

When I wrote the post about Anne Pellowski’s Latch Valley Farm series (the Catholic Little House books), I said that I would write another about a sort of Jewish Little House books. This is it.

When I was about 8 years old, The All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor were my favorites. I fell in love with them the moment I first saw them in the library. They were larger than any of the other chapter books (about 9” x 7.5”) and the covers had full-color illustrations both front and back. This was quite unique for the the time--mid '50s. I have a large collection of children’s ex-library books and none of the covers approach the quality of the artwork on these books. And the inside of the books was even better.

Week35-Sydney Taylor-Janet_Pic1

The All-of-a-Kind Family series begins about 25 years later than the Pellowski and Wilder books. It is set in the early 20th century. The woods and creek banks and windswept plains of the Little House books and the beautiful hills and valleys of the Latsch Valley books are far away from the family of this series, who live on the East Side of New York City.

The East Side was not pretty. There was no grass. Grass couldn’t very well grow on slate sidewalks or in cobblestoned gutters. There were no flowers except those one saw in the shops of the few florists. There were no tall trees lining the streets. There were tall gas lampposts instead. There was no running brook in which the children might splash on hot summer days. But there was the East River. Its waters stretched out wide and darkly green, and it smelt of fish, ships, and garbage.

Like many other families, Mama and Papa and their children lived in the crowded tenement house section of the lower East Side of New York City.

To my eight-year-old self, this would have been almost as exotic as a houseboat in China. (I really wanted to live on a houseboat in China.) We lived on a 13 acre corner lot and our house was surrounded on two sides by fields which ended in tree lines and on the third by a row of trees. I had been to downtown Memphis a few times to department stores, but I had no real conception of what an apartment was, and downtown Memphis in the mid '50s was hardly the East Side of New York at the turn of the century.

Week35-Sydney Taylor-Janet_Pic2

Mama and Papa (whose names we don’t know) and their five “steps-and-stairs” daughters (Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie), and finally baby Charlie, are more fortunate than many of the tenement-dwellers on the East Side. Although they have little money to spare, they have a four-room apartment which occupies an entire floor of their building. The reason for their comparative comfort is that Papa has his own business—a junk shop.

The girls love to visit the shop on rainy days and are therefore good friends with the peddlers who do business with Papa: Polack, Joe (a swarthy Italian), Charlie (a young, handsome man whose presence among the peddlers is somewhat of a mystery, and Picklenose.

Week35-Sydney Taylor-Janet_Pic3

Poor old Picklenose! His face would have been most ordinary had he not been blessed with such an enormous object in the middle of it. It was a bulbous nose, and not only did it glow red, but on its top grew a pickle-shaped wart which had given him his name.

There is also joy to be found sometimes in searching through other people’s cast offs, for instance, the unwanted books from a rich young man’s collection. There’s a book called Dolls That You Love with stories about the dolls on one side and paper dolls on the facing page (Oh, how I loved paper dolls), and a complete set of Dickens! I probably didn’t appreciate the Dickens at the time.

Week35-Sydney Taylor-Janet_Pic4

There is nothing especially exciting or adventurous about the stories told in these books. They are made up of the small, everyday events in the life of a happy family. The parents are loving and wise, which seems a clichė, but they are, of course, the best kind of parents to have. The children have their disagreements, but they take care of each other. The family isn’t always happy. Sometimes there is severe illness, disobedience that pains both parent and child, young men leaving for war, and a single mother dies. All-in-all though, the stories are happy ones.

My very favorite chapter is called, “Who Cares If It’s Bedtime.” The two youngest girls, Charlotte and Gertie, having used their spending money (a penny a day) to buy some candy and a bag of broken crackers, smuggle their treats into their bed to be enjoyed when they are supposed to be sleeping.

Week35-Sydney Taylor-Janet_Pic5

The room was in darkness save for the gas light which shone from the kitchen through the opened bedroom door. Lucky for them! One look at their guilty faces, and Mama would have known that something was up. But Mama suspected nothing...Tucking in the featherbed, Mama said good night to all and went out, shutting the bedroom door behind her

The fun could begin at last! Charlotte directed because the game was hers.

“First we take a chocolate baby, and we eat only the head.” They bit off the heads and chewed away contentedly.

“Now the feet.” That was hard. The tiny feet were very close to the legs but they did the best they could.

“Let’s gobble the rest up altogether.” That was a good order. They gobbled away.

Charlotte continued. “A cracker now.” They fished about in the dark. “We’ll take a small bite just to find out what kind it is.”

They each took a small bite. “Mine is a lemon snap, I think,” Gertie said. “What’s yours?”

“Mine’s a ginger. We have to nibble along the side of the piece of cracker as if we were mice and we have to do it until I say stop.”

And the games go on for another page and a half. It was the greatest desire of my life to have a bag full of broken, different-flavored crackers (Who knew there were different-flavored crackers?!) and taste them one by one with a little sister in our bed at night. Not my little sister, of course. My little sister was pretty much a nuisance and it was bad enough to have to share my room with her, much less my bed. I wanted a little sister named Gertie. My mother’s name was Gertie and I’d never before known that a child could have that name. I was glad, though, that I wasn’t a child with that name.

The very best part of these books, though, was the description of the Jewish feasts. There was one about the solemn celebration of Passover, and one about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when you had to fast all day—really fast and ask God to forgive you for your sins. I wanted to light the menorah for the Festival of Lights. I wanted to dress up for Purim and go from door to door singing,

Today is Purim
Tomorrow no more,
Give me a penny
And show me the door.

Week35-Sydney Taylor-Janet_Pic6

But most of all, I wanted my father to build a Succah for us to live in during the Feast of Booths.

Sydney Taylor was born Sarah Brenner in 1904 in New York City. Her parents and older sister, Ella, immigrated to the United States in 1900, and the All-of-a-Kind Family books were the stories of her family. Ms. Taylor was the middle daughter. There are five books in the series: All-of-a-Kind Family, More All-of-a-Kind Family, All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, and Ella All-of-a-Kind Family. The first three were written in the 1950s and the latter two in the 1970s. It may not surprise you to find out that the first three are the best. Naturally, I didn’t read the last two when I was young because they weren’t written, and it was only when I was reading the books to my children that I came across them. Sadly, I really didn’t like the last one very much at all.

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

52 Authors: Week 34 - G.K. Chesterton

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly” said Gilbert Keith Chesterton and that gives me the strength to tackle this post, when a fear of not being able to do it well enough would prevent me from even starting.

From 6-8 August, I attended the American Chesterton Society's (ACS) Conference in San Antonio, Texas (a mere four hour drive from my house!) entitled “A Miscellany of Men.”

I had a blast! There were some people there I had met last year, so it was great to see them again and I met plenty of good people at this conference too.

The talks I particularly liked were:

Chesterton and Orestes Brownson

Chesterton and William Cobbett

Chesterton and Distributism

Chesterton and Oscar Wilde

Chesterton as a Model of Lay Spirituality

I'm giving these titles here in case anyone might be interested in hearing them when they become available to download for just a couple of dollars each from the ACS website (here is the link). Kevin O'Brien gave such a passionate talk on GKC and Orestes Brownson, using illustrations of the struggles in his own life, that we gave him a standing ovation.

The talk on William Cobbett (1763-1835 – basically one century before Chesterton) was very interesting to me, because I had only recently heard of him as one of the early historians to challenge the official Whig History of England. I had just bought Chesterton's biography of Cobbett at the book table and GKC's dedication moved me so much I was in tears:

To all the present-day Cobbetts, wherever they may be, who let neither fortune nor favour stand in the way of their defense of the Truth, in season and out, and its proclamation from the housetops. Take courage: for Truth has already overcome the World.

I nearly didn't bother attending the talk on Chesterton and Distributism, because I felt I'd heard it all before. However, I changed my mind, attended, and am pretty glad I did. It was given by John Medaille (pronounced May-die: he wants a hospital named after him!). The Dismal Science hurts my brain at the best of times and especially at 4pm on a Friday afternoon. Consequently I really didn't understand much, but I picked up enough to realise that this was an important talk. He spoke of needing to explain Distributism as a real alternative to modern economics and to demonstrate it as such he applied its principles to cost accounting. Yes, it was getting more dull by the nano-second. I can't explain it to anyone else, but I think that anyone who is truly interested in Distributism would do very well to listen to this talk when it is put up on the ACS website, and that's why I've included this information here.

Joseph Pierce gave a talk entitled Chesterton and Oscar Wilde. I highly recommend it – again, when it becomes available to download. He mostly speaks of Wilde's lifelong love affair with the Catholic Church and by itself, the list of Decadents who eventually converted to the Faith is worth listening to the talk for. Chesterton was no great fan of Wilde, but he did have this to say:

The time has certainly come when this extraordinary man, Oscar Wilde, may be considered merely as a man of letters. He sometimes pretended that art was more important than morality, but that was mere play-acting. Morality or immorality was more important than art to him and everyone else. But the very cloud of tragedy that rested on his career makes it easier to treat him as a mere artist now. His was a complete life, in that awful sense in which your life and mine are incomplete; since we have not yet paid for our sins. In that sense one might call it a perfect life, as one speaks of a perfect equation; it cancels out. On the one hand we have the healthy horror of the evil; on the other the healthy horror of the punishment. We have it all the more because both sin and punishment were highly civilized; that is, nameless and secret. Some have said that Wilde was sacrificed; let it be enough for us to insist on the literal meaning of the word. Any ox that is really sacrificed is made sacred.


The American Chesterton Society has done great work in keeping the work of Chesterton alive and spreading the good news. Lots of people have converted to the Catholic Faith at least partly because of Chesterton, so it is valuable work. Its website has been nominated for best resources website at Best Catholic Websites. I include their blurb here:

The American Chesterton Society (ACS), founded in 1996, works to promote interest in G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. A convert to the Catholic Church, Chesterton wrote over a hundred books during his lifetime and published over five thousand essays in newspapers and magazines.

One of the most quoted writers in the English language, yet one of the least studied, G.K. Chesterton foresaw and wrote about the issues we struggle with today: social injustice, the culture of death, the decline of the arts, assaults on religion, and attacks on the family and on the dignity of the human person.

One of the talks from last year's conference which I really loved was by David Fagerberg:

Chesterton Is Everywhere

He has a book of the same title and naturally I bought a copy. Here are a couple of GKC quotes from the book, which I only found as I was skimming through it this morning:

Once I found a friend
“Dear me,” I said, “he was made for me.”
But now I find more and more friends
Who seem to have been made for me
And more and yet more made for me,
Is it possible we were all made for each other
all over the world?

(from one of his early notebooks in his youth)

A Man Born on the Earth

Perhaps there has been some mistake
How does he know he has come to the right place?
But when he finds his friends
He knows he has come to the right place.

I often feel that Chesterton really is everywhere. By now I have read quite a few of his books and certainly many quotes. He wrote about so many things that I often think of what he would say, when I'm at home looking after the children, when I'm at the store, when I'm with friends and family and especially when I am online!

I first read Chesterton some time in the nineties, I think. I would have read some of the Fr. Brown stories, but didn't read anything else of his until some time in 2002. For some reason, my husband had bought me a subscription to the St. Austin Review and one edition was devoted to Distributism. This certainly had me interested in finding out more, so I next read more about this topic and also tried to read Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. Initially, I didn't have much success, but then I worked out that Chesterton does not write “linearly.” He sort of meanders about, it seems to me. So then I decided just to follow him around and I've been doing that ever since! I re-read Orthodoxy, or parts of it fairly regularly. After these, I read his biographies of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, which I enjoyed. More recently I have read What's Wrong With The World and so far this is one of my favourites. I love reading a chapter or two regularly. (It can be read online at Project Gutenberg.)

From the chapter “The Emancipation of Domesticity”:

The shortest way of summarizing the position is to say that woman stands for the idea of Sanity; that intellectual home to which the mind must return after every excursion on extravagance. The mind that finds its way to wild places is the poet's; but the mind that never finds its way back is the lunatic's. There must in every machine be a part that moves and a part that stands still; there must be in everything that changes a part that is unchangeable. And many of the phenomena which moderns hastily condemn are really parts of this position of the woman as the center and pillar of health. Much of what is called her subservience, and even her pliability, is merely the subservience and pliability of a universal remedy; she varies as medicines vary, with the disease. She has to be an optimist to the morbid husband, a salutary pessimist to the happy-go-lucky husband. She has to prevent the Quixote from being put upon, and the bully from putting upon others. The French King wrote—

"Toujours femme varie Bien fol qui s'y fie,"

but the truth is that woman always varies, and that is exactly why we always trust her. To correct every adventure and extravagance with its antidote in common-sense is not (as the moderns seem to think) to be in the position of a spy or a slave. It is to be in the position of Aristotle or (at the lowest) Herbert Spencer, to be a universal morality, a complete system of thought. The slave flatters; the complete moralist rebukes. It is, in short, to be a Trimmer in the true sense of that honorable term; which for some reason or other is always used in a sense exactly opposite to its own. It seems really to be supposed that a Trimmer means a cowardly person who always goes over to the stronger side. It really means a highly chivalrous person who always goes over to the weaker side; like one who trims a boat by sitting where there are few people seated. Woman is a trimmer; and it is a generous, dangerous and romantic trade.

I don't wish to start a quarrel in the commbox about the role of women in the home v. women in the workforce. I simply include these large passages because they are directly applicable to my own life as a homeschooling mother and I have found much comfort in them when I have really needed it:

To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

Finally, Chesterton is on Twitter!

Some of today's quotes from GKC fans on Twitter (August 16th):

“We fight for the right of normal people to define normality”

“There are only two things that can bind men together; a convention and a creed.”

“Morality is always terribly complicated—to a man who has lost all his principles.”

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

“All that talk of not caring for creeds has simply become one fixed, very formal, and slightly hypocritical creed.”

“In the modern world we are rapidly going back to dividing the tolerable and the intolerable merely as the familiar and the unfamiliar.”

“The weakness in the Liberal theory of toleration was this: that its apostles seem to have taken common morals & natural religion for granted.”

"A patriot is always a little sad."


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

52 Authors: Week 33 - Marion Montgomery

Marion Montgomery (1925-2011) authored three novels, three books of poems, and several short stories, a few of which were award winners. He is best known, however, as the author of some 20 or so books of literary and cultural criticism, based on a Thomist reading of philosophy, history and literature. At the root of his critical work is the idea that the “spirit of the age” has manifested itself in poetry and literature as much as it has in political and social matters, and that analysis of literature can thus aid us in the diagnosis of modern ailments with a view towards eventual treatment.

Montgomery taught literature and creative writing at the University of Georgia for over 30 years before his retirement in 1987, after which he continued writing and lecturing. He was born in the same general area of central Georgia as Flannery O’Connor was, in the same year, and they both attended the same graduate program, the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He didn’t know her then, however, and was only introduced to her work in the early 1950’s, when a friend recommended one of her stories that had appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. They later became friends and correspondents. In a well-known letter from 1962 O’Connor praised Montgomery’s first novel, The Wandering of Desire: “The Southern writer can out-write anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history. You have more than your share of both and a splendid gift besides.”

Montgomery found out later, after O’Connor’s death, that they had both been reading St. Thomas at the same time, using the same book as a guide -- Anton Pegis’s Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas. Just as for O’Connor Thomas became the touchstone for Montgomery’s reading of history, philosophy and literature, and he was extremely well-read in all three. He is one of those writers who appears to have “read everything,” although Michael Jordan of Hillsdale College believes that this is because Montgomery may have had a photographic memory. Because of this, as well as his discursive style, Montgomery can be quite challenging to read. Fortunately, unlike many contemporary critics, he uses no modern lit-crit jargon, so even when he’s difficult he’s not indecipherable.

Because of his style and his depth (as well as his tendency to write long paragraphs), Montgomery is difficult to quote. He is the precise opposite of an aphorist, and out of the context of the flow of his arguments his paragraphs wouldn’t make a lot of sense. One finds evidence of this in one of the most well-known analyses of Montgomery’s work, the essay “Why Marion Montgomery Has To ‘Ramble’ “by Gerhart Niemeyer. Niemeyer includes a few block quotes from Montgomery’s work in his essay, but the majority of the quotes are smaller ones embedded in the essay’s text itself, used to support Niemeyer’s various points.

Says Niemeyer, the prime matter that Montgomery addresses in all his work is the modern idea of freedom, which allows even the freedom of “the will to atheism,” which involves alienation, the self-separation of the individual from reality. This act, in Montgomery’s words, “issues forth from the deepest regions of the self, where freedom is more than choice, where it is the self recognizing its own existence in the recognition of God or rejecting its own existence in the refusal of God – and thus lapsing into absurdity.” Where other writers have traced this absurdity in politics and culture, “Montgomery traces it in American literature.”

A good example of this approach, which also serves as a summary of his take on Flannery O’Connor, is this excerpt from his little book The Trouble With You Innerleckchuls:

It was mistakenly assumed when the stories first began to appear, and it continues to be, that [O’Connor] writes a very sophisticated kind of local color with sociological implications. But what interests her is the condition of the modern intellectual. That is the issue in this fiction, rather than representations of rural characters whose concrete historical presence misleads “some New York critics.” The pole of grace on the one hand and of the finite gnostic mind on the other establish the intellectual ground within which the fiction’s dramatic tension arcs, sputters into a climax, and then calms to a steady glow when the reality of existence – of being – reasserts itself with persuasive finality. Hence we discover that her protagonists are, in their spiritual state, reflections of the larger, geographically foreign (one might call it New Yorkish) intellectual community where Gnosticism is dominant and from whence it trickles down through Atlanta (Taulkingham), even unto rural Georgia. She says this to be so and says it in plain enough language in her letters and essays. But that her agents are reflections of that larger self-insured gnostic world is signaled as well by the disquiet with which her fiction was and is received in many otherwise sophisticated quarters.

The attempt to declare Haze Motes or The Misfit merely backwoods psychopaths, the sort of unfortunate, deprived creatures on the evening news for whom poverty programs and rehabilitation are designed, is only a momentary stay against confusion, against a shock of self-recognition. Her chosen audience doesn’t remain safe, since the stories keep saying, shouting in an irresistible way, “You can’t be any poorer than dead” – dead spiritually and intellectually.

The constant comparison in Montgomery’s work is thus between those thinkers and writers who reflect “the pole of grace” and those who champion the “finite gnostic mind.” Drawing into the discussion poets, novelists, and philosophers, Montgomery believes that most writers lean towards one or the other, and that this leaning is reflected in their writing. Into this discussion he brings the thoughts of such luminaries as Hawthorne, Poe, Wordsworth, Dostoevsky, Eliot, the Fugitives, Pound, Maritain, Voegelin, Gabriel Marcel and Walker Percy.

As a starting point for reading Montgomery, I’d recommend the collection of essays titled On Matters Southern, edited by Michael Jordan. For a deeper introduction, one that requires some familiarity with O’Connor’s work, I’d recommend the small, but dense, book I quoted above, The Trouble With You Innerleckchuls, published by Christendom College in 1988.

I’ve read two of the three novels, The Wandering of Desire and Darrell, and though I liked both, I’d have to give the nod to the former. It’s a tragi-comic somewhat Faulknerian story of two families who have fought for generations over a piece of land, it going by hook or crook back and forth between them. As far as his poetry goes, I’ve not read enough of it to comment, other than to say that he has written in both modern and traditional/formal styles, and is seemingly fairly adept at both.

When Montgomery died on Thanksgiving weekend 2011, he was in the midst of writing a book on Hawthorne. Not sure if/when that will ever see daylight, so at present Montgomery’s last published book was 2009’s With Walker Percy at the Tupperware Party, a big rich ride through Percy’s fiction and nonfiction. It’s a no-nonsense academic-level work, albeit one with absolutely no critical apparatus: no index, no notes, no bibliography, no table of contents. Just a solid block of 330 pages of text divided into numbered chapters -- huge, challenging, and fun, like an intellectual whitewater rafting trip.


M.M. is one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and I fear I haven’t quite done him justice here. He’s a writer that for whatever reason I find much easier to talk about than to write about. But if your appetite has been whetted a little I encourage you to give him a go. In my opinion he was one of the most astute and interesting literary and cultural critics of the past thirty or forty years. I’ve come across no one that connects literary and philosophical dots in quite the way that he’s able to, and it is this aspect of his work that I find most stimulating.

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

52 Authors: Week 32 - Thomas Mann

I have met few people who have read Thomas Mann extensively, and, among those few, fewer still who hold him in as high regard as I do. The problem, therefore, seems to be one mostly of neglect, and only secondarily of poor judgement. My own view is that he ranks with the finest novelists of the twentieth century. 

Mann was born in 1875, in Lübeck, and died in 1955, in Zürich. He lived most of his life in Germany, though for a little over a decade, during and after the Second World War, he resided in the United States. (A few years ago, when at Princeton University, I had the joy of visiting his former home and standing in his library, which was quite a thrill. Presumably anyone could do the same: the house is now the home of the university's Catholic chaplaincy.) He had been forced to flee Germany when the Nazis, of whom he had been a forceful critic, came to power. He continued his critique of Hitler's regime from the safety of America, and, in the post-war years, one of his greatest works resulted from a long meditation on the intersection of Nazism with German history and culture. But more on that below.


Mann with Einstein at Princeton, 1938

Mann was something of a prodigy. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, the work principally cited by the committee was Buddenbrooks, which had been published when he was just 26 years old. This book is in the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, and traces the slow decline of a family over the course of several generations. It was an assured and impressive debut, but, if memory serves (for I have read it only once), it only hinted at those qualities which were to distinguish Mann's writing as he matured: his long, delicate sentences, with their networks of balanced and counter-balanced clauses (a reasonable English-language comparison would be with Henry James); the poise and precision of his language, which always gives the reader the sense of being in the company of a man who is thinking, and thinking carefully; his talent for adopting a distinctive narrative voice that lingers in the imagination long after the details of the plot have drifted away; an interest in matters of culture, history, religion, and philosophy; and, perhaps most distinctively, an ability to write stories which, while not exactly allegorical, resonate with multiple levels of meaning, and are therefore richer and more rewarding than a bald description would suggest.

In my opinion Mann's two masterpieces are The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. The former is a sprawling tale about a young man, Hans Castorp, who, suffering from some ill-defined disorder, "takes the cure" in a mountaintop sanitorium for an extended period — so extended, in fact, that the reader begins to suspect not only that he is not recovering, but that the doctors who treat him do not intend his recovery. Castorp is naive, and during his stay he falls under the influence of a number of older intellectuals who introduce him to the contested battlefield of ideas raging over European culture, morality, and history. If that makes it sound didactic, I have failed; it is, I suppose, one of those dreaded "novels of ideas" — a meditation on fin-de-siècle European society, for which the sanitorium itself becomes a proxy — but so beautifully written that it dazzles rather than discourages the reader. And persevere to the end: the last chapter is staggeringly great.

Even better (for I would count it among my favourite novels) is Doctor Faustus, a modernized and novelized telling of the famous legend. In Mann's version, the Faust character is a composer named Adrian Leverkühn (modelled rather obviously on Arnold Schoenberg) who makes a diabolical wager in exchange for a lifetime of artistic brilliance and acclaim. Sticking to the conventions of the realistic novel, Mann's tale can be read as confined safely within an immanent frame — there is no Devil in the waiting room such as visited Ivan Karamazov — but the realm of portent and mystery hovers over Adrian all the same. And, by ingenious use of a framing device, the story of Adrian's life becomes a mirror in which to examine Germany's ill-fated encounter with National Socialism, a deal with the Devil if ever there was one. It's a wonderfully rich book, especially recommended to music lovers, for it contains some of the finest writing about music that you're likely to find.

For the readers of this blog, I would also recommend two other books. Joseph and his Brothers is Mann's longest book — a tetralogy, really — which runs to about 1200 pages in my edition. The story is that of the Biblical Joseph, and I know of no greater novelistic realization of a Biblical story than this one. It is told rather straightforwardly, with evident respect for the subject matter — though, as is often the case with Mann, the reader cannot perhaps entirely shake the worry that there is an understated irony sunk several fathoms deep. The narrative immerses the reader in the historical period, teasing out the religious mindset of the time in an effort to better understand and appreciate the origins of monotheism. Mann himself apparently considered it his greatest work, and the judgement is a defensible one. I am due for a re-read. And the other book is The Holy Sinner. Though it is generally thought to a fairly minor work — certainly it is much shorter than any of the books I have mentioned thus far! — it has an appeal all its own. The story is a re-working of a medieval legend about the early life of Pope Gregory (which one, I am not sure). It is a tale of magic, with elements familiar from medieval romances, and makes no effort, so far as I recall, to transpose the legend into realist terms. The tale is one that had fascinated Mann for years. (In Doctor Faustus Adrian Leverkühn had actually composed an oratorio telling the same story.) I remember that I greatly enjoyed it when I first read it; again, I am due for a re-read.

Mann is also admired for his short stories, especially "Death in Venice". His collected short stories fill a hefty single volume, and there are some jewels in it. I would particularly recommend two of them: "Tonio Kröger" is, in my opinion, his best short story, exploring some of the same themes as "Death in Venice" (especially the contest of Apollo and Dionysius in life and art), but doing it more winsomely and without the unsavoury elements. And I am also very fond of "A Man and his Dog", which is about ... a man and his dog. Dog-lovers will, I predict, get a kick out of Mann's unnervingly precise descriptions of dog antics; cat-lovers will probably hate it.

I should say that I have read Mann only in translation. He has had two principal translators into English. H.T. Lowe-Porter translated the books as they were being published and came to be closely identified with Mann in the English-speaking world; her versions were known to him and I believe he thought them satisfactory. In the last few decades John E. Woods has been producing fresh translations; he has completed most of the books I have recommended here (the exceptions being The Holy Sinner and the short stories). For purposes of comparison, here is Lowe-Porter's version of the first paragraph of The Magic Mountain:

The story of Hans Castorp, which we would here set forth, not on his own account, for in him the reader will make acquaintance with a simple-minded though pleasing young man, but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us highly worth telling — though it must needs be borne in mind, in Hans Castorp's behalf, that it is his story, and not every story happens to everybody — this story, we say, belongs to the long ago; is already, so to speak, covered with historic mould.

Catch that? (One wit credited Lowe-Porter with having translated Mann into German.) Here is Woods with the same passage:

The story of Hans Castorp that we intend to tell here not for his own sake (for the reader will come to know him as a perfectly ordinary, if engaging young man), but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us to be very much worth the telling (although in Hans Castorp's favor it should be noted that it is his story, and that not every story happens to everybody) is a story that took place long ago and is, so to speak, covered with the patina of history.

My own preference, not just in this case but in general, is for Woods' translations.


I wish that I knew more about Thomas Mann, the person, but I don't. I believe that he was a rather sad man — if I remember rightly, at least a few members of his family committed suicide — and his intellectual influences, which would include Nietzsche, Wagner, Schopenhauer, and Freud, are not exactly a band of merry men, but from his books I have learned that he was a man committed to serious moral reflection who used the resources of modernist literature to probe the spiritual and intellectual malaise of our times. In that sense, he can be appreciated as something like a secular counterpart to T.S. Eliot. There was nothing of the ideologue in him, and he was a great artist.

In conclusion, Thomas Mann was a wonderful novelist.

—Craig Burrell is not a wonderful novelist, nor any sort of novelist, but if he were he would try to be like Thomas Mann. He blogs (in a manner of speaking) at All Manner of Thing, and is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton. He lives in Canada.

52 Authors: Week 31 - Newman

I am not a Newman enthusiast. I find his prose to be dense, difficult, and often obtuse, not to mention unnecessarily long-winded. This is probably one of those differences in sensibilities between 19th century Victorians and 21st century blog readers. I find much more pleasure reading Lewis.

That being said, Newman is one of the most important authors in my intellectual formation and spiritual development. First of all, he was a major influence on several authors that been crucial to me—Tolkien, de Lubac, Pieper, and Giussani. And, of course, many people say Vatican II was “Newman’s Council.” I wrote my dissertation on Vatican II (Gaudium et spes).

Besides that, a handful of key ideas taken from a reading of Newman’s works have substantially changed my intellectual makeup. I have read four books by Newman. Three of the four contained ideas that forever changed the way I look at very important realities in my life and in the life of the Church and the world. I have read almost none of his other, occasional writings, poetry, or his fiction.

The four books are An Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent, The Idea of a University, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Looking at each one in turn, I will focus on the idea that has affected me rather than giving a general overview of their structure and content. I trust that even if these particular ideas aren’t life-changing for you, there is something in these works that will be. Newman is that important.

Note: the quotations are going to be long. You have to put up with that with Newman. He says in 20 lines what might be said in 5. There is a reason for this, which has to do with the method proposed in Grammar.

Grammar of Assent

Grammar was written in response to Humean skepticism. It was an apologetic work, the final chapter being a defense of theism and Catholic faith.

The main point is that certainty and assent do not come from formal inference—logical syllogisms—because in any formal inference (logical argument) you also had disputable premises, leading to an infinite regress of controvertible premises. Logic therefore only produces probabilities. Also, formal inferences tend to produce notional assent to abstract concepts. Real assent, which is always about individuals and particulars, is much more easily able to impel the affections and passions.

For Newman, certainty is achieved through an informal process of accumulating evidence, a “mass of probabilities” (233), from all kinds of sources, including experience, reliable reports from trusted authorities, and logical arguments, which then are united in our minds by what Newman called the “illative sense,” a synthesizing faculty which functions quasi-unconsiously. While each of the individual pieces of evidence is only probable, the conclusion has the character of certainty.

And to this conclusion he comes, as is plain, not by any possible verbal enumeration of all the considerations, minute but abundant, delicate but effective, which unite to bring him to it; but by a mental comprehension of the whole case, and a discernment of its upshot, sometimes after much deliberation, but, it may be, by a clear and rapid act of the intellect, always, however, by an unwritten summing-up, something like the summation of the terms, plus and minus of an algebraical series” (232)

The concept of the illative sense freed me from any temptation to require Cartesian clear and distinct ideas or mathematical certainty before assenting to a truth. What is necessary is a convergence of probable evidence and an absence of any substantial opposing evidence.

One of the consequences of Newman’s thesis is the impact it has on education. As Newman states, the affections are moved by the concrete, the image, rather than the abstract concept. Combining the Thomist affirmation that the will is only moved to act by the passions associated with the image (phantasm) properly informed by reason, one can find a theoretical basis for Christopher Dawson’s contention that a renewal of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition should focus not so much on Thomistic philosophy and scientific theology, on which a consensus is now gone, but rather history, literature, and the arts.

The Idea of a University

I read Idea of a University at the same time as I was reading St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium (Mind’s Road to God). I wrote a paper coordinating the two. I wish I still had that paper.

Newman famously asserts that the purpose of the university is not moral or spiritual formation, but universal knowledge. In other words, its purpose is to cultivate the intellectual virtues, not the moral or supernatural. It is not enough for Newman that the University provides a home for a large variety of sciences; the ultimate purpose is to cultivate a coordinating intellectual activity he calls the “philosophical habit,” a.k.a. the habitus philosophicus. Sciences, even theology, are incomplete and subservient to “philosophy” as such. Here is his description:

[A]ll knowledge forms one whole, because its subject-matter is one; for the universe in its length and breadth is so intimately knit together, that we cannot separate off portion from portion, and operation from operation, except by a mental abstraction; and then again, as to its Creator, though He of course in His own Being is infinitely separate from it, and Theology has its departments towards which human knowledge has no relations, yet He has so implicated Himself with it, and taken it into His very bosom, by His presence in it, His providence over it, His impressions upon it, and His influences through it, that we cannot truly or fully contemplate it without in some main aspects contemplating Him. Next, sciences are the results of that mental abstraction, which I have spoken of, being the logical record of this or that aspect of the whole subject-matter of knowledge. As they all belong to one and the same circle of objects, they are one and all connected together; as they are but aspects of things, they are severally incomplete in their relation to the things themselves, though complete in their own idea and for their own respective purposes; on both accounts they at once need and subserve each other. And further, the comprehension of the bearings of one science on another, and the use of each to each, and the location and limitation and adjustment and due appreciation of them all, one with another, this belongs, I conceive, to a sort of science distinct from all of them, and in some sense a science of sciences, which is my own conception of what is meant by Philosophy, in the true sense of the word, and of a philosophical habit of mind, and which in these Discourses I shall call by that name. (Discourse 3)

To cultivate this habit is the central purpose of the university.

An important quality of the university is participation in a community of scholars from a large circle of disciplines who are engaged in philosophical discussions about the relationship between the sciences.

An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. (Discourse 5)

God knows university life is often not like this!

The effect of this habit properly cultivated is to somewhat lesson the temptation to prejudice, ideology and relativism:

To have even a portion of this illuminative reason and true philosophy is the highest state to which nature can aspire, in the way of intellect; it puts the mind above the influences of chance and necessity, above anxiety, suspense, unsettlement, and superstition, which is the lot of the many. Men, whose minds are possessed with some one object, take exaggerated views of its importance, are feverish in the pursuit of it, make it the measure of things which are utterly foreign to it, and {138} are startled and despond if it happens to fail them. They are ever in alarm or in transport. Those on the other hand who have no object or principle whatever to hold by, lose their way, every step they take. They are thrown out, and do not know what to think or say, at every fresh juncture; they have no view of persons, or occurrences, or facts, which come suddenly upon them, and they hang upon the opinion of others, for want of internal resources. But the intellect, which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another. (Discourse 6)

This does not free the recipient of such an education from the distortions and blindness that come from moral and spiritual poverty.

I’m no expert on the British education system, but I think the residential college and tutorial in the Oxbridge system serve the purpose of providing this kind of community and cultivation of a philosophical habit. The colleges are also are supposed to provide for the cultivation of non-intellectual habits, such as religion and morals, I guess, although Brideshead and the life of Thomas Merton make me doubt how effective they are.

On the Development of Christian Doctrine

This essay did not influence me concerning the main thesis about the integrity of doctrine in its development. That has always seemed to me to be obvious and common sense even before I read the essay.

The essay most directly influenced my spiritual life, especially my devotion to Our Lady. The usual response to a Protestant objection to our veneration of Mary is to say we don’t “worship” her, but give her honor not unlike we give special people honor and we don’t pray to her, but ask her to pray for us. All well and good, but that doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. In fact, Catholics do treat Mary as a kind of divinity.

Newman helped me see why this is the case and why it is not really a problem. Specifically, the honors paid Mary are paid to a creature just as the Arians considered Christ a creature, although far above us. Mary is above us because she has experienced transforming power of the resurrection of the body known as theosis or divinization. She participates in the divine nature in a way that we only will at the second coming, but even so to a greater degree.

And as containing all created perfection, she has all those attributes, which, as was noticed above, the Arians and other heretics applied to our Lord, and which the Church denied of Him as infinitely below His Supreme Majesty….Christ is the First-born by nature; the Virgin in a less sublime order, viz. that of adoption. Again, if omnipotence is ascribed to her, it is a participated omnipotence (as she and all Saints have a participated sonship, divinity, glory, holiness, and worship). (Ch. 11, Section II.10)

Newman asserted that Arius had opened up for the Church a “place” in her thinking for an exalted creature like that which Arius ascribed to Christ. That place was filled in her speculation and piety by the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And thus the controversy opened a question which it did not settle. It discovered a new sphere, if we may so speak, in the realms of light, to which the Church had not yet assigned its inhabitant..…Thus there was "a wonder in heaven:" a throne was seen, far above all other created powers, mediatorial, intercessory; a title archetypal; {144} a crown bright as the morning star; a glory issuing from the Eternal Throne; robes pure as the heavens; and a sceptre over all; and who was the predestined heir of that Majesty? Since it was not high enough for the Highest, who was that Wisdom, and what was her name, "the Mother of fair love, and fear, and holy hope," "exalted like a palm-tree in Engaddi, and a rose-plant in Jericho," "created from the beginning before the world" in God's everlasting counsels, and "in Jerusalem her power"? The vision is found in the Apocalypse, a Woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. The votaries of Mary do not exceed the true faith, unless the blasphemers of her Son came up to it. The Church of Rome is not idolatrous, unless Arianism is orthodoxy. (Chapter 4)

Newman’s sense was that the common devotion to Christ, though nominally orthodox, was de facto Arian or worse:

Yet it is not wonderful, considering how Socinians, Sabellians, Nestorians, and the like, abound in these days, without their even knowing it themselves, if those who never rise higher in their notions of our Lord's Divinity, than to consider Him a man singularly inhabited by a Divine Presence, that is, a Catholic Saint,—if such men should mistake the honour paid by the Church to the human Mother for that very honour which, and which alone, is worthy of her Eternal Son. (Ch. 4, Section II.9)

I]t must be asked, whether the character of much of the Protestant devotion towards our Lord has been that of adoration at all; and not rather such as we pay to an excellent human being, that is, no higher devotion than that which Catholics pay to St. Mary, differing from it, however, in often being familiar, rude, and earthly. Carnal minds will ever create a carnal worship for themselves; and to forbid them the service of the Saints will have no tendency to teach them the worship of God. (Ch. 11, Section II.3)

This leads them to mistake the Catholic devotion to Mary for idolatry. All the early heresies, and the Protestant practical Arianism tended to underestimate the potential of the creature to be a vessel of Glory. Orthodoxy established the absolute transcendence of the Divinity of Christ, thus making room for the affirmation of the exalted destiny of the creature, esp. after the resurrection of the dead as exemplified in Mary (Ch. 4, Sec. II.10).

Chapter 4 contains a very long enumeration of patristic witnesses to the glories of Mary, especially starting at Section II.11. Chapter 10.4 and Chapter 11, Section II give detailed explanations of the history and dogmatic justification for Catholic devotion to Mary as exalted Queen.


The Apologia, from what I remember of it, is a defense against that accusation that Newman as a Catholic condoned the use of an “economy” to explain or defend the Catholic faith. An “economy” is a nominal distortion of the truth so as to have the desired good effect in the mind of the hearer.

The accusation is that this is the normal modus operandi of the Catholic Church (the putative Jesuitical dissembling). He wrote it not because he was worried about his reputation, but because he was concerned that such a vice in so public a figure would unnecessarily mar the reputation of the Church. True to the method of Grammar, he does not simply argue abstractly using syllogisms, but rather argues by giving a detailed account of his entire life, thereby hoping that the convergence of an avalanche of evidence would convince the reader that it was impossible that, precisely because he had become a Catholic, he could use lies to promote the truth.

Still, for me, the Apologia cameoff as whiny. It has been a long time. Maybe I would have a different experience now.


I don’t know Newman’s poetry very well, but one of his verses have long been a part of my personal spiritual life. I turn to it when my habitual melancholy threatens to sweep hope away:

LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
    Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
    Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that Thou
    Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
    Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
    Will lead me on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
    The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

At Sea.
June 16, 1833.

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

52 Authors: Week 30 - Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) has the distinction of being a significant poet of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Had he died in 1900—or, blurring the century line to include 1904's In the Seven Woods—he might not have been considered a major poet, but he certainly would have been remembered. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” would have been the same anthology favorite that it has been, I suppose, since it was published. And there are at least half a dozen more poems in those early books that would have lived on similarly, and many more than that to reward the reader who looked further than anthologies.

The early work is decidedly 19th century. Yeats was Irish and very much involved with the revival of Celtic art and culture that was sometimes called the “Celtic Twilight” movement, and he was sympathetic (at least) to Irish nationalism. Both these facts now seem a little surprising to me, since he was of Protestant ancestry. But I don't actually know much about Irish history beyond the very broadest outlines, and perhaps they shouldn't be surprising.

The Celtic Twilight poems are romantic in every sense. The first poem, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” in the first book, Crossways, states the position:

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy...

The poems are lush and dreamy and often attempt to get at an ecstatic or visionary state. Yeats was fascinated—an understatement—by esoteric mystical doctrines and was among those who seemed to regard poetry as a quasi-religious gateway to spiritual experiences. That's a questionable—no, a downright unhealthy—view of what poetry is and what it is for, and it caused the orthodox T.S. Eliot to sniff that Yeats in his early career was “trying to get as poet something like the exaltation to be obtained, I believe, from hashish or nitrous oxide.” (I quote that because it's funny; Eliot was all in all a great admirer of Yeats.)

But whatever may have been amiss with the theory, it produced (or Yeats produced in spite of it), some beautiful and haunting verse, although often of a somewhat misty nature. He tended toward two themes. One was the allure of the pagan supernatural world that he believed, or wished to believe, still existed alongside the mundane Ireland. All you really need to know of the names in this poem is that the Sidhe are a kind of fairy folk.

The Hosting of the Sidhe

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

You may have read in school another poem on a similar theme, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” If you don't remember, he was the fellow who hoped to

...pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

But I think the Sidhe weave a more powerful spell. The lines beginning “We come between him...” never fail to touch me: is that not what happens to anyone any time he feels the touch of unattainable beauty?

The other theme was love, romantic love, and until he was well into middle age the subject of these poems was a woman named Maud Gonne and his unrequited love for her. The complications of his love life continued for many years, and included, in 1916 (or 1917—I'm having trouble finding the exact date), a proposal of marriage from the fifty-something poet to Maud's twenty-something daughter, Iseult.


Oh yes, you are [happy], because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that....The world should thank me for not marrying you.

Yeats's later style became sharper, drier, less mellifluous, more angular. His subject matter became sex, death, politics, and philosophy (not necessarily in order of emphasis). His rhetoric was often blunt. You might say that he became a modernist, but he never abandoned traditional form. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that he responded to modernism, and availed himself of some of the freedom it brought. It occurs to me as I write this that he is comparable to Sibelius, who was born the same year. Both had their roots in Romanticism, and without abandoning those roots adopted what they found useful and appealing in modern innovations, producing work that satisfies both those who were thoroughly impatient with the art of the 19th century and those who thought free verse, atonal music, and abstract painting were ridiculous.

It is this later work that makes us describe him not simply as a major poet, not even simply as a great poet, but as, in the view of many, the great poet in English of the 20th century—that three-quarters or so of the Lyric section of the Collected Poems that lie past a finger holding the book open at the beginning of Responsibilities, which appeared in 1914. Yeats was then almost fifty years old, and would write profusely for another twenty-five years, until his death in 1939. “The Second Coming” appeared in 1921, and as lovely as the early romantic work can be, this is of another and greater order. And he has many poems that can be ranked with it.

I myself am not entirely with those who would call him the greatest of the century. Greatest in pure gift, yes: but I mentioned that philosophy became one of his subjects, and there lies a problem. Yeats was a naturally religious man with no religion. And so he invented his own. That's an over-simplification, but not unfair. The interest in occultism became an attempt to invent, or discover, a set of esoteric doctrines that would explain for him “life, the universe, and everything.” The search included something called “automatic writing” practiced by his wife (he had married not long after his proposal to Iseult Gonne). This involved what sounds like a Ouija-board sort of procedure in which her hand was guided by purported spiritual entities. Concerns about the dangers aside, this does not strike one as a promising approach to understanding the world. His accumulated thought and lore were expounded in A Vision, published in 1926. I read this book many years ago. I couldn't make much sense of it (though there were interesting passages) and have no desire to read it again. Unfortunately there is a good deal of symbolism in his later poetry which is drawn from A Vision and renders some of the work pretty obscure, or perhaps even unintelligible without the key.

A little over ten years ago, in the first year of the Sunday Night Journal, I compared Yeats and Eliot, coming down on the side of Eliot as the greater artist, and this gnosticism of Yeats was a big part of the reason. You can read that piece here

But as I admit in that piece, the making of these comparisons is a bit silly, and I've already dwelt on them too much. So back to the poetry: as far as I can recall I first encountered Yeats when I was a freshman in college, in the Sound and Sense anthology. If I read anything by him in high school, I don't remember it. The pieces in Sound and Sense are mostly from his later work, but I wasn't aware of the distinction at the time. All I knew was that certain lines of certain poems gave me an electric thrill. “The Second Coming” is the one that remains in my mind as the first of Yeats's poems to produce that sensation. I didn't understand it in any detail, but the overall statement, and especially those final lines, were clear enough. In recent years that magnificent work has been abused by politicians and journalists applying certain aspects of it (“The center cannot hold”) to current politics. I might even say it has been over-exposed. But then perhaps it has come to the attention of people who might not otherwise know it. Ten years or so ago there was a Volkswagen commercial that used a Nick Drake song, and I've come across more than one account of someone hearing it there for the first time, and immediately seeking out more of Drake's work.

After that freshman introduction, I graduated to a Selected Poems, which for many years was all the Yeats I knew. Later, when I finally purchased the Collected Poems, I didn't have much time for reading, so it is the Selected Poems that really formed my view of him, and there is no doubt some undiscovered gold in the Collected. But I haven't discovered it, in part because I always seek out the same favorites. Glancing through the book now, having read little of Yeats over the past fifteen or more years, I see poem after poem that I recognize as an old friend, and line after line that still comes to me often. Almost every day, for instance, and every moonlit night, when I walk through the little stand of trees near my house, I hear

And pierce the deep wood's woven shade.

And there are a number of things that bring up a line or a few lines from Yeats when I think of them. When I think of family, and place, and roots, for instance, I hear

Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
(“A Prayer for My Daughter”)

Of the strange and mysterious phenomena of sex and generation:

“A shudder in the loins engenders there...”
(“Leda And the Swan”)

Of radicals who might do violence:

“...had they but courage equal to desire”
(“No Second Troy”)

Of young lovers:

“...the young in one another's arms...those dying generations”
(“Sailing to Byzantium”)

Of old age:

“An old man's eagle mind”
(“An Acre of Grass”)

Of old age:

“Now may I wither into truth.”
(“The Coming of Wisdom With Time”)

Of the sorrows that must inevitably come to children:

“For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.”
(“The Stolen Child”)

Of all too many politicians and journalists:

Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours' eyes...
(“To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing”)

Of the wisdom that outlasts rulers:

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
(“Lapis Lazuli”)

Of friends I've known since youth:

But think about old friends the most
(“The Lover Pleads With His Friends For Old Friends”)

Of my wife:

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
("When You Are Old")

Of the end of things:

A measureless consummation that he dreamed.
(“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”)

Of the vanities of the passing scene:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
(“Under Ben Bulben”)

Those are the last lines of the last poem in his last book, and also his epitaph.


Without the poems, of course, we would hardly remember Yeats's name, but I want to mention a few of his other works as well. The Autobiography was fascinating to me when I read it in my twenties, and I think it might still be worth reading. Also, I suspect that some of his plays may be unjustly neglected. I had a memorable experience, also in my twenties, with recordings of a couple of them—the late plays, in which he attempted to emulate some aspects of the Japanese Noh drama. I plan to listen to them again soon and will report my findings.

Here is a "video"--audio with a photograph--of Yeats reading a few of his poems. See this page for details. I heard that first recording of "Innisfree" back when I was in college and the way he reads that first line, especially the way he says "Innis. Frree.", has remained in my mind ever since.


52 Authors: Week 29 - Josephine Tey

I love mysteries. My affection for a good mystery began with Nancy Drew when I was in the third grade (Nancy Drew was better then.), and has continued for 57 years unabated. There are some authors currently writing mysteries that I enjoy, but my very favorite authors are the women who began writing in what is known as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the 1920s and 1930s. Four of these women: Dorothy Sayers (Peter Wimsey) , Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn), Margery Allingham (Campion), and Agatha Christie (Well, you know.), were known as The Queens of Crime. Christie and Sayers are still well known, and all four have had BBC Mystery series featuring their detectives, but there was another woman writing during that time that I enjoy just as well, and maybe more.

I wish I could remember when or where I first found a book by Josephine Tey, née Elizabeth Mackintosh, or which book it was. I know it was a long time ago. In her day, she was quite well-known, probably more so in England than the United States, but her popularity doesn’t seem to have been as durable as that of the “queens.” Her books are easily available online, but they all seem to have been last published in the 90s. Maybe it’s because she wrote so few books—only eight mysteries in all. I’m sure publishers love to see those rows of Christie mysteries on the shelves and know that once you’re hooked, you’re going to want to read them all.

Week29-Richard-program-coverEarly in her writing career Tey, under the name Gordon Daviot, wrote plays. Her first play, Richard of Bordeaux, ran for 14 months in the West End (the Broadway of London), which, Wikipedia tells me, was at that time considered a long run. The star and director of Richard was John Gielgud and, again from Wikipedia quoting a book by Martial Rose:

Prior to that production, Gielgud was regarded as a highly respected classical actor based on his performances at the Old Vic, but the overwhelming success of Richard of Bordeaux catapulted him into the status of superstar.

Tey must have been rather fond of the play herself. In Daughter of Time, her next-to-last mystery, she has her detective, Inspector Grant, say that he saw Richard of Bordeaux three times when he was young. From this and other comments that Grant makes, one gets the impression that Tey did extensive research for her plays, which later contributed to her most famous mystery.

Murder, she didn’t necessarily write.

Unlike the Queens of Crime, Tey did not always write mysteries which were centered around murder. In two of her mysteries, I won’t say which, there is no murder at all, and in some of the others, the murder is in the past and not the most important element of the book. What is central to many of her mysteries is the characters: their psychological makeup and their relationships. The books are more like novels than mysteries.

The first two mysteries: The Man in the Queue (1929) and A Shilling for Candles (1936), were written in the early period of Tey’s career when she was busy with her plays, and two novels. Both of these early mysteries (and indeed almost all of the latter) show the influence of the theatre. They are what you might think of as the average good mystery of the time. They begin with a murder, and Inspector Grant follows the clues and solves the mystery. If you were looking for a mystery featuring Miss Marple, Campion, or especially Roderick Alleyn, and couldn’t get your hands on any of these, you would be happy with either of these books.

Sir John Gielgud, who became a close friend of Tey’s, said that she, “… was distressed by her inability to write original plots.” If you stopped with those first two mysteries, you might think that this was an accurate assessment, but then in the late '40s, Tey wrote a series of mysteries that belied this opinion.


Tey’s first mystery sans Inspector Grant is Miss Pym Disposes. Miss Pym, a retired French teacher has found fame by writing a book about psychology.

She read her first book on psychology out of curiosity, because it seemed to her an interesting sort of thing; and she read all the rest to see if they were just as silly.

She thereafter develops her own theory of psychology which, by pure happenstance, comes to the attention of a publisher. On the publication of her book, she becomes the darling of the lecture circuit and thereby finds herself speaking at a college of physical culture at the behest of an old friend who is the head of the college.

During her stay there is an accident at the college, or perhaps a malicious act, and though the police arrive to investigate, the real detective is…well, nobody. Miss Pym observes what is going on, though, and it is gradually borne in on her what has happened.

There is in Miss Pym a vague similarity to Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night, but it is vague. What we have here is not the arena of the intellect, but that of the body, and how extreme physical stress affects the psyches of the different characters. The solving of the mystery is not the main lynchpin of the story. The unfortunate incident is incidental. It is just a means of illuminating the character of the students.

Next, there is The Franchise Affair. The story of two women living in genteel poverty who are accused of a terrible crime by a seemingly undefeatable adversary—a young, innocent-seeming teenage girl. Their only defense is a lawyer who has spent his career working on the business affairs of a small village: writs, and wills, and real estate, and who has no knowledge at all of criminal law. Inspector Grant has a small role in this one, but he could just as well have been Inspector Smith or Inspector Jones. The main story here is the ability of a relentless, self-centered, and conscienceless will to manipulate the truth, and the terrorism of the mob incited by an amoral press.

Brat Farrar is the third of this group. A young man, an orphan, who has lost his means of supporting himself due to an accident is approached by man who asks him to impersonate the deceased heir of his neighbor’s estate. Brat has an uncanny resemblance to the boy who is a supposed suicide, although no body has ever been found. Brat’s eventual acceptance of this imposture springs more from his desire to have a place in the world, and in particular a place which revolves around horses, as any monetary design. Again, the death of the boy heir is not the center of the story, but the door into the life of the characters.

A word about the inspector

Inspector Allan Grant is a detective for Scotland Yard. We are told that:

If Grant had an asset beyond the usual one of devotion to duty and a good supply of brains and courage, it was that the last thing he looked like was a police officer. He was of medium height, and slight in build, and he was—now, if I say dapper, of course you will immediately think of something like a tailor’s dummy, something perfected out of all individuality, and Grant is most certainly not that; but if you can visualize a dapperness that is not of the tailor’s dummy type, then that is Grant.

Elsewhere, we are told that he looked more ex-military than police.

Knowledgeable about food and wine, theatre and opera, he nevertheless lives a very simple life. He seems to be an introvert. When he has a nagging problem that he can’t solve, he employs the eureka principle—not that he calls it that. He goes elsewhere and tries to get involved with something else, and things fall into place in the back of his brain.

Unlike the detectives of the fab four mentioned above, and many other famous detectives from Sherlock Holmes to, well, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, he doesn’t have a sidekick. He has Williams, who does whatever Grant doesn’t have time to do, and he has Simpson who does likewise, only not as often, but for the most part, he works alone.

As for women, there is the actress Marta Hallard, who is a better woman than thee or me. A tall, graceful actress who knows how to cook, what to drink, and when to keep her mouth shut, she is the woman that Grant would marry if either of them were interested in marriage. There is never the slightest intimation that their relationship is other than Platonic.

In a couple of the books it is mentioned that Grant has flair. Not the best word for it in my opinion, but it means that he has a certain intuitive sense that something is not right, or that there is another way to look at the problem than the one they are using. His superior, Superintendent Barker, recognizes this, but he thinks that you can overdo it.

“Is this an example of the famous flair?” said Barker. . .Put it out of your head, Grant, until you get even a tittle of evidence to substantiate it. Flair is all very well, and I don’t deny that you have been uncanny once or twice, but it has always been more or less in accordance with the evidence before….

Grant makes his appearance again in To Love and Be Wise and stays through the last mystery, The Singing Sands. These two meld the detective fiction of Tey’s first two mysteries with the more narrative style of the next three. I won’t say much about them except that in the last book, Grant’s interest and imagination are captured by a poem that he finds scrawled on the back of a newspaper that he accidentally removes from the train compartment of a man who has died from a fall in a drunken state.

The beasts that talk,
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sands,
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .
That guard the way
To Paradise

The face of the dead man, and the words of the poem are so inconsistent with his death by inebriation that Grant sets off to find out who the man was and where he was going—and what that poem describes.

I said all that to say this.

In 1960 the Crime Writer’s Association voted Tey’s masterpiece, Daughter of Time, The Best Mystery Novel of All Time. Peter Hitchens described it as “one of the most important books ever written.” I don’t know about that, but it is an excellent book that shows just how much of what we think we know about history is just not true.

We find Inspector Grant having prickles of boredom as he lies in a hospital bed recovering from having fallen through a trap door while in hot pursuit of Benny Skoll. To allay his boredom, Marta brings him a stack of prints of faces—faces of people to whom some mystery is attached. After thumbing through the group, Grant finds that this picture has dropped to his side.

Week29-R IIIThis is the painting of Richard III which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Grant, who believes himself to be an expert judge of faces, is surprised that Shakespeare’s villain, the man who murdered his beloved brother’s sons, has a face that he would have ascribed to a judge. “[A] judge,” in his opinion, “had a special quality; an integrity and a detachment. So, even without a wig, one did not confuse him with the man in the dock, who had neither integrity or detachment.” Well, you can’t always count on that anymore, but it’s sometimes true. In fact, I have a friend who is a judge, and she has just that look.

This dissonance between Richard’s face and his reputation leads Grant, with the help of young American researcher, to investigate the primary sources that reveal the more likely history of this much-maligned king.

Now, ever since Wolf Hall started to air, there has been much discussion about how Hilary Mantel has maligned Thomas More, and I have wanted to write something about this, but I decided I would save it for this post. The book that is responsible for most of the erroneous detraction of Richard III is attributed to Thomas More. Grant and his aide, Carradine, do find out, however, that the book that was published under More’s name was a manuscript copy of a book written by one John Morton. More lived in Morton’s home when he was young, and was almost certainly influenced by Morton’s adherence to the Tudor line.

I have wondered if Mantel might even have been influenced by Daughter of Time. While she is the perpetrator of just the kind of misinformation that Morton indulged in, she might perceive herself as being on the other side. So, I did a Google search for “hilary mantel daughter or time.” While I didn’t find any reference to Tey’s book by Mantel, there are others who have made that connection, notably Christopher Hitchens writing in Atlantic, who said:

Wolf Hall is a magnificent service to the language and literature whose early emancipation it depicts and also, in its demystifying of one of history’s wickedest men, a service to the justice that Josephine Tey first demanded in The Daughter of Time.

Except she didn’t. Most amusing though was this quote from Mantel herself describing the portrait of Cromwell that hangs in the National Gallery. She says, “"[Cromwell] doesn't care what you think of him. No man more immune to insult. Truth is the daughter of time. Time is what we haven't got." Maybe she is thinking about Tey. That quote, “Truth is the daughter of time,” is found at the beginning of The Daughter of Time.

And by the way

Recently, Josephine Tey has been resurrected by a series of mysteries written by Nicola Upson in which Tey is the detective. I have been listening to the first one, An Expert in Murder, and while it is well-written, I’m not completely happy with it. The murder scene is rather graphic (although far from the worst) and eerie, which is something you never see in Tey, and Upson has so far professed a political opinion or two which I suspect is foreign to Tey. Tey was a very private person, and not much at all is known about her life. I’m afraid that Upson might be inventing a false life for her similar to the false life of Richard III.

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

52 Authors: Week 28 - W.S. Merwin

Note: in order to keep the series going through what I hope is only a dry spell, I've resorted to republishing the following piece, which was the Sunday Night Journal for November 7, 2011. I had intended to re-work it for this post, but found that there's really nothing much I want to change. The original post was titled W.S. Merwin: Notes To A Lost Text.

For many years I’ve thought of writing some sort of lengthy appreciation of W.S. Merwin, but the project has never made it to the top of my list, and it’s time I accepted the possibility that it never will. Last year when he was appointed Poet Laureate I thought I would at least do some sort of blog post about him; now his year in that position has come and gone and I never managed to get that done, either. So, on the Chestertonian principle that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, or better late than never, or better something than nothing, here is...something, though perhaps the applicable aphorism is “too little, too late.”

Did you even know the U.S. had a poet laureate? I believe it is a renaming of what used to be the nearest thing we had, the office of poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. At least, back in the days when I was somewhat more conversant with the contemporary poetry scene, that seemed to be considered a sort of pinnacle of what passes for fame for poets. As someone said—it may have been John Ashbery—on being asked what it was like to be a famous poet, “being a famous poet is not like being famous.”

In those same days, roughly 1971-1976, Merwin was very highly regarded, and imitated, by aspiring young poets, at least those of my acquaintance. As is often the case with poets having a very distinctive style, the influence was not necessarily for the best. Mediocre work in the vein of, say, Hopkins, or Dylan Thomas, or early Eliot, inevitably seems like mere imitation, and draws attention to the fact that it is not quite as good as the original.

Unlike most of the people I knew in the local literary scene, I didn’t read much contemporary poetry, and didn’t like most of what I read. Indeed, I held on principle a general sort of disapproval of it. I thought the whole direction of modern poetry—free verse, the French-influenced imagism, the obscurity, the flat rhythms—was a big mistake, and had neo-classical or formalist, and definitely traditionalist, ideas about what I wanted to do. More fundamentally, I just didn’t think much of it was very good—it was competent and occasionally memorable, but it hardly ever affected me deeply. Merwin’s work did, though. I was won over when I read his 1967 book The Lice. Specifically, I think it was this poem, at the time and I suppose still, considered one of his very best, that won me over:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year not knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Setting aside what I thought or think about whether this manner of writing poetry is the way it ought, ideally, to be done—that is, whether one thinks it a healthy development for the art—there is also, philosophically and religiously and psychological, something pretty unhealthy in this book. It’s desolate and disoriented:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

(“The Asians Dying”)

And at night wrapped in the bed of ashes
In one breath I wake
It is the time when the beards of the dead get their growth

(“When You Go Away”)

Out of the morning stars the blood began to run down the white sky and the crowd in tears remembered who they were and raised their hands shouting Tomorrow our flag

(“Unfinished Book of Kings”)

I could go on and on, quoting the whole book. Looking through it again now for the first time in ten years or so, I’m reminded of how many of these poems are perfect in their way, and that even the ones I like less always have something stunning in them. They are often obscure, but not in the tight, logically rigorous way of some of the earlier modernists who were taken with Donne, the way of the riddle or puzzle. This is the way of intuition, instinct, and a definite touch of surrealism. One does not look for a precise physical analog to the bed of ashes, or the blood running down the sky; one accepts them as images of isolation and dread. (Actually the ashes might be pretty straightforward as a reference to a bed empty of the one addressed in the title.)

Isolation. Desolation. Loss. Alienation. Disorientation. Absence. These are the abstractions with Thelice which one attempts to describe the atmosphere of this book. And if those words told the whole story, I wouldn’t like the poems as well. But there is always in them the consciousness of what is missing, and an occasional glimpse of it. My friend Robert said something many years ago about Merwin’s work that has stuck in my mind ever since: that it was like “notes to a lost religious text.” I believe he was talking about Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, but it applies to most of the work that I love.

I’ve never quite made up my mind whether or not I believe in something along the lines of a collective mind or instinct, something that brings certain ideas and moods to the forefront among a large segment of humanity: the skepticism of the 18th century, for instance. Perhaps such things are explainable as being simply a matter of the time being congenial to the idea—but when we say that, what have we really said? Why was the time congenial? In any case, whether or not there is some mysterious force behind it, these phenomena do occur. Something happened in the 1960s, throughout the western world, at least. It involved the breaking down of structures of all sorts. For some people in some situations it was a liberation, for others a collapse, and sometimes the same situation was a liberation to some and a collapse to others. And sometimes the same person felt it simultaneously as liberation and collapse. I think that could be said of Merwin, and of my other favorite artist of the mid-20th century, Ingmar Bergman. Their work of the 1960s is often similar in tone, movies like The Silence and Hour of the Wolf seeming to come from a very similar place as some of the poems in The Lice. Both men were the sons of Protestant ministers, both seem to have lost or rejected belief in God, but were left with a sense of loss and a fear of meaninglessness, and created works of art which express a deep spiritual yearning. Their sense of dislocation is almost apocalyptic; they seem to see an abyss opening, and the modern world plunging toward it, or already falling.

What I’ve seen of Merwin’s early work was pretty conventional for its time, which is not to say it wasn’t very well done. The few poems I’ve seen from that period were formal in structure. It was in The Moving Target, published in 1963, that he began to develop the style that produced his most original work: he dropped all formal regularity, including meter, line length, stanza patterns, and finally punctuation, as in the poem quoted above. At a glance you might think his line no different, formally, from the lifeless “free verse” that a high-schooler might produce, but anyone with an ear quickly discerns that it has its own shimmering rhythm, and that each poem has a definite graceful shape, all the product of considerably more skill than is immediately apparent.

It is The Moving Target and the following three books—The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment—which are for me, and I think for many of Merwin’s admirers, the heart of his work. I have followed him only as far as 1992’s Travels, which has its moments but was the latest of several that didn’t seem to me on the level of his work of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He also seems to have become more political over the years, in the usual left-wing artist sort of way. The great books have some memorable and powerful poems on political and environmental themes, but from the Reagan years forward I have occasionally run across remarks from him that were the sort of bared-teeth leftism that I thought could hardly fail to have affected his art.

But never mind that. The great work remains. Here is another poem from The Lice, one that reminds me of both Bergman and St. John of the Cross. This book, by the way is the darkest of the four mentioned above. And also by the way, the intent of the title is not to disgust and repel: it is the answer to a riddle which, according to Heraclitus, stumped Homer: “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

The Room

I think all this is somewhere in myself
The cold room unlit before dawn
Containing a stillness such as attends death
And from the corner the sound of a small bird trying
From time to time to fly a few beats in the dark
You would say it is dying it is immortal


I haven't really made much attempt here to describe the effect of Merwin's poetry on me, and apparently on a good many other people, and to explain why I like it so much. That is the part of the unwritten essay that would require the most work and even then be inadequate. As with  most art, the old saying applies: for those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't, no explanation will suffice. You will either have responded to the two poems reproduced here, or not. If you did, and are not already familiar with Merwin's work, you should seek it out.

52 Authors: Week 27 - Ross Macdonald

I wonder whether Ross Macdonald is as highly regarded as he once was. Perhaps serious students and fans of the mystery genre still rank him with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but it wouldn't surprise me if his reputation has suffered. Why? A suspicion that he might be considered old-fashioned, conventional, and bourgeois. The stout morality demonstrated in his work is of a sort that tends to be laughed at nowadays; the detective protagonist is masculine in an old-fashioned way; the portrayal of women is not such as to please feminists. The publishing world, or at least the part that publishes fiction, seems to be heavily oriented toward women today, as both writers and readers, and not just to women, but to feminists. On the other hand, I see that Sue Grafton, a highly regarded contemporary mystery writer, and apparently a feminist, admires Macdonald and was influenced by him. So perhaps I'm wrong.

Anyway, Macdonald's work does strike me as being more appealing to men than to women. Its origins are in the very masculine “hard-boiled” school of detective fiction, though in Macdonald's hands the genre loses most of its swagger and posturing and gains finesse, subtlety, and sensitivity. It's also less exotic, as compared with the earlier writers in the style: in Macdonald's stories there are fewer professional criminals and underworld types, and the crimes are generally of the less organized and more personal variety, often having to do with the affairs of a troubled family. Chandler (I almost said “Marlowe”) and Hammett have an allure which is slightly campy. They're associated with lurid pulp book covers, men in trench coats holding guns, film noir, "dames", and Humphrey Bogart (who played both Phillip Marlowe, Chandler's detective, and Sam Spade, one Hammett's). They are exotic, and were so even in their own time. And because they're exotic and are viewed with a bit of irony, they can be excused for being culturally retrograde with respect to women and social mores generally. Macdonald, on the other hand, though his career overlapped with Chandler's, seems closer to our own time—or at least he does to someone old enough to have known the world he writes about; perhaps not to young people.

Macdonald's detective, Lew Archer (reportedly named after Sam Spade's partner who gets killed off early in The Maltese Falcon) is a person we can imagine meeting and conversing with in an everday sort of way without feeling that we are on the set of a Bogart movie. Yes, he is a private detective, and he knows his way around the seamier side of life, but he is fundamentally normal in a way that Marlowe and Spade are not. He is a loner, like Marlowe, but he doesn't especially like it. He has been married, but his wife has left him for reasons that seem to have involved his work, and he regrets it. He's at home with middle-class people; his values are essentially middle-class values, though he himself is on the fringes. He's educated. Marlowe is of course very smart, and as I recall sometimes implausibly knowledgeable, but Archer gives signs of being an intellectual.

Above the massive bed there was a painting of a clock, a map, and a woman's hat arranged on a dressing table. Time, space, and sex. It looked like a Kuniyoshi.

The Moving Target

If you know who Kuniyoshi is, you're ahead of me. ("Utagawa Kuniyoshi, (January 1, 1797 – April 14, 1861) was one of the last great masters of the Japanese ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints and painting.") Archer from time to time makes aesthetic judgments in very unlikely terms for a man who is supposed to have come up the hard way from a rough part of town. And if I remember correctly, he somewhere exhibits an incongruous knowledge of German poetry.

That sort of thing was no doubt pretty tempting to the author of the Archer novels. “Ross Macdonald” was the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, who was in fact an academic, having received a doctorate in literature (dissertation on Coleridge) from the University of Michigan. He and his wife, Margaret Millar, both began writing mystery-suspense novels early in their marriage, and that became their livelihood. (Margaret's work, though little known now, might, judging by a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, be worth looking into.) They moved to southern California, and Kenneth Millar, who became Ross Macdonald only after publishing half a dozen or so books under his own name and others, spent the rest of his life studying it by way of the basic method introduced by Raymond Chandler: through the eyes of a private investigator who moves among people and places without ever really being of them. The Chandler influence is obvious in the early work; this could be Marlowe:

“Why not?” I said. “The night is young.” I was lying. The night was old and chilly, with a slow heartbeat. The tires whined like starved cats on the fog-sprinkled black-top. The neons along the Strip glared with insomnia.

The Moving Target

But Lew Archer has less of the pulp-fiction and noir cinema glamour, and more education and philosophy, than Marlowe. He is altogether a more modest and less flashy character.

Like Marlowe, Archer lives and works in southern California, and this is a very important aspect of the books. From the time Macdonald introduced Lew Archer, in The Moving Target (1949), until sometime near the publication of his final novel, The Blue Hammer (1976), it would not have been much of an exaggeration to say that most of the rest of the country wanted to be California. It's often been said that the state represents the terminus of the American Dream, the point where the impulse always to move on, and always to expand, met the impassable barrier of the Pacific Ocean. Whether that constituted the collapse or the fulfillment of the dream was always a matter of dispute, but for much of the 20th century, especially the twenty-five years or so following the end of World War II, the prevailing image was of blue skies and sunshine, affluence, freedom, youth, beauty, and pleasure. But that's not what Macdonald saw. California for him was disappointment, bewildered and sometimes angered by the failure of its dreams to materialize, or, if they did materialize, to satisfy. His poor people and his rich people are equally the captives of wealth, the former trying to get it and the latter trying to hold on to it.

I didn't believe Shepherd. I didn't disbelieve him. The mind that looked at me through his eyes was like muddy water continually stirred by fears and fantasies and greeds. He was growing old in the desperate hope of money, and by now he was willing to become whatever the hope suggested.

“Where are you going now, Randy? To Mexico?”

He was quiet for a moment, peering out across the flatland toward the sun, which was halfway down the west. A Navy jet flew over like a swallow towing the noises of a freight train. Shepherd watched it out of sight, as if it represented his last disappearing luck.

The Goodbye Look

Macdonald became a poet-chronicler of that disappointment, and of the spiritual emptiness that produced and intensified it. The Archer novels are suffused with melancholy, and I think that was a big part of my initial attraction to them. If my memory is not deceiving me, I read my first one in 1970 or '71, when my own spirits were very low. I don't remember how I got on to it, but I was working in a music store in a suburban mall, and I seem to remember reading a Macdonald book on my lunch hour. Maybe I had just picked it up as light or escapist reading. I continued to read him occasionally over the next fifteen years or so, and there came a point where I realized that he was more than just an occasional diversion, that he had become one of my favorite writers.

Macdonald is one of those mystery writers who gets praised by critics for having transcended the genre. But I don't think that's really true, and I don't want to overstate his literary merit. If it weren't for the perennial lure of the detective story, if he had written conventional novels about humdrum events in ordinary lives, he would probably be remembered, if at all, as a minor figure. But the literary merit, by which I mean quality of prose and characterization and an element of interesting thought, in addition to the pleasure of a cunning plot, is there.

I heard a splash around the corner of the house and leaned out over the railing. The pool was on the upper terrace, an oval of green water set in blue tile. A girl and a boy were playing tag, cutting the water like seals. The girl was chasing the boy. He let her catch him.

Then they were a man and a woman, and the moving scene froze in the sun. Only the water moved, and the girl's hands. She was standing behind him with her arms around his waist. Her fingers moved over his ribs gently as a harpist's, clenched in the tuft of hair in the center of his chest. Her face was hidden against his back. His face held pride and anger like a blind bronze.

He pushed her hands down and stepped away. Her face was naked then and terribly vulnerable. Her arms hung down as if they had lost their purpose.

The Moving Target

The Moving TargetSmaller

Chances are that this nondescript cover was on the first edition of The Moving Target that I read; it may have been the first Macdonald that I read.

  The Moving Target - UK Dust Jacket

This (click to see the entire image) is the jacket of the original UK edition of The Moving Target. Notice that Macdonald had not yet become "Ross." Unusually for this type of book, the cover art actually refers to a specific event in the novel. And for some reason Archer apparently became Arless.

I didn't realize until I started working on this piece that Macdonald has a Library of America volume; that certainly indicates that my view of his literary merit is not eccentric. I seem to remember a blurb from Eudora Welty appearing on some editions of his work, too.

I've read all eighteen of the Archer series, several of them more than once. One obvious criticism to be made of them is that they are formulaic. They generally follow a basic pattern that goes like this:

•  Archer is summoned to meet a new client, or a new client comes to his office. (In the first case, the client is generally rich.)

•  The client presents Archer with what first appears to be a relatively small problem: locate a person who hasn't been heard from in several days, investigate the theft of a family heirloom.

•  The client gives Archer the name or names of one or more persons who might have relevant information.

•  Archer contacts the person or persons, who in turn send him to others. The case begins to seem more complex (often because the client has withheld information, or actively lied).

•  One or more murders happen, or are discovered to have happened in the past.

•  Over the course of several days, Archer drives all over southern California pursuing leads. He meets a lot of people of all classes and conditions. The case becomes yet more complex. Sometimes he gets beaten up or shot. Frequently events decades in the past come to be very important in understanding the present.

•  Archer solves the case. No one is very happy about it.

Her eyes were dull and unsurprised, as if she'd been hit by something that she'd seen coming from a long way off.

The Goodbye Look

But although there is a formula, there is also a progression in Macdonald's career, and the formula is handled more skillfully as time goes on. Most noticeably, beginning with The Galton Case in 1959, the situations surrounding the crime tend to reach far into the past, to involve children and childhood experiences, often traumatic. Ancestral guilt and its consequences become very significant, and Macdonald often seems to be dealing through fiction with the after-effects of his own unhappy childhood. In general the later books go more deeply into the psychological complexities of the characters and their lives than the earlier ones.

When I started thinking about this piece, I could not, of course, re-read all eighteen books (nor would I want to—I reserve them for times when I really want to read them). So I picked two to re-read: The Moving Target, which as I mentioned earlier was the first of the Archer novels, and which may have been the first one I read, and The Goodbye Look, which was published exactly twenty years later, and which I also read early on, and had not read since. I'd say the latter is superior, for the reasons just stated, but there is no striking difference between them.

I said the books are suffused with melancholy, but they are also suffused with compassion, and Archer is its bearer. The people he encounters are almost uniformly sad cases. They are treated with a mixture of sympathy and unillusioned accuracy. Among my favorite features of the books are the brief sketches of minor characters, those whom Archer meets in his pursuit of the facts: a few paragraphs or a few pages, in which a frustrated life is glimpsed. There's an excellent instance in The Goodbye Look: a woman who runs a motor court through which some of the more important figures of the story have passed. It's too long to quote enough to give you the full picture, but here's how it opens; the place is called Conchita's Cabins, the time is the mid or late 1960s.

It was a ruined place, as ancient-looking as an archaeological digging. A sign on the office said: “One dollar per person. Children free.” The cabins were small stucco cubes that had taken a beating from the weather. The largest building, with “Beer and Dancing” inscribed across its front, had long since been boarded up.

The place was redeemed by a soft green cottonwood tree and its soft gray shade. I stood under it for a minute, waiting for somebody to discover me.

A heavy-bodied woman came out of one of the cabins. She wore a sleeveless dress which showed her large brown arms, and a red cloth on her head.


“I'm Mrs. Florence Williams. Conchita's been dead for thirty years. Williams and I kept on with her name when we bought the cabins.” She looked around her as if she hadn't really seen the place for a long time. “You wouldn't think it, but these cabins were a real moneymaker during the war.”

--The Goodbye Look

From the Christian point of view, Macdonald's work is deficient. It exhibits almost no awareness of religion, either practically or philosophically. I mentioned his conventional morality, and I mean exactly that: it is the conventional pragmatic morality of a culture which has ceased to be actively Christian but is not yet in full revolutionary flight. Archer may have a sexual interlude with a woman who's attracted to him, but you sense that if he had a wife he would be faithful to her.

And yet it is precisely as a Christian that I appreciate one aspect of his work. Though he doesn't use the term, and presumably did not believe in it in any real theological sense, the novels are permeated with a sense of the depth and persistence of original sin. There are works of literature, like Flannery O'Connor's, that point us toward answers. There are others that simply pose the questions in powerful ways, and Ross Macdonald's work is among those. Rarely do you hate his criminals, though you do not excuse them, either; they are people who, given the opportunity to commit a crime which will give them, or stop them from losing, something that they deeply desire, have chosen the crime, obtained or kept what they desired, and never since known peace.

Her eyes came up to mine. “What did you want, Archer?”


“Do you mean being here with me?” I thought she was overeager for a compliment, then realized she was kidding me a little. “I hardly justify a lifetime of effort.”

“The life is its own reward,” I countered. “I like to move into people's lives and then move out again. Living with one set of people in one place used to bore me.”

“That isn't your real motivation. I know your type. You have a secret passion for justice. Why don't you admit it?”

“I have a secret passion for mercy,” I said. “But justice is what keeps happening to people.”

--The Goodbye Look

52 Authors: Week 26 - E.B. White

E.B. White was a great comic novelist. In working on this piece I read his trilogy of fantasy animals twice, and came away with the conviction that these are comic masterpieces. They are of course fantasy novels, in which animals talk and write. The fantasy world of these novels belongs within the genre of comedy. Re-reading E.B. White's trilogy was like the experience I had when our local arts cinema in Aberdeen had a season of Jaques Tati movies. I had seen them all individually, but now I saw them all again, serially, over a few months. The total experience was one of uplift - the natural equivalent of grace. I felt something similar in my re-immersion in White's comic-fantasy world. It is a world which steeps the reader in a kind of 'natural grace'.

I dare say some reader will point out that 'natural grace' is a contradiction in terms but I shall be on my way to Santiago of Compostella and unable to return fire.


Stuart Little is the first of the three, published in 1945. Of the three, this one is the least of a 'children's book'. Now, I know that someone could say that any good children's book is equally a children's book and an adult's book: it is simply a good book a child could read too. In fact, someone did say that to me, and perhaps she is right. But to me, Stuart Little comes across as a pure joke. The joke is that Mrs. Little gives birth to a mouse, who from birth has the habits and demeanour of a man. This is taken with absolute seriousness, and there is no attempt at all to get the reader affectively to empathize with Stuart and his diminutive condition. There is no 'emotion' in this book. Stuart is depicted with rather a cold eye. There's no warmth here, in the way that we see warmth in Charlotte's Web.

The Little family, Stuart's parents and older brother George are depicted as ineffective in their efforts to accommodate a mouse as family member. They cheerfully use Stuart's size to their advantage, sending him down drains, and using him to rescue ping-pong balls. Stuart's mother cries for him, but Stuart is never really a member of the family. And that is exactly how it would be, if a woman gave birth to a mouse. This is part of the greatness of E.B.White's comic imagination. On the one hand, the greatest extremes of lyrical fantasy. But on the other hand and simultaneously, there is a stoical realism about human nature and its foibles.


On my first re-reading of Charlotte's Web, I was disappointed in Fern. Fern is the little girl who saves Wilbur the pig's life by refusing to allow her father, Mr. Arable, to take an axe to the runt. She raises him. And then, in Wilbur's very moment of triumph, at the end of the book, when he is given the Fairground medal which saves his life, Fern has lost interest. She has gone to the Ferris Wheel with a boy. Fern has grown up over the book, growing out of her love for the farmyard animals amongst whom she once sat for hours. A boy, Henry Furry, is now more interesting to her than Wilbur. On re-reading the book, I realized that this is E.B. White's great realism at work: the way of the world is that Fern will grow up, and take more interest in humans, and human love, than in animals. Anything else would have been a dreadful fate for the girl. Imagine a 40-year-old Fern Arable, still sitting around the pig pen!

And so it is throughout Charlotte's Web. It is a much more affective and in some ways a more sentimental book than Stuart Little. Surely most of its readers simply do not want Wilbur the pig to die, and recall it as the tale of a pig's triumph over being made into bacon. But the truth is that Charlotte, who saves Wilbur, dies on the night after her protege's triumph. Spiders live only a short while, and the book remains true to this fact of life. The book describes Charlotte, dying alone, in the fairground, after everyone else has gone home. Nothing else could have happened. The pig could not have resisted being forced into his box and driven back to the farm. That is the way animals live, and for all their talking and writing, E.B. White sticks with the laws of animal life. One of the most refreshing aspects of Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan is their depictions of the natural life of the seasons.

Stuart Little is a kind of comic version of the Blue Flower. It ends as Stuart begins his journey in search of a bird whom he has loved and who is now clearly unobtainable. Nonetheless Stuart sets out boldly in quest of the unattainable.

Charlotte's Web is about a spider saving Wilbur the pig's life by making the farmers think HE is miraculous by weaving praise of him in her web. The true miracle, that a spider can write 'radiant' in her web, goes unnoticed.


The Trumpet of the Swan is the last and funniest of the three books. The funniest character is Louis' father. The cob is a great idealist. He steals a trumpet for his mute son Louis and yearns to repay his debt to the music store and restore his honour. He gives grandiloquent speeches, thus creating the opportunity for take-downs by his wife. My favourite is when the cob says 'I glide swanlike' and his wife snaps 'You are not likely to glide mooselike'.

No comic hero ever smiles, or laughs or apparently sees the joke of himself. That is why animals make perfect comic heroes: it is entirely realistic for neither Stuart nor the cob nor Louis to recognize how funny their aspirations are.

—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

52 Authors: Week 25 - Josef Skvorecky

Josef Škvorecký is perhaps not a famous author (or perhaps he is and I've just missed it). In any case, he died in 2012 and his works are not now easy to find in English in Europe. He was a Czech dissident who went into exile in 1968, after the Prague Spring, and got a job teaching American Literature at the University of Toronto. Alongside his day job, he was a comic novelist in Czech, many of whose works were readily available in English translation in the 1990s, when I carelessly assumed they always would be. Twenty years on, they seem (with one exception) to have passed out of print. Had I anticipated this, I would not so lightly have lent out or given away the paperbacks I had bought.

Those of his works I have read fall into three categories: historical novels, detective fiction, and semi-autobiographical novels.

In the last category, the author's alter ego is jazz-loving Danny Smiricky, but the stories also incorporate lightly fictionalised events from Czech history, which the author did not himself witness. The first of them is The Cowards (which does appear to be in print, in a 2010 Penguin edition), set at the end of the Second World War, with Danny a schoolboy in a jazz band (officially a folk band, jazz being musica non grata); it was banned on publication in Czech in the 1950s, and translated into English in 1970. This is followed by the more straight-forwardly autobiographical The Engineer of Human Souls, set in the aftermath of the Prague Spring; and by The Miracle Game, which centres on a fictionalised version of the 1949 Cihost Miracle, and the reopening of the investigation into it in 1968.

The historical novels are The Bride of Texas, based on accounts of Bohemians who served in the American Civil War (a dense work that I tried to read but found surprisingly tedious), and Dvorak in Love, about musical culture in New York during the years when Dvorak was working there and wrote his New World Symphony (which is very funny).

The works that I go back to again and again, though, are the detective stories. These are written more in the Agatha Christie than the Dashiell Hammett tradition, but under the shadow of a darker historical setting. The first Škvorecký I read was his collection Sins for Father Knox, in which the author invites the reader not only to solve the mystery, but to spot which prohibition from Ronald Knox's Decalogue of Detective Fiction has been contravened in the telling. The first to read though is The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, written in the years before the Prague Spring (and translated into English in 1973). This is a small taste:

The man took off his hat and an unruly tuft of hair stood up on his round head. He was Lieutenant Josef Boruvka and with him was his 17-year-old daughter Zuzana. His present plight was due to Zuzana's lust for foreign fields. In order to turn this desire to educational advantage, he had promised that if her school report turned out well they would spend a holiday together in Italy. He had however committed a fateful error, for he had neglected to define the term "turn out well". Consequently, after a hard struggle with his wife and daughter, he had been compelled to keep his promise although the report had comprised an abundance of Cs. ... Lieutenant Boruvka took himself off gloomily to the Cedok travel agency. There had been a time when he too longed — in vain, such was the nature of the time — for foreign lands. Now, however, he had reached the age when a comfortable armchair in front of the goggle box was more attractive. Visualising lumpy beds in cheap hotels, and other hardships of foreign travel, he strode through the Prague streets in summer bloom, mentally calculating the amount that would be left in the family savings book after he had paid the cost of Zuzana's academic success. At the bottom of his heart he hoped that the foreign currency quota for the year would already have been exhausted. But the highest hopes are wont to be dashed.

The holiday in Italy, like so many in detective fiction, turns out to be a busman's holiday for the Czech homicide detective.

Post-1968, the stories take a darker turn, in the collection The End of Lieutenant Boruvka. Here's a passage of dialogue from the last story in the collection, "Pirates", between the detective and a friend's uncle, a dissident writer, who lives next door to a house where an old man has been murdered:

With great effort the old detective turned his attention from his private thoughts back to objective reality and said, "It's your neighbour. He's been murdered. And...," he lowered his whisper until it was scarcely audible, "I have reason to suspect — in fact I'm practically certain — that he worked for ... for the organisation that I don't belong to. There was a bugging device in his flat. He was probably listening to what you were saying here when ..."

"No matter," said the writer calmly. "There's already a microphone over there in the radiator and another one in the telephone."

The lieutenant was visibly shaken and the writer slapped himself on the forehead. "Oh Christ!" He lowered his voice to a whisper even less audible than the lieutenant's. "A thousand pardons. I guess they haven't got you on tape yet have they? The last thing I want to do is get you in trouble...."

He got up, took the phone off the hook, and tossed a thick blanket over the radiator. The lieutenant's knees began to tremble.

And here a passage of description from the same story:

They drove past wheat fields golden in the daytime, the colour of old gold now, at night, waving in the night breeze beneath the cherry trees that lined the road. They drove through woods where the black shadows of magnificent owls flitted among the trees. A moth landed on the lieutenant's nose, then flew away; the sergeant, hunched over the wheel of the Volga, pushed the motor to the limit and the lieutenant's loaded pistol dug into his hip. The countryside sped by the open windows, redolent of barns and manure piles, villages submerged in darkness and silence, a landscape of clover and lucerne, the lieutenant's landscape, with ponds reflecting a twisted moon, like the crumpled collages of one of those artists from the Dubcek era who later committed suicide — an ordinary suicide from an era of normalization. A landscape of fireflies and old, ancient history, a countryside where criminals were drawn and quartered at a time when the city of Memphis no longer existed and did not yet exist.

The afternoon before writing this I spent quizzing my oldest son in preparation for his school-leaving History exam, which covers the world since 1945. He didn't know the difference between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, and I felt very sad. As a historian I am wary of fiction as a gateway to historical understanding (I grit my teeth when I see novels recommended to homeschoolers as part of their History curriculum), but Škvorecký's writing certainly gave me a more sympathetic understanding of what it was like to live in the Eastern Bloc, and my first, hopeless, wish this afternoon was that I had encouraged my son to read Škvorecký months ago, so that he would have some imaginative and emotional hook for knowledge that to me seems so important.

—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.

52 Authors: Week 24 - Anne Pellowski

I love reading children’s books. I loved them when I was eight and could walk to the library whenever I wanted, and I loved them even more, I think, when I read them to my children, or before giving them to my children. Sometimes I still read them, even though all my children are grown and married.

When I was young, I loved to read books about children from other cultures—to be able to enter other worlds. Diversity, of course, is one of the buzzwords of the day. It is constantly urged on us by the powers that be, and it feels forced. But at that time it was perfectly natural. I wasn’t reading books about different cultures because of a perceived need to be inclusive, but because the books were good and I was captivated by the characters and their lives.

After reading Grumpy’s post on Laura Ingalls Wilder, I thought that I would follow up with a post about two authors from different cultures whose books might be called the Catholic Little House books and the Jewish Little House books. The latter were probably my favorite books when I was about nine, but I only found the former after I had begun homeschooling my children. I originally intended to write about both authors in this post, but as I see it’s getting fairly long, I think I’ll write about the second in a couple of months.

Anne Pellowski was born in 1933 in Arcadia, Wisconsin, only 60 miles away from the Big Woods in Pepin County, Wisconsin where Laura Ingalls Wilder was born. Her great grandparents were the first settlers in the Latsch Valley where she lived. She is well-known for her books and workshops about storytelling, and was the founder and director of the Information Center on Children’s Cultures of the US Committee for UNICEF. She quit this position in the early 1980s to work on her writing and workshops.

I first became acquainted with Ms. Pellowski’s Latch Valley Farm series in 1995 in In Review magazine, a small periodical about children’s literature published by Bethlehem Books. When I read in an article by Therese Ladell about this series featuring a family of Polish Catholic immigrants who were farming in a valley in Wisconsin, I couldn’t wait to get hold of the books for my youngest daughter. I think that I found them in the library, but it took me a long time to collect the 5-book series which was at that time out of print.

Rather than follow one character as she grows up, Ms. Pellowski wrote stories about a year or two in the lives of four young girls in her family that span the years between 1876 and the 1960s. The earliest book in the series, though the fourth written, is First Farm in the Valley: Anna’s Story. Anna is the six year old daughter of Frank and Anna Pellowski, the first settler in the valley. She was about four years younger than Laura Ingalls Wilder and lived, as I mentioned earlier, only about 60 miles away from the Ingalls house in the Big Woods.

There are, of course, similarities between Anna’s story and Laura’s. They lived on a farm and though they lived in a farmhouse, there is an old sod house where the family had first settled, and there is a chapter about a Fourth of July celebration that is very like the one in the Little House books, but there are many differences too. For one thing the family is more settled and prosperous than the Ingalls ever seemed to be. They are surrounded by a community of families who followed them into the valley, and Frank and Anna are very glad to have the other families there. Thirteen families would have been just about the thing to make young Pa Ingalls want to move. The Ingalls family had been living in the United States since the 17th century, but Frank and Anna Pellowski and their parents had recently left Poland to escape Prussian persecution. They still spoke Polish. Laura had two sisters, and a brother who died in infancy; Anna had three sisters and four brothers.

The main difference between the Ingalls and the Pellowskis, though, was the difference between the Protestantism of the American frontier about which Grumpy has written in her post, and the Catholicism of the Pellowski family which is deeply woven into their daily lives. They, of course, go to Mass; they pray the Angelus; they fast during Lent and Advent. One of my favorite chapters, The Seeds Get Blessed, is in the second book (chronologically), Winding Valley Farm: Annie’s Story (Annie was Anne Pellowski’s mother.). The chapter is about Rogation Day when the farmers bring their seeds to church to have them blessed before planting.

Sitting in the front rows were the…girls, wearing white dresses and holding baskets of leaves and pussy willows. Before long, the priest came out, preceded by the altar boys and two deacons. Everyone stood up, and the priest started to sing the Litany of the Saints…

“Sancta Maria,” chanted Father Gara. Down the steps marched two altar boys, and behind them came the girls in their white dresses, the deacons, more altar boys, and then Father Gara. Row by row, the people filed out of the pews and joined in the procession, answering the priest in the chant of the litany.

Around the outside of the church they went and up to the fields…. There they stopped and Father Gara sprinkled holy water in all directions, while everyone held up their seeds. Then they marched back to the church, singing a hymn in Polish.

“I like this a lot better than just sitting in church,” thought Annie. “I wish we could march around every Sunday.”

There is one tradition in the books that seems to clearly be some sort of pagan ritual that has taken on Christian trappings. During the traditional Christmas Eve dinner (described here), strangely costumed figures called gvjozdka come to the door and test the children to see if they deserve presents and if they pass, they might get a piece of candy or an orange. In the first book the gvojozdka are just wearing sheepskins, but in the second, they wear more outlandish costumes and are accompanied by a devil who tempts the children.

Week24-Anne Pellowski-Janet-gvjozdka

Like the Little House books, the Latsch Valley books are not always cheerful. There is death here as there is in every life: a grandfather, a newborn baby, many children in a diphtheria epidemic. A schoolhouse burns; accidents happen; there are financial difficulties; but always the family and community pull together.

There is one particularly poignant scene in Stairstep Farm: Anna Rose’s Story, which is set in the 1930s. Anna Rose’s grandfather has died and the family is gathered at his home for the wake. The children are quietly playing a kind of tag outside called Starlight, Moonlight! The Searchers are seeking the Ghosts.

Week24-Anne Pellowski-Janet-swing

It was time for Anna Rose to be a Ghost again….

“Aren’t we too close to the house?” asked Anna Rose.

From the open windows of the front room floated the hushed sound of voices, singing in a subdued way, as if they were holding back part of the song. Grandma Olszewski led each verse in her clear, sweet voice. The others would follow as soon as she gave them the first few words. On some verses, only the men sang, deep and low and mournful. When the women sang alone, it was soft and high and sad, too, but in a different way.

Suddenly, across the front yard came the voices of the Searchers, chanting as they set out:

Starlight, Moonlight!
We’re out to see the Ghosts tonight!

Again and again they repeated it. The lively rhythm contrasted with the solemn, measured beat of the singers inside. The pungent scent of the ripening raspberries joined with the waves of music coming from both sides. Overhead sparkling stars of the warm August night made just enough light to cast shadows, but not enough to see things clearly. It was so mysterious and beautiful that Anna Rose did not want to play the game any more. She wanted to sit and listen and feel.

I have been in many choirs in my life, and I have sat around many campfires singing, but I’ve never experienced a group of family and friends sitting around singing like this. I wish I had. This scene captures something—an atmosphere that seems to be gone from the world, or at least a large part of it--and it’s a great loss.

As I was reading this third book, it seemed to me that Ms. Pellowski was being rather hard on Anna Rose. She seemed to judge the little girl’s actions more strictly than she had those of the girls in the two previous books. Then, I realized that Anna Rose was Ms. Pellowski, and that the reader sees more of Anna Rose’s inner life than he does of that of the other girls.

The fourth and fifth books of the series, Willow Wind Farm: Betsy’s Story, and Betsy’s Up and Down Year, are set in the 1960s and are the story of Ms. Pellowski’s niece Betsy and Betsy’s brother and eight sisters. Sadly, we begin to see a bit of the dissolution of the '60s begin to creep in. There is less about the faith, and there is a rather mysterious chapter that implies that one of the girls took some pills from her grandmother. The father has to go to work to make ends meet, and the mother has to work in the fields. Then she has to go to work, too. The economy, the oikonomos of the family that we have been discussing is breaking down. While these books follow one another chronologically, they are the first and the last that were written, and the latter was written before the former. Despite the obvious cracks in the family armor, though, there is still much that is good in the Betsy books. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to re-read them before writing so I can’t remember them clearly, but flipping through the books, I can tell that I will have to read them again.

While I was looking up biographical information about Anne Pellowski, I found to my delight that she is still alive. I might write her if I can find out how to do so. The Bethlehem Books website  (her current publisher) says that Frank Pellowski has over 800 living descendants. I wonder what they are all doing.

During the course of writing this post, I also got information here and here

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