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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

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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.