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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hurrahing In Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

52 Authors: Week 41 - Louise Fitzhugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.

52 Authors: Week 40 - Mary Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

52 Authors: Week 39 - Graham Greene

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

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

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

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

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

Week39-Graham Greene-Janet_html_Brighton

 The name goes all the way through Brighton Rock candy .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again I found some biographical information at Wikipedia.

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

52 Authors: Week 38 - Chaim Potok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

52 Authors: Week 37 - Alexander McCall Smith


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

52 Authors: Week 36 - Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

52 Authors: Week 35 - Sydney Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

52 Authors: Week 34 - G.K. Chesterton

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

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

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

The talks I particularly liked were:

Chesterton and Orestes Brownson

Chesterton and William Cobbett

Chesterton and Distributism

Chesterton and Oscar Wilde

Chesterton as a Model of Lay Spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Chesterton Is Everywhere

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

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

(from one of his early notebooks in his youth)

A Man Born on the Earth

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

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

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

From the chapter “The Emancipation of Domesticity”:

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, Chesterton is on Twitter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A patriot is always a little sad."


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

52 Authors: Week 33 - Marion Montgomery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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