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More Rieff (3)

A brief but telling few paragraphs on the situation of Christianity in the new culture:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic. For the next culture needs therapeutic institutions.

After quoting a writer of the time, John Wren-Lewis, who dismisses all the actually religious aspects of religion, Rieff continues:

[Wren-Lewis] understands that churchmen will be able to become professional therapeutics "only if they break away radically from almost all, if not all, of their traditional religious pursuits." Here speaks the therapeutic, calmly confident that community life no longer needs "some supposed plan underlying experience," that is, no longer needs doctrinal integrations of self into communal purposes, elaborated, heretofore, precisely through such "supposed plans."....

Both East and West are now committed, culturally as well as economically, to the gospel of self-fulfillment. Yet neither the American nor the Russian translations of the gospel can be transformed into a spiritual perception.

Nor does the present ferment in the Roman Catholic Church seem so much like a renewal of spiritual perception as a move toward more sophisticated accommodations with the negative communities of the therapeutics. Grudgingly, the Roman churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices. (p. 215)

That was 1966. The so-called "spirit of Vatican II" and many other developments would soon prove Rieff's prophetic insight. Clearly a great many Christians, clergy and other, have taken this path toward the therapeutic, not so much by a conscious decision as by having absorbed the view of the surrounding culture, that Christianity is essentially a sort of local  or specific implementation of a presumed general drive toward self-enrichment. 

Wren-Lewis took an interesting turn later in life after a near-death experience, becoming a believer in a kind of transcendent consciousness. 


More Rieff (2)

To end the spiritual impoverishment of Western culture, Jung recommends the following: that the rationalist suppression of myth and of other manifestations of the unconscious need mitigation, but not by a new theology or new dogmas; rather, by a therapeutic release of the myth components from the collective unconscious. The neurosis of modernity is defined by Jung as the suppression of precisely those irrational components. Therefore, Jung is recommending an essentially private religiosity without institutional reference or communal membership for the individual in need of an integrated symbolism....

In other words, "spiritual but not religious." In essence, this is a fairly common observation, though we usually hear it praised rather than viewed with Rieff's dry skepticism, and where it's criticized, not so precisely. What follows, though, is a little surprising:

This, then, is a religion for heretics in an age where orthodoxy no longer serves the sense of well-being. Jung's is a literary religion that demands more imagination than faith, more magic than science, more creativity than morality. Jung never analyzes the social structures within which all creative symbolisms occur. Indeed, he seems unaware of social structure. His psychology of the creative unconscious is remarkably old-fashioned, a secular version of the theology of the Creative Person which forms the central pillar of the huge and variegated growth we know today as Protestant theology. (p. 114)

My emphasis. I assume he's referring there to liberal Protestantism. It certainly doesn't seem to describe fundamentalist-evangelical Protestantism, at least not of Rieff's time. But I have the impression that the therapeutic mentality has made great inroads there in recent years, in what's been called "moral therapeutic deism." 

Oh look: MTD has a Wikipedia page


More From Rieff (1)

...the kind of man I see emerging, as our culture fades into the next, resembles the kind once called "spiritual"--because such a man desires to preserve the inherited morality freed from its hard external crust of institutional discipline. Yet a culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood--with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg....  Having broken the outward forms so as to liberate, allegedly, the inner meaning of the good, the beautiful, and the true, the spiritualizers, who set the pace of Western cultural life from just before the beginning to a short time after the end of the nineteenth century, have given way now to their logical and historical successors, the psychologizers, inheritors of that dualist tradition which pits human nature against social order. (p. 2)

The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized.... (p. 10)

Not only our Western culture but every system of integrative moral demand, the generative principle of culture, expressed itself in positive deprivations--in a character ideal that functioned to commit the individual to the group. Culture was thus the establishment and organization of restrictive motives. Men engaged in disciplines of interdiction. The dialectic of deprivation and remission from deprivation was in the service of those particular interdicts by which a culture constituted itself. The analytic attitude does contain a certain time-element of asceticism, but it points toward a character ideal that is in principle anti-ascetic and therefore revolutionary if viewed from perspectives formed in the inherited moral demand system. The dialectic of perfection, based on a deprivational mode, is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode. (p. 40)

That last sentence is an adequate summary of the condition(s) analyzed in the book.

The "spiritualizers" in the first quotation appear to be the Romantics in particular, though the general cultural drift they represented was not confined to them. One might think, in argument to that general point, of the many instances in Christian scripture and thought in which we are admonished to attend to the spirit and not the letter. And the "spiritualizers" do, too. But their mistake is to suppose that the spirit need not be, in fact should not be, embodied, that to give it a body is an unacceptable limitation. Jesus himself tells us that the law is to be made alive, not done away with. 

What immediately strikes the reader of our time is the apparent paradox in which the destruction of all settled convictions has turned into an extremely rigid heresy-hunting orthodoxy. But it's only apparent. What we call "society" is as intrinsic a part of being human as is the individual. And every society has, also intrinsically, its expectations of conduct, its standards by the light of which some things are acceptable and some are not. Or, to use Reiff's terms, its controls, or interdicts, and remissions.


Auden (et. al): Night Mail

Some months ago I picked up Humphrey Carpenter's biography of W.H. Auden from the discard shelf at the local library. That it was there is a sad state of affairs, and I almost made it sadder when, after a few months of seeing it on the shelf and leaving it alone, and under a self-imposed mandate to get rid of books that I'm pretty sure I will never read, I decided that I probably didn't really want to read five hundred or so pages about Auden's life. I'm generally unenthusiastic about biographies of artists, and Auden is not my at the top of my list of favorite poets (high, but not at the top), though several of his poems are near the top of that list. So I decided to throw it back into the library's giveaway pile and hope someone else would give it a good home.

But before doing that I leafed through it, read a few bits and pieces here and there, and decided it seemed interesting after all, and that if nothing else I'd like to read about Auden's conversion to Christianity. That required getting some of the background, so in the end I decided to keep the book at least long enough to read the whole thing. 

I'm glad I did. I'm less than halfway through it, and am finding it quite interesting for the most part, though like most biographies it occasionally frequently goes into more detail than I care to follow. 

For six months or so in 1935-36, when Auden was in his late twenties, he worked in the Film Unit of England's postal service. I know, that sounds very strange--why did the post office have a film unit? But it did, and it made a documentary called Night Mail about the train that made a nightly mail run from London to several cities in Scotland. Auden wrote some verse for part of it, and Benjamin Britten provided music.

On YouTube there are several clips of the few minutes that include Auden's poem:

Several of the YouTube commenters say that it's an early form of rap. They sort of have a point.

I'd really like to see the whole film, which is less than half an hour long and which, on the basis of that clip, is very poetic in a very 20th century inter-war period way. But the only place I can find it is at the British Film Institute's streaming service, and I don't want to see it badly enough to subscribe. 

"Inter-war period." What a ghastly thing to say, but it really is a reasonable way to describe the 1920s and '30s. 


Rieff Was Right

I'm finally reading The Triumph of the Therapeutic and find myself thinking that Philip Rieff was the smartest person of the 20th century. But I revise that thought immediately: "smart" is not the best word, suggesting mere intelligence, a high score on an IQ test. "Wisest," "'most perceptive," "most prophetic" would be better. He was the most accurate and profound analyst, from a somewhat detached, observational, semi-scientific point of view (he was a sociologist), of the cultural revolution (his term) which took place in western civilization over the past several centuries. Notice the past tense: in Rieff's view the transformation has been accomplished.

The book is subtitled "Uses of Faith After Freud," which only hints at the magnitude of its achievement, which is to name and explain the type of civilization which was coming into being after the long twilight of Christian civilization, described by Matthew Arnold as one in which we are

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
("Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse")

Arnold is in fact referred to in the second sentence of the book. And Yeats's "The Second Coming," which unfortunately has now been overused in politics but remains as vivid and significant as ever, is its epigraph.

I'm not qualified to write a broad analysis or critique of the book. It's difficult and in some ways simply over my head. Among other things, Rieff was deeply knowledgeable about Freud and Freud's psychoanalytic procedures, and the greater part of this book is about Freud and his wayward disciples or successors: Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and D.H. Lawrence. I've read some Lawrence, a bit of Jung, no Reich at all, and as far as I remember no Freud. (I hedge that last one slightly because I may have read some excerpts from The Future of An Illusion in a religion class in college.) And sometimes Rieff is, for me at any rate, simply obscure. He is, by the way, a superior prose stylist.

Fortunately, there is this appreciation by Jeremy Beer. It was published in The American Conservative in 2006 and is included in the contemporaneous edition of the book published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Here is a taste, and that's really all it is:

Rieff now worried that, though Christian culture had been all but entirely shattered, nothing had succeeded it; there were therefore no extant authoritative institutions whose demands and remissions (the culturally regulated relaxation of those demands) could be internalized, thereby acting to “bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.” This failure of succession was no accident but rather the explicit program of the “modern cultural revolution,” which was deliberately being undertaken “not in the name of any new order of communal purpose” but for the “permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands.”

I'm quite sure there is much in this book that I haven't clearly understood. But much of what I do understand is brilliant. What sets Rieff apart from others who have made similar broad observations is the depth of his insight into the nature and significance of the transition, and his deeply negative, but entirely unpolemical, view of it. Unlike, for instance, many Christian thinkers, he is dispassionate about the civilization which is ending and does not view its restoration as a possible solution, or even desirable. He is relentless in crushing the false hopes of Christians who believe that they can somehow preserve the faith by adapting it to the therapeutic culture, and in that respect he often seems to understand Christianity better than most Christians. Nor does he see any of the strategies and techniques proposed by Freud's successors as providing a solution, a way out of the crisis. The chapters on Jung, Reich, and Lawrence are essentially demolitions of their proposals. Freud, he seems to say, had only very modest expectations, and did not propose a grand solution, only coping strategies. 

Over the next few weeks I plan to pick out some specific passages and quote them, perhaps even venture to discuss them. Right now I have on my mind a notion sparked by this sentence, which is really just a passing remark: 

After all, Trinitarian Christianity is responsible for our present inclination to attribute an aura of divinity to the person as such--an inclination derived from the original attribution of personality to God.

Out of its context that may not strike you as so important or original, and the context is too extensive to quote. But in light of Rieff's overall effort to explain and justify his title phrase, and his treatment of the collapse of Christianity as a definer of culture, it jumped out at me. What he is pointing out is that in secular modernity, this "aura of divinity" has persisted alongside the quasi-scientific presumption of ultimate meaninglessness.

These two beliefs simply cannot be reconciled. The lame attempts to establish meaning as a purely subjective and temporary thing are only a temporary hedge against the reckoning. And (this is what suddenly struck me) the attempt to maintain both doctrines results in intense psychological conflict which I think is one of the drivers of the politics-as-religion phenomenon we're currently calling "wokeism." 

I know it's a cliché to point out that post-Christian civilization is carrying forward various features of Christianity, often in a distorted or corrupted form, but this is illuminating as a specific detail of that process. The "aura of divinity" becomes something to which the term narcissism doesn't quite do justice. The individual will is a sacred will, able not only by its own power, but by the permission and affirmation of (progressive) society, to alter reality--as long as, in the old classical liberal view, it doesn't hurt anyone else. And yet there is ultimately--I mean, ultimately--nothing essentially important or significant about the person as such: he is only an individual of an animal species not fundamentally different from any other, the result of random physical events. And according to current advanced thinking even his belief in his own conscious self is an illusion. 

If our future is to be defined by progressive ideas, this tension must eventually resolve itself, perhaps in a recurring tension and release, by means of some sort of scapegoating mechanism, perhaps in the age-old division of people into the significant and the insignificant. I'll leave the possibilities to your imagination.

TriumpOfTheTherapeutic

Yes, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn is Christopher Lasch's daughter, and the connections between the ideas of the two men are clear.

Now I have to admit that I have not actually read the entire book. It's not because I didn't try, but I have an odd problem. I've been reading a review copy of the book that was sent to me years ago when it was re-issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (I'm sorry, ISI, that I never reviewed it.) I discovered that it's missing most of the Reich chapter (and shows a few other minor physical defects which I presume were corrected before a final printing).

So I ordered a new copy. It arrived on a Friday some weeks ago. I opened the package and laid the book on the dining room table. Early on the afternoon of the next day I went out of town for a night, returning late Sunday. A day or two later I looked for the book and it was not on the table where (I thought) I had left it. I have absolutely no memory of doing anything else with it. Nor does my wife. But I've searched the house, especially the bookshelves, and it hasn't turned up. I'm very much afraid that I did something one hears of old people doing: put it in some place where it doesn't belong, and forgot that I had put it anywhere at all. But if I did that, it must have been an obscure place. Yes, I looked in the refrigerator and the freezer and the pantry. And although I was pretty certain I had not taken the book with me on that overnight trip--I had consciously considered doing so, and decided not to--I had someone check the usually vacant family house where I had stayed. Not there either. And not in the car.

It still hasn't turned up, and my fear is that somehow it got put into the recycling bin, where a lot of paper on the dining room table goes, or the trash. Far-fetched, but if it were anywhere plainly visible I'd have seen it by now. I refuse to buy another copy (although that would probably cause the missing one to return) so I will have to live without the Reich chapter. I do have the first few and last few pages of it, and Reich is discussed along with the other two in an earlier chapter, so I think I got the general idea. I was a little surprised to see Reich taken so seriously, as I had the impression he was rather a nut. And apparently he was, but some of his ideas are quite prominent in our culture now.


Abigail Rine Favale: Into the Deep

I do not know how to pronounce the author's last name,  and for that matter am not entirely certain about her middle name. This bothered me a bit every time I picked up the book, and is, obviously, bothering me a little right now. But it didn't prevent me from reading, enjoying, and admiring the book.

Subtitled "An Unlikely Catholic Conversion," this is the memoir of a young woman (now middle-aged, I guess) who grew up in a conservative evangelical family and subculture, partly rejected and partly drifted away from it in favor of academic feminism, and in time found her way to the Catholic Church.

That is an unusual but in its broad outline not exactly unheard-of story. Conversion stories in general are hardly rare, even conversion of many initially quite hostile to the faith; the propagation of the gospel begins with them. But they are all by nature somewhat similar, and are not necessarily of great interest to anyone except the convert and those who know him, including especially God. 

I had a personal reason for reading this one. I have my own unpublished, probably never-to-be-published, memoir, and a few years ago I queried a certain Catholic publisher about it. The editor replied courteously that although they have published conversion memoirs, they did not sell very well and he doesn't expect to publish any more such. Since then I've read a few that have managed to get into print in recent years and to get at least some attention from at least the Catholic press. I wanted to see what made them worthy of note.

Into the Deep is the most recent of these (most recently read, I mean, not published), and the best. That's not because it's necessarily the most intrinsically interesting story, but because it's told so well. It's quite well-written in the micro sense that the prose is well-crafted, and in the macro sense that the narrative is vivid and brings home a real sense of the author's experience. And also because her specific struggle involves matters that are very much part of our current cultural malaise: the nature and meaning of the sexes, the role of women in the world and in the Church, especially the confrontation of feminism and the Church. 

Back in the 1970s, when feminism--what I have since learned is known as second-wave feminism--was at its height, I was mildly intrigued by it and sympathetic to it. I thought then, and still think, that women in general are pretty wonderful, and that in many ways they get a bad deal. But I don't think I have many illusions about them, and I couldn't help being skeptical of what seemed to be one of feminism's assumptions: that apart from the obvious physical things there is no significant difference between the sexes. That this was false, I thought, should be obvious to anyone who looked at actual men and women. And I thought it would be a good thing if a feminist thinker would explore those differences deeply rather than try to dismiss or erase them. 

I didn't continue paying much attention for very long. The basic feminist doctrine seemed to be twofold: (1) men and women are exactly the same, except for those ways in which women are superior; (2) men and women should be treated in exactly the same way, expect for situations where it is to the advantage of women to be treated differently. This only caused me to be amused by the way feminism confirmed the stereotype of women as illogical. It certainly didn't help my perception that feminism was (and still is) zealous in political causes, most notably advocacy of abortion, that were at the time beginning to strike me as destructive. (I long ago moved past any ambivalence about their destructiveness.)

Well, here is a feminist, or at least former feminist, who has done the exploration which I had hoped to see. And it has led her precisely into the deep, into the profundity of sexual significance. Here was an important turning point:

Most of the time life moves at such a crawl that we remain blind to its constant change, but there are some experiences, like becoming a parent, that strike like lightning and, in just a flash, we are utterly altered.

This is what happened to me. When I first became pregnant, I was comfortable settled into my own unique brand of postmodern, feminist Christianity. I remember lounging on the couch amidst waves of nausea, watching news coverage of the controversial contraception mandate, rolling my eyes in anger and disgust at those regressive Catholic priests in their prim white collars, telling women what to do with their bodies.

Yet almost exactly two years later, I would be standing before such a priest at the Easter Vigil Mass, publicly confessing my desire to be received into the largest, oldest male-helmed institution in the world, the Roman Catholic Church.

Motherhood broke me open.

That breaking-open is of course among other things quite literally physical: a sensation and an experience that men can never know. The moment occurs less than one-third of the way through the book, so there is a great deal of road left to travel from here, and a great deal of reflection. There's a nice balance of the narrative and the abstract--of, to adapt the famous feminist catch-phrase, the personal and the theological. I recommend it both as a conversion memoir, and for that matter a memoir, period--I enjoyed the recounting of her early life--and as a venture into the rich topic of Catholicism and gender. 

IntoTheDeep3

I'm not keen on this cover. Apart from the fact that it's not especially appealing as a graphic, it suggests to me not conversion but a woman falling in love with a priest.

The venture continues with her new book, The Genesis of Gender, "a crash course of sorts, an insider’s look at the implicit worldview of gender theory, so people are better able to recognize the underlying claims that are being made." Here is an interview at Catholic World Report in which she discusses it.  Also at Catholic World Report, she demonstrates that she has by no means compromised her objections to some notions of feminine submission to male authoritarianism: she excoriates a book called Ask Your Husband, which seems to be an unwitting confirmation of secular feminism's view of Catholic thinking on this subject.

It seems to me that the current crisis in which enlightened opinion is no longer willing to say that a woman is an adult female human being is a fairly natural development from certain aspects of feminist thought. To their credit some feminists are willing to oppose it, which is hardly the first time that ideological revolutionaries have been horrified by some of the conclusions, theoretical and practical, drawn from their premises. It's going to be a long time before we settle down, culturally, but in the meantime Abigail Favale and others are doing very valuable work toward clearing up the very clouded waters.


Stella Suberman: The Jew Store

Don't be alarmed by the title, which I think is in fact a bit alarming. It strikes our ears as crude, at least, and is the product of a time and place in which Jews were seen as foreign and held in some suspicion, sometimes hostility. The time and place was a small town in Tennessee (fictionally named Concordia) in the 1920s, and the author of this book was the daughter of a Jewish merchant who, with his family, were the first and only Jews in the town, and whose store was therefore known to the town as the Jew store:

Bronson's Low-Priced Store was Concordia's "Jew store." There had been none until my family got there, and in those days it was the custom for every small Southern town to have one. A Jew store--and that is what people called it--was a modest establishment selling soft goods--clothing and domestics (bedding, towels, yard goods)--to the poorer people of the town--the farmers, the sharecroppers, the blacks, the factory workers.

Sure, "Jew store" smells of antisemitism. And the family did encounter hostility from some because they were Jews. But they thrived, and that was not unusual.

I long ago realized that the antisemitism of the South has been greatly exaggerated. Forty years after the Bronsons came to Concordia I went to high school in a southern town somewhat like it, though a little larger. I did not notice at the time that there was a small Jewish community there, that a couple of the stores on the town square were owned by Jews, and that a popular judge was Jewish. And that his daughter was the mother of one of my friends. I didn't notice it because it wasn't remarked. I never heard the term "Jew store," which either had never been used or had passed out of use by my time. And in any case there was more than one, and the clientele of Mr. Jaffe's department store was not considered déclassé--I recall my middle-class family shopping there. 

There was a sort of pro-forma antisemitism among the same sort of people who take naturally to whatever form of bigotry is on offer. But that was something of an afterthought, amounting to little in comparison to the systematic oppression inflicted on blacks. Jews were safely on the "white" side of that divide. I can remember hearing only one explicit expression of antisemitism, and that was from a high school friend who was just trying to shock people. (I know enough of his later life to know that he outgrew that urge.)

It was even later that I learned that the situation in my town was, as Stella (Bronson) Suberman says, pretty standard throughout the South. There was in fact in the early 20th century a sort of mini-migration of Jews, recently arrived from Europe and Russia, to small Southern towns, where they opened businesses and prospered. The Bronsons were one of a great many families. 

I say the Bronsons thrived, but not in every respect. The business thrived, and the husband liked Tennessee better than New York, and anyway considered that any difficulties they encountered had to be seen alongside others that they might have experienced elsewhere:

My father guarded against sentimentalizing Concordia, going "too easy" on it, as he said. He reminded himself that it was not a place of uniformly soft hearts and warm spirits, a place where the inhabitants were partial to Jews. He wasn't a fool; he knew Concordia wasn't that way. But the way it was was okay by him. And why not? Having in Russia been tormented, chased, and attacked by Cossacks, having in New York been insulted and ignored, whatever maltreatment he had endured in Concordia was minor league. The Ku Klux Klan? Their threats had not materialized, though my father did not kid himself. "It wasn't because they loved me so much," he would say. No, it was more that having experienced a Jew store, they were now convinced that having one in Concordia was a good thing.

The children were reasonably happy--sometimes too happy and too much at home to suit Mrs. Bronson, who never stopped pining for New York and the Jewish family and community of which she had been a part there, and who worried perpetually about her children finding Jewish spouses. That became a crisis when the older daughter Miriam approached marriageable age. In the end Mrs. Bronson got her way, and after roughly a decade in Concordia they moved back to New York.

The time in Tennessee encompassed the author's life until the age of ten or eleven. Not for the first time I'm just a little skeptical of the detailed accuracy and quantity of a memoirist's childhood memories. But if I remember correctly (I read the book some months ago) she says that she draws on the testimony of others in the family, those who were older than she at the time. At any rate, this is an extremely enjoyable book. I find myself reaching for the stock terms in which one praises a memoir of what we are too apt to call "a simpler time," which in some ways it was: warm, affectionate, nostalgic, wry, full of colorful characters, especially Miss Brookie Simmons, a well-to-do and educated "spinster," as she would have been called then, who is the family's general guide and protector. Well, if those terms are stock, they're still accurate, and let's add gracefully and engagingly written. 

The story of these little Jewish communities often has in our time a sad ending, as the general movement of people and money away from those towns has seen many of those communities dispersed. It's good that chronicles like this exist. 

TheJewStore

The little girl would be Stella, the little boy her older brother Joey. I think this depicts an incident in the book. 


Sigrid Undset: In the Wilderness

(mild spoilers)

This is the third book in the Olav AudunssonMaster of Hestviken tetralogy. (See this for comments on the second book.) It's in two parts, "The Parting of the Ways" and "The Wilderness." The first part is shorter and I take its title to refer primarily to Olav's parting from Ingunn. They were of course parted by death in the previous volume, The Snake Pit, but the separation is made definitive here, with Olav adjusting to life without Ingunn and the state of anxiety and anguish in which he had lived for most of their many years together. As is necessarily the case with the death of someone close, however much the loss may continue to be felt, the shape of day-to-day life re-forms itself, filling in the empty space and becoming normal. 

Olav makes a journey to London and spends (I think) most of a summer there. It's ostensibly a trading voyage but it's at least as much an excuse for Olav to get away from the burdens and sad memories of Hestviken. In London occurs an event which I mentioned in the last post, on The Snake Pit, as one of the few which I remembered vividly from my first reading of the tetralogy. 

At Mass in a London church, he sees a woman who looks uncannily like Ingunn--the young, healthy Ingunn who has not existed for many years. He can't take his eyes off her, can't get her out of his mind; it seems that Ingunn is being offered to him all over again--a new and improved Ingunn, perhaps. A silent flirtation and seduction takes place between them, as they see each other repeatedly at the church. She is married, to a blind man. She arranges, through a servant, a tryst, to take place in the garden of her home, and Olav goes to her. As he takes her in his arms a warning comes to him:

No, this was not [Ingunn]--and it was as though he heard a cry coming from somewhere without; a voice that he heard not with his bodily ears called to him, aloud and wild with fear, trying to warn him. From somewhere, from the ground under his feet, he thought, the cry came--Ingunn, he knew, the real Ingunn, was striving to come to his aid. He could tell that she was in the utmost distress; in bonds of powerlessness or sin she was fighting to be heard by him through the darkness that parted them....

Ingunn called to him, she was afraid he would not understand that this stranger was one who had borrowed her shape, seeking to drag him under.

Well, for the sake of those who haven't read the book but may do so, perhaps I shouldn't quote that. But then you still have to read the book to find out what happens next.

The whole London sequence is especially memorable to me, and I think part of the reason is the essentially minor fact that it is London. It occurs to me now that almost none of the action in Undset's two major works takes place in a city of much size. From time to time someone goes to Oslo, but it isn't portrayed as being very large. London seems clearly to be larger, though much smaller than any contemporary city, with the heart of the city and its waterfront not very far at all from farms and open country, and in fact a certain amount of what we would consider rural life occurring within the city proper. At any rate the somewhat awed perspective on London of Olav and his companions, and perhaps the fact that it's summer and quite a distance south from Norway gives this episode a fresh and almost holiday-ish quality, notwithstanding the fact that not everything that happens there is pleasant. 

One of the decisive spiritual events--and in Undset's vision these are as real as any physical events--is Olav's realization that even many of his sins are less grand than he liked to think. In doing such-and-such, did he sin out of essentially noble motives? Or was he at bottom only driven by the same common, base, and petty appetites that drive men whom he held in contempt? As in Kristin, the process of self-knowledge is at the heart of a lifetime's journey, and one of its essential goals.

Much of the second part, "The Wilderness," involves the gradual shrinking of Olav's life to a joyless routine of managing his estate, Hestiviken. His foster son, Eirik, Ingunn's illegitimate child whom Olav has passed off as his own, now a young man, departs, at least in part because Olav drives him away. Then comes a war which gives him, at least fleetingly, a sense of purpose, a glimpse of a way out of the wilderness. The martial joy with which he plunges into this conflict is something which our time does not readily grasp, except by way of fantasy, as in the Marvel movies and video games. Undset's rendering of the battle in which Olav takes part is remarkable simply as a piece of historical re-creation--I am assuming that she is accurate, and by all accounts that's a safe assumption--and also as a vivid narrative. It's also, I'm sure, accurate with regard to the bigger context of the wars that were taking place in Norway at the time. (In fact the first book of the tetralogy opens with a description of that context.)

But the war ends with Olav gravely wounded, recovering but permanently disfigured. He returns to Hestviken for the last act of his life's drama, in his forties, growing old by the standards of the time, still hiding the sin which he believes will cost him his soul, but which he cannot bring himself to confess.

I've seen a few comments here and there from readers to the effect that this is the least interesting of the four books, and overall they have a fair point. Nevertheless the eighty or so pages of "The Parting of the Ways" remain for me among the most profound and moving of the almost one thousand which make up the whole. 


Sigrid Undset: The Snake Pit

This is the second book in Sigrid Undset's tetralogy which, depending on the translation, is called either The Master of Hestviken or Olav Audunsson. The latter title is from the newer translation by Tiina Nunnally, and is in my opinion a handier title, if only because it creates a justifiable symmetry between Undset's two great works of medieval Norwegian historical fiction, and is convenient when discussing the two.

This is my second reading of the tetralogy. I began this traversal with Nunnally's first volume, Vows (The Axe in the old Chater translation). However, for reasons which I've previously discussed, I've returned to the Chater translation for the remaining three books: I find it, in a word, richer, whatever the arguments about fidelity to the original may be.

The translators also disagree about the naming of the individual books, neither's names tracking the original Norwegian edition as far as I can tell, which was published in two volumes. Nunnally's Providence strikes me as less apt than The Snake Pit. The first book tells the story of Olav Audunsson's efforts to marry Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, the woman to whom he believes himself to be betrothed (a dispute about that is at the heart of the story), in spite of major obstacles put in their way by various kin and by consequences of their own actions. In The Snake Pit they are married and able at last to return to Olav's ancestral manor, Hestviken. It is of course not going to be happily ever after, not even very often happy at all. Ingunn is sickly and not generally very capable as the mistress of a substantial estate. Olav often refers to her, tenderly and pityingly, as being almost useless, and soon ill health makes her even less capable. Both she and Olav are tormented in various ways, both practical and emotional, by the mistakes and sins of their earlier years. In the early pages of the book Olav, arriving at Hestviken, which he has not seen since he was a child, encounters a thing he had forgotten:

Olav Audunsson knew it again the moment he stepped into his own house, which he had not seen since he was a child of seven years. Never had he thought of this carving or known that he remembered it--but the moment his eye fell upon it, recognition came like a gust of wind that passes over the surface of a lake and darkens it: 'twas the doorpost of his childhood. The image of a man was carven upon it surrounded by snakes; they filled the whole surface with their windings and twistings, coiling about the man's limbs and body, while one bit him to the heart. A harp lay trampled under his feet--it was surely Gunnar Gjukesson in the snake pit.

A footnote explains:

This is Gunnar of the Volsunga Saga, the husband of Brynhild. Gunnar was thrown into the snake pit by Atle (Attila); his sister Gudrun, Sigurd's widow and Atle's wife, secretly sent him a harp, and by his playing he charmed all the snakes save one, which bit him to the heart.

That's pretty much Olav's situation. He is a solid and honorable man, and has charmed all the snakes save one, and it has bitten him almost fatally: the guilt he bears for a murder committed in the first book. . He knows that he must confess it, but if he does so he will be required to do public penance, and that will involve Ingunn and all their kin, more or less ruining his life, and Ingunn's.

Toward the end of the book Ingunn lies dying after long suffering, her always-frail body broken in some unspecified way by childbirth. (I suppose the people of the time had no way of knowing exactly what was wrong.) Olav is away from home, and when he gets the news that Ingunn is near death he is helped on his way by a young couple, Lavrans Bjorgulfsson and his wife Rangfrid. Those who have read Kristin will recognize these as Kristin's parents, still young, strong, and cheerful; it is a poignant moment.

In a profound and powerful scene, Olav's night journey through bitter cold brings him to a sort of epiphany in which he sees his situation and resolves to clear his conscience and live with whatever follows. But this resolution falters when he gets home, as he believes Ingunn to be begging him inarticulately not to expose them.

And so we are halfway through the story, and Olav has been married, then widowed, and still the serpent is biting at his heart. As I write this I'm well into the next book, and though I recall the end of the tetralogy I didn't retain many specific events from the third volume, except for one, which if my memory had not become so unreliable I would say is now permanently sealed there. More about that in a few weeks, maybe.

There are works of art that make me feel, among other emotions, a strong sense of gratitude for their existence, and toward their creators. This is one. Sigrid Undset was in her early forties when she wrote this, and already had the wisdom of a long life., no doubt born of some bitter experiences. Moreover, she was still new to the Church, but she understood the faith deeply, and the wisdom she puts into the mouths and minds of some of her characters is deep and mature. Here is Olav talking to his friend Arnvid about the murder, committed while he travelled alone with the man he would kill:

"And then it all came about as easily as if it had been laid out for me--he begged me to take him on that journey; no man was aware that we set out together. But had God or my patron or Mary Virgin directed our way to some man's house that evening and not to those deserted saeters under Luraas--you know it would have fallen out otherwise."

"I scarce think you had prayed God and the saints to watch over your journey, ere you set out?"

"I am not so sure that I did not--nay, prayed I had not truly. But all that Easter I had done nothing but pray--and I was so loath to kill him, all the time. But it was as though all things favoured me, so that I was driven to do it--and tempted to conceal it afterwards. And God, who knows all, He knew how this must turn out, better than I--why could not He have checked me nevertheless, without my prayers--?"

"So say we all, Olav, when we have accomplished our purpose and then seen that it would have been better if we had not."

Fortunate, or blessed, are those who have no similar accomplishments. Elsewhere, in a sentence which I can't locate at the moment and so will quote as best I remember, Olav recalls the wisdom of a priest:

He who follows only his own will discovers in time that he has done that which he did not will.

Among the relatively small group of people who have read both Kristin and Olav, there seems to be a preference for the former. If that's indeed the general view, I dissent. I won't necessarily say that Olav is better, but it's every bit as good. In any case I'm more certain than ever that Undset is among the truly great novelists.

The_Master_of_Hestviken

This seems to be the cover of the original English translation (source: biblio.com). It's the cover of my copy, which somehow came to me from a parish library in Falls Church, Virginia.


The Fatal Bent

I was discussing C.S. Lewis's Perelandra the other day with someone who considers it the weakest of Lewis's science fiction trilogy, in fact pretty much forgettable. I disagree, and find it eminently memorable. And one thing I always recall vividly is the opening, in which the narrator takes a twilight walk from a railway station to Ransom's cottage three miles away. I've always thought that scene, and the narrator's steadily increasing sense of dread, one of the most effective openings of a novel I've ever read. 

Thinking of it, I picked up the book and read that opening scene again. It really is quite good, as good as I remembered. But one thing jumped out at me, not necessarily part of that incident proper but a bit of explication by the narrator as he thinks about Ransom's revelation that our world is ruled by evil angels who

...are the real explanation of that fatal bent which is the main lesson of history.

That does seem to be the general drift of history, and I'm afraid we're seeing that fatal bent in operation again. Those who've been reading this blog for a while know that I've been concerned for many years about whether the United States can survive the cold civil war that's been in progress since the '60s, if not longer. We call it "cold" in the sense that the Cold War was cold--that it did not involve physical violence. But the emotions involved are very hot and getting hotter. I hope I'm wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine our ever being truly one nation again. Each side of the culture war now believes that compromise is a lost cause, and that its survival or at least its well-being can only be achieved by the decisive defeat of the other.

Few nations can match the combination of material prosperity, personal freedom, and stable, reasonably democratic government that we have achieved. Setting aside all the valid criticisms of the thinking and practices that brought about these things, and of the injustices and other defects that were and are part of it, the achievement remains astonishing in the broad context of human history. And few serious people seriously want to give up all its benefits.

Yet here we are: rich, angry, ungrateful, stupid, ignorant, as impassioned as we are irrational, indifferent if not hostile to the foundations on which the achievement rests. The most egregious and fundamental of these is the attack on the constitution, which amounts to a rejection of the rule of law, of the whole concept of a government of laws and not of men, upon which rests the structure of representative government.

Most often the attack is implicit, but sometimes it's explicit. I'd be willing to bet that no more than one out of ten of the people currently protesting the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade understand the constitutional question, or even in general the way the whole system works, with its complex balancing of power. And, worse, I'd bet that zero out of ten care. And, to be fair, there's a similar indifference in some quarters of the right.

What went wrong? Well, I could go on at length about that, and have done. And I certainly have strong ideas about which side is more at fault. But beneath those details I see the fatal bent in action, the universal tendency which is independent of places and times. There's still room for hope that it won't accomplish the ruin toward which it tends, but that probably requires a level of awareness of what's happening that doesn't seem to be very widespread at all.