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Peter Hitchens Muses on the Wind

His latest post at The Lamp's blog is a jewel:

What is it about the wind? When I am watching some piece of ancient black-and-white archive film, imprisoned in the time when it was made, a gust of wind will lift a person’s hair or shake the trees in the background, and the whole thing will spring to fierce life. For the moment when the wind blows, it is freed from the past and is happening now. I do not know why. It just is so.

Something similar happens when the wind comes into poetry or prose....

It's not very long, but read it when you're not distracted and are at liberty to take it slowly. As those who have read this blog for a while know, I live on the hurricane coast and am all too well acquainted with truly terrible and dangerous winds. Yet even at times when I've lain in the dark wondering if a tree was going to fall on the house, or the roof come off, I couldn't help feeling, in addition to the fear, a degree of awe bordering on admiration. And I've been close enough to a tornado to hear it, and have seen the damage. Hitchens notes

I was once on a train between Denver, Colorado and Omaha, Nebraska, halted for hours by tornadoes. The small towns through which we crept, when we at last moved, looked as if they had been visited by war.

That's no exaggeration. After one tornado in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1989, I went to help with the cleanup. I saw, among other things, cars that had been picked up and dropped upside down, completely flattening the top, or right-side up, warping the wheels. Not the tires, the solid steel wheels. A wind that can pick up a car and throw it around. 

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A couple of other things worth looking at on the web:

Slant Books is doing some great things. Among their recent offerings is a collection of three plays by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The title play is about a family of Elizabethan recusant Catholics who...well, here's the description:

Shakeshafte imagines an encounter between a young sixteenth century Englishman with a faintly familiar surname and an undercover Jesuit missionary. Two visions of how words change the world collide and converge and slip away again.

You can read an excerpt here. Also, at this link, you can register for a December 28 online book launch for Shakeshafte which will include performance of a scene from the title play and a Q&A with Williams. 

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The Friday Links at the Dappled Things blog usually include some interesting stuff. In this case it's all of them. I haven't watched that video about the hermit yet but I intend to. I wonder where Liechtenstein is. 

Not so sure I want to read the entire piece by the young women who says "Over time, though, I outgrew the conversion narrative as a genre." Yeah, I hear you. I'm pretty sick of the one I wrote. 


Kind Words for Some Unpopular Christians

Very early in my life as an adult Christian I realized that I had to come to terms with the fact that a lot of my fellow Christians were really Not My Sort. More significantly, they held views, or at least expressed them in ways, with which I disagreed significantly. I have in mind a particular incident: it was around 1979, and I had a friend who, like me, had recently joined the Episcopal Church. He mentioned that he had just heard on the radio a hick preacher who denounced homosexuality in terms that to say the least showed no charity or kindness.

My friend was outraged. I remember him saying vehemently "I have nothing whatsoever in common with that guy. Nothing." As far as I can remember I didn't make any reply, but I remember thinking that as unpleasant and just plain wrong as the preacher was in his approach to that particular subject, I almost certainly agreed with him on the basic tenets of the Creed (though he probably disavowed creeds in principle), and even on the fundamental question of the morality of homosexual acts, and that I had to accept the fact that in becoming a Christian I was joining myself to him and others whose company I didn't especially want. I now had more of the most important things in common with him than I did with my non-Christian friends.

The Gospel, unfortunately, is like that. It's the one thing needful, and those who accept it are united to each other in a way that they can't be with non-believers. Often over the years I've found myself defending people whom I find unsympathetic in one way or another, saying "Well, he or she or they are wrong about that, but right about the One Big Thing."

I still feel that way about fundamentalist Protestantism, though, now, forty years later, a majority of Americans are more of my friend's mind than of mine. It is certainly despised by our upper classes. And there are a lot of people out there who grew up in that culture who now despise it and blame it for their problems.

More or less the same goes for those who are sometimes called fundamentalist Catholics, who are zealous in their commitment to orthodoxy and swim hard upstream against the secular culture which is ever more hostile to them. Since the '70s and '80s there have been a fair number of Catholic families in this mold, and now many of their children are grown, and as with the Protestants some (many) are now ex-Catholics who are bitter about various things that were wrong with that subculture. Sometimes it's personal, some particular situation that was really unhealthy. Sometimes it's a general rejection of the whole mindset. Sometimes it's justified, sometimes not.

EWTN is one of the central institutions of these Catholics, and it is much despised by progressive Catholics. Pope Francis even went so far recently as to say the devil is at work in it (which is true enough, just as he's at work in the Vatican). I have to admit, with a twinge of guilt, that I've never really cared much for EWTN. I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to write a thousand words on the subject. Suffice to say that it's really not my cup of tea, and I would agree with some of the criticisms of it. But I have seen it work real good in the lives of real people, and I think it's much more a good thing than not.

So I was glad to read, a week or two ago, two pieces that came out pretty close together, by relatively young people defending these unpopular Christians. One is a Catholic convert writing in National Review. She's an instance of what I was just saying, someone on whom EWTN exercised a significant influence for the good.  The other is a Protestant (Anglican) writing in The American Conservative. I found them heartening, especially the Protestant, because the milieu he describes is the one I grew up in. Here's the Catholic: "In Defense Of EWTN", and here's the Protestant: "I Survived (Because Of) Bible-Belt Religion".

By the way, here is what the pope actually said:

There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope. I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the Church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil.

This was, all too predictably, reported as "Pope Francis says EWTN is the work of the devil." Obviously the antecedent of "They" in the third sentence is "attacks and insults." I don't know what these attacks and insults are so am not expressing an opinion on whether his complaint is justified.


Another Liturgical Note

"Bishop Steven J. Lopes, the bishop of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, was elected to head the Committee for Divine Worship by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at their annual general assembly in Baltimore."

Full story at the web site of the Anglicanorum Coetibus Society.

My master plan for the Ordinariate is a slow infiltration of the Novus Ordu by the language and other elements of the Anglican tradition. So far so good. I don't really know what this means, and have not seen any commentary. The vote was as close as it could be without being a tie: 121-120. I don't know what that means, either. Does it reflect a more-traditionalist vs. less-traditionalist split? Maybe some of those folks who follow these things closely will provide some insight.

I read somewhere or other a speculation that what Pope Francis is really up to in suppressing the traditional Latin Mass is to drive those who want a more reverent, beautiful, and traditional liturgy to work with the Novus Ordo. I'm inclined to doubt it, but I guess it's possible. Anyway, the Ordinariate's liturgy is just what is needed to get us beyond the post-Vatican-II conflict. On that matter, anyway.


Olav Audunsson and Undset Translations

I recently read Vows, the title given by translator Tiina Nunnally to the first book in the tetralogy previously known as The Master of Hestviken, called in the new translation simply by the name of the main character, Olav Audunsson. From the book's brief Wikipedia entry it's not clear to me whether Undset gave titles to the individual books, but apparently the English translators and publishers have felt free to choose their own. I will say that the new title of the tetralogy seems more fitting than the old; if nothing else it makes for an appropriate juxtaposition with Kristin Lavransdatter, as both are principally concerned with one character. And as for Vows, it's as fitting a title for the first book as the older translation's The Axe. I lean toward the latter as being a more potent title, and as you know if you've read the book, an axe is a very significant part of the story, but so are vows, at least as much so.

At the moment other books have taken priority over continuing with this one, or four, but I'll get back to it, or them. Right now I just want to say something about the translations. I sat in on a series of online lectures on Vows last month, and Tiina Nunnally also attended. Of course people had questions for her, and one of them was about titles. Nunnally said she didn't care much for the titles of the earlier translations, which she thought overly masculine. Well, I don't especially agree, but I get her point. Her second volume is called Providence; the older title is The Snake Pit--there's clearly a pretty different sensibility at work. Personally I suspect Undset would have favored the concrete title over the abstract, but obviously that's only a guess, and, again, there's nothing inappropriate or unfitting about Nunnally's title. 

The differing titles, though, are suggestive to me of other qualities in the new translation, qualities which make me unable to be as enthusiastic about it as most contemporaries seem to be. Last spring when I was reading Nunnally's translation of Kristin I made a number of comments on the translation question. They're in three different posts, so I'll repeat the main points here. 

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Nunnally's prose is certainly simpler and more clear, but it's also without [distinctive ] character. I don't recall encountering anything in this volume which would be out of place in an ordinary magazine or newspaper story of our time. But neither do I recall lingering over any sentence for its elegance or flavor. I won't say it's clumsy, but I won't say it's graceful, either. Maybe I would think the same of the original; maybe Undset wrote a straightforward and not particularly rich prose. 

Nunnally's simplicity certainly makes for an easier read. Archer's prose can be something of a struggle, but I breeze right through Nunnally's without conscious effort. Whether anything is being lost I really can't say with any authority, but as the two sentences above indicate, there are often differences of nuance: "got leave to go" and "was going to accompany" are not interchangeable. 

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In poking around on the web for information about the Kristin translations, I've found that it tends to be taken for granted that the new one (Nunnally) is not just superior to the old one (Archer) but has definitively replaced it, liberating a great novel from a terrible translation. Not so fast, I say. There are many reasons to be grateful for Nunnally's, most especially the restoration of some significant passages mysteriously (as far as I know) omitted from Archer's. But I have reason to think that Nunnally's is also some distance from ideal. I will have more to say about this when I've finished the last volume, but consider the bit I just quoted: "Saint Olav had brought Christianity to the valley...." That sounded off to me. I of course have no idea what Undset actually wrote, but I'm pretty sure that medieval Christians in Norway and everywhere else did not use a term like "Christianity." So I looked at Archer, and found that he says that Saint Olav "christened" the valley. Much truer, I'm sure, to the medieval mind.

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I agree that Archer's attempt at an antique effect is awkward at best, and not even historically appropriate.  But I'm not content with Nunnally's translation...

I can't speak to the rhythms of Undset's prose--but Nunnally's reads like ordinary contemporary American English. The word "weight" keeps coming to mind: Harbison's description makes me think that Undset's prose has it, but Nunnally's does not. Maybe that's not Nunnally's fault, or only partly; maybe it's just the nature of the language of our time. But it's light, almost breezy in comparison to Archer. There's nothing much poetical, nothing much memorable, in it, and by that I don't mean that I think it should have some kind of ostentatious lyricism (which I don't like), but only that there should be something there which makes us re-read a sentence or a paragraph, not because we want to be sure we understood it fully or for any other, so to speak, practical reason, but because its language pleases and touches us....

By the way, Nunnally's inclusion of passages said to be too sexually explicit for Archer, which of course arouses all sorts of tingles in the typical contemporary critic or reader, turns out to be a big nothing. The differences are pretty trivial, apparently consisting only of a few sentences. I would not have been able to identify the passages if I hadn't seen a review which quoted them side by side.

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I couldn't shake the feeling that Nunnally lacks some kind of basic sympathy with Undset's view of the world.  In Olav Audunsson I found something that rather brought this home to me. I neglected to mark the passage, so my quotation may not be precisely accurate, but it's something like "Suddenly the foetus moved vigorously inside her." 

I don't know Norwegian, contemporary or ancient, so I suppose I could be wrong, but I find it hard to believe that a medieval Norwegian would have had such a clinical word, or that Undset would have used it. The earlier translation has simply the natural word, "child." I can't hear the use of "foetus" as anything but an anachronism at least as egregious as "I trow," and moreover reflective of the political-cultural controversies of our time. I don't accuse Nunnally of being deliberately ideological here--perhaps it's just the circles she moves in--but the term is certainly loaded; to say "foetus" instead of "baby" is a deliberate choice for many people, for reasons which I don't need to go into.

So, to sum up: one translation is fusty, giving us an attempt at antique dialog that's really more of the 19th-century than the 13th, like a tea shop in 1900 calling itself Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. (To me it's mainly the dialog in the older translations that often sounds stilted and unreal; the narrative and descriptive passages don't have that problem, and indeed are often richer.) And rightly or wrongly many contemporary readers find it too difficult; one young attendee at that online series I mentioned thanked Tiina Nunnally for "making it possible for me to read Kristin Lavransdatter."

And the other translation is all too much of its time. One owes too much to the 19th century and perhaps earlier, one is too much of the 21st. Why do I harp on this? In part I suppose because I think I may be missing something, that neither translation really does the best possible service to Undset. And even if I wanted to learn Norwegian it's a bit late for me to get started. There will certainly not be another translation in my lifetime, probably not until 2100 is a lot closer than 2000, and who knows what the cultural and linguistic condition of English will be then? 

I feel rather churlish in complaining about translations that certainly involved an amount of labor and knowledge that I can't really imagine doing and possessing, and which may very well have, as the person I quoted above said, "made it possible" for people who otherwise would not have known the work of a great novelist to do so. I really am grateful for that. It's just...well....

By the way, the earlier translations of Kristin and Olav are not by the same person. One is Charles Archer, the other Arthur Chater. But they are similar, though I think Chater's has less of the questionable antique in the dialog. 


Liturgical Note

I went to a traditional Latin Mass last Sunday. Three observations:
 
(1) I prefer the Novus Ordo (assuming no gross abuses thereof).
 
(2) Of the roughly 50 people who were there, by far the majority were no older than 40-ish.
 
(3) Traditiones Custodes was a mistake.
 
I've done my share of griping about the liturgy over the years. But really I'm content with my suburban parish and its Novus Ordo Mass. The one I normally attend has a "folk," actually pop, band, and though it's not my choice of music they do it well. 
 
More importantly, I very much agree with the basic principle of having Mass in the vernacular. It is in a sense a very different and even revolutionary approach to the liturgy. I could not hear 80% of the Latin spoken by the priest during the Latin Mass, and gave up trying to follow along in the Mass book. And it seems to me that until relatively recently that inaccessibility was not considered a problem. The ritual of the Mass was something that the clergy did; for the laity, the point was to be there, and to pray. I've noticed in books written even up until 1960 or so little indications that for the laity to pray the rosary or engage in some other form of private prayer during Mass was normal. 
 
This is a vastly different approach from the congregational participation which we now have and assume to be correct. And I prefer the latter. I'm not making any doctrinal assertion here. I'll assume for the sake of discussion that there are reasonable justifications for both approaches. But I think the Council was right to allow this change. The Mass book used by the congregation at the Latin Mass, which includes side-by-side Latin and English, strikes me as a not very successful attempt to bridge the two approaches. Unless you've studied Latin at least a little, it's difficult and distracting to follow. I suppose it was a stopgap, not entirely satisfactory from either point of view, and not especially conducive to worship.
 
I wish the language of our English Mass was more elegant. I really wish that we had, in general, better music at Sunday Masses. But it's okay. The Catholic faith that's preached at my parish is orthodox. The two priests, one middle-aged and seemingly hardly aware that the Latin Mass ever existed or why, one young and the celebrant at the Latin Mass I attended, are solid and committed. There's nothing bizarre, nothing that would constitute abuse, in the way Mass is celebrated. I am, as I say, content with it.
 
One thing I've often wondered about is whether the scripture readings in the traditional Latin Mass were in Latin. That, I have to say, I would definitely consider an undesirable practice. At the Mass I attended they were in English. Doing a quick search for the answer to that historical question, I came across this from Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J.:

After the Pauline reforms of the liturgy, it was presumed that the "Tridentine" or Latin Mass would fade away. Bishops were given the authority to suppress it in their dioceses, but some people clung to the old liturgy to the point of schism.

Benedict took away the bishops’ authority and mandated that any priest could celebrate the Tridentine Mass whenever he pleased.

It is time to return to bishops the authority over the Tridentine liturgy in their dioceses. The church needs to be clear that it wants the unreformed liturgy to disappear and will only allow it out of pastoral kindness to older people who do not understand the need for change. Children and young people should not be allowed to attend such Masses.

Well, there (and elsewhere in the same piece, which you can read here) is the voice of compulsory progress ca. 1975. It was written in April of this year. I wonder if he knew Traditiones was coming. It's a good instance of what I'm referring to when I say I've always been puzzled by the desire, the apparent need, of so many clergy, theologians, and such to stamp out the Latin Mass. If you read the rest of the piece you get a sense of how it fits into the overall progressive Catholic program. The title is really enough, if you're familiar with these controversies: 

Vatican II made changes to the liturgy. It’s time to think about making more.

p.s. I really, really doubt that Ratzinger/Benedict "insisted that liturgical texts be translated word for word from the Latin." 

 

Important News in the Anglican World

I read the other day on an Ordinariate forum that Church of England Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has been received into the Catholic Church. Well, that's nice, I thought, but that was about the extent of my reaction. These crossovers happen now and again and are of course always welcome, but they are few and don't generally have a great deal of larger significance; they don't represent a broad trend. 

But then I actually read one of the posted articles, and found that it's more significant than I thought. I was vaguely aware of Nazir-Ali's name and that he was somehow fairly prominent, but that was all I knew. It turns out that 

...he formed the centre of a nucleus of evangelical resistance to the slippage in the secular progressive accommodation embarked on by the Anglican Church. He was particularly outspoken on the serious consequences of ignoring the implications of the growth of Islam, and the importance of the Christian definition of marriage being restricted to a man and a woman with the intention of having children.

Previous high-profile Episcopal conversions were mainly of Anglo-Catholics. It was almost expected of them. Others shrugged their shoulders and passed them off as almost inevitable and of no great surprise or perhaps even of no great significance.

But Nazir-Ali is different. The route by which he came to prominence, which included holding the post of General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, was evangelical. And of course evangelicalism is usually uncompromisingly hostile to Catholicism.

I recommend that you read the entire article if you're interested. It's in a British publication called Christian Today, which initially and carelessly I thought was our well-known Christianity Today, in which I can't find any reference to this news. One bit in it made me smile:

What this crisis revealed was that Anglicanism lacked an essential tool in the struggle with secular relativism, the Magisterium.

Ya think?!?  I thought that was clear forty years ago; also that Anglicanism had pretty well already lost that struggle and was not likely to find its way back. That was probably the single most important factor in my conversion.

As I've mentioned (haven't I?) my local Ordinariate group is no more, but I'm still interested in its fortunes, which are in general not so promising right now, and cling to the hope that in time it will have a positive effect on the Church as a whole, chiefly through its liturgical and devotional traditions. So I rejoice that Bishop Nazir-Ali was received into the Ordinariate. I hope he doesn't have too bad a time there. 


Why We're Divided (2) + The Lamp

By an appropriate coincidence, on the same day that I did that last post the new issue of The Lamp arrived. It includes an essay of mine which discusses the development of the counter-culture of the 1960s toward the current culture war, and the post reiterates a point made in that piece: 

The essential feature of the youth rebellion of the Sixties is that it arrived at the point at which the simultaneous decline of Christian culture and the rise of secular materialism produced a mass movement which was in fact a new ersatz cultus, the Great Awakening of a religion of human liberation. It has attracted converts ever since and gone a great way toward converting the culture of which it is an antagonist, recapitulating the conversion of the Greek and Roman world to Christianity. It is for many a feverishly impassioned faith. Like the Church it looks with fervent longing for a world to come. If it stops short of explicit utopianism, it nevertheless postulates an “arc of history” which is an asymptotic approach to utopia.

My title for the piece was "What Happened in the 1960s?" The editor(s) changed it to "What The Culture War Really Is," which I didn't quarrel with. ("Ersatz cultus" also is the editor's phrase, not mine--I just said "religion.") 

It was originally a chapter in the book for which I'm currently trying to find a publisher. My initial intention and ambition for the book was that it would be a combination of personal and cultural history, part autobiographical narrative and part discursive reflection and/or analysis of the times. Reactions from the people who read it either suggested or stated outright that I hadn't really unified those two aspects, and I think they were right. And among other things the book was way too long, and so I removed a lot of the discursive impersonal stuff, like the chapter which became the essay on the Sixties.

What's left is basically a memoir, and I think there's an oversupply of memoirs these days, so I'm not very optimistic about getting it published. Yesterday I ran across this rather wonderful quote from Wittgenstein's introduction to one of his own books:

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

That's something like the way I feel. I don't think I can rewrite the book as it now stands in such a way that it would be greatly improved, though I have not stopped fiddling with details, and will soon try sending this new version to a publisher. 

Though I had excised that one chapter, I thought it was worth preserving. I cut it down from its original 7,000 or so words (by removing personal stuff) to 4,000. Almost exactly 4,000, in fact, which I know because I aimed for that in order to get it down to the maximum word count for First Things, thinking it might be something that would interest them. Well, it didn't. Nor did it interest several other conservative/Catholic publications to which I submitted it, so I put it on this site for a while. Perhaps you read it. 

Then Robert Gotcher told me about a new Catholic magazine called The Lamp. It looked interesting, and they were (are) considering unsolicited work, so I sent the piece to them, and somewhat to my surprise they accepted it. At that point I took it down here.

The Lamp is an interesting publication, describing itself as "A Catholic Journal Of Literature, Science, The Fine Arts, Etc." It's eclectic to say the least. I'm tempted to add "to a fault," and very handsomely produced. It is, however, a bit pricey at $60 for a print subscription, $45 for digital. You can read their editorial statement here. And here is a list of the issues. I'm pretty sure that you can read them online if you register first. It will offer to link your registration to your subscriber account, but you can close that tab, go back to the issues page, and view the articles. I think.

TheLamp-Issue-07-cover-imageCover image from the current issue. I think it's great.


Penelope Fitzgerald: The Knox Brothers

My attempts to impose some kind of order and method on my reading never last, and the reason is usually that some stray impulse seizes me and I pick up a book that was not in line to be read, sometimes not even toward the end of that line but rather in the "someday" or even the "maybe someday" category. This book was one of those. I don't even remember why I picked it up, except that it was lying conspicuosly on the shelf out of place and on top of a stack. Probably I was looking for another book when this one caught my eye.

Anyway I didn't need to read very much before deciding to continue.

I didn't know that there were four Knox brothers and that they were all remarkably gifted. I think I had heard that Ronald had a brother who was an Anglican clergyman, but that was all. They were, from oldest to youngest, Edmund, Dillwyn, Wilfred, and Ronald. Edmund was a writer, chiefly satirical I think, and was associated for much of his life with Punch, including a stint as editor. Dillwyn was a classicist and, during the 20th century wars, a cryptographer. Wilfred was an Anglo-Catholic with a very strong commitment to the social justice efforts of the Church, a fairly rare combination I suspect, at least in that he didn't just talk social justice but also acted vigorously for it.

And Ronald--well, any Catholic who has an interest in that very rich vein of English Christianity that flowered from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th knows who Ronald is. He, as I implied, was the reason I had any interest in this book at all, but the other three proved to be as interesting as he, in their general capacity as human beings rather than as a result of their fame.

But the reason I didn't put the book back on the shelf after browsing it for a bit had at least as much to do with the quality of the writing as with my interest in the Knoxes. It's a very well-crafted piece of literature in itself. I was vaguely aware that there is an English novelist named Penelope Fitzgerald, but had never read anything by her, and certainly had no idea that she was the niece of Ronald Knox: Edmund Knox was her father. She was a late bloomer as a writer--published in 1977 when she was 60, this was only her second book, and the novels came later.

I can't tell what Fitzgerald's own religious views are, but she is certainly both knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward those of her two committed uncles. The other uncle seems to have been agnostic if not atheist, and if there is any mention in the book of her father's religion it's not much emphasized. Their father was also an Anglican clergyman, eventually a bishop, but of very Evangelical convictions, and the Catholic sympathies of two of his sons were a great disappointment to him.

While they were growing up these two brothers had been about as close as age permitted, and Ronald's "going over" to Rome was as big a disappointment to his Anglo-Catholic brother as to their father. It meant not just a theological divergence but a rupture in the family, and was very painful to both. I admit that I previously had almost no sense of what Ronald Knox was like as a person, and the effect of this and many other aspects of his life naturally shed light on his work.

Fitzgerald is straightforward in her affection for all four brothers, and the book is a warm tribute. She keeps herself out of it as a character--apart from the foreword, I'm not sure that the word "I" occurs in the narrative. Only if you happened to notice that Edmund was the only one of the brothers to have a daughter would you realize that when it is related that Ronald said this or that "to his niece" it was said to the author of the book you're reading. Yet the whole thing is suffused with a personal warmth, as promised in the preface:

In this book I have done my best to tell the story of my father and his three brothers. All four of them were characteristically reticent about themselves, but, at the same time, most unwilling to let any moment pass without question. I have tried to take into account both their modesty and their love of truth, and to arrive at the kind of biography of which they would have approved.

When I was very young I took my uncles for granted, and it never occurred to me that everyone else in the world was not like them. Later on I found that this was not so, and eventually I began to want to make some kind of record of their distinctive attitude to life, which made it seem as though, in spite of their differences, they shared one sense of humour and one mind.

We, as well as they, are well served by her book. Recommended enthusiastically as a completely fascinating picture of a fascinating family, as well as the now-vanished culture they inhabited.

The Knox children lost their mother early, when Ronald was four. In discussing their father's need to remarry and the kind of woman whom he could marry, Fitzgerald notes that "She would have to be vicarage born and bred." A whole way of life, now presumably unknown to anyone living, is implied in that.

Addendum: I had totally forgotten and had to be reminded by Janet that Marianne had contributed a piece on Penelope Fitzgerald to the 52 Authors thing we did in 2015. It's really good. Click here.


That Motu Proprio Business

I decided several years ago that I had had enough of intra-Catholic controversies, especially those surrounding and frequently caused by Pope Francis, and that I was going to start ignoring them. It seemed that I was just going to have to accept the fact that the Pope had renewed a conflict within the Church that I had thought, or at least hoped, was slowly dying down--I mean the conflict between the factions conventionally if inaccurately labeled "liberal" and "conservative."

So I stopped reading news stories about the Pope, whether in the secular or religious press. It wasn't hard to do, as I've never been a Vatican-watcher, and, probably more importantly, he just didn't seem to be in the news as much. And I've been happier for it. But I can't resist taking a shot at the recent motu proprio which revokes the wide permission granted by Pope Benedict XVI for the celebration of the pre-Vatican-II Mass. In practical effect it seeks to extirpate the old Mass, and it's a weirdly punitive action, in startling contrast to Francis's talk about being inclusive etc. 

I am not a capital-T Traditionalist (little-t traditionalist, maybe), I don't attend the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), have no particular affection for it, and no direct personal interest in seeing it preserved, beyond a healthy respect for our liturgical heritage. What I do have is sympathy for those who are attached to it. (This is an odd and maybe significant parallel to my situation with regard to Donald Trump's presidency: I didn't support him, but I sympathized with those who did.) When the question is reduced (simplistically but frequently) to the choice between Latin and the vernacular, I'm firmly on the side of English, the only vernacular I care about.

But I've always been puzzled by the hostility of the proponents of the Novus Ordo (in other words, the vast majority of bishops, clergy, and academics) to the TLM. By "always" I mean since I became Catholic in 1981. I didn't grow up Catholic and had no experience whatsoever of the old Mass, therefore no attachment to it. But like the hypothetical space traveler landing on earth and wondering why we do certain things which strike him as odd, I was puzzled by the hostility. What I saw was a significant number of people, mostly older than me, who were very deeply attached to the old liturgy and were heartbroken by the change. And I couldn't understand why no accommodation was made for them, no gesture of concern at all that I could see. It seemed that they were held in contempt by the powers governing the Church for the bizarre crime of being attached to what the Church itself had encouraged them to love.

That picture is significantly different now. Forty years have passed, and most of the people I'm talking about are no longer with us. From what I see and hear the people now devoted to the TLM, the people who reportedly fill some parishes that are essentially TLM parishes, are middle-aged and younger, and could not possibly be acting out of some residual attachment to the Church of their childhood and youth. If anything they are reacting against that, against the Novus Ordo (for various well-known reasons that I won't bother with now). And maybe that's part of the reason the Pope has taken this action: we expected this thing to die, but it's growing, so we better kill it. The hostility toward the TLM in some quarters is at least as great as it was forty years ago. And I still don't understand it. 

The stereotype of Traditionalists is that they're rigid, cranky, suspicious, and so forth. As with almost all stereotypes, there's some truth in it. But it's not the whole story. The pope's letter accompanying the document emphasizes the harm done to the Church's unity by Traditionalists who reject Vatican II. But there is a world of middle-ground between the zealous progressive who thinks the only problem with Vatican II is that it didn't go far enough in erecting a new Church, and the zealous Traditionalist who denies the council's validity entirely. No doubt you can find some of those in TLM communities. But there's also no doubt that you could find many who believe that some aspects of the Council were unwise and that its implementation was misguided and botched. To believe that is in no way "comportment that contradicts communion,"  as Francis says in the letter accompanying his edict. His immediate predecessor often said things along those lines about the Council.

There's another stereotype involved here: the smiling progressive who is tolerant of everything except disagreement, ostentatiously compassionate, but having a mean streak. Francis shows something of that tendency. If Traditionalists are as alienated as he says, is this a wise way to deal with them? What happened to "accompaniment," "going to the margins," and all that stuff? If any group within the Catholic Church is marginalized right now, it's Traditionalists. This is like a father choosing to deal with an estranged child by telling him "Actually, I never liked you anyway. Also, I'm taking your dog to the shelter tomorrow."

Here are a couple of good responses. A fairly brief one from Amy Welborn, and a longer and liturgically erudite one from Dom Alcuin Reid.

And now I'll go back to not paying attention.


Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

I have the local library to thank for my having read this invigorating little book. They took it out of circulation (or rather, no doubt, non-circulation) and put it on the giveaway shelf, and I, having heard a few things about Eagleton that sounded interesting, took possession of it. And I'm glad I did. The library will not be getting it back from me, as sometimes happens to books I've picked up as discards. It's now riddled with book darts marking passages I particularly liked.

TerryEagleton-ReasonFaithAndRevolution(The apparently torn place is printed on the cover.)

What I had heard about Eagleton had given me the impression that he's an interesting atheist, which is unusual. Most atheists have such a shallow, and often just plain wrong, understanding of theistic concepts, and the place and function of religion in the human psyche and civilization, that reading them is just an exercise in frustration. No one over the age of fifteen should ever think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a clever and telling argument against belief in the Creator God. (See Wikipedia if you haven't heard of it. I will admit that "Pastafarian" is funny.)

But there are those whom I call deep atheists who do understand the questions and their significance, and are willing and able to work out the import of their atheism. Some of these have a great deal of insight and are not only worthy of respect, not only interesting to read, but actually illuminating about the beliefs they reject. Terry Eagleton is one of these.

On the basis of this book I'm not sure that he is technically an atheist, but he is an ex-Catholic who no longer believes, at least not in that specific faith, but does understand it. He's also a Marxist. From both points of view he challenges the thin secular technocracy which thinks it is pushing us along on the way to history's final destination. Which I suppose could be true, but not as they imagine it.

Here is Eagleton against the shallow atheists Dawkins and Hitchens:

Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science. Like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in Breaking the Spell, he thinks it is a kind of bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world. In this sense, he is rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore can't see the point of it at all. Why bother with Robert Musil when you can read Max Weber?....

Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that "thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important." But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

And here he describes the profundity they don't see, and for that matter that many nominal Christians don't see:

For Christian teaching, God's love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law.... Here, then is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety...

The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal....

The prosperity gospel people are not the only ones who need to hear that; I can't say it strikes me as good news. It's not the whole story, obviously, but it is an important part, and one that most of us prefer not to face.

The latter part of the book focuses on the conflict between militant Islam and the secular West, and on the essential failure of the latter to grasp the powers of religion and culture, to think that exporting capitalism and democracy to the Islamic world would be both an easy and an effective way to resolve the conflict. To some extent it's a criticism of the various wars we've waged in the Middle East, and is less interesting to me, as the immediate importance of those arguments has receded in the political nervous breakdown that the United States, along with much of the rest of what we call "the West," is undergoing, 

Eagleton is primarily a literary critic. I don't go in much for contemporary criticism, having gotten off the literary bus just before it arrived at post-modernism, and not liking what I can see of that. But he's hostile to post-modernism, so perhaps I'd find his criticism worthwhile, too.