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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 Cosmological Just-So Story

From an anonymous commenter at Neoneocon's blog: 

Multiple universes is the physicist’s version of stacking turtles on the backs of turtles.

See this if you don't get the turtle reference--of course "turtles all the way down" has a Wikipedia entry. And see this for a Wikipedia tour of various multiple universe theories. I've never understood how this could possibly be anything other than speculation, forever beyond the reach of physical investigation.

I think the commenter I'm quoting had in mind the invocation of multiple universes as a way out of the quandaries posed by the "anthropic principle"--the idea that many aspects of the universe as we know it are so finely tuned to support life, and not just physical life but sentient life as well, as to defy probability and raise suspicions of a designer at work. Some people of course do not like that idea at all. 

That's what I have in mind in quoting him, anyway. The Wikipedia article suggests that there are other and more important reasons, arrived at by inference from known physical principles, for hypothesizing that there are multiple universes. That's not something I would presume to have an opinon on, but it does strike me that from the theistic point of view there is no reason why there couldn't be other universes--in whatever sense we might use the word "universe." The Wikipedia article also seems to imply that not all the theorists in this area are using the word in the same way.


"Es ist vollbracht" -- "It is finished" (Bach, St. John Passion)

I know I said I wasn't going to post till Monday, but I've been listening, for the first time, to Bach's St. John Passion, and this aria seems perfect for Holy Saturday, containing both the sorrow and the triumph of the Crucifixion. (Regarding the title of the post: I still prefer the traditional "It is finished" to other English versions of those words.)

Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished !
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
Die Trauernacht
The night of sorrow
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
now reaches its final hours.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
Und schließt den Kampf.
and brings the strife to an end.
Es ist vollbracht!
It is accomplished!

(Text and translation from www.bach-cantatas.com), which seems to be one of those wonderful group labors of love that are found on the web. It started in 1999 and the web site still looks that way, but don't let that bother you.)

This performance by Christa Ludwig is not from the Passion I've been listening to, which is a more recent one (i.e. 1986!) conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and more in the favored style of recent years, said to be more authentic. But I saw this one on YouTube and I find it more moving. It's almost a full minute longer than the Gardiner version. 

The St. John is not nearly as well-known as the monumental St. Matthew, but it has many, many virtues which I'm happy to have discovered better late than never. 


A Maronite Mass

(As you probably know, but just in case you don't, the Maronite Church is one of the eastern Christian bodies that are in communion with Rome--see this Wikipedia article for more information.)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a Maronite Rite Mass. (I suppose "Mass" is not the right term, since it's a specifically Latin one, and in my opinion a somewhat unfortunate one, having less to do with what it names than it might.)  I've long wanted to do that, but as far as I know the only Maronite parish anywhere near me is in Birmingham, four hours at least away from me, and though I drive through Birmingham fairly often it's never at a time when the liturgy is being celebrated. 

There really should be a Maronite parish, or perhaps several, in Mobile, as it's the rite of many (most, I guess) Lebanese Christians and there is a sizable Lebanese community in Mobile, arising from immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (I still haven't quite gotten used to the fact that "the last century" now refers to the 20th, not the 19th as it did for two-thirds of my life.) I've been told that there were some not-very-nice machinations on the part of the local bishop and clergy (Latin of course) to prevent the establishment of a Maronite presence back then, which is a shame, not just because it was not very nice but because it deprived the whole Catholic community, not only the Lebanese, of an important tradition.

If I were more of a liturgy nerd (such a rude term, but it has its use), I would have managed to get to it. As it was, I had to wait until it came to me, at a parish in Mobile, with a visiting celebrant in the person of Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., whose name you may recognize from his work with EWTN and Ignatius Press. It was impressive, and I think any Latin Rite Catholic who is a little, or maybe more than a little, dissatisfied with the Novus Ordo would find it so, and perhaps be a bit envious. If you search for "Maronite Mass" on YouTube you'll find a number of videos which are the next best thing to attending it. In fact, here is one celebrated by Fr. Pacwa. A certain amount of it is in English but the core is in the ancient language, or languages--some was referred to as Aramaic and some as Syriac. (Personally I find it rather weird and bordering on irreverent to watch a liturgy on video, and so did not watch all of this one.) 

But it was not any particular features of the liturgy that struck me so much as the sense of its antiquity. Parts of it are in Aramaic, and it gave me a bit of a shiver to think that I was hearing the liturgy in the very language that is, if not identical the one that Jesus spoke, then close to it, and certainly far, far closer to it than any modern European language. And afterwards it led me down a line of ecumenically incorrect thought. I mean "ecumenical" in its typical current sense, the "mere Christianity" sort of sense, referring to the attempt to find comity and common ground among Christian communities, including the Protestant ones.

If I were a Protestant, especially if I were an Evangelical, low-church, more or less congregational Protestant, the fact that all the Christian churches that can with any plausibility trace their lineage back to the origin of the faith celebrate a liturgy which is recognizably the same basic thing would give me pause. Anglicanism and its descendants, and I think also Lutheranism, preserve it in greater or lesser degree--I realized, in retrospect, that its faint outline was visible in the Methodism of my youth. But the more radically Protestant churches don't. There is nothing in any of these forms of worship that bears much resemblance to that of, for instance, a Southern Baptist church, still less the newer free-lance non-denominational churches that are more or less of the evangelical stripe and have gone in very much for rock music and stagecraft and such (or so I hear). 

I would think that any Christian who looks into the history of the Church, the one that can actually be seen to have existed, as opposed to the one that is inferred from brief mentions in the New Testament seen through a very Protestant lens, would almost (almost!) necessarily move toward one of the ancient Churches. I don't mean that he would inevitably become a Catholic, as it's entirely possible to believe that Catholicism went fatally astray at some point even though it preserved the basic elements of worship. Maybe he would become a Copt, or join the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. But he would recognize the radically non-liturgical Protestant churches as distinctly modern phenomena (as is Protestantism in general, but that's a whole 'nother matter), severed from Christian history.

I don't say this with any triumphalist intention. It's a tragedy, because there are so many serious committed Christians in those groups. It's a great loss on both sides. 


Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 


Happy New Year

You'll notice that there's no cheery exclamation mark after that title. I bring you this appropriate counsel from St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373):

God has determined the measure of man’s life, and the days divide this appointed measure into parts. Each day imperceptibly takes its part away from your life and each hour unrestrainedly runs along its course with its little share. The days destroy your life, the hours subvert its edifice, and you rush to your end, for you are but a vapor.

The days and hours, like thieves and robbers, rob and steal from you. The thread of your life is gradually torn and shortened. The days deliver your life up to burial, the hours lay it in the grave, and together with the days and the hours does your life on earth disappear.

I hope to make good use of some large part of the days and hours that will make up the coming year. That's as far as I'll go toward a New Year's resolution. And I wish you success in the same endeavor.

This and a good deal more from St. Ephrem was quoted in a weekly email from the editor(s) of Touchstone. You can sign up for it here

 


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.


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.