Monday, February 27, 2012

Providence and Greenmantle

My family has been greatly enjoying working through George Grant's lectures on the history of modernity lately. I was, of course, extremely gratified to see John Buchan's Greenmantle as required reading for the course and interested to see what he would say about it.

(Maybe I should just change this blog's title to Nothing But Buchan).

A brief biography of Buchan by George Grant can be found here.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Horror, Tragedy, and the Sovereignty of God

Horror fiction is something I've been thinking through somewhat in the last few years. Not that I have ever sought it out. The genre more or less began with the eighteenth and nineteenth-century gothic novels, atmospherically spooky books, generally for a female readership, that flirted with the taboo and grotesque. Jane Eyre is one of the most famous of these; others include Mrs Radclyffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and Walpole's Castle of Otranto. Critiques of the genre like Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey warned against taking these sensational novels so seriously that they become more real than reality. 

The intersection of the gothic genre with the horror genre—which exists primarily to create thrills through terror and disgust--came early, with works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

It is debateable whether Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is better described as a gothic novel or a horror novel. Perhaps it is most just to say that it has elements of both, with the heroes fighting a scary, demonic threat. I did not find the story particularly frightening, though I realised its power. 

A couple of years ago, I dipped into the horror fiction of Dean Koontz, primarily out of respect for his conservative, Catholic, Chesterton-and-O'Connor-influenced worldview. And apart from Frankenstein and The Night Land, that's about it for me and horror.

I've had occasion to rethink horror somewhat in the last little while. And it is a fascinating topic. To begin with, as E Michael Jones points out in his book Monsters from the Id, horror fiction is usually used to sublimate and redirect cultural guilt. Cultural rebellion against God makes us anticipate, on some level, the wrath to come. That wrath becomes a monster pursuing poor innocent us. We make ourselves victims of our sins, not perpetrators.

In my previous review of Dracula, I recognised this (Victorian infidelity, punished with the scourge of syphilis, is symbolised in the book by the vampire) but was not sure if this means horror is an illicit art form. I have had the opportunity to rethink this point a little, and here are some further thoughts.

First, when viewed as a way to deal with guilt and cast sinners as innocent victims, horror fiction is closely allied to Greek tragedy. Of tragedy RJ Rushdoony has said that it was a fundamentally anti-Christian artform, since it depicts basically good people being tossed about and ultimately humiliated and destroyed by blind Fates. Ostensibly, Oedipus's sin in killing his father and marrying his mother leads to his punishment and death. However, he did this unknowingly. Nobody would convict him in a court of law, for instance, since he lacked the mens rea, the guilty mind. In the final analysis, he is an innocent victim of circumstances

The character of Oedipus is also, interestingly enough, intimately connected with a good reason for Greek guilt. Like many Greek babies, he was exposed as a baby to die on a hillside. His story is classified as tragedy, but it is also a horror story.
Second, not all tragedy and not all horror depicts man as an innocent victim. Exhibit A is Shakespeare's Christian tragedy Macbeth. Macbeth is no innocent. He is a weak man who has never previously transgressed only because his latent sinfulness had had no opportunity. That opportunity is given when the witches and his wicked, masterful wife talk him into committing murder. From then on, Macbeth's sinful nature is freed from its previous restraints and he begins a reign of terror. Justice and righteousness is restored when Macbeth is beheaded at the end. 

Macbeth could have been a comedy—after all, it has a happy ending where the bad guy dies and everyone left alive lives happily ever after. The only reason it is a tragedy is because the life of its main character is a tragedy; and his life is a tragedy because he undergoes his just judgement at the hands of a righteous God, not because he offends a capricious Fate. Macbeth, you see, gets everything he deserves. It is a tragedy when a soul goes to Hell. It's Christian tragedy, tragedy mixed with Divine triumph.

If tragedy is analogous to horror, then it is easy to imagine a horror story which shows the terrifying justice of God pursuing sinners. Flannery O'Connor's short story A Good Man is Hard to Find is an example of this. Its main character is a selfish old woman who has never rised above a lacklustre formal religion. One day she meets a serial killer and is forced brutally into the antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. And there, in the last seconds of her life, grace comes to her.
"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
But of course, Flannery O'Connor's story is not so much horror as something else—something still extremely disturbing, but not intended solely for thrills. Which leads into this...

Third, the ultimate question is this. What do you fear? Just as we are forbidden to sell ourselves into slavery, for we were bought with a price, so we are commanded not to fear anyone but God. Horror, by definition, cultivates a fear of something other than God. It is a way to distract ourselves from a just fear of God, by cultivating a frivolous fear of something else—a monster, a demon, a serial killer. But if you fear God, horror cannot last beyond the revelation that God is merciful. God's mercy may not be shown to Macbeth, but it is shown to Scotland in his death. Or, in the case of O'Connor's grandmother, her death comes as mercy. It is the only thing bad enough to break through her self-absorption.

So what should Christians do about horror fiction? Well, first, generally we should leave it alone. We are only to fear God. Bravery demands that we conquer other fears by cultivating a true fear of God; but wisdom demands that we not go looking for trouble.

Second, some of us should read it with discernment. Dracula and Frankenstein are both classics of Western literature, part of the great conversation of books. As we engage our culture and think about the regnant follies, a knowledge of horror and its underlying motivation of guilt and fear should help us to understand why our culture produces so many horror movies and horror books—and even why there is a fascination with horror that begins to depict the monster as glamorous and desirable. 

Third, we should acknowledge that there are frightening things in the world. When I was a small child, there were many books that were too intense and frightening for me, including Biggles Defies the Swastika (believe it or not!). Maturity involved developing more of a backbone. Maturity involved realising that some things aren't really frightening—at least not compared with the awesome might and worth of God. When Tolkien includes those beings of pure terror, the Ringwraiths, in his Lord of the Rings, the aim is not thrills and chills, but the joy in courage that comes from seeing the characters defy them. God has told us only to fear Him. And He has put us in a world where that requires effort. We should not shrink from it.

Fourth and most interestingly, we should think about how we can communicate the glory of God or the depravity of man through something that isn't quite horror. Like Shakespeare and O'Connor, we can display God's justice in judgement to the stiff-necked, and His mercy to the repentant. He alone can safely be feared, because the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; it is not a formless and lunatic panic.

Horror might also be used to discuss the total depravity of man. There's an interesting vampire movie which I don't ever intend to see, The Addiction, which seems to take this slant. Its main character, a philosophy student named Kathleen, becomes a vampire and begins to realise that everyone carries evil within them—the vampires are simply more epistemologically self-conscious. Brian Godawa says
Kathleen's friend is shocked at being bitten. She anxiously blurts out, "How could you do this? Doesn't it affect you? How can you do this to me?" To which Kathleen sardonically replies, "It was your decision. Your friend Feuerbach said that all men counting stars are equivalent in every way to God. My indifference is not the concern here. It's your astonishment that needs study." This reversal is an apologetic argument against unbelief, par excellence. If God is dead, as the modern secular mindset proposes, and man is his own deity, creating his own morality, then why is anyone surprised when people create their own morality that justifies feasting on the life blood of others? Without God, there is no such thing as "evil." Later in the movie, a vampire even quotes R.C. Sproul when complaining about our original sin nature: "R.C. Sproul said we're not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. In more accessible terms, we're not evil because of the evil we do, but we do evil because we are evil. Yeah. Now what choices do such people have? It´s not like we have any options."
I believe that horror is a genre which should be approached with care: it teems with suppressed guilt, misdirected fear, attempted self-righteousness, and depravity. But all the lies and the misdirection is rooted in fact—the fact that there is a sovereign God with the right to judge us and the will to be merciful to us. The fact that we are the monsters. And perhaps the horror genre can be redeemed to show the truth rather than the illusion.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

Jerusha Abbott, raised in an orphanage, has never known love or nice things—until one of the trustees of the orphanage offers to pay her way to college to become a famous author. Suddenly, Jerusha has money, friends, and intellectual stimulation—and she owes it all to her anonymous benefactor, whose only terms are that she write to him monthly to describe her life.

Jerusha—or Judy as she prefers to be called—enjoys herself so much she can't stop writing. But will she ever find out who Daddy-Long-Legs is?

I'd only heard of this book recently, but after hearing it mentioned in a number of places, picked it up at an op-shop to try it out. This book and I did not get on well.

To begin with, I didn't like the main character. Jean Webster, the author, appears to hold the exact opposite convictions to me on almost every issue. Thus her idea of the virtuous heroine who deserves her happy ending is of a girl who instinctively dislikes the religion of her upbringing, and eagerly embraces all the new ideas she comes across—independence, women's suffrage, socialism. She rarely if ever says a nice word about her orphanage upbringing—which even she acknowledges not to be all bad; not as bad as Jane Eyre's Lowood at any rate—and what the author obviously thinks of as “high spirits” I think of as “saying horrid things about people you treat as friends, behind their backs.”

I don't mean to say that an unloved orphan who's had a depressing upbringing should be instinctively full of sweetness and light. But please—if Jane Eyre could manage it, so can Jerusha Abbott, even if it takes her a while to get there. But no...Indeed, the book's whole theme could be summarised thus:
I don't agree with the theory that adversity and sorrow and disappointment develop moral strength. The happy people are the ones who are bubbling over with kindliness.”

But that's not the end of the moral confusion in this book. There is an antithesis here, very clearly drawn, between religion and intellectualism. There is a place in The Lion, the Witch,and the Wardrobe where the four children hear Aslan's name for the first time; to three of them, the name seems utterly delightful, but to Edmund, the traitor, the name seems loathsome and frightening. This book is a study of a girl who finds the name of Aslan loathsome, and can't get enough magic Turkish Delight. The book is liberally sprinkled with digs at religion. For example, Jerusha resolves to help a needy family she knows:
The mother isn't very strong and is extremely ineffectual and pious. She sits with her hands folded, a picture of patient resignation, while the daughter kills herself with overwork and responsibility and worry.”
And it's the book's lovely Fabian socialist heroine and hero—the emblem of the Fabians is of a wolf in sheep's clothing, by the way—to the rescue of the poor stupid Calvinists!

Because it is very clear that the brand of religion which this book militates against is Calvinism:
I find that it isn't safe to discuss religion with the Semples. Their god (whom they have inherited intact from their remote Puritan ancestors) is a narrow, irrational, unjust, mean, revengeful, bigoted person. Thank heaven I don't inherit any god from anybody! I am free to make mine up as I wish him. He's kind and sympathetic and imaginative and forgiving and understanding—and he has a sense of humour.”
Daddy-Long-Legs literally takes place in a world where everything nice that happens happens because of a Fabian socialist. And everything that happens for religious motives is horrid. There is very little subtlety here.

You could say that I disliked the book, but it might be more accurate to say that it left me apathetic, with no common ground upon which to connect with the heroine. I do, in fact, respect the fact that the author created a consistent vision—she knows, unlike some, that there is an antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. In that we have common ground. It is merely that she takes the opposite side of the antithesis, and uses this story to promote the seed of the serpent in much the same way that any book I might write would be for the seed of the woman. The writing is good, and if you had any respect at all for the main character's salient traits, you might enjoy this book very much. But for the seed of the woman, there was nothing to please, nothing to nourish, nothing to be enjoyed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

One of the things that has always saddened me about Australia is our very short history of letters. Modernity came of age in the 1780s, at the same time that Australia was first being settled. There was never an Australian Christendom; only Australian modernism.

This makes it difficult to for an inhabitant of Christendom to find really enjoyable Australian fiction. And I hate to disappoint you, but this book is definitely not a rare example of Christendom in Australia. Its author, Lindsay, wrote plenty of other books unfit for human consumption and I have sometimes wondered whether this one is enjoyable only because the author has toned down his subject-matter for children.

That aside, I'm not sure I would recommend this book for children quite so much as their parents. Because The Magic Pudding, whimsical illustrations and all, is a comic masterpiece with a keen satirical edge.

Bunyip Bluegum, a gentlemanly koala, leaves his uncle and goes forth as a Gentleman of Leisure. At first he finds the life charming, but then about lunchtime he feels the pangs of hunger. It is then that he meets two old sailors—Bill Barnacle and Sam the Penguin—just sitting down to eat a steak-and-kidney Puddin'. The Puddin' is, of course, no ordinary Puddin'--eat as much as you like, but it'll always regenerate, and it'll always be the kind of Puddin' you want it to be—and it's terribly rude, runs like the wind, and is known as Albert.

The four characters get on so well, that after foiling an attack of dastardly Puddin'-Thieves (“One was a Possum, with one of those sharp, snooting, snouting sort of faces, and a the other was a bulbous, boozy-looking Wombat in an old long-tailed coat, and a hat that marked him down as a man you couldn't trust in the fowl-yard”) Bill and Sam invite Bunyip Bluegum to join the Noble Society of Puddin'-Owners and share their travels, their battles with the Puddin'-Thieves, and their Puddin'.

Much zaniness results, some of it legal.
I'm afraid this is unconstitutional,” said the Mayor to the Constable.
It is unconstitutional,” said the Constable; “but it's better than getting a punch in the snout.”
Bunyip Bluegum proves himself a koala of graceful eloquence.
As our misfortunes are due to exhibiting too great a trust in scoundrels, so let us bear them with the greater fortitude. As in innocence we fell, so let our conduct in this hour of dire extremity be guided by the courageous endurance of men whose consciences are free from guilt.”
Albert fails to behave himself.
No whispering,” shouted the Puddin' angrily. “Speak up. Don't strain a Puddin's ears at the meal table.”
No harm intended, Albert,” said Sam, “I was merely remarking how well the crops were looking. Call him Albert when addressing him,” he added to Bunyip Bluegum. “It soothes him.”
I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Albert,” said Bunyip.
No soft soap from total strangers,” said the Puddin', rudely.
And there is much incidental verse.
Then let the fist of Friendship
Be kept for Friendship's foes.
Ne'er let that hand in anger land
On Friendship's holy nose.”
One of the funniest children's books I know of, The Magic Puddin' is recommended for all audiences who know not to yell, “Eat away, chew away, munch and bolt and guzzle” at guests during dinner.

Gutenberg etext (without pictures)
Librivox recording (also without pictures)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Poem: Cried Out With Tears by Christina Rossetti

The last few days have been incredibly busy, so today's post will just be a Christina Rossetti poem. This one, reminiscent of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV, is perhaps my favourite of her poems so far.

"Cried Out With Tears"

Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief:
Lord, I repent, help mine impenitence:
Hide not Thy Face from me, nor spurn me hence,
Nor utterly despite me in my grief;
Nor say me nay, who worship with the thief
Bemoaning my so long lost innocence: --
Ah me! my penitence a fresh offence,
Too tardy and too tepid and too brief.
Lord, must I perish, I who look to Thee?
Look Thou upon me, bid me live, not die;
Say "Come," say not "Depart," tho' Thou art just:
Yea, Lord, be mindful how out of the dust
I look to Thee while Thou dost look on me,
Thou Face to face with me and Eye to eye.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

When my friend Charmagne recommended this book to me, I reacted with skepticism.

“Elizabeth Gaskell? She was a Unitarian!”

I'd never read any Gaskell before, but I did have Wives and Daughters on my shelf. And there it stayed until my sister Elizabeth discovered that Gaskell was worth reading. For the next week, my not-quite-as-bookish-as-me sister was glued to the page. “This is thrilling,” she told me at intervals. And so I promised to read it when she'd finished.

Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson, the doctor's daughter in the little town of Hollingford. Molly, a quiet, sensitive girl, is beginning to attract the attention of young men and Dr Gibson realises for the first time that Molly really needs a mother. His choice falls upon Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, a handsome widow with a daughter of Molly's age named Cynthia.

Meanwhile Molly has made friends with the family of proud old Squire Hamley, whose family has been in the district since before the Norman Conquest. There's Osborne Hamley, the handsome and brilliant heir upon whom the Squire and his wife have pinned all their hopes, and Roger Hamley, the plain and plodding younger son.

When the charming and dashing Cynthia comes from France to live with the Gibsons, Molly immediately loves her. Unfortunately, so does everyone else—including the man to whom Molly has, almost without realising it, lost her heart. But an impenetrable air of mystery surrounds Cynthia. What is her secret? Why does the sinister yet handsome Mr Preston seem to have some hold over her? Read on to find out...

Wives and Daughters is a very satisfying book, containing just the right amount of character development and plot. The domestic nature of the story, combined with the romantic imbroglio that erupts among the characters and the understated, biting wit is reminiscent of Jane Austen; but there are a few marks which—after hearing something about the plots of North and South, Cranford, and Mary Barton—distinguish the book as one of Elizabeth Gaskell's. Unlike Austen, Gaskell has a keen interest in the interplay of social classes—the bourgeois class to which the Gibsons belong, the aristocratic Cumnor family, and the untitled but excessively proud Squire Hamley. There is also a difference in tone. People die in this book with very little provocation; lives can be blighted; there is no guarantee of a happy ending for everyone.

Not that Wives and Daughters is an unhappy book, for those of you who were getting worried!

I was interested to consider how Mrs Gaskell's Unitarianism came out in the book. I don't believe there's anything particularly wrong in the book itself—Molly could sometimes be annoyingly perfect, and a bit know-all even with her father—but the reader with no knowledge of her beliefs would not be concerned at all. The Unitarianism, I think, makes itself most felt in the author's overriding concern with class. Unitarians drove much of the social reform movement of the early 1800, since (like Horace Mann) they tended to put their faith more in the saving power of legislative and social reforms than in the really efficacious saving grace of the dying God-man.

It's also interesting to note that Mrs Gaskell, a cousin of Charles Darwin, included a naturalist character in this book in tribute to him.

The bottom line? A well-written book with great characters and an intriguing plot. Unfortunately, Mrs Gaskell herself suffered a bad case of Author Existence Failure before the book was finished—the last chapter or two is missing. Readers should not be put off by this, however, since by that time it is possible to see how the book would have ended, and Mrs Gaskell left notes behind her for the last chapter itself.

I have seen the 1999 BBC miniseries adaptation of Wives and Daughters with Justine Waddell as Molly Gibson. It's a fine adaptation of the book, quite faithful, and I recommend it—though, as always, not as a substitute for the book itself!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Sign Above the Door by William W Canfield

Oh, yes, it's another of those desperately obscure, drippily melodramatic vintage novels, this time set during the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt! This vintage novel, however, has been rediscovered: I read it in a reprint by Salem Ridge Press, a purveyor of reading for the home educated.

Our hero, Martiesen, is an Egyptian prince of the nome in which the Hebrew slaves live. After eight plagues have crippled Egypt, the nobles are beginning to think that something must be done to remove their Pharaoh before Egypt is completely destroyed. To his dismay, Martiesen is their choice to replace the Pharaoh, but complicating factors such as his love for the Hebrew Elisheba, the dastardly schemes of his vengeful Libyan scribe, and the last two plagues will ensure that none of Martiesen's plans for the future work out as he had planned. Terrifying darkness closes down on Egypt, a daring kidnapping is carried out, and nothing will be the same...

This was a quick read, a fun adventure story lightly spiced with romance, set during the last two plagues of Egypt and the Exodus, no doubt with the aim of being mildly edifying. And indeed, it was not without merit, containing generally unobjectionable morals, as much historical detail as the author could weave into the eddying plot, and a rather good imagining of the ninth plague, the darkness.

There are one or two things about this book that could be improved. It seems as though the romance is more important to the plot than God is, and He is often referred to as a “Being” or “Deity” so that I wondered if Canfield really thought of Him in a personal way. I also felt the author didn't fully avail himself of the possibilities in the plot—Martiesen hopes, for example, that if the Pharaoh could be brought to be nicer to the Hebrews, everyone would stay in Egypt and get on with each other just fine, happy ending; when in fact no matter whether slave or free, the Hebrews have been called to the Promised Land and must obey. I thought there were possibilities in that set-up which could have been better exploited than they were.

One other thing that could perhaps be improved was the writing style. You will die of adjective poisoning—unless, like me, you find the style charming in an antiquated sort of way. I resisted for a hundred pages before finally giving in and taking down some particularly good specimens of the author's grandiosity:
Here he could find those who, for pay, would do his bidding and ask no questions. Indeed, he had previously made several visits to this desolate region with that end in view, and had formed acquaintances there upon whom he could depend for assistance in any nefarious scheme he might propose.
Both labored under the stress of consuming passion, followed by the outlay of most unusual exertion and exhausting strife.
“Aye, the Pharaoh!” replied Martiesen, with whitened lips. “Untaught by the lessons which have been sent him, the mighty lord of Egypt has summoned his hosts of warriors, and now leads them in the wake of those fleeing from his oppression, it may be to his complete overthrow, or it may be to the utter destruction of those whom he pursues.”
It's exactly the kind of thing Stephen Leacock made a living out of ridiculing. Indeed it took an effort to stop mentally adding Leacockisms to the text as I read...

Apart from this, however, The Sign Above the Door is refreshingly free from the usual defects of vintage novels. The heroine, for example, although described as beautiful and slender, with hair the colour of midnight and an air of luminous, feminine piety, is also clever enough to put two and two together and figure out that the scribe is up to no good. (Sadly, like with many vintage novels, someone still has to be dense enough to give the villain a chance to get the plot going, so Martiesen doesn't believe her when she warns him). When her suspicions turn out to be well-grounded, she has not a moment's hesitation in clawing the villain's face off. However, she still succumbs to one of the besetting sins of the heroine of the vintage adventure novel, as explained by PG Wodehouse in his essay on Thrillers:
She may have escaped death a dozen times. She may know perfectly well that the notorious Blackbird Gang is after her to secure the papers. The police may have warned her on no account to stir outside her house. But when a messenger calls at half-past two in the morning with an unsigned note saying “Come at once”, she just snatches at her hat and goes. The messenger is a one-eyed Chinaman with a pock-marked face and an evil grin, so she trusts him immediately and, having accompanied him to the closed car with steel shutters over the windows, bowls off in it to the ruined cottage in the swamp. And when the hero, at great risk and inconvenience to himself, comes to rescue her, she will have nothing to do with him because she has been told by a mulatto with half a nose that it was he who murdered her brother Jim.
Although for the defence I might point out that no such misunderstanding arises in this book, which is another exception to the rule of second-rate vintage novels: that some terrible misunderstanding must crop up between the two lovers and threaten their happy ending. Since this usually requires one or both of them to act tiresomely dense, I can only commend William W Canfield for omitting it, despite how tempting it might have seemed to throw it in.

There are many books I can recommend more highly than The Sign Above the Door. But not all books need to be a solid meal or a dazzling, mouthwatering concoction. Some readers will go through anything in sight and enjoy it all hugely. By them, this book will be justly enjoyed--an exciting story for all ages.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Veritas Press Promotion/Giveaway

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled vintage novels to do a plug for Veritas Press, one of my favourite book suppliers. Veritas Press caters to Christian home educators, especially to those interested in classical education.

One of the hallmarks of a classical education is the "great books" approach--instead of reading about the great books the classical approach will have you reading the great books themselves!

Veritas Press specializes in providing educational materials for a classical Christian education in Christian schools and home schools.
We seek to provide the best home school and Christian school curriculum available. Whether is be phonics, studying the Bible, history, or the great books studied in the Omnibus curriculum, we trust you will be blessed in extraordinary ways by your use of Veritas materials.
Readers of my blog who are interested in great reading material cannot do better than have a good browse through the Veritas catalogue!

A propos of the catalogue, here's the REALLY exciting news: Veritas Press is doing a huge promotional drive right now. Enter your email, and you'll get a $5 gift certificate. Entice other friends to do so (just as I am doing now) and you'll get more! What better way to sample the delights of that catalogue, stuffed as it is with great classics, tried-and-true stories, and only the best in homeschooling curricula!

Click here to start!


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