Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Blame the Enlightenment

This is all there is, and it’s ugly.—My mum on the lie of realism.

We’ve lost so much.

We don’t know the meaning of art anymore. Right now I’m writing a book that I hope will help people begin to understand fiction. What it means. How it teaches. How to spot the deep-coded messages hidden inside plot twists and imagery.

I have such an easy job.

Fiction is easy. When it comes to the other arts, I feel like a complete dunce. My musical education began three-quarters of my life ago, and I’ve only just begun to understand what and how it communicates. I’ve never really studied architecture, although even I can tell what Brutalism says. As for pictorial arts, I have next to no idea, although Paul Johnson convinced me that Picasso was just about the most despicable creature in history.

The Birmingham Library, which says, "BOW TO YOUR FACELESS OVERLORDS"
We Christians are such infants when it comes to culture. And the sad thing is that our fathers were once so much wiser than we. JS Bach, Edmund Spenser, and whoever designed Chartres Cathedral worked according to a complex philosophy of art and culture, using an incredibly mature and meaningful system of symbol. But we, we look at the work and not only do we not know what they are saying, we also don’t know why they said it that way.

The main problem confronting Christians when it comes to culture is the bare fact that we are the children of a rebellious age. We were suckled by the world, not by Christendom. We have deep-seated presuppositions when it comes to art, which we’ve never challenged. Perhaps the best antidote is to get back, before the Enlightenment, to a time when Christians breathed the air of Christendom, not the air of modernity. 

In order to begin to understand art and culture from a Christian perspective, we need to begin by asking what it is that we have lost, and how we have lost it.



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The Enlightenment. It sounds so benign, doesn’t it? Yet it was a philosophical movement dedicated to the sovereignty of man and the death of God. It spawned many revolutions and even more wars. It has been dancing on Christendom’s grave for more than a hundred years. We may be Christians, but we are children of the Enlightenment and much of our thinking is just baptised modernism. We may be Protestants, but I’m convinced that we actually have less in common with the Reformers than the medieval Romanists had in common with their sons and heirs, the Reformers. For the Enlightenment stands between the Reformation and us. 

This is a confession. It has been true of me in the past, and it will be true of me again. I have no doubt at all that it is also true of you.

Here it is: I am always uncovering bits of Enlightenment thinking in my own worldview. I’ve discovered enough false presuppositions by now to have come to expect it. I’m still looking. This is why we so often need help reading and interpreting Scripture, you know. It’s never just us and the Holy Spirit and the Bible. There are a thousand other whispering voices as well, the spirits of Rousseau and Voltaire, the spirits of Marx and Nietszche, the spirits of Sartre and Friedan, to distract us from what Scripture actually says. I may never have read these philosophers' works, but I drank their worldview with my mother’s milk. So did you.

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Last year I read James Gaines’s wonderful book, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. It was so much more than a book on music. It was so much more than a book on Bach. For it provided a key that fits every door.

In this book Gaines discusses a clash of worldviews. Bach represented Christendom and the Reformation. Frederick the Great represented humanism and the Enlightenment. Both of them had opposing views about music.

Bach believed that music expressed profound truth about the cosmos. It was orderly: the cosmos was orderly. It had a beginning, middle, and end: so did history. It was characterised by unity and diversity: so was the Trinity itself. Everything about it—from the intervals used in a tune to the number of movements in a work—bore a deep symbolic meaning.

Every time someone talks about "the beauty of the commonplace", I think of Vermeer.
Frederick the Great patronised a new school. Enlightenment music had nothing serious to say about anything. It was the amusement of an idle hour, a way to entertain and divert one from serious occupation, not a serious occupation in itself. Christian music had been characterised by rigorous and cerebral counterpoint. Enlightenment music was characterised by pretty, flowing melodies that required little mental exertion. For the Enlightenment, music had nothing serious to say.

It occurred to me with the force of epiphany that the Enlightenment had not just affected music in this way. It had affected all the arts.

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The Enlightenment was the age of paintings like The Swing—silly frilly pictures intended to amuse and titillate, quite different to the moral symbolism of the medievalists. The Good Samaritan Window in Chartres Cathedral, for instance, casts that parable as an allegory of salvation by Christ (the Good Samaritan) after the priest (religion) and Levite (law) prove themselves unable or unwilling to help.

The Enlightenment was also the reason why allegory of the kind written by Bunyan and Spenser was replaced by realistic novels. It was the reason why we lost poetry like Beowulf or Paradise Lost, in favour of Wordsworth going into rhapsodies over daffodils. It was the reason why preachers stopped interpreting redemptive history typologically, as Paul had in Galatians when he claimed that Hagar symbolised the Old, and Isaac the New, Covenant.

This picture is not devoid of symbolism. There's a Cupid and everything! It's totally serious, folks!
 The Enlightenment was the enemy of metaphor, symbol, and allegory. Composing music, painting pictures, writing poetry, or crafting novels had become not a way to tell truth, but a way to provide mindless entertainment. The artistic results can be roughly divided into two schools: the realist and the romantic.

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Realism is a creature of the Enlightenment. Realism is not a Scriptural notion. Realism is fundamentally anti-Christian.

Realism sounds wonderful, just like Enlightenment does. But the term is just as deceptive. Pay close attention to this definition, from Wikipedia:

Realism in the arts may be generally defined as the attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, implausible, exotic and supernatural elements. [...] Realist works of art are those that, in revealing a truth, may emphasize the ugly or sordid (emphasis added).

Remember George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the slogan “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”? For realists, ugliness and sordidity is more real than beauty or goodness. And don’t even think about including the supernatural.

Isn't it a wonderful life?
One problem. The supernatural exists. God exists. Angels exist. Beauty and goodness don’t just exist, they triumph in the end.

The world is a lot quirkier than you think. Moses went and faced the magicians of Egypt and turned his staff into a snake. What genre are we in? The magicians then turned their staves into snakes, which in addition to being kind of freaky is not something that gets a lot of attention in Sunday School classes. As ND Wilson points out, it’s the first wizard duel in world literature, and it’s in Scripture.

In realism, Jesus never rose again. He’s certainly never coming back. He doesn’t rule the world from beyond the sky.

In realism, Jesus’ parables don’t mean anything. They’re just stories, told in an idle hour to tickle your fancies.

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Romanticism is another creature of the Enlightenment. Romanticism is a lot easier to love, but it’s not a Scriptural notion either.

Romanticism is defined by Wikipedia like this:

The movement validated intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities.

Romanticism says that the only thing art exists for is to provide an intense emotional experience. This is, at least, closer to the mark than realism. Good art can provoke an intense emotional experience. But that’s not what it’s for.

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Both romanticism and realism are children of the Enlightenment. Both of them tell the same lie:
Art has no deeper meaning.

Realism says that the only purpose of art is to reflect, with mirror-like accuracy, the surface reality of life, especially if it’s ugly.

Romanticism says that the only purpose of art is to provide escape and diversion from this unutterably dreary reality.

Both of them refuse to acknowledge that there is some deeper meaning to art than diversion or reflection. If Art has no deep symbolic meaning, then it can only either reproduce “reality”—a reality leeched of symbolic and supernatural dimensions—or escape from it.

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Pollock's message: "I don't exist."
Realism leads to chaotic, ugly, and spontaneous art because realism presupposes a world without a creator. Modern art, as it strains towards greater epistemological self-consciousness, is unsatisfied with an appearance of design. If the world is art, then it has an Artist who is sovereign over His creation. But the presence of an Artist, to the realist, is insufficiently real. There is no God, there is no Artist. 

Modern art is an attempt by the artist to erase himself from his own work. That was what Jackson Pollock was trying to do.

Unsurprisingly, the modern church has embraced realism and romanticism as the basic rationales of art. It has also embraced Arminianism, the idea that God chooses not to exercise sovereignty over His creation. Deism was the religion of many Enlightenment thinkers: the idea that God sort of sneezed the cosmos into being and has been ignoring it ever since. In my experience, the Christians most badly affected by the Enlightenment worldview are Arminians.

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The antidote is a return to meaning, symbol, and metaphor. A return to allegory, fantasy, and epic. A return to art that peels back the material surface reality to show the goodness, beauty, and truth underneath.

Scripture is replete with such examples. Redemptive history is full of supernatural break-ins. Fire coming down from heaven to devour Elijah’s sacrifice. Prophets watching in the night visions. A King coming back from the dead.

God uses allegory to teach us. “Allegory” is, after all, another word for “parable”. The Authorised Version of the Bible even translates Paul in Galatians 4:22-24 like this:

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants.

God uses metaphor and fiction to teach us. The Song of Songs. Nathan’s admonition to David. These stories are not entertainment. These stories are not amusement. They are deadly serious. They mean something, something deeper.

We need to return to a Christian idea of art, one that goes further than emotionalism or materialism.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

God's Philosophers by James Hannam

And now for another non-fiction book!

I have to admit to a personal failing. Science has never interested me. A ptarmigan is merely a ptarmigan to me. The periodic table of elements, I can take or leave. I admire wasps, but only at arms' length. As a child, science textbooks filled me with an impulsive desire to go and read The Divine Comedy or something.

That's why James Hannam's book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science would have been perfect for me. Science in a cotehardie! I'm there.

In God's Philosophers James Hannam traces medieval natural philosophy--and some of the other disciplines we've come to think of as scientific, such as medicine--through the reign of Plato and Aristotle to the discoveries of Kepler and Galileo. Along the way he merrily explodes a few common myths about religion and science. For example, "the Church never supported the idea that the earth is flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas."

The first thing you'll find reading the book is that modern science as we think of it did not exist back then. So this is necessarily the history, not of a study or occupation, but of the men and threads of philosophy that eventually made modern science possible.

I loved this book. I sat in our living-room reading passages aloud to my family. One of the biggest themes of the book was that no amount of empirical evidence will lead the observer to the truth if his beginning hypothesis is false.

Here's one story Hannam told to illustrate this. This is pretty awesome. Back in the fifteenth century, if you lost your nose to disease or a duel, the surgeons could give you a nose job. They'd slice a bit of flesh off your arm and attach it to your face. You'd then have to go around for a few months with your arm tied to your face, because the skin hadn't been parted from the arm. Once the skin was growing nicely to your face, they'd cut it off your arm and reconstruct your nose.

One nobleman thought he'd rather not go around with his arm attached to his face, so he decided to use his servant instead. The operation went smoothly. A few months later, though, the servant died of unrelated causes and around the same time the new nose perished and fell off. Hannam says,
You could hardly ask for better proof of action at a distance and the attendant doctrine of sympathy. Again, this illustrates just how important it is that empirical results are linked to a reliable theory before they can be extrapolated into a general law.
Hannam himself, though a Catholic, sounds like some kind of evolutionist, so he's not just saying this to score a point.  (He totally should've.)

The bulk of the book is a history of the relationship between Aristotle, philosophers, and the Church. Around the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Aristotle got a stranglehold on natural philosophy, so that his hypotheses on physics, anatomy, and other areas were accepted by all serious academics. The problem was that many of Aristotle's hypotheses were wrong. He also had bad theology, believing that there was no personal God, that the universe had never been created, and that the laws of logic dictated how the universe could work; therefore if there was a God, He could not do anything that would contradict the laws of logic.

See? Science in a...OK, this is more of a T-tunic than a cotehardie.
Medieval natural philosophers were thus early on faced with a familiar dilemma: accept the teaching of the Church at the cost of Aristotle's and the scientific establishment's displeasure, or accept Aristotle's word and embrace heresy. Eventually the Church declared that Christian natural philosophers would just have to ignore some of Aristotle's beliefs. This set the natural philosophers free to dream up daring new hypotheses. Aristotle said that nature abhorred a vaccuum and one could logically never exist in nature. But the philosophers believed that God could do anything. If He wanted to, He could create a vaccuum. If He wanted to, and if He did, how would that work?

In other words, Hannam argues that at key points in the development of modern science, the Church intervened to avert heresy with the eventual result of freeing the natural philosophers and early scientists to think outside the establishment box and come up with much better hypotheses.

Much of this good work was actually reversed during the Renaissance. Hannam says:
Renaissance humanists’ obsession with the classics led them to search out the lost works of the ancients. They scoured dusty monastic libraries for forgotten books and sent travellers to the remnants of the Byzantine Empire to bring back Greek manuscripts. The trouble was, they also cleared away the vast bulk of medieval commentaries that had expanded on and criticised Aristotle’s thought. They did not recognise that medieval writers had made great advances. As far as humanists were concerned, medieval thinkers were far too recent to have produced anything worthwhile. Scholasticism was undeserving of their attention and so they dumped it. The effect was rapid and nearly disastrous for natural philosophy.
Now I didn't agree with Hannam on everything. I've done a fair bit of reading on the period he covers--from the early medieval period to the Renaissance and the Reformation--and I found a few things to disagree with. Like most Catholics, he's very skeptical of the Reformation, and recites the hoary old chestnut that Michael Servetus was burned "at Calvin's insistence", which is overstating the case, to put it mildly. I would recommend reading Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth, Rodney Stark's God's Battalions and Christopher Dawson's The Making of Europe to address some of the book's other imbalances. Also, given the bones I was able to pick in the parts of the book that covered material I'd already studied, I wouldn't be surprised if there were similar gripes to be found elsewhere.

This said, the book was endlessly fascinating. Notes on interesting little technologies of the Middle Ages. A really helpful and illuminating history of that much-maligned institution, the Inquisition. Mini-biographies of a range of fascinating philosophers from the saintly to, well, Abelard. And finally, another look at Galileo.

Maybe my favourite chapter of the book was the one about Johannes Kepler finally successfully modelling the solar system. Hannam says,
A rising tide of scepticism made out that it was impossible to accurately map the planets and certainly to know how they really moved. Astronomy was just a matter of trying to construct the best mathematical model of the planets’ observed paths across the sky.
Kepler rejected the defeatism of the sceptics although his reasons were religious rather than scientific. As far as he was concerned, the heavens must reflect their maker. ‘For a long time, I wanted to be a theologian’, he wrote, ‘now however, behold how through my effort God is being celebrated through astronomy.' As the Bible itself states: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork.’ There was no imprecision about God and he did not make eight-minute mistakes. Nor was he the capricious sort who would make the heavens into an unsolvable puzzle.
Again, it was Kepler's faith in the God of the Bible which allowed him to ignore the complicated (and wrong) hypotheses that everyone else was working with, to arrive at an explanation that worked.

God's Philosophers was a fascinating read--an intriguing blend of history, philosophy, and science, well-written and easy to read. I do recommend it, with the caveats mentioned above.

Get God's Philosophers from Amazon, The Book Depository, or Open Library.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

Quick announcement, before I start. First, for those of my readers who shop at Amazon, Vintage Novels now has an Amazon store full of highly recommended books. (Or, if you don't shop at Amazon, do you know about The Book Depository? This is where I buy most of my books. Three words: free worldwide shipping).

Second, I spent a fun afternoon recently putting together a Jane Austen personality quiz! It's...a little unique. Let's just say it showcases Austen's talent as a social theologian.

OK. On to the review.

When it comes to books, unlike chocolate, I measure my enjoyment. Chocolate is a renewable resource, but great authors are not. Since being introduced to Anthony Trollope by a friend (artist and aurora chaser Margaret Sonnemann), I have been reading him at the slow, comfortable rate of one per year. It should take me a while to run out, which is a comforting thought.

Right now I'm working through the Chronicles of Barset. Framley Parsonage is the fourth in this series; the first three are The Warden, Barchester Towers, and Doctor Thorne.

This one was amazing. Trollope is always immensely enjoyable and often very edifying. Framley Parsonage is huge helpings of both.

(I always wince a little when describing a book as "edifying". It's a bit misleading, because there's a false dichotomy between goodness and enjoyment. Really a book needs to be healthy in order to be thoroughly enjoyable. It's like healthy food, you know? I mean really healthy, not the stingy asceticism of the low-fat diet. Really good books are books full of meat and salt, books that come in a rich wine gravy, books that come covered in berries and cream. When I say that a book is edifying, that's the kind of healthy I mean.)

The Plot

Framley Parsonage is this kind of book. Our hero is Mark Robarts, a relatively young clergyman--still in his twenties--whose kind patroness, Lady Lufton, has gifted him a wealthy living as vicar in her parish. Mark is good friends with young Lord Lufton, who introduces him to Mr Sowerby, a neighbouring MP and spendthrift. Mark is flattered by Mr Sowerby's attention and dazzled by the prospect of being introduced to his powerful friends (including the Duke of Omnium--or "everything"). Mark knows that Lady Lufton disapproves of Mr Sowerby's politics and morals, but ignores the warnings of his conscience and cultivates the friendship anyway--with disastrous results.

Meanwhile, Mark's father dies and his younger sister Lucy Robarts comes to live at the parsonage. She and Lord Lufton immediately make friends--which alarms Lady Lufton, who has already picked out the statuesque and silent Griselda Grantly to be her daughter-in-law. Other plot threads, from earlier in the series, weave in as well: Mrs Grantly's war with Mrs Proudie, the awful wife of the Barchester bishop, heats up again, while the outspoken and fabulously wealthy spinster Miss Dunstable has a few close brushes with matrimony.

Two Distinctives

Like most other Trollope books, this one was thoroughly enjoyable and often laugh-out-loud funny. Trollope's sense of humour is satirical, but a little freer than Jane Austen's. Nobody is safe from his wit, and he pokes fun at everyone. He also criticises everyone; sometimes seriously, more often gently mocking them. This is because of his characters. All of them have faults--all of them, even, nay especially, the most righteous ones. This is a little strange: most books, especially the kind we think of as edifying, include at least some aspirational characters. Characters who the flawed protagonist looks up to and tries to imitate. Trollope, however, insists on giving all his characters deep faults.

And you know, I think he's right. One wouldn't want every author in the world to write like Anthony Trollope. But we need at least one of him, to remind us powerfully of the fallenness even of the best, kindest, wisest people. This was something that struck me from the very first Trollope book I read--his ability to make you see people with all their flaws, and love them anyway. And, as I'll show in a bit, Trollope is also capable of deep seriousness and reverence when it matters.

This brings me to another remarkable thing about Anthony Trollope. He was born in 1815 and died in 1882. This puts his life squarely in the Victorian age, the age of the Brontes and Dickens, the age of sentimental slosh like St Elmo and The Masked Bridal. Of course he is a much better writer than the lady novelists who produced those two books, but the fact is that he is entirely unsentimental. He has all the virtues of the Victorian novelist and none of the faults. When his heroine, Lucy Robarts, falls head-over-heels for Lord Lufton, he has her deliver this almost crushingly unsentimental speech:
I know what you are going to say, and I admit it all. He is no hero. There is nothing on earth wonderful about him. I never heard him say a single word of wisdom, or utter a thought that was akin to poetry. He devotes all his energies to riding after a fox or killing poor birds, and I never heard of his doing a single great action in my life.
A propos of ordinary people...
As the book eventually makes clear, Lord Lufton is not quite such a poor fellow as Lucy (angry with herself, and trying to belittle the matter) makes out, but Lucy's assessment is not really that far off the truth. He is no hero, in the sense in which Lucy uses it; he is an ordinary fellow, with a little more moral character than his friend Mark, capable of both repentance and forgiveness, and quite good enough for Lucy. From another point of view, of course, that ordinary kind of man is a hero. But not in the sentimental Victorian sense. A man who, like Trollope, could grow up at that time and write a romance subplot (to say nothing of everything else in the book) with such clear, unsentimental judgement, is a man to be greatly admired.

So in Framley Parsonage, with these two virtues of painting the fallenness of even very good people, and of keeping one foot firmly on the ground of objective realism in every circumstance, Anthony Trollope spins a quiet story of sin and temptation in ordinary life.

The Inner Ring

The main thread of the plot concerns Mark Robarts's temptation, which ultimately involves him in disreputable financial dealings--at first allowing himself to be flattered into seeking favour in high places, then going surety for an untrustworthy friend, and finally becoming implicated in simony. From the very beginning, this plot reminded me strongly of That Hideous Strength. Not because it involved a small group of the faithful waking the magician Merlin from his sleep to save the world from a sinister interplanetary conspiracy! But because it deals with a very similar temptation. Interestingly, CS Lewis's character, tempted in a very similar way, is also named Mark. CS Lewis did read and admire Trollope. Was Mark Studdock of That Hideous Strength a homage to Mark Robarts of Framley Parsonage? At any rate, in his essay The Inner Ring, CS Lewis described a temptation he later dramatised in his own book:

To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.
The illustrations are by Millais, no less.
Framley Parsonage is, beat for beat, a tale of the temptation of Mark Robarts to an Inner Ring. As CS Lewis said (and it goes equally well for Robarts as for Studdock), "Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things". For Mark Robarts, the Inner Ring is that represented by Mr Sowerby and the men of power--politicians, socialites, the Duke of Omnium--with whom he is familiar. Trollope spends a good deal of the book demonstrating how even these men of power--"gods" and "giants", he calls them scornfully--are hardly able to help themselves, much less a country clergyman. Nevertheless Mark ignores his work as a pastor, offends the woman to whom he owes his living, and gallivants off to enjoy their shallow, spendthrift lifestyle, excusing himself thus: "I have no doubt that Harold Smith will be in the government some day, and I cannot afford to neglect such a man's acquaintance." Trollope, as always, chats freely to his audience, saying on this occasion:
It is no doubt very wrong to long after a naughty thing. But nevertheless we all do so. One may say that hankering after naughty things is the very essence of the evil into which we have been precipitated by Adam's fall. When we confess that we are all sinners, we confess that we all long after naughty things.
And ambition is a great vice—as Mark Antony told us a long time ago—a great vice, no doubt, if the ambition of the man be with reference to his own advancement, and not to the advancement of others. But then, how many of us are there who are not ambitious in this vicious manner?
And there is nothing viler than the desire to know great people—people of great rank, I should say; nothing worse than the hunting of titles and worshipping of wealth...
Later, having come to his senses, Mark reflects: "Why had he thus filed his mind and made himself a disgrace to his cloth? In order that he might befriend such a one as Mr. Sowerby!"

Touching Pitch

"Do not be deceived," Paul says in I Corinthians 15:33, "bad company corrupts good morals." This forms an overarching theme in the book. It is said of Mark that he thought he could touch pitch and not be defiled. But his foil in this is Miss Dunstable--warm-hearted, open, generous, commonsensical Miss Dunstable. We met her in Doctor Thorne--the richest woman in England, jaded by the sheer number of dishonest and gold-digging proposals she'd received. It comes as a bit of a shock to find her, after her frankly heroic turn in the previous book, consorting with Mr Sowerby's snarky sister, gossiping, and gradually being tempted towards similar shallow irreverence. There's an odd chapter in which Miss Dunstable gives a party, and spends the whole time on tenterhooks waiting for her two star guests to arrive. One of them walks through her rooms and out again, and the other stands outside with her for a brief chat before leaving. So much importance is given to these two's coming that we expect it to become a plot point. But nothing comes of it--except, a little while later, the realisation that Miss Dunstable, too, is in the grip of selfish ambition and social climbing.

This is oddly powerful. We almost expect a twenty-six-year-old clergyman of not very strong character to be sucked in by such temptation (although, as Trollope takes care to tell us, some twenty-six-year-olds do indeed have the character to be a vicar, or even a bishop). But for the worldly-wise Miss Dunstable to fall for the same trick is additionally sobering.

One more character should be mentioned before we leave this thread of the plot. Mr Crawley, the poor, dour and proud vicar of Hogglestock is a fascinating character introduced in this book. He is a curious blend of prickly unpleasantness with real, sincere faith and graciousness. The chapter where he goes to confront Mark about his recent lifestyle decisions is incredibly touching, the more so as we don't expect it to be. That very sweet chapter had a lot of work to do as I continually felt a need to knock some sense into his head, or at least to tell off the author for creating such a flawed vicar. I also didn't appreciate the way the Crawley's neighbours tried to give them charity, behind Mr Crawley's back usually, and against his wishes--not that the man didn't need correcting, but that I suppose the church authorities were the right people to do it.

All this said, Mr Crawley unbends a little by the end of the book, and I imagine that his character arc isn't over yet. And I suppose some of the saints really have been hard to get along with--Jerome comes to mind, for one. Mr Crawley was a really complex, rich, interesting character nevertheless, and the book reveals that he was the curate who mentored Mr Arabin in Barchester Towers:
“It was from the poor curate of a small Cornish parish that he first learnt to know that the highest laws for the governance of a Christian’s duty must act from within and not from without; that no man can become a serviceable servant solely by obedience to written edicts...”
High praise, despite the man's faults, and I do hope we see Mr Crawley improving in future Barset novels.

Lucy

The other main plot thread deals with Lucy Robarts, Mark's sister, and her romance with Lord Lufton, Mark's friend. At first this felt like a re-tread of the love story in Doctor Thorne. However, I thought it was handled much better. Lucy is a fantastic character. Anthony Trollope never wrote sentimental, drooping Victorian females--who can forget Barchester Towers, and the most satisfying slap in English literature? Mary Thorne was a fun character as well, but Lucy seems almost the most gumptious of them all.

In Doctor Thorne the young man's aristocratic mother also opposed the match; the odious Lady Arabella was fun to hate but in this book the opposition is thrown up by Lady Lufton, a genuinely sweet and upright woman, which allows for a much more subtle, less melodramatic conflict. In this respect Framley Parsonage may imitate, but it also betters, Doctor Thorne.

I enjoyed the themes of humbled pride in this plot, especially as it tied in with the plot of the marriage of Griselda Grantly, a vapid blonde whose main interest in life is snubbing "those Proudie girls". Mrs Grantly and Mrs Proudie are back at daggers drawn in this book, ripping shreds off each other (Trollope calls it "that sort of hatred one Christian lady allows herself to feel towards another"--ouch). All of them are clearly overdue for some humbling, especially Mrs Proudie, who must be seen to be believed. With this in mind, I was sorry that Trollope did not go so far as to humble Lucy a little as well. She was a wonderful character, but she could have used it.

Femininity

Another wonderful character is Fanny Robarts, Mark's wife, who stands by him through thick and thin, tries to influence him against the friends that are leading him astray, but otherwise defends him: "She knew that it behoved her to fight for her husband when he was thus attacked." Even Lady Lufton, one of those excellent women who loves to be in control of things, shows a great deal of wisdom and reticence in dealing with her son. Meanwhile Mrs Proudie has her husband firmly under the thumb, and interrupts poor Harold Smith's public lecture to correct him on a thing or two, making herself ridiculous to all and sundry. I always find Trollope's books particularly refreshing and un-feminist.

Yet here is another of the things that makes Trollope surprisingly un-Victorian (although most of our ideas of the Victorians are exaggerations). His idea of the perfect woman is not a door-mat. Fanny is no Mrs Proudie, but she is just as capable of speaking up--and much better at discerning when she should. Lady Lufton objects to Lucy because she has not the imposing presence necessary to act as the next Lady Lufton, but begins to change her mind when she sees (and even experiences) some of Lucy's chilled steel backbone: "A girl that could thus speak up and explain her own position now, would be able to speak up and explain her own, and perhaps some other positions at any future time." It's rather interesting that being articulate and unafraid is on Lady Lufton's list of essential daughter-in-law characteristics, and it's great that Trollope used his books to promote such a virtue.

Conclusion

Framley Parsonage was great! It's just filled with thought-provoking little subplots and comments. There's a great deal of wisdom, a great deal of humour, and a thoroughly absorbing plot.

Of course, as you'll have spotted from the rest of this review, there are times when I disagree with Trollope. I suppose that happens when an opinionated reviewer meets an opinionated author. I recently described Jane Austen's Mansfield Park as "almost perfect". There's too much I disagree with in Trollope's books to merit the same praise. But was this really because Austen was wiser than Trollope, or was it because she made fewer comments and aired fewer opinions in her work?

Whatever the reason, it would be too awful if I was unable to recommend these wonderful, wise, witty books because of it. Ladies and gentlemen, run out and secure copies of Framley Parsonage and all the other books in the series--they're all wonderful.

Find Framley Parsonage on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy

I stumbled upon this book, as I have so many others, poking through the bookshelf of Douglas Wilson on Goodreads--always a great source of reading matter. Another entry in the Comic History genre, which ranges from the brilliant (like Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 And All That) to the yawnworthy (I never found the Horrible Histories particularly entertaining or accurate), The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody is dry, irreverent, and a laugh a minute.
It's easy to see the faults in people, I know; and it's harder to see the good. Especially when the good isn't there.
Beginning with Egypt and meandering through most of the rest of world history, this book contains a number of hilarious mini-biographies of quirky well-known figures including Hatshepsut, Lucrezia Borgia, Peter the Great, and Christopher Columbus.
Thutmose II died in 1501 b.c, leaving Hatshepsut face to face with Thutmose III, his nine-year-old son by one of his concubines. Modern research shows that the shoulders, hips, pelvis, and breastbone of Thutmose II had been broken. His nose was deformed, too, as if somebody had let a flatiron slip, and there were symptoms of rat poison. Egyptologists have no idea who did all this.
The humour is so dry as to be nearly undetectable. At its best, the book is simply a retelling of actual history, with one eyebrow raised, like this:
During his fifteen years in Italy, Hannibal never had enough elephants to suit him. Most of the original group succumbed to the climate, and he was always begging Carthage for more, but the people at home were stingy. They would ask if he thought they were made of elephants and what had he done with the elephants they sent before. Sometimes, when he hadn't an elephant to his name, he would manage to wangle a few from somewhere, a feat which strikes me as his greatest claim to our attention.
Illustrated by William Stieg, no less.
Cuppy sticks mainly to the unsympathetic characters of history, but can't resist a few pokes at Charlemagne, Miles Standish, and others. Also, unlike 1066 And All That, he brings in people's love lives, but with a deft touch (of Lucrezia Borgia's affair with a poet he says that "whenever Alfonso was away from home Lucrezia would slip on something comfortable and curl up with a good author").

Like other parody histories, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody is best enjoyed by those who already know something about history. For these, Cuppy's book will be an excellent refresher course, and a good laugh.

Get The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody from Amazon, The Book Depository, or Open Library.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Some Announcements

You know how life is. You publish an ebook through Amazon's Kindle Store, intending to make it available as soon as possible in other formats and maybe do a physical edition with Createspace, and then all of a sudden you have an international conference tour to organise, and then you get called over to visit the USA for three months, and then you get pneumonia, and...before you know it a year has gone by.
The old, old story.

Well, I'm back, and now The Epic of Reformation: A Guide to the Faerie Queene is available in a whole new array of formats!

The Smashwords Edition

I'm excited about this one.  Don't have a Kindle? Me neither. Well, now you can get The Epic of Reformation in just about any format--EPUB, PDF, or even TXT--from Smashwords. Want to read it on your Kobo? Want to read it on your Nook? Want to print it out and put it in a ring binder? Here you go!

The CreateSpace Edition

OK, I'm even more excited about this one. CreateSpace is Amazon's print-on-demand service, and now you can buy The Epic of Reformation as a paperback! The price is a little higher at $6.99, but it's all about the options.

The Amazon Kindle Edition

And as always, there's the Amazon Kindle option if that suits you best!

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Those of you who follow the blog Ladies Against Feminism may be interested to know that I've begun writing regular contributions for the website. I'm really excited about this opportunity and hope that it is a great blessing to readers!

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And one more thing. I'm working on a new book. This one will be a selection of expanded and revised reviews of the most visionary, inspiring, encouraging, and edifying fiction I've found in a lifetime of reading voraciously. I hope to finish it within a month or two. Follow Vintage Novels on Facebook or Twitter to stay updated!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poems by John Masefield

Welcome to the shiny new Vintage Novels! And now, back to your regularly scheduled book reviews:

John Masefield
In this post, I geek out about poetry.

I'd never heard of John Masefield until I stumbled across his rich, haunting ballad Sir Bors, which I will quote here in full:
Would I could win some quiet and rest, and a little ease,
In the cool grey hush of the dusk, in the dim green place of the trees,
Where the birds are singing, singing, singing, crying aloud
The song of the red, red rose that blossoms beyond the seas.

Would I could see it, the rose, when the light begins to fail,
And a lone white star in the West is glimmering on the mail;
The red, red passionate rose of the sacred blood of the Christ,
In the shining chalice of God, the cup of the Holy Grail.

The dusk comes gathering grey, and the darkness dims the West,
The oxen low to the byre, and all bells ring to rest;
But I ride over the moors, for the dusk still bides and waits,
That brims my soul with the glow of the rose that ends the Quest.

My horse is spavined and ribbed, and his bones come through his hide,
My sword is rotten with rust, but I shake the reins and ride,
For the bright white birds of God that nest in the rose have called,
And never a township now is a town where I can bide.

It will happen at last, at dusk, as my horse limps down the fell,
A star will glow like a note God strikes on a silver bell,
And the bright white birds of God will carry my soul to Christ,
And the sight of the Rose, the Rose, will pay for the years of hell.
Since then I have dipped into some more of Masefield's poetry, and managed to buy a volume of his collected poems. The cover of the old hardback I found informed me that Masefield was a Poet Laureate; I went to Wikipedia for more information.

John Masefield (1878-1967) was a contemporary of Kipling, Chesterton, Buchan, Lewis, Tolkien, and other favourite authors of mine. Starting his life as a sailor, he eventually made a name for himself as a poet and novelist and was appointed Poet Laureate to the United Kingdom--a post previously held by luminaries like Alfred Tennyson--from 1930 until his death. His most famous poems have a tang of the sea in them: "Sea-Fever" and "Cargoes", which I found collected in some of our assorted poetry books when I began to look up his works. He wrote a few plays based off Scripture, including one called "The Coming of Christ" for which Gustav Holst, a composer I enjoy playing, provided incidental music.

I have no idea why I'd never heard of him before.

Masefield's poetry is his claim to fame, and while I still haven't read much of it, I feel confident to make some observations.


As far as content goes, I am a little disappointed. Chesterton and Kipling, slightly before Masefield, had more original ideas; James McAuley, a little after (possibly the best Australian poet ever and the never-to-be-forgotten perpetrator of the Ern Malley hoax) bristles with contrarian defiance (try reading his Letter to John Dryden sometime and see if that doesn't clear out your sinuses). By contrast Masefield is a little ho-hum. His poem "Cargoes" gains all its power from a dramatic comparison of the romance of the past with the prosaic ugliness of the present. There is nothing wrong with the poem; but Chesterton would have done something with the comparison, perhaps getting us to acknowledge the fundamental and beautiful usefulness of the "dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack."

Then there are the theological problems. Masefield is familiar with Christian imagery, but I'd be surprised if he actually was a Christian. The thing is missing that satisfies me in Christian authors. I have never been able to pin it down exactly, partly because some non-Christian authors have occasionally been able to reproduce it (Rudyard Kipling may be an excellent example, though he is such a good one that I remain agnostic about the final state of his soul). Maybe the best thing I can say is that one's soul is restless, and the right kind of story will satisfy it in a way nothing else can. Masefield's poetry does not satisfy. The closest thing I have to a favourite among his poems is "Seekers"--
Friends and loves we have none, nor wealth nor blessed abode,
But the hope of the City of God at the other end of the road.

Nor for us are content, and quiet, and peace of mind,
For we go seeking a city that we shall never find.

There is no solace on earth for us--for such as we--
Who search for a hidden city that we shall never see.

Only the road and the dawn, the sun, the wind, and the rain,
And the watch fire under stars, and sleep, and the road again.

We seek the City of God, and the haunt where beauty dwells,
And we find the noisy mart and the sound of burial bells.

Never the golden city, where radiant people meet,
But the dolorous town where mourners are going about the street.

We travel the dusty road till the light of the day is dim,
And sunset shows us spires away on the world's rim.

We travel from dawn to dusk, till the day is past and by,
Seeking the Holy City beyond the rim of the sky.

Friends and loves we have none, nor wealth nor blest abode,
But the hope of the City of God at the other end of the road.
It's gorgeous. But it's just slightly wrong. Those of us who hunt the City find it. Masefield's poetry is all about seeking, and never finding, certainly never in this world (look at the poem "Sir Bors" above). Who ever seeks a thing so mortally unfindable?

Masefield seems keenly interested in matters of religion and spirituality. But it's all slightly off. "A Creed" is not even close:
I held that when a person dies
His soul returns again to earth;
Arrayed in some new flesh-disguise
Another mother gives him birth.
With sturdier limbs and brighter brain
The old soul takes the roads again.
Chesterton did better. His "The Skeleton" tangles with mortality in the same way as this poem, but with far greater profundity (and a much higher degree of orthodoxy):
Chattering finch and water-fly
Are not merrier than I;
Here among the flowers I lie
Laughing everlastingly.
No; I may not tell the best;
Surely, friends, I might have guessed
Death was but the good King's jest,
It was hid so carefully. 
All this said, there's a reason I'm glad I've discovered Masefield. He may not have been a very profound thinker, and he may have muffed Theology 101, but could the man write poetry! His verse has some of the wonderful crash and glitter you find in a Chesterton poem, but a little more responsibly handled--Chesterton is all fireworks, all the time, which is delightful in him, but Masefield has a more varied style. There is a kind of deliberation to his work: in him you see a superb craftsman working doggedly, by his own strict rules, and producing through this stern discipline a world of delight. The words are carefully picked, with subtle and delightful shades of alliteration and assonance chiming through the rolling words. "A mad salt sea-wind blowing/The salt spray in my eyes." "Laugh and be merry, remember, better the world with a song,/Better the world with a blow in the teeth of a wrong." "With sacks of purple amethysts, the spoils of buccaneering, /Skins of musky yellow wine, and silks in bales." This is simply brilliant craftsmanship, the kind any writer should study carefully.

The really unique thing about Masefield, though, and the thing that keeps me coming back to him, is what he does with rhythm. Underlining the rich word-choice and the interplay of alliteration and assonance, it is again slow and deliberate and wonderfully complex. Here is a stanza from "A King's Daughter", about the aged Helen of Troy:
"I will go to some lone island where I am not made a story,
Where my beauty made no widow, nor no orphan wanting bread;
Where no human sorrow suffers the disaster of my glory,
And my eyes may lose the vision of the hauntings of the dead.
"Day and night the dead men haunt me, whom the madness of my caring
Brought from home and wives and children to be bones upon the plain;
All the panther-like for beauty, all the lion-like for daring,
And they lie upon the bindweed now, uncovered by the rain."
 With three unaccented syllables to every accented syllable, this verse has an unusually slow pace that fits the longer lines to perfection, and the character of the speaker. Here's another few stanzas from "The Taking of Morgause", in which the main character is a naughty little girl:
"There," (Morgause thought) "they are about to go,
And I, alone, of all the castle, know...

I shall return and tell them: 'Look at me...
I saw the pirates whom you did not see.

They could not see me hidden in the flowers,
But there I snuggled, watching them for hours.

I was as near as you are to the King,
I heard him tell his boatswain what to sing.

He never saw me, but he came so near,
I could have touched him with a hunting-spear.'"
I haven't even tried to analyse this metre, and I don't have the expertise to try, but it seems to have all sorts of fun things going on. One added dimension I can spot is that the length of the words--short or long--seems to play into the rhythm as well as the accented and non-accented syllables.

Masefield uses a very similar metre in "Badon Hill", which recasts the ancient battle of Arthur as a Viking cattle-raid.
Arthur and Lancelot the son of Ban
Took burning touchwood in an iron pan;

They slid into the water among reed,
No pirate saw their coming, none gave heed.

They pushed their gear before them on a raft,
The ripples spread in little gleams that laughed.

The weathered Dragon-ship rose overhead
Like a house pale, sun-blistered, painted red.

Arthur and Lancelot together smeared
Tar to the leadings whence her hawsers veered,

Then heaping twigs and pine-cones, they gave touch,
And blew, until the little flames took clutch.
The suspense drips off the page throughout this poem, and the slow tense metre that never goes quite how you expect it to is a big part of the magic.

John Masefield's poetry is not my favourite--I have volumes of Christina Rossetti, GK Chesterton, and Edmund Spenser, and an anthology of the metaphysical poets to fall back on when I am in the mood to read really satisfying stuff. But stylistically, the man had amazing talent, and his poetry has been a real pleasure to explore.

Find selections of John Masefield's poetry on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Wikisource.

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