Over at The Lamp I respond to Matthew Walther’s critique of Tolkien. I argue that the key to understanding The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”
In a moving essay on the great American-French novelist Julien (Julian) Green, Rick Yoder quotes many passages from Green’s autobiographical writings and diaries expressing his deep longing for God, and the insight that it gives him into the beauty and sadness of human life.
I had only read a little Green up to now. A friend of mine (who has had a struggle similar to Green’s) gave me an autographed copy of a German translation of Green’s late novel Les Étoiles du Sud (The Stars of the South). I found it strange and entrancing; a story of the antebellum South, which Green knew from the stories of his Southern mother, full of nostalgia for a time that never was. But I never finished it— partly because I wanted to read the prequel first, and partly because it seemed to me that German translation is not the best medium for reading historical novels about the American South. And, until now, I had not followed through with my intention of beginning Green again. But Yoder’s essay has given me a new stimulus. Continue reading
A man who lives much at a club is apt to fall into a selfish mode of life. He is taught to think that his own comfort should always be the first object. A man can never be happy unless his first objects are outside himself. (Anthony Trollope, The Duke’s Children)
Maurice Baring’s autobiography The Puppet Show of Memory is my favorite book. Of course there are many books that are greater— more profound or illuminating, finer achievements of literary craft; but The Puppet Show of Memory is my favorite (abstracting here of course from the books of Sacred Scripture and others that I read for lectio divina). But why do I love The Puppet Show of Memory so much? St. Thomas teaches us that love is a conformity of the heart to its object, and that its causes are goodness, knowledge, likeness, and (per accidens) passions of the soul that arise from some other love. As far as its goodness goes, I have already admitted that there are better books, so its goodness cannot be the reason why I love it more than other books. Nor can I say that I know it better. Do I find some likeness or affinity between my own soul and Baring’s? I wish. And what other passions of the soul might per accidens cause a love of Maurice Baring? Oh dear. Continue reading
I read Middlemarch recently, and was struck by the evident influence of Trollope on Eliot. In some respects Eliot clearly surpassed Trollope, but I think there are other respects in which he remained superior. Their relation reminds me a bit of the relation between Rubens and van Dyck. Van Dyck certainly improves on Rubens— he is much more polished from a technical point of view. But not only from a technical point of view. There is an elegance and nobility in van Dyck that is not in Rubens. But it seems to be a general rule in human affairs that there is no progress without some concomitant regress. Van Dyck lacks the vivacity and good natured humanity of Rubens.
Certain theology students, who only know of Cardinal Cajetan through reading a little Henri de Lubac, like to accuse that eminent commentator of giving a “two storey” account of the relation of nature and grace. I suppose they think that on the Cajetanian account nature and grace relate somewhat the way they do in the heart of Mrs. Grantly in Trollope’s Barsetshire novels:
In her heart of hearts Mrs. Grantly hated Mrs. Proudie—that is, with that sort of hatred one Christian lady allows herself to feel towards another. Of course Mrs. Grantly forgave Mrs. Proudie all her offences, and wished her well, and was at peace with her, in the Christian sense of the word, as with all other women. But under this forbearance and meekness, and perhaps, we may say, wholly unconnected with it, there was certainly a current of antagonistic feeling which, in the ordinary unconsidered language of every day, men and women do call hatred. (Framley Parsonage, ch. XVII)
An essay of mine has just been published in a volume on the philosophy and theology of the soul, edited by Eric Austin Lee and Samuel Kimbriel. It’s the first time that I have contributed an essay in an actual, printed book, and so I am perhaps slightly inordinately proud of it.
My essay is on the portrayal of the soul in the novel. I argue that the novel developed as a literary form particularly suited to the modern view of the subject as an isolated res cogitans separate from the res extensa and also from other res cogitantes, except to the extent that it enters into voluntary relationships with other subjects.
Following Ian Watt, I argue that this explains not only the form of the novel, but also to a large extent the main theme of English novels since Samuel Richardson: love between a man and a woman usually terminating in marriage. As I put it in my essay,
Capitalism having destroyed the interpersonal ties of more organic societies and replaced them with cold contractualism, freely chosen relationships took on a great importance: especially the relationship of husband and wife, which, disengaged from other areas of life, becomes a matter of personal choice. (p. 204)
Now it occured to me recently that since marriage here is important mostly for its subjective purpose of overcoming the isolation of the individual, rather than for its role in a larger society, it makes sense that while proposals of marriage play a prominent role in novels, actual weddings are surprisingly rare. Moreover, on the rare occasions when a wedding is actually described, it is often described as being a small, private affair, rather than a great feast for a whole community.
Take for example David Copperfield’s wedding to Agnes. If anyone might be expected to ignore the novelistic convention of small weddings, one would think it would be Dickens, who has so much concern with “social” problems and so on, and is by no means so devoted to the classical novelistic purpose of giving a window into the depths of the res cogitans as more formally perfect novelists. Moreover, David Copperfield is by the time of his wedding to Agnes a national celebrity, who might be expected to have a very wide social circle. (Even in our lamentable time celebrities like to have big weddings; witness Francesco Totti’s wedding at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, which was televised so that the whole of Italy could be, as it were, present). And yet this is how Dickens describes David and Agnes’s wedding:
Traddles and Sophy, and Doctor and Mrs. Strong, were the only guests at our quiet wedding.
A notable exception to the rule, however, is (spoiler alert:) Mary and Frank’s wedding in Trollope’s Dr Thorne. It is a truly magnificent affair in which not only all the friends and relations of the Thornes and Greshams are present, but also all the dignitaries of Barsetshire, and (significantly) all the common people dependent on the Greshams.
The reason for this, it seems to me, is that Dr Thorne is really about the conjunction of two different worlds, and of two different views of marriage. The Greshams are an old aristocratic family whose position in the community is threatened by new economic realities of 19th century England. The only practicable way for Frank to save his position, and thus the whole way of life of his family, and to a certain extent of the whole community, is to marry someone rich. But of course he falls in love with Mary Thorne, who is very poor. The interesting thing about the novel is the way in which both Frank and Mary are torn about their prospective marriage— both acknowledge the importance of personal choice and love (so central to the bourgeois ideal of marriage that is the main theme of novels), and yet both also see the importance of saving Frank’s position, and the suffering that their marriage would consequently bring on the whole community. There are two apparently incommensurable moral ideals in conflict here. This conflict is only resolved by the fortuitous circumstance of Mary’s inheriting the fortune of a railway magnate. Thus bringing a strange synthesis in which the wealth of the new world of railways and industry is used to prop up the old world way of life of the landed gentry. This works quite well in the novel, but it was not a solution that admitted to a general application to the problems of English society.
I have been listening to an audiobook of David Copperfield, and one scene reminded me of the moral laxism promoted by certain contemporary ecclesiastics. In the scene David is trying to persuade Dora to be stricter with the servant, but she will have none of it:
‘No, no! please!’ cried Dora, with a kiss, ‘don’t be a naughty Blue Beard! Don’t be serious!’
‘My precious wife,’ said I, ‘we must be serious sometimes. Come! Sit down on this chair, close beside me! Give me the pencil! There! Now let us talk sensibly. You know, dear’; what a little hand it was to hold, and what a tiny wedding-ring it was to see! ‘You know, my love, it is not exactly comfortable to have to go out without one’s dinner. Now, is it?’
‘N-n-no!’ replied Dora, faintly.
‘My love, how you tremble!’
‘Because I KNOW you’re going to scold me,’ exclaimed Dora, in a piteous voice.
‘My sweet, I am only going to reason.’
‘Oh, but reasoning is worse than scolding!’ exclaimed Dora, in despair. ‘I didn’t marry to be reasoned with. If you meant to reason with such a poor little thing as I am, you ought to have told me so, you cruel boy!’
Dora’s opposition to reason with its apparently harsh demands is clearly infantile. She doesn’t want to have any unpleasantness, but the unpleasantness that follows from her indulgence toward servants, and her refusal to be reasoned with on the subject, ends up being much greater than any unpleasantness that might have followed from being a little stricter to the servants. Later in the novel her indulgence leads to a servant being transported to Australia for stealing her watch. This leads David to the following reflection:
‘My darling girl,’ I retorted, ‘I really must entreat you to be reasonable, and listen to what I did say, and do say. My dear Dora, unless we learn to do our duty to those whom we employ, they will never learn to do their duty to us. I am afraid we present opportunities to people to do wrong, that never ought to be presented. Even if we were as lax as we are, in all our arrangements, by choice—which we are not—even if we liked it, and found it agreeable to be so—which we don’t—I am persuaded we should have no right to go on in this way. We are positively corrupting people. We are bound to think of that. I can’t help thinking of it, Dora. It is a reflection I am unable to dismiss, and it sometimes makes me very uneasy. There, dear, that’s all. Come now. Don’t be foolish!’
As Fr Hunwicke recently remarked, “Anti-intellectualism is a stance people very often adopt when they propose to do something irrational,” and it is even more the stance that people adopt one when they do not want to have the unpleasantness of being rationally strict with others. But in the long run such a stance always leads to misery. Happiness can only come from conforming human life to right reason, and a cowardly and infantile refusal of the demands of reason leads to misery in this life, and eternal punishment in the next.
In discussing the Bloomsbury Group’s enthusiasm for the ethical theories of G.E. Moore—his intuitionism, his utilitarianism, and his conviction that “personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine”— Alasdair MacIntyre writes: “This is great silliness of course; but it is the great silliness of highly intelligent and perceptive people.” He therefore takes a careful look at sociological reasons that made Moore’s theories should be so plausible to Bloomsbury. He goes on to argue that Moore’s was a key influence on the emergence of emotivism (the theory that moral judgements are merely expressions of emotional approval or disapproval) as the dominant ethic of our time, and then argues that the triumph of emotivism was due to the same sociological factors that made Lytton Strachey compare Moore favorably to all previous ethical thinkers, including “Aristotle and Christ.” Continue reading
As promised, I have now completed a review of Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel:
Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel Soumission has generated so much commentary since its publication on the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders that many readers will already know the basic outline of the plot. Seven years from now France comes under the power of a Muslim party, and a quiet process of Islamization sets in. Politicians and journalists who know only the outline have assumed that Houellebecq’s story is islamophobic, but careful readers of the book have agreed with his own protestations that this is not at all the case… Read the rest on Ethika Politika