Der Komet

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The premise of Hannes Stein’s novel Der Komet is brilliant: World War I never happened. Therefore World War II never happened, Vatican II never happened, and so on. Stein delights in painting a picture of an Austro-Hungarian Empire around the year 2000, and imagining all the things that would be different. The Shoah never having happened, Vienna is full of Ruthenian Jews, and the Anti-Semitic party has a couple seats in the city council. The Vendée massacres have something of the status in the popular imagination that the Shoah has in real life. Steven Spielberg is a Hungarian director, and Vienna is the capital of the international film industry. Balkan pop-music, developed from Gypsy and Slavic folk music, dominates the music world the way that American rock music does in our parallel universe. And so on.

The premise also gives Stein a lot of big philosophical questions to explore: free will, providence, fate, chance etc. He does both his picture-painting and his big-question-mulling in a light-hearted spirit with a plot full of obvious symbols, and a set of somewhat superficially drawn characters. The main symbol is a giant comet (der Komet) which is set to destroy the world. This symbol is replicated by a flower-pot that falls from a window, first discussed as an hypothesis in a café, and then actually falling and smashing in the head of a rather nasty left-wing philosopher. (Stein, who is New York correspondent of Die Welt, seems to have vaguely right-wing sympathies). These events don’t provide enough action for Stein though, so he has to introduce a “human interest” sub-plot about the Austrian court astronomer’s wife having an affair with a student. This is somewhat pointless, but very Viennese and reminiscent of Octavian’s affair with the Marschalin in Rosenkavalier. Much more interesting are the conversations in the Café Zentral between the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, the head Rabbi of Vienna, and a Psychoanalyst. Also the sermons preached by the Cardinal and the Rabbi after the news of the comet reaches earth.

Stein ends on a rather pious note with some reflections occasioned by a group of Koran students, who travelled up to Vienna from the peaceful city of Sarajevo to witness the end of the world:

‘Allahu Akbar,’ they observed […] but since ‘akbar’ is a gradated form of the adjective, for which Grammarians have the technical word ‘elative,’ one ought rather to translate the Arabic thus: God is greater. He is always greater. Greater than our dreams and nightmares, greater than our worries; greater than all the terrible things that people do to each other. Greater than any end of the world. Greater than any stories that we could invent. ‘Allahu akbar’…

[Cross-posted from Goodreads]

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Post-Novelistic Age

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Olivier Charles’s design for the Stockholm Library

Essays by novelists lamenting the de-throning of the novel as the preeminent narrative art form of our culture have become a familiar genre. Jonathan Franzen is a particularly distinguished practitioner of the form. Recently Will Self published such an essay in the Guardian. Self (what a marvelous name for a novelist!) argues that the novel has been dethroned by the emergence of less challenging media of narration. The decline began, he thinks, a long time ago with the emergence of film, radio, TV and such things. The novel itself began when certain conditions in the technology of print media were developed, it then lasted beyond its time—all the way up till the late 20th century it retained great cultural power—but now it is almost finished becoming a niche-art without influence on the wider culture. Continue reading

Martin Mosebach

Martin Mosebach with a confrère of mine

Martin Mosebach with a confrère of mine

Martin Mosebach is well known in the German speaking world for his brilliant, cutting edge novels for which he received the prestigious Büchner Prize in 2007. But he has also written a collection of polemical essays on the Roman Liturgy from a traditionalist point of view–so far the only one of his works translated into English. This makes him a bit of a puzzle to German churchmen.  He does not fit the cliché description of a “traditionalist,” “Latin Mass” Catholic.  He seems like a throw back to certain writers of the first half of the 20th century who were both top notch writers and traditionalist Christians. The English speaking world had plenty of these both Catholic (Evelyn Waugh) and Anglican (T.S. Eliot). The likes of Eliot and Waugh provided devastating descriptions of a modern society (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”) which they considered to have gone astray, and the also proposed the a cure in the form of a return to traditional Christianity. Mosebach might be read this way as well, but there seems to me to be a difference. Comparing the two Mosebach novels that I have read, Der Mond und das Mädchen (2007) and Was davor geschah (2010), to Waugh’s satirical novels there seems to me to be something subtly different going on. To be sure Mosebach is concerned with showing the emptiness of a culture drained of Christian faith and morality just as much as Waugh is, but the difference is that Waugh thinks there is still something to be done about it. Mosebach, it seems to me, doesn’t; he doesn’t think that the culture as a whole has any chance of returning to Christianity.

The result is that Mosebach gives a much more detached narration of his stories than Waugh. The narrator of Was davor geschah tells us that one of the characters is not motivated by “predilection for the aesthetics delights of decline and ruin” (Vorliebe für die ästhetischen Wonnen des Niedergangs). But Mosebach does seem to show a keen enjoyment of such delights. Mosebach’s novels are very similar to Waugh’s A Handful of Dust in describing the ruin that people run into by flippant disregard for the moral order, but while Waugh’s book is written with bitter wit, Mosebach’s is written with a kind of aestheticising elegant distance–like a 19th century novelist describing a landscape. Mosebach himself makes something like this point in an interview. There he states that he cultivates an abstract relation to his material, trying to treat his characters like musical themes which he then develops into a kind of symphonic composition.

It is interesting to compare Mosebach’s detached view of the contemporary culture that he despises and considers himself to have transcended with morally serious contemporary writers who see themselves as part of the culture, and struggling with its moral contradictions. In an earlier post I compared two such writers, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace with respect to the problem of necessity. I argued that Franzen sees part of the problem with contemporary life in an excess of freedom of choice without the kind of moral necessity that gives life direction and urgency. Wallace, I suggested, shows how the version of necessity that Franzen sees as the saving possibility is insufficient to the extent that it cannot finally ground the good which necessitates. Mosebach too is concerned with the problem of a false necessity that people embrace for the sake of giving their lives direction. In Was davor geschah everyone’s life is destroyed by some of the characters trying to escape the emptiness of their lives by giving themselves over to passion. Mosebach describes this without bitterness or sarcasm, but there is one wonderful passage where he hints that it is all an illusion. It is a chapter called “time holds breath;” a breathtakingly beautiful description of a moonlight sledding party. This is the last paragraph:

We had passed through a no man’s land in the sleds, but no man’s land has no man’s time. We had moved in a great white bag, as though we were still in the world of the unborn. The wintery forrest in the darkness of the night had made everything appear as though it were not yet inevitable, as though there were many combinations possible,  each one about to dissolve again. In the light [of the house] we were back on the tracks on which we had long since been moving. Must I even mention that  despite all the good drink that night Phoebe no longer looked at me?

(Ein Niemandsland hatten wir mit den Rodelschlitten durchfahren, aber im Niemandsland herrscht auch eine Niemandszeit. In einem großen weißen Sack hatten wir uns bewegt, als seien wir noch im Reich der Ungeborenen. Der nächtliche Winterwald hatte alles erscheinen lassen, als sei es noch nicht zwangsläufig, als seien viele Kombinationen möglich, und jede davon bestimmt, alsbald wieder zu verfallen. Im Licht gerieten wir wieder in die Gleise, in denen wir uns längst bewegten. Muß ich hinzufügen, daß Phoebe in dieser hochalkoholisierten Nacht keinen Blick mehr für mich übrig hatte?)

An Education in Desire

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Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne (detail)

The words “Do not be satisfied with mediocrity!” have been much in my mind of late, and I thought of them again as a read a brilliant thesis on Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited by Elizabeth Quackenbush, a senior at Thomas Aquinas College this year. I suppose I must have been about 14 when I first read Brideshead, and I was completely dazzled. As Thomas Howard once wrote, Continue reading

Freedom is Overrated: Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace

The characters in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom have lots of freedom, but their experience seems to teach them that freedom is overrated. Take Patty Berglund reflecting on her own misery:

By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. (p. 181)

In discussing this passage Ross Douthat argues that this sort of problem makes Franzen’s characters so contemptably bourgeois that they are not really worth writing about: Continue reading

John Betjeman on Greece (but really on England)

I suppose I am the last person on earth to discover this brilliant poem. It reminds me of my own visit to Greece in 2003, but of course (like all Betjeman poems) it is really about England.

Greek Orthodox 

by John Betjeman

To the Reverend T. P. Symonds

What did I see when first I went to Greece?
Shades of the Sixth across the Peloponnese.
Though clear the clean-cut Doric temple shone
Still droned the voice of Mr Gidney on;
“That hoti? Can we take its meaning here
Wholly as interrogative?” Edward Lear,
Show me the Greece of wrinkled olive boughs
Above red earth; thin goats, instead of cows,
Each with its bell; the shallow terraced soil;
The stone-built wayside shrine; the yellow oil;
The tiled and cross-shaped church, who knows how old
Its ashlar walls of honey-coloured gold?
Three centuries or ten? Of course, there’ll be
The long meander off to find the key.

The domed interior swallows up the day.
Here, where to light a candle is to pray,
The candle flame shows up the almond eyes
Of local saints who view with no surprise
Their martyrdoms depicted upon walls
On which the filtered daylight faintly falls.
The flame shows up the cracked paint– sea-green blue
And red and gold, with grained wood showing through–
Of much-kissed ikons, dating from, perhaps,
The fourteenth century. There across the apse,
Ikon- and oleograph-adorned, is seen
The semblance of an English chancel screen.

“With oleographs?” you say. “Oh, what a pity!
Surely the diocese has some committee
Advising it on taste?” It is not so.
Thus vigorously does the old tree grow,
By persecution pruned, watered with blood,
Its living roots deep in pre-Christian mud,
It needs no bureaucratical protection.
It is its own perpetual resurrection.
Or take the galleon metaphor– it rides
Serenely over controversial tides
Triumphant to the Port of Heaven, its home,
With one sail missing– that’s the Pope’s in Rome.

Vicar, I hope it will not be a shock
To find this village has no ‘eight o’clock’.
Those bells you heard at eight were being rung
For matins of a sort but matins sung.
Soon will another set of bells begin
And all the villagers come crowding in.
The painted boats rock empty by the quay
Feet crunch on gravel, faintly beats the sea.
From the domed church, as from the sky, look down
The Pantocrator’s searching eyes of brown,
With one serene all-comprehending stare
On farmer, fisherman and millionaire.

Enlightenment as its Opposite in Pope’s Dunciad

One could almost forgive Alexander Pope’s Epitaph on Newton in view of the magnificent ending of his Dunciad. Pope wrote the Dunciad at the same time as his friend Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, and it takes a similarly dim view of the achievements of the Enlightenment. Dr. Johnson had this passage by heart:

In vain, in vain,—the all-composing hour
Resistless falls: the Muse obeys the power.
She comes! she comes! the sable throne behold
Of Night primeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying rainbows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
The sick’ning stars fade off the ethereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes, by Hermes’ wand oppress’d,
Closed one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after art goes out, and all is night.
See skulking Truth to her old cavern fled,
Mountains of casuistry heap’d o’er her head!
Philosophy, that lean’d on heaven before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion, blushing, veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.

Style, R.L. Stevenson, and the Pauline Epistles

John Bergsma has an excellent post (the comment box of which I can’t seem to get to work) comparing the variations in style in Plato’s works to those in the Pentateuch and the Pauline Epistles. On the later:

Several of Paul’s epistles are dismissed as “deutero-Pauline” because of differences in style. Are these differences more dramatic than the differences between Plato’s compositions? Could Paul’s style have changed with age and circumstance?

I have often thought the same thing with reference to Robert Louis Stevenson; surely there is more variation of style between A Child’s Garden of Verses and the The Master of Ballantrae than between Romans and 2 Timothy.

The Only Thing Worth Writing About

Pale King Cover

This year’s Big American Novel is the long-awaited, unfinished book that David Foster Wallace had been working on up to his death in 2008. The Pale King is about the dull lives of IRS bureaucrats, and, as DFW wrote in one of the notes appended to the manuscript (p.545), it has two “broad arcs”: the first arc has to do with boredom and paying attention and the differences between people and machines; the second has to do with with being an individual vs. being part of something larger, civics. Both of these arcs are closely related to the central theme of pretty much all of Wallace’s writing. Continue reading