Maurice Baring and the Great War

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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

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Lorem ipsum or Quousque tandem?

It is odd how sometimes a few sentences from a book glanced at in a desultory way will stick in the memory for years. Once, as a college student, I happened to pick up an old book on printing type in the guest room of my grandmother’s house in Tucson, Arizona, and read in it for a few minutes. I was suddenly reminded of that book when I stumbled across a website devoted to the dummy text Lorem ipsum. According to the website, “Lorem Ipsum has been the industry’s standard dummy text ever since the 1500s.” But remembering the book on printing types, I was sure that this was wrong: the traditional dummy text was Quousque tandem. 

The internet soon turned up a copy of the very book that I had glanced at all those years ago, which turned out to be Daniel Berkeley Updike’s Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use: a Study in Survivalspublished in 1922, and I soon found the passage that I had remembered: Continue reading

A Dialogue on Star Wars

Baring (standing), Over-Bearing (right), Past-Bearing (left)

Over-BearingFew things shows how far the world has sunken since our time more clearly than an American college lecturer reflecting on his students difficulty in reading children’s books [he reads aloud from  John Senior’s The Restoration of Christian Culture]:

In my own direct experience teaching literature at universities, I have found a large plurality of students who find, say, Treasure Island what they call “hard reading,” which means too difficult to enjoy with anything approaching their delight in Star Wars or electronic games.

Has it indeed come to this? That the descendants of the peoples of Christendom— of the peoples who built the great cathedrals, who conquered and instructed worlds— that the descendants of such peoples should have fallen so low that they cannot even enjoy Mr. Stevenson’s simple adventure stories.  No one could accuse me of being overly optimistic about the effects of the death of Christian civilization, but even I did not expect man to fall so far below the beasts that his keenest enjoyment would be found in Star Wars. Star Wars! That dismal mush of pantheism, gnosticism, and sentimentality, so illogical that in our day a child of five years would have laughed it to scorn.

Past-BearingYou are quite wrong to see in the popularity of Star Wars a sign of how far our race has fallen since the end of civilization. On the contrary— Star Wars is proof that how ever far the world has fallen, human nature cannot be entirely corrupted, and that despite the reigning dogma’s of anti-culture, the common man can still tell the difference between good and evil, and delights in stories about the triumph of the one over the other. The miracle of Star Wars is that it shows a world of machines and space-ships in which the most important thing is mystery of the good; the magic of an “ancient religion.” In the figure of Luke Skywalker the inhabitants of the dreary wasteland of a world dis-enchanted by godlessness and capitalism, can see themselves discovering that after all the world is a mighty battle field between super-natural powers. Star Wars is not art, but it is something much more important: it is story about the truth of our magical world. It is to these sad times, what penny dreadfuls were to ours.

Over-Bearing: Nonsense. Star Wars is not a story told by the simple for their own amusement. It is a powerful propaganda weapon made at great expense by Californian plutocrats, members of the world wide conspiracy of anti-Catholics and usurers. It was made to confuse the notions of good and evil, and muddle the minds of the world’s children.

Past-Bearing: My dear Over-Bearing, the truth is quite the opposite of what you say. It is precisely the proud intellectuals of the new anti-culture who decry Star Wars for being “puerile” and lacking “subtlety” in its depiction of good and evil— that is, for not mixing them up enough— for making the good good and the evil evil. Hence children spontaneously love Star Wars. It is the relativists and soft-Nietzscheans, and Picasso lovers who decry it as the end of culture.

Over-Bearing: That man may be an ass, who considers Picasso an artist, but he is quite right that Star Wars is mindless distraction that is passively consumed, destroying rather than nourishing the imagination. You yourself has magnificently shown that real fairy tales are quite reasonable, and make perfect sense. But Star Wars makes no sense at all; it is full of the most illogical stupidity. Not to mention the gnostic dualism.

Past-Bearing: It is true that some of the more tiresome characters talk solemn nonsense of a gnostic sort. But the portrayal of good and evil in action is entirely Christian, and even entirely Catholic. Evil is exaggeratedly great appearance, but weak in substance— a shadowy privation of being. Hence many of the apparent absurdities and impossibilities show themselves to be entirely logical. That the Storm Troopers are so feared, and yet are all such comically bad shots. That the evil empire is so powerful, and yet so easy to destroy. When Luke walks unarmed into the the stronghold of the enemy at the end of Return of the Jedi, he shows us again the greatest story ever told: the story of the weakness of the good proving itself stronger than the strength of evil.

Over-BearingPast-Bearing, you are indeed past all bearing. You cannot be comparing that spoiled, whining whelp, Luke Skywalker, to our Savior?

Past-Bearing: The tone of Skywalker’s voice might not be the most euphonious, but it is necessary in order that American teenagers might see him as being of their kind. As the theologians say: quod non est assumptum non est sanatum.

[Exit Over-Bearing in disgust]

[Baring, who has been listening in interest all the while, while pretending to write a triolet, lays down his pen].

Baring: Your defense of Star Wars is all very well, Past-Bearing, but surely it doesn’t apply to The Force Awakens. The original trilogy (despite its vulgarity and sentimentality) had a certain inventiveness, an innocent delight in the revealing of new-worlds. To see the old Star Wars was to walk through an enchanted door and to see again, as though half remembered, the light upon the enchanted world of childhood. But the new film is dull affair made by a committee of capitalists. A tent-pole film so anxious to please the admirers of the original that it repeats almost frame for frame the plot of A New Hope. So anxious not to be boring, that it rushes along at a frantic pace without time for enjoyment. A film so pedantically obsessed with the politically correct opinions that the heroine becomes a sort of feminist Mary Sue, for whom everything is so easy that nothing matters. Force Awakens is the very paragon of  unimaginative and decadent art.

Past-Bearing: Oh, but repetition is the very essence of the age-old story of good and evil. And typology is the genius of The Force AwakensSurely decadent art is obsessed with novelty? Nostalgia is the mark of truly human stories: Virgil is nostalgic, Dante is nostalgic [cf. the conclusion of this post].  And as to Rey: I find no fault with her role in the story. Does she not show us that great, triumphant, and eternally exciting truth: that one good girl is more powerful than a great many bad men in masks? That the goodness of a little girl is fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners?

[enter Duff Cooper, a little drunk]

Duff Cooper: I say, let’s go see The Force Awakens.

Past-Bearing [gets up with alacrity]: Yes, do let’s

Baring: Oh, all right.

Easter in Moscow

I’ve always wanted to see the Easter Liturgy in Moscow. First, because of Maurice Baring’s wonderful description in The Puppet Show of Memory, but also because I have a friend who was actually converted by it. He had been raised a complete atheist and knew practically nothing about religion. But then one Holy Saturday he was stuck in Moscow on account of the trains not running or something. He resigned himself to walking through the streets all night, but then found a church, went in, stayed the whole night there, and was converted.

Now I find that the Patriarchate has posted youtube clips of pretty much the whole service (part 1 above). First comes Matins, with the procession around the outside of the Church described by Baring. My favorite part though starts at about the 38 minute mark when first the patriarch and then one after another the other bishops and priests enter the sanctuary and then come out again and shout “Хрїстóсъ воскрéсе!” (Christ is Risen!) and the whole church responds “Воистину воскресе!” (He is risen indeed!). I guess it represents the apostles repeatedly checking the grave and proclaiming the Resurrection to one another.

Jerome K. Jerome on the Cussedness of Things in General

I have suggested that the funniness of Three Men in A Boat is founded on Jerome K. Jerome’s sensitivity to the fallenness of the world, or, as he aptly puts it, “the natural cussedness of things in general.” That phrase occurs in a scene that is the symmetrical opposite to the sleeping-in scene discussed below. It is a waking-up-too-early scene:

I WOKE at six the next morning; and found George awake too. We both turned round, and tried to go to sleep again, but we could not. Had there been any particular reason why we should not have gone to sleep again, but have got up and dressed then and there, we should have dropped off while we were looking at our watches, and have slept till ten. As there was no earthly necessity for our getting up under another two hours at the very least, and our getting up at that time was an utter absurdity, it was only in keeping with the natural cussedness of things in general that we should both feel that lying down for five minutes more would be death to us.

What could be a better description of how life in this valley of tears actually feels? It is that sense of injustice at a world which never seems to conform itself to reason.

In one of the many train conversations recounted by Maurice Baring in The Puppet Show of Memory a Russian student gives the following opinion of J. K. J.:

The student talked of English literature with warm enthusiasm. His two favourite English modern authors were Jerome K. Jerome and Oscar Wilde. When I showed some surprise at this choice, he said I probably only thought of Jerome as a comic author. I said that was the case. ‘Then,’ he said, ‘you have not read Paul Clever [presumabably Paul Kelver], which is a masterpiece, a real human book a great book.’

I have not read Paul Kelver, but I would maintain that Three Men in a Boat is “a real human book.”

Saki on Edwardian Religion

Hector_Hugh_Munro_aka_Saki,_by_E_O_Hoppe,_1913

Saki (Hector Hugh Munro, 1870-1916)

One tends to think of Saki as a rather flippantly cynical sort of blighter, whose famous last words – “put that bloody cigarette out” – were entirely fitting. My confidence in this view of Saki was shaken by the glowing tribute that Maurice Baring pays him in The Puppet Show of Memory.

He certainly was certainly a great satirist. Here is a magnificent sneer at Edwardian Christianity, which was the predictable harvest of Victorian Liberalism:

They had come to look on the Christ as a sort of amiable elder Brother, whose letters from abroad were worth reading.  Then, when they had emptied all the divine mystery and wonder out of their faith naturally they grew tired of it, oh, but dreadfully tired of it.  I know many English of the country parts, and always they tell me they go to church once in each week to set the good example to the servants.  They were tired of their faith, but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a sort of Socialism which made for the greatest dulness of the greatest number.  You will find plenty of them still if you go into what remains of social London. (When William Came)