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The Warden is the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, books which are primarily focused on the clergy and their families of the fictional town.

The plot is simple. From Goodreads, because I hate summarizing plots. I must have had a traumatic experience in fourth grade or something.

“The Warden” centers on Mr. Harding, a clergyman of great personal integrity who is nevertheless in possession of an income from a charity far in excess of the sum devoted to the purposes of the foundation. On discovering this, young John Bold turns his reforming zeal to exposing what he regards as an abuse of privilege, despite the fact that he is in love with Mr. Harding’s daughter Eleanor. It was a highly topical novel (a case regarding the misapplication of church funds was the scandalous subject of contemporary debate), but like other great Victorian novelists, Trollope uses the specific case to explore and illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and social morality

Reading Trollope, first of all, will disabuse a reader of the notion that in past eras, clergymen and church affairs were considered off-limits for satire, mocking and criticism. Of course this is not the case, and has never been, but Trollope’s treatment of religion is "amy welborn"particularly instructive because he is so straightforward in presenting the humanity and politics of the world of the church (of England in this case, of course).

The Warden is much shorter than most of Trollope’s other work, and more focused, although the political and journalistic world of London comes under scrutiny as Mr. Harding travels there to make his case. I earlier highlighted Trollope’s evisceration of the press in his chapter “Mount Olympus.” 

I want to highlight just a few quotes from The Warden, passages which I particularly appreciated either because of their insight into human behavior or high satirical quotient. In the first, “the doctor” is the Archdeacon of the Cathedral, who is also Mr. Harding’s son-in-law. He is determined that the threat against Harding’s position is no less than a threat against the privileges of the entire Church of England, and must be stopped.

Having settled this point to his satisfaction, the doctor stepped down to the hospital, to learn how matters were going on there; and as he walked across the hallowed close, and looked up at the ravens who cawed with a peculiar reverence as he wended his way, he thought with increased acerbity of those whose impiety would venture to disturb the goodly grace of cathedral institutions.

And who has not felt the same? We believe that Mr Horseman himself would relent, and the spirit of Sir Benjamin Hall give way, were those great reformers to allow themselves to stroll by moonlight round the towers of some of our ancient churches. Who would not feel charity for a prebendary when walking the quiet length of that long aisle at Winchester, looking at those decent houses, that trim grass-plat, and feeling, as one must, the solemn, orderly comfort of the spot! Who could be hard upon a dean while wandering round the sweet close of Hereford, and owning that in that precinct, tone and colour, design and form, solemn tower and storied window, are all in unison, and all perfect! Who could lie basking in the cloisters of Salisbury, and gaze on Jewel’s library and that unequalled spire, without feeling that bishops should sometimes be rich!

I love this passage, in which Trollope is taking the language usually used to express how beautiful and orderly church architecture leads the mind to consider the glory and nature of God and turns it around.

A minor character, Sir Abraham Haphazard, will be the defender of the Church’s privilege in the House of Lords, but he is also busy with another cause:

Sir Abraham Haphazard was deeply engaged in preparing a bill for the mortification of papists, to be called the “Convent Custody Bill,” the purport of which was to enable any protestant clergyman over fifty years of age to search any nun whom he suspected of being in possession of treasonable papers, or jesuitical symbols: and as there were to be a hundred and thirty-seven clauses in the bill, each clause containing a separate thorn for the side of the papist, and as it was known the bill would be fought inch by inch, by fifty maddened Irishmen, the due construction and adequate dovetailing of it did consume much of Sir Abraham’s time. The bill had all its desired effect. Of course it never passed into law; but it so completely divided the ranks of the Irish members, who had bound themselves together to force on the ministry a bill for compelling all men to drink Irish whisky, and all women to wear Irish poplins, that for the remainder of the session the Great Poplin and Whisky League was utterly harmless.

Again, great, (if heavy-handed!) satire, not only on British anti-Catholicism, but on the ways of politics, so often centered not on direct discussion of policy, but on misdirection and throwing up false flags for distraction and disturbance of enemy forces.

Having gone through this Mr Harding got into another omnibus, and again returned to the House. Yes, Sir Abraham was there, and was that moment on his legs, fighting eagerly for the hundred and seventh clause of the Convent Custody Bill. Mr Harding’s note had been delivered to him; and if Mr Harding would wait some two or three hours, Sir Abraham could be asked whether there was any answer. The House was not full, and perhaps Mr Harding might get admittance into the Strangers’ Gallery, which admission, with the help of five shillings, Mr Harding was able to effect.

This bill of Sir Abraham’s had been read a second time and passed into committee. A hundred and six clauses had already been discussed and had occupied only four mornings and five evening sittings; nine of the hundred and six clauses were passed, fifty-five were withdrawn by consent, fourteen had been altered so as to mean the reverse of the original proposition, eleven had been postponed for further consideration, and seventeen had been directly negatived. The hundred and seventh ordered the bodily searching of nuns for jesuitical symbols by aged clergymen, and was considered to be the real mainstay of the whole bill. No intention had ever existed to pass such a law as that proposed, but the government did not intend to abandon it till their object was fully attained by the discussion of this clause. It was known that it would be insisted on with terrible vehemence by Protestant Irish members, and as vehemently denounced by the Roman Catholic; and it was justly considered that no further union between the parties would be possible after such a battle. The innocent Irish fell into the trap as they always do, and whiskey and poplins became a drug in the market.

Ending on a far simpler note, I love this tight observation of John Bold, who is pursuing this suit about the hospital, for no particular reason except, as we might say today, “Because Reasons” and with no real thinking through of the consequences to those he is professing to help:

And the Barchester Brutus went out to fortify his own resolution by meditations on his own virtue.

I think that’s a good nudge for a penitential Lenten Friday, myself….

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Well, if you are a Catholic, it’s a bonanza kind of day. It’s First Friday and it’s the first Friday of Lent. Both of the sons I have at home right now go to Catholic schools – one elementary and one secondary – and both will be having Adoration and Stations of the Cross on Friday at school. So tonight, we had a brief talk about how that’s a lot of praying, and a great opportunity to pray for a lot of people.

 

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It’s also the memorial of St. Katharine Drexel. I wrote about her in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints:

"amy welborn"

"amy welborn"

— 3 —

Currently reading:

Barchester Towers

The Unbanking of America

The Astronomer and the Witch. 

— 4 —

The first because I’m on a Trollope kick, and I have to say that I can see why readers pick Barchester Towers as their favorite. It is tight and lively, and not quite the discursive experience as other recent Trollopes I have read like Miss MacKenzie and Rachel Ray.  The characters are quite a bit more vivid and the humor more pronounced. Really, the Stanhope clan and Obadiah Slope are terrific creations.

I had assumed there was a BBC adaptation, so I went in search of one and found that indeed there was – a combined production of The Warden and Barchester Towers featuring lots of familiar faces including, quite memorably, the late, great Alan Rickman as Slope, in his first major television role. It’s hard to think of a more perfect match of actor and role.

I’ve watched bits and pieces, mostly to see Rickman as well as satisfy my curiosity about how the Stanhopes – the family of an Anglican vicar who’ve been living in northern Italy because  the vicar caught a cold of some sort and needed a bit of a rest cure. Twelve years later, they’ve been called back by the new bishop, and between them, Slope, the new bishop and his wife and a host of other characters, sparks are certainly flying, plans are being hatched – and sabotaged. The television adaptation is mildly entertaining, and it’s always fun to see how a good character translates from page to screen, but in this case, reading the book is a far more satisfying experience. The television adaptation can barely skim the surface, and at times does get things wrong.

In the novel, Slope and his sometime ally and sometimes enemy Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s wife, are presented as adherents of the plain, more evangelical wing of the Church of England, people who are appalled that the trains run on the Sabbath and are unimpressed by chanting and other forms of music in the liturgy. In television terms, this gets translated into a kind of rationalism – Slope’s initial sermon, which causes scandal because he takes a stand against high church liturgy – becomes a paean of sorts to rationalism.

So, as I said, I’ve skipped around a couple of episodes, but enjoy the book much more.

— 5 —.

The Unbanking of America?  I read an interview with the author at Reason, the libertarian website, and was intrigued, as I always am, by the thought of someone who presents ideas that are opposed to Conventional Wisdom. I won’t rehash her arguments – simply know that the author is an economist who spent a few months working at both a check-cashing business and payday-loan business, and found that they fill a gap in the financial lives of many that banks just don’t anymore.  It’s like a long Atlantic Monthly or New Yorker article that you can knock off in a couple of hours, and I always enjoy that – grow my brain a bit without too much commitment, and thanks.

— 6 —

Did you know Johannas Kepler’s mother was tried as a witch? I didn’t, and this book is the story of that set of events – as well as a fascinating look at, of course, Kepler himself, and the very lively intellectual world of early 17th century Germany.  I’m just about halfway through and will talk more about it when I finish, but really, if you are even talking to someone who’s all about separating science and religion and who wants to tell you about that glorious time when scientists like Kepler finally busted the superstitious Age of Faith apart, invite them to consider what Kepler (and others) was really about – how he was a profoundly religious man who was all about discovering more about God via studying his Creation.

Oh, and about the witch business – it happened when Kepler was an adult, after he had started producing important scientific work, and when the accusations came to his attention, he rearranged his life to travel back home and work in his mother’s defense.

— 7 —

I was clued into this via, of course In Our Time, which had an excellent program on Kepler which featured the author of the Astronomer book as one of the guests.

Other recent listens have been programs on:

Parasitism – good, but not fascinating.

The Gin Craze – fantastic social history. 

And, just yesterday, a great program on Harriet Martineau, the 19th century British writer. If you listen to any of these programs – try this one first.

Just one note about Martineau. She was a prolific writer, primarily of descriptive and analytical essays reflecting her views on political philosophy and economics. I think it’s accurate to describe her as an early sociologist of sorts.Indeed, she spent two years in the United State and wrote about it – books of which I was vaguely aware, but now have put on the (very long) list.

What might interest you is Martineau’s conflict with Charles Dickens.

She had written for Dickens’ journal called Household Words, but over time, differences between the two developed. Martineau, a devotee of Adam Smith and Malthus, felt that Dickens’ view of what we’d now call the impact of the Industrial Revolution was simplistic, sentimental and uninformed by a coherent political philosophy. She didn’t appreciate his views on women and she was offended by his personal life.

But what caused the final split was Dickens’ anti-Catholicism.

Martineau herself was a strong, unwavering Unitarian, but in 1854, she was surprised that story she had written for Dickens, a story about the sacrifices of a Jesuit missionary, was rejected. As she wrote in her autobiography (written when she thought she was dying…but then she lived for twenty more years, and it ended up, indeed being published after her death.)

Some weeks afterwards, my friends told me, with renewed praises of the story, that they mourned the impossibility of publishing it, — Mrs. Wills said, because the public would say that Mr. Dickens was turning Catholic; and Mr. Wills and Mr. Dickens, because they never would publish any thing, fact or fiction, which gave a favourable view of any one under the influence of the Catholic faith. This appeared to me so incredible that Mr. Dickens gave me his “ground” three times over, with all possible distinctness, lest there should be any mistake: — he would print nothing which could possibly dispose any mind whatever in favour of Romanism, even by the example of real good men. In vain I asked him whether he really meant to ignore all the good men who had lived from the Christian era to three centuries ago: and in vain I pointed out that Père d’Estélan was a hero as a man, and not as a Jesuit, at a date and in a region where Romanism was the only Christianity. Mr. Dickens would ignore, in any publication of his, all good catholics; and insisted that Père d’Estélan was what he was as a Jesuit and not as a man; — which was, as I told him, the greatest eulogium I had ever heard passed upon Jesuitism. I told him that his way of going to work, — suppressing facts advantageous to the Catholics, — was the very way to rouse all fair minds in their defence; and that I had never before felt so disposed to make popularly known all historical facts in their favour. — I hope I need not add that the editors never for a moment supposed that my remonstrance had any connexion with the story in question being written by me. They knew me too well to suppose that such a trifle as my personal interest in the acceptance or rejection of the story had any thing to do with my final declaration that my confidence and comfort in regard to “Household Words” were gone, and that I could never again write fiction for them, nor any thing in which principle or feeling were concerned. Mr. Dickens hoped I should [94] “think better of it;” and this proof of utter insensibility to the nature of the difficulty, and his and his partner’s hint that the real illiberality lay in not admitting that they were doing their duty in keeping Catholic good deeds out of the sight of the public, showed me that the case was hopeless. To a descendant of Huguenots, such total darkness of conscience on the morality of opinion is difficult to believe in when it is before one’s very eyes.

Even worse, at some point later, was the publication in Household Words, of a rabidly anti-Catholic, scandal-mongering piece of fiction called The Yellow Mask. 

The last thing I am likely to do is to write for an anti-catholic publication; and least of all when it is anti-catholic on the sly.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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At some point in the flood of Hourly Outrage that is apparently the course of our lives now, it was found necessary for a few hours last week to strongly defend the press.

Ernie Pyle!

Well, yes, thank you Ernie Pyle.

But as most intelligent people know, there is no institution on earth that is 100% noble or immune from human weakness and flaws of all kind. We all do our best, yes, and yes, great good is accomplished by almost every human institution, but at the same time, every human institution operates with the limitations of human weakness and sin.

Of course, we are also in an era in which extreme language is the norm. So that when Trump attacks, which he does using exaggerated and simplistic language, those attacked will inevitably respond in kind.

But guys, about the press…

Think of it this way: consider any area of life in which you modestly consider yourself an expert: medicine, the law, small business, religion, the issues that impact your community, the environment, your favorite justice cause, whether that be pro-life issues or health care or prison reform, or even just What Life is Like in Your Community…

….does the press ever get it right?

Here and there, yes. But as a whole, I don’t know of a person who’s an expert in any field or area of life who feels as if the press “gets” the truth about their area of expertise, and some people even write blogs about it.  (And some people even write chapters in books about it.)

The problem really is just hubris and, in this country, the silly ruse of objectivity. We are so much better off, I do believe, when ideological cards are on the table, and we can sift through reportage and narratives with that in mind.

This is not earth-shaking to anyone, and is offered by way of introduction to a critique of the press that’s over a century old.

I’m reading a bunch of Trollope, and last night finished The Warden. I have several passages I’ll be highlighting in a future post, but given the heated discussions and defenses, I thought it might be worth a reminder that DJT didn’t invent harsh and cutting press criticism. Trollope devotes an entire chapter to dissecting and drilling The Jupiter, a fictional newspaper,and its editor, one Tom Towers.  His focus is on pride and hubris. It’s chapter 14 and you can read it all here:

It is true he wore no ermine, bore no outward marks of a world’s respect; but with what a load of inward importance was he charged! It is true his name appeared in no large capitals; on no wall was chalked up ‘Tom Towers for ever’–‘Freedom of the Press and Tom Towers’; but what member of Parliament had half his power? It is true that in far-off provinces men did not talk daily of Tom Towers but they read The Jupiter, and acknowledged that without The Jupiter life was not worth having. This kind of hidden but still conscious glory suited the nature of the man. He loved to sit silent in a corner of his club and listen to the loud chattering of politicians, and to think how they all were in his power–how he could smite the loudest of them, were it worth his while to raise his pen for such a purpose. He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote, and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them. Each of them was responsible to his country, each of them must answer if inquired into, each of them must endure abuse with good humour, and insolence without anger. But to whom was he, Tom Towers, responsible? No one could insult him; no one could inquire into him. He could speak out withering words, and no one could answer him: ministers courted him, though perhaps they knew not his name; bishops feared him; judges doubted their own verdicts unless he confirmed them; and generals, in their councils of war, did not consider more deeply what the enemy would do, than what The Jupiter would say. Tom Towers never boasted of The Jupiter; he scarcely ever named the paper even to the most intimate of his friends; he did not even wish to be spoken of as connected with it; but he did not the less value his privileges, or think the less of his own importance. It is probable that Tom Towers considered himself the most powerful man in Europe; and so he walked on from day to day, studiously striving to look a man, but knowing within his breast that he was a god.

 

 

 

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Very quick, mostly about what I’ve read recently.

Monday is Presidents’ Day – Kevin Williamson inveighs against it, and I resonate with his inveighing:

The president of the United States is the chief officer of the federal bureaucracy, the head of one branch of a government that has three co-equal branches. Strictly speaking, it is not given to him even to make law, but only to see to the enforcement of the laws passed by Congress (and maybe to veto one here and there) and to appoint appropriate people, like the former CEO of Carl’s Jr., to high federal offices. In the legislative branch, the House of Representatives is the accelerator and the Senate is the brake; the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are pretty much all brake; the presidency is a kind of hybrid, sometimes pressing for needful reform and action, sometimes standing in Congress’s way when it is rash or overly ambitious. The architecture of our constitutional order is a complicated and delicate balance.

 But the president is not the tribune of the plebs. He is not a sacred person or the holder of a sacred office. He is neither pontifex nor imperator. He is not the spiritual distillation of the republic or the personification of our national ideals and values. (Thank God Almighty.) He is not even primus inter pares like the chief justice of the Supreme Court or the Patriarch of Constantinople. He is the commander-in-chief in time of war (which, since we have abandoned the advice of Washington and Eisenhower, is all of the time, now) and the chief administrator of the federal bureaucracy. That is it.

He is not a ruler.

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Good stuff from the Federalist on Common Core. A primer, if you will:

As I detail in full footnoted glory in my book out soon, Common Core’s own founding documents specifically invite federal involvement. Its success as a national program is directly attributable to federal involvement in education, period. Common Core’s creators and funders worked hand-in-glove with the Obama administration, right down to transferring personnel and regular alignment phone calls, to impose it upon the nation and link it to every major federal and state education policy (data collection, teacher preparation and certification, school rating systems, curriculum, testing). The new law replacing No Child Left Behind codifies the federal government as the ultimate review board for state testing and curriculum policies, a Clinton-era policy that made Common Core possible.

— 3—

If you are interested in educational issues, and not necessarily from a religious perspective, the libertarian magazine/website Reason looks at the issue of school choice regularly and has a good library of articles, found here. 

My mantra, in case you’ve never heard it: more schools of all different types for all different kinds of students. 

— 4 —

I have so many notes headed “PF” with many words attached, but since every day brings a new development, what I was sure was most important yesterday inevitably fades with the dawn of a new day, every day, without fail.

So I’ll be lazy and offer this excellent analysis of a bit of the current situation from First Things: 

It can be no surprise, then, that the sacraments are under renewed attack. For the sacraments are the means by which the Church is ordered and by which she distinguishes, on a practical level, between good and evil. (What is the point of forbidding the evil of divorce, if not to uphold the good of marriage and its witness to the covenant of our salvation? What is the point of forbidding suicide and euthanasia, if not to uphold the sanctity of life and the good of honoring the Lord and Giver of Life?) The sacraments, of course, are much more than that. They are instruments of grace by which God communicates to us his own life through participation in our Lord Jesus Christ. They are not rewards for goodness, but the means of sharing in the God who is good. That is why they are holy sacraments, and it is their very holiness that makes them the object of attack.

— 5 —.

Earlier this week, I finished La Dolce Vita Confidential – if you’re interested in Italian pop culture and the movies, you’ll enjoy this. The writing was excellent, and Levy does a great job of excavating a cultural moment and helping us see how these moments just don’t happen – there are streams that are flowing that join to make the river…and then disperse again. For just a few years, Italy was everything, and then it was England’s moment and so life goes on.

I will admit that I have never actually seen La Dolce Vita, and will probably remedy that soon. There were a few other films discussed in the book that picqued my interest – for example, this early Sophia Loren-Marcello Mastroianni collaboration called Too Bad She’s Bad. 

— 6 —

There were a few more rabbit holes inspired by the text – various other movies, a purported, but false Marian apparition and this song:

 

Levy just mentions it offhand, as being inspired by the death/perhaps suicide of a Sicilian nobleman, who jumped/was pushed from a building on Via Veneto. I found it mesmerizing and haunting:

Who could it be,
that man in a tailcoat?
 
Bonne nuit, bonne nuit, goodnight,
he keeps telling everything,
the lighted lamps,
a cat in love
that goes by wandering.
 
Now dawn has finally come,
lamps are turned off,
and the whole city
wakes up little by little,
moon has got stuck,
suprised, pale,
it will disappear in the sky
fading away.
 
A window yawns
on the silent river
and in the white light
a top hat, a flower and a tailcoat
float away.
 
Gently floating,
cradled by the waves,
he slowly flows down
under bridges towards the sea,
towards the sea he goes.
 
Who could it be, who could it be,
that man in a tailcoat?
 
Adieu, adieu, farewell world,
farewell to memories of the past,
to a dream never dreamt,
to an instant of love
that will never come back.

…and then further rabbit holes led me to the fact that the singer/songwriter was Domenio Modugno whose main claim to fame was the Eurovision-competing (but not winning) Volare! which we all know from the car and the commercials,  (very funny to watch that commercial and see the boat that’s touted as a fabulous new “small car”) if not from the many covers of the song, including one by Dean Martin, but honestly, take a look at the video, read the borderline surreal lyrics and understand why the Internet is both the life and the death of me.

I think, such a dream
Will never return.
I painted hands and face in the blue
And then suddenly the wind kidnapped me
And I began to fly in an infinite sky.
To fly,
To sing
In the blue, painted in the blue,
I am happy to be above.

— 7 —

Forgive me for repeating this Take from last week…but..it still pertains, don’t you think?

amy-welborn66Lent is coming! Here’s a post from yesterday with links to all my Lent-related material.

The past two weeks, I’ve seen a spike in hits for  this post – and I’m glad to see it.

It’s a 2015 post on one of the most inexplicable post-Vatican II liturgical changes (and..there’s a lot of competition on that score) – the total obliteration of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays – the three Sundays preceding the First Sunday of Lent. So for those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form and some Anglicans, I understand, February 19 is Sexagesima Sunday. From a Dappled Things article I cite in the post:

In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.”

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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You all know how this sort of entry begins: I was poking around the Internet looking for a public domain book to read

..and I found the first few pages of The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. It grabbed my interest, but it was late at night, so I made a mental note to see if the library had it.

And yes, it did.

Last night I settled down with it, and revisited, for the first time in a long time, that wonderful – wonderful – feeling of having a real book in hand and thinking, I’m going to read this tonight.  As in: read from beginning to end, start and finish, and long after everyone has gone to sleep, I’ll be in dialogue with an intelligent companion, listening to her story.

It is not a long book, but even so, I almost didn’t finish it – I got quite tired at the end, but did manage it, although the next day (today) I did have to refresh my memory with the last "amy welborn"few pages as to how it all came out.

It’s a bit of an odd book. It seems a touch cobbled together, which, in a way, it was, considering one element of the story took shape in Cather’s mind long before the framing story. The description on the cover of the edition I got from the library says The story of a cloistered scholar’s discover of his own soul through contact with the world of reality.

Well, okay. Sort of.

I really hate summarizing plots, so I will let someone else do that part of it. From Goodreads:

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St. Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved — his wife Lillian, his daughters, and Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous—and a tragic victim of the Great War — Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most.

I experienced this novel as a meditation – a meditation on the relationship between scientific understanding, technological development and the rest of life. A meditation on the purpose of our life’s activities. It has a touch of idealized romanticism that almost makes it veer off-course, but not quite. The characters do not quite work as one-hundred percent realized human beings – they all seem to stand for something more than exist in the real world, but I found Cather’s writing powerful enough, especially in descriptions of landscape and the tenacity with which she excavates the professor’s inner life  – to let it go.

What I saw here were characters who have lost touch with the spiritual, not in the sense that they have lost faith mediated by religious institutions, but simply in that they are materialists: they have forgotten that life on earth and the earth itself are more than what our senses tell us.  We know more about how it all works and we can manipulate it with great efficiency and profit from what we do with the things of the earth, but none of that connects us with what is most real.

And although Cather herself was not Catholic, it is, as it usually is for her, Catholicism that offers the alternative. The rather mysterious inspiration for much of what happens, whom we know died in the Great War before the events of the novel commence, is Tom Outland, orphaned as a young man in  the Southwest. He is taken care of by a kind family, works hard for a railroad company, then has a profound spiritual epiphany out in the wilderness, when he encounters the remnants of ancient civilizations in a fictional place that was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. That initially inchoate sensibility is then helped along and given form by a Belgian missionary priests who takes Tom under his wing and teaches him, simply Latin, the knowledge of which – and the readings in Virgil and so on he has done – are all he takes with him when he shows up at the professor’s house.

Even more importantly, I think, is the character of Augusta. She is a German seamstress who shares the attic space in the professor’s old house. She sews for the family during the day, and her patterns and dress form keep the professor company at night while he works there, his preferred space to that more formal study down in the family home. She is a sensible, forthright woman, and a Catholic.

The two of them have an understanding. The novel begins with the two of them bantering, and ends with them in the same room, one having rescued the other. They have both done good work in that room, with all of its flaws, a room that was less than ideal for both of them. What happens in between the first chapter and the final is the end of one stage of life, a recognition of its goodness and its limitations and a hint of how to move forward. For the professor, the Catholic seamstress represents a way:

If he had thought of Augusta sooner, he would have got up from the couch sooner. Her image would have at once suggested the proper action.

It is a bit of a challenge to unpack that without revealing what incident precedes it, and I actually saw it coming from the beginning…call it Chekov’s gas heater…but I don’t want to spoil it too much, in case you are moved to read the novel. The point is that nothing else in his life, not his loving family, not his successful career, prompted him to dig down and keep living – except for Augusta, sitting there with her prayer book.

The professor has come to a point in his life in which nothing in the present really engages him. He’s done. But, that glimmer:

There was still Augusta, however; a world full of Augustas, with whom one was outward bound.

I hasten to add that this is not romantic – Augusta functions as a symbol of the spiritual reality of life, a reality that is not about dreams or phantasms, but about the spiritual dimension of life – any life, even one spent stitching drapes, tending to a home, and faithfully, quietly, going to Mass.

The professor is changed. He’s not in ecstasy, he’s not George in It’s a Wonderful Life. He just knows something, he knows something real, and “At least, he felt the ground under his feet.”

There are “plot points” that aren’t wrapped up. There’s not a lot of resolution here. But it’s a book that gave me quite a bit to think about as Cather roams through the professor’s consciousness, and then with him and the other characters through the upper Midwest, Europe and the Southwest. And there’s this, which you might appreciate – it’s from one of the professor’s lectures:

I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins-not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance-you impoverish them. As long as every man and woman who crowded into the cathedrals on Easter Sunday was a principal in a gorgeous drama with God, glittering angels on one side and the shadows of evil coming and going on the other, life was a rich thing. The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

 

 

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When I do manage to write something these days, I seem to keep returning my hobbyhorse of narratives.

Here’s another example.

First, the narrative(s):  we are regularly and forcefully told that if you are of a certain gender, ethnicity, race, class or from a certain region, you believe  X and are concerned with Y above all things. And so the stories about Life Today that are told, especially by the lazy, are created, not by listening and retelling what has been heard from real people, but by carrying one’s narrative out into the field (or onto the Internet – usually as far as it goes these days) and filling in the blanks with what fits, ignoring what doesn’t.

Here’s why your narratives suck.

Just a couple of hours ago, I was in the Dollar General store down the road, here in my area of town called Woodlawn.

I got to the checkout and there was a lively yet  friendly conversation happening between two middle-aged African American men who were both working there and a middle-aged, and definitely world-weary, wiry, mustachioed white customer.

I have no idea what the starting positions were, but as I approached, the white guy was going OFF on what he called the “Muslim Ban” saying (I paraphrase):

“They all want to kill us all anyway. And if they want to kill us, you can’t keep ‘em out. And the ones that are already here – and there’s a lot of em – are just going to get pissed off.”

The other men nodded, either out of politeness or because they agreed, who knows.

So he went out the door, resigned to his fate of being blown to smithereens, and the guy behind the counter said,

“The two best presidents of my lifetime were” – he scanned my Diet Coke – “Reagan and Clinton.”

The other man, who’d been stocking, added, “They were good, but I always liked Carter – they said he was weak, but I did pretty well under Carter.”

“Clinton’s where I made my money. I did good with Clinton.”

And they spent a couple of seconds talking, first about Billy Beer, and then about Amy Carter, who they said they felt sorry for, and who one of them said was like the Lucille Ball of the White House – which I couldn’t figure out for the life of me.

Not a word about Obama.

And then one of them wrapped it up.

“Here’s the thing about Trump,” he said. “He’s a rich guy. Rich guys say what they want and do what they want and no one says anything to them. He’s used to that.”

While I was pondering this, probably the wisest comment I’ve heard in three weeks, he continued,

“He’s got to get used to something new now and just settle down. He’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Call it Woodlawn Elegy. There you go. If we don’t get into any more wars and the economy improves so these guys can feel that their lives and incomes are getting better? Narrative, busted. Again.

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— 1 —

Well, that’s done. Another book in the bag, manuscript sent in on deadline.

What’s next? With this book, the editors are looking at it and within the next couple of months will return the manuscript to me with suggested edits. Then I’ll return it to them, the publisher will produce galleys for me to take one more pass at, and then it will go to press. The goal was a pub date in the fall. It is an illustrated book, and I have no idea how that’s coming along. Once I get a cover and definite pub date, I will let you all know.

I have taken it easy the past couple days except for a flurry of cooking last night, which I recorded on Instagram Stories.  I haven’t cooked much since Christmas, but am back in the groove. Made minestrone, bread and my roasted tomatoes last night.

Work-wise, I have a little pamphlet due in a couple of weeks, and then an essay due on March 1.

— 2 —

amy-welborn66Lent is coming! Here’s a post from yesterday with links to all my Lent-related material.

I noted a spike this morning for clicks on this post – and I’m glad to see it, although I would have expected the spike next week and not this.

It’s a 2015 post on one of the most inexplicable post-Vatican II liturgical changes (and..there’s a lot of competition on that score) – the total obliteration of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays – the three Sundays preceding the First Sunday of Lent. So for those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form and some Anglicans, I understand, February 12 is Septuagesima Sunday. From a Dappled Things article I cite in the post:

In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.”

— 3—

Despite the work load, I did do some reading over the past month. I can’t focus on work in the evening anymore, so I might as well read.

— 4 —

First up was Christmas Holiday by Maugham. I read it via one of the Gutenburg sites, violating my determination to Set A Good Example by sitting in the living room in the evening, Bartok softly playing, Reading Real Books  Oh, well.

Anyway, this was a very, very interesting book. A little too long, I think, and a bit clunky in tone and format, but cutting. It is a bit of a satire on between-the-wars Britons of a certain class, but more discursive and not as sharp as, say, Waugh. It reminded me a bit of Percy’s Lancelot, simply because a big chunk of it involves someone telling their life story to someone else, and also that the last sentence of the book defines the book and perhaps even redefines your experience of reading it.

It’s not a book I finish and say, “I wish I’d written this book,” but it is a book I finished and thought, “Hmmm…I wish I could write something with that effect.”

.

— 5 —.

Then was Submission by Houellebecq.  A friend had been after me for a while to read it – it was sitting on a display at the library, so there was my sign.

If you’re not familiar with the book, it made quite a stir when it was published in France in 2015 (the day, by the way, of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine) , it’s about, essentially, how Islam could take over France. The central character is a scholar, drifting, unconnected to family, non-religious, mostly unprincipled, still sexually active, but mostly in contexts where he has to pay for it. He is a scholar of the writer J.K. Huysmans, who is very important to Houellebecq – here’s a good article outlining the relationship. 

François’s fictional life trajectory mirrors Huysmans’s actual life: dismal living conditions, a tedious job situation, a serviceable imagination, a modicum of success, a proclivity for prostitutes, and, finally, a resigned acceptance of faith. And just as Huysmans put himself into des Esseintes, François is a self-caricature by Houellebecq—with a twist, or, rather, two: François is Houellebecq’s version of himself if he lived Huysmans’s life, in the year 2022.

Houellebecq and Huysmans have much in common, beginning with their ability to infuriate readers. “There’s a general furore!” Huysmans wrote when “À Rebours” was released. “I’ve trodden on everyone’s corns.” Houellebecq, for his part, has enraged, among others, feminists, Muslims, and the Prime Minister of France. There is more to these two writers than mere provocations, however. Huysmans wrote during the rise of laïcité (French secularism), in the Third Republic, when religion was excised from public life. Houellebecq says he is chronicling religion’s return to European politics today. They each have a twisted outlook on the sacred.

I found Submission an interesting and accurate read on social psychology and the current landscape. Yes, this is what so many of us are like now, this is the vacuum that’s been created, and yes, this is how, in some parts of Europe at least, Islam could fill that vacuum, and how post-post-Christians could give into it.

— 6 —

Now, I’m back to the Kindle (in my defense, I looked for this book yesterday at the library, but they didn’t have a copy) reading some Trollope: Miss McKenzieI’m liking it very much. It’s the usually thinking 19th century treatment of the bind that women found themselves in in relationship to property and independence during the period. This time, we have a woman in her mid-30’s who has spent her adult life so far caring, first for an invalid father, then an invalid brother. After their deaths, she’s inherited a comfortable income. So what should she do? And who will now be interested in this previously invisible woman?

It’s got some great social satire and spot-on skewering of the dynamic in religious groups, especially between charismatic leaders and their followers. I’ll write more when I’m finished with it.

— 7 —

As someone once famously said, and is oft repeated by me, “What a stupid time to be alive.”  It’s pretty crazy, and social media doesn’t do anything but make it stupider. If you follow news, you know the daily pattern:  8AM-2PM FREAKOUT OVER THE LATEST   followed by 2PM-Midnight – (much quieter) walkback/fact-checking/ – but with the walkbacks getting a fraction of the retweets and reposts than the Freakouts get.

There is not enough time in the day. Really, there isn’t. Add HumblePope to the mix, and Good Lord, what’s a wannabe political and religious commenter to do but make soup and read Trollope?

Well, here’s one contribution to non-stupidity – I first read this as a FB post put up by Professor George, and now it’s been turned into a First Things article on the immigration EO. Helpful. Take a look.  

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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