Thursday, December 30, 2004

Speak What We Feel, not what we ought to say by Frederick Buechner

The back cover blurb is actually accurate:

Reflections on literature and faith: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton and William Shakespeare "wrote in his own blood about the darkness of life as he found it, and about how--for better or worse--he managed somehow to survive it, even to embrace it."

This book tries to correlate a time of darkness in the lives of these writers with the darkness expressed in one or more of their works: for Hopkins the "dark sonnets," for Twain Huckleberry Finn, for Chesterton The Man Who Was Thursday, and for Shakespeare King Lear.

If you have not yet read Huckleberry Finn or The Man Who Was Thursday, do not read Buechner's book yet. Go read Twain and Chesterton. There are some spoilers here, and though the books are great enough to stand many re-readings, I don't want you to miss the pleasant surprises of a first reading.

Hopkins became a Jesuit priest, and was assigned to teach in a Dublin school; a job for which he was temperamentally ill-equipped. Physically and mentally delicate, he burned out in the post, but not before writing a number of poems whose gramlost weldwords deutschverb sigh.*

Buechner parses Hopkins' dark sonnets to find the depths of his dark night of the soul; a dark night of self-knowledge. But it wasn't complete despair, and hints of hope remain. Buechner analyses very well.

But: I'm afraid I must disagree with Buechner and concur with Hopkins' friend Bridge's assessment of The Wreck of the Deutschland: it isn't good. Hopkins wrote much of his poetry in a language of his own, kin to English but with his own words and with grammar contorted beyond the worst of Browning. Sometimes it works in part: Spring and Fall "Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving," or one of my wife's favorites Pied Beauty "Glory be to God for dappled things." I consider such private languages cheating. We have the rules of the game for communicating with the reader: you'd better have excellent reasons and consummate skill if you plan to break them and make the reader learn a new language. Some times Hopkins made it work, sometimes I find no music there.

Another illustration of cheating might be T.S. Elliott and Wasteland. It seems at first like a kitchen-sink poem with everything tossed in, but it isn't. Less-brilliant and less-workmanlike poets have used that "deeply personal" kitchen sink model disastrously since.

At the beginning of Huckleberry Finn you find this warning:

"Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author Per G. G., Chief Ordnance."

I'm waiting for the implications of that to sink in in English classes around the land...

Twain's life wasn't exactly a bowl of cherries. We all know the tragedies of his later life (for which he seems to have often blamed himself), but I hadn't realized how much death there was in his childhood, for which a sensitive child might well have felt responsible. Apparently he started writing Huck in a time of troubles, picked it up again in another time of trouble, and finished it during a happy era of his life. Darkness and gloom don't seem to be the keynotes of the book, but Buechner's closer inspection shows that the crisis of faith Huck endures is set in a background of lies and hypocrisy; a crisis that feels personal. Twain himself seems to have abandoned faith after his crisis—or almost abandoned it. But he preserved a humanist care for people, which Huck mirrors in the book, even for the villainous Duke and Dauphin. Or at any rate, Twain maintained that interest until the bitterness at the end of his life overwhelmed him.

Buechner's choice of Chesterton to illustrate the darkness of life seems very odd. Chesterton is far better known as one who embraced and championed the unspeakable joy of life: the mystery not of pain but of pleasure.

"You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, and swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in ink."

But Chesterton wrote The Man Who Was Thursday and subtitled it A Nightmare; and so it is. Our hero is alone in a hostile world, and the unmaskings and riddles only lead to further mysteries where everything he believed solid proves unstable. Buechner found that this reflected Chesterton's terrible years at art school, where he first became immersed in the reductionist debunking spirit of the age, finally reached a very late puberty, and first discovered the violence in his own soul—all while still an unbeliever. He made a choice for sanity and eventually became one of the champions of the faith, and later wrote Thursday. He claimed afterwards that the book did not reflect his beliefs about suffering, but then it didn't not reflect something real too. A psychiatrist once told him that he had a few patients whose lives were saved because they read The Man Who Was Thursday and understood it.

Lastly Buechner tackles Shakespeare and King Lear. Of course, Shakespeare's life is not well known in detail, but there were a few times that would have been a little tough. And we have the evidence of other plays (some far from great, like Timon of Athens) to suggest that Shakespeare spent a year or so extremely depressed about something. Buechner studies Lear in detail, and does a fine job of showing things I'd overlooked when I last read the play (I've never seen it). Every character winds up embroiled in deception and self-deception, even the loving daughter too stubborn to make the simple declarative statement that would have prevented the breach with her father. Pain rules, with the only glimmers of hope being the transient reconciliation and the pronouncement “on such sacrifices the gods themselves throw incense.” And of course, as C.S. Lewis points out, the nameless first servant who attacked Cornwall when Cornwall blinded Gloster proved that not everyone loved evil or deception. But still the play remains a vivid picture of the deceit and treachery and pain in life.

The play was given a happy ending for two centuries after Shakespeare's death: programmers thought the original too dark and painful for audiences.

Buechner's book takes its title from King Lear: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” He doesn't try to draw great conclusions, except to show people who have looked into the darkness and written honestly about both the darkness and the glimmers of light. He's a very good writer himself. Sometimes we can use reminders of the darkness when people try to pretend that all is sweetness and light. Darkness without despair here: a good book.


I've had complaints that my parody is unfair. Here is the entire poem Spring and Fall of which I was parodying line 8:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Arabs in History by Bernard Lewis

Do I need to tell you to go read it?

As the title says, this is a history of the Arabs, not of Islam as such. I learned a lot about things I'd never heard of before, such as the great revolts of negro slaves around Basra.

This was the 1966 edition of a book first published in 1950, and I suspect Bernard would have had his hands on new material by now. It might be, for example, that the three century long devastation in agriculture in Tunisia in the wake of the Hilal and Sulaim tribes invasions owed something to climate change.

I'd be quite interested in knowing if he would revise passages like this:

The word "atomistic" is often used to describe a habit of mind and outlook, recognizable in many aspects of the civilization of the Arab and dominant in the later stages of his history. By this is meant the tendency to view life and the universe as a series of static, concrete and disjunct entities, loosely linked in a sort of mechanical or even casual association by circumstances or the mind of an individual, but having no organic interrelation of their own. Though by no means universal, this tendency affects the life of the Arab in many different ways. He conceives his society not as an organic whole, compounded of interrelated and interacting parts, but as an association of separate groups--religions, nations, classes--held together only by the ground beneath and the government above. His town is an agglomeration of quarters, guilds, clans, houses, only rarely with any corporate civic identity of its own. In contrast to the scientists and philosophers on the one hand and the mystics on the other, the ordinary orthodox theologian, scholar or litterateur shows the same quality in his attitude to knowledge. The various disciplines are not different ways of reaching out towards the same heart, pooling their findings in an integrated whole, but separate and self-contained compartments, each holding a finite number of pieces of knowledge, the progressive accumulation of which constitutes learning. Arabic literature, devoid of epic or drama, achieves its effects by a series of separate observations or characterizations, minute and vivid, but fragmentary, linked by the subjective associations of author and reader, rarely by an overriding plan. The Arabic poem is a set of separate and detachable lines, strung pearls that are perfect in themselves, usually interchangeable. Arabic music is modal and rhythmic, developed by fantasy and variation, never by harmony. Arabic art--mainly applied and decorative--is distinguished by its minuteness and perfection of detail rather than by composition or perspective. The historians and biographers, like the fiction writers, present their narrative as a series of loosely connected incidents. Even the individual is drawn as a sum of attributes, often listed, as a recent writer remarks, like the description on a passport.

Is that oversimplified? Or perhaps an accurate portrayal of the better documented years of decay?

Go read it.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Killing of History by Keith Windschuttle

Perhaps I can best summarize the book by quoting from the preface:

The structure of the book is designed to examine how both the general and the specific versions of these theories have been applied to the writing of history. The principal targets of the investigation and the places where they are discussed are:
  • Cultural relativism: Chapters Two and Nine
  • Semiotics: Chapter Two
  • Structuralist theory: Chapters Two, Three and Nine
  • Poststructuralist theory: Chapters Four and Five
  • Anti-humanism, genealogy and discourse theory: Chapter Five
  • Hegelian and Marxist philosophy of history: Chapter Six
  • Postmodernist philosophy of history: Chapter Six
  • Radical skepticism and scientific relativism: Chapter Seven
  • Hermeneutics: Chapter Seven
  • Historical fiction and theory of peotics: Chapter Eight

Executive summary: Any time you find a person using the currently fashionable forms of the above theories to model the world, you are looking at a fool.

In each case above, Keith explains the theory, doing his best to make it as clear and plausible as possible, then shows it in action in some historical analysis, and then shows the author's self-contradictions and the failure of the theory.

Perhaps you have heard of the widely used fake "Chinese taxonomy" (actually invented by poet Jorge Luis Borges) which Foucault quotes as dividing the world into things "(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs ... (n) that from a long way off look like flies." If this was a real taxonomy then some of the more radical propositions about human consciousness would have a leg to stand on, but on close inspection all such evidence for these solipsistic philosophies dissolves into fog.

Keith's background doesn't include enough physics to allow him to hammer Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as hard as it deserves (a physicist like Kuhn should have known better than to write such muddy nonsense). Those chapters (on non-cumulative meaning) I read were, in Pauli's famous phrase "not even wrong." But Keith has a grand old time taking Popper and Hume to pieces in defense of induction.

Keith is a reasonably good writer, but there is only so much nonsense I can take at one time, and it got to be a struggle to get through the last chapters. I applaud his work to refute nonsense and lies, and I recommend the book.

I have to take some detailed notes of the who goes with what theory, and I'll post these later. A painful duty...

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Peace of Dives

The Peace of Dives

Rudyard Kipling 1903
THE WORD came down to Dives in Torment where he lay:
“Our World is full of wickedness, My Children maim and slay,
    “And the Saint and Seer and Prophet
    “Can make no better of it
“Than to sanctify and prophesy and pray.

“Rise up, rise up, thou Dives, and take again thy gold,
“And thy women and thy housen as they were to thee of old.
    “It may be grace hath found thee
    “In the furnace where We bound thee,
“And that thou shalt bring the peace My Son foretold.”

Then merrily rose Dives and leaped from out his fire,
And walked abroad with diligence to do the Lord’s desire;
    And anon the battles ceased,
    And the captives were released,
And Earth had rest from Goshen to Gadire,


Then Satan said to Dives:—“Declare thou by The Name,
“The secret of thy subtlety that turneth mine to shame.
    “It is known through all the Hells
    “How my peoples mocked my spells,
“And my faithless Kings denied me ere I came.”


“Their nearest foes may purchase, or their furthest friends may lease,
“One by one from Ancient Accad to the Islands of the Seas.
    “And their covenants they make
    “For the naked iron’s sake,
“But I—I trap them armoured into peace.

“The flocks that Egypt pledged me to Assyria I drave,
“And Pharaoh hath the increase of the herds that Sargon gave.
    “Not for Ashdod overthrown
    “Will the Kings destroy their own,
“Or their peoples wake the strife they feign to brave.

“Is not Carchernish like Calno? For the steeds of their desire
“They have sold me seven harvests that I sell to Crowning Tyre;
    “And the Tyrian sweeps the plains
    “With a thousand hired wains,
“And the Cities keep the peace and—share the hire.


“So I make a jest of Wonder, and a mock of Time and Space.
“The roofless Seas an hostel, and the Earth a market-place,
    “Where the anxious traders know
    “Each is surety for his foe,
“And none may thrive without his fellows’ grace.

“Now this is all my subtlety and this is all my wit,
“God give thee good enlightenment, My Master in the Pit.
    “But behold all Earth is laid
    “In the Peace which I have made,
“And behold I wait on thee to trouble it!”

Kipling hoped he foresaw a world where the nations, bound by trade, would study war no more. He dreamed that self-interest would keep nations at peace. Note the date: 1903. Kipling lost his son in World War I.

I hear the same sort of refrain, based on as as much hope and as little history as Kipling's. No democratic nations have ever gone to war against each other.

Aside from the fact that you can't demonstrate this without shading the meanings of "democratic" and "nations," it is wishful thinking to project this very far. Anatole France was similarly skeptical in Penguin Island: he feared that economic interests would be freer to start wars in a democracy! What in the nature of a democracy (I assume that it values freedom--this excludes most alleged democracies in the world) intrinsically forbids aggressive war?

I said you have to fudge the meaning of democratic and nation to make the slogan work. Think of the American Civil war: a democracy fighting itself! And democracy is not an eternal possession: think of Hitler's rise to power; a popular rise that lost the Germans their democracy in only a few years. Or think of Algeria and the threatened Islamist "One man, one vote, one time." And, if it isn't too extreme to consider a ship as a microcosm of a state, recall that historians now say that many of the Caribbean pirate ships were run on democratic lines.

I don't see any magic potion to solve all the world's problems. Some things help: systems in which people participate in their own government I judge will almost always work better than those that don't. But I think it requires a certain blindness to imagine that democracy is a cure-all to eliminate wars, or that free trade will make men act like saints.

This isn't Kipling's best work by a long shot. But I thought the bitter irony of it made it memorable.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Bumper Sticker

"Spiritual People Inspire Me, Religious People Scare Me"

The difference between "spiritual" and "religious" is who is in charge. The spiritual person wants to enjoy, the religious person to obey the spiritual power.

Recall Ezekiel 33:30-32

"As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other 'Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.' My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice."

His listeners were spiritual. They enjoyed the call of God, but never let it bother them.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


Some pieces of musics touch springs in us that no words reach.

One passage of Tchaikovsky sends a shiver up my spine--it connects me to myself at 5, listening to the radio with my father in California, when the world was younger and less full.

And as long as I can remember, Serenata by Leroy Anderson has been a sad piece. It is a merry work--a gallop and a sparkling dance--so why should I find it sad?

It sings of a path irrevocably passed by; a part of life many share, but not I. I took the Apollonian road rather than the Dionysian, and things like dance are utterly opaque to me. Pep rallies leave me cold. (And how can one socialize in a crowd with the band so loud you can't converse? Some can, and love it. Not I. Something's missing.)

I've always felt this way about Serenata, so this isn't the nostalgic regret of a midlife crisis. Unless, of course, my sister is right. She says I was born old and have been growing younger.

We Auto Know About Heaps

The hood of our big white dinosaur Aerostar has a few duct tape flaps hanging off it. #1 Daughter wrinkled the hood and radiator a month ago. The hood latches work, but I don't want to push my luck.

We've had an assortment of heaps, fossils, and one pretty new car that lasted long beyond its expected lifetime.

Somebody honored our wedding day by writing our initials in shaving cream on the hood of our little blue Comet. Our initials stood bleached into the hood for the rest of the car's life. We were still picking rice out of it the day we traded it in 7 years later.

We bought an extended warranty on the only new car we ever had, a dainty light blue hatchback. #1 Son, age 5 at the time, heard the name "Plymouth Reliant" and called the car "Timothy Lion." Four years into the car's life, a fifty cent part broke deep in the engine. The dealer needed two days to take the engine apart, replace the fifty cent part, and reassemble the engine. We suspect that the reboring the dealer had to give the engine while making the repair extended the life of "Timothy Lion" by forty thousand miles.

My mother had a big, heavy,1976 Chevy Nova that needed repairs. The mechanic in Chicago said $600 for the repairs and another $300 if she wanted the air conditioning to work again. So she sold it to James for $1 and he took it to Randy, the grumpy Madison Mechanic, who couldn't say three words without cussing. I dropped the car off at Randy's shop and told him what the Chicago mechanic had said. When I came back, the air was blue with Randy's opinions about Chicago mechanics. Randy had fixed the Nova for $104, air conditioning included.

The Nova had a sound engine and ran well. The bottom of the cab had rusted out, however, so the only thing between our feet and the roadway was the carpet. Without the carpet, it would have been a Flintstone Mobile. Actually, I painted some slabs of plywood and laid them under the carpet so our feet wouldn't go through the holes in the floor. Most of the time you wouldn't notice a thing, but if you drove through a deep puddle you got quite a surprise!

The Nova saved our lives and our friend's lives. One morning in 1986, when US 51 just south of 12-18 was still 2 lanes, some southbound bonehead tried to pass 10 cars in a line, at 100 mph and counting. As I came northbound over a bridge he was at 100 yards and closing rapidly. I steered for the shoulder. The Nova fishtailed for about 400 feet and came to rest in the only place where the ditch was shallow. Because I was wearing my seatbelt, I was able to keep my hands on the wheel. Because our kids were in tubular steel reinforced seats, the only thing thrown around the car was the diaper bag. Because I was driving the Nova, I didn't flip.

A few years later, when we lived on a bus line, we didn't need the second car. We sold it to our neighbor Joe, an excellent backyard mechanic. Joe and his family had to take evasive action on Christmas Eve, and the car veered into the brush. The sticks tore the bottom out of the car, but the car stayed upright. Joe's brother took the engine out of the Nova and put it into another car. For all I know, that sturdy V8 is still running.

We had just finished paying off "Timothy Lion" when we learned we were expecting one more kid than the car had seats for. James found a massive 1986 Olds, originally owned by a carpet installer who had Arrived in this world, and wanted something big enough to carry his tools and carpet rolls, but with Class. We had it from 87,000 miles until Reverse quit on it, many miles later. It rode like an ocean liner; smooth and unhurried. I once drove it in a 60 mph crosswind and it didn't so much as twitch. We made the mistake of trading it instead of fixing the transmission. Whoever said, "Never put $1000 into a $300 car" probably owned stock in an auto loan concern. I'm sure I saw the Olds cruising majestically down East Wash last summer.

Mrs James (and Mr)

Monday, December 06, 2004

Christmas Spectacular

My youngest son and I went to the Madison Symphony's Christmas Spectacular, with the Madison Youth Choir, Symphony Choir, and the Handbell Choir as well. Overture Hall is very pretty, and the concert was great.

We were in the nosebleed seats (row M, third from the top), and it was rather curious to watch the tympanist hit his drum and hear the boom half a beat later (and hear it coming from center stage!). I could hear everything quite clearly, though.

They bathed the orchestra with blue light. The effect reminded me a bit of the ghosts in Lord of the Rings: probably not quite the associations they had in mind. My youngest likes organs, and loved the organ and handbell version of "Oh Tanenbaum." The tenor did a great job with "Oh Holy Night," one of my favorites. I wish I had the range to sing it myself.

A wonderful feature of the hall: there is a separate exit for the high altitude seats! Down 7 stories into the basement and out the back, without standing in line forever as the hundred rows in front of you slowly drain out.

Movie Theaters in Monrovia

I've forgotten much of Monrovia. I remember bits and peices--the beggars in front of the old post office, for instance.

The Rivoli had street parking, boys with candy and cigarettes for sale in trays outside, a concession stand inside (I never bought there), dark seats, the President's box, and movies we'd heard about six months before.

There were sometimes older boys outside who would offer to watch your car for a fee. . .

The President's box was supposed to be reserved for President Tubman and his guests, though of course we never saw him here. The seats were bigger and better cushioned in that central box, walled in with a front ledge.. I went in several times, but didn't stick around--I saw few enough movies to risk getting thrown out. Some bolder souls did try to watch from the sacred premises, without ill effect. Apparently nobody was deeply offended . . . I didn't learn until later that a lot of the "We love President Tubman" chorus was insincere. (I didn't talk politics with people.)

Sometimes someone would buy a tube of M&M's from the concession stand, or (ever so rarely) a Toblerone bar. I coveted those (still do), but not enough to borrow money to buy one. One night I sweltered while waiting for a friend hesitating in front of a persistent candy boy. I kept saying "They're cheaper inside," goading the candy boy into shouting "They are not!" But perhaps I wasn't quite unjustified in my estimate: unaffordable inside equals unaffordable outside. 75 cents was a big deal for me then.

I don't recall ever going to the Roxy--perhaps once. I'm not sure why--perhaps my parents saw things there that a child might not notice. Maybe they didn't like the selection (though I didn't see any difference in kind from the Rivoli). In later years I hear it deteriorated badly, both in the physical plant and in the selection offered. The Relda drew the better customers away.

When the Relda was built it actually had a parking lot, and a mottled green statue of a naked woman outside. The selection was like the Rivoli's: popular US movies about 6 months after their US release. For some reason we didn't go to the movies with the most interesting previews, but I can't complain that the ones we saw were dull.

One such was a biopic of some old English king who apparently wanted to be a saint, but wound up in a lot of battles anyway. I remember talking with missionary who drove us, wondering why on earth the king didn't want to have sex with his wife (or anybody else--he seemed to want to be a married monk). It didn't reassure me of the basic sanity of the world to be told that the king's attitude wasn't all that uncommon.

I still remember those interminable Benson and Hedges commercials. They seemed to be 10 minutes long, but were probably only 2. I remember looking around the theater, and seeing almost all black faces; and looking back at the ads with all rich white faces and wondering "Why?" (The ads had no effect--I don't smoke.)

I'm told that these days one-room "movie theaters" are popular, with a TV and VCR or DVD player as the centerpeice; playing martial arts movies or less noble fare.

Correction: "The Roxy . . . specialized in karate and Indian movies."

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Green slogans

In Madison the Republicans didn't even bother to field candidates for many offices, so the contest was between Democrats and Greens.

On two triangular pillars of the Humanities Building, shielded from the rain, you may see chalked


Both messages are in the same handwriting, and both show the craftsmanship, attention to detail, and ability to learn from experience that we have come to expect from the Green Party.