Tagged: literature

Because of Fairies

Recently, I spent twelve hours discussing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with sophomores in the Torrey Honors Institute. (What a job!) I love this play more and more. It’s easy to miss its richness–it’s such a romp!

Here’s the thing that struck me in reading the play this time, and it’s a line that I began each class with: Sometimes thing just work out.

Somehow, and Lord knows how, we inhabit a cultural moment in which we distrust narratives of resolution and reconciliation. Our cynical eye sees goodness and knows–it just knows–that things aren’t that simple. Things don’t hold together; things fall apart. Goodness from afar looks grim up close; it is joyless austerity at best, more likely a hypocritical mask covering the grim truth of humanity. Scandal doesn’t surprise us, but confirms what we already knew–that no one is as good as they appear, that all that glitters is only ever fool’s good. (If you’re looking for a trenchant essay along these lines, check out Marilynne Robinson’s “Facing Reality” in The Death of Adam.)

Christians have good reason to follow this line of thought. We believe in original sin, that, in the words of Bing Crosby in White Christmas, “Everybody’s got a little larceny working in them.” Good luck finding an untarnished heart.

But Christians also have abundant reason to follow another line of thought. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and so we believe in more than mere suspicion. We believe, too, in unexpected resolution. Without an ounce of the saccharine, Christians believe that enemies can become friends, that the death can–and have, and will–rise to new life. And so I find Midsummer a marvelous tonic for my sub-Christian skepticism in the face of resolution and reconciliation. I find in it a gentle rebuke in its rollicking insistence that sometimes things just work out.

But wait–there’s more. How do they work out? Well, at the start of the play, there’s a Rome and Juliet scenario, with star-crossed lovers on their way out of town to get married, against her father’s wishes. In Romeo and Juliet, this scenario ends in a double suicide. In Midsummer, it ends in a triple wedding. What’s the difference? Why do the lovers in this place end up happily paired off, with the right men loving and being loved by the right women? One student scrunched her brow and offered hesitantly, “Because of…fairies?”

She was exactly right. Because of fairies. The lovers enter the forest, and the magic of mischievous fairies works to the end that, returning home, they are reconciled, rightly matched, and ready to get hitched. In a modern tale, were we to dare such reconciliation, we would at least be sensible enough to attribute this readiness for marriage to the moral progress of the lovers. Or perhaps they found the right recipe or followed the right plan, thus being rewarded with marriage. But that’s just it; they lovers don’t progress in character or knowledge. Moral progress and methodism have nothing to do with it. Marriage in Midsummer couldn’t be further from a reward; it’s a gift.

What I love about this play is that it defies explanation. No calculus can explain a gift, after all. Consider Midsummer a witness to the wide mercy of our God, who gives lavish gifts, and whose distribution of them cares little for the qualifications of its recipients. Midsummer is a witness to the deep truth that marriage–like all of God’s best gifts–is a gift, to be received with dumbfounded, gobsmacked gratitude. Perhaps that’s why St. Paul likens it to the covenant of God with the church–because it evokes the saving God by whose mercy things, at the Last Day, will just work out.

Hermeneutics with Samuel Johnson

Saml Johnson readingSamuel Johnson gives some excellent advice in his Preface to Shakespeare (1765) that applies to reading in general, and especially well to Bible reading. Johnson advises readers to plow straight through a Shakespeare play, keeping up a good pace even when passages aren’t clear. To slow down and investigate the unclear passages more carefully would be to lose the momentum and lapse out of the literary flow.

And above all, Johnson warned, don’t check the footnotes! Commentators are inevitably offering you help with details (glosses, etymologies, textual emendations, cultural context, explanations of allusions), but before you need details, you need to experience the whole. Read on, read on:

Let him read on through brightness and obscurity, through integrity and corruption; let him preserve his comprehension of the dialogue and his interest in the fable. and when the pleasures of novelty have ceased, let him attempt exactness, and read the commentators.

“Notes are necessary,” says Johnson, “but they are necessary evils.” They provide valuable clarification, but “the general effect of the work is weakened” because “the mind is refrigerated by interruption.”

I take Johnson to be making two major points. The first is about the experience of the reader, who can only grasp the book’s complete flow by committing to experiencing it in sequence, page by page, steadily. Stopping at every bit that needs to be clarified will in fact add knowledge of the bits and pieces, but inevitably robs you of the flow.  And in many forms of literature, what you get from the flowing experience is what makes the detailed knowledge worth pursuing. The plot carries you along, or the character development, or (in non-fiction) the intellectual unfolding of an idea or progress of an argument and its entailments.

The second point can be put more philosophically: meaning comes from the whole and informs each part. No individual bit, no matter how much you clarify it, can in isolation deliver the work’s meaning. Johnson is explicit about this in his Preface:

Parts are not to be examined til the whole has been surveyed. There is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the comprehension of any great work in its full design and its true proportions; a close approach shows the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the whole is discerned no longer.

The ideal way to work out this part-whole dialectic is, I suppose it’s obvious, to read and re-read the text. Once you have achieved the “intellectual remoteness” of having the entire work in your mind’s eye, you can then investigate whichever “smaller niceties” seem most important or interesting. That was Johnson’s plan with Shakespeare, and it also makes sense as a plan for Bible reading.

 

Wordsworth in the West

wordsworth in vacant or in pensive moodWilliam Wordsworth perfected a certain type of nature poetry, a particularly spiritual sort of nature lyric. He celebrated the movements of the infinite Spirit making itself known to humanity through the forms of nature as contemplated by poet-prophets who were the universe’s appointed spokesmen. Nature herself elected certain sensitive souls, forming them throughout early life to be receptive to her revelations in later life.  As he recounts in The Prelude, Nature populated his young imagination with the forms of giant cliffs and dark forebodings, of dancing daffodils and of entire hillsides humming as aeolian harps, so that in his poetic maturity he could be shown greater revelations: the vision atop Mount Snowdon, “the perfect image of a mighty Mind… that is exalted by an underpresence.” Nature was trying to tell him something, and his job as a poet was to relay that message to us.

In the 1920s, Aldous Huxley wrote a short essay attempting to deflate Wordsworth’s poetry by identifying it as not universal, but narrowly local:

In the neighborhood of latitude fifty north, and for the last hundred years or thereabouts, it has been an axiom that Nature is divine and morally uplifting. For good Wordsworthians — and most serious-minded people are now Wordsworthians, either by direct inspiration or at second hand — a walk in the country is the equivalent of going to church, a tour through Westmorland is as good as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. To commune with the fields and waters, the woodlands and the hills, is to commune, according to our modern and northern ideas, with the visible manifestations of the “Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe.”

Wordsworth, says Huxley, misunderstood himself. He was not telling us what universal nature says about itself; he was telling us what the Lake District says. At best he was speaking for a territorial spirit, a particularly nice one; but certainly not for universal spirit. Not God but a British sprite or nymph.

In Huxley’s view, if you hand the microphone to nature at another latitude, you’d hear a different testimony:

The Wordsworthian who exports this pantheistic worship of Nature to the tropics is liable to have his religious convictions somewhat rudely disturbed. Nature, under a vertical sun, and nourished by the equatorial rains, is not at all like that chaste, mild deity who presides over the Gemüthlichkeit, the prettiness, the cozy sublimities of the Lake District.

For Wordsworth, Nature had her terrors, but in global context the terrors of the English countryside are merely cute. “The worst that Wordsworth’s goddess ever did to him was to make him hear ‘Low breathings’ … and ‘sounds Of undistinguishable motion.'” And scary as that might be to a kid in the country, the mature Wordsworth still “seems to have imagined that this was the worst Nature could do.”

But “a few weeks in Malaya or Borneo would have undeceived him,” says Huxley.

The sparse inhabitants of the equatorial forest are all believers in devils. When one has visited, in even the most superficial manner, the places where they live, it is difficult not to share their faith. The jungle is marvelous, fantastic, beautiful; but it is also terrifying, it is also profoundly sinister. There is something in … the character of great forests … which is foreign, appalling, fundamentally and utterly inimical to intruding man. The life of those vast masses of swarming vegetation is alien to the human spirit and hostile to it.

Huxley’s essay is stimulating to read, and even though it soon becomes evident that his arch dismissiveness is part of a strategy to to conceal the fact that he is out of his depth in criticizing Wordsworth, he does score some points. For one thing, Huxley is able to critique the Lake Poet from a New World perspective:

It is a pity that he never traveled beyond the boundaries of Europe. A voyage through the tropics would have cured him of his too easy and comfortable pantheism. A few months in the jungle would have convinced him that the diversity and utter strangeness of Nature are at least as real and significant as its intellectually discovered unity. Nor would he have felt so certain, in the damp and stifling darkness, among the leeches and the malevolently tangled rattans, of the divinely anglican character of that fundamental unity.

There are many things happening in Wordsworth’s poetry, but one of them, as Huxley rightly notes,  is a kind of natural theology. He believes nature is showing him something about what is beyond nature, and on that basis he makes certain statements about God –though it took Wordsworth decades to learn distinctions between the mandatory pantheistic mood of his poetic idiom and the trinitarian commitments that worked as a corrrective against it.

In light of Huxley’s “you’ve never even seen a rainforest” criticism, I have two questions about Wordsworth’s natural theology. The first is regional, the second is doctrinal.

The regional question is this: If we grant that Wordsworth is (receptively) sensitive to and (productively) articulate about his natural environment, then it may well be that the poet is prophet of the spirit of nature. But perhaps he is only prophet of the spirit of nature as it is available in one region. If all this is true (a chain of ifs, admittedly), then perhaps other poets in other regions can also speak the truth of their microclimates and localities. Instead of just saying “I’ve seen the tropics, and the people there believe in devils,” Huxley could seek out nature poetry from tropical regions, and see if in fact they are constructing a rougher, less humane natural theology.

As part of an ongoing project of understanding California theologically (see the website and the recent book), I am especially interested in what has been said by nature poets of the American west. If we have had our California Wordsworth yet, it would probably be Robinson Jeffers, whose rock-and-hawk, surf-and-sky Inhumanism claimed to give voice to the opinion of the California coastline. Indeed, the natural theology of Jeffers was (as perhaps Huxley would have predicted) considerably darker than anything Wordsworth ever dreamed of. Wordsworth was haunted by cliff forms that chased him; Jeffers imagines mountains splitting humans open to see what’s inside these noisy mites. If Wordsworth in the tropics would produce a natural theology of devils, our Wordsworth of the west coast produced a natural theology whose gods are at best indifferent to human destiny and at worst are in a hurry to shrug off the parasitic vermin that is man.

The doctrinal question that occurs to me is this: Wordsworth operates poetically at enough of a distance from orthodox Christianity that while he speaks of Nature making things known about supernature, he never speaks of “general revelation” or of God revealing himself through nature. Everything depends on ambiguity on this point; the Platonizing, pantheistic mist is essential to Wordsworth’s achievement as an oracle. But what if we can turn to Wordsworth as a spokesman, not for what God says about himself but for what nature says about God? What if we can hear in a nature poet –chastened, relativized by localism, and filtered for the way his or her own personality necessarily colors the poetry– not the voice of God but the voice of non-human creation, saying something about God? If nature makes messages known through poets, those messages are not binding, canonical, or authoritative. But they do come from an older source with privileged access to things humans can’t know without help.

Recommended: Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members

As the academic year rolls back around, I usually end up reading a late-summer silly novel. Nothing eases the pain of being a grown-up with a job quite like a dose of Wodehouse –though Alexander McCall Smith and Jack Handey also work pretty well.

I need more from a late-summer silly novel than just a little amusement; I want a book that delivers an actual laugh every few pages, and this year I found one that delivered —Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher.

It’s a short novel written completely in the form of academic letters of recommendation. Epistolary novels are always a bit of a stunt, but is there a genre of epistle with less literary promise than the letter of rec? I was drawn into this book by the sheer unlikeliness of the concept, but it only took a few pages to convince me I should read the whole thing.

All the letters are by one character, professor Jason Fitger. Fitger teaches creative writing at Payne University, to which he has assigned the unofficial motto “Teach ‘Til it Hurts!” And they’re all dated, so we know they span from September 3, 2009 to August 3, 2010. Here is the first voice we hear:

Dear Committee Members,

Over the past twenty-odd years I’ve recommended god only knows how many talented candidates for the Bentham January residency … Well, you can scratch all prior nominees and pretenders from your mailing lists, because none is as provocative or as promising as Darren Browles.

Mr. Browles is my advisee; he’s taken two of my workshops, and his novel-in-progress, a retelling of Melville’s “Bartleby” (but in which the eponymous character is hired to keep the books at a brothel, circa 1960, just outside Las Vegas), is both tender satire and blistering adaptation/homage. In brief: this tour de force is witty, incisive, original, brutally sophisticated, erotic.

Here is the oversharing (why does the committee need to know how long Fitger has been writing letters?), the inappropriately chummy tone (“god only knows how many”), and the lavish praise (tour de force!) that characterize all of his letters. But here already is also the specter of the unreliable narrator, the possibility that this is not a man we should believe either in his critical judgments or in his self-knowledge. Is the committee –are we the readers– supposed to believe that Bartleby-in-a-Vegas-Brothel is anything but the worst idea in the world for a long novel? Does Fitger believe it? Is this a joke?

And so a plot emerges. I admit I mainly enjoy this book as a collection of several dozen very funny letters, many of which can be read in isolation: the one where he tries to talk a paintball range into hiring one of his students; the one where he insults the way a company has spelled its name and predicts that his student will soon be running the place; the one where he veers back and forth between praising and condemning his tech support guy (“His approach to problem solving is characterized by sullenness punctuated by occasional brief bouts of good judgment”). But Dear Committee Members also unfolds the story of a tenured professor somewhat adrift. We overhear him during an eleven-month season in which he is reconnecting with his past (establishing or maintaining contact with several members of a formative grad school seminar) and trying to secure a future for a student (the Browles of the first letter, actually). It’s a good story, and Schumacher asks the reader to do just the right amount of work to reconstruct the events that drive it.

Fitger is a not a pleasant person to spend time with; he seems to have stalked in from some lost Updike novella with all the strengths (verbal dexterity, quick wit) and weaknesses (womanizing, narcissicism, entitlement) attendant on the middle-aged white profs that have anchored enough books to constitute a sub-genre. But he’s genuinely funny when he’s trying to be, and he’s often funny when he’s not trying to be, so we laugh with and at him by turns. And it’s a short  novel, so we can bid him adieu before he cloys.

The book also develops a meditation on the character and meaning of recommendation letters. Fitger, it turns out, is in the act of failing to write his  next novel, and instead is producing a voluminous amount of these letters. At one point in a letter of rec,  he inappropriately overshares his statistics: “By recent estimate I have penned more than 1,300 letters of recommendation, many of them enthusiastic, some a cry of despair.” In fact, we meet Fitger near the end of a a 3-year relationship that started via letters of recommendation: his girlfriend works in the Student Services office, and wanted to meet him in person after reading hundreds of his letters of recommendation (“an odd sort of wooing, consisting as it had to of my praise for others”). This reminds me of the undertaker in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One who flirts with a make-up artist further down the “assembly line” by fixing large, pleasant smiles on the faces of the corpses. Fitger turns out to be the king of the recommendation letter. After one particularly warm commendation, he muses, “writing letters of reference such as this one allows me to reinhabit, if only fleetingly, the pensive, knock-kneed person I once was and to advocate for that former version of myself.”

Along the way we get several touches of academic life that are well observed. For example, Fitger tries to get something done without having to go through proper channels, in order to avoid “loathsome hours battling the kingdom of No.” He chronicles the slow death of his humanities department as resources are channeled to economics and the sciences, and he tries to launch his students out of that doom zone, usually by asking potential employers to recognize their skills:

Be assured: the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express. His intellect can be put to broad use. The computer major, by contrasts, is a technician –a plumber clutching a single, albeit shining, box of tools.

Being Fitger, though, he can no more avoid insulting his addressee than he can avoid describing the glories of the English major in a self-congratulatory and self-serving way. But let’s admit that this, too, has the ring of truth. Many a doughty warrior for the humanities is primarily a guardian of self-interest. His observations about his place in the pecking order are accurate. But so are Schumacher’s oblique revelations of the professional self-pity that underwrites laments over the fate of the humanities.

Asked to recommend a department member to serve on a committee, Fitger warns that there simply isn’t anybody available, because of the rigors of academic life:

more than a third of our faculty now consists of temporary (adjunct) instructors who creep into the building under cover of darkness to teach their graveyard shifts of freshman comp…. the remaining two-thirds of the faculty, bearing the scars of disenfranchisement and long-term abuse, are busy tending to personal grudges like scraps of carrion on which they gnaw in the gloom of their offices.

Hey, cheery stuff! And it gets cheerier:

I fear we are the last remaining members of a dying profession. We who are senior and tenured are seated in the first car of a roller coaster with a broken track, and we’re scribbling and grading our way to the death fall at the top.

But Fitger’s very unreliability saves the day, or whatever can be saved of it. By the books’ end, he is ushered into something like clarity about himself, his situation at Payne, and the meaning of the events he is living through. There’s an important insight just under the surface of the deftly-crafted conclusion.

But read this book for the laughs. If you’ve lived the life of the academic recommender, you’ll experience recognition time after time in Dear Committee Members. I hope you don’t experience too much recognition of the world of Payne; just enough to get the jokes.

 

Erasmus Milks Ephesians

ErasmusErasmus of Rotterdam taught the Renaissance world how to take a thought and expand it, expound it, extrapolate it into a fountain of new expressions and novel turns of phrase. His “abundant style” bore much fruit for the students who learned it from him. But the most fruitful use to which Erasmus himself put his powers of expression was probably his series of paraphrases of the New Testament, which were enormously popular in the sixteenth century. Written in Latin, they were early translated into English and became required reading especially in the reforming churches of England.

Just a taste here: the first two verses of Ephesians, elaborately developed into a page or two of theology and morals, by Erasmus:

I, Paul, the ambassador not of Moses nor of any man but of Jesus Christ in whose interest I act, an ambassador, moreover, not as a result of usurping the office myself, nor by human appointment, but by the authority and bidding of God the Father who, through his Son, bade me be the herald of the gospel teaching among the gentiles.

As such, I am writing this Epistle to all who live at Ephesus, and who live in such a way that they are zealous to keep themselves clear of this world’s foul vices, and that with a sincere heart they believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, while they hope for the reward of innocence and holiness from no source other than from the model they have chosen, and await the culmination of their happiness from none other than the source from which it began.

Meanwhile I desire for you not what is generally desired by the people who measure their happiness by the security this world provides, but I desire that God may daily increase in you the kindness by which he has gratuitously freed you from the offences of your former life and changed wicked people into cultivators of innocence and justice, for he is the author of all good things, whom now we too are able to call ‘our Father,’ not only for the reason that we were created by him, but much more because, grafted onto the body of Christ, we have been co-opted into the rights and privileges of sons. May he guard the harmony of your relationship so that you may be of one mind with each other.

Once and for all you have been reconciled to God; may you be on your guard, lest by sinning again you shatter the covenant entered with him, entered indeed through Jesus Christ his Son, through whom and with whom he bestows all things on us.

Deservedly shall we henceforth call him our Lord after he has rescued us from the tyranny of the devil at the price of his most sacred blood, has claimed us for himself, and has received us, emancipated from servitude to the devil, into his own jurisdiction.

Happy servitude by which we are firmly bonded to Christ!

 

 

Intimations of Eternity: George MacDonald, Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers on the Medieval Imagination

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?—T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

In T.S. Eliot’s landmark poem, The Love Letters of J. Alfred Prufrock, there is a haunting quality to the way he concludes it: in a disenchanted world of tea cups, marmalade and toast, with the occasional interruption of women “talking of Michaelangelo,” the image of a bygone age of enchantment-the mermaids-makes her appearance. These mythical sea creatures sing to each other, and yet “I do not think they will sing to me.” This dreamlike world, in the end, is just that-a dream, where mermaids sing, and where “sea girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown” interrupt our prosaic existence. But in the end, “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

This, I think, captures a very key idea and intuition in modernism, one which Eliot certainly draws upon-the near-total alienation of modern man who, unable to be fulfilled by the promises of “science,” is left alienated, no longer able to draw on a world of enchantment. The Nietzcshean search for autonomy has ended in alienation, and no longer do the mermaids sing to us.

But into this lonely world step three individuals who saw things quite differently, for whom the medieval cosmos still held sway: George MacDonald, Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers. The first two wrote about other worlds that erupted and entered into our own, and Dame Dorothy Sayers, famous especially for her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels, ended her life, inspired by Charles Williams, to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy, that poetic bard of medieval cosmology.

George MacDonald perhaps captured a fundamental impulse latent in the Romantic movement: the Faustian strife and struggle, the importance of feeling and emotion as at least a balance against rationalism. In Lilith, perhaps one of his most famous works, (along with Phantastes) Mr. Vane, the main character, is a very unlikely hero. He, like Wagner, Faust’s assistant, is primarily a reader, and he does not venture much outside the library he has inherited. His sense of reality is shaken by a book he finds in his library that he cannot read, and, guided by a raven/librarian, he enters into a world quite outside of his ordinary experiences, where he will be challenged to rethink who he is and what his place is in the world. It is a fantasy encompassing a wide range of adventures where, like a knight-errant, he experiences triumphs and tragedies that bring him closer to his true self. His attempts to save Lilith, Adam’s mythical “first wife”, leads to the death of his true love, Lona. Throughout, Raven, his guide (who turns out to be redeemed Adam), gives him instructions, which Mr. Vane follows, but not completely, thus bringing a number of disasters upon himself. In the end though devastated by the loss of Lona, he learns a fundamental truth, both about himself, and about the world: “Now I knew that life and truth were one, that life mere and pure is in itself bliss”. He comes to “know himself”, but this self-knowledge comes in light of another world, perhaps even more real than himself, where his beloved lives. That world reveals itself more and more to Vane, until he erupts in praise: “See every little flower straighten its stalk, lift up its neck, and with outstretched hand stand expectant: something more than the sun, greater than the light, is coming-none the less surely coming that it is long upon the road! What matters to-day, or to-morrow, or ten thousand years to Life himself, to Love himself! He is coming, is coming, and the necks of all humanity are stretched out to see him come!… It was a glorious resurrection-morning. The night had been spent in preparing it!” (Phantastes and Lilith. Eerdman’s, 1964 p. 420) Here MacDonald turns, like many other Romantic poets and novelists, to the medieval world, drawing on the knightly tradition. But for MacDonald’s character Vane, these adventures lead to defeat, but only in defeat can he be raised to victory, much like the Spencer’s Redcrosse Knight. He rises again, not for the purpose of continual strife, like Faust, but for submission to a higher truth, where he finds his rest.

This same sense of the numinous characterizes the novels of Charles Williams, who, in answer to the modernist crisis, creates stories where, rather than the hero coming into a world of enchantment, like Lewis, that world increasingly intrudes into his world. This comes across most strongly in War in Heaven (1930), which begins as a regular detective story, but then ends up as a fantastic tale where the clue to the murder ends up being the discovery of the Holy Grail. Both the heavenly and the demonic continually enter into this world, the Arch-Bishop calling upon God through prayer, and the antagonist, Gregory Persimmons, calling upon the powers of hell. Williams begins in an almost prosaic way, calling to mind images of contemporary England (at least contemporary to the time he is writing), and then brings the reader into an eternal reality that manifests itself incessantly to the point that it cannot be ignored, like the mermaids in T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock. Even Prester John, that legendary bishop-king in the east who provided the medieval mind with a great amount of fodder for tales of exploits to find him and enlist his help against the Saracens, makes his appearance, providing valuable help in solving the murder. But one book in particular, his work of literary criticism titled The Image of Beatrice: A study in Dante, reveals his indebtedness to the medieval world view, one that sees the unseen world as a reality, and one that can be known through the only faculty that will give us access to it-faith. After Virgil comes Beatrice as a guide, and this, for Williams, is fundamental to Dante’s growth in knowledge and wisdom: the transition from rational knowledge to a knowledge that can only be attained through union with the beloved. Beatrice, then, represents a higher, mystical way of knowing.

The influence The Figure of Beatrice had on Dorothy Sayers was significant enough to encourage her to undertake perhaps the greatest crowning achievement of her literary career: the translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with her own commentary and explanation of the images. She herself had studied Medieval Literature at Oxford, but wrote detective novels to keep body and soul together, centered around the hero Lord Peter Wimsey, that aristocrat/detective with an air of foppishness about him. These novels established her as a novelist, but it was in her translation of the Divine Comedy that her literary powers shine forth most brilliantly, in that she will use the full powers of the literary possibilities of the English language to match the Italian text. This project drew upon her three strengths-her knowledge of medieval literature, her interest in theology, and her literary powers. Most importantly, this project captured her attention precisely because underneath the these shocking and at times unnerving images that Dante employs is the most fundamental truth of the epic poem: the soul’s search for God. (See Introduction, Inferno, p. 49) This is a reality that the modernist 20th century had forgotten, and was in desperate need to see again.

What binds these authors together, then, is their keen sense of the eternal, and how the soul, in its sojourn on earth, really yearns for Paradise, and will not be satisfied with anything less. The images they employed to capture this need were ancient and medieval images, making them interact with their contemporary world. Macdonald, writing for the Romantics, and Williams, writing in a Modernist age, nonetheless had their characters interact with a world outside themselves. Sayers translates a medieval classic in such a way as to bring us face-to-face with that eternal quest we are all set upon. With these three authors, Prufrock finally has what he had been eluding him—the song of the mermaids.

Tirso de Molina's Tragic Rake

Everyone has his or her notion of what constitutes a relaxing evening. For me, among other things, it is an occasional trip to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to watch and experience an operatic performance. This weekend, neither time nor finances permitted such a venture, so I got a DVD version of Mozart’s masterful opera, Don Giovanni, skillfully performed by Ruggero Raimondi and Kiri Te Kanawa. This made me think of the play on which this opera was based: Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla (The Rake of Seville), written in 1630.

Molina, a Mercedarian friar and playwright, has created this beguiling figure that has inspired a play by Moliere, Mozart’s famous opera, Don Giovanni, the famous poem by Shelley, Don Juan, several symphonic pieces, and philosophic reflection. The character of Don Juan takes his place with Hamlet, Don Quixote, Macbeth and Faust in the western imagination. “Don Juan” has become a by-word for the quintessential rake, the man “without law” who seduces unsuspecting women, deflowering their honor, while beguiling them with false promises of eternal devotion. Such individuals go about their lives living on their charms, with mere lip-service to honor and piety, until the world crashes in on them.

What were the sources Molina drew upon to create this masterful work of moral and theological reflection? Several possibilities present themselves before us.

Some sources place him within the reign of King Pedro of Castile, which is quite interesting, for the Castilian king himself provides a lot of food for moral reflection. The rule of King Pedro of Castile (1350-1369, known as “the Cruel”) was characterized by civil war and unrest, and the king himself was killed by his own brother, Enrique of Trastamara. His reign began as his mother, Maria of Portugal, had her rival, Leonor of Castile (by whom Pedro’s father, Alfonso XI, fathered 11 illegitimate children) imprisoned and executed. Leonor’s sons (and Alfonso XI’s illegitimate sons) Enrique, the Count of Trastamara, and Fadrique, master of the military order of the Knights of Santiago, were angered by this act, but were unable to do anything about it (O’Callaghan, History of Medieval Spain, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 419). Of course, Pedro would soon be emulating his father Alfonso, because shortly after his marriage to Blanche of Bourbon, he would run to the arms of his mistress, Maria de Padilla. The king never again saw his queen, Blanche, and in fact had her imprisoned in Toledo. This would anger both Blanche’s father, the Duke of Bourbon, and the Papacy. It would also have severe consequences for the internal politics of the kingdom of Castile (Ibid.). His former tutor and chancellor, Juan Alfonso of Portugal, Duke of Albuquerque, returned to Portugal, seeing that Castilian politics were going to get a bit heated, and not to his favor. Leonor’s sons, Enrique and Fadrique, championed the cause of Blanche of Bourbon, and soon quite a number of towns would defend her rights as wife and queen. At the Battle of Toro in 1356, Pedro crushed the opposing forces, forcing surrender, with the result that Enrique of Trastamara went into exile to Aragon (seeking refuge with Pedro of Aragon, Pedro the Cruel’s chief rival), and Fadrique submitting to Pedro of Castile. Blanche also remained imprisoned, and Maria de Padilla continued to “enjoy the king’s favors” (Ibid). Enrique’s having found refuge in the Aragonese court moved Pedro of Castile to declare war on Pedro of Aragon (“the battle of the two Pedros”). O’Callaghan describes Pedro of Castile’s martial temperament: “There was an aggressive streak in Pedro of Castile, a determination to establish his predominance in the [Iberian] peninsula and to defend his sovereignty against real or fancied challenges to it” (Ibid., 421). This was not only true of his relations with the Aragonese crown and the Muslim Caliphate of Granada, but also with his own nobles, especially within his own family.

Pedro’s wrath fell upon his half-brother, Fadrique (Master of the Knights of Santiago), when he suspected him of treason. His other half-brother Juan was also done away with, and in an especially cruel way: believing himself to be honored with a lordship of Vizcaya, Juan walked into the king’s court unarmed, only to be bludgeoned to death with Pedro’s mace-wielding knights. Pedro threw his bloody corpse into an assembly of Vizcayans in the main courtyard, and he shouted “Here is the lord of Vizcaya you asked for” (Ibid., 423).

For all his cruelty, however, King Pedro of Castile also had a reputation for throwing great pageants on major feast days, and would be seen often in the streets dancing with the locals. He also had a reputation for fairness in adjudicating laws for mercantile activity. This made him popular with merchants and traders, and even his public liaisons with Maria de Padilla did not lessen his subjects’ love for him.

Nonetheless, his dealings with nobles who did not submit to him revealed a cruel streak in him, one that was less than chivalrous. His alliance with the Edward the Black Prince of Wales could not ultimately hold back Enrique of Trastamara and his Aragonese ally. Pedro eventually succumbed to the same fate he had inflicted on others when on March 23, 1369, his brother Enrique stabbed him repeatedly (read Lopez de Ayala’s account, p. 427, as well as Chaucer’s reflection on Pedro’s death on same page).

Against this backdrop we first hear in later ballads of a certain unnamed knight in the service of Pedro the Cruel who carried off the daughter of the powerful Commander of the Knights of Calatrava. The Knight Commander, barring his way, was killed. For this crime and for many other acts of seduction, the monks of the of the powerful convent of San Francisco in Seville had him trapped in the monastery church, arrested, tried and executed. They let flow a rumor that demons had emerged and taken him into the nether regions for his sins. Another ballad, titled El Convidado de Piedra (The Stone Guest), an unnamed knight with a bit of a reputation as a rake insults a statue of a dead man by tweaking its beard and mockingly inviting it to dinner. The statue appears, giving the young rake a bit of a fright, but rather than dragging him to hell, in keeping with Molina’s moral reflections, the knight is reformed, never to disrespect the dead again. In the hands of Tirso de Molina, these accounts would combine to contribute to a large morality play about the wages of sin, and the mystery of grace, predestination and the final judgement.

The play is historically set in the 14th century, under the reign of King Alfonso XI (Pedro the Cruel’s father) when Seville was the capital of the kingdom. Naples, then Seville and the neighboring countryside are the central locations where the adventures of Don Juan Tenorio, a gallant young knight, take place.

The first scene is set in the evening, in a palace in Naples. The Duchess Isabella is violently seduced by a stranger pretending to be her fiance, Duke Octavio. Betrayed by his victim’s screams, Don Juan is arrested and taken before the Spanish Ambassador to the court of Naples, Don Diego, who, luckily for Don Juan, happens to be his uncle. Upbraiding the rake for his lack of honor, Don Diego’s familial affections for his roguish nephew nonetheless get the better of him, and he decides to facilitate his escape. Don Juan takes this opportunity to flee to Seville for a while until things calm down.

During his voyage, he has a close call when a violent storm hits, leaving him stranded on the Spanish coast, where a young fisherwoman by the name of Tisbea shelters him and allows herself to be seduced by his charms. Apparently, this near-brush with death at sea does not cause him to reflect upon his dissolute life, and he uses this second chance, this extension of grace, to engage in his old shenanigans. He immediately abandons her and rushes to Seville, where the news of his Neapolitan adventure has already preceded him. The King decides to correct this outrage by arranging the marriages that will save honor on all sides. Don Juan has, in effect, turned the world upside down with his acts of dishonor.

Once in Seville, Don Juan meets his up with his friend, the Marquis de la Mota. His outward show of friendship belies his scheming soul, and in spite of the oath made to his father and the warnings of his valet Catalinon, he plots another romantic intrigue, this time with Doña Ana, who has a secret love affair with the Marquis de la Mota (apparently Molina does an interesting sleight of hand, because one can’t say that the Marquis and Doña Ana are all that innocent).

The third act of the play opens as the first act does, with Don Juan using a disguise to seduce his victim, pretending to be the Marquis. The young woman discovers the ploy, but too late. Her father, Don Gonzalo d’Ulloa, the Knight Commander of the Order of Calatrava, comes to her aid and dies by the sword of Don Juan.

Things are now much too hot for Don Juan in Seville, and he retires to the country. In a village wedding he plots yet another seduction-the peasant bride Aminta. Don Juan has now used up all his “second chances,” for this act of dishonor will be his last. Signs of impending judgement are looming, as all of his victims are demanding justice. The action culminates in the chapel, where the tomb of the Commander d’Ulloa is located. Engraved on his tomb is the epitaph: “Aqui aguarda del Señor el mas leal caballero la venganza de un traidor” (Here awaits the most faithful knight for the Lord to avenge him of a traitor). Don Juan finds insult in these words, and to demonstrate his indignation he pulls the beard of the Commander’s statue and, in a scoffing and ironic tone, invites it to dinner.
During the banquet, the mood is light and cheery, and then there is an ominous knock at the door. Don
Juan’s valet Catalinon timidly answers the door, and, to his dismay and consternation, the statue appears. Don Juan keeps his calm, however, feigning levity. This time the statue invites Don Juan to dine with it at the church of San Francisco the next evening, which he willingly accepts.

What awaits Don Juan is a macabre feast of black crows, spiders and rancid oil and vinegar for wine awaits him. At this point the statue offers him its hand, and Don Juan requests a last confession. Repentance has come too late for this rake of Seville. This is his hour of reckoning, finally he is dragged to eternal torment in hell.

Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan then becomes a cautionary tale of the limits of divine mercy, and how man’s salvation is ultimately dependent on his act of repentance, which cannot be deferred indefinitely. There comes a time when that grace is withdrawn, and as Don Gonzalo’s rejection of Don Juan’s plea for a confessor shows, repentance is deemed an act that can be described as too little, too late.

But it’s not as though he is not warned of his impending death, for when Catalinon warns him that he would pay for his crimes, he brushes it off by replying that that day of reckoning is “a long way off,” which he repeats to the beguiled Tisbea when she reminds him of divine punishment if he does not keep his promises. His father Don Diego cautions him that there is a limit to God’s tolerance of his impieties, and that final reckoning must some day come, to which Don Juan replies that that too is a “long way off.” That day finally arrives, and just as Don Juan denied Don Gonzalo the last rites of the Church when he brutally murdered him, so now he denies Don Juan’s request for a good death. That day which was “a long way off” has now visited him, and now the world is set to right. His final request for confession is more of a negotiation with God than a real act of contrition. Molina’s message is clear – you cannot, in the end, negotiate deals with God.

In the end, Molina has perhaps created a rakish and evil character that simply gets away from him, like Milton’s Satan. Molina’s creation really takes off in the late 18th and 19th centuries, where Don Juan becomes the Romantic hero par excellence. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he has the same kind of makeover Blake gave to Milton’s Satan, as he becomes a Faustian character in search for autonomy. This would be news for Molina, because his purpose for the character is to tell a cautionary tale. He has two choices to convey his message: write a hell, fire and brimstone sermon, or write a play. He chooses the latter, and in the process, reaches a very wide audience by entertaining them as he delivers his warning to a culture that seems to him to be declaring its own autonomy from its Christian morrings. In his hands, Don Juan is an Alcibiades figure, a man with talent, intelligence and skill who chooses to use these gifts to hurt others, and fails horribly to combine his brilliance with the cardinal virtues of  justice, temperance, fortitude and courage, not to mention the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. It is a tragic tale of a man who had so much, but gave nothing, and finally, in his obstinacy, paved the way for his own destruction.

Don Quixote’s Last Laugh

One of the most frustrating things about being a professor in a Great Books program is that there are so many books that can, and indeed should, be in any possible curriculum, but given the constraints related to time and space that we have to deal with in the Torrey Honors Institute, some of these great classics have to be put aside in favor of other classics that do what we need them to do for any given semester. If you even whisper in faculty meetings about the possibility of adding a book, you might get a look in your colleagues’ eyes something that resembles pairs of katana swords aimed right between your eyes. So many things to consider when proposing any additions to the curriculum, like “How will it impact other readings,” or “Will it add more to our students already heavy workload of readings.” All of these are perfectly good questions that need to be addressed whenever a recommendation for an addition to the reading curriculum is made, and you know that given our human constraints, we can’t possibly cover everything, but it is still a tragedy that great classics that are worthy to be considered for the Torrey curriculum go by the way side.

Such a book is Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra’s Don Quixote. Cervantes’ “Sorrowful Knight” strikes us, at the outset, as a buffoon, a loveable fool easy to laugh at. After all, he neglects the care of his estate in order to pursue foolish fantasies, all culled from silly books on knight errantry. He is convinced that the world of knight errantry is the best way to live one’s life. After reading Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and other books of knightly adventures, he decides to do something about it. He is a hidalgo, the equivalent of what might be known in England as a country squire, which means, as the second or third son of nobility, he cannot inherit his father’s title, but he can’t engage in business either, so he runs his estate, at least what’s left of it after he sells several parcels in order to buy more books on knight errantry.

He sallies forth in search of “adventures,” seeing giants and castles which turn out to be merely windmills and taverns. As his sidekick, or shall we say, his squire, we have Sancho Panza, who believes his promises of a governorship of distant islands and castles. The facts of the matter, however, are plain to Sancho, as he constantly tries to remind Don Quixote that while he sees giants, the objects he is charging towards are actually windmills. Don Quixote, undaunted, continues in his insistence that these are indeed giants, and they must be slain. When the matter is made plain to the Sorrowful Knight after a round with the windmills which throws him down on his back, he blames his delusion on “enchantment,” and continues his noble quest for adventure.

It is easy to write off Don Quixote as a deranged nutcase, but as we read through the novel, something begins to happen to us. We laugh at him at the beginning, but then we are caught up into his world, and we begin to see it from his eyes, and we end up liking it. We grieve with Sancho for the death of Don Quixote, because the vision of a world where he is more than just a worthless nar’-do-well, but an important governor and lord, will die with him. The barmaid weeps, and we weep with her, for in Don Quixote’s eyes, she is more than a mere barmaid, but a noble lady named Dulcinea. What has happened to us? How has it happened that we laugh at this bumbling fool in the beginning, but now we are caught up in his “madness”?

But this is where Cervantes has caught us in our own folly. Is it madness? In the course of the story, we begin with a self-assured notion that the world that Don Quixote imagines makes him unable to live in this world of “reality,” and our own assumptions about the nature of that reality come under question. In Part II, we are moved by sentences like these: “All I aim at is, to convince the world of its error in not reviving those happy times (of chivalry), in which the order of the knight-errant flourished…But nowadays, sloth triumphs over diligence, idleness over labour, vice over virtue, arrogance over bravery, the theory over the practice of arms, which only lived and flourished in those golden ages, and in those knights-errant.” (Don Quixote, Oxford World’s Classics, p. 528) One can hear the quintessential Christ-like question coming through in the following passage: “In the meantime, tell me, friend Sancho, what do folks say of me about this town? What opinion has the common people of me? What think the gentlemen, and what the cavaliers? What is said of my prowess, what of my exploits, and what of my courtesy? What discourse is there of the design I have engaged in, to revive and restore to the world the long-forgotten order of chivalry?” (p. 535) The answer Sancho gives is quite expected: “the common people take your worship for a downright madman…” But what can be said of his desire to “revive and restore to the world the long-forgotten order of chivalry”?

Reality is a complex phenomenon, filled with layers, not the least of which are the two layers we as Christians understand: the physical and the spiritual. We are invited by Cervantes to enter into the imaginary world of Don Quixote and reflect on these multiple dimensions. No points of views are to be ignored: not the idealism of Don Quixote, nor the realism and literalism of Sancho Panza. The point that comes across is that we must not have a reductionist attitude towards reality. While we must not fall into the Gnosticizing trap of seeing the world as only ideal without any reference to the physical and tangible universe we live in, neither should we be committed to a crass literalism devoid of all imagination and poetry. We must have poetry in our souls, which ennobles the crass and insignificant. Something in us yearns for the ideal world that Don Quixote envisions and wants to bring to our world, and yet his failed efforts should give us pause, because however ideal and good his vision, it cannot be established in this world without any reference to the needs of the here and now.

Christians have much to learn from Cervantes’ masterpiece, especially as it challenges us to look at the multiple layers of reality, and cautions us against living in just one of them. It cautions the crass literalist and materialist against a world devoid of enchantment and the world to come, as it challenges the one who gazes towards heaven to remember that the world to come is “not yet.”

We laugh at the beginning at Don Quixote’s foibles, but in the end, the Sorrowful Knight has the last laugh.

War is Swell: Crispin’s Day

Okay, war is not really swell. But today (October 25) is the anniversary of two battles that live on in our memory because of the martial virtues conspicuously displayed in them. These battles conjured poetry from two of the greatest poets in the history of the English tongue.

First, the Battle of Agincourt, on the Feast of St. Crispin, 1415. Henry V’s outnumbered troops whooped the French with fancy footwork, English longbows, good old British pluck, and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, the greatest battlefield speech ever. Of course Shakespeare is freely inventing the words in Henry’s mouth, nearly two centuries later.

But what words! Noting how outnumbered the English army is, the king’s cousin quite sensibly remarks that he wishes some of the men at home in England were here with them now. “What!” replies King Henry. On the contrary, having more soldiers would be a major disadvantage, because then the glory of the day would have to be divided more ways.

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’ …

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Second, the Charge of the Light Brigade during the battle of Balaklava, 1854. This was not a victory for the English, but a slaughter. Based on botched military intelligence, the commander of the British cavalry sent his men straight into the path of the heavily-armed Russian army. The Russians gunned them down easily, thinking they were probably drunk or crazy to attempt such a direct assault. But above the wasted lives, what stands out with astonishing clarity is the radical obedience and courage of the soldiers. And this is what poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson captured in his contemporary poem about the charge:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

There was a third major battle on October 25, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. It is far more epic in scope than Agincourt or Balaklava: Probably the largest naval battle that has ever been fought, it shut down the Japanese Imperial Navy. But it has not been the subject of poetry, to my knowledge. Get busy, ye poets of war!