Saturday, August 18, 2012

George MacDonald, Lilith


Opening Passage:

I had just finished my studies at Oxford, and was taking a brief holiday from work before assuming definitely the management of the estate. My father died when I was yet a child, my mother followed him within a year, and I was nearly as much alone in the world as a man might find himself.

Summary: Mr. Vane is staying at his family house, which seems to be quite big, and whose first floor is almost entirely taken up by the overflowing library. This suits Mr. Vane, because he's more interested in books than people. He soon discovers that the library appears to be haunted by a librarian who had served in the family long before, a Mr. Raven. He sees him on occasion and one day, following him through a mirror, finds himself in an entirely new world.

Mr. Raven, now in the form of a raven, gives him riddling advice; he soon finds himself back in his garret. At a later time, however, he follows Mr. Raven again and goes with him to his house, which turns out to be the House of Death, where those who die eventually go to sleep until their morning comes. Mr. Raven and his wife try to convince Mr. Vane to sleep as well, but instead he flees the house in fear, and finds himself finally in his own home again. He's later ashamed of this, and, passing through the mirror again, finds Mr. Raven to tell him that he has reconsidered, but Mr. Raven says that his flight shows that he was not ready; he must find his own way home.

In his attempt to do so, he undergoes many adventures, including meeting a group of children called the Little Ones, who hide from giants called the Bags; nursing an emaciated woman back to health, who turns out to be the princess of the vain and self-important city of Bulikia, where nobody works but live instead on the savings of past generations and on precious gemstones they occasionally find in their cellars. It gets stranger from there, and by the end we have met Adam and Eve, and Lilith, the wicked angel who was Adam's first wife, and Mara the Lady of Sorrows, and, fleetingly, The Shadow, who is of all creatures the one furthest from God's light.

In a very great measure the book is about the crucial importance of sorrow; no one can come properly to the House of Death without the help of Mara, the Lady of Sorrows, and, in general, staying a bit in her house, the House of Bitterness. Sorrow is essential to repentance; repentance is necessary for true joy; so none can have true joy without first being taught by sorrow. It is through sorrow that we learn how to let go of our ideas of ourselves and to see ourselves as we truly are; it is through sorrow that we learn how to let go the things that mar us; and it is through sorrow that we learn how to face death, not with fear, but with a recognition that it is only the next step; and it is through the sorrow of repentance that we cease to be shut up inside ourselves, which is hell, and become open to the joy of heaven. The book is also about death: dying to one's self and the world, the death of the old Adam (the death of repentance), the death of the body.

This would be a very difficult book to get through if it were not for two things: (1) the surreal, fantastic setting means that much of the book is carried by symbolism and allusion, and (2) MacDonald's universalism, which does not deny the existence of hell (because hell is to shut oneself off from true love and life and light, which is a thing we must all overcome), but nonetheless allows the possibility that even Lilith, even The Shadow, can in the end repent, means that the overall thrust of the book is optimistic. Most of the book is under the shadow of the seemingly endless evening of sorrow and death; but there is still joy within it, death is not the end, and there is a morning to come.

Favorite Passage:

Then," I said, feeling naked and very worthless, "will you be so good as show me the nearest way home? There are more ways than one, I know, for I have gone by two already."

"There are indeed many ways."

"Tell me, please, how to recognise the nearest."

"I cannot," answered the raven; "you and I use the same words with different meanings. We are often unable to tell people what they NEED to know, because they WANT to know something else, and would therefore only misunderstand what we said. Home is ever so far away in the palm of your hand, and how to get there it is of no use to tell you. But you will get there; you must get there; you have to get there. Everybody who is not at home, has to go home. You thought you were at home where I found you: if that had been your home, you could not have left it. Nobody can leave home. And nobody ever was or ever will be at home without having gone there."

"Enigma treading on enigma!" I exclaimed. "I did not come here to be asked riddles."

"No; but you came, and found the riddles waiting for you! Indeed you are yourself the only riddle. What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true."

"Worse and worse!" I cried.

"And you MUST answer the riddles!" he continued. "They will go on asking themselves until you understand yourself. The universe is a riddle trying to get out, and you are holding your door hard against it."

Recommendation: Don't expect to understand most of it even after several readings and it is not light reading; but it is a haunting and beautiful book: recommended for those who like symbolism or fantasy or both.

Links and Notes

* The US drought map is starting to look a little dire (see also the current Palmer Drought Index map). This is a big issue, and not just for Americans: the United States is the world's biggest exporter of corn, wheat, and sorghum and is neck-and-neck with Brazil as the biggest exporter of soybeans. It is also a significant exporter of rice and barley, although it's a relatively minor player on both fronts in comparison with the other major exporters. Due to our very high production per acre, our relatively good distribution systems, and lots and lots of good agricultural land, the breadbasket of the United States is one of the breadbaskets of the world; severe drought in the US means harder times elsewhere. It still isn't 1930s bad, but by some measures we are currently in the worst drought since the 1950s.

* Greg Forster corrects David Barton's errors on John Locke.

* A Mosaic Depicting Envy at "Laudator Temporis Acti"

* A website on the Scotist version of the doctrine of the primacy of Christ.

* You can often find people saying that Theodosius I abolished the Olympic Games in the fourth century. As Roger Pearse notes, however, the evidence is not quite so clear.

* David Goldman on circumcision.

* Michael Habib on flying lizards and gliding snakes.

* An interview with Hadley Arkes

* Schwitzgebel on the external world. His posts on this always remind me of Lady Mary Shepherd's approach to the question -- different specific arguments, but the same general idea and inference-structure.

* "The Homeless Adjunct" gives us How the American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps. Not all the details are entirely plausible -- for instance, at several points there is an assumption of deliberateness for things that were probably not at the forefront of most people's minds and were probably mostly due instead to not thinking things through adequately -- but the basic outline seems right.

* I just recently learned that Alan Saunders died this past June. Saunders was the very excellent host of what was the best philosophy-focused radio program in the English-speaking world, The Philosopher's Zone, which was one of the gems in the crown of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

* Liam Heneghan discusses Konrad Lorenz and Nazism. I think there are actually more options on the table with regard to Heidegger, whom Heneghan uses as a comparison case, than are suggested here. It's not all-or-nothing. The position I've advocated with Heidegger has been that the best way to handle it is to read him but accept nothing from him that cannot clearly or rigorously be disconnected from anything even suggestive of Nazi political thought.

I think this is harder to do than many of Heidegger's fans think; I think most of the quick dismissals of the difficulty are due to a naivete about what Nazi political thought actually was, since it was not all of a piece and there was a lot of in-fighting over the precise direction the Nationalist Socialist party and state should go. When you look at early Nazi political philosophy I don't think there's much room to be in doubt that Heidegger's philosophy, while more sophisticated, fit right in; which explains quite easily why Heidegger also had problems with the Nazi Party, since most of the more conservative Nazi philosophers and thinkers had serious problems with the direction they thought Hitler was taking -- and Hitler and his immediate circle, of course, thought that they were refusing to follow through on the principles they claimed to uphold. It's often forgotten, for instance, that Kurt Huber, the famous hero of the White Rose who was executed for stirring up resistance against Hitler, was actually a Nazi philosopher himself, as is clear from his interrogation interviews; he claimed that he was in favor of National Socialism but that he thought that the NSDAP old guard should push for a constitutional regime and that the Hitler faction within the Party was pushing the Party in a leftist direction, of which he regarded the alliance with the Soviet Union as a symptom. (Huber thought that the most natural ally of a Nazi Germany, if the Nazism were old-school rather than Hitlerism, was Britain, and that Britain and Nazi Germany should have joined together to fight Bolshevism as soon as the Nazis took power.) There were multiple philosophical positions vying for power in the Nazi Party, all of them consistent with the general ideology but disagreeing as to details and priorities. Yet I've repeatedly seen people point to Heidegger's difficulties, and the suspicion with which he was viewed, as if it somehow were evidence of a sharp disconnect between Heidegger's philosophy and Nazism. To be sure, some of the connection may well just be general folk conservatism, which is what attracted quite a few people to the Nazi party originally; but this needs to be shown rather than airily assumed. But regardless of the difficulty, it needs to be done. I suspect that this denazification is much easier with respect to Lorenz than Heidegger, I would advocate the same thing with regard to him, as well: nothing accepted that can't be replicated in ways inconsistent with Nazi ideology. And the cautionary tale that Heneghan mentions is also quite important.

* Richard Langworth looks into the matter. Richard Langworth is pretty much the source to go to for determining whether Churchill quotes are spurious or rightly attributed. Did Churchill say:

If you make ten thou­sand reg­u­la­tions you destroy all respect for the law.

The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.

The best argu­ment against Democ­racy is a five-minute con­ver­sa­tion with the aver­age voter.
Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
A fanatic is someone who won't change his mind and won't change the subject.
There are few virtues that the Poles do not possess -- and there are few mistakes they have ever avoided.
Another tidbit: What did Churchill think of the novel, Gone with the Wind, as well as its movie version?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Facts, Hercule, Facts!

Peter Sellers having recently come up in the comments, I am reminded of this, the second best scene in the best Pink Panther movie, A Shot in the Dark.

The best scene, of course, is the confession scene, especially when Sellers looks with complete bafflement at the audience as the case solves itself. A Shot in the Dark is interesting in that it was not originally written to be a n Inspector Clouseau movie; it was supposed to be a movie adaptation of a stageplay, Harry Kurnitz's English adaptation, also called A Shot in the Dark, of Marcel Achard's adultery-themed comic mystery play, L'Idiote. It was then rewritten (massively) at the last minute to make Inspector Clouseau the detective, due to the kind of chain of events that dominates Hollywood movie-making -- they wanted Sellers for the story, who was reluctant to do it, but who had enjoyed doing The Pink Panther, which he had just finished; he asked if Blake Edwards, the director for The Pink Panther, could direct this one; Blake Edwards's condition for directing was that it be a Pink Panther sequel; the producers, who had been losing money in delays and false starts , agreed, despite the fact that The Pink Panther hadn't been released yet, and nobody could have guessed how popular it would be. I think this greatly contributes to the film's success; it is, for instance, the reason that Clouseau's obtuseness is not mere incompetence (which gets very tiring, as can be seen in some of the later Pink Panther films) but partly due to the fact that he is obviously and foolishly head over heels in love with the obvious suspect, since this is in the original, although played by a much more straightlaced character than Clouseau. A number of other things were done last minute with the film, including the introduction of the famous exaggerated French accent with the meurths in the closet, the beump on the head, and the exploding beum, and another one of the great scenes, the watch synchronization scene, which was done completely impromptu. Sellers thought the movie was a disaster and tried to convince the production company not to release it (Sellers seems to have had this kind of reaction more than once) and reviewers thought it confusing and shallow, but audiences loved it and it has become widely regarded as one of the great comic films, in part because it is the last very popular film where we see almost all the major forms of Hollywood humor -- silent-film-like sight gags and slapstick, classic comedy, situation incongruity, farce, screwball, sophomoric humor -- all holding together in a form that makes at least some kind of loose sense.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Two Poem Drafts

The Thieves of Night

The thieves of night have stolen sleep
and I abetted them;
the moon is high, my heart is hot,
the world is evendim,
I wonder if you walk somewhere
beneath a sickle slim
of moon that hunts the wayward stars.
Unslept, I wonder where you are.

With ink of night I write a verse
but understand it not;
my heart unknowing lyrics writes
with subtle pen of thought;
but at the end oblivion
will come and take the lot:
my thoughts are stolen with my sleep --
save wondering what paths you keep.

The night itself is stolen, too,
in cunning con and heist:
the bait is laid, the trap is set,
the prey thereby enticed,
the spring is sprung, the teeth close down
with ruthlessness of vise;
impressive, but my mind still strays
to wonder if you'll chance my way.

A Poet Is No Dancing Horse

A poet is no dancing horse;
I cannot prance on your command,
nor steeplechase across a course
with shouting thousands in the stands.
To bet on me is like to lose --
I keep no beaten track --
my frenzies are not mine to choose,
my reins are always slack.
And if perhaps you are confused,
I'll summarize with force:
you are not God, nor yet my Muse,
nor I your dancing horse!

But do not think I speak with gall.
Such trees are fallen where they fall.
A poem does not come at call,
but as the God has set.
An angel, by some unknown fate,
will stir the waters by the gate,
and if you will with patience wait,
you may get a poem yet.

Logic and Science

The sad thing is that you can find people who reason that way.

If you don't at least occasionally read the Girl Genius webcomic, you are missing out on some great panels. If you've never read it at all, of course, you should start at the beginning sometime when you have a few hours free.

Phoenix Requiem is another good story-arc webcomic, too; it has a sort of fantasy alternative-Victorian feel to it. (It's also a bit shorter, and its story arc is completed, and not extending apparently into infinity like Girl Genius with its ten-thousand-member ensemble cast.) Precocious is another one; it handles the long-arc problem by breaking things up into smaller stories. But all these are long-time survivors; I don't know of any good recently new ones.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

MacDonald on Philanthropy

The part of philanthropist is indeed a dangerous one; and the man who would do his neighbour good must first study how not to do him evil, and must begin by pulling the beam out of his own eye.

George MacDonald, Lilith, Chapter XIV.

Taken Up

Today is the Feast of the Assumption. Some relevant links:

(1) Gregory DiPippo notes the medieval allegorical reading of the original Gospel reading for the Feast, at "New Liturgical Movement".

(2) Mark Gordon reflects on Mary as the icon of the Church, at "Vox Nova"

(3) I was interested to discover that the Feast of the Assumption is actually a big thing in Cleveland, Ohio, of all places; it has been consistently celebrated in Cleveland's Little Italy for 114 years, and has grown to be quite the celebration, with dinners, raffles, music, and fireworks for several days. Here is the schedule of events for Feast of the Assumption 2012.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Boy Scout Civil Deism

Ilya Somin has a somewhat odd post on the Boy Scouts and atheism, in which he says:

The most likely reason for the Boy Scouts’ policy is the belief that you can’t be a moral person without believing in God. As I explain in this article, such beliefs are widespread (shared by about 50% of Americans), but false. One can be an atheist and yet still have strong ethical commitments. And there is no evidence that atheists or agnostics have higher rates of criminal or unethical behavior than religious believers do.

It’s also worth noting that the Girl Scouts have allowed open atheists and agnostics to participate since the early 1990s, allowing members to omit the word “God” from the Girl Scout oath. There is no evidence that this has caused any problems for the organization. The Boy Scouts should follow their example.

There is absolutely no evidence that this completely speculative justification is the dominant motivation behind the BSA's exclusion of atheists. The real most likely reason for the BSA's policy is that it was founded by deists and liberal Protestants as part of the already somewhat deistic Scouting movement (it was often criticized as such at the time, although obviously from the other side); and at least some of those founders (West, most notably) were quite extraordinarily specific that part of their vision of Scouting was a society under God that included the cultivation of brotherhood among different religions. And the BSA has been more reluctant than GSUSA in giving that up as a key element is almost certainly due to the well-known fact that the BSA has always been much more institutionally conservative than the GSUSA, and that this is especially true in the past few decades, during which there has been an especially firm push within the organization to retain the basic elements of its glory days in the 1950s, to the extent that it can. The Boy Scouts of America have always been an active promoter of civil deism.

The founder of the modern Scouting movement, Robert Baden-Powell, was of course the son of Baden Powell, who was a mathematician and a very famous liberal theologian who argued against miracles and was an enthusiast for Lyell and Darwin. (The family changed its name from Powell to Baden-Powell after the good reverend's death.) Baden-Powell is somewhat coy about his own religious beliefs, but he was quite clear that his vision of Scouting included religious education. The religious education was very hands-off, in the sense that Baden-Powell is quite clear in Scouting for Boys that education in general is self-education, and that scoutmasters should apply this to religious education by encouraging boys to educate themselves in the subject and provide guidance as to where they can learn more, but to do very little more. (Amusingly, he sternly warns scoutmasters that trying to do more is likely to end up either boring the boy or "making him a prig".) So how is this self-education supposed to unfold? Baden-Powell connects it directly to two of the major elements of Scouting as he saw it: Nature Study and Knight Errantry. Scouting was in part to serve as a religious supplement to church -- whatever specific church it might be -- by giving boys a way to let their religious lives expand outside the church building so that it could directly link up with appreciation of nature (Nature Study) and active moral life (Knight Errantry, i.e., doing 'good turns'). Religion, like everything else, would be taught by the Scout method. Baden-Powell saw Scouting as a way of inculcating chivalry and nobility; just as the ideal knights of old would have had love of God and nation, so the Scouts, as a knighthood devoted to peace, would cultivate the same chivalry. The Scouting movement wasn't babysitting for boys; it was a civic education movement, based on the idea of brotherhood under God, for an Empire and Commonwealth.

It was an idea with a considerable amount of appeal, and, of course, it began to be imitated throughout the Empire. However, it also caught the imaginations of people elsewhere, and several different people in the United States tried to plant the seeds of the Scouting movement in the U.S. There's dispute even today over who was the first person to attempt to transplant the Scouting movement in the United States. Not everything was carried over -- American frontier in general played a bigger role than European knighthood, for instance. Likewise, these new organizations had varying relationships with the original Boy Scouts. But several of the people involved were especially impressed by the brotherhood-under-God idea. I've already mentioned James E. West, who was the first Executive Secretary of the Boy Scouts of America, and the one who is responsible for adding 'reverent' to the Scout Law. Boyce, the actual founder of the BSA, seems to have mostly been interested in 'making men', but he wasn't hugely influential in the actual shaping of the early organization. Many of those who were did not hesitate to advocate the importance of the brotherhood-under-God idea. West, as I said, was the major force behind this, although by no means the only one. One of West's early challenges was convincing Catholics that, despite the close links between the BSA and the YMCA, the BSA was not a secretly anti-Catholic organization. (We tend not to think of the YMCA as a religious organization, but there was a time when the 'C' meant something, and that was Christianity of a very Protestant sort. West's trouble convincing Catholics that BSA wasn't crypto-Protestant is somewhat ironic given that the KKK would later oppose the BSA as crypto-Catholic.) And he did a lot of work to put forward an American version of Baden-Powell's idea of Scouting as an educational movement that would include religious education without replacing that provided by churches.

One of the things that's very important to understand is that the Girl Scouts of the United States of America and the Boy Scouts of America are radically different organizations. The only things they have in common is that they are the most successful transplantings of Baden-Powell's original ideas onto American soil. The GSUSA was not the sister organization of the BSA. Actually, the sister organization for the Boy Scouts was the Camp Fire Girls, and it's arguably due to its long association with the BSA that Camp Fire is one of the few other original Scouting movements in the U.S. to survive the Scouting wars. The reason for it was that, while some Scouting organizations petered out, the BSA effectively destroyed most of the rest. West made it his mission to guarantee that the BSA was the American Scouting organization, the official one with the official ties to Baden-Powell's original Boy Scouts. It was his idea that there should be two organizations, Boy Scouts of America for boys and Camp Fire Girls for girls, and nothing else. Camp Fire Girls, of course, eventually became co-ed, but it even survived at all because it was the one non-BSA organization that the BSA did not go after. Other Scouting organizations were absorbed, pushed out, or sued for using the name 'Scout'. The Girl Scouts were no exception; West was out to get them. They survived only because they had powerful friends -- Juliette Low, the founder of GSUSA, had clear connections with Baden-Powell himself, so West couldn't pull strings there, and it later became difficult to attack the GSUSA when Lou Hoover, the First Lady, became its president. This is all to say that they are radically different organizations, with radically different histories, and radically different cultures; they share basic principles, having inherited a common set from Baden-Powell, but that and the name 'Scout' are about it. And historically the GSUSA has always been faster than the BSA at shifting with the times. There's a reason, for instance, that the Girl Scouts were more often praised by leaders of the civil rights movement than the Boy Scouts; the BSA was liberal enough in its attitude toward race that it constantly had problems with the KKK, but in practice it was quite hands-off on matters like segregation, whereas the Girl Scouts by the 60s had already actively begun to transition to a desegregated approach. Likewise, even though the BSA and the GSUSA share many common principles, historically the BSA has generally been more conservative in its interpretation of them.

So this difference is just of a piece with what has always been the difference between the BSA and the GSUSA. I think, though, that Smolin's claim, with regard to the GSUSA's allowing of Alternative Promises that atheists could use, that "There is no evidence that this has caused any problems for the organization," shows that he doesn't quite grasp the way the GSUSA works. It is in fact not true that there has been no damage; various Girl Scout troops, and parts of Girl Scout troops, splintered off specifically in response to the GSUSA's action in doing this. It's too early to say whether some of these splinterings are serious problems, although one of the splinter groups, American Heritage Girls, has been growing quickly enough that in a decade or two it may be a serious rival to the Girl Scouts in some parts of the country. Such things can be a pretty big issue; there's a reason West went after all rivals, and that was that keeping a toehold in a region requires a critical threshold of young people and resources flowing into the organization. And the GSUSA has never really fought large-scale territory wars the way the BSA has; it's just too early to tell how well the GSUSA would handle them -- if any of the splinter groups really take off (and, again, it's too early to tell if they will). These things take time, and it can't yet be ruled out that the GSUSA will take some serious blows for this. But the GSUSA is not run by stupid people, and they take their Scouting heritage quite seriously; they knew quite well what the danger was, did not go into it lightly, and after careful study and discussion decided that doing it was in accordance with the principles of Scouting as practiced by the GSUSA. The civil deism is still a big part of the organization -- it's just that they give options for people who don't accept that part in particular. But, again, they knew it would anger people, they took this into account, and after deliberation they went ahead and did it anyway. In doing so they were fully in accord with the principles of Scouting; Scouting has always been about educating for a particular vision of civil unity, and they came to the conclusion that, important as the 'duty to God' part was, it was only the default and not a necessary condition for that particular vision of civil unity promulgated by the organization. However, asking the BSA to act like the GSUSA is asking them to do something they probably cannot do. The GSUSA has only been able to make the changes it has because of the way it has grown up; they were able to make the changes in a way consistent with their traditional interpretation of Scouting and their cultural expectations for it. But the BSA has grown up a very different way, and it has completely different traditions of interpretation and a Scouting culture that is in a number of ways very different.

Which is not to say that it might not eventually make the change, of course; but my suspicion is that Smolin's advice that there would be no harm to the organization in making it would soon be seen to be facile -- my suspicion is that the BSA, which has always had to make an active effort to prevent and deal with splinter organizations, would be much more likely to splinter and break, and to do so much more rapidly, than the GSUSA. I think the move would be more widely resented, and local troops would be more likely to resist it actively, than in the GSUSA. And since the BSA is unlikely to suffer anything from not doing it, I rather suspect that the relatively slow-moving organization would never get around to making such a change in any case. But there are reasonably clear cultural and institutional reasons for this that have very little to do with any view about the particular relationship between morality and belief in God, even if the latter does serve as a contributing factor.

Gilpin on the Picturesque IV: Austen's Engagement with Picturesque Theory (I)

Jane Austen explicitly refers to the theory of the picturesque in five of her six major novels (the odd one out is Persuasion, although the picturesque is rather more subtly alluded to in Emma than in the others). Some of these references are passing, but in some cases the picturesque plays an important role in the novel. Despite the fact that this has been recognized for some time, I find that discussions of this tend to be pretty lightweight. Obviously a blog post cannot remedy this, especially for all five novels, but I hope to say enough here to show that Austen's interaction with the picturesque is considerably more substantive than is often recognized, and that this foray into philosophical aesthetics plays a sufficiently important role in her works to merit further study.

Let us take Northanger Abbey for a moment. One of the major contrasts in the book is between John Thorpe and Henry Tilney; Thorpe and Tilney are potential rivals for Catherine Morland's affections, and Thorpe repeatedly attempts to sabotage any interaction between Catherine and Henry. Here is Thorpe trying to get Catherine to go with him and several others on a trip, when he knows full well that she is waiting to go on a walk with the Tilneys (it opens with Thorpe speaking to James Morland, Catherine's brother):

"You croaking fellow!" cried Thorpe. "We shall be able to do ten times more. Kingsweston! Aye, and Blaize Castle too, and anything else we can hear of; but here is your sister says she will not go."

"Blaize Castle!" cried Catherine. "What is that?"

"The finest place in England — worth going fifty miles at any time to see."

"What, is it really a castle, an old castle?"

"The oldest in the kingdom."

"But is it like what one reads of?"

"Exactly — the very same."

"But now really — are there towers and long galleries?"

"By dozens."

"Then I should like to see it; but I cannot — I cannot go."

"Not go! My beloved creature, what do you mean?"

Catherine's taste for the Gothic is no secret, so this is precisely the sort of thing that would tempt her. It's also a flat-out lie; Blaise Castle was only a few decades old and was not a real castle but a fake, built purely for scenery. (Ironically, Thorpe's recommendation in the novel made it a relatively popular tourist attraction.) And Thorpe indeed goes on to lie about having seen the Tilneys in town, obviously not going on any walks at all due to the weather.

A little later we have a contrast with Henry when Catherine does go on a country walk with the Tilneys. After some discussion of novels, the talk turns to the view:

The Tilneys were soon engaged in another on which she had nothing to say. They were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing — nothing of taste: and she listened to them with an attention which brought her little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day. She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance. A misplaced shame. Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well–informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance. But Catherine did not know her own advantages — did not know that a good–looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward. In the present instance, she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side–screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.

There are a great many ironies in this passage, but we have here a clear bit of contrast with Thorpe. While Thorpe tempts with sham and fakery, Tilney has a genuine and sincere interest in something other than himself, as shown by his interest in the picturesque. Both the Tilneys are clearly very familiar with the theory of picturesque, using its vocabulary extensive, and despite Catherine's excessive zeal in eliminating Bath from the picture, she learns something from the discussion. It's notable that the actual interpretation of this passage is extremely controverted, and a great deal of one's interpretation of the book will be affected by the interpretation. Just how ironic is this passage meant to be? Is Henry contributing to Catherine's miseducation, or does this passage contribute to the ongoing contrast between Thorpe's artificiality and Tilney's sincerity?

My own view is that this passage is not, as it is sometimes taken to be, a take-down of the theory of the picturesque, despite the intentional funniness of Henry's eagerness to teach it and Catherine's excessive zeal in learning it. Part of the reason for this is that if you had any doubt that Catherine and Henry are meant for each other in the novel, this passage would be perfect proof; the passage makes lucidly clear that the two are flirting without either of them quite realizing it, and all the ironic tone in the passage seems to me to be carefully crafted in order to highlight this fact and no other. The fact that Eleanor Tilney is involved in the discussion as well strongly suggests that the picturesque is not being used ironically here, but as a way to contrast the picturesque sincerity of Tilney with the sham-Gothic fakery we have already seen in Thorpe (and to which few of the characters in the book, including Tilney himself, are entirely immune). It is true that there is a sort of artificiality to Henry -- the picturesque inevitably has an artificial component, because it's about the beauty of nature insofar as it is suitable to art. But, unlike Thorpe's, it is an artificial apparatus for better appreciating what is natural and real. It is of course not true that the theory of the picturesque requires saying that good views are not found at the top of a hill or that blue skies are not proof of fine days or that the entire city of Bath is a blemish on the landscape -- and Gilpin denies that he ever intended any such thing, although the fact that he has to defend himself explicitly against such charges shows that they were made -- but the joke arises merely from Catherine's bafflement at the terminology. Rather, I think the point is that Catherine and Henry are, despite their faults, a good match. Suitability of romance is often portrayed in terms of teaching and learning in Austen; a good marriage is with someone from whom you can learn (and the teaching and learning is always, although not equally obviously, in both directions).

However, it's clear that there is a problem here. Catherine's enthusiasm for the picturesque is more about Henry than about any actual learning; one of Catherine's abiding failures through the book is a susceptibility to letting others think for her. She will later in the book comment quietly to herself that without Henry "she should not know what was picturesque when she saw it." This is, in fact, antithetical to the very notion of the picturesque, which is not primarily about using painter's terminology to talk about nature but about seeing how variation, what Gilpin calls roughness, contributes to the beauty that's there. And, in fact, Catherine appreciates precisely that in the very next paragraph, when she admires a paradigmatically picturesque scene, right down to leafless trees. The comment is actually a sign of the weakness that will almost bring everything down: she really does like the pseudo-Gothic flim-flam. Picturesque viewing has its artificialities, but they are all directed to seeing the real world, the true beauty of nature. It can't be adequate on its own; as Gilpin says, the beauty of nature is on too grand a scale to be confined to the picturesque. But it's a connection with reality, one that contrasts sharply with the mere suggestion and allusion of Gothic fakery.

In any case, how one reads the passages on the picturesque will contribute a great deal to how one reads the relationship between Catherine and Henry, as well as the characters of both.

The novel which is perhaps most obviously involved in engagement with the picturesque, however, is Sense and Sensibility, because Marianne Dashwood in the novel is an enthusiastic devotee of picturesque theory. This is actually quite important for understanding her, I think. Marianne is often treated as if she were all sensibility, some pure unrestrained emotionalism. But this is certainly not so, and her passion for the picturesque is one of the things that shows it. Marianne's approach to the world is not mere emotionalism; it is a highly cultivated, very deeply thought out view of things. When Elinor pokes fun of Marianne's first conversation with Willoughby, on literature (he has read all the right books), she jokes that they'll run out of things to talk about at this rate: all they'll need is another conversation about the picturesque and a second about marriage, and they'll have covered everything. Marianne protests that she's not that limited, but part her problem is that she is, at least in a way. Her understanding of the world is more aesthetic theory than fact or experience, and, while she's a good-hearted girl, it is very much more aesthetic than moral. And this makes sense in terms of the association of Marianne with sensibility: sensibility is primarily an aesthetic notion, about how one experiences the world, suggesting that one has cultivated sentiments capable of being affected by finer distinctions and differences.

And Marianne's sentiments are undeniably cultivated and philosophical. We are explicitly told that she has read Gilpin, and at one point laments how often he is misunderstood. She also avoids Catherine's mistake of thinking that the picturesque is primarily a matter of applying a vocabulary. The problem she has lies in another direction, and is hinted at in the key passage dealing explicitly with the picturesque:

Edward returned to them with fresh admiration of the surrounding country; in his walk to the village, he had seen many parts of the valley to advantage; and the village itself, in a much higher situation than the cottage, afforded a general view of the whole, which had exceedingly pleased him. This was a subject which ensured Marianne's attention, and she was beginning to describe her own admiration of these scenes, and to question him more minutely on the objects that had particularly struck him, when Edward interrupted her by saying, "You must not enquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country—the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug—with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility—and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque."

"I am afraid it is but too true," said Marianne; "but why should you boast of it?"

"I suspect," said Elinor, "that to avoid one kind of affectation, Edward here falls into another. Because he believes many people pretend to more admiration of the beauties of nature than they really feel, and is disgusted with such pretensions, he affects greater indifference and less discrimination in viewing them himself than he possesses. He is fastidious and will have an affectation of his own."

"It is very true," said Marianne, "that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning."

"I am convinced," said Edward, "that you really feel all the delight in a fine prospect which you profess to feel. But, in return, your sister must allow me to feel no more than I profess. I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower—and a troop of tidy, happy villages please me better than the finest banditti in the world."

Marianne looked with amazement at Edward, with compassion at her sister. Elinor only laughed.

Marianne's problem is less that she is all emotion than that she is all theory, and that she cannot see outside the bounds of that theory. She is baffled at someone who will proudly say that he can't see and think in terms of the picturesque. Catherine Morland, of course, could see natural beauty, but just had no grasp on the theory of the picturesque; but the theory of the picturesque is Marianne's only real grasp on natural beauty, as we see in the fact that she is amazed that Edward Ferrars likes parks better than wildernesses and doesn't like ruins. It would be one thing to prefer the romantically picturesque; it is another thing to experience amazement and pity on finding that someone else does not. And we see this theory-driven nature of Marianne in her falling in love with Willoughby, which is really more of a falling in love with her own ideas. We see it also on Marianne's carriage ride with Mrs. Jennings in Chapter 26, when Marianne is more interested in her own thoughts and in passing picturesque scenery than in the people who are actually in the carriage with her. Elinor puts her finger on it elsewhere:

Elinor had not needed this to be assured of the injustice to which her sister was often led in her opinion of others, by the irritable refinement of her own mind, and the too great importance placed by her on the delicacies of a strong sensibility, and the graces of a polished manner. Like half the rest of the world, if more than half there be that are clever and good, Marianne, with excellent abilities and an excellent disposition, was neither reasonable nor candid. She expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself.

Judging things by their effects on one's own feelings is precisely what sensibility is; Marianne is too inclined to think that things must fit her own ideas; and the combination of these two means she consistently misjudges people. Marianne's theory of the picturesque means that she is not stupidly sentimental or passionate -- she is very intelligently so, and I think this is some of the charm that people pick up on when reading the book -- but it's a theory that's poorly suited for large portions of life, and she is simply not prepared for dealing with many of the realities of a world full of people, and is incapable of reacting appropriately to them.

This post is getting a bit long, so I will save Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice for another post. The picturesque plays a notable role in the former and, as we shall see, an extraordinarily crucial role in the very structure of the latter.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Hours, Days, and Years Slide Soft Away

by Alexander Pope

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire;
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest, who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixt, sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Book a Week, August 12

This round I will be re-reading something I haven't read in quite some time: George MacDonald's Lilith.

George MacDonald was a Scottish Congregationalist pastor, although he was often somewhat controversial, since Congregationalists are Calvinists and MacDonald had some serious problems with a number of distinctively Calvinist doctrines. His congregation actually at one point cut his salary in half because they didn't like his universalism. He also taught for a while at the University of London. He knew most of the great writers today; it's because of MacDonald's enthusiastic recommendation of Alice in Wonderland that Lewis Carroll decided to publish it. He also knew Dickens, Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Ruskin, and Trollope; during a trip to America he made acquaintances with Longfellow, Whitman, and Mark Twain. He is famous for his fairy tales and Scottish novels, but the three works most closely associated with him are perhaps The Princess and the Goblin, Phantastes, and Lilith, all three of which would exert a profound influence on the future course of fantastic literature.

Lilith: A Romance was published in 1895. It is a very dark work, but owing to MacDonald's universalist theology, it is also optimistic in its direction. It is a 'romance', of course, in the old sense of being a novel with wild or fantastic elements. In its original form it seems to have been intended to be more fairy-tale like, but the heavily revised final form is like nothing else: to borrow a phrase from the novel itself, it consists of "enigma treading on enigma". Critics in MacDonald's day could never really figure out what to do with it, but people never really stopped reading it.