Saturday, November 16, 2013

Immortal Truths to Earth's Mortality

To a Windflower
by Madison Cawein

Teach me the secret of thy loveliness,
That, being made wise, I may aspire to be
As beautiful in thought, and so express
Immortal truths to Earth's mortality;
Though to my soul ability be less
Than 'tis to thee, O sweet anemone.


Teach me the secret of thy innocence,
That in simplicity I may grow wise;
Asking of Art no other recompense
Than the approval of her own just eyes;
So may I rise to some fair eminence,
Though less than thine, O cousin of the skies.


Teach me these things; through whose high knowledge,
I, — When Death hath poured oblivion through my veins,
And brought me home, as all are brought, to he
In that vast house, common to serfs and thanes, —
I shall not die, I shall not utterly die,
For beauty born of beauty — that remains.

Cawein is sometimes known as the 'Keats of Kentucky'. He was extraordinarily prolific, and popular enough that he did quite well in monetary terms writing poetry, although he lost the bulk of it in 1912 in a stock market crash at the very end of his life.

One of the more talked about questions to do with his work is the relation between his poem "Waste Land" and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. They are very different poems, but there are some thematic and some possible verbal echoes, and Cawein's poem was published in a magazine of which Ezra Pound was the editor, and in which Pound had contributed an article. Pound, of course, suggested a number of changes to Eliot's draft of his poem, and may have actually seen an even earlier version. Coincidence or connection?

Friday, November 15, 2013

No, No, No, No, No

Maleficent has always been Disney's best villain, in part because she was so intense. Other villains are villainous, but Maleficent claimed to be the Mistress of All Evil wielding all the powers of hell, enthusiastically aligning herself with the forces of evil, and it didn't seem to be an empty boast. So any major movie trying to depict her had better do a good job of it. It turns out that there is such a movie in the works; the trailer was just released:

That doesn't look awful, although it doesn't look particularly promising, either. However, this is the description:

From Disney comes "Maleficent"—the untold story of Disney's most iconic villain from the 1959 classic "Sleeping Beauty." A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land's fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal—an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king's successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realizes that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom—and perhaps to Maleficent's true happiness as well.

Ack, no. What is that? That verges on abomination. The whole force of Maleficent's actions was that she cursed a girl to die and doomed a kingdom to the disaster of having no succession simply because she wasn't invited to a celebration, and then vanished laughing with delight. She was a fairy, in the old-school sense, in the sense that Susanna Clarke captured in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in which the fairies have no sense of proportion and are ruthlessly logical in their massively disproportionate responses to everything (and also utterly delighted in the effects of the disproportion; it's notable that Maleficent is constantly laughing in delight at all the very bad things she is doing). Then, and this is in some ways just as evil, she locks Prince Phillip up, shows him the girl he's in love with and who loves him, and taunts him by telling him that she will keep him locked up until he is so old that he is about to die -- when he can finally go and see his true love, who will not have aged a day, and then laughs at him. (It's a remarkable scene: she shows that she knows she's in a fairy tale and she has decided to rewrite it as an anti-fairy-tale.) Then when he escapes, she raises the forest of thorns and, threatening Phillip with all the powers of hell, becomes a dragon like the devil she obviously is standing in for. And, indeed, she is so powerful that nothing can protect you from her except something called the Shield of Virtue, and she can't be killed except by something called the Sword of Truth. ("Sword of Truth, fly swift and sure, that evil die and good endure!")

Remaking that story as an attempt to get revenge as a result of a betrayal is like remaking Paradise Lost as a story about a young man who, protesting what he sees as the mismanagement of his powerful employer, leaves the company and starts his own business, getting involved in some shady dealings along the way. This might make an interesting story, but you don't try to tell it as a retelling of the Fall from Heaven.

And it's a difficult thing to do, already. Angelina Jolie apparently really likes both the original movie and the character, so she might salvage a lot, but it's difficult to see her pulling off the intelligent, gleeful, ruthless elegance with which the incomparable Eleanor Audley conveyed menace and smooth, smiling malice in almost every tone.

Lone and Frigid Tryst

Stars Wheel in Purple
by H. D.

Stars wheel in purple, yours is not so rare
as Hesperus, nor yet so great a star
as bright Aldeboran or Sirius,
nor yet the stained and brilliant one of War;

stars turn in purple, glorious to the sight;
yours is not gracious as the Pleiads are
nor as Orion's sapphires, luminous;

yet disenchanted, cold, imperious face,
when all the others blighted, reel and fall,
your star, steel-set, keeps lone and frigid tryst
to freighted ships, baffled in wind and blast.

Reason First, then Draw Conclusions

Sometimes people just start parodying themselves. Under the headline, "Liquidate the Catholic Church" an author at Gawker says:

Last year, The Economist calculated that the Catholic church in America alone had a $170 billion annual operating budget. Globally, the figure is much larger. When you add up the value of the church's worldwide holdings—land, buildings, and treasures—it's reasonable to imagine a huge, huge number.

Is the Catholic church using its wealth in the best way possible? That is, is it using its resources in the way that most effectively embodies the Christian ideals that the church purportedly stand for? Leaving aside some of the church's odious political positions, is it even spreading the good kind of Christian Love For They Neighbor as Thyself very well? The Economist's estimates found only about $5 billion in annual charity spending out of that $170 billion total— less than 3%. Even if the actual charitable spending were triple that amount, it would still mean that the American Catholic church spends less than 10% of its budget on direct good works.

Setting aside the point that was noted when the Economist article originally came out, that the Catholic Church in America doesn't have an annual operating budget but many different annual operating budgets, since it is not a single institution but literally hundreds of them, if the author had actually read the article rather than just referring to it, he would have seem immediately that nearly $150 billion of that 'operating budget' is the combined operating budgets of hospitals and schools that are officially recognized as Catholic.

So when the author absurdly goes on to say,

And if you sold off all of the Catholic church's holdings, you could do even more for the world's poorest people.

he is seriously trying to claim that if you sold off all Catholic charitable
organizations in America, and all of the American hospitals it officially recognizes as Catholic, and all of the American schools it officially recognizes as Catholic, it would somehow magically be doing more for the world's poorest people. Of course, Catholic institutions in America aren't the only Catholic institutions in the world; many of the world's poorest people are being actively helped by their own more local Catholic institutions, which not uncommonly receive extensive donations, the fund-raising for which is furthered by parishes and the like, whose operating budgets are counted by the Economist numbers but whose consciousness-raising work is not.

I also suspect that the author, drawing conclusions without actually establishing the character of his premises first, might not fully grasp the implications of eliminating twelve percent of America's hospitals (serving fifteen percent of patients); it might be a useful idea before liquidating the nation's largest non-profit hospital system in order to give the money away to determine first whether it might not be a somewhat imprudent means of raising funds, and whether it might end up being more harmful in the long run.

I don't expect Gawker to be any shining beacon of intellectual thought. But I think it exemplifies nicely a common problem. If you're in my profession, which is college teaching, you notice a curious paradox: students have vastly more research material directly available to them than their predecessors, but end up not using it, with the result that, having vastly more research opportunity, they do poorer research. The reason, of course, is that the habits of reasoning aren't there. Before you can draw conclusions, you have to know how to reason about it; and it is the reasoning, not the conclusions, that determine what information you need and what you can do with it. All the points above were practically at the author's fingertips -- the point about hospitals and schools is in the very article to which he linked, and how many of the nation's hospitals or schools are Catholic is the sort of question that would obviously occur to someone who read it -- if they reasoned about it all. Numbers like dollar figures don't equal understanding; they are things that have to be understood properly themselves before they are of any use at all.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Representation and Geography

Vikram Bath has an interesting post up in which he argues that the only reason we elect representatives based on geography is custom. He argues for the following claim:

Claim: Populations should be segmented into relatively more homogenous groups before conducting elections. Avoid segmenting them into relatively diverse groups.

The obvious problem is that gerrymandering does exactly this. But Bath argues that there is an alternative way of doing it that avoids the standard gerrymandering problems, by parties. This seems like a good way to guarantee constant party free-for-all and demagoguery, but perhaps this would be regarded as an appropriate trade.

There are, in fact, reasons why we tend to do things by geography (one of the commenters notes that even tiny Lichtenstein divides itself into two regions for these purposes), and some of them are things that Bath seems to regard as weaknesses: for instance, we make use of geography in this kind of context because it is not as ideological as a party system and thus guarantees that we aren't merely chopped up into opposing ideological blocks, and because we often do not like tying elections to mere political identity rather than a broader shared identity, and because we often want something that guarantees at least the occasional relevance of geographical concerns even when they don't make it into national policies. With none of these is it so very obvious that we're dealing with a weakness in the system rather than exactly the sort of thing a good political system will involve.

There are other issues, less obvious but also important. Bath suggests that representation based on geography is "[s]omething you never would have thought of yourself" that we do just because it's the way we've always done it. This is certainly false. The primary reason we have representation based on geography is that we are already organized by geography for lots and lots of other things; it's not that geography is important because it is used to determine representation but that it is used to determine representation because it is already important. The colonies pre-existed their own legislatures; the states pre-existed Congress; European countries pre-existed the European Union.

A second issue, sometimes closely related, is that people are culturally, morally, and sometimes religiously invested in geography far more than Bath suggests. People in Austin differ quite a bit from people in El Paso, both of whom differ quite a bit from people in Amarillo or Llano, but it's not hard to find people in all of these places who are heavily invested in the culture of Texas, which incorporates, and is not independent of, its geography. It is quite natural in such a context to elect representatives qua residents of this geographical unit called 'Texas'. (And it is worth noting that it is already as much a political and cultural unit when so identified as it is a geographical one; this is quite clear with Texas, which has a geography so diverse that it includes five different climate regions, each of which is itself sufficiently large to exhibit a significant variation in geography. And while there are geographical borders, there are also purely artificial borders arising out of a mix of culture, politics, and historical accident.) This is not a purely Texan thing, although Texans take it to the level of both an art and a national sport; this appears to be true in every U.S. state, in every Mexican state, and in every Canadian province, and is probably the norm everywhere; it has certainly been true of every place I've stayed long enough or under such circumstances as to get some sense of the culture.

It's also the case the geography is a handy political mnemonic; we tend to think in terms of geography for lots of things, anyway, even if it's just a matter of deciding where to vacation. It's second nature. One of the often overlooked advantages of the Electoral College is that it makes the Presidential election extraordinarily easy to follow. I mean, think about it -- here is an election system that requires that people engage in a lot of basic math and arbitrary numbers, and people still can usually follow it very well if you just give them a map. And what is more, people love the maps. And we see analogous things in other election systems, with parliamentary ridings and the like. (I'm actually pretty certain that one reason, also often overlooked, that people tend to hate gerrymandering so much more than many other kinds of political manipulation is that it makes the maps ugly and unstable.) When we look at smaller scale issues, the kinds of political arguments people have close to home, we find that they don't just think in ideological terms but in terms of variations across geography, partly because there are important geography-tied political issues, almost everywhere, things like water rights, but also because it helps with things like organizing campaigns, which often have to take geography into account. Thinking about politics geographically is already virtually universal; this doesn't require that we have to think of representation, particularly, in geographical terms, but it does make clear that it's a fairly natural way to think.

A Poem Draft


In Dalriada
Kenneth MacAlpin
was felled by Pictish sword;
evil the day!
He, rarest of kind,
will not be likened soon.

In Dalriada
Donald MacAlpin
four years did reign and die,
mighty soldier.
Loch Awe his cold tomb
will guard until judgment.

In Dalriada
by Viking was killed
Constantine MacKenneth,
troubled ruler;
the black cave witnessed
that most terrible defeat.

In Dalriada
Edus MacKenneth
for one year ruled the land;
Nrurim witnessed
allies betray him;
small was his legacy.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

All Growth Has Bound

by John Henry Newman

When they shall say, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them.

When mirth is full and free
Some sudden gloom shall be;
When haughty power mounts high,
The watcher's axe is nigh;
All growth has bound: when greatest found,
It hastes to die.

When the rich town, that long
Has lain its huts among,
Builds court and palace vast,
And vaunts -- it shall not last!
Bright tints that shine are but a sign
Of summer past.

And when thine eye surveys,
With fond adoring gaze,
And yearning heart, thy friend,--
Love to its grave doth tend.
All gifts below, save Truth, but grow
Towards an end.

Deriving Kant's Formulations of the Categorical Imperative

People sometimes express perplexity at Kant's claim that all three formulations of the categorical imperative say exactly the same thing. While I'm not really surprised at the perplexity, since the derivations are thoroughly crazy-making, like some weird labyrinthine hall of mirrors, the basic idea of what Kant is doing is pretty clear, and it does indeed have the result that all the formulations are formulations of one categorical imperative. Basically we recognize that the categorical imperative has to be consistent with willing the categorical imperative, and use that to reflect it on itself.

We start with the principle that the only unconditional good is good will; all other goods are conditional, and indeed only good insofar as they are means to good will as an end. Because good will is the only unconditional good, it must be universal as good for all rational beings. And because it is unconditionally good, having a good will must be consistent with at the same time willing to have a good will, universal for all rational beings, or, to put it in other words, the good will must be that will which has a maxim (which serves as its rule of working and its standard of success) that can consistently have as its object a rule of working and standard of success universal to all rational beings as an unconditional end of willing.

From which we can get the categorical imperative: Act according to that maxim whose universality as a law can at the same time be willed.

This is an adequate expression of the categorical imperative itself; but we can expand its terms in such a way as to highlight, for practical purposes, different features that are part of willing (acting according to maxims) in such a way.

For instance, the universality of law for a rational being can be seen as analogous to the universality of law for nature generally; in other words, the laws of nature are nature considered in its formal structure, and by focusing on universality itself, we can emphasize the formal structure of good will by analogy. Thus we want to say, act according to that maxim whose universality as a law [in the way the laws of nature are universal] can at the same time be willed. And from this we can get the first formulation: Act according to that maxim that can at the same time have for its object itself considered as a universal law of nature. This says the same thing, but it says it in such a way as to bring out the formal structure of good will as universal.

But we could instead choose to emphasize the material the good will is willing. The good will is a rational being willing in such a way that it can be unconditionally good; and the good will wills in such a way that it can also will every rational being to be an unconditional end. Now, since the good will is also acting according to maxims whose universality as a law can at the same time be willed, to will every rational being to be an unconditional end is to act according to that maxim which at the same time is universally valid for every rational being. From this we can get the second formulation: Act according to that maxim with respect to which every rational being can consistently count as an unconditional end, or end in itself. This says the same thing, but it says it in such a way as to bring out the material character of good will as having itself as an unconditional good or end in itself.

We could, however, instead choose not to emphasize one or the other but how they are both aspects of the same categorical imperative. This requires a bit more maneuvering, because we have to work from both directions. The good will is a rational being willing in such a way that its maxims can be universal law; we can bring this out by analogy with legislation, and say that the good will is a rational being consistently capable of willing rational being to be a universal legislator giving the law to all rational beings. I will repeat that, so you know that I'm not accidentally duplicating words: the good will is a rational being consistently capable of willing rational being to be a universal legislator giving the law to all rational beings. Thus good will is rational being willing in such a way that it can consistently also will itself as a rational being to be a legislator of universal law for all rational beings; but the good will is also rational being willing in such a way that it can consistently will as its end every rational being having such a good will. But this means that, just as we can think of nature as a kingdom of natures governed by the universal law of nature, we can think of rational beings as a kingdom of ends governed by the universal law each rational being is legislating for rational being. Such a kingdom of ends does not actually exist, but it doesn't need to; it just has to be that with which the maxims of good will are consistent. Thus we get the third formulation: Act according to that maxim which can be the maxim of a legislator of universal law in a merely possible kingdom of ends. This says the same thing, but it says it in such a way as to bring out the way in which the formal and the material mutually play into each other in actual willing.

I am simplifying all of this somewhat. The difficulty of the derivation, of course, is that we are in a sense engaging in a baroque process of folding things on themselves: the good will must be structured by something capable of being universal law for good will as unconditional good, which means that it must involve willing in such a way that rational being could consistently always count as unconditional good since good will is rational being willing good will as universal law, which means that it must be rational being willing such a way that that it can also consistently will itself to be rational being willing universal law for rational beings in a system of rational beings willing universal law for rational beings! You could expand the whole thing infinitely, and it wouldn't change a single thing. The primary value it has is exactly what Kant says it has -- it gives us a number of ways of talking about the categorical imperative, and the different ways of talking about it can be easier to apply for some practical situations by emphasizing different ways in which it relates to our experience of acting.

We can think of it in terms of a metaphor. The categorical imperative is in a sense back behind the line of sight of practical reason, since practical reason's 'line of sight' depends on it. So we use a mirror. We could use another mirror from a different angle. And we could even use both mirrors in such a way that they reflect each other reflecting the categorical imperative. Depending on your circumstances, any of these might be useful. If you're shaving, you just need a mirror. When the barber or stylist shows you the back of your head after you get a haircut, you get a mirror to reflect your reflection in the mirror. But the whole point of the mirrors is to reflect whatever you're looking at. And the formulations just reflect one and the same categorical imperative.

Mansfield Park and the Purgatorio

This thematic link between Austen and Dante can be explored by using the vocabulary of the Purgatorio to describe disordered love in Mansfield Park. Like the former, the latter represents a variety of disordered loves in the principal characters. The Purgatorio divides these loves into three categories: perverted love, defective love, and excessive love. Pride, envy, and wrath, are perverted loves, and, to various degrees, Sir Thomas, but especially Maria, Julia, Henry, and Mary represent these vices. By her sloth, Lady Bertram represents defective love. Hers is a will too weak or lazy to pursue the good. Excessive love includes avarice, prodigality, gluttony, and lust. Mrs. Norris has an excessive love of money, or avarice, while Tom's wasteful spending and dissipation demonstrate his prodigality. Furthermore, Maria's adultery with Henry, which continues for an extended period of time after their initial flight, reveals the way in which the perverted loves of pride, envy, and wrath can so affect the will that it loses the power to curb wrong desires; they then become excessive desires such as lust.

Joyce Kerr Tarpley, Constancy and the Ethics of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, p. 137. (It should be noted that Tarpley is not arguing for a historical connection, but that the ethical lay of the land in both cases is fairly similar, because they are both concerned with virtue, share certain Christian ideas, and link the pursuit of beauty with the pursuit of virtue and the pursuit of happiness.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Radio Greats: High Noon (The Jack Benny Program)

In Back to the Future there's a clever joke that is missed by most viewers:

Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, future boy, who's President of the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor?
[chuckles in disbelief]
Dr. Emmett Brown: Then who's vice president? Jerry Lewis?
[rushing out and down a hill toward his laboratory]
Dr. Emmett Brown: I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady!
Marty McFly: [following Doc] Whoa. Wait, Doc!
Dr. Emmett Brown: And Jack Benny is secretary of the treasury.
Marty McFly: [outside the lab door] Doc, you gotta listen to me.
Dr. Emmett Brown: [opens the door to the lab] I've had enough practical jokes for one evening. Good night, future boy!

Jerry Lewis is well known. Jane Wyman was Reagan's first wife; in 1955 they would already have been divorced, so it continues the improbability. And Jack Benny as secretary of treasury is a touch of genius, because Jack Benny, the world-famous comedian, had a running gag in which he was the cheapest rich man on earth.

'Jack Benny' was a stage name; he was born Benjamin Kubelsky. He was a professional violinist who first made his name in vaudeville comedy acts, first with the fiddle and then with the jokes. At a Passover seder he met a girl named Sadie Marks in 1922; they married and she took the stage name Mary Livingstone and began helping Benny with his act. He tried to break into movies and failed -- while he got a few parts, the movies themselves flopped. Uncertain about radio, he nevertheless auditioned for a part, and the radio executives were very impressed by him -- so impressed, in fact, that they decided to give him his own show. And comedy was never the same again. While there have been funnier comedians, there has been no comedian in the English-speaking world who has had a greater influence on comedy. He did several different sponsored comedy shows for NBC. In 1949 he switched to CBS (there as a big scandal about CBS stealing NBC talent that year).

Part of Benny's talent was timing; he was famous for the hilarious pause. He was also excellent at impromptu, so that it's often impossible, if you don't actually see the script, to tell whether a particular break-the-fourth-wall joke was intentional or Benny turning a gaff into an impromptu jest. He also had a knack for portraying himself as the exact opposite of what he tried to be in real life: self-centered, miserly, vain.

But perhaps his best gift was the ability to see talent in others and let it work; he was one of the best people in Hollywood to work with because if he thought you had comic ability, he would let you use it. He was smart enough to realize that he would not be hurt if someone else was making his show funny. Thus his cast was one of the most brilliant casts of all time. There's Benny himself, of course, and Mary Livingstone -- who as a character plays a female friend rather than his wife. There was Don Wilson, the announcer, and Phil Harris the bandleader, who always managed to be just inappropriate enough to shock you and yet not inappropriate enough to be offensive (he eventually went on to do his own show). There was Dennis Day, the tenor, who sang the songs and presented himself as naive, oblivious, and without common sense. And greatest of all, himself one of the greatest comedians of the twentieth century, Eddie Anderson, playing Benny's valet Rochester, always three steps ahead of his boss and with such a distinctive voice (his vocal chords had ruptured as a child, giving him a voice somewhere between gravelly and crazy) that nobody could forget. Anderson got a minor part on the show, got asked back a few times, and then was given a permanent position, which made him the first African-American to have a regular role on nationwide radio, and eventually one of the most famous entertainers in the world. And later, when Rochester was far and away the fan favorite on the show, Benny stayed true to his principle: he supported Anderson all the way. And while there are here and there early jokes that don't carry well, it was quite groundbreaking, because Anderson was treated as an equal, and his character was intelligent -- smarter than Benny's character, in fact -- and the equality became more pronounced over time. That's just the regular cast, the ones best known; there were more minor characters coming and going all the time.

Comedy does not seem to age as well as drama and horror, so some jokes are a bit...obscure. One tricky thing about The Jack Benny Program, too, is that they do a lot of running gags; you can listen to them in any order and they get funnier the more you here because minor jokes that don't seem funny as stand-alone jokes get played in crazy variations that are funny all together -- you start looking for them. And there are lots and lots of episodes, so it's difficult to pick out any particular one, just because practically no one has listened to them all. But I've chosen as representative a fairly decent one, "High Noon". It's probably not the funniest episode -- the funniest I've heard are those in which Benny interacts with his neighbors, the normal and thoroughly baffled Cormans -- but it has a lot of the typical Jack Benny elements, the ones that made the show at least good for a few chuckles. It's one of the better movie parodies -- the show did quite a few of them, and they are wide mix (the Casablanca one I find mostly just baffling, but since most of the movies have been classics, many of the jokes have lasted longer than they might otherwise have) -- and we get the standard elements -- Rochester, Mary, Don, Dennis. It's missing Phil Harris, which is too bad; the bandleader is Bob Crosby, who had recently replaced Harris, although it does have a joke about him. We miss some of the more famous minor characters but we do get the gossiping switchboard operators, Gertrude and Mabel, who are usually funny, and we have the single most famous minor character: Mel Blanc, the man of infinite voices (he is, of course, most famous for being the voices for practically every major character in the Looney Tunes cartoons), whom we find in this episode first as a cow and then delivering one of his most famous lines: "All aboard for Anaheim, Azusa, and Cuc-a-monga!" We get a little bit of almost everything, in other words.

You can listen to "High Noon" at My Old Radio.

Labels and Legends

Media live by legends; or rather by labels, and a label is a sort of legend. The great mass of people, which is US, cannot do with an excess of complexity or subtlety. We have to be given a frame, or structure, of simplicity if we are to have any kind of context for what we read. A famous incident labels a figure. It may be quite untypical of that figure. Ever afterwards it is a placard hanging round his or her neck -- 'This is Bishop John Robinson: he gave evidence for the defence in the Lady Chatterley case.' We, the public, need reminding who people are. This reminds us. The label helps. Yet the label creates a legend. We read all else we know of a character in the light of a label, which may record some moment or happening entirely untypical of the person round whose neck we see the label hanging.

Owen Chadwick, The Spirit of the Oxford Movement, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: 1990), p. 157.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Habit of Well-Doing

Today is the memorial for St. Leo the Great. From his Sermon 90:

[I]n the Lord's prayer we say most devoutly, "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done as in heaven, so also on earth." For what else do we ask for in these words but that God may subdue those whom He has not yet subdued, and as in heaven He makes the angels ministers of His will, so also on earth He may make men? And in seeking this we love God, we love also our neighbour: and the love within us has but one Object, since we desire the bond-servant to serve and the Lord to have rule. This state of mind, therefore, beloved, from which earthly love is excluded, is strengthened by the habit of well-doing, because the conscience must needs be delighted at good deeds, and do willingly what it rejoices to have done. Thus it is that fasts are kept, alms freely given, justice maintained, frequent prayer resorted to, and the desires of individuals become the common wish of all. Labour fosters patience, gentleness extinguishes anger, loving-kindness treads down hatred, unclean desires are slain by holy aspirations, avarice is cast out by liberality, and burdensome wealth becomes the means of virtuous acts. But because the snares of the devil are not at rest even in such a state of things, most rightly at certain seasons of the year the renewal of our vigour is provided for: and now in particular, when one who is greedy of present good might boast himself over the clemency of the weather and the fertility of the land, and having stored his crops in great barns, might say to his soul, "you have much goods, eat and drink," let him take heed to the rebuke of the Divine voice, and hear it saying, "You fool, this night they require your soul of you, and the things which you have prepared, whose shall they be Luke 12:19-20?" This should be the wise man's most anxious consideration, in order that, as the days of this life are short and its span uncertain, death may never come upon him unawares, and that knowing himself mortal he may meet his end fully prepared.

Fortnightly Book, November 10

It's a busy time of year, so I need a re-read, and the title of Charles Williams's Many Dimensions jumped out at me from the bookshelf.

Charles Williams was a proofreading assistant, then an editor, for Oxford University Press. He wrote a number of novels, which T. S. Eliot called "supernatural thrillers"; the best of these, I think, is The Place of the Lion, although Descent into Hell is usually given that position. He also wrote poetry; Taliessin Through Logres is quite good. He was a close friend of C. S. Lewis and a sort-of friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, who regarded him more cautiously than Lewis did; W. H. Auden and Dorothy Sayers were among his admirers, and T. S. Eliot can probably be counted, too, although he liked Williams's literary talents more than his ideas. Very famously, he met C. S. Lewis because, having read Lewis's recently published The Allegory of Love, he wrote him a letter, while Lewis, having read Williams's recently published The Place of the Lion, wrote Williams a letter, and the two letters crossed in the mail.

All of Williams's novels have some kind of key preternatural element breaking into ordinary life. War in Heaven has the Holy Grail; The Place of the Lion has the Platonic Forms; Shadows of Ecstasy has the means of immortality; The Greater Trumps has the Major Arcana; Descent into Hell has Hell as a state of complete self-absorption; All Hallows' Eve has necromancy. The preternatural element in Many Dimensions is the Stone of Solomon, which is the root of creation itself, because it is prime matter itself, given the appearance of a stone by the power of the Divine Name. It is extraordinarily powerful: some say it was in the crown of Iblis himself, Lucifer, before he fell; others that it belonged to Adam in the Garden of Eden, or that Nimrod used it in his attempt to build a tower to heaven in Babel; and Solomon with his wisdom rediscovered it and, wearing it in his crown, was able to do mighty things of wonder. For centuries it has been closely kept by a Muslim family; but now ruthless individuals through crookery and bribery have managed to get their hands on it....