Saturday, September 21, 2019

Robertson Davies, The Salterton Trilogy


Opening Passage: From Tempest-Tost:

"It's going to be a great nuisance for both of us," said Freddy. "Couldn't you make a fuss about it, Tom?"

"If your father said they could use the place, it's no good for me to make a fuss," said Tom. (p. 3)

From Leaven of Malice:

It was on the 31st of October that the following announcement appeared under "Engagements", in the Salterton Evening Bellman:

Professor and Mrs. Walter Vambrace are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter, Pearl Veronica, to Solomon Bridgetower, Esq., son of Mrs. Bridgetower and the late Professor Solomon Bridgetower of this city. Marriage to take place in St. Nicholas' Cathedral at eleven o'clock a.m., November 31st. (p. 251)

From A Mixture of Frailties:

It was appropriate that Mrs. Bridgetower's funeral fell on a Thursday, for that had always been her At Home day. As she had dominated her drawing-room, so she dominated St. Nicholas' Cathedral on this frosty 23rd of December. She had planned her funeral, as she had planned all her social duties and observances, with care. (p. 481)

Summary: In the small town of Salterton, Ontario, the local am-dram group is putting on The Tempest with the help of Valentine Rich, a professional director. She has her work cut out for her, as she has to deal with the self-important members of the troupe (Professor Vambrace, who, of course, thinks he knows everything about Shakespeare, and Nellie, who is the all-organizing all-busybody social climber), and with the obsessives (Major Pye the set guy, Cobbler the musician), and the inevitable tumult of the guys (Solly, Roger, Hector) mingling with the girls (Griselda, Pearl). Tempest-Tost is very entertaining (the character-work is excellent), but it is also very oddly structured. It ends quite abruptly, and has a number of features that make it seem as if Hector were the main character (we get much more of his backstory, and he is the mover of the major final crisis), but other parts don't. I've read somewhere that it may have originally been conceived as a play, and it does in some ways read like a play about Hector that has been filled out by description and occasionally following other characters in such a way that the author just adds whatever interests him. But the humor is constant, and sometimes surges into funniness.

Leaven of Malice moves us forward a bit, and focuses on journalism. The editor of the local newspaper, Gloster Ridley, is in a bit of trouble when a false announcement of a marriage between Solly Bridgetower and Pearl Vambrace appears in his paper. The histrionic Professor Vambrace is livid over the matter, as is Bridgetower's overbearing mother. This work has much more of a coherent structure than the first; it is structured plainly as a mystery story, although a somewhat unconventional one. A little leaven of malice can change almost everything.

In A Mixture of Frailties, Solly and Pearl (now preferring to go by her middle name, Veronica) have married and are dealing with the death of Solly's mother, who continues to be as overbearing in the grave as she was in life. In her will, Mrs. Bridgetower, who was quite well-to-do, leaves almost everything to Solly on a set of conditions that guarantee that he will have to struggle for some time. The most significant is that all of the money is to be used to fund the education of an artist until such a time as Solly and Veronica have a baby boy; and, in the meantime, if he is to get the legacy at all, he must maintain his mother's large house and her two servants on his professor's salary. The artist chosen by the Bridgetower Trust is Monica Gall, a girl with a lovely voice who sings on the radio for her fundamentalist church. She is sent to London, where she takes various lessons with teachers set up for her by the conductor, Sir Benedict Domdaniel; in the course of this she meets the brilliant young composer, Giles Revelstoke, and falls in love. Her musical education, I think, is well depicted, as is her overall education; Davies is very good at capturing the mix of real maturing and nonsensical bluster that characterizes growing up. This work is the best written of the three, although Salterton is really only used as a frame for the story of Monica Gall, which in most ways could simply be a novel standing on its own. But it is all tied together fairly well.

Of the three, Tempest-Tost, despite its odd character as a mix of unblended things, is easily the most entertaining. Part of this is probably that amateur actors are by nature more entertaining than journalists or professional and semi-professional musicians. Part of it, though, is probably the lavish attention paid to characterization; while the characterization is good all through the works, Tempest-Tost develops its characters in a leisurely and rich way. Much of the interest of the more organized Leaven of Malice is simply in seeing what happens to the Vambraces and Bridgetowers whom we met in Tempest-Tost; while you could read Leaven alone, I think it benefits massively from being read specifically as a sequel. Mixture partly foregoes this advantage; yes, we get some of the characters carrying over, but in a small amount and in such a way that they are little more than an occasion for the story to open and then later to close. It's technically a sequel, but for the most part its sequel-ness is incidental to the story it is telling. I also had the difficulty with Mixture of not being impressed by Revelstoke. The fundamental difficulty with writing about volatile musical geniuses is that writing only conveys all of the volatility and very little of the actual musical genius, so while in real life we might give some leeway to brilliance excusing or at least counterweighing bad behavior, in a literary context we get nothing more than the bad behavior in full view and a sort of rumor that maybe there is a brilliance that partly compensates for it, which is not the same thing.

All three of the books were great reading, though; the 800 or so pages of the omnibus edition were remarkably easy to get through, while nonetheless being richly written. To manage a kind of writing in which one can either just follow through with the flow of the story or stop and savor the writing at almost every point is a significant talent, and Davies certainly has it.

Favorite Passage: From Tempest-Tost:

The Torso was a silly girl, and a hoyden, and unseemly in her desire for the attentions of the male. But like many silly, hoydenish, man-crazy girls, she had a great charity within er. One of her admirers had said that she had "a heart as big as a bull", and if this special enlargement carries with it a certain sweetness and generosity of nature, the phrase may be allowed to stand. She ran up the stairs after Pearl. What she did cannot be related here, but in ten minutes they were both in the drawing-room, drinking sherry, and Pearl looked better than she had ever looked in her life; if there was any makeup on her face, it had been applied with The Torso's artful hand.... (pp. 190-191)

From Leaven of Malice, in which the classicist meets the Freudian:

"Professor, let's get down to brass tacks. I'm only here because I want to help. I want you to understand right now that my job is simply to understand, not to accuse. Now, you're an intelligent man, so I don't have to beat about the bush with you. We can take the gloves off right at the start. I take it that you've heard of the Oedipus Complex?"

"I am familiar with all forms of the Oedipus legend."

"Yes, but have you understood it? I mean, as we moderns understand it? Have you got the psychological slant on it?"

"Mr. Yarrow, I should hardly be head of the Department of Classics at this University if I were not thoroughly acquainted with all that concerns Oedipus."

"But the Complex? You know about the Complex?"

"What Complex are you talking about? All art is complex." (pp. 419-420)

From A Mixture of Frailties:

Ripon solemnly removed his hat. "This is a sacred moment," said he. "Sacred to me, anyhow, as a student of literature. You have just made the great discovery that behind every symbol there is a reality. For years you have accepted holly as a symbol of Christmas, unquestioningly, like a true Anglo-Saxon believer. And now, in a flash, you know why it is so. It is because, in this land which gave you your Christmas, holly is at its finest at this time of year. Perhaps we should cause a carved stone to be erected on this spot, to identify forever the place at which, fo rone human being out of the whole confused race, a symbol became a reality." (pp. 630-631)

Recommendation: Tempest-Tost is Highly Recommended; Leaven of Malice and A Mixture of Frailties are Recommended.


Robertson Davies, The Salterton Trilogy, Penguin (New York, 2011).

Thursday, September 19, 2019

'Mid Foam and Rays

I Rise in Summer When the Warmed Breeze
by Thomas Caulfield Irwin

I rise in summer when the warmed breeze
Fails o'er the ocean with the morning haze,
To plunge in deep, cool waters from the blaze
Of the strong sun, just risen from the seas:
And thus, companioned by two deities
Sport elementally 'mid foam and rays:
Then breathe sweet hours along the sandy bays
Where scarce the ripple creams, and hum the bees
In the hot hush of the sea banks: and cool
The listless brow in the faint wind, where swing
The waves along the reefs, and in some pool
The anemony opens its soft purple ring
Refreshed : 'till o'er the tide, at evening full,
The gull floats, and the woodward crow makes wing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Matteo Ricci, Jiaoyou Lun

Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), also known in China as Li Madou, wrote his work On Friendship somewhere around the year 1595, originally calling it You Lun, Essay on Friends, but changing it to Jiaoyou Lun, Essay on Friendship, at the recommendation of several Chinese friends. The original idea seems to have been to do it as a language exercise, translating and paraphrasing Western maxims on friendship into Chinese, but there was so much interest in the topic among those to whom he showed the work that he eventually worked it up so as to give it as a gift to the Prince of Jian'an Commandery, who was a cousin of the Emperor -- probably in the hope that the prince would help Ricci in his perpetual attempt to meet the Emperor.

The Essay was on just the right topic at exactly the right time. The late Ming dynasty had seen the rise of debating societies and similar organizations that were based on developing one of the five relations, that between friends. While it would be a mistake to say nothing had been written on this, friendship was often treated as the least of the five, and certainly less explored than the ruler-subject or the parent-child relationship. People were interested in the topic of friendship as they never had been before. At a later point, the powers that be would try to rein in the enthusiasm for discussions of the value of friendship -- too much association with bands of revolutionaries -- but this had not begun yet. Ricci's work was short, thus being in one sense easy to read, and yet challenging, presenting a foreign point of view. The scholars of China seem to have been struck by the strange-yet-fitting turn of several of his aphorisms, weirdly stated paradoxes that somehow captured exactly their experience of friendship, positions very much like the traditional Chinese positions on friendship but with an unexpected twist, stories and comments that they had never heard before clothing points that they knew well.

If Ricci had been deliberately calculating to capture the interest of intellectuals, he could not have done a better job. It certainly did. Everyone wanted a copy; finally, the inevitable happened, and pirated versions (as we would say) began to be printed. It became the first work by a European to be printed in a number of important influential Chinese anthologies and collectanea, and while approval and popularity have waxed and waned multiple times, it can rightly be said to have become one of the modern classics of Chinese literature.

I read the work in Timothy Billings's translation: Matteo Ricci, On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince, Billings, tr., Columbia University Press (New York: 2009). It has a nice introduction that gives some of the biographical and historical context, on which I am drawing, and it seems to do well in tracing down Ricci's original sources.

The Thought and Structure

The work opens with an autobiographical proem about how Ricci has sailed the seas to China out of respect "for the learned virtue of the Son of Heaven of the Great Ming dynasty as well as for the teachings bequeathed by the ancient kings" (p. 87). He visits the Prince of Jian'an Commandery, who asks him about how friendship is understood in the Far West, and for this reason Ricci is writing his book. Billings notes in the introduction that there are a number of reasons not to take this as literal, and to treat it as a literary rather than a historical introduction. It functions in a way as a tactful dedicatory note: Ricci shows respect for the prince and in a way gives him credit for it.

After this follows a hundred maxims -- it was probably originally a shorter list later rounded out to a hundred. One of the aphorisms that seems to have particularly caught the attention of Ming philosophers of friendship is the very first, which Ricci draws from Augustine and Aristotle:

My friend is not an other, but half of myself, and thus a second me -- I must therefore regard my friend as myself. (p. 91)

Another very popular one was the 24th aphorism (also derived from Augustine):

The harm that is done by a friend's excessive praise is greater than the harm that is done by an enemy's excessive calumny.

COMMENTARY: If a friend praises me, I may become self-conceited. If an enemy slanders me, I may become more cautious.

Some of the aphorisms show Ricci taking good advantage of the differences that can arise when translating into another context; he will sometimes find a way to make a wordplay work in Chinese as well as the original, or will draw on the characteristics of Chinese script (like the fact that one way of writing the word for 'friend' looks like a double version of the character for 'another'). He also will draw subtle but undeniable links between the aphorisms he is translating and Chinese ethics. For instance, on one aphorism drawn from Plutarch (the 52nd), he comments:

Since my friends must be virtuous and benevolent, they will know whom to love and whom to hate. This is why I rely upon them. (p. 111)

The word translated here as 'virtuous and benevolent' is ren, which is perhaps the foundational virtue in Confucian ethics.

The aphorisms derive from a wide variety of sources: Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, Augustine, Seneca, Diogenes Laertius, and more. In some cases he pulls together several different sources, and in a few cases (like the popular 95th aphorism, on the sharing of wealth between friends), Ricci seems to be himself the originator of the aphorism, although always on a theme that was common.

The book ends with a colophon which we apparnetly have in two slightly different forms, one in which Ricci calls himself a shanren (a man of the mountains), which has Taoist overtones, and was commonly used among certain independent-minded intellectuals of the day, and another in which he calls himself a xiushi, a moral scholar, which has a more Confucian tone to it. Billings notes (pp. 17-18) that this is probably because the shanren text occurs at the transitional stage between the original Jesuit attempt to describe themselves in Buddhist terms and the later Jesuit attempt to describe themselves in Confucian terms, and that the Taoist word actually goes very well with the proem, in which Ricci describes his choice of residence in China in terms at least evocative of Taoism.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


Today is the feast of St. Roberto Bellarmino, Doctor of the Church. From his catechism:

God wants to be held for that which He is, without a doubt, for the One True God. This happens when a man cultivates within himself the four virtues pertaining to the Divine Majesty, this is faith, hope, charity and religion. For he who believes in God acknowledges God for God, i.e., for the Supreme Truth; in this, Heretics commit offense, because they do not believe in Him.One who hopes in God, he--in a similar fashion--acknowledges God as God, insofar as he holds Him as the most faithful, merciful and powerful, and trusts that He can and will help him in all necessities. Those who despair of the mercy of God sin against this, as well as those who hope in man more than in God, or certainly, trust in man as though he were God. One who loves God above all things, holds God for God, i.e. for the Supreme Good. Those men sin gravely against this who love any creature either before God or equally with God, or on the other hand--and more gravely-- those who hate God. Next, one who worships God with supreme reverence (which the virtue of Religion teaches), holds God as God because he acknowledges God as the Beginning and Author of all things. They sin against this who hold those things consecrated to God with little esteem, sucha s Churches, sacred vessels, the Priesthood and like things, as well as those who honor men either more or equally as they do God.

[St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctrina Christiana, Grant, tr., Mediatrix Press (2016) pp. 100-101.]

Monday, September 16, 2019

She Answered, Even So

by Alice Meynell

One wept whose only child was dead,
New-born, ten years ago.
“Weep not; he is in bliss,” they said.
She answered, “Even so,

“Ten years ago was born in pain
A child, not now forlorn.
But oh, ten years ago, in vain,
A mother, a mother was born.”

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Evening Note for Sunday, September 15

Thought for the Evening: Non Aliud

In recent discussion, I mentioned Cusanus's Non Aliud as one possible parallel to Advaita nonduality, so I have been thinking a bit about the concept.

Nicholas of Cusa was probably the most talented German theologian of the fifteenth century. He was active at the Council of Basel and was a major figure in bringing about the Council of Florence. He was also actively involved in the resurgence of Platonism in the Renaissance, and in particular, the attempt to reclaim parts of the Platonic heritage of the Church that had begun to fall out of view. One of the difficulties of this project was the fact that there were really a lot of varieties of Platonism beginning to resurface, and one of Nicholas's major contributions was in trying to work out ways in which these varieties might be pulled together. A good example of this is his notion of God as Non Aliud, Not Other.

Of the Not Other (De li Non Aliud) looks specifically at a few sources for broadly Platonic ideas: Plato's Parmenides with Proclus's commentary, Proclus's Platonic Theology, the works of Dionysius (whom he also calls the Theologian), and the works of Aristotle. Nicholas recognizes that a concern common to all of these works (in one way or another) is definition. A definition is good when it can be put into a form like 'A is not other than B'; the limit case of this is 'A is not other than A'. All of the works Nicholas is considering make definition to be a central part of knowing; you know something when you know its particular definition. Definitions are called such because they are acts of delimiting.

On the basis of this, Nicholas considers the question of the act of defining that defines everything. This Definition must be not other than what it defines, which is everything, so, given this, Nicholas proposes that we call it Not Other. If definitions are in some sense 'not others', the all-defining Definition is the Not Other. It in some sense defines itself -- Not Other is not other than Not Other -- and its defining gives the things themselves. It is perfect defining. And of course, the all-defining defining is God. As he puts it, 'other' indicates a terminus or endpoint of understanding; that which is on the other end, the very beginning point of it all, has to be Not Other, on which everything else depends. Not Other is simply prior to anything and everything else that can be defined; insofar as it makes understanding possible we call it Light. But as everything is not other than itself, it also has its existence from Not Other as the Cause and Reason for everything.

This serves as the foundation for Nicholas's explanation of the tendency in Platonism to suggest that transcendentals like being, one, true, good, are posterior to God. Since one is not other than one, it presupposes Not Other (one is one because of Not Other that defines it as such), which is more simple; one is other than Not Other. Some Platonists, of course, will use One as a name for Not Other, but they will also usually recognize that this is stretching the term in some way. Likewise, we can say that Not Other is beyond being because any being is not other than a thing that is, and so for good, as well. But it's not as if being, one, good, and true follow after Not Other as something separate; they each are what they are through Not Other, so that Not Other is present to them all, and, of course, present to everything to which they pertain.

Because of this, Not Other is in whatever is other -- every other is not other than the other it is. Every other is lacking something, because it is contrasted to that to which it is other. But Not Other is not like this; all others, even the ones contrasting with each other, are what they are through the all-defining defining that is being called 'Not Other'. Thus everything that can exist or be thought is so because of Not Other. Not Other is, of course, absolutely not other than Not Other; but as all-defining, it is also not other than every other. In Nicholas's example, God is not any visible thing, because He is antecedent to them all; but as antecedent to all He is also not other than them. The sky is other than what is not sky; and God, being Not Other, is neither sky nor not-sky, both of which are other than each other. But in the sky, God is not other than the sky, without being the same as the sky, and in what is not sky, God is not other than what is not sky, without being the same as what is not sky. Being Not Other, He is not other than these things. Unnameable, He is that by which all else is nameable; indefinable, He is that by which all else is definable; illimitable, He is that by which all is limitable; all these other things cannot be opposed to Him as one thing to another thing, because that would be inconsistent with their existing at all. This is Nicholas's Non-Aliud way of characterizing what Platonists often call 'participation'. Likewise, this is another way to think of divine ideas and creation: in Not Other, the sky is Not Other than Not Other, which is the divine idea, and we get creation insofar as in the sky, Not Other is not other than the sky. And whenever we are considering the sky, we are, whether we realize it or not, always considering the sky and the Not Other that defines it. Thus everything becomes a sign of God, pointing to God. "The definition defining itself and all things is the definition every intellect seeks."

All names we give to God, then, are attempts to capture Not Other, prior and all-defining, with respect to some particular aspect of things that are posterior and defined, sometimes more and sometimes less precisely: Infinite Power (as in the infinite power of the First Mover), Creative Will, etc. We call God 'substance' or 'substance of substances' or 'supersubstantial substance' because substances are not other than their accidents, but they are limited because they are other than other substances; but God is prior to substances as Not Other, and there is no other that is opposed to Him so as to be able to limit Him. We say that God has power, will, intellect, etc., because in us these are things by which we are closest to Not Other. Intellect and will are less other and more not other than other things. Nicholas uses the example of Trajan's column: it's called Trajan because it exists by Trajan's will, which defined and delimited it, and it is not other than Trajan's will for it, what Trajan willed it to be. And because of this, the column is the sign of Trajan's will.

The whole discussion is a clever way to synthesize a very large number of very different Platonic approaches (Perhaps, Nicholas muses at one point, they were all trying to make the same point but were expressing it differently), even though in doing so he stretches both thought and language, as he himself recognizes. He spends quite some time trying to show that his account corresponds to things said by Plato, Proclus, and the Theologian, and to a lesser extent Aristotle, and therefore provides a more precise way to characterize the things they all talked about. But, a true Platonist, he also insists that 'Not Other' is not the name of God, who is beyond all names; it is merely a way to rise to Him.

Various Links of Interest

* Alexandre Costa-Leite, Oppositions in a line segment (PDF)

* Alexander Pruss on eleven varieties of contrastive explanation

* Paul R. Audi, Existential Inertia (PDF)

* An interesting discussion of the history of the Mormon Pearl of Great Price

* Quentin Ruyant, The Inductive Route to Necessity (PDF)

* Jud Campbell, Natural Rights and the First Amendment

* An interesting article on how chess grandmasters lose weight due to the stress.

* Ryszard Legutko, Nationalism, Conservatism, and the E.U.

* An interesting paper by Chad Vance: The World is a Necessary Being (PDF). The title is perhaps a bit misleading, although not through Vance's fault; it comes about because of the clunky terminological apparatus of possible world semantics as it is usually described. Possible worlds are often said to be 'the way the world can be', and The World in the title is just that whatever it is that is such that possible worlds are the way it can be. What the argument really does is establish that on certain common modal assumptions, something actually existing, on which different possibilities depend, must be necessary.

* This year is the 50th anniversary of Scooby-Doo, so various pieces have been coming out in commemoration. Far and away the best I have read is Eleni Theodoropoulos's How Scooby Doo Revived Gothic Storytelling for Generations of Kids.

* Phil Christman reviews John Warner's Why They Can't Write.

* Fr. Joseph Bolin on the seal of confession.

Currently Reading

Robertson Davies, A Mixture of Frailties
Penelope Maddy, What Do Philosophers Do?
Declan Finn, Hell Spawn
Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson

Then Draw Your Curtains, and Begin the Dawn!

by Sir William Davenant

The lark now leaves his wat'ry nest,
And climbing shakes his dewy wings.
He takes this window for the East,
And to implore your light he sings--
Awake, awake! the morn will never rise
Till she can dress her beauty at your eyes.

The merchant bows unto the seaman's star,
The ploughman from the sun his season takes;
But still the lover wonders what they are
Who look for day before his mistress wakes.
Awake, awake! break thro' your veils of lawn!
Then draw your curtains, and begin the dawn!