Month: December 2015

Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

My children and I have been reading this book together over the course of Advent. We finished the fifth and final chapter just after Mass on Christmas Day. It has been a delightful source of meditation and conversation for the whole family throughout this sacred season. I see an annual Advent reading of Dickens’ masterpiece becoming a family tradition.

I believe the great power of this book lies in its subtlety, as the presence of Christ, the “reason for the season,” as the cliche goes, remains the dominant force in the book while working in and through the background. There are several instances, for example, in which his name is nearly said, yet remains unstated. Bob Cratchit, for example, reports to his wife, upon returning home after a Christmas church service, Tiny Tim had told him he was happy to be at church so that he could be a reminder to others of He who healed the crippled, like himself. Similarly, Peter, Bob’s eldest son, is seen reading a book from which he recites the words “let the little children come unto me,” a reference that Scrooge recognizes but can’t quite place.

All of these subtle reference to the real personality at the heart of the story culminate in one of the greatest understatements in English literature (and English literature is rife with such understatements) when Dickens tells us that, having risen in the morning after his various visions of Christmas spirits, Scrooge “went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying too and fro, and patted the children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.” He went to church stands at the head of the sentence and is clearly the referent to everything that follows it in the same breathless list of Scrooge’s (quite Christ-like) activities. In only four simple single-syllable words, Dickens has gotten to the heart of things. Scrooge has turned himself to the Savior whose birth we are called to celebrate and, no doubt, communed with him in his Body and Blood, uniting himself with Christ and thereby becoming Christ-like.

The new Scrooge is not merely a kinder, gentler version of the old Scrooge. He has not become “nice.” He has been converted. He has become altogether a new man, born again on Christmas Day by being born into that child born so many hundreds of years ago in Bethlehem.

Book Review: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

This book is one of the most interesting that I have read in a very long time. It is the thoughts and experiences of one of America’s greatest authors, John Steinbeck, as he travels across the United States with his dog, Charley. He begins his travels from his home in New York, driving across the northern half of the country on his way to his childhood home in California. In his journey back east, he travels the length of Texas as well as a South in the midst of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

Along the way, Steinbeck experiences America through conversations with average Americans of all sorts. His focus throughout the book is largely upon these conversations and the impressions they make upon him as well as the insights they grant him into what makes America and its people unique and what binds them together.

I found the second half of the book, which features his travels through Texas and the Deep South, the most interesting. It is here, as Steinbeck sees the Civil Rights Movement and the South’s racial attitudes first hand, that we get to see Steinbeck at his best, both in his ability to empathize with black and white in the South, to see the complexities of the situation. Rather than reducing the South and its relationship to race to simple assertions of good vs. evil, Steinbeck sees the human element throughout and allows the reader to see it as well.

Although it is now 50 years old, the America that this book shows remains largely the same in spirit and substance. Travels with Charley is essential reading for anyone looking for the meaning of America.

What is Life?

We have finally finished up the reading for 2015, ending the first year of the Great Books Reading Project with Erwin Schrodinger’s What is Life?, which provides us with a look at some of the questions we have been exploring in the readings over the past year from the perspective of a 20th century scientist. Though I was previously familiar with Schrodinger’s famous cat thought-experiment, this was my first time reading any of his works.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a 20th century scientist in such firm contact with the preceding scientific and even religious and philosophical thought. Sadly, it is rare today to find a scientist who is conversant in the liberal arts (and, vice versa, someone conversant in the liberal arts who is also able to speak coherently and knowledgeably on scientific topics). This is a sad state of affairs as today, in the wake of the eugenics movement and the invention of nuclear weaponry in the 20th century, the restoration of science to its place as one of the humanities (that is, properly speaking, one means of studying human existence and experience) is a necessity. In his ability to speak cogently on literature, philosophy, religion, and history in addition to physics and biology, Schrodinger reminded me Jacob Bronowski, whose Science and Human Values is perhaps the best exploration of this subject I have yet read.

Through What is Life?, but especially in the final chapter, in which Schrodinger attempts to reconcile the earlier discussions of genetics with man’s inherent sense of freedom of will and volition, I was also reminded of Jacques Barzun’s commentaries on modern science, particularly in his From Dawn to Decadence. While Barzun’s writings are packed full of insights, one in particular that has long stood out to me is his contention that modern genetics, and the sort of determinism it posits, is, in a sense, part of a return to the fatalism of the ancients. Schrodinger’s appeal to Upanishadic monism as the means of reconciliation between modern physics and human freedom certainly seems to be a demonstration of Barzun’s observation.

And just as the modern world has, in some sense, cycled around to give the ancient superstitions another turn, so will we next month. It seems quite fitting to launch now, as we will, into Homer’s Illiad, a story about the relationship between fate and freedom.

Translating The Owl and the Nightingale

I have been considering for some time trying my hand at writing poetry, something I did a bit in my late teens but fell away from. I have also been working lately on improving my Old and Middle English. To advance both ends, I have decided to work on a translation of the 12th/13th century Middle English poem The Owl and the Nightingale. If you’re unfamiliar with it, there is a good introduction to it at Wikipedia. To put it shortly, the poem is a debate between an owl and a nightingale over who is better and, by implication, which of the lifestyles each represents is better.

As I add to and change the translation, I will be posting my work on this page, which is also accessible in the link bar at the top of the page. My goal with this translation is to remain faithful to the meaning of the text as well as its rhythm and rhyme. To this end, I will attempt to remain consistent with the iambic tetrameter and aabb rhyme scheme (that is, four-beat lines arranged in couplets) of the original. The text I am working from is that published by E. G. Stanley, which you can find online here. I welcome any comments and corrections you might have to offer along the way.

The Master Builder

This month for the Great Books reading project, we plunge head first into the modern before cycling back around to the ancient Greeks once again with the new year. Our first, comparatively short, reading is Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” This was my first read of this particular play and, in fact, of anything by Ibsen.

In many ways, “The Master Builder” reminded me a great deal of the works of Kafka. As in many of Kafka’s novels, “The Master Builder” presents us with an allegory of original sin as well as a modern take on the possibility (or not) of salvation from it. The eponymous primary protagonist is in some sense guilty of, yet not directly responsible for, the destruction of his family’s home and the deaths of his two young children. That event, which precedes the events of the play by more than a decade, has entirely shaped the course of his life since its occurrence.

Spurred on by a young lady, Hilda, who plays the dual role of muse and temptress, the Master Builder, Solness, seeks to build a “castle in the air.” The final result of this is his all too preventable death. It seems to me that there are two possible interpretations here. Either he did indeed find his “castle in the air,” and so salvation from the original sin, through an escape from this life or his attempt to gain a “castle in the air” was a great failure.

While the ambiguity is undoubtedly an intentional feature of the play, one could probably easily answer this question by appealing to Ibsen’s biography. I believe it is best, however, to let a text speak for itself and in this case I tend toward the latter interpretation as the more likely of the two. It is not only the more typically modern approach to the subject, but, more importantly, it seems to better fit the nature of the play itself. Solness’s attempts to climb higher than his constitution allows for brings to mind the story of the Tower of Babel. Solness, like the builders of the tower, is attempting to reach the “castle in the sky” through his own effort and on his own impetus; in other words, he wants to climb to heaven without God, as other features of the play make clear. The result in both cases is that Tower, and Builder, must fall.

The American identity

This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me. If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be no only different from mine but equally different from one another. If other Americans reading this account should feel it is true, that agreement would only mean we are alike in our Americanness.

From start to finish I found no strangers. If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But these are my people and this my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself. If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners. And descendants of English, Irish, Italian, Jewish, German, Polish are essentially American. This is not patriotic whoop-de-do; it is carefully observed fact. California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin German, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart. And this is the more remarkable because it has happened so quickly. It is a fact that Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions are more alike than the Welsh are like the English, the Lancashireman Scot like the Highlander. It is astonishing that this has happened in less than two hundred years and most of it in the last fifty. The American identity is an exact and provable thing.

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, pp. 207-208