Monday, October 23, 2017

Fool's Goods

Today is the feast of St. Severinus Boethius in the Roman Martyrology. From the Consolation of Philosophy (Book III, Prose 8):

Will you strive to heap up money? But you will steal it from the one who has it. Would you wish to be resplendent in high offices? You will play the suppliant to the one who grants them to you, and so you who want to outdistance all others in honor will become worthless through the humiliation of having to beg for it. Do you desire power? You will be exposed to the plots of your subjects, and will subject yourself to risks and hazards. Should you seek glory? But you are dragged in all directions then, on each and every rough road, and so cease to be free from anxiety. Would you lead a life of pleasure? But who would not dismiss and push away what is the slave of this most worthless and fragile thing, the body?...

From all of these considerations, this is the sum total that it may be reduced to: these things, which cannot offer the goods that they promise, and which have not themselves been brought about by the convergence of all good things, do not lead to true happiness as if they were various true paths, nor do they themselves bring it about that people are perfectly happy.

[Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, Relihan, tr., Hackett (Indianapolis, IN: 2001) pp. 65-66.

The Third Policeman

Far and away my favorite postmodern novel is Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman; O'Brien, having had some success with At Swim-Two-Birds, tried to get the new work published by the same publisher, who rejected it on the ground that they wanted the author to be less fantastic, not more. It was only published after his death. I think it's an almost perfect blend of humor, seriousness, and absurdity (both humorous and serious).

The BBC put out an excellent, and I mean excellent, reading by Patrick Magee of an abridgement (quite a competent abridgement, too) of the work, which you can find online. It's a bit over two hours long. I highly recommend it. Magee hits everything perfectly, and has the knack of stating the most insane absurdities as if they were obvious facts only a child would deny, which is absolutely essential to capturing the spirit of the work.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Fortnightly Book, October 22

Learned, clear-headed, and practical, he fulfilled in all emergencies those three conditions which united ought to insure human success -- activity of mind and body, impetuous wishes, and powerful will. He might have taken for his motto that of William of Orange in the 17th century: "I can undertake and persevere even without hope of success."

The next fortnightly book is Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island, which is one of the most notable of the works Verne wrote in his own favorite genre, the robinsonade, that adventure of the intellect in which Man is faced with Nature, overcoming whatever the hostility of the latter may throw against him, and even turning it to human ends. Five Union prisoners of war escape from Confederate prison during the siege of Richmond by an improvised hot air balloon and are blown far off the map in a great storm. The balloon is damaged, and eventually they reach the limitations of what they can do to keep it aloft over the ocean, and must just trust to providence. They discover an island, exotic and filled with resources and dangers. But even allowing for that, the island has deeper secrets to uncover....

I'll also be watching the 2005 TV movie The Mysterious Island, which I happened recently to see in the cheap rack in the grocery store and, knowing that I would eventually be doing this book, picked up. It has an excellent cast, but it looks awful, and, indeed, the reviews of it are pretty uniformly negative, with one review I saw noting that it wasn't really Verne's story so much as an adaptation of it by random monkeys. The question is, Will this be gloriously awful, or just awful awful? In case it is the latter, which it might well be, CBS Radio Mystery Theater adapted the novel into a radio episode in 1977, so I'll do that as well; CBSRMT, being post-Golden-Age, is often uneven, but it's never simply awful.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard


Opening Passage:

Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Glorious and the Sorrowful Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word; love, virginity, death; and during taht hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream, as she usually was. (p. 5)

Summary: Don Fabrizio is Prince of Salina in Sicily, the head of an old and crumbling noble House. They are not in a poor way, but their great estates have steadily been sliced off to pay for this emergency and that debt, to be bought up by the up and coming members of the mercantile classes, such as Don Calogero, Mayor of Salina. Don Fabrizio is a popular aristocrat, in part because of a certain negligence and lack of rigor in the collection of taxes, in part because of the prestige of the family name, which despite its accelerating decline nonetheless keeps that most stable of legitimations, that of being the devil you know. But change is in the air, and soon Garibaldi, operating partly in defiance of his Piedmontese/Sardinian masters, brings Italian Unification to the island. There is some sympathy for it, especially among the mercantile classes, who see it in part as a way to modernize Sicility. While modernity may have partly passed Sicily by, the peasantry is not stupid, and they have been observant to see that these new nationalist governments pressed on others by liberal revolutionaries are not cheap, and that the reliable fallbacks for paying for them have tended to reduce to two: more ruthless forms of taxation, particularly on peasants, and expropriation of Church property. But their votes do not count; despite the foofaraw of a plebiscite, the No votes will simply be ignored, and not even acknowledged. Don Fabrizio, for his part, recognizes that there is nothing he can do to stop the change, and concerns himself most with trying to make sure his House will survive in some form, particularly by marrying his nephew Tancredi, neck deep in the new regime, to Don Calogero's lovely and, of course, wealthy daughter, Angelica. The tale, in short, is a tale of extinction, the extinction of the symbol of Don Fabrizio's House, the serval (or leopard, as it always is in English translation).

This is a novel that is driven very much more by character than by plot; it is chiefly a sort of sketch of Don Fabrizio as he passes through the most significant change of his life. There is a lot of talk and relatively little action, and what story we get is mostly just change of circumstance. It is far from being dull, however, as the problems are genuinely human problems, and the style of the novel in its description of them is excellent -- a very balanced mix of bittersweetness and humor.

The style reminds me a great deal of Flaubert, although Lampedusa is consistently more humorous than Flaubert. Since Lampedusa was an enthusiast for French literature, there may indeed be some direct influence, but what particularly draws the mind to the parallel is the extremely polished description. There is never anything haphazard about it, and one can tell from the balance of events, from the very careful preparation and articulation of figures of speech, and from the fact that you can pick almost any passage at random and find some very carefully developed verbal excellence, that the author spent a great deal of time on every word of every sentence. As with Flaubert, this results in parts that are undeniably perfect and a totality that will seem either flawless or else artificial and absurdly overstretched, depending on the mood in which you read it. But the focus on character fits this well; it really is more of a series of episodes than a definite plot.

Archibald Colquhoun's translation is very nice -- it is smooth and readable, full of humor and vividness of description.

Favorite Passage:

"As for the boy, you know him; and if you did not, I am here to guarantee him in every possible way. There is endless good in him, and it is not only I who say so. Isn't that true, Father Pirrone?"

The excellent Jesuit, dragged from his reading, found himself suddenly facing an unpleasant dilemma. He had been Tancredi's confessor, and he knew quite a number of his little failings: none of them very serious, of course, but such as to detract a good deal from the endless goodness of which the Prince had spoken; and all of them such (he almost felt like saying) as to guarantee the firmest marital infidelity. This, of course, could not actually be said both for sacramental reasons and from worldly convention. On the other hand he liked Tancredi, and though he disapproved of the wedding with all his heart, he would never say a word which could either impede it or in any way cloud its course. He took refuge in Prudence, most tractable of the cardinal virtues. "The fund of goodness in our dear Tancredi is great indeed, Don Calogero, and sustained by Divine Grace and by the earthly virtues of Signorina Angelica he may become, one day, an excellent Christian husband." The prophecy, risky but prudently conditional, passed muster. (pp. 126-127)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard, Colquhoun, tr. Pantheon Books (New York: 2007).

Friday, October 20, 2017

Tent of Meeting

The wondrous form of the tent of meeting, and later, of Solomon's temple, erected as it was according to divine specifications, was considered an image of the entire creation, assembled in worship and service around its Lord....As the heavens in the creation story were stretched out like a carpet, so carpets were prescribed as walls for the tent. as the waters of the earth were separated from the waters of the heavens, so the curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the outer rooms. The "bronze" sea is modeled after the sea that is contained by its shores. The seven-branched light in the tent stands for the heavenly lights. Lambs and birds stand for the swarms of life teeming in the water on the earth, and in the air. And as the earth is handed over to people, s in the sanctuary there stands the high priest "who is purified to act and to serve before God." Moses blessed, anointed, and sanctified the completed house as the Lord blessed and sanctified the work of his hands on the seventh day. The Lord's house was to be a witness to God on earth just as heaven and earth are witnesses to him (Dt 30:19).

St. Edith Stein, The Hidden Life: Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts, Stein, tr., ICS Publications (Washington, DC: 2014), p. 9.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Two Poem Drafts

Sounding Alleluia

Ah, lately lucid yellow Sun,
alleluia is your song;
a low and lively air you sing.
Allow a lesser bard to praise
your hallowed light, your holy ray,
and let with love your splendor shine
on lilting linnet's psalm of day.
Though lowly, I will learn the tune;
though little, I will leap in voice,
and, loud and lofty, I will verse
a sounding alleluia.

Perilously Fair

The impossibly desired
is the fountain of despair,
formed with frame of fire
and perilously fair.
Who ascends to touch the sun
will perish on that stair;
by light on light will be undone,
by perilously fair.

Some glory only stands alone;
it is not ours to share.
Splendor's splendor is not our own,
so perilously fair;
our human hands can never hold,
guarded, must then beware
never to be over-bold
with the perilously fair.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Figment of His Imagination

It is impossible for a formal effect to be separated from form; but to exist is a formal effect of form, for form is defined as that which gives existence (esse) to a thing; therefore it is impossible to posit existence without form. For just as it is impossible that there be white without whiteness, so it is impossible to be in act without act. But to give existence (esse) belongs to first act, which is the same as form. Therefore, from the proposition, matter exists without any form, it follows that contradictories would be simultaneously true. From the fact that matter exists, it follows that it is in act; on the other hand, from the fact that it exists without any form, it follows that it is not in act. Scotus gives some kind of answer to this, which we omit because it is a figment of his imagination, and unworthy of him.

Cajetan, Commentary on St. Thomas Aquinas's On Being & Essence, Kendziersi & Wade, trs. Marquette UP (Milwaukee, WI: 2014), p.187. Scotist-Thomist disputes are sometimes more amusing than one might think.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, martyr, the third bishop of Antioch, and, according to tradition, appointed by St. Peter himself. From his letter to the Smyrnaeans (ch. 6):

Let no man deceive himself. Both the things which are in heaven, and the glorious angels, and rulers, both visible and invisible, if they believe not in the blood of Christ, shall, in consequence, incur condemnation. "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." Let not [high] place puff any one up: for that which is worth all is a faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred. But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty.

Purple Eyes and Seas of Liquid Leaves

Patience, Hard Thing
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.

Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
No-where. Natural heart's-ivy Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.

We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us wé do bid God bend to him even so.

And where is he who more and more distills
Delicious Kindness? - He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.