Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Single Sword to Thee

O God of Earth and Altar
by G. K. Chesterton


O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

This was written in 1906.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sympathy with the Dead

An interesting passage from Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (II.1.2.5):

If the injured should perish in the quarrel, we not only sympathize with the real resentment of his friends and relations, but with the imaginary resentment which in fancy we lend to the dead, who is no longer capable of feeling that or any other human sentiment. But as we put ourselves in his situation, as we enter, as it were, into his body, and in our imaginations, in some measure, animate anew the deformed and mangled carcass of the slain, when we bring home in this manner his case to our own bosoms, we feel upon this, as upon many other occasions, an emotion which the person principally concerned is incapable of feeling, and which yet we feel by an illusive sympathy with him. The sympathetic tears which we shed for that immense and irretrievable loss, which in our fancy he appears to have sustained, seem to be but a small part of the duty which we owe him. The injury which he has suffered demands, we think, a principal part of our attention. We feel that resentment which we imagine he ought to feel, and which he would feel, if in his cold and lifeless body there remained any consciousness of what passes upon earth. His blood, we think, calls aloud for vengeance. The very ashes of the dead seem to be disturbed at the thought that his injuries are to pass unrevenged. The horrors which are supposed to haunt the bed of the murderer, the ghosts which, superstition imagines, rise from their graves to demand vengeance upon those who brought them to an untimely end, all take their origin from this natural sympathy with the imaginary resentment of the slain. And with regard, at least, to this most dreadful of all crimes, Nature, antecedent to all reflections upon the utility of punishment, has in this manner stamped upon the human heart, in the strongest and most indelible characters, an immediate and instinctive approbation of the sacred and necessary law of retaliation.

It's also a nice example of the Smithian way with a phrase; I particularly like the part about our imaginations animating "anew the deformed and mangled carcass of the slain".

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Fortnightly Book, December 10

The last fortnightly book of the year will be one of my favorites, G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, which was published in 1908. The subtitle is important; as Chesterton remarked in his Illustrated Daily News column for June 13, 1936:

It was a very melodramatic sort of moonshine, but it had a kind of notion in it; and the point is that it described, first a band of the last champions of order fighting against what appeared to be a world of anarchy, and then the discovery that the mysterious master both of the anarchy and the order was the same sort of elemental elf who had appeared to be rather too like a pantomime ogre. This line of logic, or lunacy, led many to infer that this equivocal being was meant for a serious description of the Deity; and my work even enjoyed a temporary respect among those who like the Deity to be so described. But this error was entirely due to the fact that they had read the book but had not read the title page. In my case, it is true, it was a question of a subtitle rather than a title. The book was called The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

The book was written during Chesterton's Anglican period, and has become a classic. It was one of Orson Welles's favorite books, which is why his Mercury Theater of the Air did a production of it, which I've talked about before here. I'll be listening to it again.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Introduction

Opening Passages: From Alice:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversations?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

From Looking-Glass:

One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it:--it was the black kitten's fault entirely. For the white kitten had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering); so you see that it couldn't have had any hand in the mischief.

Summary: Both of Carroll's most famous works are attempts to capture, in a basic sort of fairy-tale narrative, the imagination of children. This is particularly obvious with Through the Looking-Glass, which, while it gets its structure from the chess game, gets its content from nursery rhymes, but it is true throughout. This is perhaps the simplest way to capture the new thing that Carroll was attempting: a fairy tale, but elaborated as much as possible from the perspective of a child of seven and a half years (as we discover Alice is in Through the Looking-Glass). This is a shift, since fairy tales typically had not been, indeed still aren't, constructed in an attempt to mimic a child's own imagination. The result is inevitably episodic; the overarching plots, to get to the garden party and to get queened, are minimal, and one thing comes after another in quick succession, and without much rhyme and reason. Carroll himself recognized this as a potential issue in his essay, Alice on the Stage, and attributes to his tendency simply to be struck by ideas and develop them on their own, but it fits with the child's-perspective approach.

In this sense, 'nonsense' is a misleading name for the genre; it is really concerned with fragmentary sense. It's not that the White Rabbit is nonsense; it's that the White Rabbit is sense on its own, and that is all. As Carroll notes in the same essay:

And the White Rabbit, what of him? Was he framed on the `Alice’ lines, or meant as a contrast? As a contrast, distinctly. For her `youth’, `audacity’, `vigour’, and `swift directness of purpose’, read `elderly’, `timid’, `feeble’, and `nervously shilly-shallying’, and you will get something of what I meant him to be. I think the White Rabbit should wear spectacles. I am sure his voice should quaver, and his knees quiver, and his whole air suggest a total inability to say `Bo’ to a goose!

The White Rabbit is not an allegory, but a fragment capable of serving as allegory for the oddness, from a child's perspective, of the adult tendency to rush around and 'nervously shilly-shally'. The nonsense is that of the adult world insofar as its sense cannot be fully grasped by a child. Thus the baffling conversations, which are like the conversations children sometimes have to get through with adults in which they don't understand half of the assumptions being made; hence the arbitrariness of the examination for being queen, or the endless tumble of apparently incomprehensible punishments. If you see the world of adult sense with a child's partial perspective and imagination, that is the sort of 'nonsense' that we get in the Alice books. In both books this is mediated by the fact that it is supposed to be a dream; this, however, I think mostly serves to help the adult reader get a foothold in a child's world, where the difference between dream and waking is not so sharp because the latter does not always seem as obviously more coherent than the former.

But all this is, perhaps, a bit too serious; it's not an allegory for children among adults, although it uses something of that as a basis. It's a lot of silliness, of course, just for the sake of it. There is, of course, a great deal of humor throughout. I found the tendency of the Looking-Glass folk to recite poetry to Alice whether she wanted to hear or not rather funnier than I remembered.

Favorite Passages: From Alice:

The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought: still it had very long claws and a great many teeth, so she felt that it ought to be treated with respect.

‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

‘—so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.

‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

Alice felt that this could not be denied, so she tried another question.

From Looking-Glass:

'I know what you're thinking about,' said Tweedledum: 'but it isn't so, nohow.'

'Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.'

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Two New Poem Drafts

A Devil Rogue Yet Debonair

She saw him in the lunar light
on moonlit night of storm and dark;
the moon was horned and icy-bright
and painted shadows black and stark.
The wind was whipping through his hair,
a devil rogue yet debonair.

On nights of waning moon he went,
where lonely bent the wilder roads;
they say he howled from yearning pent;
they say his eyes with fury glowed.
A melancholy air he bore,
and sorrow like a mantle wore.

She loved him as a woman can;
a fire ran from eye to eye,
and all the charm of mortal man
like lightning from the tempest sky
upon her forest-heart then burned,
and, for a while, her love he earned.

But madness like contagious blight
of deadening spite through thought did spread;
his blood in fever raged at night
and ceaseless through the country led,
a second rot to turn love bad.
The first: that she a husband had.

As love grew stronger, she grew less,
as in each breath his passion grew,
an aching yearning to possess,
the power sought by love untrue.
For love seeks ways it may endure,
and impure love seeks ways impure.

He bade her swear to be his own
as shone the moon with wicked horn,
a vow to be like granite stone,
as if the wedded bond were torn.
She did; his words like heaven were,
for sweetness she her hell incurred.

such bonds are self-inflicted curse;
such thirsts can never steady last.
They soon will move from worse to worse
and worst of all as worse is passed.
You know it well, despite all lie:
a faithless love will faithless die.

She grew to hope, but he to tire;
the liar cast her off to roam.
She longed for death with heart's desire.
Her corpse is now beneath the loam.
Her husband wept in sable dressed;
his prayers alone her gravestone blessed.

And he, more driven night by night
as light of moon grew cold and fierce,
in madness born of moonlit sight
her shade he saw; his heart was pierced,
and madness from from its core,
and through his blood in fury poured.

Upon the rocks he cast his frame --
but blamed not he his own cruel deed.
And round his body demons flamed,
for sin to hell is as the seed.
A path through judgment ever goes,
and curse to loss like river flows.

She saw him in the lunar light,
on moonlit night of storm and dark.
The moon was horned and icy-bright
and painted shadows black and stark.
The wind was whipping through his hair,
a devil rogue and debonair.

Dionysian Cantillation

From the Father of lights a light goes out,
all-informing, undivided,
without confusion diversifying,
ever same and never changing.
Illuminated, the mind is exalted,
rising up to understanding,
where knower and known are one,
as spirits live in splendid choir.
But human thought is matter-mixed,
never rising on its own.
Through ministry of spirits bright,
a golden strand in heaven fixed,
the soul may put aside its chains,
seek the truth and find the truth,
and be restored to beauty.
Thrice by thrice does providence
enact through spirits endless things:
its first work, love, undying burns;
illumination springs from love;
righteous purity proceeds from both;
sublime in triple splendor,
these shape the world in threefold way,
by authority, by order, and by strength,
which are exercised in threefold way,
by presidence, by method, and by service due.
Thus ever spirit flows from light,
a light beyond what sight can see,
first in gift and first in splendor,
shining through each spiritual rank
like rays of sun through crystal pure.
Each order heralds those above it,
each manifesting from beginning to end,
each receiving from the light,
each instructing those below it.
Through hierarchies flows down endless light
to human hearts, by spirits taught
as eye is taught by burning lamp.
Rising, human reason travels
up that ladder raised to heaven,
growing ever more integral,
shining bright step by step,
until it is so bright with shining
it is life from light and without end.

Immaculata

Feast of the Immaculate Conception

By your Yes, O maiden, you made Truths true.
The prophets had spoken great things to come;
through your faith those prophecies were fulfilled.
They were the words of God, who does not lie,
and by the Son you bore they were made true.

So great a thing it is to bear the Lord!
And yet your faith is greater than that deed!
As you were made our Mother on His cross,
for our defense, O Mary, intercede!

By your Yes, O maiden, you gave us light,
for Light was born from your unsullied sky.
In His light, the light of God we will see
for from you comes a Priest forevermore,
the Lamb upon the Throne, who is our Light.

So great a thing it is to bear the Lord!
And yet your faith is greater than that deed!
As you were made our Mother on His cross,
for our defense, O Mary, intercede!

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Honey from the Swarm

Today is the feast of St. Aurelius Ambrosius, better known in English as St. Ambrose of Milan, Doctor of the Church. He was in any many ways the most Roman of the Church Fathers. He was born in Gallia Belgica (modern day Belgium/Luxembourg/Netherlands) to a Roman family involved in the government there; he studied at Rome, and eventually was made governor of Aemilia-Liguria, whose capital, Mediolanum or Milan, was at the time the second most important city in the Empire in honors, and in practical importance probably the first. Milan had been rent by the controversy over Arianism, and its Arian bishop, Auxentius, had been one of the major Arian polemicists; after Auxentius's death, Ambrose went to the church to keep order, because the election of the bishop was likely to cause a serious uproar regardless of who was chosen. When he tried to give a speech encouraging people to be peaceful about the election, however, the crowd starting chanting "Ambrose, bishop!" While Ambrose was Christian, he was (like a lot of Romans at the time) merely a catechumen; he had never been baptized. Ambrose fled to a friend's house, but the Emperor Gratian had heard about the people's choice and sent a letter formally congratulating them on the excellent choice -- at which point Ambrose basically had very little choice. He was baptized, confirmed, ordained, and consecrated bishop of the second most important see in the West, all in the same week. And Ambrose, Roman to the core when it came to duty and honor, took it seriously; he started devoted himself to the study of theology, gave away most of his wealth, and began living ascetically. It actually turned out quite well; his top-notch Roman education, devoted to making him an excellent contributor to Roman government, had trained him for administration and public speaking and made him fluent in Greek, an increasingly rare thing in the West. This would be important in the fights to come, as he had showdown after showdown with increasingly powerful Arian patrons, including, eventually, Imperial ones.

From his work De officiis ministrorum (Book II, Chapter II), which adapts, fairly radically, the Ciceronian approach to ethics to Christian ethics:

The philosophers have made a happy life to depend, either (as Hieronymus) on freedom from pain, or (as Herillus) on knowledge. For Herillus, hearing knowledge very highly praised by Aristotle and Theophrastus, made it alone to be the chief good, when they really praised it as a good thing, not as the only good; others, as Epicurus, have called pleasure such; others, as Callipho, and after him Diodorus, understood it in such a way as to make a virtuous life go in union, the one with pleasure, the other with freedom from pain, since a happy life could not exist without it. Zeno, the Stoic, thought the highest and only good existed in a virtuous life. But Aristotle and Theophrastus and the other Peripatetics maintained that a happy life consisted in virtue, that is, in a virtuous life, but that its happiness was made complete by the advantages of the body and other external good things.

But the sacred Scriptures say that eternal life rests on a knowledge of divine things and on the fruit of good works. The Gospel bears witness to both these statements. For the Lord Jesus spoke thus of knowledge: “This is eternal life, to know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent.” About works He gives this answer: “Every one that hath forsaken house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My Name’s sake, shall receive an hundred-fold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”

...

Faith, then, has [the promise of] eternal life, for it is a good foundation. Good works, too, have the same, for an upright man is tested by his words and acts. For if a man is always busy talking and yet is slow to act, he shows by his acts how worthless his knowledge is: besides it is much worse to know what one ought to do, and yet not to do what one has learnt should be done. On the other hand, to be active in good works and unfaithful at heart is as idle as though one wanted to raise a beautiful and lofty dome upon a bad foundation. The higher one builds, the greater is the fall; for without the protection of faith good works cannot stand. A treacherous anchorage in a harbour perforates a ship, and a sandy bottom quickly gives way and cannot bear the weight of the building placed upon it. There then will be found the fulness of reward, where the virtues are perfect, and where there is a reasonable agreement between words and acts.

One of Ambrose's hagiographical symbols is a beehive (he is also patron saint of practically anything bee-related). According to the story, when Ambrose was a baby, he was suddenly surrounded by a swarm of bees. After he was rescued, he turned out to be completely unharmed, indeed, unaffected in any way, except for a drop of nectar or honey on his cheek. His family is said to have regarded it as an omen that he would be an eloquent orator. It's a good emblem for Ambrose's life during the Arian swarm.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Star and Soup

Star of the Evening
by James M. Sayle


Beautiful star in heav’n so bright,
Softly falls thy silv’ry light,
As thou movest from earth afar,
Star of the evening, beautiful star.

Beautiful star,
Beautiful star,
Star of the evening, beautiful star.

In Fancy’s eye thou seem’st to say,
Follow me, come from earth away.
Upward thy spirit’s pinions try,
To realms of love beyond the sky.

Beautiful star,
Beautiful star,
Star of the evening, beautiful star.

Shine on, oh star of love divine,
And may our soul’s affection twine
Around thee as thou movest afar,
Star of the twilight, beautiful star.

Turtle Soup
by Lewis Carroll


Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Beau–ootiful Soo–oop!
Beau–ootiful Soo–oop
Soo–oop of the e–e–evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,
Game or any other dish?
Who would not give all else
for two pennyworth only of Beautiful Soup?
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?

Beau–ootiful Soo–oop!
Beau–ootiful Soo–oop!
Soo–oop of the e–e–evening,
Beautiful, beauti–FUL SOUP!