David Bentley Hart’s grocery list

– The notion that there is any milk in this house is a laughable error, one that could be committed only by the most willfully imperspicacious of observers;

– That we need bread is a conclusion inescapable to any but the most doltish and slack-witted of my co-residents;

– The fatuousness of the belief that a carton of orange juice resides in the refrigerator is so palpably evident that I struggle to comprehend that I must, after all, refute it;

– That any sugar may be found anywhere in this domicile is demonstrably false, and only a fool or a knave, or some unfortunate who contrives to be both at once, could affirm otherwise;

– The claim that we are in no need of beer is so flagrantly nonsensical that one could be forgiven considerable exasperation at the perceived need to signal its nullity — and yet such a requirement remains in force, such that silence on my part would constitute an effectual concession to idiocy;

– I pity the fool who thinks we have coffee.

the future of Christian educational institutions

Carl Trueman writes about the future of Christian higher education:

Thus, for Christian educational institutions, the way ahead may be very hard. It will not simply be a matter of budgeting without federal loans. It could easily become a matter of budgeting without not-for-profit status. That double whammy is likely to annihilate many of those institutions which refuse to accommodate themselves to the dominant sexual culture. And that means that educators may need to look to new models of pursuing their callings.

The current struggle probably cannot be won in the law courts — certainly not until there are deeper changes in the ethos of society. Laws that may be used to dismantle Christian educational institutions are already on the books. How they are to be applied will be determined by the dominant taste or cultural sentiment.

Therefore every Christian institution of higher education needs to be pursuing “financial planning for the worst-case scenario, where not only federal money but also tax-exempt status is revoked.” Trueman has other things to say as well, but I want to focus on this point, and to indicate another dimension that he does not address.

As I have noted in another venue, calls are already being made for Christian institutions to lose their accreditation also. Many Christian colleges will be unable to survive losing federal aid for their faculty and students alike; those that can survive that may not be able to afford their taxes once they lose their traditional exemption; but a loss of accreditation is likely to be the death knell for all of them, because that will dramatically reduce the number of students who apply for admission. Students with degrees from unaccredited institutions are deemed ineligible for almost all graduate education, and for many jobs as well. How many parents, even devoutly Christian parents, even those few who can afford it (given the lack of federal student aid), will be willing to pay to send their children to institutions if that narrows their future horizons so dramatically? Almost none, I suspect.

The people who argue that Christian institutions should support the modern left’s model of sexual ethics or else suffer a comprehensive shunning do not think of themselves as opponents of religion. And they are not, given their definition of religion, which is “a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought”. But that is not what Christianity is. Christianity intrinsically, necessarily involves embodied action in the public world. And this the secular left cannot and will not tolerate, if it can help it, because it rightly understands that Christianity stands opposed to the secular left’s own gospel, which, popular opinion notwithstanding, is not essentially about sex but rather may be summed up as: “I am my own.”

All this to say that while I agree with Trueman that Christian institutions need to plan for a dark financial future, I also believe that the Christian community as a whole needs to plan for a future in which most or all of its educational institutions have been forced either to close or to accommodate themselves to Gnostic disembodiment. What does Christian formation — paideia and catechesis — look like in a world in which many of the institutions that have long supported that formation have been shut down or substantively eviscerated? In relation to these issues, that is the question that Christian need to be asking. Because, I am convinced, that moment is coming: maybe not in the next decade, maybe not even in my lifetime, but certainly within the lifetimes of many reading this blog post.

Trouble No More

The Crown

Broken Earth

why Zadie Smith writes

To speak personally, the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life.

— in the Guardian, 13 January 2007. This comes closer than anything I have ever seen to describing my own reasons for writing.

Adam Zagajewski, “The Self”

It is small and no more visible than a cricket
in August. It likes to dress up, to masquerade,
as all dwarfs do. It lodges between
granite blocks, between serviceable
truths. It even fits under
a bandage, under adhesive. Neither customs officers
nor their beautiful dogs will find it. Between
hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.
It camps in the Rocky Mountains of the skull.
An eternal refugee. It is I and I,
with the fearful hope that I have found at last
a friend, am it. But the self
is so lonely, so distrustful, it does not
accept anyone, even me.
It clings to historical events
no less tightly than water to a glass.
It could fill a Neolithic jar.
It is insatiable, it wants to flow
in aqueducts, it thirsts for newer and newer vessels.
It wants to taste space without walls,
diffuse itself, diffuse itself. Then it fades away
like desire, and in the silence of an August
night you hear only crickets patiently
conversing with the stars.

The Paige Compositor

Illustration from Paige’s patent application; click image for further information, and read this excellent article 

Monument Valley II

Thor: Ragnarok

gold dust and hero props

Annie Atkins is an immensely talented graphic designer who specializes in work for film — the image above is an example — and I’ve just started subscribing to her newsletter. In the newest installment she writes,

In early December I received a curious email from a Latvian man named Jānis claiming to have a large hoard of perfectly preserved but slightly yellowed paper from his great-grandfather’s 1930s stationery shop. Perfectly preserved but slightly yellowed paper is like gold dust in film graphics departments: no amount of tea-staining and ironing can make a paper prop look aged, but not like it was once dropped in a puddle. On The Grand Budapest Hotel the property buyer gave the graphics department three large boxes of paper salvaged from the old German Stasi offices, which felt so precious that we really only used it for making hero props. I only have about 20 sheets left from this haul now, so I ordered some more pieces from Jānis and, like he promised, it’s perfect. If you’d like to buy some, too, then you can use the code ATK20 for a 20% discount at his Etsy shop.

I had no idea that reproducing the look and feel of old paper was so difficult! Fascinating stuff. Also, check out the vintage toilet paper you can buy from Jānis:

“The Lord is with you”

Sermon by the Rev. Jessica Martin
Ely Cathedral, Advent 4 (24th December 2017)

Old Testament: 2 Sam. 7.1-11, 16

New Testament: Rom.16.25-27

Gospel: Luke 1.16-38

‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’

‘The Lord is with you’.  Gabriel’s greeting blazes into the life of time and hangs between him and the girl to whom he is speaking.  It is not a promise.  Promises are about the future.  This is now.

The angel who came to Abraham, back near the beginning of God’s story with his people – he uttered a promise. That angel said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son’.  Sarah was not in the room – not standing before the angel but listening from behind the wall of a tent, and she heard his prophecy with the kind of despair which makes people laugh – you will know that rejecting laugh that wards away sorrow, and keeps you safe from pain? – that was Sarah’s response to God’s promise. And the angel heard the despair, and overturned it, saying, ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’  And in due season she had a son.

But this angel, Gabriel, the messenger of God, speaks no promise. There is no narrative trajectory forward; no future fulfilment.  Although Mary converses with him, and although her obedience to the way of God is discovered through what she says, the pinpoint of the present moment seems to spread out over the whole encounter. So that it becomes hard for us, hearing what happened, to say when the moment wasthat God entangled himself into the life of her flesh and became a shining particle of the world he himself had made.  Does Gabriel’s greeting itself bring the life of God into her?  ‘The Lord is with you’.  God has spoken those words across the centuries, the millennia before this moment: ‘I AM with you’ he says to Moses at the burning bush; he speaks his presence through the prophets innumerable times; he affirms it in song and story, the great covenant assurance which yearns for our answering embrace, and which so quickly finds us slipping out from under the everlasting arms and heading perversely into the darkness.

But there is no yearning here.  This is a piece of the everlasting joy which Gabriel speaks – not words, but an act which brings the Word that makes all into the little room in which they stand, and fills it with himself.

So Mary’s question asks only to understand what is already with them, already happening.  ‘She pondered what sort of greeting this  might be’, writes Luke.  But the gift is already given, the favour already granted .  ‘The Lord is with you’.

It is always possible to draw back from the presence of God.  He will never overwhelm. The brightness of his presence is always mercifully shadowed by cloud, and the questions he asks can always meet with refusal.  But in this encounter the only mismatch is in understanding, in the faltering of the intellect before the impossible actions of God.  ‘How can this be?’  asks Mary.  The answer is the same answer as for Sarah: ‘For nothing will be impossible with God’. The difference in the two meetings is not a difference in God, but in the varying kinds of human response he met with – the one almost beyond hope, and the other illuminated with hope’s promise and open to the fulfilment which comes to her in Gabriel’s words.

And, like Sarah, with the joy comes pain – but the completeness of Mary’s embrace accepts the pain with the joy, and rejects nothing of what God brings. She will neither laugh nor turn away, but ponder all that comes to her without defence.

Gabriel goes on to speak to Mary of what shall be.  ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’. Even then she could, as anyone could, say ‘not me’.  But she would have to push away the delight of what has already been in the nature of God’s greeting.  In the actions of love it is very hard to say when fulfilment comes; it is there as much in the moment of understanding, the moment when you know that love speaks in the other’s presence, as ever it can be in the embraces which will follow.  And this is a love affair, where God will dare his own diminishment into absolute weakness, and all for love. The immensity of his intention floods his encounter with Mary, and she allows herself to be soaked in its life. It is as if she knows herself fully for the first time, just as in every love affair the heart of it is the sense of being fully known.

‘The Lord is with you’, says Gabriel. Not ‘the Lord be with you’ but ‘the Lord is with you.’  And, hearing that, she knows what to say. ‘Here am I’.  Here am I, the person who carries the Lord, because the Lord is with me.  And the I that I am shines with his presence because he spoke himself into my frail and ordinary life, until it shone with his light and I saw who I was transformed by it.  ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.’

And the word itself was already spoken at the very beginning. ‘The Lord is with you’.

The Lord is with us.  His promise is already here and we stand on the edge of Christmas contemplating the birth of God’s helplessness, the solid truth of his speechless presence in our arms.  We stand before an everlasting joy, until it spills into our own present, into this now of the end of 2017, reverberating there as it reverberates across all the whole of time, the everlasting in a little room, love who hurries towards us, love who is at the door, love who is already here.

For nothing is impossible with God.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 8

image from the one surviving manuscript of the poem

My friend Adam Roberts has some thoughts about this poem I’ve been considering and if he doesn’t commit them to writing at some point I’ll eat me wee woolen cap. But in the meantime I’ll just say that Adam thinks that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a poem about circumcision. He wrote to me (and I post this with his permission),

But isn’t this the larger structure of Gawain and the Green Knight? First, an as-it-were public symbolic circumcision, in front of the whole court, in which the mighty phallic knight somehow does and doesn’t get his top chopped off; and then the second act, in which the struggle is private, internalised, to do with Gawain resisting the temptations of Lady Bertilak, in the private space of a bed rather than the public space of a royal court; a struggle that has to do ‘with the heart’ in the romantic sense, but also in the sense that it’s about a different sort of danger than the sort in which a warrior puts himself in the way of battlefield harm. An inward danger. And it’s this latter danger that really defines Gawain’s courage. In a similar way Christ has to both put himself physically in the way of bodily pain and death, but also has to overcome his inner struggle, “let this cup pass” and so on. And really the passion marks a shift in emphasis from the former to the latter in the broadest sense, doesn’t it? Not that martyrs won’t suffer physically, but that physical pain, like physical purification, becomes less important than spiritual suffering and redemption…. Likewise judgement: before, transgression was physically punished, adulterous women stoned to death — and maybe the Green Knight’s axe is an executioner’s rather than a warrior’s axe — but after the punishment of transgression gets turned about, made into a focus for self-reflection on one’s own transgression, “let him who is without sin chop the first head off” as it were. So the Giant is OT justice, big and obvious and fatal; and Gawain’s journey leads him to a NT understanding of justice as forgiveness of sins, and inner fidelity.

How interesting, in light of this argument, that Gawain’s decisive encounter with the Green Knight happens on New Year’s Day, or, as it is known in the timekeeping of the Church, the Feast of the Circumcision.

When I read Adam’s comment I immediately thought of Harold Bloom’s famous early essay on “The Internalization of Quest-Romance”, which sees that internalization as something that happens in the Romantic era, but Adam’s reading shows it already at work in the 14th century, as part of the inevitable outworking of the logic of Pauline Christianity (which moves from external circumcision to the “circumcision of the heart.”) Gawain’s real quest is not the one that takes him through a wintery English landscape, but rather one that leads through the darkness of his own inner life.

I think Adam is exactly right to say that the poem is about law and grace, but I may read that relationship somewhat differently than he does. I want to emphasize again that Morgan le Fay accuses the Arthurian court of pride: they really do believe that they perfectly embody Chivalry. But Chivalry is a kind of code, a law, and the Green Knight comes to show that the best of Arthur’s knights is unfaithful to that code. In other words, he functions precisely as Paul says the Law does in Romans 7:

What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

In order that sin might be shown to be sin — this is the key. Paul was, as he says of himself, “a Pharisee of Pharisees,” a “blameless” man — or so he thought. But eventually the law taught him his own ineradicable sinfulness, and so he died, so the law killed him. Had it not been for the law, that fierce instructor, he would have gone along in self-satisfaction to his grave. But the law that killed him “is holy and just and good”: it killed what had to be killed in him, “in order that sin might be shown to be sin.”

And Gawain too experiences this — because of Bertilak and Morgan le Fay. They, though seeming to be his enemies, have in fact been his best friends, for they have shown him the truth about himself. He therefore wants to make sure he always remembers the lesson he has learned at the Green Chapel, and chooses the green garter the Lady gave him as an emblem of it:

“But the girdle,” he went on, “God bless you for this gift.
Not for all its ore will I own it with honor,
nor its silks and streamers, and not for the sake
of its wonderful workmanship or even its worth,
but as a sign of my sin — I’ll see it as such
when I swagger in the saddle — a sad reminder
that the frailty of his flesh is man’s biggest fault,
how the touch of filth taints his tender frame.

What I find especially noteworthy about Gawain’s response is what is absent from it. Paul’s account in Romans 7 of what sin taught him culminates in an outcry: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Which is immediately answered with: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Gawain seems to stop with “Wretched man that I am”: if he rejoices in the divine grace extended to him he does not say so.

Thus when he returns to Camelot, he bitterly confesses his failings:

“Regard,” said Gawain, grabbing the girdle,
“through this I suffered a scar to my skin —
for my loss of faith I was physically defaced;
what a coveting coward I became it would seem.
I was tainted by untruth and this, its token,
I will drape across my chest till the day I die.
For man’s crimes can be covered but never made clean;
once entwined with sin, man is twinned for all time.”

This doesn’t sound good: “never made clean”? “Twinned for all time”? (Note also that, to return to one of Adam’s points, the physical “defacement” — a cut on his neck — is nothing compared to Gawain’s internal suffering. His martyrdom is happening inside him.) Is there no one to rescue him from this body of death?

But if Gawain is trapped in despair, that can only be made worse by the invincible frivolity of the court:

The king gave comfort, then laughter filled the castle
and in friendly accord the company of the court
allowed that each lord belonging to their Order —
every knight in the brotherhood — should bear such a belt,
a bright green belt worn obliquely to the body,
crosswise, like a sash, for the sake of this man.
So that slanting green stripe was adopted as their sign.

For Gawain that sash marks a profound wound; it is not something to be celebrated, not an element of festivity. “Laughter filled the castle”? Gawain must have been wondering what there is to laugh about.

So if the court does not understand sin, Gawin, it seems, does not (yet) understand forgiveness. Which means that none of them at Camelot has escaped the realm of Law, with its inevitable oscillation between self-satisfaction and self-loathing. Another way to put this point is to say that none of them understands Christmas — and that, I think, is what this poem is all about. Let’s be reminded of the meaning of Christmas by Charles Wesley:

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

God bless us every one!


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 7

If you look closely at the picture above (by John Howe, the famous Tolkien illustrator) of Gawain’s confrontation with the Green Knight, you’ll see the pentangle on his shield. That is described much earlier in the poem:

First he was deemed flawless in his five senses;
and secondly his five fingers were never at fault;
and thirdly his faith was founded in the five wounds
Christ received on the cross, as the creed recalls.
And fourthly, if that soldier struggled in skirmish
one thought pulled him through above all other things:
the fortitude he found in the five joys
which Mary had conceived in her son, our Savior.
For precisely that reason the princely rider
had the shape of her image inside his shield,
so by catching her eye his courage would not crack.
The fifth set of five which I heard the knight followed
included friendship and fraternity with fellow men,
purity and politeness that impressed at all times,
and pity, which surpassed all pointedness. Five things
which meant more to Gawain than to most other men.
So these five sets of five were fixed in this knight,
each linked to the last through the endless line,
a five-pointed form which never failed,
never stronger to one side or slack at the other,
but unbroken in its being from beginning to end.

Sir Five-by-Five his friends called him, though probably not. In any case, here early in the story the poet is describing the images that represent what Gawain trusts in — above all, “the fortitude he found in the five joys / which Mary had conceived in her son, our Savior.”

And yet when faced with the prospect of meeting the Green Knight again, Gawain gives no thought to Mary or her Son. He trusts rather in the garter a certain lascivious lady gave him. (Isn’t he a little too old to believe in magical garters?) So how’s that going to turn out for him?

In the end: not so badly, because the Green Knight (Bertilak in disguise, we learn) really was playing a Christmas game after all. He never intended to chop Gawain’s head off; he just wanted to teach him, and the whole court of Arthur, a lesson. And the lesson is that they are guilty of pride — which is to say, it is a specifically Christian lesson that the the Knight wishes to teach.

Arthur’s court is a very self-satisfied place. They believe that they are the very flower of chivalry — and chivalry, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is comprised of courtesy and courage. But Gawain, by declining to keep his promise to his host, by hiding from him what he had received, failed in courtesy; and he did it because he was terrified of losing his life (a lack of courage he demonstrated once again at the moment of confrontation with the Knight). Yet Gawain is morally the best of all Arthur’s knights.

Now, you might respond that shitting your silken hose when faced with a an enormous green man threatening your neck with a “gigantic cleaver” is a pretty understandable human response. But Gawain, like other members of the Arthurian court, doesn’t think of himself as an ordinary human. Thus the Green Knight: “‘Call yourself good Sir Gawain?’ he goaded, / ‘who faced down every foe in the field of battle / but now flinches with fear at the foretaste of harm.’” In the end Gawain, who is supposedly the most chivalrous of Arthur’s knights, turns out to be a poor weak sinner like the rest of us. This is to him an intolerable revelation:

“Dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot
the fidelity and kindness which every knight knows.
As I feared, I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed.”

(Again, as I mentioned in an earlier post, this is a culture that takes the sin of “treachery” very seriously indeed.) Bertilak the Green doesn’t deny Gawain’s account — he implicitly accepts it — but rather plays the role of a priest pronouncing absolution:

“By confessing your failings you are free from fault
and have openly paid penance at the point of my axe.
I declare you purged, as polished and as pure
as the day you were born, without blemish or blame.”

As much as to say: “Of course you failed, just like everyone else. What matters is that you confessed your sins and may thus be forgiven.” But if even the noble Sir Gawain collapses under pressure, then what becomes of Camelotian Exceptionalism? And this is the lesson that Morgan le Fay — not here the enemy of Camelot but its moral instructor, playing the same role that Nathan plays to King David as the revealer of a true but previous hidden moral state — wants the Arthurian court to learn. Thus Bertilak: “She guided me in this guise to your great hall / to put pride on trial, and to test with this trick / what distinction and trust the Round Table deserves.” The answer to that test: it deserves not nearly as much distinction as its members think.

To be continued…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 6

As I noted in my previous post, Gawain’s deal with Bertilak is simple: What each takes during the course of the day he must exchange with the other. So Bertilak gives to Gawain the beasts he has killed, and Gawain gives to Bertilak … kisses, because those he exchanged with the lady. But what would Gawain have done if he had succumbed to temptation and bedded Bertilak’s wife? (“Who whom?” as Lenin asked.) I can’t help believing that the comedy here is intentional.

But we can only speculate about what might have happened, because Gawain does not bed the lady, despite her eagerness and persistence. Strangely, on that third day she gives up her pursuit of Mary’s knight. She merely asks him to wear, in her honor, a garter — a garter which, she explains, oh by the way, protects its wearer from any harm.

I’m reminded here of a story. A young accountant for a big company has been quietly embezzling for some time, and a co-worker has just tipped him off that he’s been found out, and will be called into the boss’s office the next morning to be (a) fired and (b) arrested. In despair, the accountant wanders for hours through the streets of the city, but clearly there is no way out for him — except one. He finds the highest point on the bridge over the river that rushes through the city, and prepares to leap to his death.

But at that very moment a wizened, wrinkled old woman wearing some peculiar kind of robe or cape steps forward and calls on him to stop. “I know what’s wrong with you,” she says. “I know what you’ve done. I know that all will be revealed in the morning, and your life will be ruined. But I can prevent it from happening.”

The accountant knows this is ridiculous, but he can’t stop himself from asking: “How?” And she explains to him that she knows what has happened because she is a witch — and her witchcraft gives her the power to replace all that stolen money in the company’s coffers, to make his crime as though it had never been, to cleanse him from all guilt. All he has to do, she adds, is one little thing: have sex with her that night.

He looks her over and reflects that the only things worse than having sex with her are suicide and prison. So he agrees. Later that night, at her apartment, he shudders a bit at what he’s just done but starts pulling his clothes back on and preparing for a new and better day. The old lady lifts herself a bit from the bed, pats him on the back, and says, “Thanks, dearie. But one more thing: Aren’t you a little old to believe in witches?”

Which brings us back to Sir Gawain, who certainly believes that the lady’s garter has magical power and that his return engagement with the Green Knight is going to be No Problem Atall. That evening he makes confession of his sins and “The priest declares him so clean and so pure / that the Day of Doom could dawn in the morning” and he’d be scot-free. All the people of Bertilak’s castle note how happy Gawain has become. Everything is looking up.

There’s just one problem: When he saw Bertilak earlier that evening and they exchanged gifts — Bertilak gave him a fox that had, unfortunately, been torn to pieces by dogs — all Gawain gave his host in return was another kiss. He kept the garter.

To be continued…

David Jones, in festo nativitatis

excerpts from my Sent folder: myth

I still think my analysis in that essay is useful, but I wrote it before what happened in Charlottesville, and long before Roy Moore’s Senate campaign, and if I were writing it now I’d write something rather different. I’d want to reckon with the counter-myths of covert or overt racism — in some cases plain old white supremacy — that affect life on campus even when the people involved don’t have any investment in university life and can, like Spencer, walk away after they’ve lit a few fires. My friend Chad Wellmon not only teaches at UVA but lives with his family on the Lawn, and when the neo-Klansmen stomped in with their tiki torches chanting their threats, you can imagine how his small children felt. But those people had no business on the grounds in the first place — they were supposed to be protesting the city of Charlottesville’s actions — they just wanted to intimidate, and since a public university is a public place, they could move freely into its space even when their only goal was to frighten.

Similarly, as I observed the Alabama Senate campaign I was struck by how completely Roy Moore’s supporters operated from within their own mythical core, how completely impervious they were to argument or debate (this is true of some of his opponents too, of course). My point is simply that these contests of competing myths happen throughout our society and the university can’t be isolated or protected from them. That is, we can’t fix the university-specific problems I pointed to without addressing some of the larger social issues. That people associated with a university would invite a hateful mythmonger like Richard Spencer to campus is a tragedy; but it’s a greater tragedy that someone like Spencer is a public figure at all. That’s not something that even the best university administration can fix.

I might add that when people say that they want conservative ideas to be represented on campus and then invite Ann Coulter or Milo or Richard Spencer to speak, they have zero interest in ideas. They just want to spit in their neighbor’s soup.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 5

At several points in the poem Gawain is referred to as “Mary’s knight,” and it certainly seems that here she has been gracious in answering his prayers. For immediately after he ends his prayer with his threefold self-crossing he discerns a place of refuge: a castle, inhabited by a gracious man named Bertilak and his lovely wife. They are delighted to have the famous Sir Gawain as their guest, and much Christmas festivity (at the table of feasting and at prayer in their chapel) is had by all.

Bertilak is a hunter, and on each of the following theee days he goes out on a hunt, leaving Gawain to rest and recuperate at home before he must proceed to the Green Chapel — which, he learns, is quite nearby. (O joy.) Bertilak and Gawain make a little agreement: each will bring to the other whatever he acquires during the course of the day. It’s, you might say, a Christmas game — though Gawain doesn’t seem to notice that in this it resembles an agreement he made with another stranger a year earlier.

This extremely complex and marvelously artful poem is very concerned with tacit and explicit agreements — with, as it were, the social contract of the Age of Chivalry. Some such concern arises in every pre-modern society: for instance, an awareness that in an often threatening and only partly civilized world we are often in desperate need of hospitality, and therefore must also be willing to offer such hospitality to others. You can see this theme going all the way back to the Odyssey, in which the Cyclops shows his barbarity by eating those whom he should treat as his guests, while back in Ithaca the suitors of Penelope show their barbarity by abusing her hospitality to them. So guests and hosts owe certain decencies to one another, and failure of those decencies is taken very seriously indeed in the premodern world; look at where the betrayers of guests and hosts are in Dante’s Inferno: in the very deepest circle of Hell.

But the temporary relations of guest and host are no more strictly governed than those permanent ones between lord and liegeman, which the Gawain poet is also interested in, as we saw at the beginning when none of Arthur’s knights came to his aid until Arthur’s offer of himself shamed Gawain into stepping up. And then there are the obligations one owes to the bond of marriage: chaste faithfulness within it, and for those outside, respect for its covenant. Those are about to come into play in this poem, but again, let me stress how concerned this poem is with all the forms of tacit and explicit agreement — all the promises we, either silently or verbally, make to one another. Much that in our world is governed by law was then governed by such personal promises. One’s words and one acts, including the acts of giving and receiving hospitality, must be one’s bond.

So what is Gawain supposed to do when, as Bertilak is out on his jolly hunts, the lady of the house starts hitting on him? At first she is relatively subtle, but soon enough she, as the poet says, makes her meaning quite plain. And now Gawain is in a bind indeed. For to have sex with her would be a double betrayal of Bertilak, would be to offend against the man as host and as husband. And yet knights are also sworn defenders and servants of ladies: they take pride in doing a lady’s bidding. But what if the lady is bidding you to give her a bit of rumpy-bumpy on a cold winter’s afternoon? What we see here is a moment when an entire moral system — the system of Courtesy — seems to be broken, or rather to be breaking right before Gawain’s eyes. For whatever he does he will inevitably he uncourteous to someone — he, known not as the most powerful or eloquent of Arthur’s men but rather the most courteous. The place that looked to be a respite before a great challenge has proved to be itself a challenge. What is Mary’s knight to do now?

To be continued…

David Jones, dum medium silentium

David Jones, Nativity with Beasts and Shepherds (1927)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 4

At several points in the poem Gawain is referred to as “Mary’s knight,” and it certainly seems that here she has been gracious in answering his prayers. For immediately after he ends his prayer with his threefold self-crossing he discerns a place of refuge: a castle, inhabited by a gracious man named Bertilak and his lovely wife. They are delighted to have the famous Sir Gawain as their guest, and much Christmas festivity (at the table of feasting and at prayer in their chapel) is had by all.

Bertilak is a hunter, and on each of the following theee days he goes out on a hunt, leaving Gawain to rest and recuperate at home before he must proceed to the Green Chapel — which, he learns, is quite nearby. (O joy.) Bertilak and Gawain make a little agreement: each will bring to the other whatever he acquires during the course of the day. It’s, you might say, a Christmas game — though Gawain doesn’t seem to notice that in this it resembles an agreement he made with another stranger a year earlier.

This extremely complex and marvelously artful poem is very concerned, it seems, with tacit and explicit agreements — with, as it were, the social contract of the Age of Chivalry. Some of this arises in every pre-modern society: for instance, an awareness that in an often threatening and only partly civilized world we are often in desperate need of hospitality, and therefore must also be willing to offer such hospitality to others. You can see this theme going all the way back to the Odyssey, in which the Cyclops shows his barbarity by eating those whom he should treat as his guests, while back in Ithaca the suitors of Penelope show their barbarity by abusing her hospitality to them. So guests and hosts owe certain decencies to each other, and failure of those decencies is taken very seriously indeed in the premodern world: look at where the betrayers of guests and hosts are in Dante’s Inferno: in the very deepest circle of Hell.

But the temporary relations of guest and host are no more strictly governed than those permanent ones between lord and liegeman, which the Gawain poet is also interested in, as we saw at the beginning when none of Arthur’s knights came to his aid until Arthur’s offer of himself shamed Gawain into it. And then there are the obligations one owes to the bond of marriage: chaste faithfulness within it, and for those outside, respect for its covenant. Those are about to come into play in this poem, but again, let me stress how concerned this poem is with something that the medieval world in general seems to have cared about very deeply: all the forms of tacit and explicit agreement — all the promises we, either silently or verbally, make to one another. Much that in our world is governed by law was then governed by such personal promises. One’s words and one acts, including the acts of giving and receiving hospitality, must be one’s bond.

So what is Gawain supposed to do when, as Bertilak is out on his jolly hunts, the lady of the house starts hitting on him? At first she is relatively subtle, but soon enough she, as the poet says, makes her meaning quite plain. And now Gawain is in a bind indeed. For to have sex with her would be a double betrayal of Bertilak, would be to offend against the man as host and as husband. And yet knights are also sworn defenders and servants of ladies: they take pride in doing a lady’s bidding. But what if the lady is bidding you to give her a bit of rumpy-bumpy on a cold winter’s afternoon?

What we see here is a moment when an entire moral system — the system of Courtesy — seems to be broken, or rather to be breaking right before Gawain’s eyes. For whatever he does he is to someone uncourteous — he, known not as the most powerful or eloquent or Arthur’s men but rather the most courteous. The place that looked to be a respite before a great challenge has proved to be itself a challenge. What is Mary’s knight to do now?

To be continued…

David Jones, Nativity with Shepherds

David Jones, Nativity

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 3


Once the voice has quietly spoken, every knight must ride alone
On the quest appointed him into the unknown:
One to seek the healing waters, one the Dark Tower to assail,
One to find the Lost Princess, one to find the Grail.

Through the wood of Evil Counsel, through the Desert of Dismay,
Past the Pools of Pestilence he must find the Way.
Hemmed between the Haunted Marshes and the Mountains of the Dead,
To the Valley of Regret and the Bridge of Dread.

— W. H. Auden, “Song of the Quest”

Gawain postpones his journey as long as he possibly can, for he can imagine no happy ending to the Quest laid upon him: to find the Green Chapel and receive from the Green Knight the promised reciprocation.

In this section of the poem, the passing of the year is marked by the calendar of the Church. It is on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (September 29) that Gawain thinks he should leave Camelot and begin his search. But he does not leave; he tarries. A month later, on All Saints’ Day (November 1) he realizes that he may tarry no longer, and on the next day he sets out.

That next day, as it happens, is the Feast of All Souls. The brilliant, eccentric, maverick scholar Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy believed that the creation of All Souls’ Day was a great revolution in Western culture, because it added to the existing cult of the saints — those holy ones who intercede for us at the throne of God — a salutary reminder of all of us, all the souls, who are on our pilgrimage and need one another’s prayers. All Souls’ Day reminds us that everyone still on the way, whether in this world or in Purgatory, needs the prayers of the faithful. It marks, Rosenstock-Huessy said, “the universal democracy of sinners under judgment.” And that, as we shall see later, is a democracy that matters very much to this poem.

In any case, once Gawain is on his way time ceases to be marked by the sacred calendar: instead, the poet describes for us an increasingly wintry landscape: bare trees and swirling winds in the wild wood, a wilderness — and in the Middle Ages “wilderness” was a word to conjure fear — in which the knight cannot confidently make his way. He does not know where to look he does not know what he is looking for.

Now through England’s realm he rides and rides,
Sir Gawain, God’s servant, on his grim quest,
passing long dark nights unloved and alone,
foraging to feed, finding little to call food,
with no friend but his horse through forests and hills
and only our Lord in heaven to hear him.

Finally he pauses to pray: “Father, hear me, / and Lady Mary, our mother most mild.” What he wants above all is a place “where mass may be heard, / and matins in the morning.” He ends his prayer and crosses himself three times. It is Christmas Eve.

To be continued…


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 2

Green Knight

All the visitor wants is to play a little “Christmas game” — but it appears that no one at Arthur’s court wants to play with him. Perhaps that’s because he is enormous and green.

a fearful form appeared, framed in the door:

a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,

a hulk of a human from head to hips,

so long and thick in his loins and his limbs

I should genuinely judge him to be a half giant,

or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.

But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,

for despite the bulk and brawn of his body

his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.

In fact in all features he was finely formed

          it seemed.

     Amazement seized their minds,

no soul had ever seen

a knight of such a kind —

entirely emerald green.

(It’s hard to get the “bob and wheel” — the short lines that end each stanza of the poem — to render accurately in HTML. In general, HTML is not made for the presentation of verse. Sorry.)

The knight clearly resembles the Green Man of European folklore, a kind of vegetation deity whose attitude towards humanity is ambiguous — he can be generous, he can be threatening. It is interesting, and perhaps relevant to this poem, that the Green Man is often represented in medieval churches, often as a stone carving, and sometimes in quite colorful form, as in this roof boss from Rochester Cathedral:

RochesterCathedral Boss1

Or maybe it’s the particular game he offers that’s the problem: for he carries with him a massive axe, a “gigantic cleaver,” and he suggests that one of Arthur’s knights should take it and chop his, the Green Knight’s, head clean off — and then, he says, in a year and a day he’ll return the favor.

No one steps up to volunteer — until, in the embarrassed silence, King Arthur himself does. This event could be read as a token of Arthur’s courtesy and courage, and surely there’s an element of that; but aren’t the knights sworn to protect and serve their liege lord? Should they not be interposing themselves between their king and this terrifying stranger?

Only when Arthur offers himself does one knight, Gawain, acknowledge that the whole situation is rapidly becoming humiliating:

For I find it unfitting, as my fellow knights would,

when a deed of such daring is dangled before us

that you take on this trial — tempted as you are —

when brave, bold men are seated on these benches,

men never matched in the mettle of their minds,

never beaten or bettered in the field of battle.

I am weakest of your warriors and feeblest of wit;

loss of my life would be grieved the least.

Were I not your nephew my life would mean nothing;

to be born of your blood is my body’s only claim.

Such a foolish affair is unfitting for a king,

so, being first to come forward, it should fall to me.

This is throwing some serious shade on all the other knights, who (if he speaks true) are all more powerful and/or wiser than he. But none of them moves a muscle. So forward Gawain steps and takes the axe.

The Green Knight tells Gawain to search him out in a year — to seek a place called the Green Chapel, where he will wait for Gawain. However, Arthur whispers to Gawain that if he gives the fellow’s neck a truly serious whack, he won’t have to worry about what might happen in a year. Sage counsel; so Gawain lifts the “gigantic cleaver” high and lops the visitor’s head clean off. Problem solved!

Except …

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth

and the king’s men kick it as it clatters past.

Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,

yet the man doesn’t shudder or stagger or sink

but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs

and rummages around, reaches at their feet

and cops hold of his head and hoists it high,

and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,

steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle

still gripping his head by a handful of hair.

Then he settles himself in his seat with the ease

of a man unmarked, never mind being minus his head!

He then reminds Gawain of his obligations, bids everyone farewell, and rides away, leaving them to contemplate the great feast that’s growing cold on their plates.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

To be continued…

A Child is Born

Althea Willoughby, illustration for A Child Is Born by Henry Newbolt

Nativity in Ivory

Sir Gawain Is Rising

The estimable Robert Macfarlane has helped to organize a group reading on Twitter of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The choice makes sense: it’s the most-loved entry in a much-loved series of books, and its action begins on Christmas Eve and continues to the end of the Christmas season.

And yet the book really has nothing to do with Christmas. It takes narrative advantage of the warm associations people have with Christmas, but Cooper makes a point early in the novel of emphasizing the falsity and ineffectuality of Christianity. Now, of course, I wouldn’t say that the book should therefore be avoided — I have spent my entire adult life studying and teaching books by people who are indifferent towards Christianity, or who despise it, or who know nothing about it at all — but as a Christian I think I might want to make a different choice for reading this season.

So here’s my suggestion: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th century poem by an unknown writer from England’s West Midlands — where J. R. R. Tolkien, who translated the poem, is also from. Not only do we know nothing about the author, but the poem itself, along with three others apparently by the same person, survived in a single manuscript, thanks to the antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton. The poem is written in alliterative verse, which most translations attempt to replicate at least to some degree.

By far the best of those translations, I believe, is the one by Simon Armitage.

It was Christmas at Camelot — King Arthur’s court,

where the great and the good of the land had gathered,

all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table

quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure.

Time after time, in tournaments of joust,

they had lunged at each other with leveled lances

then returned to the castle to carry on their caroling,

for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,

with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.

The hubbub of their humor was heavenly to hear:

pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,

so the house and its hall were lit with happiness

and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.

Such a coming together of the gracious and the glad:

the most chivalrous and courteous knights known to Christendom…

And then a strange and utterly unexpected guest appeared — to propose a “Christmas game.”

To be continued…

Craigie Aitchison, “Nativity and Angels”

Les Murray, “Animal Nativity”

The Iliad of peace began
when this girl agreed.
Now goats in trees, fish in the valley
suddenly feel vivid.

Swallows flit in the stable as if
a hatching of their kind,
turned human, cried in the manger
showing the hunger-diamond.

Cattle are content that this calf
must come in human form.
Spiders discern a water-walker.
Even humans will sense the lamb,

He who frees from the old poem
turtle-dove and snake,
who gets death forgiven
who puts the apple back.

Dogs, less enslaved but as starving
as the poorest human there,
crouch, agog at a crux of presence
remembered as a star.

Pirate and Traveler

Pirate and Traveler geographical board game (1906), from the Bodleian Library

over the bluff and not-so-far away

I’ve been spending a few days of retreat and reflection at the amazing Laity Lodge, whose ministry of hospitality to writers, musicians, artists, and lovers of the arts is one of the best things in Texas — which is to say, one of the best things in the whole world.

On my way down here I decided to stop at a place I hadn’t visited before, Lost Maples State Natural Area — not for the autumn color, which has passed, but just to take a look around. And even post-bright-foliage, it’s a beautiful place:

IMG 2020

And a river (the Sabinal) runs through it:

IMG 2032

After hiking around a while, I headed down the road a bit and took State Road 337 over the hill towards Leakey — and it’s a pretty serious hill. Here’s the view from one of the higher places on the road:

IMG 2059

Then on to Leakey, and up Highway 83 to Laity Lodge, which you can only get to by driving through the Frio River:

IMG 2064

I never get tired of that. While there, I did some hiking around up above the lodge and the river:

IMG 2109

And here’s something I never realized until this visit. If I were to hike up that bluff you see a glimpse of on the other side of the river, probably bushwhacking some of the time, but still hiking for only 45 minutes or so, and got to the top and started descending the other side, you know where I would be? Lost Maples.

Eight Donkeys

Huang Zhou (1997)


門 (Mon, Gate), 2014, 140 cm by 100 cm., by Kanazawa Shōko

Crowley, Pynchon, and the hippies

In The Solitudes, the first volume of John Crowley’s Aegypt series, the series’ protagonist Pierce Moffett reflects:

He had the idea that not many children had been conceived in the year of his own conception, most potential fathers being then off to war, only those with special disabilities (like Pierce’s own) being left to breed. He was too young to be a beatnik; later, he would find himself too old, and too strictly reared, to be a success as a hippie.

Pierce was born in 1942 — the same year as John Crowley himself, whom he does not in other obvious respects resemble — which means that he would have been a child when the beatniks emerged, but well into adulthood when the Era of the Hippie began. Pierce was therefore born between two possibilities of rebellion against bourgeois conventionality, possibilities at which he could look longingly but into which he could never fully enter.

Thomas Pynchon is five years older than the fictional Pierce Moffett and the nonfictional John Crowley, but in his introduction to Slow Learner, a collection of his early short stories, he describes precisely the same experience. When he returned to university (Cornell) after spending a couple of intermission years in the Navy, he found that he and his classmates “were at a transition point, a strange post-Beat passage of cultural time…. Unfortunately there were no more primary choices for us to make. We were onlookers: the parade had gone by and we were already getting everything secondhand, consumers of what the media of the time were supplying us.“ The Beats had faded, but their commodified leftovers could be picked up at the local five-and-dime — or, by proxy, on TV.

So “when the hippie resurgence came along ten years later,“ Pynchon’s primary feeling was one of “nostalgia”: nostalgia for something he never quite had, and at his age at the time (early 30s) could no longer grasp. He was again an onlooker.

For Tom Wolfe (born 1931) in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, observing the hippies’ world produced a mocking disgust; for Joan Didion (born 1934) in Slouching Towards Bethelehem something more like bemused contempt, leavened by occasional moments of gentle envy. But for Thomas Pynchon and Pierce Moffett and, I think, John Crowley the feeling is more wonderment at a vast world of possibility — possibility for the hippies, but not, alas for those condemned by their age to watch the marvelous parade from the sidelines.

Many readers of both Crowley and Pynchon find their obvious affection for the Sixties hard to swallow, but that’s because we know how it all turned out. The utopian or millenarian hopes of the era — the belief that the Age of Aquarius was being ushered in (Pierce, a historian, keeps telling people that they’re a few hundred years off, though he may be wrong about that) — seem comical in retrospect. Bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts, Wavy Gravy, bathetically pseudo-visionary art by Peter Max….

And whatever elements of it tapped into something genuinely powerful — well, there were people who knew how to commodify that and to do so more thoroughly than those hidden persuaders of the Fifties could have dreamed of. (A point to which I shall return.)

But those bedazzled onlookers like Pynchon and Crowley didn’t know that at the time. It could have worked out differently … could it not?

The great theme of Crowley’s Aegypt is: “There is more than one history of the world.” The past, as well as the future, is a garden of forking paths. Here’s how Pierce explains that theme, about which he hopes to write:

“It’s as though,” he said, “as though there had once upon a time been a wholly different world, which worked in a way we can’t imagine; a complete world, with all its own histories, physical laws, sciences to describe it, etymologies, correspondences. And then came a big change in all of them, a big change, bound up with printing, and the discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler, and the Cartesian and Baconian ideals of mechanistic and experimental science. The new sciences were hugely successful; bit by bit they scrubbed away all the persisting structures of the old science; they even scrubbed away the actually very strange and magical way the world appeared to men like Kepler and Newton and Bruno. The whole old world we once inhabited is like a dream, a dream we forgot on waking, even though, as dreams do, it lingered on into all-awake thinking; and even now it lingers on, all around our world, in our thought, so that every day in little ways, little odd ways, we think like prescientific men, magicians, Pythagoreans, Rosicrucians, without knowing we do so.”

And the emergence of those new sciences changed not only the future — the future they would bequeath to us — but what preceded them. The world of the magicians and astrologers and mystics, of John Dee and Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus and all the disciples of thrice-great Hermes and the wisdom he learned from ancient Aegypt, not only disappeared but became retroactively false. Until the Cartesian moment magic worked and always had; after the Cartesian moment magic didn’t work and never had. The paths fork both ahead and behind.

But if the world can be changed in such a way that the validity of magic is erased from its past as well as its future, might it not possibly change again? Might not the 1960s and 1970s have been another decisive moment, another fork in the path, the initiation of a true novus ordo seclorum?

Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo:
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.

These are the possibilities of that moment as discerned by Crowley and Pynchon, and because they discerned those possibilities then they have remained ever since deeply attracted to the ideals of that era. Had the hippies won, our histories of thought would feature John Dee where they now feature Francis Bacon, and Giordano Bruno where they now feature Descartes; and who knows what the shape of our social order might be?

But the hippies didn’t win. What won instead is the Californian ideology. And if you want to picture the moment when the victory of something genuinely “spiritual” and non-commodified and non-panoptic became impossible, when the fusion of fake spirituality with commerce and governmental control ascended its throne, here you go:

a medieval brooch

Found with a metal detector in Llangattock-Vibon-Avel, Monmouthshire, in 2014. Donated by the finder to the Abergavenny Museum.

Vegetation of the Old and New Worlds

Tableau comparatif des altitudes de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Monde, Dessin de Goethe dédié à Humboldt. Source: A. de Humboldt (1807) Essai… p. 134. Image courtesy of “Société des Lettres, sciences et arts ’La Haute-Auvergne’; Archives départementales du Cantal, 28 J, 1 Ai 186.”

Ann Buttimer, “Alexander von Humboldt’s Geography of Plants:Bridging Sciences and Humanities.”  Click on the image for a larger version.


Royal Museums, Greenwich: A manuscript globe, hand painted and lettered, representing in 3-dimensional form the maps of Mars published in the American astronomer Percival Lowell’s books, Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908) which developed Camille Flammarion’s views. The globe is mounted on a bronze stand. Emmy Ingeborg Brun was a Danish Mars enthusiast who made a small number of globes, many for presentation to particular individuals and institutions. Her inscriptions suggest that she viewed Mars as a potential model for Christian socialist cosmopolitanism on Earth. There are three inscriptions engraved into the globe’s stand. The title — Mars after Lowell’s Globes ca. 1905-1909 — is near the column. On one half of the edge of the base is a quotation frrom the Lord’s Prayer — Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. On the other half of the edge of the base is a socialist slogan — Free Land. Free Trade. Free Men.


David Von Drehle writes:

I say this with love: Folks in Alabama do loyalty and clan as well as anyone in America. That’s a virtue — up to a point. They would go over the falls in a barrel with George Wallace. But they hopped onto the shore when Moore asked them to strap in, and that ought to give pause to the polarizer in chief.

May I make a plea to journalists (and for that matter everyone else)? Don’t  say “folks” when you mean “white folks.” Ain’t a whole lot of black folks in Alabama would go over the falls in a barrel with George Wallace, and there are a lot of black people in Alabama. So let’s sort out our folks, shall we?

In yesterday’s election, 93% of black men and 98% — ninety-eight percent — of black women voted for Doug Jones. Meanwhile, 72% of white men and 63% of white women voted for Roy Moore — they weren’t hopping onto shore, they were riding right over the falls with their hebephile-in-chief. Now, in comparison to the previous election for that particular seat, which Jeff Sessions won with 97% of the vote, that’s some slippage. But I think we’d do well to consider than when offered a candidate who — I’ll set aside for now his romantic proclivities — when he was a judge regularly swept aside the law with contempt if it conflicted with his personal preferences, and who as a candidate openly longed for the good old days of slavery because back then “families were united,” two-thirds of white voters in my home state said: That’s our man. I’m not celebrating the good  judgment of those particular “folks.”

Faustus’s good angel

From my book Original Sin: A Cultural History:

In 1974, the famous theatrical director John Barton staged [Christopher Marlowe’s] Doctor Faustus for the Royal Shakespeare Company and chose for the leading role an unknown young actor by the name of Ian McKellan. Shrewd move, that; but he made other decisions that are equally interesting and important, though from a different point of view. The directorial problem with which Barton was faced is simple yet serious: how … could we [moderns] possibly take seriously the appearance of the Good and Evil angels? And his solution was a brilliant one: he made them into hand puppets, held by Faustus himself, their lines spoken by him.

A brilliant solution on more than one count: not only does he avoid sniggers from the audience at the appearance of the debating spirits, but he simultaneously enables an understanding of Faustus that is perfectly commensurate with twentieth-century psychology. For if it was the genius of Prudentius and his followers to reach into the divided self and pull out its voices, giving them bodily substance and individual identity, it was the genius of Freud and his followers to stuff them all back into the box. When Freud sees the Good Angels and Evil Angels of our stories as projected externalizations of our own inner conflicts — puppets made by us and able to speak only through our acts of ventriloquism — he is simply returning us to the world of Augustine, in which “the devil made me do it” is scarcely a legitimate excuse. Do we sin because we heed the devilish voice in our ears? Or do we heed that voice because we have already sinned? Whatever answer we might give has little practical significance. The divided self is our inheritance no matter what, and in the pain and disorientation of that experience we may not even care whether we were torn from the inside out or the outside in.

more marvelous puppetry

The Tin Drum, at Shoreditch Town Hall 

design wit

By day, a mild-mannered civil engineer …

Moomins in winter

How I would love to see this puppet show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

the politics of long joy

Ten years ago I briefly wrote an online column for the late lamented Books & Culture, and what follows was the first entry. It still seems relevant, to me anyway.

Near the middle of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the archangel Raphael describes for Adam — who has not yet fallen, not yet disobeyed — the War in Heaven between Satan’s rebellious angels and those who have remained faithful to God. Throughout this portion of the poem a major figure is a loyal angel named Abdiel. It is his task, or privilege, to cast the first blow against Satan himself: his “noble stroke” causes Satan to stagger backwards and fall to one knee, which terrifies and enrages the great rebel’s followers. This happens as Abdiel expected; he’s not afraid of Satan, and knows that even the king of the rebels cannot match his strength, since rebellion has already sapped some of the greatness and power of the one once known as Lucifer.

But what if the combat hadn’t gone as expected? What if Satan had been unhurt by Abdiel’s blow, or had himself wounded the faithful angel? In that case, says one Milton scholar, John Rumrich, “God would by rights have some explaining to do.” What right would God have to send Abdiel into a struggle where he could be wounded or destroyed? To Rumrich’s claim that most eminent of Miltonists, Stanley Fish, replies: Every right. God’s actions are not subject to our judgment, because he’s God — a point which, Fish often reminds us, modern literary critics seem unable to grasp.

Moreover, Fish notes, Abdiel himself doesn’t think that God owes him success, or indeed owes him anything at all. In Abdiel’s understanding of what it means to be a creature, all the owing is on his side; all the rights are on God’s. As it happens, there are moments in the story when things don’t go as Abdiel expects, where his efforts seem futile or pointless — or seem so to us. Yet this doesn’t bother him at all. Why not? Because in each case he did what he was made to do: he obeyed. Obedience is the creature’s calling; the ultimate outcome and disposition of events belongs to God, and only to God. God does not need to adjust events to meet our expectations, nor must he offer us an explanation when our expectations are thwarted. And if we focus on our own obedience we will not ask such things of God.

In the long and brilliant preface that Fish wrote for the second edition of his landmark book Surprised by Sin: the Reader in Paradise Lost, he calls Abdiel’s attitude “the politics of long joy,” and sees Milton as a passionate advocate for that politics. Milton himself strove to live by it: having made an impassioned case for freedom of the press in his tract “Areopagitica,” he pauses to say that his argument “will be a certain testimony, if not a Trophy.” That is, whether his argument succeeded or not (and in fact it didn’t), he wrote it simply in order to testify to his convictions. It was within his power to make such a testimony; it was not within his power to control the minds of the members of Parliament.

“The politics of long joy” is an odd phrase, but a rich one. Fish derives it from another moment in Paradise Lost, when the archangel Michael reveals to Adam a vision of “Just men” who “all their study bent / To worship God aright,” who then are approached by a “bevy of fair women” and determine to marry them. Adam likes this vision; two earlier ones had shown pain and death, but this one seems to Adam to portend “peaceful days,” harmony among peoples. But Michael immediately corrects him. This is in fact a vision of the events described in Genesis 6, when, after the “sons of God” become enamored with the “daughters of man,” God discerns that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” “Judge not what is best / By pleasure,” Michael warns Adam, “though to nature seeming meet.” Instead, Adam should judge according to the “nobler end” for which he was created: “conformity divine,” that is, obedience to God. And when Adam hears this rebuke Milton tells us that he was “of short joy bereft.” Of short joy bereft: for the joy which comes from judging according to appearances and immediate circumstances, according to what we now like to call “outcomes,” is always short. Only the joy of conforming our will to God’s is long.

Most important of all, Fish goes on to say, “It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being—the politics of long joy—is not quietism. Its relative indifference to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and and history are not in man’s control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one’s resolve.” Milton says of the loyal angels fighting against Satan’s forces that “each on himself relied” as though “only in his arm the moment lay / Of victory.” Or, in Fish’s summary, “each acts as if the fate of the world is in his hands, while knowing full well it isn’t.”

It seems to me that this politics of long joy is the one thing needful for the Christian cultural critic, as for a warring angel like Abdiel or a poetic polemicist like Milton. Perhaps the chief problem with the “culture wars” paradigm that governs so much Christian action and reflection, in the North American context anyway, is that it encourages us to think in terms of trophies rather than testimonies. It tempts us to think too much about whether we’re winning or losing, and too little about the only thing we ultimately control, which is the firmness of our own resolve. If the culture warrior would prefer not to be governed by Stanley Fish, or even by John Milton, maybe Koheleth provides an acceptable model: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

It seems to me that the careful dance, the difficult balance, of Christian cultural criticism is to be endlessly attentive to the form and the details of the world around us, while simultaneously practicing the “politics of long joy”—and in this way avoiding an unhealthy obsession with “trophies,” and avoiding also being conformed to the ways of this world. It’s a tough walk to walk, because one of the peculiarities of fallen human nature is that we find it difficult, over the long haul anyway, to remember that there is a world of difference between “I have no control over this” and “this isn’t very important.” We tend, against all reason, to diminish the importance of everything we cannot shape or direct. But our joy will be short if it is grounded in circumstances and events, because circumstances and events always change: if they please us now, they will displease us later. And then what will we do?

Central to this discipline, for me anyway, is a constant striving to remember who human beings are and what we are made for. Which brings me to the title of this column. On Bruce Cockburn’s 1980 recording Humans there’s a song called “Rumours of Glory”—a song about “the extremes / of what humans can be,” but also about the imago Dei which each of us bears, the divine image that waits always for the discerning eye to notice it. In the song, perhaps his best (which is saying a lot), Cockburn sees the “tension” between what we were made to be and what we in fact are; he sees that human culture is produced by that tension, which generates “energy surging like a storm.” At once attracted and repelled by that energy, “you plunge your hand in; you draw it back, scorched.” And the hand that has been plunged truly into the human world is always marked by that plunging: it’s “scorched”, yes, but beneath the wound “something is shining like gold — but better.” The truth of who we are, given the extremes of divine image and savage depravity, is hard to discern; perhaps we can only achieve it in brief moments; perhaps we only catch rumors of the glory that is, and is to be. But even those rumors can sustain us as we walk the pilgrim path.

the habitual passenger

The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role. Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social, and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed. He has become impotent to establish his domain, mark it with his imprint, and assert his sovereignty over it. He has lost confidence in his power to admit others into his presence and to share space consciously with them. He can no longer face the remote by himself. Left on his own, he feels immobile.

The habitual passenger must adopt a new set of beliefs and expectations if he is to feel secure in the strange world where both liaisons and loneliness are products of conveyance. To “gather” for him means to be brought together by vehicles. He comes to believe that political power grows out of the capacity of a transportation system, and in its absence is the result of access to the television screen. He takes freedom of movement to be the same as one’s claim on propulsion. He believes that the level of democratic process correlates to the power of transportation and communications systems. He has lost faith in the political power of the feet and of the tongue. As a result, what he wants is not more liberty as a citizen but better service as a client. He does not insist on his freedom to move and to speak to people but on his claim to be shipped and to be informed by media. He wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it. It is vital that he come to see that the acceleration he demands is self-defeating, and that it must result in a further decline of equity, leisure, and autonomy.

— Ivan Illich, “Energy and Equity” (1974)

keep the body receptive

I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow…. So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.

Leonard Cohen

I’m listening

Like many people of my generation, I did a lot of damage to my hearing in my youth, but I can still hear the difference between streamed music and music played on CDs. (Anything above CD-quality encoding is usually unnoticeable by me.)

Before I go any further: Kids, take care of your hearing. Please. Wear earplugs at concerts. Don’t blast music through your earbuds. You’ll thank me later.

Anyway, I have been for some time trying to spend more and more of my listening time on CDs, and reducing my time listening to streams. Sound quality is not the only reason for this: I also want to separate the listening of music from being online. I want to sit down and listen to music without being distracted by Twitter or the temptation to look up some piece of information — if I really need to do that I can make a note on a piece of paper and look it up later. I want my attention to go wholly to the music and maybe the liner notes (especially when I’m listening to classical vocal music in a language other than English and want to know what words the singers are uttering).

CDs are not the only option for my program, of course. I could go vinyl — except that I sold all my vinyl when I moved to Texas five years ago and don’t have the heart to start over from scratch. (When I was in college, thanks in part to a friend who sold stereos, I had a NAD integrated amp, a Luxman belt-drive turntable, and a pair of Magnaplanar speakers. I will never again have such a magnificent stereo system — but then, I’ll never again hear as well as I did then.) In an ideal world, which is to say a world in which I am filthy rich, this is the option I’d choose: lossless audio files on a massive hard drive with an elegant app through which to play them. But four thousand bucks is just a little bit outside my price range.

So: CDs it is. I’m looking forward to many years of more attentive, less distracted musical enjoyment. Wish me well.

autumn textures (central Texas edition)

Teresa Bejan on free speech

I simply don’t understand Teresa Bejan’s argument here. To wit:

While trigger warnings, safe spaces, and no-platforming grab headlines, poll after poll suggests that a more subtle, shift in mores is afoot. To a generation convinced that hateful speech is itself a form of violence or “silencing,” pleading the First Amendment is to miss the point. Most of these students do not see themselves as standing against free speech at all.

Well, no — but then, no one ever does. The universal line is, “Of course, I believe in free speech, but” — with the next line likely to be something about shouting and and fire and crowded theaters. Whether people admit to being “standing against free speech” is not the question at issue.

What they care about is the equal right to speech, and equal access to a public forum in which the historically marginalized and excluded can be heard and count equally with the privileged. This is a claim to isegoria, and once one recognizes it as such, much else becomes clear — including the contrasting appeal to parrhesia by their opponents, who sometimes seem determined to reduce “free speech” to a license to offend.

As best I can understand, the claim here is that, for instance, the students who shut down Charles Murray’s lecture at Middlebury felt that they were being denied a right to speak equal to that of Murray’s, and would have been perfectly happy to allow him to speak if their opportunity had been equal to his. If indeed that is the claim, I see absolutely no evidence that it is true. Certainly Bejan does not provide any.

Recognizing the ancient ideas at work in these modern arguments puts those of us committed to America’s parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power in a better position to defend it. It suggests that to defeat the modern proponents of isegoria — and remind the modern parrhesiastes what they are fighting for — one must go beyond the First Amendment to the other, orienting principle of American democracy behind it, namely equality. After all, the genius of the First Amendment lies in bringing isegoria and parrhesia together, by securing the equal right and liberty of citizens not simply to “exercise their reason” but to speak their minds.

Indeed, but how is any of this at issue in campus protests? Is anyone saying that either Charles Murray, or Ann Coulter, or students who protest their presence on campus, are not allowed to “speak their minds” at all? Who, from the perspective of “American democracy” Bejan invokes here, is being silenced, and by whom?

In contexts where the Constitution does not apply, like a private university, this opposition to arbitrariness is a matter of culture, not law, but it is no less pressing and important for that.

I haver no idea what the phrase “opposition to arbitrariness” means. What is “arbitrariness” in this context? (Earlier Bejan writes of “Diogenes the Cynic, who famously lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light — all, so he said, to reveal the truth to his fellow Greeks about the arbitrariness of their customs.” But who is the equivalent of Diogenes in the current debate?) Who is opposing “arbitrariness”? Are they right or wrong to oppose it? And why?

As the evangelicals, protesters, and provocateurs who founded America’s parrhesiastic tradition knew well: When the rights of all become the privilege of a few, neither liberty nor equality can last.

Again: yes, indeed. So the obvious conclusion, to me, is that when the “few” who want to shut down speech they disagree with win, then liberty and equality (within that particular community) are alike endangered. But I don’t think that’s Bejan’s conclusion. Can anyone help me make sense of this essay?

unmanly emotion

In my squandered youth I was a friend of Ian Hamilton, the biographer of Robert Lowell and J. D. Salinger and a justly renowned figure in London’s Bohemia. His literary magazine The New Review was published from a barstool in a Soho pub called the Pillars of Hercules, and editorial meetings would commence promptly at opening time. One day, there came through the door a failed poet with an equally heroic reputation for dissipation. To Ian’s undisguised surprise, he declined the offer of a hand-steadying cocktail. “No,” he announced dramatically. “I just don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t like having blackouts and waking up on rubbish dumps. I don’t like having no money and no friends, smelling bad and throwing up randomly. I don’t like wetting myself and getting impotent.” His voice rising and cracking slightly, he concluded by avowing that he also didn’t like being repellently fat, getting the shakes and amnesia, losing his teeth and gums, and suffering from premature baldness. A brief and significant silence followed this display of unmanly emotion. Then Ian, fixing him with a stern look, responded evenly by saying, “Well, none of us likes it.”

Christopher Hitchens

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