Reading Round-Up: April 2019

Back in the reading saddle! But not in the blogging saddle, apparently, so here is April’s book list, better late than never. April was our transition month; we began it in one country and ended it in another, with a lot of packing, unpacking, cleaning, arranging, and etc. in between. Here’s what I read:

  1. The Complete Stories (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  2. Charity Girl (Georgette Heyer)
  3. Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven (Fannie Flagg)
  4. The Appeal (John Grisham)
  5. The Whole Town’s Talking (Fannie Flagg)
  6. Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy (Gareth Wronski)
  7. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece (ed. Joan Reardon)
  8. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
  9. The Green and the Gray (Timothy Zahn)

As Always, Julia was featured in its own post.

Dorothy Sayers’s The Complete Stories was what I read over the actual week of our move, and it was probably the perfect choice; the book is seven hundred pages or so, so I wasn’t going to run out of material quickly, but the short length of the stories and the fact that they were not especially interconnected meant that it was easy for me to put it down and pick it up without having to keep track of very many threads. Or any, really. There was enough to keep track of already!

Pride and Prejudice — a perennial favourite of mine — was also a mid-move read, despite its position a little further down the list. I listened over the course of a few weeks to about the first forty chapters via a LibriVox recording, and then finished the rest in paperback form while I was waiting in all those places you need to wait after a move: government service centres, the auto shop for our provincial safety inspection, etc. This was the first audiobook I was able to stand listening to (ever), although it did take a few chapters to get the narrators’ voices out of my head once I did start reading the book myself. I’ll try LibriVox again.

I don’t have much to say about Charity Girl — I really read it back in March, mostly, but it was due back to the library at our old place right before we moved, and I didn’t get a chance to finish it then. So then after we moved I was able to get a copy from the new library, and finished the last couple of chapters… but so much had happened both in reading life and real life since then I had completely lost track of what was going on. I know I enjoyed what I read in March — I do like Georgette Heyer very much — but I will have to read it again sometime to be able to do it justice.

Speaking of the public library, I was tickled pink to find a copy of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy on display there on one of our first visits. I’d been hoping/meaning to to read it for a while; this is the debut novel of a former classmate of mine. Gareth and I had several classes together over the first two years of undergrad and so I was pretty excited, after losing touch for the better part of a decade, to see his name on the cover of a book. (Gareth, are you reading this? Hello!) This is a super-fun middle-grade space romp, narrated by a sarcastic storytelling robot who refers to the readers as sacks of meat… on page one. Also there are pirates. It was marvelous.

Also marvelous: Timothy Zahn’s The Green and the Gray. Zahn is a sci-fi writer I first encountered through the Star Wars extended universe novelizations. He writes a lot more than that, though! In The Green and the Gray, married couple Roger and Caroline are suddenly thrust into the middle of an ethnic war between two alien tribes who had (separately) fled to New York City — neither group knowing the other was there until a chance encounter awoke all the tensions they thought they had left behind. I nearly read this one through in a sitting; it’s that compelling a story-line.

I’m not sure what to say about The Appeal besides that John Grisham is John Grisham and the book ticked all of the expected boxes. Not super memorable, but good brain candy in the moment.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and The Whole Town’s Talking are two loosely related novels — I wouldn’t quite characterize them as a series although they are thematically linked and share a number of characters — both set in the small town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri. Both are concerned with the question of what happens to us after we die. In Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, senior citizen Elner Shimfissle falls out of a tree and is pronounced dead at the hospital — the book deals with the aftermath of her death among the residents of Elmwood Springs, alternating with Elner’s after-death experiences which include meeting her hero (Thomas Edison) and God (who takes the form of a married couple who used to be her neighbours). It’s a strange book, and sweet. The Whole Town’s Talking reaches back to Elmwood’s Springs’s founding, and tells the stories of its prominent inhabitants reaching forward to the present day. Most of the book is set in the town cemetery, where it appears that “resting” place is a bit of a misnomer as the plot concerns the dead as much as the living.

And that was it for April!

Reading Round-Up: January 2019

Twenty full days into the next month is probably the latest I’ve ever left a round-up post. Here at Chez Pennylegion we’re mired in moving logistics at the moment, which seem to be taking most of my mental energy; I had been delaying this post because I really wanted to write about one book on its own, Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I’ve started that post three or four times now — I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. It’s time to set it aside; for the moment, suffice to say that you should consider giving it a read. As to the rest, here’s January’s list:

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  2. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoners Dilemma (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  3. Tending the Heart of Virtue (Vigen Guroian)
  4. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (Fannie Flagg)
  5. An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
  6. A War of Loves (David Bennett)
  7. Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)
  8. The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  9. Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper)
  10. The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper)
  11. Greenwitch (Susan Cooper)
  12. The Grey King (Susan Cooper)
  13. Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper)
  14. Annabel Scheme (Robin Sloan)
  15. Technopoly (Neil Postman)
  16. The Little Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales (Hans Christian Andersen)

This was one of those heavy-on-the-fiction months, and included reading/completing two series… serieses… groups of related books. The Mysterious Benedict Society and [Ditto] and the Prisoners Dilemma capped off my re-read of Trenton Lee Stewart’s delightful middle-grade puzzle books (completely out of order, mind you). And I (re)read through Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence while barely pausing to breathe between each installment. It’s an interesting series, with that very British mix of Christian and Pagan symbols and forces — plus some ethical dilemmas worth pondering. At the end of the last book, a secondary character finds that his wife has been in league with the Dark — that his entire marriage has been built around a lie. She is destroyed; he has the choice put before him to either remember all that has truly happened (including the great grief of her betrayal) or to remember only that she has died (but no details of her misalliance with the Dark or the truth of their union). The choice, in a way, is between grief and grief: but is it better to grieve the truth or the lie?

I picked up Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion after enjoying Friend Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe in December. It’s a fun read, moving between present-day Alabama, where middle-aged Sookie Earle finds out something shocking about her past, and WW2-era Wisconsin, where a group of Polish-American sisters run their family’s filling station before enlisting and flying with the WASP. The family-drama side of the narrative is heartfelt, and I learned a lot about an area of the war effort I had never heard much about.

An Acceptable Time is one of those Madeleine L’Engle novels I’ve had kicking around my shelves approximately forever but hadn’t actually read. I liked it; much food for thought as always and a fun time travel element. I think this is one of the middle books of a series, though, and it probably would have been a better read if it had been slotted into its proper place.

Little Fires Everywhere was probably the best of the fiction I read last month; indeed, I still think about it from time to time. Ng’s story is set in a Cleveland suburb in the late 1990s — my uncle’s garage makes an appearance, which was a bit surreal — and the plot circles around motherhood in all of its many complicated forms. I think she hits it all: miscarriage and infant loss, adoption (from bio-and adoptive-parent perspectives), surrogacy, abortion, wanted and unwanted motherhood, good relationships between mothers and children, bad relationships between mothers and children… you name it, Ng invites us to ponder it. The greatest strength of this novel is that she manages to make all of her characters sympathetic; our expectations about their motivations are constantly getting overturned, which makes the book’s moral/ethical explorations all the more poignant. I’ll be reading this one again.

If I hadn’t read Little Fires Everywhere, I probably would have pegged Annabel Scheme as the best in January — it’s a strange, compelling little novella from the wonderfully weird brain of Robin Sloan (author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough). And you can download it for free in several formats here!

Last but not least on the fiction side of things, I read the collected fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen — in an absolutely gorgeous edition put forth by MinaLima, the design firm behind the Harry Potter movie aesthetics. I hadn’t read most of the stories for decades, probably. Since the MinaLima edition is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, it’s gone onto my to-buy list, along with the other books in the series (The Jungle Book, The Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden, and Peter Pan).

Phew! On to the non-fiction!

Tending the Heart of Virtue was briefly treated in this post.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Lost Tools of Learning is really just a long essay I happen to own in book form. You can read it for free here (go on, it’ll just take a few minutes). This is one of the resources that is helping to shape my thinking as we consider school options for Anselm and Perpetua.

A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus recounts David Bennett’s surprising conversion to Christ; one of its major strengths is how gracious and even-handed Bennett is towards those on all sides of this particular culture war. Everyone we meet in A War of Loves is a human being — something all to easy to forget.

Finally: Technopoly. I have a blog post in my drafts folder that’s just long excerpts of Technopoly that I just want everybody to read — and I hope they’ll see the light of day. In the mean time, the Cliff’s Notes version: Neil Postman published Technopoly in 1992, looking at the intersection of culture and technology. He uses a historical approach in discussion how technological innovation changes culture (the printing press being the obvious example) and then traces the roots of what he sees as a particularly American obsession with technological progress as a marker of human progress. Postman was writing at what we might think of as the dawn of the computer age; his remarks are eerily prescient and, although social media, “smart” technologies, and the like did not exist at the time of his writing, it’s pretty easy to extrapolate his points. America, Postman argues, is a “techonopoly” (as opposed to a “tool-using culture” or a “technocracy”); that is, a culture which sees technological innovation as its highest cultural good and in which technological innovation is chiefly seen as only ever good. Postman invites us to interrogate those claims. He is no Luddite; Postman doesn’t see technological advances as bad things per se — but argues that every major technological change is a mixed blessing, creating cultural winners and cultural losers.

There is a lot more that I would say about Technopoly if I could drag my grey matter into line to do so right now. But instead, let me close with Postman’s recipe for how to become “a loving resistance fighter” against the forces of cultural technopoly:

… if there is an awareness of and resistance to the dangers of Technopoly, there is reason to hope that the United States may yet survive its Ozymandias-like hubris and technological promiscuity. Which brings me to the “resistance fighter” part of my principle. Those who resist the American Technopoly are people

who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why;

who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;

who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical powers of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth;

who refuse to allow psychology or any “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense;

who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding;

who do not regard the aged as irrelevant;

who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they “reach out and touch someone,” expect that person to be in the same room;

who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;

who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;

who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology — from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer — is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore requires scrutiny, criticism, and control. In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural. — Neil Postman, Technopoly, 183-5

Indeed. Tune in this time next month when I tell you about the two whole books it looks like I’m going to get through in February.

Reading Round-Up: December 2018

Happy New Year! We celebrated by going to bed at 10 pm as per usual, and changing the calendar in the morning. Whee. Here’s what I read last month:

  1. That Hideous Strength (C. S. Lewis)
  2. A Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace (Susan H. Swetnam)
  3. The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (Charles Williams)
  4. The Man Born to be King (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  5. The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place (Alan Bradley)
  6. Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon (Kelley and Tom French)
  7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (tr. Simon Armitage)
  8. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg)

A few of these I’ve already touched on in prior posts: Season of Little Sacraments and The Man Born to be King here, and The Figure of Beatrice here. I hadn’t finished either of the Sayers or the Williams when I wrote their respective posts — suffice it to say that they each continued excellent to the end, and are well worth your time (particularly the Sayers play cycle).

That Hideous Strength is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, the first two installments of which I read in November. It’s funny… the first time I read this trilogy, about 10-15 years ago, I thought that This Hideous Strength was the weakest of the three. I am convinced, now, that it’s the strongest. It’s true that it doesn’t have as many fantastical elements as Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra — taking place, as it does, entirely on earth — but I found on this read-through that the stakes and the drama are much higher than in the first two books, and that Lewis speaks very presciently to many aspects of our life today.

I’ve been reading Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce series since it came out — The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is the ninth of them, and I am sad to say that it will probably be the last… for me. What can I say? Some of Flavia’s charm has worn off. The internal chronology of the series is stretched beyond belief; this book had a subplot about a blackmail situation that was just dropped instead of resolved; the final straw, for me, was when Flavia bent a crochet hook into an L-shape to pick a lock. Dude. Crochet hooks are 1) too big for that, and 2) made of steel. Probably Bradley was thinking of tatting hooks, which are teeny-weeny because they’re used to make lace… but the mistake certainly killed what was left of my suspended disbelief. Sorry, Flavia. Sorry, Alan. It was a good ride while it lasted.

Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon is the story of Juniper French, a micro-preemie born at 23 weeks 6 days gestation. Her parents are both investigative journalists, and they tell the story together, alternating chapters. If you want the Cliffs notes, I linked to the three-part series that was the genesis of the book in my last edition of Weekend Reading. Kelley Benham French won a Pulitzer for that series, so if you enjoyed it, be sure to pick up the book and get the expanded story as well.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a delightful surprise to me this month. It’s a long poem — about 2300 lines and change — and one of the earliest examples of English epic poetry after Beowulf, most likely written sometime around the year 1400. This edition is a new verse translation by Simon Armitage, and it’s fantastic. He sticks to the alliterative scheme of the original, and the whole thing just rollicks along. It’s also an interlinear text, with the Middle English on the left-hand pages and the translation on the right-, so you can go back and forth between them looking at some of his specific translations choices. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am.

And my last book of the year: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I finished last night with a few hours to spare. I’d already seen the movie, but enough years ago that I had only a few particular images/scenes left in my mind. This one was great fun, and surprisingly poignant. There was a lot of time-jumping between chapters; I remember that the movie did a certain amount of that as well; I will have to watch it again to properly compare, though.

And that’s it! Stay tuned for my big post about everything I read this year — I hope to have it up sometime in the next few days. Happy new year and happy new reading!

To the heart of Heaven

After nearly one hundred cantos  my mystical journey with Dante is now complete: having made it through Hell and Purgatory, last month I (finally) finished Paradise as well. I’ve started writing this post about three or four times now, unsure of how to start or which direction to move in, because my reading of Paradise was extremely scattered; it is hard to gather a coherent impression of it in my mind. (What can I say? All that Olympic figure skating wasn’t going to watch itself.) And at this remove, I’m not sure why I flagged all the passages I did. For the moment, in consequence, I think I must give up on coherence — so in no particular order, here are a few notes which will have to do:

1. Very early on, Dante speaks with the soul of Piccarda dei Donati, and questions her as to how she can be satisfied with the little of God she has been given (relative to those who dwell closer / have a larger capacity to be filled): “But tell me, you whose happiness is here, / Have you no hankering to go up higher, / To win more insight or a love more dear?” (III.64-66). I was very much struck by her reply: “Brother, our love has laid our wills to rest, / Making us long only for what is ours, / And by no other thirst to be possessed. […] Nay, ’tis the essence of our blissful fate / To dwell in the divine will’s radius, / Wherein our wills themselves are integrate […] And please the King that here in-willeth us / To His own will; and His will is our peace…” (III. 70-72, 79-81, 84-5). I love that. And His will is our peace.

2. Dante’s passage in Canto VII on God’s means of redemption is both beautiful poetry and beautiful theology:

Either must God, of his sole courtesy, / Remit, or man must pay with all that’s his, / The debt of sin in its entirety.

Within the Eternal Counsel’s deep abyss / Rivent thine eye, and with a heed as good / As thou canst give me, do thou follow this.

Man from his finite assets never could / Make satisfaction; ne’er could he abase him / So low, obey thereafter all he would,

As he’d by disobedience sought to raise him; / And for this cause man might not pay his due / Himself, nor from the debtor’s roll erase him.

Needs then must God, by His own ways, renew / Man’s proper life, and reinstate him so; […]

For God’s self-giving, which made possible / That man should raise himself, showed more largesse / Than if by naked power He’s cancelled all; /

And every other means would have been less / Than justice, if it had not pleased God’s Son / To be humiliate into fleshliness. (VII. 91-104, 115-120)

3. Dorothy L. Sayers died quite suddenly while working on Paradise; she had translated the first twenty cantos, but had not begun any of her introductory or explicatory notes. The work was finished by Dr. Barbara Reynolds, who was both a gifted scholar of Italian and Sayers’s goddaughter. Reynolds’s notes lack that particular Sayersian sparkle that I love so well, but I was interested to see how seamlessly the translation itself progresses between Cantos 1-20 and 21-33. If I hadn’t know there were two translators, I probably would not have guessed.

4. I enjoyed the sarcastic bite of this snippet from Beatrice’s injunction against presumptuous preachers: “Christ His Apostles did not thus address: / Go forth, preach idle stories to all men / But taught them his true doctrine to profess.” (XXIX.109-111)

5. The metaphor department: one of the great puzzles of the Christian faith is how to image/explain the Trinity. I’ve heard some doozies over the years (the Godhead is like an egg! like a clover! like a water molecule!) but I like Dante’s vision here, of three spheres occupying the same space:

But as my sight by seeing learned to see, / The transformation which in me took place / Transformed the single changeless form for me.

That light supreme, within its fathomless / Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare / Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were / Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame / Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame / My concept — which lags after what was shown / So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame! (XXXIII. 112-123)

And so ends the journey, with Dante’s sense-defying vision of the Trinity. It is interesting to see that Paradise (and indeed, the trilogy as a whole) ends not with a dénouement as we would typically expect, but at the moment of climax. There is no accounting for Dante’s return to earth, the end of his vision, or the like — no sense at all of what happens next. But how, one wonders, could there be? After ninety-nine Cantos, Dante has said all that he will say on the matter — and the poem ends with his will moving in perfect harmony with God’s. Once again we are reminded of Piccarda dei Donati’s statement that “His will is our peace” — and Dante has at last reached this state himself. It is a beautiful and fitting ending.

On Purgatory

I have to admit that the doctrine of purgatory is something I’ve never known much about, except as another item on the long list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t. So I was interested to begin Dante’s Purgatory not only to find out what happens in the story, but to get a glimpse of how the medieval mind imagined purgatory — and perhaps a few insights into what modern Catholics believe, as well. To the latter end, I again found Sayers’s notes quite helpful, as she laid out a few common misconceptions about purgatory and their doctrinal corrections:

We may add here a few words to clear up a number of widely current perplexities and misunderstandings about Purgatory.

(1) Purgatory is not a place of probation, from which the soul may go either to Heaven or to Hell. All souls admited to Purgatory are bound for Heaven sooner or later, and are for ever beyond the reach of sin.

(2) Purgatory is not a “second chance” for those who die obstinately unrepentant. The soul’s own choice between God and self, made in the moment of death, is final. (This moment of final choice is known as the “Particular Judgement”.)

(3) Repentance in the moment of death (in articulo mortis) is always accepted. If the movement of the soul is, however feebly, away from the self and towards God, its act of confession and contrition is complete, whether or not it is accompanied by formal confession and absolution; and the soul enters Purgatory.

(4) The Divine acceptance of a repentance in articulo mortis does not mean that the sinner “gets away with it” scot-free. What it does mean is that the soul is now obliged, with prolonged labour and pains, and without the assistance of the body, to accomplish in Purgatory the entire process of satisfaction and purification, the greater part of which should have been carried out on earth.

(5) The souls in Purgatory and the souls on earth are in touch with one another and can aid each other by their prayers. But it is wrong for the living to distract the dead from their task of purgation by egotistical and importune demands for attention. […]

(6) Souls which have so persevered in virtue till the moment of death as to accomplish their whole purgation in this life, are not detained in Purgatory, but pass immediately into the Presence of God. These are the Saints. N.B.: Canonization is not (as Bernard Shaw implies in the Epilogue to St Joan) the award of an earthy honour, but the recognition of a Divine fact. There may be, and undoubtedly are, innumerable saints unrecognized and uncanonized. (59-60)

We note also that the purgations experienced by the souls in Purgatory are meant to be palliative cures, not arbitrary punishments — and even when the method is the same (as the Simoniacs in Hell and the Lustful in Purgatory are both consumed by fire), the attitude of the penitent soul ensures a very different outcome and experience:

It has been well said by a great saint that the fire of Hell is simply the light of God as experienced by those who reject it; to those, that is, who hold fast to their darling illusion of sin, the burning reality of holiness is a thing unbearable. To the penitent, that reality is a torment so long and only so long as any vestige of illusion remains to hamper their assent to it: they welcome the torment, as a sick man welcomes the pains of surgery, in order that the last crippling illusion may be burned away. The whole operation of Purgatory is directed to the freeing of the judgement and the will. […] the resolute breaking-down, at whatever cost, of the prison walls, so that the soul may be able to emerge at last into liberty and endure unscathed the unveiled light to reality. […] There is no difference in the justice; the only difference is in the repudiation or acceptance of judgement. (16)

That is the doctrinal framework through which we are to understand what Dante sees and experiences as he travels through Purgatory, accompanied and guided first by Virgil (as in Hell) and then by Beatrice. The effect of moving from Hell to Purgatory is immediate; it is obvious from the opening lines that this will be a very different book than the first installment. Dante opens Canto I with a second invocation to the muses; the tone and description are a welcome change from the grim miseries of Hell:

For better waters heading with the wind / My ship of genius now shakes out her sail / And leaves that ocean of despair behind; / For to the second realm I tune my tale, / Where human spirits purge themselves, and train / To leap up into joy celestial. / Now from the grave wake poetry again, / O sacred Muses I have served so long! / Now let Calliope uplift her strain / And life my voice up on the mighty song / That smote the miserable Magpies nine / Out of all hope and pardon for their wrong! / Colour unclouded, orient-sapphire, / Softly suffusing from meridian height / Down the still sky to the horizon-line, / Brought to mine eyes renewal of delight / So soon as I came forth from that dead air / Which had oppressed my bosom and my sight. (I.1-18)

This comes as a breath of fresh air for the reader as well as for our stalwart narrator! And the lovely tone continues throughout Purgatory as Dante climbs higher and higher up the mountain to the earthly paradise where Beatrice appears to guide him to Heaven. The souls in Purgatory tell their stories just as others did in Hell — but their attitude is, to a one, one of humble acceptance of their purgation and eagerness to complete each necessary level quickly, so as to gain Heaven with least delay. When a soul finishes its purgation and makes that final leap, the entire mountain quakes as all upon it shout Gloria in Excelsis Deo! The whole thing is surprisingly lovely, really. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Purgatory (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write); where Hell had turned into a bit of a grim slog by the end, Purgatory constantly enticed me on.

Now, was this enough to entice me to the doctrine of purgatory itself? No — not quite — and I would have to take a hard look at its actual origins/support/etc. before deciding something like that. But it did convince me that there is a certain logic to it, much more than I would have previously supposed. (After all, the list of Things Catholics Believe But We Don’t seems to have a fairly large overlap with the list of Catholic Beliefs Protestants Misrepresent!) But in any case, Purgatory was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to finishing the journey in Paradise.

I’ve been going through Hell lately

… with Dante and the shade of Virgil, that is. (I’m fine, Mom.)

The summer that I was doing most of the research for my thesis, I ended up reading all four volumes of Dorothy L. Sayers’s collected letters. I was primarily reading for mentions of my own subject, of course, but Sayers is such an interesting correspondent that I quite enjoyed even the parts that were quite irrelevant to my project. Towards the last decade or so of her life, her letters were nearly all concerned with her massive undertaking for Penguin Books: an entirely new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I had read the first volume (Inferno, as Mark Musa’s translation titles it) as an undergraduate; the course was essentially an introduction to the Western Canon, and so we spent very little time on it, and I hadn’t found it particularly memorable. Sayers’s passion for Dante’s epic, however, made me keen to revisit it, and especially to read the translation to which she dedicated the last years of her life (she died midway through her translation of Paradise, which was completed by her god-daughter, the scholar Dr. Barbara Reynolds). And so I have lately finished Hell, and will shortly start working my way up the mountain of Purgatory towards the heavenly realms.

The experience of reading Hell was most definitely helped by Sayers’s extensive notes, particularly her introductory matter. As she writes herself, the ideal way to read Dante would be simply to pick it up and dive in — but our social and cultural remove from his time means that most of the references that would have been obvious to his contemporaries are opaque to us. The notes, therefore, are a very necessary evil:

Let us suppose that an Englishman were to write a contemporary Divine Comedy on Dante’s model, and that in it, mixed up with a number of scriptural and mythological characters, we were to find, assigned to various circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, according to the religious and political convictions of the author, the following assortment of people — some referred to by their full names, some by Christian name or surname alone, and some indicated only by a witty or allusive phrase: Chamberlain (“him of the orchid”), Chamberlain (“him of the umbrella”), [Steward Houston] Chamberlain, “Brides-in-the-bath Smith, “Galloper” Smith, Horatio Bottomley, Horatio [Lord Nelson], Fox [Charles or George to be inferred from the Context], the Man who picked up the Bomb in Jermyn Street, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Slater, Oscar Browning, Spencer, Spenser, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Castlerose, Lawrence [of Arabia], [D. H.] Lawrence, […] Dick Sheppard, Jack Sheppard, and “the widow at Windsor”. Let us further suppose that the writer holds strong views on Trade Unionism, the construction of UNO, the “theology of crisis”, Freudian psychology, Einsteinian astronomy, and the art of Mr Jacob Epstein. Let us then suppose that the book is to be read, six hundred years hence, by an intelligent Portuguese with no particular knowledge of English social history. Would he not require a few notes, in order to savour the full pungency of the poet’s pronouncements and thoroughly understand his attitude to the cosmic set-up? (17-18)

Quite so. I need notes myself just to get through Sayers’s paragraph, not living in Britain in the early 1950s; no small wonder that in reading Dante we need not only the language to be translated, but the culture and (perhaps) theology as well.

One of Sayers’s most helpful explanations is to do with the allegorical nature of Dante’s epic. Dante is not expecting us to take it as a literal picture of Hell. We do not need to believe that Satan is imprisoned at the centre of the earth; we do not suppose that suicides really turn into bleeding trees or that there are giants guarding the circle of traitors. But Dante paints a powerful picture of the soul when it sunders itself from God through sin. It is, Sayers writes, “the drama of the soul’s choice … not a fairy story” (11). In approaching the poem, we must “accept the Christian and Catholic view of ourselves as responsible rational beings. We must abandon any ideas that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other all come right on the night. We must try to believe that man’s will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and that his choice can be decisive to all eternity” (10-11). What Dante’s Divine Comedy emphasizes for us is that everyone must make a choice to either accept God or reject Him; there is no option beyond those two, and our eternal fate depends on the choice. Dante is unequivocal on this point: “Neither in the story nor in the allegory is Hell a place of punishment to which anybody is arbitrarily sent: it is the condition to which the soul reduces itself by a stubborn determination to evil, and in which is suffers the torment of its own perversion” (68).

That being understood — what of Hell itself? Dante’s imagery is precise and vivid as he depicts the progressive punishments of Hell, from the ever-whirling souls of the lustful (The blast of hell that never rests from whirling / Harries the spirits along in the sweep of its swath, / And vexes them, for ever beating and hurling.” V:31f), to the river of boiling blood in which the Violent against their Neighbours are immersed (“So with this trusty escort, off we set / Along the bank of the bubbling crimson flood, / Whence the shrieks of the boiled rose shrill and desperate. / There I saw some — plunged eyebrow-deep they stood / And the great centaur said to me: ‘Behold / Tyrants, who gave themselves to ravin and blood.’ XII:100f) to the bodily mutilations suffered by the Sowers of Discord (“No cask stove in by cant or middle ever / So gaped as one I saw there, from the chin / Down to the fart-hold split as by a cleaver” XXVII:22f), to the final centre of the earth where Satan perpetually devours Judas Iscariot and other traitors. The images become progressively more and more disturbing as Dante and Virgil travel deeper into the pits of hell (and allegorically, further into sin and away from salvation).

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Hell for before-bedtime reading! But I would recommend it. Dante takes us on a journey that should disturb us — but all is not grim; he reminds us also that while we are yet living, there is every chance to turn away from this fate. Hell has not been given the final world! I am very much looking forward to continuing this journey with Dante and Sayers, from the mountains of Purgatory to the blessed heights of Paradise itself.

 

Reading Pressfield’s The War of Art (pt. 3: Invoking the Muse)

To me, part three of Pressfield’s book is where things really start to get interesting. Part one looked at overcoming Resistance in our approach to work; part two looked at the idea of “turning pro”; part three is where things get theological. This section, which Pressfield entitles “Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm” is all about invoking the muse.

Now, Pressfield seems to mean this quite literally. He relates that before he sits down to work, it is his practice to “take a minute and show respect to this unseen Power [the Muse, the daughter of Zeus] who can make or break me” (118). As he shares in the preface, this is how he begins his writing day:

I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO nametag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, which my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in.

There are a couple of interesting things here, the first of which is Pressfield’s collection of lucky objects. I wonder if there is a correlation between working in the creative fields and the use of, or belief in, luck and totems and the like? When I was in grad school I kept a number of objects on the shelf of my library carrel: a fist-sized rock from my childhood summer camp, a toy wooden horse (inside the drawer in its side: a tiny seashell, a marble, an unusually shiny penny), and a few other knick-knacks of sentimental and/or aesthetic value. I didn’t think of them as “lucky” — really, I didn’t think of them at all except as decoration. Nevertheless I liked having them present and arranged just so while I worked. Make of that what you will!

Overall, though, all of this has made me wonder whether it’s possible to discern what, exactly, Pressfield’s theology is. As part of his working day, Pressfield prays to the daughter of Zeus — quite sincerely as far as I can tell (see pp. 116-21 for more on this). He has some vaguely Kabbalistic beliefs about angels and their role in our lives:

Angels work for God. It’s their job to help us. Wake us up. Bump us along.

Angels are agents of evolution. The Kabbalah describes angels as bundles of light, meaning intelligence, consciousness. Kabbalists believe that above every blade of grass is an angel crying “Grow! Grow!” I’ll go further. I believe that above the entire human race is one super-angel, crying “Evolve! Evolve!”

Angels are like muses. They know stuff we don’t. They want to help us. They’re on the other side of a pane of glass, shouting to get our attention… (123)

Note the reference to “God” in the first line; Pressfield is clearly not talking about YHWH — possibly he is talking about Zeus. But a later passage clarifies his thinking about the nature of (the) deity:

Everything that is, is God in one form or another. God, the divine ground, is that in which we live and move and have our being. Infinite planes of reality exist, all created by, sustained by and infused by the spirit of God. (138)

“In which we live and move and have our being” is, of course, a quotation from St. Paul in Acts 17, who is himself quoting (most likely) the Greek poet Epimenides of Crete. To further confuse the issue, here is a snippet from Pressfield’s “about” page on his website:

I believe in previous lives and the Muse—and that books and music exist before they are written and that they are propelled into material being by their own imperative to be born, via the offices of those willing servants of discipline, imagination and inspiration, whom we call artists. My conception of the artist’s role is a combination of reverence for the unknowable nature of “where it all comes from” and a no-nonsense, blue-collar demystification of the process by which this mystery is approached. In other words, a paradox.

So, to sum up: reincarnation, Kabbalah, pantheism, the Greek pantheon,the pre-existence and self-inception (for lack of a better term) of the arts, and a sort of Jungian view of the Ego and the Self (which I haven’t touched on but you can find for yourself on pp. 132-41). It’s quite the hodge-podge! But despite the — dare I say it? — complete incoherence of Pressfield’s theology, what makes this section really fascinating for me is how he still manages to put his finger on something really important. He’s so close. Look at this passage (bolded emphasis mine):

… when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication.  She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

Just as Resistance has its seat in hell, so Creation has its home in heaven. And it’s not just a witness, but an eager and active ally. (108)

This is the point at which I would like to change tracks a little bit, and see if we can put Steven Pressfield in dialogue with Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers is most often remembered for the Lord Peter Wimsey novels she authored in the 1920s and 30s, but in her own day she was a fairly prominent lay theologian with a particular interest in work and creativity. In The Mind of the Maker, her seminal work on creativity and the nature of the Trinity, she traces mankind’s creative ability back to the Genesis account of being made in the image of God:

How then can he be said to resemble God? It is his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things. (Sayers, 22)

Like Pressfield, Sayers turns to the mind of the creative writer as a means by which to examine work and creativity in general, and specifically its relation to the divine. But rather than turning to the Jungian Self or the Greek Muses, Sayers finds a pattern in the act of human creation which she ties analogically to the nature of the godhead as expressed in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Mind of the Maker is her treatise on the subject, but it was “previewed” in the closing doxology of her play The Zeal of Thy House, which had been written a few years prior to the publication of The Mind of the Maker. This is the final speech of the play, given by the archangel Michael and quoted in full in The Mind of the Maker (the bracketed additions are Sayers’s):

For every work [or act] of creation is threefold, an earthly trinity to match the heavenly.

First, [not in time, but merely in order of enumeration] there is the Creative Idea, passionless, timeless, beholding the whole work complete at once, the end in the beginning: and this is the image of the Father.

Second, there is the Creative Energy [or Activity] begotten of that idea, working in time from the beginning to the end, with sweat and passion, being incarnate in the bonds of matter: and this is the image of the Word.

Third, there is the Creative Power, the meaning of the work and its response in the lively soul: and this is the image of the indwelling Spirit.

And these three are one, each equally in itself the whole work, whereof none can exist without other: and this is the image of the Trinity. (Sayers, 37-8)

Does this not sound, to some extent, like what Pressfield is moving towards? I think Sayers would agree with Pressfield wholeheartedly when it comes to the lived experience of the creative artist, from the need to be diligent to the curious phenomenon of ideas that seemingly arrive from somewhere Out There. And though her vocabulary is different, her view on “turning pro” and the attitude necessary to do work well is similar to his; she wrote extensively on the idea of “serving the work,” in which she calls the artist to mastery of his or her craft and, above all, integrity and excellence in its pursuit. This pursuit of the craft will breed a new set of values in the artist, “… which are not purely economic; he beholds the end of the work. As a common-or-business man, he requires payment for his work, and is often pretty stiff in his demands; but as an artist, he retains so much of the image of God that he is in love with his creation for its own sake” (Sayers, 221). Here, again, Sayers and Pressfield find themselves in agreement.

Here are two different writers, working from two vastly different theological frameworks, and yet they are each hitting on the same essential kernel of truth — and I do believe that it is truth — about the makeup of the creative artist and the nature of creative work. The War of Art is well worth a read; bringing Sayers alongside can make it even more valuable. I commend them both to you.

The work for which we are fitted

Last night I finished the last book in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Emily” trilogy, Emily’s Quest, and was happily struck by the following passage towards its end, which I copied into my notebook. For context, the protagonist, Emily Starr, is a budding writer who had found herself unable to write after a bad injury and difficult convalescence (and an unwise love affair); this diary entry details her feelings upon finding her way back to her work:

“Get leave to work–
In this world ’tis the best you get at all,
For God in cursing gives us better gifts
than men in benediction.”

So wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning — and truly. It is hard to understand why work should be called a curse — until one remembers what bitterness forced or uncongenial labour is. But the work for which we are fitted — which we feel we are sent into the world to do — what a blessing it is and what fulness of joy it holds. I felt this to-day as the old fever burned in my finger-tips and my pen once more seemed a friend.

“Leave to work” — one would think any one could obtain so much. But sometimes anguish and heartbreak forbid us the leave. And then we realise what we have lost and know that it is better to be cursed by God than forgotten by Him. If He had punished Adam and Eve by sending them out to idleness, indeed they would have been outcast and accursed. Not all the dreams of Eden ‘whence the four great rivers flow’ could have been as sweet as those I am dreaming tonight, because the power to work has come back to me.

Oh God, as long as I live give me “leave to work.” Thus pray I. Leave and courage. (Lucy Maud Montgomery, Emily’s Quest, Ch. XII.ii)

This jumped out at me immediately because I wrote my thesis on work — specifically on Dorothy L. Sayers’s theology of ditto. Although Sayers and Montgomery lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, they were rough contemporaries in age, and it is intriguing to see them working on a common theme — what was it about the inter-war period that made the question of work so pressing? — for Sayers also was adamant that there is no work on earth so worth doing save that for which we are particularly suited. As she wrote in a letter to a young admirer:

“Success”, by the way, is finding yourself engaged in doing the thing you are best fitted to do. Consequently, of course, you can never really know whether other people are successful or not. But you may come to the moment when you say, “I am now doing the job I was made for”. That is success, though nobody will know about it but yourself. (Dorothy L. Sayers, Letter to Hilary F. Page, 10 August 1944)

For both Montgomery and Sayers, the fundamental mark of being successful in work is finding oneself pursuing the job for which one has been made — that is to say, for which one is particularly suited by temperament, inclination, call, and training. In this scheme, there is no value judgement to be made between persons who are each doing the work for which they are best suited; a stay-at-home-mother may be regarded as equally successful to a neurosurgeon, provided that she works in a way that is faithful to her particular calling. Where they disagree, however, is in a subtle (but important!) matter of theology: was work cursed in the Garden of Eden, or is work itself the curse?

Montgomery, following Elizabeth Barrett Browning I suppose, accepts the premise that work is God’s curse upon mankind — though she finds that this does not leave it wholly unredeemable. But this is a misreading of Genesis. In the Creation->Fall narrative, work is present in the garden before the fall; it is part of God’s plan for an unfallen mankind in paradise. As Sayers points out in her essay Vocation in Work, the “new and ominous thing” that the curse brings in Genesis 3 is the fact that work “was [now] to be conditioned by economic necessity” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Vocation in Work).

Work has now become necessary for survival, not just for our flourishing. It is in this way that work has been cursed — but it is not, Sayers strongly asserts, a curse in and of itself. I believe that her interpretation is the correct one. Work is redeemable; one of the ways we can participate in that redemption on a personal level is by seeking out and then faithfully serving the work which seems to have been made for us alone. And when we find it, then we also will rejoice with Emily/Montgomery and Sayers, for the blessing and fulness of joy that it brings.