31 August, 2007

"The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe"

This poem is so incredibly awesome.

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

WILD air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

29 August, 2007

More Thought-Provoking Chesterton

He never really fails to do it, does he? Even when his style is at its most jocose, Chesterton can give you something to think about.

The latest book of his to hit my "books in progress" shelf is his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. It's only my first read through of course, but I think it may become a favorite of mine, largely because I find it one of his most convincing.

The chapters exploring Thomas' philosophy are worth reading by themselves, being admirably succint. Chesterton manages to distill the main points driving Thomas' philosophy, and to really explain them, with all the clarity of a teacher who genuinely understands the subject matter. Although his arguments do suffer occasionally from generalizations, this results merely from the brevity of his treatment, and none of these generalizations are lacking plenty of arguments in their favour made by other authors.

Anyway, one such philosophy chapter particularly struck me. Chesterton focuses on the distinctive character of Thomas' thought. According to him, this distinction lies in Thomas' emphasis upon the permanency of being. Thomas' starting point could perhaps be summed up in the very common-sense statement "There is and IS". The world and the realities it contains are solid and true. (I say the "realities it contains" because the influence of evil certainly has left an imprint in the form of absence of good, absence of beauty, absence of reality.)

For Thomas, a single object such as a plain rock is true, not because it is a symbol of some abstract reality, or is a rock in spite of its gray-ness or hardness or any other physical characteristic. It has genuine existence as a rock; its essense is that of a rock and its physical characteristics are in integral part of that identity.

Many ancient philosophers focused entire schools of thought around the concept of the constancy of change. According to some the only consistent truth was the fact that everything was constantly changing or "in flux" - really, this was a wicked common idea, it seems if Fr. Copleston's "History of Philosophy" is accurate. The general impression schools like these would give is that the material world is untrustworthy at best, and that to put faith in things like the senses or even common sense, is a rather naive gesture.

Considering that the majority of even more Catholic philosophies subsequent to these have concentrated on the intellectual life, the soul, or the superiority of the mind, it's likely enough that some of this tendency results from the aforementioned ancient Greeks and their contemporaries.

Fortunately for us, we have Thomas, showing in his dry, matter-of-fact, penetrating prose the Catholic view on the constancy of being. We see change all the time in this world, not because change is the supreme reality, but because the intensely real "is-ness" of every created thing is flawed by some absence of its intended perfection. Evil produces imperfections, but God, in bringing creation back to Himself, allows change in order to return everything to its intended state of being.

Moreover, change (in the ideal form of growth rather than regression or some such thing) exists because even in any object's ideal state of being, it is not Being itself. A created object is not at any time all that it could BE. These are very imprecise terms; they give only the barest approximation of what Chesterton is talking about. Chesterton himself puts it: "Things change because they are not complete; but their reality can only be explained as part of something that is complete. It is God."

Being is real, there is and IS. God is the Supreme Being, as trancendentalist and the term may sound. He is I AM. Acceptance of this fact provides a jumping off point for Thomas.

The amazing thing is, although Thomas' view may require leap of faith, what is in the end more common-sense than his premise: "There is an IS"?

22 August, 2007

Over the Course of August

This August I've been reading two biographies of a greater than usual writing quality and subject interest. The aforesaid tomes are: "John Adams", by David McCullough, and "Isabel of Spain: the Catholic Queen", by my favorite history author, Warren Carroll.

I tend to see similarities and connections in rather absurd places (I would be fairly successful as a professional conspiracy theorist if I put my mind to it, I think). Be that as it may, I don't think it's too far fetched to draw a brief comparison between the Catholic monarch and the revolutionary hero of Puritan ancestry.

For a start, I ought to mention that Isabel (the queen "made famous" in this country by her association with Columbus) was not nearly as hard-headedly old fashioned and strict as most historians portray her as being. Neither was John Adams at all akin to some of his contemporaries (eg. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Sam Adams) whose revolutionary sentiments ran to the lengths of praising the vicious French revolution. Isabel was indeed, rather liberal (in the traditional sense), running her government more "democratically" - in the sense of consulting representatives of parts of the country - than monarchs were apt to do right up until the 1800s. John Adams was fair minded enough to point out repeatedly that there are benefits in manarchy as well as in Republicanism - monarchy, he believed has the advantage of appealing particularly to something in human nature which tends to attract people throughout history to genuine (i.e. not empty) pageantry.

I'm not going to laboriously catalogue either person's character or life time-line, because it's not the school year yet, and I'm not trying to write a paper.

But I'm going to throw out a few ideas that both would have agreed on.

- Any government can work only insofar as its leaders and citizens center their lives around God.

- Christian morality is a necessary foundation for any country's laws.

- The Native Americans are children of God, and should be treated with perfect equality. - An uncommon idea for their times, and one (despite the claims of the politically correct crowd that no white male or Spanish monarch ever cared for the Native Americans) which is well documented in letters and decrees.

- The government exists to serve the temporal needs of its people, not to be served by the people. A monarch had to do this nearly on his or her own, while in the case of a Democratic Republic every citizen, being partially self-governing, must bear some of the burden although in degrees.

That's all I'm going to come up with for now, but you should get the idea.

20 August, 2007

Reality in the Velveteen Rabbit

I happened upon The Velveteen Rabbit the other day when rifling through our bookshelves in search of one thing and another. I hadn't read it for years, so I sat down directly and finished it in a matter of minutes. My recollection of anything beyond the basic plot had been scanty, and on reading it I was struck by the straight-forward beauty of the prose. It was delightfully lacking in pretension and preachy-ness and I was enchanted to discover new layers to the tale which (as in all good books) add to the story itself rather than making a "children's book" into a podium.

I love this section:

"What is Real?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?" "Real isn’t how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but Really loves you, then you become Real." "Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit. "Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt." "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" "It doesn’t happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand."

Genuine relationships - in this case, friendship - do "hurt" sometimes, as the Skin horse says. Being loved and loving back can be painful and hard and wearing. But in the end, it's the only thing that makes you real.

07 August, 2007


I read this novel by Evelyn Waugh in one day. It's a very short book and rather a strange one. But a very good one it is in my opinion. Centering around the legend of St. Helena's discovery of the true Cross, its tone is oddly detatched, like the tone of a fairy tale. It doesn't delve into it's characters' personalities, but delineates them with the utmost brevity - a line or two sufficing to express many of the characters. Important events are only briefly touched upon before the book skips to the next scene, which often takes place years later.

In brief, it's a model of brevity. Whether you are more fond of Victor Hugo's wandering style (remember the innumerable essays on the Battle of Waterloo tossed into the middle of "Les Miserables"?) or, like me, enjoy a happy medium of the Dostoevskian type, you have to admit that Waugh pulls this brevity off remarkably well. I came away from the book with a very definite sense that I had read a book. Not some shoddy attempt at a book thrown together with not enough development. The "lack" of development here is studied and is harmonious with the tone produced throughout the book.

On to the theme of the book. (What an absurd practice it is to always dissect books for themes. I rather think the story is what counts in the end. Nevertheless, a good understanding of the theme - I cringe at the word - does help me enjoy the story a little more.) Waugh has plenty of enjoyable comments and memorable quotes about a variety of subjects: power, society, etc. I think the two most definite points the book centers around, however, are the relationship between temporal power and the power of religion, and the solid reality of Christianity as opposed to the myriad of cults and sects around around the time of the Roman Empire's decline.

The former "theme" plays a larger part in the first chapters of the book than in the last. You see the ancestral pride of Helena's father, the old British chieftan and his resulting disregard for Constantius' Imperial lineage. "Apart from their divinity, who were they? Some of the emperors we've had lately, you know, have been - very literally - nothing to make a song about." You see Constantius' obsessive fixation with his claims to power, the resulting destruction of his amiable qualities, and his thoughtless discarding of Helena for a more politically advantageous wife. You watch Constantine and his wife Fausta carry on their own machinations, their more direct attempts to control the Church. Helena responds by simply and quietly becoming a saint. And as a saint, she pinpoints the tragedy of all this power grabbing: "Think", she says "of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace."

In Imperial Rome, in high society, religion is a mishmash of cultic ritual, of esoteric "answers", of confusing and contradictory pseudo-philosophy. Only Christianity is different. This difference is something which Helena comprehends, but which Constantine and Fausta do not. They view Christiaity as being on the level with any other cultic religion of the day. What the latter do not see is that the similarities between Christianity and these popular religions ends with the simple fact that both have ritual and mysteries. In Christianity alone do these rituals and mysteries have substance. The Gnostics in the book pour out empty sentences in profusion when preaching, but nothing is ever really said in their lectures because the Gnostics believe (essentially) that nothing is real but their own abstract ideas.

For Christians there is the Incarnation. The world is real to Christians. Helena grasps this and takes as her vocation a quest to find the true Cross of Christ. Others like Eusebius and Constantine spend their time in Theological arguments - a similarity to the Gnostics and others which is too pronounced to be missed. (I don't know whether Waugh was meaning to condemn Constantine and Eusebius and concern with minute points of theology. I rather think that he wasn't. It's a literary device in the book which gets his point across without seriously attacking Catholic theology.) Constantine, in a surge of high enthusiam about his theoretical version of Christianity puts down Rome to the Pope's face with the words, "You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations; in innocence, with Divine Wisdom and Peace."

But for Helena their is no rejection of the intrinsic reality of Christianity and of the pain and suffering often involved without there being a rejection of Christ Himself. "Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union, there's a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I'm going out to find it."

03 August, 2007

Rules of Mystery Novels

Hmmmm... interesting article. I think a clever mystery novel could get away with breaking several of these rules. A case in point is a Dorothy Sayer book I just read. I won't name it, because I'm about to completely give away the ending, but I will say that it breaks rule # 18 with a considerable degree of success.

(Originally published in the American Magazine (1928-sep),
and included in the Philo Vance investigates omnibus (1936).

by S.S. Van Dine
(pseud. for Willard Huntington Wright)

THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience. To wit:

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se'ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his codeductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se'ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.