My Old Friend Hawthorne

It’s been a barn-burner of an academic year for me.  I retreated to an old friend and laughed at myself:

So little adapted is the atmosphere of a Custom–house to the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt whether the tale of “The Scarlet Letter” would ever have been brought before the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. “What have you to do with us?” that expression seemed to say. “The little power you might have once possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go then, and earn your wages” In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.

It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life that this wretched numbness held possession of me. It went with me on my sea–shore walks and rambles into the country, whenever—which was seldom and reluctantly—I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating charm of Nature which used to give me such freshness and activity of thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold of the Old Manse. The same torpor, as regarded the capacity for intellectual effort, accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in the chamber which I most absurdly termed my study. Nor did it quit me when, late at night, I sat in the deserted parlour, lighted only by the glimmering coal–fire and the moon, striving to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might flow out on the brightening page in many–hued description.

If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,—making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility,—is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work-basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the wall;—all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child’s shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse;—whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.

The somewhat dim coal-fire has an essential influence in producing the effect which I would describe. It throws its unobtrusive tinge throughout the room, with a faint ruddiness upon the walls and ceiling, and a reflected gleam from the polish of the furniture. This warmer light mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams, and communicates, as it were, a heart and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms which fancy summons up. It converts them from snow-images into men and women. Glancing at the looking-glass, we behold—deep within its haunted verge—the smouldering glow of the half-extinguished anthracite, the white moonbeams on the floor, and a repetition of all the gleam and shadow of the picture, with one remove farther from the actual, and nearer to the imaginative. Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.

But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom–House experience, moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of firelight, were just alike in my regard; and neither of them was of one whit more avail than the twinkle of a tallow–candle. An entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them—of no great richness or value, but the best I had—was gone from me.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House.”

There.  Now I feel better.

A Book Review on Faith, Long Deferred

Well nigh 20 years ago I, a hapless college student, bought a dusty old book at the Sacred Heart Used Book Store in Pittsburgh: The Theological Virtues I: On Faith, by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP.  The day has come to write a review!

To appreciate the irony of this purchase, you must understand that I was at that very moment being trained in the Nouvelle Theologie both in my classes and in my various hobby-discussions with classmates.  I loved De Lubac and Company, and Lagrange was the probably-villainous Grand Inquisitor who had waged war against these holy theologians who were clearly doing no more than enlivening a dusty theological tradition with rich, ancient sources of reasoning.

Even more amusing, I was in the company of a friend (now with the CFRs in New York) who had guided me into the world of Nouvelle Theologie and knew far more about the history of the controversy than I did at the time.  He commented, if I recall, that Lagrange’s book on charity was supposed to be very good, so perhaps (begrudgingly) this book on faith would be as well.  To perfect the irony, I’m pretty sure I bought Further Paradoxes by De Lubac at the same time and dropped them in the same bag. Continue reading A Book Review on Faith, Long Deferred

Vergil to Augustine: Inanitas

My friend Adam has hit upon a quite nice little idea in his translating of the Aeneid.  The general idea is that Vergil is a cynic who ends all his most epic scenes by throwing shade on them.  I’ll let Adam speak for himself on the details, but I was pleased to play a small auxiliary role in the hashing out of the idea.

Initially I resisted his take on the pictura inani, or empty picture, that Aeneas used to feed his soul.  Why not instead stay local and contrast Aeneas feeding his soul (animus) with a soulless (inane) picture?  But once we got talking, his cynical read started to grow really nicely.

While Adam ran off to do some real work (prep for a class), I played the role of research assistant gunning down every use of the adjective inanis in the Aeneid.  Again, God bless the internet.  And indeed, it is quite remarkable how often inanis shows up just in an amateur little word search, and what it ends up modifying (hope, rage, tears, etc.).

It was also fun because our discussion of Vergil’s agenda–pro Augustan or not?–sparked an idea about another field full of expert scholarship: the writings of St. Augustine. Continue reading Vergil to Augustine: Inanitas

Melville on Religion

“Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also.  But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable in to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him.

And just so I now did with Queequueg.  “Queequeg,” said I, “get into bed now, and lie and listen to me.”  I then went on, beginning with the rise and progress of the primitive religions, and coming down to the various religions of the present time, during which I labored to show Queequeg that all these Lents, Ramadans, and prolonged ham-squattings in cold, cheerless rooms were nonsense; bad for the health; useless for the soul; opposed, in short, to the obvious laws of Hygiene and common sense.  I told him, too, that he being in other things an extremely sensible and sagacious savage, it pained me, very badly pained me, to see him now so deplorably foolish about this ridiculous Ramadan of his.  Besides, argued I, fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved.  This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters.  In one word, Queeqeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpuated through the hereditary dyspesias nurtured by Ramadans.

After all, I do not think that my remarks about religion made much impression upon Queequeg.  Because, in the first place, he somehow seemed dull of hearing on that important subject, unless considered from his own point of view; and, in the second place, he did not more than one third understand me, couch my ideas simply as I would; and, finally, he no doubt thought he knew a good deal more about the true religion than I did.  He looked at me with a sort of condescending concern and compassion, as though he thought it a great pity that such a sensible young man should be so hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety.

Moby Dick, chapter 17. “The Ramadan”

American Classics

For a grand total of four dollars I have acquired the complete works of Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain (thanks, Nook!).  I have a lot of reading to do this summer!

Eventually that will mean a few Read More posts as I hack through these fine gentlemen.  As an overview, here’s where I stand with the three.

I’ve read a fair bit of Hawthorne and have always enjoyed him since my first crack at The Scarlet Letter in high school.  My wife has me beat on his short stories, although I’ve read a few.  I’m looking forward to catching up on his other works.

I despise Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.  There, I said it.   Continue reading American Classics

Caesar Sunday

The Latin game of the week in the office comes from De Bello Gallico I.40: Caesar convincing his panicking Roman legions to sack up and fight Ariovistus and his German giants.  In the midst of his rhetorical genius, Caesar lays down this structurally stunning gem:

Si quos adversum proelium et fuga Gallorum commoveret, hos, si quaerent, reperire posse diuturnitate belli defatigatis Gallis, Ariovistum cum multos menses castris se ac paludibus tenuisset neque si potestatem fecisset, desperantes iam de pugna et dispersos, subito adortum magis ratione et consilio quam virtute vicisse.

I like to toss these up on a board structurally, with indenting to show the grammatical relations.  One of my least favorite things about the entire digital age is how difficult it is to do this on a screen.  Sometimes the old ways are best!  Since I’m not going to drive myself insane trying to replicate in MS Paint and I’m too lazy to set it up in Word and do a screen cap, you’ll have to take my word for it: it’s a cool sentence.

The apodosis (consequent) of the conditional sentence is, depending on how you want to look at it, unexpressed or borrowed from earlier in the paragraph.  Basically there’s a hidden “Caesar says” introducing an indirect statement.  Here’s my render: Continue reading Caesar Sunday

Read More: City of God

St. Augustine’s City of God is my white whale.  I have tried and tried and tried to finish this book, which I love and which I happily declare a masterpiece.  But. It’s. So. Long.  Every few months to a year I pick it up again and have to go back to the beginning to get back into it because I completely forget where I have left off.  I think I’ve read Book I maybe 12-15 times now.  I’ve read a lot of books of not-inconsequential length before, but this one somehow just slays me every time.

One of my enduring delights about City of God–despite being trapped in it like Groundhog Day–is St. Augustine’s ambivalent approach to the Roman gods.  It’s an ambivalence that I’ve shared for a long time, primarily thanks to reading a lot of fantasy literature as a kid.  Reading classics and especially medieval stuff like Ariosto has strongly reinforced it.  We may summarize the whole problem by taking a sharp left turn and considering a dinner-table conversation in my house.

“Dad,” sayeth the heir.  “Are the Greek gods real?”

Respondit the father, “Uh….” Continue reading Read More: City of God

The Eternal Significance of the Jew

(I’ve just read Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.  Consider this a creative reflection on his wonderful book)

The Church has been struggling internally against anti-Semitism since the time of Marcion.  The dualism that periodically surfaces in our history courts it–from “Matter Is Evil” to “Creator Is Evil,” it is a short jump to tar that Creator’s Chosen People.  Marcion’s “theoretical anti-Semitism” found practical cause in the splitting of the synagogue and the rancor of a divided family; later forms found their blood from the more insidious fear of Other.  An interesting thought–as it has become more bloodless, it has become more appalling.  Though I suppose I need to account for the wealth and banking angle that drives some people; economic hardship and class envy is anything but bloodless.

Marcion got as far as he did by being enormously selective in his use of the New Testament canon (I take him as the first deviant, the reaction against him a sign that the canon is already largely formed).  Overemphasis on the writings of St. Paul is his major tool, and it shows a weakness in the Apostle’s writings (or rather, our understanding of them)–St. Paul’s references to “The Law” are not always clear and often confusing.  Marcion was the first but by no means the last to take “The Law” as meaning everything from Adam to the Baptist, and to overlook all references to that Law as good and necessary. Continue reading The Eternal Significance of the Jew

H.P. Lovecraft

I’ve just finished playing a cute little game called Cthulhu Saves the World (from Zeboyd Games) in the last few weeks.  It’s over-stuffed with goofy in-jokes and word plays based on the writing of the great H.P. Lovecraft, and so it has put me in mind to blog a bit on him.  The man himself (rather, his effigy) has also been in the news recently, so it seemed timely to add my voice to his chorus of admirers.

Kitten Lovecraft 2
Any picture of Cthulhu would drive you instantly mad.  Sorry.

My early exposure to Lovecraft was through pop culture references, movies, and role playing games (especially Palladium stuff).  Hunting down the screwball screen adaptations was my next phase; I still have fond memories of late night Dagon and Necronomicon.  Finally, the blessed internet gave me his complete works for $0.99 (Thanks, Nook!).

Continue reading H.P. Lovecraft

Poe Was a Grinder

The glories of the digital age are best shown in this, that I can acquire for less than a dollar the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe and hold them in the palm of my hand.  Thanks, Nook!

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_crop
Must. Make. Deadline.

I’ve just recently finished plowing through all of Poe’s short stories.  It was more work than expected.  Poe was a grinder.  He wrote a lot, in many more genres than I knew.  When he was on, he put lightning on the page and made himself immortal.  But Poe was not always Poe.  Writing for a living will do that to you.

His static, pastoral descriptions: bleh.  His few dialogues: bleh.  His sci-fi is a little better, usually focused on hot air balloons.  Often bleh, but you get glimpses of the “real Poe.”  He is often occupied with mesmerism, an application of the cutting edge science of electromagnetism. Continue reading Poe Was a Grinder