LITERARY TURNS

The literary movement of the (eighteen) nineties had, at the turn of the century, brought the American face to face with the age of science. As industry herded him from the farms where he was responsible to the weather and the earth into the cities where he took his orders from steam and electric power, wheels and cogs, even the average unthinking man was forced to some sort of revaluation of his basic concepts and values.

Robert Spiller, The Cycle of American Literature

To which I’d add…

The literary movement of the (nineteen) nineties, at the turn of the century, brough Americans face to face with, among many other things, terror — including terror over the placement of — pronouns.

BELIEF

And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life.

American philosoper Charles Sanders Peirce, from How to Make Our Ideas Clear

The word “God,” so “capitalised” (as we Americans say), is the definable proper name, signifying Ens necessarium*; in my belief, really creator of all three Universes of Experience.

*Necessary Being

Charles Sanders Peirce, A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God, 1908

THE TASTE OF ASHES

At the 1st Synod of Westminster held at Oscott, England in 1852, St. John Henry Newman preached his famous sermon called, The Second Spring. It was delivered during a period of rabid religious persecution and controversy. It was a beautiful appeal for peace and tolerance.

What follows are the sermon’s rhapsodic beginning lines:

We have familiar experience of the order, the constancy, the perpetual renovation of the material world which surounds us. Frail and transitory as is every part of it, restless and migratory as are its elements, never-ceasing as are it changes, still it abides. It is bound together by a law of permanence, it is set up in unity; and, though it is ever dying, it is ever coming to life again….one death is the parent of a thousand lives. Each hour, as it comes, is but a testimony, how fleeting, yet how secure, how certain, is the great whole. It is like an image on the waters, which is ever the same, though the waters ever flow.

So the subject here is obviously of a historical religious nature. But Newman’s words amount to a longing for spring, rebirth, peace and order — and they have an eternal ring and application. In 2022, we are ever so much in need of a Second Spring on every mortal front, from your house to the Ukraine.

It might seem a trite sentiment on the tongue — saying we long for spring. But, then, abiding natural truths when we voice them, or, if you will, taste them, in contrast to their evil opposite (like all spoken supernatural truths AND evils and ALL benevolent realities that struggle to life like spring blossoms despite threatening tangles of malign, poisonous vines) — yes, these, put into words, often DO sound trite. Yes, they do.

But forgive, please, me while I torture another metaphor and say, as this difficult winter in the world draws to a close, that we are longing for that old taste of spring. We fear it may have a stale taste. We like to think it would taste much better if we could only truly bite into it.

In the Ukraine, however, our fear is that it would taste like ashes.

OF THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH

A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong….I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.

Socretes, as quoted by his student Plato in the Apology.

Socrates had been accused of “corrupting the youth” of Athens and was, as such, to become an ancient — and perhaps the first — victim of the “cancel culture”.

As to the calculation of whether he’d live or die — they killed him.

ASH WEDNESDAY, 2022

Because I do not hope to turn again

Because I do not hope

Because I do not hope to turn

-T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

To turn our hearts towards God, to be converted, means that we must be prepared to use all means to live as He expects us to live.

Francis Fernandez, In Conversation with God

A pure heart create in me, O God; put a steadfast spirit within me.

Psalm 50

Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto thee.

T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

OF BORDERS AND BOUNDARIES

Democracy entails both external limits — borders and boundaries for both passage and conduct that make for a commmunity of citizens and not just residents or self-assertive rights-bearers — and internal limits that require self-limitation in accord with the moral law and the requirements of civic common good.

from The demanding & delecate task of conservatism, The New Criterion, January, 2022

by Daniel J. Mahoney, professor emeritus, Assumption University, Senior Fellow at the Real Clear Foundation, and Senior Writer at Law and Liberty

WHO HAS THE (GOOD) IDEAS NOW?

Lionel Trilling in 1950:

…it is the plain fact that nowadays,there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation…The conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in actons or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

There you have a seventy-two-year old manifestation of liberal smugness, ignorance, illusion and isolation. But perhaps this was, indirectly, a call to arms for the conservative movement which was underground and burst out in full view in the mid-fifties and, happily, struggles on today between the extremes of Democratic radicalism and Republican fecklessness.

But it is not entirely inaccurate to suggest that genuine conservatism, as opposed to Trumpism, etc., has once again lost its confidence or sense of direction.

Academia and the mainstream media treat conservatism as a kind of mental disorder. And they are likely to confuse the rabble that burst into the halls of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 with conservatism. I submit that this is a willful libel, and that they know better. I guess that action would fall into Lionel Trillings curious and wrongheaded 1950 diagnosis of a “conservative” action, or an “irritable mental gesture” transformed into mass action.

But, in the realm of ideas, look out there and see who really look like the crazy ones.

To be fair, look left and right. But don’t just observe the “irritable mental gestures” or actions of one side. Read! We’re talking about ideas here.

Sadly, however, there may be, as I think about it, much truth in British philsopher Roger Scruton’s diagnosis of the crisis of conservatism as stated in 1980, thirty years after liberal Lionel Trilling offered his two cents worth on the subject. Scruton wrote, Conservatism may rarely announce itself in maxims, formulae or aims. Its essence is inarticulate, and its expresson, when compelled, skeptical.

Conservative New York Times columnist Roger Douthat wrote recently, the ossified Reaganism that the younger conservatives intend to supplant is locked into the world of 1980.

Yes, there are, indeed, new brands of conservatism afoot in the land. Among the exponants of one such brand I might be at a loss to label might be counted Roger Kimbell, an art, culture and political commentator and editor of the journal, The New Criterion. And in the midst of a long analysis of the current state of conservatism in the current issue, he suggests that the election of Donald Trump, “unlikely though it seemed at the time” and given the alternatives, might have amounted to a battle for the soul of the country and, for some scholars and voters, in the current polarized state of affairs, may well have represented “the only chance for national survival.”

Which is why Kimball, an obviously intelligent and cultivated fellow, has spoken and written well elsewhere of Trump’s four years in the White House — of how he cut down illegal immigratiion, cut down on witch hunts on campus under Title IX provisions and mandates and racialist attacks throughout the federal bureacracy under the rubric of “critical race theory.” He’s written of how the 1776 initiative, begun under Trump, aimed at reviving in schools and colleges and, in the culture, an appreciation of our founding ideals — over against the tendendcy to blame America first in Academia, the media and corporate culture.

But, properly speak, he noted, this was more the “populist spirit” than conservatism, strictly speaking. (I’d also note that there is a strong strain of libertarianism in it.) And there were those elements of The Strongman, of which I, for one, remain deeply skeptical, if not fearful, when it occurs on the right or the left. In history, fascism, right and left, always seemed to coalesce around a single person and become a cult.

But what is that “populist spirit” as it is manifesting itself on American soil?

It is anti-globalist, prizes individiual liberty, limited government, distrust of the regulatory and administratie state and identity politics.

Ultimately, it is a case of the powerful influence of the elite in academia, the media and corporations versus the rest of us.

It is, I’ll admit, very odd to have cultivated, conservative intellectuals and historians on the order of Kimball or Victor Davis Hanson vouching in any way for the crass Barbarian Donald Trump. Kimball has merely suggested that Trump is “a narcisist who never managed to learn the subtleties of narcisism.” I read in that an implied comparison with the likes of Trump’s presidential prececessors Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama, though I could be wrong.

Keep in mind that the flagship publication of the traditional conservative movement, The Naitonal Review, founded by the late William F. Buckley, Jr., declared itself in the harshest terms opposed to a Trump presidency even before Trump won the nomination. And that opposition remains in place today. It has been critically suggested, among other things, in the pages of that journal, that Trump shattered the norms of presidential behavior in ways toxic to the body politic. And he’s still out there, aching to get back into power, while Democrats, drifting out to sea in a barque captained by a vain, borderline senescent stooge of those powerful interests enumerated above, pulls out to sea with him.

But, back to ideas. The late conservative scholar Richard Weaver wrote a book called, Ideas Have Consequences. I think I need to read it. Perhaps we all do.

More on all this later. For in 2022, ideas are going to have many consequences.

EPIPHANY MOMENT

Before I and everyone else packs up our creches for another year, some thoughts on the Magi — and that Star.

It’s nearly little Christmas.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the the Star, and the Magi who followed it. How many were there? It’s not known, but legend has it they bore three gifts and they may represent, among other things, the three stages of life, or the three branches of the human race, semitic, white, black (which, of course, omits the Asian and therefore is beyond imperfect). The Magi were a once-powerful priestly caste of the Medes and the Persians, as recorded by Herodotus and others. They studied astrology and the divination of dreams.

How did they know about the blessed event? How far did they have to travel to Bethlehem?

They could have met with a very harsh fate had the brutal and crazed dictator Herod known they had ignored his request to report back to him the birthplace of savior. They could not have known, initially, of his terrifying and murderous reputation.

They were also said to be descendants of the great soothsayer Balaam. Nothing indicates that they enjoyed any great power at the time of the birth of Christ.

What about the star?

Identifying the star — that Star — is a thorny issue. How could these men, working with only the naked eye or the most rudimentary scientific instruments, have made astronomical observations of any precision? This is pretty much, word for word, the observation of that renowned and now mostly forgotten late French Catholic scholar Henri Daniel-Rops, writing in his marvelous book, Jesus and His Time.

It could have been a “nova” similar to the new star that appeared in the Consetllation Aquila in 1918 or that was noticed in 1572 after the massacre of St. Bartholeomew’s Day. But no writers on those times in question recorded such an appearance.

Halley’s Comet, when it appeared on January 10, 1910, was visible in Jerusalem, its light observed to pass rapidly from east to west, becoming difused in the east and reapparring in full visibility to the west, as indicated in the Gospel Story. But Halley’s Comet could only have passed over the sky of the countries in question during the year 12 B.C. and not the year 6 B.C., when it is most often speculated that Christ was born. Other comments recorded by Chinese astronomers in the years 4 and 3 B.C. tell us it would not have been visible in Western Asia. Also, a comet, being subject to their diurnal orbit like other stars, could not indicate a precise location, much less a particlar house in a particular town.

Kepler thought that this celestial pheonmenon might be a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn as occurred again recently. His calculations suggest this could have occurred in the year 6 B.C., even though this date was not yet considered the most probable date for the birth of Christ. Interesting.

And the word “star” as used in scripture does not mean the stars ordinarly visible, but indicates some astronomical phomenon.

On the borderland of science and legend, as Daniel-Rops puts it, is Russian poet Dmitry Merezhkovsky’s theory that the “star” of the Gospel was a rare celestial phenomenon, an equinocrtial passage of Aries through Pisces which would signify to the Babylonian Magi, haunted by the idea of a recurring deluge, the an announcment of the end of the world and a new age in the history of the human race.

St. John Chrystosom, though pre-scientific, knew that stars don’t do what the star of Bethlehem was said to do — that according to Catholic convert and scripture scholar Scott Hahn.

Stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria speculated that the stars “are living cratures, but a kind composed entirely of mind.”

Thus John Chrystosom concluded that this was an appearnace of a Christmas angel. Those celestial messengers are forever being caught up in the cosmic drama, from the creation of the world. Good and bad angels are, to the devout mind, what accounts daily for all that is communicated to us in our universe. They are everywhere in the Christmas story.

My patron saint, Gregory the Great, according to Scott Hahn, accepted the angelic interepretation. He also observed the great difference beween the way God dealt with the shepherds and how he dealt with the Magi. The shepherds, though uneducated members of the lowest rank, were still members of the chosen people. They’d been hearing all their lives the prophesies of liberation destined for the Jews. So it was, says Gregory, that God announced Christ to them with angels.

“But a sign, not a voice, guided the gentiles,” writes Scott Hahn. He quotes Gregory’s homily on the Ephiphany, asserting that the Magi ” they were not prepared to make full use of reason to know the Lord.”

In other words, as Scott Hahn notes, when it came to understand the meaning of Christmas, “the simplest of pious field hands were better equipped than the most erudite scholars.”

But those scholars, to their eternal credit, came in an ardent search for the truth. “That’s something the angels could see — and work with,” writes Hahn.

And, it should be noted, they ultimately got their share of important angelic knowledge: an angel apperared to them in one of their dreams in time to steer them clear of Herod who might (God help us!) have tortured them to extract the knowedge they now posessed of the Infant Jesus’s whereabouts.

Thank you, angels.

And so, like those truth-seeking foreign gentile travelers, we must let the angels work with us and guide us now and to the end of our own desert journeys.

.…This Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death…

T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi

Yet the poet has his lone Magi, reflecting long after that journey and the witnessing of that birth, proclaim that he and his fellow travelers were afterwards no longer at home or at peace in their native lands (w)ith an alien people clutching their gods.

I know how he feels.

And so I say a wistful goodbye for another anxious year to those fellow travelers.

God willing, I’ll see them — we’ll all see them — again next year, in peace and joy.

WINDSWEPT

We are windswept in 2022. Doors are slamming shut all about us.

We stand on an open, windswept plain, questions of the most intimate and critical nature swirl in a vortex — celibacy, friendship, marriage….

The storm has been raging for decades….

So it was, forty years ago, that I read what someone wrote, rather heavy stuff — and I pondered it too lightly, and not nearly long enough. I never forgot it.

In the tradition of Catholic Christianity, there is a tension between celibacy freely chosen as an image of God’s sacrificial life and marriage freely chosen as a different sort of image of that same love. Celibacy looks to the eschatological* meaning of that love, matrimony to its incarnational** meaning.

I never said it was light reading.

Secondly, friendship… is not alone a strong enough word to carry the meaning of marriage. The married have experienced other friendships. The friendship of marriage is of a different order indeed: searing, intimate beyond description, full of mystery and terror, excruciatingly painful, profoundly suited to our nature. ***

Now, that’s peculiar. Pain, suited to our nature. Hmmmm.

By the way, the above is from…

Michael Novak (1933-2017), Catholic philosopher journalist, diplomat, writing in the fall, 1981 issue of the journal Communio, which had been gifted to me and was devoted to the subject of the relations between the sexes. Novak’s contribution was entitled, “Man and Woman He Made Them.”

I’ve always enjoyed Novak’s writing. I think I mentioned elsewhere in this blog that I was once reading a slim volume of his, called. The Experience of Nothingness as I lay recovering from my first kidney stone episode in Doctor’s Hospital in Lanham, Maryland. I think the male nurse attending me was wondering, based on that title, about my overall mental state. Hope that a didn’t scare him. That was 1983, several kidney stones ago. I want no more stones. But I do want to understand the nature of our modern….nothingness.

And I read the treatise on men and women so long ago, forty -one years. Tom Brady was a toddler, probably barely able to throw a football. A Hail Mary was still just a prayer to his apparently Catholic parents. There was no super model spouse as yet to affirm to him that — Man and Woman He Made US.

But I digress, sort of. I like and admire Tom B. He’s my goal standard for what the average, decent and accomplished family man will accept and believe.

And, no matter how simply or complexly we put them, we no longer believe these things now. Or, many of us don’t. A Majority. Care to take a poll?

I don’t know what Tom Brady believes, for instance.

Footnotes on the above:

*Eschatology: From the Greek, eschatos (“last things”, i.e., death, resurrection, immortality), logos (“knowledge of”)

**Incarnation: The religious doctrine or belief that God will or has embodied Himself in human form.

***I first read this Novak treatise when I was 34. A son was born to me that fall.

I was not, nor have I ever been, married. Friendship is not marriage. Cohabitation is not marriage. Man and woman — woman and man, if you will — He made us. Parents are a man and a woman, and they are married, though they may be divorced. They have made a convenant. They have entered into a state implying obligations, toward one another, toward the children, to society.

They are a family. Modern philosophy is obsessed with the problem of the individual and the state. Novak feels we have, for the most part, “systematically” neglected the family and asserts that “human experience is primordially familial.” Mother, father, offspring.

I chose, back in 1981, as, ultimately, did multitudes, to try to stand apart from all this — to believe it in abstract, but not believe in necessarily was real or applied to me, or, God knows, everybody.

Thus He made us. Man and woman.

No, many longer believe this., if they ever did. We think we’ve moved on. This assumes God has moved on, too.

Celibacy. Friendship. Marriage.

You can chose God, or the Zeitgeist. Novak, Lord rest his soul, wrote, in that same piece….

The Zeitgeist (spirit of the world) is nearlay always both wrong and arrogant. The pendulum of history customarily swings too far. To find the just measure, it is wise to lean against prevailing winds.

But for now, we are windswept.

Hold onto your hats.

Or, if hatless, your souls.

A TENNYSON CHRISTMAS

From “In Memoriam” in which, the poet, deep in mourning, over hundreds of stanzas, gropes for the light over three Christmases, as time slowly closes over the loss of a dear friend and faith slowly covers over his mourning. Christmas and a new year were the milepost at every painful turning. November is the month in which we especially remember the dead. December, and Christmas, are when we miss them the most.

FROM STANZA XXVIII

The time draws near the birth of Christ.

The moon is hid, the night is still;

The Christmas bells from hill to hill

Answer each other in the mist.

FROM STANZA LXXVIII

Again at Christmas did we weave

The holly round the Christmas hearth;

The silent snow possess’d the earth

And calmly fell our Christmas-eve.

The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,

No wing of wind the region swept,

But over all things brooding slept

The quiet sense of something lost.

FROM STANZA CIV

The time draws near the birth of Christ;

The moon is hid, the night is still;

A single church below the hill

Is pealing, folded in he mists.

A single peal of bells below,

That awakens in this hour of rest

A single murmur in the breast

That these are not the bells I know.

Like stranger’s voices here they sound,

In lands where not a memory strays,

Nor landmark breaths of other days,

But all is new unhallow’d ground.

FROM STANZA CV

Tonight ungather’d let us leave

This laurel, let this holly stand:

We live within the stranger’s land,

And strangely falls our Christmas-eve.

FROM STANZA CVI

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying clouds, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

FROM STANZA CXXXI (CONCLUDING)

That God, which ever lives and loves,

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves.

1850

Just fragments in which earth and mortals regenerate, mid-way in a century that was struggling to retain the “old” faith. Tennyson, nonetheless moves from despair to hope. Tennyson is not my poetic soul-mate in many particulars, out of sorts — along with the likes of Charles Kingsley — with the important Oxford Movement, in which Saint John Henry Newman was about to remove himself, and lead other churchmen, out of the slowly sinking barque of Anglicanism.

But he knew Christmas for what it was and must always be for us, however great the darkness.

2021