Lewis on Eliot

C.S. Lewis ends his A Preface to Paradise Lost with a praise of middle things:

c.s. lewis a preface to paradise lostFinally there is the class [that is, of poets] to which Mr. Eliot himself probably belongs. Some are outside the Wall because they are barbarians who cannot get in; but others have gone out beyond it of their own will in order to fast and pray in the wilderness. ‘Civilization’–by which I here mean barbarism made strong and luxurious by mechanical power–hates civility from below: sanctity rebukes it from above. The round table is pressed between the upper milestone (Galahad) and the nether (Mordred). If Mr. Eliot  disdains the eagles and trumpets of epic poetry because the fashion of this world passes away, I honour him. But if he goes on to draw the conclusion that all poetry should have the penitential qualities of his own best work, I believe he is mistaken. As long as we live in merry middle earth it is necessary to have middle things. If the round table is abolished, for every one who rises to the level of Galahad, a hundred will drop plumb down to that of Mordred. Mr. Eliot may succeed in persuading the reading youth of England to have done with robes of purple and pavements of marble. But he will not therefore find them walking in sackcloth on floors of mud–he will only find them in smart, ugly suits walking on rubberoid. It has all been tried before. The older Puritans took away the maypoles and the mince-pies: but they did not bring in the millennium, they only brought in the Restoration. Galahad must not make common cause with Mordred, for it is always Mordred who gains, and he who loses, by such alliance.


The Right to be a Pig and the Right to be a Socrates


Circe and Her Swine by Briton Riviere, 1896

Ryszard Legutko on thin and thick views of human dignity, duty and obligation:

Man, feeling secure and enjoying the increasingly abundant benefits of a modern civilization, was slowly releasing himself from the compelling pressure of strict and demanding rules derived from religion and classical ethics. He was no longer in the mood to embark on a painful and uncertain journey to higher goals, on which John Stuart Mill elaborated with such hope. And his hopes were high. In a famous passage of his Utilitarianism, he said that although man aspires to satisfy his drive for pleasure, he will always prefer to be an unsatisfied Socrates rather than a satisfied pig. Why? The argument was the following: man is cognizant of both states–the Socratic and the swinish–and there is no way that reason and conscience will allow him to opt for being a pig. The argument thus assumes in a unequivocal way that some ways of life are objectively better than others, that the Socratic model is clearly superior to that of a common man, and that there is nothing in human nature that can make people oblivious to this fact.

This last assumption, however, has been challenged since the very beginning of modern times. In liberal democracy, especially in recent decades, a generally acknowledged moral directive forbids looking down on people’s moral priorities, because in the present society equality is the norm, not the hierarchy. But equality, as always, has its limitations. Mediocrity has been generally, though tacitly acknowledged as a noncontroversial, if not preferred model, whereas the Socratic model, though nominally viewed as equal among others, has lost its appeal and support from the democratic mainstream as too aristocratic and elitist. In theory the Socratic way is as good as any other; in practice, it is hopelessly at odds with modern preferences. From a new perspective, the pig would seem, on reflection, a stronger competitor.

The gradual process in which the higher aspirations were being replaced by the lower tells us, no doubt, something about human nature: namely, that unless met with strong resistance or an attractive inspiration it shows a powerful tendency to be lured by the common and the mediocre. “Common,” indeed, has ceased to be a word of disapproval in a liberal-democratic rhetoric, or rather, has ceased to be used at all. When so much is common, nothing really is. This change is but a small signal of a corruption of basic categories by which for centuries people described and evaluated their conduct.

Especially striking is a change in the meaning of the word “dignity,” which since antiquity has been used as a term of obligation. If one was presumed to have dignity, one was expected to behave in a proper way as required by his elevated status. Dignity was something to be earned, deserved, and confirmed by acting in accordance with the higher standards imposed by a community or religion–for instance, by empowering a certain person with higher responsibilities or by claiming that man was created in God’s image. Dignity was an attribute that ennobled those who acquired it. As noblesse oblige, dignity was an obligation to seek some form of self-improvement, however vaguely understood, but certainly closer to the Socratic way and further away from its opposite. The attribute was not bestowed forever; one could always lose it when acting in an undignified way.

At some point, the concept of dignity was given a different meaning, contrary to the original. This happened mainly through the intercession of the language of human rights, especially after the 1948 Universal Declaration. The idea of human beings having inalienable rights is counterintuitive and extremely difficult to justify. It may make some philosophical sense if derived from a strong theory of human nature such as one finds in classical metaphysics. However, when we accept a weak theory, attributing to human beings only elementary qualities, and deliberately disregarding strong metaphysical assumptions, then the idea of rights loses its plausibility. It may, of course, be sanctioned as a mere product of legislation through a Parliamentary or court ruling, which entitles people to make various claims called “rights,” but these claims will be no more than arbitrary decisions by particular groups or politicians or judges who choose to do this rather than that due to circumstances, ideology, or individual predilections or under pressure from interest groups. It would indeed be silly to call such claims “inalienable,” because inalienability by definition cannot be legislated.

Thus, in order to strengthen the unjustified and, within the accepted conceptual framework, unjustifiable notion of human rights, the concept of dignity was invoked, but in a peculiar way so as to make it seem to imply more than it actually did. This concept created an illusion of a strong view of human nature, and of endowing this nature with qualities nowhere explicitly specified but implying something noble, being an immortal soul, an innate desire for good, etc. But on the other hand, in using this concept, unaccompanied by other qualifications, the framers of the human rights documents apparently felt exempted from any need to present an explicit and serious philosophical interpretation of human nature to explain the grounds and the conditions on which one could conceive of its dignity. This operation–or more precisely, sleight of hand, and not very fair to boot–led to a sudden revival of the concept of human dignity, but with a radically different meaning.

Since the issue of the Universal Declaration dignity has no longer been about obligation, but about claims and entitlements. The new dignity did not oblige people to strive for any moral merits or deserts; it allowed them to submit whatever claims they wished, and to justify these claims by referring to a dignity that they possessed by the mere fact of being born without any moral achievement or effort. A person who desired to achieve the satisfaction of a pig was thus equally entitled to appeal to dignity to justify his goals as another who tried to follow the path of Socrates, and each time, for a pig and for a Socrates, this was the same dignity. A right to be a pig and a right to be a Socrates were, in fact, equal and stemmed from the same moral (or rather nonmoral, as the new dignity practically broke off with morality) source.

Having armed himself with rights, modern man found himself in a most comfortable situation with no precedent: he no longer had to justify his claims and actions as long as he qualified them as rights. Regardless of what demands he would make on the basis of those rights and for what purpose he would use them, he did not and, in fact, could not lose his dignity, which he had acquired for life simply by being born human. And since having this dignity carried no obligation to do anything particularly good or worthy, he could, while constantly invoking it, make claims that were increasingly absurd and demand justification for ever more questionable activities. Sinking more and more into arrogant vulgarity, he could argue that this vulgarity not only did not contradict his inborn dignity, but it could even, by a stretch of the imagination, be treated as some sort of an achievement. After all, can a dignity that is inborn and constitutes the essence of humanness, generate anything that would be essentially undignified and nonhuman? The dignity-based notion of human rights was thus both a powerful factor to legitimize a minimalist concept of human nature, and its legitimate child. Moreover, it equipped modern anthropological minimalism with the instruments of self-perpetuation, the most efficient instruments of this kind ever devised in the history of Western societies. (The Demon in Democracy, 30-33)

As a post-script, I should note that Legutko’s point might be better made by going back even further in history than Socrates. He’s left us with a distaste for “modern anthropological minimalism,” but hasn’t sketched an alternative conceptual framework that would yield a better understanding of man’s nature and purpose. I begin my own understanding of these things with Genesis 1-3, and think these chapters could have strengthened Legutko’s valid points and saved him from error with respect to his criticisms of the 1948 Universal Declaration.

When Adam sinned in the garden of Eden, he rebelled against the obligations and duties that were on him by virtue of his being made in God’s image. God required obedience of his creature, but in an “essentially undignified and nonhuman” response to God, Adam disobeyed. As a result, we now inherit a fallen human nature from our father Adam (Rom. 5:12ff), but still have a species of inborn dignity given to us by our Creator (see Gen. 9:5-6 for the endurance of the image of God in man after the fall). We’re born rebelling against that dignity and that Creator, but redemption is about becoming a true man, learning to be a creature in a right relationship with our Creator.

Understanding this development in human nature protects Legutko’s point about the ethical obligations inherent in being a man–that is, the responsibility before God not to bear his image in vain–and avoids the error of adopting the (ironically modern) position that a man can be a pig if he wants–that is, the error in denying any kind of dignity essential of humanness, denying anything that would separate man from beast. The image of God in man has been corrupted so severely that the Son of God had to go to the cross so that he might make real men of us, but the piggish man is still a man with inborn dignity because of the image of God, no matter how convincing his prosthetic nose and curlicue tail.

There’s much insight to Legutko’s account, but he seems to let people off too easily. If dignity is never inborn, must be earned, and may be lost, then a man who has lost that virtue or never earned it could understandably argue that he was under no obligation to live up to an “elevated status” which he did not possess. However, an inborn dignity that lays claim on every man with respect to how he should live in relation to God and to his neighbors offers no quarter to swines, and will not even grant that they’re swines in the first place.

Intelligent Wine

The obscure man drinking wine is taught and reminded of his obligations. From Pablo Neruda’s ‘Ode to Wine’:

I love the light of a bottle
of intelligent wine
upon a table
when people are talking.
That they drink it,
that in each drop of gold
or ladle of purple,
they remember
that autumn toiled
until the barrels were full of wine,
and let the obscure man learn,
in the ceremony of his business,
to remember the earth and his duties,
to propagate the canticle of the fruit.


A Lost Power

In which C.S. Lewis calls me a phony:

Once, if you wanted an ode to celebrate your victory at the games, you went to the poet (Pindar or another) and ordered it, just as you ordered your banquet from the cook; and you had the same chance of getting a good poem, if you chose a good poet, as of getting a good dinner, if you chose a good cook. … A poet who could not practise his art to order would then have been no less ridiculous than a surgeon who could not operate or a compositor who could not print except when ‘inspired’.

But in the last few centuries we have unquestionably lost the power of fitting art into the processes of life –of producing a great work to fill up a given space of wall in a room or a given space of time in an evening’s festivity. The decay of the hymn (for there was no difficulty about it in the Middle Ages) is only one instance of this general phenomenon. I do not doubt that this escape of poetry from the harness is a very great evil, and a very bad omen for the future of the culture in which it has occurred… (Image and Imagination, 159)

Though it’s certainly not what Lewis had in mind, that phrase “the power of fitting art into the processes of life” brought to my mind Alexey Kondakov’s work. Surely a poet with eyes could look at Kondakov’s creations and see a poem or two:

alexey kondakov lady and angel


Penguin Cafe Orchestra

I heard it was world penguin day…

Arthur Jeffes gives a beautiful little explanation of how the Penguin Cafe Orchestra came to be:

My father, Simon Jeffes, was in the south of France in 1972-73, where he got terrible food poisoning from some bad shellfish and spent 3 or 4 days with a terrible fever. During this, he had very vivid waking dream – a nightmare vision of the near future – where everyone lived in big concrete blocks and spent their lives looking into screens. There was a big camera in the corner of everyone’s room, an eye looking down at them. In one room there was a couple making love lovelessly, while in another there was a musician sat at a vast array of equipment but with headphones on so there was no actual music in the room. This was a very disconnected de-humanising world that people had made for themselves…

However you could reject that and look further afield, and if you went down this dusty road you would eventually find a ramshackle old building with noise and light pouring out into the dark. It’s a place you just fundamentally want to go into, and this is the Penguin Cafe. There are long tables and everyone sits together, and it’s very cheerfully chaotic. In the back there is always a band playing music that you are sure you’ve heard somewhere but you have no idea where – and that is the Penguin Cafe Orchestra – they play this music.

When my dad woke up he decided that he would write the music that would be played by the band from his dream, and so with that as a criteria he then wrote for the next 25 years and that is the world that we now also inhabit…

just so long and long enough

Shortly after Thanksgiving I promised my cousin an explanation of what I thought was going on in [as freedom is a breakfastfood] by E.E. Cummings. Here we are in March, and I’m finally paying my debts. First, the poem:

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
—long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem                                                     5
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame

as hatracks into peachtrees grow
or hopes dance best on bald men’s hair
and every finger is a toe                                                                 10
and any courage is a fear
—long enough and just so long
will the impure think all things pure
and hornets wail by children stung

or as the seeing are the blind                                                        15
and robins never welcome spring
nor flatfolk prove their world is round
nor dingsters die at break of dong
and common’s rare and millstones float
—long enough and just so long                                                    20
tomorrow will not be too late

worms are the words but joy’s the voice
down shall go which and up come who
breasts will be breasts thighs will be thighs
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do                                25
—time is a tree(this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough

Eating peaches from hatracks and hearing the wails from hornets done wrong are such suggestive images that I confess to having liked this poem when it still appeared to me to be a string of nonsense lines arranged in whatever order might seem most pleasing. I still think much of the poem is nonsense, but it’s a deliberate nonsense, and repays a closer look.

Similes do most of the work in the first three stanzas, as the narrator picks two things up and puts them side by side. He then carries that pair over to another pair to see how they look as neighbors. Is freedom a breakfastfood in the same way that truth can live with right and wrong? Well, not quite. That doesn’t seem to mean anything. But can truth live with right and wrong in the same way that molehills are made out of mountains? Very nearly. If truth resigns itself to (“can live with”) the inevitability of right and wrong actions–as opposed to delighting in actions obedient to truth itself–this is much the same as making smaller troubles (“molehills”) out of larger ones (“mountains”) because the mountainous troubles are too great. And if resignation is what we’re meant to see as the narrator plunks lines two and three next to each other, then line one begins to make sense as well. Of all the glorious things freedom might suggest, it’s no slight to the first meal of the day to say that eating whatever one wants for breakfast is aiming pretty low.

But this way of life will only hold “long enough and just so long” (line 4). Unambitious freedom, tamed truth, and unassailable troubles all have their moment, but freedom will one day be exercised, truth will one day be obeyed, and the world will be seen as it is (molehills as molehills and mountains as mountains) rather than as it appears to be. Seem will no longer own being, but things will be according to what and how they are (line 5). Genius will not have to dance a jig for validation from those who would judge talent, and the essential light of all the above–freedom, truth, clarity, genius–will not be quenched, but will be allowed to burn high and bright (line 7).

Though I’ve taken the encouragement that water renders flame to be a euphemism for the relationship between the two elements, with “most encourage” basically doing the same work that “quenches” might, the positive aspects of encouragement also begin to prepare the reader for the reversal of the order of nature in the second stanza. Just as water doesn’t encourage flame as we normally understand that word, so too the dead wood of a hatrack does not grow and bear fruit (line 8), the barren field of a bald man’s head is a place hope may sing a dirge but not “dance best” (line 9), and fingers are not secretly toes in disguise (line 10) any more than courage is dressed up fear (line 11). If these lines describe absurdities rather than the way things are, what’s the point of introducing them?

The narrator answers by repeating his reminder that the absurdities have a shelf-life (“long enough and just so long,” line 12) and then listing two more absurdities that are as common as they are harmful. The impure believe they’ve understood purity (line 13). One who lives in darkness will gladly speak as long as he’s allowed about the light. Those who neither understand nor practice righteousness seldom question their own ability to know what righteousness looks like. They will tell you a finger is a toe. They will tell you that peaches should be ripening any time now from that hatrack in the corner. They will tell you a marriage is whatever five out of nine judges say it is, a boy is a girl, and unborn babies may be chopped up and sold for parts. And what happens when, with the innocence of a child, someone points out that these things aren’t so? The ones with the stingers cry that they’ve been stung by the hate and intolerance of the child of reality (line 14). But they’re the hornets and they’re the ones running the con.

And now that the narrator explicitly has the disorder of human nature in his sights, he doesn’t let go. Not only are things out in the world a mix of tensions and absurdities, but we ourselves undermine our own faculties (“the seeing are the blind,” line 15), define ourselves by our errors (“flatfolk” refusing to see the world is round, line 17), and set up warring factions on the silliest pretenses (dingsters vs. dongsters, line 18). This is a forgetting of what we’re made for, the same as if the robin forgot her song in spring (line 16), or words meant their opposite (“common” and “rare”), or stones began to float (line 19). It’s disorder without, and disorder within. But then for the third time we’re reminded that the contradictions the narrator has identified are passing away. These things hold true “long enough and just so long” (line 20), and here he adds that if tomorrow were the day of everything being set right, it would not be a day too late (line 21).

So then, what will this setting right be like? The narrator breaks from the pattern he’s been using in the previous stanzas to tell us: it will sound like the voice of a beloved–not words on a page, but the joy of a familiar voice (line 22). From the various Whiches, this is the one Who whom the narrator has desired his entire life (line 23). He acknowledges that sexual love has its place and a certain kind of glory to it (line 24), but those who see the pleasures of breasts and thighs as ultimate suffer from a lack of imagination–they’re fixated on the deed and cannot dream what’s ahead (line 25). The narrator clues us in: time is a tree held within the scope of the sky which is love, and the life in which we experience the disorder of creation is a small part of that tree. And because love encompasses and exceeds time’s boundaries, the narrator is able to look at everything that’s messed up in the world and declare his undying love for his beloved (lines 26-28). The formula that has appeared in each stanza to announce a coming end has been reversed to announce eternity. The groaning of life among the absurd lasts “long enough and just so long,” but the pledge of the lover to his beloved is the opposite of that and has no end: “just so long and long enough.”

David Gelernter’s Ideas

This interview with David Gelernter over at The Atlantic is pure fun. Been listening to Schubert sonatas since I read it. His comments on Henry James’s The Ambassadors were especially worth a look:

The Ambassadors is Henry James’s finest novel, and ranks alongside Emma as one of the two finest in English.  Everyone notices the symmetry of the two-section, twelve-chapter plan.  51cMeu1iNLL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_

But critics don’t seem to notice the center of the symmetry.

The Ambassadors is about Paris. Paris is unusual in having an exact psychological and approximate physical center—Notre Dame and the parvis out front, where there’s a milestone embedded in the pavement from which distances throughout France are measured.

The church itself stands towards the middle of the island in the middle of the river in the middle of the city.  And James has arranged for Notre Dame, the center of Paris, to be the exact center of his book about Paris too.It is the center of the episode on which the plot hinges.

Strether, the hero, comes to the church on the first page of the first chapter of part II. He enters a mere respectful outsider, an admirer but no intimate of the church, the city or the heroine. Inside he sees (without recognizing) Marie de Vionnet in the distance, from the back.  She is lost in meditation or prayer. Moreover “there are no altars for him” in the great Catholic church—either because he is a New England puritan or just a New England skeptic.  But he leaves with Mme. de Vionnet on a new basis of close friendship.  And now there is an altar for him in Paris. She is the altar.

Although the story ends in a kind if disillusionment, Strether is transformed by his religious experience.  The Ambassadors remains the perfect study of the woman-worship that is so important to James; that appears at the center of each of his last two novels also.

And it’s important in earlier James too, perhaps most strikingly in The Awkward Age—an underrated, first-order masterpiece with a wholly-undeserved reputation for difficulty.  It includes James’s most dazzling, most breathtakingly beautiful set pieces—the subtle, wordy, moody, moving conversations among a small unchanging group on which he thrives.  It is about the worship of a woman that outlives her death to be handed on like a precious sacred vessel, frail yet almost intact, to her granddaughter.  This act of handing-on is the novel—as critics can’t seem to see.

It’s impossible not to wonder where this theme has gone.  Have men stopped worshipping women?


During feminism’s heyday feminist leaders made clear that they didn’t choose to be worshiped. But it was never up to them. Such emotions are part of a man’s life, not a woman’s.

If we take (say) the novels of Roth and of Coetzee as representing the last several generations of great novels in English, the one instance of woman-worship that comes to mind in all their novels is startling: the magistrate’s love for the unnamed barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians. He loves her not for her perfection but exactly for her imposed imperfection, for the wounds and the suffering visited on her by the secret police.

(The lack of interest in woman-worship as a central theme seems to hold for such relatively young novelists as Sean O’Reilly, Patrick Flanery, Anthony Schneider, Robert Seethaler and Jenny Erpenbeck too.) We seem to have lost something essential, a matter of life and death.

These are great observations, but I think maybe Gelernter doesn’t read Mark Helprin novels. Or listen to Anais Mitchell. Or  La Dispute. Or even Weezer. Still, I wouldn’t mind a bit if The Atlantic were to give him a monthly column to discuss whatever was on his mind. This can’t be said enough:

Beauty is objective.

Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.

Good ol’ Wrath Of Gnon has a whole series of posts based on this idea:






Or, as he put it the other day: “‘Beauty is not subjective’, and it has always been an ideal, subjective to effort and sacrifice: not an egalitarian right.”

Unless God Shine into our Hearts

the-person-of-christA few short quotes and then one longer chunk of text from John Owen’s The Person of Christ:

Desire of union and enjoyment is the first vital act of this love. The soul, upon the discovery of the excellencies of God, earnestly desires to be united to them–to be brought near to that enjoyment of them whereof it is capable, and wherein alone it can find rest and satisfaction. This is essential to all love; it unites the mind to its object, and rests not but in enjoyment. (241)

All italics are mine, by the way.

Love is the principle that actually assimilates and conforms us to God, as faith is the principle which originally disposes thereunto. In our renovation into the image of God, the transforming power is radically seated in faith, but acts itself by love. Love proceeding from faith gradually changes the soul into the likeness of God; and the more it is in exercise, the more is that change effected. (243)

For the natural man receives not the things that are of God. Hence all their obedience is servile. They know neither the principal motives to it nor the ends of it. But they who are so servants as to be friends also, they know what their Lord does; the secret of the Lord is with them, and he shows them his covenant. They are admitted into an intimate acquaintance with the mind of Christ (‘we have the mind of Christ,’ 1 Cor. 2:16), and are thereon encouraged to perform the obedience of servants, with the love and delight of friends. (245)

And then here’s the longer quote. Owen has just asked what is required for the souls of men to be changed that “they would in all things be like to Jesus Christ” (270). This is the first part of his answer:

A spiritual light, to discern the beauty, glory, and amiableness of grace in Christ, is required hereunto. We can have no real design of conformity to him, unless we have their eyes who ‘beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Nor is it enough that we seem to discern the glory of his person, unless we see a beauty and excellency in every grace that is in him. ‘Learn of me,’ says he; ‘for I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Matt. 11:29). If we are not able to discern an excellency in meekness and lowliness of heart (as they are things generally despised), how shall we sincerely endeavor after conformity to Christ in them? The like may be said of all his other gracious qualifications. His zeal, his patience, his self-denial, his readiness for the cross, his love to his enemies, his benignity to all mankind, his faith and fervency in prayer, his love to God, his compassion towards the souls of men, his unweariedness in doing good, his purity, his universal holiness;–unless we have a spiritual light to discern the glory and amiableness of them all, as they were in him, we speak in vain of any design for conformity to him. And this we have not, unless God shine into our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ. It is, I say, a foolish thing to talk of the imitation of Christ, whilst really, through the darkness of our minds, we discern not that there is an excellency in the things wherein we ought to be like to him. (271)