12 Great Literary Beginnings

Can you recognize them?

 

1. “Call me Ishmael.”

 

2. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

 

3. “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished since that time when first there stood in division of conflict Atreus’ son the lord of all men and brilliant Achilleus.”

 

4. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

 

5. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

 

6. “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

 

 

7. “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I think my liver is diseased.”

 

8. “It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to talk about.”

 

9. “Great are you, O Lord, and worthy to be praised: great is your power and your wisdom is limitless. And man, who is a part of your creation, desires to praise you, man who bears within himself his mortality, who bears within himself testimony to his sin and testimony that you resist the proud. Yet man, this part of your creation, desires to praise you. You arouse him to find joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

10. “In the middle of the journey of life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”

 

11. “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

 

 

12. “Who’s there?”

Why Thomas More?

I am a day late, but to the internet world: happy feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher! I haven’t posted in ages, but I thought the celebration of this blog’s patron would be a good time to come back.

My friends and I drank and feasted mightily last night in memory of this merry man, and the amount of texts, emails, and Facebook posts I received in honor of the feast was touching. I attribute this sudden widespread knowledge of my love for him to my wedding a month ago. A good family friend painted this incredible copy of Holbein’s Thomas More as a gift for us, and its display at the reception caused a lot of people to ask a lot of questions about who the medieval guy was and why he was hanging out next to all the ribbons and pots and pans and gift cards to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

At a certain point during the reception, my cousin Andrew approached and informed me that he had been explaining to people all night why I loved Thomas More. “What did you say?” I asked him, suddenly aware that I wasn’t quite sure how I myself would have answered. “I told them that you admire him for his rational defense of the Catholic Church when it was under attack in Tudor England. And he wrote Utopia.” That sounded pretty good. “How did you know that?” “It’s wikipedia level knowledge.” Staring into the weeds of More scholarship in the past few months of dissertation research can make me lose sight of big picture points, like “why do you love this guy so much?” I thanked Andrew for reminding me.

I think that’s a great summary not only of why I love him, but of why he’s so important these days. G.K. Chesterton famously said that if More was important in his day and age, he wasn’t half so important as he would be in 100 years. We’re coming close to that mark, and I think these crazy times are proving G.K. to be correct. And not simply because there is a crisis of belief nowadays, though this is true. More’s “rational defense” goes beyond Tudor England, and beyond Catholic doctrine; More gives a rational defense of the harmony between faith and reason, which is ultimately a defense of reason itself, which cannot exist without faith of some kind. All knowledge involves some amount of belief, and More takes this truth and hammers it home to its logical conclusion: that the human longing for truth, philosophy, beauty, and peace are fulfilled in Christ alone, Christ in His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I think I fell in love with More because he was just a normal guy who did an awesome job being himself. As a person who never felt called to religious life myself, More inspired me by his faithful living out of the lay vocation. He was a professional and a family man, and I always knew I’d be a married woman one day and I knew I’d do some kind of work. At the beginning of Utopia More writes a letter to Peter Giles about how difficult it was to find time to write in the midst of the busy duties of his life as a lawyer, father, and husband. I was always struck by the passage where he describes the progress of his day in detail, and how, after a busy day outside the house, he would go out of his way make time to attend to the servants, his children, and his wife as important items of business, since these duties are necessary “unless a man wants to be a stranger in his own home.” I don’t think he’s being crass in talking about spending time with his family like it’s a job. More’s careful diligence in these domestic matters is a virtue in its own right. I think we’d have happier families if we imitated that example.

More gave me hope that a person could live radical holiness and integrity without performing marvelous feats or withdrawing from the world. Holiness does not necessarily mean everyone will battle the devil or enter a cloister. More defended the active life as having a status of its own when the Church was coming out of a time that emphasized contemplation as the highest path to perfection. I loved More because he showed me that normal life infused with supernatural motives was an equally viable path to holiness. I loved More because he had a developed concept of the diversity in people’s temperaments, and how different personalities had different talents, virtues, and gifts to offer the Church. There are as many vocations as there are people. There are also many vices to battle. We each have our own, but More is always confidently reminding us that the manly struggle against these faults is the way to heaven. Do you think we’re going to get to heaven on featherbeds? He’d ask his kids. No: you have to work. You have to labor and struggle to win the prize. But there is always hope of victory because God is a “very tender loving father” who is always ready to assist.

There’s a lot that could be said about his delivery of these ideas, and his rhetoric is its own branch of study. His works read with the down-to-earth affability and accessibility of a middle-English C.S. Lewis, and somehow he could make a profound point about the need for good posture in prayer by using ridiculous images of men picking their noses and cleaning out their fingernails in church. He was famous for his humor, and Shakespeare dramatizes this nicely by having the More in his play crack jokes with his head on the block – and this scene is based on truth. What a guy he must have been to have had the fortitude to make wise cracks in the minutes before his death. This could only have been the fruit of years and years and years of deliberate cultivation of that kind of cheery disposition. He seems to have been pretty sanguine by nature, but I wouldn’t bet for a minute that he didn’t have to make a solid effort to maintain that natural buoyancy in troublesome times. None of his jobs were ever easy. Lots of prayer, and a habit of relying on God always – as my dissertation adviser told me in one of my own discouraged moments.

I think I love More most of all, though, because he’s a faithful friend. He spoke often of friendship, and if you spend enough time with him he’ll teach you the art of being a good friend. He’s certainly taught me a lot, and also done a lot for me: he was always my go-to guy in my times of discerning what to major in, whether to go to grad school, whether to go on to a PhD, who to marry, what to write my dissertation on. He’s never failed when I’ve asked him to put in a word for me with the Big Guy, and he seems to insert himself into my life in all the most important moments. Thanks to the generosity of friends, I brought some pebbles from his cell in the Tower of London up to the altar with me when I said my wedding vows. He really wanted to be there in some way, maybe to remind me that love and marriage (as I am finding out) is a kind of death to yourself, but the reward is amazing.

Here’s to you, More. May you teach us something of your faith, fortitude, humor, devotion, creativity, integrity, learning, audacity, kindness, realism, generosity, and cunning in these days when these virtues are so necessary.

A Scholar, a Saint, and a Nihilist Discuss Suffering

… and they all say the same thing: that suffering draws out all of the best qualities in human persons.

We live in a culture that rejects suffering, and our politics are driven by self-victimization; whoever touts their injuries and makes a compelling case that they have gone through some hardship or oppression is entitled to a special status, often at the expense of others in society. Science and psychology are devoted to the elimination of all discomfort, all shame, all difficulty, anything that may pose a challenge to a comfortable, self-satisfied lifestyle. We love our wounds and we are like children who wish to show off our scrapes to whoever will notice.

At such a strange time in history, I thought it would be interesting to take note of what these three men said at different times about the trials and pains of life.

1. The most familiar:
“We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

In 1940 C.S. Lewis penned his famous response to “the problem of pain,” the challenge to God’s existence which argued that the presence of suffering and hardship in the world ruled out the possibility of a loving, providential God. In Lewis’ explanation, pain is a testament to God’s mercy insofar as it works as a wakeup call to come back to Him which is impossible to ignore. For Lewis there was no escape from suffering in life, but there could be healing in the realization that pain is a mysterious gift from a loving Father who challenges us to become the best that we can be.

2. The most shocking:
“The discipline of suffering, of great suffering–do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed upon it–has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”

In 1886, 80 years before Lewis grappled with the growing secularization in the modern world, Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated the havoc in the human soul that would follow from the “death of God.” Contrary to popular belief, Nietzsche was not a militant atheist who rejoiced that “God is dead;” although he was not himself a believer, for Nietzsche the death of God was a great misfortune for mankind, whom he understood to have inherent spiritual longings by nature. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche explains that religion is necessary to human flourishing since it causes men and women to strive for greatness; part of that striving includes the acceptance of pain and suffering as a means by which one grows in strength. For Nietzsche suffering was the ultimate educator with the power to lead mankind toward beauty and nobility. Nietzsche realized that no great civilization was built by a people attached to comfort and unwilling to suffer.

3. The most beautiful:

“Such is God’s kindness that even when we are negligent and slumbering on the pillow of our sins, He disturbs us from time to time, shakes us, strikes us, and does His best to wake us up by means of tribulations. But still, even though He thus proves Himself to be most loving even in His anger, most of us in our gross human stupidity misinterpret His action and imagine that such a great benefit is an injury, whereas actually (if we have any sense) we should feel bound to pray frequently and fervently that whenever we wander away from Him He may use blows to drive us back to the right way, even though we are unwilling and struggle against Him.”

In 1535 Sir Thomas More joked his way up the executioner’s block when he was sentenced to death for refusing to speak in favor of Henry VIII’s divorce against his conscience. His famed good humor followed him to the most difficult and frightening moment of his life. Written just weeks before his death, this remark about suffering from The Sadness of Christ sounds similar to Lewis’ argument that pain is the way that God calls to us; More delves deep into the human psychology of pain when he explains that humans imagine suffering to be injurious when in reality, as Nietzsche and Lewis realized, suffering can work for the good of humanity. In this passage, suffering has the power to rouse a drowsy soul from its sleepy, unreflective state, immersed in destructive or lazy habits. It is a reminder of the presence of God that keeps a soul on course and prevents it from drifting aimlessly. In More’s estimation, suffering is a privilege that we ought not only to welcome, but to pray for.

One of the greatest marvels of human persons is our ability to bear and even thrive under difficult circumstances, the ability to live well when things around us are not going well. Strength is interior – it does not depend upon the perfect alignment of social, political, material or other circumstances. What these three men each realized is that when these external circumstances fall into disarray and one feels attacked on all sides, it presents an opportunity for the strongest and noblest interior qualities to emerge.

And just as an added bonus:

There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.”

– Aeschylus, Oresteia, 458 B.C.

15 Remarkable Likenesses Between Grace and Caffeine

  1. They are both divine gifts. It is a truth universally acknowledged that grace and coffee are God’s two greatest gifts to mankind. Period.
  2. They are both essentially intended to give invaluable assistance. The teleology of both grace and caffeine are one and the same: they are basically functions of divine mercy, intended to give you the mental, physical and spiritual energy you need to continue writing papers and studying for exams when all you want to do is sleep. Just as grace perfects nature by giving it the added bonus of Divine Presence, caffeine perfects your brain by giving it the added bonus of special focus beyond its natural ability. They are both basically super-powers, insofar as grace and coffee are unmerited gifts that transcend the abilities of unassisted human nature.
  3. They both feel good. Warm and fuzzy and consoling.
  4. They both make you popular. Movements of grace in the soul make you want to shout with spontaneous joy in praise of the Lord; movements of caffeine in the bloodstream make you more chatty, witty, eloquent and charming. The first endears you to God; the second endears you to your friends.
  5. They both include the element of surprise. This is part of their essential nature as gifts: just as grace can surprise you at odd times, you can surprise friends by giving them coffee at odd times and absolutely make their day. Or their week. Or their month. Or their life.
  6. They both help you grow in virtue. Just as grace helps you overcome the weaknesses of your nature and mould your soul with good habits, caffeine’s natural addictive qualities help you to build the virtuous habit of drinking coffee every morning, afternoon, and evening. Coffee and virtue are virtually the same thing in this respect. (Yes, that pun was intended.)(This witty moment brought to you by the cup of hazelnut coffee on my desk.)
  7. They both smell really good. Ok, fine, so maybe grace is extra-sensory and you can’t actually smell it. But if you could, you can bet your life it would smell really good. Like hazelnut coffee at 6 in the morning. Mmmm.
  8. They are both a 100% necessary part of your life if you are a student. You can’t survive without them. It’s that simple. You just can’t.
  9. Like really, you’d die without them. Or at least get a bad caffeine headache.
  10. They both give meaning to life. Nature left to itself is incapable of providing man with a purpose for existence. For this reason, we have grace, or the presence of Christ, to give meaning to our lives. And coffee. Thanks to Him, and coffee, we get to spend our lives working to grow closer to Him, which gives value to everything we do. And coffee. Even the smallest tasks which seem meaningless become fruitful and fulfilling with an abundance of grace in the soul, and an abundance of coffee in your mug.
  11. They are both hip. A cup of coffee in your hand instantly ups your coolness factor; grace does the same for your soul. Just like a cup of coffee makes you that much more fabulous while you walk through Central Park with a homemade scarf on, sanctifying grace makes you that much more fabulous while you walk through the Pearly Gates with a homemade halo on (and a cup of coffee in your hand).
  12. They are both loveable. The perfection of the object makes it choiceworthy for its own sake, and a fitting object to which the human soul can conform itself. In other words, Christ is so great that He is necessarily the first Love of the human soul, and coffee helps the human soul to perfect this love in three fundamental ways: 1) by radiating the goodness of Christ in so great a caffeinated gift, 2) by giving you the mental focus to pray well and conform your soul to His presence, and 3) by giving you the energy to perform good and virtuous deeds out of love for Christ. For these reasons, coffee is also loveable. Especially hazelnut, because it tastes the best.
  13. St. Augustine. This august man is known as the Doctor of Grace, and I’m fairly certain he also drank coffee.
  14. Notice the pun in the above item. My wit is on fire, thanks to the hot cup of coffee I recently purchased from the café across campus, and also the movement of grace in my soul as my mind participates in the logos of Christ.
  15. They’re both awesome. Literally. They inspire awe. This merits no further argument, since it is plainly self-evident.

Memory and Mythic History

There’s a RadioLab podcast that profoundly disturbed me the first time I heard it. The topic was the nature of the human capacity to remember, and Jad and Robert’s findings startled and even slightly offended me; the results dared to question our ability to remember things with precision. The experts suggested that while we tend to think of “memory” as a compartmentalized cabinet in our minds where we stash impressions and recollections which we can access at will, it’s actually more creative than that. Every time you remember, you are actually pulling together scattered pieces of sensory impressions and reconstructing an image of what happened. The process is essentially creative. But it gets better – each time you repeat this operation on a given memory, one tiny detail or another is always altered. The “creative” process of remembering actually changes the substance of your memories in subtle ways. The more you remember, over time your perception of memories may depart profoundly from the details of what actually happened in reality. In a word, the memory embellishes. The more it remembers, the more it embellishes.

Like I said, I was disturbed. You mean we don’t actually get to keep our memories? It’s a startling prospect to a sentimentalist. We can never hold onto our memories in their pristine detail, and the more we try, the more we fail.

But then, like a good nerd, I started to think about what this process might suggest about the nature of the human mind, and the way we learn. The idealizing or embellishing tendency of The Memory is a perennial literary theme. It pops up in all kinds of places; one of the lessons of The Great Gatsby, for instance, is that we can never re-create the past exactly, and that the romantic impulse to do so can harm ourselves the the people around us (and you just might end up dead in a swimming pool). Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris recently dramatized the tendency to look to an idyllic past with an unrealizable longing. These depictions are critical of this impulse to embellish and idealize the past, and with good reason; blind veneration of the past devoid of concrete reasons can be useless, unhealthy, or dangerous.

I have a hunch, however, that this natural human tendency has a place in our learning process.

Take the ancient method of writing history, for example. The ancients did not think of “history” in the strict, scientific sense that we regard it today. Ancient historians such as Thucydides, Plutarch, and Herodotus would be admonished by today’s historians for their awful habit of exaggeration. These guys shamelessly embellished their stories. They forged events and people into mythic figures that became the stuff of legend and the substance of tales told for generations – and I’m willing to bet that the tales got taller each time they were told. I suppose this type of history can be described as panegyrical; an embellished portrait intended to sing the praises of a certain person or event which has been deemed worthy of veneration and imitation. In a word, these are examples that can be used for moral instruction. We hold them up as models for how we ought to behave, and to help us understand what human excellence is. If that’s the case, why not exaggerate the point a little?

I’m actually serious. Hyperbolic depictions of things from the past have the effect of impressing a truth into our minds which we might miss if they weren’t highly colorized and lit up with exaggeration. Why is this the case?  Think about the way children learn. They are most easily impressed by stories that are fictitious in the extreme. That says something about the way we all think. We learn most effectively through beautiful and moving images that touch our emotions.

I want to suggest that exaggerated, panegyrical history is akin to the embellishing tendency of the human mind in the sense that they both create a longing for something more. They depart from the strict realism of concrete historical circumstances and take us beyond what is here and now; they point to some trans-historical reality that might be an indication of a truth that extends beyond scientific fact. They inspire us to strive for something better.

There is a recent tendency in historical studies to deconstruct the myths that drive us this way, especially in America. Through the means of one abstract theory or another, our heroes are systematically debunked and denounced as racists or imperialists or sexists. Pick your poison. Columbus exploited and ravaged the Indians; the Founders were proponents of slavery. In many cases (including the ones mentioned), these accusations are not even true; the truth is that scientific exactitude about things that happened a long time ago is extremely difficult (as any historian will tell you), and today’s history is dominated by a different myth – the narrative of political correctness. But that is not what I’m contesting here. I am contesting the value of the strict historical “realism” that seeks to find out exactly what happened in its precise detail, the ugly truth of the reality, lest we get caught up in our idealized imaginings and blind veneration of mythical heroes that show us how to live. If the goal is to learn from the past, I want to suggest that the mythologizing tendency is just as valuable as the strictly realistic accounts. Legendary tales of figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have something about them that touches the soul and moves it to strive for greatness, regardless of the real human flaws they doubtless possessed. We can choose to forget these flaws and remember the great things they did, because they teach us something about greatness, something that matters just as much as a perfect account of the historical reality.

Friedrich Nietzsche noticed this problem at the end of the 19th century when this type of history was becoming popular. In On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, he wrote that the modern “historical sense” destroys a certain “atmosphere” which is necessary to human flourishing. “Every living thing needs to be surrounded by an atmosphere, a mysterious circle of mist: if one robs it of this veil, if one condemns a religion, an art, a genius to orbit as a star without an atmosphere: then one should not wonder about its rapidly becoming withered, hard and barren.” Nietzsche’s concern was that the modern scientific emphasis on historical realities had the effect of robbing the human soul of meaning. He was afraid that our way of looking at the past had become so focused on empirical facts that our outlook on life was becoming blase. In order to live meaningfully, humans seem to need some embellishment on life, in one form or another. Embellished portraits provide models that are essential to our moral formation and our ability to live meaningfully.

Does this amount to blind veneration of the past and refusal to acknowledge realities? No. We don’t make up “meaning” out of nowhere, and I don’t believe that embellishing memories of events and heroes diminishes the value of what I am calling historical realism. Precise, scientific knowledge certainly has its place, and reason must be the vanguard of every legend and imaginary tale. I have a professor who likes to complain that we live in a “fact-free world” where people are so caught up in their abstract theories that they do not reason properly about real life. He’s right. I am not questioning the status of reason and scientific knowledge; for the concerns of practical life or statesmanship this type of thinking is indispensable. What I am offering here is simply an alternative way of learning; though they are related, the process of character formation is different than the process of acquiring scientific knowledge of historical circumstances. What I am offering is a reflection on the power and importance of myths, their centrality in the nature of the human soul and the way we learn, and the power of imaginative embellishments for moral and political education. Sometimes reflections of the truth can bring us closer to it than we think.

In light of these considerations, I’m less disturbed by the idea that our memories aren’t perfect. Even if the details aren’t preserved in their pristine condition, perhaps the larger impressions that remain have a value all their own.