It’s Better If You Wait

We know that season seven of HBO’s Game of Thrones is set to premiere on July 16.  Now, Alison Natasi comes along, however, and tells us there’s a possibility that season eight (the last) might be delayed until 2019.

If these guys aren’t careful, the cast of Thrones will look like the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise before the series is finished.

I’m kidding.  But only a little bit.  For various reasons, it took a decade for the first Trek movie to get done, but only in Star Trek II were the producers, writers, actors, and director able to use the maturity of the cast to create a surprisingly-moving story of the strengths and the stresses of middle age.  The object lesson from the Trek experience for Thrones is, strike while the iron is hot.  Finish the main tale while the cast is together and in sync with each other about the work.  That may indeed be the plan, but it sounds like the bloomin’ prequels may get in the way a little bit.  We shall see.


The Day Of Pentecost

It was on this day–fifty days after the Resurrection of Christ–that the Holy Spirit descended from Heaven in a rush of wind to dwell in the souls of those who worship Him.  The occasion was observed years ago by C.S. Lewis, who wrote and presented one of the most remarkable lay sermons I’ve ever read.  It’s called “The Weight of Glory,” and it’s available online in its entirety.

To Lewis, the human invention of the gods and goddesses of mythology, imbued with glory, beauty and power, prepared the way for humanity to receive “the real thing”:  a spiritual state that enables believers to cope with the challenges of mortal life and to gain a glimpse of the promised eternal  life to come:

“And this brings me to the other sense of glory–glory as brightness, splendor, luminosity.  We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star.  I think I begin to see what it means.  In one way, of course, God has given us the Morning Star already:  you can go and enjoy the gift on many fine mornings if you get up early enough.  What more, you may ask, do we want?  Ah, but we want so much more–something the books on aesthetics take little notice of.  But the poets and the mythologies know all about it.  We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, that is bounty enough.  We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.  That is why we have peopled earth and air and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves–that, though we cannot, yet these projections can enjoy in themselves that beauty, grace, and power of which Nature is the image.  That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods.  They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t.  They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t.  Or not yet.  For if we take the image of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendor of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.  At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door.  We discern the freshness and the purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure.  We cannot mingle with the splendors we see.  But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so.  Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

I have quoted Lewis at length here because his own criticism demands it.  He once claimed that looking for and marking “the best lines” in an epic poem was like going about and looking for the best stones in a cathedral.  You can’t do it.  The cathedral must be admired and judged as a whole.  He was right in that respect about Paradise Lost, and frequently in his own writing, his style and thought calls to mind an intensely unified structure.  One should not–indeed, cannot–quote single lines of his work without destroying the context from which they come.  That unity of thought is one of the most impressive things about The Weight of Glory, and I have great admiration for it.  Lewis sees value in the gods and goddesses of mythology as the aesthetic forerunners of eternal beauty to come.  That is, surely, one of their functions, but not the only one.  The gods and goddesses represent the means and the agency by which human kind has explained creative processes we do not fully understand and, in their behavior, psychological truths about our behavior we do not fully understand, either.  These two functions of the gods–creative and behavioral–are the most important ones; yet, Lewis passes them by in order to lay emphasis on the idea of earthly beauty foreshadowing greater loveliness to come.  Part of that loveliness is in the realization of union and unity (the human symbol of which is the paragraph itself), but within that paragraph, we also find one of the most stunning sentences anybody ever wrote, as Lewis gently but firmly brings to our minds the rushing wind of Pentecost itself, as “all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor” that believers will not always be on the outside of the door.  The Holy Spirit is the agency by which those who believe will one day get in to the life they wish to inhabit.  Lewis does all this in a single sentence, one which, even as it delivers its spiritual message, retains the lovely metaphor of a book; but it’s a single sentence that derives its power from all the other sentences around it, the forerunners of Lewis’s thought, just as the gods were, in his view, the forerunners of the Holy Spirit.

Lewis took enormous criticism from his colleagues at Oxford for spending so much time writing Christian apologetics  instead of literary criticism.  His defense of orthodox Christianity at a time when the advances of science and the onslaught of war were combining to turn people away from the explanations of that faith for the origins of the world and the behavior of people in it most likely cost Lewis a chair at Oxford.  When Cambridge finally offered him one in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he freely admitted his old-fashioned nature, calling himself a “dinosaur,” and urging his new colleagues to take advantage of that curious creature while they could.

But Lewis’s Christianity always had a hard, practical edge.  He was no misty dreamer, but a sharp-minded realist.  He was ready to fail William R. Parker in his doctoral defense because, in his view, Parker hadn’t proved his case that Samson Agonistes was an early work of the poet.  This, despite the fact that the young Parker was already well begun on a major biography of Milton.  Other members of the examining committee had to intercede to save the day.  This realism, although it could be hard-headed, was a trait that compelled many non-believers to listen to Lewis, and to respect him, even if, in many other circumstances, they might not have wanted to.  Lewis applied that same realism to the life of Christians themselves.  He understood that Christians were not simply to wait for the glory to come; they were to do something while they were here on earth:  they were to earn the glory that was theirs, and to carry it with them as part of their lives:

“The load or weight or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid upon my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.  It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, and to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption, such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.  It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations–these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit–immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.  This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.  We must play.  But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously–no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.  And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner–no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.”

Lewis’s call for genuine love is more urgent than ever, especially on this day that ought to mean so much to Christians.  It is a terrible coincidence that I write and think about it on a Sunday when yet another terrorist attack has been launched in London, not so far from where Lewis lived and worked.  As Lewis calls for love through the Holy Spirit, so would I call for us to love each other, to exercise, not religion–which is the mere erring form of a spiritual state–but faith; faith in our fellow men and women, our neighbors, our countrymen, to show ourselves to be better and stronger than any attempt to discourage us or to weaken that which we’ve built.  Jesus promised he would not leave his followers comfortless.  The advent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was the fulfillment of that promise.  None of us need walk through this day, or any other day, feeling comfortless.  The people we live with, work with, and love are the ones who bind us to the world we share.  It is their by their spirits and their actions we survive and prosper, and it is by their help and their example that every one of us is made better and stronger than any act of terror that can be launched.



True Country

At the recommendation of a friend of Books Here And There, I have begun to read J.D. Vance’s memoir about life in Appalachia, Hillbilly Elegy.  Almost from the first page, I began to see connections between Vance’s exploration of his roots and other books of our common experience.  When I am finished reading it, I’ll post a longer essay about it.  For now, I believe you will enjoy Pam Kirst’s placement of it within her own frame of reference.


The Art Of Telling A Story

Back on May 21, I quoted a passage from Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding in order to make a point about the necessity of re-writing to get our work in the shape we want it to be.  I’d like to take this opportunity to praise Harbach’s novel as a whole, in case my previous post didn’t make that clear.  It’s a long, cleanly-written tale of baseball, college life, dreams of the life ahead of us, and dreams of the life we wish we could live.  Harbach has a fine sense of structure and detail, one especially impressive over such a long story.  He forgets nothing, large or small, and the pieces of his tale fit together in a satisfying way.

There is rather a lot of baseball in there, and the excellence of Harbach’s novel is that he can show us and explain to us the nuances of the game without overwhelming us.  We care about Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz, and Owen Dunne because Harbach reveals to us how hard the work is to be a baseball player and how hard the work is for them to be human beings.  We care about Pella Affenlight, not just because she’s Schwartz’s girlfriend, but because she’s got problems of her own in figuring out what she wants to be in life.  We care about her father, Guert Affenlight, not just because he’s the Westish College president, but because he’s a man like us, a fellow bound by his duty to an institution larger than himself, but pulled by a strong passion towards a happiness he’s never really felt before.  Harbach’s portrait of academic life is not altogether flattering, but that’s all right:  it’s not an altogether flattering career choice for anyone, in its smallness, its meanness, and its pettiness.  But thousands of talented women and men have survived that institutional behavior and have communicated their love of learning and the life of the mind to us, and Affenlight does so, too.  The only unfortunate choice he makes in his academic career (and perhaps the only unfortunate choice Harbach makes in the novel) is in the title of his most noteworthy scholarly book:  The Sperm-Squeezers, a study of literary attitudes toward sexuality in the nineteenth century.  Harbach probably means for us to be amused by that title, to laugh at it.  If so, he failed with me.  Affenlight’s choice of it just makes me cringe.

The most enigmatic character in the book is Owen Dunne, Henry’s roommate, whose name we might associate with the striking seventeenth-century divines John Donne and Owen Feltham or the title character in John Irving’s novel from the 1980s, A Prayer For Owen Meany.  Dunne is an exceptionally-quiet, introspective fellow, but he’s a key to Harbach’s book, in the way that Juliette Binoche’s portrayal of a  mysterious lover is the key to all of the passions that are unlocked in the movie Damage (1992).  Harbach’s handling of such potentially-incendiary material is much gentler than Louis Malle’s; indeed, Dunne’s aloofness, his stillness like the lake that surrounds Westish College, helps turn the novel back toward Henry Skrimshander, and how that talented shortstop solves the problem that torments him throughout the story.  Dunne steps up, in the end, and gives a voice and a shape to all the striving of his friends, without in the least telling any of them what to do with their lives.  You’ll find that ending quite moving, I daresay, one that penetrates pretty far into the mystery of baseball and into the meaning of life itself.


Happy Memorial Day

A happy Memorial Day to all of you here in the States.  It’s the day upon which we honor those servicemen and women who have given their lives on the fields of battle to preserve our freedom.  It’s also one of the days we celebrate that freedom by indulging in backyard cookouts, eating ice cream, going to baseball games, or goofing around in the park on one of our few days off.

The President laid the traditional wreath at Arlington National Cemetery this morning.  He was not alone in doing so.  He never is.  Most of us carry a wreath in our hearts, and in serving food to our guests or telling a joke to our friends we lay it down on this day for the brother or sister or uncle or friend who bled and perhaps died for us, just so that we could keep doing the things I’ve mentioned.  We can even quarrel with each other about how much freedom we have and ought to have, if we want to.  The soldiers died for that freedom, too, and I would not wish to see it curtailed, no matter how intense the discussion may become.

Enjoy your day.  Read, think, rest, and allow yourself to be happy.  You justify the honorable sacrifice of those soldiers by the lives that you lead.  None of those men and women died for nothing.  All of them died for something good, whether it was a good that was part of the world they lived in, or a good that they could not quite imagine, a good that we ourselves might bring about.


Hard Rock

Every once in a while, the news demands we go off-topic around here.  The passing of Soundgarden’s front man Chris Cornell a few days ago and the death yesterday of the Allman Brothers’ lead singer Gregg Allman are just too significant and emotionally-jarring to let pass silently.  On top of which I just re-watched on Saturday the Star Trek: Voyager episode entitled “Real Life,” in which the ship’s holographic doctor gives himself a holographic family as an experiment in personal growth and gets more than he bargained for–a moving episode, and a great performance by Robert Picardo; so, I’m already in a melancholy mood before approaching this post.

My condolences to any of you who may be feeling bereft of life or solace upon hearing the news.  I am feeling the same way.  The plain truth is that many of those musicians whose groups gave color to our inner worlds through their music are simply passing away.  A large number of them–perhaps most, if we are honest–are doing so because the drugs and alcohol they put into their bodies over the last forty years have finally done the damage such chemicals do.

To get up and sing or play in front of hundreds or thousands of people, even with a group of one’s friends, even in a studio, is enough to scare most of us shitless.  It did me; and it has done so to far better singers than I have ever dreamed of being.  That’s part of what fuels the drinking of the rock-era bands.  Another, greater part, however, is the fear many rockers have had that the gods will simply take away the enormous gift they’ve bestowed upon certain people to be forgetful of oneself and to play, to entertain thousands of others.

Stevie Ray Vaughan had this fear.  That’s why he drank.  It took years for his band mates to convince him that he truly didn’t need the alcohol to play his soaring, driving guitar, but they did.  His death in a plane crash in Wisconsin in 1990 (the only death in the rock era that has made me weep) was a tragedy not simply because a life was taken or that the accident could have been avoided, but because Vaughan had conquered the problems that beset him and was playing the best guitar of his career.  Texans often put a unique spin on musical trends, but Vaughan, too, was a Southern rocker.

The Allman Brothers were never my favorite Southern band, but “Ramblin’ Man” stands second only to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Call Me The Breeze” as the most joyful Southern rock song ever done.  When I need to have my spirits lifted by a modern song, when I need to be happy, these are two of the songs I turn to.

When C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, his friend J.R.R. Tolkien said he felt like a tree which had taken an axe blow at the roots.  In truth, the simile was reality.  Tolkien had taken such a blow.  The friends who mean the most to us–even the ones we don’t see that often–shape us; they help make us what we are.  The people who bring music into our lives–the people who sing to us, and the people who sing to us–also help shape us in fundamental ways.  They give voice to our feelings and, if we are lucky and wise, they help us find our own voice in the world.  We grieve when those who have helped us pass away, and their deaths are a hard, bitter thing, indeed.  We know enough to honor their lives by helping others ourselves; and, in the case of musicians, by playing their music to keep song itself alive and be reminded of what greatness and beauty may be; but the loss will remain a bitter thing, at least for a time, until we can hear some melody again without much pain in our minds, and the sweetness of living returns to us.


The Font Of All Truth

An interesting essay here on the ways in which typography affects our interpretation of the news.

To be blunt, I think Ben Hersh is off-base in characterizing Hillary Clinton’s logo as one of “clarity, professionalism, and restraint.”  I’m wondering, rather, what in the world the designers were thinking when they created it.  Exactly what is “clear” about it?  Hersh’s explanation doesn’t help.  I think, also, that the bashing of President Trump’s logo for its aesthetics was unjustified.  I see no “contempt” for a clean, corporate look.  I see, in the clarity of the typeface, exactly that:  a clean look, one that involves no guesswork about the language involved on the cap.  What exactly Trump meant–and means–by “Make America Great Again”–is another issue entirely.  The slogan refers, as most slogans do, to an ideal and, most important, to an ongoing process.

This reservation aside, Hersh is spot-on in his comments about the values conveyed by the typefaces of other historical periods.  I was quite fond of Blackletter during my time as an Instructor of Renaissance Lit.  The Nazis did destroy it for common use, which is regrettable, but Arabic still retains its beauty, at least to me, despite the deep anxiety raised in most of us by the terrorist acts of contemporary times.