22 July 2009

Returning to Books

Well, we bid Memphis a fond ‘adieu’ Monday, hit the road, and arrived back in the comforting familiarity of Oklahoma City that night. It was a wonderful experience, and my wife and I can’t wait to go back. Aside from witnessing the wedding of our friend, Sally Anna (now) Boyle, and seeing some of the city, we had the wonderful opportunity to reunite with our good friend, Herman Middleton (with whom I’ve maintained a lively telephone correspondence but haven’t seen in 5 years), and to meet the infamous Ochlophobist, a warm and welcoming fellow with a great sense of humour whose blog may be the most unique in the Orthodox world, along with various friends of Sally Anna and member’s of St John’s Orthodox Church in Memphis. Och has already expressed his own thoughts about the weekend here (along with some inordinately kind words about yours truly), and I believe he captures well something of the warm feeling of the events. My wife and I too owe a special debt of gratitude to the Hodges for their hospitality, which we hope to enjoy again, perhaps with our kids in tow, soon.

I apologise for the long delay in posting, even after my return. I honestly tried to write a post yesterday but wound up not having time, and I’m afraid today’s may be disappointing. But I’m planning to focus my energies on a post for Friday (a post I’ve already anticipated here). For now, I shall simply note a few recent acquisitions.

To take them in chronological order, I finally got round to ordering Alan Jacobs’s A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001). It was first brought to my attention, I believe, by the author himself when I briefly corresponded with him a few years ago, and I was delayed only by the price of the book (I finally purchased a copy of the pb edition for $18). Of course, I was encouraged too by Felix Culpa’s mention of it here, where, referring to the Alexandrian Clement’s allegorical reading of the Odyssey, he writes, ‘I found this passage in Alan Jacobs’s marvelous study, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, which I whole-heartedly recommend. (You might know Dr Jacobs as the author of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis.)’ Here as well is the description from Eighth Day Books:

‘Art and morals are one’, wrote Iris Murdoch, and ‘love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.’ With this prelude, Alan Jacobs embarks on an investigation of charitable reading, showing how ‘a genuinely Christian notion of love requires among other things a deep commitment to discriminating judgment’ void of mushy sentimentality. Taking his cue from Augustine, Jacobs posits that the purpose of interpretation is the generation of love, grounded in an intelligent charity that has the capacity to avoid error without ruining the reader’s delight. Jacobs’ proposed hermeneutic gains even more nuance in its warning against intellectual curiosity as an end in itself rather than a means of understanding the truth we are meant to incarnate. Charting his course through the works of George Eliot, Shakespeare, Henry James, Cervantes, Nabokov, Updike, Steiner, Dickinson, Auden and Dickens, Jacobs fleshes out examples in absorbing fashion. Of particular note is his treatment of St. Basil’s oration on Greek literature—a framework constructed in the fourth century that advocates a faithful obedience to the Gospel, through which the reader is liberated to read more generously, ‘according to the spirit rather than the letter’. And though Jacobs notes this particular hermeneutic may never be accepted in the halls of academia—its tendency being to ‘spill over into territory where it does not belong and where often it is not welcome’—we are left with plenty to contemplate and work of our own to do.

Already in the ‘Prelude’, Jacobs convinced me to buy—perhaps rashly—a cheap used copy of Martha Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (NY: Oxford U, 1992), which Wayne Booth’s blurb calls, ‘The best modern discussion of the ways in which what we call philosophy and what we call literature interrelate’. It promises to be difficult, and perhaps I shouldn’t try to delve into it too deeply before I finish my thesis! Here, however, is the passage in Jacobs that gave me my first substantial taste of Nussbaum:

At this point the English language, as it does so rarely, fails us: Whereas it enables, as French does not, Claudio’s distinction between liking and loving, it cannot offer us what we need here, which is the distinction between connaître and savoir—roughly, ‘knowledge of’ rather than ‘knowledge about’. One of the most important and productive elements of the work of Martha Nussbaum has been her insistence, deriving from Aristotle, that love—especially philia, the kind of love that Beatrice and Hero feel for each other—is productive of this intimate knowledge, this connaissance. (Jacobs, p. 6)

He then gives this passage from the opening essay in Love’s Knowledge, ‘Introduction: Form and Content, Philosophy and Literature’:

The Aristotelian view stresses that bonds of close friendship or love . . . are extremely important in the whole business of becoming a good perceiver. Trusting the guidance of a friend and allowing one’s feelings to be engaged with that other person’s life and choices, one learns to see aspects of the world that one had previously missed. One’s desire to share a form of life with the friend motivates this process. (Nussbaum, p. 44)

I have of course much more to say about these ideas, but perhaps I had better save them until I’ve completed my obligatory Papadiamandis review (projected date: tomorrow). In the meantime, I’ll move on to the third book of this post, a purchase made at the parish in Memphis on Sunday—Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt & Macarius of Alexandria, trans. Tim Vivian, assist. Rowan A. Greer (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2004). I had fairly made up my mind to get one of the Popular Patristics titles (since I was trying to spend less than $20!), and settled on this one because of my penchant for hagiography as well as the surprise Preface by the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé, OSB. The accounts here presented are translated from Coptic and bear an ambiguous relationship—promised to be explained by Vivian’s introduction—to the Lausiac History. Here is a little bit of de Vogüé’s Preface:

Another tendency which foreshadows the practice of future centuries is that of the fairly numerous ‘Virtues’ in which Macarius recommends invoking the name of Jesus. But even this advice is given less frequently than calls to humility. This virtue, the only one which radically distinguishes between the holy man and the Devil, is not only the main theme of the teaching of Macarius, it is also reflected by several episodes in his life. . . .

In Cassian, this virtue of humility, which makes one resemble Christ, was soon to become the heart of the cenobitic doctrine professed by Pinuphius, which in turn was to constitute the core of the Rules of the Master and of St Benedict. A modern Benedictine can only rejoice to find that it is already acclaimed in this way in the Sayings and Virtues of Macarius the Great.

Another useful lesson given in these pages is that of bodily asceticism, which has, alas, so strangely disappeared from modern monasticism, as from Christianity as a whole. . . . When Macarius recalled with great moderation that ‘it is fitting to fast until the ninth hour’, this is simply a forerunner to the directions of Benedict’s Rule, which
have lost nothing of their importance today.

In this book, Tim Vivian transmits to us this ever-relevant message of the early monks. Once more, we would like to thank him for doing so. (p. 15)

Furthermore, here is a passage from the ‘Life of Evagrius’ on humility and purity:

25 He used to say that humility leads the intellect into right knowledge, drawing it upward, for it is written, ‘He shall teach the humble their paths’ (Ps 24:9). Indeed, this virtue is one that angels possess. Concerning the purity of the body, he used to say that ‘the monks are not alone with the virgins in possessing it. This virtue is theirs but it is also a virtue that numerous lay persons have who maintain purity, but since not all of them possess purity of body, ‘seek out’, it says, ‘peace with everyone, and purity, without which no one will see the Lord’ (Heb 12:14). (p. 87)

Finally, when I arrived home from Memphis Monday night, I found a package lying inside the screen door and I thought I must have forgotten ordering a book. I opened it up to find The Orthodox Ethos: Essays in honour of the Centenary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, ed. A.J. Philippou (Oxford: Holywell, 1964). At first I continued to think that perhaps I had simply forgotten ordering it, when, examining the table of contents, I saw Elder Sophrony’s ‘Principles of Orthodox Asceticism’ (pp. 259-86), and I remembered my parenthetical question here. Suddenly, I felt rather like Henry II on learning of Becket’s murder, the difference lying mainly in being happy that a good deed had been done rather than a vicious one. The invoice, although it omitted the price, gave a buyer name which was the same as that on the e-mail address attached to the comment that once informed me I was to receive a gift of St Anastasius of Sinai’s Hexaemeron (see the original comments here and the subsequent explanatory post here). So, I’m afraid I must admit that I myself now know with certainty and am thus able to pray for the name of my anonymous benefactor, who has now added once again to his storehouse of merits. I will however, continue to honour his own wishes and protect him against vainglory by not announcing his name to Orthodox blogdom.

The book is something of a ‘Who’s Who’ of Greek theologians of its day, as well as a few other figures like Nicholas Zernov (on ‘The Worship of the Orthodox Church and Its Message’) Philip Sherrard (on ‘The Sacrament’), Leonid Ouspensky (on ‘The Symbolism of the Church’), and—according to the 'Ad hoc volumen contribuerunt', p. 288—a young ‘lay theologian of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, now working in the Archdiocese of Canada, and a member of Magdalen College, Oxford’, named Mr Timothy Ware (on ‘The Communion of Saints’). The Greeks who excite me most here are Constantine Cavarnos (on ‘Iconographic Decoration in the Orthodox Church’) and Panagiotis K. Chrestou of blessed memory (on ‘The Monastic Life in the Eastern Orthodox Church’). The book would have been a treasure to me for Elder Sophrony’s essay alone, but add to that the others I have mentioned here, plus the many other undoubtedly valuable essays in this sizeable volume, and I am cognizant once again of my great indebtedness to the kind reader who found and purchased it for me.

As a little taste of the great things here, I offer this paragraph from Elder Sophrony, where he himself reflects on the virtue for which he is named (a subject on which I have previously blogged here):

Chastity—σωφροσύνη—as the word itself shows, signifies integrity or fulness of wisdom. In the Church the conception embodies not only mastery over sexual impulses or the complex of the flesh in general, and, in this sense, ‘victory over nature’, but the acquisition of the combination of perfections proper to wisdom, which will be expressed by a constant dwelling in God ‘with all one’s mind and with all one’s heart’. In its most complete realization the ascetic feat of chastity may restore a man in the spirit to his virginal state. (p. 278)

1 comment:

Mickey Hodges said...

Thank you for your kind words, and we look forward to seeing you again. I'm glad you bought the book that you did from our bookstore. As it contains some of the writings of my sanctus patronus, It's been sitting there tempting me for quite some time. Enjoy.