17 January 2010

An Unexpected Haul


Friday evening we hosted a slightly early celebration of Twelfth Night (calculated by the Church’s calendar, of course). I had asked the guests to bring along their beverage of choice, but one guest, a godson of mine who is preparing to go abroad indefinitely, brought something rather unexpected along with his six-pack of McSorley’s Black Lager: a box of books to be got rid of. As the gentleman’s godfather, and magnanimous host of the party, I naturally availed myself of first dibs, and while I can’t say there were any really tremendous finds, in a very short time I had managed to acquire a stack of things that may prove useful at some point or another and are certainly sensible additions to a library.

1) Halcyon Backhouse, ed., The Writings of St Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994). Much as I hate to gainsay ‘the most lovable of all the saints’, [1] I do not of course regard the famous mendicant founder as a source of wisdom or, worse, ‘spirituality’, to supplement the Orthodox Tradition (see this article for an explanation). But I find it is always good to have things like this on hand to consult, or even simply to better understand the post-Schism West and how it has diverged from us. I shall place it alongside John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.

2) Sophocles, Three Tragedies: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra, trans. H.D.F. Kitto (London: Oxford U, 1962). It’s true that I have translations of these plays already, if only in the Brittanica Great Books series. But while I find those good volumes to have for reference, to really sit down and read something through a nice trade paperback is what’s called for. Kitto’s The Greeks has proved helpful before and his translation of the plays are in a rather strict verse. One of the reasons he gives for this wins me over entirely: ‘One reason for eschewing modern verse techniques was that the plays are so passionate, and passion, as the Greeks knew well, is the more powerfully expressed by being kept under strict formal control.’ [2]

3) Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (NY: Barnes & Noble, 1993). Whitman I had, of course, in anthologised excerpts, but I lacked a complete copy of this classic of American literature. Probably the first thing I shall do with it is go through and mark all of the lines quoted in Dead Poets Society. [3] But I have no illusions about Whitman. Daniel McKay’s wonderful article—mentioned here (and see the combox)—has convinced me of his moral evils, and concerning his literary merits I basically agree with Kevin Edgecomb’s ‘95% crap, with a few lucky hits’ assessment.

4) Solomon Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, & Classical Reflections on Human Nature (NY: Macmillan, 1992). As a moral theologian with a particular interest in the vices and virtues (see this post), I figured any book dealing with traditional theories of the vices will be a handy thing to have around. This was, however, the only book I hesitated over as I rapidly went through my godson’s box, because I didn’t know the author. The dust jacket informed me he was ‘professor of Jewish education and psychology at Hebrew College (Brookline, MA [one wonders if he knows any of the Orthodox folks there!]) and a practicing psychologist’. [4]

A brief subsequent look-through does suggest that despite a hasty overview—without footnotes—of the development of the ‘cardinal sins’ notion in monastic spirituality, [5] Schimmel fails to interact in any significant way with that tradition, confining more of his references to the ancient philosophers, Aquinas, and works of literature like those of Shakespeare. Still, it seems there are surely helpful things here.

5) R. Pierce Beaver, et al., eds., Eerdmans’ Handbook to the World’s Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993). Billed as ‘A Comprehensive Guide’, with ‘Articles by Experts’, illustrated with ‘Photographs, Maps, [&] Charts’ and including a ‘Fact-Finder Reference Section’, this looks like a handy handbook indeed! Looking for something to pick on, I found a section in the table of contents called ‘Branches of the Church’, where, as a member of a parish which on the Sunday of Orthodoxy annually anathematises those who believe that the Church is divided into ‘so-called branches’, I was sure to find something to rankle. I was repaid for my attitude, however, by being led astray by an annoying misprint in the page number as given in the table of contents. Keeping in mind the difficulty of summarising in a short paragraph the nature of Orthodoxy, Michael Sadgrove’s only actual misstatement there is his claim that ‘Each national church has its own patriarch’. [6]

6) Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion, Nos. 5-16. I occasionally check out their blog, most recently when a post went up about a new book by Kathleen Norris on acedia (I wonder if she will have consulted Schimmel!). It will be nice to have a look through these. No. 16 has an article on ‘Flannery’s Happy Endings’, No. 15 a review of Denise Levertov, No. 13 an article called ‘Hollywood’s Take on the Devil’, No. 10 one on ‘The Music of John Tavener’, and No. 9 an interview with Garrison Keillor (and poetry by Norris). All have fiction, visual art, poetry, and essays. Here is a taste of their approach, from the editorial statement in No. 9:

Invoking presence through the careful delineation of a fictional character, or the application of brushstrokes, is an arduous enterprise. In the end it can only be sustained by a belief that there is an unseen but real Presence behind each of our lesser experiences of presence. As George Steiner put it in his seminal book, Real Presences: ‘Any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence.’

Flannery O’Connor was once at a literary soiree where the Eucharist was generally admitted to be a powerful symbol. If it’s just a symbol, she interjected, ‘then to hell with it’. A tart remark, perhaps, but it cut to the heart of the matter. We hope the writing and art featured in Image manifest the courage and the vulnerability of those willing to encounter the presence of the Other. [7]

I’m currently considering hosting a book giveaway party, where guests, who will, naturally, be hand-selected, will be required to bring at least five books that they want to get rid of.


[1] Backhouse, p. 9.

[2] Kitto, p. v.

[3] Of these, ‘O Me! O Life!’ is probably my favourite (Whitman, p. 229):

O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Robin Williams’s delivery helps a lot.

[4] The psychology part raised an eyebrow, and I Googled the fellow. Apparently he is most well known for a critique of ‘Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalism’ called The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth (Oxford University Press). This introduction tells us that ‘even as a complete skeptic of theological claims, he still practices Orthodox Judaism’, and that he believes ‘religion, including fundamentalism, may bring [benefits to] a believer, such as caring and supportive communities, ethical codes, means of coping with stress and loss, celebrations of rites of passage, and a hope for life after death’. But ‘he explores ways that people can experience these benefits while rejecting the unreasonable claims of religion, which he argues are especially pronounced in fundamentalism’. It sounds interesting, though of course it’s hard not to be immediately suspicious of any references to ‘fundamentalism’ that do not define the term.

[5] Schimmel, pp. 24-5.

[6] Michael Sadgrove, ‘Branches of the Church’, Eerdmans’ Handbook, p. 354 (not p. 344!).

[7] Gregory Wolfe, ‘Editorial Statement: Real Presence’, Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion, No. 9, Spring 1995, p. 4.

6 comments:

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I need to get out more. Two of your unexpected quotes from me today have left me giggling.

I've really tried to love Whitman, really I have. But the more I read, the less there was. I think you'd have to be a Transcendentalist fanboy to love him, or a gender studies major at a liberal arts school in the Gay Nineties.... Still, there are some few glimmers in Whitman of a talent that was unguided and unencouraged, as much as his vulgarity and egotism was unpruned. I've always liked "I saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing", possibly because there's at least an attempt at cadence there, if not verse proper.

And I am most very sorry, but I cannot imagine any case where "Robin Williams's delivery helps a lot."

aaronandbrighid said...

So did you see and dislike Dead Poets, or did you never see it?

aaronandbrighid said...

I need to get out more.

Ya think? Nearing the completion of your Old Testament Pseudepigrapha index, you're talking about compiling yet more reference works!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Yes, I only saw Dead Poets' Society once, back when it was new. It didn't really do it for me. Whatever "it" is, that is. I am sorry to say that Mr Williams' presence in a movie is, for me, tantamount to asking me never to watch it, and, if seen, to purge it from the databanks at earliest opportunity. There are a number of such actors. Oh, I suppose all of them, these days....

Agh! Back to work!

The Tartski said...

Thanks again for so generously offering me one of your "dibs." You are a true gentleman and philanthropist.

aaronandbrighid said...

Kevin> Well, I don't always like Williams, even in Dead Poets. But that's one of those movies that I saw in the theatre (at which point remember I was significantly younger than you) that really made an impression. We recorded it on vhs at some point, & I used to watch it pretty frequently. Now I have it on dvd & still do. Of course, partly I just enjoy the setting & cinematography, but the snippets of poetry, even when it's not much good, & the pathos of the thing, even when it's excessively sentimental, endeared it to me.

Now one actor that I do refuse to expose myself to is Angelina Jolie. I just dislike her so much that I actually swore an oath back in the nineties never to watch another one of her movies.

Ivan> Well, I find it's always a good practice to give things away from time to time when you know someone else would appreciate them. But maybe next time you'll be quicker off the mark so you won't have to resort simply to taking advantage of my philanthropy! ;-)