05 March 2010

New Books & a Giveaway!


The time has come for another book update, followed by something new here at Logismoi: a book giveaway contest! I have longed to do something like this ever since I participated in—and unjustly lost—Esteban Vázquez’s contest for The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, & Interpretation (here), but I didn’t have the right book—until now. But first, the ones I’m keeping.

1) The one I’m most excited to have at last for myself is Columba Stewart’s magisterial Cassian the Monk. I was motivated finally to plop down $30 (including shipping) for a used copy, in large part because I am currently rereading parts of the Conferences with a friend for Lent. Stewart refers to the ‘daring scope’ of St Cassian’s ‘project: a comprehensive monastic theology’, and his book is a detailed look at what he has ‘judged to be the most central and distinctive aspects of Cassian’s monastic theology’. [1] The chapters cover St Cassian’s life, his skills and techniques as a writer, his theology (particularly of contemplation), his ascetic teachings (including an outstanding treatment of St Cassian’s much-misunderstood but Orthodox teaching on grace and free will), his use of the Bible, his teaching on unceasing prayer, his description of the experience of prayer, and an appendix on ‘Cassian on Monastic Egypt’. As a taste of what Stewart wants to say, here are the concluding words of Chapter 1:

. . . [A]s I will show, his teaching on contemplation, charity, and prayer is eminently portable, constituting a kind of ascetical breviary compiled with the conviction that charity must always prevail over personal preference, even preference for solitude and contemplation.

The corollary of such a conviction is that service of others in hospitality and teaching are a real work of the monk: after all, these are the virtues modelled by the monks to whom he attributes the Conferences. Cassian’s emphasis on experience rather than rhetoric, and the profundity and realism of his monastic theology, persuade at least this reader that in the many places he lived and in the many things he did, he was always Cassian the Monk. [2]

2) On a recent trip to Half Price Books, I picked up a $4.95 copy of Sermons for the Christian Year, by the Oxford Movement figure, John Keble. Despite what might be considered the inherent contradiction at the heart of Anglo-Catholicism, [3] it is clear that its 19th-c. exemplars were gifted writers and theologians, and worthy of Orthodox attention. Keble is no exception, and Newman gives us perhaps the best introduction to him:

I have not the skill to discriminate what is of intellectual origin in his writings from what is of ethical. All I venture to say of him in this respect is this:—that his keen religious instincts, his unworldly spirit, his delicacy of mind, his tenderness of others, his playfulness, his loyalty to the holy Fathers, and his Toryism in politics, are all ethical qualities, and by their prominence give a character of their own, or (as I have called it) personality, to what he has written; but these would not have succeeded in developing that personality into sight and shape in the medium of literature, had he not been possessed of special intellectual gifts, which they both elicited and used. [4]

But let’s have a little passage from Keble himself to show the real merits of this book. This is—appropriately—from his sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent:

Look into your own hearts and consider how much you are losing of God’s grace and blessing. You might be fervent in prayer, you might be full of good thoughts, holy seasons and communions might be a joy and a crown to you—what a pity to lose all this for want of courage and exactness in your doings! Look again towards the enemy and see how you encourage him. Depend upon it, he rejoices in every moment you lose, every opportunity you neglect. Look, above all, to that which you know, or may know, to be written in God’s book concerning your daily falls and backslidings: the positive sins of temper and will, at least, into which you are continually betrayed for want of a courageous purpose of being entirely and zealously on God’s side. O! if we will but turn our minds towards it we shall see that heaven and earth all around us are full of tokens of how blessed a thing it is to serve Christ with our whole heart, and how fatal to serve Him with half a heart. [5]

3) The next book was a gift—though not without strings attached!—from my friend, James Kelley: A.E. Taylor’s Plato: The Man & His Work. With the exception of the Symposium, I’m ashamed to admit I only began reading Plato after college. While I daresay I’ve made significant progress since then, I nevertheless remain woefully underread in the secondary sources. This is due in part to a certain wariness of Plato’s post-Enlightenment interpreters, against whom I was strongly innoculated early on by Julia Annas’s superb Platonic Ethics Old & New. [6] But I continue to be on the lookout for good, solid ‘footnotes’ to the great philosopher, to borrow Whitehead’s expression. According to Evelyn Underhill, Taylor is ‘an almost ideal interpreter of Plato’, having ‘a mind that is spiritual, supple, and critical’ and ‘a vision which looks perpetually through philosophy towards the realities which philosophy seeks’. Of this book, she writes, ‘The book, which is in arrangement, a detailed commentary on the whole of the Platonic writings, is therefore in fact far more than this. It will pilot the least experienced traveller through a great region of the spiritual life of man.’ [7] As a taste of the man himself, and at the risk of making this post too long, the opening of the chapter on the Symposium is worth quoting at length:

The Symposium is perhaps the most brilliant of all Plato’s achievements as a dramatic artist; perhaps for that very reason, it has been worse misunderstood than any other of his writings. Even in its own day it was apparently quite misapprehended by Xenophon . . . . Our own and the last generation, with the poison of Romanticism in their veins, have gone farther and discovered that the dialogue anticipates William Blake’s ‘prophecies’ by finding the key to the universe in the fact of sex. This means that such readers have sought the teaching of the Symposium in the first instance in the Rabelaisian parody of a cosmogony put very appropriately into the mouth of Aristophanes. The very fact that this famous speech is given to the great γελωτοποιός should, of course, have proved to an intelligent reader that the whole tale of the bi-sexual creatures is a piece of gracious Pantagruelism, and that Plato’s serious purpose must be looked for elsewhere. Similarly, it is more from the Symposium than from any other source that soul-sick ‘romanticists’ have drawn their glorification of the very un-Platonic thing they have named ‘platonic love’, a topic on which there is not a word in this or any other writing of Plato. We must resolutely put fancies like these out of our heads from the first if we mean to understand what the real theme of the dialogue is. We must remember that Eros, in whose honour the speeches of the dialogue are delivered, was a cosmogonic figure whose significance is hopelessly obscured by mere identification with the principle of ‘sex’. We must also remember that the scene is a festive one, and that the tone of most of the speeches is consequently more than half playful, and rightly so, as the gaiety of the company is meant to set off by contrast the high seriousness of the discourse of Socrates. It is there that we are to find Plato’s deepest meaning, and when we come to that speech we shall find that the ‘love’ of which he speaks the praises is one which has left sexuality far behind, an amor mysticus which finds its nearest modern counterpart in the writers who have employed the imagery of the Canticles to set forth the love of the soul for its Creator. [8]

3) On another trip to Half Price Books, I finally discovered an inexpensive copy of Walter Ong’s seminal Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. As near as I can remember, I first saw Ong’s name in the Eighth Day Books catalogue, in the latest edition of which we read:

One can scarcely exaggerate how profoundly the introduction of writing changed all facets of human existence. Ong lucidly documents those changes and then projects his conclusions into the age of mass electronic communications. As we leave behind (courtesy of radios, telephones, and computers) our predominately chirographic culture to enter uncharted territory, Ong is a prophetic guide, offering philosophical, social, and theological implications. [9]

But it wasn’t until I read Douglas Burton-Christie’s wonderful The Word in the Desert: Scripture & the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism that I decided I’d really like to read Ong’s work. Burton-Christie paints a vivid picture of the orality of early desert monastic culture, and draws on Ong for a couple of his deepest insights. Here is one of the passages quoted by Burton-Christie, [10] followed by the paragraph immediately after it in Ong’s text:

The fact that oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency is clearly tied in, at least unconsciously, with their sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded, and hence power-driven. Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface. Such ‘things’ are not so readily associated with magic, for they are not actions, but are in a radical sense dead, though subject to dynamic resurrection.

Oral peoples commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. Explanations of Adam’s namingof the animals in Gensis 2:20 usually call condescending attention to this presumably quaint archaic belief. Such a belief is in fact far less quaint than it seems to unreflective chirographic and typographic folk. First of all, names do give human beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or oral representations of words can be labels; real spoken words cannot be. [11]

4) On the same trip that produced Ong, I picked up the apparently delightful 365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year, by Chet Raymo. While currently quite ignorant of astronomy, I have long been fascinated by the stars and constellations and thought it would be cool to learn all about their names and be able to identify them in the sky. My interest has been renewed and intensified by reading Michael Ward’s captivating Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (see this post), which I am now most of the way through. A little uncertain where to start in learning about the heavens, I was drawn to this one initially because of the organisation into a ‘book of days’ and what I could see flipping through of the kind of information given (apart from the diagrams). But when I read the ‘Introduction’ at home, I was completely satisfied with my purchase:

Let it be said at once that although I have been trained as a scientist and have taught courses in descriptive astronomy, my interest in the sky is primarily esthetic rather than scientific. If I were to be exiled on a desert island and allowed to take the traditional handful of books, they would not be works of science but of poetry and natural history. . . .

This book is designed to be a kind of companion to the night. It is full of science, but only because (as the old catechisms used to say) knowledge is a prerequisite for love. Knowing the night sky is a different thing from knowing, say, the mechanism of a clock or a computer. The clock or the computer is finite, to know it is to exhaust its potential for exciting wonder. The night sky is more like a human being, inexhaustibly complex and finally beyond reach. Knowledge only whets our interest and increases our wonder. [12]

It’s almost as though Raymo had read Discerning the Mystery before penning this book!

5) Last but not least, when James Kelley gave me Taylor’s book on Plato, he also gave me a copy of a book I already owned: Peter Ackroyd’s Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination. I have referred briefly to this fascinating study here and here. It is a treasure-trove of observations about English writers and artists throughout the centuries and the discernible themes that unite them and characterise their work. Here is a sample of the sort of thing Ackroyd has to say:

It would also be possible to elaborate, in this context, upon the argument which Bishop Percy advanced in one of the editorial comments in his collection of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published in 1765. ‘It is worth attention,’ he wrote, ‘that the English have more songs and ballads on the subject of madness than any of their neighbours.’ This might be connected with the madness portrayed upon the Jacobean stage, and the popularity of the eighteenth-century ‘graveyard’ school of English poetry; but there are more elusive associations. In the nineteenth century London became known as the ‘suicide capital’ of the world, but, even before that date, there was a more general belief that the English were a race subject to melancholia. The prevailing gloom was variously ascribed to the damp climate of the island or to the diet of beef, but we need only turn to the prevalence of elegies in the English tongue to suggest that melancholy may have found its local habitation.

It has always been there. That long sweet note of pathos can be heard equally in the music of Delius and the poetry of Keats, in the plangent harmonies of Purcell and the stately threnodies of Spenser, in the funereal meditations of Donne and the lachrymose comedy of Sterne. When the Anglo-Saxon poet of ‘Judgement Day’ uttered a complaint against ‘this gloomy world’, he was the harbinger of a powerful and sustained emotion. It has often been remarked that Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard’, composed fitfully between 1746 and 1750, was the most popular English poem for some two hundred years. What other nation would cherish such mournful music? [13]

As I said, I already had a copy—though mine was the trade paperback, and James had gifted me with the hardcover. Naturally, I’m keeping the latter, but fortunately for some lucky reader, I intend to share my bounty. To enter the contest, you must:

1) First, announce this giveway on your own blog, and provide a link to your announcement in the comments to this post. If you do not have a blog, post an announcement on your Facebook page and contact me on there so I can see it.

2) Second, in your comment provide your most creative response to the following question. Ackroyd tells us that ‘Albion is an ancient word for England, Albio in Celtic and Alba in Gaelic; it is mentioned in the Latin of Pliny and in the Greek of Ptolemy.’ [14] But I for one associate the name most strongly with Blake, who, oddly, barely uses it at all in ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’, but feels the need to include it in nearly every line of Jerusalem. In Plate 46, ll. 10-16, Blake has Oxford weeping over Albion and ‘speaking the words of God / In mild perswasion’:

‘Thou art in Error, Albion, the Land of Ulro.
‘One Error not remov’d will destroy a human Soul.
‘Repose in Beulah’s night till the Error is remov’d.
‘Reason not on both sides. Repose upon our bosoms
‘Till the Plow of Jehovah and the Harrow of Shaddai
‘Have passed over the Dead to awake the Dead to Judgment.’
But Albion turn’d away refusing comfort. [15]

So, without consulting any Blake scholars or their works, which I’m not so sure would be helpful anyway, give me your best answer to the question of what Albion’s ‘Error’ is. Feel free to consult the whole poem if you want the full context. Wit and humour will be preferred to real scholarly plausibility or textual defensibility. The contest begins today, and will last until the Sunday of St Mary of Egypt. I look forward to your responses and will announce the winner on the Monday following!


[1] Columba Stewart, OSB, Cassian the Monk (NY: Oxford, 1998), p. vii.

[2] Ibid., p. 26.

[3] As an Orthodox Christian, I couldn’t help but nod my head a bit to the comments on Anglo-Catholicism in the latter part of the insightful article by R.R. Reno, ‘The Radical Orthodoxy Project’, First Things 100 (February 2000), pp. 37-44 (here).

[4] Maria Poggi Johnson, ‘Introduction’, Sermons for the Christian Year, by John Keble, ed. Maria Poggi Johnson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 8.

[5] Keble, p. 81.

[6] Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics Old & New (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U, 2000).

[7] Blurb from the back cover of Alfred Edward Taylor, Plato: The Man & His Work (NY: Meridian, 1957).

[8] Ibid., p. 209.

[9] ‘Catalog 21’, Eighth Day Books—Classics in Religion, Philosophy, History & Literature, p. 145.

[10] Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture & the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford U, 1993), p. 19.

[11] Walter J. Ong, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 32-3.

[12] Chet Raymo, 365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year, illust. Chet Raymo (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1982), pp. ix-x.

[13] Peter Ackroyd, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (NY: Anchor, 2004), pp. 60-1.

[14] Ibid., p. xxviii.

[15] William Blake, Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford: Oxford U, 1969), p. 676.

9 comments:

JLB said...

Albion's error is clearly that he is refusing the offer of comfort from reposing upon a bosom.

Any child should see that! ;)

aaronandbrighid said...

If you send proof of an announcement, your entry will be noted!

orrologion said...

An answer, in anarchic metre, perhaps delusionalia:

Blake’s perswasive Prophet’s voice,
Alba’s Jonah’s jeremiad.
“Arise”, he heard, “ and go;
“Go to Albion and cry:
‘Against! against your wickedness
Your sin, your multitud’nous sin
It’s risen up on high!’”
Blake’s prelest, accidental truth proclaims:
“Turn, turn Brittania chosen!
One Error not remov’d
Destroys the fully human.
Believe in God,
Proclaim a fast,
From greatest to the least.
Cry to God in dynamis!
Turn ye full away
From your evil way!
Who can tell if God, yet, too,
Will turn away today;
Turn away his anger fierce
Our Judgment to allay!”
Error great and error small, errors of all kind.
Suggestion lone is error not,
Passion, Action be;
Error, e’en attachment, too,
Is error ‘nough to damn;
Unremov-ed sympathy destroys humanity.
The human Soul’s destroy’d,
Dying, dead, again.
Alas, too, Nations be composite
Of her Souls she be,
Its sum of Error(s) and of Fall(s):
Last Judgments final be –
Forewarned, ye all!

[Proof of announcement: http://orrologion.blogspot.com/2010/03/what-is-albions-error.html]

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Mr Orr. I like it!

SubDn. Lucas said...

Aaron,

I have dusted off my blog to enter the lists.

As for my answer:

Blake himself has cryptically supplied the answer to the question of Albion's error in acrostic fashion within his verses. The beginning of each line spells: T-O-R-R-T-H-J-B.

Now, we understand that in Greek, 'H' is an eta, usually transcribed as an 'I', and 'B' is pronounced as a 'V'; we come to the following:

"TORRTIV" (recall, that the Germans have caused no end of grief with transcribing 'I's as 'J's for which we have 'J'erusalem and 'J'acob in English. therefore, the J more properly elides into the 'I')

'Torr' is Swedish for 'dry', and the clear reason for his use of Swedish here is because of his connection to the work of Emanuel Swedenborg.

The second word, 'Tiv', is Romanian for 'hem'. (The connection here is Romania's inclusion of Blake on one of their stamps). 'Hem' is homophonic with the sound made when politely clearing one's throat after hearing a particularly bad joke, which leads us to Blake's own answer to the question of Albion's (England's) Error:

Dry humour.

JLB said...

Gentlemen,

Your efforts do mine great shame. I hereby withdraw my entry, on the grounds that I clearly have not put in enough wit and work.

aaronandbrighid said...

Subdcn. Lucas> Excellent work! I think it should be published.

JLB> Why not just go back to the drawing board and submit another entry?

Atychi said...

I have neither blog nor Facebook. But I will answer anyway.

I believe the answer is found at the very beginning of Chapter 2, "Jerusalem" (Plate 28):
"Every ornament of perfection, and every labour of love,
In all the Garden of Eden, & in all the golden mountains
Was become an envied horror, and a resemblance of jealousy:
And every Act a Crime, and Albion the punisher & judge.

And Albion spoke from his secret seat and said

'All these ornaments are crimes. They are made by the labours
Of loves: of unnatural consanguinities and friendships
Horrid to think of when inquired deeply into; and all
These hills and valleys are accursed witnesses of Sin.
I therefore condense them into solid rocks steadfast! . . .'"

This is his "Error." He was too harsh and ripped the land out of its "post-lapsarian" Edenic existence. He's being asked to repent from his overly harsh judgment so that the hills and valleys return, so that a proper sense of sensuality can return. Away with the sublime and turn back to the Beautiful.

That's my answer. You can give Orr the book on behalf of me :-).

This is a great idea Aaron.

Blake is madness.

aaronandbrighid said...

Atychi> Thank you, sir. Unfortunately, you may be too close to the truth to qualify!

I quite agree with your judgement of Blake. Ditto Whitman.