That Hideous Strength

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That Hideous Strength (Space Trilogy, #3)That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
I think the reason this book fails in the end is that the active agency producing the result is too diffused. You can say somewhat precisely that the ending is achieved by the concerted work of a company. But you can say more precisely that the ending is achieved by a peripheral character, that arises like a deus ex machina to deliver our two protagonists from their plight.

Lewis was good at making Out of the Silent Planet work without a climactic confrontation. His character is passive, but his story is complete: he survives, he grows, his choices have a direct bearing on the outcome. In Perelandra, Lewis has a quest of sorts, an epic battle, and then ends the story perfectly, having set everything up from the beginning. Those two stories have plots that feed into their conclusions. The problem in That Hideous Strength is that our main characters don’t themselves bring about the outcome. I don’t think the plot is coherent in that it reaches beyond our two main characters and in the end depends on a third. It is a coherent plot in the sense of ideas and events, but isn’t the outworking of the character’s choices alone, and that I think scatters the ending.

Still, it is a good book, with a lot to think about, a lot of interesting things imagined for us, a lot of good characters playing out their beliefs and ideas, and excellently imagined scenes and situations. It is an ingenious ending, even if it isn’t plugged into the rest of the novel the way it should be. I read and re-read it because there is always something to notice. I don’t know at what point one of his books can be exhausted (I think I’m at 10 readings), but with judicious intervals, these planet stories not only entertain, but provoke thought and reward the attention you give them.

What else they do, as most people know, is help you understand his non-fiction writings by embodying ideas in characters who not only explain their views in dialogue, but play them out in imagined situations. In this book, mainly, and in the whole series as well, the ideas in The Abolition of Man.

The Influence of the Most Venerable and Learned Jonathan Edwards

My goal is to be a teacher. I want to teach in the context of the church more than the academy, but for the church in any context. I have, alas, no pastoral vocation. My desire is to get a better grasp of the material and discipline of church history.

One of the things Christians in my circles need is greater exposure to Christians who are not like them–a sympathetic view of the differences while demonstrating the underlying commonalities. In Reformed circles every single last everything any puritan ever wrote is being published and purchased and even read. Yes, read, and by not a few. That’s because somebody has shown them there is profit there and has taught them how to understand these crusty and difficult people as human beings and fellow Christians. My belief is that we would benefit, not from departing from that, but adding to it a similar–not as obsessive, perhaps–interest in other periods of history.

I find the early church intriguing because of the influence of classical thought. I’m fascinated by figures like Justin Martyr, Clement and Origen, Augustine and Ambrose, Jerome and Gregory Nazianzen because of the way they took classical learning and used it for Christian purposes, they way they wrestled with it also, ambivalent. I want to study what happened, how it shaped Christianity, how they discriminated in what they took, what they did and did not understand about what they were doing.

I’m also intrigued by the pagan reaction with Porphyry, Iamblichus and Julian the Apostate, because it represents something similar, if inverted: pagan antiquity adopting Christian ideals in spite of itself. What was in the air in the centuries of the great prophets of ancient Israel that also stirred up the great philosophers of antiquity and started something that would meet in the church, of all places, those first five hundred years?

I’d be interested in studying the remains of pagan antiquity surviving in a Christian context. Texts like Beowulf, where the two elements come together fascinate me, but as much as I enjoy literature, I want to study church history so I can be more involved directly in the work of the church. I find the world of the Sagas interesting for the same reason.

Any period of church history is interesting, of course, but one has to specialize. I’ve studied early American Fundamentalism (Bryan, Sunday and Machen), I’ve studied Edwards. I’ve done a lot of reading on medieval mysticism and a little Quietism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Besides that I’ve done extensive reading in Augustine and the early church. I’ve done work on Bernard of Clairvaux as well and some Aquinas. I want to go on consolidating my grasp on the whole, but with a careful study of the details. I admire historians like Henry Chadwick and Christopher Dawson for that: they have digested the details, but deal wonderfully with the broader view. I would like to, on the scale of my lesser talents, work similarly: digest the details and make connections, working my tenuous spider web of understood history into different corners, but hoping to spin a web dense enough in the early church corner so that I can be a proper spider.

Eliot on Blake

Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry.

He approached everything with a mind unclouded by current opinions. . . . This makes him terrifying.

What his genius required, and what it sadly lacked, was a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own, and concentrated his attention upon the problems of the poet.

The concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy is one of the reasons why Dante is a classic, and Blake only a poet of genius.

- T.S. Eliot 

Eliot figured it out. Concentrated his attention upon the problems of the poet.

Lesson: know your thing.

A Considerable Speck

(Microscopic)

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt–
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn’t want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

-Robert Frost

Late October in Ohio

A morose wind blows low grey clouds and spray and leaves. The wet sidewalks have the twigs of autumn, the sinuous wands from the walnuts with a gallant leaf sprouted from the tip–like a yellow feather; the bumpy-green Osage oranges and rotting black walnuts have rolled to the edge of the path, the countless acorns accumulate in the cracks in various stages of disrepair.

The cold rain on the fresh-fallen leaves makes them fragrant, as if the world were making tea–a sylvan tea. Bluebirds with harsh cries leave the lawn for the lower branches, then climb out of the foliage to the bare upper branches where already it is winter. The geese are back, and the coats of deer are grey and shaggy.

The maples are still in their glory: black boughs, bright leaves, and under them each a strewn carpet of tumbled splendor. Bright the pines too, having molted, and the boles of trees are all moss; in the shallow hollows of the lawns mushrooms arise in little companies, bent on evil.

The rain pauses, the clouds rush higher, then darken in the southwest and loom, making the dark puddles tremble. I have noticed how the darkness keeps coming earlier. At this rate, next June should give us uninterrupted darkness.

* * *
I read Tolkien as I go about, walking on my breaks. I read Howe at night and TS Eliot’s letters in bed. We keep the windows open and add a woolen blanket. We listen to the ticking of the baseboard heater, and to the diminishing sounds of crickets outside. It hasn’t frozen yet.

Time Like and Ever Flowing Stream

My attitude toward NIU has been: who cares? Apparently Albrecht Mohler. Interesting. I think it is ingenious of the boys now running NIU to come up with this solution. Where will they go from here? And what Boyce College will do with the new stuff will be interesting too. It does seem to me a good way to help the students who’ve stuck with the NIU.

* * *
You think about the past. I’ve been going over the papers I wrote during my ThM at Central and am kind of astonished at the things I was able to pursue. A conversation several months ago with a former teacher there included this interesting comment: At Central there was more intellectual tolerance and diversity of opinion than at his present location. When I mentioned that to Central’s former dean, he was surprised too.

Another surprise I had in applying to SBTS: you gotta agree not to drink. I don’t, but it surprises me that’s still on the cards. No wonder they’re such avid coffee roasters.

* * *
And I was with my parents for almost a week. Talk about living in the past! They still hold to what they began with as fundamentalist missionaries lo these more than forty years ago, with puritan readings thrown in and considered, but assimilated in a compatible, not really reformed, way. They have embodied and achieved the ideals they were presented with: simple hermeneutics, being led, everything. You know what church-historical wondering they’re doing? If the sort of Christianity they’ve been a part of will remain: undenominational fundamentalism.

* * *
I think I’ve done most of my SBTS application. Will finish most of WTS by going to the post office. Then, on to the OSU. Kind of hard to find a paper for them, since most of the ones I wrote are theological rather than historical. I was surprised by that too–though I don’t know why.

The OSU

So I was having a conversation with a guy in church who teaches OT stuff at OSU. He thinks I should apply because the history program there is a good one and more likely to get me a job afterward. It wasn’t really part of my plan to waste my money and my references’ time applying to competitive programs since I really don’t think I have a chance, but even after I talked to him about my GRE he thinks I should. He oversees PhD students in his own area, so I think he may be considered somewhat reliable in this.

It has it’s advantages: we wouldn’t have to move. We have a really good church here. Living in Columbus is cheaper than for example Philadelphia.

One of the advantages he talked about was getting a job at a seminary if I got a history degree in something medieval. I was told at Louisville is that there aren’t evangelical medieval scholars. He thinks with a seminary and theology background, and then a history degree from OSU, I would be an attractive commodity for a seminary. I’ve never operated on such a commercial assumption, but maybe it can be done in good conscience.

One thing I have figured out about myself, looking back on how I make these decision and have in the past: I make the decision by finding out what a figure of authority expects, and then doing what is expected. I don’t think I chose the outcome as much as I chose the figure. That’s why I went to BIO, then to Northland, then to Central.

Of course, one can’t say any of one’s operations are entirely straightforward always. Sometimes they may be. In this case, it may be that I chose the figure for the outcome, but there are still other and responsible criteria. Anyway, I believe at this point applying also to OSU is expected of me.

Things I’d rather be writing about

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Why do seminaries keep asking me to describe my spiritual growth? I remember one year at Central I just put that I had none.

Talk to my pastor. I think I’m going to give the Catholic schools more of a look because they don’t ask me to describe my spiritual growth.

What are you supposed to say?

Yes, my spiritual life is coming along fine, I’m so glad you asked right about now and not, say, three months ago when it was not the word ‘growth’ I’d have used. Some days, well, I’m dashed if I don’t seem to not even do my devotions, but I’m happy to report that is mostly on Saturdays and I feel Sunday makes up for it, specially if I help with the youth. I really can’t say that I like Christianity more than I did two weeks ago at this point, but I honestly don’t feel like being a mormon. Probably I have a ‘greater heart for missions’ now than a month ago. I’m a lot fonder of . . . hymns than I was a week ago . . . and I do feel there’s a lot more humility now definitely. Especially humility. I’ve grown a lot in that, actually. The Lord is so good. I do not deserve to be as humble as I presently am. THANK YOU JESUS FOR ALL THE HUMILITY YOU HAVE SO FREELY POURED OUT ON ME RECENTLY! Also, having discovered christian Rap, my life is super blessed because I meditate on angry Scriptural doggerel more than I would have otherwise and still enjoy singing hymns when they come up in church. So . . . yeah, I’m growing probably enough to be in a seminary.

* * *
Speaking of getting ebola, I think we’re flying through Dallas to get to McAllen. Great time for that. One week from now. Flying. Through Dallas. I don’t know how long it takes to develop full blown ebola after you’ve been in the Dallas airport, but it is probably a lot faster than my spiritual growth.

* * *
I look forward to seeing McAllen Texas. I don’t know if they even have K-Mart there still, but there I bought all my legos when I was a kid. I did grow in legos till I had quite a few. We used to get the space ship ones and the medieval ones and not the contemporary ones. When I was a kid, they only had three kinds of flavor: past, present and future. Not like now.

Another thing I liked about Edinburg Texas was their macadam roads for roller-skating on, as well as the smoothness of shuffle-board courts. When I was a kid I would race around on roller skates for hours. Then I’d do a bike for hours. Then I’d read until we were allowed to watch TV. Where we stayed at in Texas they had color TV. My stupid brother would pick as his program (we could each pick one) Mr. Rogers neighborhood. I don’t remember what I picked, but it would never have had puppets or singing.

And we’d always watch the news with Dan Rather. And football sometimes, but I didn’t know the rules.

* * *
I used to have the four-wheel roller skates, you know, not these in-line deals. I would wear out the wheels and not the pokey brake thing. The front left wheel on the right foot would get worn down to nothing. It makes sense. I’d drag a foot to slow down and that was the most exposed. Always disdained the pokey brake thing. Didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the front, but it did serve nicely when you were going backwards.

They still sell them, but come to think about it, I don’t see people skating with any kind of skate here in Columbus. They bike or they run.

* * *
I need to grow in the accordion is what. I haven’t figured it into my schedule, what with working on applications in the odd corners of time life throws one’s way. This moment, of course, is brought to you by being fed up and having had too much coffee late in the day. It may also have to do with the potato salad with hot sauce I was eating. Probably it’s just an annoying question though.

So how would you describe your spiritual growth?

Notes on a Visit to SBTS

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We say Louweeville, and they say Looahvle (rhymes with doable). The sound is ugly, a bit clumsy really, but that’s what they do.

* * *

The campus is not all that big. Because they keep it up well, the buildings look a lot more modern than they actually are. It has the look of careful prosperity.

Books everywhere. Reading provided in your hotel room (Mohler stuff), in the hotel lobby (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis Vol. III was there), printed material on racks scattered throughout, never mind the bookstore. A million holdings in the library. They even gave me the doorstopper tome on the history of the seminary published by Oxford just for having come.

They have a big chapel out of which the organ is gone–if there ever was one. Can’t imagine the sound of the piano is great enough for congregational singing unless the player just bangs when it is full. I’m under no illusion that in lieu of an organ they depend on a piano, but they do have a piano.

They also have a smaller chapel with a pipe organ up in the choir loft. It has pews that shut themselves in, in the old style. Nice quiet place.

* * *

Those people are into coffee. Nobody need drink anything substandard there ever, and can probably usually drink rather good coffee. They even have their own seminary blend. It is a bit hipsterish, and one wonders when all that will wear off (but evanelicalism can be counted on to be hipsterish a few years after being hipsterish no longer appeals in general, I think), but at the moment the coffee is good.

* * *

We were treated to lunch and had Dr. Haykin to ourselves. He’s the early church guy. He has a gimlet eye, and a barking voice (a heavily British tinged Canadian accent: he commutes from Canada to SBTS). He makes questions of the more penetrating sort, gets down to business–not a small talk type of person. I like him. We found out he was doing a seminar after lunch and proceeded to join. Had Gregory of Nyssa for two hours. Afterward, he showered me with publications: four journals, some G of Nyssa and some Basil.

Meeting Haykin was providential. If I go, I’d be looking to do something with him. And at SBTS I could do something early church.

In fact, that was one of the most positive things about SBTS, not only the personal attention we received from him, but the collegial atmosphere. It surprised me in a big place like that. I thought the faculty would come and go in a hurry, ducking into their office to do their work, not being generally available. I saw a lot of casual conversations, the pace did not seem hurried, and the IX Marks conference was looming.

Also we were conducted to the library and into the new doctoral commons, a project of Jonathan Pennington (who tweets about the furnishings). There they do pour-over coffee. Pennington was there and friendly. Very favorable though brief impression. He was engaging the students in extra-curricular reading and discussion.

Not like Central were you go out to eat with the whole faculty, however.

* * *

The worst thing about SBTS is the price of a PhD: 50k. There is little to no financial aid–which surprised me. Probably because if you’re a member of a church in the convention, you get a 50% discount on that price, which then gives you a very reasonably priced PhD. (There are ARBCA churches that are part of the SBC, but I don’t think they’re in Louisville, alas; on the positive side, there is one of our crusty RB churches there).

I have some misgivings, but I was mostly favorably impressed and I think the studying would be good with Haykin. Apparently they’re undergoing a bit of a boom on early church interest at the moment. They have a spirituality PhD which feeds people into reading church history and especially early church, for good reasons.

* * *

Of course, it depends on getting accepted. My quantitative GRE score, about which I was pleased, is actually quite low (only 37% of the people taking it did worse; on the other hand, I’m getting a whole lot of consolation from my verbal score and the analytical is jolly decent). I’m not sure at this point what it adds up to, but it does lie in the past.

* * *

I’m very glad I went. And since Katrina went, she’s got her own interesting observations. I think she’s for it.

Now I really want to see if visits to other places can be scheduled. One can read websites, but the detail of being there is a lot better, more interesting.

Capsules of the Unexamined Life

Presently, the idea seems to be that I should be an oregano-based life form. I’ve had a cough for almost two months, and since my wife can’t get me to act with modern impatience and trot off worriedly to the doctor, she thinks that if I can become somehow dependent on oregano oil, I’ll not be afflicted. So she made capsules filled with oregano oil that I have to take.

She has a point. I know of no oregano-based life forms that have a cough.

The only thing worse than taking pills is going to the doctor, so I take the pills in order not to see the doctor. She fondly imagines it is working, all the while my extraordinary constitution, not weakened by constant reliance on modern medicine, works against both the undoccumented pernicious effects of excessive oregano oil intake, and whatever it is lodged in my chest I am grinding to a pulp at my own steady pace.

Cheerful Toad

I finished the GRE. Whatever comes of it will come of it, but it lies behind me now. I am free!

I enjoyed the first hour. I got two good subjects for essays and I think I wrote coherently. I do recommend blogging almost ten years before taking that part, it helps. It cheered me for the rest of the test because I thought of a joke. I’m feeling good about the essays, though such good feeling has often proved ephemeral.

I got something in the 160s for the verbal and 140s for the quantitative–not remembering the last number. I want to say a nine, but that makes it sound like I almost aced the verbal and that doesn’t seem right. What seems clearly wrong is that I should do so well in the quantitative. I checked everything I did in the verbal twice and pressed on till the timer ran out, even when it was all filled in, making sure it was all double and triple checked–like a girl. Not so the quantitative so-called reasoning. I did figure out more of the quantitative than I expected, but I did not expect to be above half right. I guessed on several and just quit out of the last two sections when I’d given some answer for everything.

BOOM!

Hey, have you ever thought about what a GOOD THING the GRE is?

I feel like a very clever toad, bloated with good luck.

I would like to take this moment to thank the dude who sells coffee down on Indianola for his dark roast Bolivian to which a great deal of Friday’s success (for me) is due, and the amazing generous breakfast to which Katrina treated me of two breakfast burritos and ten potato tots which was ideal to mastering the intricate difficulties of the GRE.

* * BOOM! * *

So anyway . . . now I’ve got to make applications.

I sent my scores to the WTS, SBTS, TEDS and the U of St. Louis. I also sent them back to a little place called Northland Coll [sic] in Wisconsin which may or may not be my alma mater (weird if it isn’t). I’m kind of curious about what purpose that serves there, but it was included in the obligatory price of the test and optional, so I opted in.

So if I can do those four applications by the end of October, I can see what else there is to try in November. That’s my brilliant strategy.

* * *
I’m back to writing.

I Figured out at last how my story needs to begin: a combination of the writings of Scruton, the example of Gormengast, and the cogitations of Lev Grossman. That good hard winter here last year was helpful, but another one I think would be just exactly what is needed to perhaps precipitate the final draft.

And I’m working toward a deeper argument–a novel about interpretation, responding to the way these fantasy writers react to the dilemma Lewis poses them when they read Narnia. That should give me something to puzzle over, besides learning Latin and reading church history here in Columbus.

Annunciation, by John Donne

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Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

The Unexamined Mid-September

So . . . my main target is Westminster, but they only do church history from the Reformation on for PhD work. If I get in, I’m going to push that as far back into the Middle Ages as possible. I still want to go there: they’re the closest to where my theological home is, my people, the RBs.

I’m going to, while in Louisville, visit the former dean of Central Seminary and ask his advice in all this (what will he make of my theological home? It is what it is–as the obvious is nowadays put; when he wrote a huge NO right in the middle of one of my exam essays back in days of yore, I think he figured out what I was and he was still friendly afterward). That’s one of the great things about retired teachers: they have time. Trying to talk to certain entities, say, employed faculty at the place you want to go to who are over busy, can be demanding.

* * *
I’m enjoying Latin, and I think I’m effective with my students. At least I think they like me, and that’s the chief thing, isn’t it?

I’m figuring them out–HA! I think that’s an enormous success. They are not crouching and muttering. They try perkily. I recommend teaching at a semi-homeschooler type of school for all who are starting out in a subject of some uncertainty.

Had one of them giggle uncontrollably when I tried to explain why I think the transitive verb ‘carry’ it is used intransitively (Susan carries, for example; it means she has a gun, which is indicated by aborting the direct object, concealing it, as it were). Or maybe she was laughing because I said they were not safe at school because I brought no weapon. There are still things about them I need to figure out.

* * *
I had reason to paint recently, but now that has withdrawn in a sunset of glowing success. I’ll probably go back to writing diligently. The GRE beast is this Friday, and after that it is the slow grind through intermediate Latin toward advanced. I don’t know if I should charge ahead or consolidate more, but I’m leaning toward charging. I’m not a stickler, I’m a user. I was taught always to look things up and I always do when careful work is required, so why stick too closely to mastering forms rather than breaking through into fluent reading? It’s the teaching makes me hesitate.

Speaking of Latin, I now have enough Latin books to take one for each student to practice pronunciation with, rather than dull stuff in the textbook (they have rather bizarre texts like the pledge of allegiance, I suppose the idea is that the wording is familiar in English). I have a student who can’t make the sounds correctly when he tries to read them. Not sure what the deal is, but maybe some personal attention will help. I can let the quickest one have the Virgil, the Harry Potter reader do the Harry Potter, then there are the Hobbit and Boethius; probably Boethius for the pronunciation chap, and a Bible for the Catholic. So on Monday, after we take care of Business, they’re going to work on pronunciation individually while I rotate them through and see if I can individually attend especially to our chap. He’s a whiz at grammar.

* * *
Note on the weather: it is sometimes in the afternoons so clear, so brightly sunny, the grass and leaves so green and whole, the skies so blue, and shapes so definite in the clear air that it is like living in Narnia, or Minnesota in June. I did not think such things were possible in Ohio. One walks under the honey locusts marveling. One looks into the shallow and clear Olentangy and sees each individual rock of the riverbed. And all the while the walnuts are showering yellow leaves like windblown magic.

Childhood and Wonder

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There is something magical, a naive belief early on. It is a part of the innocence which is proper to children. I don’t mean by that that children are pure, but that they naturally expect good outcomes. But then, eventually, we aren’t protected from all outcomes and things that are not so wonderful take hold, and we can lose at least the naivete.

I think, however, we are still children if we acknowledge that we don’t understand and as a result we still trust, still believe, desire is still strong. That is how The Wind in the Willows and Narnia are childlike and can appeal to us: they believe in happy outcomes. They are all about the happy outcome. And good stories still magically provide them, though a good story doesn’t always. But a good story always provides a good thing in the sense of an outcome for the reader, if not a good outcome in the story.

I say that because there is a feeling (a dogma in some cases) that being an adult is about losing those dreams: not believing in them again, passing into life without that simple trust, settling into tedium and taming your expectations. And then what some people do is project on those successful authors of the innocent outcome such as Lewis the idea that he can’t have grown up–that Narnia is wishful thinking. And what is worse, that somehow he doesn’t take suffering into account.

Related, but somewhat obliquely, I’ve heard it said of Tolkien that he conceives his characters all in terms of black and white, and the great thing about George R.R. Martin–an author for grown-ups–is that he has morally ambiguous characters. That’s not the case. There are morally ambiguous characters in Tolkien (Denethor, Boromir, and especially Turin Turambar), but that does not relativize the morality of his world, which is what some really want when they criticize him. But a morally unambiguous universe has clear outcomes, is the one that we live in, not an escape, and that is why we believe in the four last things.

Lev Grossman helps me to get some of this straight. He’s not altogether on my side of that observation. He makes fun of Narnia, and he’s so good it almost works. The second half of his first novel can be construed as a relentless attack on Narnia–if one doesn’t have the tools to take it as an argument, in a more detached way. But I’m specially impervious, you have to understand, I’m a congenital believer, an incurable romantic, I seek wonder and I don’t think life has disappointments enough to quell me. And in that way I’m like Grossman’s main character, Quentin Coldwater. He believes, he is scolded for believing and for giving up on things that are not what he wants, and despised not altogether wrongly, but also with misunderstanding. Lev Grossman takes the boy through all the stages of dissapointment, by means of vice, betrayal, even the gods deny him. But in the end Quentin’s innocence cannot be quelled and Grossman, incredibly, rewards him. (Very satisfying ending.)

And that’s what I learn from Lewis: life’s troughs are in final analysis small. Life’s problems, however great, are not great in the scale of being. We are at present children, growing, but in a way always children if there is room to grow a infinite distance, and we have every reason to think we will continue to grow if we will continue to live not only for the happiest of outcomes, but the increase that begins at that point.

Weed It and Reap

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The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land

Lev Grossman writes well. Very well. Keep you turning pages the second time through well. He has an eye for detail, includes description that seems casual but is crucial, does so many things brilliantly. Conversations snap to life, has humor of all kinds, similes are astonishing and he does that again and again. He’s brilliant, and a disciplined imaginer.

Technically brilliant. Morally, not so much. His fiction in a way is in a line with Pullman: responding to C.S. Lewis. His aim is a secular Narnia, but one with all the wonder still. His trilogy ends better than Pullman’s, though it ought to be added lest the comparison mislead, Grossman is not writing for children. I thing his trilogy is more of a success even than The Hunger Games–far better writing, though his plots are more tangled. He has a better ending too because he really wants wonder, and he concedes something to keep it that Suzanne Collins never does. He admits mystery.

In other words, he doesn’t take a hard line secularist radical amputation of anything wondrous, smash it and just have unaccounted ephemera propped on nothing like Stephen Hawking irresponsibly building on a positivist philosophy. He accepts the supernatural. I think this represents an advance. Grossman was influenced by Susanna Clarke, and I think together they move the conversation about magic and fantasy forward. At least they give me a suggestion of something new. She does, decidedly, and he does as well. They make statements about fantastic literature in writing it successfully. From the point of view of someone trying to write fantastic literature, they’re illuminating.

Besides that, it is interesting that C.S. Lewis should require a response. That fact alone, and you can read where Grossman talks about it here http://entertainment.time.com/2013/11/22/why-narnia-still-matters/ , is significant. I think Grossman is engaging the argument better than Pullman. He tries to secularize his magical world by means of a ‘deeper magic’. Just to read the epigraph to the book “Further in and further up” is to understand he’s responding. Of course, you might read it to find out how.

And I think, though I don’t think he would say it, he has gone too far from the secular point of view, conceded too much, and that’s why he succeeds in spite of himself. I don’t say that because I can demonstrate that, but because of the satisfaction with which I ended the trilogy. He kept his covenant as a writer with this reader: I was grateful for the way it ended.

He writes in the modern vernacular, and does that well but I think only that. Be warned. Still, if you’re interested in fantasy, in writing, in what interesting things people are doing with it, weed it and reap.

The Most of it

It was a bowl of soup. It looked like a newer bowl, the baked clay painted black and shiny, the soup in it steaming. Barley he saw, something like a carrot submerged, a shred of meat floating ringed with shiny bubbles of grease. He stared at it for a while, lost in the detachment of body and spirit that comes with a head cold, feeling dull and tense at the same time. Outside it was snowing.

He sighed, and began to eat the soup. It had something spicy and made his nose run. He wiped it on his sleeve and wished he had not, because he had been using his sleeve for that too long now. He used his left sleeve, high up, near the shoulder. Then he sniffed hard, winced at the pressure in his head and sat back. The soup continued to steam. The fire popped, and he turned to look at it for a while, breathing through his mouth, vaguely aware of the aftertaste of the soup.

Some time later he finished eating, went over to the fire and slumped down on the fur before it. He fell asleep, a green run of snot forming on his upper lip. The snow sifted down outside, and the fire sank.

When he woke, there was a handkerchief in his hand. He blew his nose strenuously, felt the shifting pressures in his cranium, sighed. But he felt better as he pushed himself off the rug and stood up.

He peered through the panes of glass. It was all a dim blue greyness outside: the lighter ground, the darker skies, the nearby flakes still distinct. It must be getting dark, he thought. He not only felt better, he now felt hungry, and soon it would be time for dinner.

He opened a door and descended the cold, winding stairs into darkness. At the bottom he stopped to blow his nose again, and now the new handkerchief was all used. He stuffed it in his blouse. He pushed open the heavy wooden door, and walked into a draughty hallway. Light filtered in from high above, a fog dimmed light that brought snowflakes with it. The snow on the floor was slightly trampled. Now he heard sounds: creaking sounds, and banging. Cooler drafts troubled the powdery snow along the sides of the hall, and doors were heard slamming. They’re coming in for dinner, he thought.

He felt the cold on his head, breathed the winter in through his nasal passages for a change. It was stimulating and he felt good now, almost full of health. He knew it wouldn’t last, but at least it would last long enough to have a good meal. He hurried along holding his face up to catch the cool snowflakes, closing his eyes to concentrate on the feeling and hoping they had roasted a hog.

The Stage of Confusion

There comes a point in learning a language (probably more than once) where you’ve had too much and it all swims. After starting out fast on Wheelock’s, I’ve been brought to a slow crawl. I need to do some revision and consolidation.

But the GRE is next week. I need to study for that.

Again.

For a while.

So dreary. I’ve done a whole book on the GRE. What I really need to do is memorize these basic math concepts. Maybe I can cram the morning of. I have the test at noon.

Speaking of dreary, today Apple unvelied a new . . .
. . .
. . .
. . . telephone.

And a watch.

And all the world advertises it for them. It has to be one of the silliest events of our day. Future generations will look back on it as an oddity. Obviously trendy.

And speaking of trendy, we are having a Sunday school quarter on evangelism. I learned that there are ministers in the OP (as within the OPC it is fondly called) who actively discourage members from engaging in personal evangelism. Which struk me as . . . not fashionable nowadays, so I asked and was assured it was so. Not that they don’t encourage them to, but that they say: leave it to the experts. I love the OP. NOT TRENDY. I wish I were a presbyterian.

But I’m an RB. I think that’s what I’m always going to be. I’ve been an RB for years now.

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