Northland Undead

I wish they had let the funeral go on. This has done violence to my expectations. Why can’t we let Northland rest in peace? Why are people traversing the land and spending time and energy keeping the thing out of its well-earned rightful grave?

This comes of overachieving on enthusiasm. Project 14 is what the latest posse of graduates to the rescue is called, I gather, and has a slogan which tells me what I need to know.

“The goal of Project 14 Global Missions is to reach the world with the Gospel starting in Nicaragua.”

After lots of prayer and consideration we felt the Lord leading us to begin reaching the world through Nicaragua, instead of a place with a major airport. And Dunbar.

Is it the facilities? Too hard to resist letting go of all that solid campground property? Here is a beautiful facility in the middle of nowhere and what a shame to let to go to a productive turkey farm. Because we need solid camp ministries in a location that is an ordeal to reach, and of course solid conferences held in northern Wisconsin in January, and above all a solid graduate program far from any polluting legitimate academic endeavor.

The Books

The books are packed . . . well, everything but what I’m keeping out to read, which is another whole box. 18 boxes altogether, which is not bad.

It went quickly too: put on Die Zauberflöte and got most of it done to that. Then just another trip to the liquor store (for boxes, wine boxes are the best), some tango, and it was done. They should be back out in a fortnight.

Returning to Unpack

I have unpacked yet again, returning from a journey. There is one more journey before the trip out to Philadelphia, and a little over a week for us in Columbus. No more! Now comes the packing and the pruning: we’re moving into a smaller place. I prefer them myself, feel better when we have fewer possessions all logically stowed, everything trim. Starting out anywhere, my advice is that you want to start as small as possible. One of the sacrifices is going to be the Christmas tree stand. No full-fledged Christmas tree has been decreed, alas!

It’s an old building from the 19th Century. First time living in something that old. First time having a place with windows on both sides for a cross breeze too. And just in time as it has no air conditioning, we’ll see how August treats us. The kitchen will more or less be off on its own, and they do gas there instead of the electric stove that has dogged our life here in Columbus. There’s only one downside to the place: the bath tub is not a whole entire thing. It is absurdly brief. It looks like no place in which to spend a long soak reading, and that’s a shame.

So our time in Columbus winds down. I have been miserable everywhere I go, and happy too of course, but never quite so miserable, that I remember, anywhere as it seems to me I have often been in Columbus. I have good memories too, of course, and things I’m glad of. But I don’t think the miseries endured elsewhere add up to those of Columbus. I have through them made sense out of a lot of things, but once you do that you’re ready to move on. I’m glad to exchange the ills of Columbus for the ills of Philadelphia, whatever they may be. Time to spread the cowhide rug on a different carpet. I would not mind if Philadelphia turned out permanent, at least not yet.

Intellectual Isolation

The words “intellectual isolation” in a biography of T.S. Eliot provoked thought. Is it a legitimate designation? Is there such a thing? It has to be.

Jesus Christ came among us and lived as a peasant. Yet his intellectual hunger was seen when at the age of 12 he went to the temple and stayed behind, asking questions, seeking to understand, eager for it, no doubt enjoying the companionship. There is a companionship in learning, a collegiality however feeble. For me it is one of the great things I seek in learning, a community of learning, a sense of being at great things together. Perhaps it is strange to think of Jesus seeking it, but he could have studied the scrolls alone at home, couldn’t he? At least it seems to me to some extent he must have enjoyed the conversation of learning, found it necessary for understanding and beyond that sought the emotional satisfaction of something craved.

Perhaps it was attended with the growing misgiving of what the men he spoke with really valued, and that it was a false community. Back to the desert of intellectual isolation, back to Nazareth. He would be as he ministered a lonely man. In his maturity his most intelligent exchanges it seems were with enemies, not with his friends. He no doubt had satisfying conversations, but the accounts of his teaching his apostles give record their bafflement, not so much their understanding. He was amazed at the sluggish incomprehension of his friends–that tends not to be satisfying; one can detect in it a certain frustration. No wonder he was driven so often into the desert to pray, to commune with somebody at the level of some significance. That Jesus Christ himself should find solace in God the way we must! It is of course the most coherent thing, but still astonishing. And I also think that he didn’t quite have books the way we do today, didn’t have recordings to listen to, the works of art; no Borges or Scruton or Shostakovich or Pissarro. There the intellectual stimulus was about interpretation. And whatever you have, still conversation is chiefly sought. Which says much about prayer, and conversation with a person the discovery of whom satisfies the highest desire, and how one wants so much more than prayer, that best and worst of present means.

There is no career more strange than that of our Lord. Jesus Christ could not have experienced too much reciprocation, he had to give under the most extraordinary conditions. How hard it is to give. That’s perhaps more of what it means that it is more blessed. There are those who give cheaply, but there are those who give dearly, and it is the latter who know how blessed it is to be able to give, to really give, to truly give, to understand, to do it rightly, to have something to give, to have what is worth giving, I mean, and to refrain from demanding in return. To teach and do in intellectual isolation.

Reading and Reading Borges

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I took two things to read: Le Morte D’Arthur and Borges’s poetry. Morte D’Arthur had been a few years since the first read through, and it is a lot brighter on the second time. One spends a lot of the first time through trying to figure out what the main plot is, and the second enjoying the errantry. It is not a book with a straight through kind of approach. It is about the glory of chivalry, and how adventures must be met, and how Sir Arthur’s was the most worshipfullest court never ne man did know. I take it a book at a time, and that is just right. The thing unfolds gradually and entirely, quaint and authentic, splendid. There is also the pleasure now of a better consciousness of the matter of Logres from Charles Williams. It was no mistake to stick with Mallory.

Nor was it a mistake to bring Borges. I’ve been at Borges since before Colombia. One of my early problems with Borges was my limited Spanish. I had a slender volume of his poetry and I did not have a dictionary always on hand. I’d ask Colombians about words and received vague replies. And Borges has favorite words that have no precise translation always in English. The verb urdir for example, and the noun arrabal; he uses them all the time, and they have a range of legitimate English translations. I have never heard anybody use them in common speech. But I have persevered, and have the edition with opposing English translations that are sometimes not entirely unreliable, and my Spanish after Colombia is tremendously upgraded, and upgrading.

I’ve spoken Spanish all my life, but it isn’t my mother tongue, and it lapsed into some serious rust during the half of my life lived in the USA. I still have to think carefully sometimes when I begin to speak, and that’s not how persons naturally speak. It is difficult to speak when you’re thinking about how you have to say things, but good discipline for the mind. Anyway, the quality of Borges’s Spanish is inferior to none. He was an absolute master of the music of the sound and syntax of the language. I think I have his measure now, though, and I think so because when I played a recording of him reading his poetry aloud, I had his cadence and intonation down from reading his poetry. Not his pronunciation, of course, which I do not aspire to, but the cadence with which he delivered his lines.

He was quite the person. What kind of person? “Here displayed also are my habits: Buenos Aires, the cult of ancestors, the study of the German [Teutonic languages? Germanistica] language, the contradiction between time that passes and the identity which endures, my astonishment that time, our substance, can be shared.” And, “The writer’s is a curious lot. He starts being baroque, vaingloriously baroque, and at the end of many long years he can, if the stars are favorable, achieve not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity.” His own words, my translation; it is hard to get more characteristic of him than that. If I were to dream in the Borgesian way, I’d tell a story of a Christian who never told anybody he was one, never went to church or otherwise indicated he was, all the while being in secret the most devout and fervent Christian possible. That would be a Borges kind of story, and if anybody were to do such a thing it would be Borges. Borges, you know, never claimed to be a Christian.

He was that great paradox: a modest Argentine. There is true humility in his poetry, and I think it was due to his ability to love great things, to realize his insignificance before time and chance and the splendor beyond him of great matters. He was a great lover of literature, especially English, to the degree that he loved the sounds and wrote more than once about Anglo-Saxon, which he knew. He even attempted, failing however, to reproduce in Spanish the music of English and also German poetry, he says. Who even tries that? How many native English readers even hear it? He was interested in the metaphysics of existence, time and eternity, and fascinated with the symbols and the symbolic systems which mediate to us the permanent things. I think his best poem–though he himself did not apparently agree with me–is ‘Arte Poetica’, which made me cry on the Metro. And his statement about a modest and secret complexity above is not only quintessential, but penetrating. He was humorously penetrating, easy about making useful insights and statements without belaboring things. A lover of glory and irony; a seeker of that nameless thing beyond that which is named; a worthy man.
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It is interesting to read Borges in this city which is such a conglomerate of passing time. No doubt other older cities in Europe would serve better, but I am served well enough in one that speaks the language of the music of which Borges knew. He knew himself to be not a poet of English, though our language was his from the first. His art was done in Spanish, and the Spanish language is absolutely his. And not only the time cluttered City of Mexico, but the Metro itself, with the trains that are one continuous quarter of a mile corridor of still human beings rushed through the darkness, the mobs entering and exiting the exact same series of doors, the passing of unrequited time in unperceived advancing space, the succession of lights in the tunnel dimming and flaring and dimming again, the unending effort of the three-story-long escalators which circle dumbly carrying people out of the bowels of the earth from 5AM till midnight, all seem made for Borges.

And this: there was an abandoned building, falling into decay, the elaborate old facade facing the busy avenue. The sidewalk before it is wide and a great pedestrian thoroughfare. There are news kiosks along the side of the walk closer to the road, and statues, and lamps closer to the buildings–shorter lamps that light only the sidewalk. The pedestrians surge more or less between the kiosks and the lamps, but there are so many they go beyond the lamps, except for one place: where the decaying building is. This they avoid, unconsciously but definitely. Nobody goes up close to it. Isn’t that interesting? I don’t think the fear is falling elements of the ruin, but the smell of vagrants. But it is the kind of thing Borges would have made a poem out of: a deft little thing, the meaning of which you had to see in the reflection of the mirror he made it be.

Organ Grinders

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One of the prevalent sounds in Mexico City in the old section of monuments, parks and avenues is that of organ grinding. The instruments are not new: they’re mechanical not digital, claim German origin or Italian or both at once, are whistly and are stocked with tunes chosen for plaintiveness and Mexican familiarity mostly. The organ grinders have uniforms and often work in teams, one grinding while the other uses the hat to solicit contributions. They are pretty aggressive about soliciting, and usually the organ yields only one continuously repeated tune at any given place. Whether a succession can be obtained, or a different one arranged for, I do not know.

It is a good strong sound, and carries several blocks over the more muted sounds of today’s traffic, and the birds and of people going about. It is better than the orc sounds of digital production, and sweet, but I have very melancholy associations because I have seen them–twenty years ago–with monkeys, and that I associate with a rather lachrymose painting of one I saw before that, one of those terrible, sentimental, destructive pieces of non-art with nothing beyond it but only the unmitigated tragedy of an organ grinder, scratching his head, looking at a few coins in the hat, and his little monkey on the sidewalk with its tattered uniform and its sad, sad face. I don’t know why I should be prey to those cheap, false and manipulative things, but I am (I don’t even like to go to zoos and see caged animals), and when I hear the organ grinders in Mexico City that is the emotion the plaintive piping evokes. I feel pity for them, and I wonder if they labor with no assurance of a wage, and I wonder if I am being manipulated by what they do.

I would rather hear their sounds, but then because of the peculiar associations that arise, I would rather not. They are a Borgean element in the sound of this city for me, ambivalent. I gave one money when I was sitting on a bench reading and enjoyed the music for a while, but I don’t give them money when I just walk through the momentary aura of their sound. Can they live on that kind of arrangement? Does the city give them an inadequate basic wage which they then supplement with the tips they get? I would rather the thing were conserved, but is it less than decent labor and more like exploitation? All a human life is taken up in cranking a handle, as if it were a vocation. Is it that the whole thing could be motorized, that it strikes me pathetically? Then it would lose its point, though. What an odd instrument, and what an odd human connection, and what a fantastic place to have them around still.

I will have them more than I will not; in fact, I will have them precisely because I will not.

El Palacio de Bellas Artes

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It is a concert hall built around the turn of the century–XIX to XX, that is. It is domed and splendid, white marble and black metal windows and lamps. There’s a small park in front of it with four interesting statues at its four corners. These statues are each composed of three figures. The highest figure is male and is aspiring higher with sight and gesture. He rides a leaping pegasus and beside them is the female figure, somehow caught up in the rising action. They’re wildly romantic statues, it seems to me, allegorical of art and soaring beyond. Beauty mediates transcendence, they suggest, in raptures. They are detailed too: you can see the wrinkles on the sole of the female figure’s arched foot.

Speaking of romanticism, the adjacent central park with shady walks and many elaborate fountains has all kinds of statuary, but the one nearest the palace of fine arts is to Beethoven. Nothing cold-souled or miserably calculating about the approach to great music here; none of this be not too wildly enamored of the far! The motto seems to be further up and further in with din and puissance.

The rectangular palace culminates at the front with an oval dome high above stairs, entryways, columns, balconies, the triangular part crowning the facade the name of which eludes me, and which has two semi domes flanking it below. The dome is culminated in black metal with standing figures, a ball above them, and the top surmounted by the eagle and serpent of the lore of the city’s founding. The domes have coppery tiles, deep orange near the top and fading to pale yellow at the bottom, a striking thing. They had to set this dome apart, I guess, because there are so many church domes with their cupolas and the twin bell towers poking up all around. Though the palace could swallow three of the nearby churches.

I remember its interior from of old. A fitting place where artistic endeavor has been valid.

Sanborns

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Sanborns is a restaurant chain seen through urban Mexico. You will find them, as you will McDonald’s, in new buildings made to order and in the old ones as well. There is a splendid old building downtown, east of the palace of fine arts a block, south a block from another Sanborns that takes up another whole building, and located in the house of tiles–so called because the face of it has tiles. In the center of Mexico City you can just about find a Sanborns on every other block nowadays, and it is no wonder.

Besides being a restaurant, Sanborns is a mini department store. To get into the restaurants you usually have to navigate through the department store and the people buying. And the ever busy and solicitous employees. I think half the population of Mexico works at Sanborns. The cuisine in the restaurant is Mexican, of course, with specials from various regions cropping up.

The great challenge in describing Mexican food to Americans is the American concept of Mexican food perpetuated by that which is served to them as such in the USA. Let me suggest something of the difference by saying that the food served as Mexican in the USA is more about quantity, though it be more abundant in Mexico. Mexicans have an infinite variety of peppers and the sauces they derive from them. I have never yet encountered a dish here that included rice (though they exist), and while beans of course are an abundant part of the cuisine, they are by no means as monotonous or quite as ubiquitous down here. Mexico is a great vast country, and its various regions eat differently. One of the reasons I wanted to bring Katrina to the capital is that we have been in the north and the food is quite another. The jungle cuisine is different from the coastal and that different from the desert and that different from the highlands. One laments the expansionism of President Polk of old who reduced the Mexican territories by more than half and so limited the range of their cuisine. What have we reaped from that aggression? Better roads and more McDonald’s and Taco Bells and illegal immigrants to run our bad cuisine, and Doritos, alas!

I want to opine that Mexican food in Mexico City is humane, as Mexican food in the USA is not. It has a tradition, it has form, it has variety, it has established means, subtlety as well. It is rich, it is storied, it is in short a conservative cuisine. It has old roots, and old routes as well, and a popular base, for the folk eat flavorsomely, and the humble tortilla and all its derivatives comes not from the upper classes. What I want in the food I eat is a sense of cooking which has been valid, not organic kale; something that can be expected to be what it purports, not merely photogenic; something not simply expedient, but instead unpretentiously what it always has been through honest labor, before the gadgets and gimcrack cuisine of machines and the unnatural desires of fads.

And when this unambitious, humane cooking has its proper surroundings: no artificial music but the sounds of people’s conversations and of a fountain, the columns, the distant elaborate ceilings, the wrought lamps, the carved wood, the padded leather, the gracious stairs, the marble tile or parquet floors, the cloth napkins and placemats, the unostentatious–nay humble–silverware, the blue patterned crockery, the glass and the unaffected and solicitous service, when it has this, then what could one want more? It is not upscale, it is not trendy, it is not innovative, you can even get frosted flakes if that’s what you’d rather have, though the whole rest of the menu argues against it. I’m not talking about some stupid cult of simplicity–plain simple fare, homespun, blah blah blah, no indeed. But I am talking about a restaurant that knows what it is and does it honestly.

Sanborns actually apparently began in the house of tiles (built in the 17th Century and then house of the Counts of the vale of Orizaba for centuries). It was the first soda fountain in Mexico, begun with the Sanborn Hnos S.A. in 1907. A restaurant that has gone from strength to strength for over one hundred years can claim to be a place where the cuisine has been valid. Something of that is still retained, with the long counter that can seat about 50, and a counter in most of its downtown restaurants. I suppose when men cease to drink milkshakes, Sanborns will be threatened, or coffee. But till then . . . it has survived the tobacco ban and is vying to monopolize all polite, sensible eating in downtown Mexico City.

I will say the coffee is inferior, alas. But there are other things polite persons can drink, and all the fruit drinks are fresh. I am not sure all the world will find the place quite what I do, people’s tastes being so distorted from that which is true, but I can say that Sanborns in Mexico is at no loss for steady abundant sensible patronage.

First Impression

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It has to be the sense of conglomeration. Mexico City has so many things in it. It is as if once they get something they keep it and just add on. For example: in transportation they have a subway. They also have regular buses, and the smaller buses at one time called peseros and maybe still, which are privately operated public transportation, or were and are still around. Besides this, they still have buses that run on overhead electric wires along certain routes like trams of old, and now they’ve added the jointed buses on special lanes, with stations and high doors that only allow access from a platform, like the TransMilenio in Bogota, only here called Metrobus. And taxis in profusion, and to top it all this bicycle rental fad–which they have taken to decidedly.

You expect that sort of thing in architecture–that’s one of the great things about an old city, the buildings answer to all its ages. Mexico City’s buildings can date back to the sixteenth century. Here you have those: buildings on which repairs have been periodically carried on for centuries, buildings of rock, of concrete, of glass; hotels of all descriptions; towers being built, buildings abandoned on the higher stories, just facades behind the windows of which one descries gardens; old small buildings being assimilated into the face of an overwhelming tower; kiosks, awnings, sculpted columns and plate glass. You also get that in monuments: is there any city in the world more adorned with statuary and sculpture at so many intervals? Probably, but I don’t think Mexico City is far outdone by any. The monuments range from periodic statues along an avenue for blocks and blocks, to a bust set in a quiet street, to huge piled up things in a roundabout with pillars and fountains and archers. Equestrian statues, angelic, and abstract: all. Close to where we stayed is a more modern abstract one softened and familiarized by having its name in the diminutive: El Caballito. A few street down instead of a monument in the roundabout they have an old tall palm. We stayed in the central and historic part of the city, so there are more things, but they are simply big on decorating. Even the defeat and conquest of Mexico City is commemorated, with an enormous series of pillars dedicated to the boy heroes who stood to the last against the forces of Winfield Scott.

Stores, restaurants, stands, the pervasive smell of the tortilla under everything being cooked, fried, seethed, roasted, the white of bunches of onions, the sauces, the sizzle, the smoke ascending, the vendor picking the last brains out of a pig’s boiled scull, the glass counters covered with hand written menus or displaying varieties of food, the vinyl records, the claptrap wares, chips and fruit, enormous crowded bakeries, cloth goods and leather, the typewriter repair store, the shoe shiner, jewelry, whole buildings and continuous makeshift stands that narrow the sidewalks to a trickle.

What is it like to go down one of these narrow sidewalks? There is always a steady stream of pedestrian traffic. I appreciate that Mexicans are polite about passing other people, when they are conscious of the other person. If your way of walking is aggressive you’ll find you can make steady progress. If you are the kind to defer to readily, you’ll be waiting. The tacit rules for defering are otherwise in Latin America, but more polite in Mexico than in Colombia. You progress in single file, waiting to pass amblers, being overtaken by people in a rush darting about shrewdly. The stalls are full of food, and you see mounds of gleaming diced onions, diced cilantro, bowls of the various sauces and pickled chilies, the stacks of tortillas, huaraches, sopes, the cheese, the meat cooking or keeping warm in heaps at the endge of the cooking surface. You smell it all, of course, and under the smell of all the food the warm smell of the corn tortilla which is I think the only one they really do in Mexico City. People are hunched over eating, looking around as they chew, ordering, phone twiddling. There’s the beggars, somebody wheedling money out of the passersby with music, and the stalls of cheap goods. Walking along the street is kaleidoscopic, really, and the whole time you should be alert for uneven pavements. I always like going fast, filling myself with sights and sounds by glance and impression rather than poking around, stopping and observing. It is wrong to think there are objects of contemplation, only those suited to fleeting, observant impression. You can go slow if you want, but if you go quickly you will never run out of city here.

Thoughts upon Going again to the Exterior

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One is from where one is from, but in my case, I am from where I was given to understand I was, which was the USA, though the place I am actually from remains the Oriental Republic of Uruguay [hereinafter ORU] to which I retain absolutely no attachment formal or cordial. There I first saw the light of day–would it operate upon me, that austral angle of light, exciting primitive recollections suggesting something ancestral, something rooted? In the fourth year of my present exile, I departed the ORU and came away to the place of my origin: the USA [The States, as we say when we are not here, as in Minnesota they say The Cities or in California The Bay Area; or as is common to say in our part of the solar system, Earth].

Now I depart once again these United States, where half of my sojourn so far has been located and from which it appears I am. My passport tells me so. Yet whiter I go is a place I return to, a place of having been, where life has been valid, to which after some twenty-three years [hereinafter 23] I have the honor of setting foot on again in a good running shoe, watching its troubled evenings, hearing the sounds of the traffic and hawkers, perambulating its dirty streets and splendid, watching the waxing and waning of lights in the metro, feeling the exhalations of stale air pushed by the trains in those dry, crooked entrails of the city.

An Embraer jet from Columbus to Houston; a bit of a scramble in the sprawl of the Bush Airport and an A320 from there to the Benito Juarez Airport; a hope that a checked bag will arrive on the same airplane at the same time. The midnight should be quiet there when we arrive, the airport full of those unnecessary distances these become when deserted. A quick and easy trip along the empty streets. Perhaps a friendly taxi driver to whom I shall say I have not been here in 23 years, nor am I from here, but for now I have returned.

Jactancia de quietud

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Escrituras de luz embisten la sombra, más prodigiosas que meteoros.
La alta ciudad inconocible arrecia sobre el campo.
Seguro de mi vida y de mi muerte, miro los ambiciosos y quisiera entenderlos.
Su día es ávido como el lazo en el aire.
Su noche es tregua de la ira en el hierro, pronto en acometer.
Hablan de humanidad.
Mi humanidad está en sentir que somos voces de una misma penuria.
Hablan de patria.
Mi patria es un latido de guitarra, unos retratos y una vieja espada, la oración evidente del sauzal en los atardeceres.
El tiempo está viviéndome.
Más silencioso que mi sombra, cruzo el tropel de su levantada codicia.
Ellos son imprescindibles, únicos, merecedores del mañana.
Mi nombre es alguien y cualquiera.
Paso con lentitud, como quien viene de tan lejos que no espera llegar.

– Jorge Luis Borges, Luna de enfrente (1925)

El DF

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The Federal District is what Mexicans call Mexico City. It is an old place, it is a big place, and it is a grand place–or was when I was last there twenty years ago. Do you know on that recent list of top restaurants in the world, Mexico City’s restaurants figured more than once? Not that that’s where I’ll end up, far from it; but there’s a trickle down effect. When I wrote my sister she registered envy: real tacos al pastor.

Real tacos al pastor indeed, and Sanborn’s and tortas at La Castellana on the corner of Las Flores and Insurgentes (it may nowadays be called Revolucion, I think, anyway, I know the subway station), where you get the best sandwich in the world. That reminds me, the streets of the Mexican capital change names sometimes after a couple of blocks. Wonderful place to get lost in because so few things are numerically designated. Socrates street, Seneca, Miguel Angel Quevedo and San Jeronimo Lidice, such names you will find, but not the more plodding designations of Bogotá where they all have numbers, mostly go in sequence, and announce whether they run north-south or east-west or go diagonally.

We are paying to stay at the right location, two blocks from the palace of fine arts. Plenty of subway stations, plenty of the heart of downtown, plenty of shaded avenue and parks: most places worth being at within walking distance. I didn’t really drink coffee twenty years ago, so that is something to discover this time around: the cafes. I’ve always wanted to take my wife there, and now at the best part, when the rainy season is waxing, sending daily predictable showers between 3-4PM to 5-6PM, cleansing the air and the patient ivy, gurgling down the boles of hoary trees. I love that city when it rains, love how Mexicans do restaurants, rejoice in the urbanity of a large scale metropolis, can’t wait.

Not Quite the Chap

Reading T.S. Eliot’s letters is not quite like reading C.S. Lewis’s, or the collection of the persnickety Tolkien’s. C.S. Lewis seems to have made a point always to be as interesting as possible. I know his letter writing was a burden on him, and that’s no doubt in part due to his being so conscientious about it, not to mention prompt. Not that I’m saying Eliot’s strike one otherwise, but they’re more routine. In a way, his wife’s letters are more interesting, less reserved. Eliot, like Miss Fairfax, is rather reserved, one observes. The book would be considerably thinner were it only to include letters from Eliot himself, by the way, but one doesn’t find oneself complaining that it doesn’t.

Latin

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Tomorrow I shall accomplish caput XL of Wheelock, the last. It hasn’t quite been a year since I began in earnest. I’ve given this week over to charging through to the end, and it looks like the goal was reasonable. After that I’ll have to give myself to consolidation: I continue through the New Testament, which is not hard, I have various other things to do, and a Medieval Latin Reader to undertake.

Now for a person who is going to study history or anything involving Latin texts, the advantage of learning Latin is obvious. But what about kids in school? Where is the use?

Latin is advertised as congenial to the SAT scores, helpful with spelling and a more thorough grasp on English grammar. At least these three, and there could be more that elude me at the moment.

As for English grammar, it is worth having a grasp on. I think it is interesting and wise to understand it better. Not for being perceived as a person who is never incorrect and so avoiding the shame of being sometimes incorrect in the detail of things, but because of the help in thinking it provides. Still, you don’t have to learn Latin to learn English grammar well. You can just have a good English grammar teacher, pick it up intuitively, or learn another language, such as Sanskrit.

As for spelling, why persons get so agitated about misspelled words is a bit irritating. Nevertheless, things do become clearer with regard to spelling when you know a bit about the original languages; at least you don’t have to do so much bare and boring memorization of trivial details. But you can, and you don’t have to learn Latin to spell acceptably, or even superbly. And, let me point out, there’s spell-check on most computers, which is where most of us nowadays write.

I really deplore the incentive of learning Latin in order to score higher on one of these fake tests for the entrance to the overachiever world of so-called higher education. I see so little love of learning, real leisure (people’s idea of going to college is staying up late all the time in a bad condition for thinking and somehow accomplish acceptably still, which strikes me as idiotic), or of goals beyond the making of more money in all that test-cruncher culture of so-called higher education, that encouraging kids to start it sooner does not appeal to me.

So what reason is there to learn Latin? It is not a ready explanation. There is really no use to learning Latin, and if you are expecting me to make one, go away. But I think there is great enjoyment in learning Latin, not for the information conveyed, not because it is neat to know another language, not because there are easily discernible rewards for the practical parent who only cares that his child will not live in more reduced circumstances than the very ample he has been used to (in other words: today’s students work very hard to remain coddled, which is rubbish and no way to live).

Latin is bound up inextricably with Western Civilization, and as civilizations go, it has been a great one. What Latin will give you is insight, a way toward the soul of it: a great soul. It is like listening to organ music: deep, serene, going to regions remote from the scatter and clutter of life, full of transcendence. Latin has been at the heart of the shared consciousness that is Western Civilization, and learning brings you to a better place for appreciating that. It opens the doors of the cathedral, if you will, and ushers you within. There have been great civilization on this planet, but for me the most interesting, the best is Western Civilization. And in the teaching and learning of Latin many of the glories and splendors can be glimpsed, suggested, and eventually as you come over the difficult mountains of the learning of any language, you will find a whole new world, and a better one than many.

You know, I wasn’t that eager to enter into Latin last June when it was proposed to me. I was looking forward to Anglo-Saxon and making vague moves in that direction. I don’t know that I can say I would have undertaken it thoroughly, but I did have resources and a good resolve . . . anyway, Latin came by. And now it is beginning to look as if with a little more effort Virgil can be mine, St. Augustine, the rest. No mean thing, that. To me the two chief reasons to learn Latin are these: The Aeneid and The Confessions. These have been opening to me. The kid who has the rudiments of Latin is in a good position, when appreciation awakes in them, if they ever get a hint that appreciation can be, that they can undertake to cross the sound barrier and enter these venerable realms where taste has been valid, order has been stable, and true delight in something of lasting interest multiplied.

Hermeneutic of Wonder

I have been asked from time to time, about dispensationalism. It makes me wonder. Why is it so important to people either way–pro or con? To me it never was a major thing. Is there a future for ethnic Israel? What does it matter to me now either way? Won’t I be embarrassed to find out I have been wrong? But who will lack that kind of embarrassment, and why should one really follow the philosophy of making decisions predicated on the avoidance of future embarrassments of which one can’t have complete certainty in avoiding? I’m not going to waste my life on that tactic. But the whole interpretation of Scripture hangs on it! Well, if it does, then that explains why I’m not a dispensationalist, because I don’t think even as a hermeneutical issue it works out to that much, though I have known those who think so.

I was happy to operate as a dispensationalist within those circles while there; I didn’t leave because I thought it was dissatisfactory. I went along, and when otherwise I was happy to see if I could operate otherwise because I don’t believe the main point of Scripture ever was to give us a map of the end times, or even to tell us about Israel itself. To me it was St. Augustine of old who put his finger on the hermeneutical key to Scripture: Scripture exists to reveal God to me and to show me what he requires of me. Every part of Scripture has this in view, and anything beside this is of lesser importance. Does it show us something about Egyptian culture and learning? It does, but that is not what it exists to do. The details of Israel’s history are incidental as well, in that light. The literal interpretation is only the beginning of getting where you need to go. We can study Scripture to learn about first century Corinth, but believers can learn greater things.

That is why eventually I stopped believing the Bible gives us a map of the end times. They do not matter beside the four last things. Even if the end times should be mapped out in Scripture, a map of the end times is not the point: the point is that we should understand who God is and live accordingly. If there is no spiritual profit from the text to me, not indirectly as a derivative long after the main point, as a kind of by-product, then the interpretation has gone wrong. I believe that, and I really doubt that most Christians disagree about it. You can still get the hard-core dispensationalist, I suppose, who denies it (when they will ask if Christ is really in all of Scripture, for example), but they practice no winsome or reasonable dispensationalism–just one reduced by a madness of consistency driven by the meagerest level of information obtainable.

Not that I haven’t been exposed to the hard core. I have had a teacher tell me that because the author of Hebrews was “under inspiration” he did things with Scripture we cannot emulate. To me this is ridiculous. Silly idea of inspiration, ignorance of interpretation, fabulous notion of how the writers of Scripture (teachers in the early church) operated, ridiculous. I lump that in with the hard core because it seems a defense at all costs. One of the hermeneutical arguments advanced by some dispensationalists of more advanced hermeneutic than that above is that the meaning of the OT cannot be governed by the NT but remains stable so that the NT is interpreted in light of the Old. Now I don’t think reasonable dispensationalists will say the behavior of the writers of the NT is unusual because they’re “under inspiration” but the spiritualization (yes, spiritual meanings are primarily what I seek from the Word of God, they are not secondary) of the OT the NT authors do will be explained with elaborate explanations. And everybody has elaborate explanations, but the hard core of dispensationalism with two New Covenants and all that, never attracted me.

I believe the OT gestures in terms of a people and a land and a place at spiritual realities which are the real objects promised. I believe this because I’m a metaphysical realist, I believe it because I have learned to read poetry (I don’t say it to irritate, but when I’m asked by people in the circles I’m in what helped me switch I always say that learning to read poetry did), I believe that because it is to me the only obvious argument from wonder–that God intends more wonderfully than can be expressed, that all expression underreports the glory of the promise and cannot be taken literally, even the expression of great poets which is the only just way to report. The people of God are those who in all ages are joined to Christ, and there is nothing higher or greater or intended beyond that because it is a great, magnificent thing not to be degraded and chopped and dispersed (you will see that if the problem is with me, it is that I can’t imagine how it can be, there is no suggestion of a viable imagination available to me, and I lack all desire for one; nor am I a proselytizer: if you can’t see what I see and see it with what you do, splendid–I think something fundamentally different from me and my age is that I’m not a proselytizer–for example, I’m for my age an evangelism heretic believing there is no personal responsibility, rather a corporate one). Jerusalem gestures at that, a city, a true community beyond all physical possibility. It is a spiritual entity and whether or not it has a precise location in the world of objects to me is irrelevant. It will BE: already existing and yet hoped for in utter splendor, not concrete actuality.

It may be no more than an aesthetic argument, but to me those are the best. I have long deplored explanations which begin with: this just means or this is simply saying. What an ugly approach! I have to wonder about inspiration if it means this is just an accurate report, rather than this is a wondrous and wondrously true. I don’t want a plodding religion, so I’m not going to believe in that, and I think dispensationalism was easy for me to leave because I never was able to see it as wondrous: from the plodding to the sensationalized, no real wonder. Sensationalism is lethal to it because sensationalism is not something really interesting, but an artificial addendum. And plodding to me is lethal because what is divine about the plodding and the pedestrian? When our Lord walked among us, he went on water! If it doesn’t really mean anything that could possibly make a human heart rejoice to have to do with God, if I can’t see that, what good does it do me?

Tozer was a dispensationalist, I know, and I learned from him. You know what I learned from him? He wouldn’t get into the map of the end times, but preached what was not plodding and was full of wonder. What I found him doing as he preached through Revelation was ignoring dispensational concerns, making offhand remarks about not giving people answers to questions about who the two witnesses were, saying he hoped we didn’t have to go through the tribulation but was afraid we would as an aside, no more (thereby showing he was a mid-tribulational pre-millennialist, but the only way I found that out was an aside) and relegating the map of the end times to relative unimportance, speaking of spiritual realities: who God is and how we are to walk with him in the present. True nourishment, true gratitude for what I heard, true insight received, true satisfaction.

Let a dispensationalist arise who does not plod and does not sensationalize, who can demonstrate the importance not of literal interpretation, which is a base for all responsible interpretation as can be seen by the interchangeable use of books on hermeneutics and commentaries, and really depends on what you make of it to achieve more, but of a dispensational scheme not monotonously predictable (as if God’s predictions could be predictable, and yet that is what they’re reduced to) and the stifling of any heart-drawing wonder, and I would glance over with interest.

What is interesting? We live in a world stripped of the consciousness of what is interesting. That you scientists and objective blokes and dull-witted unsighted teachers, meager purveyors of that which is slight and no more. Bach knew what was interesting, poetry seeks to see it and is not dull to it, Scripture is interesting because it goes to ultimates, it speaks of God who is the heart of all interesting things, by whom all things that are interesting are made interesting, author of the wonder of being, who manifests his own awe-inspiring mystery in revealing himself at the depths of all creation. What is interesting is what is seen beyond the objects of sensual perception, beyond the facts, the literal facts. And for me dispensationalism was disposable because it failed to suggest anything beyond. Gates of literal pearls? How common. Just exaggerated, grotesque jewels like so much bling. You can cry out loud all day about the what Scripture literally says, but I walk away when they told me what it means because I cannot conceive it means merely what it literally says. It speaks of liminal space and an ENTRANCE–but that is all spiritual.

Still, it does not have to be that way. I could listen to the expositions I heard and walk away thinking otherwise, and all responsible hearers do so in any circles. However, I think for those to whom it doesn’t, there is no real difference; that for those dispensationalists dispensationalism doesn’t really matter. They only look through it to the glory, and the glory is all. If literal hermeneutics means don’t look beyond, then I am out. And if it doesn’t, how much important dispensationalism is really left? I’m not myself seeing a whole lot. So there you have it.

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, by C.S. Lewis

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Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early LifeSurprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis

Surprised by Joy is a work of autobiography. The memories that Lewis includes are those which have to do with the early influences that shaped him and then those that led step by step to his conversion. He was born into a Christian family and early in life practiced religion, but abandoned it during boarding school. As he was at this point beginning to develop intellectually, his abandonment of Christianity gave that development an atheist direction, but what Lewis found as he matured–both as a person and in his grasp of what he understood–is that the Christian persuasion kept impinging on his soul, till at last he surrendered.

It is an interesting story just for the autobiography of Lewis, who lived admirably. How his tastes developed, what he relished and how he learned to relish it are here mentioned and explained. I think is is valuable how he explains some of the things he loved and why; you learn a little bit to see things as he did.

I don’t know how unusual Lewis would have been in his time. Apparently Owen Barfield found the account of the conversion of Lewis rather more intellectual than the average person’s. If Owen Barfield says so, that is pretty good authority to go on; he was an educated man. What is amusing is that even in the story of his conversion, Lewis was making an argument. It was an argument in which he was defeated, but an argument nevertheless.

Once you have been led through the stages of his argument, you at least have an argument–and that can be useful. I’m not a great one for apologetics and arguments, but having been lead through the one Lewis makes, finding romanticism my ism, I am satisfied. I’ll take his explanation, perhaps at some point I can use it, though I don’t like those kinds of conversations. I’m not that critical a person, for one thing, and for another, I don’t think we really do things for reasons; we don’t come up with logical arguments in order to behave or to believe–we use them as excuses or as support for what we want, or better yet, clarification. If I meet a formidable argument I either want it or I don’t. In the end, arguments can’t be persuasive unless you want to be swayed by them. There are, of course, irrefutable arguments, and we ought to yield to those. I doubt, however, that we yield to them just because they’re irrefutable. Nor do I think there are as many of those as we sometimes think. That’s the part of persuasion Lewis has right: he makes me want what he is arguing for, he makes the case not just for its sense, but for its desirableness, and so I find I accept it. Because there are no reasons not to believe, but we will never find reasons persuade us.

If you have read Surprised by Joy you may take exception to this, but I think you’re wrong. Lewis is not showing that he was confronted by an argument he could not resist and so was reluctantly converted. No, he is showing the kind of person he was, and how providence operated on him from the beginning in order to make him clarify the desire for which he was made. Here is a controversial statement, but I’ll make it, and I think the book supports it: in an important sense, there is no such thing as conversion; there is only predestination.

That Which Nourishes

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Of course I dream of other worlds, but it is because I dream of them (catching sight in the distances of piled cloud on cloud with beyond the highest, whitest cloud a brightness remote and indescribable, or in the darkness of a still pool, suggesting yet deeper depths beyond: another world) in the present world–which is all I know–that this is made another wonder.

I think it is a wonder that in this world there should be a place like Philadelphia. Let those grumble who will, who only see what they can; I will love Philadelphia. There is a whole city block enclosed and given over to food downtown. It is a combination of a market in Cleveland to which I went when in sixth grade and the North Market in Columbus. The place in Cleveland was touted as a wonder back when I was still innocent in expectations, and was taken in while I still had growth to undergo, and so it was greater around me than nowadays it is. Rare and desirable goods were displayed in cases over which I could hardly see, and there were lights and smells unimaginable. These goods were available to us in all their beauty for no more than money–what a happy exchange! The North Market in Columbus is full of places to eat and specialty food shops; it is various and curious and worth just walking through. Put the two together, entirely taking the space of both and glorifying their ideas, and crowd the walkways, and add Mennonites and greater variety of display and you will get the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. People today were crowding the breakfast tables, chocolates and baked goods were piled, coffee was being roasted, tea reposed in cans, pretzels and pasta, steaks and bacon and poultry and seafood, barrels of pickles, sauerkraut and such stood ready. Not so much ethnic food, as in the North Market, though there was enough of that for me who hardly cares for it; more the delights of Pennsylvania, echt Deutsch. (I am a man of the West. All these fiddly ethnic foods–why don’t they eat meat and potatoes?) And the people in there sounded, chose, devoured; and the lights were welcoming and the abundance was cheerful; and altogether it was wonderful to see: one of the great sights of my life. A place suggesting real good-cheer, echoing below the cheer of heaven and the life to come.

Speaking of the life to come, I saw in the art museum the study of a scholar and wondered what kind of place the Lord has for me someday. I was thinking about it because this silly American ideal of being a handyman came up: and I am not (not a manual labor guy, you know?). Nor is gardening my thing, I’m no horticulturist. I have no wish ever in my life except by way of food to touch an animal, though seeing them from afar is interesting, though as a sausage more. What I am is a reader and a dabbler at writing, and a lover of those kinds of things to do with paper. I also love weather, and seeing the effects of weather on the world, specially the qualities of light you get–these I admire and enjoy the most, and its one of my chief reasons for going out of doors. I like artificial light as well, the light of candles and fires, and the effects of a proper atmosphere indoors on something. Cunningly lit places, with dimness and brightness I love. And so this magical market somehow seemed to me, though at this point I don’t know why (I am antipathetic to explanations that destroy wonder, so I don’t look for them. Nothing is more off-putting than some clod taking away the magic to leave one only in possession of a fact, as if that counted for more). Whatever awaits me in the world to come for which I long more than anything, I think something got into this market.

Perhaps it was the joy of discovering such a place, the undetailed observation that is the first impression, the happy extent of it, how unanticipated it arrived all stumbled upon. I do not know, but I think it is one of the best things about this wonderful metropolis.

Philadelphia

It has a worthwhile art museum. One needs days for it, and it isn’t the only museum around. They’ve taken pillars, and doorways, and even stained glass windows and embedded them in the room they’re displayed. I can now say I’ve stood before a Bosch. Really, it will take a long time to take in what’s on display. It’s a good place.

It has narrow, winding roads. Traffic surges from stop light to stop light. And the lights are usually red when you first hit them. The pattern of traffic is to take advantage of anything you can.

It has splendid placed to walk. Arboreal walks, tall timber, all kinds of trails and paths. I am going to get a lot of reading done along the Wissahickon Creek, I feel.

Just about every two blocks or so you’ll find an Italian or a Chinese restaurant. No chains, just mom and pop. Busy too.

And then there’s the splendor of downtown. I love walking around in great cities. Cities are where things happen. This city is a splendid old place. Everything is more than Columbus: more decay, more consideration, more monuments, more fine buildings, more miles of the hood, more traffic, more bridges, more nameless restaurants, more churches, more row houses, more skyscrapers, more bums.

A Drive East

Over the hills we sped today, under cloudy skies and from humid weather, through the cool, to the warm and sunny. The car ran steadily beside seas of tossing foliage, down curving, well-kept roads and all the way to where we could see the sea-faring ships being unloaded by the quays of Delaware. Now after its long run it rests in the arboreal twilight on the side of one of Philadelphia’s winding, hilly roads. The rain is falling, washing from the little car the many inadvertent bugs.

Nature

The truth of the flower is, not the facts about it, be they correct as ideal science itself, but the shinning, glowing, gladdening, patient thing throned on its stalk–the compeller of smile and tear . . . The idea of God is the flower: His idea is not the botany of the flower. Its botany is but a thing of ways and means–of canvas and colour and brush in relation to the picture in the painter’s brain.

-George Macdonald

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