Changes and Vicissitudes of the Unexamined Life

One of the differences between me and my wife is that she believes in progress. She believes our living accommodations can improve and should. I am doubtful of finding another place without worse problems. The human condition is a condition of misery, and it is vain to try and elude the misery—I think—and if you have less than more misery, you are probably doing well.

So I sat looking out of the wall of window viewing what there is to view from our fifth floor vantage: the umbrellas going in the park, the fog on the mountain, the roofs of Bogota. From the roof I can see even more: have watched the fires on the mountains, the lighting playing in the northwest over the Magdalena valley, the city twinkling, the moon making the sky luminous and making dark masses of the mountains, the golden haze, an apotheosis of light the sunset sometimes scatters on the mutable and impassive mountains. I miss the place already, and we haven’t even moved. But we are going to, and there is no telling what further misery we will bring upon ourselves by this act; it is the only way some people learn.

* * *
Our lease isn’t up till August, but I am entering into the resignation of it already, the way the prudent do, I fancy. Do I think we will find a neighborhood with the same kind of pizza place: warm loft, excellent pizza, friendly people, dimly lit? No.

The only constant is that whatever the drawbacks of a place, the drawbacks can’t work perfectly: they always fail to exclude some of the advantages. I have been thinking back on the various places in which we have lived: the small third story apartment in Columbia Heights with frost on the windows, heat in the summer and one of the best bathtubs we’ve had; the Mounds View bungalow with all the space, the yard and midnight bashes, the basement and the dryer; and our semi-underground cluttered place in Brooklyn Park, so full of books and coffee cups and cheer. We used to own a lot of towels when we lived in the USA, a lot of good table cloths.

Now we have light and exercise, we have built in bookshelves, three bedrooms and two full baths—though not with bathtubs. It is to be wished that the next place will have the missing fireplace.

* * *
The contemplation of the pastoral vocation is changing my reading. I have binged on fiction after a long streak without, and now I am ready for the change. I want to work through this list here: I’ve found some local Butterfield and Rieff that will come when I’ve done the second volumes of Johnson’s Lives and Barzun’s Berlioz.

I have found my Spanish theological vocabulary rather poor and frustrating. Actually, you would be surprised how limiting a limited vocabulary can be, at least I am. I prepared and studied for Job all in Spanish, and there are things that don’t even occur to me. When I go back to read in English and think about things, I find myself astonished at all I’ve left out: I don’t know how I can put it adequately, but the difference is like night and day. It is probably a good thing for now to proceed more gradually, the people are pleased and this kind of limitation brings our levels closer together, but this cannot continue.

I need to read theology anyway. If I’m going to be a pastor in a Reformed Baptist church, and it looks increasingly that this is where things are going, I’m going to have to know a thing or two about the covenant of grace and such matters. So I’m going to work my way into more things in these areas and especially try to read more in Spanish. Who knows, I might even take to reading Calvin after a while.

* * *
What I wonder is whether it will affect my grasp of English. At times in our lives the Lord puts his finger on various things and either takes them or seems to ask us to let them go. I’ve invested myself a great deal in my powers of English, however little it may seem, it has been at a considerable cost. It cost a great deal in terms of my Spanish, I have since learned, not to mention time, concentration and life. Obviously now what is required is something like that in Spanish. I’m afraid my English vocabulary will atrophy, that I’ll not find the same ease in reading Shakespeare I had acquired, that my expression will be curtailed.

It is a dilemma for me. I don’t know if you will understand this or not, whether it is a petty worry on my part or a legitimate concern. Still, it is a change and since I do not believe in progress, since I believe in the fragility of everything but the environment, I fear the worst. I feel that I’m going to have to give up what little I’ve attained of a cultivated and heightened consciousness and to exchange the medium of English for an untried and perhaps inferior medium.

As far as I know, Spanish letters never even went through a Romantic period. They have no literature of wonder that I know of. Borges is not part of a long tradition, he’s a solitary, revered phenomenon. It is no doubt in part due to my ignorance, but it seem like a cold, bleak room (not without it’s glimmers. I have found that Coleridge may perhaps have been right on the majesty of Spanish, the book of Job I’ve found better in Spanish than then the KJV, oddly and unexpectedly).

The finger of the Lord seems to be upon my grasp of English and he is asking me if I am willing to relegate it to comparative neglect (it’s not like I’ll quit reading and using English, but I might have to quit devoting so much of my energy to it). Giving it up is hard, but giving up things in these circumstances, however painful, is the only real way to truly possess them. The point is communication, after all, and it looks like I may need to devote myself to more than an adequate grasp of Spanish.

* * *
And so I feel my life changing around me, and it is an ominous feeling as I do not believe in progress or have much of the insidious happy happy cheerful cheerful religion of the natives of the USA. No doubt the road before me entails a lot of misery. We can’t avoid though: if you avoid the way of misery in this life of tragedy you will also avoid all the glimpses and flashes of glory. In some den of an apartment I will no doubt find the cockroach of enlightenment, a supralapsarian dispensationalist with whom I will share a love of Yeats and Brahms, and we will debate in sonorous and unending Spanish sentences of desultory, copious punctuation.

And really, who wants to live otherwise?

5 thoughts on “Changes and Vicissitudes of the Unexamined Life

  1. I understand.

    Your tone is very much in line with the elegiac one in Tolkien and Old English.

    Don’t think of it as losing your English. Think of it as gaining Spanish and expanding your way to define the world around you, if for no one else, for yourself, which is very valuable.

    I have lost my ability to write academically in Spanish (which might come back if I started doing it), but I have not lost my ability to understand reading at that level and the language all comes back when I do.

    Also, it might be a while before you get into it, but you might find medieval Spanish much more enjoyable than contemporary. Spanish is old, too. I just think you have not been exposed to it properly.

  2. Aquinas would agree with Deborah. Things in the habit of the intellect (especially if it’s a long habit) last a long time even after they go out of actual use.

    I miss the cluttered apartment semi-underground.

    Will this mean a new “Chronicles of Fundamentarlia” in Spanish?

  3. “Lo que bien se aprende, no se olvida,” as that marvelous woman my piano teacher who managed to teach me a lot about culture even though I did not learn a lot about playing the piano used to remark.

    That last question is very perceptive, though I don’t have an answer to it. When things change, I have found, the result is hard to anticipate.

  4. “Hay que hacer de tripa corazón.” I just wanted to say that, since Don Quixote reminded me of it. You would like Don Quixote.

    I’m so glad Aquinas agrees with me. I’m sure that’s where I got it.

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