Brisbane: A Novel, by Eugene Vodolazkin

Brisbane has to be Vodolazkin’s most ambitious work so far (at least for those of us who have to use translations). It centers on an artist, a musician who plays the guitar. As the story opens, the two themes Vodolazkin wants to think about are presented: life and art. We encounter them as problems, and this creates the novel’s tension. The artist is developing physical problems that take the edge off his art. We begin with life’s problem: old age. And we see that the end of art as the beginning of the end of life.

The problem of life is, of course, how to live it–art being one of the more important aspects of the solution. We make art because we want to live. Art exists for the sake of life, and not the other way around. Right from the start Vodolazkin gives us a stark statement of his theme in the mouth of Gleb, the protagonist, who as he meets his biographer, complains of former biographers that: “There’s no understanding that the musical stems from the human.” In other words, the problem of art, the theme of all art, the purpose of art is fundamentally the quest of life. Life is anterior to art.

In order to twine his two themes, Vodolazkin raises two questions: who is this guy and, what will he do? And so the story is interleaved, leaping back in time to the fortuitous development of the artist while interspersing the deliberative approach to the problem of the present. As we get to know Gleb, he deals with the greatest intersection of life and art: the way one faces death.

Vodolazkin shows that just as life must surrender to God’s providence, art must surrender to life, and be of it and in it. He builds a pyramid that way, an integrated hierarchy at the top of which is that worship which in Soviet Ukraine Gleb acquired from his grandfather. Vodolazkin knows how to put God into a book rightly, rather than in a forced or propagandistic way. He knows how to dramatize the quiet transmission of tradition; it is one of his greatest strengths. I think Vodolazkin has always succeeded most at neither avoiding nor exaggerating the inevitable presence of the incomprehensible in life. In a way, divine incomprehensibility manifested in creation is a fundamental theme for Vodolazkin. Divine incomprehensibility integrates all the mysteries that make life mysterious and without which it would not be life or, as he desires to point out particularly, have art.

Brisbane is a great novel, perhaps eclipsing Laurus. Even the title of the book contains the mystery, artfully played to great effect, the way he did with The Aviator. I have no doubt that Vodolazkin belongs with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn in the pantheon of great Russian literature.

Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn wants to identify the problem with various contemporary approaches to life. Philosophy is the art of living, after all. It is not so much a way of thought as a way of thought that is espoused because it offers best way of life. She begins with all kinds of examples and summaries of contemporary approaches in the introduction. Then the book proceeds with a chapter on Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and finally Platonism, before drawing a conclusion that handily dismisses Aristotelianism. (Aristotelianism is, as any true Platonist will tell you, a kind of truncated Platonism. I love how neatly she does it.) She is concerned that contemporary society is in the disarray it presently manifests because we have lost the art of living, and believes the solution is for it to be informed by the best philosophy.

What is unusual about a book explaining and evaluating ancient philosophies is how much of contemporary culture of all sorts it contains. If you come to the book for the philosophy, what you have to get through in the introduction and early part of each chapter can be a chore. She describes books and films, but in a measured, scholarly way that is as lively as that approach can be expected to be, but no more. And there is always the problem that classifying movies and books according to ancient philosophy shows how much the former have to be stretched so that they can usefully be explained by the latter. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is easily representative of the gnostic mindset, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is used for Stoicism, Ryan Murphy’s Eat Pray Love (2010) for Epicureanism (along with other cooking-oriented movies and shows), and Zach Snyders’s 300 (2006) along with an awful lot of Foucault for Cynicism. A contemporary Aristotelian (a Thomist, say) reading the book might be relieved to see there is really no movie pairing for the Peripatetic school (Babbete’s Feast springs to mind). Pairing Platonism with Nolan Ryan’s Interstellar (2014) leaves this Platonist with mixed feelings. Is the fifth dimension in the wormhole love? That is quite an allegorical reading of the film. But if you allow it, the rest flows. Why do it, why include these artifacts from the popular culture of this new millennium? Because she wants to point out how these ideas live on. This is not a book about how these ideas are distorted, though there is some of that, but about how the territory of philosophy was mapped out in ancient times. Those maps are still more reliable, and reliable enough to locate even such recent artefacts.

The strength of the book is the concise description of each approach. There are far too many takes, for example, on the gnostic phenomenon which approach it with an agenda. There is some modern phenomenon that people want to have labeled gnostic, and so the ancient phenomenon is described with that target in view so that the label can be affixed and the trigger immediately pulled. Lasch-Quinn approaches each option correctly, and her evaluation and critique of Gnosticism is informed and accurate (she has, after all, read Plotinus). So is her much briefer critique of Aristotelianism—but I may have mentioned that already. In fact, they all are, and as the chapters continue, the book makes an interesting argument for the last standing philosophy, that of Plotinus.

Unusually prominent in a book of this kind are Foucault and Plotinus. That Foucault should figure so prominently is off-putting but, in the end, necessary. Foucault as the found of endless cynicism is not that hard to accept. Lasch-Quinn is not an admirer. My only complaint here is why did she not just deal with him Aristotle-wise? As if proving that Foucault were a copious fount of cynicism were a difficult thing. But she fixes the balance by talking long and hard about the great and admirable Plotinus. This is as unusual as it is welcome. More Plotinus will do this world a world of good. If to read so much about Plotinus one has to wade through equal parts on Foucault first, I will always in the end accept this somewhat Stoical method. The result is that clear views of Platonism that distinguish it from Aristotle’s truncations, the Gnostic distortions (she approaches some of this through Albert Camus’ rejection of Harnack’s Hellenization thesis, which approach was entirely new to me), from Cynical substitutions, Stoic swerves and reductions, and from the Epicurean delusion.

If all you want to do is find out why each of the discarded approaches should be discarded as a way of life, this is your book. If beyond that you want some useful philosophical distinctions and worthwhile mental stimulation while being exposed to a nearly overwhelming variety of research in every sort of library from the most academic there is to Netflix, this is decidedly a book for you.
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Material complaint: I wish that Notre Dame had not bound this book quite the way they did. It is bound with undergraduate library consultation in view. Sturdy, heavy, unwieldy, at over 350 pages it is best read at a table. You can hold it, but when your chapters are clocking it at 50 pages, and you have philosophical content, you will find yourself wishing they had used lighter paper and bound it in covers somewhat less-than-bulletproof. Perhaps they believe most people will simply read an electronic copy.

Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism, by Craig A. Carter

I think Carter’s second step in hermeneutics, after exegesis contemplation, is the one that we are not trained for. That’s when most read commentaries, isn’t it? We have been told to avoid things like allegory and sensus plenior, and Carter’s argument is that by doing so we forfeit the inheritance of theological interpretation. The problem with that is that we erode the inherited theology that rests on the hermeneutics of theological interpretation. I can tell you his argument is right having lived it.

The argument Craig Carter makes is that interpretation must be wiser than simply to function on the basis of modern prejudices, that you need to learn to meditate. And this is a skill that Carter is urging on us, in one way, by consulting the more ancient commentaries.

Because that is what they did.

The problem is that in order to meditate, you need a grasp of metaphysics, because that is the realm of meditation, and you need the guidelines of theological formulation because there is a cumulative reserve of correct interpretation. It is a problem because metaphysics are nowadays considered irrelevant, and we are trained to approach the text without that cumulative reserve of correct interpretation.

He further believes the problem is a problem with our whole civilization and traces it back to nominalism and voluntarism, and he believes these bring on the anti-metaphysical posture of the Enlightenment, which leads to an inadvertent recovery of the mythological pagan cosmology, which, as theologians adapt to that attitude, leads to theistic personalism and theistic mutualism, which is being taught in Evangelical seminaries such as the ones I have attended. (In the first seminary I attended, we were required to read both Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences and told that God might actually be in time. Fortunately, though I resisted him early, Richard Weaver won out. I must say that in that unexpectedly compendious place I was encouraged, with the aid of A. W. Tozer, into the reading many works of mystical devotion, which opened for me a more contemplative approach. In the second seminary I attended, in some ways less compendious, they used God with Us as a textbook till, I understand, they more recently were buying up the remaining copies to pulp it due to the ecclesiastical controversies it caused.)

Modern exegesis is about letting the meaning arise naturally from the text, rather than using the text as an entrance to a higher reality, as it was for Origen of old. The problem that Carter sees is that meaning does not arise. It is more accurate to say that we need to ascend through the text to a meaning to be found above. Or we supply it from dubious sources, smuggled in.

Modern exegesis foregrounds the mind of man, and Craig Carter argues that hermeneutics should be about understanding the mind of God, contemplating God. Not just the mind of God as a man of the 6th century BC understood it (although that may be better than the mind of God as a man of the 21st century AD understands it) but the mind of God as God reveals it beyond the temporal and cultural limitations of each writer’s circumstances, beyond any devising that from man arises.

I think he is strongest on his sections on Isaiah, and I think, while I don’t too much disagree with him, that he is weakest in his broad descriptions of the history of Western Civilization. He quotes the great Christopher Dawson, a man who was a great historian because he read and thoroughly digested exhaustively the primary sources for the history he was doing. Craig Carter has not done quite the same. But he has done a great deal, and there is a great deal of good in this book. I wonder if he isn’t doing something similar to but deeper than what David Wells was doing way back in his trilogy from the 90s. I look forward to the final volume.

Deeper Implications

I’m enjoying Dominic Legge’s book on the Trinitarian Christology of Aquinas. It was promoted a while back by Craig Carter. He was trying to think of a better book on the subject of Christology by a protestant, but couldn’t come up with one. I don’t know why we need one though, unless we don’t think of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) as our common heritage. I would rather we did, and would make the argument from history that we should. Not that I think Carter disagrees. He’s fighting the fight for abandoning the rash abandonment of the perennial theology of all the former ages of the church. He wants to recover the metaphysical certainties of natural theology that structure our careful and advanced theological formulation. He calls this philosophical theology the great tradition of Christian Platonism.

One of the funniest things (of many) that Roger Scruton said was when he observed that he considered the Enlightenment a kind of light pollution. We all live with physical light pollution if we live around other people, because we all agree that it is better to be able to see the ground nearby than to be able to look above and to the stars beyond. It is a practical thing, and shows one way in which our concern for safety and well-being is not focused on distant and cosmic determinations. Which practical considerations are probably fine for the kinds of considerations that go into having people live close to each other. The philosophical problem of the Englightenment, however, is another thing. The philsophical assumptions of modernity light up immediate rather than transcendent considerations, and it turns out that theology is improperly illuminated when that happens. This change in lighting is not always so apparent, but has been increasingly dawning on theologians. And the insights of gazing at the stars–the time invested, the skill to draw proper conclusions from so doing, the opprobrium of not being practical in this age–turn out to be pretty important for navigating the ship of theology. The Engligtenment, we could say, lit up the seas around the ship, but it turns out that being able to see the waves and billows is not as important as being able to recognize the guiding stars.

The reason Aquinas gets singled out–besides the fact that he is simply one of the greatest theologians God ever gave to the church–is that in continuity with Aquinas we are in continuity with the stargazers of all the ages of the church prior to him. He labored in times when not even the clouds of nominalism had arisen, and there’s much to be said for the philosophical clarity of that moment. We should also remember that the difficult doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were contributed to by Aquinas. Positive contributions to orthodox theology are nothing less than effects caused by the Holy Spirit, and should be remembered and valued as such.

We need the wisdom of those who gazed on the stars because, as we can tell by the present lighting, the nearer waters roll and the tempest still is high. We need their charts in the high seas we navigate. Read Legge’s book on the Christology of Aquinas. Read, for that matter, Aquinas.

The Way to Frame Things

I started reading One Click America. It does what many books seem to be doing these days, starts with a story that draws you in before it starts preaching at you. The introduction won me, and I want to keep going. But when it started preaching at me I noticed something. It uses inadequate categories.

Here is the thing. If the ways of understanding things in the past have been rejected, then you are going to understand things in new ways. The point of doing this would be the assumption that new ways of looking at things are more accurate. My problem is, I am increasingly sure they are not. Take the instance in this book. It is a book that bangs on about inequality. Inequality is how it classifies the problem, and so that will frame the conclusions and solutions. But when I read what is being described, I am not persuaded the problem is inequality. It is disorder. You can see where the categories align: when things have been ordered, then everybody will have the same. It is such a robotic approach to the problem, though. There is no depth to society when you view the fundamental problem not in terms of order but in terms of equality. As if society were spread out on a table, rather than occuplying the dimensions of the world.

Would greater familiarity with ancient and perennial wisdom not take more dimensions into consideration?

McGilchrist

Iain McGilchrist these days is popping up on my personal notification network (Twitter). It is happening because he is releasing a two-volume magnum opus. Many people would want to know what he says just because of the interesting title of the book, let alone the subject, let alone the author. McGuilchrist has earned his reputation; he has already written a work widely considered at least very important if not crucial. (Magna opera?) If that earlier work turn out not to be a classic, it will take a while for the world to be disabused.

His name either is one of those that always sounds familiar or had come up in some connection previously. Do you know what I mean? It is either the kind of name that makes you feel you always knew it, or you have heard it so much in ways you no longer remember that it feels that way. When Jordan Peterson interviewed him, I was glad for some information on the person. They talked about the then-forthcoming book, and that was interesting enough that I got The Master and His Emissary.

This book reminds me of two smaller books. Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances and D. E. Harding’s The Hierarchy of Heaven & Earth. Both of these are extraordinary. The first prepared me for the Copernican revolution that Platonism is against the Nominalist assumptions of modern perceptions. The second is another such Copernican revolution on the perspective of our sense of scale. Now what McGilchrist is doing in his book is bringing observations about the mind back around to neuroscience and trying to explain a Copernican revolution with regard to the brain. (I had no idea the brain is such a complicated organ. It is difficult to wade through the neuroscience, but now that I’m in the second half of the book, worth it.)

In his celebrated earlier tome, McGilchrist offers explanations, which are not intended to be exhaustive, but add another significant detail to the history of ideas. I offer you a tantalizing example:

“Our feelings are not ours, any more than, as Scheler said, our thoughts are ours. We locate them in our heads, in our selves, but they cross interpersonal boundaries as though such limits had no meaning for them: passing back and forth from one mind to another, across space and time, growing and breeding, but where we do not know [my emphasis]. What we feel arises out of what I feel for what you feel for what I feel about your feelings about me – and about many other things besides: it arises from the betweenness, and in this way feeling binds us together, and, more than that, actually unites us, since the feelings are shared.”

I’m at least looking forward to all the podcasts his new book will elicit.  

Farrowing

The intriguing Douglas Farrow is the author of the stupendous takedown published in First Things of David Hart’s treatise on universalism. What an interesting public venue for that engagement. I have not read Hart’s treatise, but I have enjoyed the annoyance it occasioned online. I also think Hart is intriguing; it is hard to think of a more interesting book than The Experience of God. He and Farrow seem to me to be real heavyweights of theological disputation. Of course they hit a lot harder than the featherweights! Don’t you think there is a grand magnificence to watching the heaviest blows being calculated and landed, regardless of the side you are on? Besides his ability to go to war, you will also notice in Farrow’s bio the puzzling statement that he is “sometime holder of the Kennedy Smith chair in Catholic Studies.” What speech act is going on with that?

I do not know at what point Farrow swum the Tiber, or indeed why. He also has a lament of the Pope’s latest legislation on First Things. First Things has been walking a tightrope all through the pontificate of a Pope named after a barbarian tribe, struggling to remain within the bounds of loyalty and deferent disagreement. That Farrow is accorded the response to the latest encroachment on that particular space tells you something. I gather he was at that point on the other side of the Thames. I just read his Ascension and Ecclesia, which takes Calvin’s view of the supper as the point of departure. I am not sure that it would have caused perplexity to be known for such a book and then swimming the Tiber, but that also is a bit intriguing.

Farrow is a penetrating thinker and a dense and acerbic writer. One of the benefits of reading Ascension and Ecclesia (which is cheap because it is now outdated) is that any subsequent book you read will be so much easier. The argument is difficult indeed, depends on making much of Irenaeus, disparaging Origen, and eventually . . . a takedown, yes, of the whole tendency of modern theology, including of course all of its major proponents. (That’s actually where I get bored; 20th century theology consistently fails to intrigue me at all.) It may be that Irenaeus is to be rated over Origen as a theologian, though I am somewhat dubious. Still, even if you don’t agree with Farrow, following his arguments—let alone going up against them—is a salutary and invigorating activity. He is definitely not among the Christian Platonists, but then, it is good to have intelligent opposition. Christian Platonists can be grateful for any intelligent opposition since at least the adjectival part if not the substantive is notably rare.

I obviously enjoy Douglas Farrow. I wrote to my sometime advisor asking him how he rated Farrow, and the reply was that Farrow was top notch, worth reading even when you disagree. It is good advice.

The argument of Ascension and Ecclesia is to highlight the importance of a right understanding of the doctrine of the ascension. This doctrine shapes ecclesiology. His argument is that getting the ascension wrong has warped the identity of the church and diluted its mission. A substandard interpretation of the ascension of Christ as been used to “dissolve Jesus’ humanity” and one of the knock-on effects of this is to render the Church irrelevant.

What did the ascension accomplish? Where is Jesus? How do his physical absence and mystical presence define the church? And once you answer the question of space, what about time? It is worth winding through all of Farrow’s argument in order to find out. He has published a more recent book for those whose research is more efficient than mine: Ascension Theology. I understand it is more accessible and no doubt more complete.

Living Authors of the Unexamined Life

There are quite a few gems in the literary world at this moment, and I wanted to list them. I have been thinking of cancelling out of Twitter. The problem is the discoveries I would miss. Should I subscribe to a literary quarterly instead? Is there one that’s worth consulting? I don’t know that the literary crowd always identifies things correctly. I wonder if things aren’t missed.

Is it that I’m idiosyncratic? Perhaps. Here’s what I’ve gained mostly in the past decade that I’m grateful for in terms of fresh novels.

Donna Tartt. This American author goes slow, a book every ten years or so. Her first book, The Secret History, is a rejection of the pagan allure of learning the classics. It is a rejection of that which looks down on Christianity from learned alternatives. In that way, it is a restatement of Augustine’s City of God. It is an intriguing, off-putting, gradual, explosive, and amazing book.

Her best book, I think, is The Little Friend, in which she tries something similar to the first but with a different revelation. Tartt is most like Flannery O’Connor in this book: it is about people in the raw, the strange a violent pulse of life in most anywhere and yet particularly that place of America.

I think her most difficult and least rewarding book is The Goldfinch. It goes to the city, to New York and Las Vegas, and this America is not the America of The Little Friend. It is nevertheless intriguing to follow her complex plots. One encounters characters in so many varieties. She is always going somewhere, the climax is worth waiting for.

Her style does not pander to contemporary expectations. She writes well, but not to draw attention to her skills. She writes in order to demonstrate how character is revealed in action.

Lev Grossman. Grossman, let me be clear, is a bit of an orc; he’s endeavoring to practice arts not entirely of disenchantment but of less rapturous and chastened enchantment. He is writing to disabuse those who were enchanted by Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. He has a new book out, one targeted at children, unlike his Magicians series, which perhaps will be more mild.

Grossman is a spectacular American writer. He can do things, amazing things with setting up scenes, placing details, understands dialogue, all that kind of stuff. He is a very good writer, and he figured out something about something that intrigued him in The Magicians which he explored thoroughly. He is also making a serious point. It is not a point I entirely agree with, but it is interesting to wrestle with. I do not recommend Lev Grossman to most people I talk with about books, but I really, truly enjoy his books. I haven’t read his latest yet.

Eugene Vodolazkin. Russian literature lives on in Vodolazkin. We have to read him in translation, but the translations work well. He brings his readers on serious journeys that illuminate something of the strengths of Russian culture. He is both building and retrieving in a ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ kind of way. There are three of his books available to us in English.

Soloviov and Larionov is one of his earlier works and intriguing, but it doesn’t quite add up to the other two. It plays with the themes of history and memory and Russian particularity. Still, I think this book is more useful for understanding Vodolazkin than as a novel on its own, though it is good. It anticipates Laurus without quite succeeding the way Laurus does.

Laurus is his masterpiece. It explores the Russian Orthodox phenomenon of holy folly. It is set in Medieval Russia, mostly, and is miles and miles away from most of our experiences. And yet it is close too, because Vodolazkin wants to open that up to us and succeeds. If you have any acquaintance with the history of the ancient Christian church, that of the fourth and fifth centuries, there are echoes in this of that: the undisciplined and spontaneous eremitical impulse that leads into monasticism. This book in our lifetime has signally enriched the literary heritage of this world.

The Aviator is entirely different and as intriguing. Just figuring out why it has that title takes the whole book, and it is a discovery worth making. The book is hard to describe without giving away the interesting discoveries that compel the reader’s interest. I have yet to read it a second time in order to see what it is like without them. If it is a worthwhile book, however, it will be the richer for having been read once, and so I am looking forward to it. It is about Russia, it is about Russians, it is about what there is in the subterranean Russian that existed long before and emerges after the Communist interlude.

Paul Kingsnorth. An English author, Kingsnorth is the most challenging writer in this list. His ability to do things stylistically is his great strength, which means the reader has to master his stylistic innovations. These are considerable. That he did not get a prize for his first book is a sign that the system for prizing is broken. The Wake is set in England after the Conquest and is written in an approximation of Old English that requires intense effort for a few pages to master (reading aloud, as when learning to hear poetry, is recommended). It is worth it. It is illuminating, in fact, how much Kingsnorth accomplishes. He takes us into the consciousness of an Anglo-Saxon landholder: his bitterness, his failure, his demons, his deep pagan roots. It is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read.

The Beast is the second book, and it is set in our time. One can see the stylistic antecedents from The Wake in this one; it is not, of course, written in a adapted Old English style. It traces the mental deterioration of the subject as he is alone. Yes, another eremitical kind of thing, this time with admiration of St. Cuthbert. It is a shame Kingsnorth’s sympathies are more with the pagan than with the Christian past (in contrast with Vodolazkin), but there is still this lucid comparison at the heart of the novel that is favorable to ancient Irish monasticism. It is also an extraordinary book in communicating the consciousness of a man reduced to a feral state and wrestling with his demons in a compelling way.

I have not read Alexandria yet. It is set in the future. Kingsnorth used to be an environmental activist and is still thoroughly pessimistic: the calamity, he believes, is about to strike any moment. Because he became disillusioned by the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of activism, while at the same time meeting many of the kind of people who still live a hardscrabble life where volatilities in the ecology have greater impact, he expresses a desire for an old pagan connection with nature and its forces. I find it an intriguing impulse, one that I think with the upheavals our machines are causing is likely to increase, rather than diminish.

Susanna Clarke. Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a feat. We live in a world of proliferating genre fiction, much of it trivial or intolerable. But just because we are awash in a sea of mediocrity doesn’t mean that out of it objects strange and rare cannot emerge. In fact, I think in some ways the sea of bad stuff is to be expected and has to be sorted through. If people weren’t trying and failing, there would be nobody trying at all. I don’t think it is realistic in any age to expect the majority of what is attempted to succeed. Susanna Clarke earns her success through long and patient labor, and she does not settle for less.

What prompted this whole outburst from me is that I’m in the middle of her third book. The second was The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which is nothing but a collection of short stories continuing the time and place of JS&MN. But in Piranesi she has delivered something different that is still in keeping with her extraordinary abilities. She really wants to write in a remote and oblique way about religious themes, and their absence from our world. I ought not to stick my neck out too far, being where I am in Piranesi, so I’ll say no further at this point. It is looking to be a triumph though.

It makes me glad to live in times when unanticipated joys are still springing forth. This list is not entirely of the last decade, but it is mostly. I think that’s something. And to think my view is no doubt partial!

The Individuated Hobbit, by Timothy R. O’Neill

I think the book is a hidden gem. I don’t think there are recent editions, though the early edition sells for over $100. The quiet, growing field of studies of Tolkien certainly holds its surprises: a treasure trove, a dragon hoard, among which this one was for me quite a find.

Timothy O’Neill published this work not long after The Silmarillion was published. He had, therefore, enough raw material to go on and had, moreover, quite an original idea. The idea was to present a sketch of psychological approaches first, select the Jungean next, and use this to explain the power of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. To explain, in fact, all of Tolkien’s published work. He succeeded.

That may seem off-putting to some, especially if there is no interest in Jung to begin with. If there is, at the very least what you get, if you are a devoted reader of Tolkien, is a way to understand the Jungean view. You get an explanation keyed to the figures and circumstances that you have already mastered. It is a quick way to explain something complicated since you already have a complex frame of reference which serves for an analogy. So at least this book does that.

But it also explains various harmonies and contrasts in the work, making it more intelligible. You don’t have to accept the Jungean view to do so either. I have read somewhat in the scholarly literature that attends The Lord of the Rings, and I have never yet encountered a better explanation for Beorn and Tom Bombadil. It really is extraordinary, and they are not the only LotR characters illumined by this book, not even the most illumined. His expression clear and witty, but that is probably owing to the fact that O’Neill’s grasp of the cosmos of Middle Earth, the point of each of the enormous list of characters is firm and clear. His is not a muddled mind. The book at least offers an interesting meditation on a beloved subject for those who desire that, like a good conversation with another person who cherishes anything Tolkien.

His last chapter is an apology for the whole enterprise of subjecting something so wonderful to a Jungean analysis. O’Neill is fascinated with the mythical dimensions that Tolkien’s work achieves, and the analysis explains something. It explains exactly what Tolkien wanted to do. Tolkien was a student of mythical literature, specially that of the northern world, the myth mediated to men by bards singing in mead halls or on firelit beaches under the stars, strumming their harps and singing in chants that rose to wails. Tolkien wanted to give what those things gave to ancient northern men to the generations that sit in arm chairs in houses with glazed windows and indoor plumbing. He wanted to reproduce the transmission of mythic lore, the mythic mind through the modern device of the novel. O’Neill describes Tolkien’s achievement as “the subcreator’s stream of consciousness flowing eagerly through the watercourses of primordial affect, and these images emerging into enchanting reality for him and for millions of readers.” He does this precisely, convincingly, exactly.

As for the Jungean aspect, the Jungean view is a feature of modernity, and as such it leaves behind something. What for Tolkien was much more than anthropology, but anthropology within an analogical cosmology, is stripped of that outer transcendence. There is a Kantian refusing of Metaphysics, or a substitution of psychology for metaphysics. The Jungean studies the microcosm as the only thing that can be understood. It is not entirely misguided to consider Man a microcosm, but I am pretty sure Tolkien would affirm the macrocosm which clarifies and substantiates what the microcosm gestures at. I do not understand Jungeans to affirm anything but an agnosticism regarding a macrocosm of metaphysics. The concern is microcosmic, but this still contains much.
The dualism of the Jungean does get annoying. Jung was famously curious about Gnosticism. I think his dualism is more of a Manichean approach, Manicheanism 2.0, a considerably improved approach. I call it an improvement because there is a predilection for the good that denies the absolute dualism which was the dominant feature of the Manichean system. The Manichees achieved an absolute dualism by refusing to take anything but this feature of absolute dualism absolutely seriously. This is why St. Augustine became disillusioned and was delivered by the Platonists. If you are going to think, you need an ultimate point of reference. If you are going to evaluate, you need to identify an ultimate positive standard. Manichees made that ultimate standard the fact of dualism, the ultimacy of positive and negative both, which denied them the power of really evaluating and so of having a viable intellectual system. The Jungean approach does not make that mistake. While it pulls heavily toward balance and harmony and complements and contrasts, it is relentlessly driven by evaluation. Its aim is evaluation, and so it must opt for light over darkness, coherence over confusion, and I think even male over female, oddly enough. And yet, throughout, the dualism persists. So much are the Jungean’s dualists that O’Neill expresses unease with the concept of the Trinity and then breathes a sigh of relief when the Blessed Virgin Mary is deified to form a more Jungean quaternity! It is too much for this old Platonist, never mind that I’m a Christian Platonist.

But the book seldom fails for all that. I only really found one failed conclusion in the whole interesting and engrossing book, when O’Neill summarizes the four ages of man in the whole cycle of Arda. One of the things that is lost in the Jungean approach to those four ages, which O’Neill interprets in terms of the development of the integrated self, is the gentle and pervasive regret, the never-ending sense of loss which is like nitrogen in the atmosphere of the air breathed inside of Tolkien’s mind. It is rather lost on O’Neill, as his asides about Elrond eloquently demonstrate. The fourth age is not the achievement of something lasting, but is for Tolkien a temporary respite from the long retreat. But then, that conclusion makes sense if taken for what it is: this is Tolkien appreciated by Modernity, and Modernity is obviously not adequate for Tolkien altogether.

I hope I haven’t given you the impression that O’Neill’s is an uninteresting book. It is a tribute to the power and ability of Tolkien. It draws you in, it is interested in the right object, and it stimulates reflection.

View all my reviews

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, by Zena Hitz

It usually takes a few decades (ten, perhaps) till a book can be declared a classic. No doubt any rule about waiting to declare a book a classic is routinely violated. If I had to pick one book to risk premature declaration about, it would be this one. I think Zena Hitz has written classic.

Lost in Thought is a book about the intellectual life. There are many such books. Hitz’s book is not just another one, except that it is in the long honorable tradition of fresh statements of a classic thing. It is the unanticipated emergence of something we have encountered elsewhere; the effect is that of a new appreciation that makes it both a timely and a timeless book.
The introduction is about ends and means. “But I do think it ought to be clear by the end of this book that contemplation in the form of learning is a robust human good, valuable for its own sake and worthy of time and resources.”

One of the problems she wants to hit is that of those things which regularly overwhelm the intellectual life and have at present overwhelmed it in the universities. This problem structures her three chapters.

The first deals with prosperity and how it distracts us from the life of learning. I don’t know where else I’ve seen such a good case made for the importance of giving lesser things up for the greater, short of Augustine’s de Doctrina or Jonathan Edward’s The Christian Pilgrim. It is an argument for the importance of askesis in a life of purposeful leisure. Most intriguing.

The second chapter meditates at length on Augustine’s Confessions. She draws out a distinction between the merely curious and the truly studious. This chapter is interestingly timely. Armed with that distinction, you will see the internet in a new light. The distractions of undisciplined curiosity can overwhelm the concentration and contemplation of learning directed away from opinion and gazing on reality. At some point Hitz straight-out indicts our contemporary education and the goals of religious people saying all we aim for is the assimilation of correct opinion. The objects of knowledge should be the focus of learning.

The last thing that can overwhelm the life or learning is the political. Here Hitz is at her most Scrutonian: the usefulness of uselessness. All three threats are a kind of prostitution, of taking that which should be an end in itself and sacrificing it as a means to lesser ends. “If intellectual life is not left to rest in its splendid uselessness, it will never bear its practical fruit. Likewise, the struggle for a just society is worthless if it costs us the fruits of justice.”

This book is balm, inspiration, focus, and radiant good sense. I think there is a world in which it does not become a classic. But I also think that is not a world in which the examined life exists.

Concluding Aftershocks of a Discussion of The Plague

I had a good discussion last night with friends about Camus’ The Plague. I learned that it is a text that will repay scrutiny. The reason I don’t scrutinize the complexities and intricacies of such a text is that existentialism repels me, if I understand it correctly.

Existentialism repels me because it is premised on disenchantment.
I appreciate the grim seriousness, and I accept that the human condition is tragic, but I do not believe it is exclusively tragic and only mysteriously otherwise in a way that renders less meager outlooks self-parody. Reality is magical, and tragedy is an invasion, and an exception in human experience. To me it is fundamental that tragedy is not the fundamental reality, but an exceptional experience. Tragedy overwhelms us when it comes, and it colors everything, but it is a mistake to think it is more than an exception and a privation that cannot in the long run prevail. For a monist like me, existentialism gestures too much at dualism.

If existentialism makes tragedy the backdrop, then it makes wonder inexplicable. Existentialism is right in this: wonder will come as a gift, and from something greater and outside of ourselves mysteriously. But there is no faith in search of understanding in existentialism, that I can see. I don’t think existentialism understands that wonder, while not comprehensible, is apprehensible, is in fact the main object of knowledge, and that our desiring it ought not to be reduced but increased. I think wonder is a more fundamental value than tragedy.

And I wonder, is not wonder, after all, what makes tragedy grand, and that which mysteriously raises what is by nature small and meager so that it gestures at transcendence? Existentialism separates wonder out of tragedy too much, putting in the foreground what should be in the background.

Music as an Art by Roger Scruton

Music as an ArtThis very interesting book consists of two parts. In the first, Scruton is trying to wrestle with what music is.

“And surely that is part of the point of art, that it offers conclusions in a world that is otherwise deprived of them. This is not an escapism but its opposite: taking some feeling, however bleak, to its conclusions, and showing thereby that it is in our nature to bear it.” (68)

“It is in this way that we are consoled by music . . . namely, that it provides order and completion to states of being that drift through our lives in fragmentary or inconclusive ways.” (69)

I think it a sensible conclusion. How do we deal with the partialities of this sublunary life? We hope for more, and one of the things that offers consolation is music that is so ordered as to develop its theme, progress through the stages of a thing, and reach a perceptible conclusion. We applaud it if only for that reason.

One of the options that Scruton raises in his quest to understand the nature of music is that “We are dealing with the aesthetic, rather than the metaphysical, idea of the transcendental.” (76) He of course discounts that we have contact with the transcendent as such. When C. S. Lewis concludes that it stands to reason that if we have longings that nothing in this world can satisfy then we must be made for another world, Scruton refuses the conclusion. I hope it isn’t an act of unbelief, but I am afraid that I see no other real alternative. That is the limitation of Scruton. He really accepts the Kantian conclusion. He once quipped that the Enlightenment was a form of light pollution which blocked our view of the stars. He must not have thought we can flip the switch off on the Enlightenment. (C. S. Lewis spent his life trying to deny that the Renaissance happened, let alone the Enlightenment . . . )

But I myself find the suggestion that music depicts metaphysical realities in the aesthetic realm compelling. As one who tries to function on premodern assumptions, I don’t see why not. What Scruton concludes is that the self is somehow a thing beyond the world. What he has said elsewhere, that we are incarnates subjects in a world of objects. It is just he allows for no consciousness other than that we have in the world of objects as perceiving subjects. So, what constitutes a subject is what is being dealt with in music. Music, then, is an address from subject to subject, achieving a harmony of empathy. It is a conclusion still brimming with possibilities.

The second part of the book contains various of Scruton’s reflections, mostly on composers and musical figures. You can expect something on Schubert and Wagner of course, but there is a lot on British composers, and the recovery of music after the dead end of serialism. A lot of Adorno in this book, an answer and refutation of Adorno, it may be considered. He is also very trenchant on Shostakovich, which made me grateful. When I think of consoling music, I actually think of Shostakovich.

Here is an unexpected tangential gem buried away toward the end of the book: “the longing for experiences outside the bounds of our Anglican upbringing, and at the same time the stunning message of Four Quartets, which told us that those experiences were not out of bounds at all but could be blended with the spiritual heritage of England—all these were shared by our generation . . . Four Quartets brought together the subterranean current of Anglican Christianity with the questioning search for a purified and modernist art that would seek redemption in the immediate moment, observed, internalized and expressed without lies. As the title declares, Eliot had before his mind the great example of Beethoven, whose late quartets show religious questions answered through aesthetic discipline, and redemption by the hard path of artistic truthfulness.” (157)

The penultimate chapter ponders the music of the future, a kind of ‘whither music?’ And the last chapter is on the culture of pop. That last is a most illuminating and engrossing essay indeed!

It is not a book that requires any special musical ability. I have absolutely none. Of course, I could be deluding myself since, after all, I find comfort in Shostakovich. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

A Parcel of Patterns by Jill Paton Walsh

A Parcel of PatternsJill Paton Walsh is the author of Hengest’s Tale, set in Viking times and accurate enough to please Tolkien. Her talent is for telling a first-person account of a tragedy set in the past. Her use of historical details is deft and evocative. She had a way of making simple things count, of sketching quotidian details into a circumstance so that they make sense. You cannot read The Emperor’s Winding Sheet without having a good idea of the situation and events of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Her stories move briskly, and even though the main plot is usually provided for by research, she contrives multiple satisfying sub-plots that bring home details and pathos. Her love and understanding of humans in their different situations is her great historian’s strength. There is always a lot of feeling in a story that she tells, because she knows how to send the rain which fills the brooks and streams, which feed the rivers, which all run into the sea.

This is a book in which a plague runs it course. We watch it arrive unannounced, then they have to isolate because the only way to stop it is to eliminate contagion, they have hope it will diminish in the winter but it trickles on, in spring there is waxing then waning, bringing hope, but then the plague reaches its high tide. Walsh knows how to evoke, and she evokes the harrowing and pitiful moments with a measured, steady, unadorned account. She really knows how to accumulate feeling, how to build up shared memories between the narrator and the reader, how to use the pace of her story to wring the most out of the fewest words.

A Parcel of Patterns is set in 1665, in a village of Derbyshire at the moment when the Clarendon laws had driven the old Puritan pastor from the village church and his replacement arrived. Part of the skill with which Walsh exploits that situation gives the reader an experience of the religious conflict through the eyes of a villager. The plague arrives in a parcel containing patterns for a dress which is to be a more fashionable and exuberant dress than is customary, one the old pastor would have found tending toward vanity. The dress is for the new pastor’s wife. I think Walsh means this book as a kind of indictment of God for human suffering: as the story progresses, among the differences that emerges between the old and new clergymen is one concerning providence. The doctrine of Divine providence is the one point of theology in which the narrator becomes most involved.

It is the one thing that does not satisfy about the book. The parcel of patterns never really achieves its symbolic potential. It is a bit Barthian in the inscrutability it attributes to the Lord’s patterns of operation, and the emblem remains inert. I find it ironic that the point at which she errs is when she departs from her own pattern to be anachronistic.

It is a disappointment, and a pretty critical one, among all the successes of the story. It is a good story nevertheless: it does keep one in sympathy with the narrator, and suspense, the theological point is nearly carried out, done mostly well and not brutally, the human interest is strong, the historical details come alive, and her characters and their choices are convincing.

It is also much more poignant to read of those experiences when still in the coronavirus lockdown when all the uncertainty of the moment and no sense of the extent of the damage to come makes one sensitive the the villager’s plight. It really works in the favor of such a story to have strong resonances in one’s experience.

From an Interesting Book

Despite its many hypocrisies, the awful truth is that pro-slavery Protestantism was sincere and consistent. It is less a unique aberration than an example of Protestantism’s protean adaptability. Southern society needed a religious justification for slavery, so Protestants provided it. There was no central religious authority who could tell them that they were wrong, and when their national churches expressed qualms, they simply walked away. Pro-slavery Protestantism did not lose the argument; it lost a war. That catastrophe was accepted by most of slavery’s former religious defenders as divine judgment. The consensus came to be that they had failed to built a truly Christian slavery and had tolerated too many abuses. If some continued quietly to believe that slavery might sometimes be justified, they nevertheless accepted the reality that American slavery was gone.

-Alec Ryrie, Protestants

Quite a paragraph.

Quite a book.

The truth is that the Bible does not prohibit slavery, it regulates it. That’s a controversial statement, but Ryrie runs through the options and arrives at a similar conclusion.

One of the things that impelled the English Evangelicals in their push to abolish slavery was that the Americans won the revolutionary war. Surely a sign that God was not with England, as Ryrie, who likes to point out such ironies, remarks. Not long before, in the French and Indian war, the North American subjects of England had wondered if that moment had not come on them because of national sins. And, as the paragraph above demonstrates, Ryrie is making something of a theme of that idea. When America won the war with England, it meant God was on our side, obviously. He has a persistent, gentle and effective way of mocking what we often do.

Ryrie believes the Gospel ultimately opposes slavery, though the Bible does not. I think that is a statement calculated to make people uneasy. It depends on what you think the Gospel is. One question for Ryrie would be to wonder where he believes the Gospel comes from. Still, the man presents the dilemma neatly: either slavery is wrong and the Bible is too, or the Bible is not wrong and neither is slavery. You can see him running through the options and discarding all but these alternatives if you get the book.

This is the strongest example I’ve encountered of how Ryrie, himself a Protestant, impresses the historical record on his readers in the pages I’ve read. It is a rewarding book just for the challenges it presents. He makes you think, he questions accepted categories, and he makes it hard to argue with him. No doubt on this and other subjects he can be challenged. Here is the thing: he’s making sure the challenges are about consequential and not trivial matters.

Another Kingdom, by Andrew Klavan

Another KingdomThe success of this book depends on how much you expect. There are a lot of things that Andrew Klavan does right.

This is a book which takes place between two worlds, and the conceit of relating them is what the book is mainly about. Klavan writes about Hollywood, where reading books has been relegated to the periphery, where writers go to lose their souls, and where good stories are ruthlessly marginalized. It is a book about the power of a good story, and the navigation of two separate worlds is crucial for that.

Another thing he gets right is the transition from world to world. I have to say that it is difficult to judge a series in progress. Were you to do that with, say, Harry Potter, you may come up very wrong; you have to do all seven books to make the proper judgment there. There are things missing from this first volume, but it is a projected first volume. One of the things missing is a satisfactory sense of the magic involved in moving from one place to another, and so that is not what I mean when I say this is something he gets right. What he gets right is the surprise of the transition from one world to the next, abruptly, often, which gets the reader every time it gets the narrator. That is a skill at timing the events and pacing of the story that Klavan has mastered. If you read the book just for that, you will be very happy indeed.

Klavan seldom lets the pace that he has set for himself drop. There are obviously pauses in the narrative, but on the whole, it reads like a series of uninterrupted chase scenes mostly because it consists of a series of uninterrupted chase scenes. The hero of this story is a scrambler. Let me add that one of the things he gets very right, as might be expected, is also the humor. Klavan is funny. Klavan’s sense of humor is based on good timing and a sense of proportion that always appears when least expected. The wit, the self-deprecation, the banter, all the good things that entertainment has managed to keep for itself in our age, he squanders none of these away.

But many of the things that make for modern entertainment’s cheap illusions also distort this book. Klavan is engaging the culture wars over sex, gender, and traditional roles. He has shrewd insights to offer, and he places them exactly. He is doing the right thing in engaging these through powerful stories: that’s where the traditional side has the advantage, after all. But he squanders some of that advantage by the cartoonishness that he either can’t keep out or prefers to include. Again, the banter, the humor, he occasions in which relationships flower, these things are often yielded to cheap effects. If you are going to write about men and women, about traditional roles, your adversaries advantage is the sentimental, cliched, glamorized, cheaply sexualized approach of movies. I do think Andrew Klavan is in search of better expression, and I appreciate his boldness in taking the subject on: it needs to be. But his imagination is too Disney, too cartoonish, too much visualized in a pornographic age. I don’t mean to say his story is pornographic—though the chaste ecstasy in a pool full of nymphs is the most bizarre attempt at a positive catharsis yet attempted, following hard on the most bizarre and obvious attempt to portray defilement (as a chase scene) ever—but I do mean that this is not a story for your kids, nor is it free of troubling, cheap approaches to romantic love and sexual relations.

Klavan is doing more than just telling about events: he wants to gesture at things, to set up resonances in which meaning is heard. I do not think, however, that what he achieves is enough. There is one thing that he gets really wrong, and that is the complete absence of any real, deep, moving pathos. Dreadful things happen, and they happen like a movie, like a cartoon. It is all on the surface, so much so that even a sword thrust through the body remains on the surface, you might say. Heads are bitten off, and the emotions all pass in a blur, without atmosphere, in good, concentrated, car-chase style. A story should get deep into us, but that is the worst thing that Klavan does, or fails to do. It is all a bit ephemeral. There needs to bet a better sense of place, and by that I don’t mean L.A. The foil for L.A. is not much a foil for L.A., part of it being that the book sometimes seems an long attempt to instantiate the platonic ideal of the car-chase in as many diverse iterations as possible. He does this chase-thing well, but doing that is not enough! The characters are perhaps developing gradually over the course of several volumes, but they are not developing sufficiently over the course of one.

Perhaps I am wrong. The book goes fast. It does go fast indeed, and delivers punches and keeps you reading. Perhaps by the last book, however many are projected, the story will take on depth and luminosity. I hope it does. Perhaps all the chases are from the stage in our hero’s way that requires he escape before earning a pause to rest and think. Klavan knows how to put the parts of his story in order, he knows how to structure the suspense. I hope the other crucial elements of a good story are things his story can get as it goes along.

It is hard to write a good story. I’ve been trying for years and years, without success. I wish I could at least do what Klavan has. But if I had, I would also want people to tell me what is still wrong so that I could get it better. What he is attempting is worth better success.

A Reader

I’m reading Donna Tartt right now. I discovered her thanks to a tweet from Crawford Gribben and as a result picked up her first book and enjoyed it immensely. She has to be one of the great writers of our age, along with Vodolazkin. Tartt writes a book every ten years or so, which is faster than Susanna Clarke does. I think it is one of the luckiest things in the world that I live in the days of skilled and humane writers such as Tartt and Vodolazkin. And when I think, moreover, that there were people doomed to live and die in a world without the works of the Inklings, I am grateful I live in this present evil age.

It may be the twilight of the age of the book, according to the late John Lukacs, but that should mean we have all the best ones, including his. And I am grateful for it since books are my thing–because I am a reader. My mother taught me to read, keeping me out of school to teach me to read English before I started in Spanish. She also taught me to read by reading to me. There are people who do not read well, and it is no joy to have them read anything to you. They can make books sound fake and stupid. But that’s not how my mom read. I actually believe that that is what made all of her kids readers, mainly: that she read to us well. And if you can do that for somebody as she did, constantly, patiently, night-by-night for years and years, you will give them much.

I can’t imagine life without fiction. I keep steeling myself for life without any good, new fiction but am constantly surprised. I had never read Vodolazkin before 2016, or Tartt before 2018. I had tried Powys before, and failed, and, like Moby Dick, after I matured in understanding and widened my sympathies and consciousness, I was able to read it eagerly. I’ve made it through Powell with joy, and all this with promising lacunae: War & Peace, for example, and most of Scot and Trollope. There’s a lot of garbage being written, but not all of what is written is garbage. Interesting books have been written in my life time, and how many ages can boast so many as we presently do? I don’t know how many years of my life will add up to reading fiction, but they will be among the happiest.

A Book to Own

Prayer is the expression of desire; its value comes from our inward aspirations, from their tenor and their strength. . . . We ought always to pray is the same as saying: we must always desire eternal things, the temporal things which serve the eternal, our daily bread of every kind and for every need, life in all its fullness earthly and heavenly.

-Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, 69-70

I cannot imagine a better book: serious, wise, transporting. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods was originally written in 1921, revised, and then translated after WWII. It is not dry, not for a moment. It is inspiring, full of the wisdom of the long Dominican tradition, full of clear French reason and earnestness. Sertillanges admires two men more than any others: Aquinas and Pascal. Who could admire better?

And it is a pious work, a work about vocation, about God’s calling and the virtues that calling requires. The spirit of the intellectual life is the great thing this book discloses, but the conditions are prudently expounded, and the methods practically and reasonably explained.

I’ll have to buy it. By reading one chapter every month, in nine months I can read through it every year. What a boon to find this book, right before I get started on the dissertation. The credit goes to the ISI through Twitter.

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson

The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to FacebookThis book is an engrossing, long collection of short chapters about how networks and hierarchies can help us to understand history, in particular, recent history. The history is credible and sometimes brilliant, the premise about networks is sometimes compelling but often rather creaky, and the network diagrams are the silliest thing in the book. I don’t know why making little charts appeals so much to the learned of our age, except that it gives them something to do with their computers.

Ferguson is concerned that at the present the networks of internet usage are eroding the stability that hierarchies provide; and, being one of the world’s elites, he’s concerned that the president of the US, who does not process things the way he does, will not steer us as well as persons who understand what Ferguson himself does might through these present troubled waters. It is amusing, therefore, because he shows that Donald Trump sits at the top of a hierarchy (which is exactly what elites have made it their life goal to do), and yet he has not done so by playing the game as today’s elites have (which is what makes them so nervous). It is more than amusing, of course, it is worth thinking about.

Something Up Above Was Calling Him Imperiously

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!’ and also ‘Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, ‘Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

The Wind in the Willows

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig A. Carter

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern ExegesisCraig Carter’s argument in this book is that modernity has changed our attitude toward Biblical interpretation, and if we wish to interpret as the church whose doctrine and practice we inherit interpreted, we need to recover the premodern attitude toward biblical interpretation. He explains that originally he set out to write a book on the classic theism of Nicene Trinitarian doctrine; but then he found that before he could do so, a preliminary volume on the interpretive practices that gave rise to that theology was required.

I think his argument is sound. Carter begins with Isaiah 53, posing the interpretive problem of whether we can legitimately see Christ in that text. He points out that modern hermeneutical procedure goes against it. He also points out that Christian homiletics nevertheless harvest Christ from that classic text, having the example of Scripture to guide them. What he wants to show is the inconsistency between our actual practices on the one hand and the hermeneutical approach we get from the academy on the other.

What Carter wants is a way to bring theory and practice together. He does this first by setting up the theoretical framework and second by vindicating his framework in historical examples. The theoretical framework, he argues, must be premodern. Modernity evacuates the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions without which Scripture cannot be interpreted coherently. He defines Christian Platonism as an adaptation of Platonism which took place in the early centuries of the church. Any historian reading this section is going to feel that the historiography is a bit thin. There is plenty of room for work to be done that will make a more solid case for the adaptation of ancient philosophy to Christian purposes. But we must remember that Carter is writing a preliminary book to deal with another concern. He cannot get lost in the endless regression that is the historian’s constant temptation.

Carter sticks to Lloyd Gerson’s analysis of Platonism (Gerson who argues that Aristotle was for all practical purposes a Platonist) and defines it as: antimaterialist, antimechanist, antinominalist, antirelativist and antiskepticist (79-81, for more detail). It is not a bad definition of Platonism, but it is hardly the most satisfying one. One of the weaknesses of the book is that since Carter is trying to make a case without provoking unnecessary fights about it, he thins Platonism out so much that he has no trouble calling Calvin a Christian Platonist, nor including Vanhoozer and Carson in his Great Tradition (Great Tradition = Christian Platonism). There is a good point to be made by this, but he is opening his thesis to criticism which will destabilize, I am afraid, some of what he achieves. Still, if he is read in the spirit of his argument, it is not altogether implausible.

Carter not only sets up a theoretical framework to explain his proposal, he then goes on to defend it from history, making a series of points about how his Great Tradition is a demonstrable tradition of interpreting Scripture Christologically, responsibly controlled by the literal meaning, though not limited to it, and rather than implementing typology—which he dismisses as a modern strategy and not a premodern one—is allegorical and prosopological. Prosopological exegesis, to risk being reductive, is finding the face of Christ in Scripture by hearing his voice in the Old Testament specially.

Carter’s explanation of prosopological exegesis demonstrates one of the strengths of this book: Carter is able to synthesize and assimilate diverse and large quantities very recent scholarship. It is a great shift in biblical interpretation, or perhaps the most unanticipated aspect of what is shifting (back—as Carter would remind us). It may be bewildering, but the bibliography is generous and more than competent. Skeptics should inquire before dismissing, because Carter gives every evidence of knowing what he is doing, for all that he does seem sometimes to be rushing ahead too fast. His bibliographical support ought to be considered carefully.

Carter concludes the book demonstrating from Isaiah 53 how the Great Tradition operates, using as his chief example Alec Motyer. It is a good strategy, calculated to allay suspicions. I think Carter knows that the terminology of Christian Platonism and of an exegesis continuous with the practice of Origen and Agustine is not calculated to allay suspicion, and so his exposition and argument endeavor to do so, though sometimes with perhaps too much zeal.

Carter is right. What is happening in this book is part of the ongoing recovery of a catholic approach to Scripture and a general attitude of ressourcement in protestant theology. He very helpfully lays out the cards of his influences and where his sympathies lie in the first chapter. We need books like this because we are finding that our doctrinal formulation has no stable meaning unless it is in the context of a theological culture. That means that a bare subscription to a confession without a culture of interpretation is not enough. A theological culture is a theological tradition, and if theology is Scriptural, then it is an interpretive tradition. Carter has opened a way, and much remains to be done and to follow. Christian Platonism requires better exposition, better understanding, better definition, and it deserves much more attention. But Craig Carter is opening the way. This book is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, no doubt about it.