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.

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.

New York, the City

Hamilton, NJ, the Transit Hub

There is a disturbance, then a roar. The Amtrak tube lashes through, shaking the foundations. You glimpse it in a blur. It diminishes, it is gone, and the birdsong is loud in the aftermath. The birds have made their nests around the platforms, indifferent to the power and the glory of the trains.

No attendants on duty. You buy your ticket from a touchscreen and you read the signs. The slower NJ Transit trains use the two outer tracks, the Amtrak goes on the inner two. Concrete sleepers covered in grey rocks under the wires stretch away to both horizons, and that is all.

The NJ Transit

Not newer models, the trains. Mass transit is about efficiency of access and unencumbered transportation: this is what they do, in measurable, great quantity. Trains have their own way: they glide and have their sounds: the rush, the clack of slowing down, the lonely whistle, the hum. Three seats on one side, two on the other on the one-tier trains. Old plastic, scratched windows, the conductor only occasionally friendly and all business. The intercom squawks semi-intelligibly.

It feels like a step back in time, except that everybody is using small screens. No newspapers, no magazines, no books, just little screens and wires into the head.

New Jersey flashes by between stations. Princeton Junction, New Brunswick (Rutgers), and then the industrial wasteland and marshes. New Jersey, as you approach New York, seems like a place where they tried but failed to extend the city. Eventually you descend into darkness.

Pennsylvania Station

The darkness that leads out of New Jersey brings one to the dim underworld of New York. Pennsylvania Station is a functional place, and down on the platforms a dreary location indeed. The dead trudge up the stairs into the waiting areas of that underground complex. They spread out toward the various exits and join the living on New York’s teeming sidewalks. I Tiresias have walked among them. I have seen the wires coming from their ears, connecting them to their batteries, carrying them through the lower regions.

In the evening ticket holders wait for a track to be announced, and then rush down as soon as they can to get each man his seat down in that dim underworld, in the humming train that will bear them back to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Pizza

There was pizza. $1 for a cheese slice, and $3 for the other options. Warm pizza of the morning. The attendants speak to the customer in the customary English, and then shout at each other in Spanish. Efficiency is the rule in New York City. Don’t dawdle, don’t hang back, don’t be dumb. Know thy mind, if indeed thou hast one, thou idiot. The beckoning small pizza places angle into the structure of the city, wedged away in slices.

The Frick

A low place where tall structures are in demand, a breach in the ramparts surrounding Central Park, the Frick. A lawn even, and more unusually, a lawnmower. Inside: the bag inspection, the coat check, the inefficient dispatch of tickets, the guard who lectures and indicates, and after all the preliminaries the collection. It is a house of treasures: Vermeer, Gainsborough, Reynolds, van Dyck, Corot, Holbein (More and Cromwell), and two magnificent enormous Turners. The dead creep through it, listening to handheld devices, sitting often, dressed variously but mostly well, upscale. Good lighting on the art and a dimmer building, the sense of a house: dining room, hall, library, gallery, oval room, etc. The Frick has nothing contemporary, for it was Frick’s own collection made one hundred years ago or so. I Tiresias, blind seer of Athens, looked on what had been.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A tourist destination. Crowded stairs, slow entrance, bag inspection, statistical registration I Tiresias did avoid, unnoticed as at Thebes below the wall. Throngs of the dead like autumn leaves there. These dissipate. The dead congregate in the impressionist galleries, but not in the remoter 17th Century galleries. A vast place and somewhat seedy for seeing so much volume, so many dead. No meager collection, but functional galleries, and some living moments in galleries where the statues are about to come to life, impatient with the dead. The worn parquet, the foot-high ropes, the tramp of feet and murmur, the indescribable pastel paint on the walls is mostly all. The dead blow though, watched by the drowsy guards. The fierce statues disdain to exhibit life, waiting for the dead to pass. I Tiresias stared into those souls, stared into the round eyes of quintuped Assyrian cherubim. What a race, the Assyrian: beards and wings and bunched calf muscles.

I went as the swallow goes, to get a sense of it. If one is going to see the Met and absorb anything at all, one has to stay in the city, one has to arrive early and late, one has to have copious time if one is not to see it as the dead do. The dead file past the statues, up the staircases and down. I went among them, I Tiresias, and when I had finished drifting along with them I emerged, not even a statistic for the quantitative.

Dulce Vida

Lexington Ave. Crammed against a panel of glass facing the sidewalk. Ajiaco, maracuya, aguepanela, sancocho. Sweet corn—so out of place—and auyama. Good green sauce, authentically Mexican in a Colombian restaurant. The usual incongruity. A Brazilian waiter, solicitous, trilingual. Quick service, Colombianly awkward.

New York Public Library

Of its many locations, I went to the classical building that hove into view a few blocks west of Park Ave. The steps were thronged for a medieval event: an outdoor performance drawing great applause. The living congregated there, and the dead were on the fringes, hoping to understand. A line led in, a bag inspection, a splendid building, some celebrants. Steep stairs, a well-kept place. The dead milled in it, sat pointlessly at the top, engaged the desperate memorial of photography with their little screens, gesturing on their surfaces. I Tiresias watched their wish to even wish anything at all dismayed. Backstairways lead to vast hallways, past the reliquaries and into the world of life again.

Juan Valdez Coffee

The stark modern interior, of a dark variety. The attendant who did not speak audibly. The latte they call café con leche. The old lady sneaking in to use the counter without buying anything. The hulking transvestite. The attendant coming to stare at the impertinent old lady. The young woman going through her email on a mackintosh computer. The Slavic conversation of some emotion. The light roast from Huila in the red packaging. The leg of Tiresias fell asleep.

Grand Central Station

They go with purpose under that vast canopy, those wells of light, that spacious crossing of the paths of all the world. Ramps lead to the bowels of the city. Wrought and industrial iron, marble, the everlasting sound of throngs that move with purpose.

Bubble Tea

Is it not one of the consolations of the age? A limited menu, three Asian girls, the wait, the crowded premises, the odd machinery. Good strong black tea, the creamy milk, the tapioca bubbles, the ingenious large straw and the sealed package. The chewy slugs are soft and swift, and the moment passes. There are few urban consolations like straightforward bubble tea.

150, and the Sidewalks

From 30th north to 86th, south to 10th and back up to 30th = 140 blocks. From as far west as Columbus Circle to Lexington Ave in the east, another 10 in zigs and zags. With musea and other distractions, a good days of walking = 150 blocks at least. I Tiresias have seen the city, and there is enough of it. The surge across the streets with all the living intermingling and so many different embodied souls to see can be endlessly repeated. I have seen Jewish gentlemen in a comfortable interiors that advertise kosher chicken soup. I have been among the smoking hot-dog stands with kebabs and emanating middle-eastern music. I have noticed glasses and cloth napkins, plain and elegant booths, counters, steaming trays of food, pretzels and pizza, coffee, donuts and animated conversations. The buildings rise, rank upon rank, various, splendid, curious, dull, and renewed as the city renews itself, that strong, great city. New York City Ferrari, art supplies, instruments of music, oysters for $1, theaters, billboards and vast churches.

And I know that what New York City doth not have, doth not matter.

The Rap Class

Westminster has nowhere the kind of rap excitement I sensed at Southern, but it has students and graduates of Westminster associated. The apologetics faculty believes Christians rappers are, on the whole, impressively serious. Westminster is, after all, in Philadelphia, and rap is not to the best of my knowledge a rural phenomenon—though apparently Southern rap is all the rage nowadays, which may explain why it is big in the SBC. So instead of doing, for example, ballet, we had a session in our class on Christianity and the Arts on the (still, to me) inexplicably designated phenomenon of Hip Hop.

In fact, the first thing I did on seeing the French professor running our class, the member of the faculty who usually does the class and the designated rapper presenting our class that day was to ask why we were having a class on rap and not on ballet. The French professor provided the only answer: we could not talk about all the aspects of music possible since there simply isn’t time. The other two just stared at me.

Here is what I learned: apparently there are rappers who go on about the thug life, and those who aspire to something more positively didactic (yea, even prophetic). The latter are associated with the word conscience, and because they have a positive spin, they are where Christian rap can get a foot in. Here is the dilemma, however. People who listen to rap are not so interested in the conshies (my designation) as they are in the ones who brag egregiously about the thug life. If you put two rappers, one of each persuasion, in the same concert, the stadium will fill up for the thug and largely empty out for the conshy.

So obviously there is a problem with the audience.

Another thing I learned is how much of Islam went into rap’s development. The early stages of rap were useful to Black Muslim purposes (we did not learn if they still are, but that’s probably my ignorance of this field of human endeavor), so much so that rap seems to be some kind of sacred cow, comprehending many sensitive, angry stomachs. Which is why we need to have some Christian involvement, if only to balance things out and spread the dyspepsia around more evenly.

Here is a narrative we were given: African-Americans were first enslaved in the USA, then they were kept down by segregation, and after that somebody in Nixon’s administration said that Nixon said that they somehow still had to be kept down but surreptitiously, and that has been carried out by over-policing until Obama woke up to it a few months ago and Clinton (our first Black president) apologized. This narrative was set up to answer the question, why does rap sound so angry? Some skepticism was expressed to the third stage of the narrative which was dismissed with: if you were Black, you would not question it because you would have lived it.

I was honestly surprised that the narrative of victimhood is used. I should have seen it coming with the gimcrack exegesis of the tower of Babel. Do you know what went wrong at Babel? No multiculturalism. That was so wicked that God actually stepped in to give us multiculturalism. And just think of the multiculturalism of Pentecost. Anyway, returning to victimhood, do they mean that rap is the response of the thumb-sucking whiners who affect all the thug bravado, hypocritically exploiting their weak women, to a conspiracy theory? Perhaps that is an imponderable question to which we will never know the answer.

I do think nobody will be able to miss the gospel potential of this art form. One of the issues tearing the Christian rap world apart at this moment, I was given to understand, is whether there are Christian rappers, or simply rappers who happen to also be Christians. Of course, there are some problems to overcome, but there is no greatness without struggle. Once the answer to this question has been formulated, no doubt Christian rappers will own a more proportionate share of the market and will wake more of rap’s audience up to the Biblical uses of anger.

Next week we are going to do Brahms. Not ballet, alas, but what with the brothels of Hamburg and the sawed-off rocking rockers of the rocking-chair, there may be some surprising continuities.

With the Pope in Philadelphia

I wonder what it’s like to be the pope. At that stage in the hierarchy, do you have a say in what you can wear? What if you’d like to wear something not either black or white? Plaid, for example. Can you do it?

At least he doesn’t have to wear suits, and that I think is something. Though I haven’t had to in a long time, and haven’t had to wear a tie in over a year . . . which is great because I haven’t bought one in over ten. I hope they go out of style before I have to get some more. I’d rather buy a sweater–pay for a garment that amounts to something.

So when he comes here, they’re probably going to give him a cheesesteak. What does the pope do with a cheesesteak, specially an Argentinian? Just stare at it? Miraculously turn it into a churrasco? Meet with some miracle monk from the Bronx that can do it and second him into the entourage? What is the point of being the pope if you can’t escape the unending sandwich diet of Philadelphians for something more in keeping with Christian civilization? Maybe he can go get something to eat in Delaware with Joe Biden.

You know who makes better sandwiches? Mexicans. There’s this place in Mexico City to which nothing in this world compares. I have eaten there often and I bet the Pope has never and never will. Unless they get a Mexican pope from Mexico City one day.

That brings me to tacos in the vatican. Perhaps you could see it coming. Doesn’t seem like the thing to do, but with this new pope, maybe they already have. Did he have a hot dog in New York? I wanted to when I was there, but didn’t. I had a hot dog in Buffalo, Reykjavik and Bogotá. Bill Clinton went to Reykjavik, I understand, and stood in line to get a hot dog at a famous place.

Don’t see the pope going there or waiting in line for a hot dog. Not a man of the people like Clinton. He’s a man of the cloth, which brings me back to my original consideration. I keep seeing pictures of him wearing clothes–which is great–and wondering what it is like to go around dressed that way. The cape, the skirts, the wide looking belt, the little cap. I suppose it is good cloth and is probably bespoke for cardinals and up, but still. Does he have matching white shoes, or black? Do they have special papal socks? Since he’s an old guy, does he have a cloth handkerchief and a pocket to keep it in? Does he have any pockets?

I can’t imagine going out in public without pockets. But then, the pope probably doesn’t have to drive or pay for things. He probably doesn’t run the risk of finding himself waiting with nothing to do, requiring a book. So maybe he doesn’t need pockets to go out in public. I’ve never seen a pocket on his outfit that I can remember.

They’re shutting down whole sections of the interstate for him. The trains had a kind of lottery for the crowded conditions they offer. One Italian place had his picture on their electric billboard, and the term ‘popemania’ sprang to mind when I saw it. If things are bad on Monday, they’re going to cancel schools for the pope. Probably not Westminster, though. 10th Pres downtown is right in the midst of it all–are they going to cancel church for the pope? Now there’s a dilemma. No church, the pope is in town; do not go and see him.

And what about the old pope who stepped down, does he wish he could put on the uniform? Does he still dress up like the pope or have other clothes with pockets? The pocket pope. German, wasn’t he? And not a leftist either. Both of them from countries run by women, come to think of it, though the present pope’s country’s woman is a nut-job. Esa vieja es peor que el tuerto. Is the old one thinking he should have hung in there long enough to get a visit to the USA out of it? He missed out. I hope the one that got to come realizes how lucky he is to be in Philadelphia. Maybe he’ll get to meet John Lukacs while he’s in the area. I’d dress up like the pope and go without pockets for a month for a chance to meet John Lukacs.

The Heart of the Unexamined Life

I was cheered by the scorn for the Northland ‘heart’ expressed in that dubious resort: the IRM (a place of declining entertainment value, alas, which in these latter days has stooped so far as even to link to me). And not without reason. That heart is not so much characterized by any object of its affection, but as a passionate subject: capacious, undiscriminating, passionate, did we say passionate? and definitely just awesome for loving on people, on Geezus, on the lost, on mission, on camping, on Northland, or Northland’s alumni with so much heart, on Grammy nominated rap artists-for-lack-of-a-better-term, on random stuff, and perhaps even on big Al Mohler. If Roger Scruton is right to say that sentimentality is when the perceiving subject eclipses the object that should be in focus, then you have the Northland heart.

About the Northland heart, you have to understand: that was its product. That is what people went there to get, what we* paid for and what people gave to, and what the people working there thought they were striving to impart. There is Scripture to back the idea of the heart being of all things the most important; it is a proper object of care and should be guarded with attention.

I doubt it was too much scrupulous attention to the heart that was the problem though. It is an object of care, but not of satisfaction, and as an object of satisfaction is how it becomes sickening for those who get weary of hearing about it. It’s always a problem to deal frivolously with what you need to take seriously, obvious as that may seem. It is hard on the heart. A search for ordinate affections will be eclipsed by attention to the magnitude of the organ’s increasingly random effusions. If you use the word serious and behave like a clown and never let up, what are people looking to you for direction bound to conclude? That seriousness is just intensity of any kind, however excited. And if they don’t fall for it, they will at least stop looking up to you when it comes to what it serious.

But here is where I will agree with Northland, in name they had the target right. In an age of practicalities and merely utilitarian considerations, when even those who offer Latin talk about its utility and so undermine what they’re offering, when remote, permanent, transcendent are no longer criteria for what you teach, it would be good not to throw the heart out just because Northland has made it an embarrassment. Jesus Christ is coming to look upon it, and to see exactly what it is that you desire, and to give it to you.

_____________
*I didn’t go there for the heart, but there’s no reason for you to believe me. We are responsible for our choices, and going to Northland was a choice I made.

Since Chances to Post Ignorant Dreams Will Eventually Be Driven Out, One Expects, by Knowledge

When I was waiting in Kentucky, reading Dawson, I came across something that has stuck to me ever since. He made the observation that the cosmos of Galileo, Kepler and Newton was Platonic. (Which is one of the most attractive things about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and ironic; he understands some of the wonder and magic of the platonic, though Plotinus would chastise him for what mars the work and spoils its ending, the degradation into the fungoid Gnosticism. Another interesting work that endeavors to preserve that luminous mechanical-mystical cosmology incarnate in the world of objects is The Alternation, by Kingsley Amis, from what I remember. Both books are interesting for that, to me.)

Plato is behind much that is interesting. If there be any magic or wonder of the highest order, there is Plato, so serious, advocating immediate contact, contemplator, sentiment anterior to reason, Reason . . . Reason, circles, numerical mysteries, the contemplation of the gods and the contemplation of God. A mystery of health always begins to grow in the appropriation of Plato, like an oak, which is why he was and is and always will remain the Christian’s philosopher.

I admit, I’m more interested in them as Yeats was, as symbols. They make great symbols don’t they? Build up Plato and then suggest remoter, more ancient and primeval, most connected and better is the figure of Pythagoras: a shadow in the distance coming closer. And Plotinus standing for all who consecrate themselves to the greatest and highest, ascetic, body-scorning, devoted.

I wanted to get into Plotinus, that man who was serious about Plato, that symbol of platonic seriousness which is serious about contemplation, given over to the unending rigorous pursuit of immediate contact. I understand also he was the synthesizer in his time of Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps he yoked Aristotle to the chariot Plato drives. I’d like to understand that. Perhaps I still can. I want to understand the great Plotinus better, though who knows what I will find. After him, only steps down: Porphyry, Iamblicus, and the activities of Julian and Justinian. But also Ambrose and Augustine, dear neo-platonic Augustine who viewed the invisible city.

Nicolas of Cusa is the only one left to me on the list of endnotes from Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy (a list of some of the sons and daughters of Plato through the ages, is it not?) whom I have not read too much. He’s right in the period I’m heading into–Latin, Platonic. I might be a Nicolas of Cusa guy, since the cardinal is one my brother sons of Plato.

Wouldn’t it be cool to write a dissertation on the Platonic fraternity? The Platonic Paternity, perhaps: the living mystical core of the holy catholic church. Renaissance and Reformation Platonism . . . Henry Vaughan.

XL

Soon this little time on earth will flash by. I am presently a citizen of the United States, and grateful for it, but that will soon pass. This brief country with its mutable rights and privileges arises like a bubble in time, to burst or diminish and eventually to exist as a memory. My present incarnation is obviously set to expire as well, but I have hope of such indestructible life as can outlast the galaxies, and time itself will not prevail against the one to whom I have been eternally united. The defining moment in this first stage of my existence will be the return with glory and splendor of Jesus Christ, my savior, who will burn down this world, and along with that every part of me which is not that renewed being of the New Creation. That is something to keep in mind during this present time. Then I hope to be removed from the habitation of my present exile, and the only thing that will matter is not my character nor my health or any accomplishments or possessions, but the believing heart’s desire. And that also is a good one to keep in mind: Jesus Christ is not looking for people with good character who are able to behave well, he is coming for those who believe in him and because of that long for him and know they need him, not those who think they deserve him. I have come to understand that character matters to a moralist, just as behavior matters to a legalist, but neither are what God looks for, since he looks for the undeserving to display his excellence, to give them another’s character and behavior, that of Jesus Christ through the ordinary supernatural work of the Holy Ghost. Of course, it is more about the how of it, isn’t it? Like so many important things. Character and behavior matter, but not those you can boast of. It is good to keep that in mind when one is forty, it renews expectation. God dwells with the contrite, and there is nothing like advancing age to bring contrition.

Here is another interesting consideration: what can we desire that we know and understand? Desire, I know, is stronger than understanding and can outstrip it; we know we can have a desire for we know not what. And with God is the satisfaction of that which we were made to desire and which we do not even know or otherwise possess. Which is why perhaps one is exhorted out of self-absorption through sober self-assessment and then to a self-inattention; and not an aimless one, but one directed at the contemplation of a true object of a desire that understands not itself, one that has to originate in belief and is possessed entirely by faith. There may I be found however long I have to wait, which should not be long now!

2015

2015 will be my fortieth year on this planet. Novelty, I have found, has a way of wearing off. Once upon a time a person I know is wise–as here on the planet generally we mean wise–told me that house prices could never depreciate, that it was the one unfailing investment. Once upon a time we all thought the world was swiftly running out of oil. The world’s upheavals are short-lived even if the consequences linger on. Resolved: to go deeper into Tolkien’s love of ancientness, the world around me notwithstanding. To understand consequences better.

Resolved: to remember however imprecise Heidegger’s dictum “technology alienates from being” may be, it is still useful. To remember it is imprecise, but true enough. Though I do think the novelty of the gadgets is beginning to blur with the speed at which it now has to be maintained, and will soon seem one and will wear off.

It ought to be a year of deliberation, and deliberate choices. Resolved: to deliberate with greater deliberation.

A year of Latin, or at least half a year of it, as 2014 has been the first half. A year for the habit of Latin, perhaps the budding of the patient cultivation. Resolved: to go at least as far as I’ve come.

Let this year come and go. Let me face it with the incomplete practice of patience and equanimity. Let patience and equanimity like sediment, a few grains at least, but true, accumulate in the stream bed time uses to rush over my soul. Resolved: to be more geological. Yes, more geological–a chap of sediments and perhaps even a stratum or two.

Let winter deepen and then relent. I will unfortunately probably be in Ohio for the brief spring that is soon mugged by the brutalities of summer that then stalls somewhat in July, sits like a grinning village idiot all August long and then tapers gently into the prolonged autumn. I may not be here for the autumn. I would like to say, Resolved: to live farther north. It might be possible, though I am mostly hoping it will not.

Who knows what they will say, what a day will bring forth? Cry, what shall I cry? All flesh is grass. The vanity of 2014 gives way to the vanity of 2015, and still all is vanity. But not all is vanity. Some things buried away in the vanity are not vanity: the permanent things. Resolved: to be more permanent during the vagaries of 2015.

Passing Up Books

That’s one of the things you learn–at least it’s one of the things I learn. I live beside Half-Price Books and I can walk over there every day. One sees so many things one could go in for.

But in this season of amassing, of accumulating without restraining, one needs restraint. Civilization cannot exist without restraints. An ordered dwelling cannot exist without limits. And what good would it do me saving money by living where I do, if the wonderful location led me to squander it all?

Not that the purchasing of books, even extravagantly, can really be financial ruin. Still, it is a test, a test of the soul and an examination of ones own life to stand with a book in hand before those great long shelves.

You go into a bookstore and you see an interesting edition of St. Augustine On Christian Doctrine. You think to yourself it is a long time since you’ve read it. It is an important work, an interesting one too. It does not eliminate all hermeneutical excesses, but it does get to the heart of the matter: Scripture exists to reveal God to us. That’s easily forgotten: we want to know whether it was right or not for Abraham to have more than one wife, we think that we have to determine whether Saul was really a believer or not, we would like to know exactly how the Red Sea was parted, if there is life on other planets, if ghosts exist.

You go into a bookstore and find a novel by Czelaw Milosz and think it not so expensive. A view of life that promises to be poignant, afford insight. And something literary would be nice. Reading is a lot to do with variety. I at least find it is. I’m slogging through things right now I’m kind of trying to finish. And I think at the bookstore that I probably ought to slog a bit more and finish. The Kierkegaard from July, for instance. the Middlemarch I was meaning to get to more than a year ago.

The other thing that tempted me was a work of Russian Orthodox spirituality in the Mysticism section. A narrative with slices of life and conversations leading to better insight. Then I think of Richard Rolle of Hampole; I still haven’t exhausted him. He’s been a bit of an achievement, and I’ve been working on him for years now. How can I take up another such work without finishing that labor? And there’s still Donne to be done.

Not that I believe you have to read every book you own. But I think today I believe less in making sure I have enough to read next month. I have enough. I leave with empty hands, but not without having profited. When I go back those books will or will not be there. But whatever books are there, as many of them will call to me again.

Pleasures of June

The shadow of the walnuts is one of the pleasures of June here. After the rain and the humidity had passed the leaves move in a sunlit breeze like water. The Olentangy is high, and all the lower branches of the trees dip their leaves in its swift surface.

Another is that I get home late and read for a bit, and I’ve been doing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and it has gone very well. The book holds up the third time through and the first time reading, not listening. Really, it almost makes me want to pass a resolution to read fiction only for an hour every night before going to bed–at least for fiction. I’m leaning a lot toward redoing some Jane Austen next and Harry Potter again before the year is out that way. I seem to have hit on a really good measure for that pleasure. I binged when I got back just having access to so many things, but now it is time to temper that.

And it works out well for the other stuff. I read non fiction in the mornings. I just finished Great Tom, which I found an interesting, insightful, impertinent at times and altogether useful biography of Eliot. It was an early biography, like the Greene and Hooper on C.S. Lewis which I’m also presently doing, and so not cluttered with the burden of responding to other’s work. Nothing like being able to follow at leisure these kinds of interests. It gives one a lot of things to think about and on its own is a pleasure: following these interests deeper. With Lewis I’ve got the advantage of all the correspondence, which I did very slowly. With Eliot I still have his correspondence to look forward to. I finally found a copy of Barfield’s English Words and I think it is getting time to do Richard Weaver again, to see about getting that a little clearer.

And that brings me to a third: writing. I scribble stuff in my notebooks, the various notebooks all the time. That’s the part still struggling for a good place in the new schedule, though it’s not doing all that badly. It is interesting what a cup of coffee in a place with no other distractions will accomplish. The pleasures of writing are not all pleasures of having written something.

September First: A Return to the Unexamined Life

Best sips in any cup of coffee, it seems to me, are the first two. Not that the rest is bad or anything, but that the first two are the most needed and most relished. A good cup of coffee is one in which every sip is like the first two.

* * *
We have learned, have we not, that our earliest memories are important. I was brought back to a memory of my vanished youth this morning, and what seems to linger has a lot to do with confusing the different elements that are jumbled about in the memory.

We acquire memories all our life long, but a lot of my early ones seems to involve confusion, a fruitful combination of disparate and otherwise discreet sensations, places and feelings that because of my ignorance got mixed together.

It is that ignorance that leads to confusion and subsequent minging of things one less ingorant might not mingle to the same effect that interests me now. When we are greater beings, will we from this life of ignorance glean fruitful memories the product of our present confusion?

Know what I mean?

* * *
This return is in curious stages. We are staying where we first stayed when we came down: the house of missionaries. It is an intermediate space, being neither of here nor of there. It is decidedly not of here because it has the American touch, but the American touch on paintings all of Colombian subjects, furniture made here, and the narrow, crooked spaces of Colombian design.

It is a kind of cultural air-lock. Pleasant to have the staged return.

* * *
It does seem to me, going back a few asterisks, that there is an undesirably unfruitful confusion to memory, when things are hopelessly jumbled and the elements insufficiently distinct. Like colors: if you mix too many you get neutral tones, and these can be uninteresting if you loose all the distinctions of the original hues.

Or rather, I should say, of more limited use.

* * *
Speaking of which, I got a bit of paper to paint on these next days. I have large tubes of paint left over; got, of course, my brushes and the plastic thing for paints.

What I want to get when I get back? Better brushes, more colors, varieties of paper, a good sized board, or boards, for strapping the paper to. Painting is a good way to catch up on podcasts, video, recorded stories and books–which reminds me, I’m living without good speakers still.

And you know what happens? When I look at the watercolor afterward, I remember what is was I listened to at the time, and it is oddly mingled with it. Curious thing.