OxbowAlong the Sandy River, Oregon – 2018

[Please note that your host is on vacation for a couple weeks.]


Worship and Its Neglect

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel ~

Christopher de Hamel in an early chapter of this wonderful book tells about a museum showing of ancient Christian manuscripts in which one visitor was seen to kiss the display glass shielding an illuminated codex of the gospels. Similarly, I read some years ago of visitors prostrating themselves before icons from St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai when these were at the Getty in Los Angeles.

Your typical museumgoer will consider such behavior quaint or eccentric but not long ago (in the grand scheme) it would have been thought unremarkable, a matter of course. This is still the case in some circles, but these circles are getting smaller in our enlightened, secular West. The numbers of worshipers diminish; the numbers increase year by year of those for whom worship is an alien or absurd notion.

Strictly speaking, kissing a gospel book or prostrating oneself before an icon is for a Christian an act of veneration, a step removed from the species of worship due to God alone. But only worshipers make such gestures, or such distinctions. Of course, one might say that all men “worship” one thing or another: wealth or power or pleasure, even individual notions of justice or patriotic duty. But this is to use the term loosely; this is worship without intention.

I was raised a worshiper and I worship still. At the traditional Catholic parish where I attend Mass, I pray, kneel, bow, make the sign of the cross, chant the Gloria in Latin and receive the Eucharist with intention. I say the Creed without the private reservations that troubled me as a younger man. I am rather more aware now of how little I can claim to understand, but I worship as a Christian because I believe that Truth is Christian.

As a worshiper, I stand with the majority in the “democracy of the dead.” Worship is something I have in common with my ancestors, and with yours. True, the objects of worship have changed. I say that my pre-Christian ancestors bowed their heads to Woden, Lugh or Jupiter in error. But at least they knew that worship was the proper response to finding oneself a human creature of transcendent yearnings and mortal constraints.

There’s no reason to think ritual worship was ever neglected by large numbers of people in the entire history of Homo sapiens until quite recently. Some will believe this is progress, but perhaps they fail to appreciate the profundity of the change or to wonder about its consequences. Worship is, among other things, an acknowledgement of our contingency and utter dependence, of the fact that we are not ontologically self-sustaining creatures. Christian worship especially is a school of humility, and humility is reason and realism when it comes to human nature. Without it we are tempted into fantasies of hubris, delusion, and worse.

As it happens, Christopher de Hamel approaches his subject with humility too, both as a paleographer and a writer. He knows the universal fascination inspired by the artifacts he describes. At the same time, he seems to understand that Christians and non-Christians will approach and interpret these artifacts in radically different and sometimes incompatible ways. People in the latter category will often miss the grand context of faith and devotion that is assumed by the works in question and still shared by their spiritual descendants today.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts reads like a pilgrimage. Each chapter narrates an encounter with a specific manuscript, describing not only the book itself, its original purpose and the history of its ownership, but also how it is physically stored and handled, in what kind of institution and by what kinds of people. It became a sort of game for me to guess when de Hamel would be required to wear gloves or when the contact of human flesh with human artifact might still be allowed, at least to a credentialed expert.

Not all of the manuscripts included in de Hamel’s book are religious in content. He includes the Leiden Aratea (a work of ancient astronomy), the Carmina Burana (famous through Carl Orff’s musical adaptation), and the copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at the National Library of Wales (which I once saw in person). Most, however, are gospels or psalters or prayer books, starting with the rustic sixth-century Gospels of St Augustine, continuing through the Book of Kells (which I’ve also seen) to the sublime Copenhagen Psalter and the lavish Spinola Hours.

How strange it must be for a non-Christian who has never set foot in a church or known an act of worship to open a book like this. What are all these strange references and pious symbols? What is it all about? They tell us that the past is a different country, but for some it may be like a bit of unfamiliar countryside in their own native land; for others it may as well be Mars.

“There are two kinds of people,” we are often tempted to say, and never without some justification. Stepping into the museum, the non-worhiper sees in the gospel codex an item of historical curiosity; in the icon of Christ an inscrutable example of ancient portraiture. The worshiper, on the other hand, sees in each a sacred object cut off from the life of the community that gave it its holy character, relics of a still-living faith treated as taxidermy. He may be grateful to see them at all, but it pains him to see them behind glass.

Classical Farnsworth

The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth ~

Ward Farnsworth announced himself to the general reading public in 2010 with the release of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric. It was a bold move, that title (I’m reminded of the Incomparable Max’s first book, published at age twenty-four, which he christened The Works of Max Beerbohm). But it’s a very fine book and I’ve been educating myself with it a bit at a time for the past year or so. Likewise, I’ve been working through his equally delightful follow-up, Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor.

Precedent be damned, he did not title his newest book Farnsworth’s Classical Roman Stoicism, but it follows the pattern set by the first, in which a rhetorical figure (Epizeuxis, say) was briefly defined, then illustrated with well-chosen quotations before moving on to Chiasmus or some other concept. Similarly, in The Practicing Stoic Farnsworth considers one idea at a time (judgment, death, desire, etc.), describing in his own words the Stoic understanding of such and illustrating it with copious citations from marble-busted heavies like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and (my personal favorite) Seneca. Recourse is also made to later authors like Montaigne, Dr. Johnson and Schopenhauer to demonstrate the lingering influence of Stoic thought.

It’s difficult to imagine a more appealing or better organized introduction to Stoicism for those who, for whatever reason, find it impossible to engage directly with the undiluted Stoics themselves. If Farnsworth’s book earns a readership of any size, he will have accomplished a civic good, because God knows we could use some practical, old-school philosophy in our whimpering, infantilized age.

But this is not to say that I have no complaints with the book, or with Stoicism. I think, for example, that Farnsworth could have spent more time contemplating the point at which our judgments and the objective qualities of events may in fact align with one another, and how we may know when that is so. I am very willing to agree that the mass of our judgments are disordered but it does not follow that (to adapt Hamlet’s words) “there is [absolutely] nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” I can hardly blame Mr. Farnsworth, however, since this seems to be a weak point of classical Stoicism itself.

Crisis of a Mind

~ Chess Story by Stefan Zweig ~

“A civilization has the same fragility as a life,” wrote Paul Valéry a few months before the Treaty of Versailles. The First World War had taught his generation this lesson was no less applicable to twentieth-century Europe than to ancient Babylon or Greece. It was a near thing, the war, but “we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all.”

I couldn’t helping thinking of Valéry’s essay “The Crisis of the Mind” after reading Zweig’s remarkable novella. As the story goes, Zweig and his wife killed themselves in Brazilian exile shortly after mailing off the manuscript. It was 1942. They did not expect civilization to survive this second war, and they didn’t care to be present for what might come after.

Zweig’s story is not flatly collapsible into metaphor but it’s impossible not to see a reflection of Hitler in the plodding, barely literate chess master Czentovic. Nor is it possible to avoid finding in his mysterious opponent an image of Zweig himself, or else the embodiment of that tradition of culture honored by Valéry and Zweig.

The details of characterization and the combat of wills makes Chess Story an engrossing piece of fiction. The intensity builds to a perfect crescendo that one need not be an expert player to appreciate. I was elated when I finished it. Only after I had set the book down and meditated a while did I really grasp what a crushing testimony of despair it is.


~ A Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq ~

Is there such thing as a pre-apocalyptic novel? Gracq seems to have written something like one here. Or you might describe the book as an anti-fairy tale.

Lieutenant Grange finds himself in charge of three soldiers and a concrete blockhouse on a wooded plateau in the Ardennes forest near the Belgian border. The Second World War has begun on paper but for the French it hasn’t yet begun in strict fact. Stationed on the heavily wooded Roof, as they call the ridge above the River Meuse, Grange is cut off from command and falls powerfully under the spell of the place. He drinks in isolation like wine and spends his weeks daydreaming, watching the change of seasons, the birds, the skies. He has an affair with a young widow who is more sprite than human.

The spell only intensifies as war comes nearer. The last peasants from the neighboring villages are evacuated and even the homeless vagabonds depart the forest. French cavalry and infantry pass up the road and vanish. There are distant rumbles, signs in the sky, towers of smoke at the horizon. The depopulation and transformation of the countryside leaves Grange strangely elevated.

Without changing position, Grange and his men pass a mysterious frontier. But it is not into the land of Faerie that they cross. They cross out of it, into the land of mortal men.

Jonah in Siberia

Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson ~

“You’re always late to your own life,” writes Sylvain Tesson. I agree it often feels that way. I was never so ready to be a student as when I had finished school. I was never truly ready to be a husband or a father until I had been those things for several years. Doing seems to be the only preparation. But some of us will always stretch hands toward misty desiderata; we belatedly discover what is actually ours.

Taken from Tesson’s journals, Consolations of the Forest is the story of a late arrival. Tesson flees responsibilities and emotional attachments in France to set himself up for six months in a tiny cabin on the shore of Siberia’s Lake Baikal. It is winter and minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, but he packs in vast stores of pasta, Tabasco sauce, cigars and vodka, plus a library of 70 books. (“When you have misgivings about the poverty of your inner life,” he says, “it’s important to bring along good books to fill that void in a pinch.”)

Though Tesson was already in his late thirties, it was adulthood he was running from. I don’t mean this as a slight. God knows I was late for it too. But the early chapters of his book have an adolescent quality: exuberant but showy. See what a rebel I am, he seems to say as he decries late modernity. See how clever I am, as he wrestles with Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Tesson fancies himself a hermit but so far he’s play-acting. No true hermit ever turned his back on the world in such flamboyant fashion or with such reliance upon an interested audience.

Things change midway through his Siberian sojourn. Tesson discovers that life back home has moved on in ways that cause him pain but force an honest self-evaluation. It’s liberating when he finds himself on the other side. “We are never so alive,” he learns, “as when we are dead to the world.” The journal becomes less a stage for performance; it becomes a record of observation and contemplation.

The melting of the lake ice and the snow on the mountains, the waking of the cedars, the rising and setting of sun and moon, the explosion of plant and insect life from the earth, the return of the birds from their southern haunts, the daily lives of his few Russian neighbors; all begin suddenly to claim Tesson’s honest attention. His prose finds its pace. His thoughts find their measure. In other words, he arrives. “Happiness becomes this simple thing: waiting for something you know will happen.”

If we’re late to our own life, perhaps that’s because we cannot know beforehand what it will look like. How will we recognize it? We’re taught to expect certain things. Other things we come to expect for ourselves. We cling to pre-written autobiographies that do not exist outside our mind; we are blind and numb to life in the present moment. Some people, it may be, only properly arrive for their own lives on their deathbeds. But it’s better in this case not to be so fashionably late.