Lectio Divina

The dead don’t read, or else I’m mistaken. It’s hard to imagine a literature of the afterlife unless the torments of Hell include forced readings of mirthless volumes on contract law or airline seatback magazines.

And yet I sometimes think that a bit of heavenly light shines forth from the page. Just now I’m reading Patrick O’Brian’s Desolation Island, the fifth of his Aubrey-Maturin sea tales set during the Napoleonic Wars. I don’t know how many years have passed since I read the fourth installment, but what a welcome rediscovery.

Consider the following passage. Stephen Maturin (physician, spy) is at breakfast a day after suffering painful reverses to his romantic and professional ambitions. He’s become addicted to laudanum and is ill with need. He’s reading a medical paper authored by a Dr. Mellowes, describing a proposed treatment for consumption, which Stephen thinks misconceived:

Deep in toast and marmalade, he demolished Mellowes root and branch; and noticing the indignation with which his hand had underlined the whole claptrap peroration, he observed, ‘I am not dead.’

I will not vivisect the sentence; I love it too much. But at its best, and unpredictably, reading may be for us – as it is in that moment for Stephen – an occasion of moral illumination, a grappling with life rather than an escape from it.

Even a reading of Mellowes.

How Long, O Lord?

Human beings have a mania for stretching things out and measuring them, and most of the time we’re gobsmacked by the results. It’s as if we’re always underestimating the fully-extended lengths of things. I know, I know: crass jokes suggest themselves, but I’ll spare you (and myself). I’m talking about things like intestines. End to end, the average human small intestine is something like twenty feet long, while the (arguably misnamed) large intestine is five. I first heard those stats in grade school and thought to myself: “It takes a lot of guts to make a man.”

Thanks to Damian over at A Sunday of Liberty, I’ve rediscovered the joy of Bill Bryson. I’m currently reading his latest, The Body, in which Bryson tells me that the unraveled DNA in each of my cells (and yours too) is about three feet in length. Since I’m made up of so many cells, he says, all the DNA I contain, placed end to end, would stretch “ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto.” Which seems ridiculous, but then I’m always impressing myself in unexpected ways.

Did you know that the ocean is chock full of viruses? Apparently nobody knew that until recently. But in 1986 a student named Lila Proctor (who went on, it seems, to work for the National Institutes of Health) found that the average quart of sea water contains 100 billion individual viruses. Unable to restrain himself, Bryson put the question to an expert and found that “ocean viruses alone if laid end to end would stretch for ten million light years.” Thanks for that, Bill, because I was wondering the same thing.

It’s hard to wrap your mind around how things that stretch to such literally astronomical distances could ever be stuffed into spaces so relatively compact (a cell, a body, an ocean). The answer is that things like DNA and viruses-in-a-row are practically one-dimensional. They have no width or depth to speak of. Pluck a foot-long hair from your sister’s head and scrunch it up tiny and you’ll find it fits, with room to spare, into a square centimeter. A strand of DNA is many thousands of times finer than a human hair.

Perhaps the notion of infinite (or near-infinite) compactibility comes more easily to us when thinking about time. We stretch the minutes end to end and measure an hour, a day, a year, a decade, a millennium, etc. But what contains the years? Where do they go? As a child I never imagined anything beyond the year 2000. It was the sum total of the future. But now it amounts to nothing at all. Twenty years more have fit themselves to me, and their effects are visible enough. But even the four billion-ish years of the Earth’s age may be crammed into a space of no dimensionality at all.

So, Happy New Year. Whatever that is.

Faulkner and the Commies

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré ~

When I was sick at home from school I used to watch Donahue on television. In the mid-1980s Phil Donahue co-hosted a series of episodes with Vladimir Pozner that joined a studio audience in the United States with another in the Soviet Union for an hour of open conversation. A lot of the politics went over my head at the time. I remember two things: that the Americans laughed when a member of the Russian audience said the existence of God had been disproved by science, and that the Russians were shocked to find they had more admiration for Faulkner than most Americans did.

Reading John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold reminds us (if a reminder is needed) that the Cold War was a conflict of ideas and not merely a long chess game of global domination. It seems to me that the Communists had a better idea what they really wanted. They believed in the Marxist vision of the perfect society as an end justifying (in their minds) all necessary means, and collective interests trumped individual liberties every time. The West was clearer on what it didn’t want. It only knew the Marxist utopia was a lie. When quizzed about his personal philosophy by GDR agent Fiedler, le Carré’s hero Alec Leamas says he doesn’t have one, that he’s against the communists because they’re a bunch of bastards. Fiedler has to explain to him why he feels that way.

Looking back at the Cold War, I see something like two aging brothers fighting over what’s left of their joint inheritance from parents and a family life they barely remember. The sacredness of human personhood and the vision of the heavenly city – both were leftovers of Christendom, divorced from faith and from the theological matrix that held them both within a larger synthesis. The Communist East wanted the heavenly city but forgot that it is only achieved beyond this world. The West remembered vaguely that human personhood is holy (since God had become a man) and so could not be stamped upon without sin, even for the building of utopia.

In supporting its principles the West sometimes betrayed them terribly. But the East’s principles were a betrayal to begin with, an attempt to “immanentize of the eschaton” built on a misconception of human nature. Citizenship in the heavenly city requires a personal transfiguration that cannot be effected by collective will. And yet, ever since Rousseau, the call to Revolution has bewitched us. The animating ideals of Marxism find fresh purchase twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union. This is our sickness: We don’t know what we are, and so we reach out to what we imagine we may yet become. The radical Yes has a glamour the moderate No will struggle to counter. But sometimes wisdom requires a No – even a No to Faulkner.

The Problem with Prison Lit

~ I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan ~

As readers we’re tempted to uncritically applaud almost any book smuggled out of prison, and political imprisonment is especially likely to lend the author a halo. Likewise, I suppose, the prison writer may be tempted to imagine his work is more important or profound than it really is. Ahmet Altan acknowledges the risks: “Add the sentence ‘I write these words from a prison cell’ to any narrative and you will add tension and vitality,” he writes, “and an ill-concealed call for mercy.”

I came to this book with little knowledge of Altan, who is a novelist of some notoriety in his native Turkey. From what I gather, he was imprisoned on charges of sending “subliminal messages” in support of an attempted coup against the Erdogan government during a television interview. It’s ridiculous that such an accusation should earn a man a life sentence, but it did. The full story is surely more complex. Political prisonerhood appears to be a tradition in Altan’s family (his father, his brother), and a little digging shows that he’s worn his politics on his sleeve for decades as a journalist and public figure.

This in no way justifies Altan’s imprisonment, but I wonder why some authors are so easily tempted by partisanship. Even when I sympathize with the views expressed, I pull a sour face. We see this kind of imposture too often. Actors and musicians who are used to being applauded for their talents generalize the praise they receive and come to believe that their opinions on all kinds of subjects – and especially on politics – are enlightened and important. Celebrity opinions may be influential, but in nine cases out of ten they ought not to be.

There’s little of an explicitly political nature in I Will Never See the World Again. There are corrupt judges, a general sense of Kafkaesque absurdity in the proceedings, complaints about the conditions of confinement. Altan is more interested in the personalities of his cell mates, relations between the jailers and the jailed, and especially in his own subjective experience of imprisonment: the nature of longing, the seductions of dreams, and how the sense of time is stretched and flattened and rendered meaningless in such an environment.

Some people, uncaged, imagine themselves in prison. Others, imprisoned, imagine themselves free, and manage to live a life of the mind in fresh air under a warming sun, without walls. That vision of Stoic liberty is attractive to Altan. He pursues it explicitly in some of the pieces collected here. He revisits in memory the people and places and books he has loved. When that fails him, he writes like a medium channeling Seneca: “I clung firmly to my own death. It calmed me… The eternity of death has a power to trivialize even the most terrifying moments of life.”

Less interesting to me, and less satisfying, is the way Altan makes a fetish of his vocation as a writer, as if it granted him superhero powers. Maybe he’s putting on a brave face, but it feels affected and false. In the triumphal but unconvincing final chapter, he writes in a grating series of one-line paragraphs:

I am writing this in a prison cell.
But I am not in prison.
I am a writer.
I am neither where I am nor where I am not.
You can imprison me, but you cannot keep me here.
Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.

But he can’t, not really. Freedom of the mind, to whatever degree it exists or is exercised, is not the prerogative of “writers” only but something which nature, or God, puts in reach of all. And yet this book demonstrates, if nothing else, that Altan is personally unable, physically or intellectually, to walk through walls. The fact of his confinement shapes everything about I Will Never See the World Again.

Ahmet Altan was unexpectedly released from prison in November 2019, not long after publication of this volume. He was taken back to prison a week later. His trials and imprisonments seem a preposterous charade. But his book doesn’t, in my opinion, fully justify the fantastic accolades it has received. A writer submits his work to the judgment of readers and we do best to render him neither less nor more than justice. It’s easy to forget that shackles do not make a saint, and a prison cell lends the writer no special genius. If we grant an author allowances because he is writing from prison, then we have read politically rather than critically.

Bird Sign, Late Fall


A couple weeks ago we heard reports of barred owls attacking joggers in our neighborhood. The barred owl is an eastern bird that has expanded its range westward over the years. It has a wingspan of four feet and may nest in winter. It does well in the city. My daughter plotted the sightings on a map. We began our search at dusk, with a pair of binoculars and a flashlight. We found an owl at the south end of a nearby park, diving at squirrels through the branches, and followed it from tree to tree until dark. The owl sat glum and hungry on a bough twenty feet above us. Frustrated by our persistent observation, it hissed and then, quite shockingly, screamed at us with a voice just like a woman from a 1980s horror movie.

Last week my sister and her family were visiting for the Thanksgiving holiday. Tuesday we went to dinner downtown at Pine Street Market, a mid-scale food court in a nicely renovated old building on Second Avenue. We parked on the street. Stepping out of the car we saw that the trees all around were full of crows. Thousands and thousands of crows – clicking, barking, jostling one another for space. More were flying in from the east, filling in available branches, blacking the roof-lines of buildings and the niches of stone facades. Grasping the circumstances, we ran for the market doors. Two of us were hit by droppings and had to clean up before dinner. It was trivia bingo night at the market and we regretted not playing because, between the seven of us, we knew every answer.

Saturday after our house guests left we drove to Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge, on the Washington side of the Columbia River. It was a frigid day with a sharp breeze. Where it wasn’t moving, the water in the shallow marsh was frozen over. We had passed several deer and a road-kill coyote on the highway but it was midday now and there weren’t many birds out. We marched toward a line of cottonwoods where a fat nutria (the rodent with a name like a brand of supplements) crossed the path in front of us. Walking the dike that shoulders the Columbia we found three bald eagles. One swooped down and returned to its perch with a limp American kestrel in its talons. It picked briefly at its victim’s breast, then dropped the corpse. Twenty yards away, another kestrel (its mate?) stood alert on a fence post. It shot upwards, brave and ineffective, when the eagle passed.

That night we had our first snow. It was approaching midnight when I looked out the dining room window and saw it coming down steadily under the street lamp. It was too warm to stick. Late Sunday morning I was walking the dog under clear skies when we were suddenly surrounded by great numbers of birds: sparrows and juncos and bushtits, cedar waxwings, a couple flickers, a few jays. In our yard and the field across the street were dozens – maybe hundreds – of starlings and the big thrushes we call robins in the United States. Sudden congregations like this often presage a meteorological event, so I looked around. Sure enough, up from the south came a wall of gray. A half-hour later sleet was falling. Then, briefly, cotton-ball clumps of sticky snow. Then rain. Just the right weather for the US Postal Service to prove its motto, if only there were Sunday delivery.


The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens ~

When Dickens began writing The Old Curiosity Shop his eldest children were still under five years old. I wonder if that had something to do with the theme of the book. Parenthood teaches you early on how easily age and experience, in yourself, may fail youth and innocence in your kids, and the world beyond the warmth and safety of home suddenly bristles in the imagination with brutality and danger.

Chesterton somewhere points out that Dickens’ book is oddly named, since the main characters leave the Curiosity Shop of the title near the beginning and never return to it. I don’t know, but it may be that Dickens had another connection in mind. The curiosity shop he leads us through in the novel – pointing out now this and now that item of interest – may be England itself, or the Industrial era, or the human heart in its contrarieties.

Early Dickens isn’t as good, I think, as late Dickens, but there are some successes in The Old Curiosity Shop that make it worthwhile. Kit is too saccharine. Quilp is too much the melodramatic villain. But Mrs. Jarley’s traveling waxwork show is memorable, as are the Punch and Judy men. Nell and her grandfather are a bit pathetic at first but they grow, I think, into something unsettling and almost sublime. Their Dantean passage through the industrial hell of the Midlands has a powerful nightmare quality.

But Dick Swiveller steals the show. A side character whose role progressively broadens through the novel, he is the true life of the book, the most vibrant and funny and sympathetic thing about it. He gets all the best lines. Dick is real in a way that the others simply are not, and his relations with Sally Brass, the Single Gentleman, and the Marchioness are enough, when all else fails (as now and then it does), to keep you turning the pages.


I assured my dad from the back seat of the car (I was nine years old at the time) that I’d rather kiss a pig than kiss a girl. “Is that so?” he said. “We’ll make sure you have the chance to kiss a pig when we get to Iowa.”

It was an eighteen-hundred-mile drive: mountains and desert and mountains again, and then the high plains where thunderheads stamped like angry gods in the sky. The third day we crossed the Missouri and came into the prairies of western Iowa where the Raccoon River curls in a vein of woods through open farmland and the little towns of family lore roll by: Jefferson and Perry and Rippey and Churdan.

Most of the “Erstwhile Eight” (my grandfather and his seven siblings) had given up the farming life and moved away, but not all of them. Iowa was still the extended family’s center of gravity and big reunions were held every few years on my great-aunt and uncle’s farm.

A hundred towheaded cousins made havoc in the hay-stuffed barn and took goat-buggy rides while parents and grandparents gossiped and shuttled massive platters of Jell-O salad and buttered corn and grilled chicken between the house and the canopied picnic tables. There was a prayer service, a sing-along, a talent show.

Then the Eight sat in a half-circle, surrounded by their descendants, all dressed in color-coded t-shirts to show which branch of the family they belonged to. The old folks teased each other and told stories and laughed and cried, but mostly laughed. After dark the kids chased lightning bugs through the grass.

We stayed a week in Iowa. We saw the ruin of the house where my grandfather was born. We visited the graves of great-grandparents and of my aunt who had died as a baby. Then we toured the farm of my father’s childhood. I surveyed the battlefield (back garden) where, BB-gun in hand, Dad had once engaged in a legendary standoff with the irascible pet gander Big Chief Harvest Moon.

Before turning toward the Rockies again we stopped at Cousin Denny’s farm where a penned hog was made available for me to kiss. It was a six- or seven-hundred pounder and the flat end of its snout was the size of a dinner plate. Denny wiped it between the ears with a rag. “That’s the spot,” he said. “You know, it could bite your arm right in two.”

Undaunted, I kissed it as promised, just to prove how much I despised the fair sex.

Magic Mountains

~ Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby ~

Eric Newby was captured by the Fascists after a flubbed attack on an Axis airbase in Sicily. He eventually found himself in a prison hospital on the mainland, injured by falling down stairs, when the Italian Armistice was signed. The temporary peace resulted in his release from prison but also in the Nazis taking control of Italy and putting the Fascists back in charge. Newby and other former prisoners of war were hounded through the mountains for months on end.

Every day Italians risked their lives to help him. They sheltered and fed him, hid him and warned him of raids. Their daughters fell in love with him (he went on to marry one of them). He could hardly blame anyone who might betray him, given the dangers and the incentives. Sometimes, wandering hungry and feverish through the rugged Apennines, he fell out of time altogether into a sort of Medieval or bronze-age dream that only the roar of passing bombers could snap him out of.

Newby spent the early winter of 1943 in a hillside shelter that some of the local elders had built for him. Their grandchildren brought him food and other supplies. He had a few books to while away the time: Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides, the second half of Gibbon’s history, an Italian almanac a few years out of date. He read hungrily and gratefully. It was only later in life, he says, when he had the safety to be foolish, that he fell into “the error of equating the act of reading with enlightenment.”

Real enlightenment, if it exists, cannot be had at second hand. It must be a matter of direct experience, incommunicable to others. And yet there’s something uncanny about Newby’s memoir. Smoke and stone, the smell of old sheepskin, flame-flicker glances of human faces, fear in the dark, the soft oblivion of sleep, friendship and love discovered among strangers – in Newby’s hands, and through his self-deprecating humor, they add up to joyful revelation.

Skimpole Abroad

“I lie in a shady place like this, and think of adventurous spirits going to the North Pole, or penetrating to the heart of the Torrid Zone, with admiration. Mercenary creatures ask, ‘What is the use of a man’s going to the North Pole! What good does it do?’ I can’t say; but, for anything I can say, he may go for the purpose – though he don’t know it – of employing my thoughts as I lie here.”

So ponders Harold Skimpole in Dickens’ Bleak House. We laugh at Skimpole’s nonsense and blame him for living off the funds of others, but as a reader of travel books I’ve entertained similar thoughts and have lived for weeks at a time on the adventures of others. I am not a restless man by nature. I don’t really want more adventure than I’m likely to find near home. But nothing makes a tale like a journey.

The power of contrast may account for the appeal. In summer I like to read about arctic exploration; in winter, about tropic jungles and flaming deserts. It is peace that makes stories of war glamorous, homely comforts and ease of life that make travel and hardship bewitching. But in extremities and strange places I pine for home.

Among travel writers, I have admired Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West, Bruce Chatwin, Nicolas Bouvier, Martha Gellhorn, and John McPhee. Among explorers and adventurers, I have admired Joshua Slocum, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and (if war can be adventure) T.E. Lawrence and Ernst Junger. But the only one I might be tempted to trade lives with is Eric Newby.

Newby worked in the world’s last commercial sailing fleet in the late thirties, running before the wind between England and Australia (subject of The Last Grain Race). He was captured mid-war in Sicily, escaped from a prison camp, and evaded the Nazis in the mountains of Italy (Love and War in the Apennines). After a career at a London fashion house (scoring points for diversity of interests), Newby traveled by car across Turkey and Iran to climb a mountain in Afghanistan (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush). He managed it all, and more besides, with humor and humility and winning foolhardiness.

At least, that is, in the retelling. Who knows how awful and pointless and regrettable it might have felt, at times, for Newby himself. And it really must have, which is why I’m content to be myself and not Eric Newby after all. But only mercenary creatures count the cost when it comes to the sufferings of authors. Shameless Harold Skimpoles like us are happy enough to travel by armchair and while away an afternoon on someone else’s dime.