How Do You Solve a Problem Like Kristin?

The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset ~

I read the first installment of Sigrid Undset’s three-volume Kristin Lavransdatter shortly after finishing the Saga of the Volsungs and I can’t help but wonder how the Scandinavians ever got a reputation for stoic reticence. Garrison Keillor’s cool-blooded “Norwegian bachelor farmers” are a sham. It’s one big drama club up north, from the Gulf of Bothnia to the black sand beaches of Iceland.

Writing soon after the First World War, Undset was doing something very different from her contemporaries. They worked to dismantle what was left of the traditional moral order and to “animalize” humanity, but Undset believed in the validity of that order and insisted that man was still half angel. They preached the abolition of sin and its removal from the dictionary of common usage, while Undset wrote an apologia for sin’s reality and a meditation on the complexities of grace and repentance.

Removed from its medieval setting, the basic plot of The Bridal Wreath might have been a D.H. Lawrence novel: a young woman discovers love and sex and rebels against the strictures of her elders. In such hands it would have been a drama of passion confronting the toothless ghosts of dead pruderies. The heart wants what it wants and there’s an end to it.

But Sigrid Undset, for all her realism of style, avoids that kind of adolescent appeal. She fails in sympathy neither for the weakness of the flesh nor for the soul’s more noble longings. Her characters enact a drama that is for them a real participation in the greater cosmic drama of their Christian medieval world view.

The Other Joy

~ Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis ~

No, Surprised by Joy is not a record of the pranks Mrs. Lewis (Joy Davidman) played on her husband. The Joy referred to is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” It is a “stab,” a “pang,” an “inconsolable longing” which afflicts us unexpectedly and which offers (if we look carefully) glimpses of the transcendent. Lewis in this memoir describes how moments of such Joy led him to the re-embrace of Christianity.

I like to think I know what Lewis is talking about, but the reader may sympathize with him or not. Lewis was an intellectual but also a bit of a mystic. Even among his Christian readers, some find him too dry, others too wet. That’s all right; no single cup of tea can possibly be everybody’s cup of tea. And yet it’s hard to imagine a fair-minded reader discovering nothing of value here.

Lewis really was a fine writer and this is a book with a lot to commend it. The prose is delightful. The portraits of Lewis’s father and various schoolmasters and mentors are well-drawn and memorable. I was fascinated by his depiction of the Edwardian era generally (and of the First World War, in which he fought), and of the Ulster and Surrey of the time.

The last few chapters of Surprised by Joy leave off biographical details and become something more like an intellectual personal history. There’s a philosophical sophistication and rigor to it (found also in other Lewis books like The Four Loves) which it’s hard to imagine would keep the interest of today’s general audience. And yet this was written for a general audience and read by a general audience at publication in 1955. Nothing like this gets published today. It’s our loss.

The Inaccuracy Permitted to Opposition

Anthony Trollope does not deal in fireworks. He lacks the imagination of Dickens, the excitement of Collins, and the philosophy of Eliot. He is consistently charming, however, and sometimes his observations stick. In Phineas Finn Trollope as narrator wonders at the ability of Mr. Mildmay (Whig) and Mr. Daubeny (Tory) to maintain a private friendship despite their ferocious political opposition to one another. In an aside, he says:

“It is not so in the United States. There the same political enmity exists, but the political enmity produces private hatred. The leaders of parties there really mean what they say when they abuse each other, and are in earnest when they talk as though they were about to tear each other limb from limb.”

This was written a few years after the close of the Civil War, when the memory of American limb tearing was still fresh. There are some today who predict a second helping of that gory repast. I am not among them, but I grant that Trollope’s words still fairly describe the cannibal fervor of some of our political leaders.

Elsewhere in Phineas Finn Mr. Monk explains to the hero of the novel why those MPs in opposition to government have a better time of it than those tasked with governing:

“[T]he delight of political life is altogether in opposition. Why, it is freedom against slavery, fire against clay, movement against stagnation! The very inaccuracy which is permitted to opposition is itself a charm worth more than all the patronage and all the prestige of ministerial power.”

Case in point, the radical demagogue Mr. Turnbull:

“Having nothing to construct, he could always deal with generalities. Being free from responsibility, he was not called upon to study details or to master even great facts. It was his business to inveigh against existing evils, and perhaps there is no easier business when once the privilege of an audience has been attained. It was his work to cut down forest-trees, and he had nothing to do with the subsequent cultivation of the land.”

Phineas himself summarizes the temptation: “It is so comfortable to have theories that one is not bound to carry out.” That’s a lesson for more than politics.

Beware the Mutant

~ The Chrysalids by John Wyndham ~

I’m not sure who gets credit for writing the first post-apocalyptic novel set in the aftermath of a nuclear war but John Wyndham may be a contender with The Chrysalids, published in 1955. Not that his characters understand what has happened to the world. All they have are tales and legends of the “Old People” before the “Tribulation.” They live, however, with the consequences of that ancient cataclysm in the rampant genetic mutations which they struggle to select against in their small farming communities, and in the erupting menace of the Fringe country where all forms of life (plant and animal) are alarmingly variable.

Wyndham writes well and makes several good choices in the novel. A certain amount of explication is unavoidable but he burdens the reader with no more than necessary. The society he describes is convincing in its details without being so inaccessible as Riddley Walker’s (which Russell Hoban, in his novel of the same name, presents through the medium of an invented dialect). What’s more, Wyndham skirts the temptation to overindulge the sort of phantasmagoria one might fear from a tale concerned with genetic mutations. The particular mutation at the center of the story (which I won’t divulge) is an invisible one which is naturally introduced and convincingly described.

I’m at a loss, however, to understand the final meaning of Wyndham’s book, if it has one. The protagonist’s pastoral, dourly religious, and quite forgivably ignorant society of “Labrador” is ostensibly the enemy, but it’s not clear to me that the alternative which presents itself – in deus ex machina fashion – is preferable. The mutation belonging to the protagonist and his friends marks an evolutionary leap in human development, and yet it has a very terrible quality to it. It severs them strangely from neighbors and family while binding them exclusively to each other. But is it truly a difference of kind or merely one of degree? By their own reckoning, it literally (and positively) dehumanizes them. By our reckoning, as readers judging their choices, it figuratively does the same.

Cousteau!

I was a child of the 1970s and raised with the television on at all times. It was like another member of the family, by far the loudest and most talkative of us. I watched everything from Scooby Doo and Donahue to That’s Incredible and Good Times and reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies. I considered the theme from Taxi the most beautiful, melancholy thing in the world. But more than any of these I loved nature shows. I would drop anything (toys, friends, grandparents) to watch an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or a Jacques Cousteau special.

We use television differently now, but nature shows are still important at my house. If you say “Uncle David” to my kids, they’ll believe you’re referring to David Attenborough, despite the fact that their mother’s brother is also a David. My daughter has followed her enthusiasm farther than I ever did. At age thirteen she’s a bona fide amateur naturalist with professional ambitions. She plots field expeditions, takes notes on everything, collects and pins insects, practices taxidermy when allowed, is handy with a microscope, and has amassed a respectable natural history library with several rare volumes.

Not long ago I decided to introduce my children to the nature shows I watched as a boy. Few of the old shows are available online but we managed to find several episodes of Wild Kingdom and Jacques Cousteau’s Voyage to the Edge of the World. There was a risk, I thought, that my son and daughter might find these productions dull or disappointing. But they were astonished by them. Without a second thought, they threw Uncle David to the curb and agreed with me that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

There really is nothing like Marlin Perkins tearing overhead in a helicopter and shooting sedative darts at frightened wildebeest. Or Jim Fowler leaping from a hovercraft to tackle an eight-point stag for tagging. And then – Cousteau! Voyage to the Edge of the World, which follows the Calypso on an expedition to Antarctica, is a masterpiece of storytelling and filmography. Cousteau and his men navigate ice floes, dive with seals and whales, walk among nesting seabirds. They explore the glassy caves and spires of an iceberg floating on the waves like a cloud palace.

The difference between the old nature shows and the new ones is simple. The old shows have people in the frame, the new ones generally do not. There are philosophical implications. For all their crisp and virtuosic camera work, today’s nature shows give us a world without Man. Or, if Man is mentioned, he is a faceless threat, an alien interloper out to destroy the global ecosystem of which he forms no native part. Today’s nature shows want to shame you for being human.

By contrast, when Cousteau and Wild Kingdom put people into the frame they show us that human beings are a part of the environment, exceptional creatures among creatures. Our presence and our curiosity are complementary to the living things we study and the places we explore. The natural world is revealed not only as a field of academic knowledge but a place of vital adventure. We are at home on the Earth in the way that a knight errant is at home in the wood. 

A Gray Faith

~ Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray ~

According to John Gray, most Western atheists – especially those of liberal politics – are secret Christians. They unwittingly rely on a set of values and a vision of the world that are rooted in Christianity. He makes a good case, both in the present title and elsewhere, and perhaps that’s why Gray is the Christian’s favorite atheist these days.

But though Gray blames the so-called New Atheists for attacking “a narrow segment of religion while failing to understand even that small part,” he does only marginally better himself. Yes, he can quote Augustine and namedrop John Scotus Eriugena. But he places too much weight on absurdities like the Gnostic gospels and on the speculations of philosophers and quasi-theologians who stood well outside the mainstream of the historic faith.

Worse, Gray implies that apophatic theology (most influential in the Eastern Church) somehow makes theism optional for believers. He holds that “even in Western Christianity, ‘believing in God’ has not always meant asserting the existence of a supernatural being. The thirteenth-century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was explicit that God does not exist in the same way that any particular thing exists.” This is a careless reading of Aquinas. While the second sentence is true enough, it hardly supports what is suggested in the first.

These critiques aside, Gray is quotable and offers memorable portraits of figures like Lenin and the wonderfully insane John of Leiden. He manages to make Bertrand Russell more sympathetic than I had generally considered him to be, and I enjoyed his review of Mill , who “founded an orthodoxy – the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.” (Gray may need to revise his view of Mill based on Timothy Larsen’s recent biography.)

Of the “seven types” of atheism he describes, Gray fairly eviscerates the first five. The sixth and more urbane variety, which he favors, is represented by Santayana (too arid, despite my admiration for him) and Conrad (too Romantic). The exemplar of the seventh variety is Spinoza: an odd choice since he doesn’t seem to fit Gray’s definition of an atheist as someone who has “no use for the idea of a divine mind.” Spinoza might have replied that the divine mind is the only thing that exists.

But perhaps the strangest of Gray’s portraits is that of Dostoyevsky. Based on his reading of The Brothers Karamazov, he considers Dostoyevsky an atheist of the God-hating variety, since (in the novel) Ivan’s accusations are never fully answered. Gray at least acknowledges that Dostoyevsky wanted to be a Christian – but this leads one to wonder what Gray imagines life is like for a believer. If a Christian cannot harbor doubts and confess his incapacity to answer them, then the world probably hasn’t seen one yet.