Daybook, 16 June 2017

Getting into the weeds with some intellectual/academic work I’m doing, and will be working on the rest of the summer. I took a little time a day or two back and finished up (insomuch as anything of this sort can ever be “finished”) my library of Anglophone traditionalist conservatism/Christian humanism; there’s some really great stuff freely available there for your perusal.

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

Contemporary neo-traditionalist composer Michael Kurek’s tone poem The Sea Knows:

Daybook, Whitmonday (5 June) 2017

Been away for a couple of weeks, traveling and trying to get back settled into home. Things are now settling in, and I’m getting ready for 10 weeks or so of summertime reading, writing, and work before the new semester begins. I’ve got some academic work to do, and I’ve also got a couple of essays with personal significance to write. I also made the decision to kill all my social media accounts, and am reassessing what sort of public online life (other than this journal) I should be keeping; I hope to come to those conclusions, and put them in place, soon.

My various newsfeeds were all aswim with various things about the contemporary university here recently. Today’s readings are three of the more interesting pieces I came across.

Readings:

Something else:

Today is Whitmonday, the day after Pentecost (Whitsunday in the old English reckoning), and we are thus in Whitsuntide, with Trinity Sunday a few days away and then the long, long time of the Church coming up in the ordo kalendar. Whitsuntide was historically treated as the beginning of summer in Britain, with festivals and parades and brass bands and girls processing in white dresses and parishioners getting together to brew “Whitsun Ales.” It was also one of the three vacation weeks a peasant would have from his agricultural labours and service to his manor lord. As such, one would expect there to be a fair amount of art related to the celebration. But for whatever reason, other than Herbert’s magnificent (if distressing, confusing, and strangely dark) poem “Whitsunday,” there seems to be very little “high” art created in reference to Whitsuntide in Britain. It seems that it was more of a folk festival than anything else–which, reflecting on it a bit, makes a lot of sense, considering what I just said about its being a vacation time for the peasantry.

I did, however, find this Victorian-era folk song about Whitsuntide. It’s both profoundly pious, and also has a bit of the Anglo-Saxon pagan still present in it; it seems that in Victorian times, men would cut oak branches and lay them at the steps of all the houses throughout a parish during this time.

The lyrics are as follows:

Now Whitsuntide is come you very well do know,
Come serve the Lord we must before we do go.
Come serve him truly with all your might and heart
And then from heaven your soul shall never depart.

How do you know how long we have to live?
For when we die oh then what would we give?
For being sure of having our resting place
When we have run our simple wretched race.

Down in those gardens where flowers grow in ranks,
Down on your knees and to the Lord give thanks.
Down on your knees and pray both night and day,
Pray unto the Lord that He will lead the way.

Come all those little children all in the streets we meet
All in their pastimes so even and complete
It’s how you may hear them lie, boast, curse and swear
Before that they do know one word of any prayer.

Now we have brought you all this royal branch of oak,
God bless our Queen Victoria and all the royal folk
God bless our Queen and all this world beside
That the Lord may bless you all this merry Whitsuntide.

Brief Commentary–A Savage War

A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil WarA Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War by Williamson Murray

An exceptional book, marked by the sophistication of its analysis, yet marred by its narrative style. The authors propose that we must understand the American conflict of 1861-65 in terms of a transitional war, where the eternal lessons of Thucydides meet with the sociological changes wrought by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, especially the new conceptions of nation and citizen. However, the authors make clear that even this sociological revolution still carried with it the old notion of a “decisive victory”–something Lee, especially, was constantly seeking, showing his blindness to the new strategic framework presented by other sets of changes caused by the Industrial Revolution. That Revolution, especially as it picked up steam and grew exponentially more complex and the changes it wrought became greater and greater throughout the first half of the 19th century, presented unprecedented logistical contexts. When these logistics were played out against the sheer continental size of the Confederacy, where most of the War took place, the strategic frameworks of the war and its battles became something largely new in modern history. Both armies learned on the fly–and through creating mountains of corpses–producing a conflict that, in 1861 looked like an 18th century war, and by 1864, eerily presaged what the Western Front would look like 50 years later.

The authors draw heavily on Grant and Sherman’s memoirs, and thus there is a heavy focus on both men as perhaps the two most significant military figures of the War, as well the “hard war” of its closing years. As it is presented here, Sherman’s March to the Sea, and even more so his Carolinas Campaign, was the precursor to the RAF’s Dehousing campaign and Hiroshima–ostensibly necessary brutality to achieve victory through destroying all will on the part of the civilian population to continue the fight. This, in their assessment, is simply how wars are fought, especially a war of this sort with the huge distances, new technologies, and strategic contexts; only a “savage war” could have won it.

But to be clear, in their presentation, a “savage war” could have won it for the South, too. Had Jeff Davis left Joe Johnston–whom they regard as one of the great generals of the War, and a defensive genius–in charge of the Western Theatre in 1864, they suggest his defensive tactics could very well have produced a Fabian strategy that would have resulted in Sherman’s inability to accomplish much of anything except for his own soilders’ loss of blood. The authors suggest that this, combined with the tactical genius that allowed Lee to survive in Virginia despite the odds against him at this time, could have destroyed political support for the cause in the North, thus costing Lincoln the election and bringing a President McClellan to the bargaining table with Richmond. Because of the new, and ever evolving, strategic and logistical contexts of this conflict, savage war–whether breaking the will of the Confederate populace through sheer domination or bleeding a Union army stuck in neutral to the point of Northern exasperation and acquiescence–was the only way this war would end.

The authors show Grant is perhaps the only general who understands this early on, and thus they emphasize the early years in the Western theatre. Lee and the Southerners’ brilliant victories in the early years in the East mattered little, as they could never achieve that “decisive” Napoleonic victory; meanwhile, in the West, Grant was systematically using the logistical and industrial might of the North to destroy Southern railroads, communication, river traffic, and food production, ensuring that the Army of Northern Virginia would (eventually) be crippled. Thus, even though the authors resist the classic narrative that the North would necessarily win just from sheer numbers–Shelby Foote’s notion that the North “fought with one hand tied behind its back”–their argument actually shows just that to be the case, with some important caveats. Grant, in their view, isn’t just throwing men into the grinder, knowing that the Confederates will run out of men before he does; rather, they connect the North’s population, industrial, financial, and logistical superiority to the proper strategic and political contexts and decisions, and suggest that Grant was engaging those frameworks through leveraging the numerical superiority of the North.

So yes, this is a Grant-heavy, and to a lesser extent a Sherman-heavy, book. But there is also great praise for Southern generals. Lee is shown to lack a necessary strategic imagination, but to be as tactically brilliant as his legend shows him to be (even if his pride and myopia led him to some tactical blunders, most notoriously Pickett’s Charge). Johnston and Longstreet also come in for praise, as does Jackson–shown as a ferocious, hard man much more than a gallant, pious Christian knight. There is also real praise for N.B. Forrest, whom the authors implicitly regard as having led what amounts to a nigh-invincible special forces/commando team that the Confederates could never quite figure out what to do with. Forrest comes off as a mad genius and perhaps the single-greatest, and certainly most sui generis, military mind of the conflict; the authors mention, though refuse to speculate in any length, what things would have been like had Forrest been given command of a corps, much less an army.

The book is also provides strong analysis of the politics of the war–everything from the incompetence of the various political-appointee generals who hampered the Northern war effort, to the noxious, petty command cultures of the Armies of the Potomac and Tennessee, to Jeff Davis’s petty favoritism and myopic micro-management of the Western Theatre that doomed the Confederacy well before the fall of Atlanta, to the aforementioned need for Lincoln’s reelection, and the way both his leadership in Washington and the battlefield performances of Sherman and Grant ensured that happened. Thus, the authors provide us with a sweeping and comprehensive analysis of the War from multiple perspectives. From an analytical standpoint, the book is dynamite.

However, the book suffers in its narrative passages and in certain verbal tics by the authors. For one, having two authors does in places reveal itself, as it sometimes moves from rather sober language to strange attempts at black humor and snark; this is jarring and makes for strange reading. And while the book does have an obvious rah-rah-Union quality (unsurprising for a host of reasons, not least of which being the authors’ employment at the Naval Academy, and thus an almost-certain interest in defending a particular vision of America one can trace forward from Lincoln to the Global War on Terror), one of the narrative voices often slips into something close to vitriol directed at the South, a sort of implied “the bastards got what was coming to them, and should have had it worse, and it would have been fine and dandy.” This may fit your politics (or not), but it tends to take away from the sober, scholarly detachment the book cultivates throughout. A scholarly assessment briefly becoming a political screed, only to see a quick return to a scholarly assessment, is just fundamentally odd and distracting.

Finally, and most egregiously, the book’s one-volume treatment of the entirety of the War leads to narrations of battles and campaigns that often feel quite leaden. In attempting to fit so much information into so (relatively) few pages, the narrative and descriptive passages become very often inelegant, confusing, and hard-to-read, like the small, compressed comments under maps one would find in a history textbook. As so much of the book is narrative, this becomes a real liability for its overall success.

Nevertheless, despite the problems with narrative and the linguistic oddities, this book is a masterpiece of historical analysis that situates the War into the overall history of the evolution of human conflict in ways I had not encountered before. Its insistence on the significance of the Western theatre, especially early on, and the ways in which industrialism, new modes of nationalism and patriotism post-1789, and the emergence of new transportation and communication technologies made for novel logistical challenges combine to make clear there was only one winning strategy: that of savage war. For perhaps the first time in modern military history, tactical brilliance and decisive victories wouldn’t cut it. Rather, what would win this war would be something akin to what we saw centuries before, and had come to forget: something like the rapacious destruction of the Huns, the grinding exhaustion of the Fabian strategy of the Second Punic War, or the totalizing violence of the Pelopennesian War. We might thus see this as the last of the Ancient wars rather than the first “modern” war; Lincoln came to understand this, Jeff Davis never did, and their respective managements of their armies followed suit. And in so many words, that, in the authors’ analysis, is why the North won.

Brief Commentary–Clay’s Quilt

Clay's QuiltClay’s Quilt by Silas House

A warm and deeply enjoyable first novel that makes me want to read more of House’s fiction. This novel evokes place (Appalachian Kentucky), time (the mid-1990s), people (working-class whites), and all of their associated tendencies and complications with nuance, power, and effective emotion. It’s not some nostalgic paean to the good ol’ days, but rather a serious, sober look at the hows and whys of a people in a time-and-place that unflinchingly presents this people, warts and all. Inasmuch as this is “Southern” fiction, we’d expect expressions of time and place to be paramount, and they are here. However, House’s emphasis here is on the people, and the people’s connection to one another, and how it is the people who shape place. The hollers House shows us are places his characters cannot quit not because of anything about the places themselves, but rather because these are the places where an individual finds others who have similarly survived and lived and endured those joys, pains, and feelings of the inscrutability of existence. And that last notion–the inscrutability of existence–is written across and throughout the novel, especially in how House pairs hard-drinking honky-tonking with Pentecostal religiosity. In his presentation, both of these seemingly inimical experiences and ways of life are both equally prescient means of wrestling with how little control we have over existence, with how strange and mysterious being alive is, and means of living these tensions and ambiguities in community. And it is community–people, shared life–that this novel is about, and the things that attempt to undermine and destroy it, but how resilient it is, at least in this particular time and place.

Daybook, 19 May 2017

Today is my tenth wedding anniversary. I don’t know anything to say that would sufficiently express how deeply happy and in love I am, and how greatly I appreciate my wife; suffice it only to say that I love her and am eagerly awaiting the next ten years.

Today’s readings are totally unrelated to marriage.

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

This being my wedding anniversary, I thought a few artistic representations of marriage might be appropriate here today:

First, Lajos Deák-Ébner’s 1888 Marriage Procession:

David Teniers de Jonge’s Peasant Wedding from 1650 (I love the detail here of the church so far removed from the center of the action–the ceremony may have taken place there, but the wedding is itself about the life of all of these people in connection with one another):

And then, this–not a painting of a wedding, but of a moment from a marriage itself. Peder Severin Krøyer’s 1899 Summer Evening at the Skagen Beach. The Artist and His Wife:

Daybook, 17 May 2017

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

A detail from the altar of the Lutheran parish church in Krems in Kärnten, Austria.

Daybook, 16 May 2017

Been away for a long time. Let’s just get back to the joys of publishing a Daybook somewhat regularly.

Readings:

I mentioned the library a moment ago. I’m working on finally finishing it. I’ll also be doing some expansions of it, especially the Christianity side of it. My hope is that by midsummer I will have a collection of resources up here that will make this site (finally!) live up to its name–Ex Libris Humanitas.

Something Beautiful:

Being the sucker I am for pretty much everything Ralph Vaughn Williams ever wrote, I’ve been quite excited to find his Piano Concerto in C Major here recently:

Quote and Commentary, Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time

From near the end of this slow-burning, painful-yet-lovely novel:

…but when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore really nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, that very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember. (pg 231 of the 2010 Graywolf Press Edition)

I Curse the River of Time is a bit of a sequel to Petterson’s earlier novel, To Siberia. That book concerns the maturation of a young provincial Danish girl from her childhood in the early 1930s to her young womanhood in the aftermath of World War II, and the overwhelming, larger-than-life presence of her older brother, Jesper, an adventurous spirit and person with no feeling of satisfaction in life, always looking to be great, to do great things. And that novel ends with the nameless young woman–the narrator–pregnant by a Norwegian man some years her elder, finding herself rejected of her family, and realizing that her life was over, except all the rest of it. This novel is the story of her son–not the one she’s pregnant with earlier, but the next one born to her of the same man–Arvid, 37 and going through a divorce, reliving his life on a day with his mother, dying of cancer, in her little Danish seaside hometown.

Well, Arvid does not relive his own life in toto, though there are a few glimpses of moments from childhood, adolescence, and recent years. The majority of the novel splits itself between his living in this particular day and remembering his life at 20, 21, a college dropout idealist, with a girlfriend of 17 or 18 and a factory job he’s taken as a way of feeling as if he’s doing something important, as a way of living out his ideals–in this, he’s like his Uncle Jesper, who was never satisfied. And while we do not know the causes of his divorce, or much about his life in his 30s generally, we are lead to find Arvid’s time in that factory and with that young girlfriend as a moment of turning, of transition, of his idealism (specifically his Communism) defining his life away from something mundane to something he desires and wants to be great and significant. But such is foolishness. Arvid will never be satisfied; he only plays at his ideals. He is simply a man for whom life, mere life will never be good enough. He is not a man who, as his mother said all those years before, claim that life can be over, except for the rest of it.

And thus is what Arvid faces here, making these ruminations on the day after the Berlin Wall has fallen, his ideals–and his essential, hyper-idealistic pettiness–symbolically crashing around him, knowing his mother will be dead, and being filled with regret.

We must not be afraid to live. We must not let the perfect vision of life intrude upon and destroy a version of a good life. And we must learn this before 37, lest we stand, like Arvid, thinking only of death fearfully, regretfully, with no life left to us, with all the life allotted us wasted on chasing impossibilities.

Daybook, 9 February 2017

April in February continues, though today is cooler (with blustery winds blowing) than it has been in several days. Nevertheless, it is a positively lovely day, and I’m sitting here listening to Haydn’s The Seasons oratorio, preparing to teach Henry Timrod’s long, complex poem “The Cotton Boll” in a couple of hours, and generally thinking about all of the good work there is to do today.

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

I hesitate to call this something truly “beautiful,” as I know I am not a very talented photographer, and this shot is, in obvious ways, quite pedestrian, but I was quite taken by this tableau as I was walking through campus the other day:

Briefest of Commentaries: Letters from an American Farmer

Letters from an American FarmerLetters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

I began this book on a whim, recalling that I had taught an excerpt from it–the third letter–in an American literature course that focused on rural writings a few years ago. I had enjoyed that letter immensely, but had always heard that the book had some dark overtures, and was curious to see what those were like. And so, as my bedside reading for a week or so, these Letters were my companion, and I’ve been mulling over them constantly over the last several days.

First of all, what is this book? That in itself is a strange, and revealing, question. These are a series of fictional letters, written in the voice of an humble Englishman, living and farming in the Pennsylvania backcountry, to a wealthy friend back in England. But yet, only the self-deprecating, funny and naively silly first letter and the exasperated, yet darkly optimistic, last letter provide anything in the way of the “life-events” content we would expect to find in letters. The rest, though set up as letters, works as a travel journal, study of the natural landscape, ethnography, general political theorizing, social commentary and critique, agricultural treatise, and general rumination on “the good life.” Despite its fictive conceit, it’s far from being an epistolary novel, but is rather something like one would have expected to see produced by one of the Roman writers–Cato the Elder or Cicero, perhaps–for its wide-ranging subject matter, interests, and rhetorical styles within the conceit of the larger, unified work.

In a way, Crevecoeur seems to be providing a work that sits between–both chronologically and conceptually–the two most significant pre-1800 works in American letters: Franklin’s Autobigoraphy and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. Crevecoeur shares their strongly-Enlightenment religious and political principles of freedom, liberty, and mild religiosity as moralistic instructor rather than deposit of transcendent Truth claims, and he gives us an extension of Franklin’s inventive, creative industriousness that points towards Jefferson’s fixation on land, agriculture, self-sufficient yeoman virtue, and suspicion of market capitalism and centralized government. Yet unlike those two lions of the Revolution, Crevecoeur presents a political vision that echoes the feelings of the common man everywhere: to be left alone, as he must do the work of caring for his family and doing the labours that have been presented to him, rather than to engage in the confusing, chaotic political controversies of his day.

This is especially apparent in the closing letter, in which we see farmer “John” lamenting the destructive excesses of the nascent Patriot movement while admitting to his love for his fellow Americans and his understanding of their criticisms of the Crown. “John” will not raise a finger against either his neighbour or his King, his present nor his past. Rather, he will remove himself to live with the Natives, where a virtue parallel to the “American” virtues he describes in earlier letters continues to be practiced, until the shooting is over. Then, he will return and rebuild his life–a life that does not depend on government of any sort, but on the blessings of a Deistic Providence, the labour and economy of he and his family, and, most especially, the cultivation of virtue.

And thus this book, which in many ways is meant to be a work of ethnography, social commentary, and natural history, becomes a meditation on the meaning of America and how we define Americans. And in an age of increased tension and conflict, its answers to these questions, its unflinching examinations of national failings (especially slavery), and the vision of the American who just can’t bring himself to engage in the fratricide in which his neighbours are participating, and who simply tends his own garden while the world burns (and struggling over whether this is cowardice or not), is a vision that is especially prescient now.