While all three novellas–especially the last one–show clear signs of their age, their time and place, each one is a lovely, charming, well-written picture. A romantic ghost story of Old New Orleans, a plantation Christmas that pushes back against the reductiveness of middle-class, bottom-line thinking, and a Caribbean fairy tale about the necessities of duty. Woven throughout them all are unpretentious, subtle questions about community, about self-presentation, about how the self relates to the greater whole. While the buying-and-selling of happy slaves and kindly masters in “Maize in Milk” will turn off some readers (something understandable, though somewhat of a shame, as it’s a damn charming story), “Marie de Berniere” and “The Maroon” are excellent examples of just how good Simms could be, and very strong, memorable long stories, of the best sort produced in the mid-19th century.
It’s tough for me to rate this book, for three related reasons:
1–I find most current affairs/politics/”lifestyle” nonfiction books to be very much products of their time, and to feel confusingly dated soon after they’ve been published. My feelings about this book, then, are tempered by my reading it in 2013, not 2006/07.
2–As a result of (1), certain things in Dreher’s book seem very much predicated on the “conservatism has won” narrative of the early days of GW Bush’s second term, a phenomenon that is likely to make a person new to these ideas during the “liberalism has won” age of Obama question the whole premise of what Dreher is doing, generally.
3–I already knew many of the ideas and arguments put forth in this book before I had read it, a result of (1), and me spending lots of time in the corners of the internet populated by Dreher and his fellow travelers in the years since this book’s publication.
In other words, this is a book that shows its age, glaringly in places, that makes the reading a bit tedious for anyone living in 2013, and the arguments a bit redundant for a person like me, who has long since been won over by the arguments in favor of traditionalist/counter-cultural conservatism. Because of this, my personal ranking is lower than my esteem for the book itself, and especially for its ideas.
Contrary to the readings of some, what Dreher does here is not presenting liberalism plus God and calling it conservatism. Nor is this book vilifying or trying to destroy the free market, and thus trying to make a free-market-less conservatism. Rather, what Dreher does here is twofold: he admits the goodness, usefulness, and efficiency of the free market, but then reminds us that the market should serve us, not we it (while Dreher doesn’t say this, if we think about it some we’ll realize that when we serve the market, we’re simply performing a right-wing version of the Marxist project–and thus not being conservative at all). As a result of this conservative belief–and laced throughout the book is a subtle history of Anglo-American conservative thought, a history that both produces Reagan and presents a robust critique of the form of conservatism we have inherited from him–Dreher, and the myriad individuals he profiles in this book, look for ways to resist being servants to the market and the self-worshiping, solipsistic culture that results when free-marketism is left to play out its logical conclusions. The market, after all, works towards maximal efficiency; and while that is its great strength, when left unquestioned or un-critiqued, efficiency can result in social and cultural changes and ends that can be destructive. The “crunchy con” project is to think through what these changes are, and to ask if they’re worth it.
But even more central to this project is the recognition of the excesses and problems of the dominant culture, and a desire to say NO MORE. And I think a lot of right-wing folks get upset with this book, because Dreher, and the project he lays out here, is saying NO MORE to some of their sacred cows. While for them, it may be all fine and good for him to say NO MORE to the left-wingers and their ostensible desire to be cut off from tradition, morality, and limitations upon personal lusts, when he comes after big business and industrialism, he’s either being a naive utopian or a commie in Republican’s clothing. What the crunchy con project lays out–and what gets a lot of folks, especially on the right, fired up–is that “greed” and “lust,” words Dreher uses late in the book as synecdoches for the sacred cows of the American Right and Left, respectively, are merely two sides of the same coin, the thing that is really the only form of American political currency: bourgeois progressive individualism. What this book is, then, is a argument for and a list of possible ways to begin changing that currency, at least for those of us on the Right. As such, it is also a book for left-wingers to see different and more nuanced ways of understanding the Right–and it still does these last two things just as well now as it did seven years ago.
At the end, though, Dreher is aware that such a political program is ultimately futile, as his jeremiad of a final chapter makes clear. But in this pessimism, this recognition that bourgeois progressive individualism, whether Left- or Right-Wing, has won the day, is something beautiful, refreshing, and hopeful: there is still something we can do. We can be our own St. Benedicts, we can create “domestic monasteries,” counter-cultural oases, where we do the work of keeping alive the flame of the True, the Beautiful, and the Transcendent, waiting for the end of the new Dark Ages. And for those of us who find the dominant culture distasteful and dehumanizing, whether we be Left or Right, this idea gives us our battle cry, and our way to fight, and our way to still feel human where it matters most: amongst our families, our loved ones, and in the sight of our God, however we understand Him.
As I mused at some length Tuesday about pastoralism and its good, I thought of posting some “pastoral” music today. Looking around, I came across Beethoven’s 15th piano sonata, which his publishers, and not he, named “pastoral.” It doesn’t fit the English pastoral mode of a century later, nor the programmatic pastoral mode of his sixth symphony, but it does feature some of the things I mentioned Tuesday: a deceptive simplicity, in which an entire gamut of emotions and feelings are manifested. Perhaps it does not evoke the countryside, then–but it does bring to mind the greater pastoral sensibilities.
Whether it’s properly pastoral or not, it’s truly lovely, and complex, and moving, as Beethoven always is. Artur Schnabel plays piano here, in a recording from the 1930s:
This week’s lectionary readings are:
Here we have a prophet speaking of Divine forgiveness, coming after chastisement. There has been punishment enough for Israel’s sin, and there is remembrance of the steadfast love of God for His children, even in the aftermath of their idolatry and betrayal of His commandments, His ordering of life, and His love. We are never to forget, or to take lightly, God’s punishments; yet we also must never forget the Divine capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness, and that both punishment and reconciliation are based in love. The Psalm reminds us of this, also–that the Lord’s steadfast love endures. Yet the Psalm expands this recognition, and makes also clear that this steadfast love carries with it a demand: those who have been redeemed by this steadfast love, and have had reconciliation with the Lord must proclaim it (v. 2), and those who are wise should meditate on and adhere to the truth of God’s reconciling steadfast love (v. 43).
In the epistle, Paul deals with consequences of such reconciliation, of having been raised with Christ. Faith is not a passive thing, not something to fulfill us personally; such does not do the work of reconciliation. Faith makes demands of us. Here, those demands are made clear. We must put away those things that drove the Children of Israel away from God, that provoked his wrath, that brought about his Divine punishment (v. 5, 8). These things are death, and we must die away from them, to be raised to a life of reconciliation. In the Gospel, our Lord shows us of the hubris of meditating on incidental, temporal things, of taking comfort in them. The reasoning is simple: we can never have enough of their comfort, and will work constantly to bring about more and more of their comfort, despite the fact that such striving is ultimately fruitless and destructive (v. 18). Remember, faith demands things of us; at some point, our soul will be required of us (v. 19)–and that will be the only thing that matters, our soul. All the other things, incidental and temporal, will matter not, and we must be cautious that they have not cost us reconciliation, that we have pursued them and not the dictates of our faith.
To accompany this, a reminder; Cornelius Gijsbrechts’ Vanitas:
I have long been struck by this painting, especially the upper-right, and its recognition that even art is not truly transcendent, and is itself a temporal thing about which we may become arrogant. To be clear, there is nothing un-Christian about art, or food, or drink, or joie de vivre–to the contrary, I think. Yet, we are called to see these things for what they are, and to know that at the very best, they can only point towards the truly transcendent, the truly permanent, which is the steadfast love of God. All of the things in the painting can, then, point us to the greater thing, yet cannot give us any ultimate thing. As a result, we must guard ourselves, to be certain that our enjoyment of these things, so wonderful and joyous as they are, lead us away from reconciliation.
Let us pray:
in abundance you give us things both spiritual and physical.
Help us to hold lightly the fading things of this earth
and grasp tightly the lasting things of your kingdom,
so that what we are and do and say
may be our gifts to you
through Christ, who beckons all to seek the things above,
where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Please note-as is obvious, this meditation, and likely most of the subsequent meditations on this blog, draws heavily on the resources of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School Library, in the courtyard of which I once smoked a lovely tobacco pipe on a wonderful middle-Tennessee spring afternoon. Please note also that I am no theologian or minister, but merely a layman working through the consequences and demands of my own faith.
In keeping with the schedule I put forth yesterday, I present a literary piece for your perusal today.
There are few things I love so much as good English pastoralism; give me Vaughn Williams, Butterworth, Parry, and Bridge most any day, and I’ll have all the music I need to feel all the feelings of life. Which is perhaps why the pastoral is so seductive to someone like me–in its seeming simplicity, its lack of pretension, it very quietly speaks the truths of human life that we (post)moderns so eagerly try to escape: limitations, frustrations, pain, discipline…and joy, peace, quietness, and beauty, things that exist as a result of the former group, not in spite of it.
I have a similar attraction to pastoral literature, though my education in this regard is very spotty (and is thus very much like my education in pastoral music), especially with regard to the English pastoral. But the concepts of place, and peace, and discipline are always so close to my mind, especially as I grow older, especially as I become more comfortable with who and where I am, and as these are the essential concerns of the pastoral, I always become excited and wonderfully anxious when I encounter a bit of pastoralist writing. Which is what I’ve come across today, in the form of “Summer,” the second section of English poet Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy.
I know nothing about Bloomfield, having never heard of him before today, except for what the Encyclopedia tells me:
English poet, was born of humble parents at the village of Honington, Suffolk, on the 3rd of December 1766. He was apprenticed at the age of eleven to a farmer, but he was too small and frail for field labour, and four years later he came to London to work for a shoemaker. The poem that made his reputation, The Farmer’s Boy, was written in a garret in Bell Alley. The manuscript, declined by several publishers, fell into the hands of Capell Lofft, who arranged for its publication with woodcuts by Bewick in ‘Soo. The success of the poem was remarkable, over 25,000 copies being sold in the next two years.
Bloomfield died in 1823. Several things interest me about Bloomfield, then. First, he came from humble origins, and produced, as we shall see, poetry of real quality–even if it is not brilliant poetry, even if nothing in The Farmer’s Boy approaches Gray’s “Elegy,” it is still strong, moving, robust, challenging, and most importantly beautiful poetry. Its ostensible simplicity is its strength, the source of its complexity, as we see in pastoral work, generally. Secondly, that Bloomfield was poor and apprenticed out, and not sent to school, suggests that he was likely an autodidact. This, I am certain, is the only real kind of education one can ever have. Perhaps the autodidact never becomes a master at anything; perhaps for every Henry Adams, who was a brilliant autodidact, there are ten millions of dilettantes. I say so be it. The dilettante, the amateur, this is what we simple folk, those of us who do not expect to ever be a great man, but merely a simple person living our simple life–and thus a person who recognizes and resists the destructive siren song of hubris, and who perhaps makes life a little more worth the living–we should all strive to be like this. Bloomfield is perhaps not a great poet, but he is a good poet; more to the point, he is an amateur, he is one who loves. That love shines through in this poem. Finally, the success of Bloomfield’s poem points to the fact that popular culture can be edifying, and challenging, and point us to how different our lives and our world can be. This is as true for us as it was for Bloomfield’s day; the challenge is to work towards bringing about a popular culture of this type, and to replace the popular culture that is dominant today and was surely dominant then–one that promotes hubris, and licentiousness, and disregard for our fellow humans, and disrespects our own humanity, asking that we give it up for the fulfilment of our basest instincts, things that find cessation, only to immediately crave again.
The poem is, as I said, the second of the series that is The Farmer’s Boy. Here, we see Giles, the eponymous boy, as a mediocre worker, too enraptured with the world around him to actually accomplish the tasks set before him with any real skill or care. Yet, things are still bounteous. This is, of course, romantic myth-making of the countryside–and Bloomfield knows this. The rains fall early on, yet the harrowing still kicks up too much dust, revealing drought as still a constant companion. The ending consists of a powerful chat about the failures of the farm for small people, the possibilities of not being able to continue the work that gives one’s life its meaning. Bloomfield thus plays the realities of rural life against the myth of the pastoral, and in so doing, he creates a dreamy, beautiful world, that feels as hazy as summer itself. There is life here, there is community, there is no ostentation. There is the experience of pleasures made all the greater because of their need to be earned; the draught the maid brings is not merely there for the taking, for the ordering, but is the reward for work done, for tasks struggled through. This world is then the antithesis of modernity; it is our most joyous dream, and our most dreaded reality.
I’ve gone back and forth mentally many times over what it is I want to do and not do here; such back-and-forth has kept me from doing too much here. I’ve decided on a weekly writing schedule. Inevitably, I will miss some days, but I will also hopefully get a good bit of momentum going, and will discipline myself into keeping to this schedule. The stuff I’m going to be doing will be good for me to do, and perhaps someone will read the things I’m writing and posting, and will find some good in it for them, too.
The schedule, then:
- Mondays: A brief list of a few short articles of interest to read
- Tuesdays: Posting of a short literary piece. This could be a (few) poem(s), a short story, essay, a selection from some larger work–something that can be consumed in a sitting, and hopefully digested over time.
- Wednesdays: A meditation on the week’s lectionary readings, along with a selected work of art and a selected prayer. I am no theologian, and do not pretend to be. I am, however, a person who is contending with my own faith, and this sort of work is both powerful and necessary for me.
- Thursdays: A posting of some public-domain bit of multimedia, whether it be a film, or an image, or a piece of music, or something similar, with perhaps a brief comment appended to it.
- Fridays: Writings of a part of a “series.” These will be longer writings, essays of a sort, that will be me waxing personally on whatever takes my fancy for a period of time. I am going to begin (and spend some time with) writing about reading through the Harvard Classics, which is something I’ve been meaning to do with some seriousness for a time now.
- Saturdays: A recap of the week, some postings of random bits of interest, maybe a Storify description of what I talked about on Twitter that week.
Hopefully, these things will help me meet my real goal for this site: exploring, and being instructed and challenged by, those things that can broadly be described as coming ex libris humanitas.
Let’s start, then, with a few readings for today, Monday, 29 July 2013.
- Google Books is an excellent, intriguiging, and often very frustrating tool. My recent work has found me using it quite a bit, and it has, in a very palpable way, helped me to rediscover the 19th century.
- Seattle grunge never seemed like the kind of world that viewed military service as a good; which is what makes the story of an ex-member of Nirvana and Soundgarden all the move fascinating.
- Allen Tate remains one of the more talented, most frustrating, and little-understood literary figures of the 20th century. I have often felt that his contributions to American literature and our understanding of the South, poetry, and conservatism are necessary things to revisit and contend with in a world that is so different than the one he advocated for. And in he few places did he advocate this world so clearly as in his Phi Betta Kappa address at the University of Virginia.
- No consideration of Tate, that address, and and being an unapologetic Southerner and dedicated traditionalist conservative can be responsibly made without first thinking through the issues Alan Jacobs raises.
An absolutely superb book. Weaver spells out in great detail the contours and complexities of the intellectual life of the South from Reconstruction to the early 20th century, a period that saw southerners trying to make sense of why they had just fought one of the most destructive wars in history, and what their defeat in that war meant for their place in the once-again United States of America, as well as the modern world, generally. Weaver’s exploration of these attempts does the classic job of spelling out the logic and ends of that genus of conservatism native to the American South, in ways that are still very useful today, in 2013, as we still struggle to understand the significant sectional differences in our country. In many ways, then, this continues to be essential and necessary reading for those interested in how and why American politics continues to hit roadblocks, and continues to be based in the side-by-side articulation of two largely incompatible ways of political, social, economic, and moral thinking.
To be clear, Weaver’s book is based on synthesis and analysis, and not critique, and this can be jarring to the modern reader accustomed to political writings that try to present a particular viewpoint as the viewpoint, while destroying all others as problematic, at best. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Weaver’s neutral presentation of Southern racial thinking–a symptom of both Weaver’s approach, and the time in which he was writing this, the early 1940s. But despite such frustrations and trepidations a reader in 2013 might feel, Weaver’s central argument is still sound and compelling: the Old South was a place of real complexity, nuance, and intellectual vitality that provides us with a different version of what America could be. When placed into juxtaposition with modernity, we begin to see flaws in both modernity and the Old South. The fifty or so years after the Civil War showed us a people thinking through the ramifications of this juxtaposition, and we, all these many years later, can still find things of value and challenge in visiting their thinking. Weaver avoids all romantic presentation of the South, Old or New, and that is to his credit. To paraphrase his closing lines: only a fool would want to go back and live in this world, but that world can perhaps tell us challenging things about how to live in our world–something that only a fool would reject, whole-cloth.
As part of my work at the William Gilmore Simms Initiatives, I’m engaged in processing and providing metadata for the author’s scrapbooks, one-of-a-kind collections of clippings, manuscripts, and other such materials he put together, likely during the late 1860s. Eventually, all seven scrapbooks will be digitized, and available to anyone-something that’s been impossible heretofore.
For the last several days, I’ve been coming across multiple pages he’s clipped directly from an 1839 book of poetry he published, Southern Passages and Pictures. And a lot of these are some very, very strong and moving poems. For your perusal, then:
This stuff is ridiculously good.
The man himself on piano, Dmitri Tziganov on first violin, Vasily Shirinsky on second violin, Vadim Boriskovsky on viola, and Sergei Shrinsky on ‘cello.
Pelayo: A Story of the Goth by William Gilmore Simms
(Matt’s Note: I’m currently employed by the William Gilmore Simms Initiatives as a researcher and database specialist. As a part of this work, I’m reading and writing new introductions to a few Simms novels that have been out of print for over 150 years, hoping to bring at least new scholarly attention to them. This is the first of the novels I’m working on, and I’ve just finished reading it. While my critical introduction will be a fairly robust examination of the work, this is, as the title says, a brief commentary, that provides my most general reactions to the book and what Simms is doing in it.)
A flawed novel, with odd bits that read more like an Elizabethan play than prose fiction, and a plot that is at times too complicated, and some really over-the-top scenes. Simms conceived of this work as the first of a two-novel series that would tell of the last days of Gothic Spain, and the sequel was supposed to tie up the complex plot (I’ll be reading the sequel soon). In that, I can cut him some slack. Yet, Pelayo still has its flaws.
Nevertheless, I still find this to be a solid, and in a lot of ways very good, novel. As an adventure story, it’s top-notch. Intriguingly, it works quite well as a “novel of ideas.” Simms seems be trying to take the concepts of the American Revolution and write this novel of Gothic Spain through those , challenging us to think about liberty, good government, justice, and the roles we owe to one another politically, as well. And in doing this, Simms also sets these political ideals against their personal costs, and shows us some deeply complicated characters struggling to act with virtue. The heroes of the work come off as almost myopic in their monomaniacal pursuits of liberty; Simms forces us to ask if their virtues are, in fact, vices. In this, he seems to be channeling an Aristotelian notion of virtue.
An imperfect, though nevertheless interesting and in many ways quite good, novel, that is rarely read today, but would find an audience amongst readers who enjoy the headier, more philosophical types of historical fiction and fantasy. If you’re of one of those types, it’s worth picking up.