It was the end of a brilliant career when, straining for a low note, Gloria accidentally summoned the ghost of last night’s cabbage soup.
Opera singers rehearsing at Lewisohn Stadium, NYC, 1916. Library of Congress.
Before I was pope I believed in Papal infallibility, now I feel it.
~ Pope Pius IX
And so history was gifted with another important entry for the Catalog of Things Which Can Only Have Been Uttered by Unmarried Persons.
In my latest for The Dabbler I get cozy with the idea that reading a good book is better than writing one.
Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey
In one of the more famous take-downs in the history of biography, Lytton Strachey sets out to slay the sainted beast of a golden age in the persons of four representative figures, and he mostly succeeds. It may be hard for us to appreciate the feat at this distance (Eminent Victorians was published in 1918); the memory of that once-imposing Jabberwock – the Victorian era – is well faded. The fading itself, however, owes something to Strachey. The section on Cardinal Manning makes an irreverent history of the Oxford Movement, illustrating the sandpit dangers of odium theologicum and the mutual jealousies of worldly-wise politicians (Manning) and otherworldly mystics (John Henry Newman). In Strachey’s Florence Nightingale we find a woman so dogged in her work, and yet so doggedly hampered by her sex, that she runs a man to death. Thomas Arnold, the education reformer and headmaster of Rugby School, makes Strachey’s briefest subject. The best, however, is reserved for last in “The End of General Gordon.” And here’s why I say that Strachey “mostly” but not entirely succeeds in his take-down, because for all his personal misalignments Strachey’s Gordon Pasha (like Nightingale to a degree) is nonetheless an object of legitimate awe, even when his goals seem to us culpably eccentric. Through the whole volume – and in prose as crystalline as Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, a book with thematic similarities – the message is clear: A culture is no less likely than an individual to fail in suspicion of its own motives or to manufacture divine endorsement of its most selfish desires, though thousands perish in consequence.
[A]s wind in the body will counterfeit any disease…so fear will counterfeit any disease of the mind.
~ John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
In other words, being afraid is like having gas. Ferment in either case may render you an object of disgust to yourself and of horror to those around you.
Remarkable Occurrences in the Life of Colonel James Smith, James Smith
James Smith was a young American colonial soldier captured by a band of French-allied Iroquois at the beginning of the French and Indian War, about 1755. After being made to run the gauntlet and recovering from his wounds at Fort Duquesne, he was adopted by a native family in place of a deceased relative. (The initiation ceremony involved a sort of baptism as well as having nose and ears pierced and most of his hair pulled out.) He lived with them for four years, hunting and traveling from the shore of Lake Erie south to the Ohio River and as far west as Detroit. Smith’s captivity narrative, recommended by Francis Parkman in Montcalm and Wolfe, is a fascinating document not only for the unexpected view it provides of the war or for Smith’s tales of winter endurance, but also for its description of native life and Smith’s growing sympathy for his new “family.” Over the course of a couple years he develops a remarkable relationship with a much older adopted brother, Tecaughretanego, who was almost a sort of Native American Socrates. Smith’s remembered conversations with him are the best part of the book. This title is long out of print but you can read it online here.
My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
In case you overlooked it in every review written for this book – or missed it when Wiman himself mentions it in his first paragraph – the author is a poet. He’s also the former editor of Poetry magazine. If, like me, you believe that no decent poetry is being written these days, this book is not likely to change your mind. On the other hand, the author (who is suffering from a rare form of cancer and has all my sympathy) is a thoughtful person, and well-read, and writes prose that is sometimes lovely. And frankly it’s a pleasure to see questions of religion and faith addressed at all intelligently. Nonetheless, I have to admit that when the author quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement that “there are things more important than self-knowledge,” I can’t help wondering if Wiman has really taken this lesson to heart. (To be fair, I’m not sure I have either, but I don’t go around quoting Bonhoeffer). This book, after all, is to a degree an exercise in Wiman’s own striving for self-knowledge after receiving a grave medical diagnosis in early midlife. It stumbles, I think, in certain passages which unwittingly reveal a sensibility too preciously jealous of any faint shudder that passes through the soul of its author.
In the modern era most generations of most families tend to pass their time in unremarkable ways. We’re born. We go to school. We work. We marry and maybe have children or even grandchildren. Then we die. Along the way we move house two or three times and take up a hobby. You are likely to be disappointed in reviewing the list of your known ancestors if you want to discover evidence of blood feuds, rapine, piracy, and superior skills in hand-to-hand combat involving axes and halberds. If we’re to believe the sagas, however, life was almost entirely composed of these activities for the early Icelanders. I’ve read only two of the sagas so far, the Laxdaela Saga and now Njal’s Saga. The former is brief and fairly tight. The latter is richer and better, but sprawling and exhausting. How many decapitations are too many? How many severed limbs or spines? How many curses and oaths? How many impromptu versifyings from the ghostly dead? It’s all very exciting but it’s also enough to make you grateful for an unremarkable life of peace and quiet.