Category Archives: Misc.

A Program Note

Life sometimes orders itself into nice chapters. Vows are exchanged or a child is born, and so a new chapter begins. Other times the line separating one of life’s chapters from the next is uncertain. I’ve been turning pages here at The New Psalmanazar for more than seven years, but recently with less and less a sense of purpose.

Reflecting on this, and on the promise of big changes to come in my family life, I’ve decided that I need a break, a self-awarded sabbatical. I’ll probably be back. I may not.

In the meantime – perhaps as a hedge, or to wean myself gradually – I’ve opened shop at another address. I snicker at myself, but Afield Notes will feel fresh (to me) and be less work. Mostly I’ll use it to share quotes and images of perhaps nothing more than personal interest.

I invite you to follow me there, if you’re so inclined. Either way, thank you for reading.

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Summa Meteorologica

French illustration of the four seasons

After the manner of the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, we now inquire into the seasons of the year, whether they exist.

Objection 1: It seems that the seasons exist. Spring follows upon winter, winter follows autumn, autumn follows summer, and summer follows spring, in annual fourfold succession, as all attest.

Objection 2: Further, the seasons are observable in the changes they work upon plants in their sprouting, flowering and fruiting, and in the alterations of weather proper to each: cold and snow for winter, decreasing chill and intermittent rain for spring, heat and cloudlessness for summer, decreasing heat and intermittent storms and fogs for autumn.

Objection 3: Further, as it is written (and as Pete Seeger and the The Byrds have memorably repeated), “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Eccles. 3:3).

On the contrary, the seasons cannot be said to exist, but they belong to the imagination. They may be said to subsist by human custom, but not in the regularity of manner commonly ascribed to them.

I answer that the arbitrariness of seasons is proved by the fact that the “season” assigned to 45 degree north latitude on the Ides of October (autumn) is not the same as the “season” assigned to 45 degrees south latitude on the same date (spring). Furthermore, the meteorological characteristics commonly ascribed to the seasons (e.g. heat, cold, rain, snow, fog, etc.) express themselves with notorious irregularly. The present winter on the western coast of North America, for example, has proved markedly unseasonal with a superfluity of warm, rain-free days. Seriously, it was like 80 degrees the other day. What the hell is up with that? A more suitable manner of calculating seasons might allow for the irregular assignment of spring, summer, autumn, and winter days throughout the year based on actual weather conditions. By such a scheme, any day of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter – whether it occurs in February or in August – may be called a “summer day.” Likewise, any day of 35 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, or any day whatever with snowfall, may be called a “winter day,” even if it occurs in June. As prevailing conditions dictate, it may be that more summer days than winter days occur in the month of February, and more winter than summer days in the month of August. Likewise, the balance of the seasons need not be equally proportional but may favor summer one year, spring or autumn or winter the next.

Reply to Objection 1: Popular attestation, even if it be universal, does not establish the existence of any object or phenomenon.

Reply to Objection 2: At the equator there is no observable difference of vegetation or of weather to accord with the seasons as they are commonly differentiated one from another in more temperate regions.

Reply to Objection 3: The prophet Daniel affirms the arbitrariness of the seasons and their mere subsistence in custom when he says of God that “He changeth the times and the seasons” (Daniel 2:21). Further, human pretensions to meteorological knowledge are made null by our Savior himself when he says (Acts 1:7) that “it is not for you to know the times or the seasons.”

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I’ve got a post up at The Dabbler today on the difficulties of Henry James and heart disease.

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I reflect on my failed attempts to become a smoker over at The Dabbler today.

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The Habit of Return

The multiple life stages of butterflies were strangely upsetting to me as a boy. Their transformations were supposed to inspire wonder, and the eruption of the adult butterfly from the pupa, I was told, represented Christ’s resurrection. But the caterpillar, the pupa, and the imago (adult) seemed to have nothing to do with each other. How could they be one creature? The thought of myself undergoing a similar metamorphosis was alarming. Dewy-winged and unrecognizable, as I emerged from my chrysalis, would I remember the fat and happy days of my caterpillarhood? Would I be a stranger to myself?

My family and I recently visited a monarch butterfly wintering site on the California coast near Santa Cruz. I had been before but not paid much attention. I knew already that monarchs were migratory. They’re as large as certain birds, so they might as well act like them. What I did not understand until this visit, and what no bird (I think) can match, is that they accomplish their migration cycle over the course of four successive generations. The individual butterflies leaving the eucalyptus grove in early spring do not return. It is their great-grandchildren that return instead. No one has successfully explained how this happens.

There are various theories, of course. Is it possible that monarchs pass down a genetic memory of the landscape, an inherited mental map of rivers and hills and mountain ranges that need to be followed or crossed? Perhaps, instead, they leave chemical markers in attractive spots to reassure their offspring that they’re headed in the right direction. Or do they steer themselves by the stars or by the angle of the setting and rising sun? It may be that monarchs, like certain birds, navigate by reference to unseen currents in the earth’s magnetic field.

Whatever the mechanism of their return, the migration plays out like this: Generation 4 (let’s start here) emerges from a state of active diapause in early spring when the duration of daylight exceeds 11 hours and the temperature is pleasant. They mate and move northeastward, laying eggs in milkweed patches of California’s inland valleys. After progressing through the larval and pupal stages and becoming butterflies themselves, these monarchs (Generation 1) migrate over the crest of the Sierra Nevada into the Great Basin. As the year progresses, Generations 2 and 3 follow the pattern of Generation 1, moving deeper into the continent, as far as the Rocky Mountains and eastern British Columbia.

This is where our next Generation 4 is born in the early fall, but this fourth generation differs from its parents. Rather than having a total lifespan of 6-8 weeks, these will live for 6-8 months. And rather than make the return to the Pacific coast by generational stages, these will make the whole trip (more than a thousand miles) at one go. Somehow they will find the groves of eucalyptus and Monterey pine that their great-grandparents had once known. Gathered together in colonies of thousands, in a diapausal state (chaste but not inactive), they will live off their lipid reserves until spring and love and the thirst for travel return.

Thinking of the monarchs, it occurs to me that there are two habits of long standing which guide how humans perceive other animals. The first is to ascribe human qualities to the animal in question – to see ourselves in them. The second is to match animal behaviors with behaviors somehow parallel in humans – to see them in ourselves. These are natural urges, I think, sometimes enlightening, and maybe unavoidable. Science, by contrast, wants to see the natural world objectively, as if the thing doing the seeing weren’t human at all but a disembodied eye – the eye, curiously, of scientific impossibility, perhaps the eye of God. But outward properties and symbolic suggestions are hard for us to disentangle.

It may be, of course, that a butterfly is only ever a butterfly. Faith sees Christ in the insect. As a boy of twelve I found the insect in myself, or feared that I might: a chrysalis suspended between the two apparently irreconcilable worlds of childhood and adulthood. I don’t know what to do with these analogues, but I do not want to let go of them. My children today make the same journey my grandparents made. When I look closely enough, with a certain eye, I discover miracles of return in all things. Like the butterflies, we endure our cramped transformations and do not cease to be ourselves.

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Another resurrection of one of my older pieces today at The Dabbler, this one a fantasy about a boy abandoned at the Chicago World’s Fair.

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A Year in Books: 2014

Best Of

I can count on one hand the books I read in 2014 which were actually published this year. While I appreciate the fact that people still write new books, I don’t feel any special obligation to read them. The best authors are generally dead authors. Only one of the books I most enjoyed this year was written by someone still living. I’m thinking of F. Gonzalez-Crussi’s On Being Born and Other Difficulties. Simon Leys only recently (August 2014) joined the ranks of the deceased, but his Hall of Uselessness was another favorite. Still others include Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Rose Macaualay’s Told by an Idiot, Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, and a long list of Henry James short stories.

Jamesiana and Failed Readings

I try not to feel bad about failing to finish a book, but twice now I’ve tried and failed to finish a late Henry James masterpiece. A few years back the book was The Ambassadors; this year it was The Wings of the Dove. I expected more of myself, because (as mentioned) I read so many James short stories with so much relish in the earlier months of 2014. The Middle Years, The Altar of the Dead, The Liar, The Real Thing, The Patagonia, The Pupil, Louisa Pallant and quite a few others; all of them were wonderful. Long-form James of the later period, however, still has me stymied. Other books I started and gave up on this year include John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Balzac’s Pere Goriot.

Books Revisited

I did not renew acquaintance with as many old friends as I had hoped. There was some Dante (Inferno), some Shakespeare (Hamlet), some Robert Louis Stevenson (Virginibus Puerisque), some Charles Lamb (Essays of Elia), some Paul Valery, Plato and Waugh (Dialogues, Theaetetus, and Brideshead Revisited, respectively). I also dipped again into Mencken (Prejudices) Montaigne (Essays), Plutarch (Lycurgus and selections from the Moralia), Chesterton (The Everlasting Man) and, surprising myself, Eudora Welty (A Curtain of Green). The re-reads on my list for 2015 so far include Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy.

Historical

In the American history column along with the Francis Parkman title mentioned above, I also read Col. James Smith’s Life and Travels During Captivity, a memoir of the French and Indian War, Pedro de Castaneda de Najera’s Narrative of the Coronado Expedition, and Gabriel Franchere’s Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific Coast of North America. I also finally read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, plus Will Durant’s The Age of Voltaire, Michael Keevak’s The Pretended Asian (on George Psalmanazar), and Stefan Zweig’s so-so The World of Yesterday. Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm was a monument of prose as well as history. James Gaines’s Evening in the Palace of Reason (on Bach and Frederick the Great) was lively and compelling. Less impressive, in my opinion, but not bad reading, was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Stephen Greenblatt’s unconvincing The Swerve.

Belles Lettres

Under this silly heading, for lack of a better catchall, let me praise Jed Perl’s Antoine’s Alphabet (on Watteau), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Selected Letters, and three additional titles by F. Gonzalez-Crussi: On Seeing, Notes of an Anatomist, and The Five Senses. I’ll also mention Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost, William O. Douglas’s Of Men and Mountains, W.G. Sebald’s posthumous A Place in the Country, Guy Davenport’s The Hunter Gracchus, Rose Macaulay’s Casual Commentary and Some Religious Elements of English Literature, and Logan Pearsall-Smith’s memorable Unforgotten Years. Other titles that don’t fit elsewhere include Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret, Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking, William Quayle’s A Book of Clouds, E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, and John Ruskin’s Unto This Last. Edging perhaps into memoir, apologetics, and/or devotional literature, there was Richard Rodriguez’s Darling, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and David Bentley Hart’s erudite but unpleasant The Experience of God.

Natural History and Travel

Why these make a pair in my mind, I don’t know, unless it was my reading of William Bartram’s Travels which suggested it, but Gilbert White took the prize in this category. Other notables include RLS’s aforementioned Travels with a Donkey, Mark Twain’s Roughing It, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, and the terrifically fun Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Fictions

I think I managed more fiction in 2014 than in 2013. Among those titles read this year, I thought Richard Hughes’ In Hazard was awful and Muriel Spark’s Ballad of Peckham Rye scarcely better. Tove Jansson’s Fair Play was simple but charming. William Beckford’s gothic monstrosity Vathek was intolerable while Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto was just barely tolerable. Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Sand was mildly disappointing, but the medieval soap-opera of Njal’s Saga was terrific. I read André Gide’s The Immoralist and Strait is the Gate, and two of Chesterton’s Father Brown collections, The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown, which were each a pleasure. Rose Macaulay’s They Were Defeated was well done but overlong. P.G. Wodehouse’s Thank You, Jeeves was stellar. William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was disappointing. H.G. Wells’ The Croquet Player was a strange and distressing page-turner.

In Closing

Speaking of Wells, the narrator of The Croquet Player complains that “reading crowds the memory and prevents one thinking.” I find it quite otherwise. I’m not sure I’d be able to think at all without books. At any rate, my mental life would be very different and, I think, poorer. But don’t mistake me. Books are not the most important thing in life. I will not pretend otherwise. They are, however, a choice accompaniment to those things which come before them. For another year of reading and another year of life, therefore, I’m very grateful. Merry Christmas, dear reader, and happy New Year. See you in 2015.

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