So, I went to Starbucks today and ordered an Iced Venti Latte through the drive through window. I had the money out and was ready to pay by the time the barrista came to the window. She took a little while, but not that long. When she did finally come, I thought it was odd that she did not ask for my money before handing me the coffee, however after giving me the coffee, she told me that the drink was on the house since they had been slow! Indeed, the service wasn't as fast as it is sometimes, but it was still nothing to sneeze at.
That's good customer service for you!
Most of you know of my great admiration for C. S. Lewis. His writing style has always been, for me, a goal — however hopeless — that I should like to someday reach in my own prose. He also was an academic, a noted literary critic and a master at explaining theology (and, to a lesser extent, philosophy). As a theologian, he also embodied many of the principles of neo-orthodoxy, though I have found little on his direct knowledge and interest in Barth, Brunner and so on.
In short, Lewis is sort of the archetype that I would like to aspire to in most things. Don't get me wrong, he wasn't perfect and I don't “idolize” him, I simply recognize him as a man who did essentially the things I would like to do and did them very well. The combination literary critic-theology writer isn't exactly a common occupation, you know?
T. S. Eliot, as I've come to appreciate him over the last few years, is interesting to me for similar reasons. After a bout in Eastern religion, he ended up an Anglican, like Lewis. He was a literary giant (I'd suggest quite possibly the literary giant of the twentieth century) in both poetry and criticism and he was also well versed in philosophy and theology.
Given that they both worked in the field of literature at Oxford or Cambridge during the same time span, I wondered how they got along, for surely they knew each other. I never actually knew anything in relation to that, however, until I ran into this excellent transcript of a lecture on the subjection. If you read it, make sure to read it all the way through for the interesting twist toward the end.
(It is also interesting I keep bringing up Eliot here. He has been popping up in a lot of things I've been working on lately, not all of them even related.)
For a long time now I've been meaning to read T.S. Eliot's the Waste Land. I have now done so, and I'm not sure I have anything useful to say just yet. I think I need to read it again. It is not exactly the kind of work that can be made sense of after just a cursory reading. It definitely shows the interesting mind that Eliot had to an even greater extent than the other things I've read of his.
I think I'll try to read it again in the next few days, and then maybe try to conquer the Four Quartets, his last great work.
Regarding my post from last night, I figured studying Eliot is one of the most fruitful things I can do when contemplating writing. Few others have ever had such a mastery of the classic form while freely being able to drift off into free form poetry. Unlike most poets of his age (and our own), his is still a poetry that retains a sense of meter and rhyme — something to drive the reader forward, and at times, faster and faster and faster into the abyss.
Hmm. I guess I had something to say after all.
The following poem from Gerald Manley Hopkins is just simply a good thing to read, but I also was especially thinking of it in light of last night's ranting post. Enjoy.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
There is something especially haunting and beautiful about the Anglo-Saxon elegiac poem. Reading too many of them in a row can be terribly depressing, but at the same time, I miss reading them if I haven't done so in a long time. For History of the English Language, I'm learning how to pronounce Old English; while looking up some material related to that, I ran into a reference to Deor, one of the most impressive of the Old English elegies (in my opinion).
I think it is memorable because it is easy to sympathize with the poet. Before getting to his own problems, he tries to think of all kinds of horrible past events that others have experienced and then remarks, “As that passed away, so may this.” I too like to try to make myself think maybe this or that problem isn't quite so bad by thinking of how others have made it through worse events. The final exclamation to each stanza is a reminder that suffering is only temporary, but it also pounds in the whole sense that life is transitory. Hence, the poem is also a sobering reminder when things are going well: that passes away too.
If you're so inclined, you might want to read Deor, if you have not already had the pleasure of doing so. A fairly literal, if not wonderfully readable translation is located here.
I was talking to a friend this week about American Literature. I am of the mindset that is rather dubious about the whole venture known as “American Literature.” This state of mind is not so much because I think there is a complete lack of good American works, but because I think the percentage of good to bad is quite a bit higher than in British Literature of the same period. The amount that actually innovates is even lower. As T. S. Eliot argues, true literature is not something entirely new or something that merely copies works of the past, but something that takes the traditions through the new poet's interpretive lens to create a blend of the recognizable and the innovative.
But, I digress. The quandary, my friend pointed out is quite simple: If one questions the existence of American Literature, that is a bit of a problem the questioner as someone who is both American and somewhat of a writer. I'm not so bold as to think I have (or will) produce literature, but if I question the status of American literature, where does that leave those of us dabbling in the minor leagues of American writing?
With summer seeming to quickly fade into autumn this year, I though perhaps I should offer up the soapbox today to my friend Emily — Emily Dickinson, that is.
AS imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away,—
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.
A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature, spending with herself
The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone,—
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.
And thus, without a wing,
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.
In my last post, I promised to redo the book meme, this time going with the book unquestionably closest to me. As it turned out, there was a book right behind me last night I didn't even notice. The Lord of the Rings: the Complete Best-Selling Classic is the rightful book to submit for this little amusement.
Open the book to page 123 and find the fifth sentence.
“Its walls were of clean stone, but they were mostly covered with green hanging mats and yellow curtains.”
Post the text of the next three sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
“The floor was flagged, and strewn with fresh green rushes. There were four deep mattresses, each piled with white blankets, laid on the floor along one side. Against the opposite wall was a long bench laden with wide earthenware basins, and beside it stood brown ewers filled with water, some cold, some steaming hot.”
(This is my first reading through the Lord of the Rings, by the way.)
Christopher tagged me with this interesting meme.
1. Grab the nearest book.
I walked over to the nearest set of books (not being in the middle of a research project, I don't have any books on my desk), which — as I quickly remembered — is my Scripture shelf. Between me and the shelf is a bunch of books, but these books are ones I ordered for classes this fall and have not unpacked yet, so I continued to go with looking on the shelf. Not wanting to type in Greek characters and thinking simply opening up an English Bible wouldn't provide anything terribly unusual for this little meme, I decided to grab the first non-Bible book on the shelf. Is that cheating? I went past the standard Bibles, past the Greek Bibles, past the Torah and Tanak, which took me into Other Scriptures (I try to be somewhat organized so I can find what I need when I need it, although I have a ton of books to reclassify at the moment). Ah, the first one there is the Qu'ran. (Penguin Classics' The Koran translated by N. J. Dawood.)
Ok, that should prove interesting.
2. Open the book to page 123 and find the fifth sentence.
“Then others succeeded them who inherited the Book and took to the vanities of this nether life.” (That's from 7.167, for those interested.)
3. Post the text of the next three sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
'We shall be forgiven,' they said. And if such vanities came their way once more, they would again indulge in them. Are they not committed in the Scriptures, which they have studied well to tell nothing of God but what is true?
4. Don’t you dare dig for that ‘cool’ or ‘intellectual’ book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.
Well, I provided the caveats to my selection above. I'll try again tomorrow and select a book without any caveats. To make sure I don't time my search so that I'm by “cool” books, I'll try to look at as close to 4:30 P.M. as possible.
5. Tag three people.
In Eduardo's excellent second piece in the series On Porn: A Catastrophic Pastoral Failure, he touches on a separate, but touchy issue in the defense of the content in Arabian Nights. Works such as that one, which contain content that would be condemned as pornographic in pop fiction, are often defended on the basis of being great literature. The problem here is simple: what is great literature?
Let's consider the logic. The works of William Shakespeare are great literature because they exhibit the characteristics of the great dramas and poetry of literature. What are the characteristics of great dramas and poetry of literature? Characteristics, in the Elizabethan times, best portrayed by William Shakespeare. The logic, in other words, is cyclical. Many have argued because of this that literature is really just that thing which we choose to call literature.
I tend to dislike schools of thought that suggest that important definitions are merely arbitrary designs of the elite or general populous. The Intertextualist-Structuralist critics of literature are quite reverent in their view of literature, but nonetheless insist that for literature to be meaningful, one must be indoctrinated into literary thought. I cannot, they say, point to X, Y and Z and say this is why literature is literature. The Intertextualists in this regard remind me of the liberal theologians that came in force in the nineteenth century: they do not deny the usefulness of the terms, in fact, they appreciate them a great deal, but they destroy any inherent meaning that allows for the long term ability to support interest in the object they describe. In the case of religion, this problem came to light in the early to mid twentieth century when Karl Barth and other neo-orthodox theologians — whom we might call moderates — called for a return to orthodox foundations even while retaining the academic tools of the liberals.
The message is clear: if the foundation is arbitrary, people will rebel into either total rejection or a refreshed orthodoxy. There is no reason to go to church if the primary purpose of the rituals is to be a good person. I can be a morally good atheist, one might say quite rightly. Likewise, there is no reason to teach Shakespeare instead of some romance novelist's work if the primary reason we study Shakespeare is because he has been awarded the title of “literature” by the academic elite to perpetuate their existence. As the Historical and Formalist schools of literary theory gave way to Reader Response, Intertextualism, Post Structuralism and New Historicism, people have rightly increasingly found arguments for the study of the literary canon indefensible and promptly rejected the canon. A side effect of this change is to place a work such as Arabian Nights on the level of the trade paperback romance novel at the supermarket, and hence eliminate a roughly objective aesthetic justification of the one over the other.
Why read Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Marlowe, Johnson, Milton, Blake, Dickens or Hardy when Dan Brown or Tom Clancy appeals to our “modern tastes”? Is it possible to define and defend the literary canon? Would literature by any other name be indistinguishable from pop fiction?
These are important questions. Questions I hope to address.