Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Running with the wolves

Please forgive a little re-cycling.  The following is a slightly-modified Amazon review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  The New York Times Book Review just this last Sunday featured the title story from her newly-published anthology, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher."  Both Wolf Hall and its first sequel, Bring up the Bodies, took Britain's Man Booker Prize, a remarkable achievement, and many are waiting with anticipation for the promised third and final installment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.  My review of the first:    

One difficulty with reviewing a historical novel is determining the importance of historical accuracy. The very name "historical fiction" assumes a certain license with the facts, and its appeal often lies precisely in the freedom of a novelist to propose a fresh take on a story we already know. But there are limits, and it's not easy to say when revisionist history impermissibly blurs into "Springtime for Hitler."

Thomas Cromwell is one of the great stock villains of English history. Some few years ago I read G.R. Elton's England under the Tudors, in which Cromwell was famously re-evaluated as the genius of the Tudor revolution, an unsung visionary of the modern practice of reform by parliamentary legislation. Elton's limited rehabilitation didn't, however, go so far as to elevate Cromwell's character.

One has to give Hilary Mantel credit for taking on such a task. Wolf Hall opens with Cromwell being beaten senseless by his father, a somewhat manipulative way of initially engaging our sympathies. Mantel's Cromwell is not only capable and resourceful; he is a loving husband and father, a loyal retainer to his beloved Wolsey, and a semi-secret adherent to the new religion of simple goodness for simple people through the translation of the scriptures into English. The problem with this characterization, of course, is squaring it with what the historical Cromwell actually did: enabling the absolutism of the English crown (and the political, dynastic, and sexual desires of Henry), and the destruction of all who stood in its way. The result is a Cromwell who is sometimes a modern secular liberal, sometimes a Machiavellian, sometimes a proto-Protestant. This succession of personalities gives the novel a certain variety, but at the expense of consistent characterization. Like Stendhal's Julien Sorrell, Cromwell has memorized the Latin New Testament; also like Sorrell, it seems to have had no effect on him. There is no apparent progress or corruption; the Cromwell who takes in hapless children at the beginning is the same Cromwell who destroys Thomas More, John Fisher and the Carthusians at the end.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised by my registering some protest at the characterization of More. Yes, of course, this is fiction, and there is plenty to criticize in More's conduct as chancellor. But Mantel has taken the leading light of English Renaissance humanism and cast him as a sadistic, arrogant bigot. Anyone familiar with More's own writing, or the writing of those who knew him, or even the most critical of his modern biographers, will not recognize the nasty character that Cromwell finally sends to the block. And, given the announcement of film deals, it's hard not to suspect that Mantel will be shaping the popular public image of More for the foreseeable future.

Mantel's writing style is vigorous, and her characterizations have force and life. The overriding atmosphere, though, is one of claustrophobia--both physical and moral. There is a recurring theme of incest: Henry and Arthur with Catherine, Henry with Ann and her sister (and perhaps their mother), Cromwell with his wife's sister, Ann with her brother, and anybody and everybody in the Seymour clan at Wolf Hall. These inbred loves, and the squalid, violent conclusion, made it, for me, a relief to reach the end, and I doubt I'll be returning for the sequels.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sacred languages

ἔγραψε δὲ καὶ τίτλον ὁ Πιλᾶτος καὶ ἔθηκεν ἐπὶ τοῦ σταυροῦ· ἦν δὲ γεγραμμένον· ᾿Ιησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν ᾿Ιουδαίων....καὶ ἦν γεγραμμένον ῾Εβραϊστί, ῾Ελληνιστί, ῾Ρωμαϊστί.

"Pilate wrote a placard and placed it upon the cross, on which was written, 'Jesus the Nazorean, the king of the Jews....And it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin."

Many religions have what can be called a sacred language.  Hindus have Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the great epics, and the Bhagavad Gita. Therevada Buddhism, I understand, privileges the Pali canon, as Islam gives pride of place to Quranic Arabic.

The inscription over the cross in St. John's gospel has always suggested to me the three sacred languages of Catholic Christianity:  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, Greek, the language of the New, and Latin, the language of the Church.  One might even, with important qualifications, call them the languages of the Holy Trinity, the historic languages of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I don't mean to suggest that facility in a language has anything to do with entry into or the depth of one's practice of Christianity.  The majority of Christians through the ages may well have been illiterate, and obviously there are illiterate Christians whose devotion, charity and Christlikeness would put the average literate Christian to shame.  It's more a question about whether those Christians who have the opportunity, and the capability, to learn something of the sacred languages, should do so.

If, for instance, we ought to promote biblical literacy--as undoubtedly we should--does that not suggest that knowing the testaments in their original languages (to the extent that we have them) is of prime importance?  But, the objection runs, I'm not a genius--how can I learn Greek?  Well, however highly we think of the Greeks, they certainly weren't a race of geniuses.  I remember having this conversation with a young woman, objecting that she just wasn't smart enough or educated enough to know a second language.  During our conversation her gardener came in with his helpers.  She gave them their instructions in English, and they walked out speaking among themselves in their native Spanish, and she went back to telling me that only intellectuals could handle more than one language.

Learning another language certainly takes time and commitment.  But it's more a matter of will than intellect.  Poor and uneducated people, whether in the Old South or first century Palestine, will learn as many languages as it takes to get by.

Latin is sort of a special case.  It has no particular standing for the Eastern Orthodox, or for Protestants.  But for Catholic Christians it is the official language of the Church, the Church as Mater et Magister, Mother and Teacher.  Within living memory the most solemn worship of the Church was conducted in Latin (putting aside the Eastern Rites).  And though vernacular worship has been the norm since the promulgation of the Mass of Paul VI, the vernacular is still a translation from a Latin Roman rite, and there remains a vocal minority that prefers a Latin mass.  In that regard I think it's something of a shame that the appreciation of Latin in worship has come to be identified with reaction.  I understand full well that the majority of Catholics have neither the time nor inclination to learn Latin and I have no quarrel with mass in the vernacular.  But some limited availability of worship in Latin in no way threatens the prevailing approach.

I needn't mention how the acquisition of these ancient languages of the faith also opens up a world of incomparable literature.  Virgil and Homer, Plato and Cicero--these are names to conjure with.  Latin went on to become the common language of the West and remained the chief means of transnational learned communication through the day of Spinoza and Newton.  (It even occasionally shows its head in the title of blogs.)    

Latin is extolled within the Church as a common language, if not for the faithful, at least for the clergy.  Canon law requires that it be taught in ordinary seminary education.  How far that requirement obtains in real life I have no clue.  But it does promote, to some extent, that dream of a common language throughout the orbis terrarum.  If its usage today is limited, it can still be extolled, not only for its aspiration to universality, but for its long continuity.  As Pope St. John XXIII put it in his apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia:

Neque solum universalis, sed etiam immutabilis lingua ab Ecclesia adhibita sit oportet. Si enim catholicae Ecclesiae veritates traderentur vel nonnullis vel multis ex mutabilibus linguis recentioribus, quarum nulla ceteris auctoritate praestaret, sane ex eo consequeretur, ut hinc earum vis neque satis significanter neque satis dilucide, qua varietate eae sunt, omnibus pateret; ut illinc nulla communis stabilisque norma haberetur, ad quam ceterarum sensus esset expendendus. Re quidem ipsa, lingua Latina, iamdiu adversus varietates tuta, quas cotidiana populi consuetudo in vocabulorum notionem inducere solet, fixa quidem censenda est et immobilis;

Furthermore, the Church's language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings.  But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. it has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use. 

I don't know if this is good linguistics.  This alleged immutability of Latin may be as aspirational as its universality.  But Latin certainly carries a kind of patina that no other Western language can claim.  I think of even the Harry Potter books, where Ms. Rowling put her spells into a kind of pidgin Latin.  Even children know that that's the language of antiquity, and of linguistic power.

Dr. Johnson once remarked, "Greek, Sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can."  We have to admit that precious few of us aspire to "getting" much Greek.  Latin may still carry some of that allure, however much it has faded.  For those with the time to take it up, I think it very worthwhile.  And most of us would have plenty of time, even with full time jobs and families, were we not preoccupied with television, and smart phones, and the web.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A shameless plug

Skill, I think, can be acquired by training and practice.  Talent may be more of a gift. I haven't got it.  So I married it.

My wife Jeanine is a painter who works primarily in pastels, mixed-media, and oils.  The October, 2014, issue of Pastel Journal has an article entitled "Creative Beginnings," featuring Jeanine and two other artists on their paintings' foundations.  I can't take you to the article itself, but the link below shows a little more of their work:


Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Traveler from the Maghrib

I have started reading an abridged translation of the Rihlah--the Travels--of Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah, whose wanderings from his native Morocco, between 1325 and 1354, took him as far east as China, and as far south as Timbuktu.  Living roughly a generation after Marco Polo, he exceeded the journeys of the better-known Venetian, and arguably anyone else we know of for centuries.

It was a time of relative peace between the Christian and Islamic worlds (the key word here being "relative").  In 1291 the last Christian stronghold in Syria, the fortress of Acre, fell to the Mameluke sultan al-Ashraf Khalil.  The Reconquista in Spain was mostly accomplished, save for the Muslim kingdom of Grenada.  The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks was still a century in the future.  Trade continued, as it always does, whenever it can, and pockets of minorities got on as well as they could within the larger civilizations. 

I have only gotten so far as Ibn Battutah's first pilgrimage to Mecca, by way of Syria.  Along the way he visits well-known shrines and tombs and consults with holy men, much as Christian pilgrims did.  He occasionally comes across heterodox groups, such as the "revilers" of Sarmin, and is careful to relate their extraordinary doctrines--here, an extreme hatred of the Ten Companions of the Prophet, to the extent that they cannot bear ever the number, "ten."  But their presence in an orthodox Sunni world is taken pretty much for granted.

He relates the following from his first visit to Syria:

"I witnessed at the time of the Great Plague at Damascus in the latter part of the month of Second Rabi of the year 749 [July 1348] a remarkable instance of the veneration of the people of Damascus for this mosque [the Mosque of the Footprints]....[A]fter performing the dawn prayer on the Friday morning they all went out together, walking barefoot and carrying Qur'ans in their hands.  The entire population of the city joined in the exodus, male and female, small and large; the Jews went out with their book of the Law and the Christians with their Gospel, their women and children with them; and the whole concourse of them in tears and humble supplications, imploring the favor of God through his Books and his Prophets."

There appears, to me, a great humanity in this joint response to a common calamity.  It is not, of course, what we would call religious freedom.  But it is an unusual marshaling of everyone to common prayer, of the sort that would be unusual even today, either in the secular West or in the Islamic states of the Near East. 

And it calls to mind an earlier incident, a Phoenician ship foundering in a great storm,

 וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים, וַיִּזְעֲקוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אֱלֹהָיו, ...; וְיוֹנָה, יָרַד אֶל-יַרְכְּתֵי הַסְּפִינָה, וַיִּשְׁכַּב, וַיֵּרָדַם.  ו וַיִּקְרַב אֵלָיו רַב הַחֹבֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מַה-לְּךָ נִרְדָּם; קוּם, קְרָא אֶל-אֱלֹהֶיךָ--אוּלַי יִתְעַשֵּׁת הָאֱלֹהִים לָנוּ, וְלֹא נֹאבֵד.

In great fear the sailors cry, each to his own god....Jonah, though, slinks down into the hold, to be interrupted by the captain:  Why are you sleeping?  Get up!  Call upon your god!  Perhaps he will act for us, and we will not be destroyed.

We all know the story--at least the whale part--but of course it ends in Ninevah, where the purported tomb of the reluctant prophet has only lately been destroyed. 

I am always dismayed when I hear the ISIS militants called "medieval."  Of course medieval people could commit atrocities and acts of cruelty.  But we moderns have often given them a run for their money on that score.  The demolished tomb, before its destruction, was a simple but strikingly beautiful building, where both Christians and Moslems made pilgrimage for centuries.  It was medieval people who designed and built it, the work, roughly, of contemporaries of Ibn Battutah.  The iconoclasts who blew it to rubble, disdaining tradition and all reverence for a common (if very human) prophet, were, distressingly, thoroughly modern.