Archive for the ‘Book Recommendations’ Category


Frank Raymond Leavis 3 — Anon

July 25, 2014
Literature for F.R. Leavis, is not merely an aesthetically written work of art designed to give pleasure to the reader.  It is not simply a document of language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.  According to Leavis, it is 'the storehouse of recorded values:  It is the writer's exploration of the cultural tradition of his age.  It is a record of all that the age habitually thinks, feels, and acts upon.  Literature keeps the healthy moral and cultural traditions alive.

Literature for F.R. Leavis, is not merely an aesthetically written work of art designed to give pleasure to the reader.  It is not simply a document of language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.  According to Leavis, it is ‘the storehouse of recorded values:  It is the writer’s exploration of the cultural tradition of his age.  It is a record of all that the age habitually thinks, feels, and acts upon.  Literature keeps the healthy moral and cultural traditions alive.

We no longer have the kind of literary brokers like F.R. Leavis who was able to tell us what to read and why was important to do so. His opinion mattered in ways that no longer exist. It is as if we now have too many experts.


Later Years
There followed a long gap until the publication of ‘Anna Karenina’ and Other Essays (1967), which, in addition to the title essay and further reflections on George Eliot and Conrad, included a collection of fine pieces on classic American literature. Then followed Lectures in America (1969) (with Q. D. Leavis) and Dickens the Novelist (1970), a major joint endeavor with his wife marking the centenary year of Dickens’ death. Leavis would attach much significance to his essay on Little Dorrit, which he came to regard as one of the greatest works of European literature. (In this essay Leavis associates the essential spirit of Dickens’ mature work with that of Blake. It is an unusual discourse for what is in some senses a work of academic criticism, being circuitous in construction and having, as his biographer, Ian MacKillop, pointed out, itself a kind of visionary quality.)

The intervening years had however seen the delivery (and subsequent publication) of a lecture to which he also attached great importance and which would lead the way to a remarkable series of ‘field performances’ (opportunities offered by his visiting professorships). Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P.Snow, being the Richmond Lecture at Downing for 1962, launched a fierce (but – Leavis argues – essentially impersonal) attack on Snow’s characterization of a growing rift between literary or artistic ‘culture’ and a contrasted scientific ‘culture’ (the inference being that he, Snow, personified a unification of the two). But, Leavis argued, there is a human culture (of which science forms a part) of which the paradigm is the prior creative achievement of language: the emphasis being on the imaginative creativity of which literature is a heightened form.

Snow had asked literary friends to explain the 2nd law of thermodynamics: they could not; yet, he argued, it was like asking scientists if they had read a work of Shakespeare. There was, Leavis pointed out, no scientific equivalent to the reading of Shakespeare. Leavis introduced the idea of the ‘third realm’ as a term for the mode of existence of works of literature. They are neither private in the sense of ‘subjective’ nor public in the sense that their nature is capable of empirical verification; they exist only in collaborative re-creation, through ‘meeting in meaning’.

The business of ‘exorcising’ the Cartesian dualism occupied Leavis’s mind ever more intensively in his later years. In the Snow lecture, as in many other places, Leavis stated his well-known model of critical discussion: ‘This is so, is it not? – Yes, but …’, the ‘but’ standing for reservations, qualifications, etc. It is a model which consciously disallows the retort, ‘So for you maybe, not for me’. In the nature of our humanness, we are committed to ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’.

Here [says Leavis] we have a diagram of the collaborative-creative process in which the poem comes to be established as something ‘out there’ of common access in what is in some sense a common world.

The Richmond Lecture sparked heated controversy which, as Leavis drily noted, failed to advance the argument. He would comment on the impercipience of those who had been affronted: ‘I am used to misrepresentation but not resigned to it.’ He took heart, however, from letters of support whose general refrain had been: ‘It needed saying, thank God you said it.’ But the significance of the lecture lies not so much in its dismantling of Snow’s reputation as a novelist and general thinker but in its positive inauguration of a new phase in Leavis’s thinking.

Much of this new phase, from the mid-1960s, was spent at the University of York, to which Leavis expressed gratitude for the opportunities it afforded him as a visiting professor. It was a period which brought a remarkable new harvest. The Dickens book, the engagement with Eliot’s Four Quartets in The Living Principle (1975) and with Lawrence’s texts in Thought , Words and Creativity (1976) showed a return to the close discussion of particular examples of prose and poetry after the engagement with matters of wider cultural concern in Nor Shall My Sword (1972) (which collected the Richmond Lecture and subsequent ‘field performances’); but for Leavis the two were always intrinsically related. Indeed, these books are deeply informed by his highly original engagement with the ‘relationship’ between language, life and the creativity of perception.

The discussion of Eliot prompted one of his most explicit statements of general principle: ‘There is no acceptable religious position which is not a reinforcement of human responsibility.’ Leavis wrote more – and more forensically – on Eliot than on any other single author (writings covering nearly a fifty year period, which are regrettably scattered), preoccupied especially by the question of Christian affirmation in his later poetry and with the ‘limitations attendant on the achievement’. By this he meant the co-existence in Eliot of painful sincerity and capricious judgement, and – as Leavis diagnosed it – an inveterate and paradoxical will to discredit human creativity.

In his later writing Leavis frequently characterized himself as an ‘anti-philosopher’, returning in a more sustained way to the matter of his exchange of the 1930s with René Wellek. He was not in fact hostile to philosophy: indeed, he saw it as one of those ‘liaison’ subjects he often spoke of in discussions about the idea of a university (see, for example, his Education and the University of 1943, a book he felt to have been much neglected).

His later comments on philosophy in, for example, the long section on Thought, Language and Objectivity and the commentary on The Dry Salvages in The Living Principle, suggest a sustained interest in the subject even preceding his friendship with Wittgenstein in the late 1920s (he bought Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World when it came out in 1925) . He had evidently considered carefully Collingwood’s The Idea of Nature (published in 1945) and his comments on Alexander and Whitehead.

He adduced an affinity between his own ideas and those of the scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi. (Recent approaches to his work have also identified, variously, some commonality with Husserl, Heidegger and Dilthey.) But he wanted to find a term which drew attention to the reality of literature as a non-philosophical but heuristic mode of thought. Philosophers, he believed, were generally ‘weak on language’ (‘or let us rather say a language … for there is no such thing as language in general’), failing to perceive the significance of their having to use it to do philosophy.

In these years also, in a remarkable piece of autobiography (and Cambridge topography), he set down his ‘Memories of Wittgenstein’. He made a number of ‘forays’ also at this time to universities in continental Europe, meeting (and subsequently writing on) the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale, with whom he found himself reciting from memory Valéry’s ‘Le Cimetière marin’.

Leavis was made a Reader in English at Cambridge in 1959 and held this post until his retirement in 1962. He gave the Chichele Lectures at Oxford in 1964 and was Clark Lecturer at Cambridge in 1967. He was appointed Visiting Professor of English at the University of York and held this position from 1965 onwards. He subsequently also held Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Wales and of Bristol. He was awarded Doctorates of Literature by the Universities of Leeds, York, Queen’s Belfast, Delhi and Aberdeen.

Leavis was made a Companion of Honor in the New Year’s list for 1978 and died on 14th April that year at the age of 82. His obituary in The Times spoke of the ‘mixture of asceticism and vitality’ that had marked him and of the ‘flame-like nimbleness of his speech and glance’ which ‘compelled attention’. While for many he had ‘seemed a rare talent grown painfully awry’, to others he ‘assumed almost Socratic powers.’

In the valedictory piece for Scrutiny, in October 1953, Leavis had recalled lines from the poem by Arthur Hugh Clough:

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.


Frank Raymond Leavis 2 — Anon

July 24, 2014
F. R. Leavis, not a happy man. Yet it is also true that in the 40s and 50s and certainly the 60s many writers felt the need to project suffering through embracing drink or drugs.

F. R. Leavis, not a happy man. Yet it is also true that in the 40s and 50s and certainly the 60s many writers felt the need to project suffering through embracing drink or drugs.

We no longer have the kind of literary brokers like F.R. Leavis who was able to tell us what to read and why was important to do so. His opinion mattered in ways that no longer exist. It is as if we now have too many experts.


Leavis moved from Emmanuel to Downing in 1931 and was elected a Fellow there in 1936. Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry, published that year, completed the anterior history suggested by New Bearings; but this was a new kind of literary history centered, as its title suggests, not in descriptive narrative but in critical evaluation, and concerned where necessary with radical reappraisals. It contained one of his most famous and controversial formulations: ‘Milton’s dislodgement, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss.’ Eliot’s influence is explicitly invoked here: his alteration of poetic expression and its relationship to his interest in early 17th century literature.

Another influence was John Middleton Murry. Leavis admired his Aspects of Literature (1920) and The Problem of Style (1922), where Murry compared Shakespeare and Milton to the latter’s disadvantage. In Leavis’s dealings with poetry – and with literature and culture more generally – the Shakespearean use of language was always a touchstone.

The prose style and the underlying intellectual tenor of Revaluation are, however, already distinctively Leavisian. The book also gave rise to an important exchange with René Wellek in Scrutiny (March and June, 1937) where Leavis showed a concern (it was to be a lifelong one) to ‘vindicate literary criticism as a distinct and separate discipline’. Wellek had said he shared a number of Leavis’s assumptions but would have wished them to be stated more explicitly and defended systematically. This misconception has dogged subsequent representation of Leavis’s work, the more so in recent decades when ‘theory’ has been ascendant. The essence of Leavis’s reply is contained here:

Words in poetry invite us, not to ‘think about’ … but to … realize a complex experience … They demand … a completer responsiveness [than an abstracting process can supply]. The critic … is indeed concerned with evaluation, but to figure him as measuring with a norm which he brings up to the object from the outside is to misrepresent the process.

Leavis could be a formidable controversialist, as F.W.Bateson discovered in the pages of Scrutiny for Spring and October 1953. Bateson had challenged Leavis’s reading (in Revaluation) of Marvell’s poem ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’ (and an associated comparison with Pope) alleging deficiencies in Leavis’ scholarly knowledge. He concentrated in particular on what he called Marvell’s ‘picture language’ enlisting the Quarles emblems in support. The truth, Leavis pointed out, was the opposite. Marvell presents us with paradoxes in which a visual element is present but far from dominant:

How do we see the Soul? What visual images correspond to ‘fetter’d’ and manacled’? We certainly don’t see manacles on the Soul’s hands and feet: the Soul’s hands and feet are the Body’s, and it is the fact that they are the Body’s that makes them ‘manacles’ …

Leavis does not deny that a certain amount of specialist knowledge may assist the reading of a poem but it is always the intelligent reading of the poem itself that takes priority. The historical context in which Bateson proposes to anchor the reading is something much less determinate. Leavis takes the opportunity to make a point which is especially valid today in relation to theories of ‘cultural materialism’ and ‘new historicism’:

To suggest that their purpose should be to reconstruct a postulated ‘social context’ that once enclosed the poem and gave it its meaning is to set the student after something that no study of history, social, economic, political, intellectual, religious, can yield. The poem … is there; but there is nothing … that can be set over against the poem, or induced to re-establish itself round it as a kind of framework or completion, and there never was anything.

Middle Years
The Great Tradition, studies of George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, published in 1948, did for the English novel what Revaluation had done for English poetry: it provided literary history that possessed an essential centre of interest. Comment has been made on the narrow focus of this book: an English tradition exemplified in just three novelists, one Polish and one American by birth. In his introductory chapter, Leavis strongly justifies the need for major discriminations in so vast a field and sets his chosen subjects, with special regard to Jane Austen and D. H Lawrence, in a field of reference which illustrates his remarkable range of reading: it amounts to erudition.

The individual studies, mainly derived from Scrutiny, are finely responsive: masterpieces of Leavisian ‘moral’ analysis. Those on George Eliot in particular show a remarkable inwardness, almost unknown today, with the culture from which she stemmed. (Queenie Leavis’s writings on the nineteenth century novel show something of the same quality, and it is here most obviously that the creative partnership between the Leavises shows itself.) In his introduction to Mill on Bentham and Coleridge (1950) Leavis illustrates how the intellectual currents which met in J. S. Mill have their imaginative counterpart in George Eliot’s major novels. At the same time he sketches the nature of profitable literary study: ‘the difference between the retailing of … amassed externalities and the effort to think something out into a grasped and unified order …’

The Common Pursuit followed in 1952, collecting many of his best articles from Scrutiny, including important pieces on Milton and his reply to Wellek on literary criticism and philosophy.

Some have argued that D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955) showed a falling off in Leavis’s analytical gifts, having a significantly greater amount of pure quotation and of exclamatory praise. But it is hard after half a century of academic industry devoted to Lawrence (and many others on whom Leavis wrote with originality) to recognize its pioneering nature. It is also marked by a passionate intensity rarely equalled in Leavis’ oeuvre:

I am not, then, [he writes in an appendix on Eliot's attitudes towards Lawrence] impressed by any superiority of religious and theological knowledge in a writer capable of exposing what is to me the shocking essential ignorance that characterizes The Cocktail Party … ignorance of the effect the play must have on a kind of reader or spectator of whose existence the author appears to be unaware: the reader who has, himself, found serious work to do in the world and is able to be unaffectedly serious about it, who knows what family life is and has helped to bring up children and who, though capable of being interested in Mr Eliot’s poetry, cannot afford cocktail civilization and would reject it, with contempt and boredom, if he could afford it.

For all Lawrence’s diversity, which Leavis recognized, two novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love , would always for him constitute Lawrence’s central achievement. With some justification, he adduced the author’s own estimate of them in support of this claim. The emphasis for Leavis was always on Lawrence as a profound explorer of inner human experience, one who developed the possibilities of the novelist’s art in the service of this idea.

D. H. Lawrence Novelist is grounded also in a profound sense of Lawrence ‘s belonging (as he felt himself to do) to the civilization of the English people. Of the earlier novel he says:

The Lawrence who developed in the writing of it found himself compelled to another mood; he expresses in the later part of the book that sense of human problems as they were in contemporary civilization which has its profound and complete expression in Women in Love .

In spite of a sense as the novel draws on that the writer has no conclusion in view, The Rainbow has its own organic form:

And how much of England that can have no other record than the creative writer’s there is in The Rainbow . The wealth of the book in this respect is such as must make it plain to any reader that, as social historian, Lawrence, among novelists, is unsurpassed … The Rainbow shows us the transmission of the spiritual heritage in an actual society … Where Women in Love has that astonishing comprehensiveness in the presentment of contemporary England … The Rainbow has instead its historical depth.

‘These two books,’ he concluded, ‘would by themselves have been enough to place Lawrence among the greatest English writers.’

A striking feature of D. H. Lawrence Novelist – contributing to one’s sense of Leavis’s writing as of a different order from that of the general ruck of critics – is the fiercely articulate conviction with which it attempts to right the injustices perpetrated against a great writer’s reputation. Not least, Leavis takes issue with a widely held view of Lawrence as characteristically humorless. Invoking the short stories in particular, he proposes Lawrence as ‘one of the great masters of comedy’ – a truth exemplified in a wide range of his shorter fictions, ‘tales evoking many different kinds of smile and laughter, though never the cruel, the malicious or the complacent.’ This humor, Leavis suggests, is a ‘natural expression of Lawrence’s supremely intelligent vitality’. But ‘a world that finds the quintessence of wit in Congreve and Wilde will perhaps continue to find Lawrence humorless.’


Frank Raymond Leavis 1 — Anon

July 23, 2014
'In his youth', noted The Times' obituarist, 'he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.

‘In his youth’, noted The Times’ obituarist, ‘he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.

Frank Raymond (F R) Leavis (1895-1978) is now recognized as one of the most influential literary critics and teachers of his time and among the major intellectual figures of the 20th century.


Frank Raymond Leavis was born in Cambridge on 14th July 1895 and attended the Perse School there. He went up to Emmanuel College in 1914, where (resuming studies after the Great War) he read History and English, the latter being then new as a university discipline at Cambridge. He would recall those early years of the English tripos in his 1967 Clark Lectures (published in 1969 as English Literature in our Time and the University), evoking vividly the pioneering spirit of the new venture.

He served in the war in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, carrying a pocket Milton throughout the ordeal. Though he rarely spoke of them, his wartime experiences affected him deeply and remained with him for the rest of his life. He would much later recall carrying buckets of cocoa along the roofs of ambulance trains (without corridors) ‘to men who would have died without it’ and ‘the innumerable boy subalterns who … had climbed out and gone forward, playing their part in the attacking wave, to be mown down with the swathes that fell to the uneliminated machine guns.’

Early  Intellectual Influences
In another autobiographical passage he remembered ‘those early years after the great hiatus’ when he had ‘struggled to achieve the beginnings of articulate thought about literature’. The figures who ‘really counted’ then were George Santayana (though ‘not fundamentally congenial’) and Matthew Arnold, to be followed soon by T.S.Eliot: he bought The Sacred Wood when it came out in 1920. (Eliot’s paradoxical distinction would preoccupy him for much of his life.) Along with these went the influence of Ford Madox Ford’s (or Hueffer’s) English Review to which Leavis had subscribed as a schoolboy in 1912.

It was here that he first came on the writing of D. H. Lawrence (‘the necessary opposite’, as he would later call him, in relation to Eliot). Leavis was impressed by Ford’s recognition that in the ‘irreversible new conditions’ of modern industrial civilisation the concern for ‘the higher cultural values’ must reside with a small minority, while at the same time that concern must concede nothing to ‘the preciousness, fatuity or spirit of Aestheticism’. That view was to be a cornerstone of his own periodical Scrutiny (1932-53). An important aspect of the Scrutiny ‘manifesto’ also, in a Marxising era, would be its freedom from organised ideology: a ‘space’ for disinterested intellectual enquiry founded in the ‘autonomy of the human spirit’.

In Mansfield Forbes, one of the early lecturers for the tripos, Leavis found an inspiring example of critical and teaching method. He also found stimulation in the early work of I.A.Richards (though he would part company with him when Richards developed interests in semiology). In 1924 he took one of the earliest PhDs in the School with a thesis on the periodical literature of the eighteenth century with particular reference to Addison’s Spectator. He retained a lifelong interest in the sociology of literature and a profound concern for cultural continuity. His wife would exemplify similar interests in her classic study (which grew out of her PhD thesis), Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). He collaborated with Denys Thompson on a small primer for schools aimed at encouraging critical awareness: Culture and Environment (1933).

He also admired The Calendar of Modern Letters edited by Edgell Rickword, a quarterly which ran from 1925 to 1927. Leavis was to see its failure to win a sufficient public as an index of cultural decline. Its concern with the maintenance of critical standards was to be an important inspiration behind Scrutiny. The Calendar ran a series of intelligent deflations of what it saw as the exaggerated reputations of such contemporary figures as H.G.Wells, J.M.Barrie, G.K.Chesterton and John Galsworthy (the Galsworthy critique was written by D.H.Lawrence): these articles were later collected by Edgell Rickword under the title Scrutinies.

In 1933 Leavis published a selection from The Calendar, with an appreciative introduction, under the title Towards Standards of Criticism (re-printed in 1976 with both the original and a new introduction – in effect a retrospect – by Leavis). It contains one of his most important and original formulations: a reference point for the many subsequent assaults he made on the problem of value-judgement:

Literary criticism provides the test for life and concreteness; where it degenerates, the instruments of thought degenerate too, and thinking, released from the testing and energizing contact with the full living consciousness, is debilitated, and betrayed to the academic, the abstract and the verbal. It is of little use to discuss values if the sense for value in the concrete – the experience and perception of value – is absent.

Teaching at Cambridge
By 1925 he was doing some part-time teaching at Emmanuel. D.W.Harding, who was later to be a fellow editor of Scrutiny, recalled his qualities as a teacher when, looking back fifty years in a broadcast symposium in 1975, he said:

He was really superb. I remember the feelings with which this other man and I would come away. We would be partly exhilarated and partly a bit subdued and rueful, perhaps. Exhilarated because of the new insights and the fine discriminations he had made, and sobered because he kept such extremely high standards in insight and one just realised how unskilled one was as a reader. At the same time, there was no feeling that he belittled you in any way – if you had difficulties or raised objections, then he met you on those. He could scrap what he was going to say and just meet you on whatever you were interested in.

Another pupil, William Walsh, recalled:

One always had the feeling that one wasn’t simply discussing what was there on the page. This was taking place, of course, but the discussion was deeply rooted and far-reaching, dealing with all that one felt was really important in life … Leavis’s teaching always seemed to engage both these facets: one’s personal life, and the life of the mind – the search for the significance of life itself.

In 1929 he married the vivacious and prodigiously clever Queenie Dorothy Roth, whom he had supervised at Girton. The next few years brought a wonderful harvest of critical work culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1932 when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry (with its perceptive discussions of Yeats, Pound and Eliot), Q.D.L. published Fiction and the Reading Public, and the quarterly periodical Scrutiny was founded.

It is sometimes suggested that that Scrutiny in its later years was indifferent to contemporary literature, but it is worth recalling that Leavis in his earlier years was in the vanguard. He incurred the displeasure of the public authorities by lecturing on the banned Ulysses in the mid-1920s. As to the teaching of contemporary work in the 1930s, Muriel Bradbrook recalled Leavis’s interest in the poetry of I.A.Richards’s pupil, the ex-student of mathematics, William Empson. She recalled: ‘It cannot be very often that undergraduates are taught the poetry of a fellow undergraduate, but we were taught about some of Empson’s poems by Leavis.’ He was also writing on Eliot and on Lawrence in the 1920s and early ’30s.

Leavis had enemies in the English Faculty, however; his outstanding abilities and the Scrutiny project did not enable him to obtain a permanent Faculty post (the latter may even have militated against him). In 1936, however, (the year in which Revaluation appeared) he was made a Lecturer (though on a part-time salary), at the age of 41, after having been a Probationary (or Assistant) Lecturer since 1927.

This situation continued until 1947 when, at the age of 52, he achieved a full-time Lectureship. He had seen younger and less able candidates given precedence. All this (and the lack of academic recognition accorded his wife) was to be a source of bitterness to him both at the time and in later years: a bitterness contained by his high intelligence and powers of self-sufficiency. ‘In his youth’, noted The Times’ obituarist, ‘he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.’


Dan Jacobson Obituary — John Sutherland

July 17, 2014
Dan Jacobson at the Edinburgh International Book festival in 2005

Dan Jacobson at the Edinburgh International Book festival in 2005

Dan Jacobson, novelist and critic, born 7 March 1929; died 12 June 2014. South African-born writer, novelist and critic who became a professor at University College London. Reblogged from the Guardian. 


Dan Jacobson, who has died aged 85, should rank as one the leading novelists of his time. That he was never regarded as such was the result of a combination of factors. He was unusually hard to “place” as an author: he was born and raised in apartheid-era South Africa, but the greater part of his life was spent in Britain. His fiction evolved faster than those who most admired him could always keep up with. 

He shed authorial skins like a snake, each time allowing a new Jacobson to emerge – but one which sometimes disappointed those fondly attached to the old Jacobson. And in his later years he moved, powerfully, into non-fictional literary territories: autobiography, travel writing and even theology. His relationship with his inherited Judaism was intense, but complicated. “How to make sense of it all?” he mused.

He was born in Johannesburg, one of four children of a Latvian father, Hyman, and a Lithuanian mother, Liebe (nee Melamed), both of whom had fled their homelands. Jacobson was brought up in Kimberley. It was a dull town – diamonds went down with everything else in the slump – but one of the places on the globe where Jews were safe to enjoy a dull life.

His late-life memoir, Heshel’s Kingdom (1998), was inspired by a visit to Lithuania. Heshel Melamed, a stern rabbinical paterfamilias, was his maternal grandfather. On the old man’s death, in 1920, Dan’s mother fled to South Africa. She was escaping her father as much as the Pale of Settlement, the term given to a region of Russia where Jews were allowed to settle. Had Heshel lived longer, Dan Jacobson would never have happened. The Nazi extermination of Jews in Lithuania (aided enthusiastically by local Lithuanians) was virtually total.

Dan’s father ran Kimberley’s butter factory. The Jacobson home was well off, liberal in politics and non-coercive in matters of religion. Dan went to a faux-English grammar school, Kimberley Boys’ high school, where, like the rest, he bellowed out his daily wish that God save his king. Meanwhile, outside, squads of barefoot black men mowed the cricket grounds and whitewashed the boundary markers. It struck him, even as a boy, as somehow crazy.

After getting a top degree in English at the University of Witwatersrand in 1949, and suffering a few awkward months at a kibbutz in Israel, Jacobson spent a year in London. He worked for in a Jewish boys’ school, lived in lodgings, and was very lonely. A “demi-alien”, he began, in his solitude, to write a novel. The Wonder Worker (1973) allegorizes this London loneliness. It was, nonetheless, a happy time. He loved the way the English so expertly “imitated” being English. It was on this trip, aged 21, that he committed to the place. But he would not settle there yet.

He was dismissed from his teaching post for thoughtlessly informing his boys that the universe was (contra Genesis) millions of years old. He returned to South Africa and did a number of desk jobs. More importantly, he was already publishing short fiction in American magazines including Commentary and the New Yorker.

In 1954 he married a teacher, Margaret Pye, from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and moved with her to London. He was already highly regarded as a coming author in the US, and in 1956-57 spent a year as writer in residence at Stanford. The 1950s was a period when South Africa – and its Afrikaner resistance to the Winds of Change – was front-page news across the world. In exile, Jacobson built up a substantial corpus of fiction dealing with his native country. It climaxed with The Beginners (1966). His longest work (Jacobson was never one to squander words), it was his equivalent to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, telling the story of a dynasty of Lithuanian Jews “beginning” over again in South Africa.

The Beginners was a valediction. After a longish interval he produced the biblical fantasia The Rape of Tamar (1970). It was, he later surmised, the novel of his most qualified to have won the newly established Booker. A laudatory review was lost in one of the regular printers’ strikes of the time: it might, he felt, have swung things his way.

He shifted away from South African subjects, only returning to the territory as a cold-eyed tourist in his travel writing. Kafka, not Mann, was now the star he followed. The Confessions of Josef Baisz (1977), a fable set in an imaginary country, is the most successfully experimental novel in this second phase of his career.

Cash prizes, Arts Council bursaries, royalties and journalism kept Jacobson going through the 60s. But the life of a writer, with a growing family, was a tightrope walk. When Karl Miller was appointed to the Northcliffe chair at University College London in the mid-70s, he brought Jacobson into his entourage, as a lecturer. It was a happy change of direction. There was an inner pedagogue in Jacobson, only too glad to be released. As an academic, he was stern — particularly on bad writing and jargon, for which he had Orwellian distaste. Colleagues beguiled by his smiling bonhomie into asking him to look at their work in progress would recoil at the brutality of the Jacobson blue pencil.

A follower of FR Leavis by intellectual affiliation, he had little time for “theory”. However experimental his fiction, his literary criticism was traditional and pragmatic. A selection, Adult Pleasures, was published in 1988. He believed – passionately – that scholarship mattered in the real world. His last PhD student was the lawyer Anthony Julius and it was (as Julius acknowledges), largely through Jacobson’s tireless campaigning that Julius’s TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995), one of the most controversial critical books of the 90s, saw print.

At UCL, Jacobson was for some years a colleague of AS Byatt. As she recalls, the two of them would discuss whether the academic life was good for their fiction. She eventually decided not, and left. He stayed, becoming professor in 1986 and retiring as professor emeritus in 1994. His later fiction was carefully wrought and continued the lines of narrative exploration he had opened in the 70s.

University College London, the godless place in Gower Street, which had been set up, in large part, as a home for the spiritually uncomfortable, fitted Jacobson like a glove. Its open-mindedness encouraged monographs such as The Story of the Stories: The Chosen People and Its God (1982) – the Bible was, Jacobson always thought, the best novel ever written. (We heartily concur.)

In his travel writing, and memoirs, he settled his personal account with the country in which he was born (whose accent his speech never lost) and with Nazi-occupied Europe. “They would have killed us, if they could have got to South Africa,” he mused, contemplating the exterminations in Vilnius and Heshel’s fortuitous death.

There was always a rueful melancholy, stiffened by irony and leavened by humor about him. He chose, on being appointed professor, to give his inaugural lecture on Thomas Hardy’s poetry – and, as always, contrived to extract a laugh or two from this gloomiest of authors. One of the images that recurs in his writing is the pit, or abyss – sometimes it materializes into the vast black holes left by the Kimberley diamond excavations of his childhood.

At other more metaphorical moments, it takes shape as Conrad’s heart of darkness. “The pit of the future,” he once wrote, “is quite as deep as the pit of the past. Through it, too, all things fall endlessly.” And yet, paradoxically he was revered by his colleagues for his cheerfulness. He was the best raconteur and joke-teller in the department and good company to the very end.


Book Review by Barton Swaim: ‘Music at Midnight’ by John Drury

May 16, 2014
Herbert did achieve worldly honors -- as orator at Cambridge, he once delighted the king himself with a speech -- and he did then give them up. He took, it seems, his own counsel, given in chapter 29 of "The Country Parson": "Do well, and right, and let the world sink."

Herbert did achieve worldly honors — as orator at Cambridge, he once delighted the king himself with a speech — and he did then give them up. He took, it seems, his own counsel, given in chapter 29 of “The Country Parson”: “Do well, and right, and let the world sink.”

Mr. Swaim is writing a book on political language and public life. This was recently featured in the WSJ and gratefully reblogged.


Before he died, Herbert gave a ‘little book’ to a friend, and said to publish only if it ‘may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor Soul.’

Although now widely considered among the greatest poets of his century — indeed, of his language — George Herbert never published an English poem in his lifetime. Before his death in 1633, according to his friend and early biographer Isaak Walton, the godly, sweet-tempered Anglican clergyman handed off a “little book” to a friend with instructions to pass it along to the publisher Nicholas Ferrar. The poems contained, he said, “a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have past betwixt God and my Soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master.” Ferrar may wish to publish the book, Herbert said, if it “may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor Soul”; otherwise, “let him burn it.”

That makes an excellent story but raises a serious question, too. Can Herbert’s poetry be enjoyed by people who aren’t believing Christians — or who have no interest in spiritual things at all? Samuel Coleridge thought not. To enjoy Herbert’s poetry, he wrote, “it is not enough that the reader possess a cultivated judgment, classical taste, or even poetic sensibility, unless he be likewise a Christian, and both a zealous and an orthodox, both a devout and a devotional Christian.”

John Drury rejects Coleridge’s assertion; throughout his critical biography of Herbert, “Music at Midnight,” he stresses the ways in which Herbert’s poems test the limits of strict orthodoxy. In the poem “Discipline,” for example — “Throw away thy rod, / Throw away thy wrath: O my god, / Take the gentle path” — Mr. Drury thinks Herbert is saying that God “needs to behave himself, stop lashing about and learn to love.” In “Love (3),” Herbert’s most famous poem, the poet “steps gracefully over the regular encumbrances of religion” by calling God “Love” instead of “God.”

There is something to what Mr. Drury says. Herbert’s admirers have included avowed unbelievers, among them poet Louis MacNeice and the staunchly atheist critic William Empson, and some of his poems address God as the biblical Psalms do: not always with the kind of pious reverence you expect. Still, I can’t help thinking that Mr. Drury’s eagerness for the irreligious to appreciate Herbert is a tad patronizing, as if they can’t grasp his merits without the author’s assurance of “the primacy of love over theology and everything else” in Herbert’s poetry.

What makes Mr. Drury’s study succeed isn’t his effort at making Herbert attractive to the skeptical; it’s the way he elucidates the sparse details of Herbert’s biography with critical interpretations of the poems themselves. For what we know of George Herbert is distressingly little.

He was born in 1593 in Montgomery, Wales. His father, Richard Herbert, Lord of Cherbury, died three years later, leaving George’s mother, Magdalen, to raise their 10 children. George received an excellent education at home and later at Westminster School, on the campus of Westminster Abbey. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, and eventually, in 1620, took the venerable and politically important position of university orator.

It was at Cambridge, in his late 20s and 30s, that Herbert seems to have felt a call to serve God in some more direct way. Time and again in his writing — Mr. Drury’s choice and discussions of Herbert’s poems bring this out beautifully — the poet pleads with God to bring him into a place of useful service. Consider, for example, “The Priesthood,” a poem that begins with self-doubt about the poet’s ability to perform a priest’s duties (“I am both foul and brittle much unfit / To deal in holy Writ”) but resolves into a humble decision to wait on God’s timing and purposes. “I throw me at his feet,” says Herbert. “There will I lie, until my Maker seek / For some mean stuff whereon to show his skill: / Then is my time.”

In less skillful hands Mr. Drury’s method could have seemed contrived — the poems can’t be dated with any certainty, and you never really know which experience Herbert might be alluding to in any one poem — but over the course of the book the author’s sprightly and intelligent readings begin to give you a feel for Herbert’s way of thinking about his life and his God.

The poem “The Collar,” for example, had always seemed a mystery to me, beyond being an expression of exasperation with the poet’s circumstances (“I struck the board, and cried, No more. / I will abroad”). The meter, for a 17th-century poem, is haphazard, almost chaotic. But as Mr. Drury notes, the poem’s last four lines, though not quite metrically regular, settle into a traditional ABAB rhyme scheme: “But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild / At every word, / Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child / And I replied, My Lord.” The poem’s form depicts — and many Christians will recognize this — the quieting effect of wrestling, even contending, with God in prayer.

In 1624, while serving for a brief time in Parliament, Herbert applied for the lowly position of deacon and for several years served in a variety of respectable but hardly illustrious offices. At last, in 1630, a year after his marriage, he took the position for which he is remembered: rector of the rural parish of Bemerton, in southwest England.

There he wrote “A Priest to the Temple,” commonly known as “The Country Parson,” a kind of handbook for rural clergymen. Poor health had long dogged Herbert. Many of his pleas for usefulness — “Lord place me in thy consort; give one strain / To my poor reed,” he says in “Employment” — no doubt sprang from periods of incapacity. On March 1, 1633, tuberculosis finally killed him.

Mr. Drury is right to warn readers against simplistic views of Herbert as a contented parson who had gave up worldly honor to serve God in obscurity. (He maintained his many aristocratic connections, possibly with a view to preferment.) Yet the facts remain: Herbert did achieve worldly honors — as orator at Cambridge, he once delighted the king himself with a speech — and he did then give them up. He took, it seems, his own counsel, given in chapter 29 of “The Country Parson”: “Do well, and right, and let the world sink.”


Book Recommendation: C.S. Lewis A Grief Observed

May 5, 2014
Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the “mad midnight moments,” A Grief Observed is C. S. Lewis’s honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. This work contains his concise, genuine reflections on that period: “Nothing will shake a man -- or at any rate a man like me -- out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the “mad midnight moments,” A Grief Observed is C. S. Lewis’s honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. This work contains his concise, genuine reflections on that period: “Nothing will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

Performing a little Blog House Cleaning here: swapping out some pages for posts and creating a new class of pages that hopefully will show readers of how much “stuff” lurks under their mouse just a click away…


C.S. Lewis published A Grief Observed under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk, (the N. W. is Anglo-Saxon shorthand for nat whilk, “I know not whom”). In fact, the book was never published under Lewis’ name while he lived. First published in 1961, it has been called an unsettling book and the use of a pseudonym seems to indicate that Lewis knew that it would be found so.

Some argue that it is not about Lewis’ anguish over his wife’s, Joy’s, death but instead a fictional account of grief. Mary Borhek summarizes the position of those who hold this view:  “The only reasons I can see for believing the book to be a fictionalized account are a desire to distance oneself from the extreme discomfort of confronting naked agony and an unwillingness to grant a revered spiritual leader and teacher permission to be a real, fallible, intensely real human being.”

Still others object to Lewis’ candid expressions of anger at God, suggesting the book demonstrates Lewis’ loss of faith: John Beversluis in his C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion states that “There is no case for Christianity in this book. Gone are the persuasive arguments and the witty analogies. Gone, too, are the confidence and urbanity evident in The Problem of Pain…The fundamental crisis of the book is a crisis of meaning, a crisis of such paralyzing magnitude that Lewis tries to distance himself from it in every possible way.”

Noelene Kidd in A Grief Observed: Art, Apology, or Autobiography? argues the book “is not simply a record of Lewis’s grief at the loss of his beloved wife…but a dissection of grief itself.  The work is chiefly an apology concealed by art.” Still others find the book, while a deeply moving account of loss, overly introspective and emotional, verging on the maudlin. Yet Lewis avoids bathos in the book at least in part because of a clipped, prose style characterized by short, simple sentences and brief, almost snapshot-like paragraphs. These stylistic devices prevent his wallowing in excessive self-pity; in effect, he becomes a surgeon analyzing a patient’s medical chart. Ironically, of course, he is at the same time both surgeon and patient.” 

Don King has written:

“A close consideration of the prose style of A Grief Observed suggests the book may be read as vers libre or free verse, poetry relying not upon a regular metrical pattern but instead upon pace or cadence. Furthermore, whereas conventional poetry places a premium upon the foot and the line, free verse finds its rhythm in the stanza. Accordingly, the short paragraphs of A Grief Observed function as stanzas linking it with other ostensibly prose works such as Psalms and the Song of Songs. If we read Lewis’ book this way, we may find that while his focus upon traditional poetic conventions in his consciously conceived poetry actually restrains his poetic impulse — that is, his concern with form overshadows his poetic sensibilities — the release he experiences unconsciously in free verse liberates his poetic impulse so that A Grief Observed becomes his greatest poem.”

As I read A Grief Observed I had all this in the back of my mind. Occasionally I would find myself pulling parts of it out and rewriting them in my mind to reflect more of what I saw in a poetic structure. Here are a few of what I did. I found they made the book more memorable for me, rather than saving a few quotations, which is my normal reading practice.

Her Absence

At first I was very afraid of going to places
where H. and I had been happy,
Our favorite pub, our favorite wood.
But I decided to do it at once,
Like sending a pilot up again
as soon as possible
after he’s had a crash.

it makes no difference.
Her absence is no more emphatic
in those places than anywhere else.
It’s not local at all.

I suppose that
if one were forbidden all salt
one wouldn’t notice it much more
in any one food than in another.
Eating in general
would be different,
every day, at every meal.
It is like that.

The act of living
is different all through.
Her absence is like the sky,
spread over everything.

After All Hope Was Gone

It is incredible how much happiness,
even how much gaiety,
we sometimes had together,
After all hope was gone.
How long, how tranquilly,
how nourishingly,
We talked together that last night!
And yet, not quite together.
There’s a limit to the ‘one flesh.’
You can’t really share someone else’s weakness,
or fear or pain.

What you feel may be bad.
It might conceivably be
as bad as what the other felt,
Though I should distrust anyone
who claimed that it was. 
But it would still be quite different.

When I speak of fear,
I mean the merely animal fear,
The recoil of the organism
from its destruction;
The smothery feeling;
the sense of being a rat in a trap.
It can’t be transferred.
The mind can sympathize;
The body, less.

In one way the bodies of lovers
can do it least.
All their love passages
have trained them to have,
not identical,
but complementary,
Even opposite,
feelings about one another.

We both knew this.
I had my miseries, not hers;
She had hers, not mine.
The end of hers would be
the coming-of-age of mine.

We were setting out on different roads.
This cold truth,
this terrible traffic regulation
(‘You, Madam, to the right
– you, Sir, to the left’)
Is just the beginning of the separation
Which is death itself.
Praise Is The Mode Of Love

Praise is the mode of love
which always has some element of joy in it.
Praise in due order;
Of Him as the giver,
Of her as the gift.
Don’t we in praise
somehow enjoy what we praise,
However far we are from it?

I must do more of this.
I have lost the fruition
I once had of H.
And I am far, far away
in the valley of my unlikeness,
From the fruition which,
If His mercies are infinite,
I may some time have of God.

But by praising I can still,
In some degree, enjoy her,
And already, in some degree,
Enjoy Him.
Better than nothing


Nietzsches Nietzsches Everywhere — Patrick Connelly

March 17, 2014
Nihilism is the complete disregard for all things that cannot be scientifically proven or demonstrated. Nietzsche did not claim that nothing exists that cannot be proven, nor that those things should be disregarded. What Nietzsche did suggest was that many people used religion, especially Judeo-Christian teachings, as a crutch for avoiding decisive actions. Nietzsche's contribution to existentialism was the idea that men must accept that they are part of a material world, regardless of what else might exist. As part of this world, men must live as if there is nothing else beyond life. A failure to live, to take risks, is a failure to realize human potential.

Nihilism is the complete disregard for all things that cannot be scientifically proven or demonstrated. Nietzsche did not claim that nothing exists that cannot be proven, nor that those things should be disregarded. What Nietzsche did suggest was that many people used religion, especially Judeo-Christian teachings, as a crutch for avoiding decisive actions. Nietzsche’s contribution to existentialism was the idea that men must accept that they are part of a material world, regardless of what else might exist. As part of this world, men must live as if there is nothing else beyond life. A failure to live, to take risks, is a failure to realize human potential.

Patrick Connelly is associate professor of history and director of the Honors Program at Montreat College. This is a reblog from books and He reviews Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche: The History of an Icon and His Ideas below.


Zarathustra in America.
The tragic and ironic final chapter of Friedrich Nietzsche’s life began with a spectacular collapse into debilitating insanity on the streets of Turin, Italy. It ended with the incapacitated philosopher occupying the second floor of a Weimar villa that housed the archives from which his sister Elizabeth would assume controversial control over his legacy. Prior to his breakdown, Nietzsche balanced his expectation of being a seer and facilitator of a civilizational crisis with the conviction that he was criminally underappreciated in his lifetime.

The European “Nietzsche vogue” of his incomprehensible final years, however, gave credence to the notion that his time had indeed come. Among the witnesses of this phenomenon was Wilbur Urban, an American doctoral student at the University of Leipzig and son of an Episcopal priest who discovered The Genealogy of Morals in a local bookstore. Urban later described the resulting personal encounter with Nietzsche’s ideas, as he read through the night and undertook an intellectual and spiritual reevaluation of everything he held dear.

Urban’s experience of reading Nietzsche is recounted in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s richly textured and absorbing American Nietzsche: The History of an Icon and His Ideas. The juxtaposition of Nietzsche near death in Weimar with a young American graduate student transfixed by his writings just miles away captures the importance of biography in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s account. Nietzsche’s “persona” became a focal point for readers and reviewers who “interpreted his philosophy through the lens of his biography.”

Yet American Nietzsche is also about the stories, emotions, and longings of Nietzsche’s readers and the “strong affective dimension” involved in how his ideas were received. The act of reading Nietzsche is narrated through published sources, personal recollections, marginalia, and fan letters written to Nietzsche and his sister. They give evidence of a thinker who struck a nerve with American readers due to his unconventional biography and singular vision of a modern world without foundations.

“Antifoundationalism” is a foundational idea in American Nietzsche, which explores how a motley crew of readers in the United States appropriated Nietzsche’s “denial of universal truth” in a distinctly American context. Academic philosophers, literary radicals, clergy, and political thinkers of various stripes are among the cast of characters concerned with the implications of Nietzsche’s ideas for “the moral and cultural grounds” of modern Americans. Ratner-Rosenhagen draws a portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche helping Americans understand themselves. This transatlantic intellectual and cultural exchange began, as Ratner-Rosenhagen tells the story, with an American thinker providing a transformative reading experience for Nietzsche himself.

Other commentators have noted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence on Nietzsche and discussed the affinities between the two thinkers, but no one has made such a forceful case that Nietzsche’s encounter with Emerson was so decisive and transformative. Ratner-Rosenhagen analyzes Nietzsche’s heavily annotated reading copy of Emerson’s Essays and notebook of Emerson quotations.

She credits Emerson with teaching Nietzsche about the “external forces that constrain individual autonomy.” Emerson is presented as providing Nietzsche with the example of the intellectual as provocateur, as one who doesn’t provide direct answers but provokes from a position “without inherited faith, without institutional affiliation, without rock or refuge for his truth claims.” Emerson’s influence, Ratner-Rosenhagen speculates, was particularly crucial in Nietzsche’s loss of faith, with his discovery of Emerson seemingly “the turning point” leading to his decision to abandon Christianity.

 Nietzsche biographers may wonder whether Ratner-Rosenhagen overstates Emerson’s role in Nietzsche’s personal and professional development (a recent biography by Julian Young contains only two references to Emerson in 562 pages of text), but American Nietzsche persuasively portrays Emerson as the “exemplar of the aboriginal intellect” abroad who helped Nietzsche to feel at home. It was a favor that Nietzsche would return to American readers in the decades to come.

Ratner-Rosenhagen does not exhaustively record every reference to Nietzsche in American print, though she examines in great detail how Americans experienced Nietzsche’s ideas. Her thematic and somewhat chronological survey begins with “the making of the American Nietzsche” by literary radicals and cultural critics. Literary radicals fretted over the state of American culture while hoping for a “cosmopolitanism” that would look to the example of Europe, which they believed had already been transformed by Nietzsche’s “challenge to all external authority.”

H. L. Mencken was among an eclectic group of cultural critics who focused on “the persona of Nietzsche.” Mencken’s influential monograph on Nietzsche refashioned the philosopher in Mencken’s image while suggesting that Americans desperately needed Nietzsche’s “fearless independence and fierce intelligence.” American Nietzsche later returns to the allure that Nietzsche contained for literary radicals and critics. Once again, Nietzsche’s biography educates these enthusiasts, who gravitated toward his paradigm of “the unaffiliated intellectual” changing the world through “literary expression and the social efficacy of ideas.” Writers and activists such as Emma Goldman, Kahlil Gibran, Randolph Bourne, and Walter Lippmann drew deeply from Nietzsche’s model of “the antifoundational intellect” and expressed hope that he could help them renew an impoverished American culture.

Mencken and other critics believed that religion was significantly to blame for that cultural poverty and were gripped by Nietzsche’s extraordinary attack on Christianity. The repercussions of Nietzsche’s critique were taken up by American clergy and theologians, who used the occasion to take inventory of Christianity’s future prospects and “to reassert their flagging moral authority in modernizing America.” Ratner-Rosenhagen’s account of Nietzsche’s religious readers is heavily weighted toward liberal Protestants and Social Gospelers, though she does consider Catholic apologists who viewed Nietzsche as the natural consequence of Protestantism.

Liberal Protestants and Social Gospelers understood Nietzsche as a “fellow seeker” and a “challenging doubter” who remained a vital instrument “for refitting their faith to the modern world.” Protestants less interested in this refitting, with a few exceptions, remain largely on the sidelines in American Nietzsche. Conservative Protestants are mentioned, but their collective perception of Nietzsche as an insidious force in the culture-shaping institutions of Germany and the United States remains underdeveloped.

Fundamentalists, who frequently lumped together Nietzsche and Darwin, are virtually absent from Ratner-Rosenhagen’s story. The addition of these neglected constituencies would strengthen the case that Protestants of all theological persuasions worried about the prospect of a civilization adrift from Christian foundations — even if they defined the problem and solution differently.

“A world after God” meant the arrival of the Übermensch for Nietzsche and his enthusiasts. The most ambitious section of American Nietzsche unites seemingly disparate individuals, discourses, and events around their fascination with one of Nietzsche’s signature ideas. Harvard philosophers, political radicals, and conservative New Humanists are portrayed as wrestling with the possibilities and limitations of the superman.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch later appeared in wartime debates less as a “constructive ideal” in antifoundational discourse than “a symbol for the German imperial temper.” The Übermensch seeped into the popular imagination through events such as the Leopold-Loeb trial, where the defendants murdered a boy due to their belief that “they were Nietzschean supermen.” Ratner-Rosenhagen makes a good case for the importance of the Übermensch for American readers, though as an interpretive construct it occasionally feels stretched.

Creating a coherent narrative is an arduous task for any reception study, of course, let alone one regarding a remarkably pliant thinker like Nietzsche. Ratner-Rosenhagen’s post-World War II examinations of the American reception illustrate that elasticity by focusing on the creation of numerous Nietzsches.

Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche was liberated from the taint of National Socialism, established as a serious philosopher who negotiated the analytic/existentialist divide in professional philosophy, and credited with transforming “American cold war culture” and fueling the discontent of the Sixties. Harold Bloom’s Nietzsche helped the critic move beyond the postmodern literary theories of Europe while enabling America to embrace its “alienated majesty” in a world without authorities beyond the self.

Richard Rorty’s Nietzsche inspired a “pragmatic antifoundationalism” that explored the tensions between self-creation and social solidarity in a world shorn of transcendent grounding. Stanley Cavell’s Nietzsche served as “a midwife of Emersonian philosophy” who helped Americans to rediscover their native antifoundational thinking. Allan Bloom’s Nietzsche was misappropriated to sustain “an unwholesome, lighthearted and softheaded ‘nihilism with a happy ending.’ “

Given these and other appropriations, can the real Nietzsche be discerned in an America awash in Nietzsches? It certainly goes against the grain of many of the thinkers discussed in American Nietzsche to suggest that a single understanding of Nietzsche is necessary or even possible. Epistemological and critical humility are needed — we do, after all, see through a glass darkly — but it is difficult to criticize misappropriations or misunderstandings of Nietzsche without having some sense of what he meant. This is especially challenging for a reception study.

Ratner-Rosenhagen contends that her book “is not even a book about Nietzsche” but rather “about his crucial role in the ever-dynamic remaking of modern American thought.” American Nietzsche is certainly about the latter — and engagingly so — but it is about Nietzsche as well. Ratner-Rosenhagen resists a full-fledged exposition of Nietzsche’s ideas, though she does selectively elaborate, taking several opportunities to correct perceived misreadings and resisting fashionable assumptions about the “death of the author.”

The emphasis on the act of reading Nietzsche also leads to questions about how to understand the cultural and intellectual setting those acts transformed. What impact did Nietzsche have on American culture as a whole, as opposed to select individuals? One instance where this issue becomes problematic is Ratner-Rosenhagen’s discussion of celebrity.

She discusses, in fascinating detail, letters from the Nietzsche Archive that were written to Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche by her brother’s American fans. Ratner-Rosenhagen suggests that the letters reveal “Nietzsche’s emergence as a celebrity in American culture.” Historians of celebrity, she argues, have focused inordinate attention on musicians and actors and their respective industries while neglecting the emergence of “the prophetic thinker” as celebrity. But it is difficult to see how a relatively small sample of letters can be used as evidence of celebrity, which by its very nature is about mass appeal and consumption.

How then does one gauge Nietzsche’s broader impact on American culture? Ratner-Rosenhagen provides much food for thought on this question throughout American Nietzsche, particularly when she discerns a larger popular effect as in the case of Walter Kaufmann’s monograph and translations. I wonder whether a more specific distillation of the notion of cultural authority would be instructive as well.

“Cultural authority” is an amorphous term that sociologists and historians have used more than defined. It involves the authority of individuals, ideas, and institutions to promote certain understandings of meaning and values in the culture at large and to shape core assumptions about God, human personhood, social and political order, science, economics, law, and other spheres of public and private life.

Protestant Christianity had long informed the American cultural milieu but faced substantial challenges to its authority by the time Nietzsche’s ideas first registered in the United States. Sociologist Christian Smith writes that a “secular revolution” was afoot, involving “secularizing activists” seeking “to overthrow a religious establishment’s control over socially legitimate knowledge.” Many of the same American academics, critics, activists, and clergy who appear in American Nietzsche were participants in the seismic shifts of authority in culture-shaping institutions.

Nietzsche’s early American admirers may have questioned whether the European “Nietzsche vogue” would take root in the United States, but they recognized his awareness of and contribution to the larger story of secularism. William Mackintire Salter wrote in 1917 that “a subtle, slow secular revolution in the mental and moral realm was what Nietzsche had in mind.”

Nietzsche himself realized that uprooting Christianity’s cultural authority was a long historical process involving more than simply rejecting traditional beliefs. It would be overreaching, of course, to suggest that Nietzsche’s ideas singlehandedly accomplished this revolutionary aim in the United States, but many of the subjects of Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book were willing to utilize his ideas to accelerate the process.

The result of this secular revolution, along with the rise of competing authorities and understandings of the world, meant further openings were created for Nietzsche’s antifoundationalism to gain a hearing in the decades to come. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s wonderfully written and stimulating American Nietzsche compels us to reckon not only with what he said, but with what we have become.


Time’s On Our Side — Matthew W. Maguire

January 27, 2014
Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German philosopher who is widely considered to be a central figure of modern philosophy. He argued that human concepts and categories structure our view of the world and its laws, and that reason is the source of morality.

Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German philosopher who is widely considered to be a central figure of modern philosophy. He argued that human concepts and categories structure our view of the world and its laws, and that reason is the source of morality.

A review of The Illusion of History: Time and the Radical Political Imagination by Andrew R. Russ. Matthew W. Maguire is associate professor of history and Catholic studies at DePaul University.


A century ago, Charles Peguy observed that self-consciously modern intellectuals “want for everyone to criticize everything. But they don’t want anyone to critique critique.” For Peguy and others, “critique” broadly designates thinking in which reflexive suspicion of truth and truth claims is assumed to be superior to any reasoned assent to those claims, and analyses of becoming and historical flux are increasingly assumed to be more powerful, more valuable, and more honest than thinking affirmatively about being, nature, truth, goodness, God, or any metaphysical term intimating abiding “essences” in the world and beyond it.

From early modernity forward, a doughty and eclectic succession of thinkers have criticized this kind of critique. Pascal, Johann Georg Hamann, Peguy, and many others have exposed its tendency to depend tacitly upon bold metaphysical commitments that it elsewhere decries.

That is, modern critical thought often loudly proclaims its radical skepticism and the need to take nothing from metaphysics — or nothing that it cannot establish entirely on its own — but then smuggles into its arguments and exhortations to readers a silent metaphysics of truth, of the good, the beautiful, and the ultimate nature of reality, all the while claiming to emancipate those same readers from metaphysical burdens. Critics observe that modern critical thinking is often rather amusingly inconsistent and — more seriously — threatens to deprive us of the metaphysical freedom that is indispensable to human flourishing, and with it our potential for living lives of purpose in the time available to us.

Yet the critique of critique can sometimes develop the destructive symptoms that it attributes to critique. For all its acute observations about critique’s shortcomings, it can include only tentative gestures toward affirmative metaphysical arguments about truth, goodness, or meaning, creating an amorphous protest against the presumptions of modern critique. The critique of critique can thus be parasitic upon the apparently parasitic tendencies of critique, and thus does not cure but intensifies the malady it encounters.

In The Illusion of History by Andrew Russ, the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant is the supreme transformative moment in modern critical thinking. Kant claimed that his philosophy defended (certain kinds of) metaphysics and constituted a refutation of David Hume’s radical skepticism. But for Russ, a lecturer at the University of Adelaide, Kant points the way toward an account of human being in which a radically autonomous will exists apart from creaturely history and the historical institutions that help to orient us in the world.

Kant’s philosophy of history posits an ultimate rapprochement between the autonomous rational will and human experience, but for Russ, these Kantian ends stand in remote repose, far from the institutional, continuous, and organically historical realities of human life. After Kant, these realities were diminished in both meaning and importance and left undefended before a fiercely historicizing skepticism.

For Russ, Kant created the space for the most radical forms of modern critique. Human being is separated from its indispensably embodied, temporal, and culturally instantiated conditions of experience. This separation produces seemingly liberated but thoroughly alienated modern persons, who are then compelled to protest their alienation in uncompromising terms, often by lurching toward still more radical forms of critique — attacking remaining claims about truth, purpose, goodness, and so on. It is this move that first appears by way of prolepsis in Rousseau and is transfigured by Marx and Foucault.

The audacity of this argument is not to be gainsaid: Russ claims that the philosophies of Rousseau, Marx, and Foucault are not, as conventional wisdom generally assumes, distinct movements toward a thoroughly historical understanding of human experience. Rather, they are three philosophies that tacitly rely upon an ahistorical dualism with profound Kantian resonances, in which the shared historical world we inhabit and the metaphysical traditions conveyed by our cultures are assumed to be lies.

To create their distinctive forms of radical critical distance from their places in a continuous history, Russ claims, Rousseau, Marx, and Foucault imagine three different stark, timeless, yet immanent metaphysical ideals that stand in perpetual critical judgment upon our experience. The fictive past of Rousseau’s state of nature and his selective account of life in ancient Sparta serve him as idylls.

Marx’s dialectical and universally valid “scientific” affirmation of use value, labor power, and the quotidian hunter, fisher, cattle-raiser. and critic of The German Ideology places his timeless yet historical ideal in the communist future. Foucault’s universal emptiness of historical time. at once “autistic” and without consciousness, allows the “imaginative critical individual” to survey history’s “species of thought” while remaining forever separated from history in an isolated present.

For Russ, these critical positions serve as implicit trans-historical standards: They are Rousseauian, Marxist, and Foucauldian illusions of history rather than engagements with history. Hence the pride that modern critique takes in its uncompromising historicism is also illusory.

That some of the most important thinkers and methods of modern critique rely upon a tacit, often Kant-inflected ideal of critical autonomy that is placed in time yet set apart from their putative historicism is a bold and important argument, and it is generally persuasive. Russ is also incisive when reading fiction preoccupied with modern critique; the pages devoted to literature are among the book’s best. For him, Camus and especially Kafka expose with uncanny clarity the dilemmas attending a culture in which critical imaginings begin to form the habitual ways of thinking.

Russ also alludes to a rich counter-critical philosophical history to affirm the importance of historical continuity and its institutions when modern critique has left us alienated and diminished by reflexive suspicion. He commends, for aid in responding to those he calls “historical institutionalists” who ask “not a what’ but a `why” when they investigate human experience, attention to Montesquieu, Jacobi, Hamann, Burke, Hegel, and Eugene Rosenstock Huessy. These philosophers sustain his critique of critique; they are “historical institutionalists” who ask “not a `what’ but a `why” when they investigate human experience.

While there is much to praise in The Illusion of History, there are dubious generalizations at work in its treatment of its major philosophers, especially Rousseau. Furthermore, while it is an author’s prerogative to identify unexpected correspondences, it does not require a scholarly obsessive’s party-pooping pedantry to observe that thinkers like Burke, Hamann, and Hegel are generally not identified as part of a single school of thought, and that there are important reasons for distinguishing among them.

Precisely which institutions do they variously affirm? As for why institutions are legitimate and important, is it because of their particular and organic duration that cannot be entirely subjected to reason (Burke), or as part of the universal, cumulative dialectical realization of the Absolute (Hegel)? Or are they best conceived by the continuous power of the Incarnation, through which eternity fuses sense and reason, matter and language (Hamann)? These differences are essential; here they are mentioned in passing or passed over in silence.

The subtitle of the book, Time and the Radical Political Imagination, offers the prospect of investigating time and imagination, but here that work is often left undone. There are interesting passages about Kant’s account of imagination, but the extraordinary importance of imagination in Rousseau’s philosophy — where it has an altogether different and often intensely political function — is simply absent.

Working with Rousseau’s earlier account of imagination’s power would have allowed Russ (in keeping with his own argumentative commitments) to write with greater sensitivity to history, rather than repeatedly enlisting Rousseau as an awkwardly anachronistic philosophical emanation of Kant.

Above all, Russ fails to reckon with the question of time, a preoccupation of both Christian and modern secular thought. In these pages, time is generally identified with history and the timeless with the trans-historical, but later sections of the book jettison this already debatable usage.

Russ claims there that the organic, “unbroken” trinity of past, present, and future has been shattered by modern critique, and he hopes to reveal “time in its Trinitarian unity.” The theological implications of sustained trinitarian language are undeveloped; they are abandoned abruptly in favor of “all four dimensions of time,” including eternity, which appears only as a posterity that permits institutions to perpetuate the vision of their founders. A book promising to explore time and the political imagination must take more care with its major terms.

The Illusion of History is an ambitious, original, and often truly insightful book. Its argumentative shortcomings leave the reader wondering whether critiques of modern critique would benefit from greater attention to their animating, positive commitments, whether those commitments are “historical-institutional” or philosophical.

The critique of a now-conventional critical habit of thought requires that its critics dare to know — and to explore openly with lucid, peaceful, and reasoned confidence — precisely where and how they have found themselves beyond the increasingly closed and institutionally fortified frontiers of modern critique, and how readers might find their way there too.


The Poets’ Incarnation 3 – Fr. Edward T. Oakes S.J.

December 23, 2013
The Virgin of the Veil, Ambrogio Borgognone, 1500

The Virgin of the Veil, Ambrogio Borgognone, 1500

Last Saturday it was with great sadness that we reblogged from First Things the news of the passing and the short tribute to Fr. Edward T. Oakes. I’ve been scouring about for some piece of his writing that would capture not only his scholastic rigor but his extraordinary breadth of learning and perception. I think I’ve done pretty good here – the introduction to his 2009 book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy. Note that all references to “this book” and various chapters refer to Infinity Dwindled to Infancy.


A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


In common parlance, the word “evangelical” has both a more generic meaning, referring to all styles, schools, and denominations of Christianity that are explicitly confessional, and a more specific (and usually American) meaning, which refers to specific churches and denominations that require a confession of Jesus as Lord for church membership.

Thus there can be evangelical Anglicans within the Church of England, while other (usually independent) churches are entirely evangelical. My title of course is meant in the generic sense, but not as if only some Catholics confess Jesus as Lord and others don’t. The word here is meant in the methodological sense: rather than arguing to the possibility of confessing Jesus as Lord (that would be the apologetic approach), I shall begin by presupposing the faith that Jesus is Lord and then seek to understand what that means scientifically (the explicitly confessional approach).

That said, I should also add that my years of involvement in Evangelicals and Catholics Together have taught me how little divides Evangelicals (in the specific sense) from Catholics in matters of Christology. For that reason, especially in the historical sections of this book (Chapters 4 through 10), I shall freely draw on Protestant and Orthodox authors who are themselves evangelical (in the generic sense). In this I will of course be following the directive of the Second Vatican Council, which urged Catholics in these terms:

Catholics must joyfully acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of praise. [Vatican II, Unitatis redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism), §4, in The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 349.]

As the subtitle indicates, this work will also be frankly and unapologetically Catholic in its outlook, as will emerge especially in Chapter 11, where the developments of modern Christology will find their response in the contemporary Roman magisterium. Throughout the history of Christology the reader will notice a dialectic at work in which certain proposals are moot by individual Christians: when inadequacies are noticed, other writers m respond, often heatedly, but the ultimate resolution of these debates will found in official responses by magisterial bodies: ecumenical councils p manly but also by individual bishops, very much including the Bishop Rome; and what was true of the ancient Church holds true for the Rom Church today.

Finally, there is the matter of the title itself, which is meant as no mere nod to the poets, insightful as they are. It will be the fundamental thesis this book that there can be no getting around the essential paradoxicality the Christian confession of Christ as Lord. “Take away paradox from thinker,” Soren Kierkegaard once quipped, “and you have a professor.” Transposed into Christology, we may paraphrase the line as: “Take away paradox from a theologian, and you have a heretic. [As we will notice throughout this book, but especially in Chapter 4, denial of the central paradoxes of Christology will inevitably lead to heresy; and pagan critics of Christianity were explicit in their rejection of the Christian message for that same reason: "For the one whom the church was calling God was also the one whose suffering and death on the cross were the burden of the church's witness....

The claim that he who was God had suffered called forth some of the earliest doctrinal controversy in the church. Speaking for pagan critics of the gospel, Celsus made this claim the object of his attack, and he contended that `the body of a god would not have been born ... nor eat,' ... and the Gnostic gospels sought to put a screen between the person of the Savior and the pain and suffering described in the canonical Gospels." Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100- 600), vol. I of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 174.]

Indeed, long before the poets began to sing the praise of infinity dwindled to infancy, the most important defenders of Christian orthodoxy were adamant that theology would invariably go astray if it did not openly confess the utter strangeness (strange to worldly logic, at least) of the Christian message of salvation. For just that reason, early Christian writers were generally suspicious of Aristotle, not so much for his specific and distinctive philosophical doctrines but because his logic was unsuited, they felt, to the transcendent “logic” of the Logos incarnate, the application of which was bound to lead to heresy. As Harry Wolfson observes:

Patristic opponents of Arianism as well as Patristic Church historians a heresiographers trace the Arian heresy to Aristotle…. But when we study the passages in which Aristotle is mentioned as the source of this here we are surprised to discover that the reference is not to any particular theory with which the name of Aristotle is generally associated, such, for instance as his denial of Platonic ideas, his belief in the eternity of the world, his conception of God as only a prime mover, or his view that the soul is only a form of the body, but only to the Aristotelian method of reasoning….
And when we examine these references to the Aristotelian method of reasoning as being the cause of the Arian heresy, we are further surprised to discover that they do not mean reasoning by the Aristotelian method from premises which are also Aristotelian, but rather the application of the Aristotelian method of reasoning to generally accepted Christian premises.
[Harry A. Wolfson, Philosophical Implications of Arianism and Apollinarianism, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Number Twelve (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), pp. 3-28; here 5; emphases added. Thomas Aquinas of course had a much higher appreciation for Aristotle, as everyone knows. But he too admits the limitations of reason vis-a-vis the mysteries of Christology: "Among divine works, this [the incarnation] most especially exceeds reason.” Summa contra Gentiles IV 27.1, a passage that will be cited at greater length at the end of this chapter and in Chapter 5. Aristotle, by the way, was perfectly aware that logic could not dictate reality but was merely an instrument for its clarification, which was the whole point of his book Sophistical Refutations: “By a sophistical refutation and deduction I mean not only a deduction or refutation which appears to be valid but is not, but also one which, though it is valid, only appears to be appropriate to the thing in question.” Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations 16gb2o, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), vol. i, p. 287.]

As we will see in Chapter 4, this is particularly true of the fifth-century Cyril of Alexandria, without whom the Council of Chalcedon — itself the touchstone for all later orthodox Christologies — would never have had available to it the conceptual armory that proved necessary for its teaching. Indeed, Cyril frankly avows that in Christ we find “the strange and rare paradox (aethes to kai xenon paradoxon)” of a master who serves and an abased divine glory. ["We see in Christ the strange and rare paradox of the Lordship in servant's form and divine glory in human abasement." Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, trans. John Anthony McGuckin (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), p. 101. Earlier in that same work Cyril describes the incarnation of Christ as meaning that "... the one who is immaterial could [now] be touched; he who is free in his own nature came in the form of a slave; he who blesses all creation became accursed; he who is all-righteousness was numbered among the transgressors; life itself came in the appearance of death” (p. 61).]

In another work he describes Christ in these terms: “He is filled with wisdom who is himself all wisdom…. Rich in poverty; the Most High in humiliation:… so thoroughly did God the Word empty himself!” [Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, trans. R. Payne Smith (New York: Studion, 1983), p. 63.]

Such statements could be multiplied at will, both in Cyril’s writings an throughout the annals of historical theology. For example, Cyril asks why the Fourth Evangelist said that the Word became flesh rather than became man. The answer for Cyril was that John wanted to stress the paradox of the incarnation:

That, in my opinion, is the most probable reason why the holy Evangelist, indicating the whole living being by the part affected, says that the Word God became flesh. It is so that we might see side by side the wound together with the remedy, the patient together with the physician, what sank towards death together with him who raised it up to life,… that which has been mastered by death together with him who conquered death, what was bereft of life with him who was the provider of life. He does not say that if Word came into flesh; he says he became flesh in order to exclude any idea of a relative indwelling, as in the case of the prophets and the other saint He really did become flesh, that is to say, a human being.
Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, at John 1:14a, in Cyril of Alexandrea trans. N. Russell (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 105-6; emphases added.

Going back even further, as early as the second century we read in Ignatius of Antioch: “There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ of Lord. [Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians 7.2, in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Michael W. Holmes, p. 141. A bit later, Melito of Sardis speaks of Christ's crucifixion as predicating Christ both as divine Creator and as the one who suffered a shameful death: "He who hung up the earth is himself hung up; he who fixed the heavens is himself fixed [upon the cross]; he who fastened everything is himself fastened on the wood” (Melito, On the Past p. 96).]

Origen agrees: “He who was in the form of God saw fit to be in the form of a servant; while he who is immortal dies, and the impassible suffer and the invisible is seen.” [Origen, In Leviticam Homiliae 3, 1; Origen's Homilies on Leviticus 1-16, trans. W.Barkley (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1990), p. 52: qui immorta est, moritur et impassibilis patitur and invisibilis videtur.] Athanasius, who would later prove so instrumental in undermining Origen’s proto-Arian subordinationist Christology, refused, however, to jettison Origen’s paradoxes; indeed, he attacked Origen Christology for the sake of these same paradoxes:

For it is a fact that the more unbelievers pour scorn on Him, so much the more does He make His Godhead evident. The things which they, as men, rule out as impossible, He plainly shows to be possible; that which they deride as unfitting, His goodness makes more fit; and things which these wiseacres laugh at as “human” He by His inherent might declares divine.
[St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by a Member of the C.S.M.V. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1953), p. 25]

To be sure, “there is,” as Paul Gavrilyuk rightly reminds us, “a thin line between a plain contradiction and a paradox,” [Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 14.] and how that line should be drawn will occupy much of the rest of this book. In that regard, we will discover that Paul’s use of the concept of the kenosis (self-emptying) of the Logos in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians will prove crucial. [The very fact that Cyril's paradoxes will find their resolution in his interpretation of the kenosis passage in Philippians once again points to the intricate connection of Christology with Trinitarian doctrine.]

But one thing will become clear in the course of the history of Christology: attempts to dissolve the paradox because it is somehow found to be scandalous will invariably run into dead ends, usually heretical. [As the renowned nineteenth-century theologian Matthias Scheeben says: "Here again the Church proposes two doctrines that seem to contradict each other; yet both have been simultaneously upheld by the Church.... With regard to Christian epistemology, the same order is mysterious, that is, it is hidden from natural reason which, by itself and its natural resources, cannot know such an order. It lies above the reach of reason, for it surpasses reason as much as it surpasses nature." [Matthias Scheeben, Nature and Grace, trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J. (St. Louis: Herder, 1954), pp. 7, 14] Reason’s final task, says Pascal, is to recognize where reason’s competence ends; or as Thomas Aquinas says:

It now remains to speak of the mystery of the Incarnation itself. Indeed, among divine works, this most especially exceeds reason. For nothing can be thought of which is more marvelous than this divine accomplishment, that the true God, the Son of God, should become true man. And because among them all it is most marvelous, it follows that toward faith in this particular marvel all other miracles are ordered.
[St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles IV, 27.1]

Maximus the Confessor agrees: “For who could know how God takes on flesh, yet remains God? How he, while remaining true God, is yet truly a human being? … Only faith understands this, by paying silent homage to the Word of God.” [Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua, PG 91, 1057A.

A few pages before, he says: "For the super-essential Word, who took on himself, in that ineffable [virginal] conception, our nature and everything that belongs to it, possessed nothing human, nothing that we might consider `natural’ to him, that was not at the same time divine, negated by the supernatural manner of his existence. The investigation of these things exceeds our reason and our capacity for proof; it is only grasped by the faith of those who reverence the mystery of Christ with upright hearts.” PG 91, 1053A.] John Calvin builds on this tradition and shows how this Christological paradox is fundamentally a saving paradox:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us: that, by his descent on earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself that had so sore oppressed us, he has clothed us with his righteousness.
[John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 2, p. 1362, at 4.17.2]

Joseph Ratzinger adopts this same perspective and locates the most fundamental of Christian paradoxes above all in the execution notice that Pontius Pilate placed on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” Pilate spoke more truly than he knew, as the future pope explains: “This execution notice, the death sentence of history, became with paradoxical unity the `profession of faith,’ the real starting point and taproot of the Christian faith which holds Jesus to be the Christ: as the crucified criminal, this Jesus is the Christ, the King. His crucifixion is his coronation; his kingship is his surrender of himself to men, the identification of word, mission, and existence the yielding up of this very existence.
[Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J. R. Foster (San Francis( Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 2o6; emphasis added.]

Such a stress on paradox can lead to some astonishing vistas for apologetics. Even though this book intends to speak within the faith, rather than arguing from skeptical positions to show the reasonability of faith in the manner of apologetics, nevertheless an admission of the paradoxicality of the logic of the incarnation can itself be an entry point for addressing the concerns of the skeptic, even the atheist, a point stressed throughout Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this is what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God…. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God…. [Let] the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
[Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 145. The paradoxes of the Trinity will not be the focus of this work except as they affect Christology proper, probably the most important of which is the one noted by Ratzinger: "[According to Augustine] `In God there are no accidents, only substance and relation’ [quoting De Trinitate 5, 5.61. Therein lies concealed a revolution in man's view of the world: the sole dominion of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality." Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, p. 184. See further on this point Francis Cardinal George, "Being through Others in Christ: esse per and Ecclesial Communion," The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture (New York: Crossroad, 2009), pp. 307-26.]

So much, at any rate, for the title and subtitle of the book. As to its structure, the chapters follow in rough chronological order: Chapters 2 and 3 give an overview of the New Testament witness to Christ; they survey the titles applied to Jesus in his lifetime and then in the proclamation by the early church of him risen.

Here the question of the historicity of the Gospels will constitute the main focus of treatment. Chapters 4 through io then give an overview of the history of Christological reflection from the close of the New Testament canon to the present. Finally, Chapters 11 and 12 provide an overview of current magisterial teaching on the identity and work of Christ. (Past magisterial teachings will be taken up as they arise in the course of Christological history covered in the earlier chapters.)

Now because contemporary magisterial teaching has taken in, and responded to, the many challenges thrown up by modernity to the Christian gospel, we shall be discussing church teaching not as a kind of reference work that can enable the student to look up “the right answers” and be done with it.

Rather we shall see that the teaching of the contemporary church takes place in the same kind of context as did the teaching of the church in the great councils of the first six centuries that will have been treated in Chapter 4: that is, it is a teaching that responds to challenges and speaks definitively from the crises thrown up in each period of church history.

One final point: precisely because Christology is confessional and ecclesial, it both springs from and returns to worship. Nor should this surprise us. As Abbot Vonier says so marvelously:

Christ the Son of God could never be man’s eternal life, if He were not man’s eternal wonder. A Christ whom we could fully comprehend, who we could understand through and through, could never be our life and our hope because we could not wonder at Him anymore. It is an indispensable condition of all true and lasting admiration that its object should be greater than our knowledge of it; and the growth of knowledge far from touching the limits of the marvelous, should convince us more and more of their inaccessibility. Love, no doubt, is born from knowledge and understanding; but short-lived and fragile would be the love which would be merely commensurate with knowledge and understanding. Love is actually noblest and strongest when we know enough of a person to realize that there is in him vastly more….
We find strong love for Christ the Son of God, a love fresh as a spring morning and unchanging the eternal hills, only where there is the belief in His divine nature, because there alone the created spirit has scope for endless wonderment. To make of Christ a merely human being is to deprive Him of the attribute incomprehensibility. Such theology would be the cruelest science, destroying in the soul the most life-giving element of religion — that wonderment which makes it `old yet ever new”
[Abbot Vonier, The Personality of Christ, in The Collected Works of Abbot Vonier, vol.1: The Incarnation and Redemption (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, no date for publication but The Personality of Christ was itself first published in England in 1914), P. 107.]

So the paradoxes of Christology not only give rise to theology but, when rightly understood, they also return to worship. In a fascinating collection early liturgical texts, The Lenten Triodion, we find, not surprisingly, the worship of the early church expressed in the most frankly paradoxical terms.

For example, in Canticle Five of Good Friday, the early church prayed thus: “I seek Thee early in the morning, Word of God; for in Thy tender mercy wards fallen man, without changing Thou hast emptied Thyself, and impassibly Thou hast submitted to Thy Passion. Grant me Thy peace, O Lord who lovest mankind.” [The Lenten Triodion, translated from the original Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1978), p. 593.]

And at the moment in the service when the church commemorates the ninth hour, when Jesus gave up his spirit, the congregation sings: “Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is fixed with nails.” [The Lenten Triodion, p. 609] And then comes silence. We should expect no less:

Jesus, we will frequent thy Board,
And sing the Bounties of our Lord:
But the rich Food on which we live
Demands more Praise than Tongues can give.43
Isaac Watts (1674-1748), “The Church the Garden of Christ,” in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 149.

But that speechless, tongueless praise is still at all points the praise of prayer, where reason finally yields to the light of reason-transcending faith, a point made to brilliant effect in what is probably the most famous English poem of the nineteenth century, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam:

Strong Son of God, immortal Love
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove.


Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, thou:
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, ed. Erik Gray, A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004/1850), Prologue, p. 5.

This book, too, is but a “little system” and will someday “cease to be. And even if it speaks the truth, it will do so only as a “broken light of they for God-in-Christ is more than all can say.


The Poets’ Incarnation 2 – Fr. Edward T. Oakes S.J.

December 20, 2013
The Birth of Christ, Federico Barocci, 1597

The Birth of Christ, Federico Barocci, 1597

Last Saturday it was with great sadness that we reblogged from First Things the news of the passing and the short tribute to Fr. Edward T. Oakes. I’ve been scouring about for some piece of his writing that would capture not only his scholastic rigor but his extraordinary breadth of learning and perception. I think I’ve done pretty good here – the introduction to his 2009 book Infinity Dwindled to Infancy.


A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy


All the problems listed in the previous post will be the focus of the rest of the book (Infinity Dwindled to Infancy) But before outlining by anticipation the structure and strategy of the following pages, let me first dispatch this question of paradox, at least provisionally — and once again with the help of poets, who perhaps are those members of each society best endowed to see the value of paradox as a valued avenue to truth. Poetic use of paradox does not of course necessarily justify theological paradoxes; but if the reader can recognize worldly truth lurking in poetic paradox, at least reason will find itself initially open to the possibility of truth embedded in theological paradoxes.

Let us take as our lone example of a non-theological poetic paradox passage from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, chosen more or less random (since Shakespeare is so fond of paradoxes, one could choose just about any play or sonnet for an example here). In this passage Friar Lawrence is speaking to Romeo right before he is to marry Juliet. They have been apart for only a few hours after their parting on the balcony, but to both of them it seems an eternity (teenagers in love, and all that), and so when Romeo seems too eager for Juliet’s arrival, the good friar issues this warning:

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss, consume.
The sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore, love moderately. Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

So how can too swift arrive as “tardy” as too slow? “Tardy” means “late” not “early,” and the swift arrive too early, not too late. So how can “early” mean “tardy”? How can what is sweet repulse the taste, when “sweet” means what attracts the appetite and is pleasing to the taste?

Pedantic questions surely. The friar is obviously not indulging in word games and confusing the two lovers with logical conundrums about square circles and married bachelors. No, he is using the surface language of opposites to get at something deeper, more real than what a flat, stale, and unprofitable use of words in their dictionary meanings can provide. And this is certainly something everyone the world over has recognized and continues to recognize. So it is no wonder that Christian poets glory in the very paradoxes that often intimidate their more pedestrian brethren, the theologians.

Nor will it do to dismiss paradoxes as the indulgence of those who have applied and qualified for a poetic license. Philosophers have long known of paradoxes, from Anaximander and Zeno through Kant and Hegel and down to W. V. O. Quine and our own day. Indeed, in one sense, one may say that paradox has given rise to philosophy in much the same (formal) way it has done for theology. [See Roy Sorensen, A Brief History of Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), and W. V. O. Quine, The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).] In that history, one encounters a variety of definitions for paradox: riddles like the one given to Oedipus by the Sphinx, [Riddle: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, three legs in the evening?" Answer: "Man, who begins life as a baby on all fours; then learns to walk upright on two legs, and finally spends his twilight years using a cane."] or the ones popular on the grade-school playground, like this one recounted by Anaximander: “What has a mouth but never eats, a bed but never sleeps?” (Answer: a river.)

But riddles are theoretically resolvable, even the ever-popular “What came first: the chicken or the egg?” (Evolutionary biology answers that one.) Of greater interest to the philosopher are the truly irresolvable paradoxes, which Gareth Mathews defines as conceptual statements that conflict with other conceptual statements but which still remain true, such as the Stoic claim that those and only those are free who know they are not free. [Gareth Matthews, "Paradoxical Statements," American Philosophical Quarterly 11 (1974): 133-39]

Here the conflict is not seen as an outright contradiction that simply cannot exist  (married bachelors, square circles), but as an apparent contradiction that hides a deeper truth (hence the family resemblance between riddles and paradoxes), despite what the dictionary meaning or the rules of logic might say. [R. M. Sainsbury defines paradox as an argument that has acceptable premises an valid inferential logic but an apparently unacceptable conclusion; see R. M. Sainsbury, Paradoxes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1995). Quine agrees: "May we say in genes then, that a paradox is just any conclusion that at first sounds absurd but that has an argument to sustain it? In the end I think this account stands up pretty well" (Quine, Ways of Paradox, p. 1).]

Speaking of logic, important developments in that formal science since the Austro-American mathematician Kurt Godel first proved his two “incompleteness theorems” have also established the cognitive power of paradox. These theorems both, in combination, proved that it is impossible to prove the formal consistency (that is, non-paradoxicality) of mathematics within the mathematical system itself. ["What Kurt Godel proved, in that great paper of 1931, was that no deductive system with axioms however arbitrary, is capable of embracing among its theorems all the truths of the elementary arithmetic of positive integers unless it discredits itself by letting slip some of the falsehoods too. Godel showed how, for any given deductive system, he could construct a  sentence of elementary number theory that would be true if and only if not provable in that system. Every such system is therefore either incomplete, in that it misses a relevant truth, or else bankrupt, in that it proves a falsehood" (Quine, Ways of Paradox, pp. 16-17).]

Prior to Godel’s proofs, this view had seemed absurd to most mathematicians, above all to the German David Hilbert; but all that changed in 1931 when Gödel published his proof, at which point paradox took on a new epistemological sheen, at least according to one of Gödel’s keenest interpreters:

The possibility of paradox, meant to be forever eliminated by Hilbert’s program, reasserted itself. And one of the strangest things about the odd and beautiful proof that subverted Hilbert’s defense against paradox was the way in which paradox itself was incorporated into the very structure of the proof.
[Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel, (New York W. W. Norton, 2005), p. 164]

Nor is the paradoxicality of Gödel’s proofs an arcane point of use or to mathematicians, for Gödel himself saw its theological relevance: “It [is] something to be expected that sooner or later my proof will be made useful for religion, since that is doubtless also justified in a certain sense.” [From a letter Godel wrote to his mother on October 20,1963, quoted in Goldstein, p. 192]  As G. K. Chesterton saw so well:

The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait.
[G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995/1908), p. 87].
At least in the formal sense, Quine agrees: “Catastrophe may lurk, therefore, in the most innocent-seeming paradox. More than once in history the discovery of paradox has been the occasion for major reconstruction at the foundations of thought” (Quine, Ways of Paradox, pp. 16-17). That Chesterton, himself famous for his fondness for paradoxes, had anticipated these later developments is itself remarkable.

Thus, if Paul Ricoeur is right that “the symbol gives rise to the thought,” so too does that hold for the paradoxes of the Christian religion: they are believed because both simple and learned recognize, by a kind of supernatural intuition, as it were, that paradoxes speak the truth. [Pascal, perhaps Christianity's greatest apologete, agrees: "All these contradictions, which used most to keep me away from the knowledge of any religion, are what have led me soonest to the true religion," Blaise Pascal, Pensees and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 8.] Which is why, in Cardinal Newman’s famous words, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” [John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua (London: Longmans, 1878), p. 239.]

But reason wants to know why and how they can be true, which is why the application of reason to the phenomenon of Jesus Christ in history has given rise to thought, to theology.

Now the application of reason to the data of revelation can be either internally or externally focused: the first shows how various doctrines are interrelated, and goes under the name of systematic theology; while the second attempts to address the objections of outsiders who claim that belief in such a revelation is irrational, and goes under the name of apologetics.

As the word “evangelical” in the subtitle indicates, this book means to be systematic, not apologetic. In other words, it uses reason to reflect from the faith, not to it. In either case, results must perforce be nugatory, as the logician Peter Geach rightly notes:

Of course I do not think that natural reason can establish even the no contradictoriness, let alone the truth, of the Christian belief that a certain human being was and is Almighty God in person…. A demand for a strict proof of non-contradictoriness is anyhow often unreasonable even, as recent logical researches have shown, in pure mathematics. Certainly, if the doctrine of the Incarnation is true, it will not be self-contradictory, and any argument that it is self-contradictory will contain a flaw; but saying this is very different from saying that if the doctrine true, we ought to be able to see, or prove once for all, that it is non- contradictory.
[P. T. Geach, God and the Soul (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), pp. 106]
[Thomas Morris adopts the same approach: "[This] book as a whole should be viewed a defense of the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, the two-natures view of Christ, against contemporary philosophical attacks. I do not purport here to show that the doctrine is true; I seek only to answer some contemporary arguments against accepting it as true.” Thomas Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 16.]

In other words, the chapters that follow do not claim to have resolve the paradoxes of Christology, nor do they wish to, since, again as we shall see attempts to resolve Christian paradoxes often lead down heretical trails. Nor do they wish to win over, at least as a direct purpose, the skeptical and the unbelieving. They merely seek to set forth, as simply and as clearly as t subject matter allows, the many ways that Christ has given rise to thought, theology, to Christology.

The title for this book, Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic a Evangelical Christology, is meant to set the methodological limits and to determine its operative principles. To work from back to front, the word “evangelical,” as we said just above, explicitly avows that, to the extent Christology is scientific; it is so only from inside the confines of a confession of the Lordship of Christ already made. [By "scientific" I am of course referring not to test-tubes, white coats, statistical analysis, and the like, but to that objective method that seeks to conform subjectivity to the reality of the object. But as with all other sciences, matters can sometimes get quite complex. facilitate the use of this work as a textbook on both undergraduate and graduate classes, have sequestered the more complex topics inside the cordon sanitaire of four Excursus, which can be omitted by those less interested in these specialized topics.]

To be sure, secular sciences (above all, history) both impinge upon and influence a scientific account of the identity Christ. But the New Testament is unanimous in holding that a true knowledge of Christ comes only through faith. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). For that reason, little attention will be paid to non-Christian critiques of the coherence of Christology except as they prompted a deepening and development of the faith of Christians (just as Celsus did for Origen or Friedrich Nietzsche did for some twentieth-century theologians).


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