Depth in the Shallows

Give A Man A Fish…

Teach A Fish To Sing

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness (1902-1998), an Icelandic writer, produced novels, plays, short stories, and poetry. Back when the Nobel Prize was awarded to people who arguably deserved it, Laxness was the 1955 laureate. His works are dominated by the people and places of his native Iceland. Spare and simple, yet spiritual and majestic as the Icelandic landscape, Laxness’ novels are teeming with human energy. In this book, a kind of coming of age story, Álfgrímur shows us that sometimes leaving and loving are bound up in each other, a necessary coupling that helps us find our singleness of purpose.

“Learn never to look forward to anything. It is the beginning of knowing how to endure everything.”


You’re Fired!


Jingo by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015), was a prolific British author largely known for his famed Discworld series of forty-one fantasy novels. Combining quirky characters and wicked wit, Pratchett created a universe of the scientific, the strange and the silly. But always lurking below the surface are zany observations and truths that give his books staying power. In this novel, the twenty-first of the series, Pratchett explores numerous themes, both scientific and social. And as always, he does it with humor.

The quote below is a funny riff on the old “feed a man a fish” bit. But think about it. Many times in our lives, we are warmed by a person, place, or experience. For those who are awake to life, not deadened by routine and technology, who are on fire with wonder, the fire is always burning. And near the end, as our flame diminishes, we still burn hot. In that, we continue to be a source of light and heat for all, even after our death. I must advise, as to Pratchett’s quote, do not try it at home.


“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”

Of Arms And The Man

A Man At Arms

European Etchings Of John Taylor Arms

American etcher, John Taylor Arms (1887-1953), studied architecture and law before settling into a career as a graphic artist. Known primarily as an etcher of the Gothic Revival in art and architecture in the early 20th century, Arms reached the height of his power in a series of etchings of Gothic churches in Europe. He began by sketching a cathedral on paper and taking notes. Arms then spent hundreds, often thousands, of hours etching the image onto a copper plate with a fine tip sewing needle. He then made prints in ink (he occasionally used aquatint). Arms captured intricate details in each piece. The best way to view one of his prints is with a magnifying glass. You will have a new appreciation for his work.

Arms believed Gothic art and architecture united both form and faith. Ben Bassham said, “Arms believed art consisted of two elements–spiritual meaning and technique. He never doubted that the spiritual content was the most important…”

The image below is called In Memoriam. It is the north portal of Chartres Cathedral, “the most perfect part of the most perfect church in the world,” according to the artist. Arms etched the image in memory of his mother-in-law. I’d say he liked her very much.





Finding Wonder In A World Bored By Entertainment

The Philosophical Act by Josef Pieper

Ever wonder? I mean truly wonder? To see something, to think something, as if for the first time? To see something in its common strangeness.  To slow down in mind and body, and engage the fullness of your senses in the moment and place? To simply be as you see a thing and wonder that it is? This is a poor attempt to get at wonder. In the Catholic tradition, wonder (and awe) is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But you needn’t be Catholic to wonder. You need only be human (although I reserve the argument that to be the latter truly is to be the former).

Why wonder? It is at the essence of our being. It is what Man is made for, to wonder at all that was made for Man. There are times when I see a tree, I mean really see it. I understand what it is, how it forms, how it interacts with other trees, and how it is fitted into the rest of nature. But the longer I really look, the stranger the tree is. The less any knowledge I have about the tree satisfies. It is the mystery of the thing that satisfies by creating a desire to truly know. Stay with me. This is at the heart of each of us in those quiet, solitary moments when we are not trying to be, we just are. In a world that is pelting us with pictures, streaming ads and movies, noise and a never-ending busyness, we need wonder. But we have gotten lazy. And wonder, though the natural state of Man, does not come without effort. Certainly not when it is buried beneath the debris of a society bent on throwaway entertainments. Our entertainments increase because our boredom increases. Only the desire to know satisfies. And that is wonder. This is not curiosity. It is not just learning about things (and Googling them). These go toward acquiring knowledge. It is the desire to know that gives life to our days, to the things we see, to the mystery of being human. If we have this, the simple things will overwhelm us with wonder.

Josef Pieper, German Catholic Philosopher, was steeped in the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was, however, a brilliant thinker in his own right. His discussions of leisure and art are accessible and transformative. If you want to see, truly see, read Josef Pieper.

“If someone needs the ‘unusual’ to be moved to astonishment, that person has lost the ability to respond rightly to the wondrous, the mirandum, of being. The hunger for the sensational, posing, as it may, in ‘bohemian garb,’ is an unmistakable sign of the loss of the true power of wonder, for a bourgeois-ized humanity.”

Scrutinizing Scruton

This Won’t Hurt A Bit

Modern Philosophy: An Introduction And Survey by Roger Scruton

Roger that. Scruton is a writer, professor, and philosopher from England. His work has run the gamut, from politics to sex, environment to aesthetics. He is a strong thinker with no patience for obfuscation and euphemism, totalitarian ideologues or unthinking “thinkers.” His most formidable work centers on the philosophical branch of aesthetics. Scruton stands firmly in defense of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Anyone who opposes what is good, true, or beautiful, is not merely an enemy of the state, but of the human soul. All human misery and carnage can be traced back to a violation these three.

In this volume, Scruton shines light on the darkness of modern philosophy. Much of why philosophy has become a purely academic pursuit with a coded language inaccessible to the lay reader has to do with the dead ends that modern philosophers led us to. Without Truth at the center, there can be no meaningful explanation of the human condition. And that is, after all, what we seek.

“A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t. Deconstruction deconstructs itself, and disappears up its own behind, leaving only a disembodied smile and a faint smell of sulphur.”

Assaying The Essay

Worth The Wait And The Weight Of Worth

The Essays of Joseph Epstein

If you’ve never read Joseph Epstein, I envy you (he actually authored a book called Envy).  Epstein is an editor, essayist, critic, and short story writer. Over the years he has published hundreds of articles in magazines, journals, and newspapers, and wrote numerous books. He is the best living essayist in America today, and certainly one of the very best in the world. Epstein, along with Montaigne and Orwell is a master of the form. In the Age of Attention Deficit, the essay (along with its fictional cousin the short story) should be more popular than it is. But that may well be a function of the dearth of essayists worth reading. Not so Epstein. I have yet to read an essay he has written that was not interesting, entertaining, and insightful. Not once. And I have read hundreds. So reward your wait, pick up a collection of his essays. He is worth it.

“I was recently asked what it takes to become a writer. Three things, I answered: first, one must cultivate incompetence at almost every other form of profitable work. This must be accompanied, second, by a haughty contempt for all the forms of work that one has established one cannot do. To these two must be joined, third, the nuttiness to believe that other people can be made to care about your opinions and views and be charmed by the way you state them. Incompetence, contempt, lunacy—once you have these in place, you are set to go.”

The Dinosaur From Dystopia

Restoring the Roar of Huxley

Words and their Meanings by Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) does not fit easily into any category. Of course, many consider him an elder statesman of Dystopia as the author of Brave New World. While dystopian tales go centuries back, Brave New World is part of a modern triumvirate of dystopian writers that includes George Orwell (1984, Animal Farm) and Yevgeny Zamyatin (We). Of course there are many others. But the particular concerns that Huxley explored in Brave New World carried over into his other work. Huxley was a poet, essayist, novelist, screenwriter, and a public intellectual. Given to non-academic pursuits like parapsychology, Ramakrishna, and psychedelic drugs, Huxley is perhaps best remembered for his futuristic concerns.

One concern, shared with Orwell (a pupil of Huxley’s), was the use and meaning of words. Orwell railed against euphemisms in the English language, especially when used by politicians and those in power to mask their destructive deeds. Huxley shared a similar concern, which is, in short, words matter. This seems to run counter to a political culture that loves to redefine events and programs and arguments in language that is at once dead and full of malignant life. It runs counter to a popular culture that tweets before it thinks and issues apologies almost as fast. There are consequences in the words we use, and as Huxley notes, there is an ethical dimension in our choice of language that, if ignored, leads to barbarism.

Huxley also belonged to another famous trio. He died on the same day as C.S. Lewis and John F. Kennedy.

“Words and the meanings of words are not matters merely for the academic amusement of linguists and logicians, or for the aesthetic delight of poets; they are matters of the profoundest ethical significance to every human being.”

Walk Away René

You’re Not To Blame

The One By Whom Scandal Comes by René Girard 

I can’t help but think of the Left Banke’s 1966 chart breaking song when I read the Frenchman René Girard. Historian, critic, and anthropological philosopher, Girard wrote deeply and widely. Known primarily for his work, Violence and the Sacred, as well as his mimetic (imitative) theory of desires and rivalry (with profound thoughts on scapegoating), he sheds great light on the thinking, acting, and mythologizing of our age. He is worth reading by non-academics for many reasons, chief among them that Girard writes of human development from the perspective of several disciplines (philosophy, sociology, literature) with penetrating theological understanding. He is not so narrow as to be blind to the big picture, or so broad as to miss the quotidian experiences of human life. Reading Girard, who died only last year, you will discover, as the lead singer of the Left Banke did, that “the empty sidewalks on my block are not the same.”

“The Church has never been a scapegoat more than it is today. But one must see the symbolic value of this: whatever the Church may have lost by its compromises with the world, its enemies now give back by obliging it to play the same role as Christ. This is its true vocation. And now that it has been reaffirmed, it will enable the Church to shake off the indolence and decadence of the age that is now drawing to a close. ”

Use Your Illusions

Use ’em or Lose ’em

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

So we all know who this guy is. Animal Farm. 1984. Some of us may have even read the books. Many more have only used the words “Orwellian” or “Big Brother” without reading his work. But Orwell is so much more. In his novels, essays, and letters, Orwell persistently punctures language bloated with meaninglessness, the egos of the ruling classes, and the pretensions of those who demand radical change so long as it doesn’t apply to them. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell mocks the pretensions of slick sounding socialists who, not being poor themselves, esteem poverty over middle-class virtues. Especially in the character of the wealthy socialist Ravelston, Orwell demonstrates the dangers of unthinking utopian theorists. For every speech Bernie Sanders gave, there was a person waiting in a food line in the socialist hell of Venezuela. Orwell, no lover of unbridled capitalism either, reserved particular scorn for those social doctors who offer prescriptions they themselves would never take. This particular book is filled with humor and hunger, ideas and idiots, slogans and sentiment. It is a neglected work, though one that remains relevant today. Clarity only comes when we lose our illusions.

Gordon and his friends had quite an exciting time with their ‘subversive ideas’. For a whole year they ran an unofficial monthly paper called the Bolshevik, duplicated with jellygraph. It advocated Socialism, free love, the dismemberment of the British Empire, the abolition of the Army and Navy, and so on and so forth. It was great fun. Every intelligent boy of sixteen is a Socialist. At that age one does not see the hook sticking out of the rather stodgy bait.

Freedom Of Thought

The Thoughtful Liberty Of A Captive Mind

The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz

Czeslaw  Milosz, Lithuanian by birth, Polish by nationality, dissident by nature, was a poet, essayist, and Nobel Laureate. He defected from behind the Iron Curtain and over a lifetime of writing and teaching spoke to the fundamental freedom of the human spirit. In his poetry especially, Milosz captures the tension and torsion of life. In the contrast and conflict of every line, Milosz comes closest to the Truth without distorting it with ideological limitations. Having spent many years under the boot of Stalinism, he knew the danger and death of the totalitarian mind. Socialists, all the rage (literally) in our politics today, ignore the hard lessons of Soviet Russia (and Venezuela now), and disregard the experience of a captive mind like Milosz who actually lived in that hell. Milosz is worth reading for his own sake, but to understand freedom and the unceasing temptation of totalitarianism (be it the Islamic Iranian kind or the soft sell of Bernie Sanders), Milosz must fill our bookshelves and our minds.

Vulgarized knowledge characteristically gives birth to a feeling that everything is understandable and explained. It is like a system of bridges built over chasms. One can travel boldly ahead over these bridges, ignoring the chasms. It is forbidden to look down into them; but that, alas, does not alter the fact that they exist.

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