Depth in the Shallows

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A Dollop Of Trollope

Some Habits Are Tough To Break

The Essays of Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) was a popular Victorian author of some forty-seven novels (including the much loved Palliser series and Barchester Towers novels), short stories, and travel books. He is, in our day, overshadowed by Charles Dickens. And the truth is he ought not be. Born in England, Trollope grew up in poverty. His father was an alcoholic and unsuccessful lawyer. His mother shouldered the burdens of family and took up writing to make money. Trollope eventually worked for the Post Office in a decades long career that took him to many parts of the world. He got up every day at five and, over a mug of hot coffee, wrote for three hours. He did this everyday for most of his life. The poverty of his youth haunted him so he never quit the Post even after making a lot of money from his novels. Many of his books concern some aspect of 19th century English life, and despite occasionally stilted language, still offer enjoyable and surprisingly modern storylines. In his essays, he talks about reading. Note that he calls it a habit. If you cannot find time, make time. And make time for Trollope.

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.”


Comma Comma Comma Chameleon

Linguistic Murder Most Fowl

The King’s English by H.W. Fowler

Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933), Oxford educated schoolmaster turned English usage and style guide writer, is remembered, if at all, for his inimitable A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. In The King’s English, a book he wrote with his brother some twenty years before Modern English Usage, Fowler laid the foundation for what was to become his greatest work. While this may seem a small thing, or irrelevant in our “anything goes” age, it is not. Fowler’s Modern English Usage is probably the best book of its kind. And while it is a standard reference for most writers, it is useful and interesting to anyone who speaks and writes the English language.

Languages are not static (unless they are no longer spoken), but rather are living and dynamic things. Rules govern grammar and usage (many of us have nightmares about diagramming sentences in grade school) but enforcing those rules like language cops betrays the inherent flexibility of speech. The best teachers know the rules and know when they should be broken. Or gotten rid of entirely. Fowler is one of those teachers.


“Any one who finds himself putting down several commas close to one another should reflect that he is making himself disagreeable, and question his conscience, as severely as we ought to do about disagreeable conduct in real life, whether it is necessary.”



No Monkee Business

Not That Davy Jones!

In Parenthesis by David Jones 

No I did not just get off the last train to Clarksville. This David Jones preceded the Monkees. David Jones was a poet, painter, and engraver. The art of his life and his life in art were singularly colored by his experience in The Great War. Of all the War Poets, Jones spent the most time at the front. He fought in the major battles of the war and was severely wounded at the Somme, an experience he captures poetically in the quote below. But as Peter Salmon observes, Jones differs from Owen, Sassoon, and others in that he describes the experience of war rather than judging it. Both approaches have literary and poetic validity, but Jones’s poetry, while complex and laden with historical and mythical heft, is richer. As Jones said, “I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men.” In the verse below, Jones speaks to a consequence of war (people die and are wounded) but speaks specifically to the profoundly modern experience of humanity being reduced or destroyed by technology that far exceeds what is necessary to kill. Somehow he captures the hubris and humility in all of us.

“He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.”

Fortunate Sons

Men In The Middle

The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning

Frederic Manning (1882-1935) was an Australian writer, poet, and soldier of the Great War. Out of his combat experience came The Middle Parts of Fortune, also published as Her Privates We. The latter title came from an edition in which the curse words were cut out. Later printings restore both title and expletives to their rightful place (the only version worth reading). Manning’s novel captures the grime and grind, boredom and blood, of life in the trenches. Born out of Manning’s brutal experience at the Somme, the novel was feted for its realism. Eliot, Hemingway, Pound, T.E. Lawrence, and others saw in it perhaps the truest depiction of the soldier in war. While Manning sheds light on the human condition through the prism of combat, his book also speaks with compassion toward all mankind under the stress of devastation and destruction. We have only to witness the heroism of our brothers and sisters facing Hurricane Harvey to see something of this.

“Death, of course, like chastity, admits of no degree; a man is dead or not dead, and a man is just as dead by one means as by another; but it is infinitely more horrible and revolting to see a man shattered and eviscerated, than to see him shot. And one sees such things; and one suffers vicariously, with the inalienable sympathy of man for man. One forgets quickly. The mind is averted as well as the eyes. It reassures itself after that first despairing cry: “It is I!”

“No, it is not I. I shall not be like that.”

The Whole Of Part

A Sage Spirit

The Life and Music of Arvo Part 

Some things, some people, can only speak for themselves. I will introduce the Estonian composer Arvo Part only by saying that he is worth your time. In this link, he delivers remarks at St. Vladimir Seminary after receiving an honorary degree. He speaks slowly, not so much that we may hear him, but that we may listen to his words. In the background is a beautiful piece of music he composed in the 1970’s. It is haunting, transformative, and of a beauty that cuts to the heart. Stop. Listen.



True Grit

Made In Detroit

The Fiction Of Elmore Leonard

Leonard, a native of the South who ultimately spent his formative and adult years in the Detroit area, is well-known for capturing the dialogue and conversational oddities of a given place. This is true in his Westerns and crime novels, such as The Moonshine War, set almost entirely in other regions. But it was Detroit, writing in and about, that he was at his best. Reading his books, feels like eavesdropping on a conversation at the Lafayette Coney Island. He was known for spending hours at the courthouse in Detroit picking up language and story ideas. Leonard exceeded the inspiration and parroting dialogue he gathered as an observer. His characters have soul, and it makes even the ugliest sympathetic. In the quote below, a piece he wrote for the Chicago Tribune back in the 80’s, Leonard gets to the heart of Detroit, and to the people that are the heart of the city.

“There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living, whose reason for being might be geographical but whose growth is based on industry, jobs.”

The Prince of Planes

A Flight Of Fancy

Flight to Arras by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry, throughout his short life, was many things. But he is best remembered as a writer and a pilot. In the early days of commercial flight, he flew routes in Africa and South America. During an international race in 1935, he and his navigator crashed in the Libyan desert and nearly died. They were saved only when a Bedouin on a camel discovered them and rendered aid. This experience is memorialized in Saint-Exupéry’s book, Wind, Sand, and Stars. He also fictionalizes a bit of the experience in his best known work The Little Prince. In Flight to Arras, Saint-Exupéry tells of a terrifying mission over France following the German invasion during WWII. So much of what he wrote is poetic, and yet, it is rooted in harsh realities. It is as if we see the fragile beauty of life best when death lurks in the background. Saint-Exupery went missing on a reconnaissance mission over France in 1944 and was never heard from again.

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born. It would be a bit too easy if we could go about borrowing ready-made souls.”

Horizon Lost

Paradise Gained

Lost Horizon by James Hilton 

James Hilton (1900-1954), novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, is perhaps best remembered, if he is remembered at all, for his novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It is a shame, really, since Lost Horizon is an especially enjoyable book. Written in the tradition of the best adventure novels, it tells the tale of four people who, by circumstance, end up on the same plane. The plane is hijacked and the group is taken to Tibet where they seek shelter at a lamasery called Shangri-La. As you might guess, the remainder of the tale is concerned with what happens to the group while at this utopia and the changes that overcome them. Hilton tells a very entertaining story, with an eye for exotic detail and the nuances of personalities under stress. It is high adventure for those with low energy. Little is required of the reader, but much is gained. The quote below, despite its fictional context, offers us something to think about in our own day.

“We believe that to govern perfectly it is necessary to avoid governing too much.”

The Science of Goodness

The Good Science

The Life and Work of Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Lawler (1951-2017), writer, blogger, political philosopher, scholar, and professor of Government at Berry College, died last week. Nationally known as a member of the President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, he was a regular on the lecture circuit. His range was wide, his intellect intimidating, and his contribution to a postmodern understanding of the human condition both challenging and refreshing. No cliches or reactionary rants here. He was a clear thinker, cogent writer, and in the Age of Groupthink, Lawler was fiercely independent. He had much more to say, and is gone too soon, but we have more than a dozen books, hundreds of essays, and an internet trove of thoughtful blog posts to read. He left us with a treasure.

Perhaps what most will encounter when they first read Lawler is the idea that we, despite the apparent evidence, do not live in a post-virtue age. Virtue, as he has it, is a necessary part of the human condition. Virtue is the path God has chosen for us, and it is infused with, and rounded by, love. We all choose the virtues or the vices everyday of our lives. Denial of the existence of virtue is not proof of its non-existence. Thus, we do not live “after virtue” as some have argued. We are stuck with it.

“So we’re stuck with virtue as human beings. There are natural reasons for that. We’re hardwired for virtue, so to speak, because we’re hardwired for a kind of language and or speech that opens us to the truth about ourselves and our world that no other animal can acquire. And we really can’t change our hardwiring in a way that will make us both human and happy—and we want both—without virtue.
So we need, above all, a science of virtue that incorporates what we know through natural science, philosophy, theology, and the humanities generally. We need to get over the modern error that the best way to get ourselves happy is to free ourselves from our natures. And we need to get over the error that by nature we’re pretty much one species or one mechanism among many.”

The Men Of No Man’s Land

The War In Between

War Poems by Siegfried Sassoon

This year marks the centenary of America’s involvement in the Great War. It is often neglected in popular media, sandwiched as it is between the American Civil War and WWII. But in recent years, due in no small part to centennial commemorations in Britain and Canada, more books and documentaries have emerged to fill the gaps of our collective memory. They are long overdue.

The Great War, when scholars can agree, was born of several causes. And yet, not one of them seems to justify the carnage that followed. Millions killed, landscapes seared and scarred, and a world that once seemed to be on a recognizable course was torn apart. The conflict did, however, spawn a literary phenomenon known as the War Poets. War and poetry, going back to the Iliad, often go hand-in-hand. But something was different about this war, and about these poets.  It is why they are still read today. They have a particular poignancy, an urgency even, emanating from lives lived so closely to death. And not death merely, but sinister, shocking, and mechanized deaths such as the world had never seen.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) survived the war. Barely. But thanks to his fiction and poetry we are able to have some sense of the devastation he and many others experienced. He ranges from life in the trenches to grisly death in battle to being fully awake to the beauty of the countryside. He is not without humor, though, as he once said “As regards being dead, however, one of my main consolations has always been that I have the strongest intention of being an extremely active ghost. Let nobody make any mistake about that.” In the lines below, he writes of a world few of us have seen. He reminds us that the history of the war is not about battles and statistics, but about each human person.

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

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