Journal Entry from Varykino

Doctor Zhivago flees Moscow to escape the worst of the revolution in early twentieth-century Russia. He and his family find a place in the country near the village of Varykino where they can wait out the Bolshevik violence, uncertainty, and poverty. His family reads the same few novels and plays over and over again to each other in the evenings, and he keeps a journal:

I should like to be of use as a doctor or a farmer and at the same time to be gestating something lasting, something fundamental, to be writing some scientific paper or a literary work.

Every man is born a Faust, with a longing to grasp and experience and express everything in the world. Faust became a scientist thanks to the mistakes of his predecessors and contemporaries. Progress in science is governed by the laws of repulsion, every step forward is made by refutation of prevalent errors and false theories. Faust was an artist thanks to the inspiring example of his teachers. Forward steps in art are governed by the law of attraction, are the result of the imitation of and admiration for beloved predecessors.

What is it that prevents me from being a doctor and a writer? I think it is not our privations or our wanderings or our unsettled lives, but the prevalent spirit of high-flown rhetoric, which has spread everywhere — phrases such as ‘the dawn of the future,’ ‘the building of a new world,’ ‘the torch-bearers of mankind.’ The first time you hear such talk you think ‘What breadth of imagination, what richness!’ But in fact it’s so pompous just because it is so unimaginative and second-rate.

Only the familiar transformed by genius is truly great. The best object lesson in this is Pushkin. His works are one great hymn to honest labor, duty, everyday life! Today, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘petty bourgeois’ have become terms of abuse, but Pushkin forestalled the implied criticism in his ‘Family Tree,’ where he says proudly that he belongs to the middle class, and in ‘Onegin’s Travels’ we read:

‘Now my ideal is the housewife,
My greatest wish, a quiet life
And a big bowl of cabbage soup.’

What I have come to like best in the whole of Russian literature is the childlike Russian quality of Pushkin and Chekhov, their modest reticence in such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or their own salvation. It isn’t that they didn’t think about these things, and to good effect, but to talk about such things seemed to them pretentious, presumptuous. Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky looked restlessly for the meaning of life, and prepared for death and balanced accounts. Pushkin and Chekhov, right up to the end of their lives, were absorbed in the current, specific tasks imposed on them by their vocation as writers, and in the course of fulfilling these tasks they lived their lives, quietly, treating both their lives and their work as private, individual matters, of no concern to anyone else. And these individual things have since become of concern to all, and their works, like apples picked while they are green, have ripened of themselves, mellowing gradually and growing richer in meaning. (237-238)

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‘The Cabbage Field’ by Charles Courtney Curran, 1914

The General Relentless Advance

Richard Pipes’s book, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, is the first book on the topic that I’ve read. It’s a good one. I anticipate returning to it a few times in the not-too-distant future. For now, please accept for your consideration a couple quick quotes from that book on the tactics and foundations of the revolutionaries. The first comes from Lenin himself, and the second is Pipes’ analysis of the intelligentsia.

We have great revolutionary experience, and from that experience we have learned that it is necessary to follow the tactics of the relentless advance whenever objective conditions allow it…But we have to adopt the tactic of procrastination, the slow gathering of forces when the objective conditions do not offer the possibility of making an appeal to the general relentless advance. (176-177)

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There would have been no relentless advance–no revolution–if the intelligentsia had not been there to manufacture it. Note especially in the next quote how materialism pops up in Pipes’s description of these people. Add to Bavinck, add to Mises and Médaille, the witness of Richard Pipes that materialism is bad whiskey.

Why use the foreign-sounding “intelligentsia” when the English language has the word “intellectuals”? The answer is that one needs different terms to designate different phenomena–in this case, to distinguish those who passively contemplate life from activists who are determined to reshape it. Marx succinctly stated the latter position when he wrote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” The term “intelligentsia” describes intellectuals who want power in order to change the world. It is a word of Latin origin, which passed in the middle of the nineteenth century from German into Russian and from there, after the 1917 Revolution, into English.

Whether the conflicts and resentments that exist in every society are peacefully resolved or explode in revolution is largely determined by the presence or absence of democratic institutions capable of redressing grievances through legislation, and the presence or absence of an intelligentsia determined to fan the flames of popular discontent for the purpose of gaining power. For it is the radical intelligentsia that transforms specific, and therefore remediable, grievances into the uncompromising rejection of the status quo. Rebellions happen; revolutions are made. And they are made by bodies of professional “managers of the revolution,” namely the radical intelligentsia.

For an intelligentsia to emerge, two conditions must be met. One is a materialistic ideology that regards human beings not as unique creatures endowed with an immortal soul but as exclusively physical entities shaped by their environment. This ideology makes it possible to argue that a rational reordering of man’s environment can produce a new breed of perfectly virtuous creatures. This belief elevates members of the intelligentsia to the status of social engineers and justifies their political ambitions.

Second, the intelligentsia requires economic opportunities to secure independence: The dissolution of traditional social estates and the emergence of free professions (such as journalism and university teaching) along with an industrial economy in need of experts and an educated reading public, which, all taken together, emancipate intellectuals from subjection to the Establishment. These opportunities, accompanied by guarantees of free speech and association, enable the intelligentsia to secure a hold on public opinion, its principal means of political leverage.

Intellectuals first appeared in Europe as a distinct group in the sixteenth century in connection with the emergence of secular society and the progress of science. They were lay thinkers who approached traditional philosophical questions outside the framework of theology and the church, which in the postclassical world had enjoyed a monopoly on such speculation. Like the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, they saw their mission as one of teaching virtue and wisdom–educating men to curb their passions and to accept life with all its dark sides, including the inevitability of death.

Then a different kind of intellectual made his appearance. Impressed by the advances of science and the seemingly limitless possibilities inherent in the scientific method, he saw no reason he should not apply the insights into nature that science had made possible in order to master nature. It was a notion with very wide applications. The scientific (empirical) method posited that only that existed which could be observed and measured. It raised the question whether man could be said to possess an immortal soul or ideas planted in him at birth, as taught by religion and metaphysics, for neither this soul nor these ideas could be identified by scientific observation.

The full philosophical implications of this empirical approach were first drawn by John Locke in his seminal Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). In his political writings Locke laid down the foundations of the liberal constitutions of Great Britain and the United States. But his philosophical treatise inadvertently fed a very different, illiberal current of political thought. The Essay challenged the axiom of Western philosophy and theology that human beings were born with “innate ideas,” including knowledge of God and a sense of right and wrong. This notion had made for a conservative theory of politics because, by postulating that man comes into the world spiritually and intellectually formed, it also postulated that he was immutable. From this it followed that the principles of government were the same for all nations and ages. According to Locke, however, man is born a blank slate on which physical sensations and experiences write the messages that make him what he is. There is no such thing as free will: man can no more reject the ideas that the senses inscribe on his mind than a mirror can “refuse, alter, or obliterate the images or ideas which objects set before it” produce.

The implications of Locke’s theory of knowledge, ignored in his own country, were seized upon and developed in France by radical thinkers, notably Claude Helvétius. In De l’esprit (1758), Helvétius drew on Locke’s epistemology to argue that insofar as man is totally molded by his environment, a perfect environment will inevitably produce perfect human beings. The means toward this end are education and legislation. The task of the political and social order, therefore, is not to create optimal conditions in which mankind can realize its potential but rather to render mankind “virtuous.” Good government not only ensures “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (a formula attributed to Helvétius) but literally refashions man. This unprecedented proposition constitutes the premise of both liberal and radical ideologies of modern times. It justifies the government’s far-reaching intervention in the lives of its citizens.

This idea holds an irresistible attraction for intellectuals because it elevates them from the position of passive observers of life into its shapers. Their superior knowledge of what is rational and virtuous permits them to aspire to the status of mankind’s “educators.” While ordinary people, in pursuit of living, acquire specific knowledge relevant to their particular occupation, intellectuals–and they alone–claim to know things “in general.” By creating “sciences” of human affairs–economic science, political science, sociology–they feel at liberty to dismiss as irrelevant practices and institutions created over millennia by trial and error. It is this philosophical revolution that has transformed some intellectuals into an intelligentsia, actively involved in politics. And, of course, involvement in politics makes them politicians, and, like others of the breed, prone to pursue their private interests in the guise of working for the common good. (21-23)

On Scientific Pursuit

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one ought to query Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics when one wishes to develop his own ideas on any subject. If Bavinck hasn’t written on a given subject directly, he’s at least put some time into developing a proper foundation from which a man can begin his own inquiry.

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In the last post, Médaille and Mises agreed that diminishing man as a way of practicing economics could only end in disaster. But what’s the right way to do economics? Or, broadening the question, what does it mean for a man in full to engage scientifically? How does that work? These paragraphs from Bavinck’s section on empiricism begin to answer those sorts of questions. (Note especially his reference to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 at the end of the second paragraph: “proficient and equipped for every good work.” We would be fools to put Scripture to the side in our pursuit of scientific knowledge and hope to be equipped to have success in our pursuits.)

Empiricism’s…view of science is also subject to serious question. Science, after all, is by its very nature interested in knowledge of that which is universal, necessary, eternal, and logical. Knowledge of phenomena, persons, facts, etc., though good, is still only preparatory; analysis comes first but synthesis must follow. Scientific knowledge exists only when we see the cause and essence, the purpose and destiny of things, when we know not only the that (ὅτι) but also the wherefore (διότι) and thus discern the causes of things (rerum dignoscimus causas). Empricism, however, is compelled to deny the name of “science” to all sciences except the exact sciences. But this restriction is impossible for two reasons. First, because aside from the purely formal sciences (logic, mathematics, mechanics, astronomy, chemistry), and then only in a certain sense, there can be no science without a philosophical element. In every science, inventiveness, intuition, imagination, in a word, genius (and in this connection the scientific hypothesis) play a most important role. And second, because then the name of “science” can finally be reserved only for a few subsidiary disciplines, and precisely the knowledge that is most important to human beings and that in their research is their primary interest is banished from the domain of science. Thomas’s maxim, in which he follows Aristotle, remains true: “The slenderest acquaintance we can form with heavenly things is more desirable than a thorough grasp of mundane matters.” And Schopenhauer made a similar statement: “People never stop praising the reliability and certainty of mathematics. However, what benefit is there for me in knowing with ever so much certainty and reliability something which I do not in the least care about?”

In addition to this, the world of nonmaterial things, the world of values, of good and evil, law and custom, religion and morality, of all that inspires love and hatred in our hearts, lifts us up and comforts us or crushes us and grieves us, that whole magnificent invisible world is as much a reality to us as the “real world” that we perceive with our senses. Its impact on our lives and on the history of humankind is still much greater than that of the visible things about us. Human beings may be freely asked, then, to limit themselves in their research since in this domain no knowledge is possible, but this demand bounces off what Schopenhauer called the metaphysical need of the human spirit. Man is not only an intellectual but also a willing and feeling being; he is not a thinking machine but in addition to his head also has a heart, an [inner] world of feelings and passions. He brings these with him in his scientific research. In his activities in study and laboratory, he cannot lock himself out. It cannot rightly be demanded of man that in his scientific labors, that is, in one of the noblest activities of his mind, he silence the voice of his feelings, his heart, the best part of him, and thus cripple himself. Only this may always–and therefore also in the case of the practitioner of science–be demanded: that he be a good, a true man, a man of God, proficient and equipped for every good work, including this work of pursuing scientific knowledge.

If, however, the pursuit of science is both subjectively and objectively restricted, the only outcome will be that people will seek the satisfaction of their metaphysical needs in other ways. Kant took the road of practical reason; Comte introduced the cult of humanity, consecrating himself as its high priest; and Spencer humbly bowed down before “The Unknowable.” In one way or another–including even spiritism, magic, and theosophy–they all seek compensation for what science will not give them. And religion, along with all spiritual knowledge, having first been shamefully dismissed through the front door, is again admitted through the back door but now frequently in the form of superstition. “You may expel nature with might and main; it will nevertheless always come bounding back” (Horace). Only, the inevitable result is that science is then left, undefended and unarmed, to materialism. And, in fact, this is what empiricism has led to. If the content and, soon, the intellectual faculty of the soul as well proceed altogether from the external world, why then could not the soul itself be explained in terms of it as well? But over against this still always stand the “seven riddles of the world” as a source of torment and vexation to the materialistic mind. The spiritual still has not yet been explained in terms of the material, any more than rationalism has succeeded in deriving “being” from “thinking.” No passage between the two has been found. Here is a gap that neither idealism nor materialism can bridge. It is not too daring even now to say not only “we do not know” (Ignoramus) but also “we shall not know” (Ignorabimus). But when we see that, despite the great promises made and the still greater expectations entertained, empiricism and rationalism in this century ended up in mere materialism and illusionism, we wonder. Despite the opposition between materialism and illusionism, they still advanced and aided each other–in the case of Feuerbach and Strauss, Hegel’s idealism ended in materialism, and in the cases of many natural scientists, materialism is turning into full or semi-idealism. So there is good reason to ask some questions. Does not the whole of modern philosophy, in its Cartesian as well as in its Baconian expression, need revision? Are there not other and better principles of science, principles that protect us from materialism as well as idealism? (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. I, 221-222)

Letter to Gillespie

James Henley Thornwell models what it is to be a Christian father in this letter to his son, Gillespie. Less than two years after this letter was written, both father and son were dead. As B.M. Palmer notes, Thornwell’s letter “could scarcely have been more faithful in its appeal, had he known how soon they would both be together in eternity:”

Glenn Springs, June 19, 1861,

MY DEAR GILLESPIE: It has been on my heart for some time back to have a serious and solemn conversation with you, touching the great interests of the soul. During all my sickness, nothing has pressed upon my mind more than the condition and prospects of my boys, in relation to the salvation of the gospel. I have dedicated you and your brothers to God. I have prayed that He would call you all into His kingdom; and I once ventured to hope that I might see you all ministers of the gospel. There is nothing worth living for but the glory of God; and I do most devoutly wish that your eyes may be opened to see the transcendent importance of eternal things. You have but one soul; and if you lose that, all is gone; and once lost, it is lost for ever.

You may say that you acknowledge the truth of all this, but you do not feel it. My son, you must strive to feel it. You must think upon the matter seriously and earnestly; you must pray over it; you must confess and deplore your hardness of heart, and seek from the Lord a clean heart and a right spirit. Resolve never to give over, until you find that you are interested, and warmly interested, in the great salvation. You cannot imagine what a comfort it would be to me in my declining days to see you humbly and sincerely following the Lord Jesus Christ. And why not do it? Can you gain anything by carelessness and remissness? Are you happier when you do not know but that, at any moment, you may be summoned before God altogether unprepared? Is not the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? and do they not exhibit the soundest understanding who keep God’s commandments? My son, you know not how much I love you, and cannot know how much I feel for your immortal interests. Do me, your father, the favour to give your mind to the matter at once, and decidedly. Seek to be a thorough-going, devoted Christian. Seek the Lord with your whole heart. Renounce all sin, and renounce it for ever; and betake yourself to the blood of Christ for pardon and acceptance. Do more; have an eye to the eternal good of your younger brothers. They look up to you; they respect you; they try to do as you do. Set them a good example. Go before them in the way of eternal life.

Religion cannot be maintained without regular prayer, and regular reading of the Scriptures, and regular attendance upon the ordinances. Never omit your morning and evening devotions, and try to be interested in them; think over what you pray for; think before you pray. When you read the Bible, read in order to get knowledge. Meditate on what you read; and beg God to seal it on your heart by the Holy Ghost. At church, try to be profited. Apply to yourself what you hear. Look upon preaching as God’s appointment, and expect His blessing in attending upon it. My dear boy, reflect upon what I have said to you; and gladden my heart, when I see you again, by your interest in all that concerns the glory of God, and the salvation of the soul. Pray over this letter; look upon it as your father’s legacy; and for his sake, as well as your own, awake to the importance of these high themes.

As to my health, I cannot say that there is any marked change yet. I think, upon the whole, I am improving. The atmosphere here at present is very cool and delightful. Our nights are charming; and I enjoy the magnificent forests about here very much. I can never gaze on these enough. And now, my boy, may God bless you. Be true to Him, and He will be faithful to you

Your affectionate father,
    J.H. THORNWELL

Thornwell grave

Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? Answer: The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection. Q. 38. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection? Answer: At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.

An Old Note on the New Age

In his 1933 address ‘The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age,’ J. Gresham Machen explored two sub-questions by way of explaining his subject: “(1) What is the new age? (2) What is the church?” Find that whole address at the end of D.G. Hart’s Fighting the Good Fight. A few quotes from Machen’s first section on the new age:

There are old things which ought to remain in the new age; and many of the things, both good and bad, which the new age regards as new are really as old as the hills.

In the former category are to be put, for example, the literary and artistic achievements of past generations. Those are things which the new age ought to retain, at least until the new age can produce something to put in their place, and that it has so far signally failed to do. I am well aware that when I say to the new age that Homer is still worth reading, or that the Cathedral of Amiens is superior to any of the achievements of the art nouveau, I am making assertions which it would be difficult for me to prove. There is no disputing about tastes. Yet, after all, until the artistic impulse is eradicated more thoroughly from human life than has so far been done even by the best efforts of the metallic civilization of our day, we cannot get rid of the categories of good and bad or high and low in the field of art. But when we pay attention to those categories, it becomes evident at once that we are living today in a drab and decadent age, and that a really new impulse will probably come, as it has come so many times before, only through a rediscovery of the glories of the past. (198)

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The Rose Window at the Cathedral of Amiens, William J. Smither

So much for Machen’s view of new age art. On the next page, he discusses the mechanization of life in the new age. Machines are not to blame for the problems of the new age, says Machen, but man himself. He concludes that “the real trouble with the world lies in the soul of man” (200):

Unquestionably, industrialism, with the accompanying achievements of modern science in both the physical and the social realm, does constitute a great temptation to destroy freedom; but temptation is not compulsion, and of real compulsion there is none.

No, my friends, there is no real reason for mankind to surrender to the machine. If liberty is crushed out, if standardization has its perfect work, if the worst of all tyrannies, the tyranny of the expert, becomes universal, if the finer aspirations of humanity give way to drab efficiency, do not blame the external conditions in the world today. If human life becomes mechanized, do not blame the machine. Put the blame exactly where it belongs–upon the soul of man.

Is it not in general within that realm of the soul of man that the evils of society have their origin today? We have developed a vast and rather wonderful machinery–the machinery of our modern life. For some reason, it has recently ceased to function. The experts are busily cranking the engine, as I used to do with my Ford car in the heroic days when a Ford was still a Ford. They are wondering why the engine does not start. They are giving learned explanations of its failure to do so; they are adducing the most intricate principles of dynamics. It is all very instructive, no doubt. But the real explanation is much simpler. It is simply that the driver of the car has forgotten to turn on the switch. The real trouble with the engine of modern society is that it is not producing a spark. The real trouble lies in that unseen realm which is found within the soul of man.

That realm cannot be neglected even in a time of immediate physical distress like the present. I do not know in detail how this physical distress is to be relieved. I would to God that I did. But one thing I do know; it will never be relieved if, in our eagerness to relieve it, we neglect the unseen things. It is not practical to be merely practical men; man cannot successfully be treated as a machine; even the physical welfare of humanity cannot be attained if we make that the supreme object of our pursuit; even in a day when so many material problems are pressing for our attention, we cannot neglect the evils of the soul. (199-200)

After Machen’s examination of several characteristics of the new age, the rest of the address is devoted to answering the second question: what is the church? That section is worth reading, but for now I want to skip to the end of the address. Machen concludes by outlining what one has a right to expect from “a true Christian church,” and then returning to the subject of the church’s responsibility in the new age:

If you are dissatisfied with a relative goodness, which is no goodness at all; if you are conscious of your sin and if you hunger and thirst after righteousness; if you are dissatisfied with the world and are seeking the living God, then turn to the Church of Jesus Christ. That church is not always easy to distinguish today. It does not always present itself to you in powerful organizations; it is often hidden away here and there, in individual congregations resisting the central ecclesiastical mechanism; it is found in groups, large or small, of those who have been redeemed from sin and are citizens of a heavenly kingdom. But wherever it is found, you must turn to that true Church of Jesus Christ for a message from God. The message will not be enforced by human authority or by the pomp of numbers. Yet some of you may hear it. If you do hear it and heed it, you will possess riches greater than the riches of all the world.

Do you think that if you heed the message you will be less successful students of political and social science; do you think that by becoming citizens of another world you will become less fitted to solve this world’s problems; do you think that acceptance of the Christian message will hinder political or social advance? No, my friends. I will present to you a strange paradox but an assured truth–this world’s problems can never be solved by those who make this world the object of their desires. This world cannot ultimately be bettered if you think that this world is all. To move the world you must have a place to stand.

This, then, is the answer that I give to the question before us. The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life–nay, all the length of human history–is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there is a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word and offered us communion with Himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosoever possess it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth–nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens–are as the dust of the street.

An unpopular message it is–an impractical message, we are told. But it is the message of the Christian church. Neglect it, and you will have destruction; heed it, and you will have life. (208-209)

Sons of Light

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St. Peter’s Basilica, Photo by Chad Greiter on Unsplash

The people answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; and how can you say, “The Son of Man must be lifted up”? Who is this Son of Man?’

“Then Jesus answered them, ‘A little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.'” — John 12:34-36

“For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light.” — Ephesians 5:5-13

Come to Rifle Satan’s Fold

Peter Leithart suggests we all learn Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of ‘This Little Babe’ during Advent this year. It’s a good suggestion:

Lyrics:

This little babe so few days old,
is come to rifle Satan’s fold.
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmored wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stands for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitched in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
of shepherds he his muster makes.
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward;
this little Babe will by thy guard.

If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
then flit not from this heavenly boy!

Or, if you’ve got the time, find ‘This Little Babe’ in Britten’s full ‘Ceremony of Carols’ here:

 

Always West and to the Sea

danceIn 2007, the Claremont Review of Books published a short essay by Mark Helprin on the literary tenor of the times. He begins the piece fairly negatively by denouncing current trends in the literary culture, but by the end of the essay he’s ended up outlining his own approach to writing by way of contrast. It’s stuck with me for a decade:

One seldom encounters pure nihilism, for just as anarchists are usually very well-organized, most of what passes for nihilism is a compromise with advocacy. Present literary forms may spurn the individual, emotion, beauty, sacrifice, love, and truth, but they energetically embrace the collective, coldness of feeling, ugliness, self-assertion, contempt, and disbelief. And why? Simply because the acolytes of modernism are terribly and justly afraid. They fear that if they do not display their cynicism they will be taken for fools. They fear that if they commit to and uphold something outside the puppet channels of orthodoxy they will be mocked, that if they are open they will be attacked, that if they appreciate that which is simple and good they will foolishly have overlooked its occult corruptions, that if they stand they will be struck down, that if they love they will lose, and that if they live they will die.

As surely they will. And others of their fears are legitimate as well, so they withdraw from engagement and risk into what they believe is the safety of cynicism and mockery. The sum of their engagement is to show that they are disengaged, and they have built an elaborate edifice, which now casts a shadow over every facet of civilization, for the purpose of representing their cowardice as wisdom. Mainly to protect themselves, they write coldly, cruelly, and as if nothing matters.

But life is short, and things do matter, often more than the human heart can bear. This is an elemental truth that neither temporarily victorious nihilism, nor fashion, nor cowardice can long suppress, which is why the literary tenor of the times cannot and will not last. And which is one reason among many why one must not accept its dictates or write according to its conventions. These must and will fall, for they are subject to constant pressure as generation after generation rises in unprompted affirmation of human nature. And though perhaps none living may see the change, it is an honor to predict and await it.

Helprin’s latest novel came out at the start of October and as the release date was approaching, I went back over some of the pages I’d dog-eared in his other books. Working through those pages I came across this scene from Refiner’s Fire, which functions as a sort of fictional companion to the approach outlined above:

Then they started from fright, for the Captain had arrived with the grace of a ghost, and stood tall in his white uniform amid the reclining men. Seldom did he move among them. Close to seventy, he had been an admiral of the Royal Navy, who, upon retirement, could not stand to part from the sea. When the water was as smooth as a mirror, pastel by day, rich and blue-hearted by night, he grew restless.

“For those of you who would wonder,” he said, largely in pretext, “we are at the center of the sea, off the trade routes, where few have seen fit to travel. To the northwest is North America”–he pivoted and faced the various directions as he spoke, as accurately as a compass–“to the southwest, Brazil with its jutting northern chin, and then the Amazon and the white Andes; to the southeast, Africa, being worth three or four continents; to the northeast, Europe, the clockmade heart of the mechanical world. We are roped between the four, nearest the dry shelf of Spain.

“Half a thousand years ago the Spaniards, as if sprung from seed, burst in virility upon the sea and passed this point in little ships to find and conquer a new world. Since that time we have been retracing and elaborating their routes, but have none of our own. Since that time we have become as immobile as whales upon the beach–fat, shoddy, recreant, dissolving. For there is only one condition in which a man’s soul and flesh become as lean and pure as his armor; in which he finds in the art of his language and the awe of his music, unification with his own mobile limbs; in which he can find entertainment so intense as to draw him without a twitch into complete abandonment of the things of the world; in which he gathers speed and rises to his natural task as if he were an eagle destined for flight or a porpoise propelled in arcs across the water.

“Do you doubt me? Doubt not. I learned in Algeciras what this was, as I looked upon the Spanish walls which are not walls, as the lines of earth and sea were solid in one piece inviting passage, as the poverty appeared infinitely rich. I learned in the blink of an eye. I learned as the thin slapping music beat to ceilings and beams, as the percussion of dancers’ feet seemed to exhort going out beyond the harbor and into the straits–beyond the straits.

“Doubt me not. A pair of dancers was dancing twenty years ago when I thought that I had settled in. We touched at Algeciras for only a day. The secret was that they moved when they did not, and did not move when they did. They wore black, and were as concentrated as birds startled upon alarm. Their dance was like that of the bees, for God in heaven they retracted and they turned and they jugged and they jiggled, and her back was as smooth as the gust from a fan, a sweep of vanilla, and in their movements unknown to them they pointed always west and to the sea. Though they moved up and down and to right and left, the lay of their furious dance pointed west and to the sea.

“It was that way too, five hundred years ago, when from Spain’s jutting shelf they moved to fulfill the neglected task, their dancers doubtless pointing them. They found a new world with twenty-thousand miles of pine, peaks we have yet to climb, plains like seas, plants and animals humorous, terrifying, and new. Like bees, their passionate dancers pointed them. I fear that I will die before I see such dancing anew, directing us after half a thousand years outward and to the heavens, where we must go if we are to be men.

“For we are on the brink of new worlds, of infinite space curtains drawn and colored like silks, luminous and silent, moving slowly and with grace. We have come to the edge. Our children will view a terrible openness, and the vastness will change us forever and for good. I will never see it. I am seventy and I wish only to see dancers who will arise to set the right course.

“In my heart of hearts at seventy on this ship stalled in the middle of the sea and stars, I wish for the dancers who will arise as did their predecessors in one wave linked with the past, moving when they do not move, not moving when they move. When I had passed half a century, I was awakened in the fury of a dance in Algeciras. Though a captain for many years, it was that day by the curve of her back that I became a Captain and a man–when I watched history artfully running its gates with iron grasp and steel-clad direction.” (367-369)

To further fill out what Helprin’s project looks like (and to end for now), take this excerpt from In Sunlight and in Shadow. Here the same ideas are at play, but the scope is no longer the global dance of mankind throughout the centuries. Instead Harry, a soldier recently returned home after the Second World War, and Catherine are mid-conversation in a diner at four-thirty in the morning in Commack, New York, 1946:

“We were told,” she began, “that courtly love…”

“Told by whom?”

“By our professors…that courtly love is twisted.”

“How so?”

“Demeaning. Controlling.”

He straightened in his seat, lifting himself until he seemed taller, unconsciously positioning his upper body as if for a fight–not with Catherine, but with an idea. His eyes narrowed a bit as they seemed to flood with energy. “I don’t know who told you, but I do know that whoever said this was a fucking idiot who must never have seen anything, or risked anything, who thinks too much about what other people think, so much so that he’ll exterminate his real emotions and live in a world so safe it’s dead. People like that always want to show you that they’re wise and worldly, having been disillusioned, and they mock things that humanity has come to love, things that people like me–who have spent years watching soldiers blown apart and incinerated, cities razed, and women and children wailing–have learned to love like nothing else: tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard…The deeper I fell, the more I suffered, and the more I saw…the more I knew that women are the embodiment of love and the hope of all time. And to say that they neither need nor deserve protection, and that it is merely a strategy of domination, would be to misjudge the highest qualities of man while at the same time misreading the savage qualities of the world. This is what I learned and what I managed to bring out with me from hell. How shall I treat it? Love of God, love of a woman, love of a child–what else is there? Everything pales, and I’ll stake what I know against what your professors imagine, to the death, as I have. They don’t have the courage to embrace or even to recognize the real, the consequential, the beautiful, because in the end those are the things that lacerate and wound, and make you suffer incomparably, because, in the end, you lose them. (125-126)

 

Body and Soul, Word and Spirit

Maagd_in_de_tuin seal of the free university of amsterdam

Seal of the Free University of Amsterdam. Motto: Auxilium nostrum in nomine Domini (“Our help is in the name of the Lord”)

Herman Bavinck became the professor of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902. Bavinck’s four-volume Reformed Dogmatics is no stranger to this blog, but I’d never read any of his sermons or speeches before Bruce Pass recently posted a translation of the speech Bavinck gave at the commencement of his professorship in December of 1902. The title of the speech is Godsdienst en Godsgeleerdheid, or as Pass translates it, Religion and Theology. Immediately noteworthy on a first read-through was the following description of the experience of the Christian life:

The pure, the spotless, the reasonable service is this: to present body and soul as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice to God. Now, does this mean that it is self-evident that one is by nature so inclined and capable of this and that all of this obtains without serious struggle? To believe in God against the appearance of all things, to hold fast to Him as though seeing what is unseen, to depend on Him with upright faith, certain hope, and ardent love and moreover, to mortify our old nature, to forsake the world, and to walk in a new, godly life – shall that come about through a frame of mind akin to melancholy, through the kindling of the twilight of our souls? Whoever claims this has as little knowledge of God as they do of their own heart. No, because religion is not a relationship, voluntarily entered into and determined in every detail by us, but a service required of us by God. It is a demand placed before us by Him, an obligation laid on us by Him. Therefore, all true religion is a sacrifice, a sacrifice of our whole heart and of our entire soul and of all of our might unto the will of our heavenly Father and because it is a sacrifice, religion is and remains a struggle until the end of our lives. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit; what I will, that I do not do.

But is that all? Should religion be nothing more than command on command, rule upon rule, here a little and there a little? How would we, Christians who stand in the freedom with which Christ has set us free, be able to claim that? Besides, religion was not only that in the days of the Old Testament, when it was confessed with joy that the fear of the Lord is the principle of all wisdom and the pious sang, ‘How I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.’ Above all it is no more that in the days of the New Covenant, in which the spirit of slavery to fear has made way for the Spirit of adoption. Religion is not only obligation; it is also a disposition and desire. It is a matter of the head and the heart, faith and love, idea and affection, theory and praxis, doctrine and life together — a service certainly, but a service of love which never fails.

God did not give us his Word alone, but also His Spirit. The Word is first. All of our thinking and living, all of our ways, must conform to that Word. What wisdom would we have, if we were to reject the Word of the Lord? If we do not turn our face to the law and testimony, our eyes shall never rise to the dawn of knowledge. All self-righteous religion is an abomination to the Lord, but God has conjoined to the Word His Spirit, by whom he enlightens and renews us and gives us a desire to walk according to His commands. Therefore, the Christian religion is not only rectitude of mind but also purity of heart, not only knowledge but also trust, not just an idea of the intellect but also an inclination of the will, not only illumination of the consciousness but also a conversion of one’s being, in a word — a matter of the whole person, of body and soul together. For whoever is in Christ, is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, everything has become new.

Burning Metal Flows

¡No_pasarán_Madrid-700x416

An antifascist banner over a street in a besieged Madrid

Pablo Neruda was removed from his post as Chilean consul in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The poet was learning his communism through opposition to General Franco, who was turning Spain more and more toward fascism. In his poem “I Explain Some Things,” Neruda writes of the destruction of the war in Madrid:

You will ask: And where are the lilacs?
And the metaphysics laced with poppies?
And the rain that often beat
his words filling them
with holes and birds?

I’ll tell you everything that’s happening with me.

I lived in a neighborhood
of Madrid, with church bells,
with clocks, with trees.

From there you could see
the dry face of Castilla
like an ocean of leather.

My house was called
the house of flowers, because everywhere
geraniums were exploding: it was
a beautiful house
with dogs and little kids.

Raúl, do you remember?
Do you remember, Rafael?
Frederico, you remember,
from under the earth,
do you remember my house with balconies on which
the light of June drowned flowers in your mouth?
Hermano, hermano!

Everything
was great voices, salty goods,
piles of throbbing bread,
markets of my Argüelles neighborhood with its statue
like a pale inkwell among the carp:
oil flowed into the spoons,
a loud pulse
of feet and hands filled the streets,
meters, liters, sharp
essence of life,
piled fish,
texture of rooftops under a cold sun that
wears out the weathervane,
fine delirious ivory of the potatoes,
tomatoes repeating all the way to the sea.

And one morning everything was burning
and one morning the fires
were shooting out of the earth
devouring beings,
and ever since then fire,
gunpowder ever since,
and ever since then blood.
Bandits with airplanes and with Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars making blessings,
kept coming from the sky to kill children,
and through the streets the blood of the children
ran simply, like children’s blood.

Jackals the jackal would reject,
stones the dry thistle would bite then spit out,
vipers the vipers would despise!

Facing you I have seen the blood
of Spain rise up
to drown you in one single wave
of pride and knives!

Traitor
generals:
behold my dead house,
behold Spain destroyed:
yet instead of flowers, from every dead house
burning metal flows,
yet from every hollow of Spain
Spain flows,
yet from every dead child rises a rifle with eyes,
yet from every crime bullets are born
that one day will find the target
of your heart.

You will ask why his poetry
doesn’t speak to us of dreams, of the leaves,
of the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!

(taken from The Essential Neruda, pp 63-67and translated by Mark Eisner)