David Gelernter’s Ideas

This interview with David Gelernter over at The Atlantic is pure fun. Been listening to Schubert sonatas since I read it. His comments on Henry James’s The Ambassadors were especially worth a look:

The Ambassadors is Henry James’s finest novel, and ranks alongside Emma as one of the two finest in English.  Everyone notices the symmetry of the two-section, twelve-chapter plan.  51cMeu1iNLL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_

But critics don’t seem to notice the center of the symmetry.

The Ambassadors is about Paris. Paris is unusual in having an exact psychological and approximate physical center—Notre Dame and the parvis out front, where there’s a milestone embedded in the pavement from which distances throughout France are measured.

The church itself stands towards the middle of the island in the middle of the river in the middle of the city.  And James has arranged for Notre Dame, the center of Paris, to be the exact center of his book about Paris too.It is the center of the episode on which the plot hinges.

Strether, the hero, comes to the church on the first page of the first chapter of part II. He enters a mere respectful outsider, an admirer but no intimate of the church, the city or the heroine. Inside he sees (without recognizing) Marie de Vionnet in the distance, from the back.  She is lost in meditation or prayer. Moreover “there are no altars for him” in the great Catholic church—either because he is a New England puritan or just a New England skeptic.  But he leaves with Mme. de Vionnet on a new basis of close friendship.  And now there is an altar for him in Paris. She is the altar.

Although the story ends in a kind if disillusionment, Strether is transformed by his religious experience.  The Ambassadors remains the perfect study of the woman-worship that is so important to James; that appears at the center of each of his last two novels also.

And it’s important in earlier James too, perhaps most strikingly in The Awkward Age—an underrated, first-order masterpiece with a wholly-undeserved reputation for difficulty.  It includes James’s most dazzling, most breathtakingly beautiful set pieces—the subtle, wordy, moody, moving conversations among a small unchanging group on which he thrives.  It is about the worship of a woman that outlives her death to be handed on like a precious sacred vessel, frail yet almost intact, to her granddaughter.  This act of handing-on is the novel—as critics can’t seem to see.

It’s impossible not to wonder where this theme has gone.  Have men stopped worshipping women?


During feminism’s heyday feminist leaders made clear that they didn’t choose to be worshiped. But it was never up to them. Such emotions are part of a man’s life, not a woman’s.

If we take (say) the novels of Roth and of Coetzee as representing the last several generations of great novels in English, the one instance of woman-worship that comes to mind in all their novels is startling: the magistrate’s love for the unnamed barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians. He loves her not for her perfection but exactly for her imposed imperfection, for the wounds and the suffering visited on her by the secret police.

(The lack of interest in woman-worship as a central theme seems to hold for such relatively young novelists as Sean O’Reilly, Patrick Flanery, Anthony Schneider, Robert Seethaler and Jenny Erpenbeck too.) We seem to have lost something essential, a matter of life and death.

These are great observations, but I think maybe Gelernter doesn’t read Mark Helprin novels. Or listen to Anais Mitchell. Or  La Dispute. Or even Weezer. Still, I wouldn’t mind a bit if The Atlantic were to give him a monthly column to discuss whatever was on his mind. This can’t be said enough:

Beauty is objective.

Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.

Good ol’ Wrath Of Gnon has a whole series of posts based on this idea:






Or, as he put it the other day: “‘Beauty is not subjective’, and it has always been an ideal, subjective to effort and sacrifice: not an egalitarian right.”

Unless God Shine into our Hearts

the-person-of-christA few short quotes and then one longer chunk of text from John Owen’s The Person of Christ:

Desire of union and enjoyment is the first vital act of this love. The soul, upon the discovery of the excellencies of God, earnestly desires to be united to them–to be brought near to that enjoyment of them whereof it is capable, and wherein alone it can find rest and satisfaction. This is essential to all love; it unites the mind to its object, and rests not but in enjoyment. (241)

All italics are mine, by the way.

Love is the principle that actually assimilates and conforms us to God, as faith is the principle which originally disposes thereunto. In our renovation into the image of God, the transforming power is radically seated in faith, but acts itself by love. Love proceeding from faith gradually changes the soul into the likeness of God; and the more it is in exercise, the more is that change effected. (243)

For the natural man receives not the things that are of God. Hence all their obedience is servile. They know neither the principal motives to it nor the ends of it. But they who are so servants as to be friends also, they know what their Lord does; the secret of the Lord is with them, and he shows them his covenant. They are admitted into an intimate acquaintance with the mind of Christ (‘we have the mind of Christ,’ 1 Cor. 2:16), and are thereon encouraged to perform the obedience of servants, with the love and delight of friends. (245)

And then here’s the longer quote. Owen has just asked what is required for the souls of men to be changed that “they would in all things be like to Jesus Christ” (270). This is the first part of his answer:

A spiritual light, to discern the beauty, glory, and amiableness of grace in Christ, is required hereunto. We can have no real design of conformity to him, unless we have their eyes who ‘beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Nor is it enough that we seem to discern the glory of his person, unless we see a beauty and excellency in every grace that is in him. ‘Learn of me,’ says he; ‘for I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Matt. 11:29). If we are not able to discern an excellency in meekness and lowliness of heart (as they are things generally despised), how shall we sincerely endeavor after conformity to Christ in them? The like may be said of all his other gracious qualifications. His zeal, his patience, his self-denial, his readiness for the cross, his love to his enemies, his benignity to all mankind, his faith and fervency in prayer, his love to God, his compassion towards the souls of men, his unweariedness in doing good, his purity, his universal holiness;–unless we have a spiritual light to discern the glory and amiableness of them all, as they were in him, we speak in vain of any design for conformity to him. And this we have not, unless God shine into our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ. It is, I say, a foolish thing to talk of the imitation of Christ, whilst really, through the darkness of our minds, we discern not that there is an excellency in the things wherein we ought to be like to him. (271)

Tolstoy Knows, ii


Zinaida Serebriakova, At the Dressing-table

For Valentine’s Day, another chapter from Anna Karenina. Levin’s in the same place we left him, floundering around with plans and projects to keep his mind off Kitty. But, as one might guess, the songs of peasants, buying land, and the promise of new resolutions can only take a man so far:

The cart was roped. Ivan jumped down and led the good, well-fed horse by the bridle. His wife threw her rake on top of the cart and with a vigorous step, swinging her arms, went to join the other women who had gathered in a ring. Ivan, having come out on the road, took his place in the line of loaded carts. The women, carrying their rakes over their shoulders, bright in their vivid colors, walked behind the carts, their gay voices ringing merrily. One of the women started a song in a harsh, gruff voice and sang it as far as the refrain, when half a hundred powerful voices, some gruff, others shrill, took it up from the beginning again.

The singing women were approaching Levin, and he felt as if a thundercloud of merriment were bearing down upon him. The cloud bore down, enveloped him and the haycock on which he sat; and the other haycocks, the carts, and the whole of the meadow with the faraway fields all seemed to sway and vibrate to the rhythm of that wild, exhilarating, merry song with its loud shrieks, whistling, and whoops of joy. Levin was envious of this healthy merrymaking and he felt like taking part in that expression of gladness in life. But he could do nothing but lie and look and listen. When the peasants with their songs vanished out of sight and hearing, a heavy feeling of despondency at his loneliness, his physical idleness, and his hostility to this world came over Levin.

Some of those very peasants who had most disputed with him over the hay, those whom he had wronged, and those who had wanted to deceive him, those very peasants had bowed cheerfully to him, quite obviously not bearing, and indeed unable to bear, any grudge against him, or any remorse, or any recollection even of having intended to cheat him. All that had been dissolved in the sea of joyous common toil. The Lord had given them the day and the Lord had given them the strength. And the day and the strength had been dedicated to labor, and the labor was its reward. Who was the labor for? What would be its fruits? These were irrelevant and idle questions.

Levin had often admired this kind of life, had often envied the people who lived this kind of life, but today, especially under the impression of what he had seen of the relations between Ivan Parmenov and his young wife, the idea occurred to him clearly for the first time that it depended on himself alone whether or not to change his wearisome, idle, and artificial personal life for that hard-working, pure, and delightful life.

The old man who had been sitting beside him had gone home long ago; the peasants had all dispersed. Those who lived near had gone home, and those who lived a long way off gathered for supper in the meadow where they were to spend the night. Levin, unnoticed by the peasants, remained lying on the haycock, looking on, listening and thinking. The people who had stayed in the meadow kept awake almost all the short summer night. At first there was the sound of general merry chatter and laughter over supper, then again songs and more laughter.

The whole long day of hard work had left on them no trace of anything but merriment. Before dawn everything became quiet. All one could hear were the incessant nocturnal sounds of the croaking of frogs in the marsh and the snorting of horses in the meadow when the mist began to rise before the morning. Waking up, Levin rose from the haycock, and looking up at the stars, realized that the night was over.

“Well, so what am I going to do? How am I going to do it?” he said to himself, trying to put into words all he had been thinking and feeling in that short night. All that he had been thinking and feeling could be separated into three different trains of thought. The first was the renunciation of his old life, of the useless knowledge he had acquired, and of his utterly futile education. This renunciation was a source of pleasure to him and was easy and simple. Then there were the ideas and thoughts concerning the life he wished to live now. He was fully conscious of the simplicity, purity, and integrity of this life and he was convinced that in it he would find satisfaction, peace, and dignity, the absence of which he felt so painfully. But the third series of thoughts revolved round the question of how to bring about this transition from his old life to the new. And here nothing was clear to him. “Take a wife? Have work and the necessity to work? Leave Pokrovskoye? Buy land? Join a peasant commune? Marry a peasant girl? How am I going to do that?” he asked himself again and again and found no answer. “However, I haven’t slept all night and I can’t get any clear idea of anything,” he said to himself. “I’ll get it all sorted out later. One thing is certain, though: this night has decided my fate. All my old dreams of married life were nonsense, not the real thing,” he said to himself. “Everything is much simpler and better. . . .”

“How beautiful!” he thought, looking up at the curious mother-of-pearl shell of white, fleecy clouds which seemed to hang motionless right over his head in the middle of the sky. “How lovely everything is on this lovely night! And when did this shell have time to form? A short while ago I looked at the sky and there was nothing there, only two white strips. Yes, exactly in the same way my views of life have imperceptibly changed!”

He left the meadow and walked along the highroad towards the village. A light wind was rising and everything looked gray and dull. It was the moment of half-light that usually precedes daybreak, the complete victory of light over darkness.

Shivering with cold, Levin walked fast with his eyes fixed on the ground. “What’s that? Somebody’s coming!” he thought, hearing the jingling of harness bells, and he raised his head. Within forty paces of him a four-in-hand with luggage on top was driving toward him along the grassy highroad on which he was walking. The wheel horses were pressing in toward the pole away from the ruts, but the skillful coachman, who was sitting sideways on the box, kept the pole over the ruts so that the wheels ran on the smooth part of the road.

That was all Levin noticed and, without wondering who the travelers might be, he glanced absently at the coach.

In the carriage an elderly woman was dozing in one corner, while at the window sat a young girl, who had evidently only just awakened, holding the ribbons of her white cap in both hands. Bright and thoughtful, full of an exquisite, complex inner life to which Levin was a stranger, she gazed beyond him at the glow of the sunrise.

At the very moment when the vision was about to disappear, a pair of truthful eyes glanced at him. She recognized him and a look of amazement and joy lit up her face.

He could not be mistaken. There were no other eyes in the world like those. There was only one being in the world who was able to concentrate for him the whole world and the meaning of life. It was she. It was Kitty. He realized that she was on her way to Yergushovo from the railway station. And everything that had been agitating Levin that sleepless night, all the decisions he had taken—everything vanished in a trice. He recalled with disgust his ideas of marrying a peasant girl. There alone, in the rapidly disappearing carriage that had crossed to the other side of the road, there alone was the only possible solution to the riddle of his life which had been weighing so agonizingly on him of late.

She did not look out again. The sound of the sprung wheels could no longer be heard; the jingling of the bells grew fainter. The barking of dogs told him the carriage had passed through the village, and around him only the empty fields remained, the village ahead of him, and he himself, lonely and a stranger to everything, walking solitary on the deserted highroad.

He looked up at the sky, hoping to find there the shell he had been admiring and which symbolized to him the whole trend of this thoughts and feelings that night. There was nothing resembling that shell in the sky. There in the unfathomable height a mysterious change had already taken place. There was not a trace of the shell to be seen, but half across the sky there spread a smooth carpet of fleecy clouds which were growing tinier and tinier. The sky had turned blue and much brighter and responded to his questioning gaze with the same tenderness, but also with the same remoteness.

“No,” he said to himself, “however good that simple life of toil may be, I cannot return to it. I love her.” (322-325)

Kvothe Six-String

Throughout his books The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fears, Patrick Rothfuss consistently returns to music to create his fictional world. Narnia and Middle-earth are both sung beautifully to life in their creation accounts, but Rothfuss uses music somewhat differently. Music creates many of the actual characters in his book. Take away their instruments and songs, and you take away their identities.

The following excerpt is from the first book of the series, The Name of the Wind. The narrator, Kvothe, is describing the scene directly following the murder of his parents and all his friends. They had been nomads in a troupe of musicians and actors, so their loss leaves him homeless and alone on a road between towns. Before I lend out my copy of the book, I wanted to get this down so I could remember it. Mark the music:

In the beginning, I was almost like an automaton, thoughtlessly performing the actions that would keep me alive.

I ate the second rabbit I caught, and the third. I found a patch of wild strawberries. I dug for roots. By the end of the fourth day, I had everything I needed to survive: a stone-lined fire pit, a shelter for my lute. I had even assembled a small stockpile of foodstuffs that I could fall back on in case of emergency.

I also had one thing I did not need: time. After I had taken care of immediate needs, I found I had nothing to do. I think this is when a small part of my mind started to slowly reawaken itself.

Make no mistake, I was not myself. At least I was not the same person I had been a span of days before. Everything I did I attended to with my whole mind, leaving no  part of me for remembering.

I grew thinner and more ragged. I slept in rain or sun, on soft grass, moist earth, or sharp stones with an intensity of indifference that only grief can promote. The only notice I took of my surroundings was when it rained, because then I could not bring out my lute to play, and that pained me.

Of course I played. It was my only solace.

By the end of the first month, my fingers had calluses hard as stones and I could play for hours upon hours. I played and played again all of the songs I knew from memory. Then I played the half-remembered songs as well, filling in the forgotten parts as best I could.

Eventually I could play from when I woke until the time I slept. I stopped playing the songs I knew and started inventing new ones. I had made up songs before; I had even helped my father compose a verse or two. But now I gave it my whole attention. Some of those songs have stayed with me to this day.

Soon after that I began playing…how can I describe it?

I began to play something other than songs. When the sun warms the grass and the breeze cools you, it feels a certain way. I would play until I got the feeling right. I would play until it sounded like Warm Grass and Cool Breeze.

I was only playing for myself, but I was a harsh audience. I remember spending nearly three whole days trying to capture Wind Turning a Leaf.

By the end of the second month, I could play things nearly as easily as I saw and felt them: Sun Setting Behind the Clouds, Bird Taking a Drink, Dew in the Bracken.

Somewhere in the third month I stopped looking outside and started looking inside for things to play. I learned to play Riding in the Wagon with Ben, Singing with Father by the Fire, Watching Shandi Dance, Grinding Leaves When it Is Nice Outside, Mother Smiling…

Needless to say, playing these things hurt, but it was a hurt like tender fingers on lute strings. I bled a bit and hoped that I would callous soon. (140-141)


Karoly Ferenczy, Orpheus

A Knight of Texas

Sir Lyle Lovett:

The sisters at the borderline,
They’re holding out their hands.
They’re begging me for something, Lord,
Oh, but I don’t understand,
I don’t understand.

And so it’s adios to Alvero,
Tell him to stay between the lines,
And if he sees that Gabriella girl,
Tell her I’ll look her up next time,
Say I’ll look her up next time.

A Prayer from Katherine Parr

In his book Radiant, Richard Hannula documents one of Katherine Parr’s favorite prayers:

Lord Jesus, I pray You give me the grace to rest in You above all things, and to make me prefer You above all things, and to make me prefer You above all creatures, above all glory and honor, above all dignity and power, above all health and beauty, above all riches and treasure, above all joy and pleasure, above all fame and praise. (114)

NPG 4451; Catherine Parr attributed to Master John

Katherine Parr by Master John, 1545

Parr was the last of the wives of King Henry VIII.

Two from Lewis

Christ, the only complete realist:

No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 126)

How might an elder devil council his nephew to distract his patient in 2017? Much the same as he might in 1942:



Tolstoy Knows


Henry Hillier Parker, Harvest Time

Levin, having proposed to Kitty Scherbatsky and been refused, returns home resigned to live out his days gathering and collecting, still striving after the wind, but striving harder:

In the morning Konstantin Levin left Moscow and towards evening arrived home. On his way back in the train he talked to his fellow passengers about politics and the new railways and, just as in Moscow, he was overcome by the confusion of ideas, dissatisfaction with himself, and a vague sense of shame; but when he got out at this station, recognized his one-eyed coachman Ignat, with the collar of his coat turned up; when in the dim light from the station windows he caught sight of his upholstered sled, his horses with their plaited tails, and the harness with its rings and tassels; when the coachman Ignat, while still putting his things into the sledge, told him the village news–the arrival of the contractor and the calving of Pava–he felt that the confusion was gradually clearing up, and his self-dissatisfaction and shame were passing off. He felt this at the mere sight of Ignat and the horses; but when he had put on the sheepskin coat Ignat had brought for him, and, well wrapped up, had sat down in the sledge and was driven away, thinking about the new orders he would have to give and now and again glancing at the side horse (a Don saddle horse once, but overstrained, though still a spirited animal), he began to see everything that had happened to him in quite a different light. He felt that he was himself again and he did not wish to be anyone else. All he wanted now was to be better than he had been before. To begin with, he decided that from that day on he would stop looking for any extraordinary happiness such as marriage was to have given him, and that consequently he would no longer think little of what he possessed at present. He would furthermore never again allow himself to be carried away by low passion, the memory of which had so tormented him when he was making up his mind to propose. Then, remembering his brother Nikolai, he made up his mind never to allow himself to forget him, never to let him out of his sight, and to be ready to help him when things should go badly with him. And that would be soon, he felt. Besides, his brother’s talk about communism, to which he had paid so little attention at the time, now made him think. He considered a complete change of economic conditions nonsense, but he had always felt the injustice of his own abundance in comparison with the poverty of the peasants, and now decided, so as to feel himself absolutely in the right, that though he had always worked hard and lived far from luxuriously, he would now work harder and allow himself still less luxury. And it all seemed to him so easy to carry out that the whole way home he spent in a most pleasant daydream. Feeling greatly uplifted by this hope of a new and better life, he arrived home before nine o’clock in the evening.

A light from the windows of the room of his old nurse Agafya, who now acted as his housekeeper, fell on the snow-covered drive in front of the house. She was not yet asleep. Kuzma, awakened by her, came running out sleepy and barefoot, onto the front steps. Laska, a setter bitch, ran out too, almost throwing Kuzma off his feet, and, whining, rubbed herself against Levin’s knees, jumping up and wishing but not daring to put her forepaws on his chest.

“You’ve come back soon, sir,” said Agafya.

“I was homesick, Agafya,” he replied. “Visiting friends is all right, but there’s no place like home.”

He went into his study, which was gradually lit up by the candle. The familiar objects in the room were revealed: the antlers, the bookshelves, the tiled stove with the ventilator which had long been in need of repair, his father’s sofa, the big table with an open book, a broken ash tray, and a notebook with his writing. When he saw all this, he was for a moment overcome by a feeling of doubt of the possibility of starting the new life he had been dreaming of during his drive home. All these traces of his old life seemed to seize hold of him, saying: “No, you won’t get away from us, and you’re not going to be different; you’re going to be just the same as you’ve always been with your doubts, your everlasting dissatisfaction with yourself, your vain attempts at reform, your falling from grace, and the constant expectation of the happiness you have missed and which is not possible for you.”

But this is what the things said to him. Another voice inside him was saying that one must not submit to the past and one can make what one likes of oneself. And obeying this voice, he went to the corner where his two eighty-pound dumbbells lay and started exercising with them, raising and lowering them, trying to put heart into himself. (Anna Karenina, 110-112)

God’s gift of “wisdom and knowledge and joy” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26) is a gift still six or seven hundred pages away for Levin. Instead, for now, he has his dumbbells.