Sunday, July 22, 2012

On Playful Seriousness

I remember my father reading to me. He made the stories into a spectacle of elaborate, silly voices. That spectacle became ingrained in me, and goes with me into the daylight spaces of my own adult life. This childlike play acting, the art of verbal exaggeration and caricature, has sometimes been my only salvation from an unbearably melancholy disposition. My father taught me many things, but the unintentional lessons have been the most cherished. Being raised in a conservative, independent Baptist family, I inherited a predilection for earnestness. Earnestness need not choke out lightness or joy—my mother is a perpetually sunny and cheerful woman—but in me it grew like a cancer, threatening to smother out every other instinct. The explicit lessons on religion fed this cancer, like dry brush to a flame. Fortunately, however, these lessons were subverted by my parents’ other instincts. My father, on the long drives to my music lessons, would sometimes tell me stories about the trouble he and my uncles got themselves into as boys. Rather than being told with the sobriety of a morality play, my father’s exploits were related with a bristling, nostalgic fondness. The voices my father used when reading stories came from a similar place—a certain wildness domesticated and made harmless for my consumption.

People can be just as earnest in their passions as in their morals. This earnestness-run-amok threatened to poison every aspect of my life. It is really a sort of dissolution, a passion for extremes, which can make of one either a hair-shirted zealot or a besotted hedonist. Perhaps there is something heroic about the passionate saint. I am often awed by the lives of extreme sanctity, and in my inspiration I find myself wanting to emulate them, to be extraordinary. Immediately I turn on that word, “extraordinary,” and find myself staring into the burning eyes of a mad man, hungry, insatiably hungry, for adulation. Stone him. Beat him to death with irony. Kill him with farcical voices and the reading of children’s books. Act the fool so as to escape immolation by spontaneous self-righteous combustion. Laugh violently. Violence. Is that not what passionate extremes really are? Violence exists in the extremes and what is the alternative? A drab, tasteless morsel of balance, compromise, and composure? Somehow I think not. The alternative isn’t some mid-point between two extremities—I imagine it as some other plane altogether, and that plane is filled with silly voices. It is filled with childlike stories. But it consists of more than a romance of childhood, because it is not an escape into naiveté. It is a place of the most serious sort of play and the most playful sort of seriousness. It is a place where tears and laughter are mixed together in a cohesive unity.

I was late in coming to value childlikeness. It was in my twenties that I began re-reading the Narnia books. When I had first come to them as a child, I found them dry, fusty, and childish. (I had a strong distaste for stories about children.) As an adult I began to see in them something of which I had missed out as a child bent on an early achievement of adult seriousness. Apparently I was finally old enough to start reading fairy tales again. The best sort of fairy tale maintains a deep sense of innocence while avoiding excessive sentimentality. As I was to learn from G.K. Chesterton, the fairy tale admits of monsters, but it also insists that the monsters can be slain. Innocence without naiveté—this, I found, led to a sense of wonder, and wonder is perhaps the greatest of all senses. Wonder is impossible where the mad man with the burning eyes is free to rave. He is the enemy of wonder. In Manalive!, Innocent Smith fights off madness by madness—breaking and entering, a torrid love affair, attempted murder, nothing is quite what it seems, and by the end we find Smith innocent and knowing. He shows us that sometimes the only way to find our way home is to leave it behind.

While Chesterton dealt in paradox and radical common sense, George MacDonald dealt in sincere, unapologetic goodness. MacDonald’s books often show the movement from sickness to health. In sickness is anxiety and sorrow, and the protagonists of his fantasies, Lilith, and Phantastes, have both been infected with a virulent strain of adulthood. The grail they seek is a life in which innocence and wonder are the very mode of existence. There is a sense of earnestness to MacDonald, but it is free of heaviness and melancholy. His goodness delights. His goodness makes me wonder what attraction could ever have bound me to the mad man. Why would we not wish to be this good? Constant in MacDonald is the sense of play. Not the kind of play that is a shirking of responsibility—nothing dissolute—it is a happy playfulness which takes into its view all the meaning of the world.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Break-Up of the Modern Home

In 1960 Robertson Davies gave a speech at a reception for the Ontario Association of Architects. He uncovered the cause of the break-up of the modern home. It’s the damned architects.

In countless novels written fifty years ago the heroine, having discovered that her husband was deceiving her with the beautiful brunette, crept away to the nursery to weep over her beloved children.

How is she expected to do that in a house which hasn’t any nursery? No woman of ordinary sensibility can creep away to weep in the rumpus-room. The thing is a psychological absurdity, and by making it so you have contributed to the break-up of the modern home.

And the study—how many modern houses have a study? Yet every man needs a study. Not to study in, of course, but to retire to when the pressure of domestic life is too great. He summons the other members of the family to meet him there. ‘George, I should like to see you in my study,’ he says to his son, when he wants to tell him to stop spending so much money. ‘Mary, come to my study,’ he says when he wants to tell his daughter to break off her affair with that beatnik she has been meeting on the sly. ‘My dear, will you come into my study,’ he says, when he wants to tell his wife that he knows what she has been up to with taht handsome Mexican dentist. But most of all he needs his study to sulk in. Every man must have a private sulking-place, and as his wife always wants the bedroom for taht purpose, he must have a study, or bottle up his sulks. And if he bottles his sulks, it won’t be long before he has to be taken away in a strait-jacket. How can he sulk in the living-area, which his children are using as the play-area, while his wife is right beside him in the kitchen-area, without so much as a screen to divide them? By forgetting the study you have struck an underhand blow at the mental health of the nation.

His wife, as I have said, sulks in the bedroom. I wish I could call it a boudoir but those wretched little boxes in modern houses cannot rise to the dignity of such a term. You know what a boudoir is. It’s a bedroom that you can pace in. Consider this passage, from a very fine novel, written not quite a century ago by Mrs. Henry Wood:

Scarce able to see through the mist of tears that clouded her violent eyes, Lady Maude sought her boudoir. There, among the treasures she had brought from her childhood home, she paced the floor, lost in sombre reverie. Had I but known, she mused as she walked toward the window, had I but known when when I gave my trust, my hand—yea, all that a woman holds in store of love and tenderness—to Cyril, that a day might come when I should wish, nay, implore Almight God, for the power to recall every gift, I should have ended my life rather than yield to his suit. Yes, all of this, these broad acres, this stately mansion, yes, and—O God, be merciful!—even my children, I should have wished undone… She turned at the window and continued her weary pacing.

Do you see what I am getting at? She said all of that while making one trip from the door to the window. The book tells us that Lady Maude was tall—say five foot eight—and therefore one of her paces might be estimated at twenty-five inches. Everybody knows that when you are pacing and regretting at the same time, you take a step to every word. Therefore Lady Maude took 85 paces of 25 inches apiece, which is 2,125 inches or 177 feet from door to window. Assuming that the room was a double cube, and that she was walking the long way of it, that means that the dimensions of her boudoir were 177 by 88, giving her a floor space of 15,576 square feet. No wonder she was able to keep the treasures of her old home in it. If they had included a couple of racehorses she could have kept them in it, without serious inconvenience.

But the important point is that she was able to pace in her boudoir, and the novel has a happy ending. I put it to you, gentlemen, would it have had a happy ending if Lady Maude had been cooped up in one of the bedrooms of which the Canadian Council of Women have been complaining to Mr. John C. Parkin?

Robertson Davies, from “How to Design a Haunted House,” published in One Half of Robertson Davies

Monday, July 9, 2012

Quote: Montaigne on Plutarch

My friend, Paul, has been reading and discussing Plutarch. I happened to come across this from Montaigne’s essay, “On the education of children:”

Put into his mind a decent, careful spirit of inquiry about everything: he will go and see anything nearby which is of singular quality: a building, a fountain, a man, the site of an old battle, a place which Caesar or Charlemagne passed through:

Quœ tellus sit lenta gelu, quæ putris ab œstu,

Ventus in Italiam quis bene vela ferat.

[what land is benumbed with the cold, which dusty with heat, which favourable winds blow sails towards Italian coasts.]

He will inquire into the habits, means and alliances of various monarchs,things most pleasant to study and most useful to know. In his commerce with men I mean him to include – and that principally – those who live only in the memory of books. By means of history he will frequent those great souls of former years. If you want it to be so, history can be a waste of time: it can also be, if you want it to be so, a study bearing fruit beyond price – the only study, Plato said, which the Spartans kept as their share. Under this heading what profit will he not get out of reading the Lives of our favourite Plutarch! But let our tutor remember the object of his trust, which is less to stamp the date of the fall of Carthage on the boy as the behaviour of Hannibal and Scipio; less to stamp the name of the place where Marcellus died as how his death there showed him unworthy of his task. Let him not so much learn what happened as judge what happened. That, if you ask me, is the subject to which our wits are applied in the most diverse of manners. I have read hundreds of things in Livy which another has not found there. Plutarch found in him hundreds of things which I did not see (and which perhaps the author never put there). For some Livy is purely a grammatical study; for others he is philosophy dissected, penetrating into the most abstruse parts of our nature. There are in Plutarch developed treatises very worth knowing,for he is to my mind the master-craftsman at that job; but there are also hundreds of points which he simply touches on: he merely flicks his fingers towards the way we should go if we want to, or at times he contents himself with a quick shot at the liveliest part of the subject: those passages we must rip out and put out on display. For example that one saying of his,‘that the inhabitants of Asia were slaves of one tyrant because they were incapable of pronouncing one syllable: NO,’ may have furnished La Boëtie with the matter and moment of his book De la Servitude volontaire. Seeing Plutarch select a minor action in the life of a man, or an apparently unimportant saying, is worth a treatise in itself. It is a pity that intelligent men are so fond of brevity: by it their reputation is certainly worth all the more,but we are worth all the less. Plutarch would rather we vaunted his judgement than his knowledge, and he would rather leave us craving for more than bloated. He realized that you could say too much even on a good subject, and that Alexandridas rightly criticized the orator whose address to the ephors was good but too long, saying, ‘Oh, Stranger, you say what you should, but not the way that you should!’ People whose bodies are too thin pad them out:those whose matter is too slender pad it out too, with words.

trans. M.A. Screech, from The Complete Essays

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Quote: The Use of Logike

I’ve been reading—slowly—Sister Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. It promises to be an extremely interesting study of Shakespeare and classical grammar as taught during the English Renaissance. I’m increasingly convinced that we could do worse than to spend more time studying logic and rhetoric. The following quote from Abraham Fruance's The Arcadian Rhetorike provides a good summary of the argument:

Logike is an art of teaching… whose vertue is seene not onely in teaching others, but also in learning thy selfe, in discoursing, thinking, meditating, and framing of thine owne, as also in discussing, perusing, searching and examining what others have either delivered by speach, or put downe in writing; this is called Analysis, that Genesis, and in them both consisteth the whole use of Logike.

As farre then as mans reason can reach, so farre extendeth it selfe the use and vertue of this art of reasoning,… Men reason in schooles as Philosophers, in Westminster as Lawyers, in Court as Lords, in Countrey as worldly husbands… the true use of Logike is as well apparant in simple playne and easie explication, as in subtile, strict, and concised probation. Reade Homer, reade Demosthenes, reade Virgill, read Cicero, reade Bartas, reade Toquato Tasso, reade the most worthie ornament of our English tongue, the Countess of Penbrookes Arcadia and therein see the true effectes of natural Logike which is the ground of artificiall… (fol. 3 r-v)1 Let no day passe without some practice, either in making, framing, and inventing of our selves, or in resolving & dissolving of things doone by others, for the triall of their skil, and confirmation of our owne. Neither would I have this practise continued onely in reading, or writing, but in every civill assembly or meeting: wherein yet I will not bee so severe a censor, as to exact every speech to the formall rules of axiomes, syllogismes, &c. It shall be sufficient for us to folow a more easie and elegant kinde of disputation, joyning Rhetorike with Logike, and referring that precise straitnesse unto Philosophicall exercises.

Neyther let any man thinke, that because in common meetings and assemblies the woordes and tearmes of Logike bee not named, therefore the force and operation of Logike is not there used and apparent. For, as in Grammer wee name neyther Noune, Pronoune, Verbe, nor any other parte of speech: and as in Rhetorike, we make mention neyther of Metonymia, Synecdoche, Exlamatio, nor any other Rhetoricall figure or trope: yet use in our speech the helpe of the one in speaking grammatically, and the direction of the other in talking eloquently: so, although in common conference wee never name syllogismes, axiomes, propositions, assumptions, & other woords of art, yet doo wee secretly practise them in our disputations, the vertue whereof is ,to make our discourses seeme true to the simple, and probable to the wise. (120 r)

Abraham Fraunce, The Arcadian Rhetorike, London, 1588.
As excerpted by Sister Miriam Joseph, C.S.C. in Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language.

  1. I believe the r, v notations signify recto and verso page references.