Paulus Torchus

Month: February, 2013

Two Years Before The Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

ImageFugit, interea fugit irreparabile tempus.

The book ends with an essay by Dana titled Twenty-Four Years Later. As the title suggests, it is his revisit to the California coast twenty-four years after the events described in the book. I was reminded of what I was doing twenty-four years ago. I was, in the summer of one of my childhood years probably very nearly twenty-four years ago, enrolled in a sea camp in the Southern Californian coastal town of Dana Point.

Look at the name of that town. Now look at the name of the author of the book which I have just read. Now back to the name of that town. Are you starting to sense the connection I felt with this book? So far in this series, I have read a book in which the chief character has appeared to me in a realm between sleep and waking, a book which strangers have publicly harangued me simply for reading it in public, books written by some of the chief figures of the denomination of my upbringing, a book which featured a horse after which I named my bicycle, and, frankly, some of the greatest books I have ever read in my life. This, however, was the most intensely personal book for me so far because I went to a children’s sea camp when I was a child and had one of the most treasured experiences of my life.

At the sea camp, we worked aboard a recreation of The Pilgrim, which was the ship on which Richard Henry Dana, Jr. traveled to California. The photo above is of that recreation which sits in the harbor at Dana Point today. We lifted barrels, were yelled at by an old-timey captain recreating actor, and kept watch at all hours of the night, all within the watch of a statue of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. I’ve written about this experience before, but let me restate that this was a highly formative experience in those highly formative years.

The book is about a Harvard student who begins to lose his eyesight. A long ocean voyage is recommended. He, however, decides to enlist as a common merchant sailor to gain experience and write a book about it or, rather, keep a journal which he later fleshed out into a book. The book is the story of that voyage and it contains gripping, well written accounts of many of the sort of things one might expect: whales, the coast of California, Cape Horn, ill behaved captains, storms, rum, St. Elmo’s Fire, icebergs, multiculturalism, scurvy, sea shanties, bad food, Hawaiians, floggings, bleeped-out swear words, a man overboard, superstitions, knots, dissolute squandering of shore leave, and pages upon pages of sea jargon (my edition had a helpful glossary in the back). It was also the only book about California in wide publication available at the time in which California was incorporated (er… Liberated? Appropriated? … stolen?) into the United States. Some of the peaks of his powers as an author are employed in descriptions of 1830s California (some of which made me terribly homesick). His description of the San Francisco Bay, and his reasons for his expectation of its destiny to become one of the economic boom towns of the West, borders on prophecy.

But the real gold of the book comes at the end. Of course you need the context of the whole book to appreciate the fullness of what he has to say, but his concluding chapter I found to be nothing short of sublime. Just as Life of Pi builds to an elegant argument for theism within its fictional construct, Two Years Before the Mast within its non-fictional construct builds to an elegant argument for the pragmatic way in which religion benefits the lives of humans at sea, which very easily translated to lives of humans on land as well. I should state that, like the comparison I have drawn, this is not a chapter of proselytizing. Rather, this is about the good of religion and it is put in terms that are difficult to argue with. We have shifted so completely as a society that, upon reading this, it is difficult to imagine that there are people alive today who might have known people who knew this man who put forth this argument with such confidence. To say that I found it refreshing would be a bit of an understatement.

So, the last chapter of the work is excellent and highly underlined in my copy, but then he one-ups himself. When the copyright fell back to him, he wrote a follow-up essay (as I mentioned at the beginning) in which he returns to California, now famous for having written a book that everyone in the state has read. He drops so many names of people he met, people whose names were the streets and locations I grew up knowing (Bandini, Castro, Soto, et al. He talks about where Pico met Sepulveda… as in the actual two guys, not the streets). He shows the progress of the state. San Francisco is on the exact road that he predicted. The southerly points less so, but still moving from clay huts to one of the most powerful economies in the world (he is surprised to find a modestly flourishing town in The Pueblo de los Angeles). California has been my home for this first half of my life (and doesn’t appear to be about to change in the foreseeable future). I am not sure I have ever had such a sense of reading my own history before! The history of my ethnicities are from the distant past and my blood so muddied anyway that I feel no real personal connection to them. The history of my nation mainly took place about 3000 miles away. Add to that the fact that he was a Harvard man (as, ahem, am I now) and that he is talking about my part of the world right on the cusp of the period when it began to be recognizable as such. Also add that it is excellently written and intensely personal.

For having given us this treasure of a book, I am well pleased that when it came time for the current renaming of all of these places (as places periodically must needs be renamed), the place that Dana thought to be the most beautiful has been named for him.

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Why and When to Make Art

I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni

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In the recent past (albeit not in the memory of anyone currently living) there was a time when Christian art, music, and literature didn’t exclusively suck. In fact, there was a time when they had the market cornered on great art in the Western world. What happened? The world shifted, the church lost relevance, and then, even worse, the church sought to regain relevance. The art of Christianity reflected this embarrassing floundering and mediocrity. I am not going to talk about how the church can regain its past artistic glory, save to point to an example of its past artistic glory.

To wit, I Promessi Sposi is, quite simply, one of the greatest books I have ever read. I know I say that often, but that is because I am reading through the Harvard Classics Library. But I am placing this in the hypothetical “top five” that I hope no one will ever call on me to actually produce (thus undoubtedly revealing that what I thought was a list of five is more like twenty). It is also a work of fiction from a time and from a mind that was fully convinced of the power of Christianity. And it is also one of the keenest descriptions of human behavior ever written. The characters are not simply believable, they are us.

While the Bruce Penman translation is clearly the translation of choice today, I was a little disappointed in the edition. I don’t think people pay nearly as much attention to what I’m reading in public as I am self-conscious about, but when I ordered the Penguin Classics imprint, I ordered I Promessi Sposi with an etching on the cover of Italian priests in the 1600s. What I received was a copy of The Betrothed, which is the title in translation but seemed a dash on the dainty side, especially in light of what they chose for the cover art:

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The Venetian Lovers by Bordone, which is a fine work, but also has the added irritant to my inner pedant of being a mid-1500s work of art. Also, this is not a book that takes place anywhere near Venice. It would be as if someone a few hundred years from now put an artwork from within the past 100 years in America on the cover of a book by me, missing the majorly misleading signals sent by misjudging time and place slightly:

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic_-_Google_Art_Project23

As I mentioned, it is a story about human behavior. Last time I spoke about Don Abbondio, but there are also the motivations of the fiery Father Cristoforo, the Don Giovanni-like Don Rodrigo, the cagey and squirrelly nun Gertrude, the story of the Unnamed which is like a dagger in the heart of the reader. As I’ve also mentioned, Manzoni weaves the story through actual history seamlessly. He explains the bread riots and the plague with the same rhetorical skill that he uses to explain Don Abbondio’s motivations for cowardice. He even employs an actual historical figure, Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, as a pivotal character in the story.

But more than this, the author seems to suggest a prescription to the problems of the world by way of example. I am hard pressed to think of a work of fiction that is more thoroughly convinced (and convincing!) of the efficacy of a genuine Christian conversion. The genuinely converted in this book are the forces of good in what would otherwise be an entirely wicked, primal, bestial world. By the end, you want to be Cardinal Borromeo and Father Cristoforo. They are more than heroes. They are hope.

The ending was a bit pat, but I hesitated to even mention that reaction as I know it is just my cynical modern eye passing over a 200 year old work. Having said that, the fitting-ness of the ending does nothing to distract from the satisfying-ness of the ending. This is yet another way in which the book made me think “No, we have it wrong today! Manzoni had it right then!”

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I am sure that it is still widely read in Italy, but that it is not read more widely in the rest of the world is like willingly giving up vitamin B. For the modern church, it would be like ignoring Michelangelo or C.S. Lewis. It would be like willingly going into a gun battle with a switchblade. It would be any number of other self-crippling foolish metaphors that I could spend the rest of the evening concocting. The Church at large ought to glom on to the great works OF HERS like these. I feel that it could teach the Church some valuable lessons on the proper applications of her belief and the possibility of the truly sublime and earnest expressions of it in the world of the arts. For those who are decidedly outside of the walls of the church, there is a wealth of truth in this book. There are keys on how to combat all of the evils and injustice of this world. There are also keys on how to react, how to find contentment, and, indeed, the meaning of life.

I’ve discovered a review from when the book was new by a certain gentleman you may have heard of, E.A. Poe. Poe positively gushes over the book nearly as shamelessly as I have. In this review he says that the book “promises to be the commencement of a new style in novel writing.” He was correct. You can clearly see, looking at novels before and novels after, the influence it had on no less than Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. Then take into account how influential those authors have been on subsequent authors to see the scope of the influence of Manzoni.

My New Years Resolutions Revisited

Haunted by the Spectre of a Fictional Curé

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On November 7th, 1628, a priest was walking home down the same road that he walked down every day. By the way, this probably didn’t really happen.  The grand sweeping historical events in this book really happened, but the small stories of individuals in this book are fiction or fictionalized.  A modern example would be Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

The  curé was reading from his missal, just like he did every day, to the point that he would look up at where he was walking at the exact same points every single day.  Almost 400 years later, this would herald the first moment in a series of over 50 books at which I almost threw a book across the room.

Don Abbondio came to the point in the road where it diverged into a Y. To the right the road led down to the lake or something. To the left, the road would take him to his home. Usually when he looked up at this point, he saw the wall in front of him directly in the Y in the road. This time, when he looked up, he saw two bravoes sitting against the walls of the fork in the road. The author of the book, Alessandro Manzoni, then takes a few pages to explain that the bravoes were a group of ruffians who carried out the wills of highly powerful men, Dons in fact. Sound familiar? Yes, the book is Italian.

We quickly become accustomed to the shockingly modern form of narrative in which the author breaks in to fill in the colors of the picture more fully, even as we are looking at the painting, with such charm and skill that it is clearly part of the artwork. I Promessi Sposi is to historical fiction what In Cold Blood is to the true crime genre. It is the sublime Promethean progenitor which has never been matched. I have mentioned before I started reading this that if this title were not in the Harvard Classics series, I feel fairly certain that I would have died never having read it. It isn’t a commonly read or endorsed classic in contemporary America. We are fools.

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“See! Have I ever steered you wrong? …I mean except for my translation choices.”

The book was written in the early 1800s but takes place in the 1600s. In it, we see famine, riots, plagues, and other major historical events described with literary mastery. We also see one of the keenest displays of humankind in all of literature. The translator, in explaining the place of Manzoni in Italian history, says that it would be as if Dickens had only written one book (lets say A Tale of Two Cities) which retained the enduring fame of one of the greatest works of literature, but also became a unifying force in the institutions of a cohesive English language, catalyzing a unified nation. That is what Manzoni was to Italy. I understand the choice of authors given the fact that Bruce Penman was addressing the readers of his English translation of the piece, but I keep feeling that if we are making such comparisons, Victor Hugo would be at least as apt a comparison to make.

Before we press play on our story about the curé, you’ll notice the photograph of Dr. Charles Eliot above. I have been reading the Harvard Classics, the collection compiled by Dr. Eliot, for a few years now. I have posted the photo above of Dr. Eliot, as well a few others over those few years. Today I learned something about those photographs that I had never noticed before. Dr. Eliot is always turned so that you only see his left side.

The reason for that is that he had a horrific birthmark, which was described as “disfiguring”, on the right side of his face. Growing up in the 1800s, Eliot was told by medical professionals that there was nothing they could do about it. Seeing his despair, his mother said to him,

“It is possible for you, with God’s help, to grow a mind and soul so big that people will forget to look at your face.”

The rest of the story is that he became the president of Harvard, revolutionized the American education system, was revered and beloved, and generally lived an exemplary and enviable life, what Socrates would have called a “good life.”

Now let’s get back to Don Abbondio. The bravoes are, in fact, looking for him. They threaten him, in certain and severe terms, that he ought not perform the specific wedding ceremony planned for the next day. What would be the proper thing for Don Abbondio to do in this circumstance? There are no police to speak of, at least not in any trustworthy or reliable manifestation. He could write to the Archbishop to flex some papal muscles in his favor. He could do the ceremony anyway and suffer the consequences. He could fly in the face of the “and you had better not mention this encounter to anyone” caveat of the threat and inform the young couple of the threat, and thereby draw the affected parties into the deal, placing the ball in their court, and, indeed, placing some of the responsibility on them.

So, what does he do? He goes home and panics. He tells his housekeeper, which he instantly regrets. He pulls his shutters closed and pulls the covers over his head, and tells the housekeeper to tell everyone that he is ill. He goes over and over the circumstances in his head, playing out every possible conclusion, and feeling very sorry for his circumstance.

The narrator turns to us to explain. Don Abbondio was not a strong young man. He seems, in fact, to have been bullied in his youth. Well aware of the “way of the world” he found that he needed protection, a way to align himself with a force more powerful than he could ever hope to be. He decided, given his temperament, that he would likely be safest hiding behind the cloth. His opinions of matters and situations tended towards the self-preservation instinct, often siding with the oppressors in disputes while attempting to placate the oppressed. He seems like he would be entirely happy in a world where he was relieved of the pressure of having to deal with other people at all.

And that is where one of the greatest books I’ve ever read almost got thrown against a wall. I don’t think that I would go quite so far as to call myself “like Don Abbondio,” but I definitely understand and empathize with a great deal of where these impulses in him came from. I was bullied in my childhood. Left to my own devices, (though, mercifully, my life is structured in such a way that I rarely am) I would be reclusive. I know that I am not a good friend or, rather, that I struggle with being a good friend because circumstances have left me accustomed to people turning on me. I don’t think I am a coward. I do think that Don Abbondio is a coward. I think that the difference between me and Don Abbondio is that I fight these impulses tooth and nail. But what stabbed me in the chest during the description of Don Abbondio was that the image that the mirror turned toward me in the passage, while not spitting, was at least recognizable. Or, at least and more to the point, I have felt similar impulses, though my responses to them were different.

The stated purpose of the Harvard Classics Library is, according to Dr. Eliot, if one were to read the entire set, one would then have the equivalent of a Harvard level education (circa 1909). Education is a life-long process. It is the process of self-creation, of deciding who you want to be and who you don’t want to be. Whether you’re learning binomial theorem or studying philosophy, it is about who you are going to be and what you are going to contribute. I was recently journalling about my own struggles with anxiety, and I wrote about being a contributing member of society. I was specifically encouraging myself to push through my anxieties, that is doesn’t matter if I am feeling scared or physically sick or anything else, so long as I contribute. The contribution is what matters. One of the lessons of this book for me so far is something I can carry around with me as I face my daily life:

Do I want to be a Don Abbondio or do I want to be a Dr. Eliot?