F. Scott Fitzgerald, “This Side of Paradise”

25061.jpgIn his introduction to This Side of Paradise (1920), Craig Raine praises the writing style that appeared in this debut novel: “Fitzgerald’s prose is capable of soaring like a violin, and of moving his readers with understated husky notes as well as with notes of piercing purity.” Here are some of my favorite examples:

Often they swam and as Amory floated lazily in the water he shut his mind to all thoughts except those of hazy soap-bubble lands where the sun splattered through wind-drunk trees. How could any one possibly think or worry, or do anything except splash and dive and loll there on the edge of time while the flower months failed. Let the days move over—sadness and memory and pain recurred outside, and here, once more, before he went on to meet them he wanted to drift and be young.

There were days when Amory resented that life had changed from an even progress along a road stretching ever in sight, with the scenery merging and blending, into a succession of quick, unrelated scenes—two years of sweat and blood, that sudden absurd instinct for paternity that Rosalind had stirred; the half-sensual, half-neurotic quality of this autumn with Eleanor. He felt that it would take all time, more than he could ever spare, to glue these strange cumbersome pictures into the scrap-book of his life. It was all like a banquet where he sat for this half-hour of his youth and tried to enjoy brilliant epicurean courses.

Dimly he promised himself a time where all should be welded together. For months it seemed that he had alternated between being borne along a stream of love or fascination, or left in an eddy, and in the eddies he had not desired to think, rather to be picked up on a wave’s top and swept along again (215-216).

***

He was in an eddy again, a deep, lethargic gulf, without desire to work or write, love or dissipate. For the first time in his life he rather longed for death to roll over his generation, obliterating their petty fevers and struggles and exultations. His youth seemed never so vanished as now in the contrast between the utter loneliness of this visit and that riotous, joyful party of four years before. Things that had been the merest commonplaces of his life then, deep sleep, the sense of beauty around him, all desire, had flown away and the gaps they left were filled only with the great listlessness of his disillusion.

“To hold a man a woman has to appeal to the worst in him.” This sentence was the thesis of most of his bad nights, of which he felt this was to be one. His mind had already started to play variations on the subject. Tireless passion, fierce jealousy, longing to possess and crush—these alone were left of all his love for Rosalind; these remained to him as payment for the loss of his youth—bitter calomel under the thin sugar of love’s exaltation (227).

***

He walked over to Fifth Avenue, dodging the blind, black menace of umbrellas, and standing in front of Delmonico’s hailed an auto-bus. Buttoning his coat closely around him he climbed to the roof, where he rode in solitary state through the thin, persistent rain, stung into alertness by the cool moisture perpetually reborn on his cheek. Somewhere in his mind a conversation began, rather resumed its place in his attention. It was composed not of two voices, but of one, which acted alike as questioner and answerer:

Q. — Well—what’s the situation?
A. — That I have about twenty-four dollars to my name.
Q. — You have the Lake Geneva estate.
A. — But I intend to keep it.
Q. — Can you live?
A. — I can’t imagine not being able to. People make money in books and I’ve found that I can always do the things that people do in books. Really they are the only things I can do.
Q. — Be definite.
A. — I don’t know what I’ll do—nor have I much curiosity. Tomorrow I’m going to leave New York for good. It’s a bad town unless you’re on top of it.
Q. — Do you want a lot of money?
A. — No. I am merely afraid of being poor.
Q. — Very afraid?
A. — Just passively afraid.
Q. — Where are you drifting?
A. — Don’t ask me!
Q. — Don’t you care?
A. — Rather. I don’t want to commit moral suicide.
Q. — Have you no interests left?
A. — None. I’ve no more virtue to lose. Just as a cooling pot gives off heat, so all through youth and adolescence we give off calories of virtue. That’s what’s called ingenuousness.
Q. — An interesting idea.
A. — That’s why a “good man going wrong” attracts people. They stand around and literally warm themselves at the calories of virtue he gives off. Sarah makes an unsophisticated remark and the faces simper in delight—“How innocent the poor child is!” They’re warming themselves at her virtue. But Sarah sees the simper and never makes that remark again. Only she feels a little colder after that.
Q. — All your calories gone?
A. — All of them. I’m beginning to warm myself at other people’s virtue.
Q. — Are you corrupt?
A. — I think so. I’m not sure. I’m not sure about good and evil at all any more.
Q. — Is that a bad sign in itself?
A. — Not necessarily.
Q. — What would be the test of corruption?
A. — Becoming really insincere—calling myself “not such a bad fellow,” thinking I regretted my lost youth when I only envy the delights of losing it. Youth is like having a big plate of candy. Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again. The matron doesn’t want to repeat her girlhood—she wants to repeat her honeymoon. I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.
Q. — Where are you drifting?

This dialogue merged grotesquely into his mind’s most familiar state—a grotesque blending of desires, worries, exterior impressions and physical reactions. (239-240).

***

“I am selfish,” he thought.

“This is not a quality that will change when I ‘see human suffering’ or ‘lose my parents’ or ‘help others.’

“This selfishness is not only part of me. It is the most living part.

“It is by somehow transcending rather than by avoiding that selfishness that I can bring poise and balance into my life.

“There is no virtue of unselfishness that I cannot use. I can make sacrifices, be charitable, give to a friend, endure for a friend, lay down my life for a friend—all because these things may be the best possible expression of myself; yet I have not one drop of the milk of human kindness.”

The problem of evil had solidified for Amory into the problem of sex. He was beginning to identify evil with the strong phallic worship in Brooke and the early Wells. Inseparably linked with evil was beauty—beauty, still a constant rising tumult; soft in Eleanor’s voice, in an old song at night, rioting deliriously through life like superimposed waterfalls, half rhythm, half darkness. Amory knew that every time he had reached toward it longingly it had leered out at him with the grotesque face of evil. Beauty of great art, beauty of all joy, most of all the beauty of women.

After all, it had too many associations with license and indulgence. Weak things were often beautiful, weak things were never good. And in this new loneness of his that had been selected for what greatness he might achieve, beauty must be relative or, itself a harmony, it would make only a discord.

In a sense this gradual renunciation of beauty was the second step after his disillusion had been made complete. He felt that he was leaving behind him his chance of being a certain type of artist. It seemed so much more important to be a certain sort of man (261-262).

***

Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light—and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken. . . .

Amory, sorry for them, was still not sorry for himself—art, politics, religion, whatever his medium should be, he knew he was safe now, free from all hysteria—he could accept what was acceptable, roam, grow, rebel, sleep deep through many nights. . . .

There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth—yet the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams. But—oh, Rosalind! Rosalind! . . .

“It’s all a poor substitute at best,” he said sadly.

And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed….

He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.

“I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.” (263-264).

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The Christian skepticism of Thomas Hardy

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“Thomas Hardy” by William Strang (1893)

Was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), a writer whose career spanned the Victorian and modern periods, an atheist? Having read his selected poems and his novel, The Return of the Native (1878), I regard Hardy as a Christian skeptic. The placement of adjectives and nouns is important here. A Christian skeptic is one whose skepticism has a Christian coloration, owing to upbringing and sympathy, whereas a skeptical Christian is one who remains in the faith but with considerable doubts. Hardy’s outlook coincides with Emily Dickinson, who wrote near the end of her life: “On subjects of which we know nothing, or should I say Beings — we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.”

In his New Yorker Essay, “God’s Undertaker,” Adam Gopnik writes:

Hardy knew his countrymen’s capacity for respectable self-delusion, for the kind of mendacity that considers God’s foe “essentially Christian.” Indeed, he was not so much interested in persuading honest believers to abandon their beliefs as in shaming an already agnostic century into admitting the depths of its uncertainty. His novels, and especially his poems, describe a world from which God has already absconded, and for good. Because this is still the world we inhabit today, he remains one of the most vital and relevant of English writers — more modern, in some ways, than the modernists who succeeded and disdained him.

In his introduction to Thomas Hardy: Selected Poems, Robert Mezey writes:

Hardy considered himself and has generally been considered an agnostic, but what he really is is a Christian who is simply no longer able to believe in Christian doctrine and mythology. His piety goes far beyond being “churchy,” as he once described himself. Even his so-called pessimism is not so very different from the Christian vision of this world as seen through a glass darkly, a vale of tears from which death is an escape, a liberation, a victory. What he believed, or sometimes believed, or thought he believed, is that it is our tragedy to be burdened by consciousness — “Thought is a disease of the flesh,” he wrote once — and by a seemingly infinite capacity for suffering in a universe utterly indifferent to our desires, to our existence: “The world does not despise us; it only neglects us.” He was one of those men who never get over the discovery of how much pain there is in the world, not merely their own pain but that of other creatures, which they seem to feel as keenly as their own; he remained all his life at the mercy of what James Wright calls his “defenseless compassion.” No wonder he often thought of death as a friend and was more than half in love with it. How happy some of his ghosts are! If they are not in a state of bliss, they are certainly at peace: they murmur contentedly, they dance, they fervently hope there will be no resurrection. 

I will share four poems that reveal Hardy’s Christian skepticism.

In “God-Forgotten,” God does not remember the world he created, nor does he incline his ear to the trouble of its inhabitants.

God-Forgotten

I towered far, and lo! I stood within
The presence of the Lord Most High,
Sent thither by the sons of Earth, to win
Some answer to their cry.

– ‘The Earth, sayest thou? The Human race?
By Me created? Sad its lot?
Nay: I have no remembrance of such place:
Such world I fashioned not.’ –

– ‘O Lord, forgive me when I say
Thou spakest the word that made it all.’ –
‘The Earth of men – let me bethink me. . . . Yea!
I dimly do recall

‘Some tiny sphere I built long back
(Mid millions of such shapes of mine)
So named . . . It perished, surely – not a wrack
Remaining, or a sign?

‘It lost my interest from the first,
My aims therefor succeeding ill;
Haply it died of doing as it durst?’ –
‘Lord, it existeth still.’ –

‘Dark, then, its life! For not a cry
Of aught it bears do I now hear;
Of its own act the threads were snapt whereby
Its plaints had reached mine ear.

‘It used to ask for gifts of good,
Till came its severance, self-entailed,
When sudden silence on that side ensued,
And has till now prevailed.

‘All other orbs have kept in touch;
Their voicings reach me speedily:
Thy people took upon them overmuch
In sundering them from me!

‘And it is strange – though sad enough –
Earth’s race should think that one whose call
Frames, daily, shining spheres of flawless stuff
Must heed their tainted ball! . . .

‘But sayest it is by pangs distraught,
And strife, and silent suffering? –
Sore grieved am I that injury should be wrought
Even on so poor a thing!

‘Thou shouldst have learnt that Not to Mend
For Me could mean but Not to Know:
Hence, Messengers! and straightway put an end
To what men undergo.’ . . .

Homing at dawn, I thought to see
One of the Messengers standing by.
– Oh, childish thought! . . . Yet often it comes to me
When trouble hovers nigh.

In “By the Earth’s Corpse,” God regrets making the world because even he cannot undo the suffering people endure.

By the Earth’s Corpse

I

‘O Lord, why grievest Thou? –
Since Life has ceased to be
Upon this globe, now cold
As lunar land and sea,
And humankind, and fowl, and fur
Are gone eternally,
All is the same to Thee as ere
They knew mortality.’

II

‘O Time,’ replied the Lord,
‘Thou readest me ill, I ween;
Were all the same, I should not grieve
At that late earthly scene,
Now blestly past – though planned by me
With interest close and keen! –
Nay, nay: things now are not the same
As they have earlier been.

III

‘Written indelibly
On my eternal mind
Are all the wrongs endured
By Earth’s poor patient kind,
Which my too oft unconscious hand
Let enter undesigned.
No god can cancel deeds foredone,
Or thy old coils unwind!

IV

‘As when, in Noë’s days,
I whelmed the plains with sea,
So at this last, when flesh
And herb but fossils be,
And, all extinct, their piteous dust
Revolves obliviously,
That I made Earth, and life, and man,
It still repenteth me!’

In “The Bedridden Peasant,” the narrator struggles with the problem of evil and the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God.

The Bedridden Peasant

To an Unknowing God

Much wonder I – here long low-laid –
That this dead wall should be
Betwixt the Maker and the made,
Between Thyself and me!

For, say one puts a child to nurse,
He eyes it now and then
To know if better it is, or worse,
And if it mourn, and when.

But Thou, Lord, giv’st us men our day
In helpless bondage thus
To Time and Chance, and seem’st straightway
To think no more of us!

That some disaster cleft Thy scheme
And tore us wide apart,
So that no cry can cross, I deem;
For Thou art mild of heart,

And wouldst not shape and shut us in
Where voice can not be heard:
Plainly Thou meant’st that we should win
Thy succour by a word.

Might but Thy sense flash down the skies
Like man’s from clime to clime,
Thou wouldst not let me agonize
Through my remaining time;

But, seeing how much Thy creatures bear –
Lame, starved, or maimed, or blind –
Wouldst heal the ills with quickest care
Of me and all my kind.

Then, since Thou mak’st not these things be,
But these things dost not know,
I’ll praise Thee as were shown to me
The mercies Thou wouldst show!

In “The Oxen,” the narrator yearns for his childlike adoration of God in the manger.

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Differing natures find their tongue

In his “General Preface to the Wessex Edition of 1912,” Thomas Hardy memorably addresses the relationship between temperament and art:

Differing natures find their tongue in the presence of differing spectacles. Some natures become vocal at tragedy, some are made vocal by comedy, and it seems to me that to whichever of these aspects of life a writer’s instinct for expression the more readily responds, to that he should allow it to respond. That before a contrasting side of things he remains undemonstrative need not be assumed to mean that he remains unperceiving. 

I would argue that the Christian writer, regardless of his nature, should try to express a tragicomic vision of life consistent with the biblical picture: tragic because Adam lost paradise through sinful disobedience, subjecting his progeny and the created order to deleterious effects, but comic because the second Adam redeemed fallen humanity and creation through his perfect obedience on the Cross, and thereby gives the hope of paradise regained. Whether disposed by nature to a melancholic or cheerful outlook, the Christian writer must testify to absolute reality while remaining honest about his own lived reality. If given to a negative register, he should bear witness to abiding faith, hope, and love. If given to a positive register, he should not ignore the obdurate presence of sorrow, pain, and doubt. Although he was not a Christian, even a skeptic like Hardy understood the artistic obligation for capturing the tragicomic vision of life: “The business of the poet and the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.”

The “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus Christ

In his book, On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity, Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan writes about how the English Reformers, against the medieval idea of “repeated sacrifice in the Eucharist,” insist upon the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross:

There before Pontius Pilate was that new mankind, there and nowhere else. No choice of ours can enhance or detract from the universality of that figure; no subsequent refusal can turn the future of redemption into another course. The question that is asked of us in our time is not: shall all mankind, then, be saved in Christ? — for that question has been answered by him in his time and does not need the living of our lives to answer it further. The question is this: shall we ourselves be saved with all mankind in Christ? For if we refuse and are lost, we have carried away no part of mankind with us to perdition, we have recorded no dissenting votes. Our time is of itself nothing, and represents nothing; but between the living of our lives and that eclipse of our time into nothingness, God has set his time, the day of Jesus’s resurrection. 

To return, then, to the cardinal assertion of Article 31: there is no other grace available to mankind than the offering once made. History cannot generate any other, not by building upon it, by repeating it, thereby denying it its sovereignty over history and absorbing it into cyclical patterns out of which our time is spun. . . . . Our salvation is wrought for us in the death and resurrection of a first-century man — not strung out week by week in ritual representation through history, which is to make God the prisoner of time rather than its master. 

***

The sacraments, then, mediate to us in our time the decisive redemption of mankind by Christ in his. He is present to us — of course! for how else could we be part of his representative humanity? But this does not come about by his being imprisoned in the necessities — cyclical or progressive — of our time, but rather by our liberation to be united with him in his. The sacrament represents that first-century event to us, and binds us into the reality of that first-century event. “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2.20). 

Virginia Woolf on Thomas Hardy’s novels

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Dorset on England’s south coast. In his novels, Thomas Hardy called this region “Wessex,” a “partly real, partly dream” country. Photography by Andy Haslam for The New York Times.

Inspired by my 2016 visit to Thomas Hardy Country in Dorset, England, I read The Return of the Native (1878) over the Christmas season. At present, the power of this story and its writing absorbs me so much that I cannot articulate my impression. Therefore, I will lean upon the studied reflection of Virginia Woolf, who paid a moving tribute to Hardy shortly after his death in an essay called, “The Novels of Thomas Hardy” (1928). What she says below about the Wessex novels in general applies to the particular one that I read.

The Wessex Novels are not one book, but many. They cover an immense stretch; inevitably they are full of imperfections — some are failures, and others exhibit only the wrong side of their maker’s genius. But undoubtedly, when we have submitted ourselves fully to them, when we come to take stock of our impression of the whole, the effect is commanding and satisfactory. We have been freed from the cramp and pettiness imposed by life. Our imaginations have been stretched and heightened; our humour has been made to laugh out; we have drunk deep of the beauty of the earth. Also we have been made to enter the shade of a sorrowful and brooding spirit which, even in its saddest mood, bore itself with a grave uprightness and never, even when most moved to anger, lost its deep compassion for the sufferings of men and women. Thus it is no mere transcript of life at a certain time and place that Hardy has given us. It is a vision of the world and of man’s lot as they revealed themselves to a powerful imagination, a profound and poetic genius, a gentle and humane soul.

Here are some other excerpts from the essay.

On Hardy’s imagination and view of the novel:

The imagination of the writer is powerful and sardonic; he is book-learned in a home-made way; he can create characters but he cannot control them; he is obviously hampered by the difficulties of his technique and, what is more singular, he is driven by some sense that human beings are the sport of forces outside themselves, to make use of an extreme and even melodramatic use of coincidence. He is already possessed of the conviction that a novel is not a toy, nor an argument; it is a means of giving truthful if harsh and violent impressions of the lives of men and women.

On Hardy’s “moments of vision”:

Some writers are born conscious of everything; others are unconscious of many things. Some, like Henry James and Flaubert, are able not merely to make the best use of the spoil their gifts bring in, but control their genius in the act of creation; they are aware of all the possibilities of every situation, and are never taken by surprise. The unconscious writers, on the other hand, like Dickens and Scott, seem suddenly and without their own consent to be lifted up and swept onwards. The wave sinks and they cannot say what has happened or why. Among them — it is the source of his strength and of his weakness — we must place Hardy. His own word, “moments of vision”, exactly describes those passages of astonishing beauty and force which are to be found in every book that he wrote. With a sudden quickening of power which we cannot foretell, nor he, it seems, control, a single scene breaks off from the rest. . . . Vivid to the eye, but not to the eye alone, for every sense participates, such scenes dawn upon us and their splendour remains.

On Hardy’s observation of Nature:

He already proves himself a minute and skilled observer of Nature; the rain, he knows, falls differently as it falls upon roots or arable; he knows that the wind sounds differently as it passes through the branches of different trees. But he is aware in a larger sense of Nature as a force; he feels in it a spirit that can sympathize or mock or remain the indifferent spectator of human fortunes. . . . There is, in the first place, that sense of the physical world which Hardy more than any novelist can bring before us; the sense that the little prospect of man’s existence is ringed by a landscape which, while it exists apart, yet confers a deep and solemn beauty upon his drama.

On Hardy’s characters:

And it is when we are considering Hardy’s power of creating men and women that we become most conscious of the profound differences that distinguish him from his peers. We look back at a number of these characters and ask ourselves what it is that we remember them for. We recall their passions. We remember how deeply they have loved each other and often with what tragic results. . . . . In all the books love is one of the great facts that mould human life. But it is a catastrophe; it happens suddenly and overwhelmingly, and there is little to be said about it. The talk between the lovers when it is not passionate is practical or philosophic, as though the discharge of their daily duties left them with more desire to question life and its purpose than to investigate each other’s sensibilities. Even if it were in their power to analyse their emotions, life is too stirring to give them time. They need all their strength to deal with the downright blows, the freakish ingenuity, the gradually increasing malignity of fate. They have none to spend upon the subtleties and delicacies of the human comedy.

***

His light does not fall directly upon the human heart. It passes over it and out on to the darkness of the heath and upon the trees swaying in the storm. When we look back into the room the group by the fireside is dispersed. Each man or woman is battling with the storm, alone, revealing himself most when he is least under the observation of other human beings. We do not know them as we know Pierre or Natasha or Becky Sharp. We do not know them in and out and all round as they are revealed to the casual caller, to the Government official, to the great lady, to the general on the battlefield. We do not know the complication and involvement and turmoil of their thoughts. Geographically, too, they remain fixed to the same stretch of the English countryside. It is seldom, and always with unhappy results, that Hardy leaves the yeoman or farmer to describe the class above theirs in the social scale. In the drawing-room and clubroom and ballroom, where people of leisure and education come together, where comedy is bred and shades of character revealed, he is awkward and ill at ease. But the opposite is equally true. If we do not know his men and women in their relations to each other, we know them in their relations to time, death, and fate. If we do not see them in quick agitation against the lights and crowds of cities, we see them against the earth, the storm, and the seasons. We know their attitude towards some of the most tremendous problems that can confront mankind. They take on a more than mortal size in memory. We see them, not in detail but enlarged and dignified. . . . Their speech has a Biblical dignity and poetry. They have a force in them which cannot be defined, a force of love or of hate, a force which in the men is the cause of rebellion against life, and in the women implies an illimitable capacity for suffering, and it is this which dominates the character and makes it unnecessary that we should see the finer features that lie hid. This is the tragic power; and, if we are to place Hardy among his fellows, we must call him the greatest tragic writer among English novelists.

On Hardy’s view of the novel:

Nothing is more necessary, in reading an imaginative writer, than to keep at the right distance above his page. Nothing is easier, especially with a writer of marked idiosyncrasy, than to fasten on opinions, convict him of a creed, tether him to a consistent point of view. Nor was Hardy any exception to the rule that the mind which is most capable of receiving impressions is very often the least capable of drawing conclusions. It is for the reader, steeped in the impression, to supply the comment. It is his part to know when to put aside the writer’s conscious intention in favour of some deeper intention of which perhaps he may be unconscious. Hardy himself was aware of this. A novel “is an impression, not an argument”, he has warned us, and, again. Unadjusted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of life seems to lie in humbly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as they are forced upon us by chance and change. Certainly it is true to say of him that, at his greatest, he gives us impressions; at his weakest, arguments. In The Woodlanders, The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, and above all, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, we have Hardy’s impression of life as it came to him without conscious ordering. Let him once begin to tamper with his direct intuitions and his power is gone.

On Hardy’s style of writing:

Do we insist that a great novelist shall be a master of melodious prose? Hardy was no such thing. He feels his way by dint of sagacity and uncompromising sincerity to the phrase he wants, and it is often of unforgettable pungency. Failing it, he will make do with any homely or clumsy or old-fashioned turn of speech, now of the utmost angularity, now of a bookish elaboration. No style in literature, save Scott’s, is so difficult to analyse; it is on the face of it so bad, yet it achieves its aim so unmistakably. As well might one attempt to rationalize the charm of a muddy country road, or of a plain field of roots in winter. And then, like Dorsetshire itself, out of these very elements of stiffness and angularity his prose will put on greatness; will roll with a Latin sonority; will shape itself in a massive and monumental symmetry like that of his own bare downs. Then again, do we require that a novelist shall observe the probabilities, and keep close to reality? To find anything approaching the violence and convolution of Hardy’s plots one must go back to the Elizabethan drama. Yet we accept his story completely as we read it; more than that, it becomes obvious that his violence and his melodrama, when they are not due to a curious peasant-like love of the monstrous for its own sake, are part of that wild spirit of poetry which saw with intense irony and grimness that no reading of life can possibly outdo the strangeness of life itself, no symbol of caprice and unreason be too extreme to represent the astonishing circumstances of our existence.

The mockery of Greeks

After his exposition of the incarnate God, Athanasius refutes “the unbelief of the Jews” from their own scriptures (33-40) and “the mockery of the Greeks” (or Gentiles) from the evident facts of creation and the effects of Christ’s work (41-55).

Refutation of the Gentiles

If the Greeks were “friends of the truth,” Athanasius says, they would see the reasonableness of divine embodiment, but they remain willingly blind. I chose this passage because it contains the most renowned statement in the theological treatise, “For he was incarnate that we might be made god,” which is sometimes translated, “God became man so that man might become god.”

Therefore, just as if someone wishes to see God, who is invisible by nature and not seen at all, understands and knows him from his works, so let one who does not see Christ with his mind learn of him from the works of his body, and test whether they be human or of God. And if they be human, let him mock; but if they are known to be not human, but of God, let him not laugh at things that should not be mocked, but let him rather marvel that through such a paltry thing things divine have been manifested to us, and that through death incorruptibility has come to call, and through the incarnation of the Word the universal providence, and its giver and creator, the very Word of God, have been made known. For he was incarnate that we might be made god; and he manifested himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and he endured the insults of human beings, that we might inherit incorruptibility. He himself was harmed in no way, being impassible and incorruptible and the very Word and God; but he held and preserved in his own impassibility the suffering human beings, on whose account he endured these things. And, in short, the achievements of the Savior, effected by his incarnation, are of such a kind and number that if anyone should wish to expound them all he would be like those who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in all the waves with one’s eyes, since those coming on elude the perception of one who tries, so also one who would comprehend all the achievements of Christ in the body is unable to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, for those that elude his thought are more than he thinks he has grasped. Therefore it is better not to seek to speak of the whole, of which one cannot even speak of a part, but rather to recall one thing, and leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all are equally marvelous, and wherever one looks, seeing there the divinity of the Word, one is struck with exceeding awe (p. 107). 

Particular Question: What does Athanasius mean when he says, “For he was incarnate that we might be made god”? Following this idea, the Eastern church uses the term deification (or theosis) to describe the transformative process of becoming a little Christ. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis puts it this way: “It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as He was when He created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in His power, joy, knowledge, and eternity.” By contrast, the Western church uses the term sanctification to describe this same process. Since word choices matter, is deification a preferable term to sanctification?

Universal Question: According to Athanasius, man will either mock the incarnation of the Word or marvel at it. We live in an age of mockery, and Christians are not immune from this posture. How does Athanasius’ analogy (highlighted above) instruct us to develop “exceeding awe”?

Why ESV is the best available English Bible

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In his First Things essay, “A Bible for Everyone”, literary critic Alan Jacobs argues that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Holy Bible deserves general recognition as the authoritative replacement for the King James Version (KJV). Compared to the alternatives, he claims it is “the best available English Bible” because, like the King James Version, the English Standard Version keeps the union between literary knowledge and biblical scholarship while making needed revisions. Here is the key excerpt:

When King James commissioned his Companies of Translators, the people most thoroughly educated in the various humanistic disciplines were also those most learned in the biblical tongues. The celebrated “poetic” or “literary” qualities of the KJV are a function of this long-lost union. But in the last two centuries the training of biblical scholars in what has come to be called the “grammatical-historical” method has assumed a character alien to the literary and rhetorical education rooted in the schools of the Roman Empire. A model of Christian learning shared”not altogether but to some degree”by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin had virtually disappeared by the end of the eighteenth century.

This happened largely as a result of Protestant theologians’ responses to Catholic charges that they, lacking guidance and correction from a Magisterium, were liable to say pretty much anything about the Bible. The charge stung: What was to prevent this or that Protestant leader from offering a bizarre interpretation of some passage of Scripture and claiming as warrant for it the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? From the need to answer this charge arose the characteristic trait of Protestant biblical scholarship: an obsession with method. Method would be the Protestant scholar’s Magisterium, that is, his or her principle of constraint and limitation; therefore, ultimately, training in biblical exegesis would become training in the kinds of intellectual skills that could be described in methodological terms: grammar, textual history, historical philology, and so on. Sensitivity to metaphorical nuance is perforce not a part of this training; nor is general literary knowledge. Thus C. S. Lewis’ complaint that a scholar whose “literary experiences of [the biblical] texts lack any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general” is not wholly reliable as a guide. “If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor.”

Lewis’ gustatory metaphor is apt here, because he is describing interpretive skills that are really skills (they can be acquired, practiced, and transmitted) but cannot be articulated in methodological terms. Good reading, and therefore good translating, requires discerning judgment, and method can’t produce that. Many biblical scholars, of course, are quite skilled in literary analysis, more than I am; but such skills are not expected of many exegetes-in-training as part of their education.

It is not clear to me how this state of affairs can be remedied. I could lament the “increasing specialization of knowledge,” as many do, but this would be disingenuous, because the specialization of knowledge is a function of the increase of knowledge. We simply know far more today about the Hebrew language and ancient Near Eastern cultures (including their family structures, clothing, diet, agricultural practices, and economic systems) than James’ Companies of Translators could have dreamed of.

I do not suggest, then, that biblical scholars today should skimp such erudition and focus attention instead on memorizing dictionaries of literary and rhetorical terms. What I do want to suggest is that the translators of the ESV have handled this problem about as well as it can be handled, and that their judgment in this regard goes a long way towards making their translation the best now available in English.

The key principle that the ESV’s translation team employed is simple yet profound: deference to existing excellence. It is a principle that was employed by James’ Translators themselves, who graciously acknowledged their enormous debt to their predecessors: “Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavor, that our mark.” The same rule of deference to wise elders guided the late-nineteenth-century scholars who produced the American Standard Version and (English) Revised Version (RV); indeed, the instructions given to the latter group began with this directive: “To introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the Authorized Version consistent with faithfulness.” And similar commitments governed the RSV, whose preface cites the very passage from King James’ Translators I just quoted.

But with more recent translations things have changed, for two reasons. First, it is generally agreed that “King James language” (“thees and thous”) is unsustainable because alien to current usage. But the second, and more important, reason for the abandonment of strongly conservative principles of revision is the rise of a new theory of translation, the aforementioned “dynamic equivalence” or “thought-for-thought” approach, as pioneered by Eugene Nida. My colleague Leland Ryken, who was on the Translation Oversight Committee for the ESV, has provided a fine account of the consequences, largely unpleasant, of the widespread acceptance of dynamic equivalence models of translation: see his recent The Word of God in English (Crossway, 2003). So I will not pursue that matter further here except to note that if you believe that the KJV, RV, RSV, and other older versions were produced by people laboring under a faulty “word-for-word” translation theory, you will see little reason for retaining their work, just as you will see little reason for retaining the metaphors of the original writing, since those metaphors are, in the dynamic-equivalence view, themselves merely vehicles for some unvarnished and unfigurative “thought.”

You will therefore have David die, rather than sleep with his fathers; and if the Lord is your shepherd, rather than say “I shall not want,” you’ll say, “I have everything I need.” And when Jesus addresses those of “little faith,” James’ Translators have him ask, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall He not much more clothe you?” But you will suspect the metaphor of clothing and therefore translate it away, in the process eliminating the oven also and replacing it with a stone-dead cliché: “And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow, won’t he more surely care for you?”

By contrast, the ESV, recognizing the elegant force with which James’ scholars rendered these passages, leaves them virtually unchanged. What is at work here is the humble recognition that our ancestors in the faith may have had certain skills now neglected or forgotten, may have had their palates trained to detect certain flavors that we today cannot distinguish.

Now, from what I have written so far one might conclude that a “revision” of the KJV that left the text unaltered would be ideal. That is sometimes my feeling, but not my considered judgment. Robert Alter has written that the problem with the KJV is its shaky sense of Hebrew, while the problem with more recent versions is their shaky sense of English; but we do not gain by exchanging the latter for the former. (And even the beauty of the KJV is bought at the price of stylistic uniformity.) No, the KJV had to be revised, sometimes drastically; but that is no reason to cast aside what James’ Translators did superlatively well.

It is the ESV’s balance of thorough, up-to-date scholarship and deference to the elders’ wisdom that makes it the best available English Bible. What this means, further, is that the ESV is the best candidate yet for the long-hoped-for “replacement” of the KJV, the translation that bridges denominational gaps and strikes the right balance among the virtues of clarity, correctness, and grace.

Is this a pipe dream? Certainly, impediments are many. Publishers will continue to commission new translations and promote existing ones; “there’s gold in them thar hills,” but churches need not be governed by those imperatives. The divisions of Christendom are more intractable: that the ESV was produced largely by evangelicals would be a red flag for many even if the translation included the Apocrypha, which at the moment it does not. The ESV’s website says that HarperCollins UK “may” produce such a version; but even if it does it is hard to imagine the Catholic Church endorsing a translation produced by non-Catholics.

Still, if official agreement on a truly “standard” English Bible remains unlikely, I believe that readers and lovers of the Bible would do well to seek considerably more agreement than we now have about the Bible that we read. Everyone who grew up with the KJV feels the loss of a shared language, of particular words and phrases that resonated in the common ear, words and phrases whose meanings could be tested, considered, deployed and redeployed in an infinitely varied set of contexts. I think now of all those generations of the English-speaking peoples separating the wheat from the chaff, lying down in green pastures, sometimes being weighed in the balance and found wanting but at other times fighting the good fight; the whole vast array of discourse (much of it richly metaphorical) tells us that it is very difficult to share thoughts when we do not share language. And since Christians are counseled to be of one mind, they should be more attentive to the particular words that shape and form our minds. To have once again a widely shared English Bible, one principal good one, would be a significant step towards that one mind in Christ.