Are fairy stories only for children?

From C. S. Lewis’ essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s Best to Be Said”:

The truth is, as [Professor J. R. R. Tolkien] says, that [fairy tales] are now associated with children because they are out of fashion with adults; have in fact retired to the nursery as old furniture used to retire there, not because the children had begun to like it but because their elders had ceased to like it.

I was therefore writing ‘for children’ only in the sense that I excluded what I thought they would not like or understand; not in the sense of writing what I intended to be below adult attention. I may of course have been deceived, but the principle at least saves one from being patronizing. I never wrote down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then. The inhibitions which I hoped my stories would overcome in a child’s mind may exist in a grown-up’s mind too, and may perhaps be overcome by the same means.

The Fantastic or Mythical is a Mode available at all ages for some readers; for others, at none. At at all ages, if it is well used by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it. I am speaking, of course, about the thing itself, not my own attempts at it.

‘Juveniles,’ indeed! Am I to patronize sleep because children sleep sound? Or honey because children like it?


Is there a decadent path to Christ?

Catholic literary critic Joseph Pearce:

It is perhaps a paradox of Wildean, Baudelairean or even Chestertonian proportions that the road to hell can sometimes lead to heaven. Had not Baudelaire proclaimed that only Catholics knew the devil? Baudelaire knew, more painfully and grotesquely than most, that we must know our sins in order to know ourselves. One who does not know that he is a sinner does not know himself, nor does he know the God who made him. We must know the hell within ourselves, and the Hell to which it owes allegiance, before we can know the heaven that is promised us. This “discovery” was hardly an original innovation of the French or English Decadents. Six centuries earlier, Dante had discovered the same perennial truth, conveying it with unsurpassed genius in his descent into the inferno en route to Purgatory and paradise.

If it is true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it is also true that the road to heaven is sometimes paved with bad ones. Our very sins, if we repent, can be our teachers and guides. In recollecting our sins, and in recoiling from their consequences, we can be kept on the narrow path that leads purgatorially upward toward paradise. Thus the scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites, imagining themselves on the path to heaven, might be heading for an unpleasant surprise, where the publicans and sinners, learning from their mistakes and amending their ways, might reach the Kingdom to which Christ has called them. [1]


These three pillars of the French Decadence [Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, J. K. Huysmans] exerted a towering influence on the English Decadent movement, whose chief champion was the seductively seditious and self-destructive Oscar Wilde. Gathering around Wilde were a group of acolytes, his Decade disciples. These included the poets Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson and John Gray, and the artist Aubrey Beardsley. Dowson, Johnson and Beardsley were all doomed to die young; but not, however, before each of them had embraced the Catholic faith. John Gray, having allegedly been the model for Wilde’s “Dorian Gray,” became a Catholic priest, serving his parish in Edinburgh until his death in 1933. As for Wilde himself, he was received into the saving embrace of Holy Mother Church on his deathbed. Thus the father of French Decadence [Baudelaire] and the father of its English equivalent shared a reconciliation with the Bride of Christ in extremis. One imagines that Dante, their great precursor, would have smiled with knowing benignity at the divine symmetry of the happy ending. The final words do not belong to Dante, however, nor do they belong to Baudelaire or Wilde; they belong to their fellow Decadent Ernest Dowson, who wrote with beauty and eloquence about the saving power of the Last Rites of the Church in his poem “Extreme Unction“:

The feet, that lately ran so fast
To meet desire, are soothly sealed;
The eyes, that were so often cast
On vanity, are touched and healed. [2]

[1] Joseph Pearce, “The Decadent Path to Christ,” in Catholic Literary Giants: A Field Guide to the Catholic Literary Landscape (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 335.

[2] Pearce, 336-37.

A luminous body blazing with the fire of love


Craig Aitchison, Crucifixion (2008)

Thanks to Sister Wendy Beckett’s devotional book, The Art of Lent, which pairs words and images for each day of the Lent season, I was introduced to the Scottish painter Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009). Here is a biography on him from the National Galleries Scotland:

Craigie Aitchison was born in Kincardie-on-Forth, and grew up in Dunbartonshire and on the Island of Arran. He studied law but later turned to art, attending the Slade School of Fine Art in London. His paintings are renowned for their sparse but balanced composition and for the use of intense, pure and flatly-applied colour. After visiting Italy in 1955, Aitchison was inspired by the landscape and religious art but most profoundly affected by the light, which influenced him to begin producing his signature richly-coloured paintings. Aitchison’s subject matter was traditional – still lifes, portraiture and landscape, though he was particularly associated with religious paintings. His depictions of the Crucifixion form a major part of his artistic output and have a timeless and poetic quality.

Here is Sister Wendy’s meditation on the painting she chose for Good Friday:

In art, there are few crucifixions that stress the inner truth of Jesus’ death: that Christ accepted with enormous happiness that he had accomplished all that his Father willed.

Shortly before his death, Craigie Aitchison painted this extraordinary crucifixion. The world has been reduced to absolutes, in which only nature is innocent. The earth has become desert, and yet Jesus draws new life, the scarlet of a poppy. The very presence of the cross has created a strip of living green against which we can make out Aitchison’s beloved Bedlington dog. But above the land soars Christ on the cross, a luminous body blazing with the fire of love. His features are consumed in the intensity of his passionate sacrifice. Over his head hovers the skeletal outline of the Holy Spirit. There are stars in the sky catching fire from the fire of Jesus, and we see the great curve of the rainbow, a sign of God’s covenant with humankind. Aitchison is showing us not what the crucifixion looked like, but what it truly meant.

Thomas Hardy, “The Distracted Preacher”

Embury__Philip.jpgMelville House has an attractive series called “The Art of the Novella.” Since time is limited at the end of the academic year, I opted for Thomas Hardy’s novella, The Distracted Preacher. Besides my fondness for the author, the title alone got my attention. Naturally, I wanted to know why the preacher is distracted. I should have guessed the answer because it is a temptation common to man. Here is the publisher’s description:

From the master of Victorian tragedy, the surprisingly comic adventures of a man caught between romance and religion. When young Mr. Stockdale arrives in a small village to fill in for the Methodist minister, he finds himself pining for his comely new landlady. But she leads a mysterious life, keeping odd hours and speaking in hushed tones. As his love for her grows, he’s soon at the center of a hilarious high-stakes adventure, complete with slapstick, hijinks, and a marauding band of cross-dressers. And he’s forced to choose: follow his heart or his higher purpose?

The Distracted Preacher turns a propositional truth of Jesus — “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:15-22) — into an entertaining and educational story. Mr. Stockdale’s landlady, Lizzy Newberry, participates in her town’s smuggling operation of liquor. By hiding and selling the contraband, she fails to render to the King the things that are the King’s, as her love-struck tenant entreats after a nocturnal adventure:

“Lizzy, all this is very wrong,” he said. “Don’t you remember the lesson of the tribute-money? — ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’ Surely you have heard that read times enough in your growing up?”

“He’s dead,” she pouted.

“But the spirit of the text is in force just the same.”

“My father did it, and so did my grandfather, and almost everybody in Nether-Moynton lives by it; and life would be so dull if it wasn’t for that, that I should not care to live at all.”

“I am nothing to live for, of course,” he replied, bitterly. “You would not think it worth while to give up this wild business and live for me alone?”

This passage fascinates me because it reveals a double gesture characteristic in Hardy’s writing: he invokes Christian morality only to (partially) subvert it, not only in Mrs. Newberry’s atheist pronouncement about the Son of God’s death, whose words were quoted to her as if they had authority, but also in the minister’s weak-kneed qualification that a divine aura still lingers in the Bible. Even worse, Mr. Stockdale invites his beloved into idolatry, begging Lizzy to give up “this wild business and live for [him] alone,” with emphasis on the word “alone.” As a minister, his vocation obliges him to implore the sinner to repent for the sake of God alone.

Clearly, the preacher is more than distracted. That adjective is a euphemism, concealing his spiritual crisis. He is at risk of damnation if romantic aspiration leads him to become Lizzy’s partner in crime. Notice, in his appeal to scriptural authority, he left off the second half of Jesus’ teaching about rendering to God the things that are God’s; it is the most important half because everything — from liquor to love — belongs to God. Was this omission a lapse of memory or a deliberate alteration of the text?

If Mrs. Newsberry must render liquor to the king’s men, who sniff every corner of her village for the contraband, then Mr. Stockdale must render his smitten heart to God, a sacrifice that is far more costly. To his credit, he makes the needful sacrifice, pursuing his religion over romance. Ultimately, however, his loss of love is found again because of providential generosity, which comports with another teaching of Jesus: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). For an agnostic author typically given to pessimistic fatalism, this conclusion ironically imitates the generosity of his Maker. 

Jane Austen, the philosopher

Since my twin loves are ideas and stories, I am pleased that Oxford University Press has a series called “Oxford Studies in Philosophy and Literature,” which currently features volumes on such works as the Oedipus plays of Sophocles, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. 

E. M. Dadlez, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma, edited the volume, Jane Austen’s Emma: Philosophical Perspectives (2018).In her introduction, she confronts difficulties “some critics have in looking to Austen’s novels for deeper insights or in regarding them as contenders for canonization.” One “difficulty involves what Austen doesn’t choose to write about, rather than what she does decide to take up. Thus, some charges of conventionality and parochialism stem from what Austen has left out.” Dadlez gives several responses to this difficulty. Here are two perceptive excerpts:

Emma is a revolutionary work in other respects as well. We are, after all, given a heroine who is emphatically not as good as she is beautiful: a protagonist with flaws, whose mistakes largely dictate the trajectory of the plot. Austen’s female characters are notable for speaking truth to power and for demonstrating the courage of their convictions. But only Emma can continue to engage us despite errors and overconfidence. That is, Emma is also unusual in that it presents a female character with flaws more commonly considered masculine: boldness, overconfidence, taking charge of others’ lives. Hubris. And Austen’s acerbic reflections on the economic and social limitations to which women were subjected in the early nineteenth century are given more voice in Emma than in any of her other novels.


The very fact that Austen is a comic writer might be enough in some quarters to be thought to deprive her work of any prospect of profundity. All of Austen’s novels are, after all, comic novels to one degree or another. If this were indeed a philosophical liability, the case would be closed. But there is nothing to say that comedy cannot be as great a source of insight or philosophical fodder for reflection as a tragedy would be, or, indeed, as would be any other work indulging more directly in the depiction of sweeping issues of rights or justice or the plight of humanity at large. . . . [C]omedy and tragedy employ remarkably similar tactics both in presenting their subject matter and in arousing characteristic emotional reactions to that subject matter. Both, that is, rely on eliciting reactions to incongruity or reversal of expectations. Tragedy arouses, so Aristotle would tell us, a catharsis of pity and fear, while comedy arouses amusement. Each reaction involves or arises from a kind of clarification. That is, each depends on recognition or discovery – the type of realization allowing one to understand a tragic misapprehension or, alternatively, to “get” a joke. Aristotle’s description of recognition and discovery – the revelation of the causal process that made the outcome inevitable – is not unlike the revelation of meaning in irony or satire, in which what is said is often the opposite of what is meant. Here there is realization of the intended rather than the literal meaning.

I applaud Dadlez’ conclusion:

Austen’s small stage proves a positive advantage for certain kinds of philosophical explorations, rather than a liability. It is the very narrowness of Austen’s scope, her relentless focus on the everyday experiences of ordinary quite familiar people, that provides a spotlight on all the minutia of motive and decision and self-deception which so often supply material for philosophical speculation. It is the smaller arena that permits one to observe and track the consequence of particular choices, and it is the smaller population that enables one to observe relationships: their tensions and reciprocities and values. A description of a picnic can afford as many insights into human nature or the human condition as depictions of political upheaval; it will just do with less fanfare and fewer corpses.

Murder in the Cathedral

When I was teaching The Canterbury Tales to my students this year, I became absorbed with the destination of the pilgrims, as recorded in the opening lines of “The General Prologue:”

Then folks, too, long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers hope to seek there, on the strange strands,
Those far-off shrines well known in many lands;
And especially, from every shire’s end
Of England, to Canterbury they wend;
The holy, blessed martyr they all seek,
Who has helped them when they were sick and weak.

This “holy, blessed martyr” refers to Saint Thomas Becket, who was killed by Henry II’s henchman on December 29, 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. The setting of his martyrdom became England’s premier pilgrimage site in the Middle Age.

Murder in the CathedralTo remedy my ignorance about Thomas Becket, I watched the 1964 movie, “Becket,” featuring Peter O’Toole as the King and Richard Burton as the Archbishop; it was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won for Best Adapted Screenplay. I also read the 1963 drama, Murder in the Cathedral, by T. S. Eliot, which is his most accomplished work as a playwright, offering a “poetically masterful handing of issues of faith, politics, and the common good.” Once I completed the drama, I thought it could just as easily share the title with Willa Cather’s 1927 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. 

The play consists of two parts with an interlude. The scene for Part I is the Archbishop’s Hall on December 2, 1170, marking his return to England after a seven-year exile in France due to strife with the King. The scene for the Interlude is the Cathedral on Christmas morning in 1170 when the Archbishop preaches a sermon on martyrdom. The scene for Part II is also the Cathedral on December 29, 1170, the fateful day when the Archbishop was slain.

I throughly enjoyed this drama, especially Part I which employs brilliant “intertextuality” with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). The Christlike Archbishop faces his tempters, resisting them each time with a faithful and emphatic “No!” Here are salient passages for me.


Chorus: Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen:
I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.
Destiny waits in the hand of God; not in the hands of statesman
Who do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing,
Having their aims which turn in their hands in the pattern of time.
Come, happy December, who shall observe you, who shall preserve you?
Shall the Son of Man be born again in the litter of scorn?
For us, the poor, there is no action,
But only to wait and to witness.


Chorus: I see nothing quite conclusive in the art of temporal government,
But violence, duplicity and frequent malversation.
King rules or barons rule:
The strong man strongly and the weak man by caprice.
They have but one law, to seize the power and keep it,
And the steadfast can manipulate the greed and lust of others,
The feeble is devoured by his own.


Tempter: Real power is purchased at price of a certain submission.
Your spiritual power is earthly perdition.
Power is present, for him who will wield.


Thomas: Those who put their faith in worldly order
Not controlled by the order of God,
In confident ignorance, but arrest disorder,
Make it fast, breed fatal disease,
Degrade what they exalt.


Thomas: Sin grows with doing good. […]
While I ate out of the King’s dish
To become the servant of God was never my wish.
Servant of God has chance of greater sin
And sorrow, than the man who serves a king.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
Still doing right: and striving with political men
May make that cause political, not by what they do
But by what they are.


Thomas: We celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overborne by mourning, or mourning will be cast out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason.


Thomas: A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.


Second Priest: What day is the day that we know that we hope for or fear for?
Every day is the day we should fear from or hope from.
One moment
Weighs like another. Only in retrospection, selection,
We say, that was the day. The critical moment
That is always now, and here. Even now, in sordid particulars
The eternal design may appear.


Chorus: Human kind cannot bear very much reality.


Thomas: All my life they have been coming, these feet. All my life
I have waited. Death will come only when I am worthy,
And if I am worthy, there is no danger.
I have therefore only to make perfect my will.


Thomas: I have had a tremour of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper,
And I would no longer be denied; all things
Proceed to a joyful consummation.


Thomas: Dead upon the tree, my Saviour,
Let not be in vain Thy labour;
Help me, Lord, in my last fear.

Dust I am, to dust am bending,
From the final doom impending
Help me, Lord, for death is near.


Third Priest: For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee, all things exist only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light.

“Pietà” by R. S. Thomas


Pietà of Tubądzin (circa 1450)

When I read Jay Parini’s excellent biography, Robert Frost: A Life, he included this unforgettable quotation by Frost:

It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound, that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly. It has not to wait the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but that we knew at sight that we never could forget it. There was a barb to it and a toxin that we owned at once.

As soon as I read “Pietà” from the Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, I took “an immortal wound, that [I] will never get over.”


Always the same hills
Crowd the horizon,
Remote witnesses
Of the still scene.

And in the foreground
The tall Cross,
Sombre, untenanted,
Aches for the Body
That is back in the cradle
Of a maid’s arms.

Thomas has lodged this poem inside me to stay. In a single indelible moment, he captures the entire purpose of the Incarnation, bringing together the cradle of Advent and the cross of Lent: Jesus was born to die, and all creation witnessed the Christ-event but none more affectionately and agonizingly than his mother. Mary was the cradle at the birth and death of her son. Cosmic harmony is at work as the wooden cross “aches for the Body” of the woodworker: his crucifixion begins to liberate creation, which “has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:22).

Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman

Where he probably goes wrong, mused the engineer sleepily,
is in the extremity of his alternatives: God and not-God,
getting under women’s dresses and blowing your brains out.
Whereas and in fact my problem is how to live from one
ordinary minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.
Has this not been the case with all “religious” people?

As one of our nation’s greatest satirists, “[Walker] Percy is a writer with a message, concerned to convey a vision,” claims scholar Ralph C. Wood in The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. “His fiction makes a withering critique of what is spiritually inane about contemporary American life, even as it also hints at a way beyond our current malaise. Yet Percy remains an artist rather than a preacher. His Catholic existentialism is couched in literary terms that appeal to the imagination more than the will. Though Percy may seek to revolutionize our way of seeing, he leaves to the church the task of proclaiming and enacting the Gospel of the world’s salvation.”

Having previously read The Moviegoer (1962), a winner of the National Book Award, I desire to further explore his fiction, even though “Walker Percy is kinda like an IPA (India Pale Ale) — an acquired taste,” as my friend Bryce quips. We are undertaking two novels that are connected by the same protagonist.

The Last Gentleman (1966)
Will Barrett is the last gentleman, a twenty-five year old wanderer from the South living in New York City with no plans for the future and detached from his past. The purchase of a telescope one summer day changes his life — for while searching for an elusive peregrine falcon in Central Park, Will accidentally spots a beautiful young woman and falls in love with her. And so begins his quest for home, identity, and the meaning of contemporary life.

The Second Coming (1980)
Will Barrett, a lonely widower, suffers from a depression so severe that he decides he doesn’t want to continue living. But then he meets Allison, a mental hospital escapee making a new life for herself, living alone in a greenhouse. What follows is by turns touching and zany, tragic and comic, as Will goes in search of proof of God and winds up finding much more.

For The Last Gentleman, I formulated questions for each chapter that are designed to provoke contemplation and conversation. Lacking chapter titles, I wrote my own within brackets below, focusing on the important locales in the story with the exception of the third chapter, which narrates Will Barrett’s transportation from the North to the South. I am intrigued that the hero’s story begins in a park and ends in a desert, as if it is a microcosm of the biblical story about our human parents, who, suddenly thrown out of a garden and into the wilderness, gained “the possibility of a happy, useful life” through “astonishment” at their true condition (385, 389).

Last GentlemanChapter 1 [Central Park]

With a background of Princeton University and the U.S. Army, Will Barrett is a Southern misfit in New York City, who rents a room at the Y.M.C.A., works as a humidification engineer at Macy’s, serves as “a companion to lonely and unhappy adolescents” (19), and regularly visits a psychoanalyst, who thinks he suffers from an “identity crisis” (39).

Particular: Will Barrett spends his inheritance money on a costly telescope. From his vigil in Central Park, he watches the world through “the brilliant theater of its lenses” (5). The narrator says: “Often nowadays people do not know what to do and so live out their lives as if they were waiting for some sign or other” (6). If Will uses the telescope to wait for some sign, how would he know if what he sees is truly a sign?

Universal: What is the relationship between existential disorientation and signs?

To explore this question, consider the following:

  • The etymological origin of sign comes from a Latin word that means “mark” or “token.”
  • The primary denotation of sign is “an object, quality, or event whose presence or occurrence indicates the probable presence or occurrence of something else.”
  • Before Jesus heals an official’s son, he says to the father: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:46-54). Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and Sadducees who demand signs: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 16:1-4). On his second coming, Jesus warns his disciples: “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:23-24).

Chapter 2 [Hospital]

After the “chance event” of sighting of a girl through his telescope and falling in love, Will follows her companion to a hospital, where he meets the Vaught family, who will change the rest of his life (3, 7).

Particular: Will Barrett suffers from a “nervous condition” with symptoms that include bouts of déjà vu, “spells of amnesia,” and occasional lapses into fugue states (11-12). What does this nervous condition reveal about his spiritual predicament, and how does it affect his vision of the world? Consider specific examples, such as the hallucination at Nedick’s corner (44-46), the three-month hospitalization for amnesia (56-57), the blackout on the subway ride with Kitty (68-74), the wrong train from Pennsylvania Station (89-91), or the déjà vu of summertime in Central Park (98-101).

Universal: How are body, mind, and spirit related? Do some people feign sickness for the sake of receiving love and attention?

Chapter 3 [Trav-L-Aire]

This chapter records Will Barrett’s adventure on the road from New York City to the Golden Isles of Georgia, where he further enmeshes himself in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Vaught, their children, Kitty and Jamie, and their daughter-in-law, Rita.

Particular: Will has two salient exchanges with Kitty about love, one on “Folly Beach in old Carolina in the moonlight” (164-168) and the other in the camper during a storm (174-180). Kitty awakens Will to the various roles he may play in their relationship: “boyfriend and girlfriend, lover and father” (167); fornicator to a whore (178-179), gentleman to a lady (179-180). How do these roles induce a “values crisis” for Will (135-136)?

Universal: What roles are fitting and ill-fitting to romantic love?

Chapter 4 [Castle]

Having returned to his native South, as a companion and tutor to the infirm Jamie, Will Barrett resides with the Vaughts at their “castle fronting on a golf links” (189).

Particular: Early in the novel, we are told about an “alarming symptom” of Will: “He felt bad when other people felt good and good when they felt bad” (22). While this symptom appears in various places (46, 174), it is nowhere more obvious than when this Southerner returns to the South:

The South he came home to was different from the South he had left. It was happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic and Republican.

The happiness and serenity of the South disconcerted him. He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt so bad. True, there was a happiness in the North. That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied that he was unhappy. And certainly the North was victorious. It had never lost a war. But Northerners had turned morose in their victory. They were solitary and shut-off to themselves and he, the engineer, had got used to living among them. Their cities, rich and busy as they were, nevertheless looked bombed out. And his own happiness had come from being onto the unhappiness beneath their happiness. It was possible for him to be at home in the North because the North was homeless. There are many things worse than being homeless in a homeless place — in fact, this is one condition of being at home, if you are yourself homeless. For example, it is much worse to be homeless and then go home where everyone is at home and then still be homeless. The South was at home. Therefore his homelessness was much worse in the South because he had expected to find himself at home there. (185-186)

How much of Will’s unhappiness is related to dislocation?

Universal: What does it mean for a person to be “at home”?

Chapter 5 [Guest Ranch]

Leaving Kitty behind with the promise of marriage, Will Barrett travels through the South to the desert of northern New Mexico in order to fulfill his pledge to take care of Jamie, who has joined his dissolute brother, Sutter.

This final chapter offers the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional dividend after a somewhat tedious investment throughout the novel. Until this chapter, I questioned whether I even liked The Last Gentleman. It seemed to be the story of a nobody going nowhere. Will’s epiphany in the desert is deeply gratifying because the reader waits and waits for an epiphany, assuming it will never come. And then it does — unexpectedly, movingly. Just when I doubted the coherence of the story, the last chapter pulls everything together, which not only reflects the author’s design but, on a larger scale, providential care through the confused details of our lives. When the Catholic priest holds Jamie’s hand on his deathbed, he promises him that he will be with “our Blessed Lord and Savior” and “Our Lady,” petitioning him: “Then I ask you to pray to them for me and for your brother here and for your friend who loves you.” At this point, I cried with an immediate realization about the story’s hero: Will Barrett only recovers his health by loving a diseased and dying boy. Love heals.

I have two main inquiries. Here is the first.

Particular: Death haunts this chapter in a skull on the armoire of the Barrett family house (343-344), in raptures about suicide in Sutter’s notebook (344-346, 372-373), in the sick body of Jamie (362), and in “Sutter’s antics with the pistol” (387). Mindful that the story ends with the sacrament of baptism, a symbolic action of death and life (Romans 6:3-5), how does Sutter’s claim in his notebook — “the certain availability of death is the very condition of recovering oneself” (372) — apply to Jamie, Will, and Sutter?

Universal: How is death — not fornication — “the sole channel to the real” (372)?

Here is the second inquiry.

Particular: The novel begins with Will Barrett picking up a telescope and ends with him putting it down.

Dark fell suddenly and the stars came out. They drew in and in half an hour hung as large and low as yellow lamps at a garden party. Suddenly remembering his telescope, he fetched it from the cabin and clamped it to the door of the cab like a malt tray. Now spying the square of Pegasus, he focused on a smudge in the tail and there it was, the great cold fire of Andromeda, as big as a Catherine wheel, as slow and silent in its turning, stopped as tumult seen from far away. He shivered. I’m through with telescopes, he thought, and the vasty galaxies. What do I need with Andromeda? What I need is my Bama bride and my cozy camper, a match struck and the butane lit and a friendly square of light cast upon the neighbor earth, and a hot cup of Luzianne between us against the desert cold, and a warm bed and there lie dreaming in one another’s arms while old Andromeda leans through the night. (357-358)

Once lost in the cosmos but now found in the desert, Will retires his telescope because, it seems, he no longer waits for a sign, which, ironically, puts him in the same company as Sutter (377-378). Remembering that his analyst suggests the telescope could be “the magical means” for becoming a “seer” or “see-er,” how might we interpret Will’s decisive action (37)?

Universal: Should we wait for a sign?


At the end of the novel, I returned to the beginning again, which includes two epigraphs that provoke more questions.

If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.
— Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Questions: How is self-forgetfulness related to human dignity? Will Barrett involuntarily forgets himself because of his amnesia and fugue states, but does he learn to voluntarily forget himself? If so, when? And what is significant about those circumstances?

. . . We know now that the modern world is coming to an end . . . at the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap the benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies . . . Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another . . . the world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean.
— Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World

Questions: How is The Last Gentleman a story about the “love which flows from one lonely person to another”?


Habits of gentle selfishness

Literary critic John Sutherland informs me that Pride and Prejudice is to the United States what Emma is to Great Britain: the most widely read novel by Jane Austen. I am undertaking Emma for the first time with my students.

Austen’s psychological and moral acumen impressed itself upon me when I read a description of Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse. In the first chapter of Volume 1, father and daughter alike grieve the departure of Miss Taylor, the governess of Hartfield who has now married.

It was a melancholy change; and Emma could not but sigh over it and wish for impossible things, till her father awoke, and made it necessary to be cheerful. His spirits required support. He was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind. Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable; and he was by no means yet reconciled to his own daughter’s marrying nor could ever speak of her but with compassion, though it had been entirely a match of affection, when he was now obliged to part with Miss Taylor too; and from his habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself, he was very much disposed to think Miss Taylor had done as sad a thing for herself as for them, and would have been a great deal happier if she had spent all the rest of her life at Hartfield. [emphasis mine]

In the second chapter, there is further elaboration on Mr. Woodhouse:

There was no recovering Miss Taylor—nor much likelihood of ceasing to pity her: but a few weeks brought some alleviation to Mr. Woodhouse. The compliments of his neighbours were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all eat up. His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different from himself. What was unwholesome to him, he regarded as unfit for any body; and he had, therefore, earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all, and when that proved vain, as earnestly tried to prevent any body’s eating it. [emphasis mine]

While Mr. Woodhouse does not satisfy the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the narrator characterizes him as a soft narcissist, which should cause some unease for the reader. As a postlapsarian creature, I plead guilty to those “habits of gentle selfishness” that turn me inward, failing to “suppose that other people could feel differently from [myself].” What is “unwholesome” to me, I tend to regard as “unfit for any body.”

Narcissism rears its ugly head in subtle ways. Mr. Woodhouse has trouble rejoicing in the matrimonial joy of Miss Taylor because he loathes a disturbance of custom. He also steals the pleasure of eating wedding-cake because his own fragile stomach refuses sweets. Austen tries to disabuse the self-congratulatory reader who imagines himself free of centripetal impulses, which she names “gentle selfishness”—gentle because the habits usually go undetected by others, causing negligible harm. If I halfheartedly pray for the anniversary of a couple in church because I do not share in the covenant of marriage or I pooh-pooh friends who listen to the jazz genre of bebop because it grates on my ears, I am no different than Mr. Woodhouse.

Austen teaches me that soft narcissism develops from thoughtless habit more than conscientious decision, and involves a failure to distinguish the self from external objects. In light of this, it is no wonder why Jesus instructs his followers, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31), since we already love ourselves exorbitantly, and the apostle Paul commands, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Lord, forgive my gentle selfishness.

Death comes for Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver, “a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose work, with its plain language and minute attention to the natural world,” has died, as reported in the New York Times obituary. Like all gifted poets, Oliver was an apprentice in attention, famously saying: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” While critics did not always appreciate her poetry, perhaps owing to its popularity among readers, writer Ruth Franklin says: “Mary Oliver isn’t a difficult poet. Her work is incredibly accessible, and I think that’s what makes her so beloved by so many people. It doesn’t feel like you have to take a seminar in order to understand Mary Oliver’s poetry. She’s speaking directly to you as a human being.” Franklin adds, “The way she writes these poems that feel like prayers, she channels the voice of somebody who it seems might possibly have access to God. I think her work does give a sense of someone who is in tune with the deepest mysteries of the universe.”

Here are two lovely poems, both read by Mary Oliver.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In her poem, “When Death Comes,” Oliver writes her own obituary of sorts, expressing how she wishes to be remembered:

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.