The Words of Others:
From Quotations to Culture
by Gary Saul Morson
Yale, 352 pages, $30
Perhaps it was as a diversion from writing books on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that the author, a professor of Slavic languages at Northwestern, decided to write on the shortest of literary genres, the quotation. Nearly every page treats the reader to little-known facts about familiar phrases. Who knew, for example, that John F. Kennedy’s most famous line (“Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”) was cribbed from Kahlil Gibran, who may have borrowed it from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.?
But Morson’s primary aim is not to dispense trivia. Nor is it to distinguish quotations from citations, aphorisms, proverbs, sayings, and the like. Rather, it is to make the case for a serious consideration of the myriad ways in which quotation forms the basis of culture.
Despite overreaching at times—is it really true that “everything people do is quotable”?—his analysis of sundry maxims and “verbal museums” like Bartlett’s supports the claim that quoting is a quintessentially human proclivity: “Can one even think without the words of others?” No, he suspects, noting that collections of quotations may be as old as writing itself. Like Montaigne, he rejects the notion that quoting signals a surrender of creativity or individuality.
While recognizing the dangers of extracting lines from their context, Morson says that we should not feel guilty about indulging an “aesthetic of separability.” Many works are consciously designed to accommodate “selective” reading, and most readers over the centuries have experienced the Bible in just this way (including Jesus, who frequently quoted Scripture—even as he hung on the cross).
The author’s only ax to grind is with those intent on exposing misquotations and spurious attributions as an end in itself, who suppose that matters are simpler than they usually are and overlook the insights into the way we think and communicate that even such “mistakes” in transmission afford. If “we are what we quote,” then Morson has his sights set on something higher than basic cultural literacy; he wants to help his readers heed the Delphic admonition, “know thyself.”
—Patrick Gray teaches
theology at Rhodes College
in Memphis, Tennessee.
Lines of Flight
by Catherine Chandler
Able Muse Press, 98 pages, $15.95
Catherine Chandler, a deft hand at ballades, pantoums, villanelles, even sapphics, and an uncanny adept at the sonnet (she is the winner of the 2011 Nemerov Award) is a poet whose expert attention appears to apply itself to just about everything on the poetic scale from giant themes to minute structural niceties.
Take, for example, her treatment of nature. Unless a poet is willing to reach for a metaphor of startling brilliance, it is a notoriously difficult subject. Yet in “Caesura,” she manages something memorable. Fall becomes the time
when maples, marigolds and pumpkins vie
for orange jurisdiction
Gutsy, not hysterical or outré, like so many postmodern tropes.
The sensibility at work in Lines of Flight can morph from the brutally honest to the refined and back again for a mordant closing joke. In “Fatuity,” the speaker carries on a silent monologue in the supermarket check-out line, imagining what might best be said to the slim woman she fears is judging her (and finding her wanting) for the junk food piled in the speaker’s cart:
. . . Before I wheeled my week’s supply
of relish out into the parking lot,
I whispered, Lady, this is all I’ve got.
Just so: the justification of “a lifetime lean/and hard”—if only the censorious woman had looked on her “with the scanner’s unassuming eye.” Note the puns on “relish” and “unassuming.”
The book is (only slightly) marred by a few pieces in the reflexively tsk-tsking, “America the arrogant empire” mode, like “Ruins” and “Bottom of the Ninth” (where the speaker is “So sure our Yankees couldn’t lose”—get it?). If American literary culture could agree to a one-year moratorium on this Tourette Syndrome-like tendency, Chandler’s brief succumbing would soon be forgotten and forgiven, for her work is fresh and formidable.
—Len Krisak is an American poet.
Conversation of Faith and Reason:
Modern Catholic Thought from Hermes to Benedict XVI
by Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Liturgy Training Publications, 222 pages, $23
Since the apostolic age, the question of the relation of faith and reason has exercised many talented theologians, from Justin Martyr to Karol Wojtyla. In Conversation of Faith and Reason: Modern Catholic Thought from Hermes to Benedict XVI, the English Dominican Aidan Nichols argues that the “most satisfying” of modern approaches to the question is the one set out by the French Thomist Etienne Gilson in his famous Gifford (1930–31) and Richards (1938) lectures. There, he applied a Chalcedonian solution to the problem.
Nichols explains Gilson’s insight: “As with the two natures of the Word Incarnate according to the Christology of Chalcedon, two wisdoms—sacred doctrine and the philosophy of being—collaborate intimately but without confusion.” He notes that in subsequent years Gilson’s approach attracted a number of high-profile adherents, including Joseph Ratzinger, who, over the long course of his theological and now magisterial service, has relied consistently on the “Gilsonian paradigm” when explaining the relation of faith and reason.
How did fifth-century Christology come to shape twentieth-century apologetics? This is the principal question Nichols answers in Conversation.
On his account, the Gilsonian paradigm blossomed as a fruit of the Magisterium’s solicitude for preserving and promoting the philosophical realism of the Christian intellectual tradition. After Popes Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII corrected the Kantianism and Hegelianism of some early-nineteenth century Catholic intellectuals—namely Georg Hermes and Anton Günther—a tradition-oriented ethos developed in which Catholic thinkers, by and large, resisted the temptations of modernity and instead harvested the wisdom rooted in ancient and medieval sources.
It was the ecclesial call ad fontes, Nichols argues, that gave birth to Christian authors such as Gilson, Maurice Blondel, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and finally Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.
—Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., writes from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.
Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation,
and the Future of Protestant Theology
by Matthew Boulton
Eerdmans, 242 pages, $28
Matthew Boulton’s new book, Life in God, serves as a healthy reminder of Calvin’s emphasis on Christian formation within his broader reforming project, not merely defending the true gospel, but making disciples of that gospel as well. Calvin tried to implement concrete practices to advance formation, such as weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper, congregational psalm singing, and a daily prayer cycle patterned after the divine office. In effect, claims Boulton, he did not do away with the monastic lifestyle; he simply democratized the monastery to include “the whole city . . . [and] each disciple’s whole life.”
Boulton, the president of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, spends the bulk of his book “rereading” the Institutes with a focus on the practical dimensions of Calvin’s theology. He argues that, for Calvin, all theological knowledge has the “practical telos” of “whole human lives of genuine pietas, which is to say, whole human lives of vibrant, graceful relationship with God.”
While there is some truth to this, he certainly goes beyond Calvin when he addresses contemporary Protestant theology and claims that “Christian doctrine should be conceived, delimited, and developed on behalf of the church’s formation program.” Calvin would not have wanted the church’s “formation program” to be the norma normans of Christian theology.
Boulton believes a practically-oriented understanding of God’s providence, for example, would avoid explaining each instance of suffering strictly as divine padeia. But isn’t this simply bad theology?
In general, I wondered about Boulton’s emphasis on the “practical”: If proper theology and proper Christian formation go hand-in-hand, which “speculative” (rather than strictly “practical”) theologian would disagree?
— Charles Raith II is a lecturer in Great Texts at Baylor University.