Nature is terrifying. Aesthetic distance from dread of it increases only in proportion to our mastery over it. Shelter from it frees us to make art of our aesthetic promptings, so easily confused with a spiritual consciousness.
It is snowing as I type this. Icicles two and three feet long hang from the gutters. A struggling andromeda outside the front door is bent in two by the weight of ice. My long curving, uphill driveway, treacherous in bad weather, is impassable. No oil truck could make a delivery if my tanks were low; no EMS, if needed, could get to the door. I am snowbound. Still, I am blessed with a stocked refrigerator and a working generator to keep heat on and lamps lit if a tree limb falls on a power line.
Watching it fall, I am reminded how much the beauty of snow my perception of itowes to central heating. Put another way, it is the saving fact of my lovely boiler, the electricity that keeps it going, and the indwelling charm of steam radiators that permits me to look out my double-paned window and take aesthetic pleasure in what Longfellow called the “poem of the air.”
The arts of the engineer partake as fully in the creative intelligence as any other.
Those misled by romantic poetry or far gone in devotion to pathetic fallaciesMother Nature, the bosom of Mother Earth, our weeping planetdote on what they insist is the intrinsic beauty of nature. A kind of demonology arises around sceptical demurral from that faith in inherency. Dissidents suffer the predictable brickbats: Materialist! Utilitarian! Shallow pragmatist! There is just no arguing with cultists. The most you can do is wish on them a sustained, possibly curative, power outage in freezing weather.
Burst pipes, numb fingers and toes, and the threat of hypothermia have a way of depressing the altitude of lyric flights. Remove the interior reverie of a well-housed, sherpa-lined and Gore-Texed admirer from the view, and what we see is a relentless, lethal threat to life.
A few winters back, two frail, elderly townspeople here froze to death outside their own doors on a snowy day like this.
One lived alone. She had ducked outside briefly for a quick choreto scatter crackers to birds? take out garbage?without bothering with boots or coat. Whatever the reason, it was supposed to have taken only taken a few seconds. But, without thinking, she locked herself out. She could not get back in; neither could she get herself through the snow to a neighboring house with anyone home. It was a week day. Neighbors were at work. No one nearby was around to hear her calls for help.
The second woman was the sole caretaker of her older, bedridden sister. She had stepped out the back door, slipped on icy stairs, and fell into snowdrifts. She could not get up. The sister, asleep in a room on the other side of the house, never heard any cries.
The snow fell as indifferently on both doomed women as it does on the Alaskan cedars and Douglas firs outside my window. To anyone watching unawares, it looked lovely coming down. To the two women trapped under itmetabolic heat draining out of them each crystal flake was a cinder from a frigid hell. Far from the warming light of the Good.
We have art, Nietzsche wrote, so that we will not be destroyed by the truth. But his aphorism, too, was a piece of art. We are better served by taking note of how art itself can destroy the truth of things.
[The delightful graphic, above, was an ad for cough medicine that appeared in an Italian magazine at the height of the lethal epidemic of Spanish Influenza, 1918-20.}
The sixties were generous with gifts that keep on taking. I cannot help thinking that one of them was the Church’s 1969 calendar revision for January 1.
The Church began withdrawing recognition from the circumcision of Jesus in the sixties. Today, circumcision itself is under threat in once-Christian Europe, from Switzerland to Scandinavia. Because it is practiced by both Jews and Muslims, it is tempting to see moves against the ritual as the sour fruit of secularist ideology. And there is partial truth to that. But the entire story, followed closely by Commentary, is darker. Moreover, hostility to ritual circumcision pre-dates current concern over Muslim presence in Europe.
For centuries the Latin Rite had commemorated the date as the Feast of the Circumcision. John XXIII’s 1960 calendrical revision distanced the date from its traditional association by means of the simple descriptor, Octave of the Nativity. In 1969 Paul VI declared January 1 for the Solemnity of Mary, displacing the Circumcision. Five years laterand only twenty years after Pius XII’s inauguration of the Queenship of MaryMontini dropped the Feast of the Circumcision from the Roman liturgical calendar.
Did Marian devotion require additional ecclesiastical encouragement? Catholics were already in possession of significantly more Marian feasts than Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, or any Christian denomination. The proliferation of them over centuries calls to mind something Yves Congar admitted to having experienced in his research for I Believe in the Holy Spirit. Coming forward in time, he found increasing references to Mary where he expected the sources to mention the Holy Spirit.
Over thirty days of the General Roman Calendar are dedicated to Mary. Each of them whether dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Sorrowsoriginates in her identity as the Mother of God. Mary has claim to the entire month of May (“’Tis the month of our Mother/ the blessed and beautiful days.”) and reigns over October, dedicated to the Holy Rosary. Central to our cultural history, her image has fired Western imagination down the ages. Marian apparitions are celebrated as historic events. She is the Second Eve, “the guarantee of Christ’s true humanity,” in Jaroslav Pelikan’s phrase.
All honor is due the woman who gave flesh to our Redeemer. A Galilean country girl, with capable hands and dusty feet, clothed the uncreated God in creaturely humanity. That is miracle enough to stun us onto our knees and keep us there. Catholics are in no danger of forgetting it. Rather the opposite. We risk making a godling of the Mother of God.
What we jeopardize is precisely what the Feast of the Circumcision held in view: the Jewishness of the woman and her son. The Logos entered history enfleshed as a Jew. To assume flesh was to assume ethnicity as well. Ours is not a cosmic Christ but a Jewish one.
“We are all Semites,” Jacques Maritain was fond of saying. If we leave our Jewish taproot untended, let it wither, we untether ourselves from Jesus of Nazareth. The old Feast of the Circumcision helped keep us mindful that the truth of Jesus is two-fold. His divinity does not erase his humanity.
True man, Jesus of Nazareth was a faithful Jew, subject to that first, infant blood-letting that symbolized his people’s inherited covenant between God and Abraham. Raised in an observant family, he read Torah in synagogue, ate, dressed, and prayed in the spirit of first century Judaism.
Michael Novak, in his 1994 essay “Jacques Maritain and the Jews,” had this to say:
Christianity needs a vital and living Judaism, in the concrete world of history as it is, in order to help it to understand its own inheritance. For many of the foundation and preconceptions and starting places of Christian life have been, and still are, protected and nourishied in a vital Judaism. This witness of Judaism is concretely indispensable to keeping the Jewish tradition alive also within Christianity itself.
Jesus’ Judaism bestows an ancestral bond between Christians and Jews. Once, we had a holy day of obligation to remind us of the imperishability of that kinship. Not any more. It is gone at that very moment in “the concrete world of history as it is” thatwith Islam risingwe are chastened by its absence.
Richard Prosquier, a French Jewish cardiologist born in Poland in 1945, tells of his father being ordered to drop his trousers by the Nazis in order to establish his identity. It is safe to say that when such orders come again, it will not be Muslims asked to expose themselves.
Note: Direct comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Artist Unknown. Visiting the Sick, from a series of works of mercy. Florentine School (14th C.). Vatican Museums, Vatican City
From “Visiting the Sick,” a tutorial by Ariel Scheib:
Visiting the sick ( bikur holim) is considered an act of loving kindness (gemilut hasadim). The concept of bikur holim is first introduced in the Bible when God visits Abraham while he is recovering from circumcision (Genesis 18:1). It is from this instant on that Jews are required to emulate God in visiting the sick. Jews are required to visit all who are ill, including gentiles. . . .
Rabbis believe that one who visits the sick takes away a sixtieth of his pain.However, a person is discouraged from visiting the sick where it would be a stress to the patient or cause embarrassment. It is understood that the visitor will enjoy many blessings and a happy life, filled with good friends and family. According to the Talmud, one should not visit the sick too early in the morning or too late at night and never stay too long because it may be too demanding for the patient. Furthermore, relatives and friends should immediately come to the side of the sick. The Talmud also states that the sick should not be informed of the death of a relative or friend, as it may cause them heartache and more pain.
Many Rabbis debate whether Jews are permitted to visit the sick on Shabbat, the day of rest and joy. While Beit Shammai prohibited such a practice, halakhah agrees with Beit Hillel that visiting the sick on Shabbat is an extra good deed.
Eva Bonnier. Young Girl Reading to an Invalid (19th C.).National Museum, Stockholm.
Make known to me what is my end, O Lord, and what is the length of my days; that I might know how frail I am.
Lo, thou hast made my days but a span, and my life is as nothing; every man is but a breath.
Man passes away like a mere shadow; his worrying is all in vain; he gathers up and knows not who shall reap.
And now what do I wait for, O Lord? My trust is in thee.
From Psalm 38
Titian. Madonna of the Cherries (c. 1515). Kunsthistorsches Museum, Vienna
The Cherry Tree Carol is a seasonal jewel. It dates back to the cycle of mystery plays performed in Coventry during the Feast of Corpus Christi, around the year 1400. History has brought to life various renditions of it, all of them indebted to the vagaries of memory, an era’s substitution of newer phrasings for antiquated ones, or simply the preferences of singers. Folklorists, liturgists and musicologists agree that it is really more accurate to speak of a Cherry Tree series than of a single carol.
But for me, there is only one golden variant. Every year, and with liturgical patience, I wait for Advent so that I can play Paul Hilliers fertile, musically captivating arrangement for his Theatre of Voices. Ensemble singing does not get any lovelier than this.
A great part of my delight in the carol lies in its rendering of a very human Joseph, more assertive than the meek onlooker of conventional variants, the add-on of too, too many nativity scenes. Hilliard’s Joseph is a ballad figure closer to Titian’s visualization of him in The Madonna with Cherries . (Of the two men, Joseph is the darksome one on the left; the graybeard is Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, who offers the cherries.) The carol begins:
When Joseph was a young man,
A young man was he,
He court’d the Virgin Mary the Queen of Galilee.
The carol omits the more common verb married. You can just see him, not the aged caretaker of a virgin, but newly betrothed, and entranced with a young girl. They are out walking, he and his queen. It is a lovely stroll through an orchard of apple and cherry trees, all heavy with fruit. Suddenly Mary startles him with: Joseph, gather me some cherries, for I am with child. She had to have been waiting for the moment.
Her disclosure is no easy one for a man in love to swallow. The tempo of the carol quickens to convey the catch in Josephs heart:
And Joseph flew in anger,
In anger he flew.
Let the father of the baby gather cherries for you.
Good for Joseph! There is no earthly reason a good man should take kindly to the humiliation of having been cuckolded. The robust carol-making mind had no difficulty imagining a masculine response. It is not the one expected from the neutered bystander popular piety has made of the man who taught his son more than simply the family trade.
An observant Jew, Joseph guided the boy’s study of the Torah; took him to the Temple for the feasts of Pesach, Sukkot and Yom Kippur. Hetaught his son what it meant to be a Jewish male in Roman occupied Galilee. It is no stretch to think he told his boy the story of Judah Maccabee and his brothers. A chronicle dear to late Second Temple Judaism, it was a polestar to the virtue of anger. That Joseph’s son learned such a lesson has been drained out of gospel readings for so many years we have forgotten Jesus’ stark reference to the viper’s nest, the millstone, and the doors of the wedding feast open to some, closed to the balance.
Picking Sweet Cherries. Miniature illustration in the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval health handbook (before 1400).
Joseph deserves better. My carol grants Joseph that burst of anger which was certainly his due. Other renditions in the doubting Joseph repertoire register Josephs dismay, but most keep a polite distance from any novelistic quote. They nod to his state in a more detached fashion:
Then Joseph he to shun the shame
Thought her for to forsake.
In most variants, it is Gods angel who visits Joseph in a dream and puts him straight. Hilliers fertile adaptation diverges from the common trope. It bypasses the angel and, consistent with the earliest versions, turns to the awaited babe. There is a brief hush in vocal pitch: sound comes muffled from the womb. The unborn Jesus does not chide Joseph or offer justification. Mystery eludes explanation. Instead, the infantfledgling king that he ischarges the cherry tree to lower its boughs that the mother might have some. The tree obeys. Mary gathers cherries “while Joseph stood around:”
Cried she, Look, thou Joseph!
I have cherries by command!
Girlish glee leaps in those lines; and no small spot of triumph, too. Joseph understands. Aching with remorse for having thought unkindly of his beloved, he whispers to the child: Pray, tell me, little baby, when your birthday will be? An ingenious device. Again, a direct quote, imagined in sympathy with a man who, with that single tender question, indicates acceptance of this strange paternity. Set aside the mystery and austerity of it, fatherhood it remains. And Joseph bows to it.
In this sweet carol we hear Joseph’s terse, elliptical Magnificat .Pray, tell me, little baby, when your birthday will be? So like a man to phrase consent that way.
Anonymous. Nativity fresco (14th C.). San Michele, Cremona
Joy to you, dear readers. Christ, our Saviour, is born on Christmas Day.
The National Association of Scholars, the good guys in academia, have conjured up a quiz to conjoin final exam time and Christmastime. Try it.
Otto Kubel. Illustration from O Schoene herrliche weinachtszeit,(Oh beautiful magnificent Christmas time) by A Jaserg, c. 1920s-30s, published in Nuremberg.
CHRISTMAS POP CULTURE
1. All of the following British actors have portrayed perennial sourpuss and miser Ebenezer Scrooge. Which one also had a distinguished academic career?
A. Reginald Owen
B. Patrick Stewart
C. Albert Finney
D. Alistair Sim
2. Which of the following jazz pianists composed the theme and incidental music for the 1965 TV classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas?
A. Billy Taylor
B. Vince Guaraldi
C. Ramsey Lewis
D. Dick Wellstood
3. Who was the American basso profundo who sang Youre a Mean One, Mr. Grinch for the 1966 cartoon version of Dr. Suesss How the Grinch Stole Christmas?
A. Thurl Ravenscroft
B. James Earl Jones
C. Tim Riley
D. Larry Hooper
4. Which popular country and western singer produced a hit Christmas album in the 1950s, on which Here We Go AWassailing was a huge favorite?
A. Tex Ritter
B. Hank Williams
C. Tennessee Ernie Ford
D. Charlie Pride
5. Which actress was given a co-starring role at age 9 in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street?
A. Debbie Reynolds
B. Anne Bancroft
C. Natalie Wood
D. Tippi Hedren
Anonymous. 19 C. Christmas card.
1. In Book VIII of St. Augustines autobiographical Confessions, he tells the story of his conversion. He was sitting in a garden when he heard a childs voice saying, take up and read. Augustine reaches for a Bible and reads the passage that it opens to. What is that passage?
A. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, RSV)
B. Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:13-14, RSV)
C. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13, RSV)
D. None of the above.
2. In Petrarchs Ascent of Mont Ventoux, the poet recounts the progress of his climb. As he stood at the top, he pulled St. Augustines Confessions from his pocket and read the first passage that it opened to. What is that passage?
A. You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.
B. Too late did I love You, O Fairness, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love You! For behold, You were within, and I without, and there did I seek You.
C. And men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves.
D. None of the above.
3. In Book VIII of Rousseaus autobiographical Confessions, he tells the story of his conversion. As he walked from Paris to Vincennes to visit Diderot, he read an essay which was to be published in the Mercure de France. He read a question which, he said, caused him to become another man. What was that question?
A. Has the progress of the sciences and arts done more to corrupt morals or improve them?
B. What is the general will of Man?
C. What is the origin of inequality?
D. None of the above.
4. In 2004, pop singer Usher released Confessions, which sold nearly 1.1 million copies in its first week. What was the central theme of the record?
A. A late-modern re-reading of St. Augustines Confessions in the context of the dancefloor.
B. His argument that parallels between Augustines and Rousseaus Confessions were not strategically planned by Rousseau but were purely accidental.
C. His breakup with TLCs Chili.
D. All of the above
5. Never confess! Never, never! This advice came from
A. Stanley Fish
B. Joseph Conrad
C. Charles Dawson
D. None of the above
Anonymous. Christmas greeting card (c. 1870)
1. Which of the following contains an acrostic based on the first letter of each verse?
A. Adeste Fidelis
B. The O Antiphons of Advent
C. Puer Natus Est
D. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
2. Who composed the Concerto Grosso in G minor, subtitled “The Christmas Concerto”?
A. Antonio Vivaldi
C. Archangelo Corelli
3. Which of the following popular Christmas carol tunes was originally titled Tempus Adest Floridum , and was used for springtime activities?
A. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
B. Good King Wenceslas
C. Angels We Have Heard on High
D. The Coventry Carol
4. Which of the following motets was composed for the Advent season, but also contained a coded political message that could have landed the author in serious difficulty?
Vigilate by William Byrd
B. Laudate Dominum by G.P. Palestrina
C. Hodie, Christus Natus Est by Jan Sweelinck
D. Saul, Saul, Was verfolgst du mich ? byHeinrich Schutz
Jessie Wilcox Smith. Children of Dickens. A Calendar for 1912 illustrating Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit on Christmas Day.
NAS offers this morose entry :
Thoreau writes in Walden, ” The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” Which of the following is not true:
A. Quiet Desperation is a flavor of Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream with fudge-covered waffle cone pieces and a caramel swirl.
B. The New York Times misquoted Thoreau’s sentence, adding “and die with their song still inside them.”
C. Quiet Desperation is the name of a surrealist reality show chronicling the struggle of a manic-depressive comedian in Boston.
D. Among the many novels, memoirs, and self-help books that make use of Thoreau’s phrase, Quiet Desperation is the title of a Conan Doyle-H.P. Lovecraft mash-up in which Sherlock Holmes battles various Elder demons.
Note : More quizzes more of everything worthwhile at the NAS website here .
When Soul-melting Sermons are Preached about Christ the Saviour, about the pardon of sin, about the glory of Heaven, there are some that would sleep under them . . . . Yea, some will sit and sleep under the best Preaching in the World . . . . Some woeful Creatures, have been so wicked as to profess they have gone to hear Sermons on purpose, so that they might sleep . . . (Increase Mather, Sleeping at Sermons)
A dozing congregant in a small New England meeting house would be hard to missa finger in the clerical eye. It is easy to sympathize with a minister’s displeasure at the provocation. (Easy, too, to enjoy Mather’s unintended window onto an endearing unruliness in the Puritan heart.)
Puritans attending service in Plymouth, Massachusetts (17th C.)
Please do not count me among the wicked if I confess to . . . no, not sleeping during homilies. Not that. But I do defend against the lure of a catnap by coming to Mass armed with a book. No novels, no journalism. Nothing profane. I only take reading that Mather himself would call soul-awakening. It is my safeguard against sermons that could not melt butter let alone a backsliding soul.
My most constant companion is Henri de Lubacs The Discovery of God. It is a 1960 translation of Sur les chemins de Dieu, itself a 1956 recasting of an earlier work written in the crucible of World War II. The first was published in 1945, the year the Reich surrendered. It was the year of the Battle of the Bulge Bataille de Ardennes to the French of the liberation of Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. It was the year Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung by Hitler’s order.
A slim handbook of thematically arranged quotations and reflections, the text is studded with passages to hold close in the spirit of prayer. These are deliberately fragmentary”marginal notes” the author calls them. De Lubac avoids all semblance of a theological treatise in order to prompt us toward an intimacy beyond the reach of systematic statements and analyses.
The text proceeds from Fnelon’s assertion: “What men lack most is knowledge of God.” De Lubac approaches the dual mystery of God and man from outside the conventional machinery of academic discourse. His own commentary interlaces with a treasury of observations the poetry of contemplative minds by Origen, Bernard, Hilary, Mircea Eliade, Paul Claudel, Anselm, Gabriel Marcel, John of the Cross, Aquinas, Martin Buber, many others. Each thread of utterances is self-contained, concentrated, and terse enough to grip wandering attention for the duration of a watery Sunday sermon.
Artist Unkown. St. Ignatius Loyola Listening to a Sermon (late 16th C.). College St. Michel Fribourg, Switzerland
Simone Weil, her writing and her life engaged by history and politics, wrote the essays later published as Gravity and Grace at the onset of World War II. It is the book that brought her to prominence as a religious thinker and mystic. De Lubac cites it in a footnote, making use of her comment”We fly from the inner void since God might steal into it”to frame his own:
Man, alas, is above all frightened of God. He is afraid of being burned at his touch, like the Israelites who touched the Ark. That adds subtlety to his denials, cunning to his attempted escapes, and makes the pious inventive in devotional tricks to deaden the shock . . . . Whether incredulous, indifferent or believers, we compete with one another in ingeniously guarding ourselves against God.
Inventive in devotional tricks. That single phrase alone invites consideration. To accept the challenge of it is to leave oneself vulnerable to dismissal or angry dissent. I only wish de Lubac had risked answering his own summons.
His chosen extracts from Augustine are commanding in their brevity. The first, below, is exhilarating. The second and third could be taken as a chastisement against the assurance of theologians whose stock and trade is the discursive:
However far thought may rise, there is always further to go.
If you have understood, then this is not God. If you were able to understand, then you understood something else instead of God. If you were able to understand even partially, then you have deceived yourself with your own thoughts. ( Sermon 52)
Whatever is understood by knowledge is limited by the understanding of the knowledge . . . . If you have reached an end, then it is not God. ( De civitate Dei)
My favorite is a caution artists understand: that a certain clarity of thought can exist apart from language. Augustine, wary of the limits of language, phrased the intuition this way:
Have we said anything, uttered any sound, which is worthy of God? . . . A sort of battle with words ensues. Since if what is ineffable is what cannot be said, yet what can be called even ineffable is not ineffable. This battle with words is to be prevented by silence rather than stilled by speech. ( De Doctrina Christiana)
One aspect of this lovely book unsettles me. It is this: In all two hundred pages there is not a hint of the agony of its time. It was composed in Lyons during the years of devastating aerial bombardment by Allied forces over German-occupied France, between 1940 and 1945. (According to Andrew Knapps Forgotten Blitzes, a study of Allied bombing of Italy and France, Britain and the United States together dropped nearly eight times the tonnage of bombs on France as the Luftwaffe dropped on the United Kingdom.)
The evacuation of these young bombed out evacuees was sponsored by the Comit Ouvrier de Secours Immeddiat, financed largely by the confiscation of Jewish-owned goods.
The absence of all recognition of the nature of the times in which de Lubac wrote both awes and confounds me in equal measure. The roads that run from God to man and from man to God pass through the killing fields of the day, through all the days before and those yet to come. Blood drips on the philosophia perennis. No theologian knew this better than de Lubac. Wounded during battle in World War I and active in the French Resistance, the man did not live detached from the broken moment to which he was called. Reading The Discovery of God , I regret his omission of any reference to the multitude of experiences, the demonic and contradictory context, in which these reflections were shaped and ordered.
Rouen after Allied bombing in the spring of 1944
De Lubac admits only the confident complaint religious men are fond of invoking : “Man without God is dehumanized.” But does that hold quite so well as we think? History, including Christendom’s own, demonstrates that man with God is no stranger to dehumanizing impulses. Man in the name of God, man sealed with fervor for God, is poised to kill no less than console. Man, called into being by a God Who both loves and judges, hunts the infidel, hounds the reprobate. Made in the image of God from the dust of the planet, he distinguishes between the damned and the saved, discernment variable according to cultural preference. Man-with-God holds a double-edged blade, one side as ineluctable, lethal, as the other.What de Lubac so gracefully calls “the mark of God upon us” is, perhaps, a more fearsome thing than we permit ourselves to think.
Yahya ben Mahmoud al-Wasiti. Teaching in a Madrasa before men and veiled women. Manuscript from Baghdad (1237). Bibliotheque National, Paris
It gets wearying, these pulpit and podium appeals to Love-and-Beauty. They point to the single keyhole through which we are counseled to view terrible enormities. The vacant and the monstrous. The horror of the void. Where is there room for the necessity the candor of dread?
I am left carrying my books.
Mortals that would follow me,
Love Virtue, she alone is free;
She can teach ye how to clime
Higher than the Spheary chime.
John Milton, Lycidas
What do you mean, “Pilgrim art”? There wasn’t any.
Precisely. There was none as we moderns understand it: a product of leisure and affluence enjoyed largely by spectators. The concept had no hold on their attention. They did not conceive of culture as we do, as a kind of sauce spread like Bchamel over the nexus of values that animate a civilization. That is a point to keep in mind when we read, as inescapably we do, breathy encomiums to the miracle of art. Or, as crooned in a recent New York Times theatre column, its power to render the world more beautiful, thereby making it a finer, better place to live.
They begged to differ, those men and women who left the arts behind when they risked everything for the ordeal of establishing themselves in a harsh and alien wilderness. Puritans valued learning highly; their leaders were cultivated men. They were not, as commonly caricatured, anti-aesthetic kill-joys blind to beauty. (They dressed in every color of the rainbow.) Yet they jeopardized their lives and livelihood for something higher, more vital than art: freedom of conscience. Our nation was forged by a muscular-minded, vigorous people, lively in thought and character, who sought the Puritan dream: a New Jerusalem ordered on the word of God.
Adam Van Breen. Departure of the Puritans from Delft Harbor to Join the Mayflower in 1620 (17th C.). Image provided by H. Terry-Engell Gallery, London.
We are not nostalgic for the theocratic aspects of that dream. At the same time, there was also much in it to respect, much in its code of values to regret having lost. Perry Miller’s words ring more true to me today than when I first read them: “We cannot resist a slight fear that much of what has taken the place of Puritanism in our philosophies is just so much failure of nerve.”
I became endeared to the Puritans in graduate school. Like any well-chosen love, mine has deepened over the years. In modern usage, the words Puritanism and puritanical are wielded as weapons. That they are slurs serves as an index of popular ignorance of or hostility to our own foundational history. While we are still within the octave of Thanksgiving, there is time for a brief visit to a people who were our spiritual next of kin in more ways than the received wisdom acknowledges.
The creed and cause of Puritanism as a reform movement within the Church of England of its time is too broad a topic for a blog post. Nevertheless, the Puritan sense of beauty essentially theological is appropriate here. But first, let Governor William Bradford describe the emotions of a people departing for a new world where they sought freedom to grow in godliness:
So they lefte the goodly and pleasante citie, which had been their resting place near 12. Years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest cuntrie; and quieted their spirits.
Today we are left to wonder, along with William Haller, historian of Puritanism, “how many of the pilgrim fathers’ countrymen this side of heaven and the Atlantic still understand.” Haller, who arrived at study of the Puritans by way of Milton’s poetry, offers astute introduction to the Puritan imagination and its adjustment to earthly realities as these were reflected in Governor William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation :
Their departure from the Old World and their arrival in the New are invested by Bradford with all the exaltation of the Puritan sermon and the Puritan epic. But once arrived in America, they must plant corn, build houses, treat with savages, govern the unruly, chaffer with the company in England. Bradford finds himself compelled to become a pioneer, a man of business, a lawmaker, a ruler, a realist. The energetic, executive, alert, practical, shrewd American in a word, the Yankee begins to emerge out of the Puritan saint. He becomes in time less and less occupied with the war on Satan, more and more with the practical problems of making a life for himself and his people, saints and sinners alike, in the new environment.
Haller follows with a witty appraisal of Bradford as a writer:
He writes as he goes on, less and less like a Puritan preacher and more and more like the author of Robinson Crusoe .
Reference to Defoe, a Dissenter himself and forefather to the modern novelist, is a reminder of the boundless influence the Puritan sermon exerted on seventeenth century literary culture, literary history and traditions of popular taste. Milton would be unthinkable without it. So would John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress , a Christian allegory continuously in print since it first appeared in 1678. Puritans were a people of the word; their art was literary. Prose was their favored medium, a vehicle for the gift of utterance. They left ample commentary, including several detailed essays, on the art of writing. The sermon, aimed at the perfection of human understanding, was the crown of all the arts.
Mihaly Munkacsy. Blind Milton Dictating “Paradise Lost” to His Daughters (1877). New York Public Library.
While they formulated no systematic aesthetic theory, Puritans were fond of analogies between sensible beauty and the mind of God that any Scholastic might applaud. Here is William Hubbard, in his sermon The Happiness of a People , preached in Boston, May 3, 1676:
In a curious piece of Architecture, that which first offers it self to the view of the beholder, is the beauty of the structure, the proportion that one piece bears to another, wherein the skill of the Architect most shews it self. But that which is most admirable in sensitive and rational beings, is that inward principle, seated in some one part, able to guid [e] the whole, and influence all the rest of the parts, with an apt and regular motion, for their mutual good and safety.
That inward principle was understood to be, in Hubbard’s phrase, the “remains of God’s Image” a vestige of the original perfection of the governing powers granted man before the Fall. Beauty, then, resides in that God-ordained harmony and decorum which art serves only to the extent that it furthers man’s grasp of divine purpose. Perry Miller, in The Puritans , explains in terms amenable to our own Christian apostles of beauty:
The Puritan conceived of beauty as order, the order of things as they are, not as they appear, as they are in pure and abstract conception, as they are in the mind of God . . . . His [the Puritan’s] conception of the beautiful was, like Plato’s, the efficient order of things; in that sense, he held indeed that beauty is truth, and truth beauty, though he did not think that was quite all he needed to know in life.
Not quite all he needed to know in life. Pregnant with implication, the phrase signals a fork in the road that leads away from our own deepening devotion to art. Miller follows the detour:
In such a scheme beauty is postulated as reason and faith conjoined; therefore to single out music, statuary, painting, drama, and the dance as subjects for considered appraisal to assign such purely sensuous phenomena more than a negligible rank in the teleological scheme, would have been grossly unbecoming.
I do love that grossly unbecoming. To the Puritan mind, today’s fixation on the arts’ reverence for and adulation of it would be suspect as cousin to idolatry.
Below, in no particular sequence, are essentials that can be read at table every Thanksgivingtide. Other times, too:
William Haller, The Rise of Puritanism (1938).
Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson (Eds.), The Puritans, revised edition (1963).
John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970).
Edward S. Morgan, The Puritan Family (1965).
Louis Glackens. Holiday cover for Puck Magazine, November 23, 1904.
Glory be to God for dappled things
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings;
Landscape plotted and piecedfold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers forth whose beauty is past change:
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty
The trouble is that modern art in various ways abandoned imitation, representation, naturalism, and it now has to make out a case for its products’ still being truth. This is where science certain aspects of science are seized upon, assimilated, or sometimes simply plagiarized in decorative words, so as to bolster up art’s claim to cognitive value. One such use, and it is a curious reversal of Aristotle, is the boast of factuality: the work of the artist is said to be research; his creations are findings.
Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art (1971)
Paul Cullen, Matthew Sansom, Andy Thomson, WeakForce2 (2013). Surrey University, UK.
Barzun spoke those words in his Mellon lecture forty-plus years ago. They have proven prophetic. The creep of art institutions toward a a burlesque of the sciences warrants more attention than it gets. It slouches along under the radar of anointed art appreciators, debasing authentic science, the scientific method, and language along with it. And the debasement of language is, perhaps, the current most potent agent of cultural dissolution: “decorative words, so as to bolster up art’s claim to cognitive value.” Just so. Even more so now than then.
Today’s mail brings an announcement for the fourth Weak Force project. [The installation photo, above, is from the second iteration. If you’ve seen one . . . .] Weak Force operates under the umbrellla of a would-be international, but still largely Anglophone, collaborative that calls itself United Field Theory (UFT). It intends to “locate and represent the social and relational as the generative dynamic” in creative collaboration. It has done its locating, to date, in university galleries in Aukland, Halifax, Seoul, and Surrey.
Take no comfort from geography. The lunatic dogmatism of the group is equally at home on many an American campus. And it is not benign, no matter the inanity of the product. What counts is that this slither toward art-and-design-as-research represents a generationan electoratewell schooled in techniques of communication but barren of signficant grasp of what is worth communicating. A generation technologically adept but uneducated. Miseducated.
Unlike the collaboration of the Curies, the Wright brothers, Crick and Watson, or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Weak Force, funded by UFT, provides artists with means to inquire into the intricacies of themselves and their discontents. They examine “to what extent an idea is separable from its specific material expression, and what latitude is possible for its material expression and presentation to constitute an authentic expression of idea.” The distance between ideaif that is the right wordand expression appears above.
Inhaling the vapor of science, the press release intones:
In physics, weak force is one of the four fundamental interactions of nature, alongside the strong interaction, electromagnetism, and gravitation. It is weaker than the strong nuclear force and the electromagnetic force but stronger than gravity.
Weak Force celebrates the “artist as interlocutor.” It traffics in the weak force of social interaction: “social contracts and discourses of exchange such as barter, voice, critique, laughter, and sound.” Taken under scrutiny, these reveal “a politic of materialism” which will be exposed through a series of timetabled events, kiosks, pavilions, displays, and other stuff.
You can read artist Andy Thomson’s tractlet on “The Contingency of Gravity” here. Take care to grind through the hash of physics and metaphysics to the final line: “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change them.”
Keep the theory; just flip the facts. At heart, it is a totalitarian formulation that corresponds, with demonic ease, to our present political culture, one that has been metastasizing for decades. The substitution of rhetoric for fact and logicsound over senseendangers us far more than uncomely art.
It takes heavy doses of higher education to master a lingo engineered to upend the purpose of language by mystifying rather than illuminating. Weak Force is only a single day’s illustration of the lingua franca transmitted through university art departments to the culture at large. It keeps coming, a relentless reminder of Hobbes’ blunt observation that the universities “have been to this nation as the wooden horse to the Trojans.”
It is all for the commonweal, of course. As the good people at the School of Art + Design at Aukland University of Technology declare, they “accept a role as critic and conscience of society.” Naturally, they also “interrogate” the proposition that the arts are particularly suited to speak critically about social issues. Left unspoken is the accompanying belief that when art speaks, it is not to be defied.
Raymond Aron once commented that science encourages intellectuals to think the world before aspiring to change it. Today’s arts intellectual understands that the instinctual appeal of the arts deflects thought. Tacked to the mantle of science, it trumps thought altogether. No thinking is needed if art itself can, as Thomson insists, negotiate a relationship to gravity’s space-time.