The Satires of Horace
translated by A.M. Juster
University of Pennsylvania Press, 160 pages, $34.95
Satire is supposed to be the one native Roman contribution to the literary genres, but it remains hard to define. Satire itself means something like “farrago”: a medley of different subject matters and treatments. It is anything goes—so long as it is discursive, vernacular, and rooted not in the sublime but in the present moment's quotidian concerns: money, politics, lawsuits, love, sex, friendships and enmities, the pursuit of happiness, and all the foibles and vices of humankind. It is a mirror in a fun house, a kind of didactic entertainment.
If Horace's great Odes have an Augustan restraint that is perhaps out of joint with our post-Golden Age times, the Satires, with their gossip, vignettes, autobiographical snapshots, dialogues, fanciful squibs, and mild invectives (for all his freedom of speech, Horace is careful not to tread on the toes of the truly powerful), seem as topical as ever. Part of the pleasure of A.M. Juster's lively new translation is the unforced unstuffiness of the language and the delightful shock of finding, at this late date, dactylic hexameters turned into jaunty, very un-Pope-like rhyming heroic couplets that pull us along at a brisk clip, as if we tagged along after a fast walker (and talker) in the forum.
Here's an example: The gangs of Syrian flute-girls, the shills / who sell exotic potions for our ills, / the bums, the actresses, the silly twits / and others of that ilk, indulge in fits / of grief about the late Tigellius / because, of course, he was so generous. In Satire, tone is everything, and Juster hits just the right colloquial note, in a robust American vernacular that blows the library dust off a timeless—and timely—portrait of our species.
A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew
by Jonathan D. Sarna
Basic, 208 pages, $23
Jonathan D. Sarna, a distinguished historian of the Jews in America, has penned a series of epistles, ostensibly to his daughter, keyed to the cycle of the Jewish year. Sarna is interested in conveying the texture of Jewish life as it is experienced in his particular American-Jewish milieu. Admitting a preference for Jewish doing over merely passive identification, he deliberately avoids addressing the question “Why be Jewish?” recognizing that religious commitment (here called “priorities”) and “excitement” about the content of Jewish belief are only two factors that might motivate Jewish practice, others being family tradition, spirituality and community building.
Sarna is exceptionally anxious to avoid affirming substantive religious and cognitive commitment. Again and again, A Time to Every Purpose abdicates questions of belief and commitment to the judgment of his audience. His most vigorous moment occurs when an uninhibited student, reacting to Sarna's talk about the stress on divine judgment and penitence in the Rosh Hashana liturgy, interjects: “Surely you don't believe any of that rot.” The professor shoots back: “If everyone believed it our world would be much better off.” But he quickly appeals to the authority of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations to demonstrate that belief in God is not required for observing Rosh Hashana.
The most passionate argument in the book, in a chapter on declining Jewish population, pleads that, after the Holocaust, Jews are an endangered species, deserving protection and enhancement for the sake of diversity, like the bald eagle: “You have friends who work to rescue endangered animal and plant species, so you know why this matters.”
It is hard to gauge how this plays with the intended audience, though Sarna often tries to anticipate the reactions of his daughter and her friends—mostly rolling their eyes, occasionally “howling objections”—to statements that diverge from conventional liberal doctrine or sound preachy. Though I can't imagine the kind of neutrality adopted by Sarna operating in a real flesh and blood relationship between two individuals, this book does cumulatively articulate many of the anxieties and satisfactions of a community concerned about Jewish survival, partial to Jewish practice, religiously ambivalent, and intellectually insecure.
A Time to Every Purpose assumes some knowledge of Judaism but is accessible to those with limited background. Sarna explores not only the familiar Jewish holidays but also new inventions like Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day, minor days like Tu be-Shevat (new year for trees) and Tu b'Av (a day for matchmaking) and the Moroccan springtime folk festival of Maimuna that is becoming popular in Israel.
Sarna is especially incisive when he discusses Jewish indebtedness and identification with American values, together with his anxiety about Jewish security and survival in North America, pride in the existence and achievements of the state of Israel, and satisfaction at its economic Westernization. His hope that American immigration will bring the best of American culture to Jewish society is tempered by such things as his discomfort with the syncretism of Christmas and Hanukka.
The nineteenth-century German Orthodox thinker Rabbi S.R. Hirsch once said that the Jewish calendar is the Jewish catechism. Jonathan D. Sarna's A Time to Every Purpose is an attempt to explain to his daughter the ways in which that thought is a helpful one.
No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace
by John Jay Hughes
Tate, 344 pages, $19.99
Good autobiographies are rare. The genre is easy; the writers are difficult. The worst autobiographies are chortling with their writer's vanity; the best amount to a writer's confession and pilgrimage through life. No Ordinary Fool is in the latter camp. The proportions of confession and pilgrimage are sometimes uneven, but no matter, since the author's vanities are trifling.
John Jay Hughes may not have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but surely he was sprinkled from a silver chalice. He had extraordinary ancestors, including one of the Founding Fathers, and the first chief justice of the United States. His father was an eminent and prominent Anglican priest and pastor. John Jay Hughes profited from the best kind of education then offered within his country. He was a fledgling of an American high-upper class, of which he lived to see the entire extinction during his lifetime. While he was still a child he lost his beloved mother; his father broke with him when he chose to relinquish his own Anglican priesthood to become a Catholic priest.
“For as long as memory runs, I have wanted to be different. Announcing my decision for priesthood was a way to satisfy this not entirely admirable desire.” And, then, “lifelong Catholics have no notion—can have no notion—of the agonizing struggle confronting an Anglican priest who comes to believe that, in conscience, he must consider moving from Canterbury to Rome.” For John Jay Hughes there was another difficulty—besides the rigid withdrawal of his father whom he went on to love: “I entered the Catholic Church with a cold heart, motivated solely by intellectual conviction. There was none of the ‘coming home' reported by other converts.” There is a bitter sincerity in this fragment of a confession.
His pilgrimage was not easy, from a world where mothers were called “Mummy” to a world where mothers are “Moms.” There are other glimpses of sincere humbleness, as when he writes of a rigid old Anglican parishioner of his: “The deficiencies of her faith were obvious. But she tried far harder, and certainly longer than I had.” His road to Rome was not easy; and, perhaps, even more difficult was what awaited him after his arrival—a universe away from the fountains of Rome and of Gregorian music. There were parishes populated by suburban American Catholic rednecks, and the pettinesses and insensitivities of priests—what centuries ago had been condemned as invidia clericalis: envy among the clergy.
But John Jay Hughes had been fortunate enough to travel from Canterbury to Rome via Europe—where he spent at least ten years of the most intellectually and spiritually satisfactory chapter of his life. “Humanly speaking I could have never entered the Catholic Church if all I had known of it was the still strongly Irish-American immigrant Church of my native Northeast. Experience of the Church in Europe had shown me that Catholicism had another face.” Or perhaps more than a face.
“My church I would change; my religion, never.” A cryptic sentence, food for much thought.
Perhaps No Ordinary Fool should have ended with it. Instead, Hughes's autobiography ends with long citations and quotations of letters and prayers that he had written. There is a certain disproportion here—unlike in the rest of this book where the proportions of the admixture of confession and of pilgrimage are just about right. Agony and contentment—in the same mind and heart. John Jay Hughes' recognitions and expressions of that agony and contentment rise above the nearly inevitable self-indulgence that lies on the bottom of so many autobiographies.
by Paul Lake
Benbella, 224 pages, $12.95
Paul Lake's political fable, Cry Wolf, is on one level a simple tale about the unraveling of the idyllic Green Pastures Farm and on another, a bold statement against many of the values that have come to define America. The truths that are spoken through the mouths of the farm animals on issues such as immigration, tolerance, and free speech sound eerily familiar to the problems that are snagging American democracy. Written with courage and poignancy, this allegory from First Things' poetry editor ambitiously tries to take a step back from our society in order to show how America has drifted into becoming a nation that now seems to be waffling, especially in the face of the upcoming presidential election.
Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire
by William T. Cavanaugh
Eerdmans, 103 pages, $12
Our globalized world of free-market consumerism teases the eye with a “surface appearance of diversity,” masking “a stifling homogeneity” that bears resemblance to Andy Warhol's “Orange Disaster #5,” a painting whose serial imaging of the electric chair removes the sting of death.
William Cavanaugh claims that consumer culture is “one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world, arguably more powerful than Christianity.” The Church cannot be “a different kind of economic space” when most Christians are suffering from visual agnosia, an inability to recognize familiar objects. In remedy, we need to understand “theological microeconomics,” training our eyes to see the paradoxes of economic life.
Cavanaugh, a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, examines four economic realities: the free market, consumerism, globalization, and scarcity. Assuming a “reactive posture,” Christians typically ask: “Are we for or against the free market? Should we not think of ourselves as consumers? Are we for or against globalization? How do we live in a world of scarce resources?”
Perceptively applying the “logic of the gospel” to the logic of the market, Cavanaugh goads Christians to assume an active posture, asking: When is a market free? How does a consumer overcome “detachment from production, producers, and products”? How can the Church develop a “true catholicity” that is both global and local? How do we refuse scarcity as a given?
To answer these questions, Cavanaugh uses Christian luminaries—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and John Paul II—to critique capitalist lodestars, Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. The analysis is textured with examples from our “everyday economic life”: Dilbert cartoons and Catholic Relief Services, Wal-Mart and Free Trade.
At the center of his discussion, Cavanaugh places the eucharistic celebration—as a subversive “act of anticonsumption.” He writes, “God is the food that consumes us. The Eucharist effects a radical decentering of the individual by incorporating the person into a larger body. In the process, the act of consumption is turned inside out, so that the consumer is consumed.”
Recovering Self-Evident Truths: Catholic Perspectives on American Law
edited by Michael A. Scaperlanda and Teresa Stanton Collett
Catholic University Press, 403 pages, $35.95 paper
An extremely useful collection of informed examinations of how natural law theory can constructively engage American legal and political traditions. Included are essays by some of the heavy hitters in Catholic theology, philosophy, and law: Avery Cardinal Dulles, Robert P. George, Richard Garnett, Mary Ann Glendon, and others. This is a necessary text for students of Catholic social doctrine and its interaction with the American experience.