Up from the Depths:
Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times
by aaron sachs
princeton, 472 pages, $32
In this modern play on Plutarch, Aaron Sachs’s attempt to construct the “parallel lives” of his two subjects meets mixed results.
In his portrayal of Melville, he pays special attention to the novelist’s role as a social critic. By giving prolonged treatment to Melville’s early South Seas romances and The Confidence-Man, Sachs manages to portray an author more varied than the image of the monomaniacal genius whose legacy may be reduced to Moby-Dick. The verdict passed by The Confidence-Man on Americans’ characteristic vices holds up: Ours really is a society in which people “are more likely to support new products like the Omni-Balsamic Reinvigerator or the Protean Easy Chair than to engage with deep meditations on faith.” The treatment of Melville is solid, and will inspire many to give his allegedly “minor” works a chance.
Yet the portrait drawn of Mumford falls woefully short. A critic of the cult of technological progress, and a central figure in the establishment of a critical consensus around Melville’s oeuvre, Mumford has been unjustly neglected in the past half century, relegated to a “mere painstaking burrower and grubworm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub.” He was a lifelong advocate of “an intelligent partnership between the earth and man,” and his Technics and Civilization ranks with the very best of Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul in the canon of technological critique. His Sticks and Stones provides a scathing indictment of the trajectory of American architecture that makes walking past One Vanderbilt even more nauseating—no small feat! Mumford’s insights are especially prescient now, but if any Mumford revival occurs, it will not be spurred by Up from the Depths. Too often, Sachs dwells on the sexual drama of Mumford’s failed marriage, occasionally digressing to note approvingly Mumford’s position-taking on various issues (Anti-Francoist? Check!), but never substantively engaging with his ideas.
Sachs’s choice to present his subjects in alternating chapters never rises above the level of an uncompelling structural gimmick. Mumford remains worth your time (that Melville is worth your time I take as given), but you would be better served by a direct encounter, rather than this biography.
—Hunter V. McClure
Winters in the World:
A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year
by eleanor parker
reaktion, 240 pages, $24
Geola. Lencten. Eastermonath. Strange words from a strange past world, yet also still familiar to us as ‘Yule,’ ‘Lent,’ and ‘Easter.’ A peculiar mixture of the strange and the familiar characterizes Eleanor Parker’s book Winters in the World, which is not only a journey into the Anglo-Saxon calendar, but also into the spiritual world of England’s earliest Christians—a people whose language and religion today’s English-speaking Catholics share, but who nevertheless seem a world away. It is a chasm of difference Parker does not shrink from, portraying a heroic world of warriors, missionary saints, and subsistence farmers in which life depended—quite literally—on the turning of the seasons. At the same time, however, Winters in the World is about how Anglo-Saxon life became more than just a cycle of hope for favorable weather. Parker shows how deeply Christianity saturated Anglo-Saxon culture, permeating and sacralizing every aspect of the calendar—even if, to touch on one of the more contentious issues dealt with in the book, some aspects of that calendar may have had pagan origins. Winters in the World faithfully and richly portrays the distinctiveness of early Christian England as an instance of deep inculturation, a point so often lost in facile historiographies that portray Christianity as an alien intruder to Anglo-Saxon society. The result is a beguiling and compelling vision of sacred time, marked by the great events of the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ harmoniously complementing the earth’s cycles of change and renewal.
The Lost Way to the Good:
Dionysian Platonism, Shin Buddhism, and the Shared Quest to Reconnect a Divided World
by thomas plant
angelico, 270 pages, $20
We all know the statistics. The Industrial Revolution not only reconfigured social and family life; it brought with it a dramatic improvement in what we call “standards of living.” By and large it has made us, if not exactly happy, at least comfortable beyond the dreams of our ancestors. This fact alone makes it difficult to articulate persuasively why we should care whether we have lost something, let alone what cannot be measured by mouth or eye, in our ruthless pursuit of efficiency and individual liberation.
Thomas Plant’s The Lost Way to the Good does many things. It weaves together personal narrative, concise but lucid summaries of Neoplatonic and True Pure Land Buddhist thought and practice, sorties against the grotesqueries of secular modernity, and a familiar narrative of intellectual decline. In the process, Plant adds his voice to a growing chorus which tells us we must care, we must find the “Lost Way,” or we are doomed. What makes Plant unusual is that his vision of cultural renewal hinges on inter-religious solidarity. Chaplain to Japan’s most distinguished Anglican university, Plant believes the magnitude of the disaster of secular modernity requires us not only to rediscover our own Great Tradition (Platonism), but to find truth in other religious visions of the Good.
This statement must be qualified by Plant’s orthodoxy: He claims no esoteric equivalence between the Christianity of Pseudo-Dionysius and the Buddhism of Shinran, only analogous structures of thought which can be placed in fruitful and mutually enriching dialogue. Both, he argues, posit a kenotic, fully transcendent reality at the root of being that can be addressed through nembutsu, or what Dionysius calls “hymning.” Together with Shin Buddhists, Christian Platonists can offer a true alternative to the spiritual wasteland of secularism, and in the process, re-enchant and revivify their own traditions. The Lost Way to the Good stocks no silver bullets—the Good cannot be bound by our exigencies—but it embodies the best of a thoughtful eclecticism, animated by the conviction that lost paths can again be found.