R. R. Reno
I recently finished Edmund Taylor’s gripping story of the causes and consequences of World War I, The Fall of Dynasties. Taylor was a journalist in Europe during the 1930s. He had first-hand knowledge of what it felt like to live in the ruins of the Old World. His main thesis is that the horrors of World War I came about in large part because the structures of European society and the social instincts of its leadership class had become detached from the rapidly changing realities of modern industrial society.
In preparation for a speech later this month at Oglethorpe University on science and the humanities, I am reading the first English edition of Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and General Theory, published in 1920. I’d read accounts before in Einstein-made-easy texts, but never this account of relativity by Einstein himself and intended for a learned, but not specialist audience (“those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics”). If you take it slow, most of the argument comes through clearly, except where the mathematical formulae dominate. What is most striking from a humanistic perspective is how much Einstein will build his presentation on an ordinary occasion. In Chapter III (each chapter runs only a few pages), Einstein proposes, “I stand at the window of a railway carriage which is traveling uniformly, and drop a stone on the embankment, without throwing it.” It’s that simple, nothing more is needed. But from that trivial moment Einstein proceeds to the largest cosmological issues of time, light, space, and the universe. He returns to the example again and again, pausing to ask how the stone appears to those on the train and to those on the embankment, how people at opposite ends of the train experience outside events, how light travels relative to the moving coach (which gets us to the relativity of time), etc. The conclusions to be drawn from the book are not only the aspects of the theory of relativity. We should also take a lesson in perception: once in a while, look closely and patiently at what you see and hear, and know your position in space and time when you do so.
J. David Nolan
Named by the Guardian as one of the top hundred novels written in the English language, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop builds parody on parody in a nearly perfect ribbing of the world of newsmakers.William Boot, a nature journalist who lives on a small country estate in the English countryside, finds himself mistakenly swept off to cover a war in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia. Waugh matches the idiocy of headline hungry editors with the innocent incompetence of a young Brit who’s very out of place. The result is a novel whose surreal qualities made me chuckle and whose close brushes with the reality of journalism made me, as an editor, feel like I should apologize for something.
I recently read a book of essays entitled The Beauty of God’s House, edited by Francesca Murphy, and compiled in honor of Stratford Caldecott, who passed away last summer. In the Introduction, Murphy writes, “It would not be accurate to say that Stratford Caldecott has ‘promoted’ the connection of imagination and Christianity in England for the past twenty-five years. It would be better to say that, along with his wife, Leonie, he has lived the bond of imagination and Christianity for most of his adult life. This living witness to the beauty of the Christian faith has been important for the survival of Christianity in ‘England’s green and pleasant land.’” I was fortunate enough to have been tutored by Stratford during my year abroad in college, and can attest in a small way to the fact that this man had a gift for helping others “not only to see, but to envision the truth.” This particular volume contains essays that range from cosmology to sacred art to John Henry Newman, all in some way related to theological aestheticsthe beauty of Goda lens which can often get mired or even lost in the culture wars of our day. There is something important here, something that needs to be resuscitated and revealed and protected. All of Stratford’s work speaks to this. A suggestion: read his Beauty for Truth’s Sake.