Life Magazine, September 6, 1948—It was on the coffee table at a friend's house, and I have just spent the last hour poring over it. There is Joe DiMaggio under the lights slamming a double to beat the Athletics. A few pages later there's an editorial entitled “How Red a Herring?” that recounts “the personal confrontation of Whitaker Chambers, the ex-Communist who is now a valued employee of Time Inc., and Alger Hiss, former State Department bigwig who has been accused by Mr. Chambers of having belonged to a Washington Communist infiltration group.” Photos of the antagonists testifying before Congress appear later. We have a photo essay of ten days in Berlin, where tensions between U.S, British, and Russian troops run high. Another story profiles a Kansas youth movement against “likker,” while another covers the death of Charles Evans Hughes, one-time SupremeCourt Justice (he left the Court in 2016 to run for President against Woodrow Wilson). Madison, Wisconsin, we are told, “Is it the best place in America to live?”
There is much more, including the marvelous advertisements (“So many ladies say there is something particularly attractive about a man smoking a pipe . . .”). The whole thing is a time-capsule, pleasing in part because it hasn't a whisper of postmodern irony. It's a rich time-capsule, and I plan to work in to my American literature coursea homework assignment next week that will require students to scan several issues of Life from this era.
Simon Leys had pretensions to unoriginality. He claimed that his famous exposés of Maoist terror were simple statements of obvious facts. He also published two books consisting entirely of quotations from others. The first, The Sea in French Literature, unites two of his great passions. The second, Other People’s Thoughts, is an idiosyncratic commonplace book gathering observations on death, sex, litotes, etc. Readers of Leys’s essays and his translation of The Analects will recognize many of the quotations and be glad to encounter them again. They will also find new delights: “Holiness rather than peace” (Newman); “If sh— were valuable the poor would be born without arses” (Portuguese proverb); “The silence of men of taste acts as the conscience of bad writers” (Riverol). A fine party, but I found myself missing the voice of the host. Leys, a less unoriginal writer than he claimed to be, crafted his own fine aphorisms. A timely one comes from his essay The Imitation of our Lord Don Quixote: “The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”
I read a book by John Gray called The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom. The book describes a number of science fiction novels in which either human-made machines or (largely) machines from outer space take over the world. I was left really unsure about what this was supposed to demonstrate or even show. There was also some discussion about conspiracy theories, which was supposed to prove that we look for reasons where there are none. There's a gruesome section about the Aztecs, whose civilization the author thinks is emblematic of the human condition, except for that he doesn't think there is such a thing as ‘the human condition', since he doesn't think there's such a thing as ‘humanity.' Except for when he does, which is when he is telling us that human beings are Über-Marionettes. Years ago, before some readers of FT were born, John Gray used to be a conservative political philosopher. He then turned against conservatism, provoking ‘two-brains' Willetts, the Über-brainy Tory MP, to describe Gray as having had “a political sex change operation.” He counselled conservatives to get over it, because the change was irrevocable. I kept looking for some grains of sense here, and no doubt Gray would say that I am fated to do so.
I've been reading Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages, by Sr. Ann Astell. Simone Weil once said that “The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations.” So the title isintentionally provocative and ambiguous, carrying, on the one hand, connotations of frightening, mythic consumption, maybe even the devouring mouth of the grave from which no one and nothing—not even the most beautiful—is safe, and on the other, a kind of “magical hope.” What does it mean if beauty can be eaten for the one eating? Does this beauty become all his? Here, Astell explains how “eating beauty” is seen in the case of the Eucharist, and how this was “productive of an entire ‘way' of life . . . an artwork, with Christ himself as the principal artist” for the people of the Middle Ages, even establishing for them different schools of sanctity. The book becomes, moreoever, an exploration of the development of the Christian idea of beauty (often quite shocking to our modern eyes and ears) through Astell's discussion of various saints, and her inclusion of artworks.
I've begun Robert Farrar Capon's The Supper of the Lamb, a charming cookbook/theological meditation. Capon, an Episcopal priest with a hearty, self-deprecating authorial voice, offers in his “culinary reflection” a series of ferial recipes for home cooks to stretch their stores and fill lots of hungry mouths—and a course in cultivating joy in creation, a guide to properly loving the good things God has made and given to us, such as food. He begins with a lesson in being present to the real things of the material world (for: “one real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world”). The lesson, naturally, consists of peeling and chopping an onion—meditatively, over the course of an hour.
At one point, he instructs you to firmly press a thin sliver of onion with the back of your fingernail, and watch it dissolve into juice—the onion itself is all but gone, but its smell is now part of you. This is a blessing, Capon insists, because the persistent echo of the onion clinging to your hand will, for the next few days, remind you of the lesson you have learned. We have seen, in carefully disassembling the onion all the way down into water, a part of creation sustained always by God's will:
For somehow, beneath this gorgeous paradigm of unnecessary being, lies the Act by which it exists. You have just now reduced it to its parts, shivered it into echoes, and pressed it to a memory, but you have also caught the hint that a thing is more than the sum of all the unsubstantialities that comprise it. Hopefully, you will never again argue that the solidities of the world are matters of accident, creatures of air and darkness, temporary and meaningless shapes out of nothing. Perhaps now you have seen at least dimly that the uniquenesses of creation are the result of continuous creative support, of effective regard by no mean lover. He likes onions, therefore they are. The fit, the colors, the smell, the tensions, the tastes, the textures, the lines, the shapes are a response, not to some forgotten decree that there may as well be onions as turnips, but to His present delight—His intimate and immediate joy in all you have seen, and in the thousand other wonders you do not even suspect.