Kingsley Amis once said, “If it doesn't begin with ‘A shot rang out,' I don't want to read it.” That's how I've felt recently, and so I've been reading Agatha Christie (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Murder on the Links) and Ross Macdonald (The Goodbye Look). I've also recently read Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe's new biography of Éric Rohmer and Simone Weil's The Need for Roots, but those were for business . . . more about them in due time. Meanwhile, thanks to Matthew Walther for that wonderful Amis quote, and please recommend more pulps.
Elliot MilcoI’ve been bouncing around a lot between books lately. Last week I read Plato’s Gorgias (edifying, entertaining, and extremely timely). Prior to that I had been alternating between R. R. Reno’s new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (frank, fluid, also timely), Michel Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure, which analyzes the role of pleasure in the pursuit of moral excellence in ancient society (well-analyzed, incisive, perverse), Melville’s Moby Dick, with its mix of subtle comedy and biblically-proportioned drama, and Rilke’s Stundenbuch, which I wrote about last time. This week I’m reading Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning The Hours. (And dabbling in Tissier de Mallerais’s biography of Marcel Lefebvre.)
I grew up on Harry Potter. The boy wizard was a companion of my childhood. Indeed, I compared my achievements with his, motivating myself by thinking “Come on, Alexi, you can finish this essay: Harry Potter had saved the world three times by your age.” The Wizarding World was, with Middle Earth and Narnia, one of the secondary realms I felt most at home in.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child bills itself as “The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later.” J. K. Rowling's name is prominent on the cover, but I suspect her co-authors John Tiffany and Jack Thorne are much more responsible for this new entry into the Hogwarts canon. It is the script of the two-part play now playing in London to rapturous reviews—the New York Times commends its “kind of magic that is purely theatrical.” There must indeed be magic in the staging of this play, because the script is thoroughly pedestrian. Somehow, it is both ponderously long and breathlessly rushed. The story is about a grown-up Harry Potter's conflict with his son Albus, now a rebellious Hogwarts student. But the father-son relationship at the play's heart seems half-sketched, as if it's a storyboard of a character arc awaiting someone with an ear for dialogue. Such a savior never materializes. The characters talk like flattened-out versions of their equivalents in the books—Harry, Ron, Hermione, and their compatriots have all supposedly become important figures in their world but sometimes seem less mature then when they were moody adolescents under Rowling's pen.
When the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer was revived for a sixth season, it incorporated its own resurrection into the plot: that season asked whether bringing Buffy/Buffy back from the dead was a good idea. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, with its endless time-traveling plot that loops back into the main Harry Potter series to create darker and darker timelines, wants to pull a similar trick. It wants to make us root for its premise to be vindicated, for us to say yes, this should be a story about Harry Potter and his wayward son. Unfortunately, it fails. I'm convinced there are much better stories to be told about the Wizarding World than Harry having to re-live and re-consider his school days again and again.
One night last week I picked up with Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, and didn't put it down until it was finished several hours later. That alone should testify to its magnitude—I’ve been known to fall asleep over my bedtime reading.
Unlike the more complex characters in Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall’s protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, is barely two-dimensional. He is little more than a placeholder: “the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness.” Other characters open their hearts and biographies to him, a beautiful and self-interested lady (who also happens to run a chain of South American bordellos) falls in love with him, and he lands in prison for a crime of ignorance.
Waugh masters the art of conversational humor. The strangely logical non-sequiturs and the dialect variations of region and class that characterize the conversations are ridiculously funny. A few samples:
“I have noticed again and again since I have been in the Church that lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity.”
“Drink, pure and simple,” said the Colonel.
“Let’s go and talk to the Vicar about God,” said Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde. “Chokey thinks religion is just divine.”
“But no man can you ask against his Maker to blaspheme whatever unless him to pay more you were. Three pounds for the music is good and one for the blasphemy look you.”
“It has always been a mystery to me why people marry,” said Mr. Prendergast. “I can’t see the smallest reason for it. Quite happy, normal people.”
“Have you at any time been detained in a mental home or similar institution? If so, give particulars.”
“I was at Scone College, Oxford, for two years,” said Paul.
“There is a rather flattering article this week about our prison called the Lucas Dockery Experiments. I like the prisoners to know these things. It gives them corporate pride.”
The novel depicts the grating juxtaposition imposition of modernity on the old British tradition. It shows the decline and fall, not so much the colonial system, but the great empire of traditions and attitudes and institutions that made up Britain. And, in their midst, it makes small jabs at modernity's consequences: the “Modern Churchman” who “draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief,” the enlightened prison warden—“I came to the conclusion many years ago that almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression,” and avant-garde architecture—“india-rubber fungi in the recessed conservatory,” a floor that is “a large kaleidoscope, set in motion by an electric button.”
A 1954 review of Waugh’s work identifies “complete rejection of the modern” as the source of Waugh’s writing. And, because Waugh's nostalgia is “a yearning for an irretrievably lost cause . . . as social criticism [his work] is therefore merely frivolous and petulant.” I beg to differ. Waugh’s yearning—for something beautiful but utterly unattainable—is itself chivalric. His longing for the unattainable (and perhaps mythical) medieval, gives him the passion to fight the dragons of modernity. And if satire is his Excalibur, so much the better.
For a piece on economic discourse this election season (spoiler: it could be better), I've been re-reading parts of Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation and John Maynard Keynes’ 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Both of these capacious minds, I suspect, would have felt rather out of place in today’s technocratic world of wonks and white papers, with its distinction between “politics” and “policy”—but more on that later.
I'm also relishing Book II of St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, in particular its discussion of the nature of historical knowledge. On the one hand, reliable understanding of sacred texts requires some sense of the context in which their statements were originally uttered: “Because of their ignorance about hyssop many people, unaware of its power to cleanse the lungs or even (so it is said) to split rocks with its roots, in spite of its low and humble habit, are quite unable to discover why it is said, ‘You will purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean’ (Ps. 51:7).” You have to know what hyssop is, and how the Psalmist understood its uses, in order to understand his description of divine grace. Thus, “Whatever the subject called history reveals about the sequence of past events is of the greatest assistance in interpreting the holy books, even if learned outside the church . . .”
But after an extended reflection on Romans 1 (“Claiming to be wise, they became fools . . .”), Augustine encounters a problem. In a state of original sin, in which disordered human desires manipulate and misdirect reason, how can the student of scripture know which context is the right context, which history is the right history? Our common sense isn't sufficiently reliable to play at this high-stakes game: We often misattribute causes to empirical phenomena, and though we occasionally recognize our error in retrospect, more often than not we simply leave our instincts unquestioned.
Ultimately, Augustine realized, where simple fact-checking (as in the case of the hyssop) is inadequate to illuminate a passage, it is the charity of the reader—his love for God and for the text’s author—which will determine the veracity of his interpretation. In empirical and literary inquiry, where an explanation “is not apparent, it is the attitude of the user that matters.”
Here Augustine echoes his conclusions in Book XII of the Confessions and gestures toward his philosophy of history in the City of God. We are in time, while only God is beyond time; just as individual threads cannot perceive the whole tapestry of which they are but a part, the nature of temporal order is “hidden from us” (occulto nobis).
Of this [appointed order of things transitory] the beauty does not strike us, because by our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty. And therefore, where we are not so well able to perceive the wisdom of the Creator, we are very properly enjoined to believe it, lest in the vanity of human rashness we presume to find any fault with the work of so great an Artificer.