Reading the 1991 novel A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin (a contributor to this month's magazine) is like going back to the great works of the 19th century. Like Sir Walter Scott's historical novels, it takes place amidst events events that changed the course of human affairs, in this case, World War I, but remains vividly focused on one character's fate. Like the Bildungsroman, too, we see a sensibility in formation, developing through unusual experiences that mold our hero forever. And just as it was for Hugo, George Eliot, and Tolstoy, for Helprin the novel is a serious mode of moral instruction. He plants in characters' mouths and in his own descriptions reflections on God, beauty, love, patriotism, and death, and never sinks into bathos or sententiousness. And there isn't one note of hip, knowing, postmodernistically ironic, or wry expression the entire 880 pages. I shall have my son read it when he's 16, telling him, “Close that screen, forget those superheroes, take out those earbuds, and read this and learn.”
I recently read Comment magazine's winter issue, cover to cover. The subject of the issue was “cultural jigs”: habits and practices we adopt to constrain our choices in service of leading better lives. The term is derived from carpentry, where a jig is a tool that provides consistency and accuracy. Here's a simple, concrete example of a cultural jig: a family keeps their smartphones on a shelf by the door. Anytime one of them wants to use the phone, he or she can do so, but only standing next to that shelf. This encourages the phone-user to be efficient and avoid endless browsing, and frees up the rest of the home from the constant temptation of pocketed smartphones.
I recommend the issue both for the practical examples like this scattered throughout in sidebars, and the longer pieces, like Jen Pollock Michel on observing the Sabbath and especially Wesley Hill on jigs for marriage and celibacy. He discusses, movingly, how Christian families can make a habit of opening their homes to single people, focusing on the value of children in fostering such hospitality:
One of the primary ways I've seen this kind of marital hospitality fleshed out is when married couples have welcomed me, a single man, to the table—literally, to the dinner table—alongside their children. I've had many married friends over the years who have been happy to book sitters for their kids so they can meet me, childless, at the cinema or concert venue or so that we can carpool to the same adults-only dinner party. Those times have been pleasant enough and occasionally even memorable. But they fade in significance when compared with the times I've been invited into the chaotic rhythm, happy or otherwise, of a family's regular routine. While I was in graduate school in England, an American couple began to include me in their dinner and post-dinner evening routine with their children on several nights of each week. Jono, the husband in this couple who was, like me, a postgraduate at the university, and I would finish a day at the library and together take the bus back to their flat. Once inside, I'd be greeted by the cacophony of his and Megan's toddlers and whatever messes they'd managed to make in the course of the day. Sometimes I helped Megan cook dinner. I would sit beside high chairs smeared with mashed green beans or dotted with uneaten bits of scrambled egg. Usually I would do the dishes afterward as the kids were bathed and put to bed, and the three of us, along with other friends sometimes, would try to unwind with a bottle of wine in the living room and episodes of Friday Night Lights. I wasn't so much a guest as I was an uncle, an expected face in their normal, unprettified lives—a relational status that was eventually sealed when I stood as a godparent for their second child's baptism.
Perhaps children are the greatest cultural jig of all, constraining our choices (as any parent will tell you!) but in ways that open us up to our neighbors and our future.
I've been reading Simon Leys' translation of Confucius' Analects. Leys' Confucius is a classical humanist, sharing with familiar Western thinkers from Socrates to Montesquieu a belief in the essential dignity and universal brotherhood of mankind. Yet Confucius also has a vivid appreciation for the power of rituals and liturgies that is often lacking in his Western analogues. He is concerned with the proper performance of the “rites,” a word referring to both specific religious ceremonies and general moral conventions. In its broadest sense, according to Leys, “rites” more or less corresponds to our concept of “civilization.”
Consider this saying from Book I:
When practicing the ritual, what matters most is harmony. This is what made the beauty of the ancient kings; it inspired their every move, great or small. Yet they knew where to stop: harmony cannot be sought for its own sake; it must always be subordinated to the ritual; otherwise it would not do.
Confucius suggests that some formal conventions are so intimately intertwined with the good they effect in their participants that altering them in any conscious way—no matter one's intentions—inevitably alters the effect as well. The ritual is only an efficient cause (the “how” or “by what means”) of the good it effects, but not in any arbitrary or accidental way—it may, barring unforeseen future developments or divine intervention, be the only possible means of effecting the good in question.
Leys, in his delightfully erudite notes and commentary on the Analects, puts it like this:
On the formal level, [the rites] constitute a sort of liturgy, but like our own liturgical rites, these forms, when properly understood and performed, are not hollow: they are efficient and operative, they regulate and teach. When the ritual becomes loose, civilization is eroded and barbarism creeps in.
If the West is customarily tempted by rationalism (Kant says, “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!”), the East often flirts with legalism. But Simon Leys should be thanked for saving Confucius from both of these greedy factions.
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