My reading habits have been changing lately. Early in the winter I picked up and dropped a long list of books, including Ulrich Volker’s new Hitler: The Ascent, Carlos Eire’s Reformations, John Le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel, and the Cambridge Concise History of Japan. All intriguing, all enjoyable reads, but for whatever reason my heart was not in them. It’s been several months since I made it to the end of a book. Something about the instability of the present moment and my own increasingly protean intellectual interests has prevented me from following through.
It’s all very fun for me. For the past decade I’ve devoted myself almost exclusively to the contemplation and exposition of matters of abstract principle—philosophy, theology, morals, education. It’s remarkably satisfying to be able to use words to make things do things. I never took any computer science related courses in college, and the whole business of programming was an intimidating enigma to me for a long time. Having pulled back the curtain, I find that it is intelligible and delightful, and even perhaps the closest thing to magic (aside from the Sacraments) in the present life.
My wife and I have been reading passages from Robert Cardinal Sarah's book-length interview God or Nothing every Sunday as additional spiritual reading. Cardinal Sarah's warmth and love for God and the Church come through loud and clear on every page. His life story is incredible: born in a remote village in Guinea, he was educated by Holy Ghost Fathers and eventually went to a junior seminary at the age of eleven. His parents initially disbelieved him when he told them the missionaries were encouraging him to discern for the priesthood, because they were under the impression that only white Frenchmen could become priests! But a priest Sarah became, and then a bishop and archbishop (at only 34!), under frightening political circumstances where the Church was being suppressed by Guinean dictator Sékou Touré and the military coup that succeeded him. Sarah's fearless faith leads him both to speak hard truth to power and to share God's love with the weak and marginalized. Here are two passages that demonstrate these two themes.
First, Cardinal Sarah, in his farewell speech in Guinea before leaving for Rome, challenged the country's regime in the strongest terms:
I am worried about Guinean society, which is built on the oppression of the insignificant by the powerful, on contempt for the poor and the weak, on the cleverness of poor stewards of the public good, on the bribery and corruption of the administration and the institutions of our republic. . . . I am speaking to you Mr. President of the Republic, even though you are not here. Endowed by the Lord with all sorts of natural and culture resources, Guinea, paradoxically stagnates in poverty . . . Democratic freedoms are taken hostage by idealogical trends that can lead to intolerance and dictatorship. In the past, giving your word meant something sacred. It is true that a person's merit is measured by his ability to be faithful to his word. Today, the media, demagoguery, mind conditioning, and all sorts of other methods are used to sway public opinion and manipulate minds, giving the impression of a collective rape of consciences and a serious confiscation of freedoms and of thought.
Second, Cardinal Sarah speaks on charity, reflecting on his time heading the Pontifical Council Cor unum:
If we know how to practice charity, we will know how to revere God and we will be able to journey toward eternity. Through charity, we allow God to accomplish his work in us. Through charity, we abandon ourselves entirely to God. And he is the one who acts in us, and we act in him and through him and with him.
There is never any more authentic relation with God than in an encounter with the poor. For this is the source of life in God: poverty.
Our Father is poor. This is perhaps an image of God that eludes us and repels us, because we have really met “the Son of man [who] has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:20).
I was born, raised, and educated in California, but ever since moving to New York, I've struggled to articulate precisely what makes the Pacific coast in general and my home state in particular so different from the rest of the nation. To that end, I picked up a copy of the all-encompassing single-volume chronicle California: A History, by recently deceased Catholic historian Kevin Starr.
Starr's California is the birthplace of a new political experiement, rivalling even the American Experiment in size and ambition. Whereas America was founded on an ideology—a set of Enlightenment propositions about human nature and public order—California was founded simply on the allure of its physical geography, its natural abundance, its reputation as a modern-day Arcady. As Starr puts it:
A streak of nature worship—sometimes mawkish and sentimental, sometimes neopagan in its intensity, and, toward the millenium, frequently Zen-like in its clarity and repose—runs through the imaginative, intellectual and moral history of California as a fixed reference point of social identity.
Starr traces this romanticism back to the state's earliest history. Spanish explorers named California after the mythological homeland of a race of black Amazons, described in Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo's 1510 novel Las Sergas de Esplandián as “very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise.” Native Americans in California never developed large-scale political institutions like the Iroquois or the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southern Atlantic coast, because nature's bounty made organized trade and warfare largely unnecessary. This temperate idyll, this New World Eden—equal parts fact and legend—is doubtless the same fantasy conjured by Rousseau in the Discourse on Inequality, when he dreams of a primitive abundance so great that, “If, for instance, I am driven from one tree, I can go to the next.”
Starr's image of California as a garden of earthly delights reminded me of James M. Cain's 1933 essay for the American Mercury, “Paradise,” which blamed the state's endless sunshine and gentle climate for driving residents into a sort of hedonistic stupor. With plenitude a fact of everyday life, Californians developed a “vast cosmic indifference” toward the demands of morality, politics, business, and craft—even basic occupational competence—so that life took on “a dreadful vacuity.”
It was a place, Cain believed, quite unlike any other:
What I am trying to say is that the air, the sun, the lay of the land, the feel of what is going on here, make the inalienable right of man to talk, wrangle, and fight himself out of his daily bread seem somewhat beside the point; that may be what other sections have their mind on, but not this one.
That, my friends, is what Californians mean by “laid back.”
As a kid, probably in second grade, I was obsessed with Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series. In each novel, the child protagonists are transported by the Magic Tree House to encounter dinosaurs, pirates, and Egyptian mummies, all in their particular time and place.
It struck me while reading The Nine Tailors this week, that Dorothy Sayers follows a similar conceit with her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Although the series as a whole is temporally and geographically defined by twentieth-century Britain, each mystery immerses the reader in a different world. An Oxford women’s college in Gaudy Night, a London advertising agency in Murder Must Advertise, and a country estate in Clouds of Witness (which also ventures into an Anarchist dive, featuring an unforgettable young Boheme who cannot keep her interminable string of beads out of the soup).
The Nine Tailors all but deafens the readers with the technicalities of church bell ringing, and then drops a grisly murder. Enter Wimsey and Bunter from a providential motoring accident on a dark and stormy night, and the race is on. Impressively researched and crafted, Nine Tailors is often acclaimed as the best of Sayers’s mysteries. I don’t like to pick favorites among my darlings, but I’m willing to concede to the critics here.