A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Category Archives: Books, Literature, the Arts

Fourth century words about words

St. Basil, who lived from around 330-379 CE, is one of the “three hierarchs” of the Orthodox Church. I’ve just finished reading (in a translation by RJ Deferrai), an excellent essay On the distinction between ousia and hypostasis. In this letter, he writes very clearly about the Christian view of God as Triune, in particular explaining the meaning of the technical terms ousia (abstract being) and hypostasis (individual being).

It’s good as a piece of theology, but it’s also interesting as clear technical writing. It also has a fascinating illustration of the rainbow, which he makes clear is to be used as an illustration; it’s not reasoning by analogy. He also uses it to show that the ousia/hypostasis distinction is not just a piece of theology, but that similar phenomena occur “mong perceptible things.”

His description on how rainbows work is amazing, considering he’s writing in the fourth century:

Those who are skilled in these things claim that [this bow] is formed whenever a certain moisture is mixed with the air, the force of the winds compressing the moist and dense [portions] of the vapours, already having become cloudy, into rain. They say the process of formation is this. When the ray of the sun intercepts at a slant the compact and opaque [portion] of the cloud, then immediately it impresses its own circle upon the cloud such that there is a bending and return of the light to itself, for the sunlight returns in the opposite direction from what is moist and shiny. For since it is in the nature of flame-like | flashes of light, if they fall upon something smooth, to recoil back upon themselves, and since the shape of the sun which is formed in the damp and smooth part of the air is circular, necessarily also is the air adjacent to the cloud outlined in the shape of the sun’s disc by the reflecting brilliance.

Could you do a better job? And he makes a distinction between continuous and discrete properties that seems very modern:

Now this brilliancy is both continuous with itself and separated. For although it is many-coloured and multiform, imperceptibly it is intermingled in itself with the various colours of the dyer, so that the juncture between [the colours] steals unaware from our eyes. As such we cannot discern between the blue-green and the yellow an intervening space which both mingles them together and separates them from each other, or between the yellow and the purple, or between the purple and the amber. For when the rays of all the colours are seen [together], they are distinct yet also hide from us their points of continuity with each other, eluding our scrutiny, with the result that it is impossible to discover just how far the red or the green [portion] of the radiance extends, and from which point it begins no longer to be that which it is observed to be in its distinct segment.

Finally, and I think this is very interesting to find in a fourth century writing (you must understand that I really don’t know that much about fourth century writing), is that he allows a word to mean different things in different contexts, rather than have a fixed, platonic meaning. This he does to explain what St. Paul meant when he described Jesus as being the figure of God the Father’s hypostasis, which is odd if hypostasis means the essence of what it means to be a particular individual.

But we assert this, namely that the statement fulfils a different purpose for the apostle, … a purpose which, if a person perceives it properly, he will find does not contradict our statements; but [Paul’s] argument is carried out with a certain peculiar intention.


Harry Potter and the …

… Deathly Hollows.

You read it here, first.

The Man in the Ceiling (A review)

Jules Feiffer began writing children’s books in the early ’90s; his first children’s book, apparently somewhat autobiographical, was The Man in the Ceiling. Lovely wife got it out of the library, and I’ve read it this evening.

The story centers around Jimmy, a boy who isn’t much good in at sports (as a real boy should be), but who can draw cartoons very very well. He’s got a driven father, a forgetful mother who is a fashion designer; an older sister prone to tantrums, and a little overlooked sister prone to being a bit of a pest. And there’s an uncle who writes plays that consistently flop. This is a vivid exploration of the talents and troubles of a family, how people change, and how people face failure. The story’s denouement left me a bit breathless.

And of course, there’s Feifer’s wonderful cartoons, both drawn from his adult perspective, and Jimmy’s cartoons, which are exactly what you’d expect from a precocious talent.

I guess I’m gushing, but it’s well worth a read.

Freddy and Fredericka (a short review)

I’ve just finished Mark Helprin’s picaresque novel Freddy and Fredericka. It’s a good book that could have been a great book–or, perhaps, a pretty good book that could have been a good book–with better editing. It’s conceit is wonderfully ludicrous: Freddy and Fredericka, the Prince and Princess of Wales, (based on Charles and Diana) are set the quest to reacquire the United States for the British Empire. They are parachuted into New Jersey under cover of darkness and face a number of American perils and adventures: fighting off a biker gang, traveling down Twain’s Mississippi, burgling modern art from the nouveau riche, tramping on freight trains. At its best, it’s a modern take on the human cost of the royal quest, reminding me of White’s Once and Future King. At its worst, it has too many “Who’s on first” routines (My father, who’s sane… You say your father’s Hussein?, etc.) and funny names (Lord Psnake, Dewey Knott, Lady Boylinghotte, etc.). Helprin has that storyteller’s way which can convert the impossibility of the plot into an advantage. Most (not all) of their adventures, and the overall quest itself, makes sense in the world Helprin creates. If there were a divine right of kings, this is the sort of adventure that might befall them.
Worth a read, now available in a Penguin trade cover edition.

The Barn at the End of the World

Book cover I’ve been quite enjoying reading The Barn at the End of the World, by Mary Rose O’Reilley, published by Milkweed Press. It reminds me a lot of the writing of Annie Dillard (who has her own website: ‘The Secrets of the Universe as Decoded by the Unhinged’): essays about mindfulness at the interface between the natural and artificial worlds, as well at the interface of the social and solitary life. O’Reilly has a kind of spiritual eclecticism (not only is she a Quaker Buddhist shepherd, but a former Catholic novitiate) that I find both appealing and a bit scandalous–why is this Quaker/Catholic bowing before a buddha? But it’s a question she asks herself–one thing I find appealing about her is how she approaches spiritual practices with an open but doubtful mind. Also, there’s a lot about sheep-raising; I don’t think I’ll be raising sheep anytime soon, any more than I’d want to raise chickens.
Thanks to Linda for lending me the book.

Duels and breaks with lardy eggs on Saturday

In the first chapter of Don Quixote, Cervantes introduces us to the modest straights of “the Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote of La Mancha” by describing his diet:

Una olla de algo más vaca que carnero, salpicón las más noches, duelos y quebrantos los sábados, lantejas los viernes, algún palomino de añadidura los domingos, consumían las tres partes de su hacienda.

I’ve just started reading Edith Grossman’s new translation, and it contains the first paragraph from several English translations. I found the different translations of this sentence really interesting.

Grossman: An occasional stew, beef more often than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes a squab as a treat on Sundays—these consumed three-fourths of his income.

John Rutherford (2001): A midday stew with rather more shin of beef than leg of lamb, the leftover for supper most nights, lardy eggs on Saturdays, lentil broth on Fridays and an occasional pigeon as a Sunday treat ate up most of his income.

Samuel Putnam (1949): A stew with beef than mutton in it, chopped meat for his evening meal, scraps for a Saturday, lentils on Friday, and a young pigeon as a special delicacy for Sunday, went to account for three-quarters of his income.

J.M. Cohen (1950): His habitual diet consisted of a stew, more beef than mutton, of hash most nights, boiled bones on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a young pigeon as a Sunday treat; on on these he spent three-quarters of his income.

Charles Jarvis (1842): A dish of boiled meat, consisting somewhat more beef than mutton, the fragments served up cold on most nights, an omelet of Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a small pigeon by way of addition on Sundays, consumed three-fourths of his income.

Also, from the web. John Ormsby: An olla of rather more beef than mutton, a salad on most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so extra on Sundays, made away with three-quarters of his income.

Google/Babelfish/Systran translation: A pot of something more cow than sheep, salmigundi the pluses nights, duels and breaks Saturdays, lantejas Fridays, some palomino of addition Sundays, consumed the three parts of their property.

Fitzgerald (2006): A simple stew from beef more often than lamb, with leftovers most nights, and nothing but eggs and scraps on Saturdays and lentils on Fridays, with just maybe a squab on special Sundays—these consumed three-quarters of his income.

The Bible as "messy"

Extremely surprising article at über-evangelical Christianity Today: Messy Revelation: Why Paul would have flunked hermeneutics by historian and biblical studies expert Susan Wise Bauer. It’s a very positive review of a book by Peter Enns titled Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Enns argues that the New Testament writers interpreted the Hebrew scriptures in the writers’ own social and cultural context–the writers had come to believe in Jesus as the resurrected Messiah, and then found evidence in the scriptures. Enns calls this “incarnational;” the writers would no more interpret the scriptures as anything other than early Christians than Jesus would have come as anything other than a first century Jew. Further Enns admits this is “messy,” but refuses to succumb to a slippery-slope argument that this will lead to anyone reading anything into scripture.

In other words, the interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures by the New Testament writers was not inspired or inerrant (to use that ugly word). The “grammatico-historical method” (the general term that evangelicals use for the one true method of interpretation) is only one of many possible good ways of scripture interpretation. Enns claims that a scriptural hermaneutic must be Christ-centered, but that the messiness will remain. To think that the grammitico-historical method is the only way is to deny that the New Testament writers interpreted Scripture correctly, and Enns likens it to a kind of docetism, that the humanity evidenced by the scriptures (and the interpretation methods found therein) only seem human. Scripture is fully human-breathed and fully God-breathed, as it were.

I wrote an undergraduate paper on the interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures in the New Testament almost thirty years ago. In it, I argued what I think is a compatible stance: since the New Testament writers intepreted scripture in such-and-such a way, we were licensed to do the same. (I don’t think I impressed my professor, the wonderfully generous Fred Graham, but I think it wasn’t so bad). Enns might say this is not so “incarnational,” i.e., against the spirit of our own age. But I suspect one would find the New Testament writers remarkably postmodern (in some contorted meaning of that word) in their thinking: narrative over brute facts, experience over words, etc.

Well, anyway, good on Enns, and good on Susan Wise Bauer, and good on CT for publishing the article.

Qual question: What is the worst poem?

Daughter Jane has an assignment to “savor [the] awfulness” of a very bad poem, so we got to read some one unto another. Seamus Cooney has a Bad Poetry page, but there isn’t much that’s truly awful there, except perhaps, Kalamazoo (bottom of page) by JB Smiley:


On the outskirts are celery marshes
Which only a few years ago
Were as wet as a drugstore in Kansas
And as worthless as marshes could grow,
Well some genius bethought him to drain them
And to add in a short year or two
About eighty-five thousand dollars
To the income of Kalamazoo.

The Michigan Insane Asylum
Is up on the top of the hill,
And some irresponsible crazies
Meander around there at will,
And they frequently talk to a stranger,
And they sometimes escape, it is true,
But the folks are not all of them crazy
Who hail from Kalamazoo.

I tried to convince Jane that the Sacred Harp poem O Come Away was truly awful, but she so dislikes Sacred Harp, she can’t even think of it as bad:

Oh come, come away,
From the labor now reposing,
Our jubilee has set us free —
Oh come, come away!
Come, hail the day that celebrates
The ransom of th’inebriates
From all that does intoxicate,
Oh come, come away!

We welcome you here!
With heart and hand wide open,
Ye gallant sons of temperance —
We welcome you here!
Heav’n’s blessings on your plans, we pray!
Ye come our sinking friends to save,
And rescue from a drunkard’s grave;
We welcome you here!

We welcome you here!
Ye who with taste perverted
Have seized the cup, and drank it up —
We welcome you here!
Come, join us in our holy aim,
The poor besotted to reclaim,
The broken heart to cheer again,
Oh come, sign the pledge!

(It does have a rollicking tune, though).

Among people trying to write bad poetry, we liked Love guppy, too long to repeat here. But I prefer the lyrics to “Hump my hump“:

Hump my hump,
My stumpy lumpy hump!
Hump my dump, you lumpy slumpy dump!
I’ll dump your hump, and then just hump your dump,
You lumpy frumply clump.

(Though the rest of the article isn’t fit for pure eyes). Ok, qual takers out there: what’s the worst poem?

Boats against the current

I used F. Scott (no relation) Fitzgerald’s last line from the Great Gatsby,

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

in an email note today, basically as an excuse for why something I’ve been working on probably won’t be finished on time, and why we should probably revert to an older version. This is just one of the many advantages of a sort-of liberal arts undergraduate degree: better sounding excuses.

Would Orwell blog?

So the Financial Times has a pretty good article on weblogging, Time for the last post (via kottke), but snarks about Orwell:

The great critic and editor Cyril Connolly fell into despair over the prolixity of Orwell’s wartime writing: “Being Orwell, nothing he wrote is quite without value and unexpected gems keep popping up. But O the boredom of argument without action, politics without power.”

Connolly was the constitutional opposite of Orwell – a spry wit given to sloth, a portly bon vivant who masticated away his genius. But he recognised, in effect, how awful Orwell would have been as a blogger, and how he would fall into the kind of dross exemplified by the author’s “In Defence of English Cooking”: “Here are some of the things that I myself have sought for in foreign countries and failed to find. First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets. Then a list of puddings that would be interminable if I gave it in full: I will pick out for special mention Christmas pudding, treacle tart and apple dumplings. Then an almost equally long list of cakes: for instance, dark plum cake.”

The point is, any writer of talent needs the time and peace to produce work that has a chance of enduring. Connolly provided that to Orwell with the influential literary magazine he co-edited, Horizon, a publication that gave Orwell the chance to write some of his most memorable essays.

But the fact is that Orwell, for almost all of his life, had to write lots to survive. In his “Confessions of a book reviewer“, he wrote:

In a cold but stuffy bed-sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups o tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing-grown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room fo his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it. He cannot throw the papers away because the wastepaper basket is already overflowing, and besides somewhere among the unanswered letters and unpaid bills it is possible that there is cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank. …He is a man of thirty-five, but looks fifty. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover. At present it is half past eleven in the morning, and according to his schedule he should have started work two hours ago; but even if he had made any serious effort to start he would have been frustrated by the almost continuous ringing of the telephone bell, the yells of the baby, the rattle of an electric drill out in the street, and the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs. The most recent interruption was the arrival of the second post, which brought him two circulars and an income-tax demand printed in red.

Of course he wrote too much; he had to, to survive. Animal Farm and 1984 were not financially successful until just about the time he died. Christopher Hitchens was surely right when he said that Orwell died of poverty.

In any case, what’s wrong with writing a ‘defense of English cooking’? Surely a man who starved ‘down and out in Paris and London,’ and nearly died fighting in the Spanish Civil War can write about the pleasures of simple things, and the pain of missing them. Besides that, Orwell was generally on a campaign to stop the left from taking life over-seriously. He thought people should fight the good fight, but should also enjoy the pleasures–nature, food, literature–that surround them. Give me spare prose in praise of simple things instead of the spry wit of masticating sloths any day.