Why We Should Read Old Books

I know it’s been a while (a long, loooong while) since I last posted. End of semester paperwork and grading poorly written essays will do that to a person.

Anyway, I’m here now, so let’s get started with something rather easy. Check out this article by the great classicist Victor Davis Hanson on why we should read old books. An excerpt:

In the tragic world, thousands of personal agendas, governed by predictable human nature, ensure that things do not always quite work the way they should. We can learn from classics that most of us are more likely to resent superiority than to reward it, to distrust talent than to develop it. With classical training, our impatient youth might at least gain some perspective that the world is one where the better man is often passed over — precisely because he is the better man. Classics remind us that our disappointments are not unique to our modern selves. While we do not passively have to accept that unfairness (indeed Achilles and Ajax implode over it), we must struggle against it with the acceptance that the odds are against us.

And another:

Great literature and a knowledge of history serve as friends that reassure us that we are neither crazy nor alone. We can anticipate disasters rather than always having to learn through them. We expect paradoxes, given human nature, and so we do not need to weep over what happens to us, as if it is unique and unprecedented.

If you know Hanson’s work, you’ll know that he often mixes his specialty (classics and military history) with contemporary politics (of the more right side of the spectrum, limited government flavor). So, if that’s not your bag, fine. Feel free to pass it over. Still, he makes some very interesting points about the desperate need for us today to learn lessons from the past.

Posting may still be light for a while, as the summer semester starts next week, and presently we’re potty training our son. (I’m about to gnaw my thumbs off in frustration, too. Anything in the classics about potty training? Or perhaps I just need the Bible and a bottle of whiskey instead.)

C.T.

On This Good Friday

christ

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
Drifted for mortal moments.
-          Denise Levertov, “Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis”

For Christians, today is meant to be a somber day, full of meaning and lament, yet one pregnant with anticipation as well. Because as the buds are already appearing on the trees, life is just around the corner. That tomb wasn’t full for long. And soon, we shall celebrate that.

tomb

Hero as Conscience: Ed Tom Bell

Last week I promised to start a new series delving into our heroes and antiheroes (and perhaps some villains) from print and screen. So, seeking not to disappoint, I’ll start on a positive, with a hero:

Ed Tom Bell, Terrell County Sheriff, from Cormac McCarthy‘s No Country for Old Men.

Cover of "No Country for Old Men"

Cover of No Country for Old Men

If you’re not familiar with the novel or the film adaptation, Sheriff Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film) is a county sheriff in Texas who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Quickly, he realizes that one of his townsfolk, a Vietnam vet named Lewellyn Moss, happened upon the carnage while out hunting, and took the drug dealers’ money, putting him firmly in the cross hairs of a relentless hitman named Anton Chigurh (more on him in another post).

What’s interesting about Bell is that he’s unable to do much to stop the carnage (and believe me, by the end of the novel, dead bodies are littering the Texas countryside). Part of the reason, I’d say, is that Bell’s role is very specific in No Country for Old Men.

He is the conscience of the story.

"Conscience? Hey thanks! I like the sound of that."

“Conscience? Hey thanks! I like the sound of that.”

The plot is broken up by Bell’s musings about his life, his past mistakes, his view of the world, and the horrible murder spree spread out before him. And it’s in these musings that we get a sense not only of who Ed Tom Bell is, but what his role in the novel is as well. Here’s a sample:

I told a reporter here a while back–young girl, seemed nice enough. She was just tryin to be a reporter. She said: Sheriff how come you to let crime get so out of hand in your county? Sounded like a fair question I reckon. Maybe it was a fair question. Anyway I told her, I said: It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin Sir and Mam the end is pretty much in sight. I told her, I said: It reaches into ever strata. You’ve heard about that aint you? Ever strata? You finally get into the sort of breakdown in mercantile ethics that leaves people settin around out in the desert dead in their vehicles and by then it’s just too late.

The world that he once knew is now gone. Bell is a man struggling to find order and meaning in a disorderly and brutal culture. “My daddy always told me to just do the best you knew how and tell the truth,” Bell said. “I guess all that sounds pretty simple today.” He is an anachronism, he feels, awkwardly shoe-horned as a law officer into a culture that is increasingly lawless. He feels unfit for his role, a man of a bygone era wondering if he–or the morality he feels should still govern–still has a place.

But what he really brings is a conscience, a sense of right and wrong. Yes, in this fictionalized world of rural Texas in 1980, he is out of place. And the world indeed is off kilter. But he sees that, he understands it (although he is often confused as to why it is this way), and he communicates it to the reader through his thoughts.

No, he isn’t the only one shocked at the violence unfolding before him. Anton Chigurh cuts a bloody swathe through Texas like a shark at a beach party, and everyone is stunned. But we’re left with Bell, puzzling over not only how it happened, but how a culture could seemingly breed such horror in the first place. Bell contemplates his world:

I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin in the schools. And they come across these forms, they’d been filled out and sent in from around the country answerin these questions. And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copying homework. Things of that nature. So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time ever when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I’m gettin old. That it’s one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is that anybody that cant tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I’ve got. Forty years is not a long time neither. Maybe the next forty of it will bring some of em out from under the ether. If it aint too late.

He knows something serious is wrong, something systemic, elemental. And he’s afraid that he’s one of the last ones left who realizes it. It’s not moralizing as much as it is pointing out a flaw, or an absence of something. And it’s interesting to note that the novel takes place in 1980, with the horrors of Vietnam not too far in the rear view mirror, and American crime rates on the rise (including an explosion of drug-related crimes).

Kids, don't do drugs. Or Anton Chigurh will come for you.

Kids, don’t do drugs. Or Anton Chigurh will come for you.

So Ed Tom speaks to this absence of a conscience, speaking and wondering who, if anyone, will hear him. And his words are what keep this brilliant novel from careening off a nihilistic cliff. Yes, perhaps Bell can’t make sense out of it all, but still he seeks to do so. Still he asks the questions and hopes there are answers.

Is that particularly heroic? Shouldn’t he be out there, guns blazing, mowing down the drug dealers, bringing down on them Texas justice like the hammer of God, instead of being terrified of encountering Chigurh? Perhaps Ed Tom Bell is less hero and more antihero, a flawed, tired man (his experiences in World War II tell us much about him) who wants to do right, but is unsure if he can.

But jaded Sheriff Bell has more to him. “People complain about the bad things that happen to em that they don’t deserve but they seldom mention the good,” Bell states. “About what they done to deserve them things. I dont recall that I ever give the good Lord all that much cause to smile on me. But he did.” There can be good amid such chaos. Indeed there is, for the man who keeps speaking of his dear wife of forty years as his rock and partner in life.

We need such characters. Without them, we lose our mooring to standards that keep our culture afloat. Without them, we risk drifting off into an ocean of corruption and depravity. Ed Tom Bell may be an unheard, reluctant West Texas prophet, but his is a voice that we need to hear.

On Heroes and Antiheroes

A few months ago, I wrote a post questioning why nowadays, both in print and on screen, so many of our stories seem to eschew the more traditional hero for the antihero, or even eschewing the concept of heroism entirely in favor of outright villainy. (Are Tony Soprano and Don Draper even antiheroes? Honestly, I’d say no. But I welcome dissenting voices on this point!)

Tony Soprano

You love me ’cause I’m sooo bad.

Now, I was painting with a broad brush, I’ll admit. Heroes abound, even in cynical, postmodern Hollywood, where Superman is making a comeback and traditional comic book heroes keep popping up like mushrooms. (Of course, we could debate about the retelling of some of these stories, and the reshaping of some characters with more overt antihero attributes.)

I’m thinking of making this post the start of another series, in which we delve into characters of print and screen, determining who our heroes are, and what makes them so heroic and desirable. The same goes, of course, for the often more interesting antiheroes.

But first, a few definitions. The term hero is probably easiest to define (hopefully). You think classic hero, either from literature or pop culture, and you think Superman (or at least I do). Not too tough, right? Strong, morally upright, virtuous, has an Achilles’ heel (in Superman’s case, kryptonite; in Achilles’, well, his heel), sacrificial, loves his family, etc. Now, from literature, especially classic, Greco-Roman literature, the term gets a little muddy. Odysseus is the hero of The Odyssey, but by today’s standards, he’s no, well, he’s no Superman.

Ulysses at the court of Alcinous

Dude, what happens at sea stays at sea. Don’t tell my wife.

In Medieval literature, it was muddy too. I remember my Medieval Lit course from college, in which my professor told us how the supposedly chivalrous Sir Lancelot was rarely so (stealing wives, treating women poorly, at least by today’s standards, etc.).

So yes, the term hero can be, well, nuanced. Still, when you hear the term, a certain image likely comes to mind. It’s Superman, or Katniss Everdeen, or Marshall Will Kane (from High Noon).

Now, our antihero is something different–or at least sometimes so. Ask two different people, and you’ll likely get different examples of antiheroes from literature or film. Some will say that the antihero is just a darker, more human, more flawed version of a hero. It’s Batman more than Superman, a hero motivated by revenge, for example. Or it’s someone rather unpleasant, difficult, amoral or even immoral, who still fills the role not merely of protagonist, but hero. Think Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Harry Callahan from the Dirty Harry films.

Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood

Call him an antihero, get a bullet in the face.

The trouble I have in defining the term antihero is the inclusion–too often, I’d say–of very obvious villains in any given antihero list. One wonders if some people even draw a distinction between antihero and villain. Hannibal Lecter, for example, Thomas Harris’ eloquent, genius cannibal, is a villain. Harris’ last Lecter novel, Hannibal, transitions the killer psychiatrist into the role of antihero (Harris is desperate for readers to root for Lecter by the novel’s end), but it’s a position that never fits, thus helping to sink the rather mediocre thriller. It never fits because, at least to me, I know I’m never supposed to root for him. He is, after all, a cannibal.

And that’s one element of the antihero that I think is important: good or bad, unpleasant or not, he or she needs to do something, as indirect and difficult to perceive as it may be, that calls out a moral good, a standard. And said standard or moral good needs to be key to this character. Tony Soprano helping an old lady cross the street on one occasion doesn’t count. But Dexter Morgan, the serial-killing crime fighter from Showtime’s Dexter, adhering to his father’s moral code in ridding the world of murderers, would.

Dexter Morgan

I’m bad, just not bad bad, you know?

Anyway, enough definitions. What do you think? Am I right in my interpretations, or way off?

Now, on to specifics. My next post will delve into a few of these well-known characters, what makes them tick, and what it is about them that makes us tick. So keep checking in for that!

C.T.

“Such is Life”: A Review

life

Jeri Walker-Bickett’s collection of short stories, “Such is Life,” offers readers vivid, even striking, images of everyday life, full of pathos, darkness, anger and loss. “Pretty Girl” details Julie’s capricious liaison with a traveling carnival worker. “Leaving Big Sky,” the collection’s best story, is a story of two lonely people who drift into each other’s lives for only one day.

“Not Terribly Important” is the one story in the collection that feels shoe-horned in. It tells the story of a teacher who gets frustrated with–and ultimately liberated from–her conservative public school after some of her personal writings are discovered. It just felt like it broke Walker-Bickett’s rhythm of gritty, tragic stories for something with a different message. It’s certainly not bad or poorly written; it merely felt misplaced.

“For the Love of Dog” packs an emotional punch, as its protagonist agonizes over what to do with her energetic dog. “River Walk,” the last of the collection, is a curious, albeit dark, story of a fractured woman in a fractured city. It’s vivid, emotional, but not easy reading.

These “slice of life” stories do recall Flannery O’Connor quite a bit, just O’Connor west of the Mississippi (except for “River Walk,” which I suppose can be said to be on the Mississippi). They’re full of broken people, tragic lives, loss and death and anger, but set in evocative settings, with rich detail and characters that jump off the page. They can be painful but funny, living up to the collection’s title “Such is Life”: there are trials, there is danger, there is humor. Such is life, I suppose. Short and to the point, it’s a collection that any reader can breeze through quickly, and is well worth reading.

Poetry and the Power of Language

A few days ago, I was doing some research on ancient Mesopotamian culture. I mean, honestly, why wouldn’t you want to research ancient Mesopotamia, right? (Yeah, I’m a loser.) Anyway, I was reading about pre-literate, pre-pre-Hammurabi Mesopotamia (the area that roughly makes up present day Iraq, Kuwait, and southern Syria), and the transition from oral tradition to written language.

The upper part of the stela of Hammurapis' cod...

Hammurabi and the god Shamash discussing Walt Whitman.

It spurred in me some thoughts on the origins of poetry. Far back into the shadows of prehistory, before cities, kings, written language, before any discernible signs of civilization even, man was developing poetry. Much of it likely had religious purposes: hymns to deities, or prayers and petitions. But when we first began to develop spoken language, it probably didn’t take long before we were stringing words together into easily repeatable and meaningful sequences, into poetry.

Let’s elaborate. Evidently, at least for the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia, the selection of words in their oral tradition had magical purposes. In order to have one’s prayer heard best, or in order to invoke a particular deity or to call up a particular virtue in someone, there was a need for more colorful, more evocative words. Being more elaborate and creative was assumed to make one’s words more efficacious. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the magical power and use of praise [was] to instill, call up, or activate the virtues presented in the praise.”

One creates, essentially, good things through one’s words, they believed. Now, turning to more traditional poetry, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the word poetry itself comes from the Greek poieo, which is the verb “I create.” The Greek poiema is, therefore, the “thing created,” or the poem itself.

So written language is finally created, the oral tradition is committed to clay, stone, hide, and later papyrus, (and much much later) parchment and paper. Yet that innate need for evocative language, for something beautifully written, remained. Sure, our belief that our particular words call up certain deities or virtues didn’t remain, but in a small sense, perhaps it did.

prayer..

No, God doesn’t hear me better if I pray in iambic pentameter or with carefully rhymed couplets. But we do sense a need for beautiful words, or comforting and soothing meter. Good poetry does evoke a certain mood, doesn’t it? In poetry, aesthetics are as important, or even more important, than content. Yes, it is knowing, but it is also feeling.

I read Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and I understand his fears of inadequacy, his embarrassment and loneliness. But through Eliot’s words, I also feel those things. Certain words call up certain feelings, evoke certain moods.

English: T. S. Eliot, photographed one Sunday ...

Sometimes moody, sometimes dark, but always somehow beautiful.

I suppose that’s why I bristle at a lot of modern, twentieth century and contemporary poetry, because it seems that  poets too often lack–or even have a complete disinterest in–aesthetic quality, in beauty.

So, I suppose we should thank those Sumerians for the written word, the wheel, crazy stepped pyramids and Abraham. And poetry. Some other people somewhere else in the world will claim poetry too, but I’ll give it to ol’ Mesopotamia.

Thoughts, folks? I’m always curious to hear your opinions.

 

On Valentine’s Day

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day /
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Parliament of Foules

So evidently Valentine’s Day has some medieval roots, but it took Hallmark to turn it into what we have today, for better or for worse. But why St. Valentine? Apparently he was a Christian priest who performed weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry, or something like that.

And he was fat, with wings and a bow and arrow. Oops, mixing my religious imagery again. Anyway, the rumor that he totally dug chocolate-covered strawberries is no doubt true. I mean, what early Christian martyr didn’t?

But have a laugh folks. Chocolate and roses shall rule the day.

chocolate

Our holiday agenda: Eat a nice meal of venison tenderloin with a nice bottle of Cabernet when the kids are in bed, have some canolis and conversation, and watch that Valentine’s Day classic, Die Hard. (Well, I haven’t sold my wife on that last part, yet.)

Have a great Valentine’s Day folks!

C.T.