Religion

Taking time out with Livy and the History of Rome

Things being the way they are, I'm staying away from the news and digging into some long-term reading projects.  At the top of my list is reading straight through Livy's History of Rome.  I got the books in high school and college and they were a bit tough going.  I'm making much faster progress than last time.

Even though Livy is prone to airbrushing history and highlighting Rome's virtuous past, there's plenty of skullduggery, treachery, mayhem going on.

One element that stands out is the almost constant efforts of people to turn the rules to their advantage.  For each champion of honor, there are ten examples of people twisting the rules to their advantage - and often getting lavish praise for their cleverness.

It stands in stark contrast with the teachings of the Bible, particularly the New Testament.  I've written before that Game of Thrones was a wonderful (if unintentional) advertisement for Christian civilization.  Livy's work is another.

 


Well, let's see how 2021 works out

Happy New Year!  As the song says, it's been a long December but there's reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.

Taken as a whole, 2020 has not been without its joys.  The publication of Vampires of Michigan and the subsequent writing of Long Live Death and its success was not something I contemplated a year ago.   The COVID lockdown has put our family under great strain, but we also celebrated the birth of our first grandchild, who has been a source of unceasing wonderment and happiness.

In many ways, how we approach life determines how we perceive it.  What makes a "very good" year versus a bad one?  Folks used to advise people to "count their blessings" and I think it's good advice - though not something sad people want to hear.

That's my other observation this year, something I'd noted before but I've now seen it spread on a far wider basis: misery loves company.  Online places I used to visit have become so unrelentingly negative that I can't even stomach them.  If you bring in good cheer, they boo you right off the network.

I'm not a big fan of New Year's Resolutions but I am going to enhance my efforts this winter to push aside complaints and try to hold onto moments of joy that might otherwise have been lost.

 


Merry COVID Christmas!

I intend the title of this post to be taken unironically.  Despite the ongoing nonsense by the various Grinches in trying to snuff out the Christmas spirit with lockdowns and fear, Mass was at (diminished) capacity last night and our spirits are high.

What is more, a light blanket of snow arrived just in time to give us a White Christmas, just like the ones we used to know.

Last night I finished a re-reading of The Silmarillion, and Tolkien's extended mythology appropriately concludes with the rising of a new star, a symbol of hope and a promise of mercy and pardon.

2020 has been a crazy year, but through it all, faith has always been a solace.  May you and yours have a blessed holiday.  Merry Christmas!


Ford Madox Ford vs Evelyn Waugh

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End series followed by Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.  I had already read both works, but doing so in rapid succession really drove home how closely the two are related but also how significant their differences are.  Here are a few of my observations.

Writing Style

Ford was 30 years older than Waugh and his writing style shows it.  Ford is considered one of the first “modern” writers, and he does demonstrate some unique flourishes (and a willingness to take on hitherto forbidden topics), but his prose is very much of the Victorian era.

He goes into detailed descriptions that sometimes read like an inventory.  He can also be florid in the extreme when setting a scene, particularly when he blends this with the internal stream of consciousness of the characters.

Waugh is capable of beautiful and evocative descriptions, but most of the time he focuses on only the most crucial details, and works them into the text.  Whereas Ford might go in depth over every knick-knack on a library shelf (and highlight the titles thereon), Waugh would bring up only a couple, and do so in a such a way as to let the reader know that the rest is emblematic of this selection.

Ford is particularly fond of moving back and forth in time and also in diving deep into the characters’ inner thoughts.  This can be an interesting device, providing sort of a reverse foreshadowing, but it is also disorienting and bogs down the flow of the story.  He seems to have a particular problem with the character of Valentine Wannop, whose extended internal monologues are breathless and repetitious.

Waugh also uses internal monologues, but only when no other vehicle is available to advance the story.  He much prefers to show his characters’ motivations through action and rapid-fire dialogue.  It is much easier to “see” Waugh’s story and this is likely why there are more film adaptations of Waugh’s work.  It’s simply more accessible in a visual medium.

Dueling Protagonists:  Tietjens vs Crouchback

Ford’s creation was the archetypal Yorkshire Tory: stoic, stubborn, socially awkward but ruthlessly competent in his own way.

He is the youngest of five children and the fourth son of a landed aristocratic – and wealthy – family.  This was a unique combination for the time, since many of the great old estates were collapsing under the strain of the Industrial Revolution and changes to the tax code.

In an age where much of the English nobility was compelled to add an American heiress to the family tree, the Tietjens family stood aloof, holding considerable estates that also encompassed valuable coal fields.  They are not extravagant and there is also no lack of money.

When he is first introduced, Christopher is an analyst at the Department of Statistics, and we swiftly learn that he has an incisive if somewhat pedantic mind.  He edits encyclopedias as a hobby. 

As the story unfolds we learn that he is thrifty and has a gift for trade, particularly in antique furniture.  The crucial takeaway is that the Tietjens family is that rare bird among fictitious Edwardian landed aristocrats in being in an enviable financial situation.

When war breaks out, Tietjens obtains a commission in a Welsh regiment and serves as a transport officer, marshals replacements and also commands at the front.  He sees plenty of time in the trenches, where his lungs are weakened by exposure and gas.  He’s also “blown up” by concussive shock of a nearby shell, which leaves him physically unharmed but mentally impaired for some time.

Tietjens is aloof from his family, who seem to emerge only gradually as the story progresses.  Two of his brothers are never seen, having gone of to India with the Army before returning to the Western Front where they are killed on the same day.  His eldest brother, Mark, emerges from obscurity to become the main character of the fourth book, but there is nothing approaching affection between him and Christopher.  Their father commits suicide early on and their mothers (Christopher is the child of a second marriage) have deceased before the story begins and are rarely mentioned.

There is a sister, but she is spoken of in the text rather than spoken to.

All of this leaves Tietjens alone and aloof.

Guy Crouchback is also of a noble family, but a Catholic one, steeped in the history of their persecution in Protestant England.

Guy is also the youngest son.  His elder brother, Gervase, was killed on the Western Front early in World War I.  His next brother, Ivo, went mad and starved himself to death.  His sister is married to an indifferently religious MP, and has three daughters and a son, who is an officer in a Guards regiment.

Guy’s father is living as the story begins, and is an important influence in his life, particularly his spiritual development.

Like Christopher, Guy will seek to enlist at the start of the war, but Britain’s manpower situation in 1939 was very different from that in 1914.  During the First World War, Britain had a tiny all-volunteer army backed up by a small militia force.  The demands of total war required a massive influx of personnel.  The British had an innate dislike of conscription, and so volunteers were highly encouraged to join up as soon as possible.

By 1939, Britain had adopted conscription as its wartime method of recruiting, and while volunteers were welcome in some cases, Guy is too old (36) to be an attractive recruit. 

What this means is that the wartime experience of Ford and Waugh differed right from the start – Ford worked briefly writing propaganda, and then had no difficulty in obtaining a commission, despite being 41.  Waugh had no interest in propaganda, and was only able to get into the Royal Marines through political string-pulling because like his character, 36-year-olds with no prior military service were not considered good recruits.

Another difference is that Crouchback has no real occupation at the start of the war.  He has certain skills (speaking Italian and French), but nothing to set him apart.  He’s mentally adrift and sees war as a chance for personal redemption.

As noted above Tietjens is confident to the point of arrogance about his place in the world.

The Women:  Sylvia vs Virginia

Both men have complicated romantic relationships.  As his tale begins, Tietjens’ wife Sylvia has left him for an adulterous romp.  We swiftly learn that she is remarkably loose around men.  In fact, she tricked Tietjens into marrying her by seducing him after she thought she had become pregnant by another man.

The ruse is revealed, and Tietjens is filled with a cold fury towards her, mingled with shame at the thought that his son and heir is another man’s child.

This particular element of the plot – the paternity of ‘the child’ (his name is rarely spoken) – recurs throughout the books to the point of tediousness.  Eventually (and this is no particular spoiler), Tietjens accepts that the boy is likely his and in the oddball fourth book, this is pretty well established when the kid finally appears in person.  He looks like his father, case closed.

But it keeps coming up as point of doubt and wrath, along with musings about how much of the English aristocracy’s leaders are cuckolds.

Even in the restrictive legal environment of the time, Tietjens could divorce Sylvia, but he refuses out of pure Tory stubbornness, and thus there is a constant back and forth between him and the endlessly beautiful Sylvia, who alternately lusts after and hates her husband.

This isn’t as obnoxious as it seems, because Ford does a wonderful job of showing how English social conventions end up blaming Tietjens for everything his harpy of a wife does, even to the point where Christopher’s own kin and allies come to agree that the best thing for everyone would be for him to be killed at the front.

Guy Crouchback’s love life is much simpler.  As a Catholic, he believes marriage is an indissoluble union, and when his wife Virginia leaves him, he accepts the fact of civil divorce, but regards his chance at happy marriage as at an end. 

He still harbors some residual love for her, however, and their paths cross repeatedly.

Virginia is a familiar figure in Waugh’s other writings – beautiful, vivacious, flighty and utterly irresponsible, she the epitome of the modern "smart set" woman.  At the start of the story, she has separated from her third husband, a wealthy American who stays well clear of England.

Spirit vs the Flesh: Valentine Wannop

A key difference in the two stories is the existence of The Other Woman in Parade’s End.  This is Valentine Wannop, an intelligent, athletic Suffragette who nevertheless falls in love with Christopher and seeks to become her mistress.  Much of the story centers on if, when and how this romantic relationship can be consummated.  The title of the first book, Some Do Not-, highlights the importance of this question.

In fact, the core issue of Parade’s End is whether people should let their personal happiness be dominated by social convention.  Christopher is trapped by both an unhappy marriage and the burden of his familial responsibility.  Being a younger son, this should not have happened, but because his elder brother Mark never produced an heir and the others are deal, the weight now falls on him.

It’s just not fair.

Ford himself felt similar constraints.  After converting to Catholicism and getting married, Ford himself launched a series of adulterous relationships with literary-minded young women.  This naturally brought scandal on himself, but Ford simply moved to France and later the United States, brazening it out.

It is interesting that Sylvia Tietjens is a Catholic, and while portrayed as wanton and cruel, at one point she wishes to patch up her relationship with Christopher, only to be rejected.  Naturally this makes her even more vengeful.

One can’t help but see the similarities between this situation and that of the Marchmain family in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  The fictitious Lord Marchmain was close to Ford in age, and likewise a convert to Catholicism.  After the war he abandons his responsibilities to take up with a mistress and he lives happily abroad, indifferent to the collapse of his family.

At one point, Marchmain explains himself by saying that the war was about fighting for “freedom,” and that’s what he wants – freedom from obligation; freedom to put himself first.

Waugh stridently disagrees with this viewpoint.  Like Ford, he also was a convert to Catholicism, but unlike him, the conversion “took.” 

While Waugh remained capable of vicious satire (and does not spare the Church), his later works are steeped with questions of faith and duty.

Guy Crouchback epitomizes this, and though an observant Catholic throughout the trilogy, it is only in the final book that he truly grasps the need for self-sacrifice.  His decision almost exactly parallels that of Tietjens, but in the reverse.  I cannot believe this is a coincidence.

Indeed, while both books have moving as well as wickedly funny takes on military service, there is a spiritual void at the heart of Parade’s End.  Tietjens regards God as a distant and stoic figure, finds church stuffy and conventional and essentially creates his own Tory religion that guides his actions.

Guy Crouchback personal journey arguably goes through even darker places, but in the end he understands that larger issues are at stake than whether he’s personally happy.

I believe this, combined with the far more accessible writing style, is why Waugh continues to be read while Ford remains something of a curiosity.

Final Thoughts

Parade’s End is often considered to have four books, but the last one in the series, The Last Post, is very different from the others.  It is essentially an extended experiment in stream of consciousness writing that purports to finish the tale by giving a post-war update to the story.

It is not an easy read and there is reason to believe that Ford himself was unhappy with the result.  When Graham Greene commissioned a reprint after Ford’s death, he purposefully omitted the final volume and declared the work to properly be a trilogy.

The first book in the series is the longest, and it is very difficult at times because it dives deep into social commentary and digs into a number of minor characters.  The next two are shorter and more focused. 

Of the three, No More Parades is arguably the best, being a pure wartime story of Teitjens’ life at the front.

Though written over a much longer span of time, Sword of Honour works well as a cohesive whole and reads quickly.  As one would expect, the tone darkens as the war drags on and England suffers from hunger and bombing, but this is offset by Guy’s spiritual journey and also Waugh’s amusing take on how people ‘make out’ during the war.

There is no question that Waugh's is the superior work, but the first three books of Parade's End provide valuable insight into the Edwardian mentality and wartime Britain.


I'm getting a very 1935 vibe

Back in August I talked about how my research for Long Live Death led me to see some uncomfortable similarities between Spain and the current situation.

That feeling is now all-consuming.

I am deeply troubled by the way things are moving.  I'm old enough to remember the contested election of 2000 very clearly, and the media was much more scrupulous about not outrunning events or trying to force the issue.

Add in the increasing attacks on Catholic churches and religion in general, and I see dark times ahead of our nation.

If one examines the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War, there were multiple opportunities for things to de-escalate, but the Spanish Left was uninterested in them. 

I fear their ideological heirs have not learned their history, and may make the same mistakes.

Let us pray that this is not the case.

 


The uncanny parallels

I try to keep this blog free of politics, but the last few weeks have brought out a series of very alarming parallels between the current situation in America and that in pre-Civil War Spain.

As Stanley G. Payne pointed out in great detail in his Spanish Civil War, by 1935 the Spanish Left reached a point where it believed that no other party should be allowed to govern Spain.  This repudiated the constitution that they themselves had written only recently.

Time and again, they broke laws, ignored customs and always chose to escalate rather than calm.  Payne goes through an entire checklist of "off ramps" the Left ignored, any one of which could have avoided the resulting carnage of war.

The fact of the matter is that it is difficult to push a war on people who don't want one.  The Man of Destiny series was written in calmer times, but I recognized that one of the fatal flaws in the Star Wars prequels was how arbitrary and random the start of the Clone War was.

Thus when I began telling my story, I spent all of the first book and half of the second chronicling the downward spiral, including opportunities for both sides to de-escalate.

All historical parallels are inexact and one can rightly note that the standard of living, technology, international reach of modern American cannot be compared with that of Spain in 1936. 

Still, I cannot deny that part of the frenzy that drove me to write Long Live Death was a desire to get out in front of events and supply the book as a cautionary tale.  Spain's leaders in 1936 did not have many examples of how a seemingly united and peaceful society can disintegrate into conflict.  We do, with not just Spain but the breakdown of Yugoslavia serving as grim reminders that the bonds that keep nations together can collapse with frightful speed.

I will conclude by asking those of a religious bent to include a plea for reconciliation, forgiveness and renewed unity in your prayers.  We need all the help we can get.


Memorial Day in semi-lockdown

I haven't commented here on Michigan's lockdown situation because the topic typically conjures of visceral reactions.

I bring it up today only because it's unavoidable.  There are no memorial services, no parades, none of the usual observances.

This I find difficult to take.

Michigan is sweltering under a heat wave, and it seems a lifetime away from the dark, cold days of early March when we were told millions would die of this new pestilence out of the East.

Would that we could loosen things up as fast as we cinched them down.

In any event, remember our Fallen and those who mourn for them.


Happy (Quarantined) Easter!

Amidst all that's going on, it's important to remember that the tomb is still empty.

With church services outlawed, our family has been going through the various liturgies as best we can.   If nothing else, my children have a commanding knowledge of the scriptures that are traditionally read this time of year.

I'm one of those Catholics who, now and again for perfectly awful (but I pretend they're good) reasons, skips going to mass.   Sometimes I go during the week to compensate.

I'm keenly feeling the absence.  It's just another element of the environment that leads to a general sense of irritation.  The only consolation is that the weather has been getting better and everyone in my family is okay (so far).

I hope you are similarly blessed and wish you and yours the happiest of Easters.  The doom and gloom will pass, because in the Big Story story, the Good Guys win.

Happy Easter!


Days of Disasters Passed

Though it seems far longer, Michigan's anti-pandemic measures are not even a week old.  The colleges went to remote classes a week ago, school was out last week, but subsequent orders regarding bars, theaters, churches and now nail salons are merely days old.

Things are moving quickly, but slowly.

Winston Churchill wrote that the thing that scared him most during World War II was the Battle of the Atlantic.  The heroism of Royal Air Force pilots and the unflinching courage of the British people could not prevail against the primordial forces of starvation.

There were no dramatic turning points to that battle, just lines on a chart.

That's where we are today - watching lines on a chart to see if we are winning or losing.  The moments of courage, fear and loss can tug at our hearts, but the real battlefield is an impersonal spreadsheet.

As I watch civil authorities struggle to pull resources together and fight an impersonal and implacable enemy, my mind goes back to the "war" against another, similar enemy.

In that case, it was an oil spill.

I guess that's what happens when you get old - you think you've seen it all before.  And maybe you have, but back then there were some people saying it was a sign of certain doom and others claiming it was nothing but hype.

The risk is when you think you've seen it before, and it looks like it, but you didn't.  There's something new, and doing things the same old way might not work.

I'm not one for overtly public professions of faith, but I hope you and yours are doing well and keeping your spirits up.  


A month of Good Fridays

Yesterday I participated in the traditional Lenten blood drive at our parish.  There was talk of canceling it but the need for blood has rarely been greater.

The parish was deserted.  The school has closed, the holy water is gone and there is an eerie air of desertion.  In many areas, mass itself has been suspended.

Normally this happens once a year, during the period between Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.  At that time the Church falls silent in memory of Christ's death and no sacraments are offered.

We are not quite there yet, but the pulse of the religious community has slowed considerably.

News accounts can focus on runs on toilet paper or the cancellation of sporting events, but it is the loss of fellowship, the removal of awards banquets, club meetings and other social events that hits hardest.

Perhaps the arrival of this tribulation during Lent is no coincidence.  Maybe a sign is being given for those who can see it.