Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More recent reading: Madeleine L'Engle's "Dragons in the Waters"

When posting my list of recent and current reading last week, I had a feeling I was leaving something out, and I was right. I neglected to include Madeleine L'Engle's Dragons in the Waters, a story of Poly O'Keefe, daughter of Meg Murry O'Keefe and her husband Calvin, who were children in L'Engle's Time Quartet (A Wrinkle in Time, etc.).

L'Engle's stories of the Murrys, O'Keefes, and Austins (families at the center of several of her novel series) are among those I like to re-read from time to time. Most people who read L'Engle start with A Wrinkle in Time as children, but I believe I am an exception to this generalization. Memory is a tricky thing, but I seem to recall that the first L'Engle novel I read was The Young Unicorns, a story of the Austin family that involves a chilling mystery connected to the great neo-Gothic (Episcopal) cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. I remember being completely gripped by the sense of metaphysical suspense hovering at the edges of this story and in the other stories involving the Austins, the O'Keefes, and the Murrys (and their various friends).

Madeleine L'Engle The Young Unicorns
I've read most of the entries in these series, and I've always liked (but sometimes been confused by) the way the casts of characters and action interweave among them. When I first read them as a teenager, I was really struck by the way Madeleine L'Engle uses the apparently chance meetings of characters who "belong"to different series to create a sense that we are all part of one great, complex plan, unbound by time or space, in the struggle of good against evil. I don't believe the Austins ever meet the Murrys or the O'Keefes, but two characters introduced in The Young Unicorns (Mr. Theo and Canon Tallis) play a minor roles in Dragons in the Waters.

Dragons in the Waters, like the other novels in these three series, are usually classified as "young adult" mystery or suspense novels, but I dislike such pigeon-holing. I agree with C. S. Lewis that there are simply bad novels and good ones -- the good ones invite, and repay, multiple readings, and the bad ones are utterly forgettable. Madeleine L'Engle's are among the good ones. Anyway, just because a story is about adolescents does not mean the only audience it will appeal to is adolescent. Here's one no-longer-young adult who still enjoys reading and re-reading these "young adult."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Recent Reading: Dynamics of World History

I've been wanting for a long time to read more of the work of historian Christopher Dawson, having read one or two of his essays on the relationship between Christianity and Western civilization. Dawkins wrote through the middle of the twentieth century, and was widely held in high esteem until about the late 1960s, when a rigidly secularist view became de rigueur in academic circles and any historian who acknowledged religion as a force in the shaping of history became persona non grata.

That, at least, is the explanation that Dermot Quinn offers for Dawson's disappearance from the canon of important historical scholars taught to history students in American universities these days. I refer to Quinn's introduction to the third edition of Dynamics of World History (ISI Books, 2002), a compendium of Dawson's essays compiled and edited by John J. Mulloy. Mulloy has arranged the essays into five sections grouped in two parts: Part One -- Toward a Sociology of History and Part Two -- Conceptions of World History. Part One has three sections: "The Sociological Foundations of History," "The Movement of World History," and "Urbanism and the Nature of Culture"; Part Two consists of two sections: "Christianity and the Meaning of History," and "The Vision of the Historians." The book begins and ends with a preface and an afterword by John Mulloy.

I've never studied historiography in an academic setting, although I have wanted to. But I've been interested in history ever since I began to realize that "history" is not just the boring series of dates and wars that it seemed to be in high school classes. One of the works that helped convert me from that juvenile concept of history was an essay by political philosopher Hannah Arendt. This essay, The Concept of History, Ancient and Modern, (which you can read online by clicking the link) turned me on to the idea that history is not merely a series of historical facts but a way of understanding those facts. That is, "history" is never simply objective and factual, but always involves interpretation. This seems rather self-evident to me now, but at the time it was an important new insight.

Arendt describes three different general views of the nature of history, which spring from the ancient pagan, the (chiefly medieval) Christian, and the modern views. The pagan view, based on observation of the seasonal changes of nature, saw history as cyclical. The Christian view, based on the Bible, sees history as being guided by God's purpose, a story with a beginning, middle, and end, all of which are written according to God's plan. The "modern" view also sees human history as an ongoing story, but it differs from the Christian view in that it sees the story being written by human achievement -- not the achievement of individual heroes, as in pagan history and legend, but the achievement of the human race in the abstract; this story is one of gradual, but continual progress, expected to culminate someday in the perfection of human society and Man's control of his environment.

To the three worldviews that Arendt identifies, we might add a fourth, the Marxist view. Marxists agree with Dawson and Arendt that history is not merely a collection of facts but a particular interpretation of selective facts, but they would deny the modern view that the human race has made inexorable progress through history. The Marxist materialist dialectic is essentially a repudiation of the progressive dialectic described by the German philosopher Hegel, insisting that human history consistently witnesses a huge underclass of workers constantly being subjugated by a tiny overclass of the rich and powerful. The identities of these two classes may shift over time (those who had composed the worker class gain the ascendancy and become the new overlords), but the basic situation of rulers and the ruled never changes.

Che Guevara cultural marxism propaganda poster
Americans students
are encouraged to undermine
their own culture.

That is why Marxist ideology rejects the notion of progress as a natural development of human history, and insists that for anything to change fundamentally the entire existing culture must be utterly destroyed, razed to the ground and the ground salted, even more thoroughly than Rome once did to Carthage. So the Marxist Manifesto, which still governs Marxist influence throughout the world, insisted that all aspects of the existing culture -- religion, history, ideas, art -- must be obliterated, the slate wiped clean. Once this is achieved, the world can be "re-educated" to believe in a world where all are equal, no one is subjugated, and class strife is no more, because there are no separate classes to struggle against one another. Marxist will go beyond acknowledging that history is a particular interpretation of the facts (i.e., the propaganda of the ruling class), to insist that "facts" themselves are meaningless and so may be erased from the history books when they don't support the ruling ideology. Whatever is not erased is rigorously edited to serve as propaganda for the "classless" society that is the aim of the Marxist project.

Bizarro cartoon
Christianity reduced to
just another tall tale.
This helps to explain why Christopher Dawkson, a preeminent historian in the twentieth century, has disappeared from the curricula of American universities; the success of the Frankfurt School's infiltration of American academia has successfully obliterated (or at least undermined and marginalized) all competing ideologies, of which the Christian view is the most feared and reviled. All the more reason for Catholics concerned about the present culture wars to become familiar with the work of Christopher Dawson, who is famous for emphasizing the important role that religion plays in shaping our idea of history and, particularly, for showing that one cannot really understand Western history without adequately acknowledging the role Christianity has played in shaping Western culture.

By the way, you can find an attractive and affordable edition of Christopher Dawson's Dynamics of World History, as well as a number of articles and lectures about him, on the web site of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Current reading: mystery novels, history, literary criticism et cetera

I've been doing a lot of reading, not much writing lately. Here are some of the things I have read, am reading, or will shortly begin, some of which I will shortly be discussing in subsequent posts.

Murder mysteries

Thanks to a new Half Price Books nearby, I've been able to entertain myself reading inexpensive murder mysteries.

  • Careless in Red, Elizabeth George. One of her Inspector Lynley mysteries which has not yet been turned into an episode of the television series by that name. [finished reading]
  • Last Act in Palmyra, Lindsey Davis. A Marcus Didius Falco mystery that takes place in the Decapolis during the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian (see earlier discussion of this Roman mystery series). [finished reading]
  • The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. The first in this charming series, whose detective-protagonist is Botswanan Precious Ramotswe and which has been turned into a movie and TV series on HBO. All of the plots for the first series of TV episodes were taken from this episodic novel, and the series largely captures the charm of the novel. [finished reading]
  • Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, Dorothy Gilman. The second or third in the series, which finds Mrs. Pollifax evading a pre-9/11 Muslim terrorist ring in Morroco. [finished reading]
  • Picture Miss Seeton, Heron Carvic. The first in the Miss Seeton series, about an elderly English art instructor with a penchant for tangling with criminals and then providing clues to crimes through her intuitively/psychically-inspired drawings. The series was begun by Heron Carvic, who wrote 5 Miss Seeton mysteries before his death. The series was later continued by other writers using pseudonyms with the initials H and C (Hampton Charles, Hamilton Crane). I read 8 or ten of the beginning of the series many years ago, and am glad to re-discover Miss Seeton. [finished reading]

Other literature

  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. I fell in love with Ray Bradbury as a kid when I read a story of his in a reader at school, about the magic of a new pair of sneakers -- a story, I found out later, that was taken from Dandelion Wine. This book really captures, for me, the beauty of Bradbury's writing and his talent at capturing the richness and beauty of life. [Currently reading]
  • Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. I've not yet started this, so I'm not sure if it should go in the "murder mystery" category, along with Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. [Planning to read]
  • Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare. An Oxford school edition. I wanted to re-read this after reading John Carroll's analysis of it in the first chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to re-read]
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare. Oxford edition, with extensive material and discussion of the three extant versions of the play. Another one I wanted to re-read after reading the first chapter of Carroll's The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to read]

Literary Criticism

  • An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis. While reading Michael Ward's Planet Narnia, I realized that I had never read this (although I'm pretty sure I've owned it), so I bought a new copy and got cracking. [finished reading]

History

  • Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson. A compilation of Dawson's essays,  edited by John J. Mulloy. Organized to give a good overview of Dawson's work as an historian. I'm reading it one essay at a time. [Currently reading]

Other non-fiction

  • Things That Count: Essays Moral and Theological, Gilbert Meilaender. A collection of essays in which Meilaender, an ethicist and theologian (Lutheran, I believe) "[mines] the great works of philosophy, literature, and political theory" for "insights into the human condition." Until now, I know Meilaender only from his contributions to First Things, but I'm looking forward to reading these essays, and will probably comment on them one by one, as I read them. This is one of two books I chose as my free selections when I renewed my membership in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's Reader's Club (huge discounts on subsequent purchases during the next twelve months). [Currently reading]
  • The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll. My other free selection from ISI. To counter the prevalent view that the humanism that came in through the Renaissance is to be credited for all the wonders of modern life -- individual liberty, modern democracy, prosperity, etc. -- Carroll presents an alternative view, namely that  "the West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed" and has destroyed culture in the western(ized) world. [Currently reading]
  • The Apocalypse--Letter by Letter: A Literary Analysis of the Book of Revelation, Steven Paul. This was lent me by a friend, who thought I would appreciate the linguistic precision with which the author analyzes the original Greek of the last book of the Bible (Apocalypse, a.k.a. Revelation). The author, dying of cancer, wrote this as a series of letters to his brother-in-law, who later compiled the letters into a book for publication. [Planning to read]
I have a feeling I'm leaving out one or two things, but that's the gist of it. So many books, so little time!