Category Archives: Books

Americans in Paris

At the insistence of a friend, I have been reading a David McCullough book The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris (2011). It did not sound interesting to me but I was hooked by the time I had read the first page. Here it is:

They spoke of it then as the dream of a lifetime, and for many, for all the difficulties and setbacks encountered, it was to be one of the best times ever. They were the first wave of talented, aspiring Americans bound for Paris in what, by the 1830s, had become steadily increasing numbers. They were not embarking in any diplomatic or official capacity–not as had, say, Benjamin Franklin or John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, in earlier days. Neither were they in the employ of a manufacturer or mercantile concern. Only one, a young writer, appears to have been in anybody’s pay, and in his case it was a stipend from a New York newspaper. They did not see themselves as refugees or self-imposed exiles from an unacceptable homeland. Nor should they be pictured as traveling for pleasure only, or in expectation of making some sort of social splash abroad. They had other purposes–quite specific, serious pursuits in nearly every case. Their hopes were high. They were ambitious to excel in work that mattered greatly to them, and they saw time in Paris, the experience of Paris, as essential to achieving that dream–though, to be sure, as James Fenimore Cooper observed when giving his reasons for needing time in Paris, there was always the possibility of “a little pleasure concealed in the bottom the cup.”

The book proper contains about 450 pages. It is not historical fiction, although it reads like a good novel, full of accounts of intertwined lives of historical figures and events that are recognizable to anyone who knows much 19th century American history and art. ( I discovered I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did). What makes the book most interesting is the conversations and thoughts of those individuals based on their own writing and journals. There are almost 60 pages of source notes.

It was fun for me to get an inside glimpse of so many people I learned about in school, and artists whose work I have seen and admired in person. Here is a partial list of the people included: James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse (did you know he aspired to be a portrait painter?), Charles Sumner, Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winslow Homer, P.T. Barnum (and Tom Thumb), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Adams, Henry James, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

The person who made the most impression on me was someone I did not know, Elihu Benjamin Washburne, who had been appointed as minister to France by President Ulysses S. Grant. Washburne served heroically during the Franco-Prussian War, chosing to stay and help in spite of being given permission to return home. He commitedly kept a daily diary of the entire war, a valuable document today.

So, I enthusiastically recommend this book.

The Peace of God

From J.I. Packer’s book, Knowing God (1973):

Too often the peace of God is thought of as if it were essentially a feeling of inner tranquility, happy and carefree, springing from knowledge that God will shield one from life’s hardest knocks. But this is a misrepresentation….

The peace of God is first and foremost peace with God; it is the state of affairs in which God, instead of being against us, is for us. No account of God’s peace which does not start here can do other than mislead. One of the miserable ironies of our time is that whereas liberal and radical theologians believe themselves to be restating the gospel for today, they have for the most part rejected the categories of wrath, guilt, condemnation and the enmity of God, and so have made it impossible for themselves ever to present the gospel at all, for they cannot now state the basic problem which the gospel of peace solves.

The peace of God, then, primarily and fundamentally, is a new relationship of forgiveness and acceptance, and the source from which it flows is propitiation.

True Worship

“…true worship is biblical worship, that is to say, it is a response to the biblical revelation…the reading and preaching of God’s word in public worship, far from being alien intrusions into it, are rather indispensible aspects of it. It is the word of God which evokes the worship of God.”

“The Living Church” by John Stott, IVP 2007, pp.35-36

Religion and Politics

I have been thinking a lot about divisions among Christians, and how to think about them in a way that honors God. I think Lewis is spot on.

I found this quote in a wonderful book I admired and was then given, The Quotable Lewis, Martindale and Root, 1989, included in the section titled “Church: Divisions.”

Tomorrow I am crossing over (if God so have pleased) to Ireland: my birthplace and dearest refuge so far as charm of landscape goes, and temperate climate, although most dreadful because of the strife, hatred and often civil war between dissenting faiths.

    There indeed both your and ours [Catholic and Protestant] “know not by what Spirit they are led.”  They take lack of charity for zeal and mutual ignorance for orthodoxy.

    I think almost all the crimes which Christians have perpetrated against each other arise from this, that religion is confused with politics.  For, above all other spheres of human life, the Devil claims politics for his own, as almost the citadel of his power.  Let us, however, with mutual prayers pray with all our power for that charity which “covers a multitude of sins.”

There IS a Story

I continue reading Thomas Howard’s book, The Achievement of C.S. Lewis. And now I am reading a chapter, “That Hideous Strength: The Miserific Vision”, dedicated to the book from which I took the title for my blog. There is a bear in this story, Mr. Bultitude….

The figure of Mr. Bultitude introduces us to a theme that is most vividly to be seen in the matter of Merlin.  It is the theme of “no going back.”   Various other themes feed into it, such as the idea of things thickening and hardening and coming to a point, and the idea of Aslan’s refusal ever to tell what might have been, and the warning in Narnia against trusting a beast who was once a man, and Ransom not eating the fruit twice in Perelandra, not listening to a symphony again, and so forth.  It all derives from the notion that there is a Story going on, and that to retrace your steps or thumb back through the pages is to refuse somehow the movement of the Story, or worse, the wisdom of the author.  The author has a denouement in mind and you must move through the action at his pace.  Otherwise you will find yourself striving against the author himself, and to be in that position is to refuse both him and the thing he has made.  It is what Lucifer did.


The Bibliobibuli

Patrick Kurp quotes H. L. Mencken:

“There are people who read too much: the bibliobibuli. I know some who are who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through the most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.”

Apparently Mencken himself coined the word, bibliobiduli.  I like the word, but note that some bibulous readers read to improve their seeing  and hearing.

Submission: Freedom

I am reading Thomas Howard’s The Achievement of C.S. Lewis.  From the chapter “Perelandra: The Paradoxes of Joy”:

This is one of the ironies often appearing in Lewis’s fiction, that perfection itself (life in Perelandra in this case) can be made to seem confining and demeaning and boring by the  sullen alchemy of evil.  Dissatisfaction, sailing under false colors of liberation and ambition and progress, is the flagship in Weston’s flotilla, as it were.  And it eventually becomes clear that this dissatisfaction with what is given stands at the polar opposite to the obedience and contentment exhibited in people like the Beavers…..In the world of Malacandra and Perelandra (and Narnia), it appears that acceptance of the given, and submission to it, is the key to contentment.  Paradoxically, of course, contrary to the accusations of all Nietzschean and Promethean romantics like Uncle Andrew and Jadis and Weston that this is all an opiate, this submission is synonymous with freedom and maturity.  It is analogous to one’s submission to the steps of a minuet or to swimming instructions:  here is how it is done, and if you want to know the lovely freedom of dancing and swimming, you must do it this way.  The same bright alchemy that transforms rules and obedience into freedom and joy here can also be seen at work in all gymnasts and ballet dancers and poets and athletes.  They have all learned how it is done.  If it is objected here that this is the very recipe itself for bondage and that on this accounting all tyrants may brutalize the creatures under their rule, it may be pointed out that it is the nature of evil, alas, to ape the good.

What Can Be Expected of Us

More from Vaclav Havel’s book, Disturbing the Peace:

I’m not one of those who somehow got mental stuck in that week of occupation and have then spent the rest of their lives reminiscing about what it was like.  And I have no intention of romanticizing that period either.  I only think that, taken all together, it made for a unique phenomenon which to this day, as far as I know, has never been analyzed in any depth sociologically, philosophically, psychologically, or politically.  But some things were so obvious you could understand them immediately, without any scientific analysis.  For example, that society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and that it’s extremely short-sighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face.  None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the populations, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events, both visible and invisible.  Who would have believed–at a time when the Noventny regime was corroding away because the entire nation was behaving like Svejks–that half a year later the same society would display a genuine civic-mindedness, and that a year later this recently apathetic, skeptical, and demoralized society would stand up with such courage and intelligence to a foreign power!  And who would have suspected that, after scarcely a year had gone by, this same society would, as swiftly as the wind blows, lapse back into a state of demoralization far deeper than its original one!  After all these experiences, one must be very careful about coming to any conclusions about the way we are, or what can be expected of us.

Soberness and Balance

I am enjoying the chapter, “Facing the Establishment”, in Vaclav Havel’s book Disturbing the Peace. Written in an interview format, he answers some questions about his activities during, and his reflections of the period surrounding the Prague Spring.

Haval took part in a lot of debates in universities and faculties: “I took part in meetings, I wrote declarations, and I felt I had to be involved in all of this…I stressed, perhaps somewhat more energetically than others, that every concession gives rise to further concessions, that we cannot back down, because behind us there is only an abyss, that we must keep our promises and demand that they be kept. I struggled, as was my habit, against all kinds of illusions and every form of self-deception. However influenced I might have been by that agitated period, I tried to achieve a soberness and a balance. In the spirit of the old Tvar approach–although with obvious differences, for this was a different level of activity, after all-I opposed to every grandiose but vague demand the need simply to remain steadfast to the end in matters that were smaller, perhaps, but more concrete.”

I think he understands human nature very well:

At one large meeting of the central committees of all the artistic unions, a well-known actor….made a dramatic appeal for the establishment of a national tribunal to try Indra, Bilak, and other traitors of the nation. Hysterical nonsense. I got up immediately and replied that, instead of suggesting something that no one could ever hope to carry off, it would be better to attempt sticking by the solidarity agreement that every cultural worker had signed (and which was shortly after that betrayed by most of them).  I said it was a thousand times more valuable to insist, regardless of the consequences, on something more modest but realistic, than to pacify one’s conscience by firing off loudmouthed proposals that evaporate forever the moment they’re made and therefore commit no one to do anything about them.  Histrionic emotions expressed through proposals like that are extremely unreliable: they may be grand today, but the resignation felt tomorrow can be equally as great…Sober perseverance is more effective than enthusiastic emotions, which are all too capable of being transferred, with little difficulty, to something different each day.

Nowhere Man From Nowhere Land

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From a book review of Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul:

Against innovators and radicals, Emerson remarked, “conservatism always has the worst of the argument.” “Always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate,” conservatism “makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory.” Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul accepts the Emersonian challenge, calling on Americans to retrieve their heritage from the progressive cultural elites who would consign it to oblivion. Ted V. McAllister and Bruce P. Frohnen are accomplished scholars of American intellectual and political history, but their slim and trenchant book addresses primarily their fellow citizens—and they do not mince words. Americans are in danger of forgetting the historical inheritance that sustains their identity as a self-governing people. This spiritual crisis calls for a “revolution,” in the classical sense of turning back to first principles.
Its title notwithstanding, Coming Home disavows nostalgia; its tone is combative, not elegiac. America suffers not from homesickness but homelessness—the alienation of a people from its true self. “A civilization is diseased when its people lose faith in its essential ideals and institutions, and when its elite loses or distorts its historical memory.” The conjunction is not accidental. Americans are assailed by what the philosopher Roger Scruton dubbed “the culture of repudiation,” a relentless negation of the traditional norms that leaves the world of human ties swept bare. In denigrating our cultural forebears, our elites have rendered our identity opaque and deprived us of a sense of home. The latter grows only from below, through people’s associative impulses and habits of affection, but it is easily destroyed from above when the state arrogates to itself the functions of civil society.
Read it all here.