Posts tagged with: literature

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, August 21, 2014

Bellow BiographyI’m slowly working my way through James Atlas’ biography of Saul Bellow, and I came to the section where Saul Bellow returns to his birthplace in Lachine, Quebec, for the dedication of the municipal library in his name. At the dedication he gave a speech, which includes this section:

I am here as a kind of testimony to the fact that it’s possible for a child from Lachine to do some things which have been called—not by me but by others—extraordinary. It also fits very well with my own resistance to that deterministic philosophy that tells you that the place that you come from makes you absolutely; it does not. The human soul has its own way to declare its own freedom and to develop itself in its own way, and it is not true to say: “Show me where you came from and I’ll tell you what you are.” That’s not the way things really are; we are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom: I see the thing that way. It is not necessary to be fully determined by one’s surroundings. Your mind and your spirit have their own liberty, and each individual should be loyal to that.

Stirring stuff, that.

But lest anyone misunderstand and think that Bellow was advocating merely a libertine individualism, we might consult the conclusion of his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which as Myron Magnet writes, includes the connection between the freedom and the moral nature of the human soul. Thus, writes Magnet:

From page one of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow himself insists that, beyond the explanations we construct through Enlightenment reason, the soul has “its own natural knowledge.” We all have “a sense of the mystic potency of humankind” and “an inclination to believe in archetypes of goodness. A desire for virtue was no accident.” We all know that we must try “to live with a civil heart. With disinterested charity.” We must live a life “conditioned by other human beings.” We must try to meet the terms of the contract life sets us, as Sammler says in the astonishing affirmation with which Bellow ends his book. “The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. . . . As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, August 7, 2014

Saul Bellow, 1990Saul Bellow is a writer who has affected me profoundly before. I have recently found a pair of essays given by him as part of the Tanner Lectures under the title, “A Writer from Chicago.”

They are substantive and serious, and occasionally pithy. For instance, Bellow observes that “a degenerate negative romanticism is at the core of modern mass culture,” “Humankind is always involved in some kind of metaphysical enterprise,” and, “The descent into subhumanity begins with the thinning out of the imagination.”
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Today’s edition of Prufrock (subscribe here!) notes the forthcoming release of Paul Hammond, Milton and the People (Oxford, July 29):

Who are ‘the people’ in Milton’s writing? They figure prominently in his texts from early youth to late maturity, in his poetry and in his prose works; they are invoked as the sovereign power in the state and have the right to overthrow tyrants; they are also, as God’s chosen people, the guardians of the true Protestant path against those who would corrupt or destroy the Reformation. They are entrusted with the preservation of liberty in both the secular and the spiritual spheres. And yet Milton is uncomfortably aware that the people are rarely sufficiently moral, pure, intelligent, or energetic to discharge those responsibilities which his political theory and his theology would place upon them. When given the freedom to choose, they too often prefer servitude to freedom. Milton and the People traces the twists and turns of Milton’s terminology and rhetoric across the whole range of his writings, in verse and prose, as he grapples with the problem that the people have a calling to which they seem not to be adequate. Indeed, they are often referred to not as ‘the people’ but as ‘the vulgar’, as well as ‘the rude multitude’, ‘the rabble’, and even as ‘scum’. Increasingly his rhetoric imagines that liberty or salvation may lie not with the people but in the hands of a small group or even an individual. An additional thread which runs through this discussion is Milton’s own self-image: as he takes responsibility for defining the vocation of the people, and for analysing the causes of their defection from that high calling, his own role comes under scrutiny both from himself and from his enemies.

In the latest edition of the Journal of Markets & Morality, David V. Urban provides a thorough examination of “Liberty, License, and Virtuous Self-Government in John Milton’s Writings.”

A famous representative quote representing Milton’s anthropology of liberty, particularly as expressed in the distinction between liberty and license, comes from his 1649 treatise The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates: “For indeed none can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license.” As Urban writes,

Milton’s understanding of license inevitably includes the idea of abusing freedom to pursue some sort of fleshly indulgence, whereas his concept of genuine liberty focuses on the freedom for the moral person to live a virtuous life and pursue virtuous goals under the strictures of his own conscience in spite of the temptations and roadblocks offered by intemperate persons, stifling custom, or an interfering state. Significantly, Milton’s explicitly Christian ideal of genuine liberty emphasizes the need for virtuous self-government to characterize the truly free individual.

Subscribers can read the rest of Urban’s article now, and if you aren’t a subscriber to JMM, become one today.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

Like many people, I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Maya Angelou this week. Her voice – both her speaking voice and her literary one – were unique, rich and resonant. I’ve always wondered if God did not grant her such a special voice in order to make up for all the years she didn’t speak, the story she recounts in her classic, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

I had the great fortune of hearing Ms. Angelou speak in person a number of years ago. I still have the notes from that evening. One thing she said was that each of us was a teacher: we were all teaching those around us by the way we lived our lives. She challenged us to make sure that we were good teachers, to show others what it meant to live a good life. It is safe to say that she herself was a good teacher.

Michael Hyatt does a nice job of summarizing some of the most important lessons Maya Angelou taught us. First, she taught us that faith in God was the source of courage:

When I found that … I was a child of God,” Angelou told an interviewer about her faith, “when I understood that, when I comprehended that … when I internalized that, I became courageous. I dared to do anything that was a good thing.”

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Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Tuesday, May 20, 2014

hsreadinglist_zps9cb17557This is what our country has come to: warning labels on great literature. I’m not talking about the parental warning labels (that no parent ever sees, because who buys CDs anymore?) on CDs with explicit lyrics. Nope, we’re talking about warning labels on literature.

You see, we have to protect our young people from possible “triggers” – ideas, descriptions and situations in books that might make them unhappy or feel bad:

It is the so-called trigger warning applied to any content that students might find traumatizing, even works of literature. The trigger warning first arose on feminist websites as a way to alert victims of sexual violence to possibly upsetting discussions of rape (that would “trigger” memories of their trauma) but has gained wider currency.

I realize that some young people have had terrible things happen to them. However, that is what therapy is for. And, even if you have had bad things happen to you, you must learn to deal with them, or you’ll spend your entire life in seclusion because, well, bad things happen. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dr. Seuss is renowned for his insights into human nature and development, along with an ability to communicate these insights in a way that is so straightforwardly simple that children can grasp the lesson immediately and intuitively.

Consider, for instance, the case of Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose. Thidwick is a moose who cares about others, and so when the occasion arises, Thidwick is happy to share space on his antlers with a bug who needs somewhere to stay. But Thidwick’s generosity sets a precedent that can be abused, as increasingly pushy and impolite guests take advantage of Thidwick’s sentiment to impose themselves into his life. Thidwick has a heart for the poor, but as we often hear around the Acton Institute offices, that’s not enough. We need to have a mind for the poor as well.

thidwickguests
Benjamin Franklin once quipped that democracy is “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” In Thidwick’s case, when he needs to migrate across the lake, the squatters on his antlers vote “democratically” against migrating.

The prospects for Thidwick look bad, indeed, as he has only one vote and therefore is facing starvation. But happily for Thidwick, his biology provide him with an escape, so to speak, from this unjust social arrangement.

Thidwick sheds his antlers naturally. But the larger lesson from Thidwick’s travails is that our political order has no such natural escape route. An exception may be the ability of the wealthy to vote with their feet, as in the case of France’s recent proposed 75% tax on the rich. This is perhaps part of the reason why Antonio Rosmini placed such importance of the “natural right” to “travel anywhere in the world.” As he put it, “Emigration cannot be denied to anyone who demands it.”

Consider, then, Thidwick as a cautionary tale of the temptations of social democracy and the dangers of democratic tyranny.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 7, 2014

You may have heard that Ayn Rand really disliked C.S. Lewis. But do you know what happened when Saul Bellow met Whittaker Chambers?
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KOPPITZ 0010Reading this profile of UPS’s “Mr. Peak,” Scott Abell, is an enlightening exercise, particularly after the close of this holiday season. Mr. Peak is the guy in charge of making sure that the thing you ordered the Friday before Christmas gets there by Christmas Eve. Or as Devin Leonard puts it, “It’s become so easy for people to shop via computers and smartphones that they frequently delay their purchases until the last minute. Mr. Peak’s job, in effect, is to fulfill the Internet’s promise of instant gratification.”

In my Christmas commentary, I wondered about what a civilization organized around the principle of instant gratification might look like. It wasn’t a pretty picture: “A society that sows the gratification of its material desires everywhere and always, without limitations of rest or Sabbath, will reap a harvest of barbaric sensualism.”

If the Internet promises instant gratification, is the world wide web a force for barbarism rather than civilization? No, but perhaps only if we are willing and able to adjust our expectations. The civilized thing to do might be to order your Christmas presents with more than a few hours to spare. It would certainly make life a bit easier on Mr. Peak. He had a pretty rough season this year.

Mr. Peak “tries to get his family to avoid Internet shopping altogether after Thanksgiving. ‘I’m not going to tell them not to shop,’ he says. ‘But I tell them that they should do it early. Early’s better.’”
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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 27, 2013

Humiliations GaloreThis year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and over at The University Bookman I have written up some thoughts on the modern classic, “As You Wish: True (Self-)Love and The Princess Bride.”

Those familiar with the story know that the tale develops around the conflict between Prince Humperdinck and Westley (aka The Dread Pirate Roberts) over Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in Florin. I frame my piece with the confrontation between another prince and another pirate, an encounter which Augustine famously relates in his City of God. As Augustine writes, Alexander the Great rebukes a captured pirate for his crimes, only to hear the pirate’s retort tu quoque.

In “The Use of Alexander the Great in Augustine’s City of God,” Brian Harding describes Alexander’s “restless ambition for further conquests and power,” which leads him “to search constantly for new lands to conquer; in the same way the pirate captain is always on the look-out for merchant ships which he can harass.” Similarly Humperdinck’s constant competitive drive and lust for power are exemplified in his hunting prowess and his designs to conquer Guilder. He is a prince who would be emperor.
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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Catching Fire

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Tyranny Is the True Enemy,” I explore the latest film installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire.” I pick up on the theme that animates Alissa Wilkinson’s review at Christianity Today, but diverge a bit from her reading. As she writes, a major aspect of this second part of the series has to do with fake appearances and real substance, and the need to “remember who the real enemy is.”

Wilkinson is upset with the marketing buzz surrounding the film, arguing that it “declaws” the substantive message of the books themselves. There’s an element of truth to this. It comes home especially when watching an interview like this, in which Jennifer Lawrence seems to embody the idea that for a celebrity in today’s culture, “you never get off this train,” as Haymitch puts it to Katniss and Peeta on their own promotional tour.

But in focusing on the distracting nature of commercial merchandising of the films, I argue that Wilkinson ends up distracted from who the real enemy is. There is much that is morally problematic about the way that the Capitol operates. Wilkinson rightly shows the shallow consumerism and sensuality of Capitol couture. But the fact that this isn’t the real enemy, so to speak, can be shown by a bit of thought experiment.

Suppose that the consumption habits of the Capitol were far less odious to our moral sensibilities. Suppose the citizens all lived chaste, upright, and responsible lives in their city. Their oppression of the districts would be no less troublesome for all their virtuous consumption. The decadence of the Capitol only puts the real tyranny over the districts into sharper relief. John Tamny argues that to read Catching Fire as “anything other than a polemic against communistic, brutal government is a certain act of willful blindness.”

I won’t go quite that far, and I don’t agree that the film/book has nothing at all to do with critiquing consumerism, but I do think that such alternative readings often forget who the enemy really is. As Tamny (mis)quotes from Catching Fire, Katniss herself identifies the enemy as the one “who starves and tortures and kills us in the arena. Who will soon kill everyone I love.”

In the opening sequence of “Catching Fire,” Katniss is illegally hunting in an attempt to provide much-needed protein for her family. At one point, Katniss and Gale come across a flock of wild turkeys. This image is especially striking at the release of this film during the Thanksgiving season.

Far from promising a “turkey in every pot,” President Snow has no regard for the welfare of anyone in the districts. The citizens of the Capitol are all that matter, to the point that people like Katniss have to resort to illegal hunting and the black market for basic necessities like medicine and food.

There is a connection between hedonism and what might be called a “soft” form of tyranny characteristic of the vicious circle between the citizens of the Capitol and the government. And while tyranny in all its forms is to be rejected, the real enemy in the Hunger Games is the hard tyranny of President Snow and his jackbooted thugs. Everything else is, in the end, a distraction.