Posts tagged with: literature

solitudeLord Acton famously said that, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Joseph Pearce finds that comfort can play a similar role in our lives and that “absolute comfort corrupts absolutely.” That is why we tend to numb ourselves with distractions, from mood-altering drugs to social media:

Shortly after Odysseus and his men leave Troy, heading home after the interminable siege and ultimate destruction of that City, they land on the island of the Lotus-Eaters. After the horrors of war, with its blood-letting and blood lust, these peaceable folk seem very attractive, at least at first glance. They remind us perhaps of proto-hippies, choosing “peace” and “love” over war and hatred. They certainly seem attractive to Odysseus’ war-weary men who, like disillusioned veterans returning from Vietnam, embrace a lifestyle based on the use of soporific drugs. They desire to be “comfortably numb.” The problem with such a lifestyle choice, as the perennially wise Homer reminds us, is that those who choose it “forget the way home.” The problem is not primarily the drug itself, nor is it the apathy that it induces; the problem is that it distracts us from our ultimate purpose, which is to get home. To reiterate, the problem is not principally the drug, nor the drug-induced torpor; it is the distraction.

This point is made clear when we realize that we can substitute all manner of other things for the Lotus-plant. Other natural and synthetic drugs will spring to mind but so will drug-free addictive pursuits, such as pornography or the obsessive-compulsive way in which many of us engage in social media. The things with which we choose to distract ourselves are variable and therefore in the philosophical sense accidental; the thing which is common to all these multifarious means of distraction is the distraction itself, which is therefore, literally and philosophically, of the essence.

Read more . . .

“Mockingjay, Part 1,” the first film installment of the finale to Suzanne Collins’ massively popular young adult trilogy, The Hunger Games, has dominated the box office in its opening week and over the Thanksgiving weekend. As Brooks Barnes reported for the New York Times, “The No. 1 movie in North America was again ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,’ which took in an estimated $56.9 million from Friday to Sunday, according to Rentrak, a box-office tracking firm. Domestic ticket sales for ‘Mockingjay’ now total a hefty $225.7 million….”

While some would criticize the series for lack of depth, “Mockingjay, Part 1,” offers more than just a shallow cast of good guys vs. bad guys, acting as a window into the messy realities of tyranny, class, and freedom. (more…)

Chuck Chalberg as G.K. Chesterton

Chuck Chalberg as G.K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) is considered by many to be one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century. But you’d be hard-pressed to find him discussed in any public high school (or even most colleges or universities, for that matter.) A prolific writer (he penned everything from a popular mystery series to epic ballads), he thought himself mainly a journalist. While he never attended college, his knowledge had both depth and breadth:

Chesterton was equally at ease with literary and social criticism, history, politics, economics, philosophy, and theology. His style is unmistakable, always marked by humility, consistency, paradox, wit, and wonder. His writing remains as timely and as timeless today as when it first appeared, even though much of it was published in throw away papers.


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
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.”

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.”