Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Confessions of St. Augustine

This was by far the book that took me longest to read in this series so far and also almost as long as any book I can remember.  Walden took me a few months as well, but that was because I loathed Thoreau.  I found a lot to love about St. Augustine, but it was still a long haul.

This morning to Laurie  I likened it to the first time I saw Casablanca.  I think I was about 18 at the time, and I had heard so often what a great film it was, one of the best ever made, by many people whose opinions I trusted on such matters.  I then saw the film and thought, "Huh.  I don't get it.  It was just an average 1940s noirish film, the likes of which I've seen dozens of times."  It was a revisit years later, viewed with the benefit of a modicum of maturity, in which I realized the perfection encapsulated in that film as well as it being the source and inspiration of so much other great material in popular culture.  I realized in reading St. Augustine that I had been reading St. Augustine for years, although through the filter of many other minds, some of which may not have even realized the wellspring of their thought.  He is so ingrained in my religious path and in our culture as to possess the attributes of invisibility and postulation.  Indeed, much like reading Dante and Milton, I came to understand how much of reality has been formed by this man's thinking.  I came to understand through my reading that he served to mold a great deal of Christianity, and this wasn't even City of God.

Before I go any further, I should probably elaborate on what specifically I found.  Augustine came out of the Gnostic religious path called Manichaeism.  Manichaeism was a Gnostic religion and was, in fact, one of the most popular religious paths of the day.  It followed the teachings of the Persian Gnostic Mani.  Augustine reacted very strongly against Manichaeism after his conversion and there is an argument one can make about perhaps going a bit beyond the call of duty with his objections.

I am inclined to agree with Augustine's rejection of the Gnostic sort of "salvation through knowledge, learning, or wisdom."  I might suggest that Augustine's rather severe doctrine of Hell might stem both from coming out of dualism and also a reaction to the "ebb and flow" view of good and evil in Manichaeism.  But, to be honest with my own reaction, I also have to lay my Annihilationist cards on the table.  I would also mention at this point Augustine's admitted heavy influence by the writings of Plato (a heavy influence which I share), with the specific intention of recalling my reaction to Socrates' view of the afterlife and how much it resembles the popular Christian view of Hell (which was, in essence, Augustine's as well.  Yeah, I said it.)
I should probably also state that I am not saying that Augustine formed early Christianity in his own image, rather that he monkeyed with the hues a bit.

As for the difficulty with the text itself, I find it difficult to express why it took me four months to read 300 pages (except that I was also reading other things in the meantime including Proust and the Diaries of Andy Warhol.)  Augustine did have a cyclical style of writing, possibly a translation glitch, which ground me down a bit.  I also found myself disagreeing with the man, again more in matters of hues than with specific points.  At the risk of an ad hominem explanation and speaking as one who sets up camp in the grey area of radical grace which often gives off the appearance of antinomianism, Augustine could and did smack a bit of the Pharisaical at times.  He also made a few moves that made me uncomfortable.  I thought his expulsion of his mistress (and mother of his son) was a bit callous.  Still, being faced with such moments gave occasion to check my judgmentalism, so there may have been some profitable humility exercises to be mined from the work.  Although I would hasten to add that it wasn't that I didn't like Augustine as a person.  I liked him quite a bit.  I just suspect that he would have grossly disliked me.

The biographical section was the easier part of the text.  The real challenge came in the last three Books where Augustine mainly talked around and about Creation.  This could also be a bit excruciating to me at times, especially as one who has no problem reconciling contemporary science with his religious path.  For example, Augustine talked about time for what seemed like an eternity, and his pre-Einsteinian, pre-quantum, heck, pre-Newtonian and pre-Copernican view of time and the universe I found to be some of the most challenging wading of the entire project.

Of course, there was a lot to love about Augustine as well.  His early but solid Trinitarian view I found quite lovely and engaging.  I especially loved how his expressions were so steeped in scripture.  He spends a great deal of his work "praying the scriptures" to God.  His example in that regard may have been one of the greatest lessons I gained from reading Augustine.

Would I recommend Augustine?  Do I think Dr. Eliot was correct in including the work in this series?  I would recommend it with a few provisos.  I would not recommend it to a non-Christian, nor would I recommend it to the sort of young zealous types who are captivated by The Law.  I would recommend it as an important work in Christian history.  It was an exceptionally challenging read and clearly one of the most influential works in Christian history, ranking it high as one of the most influential works in human civilization.  I would speculate that this was Dr. Eliot's reasoning.  I, however, was more joyful back when I was basking in William Penn.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dream Roles, Types, and Drama Lit 101

“A Chinaman of the T'ang Dynasty—and, by which definition, a philosopher—dreamed he was a butterfly, and from that moment he was never quite sure that he was not a butterfly dreaming it was a Chinese philosopher. Envy him; in his two-fold security.”

-Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

One of the better features of the internet culture is the abreviated, expedited interaction with people one admires but who live in high castles.  When I was growing up, there were these things called fan letters which were wonderful.  You would write your thoughts out on paper and send it by post to the person you admired.  The person would eventually read the note and possible send a response or at least they would sign one that their assistant wrote.  Or have their assistant use the stamp with their signature.  You would hear the stories of famous people corresponding with normals like the gods descending Olympus to mess with the humans. 

I've always felt that it is a good thing to write to people who one admires.  First of all, it's nice to tell people that you admire them and explain why.  You are a better person for being the type of person who takes the time to actually do that.  It is its own reward, but it is also nice to have a response.  On the internet, such interactions are usually far more brief and less substantial, which is why I am still an ardent advocate for the dying art of letter writing. But I will also say that on the internet, in my experience, such interactions are more commonplace than trying to wring a letter from a celebrity.

Still, in the past week I've had two such brushes with people I admire, one of which inspired this blog post with a call for inspiration.  Naturally, I follow fashion icon Michael Kors on Twitter and the other morning he asked what music people were listening to that morning.  I responded "I opened Spotify, typed "Sondheim" into the search bar, put it on random, and am letting it play all morning."  Mr. Kors expressed that he loved that response.

Heartened by approbation from so revered a source, I've been listening to a lot of Sondheim over the past few days.  I adore Sondheim and it always reminds me of my first love: the theater.  I majored in Theater in college with the intention of becoming a playwright.  That didn't happen (or, rather, it may happen while I have another job throughout my life or happen after I'm dead) but the exchange and subsequent music reminded me of dream roles.

I think anyone who has been on stage has probably had roles which they would love to play.  I imagine it has something to do with appreciation for the art and point of view which the character expresses.  I am increasingly aware that I am on the far end of the portion of my life in which I could play The Dane (although there are still arguments to be made from the text for my potential in that role.  I submit to you Gertrude's reaction to Hamlet's early poor performance in the fencing match: "He's fat, and scant of breath."  I know!  Sounds just like me, right?!!?)  In about 20 years, I would love to play both Falstaff and Lear.

But I could talk about the history of theater and my favorite roles for... well, I imagine I could start a whole separate blog on that topic (I should like to ask Emily Post how many blogs are too many for one person.  Perhaps I'll just pop down to the Underworld for a moment and see... Okay.  No more blogs for me.)

So, as brevity is the soul of wit, let's get back to Sondheim, I was never cast in leads.  I was always the slightly dark, slightly mad character who comes in at a point in the show and spices up the narrative, then leaves.  I think I may be too dark for Pseudolus or The Baker but too light for Sweeney Todd or anyone in Assassins.  My body reflects my fondness for the taste of hops too much to ever be cast as Seurat. 

One of my favorite works by Sondheim is one of his less performed.  He wrote a musical based on/rebooting The Frogs by Aristophanes.  In the original, Dionysus descends into Hades to bring back the world's greatest playwright, Euripides, to the world of the living to solve the problems of modern life but, after a battle of wits between two dead playwrights, decides to bring back Aeschylus instead.  In Sondheim's, Dionysus descends into Hades to bring back the world's greatest playwright, Shaw, to the world of the living to solve the problems of modern life but, after a battle of wits between two dead playwrights, decides to bring back Shakespeare instead.  It is a wonderful play and if you've never seen it or heard the music from it before, I advise you to seek it out with all speed.  Someday I would love to play Pluto.  He has a number which is rip-roaring fun even while posing some serious philosophical and theological questions.  How ought we live and why?  What's stopping us?  What is the meaning of life?  What is the meaning of afterlife?:

As a final thought in what's turning out to be a buckshot blog post topically speaking, I am rather chomping at the bit to get through the early Christian writing in the Harvard Classics because next is a volume of ancient Greek drama.

Plays are some of my favorite forms of literature to read.  Much like poetry, they allow the reader to engage in the literary conversation so deeply.  One gets to build the sets, cast the characters, and play all of the parts within one's own mind, free from any budgetary restraints.  More importantly, one also gets to interact with the ideas expressed in the script, imagining ways to interpret, express, and possibly even subvert the material.

As a man whose dream life is that of a playwright and a man who is working toward a lively posthumous career as one, I encourage everyone to read more plays.

Friday, October 7, 2011

True Story

I had an unusual form of disappointment this afternoon.  On my lunch break, I caught a few moments of a local NPR show called Nancy's Bookshelf.  Nancy Wiegman interviews authors who either live in the area (usually having written things like The Conifers of Bidwell Park) or who are passing through (authors who are squeezing in an extra book tour stop between Sacramento and Portland.)

This week's guest was Professor Jonathan Steinberg who has written a 600 page biography of Otto von Bismark.  It is not a subject I would normally have pursued left to my own devices, but the author was passionately informative during the interview and I love furthering my education.  In short, he really sold it, at least as far as I was concerned.  Then came the point in the interview where Nancy asked Professor Steinberg what brought him to Chico and he replied that he was here to do a book signing.  I suddenly became very excited realizing that I had off this evening.  I rushed home to Google the details of the time and place of the book signing, only to find that the interview had been recorded in April.  It was as though the radio said, "Hey, Paul, here's something you really would have enjoyed but missed a long time ago on account of not knowing it was going to happen."

But that's not really what I came here to write about.  I came to write about a thought experiment sparked by a comment from Professor Steinberg on the Genesis of his biography.  He said that he was approached and asked who he would write a biography about had he the opportunity.  He instantly responded "Bismark" who seems to have been a figure of some fascination for him throughout his life.  The difference between me and the professor is that he then went on to be permitted to write a biography which was published by a major publishing house with the expected admirable remuneration for such an effort.

The hypothetical in my mind and kicked around at our dinner table this evening is "How would I respond were I asked that question?"  My initial immediate response was "Glenn Gould" although it strikes me that there are already an awful lot of books available on that subject.  Which lead me to think about biography in general.

My experiences with biography have given occasion to note the vast array of types and styles of biography.  Some are highly academic, some are highly popular (both of which I've found can turn off readers if they oscillate too far in either direction.)  Some raise the subject to heroic, godlike proportions while others are nothing more than character assassinations (again, both of which blah blahdy blah.)  Some offer a unique perspective from the biographer (longtime readers of this blog will remember my review of Detmar Blow's biography of his wife Isabella Blow.)

Some of the more sucessful and engaging focus on a specific attribute.  I recall a wonderful biography of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec which posited the thesis that Lautrec's work was highly political in spite of our modern perception of it being all dancing girls and circuses.  Some other successful biographies I've found focus on a figure involved in a notable historical instance, but who for one reason or another have not been in the forefront enough to have previously thought to merit a whole biography.  I remember being highly moved by a biography of Lord Alfred Douglas.

Another form of biography I enjoy depends on the skill and verisimilitude of the author.  That is to say when a biographer seeks to explore a figure in history about whom we know very little.  I have a whole shelf in the other room devoted to such books about William Shakespeare.  I thought perhaps I would like to write a biography of Socrates.

And there are the great tomes which become widely viewed as "The Authoritative."  One of my favorites is one which perfectly balances the academic with readability.  Michael Schumacher wrote an 800 page stepstool of a biography about poet Allen Ginsberg called Dharma Lion which is among the most enriching experiences I have ever had in reading a biography.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  The only criticism I could possibly imagine to level against it is that it was written before the subject died and therefore leaves off the inevitable ending to all true stories.

Occasionally, but worthy of making the distinction, there also comes along "The One To Read" which can differ from "The Authoritative" or not.  The obvious example is James Gleick's incomparable biography of Richard Feynman, simply and appropriately titled Genius.  I do make the distinction because there are so many books by, about, and surrounding Feynman that are must reads.  This is the one that you buy a case of and hand out to everyone you know.

As Plutarch wrote, "To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days."  The impulse to read biography or historical accounts seems to stem from the human urge of seeking wisdom, learning from lessons that others have learned, and an attempt to glean the well-spring of greatness (or, in some cases, the cautionary tales) contained within the life of a world-historical figure.  Therefore, I feel that there is a sort of nobility and, indeed, hope in the popularity of biography.

As a fun diversion, how would you answer that question given the offer to research and pen a biography?

Oh, and by the way, you can listen to the full interview with Professor Steinberg here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Digging Deeper

I've just had the most remarkable experience which may be difficult to express the enormity in simple words and pictures.  I was driving home from a weekend trip to pick some things up at my place of work.  I work in a neighboring town and I normally commute to it by means of a highway that runs through orchards of some kind (I'm not even sure what they are growing but I do know that almonds are a very common crop in our area.)  Most of my commute looks like this:

And I am usually driving with either the time constraint of clocking in or the time constraint of wanting to get home.  Today, as Laurie was teaching a class, I had no such time constraints and I remembered my friend Matt Raley telling me about the River Road.  While living in that neighboring town, he would often have occasion to drive to the town in which I live, and he told me that he would sometimes take the River Road.  It served no practical purpose and, in fact, added time to the trip, but it boasts a stunning view and takes you right by the Sacramento River.  I was told that it makes a sort of loop from Highway 32 back to Highway 32 after a time.  Which, upon arriving home, I found a map on to illustrate:

I had no idea how it worked at the time, but when I saw the sign on 32, I turned.  First of all, it is a country road, which meant that I had the road to myself (even to the point where I could stop and take photographs.)  Second, it would wind around and there would be these startling spots of something simple, lovely, but unexpected coming into view:

Unfortunately, I was unable to take photos at the majestic Sacramento River.  There was also the moment of exhilaration at realizing that I was only half convinced that I would be able to find my way back home and the subsequent delight of reaching familiar landmarks. 

So often in life I find that simple acts of re-examining the ordinary through different perspectives to be some of the most rewarding and joyful acts in life.  Anticipating life continuing in a similar vein for some time, I have the option of taking a different path now and seeing entirely different views.  But even if I choose not to at the end of a long day, now as I drive I shall at least know that that is there.