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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Some time ago a good friend of mine wrote a note, in the midst of a set of truly appalling circumstances, about the importance of non-judgment. For, she said, we don’t really know what anyone is up against. We do not know the history of the one whose action we judge. And, if we were given the history and circumstances of those we judge, would we have done better? 

Nothing in the note, especially given the circumstances it addressed, was wrong. Quite the contrary, in its place it was exactly right. And yet, after reading it through twice, I had a nagging thought that it was incomplete. Yet that’s about all that anyone is willing to say publicly about judgment these days: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” There is more that needs to be said, though, and hardly anyone is saying it.

Hi Ed Nathan Jr.

Thus saith the kidnappers of Nathan Arizona, Jr.: “Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.”

 

The thing more that needs saying has to do with the distinction between appraising and condemning. The connotations attached to these two words are quite different, though both can be used as synonyms for judging. Appraising and condemning may sometimes be distinguished in their effects, but more often in their respective intentions and underlying assumptions. The condemning man, when pointing a finger at a wrongdoer, doesn’t stop to think whether he’d have done any better — but probably assumes he would have. The appraising man also does not stop to think whether he’d have done better, but for a very different reason: what he would have done isn’t the standard.

There’s a reason the demanding teacher — the relentlessly critical appraiser of thoughts and words — is an archetypal character. And it’s no accident that under that archetype’s crusty exterior is a heart of gold. The exacting teacher is the one who cares. It is precisely because he does care that he will push his students to and just beyond the point they think of as “the limit” — but not so far beyond them that the students will break. The teacher knows the standard for all is wisdom, virtue, and high beauty, and that only great exertion will get us there.

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Antonin Scalia hasn’t been buried yet. Since his death was discovered Saturday morning, not one hour of one business day has yet passed.

The fact that we’re already approaching DEFCON 3 in the fight over who will succeed him on the Supreme Court of the United States is a sign of what President James Buchanan would call “a disease in the public mind” — the present disease being of a kind that would make one view Mary Crawford, who regarded happily the prospective enlargement of Edmund Bertram’s inheritance while Edmund’s older brother Tom was gravely ill but still alive, as the heroine of Austen’s Mansfield Park. I think about five seconds elapsed between the first news I had of Scalia’s death and the first published remarks about who’d be replacing him. Always keep the strategems sharpened, the hands ready to collect the spoils, and all that.

Were he alive, I do not doubt Scalia himself would have regarded with distaste the prospect of being replaced by a non-originalist, non-textualist Justice. However, I also have no doubt that Scalia the textualist would have loathed the idea of adding some kind of extra-constitutional “election year exception” to the appointments clause of Article II.

The world often is not a nice place for those who adhere consistently to firm principle — for circumstances that make the principle inexpedient are usually crouching at the door. But taking expediency over principled consistency generally creates bigger calamities: it damages the world, and has a strange way of backfiring sooner than the compromiser foresees. What that means, if you’re a textualist, is your philosophy doesn’t admit exceptions for distasteful results — and if you compromise for expediency now, your compromise will, sooner or later, produce results far more disastrous than the addition of one more Living Constitutionalist to the Supreme Court.

That’s already too much commentary for a holiday Monday, but I’ll add just a few words more.

For the living — those actually charged with the responsibilities of appointment and advice and consent, and the chattering onlookers — the text of the Constitution prescribes the next steps of this dance.

For the Scalia family and all the grieving, may God comfort them.

For Antonin Scalia: thank you, sir, for your good service to our nation; and rest in the peace of Christ.

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In honor of the 122nd birthday of J. R. R. Tolkien, here is a fascinating quote from his Letters (letter 267) concerning a chance meeting following a lecture by Prof. Robert Graves:

ava gardner bandwagon-00005

Ava Gardner (as herself) in the 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon.

After it [Prof. Graves] introduced me to a pleasant young woman who had attended it: well but quietly dressed, easy and agreeable, and we got on quite well. But Graves started to laugh; and he said: ‘it is obvious neither of you has ever heard of the other before’. Quite true. And I had not supposed that the lady would ever have heard of me. Her name was Ava Gardner, but it still meant nothing, till people more aware of the world informed me that she was a film-star of some magnitude, and that the press of pressmen and storm of flash-bulbs on the steps of the Schools were not directed at Graves (and cert. not at me) but at her . . . . .

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eros

“Do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 8:4.)

Few things will reduce us to inglorious paralysis like letting Eros put a halo, a mitre, or a crown on the inflated head that already bobs unstably on his pencil neck. Submission to a god who’s famously a thrall even to a moderately stiff breeze is the kernel of sundry evils – from Duke Orsino’s pathetic lovesickness in Twelfth Night to the poetry of Lord Byron to Marianne Dashwood’s brush with death in Sense and Sensibility and to scores of appalling “it’s not you, it’s me” speeches. That isn’t to say Eros is bad company. He can be delightful wearing the appropriate headwear: a jester’s hat.

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Students of the folk-lore of the United States of America are no doubt familiar with the quaint old story of Clarence MacFadden. Clarence MacFadden, it seems, was ‘wishful to dance, but his feet wasn’t gaited that way. So he sought a professor and asked him his price, and said he was willing to pay. The professor’ (the legend goes on) ‘looked down with alarm at his feet and marked their enormous expanse; and he tacked on a five to his regular price for teaching MacFadden to dance.’

I have often been struck by the close similarity between the case of Clarence and that of Henry Wallace Mills. One difference alone presents itself. It would seem to have been mere vanity and ambition that stimulated the former; whereas the motive force which drove Henry Mills to defy Nature and attempt dancing was the purer one of love. He did it to please his wife. Had he never gone to Ye Bonnie Briar-Bush Farm, that popular holiday resort, and there met Minnie Hill, he would doubtless have continued to spend in peaceful reading the hours not given over to work at the New York bank at which he was employed as paying-cashier. For Henry was a voracious reader. His idea of a pleasant evening was to get back to his little flat, take off his coat, put on his slippers, light a pipe, and go on from the point where he had left off the night before in his perusal of the BIS-CAL volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—making notes as he read in a stout notebook. He read the BIS-CAL volume because, after many days, he had finished the A-AND, AND-AUS, and the AUS-BIS. There was something admirable—and yet a little horrible—about Henry’s method of study. He went after Learning with the cold and dispassionate relentlessness of a stoat pursuing a rabbit. The ordinary man who is paying instalments on the Encyclopaedia Britannica is apt to get over-excited and to skip impatiently to Volume XXVIII (VET-ZYM) to see how it all comes out in the end. Not so Henry. His was not a frivolous mind. He intended to read the Encyclopaedia through, and he was not going to spoil his pleasure by peeping ahead.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Man With Two Left Feet, in The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories (1919).

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THERE were three distinct stages in the evolution of Annette Brougham’s attitude towards the knocking in the room above. In the beginning it had been merely a vague discomfort. Absorbed in the composition of her waltz, she had heard it almost subconsciously. The second stage set in when it became a physical pain like red-hot pincers wrenching her mind from her music. Finally, with a thrill in indignation, she knew it for what it was—an insult. The unseen brute disliked her playing, and was intimating his views with a boot-heel.

Defiantly, with her foot on the loud pedal, she struck—almost slapped—the keys once more.

‘Bang!’ from the room above. ‘Bang! Bang!’

Annette rose. Her face was pink, her chin tilted. Her eyes sparkled with the light of battle. She left the room and started to mount the stairs. No spectator, however just, could have helped feeling a pang of pity for the wretched man who stood unconscious of imminent doom, possibly even triumphant, behind the door at which she was on the point of tapping.

‘Come in!’ cried the voice, rather a pleasant voice; but what is a pleasant voice if the soul be vile?

Annette went in. The room was a typical Chelsea studio, scantily furnished and lacking a carpet. In the centre was an easel, behind which were visible a pair of trousered legs. A cloud of grey smoke was curling up over the top of the easel.

‘I beg your pardon,’ began Annette.

‘I don’t want any models at present,’ said the Brute. ‘Leave your card on the table.’

‘I am not a model,’ said Annette, coldly. ‘I merely came—’

At this the Brute emerged from his fortifications and, removing his pipe from his mouth, jerked his chair out into the open.

‘I beg your pardon,’ he said. ‘Won’t you sit down?’

How reckless is Nature in the distribution of her gifts! Not only had this black-hearted knocker on floors a pleasant voice, but, in addition, a pleasing exterior. He was slightly dishevelled at the moment, and his hair stood up in a disordered mop; but in spite of these drawbacks, he was quite passably good-looking. Annette admitted this. Though wrathful, she was fair.

‘I thought it was another model,’ he explained. ‘They’ve been coming in at the rate of ten an hour ever since I settled here. I didn’t object at first, but after about the eightieth child of sunny Italy had shown up it began to get on my nerves.’

Annette waited coldly till he had finished.

‘I am sorry,’ she said, in a this-is-where-you-get-yours voice, ‘if my playing disturbed you.’

One would have thought nobody but an Eskimo wearing his furs and winter under-clothing could have withstood the iciness of her manner; but the Brute did not freeze.

‘I am sorry,’ repeated Annette, well below zero, ‘if my playing disturbed you. I live in the room below, and I heard you knocking.’

‘No, no,’ protested the young man, affably; ‘I like it. Really I do.’

‘Then why knock on the floor?’ said Annette, turning to go. ‘It is so bad for my ceiling,’ she said over shoulder. ‘I thought you would not mind my mentioning it. Good afternoon.’

‘No; but one moment. Don’t go.’

She stopped. He was surveying her with a friendly smile. She noticed most reluctantly that he had a nice smile. His composure began to enrage her more and more. Long ere this he should have been writhing at her feet in the dust, crushed and abject.

‘You see,’ he said, ‘I’m awfully sorry, but it’s like this. I love music, but what I mean is, you weren’t playing a tune. It was just the same bit over and over again.’

‘I was trying to get a phrase,’ said Annette, with dignity, but less coldly. In spite of herself she was beginning to thaw. There was something singularly attractive about this shock-headed youth.

‘A phrase?’

‘Of music. For my waltz. I am composing a waltz.’

A look of such unqualified admiration overspread the young man’s face that the last remnants of the ice-pack melted. For the first time since they had met Annette found herself positively liking this blackguardly floor-smiter.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Man Upstairs, in The Man Upstairs and Other Stories (1914).

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The feelings of Mr J. Wilmot Birdsey, as he stood wedged in the crowd that moved inch by inch towards the gates of the Chelsea Football Ground, rather resembled those of a starving man who has just been given a meal but realizes that he is not likely to get another for many days. He was full and happy. He bubbled over with the joy of living and a warm affection for his fellow-man. At the back of his mind there lurked the black shadow of future privations, but for the moment he did not allow it to disturb him. On this maddest, merriest day of all the glad New Year he was content to revel in the present and allow the future to take care of itself.

Mr Birdsey had been doing something which he had not done since he left New York five years ago. He had been watching a game of baseball.

New York lost a great baseball fan when Hugo Percy de Wynter Framlinghame, sixth Earl of Carricksteed, married Mae Elinor, only daughter of Mr and Mrs J. Wilmot Birdsey of East Seventy-Third Street; for scarcely had that internationally important event taken place when Mrs Birdsey, announcing that for the future the home would be in England as near as possible to dear Mae and dear Hugo, scooped J. Wilmot out of his comfortable morris chair as if he had been a clam, corked him up in a swift taxicab, and decanted him into a Deck B stateroom on the Olympic. And there he was, an exile.

Mr Birdsey submitted to the worst bit of kidnapping since the days of the old press gang with that delightful amiability which made him so popular among his fellows and such a cypher in his home. At an early date in his married life his position had been clearly defined beyond possibility of mistake. It was his business to make money, and, when called upon, to jump through hoops and sham dead at the bidding of his wife and daughter Mae. These duties he had been performing conscientiously for a matter of twenty years.

It was only occasionally that his humble role jarred upon him, for he loved his wife and idolized his daughter. The international alliance had been one of these occasions. He had no objection to Hugo Percy, sixth Earl of Carricksteed. The crushing blow had been the sentence of exile. He loved baseball with a love passing the love of women, and the prospect of never seeing a game again in his life appalled him.

P. G. Wodehouse, One Touch of Nature, in The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories (1917).

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