CS Lewis to be added to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis.  Next year on the 50th anniversary of that occasion, Lewis will be honored with a plaque in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

English writers have been either buried here or memorialized since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer.  Lewis will join literary luminaries like Spenser, Samuel Johnson, Blake, Keats, Dickens, and T. S. Eliot.

I didn’t realize Lewis had that stature outside of Christian circles, though, of course, Westminster Abbey is, above all, an Anglican church.

BBC News – CS Lewis to be honoured in Poets’ Corner.

Kurt Vonnegut on writing and living

Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five among many others, seems like a much better author when you’re young.  There is a close link between idealism and cynicism, both of which are characteristic of the young and both of which are necessary to appreciate Vonnegut’s dark humor.  I remember reading him as a college student with great excitement and appreciation.  But now. . . it’s just not the same.  Still, you have to appreciate his wit, and an affection lingers.

Dan Wakefield has just published a collection of his correspondence entitled Kurt Vonnegut: Letters.  In a review, Michael Dirda gives us some bon mots from those letters:

“Unsettling business for an artist, where everything that happens in New York has universality, and everything that happens outside is ethnography.”

The term paper, he tells his writing students, should be “both cynical and religious.”

“The secret of good writing is caring.”

“No picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. . . . Pictures are famous for their human-ness and not their picture-ness.”

“I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heartbreaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.”

To his son, Mark: “I ask a favor for your mother’s sake: please look awfully nice at your graduation. She is a dear, romantic girl, and I want her to be as happy as she can possibly be at the graduation of her only son. . . .I am talking about hair, of course.”

“Story-telling is a game for two, and a mature storyteller . . . is sociable, a good date on a blind date with a total stranger, so to speak.”

Here is the Hobbit soundtrack

The soundtrack for the upcoming Hobbit movie has been posted online, for free. Listen to it here:  Hobbit.

Bilbo Baggins is being played by Martin Freeman, who plays Dr. Watson in BBC’s excellent modern-day update of the Sherlock Holmes saga, Sherlock.  And the actor who plays said Sherlock, who has the splendid name of Benedict Cumberbatch, has a part in the Hobbit, playing the Necromancer.  (I believe that’s the mysteriously sinister figure who turns out to be Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.)  By the way, Sherlock is many times better than the American attempt at the same scenario Elementary.  Wouldn’t you say?

Good quotations

George Will is among the most learned of today’s pundits, and he has the habit of lacing his columns with big words, arcane references, and scholarly quotations.  I urge you to read his latest column, a trenchant criticism of President Barack Obama, linked below.  But what I’d like to draw your attention to are some really good, widely-applicable quotations that the column contains.  I will cherry pick them for your edification:

“It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know he is not a great man.”— Calvin Coolidge

“To remain silent is the most useful service that a mediocre speaker can render to the public good.”–Alexis de Tocqueville:

’Tis said two things not worth running after are a bus or an economic panacea, because another will come along soon.

“For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that’s an earthquake.”–Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman  [Actually, this was a character commenting about Willy Loman, not Willy Loman himself, but we’ll give Mr. Will a pass out of gratitude for the Calvin Coolidge quote.]

via George Will: Obama’s empty, strident campaign – The Washington Post.

 

The death of a true intellectual

Jacques Barzun died at age 104.  A scholar of breath-taking range, Barzun, a French immigrant, was a cultural historian wrote about literature, history, music, philosophy, religion, education, how to write well, and baseball.  (He is the source of the quotation, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”  A champion of the liberal arts, he was a key developer of the “great books” approach to higher education.  He was a critic of Darwinism, existentialism, and other modern and postmodern philosophies.  Though his positions seemed largely in accord with a Christian perspective, he did not profess any personal Christian convictions.  And yet, he was baptized and sometimes attended both Catholic and Protestant churches.  (See this for the question of his religious beliefs.)

From his obituary in the Washington Post:

Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University historian and administrator whose sheer breadth of scholarship — culminating in a survey of 500 years of Western civilization — brought him renown as one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died Oct. 25 in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years. He was 104. . . .

Dr. Barzun was 92 when he published what is widely regarded as his masterwork, “From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present.” Journalist David Gates spoke for a majority of critics when he wrote in Newsweek magazine that the book, which appeared in 2000, “will go down in history as one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.”

Dr. Barzun sustained one of the longest and brightest careers in academia, having first risen to prominence as a professor who helped shape Columbia University’s approach to general education. He later was dean of the graduate school, dean of faculties and provost. . . . [Read more…]

Christopher Hitchens on "Wolf Hall" & the Reformation

Thanks to Aaron Lewis, who saw my praise for Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell and sent me a link to a review of her Wolf Hall by the late Christopher Hitchens.  He may have been an atheist, but he was an atheist who supported the Reformation.  An excerpt from the review:

Three portraits by Hans Holbein have for generations dictated the imagery of the epoch. The first shows King Henry VIII in all his swollen arrogance and finery. The second gives us Sir Thomas More, the ascetic scholar who seems willing to lay his life on a matter of principle. The third captures King Henry’s enforcer Sir Thomas Cromwell, a sallow and saturnine fellow calloused by the exercise of worldly power. The genius of Mantel’s prose lies in her reworking of this aesthetic: look again at His Majesty and see if you do not detect something spoiled, effeminate, and insecure. Now scrutinize the face of More and notice the frigid, snobbish fanaticism that holds his dignity in place. As for Cromwell, this may be the visage of a ruthless bureaucrat, but it is the look of a man who has learned the hard way that books must be balanced, accounts settled, and zeal held firmly in check. By the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.

When the action of the book opens, though, it is still a marginal nation subservient to Rome, and the penalty for rendering the Scriptures into English, or even reading them in that form, is torture and death. In Cromwell’s mind, as he contemplates his antagonist More, Mantel allows us to discern the germinal idea of what we now call the Protestant ethic:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Thomas More, he reflects, will burn men, while the venal Cardinal Wolsey will burn only books, in “a holocaust of the English language, and so much rag-rich paper consumed, and so much black printer’s ink.” Cromwell has sufficient immunity to keep his own edition of William Tyndale’s forbidden English Bible, published overseas and smuggled back home, with a title page that carries the mocking words PRINTED IN UTOPIA. Thomas More will one day see to it that Tyndale, too, burns alive for that jibe. Curtain-raised here, also, is Cromwell’s eventual readiness to smash the monasteries and confiscate their revenue and property to finance the building of a modern state, so that after Wolsey there will never again be such a worldly and puissant cardinal in the island realm.

These are the heavy matters that underlie the ostensible drama of which schoolchildren know: the king’s ever-more-desperate search for a male heir and for a queen (or, as it turns out, queens) who will act as his broodmare in the business. With breathtaking subtlety—one quite ceases to notice the way in which she takes on the most intimate male habits of thought and speech—Mantel gives us a Henry who is sexually pathetic, and who needs a very down-to-earth counselor. A man like Cromwell, in fact, “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell it is who catches the monarch’s eye as it strays toward the girls of the Seymour clan, and promptly invests in a loan to their family, whose country seat is named Wolf Hall. But this is not the only clue to the novel’s title: Cromwell is also acutely aware of the old saying Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

And so indeed he is, though in Greek-drama style, Mantel keeps most of the actual violence and slaughter offstage. Only at second hand do we hear of the terrifying carnage in the continuing war for the Papal States, and the sanguinary opportunism with which King Henry, hoping to grease the way to his first divorce, proposes to finance a French army to aid the pope. Cromwell is a practical skeptic here too, because he has spent some hard time on the Continent and knows, he says, that “the English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.”

via The Men Who Made England – Christopher Hitchens – The Atlantic.

To be sure, Hitchens sees the Reformation in terms of breaking the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church, neglecting its positive emphasis on the Gospel, the Word of God, and Vocation.  And the Catholic critique of the Reformation is that it would ultimately lead straight to atheism.   But still, Mantel’s books present a sympathetic portrait of the English Reformation, including aspects that have generally been papered over.  (Such as Sir Thomas More–now St. Thomas More–having a rack for torturing Lutherans in his own home!)

Since Reformation Day is coming, we should discuss the notion that Hitchens thinks is a good thing and Catholics think is a bad thing: namely, that the Reformation began the dissolution of the church, leading ultimately to secularism and to Hitchens’ atheism.  What is true and what is false about that charge?


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