Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Beautiful Indian Summers - But to What End?

A little while ago my wife and I began watching Indian Summers, a show about the British Raj's annual move to Simla, in the foothills of the Himalaya, where it sheltered from Delhi's summer heat. The show is visually stunning, marked by the natural beauty of the landscape (actually shot in Malaysia) and the pomp of the Raj. For a historian of the British Empire, the draw is obvious. But we've been on an Indian Summers hiatus of late. By tacit agreement, we just started doing other things in the evening.

The show's characters, though interesting, may have missed a certain je ne sais quoi. The plot, though intriguing, was not quite compelling. But my disquiet about the show was something else. Something more fundamental.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life, described three kinds of history. Monumental history glorifies the past; it holds up the heroes of yesteryear as models to be imitated. Critical history highlights all that was wrong in the past, and in so doing spurs us on to do better today. Antiquarian history is less dynamic: it describes the past as essentially the same as the present. It takes comfort in the great continuity of human society.

Viewed through this lens, Indian Summers is puzzling. It is not monumental. Although the splendor of the Raj is on display, the show clearly conveys that the Raj was oppressive, dishonest, and generally out of touch with the people it governed. And yet I would hesitate to describe the show as critical. The Indian nationalist movement - at least in the episodes we watched - comes off as morally justified, but not dramatically so, not enough to decisively turn our sympathies against the British characters. Given the enormity of the questions at stake, there is a surprising amount of moral ambivalence.

So Indian Summers must be antiquarian, right? Here we come to the crux of my complaint. At first glance, the show would not seem to fit the basic antiquarian mold: its power struggles, deceptions, and unbridled lust for power and the pleasures of the flesh bear little resemblance to my own life. Is this essentially the same as the present day?

Indian Summers is a mirror reflecting many of the worst qualities of 21st century America. The quest for power is taken as a given. Fornication and adultery are essentially no different from a good meal: if the cost is not unreasonable, well worth enjoying. Truth and justice, though not entirely banished, have become moral garnishes. For those who live in this version of modern society, Indian Summers conveys the message that the Raj looked much like the present. That which is enjoyed or feared, valued or despised today was held in similar regard in every age, was it not?

But for those of us who still inhabit those corners of contemporary society where desires are subordinated to duties, where power has value only in relation to the ends it accomplishes, where fidelity is not merely a burden to be carried but a virtue to be celebrated, Indian Summers is a depressing scene. That these shortcomings are not even recognized is more depressing still.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Journey to Colonus: A Historical Novel and Much More

Franklin Debrot's debut novel, Journey to Colonus, though a work of historical fiction long in the making, is a work for the present day, with themes of racial conflict, political divisions, campus agitation, and Russian influence in America. That all this is discussed in a novel which is well crafted makes it a very worthy candidate for your 2017 reading list.

The story begins in 1969, on the campus of a fictional black college in North Carolina, at a time of considerable political maneuvering, with alliances and factions abounding. Our main character, Thomas Doswell, a college professor, stands oddly apart from all this, focusing instead on great works of literature and philosophy. Through his unfolding relationships with his teaching assistants, we learn not only about his approach to education and the vicissitudes of their personal lives, but first and foremost about Doswell's secretive and dynamic past, including involvement with the Communist International.

Journey to Colonus has a measured pace. It takes much of the novel for all the key pieces to get into place, but Debrot ensures that these parts are as compelling as the whole. There are a few moments where the jumping between decades is a bit disorienting, but I was overwhelmingly impressed by Debrot's ability to develop characters and weave together the disparate elements of their stories. (As someone who has toyed with writing fiction, I can tell you that it's harder than it looks, arguably far harder than writing non-fiction.)

Debrot's novel rests on solid historical ground. An extensive appendix points to many of the author's sources for historical context. (From my own reading in American history and the history of the Comintern, including this biography of one agent, Journey to Colonus gets both the broad dynamics and the particular details right.) Moreover, the novel overlaps heavily with Debrot's own biography: growing up in New York, among the West Indian community, and teaching at a black college in North Carolina in the 1960s. This is familiar territory for him.

Some might object to what they see as an overly conservative book. After all, Senator Joseph McCarthy's role in the Tydings Committee's investigation of Communists in the State Department, for example, comes off broadly positive. But accusations of partisanship would be a superficial misreading of Journey to Colonus. The novel acknowledges that McCarthy was right, or very nearly so, about matters of national importance, but it also recognizes some unsavory elements of his personal life and tactical mistakes in his pursuit of Soviet influence. More to the point, Debrot's profoundly humane novel shows that people's actions, both personal and political, arise from a wealth of diverse influences. Without excusing immorality, Journey to Colonus acknowledges that results often differ from intentions, that people are sometimes funneled by their pasts into certain paths, and that appearances are not always what they seem.

At its heart, this novel addresses a topic that has been of considerable interest to me in the last few years, a topic found from Shakespeare's plays to such recent television shows as The Crown and The Man in the High Castle, namely the intersection of the personal and political. National and international politics do not simply happen on their own: they are the products of individuals and their interactions, with all the quirks that entails. Likewise, politics does not simply exist in newspaper headlines, but has real implications for the lives of individuals. All of which makes the pursuit of wisdom and authentic relationships so important. Journey to Colonus is an enjoyable and enlightening guide along that path.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

What Does Auld Lang Syne Mean?

Most Americans know at least the opening line of Robert Burn's poem "Auld Lang Syne," set to a Scottish folk tune which is at once melancholy and joyous. It doesn't take a linguist to realize that "auld" is simply "old" in Burns' Scottish dialect. But beyond the initial question - "Should auld acquaintance be forgot / and never brought to mind?" - most Americans' knowledge of the lyrics gets rather fuzzy, to say nothing of additional Scottish oddities. 

Perhaps most puzzling are the title words themselves: auld lang syne?  I'm no expert, but I'm told that "lang" means "long" - no big surprise there - and "syne" means "since."  As sometimes occurs in Latin or certain English texts, the noun involved is omitted, but can be inferred: old [things] long since [gone].  Or, more poetically, we might translate it as something like "times long gone."

Below is the full text, with glosses on some of the other words likely to befuddle modern singers.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my jo [dear],
for auld lang syne,
we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be [buy] your pint-stoup [cup]!
and surely I'll be [buy] mine!
And we'll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We twa [two] hae [have] run about the braes * [slopes],
and pou'd [picked] the gowans [daisies] fine;
But we've wander'd mony [many] a weary fit [foot],
sin' [since] auld lang syne.


We twa [two] hae [have] paidl'd [paddled] in the burn [stream],
frae [from] morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid [broad] hae [have] roar'd
sin' [since] auld lang syne.


And there's a hand, my trusty fiere [friend]!
and gie's [give me] a hand o' thine!
And we'll tak' a right gude-willie [goodwill] waught [draught],
for auld lang syne.


* You may know this term from the opening line of The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Godhead See

My favorite lines from any hymn come from "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing": Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity.

The King's College Chapel choir sings an excellent rendition of the hymn below (as does the St. Paul's Choir), but I think the hymn is best done with more gusto and strong instrumentation.  This is not simply a sweet song about a little baby; it is a triumphal anthem celebrating our encounter with the King of Kings.

St. John Chrysostom echoes - or, rather, anticipates - the lyrics written by Charles Wesley.  In his Christmas sermon, he nearly sings, "All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised."

St. John draws our attention to the wonder that, with the Incarnation, a small corner of creation holds the creator Himself: "Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of Justice....  The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infant's bands." 

For us whose nature He took on, this is nothing short of astonishing.  "The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us He may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see."

If being created in the divine image did not already convey our inestimable dignity, the birth of Jesus now implies an even greater dignity.  "For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator."

In the same oratorical style seen in his Easter sermon, St. John rises to a crescendo: "Come, then, let us observe the Feast....  For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels. "

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Comics: A Great American Institution

I love comics. My newspaper, the Financial Times, is in other respects an admirable publication but, sadly, has no comics. From time to time my parents are kind enough to send me some they've saved.

I don't merely think comics are enjoyable - though they are. Rather, I think they're a great American institution, a cornerstone of the republic, even.

First, there is the shared experience. I associate reading the comics with eating breakfast, often with my father. The comics section is passed around, favorite strips are discussed. But even apart from the physical aspect, even if comics are read electronically, people can discuss their favorite characters and watch their adventures over the years.  And comics frequently comment on our shared experiences, from grocery shopping and office life, to dating and politics.

Second, there is the intellectual exercise. Comics may seem simple, but humor is notoriously difficult to explain. It is usually based on an understanding of the way things work, an understanding shared by the joke teller and the audience, and then some deviation from that usual pattern in some quirky way.

Children, having only recently discovered the order of things, often most enjoy deviations from that order. A man absentmindedly reading his newspaper goes to pick up his coffee cup and, without looking, picks up the salt shaker and pours salt into his mouth. Hilarious.

We don't generally deconstruct every comic we read, but I'm convinced that reading the comics strengths our eye for patterns, particularly within social dynamics.

Third, comics provide perspective. Even in trying times - and when are the times not trying? - it is useful to remember that we can still laugh, that things aren't so bad that we can't carry on. Comics help remind us that the cosmos is ultimately comedic, not tragic. If you haven't read the Bible lately, forgive me for dropping a spoiler: the story ends with a wedding, not a funeral. Comics are a small foreshadowing of that joy.

The strip above is the Pearls before Swine, by Stephan Pastis, from 28 November.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Poem for Advent from G. K. Chesterton

A Child of the Snows

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
And never before or again,
When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.

And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone.

Found on the website of the American Chesterton Society.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Christian Hope & the Upcoming Election

If there is one word that could characterize the prevailing mood among observant Christians in America in the weeks leading up to the election on Nov. 8, that word would be frantic. Some pundits scrutinize all the most recent polls, discerning the voice of God in the voice of the people. Others analyze the utterances of the candidates and their surrogates, seeking signs of what is to come. Still others preach their jeremiads, lamenting the sinful ways of all who disagree with them. No matter whom they support, or where they stand on particular issues, they are in continuous emotional turmoil, either worrying that Hillary Clinton will bring about the imminent demise of our fair "city upon a hill," or looking forward to the day when Donald Trump will inaugurate a new reign of peace and justice in America. Their emotions swing back and forth from the most exalted rejoicing to the deepest gloom.

But, why are Christians so frantic? Why do they seem to have so little inner peace?

Is it perhaps because they have not placed their hope in Jesus Christ? As Matthew Schmitz of First Things helpfully reminds us:

Despairing of anything other than salvation is not per se a sin. If anything, the fact that people so commonly label despair over a candidate or cause as sinful indicates that they have a weirdly spiritualized understanding of politics.

As today (in the traditional liturgical calendar) is the Feast of Christ the King, it is an opportune time to remind ourselves of what the Psalmist said: "Do not put your trust in princes, in men who have no power to save." Instead, we must accept St. Paul's teaching:

Give thanks to God the Father Who has made us worthy to share the lot of the saints in light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son, in Whom we have our redemption through His blood, the remission of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. For in Him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether Thrones, or Dominations, or Principalities, or Powers. All things have been created through and unto Him, and He is before all creatures, and in Him all things hold together. 

Once we have this proper perspective in mind, Cardinal Newman's advice on how to act in politics will make much more sense and we will be able to apply his words fruitfully to our lives:

We need not be angry nor use contentious words, and yet may firmly give our opinion, in proportion as we have the means of forming one, and be zealous towards God in all active good service, and scrupulously and pointedly aloof from the bad men whose evils arts we fear.