BOOKS READ OCTOBER 2020

Andrew O’Hagan: Mayflies, p/b, London, Faber, 2020  

ANDREW O’HAGAN

Glasgow born Andrew O’Hagan has won applause in Britain and the United States for his thoughtful, engaging and edgy writing. Mayflies is a book about male friendships in two parts. Part 1 is the story of a group of Scottish teenagers, close friends post-school/waiting for university/work and a riotous weekend in Manchester made up of friendship, anti-Thatcher anger,  alcohol fuelled folly, the search for female ecstasy and rock’n’roll with The Smiths and Morrisey in full flight. This section is demanding for anyone not familiar with Scottish/British slang and humour, 80’s rock and young men freed from parents and living as if there was to be no tomorrow. The writing is very funny, always edgy and with a bit of the feel of Nick Hornby and High Fidelity on steroids. The two key figures are Tully Dawson and James the narrator, saved from a life of working class labour by his intellect and a gifted and caring English teacher Mrs O’Connor.

The second part is thirty years later and the both the boys are successful in their working lives and in steady relationships when Tully goes down with a terminal cancer illness and little likelihood of survival. This section is a powerful defence of the case for euthanasia, at that stage only available with difficulty from Switzerland. The language radically alters here but the friendship humour of the past frequently re-surfaces. The writing is  sensitive, deep, emotionally demanding and quite compelling.

Whilst the two sections link together somewhat awkwardly at times the novel is a powerful ode to friendship and the big questions of life.   The ending is unforgettable. 5 stars.

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone, Edited, Introduction & Notes, John Sutherland, p/b, Oxford, OUP, 2008 (1868).  

WILKIE COLLINS

The Moonstone was first published in serialized form by Collins’ friend and mentor Charles Dickens who later came to dislike the novel for some of its themes and even possibly out of jealousy with Collins creating a large following from interest in the serial and its outcome. The story is a “whodunnit” on a massive scale with many complex themes interwoven into the narrative and characters. The basic story line is that of the life of a celebrated diamond, found in India and stolen by the British military officer and taken to England and the narrative follows the mysterious “career” of the diamond through several owners.

 Although the “Moonstone” is a fictional gem there are similarities with the faboulou Koh-i-nor diamond which was stolen from India during the British Raj and eventually given to Queen Victoria and now resides in the Royal Collection in London despite India’s pleas for its return. The Koh-i-nor is the world’s largest and most expensive diamond, uninsurable for that reason. It has now been cut and set in the British royal crown.

Of course, The Moonstone is far more than a whodunnit.  There are major themes running throughout the narrative including the controversial opium trade and the use of opium in Britain, the idea of mesmerising, parapsychology and mind control, and indeed the whole nature of sensationalising crime and lurid criminal stories that came with the expansion of a national press which occurred in Britain in the second half of the C19th. 

There are some memorable characters in the novel including the faithful retainer Beveridge with his extreme commitment to the wisdom of Robinson Crusoe, the lovelorn but doomed Rosetta Spears and her fascination with quicksand,  the outrageously diligent and indestructible Bible tract pusher Clack, the famous detective and rose grower Sergeant Cuff, the everbusy lawyer Mr Bruff and his unforgettable lad Gooseberry, the odious charlatan welldoer Godfrey Ablewhite  and the mysterious medical man and opium addict Ezra Jennings. Many of these characters become narrators in various parts of the narrative so the reader is left to put together the events of the crime. This methodology can become tedious at times but by and large the reader is held entranced and keen to read on in spite of the substantial length of the novel, some 466 pages in this paperback edition.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel even with its lengthy serialised style and host of different narrators.  5 stars.

Robert Alter: The Art of Biblical Narrative,p/b, USA, Harper/Basic Books, 1981  

ROBERT ALTER

Robert Alter has been for many years the Professor of Hebrew at the University of California at Berkeley and has recently published a completely new English translation of the Hebrew Bible in three volumes, as well as publishing studies in modern Hebrew and Western literature.   The Art of Biblical Narrative created a revolution in Biblical studies on publication, with its appeal to readers to read the text as it has come down to us. The alternative rather of research into the excavation of other ancient Neat Eastern archaeological finds and texts and language links or the chasing down of the various documentary sources which were at some time in the formed the basis of the Hebrew text we now have.  The nature of those documentary sources and excavators insights are of course  legitimate studies in their own right but so is the interpretation of the text as we have it. This is the real strength of Alter’s approach.

Alter adopts a strong literary, rather than hermeneutical  approach to the Biblical text and uses his deep knowledge of the Hebrew text and translation to demonstrate links between sections of the narrative that previous source criticism might have separated, for example the intrusion of the story of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38 which appears abruptly in the middle of the Joseph narrative.  One reason such a literary approach is unusual is because of the unique regard the Biblical text is held in both Jewish and Christian religious traditions as the unitary source of divinely revealed truth. Alter solves this problem by suggesting that the Biblical text can be most profitably regarded as “historicized fiction” or “prose fiction”. Whilst these terms may scandalise the devout believer in the inspiration of the Bible Alter points out that “history” writing itself has in common with fiction a series of imaginative constructs which the historian must create as accurately as possible,  given that no historian was ever actually present when the events they record actually occurred. Alter owns a debt to Erich Auerbach’s towering literature survey Mimesis as one of the first critics to show that the cryptic conciseness of biblical narrative is a reflection of profound art not primitiveness, [p.17].  

Alter pays particular attention to thought represented as quoted monologue [p.68]. For example in the David stories God makes himself known through oracles and prophets such as Nathan. In fact Alter can say that spoken language is the substratum of everything human and divine that transpires in the Bible. [p.70] God called the world into being with words, [p.70] and later, language translates itself into history. [p.112]. There is a tension between narration and dialogue. Alter calls it the inescapable tension between human freedom and a divine historical plan, [p113]  and again…every person is created by an all-seeing God but abandoned to his own unfathomable freedom. [p115]. There is indeed a tension between election and moral character seen particularly in the David stories. [p.117].  Alter challenges us to look to the literary techniques of narration, dialogue, repetition, the art of reticence, composite artistry and the intersection of incompatibles, helping us to see a high theological purpose in the Biblical authors.

One startling and unexpected  impact of Alter’s work is his frequent comparisons of Biblical literature with many other literary approaches including Balzac, Proust, Grass, James, Woolf, Mann, Flaubert, Fielding, Trevelyan, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Joyce, Stein, Boccaccio, Kafka, Cervantes, Ford Madox Ford, Homer, Diderot, Dickens, Film montage, Marvel, Rabelais, Sterne, Eliot, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Buber, Rosenzweig, Post-Cubist painting, and Rabbinic sources.  No doubt I missed some!

I very much regret that it has taken me forty years to read this book. I often wondered what the fuss was about. Now I know that my reading of Biblical literature will never be the same…the Hebrew text has been opened up to me in very new ways.   5 stars.

Eds. Goddio, Franck and Masson-Berghoff, Aurélia: Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, The British Museum BP Exhibition, London, Thames &  Hudson/British Museum, 2016.

FRANK GODDIO

Franck Goddio is President of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology [IEASM] and this amazing book of the exhibition at the British Museum is a startling photographic record or a reclaimed underwater city brought to the surface over the past twenty years and now held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and in several museums in Alexandria.

Many things are amazing here. First is the finding of the ancient cities of Thonis/Heracleion, Naukratis and Canopus, originally located at the north-western edge of the Nile Delta as it meets the Mediterranean and built during the first millennium B.C. At some point in the C2nd B.C. this land of lakes and islands suffered some sort of catastrophic event  (earthquake or tidal wave) which combined with rising sea levels and liquefaction caused by the weight of the massive temples and buildings established over the area, resulted in the submergence of the majority of the land into the waters of Abukir Bay. A much smaller community including some Byzantine Christian  buildings remained on the central island until the  C8th A.D. A civilisation was buried here including massive temple structures, statues of gods and men, over seventy ships, sphinxes, works of art and everyday utensils and furniture of daily life.  Over the centuries all of this was covered by tons of layers of sand, and mud hardened to rock. Although these cities were vaguely known to exist through literary references including Herodotus, very little was actually known of their reality.

The second amazing thing was the sheer complexity and sophistication of the underwater archaeological work carried out by the ISEAM team. After the initial discoveries, massive amounts of heavy duty mud, rock and slime had to be carefully removed before the painstaking work of preparing each find for bringing to the surface. This book’s extraordinary photography shows the herculean task of removing the overlay in action and also the encrusted state of the original objects which look at first just like jagged rocks but after cleaning and care turn into the most amazing statues, faces, precious jewellery and massive objects like the sphinxes. A strength of the book is the impressive underwater coloured photography showing the original state of the objects, as well as the ingenious methods of getting the massive structures to the surface and then the supremely beautiful finished products now on display in museums.

The third amazing thing for me was the exceptional interaction between the Greek and Egyptian civilisations in the C1st millennium B.C. Thonis/Heraklion is one city, not two as always thought. Heraklion is the Greek name.  Temples were built in honour of the gods of both societies and there was a remarkable interaction of trade, religious beliefs, art and science. The Greek Ptolemaic rulers who followed Alexander the Great’s welcome in Egypt were far more accepted in Egypt than their former Persian overlords. This  unique commixture of cultures lasted for centuries before buckling under Roman control. 

As one would expect from a British Museum publication, the attention to detail in this 272 page book of the exhibition is massive and requires staying power. it is a cultural adventure well worth taking and a tribute to the ingenuity of bygone civilisations as well as C21st technological brilliance and artistic skills of display.  5 stars.


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Marcel Proust

Volume 2 of In Search Of Lost Time…In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.

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BOOKS READ SEPTEMBER 2020

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time: Volume 2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,  Trans. with Introduction and Notes, James Grieve, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (orig.1919)

In Volume 2 of Proust’s epic seven volume In Search of Lost Time, our narrator leaves childhood behind and is a teenager in love with every pretty girl who comes his way. The two key relationships are with Gilberte, the daughter of Swann and Odette and takes place in Combray. The he second is the elusive Albertine and takes place at a seaside holiday resort Balbec where the narrator’s escort is his grandmother. 

The complexities, embarrassments and misunderstandings of young love are all in play here and at the writing is engaging and provocative with the narrator’s gauche mistakes and overweening self-congratulation both entrancing and amazing the reader.  Along with “young girls in flower” we are introduced to some of the narrator’s male friends including the elegant Robert de Saint Loupe, the Jewish uptight and scheming genius Bloch, the landscape painter Elstir, and the writer Bergotte who appears to be a combination of Anatole France and John Ruskin.

Alongside the narrative of the narrator’s search for young love comes much deeply thoughtful commentary on art, literature, architecture, politics, sailing, philosophy and much else besides. At these points the reader can be distracted as Proust happily reverts from the first person to the third and as a “commentator on all the above themes” appears to be an unknown source of knowledge of artists and other ideas that appear to be well beyond even  the precocious and highly intelligent seventeen something year old narrator, ( Proust never reveals the age of his protagonist, enabling him the freedom to have things both ways!) This unresolved tension is a challenge for the reader who has to decide whether he is reading a love story or a lecture.

There are memorable thoughts and ideas on many of these pages and the reader is compelled to reflect on the vagaries of love of course, as well as changing life circumstances, life and death, common-sense and common kindness and self-knowledge. The honesty of “yawning all the way through the composition of a masterpiece (p.389); the recognition of complete egoism on p431; the discovery that Wisdom cannot be inherited, one must recover it for oneself on p.443; the realisation that we are inescapably alone in the world (p485) and finally and sadly, the conclusion that the best of things was not up to much! in resigning us to death. ((p.525).  We may or may not agree with Proust on these things but his powerful writing forces us to examine the questions. 

James Grieve’s translation is elegant, clear and very readable and his introduction and notes are first class. This is my second volume of Proust’s masterpiece and I am looking forward at the moment to the next volume.  5 stars.

Geraldine Brooks: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague,  London, Fourth Estate, 2001. 

GERALDINE BROOKS
YEAR OF WONDERS Geraldine Brooks’ first fictional novel

Australian born, now living in the USA, Geraldine Brooks has worked as a foreign correspondent around the world including six years in Islamic nations.  Year of Wonders was her first fictional novel and became an international success followed by many other impressive novels including Caleb’s Crossing, People of the Book, and The Secret Chord. 

The Novel is based around the 1665-66 bubonic plague outbreak in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. The Anglican rector the Revd William Mompesson persuaded the whole village to lock themselves away from the rest of England with food and other requirements left at the edge of the village courtesy of the Earl of Chatsworth. This was an act of extraordinary generosity on behalf of the village and the death toll was vast.  When you drive in Derbyshire today you can still see the sign to Eyam, called “the plague village’.

Brooks has fictionalised many of the historic characters in her novel and introduced completely fictional characters and events in telling a gruelling narrative of the drawn out plague and its horrendous death-toll.  Anna Frith emerges as a patient, forgiving, and rather startling heroine and carries the story line of the novel, somehow managing to avoid the plague herself while supporting many others. The parallel with Camus’ famous novel The Plague is strong in the sense that, in both novels, the priest, while having some redeeming features, ends up badly (Paneloux in The Plague and Mompellion in Year of Wonders. 

Brooks’ historical research is impressive delving into lead mining in the area, C17th knowledge of witchcraft, herbal remedies and prevailing theological views of both Anglicans and non-Conformists.  It was an interesting novel to read during the Covid19 crisis here in Victoria and around the world. Although our scientific knowledge has been extended in giant steps since the C17th the world can still be brought to its knees by natural forces at present outside our ability to control. One potential weakness of the book in my view was the rather artificially contrived conclusion to 

Brooks is an amazing story-teller and this novel leaves a deep imprint on the mind.  5  stars.

Gustave Klimt Paintings and Drawings
Gustave Klimt
Tobias G. Natter, Editor of Taschen Book Gustave Klimt

Ed. Tobias G. Natter: Gustav Klimt: Drawings and  Paintings, Cologne, Taschen, 2012  

Mysterious and controversial Austrian artist Gustav Klimt comes to life in this gorgeously illustrated Taschen book which contains high quality presentations of nearly all of Klimt’s paintings and drawings.  Never married, Klimt fathered fourteen children from various lovers, had a long standing deep friendship with fashion designer Emilie Flöge,  moved through the classical mode to the avant-garde and became perhaps Austria’s finest artist along with his protege Egon Schiele. 

Klimt’s “golden period “ paintings including the The Kiss and his portrait of Vienna society lady Adele Bloch-Bauer stolen by the Nazis from the Altmann family and celebrated in the film Stealing Klimt, have been sold for some of the highest prices in the higher echelons of the art world.

Klimt’s portrait prortrayals of women range from the intensely accurate to the wildly erotic and aroused both outrage and esteem in equal quantities.  His landscapes with a strong impressionist influence are mesmerising and irresistable. Klimt was a secretive person in relation to  his own philosophy and central ideas but his paintings and drawings highlight the glory, fragility and  ultimately the tragedy of life from the hopes of new life to his unremitting and searing portrayals of old age and depression. 

Natter’s editorship includes essays from many thoughtful artists and critics, many  photographs of Klimt’s artistic and personal life, and a detailed biography and bibliography. As with all Taschen books, this book is itself an impressive work of art.  5 stars Tobias G Natter

Natasha Moore, with John Dickson, Simon Smart and Justine Toh,   For the Love of God + – : How the Church is BETTER + WORSE than you ever imagined, p/b, Sydney, Centre For Public Christianity, 2019  (2020 Winner,  Australian Christian Book of the Year). 

Natasha Moore authored For The Love of God together with John Dickson, Simon Smart and Justine Toh. This book won the award for the best religious book of 2020

This is one of the most tiring and uncomfortable, yet rewarding books I have ever read! But don’t let me put you off having a crack. It is tiring and uncomfortable because in several chapters the writer describes in withering detail some of the church’s most evil and shameful events and movements.  It is rewarding because of its stories of the impact of some exceptional Christian individuals, movements and historical impacts.

As for the worst of the church, we are all aware of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Papal indulgences, witch hunting,  wars of religion and child abuse in the modern church. We may be less familiar with the horrendous auto-da-fé and the abuses of the Jubilee year in the C14th. What we are probably not ready for is the relentless and detailed description of these horrors perpetrated and authorised by the church. This book never at any stage seeks to minimise these horrors. The writers do however reduce the scandal by detailed analysis which shows that millions more folk were killed and maimed by world wars, violent regimes and governments that regularly murdered and tortured their own people. The “religious wars” chapter is particularly enlightening to non-historians in showing that the issues were largely about territory and influence and that Catholics and Protestants fought as much together against foes as against each other.

As for the best of the church the book is demanding because the defence of the good achieved by the church has been based on actual live interviews with extensive quotations from some of the most influential and sharply minded philosophers, writers, theologians and researchers operating across the world’s cultural scene and major universities today. These include Karen Armstrong, Markus Brockmuehl, John Harris, David Bentley Hart, Edwin Judge, Marilynne Robinson, Rodney Stark, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams, Nicholas Wolterstorff and many more too numerous to name. All of these folk write carefully and thoughtfully. You cannot take shortcuts through their contributions. 

There are powerful and honest insights and stories about the Christian heroes of massive social change including the Knights Hospitaller, William Wilberforce,  

Luther, Tyndale, Bonhoeffer, the amazing  William Carey and his friends in Serampore India, Father Damien of the Molokai leprosy centre in Hawaii, Lord Shaftesbury, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King and many others.  In addition the role of Christian faith in relation to the “invention of charity”, the “invention of  humility”, the genesis of human rights, the importance of the “image of God” and the notion of a just war all receive careful and thoughtful analysis.

The appendices include a good section of Jesus’ words from the New Testament, a full  list of interviewees and a detailed index. I can see why this book won the 2020 award. It is brave, honest, deeply challenging and in the end powerfully encouraging. There is a film and a video series if you prefer! This book would be marvellous for a thinking Parish study group but not for faint hearts. 5 stars

Clive James: Collected Poems, 1958 – 2015: London, Picador, 2016  

Clive James
Collected Poems of Clive James

Clive James was a remarkable polymath, with varying degrees of fluency in seven languages..English, Italian, Japanese, Russian, French, German and Spanish.  His erudition and vast reading across the Western intellectual tradition and his skills in literary criticism, classical literature, poetry and literature review were substantial and included, late in life, a well regarded translation from the Italian of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. 

James’ professional interests included expertise in fields as varied as bike and formula 1 racing, music, drama, comedy and television and radio production and presentation. His television and radio interviews and analysis of culture were often extraordinarily funny. 

 Born in Australia, he lived most of his time in Britain but regularly visited Australia. He has degrees from both Sydney and Cambridge universities. James was a heavy drinker and smoker for much of his long life.

Collected Poems was assembled by himself and does not include a number of his longer poems. The poetry is varied, engaging and often complex with literary, classical and other allusions abounding. Luckily for the reader this collection contains detailed notes at the rear with  many explanations of his more scholarly and obscure references.

  His themes vary widely and he has an interest in interested people including many fellow poets.  He writes about Johnny Weissmuller, James Joyce, P.G. Burnam, Egon Friedell, Arthur Stace (the “eternity “ man, Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky. Poets he wrote about include Philip Larkin, Auden, T S Eliot, Ezra Pound, John Donne, Shelley, Robert Lowell, R S Thomas, e.e.Cummings, Les Murray, Byron, Yeats, Ian Hamilton, Peter Porter, Whitman, amongst others.

Overriding themes in James’ poetry include a variety of Australian people and scenes , beautiful women and a large number of poems about his own impending death including remorse about his failure to live a more healthy life as well as remorse about relationships. I enjoyed reading these poems and gaining some understanding of the life, fears and skill of this man’s very full and long life. 4 stars.

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BOOKS READ AUGUST 2020

Heather Rose: Bruny, p/b, Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, 2019

HEATHER ROSE

New novel by prize-winning Tasmanian author Heather Rose who did well with The Museum of Modern Love in 2017. Bruny is  set on Bruny Island  in South east Tasmania in a future time not far from the present. The plot involves the political tangle and controversial manoeuvring by various parties  involved in a $2 billion joint national and state venture to build a bridge between the Tasmanian mainland and Bruny Island, taking the place of the small ferry system currently operating. Heather Rose’s style mixes thinly veiled satire with enough sense of down to earth reality that makes the unlikely plot at least worth consideration if not believable

The key player, Astrid Coleman is a former Tasmanian of a powerful political family, now living in New York and working as a trouble shooter for the United Nations as well as covertly for the CIA. Coleman is persuaded by her father, JC, who happens to be the Premier of Tasmania, to return to Tasmania and do damage control after a terrorist attack damaged half the bridge at near completion stage.  The Premier wanted a quick fix in time for the next election and needed his daughter  on hand.  A controversial new law had just been passed allowing a significant force of Chinese labour to assist with the rebuild along with Australian workmen and the State had used Chinese belt and road money to help finance the scheme.

The novel has a vast array of involved participants including political figures on the left and right, greenies and nimbys, engineers, the bridge designer, the site foreman, anti bridge pressure groups of various types,  a Buddhist religious centre, Chinese heavy weight politicians, ASIO agents and other key operatives for various pressure groups.  The plot is tangled and a list up front of some of the key participants would have made reading easier to follow. Many issues of current Australian life style and policy  as well as political division are on display and the serious issue of Chinese investment in large tracts of Australian land and significant Australian business operations is at the centre of the book’s argument. Coleman herself is an interesting character..highly trained, disappointed in love, torn between New York and home at the same time as delivering on a highly paid commitment  but coming up against personal values and ideals that could be trashed by her efforts. 

For me this novel started very slowly and with some fairly banal overviews of the Australian political scene which seem to come from an unseen author rather than any of the characters. The plot does take hold however and builds a credible head of steam. The climactic final events build to a  powerful and thought provoking crescendo  but then the novelist seems to have had trouble wrapping things up and the story line wanders along at a very gentle pace it would seem for not much reason and too much repetition.  Like all taut thrillers some of the helpful coincidental events in the closing stages were unlikely and weakened one’s faith in the narrative. 3 stars.

Michael Ondaatje: Warlight, p/b, London, Vintage, 2019  

MICHAEL ONDAATJE

Michael Ondaatje came to everyone’s attention through the dramatic film version of his fourth novel  The English Patient.  Ondaatje is Sri Lankan born and living in Canada and has written novels, a large amount of poetry and a non-fiction work on editing film. His eighth novel, Warlight, is a masterfully constructed puzzle based around the twilight world of post world war 2 intelligence.  The story line is held together by Nathaniel, the youngest child of two British intelligence agents who basically left their children to the care of boarding schools and assorted characters of varying character including the faithful but mysterious Moth and the greyhound faker Darter.

Whist their parents maintained their secret and dangerous lives mostly in still violent and confused postwar Europe, Nathaniel and Rachel had to bring themselves up rather rapidly in this arcane and sometimes violent gathering of virtual strangers who regularly appeared in their home.   The other two key characters are the hard to know Balzac loving mother Rose Wiliams  (code name Viola amongst others) and the equally mysterious thatcher, broadcasting naturalist, cathedral climber and intelligence agent Marsh Felon The intelligence agent Father is written out of the novel very early at work somewhere in Asia.

This is less a “spy” adventure story but rather a story of children in search of parenting  (and in search of their parents)  whose characters were formed by a motley collection of adults on the edge of society whom their mother had organised to keep tabs on her children. There is humour, grave danger, and intriguing character portraits here a plenty. 

Ondaatje writes with a learned delicacy and as one reviewer commented, writing that is “rare and beautiful” and gently guides the reader through a mysterious half-lit world of underground London and the rank confusion that inevitably followed a bombed and impoverished post war city.  

Ondaatje’s historical and  war research is deep and meticulous as shown by his acknowledgements at the end of the novel. There are literary references to Thomas Hardy, Lorca, A E Housman, Kilvert’s amazing rural diary and a host of other writers less known to me but these references are not intrusive and a simply part of the flow of consciousness that surrounds and finally consumes the reader as we struggle to put all the pieces together. Even so there are surprises. I really enjoyed this novel. I learned much about immediate postwar London and its underbelly and about the sort of people who make useful intelligent agents. Above all I felt at all times that I was in the hands of a master story-teller. I now want to read all Ondaatje’s other books!  5 stars.

Lou Klepac: Russell Drysdale: 1912-1981, h/b, Revised Edition,  London, Murdoch, 2009 (1983)   

LOU KLEPAK

RUSSELL DRYSDALE

 

Born in England but from childhood living and growing up in Australia Russell Drysdale is arguably the first Australian artist to bring Australian art to the world (with a little help from Kenneth Clark who organised Drysdale’s first London exhibition).  In my limited experience of reading about artists Drysdale is rare in not starting off his painting career starving in a garrett or relying on wealthy patrons. Drysdale’s grandfather and father had sugar interests in Queensland and owned a large farming property at Boxwood Park, north of Albury. Drysdale was educated at Geelong Grammar where his exceptional skill in drawing was quickly recognized. He initially intended to join the family business but was encouraged to consider being an artist and joined the fledgling art school in Melbourne run by George Bell, who became a lifelong friend and supporter.

Lou Klepac, an art historian, has produced a detailed and well documented account of Drysdale’s complex life and character and this large scale second edition contains 170 high quality full page colour reproductions of Drysdale’s paintings and a large number of drawings as well as many helpful photographs. Drysdale did not produce a vast number of paintings and the majority of his works are in private hands including his most famous works such as The Cricketers, West Wyalong, Old Larsen and Man with a Galah and many others. Handicapped by major defective sight in one eye Drysdale was unable to enlist in WW11 and continued to paint including many wartime studies of soldiers on leave in lonely railway stations.

Drysdale travelled widely from an early age in Europe, USA and many times across and around Australia.  In Europe he was influenced by the French modernists and was caught up in the art culture wars of Australia in the 1950s and 60’s where  gallery administrators and many of the public struggled with the question what makes a “picture”. Drysdale did not paint easily or quickly. He had periods of not painting at all, sometimes lasting over two years and he was his own greatest critic, destroying and painting over many of his own paintings.  He held only 11 major exhibitions and one retrospective and was always struggling to meet deadlines and create the required number of paintings. He loved to talk and discuss with friends and family and developed a passion for Australian geology, the outback and its people, vast expanses and wild life.    

This book dramatically illustrates the extraordinary gift of Drysdale’s ability to interpret the beauty, trauma, humour, ancient lineage and terrifying mystery and yet joy of the Australian outback, its peoples ,and especially its indigenous community and their ageing locations surrounding the very limited edges of civilisation.  The art is bewitching and engulfing and repays careful study. Perspective, colour, loneliness, and staunch courage and determination appear in painting after painting.  Looking at Drysdale’s work is a spiritual experience although he was not a religious man. His personal life was tragic losing both his much loved but troubled son and his wife of longstanding to suicide but he recovered to be happily married again to the widow of a good friend. 

I am glad to have “got to know” this reticent but exceptionally talented man who paved the way for so many to follow. 5 stars.  

John G. Niehardt: Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition, p/b, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 2014 (1932)   

Black Elk Speaks: Revised Edition.

Portrait of Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk (1863 – 1950), 1880s. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

John G Neihardt

American poet, philosopher, historian, journalist,and religious visionary John G. Neihardt was born in 1881 at the end of white American settlement of the Western plains. As his writing career developed he became deeply involved in the story of the gradual resettlement of the native plains Indians into ever decreasingly sized reservations and the concomitant assault on their populations, languages, freedom and spiritual beliefs.  In the course of his research , he came to form a deep relationship with Oglala Sioux holy man Black Elk (1860-1950),  who as a young boy was an observer at the battle of Little Big Horn (General Custer’s last stand),  was second cousin to indomitable Sioux/Lakota war leader Crazy Horse and present and fought at the massacre of women and children at Wounded Knee. As a young boy Black Elk (Hehaka Sapa) was swept up by a powerful spiritual vision which transformed his life with its calling to him to lead his nation into a period of intense struggle, opposition and challenge. 

Black Elk had never told anyone of this vision, inside or outside of his own people but sensed a similar visionary spirit in Niehardt after the two met.  In an intense period of four weeks and after an “initiatory ceremony” for Niehardt, marking him as a faithful holy man and friend to the Oglala, he communicated his life story to Niehardt. The story  included the complex uninterpreted vision and both the vision and the life story were carefully transcribed in shorthand by Niehardt’s wife Enid and eventually put into writing by NIehardt as “Black Elk Speaks” published in 1932. One curious factor linking the two men is that Niehardt was brought up as a committed Protestant Christian believer and Black Elk himself converted to Roman Catholicism in later life. These factors do not significantly influence the narrative although there are occasional hints linking Black Elk’s vision of the sixth grandfather with the Messiah.

A major interpretive challenge of the original published version of Black Elk Speaks is that Niehardt already had a deeply researched knowledge of the Oglala Lakota spiritual understanding. When the shorthand transcript is compared with NIehardt’s final version it is clear that Niehardt has “filled in some gaps” with his own spiritual understanding and substantial poetic gifts. It is sometimes difficult to determine which is Black Elk writing and which is Niehardt. This was made crystal clear by the publication in 1984 of Enid’s original transcript by Raymond DeMaillie which was called The Sixth Grandfather, omitting all NIehardt’s additions. 

This new 2014 edition of Black Elk Speaks solves this problem by the inclusion of an introductory essay by Harvard historian of Native American, Philip J. Deloria and a set of detailed footnotes by Raymond DeMaillie which clearly shows Niehardt’s additions by footnotes to the original transcript and also clears up some of Niehardt’s mistranslations of Lakota words. 

A further aid to understanding Black Elk’s vision in this version is the inclusion of 30 full colour plates of drawings by Lakota artist Standing Bear, a close friend of Black Elk which were in the original text and are now held in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri. In addition there is a helpful list of translations of Lakota words used in the text. 

 Two further useful essays are included in this volume: Lori Utecht, Director of the Niehardt Centre has written a useful essay describing the depth of NIehardt’s knowledge of and research into the literature of the settlement of the Western plains. Alexei N. Petrie has contributed an essay on Niehardt’s extensive work beyond Black Elk and his numerous academic awards and honours which help us to understand the depth of his contribution to American social history including his work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At a time when the USA is in turmoil over its race relationships with its Black population it is sad to read these accounts of the Indian wars and the gradual subjugation of proud plains Indian civilizations. These essays also give us pause in Australia as we read more carefully into the records and history of our own occupation of Native Australian territory.   I found this story to be deeply moving with images that remain in the mind long after reading.  5 stars.                                                                                                        

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BOOKS READ JULY 2020

Rebecca Solnit: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in   Disaster, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2010

US Activist journalist, historian and writer has written extensively on feminism, landscape, art and politics. The middle of a Covid19 pandemic is a perfect time to read and consider this book which is about the human response to disasters of various kinds. The worst natural disasters in recent years have been in Asia— the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean,  the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the 2008 earthquake in China and the typhoon in Burma. Language, distance and culture prohibited her detailed access to these events and the 2010 Haiti earthquake occurred after this book was published. Today the whole world is engulfed by the Corona virus with just over half a million deaths so far and rising rapidly.  Although there have been more deaths in other disasters (4 million in the 2008 China earthquake), this virus shows no sign of fading away and here in Victoria major new shutdowns are occurring as I write. 

Rebecca Solnit’s book deals with five major C20-21st disasters namely the 1906 San Francisco earthquake;  the Halifax explosion of 1917 (World War 1 ship with 300000 tons of explosives on board collided with a Norwegian ship in Halifax harbour); the 1985 Mexico City earthquake; the Twin Towers collapse and fire of September 11 2001 and the New Orleans hurricane and flood of August 29 2005 which destroyed an area of 90 000 square miles.  In addition she provides evidence from other examples including the London Blitz, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the Chicago heat wave of 1995, the Nicaragua eathquake and the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Solnit’s central thesis, reported over and over, with detailed references, interviews and historical analysis, is that individuals in the event itself  and soon to arrive helpers and volunteers,  made more impact on the recovery and saving process, at least in the initial two weeks of a disaster than any “official” support from government, military, medical, local government or other agencies. She further  proposes that the “official” help, when it came was often overly focussed on the “elites”, on business interests and on the white middle class leaving the majority under-supported and indeed not infrequently attacked by the very military and other forces sent to help them. 

The problem with “official” help is that it takes a while to wind up, it comes from many different sources, the different systems don’t easily communicate  between each other and their approach can be very heavy handed. Private individuals and groups who come to help tend to jump straight in and start saving folk and doing stuff. The New Orleans hurricane disaster especially paints a bleak picture of racism, brutality, and murder by vigilante groups  and neglect of the black population together with huge delays in rebuilding with many residents never returning. 

This thesis will of course  be challenged by an alternative analysis from the side of Government etc but Solnit has amassed an impressive barrage of data mainly based on a vast array of different sources. In our own situation in Victoria and New South Wales in 2019/20 we have certainly seen a felt anger at the slowness of Government reaction in relation to bushfires in the December/January period and the subsequent clean up. On the other hand Australia has been well-served by its official responses to the Corona virus pandemic although as I write Victoria  has just been placed on a severe lockdown after a spike in folk demonstrating symptoms of the virus.

This book would be better with much tighter editing,  less philosophy about William James’s moral equivalents and Hobbesian “save the best and leave the rest” philosophy, and Solnit postulating on the question what is a civil society? It is tiring to read and quite horrific and dispiriting in parts but the power of individuals to show courage and shine through in a crisis is impressive indeed. Solnit frequently makes mention of Christian motivation in many of the helping initiatives that took place with each crisis.  If you are interested in, or worried about the future of our vulnerable little planet, this book will challenge you with a hundred ideas, you won’t easily forget it and it will leave you with a sense of hope.  4 stars. 

Jennifer Rosner: The Yellow Bird Sings, p/b, London, Picador, 2020  

Jennifer Rosner

Debut World War 11/Jewish survival novel by American writer Jennifer Rosner. The narrative centres on the close relationship between Polish mother Róża and her daughter Shira who become threatened and homeless after the murder of Róża’s husband during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The family is musically talented and music and necessary silence become central themes throughout the novel. There are many twists, escapes and desperate situations and the characters and scenes are strongly sketched and carry a weight of feeling. The terror, trauma and bitter hatred toward the Jews in 1940’s central Europe is portrayed with a haunting realism. There is only a certain number of times one can read this story of mid-century war and racial hatred including the uncertain behaviour of the Russian liberating army in 1945, but the musical lifeline and the unique bond between mother and daughter maintain interest to the ;happy/sad ending.  4 stars

Reg MacDonald: The Boy From Brunswick: Leonard French – A Biography

Reg MacDonald:  The Boy From Brunswick: Leonard French, A BiographyKew, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018. [Includes a detailed chronology, exhibition lists, biographical data and selected articles and reviews as well as a detailed index.]

Leonard French rose from obscurity and poverty in working class Brunswick to become Australia’s foremost artist of his day in the 1960s and early 1970s.  in a crowded field of Australian artists, both figurative and abstract, French put Australia well and truly on the world art landscape. 

Reg MacDonald, journalist, newspaper managing editor, treasurer of the Bendigo Art Gallery and former press secretary to Prime Ministers John Gorton and William McMahon, has researched and written an outstanding biography. His book of over 500 pages is based on meticulous research from his friendship with French himself, French’s talented children who provided many private photos and an extensive bibliography of Australian art and C20th history. The Book itself contains a large number of high quality coloured prints of the vast majority of French’s massive oeuvre.

Len French, who died in January 2017  was not a tall man but he was a towering figure in every other way. Leaving home in Brunswick at a young age he was engaged as a sign writer and his artistic career was on the way. These vast advertising signs were painted on buildings all over Melbourne on a very large scale indeed and this extensive and demanding training created in Len a unique style. Nearly all of his major painting works were on a massive scale and often in a series of five to twenty canvasses (more often than not masonite) and using, at least in the early days, Dulux enamel paint. These major works adorned the walls of  many large gallery openings and many of the major postwar Australian  institutional buildings including The Australian National Art Gallery and Monash University.       

Len was not university trained but read and travelled widely including a  poverty stricken year of study in England, Ireland and Holland,  and  a year  on scholarship at Yale University. He  immersed himself especially in the Homeric sagas and ancient Greek and Minoan civilisation but was also a vociferous collector of Primitive Art especially from the Melanesian culture but also Mayan civilisation at the same time devouring writers as varied as Dostoevsky, James Joyce , Marquez  and William Faulkner.

In character, Leonard French was always his own man, chauvinistic, strongly opinionated not to say garrulous, impatient of upper class foibles, a heavy drinker and smoker, but generous to folk in need and prepared to hold to his artistic vision whatever the cost to himself. He had impressive children from three wives, all of whom selflessly supported his larger than life career and lifestyle. Painting was his overwhelming obsession and only then was he really happy. 

Leonard French’s career took a massive turn in 1963 when, with little experience in that form, he was selected to create the extraordinary glass ceiling for the new Victorian National Art Gallery. The largest glass ceiling in the world, it was six years in the making and was produced at the same time as French constructed sixteen glass windows for the new National Library of Australia in Canberra.  These two installations “took over” French’s career and he went on to create more than twelve major glass window installations including La Trobe University, and churches at Macedon, Mt Eliza, Haileybury College and the Chapel at Gippsland Grammar. French’s first love was painting and it frustrated him that he spent so much time on glass installations which of course was a major income source.

It is a curious thing that Leonard French, who has given such spiritual encouragement to so many through his magnificent Anglican church windows, was not himself a believer in Christ. Leonard French was just himself, take it or leave it. I imagine the discussion with Our Lord is still going on now! 5 stars and rising.

Don A. Carson: The Difficult Doctrine of the  Love of God, p/b,  Leicester, IVP, 2000

This little book carries  a very large argument about the nature of the love of God which, on the surface, might seem to be a relatively simple matter. The reality of course, is that there is nothing really simple about God at all. Christian faith, in one sense,  is a matter of simple trust and faith in God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and one with the Holy Spirit. That statement leads us straight to the doctrine of the Trinity which we all know to be complicated. But what is complicated about the love of God?

Carson sees it this way: first the love of God can be easily distorted because it is love as defined in the Old and New Testaments..the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. It is not love as defined by The Beatles ( All you need is love! ); or Tina Turner (What’s love got to do with it..a second hand emotion); or even Louis Armstrong (What the World Needs now is love, sweet love) sung at many funerals these days. Carson notes that the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable. (p.11) Second the “love of God” in the Judaeo-Christian sense has been replaced for many in atheistic West by “the love of a god/any god/any principle that is thought worthwhile (p.14f). and thirdly, “the love of God” commonly pushed as “the only love that matters” seldom takes into account the existence of evil, surprisingly since the C21st followed a C20th which saw two world wars, multiple major wars, genocide in Russia, Cambodia, The Balkans, China, Nazi Europe and Rwanda, mass starvation and corruption at the highest levels in many nations (p.16)

As far as Christian believers go, surely the love of God is a simple matter. Well, Carson reminds us that The Father has a unique love for the Son and the Spirit; that God’s providential love for the whole of creation is different from his particular love of the elect; and thirdly God’s love in the Scriptures is often tied to obedience on the part of his people. (pp17-27)

In other chapters Carson discusses the different Greek words for love; the relationship between God’s love and his sovereignty, transcendence and his impassibility. All quite difficult enough issues. Finally Carson comes to the ultimate question of the relationship between God’s love and God’s wrath, equally spoken about in the Bible but seldom heard in C21st conversation today.

This is a challenging book for thinking Christians. It is not for young Christians but a mature Bible Study group would gain from it as would preachers called to preach on the love of God. My only criticism is that Carson does not make any reference to the question of Hell. In short, another excellent and concise discussion from one the finest theologians going around.   4 stars.

Hilary Mantel: The Mirror & The Light, h/b, London, 4th Estate, 2020

Volume 3 of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy tracing the life of  English Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell, was eight years in the making but does not disappoint. The story of a penniless blacksmith’s boy from Putney who escaped a brutal father to become a soldier of fortune in Italy and returned to England to serve Cardinal Wolsey and rose to become Henry V111’S most trusted advisor, a peer of the realm, knight of the garter, Lord Chancellor and Earl of Essex is impossible to put down. I read Wolf Hall in one stretch, late into the night. Bring Up the Bodies was equally engrossing two years later and it seemed the third volume would never come. Now Mantel has delivered in spades.

Whilst a few characters are invented, the narrative is very true to the historical data and reveals a multi-faceted character whose legal, military and business acumen made a permanent impact on the history of England and whose Protestant sympathies were central to the establishment of the Church of England. Mantel’s style is unique, writing much of the story in the third person as “he thinks”, “he says” which leads the reader after a while to believe they are inside Thomas’s head. 

At times the writing is mesmeric, not to say Proustian in intensity…Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, when earth and sky melt, when the fluttering heart of the bird on the bough calms and slows, and the night-walking animals stir and stretch and rouse, and the eyes of cats shine in the dark, when colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air; when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. {p249]. I sense a third Pulitzer Prize coming very soon!

As far as church history goes, although this is not a formal referenced text book, a student would do well to read carefully to get a feel for how fragile the beginnings of Protestantism in England really were and what courage and faith Bilney, Tyndale, Latimer, Cranmer, Barnes and many more  demonstrated in the midst of perilous opposition. 

In the end Thomas Cromwell went to the tower after his involvement in the disastrous marriage 4th marriage of Henry V111 to the German princess Anne of Cleves. He was executed at Tyburn and his head stuck on a pole in the street. A violent end to a man with a violent boyhood. But what a life in between. 

This is the sort of novel you separate from with great regret, wishing it could continue forever.  5 stars and rising.

Sam Binnie: The World of Wolf Hall, p/b, London, 4th Estate, 2019.    

A brief reading guide to the characters, history and background to Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall  and Bring Up the Bodies. Designed with  literature students in view and with  questions for bookclubs.

Notes on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Sam Binnie

Gilles Néret: Renoir: Painter of Happiness, Trans. Josephine Bacon,  Cologne, Taschen, 2017 

France has spawned a great many famous painters but perhaps none more so than Pierre Auguste Renoir whose long life (1841 -1919) spanned the Impressionist era and made a mark on the emerging abstract artists Matisse and Picasso.  This large scale Taschen edition of his work, which includes both his painting and the ten sculptures Renoir produced with the aid of sculptor Richard Guino, is a lavishly illustrated feast of beauty.  Landscape, Paris, social life and amazing portraits of both men, women and children are all included in this 440 page masterpiece of a book. 

The narrative tells of Renoir’s early life as a porcelain artist; living in poverty; his interactions and friendships with the Parisian artistic community of writers and artists including Zola, Manet, Degas, Duret and the Impressionist new vanguard of Monet, Pisarro, Cézanne, Diaz, Courbet and many others; his fight to get his paintings into the Salon, the Impressionist’s own exhibitions; his many muses, mistresses and models, the frequent and hurtful public criticisms of his works,   his eventual success with high paying clients, his journeys to Algeria, Spain and Italy, his family life with his beloved  Aline and their children, and his later years in Cagnes in Provence including his battle with crippling rheumatoid arthritis. The vast majority of the over 600  paintings represented are full or half page with exceptionally hight quality of colour production and the current location of each is detailed where known,

It is Renoir’s passion for painting young children and the female form both clothed and unclothed which brings  him perhaps to the forefront of portrait painters in the tradition of Rembrandt. Giles Néret delicately traces the various changes in Renoir’s style through the years including his doubts and the difficult decision to “leave” the Impressionists. The English translation is satisfactory but awkward in parts which is a minor irritation. The production values are extremely high and the book includes a detailed life chronology, many beautifully produced family photographs, and a detailed index of works represented.  This is a book to be treasured and loved and a privileged insight into this painter of joy, erotic passion and beauty. 5 stars.

Gillies Néret

Richard Prideaux

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Books Read June 2020

Francis Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden, p/b, London, Scholastic, 2015 (1911)

 

Burnett was English born but grew up and published in the USA. The Secret Garden was  not a great success at first but has become an absolute favourite throughout the C20th with many readers old and young after its slow start. Only in recent years has its appeal cooled as its sentimentality, although not maudling, certainly has a feel of an earlier era.  Harry Potter and the voluminous adventures in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid have taken over!  Nevertheless for those students who take up the challenge, especially girls, the unique charm and challenge of the story can still be compelling.

The heroine, English girl Mary Lennox’s early and very spoilt childhood in British India was radically altered early in her life following the death of her parents in a cholera pandemic. Sent to England to stay with her wealthy uncle in the vast Misselthwaite Manor House on the moor,  the arrogant and petulant child was in for a shock.  Her Uncle, Mr Craven, who was a hunchback was also grieving. He had lost his wife in childbirth and the shock turned him into a deep depressive. He handed over his son Colin, who survived the birth,  to the care of nurses and spent years of his life travelling in Europe. His son became a lonely and disagreeable child who managed to persuade himself that he would become a hunchback like his father and turned himself into an imperious and unpleasant invalid. Mr Craven treated his new ward with even less respect not even meeting her for some time and taking no care at all of her education or situation.

The secret garden was a walled garden much loved by Mr Craven’s wife, and no-one was permitted to enter it. The bored Mary discovered the garden aided by an old gardener retainer and the hero of the story, a fourteen year old local nature lover Dickon, a child with a natural love of the moor, of gardening and of the birds and animals of the moor.  Needless to say there was much work to be done not only with the garden but also the character and health of Mary and Colin. There is an old fashioned Christian, almost heathen, spirituality in this novel of adventure, healing and change.  Once begun it is still hard to put down.   4 stars 

Ferenc Máté: The Hills of Tuscany: A New Life in an Old Land: A Memoir,  p/b, London,  Flamingo, 1998 

The Hills of Tuscany

This account of a young couple who have travelled far and wide across the world, finally settling down in Montepulciano in Tuscany is a very special book for me. I read this book when my only experience of Tuscany was a one day stop in Florence on a Trafalgar tour. I was captivated when I read Máté’s account of the light, hills, food, climate,  trades,  art,  people and mood of Tuscany and I determined to return for more than one day. Since then Ann and I have visited Tuscany many times staying for weeks at a time. Montepulciano was a special place for me on one of those trips, and the steep walk up the main street to the piazza is to die for with its village shops, Etruscan ruins, interesting churches and the stunning view at the top.  The little Church of San Biago on its promontory outside the town walls looking over a vast expanse of forest, farmland and villages is breathtaking and I have returned to its silence more than once. It is amazing how many authors, art lovers and travellers turn to Tuscany and its villages for inspiration. This is a book to savour, taste, laugh about and be inspired.  5 stars and counting.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: Tarzan of the Apes, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin Red Classics, 2008 (1914).

 

Edgar Rice Burroughs struck gold with his completely improbable yarn about Tarzan the forest dwelling wild strong man of the African jungle and his unlikely romance with Jane Porter. His success spawned another 26 or so Tarzan stories and a number of movie credits.  The writing shoots along at a galloping pace from start to finish and is pitched at about 10 -14 year olds with a bit of odd-ball science thrown in. Tarzan of the Apes is a Eurocentric, biologically confused, educationally impossible, sexist, racist, scientifically incorrect, in places saccharinely sweet, in others appallingly violent, romp through darkest Africa written by a man who never travelled to Africa. Nevertheless once started it is hard to put down and Burroughs even manages to keep us wondering in the final paragraph about whether Jane will  say yes or no to Tarzan’s proposal of marriage. What more can I say?  2 stars.

Julia Baird: Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things that Sustain you when the World Goes Dark,  h/b, Sydney, HarperCollins, 2020 

There’s a touch of the Jordan Petersons  in Australian Julia Baird’s latest book..they both are inspired by underwater creatures, they both have practical and significant rules for life, both of their books are footnoted with extensive and precise accuracy, both have been through bouts of  very serious medical crises and both communicate an edgy Christian faith.

Julia Baird, glamorous co-anchor of ABC’s The Drum is a writer of no mean credentials including a Law Degree and Ph.D in History from Sydney University, Columnist and Senior Editor of New York’s Newsweek for ten years and author of several books including her recent highly regarded and meticulously researched Victoria The Queen. Somehow or other, whilst achieving these things she seems to have spent a large amount of her life either dancing or being underwater, as well as raising two children.

Phosphoresence is in some ways a response to the very dark places indeed she has been in following three separate and desperate bouts against an invasive but non-lethal cancer illness. In a nutshell the book is a call to us all to regarde! to pay attention in our lives and to seek awe in the ordinary and at the edge; to live kindly and deliberately This advice emerges strongly in two separate amazing letters, one each to her son and her daughter which repay reading again and again.

For the rest phosphoresce comes from cuttlefish with their three hearts, from silence, from long-standing friendships, forest bathing, massive storms, space and the beauty of the universe, celebrating the temporary, accepting imperfection, letting yourself go, finding your own voice, from freudenfreud instead of schadenfreude (being glad not sad about the success of others), from neurotic and loyal dogs, by “Ert” (a sense of purpose in life), by art and creativity, by savouring, by hope and by embracing doubt along with many other things too many to mention.

Along the way Baird introduces us to a host of poets, philosophers, writers, survivors, scientists, spacemen and women, business tycoons and novelists. All my favourites are here including Rilke, D H Lawrence, Helen Garner, Tim Winton and Simone Weil, but there are many others, poets especially,  I am looking forward to finding and reading more of the lesser known poets she quotes who provide an opening to phosphoresce through their liminal writing. 

The two final chapters focussing on the church (especially her own Sydney Anglican Church (albeit its edgy end) will repay careful reading. I was especially touched by her tribute to her close friend the late Bishop John McIntyre and his work in both Redfern and Gippsland. Baird encourages us to be less judgmental and more willing to shut up and listen to the hurts, needs and searching of those outside our comfortable churches. A member of General Synod during the ordination of women debate, Baird provides a thoughtful and challenging reflection on a defeat which clearly still rankles with many Sydney lay women.  

If  you can cope with one more book during your Covid lockdown I recommend this one. It will change the way you live!  5 stars

Rabin Alameddine: An Unnecessary Woman, p/b, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2014

Jordanian born to Lebanese Druze parents Rabin Alameddine grew up in both Beirut and Kuwait. At 17 he went to live in England and later moved to California and now splits his life between San Francisco and Beirut.  He holds degrees in Business and Engineering but works as a painter and writer. An Unnecessary Woman,  unusually for a male writer,  is the very personal and intimate story of a divorced and childless woman living in a dilapidated ground story flat in war-torn Beirut. Aeliya Saleh managed to keep her husband’s flat in Beirut after her husband left and she took up work managing a second hand bookshop from which she borrowed, stole or bought and then read a very substantial collection of books from a wide variety of  authors.

Through this job and her facility in English, French and Arabic Aeliya develops a hobby of translating literary classics and other texts, from French and English into Arabic. Over the course of her life she amasses some 31 of these hand written translations which she stores in boxes in a tiny backroom of her flat with no intention of publishing them  She also develops a keen interest in music with the help of a local Record Store owner and builds up a sizeable collection. Aeliya is a shy introvert who prefers the Beirut museum to the company of other women or men with the exception of a longstanding friendship with a sister-in-law Hannah. The narrative is told largely in the first person but occasionally drifts into third person commentary especially when it comes to literary criticism of authors and their good and bad books.

This novel is laced with a vast array of  literary and musical references and quotations  (about 280, roughly counting) which the reader will find either disconcerting, wonderful or very annoying and interruptive depending upon taste. Suffice to say that a sub-title of this book could be a survey of the early to late C20th European and American novel (with the deliberate omission of German novelists!). This novel is both humorous and at times quite serious and its dramatic conclusion explores the edges of the instability of mental strength in old age. 4 stars. (but I love books about books!)

Richard Foster:  Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of  Christian Faith, p/b, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2019 (1998)

Richard Foster’s book deserves its new  imprint. It is such an impressive piece of writing. In six amazing chapters he identifies six  significant streams of Christian faithfulness…contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical and incarnational/sacramental traditions.

Each section has three heroes ..a figure from history, a figure from the Bible and a C20th example; The writing is incredibly gripping and not too academic with details left to very impressive footnotes. Some of the stories are heart-breaking including aspects of the life of the mother of John and Charles Wesley.  There is a richness in his writing which readers  will remember from Celebration of Discipline but there is also deep wisdom,  a compelling and helpful  Christian maturity and common sense and very powerful examples.

Foster carefully notes the strengths and the weaknesses of each tradition with thoughtful comment. The figures he chooses as examples for each tradition are sometimes well known like Bonhoeffer but also less known but so powerful like John Woolman. In addition there is a thirty page punchy history of the whole church; detailed pen-pictures of about 30 individuals for each tradition and an excellent index to match the extensive footnotes.

The key figures given detailed and careful treatment (with appropriate extensive bibliographies) include: St Anthony, the apostle John, Frank C. Laubach (the Contemplative tradtion); Phoebe Warrall Palmer, James, the Brother of Jesus, Bonhoeffer (the Holiness tradition); St Francis of Assissi, the Apostle Paul, William Joseph Seymour (the Charismatic tradition); John Woolman, the prophet Amos, Dorothy Day, (The Social Justice tradition); Augustine, the Apostle Peter, Billy Graham, (the Evangelical tradition); Susanna Annesley, Bezalel, Dag Hammarskjöld, (the Incarnational tradition). 

Although a demanding and challengingl read I could not put this book down and I would count it certainly in my top five Christian books that I have ever read and I have read one or two!   It is not particularly well-known which is a tragedy. It is a long time since I have read a book which so genuinely encouraged me in my personal faith in Christ and hope for the Church. 5 stars and counting.

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BOOKS READ MAY 2020

BOOKS READ MAY 2020 

John Buchan: The Thirty-Nine Steps, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2005 (1915) 

Scot John Buchan became one of England’s favourite sons, achieving Greats at Oxford as well as the Newdigate Prize for poetry and graduating in law and working as a barrister and becoming a member of Parliament.  He was a well travelled soldier, reporter and writer, finally becoming Governnor General of Canada. He wrote many swashbuckling novels of action as well as historical biography. The novel which put him on the literary map was The Thirty-Nine Steps which has aged well and holds its tension and power until the final pages. It is a spy  tale of intrigue, endurance and courage, and the hero’s exploits, although unlikely, are told with such graphic descriptive power that the reader remains a believer. The novel is set in England and Scotland  immediately before the First World War  and is difficult to put down, once commenced. This Penguin edition comes with useful notes which helps with the Scottish accent.   4 stars.

Jeanine Cummins: American Dirt, p/b, London, Tinder/Headline, 2019  

JEANINE CUMMINS

Exceptionally well-written account of the Mexican drug wars and cartels and the flight of vast numbers of Central Americans to the USA. The characters are fictional but the trauma, dangers and hardships would be immigrants is accurately and savagely documented. Lydia and her eight year old son Luca are the centre of the story but there many other key players especially the two Honduran teenage girls Soledad and Rebeca who form a travel team of four.  The horror of boarding the roof of moving trains, the vicious profiteering of murderous illegal agents and vigilante groups feeding off immigrants, the stern American repatriation rules, the cheapness of life in a city like Apaculpo and much more besides all keep the blood racing in this non-stop novel. 

 I think if is fair to say that this is the fastest read I have ever had, a testimony I see from the back cover that I share with John Grisham. In one sense the story is a true horror story of the misery of the 70.8  million displaced persons world-wide. In another sense it is a story of the triumph of the human spirit against a very vicious enemy. This is not a Christian book but the survival of many would be immigrants would clearly not be possible without the kindness and courage of individual Roman Catholic priests and other Catholic doctors and workers in refugee centres and in private homes  in Mexico and Central America. Once started, impossible to put down! 5 stars. 

ROGER SCRUTON

Roger Scruton: Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, pb, London, Bloomsbury,2016

Philosopher, writer and polymath Roger Scruton, who sadly died earlier this year, was one of the few public intellectuals of recent times to have the courage to call out the often unreadable and sometimes nonsensical writings of European Left writers of the late C20th and early C21st. His writing in this area came at some personal cost both to his university career and to his ability to get published although happily he managed to overcome this challenge. He published over fifty books in his lifetime on a remarkable range of subjects at a very high level indeed including works on art, architecture, aesthetics, politics, Conservatism,  beauty, psychology, philosophy and philosophers and the history of philosophy.  Scruton lectured at Cambridge and several US universities but his major contribution to academic life was through his writing.                                                                                                          

A Key component of Scruton’s attack on Communism is his adoption of the term “Newspeak” as the key weapon of the New Left.  Newspeak is taken from George Orwell’s prescient novel 1984, completed in 1949.  Scruton suggests that ‘Newspeak” occurs whenever the primary purpose of language—which is to describe reality—is replaced by the primary purpose of asserting power over it. (p.9) Newspeak is a world of abstract forces…hence it is world without action. But it is not a world without movement.  On the contrary , everything is in constant motion, swept onwards by the forces of progress, or impeded by the forces of reaction. There is no equilibrium, no stasis and no rest in the world of Newspeak…the constantly reinforced triumph of ideology over reality.

There are some truly awesome and impossible to read examples of Newspeak in this book quoted from the works of the various philosophers studied.  A Further key component of Newspeak identified by Scruton is their imagined unity between the intellectuals and the working class. Newspeak would expose and delegitimize the ‘powers’ that maintained ‘the bourgeois’ order in being.(p.15) Scruton argues that Newspeak is at the heart of the New Left’s program. Truth is power and the hope of deposing it (p.12) reducing what others saw as authority, legality and legitimacy, to power, struggle and domination. (p16).  The extreme of this language is seen in the works of Lacan, Althusser and Deleuze in whose impenetrable sentences ..nothing could be understood except that they all had ‘capitalism’ as their target. (p.16)

An immediate response to reading Scruton is the recognition that Scruton has not only read in depth the works he evaluates (across three languages) but also accepts and acknowledges the quite remarkable gifts of many of the philosophers whose writings and views he criticises. He was no arm-chair critic but someone who read not only the works themselves but the sources and relevant documents supporting their arguments. Scruton’s analytical and argumentative skills are powerful indeed.

Scruton’s first targets in this book are the historians E P Thompson and especially Eric Hogsbawm, specifically volume 4 of Hogsbawm’s monumental History of the Modern World. it is in this secition that capitalism is blamed for all ills and the Soviet Communist experiment is whitewashed. Scruton argues that Hogsbawm ignores the horror of the  Stalinist purges during which 5.2 million non-Russian peoples were forcefully moved to harsh environments and up to 1.2 million were murdered between 1936 and 1938. Such purges were later to be repeated in Mao’s China and Pol Pot in  Cambodia

Scruton next turns his attention to the 1960’s Canadian/American economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith and in particular his assault on the conspicuous wealth accumulation rampant even then in American society, described particularly in Galbraith’s influential book The Affluent Society published in 1958. Scruton describes Galbraith as the most established critic of the establishment ever to have enjoyed its acclaim (p.41)Scruton does not defend conspicuous consumption but argues that it is the political institutions of a country that determine outcomes rather than any particular economic model, a point that Galbraith eventually acknowledged after his time as American ambassador and eventually economic advisor to India.

Scruton’s second target in this chapter is celebrated American lawyer and well published professor of Jurisprudence Ronald Dworkin. This section was too much for my small mind but Scruton’s criticism of Dworkin based on Dworkin’s own writing on moral issues relating to protest, sex, marriage and abortion tended to be liberal in relation to progressives and skewed against conservative approaches.

The centre stage of this book however is Scruton’s analysis of European intellectuals  (chapters 4 – 8). Western society’s debt to Hegel was mediated in France by the Russian writer in exile, lecturer Alexandre Kojève. His pre-war Paris lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit influenced many of the post-war French philosophical writers discussed in this book.  Hegel is everywhere seen in the idea of “the other”, a sort of alter ego from which we must, by conflict,  free ourselves so that we can become a truly free self-consciousness. This potentially dangerous process of “othering”  can reduce the other to the outer reaches of society and to a place where they do not need to be cared about but on the other hand spiritually hungry atheists delighted in the ideas of freedom and the self-created individual.

After the tragedy of two wars, European intellectuals were desperate to find a new meaning and purpose in humanity…a new way forward and while a few turned to religion  between the wars especially Maritain, Proust and Chesterton; even Camus was too caring for Sartre!  Scruton notes that left leaning intellectuals were not in favour of Catholicism as a creator of nationalism.  Many  others saw the future in an idealised Communism, Central Europe was the heart of the new left: in France… Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Foucault, Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou; in Germany.. Heidegger, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse,  Lukács (Hungarian), Habermas; in Italy..Gramsci (with a sideways look at Said (Palestinian); in Slovenia…Žižek. 

Heidegger’s difficult Being and Time, not analysed by Scruton, establishes the priority of the radical freedom of the self-created individual and this idea is enthusiastically taken up by Sartre in his major manifesto Being and Nothingness. Scruton devotes a  major chapter to the  analysis of Sartre and Foucault and then moves along to the other philosophers listed above. This section of the book is a demanding, exhilarating ride. Once again Scruton does not minimise the learning and skills of these philosophers. If anyone is capable of enunciating clearly what these writers are saying it is Roger Scruton, but the reader quickly finds that the language becomes unintelligible and in several cases completely meaningless, particularly the “nonsense machine” of Althusser, Lacan and Deleuze.

It is not for want of trying that Scruton dismisses the vigorous outpourings of these European philosophers. Scruton quotes large paragraphs of their work across their whole oevre  and attempts a clear “translation” of their meaning.  At times however, interpretation defies any analysis especially when the writer descends to pseudo-mathematical semiotics as in the case of Lukáks, and even Žiźek, although he, at least, is mathematically trained. 

A key term in the New Left assault on Capitalism is “Reification”, a process by which people are captured by, or transfer their freedom to the objects that represent them especially their possessions and their art (which becomes an ornament instead of a critical instrument to challenge society).  But it is not just objects purchased by the capital west that are prone to reification, but also institutions, laws and relationships. It is at the stage when political revolutionaries feel the need to do away with law that ordinary folk should begin to fear. This is a fear so graphically depicted in the writing of Polish poet Czeslaw Milozs’ book The Captive Mind and most simply summarised in André Breton’s second surrealist manifesto of 1930…everything remains to be done, every means must be worth trying, in order to lay waste the ideas of family, country, religion.. Other central terms in this New Left vocabulary are ‘totalization’ (a mystical event taking the place of God and the evil magic of the bourgeois) and ‘dialectical reasoning’.

Some key ideas that emerged to me in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands are listed below:

p.83f: Sartre, on “othering”:  The authentic self seeks the total solution to the riddle of existence, and one is his own creation, acknowledging no authority, no legitimacy that is tainted by the unacceptable world of ‘them’.

p.85:  Sartre, ..the existentialist anti-hero need only ensure that his commitment is not to the fragmented imperfection of the actual, but to the purified ‘totality’ of an abstract idea. It suffices to commit yourself to what Kant called an ‘Idea of Reason,’ but which we might equally describe as Utopia: by doing this you gain a world without losing your freedom. …the existentialist earns the salvation that he needs—that of the ‘total’ viewpoint obtaining in the Kingdom of Ends.

p.87  On Sartre: Sartre claims to reject Marxism for its partial and mechanistic account of man’s condition. Nevertheless he expresses his ‘total’ commitment in terms of Marxist categories..the bourgeois and  proletarian division…the extraction of surplus value ‘from the alienated ‘proletariat’ proceeds by bourgeois ‘exploitation’ leading to an ever increasing class struggle under capitalism.

p.89  On Sartre; The commitment on which Sartre settles is in fact Marxism of a wholly unreconstructed kind. We find emerging from [Sartre’s] pages the same destructive fantasies, the same false hopes, the same pathological hatred of the imperfect and the normal, that have characterised all the followers of Marx from Engels to Mao..[and Pol Pot who was influenced by Sartre in Paris.]

p.110 On Foucault: On his analysis of the law: The revolution can only take place via the radical elimination of the judicial apparatus, and anything which could reintroduce the penal apparatus. He recommends the banishment of adjudication, and every form of court, and gestures towards a new form of ‘proletarian’ justice, which will not require the services of a judge….had he proceeded to mention the historical facts—Revolutionary Tribunals, in which judge, prosecutor, and witness were one and the same and the accused had no right of reply, the thousands of executions, the genocide in La Vendée, and all the other calamities that flowed from the ‘revolution against the judiciary’ —then his remarks might have been taken as a warning and not, as he intended them, as an endorsement.

pp119f On György Lukács who immersed himself in the writings of the anarcho-syndicalist Georges Sorel whose apology for violence made a deep impression (p118), Lukács asserted that ‘Communist ethics makes it the highest duty to accept the necessity to act wickedly,’ adding that ‘this is the greatest sacrifice the revolution asks from us’ . “Wickedness” after all, is a bourgeois conception, and everything bourgeois must be overthrown. Indeed the entire human psyche is so deformed by capitalism that ‘it is not possible to be human in a  bourgeois society.’ …With Lukács  we have not to do with the anti-bourgeois snobbery of a  Foucault …We have to do with hatred…which embraces all the ‘appearances’ of the ‘bourgeois’ world…

p144 On the Frankfurt School: (Adorno/Horkheimer) It is only fair to add that the Frankfurt critique of the consumer society contains an element of truth. It is a truth far older than the Marxist theories which Adorno and Horkheimer embellished it. Indeed it is the truth enshrined in the Hebrew Bible, reformulated time and again down the centuries: the truth that, in bowing down to idols, we betray our better nature….By turning to God we become what we truly are, creatures of a higher world, whose fulfilment is something more than the satisfaction of our wishes. Through idolatry, by contrast, we fall into a lower way of being —the way of self-enslavement, in which our appetites shape themselves as gods and take command of us.

pp146-7  On Habermas: Habermas turned his back on the Frankfurters…nevertheless the critique of instrumental reason survives in Habermas, in a fortified and bureaucratised form….The style is vague, irresolute and emotionless, in the manner of a sociology Ph.D…Only where the hidden agenda is momentarily exposed does Habermas declare himself…”a political praxis which is consciously directed towards overturning the existing institutional system.”  The  rest is prodigious waffle, and indeed barely intelligible, part of an endless stream of ‘on the one hand/on the other hand’ ruminations, inspired by whatever book or article has just come to Habermas’s attention, and littered with sociological jargon. A reader coming for the first time to Habermas, and confronted with acres of such writing, may well feel a certain astonishment at the thought that here, before him, lies the core of the German left establishment….Tedium is the vehicle of an abstract authority, and the reader waits in the corridors of Habermas’s prose like a petitioner to whom truth has been promised, albeit only abstractly, on a document that is perhaps out of date. 

p158f.  On Althusser. The revolution of the 1960s was therefore a revolution conducted in laboratory conditions, with hardly a step being taken outside the world of books…it became the business of inventing spurious questions, barren controversies and arcane pedantries, with which to divert all intellectual enquiry away from the fundamental question…the question of revolution itself. The urgency of this question, and the elaborate ways of begging it, are nowhere more apparent than in the writings of the man who was singled out by the revolutionaries of 1968 as their intellectual leader, Louis Althusser….there is only one legitimate goal of all intellectual endeavour, which is the goal of revolution…Althusser offers a new and fortified language, in which no question can be posed, and no answer offered, except in terms that are barely intelligible to those who have not renounced their capacity to think outside them. As Orwell perceived, the first target of every revolution is language. The need to create a Newspeak that puts power in the place previously occupied by truth and, having done this, to describe the result as the ‘politics of truth.’…Hence Althusser’s writings, which are exemplary in this respect—engage with nothing written by those outside the Marxist camp.

p174f. On “The Nonsense Machine” 1:  Based on semiotics and ‘signs’ in Literature: Lacan/Deleuze/Derrida based on work by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in his Cours de Linguistique générale, 1916 (posthumously). Scruton notes:..the Swiss linguist Ferndinand de Saussure introduced two ideas that were to be used, abused and jargonized throughout the 1960s and 70s: the idea of language as a system of ’differenses,’ and the idea that there is, or could be, a ‘general science of signs’. Saussure argued that the meaning of a sign attaches to it only in the context of other signs that might replace it in a sentence….Jacques Derrida went further still, arguing that therefore no sign means in isolation, and meaning waits upon the ‘other’ sign, the sign that completes it by opposing it, but which cannot be finally written down. Meaning is never present but always deferred, chased through the text from sign to sign, always vanishing as we seem to reach it, now the meaning lies before us, then this i our decision, which may have a political justification, but which is in no way dictated by the text…..that intoxicating (and toxic) piece of nonsense is now as firmly embedded in intellectual history as Newton’s mechanics…

p. 174 On Lacan:  “The Nonsense Machine” 2: …what mattered to the builders of the nonsense machine was not the answer [to the signs question] but the mystery stirred by the question. The frame of the nonsense machine was assembled by Jacques Lacan, the cranky psychiatrist whose writings, published in 1966, had an extraordinary impact on the student revolutionaries, with whose cause he publicly aligned himself…described by Raymond Tallis as ‘the Shrink from Hell”. [See Écrits, 1966]

pp.176-178. On Lacan  …the fame of an idea arises from its influence, not its truth.  So it was with Freud, Jung and Adler; so it has been with Klein, Binswanger, Lacan and many more. [cf. Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal’s devastating criticism of Lacan’s misuse of set theory, typology etc in Impostures Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science,1998. Lacan’s musings on a big “Other” ruling the world and the “mirror image” a child experiences when first identifying herself in a mirror and the semiotic/set theory form in which it was set out is way beyond my ability to summarise but Scruton assembles enough information to damn Lacan as a criminal charlatan, to quote from the published study by Elizabeth Roudinesco.

pp197-208  On Gramsci.  Italian Marxist Gramsci came to notice with his direct assault on Fascism in the 1920s and quickly ended up in jail when Mussolini assumed power. Gramski kept writing until his death in 1937 and his revolutionary ideas were canonised by the new left of the 1960s particularly with his slogan that history is on no one’s side, arguing for a gradual change in political hegemony rather than a violent revolution. The revolution involves a gradual ‘seizing of the culture.”  A key failure of Gramsci’s writing in Scruton’s view is his failure to see the very real similarities in the methodology of both Fascism and Communism (p.201)

pp210-232 On the Culture Wars in England- This idea of the “long revolution” was and is still played out in England as culture wars based around a horror of the industrial revolution and the social and literary criticism of Burke, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Arnold, Ruskin, William Morris, The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Historian Cobbett, Bernard Shaw, the Fabians and the cultural and socialist writing of Raymond Williams (eg The Long Revolution, Penguin edition 1961). This is basically a revolution against privilege and power. 

pp233-238 Scruton challenges C20th post-modern heroes Richard Rorty and Edward Said. Rorty, briefly for his post-modern assumption that all the Enlightenment celebration of high culture, discovery, the universal value of other cultures, a common human nature and a vision of man as free and self-created was about to be swept away completely by the vagaries of post-modernism.

Scruton attacks Said in relation to his influential work Orientalism published in 1978. He regarded Said’s book as flawed by highly selective quotations, concerning a very narrow range of East-West encounters, relying solely on Western portrayals of the Occident and making to effort to make any comparative judgements whatsoever, when it came to assessing who had been unfair to whom.

Chapter 8: The Kraken Wakes: The cause of the New Left seemed finished. Williams, Thompson, Deleuze, Rorty and Said were dead, and Habermas was busy burying the leftist message in page upon page of bureaucratic dither. Meanwhile the communist systems of the Russian Empire had collapsed and China was on its way to becoming a centre of trans-national capitalism, combining in its mad orgy of consumption some of the worst features of every system of government in living history. 

Enter Alain Badiou and his disciple Slavoj ŽIźek who have both worked hard to persuade the world that Lacan was not the crazy charlatan described previously. Badiou’s methodology was again based on set theory but this time with a much stronger basis in mathematics than Lacan could have dreamt of. Badiou is a repeat of the old left, a disdain form human rights; a denial of law; a tolerance of violence and he is in the grip of a complete commitment to something unreal, which is dressed up as a ‘truth procedure’, an ‘event’, a ‘generic multitude’, ‘the unnameable’ – terms that do nothing to conceal the underlying nothingness.  Scruton concedes (p271) that the ‘communist hypothesis’ will never go away…For it is not a prediction, nor in any real sense a hypothesis. It is a statement of faith in the unknoChapwable, the unnameable, in the ‘wandering of nothing’….They exist in order to promote a single and absolute cause, the cause that admits of no criticism and no compromise, and which offers redemption to all who espouse it. And what is that cause? The answer is there on every page of these fatuous writings: Nothing. 

Chapter 9 is a fairly brief outline of Scruton’s defence of ‘What is Right’ on which he has written in some detail elsewhere and which seems rather tame after the hi-jinks of the New Left. The book has excellent separate indexes of both names and events. 

Although there is much in this book beyond my ken I could not put it down. It is trenchant, courageous writing, hugely unpopular with the high end literary caste but like the work of David Balinski, impossible to ignore. 5 stars. 

Mary McCarthy: The Stones of Florence and Venice  Observed,  p/b,  Camberwell, Penguin, 2006 (1959, Florence; 1956, Venice)

The Stones of Florence.

Mary McCarthy graduated cum laude from Vasar College and was elected to Phi Delta Kappa. She became a highly regarded American novelist, acerbic literary and art critic, travel writer and influential left-leaning political commentator, (although bitterly opposed to Stalinism). She was a close friend of Hannah Arendt becoming her literary executor until her own death in 1989. Four times married McCarthy was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and held nine honorary university degrees.

The Stones of Florence provides an opportunity for a full display of McCarthy’s lacerating wit and extraordinary depth of knowledge in Italian art history. The city of Florence is described in depth  from many aspects including modern Florence, ancient Roman Florence, Republican, Mediaeval, Medici, Renaissance and Mannerist Florence. With no visual representations in my Penguin edition, McCarthy still manages to portray in depth “written pictures” of the history, politics,  art, sculpture, scientific inventions, streets, lanes, food, markets, churches and people of Florence. I flattered myself I knew the religious art of Florence quite well after several visits but McCarthy’s personal research and depth of knowledge is impressive indeed.

The reader comes away feeling they have a personal knowledge of Giotto, Botticelli, Ucelllo, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Vasari, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Giambologna, Cellini, Piero della Francesco, Massaccio, Machiavelli, Dante, Savaronola, Luca della Robia, Verrochio, Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Gozzoli, Bernardo Daddi, Andrea del Sarto,Pontormo, Il Rosso, Bronzino, and many others.

The bitter and seemingly never ending feuding between Ghibelline and Guleph is never far away in any account of Florence but what finally emerges is “Florence” itself. Florence, whose Tuscan tongue gave a language to an eventually united Italy, proud but simple, stolid, Florence, content with a little, not showy, living the seasons with good food and drink and squarely comfortable in its own skin, able to challenge both pope and emperor where necessary and finding a way to defeat oppressor,  siege, flood, plague, tourists galore. 

Even if, after the Renaissance, Florence became a “backwater” after their artistic collapse in the mid-sixteenth century according to McCarthy,  yet the city did not die or petrify like Mantua, Ravenna,  Rimini, Siena, or turn into a dream like Venice. (p.161). Rationalist Florence and Tuscany lived on and prospered to become the dream and place of every sensitive Englishman and eventually the world. McCarthy’s Florence is idiosyncratic, detailed, harsh and impossible to put down.  (5 stars)

Venice Observed. 

Everyone writes about Venice, as McCarthy herself observes…including Herbert Spenser, Montaigne, Henry James, D H Lawrence (negatively), Gibbon, Cassanova, Rousseau, Lady Mary Worltley Montague, Charles de Brosses, Goldoni, Byron, Browning, Shelley, Ruskin, Turner, artist Richard Bonington,Auguste-Maurice  Barrès, and Frederick Rolfe (‘Baron’) Corvo. In spite of this excitement Venice itself has produced few writers with the exception of Goldoni.  Nevertheless I doubt few writers  have managed the sustained analysis McCarthy brings to her series of snapshots of Venice, where she must have stayed frequently.  

True in 1956 when she was writing and ever more so today, there is no use pretending the tourist Venice is not the real Venice (p177). I shudder to think what McCarthy would have written about the gigantic cruise ships which, until Covid19,  daily shouldered their way into the Grand Canal, threatening flood and towering over the Doge’s Palace. Many thousands of tourists have half a day to “do” Venice. Writing, in fact, seems to be quite low on the list of Venetian interests and the story of the donation of all Petrarch’s library to Venice and their subsequent losing of it, never yet to be found, is outrageous! (p.220)

McCarthy writes of the earliest history of Venice, its first settlers fleeing from Atilla the Hun and settling literally in the mud of the flood prone lagoons; She notes the influence of powerful  Byzantium nearby; Venice’s limited  involvement in the Crusades  and the many sea battles which eventually gave Venice command of the seas for a time. McCarthy notes the development of the surrounding islands, Burano with its lace,  Murano with its glass  and Torcello with its C6th Santa Maria Assunta Basiiica Cathedral and Chioggia, the “Little Venice”.  She notes once again the dependance on tourism for these islands and suggests that Venice is ringed by a series of dead cities. (p.241)

McCarthy notes but does not herself adulate Venice’s golden age of the Renaissance although many others have waxed lyrical about this period of Venice’s greatness.  McCarthy describes it aa an age of adulation and ceremony, of Lutheranism and of Debauchery in that order (P.226). That there was even a possibility of Lutheranism in Venice seems unlikely but a combination of regular tensions with papal authority, enthusiastic efforts by British Diplomat Henry Wotton resident in Venice, and the remarkable monk,  philosopher, statesman and Protestant sympathiser Paolo Sarpi certainly made progress in that dierction. Sarpi had an underground direct passage to the Doge and for a while the impossible seemed to be possible with the Jesuits expelled for a time.  Sarpi survived a murderous assault by papal thugs but the cause was eventually lost in spite of Wotton’s valiant efforts.

Venice has been responsible for an amazing array of inventions including income tax, statistical science, the floating of government stock, state censorship of books, the gambling casino, anonymous denunciations and the Ghetto and held the secrets of their glass industry very tightly indeed.  They broached the idea of the Suez Canal with neighbours and even contemplated plague warfare!  McCarthy deals with several of these developments and many others. 

Also on the religious side Venice was unusual in Italy for its acceptance of a Jewish community but there again there was an pragmatic gain. The Jews were herded into a ghetto and taxed severely so that when Napoleon finally threw open the  ghetto gates there were virtually no survivors, most had died in poverty or fled to Holland. Napoleon’s theft of horses and lions from St Mark’s were eventually restored if a little damaged but the artwork looted for the Louvre I doubt ever came back.

As with McCarthy’s account of Florence, her serious excitement and commitment is to the art of Venice and once again the locations and details of genius are described with such energy that photographic imagery is not essential. McCarthy finds them all .. the two Bellinis, Palladio (the world’s loveliest city produced only one architect), Veronese, Tintoretto, Cima, Giorgioni, Carpaccio, the Bastiani, Basaiti, Paris Bordani, Sansovina Florentino, Vvarini, Crivelli atnd later Canaletto, Guardi, Lotto and Vechio. Venetian painting from beginning to end is a riot of dress goods and in a later phrase, a parade of pets. In relation to architecture McCarthy notes that  In relation to the glorious mystique of Venice all of the beautiful residential  architecture is designed to be seen from the canals and if one was serious enough to find a way to the back door of such buildings a shock might be in store.

For folk who love Italy and everything about Italy, this story of Venice is a must. (5 stars) To have both The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed in one accessible volume is a treat indeed. 

MARY McCARTHY
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BOOKS READ APRIL 2020

John Le Carré: Agent Running in the Field,p/b, London, Viking/Penguin, 2019 

David John Moore Cornwell, more commonly known as John Le Carré is 90 years old and has written at lease 25 novels pretty much all in the espionage/intelligence genre. A former UK spy operative Le Carré clearly writes with inside knowledge about the complexities and dangers  of a double and triple life  where the consequences can be very high indeed for individuals and for nations. 

Spy thrillers are not my usual genre so It is hard for me to rate this recent novel against others but it is fascinating indeed to read a novel set in the current Brexit/Trump era of West/East politics. The characterisations are taut, the action tensing and the reader wants to believe in the key figures.  This novel is easy entertainment for a day’s reading and maintains attention even if some of the complexities of the plot at times go beyond  a slow mind like mine.  I would give this   novel 3 stars but I am guessing it would rank more highly for espionage lovers.

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: The Way by Swann’s: A New Translation; Translation, Introduction and Notes by Lydia Davis. p/b, Camberwell, Penguin,  2002

Formerly titled Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust has written a monumental oeuvre  in seven volumes. In this new Penguin edition, it is six volumes with volumes 5 and 6 printed in one volume). Former English translations by Kilmarten and Enright have been replaced in this Penguin edition by seven different translators and I found Lydia Davis’s translation of Volume 1 to be fluent, easy to read and the notes particularly helpful.

Marcel Proust

It has taken me to the ripe age of 71 to tackle Proust and in some ways I am glad because comprehension of his vast range of thinking across literature, art, botany, Greek mythology, music and the wonder of Paris at the turn of the century is exceptional and takes a bit of keeping up with.   In this volume the story line on the surface is quite simple and in three parts, the last one quite short. Part of the complexity of Proust is that some of his individuals, places and events are real and some are inventions eg. Vinteuil, brilliant fictional composer.  The notes help here but not always.

Part 1, Combray,  Is told in the first person and centres upon Proust’s childhood set in the imagined French village of Combray and focusses on the intensity of his closeness to his mother Madeleine, whilst at the same time introducing us briefly to the somewhat elusive and fictional Charles Swann and his daughter Gilberte. The Village of Combray is based in part on his own childhood town of Illiers.  

Part 2 is an account of the extraordinary relationship between Swann and a beautiful and street savvy Parisian courtesan Odette de Crécy. It would take an exceptional psychiatrist indeed to unravel the complexity of Swann’s feelings towards Odette!

Part 3, entitled in English “Place Times: the Name” is written again in the first person and Is a brief reflection on Paris and an imagined Florence and Venice but also tells of Proust’s first “love” involving a chance second meeting with Gilberte Swann as well as explaining to us that Charles Swann eventually marries Odette de Crécy to the reader’s amazement! 

Of course, with Proust, the story in many ways is secondary to the language. Even in translation, Proust immerses his reader immediately in an intensity of analysis of beauty ….beauty of feeling, of flowers, of music, of many amazing works of art, of architecture,  of weather, of feeling, of family relationships, of growing up, or yearning for meaning,  of sexuality, of a crumbling aristocratic French society. In undoubtedly the longest sentences I have ever read Proust weaves a spell over the reader with an intensity I am not sure I have encountered before, except perhaps in D H Lawrence or indeed Tolstoy.   I think that reading Proust is a decision! It is not literature that you can skip through to get the story line or if you do you will miss all that is worthwhile and valuable in the writing. 

Some brief ideas follow that jumped right out at me and give me pause even if I didn’t always agree:

p. 195:  …lies told out of vanity

p.201:   ..how amusing it must be to pore over books..

p. 201:  …the fear of being unhappy.

p.216:   …the clichés of art that need to be rejected.

p. 225:   …the ideal is inaccessible and happiness mediocre.

p. 249:   …to try to have but a single soul for the two of them…

p. 282: …the ‘Self’ above all…

p.444 fn 106. Proust writes: You’re never as unhappy as you think, which is based on a maxim of François, Due de La Rochefoucauld (1613-80), One is never as happy or unhappy as one imagines. 

p. 361. In spite of all that has occurred at this late stage of the Swann/Odette saga, and all that has been been revealed to the reader, Swann still did not believe that Odette was a prostitute. 

p.394:   ..The countries we long for occupy a far larger place in our actual life at any given moment than the country in which we happen to be.

Will I ever finish reading In Search of Lost Time? That remains an open question. I am glad I have read The Way by Swann’s and I want to read more of Proust. I will take this one volume at a time!

5 stars. 

Karpeles, Eric: Paintings in Proust; A Visual Companion to “In Search of Lost Time”,  h/b, London, Thames & Hudson, 2008

Marcel Proust, writing to French novelist and critic Jean Cocteau, said My book is a painting. I think this is an accurate way of describing Proust’s “thick” writing. You cannot just read Proust; even in translation, you have to experience it, you have to be in it. In another sense it is difficult to understand fully many of Proust’s offhand comparisons about events, places or people because they are comparisons with paintings. Art is never far away from his thought. 

This beautifully produced book saves the reader an inordinate amount of time hunting around to find an image of the paintings Proust refers to. After a brief introduction to Proust’s work the book simply consists of brief extracts in their literary order from In Search of Lost Time together with beautifully reproduced full colour paintings of the painting in question or the author’s best guess of the painting Proust refers to. There are 206 illustrations and complete indexes of artists, locations and notes on the painters. Proust’s writing at its height is a gift to the mind and spirit and this book is an inspirational accompaniment to reading Proust. Eric Karpeles and the publishers have provided a rich gift indeed for Proust lovers. Even if you haven’t read a word of Proust this is an art collection you will want to reflect on again and again.  5 stars and rising.

Eric Karpeles

Larry Crabb: Understanding People: Why We Long for Relationship, p/b, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2013 (1987).

Dr Lawrence (“Larry”) Crabb holds doctoral qualifications in Psychology from the University of Illinois and has been Scholar in Residence at Colorado Christian University. He has written widely in the areas of Biblical counselling, Marriage, the Church and approaches to pyschology. Understanding People is probably his most well known book and has often been republished.

Understanding People is a demanding read. Its conversational style, especially in the early chapters might strike the reader initially as glib and simplistic and further judicious editing would have given these introductory chapters greater clarity.  But the reader who perseveres will see that Crabb will not accept common and  simplistic Christian responses and requires his readers to travel slowly and thoughtfully through the many difficult moral questions of the modern world including our freedom to choose,  questions of maturity, personhood, rationality, hostility, the possibility and pains of change, our emotional nature and the many tricks especially Christian folk use to cover up their general unwillingness to “go deep” with the Christian friends and pastors they associate with. 

Crabb is a critic of the limiting aspects of much psychological counselling. His target is not in reference to treatment to deal with problems resulting from physical/natural causes such as major depression and other affective disorders, behavioural or emotional problems stemming from chemical imbalance, physical lesions or degenerative disease, drug induced psychosis and learning difficulties caused by perceptual malfunction and early learning deficits. Rather his attention focusses on what he regards as moral issues. 

Crabb provides a critique of various psychological approaches including Christian approaches such as Christian moral Model counselling and nouthetic counselling but also psycho-analysis, Rogerian counselling, Gestalt therapy, primal therapy and other similar dynamic and relational models. Whilst Crabb is supportive of many of the principles at work in both these secular and strict Christian approaches (such as Jay Adams’ nouthetic counselling), Crabb argues that there is a huge gap in training Christian counsellors. Simplistic proclamations that “Christ is the Answer” won’t do the job for pastors (p.236) and pastors who think that simply stating Biblical positions and then retreating to church discipline procedures when the teaching fails, is not the way forward.   Crabb believes that the scientific sidelining of a Biblical understanding of life principles starting with Freud in the early C20th and exploding exponentially since, has been to the detriment of human flourishing and that Christians in particular have been let down by their pastors who should be thoroughly  trained in counselling as well as the usual focus on Biblical teaching. The book is aimed primarily at Christian leaders, pastors and counsellors rather than non-Christians. 

p.152   Sometimes we select or adopt a painful image of ourselves (such as we are clumsy, or forgetful or shy)  to avoid a deeper psychological or spiritual problem or challenge.

Whilst Crabb would agree that the Bible does not directly provide solutions to problems such as anorexia or obsessive compulsive disorder, he argues that there are profound and overlooked central ideas and principles in the Bible that Christian counsellors can make use of in their pastoral work. He believes that Christian communities have been let down by the C20th preoccupation of ministers and ordained clergy with relatively “safe” Biblical theological questions in both preaching and discussion and that clergy are by and large inadequately trained in Biblical approaches to personal psychological and moral issues including marriage and parenting difficulties, pornography and physical drives including lust. He believes that many clergy are not ready to deal with such difficult and personal issues and are either content to communicate simplistic Biblical quotations and where that fails encouraging folk to seek secular psychologists. 

Some thought starters that I found helpful include:

p. 31.  A discussion of whether the Bible was designed to answer C21st ethical questions.

p. 43   Biblical inerrancy does not  mean that  our personal interpretation of a text is innerrant.

p. 55.  The general disinclination of pastors to get into the ugly details of peoples’ lives when they ask for help with the result that churches degenerate to audiences rather than communities …nothing matters but the pulpit.

p. 63.  The dangers of simplistic textual responses to complex psychological issues such as transvestism or fear of intimacy.

p.73    We are good at studying the Word of God but missing out on the Message of God.

p.74  Pastors should be trained to deal with the real issues in people’s lives not just be clever Biblical exegetes.  He cites one newly licensed ordinand complaining that “no-one asks the questions I can answer!”

p96. Our counselling model will depend upon our beliefs about human nature. Therefore we need to study human nature in depth to fulfil our counselling responsibilities.

p.110  There is a common resistance to self examination amongst Christians, for fear of what we will find. 

p132 While the Bible answers the central spiritual longings of the Christian we all have less deep but very real longings that God does not directly satisfy. How do we deal with these longings?

p143.  We must recognise that sin is much deeper than conscious and voluntary transgression of known laws.  Sin requires our transformation (Romans 12:1-2)

p155.  Our task is to renew our minds. We cannot always change our circumstances.

p.160. A regular danger for pastors of large churches is that they produce either robots or rebels and not much in between.

p.161  We need to major on spirituality, prayer and the mystical side of the Spirit as much as on Biblical head knowledge,

p.176 Personality theories that ignore the element of human choice are unbiblical but we all need to understand the motivations for our behaviour choices.

pp. 180-187 People are responsible because they are free but longstanding behaviour can become compulsive…We need to recognise the goal of our pet behaviours Most people don’t see themselves as choosing  beings and in the Christian life the process of choice is slow and never ending. 

p192  Too often we get the impression that spiritual Christians always feel good…joy now is not to replace suffering, it is to support us through it. Sometimes we will be sad. 

p. 208  Spiritual maturity should not be measured by emotional evenness. 

p232  Christian maturity is realised dependency, admitted poverty, brokenness ..we need to acknowledge our helplessness and vulnerability. 

Understanding People  is an excellent introduction to Christian counselling and will repay reading many times over.  4 stars. 

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An Easter Exercise for isolated corona virus individuals

An Easter Exercise for isolated thinkers during the Corona Virus from the book:

John Dickson: If I Were God, I’d Make myself Clearer: Searching for Clarity in a World Full of Claims, p/b, Kingsford, Matthias Media, 2002

John Dickson is a prolific writer of Ancient History, Theology and Apologetics. This little book seeks to answer the title’s criticism of God’s unclear revelation, a discussion that comes up often in explorations of the many world religions. The book is typically Dickson: brief, to the point, clear and full of accessible ideas and suggestions for moving forward. The following quotes/notes summarise his argument. (I hope accurately):

  1. When it comes to faith there appears to be no clarity, just a cacophony of competing claims.(p9)
  2. A pluralist approach accepts all perspectives as valid.(p.9)
  3. A New Age approach is popular because it does not make onerous demands (p.10)
  4. Many people, religious or not, like to think about religion; they sense that there is more to life than the material …a sense which at times requires gratitude for example, or a deeper meaning to ours and the world’s very existence. (p12)
  5. Questions of ‘spirituality’ do not go away. They seem to have consistently occupied human minds throughout history and even today in Western atheistic societies. (p12)
  6. ‘Religion’ of course does not just cover the big five (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism) but the I-Ching, Confucius, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, Aboriginal spirituality, Satanism and quasi-spiritual activities like the opening of the Olympic Games. (p13)
  7. In spite of limited formal worship in the C21st significant numbers of folk in the West believe in “The Almighty” eg in Britain in 2000, 62% with 69% believing in the existence of a human ‘soul’. (p14)
  8. Discussion about atheism vs faith is very prominent in the C21st with much energy  being expended in books and discussions both ways. eg Philip Adams, Richard Dawkins et al (p14)

9.   The daughter of renowned C20th atheist Bertrand Russell wrote about her father in strikingly        spiritual terms: “I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God, or, for those who prefer less personal terms, for absolute certainty. (p.15).

10.    Bertrand Russell himself wrote to his daughter after visiting a Byzantine Church in Greece: I realised then that the Christian outlook had a firmer hold upon me than I had imagined …I r ealised with some astonishment that I myself am powerfully affected by this sense in my feelings though not in my beliefs. (p15)

11.  In C1st Athens, the Apostle Paul found an inscription on an altar “to an unknown God”. (p16)

12   Paul goes on to argue in Athens that God has in fact arranged the times and places of human societies with the express intention that they should search for their Source of Life and perhaps “feel their way toward him and find him”. (p.17)  

13.  Every single society about which anthropologists and historians know anything significant has made ‘spirituality’ a key component of their cultural life. Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maories , native Americans, pre-Anglo Celts, nomadic Mongols, and modern Chardonay-yuppies… (p.18)

14:   ..the question of God is one of the few universally shared premises of humanity throughout time. (p.18)

15. But why do we in the Western world talk about these things so rarely. We think about them but we don’t talk about them. (p.18)

16.  In the West, Three out of four of us believe in the existence of God and the reality of the afterlife according to the most recent research, but you would never know it just listening to the media or work conversations. (p. 20)

17. I don’t know anyone who’s not interested in the idea of religion, whether they’re opposed to it or for it. (p.20)

18. In Australia, robbed of a broader meaning to our lives, we appear to have entered an era of mass obsession, usually with ourselves: our appearance, our health and fitness, our work, our sex lives , our children’s development, our personal development. (Source: Apocalypse No! Australia’s Commission for the Future) (p.21)

19. It’s as if we hope that the accumulation of numerous smaller ‘meanings’ will make up for the lack of a grand meaning…(p.22)

20. ‘Covetousness’ (the pursuit of material things) and ‘idolatry’ (the reverencing of material things)  are not so different after all, especially when they are a substitute for honouring the Creator of all things himself. (p.23)

21. We tend to agree there’s more to life than material possessions but settling for them all the same; admitting God’s existence in the world, but refusing his influence on our lives. (p.23)

22. The Apostle Paul brought his address to the Athenians to a close with this quote: The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all peop(le everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness. (p. 24)

23. Despite the sixth sense many of us have that there is probably a larger spiritual reality to be reckoned with, our society appears to prefer experiencing the smaller things of life with the other five senses. (p. 24)

24. How many times do we hear the message: “Life is about the job, the car, the house, the clothes, the investments, the retirement package, and so on.” (p. 25)

25. This question of pluralism is the question I want to confront in the rest of this book. (p26)

26. Some shonky Christian preachers preach a “Christian” “Gospel” of prosperity. That is  rubbish. (p.27)

27. Many people look for a spirituality without demands. (p.28)

28. Others think that religion is simply a matter of style or preference, a projection of our imagination and not a fact of the real world. (p.28)

29. Others suggest that the spiritual traditions of the world in the end point to one unified r reality. (p.29)

30. Australia’s many different cultures and faiths especially in large cities is very culturally enriching. (p. 30)

31. The benefit of a pluralist view is that it promotes tolerance rather than warfare. (p.30)

32. But pluralism’s fatal flaw is that while the various faiths agree in superficial things like they all say prayers, at the more basic level they tend to disagree with each other. (p.31)

33. Hinduism is polytheistic but Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, insisting instead that there was just one deity, while Buddhism as taught by Siddhartha Gautama, negated theism altogether. (p.31)

34. The people of the Book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) share many things in common but central to the Christian faith is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died on a cross and rose from the dead. This is non-negotiable for Christians but rejected by both Judaism and Islam. (p32)

35. Australian journalists have written articles purporting to show that Jesus really is shared by both faiths (Islam and Christianity) ..but a Jesus who was not the Son of God and who did not die on a cross is quite simply not the Jesus of Christian devotion. (p.34)

36. The faith traditions of the world are in no sense one. Perhaps one or other is true, perhaps none is true, but it is simply not possible that all, or even a few, are true. (p.34)

37. it is sometimes argued that to believe that a particular religion is true (and therefore that others are untrue) is arrogant since, in doing so you are consigning error to a huge portion of the rest of the world…the argument is valid to a point—lets face it, some Christians are arrogant, but all opinions, by their very nature, consign others to error.  Ironically, though, the views most open to the charge of arrogance are not the ancient monolithic ones such as Islam or Christianity, but the more recent ones like atheism and pluralism. (p.35)

38. Let’s start with atheism, the belief that there is no God or spirituality in the universe. This conviction is held by a tiny minority of the world’s population: according to the latest figures, just 2.5% [Source: Encyclopedia Brittanica,]

39.  Pluralism…is likewise arrogant since it claims to know something about all the faiths that none of the individual faiths is able to achieve…that there is an overarching faith which they all share. (p.36)

40. I do not personally believe that strongly held views—even those that negate the views of others —are in themselves presumptuous or bigoted. They can certainly lead to arrogance, but they do not in themselves constitute an arrogant claim. (p.36)

41. There is a legitimate fear that religious conviction will lead to religious intolerance and, as a consequence, to discrimination and violence. History is full of examples…(p.37)

42. But is an acceptance of all religious truth-claims the best way to respond to such dangers?…a better way forward, I believe, is to promote true ‘tolerance’, that is, not just to accept the validity of another person’s point of view but the more admirable ability to treat with respect a person with whom I deeply disagree. (p.38) 

43. By contrast, our common insistence upon mere ‘agreement’ is intellectually suspect and culturally insensitive. (p.39)

44. In short, I am suggesting that our society’s keenness to affirm all religious viewpoints stems, in part, from an aversion to think too hard about any of them. (p.41)

45. ..the result of all this is rather sad. Whether by an aversion to religious intolerance or a tendency to take the easy option, this acceptance of all faiths has the potential to leave us with no faith at all. God, whoever he or she is, remains for us a mystery. (p42)

46. Would not the Almighty—if indeed he exists—have made things decidedly clearer? The Apostle Paul….answered with a resounding yes, which moves the discussion to the idea of verifiability. (p42)

47. In all religious claims, how can the truth or falsehood of one’s claim be tested? (p.44)

48. If the Creator of the universe were the least bit interested in our devotion, he or she would surely do something ‘concrete’ to grab our attention, something we could all assess for ourselves and from which we could draw our own conclusions. Surely, he would have made himself clearer! (p49)

49. Mormonism provides a an example of a verifiable claim which, in my opinion, can be found (with a high degree of confidence) to be unwarranted. (p.50)

50. The claims of Judaism regarding the exodus from Egypt, while they cannot be proven, has enough evidence of verifiable claims that, when scrutinised…arouse not suspicion but a degree of confidence. (p.53)

51. Whereas Buddhism and Sikhism originated as offshoots and rejections from Hinduism, and Islam was a counter- movement to Christianity and Baha’i to Shiite Islam, Christianity began with a collection of devout Jews. (p.54)

52. In no sense was the early movement surrounding Jesus a rejection of Judaism. It was proclaimed thorughout the Mediterranean as the very fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. (p54)

53. The later Jewish leadership eventually rejected Jesus as Messiah, demanding that the followers of Jesus be excommunicated from the synagogues and regarded as blasphemers (this was shortly before A.D. 100) (p54)

54. This rejection centred on Jesus failing to fulfil the hope of a military Messianic leader who would free the Jewish nation from its Roman overlords. (p.55)

55. The Christian claim that Jesus is God begins with Philip’s question Lord, Show us the Father and Jesus’ reply: Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (p.57)

56. The news of Christ—his life, death and resurrection —is not mythical narrative revealed in the head of a prophet and transcribed in books called Gospels. It was a phenomenon of time and space; it was an event of history. At its heart, Christianity concerns the public, verifiable life story of the man Jesus, the man who claimed personally to reveal God and of whom God has ‘given assurance’ to use Paul’s words , by raising him from the dead. (p.59)

57. Christianity is potentially vulnerable to critical enquiry precisely because its main claims are verifiable. (p.61)

58. The fact that Christianity is so potentially vulnerable to scholarship and yet is still believed by so many professional scholars is not without significance. The openness of Christianity to rigorous scrutiny is in my opinion, one of the most exciting things about it. I want a faith that can be tested. (p.62)

59. …my aim here is not to ‘prove’ the Christian claim at all. …Rather it is intended to demonstrate that of all the great religious claims in the world the Christian one is the most easily and widely testable. (p.63)

60. First the language of these documents is not some strange tongue which on one understands any more. It is called Koine Greek and it is a very simple and widely understood language. (p. 64)

61. Secondly, the age of the documentary evidence is impressive..the earliest manuscript copies of the Gospels are dated around 200 A.D. , only 120 years or so after they were written.  (p.64)

62. Thirdly the volume of copies we possess is overwhelming…for the Gospels alone historians have over 2000 manuscript copies with which to work. (p.65)

63. Fourthly the stability of the copying process is very clear. Comparing copies of the Gospels produced in 600 A.D. with those copied in 200 A.D. we are able to confirm the high accuracy of the copying process. (p.65)

64. The broad outline of Jesus’ life is confirmed by several passing references to him in non- Christian writings …three from Roman authors (Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny) and four from Jewish pens (twice each in Josephus and the Talmud). (p.65)

65. ..equally impressive is the fact that the original time of writing was very close to the events themselves. The first Gospel was probably written in the mid-60’s A.D., just 30 or so years after Jesus’ death. (p.66)

66. Most New Testament scholars discern behind the Gospels at least five different sources, each composed prior to the Gospels themselves…the picture which emerges is strikingly similar across the sources. (p.67)

67. The incidental historical accuracy of the Gospels is also important. Much of what the Gospels say in passing about eg architecture or politics can be quite often confirmed by modern archaeological and literary analysis eg the recent discovery of the Pontius Pilate inscription.

68. The claim of the resurrection itself must be admitted provisionally as evidence. (p.69)

69.  The veracity of the empty tomb is generally conceded. The body of Jesus was never produced to counter the claim.  (p.69)

70. The first witnesses to the resurrection were women. Highly unlikely to be made up given t that in this period a woman’s testimony was regarded as spurious and carried little legal weight. (p.70)

71. The few small divergences between the four gospels tell you the witnesses have not simply copied each other’s stories. (p.70)

72. ..the most compelling line of verification for the resurrection of Jesus is the transformation of Jesus’ followers…it is one thing to die for an ideology you simply believe to be true…but it is another thing tod die for a claim ..you know to be a lie. (p.70)

73. If the historical evidence points decisively in the direction of Jesus’ resurrection, our belief in a the existence of a powerful Creator gets us philosophically ‘over the line’ or ‘into the back of the net’ as it were! (p.72)

74. The intention here is not to ‘prove’ the Christian faith…but to set our briefly a number of significant lines of verification open to anyone who wants to explore the truthfulness of Christianity.  (p.72)

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BOOKS READ MARCH 2020 (only 2 books this month as I have been cataloguing my library; but also a wonderful poem!)

Ann Patchett: The Dutch House, p/b, London, Bloomsbury, 2019

American bookseller, journalist and influential author Ann Patchett’s eleventh novel has a House as its central character! The Dutch House is an ecclectic,  over-engineered and richly furnished mansion in a quiet and leafy residential area of downtown Pennsylvania. The story is told through the eyes of Danny Conroy and his much loved sister Maeve and charts their story from childhood onwards through many twists and turns but the connecting link throughout is the Dutch House which exerts its own spell over them.  The novel has an easy flow which draws the reader onwards through all the normal tensions of childhood, growing up, unexpected changes, education, work and relationships, curiously oblivious to any political or major external events which might have made inroads into the story. If the centre of the novel is not the house it could be the inner psychological development and maturing of the mind of Danny Conroy. The novel is engaging to a degree, without in my view, ever reaching great heights.

Ann Patchett, author of the The Dutch House

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had 

the treasure in it.  I realise now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas

C S Lewis: The Weight of Glory: A Collection of Lewis’s Most Moving Addresses,p/b, London, William Collins, 2013 (1949)

 p.30f:   A very famous passage from Lewis about heaven (glory) from the first essay: The Weight of Glory.

…a desire [for our own far off perfect country and place; something I used to dream about when I was a child]  for something that has never actually appeared in our experience…out commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.  But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it;  what he remembered would would turn out to be itself remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things —the beauty, the memory of our own past— are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself ; they are only the scent of a flower  we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am: but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used fo break enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantments as well as for inducing them.

I have always found this passage deeply moving.  There is exceptional beauty on planet earth..in music, in drama, in writing, in nature, in persons, in architecture, in painting, in tapestry, in poetry, in nobility, in courage, in children, in love, and much else besides. Nevertheless such beauty is fragile, fleeting and leaves us at times desperate to reclaim it. Lewis helps us here to understand both heaven and the love of God.

Some Thought starters from the essay The Weight of Glory:

1. p.32;  … no social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics.  Have we come to grips with the inevitability of our own death? (Is corona virus also helping us to do this?)

2.  p33: Scripture is  symbolical when it speaks of the hereafter. The difference is that the scriptural imagery has authority. Do we accept the authority of Scripture?

3.  p34:  The Five promises of Scripture:  (i) That we shall be with Christ

(ii) That we shall be like him.

(iii) That we shall all have “glory”.

(iv) That we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained

(v)  That we shall have some sort of official position in the universe.

What do we think of Lewis’s understanding of the Biblical view of “how heaven works”? How does this relate to the more current understanding of Heaven as the renewed kingdom of God on earth. 

4. p.36:   Traditional Biblical imagery of salvation such as palms, crowns, white robes, thrones and splendour, does not impress Lewis and most “moderns”; he places more store in God’s people endeavouring to be “good and faithful servants”, a “creature before its creator”. What do we think about this and the danger of the “deadly poison of self-admiration”? (p.37)

5.  p.38   Lewis plays down the importance of “how we think of God” …”how God thinks of us in not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it isrelated to how he thinks of us.”  What do we think of how we should think??

6.  p.41  …in this universe we are treated as strangers, but we have a longing to be acknowledged.  Is this how you feel?

7. p.41  St Paul promises to those who love God not, as we should expect, that they will know Him, but that they will be known by Him (1 Cor. 8:3) It is a strange promise …but he follows up with the dreadful warning of Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats: Depart from me, I never knew you! Can we cope with the notion of being erased from the knowledge of him who knows all”?

There are eight other essays in this 2013 William Collins edition, at least one of which is not printed elsewhere. The essays vary from complex philosophical and logical arguments to quite small sermons including his very last sermon preached in Cambridge. Here is simply note some ideas that jumped out at me in this challenging collection of essays.

From “Learning in Wartime”  (1939)

p.51  If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

p.51  If you attempt to suspend your aesthetic and cultural life you will only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life. If you don’t read good books you will read bad ones.

p.51 The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul. 

p52  A man may have to die for his country but no man must, in any exclusive sense live for his country. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars etc…God’s claims are inexorable and infinite.

p.54  Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God: anything not offered to God is sinful.

p.55  Cultural activities are not in their own right spiritual and meritorious…poets and scholars are no more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks.

p. 56 Our appetite for beauty and truth exists in the human mind and God makes no appetite in vain. and therefore it must have a purpose cf. Aquinas’ theological argument that sex is good and would have existed apart from the fall. 

p.57  Loving knowledge for its own sake is not a good thing.

p.58 We need an intellectual defence against the heathen; bad philosophy needs to be answered.

p. 58 We need an intimate knowledge of the past to understand the present. and to deal with the great cataract fo nonsense that flows from the press and the microphone of one’s own age.

` p.61   Leave the future in God’s hands. We may as well for God will certainly retain it whether we like it or not.

From “Why I am not a pacifist”  (1940)

p.64 Conscience is not a separate faculty like one of the sense, but the conscience can be altered by argument.

p.65  There are two forms of conscience: (i) the pressure a man feels upon his will to do what he thinks is right; (ii) his judgment as to what the content of right and wrong are. 

“Transposition” (1944)An interesting Pentecost sermon preached at Oxford about heaven. Lewis himself seemed not to be completely happy with this and in 1961 added a substantial argument at p. 107 printed  in this addition. Because he is so intent on examining “the beatific vision” which I certainly agree is very important, he does not address the notion of a renewed kingdom of God on earth which I believe is central to understanding life after death, and thus this essay held less interest for me.

“Is Theology Poetry?”  (1944)  I loved this essay but the lecture, given to the Oxford Socratic Club,  is so complex and involved and requires following up so many hares running through so many burroughs in both theology and literature that it is impossible to summarise or pick out “zingers”. Suffice to say that theology has some poetic components and nature but in totality it is much, much more! This is an essay to savour and prove over a year or two of thought.

 “The Inner Ring”  (1944) was the annual commemoration lecture delivered at Kings College and was a healthy reminder to the students that being “in” was a superficial and dangerous activity and goal, bound to end in distress and much better ignored. Salutary and helpful.

“Membership” (1945)  is an excellent lecture analysing  he dangers of attempting to be a “solitary” Christian. The Church, for all its tensions and shortcomings, is an essential component of Christian experience.

“On Forgiveness” (1947) is a short sermon reminding us that most often when we make confession to God in prayer we are often  actually making excuses for ourselves and letting ourselves off the hook very lightly. A plea for honesty in our walk with God.

“A Slip of the Tongue” (1956) was Lewis’s last sermon, preached at Evensong in the Chapel of Magdalen College in Cambridge. It is a beautiful little sermon reminding us of that voice we have all heard in our private prayers which says: …to be careful, to keep my head, not to go too far, not to burn my boats.  I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerable inconvenient when I have come out again into my “ordinary” life. I don’t want to be carried away into any resolution which I shall afterwards regret…which will run up to big a bill to pay…for I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast! This sermon reminds me of the words of a former Archbishop of Melbourne who once admitted to a bunch of us meeting somewhere that sometimes in the morning he prays: “Lord please don’t let anything happen today!”.  Lewis’s final sermon closes with We may never, this side of death, drive the invader out of our territory, but we must be in the Resistance, not in the Vichy Government. And this, so far as I can yet see, must be begun every day. Our morning prayer should be something like..grant me to make an unflawed beginning today, for I have done nothing yet. 

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