Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why I am writing my Saga (according to Cardinal Newman)

In my usual pre-lunch search for Something Good To Read, I happened to find an anthology I enjoyed in my younger years called A Treasury of Catholic Children's Stories, edited by Ethna Sheehan. Of course in those days I would never had thought to read the "Foreword" or any sort of introductory matter, but I have learned a little as I grew older.... though in general I still mistrust them.

(An aside: there is a good reason for this. Sometimes, unthinking authors, or even more unthinking friends of authors, will GIVE AWAY secrets about how the story ends... this is among the worst of sins...)

But today I read the Introduction, and was startled to see Cardinal Newman quoted - and a very excellent quote it was. Immediately I went to hunt up the source (since there was no reference provided) and to my satisfaction I found it. It happens to provide a succinct explanation of why I am writing my Saga... yes, another and very different view, which happens to be just as true as the Chestertonian one I posted previously. Here it is:
By "Catholic Literature" is not to be understood a literature which treats exclusively or primarily of Catholic matters, of Catholic doctrine, controversy, history, persons, or politics; but it includes all subjects of literature whatever, treated as a Catholic would treat them, and as he only can treat them.
[Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University Part II University Subjects. III. English Catholic Literature. § 1 in its relation to religious literature]

Wow. Of course it has to be so. A Catholic has to be "catholic" - that is universal, and will naturally (or should this say "supernaturally"?) unite all subjects in praise of the One Truth.

Or, to put it another way, it comes down to that same old question: how come there aren't any CATHOLIC engineering stories, or science fiction stories, or "Boy's Books" like the Brinley "Mad Scientists" and all that? Huh? Why isn't there a story that has rock musicians and cable TV, and computers, and secret stuff, and complex codes, and railroads and pipe organs and hidden treasures, and all sorts of secret societies (but GOOD ones) - and drug lords, and engineers who say the rosary, and scientists who go to Mass, and really creepy villains, and young men with REAL VIRTUES, and sweet young ladies, and good priests, and serious adults, and REALLY WICKED bad guys... and ALL THE FALLEN STRUGGLES OF OUR WORLD...



Ah. I decided I would not be frustrated any more, and I would not sit around and WAIT. As I am so used to from work, when no one else is willing to write the necessary software, why then, like the Little Red Hen, I merely say I will have to do it myself.

Because (as our hero Mark Weaver says) SOMEONE HAS TO DO THE HARD JOBS.

Oh man... sorry. I guess you are drooling now, drooling with the intellectual hunger for Something Good To Read. Well.... if you cannot bear the suspense, head for Quayment, where they have several parts of the Saga already available. If you need directions - uh... well. You can always ask at Loome, they might be able to help. And if you can't be patient a little longer, you'll have to start writing your own.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

GKC: "The Priest of Spring"

The Priest of Spring
by G. K. Chesterton
from A Miscellany of Men

The sun has strengthened and the air softened just before Easter Day. But it is a troubled brightness which has a breath not only of novelty but of revolution. There are two great armies of the human intellect who will fight till the end on this vital point, whether Easter is to be congratulated on fitting in with the Spring - or the Spring on fitting in with Easter.

The only two things that can satisfy the soul are a person and a story; and even a story must be about a person. There are indeed very voluptuous appetites and enjoyments in mere abstractions - like mathematics, logic, or chess. But these mere pleasures of the mind are like mere pleasures of the body. That is, they are mere pleasures, though they may be gigantic pleasures; they can never by a mere increase of themselves amount to happiness. A man just about to be hanged may enjoy his breakfast; especially if it be his favourite breakfast; and in the same way he may enjoy an argument with the chaplain about heresy, especially if it is his favourite heresy. But whether he can enjoy either of them does not depend on either of them; it depends upon his spiritual attitude towards a subsequent event. And that event is really interesting to the because it is the end of a story and (as some hold) the end of a person.

Now it is this simple truth which, like many others, is too simple for our scientists to see. This is where they go wrong, not only about true religion, but about false religions too; so that their account of mythology is more mythical than the myth itself. I do not confine myself to saying that they are quite incorrect when they state (for instance) that Christ was a legend of dying and reviving vegetation, like Adonis or Persephone. I say that even if Adonis was a god of vegetation, they have got the whole notion of him wrong. Nobody, to begin with, is sufficiently interested in decaying vegetables, as such, to make any particular mystery or disguise about them; and certainly not enough to disguise them under the image of a very handsome young man, which is a vastly more interesting thing. If Adonis was connected with the fall of leaves in autumn and the return of flowers in spring, the process of thought was quite different. It is a process of thought which springs up spontaneously in all children and young artists; it springs up spontaneously in all healthy societies. It is very difficult to explain in a diseased society.

The brain of man is subject to short and strange snatches of sleep. A cloud seals the city of reason or rests upon the sea of imagination; a dream that darkens as much, whether it is a nightmare of atheism or a day-dream of idolatry. And just as we have all sprung from sleep with a start and found ourselves saying some sentence that has no meaning, save in the mad tongues of the midnight; so the human mind starts from its trances of stupidity with some complete phrase upon its lips; a complete phrase which is a complete folly. Unfortunately it is not like the dream sentence, generally forgotten in the putting on of boots or the putting in of breakfast. This senseless aphorism, invented when man's mind was asleep, still hangs on his tongue and entangles all his relations to rational and daylight things. All our controversies are confused by certain kinds of phrases which are not merely untrue, but were always unmeaning; which are not merely inapplicable, but were always intrinsically useless. We recognise them wherever a man talks of "the survival of the fittest," meaning only the survival of the survivors; or wherever a man says that the rich "have a stake in the country," as if the poor could not suffer from misgovernment or military defeat; or where a man talks about "going on towards Progress," which only means going on towards going on; or when a man talks about "government by the wise few," as if they could be picked out by their pantaloons. "The wise few" must mean either the few whom the foolish think wise or the very foolish who think themselves wise.

There is one piece of nonsense that modern people still find themselves saying, even after they are more or less awake, by which I am particularly irritated. It arose in the popularised science of the nineteenth century, especially in connection with the study of myths and religions. The fragment of gibberish to which I refer generally takes the form of saying " This god or hero really represents the sun." Or "Apollo killing the Python means that the summer drives out the winter." Or "The King dying in a western battle is a symbol of the sun setting in the west." Now I should really have thought that even the sceptical professors, whose skulls are as shallow as frying-pans, might have reflected that human beings never think or feel like this. Consider what is involved in this supposition. It presumes that primitive man went out for a walk and saw with great interest a big burning spot on the sky. He then said to primitive woman, "My dear, we had better keep this quiet. We mustn't let it get about. The children and the slaves are so very sharp. They might discover the sun any day, unless we are very careful. So we won't call it 'the sun,' but I will draw a picture of a man killing a snake; and whenever I do that you will know what I mean. The sun doesn't look at all like a man killing a snake; so nobody can possibly know. It will be a little secret between us; and while the slaves and the children fancy I am quite excited with a grand tale of a writhing dragon and a wrestling demigod, I shall really mean this delicious little discovery, that there is a round yellow disc up in the air." One does not need to know much mythology to know that this is a myth. It is commonly called the Solar Myth.

Quite plainly, of course, the case was just the other way. The god was never a symbol or hieroglyph representing the sun. The sun was a hieroglyph representing the god. Primitive man (with whom my friend Dombey is no doubt well acquainted) went out with his head full of gods and heroes, because that is the chief use of having a head. Then he saw the sun in some glorious crisis of the dominance of noon on the distress of nightfall, and he said, "That is how the face of the god would shine when he had slain the dragon," or "That is how the whole world would bleed to westward, if the god were slain at last."

No human being was ever really so unnatural as to worship Nature. No man, however indulgent (as I am) to corpulency, ever worshipped a man as round as the sun or a woman as round as the moon. No man, however attracted to an artistic attenuation, ever really believed that the Dryad was as lean and stiff as the tree. We human beings have never worshipped Nature; and indeed, the reason is very simple. It is that all human beings are superhuman beings. We have printed our own image upon Nature, as God has printed His image upon us. We have told the enormous sun to stand still; we have fixed him on our shields, caring no more for a star than for a starfish. And when there were powers of Nature we could not for the time control, we have conceived great beings in human shape controlling them. Jupiter does not mean thunder. Thunder means the march and victory of Jupiter. Neptune does not mean the sea; the sea is his, and he made it. In other words, what the savage really said about the sea was, "Only my fetish Mumbo could raise such mountains out of mere water." What the savage really said about the sun was, "Only my great-great-grandfather Jumbo could deserve such a blazing crown."

About all these myths my own position is utterly and even sadly simple. I say you cannot really understand any myths till you have found that one of them is not a myth. Turnip ghosts mean nothing if there are no real ghosts. Forged bank-notes mean nothing if there are no real bank-notes. Heathen gods mean nothing, and must always mean nothing, to those of us that deny the Christian God. When once a god is admitted, even a false god, the Cosmos begins to know its place: which is the second place. When once it is the real God the Cosmos falls down before Him, offering flowers in spring as flames in winter. "My love is like a red, red rose" does not mean that the poet is praising roses under the allegory of a young lady. "My love is an arbutus" does not mean that the author was a botanist so pleased with a particular arbutus tree that he said he loved it. "Who art the moon and regent of my sky" does not mean that Juliet invented Romeo to account for the roundness of the moon. "Christ is the Sun of Easter" does not mean that the worshipper is praising the sun under the emblem of Christ. Goddess or god can clothe themselves with the spring or summer; but the body is more than raiment. Religion takes almost disdainfully the dress of Nature; and indeed Christianity has done as well with the snows of Christmas as with the snow-drops of spring. And when I look across the sun-struck fields, I know in my inmost bones that my joy is not solely in the spring, for spring alone, being always returning, would be always sad. There is somebody or something walking there, to be crowned with flowers: and my pleasure is in some promise yet possible and in the resurrection of the dead.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Quite Unnaturally Joyful

I offer, for your delight, what I consider to be the VERY BEST of all Chesterton's writing: the stunning view of what Christianity looked like when it first appeared to the ancient Romans... and how it still looks today. I, for one, had a silly grin on my face last night and this morning as I went up to eat the body of the dead God... you see, I am quite unnaturally joyful - for the dead omnipotence has broken out of the tomb and risen again like the sun.

Or, to put it another way: "My God knows the way out of the grave." [cf. GKC CW2:382] What a great epitaph that is!

Happy, happy, happy, unnnaturally joyful Paschaltide to you and yours! Amen. Alleluia!

--Dr. Thursday

Atheism became really possible in that abnormal time; for atheism is abnormality. It is not merely the denial of a dogma. It is the reversal of a subconscious assumption in the soul; the sense that there is a meaning and a direction in the world it sees. Lucretius, the first evolutionist who endeavoured to substitute Evolution for God, had already dangled before men's eyes his dance of glittering atoms, by which he conceived cosmos as created by chaos. But it was not his strong poetry or his sad philosophy, as I fancy, that made it possible for men to entertain such a vision. It was something in the sense of impotence and despair with which men shook their fists vainly at the stars, as they saw all the best work of humanity sinking slowly and helplessly into a swamp. They could easily believe that even creation itself was not a creation but a perpetual fall, when they saw that the weightiest and worthiest of all human creations was falling by its own weight. They could fancy that all the stars were falling stars; and that the very pillars of their own solemn porticos were bowed under a sort of gradual Deluge. To men in that mood there was a reason for atheism that is in some sense reasonable. Mythology might fade and philosophy might stiffen; but if behind these things there was a reality, surely that reality might have sustained things as they sank. There was no God; if there had been a God, surely this was the very moment when He would have moved and saved the world.

The life of the great civilisation went on with dreary industry and even with dreary festivity. It was the end of the world, and the worst of it was that it need never end. A convenient compromise had been made between all the multitudinous myths and religions of the Empire; that each group should worship freely and merely give a sort of official flourish of thanks to the tolerant Emperor, by tossing a little incense to him under his official title of Divus. Naturally there was no difficulty about that; or rather it was a long time before the world realised that there ever had been even a trivial difficulty anywhere. The members of some Eastern sect or secret society or other seemed to have made a scene somewhere; nobody could imagine why. One incident occurred once or twice again and began to arouse irritation out of proportion to its insignificance. It was not exactly what these provincials said; though of course it sounded queer enough. They seemed to be saying that God was dead and that they themselves had seen him die. This might be one of the many manias produced by the despair of the age; only they did not seem particularly despairing. They seemed quite unnaturally joyful about it, and gave the reason that the death of God had allowed them to eat him and drink his blood. According to other accounts God was not exactly dead after all; there trailed through the bewildered imagination some sort of fantastic procession of the funeral of God, at which the sun turned black, but which ended with the dead omnipotence breaking out of the tomb and rising again like the sun. But it was not the strange story to which anybody paid any particular attention; people in that world had seen queer religions enough to fill a madhouse. It was something in the tone of the madmen and their type of formation. They were a scratch company of barbarians and slaves and poor and unimportant people; but their formation was military; they moved together and were very absolute about who and what was really a part of their little system; and about what they said, however mildly, there was a ring like iron. Men used to many mythologies and moralities could make no analysis of the mystery, except the curious conjecture that they meant what they said. All attempts to make them see reason in the perfectly simple matter of the Emperor's statue seemed to be spoken to deaf men. It was as if a new meteoric metal had fallen on the earth; it was a difference of substance to the touch. Those who touched their foundation fancied they had struck a rock.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:295-6, emphasis added]

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Iron Horseman

This past Tuesday we recalled that day when our country was torn. It is a very hard topic to ponder, and yet - since I have LIVED in the 1800s for some time - I have had to consider that topic at length. No; I am not here to argue about it - about that war, about slavery, about States' Rights, the Industrial Revolution, Regionalism, or any of the multitude of matters which link to that terror. For one thing, I had too many friends on both sides, too many friends who were right and wrong, too many who suffered... No; I have another Purpose. (Which word makes some of the attentive Tooks among us sit up and take notice!)

You see, God is so powerful, He can even bring good out of evil. I take advantage of this idea in my Saga; as you shall learn eventually, something important happens during that War. Later (in 1875) Mary Fisher wrote a poem, and I thought I might anticipate my own story a little by posting it now. Yes, it has some hints; no, it will not spoil your surprise, but merely intensify it.

The Iron Horseman

Virgo respice,
Mater, aspice,
Audi nos, o Maria!
Tu medicinam
Portas divinam
Ora, ora pro nobis.

-- "O Sanctissima" 4th verse

He dreamed, and so a plan was made,
He acted, thus the rails were laid:
Dug from earth and born in fire,
Going further, building higher:
Iron turning, upon an iron road
Nor war nor death their motion slowed.

His smiling face, his hand that worked
From honor left no task unshirked;
"Ite ad astra" was his dream,
His carriages all yoked to steam.
And so to cultivate the ground
A place for study he did found.

A nation torn, yet still he toiled,
From evil plans his heart recoiled
And engineered a greater plan
To bring aid to the heart of Man:
Locked within his triple steel:
The Good perform; the Truth reveal.

O distant son who runs the thousand miles,
He waits to give his warmest smiles.

"MMF 1875"
(by Mary Mortimer Fisher; written after Joseph Chandler died)

(made Jan 24, 2011. Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Thursday.)

Monday, April 04, 2011

For Nonae Aprilis: a Puzzle from the Saga

Since tomorrow is the Nones of April, I thought it would be fun to show you one of the many puzzles contained in this vast Saga which I am writing. I was going to give you the relevant text, but I decided against it. Hence I don't expect anyone to "solve" it, but at least it might be fun to think about. It was also a lot of fun to write the program to produce this sort of image, and I would tell you more about that too, but again it would give away certain important details which must remain secret for the time being.

[From "I See Him But Not Now", Part VII in From Darkness Into Light by Dr. Thursday. Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Thursday.]