A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called “The Death of the Old Year.” It had the cadences of a ballad, and I wasn’t doing anything at the time (or I was avoiding doing something), so I picked up my guitar and plucked out a tune to go along with the words. I had so much fun, I decided to try it with a few more poems. My wife suggested I write nine more and compile them in an album called TENnyson. Much to her disappointment, I more or less ran out of inspiration after seven. For now, the album has been demoted to an EP. You can listen to demos of all the tracks here.
Track list: 1. The Lady of Shalott 2. Ulysses 3. The Charge of the Light Brigade 4. The Splendor Falls 5. The Death of the Old Year 6. In Memoriam 7. Crossing the Bar
What is teaching and why is it comic? The answer includes many things depending on whether you think of the teacher, the pupil, the means used, or the thing taught. But the type situation is simple and familiar. Think of a human pair teaching their child how to walk. There is, on the child’s side, strong desire and latent powers: he has legs and means to use them. He walks and smiles; he totters and looks alarmed; he falls and cries. The parents smile throughout, showering advice, warning, encouragement, and praise. The whole story, not only of teaching, but of man and civilization, is wrapped up in this first academic performance. It is funny because clumsiness makes us laugh, and touching because undaunted effort strikes a chord of gallantry, and finally comic because it has all been done before and is forever to do again.
Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America
I love Barzun’s description of this scene. That last sentence especially has a definite Chestertonian twang.
Barzun wasn’t the first to capture the poignancy of a child’s first steps. Rembrandt did it, too, in a simple sketch that artist David Hockney called “a perfect drawing.”
The child is being held by her mother and older sister. The mother grips the child firmly, the sister more hesitantly, and Rembrandt observes her looking at the child’s face to see how anxious she is. The lines of her shoulders beautifully indicate this; Rembrandt even turned his pen round and scratched through the ink to emphasise it. It makes me see the child’s face, a hint of worry in it, indicated only by one or two faint marks. One then begins to look at ink, not mothers and sisters, and marks made by a hand, speedily.
The trace of Rembrandt’s hand is still alive. Your eye can go back and forth between brown ink: sister; fast mark: mother. How rewarding this is, to move from the physical surface of the paper to its disappearance when you read the “subject”, and then back again. How many marvellous layers does this drawing have?
The mother has a double profile, Picassoesque. Was it an accident with the pen that he then used as a master would? Both profiles are fascinating about her character. Her skirt is a bit ragged, without any real detail; one seems to know this, and then marvels at how these few lines suggest it. Then, there’s a passing milkmaid, perhaps glancing at a very common scene, and we know the milk pail is full. You can sense the weight. Rembrandt perfectly and economically indicates this with – what? Six marks, the ones indicating her outstretched arm. Very few people could get near this. It is a perfect drawing.
The first issue of my newsletter went out this morning, including a short essay I called “Writing in War-Time.” You can read it below, and, if you so desire, you can subscribe to the real deal here.
In 1939, almost two months after England declared war on Germany, C. S. Lewis gave a lecture about the importance of studying the humanities during a World War. Why waste time with such “placid occupations” as philosophy and literature, he asked, when men are dying in battle and the threat of invasion hangs over the nation?
We’re not in the middle of a World War, thankfully. But many of the same conditions that Lewis was concerned with exist today. A lot of people around the world are in very real danger, if not from the mysterious plague known as COVID-19, then from riots and civil unrest. It’s hard to read the headlines without dread. In such an environment, we may ask the same question Lewis poses: why spend time doing anything but the most essential activities?
Of course, what activities qualify as “essential” changes depending on who you ask (shopping? protest? worship?), but the question remains the same. In extreme circumstances, how do we justify wasting time on non-essentials? In Lewis’s lecture, “non-essentials” include studying the humanities. For me, they include writing children’s fiction and mulling over poetry while staring at the wall.
In his typical fashion, Lewis reframes the whole conversation. It’s wrong to ask whether studying (or writing) is the right thing to do in the middle of a war, he says, because the question assumes that war presents an unusual danger that must be met with an unusual response. The reality is that we are always in danger of our lives. None of us can be sure that he will be alive tomorrow. A better question, then, is whether studying or writing is ever the right thing to do. Why spend time reading Aristotle when you could be protesting? Why spend time writing poems when you could be saving souls? Why not do things that matter?
Lewis answers the question from many angles, but part of his answer is this: we waste time on “non-essentials” because we can’t help it. It’s human nature to play cards on the eve of battle. When city workers tore down a Confederate memorial in Birmingham in the middle of the night last week, they stopped for a pizza break. Even SWAT teams crack jokes on duty.
In the direst circumstances, people stubbornly remain people. They keep on humming, snickering, debating, reading, reciting, and contemplating. This means that they need good songs to hum, good jokes to laugh at, good ideas to debate, good books to read, good poetry to recite, and good art to contemplate. As Lewis says, “You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the [battle] line: if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. if you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”
Writing in the midst of pandemics and protests is, from the vantage point of eternity, not that different from writing at any other time. The only difference is that it’s much easier to get distracted. But the importance of the work remains unchanged. The world will have stories, and those of us who are blessed with the opportunity to write them must give the world good ones.
The world is calling us to action. But what should the artist do? Should artists set aside our pens and paintbrushes and pick up swords? The answer is far simpler and far more difficult. In times like these, the artist ought to stick to his work. Are you a chef? Make delicious food. Are you a musician? Play beautiful music. Are you a filmmaker? Capture moments in time. This present moment needs good works of art no more or less than any other, which means that it needs them vitally.
[W]hen we observe, as we must allow, that art is no better at one age than at another, but only different; that it is subject to modification, but certainly not to development; may we not safely accept this stationary quality as a proof that there does exist, out of sight, unattained and unattainable, a positive norm of poetic beauty? We cannot define it, but in each generation all excellence must be the result of a relation to it. It is the moon, heavily wrapt up in clouds, and impossible exactly to locate, yet revealed by the light it throws on distant portions of the sky.
The principle of growth means we have to move on, but it also means that we cannot move on until we understand our heritage. To try to generate good church music out of the meager vocabulary of American popular music is like trying to generate good theology out of the ideas heard on Christian radio and television. Christian theologians need to acquire familiarity with the whole of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to move forward into new man-made theologies. Christian musicians must know all the music of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to produce good contemporary Christian music.
James Jordan, Through New Eyes, p. 37
If you took a gander at my media diary, you’d notice that I spend a lot of time reading theology. Why be theologically literate, you might ask, if you write fiction? What’s the point? The point is exactly what JBJ explains above: in order to produce good Christian stories, the writer must be in constant contact with the primary special symbols, which means reading, examining, and knowing the Bible.
Yep. Me, too. School’s been canceled for T and Ph, so all three of us will be cozying up in our two-bedroom apartment. I do still have to teach remotely, which will be an adventure in itself, but if I can figure out a system for that, we’re in for a relaxing twenty-one days (and beyond!). Our shelves are stocked (with books). Our TP is plentiful. No one’s sick, as yet.
Still, seeing the same four walls every day gets old (gimme new four walls, please), so T and I have given ourselves a two-item daily checklist to keep us sane:
Day 2, and we’re going strong! Ask again in three weeks…
When I first became aware of the extent of the panic and despair surrounding the coronavirus situation and what steps might be taken in order to halt its spread, I immediately saw it as an opportunity. Not an opportunity for technological innovation, though, as many people have pointed out, this global quarantine (an oxymoron?) will be the first real stress-test of our much vaunted tools for remote working. Nor an opportunity for direct Christian witness, though Christians can and should be ministering to those around them during this dual-pandemic (a plague of flu combined with a plague of fear) in ways that are selfless and wise.*
The opportunity I’m talking about is captured in this short blog post by Kitty O’Meara (HT my brother Smith):
And the people stayed home. And they read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And they listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live, and they healed the earth fully, as they had been healed.
One Instagrammer suggested the earth may be punishing humanity for the sin of climate change. Another applauded the sentiment as though it represented all the justice in the world. If that doesn’t represent despair, I don’t know what does. O’Meara’s quote has a grain of that, but the substance of it is that when people are forced to stop hustling and be still, they are receptive to all kinds of things that they resisted before.
If you’re in the habit of creating stuff for other people, especially short bite-sized stuff (songs, poems, short stories), consider this an opportunity to share. People are cheered by beauty, as Malcolm Guite can attest, and in times of despair, they need it more than ever.
Consider this also an opportunity to create more than you normally do. The leaves of newspapers are sticky with panic over the various shortages we may or may not experience in the coming months. What the pundits fail to realize is that people, especially people who have the chance to sit still, produce wealth. And I mean wealth of all kinds.
*In an email to the congregation late last week, Pastor Lusk shared this quote from Martin Luther about Christian witness in the time of the Black Death:
I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.
The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being. It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure, and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament. Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men—men like Shakespeare or Browning. There are many real tragedies of the artistic temperament, tragedies of vanity or violence or fear. But the great tragedy of the artistic temperament is that it cannot produce any art.
~G. K. Chesterton, “The Wit of Whistler” in Heretics
I have spent many hours listening to people extol the importance of education, reading about how education ought to be done, not to mention being educated myself. What I’ve come to realize is that discovering a method that works is actually the easy part of education. The hard part is making the learning stick. You can spend years inculcating a student with Latin and high-brow literature, but unless you can get them to love it for themselves, it’s all whistling in a hurricane. You have to tutor their loves, as well. Ultimately, we become what we love, as Jamie Smith would say. If you love what’s worthless, you will become worthless. If you love what’s true, your whole life will be characterized by truth.
Of course, I’m not saying anything new. I do, however, have another source to support it. In his wonderful anthology of George MacDonald quotations, C. S. Lewis included the following excerpt from a sermon:
[Man] is so constituted as to understand [true things] at first more than he can love them, with the resulting advantage of having thereby the opportunity of choosing them purely because they are true: so doing he chooses to love them, and is enabled to love them in the doing, which alone can truly reveal them to him and make the loving of them possible. Then they cease to show themselves in the form of duties and appear as they more truly are, absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights. The man is a true man who chooses duty: he is a perfect man who at length never thinks of duty, who forgets the name of it.
First, choosing true and good things is purely a matter of duty. Dare I say, often a matter of conscripted duty. If you don’t choose the good and the true, you will be punished. Over time, that action of choosing the good and the true over and over becomes a genuine love. The teacher (parent, pastor) hopes that the student will develop a taste for truth and goodness. Eventually, the student puts duty to the side and pursues his loves, for his loves are “absolute truths, essential realities, eternal delights.”
Is there any way to cultivate that taste? Another MacDonald quote from the same sermon puts us on the right path.
The truth of a thing, then, is the blossom of it, the thing it is made for, the topmost stone set on with rejoicing; truth in a man’s imagination is the power to recognize this truth of a thing.
According to MacDonald, the truth of a thing — a rock, an animal, an idea — is the “topmost stone,” the final cause. Its telos. Since we are bound in time, we can’t see the life of something all the way through to the end. It’s no exaggeration to say that if you knew the entire history of one thing, from its creation to its end, you would know the entire history of the universe. That knowledge (that truth) is hidden from us. But, MacDonald says, it is not completely out of our sight. We can recognize the a thing’s truth through the imagination.
This is one of art’s abilities. In life, we don’t often see all wrongs righted, all sins brought to light. We don’t always see where the small choices lead. But in a novel, movie, poem, or painting, we can and do see them through the imagination. By artistic representations of the “ends” of things, we learn to recognize their true natures. Good art creates good taste.
To think without feeling would be thinking with a total indifference to the object of thought, which would be absurd; and to feel without thinking would be almost impossible. As most of the objects of thought are objects are also of desire or dislike, and therefore objects of choice, it follows that all important action of the intellect has a moral side.
This is from John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws ofTeaching, chapter six. Gregory goes on to say that all education has a moral character because the education is only possible through loving knowledge, which implies that knowledge is good.
I like the connection he makes here between feeling and thinking, but what I really like is where he goes from there. Objects of thought, he says, are objects of desire or dislike, meaning that we have an emotional or imaginative reaction to our thoughts. A man’s imagination can embrace thoughts or it can hold them at arm’s length. Therefore, says Gregory, objects of thought are objects of choice. Dwelling on something, weighing it in the mind, is a choice. And we are responsible for our choices, right or wrong.
This fact is hugely important in any discussion of imagination and, consequently, art. Movies are not simply looked at or books read. Your imagination chooses how to respond. In a saner era, people understood that the imagination (the emotions, really) could be trained to choose well. Today, we still train our imagination, of course, we just don’t always realize what we’re doing.
Most people in our culture (and others) are bombarded daily by objects that stoke their imagination: TV shows, commercials, ads, memes, tweets, pop music, headlines, photographs. In order to cope with the sheer number of these “objects of thought,” we need to recognize them as objects of desire or dislike, and recognize that our response to them is a choice that we are responsible for.