A Man’s First Newsletter

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.

News from a Man

For manifold reasons, I’ve decided to start a newsletter. I’m calling it Time’s Corner, after a phrase the Green Lady says to Ransom in Perelandra.

Do not wonder, O Piebald Man, that your world should have been chosen for time’s corner. You live looking out always on heaven itself, and as if this were not enough Maledil takes you all thither in the end. You are favoured beyond all worlds.

[Quote cribbed from here]

What the Green Lady is refering to is the time and place at which all of reality bends: the death of Christ on a cross in Jerusalem. I don’t pretend that this newsletter will be anywhere near as significant as that Event of Events, of course. But I do want the things I write about here to direct the attention of whoever reads them to that most crucial point. After Jesus died, rose, and ascended, nothing was the same, and that includes writing, art, and email newsletters. We’re still figuring out its ramifications. Consider this another teeny push in that direction.

Here’s the plan. On Mondays, I’ll send out a mid-length essay about writing, literature, or art. At the end of the Monday issue, I’ll ask my readers a question, like, “What’s a non-biblical quote or poem that never fails to encourage you?” On Thursdays, I’ll send out my favorite responses to the question, along with some comments.

If that sounds like a jolly old time to you, sign up here.

What a Man Read in 2020, Pt. 1

Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

I don’t know how I made it to thirty years old without reading this book. I saw the movie many years ago, so I’ve known the story. The book is almost perfect. Certain scenes, like Atticus shooting the dog, had me grafted to my seat. Who could wish for a better character than Atticus?

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

I went into this expecting six hundred pages on the depravity of man. Who would’ve imagined a 20th century writer so full of life! Anybody who could write a character like Sam Hamilton had at least part of his head on straight. (Part of his head…? Like the nose?) If the whole book had just been an extended conversation with Sam Hamilton and Lee, I would’ve still loved it. The story didn’t stick with me much, and Catherine/Cathy/Kate is just plain silly, but Steinbeck’s Bradbury-like verve won me over. I’ll read more.

New Kid, Jerry Craft

The first graphic novel to win the Newbery. Graphic novels are great at some things, bad at others. Sensations, impressions, and feelings are in the first category. This book was fun there. Subtlety is in the second category. But who cares? You’re reading a graphic novel!

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Because these aren’t real book reviews, I don’t have to talk about everything in this book. There’s a lot. One thing that stuck out to me is how often Raskolnikov gets tangled up with other people’s affairs despite his attempts to separate himself from humanity. But the scene that I will carry with me is the one in which Raskolnikov prays on the bridge. The minute he finishes praying, he realizes that he will carry out his gruesome plan. How often this happens! The very moment we ask for God’s help in fighting temptation is the moment in which we give ourselves over to it.

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield

For a book that was supposed to be silly and disposable, this one has remained with me. I can’t call my daughter without thinking of Hester the governess, who is strictly committed to her policy of never chasing down her charges. They will come to her eventually, she says. And they do.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

My friends told me this book made them weep. That’s usually a guarantee that I will finish the last page with a clear countenance and dry eyes. Well, I cried. Tommy and Kathy bemoan the shortness of their time together, but how much longer do the rest of us really have? One of the great joys of the resurrection will be the reunion of soul and body, not only for each of us ourselves, but for those who love us. More than beating Death is the knowledge that Death will no more take away those whom we love.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

I get something new out of this every time I read it. This time around, I was struck by Hamlet’s wit. He’s fairly lightning. “‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” Also, thanks to the Ignatius Press edition I was teaching from, I recognized more Christian imagery than I have before. Specifically, I am convinced that the story takes place during Lent, and that Hamlet is a type of reluctant Christ.

Creative Non-Fiction

Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn

Not sure what I was expecting. I picked it up because Kirn apparently spoke at a Wordsmithy a few years ago. It’s the story of Kirn’s friendship with a man who called himself Clark Rockefeller, but who turned out to be a psychopath named Christian Gerhartsreiter. The “reveal” was old news when Kirn wrote the book, so he doesn’t expend any effort setting it up or dramatically pulling back the curtain. It’s mostly about Kirn, actually, asking himself whether writers and shape-shifting con-artists really are so different after all. There’s a disconcerting thought.

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald

Began this ages ago on audio, finished it in print. Print helped me appreciate the writing more. It is, as Alan Jacobs said, “magnificent.” One oddity of MacDonald’s style is that her descriptions come in great blocks of prose. You’d expect more white space for such a dynamic subject as goshawks. But the formatting lends her words a weight and inevitability (dareisay, naturalness?) that really fits her story.

Girl at the End of the World, Elizabeth Esther

As my wife said, it’s amazing that this woman is still a Christian. A testament to the grace of God.

Christianity

Miracles, C. S. Lewis

I had begun this book years ago and never made it past the first few chapters. For Lewis, it’s dense. Finally got through it this time, stumbling over a few complicated logical blocks. Definitely worth reading closely. May do a blog-through of it someday (ha, as if!).

Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh

Another one that needs more in-depth analysis. Check the tag at the bottom of the post.

Heretics, G. K. Chesterton

Reading Chesterton is an ongoing habit for me, one I pray I never drop. Here’s a quote to tide you over: “Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.”

Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp

Read this again for an online book club I’m doing with David and Jon, a couple of high school friends who are also dads to young kids. Recommended.

Writing

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

Half whisky, half hogwash.

Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon

Austin’s book makes me want to be messier in my art. Which, I think, is a good thing.

Show Your Work, Austin Kleon

Ditto above.

Other Non-Fiction

Long Live Latin, Nicola Gardini

I heard about this book through Prufrock News and thought, as a Latin teacher and a lifelong language votarient, I should give it a shot. It was effusive. My favorite thing about it was Gardini’s attention to detail. He exults in Latin’s very vowels.

Truth in a Man’s Imagination

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.

A Man’s Power Over Nature

Let us consider three typical examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man. Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men—by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their recurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

~CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pp. 68-69