The World of Tomorrow by E.B. White

 

the world of tomorrow

I seem to be getting mostly essays lately for my Deal Me In Challenge.  This week, I read The World of Tomorrow by E.B. White, the famed author of Charlotte’s Web.  White wrote this essay about the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where visions of the future abounded and a bright tomorrow was laid before eager and credulous eyes.

“The eyes of the fair are on the future —- not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines.

To the visitors the Fair will say, ‘Here are the materials, ideas and forces at work in our world.  These are the tools with which the forces of the World of Tomorrow must be made.  They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way.  Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”
( ~ official New York World’s Fair pamphlet)

 

british pavillion
British Pavilion
source Wikipedia

Someone is obviously trying to sell something grand, and it was enlightening to read about White’s experience at the Fair.  Right from the start, we sense a disconnect between the two, as he personifies the event.  His first sentences read:  “I wasn’t really prepared for the World’s Fair last week, and it certainly wasn’t prepared for me. Between the two of us there was considerable of a mixup.”  White informs the reader that upon his visit, he had a cold and that “when you can’t breath through your nose, Tomorrow seems strangely like the day before yesterday.”  He then gives a catalogue of the exhibitors with strangely impersonal names such as Kix, Astring-O-Sol, Textene, Alka-Seltzer and the Fidelity National Bank. White’s impressions do not inspire awe or a trust in Tomorrow.

“It is all rather serious-minded, this World of Tomorrow, and extremely impersonal.  A ride on the Futurama of General Motors induces approximately the same emotional response as a trip through the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  The countryside unfolds before you in $5-million micro-lovliness, conceived in motion and executed by Norman Bel Geddes. The voice is a voice of utmost respect, of complete religious faith in the eternal benefaction of faster travel ……..  When night fall in the General Motors exhibit and you lean back in the cushioned chair (yourself in motion and the world so still) and hear (from the depths of the chair) the soft electric assurance of a better life — the life which rests on wheels alone — there is a strong, sweet poison which infects the blood.  I didn’t want to wake up.  I liked 1960 in purple light, going a hundred miles an hour around impossible turns ever onward toward the certified cities of the flawless future.  It wasn’t till I passed an apple orchard and saw the trees, each blooming under its own canopy of glass, that I perceived that even the General Motors dream as dreams so often do, left some questions unanswered about the future.  The apple tree of Tomorrow, abloom under its inviolate hood, makes you stop and wonder.  How will the little boy climb it?  Where will the bird build its nest?”

White makes a few other observations which are very powerful statements:

“In Tomorrow, people and objects are not lit from above but from below”

 

“Rugs do not slip in Tomorrow, and the bassinets of newborn infants are wired against kidnappers.  There is no talking back in Tomorrow.  You are expected to take it or leave it alone.” 

 

“In Tomorrow, most sounds are not the sounds themselves but a memory of sounds, or an electrification.”

At the end of the essay, instead of remembering the Fair itself, White’s recollections are quite different:  the trees at night, eerie shadows, fountains in the light, a girl, remembered not just as passing impressions, but in generous detail.  The last line of the essay stabs home his point:

“Here was the Fair, all fairs, in pantomime; and here the strange mixed dream that made the Fair: the heroic man, bloodless and perfect and enormous, created in his own image, and in his hand (rubber, aspetic) the literal desire, the warm and living breast.”

After my first read of this essay, I was left completely unmoved.  I had no interest in the 1939 World’s Fair, and White’s ramblings about his cold, standing in line, etc. which I found annoyingly pointless.  It was only when I read the essay for a second time, that his consummate skill as a writer drummed me over the head.  Though not stating his views outright, with each sentence White was building his case, having the reader experience the loss of humanness and empathy that the rapid rise of technology was moving towards.  When one places the value of machines and progress above the people they are supposed to be serving, you lose the human qualities of life and the simplicity, the wonder and human connection in life that make it so fulfilling.

Perhaps it’s telling that White moved from New York to Maine that very year.

Deal Me In Challenge #8

 

deal me in challenge
deal me in challenge

Out Of Your Car, Off Your Horse by Wendell Berry

This “essay” is set up in point-form with the sub-title, Twenty-seven Propositions About Global Thinking and the Sustainability of Cities.  It’s going to be difficult to review, not only because of the structure, but also because Berry is such an original thinker and has so much of value to say.  It is almost a shame to leave anything out.

  1.  Global thinking is not possible; those who claim to be global thinkers have
       done so in a manner too simplistic and oppressive to merit the word
       “thinker”.  Global thinkers are dangerous (national ones too) and he gives
       the example of his state of Kentucky being used as a garbage dump.
       Apparently it’s okay with everyone except those who live in the state.

  2.  Global thinking is only based on statistics and can only do something if it is willing to
       be destructive on a large scale, however, conversely, one is able to make a positive
       impact locally.  Global thinking takes you so far from your neighbourhood, soon you
       are unable to recognize it.  Instead, get out of your spaceship, car, or horse and
       walk on the solid earth to discover its wonder.

   3.  If we really thought locally, we would make better choices and those choices would
        make a positive impact globally.

  4.  By making the local community independent, self-sufficient and capable, and do it
       with creativity, mercy and endurance, we ensure the community is seen in “proper
       relation” to the rest of the world, instead of employing “presumptuous abstractions
       of ‘global thought'”.

  5.  We must ensure that we don’t demand too much of the globe, and therefore help
       destroy it, and to accomplish this desire, we must live at home as independently
       and self-sufficiently as we are able.  The earth’s limitations should be constantly
       kept in mind.

  6.  A sustainable city can only exist if the city and countryside are in balance.

  7.  Our current cities are “out of balance”, living off the “principal” of ecology without
       adding to it, and their faulty assumptions will lead to their downfall.

  8.  Industrial machinery has contributed to the destruction of this balance, by providing
       cheap production and transportation.

  9.  Since the Civil War, and more since WWII, the fossil-fuel industries regulate the
       patterns of productivity.

10.  Fossil fuel sources are rural and historically have been produced at the expense of
       the community and local ecosystems, because care of these does not profit the
       producer.  “It assigns no value to local life, natural or human.”

11.  When industrial principles are applied to field and forest, both die.

12.  Industrial principles forced onto the countryside make people dependent and the
       corporations powerful.  A small number of people own land, and the workers are
       hostages of their employers.

13.  Our leaders, most of whom have wealth, do not understand how to make
       community function well because they must be ready at any time for power and
       wealth to destroy community.

14.  Ecological sense is in conflict with economic entities because it requires reduction
       or replacement of those entities.  Only the work and will of the people can further
       this “sense”.

15.  Because now all institutions have adopted industrial methods of organizational
       patterns and quantitative measures, both sides of the ecological debate are
       alarmingly abstract.

16.  The abstraction is what’s wrong.  The evil of either capitalist or communist industrial
       economy is its inability to distinguish one place or person or creature from another.

17.  The abstractions of sustainability can destroy the world, the same as the
       abstractions of industrial economy.  Even those who want to save the plant can ruin
       it by abstractions and central organization because they cannot know the local
       nature or community.

18.  You must make ecological good sense locally.  You can’t act locally and think
       globally.

19.  No one can make ecological good sense for the planet; everyone can make
       ecological good sense locally, if the scale, knowledge, tools and skills are right.

20.  “The right scale in work gives power to affection”.  When when one works beyond a
       love for a place, destruction results, and an adequate local culture is needed for
       balance.  (I didn’t quite understand this point.  Sorry, Wendell!)

21.  How do we make a local culture that will preserve our community?  We need a
       knowledge that comes from or with affection, but is unavailable to the unaffectionate
       or to anyone simply as “information”.

22.  What is the economic result of a local affection?  We may never know as love can
       be enigmatic and unfathomable, and the answer would never satisfy a corporate
       executive.

23.  The steps to saving the planet are small steps, which are humbling and rewarding.
       Its jobs and successes will be many but rarely noticed, nor will they make anyone
       wealthy or eminent.

24.  Many people are motivated by fame instead of greed, but this sort of attitude will
       never truly be a benefit to the planet.

25.  Good workers are persons willing to enter the daunting and humbling local
       presence of a problem and tackle it one life at a time.

26.  Some cities will never be sustainable because they don’t have countryside
       surrounding them or near them.  For example, New York or Phoenix will never be
       sustainable.

27.  To make a city sustainable, start small by increasing local food brought in by
       farmers, then as the demand for local food grows, farming could become more
       diverse, the farms smaller yet more complex in structure and production, and also
       provide more jobs.  As the intimacy of city and countryside grow, their thought
      would become more unified towards sustainability.

Lately, I’ve been reading Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent, and I was surprised to see Berry’s words in this essay echoed back in a Christian context.

“In this respect, Christian love is sometimes the opposite of ‘social activism’ with which one so often identifies Christianity today.  To a ‘social activist’ the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract ‘humanity.’  But for Christianity, man is ‘loveable’ because he is person.  There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The ‘social activist’ has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the ‘common interest.’  Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways is, rather sceptical about that abstract ‘humanity,’ but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person. Social activism is always ‘futuristic’ in its approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved.  Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now — the only decisive time for love.  The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused.  Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward ‘this world’ and they must fulfil them.  This is the area of ‘social activism’ which belongs entirely to ‘this world.’  Christian love, however, aims beyond ‘this world.’ …… “

I hope that I’ve done Berry’s words justice with my review.  I’ve tried to keep his ideas and words as close to his own as possible for clarity.  It’s a great essay and I encourage you to read it.  Once again, with his clear insight, Berry brings to light many problems with the structure of our world today and the callous, ineptness of those in power to even attempt to set it right.  However, his words to bring hope.  When we think ‘big’ often the problems seem too overwhelming to solve, but when we think small, or locally, everyone has a purpose and change is possible, one life at a time.

All images from Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons

Deal Me In Challenge #7 

On Reading ‘The Faerie Queene’ by C.S. Lewis


“Beyond all doubt it is best to have made one’s first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large — and, preferably, illustrated — edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen; and if, even at that age, certain of the names aroused unidentified memories of some still earlier, some almost prehistoric, commerce with a selection of ‘Stories from Spenser’, heard before we could read, so much the better.”

A number of us are going to be reading The Fairie Queene beginning sometime in April and, considering the difficulty of the poem, I decided to do some pre-reading investigation.

Although C.S. Lewis is known for his books on theology, his actual expertise was in Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He has a number of essays relating to The Fairie Queene, and when I stumbled on this one, I thought it a perfect beginning.

Lewis writes that the optimal experience with The Faire Queene is created if one reads it between the ages of 10 and 16, with a large illustrated edition and then grow with the work, starting with mere wonder at the story and advancing to a critical appreciation of it, cultivating a relationship with the work that will remain and flourish throughout life.  But while advocating this process, Lewis realizes many may come to The Faerie Queene later in life, and he is writing to give guidance to the mature reader with his first experience of this great work.

Una and the Lion (c. 1860)
William Bell Scott
source Wikimedia Commons

Lewis instructions begin very simply; as the child does, one must begin with The Faerie Queene.  Next, even if one does not have a large illustrated edition, one should imagine the book they do have to be a heavy volume that should be read at a table, “a massy, antique story with a blackletter flavour about it — a book for devout, prolonged, and leisurely perusal.”  The illustrations would be not only fantastic and beautiful, but also wicked and ugly.  While the book is new, it is also old, ancient yet original.

“All this new growth sprouts out of an old, gnarled wood, and, as in very early spring, mists it over in places without concealing it ………….  And it is best to begin with a taste for homespun, accepting the cloth of gold when it comes, but by no means depending on it for your pleasure, or you will be disappointed ….”

Lewis reveals that Spenser’s friends wanted him to conform to the Puritan perspective of the time, being only a “servile classicist”, yet his poetry appeared to naturally break out of this mould.  After being cautioned by a his friend on touching too closely on papist and medieval themes by his references to “Ladies of the Lake” and “friendly fairies” in his poetry, Spenser remained true to the natural appreciation he harboured for the Middle Ages, and taking “all his renaissance accomplishments with him”, produced The Faerie Queene.  In blending the two ages, Spenser in effect “became something between the last of the medieval poets and the first of the romantic medievalists.”

As a child one may have a uncomfortable feeling that one has met many of The Faerie Queene’s characters before, but as a mature reader one has the apprehension to discover the moral allegory within the work.  While critics aren’t in agreement as to how much emphasis should be placed on it, it is not necessary to analyze the poet’s exact meaning.  Instead we should simply have an impression of regions within the poem that are not always what they seem.

Lewis ends with William Butler Yeat’s quote on Spenser’s House of Busirane, saying that Spenser’s characters are “so visionary, so full of ghostly midnight animation, that one is persuaded tht they had some strange purpose and did truly appear in just that way.”

And so I can now step into Spenser’s world with a little more imagination and expectation.  I’ve already been exposed to the world of King Arthur and so I’m looking forward to some more fantastical adventures.  And honestly, a few fairies would be very welcome.

Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell

“In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

Orwell tells of his stint in Burma as a police officer under British colonial rule.  He was despised by the people as an agent of the perceived oppressors, but in spite of his job, his sympathies lay with the natives and he felt constant guilt because of his duties.

One day he received word that an elephant had stampeded a Burmese Indian to death and was rampaging through the local bazaar.  It was a tame elephant that had been chained when it had gone “must,” (a periodic cycle experienced by a bull elephant when its hormones are elevated), but it had broken the chains and escaped.  Orwell took his rifle and a small gun, not at all sure what he could do to stop the invader.  Initially he had no intention of shooting the animal, but when he arrived at the scene, the locals were in high emotion with the anticipation of the killing of the elephant, and Orwell felt he had no other choice.

“And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.  Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd —- seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys ….”

Approaching the elephant, who was now calmly munching grass, he shot it a number of times, however, it merely groaned and sagged to its knees.  While Orwell knew that he’d fired the fatal shot, the animal took what seemed like forever to expire, and he finally left the scene, hearing later that it died a half an hour after his departure.  Relief flooded him that the elephant had killed a “coolie” because it gave him a pretext for the execution, and he was able to avoid admitting the real reason for his actions …… that he didn’t want to look like a fool.

African Bush Elephant
source Wikipedia

Orwell begins his essay by describing his feeling of helplessness at being part of the British imperialist movement, but ends up inverting it by describing the impotence he feels against the masses, the very people for which he harbours sympathy.  He is trapped between not only a political sytem, but a social one as well, and his powerlessness is very effective.  Once part of a collective, to a certain degree “self” must disappear.  Yet one must retain enough self to act as a human, instead of merely a machine taking orders or acting from impulse, without taking into account reason or morality.  In this case, Orwell is paralyzed and chooses to conform.

Deal Me In Challenge #2 

Hamlet: The Prince or The Poem? by C.S. Lewis

Hamlet the prince or the poem

“A critic who makes no claim to be a true Shakespearian scholar and who had been honoured by an invitiation to speak about Shakespeare to such an audience as this, feels rather like a child brought in at dessert to recite his piece before the grown-ups.”

In Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem, Lewis begins his lecture by claiming that his aim is not to examine what other critics have before him, but to consider why the critics have failed to agree about the procrastination exhibited by the character of Hamlet.  He first outlines the three different camps:

  1. Those who think the play “bad” and that there are no motivations to explain Hamlet’s actions
  2. Those who believe he did not delay and acted with as much alacrity as was possible.
  3. Those who believe he did procrastinate and explain his paralysis through his psychology.

 

Next, he asks you to suspend all knowledge of the play, as if “you had no independent knowledge of the thing being criticized,” and proceeds to examine each view.

In the first case, if Hamlet is indeed a failure, we waste our time investigating why his actions were delayed.  Yet, if this failure were indeed a reality, why does Hamlet touch us so?  Why does it echo with “the sense of vast dignities and strange sorrows and teased ‘with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls'”?  If Hamlet is failure, then perhaps failure is better than success, and such a verdict could never be rendered with less certainty.

With regard to point two, the opponent to this view is Hamlet himself.  He declares that he is a procrastinator, a cowardly soul who wavers with indecision.  The ghost, for the most part, is in agreement.

The last point seems to be the most logical, yet why then, in all three camps, does the play appear to hold each in thrall, enchanting the very critics who criticize it?  Does the mystery and magical appeal of the play have little to do with Hamlet’s actual character, but instead is due to something entirely different?

 

Czachórski Actors Before Hamlet
Czachórski Actors Before Hamlet
Wladyslaw Czachórski
source Wikimedia Commons

 

Lewis brings to light Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, which is an imitation not of men, but of action and life and happiness and misery, yet “action” by ancient standards means “situation.”  Instead of always attempting to delineate a character, one should first “surrender oneself to the poetry and the situation.” It is through poetry and situation, and for their sake, that the characters exist.

Hamlet's Vision
Hamlet’s Vision (1893)
Pedro Américo
source Wikimedia Commons

For Lewis, the ghost does not merely tell of the murder of Hamlet’s father.  Instead, the ghost and Hamlet are inseparable, and indeed the spectre is different from most vile ghosts in Elizabethan drama; this ghost is willfully ambiguous.  Its presence lends an enigmatic uneasiness to the play, filling Hamlet’s, and even other character’s, minds with doubt and uncertainty.  ” ….. the appearance of the spectre means a breaking down of the walls of the world and the germination of thoughts that cannot be thought; chaos is come again.”

The subject of Hamlet is death.  Lewis does not base the theme on the numerous deaths of the characters, rather the situations they find themselves contemplating.  We read it in the ghost, in the line of “melting flesh”, in the rejection of suicide, in the graveyard, the skull ……..  As we read Hamlet, we cannot escape it, which gives the play its quality of obscurity and apprehension.  There are other elements to the play, but there is always this groping toward the final end and questions about the destiny of the soul or body.

Hamlet’s vacillations do not balance on his fear of dying, but instead a fear of being dead.

“Any serious attention to the state of being dead, unless it is limited by some definite religious or anti-religious doctrine, must, I suppose, paralyse the will by introducing infinite uncertainties and rendering all motives inadequate.  Being dead is the unknown x in our sum.  Unless you ignore it or else give it a value, you can get no answer.”

 

Hamlet and Ophelia
Hamlet and Ophelia (1858)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
source Wikimedia Commons

Yet Lewis says that Shakespeare’s own text does not confirm his theory, nor has Shakespeare given “us data for any for any portrait of the kind critics have tried to draw.”   We enjoy Hamlet’s speeches “because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed and anyone in his circumstances might be expected to pass, rather than because of our concern to understand how and why this particular man entered it”.  And, in fact, Hamlet is an Everyman.  He is a hero yet also a “haunted man — man with his mind on the frontier of two worlds, man unable either quite to reject or quite to admit the supernatural, man struggling to get something done as man has struggled from the beginning, yet incapable of achievement because of his inability to understand either himself or his fellows or the real quality of the universe which has produced him.”

The critics have never doubted the greatness or mystery of the play, but they simply put it in the wrong place, “in Hamlet’s motives rather than in that darkness which enwraps Hamlet and the whole tragedy and all who read and watch it.”  It is the mystery of the human condition.

Lewis ends by acknowledging the weakness of his theory, only because his type of criticism does not have centuries of vocabulary to support it, as does the other type of criticisms.  Yet he wishes that Hamlet could be played as “a dishevelled man whose words make us at once think of loneliness and doubt and dread, of waste and dust and emptiness, and from whose hands, or from our own, we feel the richness of heaven and earth and the comfort of human affection slipping away.”  Perhaps his views are childish, yet children remember the details of stories.  So, is Lewis a literary child?

“On the contrary, I claim that only those adults who have retained, with whatever additions and enrichments, their first childish response to poetry unimpaired, can be said to have grown up.”

 

 


Deal Me In Challenge #1 

 

deal me in challenge
deal me in challenge

 

A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers by C.S. Lewis

Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her Peter Wimsey mysteries, but she was also a playwright, poet, essayist, and theologian, writing such books as The Man Born to Be King, Creed or Chaos?, The Mind of the Maker, and Are Women Human?  In her own eyes, her finest work was her translation of The Divine Comedy.

Both Lewis and Sayers completed their academic studies at Oxford University and their first meeting was through a fan letter that Sayers wrote to Lewis upon reading his The Screwtape Letters.

“She was the first person of importance who ever wrote me a fan letter ……..  I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later for the extraordinary zest and as edge of her conversation —- as I like high wind.  She was friend, not an ally.” (Lewis)

Dorothy L. Sayers
source The Dorothy L. Sayers Society

In this panegyric read at Sayers’ funeral, Lewis praises Sayers’ literary work. While he admits to not being a fan of detective fiction, he nevertheless respects their authors and explains that, contrary to rumours that Sayers was later ashamed of her “tekkies”, she had merely “felt she had done all that she could” with the genre.  He claims there is no “cleavage” between her detective work and her later theological works, citing Pascal’s quote, “One shows one’s greatness not by being at an extremity but by being simultaneously at two extremities.”  He discusses the writing of Christian works, the problems of the intrusion of self and the commonalities between detective fiction and religious writing.

With regard to the importance Sayers placed on the quality of writing, he quotes from her The Man Born to Be King, “Let me tell you, good Christian people, an honest writer would be ashamed to treat a nursery tale as you have treated the greatest drama in history: and this in virtue, not of his faith, but of his calling.”  The intention to behave piously was no excuse for a job poorly done.

Finally, he praises her work of the translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and goes on to say of her independent character:

” For all she did and was, for delight and instruction, for her militant loyalty as a friend, for courage and honesty, for the richly feminine qualities which showed through a port and manner superficially masculine and even gleefully ogreish —- let us thank the Author who invented her.”

This essay can be found in:  


Deal Me In Challenge #14 – Five of Spades

Christianity and the Survival of Creation by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is an American essayist, novelist, poet, fifth-generation farmer, and environmental activist.  He has written copious numbers of short stories, essays, novels and poems during his rather interesting life.  Berry argues that the breakdown of communities has been aggravated by large corporate farming and that living in harmony with nature is a necessity, as its destruction will lead to our own.

Swiss Alps
source Wikipedia

Berry essentially first gained recognition as a poet, but his hard-hitting essays have earned him notoriety and a wider audience.  This essay was delivered as a lecture at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Berry hits hard right from the beginning of the essay, immediately punching home his topic:

“I want to begin with a problem: namely, that the culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world and the uselessness of Christianity in any effort to correct that destruction are now established clichés of the conservation movement.”

He establishes on one hand, that the “indictment is just” in that Christian priests, missionaries, organizations, etc. have been “largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world and of its traditional cultures” and that Christians are often as complicit as anyone else “to join the military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation,” yet there is a problem with the conservationists’ indictment; the anti-Christian conservationists dismiss the Bible, without having an understanding of it.  In effect, they “have not mastered the first rule of the criticism of books: you have to read them before you criticize them.”  The error is not that the Bible has not given Christians a tradition of respect, stewardship and love for the earth, they have simply chosen to ignore it.

Kauai, Hawaii
source Wikipedia

Berry then examines Biblical tenants with regard to the earth, stating that the world is not owned by humans, but by God: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein. (Ps. 24:1)”   John 3:16 states that God loves the world, not as it might be but as it is, and He “continues to love it and find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us  ……..  Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God …….  Creation is God’s presence in creatures.”

Not only does Berry use the Bible to support his thesis, but he draws from Dante, William Blake, Thoreau, and others to support his views on the importance of nature and our human interaction with it.

“The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world.  We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.  Some people know this, and some do not.  Nobody, of course, knows it all the time.  But what keeps it from being far better known than it is?  Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible?  How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?”

Tornado, Oklahoma
source Wikipedia

Berry urges us on to a re-thinking of our ideals.  We think we can contain God within what we create, but God is much bigger. “He is not to be fenced in, under human control, like some domestic creature; He is the wildest being in existence.  The presence of His spirit is us in our wildness, our oneness with the wilderness of Creation.  That is why subduing the things of nature to human purposes is so dangerous and why it so often results in evil, in separation and desecration.  It is why the poets of our tradition so often have given nature the role, not only of mother or grandmother, but of the highest early teacher and judge, a figure of mystery and great power.”

Outdoors we encounter the miraculous, indoors we meet the common.

source Wikipedia

Berry continues the thread of his argument through religious issues, through economy, or the ways humans live in relation to nature, then finally reaches the question of art in the context of what we, as humans, create.

“If we think of ourselves as livings souls, immortal creatures, living in the midst of a Creation that is mostly mysterious, and if we see that everything we make or do cannot help but have an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood work as a form of prayer”

Berry offers some astute observations as to the traditions of art:  “Traditionally, the arts have been ways of making that have placed a just value on their materials or subjects, on the uses and the users of the things made by art, and on the artists themselves.   They have, that is, been ways of giving honor to the works of God.  The great artistic traditions have had nothing to do with what we call ‘self-expression.’  They have not been destructive of privacy or exploitive of private life.  Though they have certainly originated things and employed genius, they have no affinity with the modern cults of originality and genius.”

The end of the essay is comparatively weak, contrasting the villainies of modern Christianity with the (probably more traditional), truly biblical focussed Christianity, where man is encouraged to root out and work on his weaknesses in the scope of a broader community base, and for the good of, not just oneself, but for all.

What I love about Berry is that he is not wholly on the side of any one group. He has developed his own personal thoughts and ideals through reading, discussion, experience, and observation and is quite adept at targeting strengths and weaknesses accordingly.  Though I’ve been meaning to read Berry for ages, this is my first taste of his writing and it was quite delicious.  I can’t wait to jump in for another bite!

The complete essay can be found here.

Essay found in:

Deal Me In Challenge #13 – Four of Spades

Further reading:

Friendship by Ralph Waldo Emerson

This essay is my sixth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

Oh, what flowery and majestic rhetoric flows from the pen of Ralph Waldo Emerson in this essay on friendship!  Emerson was a transcendentalist and his views colour nearly every sentence of this beautiful yet perhaps rather hyperbolic essay on friendship.

Wikipedia’s definition of transcendentalism states:

Transcendentalism is a religious and philosophical movement that developed during the late 1820s and ’30s[1] in the Eastern region of the United States as a protest against the general state of spirituality and, in particular, the state of intellectualismat Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian church as taught at Harvard Divinity School. 

Among the transcendentalists’ core beliefs was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. They believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.

I knew almost nothing about Emerson before I read this essay.  I had the vague idea that he was a naturalist and perhaps a deist, and the only thing I knew for sure was that he was one of Pa Ingalls favourite authors.  I had expected his writing to be rather sparse and serious, so l was rather amazed at the waxing lyrical prose to which I was treated!

Good Friends (1927)
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart

This essay on friendship, I believe, was written by Emerson in honour of his dear friend, Henry David Thoreau.  Emerson’s rhapsodic sentences impact the reader right from the start, as he elevates friendship to the platform of one of the greatest gifts of life.   As soon as we’re drawn into the bonds of deep friendship, our soul is engaged and we function almost on a different plane.

“Delicious is a just and firm encounter of two, in a thought, in a feeling.  How beautiful, on their approach to this beating heart, the steps and forms of the gifted and true!  The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed: there is no winter, and no night: all tragedies, all ennuis vanish;  — all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons …”

While Emerson lauds the benefits of friends, he also is cognizant of the fluctuations in friendship, but rather than lamenting over the lows, we should see them as a natural rhythm of life.

“ …. Thou art not my soul, but a picture and effigy of that.  Thou hast come to me lately, and already thou art seizing thy hat and cloak.  Is it not that the soul pus forth friends, as the tree puts forth leaves, and presently, but the germination of new buds, extrudes the old leaf?  The law of nature is alternation forevermore …..  The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society ……”

Portrait of Two Friends (1522)
Jacobo Pontormo
source Wikipedia
Yet while one must treasure friendships and elevate them, one must not force their progression, as it would be an assault on their natural course.

“Our friendships hurry to short and poor conclusions, because we have made them a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the trough of the human heart.”

We must be patient as friendship ripens or we may find the friendship brought to a sharp conclusion.  Let nature have free-reign, and it will not disappoint. 

While society pressures us to be social, true friendship is not cultivated in numbers but in a one-on-one companionship.  The bud will not flower without the correct nurturing.

“But I find this law of one to one, peremptory of conversation, which is the practice and consummation of friendship.  Do not mix waters too much.  The best mix as ill as good and bad.  You shall have very useful and cheering discourse at several times with two several men, but let all three of you come together, and you shall not have one new and hearty word.  Two may talk and one may hear, but three cannot take part in a conversation of the most sincere and searchng sort …….. Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one.” 

Emerson rejects dissimulation and false pretences in an effort appear prestigious or more worldly, claiming that truth and sincerity in friendship is utmost.  You may look insane with this approach, but it will win you the friendship and respect that are your greatest desires.  Go against society and show your face to your fellow man, instead of your backside!  
Sorry, but I just couldn’t resist teasing Emerson a little in my review.  His language is so flowery, occasionally trite and often exaggerated that I found myself struggling sometimes to take the essay seriously.  Yet he does have some wonderful points and hits on the important qualities of friendship and its worth to mankind.  

Deal Me In Challenge #6 – Two of Spades

Montaigne’s Essays – Part Two

Oh, Montaigne!  The more of his essays that I read, the more I like him.  He’s inquisitive, does not let anything get in the way of giving his opinion on absolutely any subject, has a clever but disordered mind, and because of the last point, really makes you engage your brain as you read.  I would have loved to meet him in real life, but, I get the impression that we’d probably have occasionally annoyed each other.  

Some of the readings for this section were:

On The Vanity of Words:  After reading Montaigne’s essay On Education, I suppose this attack on rhetoricians can’t come as much of a surprise.  To be eloquent is to foster a type of deception, and Montaigne is scathing in his condemnation of it.

Cicero & the magistrates disovering the
tomb of Archimedes
Benjamin West
source Wikiart

On the Inconsistancy of Our Actions:  This one is very interesting. Montaigne laments the inconsistency of men, stating that instead of following a path to wisdom throughout their lives, they are ruled solely by their appetites, living for the here-and-now and are merely motivated by opportunity, very much like animals. They blow with the winds.  He gives various examples on inconstancy, leading us to believe that consistency as Montaigne defines it, is virtually impossible.  One must plan one’s life to the utmost and follow the course, not being swayed by emotions or outside forces to be consistent and, as Cicero says, “For nothing can be consistent that has not reason for its foundation.”  Therefore, in Montaigne’s eyes, everyone is lacking true reason.  This is one of the few essays that I’ve read so far where Montaigne actually managed to keep on track with his subject.  Bravo!  This is certainly one of my favourites.

On Conscience:  Even if one finds pleasure in their vices, their conscience will always convict them, says Montaigne.  With one of his usual unexpected leaps of thought, he discusses the futility of torture, labelling it a means of testing endurance rather than a means to ferret out truth.  He uses some fun examples in this one, my favourite being Scipio tearing up his account books before the court when accused of dishonesty with regard to the money entrusted to him.  According to Montaigne, his actions declared him an honest man because his big heart could not bear to be accused of such a vulgar crime. Perhaps one should be grateful that Montaigne did not choose to be a judge as his profession.

Portrait d’un homme portant un exemplaire des
Essais de Montaigne
Johann Anton de Peters
source Wikiart

On Rewards for Honour:  Basically I understood that Montaigne feels that rewards should not be given out too liberally or their value is decreased. He’d rather not give out rewards at all, than have too many people get them.  Not a very modern viewpoint, Montaigne, when we presently strive to give everyone a reward for anything.  I tend to side here with Montaigne.

On Books:  Montaigne employs a coyness in this essay, stating that he reads books for pleasure only and has little desire to truly exercise his brain.  His goals in reading are to learn to know himself, and to learn to live and die well. His self-deprecation is quite startling as he confesses to having little knowledge and once again admits to having a poor memory.  Elaborating on his poor memory, he ends by giving a number of examples of literary criticism (not his title for it) that he has written at the ends of books, so if he picks them up again, he is able to ascertain why he liked them or not, and if he would read them again.

On Presumption:  It is not good to think too highly of ourselves, nor is it beneficial to think of ourselves worse than we are.  Montaigne advocates for balance and a practical self-knowledge.  Yet Man has such a variety of differing opinions, there is a “maze of obscurity” which makes the school of Wisdom uncertain, and this gets on Montaigne’s nerves.  He then meanders through a lovely forest of subjects, from self-deprecating statements to mediocre poetry to appearances of famous men, etc., finally ending with his disdain for modern education, in that it teaches learning instead of wisdom and goodness.

” It seems to me that the nursing mother of the most erroneous ideas, both of men in general and of the individual, is the exaggerated opinion man has of himself.”


On Giving the Lie:  Montaigne indulges in more modesty (false-modesty?) and finally gets to the title of the essay, lamenting that lying has been turned into a virtue by modern society.  He strongly condemns it:

“Lying is an ugly vice, which is painted in its most shameful colours by an ancient writer (Lysander) when he says that ‘to lie is evidence that we despise God and at the same time fear men.'”

To be honest, I feel that Montaigne could have benefited highly from the type of education that he despised, however, then he wouldn’t have been Montaigne and only another highly intellectual rhetorician with the same habits as all other rhetoricians.  And our Montaigne is unique, that is certain!  Not always simple to follow, but unique!


Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome

“It is a most remarkable thing.  I sat down with the full intention of writing something clever and original; but for the life of me I can’t think of anything clever and original — at least — not at this moment.”

Jerome K. Jerome is an author best known for his comic travelogue, Three Men in a Boat, which I highly recommend as it is totally hilarious. Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow is a collection of essays; written with Jerome’s signature witty reparteé and lively humour, the essays are titled:

  1. On Being Hard Up
  2. On Being in the Blue
  3. On Vanity and Vanities
  4. On Getting On in the World
  5. On Being Idle
  6. On Being In Love
  7. On the Weather
  8. On Cats and Dogs
  9. On Being Shy
  10. On Babies
  11. On Eating and Drinking
  12. On Furnished Apartments
  13. On Dress and Deportment
  14. On Memory

Yet while Jerome’s anecdotes are amusing and give the reader a good chuckle, he also imparts wisdom to his writing.  In On Vanity and Being Vain, he, at first, pokes fun at the vanity of all men, but concludes that we all must be vain in the right manner.

“Let us be vain, not of our trousers and hair, but of brave hearts and working hands, of truth , of purity, of nobility.  Let us be too vain to stoop to aught that is mean or base, too vain for petty selfishness and little-minded envy, too vain to say an unkind world or do an unkind act.  Let us be vain of being single-hearted, upright gentlemen in the midst of a world of knaves.  Let us pride ourselves upon thinking high thoughts, achieving great deeds, living good lives.”

First Edition, 1886

Jerome also uses wonderfully descriptive sentences, that weave a vibrant and idyllic world around the reader:

“And oh, how dainty is spring —- Nature at sweet eighteen!  When the little, hopeful leaves peep out so fresh and green, so pure and bright, like young lives pushing shyly out into the bustling world; when the fruittree blossoms, pink and white, like village maidens in the Sunday frocks, hide each whitewashed cottage in a cloud of fragile splendor; and the cuckoo’s note upon the breeze is wafted through the woods!  And summer, with its deep, dark green, and drowsy hum — when the rain-drops whisper solemn secrets to the listening leaves, and the twilight lingers in the lanes! ….”

And, of course, one can’t say enough of his humour:

“But that’s just the way.  I never do get particularly fond of anything in this world, but what something dreadful happens to it.  I had a tame rat when I was a boy, and I loved that animal as only a boy would love an old water rat; and, one day, it fell into a large dish of gooseberry-fool that was standing to cool in the kitchen, and nobody knew what become of the poor creature until the second helping.”

If you want a book to make you feel good, read a book by Jerome K. Jerome. His writing is refreshing, light, profound, humorous, beautiful, timeless and educational, all at the same time.  And you won’t stop laughing!