Monday, January 26, 2015

Arguing About Flannery O'Connor

A few days ago, a friend emailed to remark that she had just been reading "Everything That Rises Must Converge", and thought very well of it. I replied describing it as
another of O'Connor's stories of the ineffectual, intellectual son and the embarrassingly good-natured, naive mother: "The Enduring Chill" would be another, and ["The Comforts of Home"].
The situation, I said, if not the execution, wore on me. My friend thought this "harsh".

I found and read the story that evening. It is an excellent story, and I have no trouble understanding why I like it better now than I did thirty-five or forty years ago.

Julian, like Asbury in "The Enduring Chill", like Thomas in "The Comforts of Home", is in fact intellectual and ineffectual, and well aware of his failings. He is, more than either, miserably self-conscious,  No such men are particularly comfortable for a twenty-year-old man to read of. Most of us who were not clearly on the way to glory, or wholly lacking in self-awareness, measured our aspirations against our prospects, and didn't care for the results. But few of can have survived into or past middle age still taking ourselves so seriously.

I suppose that I must have seen on first reading the odd contrast in racism between his mother and Julian, the former regarding "negroes" as persons to be feared or patronized, the latter  wishing to use them as props to demonstrate his distance from his mother. What I find interesting now is how much more trapped in the past Julian is than his mother. For her it is a source of pride, maybe a warrant of gentility. For him, who never knew the lost prosperity, it is something to long for. I don't think I picked up on that all those years ago. There is also his apparent inability to see his mother as a person until she is at the point of death.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Shaving Soap

For many years, I have used Williams Shaving Soap, about $1.25 at the local drugstore. It is about a quarter of an inch too small to fit snugly in the mug I use, but it yields a decent lather. Now the local drugstore does not carry it.

I have visited all of the local stores that are more or less on my way to work. None carry it. I had a look at a couple of places near work that cater to the highly groomed and (mostly) young. Both sold shaving soap. Unfortunately, both sold soap that costs $30 the box, and that is too big for my mug. I do not shave to look like the young and highly groomed so much as to avoid looking like a bum, so I will not pay $30 for a disk of soap that I would have to cut down. One did interest me, both in that it was from Trumpers, which is where Evelyn Waugh got his hair cut, and in that it came in a little wooden bowl. If I thought that shaving with Trumpers soap would make my prose resemble Waugh's, I might buy it. And every expended pair would offer two bowls to clap together in the manner of a Monty Python squire.

Today I found a drugstore that had not shaving soap but Deluxe Shave Soap, which I recall is what I bought last time. It had only one box, so in another few months I may have to undertake the same search.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Reading MacCulloch

Several months ago, I picked up a copy of The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch. I have now read it to the end, and think it a remarkable book. Others, far more qualified to make the judgment, say the same.

A great deal of the matter is familiar to anyone who knows European history, but those of us who do not teach it or read it full time will have been vague on many of the details. Here the details are closely and lucidly mapped: Luther's movement from loyal monk to outlawed reformer; Zwingli's and Melanchthon's relations with Luther; the rise of the reformed churches and how "Calvinist" came to be a catch-all term for them; the lead in to the Council of Trent, and the council's consequences; and much more. Probably the most informative for me was MacCulloch's discussion of the Church of England, and how it moved from one dominated by those determined to align with "reform" back to one more aligned with Luther, and eventually to what it has been since. But if you picked up the book to learn the basics about the Anabaptists, the Socinians, the Arminians, the early Jesuits, or St. Francis de Sales, you would get your money's worth.

The Reformation is not a small book. However, the nearly 700 pages are broken into 17 chapters, which in turn have smaller sections, averaging about 12 pages. A reasonably attentive and rested reader can read and comprehend one or two of the smaller sections in an evening. At every other evening, one could read the book in a couple of months, a bit less than it took me.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Years Past

There is or was a New Years race in Washington, DC, called The Hangover Classic. Back in the 1980s when I ran in it, it was at first a 10 kilometer race on the usual West Potomac Park and Hains Point course, then a 5 mile race that went past the Reflecting Pool. I haven't run in the race for almost 30 years, and I seldom think of it. But last Sunday we drove back from Reagan National over Memorial Bridge and past the Watergate (the steps down from the level of  the Lincoln Memorial to Rock Creek Parkway, that is), and that recalled those days.

It was probably 1983 when I rose more or less early on January 1, breakfasted, and got into running gear. I put regular clothes into into my backpack, and set off through Rock Creek Park toward the race. When nearly there, I ran carefully down the steps of the Watergate. About a quarter of the way down, I saw a champagne cork. I was and am sure that some reveler had discharged it from the top of the steps, hoping to put it into the Potomac. Well, people notoriously underestimate distance when looking downhill. I hope that the reveler's other ambitions for 1983 worked out better.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Mystery Solved

Over the last several years, I have walked home on an average of one or two days every month, usually on a route that includes 17th Street NW from K Street to Florida Avenue. On many of those days, passing by at roughly 5:30  I have seen a queue of about 20 persons at a downstairs door, and wondered idly why they were there. They look too healthy to be there for a clinic. They are too public and disorganized to be there for subversion, too public and confident to be there for crime. They have no (or not many) yoga mats and gym bags, so I doubted they were there for yoga or exercise.

We have friends who live in that neighborhood, whom we see at least three times each year, but I have been consistent in forgetting to ask them. On Christmas Eve, I did remember to ask, probably because I had recently passed the queue. Our friends knew.

The downstairs door, which has no sign, gives entrance to an exclusive and expensive restaurant. I forget whether the restaurant takes reservations, and I'm pretty sure I didn't ask the name. I hope that one must say "Swordfish" to be admitted, but I doubt this is so.

There was nobody there this afternoon, more likely because I was by about 4 pm than because it is New Year's Eve.

Friday, December 26, 2014


I might have reached my middle thirties without encountering the word "artisanal". "Artisan" I knew, though it seems to me chiefly through Yeats's "Meditations in Time of Civil War". Then some column in a magazine referred to the making of artisanal bread: I think that the writer might have used wild yeast. I did not think much about this, but on a vacation to Europe a year or two later, I noticed "artisanal" on signs.

Now one sees it everywhere. Bread has long been artisanal, beers and wines are artisanal. A month or so ago, The New York Times wrote up an actress who has retired upstate to practice artisanal motherhood. That suggests to me that we have reached "peak artisanal" and that another adjective is on the way to supplant it. What will it be?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Role of Poetry in Polar Expeditions

Having picked up a copy of The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys as part of a friend's Christmas present, I see that it is the book I should have taken along on the last vacation, and that I was negligent in putting it back on the shelf when I first noticed it at Kramerbooks last summer.

In the essay "On Readers' Rewards and Writers' Awards", Leys offers the observation that
In the darkest depths of disaster, when all members of his expedition had to abandon every piece of superfluous luggage, [Shackleton] refused to abandon his beloved copy of Browning's collected poems. One day some scholar should write a doctoral thesis on "The Role of Poetry in Polar Expeditions"--but right now I had better not wander too far away from my subject.
The polar explorers I grew up reading of were Robert Peary and Richard Byrd,  They were brave and efficient, but, as far as I could tell from what I read of and by them, prosaic. If Peary brought Browning along on his sled or Byrd on an airplane, I have not read of it.

But Robert Graves's story "Old Papa Johnson" offers a British officer in middle age who knows by heart Shakespeare's sonnets, the Psalms, St. Mark's Gospel, and the Book of Ruth, all memorized while "expeditioning". He says that he memorized the last to distract himself from the likelihood of imminent death during a violent storm on "Desolation Island", In the preface to the volume, Graves identifies "Old Papa Johnson" as one H.H. Johnson, and Desolation Island as South Georgia Island. I regret to say that I have given away the collection of essays and stories that contained it.

I regret still more that Pierre Ryckmans, who published under the name Simon Leys, is no longer with us to write that thesis on the role of poetry: he died this August.