Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Ballad of St. Barbara by G. K. Chesterton

Source of book: I own this.

 

My relationship to G. K. Chesterton has gotten more complicated in the last few years. When I started this blog, I was a pretty big fan of his, for a number of really good reasons. 

 

When my politics and religion started to shift, I started to see some cracks in his image, but perhaps more so was just seeing a bit of his more reactionary views as I read more. 

 

So, where I am right now is that I still love a lot about Chesterton, but I wince at his sexism (he was big on gender roles), jingoism (he defends the British Empire even as he critiques it), and firm belief that Catholicism is the most true religion ever. So much for the bad stuff. 


 On the plus side, he has been on my “dream dinner party” invite list since I first assembled one in my teens, and I would absolutely still invite him. For one thing, he would be endlessly entertaining (he had a reputation during his lifetime for that.) But also, he was famously good friends with
George Bernard Shaw, who was on the other side of the aisle both religious (GBH was an atheist) and political (GBH was a pretty radical socialist for his time.) That they traded barbs in the press and in their writing didn’t prevent them from being friends - and I think they each softened each other’s views in some ways. The key, of course, is that both were on the same side, so to speak, of the great moral questions. They shared the goal of the common good, but disagreed about how best to get there. Finally, Chesterton was introspective and questioned himself as much as anyone. This essential humility and good nature made him hard to hate. 

 

The reasons I like Chesterton’s writing are easy to understand. He is often hilarious - his writing brims with good humor, self deprecation, and goofy scenarios. I first discovered him through his Father Brown mysteries - that was actually the first book I special ordered as a teen. It was The Ball and the Cross that blew my mind in significant ways and still is part of how I view the world. The idea that the sincere religious person and the sincere atheist have more in common than they do with those who don’t care still strikes me as a profound truth. As readers of this blog know, I care about my religion, and have found that I actually share a lot with some atheist friends because we do care. Of course, religion in this sense isn’t the vicious tribalism of white Evangelicalism or Wahabbist Islam, but a pursuit of truth and goodness and transcendence. GBH and Chesterton could be friends because they were allies in the important ways, not enemies bent on destroying anyone different from them. 

 

Over the years of blogging, I have written about a number of Chesterton works, although it has been a while (6 years?) since I last read anything of his. The Trump Era kind of turned me off to a lot of “Christianity” and “Christian” writers, honestly, and I have very gently returned to some of my favorites. (For what it is worth, Christina Rossetti has held up very well. C. S. Lewis fairly well. And Chesterton, fairly well too. Good writers and thinkers are timeless even when they have feet of clay.) You can read my other reviews linked at the end of this post. 

 

Anyway, this book is a collection of poems published in 1922. That date is important, because it is the first that Chesterton wrote after World War One. Although most of the world was changed by that war, it really was England, France, and Germany who saw an entire generation decimated in the bloodiest conflict Europe had ever known. The writers of that era, whether they served or not, were haunted by the war, and Chesterton was no exception. 

 

This collection, therefore, has a number of war poems. Some of these are annoyingly patriotic. You know, Olde Merry England and all that - contrast Wilfred Owen for someone who actually fought. But there are others that are thoughtful, and acknowledge the terrible price paid. I think it was too soon to realize just what a senseless war it was, even by the low standard of stupid wars. And, of course, the ultimate result of the war - another world war - wasn’t yet anticipated. 

 

Chesterton’s poetry is more uneven than his prose, in my experience. Some are just clunkers, awkward and unmusical. Others are fine, but nothing special. And a few are really good, if not in the pantheon. Here are my highlights from this collection. 

 

The title poem notes that St. Barbara is the patron saint of those in danger of sudden death - and also of artillery. Which, what? (Apparently also of mathematicians, although Chesterton doesn’t mention that.) So, the longish ballad is about artillery and death in the war. It is too long to quote, and some parts are more interesting than others. However, this stanza struck me as quite good:

 

“There was an end of Ilium; and an end came to Rome;

And a man plays on a painted stage in the land that he calls home;

Arch after arch of triumph, but floor falling beyond floor,

That lead to a low door at last; and beyond there is no door.” 

 

That’s a pretty good image. I also think it is the most convincing of the ideas about war that Chesterton puts forward through the course of the poem. 

 

The best war poem in the book, however, is this one, which is outstanding in so many ways. 

 

“For a War Memorial”

 

The hucksters haggle in the mart

The cars and carts go by;

Senates and schools go droning on;

For dead things cannot die.

 

A storm stooped on the place of tombs

With bolts to blast and rive;

But these be names of many men

The lightning found alive.

 

If usurers rule and rights decay

And visions view once more

Great Carthage like a golden shell

Gape hollow on the shore,

 

Still to the last of crumbling time

Upon this stone be read

How many men of England died

To prove they were not dead.

 

Many of Chesterton’s poems are about religion. For the most part, they are the weaker ones, in my opinion. Probably, I am spoiled by Rossetti, whose sacred works are incredibly deep and perfectly crafted. Or Donne, who needs no explanation. One of the poems did, however, stand out to me. 

 

“The Sword of Surprise”

 

Sunder me from my bones, O sword of God

Till they stand stark and strange as do the trees;

That I whose heart goes up with the soaring woods

May marvel as much at these.

 

Sunder me from my blood that in the dark

I hear that red ancestral river run

Like branching buried floods that find the sea

But never see the sun.

 

Give me miraculous eyes to see my eyes

Those rolling mirrors made alive in me

Terrible crystals more incredible

Than all the things they see

 

Sunder me from my soul, that I may see

The sins like streaming wounds, the life's brave beat

Till I shall save myself as I would save

A stranger in the street.

 

Several of the poems are delightfully creative. “The Old Song” is a riff on “London Bridge,” the old nursery song, expressing sorrow at both the industrialization that has remade London and also the death of so many (probably a war reference.) I won’t quote it, but you can read it here

 

There are two cyclical poems in the collection, both of which I enjoyed. The first is “For Five Guilds,” namely, glass-stainers, bridge-builders, stone-masons, bell-ringers, and shipwrights. Chesterton take the three that are obviously connected to the making of cathedrals, and ties in the other two as doing the same in the great cathedral of the outdoors. Meters and styles vary by section, giving an interesting flavor to each. So, just to give an example, the Bell-ringers get a swinging rhythm, while the Stone-masons have a stolid feel. There was one line that I loved:

 

We have graven the forest of heaven with hands,

Being great with a mirth too gross for pride,

In the stone that battered him Stephen stands

And Peter himself is petrified.

 

The second cycle is “Songs of Education,” which gets a laugh at various subjects. I both love and hate this poem. At its best, it is hilarious and very much on point. At its worst, it has a section that essentially goes after women for working rather than being full-time child care. Which is a sore point for me, and also notable because Chesterton says nothing about absent fathers. Rather, he whines about feminism, blah blah. So that was a sour note in an otherwise excellent and amusing poem. So, let’s look at the good parts. First up, “History.” 

 

I. HISTORY

Form 991785, Sub-Section D

 

The Roman threw us a road, a road,

And sighed and strolled away:

The Saxon gave us a raid, a raid,

A raid that came to stay;

The Dane went west, but the Dane confessed

That he went a bit too far;

And we all became, by another name,

The Imperial race we are.

 

The Imperial race, the inscrutable race,

The invincible race we are.

 

Though Sussex hills are bare, are bare,

And Sussex weald is wide,

From Chichester to Chester

Men saw the Norman ride;

He threw his sword in the air and sang

To a sort of a light guitar;

It was all the same, for we all became

The identical nobs we are.

 

The identical nobs, individual nobs,

Unmistakable nobs we are.

 

The people lived on the land, the land,

They pottered about and prayed;

They built a cathedral here and there

Or went on a small crusade:

Till the bones of Becket were bundled out

For the fun of a fat White Czar,

And we all became, in spoil and flame,

The intelligent lot we are.

 

The intelligent lot, the intuitive lot,

The infallible lot we are.

 

O Warwick woods are green, are green,

But Warwick trees can fall:

And Birmingham grew so big, so big,

And Stratford stayed so small.

Till the hooter howled to the morning lark

That sang to the morning star:

And we all became, in freedom's name,

The fortunate chaps we are.

 

The fortunate chaps, felicitous chaps,

The fairy-like chaps we are.

 

The people, they left the land, the land,

But they went on working hard:

And the village green that had got mislaid

Turned up in the squire's back-yard:

But twenty men of us all got work

On a bit of his motor car;

And we all became, with the world's acclaim,

The marvelous mugs we are:

 

The marvelous mugs, miraculous mugs,

The mystical mugs we are.

 

That’s practically the history of white America too, isn’t it? We came from all over, but now we are the imperial race, justified in excluding others. A great example of using humor to make some good points. Likewise, the one on geography is fire. 

 

II. GEOGRAPHY

Form 17955301, Sub-Section Z

 

The earth is a place on which England is found,

And you find it however you twirl the globe round;

For the spots are all red and the rest is all grey,

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.

 

Gibraltar's a rock that you see very plain,

And attached to its base is the district of Spain.

And the island of Malta is marked further on,

Where some natives were known as the Knights of St. John.

 

Then Cyprus, and east to the Suez Canal,

That was conquered by Dizzy and Rothschild his pal

With the Sword of the Lord in the old English way:

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.

 

Our principal imports come far as Cape Horn;

For necessities, cocoa; for luxuries, corn;

Thus Brahmins are born for the rice-field, and thus,

The Gods made the Greeks to grow currants for us;

Of earth's other tributes are plenty to choose,

Tobacco and petrol and Jazzing and Jews:

The Jazzing will pass but the Jews they will stay;

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.

 

Our principle exports, all labelled and packed,

At the ends of the earth are delivered intact:

Our soap or our salmon can travel in tins

Between the two poles and as like as two pins;

So that Lancashire merchants whenever they like

Can water the beer of a man in Klondike

Or poison the meat of a man in Bombay;

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.

 

The day of St. George is a musty affair

Which Russians and Greeks are permitted to share;

The day of Trafalgar is Spanish in name

And the Spaniards refuse to pronounce it the same;

But the day of the Empire from Canada came

With Morden and Borden and Beaverbrook's fame

And saintly seraphical souls such as they:

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.

 

The ones on math and citizenship are amusing in their own way. But I will end with the last one, “Hygiene,” which starts by quoting the Eugenic Congress on the importance of sleep. Chesterton spoofs all of the silliness involved with keeping kids indoors, then making them exercise (rather than just letting them climb trees), breathing exercises, and of course, the question of when to rise. It is unclear if Chesterton was a morning person or not, but as a decidedly non-morning person myself, I have to laugh at the last bit. 

 

The Early Bird catches the worm, 

The Worm that dieth not. 

 

Take that! Ya early birds! Just kidding. Do what works for you. 

 

So, while a mixed bag, there was a lot to enjoy in this collection. I’ll have to get back to reading Chesterton from time to time and see how I feel about him, but this was a good start. 

 

***

 

Other Chesterton posts:

 

The Flying Inn

Heretics

Manalive

The Man Who Knew Too Much

New Poems

Orthodoxy

St. Francis of Assisi

 

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Source of book: I own this.

 

Okay, first, my controversial opinion:

 

Tender is the Night is a better book than The Great Gatsby.

 

There, I’ve said it. Agree or disagree as you wish. 

 

I have my theories about why Gatsby became the one Fitzgerald novel that everyone knows about (and usually reads in high school), while his other novels - this one in particular - seem to be only infrequently read. The first factor is that Gatsby was one of the wartime editions sent to soldiers during World War Two. (Want to read about that? I know a book…) The other factor, in my view, is that Gatsby has easy metaphors for the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age that the average high schooler can understand. Also, it is short. So, easy to teach, easy to understand, so thus easy to put on the curriculum. 

 

Tender is the Night, on the other hand, is longer, more personal, set in Europe, and involves a kind of icky relationship between an older man and an 18 year old girl. (Two, actually, come to think of it.) Actually, the last one is probably not the issue, but the other ones probably are. The book isn’t as simple or easy as Gatsby, and probably will appeal to more mature readers in any case. 

 

All of Fitzgerald’s novels have some degree of autobiography in them (although I agree with Salman Rushdie that the autobiographical connections are generally the least interesting parts of the book - it is what the author does with his or her experience that makes it art, whether or not ot could be considered autobiographical.) In this case, there are definite connections and similarities, but the differences are also quite significant. 

  Zelda and Scott in happier times...

 

In the book, Dick Diver is a successful and rising star of a psychologist, writing influential books and co-founding a clinic in Switzerland. He meets a teenaged patient, Nicole, who he successfully treats. She falls in love with him, and pursues him pretty hard, until they marry. (She is of age, so it is legal, but he is still a decade older.) Because of when the book was written, the psychology is definitely of its time and thus outdated. For example, Nicole’s illness - schizophrenia - is supposedly caused by her brief incestuous relationship with her father. In a later episode, a father tries to enlist Diver’s help in treating his homosexual son. Yeah, remember those days in the 1930s when homosexuality was suddenly treated like a horrific disease? 

 

So, years go by, they have kids, but Nicole starts relapsing more regularly, and they drift apart. They meet young actress Rosemary on the Riviera, and this initiates what will eventually mean the end of the marriage and Dick’s descent into alcoholism and failure. 

 

The story is told out of chronological order, with the first (of three) sections starting at the moment that Rosemary sees Dick and Nicole on the beach. It ends with Rosemary attempting (and failing) to seduce Dick on her 18th birthday. This section is told essentially from Rosemary’s point of view, although third person is used. The book then reverts to the true beginning of the story, with Dick’s history from his own point of view. At some point in this next section, the narrative jumps abruptly from the past to a point a few years after the meeting with Rosemary. (It isn’t really stated in the text, so you have to figure it out from the context.) By then, Dick and Nicole are growing apart, and Dick is increasingly obsessed with his memories of Rosemary (and his regret that he didn’t sleep with her when she wanted him.) The third part is essentially from Nicole’s point of view. (I say “essentially,” because each part gets into the heads of other characters too, but are mostly from the perspective of the one character.) 

 

Unsurprisingly, when Dick and Rosemary reconnect five years later, things are different. Even though the sex is good, they both know that their former glossy images of each other are not reality, and they part with Dick in despair. 

 

There is more, of course, as the course of events has to unfold, with Nicole also having an affair, and the two of them divorcing and going their own ways. It is a long, slow descent into catastrophe, primarily centered around Dick’s mental and spiritual disintegration. 

 

The story does have some parallels with Fitzgerald’s life. His marriage to Zelda was never particularly good, but it went even worse with time, due both to her increasingly unhinged mental state and his increasingly excessive drinking. While in Europe, both did have affairs more or less as the book states, although the identity of Zelda’s lover is changed quite a bit. I would say that the emotional landscape of the book matches that of Fitzgerald’s life pretty well, but the details do not. 

 

Interestingly, Zelda too wrote a book about the same period of their life, Save Me the Waltz, which was published after some string pulling by Fitzgerald, but it didn’t sell, and is generally considered to be poorly written compared to Fitzgerald’s account. 

 

There are some definite differences between real life and the book, though. To start with, Scott was not a psychologist, he and Zelda didn’t meet as patient and doctor, there is no evidence that Zelda had sex with her father, there was only a four year age gap between Scott and Zelda, and they met as adults. There are also other significant differences in family structure, the sequence of events, and definitely in the ending. I think it would be best to view the stories as essentially different, but with some characters and emotional frisson carried over from Fitzgerald’s life. 

 

The affair with Rosemary had a rather fascinating genesis in Fitzgerald’s life. He had the story partly written, when he decided to rewrite the whole character - originally male - to better match Lois Moran. When they had the affair, Moran was all of 18. It appears that she broke it off, and went on to a nearly 40 year marriage which ended when she was widowed. She was apparently remarkably functional throughout her long life, despite being a teenage star. So, at least from what the evidence shows, her fling with Fitzgerald didn’t damage her. 

 

This is kind of interesting in light of the way the book reads. Rosemary was the aggressor, sex was consensual and mutually desired. Rosemary was arguably the more rich and famous person in the relationship, Diver has no power or authority over her, and she clearly knew that it was a fling, not a future. This was perhaps the case with Fitzgerald and Moran too - she was already famous, while his career was flagging. He wasn’t in a position of power, even if he was older. They had their fun, she moved on. This is obviously different from the more icky relationship between Dick and Nicole, where she was a minor when they met, he was the doctor, and so on. (Again, this is different than that between Scott and Zelda, which appears to have been consensual and not icky - just wildly dysfunctional.) 

 

Another thing that struck me about this book is that Fitzgerald seems astonishingly self-aware. He does not go easy on Dick Diver at all, dredging up all of the interior muck that leads him to destroy himself. To the degree that Diver is autobiographical, it is clear that Fitzgerald knows he is destroying himself with alcohol, that he is deceiving his wife and himself, that his relationships are unhealthy for him, and that he is acting irrationally. And that’s just a start. It is rare for an author to create a stand-in for him or herself and then psychoanalyze that character half to death. And then still be completely unable to change in any meaningful way. He can see the trainwreck, and cannot bring himself to change tracks. 

 

There are too many brilliant passages in this book to mention them all. I made notes about a few, so here goes. Let’s start with the opening scene, and this description. 

 

Three British nannies sat knitting the slow pattern of Victorian England, the pattern of the forties, the sixties, and the eighties, into sweaters and socks, to the tune of gossip as formalized as incantations…

 

I mean, you can just hear that gossip, can’t you? 

 

Later, Rosemary’s mother (who is traveling with her) encourages her to pursue a relationship with Dick, if she wants. Her reasoning is fascinating, and not exactly wrong. 

 

“You were brought up to work - not especially to marry. Now you’ve found your first nut to crack and it’s a good nut - go ahead and put whatever happens down to experience. Wound yourself or him - whatever happens it can’t spoil you because economically you’re a boy, not a girl.”

 

That’s both the double standard and the moral panic over feminism in a nutshell, isn’t it? Since Rosemary doesn’t need to marry well to avoid starvation, she doesn’t need to market her virginity. She is economically able to function as a male, not a female. And this is why feminism terrifies fundamentalist sorts: economic independence for females means that they no longer have to submit to ownership by a male. And if they want to fuck, they can go ahead and do it, without worrying about losing their ability to sell their bodies to husbands, or be unable to support a child. (Also, abortion was more available in Europe back then, so wealth there as well meant options for women.) I myself know plenty of women who, like Rosemary, did what they wanted, and found men for whom ownership (and thus virginity) wasn’t that important. 

 

I mentioned that the psychology was a bit outdated. I should also note that Fitzgerald is also occasionally sexist as hell. Although, for his era of male writers, definitely not the worst. Here is the one truly terrible line - and one that is essentially undermined by most of the rest of the book. 

 

Reading the inscription Rosemary burst into sudden tears. Like most women, she liked to be told how she should feel, and she liked Dick’s telling her which things were ludicrous and which things were sad. 

 

I have no idea if there is a generational thing going on here, but in my own experience, most women do not appreciate being told how they should feel. Just saying. Fortunately, the book as whole is much more respectful of women as strong characters. Another line in the same passage struck me as good. 

 

Later she remembered all the hours of the afternoon as happy - one of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure but turn out to have been the pleasure itself.

 

This is true - I can look back on a lot of times like this. There is a reason that “live in the moment” is often such good and necessary advice. You don’t always know which moments will, in retrospect, be those best of times. 

 

Speaking of pithy truths, here is one that comes from the mouth of Nicole, so maybe something Scott borrowed from Zelda? That would be interesting. 

 

“Most people think everybody feels about them much more violently than they actually do - they think other people’s opinions of them swing through great arcs of approval or disapproval.”

 

Fitzgerald also nails it when it comes to the first infatuation - and the contrast later is also well drawn. Here is the first one:

 

They were still in the happier stages of love. They were full of brave illusions about each other, tremendous illusions, so that the communion of self with self seemed to be on a plane where no other human relations mattered. They both seemed to have arrived there with an extraordinary innocence as though as series of pure accidents had driven them together, so many accidents that at last they were forced to conclude that they were for each other. They had arrived with clean hands, or so it seemed, after no traffic with the merely curious and clandestine. 

 

For Dick, disillusionment comes first. Compare this line from much later in the book. 

 

The past drifted back and he wanted to hold her eloquent giving-of-herself in its precious shell, till he enclosed it, till it no longer existed outside him. He tried to collect all that might attract her - it was less than it had been four years ago. Eighteen might look at thirty-four through a rising mist of adolescence; but twenty-two would see thirty-eight with discerning clarity. Moreover, Dick had been at an emotional peak at the time of the previous encounter; since then there had been a lesion of enthusiasm. 

 

This is, of course, why mediocre white male predators love going after teen girls. The age brings naivety, and they are easy to impress. Not so much when they get older. The creepy Duck Dynasty guy was (for better or worse) speaking for patriarchy when he advised guys to marry 15-year-old girls - before they are too old to object to plucking your ducks. Fitzgerald is very self-aware here, and I think deliberately notes that Dick cannot hope to impress Rosemary the same way now that she is more experienced. Dick’s instinct to not sleep with her previously was correct, and likely better for Rosemary, even if it means Dick suffers in his own mind. 

 

I also should quote a little dig at Americans that Fitzgerald gets in. Dick’s partner, Franz, notes that Dick can write crap and have flings without a loss of reputation, at least in America. 

 

“You are an American. You can do this without professional harm. I do not like these generalities. Soon you will be writing little books called ‘Deep Thoughts for the Layman,’ so simplified that they are positively guaranteed not to cause thinking.”

 

I mean, Fitzgerald anticipated Deepak Chopra and the whole “inspiration lite” marketing machine, didn’t he? It’s as if he knew his countrymen all too well.

 

The second half of the book is pretty dark, but I have to say that the way Fitzgerald writes about the implosion of Dick and Nicole and their marriage is amazing. He knows dysfunction so well, even if he can’t cure it in himself. And along the way, there are so many perceptive lines. Like this one, from Dick, about why he hates Rome. 

 

“I like France, where everybody thinks he’s Napoleon - down here everybody thinks he’s Christ.” 

 

Later, Fitzgerald describes a cop as follows:

 

He had possessed the arrogance of a tall member of a short race, with no obligation, save to be tall. 

 

Actually, that applies to tall members of tall races too. We all know those tall guys who seem to genuinely expect that all they have to do in life is be tall, and everyone else will bow down. I’m a short guy, and this has always rankled. 

 

Another great - and devastating - description comes when Dick is sent to evaluate a potential patient. (From a rich family, of course.) 

 

These interviews were much of a type. Often the sheer hysteria of the family representative was as interesting psychologically as the condition of the patient. 

 

I’ll end with one that comes from Nicole’s thoughts, as she sees that her marriage is ending, that Dick knows of her affair with Tommy Barban, and that he is far ahead of her in planning. I think it applies to more than the situation, though - it is more of a universal truth. 

 

She had somehow given over the thinking to him, and in his absences her every action seemed automatically governed by what he would like, so that now she felt inadequate to match her intentions against his. Yet think she must; she knew at last the number on the dreadful door of fantasy, the threshold to the escape that was no escape; she knew that for her the greatest sin now and in the future was to delude herself. It had been a long lesson but she had learned it. Either you think - or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you. 

 

Damn. So many find it comforting not to have to think. Hence the attraction of Fundamentalism and Fascism. And hence the way that so many have surrendered their power and their own selves to ideology, or to a person, or perhaps a spouse or parent. The process of disillusionment is what is described here - losing one’s illusions, realizing that you can no longer allow someone else to think for you, to dictate unchallenged. For Nicole, she has never really been herself - she put off her own healthiness to be “cured” by Dick. Note how this quote really undermines the whole “women want to be told how to feel” claim near the beginning of the book.

 

Ironically, Nicole is seen to essentially thrive after she leaves Dick, at least as far as we know. In real life, after Scott and Zelda separated, she spent most of the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions, increasingly ill. It is kind of a sad postscript. One wonders if modern medication and treatment might have saved her from her fate. But it is fascinating that Fitzgerald gives the imaginary stand-in for Zelda a happy ending. Perhaps he wished better for her. 

 

I definitely enjoyed reading this book, and consider it the best of the Fitzgerald books I have read. No shade on the others, though. He was definitely one of the great American writers of the Twentieth Century. And Tender is the Night IS better than The Great Gatsby.  

 

***

 

I can’t resist linking a bit of Jackson Browne here. Enjoy.