What We’re Reading (Summer 2014)
Francis P. Sempa
My summer reading will center around three anniversaries. I am reading Gordon C. Rhea’s four volumes on the Overland Campaign that pitted Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia against Ulysses S. Grant’s northern armies one hundred and fifty years ago—The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, The Battle for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864, To the North Anna River, May 13-25, 1864, and Cold Harbor, May 26-June 3, 1864. It was this brutal campaign of attrition, not Gettysburg or Vicksburg, that doomed the Confederacy.
I will also be reading Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, as we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War—a war that George Kennan rightly called the “seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century.
Finally, fifty years ago James Burnham wrote Suicide of the West, a brilliant dissection of modern liberalism. Burnham described liberalism as “the ideology of Western suicide,” a description that rings true fifty years later.
I seem to be heading toward a shoal of Japanese novels: a couple of Mishimas, possibly alongside Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters off Netflix; Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi, since I loved his novel of puppet theater and slouching toward divorce, Some Prefer Nettles, and apparently I’m intimidated by the length of The Makioka Sisters; and Yumiko Karahashi’s Adventures of Sumiyakist Q, which Helen Rittelmeyer called “anti-Communist Japanese surrealism.”
Once DC is really sweltering it will be time for the first volume of DC Noir, in Akashic Books’ series of noir stories set in various world cities or regions. I’ve read a few other entries in this series, and they suggest that different cultures really do find it natural to explore different aspects of the noir worldview and aesthetic. Noir is a genre rich in failure, and I look forward to seeing the noir of my hometown—suddenly a boom town, all the old burnt-out buildings I remember turned into organic housewares and yoga cupcakes. I want to know how people fail here in the District of Chaos, the haunted Dream City.
David G. Bonagura Jr.
Classic authors have something fresh to say to each passing generation. This summer I will return to John Henry Cardinal Newman’s A Grammar of Assent in light of the challenges thrown to religion and religious thought by the “New Atheists.” How can we defend religious knowledge as an authentic form of knowing? Can God be heard within the growing din of secularism? Can religious thought respond to the challenges of scientism in a compelling way? Newman’s systematic approach in the Grammar offers more than just answers to these questions: it provides a foundation from which a plausible apologia can be made.
I’m starting off my summer reading with two classics of the Western canon: Virgil’s Aeneid and Augustine’s Confessions. That selection is driven by several considerations. This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Image, the journal I co-founded, and our theme for the year is “Making It New.” So I’ve been asking myself: “How does an artist or writer ‘make it new’? And, in particular, ‘How does an artist of faith create works that help to renew that faith or demonstrate how that faith can renew the world?’”
This particular combination intrigues me on several levels. Virgil was renewing/revising Homer, of course. It’s a little more complicated in the case of Augustine. For one thing, the Confessions contain a number of scathing and dismissive remarks about the Aeneid—along the lines of Augustine’s damning of theater for being based on degrading spectacle rather than the profound truth of the restless human heart in search of the divine.
But read the Confessions more closely and you will see that the entire book is, in a palpable sense, an “answer” to the Aeneid. Both books chronicle flawed heroes sent on journeys by divine instigation to found—or at least participate in the building of—a great city. Along the way they meet temptations and confusions, struggle with duty, and seek to understand the ethos that will make that city great.
Augustine, of course, offers a radical revision of Virgil’s story: his tale is instigated by the infinite love of the one true God, and his brand of heroism consists in the admission of his human weakness and need for grace.
Beyond that, I read a fair bit of contemporary fiction for my work. First up will be William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters, a debut novel that’s stirred up a fair bit of controversy. If I have any time left over, I may treat myself to Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. A couple years ago I read and adored the Chronicles of Barsetshire. I saved Trollope for middle age and I’m so glad I did.
I have set myself the errand to read some of the medieval sagas that have hitherto not found a place on my schedule—Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, for example, Grettir’s Saga, and The Saga of the Volsungs. Grettir’s Saga, in particular, interests me because, like a number of the other sagas, it deals with the coming of Christianity to Norway and Iceland, and the conflict between the new religious dispensation, which made rapid headway in the North, and the old heathen dispensation. The saga-authors, almost all of them anonymous, wrote prose, thus differentiating themselves from their continental contemporaries, who still in the thirteenth century wrote primarily in verse; their style (which varies from saga to saga) tends to the stark and laconic. Violence, with its tendency to spread catastrophically through the community, is a recurrent theme. I would also like to read Asser’s Life of King Alfred to add to my knowledge of the Early Middle Ages, sometimes referred to rather dubiously as the dark age.
I have become fascinated by the work of an eccentric twentieth-century Scots writer, Lewis Spence (1874–1955), folklorist of the British Isles, student of various myth traditions, not least those of Central America, proponent of an independent Scotland, and the chronicler of those two “Lost Continents” of lore and fantasy, Atlantis and Lemuria. I have been reading systematically through Spence’s “lost continent” authorship and look forward to his 1944 book, Will Europe Follow Atlantis? Spence’s science is undoubtedly invalid, but his moral understanding of the Atlantis story is acute, and he sees in it a parable for the modern age. If time permit, I shall reread two fictions about Atlantis, C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne’s Lost Continent: The Story of Atlantis (1900) and Pierre Benoit’s L’Atlantide (1919).
This summer I plan to read Philip Roth’s Nemeses, which consists of four novellas: “Everyman,” “Indignation,” “The Humbling,” and “Nemesis.” Roth has claimed that these are the last works of his writing career, so it will be interesting to read about his last public musing about life, death, and sex.
My literary diet this summer is heavy on philosophy: the Penguin edition of Machiavelli's Discourses, which includes an introduction by Bernard Crick that by itself justifies my owning a third translation of the book; R. G. Collingwood’s splendid, elegant, brilliant little book, The Idea of Nature, comparing Greek, “Renaissance,” and modern ideas of nature; and in the more practical realm, I must get around to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century at some point. With a bit of luck, I also hope to delve into Michael Oakeshott’s Notebooks: 1922–1986 this summer.
Based on what I’ve read so far, I would recommend the Collingwood for anyone looking for thoughtful beach reading: the waves will put you in mind of his discussion of Thales and the Ionian philosophers, and the book is so short and well written that you don’t notice you’re plunging into deep waters. But Collingwood is a good lifeguard; he won’t let you drown in philosophy.
I’ve been a fan of Denis Donoghue’s for some time, and his latest book, Metaphor, looks fascinating. Metaphors have come under attack from both sides in the debate on meaning in the past forty years. The postmodernist has tried to empty metaphor of its power by (ironically) flooding it with a supposedly infinite number of meanings. The neo-Darwinian, dabbling in cognitive psychology, reduces it to a mere linguistic game that always has the same meaning or effect: improved problem-solving and communication skills for survival.
Donoghue, it seems, will offer a wider, more accurate view of how metaphors actually work and what they really mean to us, included as a spark for moments of transcendence. I don’t expect I will agree with what seems to be Donoghue’s high view of the power of metaphor as a medium of experience (or a tool of freedom). Metaphors do change how we experience the world, but always only temporarily.
Nevertheless, from what I’ve read so far, his attempt to rightly describe metaphor’s power and significance after so many years of neglect looks to be wonderfully, well, fruitful.
Having recently read Fred Siegel’s marvelous book, The Revolt Against the Masses, I became reacquainted with Bernard De Voto. One of the few sensible liberals in Siegel’s book, I thought he deserved more than a passing acquaintance. So I’ve stocked up on his collected letters. In responding to a letter from a high school senior who is looking for a good college, but claims to have been bored to tears by his teachers. De Voto writes this: “My dear boy, the world is under no obligation to entrance you. There was no thought of pleasing you when it was created . . . There is nothing interesting or dull in any subject you have studied or ever will study. The interest and dullness inhere in you.” I think those words should be emblazoned at the top of every student evaluation form.
Siegel’s take on Mencken also intrigued me. In one of my other lives I’ve been performing as Mencken for years. But it might be fun and profitable to go back and read his essays, especially the collection recently edited by Marion Rodgers for the Library of America. I’ve always been—and remain—a fan of Mencken’s writing. There was a time when I was a fan of his ideas. That’s much less the case today. In any case, a first reading of a significant figure in Siegel’s highly valuable book, topped off by a second and third reading of another important figure in The Revolt Against the Masses striked me as worth some of my time this summer.
So I’m catching up this summer, but ultimately my reading list reflects a preoccupation with the human soul and its distinctive mode of relational knowing that sets us apart from the merely clever primates of neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. I’m reading Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, her first novel, and, I think, her best work. It is a story of the human soul, in many ways, as it has been understood across Western thought.
Peter Lawler and Marc Guerra have edited a great collection of essays in The Science of Modern Virtue. This book stems from a conference they organized a year ago that considered virtue in the works of the founders of modern philosophical liberty, Descartes and Locke, and then the response to their arguments that came from Darwin’s naturalism. The essays consider whether these thinkers have adequately understood the human person in his full integrity as a free and relational being. Or have these modern protagonists diminished man, seeing us only in part?
Finally, I’m reading and probably re-reading Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World. Scruton issues a challenge to the regnant secularism of our day by arguing that it cannot make sense of the ultimate movements of our souls that seek answers to questions where reason leaves off. These questions concern the ‘about’ and the ‘why’ of our existence and our knowing. Why has this form of knowing become an embarrassment to our enlightened betters, something to be dismissed or ignored? Scruton leaves us like Tocqueville, I think, firmly aware that the person is constantly seeking understanding that modern science, democracy, and modern thought cannot provide.
Posted: June 3, 2014 in Symposia.