Neil Armstrong, in memoriam

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) aboard the lunar module after his first walk on the moon.

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) aboard the lunar module after his first walk on the moon.

I wrote the following post for a now defunct website following Neil Armstrong’s death seven years ago at the age of 82. I repost it here, lightly emended, for the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s first steps on the moon tomorrow. —JMP

I had a poster on the wall beside my bunkbed showing the planets—Pluto included, back then—in their orbits around the sun. I had more toy space shuttles than I could keep track of, and enough booster rockets and rust-orange external tanks to launch all of them into orbit above our trampoline. I went to Space Camp, ate dehydrated ice cream in vacuum-sealed packaging, and wore my blue NASA jumpsuit and pilot wings to school. I wanted to be an astronaut.

And when I thought of “astronaut,” I thought of him.

Neil Armstrong died this weekend at the age of 82, just over 43 years after taking man’s first steps on the moon. It was that moment and those words—broadcast worldwide on television—that cemented him forever as The Astronaut.

But he wasn’t just an astronaut. He was a few weeks shy of his 39th birthday when he landed the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility, and the vast majority of those previous years he had spent behind the stick in hundreds of planes. He learned to fly before he got his driver’s license and, after joining the Navy, became a test pilot. As the horrific opening chapter of Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff makes clear, testing aircraft was one of the most hazardous and demanding jobs in the US military. Equipment malfunction or failure was part of the job, and pilot error, even among the coolest, most daring pilots in the country, could kill a man even when everything else went right.

And Armstrong was one of the coolest and most collected of those pilots. Though he declined to be interviewed for the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, in the film his fellow Apollo astronauts speak of his bravery and cool. Archival test footage—which shows Armstrong ejecting from a flaming military prototype just above the ground, seconds before the vehicle crashes and explodes—amply back up his reputation for courage.

He was born to do his work. “Pilots take no special joy in walking,” he wrote, “pilots like flying.” And it was as a pilot that he approached the crowning moment of his career and of the space program. “The exciting part for me, as a pilot, was the landing on the moon. . . . Walking on the lunar surface was very interesting, but it was something we looked on as reasonably safe and predictable. So the feeling of elation accompanied the landing rather than the walking.”

He returned home a hero, and remained a hero the rest of his life. He retired from NASA and worked as an educator, teaching aerospace engineering and devoting himself just as wholly to that as he had to his career in the Navy and the space program. “I am, and ever will be,” he said, “a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”

He avoided the limelight, increasingly so as the years went by, declining interviews and attention from the media. He even stopped giving out autographs after learning that scalpers were hawking his signature for exorbitant amounts of money.

As a child, I didn’t know much of that and wouldn’t have understood if I had. I was obsessed with Armstrong for strictly one mission and one moment and wanted to emulate him, though I never saw him on TV. I had to content myself with photos in my many books about space and NASA, and the black and white footage I saw when Apollo 11 was commemorated every year. I think that added to his legend for me—he was the man who walked on the moon, the first to achieve all my astronaut dreams, and then he disappeared.

Now I understand, and my childlike worship has matured into real admiration as a result—Armstrong was humble.

As far back as Cicero and Dante, writers have imagined the awe that must come with seeing Earth for what it is, in the context of all creation. How would man, such a tiny creature, feel about himself upon seeing that his home and all he knows and loves is hardly bigger than himself against the backdrop of the universe? For a wise man, the experience should be humbling.

Neil Armstrong knew that humility. He experienced what the ancients could only imagine. Standing on the surface of the moon in 1969, the aviator, astronaut, engineer, and representative of all mankind to outer space looked up at home. “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant,” he said. “I felt very, very small.”

Beyond his courage, his cool, and his willingness to risk all in the pursuit of his mission, that humility is why Armstrong is a hero—and why he will remain one.

O'Connor on recognizing (and writing) good stories

Flannery O’Connor at home in Milledgeville, 1962

Flannery O’Connor at home in Milledgeville, 1962

This morning I made it a point to track down the exact wording of a line from Flannery O’Connor that has stuck with me for years. After some digging around I finally uncovered it. The line comes from “Writing Short Stories,” a lecture for writing students collected in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. For context, here’s the full paragraph in which the line appears:

A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you.
— Flannery O'Connor, "Writing Short Stories"

Now I am not so naive as to suppose that most people come to writers’ conferences in order to hear what kind of vision is necessary to write stories that will become a permanent part of our literature. Even if you do wish to hear this, your greatest concerns are immediately practical. You want to know how you can actually write a good story, and further, how you can tell when you’ve done it; and so you want to know what the form of a short story is, as if the form were something that existed outside of each story and could be applied or imposed on the material. Of course, the more you write, the more you will realize that the form is organic, that it is something that grows out of the material, that the form of each story is unique. A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.

All the books that have had lasting meaning for me, that have kept on teaching me things, and have only grown with the years rather than diminishing and falling away, have precisely this quality—of offering you more and more out of a well that is in no danger of running dry. There’s more where this came from, somewhere down below.

There is also a wonderfully anti-Platonic emphasis on the particular and organic in that paragraph—fitting for a woman who described herself as a “hillbilly Thomist” (a label I have been trying to appropriate for years). I have definitely seen form emerge from my own work more often than I have imposed form on it. Each story has a way it wants—needs—to be told. The writing of it will reveal it.

On that note, a final thought: Immediately after the above passage, O’Connor writes:

The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you.

This is, in fact, some of the best advice she offers in the lecture. (A footnote at the beginning of the text in Mystery and Manners quotes her elsewhere saying that “Before I started writing stories, I suppose I could have given you a pretty good lecture on the subject, but nothing produces silence like experience, and at this point I have very little to say about how stories are written.”) Learn by doing. Tinker and figure it out. What stops us—what stops me—from simply writing a story is aiming at perfection the first time through.

While I was writing Dark Full of Enemies some years ago, friends in a writing group encouraged me to complete what they called a “get-words-on-paper draft.” That proved immensely helpful, and helped me better understand a line from Chesterton that has always nagged at and bothered the perfectionist that hunches in one tidy corner of my soul: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Do, and you will eventually do well.

Storybook war

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On this day in 1863, elements of Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and elements of the Union Army of the Potomac, under the still new command of George Meade, clashed on the hills north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This meeting engagement would concentrate both armies into the hills and farmland around the town and, by its end on July 3, become the biggest, bloodiest battle fought in North America.

To commemorate the battle I’ve been reading Cain at Gettysburg, a 2012 novel by Ralph Peters and the first in a five-book series concluding with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Peters tells the story from multiple points of view on both sides, from Lee and Meade and their subordinates to the sergeants and privates doing the fighting, and is particularly good at evoking the mixed emotions—the sudden and jarring confluences of excitement and horror, irritation and affection, exhilaration and pathos—that characterize battle. It’s excellent so far.

I wanted to point out this passage that I read last night. It’s narrated from the point of view of a German immigrant private, a utopian socialist and idealist who fled Europe for the United States after military defeat in the revolutions of 1848. Now serving in the 26th Wisconsin, as his regiment passes through Gettysburg on the way to the line on the first day of battle he sees a collection of Confederate prisoners. Peters writes:

For all his professed hatred of those who had forced war upon the country, Schwertlein empathized with the captive soldiers. He had never been a prisoner, but he knew only too well how men felt when they gave all they had, yet were condemned to failure. War was a sorrier business than storybooks told.
— Ralph Peters, Cain at Gettysburg

That last line is the stinger in the passage.

It also neatly expresses a large part of the trajectory of my own interests, studies, and writing. Like a lot of young boys, I became interested in military history through stories of heroes—brave men worth emulating. I still believe in those, and believe wholeheartedly in emulating the great departed (as I’ve written before, Lee is one of mine), but my studies have sobered me on war proper. I’ve learned that the glory of war is like the light of the moon—a reflection of something else, in this case the reflected glory of the handful of men who accomplish great things in those awful circumstances. Our admiration is itself a giveaway. Why else would heroism stand out if it weren’t against the odds and in spite of every conceivable misery—and the scads more modern man has spent all his energies creating?

I mention this because over the course of the holiday week we’ll get plenty of rah-rah, support-the-troops sentimentality without a lot of consideration of what it is we’re supporting or why they need support. (Or, if you really want to play with fire, whether we should.) The flagwaving, fireworks, Lee Greenwood, and beer commercials are fine, but absent a sense of the misery and tragedy of war—its barely fathomable sorriness—such commemoration will only give us storybook images. And, what is more, we won’t understand any side, even our own.

For my part, I’ve tried to convey a little of all this in my own Civil War novel, Griswoldville: what the war was like, how it wore men out and used them up, destroyed them body and soul, and just what it’s like to lose—something our success-obsessed culture can hardly conceive of, much less understand.

Cain at Gettysburg does it exceptionally well. Check it out.

The fine art of minor characters

Kathy Lamkin as “Desert Aire Manager” in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of  No Country for Old Men

Kathy Lamkin as “Desert Aire Manager” in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men

I just finished reading a fine novel called This Dark Road to Mercy, by North Carolina novelist Wiley Cash. It’s a worthwhile read, but as I was entering the homestretch last night I read a scene that got me thinking about the great but often untapped potential in minor, incidental characters in fiction—the kind of characters who appear for only one or two scenes and may not even have names.

The context:

This Dark Road to Mercy tells the story of Easter and Ruby Quillby, young girls living in a foster home in Gastonia, North Carolina after their mother overdoses. Their estranged father, failed minor league baseball player Wade Chesterfield, discovering some principle and responsibility late in life, decides that he should take them in even though he signed away his parental rights years ago. He convinces them to run away with him. They are pursued by two implacable men: Brady Weller, a disgraced former detective with Gastonia PD who now works as an ad litem advocate for the girls, and Pruitt, a bouncer on a mission to recover cash that Wade stole from his boss. Pruitt also has a personal score to settle with Wade.

The scene:

Having made a grisly discovery that indicates Pruitt is very close to catching them, Wade takes the girls to a convenience store and has Easter, the older of the two, go inside to get the bathroom key so he can change clothes. Here’s the first appearance of the character(s) I want to look at:

The store was empty except for a fat blond-headed woman and a guy with a ponytail who were both standing behind the counter. When I walked in the woman was trying to light a cigarette, but she kept laughing at something the guy had said to her. I stood in front of the register until she’d lit her cigarette and tossed the lighter onto the counter.
“Can I help you?” she asked. The guy laughed again like he remembered what was so funny about what he’d said before I came in. He turned and walked back into a little office, and the woman watched him go. She looked at me again. “What do you need, baby?”
“I need to use the bathroom,” I said. “It’s locked.”
The woman reached under the counter and pulled out a long piece of wood with a key attached to the end of it. “Don’t leave this in there,” she said. “The door locks behind you.” I took the key and walked back to the bathroom.

Later, after Wade has changed, he sends Easter back inside to return the key.

The woman was alone behind the register when I went back into the store. I set the key on the counter.
“You okay?” she asked.
“I’m fine.”
“You were in there a long time,” she said. “I almost came looking for you.”
“I’m sick,” I said. “Sorry.”
“I hope you feel better,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. “I hope so too.”

So far so good. A realistically rendered but mundane series of exchanges. Anyone who has grown up in the South has had this interaction, right down to the “baby” (or perhaps “honey” in other circumstances, as “baby” is reserved for children).

But then the scene I’m about to describe came along and I appreciated the craft Cash had put into these characters. Pruitt, following not long after, snookers a cop into revealing the likely place he can find Wade and reaches the same convenience store. He goes inside to pursue his own investigation and we meet these employees again:

The closest gas station had a pay phone in the corner of the parking lot. The girl’s picture was somewhere in the glove compartment, and my hands riffled through the papers looking for the same face that had been stapled to the cafeteria wall back in Gastonia.
Inside the station, a skinny kid with a ponytail and an older woman stood behind the counter and stared while the picture was unfolded on the counter in front of them. My finger pointed down at the photo. “Have you seen this girl?”
The kid with the ponytail took his eyes off the photo and looked at me, but the woman put on a pair of glasses that hung from a string around her neck and stretched her neck until her face was close to the picture. She took her glasses off and looked up. “And who are you?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter. Have you seen this kid or not?”
“It certainly does matter,” the woman said, leaning her hip into the counter and folding her arms across her chest. “Are you the police, or are you just some kind of weirdo?”
“Police.”
“Well,” she said. “I’d like to see a badge.”
Both the kid’s and the woman’s eyes followed my hand as it reached for my back pocket. They waited, expecting to see a badge, but instead they saw five twenties laid out on the counter. “Have you seen her or not.”
The kid looked at me, and then he looked down at the money. He reached out and scooped it up and folded it into his pocket. “She was in here,” he said. “It wasn’t even twenty minutes ago.”
“Damn it, Cody,” the woman said. She smacked his arm.
Cody raised his finger and pointed out the door behind me. “They went across the street.”

And away we go.

For comparison’s sake:

The scene reminded me, upon reflection, of a favorite from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, another cat-and-mouse story of pursuit across the margins of the South. In this passage, the ruthless cartel hitman Anton Chigurh has just finished searching protagonist Llewelyn Moss’s trailer. He suspects Moss has fled but, just to be sure, decides to get more information. He stops at the trailer park office. McCarthy:

He drove down and parked in front of the office and went in. Yessir, the woman said.
I’m looking for Llewelyn Moss.
She studied him. Did you go up to his trailer?
Yes I did.
Well I’d say he’s at work. Did you want to leave a message?
Where does he work?
Sir I aint at liberty to give out no information about our residents.
Chigurh looked around at the little plywood office. He looked at the woman.
Where does he work.
Sir?
I said where does he work.
Did you not hear me? We cant give out no information.
A toilet flushed somewhere. A doorlatch clicked. Chigurh looked at the woman again. Then he went out and got in the Ramcharger and left.

All stories have minor characters, so what makes these stand out? Why do they feel like real people—one can certainly imagine these being distant cousins, or maybe attending the same women’s Bible study—when so many authors’ minor characters are flat, interchangeable, and immediately forgotten?

Two standout traits:

Look back at these two passages and see how Cash and McCarthy craft these characters. A few things stand out to me:

First and foremost—the language they use. McCarthy’s trailer park manager is informal but, when Chigurh presses her, adopts a terse, official tone (“aint at liberty” is a wonderfully suggestive blend of everyday dialect and the language of pronouncement). She gives as good as she gets and—remarkably—is the only person in the novel to resist Chigurh and live.

The gas station cashier in Cash’s book is more fully developed and we also benefit from a binocular view of her—we see her in two different situations, which gives her depth. With Easter she is informal and sweet in the way of Southern ladies to children. She freely expresses concern and wishes Easter well. She uses simple interrogative or declarative sentences (“And who are you?” and “It certainly does matter” and “I’d like to see a badge”) and pushes back against every move Pruitt makes. She has him sized up the moment he enters the store and tries to ice him out.

Which brings me to the second thing that stands out—body language. As much or as little as each author gives us, you can see these characters. McCarthy’s woman gets no direct physical description but we do read this: “She studied him.” This comes before she has even spoken a word. If you’re paying attention, you know Chigurh is in trouble the moment you read that line. (A side note: Where would the South be without the obstructive middle aged ladies who act as our gatekeepers?) This one line of action gives us all we need to know to understand what she’s about to do.

Cash includes more detail. The cashier is fat, blonde, smokes, and is old enough not just to use reading glasses but to wear them around her neck. The telling bit of body language comes when Pruitt shows her his stolen photo of Easter: “the woman put on a pair of glasses that hung from a string around her neck and stretched her neck until her face was close to the picture. She took her glasses off and looked up.” Cash does something subtle here, suggesting her slow, drawn out movements (notice the repetition of “neck”) which heighten the message she’s transmitting: sarcastic dismissal. She’s not going to cooperate.

So Cash and McCarthy present us with a pair of nicely drawn minor characters. So what?

The use of minor characters:

There’s a few important things I think writers can take away from these examples. In no particular order, here are some of the uses I see of the well-realized minor character:

  • Characterizing the major characters—Cash’s gas station cashiers offer a particularly fine example, and it all comes down to perspective. We see these characters two ways—first, Easter, a young girl, sees them as “a fat blond-headed woman and a guy with a ponytail,” the kinds of attributes a kid would notice. Pruitt, when he arrives, thinks of them dismissively as “a skinny kid with a ponytail and an older woman.” At this point in the novel we’re already two-thirds of the way in, but Cash is still characterizing his narrators by showing us how they perceive the same minor characters differently.

  • Obstructing the major characters—I’ve already used the word obstructive in this post, and intentionally so. No real-life plan or story proceeds on a perfectly straight line, just jokes and Reader’s Digest anecdotes. Things get in the way. Most of the great action movies excel at throwing physical obstacles in front of their heroes: in The Guns of Navarone the commando team’s explosives are sabotaged, Ethan Hunt’s team in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol deal with repeated equipment failure, and in Raiders of the Lost Ark Indy has to travel, avoid assassination, disguise himself and sneak into a Nazi camp, knock down walls, steal a horse, chase and take over a truck, and fight or kill snakes, a giant airplane mechanic, and a host of other enemies before he can get the Ark. What Cash and McCarthy offer us here are character-driven versions of those obstacles, which complicate and intensify the plot—even if only for a few pages or lines—and, again, reveal things about the major characters who encounter them.

  • Making the world feel real—I’ve slowly developed a loathing for the term world-building and I’m not fond of the word realistic any more; what I prefer to emphasize is truth or at least truthfulness. Introducing well-realized minor characters makes your story feel true. Because of their speech, their gestures, the shifts in their attitudes that reveal their priorities, the ladies in This Dark Road to Mercy and No Country for Old Men seem to have their own lives that we, along with the characters, have blundered into. We get the sense that we’re just seeing a slice of them. And the upshot for the main characters—and the rest of the story—is that such minor characters make it feel like they have a more spacious world to move around in.

  • Surprising the reader—A lot of fiction features obliging minor characters who show up just to convey information to or do things for the main characters. When an antagonist like Pruitt or Chigurh is suddenly stopped and has to reckon with an unexpected obstacle—especially one so unassuming—it should be a jolt to the reader as well. Running across someone like the cashier or the trailer park manager is a nice surprise.

There are plenty of other reasons to give minor characters a bit of depth, to make them feel real or true, but these are a few good ones to start with.

A final thought on method—and a bit of a warning:

Cash and McCarthy brought these characters to life through the details they selected to present us. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, writes that “vivid detail is the life blood of fiction.” Elsewhere in the same book he writes of “closely observed detail,” “concrete detail,” “authenticating detail,” and warns against “insufficient detail.”

This is not to advocate the Victor Hugo kitchen sink style, including everything. Note the adjectives: vivid, closely observed, concrete, authenticating detail. Carefully, precisely chosen from life. We do not need every gesture a character makes, just the ones that show us what we need, the ones that tell us who this person is in the two or three pages in which we get to know them. (See again that Ciardi line about poetry being “the art of knowing what to leave out.”)

Read both of these books if you haven’t. I’ve just dwelt at a little length on two minor characters. But these minor characters are excellent case studies of what a good, careful, purposeful writer can do with material that not everyone takes the time to develop.

Midway trailer reaction

Dick Best’s squadron of SBD Dauntless bombers dives toward the Japanese carriers in Roland Emmerich’s  Midway

Dick Best’s squadron of SBD Dauntless bombers dives toward the Japanese carriers in Roland Emmerich’s Midway

A new teaser trailer for Roland Emmerich’s forthcoming historical action film Midway dropped this morning. I first heard about the project last year and, despite a basic reaction of Oh no, decided to reserve judgment. This trailer hasn’t done much to change my initial reaction, but I am still withholding judgment. We’ll see.

The Battle of Midway is a seminal moment in American military history and the course of the Second World War. It deserves a serious, sober dramatization that will convey the seriousness of the Japanese threat, the courage of the sailors and aviators involved, something of the longterm consequences of the victory—and, of course, the terrible cost.

So I’m in favor of a new Midway film—the Charlton Heston Midway, which I’ve never seen all the way through, came out 43 years ago—especially given the potential of modern special effects to simulate something like the incineration of the Akagi.

However, I’m not sure Roland Emmerich is the best person to handle this story. In fact I’m pretty sure he’s not. He’s helmed some of the worst big-budget schlock Hollywood has had to offer for a quarter century. He made the climate change Chicken Little fables The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, the misbegotten historical adventure 10,000 BC, went down the Oxfordian conspiracy rabbithole with Anonymous, and is most famous for his mindless sci-fi crowdpleasers like Independence Day and the American Godzilla. Even what I think is his best movie, The Patriot, is a ridiculously simplistic retelling of the Revolution in the South that’s riddled with falsehood.

So I’m not terribly optimistic.

All that said, like my initial reaction to the first real trailer for Tolkien, I’m just going to list a few thoughts:

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  • After all my negativity about Emmerich, there are some definite wins in the casting, especially Woody Harrelson as Admiral Nimitz. Harrelson was great as Texas Ranger Maney Gault in The Highwaymen, which I loved, so I look forward to him playing a similarly legendary figure again.

  • The first half of the trailer covers a lot of Pearl Harbor ground, with a lot of similar shots—CGI Japanese torpedo planes zipping through battleship row, fighters strafing people on the ground, and even the departure of Jimmy Doolittle’s squadron of B-25 Mitchells for the first bombing of Japan. Two of my favorite historical movies of the last few years—Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, for my thoughts on which click here and here—cover almost exactly the same events but do so in radically different ways. If Midway is going to double up on some of the material Pearl Harbor covered, I hope it’s significantly more different than what we’ve got in this trailer.

  • Aaron Eckhart plays Doolittle, which could be quite good, and some publicity stills show him in China after the raid on Tokyo. But again—just how much does this film cover before it gets to Midway?

  • Lots and lots of CGI, not all of it impressive looking. One doesn’t have to go as far as Christopher Nolan did with practical effects on Dunkirk, which gave that film such a spare, austere look, but some detectable real planes and ships would be nice—and help convince our brains that we’re not watching a cartoon.

  • My wife and I just rewatched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which is a real hoot. Nick Jonas looks exactly the same here.

  • This film also features two alumni of my favorite underappreciated historical film, The Alamo—Dennis Quaid (Sam Houston there, Bull Halsey here) and Patrick Wilson (William Barret Travis there, US naval intelligence officer Edwin Layton here).

  • I’m intrigued to get a bit of the personal life of Dick Best, the divebomber pilot who dropped a bomb into the elevator of the Akagi. He’s played by Ed Skrein and Mandy Moore (familiar to me, many times over, as Rapunzel) plays his wife. Done well this could lend some depth to the often anonymous men who fight America’s wars. But given Emmerich’s track record of developing romantic relationships—or any kind of human relationship—I’m withholding judgment.

  • Best’s dive toward the Japanese fleet, which we get snippets of at the end of the trailer, knotted my stomach. So, mission accomplished there.

  • A number of other figures from the battle—ordinary pilots and sailors who did incredible things—are listed in the cast elsewhere online, men like Wade McClusky and George Gay, who survived their flights to attack the Japanese fleet, and Eugene Lindsey, who did not. I hope Midway does them justice.

You can watch the teaser trailer for Midway embedded in this post above. The film comes out November 8, timed for Veterans Day.

Chesterton on the spiritual benefit of heatwaves

Current staTus

Current staTus

I ran across the following Chesterton quotation today and found it apropos for two reasons. First, today is the anniversary of Chesterton’s death at the age of 62 in 1936. Second, while the weather here in upstate South Carolina has been mild—even occasionally pleasant—for about two weeks now, the three weeks or so before that were an increasingly miserable foretaste of late July or August heat. No cloud, no wind, just sizzling on the griddle of the piedmont.

From a June 11, 1910 column in The Illustrated London News:

The chief gift of hot weather to me is the somewhat unpopular benefit called a conviction of sin. All the rest of the year I am untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile. But in hot weather I feel untidy, lazy, awkward, and futile.
— GK Chesterton
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I resemble that remark. You can read a longer chunk here.

Leave it to Chesterton to find some kind of spiritual benefit in what would otherwise just be inconveniently hot weather. Of course what he’s cheekily describing here is the self-knowledge and humility that should come through all hardship, something he is by no means the first to comment on.

A good reminder for the next time I’m doubling up on anti-perspirant.

Oh—my “Mount Writemore” t-shirt arrived in the mail yesterday. It depicts Chesterton, CS Lewis, George MacDonald, and JRR Tolkien on a much more interesting version of Mt. Rushmore. It’s available in a variety of sizes and colors (mine is “asphalt”) from the Babylon Bee. It’s also available as a poster. It’s deeply silly and I’m very excited about it—a very Chestertonian response I think.

Constantine on City of Man Podcast

The City of Man Podcast’s Ancient Aside series returns with its tenth episode. In this episode, regular host Coyle Neal and I cover the life and reign of Constantine, one of the most consequential and controversial figures of the late Roman Empire—and in all of Western history. We talk about the post-Diocletian political context of Constantine’s career, his personal background, his military campaigns, his conversion to and patronage of Christianity, and much, much more.

You can see this episode’s shownotes here. Visit City of Man on Facebook or the Christian Humanist Radio Network’s flagship website, and listen in via iTunes, Stitcher, and other fine podcasting apps. I’ve also embedded the episode in this post for your convenience. Enjoy, and thanks as always for listening!

Waking into the world

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About a week ago, Alan Jacobs posted a short bit of one of his favorite Auden poems on his blog. I enjoy but am no great fan of Auden and began to skim, but then stopped short when Jacobs invoked Beowulf. It seems that in his poem “Horae Canonicae,” Auden borrowed from Beowulf what struck me as a beautiful image.

Here’s the relevant passage—some genealogical framing from near the beginning of the poem—in the translation of Beowulf I happen to be reading right now, that of R.M. Liuzza:

Four children, all counted up,
were born to that bold leader of hosts.

Liuzza’s translation is good—I want to emphasize that—but here it translates the meaning rather than the literal words of the text. Here’s the same passage in the original Old English:

ðæm feower bearn     forðgerimed
in worold wocon     weoroda ræswan

And to give my own roughly literal version:

to him four children counted forth
woke into the world…

Waking into the world.

Today is my birthday, the day I woke into the world thirty-five years ago (an age with plenty of its own significance). But that’s not what was on my mind when I ran across this beautiful phrase. Rather, a few days earlier, my wife and I had welcomed our third child, a healthy baby boy, our second son, into the world. That has a way of preoccupying you.

So after spending a few days in the hospital, attending the birth and holding this stunned, fearful, hungry, and not a little drowsy new life in my arms, waking into the world seemed exactly right. Who isn’t a little shocked to wake up, who doesn’t expect breakfast, and who doesn’t carry sleep with them like the warmth of their blankets for a little while after rising? Waking into the world is a metaphor that strikes closer to the truth than plain English, the way all good poetry does.

While being born has its own poetic weight—each and every one of us is carried into life, just as each of us will be carried out—I think waking gets at what makes being born such a shock and delight. Beyond the fun, simple parallels, when we wake we come slowly or instantly into a world we were totally unaware of a moment before. It went on without us—had been going on for some time—with its own cast of characters and interests. We aren’t necessary to its existence and continuation. And so waking up and joining it is a gift.

Because I can’t keep him out of this blog for long, here’s a favorite bit from Chesterton, in Heretics, on the same point:

The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made.

None of us has to wake into the world—indeed many never even get the chance. But my growing awareness of the gratuitousness of life, how totally unnecessary it all is, has made me more and more grateful to have received such a gift as waking. I don’t know how much time I have left in this world—I pray it’s many years, of course—but however long it is, I’m thankful for the grace of waking into it, and of being able to give that gift to my children.

Thanks to all who have passed along birthday wishes and greetings, and especially those who have helped us welcome our son. God bless, and thanks as always for reading.

Jack London predicts the internet

From his novel The Sea-Wolf, in which the narrator describes the crew of the Ghost in a heated argument:

 
Childish and immaterial as the topic was, the quality of their reasoning was still more childish and immaterial. In truth, there was very little reasoning or none at all. Their method was one of assertion, assumption, and denunciation. They proved [their point] by stating the proposition very bellicosely and then following it up with an attack on the opposing man’s judgment, common sense, nationality, or past history. Rebuttal was precisely similar. I have related this in order to show the mental caliber of the men with whom I was thrown in contact. Intellectually they were children, inhabiting the physical forms of men.
 

The topic of debate, by the way, is whether a seal pup can swim by instinct or has to be taught by its mother. Almost—but not quite—pointless enough for a comment section.

Leaving things out

Last year I wrote a short post about proportion in the arts, inspired by an offhand answer Jerry Seinfeld gave about turning down $5 million per episode for one more season of “Seinfeld.” There, I quoted the great poet, critic, and translator of Dante John Ciardi, who in the notes to his Inferno wrote that:

 
Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out.
— John Ciardi
 

A side note: Is there another phrase that evokes quite what “leaving things out” does? It suggests making things manageable—in all kinds of ambiguous ways. What I’m driving at in this post, of course, is leaving things out to get at the true shape of something, rather as I’m leaving things out of my diet right now to return to what I hope is a truer shape of me.

When I learned that the great historian of modern Europe and Churchill biographer John Lukacs had died a few weeks ago, I revisited a short book—a bound essay, really—he wrote for ISI’s Student Guide series, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History. There, in a passage describing the simple version of the historian’s process of preparing and gathering material, I read this footnote:

No matter how detailed and assiduous, your research will never be complete. The nineteenth-century monographic ideal was that certifiable historian who, having read every document and every writing related to his topic, is able to produce a complete and definitive history of it. This is no longer possible—because of the possibility that new documents, new treatments, and more publications about his topic, many in different places and languages of the world, may yet appear. (Of course some histories are more “definitive” than others. But never absolutely so.)

And then, on the next page, as Lukacs begins to explain the triage of sorting the material an historian has collected, he includes this wonderful parenthetical:

 
It is a great mistake to use everything.
— John Lukacs
 

Precisely because everything is not up to the same standard, is not relevant, is not part of the story you’re trying to tell. This is a succinct warning away from the kitchen sink approach, which every one of us has encountered at least once in some 800-page book, fiction or non-fiction.

Which brings me back to Ciardi: the art in poetry and history, as in so much of life, from cookery and dieting (see above) to marriage, is in choosing. This entails constraint (adherence to form), restraint (rejection of self-indulgence), and commitment (sticking with it even though you’ve just made it harder on yourself), and these in turn entail a certain amount of courage (say what you mean!) and discipline (mean what you say!).

Leaving things out—choosing—shapes both you and your art and will create order. And contrary to the modern suspicion that order only crushes creativity, it will in reality “give room for good things to run wild.”

Take a moment to read this detailed LA Times obit for Lukacs. He led a remarkable life, from surviving the Holocaust in Hungary to working as an historical adviser on Darkest Hour. And pick up one of his books sometime. I recommend The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, which I’ve recommended here before along with a few of his other books.