Theology in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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The Metamorphoses of Ovid is a collection of Greco-Roman mythological stories, from Creation to Caesar, weaved into a continuous narrative of epic dactylic hexameter verses. (My sister once accused Virgil of being an author of fan-fiction, having based his writing on the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. If that is so, then Ovid is doubly a fan-fiction author, even recounting the events of the Aeneid.) At the time of the Renaissance, this work of Ovid became popular all over, and is the likely inspiration for much of the art decorating palaces and piazzas all over Europe. Romola in Renaissance Florence makes frequent references to the work, and Dante places Ovid among the greatest poets who occupy the first circle. As a classic epic, there is no need to defend reading the Metamorphoses.

Unlike the epics of Homer and Virgil, which each possess a single “action” which unifies the whole, Ovid’s epic is more like a collection. He uses every scheme he can to tell more stories, whether it be telling a story within a story (sometimes already in another story) or giving a story with the same character, outcome, setting, or moral as the previous story. What is especially excellent about the composition of the work is the ease of retelling the stories to others. Over the couple weeks that I was reading Ovid, nearly every lunch or dinner conversation began with some brief story from the work. (Lunch probably isn’t the best time to talk about a Bulgarian king being fed his own son as an act of revenge…but what a story!)

IMG_0487To pick one thing from the Metamorphoses and consider in this post, I looked at some of the more interesting statements about the gods, and especially the limitations they seem to impose on them, making them appear creature-like, albeit of a higher order than men. The first thing I noticed was the apparent power of Cupid/Eros over the other gods. That the gods are frequently carried away by passion is basis for perhaps half of the stories in the book (not a great exaggeration). The power of passion over the gods is personified in Cupid, and this is explicitly mentioned twice. In the tale of Apollo and Daphne, Cupid says “Your arrow, Phoebus [Apollo], may strike everything; mine will strike you: as animals to gods, your glory is so much the less than mine!” Later on, in the Rape of Proserpina, Venus says to Cupid, “My son, my sword, my strong right arm and source of my power, take up that weapon by which all your victim are vanquished […] You govern the gods and their ruler; you rule the defeated gods of the ocean and govern the one who rules them, too.” Little theological history side-note: The first Christian theologian to attribute the name “eros” to the revealed God was the so-called Dionysius the Areopagite, likely a 5th century Syriac author, well-versed in Greek philosophy. Perhaps he was familiar with this power of Cupid/Eros over all, even over the gods, and so attributed this name to the one true God.

The tale of Baucis and Philemon begins in the context of an argument about the power of the gods. The freethinker Pirithous says, “The fables that you tell, Achelous, attribute too much power to the gods, if they can change the shapes of things like that.” The response he receives is that “omnipotent and limitless is heaven, and what the gods desire is accomplished.” Now the objections of Pirithous have little ground in his experience: his own father begot a race of centaurs and he is currently talking to a river-god while being served by river nymphs. Perhaps Pirithous is disinclined to believe on account of the eternal punishment suffered by his father, Ixion? On the other hand, based on the note above and below, it seems Achelous may be overestimating the capacity of the gods.

IMG_0486The next limit placed on the gods is Fate. Jove speaks before the gods in assembly, “Does anyone here imagine himself able to overcome the limits set by Fate? Iolaus was given back the years he was in need of […] by the will of Fate, which governs even us; I tell you this that you might put a better face on it—yes, you are ruled by Fate, and I am too.” This subjection to Fate puts the Greco-Roman pantheon in contrast with the God of revelation who stands above such an ordering. Early Christian writers (Origen and Bardaisan come to mind) spent quite some time, either showing that Fate did not exist, or at least that God was not subject to it. Thomas Aquinas, thinking along lines similar to Boethius, gives an orderly account which distinguishes Providence from Fate, identifies Providence with God himself (I.22), and then consider Fate as existing in creatures and being subject to God (I.116).

Two more affirmations about the gods appear in two stories of unnatural desire. In the story of Byblis and Caunus, a woman falls in love with her own brother and debates with herself about acting on this desire. “The gods took their own sisters, to be sure! […] the gods, though, are a law unto themselves! —Why should I try to use them as my models when their behavior is so unlike ours?” This is a very interesting point of contrast between the old gods and our one. Whereas one of the most important book in Christian literature is The Imitation of Christ, it does not seem any particular god serves as a model of moral behavior. The question is more complex than that: to what extent do we look to an omnipotent Creator as a model rather than simply a giver of moral norms? The Incarnation makes things a lot easier, but otherwise it is quite the task to translate divine action into moral precept.

IMG_0488The other deviant story involves a woman, brought up from her youth as if she were a boy, falling in love with a woman and desiring to be a man so that she could marry her. She calls out, “The gods have not denied me anything; agreeably they’ve given me what they could; […] but Nature, much more powerful than they are, wishes it not—sole source of all my woe!” In general, the gods seem to be much better at estimating their power than mere mortals are. The upshot of Iphis’ prayer is that she indeed receives what she asks for, thereby showing that even Nature does not impose any great limit on the gods.

Another subject to consider as well is the possibility of mortals to become gods, as happens with Hercules, Aeneas, Romulus and Julius Caesar. Indeed, there are many other major themes to consider, but that will have to wait for another time!

An anarchist in Soviet Russia

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Dame Rebecca West

My Disillusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman is certainly one of the lesser know books on my list of classics to read, so it is worth explaining how it got there. The first reason is Rebecca West (and this is not the first time she prompted me to read a book). After reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and loving it, I searched around the internet for short pieces of her writing, and one of the first things I found was her introduction to Goldman’s book. One line from it had stuck with me from reading this introduction a couple years ago: “We must let each people seek God in its own way.” (I had forgotten the less inspirational-sounding next line, “and refrain from persecuting it in its search by such indirect methods as interference with the natural flow of trade.”) Although the line sounds relativistic or indifferent, at the very least, West is making the bold claim that the Revolutionary project in Russia is a search for God. She sees the project as an attempt (albeit mistaken) to establish man’s final end, which must ultimately be God. This language is very different from Goldman’s use of religious vocabulary, which she only uses to mirror the corruption of the Bolsheviks. (Whereas Rebecca West is capable of seeing reality as sacramental, Emma Goldman is a thorough and vehement atheist.) And yet this difference in outlook does not prevent West from praising the integrity of Goldman in recounting the facts as she saw them, the facts concerning the injustice and brutality of the Bolshevik regime. Both Rebecca West and Emma Goldman, despite identifying with the Left, were both ostracized by their Leftist peers who uncritically accepted the Communist project. This connection with Rebecca West was my first encounter with Goldman, but was not yet enough to convince me to read her work.

My second encounter with Goldman, which eventually pushed me to read her work, came only a few months ago. Seeing the widespread uncritical acceptance of contraception and Planned Parenthood among so many young people led me to wonder where this was coming from, and led me me right to the beginning of the birth control movement in the United States. Among the leading figures in this movement was Emma Goldman. Despite obvious difference in views, I wanted to understand where she was coming from on this, what led her to these positions. I figured the easiest way to get into her thought would be to start with a work where I could sympathize with the views represented. Thus My Disillusionment with Russia entered my list of books to read. Although I had never yet seen her on a list of classics, it turns out her autobiography is among the Penguin Classics, and so it seems no great stretch to extend the title classic to her important account of the Bolshevik regime.

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Emma Goldman

The book starts around the end of the Great War, not long after the October Revolution in Russia. Authorities in the United States are rounding up and exiling anarchists, and Emma Goldman finds herself among their number. This exile means she will end up in Russia. Despite the difficulties involved in mandatory relocation, she is enthusiastic to see first-hand the effects of so large a social revolution. The rest of the book is her experience of the (almost completely terrible) effects of the Revolution. She comes in with the greatest of expectations, but steadily comes to separate in her mind the Revolution from the Bolshevik regime. “I knew that the Revolution and the Bolsheviki, proclaimed as one and the same, were opposites, antagonistic in aim and purpose. The Revolution had its roots deep down in the life of the people. The Communist State was based on a scheme forcibly applied by a political party. In the contest the Revolution was being slain, but the slayer also was gasping for breath.”

The question I kept asking as I read the book was: Why does she still cling to the Revolution as a good thing even though the effects are so obviously terrible? At several points, she even admits that things were better under the Tsar, “if the gendarmes of the Tsar would have had the power not only to arrest but also to shoot us, the situation would have been like the present one.” Besides the humanitarian work of a few anarchists, the only people who seem to be doing well are those that stand against the Revolution in some way. There is an example early on of a factory that seems more tidy and efficient than anything Goldman had seen at that point: shortly after, she finds out that the former owner of the factory had been given permission to continue running it, and so things worked well there, only because he still possessed a sense of ownership. On another occasion, she is surprised to find nuns in habits working at a government school, where the government official was more lax in enforcing the anti-religious policies. The nuns were better workers than any she had seen, and the school was one of the few that wasn’t simply putting on a good show for the American visitors. Goldman tries to attribute their joy and duty to some anarchist or revolutionary principle, but I was not convinced. As for putting on a show for Americans: In her travels throughout Russia, attempting to collect items for a museum, almost no one trusts her at first—it is only when she displays her American identity that many open up both their revolutionary artifacts as well as their real thoughts and feelings about the Bolshevik regime.

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Emma Goldman

Although the book is primarily a journal of her travels and impressions, I was disappointed to find little theoretical treatment until the very end of the book. As far as anarchist morals go, I found myself sympathetic with Goldman much of the time: the things she found deplorable were usually things I found deplorable as well, but only vaguely did she indicate her reasons. She ends up emphatically rejecting the principle used by the Bolsheviks for their cause—that the end justifies the means. In my mind, this also means a rejection of violent revolution (in most cases), and in the Afterword, she makes some distinction between a revolution that takes place on merely the external level (which will be violent and have no lasting good effects) and a revolution that is a complete transformation of values. Much of the Afterword contrasts the authoritarian principle (which stands behind communism, socialism, and any statist scheme) and the libertarian principle (which sees at the base of her own anarchist ideology). There is plenty to think about there in her consideration of how freedom and order are related to each other.

One funny note: In nearly everyone of her first-time meetings, she is asked, “How close is America to the revolution?” And she, embarrassed by how little these comrades know, has to either let them down softly or give an account of the tiny groups of communists and anarchists in America. Even when she meets Vladimir Lenin, he leans over and eagerly asks, “When can the Social Revolution be expected in America?” And she just thinks, Wow, nobody here knows anything about what is going on in the world.

Unless someone is really interested in reading first-hand accounts of Russia at the time, I would recommend reading the Introduction and the Afterword as these contain the most thinking. Her encounters and conversations with important intellectuals and politicians, such as Gorky and Lenin, are also interesting, but she usually only gives snippets of what they talked about.

9E0FD20B-9B56-4760-8559-4D4F2ADD5EB3-2747-000002B917BF7E1AIt is now 100 years since 1917 when Russia had her revolutions, but these were not the only sweeping changes in that year. 1917 was the year that the Catholic Church promulgated for the first time a Code of Canon Law, reorganizing all ecclesiastical laws according to rational principles instead of relying on ever-increasing compilations of councils and papal decrees. It was not so violent a revolution, but it was the most sweeping change made in centuries, and it still shapes the Church in our own day and especially my own life, as I dedicate the next month to preparing for my canon law finals. I hope to pick up again this summer with Tolstoy and Undset. Until then, pray that all goes well!

A Personal Canon

IMG_0422As I begin to explore different literary blogs, I have found that many of them have recently put together a “personal canon” of sorts. (Some examples: here, here, and here.) For many years, I looked to this list as something of a “canon” for myself, but I’ve found myself going back to a shorter list of books over and over. Below is a rough list of the books that come to mind as some of the most important to me. I attempted to divide them by genre at first, but I couldn’t make a clean divide between theology and philosophy, or even between theology and biography, and Rebecca West’s masterpiece does not sit easily in any genre. So I simply divided into “older” and “newer”, with a few added to the end.

Older books:

  • The Holy Bible.
  • The works of Plato and Aristotle.
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer.
  • On Christian Doctrine and the Confessions by Augustine.
  • The Philokalia (vol. 1) by Evagrius, John Cassian, et alia.
  • The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.
  • The Little Flowers of Saint Francis.
  • The works of Thomas Aquinas.
  • The Cloud of Unknowing.
  • The Autobiography of St Teresa of Avila.
  • Don Quixote by Cervantes.
  • The Introduction to the Devout Life by St Francis de Sales.

Newer books:

  • Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot.
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  • The stories and novels of Flannery O’Connor.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
  • The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse.
  • The Story of a Soul by St Therese of Lisieux.
  • After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.
  • Development of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman.
  • The Russian Church and the Papacy by Vladimir Soloviev.
  • Miscellaneous writings of St Maximilian Kolbe.
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas by G.K. Chesterton.

Books that got me started:

  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell.
  • My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.
  • On Writing by Stephen King.

I could have added many more books to the list (Jane Austen, Sigrid Undset, Manzoni, more George Eliot), but then it would end up being a list of all the books I have enjoyed at some point or another! Some of the titles also require some more explanation (like Soloviev), but all in good time. I’m sure this list is not yet finished.

Helena, and what makes Christianity different

IMG_0412This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.

Waugh does a beautiful job depicting both the time and all the various places that appears throughout the book. The novel starts with Helena as young princess in Britain, which he portrays as both primitive and exotic, much like Till We Have Faces. From Britain, we then follow Helena all over the Empire: through Germany, out to the lonely Balkans, then to Rome, and finally through Asia Minor down to the province of Palestine. And each of these has their distinctive character, especially Rome. “To a Roman there can only be one City and that a very imperfect place indeed.” Waugh does not hold back from making Rome appear as unattractive as possible, everything from the court intrigue and treachery to the fashions and popular superstitions. Then there is the awkwardness of the newly legalized Christianity, personified in Pope Sylvester. This simple Pope is caught between gratitude for the new freedoms and yet the impossibility of compromising with  paganism, and so the risk of offending so great an ally as Constantine, who is at once planning to be baptized someday and yet also the Pontifex Maximus of the Roman pagan religion.

“All my life I have caused offense to religious people by asking questions.”

One of the most beautiful aspects of the book is that Helena is portrayed as a skeptic from beginning to end, always asking questions and rarely satisfied with answers (or a lack of answers). Her searching attitude allows Waugh to demonstrate how Christianity does not fall within the lines of myth and philosophy. Helena, after a particularly disappointing lecture on myth, turns to her Christian servants and asks, “Tell me, Lactantius, this god of yours. If I asked you when and where he could be seen, what would you say?” “I should say that as a man he died two hundred and seventy-eight years ago in the town now called Aelia Capitolina in Palestine.” “Well, that’s a straight answer anyway. How do you know?” And so the seeds are planted for the faith that will blossom in the soil of Helena’s desire for something tangible and historical, and ultimately lead her to seek out the True Cross of Christ. (Speaking of tangible and historical: I visited the tomb of St. Helena at the Ara Coeli Basilica in Rome this very day. The picture I took is just below.)

IMG_0410This tension between the abstract and the concrete appears not just between pagans and Christians, but even among Christians themselves. Eventually Constantine, tired of everything wrong with Rome (and it truly is wretched), decides to go and start a New Rome in the East which will be cleaner, and there he will make basilicas dedicated to “Wisdom” and to “Peace”. “You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations.” After Constantine leaves, Pope Sylvester responds to this comment, “Unpleasant associations are the seed of the Church.” How often this desire for a tidier faith recurs throughout the centuries! I am reminded of when the German Emperor Joseph II attempted to make Catholicism “tidier” by cutting the Stations of the Cross from 14 to 7, trying to reduce all the many religious orders to a single form of religious life, and many other so-called reforms. But faith is not just a bunch of ideas; true religion is not just a social program.

As intriguing as the description of Rome is, Jerusalem is the most significant place in the book, as the place where it happened. Having been to Holy Land a couple times, I had images to go with the ekphrases of the various sites, and I appreciated the accounts of how the places came to have their current shape. Waugh even makes one feel some horror at all that might have been lost in the effort to preserve the holy places. Helena’s devotion to the evidence of Christ makes me feel as though I never made a proper pilgrimage to those places, and I am eager to go back and follow in her footsteps, indeed, in the footsteps of the Master.

I heartily recommend Helena for anyone planning to visit Rome or Jerusalem, or even anyone who wants a glimpse at what makes Christianity different. I will probably end up adding more Evelyn Waugh to my list.

Waugh gibes a gibbon

IMG_0405I am now reading Helena by Evelyn Waugh. In one place, Lactantius is speaking to Helena about why he dedicates himself to writing about Christianity:

“You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing, and the wrong form to the right thing. Suppose that in years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded toward the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does–it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”

Now I had never heard of a gibbon before, but the context indicated that it was some sort of primate. Two seconds of research indicated that there is a primate called a gibbon, depicted just above. But I imagine that Waugh was hoping the word would also call to mind the English gentleman pictured just below.
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That is, he is almost surely referring to Edward Gibbon, the author of the many-volumed History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Looking around only briefly to see if Waugh ever engaged the work of Gibbon more directly, I discovered that Waugh’s first novel was actually titled Decline and Fall, a clear borrowing from Gibbon’s major work. In Lactantius’ observation, there is a passing reference to both the excellence of Gibbon’s style and the error of his content.

Newman shared similar thoughts, lavishing the highest praise on Gibbon’s style, “With all his faults, his want of simplicity, his affection, and his monotony, few can be put in comparison with him; and sometimes, when I reflect on his happy choice of expressions, his vigorous compression of ideas, and the life and significance of his every work, I am prompted indignantly to exclaim that no style is left for historians of an after day. O who is worthy to succeed our Gibbon!” And for all of the philosophical disagreements he may have had, he still admits Gibbon’s superiority as a historian with respect to others, “It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.”

This is all to say that I am quite eager to arrive at reading Gibbon, whose work is perhaps the longest on my list. I only read excerpts of it for college, but I doubt I grasped the extent of his importance for our modern biases about history and Christianity in particular. To conclude: “[T]he ecclesiastical historian could not ignore the issue of the miraculous, a question which was to make Gibbon a sceptic and Newman a Roman Catholic.”

Rosmersholm and new ideas poorly conceived

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Henrik Ibsen

My third classic is Rosmersholm, a play written by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian writing in Danish. I only discovered this play after discovering that Rebecca West was only the pen name of the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of my favorite works of literature, and that she took this pen name from a character in Rosmersholm. She was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, but she changed her name to Rebecca West while she was about 20 so that she could write articles in Freewoman, a feminist magazine, without raising suspicions in her mother who did not want her reading it. Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, her first published novel, contains themes similar to Rosmersholm: unhappiness in marriage, the impossibility of leaving it, and the suspicion of a feigned mental condition.

Near the beginning of this play, we find out that Rosmer has stepped down from his role as a pastor. His reason for doing this is that he has adopted the “new ideas” and wants to support the more radical party. We do not know the reasons for his changes of view, except that he has begun reading new books. Later, we are given the impression that it probably had more to do with him falling in love with a woman who espoused such ideas and shared such books. This impression is confirmed inasmuch as he early on claims to find a new happiness and freedom in these ideas, and yet Rebecca West, his “friend”, admits her conviction that he could never be happy so long as his wife was living.

And just what are the views rejected by Rosmer? We know that he no longer believes “the dogmas of the [Lutheran] Church”, as if these were mere political opinions that he is now shedding. His brother-in-law, Kroll, though not a bad man, seems somewhat crusty and unpleasant in clinging to those old ideas tied up with religion and institution. Rosmer is also asked later on whether he had books on the “new ideas” about marriage, so we can presume that his understand of this institution was also altered—his friendship with Rebecca West confirms this as well.

And so how does his happiness in his new ideas go? An old teacher of Rosmer shows up, asking for some help so that he may be able to share his own new understanding, such as he never before wrote. But it is all spent on profligacy and wasted. Rosmer then wants to put his name behind the radical newspaper in town. But the editor argues that they are in greater need of a Christian who supports their ideas rather than a nonbeliever—indeed, that would hurt their cause. So Rosmer, glad to be free from the “faith of our fathers”, is now asked by a radical to feign belief for the greater cause. And finally, while enjoying the freedom he obtained from the death of his wife, Rosmer finds out that her death may have been instigated by Rebecca West. He thought she was mentally ill—but no, rather the wife suspected that Rosmer would be happier if he were free to marry someone else, and so she destroyed herself for the sake of his happiness. But he cannot be happy upon knowing this. For Rosmer, happiness is founded on a sense of one’s own innocence, but he now feels guilty for the death of his wife. Rosmer had hoped to ennoble men through the diffusion of his newfound happiness, but he can no longer do so. The irony is sharpened by the fact that Rosmer’s wife was named Beata, which is Latin for “happy” or “blessed”. It should not be a surprise that little happiness can come from the death of “the happy one”. One additional irony is that Rosmer, who can no longer ennoble souls as he hoped, once had a profession where this was his primary duty. At the end, he and Rebecca, no longer trusting themselves or each other, feel there is only one course of action left to them.

In many ways, this is the predicament of people in our own age. There is a dissatisfaction with the institutions and prejudices we find all over the culture, and yet in cutting ourselves free from this, we do not end up more free than we started. (This reminds me of an article on David Foster Wallace.) Fellow rebels end up either in mere indulgence or they end up betraying the love of truth that led them to reject their inherited norms to begin with, telling lies to justify their actions. Without any clear sense of a higher purpose, freedom becomes the agent lower purposes.

When Rosmer is warned at the beginning that he will be breaking all of his ties with his new positions, he nonchalantly responds that he will simply make new ties. And yet later, when Rebecca says she must return to the North, Rosmer’s only argument against it is that she has no connections up there, nobody that she knows. Alasdair MacIntyre and (from what I can remember) Luigi Giussani make a major point out of seeing one’s own life within a wider context. This alone does not say much, but it prevents one from making human life a lonely affair and indicates that there is something to be learned from our whole past, and from the past of all humanity.

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Rebecca West

The play is short but complex enough that one could write on many of its themes. I initially wanted to take Rosmer’s presupposition that happiness is prerequisite for ennobling others, and take this as a point of departure for considering Thomas’ teaching that Christ enjoyed beatitude even during his earthly life. Although this was once a common theological opinion, many rejected it as a mere relic of scholasticism without purpose. And yet the presupposition underlying it is similar to that held by Rosmer, “you can’t give what you don’t have.” If Christ is going to bring happiness/beatitude to all men, he must himself possess it, and in the highest degree. Another topic I wanted to look at more closely is why Rebecca West, the author, would choose such a name sake. This would require greater knowledge of her early life than I had time to acquire.

Romola, another masterpiece by George Eliot

IMG_0384(My desire to have more people read George Eliot outweighed my desire to divulge all of my thoughts on this book. For this reason, I do not unveil any major plot points in Romola. Fear not to read the following thoughts on George Eliot, and take it rather as an exhortation to read on your own!)

I hesitate to write about George Eliot lest I say anything unworthy of one who I think may be the greatest novelist in the English language. My fascination with George Eliot began early last semester, when I opened the first page of Middlemarch and saw Eliot making conjectures about St. Teresa of Avila and what allowed her to accomplish so much in her time. As I continued and found the main character, Dorothea Brooke, to be modeled on the person of St. Teresa, I was instantly hooked. Upon finishing Middlemarch, I did not believe a novel could begin, proceed, or end in so satisfying a manner, but I continued to read anyway and soon had finished more of Eliot’s novels: Mill on the Floss, The Lifted Veil, Daniel Deronda, and I am now writing this post upon finishing Romola. In my opinion, none of these has outdone Middlemarch, and yet they have only confirmed my preference for George Eliot over every other English-language novelist.

(A quick note before continuing: “George Eliot” was the pen name of Marian Evans. Unlike Charlotte Bronte who initially wrote with a pen name, but is now always identified by her birth name, George Eliot continues to be referred to through her pen name, although always with feminine pronouns. This always surprises and distracts people who discover this in conversation, so I decided to omit pronouns in the first paragraph and then insert this note before continuing.)

By claiming for George Eliot the title of greatest English novelist, I know this requires an explanation for those who think Jane Austen deserves this title. As delightful as Austen is in everything she writes, “her works are but miniatures”, as one critic puts it. She concerns herself beautifully with a very small set of concerns. Whereas Austen typically ends her novels with a suitable marriage, George Eliot saves most of her story for what happens after the wedding and her characters have interests that reach far beyond domestic tranquility. There are also two elements almost entirely missing Jane Austen, which take center stage in the work of George Eliot: religion and the intellectual life. The closest Austen gets to considering these is in Northanger Abbey, when the narrator satirically derides the novel, and then in Mansfield Park, when there is a discourse on the usefulness of clergy and common prayer. To look at these elements in Eliot, it is necessary to take each in turn.

I already mentioned about how Middlemarch begins with an observation about the life and times of St. Teresa of Avila. Silas Marner, probably Eliot’s most widely read work, begins with the banishment of a man from a Puritanical community, and this sets the stage for everything that follows there. In another novel, she has a character discover the Imitation of Christ and change her life, and in another, the plot revolves around the meaning of Judaism. There is even a reference to a natural Manichaeism in Mill on the Floss! In Romola in particular, set in Renaissance Florence, Eliot depicts a radical (and even political) sort of Catholicism which she compares and contrasts with pagan elements existing in that time and place. She is meticulous in showing the causes and effects of the change of religious attitudes within her characters, and the great care with which Eliot depicts this is especially remarkable when one learns about the development of her own religious attitude. In a future post, I would like to consider more closely the religious history of George Eliot, who began as an evangelical, but later became more agnostic and even published translations of Feuerbach and an early historicizing account of the life of Jesus. Despite all of this, and partly because of it, she depicts the interior life of her characters in a most accurate way, keeping their freedom intact even as she shows all the motives at work. It is especially true of Middlemarch, but in all of her novels, one can hardly walk away without growing in sympathy for the lives and struggles of others.

IMG_0382In addition to the religious aspect of her novels, George Eliot displays an erudition wide and deep in all of her novels, and especially in Romola. Before writing any fiction, Eliot parodied the know-it-all heroines of her contemporaries in her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and satirically comments in many of her books that Greek is too difficult for the mind of a woman (George Eliot herself was proficient in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian). Eliot avoids the pitfalls that she criticizes, and many times over, as a trope common to several of her novels is the intellectually capable female becoming either obsessed or repulsed before a wider intellectual project. Since Romola is placed within the Italian Renaissance, the reader is constantly impressed by the learning of many characters in the book, which itself demands that the reader already have some background knowledge but at the same time encourages the reader to get more. One instance of this is a description of a back-and-forth early on between two scholars, one clearly superior to the other, each of exchange of which contains a Latin poem, each one satirizing on the last and including ever more obscure references to the classical use of certain words. It was not necessary, but I was so impressed, that I put down Romola for a week in order to work on my own Latin, attempting to read classics (Ovid and Quintilian) and eventually settling for the Vulgate, which I am currently working through at a slow pace. Romola also made want to read the Italian poets, reread The Prince by Machiavelli, study up on 14th and 15th century paganism, and look more closely at the controversy surrounding Girolamo Savonarola. I also need to go back to Florence. I cannot think of any other author that brings so much to the table in this way, especially without feeling artificial or stuffy.

Alongside her erudition in philosophy and literature, Eliot also shows herself an expert in describing painted works that she herself has invented. (I just learned that this is called ekphrasis.) I am thoroughly impressed when I find an author capable of using mere words to convey the effect of music or painting. This first stood out to me when I read The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and he describes a piano-violin fugue that occurs within an interview. It is the first time the child with the violin has ever played a fugue, and Hesse allows the reader to discover with him the effects of this form of music. Even in Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, a novel I did not otherwise care for, there is a beautiful scene where Hanno is rapt by his mother’s music, such that the reader almost hears the same. As for the description of painting, Homer can be credited as the first to do this with his lengthy description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. George Eliot places a painter in three of her novels, and always gives such a description that the reader wants to see the finished project, though he has a fair sketch in his mind. These paintings are less essential in other novels, from the humorous sketch of Casaubon as Aquinas in Middlemarch to the mournful series about Berenice in Daniel Deronda, but in Romola they take on a more integral role, from the tabernacle adorned with Bacchus and Ariadne to the painted horror of Tito Melema, as well as a scene of the blind Oedipus with Antigone.

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One other distinctive aspect of this novel is the depiction of evil, and evil with a beautiful guise. In Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss, there is certainly cruelty and bitterness, and yet I do not think it ever quite arrives at malice. Daniel Deronda depicts some straightforward evil, but it is most striking in Romola, where Eliot makes the reader fall in love with a character who ends up beyond redemption, all in a desire to avoid whatever is unpleasant. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Eliot leads the reader right up to the moment when a choice has to be made, when one can choose the good or the easy, and envision the consequences both far and near. Besides the malice of one particular character, there are other who are almost like ghosts, haunting the imaginations and consciences of characters within the book. There is nothing quite like this in her other novels.

If I had to Romola to any other novel, I would point to The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Eliot, like Manzoni, beautifully describes life in an Italian city and seamlessly blends the historical and the fictional. Both authors manage to show both the most glorious and the most ugly manifestations of religion, especially when it is mixed up with baser motives. Her occasional use of Italian may be difficult for those less familiar with the language, but there is nothing essential that one would miss beyond a few jokes and some pleasant poetry (my Penguin edition even included notes to elucidate these bits).

Since I am unwilling to divulge any essential plot details, but always want to say more, let me know if you have read any of her novels! I am certainly willing to talk further about them, but not at the expense of “spoiling” the enjoyment of a first read.