Having Decided To Stay

The official website of Bryana Joy Johnson

Category: Reviews

On The Importance of Being Smike

Nicholas NicklebySometimes a story smacks you squarely in the face with precisely the thing you need. So it was for me with Nicholas Nickleby last month, which I read over the course of only a week and which has been growing on me ever since, like a widening light.

Charles Dickens’ third published novel, Nicholas Nickleby is among the author’s earlier writings, and belongs very definitively to that set of his work that was the most Dickensian. That is, it is full of flair and hyperbole and drama and oppression and cold weather and child abuse and misery and heroics and ideals. Especially ideals.

Indeed, as with all of Dickens’ best work, Nicholas Nickleby’s strengths lie not in any unique plot twists or unusual characters, but in the incarnation of ideals, their taking on of flesh. Nicholas Nickleby is strong because its’ characters are ideals. And they take on flesh quite well – indeed, in 900 pages they have plenty of time to do so. The ideals are very fully fleshed out. But they are also very strong ideals, that have endured in the world since the genesis of Christendom. And if you love them already, you will find them splendid because Dickens makes them so, but mostly because they are splendid in their own right.

NicholasAt the heart of these ideals is the hero. This is Nicholas himself. He is not particularly original, but he attracts us because he is not merely a protagonist, but is, in fact, really a hero, in the traditional sense of the word. He adores justice and honor with a childlike simplicity and he takes on the miseries of life with a pure heart and cheery self-denial. Beside his fiery innocence, every contaminated sentiment and half-wrong seems horrible, and not to be endured.

All my days I have been seeking to be like him. Quite without knowing his story, at all, of course. Because Nicholas Nickleby is not a character invented by Dickens at all. He is the quintessential human hero, a picture of the man that men will follow, and that the world is not worthy of.

In Dickens’ story, Nicholas is afflicted by some rather prosaic difficulties when his father, a country gentlemen, dies unexpectedly, leaving the nineteen-year-old Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother in dire straits. They are forced to apply for assistance to the senior Nickleby’s brother, Nicholas’ uncle Ralph. Ralph is a ruthless and unscrupulous miser, who sends Nicholas off to work for pennies at a wretched boarding school in Yorkshire, and exploits Kate’s feminine graces to please his business partners. Their mother, while an amiable woman, lacks discretion, and cannot serve as a source of guidance for the two young people in their difficulties.

All told, the title character’s situation seems thoroughly unenviable. Fortunately, Nicholas carries something with him that turns the desolation of the world into an adventure: his stalwart decency. Thrust into scenes of unbearable degradation and injustice, his ideals of truth and righteousness do not falter, and cannot be co-opted. He is an honest man, and no one can take that away from him. This makes his life bearable and serves as a roadmap. You pity him in his hardship, but not too much, because you know he has a treasure of incalculable worth, and that he has what it takes to get to the other side of what is before him. Before his story is over, he will be the one turning the arrogant from their ease, and rescuing the downtrodden with remarkable flair.

I can’t not want to be that guy.

But I’m not.

I spent all my childhood imagining myself as something of a champion in the making. Oh, the places I would go, and all of the rescue I would dispense! All of my dreams were about heroics. So the knowledge that I have been somewhat mistaken in my aim has been a long time coming home to me.

With Nicholas Nickleby, it came home a little more. Because beside even Dickens’ simple and clichéd ideal, I seem very unheroic indeed. And I know that there must be something besides the fruitless chase after championship.

And so there is.

At Dotheboys’ Hall, a stereotypically Dickensian hell-hole, where Nicholas serves as an assistant to the evil schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, we meet another character. Smike is crippled, and hardly a boy anymore at eighteen. He was abandoned at the school six years ago, and has been exploited by the Squeers ever since, serving them as a slave in deplorable conditions and beaten continually. His ill-treatment and ignorance have given him a feeble mind and doubled his terror and helplessness. Smike has no ideals to nourish him, and no prospects or plans ahead of him. His life is a living death.

Smike4
Nicholas, enraged by the cruelty that Smike endures, is very kind to the drudge. This is something Smike has never experienced before, and something happens to him that he did not realize could happen:  it dawns upon him that there is a reason to live, and that waking up in the morning doesn’t have to be just the shock of death flooding his lungs. His reason to live is Nicholas, and the hope of Nicholas’ approval and the ambition of serving him.

The Squeers, who are evil, are annoyed by the sight of goodness thriving anywhere, and redouble their efforts to make Smike’s life a torment to him. Nicholas decides this additional oppression is just about the last straw, and he informs Smike that he is going to leave. In a wild fit of desperation, Smike abandons the disgraceful institution on his own that night. Lame and starving, he doesn’t get far before he is dragged back by the schoolmaster’s wife. The Squeers, who find it necessary to deal with the imminent threat of mutiny among the boys, decide to make a great spectacle of Smike, and to flog him severely before the whole school.

As this ordeal commences, Nicholas snaps, and descends like a hurricane upon the schoolmaster, administering a sound drubbing to the latter, before packing his little bag and quitting the place. As he sets out on the long journey back to London, impoverished and with grim prospects, he runs into Smike, who has been following him all the way. Smike drops to his knees at Nicholas’ feet.

 ‘Why do you kneel to me?’ Nicholas asks.

“To go with you–anywhere–everywhere–to the world’s end–to the churchyard grave,” says Smike in a wild supplication. “Let me, oh do let me. You are my home.”

Smike is a cripple all of his days. He drags his deformed limbs with him everywhere, and his weak mind is never made whole. Wherever he goes, people will stare and whisper and feel sorry for him. He will never be a specimen of perfection. But in spite of all this he is at rest, and at home. Because he is following Nicholas Nickleby , and consumed in a sort of slavish devotion to his hero. What he is is wretched indeed, but what he is is not important to him. For he is utterly wrapped up in worshipping a worthier champion. In himself, there is limitless impotence and fear. But in his master there is enough glory to satisfy him.

And when the full import of this burst upon me, I found it disturbing, like a call to wake up.  Because my Dearest Friend is the prince of champions, and oh, are all of my springs in Him? The grace that has set me free, is it enough for me? Or must I do something of my own to add to it, before it is sufficient to be happy-making?

Hudson Taylor wrote to his wife in 1869,

I now see that it is not in what He is to me, not in what He is working, or has worked, or may work in, for, or by me, but in Himself I am to rejoice;  in what He is and has in Himself absolutely. And this, it appears to me, is the only possible or even legitimate ground for constant, unchanging, full joy.

But to get at the joy that is only outside of ourselves, we must come to the end of ourselves. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” said our Lord. Not because they are lesser or more wretched than their brothers, but because they know it. And theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For the life at the heels of Christ is not about being a hero, but about loving a hero. And the more you love Him, the more you are at home in Him. And when He is all that matters, it doesn’t matter that you are what you are.

Because He is what He is.

Books!

It’s been a long time since a post about books, and I think it’s high time, for I have been reading them, of course, though more sparingly and slower than usual. I listened to the whole of the Short History of England in Libri Vox recordings, while mopping the kitchen floor. Middlemarch was an adventure that sustained me through illness and chaos, and I keep turning back to The Rain In The Trees when I forget what heartbreak feels like; I keep trying to figure it out. Sitting on the carpet against the walls of the space museum in D.C., and trapped in the National Gallery of Art during spring protest marches at the Capitol, I read every one of the thin, color-splashed pages of Des Cars’ study of the Pre-Raphaelites.

I started a new job in the summer, and have very little time to read anything these days, but when Flaubert said, “read in order to live,” he wasn’t far from the truth. In a culture of words where we are beset on every side with wasted language and so many lies, it is more than a wise option to deliberately confront ourselves with the beautiful and the good. It is a necessity, I think.

Here is some of what I have been reading. I hope you will share your own lists with me, too, because I don’t want to miss out on your splendid recommendations!

George EliotMiddlemarch (George Eliot) – 5 STARS – Middlemarch, like most writings of its time, is a lot of work. It is an investment. And it is a very good one. I read this one on Sarah’s recommendation, and I have to say that I think she was spot-on. Not being particularly thrilled by Silas Marner, the only other Eliot work I’d read, my expectations weren’t very high going into this one. But when the climax of the story had me actually in tears in the middle of the night, as I sat up late to finish it one weekend, I realized just how much power Eliot had packed into here. It’s difficult to share much about what I took away from the story without giving the story away, but I will say that the theme which moved me most strongly was the lovable portrayal of righteousness, even unnoticed and unrewarded. Middlemarch wants to teach us about the pricelessness of integrity of character, and demonstrates that nothing is worth having if it can only be got at the expense of what is right, and that no loneliness compares with the loneliness of the man who cannot be at peace with himself and his Dearest Friend.

A Short History of England (G.K. Chesterton) – 4 STARS – Chesterton’s highly opinionated summary of the history of England is both funny and disorderly in a masterful, Chestertonian manner. Much poetic license is taken with the narrative of the British Isles and Chesterton runs off on regular rabbit-trails, but some very enduring ideas are contained herein. I felt I wasn’t quite knowledgeable enough to really get everything out of this, and was painfully aware of some awkward gaps in my British history. The section that I found most helpful was Chesterton’s explanation of his admiration for the medieval era, a thing I never quite understood before, and which I expect to think about quite regularly for the rest of my life as I explore the workings of postmodern society and try to piece together the social philosophies of the past.

10 Books That Screwed Up The World [And 5 Others That Didn’t Help] (Benjamin Wiker) – 4 STARS – I was quite impressed with this one, actually. Wiker explores the writings of several destructively influential shapers of culture, from Machiavelli to Freud to Margaret Mead to Marx to Alfred Kinsey, and many others. He intersperses his commentary with quotations from the authors in question and equips the reader with vivid and sometimes shocking examples. His chapters are short and engaging and he doesn’t take long-winded philosophical detours, which makes this an excellent book to recommend to friends who want to explore worldview issues, and tackle the elephants in the room, but may not have the patience for Francis Schaeffer yet.

The Ward of Heaven and the Wyrm in the Sea
(Colin Cutler) – 4 STARS – It’s hard to put a label on Colin Cutler’s first book. The Ward is a brief and rich Christian reworking of Norse mythology, told from the perspective of a hermit in medieval Scandinavia. It’s historical fiction that morphs into sober, Bible-based fairytale. It reminded me strongly of reading Beowulf as a young teenager and it felt like a context for all of the dark mystery surrounding the mythology of Beowulf. While there were some issues with lack of polish and a few instances where the tales seemed to unfold a little awkwardly, I understand that this is an extremely difficult genre to work with and greatly respect Cutler for venturing out into these uncharted but promising waters.

PrayerWheelTickets for a Prayer Wheel: Poems (Annie Dillard) – 4 STARS – There is no question that Annie Dillard is a splendid writer. Like all good poets, she hallows everything and shrouds it in mystery. I just wish her mysteries weren’t so utterly impenetrable and gloomy, and keep hoping she will be unreservedly jubilant about something for once, rather than behaving as though the few visible parts of the mostly-veiled truth are not particularly gladdening. I feel I am getting only half of the story with her, and I want the other half wildly. That said, there were some sections in here that made me stop short and reread and reread and reread. Like this,

God am I smug when they talk about Belsen–
I’ve never killed anyone in my life!
I simply betray:

let the phone ring,
seal a typed letter,
say to the girl in the courtyard,
“I never saw him before in my life,”
call a cab, pull on gloves,
and leave. And leave you,
and leave you with the bill.

Pre-Raphaelites: Romance and Realism (Laurence Des Cars) – 4 STARS – While there was nothing especially stunning or remarkable about Des Cars’ treatment of the history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the book was concise and informative and a good simple introduction to the origins, philosophies and figures of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Lord, Teach Us To Pray (Andrew Murray) – 4 STARS – Murray’s thoughts on prayer make up more of a discourse than a book. Like so much Christian writing, this one is loaded with redundancies and blithely employs terms that mean more than any of us are likely to understand in the course of our days as earthlings. However, I don’t find this quite as annoying as I used to. Because as I begin to scratch the surface of the meanings of some things, I begin to learn about the heights and the depths of meaning in everything. And it’s OK if we don’t know everything, as long as we know that there is a very great deal to be known. To live will be a great adventure.

CyclopsThe Odyssey (Homer) – 3 STARS – Interestingly enough, I didn’t find myself liking The Odyssey quite as much as the Illiad. It has all of the good stories, yes, but I felt like the Illiad boasted superior craftsmanship and a stronger emotional appeal. And more unintentional humor, of course. The Odyssey seemed a little thin and rushed compared to the many hysterical chapters of the Illiad in which nothing happened at all except vicious bickering. However, the stories of The Odyssey are timeless, of course, and hold their charm even when you already know what is going to happen.

The Rain in the Trees (W.S. Merwin) – 5 STARS – I have to give this book five stars, even though I suspect if Merwin and I were to sit down over coffee, we would find little to agree on. There were portions of this book where the divide between our presuppositions was made very evident, but overall the poetry in this volume is about the human experience, which is more or less universal. In an era when universals and traditional imagery are frowned upon by many leading figures in the academic community, Merwin’s focus on nature and wide themes was like a breath of mountain air. It should be noted that there is deep sorrow coursing through the pages of The Rain in the Trees: the sorrows of things forgotten, things lost and, most of all, things without answers. It is a book to be read cautiously. Merwin is an author to whom we should be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have.

Some favorite portions:

From Term:

they are on their way already
their feet are the feet of ghosts
watching them is like watching a ship
leaving the shore
and seeing that it will never arrive

From Before Us:

You were there all the time and I saw only
the days the air
the nights the moon changing
cars passing and faces at windows
the windows
the rain the leaves the years
words on pages telling of something else
wind in a mirror

everything begins so late after all

From History:

there was a note on a page
made at the time
and the book was closed
and taken on a journey
into a country where no one
knew the language
no one could read
even the address
inside the cover
and there the book was
of course lost

it was a book full of words to remember
this is how manage without them
this is how they manage
without us

I was not going to be long

A Book of Strife in the Form of a Diary of an Old Soul (George MacDonald) – 4 STARS – This volume is a collection of short devotional poems by MacDonald, one for each day of the year. Some are fairly hum-drum, but I copied down several pages of real treasures. A small sampling:

“Be for me then against myself. Oh lean
Over me then when I invert my cup;
Take me, if by the hair, and lift me up.”

“Give me a world, to part for praise and sunder.
The brooks be bells; the winds, in caverns dumb,
Wake fife and flute and flageolet and voice;
The fire-shook earth itself be the great drum;
And let the air the region’s bass out thunder;
The firs be violins; the reeds hautboys;
Rivers, seas, icebergs fill the great score up and under!
But rather dost thou hear the blundered words
Of breathing creatures; the music-lowing herds
Of thy great cattle; thy soft-bleating sheep;
O’erhovered by the trebles of thy birds,
Whose Christ-praised carelessness song-fills the deep;
Still rather a child’s talk who apart doth hide him,
And make a tent for God to come and sit beside him.”

“O Father, thou art my eternity.
Not on the clasp Of consciousness–on thee
My life depends; and I can well afford
All to forget, so thou remember, Lord.”

Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (George MacDonald) – 3 STARS – I took down several pages of quotations from this one, but the story-line was not especially intriguing.

Stories of GodStories of God (Rainer Maria Rilke) – 4 STARS – I have a love/hate relationship with this one. I love Rilke for being such a marvelous writer and for writing fairy-tales, and for loving children. I hate the irreverence of the book and the way it throws everything into a mood of insecurity and uncertainty and takes away from the eternal nature of fairy-tales.

Lady Susan (Jane Austen) – 3 STARS – A short, epistolary novel that Jane Austen wrote as a teenager, Lady Susan centers around the fate of an unscrupulous, conniving, flirtatious woman. As you would expect from something of this length and nature, it falls short of really drawing the reader into the story on an emotional level, and thus the climax is suitable but not remarkable.

David Elginbrod (George MacDonald) – 4 STARS – I got a lot of wonderful things out of this one, even though it did seem to go on and on at times, and MacDonald entered into a few too many sermonizing digressions. Hugh’s progress really did capture my interest and I felt the significance David Elginbrod’s far-reaching impact was powerfully demonstrated.

Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Anne Coulter) – 4 STARS – Anne Coulter is smart and funny and mostly right. She nails so many things squarely on their little heads that the pounding of hammers is sure to reverberate in the reader’s head long after the reading of this sarcastic, educational and entertaining book. However, like most people of her temperament, Coulter isn’t writing to convince anyone from the other side, and her wit is biting and overtly harsh, certain to turn away anyone who isn’t already more or less in agreement with her. I felt the chief value of this book was the numerous and vivid real-life examples that equip the reader with the context and organization necessary to argue the beliefs they hold but don’t know how to comprehensively defend. It’s also a great boost for those who feel their faith in conservatism wavering a little in the face of unrelenting outside pressure.

Teaching A Stone To Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Annie Dillard) – 4 STARS – My feelings about this one were exactly expressed in my review of Tickets For a Prayer Wheel above.

Poetry HandbookA Poetry Handbook (Mary Oliver) – 3 STARS – This small volume is loaded with some very useful advice for those who want to write poetry, and is beautifully written, as befits prose written by an author who is a poet. However, Oliver’s rejection of universals in poetry taints much of what she has to say and renders this a book that I would hesitate to recommend to someone else unless I knew they already had an understanding of the tension between the postmodern obsession with particulars and the traditional dedication to universal truth.

What I’m still reading:

The Complete Poems (W.H. Auden)
A Patriot’s History of the United States (by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen)
Hudson Taylor [Volume II] (by Howard Taylor)
The Complete Short Stories (Anton Chekhov)
Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Dickens)
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien)

So, how about you?

Imagination As Love

Kid ImaginationImagination is the power of image-creation. It is a living fire in the mind, for we are image-using creatures. Indeed, all our dealings and deliberations are the chasing – or the fleeing – of some picture we aspire or dread to enter into. Images are the way we understand the world, the way we sort what is desirable from what is to be avoided, the way we associate words with each other and words with deeds and words with the world. Words without pictures are without meaning. Images are the incarnation of language, the taking on of flesh.

This picture-processing begins in childhood. A child knows that words must go with something, they must belong to something. Like “spoon” belongs to the long, metal shovel that puts ripe, strong bananas between the teeth. Like “flowers” belongs to the cotton-white clusters that house the bees. Like “mommy” belongs to the soft, big person who knows all of the answers to everything.

SharkThe young people harried and hurried on every side by the world rushing to plot a plan, a course for all their days, they know it: how “actress” means they will strut the red carpet with the eyes of the world on their shimmering gown and their thick scarlet lipstick. How “secretary” means they will sit behind a little oak desk and speak in polished terms over the wires to disgruntled customers and important potential clients. How “engineer” means they will masterfully disassemble and gut the insides of automobiles, computer hard drives or spaceships. Based on the little that they know of the world, they chart their ways in hopes they will fall in with the image they saw once on the cover of National Geographic and loved: the sleek-skinned deep sea diver caressing the rubbery shark, the chic, fairytale couple kissing on the bridge over the Seine.

Red Carpet
A man or a woman who has not learned image-making is forever confined to understand the world through the images presented to him or her by life as it rushes by in its haphazard, careless way. Without imagination, she will not know until her own way takes her there what it is like to be an actress, a secretary, an engineer. She will not, perhaps, understand the possibility of soul-destroying preludes to the red carpet, the way she might have to give up everything she has for the eyes of the world on her mincing steps. Without imagination, how will she know that a secretary is more than the name of an employment position, that it is what she brings to it, that there are so very many pictures to go with a word?

Ten years in AfghanistanWithout imagination, a man will not know what it is like to be the parent of a runaway child or of a young boy slaughtered in an unjust war. He will not know what it is to be sick with hunger so that the smell of break cooking is dizzying. He will not know what it is to lose two legs, to lose his dream job, to lose his one true love. He will not know what it is to be the only survivor of a bombed village in an arid desert country. He will not know what it is like to be old and dying in a hospital with no one to visit you or even send cheap flowers.

Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed,” warned Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter. “By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion.”

This, perhaps, is one of the strongest arguments for the transcendent value of literature. A man who has not lived any of those things, when he reads the words of one who has, can know suddenly some part of what it is to walk in another pair of shoes that look nothing like his own. A man who has cultivated and nurtured imagination in himself, though he be young and untried and little-travelled, can yet know the world deeply and love it all the harder. And God so loved the world.

In recent days, I have been reading Anton Chekhov’s Complete Short Stories. It would be a waste of breath to remark that the man was a masterful teller of tales. That fact is well-known. But something else that he was, which gives his stories much of their value, was a fabulous image-maker. His stories are from a century past in a country across the globe, but they speak vividly of the same human spirit we encounter around us every day, that we “joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.”

One of these stories in particular has served for mmiserye as a stellar example of the importance of image-making to love. It is, of course, not certain that this story will act on everyone else in quite the same way, but it is beyond question that something else will.

The story is Misery. It is short and grim and sad and you can read it online here. It is just a sketch, an incomplete and unresolved look into another life. But when I read it, I cried as though at the end of a long, fully-developed work of tragedy. Such is the power of imagination.

Iona Potapov is a cab-driver in the snowy twilight of evening in long-ago Russia. His son has died and he is a poor man, a working-man, with no leisure for sorrow or for talk. He must load up his sledge with hasty, arrogant people all night and taxi them to and fro in the chill wind. Their schedules are brimming and they are not polite, but he is a man sick with grief and he must tell of it, though none should listen.

“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets off.

“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the right! You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips…. Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

“What?” inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”

“H’m! What did he die of?”

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:

“Who can tell! It must have been from fever…. He lay three days in the hospital and then he died…. God’s will.”

“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”

“Drive on! drive on!… ” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box…. Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white.

Iona is not necessarily a sentimental man, not necessarily a good man even. He is just a man who has lost a son. You have seen them before. And yet, have you really seen them? Have you really dedicated your powers to putting yourself in their place? So as to love?

And God so loved the world.

That He gave His only Son.

On Dorian Gray, Pre-Raphaelitism & The Treason of All Clerks

Dorian GrayKnown for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, 19th century Irish author Oscar Wilde was one of the best-known personalities of his time. A lavish and expensive character, he tackled his personal life in a cavalier manner and his many homosexual affairs brought about his two-year imprisonment in 1895. An aestheticist and a worshipper of beauty, Wilde wrote in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray,

Beauty is a form of Genius–is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.

These words he puts into the mouth of his character, Lord Henry, a luxurious, sensual, amoral, and dangerous dandy, who reminds the reader sharply and distinctly of Wilde himself. Indeed, Wilde is often identified with dozens of the quips and one-liners uttered by the cynical Lord Henry, who babbles incessant, destructive foolishness in a markedly eloquent manner.

But as Dorian Gray drags on, it becomes apparent that Lord Henry is the novel’s antagonist and the villain who is ultimately responsible for the tale’s tragic ending. Even Wilde, who created him in his own image, hates him. In fact, the end of Dorian Gray is a firm and frightful condemnation of everything its author stood for in the real world. It is as though this book is Wilde’s message to us from the other side of his own experiences. Like he is standing over there crying, “don’t come this way!” Crying, “it’s not what you think it is!” The author of Dorian Gray was full of wisdom.

Why, then, the absurd folly that followed him all his days? Why, when we know the truth, do we not go free? This is not a question that I mean to answer, but a question that is in itself an answer to the myth that knowledge is an answer of any kind at all.

The great end of life,” wrote Thomas Huxley, “is not knowledge but action.”

Poor old Oscar Wilde was vivid, devastated proof of the way that knowing, divorced of doing, is deceitful, is death. There are other examples, of course. And sadly, they throng in great numbers around the canvas and the colors, the paints and the pens, the poetry and the publishing-houses. Because art is a medium of theory, and one may hold a theory forever without doing anything about it.

found-rossettiIn April I had an opportunity to visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and was fortunate enough to be there at the same time as a touring Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. A long-time Pre-Raphaelite enthusiast, I was looking forward to this exhibit eagerly, but even I was not prepared for the full splendor of the vibrant colors, fascinating imagery and deep symbolism portrayed.

All of the artists represented had crafted brilliant and meaningful representations of redeeming love in a number of varied settings. Their works were weighty with truth, sparkling with beauty, truly magnificent. And yet I knew well that none of them had lived up to the ideals they so devotedly espoused.

300px-William_holman_hunt-the_shadow_of_deathAt the bookstore, I purchased Laurence Des Cars’ informative, illustrated volume about the Pre-Raphaelites, and over the next two days of the trip read it in other, less-interesting museums. All of my preconceptions about the artists’ tumultuous personal lives were proven correct, as were all of my suspicions that their art (for the most part) represented the glory they refused to incorporate into their own lives.

There is, of course, something disappointing about this realization. But, what is more important, there is in it a grave warning for the world of “creatives” and writers and thinkers and every form of artist and everyone who deals regularly with theories and with thoughts. As Ann Voskamp says so memorably, “The words must always become flesh. Else they aren’t words but lies.”

The journals that have housed my thinking and my ponderings for many long years are wide with words. I have kept them in very good repair, have lovingly glued loose bindings and washed stains from their leathern covers and looked after them. Why? Because my soul is so easily unsettled, so quickly ruffled. Writing has been a way for me to anchor my anxious and wandering mind. “Nothing has really happened until it has been described in words,” said Virginia Woolf. I have lived according to this motto and have hundreds of pages of tiny calligraphic script to show for it. The books are beautiful to look upon, and my heart laughs when I read through them. And yet, like anything built upon an untruth, this habit of obsessive chronicling hasn’t been accompanied by satisfaction.

Because it isn’t true that things haven’t occurred unless we tell of them. (Indeed, the telling of a thing very often makes it other than it was when it happened.) On the contrary, the only time a thing does not occur is when we don’t do it.

Our 26th president knew this. “I have a perfect horror of words that are not backed up by deeds,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt. Theoretically, we all share his disgust with hypocrisy. And yet, is our horror deep enough yet? Is our horror so deep yet that we understand that the wretched innocence of ignorance is to be preferred over the deathly disobedience of the learned?

C.S. Lewis wrote, in a letter to Arthur Greeves,

It is a shock to realize that the mere thinking it may be nothing, and that only the tiny bit which we really practice is likely to be ours in any sense of which death cannot make hay.

What is everything going to look like on the other side of the rain-curtain? Will our art be enough to outweigh our days in the solemn scales of justice? Hardly.

W.H. Auden knew this well, and At The Graves of Henry James bemoans it hauntingly.

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

What, then? What shall we do about this? Since it becomes increasingly evident that it is the doing which counts, after all.

Perhaps it is not as important as we thought it was that we publish ten books or express our inner struggles in pages of private prose or compose a symphony as stupendous as the Fifth, or paint a masterpiece that will endure for a thousand years.

Not to say that there is no importance accompanying these things, but only that there may not be. Because after a thousand years, what then? Because what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his soul?

The misused, deceived Dorian Gray gets the last word. He says it to his betrayer, Lord Henry, in defiance, in anguish. In his careless, offhand way, the story’s villain has told the tortured protagonist of an encounter he had with a street-preacher. Lord Henry says,

“I thought of telling the prophet that art had a soul, but that man had not. I am afraid, however, he would not have understood me.”

“Don’t, Harry,” says the younger man, the scales dropping from his artificial, gorgeous eyes, his evil eyes, “The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought and sold and bartered away. It can be poisoned or made perfect.”

Some New Songs and Some Old Ones

deepdarkvalleyOver the past few months, I’ve been introduced to some fresh music that has substantially enriched my life. Some of this was recorded decades ago and some of it only just released this year on Noisetrade. As a symbol of appreciation for those who have compiled and composed all of this beauty and for those who have presented it to me, I have created a little list in order to present these songs to you in turn, and hope you will find something here that stays with you a long, long time.

Through The Deep, Dark Valley (The Oh Hellos) – [This album is still available as a FREE download over at Noisetrade] The Deep Dark Valley, which I discovered courtesy of the Inkslinger, is one of my favorite finds of this year. Tyler and Maggie Heath’s exquisite concept album explores themes of creation, sin and renewal in language that avoids clichés admirably and employs melodies both fascinating and surprising. With a folksy style that features festive rhythms and powerful backup vocals, The Deep Dark Valley is sharply reminiscent of The Lumineers and some of the tracks (especially The Truth Is a Cave) sound almost like a redeemed version of Ho Hey.

It seems impossible to pick a favorite piece from this album, (especially since the tracks are intended to flow into one another) but I found the songs on prodigality to be particularly well-realized. Second Child, Restless Child captures the wildness of the universal runaway with its intense tones. Wishing Well and In Memoriam are two winsome and heartfelt laments and the Lament of Eustace Scrubb is eerie and hopeful. All told, if this album weren’t being offered for free right now, I’d consider it worth paying for, and will be eager to hear more from The Oh Hellos in future.

Where Eyes Don’t Go (The Gray Havens) – [This album is still available as a FREE download over at Noisetrade] How can you go wrong with a band called The Gray Havens? A relatively short collection with its six tracks, Where Eyes Don’t Go is newlywed Dave and Licia Radford’s very first album. These artists certainly have room to grow, but the album includes at least a couple of especially enjoyable pieces. I was quite taken with the swinging poetry of Silver and the delicious hopefulness of Let’s Get Married.

2ndactsThe Hymns Collection (2nd Chapter of Acts) – Even before we were old enough to read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, my sister and I already knew by heart some of the songs from the 2nd Chapter of Acts’ concept album, Roar of Love, which explores themes from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. One of my earliest memories is of putting that cassette into the tape-player in our family living-room and dancing in circles around the carpet to Are You Goin’ to Narnia? (Oh, take me along with you!)

This was the only experience I had with the 2nd Chapter of Acts until I discovered their lovely (and rather old, seeing that it was released in the year I was born) Hymns Collection a couple of months ago. I suppose that, given the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that I fell in love with this album immediately. It sounds to me like Edmund and Lucy singing our triumphant melodies of declaration, and there is really something irresistible about hearing the same voice that celebrated redemption with Something Is Happening In Me rejoicing in turn with, “my sin –  of the bliss of this glorious, thought – my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more…”

Matthew Ward and his sisters deliver a grandiose rendition of A Mighty Fortress of Our God, and chorus the Ode To Joy delightfully. Some other highlights for me are their passionate renderings of Fairest Lord Jesus and Be Still My Soul.

lotrThe Lord of the Rings: Complete Songs and Poems (The Tolkien Ensemble) – This massive project is one of my family’s favorite finds of this year. The collection of four albums and over 60 tracks includes musical renditions of every song and piece of poetry included in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s ideals and moods have been remarkably well-realized by over 150 professional musicians. The CD lyric booklet includes illustrations by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. These albums have been a wonderful supplement as my sister and I are taking turns reading the trilogy to our little brother, who has finally come of a suitable age to be introduced into this great and exciting story, which is a thing he has been anticipating expectantly for over half of his life.

Some pieces which I felt were captured especially well include Bilbo’s “Old Walking Song,” (the road goes ever on and on) “Tom Bombadil’s Song” (which we sang in our house for weeks after first finding this music), “The Merry Old Inn” song, (which continues to be sung all too often around here) “The Song of Beren and Luthien,”The Song of Earendil,”Galadriel’s Song of Eldamar,” and “Sam’s Song in the Orc-Tower.”

burlaptocashmereBurlap to Cashmere (Burlap to Cashmere) – Burlap To Cashmere’s 2011 self-titled album was my first introduction to this fascinating group of artists. A collection of upbeat music with strong Greek and Mediterranean influences and rhythms and gritty, thoughtful lyrics, this album packs a huge punch. One of my favorite tracks is The Orchestrated Lovesong, with its stirring refrain, calling, “I want to live on a boat and sail away with my children…” The Other Country, which exudes contagious confidence and urges us, “do not be afraid of this earthly city,” is strongly reminiscent of some similar words from another author, and is a fitting finale for this remarkable compilation of songs.

The Harvest (K.S. Rhoads) – [This album is still available as a FREE download over at Noisetrade] K.S. Rhoads is a talented artist, but I don’t feel that this album (From Outside The Wilderness) is his best work. However, it does include my favorite of his songs, The Harvest, and I feel it’s worth downloading the entire album for the sake of that one exquisite and haunting piece of music.

The Weight of Glory (Heath McNease) – [This album is still available as a FREE download over at Noisetrade] The Weight of Glory is a collection of songs inspired by the works of C.S. Lewis. I haven’t had an opportunity to listen to this in its entirety yet, but have enjoyed some of what I’ve heard, and look forward to an opportunity to listen to the rest of the album.

The Luggage of an Optimist (Miriam Marston) – I discovered Miriam Marston some time ago, but can’t pass up an opportunity to share a link to this album. Although it’s by no means a perfect compilation, The Luggage of an Optimist is riddled with poetry and cosmic ideas and the influence of Chesterton. I discovered this album at Christmastime and was particularly struck by two pieces dealing with witnesses of the Incarnation. Rumors of a Good Thing is presumably narrated from the perspective of one of the famed “kings of orient.” In tones that are wistful and awaken a wild longing, Marston sings, “I hear there’s a king on the other end of this star lit road,” and every single sense in us wants to take the road as far as it goes.

Simeon tells of the aged prophet in the “graceful moment” when he “finally sees what faith becomes.” When she tells how, “with his last breath he thought how we were in the best of hands, and at that he smiled,” we smile too.

In Morning At Ostia, Marston succeeds in imparting a sweet, strong flavor of the peace that passes understanding when she says,

“By the way there’s a chance I may seem relatively
Unattached to this place.

And he said to me ‘one day you’ll see, all of this will feel like one of your dreams,
You will wake up in my arms.’
And he said to me “all days can be steps on a road leading to me, til you wake up in my arms.”

And, oh! Maybe this is all that it takes to be satisfied.

So, what have you been listening to lately?

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