Thursday, November 27, 2014

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Look Back At "Tolkien: A Biography"

Recently my schedule has changed, so that I now have vast stretches of empty waste time--much of it time waiting for buses (or on buses). One particularly grey and dreary day last week that promised to be even more tedious than usual, I decided to risk one of my precious books for the daily journey. It was a last minute decision and I scrambled to choose--it had to be interesting enough, not new, and if possible something I had another copy of, so that if something did happen to it (God forbid!) it wouldn't be a total catastrophe.

After a panicky consideration of the usual suspects, I thought of my paperback Tolkien resources, lately made more accessible by my winter cleaning and shuffling arrangements. I opened the drawer (I have a huge, battered old dresser topped with a re-purposed china hutch to house my Tolkien Archives) thinking perhaps to peruse The Tolkien Reader again, but the only version I saw was my original copy, which for sentimental reasons I do not care to subject to further wear and tear. Then my eye lighted on my paperback copy of Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter. Bingo! I slipped it into my coat pocket and hurried out to my ride.

This is the same book I bought back in 1978, and is one of the few books out of my thousands that I actually scrawled my name in, back before I developed a reluctance to mark up any volume. To put it into some historical perspective, it was just a few years since JRRT had passed away, and The Silmarillion (1977) had been published not too distantly. The Rankin/Bass Hobbit (1977) and the Bakshi LOTR (1978) were hanging in the air, and all and all it was a sort of Tolkien Renaissance --if a somewhat cheesy, 1970's sort of incarnation. My own personal interest, though strong, was still in its infancy, and I was eager to have this authorized, in-depth look at this enigmatic man's life.

It is an unusual experience to be reading this book again, and in the same copy. Although I have dipped into it many times (mostly in the hardback copy I acquired, and often to just look up some facts and quotes), this is the first time I am giving it a complete reading once more, probably since the early Eighties. Bringing to it not only an expanded knowledge of Tolkien's history but also a wider experience of life and a more critical eye, it is like reading a whole new book. But still, the idiosyncrasies of the paper, binding, and print evoke the time for me, and I am filled with nostalgia. Even the cover has the familiar, ubiquitous Ballantine Books portrait photo: the grinning, pipe-clutching Tolkien in a hugely collared coat.

One thing it has sparked in me are a few thoughts about biography, authenticity, and time. Early books about JRRT, like William Ready's The Tolkien Relation or Daniel Grotta-Kurska's Architect of Middle-earth, are necessarily scattered with inaccuracies and assumptions. A certain amount of hagiography (and even caricature) of popular figures and the personal biases of the biographer creep into some accounts. People who have actually known the person (albeit in one specific--and limited--aspect of their life) and those who have researched what the paper trail reveals have different takes on that life.

After personalities die down and sensationalism passes away, a more complete and perhaps clearer perception of the subject of the biography emerges. So, early does not necessarily equal authentic, and later does not perforce imply legendary. In the future we might well have a version trimmed to fit our own social expectations and prejudices; in fact, a book has already been written focusing on Tolkien as eco-warrior, and there is beginning to be what I can only call legends about what some perceive as his misogyny and racism.

A deeper and more thorough examination of Tolkien's life (as well as a closer literary and philosophical analysis of his works) does much to dispel those legends. I find, though, that however much I learn about the man, there is something about him that is completely elusive, perhaps only to be glimpsed in what is revealed in his actual writing. Since he was not a big fan of "biographical literary criticism," I wonder what he might think of that.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Yet Even More Variations on a Thanksgiving Theme

In 1943 Norman Rockwell produced a series of four paintings on the Four Freedoms, a concept that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had introduced in one of his speeches. One of these paintings, Freedom From Want, has come to exemplify the old American traditional Thanksgiving, and is most often referred to as the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. Over the years there have been many spoofs and variations on this image; I present here several more of them. (Every time I think there can surely be no more, I always find some!)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Talking Turkey

In a bit of facetious political whimsy, written in a letter to his daughter, Benjamin Franklin once expounded on the Turkey as a more fitting American symbol than the Bald Eagle. This has since expanded into a legend that he seriously put this before Congress. I, for one, am glad that this was an effort neither true nor successful, because I hate the thought of not being able to eat turkey at Thanksgiving because of its official status. Interestingly enough, the turkey was a also symbol of Pride and Vanity in early European art after the bird was imported from the New World.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"BODY AND SOUL BUT TRULY ONE": The Catholic Position

362 The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that "then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.

363 In Sacred Scripture the term "soul" often refers to human life or the entire human person. But "soul" also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God's image: "soul" signifies the spiritual principle in man.

364 The human body shares in the dignity of "the image of God": it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:

Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.

365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.

366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not "produced" by the parents - and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Dawk, Mr. Dawkins!

Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness. He tells us that “the Pauline belief that everybody is born in sin, inherited from Adam (whose embarrassing non-existence was unknown to St. Paul), is one of the very nastiest aspects of Christianity.” It is true that the idea of original sin has become one with a morbid preoccupation with sexuality, which has been part of Christianity throughout much of its history. Even so, it is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact. With his myth or metaphor of the death instinct thanatos, Freud—a lifelong atheist—recognized that impulses of hatred and cruelty are integral to the human psyche. As an atheist myself, it is a view I find no difficulty in sharing.

Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally. Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture. Both Augustine and before him the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria explicitly cautioned against literalism in interpreting the biblical creation story. Later, in the twelfth century, Maimonides took a similar view. It was only around the time of the Reformation that the idea that the story was a factual account of events became widely held. When he maintains that Darwin’s account of evolution displaced the biblical story, Dawkins is assuming that both are explanatory theories—one primitive and erroneous, the other more advanced and literally true. In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.

--John Gray, The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sunday, November 2, 2014

All Souls Day: The Three Living and the Three Dead

"The precise origins of the Three Living and the Three Dead are still somewhat mysterious, but there are many versions of the tale dating back to the 13th century, with the best-known coming from England and France. The basic version of the story goes like this: three young noblemen are out hunting when they suddenly come across three corpses, which are in varying states of decay, but nonetheless still animated. Unsurprisingly, the young men express shock and dismay at the sight, while the three corpses admonish them to consider the transience of life and to improve their behaviour before it is too late." --Sarah J. Biggs. - See more at: