Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Man Booker International Prize and John Henry Newman

Looking through the list of finalists for this year's Man Book International Prize which was announced today, I was reminded of something Newman wrote in The Idea of a University:

"First, then, it is to be considered that, whether we look to countries Christian or heathen, we find the state of literature there as little satisfactory as it is in these islands; so that, whatever are our difficulties here, they are not worse than those of Catholics all over the world. I would not indeed say a word to extenuate the calamity, under which we lie, of having a literature formed in Protestantism; still, other literatures have disadvantages of their own; and, though in such matters comparisons are impossible, I doubt whether we should be better pleased if our English Classics were tainted with licentiousness, or defaced by infidelity or scepticism. I conceive we should not much mend matters if we were to exchange literatures with the French, Italians, or Germans."

I don't agree with everything Newman wrote in this particular essay but I do recognise the temptation to look for greener grass in the literature of other countries. So what do we find when we examine the list of finalists? Amin Maalouf, who explores his own complex identity in Origins and In the Name of Identity, is a Catholic but the writers from Catholic Spain and Italy (Juan Goytisolo and Dacia Maraini) are less than enthusiastic about the Church. The Australian, David Malouf, though baptised a Catholic, seems to have stopped going to mass as a teenager. Marilynne Robinson is a Calvinist and Philip Pullman we all know about.

Does this mean that these writers are not worth reading? Of course not: they are all fine writers. But it does mean that we are going to be frustrated if we look to other countries for something we can't find in our own. To return to Newman: "One literature may be better than another, but bad will be the best, when weighed in the balance of truth and morality. It cannot be otherwise; human nature is in all ages and all countries the same; and its literature, therefore, will ever and everywhere be one and the same also. Man's work will savour of man; in his elements and powers excellent and admirable, but prone to disorder and excess, to error and to sin. Such too will be his literature; it will have the beauty and the fierceness, the sweetness and the rankness, of the natural man, and, with all its richness and greatness, will necessarily offend the senses of those who, in the Apostle's words, are really "exercised to discern between good and evil.""

Thursday, 24 March 2011

A Literary Challenge

How about this for a literary challenge? Let's say there are roughly 33 weeks in a school year - and, yes, I am embarrassed to type that - then could we (or our students) create a History of English Literature in 33 texts? Or, if we give ourselves three years and one text a week, a History of English Literature in 99 texts? It's the literary equivalent of A History of the World in 100 Objects.

I'm quite looking forward to constructing a History of English Literature ... in Reverse, starting with the 21st Century and working my way backwards. Each text and accompanying comments about interesting literary features must fit onto an A4 sheet of paper.

I'm also going to give the task to some of my students. It will be good for some of the older ones to think about how literary canons are formed. It will raise all sorts of questions: which authors, which genres, which genders, which religious affiliations, which countries, which languages, which dates? 

Any suggestions gratefully received.

Monday, 21 March 2011

When Historical Memory Fails

There is a slightly bizarre quotation from Stephen Layton in today's Telegraph: "when it comes to choral singing," he claims, "we are the best in the world, with a tradition stretching back to the Reformation". Is he really claiming that there was no decent choral singing in England before the Reformation? 

It seems hard to believe but we see much the same with literature. As far as many schools and exam boards are concerned we have a great tradition stretching back to the Reformation. But before that English Literature wasn't worth bothering with. And anyway it's too difficult to read. And we weren't taught it ourselves at university.

Fortunately, there are some good resources out there to help us cope with this failure of historical memory.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Bells of Nagasaki

We should be careful not to make crass comparisons but I can't help but be reminded of Takashi Nagai's wonderful The Bells of Nagasaki at the moment. Nagai was a Catholic radiologist who survived the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan's most Catholic city, and described his experiences before, during and after the bombing in a wonderfully restrained manner. He did not shirk the hard questions (indeed, he came up with some arresting answers) but his book focuses more on human stories than on hard political or theological issues.

You can also read about Nagai in this book from Ignatius Press but I'd definitely start with The Bells of Nagasaki.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Words of the Week

As well as a Poem of the Week, I also have a Word of the Week in my classroom. Next week's word is going to be Lent, which is a shortened form of the now obsolete lenten, which in Old English simply meant spring. In fact, as the OED explains, "The ecclesiastical sense of the word is peculiar to English; in the other Germanic languages the only sense is ‘spring’."

In a few weeks, I shall choose Easter. Again the OED makes some interesting points. Not only does it explain the derivation - "from Eostre (Northumbrian spelling of Éastre), the name of a goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox; her name (:—Old Germanic *austrôn- cogn. w. Sanskrit usrā dawn; see east v.) shows that she was originally the dawn-goddess" - but it also points out that the festival corresponds "to the Jewish passover, the name of which it bears in most of the European langs. (Greek πασχά, < Hebrew pésaḥ, Latin pascha, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Dutch pask)."

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Alexander Pope: Part 1

There is an interesting article by Brian Young on ‘Pope and ideology’ in The Cambridge Companion to Alexander Pope. “This essay,” he says in the opening sentence, “will unpack the simple statement that Alexander Pope was born to Catholic parents in 1688, and that he died in 1744, still a Catholic.”

Young reminds us that, in Pope’s day, Catholics were legally unable to inherit or purchase land, were forbidden from sending their children abroad to be educated as Catholics, and, bizarrely, were not allowed to keep a horse worth more than ten pounds. Alexander Pope was, therefore, very profoundly shaped by the discrimination his family faced because of their religion.

The result was, according to Young, that he became “very profoundly a poet of opposition … Far from being the laureate of Augustan England, Pope was a firm witness to the perceived shortcomings of the Whig alliance between Church and State.” This doesn’t mean that he was an orthodox Catholic: in fact he had “a problematic relationship with religion” and distanced himself  “from much of the religious debate that engulfed a lifetime deeply marked and shadowed by the politics of religion”.

It is perhaps no surprise then that An Essay on Man, which is the poem most likely still to be studied in schools, “contains both Catholic theology and elements of freethinking”. We might argue about the balance of orthodoxy and heterodoxy in the poem but what is clear is that the poem certainly doesn’t contain “anything like a consistently or straightforwardly Christian exercise in apologetics.”

So what do we get in Pope’s poetry? Young quotes two particularly significant passages. The first is from one of his Imitations of Horace:
            My Head and Heart thus flowing thro’ my Quill,
            Verse-man or Prose-man, term me what you will,
            Papist or Protestant, or both between,
            Like good Erasmus in an honest Mean,
            In Moderation placing all my Glory,
            While Tories call me Whig, and Whigs a Tory.

To a certain extent, in other words, Pope was a mere Christian, but a typically moderate Augustan one. However, there is another passage which suggests that Pope wasn’t simply a moderate:

            Hopes after Hopes of pious Papists fail’d,
            While mighty WILLIAM’s thundering Arm prevail’d.
            For Right Hereditary tax’d and fin’d,
            He [Pope’s father] stuck to Poverty with Peace of Mind;
            And me, the Muses help’d to undergo it;
            Convict a Papist He, and I a Poet.

Young identifies “a secularizing drift from religion to poetry as a means of ideological resistance” in Pope's work. As has been suggested many times before, this same secularizing drift from religion to literature is commonly met in 20th Century literary texts. Pope is rarely taught in schools these days but in many ways he is a very familiar modern figure.

However, we can perhaps overdo this emphasis on Pope's secularizing drift. Young also recognises that “Pope’s use of satire in disguising his own commitments … makes it occasionally difficult to disentangle the religious elements of his thinking”. Indeed, he professes himself unable to explain why Pope remained a Catholic: “Why Pope, whose religious character remains obscure, chose to remain a Roman Catholic when conversion to Anglicanism would have procured him an altogether easier and more comfortable political identity,” he writes, “is a genuine enigma.”

There is one obvious answer, though it’s not an answer one normally finds in academic textbooks. Just possibly, as G.K. Chesterton once suggested in another context, the great fisherman “caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”