Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In medio vitae summus in morte

Amanda Simpson is one of many remarkable people that I have had the privilege and pleasure to know from our former colonies across the Atlantic. A down-to-earth-gal from South Carolina, Amanda is something of a scientific whizz. She used to juggle radioactive nuts and bolts on nuclear submarines in the US Navy, and now teaches nuclear physics or some such ethereal subject, still with the US Navy. She is the kind of doughty person who doesn't mind spending long periods in a long metal tube under water. It takes all sorts, of course, and our Amanda is one of them.

Amanda is also a lapsed atheist. As a Maths major (she would say a Math major, of course) in college, she spent her days working through the quantifiable problems of the universe, and her nights pondering the qualitative ones, a process that ultimately led to her baptism in the Catholic Church probably about ten years ago.

I last saw Amanda in Oxford about fifteen months ago. She was on her way back from World Youth Day in Germany, and I took her on a tour of some of the Oxford colleges (okay, and pubs too, I believe). She is a photo buff and snapped away throughout the tour; here's one she took of the back of my head in Christ Church dining room

Well, who would take a photo of the front?

Not long after she returned to the States, she got engaged to be married to John Bianco. I never met him, but his photo on her website shows a gentle, bemused man with a broad smile and the high forehead of a thinker

The photo turns out to have been taken during John's last Christmas. Amanda posted this message on a message board on Tuesday of this week:

My fiancee, the love of my life, John Bianco died on Sunday of sudden cardiac arrest. We were to be wed in a tridentine high Mass this April. He was 32. We were just having a conversation and he suddenly stopped breathing. I called the paramedics and he was transported to the ER, but there was nothing they could do. I managed to get him conditional Last Rites, but he was already dead when the priest arrived. He needs all the prayers for his soul that he can get. He read this forum nearly everyday and I'm sure he would appreciate all your prayers. I, too, could use your prayers as I struggle to find meaning in all of this. It seems so cruel that God would take him away three months before we were to marry. We all have crosses to bare, but this is one I cannot bare alone. I am struggling to find how this all fits into His Divine Plan. So, I beg all of you, get out your rosaries, if you know priests have masses said for him, offer up your Communions and indulgences, please, please, pray for the repose of the soul of my John. He was a good man, a good traditionalist Catholic, and he will truly be missed. Thank you all. Amanda.

The Lord bless you, and keep you, John. The Lord show his face to you, and have mercy on you. The Lord turn his countenance to you, and give you peace.

I have no news as yet from Amanda but I hope to have some soon.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Coughs of glory

The victories of the weekend have been overshadowed by the dratted virus which is hanging around, rather like a bad smell, or perhaps more like someone unpleasant who cannot take a hint.

Bizarre really; I cannot imagine anyone wanting to share this particular week with me. I am lumbering through a translation which, though not as thankless as some I have done, will remain a major burden until I can get it off my desk. Classes for the second semester began yesterday. I now teach for 7 1/2 hours on a Monday, and I arrived home feeling like a man who'd been run over at high speed by a train carrying extra-large elephants. And every academic book I pick up seems like it should have been central to my thesis and isn't.

There are days, weeks, months like that, but is it supposed to last for years? Reminds me of that scene from Fawlty Towers where Basil is talking to himself:

Basil: 'Zzzzzm'. What was that? 'That was your life mate.' Really? Do I get another? 'No, sorry, mate, that's your lot.'

It will all be over soon, as they said about WWI before Christmas 1914.

Which reminds me - in a "word-association-football' kind of way - that today I learnt where Stanley Kubrick got the name for his film Paths of Glory. The film is a marvellous study based on true events during the First World War. A French general decides to launch his men into a suicidal attack on the German trenches, and when they cannot even get out of their own trenches due to the intensity of the German barrage, the French general orders his own artillery to fire on the French! Covering his tracks with alacrity - I always keep a pot ready for covering mine too - , the general orders large numbers of men to be court martialled for cowardice and shot, though he finally settles for three (all of whom are chosen at random and had fought well during the attack). Kurt Douglas plays their commanding officer, a former barrister, and defends the men, showing up the absurdity of the trial. All to no avail. The whole thing is a stitch up to comfort the pride and blind arrogance of the general, and the three innocent men are taken for execution in what must be one of the most troubling scenes in cinema.

So, whither the title Paths of Glory? It comes, seemingly, from a drawing of the trenches made during the war. Two soliders can be seen face down in the mud, clearly dead. You only see this, however, in the uncensored version. The censored version predictably has 'censored' stamped across it obscuring the two bodies. The drawing is called 'the Paths of Glory'. The irony of Kubrick's title is borrowed, but is no less effective for that.

No paths of glory for me today, and I'm grateful; just a tickly throat, a chesty, weakling cough and dull aches.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The night brought counsel

The virus is still hanging on by the tips of its microscopic fingers. I can feel its nails digging in somewhere behind my epiglotis. Mustn't grumble though. Better things are happening in Lyon than sore throats and cold weather. Perhaps some better things are happening even because of the sore throats and bad weather.

Take last night for example. I awoke about 3am in my chilly bedroom. Being on the north face of our building, my chambre receives the full blast of the icy, continental winds, and so is bound to be cold. That, at least, is how my landlord explains the near-deep freeze temperatures in there. Personally, I prefer to think that if he left the heating on at night, my room might have a fighting chance of being a little warmer.

Come 4am, I decided I had had enough of being frozen to death, and made up my mind to make a rush for the warmth of the kitchen and begin breakfast. Turning to the moth-eaten teddy on the fireplace, left there by a previous occupant of the room - probably carried out with frostbite for all I know - , I said soulfully, 'I'm just going out. I may be gone for some time.'

But that early breakfast brought about something of a miracle. I kid you not. Now in the final weeks of my PhD (or should that be dying embers?) I have been struggling to revise my first chapter, a difficult and knotty excursion into the sociology of religion and the problems of secularization. Two of the brainiest people I know have read it and been defeated by it. The signs were not good. But how was I to change it? It seemed like a well-knitted jumper; start pulling out one thread and the rest could come out too. Or perhaps, just a pack of cards!

And then, over my 4am bowl of coffee and bread, it came to me all in a flash how I could revise the entire chapter: what could be cut, what could be rearranged, what could be reshaped. I spent the rest of the morning putting my inspiration into effect. I'll spare you the details. Read the thesis when it's published (if ever!).

On reflexion, I'm not quite sure what it all shows. Such moments are rare in these big projects. I have been trying to work this out for quite some time but to no avail.

Perhaps it only goes to show the virtues of not putting the heating on at night.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Snow, viruses and 'Die Grosse Stille'

I write today from a snowy, wintry Lyon, peeking out in resignation beneath several layers of extra clothing, and suffering, nonetheless, the sharp stabbing pains of some bloody French virus in the back of my throat.

Oh course, I say it's French, but no virus has a nationality or feels strong national sentiment. They promiscuously mix with any old foreigner who trots by happily minding his own business. So, yes - and this is what I'm driving at - viruses are the original internationalists. The only differences being that real internationalists are harder to swallow, and they can rarely be shifted, not even by a course of diarrhea-inducing antibiotics. We await that particular advance in medical science with, it must be admitted, a mixture of anxiety and not a little excitement. In the meantime, death to all viruses, say I.

Thoughts of the powdery stuff take me back to a film I saw during the holidays, Die Grosse Stille, now released in English as Into Great Silence, a documentary giving an aperçu of the lives of Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse in Savoy. The 'Great Silence' is something of a play on words; there is the magnum silencium of the monastic rule, but also the spiritual peace of souls dedicated to God and which come to maturity in the physical silence of the imposing, Savoyard mountain scenery, broken only by the sound of bells, psalms chanted in the dead-of-night, and the swishing of sandals and robes in the cloister corridors.

There is, however, a remarkable scene near the end of the film where the Carthusians go out for recreation, and set up their own toboggan-run on the side of a steep hill. Then, the Grosse Stille is suddenly rent with screaming, whooping, tobogganing monks, zooming down the mountain with their scapulars flapping in the wind. As I recall the scene, I have to blot out from my memory the gentle, faux-bourdon snores emanating from the friend with whom I was - theoretically - watching the film, and who, being on the better side of a good meal and several glasses of wine, had begun what Carthusians would probably call an 'Apostle's meditation' (cf. the Garden of Olives).

Still, as I recall the scene, I'm persuaded to look with a kindlier eye on the chilly, clear-blue, winter sky and the now crusty, freezing snow along the Lyonnais pavements, knowing that somewhere, some happy monk is probably tobogganing down a Savoyard slope with his scapular flapping in the wind.

I hope he's praying for my virus. It's on death row.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What's in a name?

'Chesteretté', you say dubiously when you read the signature at the bottom of these ramblings, 'who or what is that?'

Quite right. Who or what is the 'Chesteretté'?

Those familiar with Chesterton might know that George Bernard Shaw christened the partnership of Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc 'the Chesterbelloc'. In Joseph Pearce's admirable biography, The Innocence and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton, Pearce takes this even further by creating the 'Chesterblogg' (Chesterton married Frances Blogg) and even, Lord help us, the 'Chestershaw' to refer to Chesterton's friendship with GBS himself.

Hence, Chesteretté.

But why Chesterton, and why Retté? And, who is Retté anyway?

I'm nearly at the end of a thesis in which I have brought Chesterton and Retté together as test cases of the reaction to secularization in the Catholic literary revivals in England and France. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century - a period of aggressive secularization in France and, it must be said, bumbling, piecemeal secularization in England - the literary constellations of both countries were graced by many individuals who decided to chuck in godlessness and try the Catholic Church for a change. The French Catholic literary revival boasts names like Charles Péguy, Paul Claudel, J.K. Huysmans and Jacques Maritain. The English Catholic literary revival includes such luminaries as Gerard Manley Hopkins, G.K. Chesterton, Robert Hugh Benson and Evelyn Waugh. My theory is that these two movements are fed by the same rejection of the various trends of secularization; through my test cases - from which are taken the soubriquet 'Chesteretté' - I try in my thesis to examine a small part of the map. A longer and more detailed study will one day have to be written, but, heck, give me a chance!

So, assuming you know who Chesterton was (and you'll get a million Google hits with Chesterton in . 0001 of a second), let me tell you something about Retté.

Adolphe Retté was born in 1863 into a largely disfunctional family. Raised mostly by his grandparents, he suffered from his mother's neglect and his father's prolonged absences. His two sisters died in childhood, and his grandfather in 1871. As a child Retté played on his own mostly, spending time inventing fairy stories in the woods and then eargerly recounting them at home. After leaving boarding school, where he had shown both precocious literary gifts and a willingness to get into trouble, he served in the French calvalry for five years.

His ambition on leaving the army in 1886 was to make it big as a writer, and after his arrival in Paris he fell in with the Symbolist poets whose manifesto had just been published. In the following years, he published several volumes of Symbolist poetry, shot through not only with the dreamy imprecisions and themes associated with that movement, but overcast by a nihilism borne of his continual disappointments in life. Everyone, it seems, to whom he ever got close, passed away. (It must get discouraging after a while.) He was subsequently a journalist on a number of literary reviews, an associate of anarchists, a friend of Georges Clemenceau who became President of France, and a fiery critic of writer J.K Huysmans who had converted to the Catholic Church.

As a devotee of extreme left-wing trade unionism, he preached to the proletariat about the coming socialist revolution, and about the happiness that Science and Reason would bring humanity at large. Little did he realize that this was the beginining of his conversion. Drinking with workers after such a lecture, he was stumped by their demanding to know how scientists explain the origin of the universe, a question he knew he could not convincingly or truthfully answer without admitting that the supposedly omniscient scientists didn't know. Cracks suddenly appeared in the walls of the temple he had built to Reason, as he relates in his autobiography. The workers were not happy either!

His conversion process to the Catholic Church in 1906 was as much a shock to him as to everybody else, and saw him at one point on the verge of suicide. After making his general confession to a priest of Saint Sulpice in Paris, he collapsed with tears of relief into the arms of the confessor whose own face was streaming with tears of joy. His writing talents were subsequently focused on generating a body of reflections, studies and memoirs, all inspired by this conversion. Notable among these are his spiritual autobiography Du Diable à Dieu (1907), the novel Le Règne de la Bête (1908) about an anarchist hoping to bomb Notre Dame cathedral, and Au Pays des Lys noirs (1913), an assortment of memoirs mostly concering anarchism. Several attempts to enter a monastery were unsuccessful, and, having abandoned his career as a literary journalist, he lived on the little money he made from his books, the occasional speaking engagement, and on a small independent income which of course was wiped out by the First World War. Before and after the war, he was associated somewhat with Charles Maurras's monarchist movement Action Française, but distanced himself from them after their condemnation by Pope Pius XI in 1926. His finally years were spent in penury. He lived in a small flat in Beaune, and he died alone on 8th December 1930, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, his health broken, but his spirit humbled and sanctified, and his mind peaceful and contented.

And that is Adolphe Retté. He and Chesterton never met, to my knowledge. It would have been something of a mismatch. The rolypoly, beer-swilling, joke-cracking Englishman would have undoubtedly taken an interest in the drawn, garret-living, ex-Symbolist poet. Retté would have savoured Chesterton's wit, and his philosophical depth. But would they have been friends? I doubt it. The French and English rarely get on!

Their meeting is probably a lot more felicitous on the page; this is why I have brought them together as standard bearers of anti-secularization. And having lived with them throughout my PhD, there's just enough of them both in me to justify the soubriquet.


Zen Sarcasm

In a spirit of respect for other philosophical traditions (stop sniggering you there at the back), I give you the Zen guide to sarcasm.

1. Do not walk behind me, for I may not lead. Do not walk ahead of me, for I may not follow. Do not walk beside me either. Just pretty much leave me the hell alone.

2. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a broken fan belt and leaky tire.

3. It's always darkest before dawn. So if you're going to steal your neighbor's newspaper, that's the time to do it.

4. Don't be irreplaceable. If you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted.

5. Always remember that you're unique. Just like everyone else.

6. Never test the depth of the water with both feet.

7. If you think nobody cares if you're alive, try missing a couple of car payments.

8. Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.That way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.

9. If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.

10. Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish,and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.

11. If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.

12. If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.

13. Some days you're the bug; some days you're the windshield.

14. Everyone seems normal until you get to know them.

15. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your pocket.

16. A closed mouth gathers no foot.

17. Duct tape is like 'The Force'. It has a light side and a dark side, and it holds the universe together.

18. There are two theories to arguing with women. Neither one works.

19. Generally speaking, you aren't learning much when your lips are moving.

20. Never miss a good chance to shut up.

So, there we are. I love the wisdom of the East.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A nice bit o' cheese, Grommit

Today has been a day off. You just need one from time to time :-) Two more chapters of my thesis went off yesterday to my supervisor who is perhaps even now smudging the ink of the first page with his tears of despair.

A friend last night voiced the opinion that the French were manic workers but very good at holidays and days off. Though I am reluctant to admit it, this is actually true. I moan about the French too much, so much in fact that a colleague and I recently felt obliged to make a WNPT, i.e. a Whining Non-Proliferation Treaty. But, my French friend is right: the French do know how to relax. Savoir vivre is not dead in Frogland, though something somewhere is not quite right; not long ago it was said that the French were the biggest consummers of Prozac in Europe. Does that maybe show they also work too much?

The bit about manic workers was certainly once true. I'm no communist, but I cannot take any credit away from Paul Lafargue - son-in-law of Marx himself - who was so upset by the busy, busy bees in French society that he famously composed his manifesto 'Droit à la paresse' - The Right to Laziness. Is this why the French transport system tends to go on strike every Monday morning? I think we should be told.

Still, if you have a day off, France is as good a place to spend it as any (not that I really have the choice; this is a bit like a prisoner warmly recommending a trot around the exercise yard, but bear with me). And, for me, there's nothing that finishes off a day spent resting from quotidian travails than a plate of smelly cheese and a bold, melodious, full-bodied red wine (a what????).

And so that is where I'm going now, muttering, as I leave, the following lines which, though they speak of an English cheese, celebrate smelly cheeses everywhere.


Stilton, thou shouldst be living at this hour
And so thou art. Nor losest grace thereby;
England has need of thee, and so have I--
She is a Fen. Far as the eye can scour,
League after grassy league from Lincoln tower
To Stilton in the fields, she is a Fen.
Yet this high cheese, by choice of fenland men,
Like a tall green volcano rose in power.

Plain living and long drinking are no more,
And pure religion reading 'Household Words',
And sturdy manhood sitting still all day
Shrink, like this cheese that crumbles to its core;
While my digestion, like the House of Lords,
The heaviest burdens on herself doth lay.
G.K. Chesterton.

No more Brando mumbles or Mingus eyes

Welcome, Blogreader!

Yes, you are indeed welcome. If there is anything worse than a blog with lots of readers, it must surely be a blog with no readers! As the great Hilaire Belloc might have put it:

When I die,
I hope it might be said,
His sins were scarlet,
But his blog was read.

My friends have long known that I need little provocation to voice my opinion, and have long regretted the fact. And now, in 2007, with their patience wearing down to mere nanometres, and surrounded here in France by people who neither understand nor care what I say, I feel there is no alternative but to clamber on a cyber soapbox, and join the virtual cacophony of Blogspot.

How long will it last? A year? A month? Who knows? If you're lucky, it might only last a week or a day. Like a date that flops after the first drink, the wheels might simply come off the old blog brain, and The Bur Under the Saddle fade from the memory like the forgotten pain of a dental abscess.

But let's hope not. While there are words still to be misused, infinitives to be split, and participles to be lynched, my keyboard will not be still.

But under whose saddle do I intend to be a bur?

Nobody's actually. I rarely aim to upset people. A gentleman, as somebody has wisely observed, is defined as a man who is only rude deliberately. But it is my experience that as I walk (trundle/stumble/crawl - delete as appropriate) through this postmodern world of ours, I cannot help offending people. Liberals, frozen by relativistic tremblings into catatonic intolerance, nod politely at me and flee for their sanity's sake. Traditionalist Catholics unjustly accuse me of grievous heresy for questioning the debatable nostrums of minor theologians. The Americans, idealists that they are, hate me because I'm not more like an American. The French, more realistically, hate me because I'm English.

It's hard knowing what to do. Like Bernard in that long-gone TV programme "Yes, Minister", I've tried 'taking the long view', 'seeing things in the round', and 'weighing up matters for and against'. It is all to no avail. Likewise, I've tried the 'Brando mumbles, Mingus eyes' approach, hoping to blend in with the scenery of a world too cool to be controversial beyond the third term of its second year at university, or too brutish to pick up any mental tool beyond threadbare cliché.

But, none of it works. As Richard Thompson sings:

What a fool I was,
What a thin disguise!
(Brando mumbles, etc.)

The Bur Under the Saddle is then my next strategy.

So, what can you read about here?

In short, whatever I happen to be thinking about on any particular day. Recent samples would include:
  • France and its drawbacks
  • Catholicism and its controversies
  • How to play guitar like Richard Thompson
  • Food
  • Why I'm single and broke
  • Why G.K. Chesterton's works should be read aloud to fellow passengers on the metro

There, that will do for now, reader dear. You were just beginning to drift anyway! I saw it.

And I have to confess that I was too, dear reader, mon semblable, mon frère!