All posts by Daniel J. Heisey

Sand County Model Railroading

Aldo Leopold, in his essay, “A Man’s Leisure Time,” often printed with his A Sand County Almanac (1949), suggested that “a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant.”  He declared that a hobby is “a defiance of the contemporary,” and that “no hobby should either seek or need rational justification.”  Further, he concluded that a hobby “is an assertion of those permanent values which the momentary eddies of social evolution have contravened or overlooked.”

Oftentimes, a hobby means collecting.  Whether it be coins or stamps or books, fossils or baseball cards or Heisey glass, hobbyists are like the intrepid Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz on the History Channel’s American Pickers, on a quest for their own private Holy Grail.  Like a gambler, though, it is always the next one; rather than being the next horse or the next hand or the next turn of the wheel, for the hobbyist, it is the next shilling or first edition or piece of glassware that will be what one needs.

For a model railroader, it is the next tree, the next building, the next piece of rolling stock.  When it comes down to it, a model railroader is a collector.  He (most being men) is a collector of an aesthetic.  His endless quest is really for just the right look.

In his column in the November, 2017, Model Railroader, Tony Koester wrote about what Clark Propst calls one’s “layout standard.”  Propst is a model railroader from Iowa, and by “layout standard” he means the level of detail and verisimilitude a model railroader finds acceptable for his Tolkienian sub-creation.  As with any hobby, layout standards are matters of personal temperament and taste.

Some model railroaders can become competitive, seeking to outdo one another in elaborate and intricate layouts that could rival dioramas at the Smithsonian.  Unfortunately, some model railroaders can also become snobs, looking down on their fellow hobbyists who fail to measure up to an artistic, or even an obsessive-compulsive, standard.

While it is true that a Bachmann or Lionel train set under the Christmas tree is not the same as a layout, whether, like Buster Keaton, one prefers an American Standard train set and some ready-made Plasticville buildings, or whether one fills a basement with a handcrafted re-creation of the Horseshoe Curve, in the end, as James Wright said in one of his YouTube videos in 2012, “We should be happy for each other, we should be happy for each other’s accomplishments.”

As a collector of an aesthetic, a model railroader has a sense for the past.  As with many hobbies, model railroading requires research, so that hours spent at a desk poring over books, magazines, and blogs inform the hours spent at a worktable with paint pens, tweezers, and glue.  Other times, research means visiting railroad museums or riding on tourist trains or simply walking around a small town and observing what survives from the era one is modeling.

A lesson that historical observation teaches is that real life is eclectic.  Styles vary from one generation to the next, yet they survive alongside one another.  When modeling a small town in south-central Pennsylvania in the days of President William McKinley, it bears remembering that a then new brownstone or Queen Anne house could well stand on the same block as an older brick house in a Georgian or Federal style.

As James W. P. Campbell has pointed out in his indispensable Brick:  A World History (2003), railroads and innovations in brick construction went together.  He noted that by the end of the nineteenth century “brick could be transported by rail, allowing brick of any colour to be used in any district,” so that “houses no longer necessarily matched other buildings in the local area.”

When a model railroader sets about making a miniature town, it can become something along the lines of Greenfield Village, Michigan, where Henry Ford assembled an open-air museum of buildings from across America.  As Louis Auchincloss asked in his novel from 1962, Portrait in Brownstone, “that quiet brownstone past, . . . how was it possible to bring that back?”

Charles Lockwood, in his definitive architectural study, Bricks and Brownstone (1972), wrote of “the shadowy and impressive brownstone front for dwelling houses.”  He admired their “patrician dignity, rich ornament, and dappled patterns of light and shade,” characteristics rounding out a model railroader’s steam-era layout.

In order to make model buildings that represent another era, a model railroader’s sense for weathered common brick balances with capturing the look of an elegant brownstone façade on a nineteenth-century townhouse.  Creating an illusion of brownstone and brick calls for experimentation, layering shades of brown from Prismacolor markers onto those from Liquitex paint pens.

In that spirit of Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, with some artistic license, an HO scale townhouse kit from Woodland Scenics lends itself to being fitted out as a tribute to Nero Wolfe’s three-storey brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street in New York City.  Purists in the Wolfe Pack fan club will notice where the kit diverges from the various descriptions of the house in Rex Stout’s novels and short stories.  Moreover, some fans would disapprove of the influence of the 1981 William Conrad NBC series, with Noch greenhouses added to the roof, rather than the skylighted plant rooms of the 2001 A & E series.  After all, moving Wolfe’s Manhattan townhouse to small-town Pennsylvania implies a less than precise re-creation of the most famous fictional detective’s residence since Sherlock Holmes’ 221 B Baker Street, London.

In Auchincloss’ Portrait in Brownstone, one of the characters said she was prepared for “whatever stern lesson might have been turned up in the bricks of that ancient past,” but here portraying bricks and brownstone from more than a century ago teaches us something about the carefully proportioned world of our ancestors as we lose ourselves for a few hours each week in blissfully contemplative tedium.

All the same, a model railroader’s layout standard depicting “permanent values” is all in good fun, and as Aldo Leopold has said, “to find reasons why it is useful or beneficial converts it at once from an avocation into an industry.”  A model railroad that is set in the past may become a teaching aid, showing what life was like back then, but it starts out simply as an amusing pastime for the hobbyist.

Louis Auchincloss’ Historical Covenant

In the late 1980s we corresponded briefly, Mr. Auchincloss kindly answering some questions I had about his writing.  From 1947 to 2010, much of his fiction, literary criticism, and histories deftly chronicled well-heeled residents of the middle and northern part of America’s eastern seaboard.  For his characters, poverty meant hitting principal, while my world was closer to that depicted in Auchincloss’s youth by Booth Tarkington, small towns where, as Tarkington said in Alice Adams (1921), with maples and sycamores lining the streets, people “sat upon verandas and stoops, . . . cheerful as young fishermen along the banks of a stream.”

Critics compare Auchincloss’ novels of manners to the fiction of Henry James and Edith Wharton, the James of Washington Square and the Wharton of The Age of Innocence.  Auchincloss conveyed the reality of Wall Street law firms populated with men who had graduated from New England prep schools and Ivy League universities, men who had served as naval officers during the Second World War; men like Auchincloss himself, but often without his sterling code of ethics.  Adultery, embezzlement, and manipulation are complications some of Auchincloss’ characters choose, while other characters, graced with more integrity, yet constrained by convention, struggle with the fallout.

One critic said of Auchincloss, “his range is narrow, but his pitch is perfect,” and unmatched is Auchincloss’ ability to take the reader inside the rarefied society of Manhattan boardrooms and private clubs, Newport “cottages” and Georgetown townhouses.  Alas, after a while, the array of beautiful, affluent, and often ruthless and narcissistic, American lawyers, brokers, and museum directors, their wives and mistresses, their clients and children, becomes a blur.  Miles of hushed burgundy velvet galleries of gilt-framed masterworks by John Singer Sargent can leave one exhausted.

A prolific writer, Auchincloss turned out at least one book a year, and along with his fictional portrayals of his contemporaries, he wrote historical novels.  His The Cat and the King (1981), is set in the court of King Louis XIV, and his Exit Lady Masham (1983) centers around the court of Queen Anne.  Auchincloss dedicated the former to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to whom he was related by marriage, and he dedicated the latter to Barbara W. Tuchman, saying she “has made history more fascinating than any fiction.”

Whether in fiction or non-fiction, Auchincloss was at his best when writing about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the period described in Tuchman’s The Proud Tower (1966).  Worth re-reading are his Persons of Consequence (1979), elegant and perceptive sketches of Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, and others of that age’s British upper crust, and The Vanderbilt Era (1989), polished cameo profiles of Vanderbilts and Astors and their peers.

In 2002 Auchincloss wrote a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and in 2004 he edited two Library of America volumes of writings by Roosevelt.  In his novel The House of Five Talents (1960), Auchincloss had shown how, after McKinley’s assassination, other refined, brownstone families thought of Roosevelt:  “It was possible for one human being to do all things:  to ride and write, to read and hunt, to be a student of natural history and President of the United States.”

In 1976, coinciding with America’s bicentennial celebrations, Auchincloss published a collection of nine stories linked together by made-up members of one of the country’s oldest families, a family from which Auchincloss himself was descended.  The Winthrop Covenant traces generations of the Winthrop family, from the historical John Winthrop, a colonial governor of Massachusetts, to a fictional expatriate protester of the Vietnam War.  What intrigued Auchincloss was how the Puritan fervor of the first Winthrops developed and dissipated over the centuries.

From a slow beginning, two Puritan men in seventeenth-century England discussing Calvinist theology about predestination, the story proceeds through major phases of American history.  However, Auchincloss really hits his stride with Adam Winthrop, protagonist of the sixth story, “The Arbiter,” and a Gilded Age avatar of the Winthrop line.

It is 1902, and Adam Winthrop presides over the Patroons Club in Manhattan, where his official oil portrait has just been unveiled.  To an uninformed viewer of the painting, “the model might have been a sexagenarian Marcus Aurelius, heir and administrator of a golden empire beset with problems that distressed him.”

Such an interpretation suited Adam Winthrop.  “He preferred to think of himself,” explains the narrator, “as some togaed proconsul, exquisite, cultivated, broad of view, . . . a Marcus Aurelius, turning with a shudder of distaste from that shrill, Semitic sect which saw only sacrilege in beautiful statues and a second coming in every thunderstorm.”  Winthrop’s lofty detachment from the faith of his forefathers was complete, and “he eventually reconciled himself to the absence [of God] by his emulation of the agnostic Roman spirit.”  To him, “the greatest two-volume novel ever written” was “the Gospel according to Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.”

For all his aloof, agnostic Stoicism, Winthrop has subtle tastes, appreciating fine art and architecture, good food and opera.  He would be the sort to approve of Theodore Roosevelt writing books, yet arch an eyebrow at Roosevelt’s hunting.  More in Winthrop’s style would be William Howard Taft, who in 1908 shrugged at voters who objected to his Unitarianism and said, “I am interested in the spread of Christian civilization, but to go into a dogmatic discussion of creed I will not do whether I am defeated or not.”

Near the end of The Winthrop Covenant, some characters discuss President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.  At one point I asked Mr. Auchincloss if another of his characters was based on Dulles.  Auchincloss started practicing law on Wall Street in the firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, where the senior partner was Dulles.

In 1974, Auchincloss had written about Dulles in his memoir, A Writer’s Capital, and he would do so again in 2010 in another memoir, A Voice from Old New York.  For me he took the time to use his personal stationary for a hand-written reply, saying that the character did not derive from Dulles, who “had a sly, tricky quality that jarred with his intense religiosity, and he was devoid of the smallest imagination about people—a great egotist.  Yet he was capable of kindness and courage—a strange mixture but utterly unlovable.”  Like the more sympathetic of Tarkington’s Ambersons, the best Auchinclossian characters are both magnificent and admirable.

Surviving with Frank Miniter

“Okay,” he said, slowly, patiently, “now, squeeze.”  A father with a .22, teaching his son how to shoot:  A memory evoked by Frank Miniter’s The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide, published in 2009 and now, ten years later, followed up with The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide to the Workplace.  (In these casual times, a clue comes from the cover depicting a necktie.)  Miniter’s original Survival Guide is ever close by, like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, reminding me of the great gift of being taught important lessons by my father and grandfather, and even now, when at the range, my father long gone, I hear his voice:  “Okay, now, squeeze.”

Now in his late forties, Miniter is a graduate of Norwich University, a private military school in Vermont, and he has edited various magazines, from Outdoor Life to America’s 1st Freedom.  Miniter is an avid hunter and fisherman, and he learned how to box from Floyd Patterson.  His idea of fun has involved spelunking and running with the bulls.

For me, having been hit by a motor vehicle while I was walking across a street, daily small-town life can be risky enough.  Likewise, growing up in the 1970s near Three Mile Island and then being in a monastery on September 11 when Flight 93 went down not far away indicate that living a quiet life can be beyond one’s control.  All the same, it’s good to have a Survival Guide written by a man who seems to know that few things taste better than bacon fried in an iron skillet over a wood fire.

Miniter’s original Survival Guide covers six headings:  Survivor, Provider, Athlete, Hero, Gentleman, and Philosopher.  Throughout this book Miniter offers brief profiles of men illustrating his six categories.  One man is Scott O’Grady, a U. S. Air Force pilot who in June, 1995, survived being shot down over Bosnia.  Then there are more well-known figures, from Socrates to Winston Churchill, as well as some of Miniter’s mentors, like Floyd Patterson and Shingo Matsubara, a Japanese fisherman.  Among these profiles is Tecumseh, with his wise words, “Show respect to all people, but grovel to none.”

To help with the reader’s ongoing education, Miniter appends an annotated list of one hundred films to see and one hundred books to read.  Miniter’s film guide leans towards classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) and Ben-Hur (1959), and his shelf of books ranges from the Bible to The Hobbit.

As a companion volume, the new Survival Guide contains seven chapters and a list of fifty films and fifty books.  Miniter recommends his previous Survival Guide and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, while Miniter’s films come mostly from the last thirty years, with a few classics such as Citizen Kane (1941) and The Fountainhead (1949).  Once again there are short profiles of men Miniter admires, from Charlton Heston to Frank Sinatra, from Will Rogers to Ernest Hemingway.

Above all, in these two books Miniter wants to see a renewal of the ideals of chivalry, of being a gentleman, well-rounded and well turned out.  Very likely, Miniter believes, more men behaving like gentlemen will mean far fewer cases of sexual harassment.  Among Miniter’s concerns are skills he believes every able-bodied man should know, from fixing a flat to mixing a drink, from reading a map to using proper etiquette.  Along with good grooming and practical knowledge of tools, whether a pocketknife or a handgun, Miniter focuses on a man’s inner life, his growth in virtue and his code of honor.

Amidst his historical exemplars, Miniter unexpectedly features a fictional character, Raymond Chandler’s mythical hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe.  “He dresses well,” Miniter notes, “out of self-respect and respect for others, but he is not a dandy, and his office is spartan.”  Marlowe plays chess and is a good shot; he reads novels and has a taste for bourbon.  As Miniter sums him up, Marlowe “is a gentleman who knows how to use the gentleman’s tools” and yet “knows that the gentleman’s greatest tool, what makes him most useful to others and to himself, is having a stainless steel character.”

Miniter’s list of suggested role models calls to mind two men he somehow overlooked, William Tell and James Dozier.  From the pages of Swiss history strides the figure of William Tell, famous from an opera by Rossini (1829) and then in a classic children’s book, The Apple and the Arrow (1951).  The story goes that in 1307 William Tell stood up for Swiss liberty and against the tyranny of the occupying Austrians led by the local governor, Albrecht Gessler.  With a warped, sadistic sense of justice, Gessler claimed he would grant Tell’s demands if Tell shot an apple from atop the head of Tell’s young son.  Tell took aim with his crossbow and split the apple.

Of more recent vintage is General James Dozier.  Born in west-central Florida, Dozier graduated from West Point, served with distinction in Vietnam, and attended the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  In December, 1981, at age fifty, Dozier was serving as a deputy Chief of Staff of NATO, when he was kidnapped by terrorists from the Red Brigade in Verona, Italy.  For more than a month the reds locked him in a room in Padua; his rescuers from Italian special forces found him shackled hand and foot, gaunt and unkempt.  Undaunted, once free, his first words were, “Get me a razor.”

Even to a fifteen year-old following this harrowing news story, the lesson was clear:  A man’s natural vanity, not to mention his atavistic barbarism, requires taming through daily discipline.  Since the days of clean-shaven William McKinley, and on through those of John Wayne and James Stewart, of Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, flea-dipped shagginess was for the likes of Rasputin and Che Guevara.

Every summer, when spending a week at a cinderblock cabin in northern Pennsylvania, my father, ex-Army, still shaved every morning.  Again, the Miniter-like lesson was clear, albeit unspoken:  Even in the middle of nowhere, a man’s standards don’t get lowered.  Such a belief transferred to the seriousness and care taken with dangerous tools that could put food on the table or protect life, liberty, and property.  Our target was never an apple on top of my head, but I always knew that if need be, my father could have hit that apple.

 

Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno.  He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.  Today his father, Jacob L. Heisey, would have been eighty-five.

 

Joseph Conrad’s Outpost of Fear

Sixty-five years ago, Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine compiled an anthology, Short Story Masterpieces, three dozen examples of great short fiction in English from the previous sixty or so years.  Authors included ranged from Stephen Crane and Henry James to Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty.  Among them was Joseph Conrad’s tale from 1897, “An Outpost of Progress.”

In their Introduction, Warren and Erskine noted that Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899) was too long to put in this collection.  Since it was shorter and dealt with similar themes and the same locale, “An Outpost of Progress” took its place.  In the decades following Short Story Masterpieces, “Heart of Darkness,” a hundred pages of a sailor named Marlow sitting with friends and telling an Important Story, became a bane of high school English students.

Even in Conrad’s day, critics doubted anyone would sit still for Marlow droning on for hours, criticism Conrad rejected.  He used the same narrative device in his novel Lord Jim, written around the same time as “Heart of Darkness,” and more than one reader new to Conrad has breathed a sigh of relief at the end of Chapter 35, when Marlow finally shuts up.  With some dismay, the unwary reader realizes that ten more chapters loom ahead.

Still, there is sardonic suspense when Chapter 36 begins more than two years later with a man receiving a thick packet from Marlow.  Imagine his apprehension as he opens it, finding in it a sheaf of papers resuming Marlow’s story.  The man puts it down and stares out the window, and the scene is one of Conrad’s most evocative sketches of a rainy day in London:  “His rooms were in the highest flat of a lofty building, and his glance could travel afar beyond the clear panes of glass” and “the slopes of the roofs glistened, the dark broken ridges succeeding each other without end like sombre, uncrested waves.”

It is that cityscape of wet slate grey, what in The Secret Agent (1907) Conrad described as “a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off,” that Conrad’s characters leave behind for the tropics.  Lord Jim puts us in Borneo, and both “Heart of Darkness” and “An Outpost of Progress” take us deep into the Congo.  While Morton Dauwen Zabel may be right that in “An Outpost of Progress” Conrad “resorts to too heavily underlined an irony,” it is a good way to ease into Conrad’s world, preparing one for the challenging and rewarding masterpieces that are “Heart of Darkness” and Lord Jim, helping one appreciate why, on his many travels across “desert, marsh, and mountain,” Wilfred Thesiger took along volumes of Conrad.

Originally, Conrad called this story “A Victim of Progress,” but really the story has numerous victims, not least being the African natives who are bartered into slavery for a pile of elephant tusks.  That bartering occurs through the conniving of another native, an employee of the two Europeans who run the story’s outpost.  Those two hapless functionaries replaced another European, now dead and buried but once in charge of that remote colonial outpost, a couple of reed and thatch structures and a wooden dock three hundred miles from the nearest trading post.  They all live under the shadow of the tall cross atop that earlier man’s grave, and the native employee, eager literally to sell his fellow man down the river, provides what can pass for institutional continuity.

Kayerts and Carlier are the Europeans out of their depth.  Kayerts had grown portly serving seventeen years in the Administration of Telegraphs; Carlier was lean and long-legged, once a non-commissioned officer of “cavalry in an army guaranteed from harm by several European powers.”  Men of minor roles now in middle age, they are an unlikely pair in an unlikely setting.

When a director of the Great Trading Company that has hired them as colonial agents drops them off at the outpost, he waits until his river boat is steaming back down stream to mutter his misgivings.  He refers to those men as “imbeciles” and predicts they will manage to accomplish not even the simple, civilizing tasks he has assigned them, such as planting a vegetable garden and building a fence.  Conrad as storyteller summed them up with eloquent bluntness.

“They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals,” observed Conrad, “whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds.”  Both men were used to following routines, either in an office or in a barracks.  “Few men realize,” added Conrad, “that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.”  Nothing in the backgrounds of Kayerts and Carlier trained them for being alone in a jungle.

For entertainment they have a few early nineteenth-century novels left by their deceased predecessor; significantly, one of them is James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.  Unlike Hawk-eye, Kayerts and Carlier are daunted by isolation on a wild frontier.  Understandably, they become frightened.

Just as frightened is Gobila, chief of a local tribe that trades at the outpost.  Gobila hopes that these wicked white men will go away, yet even were they to leave, says Conrad, “fear remains.”  He elaborated:  “Fear always remains,” since “a man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt; but as long as he clings to life, he cannot destroy fear.”

Conrad made the same point in Chapter 16 of Lord Jim.  There, Marlow says, “While there’s life there is hope, truly; but there is fear, too.”  A few paragraphs later we encounter lines that form part of the epigraph to John Stape’s The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad (2007):  “It is when we try to grapple with another man’s intimate need that we perceive how incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun.”

In the last chapter of The Last of the Mohicans, Hawk-eye says to a Lenape chief, “The gifts of our colors may be different, but God has so placed us as to journey in the same path.”  That path in “An Outpost of Progress” is in the end covered by wavering mist, fog and fear coming together, obscuring the abuse befalling the outpost’s cross.

Manfred Honeck and Bruckner’s Ninth

“You are in for a treat,” John Berky told me when he heard that Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra would be in the basilica church of Saint Vincent Archabbey to perform Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor.  Berky is Executive Secretary of the Bruckner Society of America and edits the society’s web site and on-line newsletter.  He heard Honeck conduct Bruckner’s Ninth in New York when Honeck filled in at the New York Philharmonic for an ailing Christoph Eschenbach.

Honeck shares much in common with Bruckner.  As was Bruckner, Honeck is Austrian, and both men’s lives center around their Catholic faith.  Bruckner (1824-1896) began his musical career as an organist at Saint Florian’s abbey church in Linz, in upper Austria, and his symphonies grew from his gift as an organist for filling vast vaulted spaces with rich layers of sound.  More so than other composers, Bruckner imbued his symphonies with a three-dimensional quality, soaring and yet solid, earning comparison to Gothic cathedrals.

Bruckner dedicated his Ninth Symphony “To the beloved God,” and so acoustics were not Honeck’s only reason for wanting to use Saint Vincent’s 120 year-old basilica as a venue.  At sixty-one, Honeck is at top form, and his long association with Saint Vincent includes receiving in May, 2010, an honorary doctorate from Saint Vincent College, and in April, 2017, conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony in Saint Vincent’s basilica with a magnificent interpretation of Bruckner’s Eighth.  Honeck appreciates that Bruckner’s music expresses a deep Catholic spirituality, and so a sacred setting for its performance is more than fitting.

For nine years Bruckner worked on his Ninth Symphony, characteristically revising it, striving to get it exactly right.  Work on other projects, such as a choral setting for Psalm 150, interrupted the writing and re-writing of the Ninth Symphony.  Bruckner completed the first three movements of his Ninth.  Weakened by diabetes and congestive heart failure, he had a sense that he would never live to finish the fourth and final movement, and so he left instructions stating that, in place of the incomplete fourth movement, conductors could use his Te Deum.  Bruckner’s Te Deum was first performed in the United States in 1892 in Cincinnati, and in 1904 in that same city his Ninth had its American debut.

In 2015, Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra issued their recording of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, and this summer they released a compact disc of Bruckner’s Ninth, recorded at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall.  For that recording of the Ninth, Honeck used the Leopold Nowak edition of Bruckner’s three completed movements, and for the performance at Saint Vincent, Honeck included Bruckner’s Te Deum.

One of Christianity’s oldest hymns of praise to God, the Te Deum has long been traced to the late fourth century and attributed to Saint Ambrose.  In the sixth century it became integral to the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict.  By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Catholic composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Verdi were setting that ancient chant to more modern music, and so Bruckner was in good company.

With explosive, ecstatic energy, Bruckner’s Te Deum thunders with operatic intensity.  To sing it, Honeck called upon the brilliant voices of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh.  In 2016 they joined Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony in the Saint Vincent basilica for a performance of Bach’s Saint John Passion.

For the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new CD of Bruckner’s Ninth, Honeck wrote extensive liner notes.  In them he explained his interpretation of this symphony, a work he first performed as a violinist under the direction of Leonard Bernstein.  Honeck’s understanding of Bruckner’s Ninth brings forth the march, possibly a funeral march, recurring and processing through the First Movement, as well as the Scherzo’s variously raucous and ethereal dance.  As Honeck put it, when considered “in the context of faith, it is clear now that Bruckner has entered the supernatural.”  Most intriguing is Honeck’s intuition that permeating the Adagio, or Third Movement, are echoes of a prayer that has been part of the Catholic Mass since the end of the seventh century, the Agnus Dei.  “I center my interest,” Honeck wrote, “on the connection of words to musical interpretation, rather than the direct match of words to music.”

That is to say, while listening to the Adagio, one is not moved to intone the Latin text of the prayer, Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,” but one senses the main petition of that prayer, miserere nobis, “have mercy on us.”  Then, in the Adagio’s shimmering final notes, seemingly floating one into the silence of Heaven (Revelation 8:1), one’s soul sighs, dona nobis pacem, “grant us peace.”

Bruckner was a master of the adagio, and his Ninth’s adagio repays repeated listening and meditation.  Werner Wolff, in his Anton Bruckner:  Rustic Genius (1942), wrote, “At the end of the Adagio, the flickering violins and the dark-tinged tubas convey the picture of the deeply absorbed composer writing the last pages with a trembling hand.”  As a boy Wolff (1883-1961) met Bruckner in Berlin, Wolff’s father having been a founder of the symphony orchestra there.  As Bruckner so often managed to do, he impressed (to use a neutral word) the Wolff children as a bumpkin, memorable for his baggy suit and his drawling southern dialect.

Wolff wrote that as a young law student he heard a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth, and it changed his life.  Wolff recorded in his diary, “The rhythm of the clarinets at the end of the First Movement over the inexorable organ point on D will never cease haunting me.”  After law school, Wolff became a musical conductor, his first concert being Bruckner’s Eighth.

As Honeck wrote in the liner notes for the Pittsburgh Symphony’s new CD, “It is in the Ninth that Bruckner invites us into the presence of God to experience the beauty of his world, while also facing the darker and more violent abysses.”  Significantly, appropriately, he and the Pittsburgh Symphony will perform Bruckner’s Ninth (with Te Deum) again on 1 November, the Feast of All Souls, in Vienna’s Musikverein.  On a warm September evening, with a sustained standing ovation, around a thousand people in Saint Vincent’s basilica affirmed the profundity of the Ninth and of Honeck’s masterful reading of it.  They knew that had just experienced a rare treat indeed.

The McKinley Boys

“If I were giving a young man advice,” said Wilbur Wright, “as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”  That advice certainly applied to his older contemporary, a fellow Ohioan and the twenty-fifth President of the United States, William McKinley.  It is worth recalling that more than a century ago McKinley filled young people with enthusiasm.

To take one example, during the presidential race of 1896, at a time when the voting age was twenty-one, College Republican clubs existed and were gung-ho for McKinley.  At Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, membership in the College Republicans overlapped with that of another club, the Belles Lettres Society.  In June, 1897, the general membership of Belles Lettres voted to elect the new President an honorary member.  They duly wrote McKinley informing him of their decision.

To their surprise, they received a reply, a letter they published in their weekly student newspaper, The Dickinsonian.  On official stationary and dated 18 June, 1897, a typed message above the President’s signature said, “It gives me pleasure to acknowledge the receipt of your kind letter notifying me of my election to an honorary membership of the general Belles Lettres Society of Dickinson College.  I fully appreciate the compliment conveyed by the action taken by your Society.”

When his secretary showed McKinley the letter from his admirers at Dickinson, McKinley knew a thing or two about small colleges in small towns in Pennsylvania, and he knew about student literary societies.  Before taking ill and having to withdraw, McKinley had for a term attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania.  He had graduated from a high school in eastern Ohio, where he founded the Everett Literary and Debating Society, named in honor of Edward Everett, then a prominent politician and public speaker.  Today Everett is best remembered for having delivered a voluminous oration at Gettysburg right before Abraham Lincoln made a few remarks.  To furnish the new club’s meeting room, young McKinley raised money for a fine carpet and shelves of books of history and literature.

Like Wilbur Wright after him, McKinley grew up in a devout Methodist family that valued reading.  McKinley’s family also took up a controversial cause of the 1850s, abolition of slavery.  It was an ideal that made McKinley decide not to return to college but to enlist in the Army.  In his late teens and early twenties he saw combat in the American Civil War, rising to the rank of major.  Throughout his life it was his preferred title; with characteristic self-deprecation, he would say, “I earned that, but I’m not so sure about the rest.”

Back home from the war, McKinley studied law and entered Republican politics in Ohio.  A feature of all his political campaigns was unexpected support from Catholic voters, most of them Democrats.  It was support he reciprocated.  As governor of Ohio he risked a lot of votes by refusing demands from a group of evangelical Protestants to fire two state prison guards simply because they were Catholics.  At his second inauguration as President, McKinley broke with precedent and had James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore give the benediction.

Slowly William McKinley, shrewd and brave, has been getting the appreciation he deserves.  For nearly half a century the standard biography of McKinley was Margaret Leech’s In the Days of McKinley.  In December, 1959, excerpts were in American Heritage magazine, and in 1960 it won a Pulitzer Prize.  In 1986 the Easton Press reprinted it in a handsome gilt-edged, leather-bound edition.

More recent years have seen popular biographies of McKinley, by Kevin Phillips (2003) and Robert W. Merry (2017), and a study of McKinley’s first presidential campaign, by Karl Rove (2015).  They necessarily drew upon Leech’s work, as well as upon scholarly books and articles by Lewis L. Gould on McKinley and the Spanish-American War.

That brief war defined McKinley’s presidency, and victory over Spain was a great factor in McKinley’s re-election.  He had been reluctant to send young men to war, open instead to having Pope Leo XIII serve as mediator in the dispute with Spain.  For his prudence, McKinley earned the derision of Theodore Roosevelt, who is said to have blurted out that McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”  After the war Roosevelt was elected governor of New York, and in 1900 McKinley was big enough to overlook previous criticism and accept Roosevelt as his running mate.

On 5 September, 1901, some six months after his second inauguration, McKinley was in Buffalo, New York, to speak at the Pan-American Exposition.  The next day, while receiving visitors at the event, he was shot twice in the abdomen at close range by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who was a follower of a notorious socialist, Emma Goldman.

As soon as those two pistol shots rang out, men around McKinley tackled Czolgosz.  McKinley, bleeding and staggering backwards, had the presence of mind and excellence of character to say, “Don’t let them hurt him.”  It is a scene that ought to be better known.

A week later, McKinley died, and Roosevelt became President.  McKinley’s assassination marked the third time in thirty-six years that Republican Presidents had been shot and killed by leftists.  National shock and mourning followed, and seemingly overnight commemorative items appeared, including sheet music for a hymn whose title was among McKinley’s last words, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Within a couple of months of McKinley’s funeral, Edward Stratemeyer published a biography of the late President.  Meant for a particular demographic, it was called American Boys’ Life of William McKinley.  To his narrative Stratemeyer appended McKinley’s final address, containing the noble exhortation, “Let us ever remember that our interest is in concord, not conflict; and that our real eminence rests in the victories of peace, not those of war.”

From the 1890s until his death in 1930, Stratemeyer was a prolific publisher.  Based in Newark, New Jersey, he employed a stable of writers and editors to produce several series of edifying novels for young people, primarily for boys.  Stratemeyer’s mission was to use wholesome adventure stories to pass on the sterling qualities found in men like William McKinley.  For boys, the most enduring of Stratemeyer’s fictional creations, chronicled by various authors under the pen name of Franklin W. Dixon, were Joe and Frank, the Hardy Boys.

Nicolas Diat’s A Time to Die

With reluctance a monk opens this new book, a sleek, slim paperback having the appearance of appealing to the sepia-toned spirituality of people who see monks and nuns as living Hummels.  “In this desolate world,” writes Nicolas Diat, a French journalist, “I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death.”  Fortunately, despite eye-rolling sentences that might come from French 101 (“The streets are calm and wise.”), Diat’s study, A Time to Die:  Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life, starkly considers the reality of death in eight modern French monasteries.

This English translation of Un temps pour mourir appears the same summer that saw a French court of law determine that medical doctors in Reims could remove food and water from Vincent Lambert, a forty-two year-old married quadriplegic.  In the utilitarian logic of socialism, he served no useful function to the state and was using valuable resources.  It took doctors nine days to kill Vincent Lambert, who was informed of the court’s decision and wept.  One would call such sanitized barbarity medieval, were it not an insult to the Middle Ages.

With French monks, the situation is reversed.  Monks are open to passing away into the next life, while doctors want to try their best to prolong this life.  “Shouldn’t a ninety year-old brother,” asked one Benedictine abbot, “who suffers from terrible pneumonia return to God?”  He added, “I can hardly oppose a medical decision,” but for him the problem is “the moment we call emergency services or the ambulance, we lose control over the patient.”

Along with control over the patient and benignly letting a sick old man slip away, abbots must count the cost of medical care.  “How should I react,” asked that same Benedictine abbot, “when a ninety year-old monk asks for a hearing aid?”  He explained, to some ears echoing Judas, “this investment of three thousand euros could help twenty people in an African village.”  The cloister and the world seem not too far apart when Malthusian bookkeeping determines whether a ninety-something monk gets his hearing back or whether a forty-something quadriplegic gets a death sentence.

Augustinian, Benedictine, Carthusian, Cistercian:  Diat recounts stories of deaths in these monasteries, deaths of monks old and young, deaths long and lingering, deaths sudden or by the monk’s own hand.  Stories of those deaths necessarily include the effect on those left behind.  Monks seek God in community, they do not seek community in itself; otherwise, they would simply join an Elks club or hang out nightly in a sports bar.  Still, especially in small monastic communities such as Diat visited, one death can have reverberations wide and deep.

In a larger monastic community the ripples soon diminish.  Sometimes lay people attending a monastic funeral observe that the monks rarely cry.  Oftentimes in a large monastery it is because the deceased was essentially a stranger.  It would be like going to the funeral of an elderly long-term neighbor; for a man with whom one occasionally exchanged greetings, only dangerous emotional fragility would make one weep.

Mention of emotional instability recalls Diat’s most significant chapter, “The Shadow of the Black Mountain.”  In his Holy Rule, Saint Benedict refers to a monastery’s “variety of characters,” and he tells the monks to bear with one another’s mental and physical limitations.  An American monk, exasperated with millennials, jokes about wanting to make a recruiting poster saying, “Are you:  Autistic?  Bipolar?  Recovering from substance abuse?  Sexually repressed?  If you answered Yes to any or all of the above, you may have what it takes to discern a monastic vocation!  Special consideration will be given to men between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four who balance zero life experience with overwhelming self-confidence.”

That monk’s drollery aside, Diat asks an astute question:  “Where is God in the life of monks suffering from a psychological illness?”  For example, self-absorption usually goes hand in hand with insanity, and sometimes there is a monk with an immature need for attention, often taking the form of hypochondria.  Of course, with a man craving attention at every turn, one must engage in tough love and ignore him, starving his bratty beast.

However, the bleak shadows Diat reports are more ominous.  Here Diat means mental illness along a broad spectrum, including Alzheimer’s disease and crippling depression.  As troubling as it can be to see a monk over time become ever more fogged, more disturbing is the monk for whom all he used to believe has gone blank.  He seems to have lost sight of the Carthusian pattern Diat describes:  “A beginning full of enthusiasm, a middle of difficult and contrasted experiences, then a peace that announces eternity.”  For him, God seems long absent and prayer seems like talking into starless space.

A barren life, one some men can muddle through, but for others, the ringing emptiness and soul-draining drudgery of going through the motions becomes too much.  Diat sketches the case of one such monk, who left painful notes tersely saying he could no longer go on.  His abbot especially remains haunted by that trauma.

A contemporary atheist might declare that such an end comes when gullible fools are duped by a fairy tale.  A secular materialist would tell Diat and his monks that death is simply the end, merely bringing molecular decomposition.  For an unbeliever, any talk of life after death is metaphorical, a literary motif about collective memory pathetically misunderstood by the simple and literal-minded.

What makes believers skeptical of such skepticism is what they have seen of others, like Diat’s monks, at the end.  Skeptics must account for perfectly lucid people who see with clarity that they are about to step through something—a portal, a gate, a door—into William Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country.”  Skeptics must further account for the amazing serenity with which those people accept the imminent prospect of that new step.

Here a recent scene from an American monastery may supplement Diat’s worthy little volume.  A nurse’s aide was wheeling a lay brother in his nineties to his infirmary room.  The old brother was often silent, a man of very few words, and he suddenly said, “Well, I’m goin’.”

“Yep,” said the aide, “you’re going to your room.”

“No,” he corrected her, “I’m goin’.”

He then slumped over and died.

Philip Marlowe and Nero Wolfe

 

Sixty years after the death of Raymond Chandler, and eighty years after the publication of his first novel, we mark the first anniversary of a brilliant achievement, The Annotated Big Sleep.  In 1939, Chandler (1888-1959) published The Big Sleep, introducing a fictional Los Angeles private investigator, Philip Marlowe, and in 2018, Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto produced an edition with Chandler’s text on the left-hand pages and their explanatory notes on the right-hand pages.  Also illustrating this volume are maps, photographs, and excerpts from other stories by Chandler.

Unlike a biblical commentary, where obvious passages can get lengthy deciphering and obscure lines get passed over, The Annotated Big Sleep tackles it all.  It is amusing that some readers, apparently, will need to have defined for them slang such as “swell’ and “jalopy,” or standard words such as “bookplate” and “davenport.”  Most captivating is information about firearms and newspapers, about bygone fashions and obsolete automobiles, as well as the vanished landscape of 1930’s Los Angeles.

Moreover, our annotators identify in The Big Sleep allusions to Arthurian legend.  In The Big Sleep and subsequent novels, Marlowe casts himself as a latter-day knight errant, with his own code of chivalrous integrity, righting wrongs and rescuing damsels in distress, even if the distress is of the damsel’s own making.  In The High Window (1942), a medical doctor admiringly calls Marlowe “the shop-soiled Galahad.”  Marlowe is unmarried, and in The Big Sleep, set in 1938, he is thirty-three.  With Marlowe, Chandler tapped into an archetype in Western literature, the solitary young hero, embodying virtue and virility.

Early in the novel Marlowe meets his new client, General Guy Sternwood.  Marlowe arrives in a blue suit, and as narrator, he says, “I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober.”  A note explains that phrase as an Army expression meaning “ready for inspection.”  Much of Sternwood’s military career would have been in the late 1800s, when American soldiers wore blue uniforms.

The general is around eighty, and declining health has him soaking up the tropical heat and humidity inside a greenhouse on his vast estate.  Surrounding him is a veritable jungle of orchids, and our annotators provide a note about early twentieth-century orchid collecting and orchids as “symbols of wealth and decadence.”  What Hill, Jackson, and Rizzuto seem to miss is Chandler’s Baroque critique of one of his great contemporaries in crime fiction.

In 1934, Rex Stout published Fer-de-Lance, the first of seventy-four tales featuring a fictional private detective, Nero Wolfe.  Wolfe is a native of Montenegro, in his fifties, and a wealthy eccentric:  an arrogant misogynist gourmet, he lives in a nineteenth-century brownstone townhouse in New York City; on its roof are greenhouses for his 10,000 orchids.  Wolfe almost never leaves his house on business, his investigating being done by a trusty young assistant, Archie Goodwin.  Goodwin reports his findings to Wolfe, who then mulls them over and thus identifies the guilty party.

Sternwood hiring Marlowe parallels Wolfe sending Goodwin out to gather evidence and question witnesses or suspects.  Nevertheless, Sternwood is the inverse of Wolfe:  Whereas Wolfe weighs in at 300 pounds, Sternwood is thin and frail as a mummy.  A retired Army officer, Sternwood could take on his blackmailer himself, if only age and health permitted; Wolfe, once a spy for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, chooses to stay home and eat and read and tend his orchids.

Wolfe, Goodwin, and Marlowe are in a long tradition of bachelor detectives, and nosy neighbors and literary critics spend valuable time speculating about any bachelor’s sexuality.  Probably for that reason, Stout made a point of depicting Goodwin as a ladies’ man.  Dutifully The Annotated Big Sleep addresses recurring musings and guesses about Marlowe’s sexuality, maybe unrequited bisexuality, while touching lightly on the general’s mention of his own “gaudy life,” one he indulged in before marrying at age fifty-four.

In a line that could merely be an opening gambit in an awkward interview, but one that reads all too much like part of a secret password, Sternwood asks Marlowe, “Do you like orchids?”  When Marlowe answers, “Not particularly,” Sternwood obliquely agrees and condemns his myriad expensive flowers.  “They are nasty things,” Sternwood replies, adding, “Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men.  And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”

Prostitutes do not feature in The Big Sleep, unless one counts a homicidal rent boy, but in Fer-de-Lance, Wolfe refers to them.  In Chapter 17, Goodwin, impetuous in his arrested adolescence, decides against going to a movie, and Wolfe declares, “Then try a harlot’s den.”  In the entire Wolfe series, it appears to be the only hint at Wolfe possibly having an illicit sexual outlet, while the simmering sensuality of the tropics always looms above him on his rooftop.

People of Victorian or Edwardian sensibilities would have regarded orchids not only as exotic, but often as obscene.  One variety in particular, Cypripedium, sometimes called slipper orchids, can raise eyebrows, their lurid pink and purple “slipper” resembling, shall we say, “the flesh of men.”  Cypripedia occur in Stout’s novels Black Orchids (1942) and Murder by the Book (1951), and an even more noticeably male anatomical subspecies, Paphiopedilum, occurs in Some Buried Caesar (1939).

Of course, sometimes an orchid is just an orchid, and Stout’s stories are rattling fun, the resourceful Goodwin sauntering forth into the big wicked city, while Wolfe presides over the mayhem like a wise, if irascible, hermit.  Chandler, though, was no fan, writing to a friend in April, 1949, not “to lump me in . . . with the smooth and shallow operators like [Ngaio] Marsh and [Rex] Stout and [Agatha] Christie.”  In June, 1957, he wrote to another correspondent that “I count myself far above” Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout.  In The Big Sleep, with any tropical plant possible for Sternwood’s greenhouse, Chandler is all but saying, “Here is how you launch a mystery story, a knight’s quest, from a bower of orchids.”

Chandler’s writings show his detailed fascination with the fragility of polite society, the thin veneer of respectability covering tawdriness and corruption.  His novels are notorious for convoluted plots and complex characters, and in 1995, his works joined the prestigious Library of America, acknowledging his place in the pantheon of American literature.  Like a guidebook to a national monument, further affirming that reputation is The Annotated Big Sleep.

Newman and Benedictines

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) challenged the Utilitarian trend of his day, insisting that there was more to human life than what facts and logic could determine.  As Russell Kirk summed up Newman in The Conservative Mind (1986), “This sensitive and subtle man lived in an age . . . in which Caesar claimed the things that are God’s; and so Newman spent his life in arguments and struggles abhorrent to his contemplative nature.”

Around the same time another quiet Englishman, Charles Darwin, was mulling over evidence from the natural world for change over time, Newman was considering how elements in the spiritual realm change over time.  Newman wrote at length about the development of Christian doctrine, how through the centuries Christian teaching grows organically.  As James Hitchcock said of Newman in his History of the Catholic Church (2012), “Part of his achievement was to reconcile historical consciousness with faith.”  By historical consciousness Hitchcock meant “the awareness that everything changes over time.”

While Newman composed sublime lyric poems, notably “Praise to the holiest in the height,” his prose works often carried ponderous titles such as An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent and Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and he proposed esoteric vocabulary, like “the Illative Sense,” a head-scratcher for the uninitiated, who would be forgiven for thinking it has something to do with ileitis.  In short, students of philosophy gravitate towards Newman’s writings, although for an historian, Newman ranks with Aristotle as one of the greatest bores ever to put pen to paper.  Nevertheless, long after any of us are dust, people will still be reading Aristotle and Newman.

Two of Newman’s shorter works that continue to invite reflection are essays on Benedictine monastic life.  Those essays, “The Mission of the Benedictine Order” and “The Benedictine Centuries,” first appeared in The Atlantis in December, 1858, and January, 1859, respectively, and they remain in print in various formats.  For Newman, the Benedictines stood as symbolic of the first thousand years of the Church.  Readers of Newman’s two essays on the Benedictines will find no hint that as Newman wrote, the Benedictines were re-establishing themselves in England, France, and Germany, and that they were founding monasteries in Australia and the United States.

According to Newman’s perspective on monastic history, monks by definition seek out seclusion, silence, and solitude.  Whether in the fourth century in the Egyptian desert or in the eleventh century in forested valleys of Western Europe, Newman believed the natural habitat for monks was in isolated locations, near which sometimes grew up cities.  “The lonely Benedictine,” declared Newman in “The Benedictine Centuries,” “rose from his knees, and found himself a city.”

Newman’s model of monastic remoteness from what today we call the rat race comes most clearly into focus in his appreciation of the monks of Beaulieu Abbey.  (Pronounced Bewley.)  Founded in 1203 by King John in rural Hampshire, Beaulieu was a Cistercian monastery honoring the Virgin Mary, and it lasted until 1538, when an Act of Parliament under King Henry VIII dissolved it.

To Newman’s way of thinking, those Cistercians of Beaulieu, following the Rule of Saint Benedict, “were not dreamy sentimentalists, to fall in love with melancholy winds and purling rills, and waterfalls and nodding groves; but their poetry was the poetry of hard work and hard fare, unselfish hearts and charitable hands.”

Another dimension to what for Newman was monasticism’s poetical character was educational or literary work.  Although Newman acknowledged an extensive catalogue of Benedictine authors, from Bede in the eighth century to Jean Mabillon in the seventeenth, Newman admired that “there was nothing of original research, nothing of brilliant or imposing result,” because therefore “there would be nothing to dissipate, elate, or absorb the mind” and thereby “to violate the simplicity and tranquility proper to the monastic state.”  With such comments it is unclear whether Newman saw that he was confirming a Protestant and Enlightenment prejudice that Catholicism is inherently anti-intellectual, rewarding rote memorization of answers in catechisms and lines from Aquinas.

Just as in these essays Newman never gave any indication that in his day Benedictine monasticism was undergoing a revival, he overlooked an important feature of Benedictine monastic life.  Newman’s love of places like Beaulieu, tucked away in the woods, made him ignore places like Westminster Abbey, looming large in a major city.

Newman knew about Benedictine monasteries established in cities, but like Bartleby the scrivener, he preferred not to.  In today’s terminology, they did not fit his narrative.  In Discourse VI of The Idea of a University (1853), Newman observed that “the study of history is said to enlarge and enlighten the mind,” and he noted that studying history gives the mind “a power of judging of passing events, and of all events, and a conscious superiority over them, which before it did not possess.”

In the end, Newman’s essays on Benedictines reveal more about Newman than they do about monks.  “When he wrote about monks,” explained Owen Chadwick, “he wrote about them with an idealised happiness which was not always very historical, but which spoke volumes about his idea of life.”  Newman’s “conscious superiority” over events, what James Hitchcock called Newman’s “historical consciousness,” had a flaw that kept Newman from appreciating how Benedictines have changed over time.

It was an odd bug in Newman’s mental system, since he could see contemporary changes in philosophical currents, not least being Utilitarianism.  As much as, say, Pope Gregory VII’s eleventh century, the nineteenth century was a Benedictine century, with new congregations (associations) of Benedictine monasteries, such as Solesmes, Beuron, and American Cassinese.  What is more, during the first twenty-two years of Newman’s life, the Pope, Pius VII, was a Benedictine monk who had been imprisoned by Napoleon but emerged with his inner peace intact and with renewed respect, even reverence, from around the world.

Newman weighed bucolic monasticism against industrial metropolises and found the latter wanting.  In his vision of what made several centuries Benedictine, there was room for only one style of monastic life, and it imagined monks as farmers and themselves as rather bovine.  It is a sad fact that each congregation of monasteries, sometimes each monastery, preens itself as the gold standard of monasticism.  In Newman’s mind, that standard existed around the time that Arthurian legends were new, but, as any honest Benedictine will say, Newman’s monastic standard was as real as Camelot.

Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture

In December, 1948, at Pennsylvania’s Saint Vincent College, Erwin Panofsky delivered the second annual Wimmer Lecture.  Founded in the first half of the nineteenth century, the college was run by Benedictine monks, and the lecture series honored the memory of the founder abbot of Saint Vincent, Boniface Wimmer.

As he addressed students and monks and others, Panofsky’s topic, combining the architectural and philosophical fields, was “Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.”  As Norman F. Cantor put it in Inventing the Middle Ages (1991), Panofsky had the Midas touch that turned straw into gold.  Cantor cited as an example what was to him “an obscure American Catholic college” asking Panofsky to lecture on Gothic architecture, and the resulting book going through ten printings in a decade.

Erwin Panofsky was born in 1892 in Hanover, Germany, and died in 1968 in Princeton, New Jersey.  He was the same age as J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), but while Tolkien was mired in the trenches of the First World War, Panofsky had earned his doctorate from Freiburg.  In 1915 Panofsky published his first book; the following year, he was married.  While Tolkien was teaching at Oxford and writing The Hobbit, Panofsky, an assimilated Jew, had to disrupt his own academic career and flee National Socialist Germany for the United States.

That evening in December of 1948 the more perceptive members of his audience knew that Panofsky’s Wimmer Lecture on Gothic architecture and Scholasticism filled a niche in the field of medieval studies.  Like many great ideas, it is a wonder no one thought of it before.  And yet, what Panofsky revealed in that lecture was how a cathedral such as Notre Dame or Chartres was like a book by Saint Thomas Aquinas or Blessed John Duns Scotus.

Panofsky simply said by way of preface that it was but “another diffident attempt at correlating Gothic architecture and Scholasticism,” and one that “is bound to be looked upon with suspicion by both historians of art and historians of philosophy.”  The hard to please Norman Cantor said that this “fragile jewel . . . is a beautiful piece of speculative interpretation.”

Characteristically, Panofsky drew upon his encyclopedic knowledge of Western art and philosophy and saw parallels.  He saw that the medieval Schoolmen knew that reason could not prove religious doctrine, but reason could make it manifest by shedding clear light upon it.  Panofsky understood that the Scholastic mind “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of function through form,” and equally it “insisted upon a gratuitous clarification of thought through language.”

Function and thought, form and language:  Panofsky summed up what he called a Scholastic mental habit given to manifestatio, clarification.  “A man imbued with the Scholastic habit [of mind],” he said, “would look upon the mode of architectural presentation, just as he looked upon the mode of literary presentation, from the point of view of manifestatio.”  All the elements of a Gothic cathedral or a Scholastic argument were carefully articulated and clearly went together to form a reasoned whole.

As did Catholic theologians, Catholic architects of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries sought clarity of function through form.  Just as the intellect functioned to study and contemplate God, so a church functioned to worship God through the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  The Catholic faith teaches that Christ, while being fully divine, was also “of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting,” to use the words of the Athanasian Creed.

What follows from the Christian creed is the importance in Catholic culture not only of the intellect, but also of tangible material, whether bread and wine or stone and glass.  Panofsky’s insight was that through proportion and distinction of parts, a Gothic cathedral was as solid and precise in its service of Catholic doctrine as was the treatise of a Scholastic theologian.

Like his Catholic contemporary, Tolkien, Panofsky was captivated by the Christian civilization that emerged from the Roman Empire.  In his Histories, Tacitus had written that in Judaea under Tiberius, all was quiet (sub Tiberio quies), and yet any astute observer today can see that there developed, like a minor theme in music that recurs until it reaches crescendo, the literature and liturgy of the Catholic Church.

For Tolkien and Panofsky, medieval culture was vivid and complex.  Craftsmen created formulae for stained glass never again equaled, and scholars in then new universities debated questions of universal reality.  It was a world appreciating intricate patterns and rich colors, whether in illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, or jewelry.  Alongside those achievements of art and intellect roared the violence of war and the cruelty of nasty people.  In short, it was an era like our own, because human nature never changes.

While Tolkien used his love of the Early Middle Ages to create his own Middle Earth, Panofsky studied the art and architecture of the High Middle Ages and related it to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas and the poetry of Dante Alighieri.  Their various writings show that these twentieth-century students of medieval culture, one from Germany, the other from England by way of South Africa, felt an affinity for what has survived within Western civilization because they came of age when so much of that civilization was cracking apart under hammers and sickles.

As the tide of the twentieth century recedes, the books left on what William Shakespeare called in Sonnet 60 “the pebbled shore” are worth our while.  Within that span of a hundred years more books were published than ever before, yet few will survive time’s erosion of public memory.  Works once declared instant classics are forgotten.  Nevertheless, as Joseph Pearce noted twenty years ago, much to the chagrin of the intelligentsia there stands Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, still around after almost seventy years.  Also among the books surviving from the last century is Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.

People long to enter into a realm that takes them beyond this world.  For that reason they will continue to follow Bilbo and Frodo deep into Middle Earth, a journey like that of pacing contemplatively through a labyrinth in the floor of a medieval cathedral, or following the logic of a Scholastic argument.  As their guides through these mazes of prose and stone, they will return again and again to Tolkien and Panofsky.

 

(A much longer version of this essay appeared in the August, 2015, issue of American Theological Inquiry.)