I've read Anthony Esolen's excellent translation of the Divine Comedy twice, ten years apart. Without question, it is the best long poem (and probably the best work of fiction) I've ever read. Soon I'll be teaching the Comedy to my students in Indonesia, and I plan to use Esolen, but I've decided to explore the poem through other translations. It's an exciting project because there are many English translations; in this regard the Comedy is matched only by Homer and the Bible.

Clive James published his translation in 2014. Its most noteworthy feature is an unorthodox stanza structure: frequently-enjambed quatrains of iambic pentamer, riming abab, cdcd, etc. Sometimes he extends the stanza to five or six lines (ababa or ababab). Each canto concludes with a couplet, like Shakespeare's sonnets. Despite the occasional glory, I don't care for this decision. The quatrains are not marked on the pages of my Kindle edition, and are not always easy to hear. In any case, heavily-enjambed quatrains are harder to hold in the mind than Esolen's mostly end-stopped tercets. (Esolen is also less dedicated to rime. I didn't bother to count, but according to Esolen's prefaces, the rimes increase from Inferno to Purgatorio, and again from Purgatorio to Paradiso.)

A second novelty in James's edition is the complete absence of footnotes; instead of cluttering up the margins with glosses (dreadful on Kindles) and extending the page count with appendices and back matter, James incorporates external data directly into the verse. This makes for longer cantos, usually no more than an extra 20 or 30 lines, but overall a quicker read, since the conscientious reader needn't pause for asterisked notes and explanations. This strategy is unsatisfactory, too, because James doesn't add nearly enough material.

I'm sorry to report the poetry itself is uneven. Consider the good but disappointing version of the revelation of Virgil's identity to Statius, who has been praising Virgil's poetry without realizing that his master stands before him.

He bent down to embrace my Teacher's feet,
But Virgil said "Brother, it's just no use.
You are a shade and it's a shade you meet."
And Statius, rising, said "My one excuse
Is my great love for you, its burning heat.
I clean forgot, because I felt so much,
That shades are here to see, but not to touch." (James, Pur. 21)

This is the end of a canto of rich dramatic irony, but the couplet deflates the drama; the finality of the final two lines feels like the conclusion of an argument rather than a moment of breathless wonder. Contrast the fluidity and rush of Esolen:

Already he had fallen to his knees
    to clasp my Teacher's feet, who said, "No, brother;
    you are a shade, and it's a shade you see."
Rising, he said, "Now you can tell how great
    is the love for you which burns in me,
    when I forget our emptiness, and treat
Shadows as if they had solidity." (Esolen, ibid.)

For a similar problem, contrast the two translations' treatment of Adam's final lines in Paradiso 26.

Some of James's couplets are appropriate to the circumstances. And occasionally his quatrains are enchanting, theology in song:

The Force that makes our bodies fit to bear
Torments of heat and cold has secret ways
Of which we cannot hope to be aware,
And he’s a fool who thinks our reason can
Trace all the paths one substance takes in three
Persons, for they are infinite. Mere Man!
The quia, the mere fact, is bound to be... (Pur. 3)

There are several major factual blunders. In Purgatory 25, James confuses Averroes and Aristotle. I'm touchy when it comes to Aristotle's reputation, so this one bothers me a lot. In Paradiso 32, James places Aquinas in the Celestial Rose instead of Francis. Odd.

My favorite cantos in James's translations are all from Paradiso: Justinian's song (Canto 6), the Eagle's eye (Canto 20) and the Sphere of the Fixed Stars (Cantos 23 through 27). I won't reread the entire thing, but I will revisit these passages.

Next up, Longfellow.

AuthorSeth Holler

This apocalyptic novel has only one charm, but it's a good one: the mystery of an underground "tower" with an interminable sentence written along one wall, in letters made of living moss. The sentence begins near the top and spirals down with the wall: Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that… As the story progresses, it makes a bit (but only a bit) more sense.

Unfortunately this intriguing scene is ruined by the novel's insufferable narrator-protagonist. Known only as "the biologist" (there are no personal names in the book), she is part of a four-person, government-sponsored team assigned to explore Area X, a place of indeterminate nature that lies beyond the bounds of normal civilization (presumably the explorers are still on our planet, but even that basic fact is unclear). The biologist has two narratorial vices: poor judgment and vagueness. She is always discussing her mental state. Her real interest is not in the odd landscape of Area X, but in her own gradually shifting psychological responses to Area X.

Novels can do anything, so in principle this internal focus is fine. But all narrators must follow Henry James's one rule for fiction: Be interesting. The biologist doesn't follow this rule. She cannot see clearly into her own soul. She cannot see much of anything, apart from the tower. Her observations of the territory and her recollections of the past (childhood, a failed marriage, the training prior to the mission) are blurry. There are a handful of exceptions to this general failure: the memory of a miniature ecosystem in her parents' backyard pool, her lonely and self-destructive behavior at late-night bars, her two descents into the tower, a rotting pile of notebooks in a lighthouse oubliette, a human-like glance from a leaping dolphin. Each of these scenes and actions is, like the unworldly script in the tower, drawn with precision. The remainder of the book is a jumble of half-imagined places and events, and unformed judgments. Everything is ambiguous: "suggestion," "something," and "somehow" are favored words; things and feelings are "a kind" of thing or "a sort" of some abstraction. Many pronouns lack certain referents, and many similes are half-baked.

But other phenomena could also result in 'premature dissolution of expeditions,' as our superiors put it, so we needed to test our stamina for that place. (Chapter 1)

That place? Why not simply the place?

[The boar's] features were somehow contorted, as if the beast was dealing with an extreme of inner torment. (Chapter 1)

Somehow is tolerable, for the animal is running at a far distance from the observer, but are there extremes of inner torment in such a creature?

The surveyor, meanwhile, just shrugged and would not answer the psychologist's question. The anthropologist nodded as if she agreed with me. The entrance to the tower leading down exerted a kind of presence, a blank surface that let us write so many things upon it. This presence manifested like a low-grade fever, pressing down on all of us. (Chapter 1)

It is odd to call an open doorway a kind of presence; odder to call that presence a blank surface; odder still to call this surface-presence a mild fever affecting an entire group of people simultaneously. In fact, it is an unpicturable jumble, a mixture of metaphors, a mess. Almost the entire book is like this. Later in Chapter 1 the biologist writes, "All of my thoughts came spilling out of my mouth, some final discharge from the state that had overtaken me." That is correct; the narrator lacks discrimination.

The vagueness is neither accidental nor unconscious, for it is part of the author's philosophical theme, the impossibility of true knowledge. Other contributions to the theme are the mysterious disaster that first created Area X, the present but (before the final chapter) hidden menace scribbling the moss-letters on the interior wall of the underground tower, several encounters with half-human or seemingly human vegetation and animals, and unexplained doppelgängers. In other words, the novel is coherent and consistent. But it is consistently invisible: it is hard to imagine a blurry landscape populated by characters without names or clear intentions and threatened by a monster known only by footprints. And unfortunately, we need to see something in this particular novel, because the author is not a poet. Finding an organic sentence on the wall of an underground tower is a pretty interesting situation, but every time the spell is cast, it is sure to be snapped by some glaring defect. One character actually compares the sentence in the tower to the Old Testament. Perhaps the critics are right that Cormac McCarthy writes "biblical" prose. Annihilation does not.

In the fifth chapter, the narrator has a mystical experience with the monster, "an encounter with the most beautiful, the most terrible thing." It is the climax of the book, and since it takes place in the most interesting part of Area X, I had high hopes. Here too the prose disappoints.

You understand, I could no more have turned back than have gone back in time. My free will was compromised, if only by the severe temptation of the unknown.

Have gone back in time is grammatical but barbarous; and really, free will? Why not will or I? Again, the problem is not the absence of explanation; the point of the novel is that explanation is not on offer. But if you are going to risk making the world of your apocalyptic novel largely invisible, you must at the very least keep control of your language.

Compounding the problem of the general blur are the narrator's many unearned inferences, which are usually (and conveniently) justified by the plot. The author is cheating. Similarly he likes to give his narrator semi-profound maxims: "There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you" (Chapter 2). "Sometimes you get a sense of when the truth of things will not be revealed by microscopes" (Chapter 2). "You can either waste time worrying about a death that might not come or concentrate on what's left to you" (Chapter 4). Bad stuff. I won't read the trilogy.

AuthorSeth Holler

I'm searching for a short, lively introduction to philosophy for college freshmen. Edward Craig's volume for Oxford UP's "Very Short" series is lively, but it won't do for my students, and neither would I use it in an American setting.

Craig has a pleasant, mild voice. His low-key approach involves the imprecision of chat but doubtless attracts more readers than an intimidating alternative. "Now let’s look at some more words, all of them ending in 'ism'. This isn't a matter of swotting up vocabulary – rather of finding out more about philosophy as you learn more of the jargon" (61). The first chapter ends with a bracing exhortation to reject laziness in intellectual matters. He sees historical continuity and universal relevance in the basic philosophical problems. The first four chapters introduce ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics by paraphrasing a few classic texts, supplemented with plenty of references to contemporary life. Each of the final four chapters is an interesting grab-bag: "Some themes" addresses ethical consequentialism, moral integrity, political science, rationality, the notion of the self, and the historical context of philosophical ideas. "Of 'isms'" discusses dualism, materialism, idealism, empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism. Craig deserves praise for combating two of the grosser popular mischaracterizations of medieval cosmology (74-5); I can forgive his cheap (and false) shot at C.S. Lewis (91).

But as the author well knows (8), this book is too short. He identifies topics and problems but does little to answer them. It is a prolegomenon, not an introduction. The few answers he gives (vid. every mention of David Hume) are not my answers. As a student of Maritain, I think the book criminally neglects Aristotle and Aquinas, whom the author must mistrust. Despite the exhortation to think through one's opinions and the skeptical judgment of skepticism, the book leaves the impression that truth is not of supreme importance in philosophy. Also inexcusable is the neglect and occasional misrepresentation of Christian philosophical anthropology. (I don't know if the author wrote the glib caption for the fifth image, but I hope not; based on the evidence of Chapter 7 and Caption 18, I suspect he did.) A "Very Short Introduction" to Western philosophy may be impossible, but a long introduction is not. Idiosyncrasy is acceptable in tone, but not in content. Aristotelians must be invited to the discussion.

AuthorSeth Holler

On April 9, 2013 Paul Mankowski, S.J. delivered an excellent 45-minute lecture on Evelyn Waugh as prose stylist, Catholic convert, and satirical novelist. Scholar-in-Residence at the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago, Mankowski made several contributions to the Institute's series on Modern Christian Writers. I can't locate audio files for most of the lectures, but here is the Flannery O'Connor lecture by Richard Rosengarten of the University of Chicago. Enjoy!

AuthorSeth Holler

For several years I have associated Slaughterhouse-Five, which I first read in high school, with Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), which I read on a lark in graduate school. In addition to the novels' non sequitur quality, their heroes are powerless, fumbling around at the mercy of something large, strong, and incomprehensible. One key difference between Oedipa Mass and Billy Pilgrim is that Oedipa seeks answers, a place for herself in relation to an alleged worldwide conspiracy. Billy Pilgrim is so shattered by World War II and the bombing of Dresden that he retreats (not entirely consciously) into private fantasy.

In Chapter 1 Vonnegut admits that his book is a mess. This is true. As best I can tell (and this is pure, uninformed opinion), the science fiction element is imagined by the protagonist. Billy's war experience has driven him mad, giving him delusions of time-travel and visits to the planet Trafalmadore. The contours of the fantasy are determined by one particular postwar experience: the reading of science fiction in 1948, while making a recuperative stay at a mental institution. "So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help" (Chapter 5). Various pieces of Billy's life are folded into the fantasy he constructs: his father's pitiless swimming lessons, his sexual experiences, the crucifix hanging over his childhood bed. (Vonnegut's narrator has a mild, piteous admiration for Jesus; he refers to "all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the [canonical] Gospels.")

The novel doesn't have much in its favor. The fact that Vonnegut intentionally deranged his plot does not excuse it. (Unlike Station Eleven, I had no trouble stitching together the story). Much of the book is pornographic; my high school teachers ought not to have assigned it. Billy is an unforgettable everyman-soldier (his last name is "Pilgrim"; his hometown is "Ilium"), but there are no other characters in the book. Vonnegut's American women are cruel, ugly-and-stupid, or beautiful-and-stupid. His European civilians, male and female, are sophisticated, decent, and more or less innocent. This is not a great defect, though. In social satire, the characters don't matter. It is situations, incidents, and institutions that are the real object of attention.

Vonnegut's narrative voice is relaxed but never out of his control, as is clear from the incorporation into the plot of several distinctive, imaginary manuscripts: quotations from a science-fiction novelist, Kilgore Trout, and a book written by an intelligent American Nazi, Howard W. Campbell, Jr. The imitations of a variety of Englishes are good: British, immigrant American, Midwestern American.

The book has a strong and pretty good moral purpose, most evident in its responses to death. The effectiveness lies in brevity. Vonnegut creates many terrible images of mangled and suffering bodies, and refuses to linger on them. They come and go quickly, not unlike the incidents in the time-hopping plot. Another brief element is the repeated use of a certain phrase after someone or something dies in the book: "So it goes." This phrase, according to Billy, is the Trafalmadorian response to death. Obviously it is a casual phrase; combined with its frequent repetition and its penumbra of fatalism, it imperils the morality of the tale. But Vonnegut leavens the narrative with serious and potent moral claims.

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that. (Chapter 1)

Slaughterhouse-Five is not a fervent novel, but neither is indifferent. The ambiguity of plot and hero make definite judgment difficult, but "humanist" seems right.

AuthorSeth Holler

I used to suppose it was the lack of chapter divisions that made Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) so difficult to read. Over hundreds of pages, Moll relates dozens of brief episodes from her life. She begins a new story every two or three pages. The reading experience was maddening. I couldn't hold the whole thing in mind. Chapters, I kept telling myself while reading, chapters would solve the problem.

After reading Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven (2014), a post-apocalyptic family drama and National Book Award finalist, I realize I made a mistake about Defoe. It is not the lack of numbered sections that makes Moll Flanders such a tough book, but the brief and episodic nature of the narrative itself. The problem is not episodes, but precisely too-many-brief-episodes. The Pickwick Papers (1836-7) is episodic, but each mini-story lasts long enough for the reader to breathe, and is accompanied by descriptive chapter titles; and we're laughing so hard that it doesn't matter, Dickens can have his way with us. Tom Jones (1749) is another comic episodic novel (or "picaresque"), but the backbone of the journey toward London and Sophia keeps us on track.

While I enjoyed Station Eleven much more than Moll Flanders, it suffers from a similar problem. The 300-odd pages are divided into 9 parts and 55 chapters, some as short as two paragraphs, some ten or more pages. Mandel gives us dozens of named but thinly-described characters (cf. Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy) and leaps back and forth along her timeline: we begin on the night the plague hits North America, jump to "Year 20" in the new disaster-based calendar, then return to three weeks before the night of the plague, then Year 15, then two weeks before the plague, then back to Year 20, then forty years before the plague, then Year 1, etc. It is disorienting, and Mandel further complicates the book with a variety of imaginary manuscripts that supplement the main (omniscient) narrative: the transcript of one survivor interviewing another, two comic books, text messages, graffiti, one character's pre-apocalypse letters and a collected edition in which they are published, various characters' memories. Again, the "found manuscript" device is not itself the problem: Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) and Wilkie Collins's Moonstone (1868) use it exceedingly well. But in the context of the thin characters and the back-and-forth timestamps, it seems ill-chosen.

The main problem is that the book is constructed rather than written. In Part 3 Miranda (one of the central characters and the graphic novelist whose work, in a complicated way, advances the story) pastes timelines and important dates from her comics on the walls of her studio; I suspect Mandel did something similar. The story isn't just put together. It is pieced together meticulously, with dates, characters, and seemingly random objects emphasized in close-up; and the seams show. It's a bit like a detective story: you start trying to remember all of the minor details because they may turn up later (the paper in Jeevan's pocket, 189; the three named and immediately abandoned characters on 192). Sometimes this close-up technique works perfectly. Mandel has a remarkable gift for casually ratcheting up the drama. In a line frequently and justly quoted by Goodreads reviewers, she introduces the plague like an afterthought at the conclusion of a chapter: "Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city" (Chapter 2). Glancing at her face in a mirror, another central character alters her smile not just to find a more pleasing effect, but to hide the teeth she has lost through years on the post-plague road (150; this startling example is unfortunately marred by a later allusion in dialogue, 202-3). Nevertheless, too many of the details don't matter, and I couldn't shake the impression that they would. On the other hand, with the help of Google Maps I had no trouble following the characters' local motion, whether the author took us to an island off western Canada, the land just east of Lake Michigan, Toronto, "the territory once known as Virginia," or the Malaysian coast.

The novel begins very well and has several excellent scenes (a dinner party in L.A., a deathbed on the seashore). The finest characters are Miranda, Clark, and the underused, late-lamented Dieter. I didn't care for Kirsten, the Katniss Everdeen-like character who loses several teeth. Arthur Leander, the closest thing the book has to a protagonist, is a disappointment, though his (literal) roles at the beginning and end of the novel generate very good personal and social drama. The villain (like Leander) is an uninteresting religious maniac, but the climactic confrontation is page-turner satisfyingI enjoyed the author's enjoyment of Shakespeare: most prominently King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but also (I suspect) The Tempest. Numerous lines are sharp or gorgeous:

She was wearing precarious shoes and carried a dozen shopping bags. (Chapter 38)

He wasn’t specifically sad anymore, but he was aware of death at all times. (Chapter 47)

The weather reports had been full of an approaching snowstorm and he sensed it in the air, in the dove-gray weight of the late-morning sky. (Chapter 53)

The dialogue is mostly convincing:

“The thing with the new world,” the tuba had said once, “is it’s just horrifically short on elegance." (Chapter 24)

"Everyone knows when you’ve got a terrible marriage, it’s like having bad breath, you get close enough to a person and it’s obvious." (Chapter 26)

The spell fails on several occasions when the dialogue turns expository.

As for theme, the author wisely refrains from resolving the characters' questions about free will and destiny. The villain insists that "everything happens for a reason," but so does Jeevan, an anodyne fellow who gradually approaches moral responsibility:

He placed a pinch of snow on his tongue and thought of making snow ice cream with Frank and their mother when they were small boys — “First you stir in the vanilla” — Frank standing on a stool on his wondrously functional pre-Libya legs, the bullet that would sever his spinal cord still twenty-five years away but already approaching: a woman giving birth to a child who will someday pull the trigger on a gun, a designer sketching the weapon or its precursor, a dictator making a decision that will spark in the fullness of time into the conflagration that Frank will go overseas to cover for Reuters, the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together. (Chapter 36)

The final page of the Kindle edition lists several "suggested books," including The StandThe Road, and King Lear. I don't recommend the tedious Stephen King novel, but McCarthy is a good comparison in scene, theme, and players. And Station Eleven is remarkably free of gore.


  • John Wilson and Stan Guthrie discuss the novel in a Books & Culture podcast (link).
  • Alexandra Alter's review for the New York Times (link)
  • Joshua Rothman, "A Better Way to Think About the Genre Debate," New Yorker blog (link)
  • Interview with the author by the National Book Foundation (link). "I wanted to write a love letter to this extraordinary world in which we live."
AuthorSeth Holler

A certain minimum level of learning and fluency must be met in a book before we can say it truly invites its readers in. I began Christ and Culture skeptical of Niebuhr's method and style, but he had me after a dozen pages. Whatever the merits of his argument, here was a mind whose excellences include deep learning and wide reading (in German as well as English, and ranging from Tertullian to Tolstoy), incisive judgment and generosity to controversial figures (not uncritically defending Marcion, celebrating F.D. Maurice), wit and a sense of humor ("Grace is a good thing to believe in if you want to attain deiformity or assert your lordship over nature," 113), a refusal to oversimplify complex problems, and above all, devotion to the Trinity. It is a good book to spend a week with. Niebuhr draws admirable distinctions (e.g., the difference between a modus vivendi and a "solution" to a problem, 184). He has a few excellent lines on false dichotomies (116). Critics of Niebuhr's typological method should admit his numerous caveats, and take care not to deny him the courtesy of imprecision and provisionality in treating so large a topic. Simplification is not oversimplification.

The prose is usually clear. Not a master of euphony ("They see the self-destructiveness in its self-contradictoriness," 191), Niebuhr knows how to sting with his words: "How often the Fundamentalist attack on so-called liberalism--by which cultural Protestantism is meant--is itself an expression of a cultural loyalty" (102; cf. 110, 220). He can build powerful, escalating paragraphs. In the following sentences, Niebuhr describes the conversionists' (the fifth approach to the problem of Christ and Culture) understanding of the doctrine of the fall:

Man's good nature has become corrupted; it is not bad, as something that ought not to exist, but warped, twisted, and misdirected. He loves with the love that is given him in his creation, but loves beings wrongly, in the wrong order; he desires good with the desire given him by his Maker, but aims at goods that are not good for him and misses his true good; he produces fruit, but it is misshapen and bitter; he organizes society with the aid of his practical reason, but works against the grain of things in self-willed forcing of his reason into irrational paths, and thus disorganizes things in his very acts of organization. (194)

Augustine is Niebuhr's chief example of conversionism; Jonathan Edwards is another. Niebuhr turns the screw on some of Edwards's followers with two excellent metaphors:

...perverted [his work] into banal, Pelagian theurgisms in which men were concerned with the symptoms of sin, not its roots, and thought it possible to channel the grace and power of God into the canals they engineered. Thus the conversionism of Edwards was used to justify the psychological mechanics of a shabby revivalism, with its mass production of renovated souls, and the sociological sciences of that part of the social gospel which expected to change prodigal mankind by improving the quality of the husks served in the pigsty. (220)

The book has weaknesses. In several places he relies too much on a single author. I have not read his sources, but I tend to distrust the use of the same expert in a brief analysis. Perhaps this is a disciplinary and generational matter. More disconcerting are the passages revealing his relativist epistemology. The problem is clearest in his brief critique of Thomism (Chapter 4), but shows up in the discussions of Rischl (Chapter 3, esp. 111) and Luther (Chapter 5). In the concluding Chapter 7, he borrows and modifies several ideas from Kierkegaard, and seems to step back from his relativism (240). But I find Kierkegaard impenetrable, so I may be wrong. In either case, I do not see how the "compresence" of "the Absolute" solves the problem Niebuhr has created. The real question is this: can we really know things, or not? "The language and concepts of a reason that is always culturally conditioned" are therefore relative, limited, partial, "fragmentary" (145). If Niebuhr had confined his assertion to "language," I'd be less disturbed; but he means our ideas, as well. The "relativity not only of historical objects but, more, of the historical subject, the observer and the interpreter" extends to concepts and mental structures. It is a red herring to say that "the hierarchical view of natural order in Thomas Aquinas is historical and medieval." The date and time of an idea are accidental in the logical sense; what matters is its truth or falseness.

Apart from this problem, the second half of the book is weaker than the first. The Lutheran chapter, as another reader has noted, is the low point. Niebuhr uses two words to describe the position: dualist and paradoxical. The first involves unfortunate associations with the Manichees, which he is quick to deny; the second term might have solved the problem, but Niebuhr seems uncertain about its meaning. After endorsing it in the chapter title, he backs away from it (156), and finally returns to it by implication ("Luther does not...divide what he distinguishes," 172). The content of this chapter is also less interesting: a rapid-fire summary of Paul's writings. After finding in Paul the roots of Luther and Marcion, he admits the latter is not really a good example of the paradoxical approach; why didn't he choose a different theologian? The problem with this chapter may lie not in Niebuhr's interpretation of Luther, but in Luther's own intellectual inconsistency. Like C.S. Lewis, Niebuhr deems classic Reformed moral analysis truer to Paul than Roman Catholic analysis. But is Luther irrational or merely subrational, awaiting the completion of later Reformers? The author declines to answer this question (185).

AuthorSeth Holler

This promising, frustrating book has two chief problems: the strong implication, despite the author's repeated protests to the contrary, that the truth of one’s beliefs is less important than their practical efficacy, and an indiscriminate, unhappy mixture of prose styles.

My teachers in philosophy have taught me to mistrust arguments that avoid, diminish, or obscure the question of truth. Esther Meek's Little Manual for Knowing does not argue either for or against a certain truth claim, for it offers no argument, at all. Instead it is a "how to" book on the topic of knowing. Nevertheless, Meek's way of posing the central question implies that truth is less important than pragmatic considerations.

The manual begins with a criticism of modern epistemology. When we embark on a "knowing venture" (a college education, a startup business, a course of private reading, the founding of a new ministry or charity, an artistic project), we can either retain the culturally dominant "knowledge-as-information" approach to truth, or adopt Meek's "love-in-order-to-know" approach. How should we choose one over the other? Sentences scattered across the book's eight chapters and clustered together in the final chapter gesture at criteria other than effectiveness; throughout the book Meek contrasts the Baconian goal of "power" with her own stated goal of "peace," in the sense of shalom or human flourishing. But the main thrust of the book is power, practicality, results, effectiveness -- perhaps because, although she is a Christian, Dr Meek has aimed the book at a diverse audience, Christians and others, college students and businesspeople, athletes and artists. The difficulty of appealing to such a varied group may account for the conflict between the book's explicit and implicit values.

Refraining from argument leads to another problem. Meek asserts some rather wild and undefended propositions. I do not understand what she means by calling reality "personal." I am a Christian too, and Dr Meek and I agree that three Persons created the reality of our everyday experience and all non-divine reality. We also agree that the uncreated Trinity is more real than creation. But she insists that all objects of knowledge are personal in themselves, and specifically denies that she is referring to their tripersonal origin. In a brief passage (the entire book is composed of brief passages with subheadings), she asserts that the thingness of things -- "a certain 'what-it-is-to-be-this-thing'" -- reveals norms, and that normativity implies gift or law, and that gift and law imply a context of interpersonal relations. But this to retreat to theism or pantheism. I have no problem with such a "retreat"; the problem lies in denying the retreat and calling it advance. Again, she does so with reference to effectiveness:

Whether or not you think you believe in God, attending to these normative dimensions of reality, and to reality as interpersoned gift, will make you more effective at your knowing ventures. (Chapter 1)

The proposition that reality and existence is not just the gift of three Persons, but personal in itself, leads to a number of very odd assertions.

If we can see knowing as a relationship between knower and known, we can see that reality makes the first overture. We can associate this call with our sense of wonder. Any geologist can probably name the day she or he first noticed and was taken in wonder by a rock. Every different discipline would involve something similar. (Chapter 1)

If Meek were saying the cultivation of wonder is essential for a good education, everyone but Mr Gradgrind would agree. But she is saying that things are persons, or that they are so "personlike" that we can justify our treatment of them as persons as we try to know them; and after all, she says, doing so works. It is not unusual to see culture as personal and social in origin, but how can Economics as a discipline be personal? How can we speak to Economics? How can we listen to Economics and receive it on its own terms? How can we enter into personal relationship with the law of supply and demand? We can do so only in metaphor, but Meek's argument exceeds metaphor: she thinks love is literally "at the core of all things" (Chapter 1). And all means all, for Meek's assertions extend beyond culture to nature: the objects of empirical science, from chemicals to raccoons, are personal. How exactly are we to understand rock formation as persons? How can we trust reality (as distinct from the Author of reality) to be "relationally responsive and generous" (Chapter 2)? How can geologists dance (Chapter 7) and commune (Chapter 8) with a rock formation? These assertions are not well-served by illustrations from Star Trek (Chapter 1).

In Chapter 4, the author briefly but explicitly turns to the truth of her ideas. Referring to a concept from Michael Polanyi, she writes, "SFI [subsidiary-focal integration] will demonstrate why the knowledge-as-information epistemology is both false and damaging." Unfortunately the chapter contains no such demonstration, just a rehearsal of Polanyi's very interesting idea.

Along with Chapter 3 (on "the four dimensions of humanness"), Chapter 4 is the high points of the book, though there are a number of stimulating ideas throughout. Consider her remarks on the personal commitment necessary for good learning.

What is it that we pledge? We pledge to give ourselves to the yet-to-be-known, and to consent to its being. We pledge to take the risk to follow something that may prove not to be there, something that may prove to be way different from what we imagine. We accept the prospect that others might think us foolish— that we might prove to be foolish" (Chapter 2).

It is one thing to consent to the existence of another thing, and quite another to consent to its personhood.

As for style, the author is sometimes clear, sometimes misty, and sometimes distractingly absurd (witness this illustration). Occasional sentences ring with intelligibility: "What starts the venture is notice and wonder. Something about reality catches our attention." Others all but roll your eyes for you: "To start to know is actually first a response to a dimly heard beckoning of the wonder-full real." Sometimes she starts well but ends a mess: "Every knowing venture involves scrabbling to indwell certain things, known and unknown, subsidiarily as clues, guided by the distant star of something we long to know, to unlock a transformative pattern that resoundingly makes sense of our half-blind efforts" (Chapter 3). This third sentence is a specimen of what Thomas and Turner would call "practical style," which aims at clarity for the sake of helping the reader solve a problem. Once you know what the author means by "indwell" and "subsidiary" -- words straightforwardly explained in the book -- the idea of the sentence is perfectly clear.*

Unfortunately the practical style is not maintained. Many sentences, neither practical nor classic, require too much work from the reader: "Submitting to relying on clues subsidiarily invites the real." How many readers (especially among college freshmen) will have the patience for this? While not impenetrable, it is a formidable sentence: the stacked verbals, the ambiguously placed adverb, the slight technical tinge of "real" as a noun. A similar tic is the author's tendency to refashion nouns into verbs and adjectives: "we only capitalize on knowing together when we covenant together in mutual trust." "This graced process is key to every knowing venture." I suspect only the inattentive and the dedicated will finish this short book.

Which, again, is a shame. The Little Manual's affirmation of goodness and important role of the body of the knower, and of the necessary steps of hope, pledge, trust and love for good knowing might have been a wonderful antidote to the contemporary overemphasis on critical thinking. But agreement with an author's affirmations is not sufficient reason to recommend a book. Full disclosure: I did not complete the exercises at the end of each chapter, and I did not follow the author's recommendation to read with a group.


It is not what Thomas and Turner call "classic style," because it does not seem inevitable. The "image-schema" of the expression does not match the image-schema of the thought. The first half of the sentence uses two familiar patterns or schemas of local movement: through darkness toward light, and over a rocky terrain toward shelter. The second half ruins the picture by adding the notion of unlocking and transforming. There are no doors on remote mountains, and one doesn't unlock doors in the dark. Still, in this sentence Meek communicates a genuine idea, unlike the hazier account of personal reality.

AuthorSeth Holler

My writing is not classic, but it can be. This is not to say my writing can be great, nor that it will last, and certainly not that classic writing is the only kind of great writing. But I can learn a classic style, and if you can read the newspaper, so can you.

The most important thing to learn from Thomas and Turner about "classic style" is that it is a matter of intellect (reason and judgment), not superficial correctness of diction or syntactical form. Their definition of "style" is worth the whole book: style is a "conceptual stand" on six topics intimately involved in the writing of prose: "truth, presentation, writer, reader, thought, language, and their relationships." Sometimes they vary the list: "truth, presentation, scene, cast, thought and language." The classic writer's assumptions include the knowability of truth, the capacity of words to express truth without distortion, the essentially (though not accidentally) equal footing and reasonableness of writer and reader, and the interest of the subject. The imagined scene of a classic piece of writing is two people attending to and discussing something, though of course only the writer "speaks."

I was delighted to realize this definition is compatible with the remarks on style I've encountered in George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh, the three best twentieth-century writers I know. It also fits neatly with the little I've read in philosophy from Jacques Maritain.

Of all of the excellent instructional and exemplary material in this book, what impresses me most is the emphasis on the sanctity of truth and honesty. It's not the sort of thing one usually finds in writing manuals.

The classic writer is licensed, so to speak, by the truth of what he says, not by his social position, political power, or technical knowledge.

There is something at least mildly fraudulent about offering to present a subject and then substituting for it the problematic nature of the presentation.

Before getting too excited, I should note the authors do not actually defend traditional epistemology; while the classic writer assumes, for the purpose of writing, that "truth can be known," that it is eternal rather than contingent, and that prose can and should be a window on the subject, he need not actually commit to these assumptions as philosophical propositions. A traditional theory of truth and language is a good model for communication; in fact, it is the only model that can withstand scrutiny. The classic writer temporarily adopts an intellectual position as an "enabling convention" in order to do his work.

This is not satisfying; Thomas and Turner need to read Maritain. (Everyone needs to read Maritain.) But many other parts of the book are worth savoring. Consider their analogy for the "presentation" of the subject in classic prose:

The classic writer is not like a television cook showing you how to mix mustard and balsamic vinegar. She is like a chef whose work is presented to you at table but whose labor you are never allowed to see, a labor the chef certainly does not expect you to share. There are no salt and pepper shakers on your table.

Elsewhere the authors defend the dignity, appropriateness, and inescapability of abstract language:

A writing instructor or consultant who advises us to write concretely and avoid abstractions offers shallow and impractical advice because the distinction is simpleminded. What matters is not the ontological category of the subject but rather the style in which it is conceived. ...Abstractions are not in themselves bad, vague, or inexact. They are only so in certain styles of conceiving them. When a classic writer deals in abstractions, it takes an effort to remind ourselves that she is not talking about a stone, a leaf, a statue. A classic writer presents the concrete diamond and its aesthetic beauty as if both are visible, clear, and exact.

I am grateful to the authors for introducing me to the notion of "image schemas," a modern term for an old idea in rhetoric, referring to a set of standard sense- and experience-based structures of thought which we use to realize truth, and which provide templates for the expression of knowledge.

The book has an appealing humility, in that the authors recognize the limitations of classic style and its unsuitability for certain occasions. It is not the proper style for oratory, suggestion, or (in a certain way) persuasion.

They illuminate classic style by contrasting it with other styles, such as "plain," "reflexive," and "practical," which they define in reference to the six basic topics and illustrate with quotations. Strunk and White, we learn, do not teach "the elements of style," but certain surface features of "practical style." In romantic style, "prose is a mirror, not a window" because the romantic writer "does not separate thought from sensation, memory, and emotion," nor the experience recounted from the person who has the experience.

All of this material and more comes in the first part of the book, "Principles of Classic Style." The second part ("The Museum") exhibits and comments on classic and unclassic styles in quotations spanning several centuries and languages (always accompanied by an English translation). The third part ("The Studio"), which has been added for the Second Edition (2011), provides an innovative series of exercises for developing a classic style. I look forward to using them in my writing classroom.

As a writing teacher, I'm also grateful for the authors' explanation of undergraduate writing as usually a gander at practical style:

Most writing in schools and colleges is a perversion of practical style: the student pretends that he is writing a memorandum. He pretends that he knows more than the reader, that the reader needs this information, and that his job is to impart that information in a way that is easy for the reader to parse. This pretense is supposed to be practice for the real thing. Actually, the reader (the teacher) probably knows much more about the subject than the writer; the reader (the teacher) has no need whatever for the information; and the job of the writer is to cover himself from attack by his superior (the teacher). The actual scene interferes so much with the fantasy scene that the result is almost inevitably compromised, if not fraudulent. (Chapter 1)

In the model scene of practical style, readers and writers hold standard job slots in existing institutions. The reader has no leisure and does not want surprises; the reader reads not for personal reasons but to accomplish a job. Accomplishing the job depends upon the communication of information, and practical style serves the purpose of keeping the information flowing efficiently through institutions. Since students will go on to such employment, they must be trained to write in practical style. The writer is not an individual writing to another individual but a job description writing to another job description . There is a job to do and practical style is the appropriate tool for doing it: the style is thus fundamentally optimistic, pragmatic, and utilitarian. The motive is the job; eternal and noncontingent truth is irrelevant except as it bears upon the performance of the job— even then its eternal and noncontingent nature is beside the point. (Chapter 1)

Writers in professional or business worlds who want something from readers normally use practical style . Technical manuals, sales pitches, political arguments, undergraduate essays, computer instructions, op-ed pieces, and the great range of prose that attempts to get our attention so it can push us and pull us is typically written in at least an attempt at practical style. (Chapter 2)

This is an indictment of teachers, not students. What should we do differently? I will try two things with this book in my composition classes. First, I want to set truth as the polestar for my students' writing, going a bit further than Thomas and Turner in epistemology. At the Christian college where I work, we emphasize the truth of the Christian faith, and I doubt the authors' standoffishness on the philosophical question of truth will risk our mission. Second, while I won't stop teaching my students to argue -- my commitment to They Say / I Say, while not total, is substantial -- I will follow this instruction with several units on classic prose style, recognizing with the authors that "the most persuasive of all rhetorical stances is to write as if one is not trying to persuade at all but simply presenting truth."

AuthorSeth Holler

I've read several dozen works of fiction this year, some for the second or third time. I revisited Malacandra and Perelandra. I progressed with Bunyan's Christian before regressing with Lewis's John. Once again I drank and groaned with the last (or next to last) priest in Graham Greene's Mexican communist state, and once again I found the third man in the sewers of Vienna. I had the delightful, illuminating experience of enjoying a book I had disliked several years earlier, Evelyn Waugh's Helena. I endured Cormac McCarthy's awful new screenplay, by far his worst published book, which I will never reread. I read all six of Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels, five of which were new to me. The epics of Homer (trans. Lattimore and Fagles) and Virgil (trans. Dryden) were also new. With our children I became acquainted with Roxaboxen and reacquainted with Frog and Toad, treasures we made sure to bring to our new home in southeast Asia.

The most interesting character I've met in 2014 has the unpropitious name "Gro." I expect never to meet anyone like him. Neither the hero nor the villain of E.R. Eddison's fantasy The Worm Ouroboros (1922), Gro is a "Goblin"--a name which, as far as I can tell, indicates nothing of traditional goblinry, but a distinct race or nation. The story is set on the planet Mercury. Other humanoid races populate the planet, such as the Witches, the Demons, the Imps, and the Pixies. Monsters, satyrs, fairies, and talking animals appear on occasion, too.

Gro is a traitor to his people; when we first meet him, he is advising King Gorice XI of "waterish Witchland," intent on war with the lords of "many-mountained Demonland." Gro plays several crucial dramatic and dialogic roles in the story. C.S. Lewis remarked that dialogue is the chief means by which Eddison shapes his characters. Gro, a master of language and political strategy, moves back and forth from one faction to another, sometimes facing personal peril, nearly always working his will. Both Gro's skill and his creator's fertile idiom are on display in the following scene, when Gro advises a Witch general to try treachery before laying siege to a temporary Demon stronghold in "far-fronted Impland":

"Yet consider," said Gro, taking him by the arm. "So shapeth the matter in my mind: they be few and shut up in a little place, in this far land, out of reach and out of mind of all succour. Were they devils and not men, the multitude of our armies and thine own tried qualities must daunt them. Be the place never so cocksure, doubt not some doubts thereof must poison their security. Therefore before thou risk a repulse which must dispel those doubts use thine advantage. Bid Juss to a parley. Offer him conditions: it skills not what. Bribe them out into the open."

"A pretty plan," said Corund. "Thou'lt merit wisdom's crown if thou canst tell me what conditions we can offer that they would take. And whilst thou riddlest that, remember that though thou and I be masters hereabout, another reigns in Carcë."

Lord Gro laughed gently. "Leave jesting," he said, "O Corund, and never hope to gull me to believe thee such a babe in policy. Shall the King blame us though we sign away Demonland, ay and the wide world besides, to Juss to lure him forth? Unless indeed we were so neglectful of our interest as suffer him, once forth, to elude our clutches."

"Gro," said Corund, "I love thee. But hardly canst thou receive things as I receive them that have dealt all my days in great stripes, given and taken in the open field. I sticked not to take part in thy notable treason against these poor snakes of Impland that we trapped in Orpish. All's fair against such dirt. Besides, great need was upon us then, and hard it is for an empty sack to stand straight. But here is far other matter. All's won here but the plucking of the apple: it is the very main of my ambition to humble these Demons openly by the terror of my sword: wherefore I will not use upon them cogs and stops and all thy devilish tricks, such as should bring me more of scorn than of glory in the eyes of aftercomers." (Chapter 11)

Gro's "gentle" laughter is a wonder, especially in contrast with the (relatively) honest Corund. A short time later, one of Corund's hotblooded Impish lieutenants disrupts a parley with the Demons by stabbing one of them -- unsuccessfully as it turns out -- and Corund is enraged. He lops off the offender's head. The Imp may or may not have been acting under Gro's advice. The Goblin plays dumb, remarking to Corund afterwards that "Such strokes come home or miss merely" and, with delicious irony, "This was well thought on: to flaunt the flag of seeming honesty, and with the motion rid us of this fellow that promised ever to grow thorns to make uneasy our seat in Impland."

Gro's allegiances shift as he pleases, and the changes receive little or no comment from the narrator. Close attention is necessary if we intend to follow Gro's plots. Sometimes his motives remain mysterious. Gro's expertise in policy gives special significance to an apparent departure from his custom. It is in fact so significant and revelatory of character that Eddison has Gro himself, the master of speech in the novel, introduce it in a soliloquy:

Gro said in himself, "How shall not common opinion account me mad, so rash and presumptuous dangerously to put my life in hazard? Nay, against all sound judgement; and this folly I enact in that very season when by patience and courage and my politic wisdom I had won that in despite of fortune's teeth which obstinately hitherto she had denied me: when after the brunts of divers tragical fortunes I had marvellously gained the favour and grace of the King, who very honourably placed me in his court, and tendereth me, I well think, so dearly as he doth the balls of his two eyes." (Chapter 25)

Gro's skill in language makes him a fascinating character. But this is to say that his value cannot be abstracted from its context. Gro's placement among and against other characters in Eddison's novel is essential to his development as a character. Sometimes this development is implicit, requiring reflexive consideration, and sometimes it is explicit in the text, though Eddison prefers to leave all comments to his characters rather than the narrative voice. Corund establishes the moral parameters of his world by refusing to adopt Gro's "devilish tricks." Similarly, only after another character, Lady Prezmyra, evaluates Gro's habits and speech do we learn how to judge him aright (Chapter 15).

The Worm Ouroboros has much more to offer than Gro, including strengths distinct from character. The chief of these is Eddison's own language. At first I was skeptical of the heavy archaism, but after two or three chapters I gave in completely. I was engrossed, transported. The narrative voice entices, requiring the absorption of unfamiliar syntactical patterns: "The eastern stars were paling to the dawn as Lessingham followed his conductor along the grass walk between the shadowy ranks of Irish yews, that stood like soldiers mysterious and expectant in the darkness" (Chapter 2). Many parts of the story will be difficult for readers who have not read older English poetry. Here's an extract from a letter transcribed in Chapter 18:

"So havinge ridde me wel of Vol, and by my hoep and secreat intilligence these were thayr entire flete that was nowe al sonken and putt to distruccioun by me, and trewely hit was a paltry werk and light, so few they were agaynst my foarce agaynst them, I dyd comme alande att the place hyghte Grunda by the northe perte of the frith wher the watere owt of Breakingdal falleth into the se" (Chapter 18).

Only one word here is entirely foreign to Modern English ("hyghte," which means "called"), but the irregular spelling and convoluted syntax will frustrate some readers.

Those who stick with the book will meet diverse delights. The pace of the narrative is alternately exciting and soothing. Several passages have intensely propulsive narrative power (the wrestling match in Chapter 2, the fight with the manticore in Chapter 12, the darkly erotic "embassage" in Chapter 16). I have a low tolerance for landscaping, but the terrain of this alien world is (mostly) imaginable. The names Eddison invents are rich: Tivarandardale, the Foliot Isles, and Impland the More are the names of a village, a province, and a nation. Major characters include the lords Juss and Brandoch Daha (emphasis on Bran and ha, says the preface), the dissolute and aging Duke Corsus, Corinius ("rhymes with Flaminius"), Queen Sophonisba, Mivarsh Faz, the Lady Sriva, the Lord Spitfire, King Gorice XII ("Gohr-ice"), and (best of all) Lord Goldry Bluzco. Each of these characters has a distinct and in some cases developing personality. The story is unexpectedly full of humor, in both domestic scenes and the thick of battle. The narrative is interspersed with poetry and song precisely in the manner of The Lord of the Rings (though to put it this way gets the cart before the horse, in terms of influence). Just as Tolkien imagined an ancient and extended version of "The cow jumped over the moon," Eddison's characters recite poems from actual history. Here's one by John Donne, sung by Lady Prezmyra:

He that cannot chuse but love,
And strives against it still,
Never shall my fancy move,
For he loves 'gaynst his will;

Nor he which is all his own,
And can att pleasure chuse;
When I am caught he can be gone,
And when he list refuse.

Nor he that loves none but faire,
For such by all are sought;
Nor he that can for foul ones care,
For his Judgment then is naught.

I don't know all of the poems Eddison uses; some may be of his own invention. But I recognized Shakespeare and The Duchess of Malfi, at least. As the Donne poem indicates, the story includes romantic love, both pure and corrupt. It also contains battles, some described by the narrator (the Burg of Eshgrar Ogo), some recapitulated in dialogue or letter (the battle of Krothering Side), some not described at all, but summarized (the Straits of Melikaphkhaz). Other elements of the story are white and black magic, courage and cowardice in war, spycraft, portents in dreams and stars, courtly love, courtly decadence, hunting parties, semi-divine virgins, and the invocation of classical deities. The novel's nearest moral relative is Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, but it sometimes seems like a much older story, with feats of strength of biblical or Beowulfian proportions, visits to the underworld, and the Chaucerian combination of saucy humor with virtue, piety, and friendship. Sometimes modernity peeks through, in our competing, contradictory attitudes toward outer space as a promise and a horror: "he now felt within him the like whereof he never before had known: a death-like horror as of the houseless loneliness of naked space, which gripped him at the heart" (Chapter 28).

The piety is not specifically Christian, though it is in some respects compatible with Christianity. Natural virtue rather than supernatural virtue inspires the heroes, and Fortune rather than Providence superintends their affairs. But Christians have a license to enjoy nature, which was created by God and is fundamentally good, though corrupted. Furthermore, the novel questions the sufficiency of natural life, sometimes striking notes of nihilism worthy of Ecclesiastes. The very image of the self-consuming worm suggests inevitable defeat, and the theme is made explicit by the thoughtful Gro. Watching a brave military procession in Demonland, he remarks, "to the ear of one that useth, as I use, to consider the vanity of all high earthly pomps, the music of these powers and glories hath a deep under-drone of sadness. Kings and governors that do exult in strength and beauty and lustihood and rich apparel, showing themselves for awhile upon the stage of the world and open dominion of high heaven, what are they but the gilded summer fly that decayeth with the dying day? …Fate will not be cheated, cog we never so wisely." Noble sorrow competes with the novel's celebratory element: the sheer goodness of life and peace, great deeds in war, beauty, heroism, fidelity. I am not sure which theme dominates.

N.B. Do not read the original Preface by James Stephens in advance, if at all. It spoils and misleads, and is poorly written.

AuthorSeth Holler