Progress in the Little World

Giovannino Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories are delightful little tales set in the “little world” of an Italian town in the Po valley in the years immediately after World War II.  What makes them wonderful is their pure humanity, the sheer warmth of the oft-contentious between Don Camillo, his eternal rival, the communist mayor Peppone, and the surprisingly loquacious crucifix which hangs in Don Camillo’s church.  I very much recommend the stories.

The following quotes don’t truly give a picture of this sense I’m describing, but they were my favorites, spoken by Jesus to Don Camillo (taken from the Kindle edition, so I have no page numbers to offer you).  First on the perils of progress:

They search desperately for justice on earth because they no longer have faith in divine justice, and just as desperately go after worldly goods because they have no faith in the recompense to come. They only believe in what they can touch and see….It is a body of ideas – a culture – that leads to ignorance, because when a culture is not supported by faith, there comes a point where man sees only the mathematics of things. And the harmony of this mathematics becomes his God, and he forgets that it is God who created this mathematics and this harmony.

Rustic Philosophy, The Little World of Don Camillo

Reading them again, I realize the ideas they express are rather Chestertonian.  Indeed, the whole little world of Don Camillo is the sort of place you’d feel Chesterton would enjoy, maybe that’s why I liked it so much.

Christ’s ultimately optimistic take on the effects of this progress:

Progress makes man’s world ever smaller: one day, when cars run at 100 miles a minute, the world will seem microscopic to men, and then mankind will find itself like a sparrow on the pommel of a flagpole and will present itself to the infinite, and in the infinite it will rediscover God and faith in the true life. And mankind will hate the machines which have reduced the world to a handful of numbers and it will destroy them with its own hands. But all this will take time, Don Camillo. So do not worry, your bicycle and your scooter are in no danger for now.’

Rustic Philosophy, The Little World of Don Camillo

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War

A deaf and dumb German girl, named Libbe or Libba, had grown fond of my cousin Armand and had followed him. I found her sitting on the grass, which had bloodied her dress: her elbows were propped on her folded and upraised knees; her hand, tangled in her thin blond hair, supported her head. She was crying, staring at three or four dead men, new conscripts in the ranks of the deaf and the dumb, around her. She had never heard the thunderclaps whose effect she beheld or the sighs that escaped her lips whenever she looked at Armand. Sh had never heard the voice of the man she loved, nor would she hear the first cry of the baby she was carrying in her womb. If the grave held only silence, she would have gone down to it without knowing.
But the fields of carnage are everywhere; at Pere Lachaise, in Paris, twenty-seven thousand tombs and two hundred and thirty thousand bodies tell you of the battle that death wages day and night at your door.

Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800, 401

Observations of America

In sum, the United States give the impression of being a colony, not a mother country: they have no past, and their mores are not a result of their laws. The citizens of the New World took their place among the nations at a moment when political ideas were in the ascendant, and this explains how they transformed themselves with such unusual rapidity. Anything resembling a permanent society appears to be impracticable among them. On one hand, this is due to the extreme ennui of its individual citizens; on the other, to the impossibility of remaining in place and the need for motion that dominates their lives: for man is never truly settled when the household gods are wanderers. Placed upon the ocean roads, at the forefront of progressive opinions as new as his country, the American seems to have inherited from Columbus the mission to discover new worlds rather than create them.

Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800, 339

What happens (happened) when we reach the sea and weep, for there are no more lands to discover?

The Church of Reason and Liberty

The pictures, the sculpted and painted images, the veils, and the curtains of the monastery had been pulled down. The basilica, gutted, was now nothing but bones and shredded sinew. In the apse of the church, where the wind and the rain poured in through the broken panes of the rose-windows, a carpenter’s workbench served as the President’s station whenever the tribunal was in session. The red caps were left on this bench, to be donned by each orator in turn before he mounted the rostrum: this rostrum consisted of four small beams nailed crosswise, with a plank laid across this X as on a scaffold. Behind the President, beside a statue of Liberty, one saw the old, so-called instruments of justice–those instruments that would be supplanted by a single, bloody machine, as complicated mechanisms have been replaced by the hydraulic ram. The Club des Jacobins, once it had been “purified,” borrowed a few of these arrangements from the Club des Cordeliers.
The orators, assembled for the sake of destruction, agreed neither on the leaders to be chosen nor the means to be employed. They accosted each other like beggars, crooks, pickpockets, thieves, and murderers, to the cacophony of whistles and shouts that came from their various diabolical groups. Their metaphors were taken from the material of murder, borrowed from the filthiest objects to be found on the garbage heap and the dunghill, or drawn from places dedicated to the prostitution of men and women alike. Gestures accentuated these figures of speech, and everything was called by its name, with the cynicism of dogs, in an impious and obscene series of oaths and blasphemies. Nothing could be gleaned from this savage argot but the stuff of destruction and production, death and generation. All the speechifyiers, no matter how reedy or thunderous their voices, were disrupted by creatures other than their opponents: small black owls, who inhabited the belfry without bells in this monkless monastery, swooped through the broken windows in search of quarry. At first the birds were called to order by the tintinnabulation of a useless bell; but when they did not cease their screeching, they were silenced by rifle fire, and fell, quivering, wounded and fatidic, in the midst of this Pandemonium. The fallen ceiling beams, the broken benches, the dismantled stalls, and the shards of saints that had been rolled and pushed against the walls, formed terraces on which spectators squatted, caked in mud and dust, sweaty and drunk, wearing threadworn carmagnoles, with pikes on their shoulders, or with their bare arms crossed.
The most misshapen of this gang were the preferred speakers. All the infirmities of soul and body have played their part in our troubles: disappointed self-love has made some great revolutionaries. (360-1)

Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800, 360-1

Hanover Tigers, Memory, and Place

Eternally trying to post more and to allow myself to post more scattered thoughts and fragments.  Thus, a small note from Ritter’s fanastic The Glory of Their Times.  For those who’ve forgotten, the book is an oral history of baseball at the turn of the century and, in my opinion, the best thing written on the sport.

Reading Tommy Leach’s1 story, I was very surprised to run into a mention of my hometown and its short-lived professional baseball team:

I still remember in 1896 when I was playing semipro ball with Hanover, Pennsylvania, in the Cumberland Valley League.  I couldn’t hit a lick on earth.  One day I struck out four straight times.  Some fellow got a piece of wood about half a foot wide and four or five feet long from someplace–that’s when they used to have those rail fences–and when I came up for the fifth time he presented it to me at home plate.  I didn’t even have enough sense to laugh.

The Glory of Their Times, 24

Before reading, I had no idea Hanover once had a minor league team, much less, as I was to find out, that it had two of them: the short-lived Tigers of 18962 and the Hanover Raiders, a D-Level Minor League team that lasted from 1915-1930.

It’s sad that the memory of these teams has faded from the consciousness of the town.3  A place without memory is no place at all, for it is only memory that separates place from wilderness.  I fear too many places today have become barren and empty, bereft of history, without stories.

Medieval writers understood the importance of memory to place very well. We can see this fact in, to name one of many examples, Gerald of Wales’s Journey Through Wales.  Gerald is practically bursting at the seams to tell us every local legend, every odd geological, zoological, and botanical tidbit he comes across on his travels.  As he writes,

This little work is like a highly polished mirror.  In it I have portrayed the pathless places which we trod, named each mountain torrent and each purling spring, recorded the witty things we said, set down the hazards of our journey and our various travails, included an account of such noteworthy events as occurred in those parts, some in our times, others long ago, with much natural description and remarkable excursions into natural history, adding at the end a word-picture of the country itself.

Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales, 70

Wales comes to life not in his descriptions of the land–or rather not only in them, a number of these are rather evocative and beautiful–but in the memory passed down to him and on to us in his writing.  A mirror, the book reflects reality, a reality that includes witty remarks and noteworthy events, just as much a part of the landscape as the woods and waters.  The work’s fundamental purpose is to commemorate Wales in all its thickness, and it’s in this commemoration that the place, any place, truly exists.

 

1. Fun fact, Leach led the NL in home runs in 1902, hitting a staggering 6 home runs, all of them inside-the-park.
2. According to baseball reference, Leach was actually fourth on the team in total hits, though I suspect his average was not particularly high considering he garnered only 26 in 37 games. The Tigers do not appear to have been an offensive juggernaut.
3. Thought I must mention that a local author has written a history of the Raiders and maintains a modest, charming website with some photos and information on the team.

Against Flatness in Baseball

Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times is the greatest book on baseball ever written.  It’s an oral history of the game at the turn of the century, and it’s utterly charming.  The love of the game, the sheer fun of playing shines through on almost every page.

The game was more colorful then, chaotic and raw, and it feels right.  The modern world has a tendency to flatten everything, to make us into cardboard cutouts and in this book you can see what was lost, the fun and adventure of it all.

The players themselves noticed the change, and even properly diagnosed (at least in part) the cause.  Here’s Davy Jones, who played in the outfield alongside Ty Cobb and Wahoo Crawford:

I was playing in the Big Leagues in 1901, when Mr. William McKinley was President, and baseball attracted all sorts of people in those days.  We had stupid guys, smart guys, tough guys, mild guys, crazy guys, college men, slickers form the city, and hicks from the country.  And back then a country kid was likely to really be a country kid.  We’d call them hayseeds or rubes.  Nowadays I don’t think there’s much difference between city kids and country kids.  Anyway, nothing like there used to be.

Back at the turn of the century, you know, we didn’t have the mass communication and mass transportation that exists nowadays.  We didn’t have as much schooling, either.  As a result, people were more unique then, more unusual, more different from each other.  Now people are all more or less alike, company men, security minded, conformity–that sort of stuff.  In everything, not just baseball.

The Glory of Their Times, 35

Losing our distinctiveness, becoming flat, is a great tragedy.  We need to turn away from the mass-produced, the all-encompassing, and back to the local, the slow, the weird.  Leisure, true leisure, and play are key to that turning.  We should start right now.

Of Angels and Motes

Every once in awhile you read something that makes everything click into place, a puzzle long scattered in your mind comes together all at once.1 A passage from Tolkien recently set this clicking together in motion, on the subject of the angels:

I had not long ago when spending half an hour in St Gregory’s before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant’ Ore was being held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held and lit it. (Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized. And I do not mean “personified,” by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person.

Letter 89, To Christopher Tolkien

The love of God is a person.  It’s a stunning insight, one flowing naturally from the reality of God as three-in-one.2  Love, the highest name of God, must have an object, and the love of God, as the most perfect instance of love (indeed, to call it an instance is essentially a confusion, for all love simply is participation in the Love that is the inner life of the Trinity) must have an object appropriate to the lover.  Thus the lover, the Father, is a divine person.  The beloved, the Son, a divine person infinite and equal to the Father as befits the perfect object of the Father’s love, and the love of the Father and the Son is itself a person, the Spirit.3

But what about the love of God for lesser, finite things?  This too, Tolkien notes, is a person:

As the love of the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic.

Letter 89

In other words, angels are the love of God for the distinct aspects of creation.  Staggering in itself, there are a few implications that are worth noting:

    1. Your guardian angel is God’s love for you, so perfect as to be a divine, albeit finite, person.
    2. Every single bit of creation from the smallest mote to the biggest stars has an attendant angel.  There are as many angels as there are things, and all are fundamentally creatures of God’s love.
    3. With this understanding, we can begin to grasp the import of the concluding line of Dante’s Comedy, “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”  The celestial bodies are truly moved through the heavens by angels, by the personal attention and love of God, and so too are all other things.4
    4. Moreover, when the Psalmist writes that “the heavens declare the glory of God,”  our minds ought to turn towards the singing of the angelic choir.  The angels, the personal manifestations of God’s love, do not merely move the cosmos, they sing it in praise of its Creator.  This is the celestial music, the music of the spheres, which we bring our inner being into alignment with through our participation in the love of God.  The whole of creation is, therefore, a vast and beautiful love song.

 

Truly wonderful.

1. This phenomenon is, I believe, inspiration in the truest sense of the word. Some fragment of the world acts as a key in the mind, directing it toward the contemplation of higher things from whence it can be illuminated. In the light from above, what was previously obscure becomes apparent in a sort of interior vision.
2. It was, perhaps, no accident that I encountered this passage shortly before Trinity Sunday.
3. And this is why, in loving, we are conformed to God. The more we participate in the intercommunicative love of the Trinity, the more we come to resemble the divine persons, as the love of God transforms us to become more receptive/worthy of being beloved by the divine. More, it entails that in loving we attain to greater degrees of personhood. Love of neighbor and love of God makes us more of a person, more real.
Also, since God loves every fragment of creation (the individual motes, as Tolkien observes), we see that it is this love that acts as the motive force behind the movement of the cosmos back to its ultimate culmination in union with the Creator.
4. The objection that this truth is superstitious, simplistic, or somehow superseded by scientific accounts of planetary motion reveals only the intellectual carelessness and, frankly, the stupidity of the objector.

Whoops

The intellectual consciousness of modern Europe as commonly delineated and accepted even in our day proclaimed those three ideas: a Nature subsisting in itself; an autonomous personality of the human subject; a culture self-created out of norms intrinsic to its own essence.  The European mind believed further that the constant creation and perfection of this “culture” constituted the final goal of history.  This was all a mistake.

Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, 50

Psalm 19, 18 in the Vulgate

The calm dawn gave no promise of anything uncommon…The sunrise we did not see at all, for we were beneath the shadow of the fjord cliffs; but in the midst of our studies, while the Indians were getting ready to sail, we were startled by the sudden appearance of a red light burning with a strange, unearthly splendor on the topmost peak of the Fairweather Mountains.  Instead of vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared, it spread and spread until the whole range down to the level of the glaciers was filled with the celestial fire.   In color it was at first a vivid crimson, with a thick, furred appearance, as fine as the alpenglow, yet indescribably rich…Beneath the frosty shadows of the fjord we stood hushed and awe stricken, gazing at the holy vision; and had we seen the heavens opened and God mad manifest, our attention could not have been more tremendously strained.
When the highest peak began to burn, it did not seem to be steeped in sunshine  however glorious  but rather as if it had been thrust into the body of the sun itself.  Then the supernal fire slowly descended…until all the mighty host stood transfigured, hushed and thoughtful  as if awaiting the coming of the Lord.  The white, rayless light of morning, seen when I was alone amid the peaks of the California Sierra, had always seemed to me the most telling of all the terrestrial manifestations of God.  But here the mountains themselves were made divine and declared his glory in terms still more impressive.  How long we gazed I never knew.  The glorious vision passed away in a gradual, fading change….We turned and sailed away, joining the outgoing icebergs, while “Gloria in excelsis” still seemed to be sounding over all the white landscape, and our burning hearts were ready for any fate, feeling that, whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we had gained this glorious morning would enrich our lives forever.
John Muir, The Spiritual Writings, 102-3, TA 152-4

Windows

When I’m sitting in the back of class, feeling useless as a TA, I stare out the window to remind myself the world exists.  It’s an oddly solitary experience in a room filled with chatter, solitary and strange.  As we’re inevitably many floors up, all you can see are rooftops.  The only movement is steam, curling off into the oppressive and endless blue of the midwestern sky.  It’s a nameless experience, one of loneliness, yet belonging, silence and stasis.

And it’s one that W.G. Sebald also seems to have tried to capture in the opening pages of Rings of Saturn.  A year after the walking tour that occupies the bulk of the book, he found himself confined to a hospital, riven with pain.  His only access to the outside is through a window on the wall opposite his bed.  In the haunting photo that accompanies his description, the window is inscribed with wire to prevent suicide, befitting the melancholy tone of the moment and the book as a whole.  The view through the glass is, like mine, lonely and strange:

I too found the familiar city, extending from the hospital courtyards to the far horizon, an utterly alien place.  I could not believe that anything might still be alive in that maze of buildings down there; rather, it was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble, from which the tenebrous masses of multi-storey carparks rose up like immense boulders. At that twilit hour there were no passers-by to be seen in the immediate vicinity, but for a nurse crossing the cheerless gardens outside the hospital entrance on the way to her night shift. An ambulance with its light flashing was negotiating a number of turns on its way from the city centre to Casualty. I could not hear its siren; at that height I was cocooned in an almost complete and, as it were, artificial silence.  All I could hear was the wind sweeping in from the country and buffeting the window; and in between, when the sound subsided, there was the never entirely ceasing murmur in my own ears.

W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, 5

What to make of these moments, their ultimate import?

I must confess, I enjoy the solitude, though it also presents me with a sense of desolation.  It need not be horrible.  There’s something there, something numinous lurking in the silence.  It’s only when we try to grasp it that we slip into despondency, when the solitude breaks and noise slips back in.