Father died when Tolkien was 4. When he was 8, his mother became Roman Catholic, to the fury of her relatives. They withheld financial support in hopes she’d renounce the Church. She didn’t and had to go to work. She died four years later due to lack of money for medical treatment. She left her two sons under the guardianship of the Oratorian priest Francis Morgan.
It’s a sad story, but you need to understand what it meant for Tolkien. As a young adult, he wrote of it: She “was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts . . . giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.” One scholar writes of this: “Cliches about the influence of devout mothers do not begin to describe the force of an inheritance like this. . . . Tolkien saw his actual mother collapse into what proved a diabetic coma whence she died six days later . . . Whatever he did was going to be Catholic. . . . to think of Tolkien’s labours as somehow removed from his church is thus as absurd as thinking of them as somehow removed from his life.” Owen Dudley Edwards, Edinburgh University.
He was an intense Catholic the rest of his life. Professor of philology at Oxford.
Now, combine his Catholicism with what he did in Middle Earth. Middle Earth was a “sub-creation,” a phrase Tolkien used in a famous essay he wrote on faerie tales. In that essay, he said ‘sub-creation’ involves the creation of an imaginary world as much as possible along the lines God might have used, had he decided to create it.
Now, use your imagination just a bit. Put yourself in Tolkien’s shoes. You’re setting out to create a world that parallels reality as closely as possible. Your understanding of reality contains some fundamental things—the existence of God and His role in earthly affairs, though often very sublte; the Fall of man; the role of grace; virtue and vice, the great sin of pride, a sacramental view of things that combines the material and spiritual in subtle ways. As Catholics we know these things, but for someone of Tolkien’s intense Catholicity and sensitivity of spirit and acuteness of mind, these things played huge roles. Consequently, when he set out to make a sub-creation, it was highly Catholic. It not his intent to create a Catholic sub-creation; but neither did he set out not to create a Catholic sub-creation. He just created, and the result was a Catholic one. Sometimes implicit; sometimes explicit.
Indeed, Tolkien said that, when he re-worked Middle Earth, he made it more explicitly Catholic. In a letter he wrote in 1953, he said, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”
I am intrigued with the points made by Gabriel Marcel in his book, Man Against Mass Society, a book that came out in English in 1962. Modern society is, to Marcel, mass society, a society where public life is relentlessly presented to us as reality, but it is not reality because people in public are never being true to their real existence. If people accept it as reality, they are accepting a false reality—which is, ontologically speaking, tantamount to accepting nothingness as reality.
I realize this is an odd concept, so it might help to explain by reference to another existentialist thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about the “leveling” that takes place in society. When people are in public, they never behave like their “authentic” self (the self in touch with reality, with God; the recollected self). The public, therefore, does not truly exist. The perceived public is merely a bunch of people who don’t really exist (because they don’t exist while in public), hence the public is not real. When people turn to the public for guidance into morals, ethics, etc., they are turning to a non-entity. As people increasingly live in public—as is the case in mass society—they turn to a non-entity for their signals on how to live. The signals cannot help but be banal—not because the individuals are shallow (though in mass society they increasingly are), but because the individuals while in public are shallow. When people are forced into the public, they must struggle mightily to ignore the shallow signals, so they can live an authentic self—if at all possible, recollecting themselves while in public, but at least recollecting themselves when the work-a-day world gives a few minutes of peace.
In mass society, nothingness is king, with the result that relativity rules.
Don Beland is converting his five-bedroom suburban home in Holly Springs, N.C., into a farm—indoors. WSJ Subscription-Required Link. Of course, Don Beland has a supportive wife, which is something that, ahem, not all of us have. I feel fortunate to have enough grow lamp space to start about 100 plugs in my house (I also have a grow station in the basement of my law office, where I can start about 250 plugs).
The article is pretty interesting. It describes various home-based indoor grow operations and the impressive extent to which some guys have taken it. Even I think some of it goes too far, as evidenced by this: “Mr. Beecroft has converted a living room bar into a seed-starting operation.” Unless he’s using it to grow cocktail garnishments, that’s kinda disturbing.
Is your week going well? Let’s see if we can change that: “Underwater supervolcano could erupt without warning and kill 100 million people.” Link. Fortunately for us, the volcano is located off the coast of Japan, so, other than a potential worldwide volcanic winter, its direct impact won’t be felt in the United States. And heck, it might even free us from the terrible NBC Olympics coverage.
I’ve more or less followed the Fulton Bones controversy over the past few years. As I understand it, everybody agreed the body would stay in NYC, but then NYC continued to ignore the cause: just did nothing for many, many years despite pleas from the family, until, finally, Fulton’s nearest relative got fed up and started the process from the Peoria Diocese. Now that all the work is done, the NY Diocese says the bones ought to stay there. New York is nothing if not dishonorable.
Welcome to Clean Monday. It’s the Greek Orthodox Church’s Ash Wednesday. So if you already botched your Lenten vows, you can kinda start over today.
One was stupid, one was vapid, one was heretical: my experiences with retreats. I vowed never to do another, but alas, I have the resolve of a Kennedy in a brothel three-year-old in a candy shop, so I’m going to another one. This one, I’m assured, will be different. It’s a Cursillo. Three days. I can’t have my phone or my car. Fortunately, it’s being held only five miles from my house . . . and just a mile from a bar where I know the manager. If it’s no good, I’ll have my LPT (Leather Personnel Transport) take me to the nearest pay phone and call for help.
To be honest, I’m far more optimistic than that. If the retreat, however, starts out with a day dedicated to instructing me on the ABCs of Catholicism, I’m going to bolt. The devil knows scripture, this I know from personal experience. I’m interested in application.
The polar vortex has split. I don’t know what that means, but I understand the result: warmer temperatures for me. “[T]he vortex over western Canada could bring spring-like conditions for the Eastern U.S. in the second half of February through early March. Temperatures for the next few weeks could be 20 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit above average for this time of year. Highs in the 70s Fahrenheit are possible from Washington, D.C. to New York City.” Link.
Common sense slowly makes its way back: “The Department of Education has decided it will not investigate or interfere if transgender students complain they are barred from bathrooms that match their chosen gender . . . On Thursday, Buzzfeed asked Liz Hill, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, if restroom complaints from transgender students are not covered by a 1972 federal civil rights law called Title IX. Hill answered, ‘Yes, that’s what the law says,” adding on Friday, “Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, not gender identity.'” Link.
Of course, as soon as we get another demogogue in the White House, the policy will switch, which is why we simply need to shrink the federal government. If the federal government didn’t have so much power, neither side would be able to wield it.
It reminds me of Frank Chodorov, who opposed the Red Scare witch hunts. Someone said, what would you do about Communists in high government offices? Chodorov said, “Eliminate the high government offices.”
The Democrats created the Mexican immigration problem with their 1965 Immigration Act and by revoking (greatly restricting) the work visa program in the 1990s to make the unions happy, and now they won’t give relief to the Dreamers because they don’t want Trump to get his wall. Absolutely no shame. Unbelievable. * * * * * * * And don’t say “They resist the wall because it’s too expensive.” Please. The left has never, ever cared two cents about costs, whether it’s the New Deal, LBJ’s guns and butter, or Obamacare. No cost is too much. * * * * * * * From Reddit’s Today I Learned: “TIL a man was fined $48,000 by the FCC for using a cell phone jammer everyday on his commute, because he didn’t like motorists around him on their phones.” Link. That was kind of a jerk thing to do, but one I sympathize with. * * * * * * * If I were in charge, I could’ve sleuthed out the Nikolas Cruz threat way ahead of the catastrophe. I would’ve looked at him for half a second and said, “Yup, this guy is whacked in the head.” I mean, just look at him. * * * * * * * It’s not often I see a Ry Cooder tribute. * * * * * * * 11 strange habits of these eleven geniuses. Tesla would “curl his toes 100 times per foot every evening before going to bed because he thought the practice boosted his brain cells.” * * * * * * * Curious about the Jordan Peterson phenom? Here’s a primer. He’s highly recommended.
I never even knew there was such a thing, outside of the pages of Modern Drunkard Magazine, but there is . . . and he wrote during the first half of the twentieth century, helping to bring to the public mind classic drinks like the Mojito and Gin and Tonic.
It’s not such a stretch to compare Baker to the celebrated Victorian explorers Dr. David Livingstone and Sir Richard Burton. While they boldly set out in search of riverheads, lost cities and fresh sources of malaria, Baker crisscrossed the globe tracking down legendary cocktails to their sources, bringing to light new tipples, and contracting, again and again, what he liked to call “lethal morning-after disease.” He lurched down the bustling back streets of exotic locales in road-wrinkled white linen suits, sniffing out hidden bars; he expertly bluffed his way into private clubs and gilded mansions, interrogating barmen and bigshots alike, all in a near-fanatical bid to catalog worthy cocktails and codify the rules of drinking.
The article impressed me enough to prompt me to his Wikipedia entry and to purchase his collection of drinking essays, Jigger, Beaker and Glass: Drinking Around the World.
I’m really looking forward to getting to know this pioneer.
This piece brought together a lot of 2018 strands for me: “Debunking the Caricature of Jack Kerouac the Nihilist.” The piece basically affirms what I taught last month at my Theology on Tap presentation: Jack Kerouac, godfather of the 1960s, was a spiritual writer and serious Catholic. According to the article, Kerouac was a Buddhist for only three years (something I didn’t know, even though I’ve read a lot about Kerouac).
Excerpt: “Underlying all of this as Kerouac’s spiritual bedrock was his Catholic upbringing in Lowell, Massachusetts among working-class French Canadian immigrants. Kerouac described himself as a ‘strange solitary Catholic mystic’ whose ecstatic vision of life was the direct result of an eschatology of the end of time. What he longed for was contact with the heavenly eternity overlaying and occasionally penetrating our anodyne perceptions of time. ‘Life is a dream already over,’ he said.”
The article is a book review of a new book by Robert Inchausti, Hard to be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats. Weirdly, Inchausti’s Subversive Orthodoxy caught my eye on my bookshelf last weekend. I thought to myself, “Hmmmm, I forgot I had that book. I should give it another look.” I had forgotten, despite my underlining, that he dedicated a small section of the book to Kerouac.
Based on my margin notes, I appear to have read most of the book (I’m guessing I jumped around a bit), but I can’t say it left an impression on me.
But what I found most bizarre about the article: It was published in The American Conservative and it was written by Scott Beauchamp, who has a book coming out soon from the Marxist publishing house, Zero Books. Zero Books is run by Doug Lain, the man I called “the good Marxist” in this December 2017 post. So, the good Marxist is publishing a book by a frequent TAC contributor . . . albeit a writer who publishes in a lot of venues and a writer who is well-versed in literature and the Beatniks in general. I can’t say I know enough about Beauchamp yet, but I know enough to start following his Twitter feed, which reveals that he has an interest in Catholic and literary things.
Or to Valentine’s Day, if that suits your disposition better.
This Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day confluence, incidentally, is great for husbands married to Catholic wives. What Catholic woman wants a lavish dinner and flowers on Valentine’s Day? And what devout Catholic woman even says anything about getting denied such pleasures on the first day of the penitential season?
Lent neareth. Remember to eat and drink a lot tonight so tomorrow is even harder.
My next Theology on Tap lecture is entitled “Zen Lent.” It’s an extension on my Kerouac lecture. Kerouac was a Buddhist, I guess, or at least practiced Zen . . . or maybe kind of thought of himself as a Hinayana Buddhist. I’m not really sure, quite frankly, and I don’t think he was, but we got on the topic last month and three different people asked if I could talk about Zen this month. Because it’s Lent, I’m combining the two. It’s going to be a lecture about Zen, with a Lenten kicker at the end.
And what is the Lenten kicker? Precisely this: I think Zen might explain why so many of us enter Lent with great intentions and come out of Lent miserable failures. More importantly, I think it might provide a solution. I’m tempted to say that I’m positive it provides a solution, but since I haven’t empirically proven it to myself, I don’t want to speak definitively. I don’t want to be like those overweight people who give other people dieting advice.
That Zen history pictured above is a classic, btw, written by a Jesuit. A good Jesuit or a bad one, I can’t say, but a Jesuit. I’ve read large chunks of the book and, based on what I’ve read, it’s very good. I also have the second volume in the series. It’s one of those reading projects I’d love to take and just absorb myself in it at my leisure, like Henry Ryecroft receiving that small annuity and retiring to his cottage to spend time with his books (only to find out shortly thereafter that he’s dying).
That Gissing novel is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read . . . or at least, so I thought when I was in my thirties. I’m going to start reading it again to see what I think 15 years later.
Other reading “projects” I’d like to take on: Dostoyevsky’s Writer’s Diary, the works of Maximos the Confessor (with an eye toward love and the Stoic-like detachment it fosters), von Balthasar in general, and the works of Josef Pieper.
Housekeeping matter: Yesterday, I used the word “isolationist” to describe people opposed to empire building. That’s the wrong word. The correct word is “non-interventionist”: people who oppose American military intervention but are in favor of international trade.
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