Sunday, November 27, 2016

1st Sunday of Advent

ou, Lord, yourself are our Father,

Our Redeemer is your ancient name.
Why, lord, leave us to stray from your ways
and harden our hearts against fearing you?

Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down
- at your Presence the mountains would melt.

You guide those who act with integrity
and keep your ways in mind.

We have all withered like leaves
and our sins blew us away like the wind.
No one invoked your name
or roused himself to catch hold of you.
For you hid your face from us
and gave us up to the power of our sins.
And yet, Lord, you are our Father;
we the clay, you the potter,
we are all the work of your hand.

~ Isaiah 63

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Pillar of the Cloud

Labelled alien in her native land, distressed for friends now made to feel alien in their own country; she suddenly found a line to grasp for succour.

The Pillar of the Cloud
LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor pray'd that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path, but now

Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

At Sea.
June 16, 1833

And, strangely, that led to a loved novel, the only one by Thomas Hardy that she could re-read many times. The concluding paragraph of the next to last chapter has a truth which very few that she knew paid heed to before plunging into engagement and marriage.

He accompanied her up the hill, explaining to her the details of his forthcoming tenure of the other farm. They spoke very little of their mutual feelings; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends. Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other's character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good-fellowship - camaraderie - usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstance permits its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death -- that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.
~ Far from the Madding Crowd

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

No man is an island

At a time when all over the world there is a frightening growth in the numbers of human beings filled with hatred; in the dominance of xenophobia, racism, nationalism and other ‘isms’, at the same time that the most widespread disease is philautia, the ‘I’ cancer, John Donne’s poem – so famous that it is largely ignored – is worth repeating.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Always relevant quotations

Both are by Oscar Wilde. Chesterton was right to point out that Wilde wrote "two kinds of epigrams; the real epigram which he wrote to please his own wild intellect, and the sham epigram which he wrote to thrill ..."
The first quotation is an extravagantly phrased statement with a kernel of rather frightening truth, especially when one has to ask for something very important. The second is melancholy.

Lady Windermere's Fan (1892):

In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
·         Mr. Dumby, Act III.

What a pity that in life we only get our lessons when they are of no use to us.
·         Lady Windermere, Act IV

A ramble through Rafael’s views of history and current events

Rafael Sabatini put into the mind of Peter Blood a familiar quotation from the seventh epode of Horace, “quo, quo, scelesti, ruitis?” It is most apt to the occasion. Blood is watching a rebellion in its early moments, and Horace was protesting against a civil war in Rome. Peter Blood carries a copy of Horace as a vade mecum, and this we learn from the several mentions in the stories of Captain Blood. André-Louis Moreau also reads Horace, but we learn of it only late in Scaramouche the Kingmaker: “She sat sadly dreaming, a book of Horace in her lap, a translation of the Odes. It was not a volume she would have chosen for her own entertainment. Yet it had been her constant companion in these last five months. It had been a favourite with André-Louis; and she read what he had so often read” (Ch. 36).

That does seem an opportunity missed – the chance to link the Roman poet who fought in Brutus’ army but ended under the patronage of Augustus, and André, whose story we know, to good effect. The latter, too, lives in turbulent times and survives dangers arising from his too lucid mind, his striving for balance, his acceptance of some degree of compromise in a situation beyond his control.

Rafael looks at the French Revolution without bias either way. That the ancien régime was unjust, immoral and inhuman is not glossed over. But the rushing of mad men to rend apart their fellow men (and women and children) is not treated with sentimentality. André desires change quite as much as  Philippe de Vilmorin, Isaac Le Chapelier and the unnamed others do, but not change through such violence and insanity, replacing one tyranny with another equally costly in human suffering.

Not every reader of Rafael Sabatini can accept his impartiality – or recognise it. There are always those who prefer to be contrary. One such is the critic who reviewed The Historical Nights’ Entertainment Series 2 in the issue of the
Sunday Times, Sydney, 15 February 1920, on page 19. This is his defence of Jean-Paul Marat and his attack on Rafael for his story The Tyrannicide:
A very much more serious inaccuracy is to be found in the Charlotte Corday story. Here the facts of history are very closely followed, but we have the dreadful bogey-man that in fact Jean Paul Marat never was. The heroic quality of Charlotte is conceded. She quite sincerely believed herself to be the agent of God's justice. But her knife still did away with the life of a great liberator of humanity [God defend humanity from more such liberators.]. For the French Revolution was no Bolshevist movement, even in its extremes. It was no question of a small minority of fierce and unscrupulous men driving a great population to the devil in its own despite.
In France the Revolution was a national movement with the will of the over-powering mass of the people behind it. There were such hideous things as must always befall [how consoling to the victims, who today would be labelled collateral damage] when among revolutionaries there is a certain number of malign and evil men. There was Carrier giving full vent to his horrible homicidal mania on the Loire. There were other such incidents [only incidents!]. But the Revolution as a whole was broad-based on justice and the people's right. It was a revolt against tyranny, class iniquity,
bigotry, superstition, and all that wars against democracy. [text missing in the newspaper] was one of its greatest protagonists. To represent him as a human beast unredeemed by honest quality, a Frankenstein [ignoramus; Frankenstein was the scientist who constructed the unnamed monster] in putrescence — how silly it is, and how unfair.
But your English novelist of the average must write as a good reactionary, or he will promptly lose the suffrages of the respectables. Mr. Sabatini tells a number of famous stories very well, and this sort of book helps many people to get an idea of the picturesque events of history — people who in some cases would be ignorant of history altogether. –
[comments in italics are mine]

Here are two quotations from the writings of Marat:
Five or six hundred [aristocrats’] heads lopped off would have assured you repose and happiness; a false humanity has restrained your arm and suspended your blows; it will cost the lives of millions of your brothers. ~ L'Ami du peuple, vol. 2, p. 1121
I believe in the cutting off of heads. ~ Quoted in Archives parlementaires, vol. 52, p. 158
Surely no more justification is required for Rafael’s view?

Seated at his desk, out of harm’s way, that critic could defend Marat the murderous rabble-rouser. It is nothing new that a ‘man of blood’ should be supported even by those who are not rabble. Rafael himself admired Mussolini at one time, and did not acknowledge his flaws of character and conduct as he did with his other hero, Cesare Borgia. Rafael’s advocacy of the Borgia ruler possibly arose from a realisation - after reading whatever he read, and influenced as he was by William Prescott’s manner of presenting history – that here was a case of prejudiced views handed down unquestioned and even embellished. Rafael also brought to his re-presentation of Cesare Borgia some of the stubbornness which marks his belief in metempsychosis.

But Mussolini was a contemporary. He could be judged by his words and actions.

Ultimately Rafael did quietly cease to support the Italian tyrant – at least in public – yet it is a matter for regret that he had ever praised the man.

Why would a Rafael who wrote as he did about the French Revolution, and who invented an Andr
é-Louis Moreau with his long, nuanced view of history, take such a short-sighted, one-sided view of a dictator who was also a shameless sensualist? Might there be a reason? Perhaps.

Rafael would contribute to charities, but he was opposed to workers demanding a fair wage and just terms of employment by going on strike to press their demand on government. Here is what Jesse F. Knight posted on the Rafael Sabatini Mailing List:
In another place in the 1916 letter Sabatini writes: "Socialism will be rampant presently, and I dread it . . . . It will be like a wild burst[?], drowning and destroying all once it gets out of hand." 31/3/2002
and this:
I remember reading one letter where Sabatini soundly denounced all the strikes that were going on in England. You'll recollect that this was in the 30s, and the Labour movement was using strikes on a regular basis to paralyze the country--coal, rail, you name it. 9/4/2004

Rafael, whose paternal grandfather ran a tailoring establishment and his maternal grandfather a painting and decorating business, he himself beginning his career as a clerk in a mercantile office, was an employer of whom his servants made no complaint, but his letters to them clearly indicate one who believed himself to the manor born. (Clock Mill passed into the hands of a Viscount so Rafael was not so greatly in error!)

He could see the distant past with a fairly clear vision, but current events in a distorting mirror. This is a telling extract from a letter to Monsieur Pleis:
18 Jul 1948

"Nous vous envions vos vacances d’été n Suisse. C’était notre habitude d’aller chaque année à Istria en Août et Septembre pour les bains de mer. Mais à présent il n’y a pas moyen de sortir d’Angleterre en vacances plus d’une fois par an, et même ainsi pour un séjour prolongé à l’Étranger il faut avoir recoure à des subterfuges. Cela pourvu que d’ici là la guerre n’éclate pas de nouveau. Cette fois avec ces barbares muscovites. Mais si ce cataclysme doit venir il vaudrait mieux peut-être qu’il vienne au plus tôt. On affirme qu’il faudra encore trois ans à ces tristes messieurs pour perfectionner la bombe atomique; et je suis d’opinion qu’une fois perfectionnée leur mentalité bestiale n’hésitera pas à l’employer contre tous ceux qui ne partagent pas leur abominable idéologie. Vu cela il vaudrait mieux de prendre les devants."
In sum, the barbarous Russians will require three years to perfect an atomic bomb and with their bestial mentality, these miserable fellows will not hesitate to employ it on all those who do not share their abominable ideology. It would be better to be quicker on the draw.

This is sheer nonsense. Yet, was it Mussolini’s measures against socialists and communists and liberals (even Catholics) that Rafael approved, shutting his mind to the dictator’s xenophobia, his arrogance, his inability to comprehend the real needs of Italians, accepting the fascist and sensualist whom his ally Hitler despised as a clown?

This is a fact about Rafael which is disconcerting and even saddening, but it must be accepted with charitable forbearance as a flawed strand wound in with fine traits of character. Such is the case with most of humankind, and rare are the persons who consciously free themselves of prejudice.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

impavidum ferient ruinae

It is the early 1960s and Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo is despondent. Is the world “rushing towards self-destruction?” he wonders, taking his trouble to the crucified Christ. And Christ poses a counter question: “Do you mean that my mission among mankind has failed because men's malice is stronger than the goodness of God?”
Don Camillo then elaborates, expressing Guareschi’s own feelings at that time. (If he had been living now he would have said the same thing.) People, says the country priest, have chosen what they account as desirable because it is tangible, over the intangibles that are their spiritual heritage: “love, goodness, piety, honesty, purity, and hope. Most of all, faith. Things which one can't live without.” And this is what he means by self-destruction. “One day not very long from now,” says Don Camillo, “men will find themselves back in the brutalism of the caveman - the caves will be sky-scrapers filled with the latest equipment and miraculous machines, but men's souls will be primitive and brutish.”

Christ consoles him with a parable of the river flooding fields. Farmers save the seed. After the waters recede and the land – more fertile from its soaking – dries, they plant the saved seed and watch it grow. The seed is faith, says the Crucified One, and Don Camillo must do all he can to keep it intact in those who have it. For the spiritual desert grows and “Every day men of many words and no faith are destroying the spiritual heritage and faith of other people. Men of every culture and religion.”

It is a passage that has not lost its relevance. In the world at present, it does sometimes seem that the malice of men has proved stronger than the goodness of God. So it must have seemed to communities suffering under tyrannies down the ages, and in every region. Yet something of worth was always salvaged. It is a hope to cling to now. Or lacking faith, at least to hold on with pagan Horace “and stand secure amidst a falling world”
si fractus illabatur orbis
impavidum ferient ruinae

That Horace should survive the Roman Empire, western and eastern, over twenty centuries after his death, and be valued in regions not known to Romans of his day, must that not feed hope in the eventual triumph of good?

Quo, quo, scelesti, ruitis?

Quo, quo, scelesti, ruitis? aut cur dexteris
aptantur enses conditi?
parumne campus atque Neptuno super
fusum est Latini sanguinis?
non ut superbas invidae Carthaginis
Romanus arces ureret,
intactus aut Britannus ut descenderet
Sacra catenatus Via,
sed ut secundum vota Parthorum sua
urbs haec periret dextera.
neque hic lupis mos nec fuit leonibus,
numquam nisi in dispar feris.
furorne caecus an rapit vis acrior
an culpa? responsum date!
tacent, et ora pallor albus inficit,
mentesque perculsae stupent.
sic est: acerba fata Romanos agunt
scelusque fraternae necis,
ut immerentis fluxit in terram Remi
sacer nepotibus cruor.

What purpose does the story of humankind serve if not to offer the painful experiences of the past as a guide to present choice? Yet did humankind take history’s lessons to heart – and mind – George Santayana would have had no occasion to make his famous statement:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Sixteen hundred and ten years ago, at the very end of December, the Rhine froze in a bitter winter. On the night of 30/31, a massed horde of barbarian tribes crossed over to Mogontiacum (Mainz)  and cruelly sacked it, pouring into Gaul, laying waste as they went, and setting off a chain of revolts in Britannia and elsewhere.

Four years later, Rome itself fell to the Visigoths.

In a way that Horace (65 B.C. – 8 B.C.) did not have in mind, himself having known only the civil war that followed upon Julius Caesar’s assassination, the state of Rome – then the western Roman empire – died by its own hand (
urbs haec periret dextera). The latter was a prolonged self-murder and different from the wars that destroyed the Republic. Yet madmen rushing on their doom there have always been. Not lions, or wolves, says Horace, are so mad as to tear their own kind apart (neque hic lupis mos nec fuit leonibus,/ numquam nisi in dispar feris); “has rage blinded you?” (furorne caecus) he asks, and getting no answer to his question supposes that his countrymen’s minds have been stunned by constant battering (mentesque perculsae stupent).

Sometimes Nature provides an opportunity to the enemy at the gates. Sometimes it wants only a person to leave open the Kerkoporta, and Byzantium falls. Sometimes a people fail to heed the lessons of history. Always, history’s wheel turns again in the same place. It has worn a deep rut. Can it ever be raised out of it, to move forward?