Monday, June 04, 2007

The Universalists

There are some authors who find a niche and fill it. They figure out what works, hone their skills on that, and never progress beyond it. Danielle Steele comes to mind. There have been good authors who have done this - even great authors. Thackeray. Larry McMurtry. Graham Greene. Alfred Duggan. Talbot Mundy. Even Charles Dickens could, with a certain blushing hesitancy, be "accused" of this sort of tight focus, for all his considerable and broad majesty.

But then, there are others. We remember Bernini for his sculptures; we remember Caravaggio for his paintings. And they were unspeakably good. But there are also the likes of Michelangelo or Gustave Dore, who could quite reasonably be celebrated for their contributions to any number of fields. They didn't just stick to one topic or style.

I was speaking of authors, though. Yes, the Other Kind are quite a different bunch, and we can easily count Chesterton among them. They are the universalists, though not (always) in the unfortunate religious sense. They see all things, and find them interesting. They want to examine them. They want to connect them. Most of all, though, they want to have fun with and craft beauty from the strange, conflicting confluences of this curious world of ours. They want synthesis, but not the forced synthesis of the totalitarian approach, wherein history is hammered into something that pretends to be old to support something that is manifestly new.

This universalist approach takes many shapes, some concerned with subject matter, others concerned with form. We can think of the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, who was a composer of not inconsiderable talent before he was an infamous pundit, and whose philosophy of "accepting all the paths" (as Chesterton described it in Orthodoxy) was, in its very universalism, his undoing. We can think of Nietzsche's forebearer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was an accomplished poet as well as a prose stylist, and whose orations on all subjects were much sought-after. He wrote about subjects as diverse as Michel de Montaigne and the concept of Circles; of Moses and of self-reliance. He wrote about them exceedingly well, and with disastrous misconception, but he wrote about them.

Now, I may not have established a very enticing pedigree, here, but it does get better. Chesterton, as we have seen, could be considered the smiling patron saint of such broadness. It's not just anyone who can produce reams of essays, hundreds of poems, a good number of novels, stage plays, works of art criticism, theology, economics, philosophy, biography, and a million other topics. And he was a cartoonist of a skill (and sensibility) very much similar to that of William Heath Robinson.

What is this man who can see the entire world? Is he Emerson's anthropomorphic eye? Jeremy Bentham's panopticon? Borges' Aleph? None of these are sufficient. Emerson's eye is selfish; Bentham's panopticon built on deceit; Borges' Aleph a strange anomaly in a basement in Buenos Aires. What Chesterton was, even before he was, was a Catholic, with all that the name implies. Noted Catholic commentator Mark Shea once said in an interview that everything, in general terms, is "good." If something exists, it's a safe bet that it exists at God's discretion; and, should God choose to permit something, it is also a safe bet that God sees some value in it. God is not typically known for impotence, after all. The sentiment is similar to that which can be found in Alexander Pope's excellent poem, "An Essay on Man," in which this claim is made:
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.
Which is all very much in keeping with the notion that, as Chesterton again would say, there are no uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people.

So, what is the point of all this? Believe it or not, this lengthy preamble is leading up to nothing more astounding than me recommending a couple of books. Blake spoke of seeing the world in a grain of sand, and the principle here is similar; these are books in which one might see the world. Not everyone can "do" this sort of book well, I regret to say. Oxford Don and Dawkins friend A.C. Grayling keeps trying, again and again, with no special or lasting success. Harold Bloom, one of the last of the old guard literary theorists, seems to put out nothing but such books, but there's a sort of tired petulance to them that disappoints rather than impresses. Books of his that would be magisterial if done in a more pleasant spirit (The Western Canon; Genius; Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?) are instead more often tiresome. It's a real shame, too, because Bloom, like Christopher Hitchens, clearly isn't dumb. It's just that, also like Hitchens, there's just something wrong in there, somewhere, and it puts it all off kilter.

But there are plenty - plenty! - of positive contributions to check out. For example:
  • Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory, in which this excellent English historian and theorist addresses in a spritely and affectionate manner the way in which the natural world has played upon the human mind. It's a lush and beautiful book, as befits its subject matter.
  • Peter Ackroyd's Albion, which bills itself - not without cause - as a look at "the origins of the English imagination." Ackroyd has done excellent work on Dickens, Shakespeare and countless others, and Albion is every bit as good. Chesterton comes up in the book a couple of times, too, which is a pleasant surprise considering the project's scope.
  • Fr. James V. Schall's Another Sort of Learning, which is chiefly concerned with how to teach a brand of this glorious catholic (and Catholic) universalism to a rising generation of students who have already been miserably schooled in the other, worse universalism of relativism and apathy. Fr. Schall is familiar to us already for his constant and delightful work on Chesterton and his constant contributions to Ignatius Press. Check this one out. Do it!
  • Northrop Frye's Spiritus Mundi, which is a collection of twelve essays on "literature, myth and society." Frye, like Thomas B. Costain (who I mentioned rather recently, I fancy), is one of our obscure Canadian treasures, although he is somewhat better known than the other given his steady engagement in (interference with?) the wider world of literary theory. His The Educated Imagination proved to be a foundational text, and a delight besides, and his The Great Code remains one of the more novel and bewildering works of biblical analysis of the 20th century, which is saying something.
  • Raymond Wilson (R.W.) Chambers' Man's Unconquerable Mind, which is a lengthy and gorgeous treatment of the whole of English literature ("from Bede to A.E. Housman," boasts the subtitle). I first stumbled onto this gem while researching a paper on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, and Prof. Chambers devotes a whole chapter to the play in this book. It proving to be one of the most readable and perceptive academic essays I'd ever read, I got a copy of the book for myself and dove in. Pure gratification, I tell you. Prof. Chambers, as some of you may know (who knows? you might), was a great friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and a medievalist and Catholic besides.
And there are plenty of others. Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot wrote about all things under the sun. So did Borges and Lovecraft, whom I mentioned (Lovecraft's poetry, incredibly, is almost always conventional and often quite good; I may yet post some of the more comic examples to compare to Chesterton's, though the latter's is much the better). So did Costain and Eric Hoffer and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

These authors are accessible to us, and through them so is most, if not all, of the world. The universalists of art and literature are to their field what the Church is to philosophy, religion, and existence. I'm glad that they're around, and will continue to be around. The world is wide as it is round, as we known, and it doesn't seem fitting somehow to read about it in pieces.

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