Newman on the Human Condition

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s worlds, “having no hope and without God in the world”–all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact?

I used to spend pleasant hours with my teacher, Lewis White Beck, talking about our favorite writers.  He introduced me to Cardinal Newman, and to the glories of Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.  Who has ever written more perfectly controlled English prose?  Here, a piece of prose to range alongside Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes.  Consider the opening ten lines or so of that great poem.

Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where Wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.

9 responses

  1. Vitamins And Roughage

    Strong ankled, sun burned, almost naked,
    The daughters of California
    Educate reluctant humanists;
    Drive into their skulls with tennis balls
    The unhappy realization
    That nature is still stronger than man.
    The special Hellenic privilege
    Of the special intellect seeps out
    At last in this irrigated soil.
    Sweat of athletes and juice of lovers
    Are stronger than Socrates’ hemlock;
    And the games of scrupulous Euclid
    Vanish in the gymnopaedia.

    -Kenneth Rexroth

      • his name kept coming up in reference to/by people who I admire and so I finally got around to picking and choosing my way thru his collected works, some great stuff in there and well worth a look.

    • Vitamins and Roughage, indeed. As if they’re any real help. Ha, ha, and oh my aching backside. I suppose the only consolation – to shake off the galling phantoms of youth once again – is the knowledge that those leaping naked warriors also ended up in the old folks home, or wherever old folks were warehoused in those far-gone Spartan days. Seriously, after a while the only thing that keeps one young is thinking, the endless charm of ideas. They may not shine in the sunlight like buff young bodies, but they do keep one’s mind toned and off less pleasant things. Today I’m going to the doctor to have a nice pilonidal cyst looked at. This particular insult to life is partly caused by sitting on one’s bum too much. Read standing up a bit more, that’s what I’ll learn today. (And yes, I AM a really nice guy.)

  2. What wonderful words to wake up to ! A pleasant way, indeed, to begin the day, Kelly.

    As I hear you recall “pleasant hours with my teacher, Lewis White Beck, talking about our favorite writers,” I think of the many pleasant hours you’ve opened over these months for thinking about our favorite writers, and I thank you for that. And it goes without saying that our favorite writers seldom write about pleasantries. It sounds odd, but I thank you for thoughts on the unpleasant.

  3. Newman’s sentence is a model of control, no doubt about that. But this display of control, this palpable lack of spontaneity, is precisely the defect of the old-fashioned over-long periodic sentence and why it has largely been abandoned in modern writing. It’s just all too obviously a self-conscious performance. The studied effect of the style is just the opposite of the natural, concise, speech-like syntax and rhythm that so much of modern writing (including yours, I think, Kelly) strives to achieve. Another problem with Newman’s sentence, besides the fact of its length, is that it has no images, no metaphors, no synecdoches, no color whatsoever. Except for the one, lonely, somewhat trite “curtain hung over his futurity,” there are only abstractions and generalities. Perhaps this lack of vividness is understandable considering that all the energy had to go into the formal mechanics of building anticipation toward an arresting conclusion. The whole trick of a period, after all, is gracefully crossing over a wide stream without falling in, on the assumption that the other side is worth getting to. And this brings me to the main fault of Newman’s sentence in my opinion. We leap from stone to stone, thirty-nine of them in all, big and small, arranged unevenly across the water, without getting a single drop on our boots – such balance! – only to find ourselves alighting on the mystery of the wickedness of the world…? Really? Dry boots aside, I was disappointed. Did I miss something?

    • I should clarify that I’m questioning this particular sentence only, not Newman’s style generally. I have not read much of him, and that quite awhile ago, but I do know he’s a major English stylist. Compare this handful of aphorisms just snatched from the internet with the distended examples above (my own included):

      “It is very difficult to get up resentment towards persons whom one has never seen.”

      “Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it.”

      “Here below to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

      “It is often said that second thoughts are best. So they are in matters of judgment but not in matters of conscience.”

      One could go on and on, I assume. Of course one-liners are hardly enough by themselves to make a good prose style, but these witty lines have a gem-like glint that I find very pleasing to contemplate. Newman clearly had gifts of expression not evident in his periodic sentence. My remark about that is a matter of personal taste presented as dogma, a very bad habit. It’s a mystery to me how my second thoughts lead invariably to apologies but rarely to improvement.

      “Let us act on what we have, since we have not what we wish.”

      I should read more of this guy!

      • I understand your reaction. Even as I was typing up the quotation, I was struck by the ‘contrast’ between the control of the passage that states the fact, and the claim that the fact is “heart-piercing and reason-bewildering”. Newman’s prose, with its Augustan periodicity, can seem somehow wrong for the expression of deep emotion (much as Samuel Johnson’s can seem wrong for that). But I wonder if things seem that way largely because we struggle with a form of dissociated sensibility, a difficulty in imagining the interpenetration of feeling and thought that could make quotation both as fully controlled and as fully felt as I take it to be. (Just a (second?) thought.)

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