Notes After Austen (Updated, Again, Again)

Each summer I re-read all of Jane Austen. This year, I decided to post a bit about it on Facebook, just some notes and jottings, noting more. I will move future FB posts here as I go so you might want to check back periodically. (Original posts and comments are on my FB page.)


Mr. Collins, proposing to Elizabeth Bennett: “And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affections.” Austen! Hard to think of any sentence whose form more completely stutifies its content. All you can do is bow and delight.

Finished Austen’s *Emma* this morning, and was struck by the final chapters more than I recall being before, particularly the similarities between Emma and Frank Churchill, remarked upon near the end by Emma herself. We might say that both Emma and FC are ‘imaginists’ to use the novel’s own term for Emma, but Emma’s imagination mostly imposes on herself, while FC’s imposes on the entire village (more or less): Emma fools herself, FC fools Emma, the Westons, and many others. Still, like FC, Emma manages to emerge from all her foolings uninjured, ‘the child of good fortune’ (Knightley’s description of FC). In the end, Robert Martin, by proposing yet again to Harriet Smith (and by being this time accepted), saves Emma from the one lingering secret she has kept from Knightley, and a raider of neighboring poultry yards motivates Emma’s father to allow her to marry sooner rather than later. — The child of good fortune, indeed! What a remarkable novel.

Reading *Mansfield Park*, my favorite of Austen’s novels. Chaps 8-12., roughly, are given over to differentiating Fanny Price from Mary Crawford. Although the word does not, so far as I recall, occur until Chap 9, and there not in application to either woman, — the word ‘disinterested’, as Austen used it so often in *Emma*, hovers over the differentiation. Fanny is disinterestedly engrossed in everything around her on the trip to Sotherton; Mary cannot manage disinterested engrossment in anything. She can be engrossed (if that is the right word) only where she is *interested*. She can see only for her own sake, not for the sake of seeing, or, better, for the sake of the thing seen. And so she is unseeing, blinded (“she saw Nature, inanimate Nature, with little observation”). Worse, Mary’s blindness is communicable, infecting Edmund as well as herself, although he has a restive sense that something is wrong with Mary, and wrong with him for being unable to *observe* it clearly. It will take Fanny a long time, and much suffering, to clear Edmund’s vision.

Austen’s ability to force characters into hearing what they do not want to hear, in a form to warm and wound the heart all at once. *Mansfield Park*, Chap 27, Edmund to Fanny, discussing his hopes and ‘misgivings’ about Mary Crawford, his planned proposal: “You are the only being upon earth to whom I should say what I have said; but you have always known my opinion of her; you can bear me witness, Fanny, that I have never been blinded.” But blinded and blind he has been and is.

Reading the amazing 34th chapter of Mansfield Park, the chapter in which Austen shows the character of Henry Crawford to the fullest. He is a man of genuine powers, agreeable to a remarkable degree. But for Austen — as Tave has shown — the relationship between ‘agreeableness’ and ‘amiableness’ is always under investigation. The two terms are so intimately related that they can be — and often are (by Austen’s characters, in life) — conflated. In many ways, their relationship is much like that between ‘truth’ and ‘validity’: they can be mistaken for synonyms, but they can part company. In the chapter, Crawford reads Shakespeare aloud so well that he eventually entrances even the reluctant Fanny, but as the conversation turns to reading aloud well (more generally) and eventually to reading Scripture aloud well, and to preaching, Crawford cannot manage himself for long. For all that he says of which Fanny approves of, he eventually wanders into the peculiar careless self-regard that is her aversion. Fanny involuntarily shakes her head in disapproval. Crawford sees her reaction but cannot really understand it. He sees nothing to repent of: he was sincere in what he said. Of course, Crawford is so thorroughly admixed with the false that even what he says sincerely is gainsaid by his being the speaker. — But that is part of the problem. He can talk ‘sincerely’ about himself but with no proper response to the things he ‘believes’ about himself.

Finished MP. Lots of thoughts, but here’s one. There’s a fascinating subjunctive paragraph as the novel ends, one that details a successful bid by Crawford for Fanny. Its tone suggests that it details what *almost* happened. — But that’s false. To use the lingo of analytic philosophy, the world described is no *nearby* possible world. Given Crawford’s watery character in the actual (fictional) world, the stoutness of resolution that bid involves makes it quite *distant*. The tone, I believe, is Austen’s narrative voice ventriloquizing Crawford’s own, showing his point of view on the unfolded events, his very unhappy sense that a different, better life was *almost* in his grasp.

MP is a novel about conscience, consciousness and the (intertwined) corruptions of each. The stress on vision and blindness figures a stress on moral vision and moral blindness. The late, severe language on the Crawfords, on Mary’s mind as ‘bewildered’, ‘darkened’, and similar language about Henry’s, has been built to in careful stages. The long, centerstage section on the MP theatrical accomplishes much of the work, as conscience, its use, abuse, and absence is displayed. As the literature on conscience bears out, and as Austen understood full well, there’s no blameless exit from the predicament of an erring conscience: the person in the predicament is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. She either does what her erring conscience demands, and does wrong, or she violates her erring conscience and so does wrong. Austen elongates the section because of the delicacy of the predicaments of the characters. No one’s conscience is simply absent, but various consciences are being abused. Mary and Henry’s err in crucial ways. So too Maria and Julia’s. Edmund’s actions cause Fanny so much distress because she sees him violating, and even laboring to befuddle, his own (non-erring) conscience. Fanny herself is worked upon by the theatricals, and is dangerously close to duplicating Edmund’s folly. The unexpected arrival of Sir Thomas saves her from having to choose whether to play (read) Cottager’s wife. The problem with the Crawfords is that they do not just have bad ‘principles’, though no doubt some of their ‘principles’ are bad: they can’t see clearly enough as to justly apply principles of any sort. Their consciousnesses themselves are corrupt. They do not and will not see.Near the book’s end, Henry suggests to Fanny that, married to him, she will become, in effect, his conscience. Fanny rejects the imputed role. No one can be anyone else’s conscience. But she reminds Henry that he does not need her. Each of us, she tells him, has in him or her what is necessary for determining right and wrong. I find that line tragic: Abstractly, Fanny is right, and her saying what she says is charitable. But it is not clear that Henry, the particular concreted human being, has any longer in him what he needs to determine right and wrong. Beneath his errors of conscience lurks a more fundamental moral debility, the protoplasmic untruth in which his heart itself is and has long been afloat.

I’ve started S&S, more on it soon, but, for now, a couple of final notes on MP.— For a great deal of her life (and of the novel) Fanny seems almost voiceless. No one hears her, seeks out her thoughts (except Edmund). But she hears herself, the voice of her conscience. Fanny listens to Fanny, even when no one around her does, and despite no one around her else listening to himself or herself. — I’m thinking I will write an essay on MP. “The Moral Grandeur of Fanny Price”. — The Crawfords are such smiling villains. Complicated, gifted, they call forth sympathy and regret as they repel. Seeing them for what they are requires keeping in mind something J. L. Austin once pointed out in a footnote (about the dangerous tendency to conflate succumbing to temptation to losing control of oneself). Imagining himself succumbing to temptation, to taking his own and someone else’s serving of ice cream at High Table, Austin asks: “But do I lose control of myself? Do I raven, do I snatch the morsels…and wolf them down…? Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse.” Just so the Crawfords, at least until Henry’s ‘etourderie’ (Mary’s word) with Maria.

S&S: Austen’s gift for delivering crucial character descriptions in ways that can easily slip past the reader: Early in S&S, when Colonel Brandon must cancel the pleasure party to Whitwell, Sir John tries to reverse Brandon’s decision by reminding Brandon of the sacrifices made to attend that morning (it’s after 10am). The two Miss Careys have come from Newton, the three Misses Dashwood walked from the cottage, and Willoughby “got up two hours before his usual time”.

Austen, S&S.
— More one-liners than in Emma or MP. The prose is far less complicated. Reminds me a bit of passages of H. James before he rewrote them and after he did (although Austen’s are obviously not the reworkings of passages).
— The very careful apparent parallel constructed in Marianne’s situation with Willoughby and Elinor’s with Edward Ferrars. The contrast then from the beginning between Marianne self-feeding misery and Elinor’s efforts at self-command, made all-the-more strenuous by facing an almost omnipresent tormentor in Lucy Steel. Lucy’s clever, coldly cruel indirection in her speeches to Elinor — wow. She strikes home with dagger-point precision while seeming all smiles and amiability. “She looked down as she said this, amiably bashful, with only one side glance at her companion to observe the effect on her.” Ouch. What Austen gives with one hand she takes back with the other.
— Austen’s careful foreshadowing of Lucy’s capacity for clever cruelty (the foreshadowing does not come long before the revelation of the fact) and of Lucy’s sister Anne’s blunt cluelessness (the foreshowing does come long before the decisive effect of the revealed fact).

More on S&S

— It’s easy to miss, despite her being the center of consciousness in the novel, that S&S really is the story of Elinor and Edward. The story of Marianne and Willoughby (and later, Brandon) plays a contrapuntal role in the overarching structure. Elinor’s story is ‘told’ by and in the telling of Marianne’s, in Elinor’s moments of identification with and distance from Marianne. It’s easy to lose sight of this in part because Elinor’s self-command creates inner stillness, and that inner stillness can seem (and often does to Marianne and to Mrs. Dashwood) like a lack of feeling. But it’s not that at all, as Marianne will come to understand. That inner stillness costs Elinor tremendous exertion.

— The wonderful, subtle similarity between the nasty letter from Willoughby Marianne receives in London and Lucy Steel’s torment of Elinor! We will later discover that Willoughby’s letter was dictated to him by his wife-to-be, making it all-the-more like Elinor’s torment by her rival.

More on Austen.

Much to think about as I finished S&S, but I wanted to note something that carries across the novels I have read — the notion of *tolerable happiness*. Austen uses the term repeatedly (along with a variant, ‘tolerable comfort’) in the novels, and it characterizes the happiness of the novels’ happy endings. I suspect that Austen is doubling meaning here — a not-uncommon feature of her prose. ‘Tolerable’ can describe that which can be borne or endured; it can also describe that which is moderately good or agreeable, that which is not contemptible. (In *Emma*, I believe, we also get the phrases ‘happiness a la mortal’ and ‘finely chequered happiness’, both of which belong to this discussion.) Austen knows that what we often want when we want happiness is moments of transport, of body-leaving joy (there are such moments in the novels) but she also knows that such moments are (grammatically) *moments*: such happiness is intolerable; it cannot be borne, supported, for long: the business of embodied living goes on, a la mortal. The happiness that will satisfy is one that is moderately (another doubling word in Austenian contexts) good, agreeable, supportable. It is happiness compatible with wanting rather better pasturage for one’s cows…But, someone might ask, what of Emma and Knightley’s ‘perfect happiness’? That sounds more than tolerable, at least in the second sense? — True. — Still, I wonder if the ‘perfect’ there is not a bit of deliberate ironic archness, a bit of Emma’s imaginist point of view entering into the narrator’s voice? Not that I mean they were not happy: but rather that their perfect happiness was, after all, perfectly tolerable.


— I’ve been accompanying my reading of Austen with sallies into Crabb’s English Synonyms. Crabb, prefacing the work: “Should any object to the introduction of morality into a work of science, I beg them to consider that a writer whose business it was to mark the nice shades of distinction between words closely allied could not do justice to his subject without entering into all the relations of society and showing, from the acknowledged sense of many moral and religious terms, what has been the general sense of mankind on many of the most important questions which have agitated the world.” It seems to me that this captures a deep ambition of Austen’s novels, her writing.

Austen, *Persuasion*.

— While *MP* is my favorite Austen novel, Anne Elliot is my favorite Austen character. — The beautiful handling of Anne’s history with F Wentworth, the proposal, and eventual parting: it is easy to understand even if not to agree with the views of all the interested parties. And the subtle ways Austen shows the reader just how deeply in love Anne was (and, really, still is). Much of the novel’s power is drawn from the continuing strength of her feelings, her constancy.

Austen, *Persuasion*.

— Two observations. (1) In an early paragraph about the mutual affection of Anne and Frederick, Austen’s notes that “the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail…they were rapidly and deeply in love.” And so they were, and so they are. Anne, although the least self-deceived of Austen’s central characters (she is certainly less self-deceived than Frederick — but then he was the one rejected, not the one who did the rejecting), is self-deceived about the continuing strength of her feelings for Frederick. Austen shows this to the reader (even before Anne realizes it) in the comments about her loss of ‘bloom’. The return of it later in the novel is not due to Lyme’s sea breezes but to her gradual rehabitation of feelings that have long been treated as alien, abandoned. When Anne first sees Frederick in person, the meeting deeply unsettles her, and she finds that to “retentive feelings” eight years may not be a long time, indeed not much time at all. But despite that acknowledgment, she will continue to resist her feelings, sure that Frederick is no longer for her. (What a wonderful phrase, “retentive feelings” — a ‘conative’ word modified by a ‘cognitive’ one, and their conjunction tells us a great deal about Anne’s mind, in the sense of ‘mind’ that is so important in Austen, the sense that Ryle delineates in his famous essay.)

(2) The fall of Anne’s sister’s son and the consequent events not only allow Austen to delay the first meeting between Anne and Frederick but they serve to foreshadow the fall of Louisa in Lyme and that fall’s consequent events. That’s obvious enough I suppose, but I am embarrassed to say I never really recognized it before. More on that soon.

Austen, *Persuasion*:

—”Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy could never have passed along the streets of Bath than Anne was sporting with from Camden Place to Westgate Buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume along the way.” Beautiful. I love it when Austen lets the prose spring into poetry. Such a paragraph. The play with ‘p’ and ‘sp’s!

— Anne is, in general, clear-sighted, self-commanding. That she is renders the three moments when she completely loses herself and her senses all the more memorable: when Wentworth first sees her again (and she him) at Uppercross, when she first sees Wentworth again in Bath, and when she realizes what his comments and stammering mean at the concert (“He must love her”).There are two other similar moments: one when she finds out that Wentworth is not in love with Louisa (“joy, senseless joy!”) and the other after reading the note Wentworth writes to her while she talks with Captain Harville (“It was an overpowering happiness.”)

Austen, *Persuasion*

—The early scene in which Anne’s nephew, Mary’s son, falls from a tree and breaks his collarbone is crucial to the tale. It establishes Anne’s willingness to help and presence of mind in an emergency. I recall reading once that Tiger Wood’s pulse rate fell when he lined up a put. Something like that, less reductively captured, seems true of Anne. It matters later, of course, in Lyme, in the aftermath of Louisa’s fall, but it also helps to underscore just how in love with Wentworth Anne has been and still is. She loses her senses in various scenes, always because of him, but in (other) emergencies, she exhibits a coolness and readiness that Wentworth himself fails to equal. (The exquisite irony of the ship’s captain failing in a moment of extremity, lapsing into an absence of mind, inability, while this slip of a woman, Anne, remains in control, thoughtful, able!) Wentworth overpowers her in a way nothing else does. So much of the book works only if we come to believe in Anne and the reality and justice of the depth of her love. We know relatively little of Wentworth, and some of it, certainly, *seems* unflattering, but we take Anne’s word for it — and we should.

*Emma*. I was caught today by an opinion of *Emma* held by Mr. and Mrs. James Austen, recorded by Jane Austen. She notes that they liked the book, but that they thought “the language different from the others; not so easily read.” This is perhaps the thing that has stood out to me above everything else in reading the novels this time. The complications of the language of *Emma*: it doubles more, shimmers more, twists more. Although Austen is ever fascinated by self-deception, it is in *Emma* that she makes the very center of the novel’s consciousness the most deeply self-deceived of any of her primary heroines. That requires Austen to do so much more in the writing, to find ways to allow the reader to see the deception and to see past it. Austen’s strategy and tactics for doing so are a study by themselves. To borrow a favorite Austenian term, the language of *Emma* “imposes” on itself, on the reader, but Austen takes care to make the imposition discoverable.

*Northanger Abbey*

Reading the novel this time, what struck me was the feeling of the emergence of a power, of Jane Austen herself. Guy Davenport has a collection of essays entitled *Every Force Evolves a Form*, and *NA* is Austen, an emerging force, evolving her form. To do it, she has to write herself — and her heroine — out of the fantastic, the romantic, call it the metaphysical, and reorient herself — and her heroine — on the probable, the commonplace, call it the ordinary. Most difficult of all, Austen has to demonstrate that her callow heroine’s modest victories over her ignorance, her undisciplined imagination, and her reticence to judge for herself satisfy more deeply than the knowing romantic heroine’s triumph over murderers, black veils and skeletons. And just to make it harder for herself, — because, why not? she is a power — Austen uses her authorial voice to mock, scold and pity Catherine for the modesty of her victories: especially for returning home, evicted and confused, in a hack post-chaise, — worlds away from Cleopatra in a chariot. Austen dares her reader to acknowledge what Austen wants to be acknowledged: the romance of our ordinary lives, the triumph in modest victories over ourselves.


Gamey Language: Desultory Morning Thoughts

This morning, I was in that half-conscious, pre-volitional dawn that accompanies slow waking, when a snatch of conversation from many years ago pressed itself on me:

I had been unguardedly talking to a student about my excited, initial work on Philosophical Investigations, and I must have used the term, ‘language-game’.  A colleague  of mine, passing through the hallway at that moment, trigger-fingered a drive-by objection:  “Wittgenstein was a fool; language is not a game.”

My memory of the conversation ends there, although I suspect that twenty-four year old me shrugged and went on talking to the student.  Anyway…

Wittgenstein, so far as I can recall, never calls language a game.  To think that his use of the term ‘language-game’ shows that he did is to manifest a tin ear.

Sidestep:  It still amazes me, naif that I am, that a tin ear is not recognized as a liability in philosophy, as it should be, but is often required for membership in the discipline.  So much of philosophy really does takes the form of either missing someone else’s pun or refusing to see that you are committed to one (Schopenhauer on the will, anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?).

Anyway, right, language is not a game.  But Wittgenstein never said it was.

He also never added a new item to the metaphysical inventory–language-game.

He offered us a comparison.

Julius Kovesi long ago put this right:  a language-game is not a game played with words, but an activity of which words are part.

Wittgenstein was attempting to get us to a vantage point from which we could see that activity.  And keep seeing it.  Why?  Because he knew we tend to forget it, overlook it.

Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Prose of the World that “we all secretly venerate the ideal of a language that would deliver us from language….”

He goes on to complete the line: “…by delivering us to things.”  I’m not so much focused on what we might be delivered to as I am to what we want delivery from.

We hanker for a language that delivers us from language.  Wittgenstein knew that, knew that we wanted to be able to use words unused, untouched by us, fresh from some celestial autoclave, sterile and wonderful, fit for full expression.

But–expression of what?  Of something we don’t say,  can’t say, because we don’t have a clue what we would be talking about.  Because we wouldn’t be talking about anything.  Words do what they do because we are doing things with them.

All the damn time.

We make it happen.

Or nothing happens.

Language is not a game.  But it is only game to the extent we are.








Words on Holy Days (Essay Fragment, Unfinished)

An essay I have had around for a long time, unfinished and more-or-less in first-draft limbo.  Posting it here to remind myself to trash it or finish it.


The Liturgy refers to itself at one point—or rather the celebrant, celebrating the Liturgy, refers to it at one point—as “the work of our human hands”. The rhetorical figure here stresses that the Liturgy is the work of our minds and our lips: we make these words, on this day, in this place, together. Around the altar we gather in a holy place, a place of prayer. “And my house shall be called an house of prayer.”

How do we begin to pray? What standing have we to call upon the Lord? What words do we have that can stand the strain, even if we had such standing? Augustine famously struggles with this problem of the beginnings of prayer in Confessions. He asks for help: “How shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord?…Have mercy so that I may find words.” Augustine stands in aporia, bewildered. He wills to speak, he must speak, he cannot speak. Yet he speaks. “Yet woe to those who are silent about you…” He believes and so he speaks.  We believe and so we speak.

We speak in worship; worship is the norm of Christian existence.  Christian worship is an encounter, always an encounter:  first and foremost–an encounter with God, a dialogue with him.  There are two partners in this dialogue, God and the praying community (and that praying community is not an impersonal body, but rather a community of responsible, praying persons).  We might say that on one side of the dialogue, our side, there is a duality:  the community stands by personal faith and commitment, and yet it is corporate.  And it helps to remember that one the other side of the dialogue, God’s, there is a trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Holy Illocutionary Space

“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; now, and forever: world without end”

So the Liturgy begins. But what so begins? A prayer—long, complex, intricately structured—a prayer bodied forth not just in words but in actions, ritual actions performed by the priest and the faithful. Recall Wittgenstein’s language games. These are not games played with words, but rather activities in which words play a crucial part, of which words are a crucial part. They are wordy deeds. We speak in a holy illocutionary space[1].

Here I agree with Virgil Aldrich:  “A man as a language-using animal lives, moves and has his being distinctively in illocutionary space, with nothing metaphorical about it.”  Aldrich notes that what he means by ‘illocutionary space’ (in its literal sense) has already been spelled out by Wittgenstein and especially Austin.  Of course, Aldrich knew that he was running against the grain here because of our tendency to think that real space is exclusively physical space.  He notes that:

Even Kant thought something like that–and got into a frightful cramp over it as a moral philosopher.  It made moral talk look like an unintelligible metaphor.  His aim was to give an adequate account of a man in moral action.  A moral agent moves freely and surely this “doing” presupposes room for it, “room” in some literal sense.  Kant mentioned the “causality of freedom.”  He had use also (implicitly) for the notion of the “space of freedom.”  Indeed, to be free is to have the sort of room that one takes action in–not just physical space to move in as a physical object.[2]

The Liturgy takes place in the space in which holy actions can be performed.  It needs room that such actions can take place in, and in which the relevant agents can act–and not just as physical objects moving in a physical space.  When I was converting to Orthodoxy, my good friend who had long been Orthodox told me to take off my watch when I entered the church, because I was no longer in the time my watch told, profane time; I was entering sacred time:  likewise,  when we enter the church, we also change from one space to another, from profane into sacred space. When I enter sacred space, a space structured by icons (as is commonly the case in Orthodox churches), eternity moves next door, as it were, the bodiless powers, the Intelligences and the First Cause, are my neighbors.  The saints in the icons are far closer to us than the trees we see through the window.  We can think of this as implicated in the peculiar perspective of most icons.  Instead of perspective running away from us and converging in the pictorial distance, as happens familiarly in paintings, when before an icons, I stand at that point and face a perspective that is running away from me, a space that opens up.  In effect, the perspective of the icon makes it the case that I am in a sense the one that is being represented, contemplated, considered.  The result should be humility.  I stand in this space to be judged–among other things–but not to judge.  The perspective is the perspective of the icon, not mine.  The space is the space of the icon, not mine–at least not in a proprietary sense.  We might say that sacred space, the space in which we can speak the Liturgy and thus do it and not just parrot its words, is a space that reverses our normal perspective on things.  We speak the words of the Liturgy, do the Liturgy in that reverse-perspectival space, that holy illocutionary space.

The larger point here is that there are illocutionary acts that are only felicitous in a certain space, that need a certain kind of room.  Not just any illocutionary act can be performed just anywhere.  (Just as not just anything can be said to just anyone at just anytime:  St. Athanasius reminds of us this when he points out in The Incarnation of the Word that you cannot put straight in someone else what is crooked in yourself.) Obviously, this is a big claim and I have done little put illustrate it–and that only sketchily.  But let me try to head off one misunderstanding.  I have ‘located’ sacred space inside the church, as if it is separated from secular space by windows and doors.  (“The doors, the doors!”)  That is not right, ultimately.  I may first discover–typically, I will first discover–sacred space in the church.  But what I ought also to discover is that what I previously took to be secular space is in fact a distinct region of sacred space:  not one in which the Liturgy can be done, but still one broadly of the sort in which the Liturgy is done.  So what I took to be the difference between sacred and secular space is better taken to be the difference between holy Liturgical space and holy non-Liturgical space (think of the first as more complicatedly ‘structured’ (i.e., as having different, and more complicated, felicity-conditions than the latter).  We live and move and have our being as Christians in a reverse-perspectival space, a space that we take everywhere to open out on eternity.

The Liturgy is a wordy deed, composed of wordy deeds. The Liturgy is work. The Liturgy is done—and we do it.  We have been given this work to do. It is the work of our hands, but we do it according to divine plan. What we offer up, we offer back. We bring nothing of our own, despite the fact that we bring ourselves, for we are not our own.  Recognizing this is not easy, since to recognize that we are not our own is not simply to accept a certain bit of information about ourselves, but to inculcate a way of being:  it is to be humble in a particular way about ourselves, it is to understand and to act in the light of the understanding that we are, and will remain, mysteries to ourselves.  It is to not merely know but to acknowledge being a creature, a created being.  The Liturgy teaches us in a way that changes us.  Our assent to the fact that we are not our own has to work to become ‘real’ and not merely ‘notional’ (in Newman’s terms).  What we do during the Liturgy helps to work this change.

With Love and Fear

During the Liturgy, we stand in fear and we stand in love–in some fusion of the two.

How is that possible?  Fear and love seem incompatible, one a strong inclination fromwards, the other a strong inclination towards. How can these be fused without confusion? One seems undesirable, the other desirable.  Again, how can these be fused without confusion?

A preliminary:  scripture tells us that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  But of course ‘beginning’ here cannot mean just something that happens early on and then ceases, as if the wise person began by fearing the Lord but later lost that fear, perhaps having it replaced by something else; perhaps by love.  But that is not what ‘beginning’ means here.  Its meaning is closer to the meaning of the Greek word, ‘arche’.  The fear that is the beginning of wisdom is not just something present at the start, but is something that remains throughout, in the form of the controlling initiative, even as the inner form of that wisdom.  At no time does someone wise not fear the Lord. But at no time does someone who properly fears the Lord not love the Lord.  (The demons in St. James’ Epistle believe and tremble–but they do not fear properly.  Their fear is not proper, not wise fear.  After all, they tremble, then–nothing. They believe without works, and so believe in only an attenuated sense–and so fear in only an inappropriate sense.)

If we are wise, we fear God as a creature, created from nothing, fears its Creator, the plenitude of being.  The fear is the recognition of the distance between creature and Creator.  Love closes the distance without eliminating it.

Fear of the Lord interpenetrates love of the Lord.  If I love the Lord, then I fear Him. If I fear Him, then I love Him. If I claim to do one but not the other, I am confused.  A God I love but do not fear is not the God of Abraham and Jacob and Isaac.  A God I fear but do not love is not the God of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John.  But this still makes it seem as if fear and love could cohabitate the heart of the believer, but in separate chambers.  That is not right.  They need, as it were, to become one flesh:  to marry, not just to live together.  But, again, what does that mean?

Consider the thought that fear is undesirable.  Of course, there is a point beyond which fear becomes, to use H. H. Price’s phrase, ‘catastrophic’.  Such catastrophic fear paralyzes.  But, when short of catastrophic, fear can be desirable.  To be free of fear, as Lord Nelson was said to be, is to lack something crucial.  Such a lack is properly to be pitied.  Such a person would live a life free of thrills, a life in which adventures might be had but could not be lived through as adventures.  No adventure the great in this life–only insipidity all around.  So fear, like love, can be desired.  There is no reason to think …

But how can fear and love fuse?  Augustine sheds light here with his description of the Uncreated Light:

What is the light which shines right through me and strikes my heart without hurting?  It fills me with terror and burning love:  with terror inasmuch as I am utterly other than it, with burning love in that I am akin to it.

Augustine makes clear it is our status as creatures of God but creatures made in his image that allows fear and love to fuse.  We are creatures God made in his image–such are the creatures we are.  We are infinitely far from God; He is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.  But we are where we are and we are what we are:  we are not in two places (one far from God, one near); we are not two things (a creature and an image of God).  Just as we can be near God and far from God while in one place, and just as we can be a creature and an image of God while one thing, we can love and fear God without confusion, feeling, as it were, one thing and not two.

The ‘Sacrament’ of Attention

Ultimately, the Liturgy demands our attention.  But it is easy to misunderstand this, despite the fact that the celebrant calls us to attention repeatedly during the liturgy.  We misunderstand because we have a mistaken conception of the attention being called upon.  Simone Weil notes this confusion:

Most often attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort.  If one says to one’s pupils:  “Now you must pay attention,” one sees them contracting their brows, holding their breath, stiffening their muscles.  If after two minutes they are asked what they have been paying attention to, the cannot reply.  They have been concentrating on nothing.  They have not been paying attention.  They have been contracting their muscles.

She then continues with a description of the attention that is being called upon:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of… Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.

Weil’s point is that we cannot obtain the most precious gifts–for example, the gifts of the Liturgy–by searching for them actively.  We must wait for them passively, in a state of profoundest attention.  If we search for them actively, our effort itself becomes or creates a doppelganger of the precious gift, and the very intimacy of the doppelganger with us, its being a form or product of our own activity, makes it nearly impossible, if not impossible, to discover.  I am always best at deceiving myself.  It is the counterfeit bills of which I am the printer that I am most likely to take as legal tender.

If we step back from Weil’s way of putting all this, we can, I believe, see that she seems to be right about the logical behavior of the concept of ‘attending’.  “Attending is not a form of searching; it is like looking at or listening to rather than looking for or listening for.”  And, while attending can be done for a particular purpose, it need not be done on purpose.  We can just attend to something–or attend to it for pleasure or because we cannot tear our attention away.  Attending is something that we can decide or resolve or promise to or refuse to do, and it is something we can be blamed for not doing.  We can be trained or train ourselves to attend, as we can be trained or train ourselves to acquire any habit.

But one worry we might have about Weil’s way of putting this is that ‘attending’ seems to be an activity-concept–whereas Weil seems to deny that it is an activity-concept.

But this worry is not serious.  Weil does deny that attention is a kind of muscular effort, but that is not to say that the concept of ‘attention’ is not an activity-concept.  Weil does also say that attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it empty and receptive.  But Weil is talking about suspending and holding–and the concepts of these are activity-concepts, even if they are, as we might put it, ‘nullifying’ activity-concepts, not ‘positive’ activity-concepts.  Not much rests on these terms.  The main point is that the ‘nullifying’ actions are such that when we perform them, specifiable might-have-been events do not occur or specificable might-have-been states of affairs do not obtain.[3]   …



The Liturgy aims to remake us.

[1] Aldrich

[2] Aldrich, p. 27

[3] Ryle, Negative Actions…

Chuck vs. Buffy?

In my Chuck book, I mention that my other favorite show is Buffy.  I ran across this paragraph in a ‘cuts’ section of my manuscript.  It needs elaboration, sure, but I thought it of interest.

Comparing Chuck to Buffy is useful in a variety of ways.  Let me mention a few, briefly:  (1) We might say that Buffy takes the ordinary, hurtful experiences of high school and college–the anxieties, fears and frustrations–and incarnates them as monsters, demons, vampires, ancient evils.  Chuck takes the ordinary, hurtful experiences of our lives with ourselves and with others–the doubts, hesitations, confusions, and alienations–and amplifies them into exercises of spy-craft.  (2) Buffy’s characters have a special lingo, an idiolect, all their own. The dialogue is often quotable for its own sake.  Chuck’s characters, although they use the guild language of the intelligence community, have no special idiolect that is all their own.  Appreciating Chuck’s  dialogue turns almost wholly on the keeping track of (what J. L. Austin called) “the total speech act in the total speech situation”.  That is a technical way of saying that we have to keep careful track of the context of what the speaker is doing with his or her words, both in their immediate conversational context and their context in the life of the speaker.  We must attend to the full circumstances in which the words are said.  This is true of Buffy too, but the point is that its dialogue achieves a kind of stand-alone significance that Chuck’s does not, and that can make Chuck’s dialogue seem less crafty and careful.  But Chuck’s dialogue is crafty, although it does not exhibit all the dimensions of craftiness that the dialogue of Buffy does–and Chuck’s dialogue certainly is careful.  (3) Whereas Buffy centers on no one single couple across its run, Chuck does.  It follows the various ways in which its central couple, Chuck and Sarah, are together.  The show is a grammar of togetherness, declining its inflections–its tenses and moods.  If we consider Buffy’s many couples, including those in which Buffy is one half, but also those of other characters, we could say something similar of it.  But Buffy assembles its grammar more loosely, less obsessively.  Buffy, at the end of the day, concentrates on Buffy in a way that Chuck does not concentrate on Chuck.   


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