The Happiest Hipster

It is well known that the leftist hippies of a previous generation were directly inspired by cranky conservative writers, such as Wendell Berry and J.R.R. Tolkien. What is less well known is that the left-leaning urban hipsters of today partake of much of the unique aesthetic of another conservative writer–G.K. Chesterton. Like Berry, Chesterton eschewed cosmopolitanism and prioritized belonging to a certain place. It just so happened that the place to which Chesterton belonged was suburban London; he did not share Berry’s feeling that dwelling in the capitol was in any way inferior to dwelling in a country home. Not only did Chesterton fail to farm, as Berry does, he did not even work in his own garden, as Tolkien did. He writes of sitting in his garden and watching his gardener work:

The gardener was gardening. I was not gardening. .. It is quite certain that he would not have allowed me to touch the garden if I had gone down on my knees to him.
And it is by no means certain that I should have consented to touch the
garden if he had gone down on his knees to me…

And all the time I was thinking what a shame it was that he was not
sticking his spade into his own garden, instead of mine: he knew about the
earth and the underworld of seeds, the resurrection of Spring and the
flowers that appear in order like a procession marshalled by a herald.
He possessed the garden intellectually and spiritually, while I only
possessed it politically.

Like the hipster farm tourists of today, Chesterton firmly identified with the urban location and the relatively idle social class into which he was born; he also felt a deep ambivalence about hereditary class privilege, and wistfully admired people who work with their hands.

He even cultivated a fascination with the pleasures of local culture and cuisine. In a mock defense of Prohibition, he writes

But the private brews differ very widely; multitudes are quite harmless and some are quite excellent. I know an American university where practically every one of the professors brews his own beer; some of them experimenting in two or three different kinds. But what is especially delightful is this: that with this widespread revival of the old human habit of home-brewing, much of that old human atmosphere that went with it has really reappeared. The professor of the higher metaphysics will be proud of his strong ale; the professor of the lower mathematics (otherwise known as high finance) will allege something more subtle in his milder ale; the professor of moral theology (whose ale I am sure is the strongest of all) will offer to drink all the other dons under the table without any ill effect on the health. Prohibition has to that extent actually worked the good, in spite of so malignantly and murderously willing the evil. And the good is this: the restoration of legitimate praise and pride of the creative crafts of the home.

This being the case, it seems that some of our more ardent supporters might well favour a strong, simple and sweeping policy. Let Congress or Parliament pass a law not only prohibiting fermented liquor, but practically everything else. Let the Government forbid bread, beef, boots, hats and coats; let there be a law against anybody indulging in chalk, cheese, leather, linen, tools, toys, tales, pictures or newspapers. Then, it would seem by serious sociological analogy, all human families will begin vigorously to produce all theses things for themselves; and the youth of the world will really return.

Chesterton wrote a few essays that elaborate more on the beauties of some of the items in his catalog of “goods which ought to be banned”–one essay is about the glories of local cheese, and another concludes with the thrill of locally sourcing chalk. He also wrote something about local wine. Twenty-first century anti-globalists can be divided into two broad camps: a camp of those who rebel against globalization by voting against international coalitions, and a camp of those who rebel against globalization by delighting in microbrews. Chesterton, who co-invented a rather locally oriented political philosophy called Distributism, carried Hipsterism to its logical conclusion.



For the Sake of God Alone

By S.Y. Agnon

(Explanatory notes are at the end)

A Chassid of the Maggid of Zlotchov used to travel to Zlotchov every year on the Saturday night that was the first night of selichot. He would go to be near his rebbe in Zlotchov, arrive in time for the recitation of selichot, and stay through Yom Kippur. His journeys there and back were generally peaceful. One year, he set off on his way just as he did every year, anticipating that he would arrive in time for selichot just as he did every year. This anticipation was, in fact, fulfilled–he did arrive in time for selichot. His journey to Zlotchov, however, was not a smooth one. When he left his village, the sky was full of stars, the earth radiated joy, and he too was joyful, with the joy of a chassid who goes to greet the rebbe from whom he has learned Torah and the fear of Heaven. On his way, he exercised his voice by repeating the stern rebukes he had heard during the days of Elul from itinerant pietists and preachers.

The Chassid sweetened the journey for himself with a mournful melody, like a preacher who stands at a podium and delivers a sermon to the congregation. Sometimes he endears himself to the members of the congregation by calling them “dear brothers,” and sometimes he frightens them by calling them “strayers and fools.” This chassid did not notice that when he stretched out his right hand imposingly, the bag containing his prayer shawl and phylacteries slipped and fell.

Meanwhile, the sky had knotted over with thick clouds, the stars had hidden, and the road had disappeared. He found himself knocking about blindly until he ended up in a forest which he had never seen or even heard of before. While he was attempting to leave the forest, rain began to fall, and it increased in severity until it had the force of a rushing river.

A great black fear fell upon him. The rain fell, and his fear grew as he stood there in the forest being slapped in the face and hammered on the head by tree branches and rain. The rain also undermined his footing, until he couldn’t tell whether he was floating or sinking into the ground. The forest stretched on beyond measure and without end–and the night was still young. And such a night–a long, cold night at the year’s end.

There the chassid stood in the forest, in the rain and penetrating darkness. His clothes were saturated with water, and his very soul folded from grief within him. Each time he forcefully extricated himself from one entanglement, he found himself in a place that presented an even more difficult one.

A bolt of lightning illuminated the entire forest. The chassid looked around and saw a cottage with light coming out of it. He gathered his strength, extricated his legs from where they were, and made his way to the cottage. He found an open doorway and went in.

Inside, he saw creatures who looked like men. Their long ears stretched down below their feet to the floor, and even beneath it. Each one held a clerk’s quill in his hand and sat before thick notebooks. The pages of the notebooks were made of skins which had never been cured by a tanner. Strange voices rumbled and rose up from beneath the floor and came to sit on the tips of the quills, from whence the voices would shriek, while the crying, agitated quills would hasten all over the notebooks.

The chassid understood that he had come to a place that was not good. He stood with failing knees and silently prayed that that which could happen would not happen. When he reached out to touch the bag containing his prayer shawl and phylacteries, he couldn’t find it, and he realized that it had been lost on the road. He reflected to himself that when a man’s way is destroyed by sin, he has nothing left to hold onto in his time of need. For what sin he was being punished he did not know.

One of the strange creatures lifted his head from his notebook and flailed his arms about, like a person who is trying not to drown. If the chassid’s eyes did not deceive him, both of this creature’s hands–like both hands of each of his companions–were left hands, but they worked so quickly it was as if they were each seventy seven hands. As they worked, the creatures cursed and imprecated, saying “The souls of preachers should blow out. I have seen an end of all perfection, but vain words have no end.” To what words they were referring the chassid could not guess. The chassid shrank away so that the demons would not notice him. He continued to shrink himself until there was nothing left of him but terror.

The chassid realized that it would do him no good just to stand there, immobilized by fear, so he gathered what strength he had and transmuted it into words: “I was walking on the road when it began to rain, and I came to your house to shelter from the downpour. Now that the rain has stopped I shall go on my way.” When he turned around to leave, he saw that all of the walls were completely opaque–there was no door. How had he come in, then? He was too disoriented to remember. Though he continued to look around, he could not find the doorway.

The chassid forced himself to tell them that it was his custom to travel to Zlotchov on the first night of selichot every year to stay near his rebbe for the Days of Awe. He also told them about what had happened to him after he set out on that night’s journey. But those long ears which heard what was underground were deaf to words of truth.

After the chassid had banged on all of the walls without finding the opening, the chief demon said to his minions, “Open up for him.” When the chassid was about to go, the chief demon said to him, “We are allowing you to go on the condition that you come back to us after thirty-one days. If you do not return, we will come and take you ourselves, even if we have to drag you from under the prayer shawl of your rebbe.”

What could the wretch say in reply? He nodded his head. The chief demon responded, “You think that it is a nod of your head that we want; it is you that we want. If you swear that you will return to us, we will show you to the doorway so that you can leave.” The poor man thought that if they didn’t show him the way out, he was destined to run around in circles until the breath of the enemies of Israel should expire. He swore that he would return to them after thirty-one days. They opened the door for him and he left. Outside, he found himself in the place in which he had been standing before he entered the forest that was not a forest. He found his prayer shawl and phylacteries waiting for him there. He wondered at his own failure to get out of that cottage himself–if only he had tried harder, he would have found the doorway. True, the walls had seemed opaque, but surely he could have opened whichever part of the wall the demons had opened, and he would have avoided the necessity of acquiescing to their demand that he return to them. The chassid sighed in his heart, hugged his prayer shawl and phylacteries, and began to walk. After about an hour he arrived in time for the recitation of “O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee” in the Maggid’s house of prayer.

After morning prayers, the chassid went to get the “shalom” greeting from his rebbe–but his rebbe did not give him shalom. The chassid stood behind the door of the maggid. Men were going in and out–some of them were wealthy householders, some of them were chassidim, and some of them were regular Jews who happened to live in that city. The Maggid greeted and spoke with everyone. To him alone the Maggid would not give a greeting or even a look. The chassid stood with a broken and contrite heart, and wondered, “What is my sin and what is my transgression: why does the Maggid shun me like this?” He still expected that the Maggid would tell him to enter after everyone else had left. However, when they were all gone, the Maggid closed the door. The chassid dragged himself away, went to the Maggid’s study hall, sat down in a corner, and made an accounting of his actions in order to determine what was the cause of the Maggid’s refusal to return his shalom. The chassid fasted that day and the following night. When it was time to recite selichot again, he roused himself from his place and stood with the rest of the congregation, swimming in tears, and it need not be said that he remained in this state for the prayer of “Answer Us.” Although this chassid was not the only one who recited selichot in this manner, all of the others found some resting place within their hearts, while his heart was torn and boiled. His manner while praying the morning prayer was the same as it had been during selichot.

After he had removed his phylacteries and taken off his prayer shawl, he gathered his strength and went to his rebbe. The Rebbe saw him and locked the door in his face. As it was that day, so it was on the morrow, and the day after that, and so on the eve of Rosh Hashanah–when all are blessed by their rebbes–and so on the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Even on the day before Yom Kippur, when the Maggid’s hand was extended to all and sundry, he did not return shalom to this chassid.

The Sacred Day passed and the holiday of Sukkot arrived. All were elated as defendants who had been absolved by the court. The followers of the Maggid, who had prayed with their rebbe and seen his service–which resembled the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, when he stood in the Holy of Holies to plead for mercy for his people, Israel– were especially joyful. Everyone was joyful–but our chassid was heartsick. Then too, his rebbe had locked the door in his face and had not allowed him to pour out what he had to say.

Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret passed, and Simchat Torah came. We rejoice on all other days of the year in the commandment of Torah study; on Simchat Torah, we rejoice in the Torah itself. There was joy on every face, but our chassid mourned in his heart, for the day on which he must return to that cottage drew nigh, and his rebbe, who had the power to help him, would not allow him to approach. The chassid threw all of his hopes upon the Almighty.

Thirty days after the chassid’s encounter with the demons, the Maggid called him to his chamber. The chassid came and stood with a broken and contrite heart. The Maggid rested his head upon the column which was in front of him, and stood that way for an hour or so. Afterwards, he raised his head and said

“Do you know what kind of a place that is? It is not a good place. It is a house where impurity dwells, for the demons sit there and write down each and every sermon that the preachers preach for the sake of advertising their cleverness and erudition, to preen before the crowd, and become great in the eyes of God’s creatures. Similarly, the demons write there all of the words of those who rebuke others without rebuking themselves first. What brought you to that place are the sermons of which you are so enamored. Even on the very first night of selichot–when a Jew must prepare his heart for repentance–you enjoyed them. You promised those creatures that you would return, and a Jew must keep whatever commitment passes his lips: you must return to them as you told them you would. But do not be afraid of them; tell them that you are one of the men of the Maggid of Zlotchov. They will certainly mock both you and me, but do not be troubled by their laughter–say to them, ‘if you can find one word that has come from the mouth of the Maggid of Zlotchov that was not for the sake of the Almighty, you have a right to do with me what you will. If not, you must leave me alone and let me go on my way.'”

And the Maggid of Zlotchov said,

“I am certain that–thanks to the Blessed One’s kindness–they will not find in their notebooks a word that has left my mouth that was not for the sake of Heaven, for every sermon that I give and every word that I speak is uttered for the sake of God alone. Go to life and peace, and may God help us to serve Him with whole hearts, and without any alien intentions.”

The chassid took leave of his rebbe and went on his way, and God helped him–for no inappropriate thoughts came into his head, and he thought only of the ways of divine service and fear which he had witnessed by observing his holy rebbe, whose study, prayer, speech, and even necessary actions–without which no one born of woman can endure–were all for the sake of Heaven.

At midnight, the chassid returned to the spot. He entered and saw the creatures sitting in their places, with their ears inserted into the ground, holding their quills in their left hands, while unsavory voices floated up from the ground and latched on to the tips of the quills, and the agitated quills rushed over the foul-smelling notebooks. Not a single one of the creatures looked up at the chassid or asked him anything.

The chassid did not want to stay any longer than was necessary in that house of impurity. He said to them, “I am the man who was here on the first night of selichot.”

The chassid had assumed that as soon as he had spoken they would put down their work, he would tell them what his rebbe had commanded him to say, and they would let him go in peace. But they paid him no heed since–due to the sins of that generation–the sermons had proliferated, and still continued to multiply. Because no person who entered their cottage ever left, it wasn’t worthwhile for them to lose a minute of work on his behalf.

The chassid hardened his face and said, “I promised to come; I did not promise to waste my time here. If you do not release me immediately, I shall show myself out.” They raised their ears from the ground and gazed at him in wonderment. Never before had they encountered a man who was not afraid of them, let alone one who would address them with such impudence. They grabbed him with their ears and pushed him about the room. The chassid pushed back and said, “I am one of the men of the Maggid of Zlotchov.”

The room erupted in laughter. The creatures ridiculed him and his rebbe among themselves: some posed mocking questions, others answered, all laughed. The chassid did not care for them or for their laughter. He stood gazing at them coldly. They began to wonder: the souls of great preachers, whose bellies were equal in size to a prayer quorum of Jews, had expired here from fear, while this dried out man who looked like a schoolteacher’s shovel said that he belonged to the Maggid of Zlotchov, and betrayed no sign of fear.

The chief of these creatures asked his fellows, “Have any of you heard of this Maggid of Zlotchov–the one this dried out fig of a man says he belongs to?” They responded, “We have not heard his name, nor have we seen his sermons.” “Let us look into the notebooks,” he said.

To explain what the notebooks were: men’s actions and thoughts are all written down in notebooks, as are their words. If men’s words are for the sake of Heaven, they are brought up before the Throne of Glory in order to give pleasure to their Creator; if they are for their own sakes–for their own good and pleasure, to increase their own glory and honor–they are sent down to the nether worlds, and demons come and grab them, possess them, and take responsibility for them. The demons charge a labor fee from each man whose words are written in their notebooks.

And why was this chassid punished by being forced into such a place on the first night of selichot? There were many preachers in that generation who would go to the synagogues and study halls, and who would preach sermons consisting of homilies and rebukes so that people would repent. Despite the fact that their words were reproofs of instruction and fear of Heaven, the intention of the preachers’ inner hearts was to show off their homiletic abilities, and because this chassid enjoyed their words he was punished–for enjoyment of something which is not all for Above merits punishment.

They brought their notebooks and searched through them, and did not find the name of the Maggid of Zlotchov–nor did they find any word of his. They checked a second time, and they still could not find his name, nor a word he had said, nor, it goes without saying, could they find any of his sermons. They wondered greatly at this: even those whose actions are all for the sake of Heaven occasionally allow a word that is not entirely for the sake of His blessed name to escape their lips–that is to say, they mix into the utterance of that word a bit of an intention for self-profit.

But we, chassidim the sons of chassidim, who have been taught by our fathers that the words of true tzaddikim are completely for the sake of Heaven, are not surprised that they could not find in their notebooks a single speech of the Maggid of Zlotchov, since it is known that each and every word which came out of his mouth was for the sake of God alone. That is why there was no mention of him in the notebooks.

The chassid went on his way happy and heart-content. He was happy because he had taken leave of the demons, and he was heart-content because he had merited to cleave to a rebbe who was holy and pure, and whose every word was for the sake of God alone.

And we, if we have not merited to know the early tzaddikim, have merited to tell stories of their deeds, stories of truth and faith, that ye may know the way in which ye must go.


Explanatory Notes

Elul – the Hebrew month of repentance in the Autumn which precedes Rosh Hashanah

Maggid – preacher

selichot – penitential prayers that are recited daily (excluding Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur) before sunrise, starting from four days to ten days before Rosh Hashanah (depending on the year) and throughout the Ten Days of Repentance which follow Rosh Hashanah and culminate on Yom Kippur.

“souls…blow out”-  cf. Job 31:39

“I have seen an end of all perfection, but vain words have no end.” – humorous juxtaposition of Psalm 119:96 and Job 16:3

from under the prayer shawl of your rebbe – the image evoked is of a father who covers his small children with his prayer shawl in the synagogue while the priests recite their blessing.

if you swear – here and elsewhere, literally “swear on your righteous affirmation.” “Righteous affirmation” is a (once) popular expression derived from a Talmudic play on Leviticus 19:36. Even a commitment without an oath must be treated as binding.

Israel’s enemies – Talmudic euphemism for the people of Israel, used when discussing a negative action or eventuality.

O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee – Daniel 9:7 is the first line of the selichot liturgy.

Jews who happened to live in that city – literally, “the people who were in the city,” evocative of several verses in the Bible, cf. Jeremiah 29:16

broken and contrite heart – Psalm 51:17

Answer Us – part of the selichot liturgy

Sukkot – the Feast of Booths, a holiday which begins four days after Yom Kippur and lasts for seven days.

Shemini Atzeret – a one day holiday immediately following Sukkot

Simchat Torah – a one day holiday immediately following Shemini Atzeret

prayer quorum of Jews – ten men

reproofs of instruction – Proverbs 6:23

tzaddikim – perfectly righteous people

that ye may know the way etc. – Joshua 3:4


Lament for Zion

This famous elegy was written in the sixth century by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir.

For Zion and her towns complain

Like woman in her birthing pain

Or like a sackcloth girded maid

Whose husband in the ground’s been laid.

For devastation of her hall

By wretched flock’s most sinful fall;

For blasphemers who boldly came

Into the room that housed His name.

For holy priests in exile grim,

And singers of her faithful hymn;

For rivers of their kindred blood

Which coursed through courtyards in a flood.

For cities cloaked in silence thick–

Sans joyful calls from dances quick;

For meeting room that’s barren of

Men’s learned words and wars of love.

And for her daily sacrifice,

Redemption of her firstborns’ price,

For sacred bowls defilers broke,

For ceasing of her incense smoke.

For sons of kings without their swords,

Good David’s children, Zion’s lords,

Whose faces fair were darkened when

Her shining crowns were reft from them.

For Glory which, at that time, fled

Her ruined home amidst the dead.

For foeman fell, oppression cruel,

For sackcloth worn instead of wool.

For painful wounds and lashes strong

Her patient princes suffered long.

For bodies of her babes and youth

–smashed on stones without all ruth.

For gaiety of hateful foes

Who laughed to see her shames and woes.

And for free men reduced to scorn —

The pure of heart and noble born.

For crooked paths towards which she turned

From happy road in childhood learned.

And for her sad and swarthy throngs

All burnt by sins and scorched by wrongs.

For imprecating voices shrill

When rife she was with corpses still;

And for the shrieks and echoed call

Of stranger’s curse within her Hall.

O for Thy name that’s been profaned

By those who with her blood are stained.

When Exile’s prayer they cry to Thee

Incline and hear and set her free!

The Heiress of Dickens

There are few pieces of criticism written on the books of JK. Rowling which neglect to mention the supposed influences of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the Harry Potter novels. Nothing could be neater than tying popular, literary, twentieth century writers of fantasy fiction into one bundle. This pretty packaging, however, must seem forced to those who, like myself, are fans of all three writers. How can one seriously claim that the vibrant primary colors of Harry Potter are substantially derived from the golds, grays, muted blues, and greens of Narnia and Middle Earth?

Furthermore, the works of the two Oxbridge professors are permeated with ineffable nostalgia, a feeling that is rarely encountered in Rowling’s work. The magical world that Harry enters is not older or essentially better than ours; it is just more fascinating. If J.K. Rowling is ever really guilty of nostalgia, it is the nostalgia for the future commonly known as progressivism. Hogwarts, which, as Mr. Filch is fond of reminding the students, used to use interesting methods of corporal punishment, was not always as nice a place as it now is. Dumbledore is kinder and wiser than previous headmasters, — one of whom unjustly expelled Hagrid. In the larger wizarding world, the abuse of house elves used to go unquestioned, but Hermione Granger is determined to end this practice and liberate the downtrodden house elves from their bonds. We are always made to feel that Middle Earth and Narnia, on the other hand, were once much better places than they now are. The spiritual decline of those lands has come to such a point, in fact, that The Lord of the Rings must conclude with the departure of the Elves — with all their magic and wisdom — from Middle Earth, while the Chronicles of Narnia end with total moral decay and an apocalypse.

With the exception of Lewis’ lamp post, inanimate objects belonging to the post-industrial world are, in the eyes of Lewis and Tolkien, symbolic of evil and ugliness. Rowling, on the other hand, embraces such objects and gives them a magical twist: while the victorious hobbits get rid of Saruman’s utilitarian, modern buildings, and the children entering Narnia are thankful to shed their ugly clothes for beautiful ones, in Rowling’s world, train stations are enchanted, modern canvas tents are larger on the inside than on the outside, and old newspapers and rubber tires are given the ability to magically transport groups of people from one place to another.

There are two schools of romance. One, which can be traced back in a straight line to the Romans (hence, we suppose, the word romance), is the refined, discontented school: its members are always impatient with their actual surroundings and yearning for goodness that can only be found somewhere “far, far away,” whether in a pastoral idyll or a mythical past. A representative work from this group is Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in which the poet tells his child that

                                          I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.

The other school sees lovely things everywhere, and hears the eternal language of God even in a cloistered city. Its doctrine is encapsulated in Chesterton’s poem about a mailbox:

“In mine own city” thus he said—
“There stands a little man in red
Who in the steep street standeth still
And morn and even eats his fill
Of tales untold, wild truths and lies
Small wars and secret chivalries
You may walk round him as may be
He guards his secrets soldierly—
A quaint red tower not three feet wide
And thousands of mens’ souls inside.”

Lewis and Tolkien mainly belong to the first school (although they both incorporate some elements of the second school into their stories); Rowling belongs solidly to the second school.  While the history and origins of the everyday sort of romantic poetry are not as obvious as those of the classical kind, one earlier author who stands out for seeing magic in the mundane is Charles Dickens.

While Dickens is most regarded for his deeply humorous characters and biting social commentary (both of which qualities can be found in Rowling’s books as well), it is less often remarked that he is a pioneering writer of fantasy fiction as well. Several of Dickens’ works contain magical elements, and it is to these, and not to any twentieth century book, that Rowling owes her greatest debt. The device of Dumbledore’s “Pensieve,” which carries its user back into memories in which he can observe without being observed, is a pretty obvious homage to A Christmas Carol. The general kind of magic that can be found in Harry Potter — the all-embracing, humorous kind — is similar to the magic in some of  the random anecdotes found scattered throughout The Pickwick Papers. We hear in the cheeky banter of Hogwarts students with the school’s resident ghosts echoes of the young lawyer in Pickwick cleverly advising the tortured ghost-of-a-lawyer he encounters to leave his stuffy rooms in London and seek out fresher climes. Rowling’s image of an overstuffed couch that is revealed to be, in fact, a cowardly, obese man, is reminiscent of a chair in Pickwick with an old man’s features which coarsely boasts about all of the women who have “sat on its lap for hours together.”

Although we are certainly very lucky that Rowling picked up where Dickens left off, we suspect that even if Dickens hadn’t left any explicitly magical thread at all, it is possible that Rowling could still have been inspired by him (and similar authors) to create the wizarding universe. When Harry Potter first rides the Hogwarts Express, he discovers that wizard candy is more interesting than Muggle candy: Bertie Bott really does include all flavors in his jelly beans, including pepper, ear wax, and grass. There is nothing specifically “magical” about this; it is just amusing and different. Chesterton defines humor as “a rather deep and delicate appreciation of the absurdities of others.” It is in Pickwick, which is the work of Dickens at his funniest and most incorrigible, that Dickens’ enthusiasm boils over: he cannot confine himself to appreciating the absurdities of other people, but must also explore the eccentricities and exaggerations of inanimate objects and imaginary beings. Given the long and rich tradition of English comedy — and the benefit of hindsight — we may even feel that the creation of a world in which everything is perceived through humor’s exuberant lens and in which many objects undergo a supernatural transformation (or transfiguration), was inevitable.

Rowling shares a few other stylistic similarities with Dickens, the most notable of which is a penchant for gloriously improbable plots (although hers are much more tightly constructed than his). Something else the two authors have in common is that the books of both have been received with wild popularity. Of course, it would not have been possible for them to be so popular if they weren’t good. We all know, however, that there are many excellent, literary books that will never be so widely read. What makes our two authors popular is the fact that, morally outraged and satirical as they may occasionally be, they are, essentially, unabashedly joyful. And it is this very joy which enables them to see everything transformed by a magical light. If the somber moods of Lewis and Tolkien can be traced back to Virgil (as well as, in Tolkien’s case, Anglo-Saxon and Norse poets), who was a typically pensive pagan, the joyous moods of Dickens and Rowling may be traced to Isaiah, who proclaimed that “the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

The Forgotten Poetry of Streetlamps

The sense that everything is poetical is a thing solid and absolute; it is not a mere matter of phraseology or persuasion. It is not merely true, it is ascertainable. — Chesterton

The Lamplighter

Robert Louis Stevenson

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It’s time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.

Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa’s a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I’m to do,
O Leerie, I’ll go round at night and light the lamps with you!

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

The Lamplighter

Walter De la Mare
When the light of day declineth,
     And a swift angel through the sky
Kindleth God’s tapers clear,
With ashen staff the lamplighter
Passeth along the darkling streets
To light our earthly lamps;
Lest, prowling in the darkness,
The thief should haunt with quiet tread,
Or men on evil errands set;
Or wayfarers be benighted;
Or neighbours bent from house to house
Should need a guiding torch.He is like a needlewoman
Who deftly on a sable hem
Stitches in gleaming jewels;
Or, haply, he is like a hero,
Whose bright deeds on the long journey
Are beacons on our way.

And when in the East cometh morning,
And the broad splendour of the sun,
Then, with the tune of little birds
Ringing on high, the lamplighter
Passeth by each quiet house,
And putteth out the lamps.

The Lamplighter

As Told by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch (from

In 1907, Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch was staying in Würzburg, Germany, and a group of chassidim came to spend a Shabbat with the rebbe. Among them were Reb Yosef Yuzik Horowitz, his son-in-law Reb Feivel Zalmanov, and Reb Elimelech Stoptzer.

The rebbe prayed for many hours that Shabbat morning, as was his manner. In the meantime, the chassidim recited kiddush and consumed a quantity ofl’chaims. Later, when the rebbe had finished and they sat with him to the Shabbat meal, Reb Yosef Yuzik asked:

“Rebbe, what is a chassid?”

Replied the rebbe: “A chassid is a lamplighter. The lamplighter walks the streets carrying a flame at the end of a pole. He knows that the flame is not his. And he goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight.”

Asked Reb Yosef Yuzik: “What if the lamp is in a desert?”

“Then one must go and light it,” said the rebbe. “And when one lights a lamp in a desert, the desolation of the desert becomes visible. The barren wilderness will then be ashamed before the burning lamp.”

Continued the chassid: “What if the lamp is at sea?”

“Then one must undress, dive into the sea, and go light the lamp.”

“And this is a chassid?” Reb Yosef Yuzik asked.

For a long while the rebbe thought. Then he said: “Yes, this is a chassid.”

“But Rebbe, I do not see the lamps!”

Answered the rebbe: “That is because you are not a lamplighter.”

“How does one become a lamplighter?”

“First, you must reject the evil within yourself. Start with yourself: cleanse yourself, refine yourself, and you will see the lamp within your fellow. When a person is himself coarse, G-d forbid, he sees coarseness; when a person is himself refined, he sees the refinement in others.”

Reb Yosef Yuzik then asked: “Is one to grab the other by the throat?”

Replied the rebbe: “By the throat, no; by the lapels, yes.”

The Feminine Logic of Libertarianism

Rand Paul’s approval ratings among Republican women lag far behind his approval ratings among Republican men. An explanation for this phenonomeon is offered by Katherine Mangu-Ward and quoted in Jeet Heer’s The New Republic article on this topic: Libertarianism,” she says, “has historically been a fringe movement. And fringes tend to be populated by men. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, if you investigate the long tails of any bell curve you’re going to discover a sausage fest, and libertarianism is no exception.” Although this theory resonates strongly with me, I disagree with Mangu-Wards’s characterization of Libertarianism as something that has “historically been a fringe movement.” Libertarianism is now a fringe movement and was a fringe movement for the better part of the twentieth century, and that is enough to explain why there are not many female libertarians today. But Libertarianism has not always been on the fringes. Classical Liberalism, the political philosophy from which Libertarianism derives, was actually quite popular in both the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, in an essay about Suffragettes entitled ‘The Modern Surrender of Woman,” G.K. Chesterton argues that a radical form of Libertarianism has actually been the preferred political doctrine of approximately half of the population in almost every historical era:

By the beginning of the twentieth century, within the last few years, the woman has in public surrendered to the man. She has seriously and officially owned that the man has been right all along; that the public house (or Parliament) is really more important than the private house; that politics are not (as woman had always maintained) an excuse for pots of beer, but are a sacred solemnity to which new female worshipers may kneel; that the talkative patriots in the tavern are not only admirable but enviable; that talk is not a waste of time, and therefore (as a consequence, surely) that taverns are not a waste of money.

This is an interesting and timely idea for us. Perhaps, if Rand Paul can convince women that, far from being a fruitless and fantastical habit for male nerds, Libertarianism – the political doctrine which states that the government should be as unobtrusive as possible – is an essentially feminine idea, he would gain more female supporters.

We can test Chesterton’s theory about the political inclinations of women by contrasting the political views of male and female writers from a time when Liberalism was popular. In the nineteenth century, before there was much talk about extending suffrage to members of the gentler sex, not a few women took a share in the political discourse of the day by writing political novels and poems. These literary ladies can generally be relied upon to protest against intrusive and inefficient central planning, to maintain that the government cannot be relied upon to solve problems, to rail against the inhumanity of collectivist force, and even to propose private sector solutions to large-scale dilemmas.

While most nineteenth century male writers do not promote Socialist, big government policies any more than their female counterparts do, they are much less emotionally incensed by injustices perpetrated by the government than the women writers are. Something else that sets the men apart is that, regardless of whether they are Conservative or Liberal, they tend to revere and honor the idea of government and the calling of the men who work for it (Dickens is a notable exception to both of these rules). Lord Macaulay, a Victorian historian who was also a politician himself, regulary heaps scorn upon men in his histories who –he thinks – should have become involved in the political struggles of their day, but instead chose to live at home and lead “Epicurean” lifestyles. Thackeray wrote a thrilling historical political novel – Henry Esmond – which is inspired by Macaulay’s account of the Stuarts’ struggle to maintain power. Any political thriller grants implicit significance to the question of “who will be in power?” Although the novels of Anthony Tollope gently satirize politicians and the political system, there is in all of them, and especially in the Palliser novels, an underlying reverence and love for the business of politicans. Trollope states in his Autobiography that

I have always thought that to sit in the British Parliament should be the highest object of ambition to every educated Englishman….that to serve one’s country without pay is the grandest work that a man can do,—that of all studies the study of politics is the one in which a man may make himself most useful to his fellow-creatures,—and that of all lives, public political lives are capable of the highest efforts.

This statement typifies what Chesterton characterizes as the masculine attitude towards politics. A brief survey of the political writings of four nineteenth century women will reveal a feminine scorn directed towards those who seek power which surpasses the scorn of Macaulay for those who do not. Nineteenth century women are not certain, as the Classical Liberals Macaulay, Thackeray, and Trollope are, that it is our politicians who “are capable of the highest efforts.”

The novels of Jane Austen are not, of course, explicity political. Chesterton, in his essay, ‘The Evolution of Emma,’ was the first critic to recognize the deep political ramifications of Jane Austen’s fifth novel. It is the story of an energetic and domineering young lady whose attempts to make her lower-class friends happier by arranging their lives for them end up causing misery. Jane Austen’s satire of the hubris of a certain kind of upper-class busybody foreshadows the dismay of contemporary libertarians when a nanny state punishes its least fortunate citizens with measures that are intended to help them. The modern government behaves like Emma when it sickens the children of the poor with its nutritional guidelines, prevents their mothers from working with its minimum wage, and puts their fathers in jail with its wars on drugs -– all with the most charitable of intentions.

Elizabeth Gaskell was a minister’s wife who lived in the manufacturing town of Manchester and who, unlike Jane Austen, was on familiar terms with many of her poorer neighbors, and wrote novels in which working class people and their problems are central. In Mrs. Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton, a Manchester workers’ union sends a delegation to Parliament, hoping to convince the lawmakers there to prevail upon the factory owners to cede to the union’s requests. The spirits of the delegates are shattered when they discover that the men who are supposed to govern their country have no interest in even hearing them speak of their problems. When asked about his experience at the Parliament house, one of the delegates says

If yo please, neighbour, I’d rather say nought about that. It’s not to be forgotten or forgiven either by me or many another; but I canna tell of our down-casting just as a piece of London news. As long as I live, our rejection that day will bide in my heart; and as long as I live I shall curse them as so cruelly refused to hear us; but I’ll not speak of it no more.

Although her sympathy for the poverty and difficulties of members of the labor unions is real, Mrs. Gaskell also sympathizes strongly with the dilemma of the factory owners: throughout her novels, she demonstrates a keen understanding of economics and the market forces which may constrain “the masters” to offer their hands low wages. Mr. Thornton, the factory owner who is the hero of North and South says, “We will hardly submit to the decision of an umpire, much less to the interference of a meddler with only a smattering of the knowledge of the real facts of the case, even though that meddler be called the High Court of Parliament.”

Mrs. Gaskell’s strongest charitable feelings, however, are reserved for the “knobsticks” or would-be knobsticks – those factory hands who work while the union is striking. One of the most dramatic scenes in North and South occurs against the backdrop of an angry mob physically threatening the Irish knobsticks who have been brought in to replace the usual factory workers because of a strike. Later in the book, one of the strikers, whose wife is ill and who has many hungry children pleading for food, kills himself out of despair. He was forced to strike by the union and is not able to deal with the consequent privations and stress. Despising the national government and detesting the coercive union, Mrs. Gaskell proposes a cooperative, free market solution to the conflict between masters and hands: Mr. Thornton anticipates Silicon Valley by over a century when he offers the benefit of free communal lunches to the workers in his factory. Unlike Silicon Valley CEOs, who are fiercely competing with each other for highly skilled workers, Mr. Thornton implements this measure because it is a cost-effective way of ensuring that his employees and their families will not be in danger of starving or of striking.

In Felix Holt, the Radical, George Eliot is witheringly skeptical of the inherent value of male political posturing. Felix Holt, an educated middle-class young man who gives up his patrimony and devotes his life to teaching the children of the poor, is contrasted with the comfortable and callous upper-class Harold Transome, who wants to become a Radical member of Parliament, but never does or says anything particularly radical. The point of the novel is given away by its title: it is conscientious private citizens, and not ambitious politicians, who accomplish real change in society. Another George Eliot novel with a similar message is Middlemarch, which features a brilliant and intense young woman whose dreams of implementing Christian Socialist policies for the poor in her rural area are frustrated. In the beginning and middle of the novel she is constatly chafing at the fact that, as a woman, she cannot find an outlet for her rather masculine ambitions and talents (she is also interested in scholarship). By the very end of the novel she is happily married and has found peace, despite the fact that

Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s long narrative poem, Aurora Leigh, is the most ambitious and explicit piece of feminine libertarianism from the nineteenth century. Just before Romney Leigh, a Christian Socialist, proposes to his cousin Aurora, who is an aspiring poet, he semi-playfully rebukes her for her lack of interest in projects to alleviate the suffering of the multitude. He maintains that women think only of individuals and never of the big picture, that Aurora fails to sympathize with his Socialist ideals because of her sex, and that a woman, because she cannot think in general terms, can never be a poet.

…does one woman of you all,
(You who weep easily) grow pale to see
This tiger shake his cage?–does one of you
Stand still from dancing, stop from stringing pearls
And pine and die, because of the great sum
Of universal anguish?–Show me a tear
Wet as Cordelia’s, in eyes bright as yours,
Because the world is mad? You cannot count,
That you should weep for this account, not you!
You weep for what you know. A red-haired child
Sick in a fever, if you touch him once,
Though but so little as with a finger-tip,
Will set you weeping! but a million sick…
You could as soon weep for the rule of three,
Or compound fractions. Therefore, this same world
Uncomprehended by you must remain
Uninfluenced by you.

Aurora rejects Romney’s proposal that they should get married and work together to make a Socialist utopia, because her individualist, artistic aims and aspirations differ so much from his general, material ones, – and because she despises his aims:

I hold you will not compass your poor ends
Of barley-feeding and material ease,
Without a poet’s individualism
To work your universal. It takes a soul,
To move a body: it takes a high-souled man,
To move the masses . . even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow a hair’s breadth off
The dust of the actual.–ah, your Fouriers failed,
Because not poets enough to understand
That life develops from within.

Aurora’s cousin, motivated by altruistic guilt and despair, becomes engaged to marry a working class woman he does not love; his plan backfires when a jealous female friend has his intended bride kidnapped and sold into prostitution. He transforms his stately home into a charity commune, but this project also goes awry; some of the communards set fire to it (Romney Leigh can be thought of as a humorless version of Emma Woodhouse, — on steroids). He is blinded by the blaze. This blindness is, of course, symbolic of the spiritual blindness that has been plaguing him all along. When Aurora tells him that she loves him and regrets her rejection of him in the last book of the poem, he tells her that he repents of his old philosophy and agrees with hers.

‘Fewer programmes; we who have no prescience.
Fewer systems; we who are held and do not hold.
Less mapping out of masses, to be saved,
By nations or by sexes. Fourier’s void,
And Comte is dwarfed,–and Cabet, puerile.
Subsists no law of life outside of life;
No perfect manners, without Christian souls.

Many books have been written about the eternal struggle between the ideals of men and the ambitions of women (for examples, Virgil’s Aeneid and Tennyson’s The Princess). Aurora Leigh is wonderful and unique because it is the first book (that I am aware of) in which the feminine ends up totally vanquishing the masculine. It is a story of generality and power bowing to individualism and influence.

In the twenty-first century, the majority of educated women are, for better or for worse, wedded to the essentially masculine idea that government matters. In a time when the State has achieved Orwellian levels of intrusion into citizens’ private lives, this shift in feminine attitudes is no longer to be wondered at or thought of as some kind of pitiable surrender. The power of a State which drops bombs on children, which incarcerates more than one sixth of its black male population, which complicates healthcare with bureaucracy and inefficiency, which sprays toxic pesticides on public land, and which ushers younger and younger children into crowded, centrally controlled preschools, reaches into the traditionally feminine province of the home. Once women do take an interest in politics, they are most genuine and, therefore, most impactful when they hew to the power-averse values of their great-grandmothers. It is no accident that the most brilliant and powerful female politician of all time and that the most dynamic and effective crusader against the intrusive, big-government policies of the twentieth century were one and the same person: Margaret Thatcher. Rand Paul will be able to win the female vote when he convinces women that his message is not inherently masculine, strange or nerdy (although it has unquestionably been adopted by many masculine, strange, and nerdy people). The political ideals he is advocating are as ancient, as familiar, and as common as the idea of the inviolate home itself. And they are, like that idea, very feminine.

Failure of the Feminine in the Aeneid

Man is associated with a driving, pushing force, seeking after honor and glory. Woman is associated with the preservation of the status quo. Men value honor in battle above life. Women value home, marriage, and children. Because for the man what is important is his immortal soul, he promotes death. Women, who are the guardians of the body, champion life. In the Aeneid there is a cosmic war between these two forces – the masculine and the feminine, the spiritual and the physical. The champion of the masculine is Aeneas, the protagonist of the poem. He is constantly faced by various feminine obstacles, many of which are planted in his path by none other than Juno, the goddess of marriage, the hearth, and childbirth. In the first scene of the poem, Juno is mobilizing all of the force she can to stop Aeneas from reaching his goal. She, the most feminine deity, is Aeneas’ greatest enemy. She constantly causes delays and troubles to Aeneas, but, ultimately, all of her efforts are in vain. Opposed to Juno is her husband Jove, who wishes for his grandson Aeneas to win power and glory in Italy, and supports and encourages him on his journey. In the end of the poem Juno capitulates to Jove, and Aeneas triumphs over her champion, Turnus, in combat. The Aeneid teaches that the physical feminine force will always be subject to the spiritual masculine force. Although it may momentarily gain the upper hand, it will never gain a real victory, because it is inherently weaker. The Aeneid is essentially a song celebrating the victory of the masculine over the feminine, of reason over passion, of the spiritual over the physical.

The poem begins with Aeneas meeting Dido after his shipwreck. Of course, this eventually leads to their romantic involvement. The way that Rumor describes their situation is striking; “in lust, forgetful of their kingdom, they take long pleasure (IV, 255-256).” Their relationship is clearly perceived as unbecoming for a king and a queen. Jove is opposed to the continuation of this romantic involvement because “His lovely mother did not promise such/ a son to us; she did not save him twice/from Grecian arms for this – but to be master of Italy, a land that teems with empire/and seethes with war (IV, 303-307).” It is obvious to Jove that when the values of love and glory come into conflict, the masculine value of glory is to be preferred. While love may be a nice thing, when bought at the expense of glory it is ignoble and disgraceful. Since the Fates have determined that Aeneas is to gain glory in Italy, it is his duty to conquer his passion for Dido and to leave. When Mercury rebukes Aeneas and urges him to leave Carthage and travel on to Italy, he uses even stronger and more explicit language than Jove; “Are you now…servant to a woman…? Are you forgetful of what is your own kingdom, your own fate (IV, 353-357)?” Aeneas heeds their rebukes without delay, and his men “all are glad (IV, 394)” when he gives them orders to make the ships ready for further sailing. They, like Rumor, Jove, and Mercury, had also perceived the behavior of their leader as unbecoming. Aeneas’ forgetfulness of his destiny and his submission to love are inglorious and effeminate. However, he rectifies his shortcomings very quickly when he is made aware of them.

Dido’s reaction to Aeneas’ declaration that he is going to leave is emotional, hysterical, and supremely irrational. She is “a woman driven wild (V, 8).” She upbraids Aeneas for his reticence and lack of emotion – “For did Aeneas groan while I was weeping (IV, 535)?” She then curses Aeneas and threatens revenge, saying “I shall hunt you down with blackened firebrands (IV, 528).” Finally, she commits suicide. She values only family life, claiming to Aeneas that “Had I at least before you left conceived…if there were but a tiny Aeneas playing by me in the hall…then indeed I should not seem so totally abandoned, beaten (IV, 440-445).” To the feminine Dido, being a glorious queen is no consolation to compensate for her frustrated desire for a husband and children. It is Juno, the goddess of mothers and wives and Aeneas’ enemy, who has pity on Dido and eases her death. Aeneas’ calmness and determination in the face of Dido’s love and hysteria can almost be seen as the passing of a test. He proves that his piety and values are real, and cannot be compromised by feminine tricks. Additionally, Aeneas’ voyage from Carthage can be seen as a declaration of identity. He declares by leaving Dido that he values piety and honor above love.

The next feminine event in the Aeneid occurs in book V. While the men are involved in the funeral games for Anchises, the women are by the ships, wishing that they could settle down in Sicily. “They pray to have a city;/they are tired of their trials at sea (V, 812-813).” As women, they are not excited by the prospect of war and glory in Italy. They would rather assimilate into the kingdom of Acestes and build peaceful homes. Juno takes this opportunity to set an obstacle in Aeneas’ way, and sends Iris in disguise to convince the Trojan women to burn the Trojan ships (which is actually something that, in book IV, Mercury warns Aeneas that Dido is planning to do). Iris urges “we chase fleeing Italy…shall never see the Samois and Xanthus, Hector’s rivers? No! Come now and burn these damned ships with me!…Look here for Troy; here is your home (V, 829-842)!” The reasoning that Iris offers is that since the women cannot have their Trojan homes, any hospitable land to which they come is equally good. Iris ignores the idea which Aeneas explains to Dido; “If fate had granted me to guide my life by my own auspices then I should cherish first the town of Troy…but now Grynean Apollo’s oracles would have me seize great Italy…it is right that we…seek out a foreign kingdom (IV, 463-476).” His masculine ideals of power and honor will not allow Aeneas to settle anywhere other than Italy. According to some, the lines in which the matrons pause between the ideals of adventure and glory for their countrymen that are opposed to their ideals of home and comfort are the most poignant in the poem: “Torn between the present land and those that call by fates’ command (translation taken from Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis, corresponding to V, 864-5).” The matrons give in to their feminine sides and set fire to the Trojan ships.

Aeneas is more affected by the burning of the ships than by all of Dido’s crying and pleading. Even after Jove has performed a miracle and all but four of the ships have been saved by rain, he sits by the ships and actually considers “whether to settle in the fields of Sicily,/forgetful of the fates, or else to try/ for the Italian coast (V, 925-8).” Perhaps Aeneas’ uncharacteristic despondence and lack of piety result from a feeling of betrayal. Even his own fellow Trojans are unwilling to continue! However, this despondence is only temporary. Anchises appears to him in a vision and encourages him to continue. Armed with new strength, Aeneas continues his journey to Italy.

Once the Trojans do arrive in Italy, the Italian women, animated by another messenger of Juno, Allecto, behave in a manner similar to that of the Trojan women animated by Iris. The Italian queen, Amata, is “kindled by a woman’s anxieties and anger (VII, 445-6)” regarding the prospect of her daughter being given in marriage to a foreigner – Aeneas – instead of Turnus, her Italian betrothed. Amata entertains the feminine values of stability and familiarity, and is annoyed by the fact that her husband is going to upset the status quo. She is also worried that Aeneas is not trustworthy and will take Lavinia away from her. Allecto is apparently more powerful than Iris. The Trojan women hesitate before setting fire to the ships, and are then instantly ashamed of their deed. The Italian women are totally carried away by the madness inspired by Allecto.

The wretched queen rages through the city…all of the matrons feel the same zeal, kindled by Furies in their breasts, to seek new homes…Amata lifts a blazing firebrand…her cry is savage, sudden: “O Latin mothers, listen now, wherever you are: if any love still lives within your pious hearts for sad Amata, if care for a mother’s rights still gnaws at you, then loose the headbands on your hair, take to these orgies with me.”

This is explicit rebellion of women against men. Fired by Juno, they protest against their husbands’ domination and ignoring of the feminine values, and then run off into the woods to celebrate the traditionally all-female Bacchanalian rites. They do not want progress, danger, honor, and change. They want their home to remain as it was. It is Aeneas who is threatening them, and they oppose him with all of their might.

The account of Camilla in Book XI is almost a story within a story. It is significant that the famous female warrior in this battle is fighting for the general feminine cause – for the preservation of the status quo. She is fighting on the side of Turnus, Lavinia’s Italian betrothed. Fierce and deadly, Camilla has been trained in the arts of war by her father from a young age. In the descriptions of her battle scenes, she seems just like a man. But she is only like a man. Her underlying womanhood is her undoing. Arruns, who is trying to kill her, cannot find an opening until she charges towards Chloreus. She picks out Chloreus because of his elaborate dress combined with her “female’s love of plunder and of spoils (XI, 1038-40)” – that is, with her female love of the material. This female inclination is a weakness, and it betrays her to Arruns’ shaft. So, although in some ways Camilla’s exploits form a story within a story, in other ways they serve to encapsulate the entire theme of the Aeneid into a smaller space. The feminine threat, although it may be menacing for a while, will inevitably disappear, because it is inherently weaker. It will bring about its own destruction.

All of this action occurs against the backdrop of Juno, the goddess of womanhood, desperately trying to stop Aeneas from succeeding. The poem begins with her complaint, “Am I, defeated, simply to stop trying, unable to turn back the Trojan king from Italy. No doubt, the Fates won’t have it…For after this, will anyone adore the majesty of Juno or, before her altar, pray to her (I, 55-74)?” Juno really knows that her efforts will be in vain, but she cannot prevent herself from trying to stop Aeneas. It is she who gives the signal for Aeneas and Dido to meet in a cave during a thunderstorm, she who incites both the Dardan and the Latin women. The goddess of womanhood, she takes advantage of women’s natural inclinations and emotions to further her greater plan of stopping the Trojans from settling from Troy. She tries to appear to be strong, but she knows that she is really weaker. When she sees that Turnus is about to die, she asks Jove to allow her to intervene. He allows only “respite from impending death for the doomed youth (X, 855).” She takes even that, continuing to hope against hope that he – the masculine god -will change his mind, and that she, his wife, will be able to save face. Finally grown impatient, Jove demands of his wife, “What is your plan? What is the hope that keeps you lingering in these chill clouds (XII, 1055-57)?” She, the weaker, finally realizes that she must succumb. There must be honor and glory for the Trojans. Still wanting to save face, she requests that Jove will at least destroy the name of the Trojans, if not their race. Like a parent smiling on an inconsequential child, Jove smiles and yields to her request. Weak, defeated, but not honest enough to admit that she is defeated, Juno agrees and “with gladness…quit(s) the skies, her cloud (XII, 1118-19).” Jove and his champion Aeneas have won. Masculinity has triumphed over femininity.

John Donne

John Donne, relatively neglected for centuries, regained some measure of popularity in the early twentieth century, which he has not now lost. Much of the twentieth century criticism written about him is focused on his “metaphysical” style:  critics generally just throw out the observation that he has both “love poems” and “religious poems” before moving on to discuss the origins, merits, and flaws of his form.

The substance of his work is, in its own way, quite as shocking and novel as his style. At least, some of his comtemporaries thought so. Henry Vaughan dismisses the love poems of Donne as “lust in robes of love.” It is hard to imagine that any American of my generation has read “The Indifferent,” a lamentation on the inconstancy of woman, in which the poet draws attention to his ability to enjoy and appreciate all different kinds of women, without being forcibly reminded of a certain not particularly sentimental popular song entitled “Mumbo Number 5.” Donne’s most famous poem, “The Flea,” is of course, a plea to a woman to “yield to him,” using a cleverly absurd a fortiori argument. Nowhere in the poem does he describe any emotions other than desire and frustration.

Actually, it is difficult to find in any of Donne’s amatory poems those sentiments normally associated with “love”: they are curiously bereft of humility, concern for the well-being of the beloved, or admiration, even of a physical kind. He has written no “sonnets to his lady’s eyebrow.” Instead, the poems are expressions of physical desire, exultation in satisfied desire, recriminations for the inconstancy of women, or musings on his own inconstancy.

Donne’s religious poems are even more unique in matter than his love poems. He is neither the first nor the last poet of lust, but the specific kind of religious feeling he expresses is very hard to find in poetic form anywhere else. If the love poems express an appetite that may be felt by a wild animal, the religious poems primarily express anxiety (and conclude with the soothing of that anxiety), feelings that may also be experienced by an animal:

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,

Which was my sin, though it was done before?

Wilt though forgive that sin through which I run,

And do run still, though still I do deplore?

When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;

For I have more.

Throughout the religious poems, there is indeed some humility and a bit of admiration, together with much bargaining and pleading, — all of which elements are common enough in the religious experience. But nowhere does Donne round out his religion by doing what is done so beautifully by some of his contemporaries, and more fully echo the genuine love of the songs directed by David towards his Heavenly Beloved. For true love involves not only recognition, but also striving for genuine attachment and connection, in the strain of “my soul thirsts for You,” or “Oh, that my ways were correct, to keep Your laws!” As we may rebrand Donne’s love poems, and call them lust poems instead, it would also be appropriate to rename the poems directed towards God, and call them “superstition poems.” For John Donne suffered from the same unfortunate diagnosis which was given by Chesterton to another man of

artistic temperament: that fear of the mere strength of destiny and of unknown spirits, of their strength as apart from their virtue, which is the only proper siginificance of the word superstition. No man can be superstitious who loves his God, even if the God be Mumbo-Jumbo.

John Donne, unique among poets, moved through life concerned with his own pleasure and pain, loving neither God nor woman. Although he was full of information and employed a clever, “metaphysical” style, his poetry is barren of real ethical or metaphysical thought. No wonder that the moderns find the content of his poetry unremarkable.

Anthony Trollope and the Cosmopolitans

The bicentennial of the birth of Anthony Trollope is this year. A Tablet magazine critic has decided to mark this epoch with an essay arguing that Anthony Trollope was, in some mystical sense, a Jew. A writer for The New Yorker, not to be outdone, makes the – if possible – even more bizarre claim that Anthony Trollope was a cosmopolitan. If Trollope were alive today, we are confidently informed, he “would be in Brussels, writing comedies about the European parliament.” Since, as  a proud Jew and and a most wretched cosmopolitan, I may hope for some immunity from charges of prejudice and xenophobia, I will most respectfully beg to differ with both writers.

The claim that Anthony Trollope was a Jew or a philo-Semite barely needs to be addressed. No, he was not. He certainly acknowledged, along with Shakespeare, Scott, and other celebrated Judeophobes, that Jews were human beings with human feelings. And — as evidenced by the quotations in the Tablet article itself — he clearly did not like them.

The distinction between cosmopolitans and regular “politans” — or what Wendell Berry calls “placed people” — is perhaps less distinct than that between Jews and Gentiles, but the Englishness of Trollope — many of whose novels contain extended fox hunting scenes — is quite unmistakable. While most of Trollope’s novels take place in England, he does have many shorter stories set in other lands. These stories, however, are hardly written in the spirit in which the truly cosmopolitan George Eliot wrote Daniel Deronda or Romola, in which books she makes an effort to enter into, respectively, the cultures of the Victorian Jews and of the Renaissance Italians.  Trollope’s “foreign” tales, by contrast, are mostly just stories of the English being English, however exotic a setting they may find themselves in. Some of the most memorable ones involve uproarious gags in which Englishmen make fools of themselves with their rudeness abroad while the locals – from Father Giles of Ballymoy, Ireland, to a Spanish Marquis aboard a riverboat- respond with perfect good humor. Others, such as ‘Returning Home,’ in which a young Englishwoman, weighted down by her inappropriately heavy clothes, drowns in a South American river, are tragic tales of the hardships of exile.

The unpleasant truth is that any sane person who has a passing familiarity with Trollope’s corpus knows that that fox hunting, beef eating, deeply humorous civil servant was not only an insular, if amiable, English snob, but even an English class snob. His lower class characters, when they appear at all, are usually, like those of Shakespeare, brought in for comic relief, and are never, like those of  many other Victorians, given the dignity of moral agency. Unlike Shakespeare’s clowns, however, Trollope’s less fortunate folks (who usually come from the lower-middle-class) are not allowed the graces of wit, goodness, or pathos. We are meant to laugh at and not with such congenitally ungentlemanly or unladylike souls as Mr. Slope, Mr. Moulder, and Mrs. Greenow.

Trollope may have been the greatest English man of letters to unironically subscribe to the doctrine that

If thou never wast at court, thou never saw’st good manners; if thou never saw’st good manners, then thy manner must be wicked; and wickedness is sin, and sin is damnation.

The finest of Trollope’s short stories, “The Spotted Dog,” is a cautionary tale, the moral of which is that no gentleman should condescend to take a wife from among the lower classes (one of the subplots in Orley Farm is essentially the story of such a tragedy averted). Although it must be admitted that Trollope’s novels are positively brimming over with aristocratic young men who are interested in marrying young women whose rank and fortune are not quite equal to their own, the argument in favor of the marriage is always that the woman in question is, her relative poverty notwithstanding, “a lady.” This is how, in his posthumously published autobiography, Trollope explains his opposition to open and competitive examinations for candidates for Civil Service employment:

As what I now write will certainly never be read till I am dead, I may dare to say what no one now does dare to say in print,—though some of us whisper it occasionally into our friends’ ears. There are places in life which can hardly be well filled except by “Gentlemen.”…it may be that the son of the butcher of the village shall become as well fitted for employments requiring gentle culture as the son of the parson. Such is often the case. When such is the case, no one has been more prone to give the butcher’s son all the welcome he has merited than I myself; but the chances are greatly in favour of the parson’s son.

The obvious question — of how Anthony Trollope, the snob, could possibly have come to be held up as a model Jew-lover and cosmopolitan — is not a question that is entertained for long, because the answer is more obvious still. Our two journalists are only interested in finding in Trollope’s books those ideas and sentiments which correspond to their own. Trollope certainly identified as a political progressive and liberal, as they do. He certainly wrote a novel in which the handsome hero conveniently forgets about his “insipid” girlfriend back home in the country while, in the big city, he pursues – and is pursued by – ladies with more prominent worldly status, as men of any era might fondly imagine themselves doing. He also, presumably, finds common ground with the modern journalists, in, as mentioned earlier, acknowledging that Jews are human beings.

However, these superficial similarities are surely recognizable as red herrings to those who, when they open up a book, neither expect nor desire to find a mirror. If Trollope voted for (and even tried to become) a Liberal MP, the actual political goals of the Liberal party of the time were mostly about removing protections from special interests and scaling back the Empire — a far cry from the modern welfare enactments — and it is impossible to know what Trollope would have thought about our latter day Liberals. What we do know is that, although a Liberal voter, he had a staunchly conservative personality, and that he broke with his party to oppose not only Civil Service examinations, but the Secret Ballot measure as well (he considered it to be an “unmanly restraint” upon the poor conduct of those who would exercise inappropriate influence upon voters, which he felt ought to be regulated by culture and not by the State). Of course, Trollope’s tendency towards nostalgia and loyalty to antiquated institutions is nowhere more evident than in his novels themselves. In The Warden, the first of his novels to achieve popular success, he is famously unable to take a side in a question of Church reform (the Church of England, is, of course, part of the government establishment of England), and is equally appreciative of both the beauty of the old ways of doing things and the seemingly inevitable practical necessity of adopting more utilitarian policies.

And if Phineas Finn, the handsome Irish member of Parliament, was not the most loyal in love, most of Trollope’s other heroes, such as Johnny Eames, Lord Lufton, and Frank Gresham, do stick by their ladies through thick and thin, and even Phineas finally does what Trollope couldn’t help but consider to be the right thing, and returns home to his Mary.

Trollope’s modern admirers have fallen into a great pitfall faced by lovers of literature, against which C.S. Lewis warns in Preface to Paradise Lost:

A method often recommended may be called the method of The Unchanging Human Heart. According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate. I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. But I have come to doubt whether the study of this mere L.C.M. is the best end the student of old poetry can set before himself. If we are in search of the L.C.M. then, in every poem, we are tempted to treat as the most important those elements which belong to the L.C.M. which remain when we have finished the stripping-off process. But how if these are not really the most important elements in the actual balance of the poem we are reading? Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it, to make him use the loud pedal where he really used the soft, to force into false prominence what he took in his stride, and to slur over what he actually threw into bold relief.

A common response to this argument is some formulation or other of the deconstructionist idea that what the author originally intended does not actually matter.  Lewis is dismissive of this objection in the introduction to one of his other books, The Discarded Image:

There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind which brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness,’ and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.

Lewis’ analogy may bring comfort to the contemporary journalists, as it illuminates yet another quality which they share with the great Victorian whom they admire: their literary attitude, like his general attitude, is profoundly insular and incurious.

As interested as we may be in perceiving an author’s original meaning, the option of not reading the books of an author whose perspective is profoundly distasteful to us, is, of course, always on the table. If Lucius Malfoy were gifted with the ability to tell a story as well as Trollope, and it was he who wrote the Chronicles of Barsetshire, many of us would probably opt not to read them. There are, however, qualities in Trollope’s work which have endeared him and which will continue to endear him, even to those who do not share his “gentle culture,” for generations to come. We do not necessarily possess these special qualities ourselves. We like them because we think think that they are good, and we think that Trollope is good because he has them.

He is one of the great English humorists, in the tradition of predecessors and contemporaries whom he admired, such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Thackeray.  The haughty, loud, and domineering “female bishop,” Mrs. Proudie —  a recurring character, and one of Trollope’s most celebrated — is certainly at the receiving end of her fair share of clever quips and situational comedy, — for example, she is humiliated by a torn dress and forced to retreat just as she has worked herself up to a climax of rudeness and tyranny towards her guests — however, the  funniest thing about her is just,– herself, whether in action or at rest. She is so minutely described, realistic, and known, that the reader may sit back and simply bask in the unique idea of her. Many of Trollope’s more likable characters, such as the sweet and perplexed cleric, Mr. Harding, or the rigid but kind old mother and patron, Lady Lufton, are similarly amusing. They are amusing, just as every person in real life has an infinite potential to be amusing — whether intentionally or not — by virtue of his or her wild and beautiful idiosyncrasies.

The atmosphere of Trollope’s mind is very similar to that of Jane Austen’s: it is one of breezy, philosophical, happiness, punctuated by the occasional period of consternation or elation. It is not at all like the giddy highs and crashing lows of Shakespeare or Dickens, and still less like the solid, clever, pessimism of Thackeray.

The final quality of Trollope’s of which I wish to write is the hardest to describe, probably because, unlike the others, it is not at all common. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as George Eliot and Mrs. Gaskell, Trollope’s capacity for really disliking other people — as groups or as individuals — was strong and vigorous. His dislike, however, though it pops up often enough, is, like all of his other feelings, not given to extreme expressions, and manifested by dry satire and sarcasm without a hint of vitriol or actual hatred. It is also tempered by true Charity, a concept which, as a gentleman and a Protestant, Trollope tended to favor more as a faith than as a work. This is how, in his Autobiography, he describes his feelings about the “killing” of Mrs. Proudie

It was with many misgivings that I killed my old friend… I have sometimes regretted the deed, so great was my delight in writing about Mrs. Proudie, so thorough was my knowledge of all the little shades of her character. It was not only that she was a tyrant, a bully, a would-be priestess, a very vulgar woman, and one who would send headlong to the nethermost pit all who disagreed with her; but that at the same time she was conscientious, by no means a hypocrite, really believing in the brimstone which she threatened, and anxious to save the souls around her from its horrors. And as her tyranny increased so did the bitterness of the moments of her repentance increase, in that she knew herself to be a tyrant,—till that bitterness killed her. Since her time others have grown up equally dear to me… but I have never dissevered myself from Mrs. Proudie, and still live much in company with her ghost.

As we read through Trollope’s novels, we often get the sense that he really loved even where he thoroughly disliked. Insular though he was, he was far removed from bigotry after all.