April 30, 2013


Category: Literature :: Permalink

I know: You would never have dreamed that I would blog about pony books.  But I am the father of a girl who loves horses, dreams about horses, thinks about horses instead of math or does math only via horse word problems, and whose attention can be grabbed immediately by seeing the words “horse” or “pony” on the cover of a book.  And that explains why, one afternoon, in the midst of reading some literary criticism, I started laughing.

Geoffrey Trease’s Tales Out of School is an opinionated, fun, and often quite insightful survey and critique of young adult fiction up until the 1960s.  Along the way, Trease points out certain elements that show up too often in children’s literature and urges authors to try something new instead of trotting out the old.

Have you ever noticed how many twins there are in children’s literature?  Trease has.  More than that, he has wondered why — and the answer he gives I find entirely convincing: Though the author has probably never even thought about it, he or she likely wanted to have two children — frequently two girls — who are exactly the same age (which means they can’t be non-twin siblings, of course) and who get to share a bedroom or take vacations together (unlike neighbors or friends).

In the midst of surveying what are often called “holiday books” — books that center on activities that take place outside of the school year — Trease again urges authors to greater creativity.  Where should an author turn?  Well, says Trease, not to the stables, at any rate.

Let me say quickly, before the riding-crops of indignant enthusiasts rain upon my shoulders, that I have nothing against the pony story as such.  It is pleasant to see a generation transferring its enthusiasm from high-powered machines to some of the most attractive of the domestic animals….  That the fantasy of possessing a pony (or two, or three) had become something like an obsession in many children’s minds could in those days be seen from any book department.  Typical titles were Wish for a Pony, I Wanted a Pony, I Had Two Ponies, Three Ponies and Shannon, A Pony for Jean, Another Pony for Jean, More Ponies for Jean, and (highest bid so far) Six Ponies.  The main thing was to get the word into your title — even if, like the ingenious Mary Treadgold, you called your book No Ponies. (The young hippomaniacs knew perfectly well that the ponies would turn up somewhere in the book.)  Almost any book, irrespective of quality, was sure of a considerable sale if the title included that magic word.  Some children would have demanded Shakespeare’s Richard III if had been put in the right dust-jacket and renamed A Pony for Richard (142).


Posted by John Barach @ 2:05 pm | Discuss (1)
April 26, 2013

Imaginative Biographies

Category: History,Literature :: Permalink

In an enjoyable survey and critique of young adult novels, the historical novelist Geoffrey Trease touches on what he calls “imaginative biographies,” those fictionalized accounts of a person’s life in which whole scenes and conversations are invented by the author:

We may feel that the imaginative biographer is a doubtful ally of history when he writes for adults.  There has been a great vogue for his books in recent years, for there is a class of intellectual snobs (mainly feminine, it must be pointed out with more candour than chivalry) who declare that they do not waste time on novels but read only biographies and memoirs.  Such readers have no interest in footnotes, appendices and authorities.  They want dogmatic statement, garnished with salacious innuendo.  They are duly catered for.  As the late John Palmer said of them, in that masterly life of Moliere, which demonstrates that wit and a respect for truth are not incompatible: “It is a poor biographer who allows himself to be defeated by lack of evidence.” It would not be so bad if these writers would acknowledge, in a foreword to their fancies, that they lack complete omniscience; if they would emulate Froude’s candour, who completed his contribution to Newman’s Lives of the Saints with these words: “I have said all that is known, and indeed a good deal more than is known, about the blessed St Neot” (Tales out of School, 57).

Posted by John Barach @ 4:15 pm | Discuss (0)
April 20, 2013

Rational Fanaticism

Category: History :: Permalink

In his biography of Robespierre, Hilaire Belloc identifies two kinds of fanaticism:

Those whom it is customary in soft times to call fanatics are of two kinds.  There is he who maintains what he very well knows to be incapable of positive proof, and very far from being a self-evident proposition — as, that the Book of Mormon fell from heaven, that Pinkish Elephants are alone of animals divine, or that some chief or king is descended from a Bear.  The fanatic that would convince others of these truths will sometimes threaten with the sword, or be at the pains of working wonders to prove them; but most commonly it is by an earnest advocacy and by the power of insistent repetition that he will convert his hearers to accept his vision.  It is his glory that the thing he premises has in it something wholly  unusual, and he praises it as a chief virtue in his proselytes that they accept reality by the channels of affection and appreciation rather than by those of comparison and experience.  Robespierre was emphatically not of this kind.

But there is a second kind which has often, oddly enough, a more irritant effect upon humanity than the first.  They attach themselves to some principle which is highly probable, or generally acceptable, or even self-evident, and armed with this truth, which few care (and sometimes none are able) to deny, they proceed to a thousand applications of their rule which they lay down as an iron standard, crushing the multiple irregularities of living things.  Of these it has been well said that they go to the devil by logic.  It is in their nature to see nothing of the mysteries, and to forget that the aspects of truth must be co-ordinated.  They do not remember that the Divine Nature in which all truths are contained and from which all proceed, has not as yet been grasped by the human mind, and they fail to perceive at how prodigious a rate the probability of divergence increases as deduction proceeds step by step from its first base in principle.

Yet so strong is the current of deduction in us that when such fanatics most disturb and torture us by their practical enormities we are forever reproaching ourselves with the unreasonableness of our instinctive opposition, and thinking, as their system reposes on a truth and is consistent, that therefore its last conclusions may not be denied; and it is this weakness in us that gives fanatics of the latter sort their power.  Of this kind were the lawyers of the later middle ages, of this kind are the defenders of many modern economic theories, and of this kind was Robespierre (Robespierre 33-34).

And of this kind may be some people in the church today.  And of this kind may be (at some times and in some ways) some of us, piling deduction upon deduction and pressuring others to follow our reasoning all the way to conclusions that they feel to be wrong (but what are feelings against our deductions?!) and that we (in our own eyes) are bold enough to embrace.  No one wants to be a Robespierre, but sometimes we meet them today and sometimes we are closer to that sort of fanaticism than we think.

Belloc goes on to add that such men have other notable characteristics.  Robespierre appeared to be conceited or vain, but that is misleading: he didn’t think he was devoted to himself; he thought he was devoted to the principles he was applying, with which (he thought) others agreed.  He was suspicious of others because he was convinced of these principles and because others said and did things that didn’t seem consistent with that sort of conviction.

Again, this unique conviction destroyed humour and proportion.  Did he hear a gibe against his wearisome insistence?  It seemed to him a gibe against the liberty and the God whom he preached.  He missed relative values, so that he was in politics like a man who in battle has no sense of range; he blundered unexpectedly upon oppositions; he shot short or over the heads of his opponents (35).

He was “bewildered by the opportunist,” Belloc says (36), and he saw inconsistencies as the result of some moral flaw:

That practical temper and those inconsistencies of affection which are the general tone of all mankind, he, on the contrary, imagined to be peculiar to some few evil and exceptional men, and these he was for removing as abhorrent to the perfect State and corrupting to it.  “You say that self-government is of right, and yet you will not immediately grant the suffrage to all?  You are insincere, a liar, a deceiver of the people.”  “You say you believe in God, and yet you oppose the execution of this atheist?  You are corrupt and perhaps bribed.  If God be really God, this infinite God and his Majesty must certainly be defended.  But perhaps you do not believe in Him — then you also must go the way of the man you are defending.”  “You say the people are sovereign, and yet you are seen in the house of men who approved of the middle class militia firing on the crowd?  Then you are a traitor.”  Wherever men of the usual sort perceive but one of the million inconsistencies of life — inconsistencies that vary infinitely in degree, and that must be of a rare sort to be counted as crimes or aberrations — Robespierre saw but glaring antitheses; something unjust, untrue, and very vile” (36-37).

More than that, he lacked love or even friendship:

While theory thus led him to violent animosities, it forbade him sincere affections.  This, which is the widest gap in the texture of his mind and the principal symptom of his unnatural abstraction, explains a great part of his adventures.  There can be no better corrector of intellectual extravagance than the personal love of friends, for this gives experience of what men are, educates the mind to complexity, makes room for healthy doubt, puts stuff into the tenuous framework of the mind, and prevents the mere energy of thought from eating inward” (37).


Posted by John Barach @ 10:52 am | Discuss (0)
April 16, 2013

Christian Salt

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Yesterday, I quoted John Updike’s marvelous put-down of Paul Tillich’s theology from his book review in Assorted Prose.  Also valuable in that collection is Updike’s review of Karl Barth’s Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum and of Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World and Love Declared.  His lengthy essay on parody is helpful, too.  But here’s something else that stood out, though I’m not done turning it over in my mind yet, let alone express agreement.  I present it here for your consideration.  It’s from Updike’s “Foreword for Young Readers,” introducing three fairy tales by Oscar Wilde:

These are called fairy stories.  Why?  The word “fairy” comes from the Latin word fata, which means “one of the Fates.”  The Fates were the supreme gods of the Roman world whose architecture survives in post offices and railroad stations, whose language lingers in mottos, and whose soldiers and officials may be glimpsed in the background of the New Testament.   In fact, fairies and all such spirits and tiny forest presences are what is left of the gods who were worshipped before Christ.

Imagine a forest, and imagine the forest overswept by an ocean.  The forest is drowned; but along the shore twigs and sticks, dwindled and worn and soaked with salty water, are washed up.  These bits are fairy stories, and the ocean is the Christian faith that in a thousand years swept over Europe, and the forest is that world of pagan belief that existed before it.  So, when you pick up a fairy story, the substance is pagan wood, but the taste and glisten is Christian salt (Assorted Prose, 300-301).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:41 pm | Discuss (0)
April 15, 2013

Updike on Tillich

Category: Ethics,Theology :: Permalink

I got a kick out of novelist and poet John Updike’s review of Paul Tillich’s Morality and Beyond:

The last two chapters, which discuss ethical systems in the context of history, are especially brilliant.  Yet the net effect is one of ambiguity, even futility–as if the theologian were trying to revivify the Christian corpse with transfusions of Greek humanism, German metaphysics, and psychoanalytical theory.  Terms like “grace” and “Will of God” walk through these pages as bloodless ghosts, transparent against the milky background of “beyond” and “being” that Tillich, God forbid, would confuse with the Christian faith (Assorted Prose, 283).

Posted by John Barach @ 11:54 am | Discuss (0)