"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Saga and a Story

Before this month I had only really read two Nobel Prize winning authors: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Rudyard Kipling. As of two days ago I can now count four. Still, not a very great number for one who professes an interest in literature. (Hey, they only started giving prizes in 1901 after all). Actually, it's worse than that. I didn't read any of the four because they received the Nobel Prize; I could care less. Besides being Nobelists, Both Selma Lagerlof and Sigrid Undset are Northern European authors. Again, I could probably count on two hands the books I've read from that part of the world. There are, however, more similarities than these between Lagerlof's Gosta Berling's Saga and The Bridal Wreath, first part of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset.

First similarity: they both have the the protagonist's name in the title. Ok, ok, I won't go into that much detail. The major characters themselves, however, are similar in ways and the theme of both stories is love. There is also in both the underlying attempt to understand the meaning of sin and not just its immediate consequences. Kristin Lavransdatter comes to the conclusion that, “much have I done already that I deemed once I dared not do because 'twas sin. But I saw not till now what sin brings with it—that we must tread others underfoot” (214). Turning to Selma Lagerlof, I never was sure if she sincerely meant what she had to say on this topic and others in her 1891 Gosta Berling's Saga.

Which brings me to one of those risky judgments on literature. Which of these two was best? I would say Kristin Laveransdatter although I have not read parts two and three and don't plan to surf over to Amazon immediately to order them. Yet if I found them at a thrift store I would buy them, which I can't say the same for of other books by the author of Gosta Berling (Yes, I already did pass up another Selma Lagerlof at a thrift store). The Swedish Lagerlof has an irritating style of musing on characters and events. This monologue with exclamation points makes up most of the book but it just sounded like filler to me. Plus, as I mentioned before, I could not always tell if she really believed what she was writing. The Norwegian Sigrid Undset, on the other hand, has (at least in translation) a good prose enriched with simple but detailed descriptions and smooth dialogue. Along with this superior style, Undset's presentation is both more realistic and, I think, more insightful.

Undset, Sigrid.
Trans. Archer, Charles. Kristin Laveransdatter I: The Bridal Wreath. Alfred Knopf 1923. Vintage books 1987.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Four Christmas Reads

I've finished up my annual Christmas reading. No, not A Christmas Carol, believe it or not I haven't even read that once. There are a few short Christmas pieces, though, that I like well enough to read every year.

Not surprisingly, C.S.Lewis makes it to this list. I find Lewis's “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter From Herodotus to be hilarious. It's a parody that makes fun of the “Niatirbians” (Niatirb spelled backwards is Britain). The imaginary historian gravely describes what “in their barbarian speech is called the Exmas Rush.” The descriptions of sending cards and buying gifts are exquisite fun.

Second on my list is also an essay by Lewis: “What Christmas Means To Me.” He must have had a bone to pick with the “commercial racket” that has become Christmas because he takes no pains to soften his condemnation of it.

Next is the Second Shepherds' Play. It's a little more obscure than C.S.Lewis but only slightly less funny than Lewis's ridiculous Niatirbians. The shepherds are those that the angels appeared to at the birth of Christ; however, this only happens at the very end of the play. Most of the action centres around the thieving Mak and three shepherds who are sure he stole one of their lambs in the night. Adding to the humor, I think, are all the references the shepherds make to saints that haven't lived yet. Maybe no one else would think it funny that a Jewish shepherd in 1 B.C. would refer to English locales and exclaim: “by the Rood these nights are long!” Showing that not much has changed over the years, the 15th century playwright has one shepherd mutter in the dark:

But my mood is ill-sent;
As I walk on this bent,
I may lightly repent,
If I stub my toe.

Lastly is the passage on the birth of Christ in Luke 2. This is what Christmas is all about; let's not forget it.

Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a SAVIOUR, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10,11).
He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5).

Merry CHRISTmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Logic and Learning

I took my logic final yesterday. It does not follow,however, that I am finally logical. So glad was I to be done with the class that I began to clear my desk of all things relating to logic. (I leave you to interpret the ambiguity and decide if I mean relating to the class or logic itself).

Apart from my main textbook I have a small Mars Hill exercise book that I thumbed through at the beginning of my class and subsequently ignored the rest of the semester. I picked it up again after my final and gave it one parting glance. Skimming the list of fallacies, my eye caught one that was not in my other textbook; however, I recognized it anyway. The term “Bulverism” was coined by C.S.Lewis and that explains why I recognized it and also why it is not an official term for a fallacy in other textbooks. Bulverism does have its corresponding term in my text as the “ad hominem circumstantial.” That is, the second arguer attacks the person of the first arguer by claiming something about the circumstances of the first arguer that makes him or her argue that way. For instance, “he claims the book is exciting and that everybody should read it but he only says that because he is paid by the publisher.”

Since any excuse will serve that allows me to read C.S.Lewis, I no sooner saw the term Bulverism than I pulled down God in the Dock and reread the essay: “'Bulverism:' or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought.” Just like the ad hominem circumstantial, Bulverism ignores the actual truth or falsehood of an argument and instead tries (and often succeeds) in discrediting the arguer. “In other words,” Lewis explains, “you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly” (273). Lewis records the origin of Bulverism,
a vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it.... Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that the two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—'Oh you say that because you are a man.' 'At that moment,' E. Bulver assures us, 'there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall' (273).

Why—the day after my final when, at last, there is no need to think about logic—do I write about this subject that, frankly, I didn't like very much while I was taking a class on it? After writing the paragraphs above I asked myself that question and came to the realization that this fallacy became interesting to me because it is connected to something else I am interested in, namely, C.S.Lewis. We learn things best if we are not forced to learn them; when something or someone we love makes us want to find out more. I think George MacDonald had it right when he said: “we must learn things as they come to us and when we want to. Otherwise there will be little remembering. You can never make yourself like a thing” (65). And now, whether you liked it or not, you've read the history of Bulverism and George MacDonald's philosophy of education. The question is, will you remember it or, like me before yesterday, think it is the most boring thing in the world.

Lewis, C. S. God in the Dock: Essays On Theology and Ethics. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1993.
MacDonald, George. The Tutor's First Love. originally David Elginbrod. 1863. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 1989.