Friday, September 23, 2016

Epoch and Artist

Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings by David Jones, 307 pages

Epoch and Artist is a selection of essays written by David Jones between 1937 and 1958, primarily on the subject of art, both visual and poetic.  The strong theme uniting the essays (and indeed, Jones' work as a whole) is the connection between the universality of art and the particularity of the artist.  For Jones, the vocation of the artist is that of redeeming the present, making of here and now but for eternity.  He illustrates his basic understanding with examples stretching from the distinctively British expression of universal Christianity in The Dream of the Rood to Joyce's use of his native Dublin.

Readers who have struggled through In Parenthesis or The Anathemata will be frustrated to discover that Jones is capable of writing prose nearly as dense and opaque as his poetry, but gratified to learn it is also nearly as rewarding.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Other Einstein

The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict.  304 pages.  due out October - title is on order

So you think you know Albert Einstein (maybe), but do you know anything about his first wife?  You may have never heard of Mileva Maric, but she was a physicist in her own right, and a tremendous influence on Einstein.  In fact, it may be that Mileva worked with Einstein on three fundamental papers that were published in 1905 (published under his name only) that eventually led to Albert Einstein receiving the Nobel Prize in 1921.

In 1896, Mileva was the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zurich.  While there, she met Albert, and while she did finish the physics program there, she started a relationship with Einstein which resulted in a child out of wedlock.  They did eventually marry, but Mileva put her own career to the side to support Albert.

In this book, Benedict, who has done research on Mileva Maric, explores the story of this woman who was a brilliant physicist in her own right, and whose gifts fell into the shadows once she married Albert Einstein. The author says, in afterword, that some readers "may be curious as to how precisely how much of the book is truth and how much is speculation.  Whenever possible, in the overarching arc of the story - the dates, the places, the people - I attempted to stay as close to the facts as possible, taking necessary liberties for fictional purposes."  She invites readers to learn more about Maric, and look at the collection of papers and letters about Albert and Mileva here (Princeton site).

I found the book an enjoyable read, although a frustrating one; what happened to Mileva Maric, unfortunately, is not unusual.  It was not uncommon for women to put the desires of their husbands for a "dutiful wife" above any of their own ambition, and it also was not uncommon for the few women who dared to study at such a level to be harassed by their male instructors and fellow students.  I don't know much about Albert Einstein on a personal level, but this book certainly points out some very unlikable characteristics.   I felt the author did a nice job with this historical fiction, bringing Mileva to life, and also giving context and perspective to now only Mileva's life and the decisions that she made, but also to understanding her decisions in her relationship with Einstein.. The actual final conflict between Mileva and Albert comes somewhat late in the story, which was a little frustrating; I would have enjoyed it if the author had brought this into the story a bit earlier and then given a bit of Mileva's story post-Einstein.  However, overall, this was an interesting book, and has made me want to learn more about Mileva Maric.

I did find more sites about Mileva Maric, including this one from the Tesla Memorial Society of New York.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Peasant of the Garonne

The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time by Jacques Maritain, translated by Michael Cuddihy and Elizabeth Hughes, 277 pages

This is Maritain's final testament, written from his retirement among the Little Brothers of Jesus in Toulouse, along the banks of the Garonne.  It is, however, more of a look ahead than a look back.  In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, Maritain chose "to offer known or unknown friends an opportunity... to hear some imprudent talker stammer out truths which are not welcome."

The first of those truths concerns the relationship between the Church and the world, a central theme of the Council.  Maritain distinguishes the different senses in which Scripture and Tradition speak of the world, criticizing those who would entirely reject the world as fundamentally wicked, but more pressingly warning against embracing the world uncritically, substituting its natural ends for the supernatural ends of the Church.  He moves on to a criticism of modern philosophy, which he maintains is better described as ideosophy, divorced from reality most powerfully experienced in the intuition of being.  This leads naturally to a consideration of the post-conciliar state of Thomism, about which Maritain proves remarkably sanguine, regarding the particular virtues of St Thomas Aquinas and his thought as necessary for the development of understanding, however infrequently his disciples have shared those virtues.  For the celebrated worker in the groves of academe now a humble peasant in a house of prayer, the only hope - for Thomism, philosophy, the Church, and the world - is in the activity of a clerisy of small groups and individuals who possess and share a sense of the love of God deepened through lives devoted to contemplation, in the cloister but especially outside.

1971 - Never a Dull Moment

1971: Never a Dull Moment -- the Year that Rock Exploded by David Hepworth. 320 pages.

David Hepworth gives us a tour of major moments in music in 1971.  Friday, New Year's Day, 1971, the Beatles had officially broken up.  Within the next year, people would see the rise of bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who, among others.  Hepworth shows how musicians came together that year, sometimes working with each other, to start a musical era that lasted well beyond what anyone would have expected.

This was an interesting book, although I wouldn't say it was a riveting read.  Some parts were interesting, especially if I knew the musician the author was writing about.  And, the author does have a flair for a bit of snark here and there.  He's definitely got opinions about the music and the musicians, and that made the book entertaining.

Example, p. 219 "These patchouli plutocrats seemed a new type of human being.  They were immensely wealthy but required by their profession to conduct themselves like vagabonds... The heightened sensitivity everyone applauded in their songs was often achieved at the expense of their own personal relationships, where they moved decisively to dispense with any romantic relationship that was in danger of subtracting more than it was adding."

It's an interesting book, even if I felt like the author veered off topic a few times.  If nothing else, he calls attention to some of the more important songs and music to come out of that year (and inspire me to look through the library's catalog for some of the albums he lists in the book).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Apostles of Reason

American Evangelicalism, an amorphous movement that is notoriously difficult to define, has long struggled with many tensions, few as deep-seated as that between the high value evangelicals place on education and their distrust of secular learning.  Apostles of Reason is an attempt to follow the intellectual and anti-intellectual currents in evangelicalism from its emergence out of the fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century.  Indeed, according to Worthen's account, the struggles over intellectualism are the direct product of the fundamentalist-modernist battles, which left evangelicalism with a lack of strong authority and a tradition of fragmentation over doctrinal issues, and as a result committed to an interpretation of sola scriptura which necessitated a strong defense of biblical inerrancy.

Unfortunately, Apostles of Reason is hopelessly muddled.  While there can be no doubt as to the breadth or depth of Worthen's knowledge on the subject, she is unable to bring the pieces together to form a coherent picture.  She jumps back and forth between decades in a manner which makes it very difficult to discern developments or patterns.  Long digressions into evangelical political activism on both the left and right, while serving the laudable purpose of demonstrating the diversity of evangelicalism, do not seem to contribute much to the primary theme of the book.  Although Worthen clearly makes an effort to be fair to all parties, problems repeatedly arise as she habitually slips into the cliches of elite journalism.  The opponents of conservatives are generally described as moderates rather than liberals or progressives, while conservative groups are tagged as "shadowy" and conservative activists as "infiltrators".  In the same vein, Worthen generally tends to conflate intellectualism and progressivism, a quirk that occasionally crosses over into silliness - at one point she seems to imply that intellectual seriousness is served by employing an art teacher whose work involves plaster casts of his wife's genitalia.

Therein lies the central paradox, which Worthen seems to at least suspect.  Evangelicals are upbraided for their rejection of reason due to their rejection of the elite intellectual consensus, a consensus which itself rejects reason.  They are faulted for their resistance to dialogue with opposing viewpoints by a modern mindset utterly uninterested in meaningful engagement with opposing viewpoints.  For evangelicalism, far from being a reactionary throwback to a premodern era, is itself a thoroughly modern phenomenon.