Born on Christmas, 1642

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“Isaac Newton said he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not believe it. He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarreled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after. He was chief architect of the modern world. He answered the ancient philosophical riddles of light and motion, and he effectively discovered gravity.  He showed how to predict the courses of heavenly bodies and so established our place in the cosmos.  He made knowledge a thing of substance: quantitative and exact.  He established principles, and they are called his laws.”

These are the opening lines of James Gleick’s Isaac Newton and they are words I wish I had written, for they convey, at least to me, a real sense of the human Isaac, the man and also genius who stood not merely above the world, he also struggled within it.

But here is another version of Isaac, from the Twitter feed of Neil deGrasse Tyson Christmas 2014:

On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642

It has, of course, been re-Tweeted over the past years. In fact, in this Facebook note deGrasse Tyson himself remarks on the magnitude of this phenomenon.  And yet, if Tyson’s intention was to truly honor Sir Isaac, who was indeed born on Christmas (according to Julian the calendar kept by England at the time) and whose anuus mirabilis or years of wonder, did occur prior to his 30th birthday, then why does it ring so differently in tone to Glieck’s opening lines?  I grant that this is a Tweet, an easily and often intentionally misconstrued bit of writing, not something more full or complete such as not a tome, manifesto or credo.  Gleick’s contains more words and is not constructed in Tweet-ese, but to compress it would look something like this:

Inventor of calculus, Newtonian laws, born into darkness and obscurity on Christmas 1642: Happy Birthday Sir Isaac!

Or something similar. Tyson’s, on the other hand, initially conjures or implies–certainly by design?–the birth of Christ, only to effectively mock that birth in the final line.

But Tyson makes no secret of his disbelief in God and because of this disbelief, has no one else to recommend on Christmas but Isaac Newton.  Scientific giant that he was, Newton is not, nor ever will be, able to offer salvation, forgiveness of sins, or eternal life.  Newton did, however, and to a great extent still does, grant us scope for the imagination, confidence in experimentation and discovery, and not least the persistent struggle or effort that a life of worthwhile work cannot hope to disregard.

Newton himself never divorced his discoveries or ideas from his understanding of and reverence for God, and even though he dabbled in the darker arts of alchemy and failed to fully comprehend or accept the Trinity (ironic he attended Trinity College Cambridge), at no point did Newton disavow God and hand over Creation to something impersonal, entirely scientific, or cold.  Despite all of Tyson’s love for Newton (and he has some good love), the comparison Tyson draws in his Tweet cannot be made beyond those he mentions, for it remains true that Newton is dead, buried at Westminster Abbey (interesting link here), a feature he may share with scores of poets and statesmen, but not with Christ.

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Into the snowy bank: The first day of Christmas

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To invoke the Twelve Days of Christmas is to begin the season on the thirteenth of December, which was yesterday.  Yesterday we woke up in Manitowoc to snow–the first of the season and light, powdery, blanketing snow it was, too.  And so began the climb, the season of shoveling into the snowy bank.

In Alaska we shoveled a bit of show but as we lived in a remote village with no paved roads it was really only porches and steps that received such consideration.  Everything else just got packed down with boot-wear or by the snowmachine track.  And in Seattle, where I grew up, snow meant a duality of emotions and responses: glee, at least initially, at the novelty of this white stuff; then panic forever after as the realization of what snow in a supremely hilly and densely-packed city means to daily life.  Which is why everything shuts down and the rest of the country would point to us and laugh.  If only they knew.

But in Wisconsin, as I was telling my sister the other day via text message, snow falls on gently rolling hills or level roads and is ploughed or swept with hours, if not sooner.  They are prepared for snowfall here, just the way Seattle is prepared for the millions of coffee-drinkers who enter the city every morning. Call it priorities, but in each case it’s a system that works.

le divin Enfant for the seventh day

This has got to be my favorite Christmas carol, or chanson Noël, as it is in French.

The lyrics are beautiful, particularly the French, and even if you don’t understand the French, they’re lovely.  It is a lively song with a joyful-serious subject at its heart: the birth of Christ.  Strange to me just how much is pushed into this four-stanza carol.  Awe-inspiring, really.

Also delightful is this version of the carol sung by (one of my faves) Annie Lennox.  Here’s the link.  The intro is rather contemporary but, no matter what one does to this song, it remains traditional.  That’s the French for you.  That’s the Christ-child for you.

The lyrics to this song are provided here, courtesy of Wikipedia.  Thanks, open source.  Stay net-neutral, everyone, and Merry Christmas!

Days 4 & 5, meandering falls the day

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Ugh. So lazy today.  And yesterday.  So in tribute, here is a previously-penned bit of advice.  It isn’t even mine.  I swiped it from a manual on how to write your PhD thesis. Psht.  I’m not going to justify any of this, just going to paste it here along with a link to one of my favorite websites, The Newton Papers. 

Write on.

Advice from Dr. Jeffrey S. Brooks, University of Missouri

Every time you sit down to work, every time—whether you are reading an article or working on your methodology section—you should have something you can hold in your hand to show for that time.

If you haven’t produced something—a paragraph, three pages, a set of notes that correspond to the article you just read, a rough draft, some free writing, and so on— then you wasted your time.

(If you find you spend your time in an unproductive manner, change your routine, get new friends, write longhand instead of typing—you are in a rut! Do something to get out of it.)

You must make time to read throughout the dissertation-writing phase and approach that reading with a critical eye. This must be critical reading both of new literature and your own work. Pay attention to content and the way other authors construct their arguments, support their claims, and make their recommendations. You will learn something and be able to put it to good use!

Write! Use an outline, write a topic sentence and support it with evidence, write something in several ways, use synonyms and antonyms, vary your sentence structure, set deadlines to complete parts of the work and hit them.

In part, a scholar’s life is a writer’s life, and there’s no better way to improve as a writer than by writing.

 

Day the third, thoughts of Woolsthorpe, Isaac Newton

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“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”
– Sir Isaac Newton

So much of Newton I do not understand: his Principia, much of the Opticks, his thoughts on the Trinity.  But many things of him I do understand and know instinctively, such as the slant and intensity of his penmanship and the sublimity of his mind.  He continues to bewitch and enthrall me and I cannot be quit of him.  Humphrey Davy must have understood this when he wrote the passage below. It is from ‘The Sons of Genius’:

To scan the laws of Nature, to explore
The tranquil reign of mild Philosophy;
Or on Newtonian wings sublime to soar
Through the bright regions of the starry sky.

Newton attended Trinity College, Cambridge.  Coincidentally (or not so very?), so did my other intellectual crush, Ralph Vaughan Williams.  More on him in a future post.

“The 1600s had no ‘scientists’, only Natural Philosophers.  Newton studied nature and the physical universe.  When he investigated a subject like creation it was in the light of the Christian beliefs of the day.” – From an informational poster at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton’s birthplace

“Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night
God said ‘Let Newton be’ and all was Light.”
– Alexander Pope

Outside Woolsthorpe: Observations from 9 September, 2016:
Outside the manor house where Newton tamed his light the courtyard and the stable block are quiet; the visitors, those from near and far, are dissipating; the Flower of Kent is quit, stands indifferent to its view and its viewers: the company it keeps, however, looks on with pleasure.

 

Allegory, the second day

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With both the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ a man has, I take it, only one concern–to avoid them and hold the Main Road. We must not ‘hearken to the over-wise or to the over-foolish giant’. We were made to be neither cerebral men nor visceral men, but Men. Not beasts nor angels but Men–things at once rational and animal.
-C.S. Lewis, Preface to the Third Edition of ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress’

It had been my habit, as I scrolled the mindlessness of the newsfeed, to also scour it for the few (and sometimes many more than few) worthwhile articles or readings that my contacts are known to post. They were, I admit, primarily of the literary or theological persuasion but there would creep in–rather too often–the odd disgruntled political post.  It is these that I am striving to avoid, for they brought no joy and rendered no new insights or truths, reinforced only the banal or the tired and led me into nothing but numbness or irritation.  The literary and theological never seem to bring me down, make me angry, or cause me to walk the tightrope of compromise, and so those remain in my pursuits, and I will rely on more esteemed sources for their access and procurement.

One of these sources is the site Church Life Journal, the literary weblog for Notre Dame University. I became acquainted with this site through FB friend, Artur Rosman, its director, and whose former blog Cosmos the in Lost provided many a perplexing and enlightening read.  While it and Church Life are both Catholic publications they provide me the high-quality, intellectually rigorous theological reads that many corresponding Protestant sites lack.  I did recently re-discover, however, that I had subscribed to a site called the JHIBlog|The blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas. It is comprised of curated blog posts, some of which are theological, others literary, but all intellectually rigorous and meaningful.  The site is fantastic, and has restored my faith in humanity (somewhat).

One of the posts for this week was called Paradoxes of Incarnation: Medieval Allegory Revisited by John Farrell. It was a review of Jason Crawford’s Allegory and Enchantment: An Early Modern Poetics and I loved it. In fact, it prompted today’s quote from C.S. Lewis’ allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress, his last work of fiction and, incidentally, the first piece of writing completed after he became a Christian.  As an aside: this book is strangely little-known, even in C.S. Lewis/Christian circles, but remains a powerful piece of both literature and Christian apology. But Farrell’s piece rekindled my interest in allegory and reminded me that I am not a tool of the state but a Woman of God.  It also substantiates Alison Milbank’s inspiring claim that ‘literature can do theological work’, work that Farrell shows done so well in his brief history of allegory (which, I presume, is a truncated version of that in Crawford).

I would love to read more and, as these pieces remind me, I can!  I need not be distracted, need not be led to the extremes of North or South but remain with God, treading the Main Road with confidence and faith.

The first day, the 1st of December

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We shall see how long this run of blog posts lasts. My intention, while on hiatus from Facebook-Land, is to write an entry every day in deliberate affirmation of my time away from social media.  I have already cancelled Twitter (rarely used it anyway, and when I did it was to troll Radical Orthodox John Milbank and I can do that without an account) and I’m not on any of the others, like Instagram or Snapchat or any of those photo-blogs/sites.  So, really, I’m doing well with just FB to counter and confront.

I hope to compile a set of interesting reflections and observations throughout the month of December, these final days and weeks of my year of ‘Make an Effort’ (2017). The idea of returning to the blog has been festering a while, or maybe germinating is a better word, as ‘fester’ has certain connotations that I am unwilling to incorporate into this cadre of posts.  Suffice it to say, I am not the most consistent blogger and I am really hoping this month of freedom jump-starts….something.  Something new or well-meaning, anyway.

I should like to begin each post with an adage, excerpt or verse, either reflective of the day already spent or, if a morning post, one that might summon inspiration or provide direction for the day ahead.  Today’s shall be the former, as it is already evening, the dark of late-fall having fallen nearly an hour ago.  Thus, this passage from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées falls into the realm of its title, that of contemplation and consideration–of thought.

It is a passage is from XI. At Port Royal and reflects the reasons I both love and abhor the concept of present-day social media and all it stands for:

Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.
It must also account for such amazing contradictions.

This, to me, accurately sums up, if not entirely too simply, my experiences within the social-cyber realm where much good and much evil is conducted on a daily, hourly, ongoing basis.  The Internet is, as a good many tools and resources are, not inherently good or evil on its own but merely conduits, vessels for the ‘greatness and wretchedness’, the ‘amazing contradictions’ that each of us encounters and is capable of. We do ourselves a disservice to pretend we are only one or the other, or that we are good, others are evil and never the twain shall meet.  It is not so.  Much that is inspirational or encouraging is gleaned from the Web in the forms of communication, connection, learning, creativity and discovery.  But simultaneously, as the proverbial ‘other side of the same coin’ there exists the evil, the dark, the destructive which appears everywhere good resides, for it is as inescapable as humanity.

And it is this contradiction, this paradox of great and wretched that I wish to explore and plumb during my month (or so) of time away from the frenzy of online social banter.  I will miss much, to be sure–things like how my friends in faraway places are faring in their new or regular old lives will not cross my daily path for a while, and I will accustom myself to it.  But I will glean, God willing, more than simple updates in my absence from this interface.  I wish to exchange ample for much, and learn how the true religion allows us and teaches us to ‘account for such amazing contradictions.’

So for tonight, that is all. Bon nuit tout le monde!

REVIEW: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Would I could write a review such as this one. I shall lend my (perhaps unnecessary) comments as soon as I purchase and consume The Jane Austen Project for myself. Until then, I shall continue to admire the Editrix.

AustenBlog

ja-project-coverThis year we commemorate Jane Austen’s death. We certainly do not celebrate it. We feel a sense of unfairness about it, not only for our selfish sake–for being cheated out of, based on the lifespan of her parents and most of her siblings, thirty or forty years’ worth of Jane Austen novels–but naturally for Jane’s own sake. She died just before she would have reached real success–the success enjoyed by her contemporaries such as Burney, Radcliffe, and Edgeworth, all of whom she has utterly eclipsed in the intervening centuries. It is just horribly unfair. Jane gave the world such joy and never really had the opportunity to enjoy real fruits from her labor (by which we mean money. From what we can tell, Austen was never big on the whole adulation thing).

We also have great affection for time-travel stories, but within certain parameters. The method of time travel must…

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Part 2: Where’s the Library?

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The hyperbolical account of my private-school teaching job: Part 2

One afternoon, before my optimism had waned and long after good sense had taken its leave, I asked permission to take my students to the local library where we could gather and conduct research for our history reports, and was met with the response that surely they would only use the opportunity to misbehave. In spite of the many, many similar statements I had overheard or received in my time here, I was dubmfounded. What kind of a response does one give to such a presumption? I was then asked: Haven’t they already been to the library? As though one visit in a child’s educational lifetime was sufficient. Her next query was: What could they need at the library that they couldn’t find online?

No. Library trip permission denied. Better to let them use the Internet. I had no words, but if I had, they would have been of the rational variety and therefore foreign to my principal. How could a trip to the library be a waste of time? And when is preference for the Internet over real, bound books ever really given? I thought I was in the Twilight Zone and I left the principal’s office with a minor migraine brought on by illogical and insupportable educational beliefs.

The students had, however, not long before this denied request, been encouraged to attend the field trip to Microsoft in Redmond. It was a field trip that had been discussed with the Math and Science teachers but that had (strangely enough) not reached the ears or email inboxes of the English/History and Logic teachers–that is, my husband and myself.  It seems we were somehow responsible for this oversight, and instead of an apology for the lack in communication were told we needed to be more flexible. It was, after all, Microsoft. One must show due respect. Even students who had no intention whatever of working there were bundled into the van and taken away. I was left subbing for the science teacher and my husband had wasted an afternoon prepping for a class he did not need to teach.

It was clear that reading, language, literature, or appreciation for any of these subjecs had not really the top priority and were, furthermore, culturally passé. STEM was the big thing now, and Engineering and Math were about to break out and make winners of us all. Art, though a cornerstone of classical learning, was relegated to an elective for the junior high or high school and was given the same credence, or even less credence than the before-school coding class. The sciences, including STEM, were the sexy subjects, and therefore got more air time and attention. Literature, on the other hand, held a certain degree of danger, possessed too much free thought, perhaps, to be given its due and given its head.

My subjects: writing, reading, discussion, were all crammed into one 50-minute period a day which was often borne into by delayed lunches, student council, or a variety of ‘pull-out’ reasons. Math, on the other hand, was never cancelled, even on half-days and was given a full hour to show it our allegiance. Anyone who was late to math had to have a good reason; anyone late to English (or History) was probably helping change a lightbulb and was summarily excused.

Part 1: Perils of Informality

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The hyperbolical account of my private-school teaching job: Part 1

For a couple of years I worked for the small private Christian school here on the Island. Its name isn’t important, but its denominational association grew in significance the longer I taught there. The school was run by the Assemblies of God (AG) church and many of its denominational principles could be seen in the administrative decisions and in the overall structure of the school. One such principle was that of informality, of a kind of ‘pal’ or ‘buddy’ relationship that could be seen everywhere: in the emails, in the meetings, and even in the décor and use of space within the building itself. It was this infernal informality that ultimatey drove me to doubt every tenent of education I’d ever held and eventually got me, not exactly ‘fired’, but ‘let go’ from the institution. It is likely that my orthodox beliefs—both in theology and in education—also had something to do

with it. But then, what is orthodox if not formal?

This pal-around school was also what is popularly known, with varying degrees of meaning, as a ‘Christian Classical school’ where—at least in theory, and in this instance, only in theory—principles of classical education are put to work. The principles of classicism are somewhat wide-ranging in this day and age, but essentially they operate on what is known as the Trivium, a laddered and multi-layered approach to learning that encompasses the stages of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

From the grammar stage, which is also called the ‘poll parrot’ stage because it involves lots of memorization and ‘parroting-back’ of information, one moves into the logic stage, in which one learns not merely fallacies and how to spot them, but also formal logic and what Aristotle meant by ‘argument’. One then rounds this out with the rhetoric stage wherein language becomes ever-more significant and the art of speaking is raised to an appreciated level. One begins to see the need for formality here, but for now we shall continue on without editorial.

These stages—grammar, logic, rhetoric—are roughly coordinated with the Elementary, Junior High and High School levels, respectively, but grammar, logic and rhetoric are, as one who has any experience with classical learning will attest, also stages within a subject, and form the framework for further growth in that subject. That is: even history has a ‘grammar’, as does art, music, and science. One will not be ready to move to the logic stage in anything without an understanding of its grammar, which includes vocabulary and terminology as well as the rudimentary forms of its outline or foundation. The rhetoric or discussion stage similarly depends upon the logic stage having been completed and more or less grasped, as no one wants to engage in dialogue with someone who cannot follow an argument or present a valid point.

So briefly—very briefly—those are the principles of classicism and they form and have formed the basis of scholarship in the West for centuries. It is the education even Tolkien and Lewis were given before they became Oxford and Cambridge Dons, so there’s something. It is only relatively recently that the ‘classical model’ was abandoned in favor of a more modernized, and one might even say progressive model that includes psychology, genre literature (sci-fi studies, for example), and film studies. Even shop and woodworking are more classical than one might at first imagine. But the classical model, as you will notice, places great emphasis on language—even in the maths and sciences—for each of these stages reflects an aspect of writing, speech, or thought. Grammar, logic, rhetoric: linguistically-based elements, to be sure, and vital if one is going to take this classical learning thing seriously.

And yet, at the classical school at which I worked, I rarely saw examples of this emphasis on language anywhere, even in language arts or English classes. There was no school library, something which to this day sends shock waves through my system, and what books there were at the school were often tucked away, or consciously stacked or carefully monitored within classrooms. As an aside, students were not allowed to read Harry Potter, despite the overwhelming number of classical references in each of its seven massive volumes. This decision was based on the Evangelical belief that Harry was about witches, and not about the battle between good and evil, ultimately won by a Christ-figure. But no matter. This deficiency baffled me, however, and I began to seek ways in which to surround my students with literature in spite of the obvious roadblocks before me.

I brought in my own volumes and collected copies of classics I’d found in the various thrift shops or cupboards around the school. I had a small bookshelf that looked, if not like a library, then at least like a solid collection. The anthology we used was massive, but I liked it, as it portrayed the weight of knowledge and contained an impressive and respectable collection of works from Gilgamesh to Sir Gawain. I would win everyone over with literature and good books. It was silly of me to think this way, I know, and even sillier to think anyone would understand, let alone condone these thoughts and actions, but I am not known for my good sense in regards to placating the illitarate, and so I continued my mission, not realizing I was being slowly beaten down by my own optimism and intelligence.

In presenting my plan for a 4-year high school Humanities curriculum the previous summer I had genuinely struggled to accurately convey the importance of reading and the correlation of English to History to Art to Science. I had made charts and provided relevant materials. I had shown in my findings and research that the significance of mere exposure to the classics, such as The Odyssey, Beowulf, great poetry, and philosophical and theological writings was the basis of classical education and that it could be done, even at our small school. These ideas were accepted on the surface as good ideas, and ones that other classical schools embraced, but the more I talked, the smaller I felt, and when I was told that most of our students wind up going to Running Start after 10th grade, I suspected my words were falling on deaf ears, but even I did not have eyes to see. I should have run—not walked!—to the nearest fire exit and barred the door behind me, but I have a miserable tendency to latch on and hang on to things pertaining to literature, even when those things happen to destroy that which I love.

It is now rather clear to me that language, including literature, simply possesses too much formality. It is not something that transfers well to ‘quips’ or looks good in a devotional journal. It is rather difficult to ‘sum up’ classical literature unless one has studied it quite thoroughly and has paid attention. Who understands a good Odysseus joke who does not know Odysseus?