Upcoming Discussions

Friday, 8/11/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Nathan Hill, THE NIX (2016)

 

THOMAS HARDY, THEN AND NOW

Friday, 9/15/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), first half

Friday, 9/29/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE (1878), second half

Friday, 10/20/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Damian Wilkins, MAX GATE (2016)

Friday, 11/10/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Thomas Hardy, TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES (1891)

Friday, 12/8/2017, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Christopher Nicholson, WINTER (2016)

 

THE WINTER NOVEL

Friday, 1/12/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

TBD

Friday, 1/26/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

TBD

Friday, 2/9/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

TBD

Friday, 2/23/2018, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

TBD

Thursday
Feb102011

Trollope, the Church of England, and the Evangelicals

If the Tractarians were battering the Church of England from the "right" by the time Trollope began to write THE WARDEN in 1855 (see the post below this one), the church was even more beset on the so-called "left flank" by the burgeoning evangelical movement.

Evangelical Protestantism has a long tradition in Great Britain, extending further back than Henry VIII's rupture with the Papacy (1534), back at least into the so-called "High" Middle Ages--that is, the 1300s, with John Wycliffe and his calls to translate the Bible into the "common tongue."

Wycliffe was intent on getting the Bible into as many hands as he could because he believed the individual, guided by the Holy Spirit, had the best chance of interpreting the text on his own (and the gender here is important because very, very few felt women capable of interpreting the Bible on their own, especially after all that Eve business back in the Garden of Eden). You can see that we today might hold to similar beliefs, if not of the Bible, at least in the act of "personal interpretation" for texts. Much of our modern thought sprang from past religious movements and controversies. Yes, some of Wycliffe's thinking was quite magical--as if God's hand guided a person to certain verses. Other bits, however, were far more political, far more within what would eventually become the mainstream--for example, the individual stands on equal footing with the priests, deacons, and even bishops in the church (which was at the time an arm of the state).

Unfortunately, Great Britain also had a long history of persecuting and even martyring evangelical Protestants, even those that four hundred years later began flocking to the itinerant preacher John Wesley.

Considered one of the founders of the Methodists, Wesley believed that the most important moment was when an individual confronted God outside any formal, hierarchical, established structures. This was a moment of what he called "prevenient grace." Today, we know this as the moment of conversion--or of being "born again." Wesley rejected the predestination of the Calvinists and instead believed that a person's free will could alone direct the soul into a confrontation with God--almost always a cathartic moment.

For Wesley, and indeed for almost all evangelicals for centuries, conversion at its heart is not an instance of reason but instead an out-pouring of the emotions. Yes, there have been evangelicals who try to institute reason into the faith--C. S. Lewis, for example. But they have been the minority voices in a movement largely based on conversion-by-tears. The unbeliever is confronted with his or her own past sins, trembles and pleads for redemption, at last accepts Christ's death as a personal sacrificial substitute, and is finally brought to peace by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Thus, evangelical hymns are largely about emotions ("Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"); sermons involve what we now might call "fire and brimstone."

For our purposes, the key thing is the way faith is centered on the emotions--because this outburst of fevered piety is an act of individualism, a personal act, an act outside the formal structures of the church. You can have it without a priest present. You can see why Archdeacon Grantly would be so concerned.

In the early Victorian years, evangelicalism in Great Britain was spearheaded by William Wilburforce, one of the most influential members of Parliament. He left an astonishing legacy of legal accomplishments: the founding of the Society for Suppression of Vice, the creation of the free African colony of Sierra Leone, and the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But his most lasting legacy, made law only three days before his death, was the abolition of slavery in almost every part of the British Empire.

As in the United States, the evangelicals were the abolitionists. (As you can see, modern political "sides" make little sense in the past.) And thus, that reform spirit that so fills John Bold in THE WARDEN is an inkling of evangelicalism, of individual piety. As his sister, Mary, asks him in chapter 6, "And why are you to do this, John?" To which he replies: "You might ask that same question of anybody else . . . and according to that, the duty of righting these poor men would belong to nobody. If we are to act on that principle, the weak are never to be protected, injustice is never to be opposed, and no one is to struggle for the poor!" As the text goes on to say, "Bold began to comfort himself in the warmth of his own virtue." Note that: the warmth. It's an emotional plea to a social injustice--the very heart of the evangelical project, even among the abolitionists.

After Wilburforce's death, his sons continued their father's crusade, believing that they were to bring evangelicalism to the upper classes in the same way that Wesley had taken it to the lower. Those who practiced such drawing-room proselytizing were often deridingly called "the nosy saints" in mid-Victorian England. However, their nosiness paid off--for what we now think of as the Victorian tendency to be so uptight was in many ways a result of the fantastic growth of evangelicalism in English-speaking countries throughout the nineteenth century.

Indeed, during the twelve years that Trollope was writing his Barset novels, these religious movements on both sides of the Church of England, the leftward evangelicals and the rightward Tractarians, became far more intense. If we get to the next novel in the series, BARCHESTER TOWERS, we'll meet an even more aggressive evangelical, Mr. Slope. Throughout Great Britain, evangelicals began to pick up academics in their ranks; John Newman wielded more influence even after his promotion to cardinal, once he publically questioned the notion of papal inerrancy, a move that endeared him to the British public.

Again, Trollope was not so much concerned with the exact nature of the religious controversy, although these two blog posts provide a bit of background on the movements mentioned in passing in the novel. Rather, he's interested in the ways people negotiate change, the ways they live their lives in the midst of societal friction. Septimus Harding is Trollope's first answer. Others will follow in the six novels of the Barset chronicles.

Tuesday
Feb082011

Trollope, the Church of England, and the Oxford Movement

Trollope's six Barset novels, of which THE WARDEN (1855) is the first, take place in an era of perhaps the greatest changes in the history of the church of England. Trollope himself was keenly aware of the conflict, although he himself was a man of nominal faith. Mostly, he was interested in the ways people negotiate social change, social friction. The church provided a unique microcosm.

It was being hit from the "left" and the "right," as it were. Although these terms make little sense based on today's political definitions, we can use them as general guides to mean those who value change over tradition (the left) and those who value tradition over change (the right), with the church of England itself in the middle.

In this post, let's talk about the challenge from the "right"--that is, the Oxford Movement, so named because it began at Oxford and was fronted by a set of dons and priests.

The nut of the whole controversy was the great political reform bills of the early 1830s, the bills that cleaned out most of the rotten boroughs, repealed some of the onerous Corn Laws, and widened the voting rights for many (male) citizens. By and large, these bills at first favored the Whigs at the expense of the Tories (and the House of Commons at the expense of the House of Lords--although the upper house was able to defeat the complete enfranchisement of the Jews several years later).

In the light of the three reform bills, society was liberalizing. And the church felt the brunt of it, as many more people suddenly found themselves with a political voice. While their representatives in Parliament were off afar in London, the people had daily access to their church, itself still considered an arm of the state. They began to work the reform spirit there. And so began the troubles as far up the chain as Canterbury and as far down as the cathedral in Trollope's fictional Barsetshire.

As a response to change, these Oxford dons were trying to return the church to its roots. They began with a theory: that the Church of England was actually one of three great branches of the "true" Christian church, with the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church in Constantinople as the other two branches. The church, you see, was tripartite, just as the Trinitarian godhead.

To bring the Church of England back in line with the other two branches, these dons and priests longed to reinstitute older practices, particularly within the liturgy. For example, they believed that the eucharist must be the central element of the church service--not the sermon or the hymns, as was slowly happening in the church because of the rise of evangelicalism (as discussed in the post above). They also believed in a sort of infallibility doctrine for the church. You can see that Archdeacon Grantly is certainly an echo, if not an outright representative, of the Oxford Movement--as is his father, the Bishop. They stand for tradition, although the Archdeacon far more militantly. But they both fear the evangelicals. As Trollope says of the Bishop in chapter 3: He "felt no doubt that John Bold, had he so much power, would shut up all cathedrals and probably all parish churches, [and] distribute all tithes among Methodists, Baptists, and other savage tribes. . . ."

To advance their claims, the Oxford men began writing a series of pamphlets entitled "Tracts for the Times"--and so picked up the nickname the "Tractarians." They were also called "Newmanites" or "Puseyites," after two of their strongest leaders, John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey. (These last two nicknames were considered slurs at the time.)

Newman's fate is indicative of the Oxford Movement. After writing his final tract, #90, he became convinced that this whole notion of the three branches of Christianity was fatally flawed. The end result? He converted to Roman Catholicism. He was quickly ordained a priest in that church--and soon enough became a cardinal. In his wake, many of the Tractarians followed suit--for example, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In their converting, the Tractarians quickly lost their influence in the Church of England. Their opponents accused them of simply being clandestine proselytizers. And with the on-going suppression of and unrest in Ireland, such notions didn't play too well back in London, where Protestant feelings were running high--or back in Canterbury, for that matter. Newman himself was sued for libel because of certain lectures he gave on anti-Catholic sentiment at the time. He was forced to pay 100 pounds--although his legal bills mounted to over 14,000 pounds, a shocking sum for the mid-nineteenth century.

One thing we should note in all this: the "right" flank in the struggle within the Church of England was dominated by priests who would be considered to the "left" politically today. While they may have wanted to institute traditional liturgy and even nudge the church closer and closer to Rome, they were proponents of left-leaning political reforms like universal suffrage. This may be because many of the Tracterian priests who remained inside the Anglican church were pushed into small parishes in run-down cities and impoverished towns. They did their work among the poor--and so became political advocates for the downcast.

So it went for one side of the controversy in the church. You'll note that their "three branches theory" left out, oh, a good third of all the Christians in England, Scotland, and Wales at the time--that is, the evangelicals, represented by Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, Anabaptists, and a host of smaller, less discreet "low churchers." (Not to mention the Calvinist Presbyterians.) The evangelical spirit is alive and well in THE WARDEN, mostly in the person of John Bold.

And so on to Trollope--whose question is, how to be true to the liturgy without tipping over into Catholicism. Or better for his purposes, how to uphold tradition while still being a liberal.

Wednesday
Feb022011

Japan in the Edo Period

David Mitchell sets THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET at a distinct moment in history. While the European influence in and on Japan was beginning to fracture (and thus wane) by the 1790s, Japanese society was at its most stable.

This was the period of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa family ruled a united Japan from 1603 until the collapse of their authority (and the end of Japanese isolation) in 1868. The family's seat of power was Edo--that is, modern-day Tokyo (as opposed to various older Japanese shrines like Osaka or tribal seats of power). And thus this period of history is sometimes referred to as "Edo Japan."

The shoguns were harsh military dictators who exerted enormous (although not always complete) influence over the ministers of justice, the military, the royal court, the imperial family, and even the emporer himself.

Before the rise of the Tokugawa family, Japan had been roiled in sectarian and tribal strife. The Tokugawa shoguns are credited with stabilizing the political structure and bringing Japan out of its version of the Dark Ages.

However, that credit is a tad misleading. Historian Edwin Reischauer has called the Edo period "centralized feudalism"--in other words, it is not a modern society as we in the West would call it but instead a sort of powerful and aggrandized Middle Ages in Japan in which the entire country operated as a fiefdom with the shogun as the lord of the manor.

Once the Tokugawa shoguns had solidified their control, they turned to confront the ever-increasing bands of European traders making their ways on shore. To do so, the shoguns focussed on Christianity as their control lever. In some ways, this was a mistake, as we'll see.

By 1622, samurai were executing missionairies. Repression became so bad that in 1637, a group of Catholic samurai (that is, Japanese warriors who had converted) rebelled against the Tokugawa shogunate and threatened to pull the country back into the religious and provincial chaos to which it had been subjected.

Intriguingly for our purposes, the reigning shogun called in the Protestant Dutch who ruthlessly put down the Catholic/samurai rebellion. As you can see, the shoguns believed that religion was a controlling lever in the Europeans' lives. Perhaps for the Catholic Portuguese, but not for the Dutch (and later English) Protestants who were already learning to sever their religion from their political and mercantile life.

The Portuguese were summarily expelled from Japan. The Dutch along with the Chinese were then instituted as the favored (that is, only) official trading partners--on the condition that the Dutch themselves never bring Christianity or any of its artifacts to Japan. The Dutch proved only too willing--and only too wily. The shoguns had imagined them cowed without their religion. The Dutch proved them wrong.

To further control the European influence, the Dutch were warehoused in trading camps like Dejima--which were little more than squalid prisons. Any other European who landed on Japanese soil was put to death without trial.

And so began the period of Japan's great isolation, lasting throughout the eighteenth century, the shoguns walling themselves and all the Japanese into higher and higher towers, attempting to keep the world at arm's length while trading with it.

In truth, the lure of profit proved too great for the shoguns. Yes, they picked a single European trading partner. But they believed in the illusion of their own control. They began trading on unmined copper and unharvested rice--in other words, futures. These proved fickle. And the economy tripped and pitched, repeatedly threatening the Dutch East India Company with insolvency.

But not all was economics. The shoguns also stabilized Japan by dividing society into four distinct, formally-recognized classes: the samurai, the peasants, the craftsmen, and the merchants. This division represented the established, legislated order--with those merchants (responsible for roiling the economy) as the bottom class, two levels below the farmer-peasants (who were much higher on the scale--and so did not foment unrest the way the underclasses did in Europe at the same time).

There was one other class, the hinan or non-humans, whose occupations (butcher, street cleaner) violated tenets of Buddhism and so were considered beyond the pale of social interaction. Otane is probably a hinan.

One more thing about Edo Japan that might interest you: by law the individual was granted no rights. Any rights were given to families as a unit, with the head of the household as the sole arbiter inside the family system (a petty shogun, as it were). Thus, you can see that Orito has no right to refuse her fate--and Uzaemon has no right to marry whom he will or do what he will. Indeed, the friction between the familial notion of rights and the individual notion of rights underlies the Japanese/Dutch conflict in the novel--and is at the heart of the perilous tragedy negotiated between Uzaemon and de Zoet.

Sunday
Jan302011

Modern Dejima

You're most likely now ensconced in the strange and compelling world David Mitchell has constructed out of the Dutch trading post in the bay off Edo-period Nagasaki.

Yes, THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET can be tough going at first. Mitchell willingly and even willfully tosses you into the story "in medias res" (that is, "in the middle of things," to use an old literary term).

You're first thrust into a shogun's palace, an imperial birthing suite, then lobbed into the hold of a Dutch merchant vessel. You nearly drown in a big cast of characters, each with already-running histories, with back stories you're clearly missing. You can't figure out who's who--or even what's what. Doctor who? Midwife what? Treason when? It all seems terribly important, life and death stuff--but who the hell are these people?

And to boot, you find yourself in a very bizarre place, even for the late eighteenth century: Dejima, the Dutch trading post constructed off-shore in Nagasaki bay so the European merchants and their hired hands would not "contaminate" Japan with Christianity.

Dejima is a real, historical place--although it is no longer an island but has been grafted onto the mainland by silt and landfill.

The Japanese government is spending a lot to revitalize Dejima, to bring it back as a national treasure. For a great website put together by the city of Nagasaki, click here. The site explains the history and the modern reconstruction of Dejima. Take some time to explore. You'll get a feel for what was surely one of the more bizarre places in what was also a bizarre moment of global history.

Wednesday
Jan052011

Enduring Insanity

As you know by now, McEwan's dreary but strangely satisfying tale turns on the diagnosis of Jed Parry's illness, on de Clérambault's syndrome. To read more about the besetting problem, please click here.

Patients with de Clérambault's are most often oddly asexual. You'll note that it's hard to claim Parry is necessarily "gay." While he says he's in love with Joe, the love remains bizarrely nonsexual. It's not squeamishness on McEwan's part. There's plenty of sex throughout the novel. Rather, it's largely in keeping with the track of the disease itself.

Some researchers have claimed that the instances of diagnosed de Clérambault's (also called "erotomania") have increased dramatically in the modern age, thanks mostly to the media-drenched world in which we live. We are encouraged from childhood to divorce our affections from real people and train them onto screens and pages. We develop deep and lasting fascinations with flickering images or photoshopped shots. Some of us then begin to interpret these bits and pieces of media as loaded with special, coded messages.

One need only think of the best-publicized case of de Clérambault's in the last half century: John Hinckley and his assassination attempt on President Reagan. If you recall, Hinckley believed he was acting on Jody Foster's telegraphed wishes, signs and symbols of which he found in her broadcast and movie images. He believed she was testing his love. Will you do this for me?