09 Nov

The cloud of witnesses

I have never been much  of a one for praying to the saints. Not that anyone should pray to the saints anyhow, but instead ask for their intercession. I do say the Marian prayers, such as the Ave Maria gratia plena. And I take much encouragement from the verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews which says, Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.

And when I seek help from this cloud of witnesses, I don’t confine my search to the saints who occupy the Red Letter days. I talk to a great variety of dead people and I believe they talk to me and that:

The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

I have talked to Mozart since I first heard one of his piano sonatas when I was thirteen. And the music answers. I feel certain that Mozart is always close by and that he has been very close on many occasions in my life, for example at my Ordination in 1970. This took place in my own parish church of St Bartholomew, Armley, Leeds with 800 people in the congregation including many of my family and friends, people I had grown up with. It was, to say the least, an affecting occasion. All the more so then when I was handed a chalice brimful and told to administer it to a section of that vast congregation. I had to walk from the altar, down through the chancel and into the nave. I was doing pretty well until the choir began Mozart’s Ave Verum K.618 – the motet he composed in Baden, where his wife was taking the waters, in the afternoon of 5th July 1791. Fear and trembling. I managed somehow not to spill the sacramental wine.

I talk to St Augustine and he answers in the words of his Civitas Dei which are as pertinent to our age as they were in his for, as C.H.Sisson wrote, Augustine  attracts us because he lived through times which were very much like our times – and rejected them.

Dr Johnson tells me about the fear and love of God. R.G. Collingwood taught me metaphysics. Coleridge reassures me regularly that I am not alone in feeling frail. Schopenhauer comes along now and then and shows me how to make philosophical jokes. Shakespeare for terror and pity. Giotto for making visible what otherwise would have remained invisible: Christ on the cross. Eliot for holy dread in the rhythms of the English language: Come with me under the shadow of this red rock… 

Eliot for pretty much everything actually.

By the way, the original Greek word translated as witnesses in that Epistle to the Hebrews is marturwn – martyrs.

And not one of them a suicide bomber.

18 Oct

Escape from the ideas factory

Recently I wrote a piece about the impenetrable pedant Peter Strawson and received a comment from a friend, a literary critic. He said he had some history with Strawson who had once told him he shouldn’t write about the jargonising linguistics guru Noam Chomsky because he, my friend, is not a professional in the study of linguistics. I shall refer to this as the Academic Fallacy – the notion that those formerly referred to as “scholars” but now as “academics” each has his own “field” or “specialism” and he should not stray beyond it. Well, I admit there are specialities: quantum physics for example or endocrinology. But if a man writes about the use of words – as Chomsky does – then anyone else who is a competent user of words must be allowed to comment on what is being said. The test is not based on what academic faculty a commentator hails from, but the sense of what is being said.

The definition of an academic is someone whose mind is so fine that it has never been penetrated by a single idea, and consequently academic prose is the death of thought. There is a widespread superstition that some people are so clever that no one can understand them. Rowan Williams’ groupies frequently give him as an example. But Williams deserves the Regius Professorship of Obscurantism or to be head honcho in the Circumlocution Office. It is said of him that he speaks ten foreign languages; and indeed he writes English as if it were one of them. This belief that some people are so clever that they are beyond our ken is part of the Academic Fallacy: for the mark of cleverness is the ability to make oneself understood. It is erroneously imagined that there are such objects as “ideas” which may subsequently be “put into words.” Not so. The words themselves, in the order in which they are spoken, are  the ideas – because the choice of words determines what is being said. There is no distinction between the substance of a piece of writing and the style in which it is written – as if style were some sort of additional ornamentation.  A good style simply means clarity and immediacy of expression. Style and idea are one and the same. the word made flesh. And you can achieve style only by the constant effort to think clearly. Williamsese exists because the former Archbishop’s mind is a muddle.

Orwell – he was talking about politics but what he says applies to literary endeavour in all its forms – satirised academic prose. He took the sparse line from Ecclesiastes: “I looked and saw…” and translated it into academy-spk: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion…” Too many people aspire to write in the putrescent style of that translation.

The best writers never were or are academics. They were learned and wise, which is not at all the same thing. In better days, we referred to them as men of letters. Francis Bacon in his Essays; George Berkeley in Three Dialogues; Newman in his Apologia. T.S. Eliot, R.G.Collingwood and Ian Robinson in everything they produced. Women of letters too. Jane Austen; George Eliot (except when she is tempted to write the positivist utopia); Christina Rossetti; Janet Frame and Muriel Spark. But not Elizabeth Anscombe who complicates and so corrupts the obsessively subtle Wittgenstein or Hilary Mantel who renders Thomas Cromwell as if he were already the leading man in a Sunday night adaptation on BBC2.

In The Book of Common Prayer, truth is delivered with sublime simplicity: “With this ring I thee wed”; “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live…” The divine economy in words of one syllable.

Here’s a bit of Robinson to end with:

“The world is not the same as planet earth; astronauts take the world with them. The world is made by and made up of human beings, in co-operation, I believe, with the divine. About that, Professor Hawking has nothing to say. He has therefore no grounds for declaring either any particular thing, or everything, either significant or insignificant.” Holding the Centre by Ian Robinson.

29 Sep

Lefties, letters and lit crit

Why the persistence of this delusion that good writing flourishes when there is a left wing government?

In a recent article about Anthony Burgess, Irvine Welsh writes, “There are notable exceptions, but generally speaking the embracement of a reductive conservative political philosophy seldom heralds an era of flowering for an artist.”

I can attach no meaning to his use of the word “reductive,” but Welsh is certainly right about the notable exceptions. Plato under the rule of a strict oligarchy. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in Tsarist Russia. Nietzsche under Bismarck. Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis and T.E. Hulme all wrote in a very conservative period. Sisson says somewhere that, in paying due respect to such fine writers as these, the lefty critics always feel somehow they have to make excuses for their politics as if this were some sort of inexplicable lapse. Do the lefties never notice that it was these conservatives who did the really original work in the English literature  of the 20th century? They don’t come much more conservative than Pound and his slogan was “Make it new.” There is a good reason for the fact that it is the conservatives who are actually the avant garde. For conservatives are traditionalists and it is only those who understand tradition who can develop the tradition. Has Welsh not read Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent – an essay which discusses precisely this truth?

Most of the world’s great literature – and its music and visual art – was published under “reductive” dictatorships. Or are we to imagine that Bach lived on hand-outs from The Arts Council?

Welsh says, ”Burgess read, wrote, drank gin… lambasting socialist Britain with its high rates of taxation. For this we must forgive him.”

These are words spoken from a very great height and I must say it is unusual to hear absolution pronounced by a leftie lit crit with such a restricted awareness of what actually goes on in the world of English letters.

One thing is clear though: Welsh, as a writer, is the living refutation of his own argument.

23 Jun

Prophets & Visionaries, a new book by Peter Mullen

Prophets & Visionaries: Writers of Judgement by Peter Mullen (Published by RoperPenberthy £9.99)

Prophets & Visionaries consists of eight extended critical essays on eight acknowledged thinkers and masters of English prose: Samuel Johnson; S.T Coleridge; John Henry Newman; G.K. Chesterton; T.E. Hulme; T.S. Eliot; R.G. Collingwood and C.H. Sisson. (2014 is the centenary of Sisson’s birth). Each chapter is an introduction and commentary on its subject’s contribution to English literature, philosophy and theology. But these essays are not merely historical studies detailing things which belong in the past. Rather they bring out the extraordinary relevance of these great writers to contemporary life, thought and politics.

“This is a book written by one who has so mastered the material that he can go to the heart of the matter. In truth, learning worn lightly” – Rev’d Dr Aidan Nichols OP

“In his own perceptive and inimitable way, Peter Mullen has produced a compendium of British thinkers of the first rank. All of these, in one way or another, have upheld the vital importance of the Judaeo-Christian tradition for all that is true and good about these islands and the people who live in them. The distortions of the tradition, over the course of history, and its more recent abandonment, should not blind us to its reality as the ground and informing principle of the State, Law, values and virtues in this nation. Its reaffirmation is undoubtedly needed for the moral and spiritual renewal which is so necessary if we are to resist the dangers with which we are beset” – The Rt Rev’d Dr Michael Nazir-Ali

“The kind of modernity here scrutinised through the eyes of some of its most mordant and insightful critics, from Coleridge to Sisson, claims to be self-consciously reflective, creative and boundary-breaking, whereas it is in practice a new Establishment peddling its own taken for granted assumptions by rote and setting limits on the things one is allowed to think and say. The word for this is hegemony and Peter Mullen’s lively and engaging study, by judicious selection and wide-ranging quotation, provides a thematic index or aide-memoire on how to puncture its pretensions” – Professor Rev’d David Martin

Rev’d Dr Peter Mullen in a Church of England priest with experience in town, country, schools and university, most recently as Rector of St Michael’s Cornhill in the City of London. He is Chaplain to several City livery companies. The author of more than forty books, including poems, novels and short stories as well as theology, philosophy and music criticism, Peter Mullen is available for interviews and may be contacted through his publisher or directly at: 3 Naomi Close Eastbourne BN20 7UU

Phone: 01323-655832 peter77mullen@gmail.com

08 May

Government-sponsored Nihilism

Russell Brand, Caitlin Moran and Dizzee Rascal are to be added to the A-level syllabus. Brand’s 2012 testimony on drug use to a House of Commons committee will be in an A-level in English language and literature course in a development dreamed up by the exam board and the educational charity, The English and Media Centre. It will sit alongside Caitlin Moran’s Twitter feed, the BBC Newsnight interview with rapper Dizzee Rascal and the work of former Guardian columnist The Secret Footballer.  News of these innovations has already provoked members of the Department for Education to denounce the new syllabus: “It is immensely patronising to young people to claim that they will only engage with English language and literature through celebrities such as Russell Brand”, said a senior source in the department.

I read about all this in The Guardian which, in a spot of dumbing down all of its own, asked its readers to email and tweet to say whether they think these additions to the A-level are “a rubbish idea or a total genius.”I’ve no doubt that the journalist who “wrote” that phrase would defend himself by claiming he was being “ironic.”

The Guardian went on to say that accusations of dumbing down are “hysterical.” (I wonder if they meant that word to be taken in the ironic sense too?) Of course there has been relentless dunbing down for forty years and more. The A-level examining boards know it. I have some experience: some years ago when I was commissioned to write an article for The Times Educational Supplement on the subject, I had the very devil of a job trying to get the various boards to let me – purchase, not borrow – past papers for comparison. That was twenty years ago. I thought things were bad then but, to imitate The Guardian’s faux-proletarian “irony,” the syllabus was “total genius” in those days, but now it is “a rubbish idea.” If I may go back to the olden days, when I was studying for English literature A-level, we were required to have detailed textual knowledge of three Shakespeare plays – and if you were after top marks, you had to show a background acquaintance with the whole canon. Candidates were expected to be able to quote poetry from memory. And we were asked to read the whole of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall as well as verses by the metaphysical poets John Donne and Andrew Marvell.

Standards were incomparably higher all across the curriculum at primary as well as secondary stages. I attended a sort of Bash Street junior school in Leeds in the 1950s. There were forty in the (working class) class and we were learning clause analysis at the age of ten. In O-level maths we studied the binomial theorem and the beginnings of the differential calculus. In O-level RE we had show an understanding of the synoptic problem involving the first three gospels

Most teachers couldn’t do this stuff nowadays, let alone the pupils.

The government and the mass media go in for dumbing down for two reasons. First, they are pretty dumb themselves and know nothing of the intellectual tradition of the West – and what little of it they have stumbled across (in the interstices between pop music and fashion) they despise: “Shakespeare not ‘accessible’ to ‘kids.’ Eliot ‘elitist’ and so on.” Secondly, they have a vested interest in doing as little as possible to sharpen the critical faculties of the barbaric drones who constitute the underclass. Nobody has described the chronology of our demise better than R.G. Collingwood:

“From Plato onwards, Graeco-Roman society spent its life in a rear-guard action against emotional bankruptcy. The critical moment was reached when Rome created an urban proletariat whose only function was to eat free bread and watch free shows. This meant the segregation of an entire class which had no work to do whatever; no positive function in society, whether economic or military or administrative or intellectual or religious; only the business of being supported and being amused. When that had been done, it was only a question of time until Plato’s nightmare of a consumers’ society came true; the drones set up their own king and the story of the hive came to an end…”

01 May

Not much life in Llareggub

The BBC are making a great fuss about Dylan Thomas’ centenary. Well, he is their sort of poet: a sort of confused flashiness which causes innocent readers – in Thomas’ and the BBC’s case, more likely to be hearers – a great deal of excitement. C.H. Sisson says of him, “Words are hurled around in a way which does not make much sense, and the confusion is attributed to poetic force. He was boring. A creator of deliberate wonders.” I think we should take Thomas at his own self-assessment: “I’m a freak user of words, not a poet.” The harbinger of much subsequent pretentiousness. One of his most admired stanzas is:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the lig

Upon which fatuity D.J. Enright comments gloriously: “Like saying, ‘Now father, pull yourself together, get out of bed and stomp around the bedroom even if it kills you!’”

So much fuss about…well, Llareggub really.

18 Apr

Magic realism

Don’t let the fact that Gabriel Garcia Marquez (RIP) is extravagantly praised by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and a shoal of lefty South American politicos put you off reading his novels. But, among the justified tributes to Marquez, some very misleading things are being said. Principally that, with Borges, he was the founder of magic realism – a style of writing fiction which mixes together mundane reality and magic, the supernatural, elements of the fairy tale and so on. The genre has often been linked with surrealism and especially with Salvador Dali.

But the founder of magic realism?

For this we must go back somewhat further than the life of Marquez. Thomas Mann was an early practitioner. And so was Hermann Hesse in those enchanting and magical novels Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game and Narcissus and Goildmund. We might think also of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and his novella Victoria. Then there were the German poets such as Klopstock, so enthusiastically taken up by Gustav Mahler – a magical realist if ever there was one.

But even these writers were latecomers on the scene. I’ve mentioned fairy tales and these – particularly in the collection by the brothers Grimm – are surely the origin of the genre of magic realism? In these we have ordinary life penetrated and suffused in the supernatural: witches cast their spells; goblins and pixies appear in forests which are at once natural and unnatural; people have their heads cut off and yet can still run around.

Marquez was an interesting writer and deserves to be read but when it comes to magic realism, he didn’t start it. Perhaps the serious critics will mention this fact. So far we have heard only from the newspapers and the golly-gosh arts commentators at the BBC. These types are renowned both for hyperbole and their extremely short memories.