I'm reading a few books at the moment, some from a treasure trove of cheap classics I picked up at a friendly bookstore called "The Friendly Bookstore". Used book shops are one of life's great pleasures and I always end up staying longer than I had planned to... they are a major time sink, and so I don't visit them often. I've been working on The Divine Comedy, but it's slow going.
I'm also reading a couple of books that I got for Christmas; G.K. Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas - The Dumb Ox and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion.
St. Thomas Aquinas
As with some other of Chesterton's books, I find that if I read about a third or maybe half the book, set it aside for a few weeks and then start reading it again, I am much better able to find his voice and settle into the mental groove he seems to have wanted to establish. I find this true for some other authors, as well, but with Chesterton it is pretty consistent. For this reason, I would encourage anyone who has had a bit of a hard time with Orthodoxy or The Everlasting Man and so on, to keep at it and give it another go.
With Orthodoxy, in particular, I had read it cover to cover, thought it was a good book and that I got the gist of it pretty well, until I picked it up a couple of years later and new insights and connections seemed to leap off the page. It was much more profound than I had gathered from my first reading. I still pick it up often, though I have practically memorized great swaths of it (not that I could recite verbatim from memory, but give me an opening line and I could probably come close).
This is my second time through for St. Thomas Aquinas, and I'm enjoying it a great deal. Some excerpts so far;
In comparing the vastly different temperaments of St. Francis and St. Thomas, Chesterton writes;
This is great to keep in mind, because "saint" is just a word for what we all are striving to be every day. If you believe in Christ, you are called to be a saint, period. What is sometimes overlooked in the imitation of Christ is that as we fulfill more completely God's will for us and become more like Christ, we also become more and more authentically ourselves. As we grow in faith, hope and love, it becomes possible and even desirable to give more free reign to those quirks of personality that define us all as individuals, and that are part of the natural gifts God gave us at birth.
St. Thomas was, in G.K.C.'s words, "...fat and slow and quiet; very mild and magnanimous, but not very sociable..." whereas St. Francis was "...so fiery and even fidgety that the ecclesiastics, before whom he appeared quite suddenly, thought he was a madman.".
The thing being, of course, that this huge difference, this gulf between the two men's personailties is okay. We don't have to believe that one mode is better than the other. Not one of us could display all the various gifts of temperament and personality that God has to bestow (which may partly explain why it has been His good pleasure to make so many of us), and it would be harmful and counterproductive to try. I am more naturally like St. Thomas, and if had taken St. Francis as a role model and doggedly tried to live like he lived and act like he acted, my mind would probably have imploded from the unnatural effort and strain.
Of the saint's role in society, Chesterton goes on to say;
Mistaken for a poison because in many cases the saint is like an emetic. Necessary, but not at all pleasant in the experience. I think of the example of Mother Teresa and how totally in opposition her life was to the materialistic and consumerist society of the modern West. This earned her both great admiration and great animosity. Christopher Hitchens hated her with such a preternatural hatred that he wrote a book about what an awful monster he thought she was. He is absolutely repulsed by her.
I look forward to finishing this book and then reading it again a few times!
Tolkien's Silmarillion is a a singular sort of book. When he tells a backstory, he really goes all out. The Silmarillion is an account of the history of Middle Earth before the time in which Tolkien set his stories which are so well known and loved, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
But to call it a history would be a bit of an understatement, as the book is a ficticicious account of the entire existence of Middle Earth, back to its creation and before, to the beginning of time, and before that to, well, God's Great Eternity.
One interesting aspect of the book is that, though Tolkien is famously known to have disliked allegory (which he states plainly in the preface to the book), the early and very significant chapters of the book are clearly allegorical... Iluvatar is God, Melkor is Lucifer (who starts a rebellion in heaven the Timeless Halls among the angels Ainur), etc...
This allegorical sense dissipates pretty quickly as the story progresses, though, and soon Tolkien begins to work out these spiritual themes in deeply imaginative ways.
Tolkien even makes a kind of apology in the preface for using allegorical language at all, but I don't see why. Then again, I don't see why he thought so little of allegory. Maybe it was just a matter of personal taste, though he treats it as something more significant. He sees a weakness in allegory, I think, that keeps a writer or artist from really exploring the deepest themes of the work at hand.
Still, there is a great deal of insight in Tolkien's allegorical tale of In The Beginning, and he explores the sin of Lucifer through the actions of Melkor in making the music of Iluvatar... the sin of Pride.;
...He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Iluvatar took no thought for the void, and he was impatient of its emptiness.
This, for me, touches on my discomfort with the modern idea (where art is concerned) of creating as God creates, ex nihilo. Yes, we are made in his image, and have a share in all of His attributes, but being made in His image we are made to reflect His glory, and it is impossible to establish any glory or beauty apart from Him.
Because God is God, all his works reflect some aspect of his glory; the clouds, the sea, the grass, the swirling galaxies... each one is a palpable expression of some tiny sliver of the character of God, and the whole universe together expresses only a tiny sliver of His glory and creativity. He speaks in and through all these things, as St. Paul and the Psalmists attest.
It seems to me that many modern artists seek to establish - from scratch, and unrelated to anything outside itself - a new creation, as a channel for their own voice.
It might help to use a musical example. The musical scale, the relationships of notes that form harmonies and discord, seem to come to us from beyond ourselves. Rhythm, as well. Man seems not so much to have invented music as to have discovered it. God invented both rythm and harmony and gave them to us as gifts. It is a universal constant among human beings (though with wide variation). Different cultures may prefer different rhythms and harmonies, but everyone likes the idea of rythm and harmony.
That is, until the twentieth century, when a few academics decided that rhythm (time signatures) and harmony and fixed scales were holding back the real, full expression of musical freedom, and started to write music that was intentionally atonal and arhythmic. Some, like Schoenberg, even wrote music for orchestral groups in which the instrumental parts had no relation to one another, but each instrument pursued its own rhythm-less and tone-less wandering.
Not surprisingly, this music sounds exactly like chaos, as if a group of random people waiting at a bus stop had been selected to come in and noodle around on some very expensive orchestral instruments for half an hour. In other words, it's not music. I don't care if Schoenberg was considered a genius, I don't care how long and hard he labored or how many people he supposedly influenced... his work (at least his atonal work) has no worth as music at all. As for the experience of listening to it, it runs the gammut of human emotions from anxiety to depression and back. Who voluntarily listens to this stuff? Do people play it in their cars? Does any sane person sit down in a comfy chair at the end of a long day, put on their headphones and listen to Schoenberg? God help them if they do. I would throw myself out a window.
And this is analogous, I would argue, to so much that has gone on in modern visual art. It is not only not art, but is anti-art, eschewing any discernible structure of meaning, without rhythm or harmony, passing off random or nonsensical relationships as something beautiful and profound.
But what about clouds and rocks and and other random things in nature? Aren't they beautiful? The mistake there is in believing that these things are random (which comes from a deeply ingrained materialist mindset), but the greater mistake is to forget that God made these things and that He is able to infuse all his work with profundity and glory in a way we simply cannot. For our work to have any worth at all, it must in some sense reflect His glory, and that means reflecting those things he has created... if not physical things, than at least things like pattern and rhythm and structure and harmony. Every civilization before ours (and ours, too) knew these things intuitively and utilized them in all their decorative arts. In the last hundred years, though, there came the idea that destruction and discord and decay were the real art, because they passed beyond the "restrictions" of conventional art.
Earlier generations of artists built on the foundations established by previous artists and broke convention in order to establish better conventions. The modern art movement made the breaking out the entire point, not caring whether they broke out into a void or into a sewer. When the musician is so determined to be free that he frees himself from music, what is he any longer? What is it he is working at?