Four Women, Two Books, and Eternal Questions

Two books published in 2022, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman, and The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics, by Benjamin Lipscomb, finally give these brilliant minds their due by chronicling their friendships, conversations, disagreements, achievements, and personal affairs.

Poetry as Memoir and More

As I was reading through Richard Michelson’s new poetry collection, Sleeping as Fast as I Can, recently published by Slant Books, I felt I was reading his memoir. Not in a chronological sense—but because so many of the poems narrate or evoke events in his life. As he says in “Literature of the Body,” “But here I am, quiet / as death, writing my life, and sleeping as fast as I can.”

Nudged Not Commanded by the Ten

On Shavuot, a few weeks from now, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, I want to stand at Sinai. But if I haven’t joined those taken out of Egypt, how can I? And do I really want to be present for the divine revelation? Do I really want to feel commanded not nudged, as I mostly do now, by Jewish law, to, say, keep the Sabbath?

Eugene Vodolazkin’s New Middle Ages

The Ukrainian-Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, an Orthodox Christian and professional medievalist, is preoccupied by history. A History of the Island is Vodolazkin’s latest novel to be translated into English and the most overtly concerned with the idea of history. I’m not sure I would describe any of Vodolazkin’s work as historical fiction. I would call it revisionary, allegorical, and neomedieval.

Little Dogs

I’ve always liked the paintings and really all the art of Spaniard Joan Miró. You could call the art Surrealist and Miró was undoubtedly part of the Surrealist movement and spent much time with the French Surrealists and that’s an undeniable part of art history. Still those kinds of categorizations only get you so far. Myself, I like to think of Miró as an earthist. This is not such a facile term and I apologize for it.

A Novel of Misreadings: Jane Austen’s Emma

I love Jane Austen’s Emma so much that I re-read it every few years. During my most recent re-reading, I noticed something that I hadn’t quite gotten my mind around previously: this is a novel about how people misread one another. Misreading indeed drives the plot of Emma. Austen’s other novels usually contain a misreading or two—but none make it core to the book as Emma does.

Tolle! Lege!

In her new books The Scandal of Holiness and Reading for the Love of God, Jessica Hooten Wilson writes as a lifelong Christian to other Christians. She would like more people who profess the faith to immerse themselves in reading works of imaginative literature. This duology is part of new widespread interest in Great Books curricula.

On Idols, Art, Doubt, Broken Tablets, Writing, Reading, Hearts

Lo yadanu. “We do not know what has happened to him.” Moses, that is. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him’” (Gen 32:1).

Vergil and the Glory of Reading

Some months ago I decided to read Vergil’s Aeneid, all of it, in Latin. A rash idea, given my spotty knowledge of the language. But curiosity and the uneasiness of having missed some essential wisdom by not having met the Aeneid in Latin drove me on.

Inheritance and the Internet

Everything is connected in the end. That’s the sober pronouncement made near the conclusion, on page 826, of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, in which the resolutely anti-modern, paranoid nun Sister Edgar arrives in the afterlife to find herself in an eternal cyberspace, instead of what she’d expected of heaven, alongside J. Edgar Hoover, her philosophical twin. The conclusion manages to be both ominous and incantatory all at once; grim and yet hopeful.

How Intelligent (and Conscious and Sentient) is Artificial Intelligence?

Blake Lemoine, the now (in)famous engineer at Google, had a conversation last year with LaMDA, Google’s version of the now (in)famous new generation of chatbots. He released a transcript of some parts of the conversation as evidence that the machine learning tool had become effectively sentient. That was the first shot. Lemoine’s conclusion was mostly ridiculed.

Chatting with ChatGPT

I can’t remember exactly what my sister and I were talking about on the phone when she suggested that I might find it interesting to look into ChatGPT, which went public just this past November. It could have been when I was telling her about this blog, with its focus on literature and language—and she mentioned the OpenAI language models. Whatever the prompt was, I did open a ChatGPT account. I was curious to see what chatting with ChatGPT would be like.

The Spirit of Fantasy and the Sense of Place

One of the reasons I’m drawn to fantasy is that I believe it offers the deepest sense of place that art can express. The criterion of fantasy is geographical. Fantasy is that form of storytelling which engages with the world that in the West for almost the past thousand years has been called Faerie (variously spelled). Faerie both is and is not this Earth.

An Intimacy Made Possible by Distance

In my imagination, a vav lives in me. I visualize it, the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, along the length of my spine. The other letters of the tetragrammaton, too: yud, the 10th letter, rising like the small flame of an eternal light from the crown of my head; hey, the fifth letter, its roof stretching across my shoulders and its walls protecting each side of my torso, and, following vav, the second hey, its upper line resting on my hips, and its two parallel lines running down the sides of my legs.

Down on the Farm

Some months ago, I overheard two writers whose work I admire conversing about what makes subject matter—the stuff writers write about—interesting. I’m sure it was rude of me to eavesdrop. “Eavesdropping”— a fabulous word in itself— calls to mind someone lurking unseen, intent on overhearing what’s being said around the corner. It’s the vehicle of mysteries and comedies, depending on how much one overhears and in what context. Without eavesdropping, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing would be a plotless bore.

Intertwining Rhymes

I’m always a bit in awe of poems where the rhymes intertwine. By “intertwine,” I mean that there’s rhyme-linkage between stanzas. (We could just as well call it interlocking or interlacing rhyme.) Of course the locus classicus for intertwining rhymes is the terza rima that Dante invented in The Divine Comedy.

The Theater of the World

Jane Clark Scharl’s one-act play Sonnez les Matines has just been published by Wiseblood Books. It is with some trepidation that I venture to say anything about drama. I don’t know that I’ve ever studied drama properly. What I mean is that I’ve always studied it as literature. Judging by the paucity of drama I’ve engaged with in the eleven years of post-secondary literary education I’ve received, there would seem to be something like a consensus that drama isn’t exactly literature.

Crosby, Angels, Language, & Music

One does not always think of German as a beautiful language. Okay, probably one never thinks this. It is the language of Hitler, after all. It is the language of spitting and of bringing up guttural noises from the back of one’s throat. The 1987 film Wings of Desire, though, and among many other things, is a movie about language and about how even German has its angelic side.

Poetry of the Gurney

I’ve lain or languished on various gurneys in our local hospital’s ED in recent days—cardiac and GI disorders brought me there. But I’m not thinking now about the medical issues involved. I’m thinking rather about what enabled me to find joy and solace in what was otherwise a painful, tedious, disorienting, frightening experience. It all has to do with sounds, beautiful sounds, sounds echoing across centuries. Sounds that I’ve managed to memorize over the years.

Literature: from Mammoth to Miniature

The one common theme of all these one-off volumes is: they represent a singular creative movement amid the lives of their authors, that is ultimately evanescent. They are the opposite of the books or careers that are like immovable boulders, or worse, business franchises. They produced something, and then they moved on. They are the living personification of Diana Vreeland’s purported fashion dictum, Elegance is refusal.