Monday, December 24, 2007

Chesterton and Dickens

Wikisource is a wonderful thing. Its better-known cousin may be the more addicting, but any site that gives you nearly the entire completed works of some of the masters of western thought (and then some) is worth perusing every now and then. Even when the one thing you're looking for has been inexplicably deleted, you're bound to run into something else worthwhile.

And so it was today with myself and the delightful G.K. Chesterton, whose "God in the Cave" chapter from The Everlasting Man I thought would make for wonderful Christmas reading. Alas, it was not to be -- but I was happily reminded, given my Yuletide Dickens kick, that Chesterton was something of a Dickens scholar himself.

Here, then, is the ever-so-timely "Dickens and Christmas," celebrating "that trinity of eating, drinking and praying which to moderns appears irreverent, for the holy day which is really a holiday."

And here, of course, is Chesterton on Scrooge. No question he would have loved the Muppets:

Scrooge is not really inhuman at the beginning any more than he is at the end. There is a heartiness in his inhospitable sentiments that is akin to humour and therefore to humanity; he is only a crusty old bachelor, and had (I strongly suspect) given away turkeys secretly all his life. The beauty and the real blessing of the story do not lie in the mechanical plot of it, the repentance of Scrooge, probable or improbable; they lie in the great furnace of real happiness that glows through Scrooge and everything around him; that great furnace, the heart of Dickens. Whether the Christmas visions would or would not convert Scrooge, they convert us. Whether or no the visions were evoked by real Spirits of the Past, Present, and Future, they were evoked by that truly exalted order of angels who are correctly called High Spirits. They are impelled and sustained by a quality which our contemporary artists ignore or almost deny, but which in a life decently lived is as normal and attainable as sleep, positive, passionate, conscious joy. The story sings from end to end like a happy man going home; and, like a happy and good man, when it cannot sing it yells. It is lyric and exclamatory, from the first exclamatory words of it. It is strictly a Christmas carol.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Homeward bound

Merry Christmas everyone!

My deepest apologies for neglecting my blogging duties of late -- it's been a crazy few weeks at work, and I still lack any internet connection at home. When that changes, I'll be much more prolific, I'm sure -- much to the detriment of any social life I may or may not currently enjoy.

In the meantime, praise the Lord for free wifi at the JetBlue terminal at JFK airport, and for the less-than-hellish bus-to-subway-to-airtran commute that allowed me plenty of time to enjoy same. Six months in, I'm really starting to get a knack for this whole getting-around-NYC thing.

Which reminds me: I've been thinking about this blog a bit, and I've realized that what's currently sorely lacking are more stories about the city itself. I've been somewhat embarrassed in this regard by the Great Greg Gallagher, whose musings on his German adventures make for a delightful read. I may not have his eye for the absurd, but at least I've got a lot more material to work with.

But for now, back to the world of letters. I came across a fascinating article by Joseph Bottom (of Weekly Standard/First Things fame) last Christmas, and I've been waiting to blog it ever since.

The subject is that iconic Christmas favorite (certainly mine), Dickens's "A Christmas Carol." Bottom's argument, briefly, is that far too many critics -- and cinematic adaptations -- get the story completely wrong by playing it straight. In other words, by focusing so much on Scrooge's supposed "transformation," they neglect to see that the story is a merry comic farce from the very beginning. Scrooge doesn't so much undergo some dramatic darkness-to-light redemption as simply come into line with the Christmas cheer that pervades the entire tale -- and that he even participates in with his own amusing brand of grumpiness.

My only quibble with the piece is that Bottom completely neglects the one screen version of the story that really does get it. I speak, of course, of "The Muppet Christmas Carol" -- my pick for the best Christmas movie ever made. Who better than the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat to provide exactly the kind of mirthful narrative voice Bottom longs for? It's damn near perfect, really.

But you're free to disagree. If you hate Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Guess who's blogging?

I just happened to stumble upon this treasure trove of wisdom the other day; it's the personal blog of none other than His Excellency, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Okay, the Times helped. Turns out, Ahmadinejad's been blogging for quite some time now, though he's even lazier about it than I am.

What's there, though, is absolutely fascinating. Not that it's all that profound -- or even comically boisterous. It actually has a kind of whimsical sense to it, as if its author sees himself as a sort of deep thinker who only vows Israel's destruction to pay the rent.

The most recent post, for example, is a long series of extracts from a treatise by one of the first leaders of Islam, explaining the duties of a proper Muslim ruler.

He also says he takes 15 minutes a day to actually respond to the comments he gets. Anyone want to take him up on it? I say this partially in jest, of course. But I've gotta think that having an enemy who's so up-front about his aspirations and pretensions is really a great blessing. Not that President Bush (or Lee Bollinger, for that matter) should indulge his b.s., of course, but there must be room somewhere for a kind of kitchen debate on the proper role of reason and religion in politics. Anyone?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Mormons, Part II

Just watched Mitt Romney's "Faith in America" speech again. I was significantly more impressed the second time around, mostly because I made peace with the idea that its wooden style and staccato argumentation is just the way Romney talks. And then it didn't seem nearly as awkward.

Actually, it was quite good -- a fitting, if imperfect, response not only to evangelical Iowa voters who may be creeped out by Romney's Mormonism, but also to secular types who are especially wary of someone like Huckabee.

One hears the complaint more and more these days that there's too much religion in politics, a complaint driven not only by genteel horror that someone would act as if their religious beliefs actually influence their lives, but also by reasonable wariness of religion's power, and hence its power to pollute if corrupted. (Religious conservatives should always remember that the first modern mainstream presidential candidate to talk about his faith in the way we've come to expect nowadays was world-class scold Jimmy Carter -- a man I've heard invoked more than once in conversations about Mike Huckabee.)

And yet: It seems only commonsensical that (1) if one's religious convictions were a major part of one's life, one would seek a natural, honest way to talk about them with people who may not share them, and (2) to the extent to which those convictions govern one's actions and values, the voting public has every right to be interested in them.

Come to think of it, I'd be very interested to see whether the members of the NY Times editorial board -- in such top form as they berated the intolerant Iowa evangelical for daring to be curious about Romney's Mormonism -- would be completely neutral to a candidate who professed a religious conviction that, say, the earth is 6,000 years old.

But quite understandably, Romney had neither the time nor the inclination to convince voters that nothing in Mormon doctrine was the slightest bit antagonistic to either good sense or the American political order. A lot of people wanted him to give that speech, but it would have been a fool's errand from the beginning. For one, he'd have had to bring up a lot of the exotic things Mormons actually do believe.

By talking much more generally -- and with evident feeling -- about religion in America, however, he made a very strong argument along these lines: "Trust me." And he promised to return the favor:

"Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience."

I would only note that if Romney does lose the nomination, there will be plenty of explanations other than that Americans, in fact, do respect believers of convenience. But I digress.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Mormon thing -- open thread

I've been meaning to blog for a while now about this painfully awkward question at last week's CNN/YouTube Republican debate, but Mitt Romney's long-debated "Mormon" speech yesterday, I guess, kinda superceeds that at this point.

I'll have a few thoughts later today. For now, here's the speech (and the video). Everyone seems to have something to say about it. So a quick straw poll of my devoted readers: what do you think? Any impressions -- style, political substance, theological substance -- welcome.

And here's Richard John Neuhaus, Rich Lowry, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks, E.J. Dionne Jr., Richard Cohen, Jonah Goldberg, Peggy Noonan, the gang at NRO, and the NY Times to help.

Be back later.