From the looks of this site, it seems as if I took a hiatus from posting for Lent. Unfortunately, that wasn’t intentional. But I have been focused on a new endeavor—becoming a host for the New Books Network. My “channel” is New Books in Biblical Studies, and my first podcast, an interview with Tremper Longman about his new commentary on the Psalms, is now up on the site. Please let me know what you think of it! I’ll be posting new interviews each month.
Apropos of Valentine’s Day, here are some epigrams by Michael Oakeshott, drawn from his recently published notebooks. The first selection comes from pages 348–49, the second from 411–12. He comes across as a romantic and a skeptic—a rare combination. I hope to post some more excerpts in the coming weeks.
The phenomenon of love, perhaps, more than anything else, shows the secondary place of justice and morality in human life. We live suspended in an unstable solution; only for immediate purposes of practical life a certain stability is introduced—called justice and morality. The rest is favor and affection.
Tolkien’s idea of subcreation has been much discussed by his fans and critics. Few, however, have located the source of that idea in the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Biographia Literaria provides a clue. In chapter 13, on the imagination “or esemplastic power,” we read:
The imagination I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.
Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definites. The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word Choice. But equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association.
According to Adam Roberts’s new edition, Coleridge crossed out the line set in roman above. But it is precisely this phrase that Tolkien and others seize in making a firm distinction between creative acts of God and those of artists. As Robert explains, “God has created the cosmos as an act of primary imaginative power. When creative artists create their work, they are engaged in a finite imitation, in a kind of ratio inferior, of that primary act. . . . Such work is necessarily secondary to the divine creation, but only in degree, not in kind.”
While we readily recognize Tolkien’s anti-modern sensibilities, we can see here that he was also clearly operating within a Romantic framework, where the artist retained his status as myth-maker and his labors were not yet unmoored from religious significance. That side of Tolkien’s thought deserves greater recognition and appreciation.
Here are a few of the books that I am most looking forward to reading in 2015. (I will announce some fall books later this spring, after BookExpo.)
- Bernard Bailyn, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History (Knopf)
- Jenny Uglow, In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 (FSG)
- Robert Middlekauff, Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader (Knopf)
- John Searle, Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Oxford University Press)
- Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Schocken)
- Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine (Princeton University Press)
- Mario Vargas Llosa, The Discreet Hero: A Novel (FSG)
- Robert Zaretsky, Boswell’s Enlightenment (Harvard University Press)
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Knopf)
- Robert Alter, translator, Strong as Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel (W. W. Norton)
- Kirsten Powers, The Silencing (Regnery)—Powers has been an outspoken and visible witness to those on the Left. Her book will likely be more honest than David Shipler’s forthcoming book, Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword (Knopf).
- Mario Vargas Llosa, Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society (FSG)
- Barton Swaim, The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics (Simon & Schuster)
- Jan Assmann, The Book of Exodus: A Biography (Princeton University Press)
- George Marsden, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press)
- Robert Alter, translator, Isaiah (W. W. Norton)
recent honorable mention
- Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Harvard University Press)
In his short work entitled The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Saint Augustine provides excellent advice for all Christians who are faced with the daunting task of interpreting Scripture in the light of scientific knowledge:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.