What an Episode of “Father Brown” Can Teach Us About Literature

Hannah Moxley describing the plot of new novel to Father Brown

Last year, when I wrote about the oddly soothing aspects of the murder mystery genre, I mentioned that I had another post about the show Father Brown that I wanted to write. Well, over a year later, I’ve finally gotten around to doing just that.

For those who aren’t aware, Father Brown is an amateur detective show loosely based on the short stories of G. K. Chesterton. The show follows the title priest (played by Mark Williams) as he solves various crimes—usually murder—around the fictional English town of Kembleford in the post-WWII period. Father Brown is joined by a group of supporting characters, including parish secretary Mrs McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) and local noblewoman Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll), and he often butts heads with an ever-changing line of police detectives, such as Inspector Sullivan (Tom Chambers), who rather begrudgingly tolerate the priest’s side hobby of sleuthing.

The episode I would like to look at in particular is “The Kembleford Boggart,” the seventh episode of the show’s third series. This is one of my favorite episodes of the show, not because of the mystery itself, but because of what the episode has to say about writing and about our reactions to it. I’m going to break this little investigation into three parts. In Part I, we’ll talk about the central figure of the episode and her concerns about how her writing will be received. In Part II, we’ll move onto the murder and how it instructs us on the way the artistic process actually works. Finally, in Part III, we’ll unravel the mystery and discuss the audience’s relationship with the author of a work.

Oh, before we begin—normally I find our age’s spoiler-phobia to be pretty obnoxious and a serious impediment to discussing art critically, but since this is a mystery we’re talking about, where half the fun is trying to piece the clues together yourself, consider this a spoiler warning: we’re going to reveal all the twists in this episode, because otherwise the themes are impossible to fully talk about. So, with that out of the way….

I: The Author

At the center of “The Kembleford Boggart”—aside from Father Brown, of course—is Hannah Moxley (Nathalie Buscombe), a 22-year-old woman who seems to be rather nervous about where her life stands. Some of her anxieties are professional. Hannah is a rising star of the British literary world; her debut novel, The Darkest Rose, was something of a sensation in the recent past, and she’s about to read an excerpt from her current manuscript at the home of Lady Felicia. For a writer that young, she could hardly ask for better. Still, she’s not certain that her new novel will find a publisher, even though Father Brown assures her that, from what he hears, “the literary establishment is waiting with bated breath.”

Of course, such anticipation can be its own form of pressure. Every writer who attains even the tiniest bit of artistic success fears that they’ll never be able to recreate that magic, that they’ve spent all their creativity on past works. But Hannah has an additional reason to worry about how her new novel will be received: it’s a significant departure from her previous work. We the audience aren’t told much about The Darkest Rose, but from other characters’ descriptions we glean that it’s an “uplifting” tale filled with “high jinks and espionage”. By contrast, her new book is an atmospheric horror story about a woman terrorized by a boggart. She’s completely shifted genres, and there’s no guarantee that her audience will follow her muse with her.

Judging by the response she gets at the reading, her concerns might not be unfounded. There’s a noticeable silence after Hannah finishes reading the excerpt from her work, before Lady Felicia hurriedly spurs the crowd into applause. Her story has certainly had an effect on Mrs McCarthy; she’s so shocked during the reading that she almost spills her sherry. But she’s more repulsed than enraptured by it, saying afterwards, “If that’s what passes for modern literature, I’ll stick with the Woman’s Weekly.” This is a small sample size, but it at least suggests that’s right to be worried.

It was a minor miracle, however, that Hannah was able to give a reading at all, which brings us to her second source of worry: her father, Jeremiah (Simon Williams). Although Hannah is an adult already, Jeremiah Moxley exercises a great deal of control over his daughter’s life. He won’t allow her to manage her own finances, and he doesn’t allow her to read the fan mail that she’s received from around the world. Had Father Brown not offered to act as chaperone, Jeremiah would not have let Hannah read at Lady Felicia’s, lest she start socializing with the wrong sort of people. Even then, he expects that she will not leave Father Brown’s sight and that she’ll return home by eight o’clock sharp. Hannah, for her part, does her best to comply with her father’s various restrictions, but when alone with Father Brown she vents about how unreasonable her current situation is.

Indeed, a close look at the first scene after the cold open reveals how her different worries tie into each other. It would appear that her father’s overbearing nature has done a number on Hannah’s confidence as a storyteller. We first see Hannah describing the plot of her new book to Father Brown, who looks a bit puzzled by it. She assumes that he doesn’t like the story, but in fact he’s merely unsure of what a boggart is. Her face lights up at the chance to explain this bit of folklore, but alas Jeremiah enters the room and cuts her off with his own explanation. He then dismisses his daughter’s penchant for such stories right in front of her. “Forgive my daughter,” he says to Father Brown. “She has a fine talent, I’m assured, but her fantasies are a little far-fetched for my taste.” One expects that a writer’s parents would be her biggest cheerleaders; if they’re not on board with the project, why would anyone else be?

Hannah’s got quite a bit on her plate—and we haven’t even gotten to the murder yet.

II: The Mystery

Why don’t hear a little bit of Hannah’s latest? Here’s the excerpt from her new book that so shocked the crowd at Lady Felicia’s:

Mrs Mallory lay stiff and bloated at Clarissa’s feet. Across her throat a tidy, fine slash, the stinging mark of a whip sharp tail. And all around the room, she saw the messy trail of an uninvited guest. A fresh fall of soot blanketed the hearth, and the floor was marked by jagged claws. As she rushed to the empty cot, she saw the boggart’s promise had been fulfilled. The housekeeper was dead and the baby was gone.

Hannah Moxley, unpublished manuscript, page numbers TBD

This being a murder mystery show, it’s only natural that this excerpt turns into the blueprint for an actual crime. The cinematic language makes it clear that Jeremiah will be the victim, as Hannah starts her reading over footage of her father opening her fan mail. After the reading, Father Brown loses track of Hannah, so he and Mrs McCarthy hustle over to the Moxley house in hopes of meeting her there. When they arrive, they find the door already open, and after some investigation they discover Jeremiah on the floor of an attic room, killed by his letter opener. It’s then that Mrs McCarthy notices that the room is full of soot and the floor all scratched up, just like the room described in Hannah’s novel.

Father Brown jokes that the perpetrator was the boggart from the story, but no one actually buys into that notion. Mrs McCarthy immediately suspects Alfons (Philip McGinley), an Irish Traveller who got into a spat with Jeremiah that morning, while Inspector Sullivan considers the possibility that this was a burglary gone wrong. Father Brown, however, does think that the secret to the murder lies in Hannah’s story, as he spends all night reading over her manuscript. His initial thought, understandably, is the prospect that someone has re-enacted the scene from the novel, or more disturbing, that the novel is a preemptive confession from a beleaguered daughter. It’s not until later on that Father Brown realizes that he’s gotten the whole thing backwards.

See, we have often think of creativity in limited ways. We imagine inspiration as a sort of epiphany, a sudden blast of the divine. This view has a certain romantic aura to it, but it tends to render the process of creation completely inscrutable and unknowable; one either has the spark, or one doesn’t. More often that not, however, inspiration comes from the synthesis of small details that we experience. It’s not necessarily a veiled autobiography or a confession, but it does come from the world of the concrete, either senses or emotions. It’s only when Father Brown remembers that fact that the mystery starts clarifying itself.

After finishing Hannah’s new book, he takes Mrs McCarthy back to the Moxley house for what he calls “a lesson in perspective.” This is Father Brown’s big lecture for the episode, the step-by-step explanation of what’s been going on. But it’s not an explanation of how the murder happened; he’s not sure who did it at this point. No, it’s an explanation of why the room resembles the one in Hannah’s story:

[N]either of us had ever been in this attic room before. So how would we know that what we saw was unusual? Perhaps it wasn’t unusual. What if soot fell from that chimney every day? For instance, when somebody retrieved something from it…For example [reaches into the hearth and pulls something out], a key. And what if a badly hung door made marks on the floor every time it is opened, makes the scratches of deadly talons. Not life imitating art, Mrs McCarthy, art imitating life. It wasn’t until I finished Hannah’s manuscript that I realised the most significant image of all: the missing child.

Father Brown then unlocks the door, revealing a hidden nursery, where Hannah’s baby is asleep. The implication is clear: Hannah’s novel, the whole story about the boggart and the missing child, comes from her own experiences of having to hide her baby from the world, and the atmospheric details come from the steps she has to take to see him.

This little lecture from Father Brown not only advances the plot, but also further clarifies why Hannah seems especially nervous about her new novel. While on the surface it seems more fantastical than The Darkest Rose, it is in fact far more personal than her first novel. She’s transformed a source of shame into art, and now plans on sharing it with the world. But we’ve still got one mystery left: whodunit?

III: The Killer

As I mentioned in the first section, Hannah’s gotten quite a few fans off the back of The Darkest Rose, and it’s obvious that a number of them have formed parasocial relationships with her. In what might be Jeremiah’s one instance of genuine insight, he notes that the men writing fan letters to Hannah “have not got literature on their minds,” and that the volume and the passion of the fan mail increased after Hannah’s photograph was included in Modern Profile magazine. His daughter has become the object of affection—or obsession—for a great number of men, and that’s not necessarily the sort of attention that a young woman wants.

As it happens, we meet one of Hannah’s admirers at the reading at Lady Felicia’s, a journalist named Harry Grandage (Ben Deery). His work takes him all around the globe, where he seems to cover one tragedy after another. This is why, he tells Father Brown, Hannah’s work means so much to him:

I’ve only just got back from Brussels. I spent two months there before traveling down to Antwerp. I was covering the damage from the North Sea floods…My work always seems to bring me to people in times of grief. It takes its toll. So, when I read The Darkest Rose, I was so happy to lose myself to it. It’s a modern masterpiece.

Naturally, Harry is very excited to meet Hannah in person, but if you pay close attention to his tone and his facial expressions you’ll realize that he’s more than a little perplexed that Hannah’s not already familiar with him. Even worse, when Hannah signs his copy of The Darkest Rose, she makes it out to “Larry”. He laughs it off, saying that it’s “charming”, but he’s clearly a bit stung by their interaction.

It’s sometimes tempting to think that we can know a person through their art and that, by extension, we can form an actual relationship with them through it. We will excitedly praise a work for understanding us in a time of confusion or crisis, even if we know, intellectually, that the work emerged independently of our struggles and that the author wouldn’t know us from Adam. These parasocial bonds that we form with artists can be helpful in certain ways; for example, they can give us the knowledge that we are not alone in our difficulties. But where Harry appears to go wrong is in thinking that this grants him knowledge of the actual person behind the work.

One word that Harry uses a lot when describing Hannah’s writing is “escape”. After Jeremiah’s death, he explains to Father Brown why he’s staying in Kembleford to comfort Hannah: “When I first read her book, I was in the Republic of Korea covering the war, a taste of hell. Her work offered me the chance to escape then, and now I can do the same for her.” It’s clear that Harry needed some way to escape his troubles as a journalist, but note how he’s made the assumption that Hannah needs the same thing. It’s true that by strict definition Harry’s relationship with Hannah is no longer parasocial, but it’s by no means intimate, either. Harry sees himself as a companion, but by any objective measure, he’s just a passing acquaintance.

This being a murder mystery, Harry’s relationship with Hannah turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. Father Brown realizes that Harry’s one of the men who’s been writing fan mail to Hannah, not knowing that her father doesn’t allow her to read such letters. Instead, Jeremiah has been corresponding with Harry, posing as his daughter for the purposes of arranging a marriage. Hence Harry’s confusion at the reading: he’s been duped. Long story short: he confronts Jeremiah at the house and tries to leave to tell Hannah the truth; Jeremiah attacks him the letter opener and in the struggle Harry accidentally stabs him with it. The whole killing was accident, the result of a tragic misunderstanding.

But even after all that comes out, even after Harry realizes his whole relationship with Hannah was a sham, he still can’t let go of the image of her that he’s created in his head. Father Brown meets Harry in the woods, where he’s planning on leaving Kembleford with Hannah in tow. “She’s desperately in need of escape,” he tells Father Brown, still insisting that his needs are hers as well. Once Hannah arrives on the scene and the whole truth comes out, though, she takes Harry to task for his assumptions:

Harry: All I wanted was to take you away to escape with you. Isn’t that what you wanted?

Hannah: No! You’re no better than [my father] was. You want to control me. Well, I won’t let you. I’ve spent too long locked away. I want a free life. I owe that much to him.

To be clear: Harry is correct in thinking that Hannah would like to escape her current circumstances—we’ve established that much in the build-up to this—but that in no way implies that she wants to escape with him. That’s a major, nigh unresolvable problem with trying to read an artist through the works we enjoy: even if we’re completely accurate in our diagnoses, it’s pure narcissism to think we have anything to do with them.

For the record, Hannah’s actual love, Alfons, also got to know her through her writings: she would head down to the camp of Irish Travellers when they stopped by and read her stories to them. But the context there is completely different than it was for Harry, as Alfons got the chance to know Hannah as a person, not just as a name on a front cover and a photograph in a magazine profile. There were no assumptions to be made, just life to experience.


That was quite a bit from me, but what’s your take on all this? Are there any other films or TV shows that deal with literature in this way? Do have a favorite episode of Father Brown that you’d like to share? Sound off in the comments.

While your here, perhaps you’d like to read more about our relationship with art and our tendency to form parasocial relationships with artists. In that case, check on my post called “On Angst Music,” which might be my favorite blog post that I’ve written here.

And as always, thanks for your time.

How My Reading Habits Have Changed This Year

I like to think of myself as an omnivorous reader. I always have multiple books on my currently-reading shelf at any given moment, and they tend to be from disparate modes and genres. I’ll switch from a piece of music criticism to a poetry collection to a classic novel with little in the way of direct connections between pieces. Still, despite all this variety, my reading habits have tended to be fairly stable. About 2/3 of the books I’d finish would be poetry collections, with a hodge-podge of novels, nonfiction books, plays and comic books making up the other 1/3.

This year, however, that ratio has flipped. Only about 1/3 of the books I’ve finished this year (22/64) have been poetry collections. That’s a pretty significant and sudden shift, and it got me wondering: what’s behind this change in my reading habits?

It’s not as though I’ve lost my love of poetry, far from it. Sure, I’m no longer in a graduate school environment where I’m required to think about poetry more or less constantly. But I still write poems and pieces about poetry fairly frequently, and I believe that over time I’ve developed a more mature understanding of the art. And reading an excellent poem like Lynn Powell’s “Kind of Blue” or Ted Kooser’s “A Spiral Notebook,” to name two recent examples, still fills me with an unmatched sense of joy.

No, what’s changed is that finding the time to read poetry, at least how I think it best to read it, has gotten more difficult this past year. Quite simply, I’m rarely alone for long enough.

I’ve mentioned before how I believe that all poetry ought to be read aloud, that the sonic dimension of poetry is difficult if not impossible to appreciate unless one literally hears the words as they are reading them. I can’t tell you how often some aspect of a poem’s playfulness, form, or even meaning has eluded me until I’ve read it aloud to myself. Granted, there are poets such as Harryette Mullen or Jaimee Hills, whose work often defies the reader to wrap their tongue around it, but even when the experience of reading the poem aloud is unpleasant, that unpleasantness often helps me to start unlocking the work.

However, because I insist on reading all poetry aloud, I effectively limit the number of environments in which I can read poetry at all. It’s socially unacceptable, or at least awkward, to read aloud to oneself when other people are present; to do so imposes one’s private activity, even one’s private thoughts once interpretation is factored in, onto an unwilling audience. It’s bad enough that reading in someone else’s presence may give them the impression that you don’t value their company. But reading aloud at them more or less says, “I’d prefer you weren’t in my world at the moment.”

Now, when I was in grad school, this wasn’t that significant a limitation, because I lived by myself, and even if I happened to be on campus it wasn’t that difficult to find a secluded place. (The lounge we had access to, for instance, was usually empty.) Now, though, I’m more or less surrounded by people. I’ve moved back into my family’s home, and for various reasons I’ll not get into, my bedroom is effectively a living room. Further, I take mass transit into work, and if there’s one place where no one wants to hear anyone else talking, it’s a long-distance commuter bus.

The plus side of my current reading arrangements is that I’ve had more success than ever in tackling weighty tomes. I’ve had books like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on my shelf for years, and I’d been reluctant to tackle them for their sheer length. But now that I find myself trapped on a bus for an average of four hours a day, such books no longer seem intimidating. In fact, their size has become almost welcome, for I know that they’ll last me several trips into and out of the city before I reach the conclusion. I just spent the past month working through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and I’m sure I read at least 90% of that book on the bus. Those were some of the best hours that I’d spent all year.

Going forward, I know that I’ll have to make a more conscious effort to keep up on poetry, whether that means sneaking a few poems before bed, or during my lunch break, or what have you. But I think I’ll also just have to adjust my expectations. After all, I pursued an MFA precisely so I’d have more time to think about poetry. I shouldn’t be surprised that once I finished the program, I lost a lot of that time as well.


What do you think about all this? Do you find that changing circumstances change the sort of books that you read? If so, how so, and how do those changes make you feel? Let me know in the comments! And if for some reason you’re curious as to how else my new job has affected my reading style, here’s a link to a piece I wrote about dictionaries and the pure love of language. (No, really, that piece was inspired by pharmaceutical advertising. We take inspiration wherever we find it.)

Searching for Bobby Fischer’s Soul: A Reflection

EndgameThere’s a moment near the end of Frank Brady’s 2011 biography Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness which both caught me off guard and,did not surprise me in the slightest. In late 2007, as Fischer was slowly dying in an Icelandic hospital, Dr. Magnus Skulasson, a psychiatrist (though not Fischer’s psychiatrist), frequently came to visit him, just to give Fischer some friendly company in his last weeks.

I’ll let Brady pick up the moment from there:

Bobby asked him to bring foods and juices to the hospital, which he did, and often Skulasson just sat at the bedside, both men not speaking. When Bobby was experiencing severe pain in his legs, Skulasson began to massage them, using the back of his hand. Bobby looked at him and said, “Nothing soothes as much as the human touch.” Once Bobby woke and said: “Why are you so kind to me?” Of course, Skulasson had no answer. (p. 318)

Just in terms of the prose, it’s clear that Brady finds this moment arresting, too. There’s that colon right before Bobby’s question, which signals that whatever follows is going to be significant. And that tossed-off “Of course” right before the last clause just underscores how difficult answering that question is. Why should Skulasson be kind to Bobby Fischer? Or rather, why should anyone be kind to him?

And if we’re going to hope to answer that question, then we’re going to need some context.

Bobby Fischer, at the very least in the United States, is history’s most famous chess player. His 1956 “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne is one of the most celebrated games ever played; his triumph over Boris Spassky in the World Chess Championship 1972 represents the height of chess’s cultural and political relevance. Every rising American player from Joshua Waitzkin to Fabiano Caruana is heralded as “the next Bobby Fischer.” His name may as well be synonymous with chess.

Fischer was also a wretched human being. Even in our current political moment, when antisemitism and violent rhetoric are once again on the rise, his comments on Jewish people and September 11th are still shocking in their virulence. I had long known Fischer was “politically incorrect,” to dress things up politely, but reading excerpts from his press conferences and radio interviews made my eyes bulge. And that’s to say nothing of his day-to-day interactions with people. Fischer was consistently petulant, dismissive, ungrateful, and paranoid. The fact that anyone could stand to be in his presence for more than three minutes is itself a revelation.

Reading Endgame, I kept waiting for the moment when people would finally give up on Bobby Fischer. But no matter how many paranoid and hateful rants he’d subject his friends and colleagues to, no matter how often he’d respond to generosity with bile, people kept reaching out to him, kept giving him second chances. Chess masters would give him companionship and a place to stay while he was a fugitive. Admirers would write him letters and plead for his picture. A whole consortium of Icelandic public figures spent godless amounts of time and effort to extract him from his imprisonment in Japan. All that attention and affection, given to someone manifestly unworthy of it. Why?

Part of the answer, undoubtedly, lies in Fischer’s celebrity status. Fame invariably will grant one the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the public. After all, one might argue, Fischer’s accomplishments in chess are undeniable: aesthetically, theoretically, technologically and economically, he did so much for the game. His victory in the World Chess Championship 1972 more or less put the city of Reykjavík on the map. It’s disappointing that so many people were willing to overlook or excuse his behavior, but I can’t say it’s too shocking, either. It’s not like the world is free of Cosby and Polanski apologists.

Second, especially in his earlier years, it’s not as though Fischer the person was wholly undeserving of sympathy. His childhood was far from idyllic: his family struggled financially for many years, and his mother was under government surveillance due to her left-wing political activities. And he seems to have been searching for purpose in his life for decades. Before he really embraced antisemitism as a guiding ethos—the same way, I suppose, one might try embracing a cactus for comfort—Fischer was an unofficial member of the Worldwide Church of God, an apocalyptic Christian denomination to which he tithed a good chunk of his world championship winnings. However, there’s only so much that a difficult life can account for, and calling for the mass murder of Jews is way, way beyond that.

That’s why, to bring this back to the beginning, Magnus cannot possibly have an answer to the question, “Why are you so kind to me?” It’s a level of kindness that defies reason, perhaps even rejects it. We can say, as Brady does off-handedly a few paragraphs earlier, that Magnus “had a great reverence for the accomplishments of Bobby Fischer and an affection for him as a man” (p. 318). But that’s not really an explanation; at most, it just pushes the question back down a level: “Why do you have affection for me as a man?” I mean, I still get chills watching Fischer’s mating combination in the Game of the Century, and I wouldn’t want to be in the same country as him.

Still, whereas every other time someone helped Fischer out filled me with frustration, Magnus’s leg-stroking inspired some more ambiguous feeling in me. The end of Fischer’s life is the rare spot in Endgame where he seems truly helpless. Yes, he’d been facing the threat of extradition to the United States for 15 years, but he also had the resources and stature to evade that threat for just as long. Yes, he’d gotten roughed up while in custody at Narita International Airport for traveling with an invalid passport, but that felt like perverted justice rather than injustice per se. But Fischer lying prone, vulnerable, in a hospital bed? That was something almost pitiable.

Tony Hoagland has a poem called “Lucky,” whose opening stanza has stuck with me ever since I first read it back in 2013:

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no. (lines 1-4)

I’ve never been certain what Hoagland means here. Is this a wish that we treat our enemy with pity, that we find a way to be a better person? Or is helping someone when they are “weakened past the point of saying no” a sort of cruelty, an act of revenge we’d be dying to enact?

And, however you answer that question, is that the sort of thing that you would want to do to someone like Bobby Fischer?

 

What Can We Learn from Erasmus’s and Chaucer’s Friars?

I can’t say I was enthralled with Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly (also called In Praise of Folly), a 1509 satirical essay in which the figure of Folly expounds on her role in early modern European society. Maybe it was the translation I was reading from: John Wilson’s 17th-century English syntax, I feel, tends to muffle whatever humor Erasmus wants to find in people’s foibles.

That’s a shame, because Erasmus’s satire is the sort that ought to have a longer-than-normal shelf-life. This isn’t something like John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a poem satirizing Restoration-era politics, which lost a good chunk of its relevance and bite the moment Charles II died. No, the sort of superstition, short-sightedness and self-interest that Erasmus writes about has, alas, never left us.

And there was one section of The Praise of Folly in particular that I felt spoke to universal concerns very well, and it was about an absolutely timeless feature of Western society: begging, itinerant friars. Hear me out.

For some quick context: “friar” is the broad term for certain orders of Christian clerics. In contrast to monks, who live their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in cloistered settings, friars take those orders on the road, serving the faithful and spreading the gospel out in the world. They travel from town to town, subsisting on whatever donations they can muster from the common folk. It’s that last bit, the need for friars to beg, which tends to draw people’s ire, and which tends to inspire criticism of mendicant orders. (Then as now, no one enjoys being asked for money.)

Thus, in Erasmus’s telling, friars need to get creative if they want to secure funding. And what tools does a friar have aside from his preaching? The use of language comes up time and again in this section of The Praise of Folly, and it’s fascinating to see how many ways friars employ language to achieve their ends. My personal favorite tactic is their tendency to support the precepts of Christianity by citing literally everything but Christian doctrine:

How they shift their voice, sing out their words, skip up and down, and are ever and anon making such new faces, that they confound all things with noise! and yet this Knack of theirs is no less than a Mystery that runs in succession from one brother to another; which though it be not lawful for me to know, however I’ll venture at it by conjectures. First they invoke what ever they have scrapt from the Poets; and in the next place, if they are to discourse of Charity, they take their rise from the river Nilus; or to set out the Mystery of the Cross, from Bell and the Dragon; or to dispute of Fasting, from the twelve signs of the Zodiack; or, being to preach of Faith, ground their matter on the square of a Circle. (pp. 204-205)

All these rhetorical maneuvers, all these allusions to astrology and mathematics and such, are flashy and sound impressive to the audience—the speaker must be quite learned in the ways of the divine to understand all of this, no? Except, of course, that none of the above has anything to do with the divine, let alone justifies why the listeners should scrape the bottoms of their money pouches.

More than anything, Erasmus’s depiction of friars reminds me of Geoffrey Chaucer, who like Erasmus spends a lot of The Canterbury Tales poking fun at various clerical figures, particularly with regards to how they use language. The Pardoner, for instance, famously brags about all his scams—his fraudulent relics, his insincere sermons—and then delivers a persuasive fable against greed. The Monk, on the other hand, attempts to win the story-telling contest through sheer quantity, recounting tragic fall after tragic fall until the Knight  finally begs him to stop.

And then, of course, there’s the Friar. Chaucer devotes most of the Friar’s description in the General Prologue to his quest for money (e.g., spurning the poor and sick for the wealthy and well), but towards the end he inserts some quick details on the Friar’s rhetorical skills. For one thing, he’s able to move his audience to action through his preaching: “[T]hogh a widwe hadde noght a sho,” Chaucer tells us, “So plesaunt was his ‘In principio,’ [‘In the beginning’]/ Yet wolde he have a ferthing, er he wente” (Fragment I, lines 255-257). For another, he’s aware of the power of delivery: “Somwhat he lipsed, for his wantownesse, / To make his English swete upon his tonge” (I.267-268). If he were in modern day America, he’d be putting on a posh English accent.

But the most biting depiction of friars comes not from Chaucer the narrator, but rather from the Summoner (another of the countless churchmen in The Canterbury Tales). The Summoner, who has just been the target of “The Friar’s Tale,” makes friars the butt end of his little joke. Literally: long story short, the friar in the tale gets farted on. (This is Chaucer, after all.) It’s some foul comeuppance, sure, but the way that the Summoner’s friar describes his approach to preaching is just as memorable:

“I have to day been at your chirche at messe,
And seyd a sermon after my symple wit—
Nat al after the text of hooly writ,
For it is hard to yow, as I suppose,
And therefore I wol teche yow al the glosse.
Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn,
For lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn” (III.1788-1794)

When “hooly writ” does not suit this friar’s conclusion (normally, “Give me money”), he will gladly preach from “the glosse,” that is, an interpretation of the text. “Glosynge is a glorious thyng” because it allows one to support any position, no matter what “hooly writ” actually demands. At least the Pardoner is up front with his dissembling; the Summoner’s friar is both dishonest and sneaky. One indeed might as well cite the zodiac if the plain truth is so inconvenient. Really, why not fart on this guy?

Okay, talking about early modern clerical satire is all fine and dandy, but why should anyone care? Do these slick-tongued mendicants have any relevance to contemporary life?

There’s a recent piece by Nathan J. Robinson on the Current Affairs website called “You Can Make an Argument for Anything.” I think this paragraph gets right to the heart of it:

When I say there are justifications for everything, I truly mean everythingYou can make an argument against democracy or against empathy. (“People don’t know what’s in their best interests,” and “Excess compassion impedes rational decision-making,” respectively.) If I want to seize the land of native peoples, destroy their property and force them into exile, I might say: “Land should be put to its most efficient and productive use, and while we respect the ancestral rights of all people to their homes, all benefit alike from the development of resources toward their optimal functions.” In fact, even today there are those who defend colonialism, saying something like “colonialism improved living standards in the aggregate and was therefore more beneficial than detrimental.” Even slaveowners had arguments: In addition to their crackpot racial theories, they said that dominance of man over man was the natural way of things, and that slaveowners treated their slaves better than industrialists treated factory workers. (If your defense of your actions is “I’m not as bad as the capitalists,” your actions are probably indefensible.) [Emphasis in original]

In these contexts, it’s wholly irrelevant whether the argument is sound, or whether it’s even based on true premises. The speaker only needs the trappings of reason to make a persuasive case for horrific causes. And as Robinson would probably remind us, the stakes involved here are much greater than, “Should I give this friar another hand-out?”

Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn…

Dictionary Marketing and the Love of Language

A few weeks ago, in an effort to stave off the ever-looming threat of student loan collectors, I started working for the editorial department of a company that does consulting and advertising for pharmaceutical firms. Most of my job consists of proofreading, but every once in a while I’ll be tasked with ensuring that certain documents aimed at international audiences use British spellings of words rather than American ones. I have to make certain that, say, a program on tumors and leukemia is really a programme on tumours and leukaemia.

Being an American, it can’t be too surprising that British spellings don’t quite come naturally to me. I doubt that, if I weren’t looking for deviations from a pattern, I would even notice if someone wrote “traveled” (American spelling) instead of “travelled” (British spelling). As such, I find it useful to consult the list of British/American spelling differences on the Oxford Dictionaries website, using it as a sort of checklist when working on a file. I ask myself, have I accounted for every cancer centre, every licenced physician, every adverse event of diarrhoea?

The other day, once I’d gotten to the end of that checklist, I saw a link to a blog post by Lynne Murphy, asking “How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?” That’s the exact sort of question that catches my attention: I hang out with language all day, I fashion myself a poet, and I spent an entire blog post here exploring my fascination with the word “paratext.” So, when I had some downtime, I gave it read.

It’s a short piece, but it hits on some intriguing cultural differences between British and American readers. For instance, American judges cite dictionary definitions in their decisions orders of magnitude more often that their British counterparts. I’d always assumed, from reading Supreme Court jurisprudence, that referencing nineteenth-century dictionaries was just part of the judge’s job description.

But the difference that I found most illuminating was in how dictionaries market themselves (and not just because it’s another example of paratext). To quote Murphy:

[A] look at the way dictionaries are marketed betrays their local histories, the local attitudes toward dictionaries, and assumptions about who is using them. One big general-purpose British dictionary’s cover tells us it is ‘The Language Lover’s Dictionary’. Another is ‘The unrivalled dictionary for word lovers’.

Now compare some hefty American dictionaries, whose covers advertise ‘expert guidance on correct usage’ and ‘The Clearest Advice on Avoiding Offensive Language; The Best Guidance on Grammar and Usage’. One has a badge telling us it is ‘The Official Dictionary of the ASSOCIATED PRESS’. Not one of the British dictionaries comes close to such claims of authority…None of the American dictionary marketers talk about loving words.

I think I’ve been subconsciously aware of these divergent tendencies in British and American dictionaries for some time now. If I wanted to know about a word’s etymology, or to look up the myriad meanings of a word in Middle English, I knew that I needed to consult the Oxford English Dictionary to do so; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was going to be of little help. And I’ve been in that position fairly often, needing to research the intricacies of a word’s history. In undergrad, for example, I was inspired to write an essay based on playwright Thomas Middleton’s use of “blame” as an adjective, roughly meaning “blameworthy.” The OED would see that usage as a interesting feature of 17th-century English; Merriam-Webster’s would suggest it’s merely wrong by not even acknowledging it.

On the other hand, I understand there’s a need for clear standards for a language in certain contexts, where confusion and ambiguity can have negative consequences. I work tangential to the medical industry, where unclear communications between drug manufacturers and doctors, or doctors and patients, may seriously harm or kill someone. Having an agreed-upon standard, even an arbitrary one, helps reduce that risk. In that case, the curiosities and trivia in the OED are at best distractions; give me the dry definitions and spellings of Merriam-Webster’s.

Even if I sort of knew about it already, it was still enlightening to see that division between American and British dictionaries laid out like that. And I was happy to come across a piece written by Lynne Murphy, who is the author behind the blog Separated by a Common Language, which is dedicated to exploring differences between American and British English. But I best remembered her for the time she was on the YouTube channel Numberphile, talking about how Americans and Brits abbreviate “mathematics”:

Most of the video is dedicated to debunking arguments for why “math” or “maths” is the correct or more logical abbreviation for “mathematics,” but the part of the video that interests me most is the brief history of how those abbreviations came to be. Namely, both the American and British abbreviations derive from print sources, and only later entered the spoken language. Prior to those written abbreviations, there’s little evidence that people abbreviated the word “mathematics” at all.

That brief bit of context is a demonstration of how language can evolve from the most mundane sources. I’m reminded of a line from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: “nor is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (lines 17-19). It’s the sort of history that one would completely miss if all one cared about was utilitarian usage. So if British dictionary marketers are representative of the country, count me an Anglophile in that regard.

But what do you think? Do you consult dictionaries for linguistic trivia or practical guidance? Are there any words or etymologies you find especially interesting? Let me know in the comments! And as always, thanks for reading.

On Paying to See Free Shakespeare

I was already aware of the line-standing business—people getting hired to stand in lines on behalf of others—before I picked up Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. But I had only heard about it in the context of American government, mostly in the form of lobbyists hiring homeless people to wait in line for seating at the Supreme Court or Congress. Sandel brought another place where the business has bloomed to my attention: getting tickets to Free Shakespeare in the Park.

Free Shakespeare in the Park is a New York City civic tradition dating back to the 1950s. It is, as the name suggests, free to the public, but because Central Park’s Delacorte Theater has a finite number of seats, tickets are given out on a first come, first served basis. Some folks, who either can’t or don’t want to stand in line to get tickets, have taken to employing line-standers to do the waiting for them. According to Sandel, the price for a line-stander in 2010 was “as much as $125 per ticket for the free performances” (p. 21). A lot of people, including the festival organizers and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, have criticized the trend. So why don’t we talk about it some? Why does paying someone to wait in line for free Shakespeare tickets strike so many people as wrong?

On their website The Public Theater, the organization that produces Free Shakespeare in the Park, puts forth their dedication to “to developing an American theater that is accessible and relevant to all people.” The fact that tickets are free is vital for both of those goals.

Accessibility is obvious: not charging for admittance removes one of the biggest material barriers to seeing live theater. So long as one has the time and the ability to go, anyone from the richest to the poorest can attend. In terms of making theater relevant: how relevant can theater possibly be if the great majority people are, for practical purposes, barred from seeing it? You could put on the most perceptive, challenging, socially-conscious production of The Taming of the Shrew, a production that would meaningfully contribute to conversations on gender relations in modern and period societies, but its impact will be limited if only the most elite members of society can afford a ticket.

On top of all that, Sandel would add that charging money for public theater not only thwarts the festival’s goal of making theater accessible and relevant, it fundamentally corrupts the whole enterprise:

The Public Theater sees its free outdoor performances as a public festival, a kind of civic celebration. It is, so to speak, a gift the city gives itself. Of course, seating is not unlimited; the entire city cannot attend on any given evening. But the idea is to make Shakespeare freely available to everyone, without regard to the ability to pay. Charging for admission, or allowing scalpers to profit from what is meant to be a gift, is at odds with this end. It changes a public festival into a business, a tool for private gain. It would be as if the city made people pay to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. (p. 33)

(Upon reading that last sentence, I said aloud to myself: “Sandel, don’t give people ideas!”)

Moving past the ethical implications of paying people to stand in line for Shakespeare in the Park, which I find distasteful, I find myself wondering what this phenomenon says about our attitudes towards Shakespeare.

On the one hand, I’m absolutely heartened that Shakespeare is still popular enough that people are willing to pay actual money for a chance to see a free performance of his work. There’s still a demand for his alchemical mixtures of drama, humor, character and poetry. There are still plenty of people who want to see his plays put on stage, who may find themselves inspired to delve deeper into his work, to further adapt it, to challenge or rebut it, and to spread it to subsequent generations. That a public festival for Shakespeare draws such interest warms me further: in an era of infinitely many niche audiences, it’s nice to hang on to the few common touchstones in English literature.

On the other hand, the fact that some people are willing to pay to see free Shakespeare doesn’t mean that those people necessarily value it more than those who aren’t. One suspects that the wealthy are most likely to pay for this sort of service, and the marginal value of a dollar is just so much lower for them. Sandel hints at this point when he draws an analogy to another gathering of the masses, a baseball game:

[T]he people sitting in the expensive seats at the ballpark often show up late and leave early. This makes me wonder how much they care about baseball. Their ability to afford seats behind home plate may have more to do with the depth of their pockets than their passion for the game. They certainly don’t care as much as some fans, especially young ones, who can’t afford box seats but who can tell you the batting average of every player in the starting lineup. Since market prices reflect the ability as well as the willingness to pay, they are imperfect indicators of who most values a particular good. (pp. 31-32)

For the people in the luxury boxes and the seats behind home plate, going to a baseball game is more of a status symbol or a networking opportunity than an expression of actual interest in the sport. I’m not sure theater works in quite the same way. But now I’m thinking of the first episode of Slings & Arrows, in which the VIPs in the crowd are listening to a hockey game during a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’m starting to see that scene as less comically absurd than I’d first taken it.

But what do y’all think? What does the line-standing trade for Free Shakespeare in the Park tell us about our relationship to Shakespeare? Is it good or bad, both or neither, or at least interesting? Let me know in the comments!

On Buying New Editions of Classic Books

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that I have a taste for the canon. I’ve recently written about Albert Camus’s essay “The Minotaur,” for example, and I have an ongoing series of blog posts offering close readings of old poems. Something you notice when you read classics is that there are a ton of different editions for each title. Every publisher has its own version of Great Expectations or Jane Eyre, and each edition comes with its own set of bells and whistles. You’ll even find people who collect different versions of the same book.

I find all this fascinating, because classics are the genre of literature which is probably easiest to find at a low cost, and a lot of these new printings of classics will run you more than a negligible sum. I’ve started wondering what these more expensive versions offer the reader beyond the text itself, and whether that’s worth the higher cost.

Just so we’re working with a concrete example, let’s consider a book that I’m currently reading: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. Specifically, we’re going to look at the 2009 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, published in 2009 and translated by Tim Parks.

The PrinceGoing in, I know that The Prince is an important work in the history of political writing, and that it was rather infamous in its day regarding its arguably amoral advice for rulers. I’ve even had to write a few essays for classes using scanned excerpts of the text, so I’m somewhat familiar with its prescriptions. But I’ve never read the work in its entirety, and given the state of the world, I figure it’s high time I read it. Now, supposing that I didn’t already possess this particular edition of the book, how might I go about finding a copy of it for a decent value?

The Prince dates back to the early 16th-century, so the original Italian text is unquestionably in the public domain. I don’t speak Italian, however, let alone the Italian of Machiavelli’s day, so I’m going to need an English translation. Even though translations are derivative works, they may still be protected by copyright. As such, it can sometimes be difficult to find translations of works in other language freely and legally available on the Internet.

Lucky for me, The Prince has been around so long that there are multiple English translations which have also entered the public domain. I can simply search through Project Gutenberg, for instance, and find the full text of W. K. Marriott’s 1908 translation. It’s fairly bare-bones as a book, but if all I want is the text, then it suits me fine. Indeed, I’ve lately been reading some translations of Plato via Project Gutenberg, and I haven’t had any complaints so far.

But maybe e-books aren’t for me, for whatever reason (e.g., difficulty reading off a screen for extended periods of time). Maybe I’d feel better holding a copy of The Prince in my hands. Assuming the local library doesn’t have a copy available—and if, like me, you live out in the country, that’s a distinct possibility—there are still ways to get the book for cheap. If you went to an American high school, you might be familiar with Dover Thrift Editions, which are no-frills editions of classic, public domain works. (One of these days, I’ll write an appreciation post about them.) Per their website, a copy of N. H. Thompson’s 1910 translation of The Prince retails for $3.00. That doesn’t include shipping, obviously, but that’s still a pretty low price point.

So: if the options I’ve just listed, and others that I haven’t, let me get a copy of The Prince at little to no cost, why on earth should anyone spend $16.00 for Penguin’s version? If I want the text, I have Project Gutenberg; if I want the text printed and bound, I have Dover. What, if anything, does the aptly-named Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition offer that the more affordable channels don’t?

Well, a few things, actually, but whether they’re worth the additional cost is entirely up to the reader.

In addition to the text of The Prince, the Penguin edition comes with four additional features: an introduction, a translator’s note, a map of Italy c. 1500, and a glossary of proper names mentioned in the text. The latter two, for my money, are the least inspiring aspects here. The map gives some sense of the political geography of 16th-century Italy, but since many of Machiavelli’s examples are historical it’s also of limited utility. And while the glossary of proper names is perhaps a more convenient reference when reading the book than a search engine might be, and only includes those facts the translator believes are important, it’s still a repackaging of easily available information. I’m not sure I’d pay a premium for that kind of editorial work.

The translator’s note is more compelling. For starters, it gets at why, even if one wouldn’t pay extra for a new edition of, say, a Jane Austen novel, one might do so for a new edition of a work in translation. Unlike original works, Parks argues, translations “have a way of gathering dust”:

If we read [Alexander] Pope’s translation of Homer today, we read it because we want to read Pope, not Homer. Linguistically, the translation draws our attention more to the language and poetry of our eighteenth century than to Homer or ancient Greece. (p. xxxi)

In Parks’s estimation, original texts maintain their freshness, as though they have a sustaining aura to them. Works in translations, however, need to be updated or they’ll turn stale. Maybe a new English translation of The Prince won’t evoke Renaissance Italy so much as the era in which the translation was written, but at least it won’t end up evoking Edwardian England instead.

For something specific to this edition of The Prince, I like how Parks uses the translator’s note as an opportunity to discuss his process. He mentions the difficulty in translating certain critical words from Machiavelli’s original text, such as “principe” and “virtù.” He also explains how his version differs from previous translations, and provides side-by-side comparisons of selected passages to illustrate the difference. Whether or not one prefers Parks’s translation to the others is a matter of taste, sure, but I like seeing a writer justify their choices regardless.

Finally, there is the introduction, which I’d wager is the most common feature in new editions of classics. Introductions are a chance to place the original work in context: to explain the historical and social forces which may have influenced the author, synthesize how critics have approached the work through the years, and draw attention to details the editor believes are important but worries the new reader might miss. The premium price for a new edition includes some insurance that one won’t blindly stumble through a difficult work.

This is especially important for a book like The Prince, whose reputation precedes it. If you’ve never read The Prince, you might imagine that it’s a handbook for being an absolutely ruthless tyrant, when the reality is a bit more nuanced and complicated. That’s why, after a sizable biography of Machiavelli, Parks goes into a brief history of the book’s reception through the centuries, as well as its noticeable influence on early modern English drama. (It’s certainly a more detailed history than one finds in Marriott’s introduction, for instance.)

And unlike with the glossary of proper names, where the bare facts take precedence over style, both the introduction and the translator’s note are enjoyable pieces of writing in their own right. Parks has a knack for wry appraisals, whether he’s noting “a certain Victorian bashfulness in previous translations” (p. xliii), or wondering how Machiavelli thought writing this book would bring him back to the center of Florentine politics:

[T]here is something ingenuous and almost endearing in the clever diplomat’s miscalculation here. The brilliant reasoning required to convince yourself that you had got a grip on politics and history, the profound analysis that would demonstrate to your fellow intellectuals that you were as clear-headed as Livy, Tacitus and Thucydides put together, were not the qualities that a young and hardly well-read Medici prince was likely to comprehend, never mind enjoy. (p. xxi)

In effect, if one buys this new edition of The Prince, one gets two good essays about the book in addition to the original work. And that’s not an insubstantial amount of writing. All told, the supplemental material is about sixty pages long, whereas The Prince itself takes up about a hundred. If you apportion price to page count, all this new material would run you $6.00 out of $16.00. Is that worth it? That’s up to you.

We could mention other elements of new editions of classic books: design elements like the cover and typeface, or the primary source documents found in more scholarly publications. But I think here’s a good place to stop for now. (I would like to actually finish reading The Prince, after all.)

So, to open up the discussion: Do you buy new editions of classic books, and if so, what aspects of those new editions convince you to do so? Let me know in the comments!