Thursday, November 01, 2007

`Gratitude for the Beauty of Those Things that Sustain Us'

We sometimes learn of new writers – new to us, I mean – unexpectedly, in unlikely contexts or from resolutely unliterary sources. I came to Rimbaud via Bob Dylan, and Eric Hoffer by way of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In the Autumn issue of City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple writes about the recent spate of bestselling atheist tracts by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others. Like Dalrymple, I am not a believer, but the shrill self-righteousness of these self-proclaimed rationalists is annoying and offensive. Their arguments are at once flawed and beside the point, and Harris in particular comes off like an adolescent shocked and thrilled to learn that L-I-V-E backwards spells E-V-I-L. Dalrymple dispatches them summarily: “If religious belief is not synonymous with good behavior, neither is absence of belief, to put it mildly.”

In contrast to their smug, angry, prideful spirit, Dalrymple cites the still-lifes of the 17th-century Spanish painter Juan Sánchez Cotán:

“Even if you did not know that Sánchez Cotán was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us. Once you have seen it, and concentrated your attention on it, you will never take the existence of the humble cabbage—or of anything else—quite so much for granted, but will see its beauty and be thankful for it. The painting is a permanent call to contemplation of the meaning of human life, and as such it arrested people who ordinarily were not, I suspect, much given to quiet contemplation.”

That phrase is arresting: “gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us.” One need not be religious in a conventional sense to recognize our obligation to honor the world in a spirit of reverence. Not to do so is to court misery for ourselves and, more importantly, for others. On a visit to the country house of friends, Dalrymple finds a library, accumulated by generations of churchmen, of works by 17th- and 18th-century Anglican divines. Among them was Joseph Hall (1574-1656), Shakespeare’s junior by 10 years, who outlived the playwright by 40 years. It’s to my shame that his name was new to me, for his prose is at once precise, detailed and spirited, an earthier, less ethereal version of Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations. Dalrymple quotes amply from Hall’s work, and I was immediately hooked.

In my university library I found a useful volume edited by Frank Livingstone Huntley and published in 1981 by the Center for Medieval & Early Renaissance Studies. The full title is cumbersome but exact: Bishop Joseph Hall and Protestant Meditation in Seventeenth-Century England: A Study With the Texts of The Art of Divine Meditation (1606) and Occasional Meditations (1633). I skipped Huntley’s introduction and related apparatus and stayed up Tuesday night reading the 80 pages of Occasional Meditations. It consists of 140 brief contemplations of homely objects or events. They resemble still-life paintings, though like Hall’s contemporaries, the metaphysical poets, he reads meaning, usually divine, in the humble. In fact, everything is charged with meaning in Hall’s world. Here is Meditation XXVIII, titled “Upon the Sight of a Crow Pulling off Wool from the Back of a Sheep”:

“How well these creatures know whom they may be bold with! The crow durst not do this to a wolf or a mastiff; the known simplicity of this innocent beast gives advantage to this presumption.

“Meekness of spirit commonly draws on injuries; the cruelest of ill natures usually seeks out those, not who deserve the worst, but who will bear most.

“Patience and mildness of spirit is ill bestowed where it exposes a man to wrong and insultation [in a footnote, Huntley glosses this wonderful archaism as “the act of insulting”]. Sheepish dispositions are best to others, worst to themselves. I could be willing to take injuries, but I will not be guilty of provoking them by lenity. For harmlessness let me go more a sheep, but whosoever will be tearing my fleece let him look to himself!”

Hall combines naturalist observation, psychology (human and otherwise) and a parable-like narrative. His prose is admirably clean and good-natured. Whose company would you choose – Hall’s or Richard Dawkins’? The latter famously described faith as “lethally dangerous nonsense.” In Meditation LXXI, “Upon the Sight of a Great Library” [which Huntley tells us was probably the Bodleian at Oxford], Hall writes:

“What a world of wit is here packed up together! I know not whether this sight doth more dismay or comfort me. It dismays me to think that here is so much that I cannot know; it comforts me to think that this variety yields so good helps to know what I should. There is no truer word than that of Solomon, `There is no end of making many books’ [Ecclesiastes 12:12]; this sight verifies it.”

ADDENDUM: Please see, in the November issue of New English Review, Dalrymple's essay, a sequel of sorts to the one cited above, "A Strange Alliance." The same issue includes "The Cult of Non-Judgmentalism," a review of Dalrymple's In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, by Rebecca Bynum.

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