E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) And His Inspiring Discussion of “Two Types of Problems”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                         3 December 2019

Saint Francis Xavier, S.J. (d. 1552)

Epigraphs

“To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error, but at the same time I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important, and most rewarding things in life. Saint Thomas, following Aristotle, taught that ‘The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.’” (E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), page 3.)

***

“Traditional wisdom had a reassuringly plain answer: Man’s happiness is to move higher, to develop his highest faculties, to gain knowledge of the highest things and, if possible, to ‘see God.’ If he moves lower, develops only his lower faculties, which he shares with the animals, then he makes himself unhappy, even to the point of despair.” (E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), page 12—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original.)

***

“But there is a moral problem, and moral problems are not convergent, capable of being solved so that future generations can live without effort. No, they [i.e.,“moral problems”] are divergent problems, which have to be understood and transcended.

“Can we rely on it [namely,] that a ‘turning point’ [i.e., ‘a metanoia‘—p. 139] will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked [as of 1977], but no matter what the answer, it will mislead. The answer ‘Yes” would lead to complacency [hence to presumption], and the answer ‘No’ to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work.” (E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, page 140—my emphasis added.)

***

“In the life of societies there is the need for both justice and mercy. ‘Justice without mercy,” said Thomas Aquinas, ‘is cruelty; mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution‘ [Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 5:2]—a very clear definition of a divergent problem. Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom.” (E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), page 127—my emphasis added.)

***

In 1977, the year of his death, the author of Small Is Beautiful (1973) introduced for us his effectively testamentary book—A Guide for the Perplexed—with some rather lengthy, yet freshly insightful, quotations from Saint Thomas Aquinas. These profound words from the Summa Contra Gentiles, as they are presented in Chapter One, also thereby help E. F. Schumacher to anticipate what he will later also say and develop in his intellectual and spiritual testament’s last chapter, Chapter Ten, which is entitled “Two Types of Problems.”

Let us ourselves therefore first consider two portions of Saint Thomas’ words:

With imperturbable certainty [says Schumacher] Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued:

“No man tends to do a thing by his desire and endeavour unless it be previously known to him. Wherefore since man is directed by divine providence to a higher good than human frailty can attain in the present life…it was necessary for his mind to be bidden to something higher than those things to which our reason can reach in the present life, so that he may learn to aspire, and by his endeavours to tend to something surpassing the whole state of the present life….It was with this motive that the philosophers, in order to wean men from sensible pleasures to virtue, took care to show that there are other goods of greater account than those which appeal to the senses, the taste of which things affords much greater delight to those who devote themselves to active or contemplative virtues.”1

Schumacher continues this line of emphasis by first introducing Saint Thomas’ second passage:

These [above] teachings, which are the traditional wisdom of all peoples in all parts of the world, have become incomprehensible to modern man [as of 1977], although he, too, desires nothing more than somehow to be able to rise above “the whole state of the present life.” He hopes to do so by growing rich, by moving around at ever-increasing speed, by traveling to the moon and into space. It is worth listening again to Saint Thomas. (13—my emphasis added)

And here is what Saint Thomas specifically argued in his apologetic work, the Summa Contra Gentiles (Volume 3), as a complement to the passage presented above from Volume 1:

“There is a desire in man, common to him and other animals, namely the desire for the enjoyment of pleasure: and this men pursue especially by leading a voluptuous life, and through lack of moderation become intemperate and incontinent. Now in that vision [“divine vision”—says Schumacher] there is the most perfect pleasure, all the more perfect than sensuous pleasure as the intellect is above the senses; as the good in which we shall delight surpasses all sensible good, is more penetrating, and more continuously delightful; and as that pleasure is freer from all alloy of sorrow or trouble of anxiety….

In this life there is nothing so like this perfect happiness as the life of those who contemplate the truth, as far as possible here below. Hence the philosophers who were unable to obtain full knowledge of that final beatitude, placed man’s ultimate happiness in that contemplation which is possible during this life. For this reason too, Holy Writ commends the contemplative rather than other forms of life, when our Lord said (Luke X:42): Mary hath chosen the better part, namely contemplation of truth, which shall not be taken from her. For contemplation of truth begins in this life, but will be consummated in the life to come: while the active and civic life does not transcend the limits of this life.” (13—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

In this context, let us now consider what Schumacher calls “convergent problems,” as distinct from “divergent problems,” the latter of which are much more demanding and stretching of a man’s higher faculties (such as our sensitively formed consciousness and our humble self-awareness).

After beginning his Chapter Ten with a partial recapitulation of his previous nine chapters, he says:

It remains to examine what it means to live in this world. To live means to cope, to contend and keep level with all sorts of circumstances, many of them difficult. Difficult circumstances present problems, and it might be said that living means, above all else, dealing with problems. Unsolved problems tend to cause a kind of existential anguish….

This extraordinary situation might lead us to inquire into the nature of “problems.” We know there are solved problems and unsolved problems. The former, we may feel, present no issue; but as regards the latter: Are there not problems that are not merely unsolved but insoluble? (120-121—my bold emphasis; italics in the original)

He will now gradually prepare us to look at the mystery and challenge of divergent problems, after briefly considering some lesser challenges. For, as he later says in his Epilogue—while still “learning how to cope, to grapple, with the divergent problems that are the stuff of real life” (139—my emphasis added):

The art of living is always to make a good thing out of a bad thing. Only if we know that we have actually descended into infernal regions [as was the case in Dante’s Divine Comedy] where nothing awaits us but “the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilised relations,” can we summon the courage and imagination for a “turning around,” a metanoia. This then leads us to seeing the world in a new light [perhaps under Grace]. (139—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Thus now comes Schumacher’s own step-by-step teaching:

First, let us look at solved problems. Take a design problem—say, how to make a two-wheeled, man-powered means of transportation. Various solutions are offered which gradually and increasingly converge until, finally, a design emerges which is “the answer”—a bicycle—an answer that turns out to be amazingly stable over time. Why is this answer so stable? Simply because it complies with the laws of the Universe—laws at the level of inanimate nature.

I propose to call problems of this nature convergent problems. The more intelligently you (whoever you are) study them, the more the answers converge. They may be divided into “convergent problem solved” and “convergent problem as yet unsolved.” The words “as yet” are important, for there is no reason in principle why they should not be solved some day….

It also happens, however, that a number of highly able people may set out to study a problem and come up with answers that contradict one another. They do not converge. On the contrary, the more they are clarified and logically developed, the more they diverge, until some [such as “Justice and Mercy” or “Growth and Decay”] appear to be the exact opposites of the others. (121-122—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Schumacher’s attentive mind and fatherhood now give us an important exemplification of this kind of divergence, as it especially again applies to the little children:

For example, life presents us with a very big problem—not the technical problem of two-wheeled transport, but the human problem of how to educate our children. [And it has long been acutely and wisely perceived that “there are no technical solutions to moral problems.”] We cannot escape it; we have to face it. (122—my emphasis added)

Moreover, Schumacher will now concretely unfold his challenge about an often intractable “divergency,” that is, “a divergent problem” (123):

And we ask a number of equally intelligent people to advise us. Some of them, on the basis of clear intuition, tell us: “Education is the process by which existing culture is passed from one generation to the next. Those who have (or are presumed to have) knowledge and experience teach, and those who as yet lack knowledge and experience learn. For the process to be effective, authority and obedience must be set up.” Nothing could be simpler, truer, more logical and straightforward. Education calls for the establishment of authority for the teachers and discipline and obedience on the part of the pupils.

Now, another group of our advisers, having gone into the problem with the utmost care, says this: “Education is nothing more nor less than the provision of a facility. The educator is like a good gardener, whose function is to make available healthy, fertile soil in which a young plant can grow strong roots; through these it will extract the nutrients it requires. The young plant will develop in accordance with its own laws of being, which are far more subtle than any human can fathom, and will develop best when it has the greatest possible freedom to choose exactly the nutrients it needs.” In other words, education as seen by this second group calls for the establishment, not of discipline and obedience, but of freedom—the greatest possible freedom. (122-my bold emphasis added; italics in original)

Deftly and with some hyperbole and unmistakably fine irony, Schumacher now considers some implications of these two positions:

If our first group of advisers is right, discipline and obedience are “a good thing,” and it can be argued with perfect logic that if something is “a good thing,” more of it would be a better thing, and perfect discipline and obedience would be a perfect thing…and the school would become a prison house.

Our second group of advisers, on the other hand, argues that in education freedom is “a good thing.” If so, more freedom [as if truth mattered?] would be an even better thing, and perfect freedom would produce perfect education. The school would become a jungle, even a kind of lunatic asylum.

Freedom and discipline (obedience) here is a pair of perfect opposites. No compromise is possible. It is either the one or the other. It is either “Do as you like” or “Do as I tell you.”

Logic does not help us because it insists that if a thing is true its opposite cannot be true at the same time [pace Hegel!]. It also insists that if a thing is good [such as the Catholic Faith or the infused Virtue of Hope], more of it will be better. Here we have a very typical and very basic [and paradoxical?] problem, which I call a divergent problem, and it does not yield to ordinary, “straight-line” logic; it demonstrates that life is bigger than logic.

“What is the best method of education?” presents, in short, a divergent problem par excellence. (122-123—bold emphasis added; italics in original)

In partial answer to that question, Schumacher says:

Love, empathy, participation mystique, understanding, compassion—these are the faculties of a higher order than those required for the implementation of a policy of discipline or of freedom. To mobilize these higher faculties or forces, to have them available not simply as occasional impulses but permanently, requires a high level of self-awareness, and that is what makes a great educator.

Education presents the classical example of a divergent problem, and so of course does politics, where the most frequently encountered pair of opposites is “freedom” and “equality,” which in fact means freedom versus equality. (123—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

These overall words also remind me of one of the classic definitions of happiness, and eventually Beatitude: Happiness is the exercise of the full range of human faculties along lines of excellence.

However, we believe that Aristotle’s own range of the faculties and human potentialities and the virtues was not as capaciously large as those in the understanding and holy practice of the great Saint Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas believed that, not only was man intellectually “Capax Universi,” but also, in virtue of the Creation and the whole Supernatural Order, “Capax Gratiae.”

In 1971, seven years before his death, E. F. Schumacher became a Roman Catholic and recurrent subtle signs of that fact pervade A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), especially his affirming allusions to Saint Thomas Aquinas and Dante and the Parables of Christ (e.g., 132-133, on the Parable of the Talents).

In the context of Dante and great literary art and, decisively thus, “the communication of Truth” (128-129), Schumacher says that such “art helps us to develop our higher faculties, and this is what matters.” (129) Moreover, he notes more broadly that:

All great works of art are “about God” in the sense that they show the perplexed human being the path, the way up the mountain, providing a Guide for the Perplexed. We may again remind ourselves of one of the greatest examples of such art, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante wrote for ordinary men and women, not for people with sufficient private means to be interested mainly in fine feelings. “The whole work,” he explains, “was undertaken not for a speculative but for a practical end…the purpose of the whole is to remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and lead them to a state of felicity.” The pilgrim—Dante himself—nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, that is, at the height of his powers and outward success, suddenly realizes that he is not at the height at all but, on the contrary, “in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.”….He cannot remember how he ever got there….The true function of art is “so to dispose [the] heart with desire of going” “up the mountain,” which is what we really wish to do but keep forgetting, that we “return to our first intent.” The whole of great literature deals with such divergent problems. (129, 130, and 131—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

With these few additional thoughts, E. F. Schumacher will implicitly encourage us to savor his own testament and his proposed Guide more fully, and also to bid us farewell thereby that we may continue our own adventure and risk-filled pilgrimage:

Man’s life can thus be seen and understood as a succession of divergent problems which must inevitably be encountered and have to be coped with in some way. They are refractory to mere logic and discursive reason, and constitute, so to speak, a strain-and-stretch apparatus to develop the Whole Man, and that means to develop man’s supralogical faculties [hence our fuller virtues and our grateful receptions of Grace?]. All traditional cultures have seen life as a school and have recognized, in one way or another, the essentiality of this teaching force [and its potential]. (128—my emphasis added)

As another wise man—Father John A. Hardon, S.J.—used to say to me recurrently about “the Whole Man”: “What we have is Nature; what we need is Grace.” And “To live and die in the State of Sanctifying Grace.”

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, page 13—italics in the original. Henceforth all references to this text will be placed in parentheses above, in the main body of this brief essay. Saint Thomas’ own words are to be found in Volume 1 of his Summa Contra Gentiles (London: 1924-1928).

An Understanding of Don Quixote and His Loyal Companion Sancho the Winetaster

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                       6 November 2019

Pope Saint Martin I (d. 654)

Epigraphs

“One has to accept sorrow for it to be of any healing power, and that is the most difficult thing in the world….A priest once said to me, ‘When you understand what accepted sorrow means, you will understand everything. It is the secret of life.’” (Maurice Baring, Darby and Joan (London: William Heinemann LTD, 1935), page 178—italic in the original)

***

“What then is this Sloth which can merit the extremity of divine punishment? Saint Thomas’ answer is both comforting and surprising: tristitia de bono spirituali, sadness in the face of spiritual good. Man is made for joy in the love of God, a love which he expresses in service. If he deliberately turns away from that joy, he is denying the purpose of his existence. The malice of Sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty (though that can be a symptom of it) but in the refusal of joy. It is allied to despair.” (Evelyn Waugh, “Sloth,” in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (Edited by Donat Gallagher) (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983), page 573—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

***

“I grant you [that form of praise],” replied Sancho…. But tell me, sir, in the name of what you love most, is this the wine of Ciudad Real [its famous Valdepeñas wine]?”

What a winetaster you are! [said the candid other Squire.] It comes from nowhere else [i.e., from “the chief city of La Mancha and center of a winegrowing district”], and it’s a few years old, at that!”

Leave it to me,” said Sancho, “and never fear, I’ll show you how much I know about it. Would you believe me, Sir Squire, I have such a great natural instinct in the matter of wines that I have but to smell a vintage and I will tell you the country where it was grown, from what kind of grapes, what it tastes like, and how good it is, and everything that has to do with it. There is nothing unusual about this, however, seeing that on my father’s side were two of the best winetasters La Mancha has known in many a year, in proof of which, listen to the story of what happened to them…And so your Grace may see for yourself whether on not one who comes of that kind of stock has a right to give his opinion in such cases.” (Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de La Mancha (Translated by Samuel Putnam) (New York: The Modern Library, 1949), pages 589-590—my emphasis added—Book II, Chapter 13). Part I was first published in 1605; Part II was first published in 1615, one year before Cervantes’ death.

***

The profound and appreciative author of The Shadow of Cervantes, D. B. Wyndham Lewis,1 modestly allows us to consider, though merely in passing, two of his own brief passages on Miguel Cervantes and Don Quixote. These two passages taken together, in a sort of clarifying counterpoint, will impart some worthy insights to us that will deepen our understanding of Don Quixote, and of a mature life and wider literature, as well.

For, Cervantes, I believe, always deftly manifested in Don Quixote a generous (often ironic and comic) combination of presenting “the way things are” along with “the way things ought to be,” despite the spreading cynicism of the World, despite the discouraging and attendant “tristitia saeculi.”

In the first passage for us to reflect upon, Wyndham Lewis says the following:

We may pause a moment to recognize here a theme of major importance to Cervantes and constantly reiterated. Life is treacherous, hard, cruel unpredictable; life is sometimes almost unbearable; life is an unending battle—militia vita hominis, to echo one of the Fathers. But despair, as revealed truth teaches, is a sin against the Holy Ghost, a vile cowardly collapse, the unforgivable thing. Up! Cries the old soldier in a trumpet-voice to the wavering ranks. Quit you like men! No surrender! Fight on! And Miguel de Cervantes, the much-tried, the realist, the dauntless, has plainly better right to rally his fellow-mortals [as he heroically did at the 1571 Battle of Lepanto] than some rosy optimist of the Victorian breed who never took a blow. (100-101—my emphasis added)

The second passage for our further consideration is also, perhaps, a somewhat surprising insight concerning a pervasive “sorrow” and “sadness” in Don Quixote:

Sadness [Dolor (intimate Sorrow); sed nec Tristia Saeculi nec Tristitia de bono spirituali] is the perpetual undersong of Don Quixote, from the day on which the gentle, fearless dreamer first rides out on his bony steed to right the world’s wrongs singlehanded to the day on which he returns home to acknowledge his folly, restored to reason and soon to embrace death like a valiant disillusioned Christian man. Even the Spain of Philip III, from which not all the chivalrous graces had fled, had no place for an absurd revenant from a long-distant past, now surviving largely in the imaginations of romancers who might almost—if the thought be not treason—be called the sub-Scotts [cf. Sir Walter Scott as author of the Romantic Historical Novels] of their period. Creating an array of medieval puppets sufficiently decorative, Scott patently knew and cared nothing about authentic mechanism [of the Chivalric Tale]. His camp-followers, not to speak of their public, knew if possible less. The romancers due to become Cervantes’ targets, contrariwise knew the mechanism but, as may shortly be perceived, deliberately perverted it. To burlesque their worst [literary] rubbish was therefore not only a brilliant inspiration but a public service. Others than Cervantes were attacking the libros de cabellerías [books of chivalry] from other angles….

It may be too that Cervantes felt…a nostalgia for that lost aroma, pure and lovely and fragrant, the true quintessence of chivalry, to be found in the thirteenth-century masterpieces like La Queste del Sainct Graal [the Quest of the Holy Grail]….Throughout the Queste runs the golden thread of knightly reverence for womanhood in honour of the Immaculata which…was in truth one of the saving graces of a rough and bloody age.

Then were the natural charities exhaled Afresh from out the blessed love of Mary… (120-121—my emphasis added)

When we now savor the later passage of Don Quixote –in Book II, Chapter XIII—we may winsomely see both the loyalty of Sancho Panza to his master as well as his showing himself to another Squire to be, indeed, a very gifted winetaster rooted, on his father’s side, in vintage-rich and nourishing family traditions!

It is difficult for me to present only selected passages from Chapter XIII of Part II without also adding a consideration and commentary upon this exceptionally charming Chapter. May my few selections somehow inspire the reader’s resolution to read soon and savor the entire chapter (pages 585-590 in the Putnam translation).

Cervantes’ introductory note to Chapter XIII says that it is a Chapter “In which is continued the adventure of the Knight of the Wood [“Knight of the Mirrors”], together with the shrewd, highly original, and amicable conversation that took place between the two squires [Sancho Panza being one of them, the other one being the tall and somewhat rather too comfortable “Squire of the Wood”!].” (585)

But let us now allow the loyal Sancho to speak “as they sat there in the dark” (588):

“There is no road so smooth,” said Sancho, “that it does not have some hole or rut to make you stumble….But if it is true what they say, that company in trouble brings relief, I may take comfort from your Grace, since you serve a master [a lovelorn master] as foolish as my own.”

Foolish but brave,” the one [the Squire] of the Wood corrected him [Sancho], “and more of a rogue than anything else.”

This is not true of my master,” replied Sancho. “I can assure you there is nothing of the rogue about him; he is as open and aboveboard as a wine pitcher and would not harm anyone but does good to all. There is no malice in his make-up, and a child could help him believe it was night at midday. For that reason I love him with all my heart and cannot bring myself to leave him, no matter how many foolish things he does.”….

Sancho kept clearing his throat from time to time, and his saliva seemed rather viscous and dry; seeing which, the woodland squire said to him, “It looks to me as if we have been talking so much that our tongues are cleaving to our palates, but I have a loosener over there [a large bota of wine!], hanging from the bow of my saddle, and a pretty good one it is.” With this, he got up and went over to his horse and came back a moment later with a big flask of wine….

“Would you believe me, Sir Squire, I [said Sancho] have such a great natural instinct in this matter of wines that I have but to smell a vintage and I will tell you the country where it was grown, from what kind of grapes, what it tastes like, and how good it is, and everything that to do with it. There is nothing unusual about this, however, seeing that on my father’s side were two of the best winetasters La Mancha has known in many a year, in proof of which, listen to the story of what happened to them.” (588-589—my emphasis added)

And this is the tale he told!

“The two were given a sample of wine from a certain vat and asked to state its condition and quality and determine whether it was good or bad. One of them tasted it with the tip of his tongue while the other merely brought it up to his nose. The first man said that it tasted of iron, the second that it smelled of Cordovon leather. The owner insisted that the vat was clean and that there could be nothing in the wine to give it the flavor of leather or iron, but, nevertheless, the two famous winetasters stood their ground. Time went by, and when they came to clean out the vat they found in it a small key attached to a leather strap. And so your Grace may see for yourself whether or not one who comes of that kind of stock has a right to give his opinion in such cases.” (589-590—my emphasis added)

And what was the response of the other wine-bibbing Squire to Sancho Panza and his story of such an inherited high standard of taste that has been even biologically transmitted? (A touch of evolutionary “Lysenkoism,” perhaps?)

The Squire of the Wood immediately replies and Sancho, by way of anticipation, then gives to him a loyal rejoinder:

“And for that very reason [sic],…I [said the Squire] maintain that we ought to stop going about in search of adventures. Seeing that we have loaves, let us not go looking for cakes, but return to our cottages, for God will find us there if He so wills.”

I mean to stay with my master,” Sancho replied, “until he reaches Saragossa [up in the North], but after that we shall come to an understanding [about Illusion and Reality].”

The short of the matter is, the two worthy squires talked so much and drank so much that sleep had to tie their tongues and moderate their thirst [for wine], since to quench the latter was impossible. Clinging to the wine flask [the large bota again!], which was almost empty by now, and with half-chewed morsels of food in their mouths, they both slept peacefully, and we shall leave them there as we go on to relate what took place between the Knight of the Wood and the Knight of the Mournful Countenance [our beloved Don Quixote of La Mancha].” (590—my bold emphasis and italics added)

We have gratefully seen now but an enticing small portion of the sustained resilience of spirit of the inimitable Don Quixote and his loyal companion, Sancho Panza, who is a vivid Raconteur of warmly infectious Loyal Love, and not only for his Knightly Master.

May we also all come to read and to savor slowly (like the balm of good wine—and perhaps again and again) Miguel Cervantes’ masterpiece, Don Quixote: his tonic gift to us and coming from a generous man who died in penury. He was also buried as a lay member (like his wife later) of a religious order—as a Third Order Franciscan—enduringly grateful, as well, to the chivalrous and self-sacrificing order of Trinitarians and Mercidarians who together rescued him from a severe, merciless Turkish captivity in Algiers.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1D.B Wyndham Lewis, The Shadow of Cervantes (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962), 190 pages. Henceforth all references to this excellent and detailed work will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay. Although we shall not be able to present a fuller depiction of Cervantes’ Captivity by the Turks (especially in Algiers) and his belatedly successful ransom back to Spain (indispensably helped by the chivalrous, self-sacrificing Trinitarian Order), we earnestly recommend to the reader a thorough savoring of Chapter III of Wyndham Lewis’ book..

Cervantes at Lepanto and the Aftermath: In Captivity and with Don Quixote

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                         6 November 2019

Saint Leonard of Limoges (d. 559)

Saint Leonard of Reresby (d. 13th century)

The Death of Professor Josef Pieper (d. 1997)

Epigraphs

There are times when to open Don Quixote after closing Hamlet is like an escape from a clinic into a bracing gale in the High Pyrenees. Has it been said before? It can be said again.” (D.B. Wyndham Lewis, The Shadow of Cervantes (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962), page 189—my emphasis added)

***

“Truly will Cervantes say as he lays it [his pen] down at last [in 1616], ‘Don Quixote was made for me, and I for him.’….’For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; his to act and mine to record.’” (The Shadow of Cervantes, 174 and 178—my emphasis added)

***

It may be too that Cervantes felt, as many must feel on skimming one of these dusty folios [of chivalric romances], a nostalgia for that lost aroma, pure and lovely and fragrant, the true quintessence of chivalry, to be found in a thirteenth-century masterpiece like La Quest del Sainct Graal [The Quest for the Holy Grail]. Malory [i.e., Thomas Malory, the late medieval English knight and author] well conveys its [chivalry’s own] exaltation. ‘And when he came to the sacring of the Mass and had gone, he called Galahad, and said to him: Come forth, servant of Jesus Christ, and thou shalt see what thou has most desired to see. And then he began to tremble right hard when the deadly flesh (la mortel char [mortal flesh]) began to behold spiritual things….’ Throughout the Quest runs the golden thread of knightly reverence for womanhood in honour of the Immaculata which is native to the Grail Cycle, Celtic and French, and was in truth one of the saving graces of a rough and bloody age. ‘Then were the natural charities exaled/Afresh from out the blessed love of Mary…,’” (The Shadow of Cervantes, pages 120-121—my emphasis added)

***

“But Hamlet is a pale sceptic feigning madness, whereas the Don’s logic [Don Quixote’s logic] is the sanity of the genuinely and gloriously crazy. Amid the metaphysical gymnastics of the learned [like Hamlet] one may easily lose sight of the key to Cervantes’ achievement. It is that gentility, in the noble obsolete sense, already remarked on. The old soldier Miguel Cervantes, a man with his normal share of sins and weaknesses, much battered by life, finds the springs of mirth in the clash between the ideal and the actual, and his amusement is mixed with tenderness for all his kind. ‘Qui creâsti me, miserere mei!‘….The Don is pre-eminently lovable; the most gallant and courteous of crackpots, endearing even in his rages; perpetually thwacked and tumbled in the mud by a gibing [and often cynical] world; perpetually rising again with his dream unimpaired, heart and courage high, a radiance in his poor crazy eyes; an hildalgo at every turn of fortune, a blood-brother to Parsival [one of the Grail Knights, like Galahad], the pure and guileless Fool.

“Life had treated his [Don Quixote’s] creator little less roughly. Its [life’s] buffets could not impair an inviolable sweetness of nature and an unquenchable valiance of spirit, based on eternal verities, which stamp Miguel Cervantes as being all that has ever been meant by the word ‘gentleman’. Nobody could teach him anything about the bitterness of this world. In his seventieth year, just able to pen his very last piece of writing, he takes leave of it as such a man would.—’Farewell, graces; farewell, elegances; farewell, my jovial friends, for now I find myself facing death and desiring to see you soon, happy in the other life.’ Thus in his own story as in that of his Don, Cervantes offers a cordial to a fainthearted posterity on the brink of a new Dark Age.

Untainted by what is known as the Pelagian [Heresy] or British heresy, the dogma of the Fundamentally Decent Fellow in no need of any divine grace, he recognizes a spark of goodness in the worst of us. It has often been observed that of the nearly seven hundred characters in his enormous comedy [Don Quixote] not a single one is wholly bad….” (The Shadow of Cervantes, pages 22-23—my emphasis added)

***

In his mid-sixties late in his life, Miguel Cervantes—the beloved author of Don Quixote—wrote the following brief and vivid description of himself and his earlier life, especially about his military service and combative presence at the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571— as well as its aftermath, to include his Turkish captivity and ransom. Cervantes wrote his modest self-description in a third-person narrative:

He is commonly called Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. He was a soldier for many years and a captive for five and a half, an experience that taught him patience in adversity. In the naval battle of Lepanto [7 October 1571] he lost his left hand as the result of a harquebus shot, a wound which, however unsightly it may appear, he looks upon as beautiful, for the reason that it was received on the most memorable and sublime occasion that past ages have known or those to come may hope to know; for he was fighting beneath the victorious banner of the son [Don John of Austria] of that thunderbolt of war, [Emperor] Charles V of blessed memory.1

Cervantes became a soldier at twenty-two years of age, in 1569, two years before Lepanto. He first enlisted in an infantry regiment where a few years later at Lepanto “his conduct in battle won encomiums from his officers, followed by extra pay and the ultimate offer of a commission [as an officer].”2 Moreover:

His motive for enlisting was not (as some troglodytes have surmised) dissatisfaction with Aquaviva’s service [with “the young prelate-diplomat Guilio de Aquaviva”(68)]. His patron, now a cardinal, was one of the most agreeable and cultivated of patricians, on the easiest terms with his entourage….We have to look elsewhere for the spring of his impulse to arms. It is not far to seek. He was fired with a chivalrous ardency of which the first volunteers of 1914 [at the outset of World War I] knew something, though in Cervantes’s case the motive was a nobler one than patriotism.

In 1570 the fate of all our civilization was at stake. A divided Christendom saw its doom advancing from the East like a thunder-cloud and heard a loud trumpet calling from Rome. The peril was nothing new. (71—my emphasis added)

Wyndham Lewis proceeds to give some apt details concerning these earlier and current perils:

Forty years previously [in 1530 or so] the Emperor Charles V, quoting the late fall of Byzantium [in 1453] and the current perfidy of [King] François I of France, Mahound’s ally, had predicted that without Almighty God’s intervention the Turk would before long be master of Europe. By the autumn of 1569 the process was seen to be actually taking shape. Sultan Selim II was now ready to take Cyprus from the Venetians as a preliminary to more far-reaching operations. Though a sot steeped in monstrous vices, the son of Suleiman the Magnificent was advantaged by inherited Oriental skill in exploiting the divisions of the Christian world, by vast resources, first-class armaments, and very capable commanders. (71—my emphasis added)

(Who, after reading this paragraph, does not also think of the strategic and moral situation today? Even the political divisions and the perfidy?! And not only in Europe.)

We shall now more closely follow and selectively quote Wyndham Lewis’ own compact and eloquent presentation of the history: especially the envious and fearful political factions and their resentfully stubborn divisions. We may thereby better follow the 7 October Lepanto battle itself and its discouraging aftermath:

Charles IX of France and Catherine de’ Medici, embroiled with [Admiral] Coligny and his Huguenots [Calvinists], were disinclined in any case to fall foul of the Turk. At Vienna Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, a genial nonentity, was sulking over the recent title of Grand Duke conferred by the Holy See on Cosimo of Florence, the first to suggest a league against Islam, and took no action. Elizabeth Tudor, recently excommunicated, was hardly likely to respond to any papal call; in fact her record as a businesswoman moved Selim’ Grand Vizier to assure the Emperor’s ambassador laughingly that after the first Turkish victory she and the English nobility would turn Mahometan overnight. Young Sebastian I of Portugal would have been eager to respond, but a severe recent plague-epidemic had put out of action his army, his galleys, and his munition factories alike. As for the Venetians, who had a reputation for neutrality [sic] in previous clashes with the Turk, they were in a chaotic state of alarm and shifting policy. At the Vatican conference on July 1, 1570, attended by representatives of the Holy See, Spain, and Venice, there was considerable wrangling over expenses as well. (72—my emphasis added)

Despite all of these varied, and often paralyzing, disputations, an unlikely but good surprise was to come from a gifted man of 23, which was also then the closely proximate age of young soldier Cervantes himself:

Laughing in the sun, Mustafa Pasha took Cyprus in September of that year [September 1570], except for the [Venetian Christian] garrison of Famagusta, which held out gallantly and might have been relieved under Colonna, but for the quarrels of the Venetians and the Genoese under his command. At the last moment a leader emerged: a man, as Pius V quoted thankfully later from the Gospel, sent by God, whose name was John [Juan]; twenty-three-years-old John of Austria, natural son of the Emperor Charles V by Barbara Blomberg, a soldier with a fearlessness matching his looks and his brains. Under his command as generalissimo of the forces of the Holy League some two hundred galleys and caravels sailed from Messina [in northeastern Sicily] to meet the Turk on September 15 and 16 [1571]. Among the troops aboard the Marquesa galley in Giovanni Andrea Doria’s squadron was Miguel de Cervantes. Don John engaged the Turk, coming from Cyprus and Crete, at Lepanto, in the gulf of Patras, 150 miles north-east of Athens, and after a day’s fierce battle [on 7 October] sent him reeling to the ropes [but not knocked out]. (72-73—my emphasis added)

We now hear about the moral and spiritual preparations for the momentous naval battle:

As befitted men sworn to save Christendom or perish, the entire army and fleet from Don John down to the smallest cabin-boy went to Confession and received the Blessed Sacrament at Messina before sailing, fortified likewise by a special indulgence dispensed by a papal legate and equal to that granted for the Crusades. (73—my emphasis added)

At the end of the day of 7 October 1571, “Uluch Ali turned with what survived of the Turkish fleet and fled” (74) and

Away in Rome that same evening St Pius V turned from the open window of his study to praise God for the great victory just won a thousand miles away…commemorated in the Roman Calendar thence-forward by Rosary Sunday….The great ode of Fernando de Herrera called Song of Praise to the Divine Majesty for the Victory of Señor Don Juan [John] is at once a silver fanfare and a humble breast-beating….“Blessed be Your clemency, Lord, for that [because] despite suffering our injuries, despite our punishable crime, You have broken the ruthless yoke of the enemy’s ancient pride.”….

On that day, away on the extreme left wing in the Marquesa galley under the immediate command of Francisco de San Petro, Miguel de Cervantes acquitted himself, as his officers testified, most valorously before being put out of action. When the Christian fleet sighted the Turk he was half prostrate with fever and ordered below. Appearing on deck as battle was joined, vowing that he would rather die in action for God than skulk under cover, and begging for a post of danger, he was given command of twelve men in a longboat from the San Petro galley and sent to an exposed position. Here, later in the day, he was knocked out in heavy fighting by three gunshot wounds; two in the chest, one in the left hand. On Don John’s triumphal return to Messina amid the banging of cannon and the pealing of bells Cervantes went into the hospital with the other wounded. Three months later he was still under the surgeon….How any soldier of the period survived even an ordinary bullet-wound is at times a matter for wonderment. (74-75—my emphasis added)

Soon after this admirable description of a “tough age” (74), Wyndham Lewis speaks to us of the combat-presence there of the future Saint Camillus de Lellis:

Cervantes never apparently encountered at Lepanto, or in Corfu, or in any subsequent campaign against the Turk, the big, cursing, brawling Italian soldier, later canonized as St Camillo de Lellis, who launched the first field-ambulance service of nursing brothers, with the Red Cross badge, in 1582. Nor can he [Cervantes] have seen, like de Lellis, his comrades reduced by hunger in one crisis to devouring dead Turks’ livers. He would certainly have enshrined such a recollection in the Captive’s story [in Don Quixote—Part I].

As for Lepanto, he [Cervantes] will never be able to forget it, and why should he? Did not Don John in person recommend him for a commission [as an officer] not long afterward? (75-76—my emphasis added)

Now we dare to approach some of the discouraging strategic aftermath of the tactical victory at Lepanto, and we now propose to consider the extent to which it was also a strategic victory. It is not long until Miguel Cervantes and his meritorious brother Rodrigo are also to be captured by the Turks:

And the Cervantes brothers returned with their regiment to resume garrison-duty in Naples, surely as dashed in spirit as their Commander-in-chief [John of Austria]. Worse was imminent. Before long all the heroism and glory of Lepanto were seen to be wasted. That swinging blow to the Turk was not to be followed by a knockout. In March 1573 the Venetians ratted [deserted]. On the day when their minister in Rome was pledging renewed loyalty to the [Holy] League [against the Turk] their minister in Constantinople was signing a treaty giving up Cyprus, returning the Albanian port of Sofoto—the only Venetian capture from the Turk so far—and engaging the Sublime Porte 300,000 ducats’ compensation. This act of treachery has been ascribed solely to terror. It might indeed be said in the Venetians’ behalf that the Turk’s first Christian objective had always been Venice; moreover it would take the Venetians some time to forget the fate of Marcantonio Bragadino after the storming of Famagusta [in Cyprus] on the eve of Lepanto; the fiendish torturing and flaying alive of their envoy, arrested during the negotiations for a capitulation, the stuffing of the disembowelled corpse with straw, and its final derisive hoisting to the yardarm of the Turkish admiral’s galley. Nevertheless the Venetian double-dealing and surrender shocked all Catholic Europe from the Holy See down. Pius V had died just in time to be spared seeing his hopes destroyed by this perfidy. His successor, Gregory XIII, minced no words. The Venetians had mortally wounded the League which had been formed to save them, and the blow fell of course most heavily on Don John of Austria, who, it now seemed, had swiped the Turk in vain. He, too, spoke his bitter mind. (77—my emphasis added)

Now we consider the beginning of another surprise and consequently bitter challenge: the capture and protracted retention in Algeria of the Cervantes brothers cruelly held by the Turk:

Miguel de Cervantes began bestirring himself vigorously [in the early autumn of 1575]….Backed by his commanding officer he was at length granted leave by G.H.Q. [General Headquarters] to return to Spain and apply for a captain’s commission in one of the new infantry regiments being raised for foreign service. A couple of letters of recommendation signed by Don John and the Viceroy in person accompanied the grant and testify to Cervantes’ standing in his superiors’ eyes. On September 20, 1575, we find him at Naples accompanied by his meritorious [elder] brother Rodrigo and, one may imagine, in the highest spirits, boarding the Sol galley, one of the flotilla bound for Spain under Captain Sandro de Leiva.

He must have been still in high feather when six days later, off the Provençal coast near Les Saintes Maries, three fast Turkish galleys captained by an Albanian renegade swooped of the Sol, which had been temporarily separated from the rest, and after a brisk hand-to-hand fight [the Turk] fled from the onrush of Leiva’s [Christian] main flotilla, carrying with them to Algiers a score of Spanish prisoners, the two brothers Cervantes among them. Those precious letters [of recommendation] carried by Miguel were shortly to prove no blessing. (79-80—my emphasis added)

For, in Algeria, as we are soon to be told in Chapter 3, the situation was cruelly bleak:

The sight everywhere of ragged Christian captives chained for transit or working under the lash—all these tokens, like a bad dream, of the presence and power of Mahound must have chilled even the stout blood of Miguel de Cervantes as he tramped that October day [in 1575], hustled by guards and linked to his fellow-prisoners, from quay to gaol [from the wharf to his jail]. (81—my emphasis added)

It is so that Wyndham Lewis’ Chapter 3—“Nor Iron Bars a Cage” (81-117)—will thoroughly and quite vividly present to the reader what Cervantes himself largely had to endure during his long captivity (and his several resourcefully attempted escapes) until his eventual ransom, which was achieved with the indispensable help of the chivalric order of the Trinitarians.

And yet, despite his cumulative suffering, Miguel Cervantes’ later writing in Don Quixote is so warm and generous—and so graciously forgiving and splendidly magnanimous.

We may recall now afresh what Cervantes intimately wrote near the end of his life: “Don Quixote was made for me and I for him….For me alone was Don Quixote born, and I for him; his to act and mine to record.”

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1 See Samuel Putnam’s edition and translation of Cervantes’ Prologue to his own Exemplary Novels, in The Portable Cervantes (New York: The Viking Press, 1951), page 706.

2D.B Wyndham Lewis, The Shadow of Cervantes (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1962), page 70. Henceforth all references to this excellent and detailed work of some 190 pages will be placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay. Our focus in this essay will be on two of the five chapters of this book: Chapter II—“Drum, Trumpet, and the Turk”; and Chapter III—“Nor Iron Bars a Cage.” Although we shall not be able to present a fuller depiction of Cervantes’ Captivity by the Turks (especially in Algiers) and his belatedly successful ransom back to Spain (indispensably helped by the chivalrous, self-sacrificing Trinitarian Order), we earnestly recommend to the reader a thorough savoring of Chapter III.

Cervantes’ Picaresque Tale About Criminal and Moral Disorder in Seville’s Underground

Dr. Robert Hickson                                       24 October 2019 Saint Raphael the Archangel

Epigraphs

“He is commonly called Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. He was a soldier for many years and a captive for five and a half, an experience that taught him patience in adversity. In the naval battle of Lepanto [1571 A.D.] he lost his left hand as the result of a harquebus shot, a wound which, however unsightly it may appear, he looks upon as beautiful, for the reason that it was received on the most memorable and sublime occasion that past ages have known or those to come may hope to know; for he was fighting beneath the victorious banner of the son [Don John of Austria] of that thunderbolt of war, [Emperor] Charles V of blessed memory.” (Cervantes Self-Description as found in the Prologue to his Two Exemplary Novels—in Samuel Putnam, The Portable Cervantes (1951), page 706.)

***

“And, finally, he [Rinconete] was astounded by the careless manner in which justice was administered in that famous city of Seville, with people so pernicious as these [in Monipodio’s covert academy and picaresque brotherhood of thieves] and possessed of such unnatural instincts carrying on their pursuits almost openly.” (Cervantes, Rinconete and Cortadillo, in The Portable Cervantes (1951), page 758.)

***

During the recurrent disturbances and prevarications coming from Rome outside (and sometimes even within) the 6-27 October 2019 Amazonian Synod, I consolingly thought to turn to Cervantes and his Picaresque Tales, especially one of them: Rinconete and Cortadillo,1 a generous and forgiving tale which was set mostly in Seville, Spain in early seventeenth century. Characteristically, as with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Cervantes vividly and magnanimously depicts both life as it is and life as it ought to be.

Let us therefore now consider the refreshing three-page ending of Cervantes’ Picaresque Tale as he deftly shows us the more mature second thoughts of his two young now experienced protagonists: those two young and very resourceful teenage rascals once known as Pedro de Rincón and Diego Cortado, the younger one of the two inimitable homeless rogues.

“Then turn on,” Monipodio directed him [Rinconete], “to where it says ‘Memorandum of Common Outrages.‘”

Rinconete [who was not illiterate] turned the leaves until he came to this inscription [concerning “Outrages”]….

“Don’t mention the house,” said Monipodio, “for I know where it is.”….

“Don’t read that [passage] either,” Monipodio admonished him; “the house and the address do not matter. It is enough to commit the offense without speaking of it in public, for it is a great burden upon the conscience. I would rather nail up a hundred horns [of infidelity or alleged cuckoldry] and as many sanbenitos [penitential garments], providing I was paid for it, than mention the [true] fact a single time even to the mother who bore me.”….“Give me the book, lad. I know there’s nothing else [to consider]. Business [the brotherhood’s thievery] is a bit slack just now, but times will change, and it may be we shall have more to do than we can take care of. There’s not a leaf stirs without God’s will, and we cannot force people to avenge themselves [by retaining our services], especially seeing that everyone is now so brave in his own behalf that he doesn’t want to pay for having something done that he can just as well do with his own hands.”

That is the way it is,” said Repolido….

What is to be done,” said Monipodio, “is this. You are all to go to your posts and stay there until Sunday, when we will meet in this same place and divide everything that has fallen into our hands, without cheating anyone. Rinconete the Good and Cortadillo [who earlier had also been called “Cortadillo the Good”] will have for their district until the end of the week that part of the suburbs [of Seville] that lies between the golden Tower and the Castle Postern. There they will have no trouble working their tricks, for I have seen others who were not nearly so clever come back every day with more than twenty reales in small change, not to speak of the silver, and all this with only one deck and with four cards missing. Ganchhuelo,” he [i.e., Chief Monipodio] went on, addressing the youths, “will show you the lay of the land, and even though you go as far as San Sebastian and San Telmo, it will not make much difference, although it is only right that no one [not even those clever two young and sympathetic rogues] should trespass on another’s territory.”

The pair kissed his hand in return for the favor he had done them and [they] promised to fulfill their [admittedly picaresque] tasks faithfully and well, with all diligence and discretion. (754-756—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)

After this preparatory sample of the life of our two young rogues, we shall now more understandably be able to consider the specific “honors” that Rinconete and Cortadillo received from Monipodio—although the two lads will soon thereafter also mature a little more and then experience some quite resonant disillusionments:

Monipodio then took out from the hood of his cloak a folded sheet of paper containing a list of members [in the brotherhood] and directed Rinconete to put down his own name and that of Cortadillo; but since they had no ink there, he told them they might take the paper with them and attend to the matter in the first apothecary’s shop to which they came. The entry was to read: “Rinconete and Cortadillo, full members; apprenticeship, none; Rinconete, card sharper; Cortadillo, sneak thief.” They also were to note the day, month, and year, but were to say nothing about their parents or place of origin….

He [Monipodio] embraced Rinconete and Cortadillo and dismissed them with his blessing, charging them that they should never have any permanent lodging or stopping place, as that was best for all concerned. Ganchuelo went with them to show them their post, and took occasion to remind them once again that they should not fail to put in an appearance on Sunday, since he believed that Monipodio intended to give [the two of] them a lecture on the things that had to do with their trade. He then went away, leaving the two lads quite astonished at all they had seen. (756-757—my emphasis added)

With this implicit transition, we shall now witness our two picaros‘ critical observations of the Seville underground and the varied brotherhood of thieves (and helpers) amidst all their fresh adventures and abiding astonishment. (We also think of the Rome-Vatican underground today and its own networked and privileged brotherhoods—and their very effective demoralizations, as it seems.)

In support of this view, let us consider how the talented Rinconete expresses his new and more distant (even somewhat derisive) reflections about his own challenging and morally compromising way of life. For, Cervantes, through his tale’s narrator, refreshingly says to us the following, while also showing us the illusions:

Although a mere boy [of some fifteen or sixteen years of age], Rinconete had a naturally keen mind, and having accompanied his father in selling papal bulls [in Latin], he knew something about the proper use of language [to reveal, not to conceal, reality!]. He had to laugh loudly as he thought of some of the words [malapropisms or solecisms] that Monipodio and the rest of that foolish community had employed [e.g., “to keep my promise and follow destructions,” instead of to “follow instructions”! (751)]. In place of per modum suffragii [about spiritual intercession] Monipodio had said per modo de naufragio (“by way of shipwreck”)….Then there was [the prostitute] Chubby Face’s remark…(He [Rinconete] was especially amused by her [Chubby’s] hope that the labor she had expended in earning the twenty-four reales would be counted by heaven against her sins.) (757-758—my emphasis added)

But, the final two paragraphs of the Picaresque Tale (758-759) are most important:

Above all, he marveled at the absolute assurance they all felt of going to Heaven when they died so long as they did not fail in their devotions, and this in spite of all the thefts, murders, and other offenses of which they were guilty in the sight of God. He laughed also as he thought of the old woman, Pipota, who leaving the stolen hamper at home, went off to place her wax candles in from of the [sacred] images; by doing so she doubtless was convinced that she would go to Heaven fully clothed and with her shoes on. He was no less astonished at the obedience and respect they all showed Monipodio, that coarse, unscrupulous barbarian. He recalled what he had read in the latter’s memorandum book of the practices in which they were all engaged. And, finally, he was astounded by the careless manner in which justice was administered in that famous city of Seville, with people so pernicious as these and possessed of such unnatural instincts carrying on their pursuits almost openly.

He made up his [perceptively keen] mind to persuade his companion [the younger rascal, Cortadillo] that they should not continue long in this desperate and evil way of life, one so free and dissolute and marked by such uncertainly. But in spite of it all, being young and inexperienced, he did continue it for a number of months, and in the course of that time had certain adventures which it would take too long to set down here. Accordingly, we must wait for another occasion to hear the story of his life and the strange things that happened to him, as well as to his teacher Monipodio, along with other events having to do with the members of that infamous academy, all of which should be very edifying and well might serve as an example and a warning to those who read. (757-759—my emphasis added)

The magnanimous Miguel Cervantes has so much more to teach us still, and not only about the generous forgiveness and affectionately chivalrous illusions of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Moreover, my Special Forces Team-Sergeant in the late 1960s once very memorably said to me: “Sir, no one is completely useless; you can always serve as a bad example.”

Meditating on Cervantes’ final two paragraphs above (758-759) has somehow also reminded me of the recent Amazonian Synod in Rome and its often covert preparations and some dubious fruits and prevarications. However, what has been going on in Rome is not a Picaresque Tale, much less a tale in the spirit of Miguel Cervantes.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Samuel Putnam, The Portable Cervantes (Don Quixote, “Rinconete and Cortadillo,” et al.)—Translated and Edited, with an Introduction and Notes by Samuel Putnam—(New York: The Viking Press, 1951), 854 pages. The text of “Rinconete and Cortadillo” will be found on pages 709-759, from which text all further references will be made and placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay. This Picaresque Tale is sometimes called the first of Cervantes’ two “Exemplary Novels,” the second one being entitled “Man of Glass” (760-796).

Hilaire Belloc’s 1910 Reflective Essay “On Sacramental Things”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                       26 September 2019

The Eight North American Martyrs (d. 1642-1649)

Saint Thérèse Couderc (d. 1885)

Epigraphs

One of the main marks of stupidity is the impatient rejection of mystery; one of the first marks of good judgment, combined with good reasoning power, is the appetite for examining mystery.” (Hilaire Belloc, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England (London: Sheed & Ward, first published in July 1931), page 275—my emphasis added)

***

Truth comes by Conflict” (Hilaire Belloc’s own Epigraph to his 1931 book, Essays of a Catholic Layman in England.)

***

Perhaps the test of these sacramental things is their power to revive the past….But why all these things are so neither I nor any other man can tell.” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” in his 1910 Anthology entitled On Something, pages 263 and 265—my emphasis added. )

***

“Now that story [of the Dovrefjeld in central Norway’s mountains] is a symbol, and tells a truth. We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental; a woman and a child, a man at evening, a troop of soldiers; we hear notes of music, we smell the smell that went with a passed time, or we discover after the long night a shaft of light upon the tops of the hills at morning: there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.” (Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,” in the author’s own 1910 Anthology, On Something, page 265—my emphasis added.)

***

 

In January of 1910, when Hilaire Belloc was almost forty years of age and already widely traveled on land and sea, he published his intimately reflective essay “On Sacramental Things,” which was first presented in his own authorial anthology, entitled On Something.1 He will effectively teach us herein to be more perceptive and attentively receptive and grateful; and, he will give us help to preserve a vivid memory and even sacred devotion.

Moreover, near the end of his essay, Belloc will even show us a rare portion his heart, as he gives us his own memorably purified version of an old Norse Tale with its evocative presentation of trustworthiness and the implicit meaning of a Vow and of Loyal Love.

Mindful of the nourishing needs of the soul of man, Belloc begins his refreshing reflections, as follows:

It is good for a man’s soul to sit down in the silence by himself and to think of those things which happen by some accident [or providence?] to be in communion with the whole world. If he has not the faculty of remembering these things in their order and of calling them up one after another in his mind, then let him write them down as they come to him upon of piece of paper. They will comfort him; they will prove a sort of solace against the expectation of the end [“Respice Finem!”]. To consider such things [e.g., one’s end and purpose] is a sacramental occupation. And yet the more I think of them the less I can quite understand in what elements their power consists. (257-my emphasis added)

Belloc then directly gives us an initial taste of what he has so vividly perceived and remembered himself, especially from all his travels afoot in Europe, in North Africa, and on his formidable 1901 Path to Rome:

A woman smiling at a little child, not knowing that others see her, and holding out her hands toward it, and in one of her hands flowers; an old man, lean and active, with an eager face, walking at dusk upon and warm and windy evening westward towards a clear sunset below dark and and flying clouds; a group of soldiers, seen suddenly in manoeuvres, each man intent upon his business, all working at the wonderful trade, taking their places with exactitude and order and yet with elasticity; a deep, strong tide running back to the sea, going noiselessly and flat and black and smooth, and heavy with purpose under and old wall; the sea smell of a Channel seaport town; a ship coming up at one out of the whole sea when one is in a little boat and is waiting for her, coming up at one with her great sails merry and every one doing its work, with the life of the wind in her, and a balance, rhythm, and give in all that she does which marries her to the seawhether it be a fore and aft rig and one sees only great lines of the white, or a square rig and one sees what is commonly called a leaning tower of canvas, or that primal rig, the triangular sail, that cuts through the airs of the world and clove a way for the first adventures, whatever its rig, a ship so approaching an awaiting boat from which we watch her is one of the [consoling, sacramental] things I mean….

They do so nourish the mind! A glance of sudden comprehension mixed with mercy and humour from the face of a lover or a friend;…chief and most persistent [is the] memory,[namely] a great hill when the morning strikes it and one sees it up before one round the turning of a rock after the long passes and despairs of the night.

When a man has journeyed and journeyed through those hours in which there is no colour or shape, all along the little hours that were made for sleep and when, therefore, the waking soul is bewildered or despairs, the morning is always a resurrection—but especially when it reveals a height in the sky. This last picture I would particularly cherish, so great a consolation is it, and so permanent a grace does it lend later to the burdened mind of a man. (257-259—my emphasis added.)

Belloc is certainly a sensitive “tuning-fork,” as it were, able to perceive nuances of atmosphere and the varied responses of the human soul to geography or to the radiant goodness of a human face and the fresh face of a child. Sometimes he just bursts out in his own digressions, such as this passage:

Glory (which, if men would only know it, lies behind all true certitude) illumines and enlivens the seen world, and the living light makes of the true things now revealed something more that truth absolute; they appear as truth acting and creative….

So one begins to understand, as the pure light shines and grows,…what has been meant by those great phrases which still lead on, still comfort, and still make darkly wise, the uncomforted wondering of mankind. Such is the [slightly modified] famous phrase: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor can it enter into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those that serve [and thereby love] Him.” [1 Corinthians 2:9] (260-261—my emphasis added)

Before Belloc introduces us to a Norse Tale, he mentions a little-known place:

There is another place more dear to me but which I doubt whether any other but a native of the place can know….A traveller [suddenly] breaks through a little fringe of chestnut hedge and perceives at once before him…the most historic of European things, the chief of the great capitals of Christendom and the arena in which is now being debated…the Faith, the chief problem of this world. (263—my emphasis added)

Just after his commentary on the Faith and its challenges and its consequent, permanent struggles, he tells us about “the Master Maid” (263):

Apart from landscape other things belong to this contemplation [of sacramental things that lead us to God and thus to the seven sacraments and to a greater sacred devotion]: Notes of music, and, stronger than repeated and simple notes of music, a subtle scent and its association, a familiar printed page. Perhaps the test of these sacramental things is their power to revive the past. [In this context, we recall The Concept and Reality of the “Memoria Corporisthe Memory of the Body—as in the Body of the Lord, or in the Body, the Corpus, of Sacred Tradition.]

There is a story translated into the noblest of English writing by Dasent.2 It is to be found in his [1904] Tales from the Norse. It is called the “The Story of the Master Maid.” (263—my emphasis added)

As he had earlier done with his 1903 translation of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult,3 Hilaire Belloc now again shows us how he is able to summarize and purify a sometimes truculent Scandinavian tale, and to do it with compactness and lucidity and a resonant poignancy:

A man had found in his youth a woman on the Norwegian hills: this woman was faerie, and there was a spell upon her [cast by a troll]. But he won her out of it in various ways, and they crossed the sea together, and he would bring her to his father’s house, but his father was a King. As they went overseas together, he said and swore to her that he would never forget how they had met and loved each other without warning, but by an act of God, upon the Dovrefjeld. Come near to his father’s house, the ordinary influences of the ordinary day touched him; he bade her enter a hut and wait a moment until he had warned his father of so strange a marriage; she, however, gazing into his eyes, and knowing how the divine may be transformed into the earthly, quite as surely as the earthly as the earthly into the divine, makes him promise that he will not eat human food. He sits at his father’s table, still steeped in her and in the seas. He forgets his vow and eats human food, and at once he forgets.

Then follows much for which I have not space, but the woman in the hut by her magic causes herself to be at last sent for to the father’s palace. The young man sees her, and is only slightly troubled as by a memory which he cannot grasp. They talk together as strangers; but looking out of the window by accident [or providence?] the King’s son sees a bird and its mate; he points them out to the woman, and she says suddenly: “So it was with you and me high up upon the Dovrefjeld.” Then he [the young man] remembers all. (264-265—my emphasis added)

As we are savoring Belloc’s tones and tenor, and his gracious brevity, he says, once again, that “We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental; …[and] there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.” (265—my emphasis added)

He had, at the outset of his essay, earlier said: “To consider such things is a sacramental occupation. And yet the more I think of them the less I can quite understand in what elements their [mysterious] power consists.” (257) At the end of his inquiring essay, he says: “But why all these [sacramental] things are so neither I nor any other man can tell.” (265—my emphasis added)

Granted our own slightly greater perceptiveness now as to the “Memoria Corporisour memory of the body of thingsmay we now also better be able to contemplate with love the Passion of the Lord.

And to contemplate, as well, the Passion (and the Joys) of Our Lady, the Blessed Mother.

Santa Madonna!

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, “On Sacramental Things,”is to be found in his anthology On Something (London: Methuen & Co. LTD, 1910), pages 257-265.) All future references will be to this 1910 edition and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this appreciative essay.

2See Sir George Webbe Dasent (1817-1896), Popular Tales from the Norse (London, 1904).

3See Hilaire Belloc, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult (London: George Allen, 1903) as translated from the French of Joseph Bédier by Hilaire Belloc. See also a later-published text: Hilaire Belloc, Tristan and Iseult (London: Unwin Books and George Allen, 1913 and 1961).

Strategic Bombing and the Innocents: Considering Gertrud von Le Fort and Pope Pius XII in Response to World War II

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                        8 September 2019

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Epigraphs

“I was…thinking…about the nights in the city when the sirens had wailed so horribly to say: The foreign airplanes are coming!….That was eight years ago, and the [1939-1945] war has been over for a long time. I am not a little child now; I am a big boy—twelve years old soon. Yet even today, Mommy never talks to me about airplanes—I know she wishes I would forget all about the sirens and the airplanes. But I cannot forget them, although my thoughts always go only up to the edge of the memory—when I try to think of the most terrible moments, then suddenly there is a big hole, as dark as the cellar where we were sitting then, and there is such a terrible droning noise that I can no longer think about anything. Then all I hear is Mommy’s voice, loud and clear as a shout through all the other shouting: ‘Mary, take my child into your arms!’….

“When I began to think and see again, I thought at first that it really was the Virgin Mary holding me in her arms because Mommy’s face was as black as the picture of Our Lady of Altötting that hung in her room. But soon I noticed that it was Mommy’s face, covered with smoke and soot, completely frozen with fear and terror….” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents” (7-46) in The Innocents and Other Stories (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019—first published in 1960 in German and entitled “Die Unschuldigen”), see now pages 7-8 for the above-cited passage.)

***

“Several days later the Church celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents, to whom the castle chapel is dedicated….The priest said that the [Psalm 124:7] verse expresses the voice of the Holy Innocents.

“Suddenly one of the refugee women began to whimper audibly. ‘But the children did not escape at all; they froze! They lay motionless and stiff on the ice when we fled across the lagoon [as was our coming from East Prussia]. They threw them into the water like dead fish!’ She moaned so loudly that the priest had to interrupt his sermon until they had led the woman out.

“Later when we left the chapel, Mommy was standing on the stairs holding in her arms the woman who had whimpered before. She had nestled her head on Mommy’s bosom and wept very gently and quietly. Later Grandmama told Mommy that she would like to explain to the woman [refugee] the psalm verse she had misunderstood. But Mommy just shook her head.” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 28-29—my emphasis added)

***

“Mommy [Melanie, Heini’s mother] never goes with Grandmama to church in Niederasslau. Since she lost her rosary, she does not go to Mass anymore, either—she does not even go to the castle chapel when one is said there. But Mommy cannot stand the castle chapel at all because it is dedicated to the Holy Innocents. On the chapel wall to the right of the altar is a painting of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem.” (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” page 18)

***

“I think that Grandmama was much fonder of Uncle Eberhard than of my father [Karl], who was also her son, after all….But there is something else that Grandmama has against my father.

“’You hold Karl’s death [by suicide] against him, Mother,’ Mommy recently said to her—Karl was my father–‘and yet it was a noble, heroic death,’

“’But not for a Christian,’ Grandmama replied. ‘A Christian must find another way out.’ Grandmama, I think, is very pious….

“But then she [Mommy] told me honestly and decisively, ‘No, Heini, your father shot himself, but his death was nevertheless a noble one. Your father preferred to die rather than to kill the innocent.’” Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 15-16 and 33—my emphasis added)

***

“’Karl [my officer husband] did not fear certain death,’ Mommy insisted. ‘He feared God, and you claim to be a pious woman.’

“’But you are unwilling to be one,’ Grandmama replied, ‘and that is at bottom the reason for all your trouble and unrest. God permitted this terrible event [a massacre in 1944 France at Oradour]; if you could believe in Him, you would soon find peace.’

“’No, on the contrary, then I most certainly would not find peace,’ Mommy said stubbornly, ‘because if God existed, He would have to be as indignant as I. But there cannot be a God, because the whole world is full of the suffering of the innocent!

“’That is precisely how the world was redeemed,’ Grandmama said calmly. ‘The guilty merely get their just punishment, but the sight of innocent people suffering softens hearts—Christ suffered, too, although He was innocent. Until you accept that, you cannot be a Christian woman.’

“’And I do not want to be one,’ Mommy protested, again looking quite desperate.’…I thought, ‘What Grandmama just said really sounded beautiful and mysterious. Why, then, will Mommy not accept it?’ But then I recalled what Herr Unger recently said to her: ‘But what could be the reason why people today no longer believe the piety of pious people?‘ (Gertrud von Le Fort, “The Innocents,” pages 30-31—my emphasis)

***

“’But why, then, did Grandmama weep so bitterly at my bedside [after again Heini’s having been wounded by the fall of the tower-bell, but not a bomb]? I never knew she [in her poised dignity] could still weep like that! And why did she then tell you that she can now understand why you no longer want to pray?‘….

“’Well, does Uncle Eberhard not want to marry you anymore?’

“’No, my poor child rescued me from that.’

“’Oh, then I am glad, Mommy. But why are you kneeling down all of a sudden? Can you pray again now? And why are you praying downstairs in the chapel? Is there another Mass today for the Holy Innocents?

“’It is the domestics and the refugees, darling [and all the “children of Oradour” in France (46)]. I think they are praying for you.’….

“’So, now I want to go to the children—but suddenly I can no longer stand up—someone has to carry me. Ah, Mommy if you can pray again [as on page 8], then please say once again: Mary, take my child in your arms…’

“’Mary, take my child…‘” (45-46—my emphasis added) [Finis]

***

Introducing Gertrud von Le Fort’s 1960 poignant and at times very disturbing novella, “The Innocents,” has seemed a fitting way to speak of Allied strategic bombing in World War II, as well as of the later 24 January 1943 Allied demand for unconditional surrender. It may also lead us to wonder what Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church first specifically thought and then did about these two major moral decisions and the consequential actions. (Pope Pius XII, who knew German well, died on 9 October 1958, not long before Gertrud von Le Fort published “The Innocents,” which was dedicated to the lost children: “In memory of the children who died in World War II.”1 )

Moreover, Gertrud von Le Fort—by her vivid fiction—has intimately depicted some of the deep and longstanding effects of the promiscuous and often cynical aerial bombing, to include the ill fruits of revenge that such bombing so often incited and aggressively reciprocated, especially after the innocent were deliberately or negligently slaughtered. Culpable ignorance and culpable negligence were frequently present, as it appears—and as I have been told by pilots and naval aviators.

In this short reflection, I therefore propose to discuss, without any apparatus of learning, some of what I have learned over the years, to include oral history, beginning with my time as an eager cadet at West Point from 1960-1964.

The theorists of strategic bombing all essentially claimed that such a method would shorten the war, and avoid the stalemate-situation and moral horror of the Trenches of World War I, especially in Western Europe.

But, a declaration of unconditional surrender would—and did—protract the war, especially in light of the earlier vengeful “Carthaginian Peace” of Versailles (and the related stark Trianon Treaty and such). The enemy would also become more resolute as well as much more distrusting and deceptively mistrustful. That is to say, an already betrayed enemy was all too likely to “hunker down” intransigently and try to endure.

The strategic air power theorists had a set of presuppositions—fundamental premises—on which to base their confidence and their practices: the “industrial web theory” (about a vulnerable interdependent society of modernity); the belief that the bombers could get though to their targets without a fighter escort; their confidence that they could find, and in a timely way, the most important long-range strategic targets (such as the key nodes and choke points in the infrastructure of Romanian oil fields, so indispensable for sustained logistics); the reliable and continuous employment and precision of the new Radar); and their pilots’ ability to handle safely unexpended ordnance after an incomplete bombing mission over Germany, for example. But, almost all these assumptions were false. (My former father-in-law, a combatant bomber pilot in the 8th Air Force, told me calmly that, of course, he, like the other crews, often just dumped unused bombs anywhere he could—on cities or on the countrysides—before he returned to England and safely landed without any active munitions. He also landed in the Soviet Union twice, both times because of near emergencies, but, he reported, it was not a welcoming place or “ally” to be visiting, even briefly.)

Stalin first said that he wanted the capitalistic Western societies to fight each other and thereby to deplete each other, and then he would arrive into their own dissolution and take charge. Later, he did not want his putative Western allies to come up through Northern Italy into Austria. He even made some suggestions that, if the West did that, he just might have to make a Separate Peace with Germany, instead, another Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty (on 3 March 1918, late in World War I). But, this time, he said, to the advantage of the Soviet-Russians and not to the Germans. Stalin slyly wanted his Western allies to attack as far west as possible, instead, for example starting in western France so that the Soviet Army could more easily advance into eastern and central Europe (like the Mongols, but even further). Here was the country who had made an August 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, and then invaded Poland on 17 September 1939, after losing to the Poles the decisive August 1920 Battle of Warsaw,2 which occurred only two years after Brest-Litovsk Surrender (in March of 1918). To appease their new Soviet ally (soon after 22 June 1941), England, on 6 December 1941, even declared war on heroic, anti-Bolshevist Finland, opening the way to the Soviet conquest of the three Baltic Republics.

From all things I have read down the years—and from all the searching questions I have asked—I have never discovered that Pope Pius XII ever even mentioned his warning or cautious assessment of “Strategic Bombing” and of the moral and immoral effects of effectively unlimited “Unconditional Surrender,” which Stalin himself hesitated to accept and to proclaim openly and then also to apply.

If anyone could give me evidence of Pope Pius XII’s analysis and resistance to Strategic Bombing and Unconditional Surrender taken together, and mercilessly applied, I would be very grateful—and even consoled.

Father John Anthony Hardon, S.J. once tested me orally by asking: “Is evil within the Divine Providence?” I said “Yes” but that didn’t get me very far, nor help my understanding very much. But Father then slyly said: “If you had said ‘No,’ however, we would have a problem!”

Then we spoke about the Mystery of the Permissive Will of God. For, Father said that God allows certain evils to avoid a greater evil or sometimes to enable a greater good to come forth and to abide. Then I said: “Papal Diplomacy certainly is a Test of your larger and manifold insights about the Providence of God.” What Pope Pius XII did or did not do—nor mention—during World War II is another Test about the purposes and allowances of the Divine Providence. No matter what, World War II was not—is not—“the Good War.” Gertrud von Le Fort has helped us to realize and to spread this true fact with empathy and with compassion.

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Gertrud von Le Fort, The Innocents and Other Stories (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), page 7 for her Dedication. All further references to “The Innocents” will be to this recent edition, and will be placed above, in parentheses, in the main body of this brief essay.

2For the conduct and the strategic implications of this battle and victory against the great Soviet Marshal Toukhatchevsky, see the excellent book by Viscount Edgar Vincent D’Abernon (d. 1941), entitled The Eighteenth Decisive Battle in the World: Warsaw, 1920 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1931—or its later 1977 Reprint by Hyperion Press in Westport, Connecticut.)

Hilaire Belloc on Sailing and the Salt of Reality: The Cruise of the Nona (1925)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                   31 July 2019

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556)

Epigraphs

“Now at sea there is no advocacy. We are free from that most noisome form of falsehood, which corrupts the very inward of the soul. Truth is one of the great gifts of the sea. You cannot persuade yourself nor listen to the persuasion of another that the wind is not blowing when it is, or that a cabin with half of foot of water in it is dry, or that a dragging anchor holds. Everywhere the sea is a teacher of truth. I am not sure that the best thing I find in sailing is not this salt of reality. (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), page 323—my emphasis added.)

***

“It is with Torbay [on the Devon coast] as with the Fowey coast [in south Cornwall]. I have known it only under such weathers as leave a hint of heaven: never have I opened Torbay in passing Berry Head but it was morning, with the young sea delighting in a leading breeze; and once, a draught to last forever, I came up under such a dawn and with so tender a dying crescent in the sky that I spent an hour in Paradise.

“What are those days of glory? They are not memories: are they premonitions, or, are they visions?

“They are not memories, though perhaps Plato thought them so, and our modern pantheists…called and believed them so.

I will hope that they are premonitions, hints granted beforehand of a state to be attained. At the worst they are visions of such a state lying all about us, the home of the Blessed, which we are permitted to glimpse at for a moment, even those of us sad ones who may never reach that place.” (Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (1925), pages 160-161—my emphasis added.)

***

After receiving recurrent encouragement to do so, I have also now come to think that it would indeed be a worthy thing to do: namely, to frame and present some vivid and varied and unmistakably profound passages from Hilaire Belloc’s 1925 book The Cruise of the Nona.1 Moreover, it seems to me to be especially desirable to accent Belloc’s multiform passages on sailing and the salt of reality. For, considered together they also show his deep heart, and he himself often said that “it is during the sailing of the lonely sea that men most consider the nature of things.” (55)

Furthermore, his lengthy volume of almost 350 pages also contains a capacious and intimately challenging subtitle: The Story of a Cruise from Holyhead to the Wash, with Reflections and Judgments on Life and Letters, Men and Manners. Yet, surprisingly, this sustained overflowing, truly abundant book—written by an exuberant man in his fifty-fifth year of life—contains no index, nor any specific chapter-designations! Therefore, a keen reader of such a book might all too easily lose himself and not even be easily able to find once again those many inserted and refreshing expressions of wisdom and eloquence, and often of heart-rending poignancy which Belloc presents in passing and with a quiet implicitness. (The two above-quoted Epigraphs may well provide another hint to the reader of what Belloc will be willing to combine and to share with us with such candor and robust magnanimity—and with such unassuming and humbling modesty and with his frequent irony and humor.)

Let us now go directly to one of Belloc’s manifold and resonant passages to be found early in his maritime journey along the coast of Wales:

So we drifted down the narrow entry and out into the open sea [off Wales]; and all that afternoon, under a wind now slightly lifting, now falling again, we crept eastward and a little south, making more way as the sun declined, because the wind was shifting westward on to our quarter; and on that I was glad, for I desired to look into Port Madoc, which I had not seen since I was a child. I had vivid memories of it during a wonderful journey overshadowed by that air wherewith the Creator blesses childhood, lending to everything an active flavour of the divine; which is in three things, Clarity, Magnitude, and Multiplicity of strong emotion.

For the divine reveals itself in a special multiplicity, in an infinite variety. All that there is in colour and in music, and in line and in affection, and those added other raptures innumerable, such as we know not of nor can conceive—that is to be at last our beatitude: that is the fullness of being. In childhood our innocence permits us some little glimpse of such things; but with the passage of the years [if they are found to be without adequate Divine Grace] they are lost altogether. The light in the lantern goes out, and the living thing within us fails, and is stupefied, and dies….

If any man doubts the Fall of Man…let him consider this decay of heaven within ourselves as the maturity of our manhood develops. The more we are of this world and the more we know of it, the further we are drifting from the shores of the Blessed. (27-28—my emphasis added).

Shortly after this passage and his trying experience with the incompetent Welsh pilot (“a local trickster” (37)), we find Belloc now in a different spirit and he shows us other facets of his character and his nautical language:

Nona, cruising and voyaging Nona, wanderer over the seas of Britain, how in the solitude of your companionship my mind does lead me from one thing to another!….

The new day having come, we got the half-ebb [tide] a little before six o’clock, and threaded away down the Channel for the open sea.

I ought, I suppose, to have stopped in Port Madoc, and [to have] renewed the memories of my childhood. But a fig for the memories of my childhood, at six o’clock in the morning: at six o’clock of a May morning, and a nice little leading breeze, all cold a merry! The memories of childhood and the contemplation of the divine are for the evening; they go with candle-light, and with a wine I know, and with friends of twenty years. But, so help me He that made me, when I find the morning wind blowing well for the salt and myself freshly roused from a good sleep, I am full of nothing but the coming of the course and an eagerness for the line of the sea against the sky and the making of a further shore.

It ought to be more dangerous to float down on the ebb [tide] without a local trickster [like that dangerously feckless Welsh channel-and-harbour pilot bungling at night!], than to come up upon the flood [tide]. But fortune served, and the swirl of the ebb plainly marked the channel under that heartening [morning] light, with the glory of a new day shooting over the tops of the great and solemn mountains [of Wales] eastward, by the land.

Therefore, without misadventure, we came to the last marking buoy and took to the sea; running easily with the wind nearly aft, but a little on the port quarter, so that all was well. (37—my emphasis added)

We must not move on without first giving a little attention to Belloc’s reaction and commentary concerning that volunteer Welsh Pilot:

With the last of the light, and a westerly air which was but the suggestion of a breeze, we groped north anxiously for the opening to Port Madoc channel. How I should make it, even upon the flood [high tide], in the darkness, I knew not; for the sands [sand bars] there are miles wide, and this channel…shifts continually. But God sent me a pilot….

Nor was he a pilot, as the event shall show; but at any rate he belonged to that shore, and would have more knowledge that I. So I gave him the helm

The gliding [of the Nona] stopped; there was a slight thrill. She had hit Wales: an under-water, advance guard of Wales. The man at the helm was not apologetic, he was not humble, but he was at least subdued….I forbore to reproach him, not from kindness, but from cowardice….

To be coming thus into a very shoal fairway [the deeper channel], after dark, and to be in the hands of a pilot who was quite clearly one of God’s Three Great Welsh Fools—one of the triad, one of the Three Great Fools of Britain—was a strain to the temper, a strain to breaking point. It was no good my taking the tiller, for I had no idea of the channel, and only saw now and then, straining my eyes forward, a little blob on the darkness that would be a drum-headed buoy slowly drifting past as we lifted [off the sand bar] on the young flood [tide]. (31-32—my emphasis added)

Immediately after his delightfully humorous report and consequential detection of provocative folly, our beloved Belloc proceeds with an even deeper impish reflection, which is also full of irony:

I used to think that the irritation against fools was irrational and purposeless. Where it is written in Holy Writ [but done deftly and ironically so in Saint Paul himself!] that one should tolerate fools even with gladness, I thought that this was a general rule of conduct. But now I know it to be a counsel of perfection and, indeed, like so many things in the Old Testament, a counsel generally to be avoided. (33—my emphasis added)

The sustained artful charm of this rascal man is a fragrant enlivening balm. Do we agree?

Belloc also records with keen perceptions his meetings with two other men, one who seems to have been some kind of an exile, and the other was one who so generously supported all “sailormen” (123), and was especially now supporting the grateful Belloc himself.

After passing across Cardigan Bay, “a run of seventy-odd miles” (55), Belloc was first to meet a man, unnamed, who spoke “the most beautiful English” (55):

We let go the anchor, and, tying up our canvas [sails] in a very slovenly fashion, we hailed the shore and got a boat to come out, seeing that I had lost my own dinghy during the tempest in Bardsey Sound.

The man who came out to us in the boat hailed us as he approached in the most beautiful English….It was a privilege and an honour to be rowed to shore by such a man, for he was free of his conversation and all that he said was interesting, true, and well put….He asked us as we landed an astonishingly small payment for his services and then he promised to meet us again at a fixed hour to take us aboard [the Nona again]. In all things this man was worthy and a friend, for I could see in his eyes that he suffered exile. (55-56—my emphasis added)

Belloc’s second perceptive and very memorable encounter with a virtuous man began like this:

From the Cornish town [to the north] I had the next morning to make my way back to London; and Stephen Reynolds, whom I met, got her [the Nona] round the land safely to the ports upon the southern side [of the Cornwall peninsula, around Lands End, and perhaps beyond unto the likely larger port of Penzance], whence later I resumed this cruise2: Stephen Reynolds, that strongest-souled and most sincere of men, who desired and did good all his life. It is the meeting with such men, and the comparison of their public label with their true function, of their false renown or lack of renown with their certain standing in the eyes of their Maker, which lead all wise men to a perfect contempt for the modern world.

Does anyone remember him now of those who are reading this? Perhaps one or two, perhaps no one. He loved the poor: he understood the sea. He was a brother and a support to sailing-men, and he had charity, humility, and justice in equal poise. But the truth is, I take it, that our world is no longer fitted for governance by, nor even for advice from, its rare great men. It is fitted for governance by those who boast so exact an admixture of folly and of vice as makes them reasonably consonant with the stuff [or the mob] they have to govern. As for those who are too good for us, or too wise for us, why, the sooner they are out of it the better for them. And so it is the better with Reynolds….

But I wish that I could come across him again in this world, somewhere at the meeting of sea and land, and talk with him again about the schools of fishes, and the labours of those who seek them along our shores, and the souls of sailormen. (123 –my emphasis added)

Belloc was especially grateful, but also quite embarrassed by his likely failure after he, once again, had “sickened at the attempt” (124) out on the sea so as to turn “the point of Cornwall.” (124)

Later on, Belloc is given another bitter trial because of the crude and wrathful manners of a slick rich man at sea, and Belloc thus ironically finds some momentary (but quite impolite) relief by uttering himself a vividly imaginative and eloquent malediction (which we shall also aptly forgive):

What is less forgivable in the rich is their contempt for the usage of the sea, and their forgetfulness of its brotherhood….As with this man [“so rich that he must have stolen it…and his face purple with passion” (217)], his monstrous great ship soon steamed away down westward, and I sincerely hope that he struck that honest reef, the reef called Calvados, in a fog, making for Deauville [on the coast of France], and was drowned. (217—my emphasis added)

But Belloc was later to speak of an even greater trial, especially for his little boat:

I take it that there is no trial more trying in the sailing of a little craft than taking her through blinding weather at night inshore—whether that weather be blinding through feather-white slants of snow or through violence of sudden rain. (210—my emphasis added)

While we are absorbing and feeling such a situation ourselves, Belloc also intermittently presents us with another poignancy warmly remembered, and conveyed in his intimate personalizing of an inshore land formation, the Pillars of Old Harry and His Wife:

You are out of this main stream just before the ebb begins, and another, younger flood [tide] takes you up past Old Harry and toward Poole [a large seaport village on the Dorset coast].

Old Harry is an isolated chimney of chalk rock which still stands, expecting doom. He had a wife standing by him for centuries—a lesser (but no doubt nobler) pillar. She crashed some years ago and now he is alone. He cannot wish to remain so much longer, staring out to sea without companionship. I think he longs for his release. (207-208—my emphasis added)

Belloc will also teach us important things about truth, after first linking it to active sailing:

My [sailing] companion had never held a tiller, but he was very expert at all sports, and I thought to myself, “I will see whether so simple a thing as steering a boat [“at the fall of darkness”] cannot be easily accomplished by a man at the first trial. Then shall I be able to get whatever I badly need, which is a little sleep.”….I had given him his course [on the compass], and naturally, he had lifted [discovered] the light [on the horizon, the specific target and nautical marker] in good time. But he, for his part, could not get over it; he thought it a sort of miracle….that so clumsy a thing as a tiller and a rudder, and so coarse an instrument as an old battered binnacle compass, should thread the eye of a needle like that; it was out of all his experience….

That things should turn out so gave him quite a new conception of the sea and the sailing of it, and he talked henceforward as though it were his home.

This corroboration by experience of a truth emphatically told, but at first not believed, has a powerful effect upon the mind.

I suppose that of all the instruments of conviction it is the most powerful. It is an example of the fundamental doctrine that truth confirms truth….On this account, it is always worth while, I think, to hammer at truths which one knows to be important, even those which seem, to others, at their first statement mere nonsense….yet it is worth making, for the sake of the truth, to which we owe a sort of allegiance…because whenever we insist upon a truth we are witnessing to Almighty God. (47-49—my emphasis added)

And, as Hilaire Belloc repeatedly said throughout his writings: we must always loyally remember proper proportion, “that quality vital to truth, the sense of proportion.” (254—my emphasis added)

Here now we have some hearty Rabelaisian glimpses of Belloc’s earlier life of sailing and singing, as was mentioned in passing as he was then aboard the Nona and going south to Cornwall:

For we designed to beat in again after a few miles, and so make our way down Channel towards the Cornishmen. There was certainly quite enough wind: “All the wind there is,” as an old Irish sailor said to me once during an Atlantic gale so abominable that he and I could not walk against its icy, sleeting December fury, but had to crawl forward tugging along the rail by main force, all up the windward side….That was a passage worthy of remembrance….I learnt from a stoker two songs: one called “The Corn Beef Can,” and the other called “The Tom Cat.” They are of the great songs of this world. (107—my emphasis added)

Considering now how we may also fittingly present many other of Belloc’s insights, we shall sometimes shorten the presentations themselves as well as the framing context and background of his substantial thought and varied tonal words. See the following page-references of Belloc’s lengthy book for an elaboration of his own helpful verbal shorthands:

For example, “an hypothesis” is not to have the same standing as “a fact” (77); those like Belloc who are also “much alive to the mystery of things” (81) such as “the mystery of tides” (96); anchoring properly and courageously facing “all the wind there is” (107, 209).

We now more attentively present some additionally memorable sentences of Belloc:

“We met him with gratitude: he was of that very considerable class known as the Good Rich, with whom are the Penitent Thieves, the Reformed Drunkards, the Sane Professors, the Womanly Furies, and all other candidates for heaven.” (92)

“The Nona is like those women who are peevish and intolerable under all conditions of reasonable happiness, but come out magnificently in distress. I lie; for the Nona is never peevish and intolerable.” (109—my emphasis added)

It is no use to argue nor much use to command in the face of imbecility.” (110—emphasis )

“The Faith is an attitude of acceptance towards an external reality: it is not a mood.” (117)

Well, what will come out of that welter, that corruption into which the decomposition of the Christian culture is now dissolving? What I think will spring out of the filth is a new religion.” (122—my emphasis added)

Our only peace is doing God’s will; which includes going to pieces in the fifties, or sixties, or seventies, like an old disreputable, sodden, broken-down hulk [and sailboat] too long adventured upon the sea.” (186-187—my emphasis added)

“Poole harbour has traps within as well as this grinning trap of an entry, and the worst of these traps is the patchiness of the holding-ground [for anchors]. Unless you know where to drop anchor, you may be dragged in Poole, upwards, upon as fierce a tide as I know….But with all that, and although the Nona has caught fire there (the sea brings all adventures), Poole is a harbour that will always have good memories for me; and perhaps the Nona will go there at last to die.” (209—my emphasis added)

“And while they so thought [about the future] in terms of the only thing they knew, there had already arisen [in the 7th Century], in a place remote and utterly insignificant, among tribes of a few hundreds without power, culture, or tradition, under conditions utterly negligible, the flaming spirit of Islam.” (246—my emphasis added)

“It is in the irony of Providence that the more man comes to control the material world about him, the more does he lose control over the effects of his action; and it is when he is remaking the world most speedily that he knows least where he is driving.” (228—my emphasis added)

“For it is one of the glories of sailing that you are under the authority of the heavens, and must submit to the whole world of water and of air, of which you are a part, not making laws to yourself capriciously, but acting as servant or brother of universal things.” (293—my emphasis added)

“Once I spent the whole day drifting with the tide from the two Etaples Lights to the Dune, and very nearly all the way back, but even that did not persuade me to a motor, for, of all things abominable to God and His Saints, I know of nothing more abominable than machinery and petrol and the rest on board a little cruising boat. I would rather die of thirst, ten miles off the headlands in a brazen calm, having lost my dinghy in the previous storm [in Bardsey Sound], than to have on board what is monstrously called to-day an ‘auxiliary.’ The name is worthy of the thing. By auxiliaries the Roman army perished.” (296, 23, 55—my emphasis added)

“What gives me great pleasure in them [the “Channel Pilot” and the “West Coast Pilot”] is that they are also picturesque. The unknown authors let themselves out now and then, and write down charming little descriptive sentences praising the wooded heights above the sea, or sounding great notes of warning which have in them a reminiscence of the Odyssey. One paragraph I have put to memory, and often recite to myself with delight. It runs thus (after praising a particularly difficult passage or short cut behind a great reef of our coasts): ‘But the mariner will do well to avoid this passage at the approach of the turn of the tide; or if the wind be rising, or darkness falling upon the sea.’ I like this. If I could write Greek, I would write hexameters, translating that noble strain into the original of all seafaring language….” (305-306) It recalls Homer himself, whom Belloc cherished.

Turning to statements of any reality after a dose of advocacy [or a “the habit… of propaganda”] is like getting out into the fresh air from an intolerable froust [a stale and cramped and hot stuffiness, or congestion].” (323—my emphasis added)

So, too, is it with the freshness and spaciousness of Hilaire Belloc, a Catholic Homeric Sailor .

CODA

Now we shall fittingly see and hear some of sailor Hilaire Belloc’s final preparations for the coming home—with the salt of reality—to the last harbour of his beloved Nona:

A great full moon rose up out of the east, out of the seas of England, and the night was warm. There was a sort of holiness about the air. I was even glad that we had thus to lie outside under such a calm and softly radiant sky, with a few stars paling before their queen.

We slept under such benedictions, and in the morning woke to find a little air coming up from the south like a gift, and introduction to the last harbour. We gave the flood full time (for they do not open the gates, and cannot, till high water); then, setting only mainsail and jib, we heaved our anchor up for the last time, and moved at our pleasure majestically between the piers, and turned the loyal and wearied Nona towards the place of her repose. (327-328)

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the Nona (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925). All further references to the book will be from this text, and will be placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

2After his exquisite tribute to Reynolds, Belloc later openly said: “I confess to a complete ignorance of going round the land, that is, of turning the point of Cornwall, and of passing from the northern to the southern coast. Three times have I set out from Saint Ives [on the northern coast] with the firm intention of passing the Longships, and putting her round up-Channel. Never have I done so….Had I ever fallen so low as to put a motor into the Nona, she would have gone around like a bus or a taxi; but under sail alone it was forbidden me. Each of the three times I started with a light wind and was becalmed; and at the end of the each of those calms I drifted back so far upon the flood [tide] that I sickened of the attempt….That is why I sent the Nona round the land.” (123-124—my emphasis added) Was the Nona sent by sea, after all, or by a trailer and vehicle, instead? I do not know. The ambiguity has stumped me.