Pages

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lewis on Love

Here are some wise thoughts on the topic of love from C.S. Lewis's apologetic work, Mere Christianity. Though a bit late for St. Valentine's Day, they ring perennially true.

+ + +

Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also many things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called “being in love” usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending “They lived happily ever after” is taken to mean “They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,” then it says what probably was never was or ever could be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships? But, of course, ceasing to be “in love” need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense — love as distinct from “being in love” is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even if each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be “in love” with someone else. “Being in love” first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.

HT: Mom


+ VDMA

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion: To Russia With Love

In a strange new turn of events, I ended up on primetime Russian national television yesterday night. Before I go on, let the record show that my appearance had nothing to do with anything relating to Valentine's Day -- the mail-order bride from Chelyabinsk notwithstanding. No, in fact that had nothing to do with it.

As it turns out, the mother of one of the students here at Immanuel works as some sort of diplomat with Russia, or in some similar capacity. Point is, she's Russian. Anyway, apparently the fact that there is a trend away from teaching cursive handwriting in American schools is of general interest to more than just us nerdy classical educators. Yes, the Russians are following this trend, even if you are not.

So this particular lady, knowing that we believe in and practice cursive handwriting instruction at Immanuel, asked my colleague -- her daughter's teacher -- if she would be willing to do an interview with RTR TV Russia. She had a contact that she could pull up, she said, and the interview would take all of ten, maybe fifteen minutes. My esteemed fellow-teacher agreed to do the spot; however, she wasn't feeling well on the scheduled afternoon of the interview, so she asked me if I would do it. I said sure. It sort of went on from there.

Now, those of you who know me know that my handwriting is, in a word, atrocious. Some of you who are named Dr. Gamble know this especially well, having slogged through countless bluebook pages of my microscopic, inchoate script. Since my becoming a teacher it has gotten a little bit better, and I must admit that I do find it easier to write neatly in cursive (indeed, I mentioned this merit of cursive in the interview -- not that you'll notice, unless you speak Russian). Still and all, my very-improved handwriting is hardly ready for primetime. See, normally I'd say "primetime" as a joke, while really just trying to convey that my handwriting still leaves much to be desired, and remains borderline embarrassing:


"What does this comment on my paper say, Mr. Demarest?"
"Uh, well...it says 'write more neatly.'"
*Silence*
"Oh. I thought it said 'winter mobius nexus.'"
"Yeah, about that. So do you know what irony is, yet?"


So, my handwriting isn't even ready for metaphorical primetime, let alone real primetime. But my poor handwriting had greatness thrust upon it all the same. And the readiness was not all; it wasn't even most. Thankfully, the film-editing was. This will become clear to you if you watch the following video: at one point in the filming, I got so carried away with my defense of Western Civilization that I forgot to cross my lowercase 't'; you'll notice that the camera pans away right at that exact moment. What's more, I don't even teach the Language Arts block to my third- and fourth-graders because I'm responsible for teaching Latin in Immanuel's upper school during that time. So I've never taught handwriting.

Oh, well. Mikhail and Andre didn't seem to mind at all; either that, or Russians really enjoy irony. All in all, it was a fun experience. Also, I was reminded of how bad posture seems to strike at precisely those moments where it will be most unbecoming. Oh, well. Now Russia's evening news audience, however many million that might be, knows what all my best friends already know: that I grow more and more like an old man every year.

Lastly, before you go down to the video, I have to share the following translation of the accompanying piece (linked above and here), artfully rendered by Google Chrome. After reading this, you may find it difficult not to believe in the merits of teaching cursive:

+ + +

American children are now able to write does not necessarily


In American schools have decided to cancel classes penmanship. Officials responsible for Education, found that in an age of high technology is a waste of time. What do they think on this score by the schoolchildren and their teachers?


Fused a letter to the school board - five minutes is exactly the same archaism, like the ink on the party. Refuse penmanship collected in 41-m state. When computers are replacing textbooks and aypedy - notebooks, students will be well enough to write in block letters. And it seems to the case of the laptop battery sits.


"I know where it goes," Stacy says Diamond. "Here I am working in an office and almost did not write by hand, even leaving a note on a computer or smartphone. That is, if you do not write by hand in adulthood - why spend the time as a child?"


Argument "against" if assembled in a classic: "Write beautifully easy: to bring curls in primer, the letters have not jumped over the line, must spend significantly more time in the elementary grades than in the exact sciences. First, after the draft, then the notebook.


"I think the handwriting is important because this way we can learn to write in two ways," says Max Diamond.


Suppose, in the school penmanship canceled, the family Aaron Diamond's children will write together under the dictation of a parent. Father seems that the occupation is only at first glance useless. A child that bent over the words, developing motor skills, love to draw.


"This is important, it's almost art," convinced Aaron Diamond. "Let it not necessary in the workplace, but it develops. If we abandon all that is impractical, then we are in a very different world. Everything will be black and white."


If the reform will affect public schools, private, such as in Arlington, for daring trends in education will not chase: parents choose a school just because it is conservative. On the Abolition of penmanship former students will remember when they become students, ironically teacher Trent. It was at that moment when people will have a flash write notes in lectures.


"They say it is useless in this age of hi-TEC, and we hurry to move forward, rather in the exact sciences, in mathematics, " says primary school teacher Trent Demarest. "But some skills come gradually, such as calligraphy. It takes a long time, concentration, discipline, and even creativity."


As skilled note-taking pushes high-speed printing shows the last championship in New York, where the winner is printed on the phone, the text of 264 characters for 77 seconds. The dispute is reminiscent of another, one that begins in the mid-60's: student writing pen or a ballpoint pen. Today, the poem "Calligraphy," which was written by Sergei Mikhalkov, in North America just want to add, "The letter letter, syllable by syllable, but recognizes the scanner and the program."

Can I get an "Amen?"




+ VDMA

Monday, February 14, 2011

Several thousand words-worth of pictures

As much as I appreciate and enjoy having a good digital camera (thanks, Mom and Dad), anymore I don't often have the itch to take pictures. Perhaps this is an overcompensation on my part, born out of the desire not to be one of those people who take near-real-time, frame-by-frame documentaries of their lives, such that one could make a flipbook out of the prints -- but who prints photos these days, anyway? Also, I'm somewhat self-conscious of the fact that I don't know much about photography, aside from the rule of thirds. So I don't take very many pictures. Indeed, in college, after the frenzied, teenager-ish picture-snapping of the first two years, the number of pictures I took declined exponentially: I literally took about fifty pictures of my junior and senior years combined. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing; it does, however, force me to rely more on actual recollections when I chance to think about those years. I must fill the gaps between photos with whatever memory can provide me.

Anyway, I certainly hadn't intended to wax philosophical about photography here. Nor am I qualified to do so -- as I mentioned above, I have little training in the art of photography. Yet I can still recognize a good photograph. And I don't think it's terribly vain of me to say that I can recognize a good photograph of my own from time to time. These happen infrequently, but I think I've managed to capture a few precious persons, places and things in my time of snapping. Yes, all nouns. I photograph nouns. Things are good, I think, and far easier to capture with a camera than non-things. Auras, for example. Auras and penumbras -- so bloody hard to photograph!

But I digress...

A professor of mine once delivered a veritable Jeremiad against the idea that life, or rather a particular life, is comprised of "experiences," as it immediately presupposes a sort of haphazard fatalism which subsumes personal agency, at least in his mind. "There are no 'experiences'!" he would say, raising a finger and opening both his eyes wide, "there are only persons interacting with other persons!" Life, then, in the estimable opinion of this man, does not, cannot, simply happen: it is made. It is created; it is not, as Aristotle claimed, suffered, i.e., undergone. Life is not a sequence of runnings-into of fixed natures with each other. And I speak here not of life qua biological phenomenon -- if I were, then the foregoing would be a fairly apt description. No -- one's life, life, does not simply happen. Nothing happens. Everything is made, or done by someone, some person. This is not to say that there are no "givens" in life, but that life, or rather living, is not comprised of these givens, nor can it flow from them. Mere existence is so comprised, but to be a person is, by definition, to do more than simply exist: things exist; persons exist, and then some.

I don't mean at all to downplay the importance of the givens. Bad givens can really ruin your day. For example, if someone were to hand you a grenade with the pin removed, that would be a bad given. You would want to turn it into a "thrown-far-away" very soon, or it would turn into a "killed-you." But you certainly would not just want to experience it in all the glory and authenticity of it's given-ness, though it would doubtless be a very authentic experience.

But there are good givens, too: sunshine, coffee and rain all come to mind, just to name a few. Also, scratching posts (if you're a cat) and Valentine's Day cards.

As for the former, there is little to say: yesterday I graduated from normal cat-owner to weird cat-owner, drawing perilously close to the next gradation, that of "cat-person." Macavity is now the sole proprietor of a sweet cat-fort, which is a total eyesore, and by far the most prominent thing in my living room. It is so blue. Much bluer than I thought it would be from the description in the Craigslist ad. Anyway, I'm including some pictures of him interacting with that which has been given to him, in his best feline attempt at personhood.

As for the latter: as much as I disdain the Hallmarkification of Church feast-days, I appreciate the fact that vestiges of the original reasons for festivity often remain -- in the case of (Saint) Valentine's Day, gratuitous giving. I happen to have been given some pretty nice Valentine's Day cards, and I'd like to show them off. But make no mistake: it is not the mere fact of their being given to me and received by me, i.e., not my mere possession of them, which makes these tokens precious (and they are precious: I will keep them forever); it is rather that they are just that: tokens, symbols, "non-representational representations (take that Plato!)"* of a bond of interaction -- of communion, really -- that I am blessed to have with these youngsters, one which began when I became their teacher, and which I hope never ends completely, though it will change when they leave the school. They are symbols of the ongoing giving and receiving, the tradition or "handing down" which is the beating heart of the education we strive to impart here. They are also, incidentally, somewhat hilarious in their own right.




* Same professor, Dr. Justin Jackson.


+ + +

"I claim this land for SPAIN!!"

"What grand things await me upon yon new ledge?"

"I'm the king of the castle, you're the dirty rascal!"

And I am proud to be the beast man teacher she ever met. Proud to be.

We just finished a unit on ebonics; she's coming along nicely.

I did like the chili cook-off, actually.


+ VDMA

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"The Romance of Domesticity," by Dr. Nathan Schlueter

It is my honor to present to you a piece written by a former professor of mine, Dr. Nathan Schlueter of Hillsdale College. I am newly proud to have studied with this man.

The "Last Day Lecture" which Dr. Schlueter refers to in the first paragraph is one of a plethora of grand traditions at Hillsdale College. For this particular tradition the college's American Studies honorary, Delta Pi Nu, extends an invitation to one of the faculty to deliver the lecture that he would give if he knew that the day of the event was his last among the living. The chosen professor then delivers his remarks at a lecture-luncheon at the end of the semester. The intention of framing the invitation in this manner is, of course, to give the professor the opportunity to give voice to his deepest contemplations. Needless to say, those in attendance can expect to hear the particular professor at his most scintillating, sans intellectual kid gloves. The analogy that comes to mind for this (increasingly former) wildland firefighter is that of a grunt being given a drip torch and then told to "go wild" in the black. "Blank check," "Knock one out of park," and sundry other metaphors apply.

Although Dr. Schlueter and I do not always see eye to eye, I have a profound respect for his intellect, his pedagogy, and, last but certainly not least, his dedication to his wife and children. I learned much from him, and am now pleased to present a fine example of his scholarship. This is a reposting from the online archive of Touchstone Magazine. The original piece can be found here.

+ VDMA

+ + +

THE ROMANCE OF DOMESTICITY

Marriage Thrives in Reality, Not in Our Dreams

by Nathan Schlueter


I am honored to be asked to deliver the annual Last Day Lecture here at Hillsdale College, and to be included among the distinguished faculty who have gone before me. This is a formidable subject for a lecture. It requires one to think about and imagine an unpleasant event: death. For me, however, the assignment is not as daunting as it might be for others. As my last name suggests, I have German in my blood, which means I often think about death.


I wish I could describe this as a philosophical experience, in the way that Socrates describes philosophy in The Phaedo, as “learning to die.” Then I would deliver an impersonal lecture on some fine point of philosophy, such as the adequacy of St. Thomas Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God, or the perverse effects of Kantian deontology on contemporary ethics.


But no, this experience of mine has all the marks of a German thing, not a Greek one. It involves the silent mourning of the passing of time, of the rapidly closing circle of possible selves into a solid and fixed point. I never cease to be stunned, even scandalized, by photographs of the aged when they were young: How could that smooth flesh, straight form, and clear eyes have suffered a sea-change into this faded, wrinkled man propped up in a wheelchair? I think of the inevitable unfolding of my own future.


And yet to look on death is to look on reality. To be human, to be an embodied soul, means to suffer time, change, and death, and our responses to these experiences are determinative of how we will live, and ultimately, of our happiness. So my lecture cannot be about learning to die in the Socratic sense. It is rather about learning to live in the Christian sense, and this means seeing reality as it is.


The (very) loose model of my reflections is The Confessions of St. Augustine, in which personal experiences of time, change, suffering, and death are illuminated by the mysteries of Creation, Incarnation, and Redemption. As with Manicheanism in the time of Augustine, so in our own time there lurks a dangerous heresy that twists both the truth and a good many lives. I call that heresy Romanticism.


By Romanticism I mean the impulse to escape, through passionate idealization and fancy, from the real world of mortal man, the world of suffering and change, the world of what it means to be in a body with concrete limits. Gustave Flaubert provides an exemplary model of the essential pattern of this sort of Romanticism in his novel Madame Bovary, especially in his depiction of the heroine, Emma Bovary. He also subjects it to a devastating, if rather hopeless, critique. That pattern has five features.


The Five Features of Escapist Romanticism


First, Flaubert locates Romanticism in a disordered imagination. Like Plato, Flaubert was profoundly aware of the essential connection between the imagination and desire, and of the singular power of art to shape the imagination. He describes in detail the influence of the popular romance novels of the day on Emma’s conception of happiness, especially in marriage, an influence that ultimately proves her undoing.
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And she tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed so beautiful to her in books.
A second feature of the Romantic imagination is itinerancy. Filtered through the imaginative lens of the literature she has read, Emma experiences as unrelieved boredom her ordinary life as the wife of a simple (and admittedly rather dull) doctor of a small town. Happiness is always elsewhere, there, just over the ever-receding horizon. As such, it is a flight from home, and from domesticity. Not only does Emma press her husband to move from one small town to another in the hope of finding excitement, but she spends her spare time dreaming of a happier life elsewhere:
It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, and that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could she not lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills?
Flaubert expresses his judgment of this aspect of Emma’s character with consummate irony: “She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.”


The Romantic seeks flight from domesticity not only in a spatial sense, but also in an ontological sense. He refuses to be himself in his given, concrete particularity, and instead makes various attempts at self-creation. Thus, the Romantic imagination is behind the demand for autonomy. This is a desire the market is ever ready to supply. Consumerism, therefore, is a third feature of Romanticism.


One of the ironies of the quest for autonomy is that it inevitably results in the imitation of models provided by someone else. Advertisers and marketers elicit, feed upon, and profit from Romantic desire by providing an endless diversion of goods, and by promising ever-new identities. In Madame Bovary the merchant Lleureux is the pander of Emma’s illicit desires, profiting handsomely at each step of her demise. “Emma lived all absorbed in her passions and worried no more about money matters than an archduchess.”


The ultimate futility of the consumerist promise rests in the fact that the “home” of human nature is to be in a body with an unchangeable genetic makeup and history. The trappings of fashion cannot re-create one’s identity but only change it in the most superficial way.


Emma also manifests a fourth aspect of Romantic escapism: adultery and promiscuity. She is only alive in the thrill of her extramarital affairs:
She repeated ‘I have a lover! A lover!’ delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon a marvelous world where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. She felt herself surrounded by an endless rapture.
She also “recalled the heroines of the books that she had read . . . an actual part of these lyrical imaginings.” But her affair, like her marriage, inevitably becomes ordinary, a point Flaubert again makes with laconic precision: “She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.”


Finally, and at its deepest level, Romanticism is motivated by an existential escapism. It is a revolt against humanity itself, against one’s limits as an embodied soul and creature. Autonomy leads to death, often by suicide. Like the Romantic heroines who have gone before her (Dido, Iseult, Juliet), Emma finds in her death by suicide both the liberation from and the consummation of her Romantic desire. Yet her dying words suggest that this end is anything but Romantic: “God it’s horrible!”


Emma’s extravagant expectation of happiness, her vagrant homelessness and boredom, her alternating states of misery and euphoria, her promiscuity, her addictive consumerism, and her suicide all follow a pattern that is familiar to careful observers of popular modern American life. We have become a nation populated by Madame Bovarys.


Two Partial Truths


I have called this form of Romanticism a heresy. We should consider further what this means. John Cardinal Newman described heresies the following way:
Heresies are partial views of the truth, starting from some truth which they exaggerate, and disowning and protesting against other truth, which they fancy inconsistent with it. All heresies are partial views of the truth, and are wrong, not so much in what they directly say as in what they deny.
If true, Romanticism should include at least a partial truth. In fact, it includes two partial truths.
The first is that while man longs for wholeness and for happiness, he can never quite be whole or happy in this world, because his real home is elsewhere. We are all in some sense pilgrims in this world, wayfarers. Our citizenship is in heaven. We can never forget the haunting words of Christ in the Gospel of Luke: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (14:26).


The second partial truth Romanticism captures is the proper and necessary role the imagination plays in human knowledge and action. This relationship was clear to the classical and medieval writers, a fact evident in great works stretching from Plato’s Republic to the Utopia of St. Thomas More.


Machiavelli’s Wedge


It was Machiavelli who first sought to sever the link between imagination and reality in the fifteenth chapter of The Prince. By driving a wedge between the “effectual truth” and the “imagination thereof,” Machiavelli prepared the way for the many separations that characterize the modern world, separations between facts and values, science and religion, nature and grace.


But the genius of Machiavelli rests in the fact that he knew what seems to have eluded the rest of us: that his alleged “realism” was itself a work of imagination, an abstraction from the way things really are. The result of the concealment has been a culture deeply divided between a science without poetry (i.e., Scientism) on the one hand, and a poetry without intellect (i.e., Romanticism) on the other, and nothing to bridge the gap.


It is important to see that the alternative to the Romantic imagination is not “Realism,” an opposite and perhaps equally prevalent heresy exemplified in the way of life of those who hope to overcome the painful longing of Eros by directing its attention exclusively to the needs of the body, to physical security and material prosperity. This, however, only amplifies man’s misery, as he feels it more acutely in his prosperity before the inevitable and yawning chasm of death.The calculating homo economicus of economic theory is no more likely to discover the right road to human happiness or justice than the Romantic.


Thus, both the Romantic and the Realist imaginations involve a falsification of reality. Neither can deliver what it promises, and both meet at the same dead end. What alternative remains?


The Extraordinary Ordinary


What is required is a truly realist imagination, one that captures and reveals the extraordinary quality of ordinary life. Such an imagination would restore the “chest,” the locus of the imagination, to its rightful place as the mediator and integrating principle of intellect and appetite, soul and body, in the human person. The pressing need for such a restoration is one of the central arguments of C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man.


Such an imaginative vision rests at the heart of the Christian story: the Creator is born to a lowly virgin in a stable, and angels, shepherds, cattle, and kings all come to pay him homage. In taking on flesh, Christ raised up the most ordinary things—water, wine, bread, marriage—and made them the means of sanctification. Here is the true Romance of Domesticity in all its glory, the very revelation of the extraordinary in the ordinary.


This discovery of the extraordinary in the ordinary is part of the “romance of the faith” that G. K. Chesterton discovered in orthodoxy, a point he puts with his uncommonly common wit in his book by that name:
A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but He has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
Splendor & Humility


Josef Pieper makes a similar point in Leisure: The Basis of Culture,where he argues that philosophy itself is rooted in the capacity to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary:
If someone needs the “unusual” to be moved to astonishment, that person has lost the ability to respond rightly to the wondrous, the mirandum, of being. The hunger for the sensational, posing, as it may, in “bohemian garb,” is an unmistakable sign of the loss of the true power of wonder, for a bourgeois-ized humanity. To find the truly unusual and extraordinary, the real mirandum, within the usual and the ordinary, is the beginning of philosophy.
Notably, Pieper makes the same claim for poetry: “According to Aristotle and Thomas,” he writes, “the philosophical act is related to the poetical: both the philosopher and the poet are concerned with ‘astonishment,’ with what causes it and what advances it.”


One of my favorite expressions of this imaginative vision is a barn my wife’s late grandfather, William Schickel, converted into an oratory in Loveland, Ohio. Schickel’s remarkable life raising eleven children on a farm while working as an artist is captured by Gregory Wolfe in Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel. Wolfe quotes Schickel describing the idea behind the oratory this way:
The barn is a blend of frugality, simplicity, and poverty seen as a positive force. . . . There is a wonderful deep-rooted consciousness that our Savior came to dwell among us in a building that was constructed for the shelter and care of animals. . . . The barn at its best is an integration of splendor and humility that is . . . expressive of the most foundational Christian outlook.
A Brutal Assault


In Moby Dick, Herman Melville provides a dire warning that the Romantic imagination is not merely an individual affair, that its influence inevitably affects the political order as well. Captain Ahab is a quintessential Romantic, in rebellion against his own limits and the order of reality, and the Pequod is a haunting symbol of an America that has revolted against nature in its mad quest for unlimited commerce and empire. “Then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into the blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac’s soul.”
But midway through the novel, the sometime Romantic narrator Ishmael, who cooperated in the catastrophe of the novel and barely escapes to tell of it, makes a remarkable confession:
Now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country.
Ishmael’s observation points to the intimate connection between domesticity and ordinary life (and by extension, patriotism). Given this connection, it is not surprising that no other institution has been so brutally attacked by the Romantic imagination as marriage and the family, an assault that continues unabated in popular culture today.


If there is truth in what I have said thus far, the recovery of stable marriage and family life depends upon more than preserving the correct legal arrangements, or even providing marriage instruction and moral and spiritual guidance for the young. These things are necessary and good, but without a correct formation of the imagination, they are precariously inadequate solutions. What is wanted is the kind of poetry Pieper describes, a poetry rooted in the romance of domesticity, which reveals the real beauty of ordinary life within limits and shows the dignity of what it means to be what Wendell Berry calls a “placed person.”


Personal Reflections


I began these remarks by pointing out that my experience of death is an existential German thing rather than a Greek philosophical one. It seems appropriate therefore that I offer a more personal reflection on the romance of domesticity.


For years, it has been my habit to write poems on special occasions (anniversaries, birthdays, etc.). Here, then, is a verse from “Clarity,” a poem I wrote on the occasion of the birth of my first child, Leo, in 1999.
How is it that from this grotesque display
of sight and sound, smell and touch
concrete as weary hands and tears and blood-splattered shoes
comes beauty so ineffable that the heart stops in awe and adoration
of the primordial breath of Spirit over the abyss?
My shoes really did have blood on them. I wore them, still dazed, to the local restaurant to pick up the steak dinner my ravenous wife requested after the delivery. (To my amazement she ate every bite, while Leo slept soundly next to her in bed). And for years I continued to wear them, bearing these ineffable marks, while working around the house and the yard. Most times this was an unconscious thing, but once in a while, in the midst of raking leaves or taking out the trash, I would look down and notice and remember, and be stunned once again.


I don’t deny that I often envy my bachelor colleagues who can retire to quiet homes after a long day at work, and spend the rest of the evening reading their favorite books or developing a talent or hobby. My latest talent is that I can get five children tucked in bed, with teeth brushed, pajamas on, and spirits more or less settled for rest, in under five minutes. And yet it has become evident to me beyond doubt, precisely in the midst of these labors, that this is my vocation. This is how I expressed it to my wife:
Real Love(2006)
When I am overwhelmed by the thickness of the world
I understand why God chose this life for me 
Because I don’t paint pictures I write poems
Because I don’t eat chocolate I drink gin
Because I don’t read history I study mythology
Because I don’t tell jokes I listen to music 
And soon I find myself grasping, desperately.
Then I return: 
to the smell of Emil’s diaper,
Helen is in despair (her baby is cold),
Leo can’t get his Lego car to work (the wheel keeps coming off)
And dinner isn’t ready, you tell me,
All at once 
I am grateful for you, beyond words,
Beyond all reckoning, for your splendor
And your solidity.
Zossima was right: Love in reality,
compared to love in dreams,
Is a harsh and terrible thing.

So be it! So be it!
Transformational Marriage


I once had a disagreement with a colleague who was an economist. His daughter had recently been married, and though he liked the young man well enough, he told me that he had advised his daughter always to keep her job, “just in case.” While lifelong marriage is fine when you can get it, he told me, it is foolish and naïve to trust in it overmuch.


On the contrary, I argued, a withholding of trust in the initial promise strikes at the very root of what a marriage is. There is a difference in kind, and not merely in degree, between a relationship rooted in an unconditional pledge of fidelity and a relationship with an exit strategy.


This is not merely a philosophical distinction; it has incredible consequences for human experience. Marriage is not a contract—or at least it is not like any other contract—for it establishes a community that, in turn, transforms the individuals that comprise it. Wendell Berry makes the point beautifully in his novella Remembering, when he describes the marriage between Andy and Flora Catlett:
They were two longing to be one, or one dividing relentlessly into two. . . . It was as though grace and peace were bestowed on them out of the sanctity of marriage itself, which simply furnished them to one another, free and sufficient as rain to leaf. It was as if they were not making marriage, but being made by it, and, while it held them, time and their lives flowed over them, like swift water over stones, rubbing them together, grinding off their edges, making them fit together, fit to be together, in the only way that fragments can be rejoined.
Uniquely Ordinary


The romance of domesticity must be rooted in a culture that nurtures our ability to experience wonder in the ordinary. In the end, however, this romance cannot be completely borrowed. Every domus, like every personinvolves a singular and deeply personal encounter with the divine that must be cultivated on its own terms. Only from the heart of this encounter will come the new “epiphanies of beauty” called for by Pope John Paul II in his Letter to Artists. If such epiphanies cannot quite “save the world,” at least they may save a few from the fate of Emma Bovary.


+ + +

This article is adapted from a "Last Day Lecture" delivered at Hillsdale on December 4, 2009.



Nathan Schlueter is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale College in Michigan, where he lives with his wife and six children. He is currently writing a book entitled 
Utopian Fiction: Recovering the Political Science of the Imagination. His latest book, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry (ISI Books), will be out this spring.