History


Perhaps the greatest trauma of my school-days were the art classes. They would sit us down with some rather stiff paint brushes and a few pots of paints, and tell us to paint something. I don’t think that there was any other subject where so little instruction was given. When we began Latin, our teacher didn’t just throw us a copy of the Aeneid and tell us to get on with it.

However, I suspect that I could have sat at the feet of Michelangelo for a dozen years and been no better off. My lack of talent in the visual arts was innate, complete. While other boys would come up with a passable imitation of a cloud or a horse, or whatever it was, my efforts would prompt the derision of my peers and the kindly silence of the master. How I used to dread those classes, as others must have dreaded P.E. or double maths.

Yet having no skill in painting needn’t stop one talking about it. Who would not, asked Plutarch, rather contemplate a sculpture of Phidias than sculpt it? And even if he was only being (as Maritain says) a snobby pagan, I suppose that someone who doesn’t know a hammer from a chisel may still commission a marble.

So, here are four paintings that I should like someone to paint. All involve meetings that have really happened, but which, as far as I know, have not yet been represented in this way.

The first is a meeting between Newman, Pusey and Keble. It didn’t happen in the hey-day of the Oxford Movement, but long after Newman had converted. An elderly man now, and finding himself once more in Oxford, he made an unannounced call on his dear Keble, whom he hadn’t seen since 1845. He didn’t know that Pusey, whom he also hadn’t seen since then, and with whom his relations were particularly strained, was visiting at the same time. When the front door was opened, Newman and Keble were so uncertain of who the other one was that they had to show each other their cards; and Pusey, siting inside, spontaneously shrank back from Newman’s gaze.

What a painter could do with that scene: doubt, dawning recognition, painful affection, and unbridgeable separation, would be portrayed on all their faces.

The next two meetings happened a bit later, both in the late 1880’s. One of them also involved Newman. A very old man now, and a cardinal, he was giving out the prizes at the Oratory school. One of the successful school-boys was Hilaire Belloc. What a meeting: the old man, with his frail body and penetrating gaze, the young man, with a certain fine unconscious arrogance, each admiring and pitying the other, while unbeknownst to either the torch of Catholic England was passed on!

The other is quite famous. It occurred when Therese of Lisieux, I think at the age of 14, visited Rome with a group from her parish, and got to see Pope Leo. Instead of just kneeling to kiss his ring and moving away like the other pilgrims, she placed her hands on the old man’s knees and looked up imploringly into his face, asking him to let her enter Carmel, until finally she had to be dragged off by the Swiss guards.

Like the meeting of Newman and Belloc, this would be a study in contrasts. Only here there would be a note of humour: armed guards having to deliver the pontiff from the importunity of a school-girl, and in the background her parish priest fretting. ‘I told them all quite clearly that no one was to speak to the Holy Father. That Martin girl is simply impossible. She’ll come to a bad end, that’s only too plain.”

The final one was photographed, but I do not know that it has been painted. It is the meeting of Archbishop Lefebvre and Padre Pio, not long before the latter’s death. The archbishop had made the pilgrimage to San Giovanni to ask St Pio’s prayers for the seminary he was intending to found. He asked the Capuchin for a blessing, but St Pio naturally said, in effect: ‘Me bless an archbishop? Of course not; it is you who must bless me’, and he knelt to receive it.

If an artist painted that right, I think we should have the impression of two prophets, each with an incommunicable burden, brought together by divine providence for a brief moment to their mutual solace, as the chaos and darkness grew around them.

So, I have had the ideas: and is that not the principal part of every work of art? As for the bit with the camel hair and the wet stuff, well, I leave that to others.

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I have wondered this since I was a child. Educated guesses gratefully received….

Some original footage of the asteroid (cf. Miss Hilary White, passim)

http://www.nbcuniversalarchives.com/nbcuni/clip/51A06327_s01.do

What we have said already makes it further clear that a poet’s object is not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen either probably or inevitably. The difference between a historian and a poet is not that one writes in prose and the other in verse — indeed the writings of Herodotus could be put into verse and yet would still be a kind of history, whether written in metre or not. The real difference is this, that one tells what happened and the other what might happen. For this reason poetry is something more philosophical and worthwhile than history (διὸ καὶ φιλοσοφώτερον καὶ σπουδαιότερον ποίησις ἱστορίας ἐστίν) because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts (Poetics, 1451).

Clio

I do not think you need fear that the study of a dead period, however prolonged and however sympathetic, need prove an indulgence in nostalgia or an enslavement to the past. In the individual life, as the psychologists have taught us, it is not the remembered but the forgotten past that enslaves us. I think the same is true of society. To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians.

– De Descriptione Temporum : Inaugural Lecture from The Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, 1954

 

History Part Ia

History Part Ib

History Part II

h63367Recently, I noticed a book in the possession of Aelianus, called ‘Dreadnought‘. Due to my recent Hornblower obsession (I really must get to that shoe-post-y series of trivial literature and television at some point), I was immediately intrigued. It turned out to be not about sailing ships (ba!) but about Britain and Germany, and the role of their navies, on the way towards the First World War.

Yet, when I opened the book, the passage I hit upon was extremely vivid, and Aelianus assured me it was representative for the book. This has turned out to be true so far; I am at 550 of 910 pages, and find it the perfect cross between reading a novel and reading serious stuff. In fact, it is rather like reading a novel, only that it has really happened.

It is entertaining, informative, and utterly shocking.

Shocking, because I start to realize how influenced my history teachers were by their Marxist-dominated studies, apparently.

Shocking even more because it seems to me that quite generally in Germany, East or West, the dreadfulness of the First World War is entirely shadowed by the supreme dreadfulness of the Second World War.

According to what I learnt at school, and according to what every rational person in Germany believes, the Second World War was something that would not have happened without particular (Hitler) and general madness in Germany.

The First World War, on the other hand, happened because (now this is what I learnt at school) basically every one of the protagonists had an interest in it happening (imperialism! bad, BAD, Imperialism!!), only no-one thought it would be that disastrous. Now I have only got to 1902 in the book, but from that it is quite obvious that within the more-or-less-moral concerto of diplomatic relations at the time, Germany quite certainly acted on the ‘less’ extreme of that gradient, throughout.

Though Aelinus tells me he shudders at thinking of what would have happened had there  been an aliance between Britain and Germany at that point, I still do think that double-dealing, deceitfulness and hubris were even less conductive to European (and worldwide) happiness than a realization of ‘we are basically family, and that parliamentary monarchy thing you have going over there does not seem such a bad thing, probabably rather a better thing than our obsessively military absolutist culture’ would have done. But well. We will never know in this live, probably.

I mean, if, on reading such a book, you think that the ‘resignation’ of Bismarck was a thing that would make matters worse: things must be in a really, really bad state already. Poor, poor Germany, please really do pray for us!

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