The Quality of Love

When King Lear begins, in the play bearing his name, to realize the truth of his daughters’ love, he exclaims, “Ingratitude! Thou marble-hearted fiend!” Lear rated his daughters repeatedly for their lack of gratitude. He never understood that the quality of his love did not merit any gratitude from his children.

The play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. Before making the partition, he asks which of them love him most, so that he may give her the greatest part of the kingdom. The older daughters oblige him with hyperbolic speeches. Cordelia, the youngest daughter, tells her father that she does love him, but will give half her love to her husband, and will not “love my father all.” For this response, Lear disowns and disinherits her.

In this one scene, Lear pits his children against each other, to compete for his gifts; extracts professions of love by dangling rewards; and punishes the one child who would not flatter him.

Having driven out one daughter, and given his kingdom to the remaining two, Lear sets the program for the rest of his life: to live with each older daughter a month at a time, bringing with him one hundred knights as his attendants. This went as well as any reasonable person would expect. Goneril, the eldest daughter, is soon complaining to her father of his behavior, and his attendants’ behavior, in her house: “You strike my people; and your disordr’d rabble / Make servants of their betters.” She asks him to reduce his attendants to fifty.

Lear—beginning and ending with a denunciation of his daughter’s ingratitude—calls down vivid curses upon her. He leaves in a rage and goes to Regan, the second daughter. Regan greets him: “I am glad to see your highness.” Lear answers, “If thou shouldst not be glad / I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb, / Sepulchring an adultress.” In this, we see another method of Lear’s management of his children—threatened rejection, with insult or injury to another member of the family as well.

When Goneril arrives, a sort of family conference develops. The sisters close ranks—Regan telling Lear that he may stay with her with twenty-five attendants, and Goneril asking him why he needs even five. Lear erupts into incoherent threats: “No, you unnatural hags, / I will have such revenges on you both, / That all the world–I will do such things– / What they are, yet I know not;–but they shall be / The terrors of the earth.” And again he storms out, and no one would imagine that either sister regretted it.

Lear memorably declared that he was a man more sinned against than sinning. There is no doubt that the narrative agrees with him. One senses here a cultural mist. In Shakespeare’s day, the idea of duty or honor owed to a father—and even more to a king—was far more powerful than it is today. Even so, I would not disagree with Lear’s conviction that his daughters had sinned against him. But what is striking is Lear’s conviction of his own guiltlessness.

In truth, Lear’s sins were returning to him. He had attempted to compel his daughters’ love by threats and promises. Naturally, he had compelled only a pretense of love, and that pretense faded as soon as he resigned his power to punish and to reward. His daughters were selfish, but so was the man who had raised them.

Lear called his daughters unnatural because they did not act with what used to be called “natural love.” But Lear was not lovable, and it is not unnatural that his daughters should not love him. You cannot demand, by right or nature, a love that you have never shown.

The Feast of Hallowmas

You can tell the strange disconnect between the holidays of October 31 and November 1 by the fact that the first is popularly called Halloween, and the second All Saints’ Day. Hallowmas and All Hallows’ Day are among the other names for the church feast of November 1, and from these names, of course, Halloween is derived. Yet the holidays have parted ways, and so have their names.

The feast of Hallowmas was founded in honor of all the saints. The holiday’s antecedent was a day of commemoration for the martyrs, later broadened to honor all the saints in Heaven. Saints, as a religious term, has two meanings—first, that of dead Christians canonized by the Church, and sometimes the object of prayer or worship; second, that of all Christians, without qualification. I must note that the Bible uses saints in this second sense.

Because it was established under the Catholic Church, All Saints’ Day was probably intended to celebrate saints in the first, qualified definition. Since the Protestant Reformation, some churches have broadened the holiday to commemorate all Christians who have died—who would together be called, in an old phrase, the Church Triumphant. In its broadest sense, Hallowmas is a holiday in which the Church Militant (in the world) honors the Church Triumphant (in Heaven). The only vestige of Hallowmas in Halloween, as it is currently celebrated, is the thought of death.

Some Christians, if belonging to traditions that incorporate All Saints’ Day, remember the recently departed on November 1. Following on that thought, I am going to conclude with a brief verse written by Alfred Tennyson; the friend mentioned is dead, and Tennyson is grieving for him.



of In Memoriam A. H.H.

Love is and was my Lord and King,
      And in his presence I attend
      To hear the tidings of my friend,
Which every hour his couriers bring.

Love is and was my King and Lord,
      And will be, tho’ as yet I keep
      Within his court on earth, and sleep
Encompass’d by his faithful guard,

And hear at times a sentinel
      Who moves about from place to place,
      And whispers to the worlds of space,
In the deep night, that all is well.


Well, I am back.

I could, I suppose, go over where I have been, or possibly where I am going–but for the moment, I will focus only on where I am.

I am currently reviewing books with Lorehaven. You can find me on the crew manifest, though it would be more interesting to explore the library or podcasts. I’ve also established my own corner on Twitter X Twitter–rather a small corner, but mine (be it ever so humble …).

Announcements to follow, in time. For now, I am going to resume regular, if not frequent, posting; the next post is planned for November 1.

The Principal Point

In a sign that nature is healing, Disney is once again blitzing the world with Marvel content. Disney released the trailers (and dates!) for its Marvel shows that have been coming and coming and may, in 2021, actually arrive. I will focus our attention particularly on the Loki series, it being an incontrovertible truth of modern American culture that the principal point of the Marvel franchise is Loki.

Now, I am not going to fangirl about this. In the first place, I have my dignity. In the second, I have noticed that becoming A Fan is the first step on the road to inevitable disappointment, a lesson constantly reinforced during football season. I will say that the trailer is unexpectedly chaotic and creative. A bit of it (the hooded figure, the battlefield) reminds me of the recent Star Wars films, which were polished, professional, and without inspiration. Most of it makes a better impression than that: kaleidoscopic, energetic, different. You feel that the people making it might actually be having fun.

The trailer is a mishmash of enticing fragments: the crash-land in the desert, post-apocalyptic New York, the mysterious time-control organization. We have a triumphant Avengers-era Loki, gloriously saying Glorious, and the TVA showing Loki his alternate life (and self?). There’s a brilliant suggestion that Loki is D.B. Cooper, and a mystifying shot of Loki surrounded by thugs scraped out of a seedy intergalactic bin and wearing Vote Loki campaign buttons. Between the corruption of democratic politics, and the leprechaunish suit Loki sports, it rather suggests Tammany Hall. The Black Widow seems to make an appearance, in an atmospherically devastated landscape, but probably Disney is just being mean.

Whether all of this comes together in a coherent and satisfying way is still unknown. The chance of emotional depth, and a genuine meaningfulness, is unlikelier yet. Marvel usually has more fun than it does heart, and always more action than it does reflection. I take caution, too, that Disney is capitalizing on the proven popularity of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. When Disney cashes in on past successes, it often does so tediously.

But still: I’m paying attention. I am even – tentatively, when I stop reminding myself of the inevitable road to disappointment – a little excited.

A Thanksgiving Thought

In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton turned to fairy-tales for an analogy and made the following remark:

If the miller’s third son said to the fairy, “Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace,” the other might fairly reply, “Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace.” If Cinderella says, “How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?” her godmother might answer, “How is it that you are going there till twelve?” If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth.

Chesterton’s point was that you cannot fairly object if a wild, magical gift (like a fairy palace, or life) comes with wild, magical prohibitions – or even mundane prohibitions, like coming home at midnight. But this charge to obey is equally a charge to gratitude. Explain the fairy palace. Explain the magical ball. Explain the gift you have, when you want the universe to explain the gift you don’t have. The grace is as inexplicable as the affliction.

It’s tedious to debate whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. The glass is both, and there is surely a time to regret the emptiness. But there is more often a time to be glad for the fullness. Gratitude and happiness live next door to each other. So be thankful, and be happy.

Two Classics

I read two classics this past summer: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Dostoevsky’s Devils. I was maybe two hundred pages into Devils when I realized, with a measure of surprise, that the book reminded me of Jane Austen. Not the political revolution, of course, or the atheism and murder; the book’s conclusion, in which Dostoevsky briskly mowed down half his cast, shows everything that Dostoevsky is and Jane Austen is not. But even after that bitter end, I am sure: Dostoevsky and Austen are like each other.

The characterization in their novels has a similar texture: at once sharp and deep. Both Dostoevsky and Austen stand outside their characters in their narration, taking the tone of an observer of rare acuity and no inclination to cover over anything. Neither ever saw a fool without observing and declaring the fact. They are unsparing. At the same time, they draw so comprehensive a sketch of their characters that it feels a little like empathy. The fools may have been lampooned, but they were at least understood.

A broader similarity also plays into this likeness in characterization. Austen and Dostoevsky share a keen awareness of the foibles that seam human nature. The ordinary foolishness and common weaknesses of humanity are fully understood by both writers, and finely displayed. Dostoevsky is amused by people behaving absurdly, and Austen is positively delighted. They catch the comedy of foolishness. They catch, with even greater skill, its darkness. In this Dostoevsky is stronger, but Austen captures the same truth, that workaday follies can be both laughable and destructive. They carry, sometimes, a surprising cost.

Most strikingly, Austen and Dostoevsky root their stories in society. In many novels, society – the broader community, with its rules and workings – exists as little more than background. Events play out, and characters live, at a distant remove from the community. There is no sense of what ordinary life might be like. But to read Austen and Dostoevsky is to enter a society. The shibboleths are different than our own, but the organism is the same: the requirements and prohibitions, the expectations and interactions, all the self-conscious fussiness. Austen and Dostoevsky make use of the broad conventions of society, such as who shall marry whom. Their mastery is in how they use the minor conventions. They bring forward the weight of trivialities. It doesn’t matter, really, whether you dance or don’t dance. What matters is what other people make of you for either one.

In Dostoevsky, all these things are shaded more darkly. His psychological portraits sketch the reasons of murderers, his fools descend into wickedness and ruin, his grand ball dissolves in panic as the city catches fire. The similarities between his works and Austen’s are subtle and fascinating. The differences are obvious, and ultimately more important. So profound is the divide that one cannot imagine Austen even touching the subjects that Dostoevsky wrestled. Dickens might have taken up Dostoevsky’s themes, though with far more sentiment and optimism. But if Jane Austen had written about revolution, or moral anarchy, or the psychology of suicide, she would not have been Jane Austen.

And the world would have lost something. One may prefer Jane Austen; one may prefer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Either position is fair. But it is good that Austen was herself, and not Dostoevsky, just as it is good that Dostoevsky was himself, and not Austen. Such is the diversity that makes the world rich.

An Acquittal

Dostoevsky’s Devils is a 700-page epic of spiritual lawlessness, conniving, and singularly poor decisions. For most of the novel, this plays out in long conversations, awkward domestic scenes, and some very unfortunate social events. At the climax, everything joins in a conflagration of murders and suicides, with two or three natural deaths for variation in tragedy. Such is Dostoevsky’s genius that it scrapes above melodrama to meaning.

To end a story in a general slaughter of the principals is an established tradition. It is dignified, though not justified, by a notable presence in classic literature. As a rule, I don’t care for it. Such endings usually feel rushed, as though the author killed off the characters as the quickest expedient to ending the story. They may even be read as lazy. You could craft an unexpected, yet logical and satisfying, resolution of the characters’ internal and external struggles. Or you could just kill everyone.

The worst aspect of the “everyone dies” resolution is that it is so purposelessly bleak. The point goes beyond any objection that the story is dark, or depressing. It is the meaninglessness of it that is insupportable. If all the story’s conflict and energy simply terminates in a general slaughter, what was the point of it? The characters may as well have not bothered.

Dostoevsky’s Devils entirely acquits itself of any charge of being rushed or lazy, and not because it is 700 pages long. The forces in the story, at work from the beginning, slowly but inevitably plunge it down into violence. You knew that this, more or less, was how it would end. Devils does not escape the meaninglessness so crushing in similarly violent resolutions. It makes no effort to escape. Every death is senseless. There is no heroism, nothing achieved or saved. The villains win thoroughly, and even they gain nothing. With grim irony, Dostoevsky allows his villains to succeed in their schemes while failing in their objects. Most stories work in dichotomy: someone has to win and someone else has to lose. In Devils the villains fail, and still everyone else loses.

What redeems all this is the force of Dostoevsky’s ideas. The novel is sometimes labeled a critique of atheism, and that is true enough. Its full scope, however, is broader and subtler. The crucial dynamic of the novel is the strange, half-contemptuous affinity between the young radicals and the rich, respectable people in power. These, together, are Dostoevsky’s devils. The revolutionaries were active in mischief, and the people in authority complaisant to it. The radicals were declared atheists. The people in authority went to church, or at least made profession of some vague God. But they had no spiritual or intellectual anchor. They simply drifted – ever attracted by new ideas but incapable of serious examination, impressed by boldness but unable to hold conviction of their own. Indifference is as fatal to the soul as disbelief. The devils were not all atheists, but they were all godless.

This, then, is the true theme of Devils: what happens when people are left to themselves, without God. All the senseless sorrow of Devils, the oppressive futility, the blundering crimes that are at once cruel and stupid – this is what happens when God is left out of life. There is no point to the miserable episodes unleashed in the chaos of disbelief, but that is Dostoevsky’s point. “God is necessary and so must exist,” one atheist confesses. “But I know that He doesn’t and can’t.” I have no doubt that Dostoevsky believed in God. But Devils is not, at heart, a statement that God is real. It is a statement that God is necessary.

Devils is a little too heavy, a little too dark. But I understand it, and I can appreciate even those aspects I don’t enjoy. I still believe that a general slaughter of principal characters is a poor resolution to most stories. But one of the curious facts about art is that even the worst ideas are, very occasionally, done right.

Past the High Point

Genuinely compelling villains, although always too few, exist in fair abundance. Much more rare is a compelling villain who charts a convincing and satisfying redemption arc. Rarest of all is a compelling villain who, at the end of his satisfying redemption arc, does not promptly die. It grows predictable and, occasionally, rather bleak. Why can’t a villain finish his redemption arc without finishing himself?

Practicality is one driving reason. A redeemed villain is an ex-villain, and where do you go from there? Once a villain gives up all the interesting plans that made him so necessary to the story – gives up world domination, or mad scientific experiments, or destroying people’s lives for his personal satisfaction – what does he do next? It would be easy to say that he becomes a hero. It would not be easy to do. Not everything that makes a good villain makes a good hero. We are entertained by the badness of villains, if it is done with elan: insouciant lies, frank selfishness, grandiose pomposity, Force-choking incompetent subordinates, etc.

But in the transition to heroism, even the most stylistic wickedness has to go. Worse, the villain’s role (so excellently played!) must be abandoned. And once all that is stripped away, what do you have left? You are in danger of changing a superior villain into a merely adequate hero. Not all creators know what to do with a smashing villain who entirely leaves off villainy. The story grows, too, harder to tell. There is high drama and even clarity in the conversion of villain to hero. Life, on the other side of redemption, sinks to something quieter and more muddled. It is easier to write a redemptive death than a redeemed life. And if the redeemed villain dies with all dispatch, his career as a hero will be too short to be disappointing.

Aside from the creative challenge of an ex-villain, certain thematic and even philosophical ideas drive the villain’s redemptive death. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life, and people believe this almost by instinct. Truly wonderful villains do truly terrible things. To do the best thing is a powerful culmination of the villain’s journey to heroism. In the case – and it usually is the case – that the villain has innocent blood on his hands, a heroic death is a kind of atonement. Steal life, give life. It satisfies justice. There are crimes that cry out for punishment. A change of heart does not buy impunity from every horrible thing done to other people.

In his self-sacrificial death, the redeemed villain pays his debt. That is why the redemption arc is so often completed with a heroic death. It is emotionally powerful, and satisfies a sense of rightness that is more felt than articulated. It is also the safest creative choice. If you don’t really know how to continue the villain or his story past the high point of redemption, you might as well stop there – and leave them wanting more.

But whatever excellent reasons exist for some redemption arcs to end in death, there is no reason that they all should. Occasionally – if for no other reason than to keep us guessing – creators should take up the challenge of an ex-villain who lives as a hero instead of dying as one. We grow fond of our compelling villains, even in their murderous phase. We cheer them on their journey to the light. We would like, after it all, to be able to keep them around. It’s tiresome to be compelled to end all such stories feeling sad. Every once in a while, it would be good to believe in grace enough to say that the villain, too, lives happily ever after.

A Critic’s Phrase

I didn’t pay much attention when Rise of Skywalker was released. I had already decided, skipping the trouble and expense of actually seeing it, that the movie was better than The Last Jedi but not exactly good. There was, of course, too much talk about the movie to entirely miss it. A word kept recurring in the discussion: nostalgic. It rang critically, and even people who had liked the movie sometimes used the word with an air of apology: It was nostalgic, but … Implicitly and explicitly, the nostalgia of Rise of Skywalker was put in contrast with the subversion of The Last Jedi. The movie wasn’t new, wasn’t different, didn’t try to be revolutionary. It tried to be like the original Star Wars movies – you know, the ones people actually liked.

It was at this time that I realized that I took nostalgic in the opposite sense that the critics meant it. I understood that I was meant to take it as a bad thing. I thought instead that it was, or in any case might be, a good thing. I’ve reflected since that there are other popular critics’ phrases to which I gave a different connotation, and sometimes a different meaning, than they do.

One of these is gritty realism. Somehow this phrase evokes a mental image of dirty concrete, which is not attractive but neither really relevant. As far as I can tell, gritty realism means something along the lines of “entertainment that you probably could not comfortably watch with your grandparents”. It is, perhaps, gritty in a moral sense. But as always in entertainment, the realism is optional and, even when existing, qualified. Much of the violence so lucidly presented by Hollywood is not, thank God, realistic. Gritty realism is generally used positively. But I don’t believe the assertion of realism, and the grit is not in itself impressive.

Feel-good is another well-worn shorthand. Often the term itself is criticism. Even when not exactly derogatory, it is usually condescending. A feel-good movie is well enough in its place, the attitude goes, but it’s not a very high place. Feel-good entertainment is not serious, not deep, not art. I am wholly in favor of that stern, clear-sighted moral point that many things that feel good are, in fact, bad. Yet I can’t agree with the negativity associated with the feel-good label. I don’t see why art that makes people feel good should be any lower than art that makes people feel bad. And do you know, I sometimes watch movies with the deliberate object of being made to feel better, and I do not dismiss entertainment because it is “feel-good”.

Here’s another one whose promise never moves me: action-packed. This has been used as a recommendation something like a million times. And I believe it. I also believe that being action-packed is the leading flaw of many action movies. I am not going to fault action movies for having action, but I think they could leave more time for the characters to do other things, like think. In some movies there is barely enough plot to string the chase sequences and fight scenes together. Action-packed? Yes. Always, these days. But is there anything more?

Happiness is an Aesthetic

There is a scene in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday where an English detective, impersonating an anarchist, is joined in a “foul tavern” by another English detective, impersonating a nihilistic German professor. The second undercover detective ordered a glass of milk, in keeping with the habits of the Professor de Worms. But he rejected, with contempt, his companion’s suggestion that he actually drink the milk. “We’re all Christians in this room, though perhaps,” he added, glancing around at the reeling crowd, “not strict ones.” Then he ordered a beer.

The part about everyone being a Christian was, of course, ironic. Even a hundred years ago, when people easily believed in Christian nations, they knew the difference between a national religion and a personal conviction. The beer was not ironic. Chesterton really believed that to be a Christian, rather than a nihilistic German, was a reason to drink beer rather than milk. Because (such was Chesterton’s conviction) beer is good.

One of Chesterton’s most striking characteristics, as a writer, was how he related religion to pleasure, and pleasure to morality. He expressed it once in a rhyme written in praise of inns, “Where the bacon’s on the rafter / And the wine is in the wood, / And God that made good laughter / Has seen that they are good.”

The last phrase is an allusion to Genesis, where God made the world and saw that it was good. It recalls, too, one of the loveliest images in Scripture, that of God creating the earth “while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy.” This idea that the physical creation is a good thing, a thing to rejoice over, suffuses Chesterton’s works. He saw the goodness everywhere. It’s a bad old world in many ways; popular catchphrases aside, there is nothing unprecedented about a pandemic. But Chesterton never got over the thought that it’s a good world, too, and it is pretty wonderful, after all, that the sky is blue and the grass is green.

If good meals and good laughter have the Creator’s approval, that is a call to enjoyment, and also to gratitude. Oscar Wilde once gibed that sunsets are not popular because you can’t pay for them. Chesterton retorted that you can pay for them – you can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde. “Surely,” he wrote, “one might pay for extraordinary joy in ordinary morals.” There have always been people who take virtue as a reason to reject material pleasures. It was Chesterton’s happier analysis to take acceptance of material pleasures as a reason for virtue.

Chesterton always tended to happiness. It is rare to find an author who joined so naturally religion and the goodness of the world, or whose embrace of pleasure was so full-hearted and so wholesome. Gritty realism, so-called, always has an audience, and darkness is both a point of view and an aesthetic. But happiness is also an aesthetic, and often a soothing one. Happiness rooted in the ordinary, as Chesterton’s was, is particularly soothing. We grow distracted, anxious, ungrateful; the news is like a storm on the horizon. It is good to remember what we still have, all the small pleasures and ordinary joys – and God that made good laughter has seen that they are good.