Friday, June 02, 2006

Summer at Long Last!

Summer at long last

One could be forgiven for thinking that the weather this May was more appropriate to a bad autumn or a normal winter – all that rain, the temperatures in single figures, the absence of sun and the frost at night.  Today the 1st of June is actually a marvellous summer’s day with the temperature in the high teens and low twenties around mid-day.  Welcome to summer my Irish friends – at long last!

A summer’s day is a day made for peace of mind, contentment and of course love if you are lucky.  However, love brings a price with it.  If you love someone, that means that your emotional borders, as it were, are open to them, and naturally this is a double-edged sword.  To use another metaphor from a Cole Porter song – the people or person we love is literally “under our skin.”  The song goes, “I’ve got you under my skin…”

I suppose vulnerability is one of the chief characteristics of the human being in loving relationships with his or her family or other cared-for ones.  Our loved ones are those who make us feel most important, most worthwhile, most useful, most unique and most valued.  However, because they dwell so near to our “marrow” they can hurt us the most.  An unfaithful lover can wreak destruction to a person’s psyche – the betrayed lover feels trodden upon, cast aside like dirt, useless, common, devalued, stripped naked, forgotten, betrayed etc.  The feelings are legion, but there is no need to go on.  

We hurt because we are linked in some deep way.  Lesley Garner in her wonderfully insightful book, Everything I’ve Ever Learnt About Love, a work garnered from personal experience (if you’ll excuse me the rather obvious pun), puts it succinctly thus: “You hurt because you’re joined, because there is no membrane between you, because you are part of the same organism…A child’s sickness, failure, rejection and heartbreak are experienced by you with the extra twist of impotence and helplessness.” (p 91-92)

On a personal note it is only recently that I have dealt with the “fallout” and heartbreak suffered from a relationship concluded almost three years ago.  Love involves risk.  Indeed, life involved risk.  The plus side is that we grow as persons when we risk our “being” to the experience of love or being “in love.”

Summer is also a time for healing.  We have traditionally heard about the healing power of the sun.  Without it there would be no growth and no life.  Sometimes when I meditate I imagine the rays of the healing sun on my face bringing light and healing to my body and soul.  Perhaps that’s where I should be now – out walking in the sun, letting its loving rays fall on my face.  Beannacht leat a scríbhinn!

A happy Summer picture from Kilmuckridge strand, Co Wexford three years ago. Myself and my best friend Tom's son Mark Gleeson.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006



One of the defining characteristics of life is its sheer unpredictability.  This at once adds both spice on the one hand and fear on the other to human existence.  Life would be so boring if it were predictable.  Yet, unpredictability can bring such tragedy to our little if wonderful lives.  As I write these lines I wish them to jar with my five preceding posts on style.  Why? Well, very simply I wish my posts to engage with life.  When I began blogging in April 2005 I wished to write my reflections on life as I experienced it.  For me reflection means at times a more philosophical musing done at a distance as it were – a more objective reflection on life’s issues.  At other times reflection for me embraces a more human expression of my hopes and feelings – the whole gamut of human emotions fall within my scope.  I have always loved the term “existential” in philosophy with all its ramifications of the ups and downs, the highs and the lows, the ecstasy and the angst of the human project.

Enough bovine manure! Time to cut to the chase! There we were last Friday night enjoying ourselves in the local pub, celebrating with our graduates the end of six long (or short) years spent at school.  Our spirits were high – the air was full of youthful expectation and hope for the future.  As I made my way home around 11.30 p.m. I heard the sound of sirens – police cars or ambulances, perhaps, I thought.   I drove to my brother’s house in Kinsealy (I had not been drinking alcohol) without much more thought.  Then, early on Saturday morning’s news I heard that a sixteen year old girl had been mown down by a car not too far the pub we were in the previous night.  Fear, despair and terror juxtaposed with happiness, hope and peace of mind.  Life juxtaposed with death - uncomfortable bedfellows both!  Life has a habit of doing that, does it not?  Stopping us in our tracks, waking us up from complacent slumber, slapping us in the face, bringing us to deeper areas in our consciousness – these are some ways of expressing how we feel at times like these.

Then a day or so later the report of the tragic event in the paper – so factual and meticulous in detail – the car had hit the girl at speed (left front headlight broken), the body had come down with force on the windscreen and shattered same and was thrown some distance from the car which was registered to a foreign national.   As it happens the young girl’s father was also a non-national – Portuguese.  Nationality, of course is irrelevant, but it does show how international our new young Ireland has become.  These details just added to the matter-of-fact-ness of the whole episode.  Death is so brutal for those bereaved yet so matter-of-fact to the readers of the newspaper reports.

The experts in the mental health field tell us rightly that the greatest repression in modern society id death and dying.   It’s easy enough, of course, for the modern means of communication to bring us the latest death tolls from wars, famines or earthquakes or tsunamis, and mostly these reports are clinical and statistical rather than personally moving in the sense of fear or terror or angst-ridden.  The advertising industry sells life in its high points mostly.  Death and dying in its really existential sense does not sell too well.  Yet, it is here that the Great Religions of the world have a role to play.  They serve to call us back to reality.  Whether we believe in an afterlife or not, religion can serve the purpose of making us less complacent, allowing us the gift of not taking life too much for granted, of putting our worries into context, of learning to appreciate all the good things that we have, of counting death as part of life and not as it were solely the end of it.  Indeed to live means essentially that we are dying.  If we are not living we are not getting older, and if we are not getting older we’re dead.  So to get older is to live, and to get older means that we are dying.  Living and dying are the two sides of the one coin – and the coin is the coin of existence.  Read those marvellous books from the East like The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, anything by the Dalai Lama, anything by Anthony de Mello, S.J. and you will get the sense of such objectivity and detachment that true spirituality can bring you.  When we read and practise the exercises they give we become open to the sheer “now-ness” of existence and we will never again take anything for granted.  Even our thoughts and feelings – these, too, are mere chaff in the wind like my last five posts.  This last sentence reminds me of my theological days when I had to plough through some of the works of St Thomas Aquinas, O.P.  The venerable saint and learned gentleman, it is said, experienced the beatific vision in his last years and he was to say something along these lines: “I count everything I have written to be mere chaff in comparison to the vision I have experienced.”  I paraphrase from memory.   Centre above is a painting of the famous Dominican Saint and Scholar Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274, the author of The Summa Theologiae, the greatest work of medieval theolgy.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Style 5

Style 5

There is so much that could be said about style that it is hard to know where to end, never mind where to begin.  Up to now I have alluded to Aristotle, Cicero and to Quintilian with respect to classical style and classical definitions of style.  The Romantics were to stand the classical world on its head insofar as they were open to strong emotions – trepidation, awe, horror, gothic scenes and experiences – and also they appealed to the personal experience both of the writer and of the reader.  All of this was new and exciting, full of the very energies of nature, in the raw as it were. Romanticism stressed the awe of nature in art.  Perhaps a good way of explaining what that all-embracing term “romanticism” means is to counterpoint and contrast it to that period of high reason, namely the Enlightenment, which preceded it chronologically on the dateline.  There was Romanticism in all areas of the Arts – Art itself, Music and Literature.  As regards the first of these two I am singularly ignorant, while of the last I know not a little.

Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, and a focus on his passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures; an emphasis upon imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth; an obsessive interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; and a predilection for the exotic, the remote, the mysterious, the weird, the occult, the monstrous, the diseased, and even the satanic.

Romanticism in English literature was ushered in by the two great Lake Poets – William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  They were contemporaries and friends.  Coleridge to my mind was undoubtedly the greater because of his broad and incisive mind and his great command of such areas as philosophy, politics, theology and other subjects.  He was no mean poet and was indeed one of the first great literary critics.  One could argue that his marvellous Biographia Literaria is one of the foundational works in literary criticism, while at the same time laying a good philosophical foundation for the same.  Coleridge is both the poet and the philosopher of the imagination.  It was he who was to define imagination in his own coined word as “the esemplastic power” at the heart of every creative being, that power which could make and forge new things that had never existed before.  Coleridge is probably more widely known for his few very famous poems:  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan, as well as his famous conversational poems like my favourite Frost at Midnight (written while minding his infant son, Hartley), This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Dejection and The Pains of Sleep.  

Coleridge was to define a poem as “the best words in the best order”.  This definition to my mind would also apply to style itself.  Each individual wishing to write something, whether it is a poem, a play, a short story, a novel, or a simply personal letter to a friend should wish to choose the most appropriate and suitable words for what he or she would wish to say or to communicate.  Hence, the writer should aim to choose the best words he possibly can and then to lay them out in the best possible order as suits the medium.  For a poem, obviously the order would be different to say, that of a letter or short story.

Coleridge, to my mind was wonderfully larger than life – read Richard Holmes’ two volume biography and you will get more than a taste of this wonderfully eccentric and talented individual.  He was a great stylist as all the Romantics were.  He was an idealist and Platonist by nature – he subscribed to the Utopian idea of wishing to set up a community, called Pantisocracy on the banks of the Susquehanna River in America (Pennsylvania).  He used opium often, taking it in the form of laudanum, and needless to say, he became addicted to it.  He failed to take his degree at Cambridge, preferring the wild life and swimming in the river Cam.  He once ran away and joined the army, a cavalry regiment to which he was ill-suited, under the strange, unlikely and almost unbelievable pseudonym of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, (also STC) He was a useless horseman and had to be bought out of the army by his friends and family.  He studied philosophy at Heidelberg in Germany, and was much influenced by the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant.  He travelled to Italy, Sicily and Malta, and described the rather painful experience of having a primitive enema done by a ship’s surgeon after drug-induced chronic constipation.  Such is my romantic hero – a man of pure style – a man who was unafraid to follow his heart and his wild imagination and to follow them wherever they might lead him.  In so doing they led him to write wonderful poems and prose in such an individual style as to have a lasting effect on English Literature and on Literary Criticism in general.  If there is a heaven, and if writers such as STC go there, he is the first one I want to meet.  At least I should like to sit in on a little of his wondrously stylish table talk.     I have placed an early portrait of Coleridge above. He was around 25 when it was painted. One can see he was a man of style!

Style 4

Style 4

Having absolutely no background in the finer arts or in style as it pertains, say, to architecture, fashion or design; I shall confine myself to what I do know a bit about, namely writing.   Suffice it to say that style apples right across the board from the design of buildings to landscaping to fashion, to food – in short to every aspect of human endeavour.

I wish now to say something about style in writing.  I have already alluded to the fact that there are as many styles as there are human beings.  As Buffon has said, “le style c’est l’homme même.”  How true, style is the person herself or himself – to be politically correct.  

Style has been the object of study from ancient times. Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian treated style as the proper adornment of thought. This view prevailed throughout the Renaissance period and long after.  For Aristotle (384 B.C.E. – 322) style contributes to successful and appropriate persuasion in more than the traditional decorative sense.  In other words we can use it rhetorically to persuade and to convince others – appropriately, of course.  (Hitler had a rhetorical style, one sadly and completely disjoined from any moral or ethical principles.  Martin Luther King had a marvelously moving and convincing rhetorical style, with much Biblical references and flourishes, but it was inspired by solid moral and ethical principles.  One could say that his was a true, authentic and congruent style while Hitler’s was false, inauthentic and incongruent and not in harmony with any ethical principles.  In this view, I am, of course, presuming that real style has an ethical and moral base.  This might be a contentious view in some circles, but I believe in it sincerely.  I am never unmoved when I sit and listen to Martin Luther King speak.)  Today, cognitive psychologists, for example, have encouraged us to see metaphor, a component of style and a central plank of Aristotle’s writing on style, as inherent to cognition: our basic ideas are structured according to root metaphors. Rather than something added to an idea, according to the theory of conceptual metaphor, we think by metaphors.  So Aristotle’s view on style could be seen as underpinning some modern views of metaphor.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-65 BC) is too well known to demand much of an historical introduction. Indeed, Cicero was praised since the Renaissance as the supreme orator, his golden voice of persuasion was assumed to be the business of any congressional orator in the U.S.A. since the schools there had reinforced this view from the days when the first Latin paradigms were learned. This was the great period of English and American Rhetoric.  As I well remember from studying Latin at secondary school here in Ireland, Cicero was the master of the long, oh so very long, periodic sentence.  One had to carefully and time-consumingly scan the whole period to find the various parts of speech – rather like searching for a needle in a haystack to the uninitiated.

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (c. AD 35-95) Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria can in many ways be read as a reaction against a later trend to an exaggerative and flowery style; it advocates a return to simpler and clearer language. It may also reflect the influence of the late Emperor Vespasian, who was “[a] man of plebian stock,…a down-to-earth realist with the common touch” (Murray, 431); Vespasian disliked excess and extravagance, and his patronage of Quintilian may have influenced the latter’s views of language. Cicero is the model Quintilian adopts as the standard-bearer for this form; during the previous century, Cicero’s far more concise style was the standard. This relates to his discussion of nature and art. Quintilian evidently preferred the natural, especially in language, and disliked the excessive ornamentation popular in the style of his contemporaries. Deviating from natural language and the natural order of thought in pursuit of an over-elaborate style created confusion in both the orator and his audience. “Even difficult questions can be dealt with by an orator of moderate ability if he is content to follow nature as his leader and does not give all his attention to a showy style” (Gwynn, 78).
Above centre once again we have the style of the late fifties/early sixties. I look about 1 1/2 years old or possibly 2, dating the picture at 1960 approx. My father ceased to split his hair in the centre shortly afterwards.

Style 3

Style 3

"Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste . . . The style is the man himself" ("Le style c'est l'homme même").  It is worth requoting this from my last post.  As I said therein, the author of these insightful words was one Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, for information on whom see my last post or the wonderfully accessible on-line Wikipedia.

Notice how much depth and breadth is in this seemingly simple definition.  One must think clearly and precisely, feel deeply and be open to those feelings and finally be able to express these appropriately and well.  One needs a clarity of mind, a depth of soul and finally good taste.  Clarity of mind or precision of thought needs much training and practice, while depth of soul and feeling would require an openness of heart and a deep sympathy and empathy with one’s fellow beings.  Good taste is often a matter of common sense, a sense of place and a sense of timing.  Some people never get this latter.  I call to my mind a “professional” gentleman of a certain standing whom I know and he has absolutely no good taste – he is his  own crude and unashamed self in all company, using only the crudest of toilet talk – it doesn’t matter whether it is the Pope himself or the local handyman in whose company he might chance to be.

There are as many different styles as there are human beings in this world.  As a teacher perhaps one of the most rewarding professional returns is witnessing the growth of young human beings.  One notices each person’s tentative and sometimes awkward attempts to get to know who he or she is.  One begins to see the marvellously individual growth of personality and character.  One fourth year boy comes to mind as I write and I shan’t, of course, name him.  He has style – a unique style all his own, and to use a term from counselling he is one of the more congruent young men I have taught in many a long year.  He is a leader of others – a good thinker, a deeply feeling and a sensitive young man.  As well as that he has great self-confidence, a lot of this learned at home and at his martial arts.  He is well able to teach junior pupils these martial art skills.  As well as that he has a marvellous sympathy and empathy for others – probably learned through helping a sister who has a certain disability.  In short he has style. The picture centred above is one of me on the extreme left, then my brother Gerard and our friend Ger Fitzpatrick. It was taken in Roscrea, Co. Tipperary in Summer 1962 or '63. It does have a certain style, does it not?

Style 2

Style 2

In my last post on style, I mentioned my erstwhile teacher and college lecturer, Rev. Bernard Kelly, D.D., D.Litt.  I owe a lot of my precision in style and my awareness of the balance in a sentence to Barney’s tutoring.  He was not a brilliant lecturer, but he could write like an angel in three languages: - English of course, Gaeilge under the Irish form of his name as Brian Ó Ceallaigh and in German.  Barney had done his D.D. in Germany in the 1930s.  He had been awarded the D. Litt. by a Catholic American University for the voluminous writings he had published in defence of the Catholic faith.  I found his theology outdated – he had been ousted from the theology department when replaced with the newer theologians like Dermot Lane from Rome in the early 1970s.  So the Director of the college decided to put Barney teaching us English students how to write.  Whatever about the traditional nature of his theology, Barney could write well in the three languages mentioned.  Many years later I learned that poor Barney had to carry the “cross” of alcoholism throughout the greater part of his life.  He died in his early 1990s.

Barney taught me much about style.  He always liked quoting Bouffon.  So much so that I never forgot this same Bouffon and went on to quote him in the introduction to my master’s degree in theology.  I had found that this same Bouffon had a lot in common with the subject of my thesis, John Henry Newman as regards what style was.  So who was this Bouffon and why had Barney always quoted him?  

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (September 7, 1707April 16, 1788) was a French naturalist, mathematician, biologist, cosmologist and author. Buffon's views influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.  Like the other French Encyclopaedists, no area of human knowledge lay outside his remit. Buffon is best remembered for his great work Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749-1788: in 36 volumes, 8 additional volumes published after his death by Lacépède). It included everything known about the natural world up until that date. In it Buffon considered the similarities between humans and apes, and the possibility of a common ancestry.  In perusing the portrait of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, by François-Hubert Drouais (1727-1775) I am struck that Georges-Louis was, indeed, a man of style – see the enclosed picture above – how élégant and distingué the Comte looks! Est très distingué et élégant, non?  So this was the man Barney loved quoting.  I’m very sure Barney disagreed with the Comte’s prescient understanding of evolution, being a traditional Catholic.  However, I’m sure he would have been glad that Bouffon denied again and again that he was an atheist.

So what did this famous Comte de Bouffon say about style?  He was very skilled with words, earning him the nickname from mathematician Jean le Rond d' Alembert of "the great phrasemonger." When delivering his Discours sur le style (“Discourse on Style”), he said, "Writing well consists of thinking, feeling and expressing well, of clarity of mind, soul and taste . . . The style is the man himself" ("Le style c'est l'homme même").  Since then, this definition of style has always been my favourite.  I think it very profound and perspicacious.  I have used for years during my teaching career.  I will say a little more on style in my next post.

I have edited much of the information above on Bouffon from the on-line Wikipedia and the picture at the centre above is of a painting of the elegant count by Francois-Hubert Drouais (1727-1775)