Aug 31 2022

Toward an Unbound Civic Imagination

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

So, first I said I thought Americans need to think about imagination more, and think about it seriously, as a tool (but certainly not the tool) for addressing the most pressing problems in contemporary society: traffic congestion, housing shortages, healthcare costs, and mass-shootings––perhaps even the malaise of a lot of contemporary American (particularly Texan) art and literature.

Then I said maybe citizens should be careful, because imagination has its costs, and some of those costs Americans may not want to pay for. In other words, “imagination won’t save us; but don’t then let it slay us.”

Still, it feels wrong to remain inert. My mind remains restless, as if I’ve woken up gasping not for air but for fresher thoughts.


So I continue my studies of imagination, and there I find that poet-polemicist-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) more than once referred to the imagination as a “restless faculty” of the mind, endowed by “Nature,” and made for “noble” ends (or goals).

Let therefore my “lofty ambition,” my “high hopes” be thus: that we may learn to cultivate (bildung) an “enthusiastic imagination,” one “vivid” and containing civic “reveries” not without spiritual “passion.” Though in this advocacy, I feel as if I’m Dr. Frankenstein wanting to create a new and improved civic American (or Texan):

Clerval! Beloved friend! Even now it delights me to record your words and to dwell on the praise of which you are so eminently deserving. He was a being formed in the “very poetry of nature.” His wild and enthusiastic imagination was chastened by the sensibility of his heart. His soul overflowed with ardent affections, and his friendship was of that devoted and wondrous nature that the world-minded teach us to look for only in the imagination.

(Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), “Ch. XVIII.”)

The doctor further confesses:

My imagination was vivid, yet my powers of analysis and application were intense; by the union of these qualities I conceived the idea and executed the creation of a man. Even now I cannot recollect without passion my reveries while the work was incomplete. I trod heaven in my thoughts, now exulting in my powers, now burning with the idea of their effects. From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition; but how am I sunk! Oh! My friend, if you had known me as I once was, you would not recognize me in this state of degradation. (“Ch. XXIV”)


Twenty-nine years after Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855), in her novel Jayne Eyre (1847) mentions “the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of imagination,” (Ch. XXI).

Seventy-seven years after Eyre––but very early in the text of the Manifeste du surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) (1924)––André Breton (1896–1966) describes “this imagination which knows no bounds is henceforth allowed to be exercised only in strict accordance with the laws of an arbitrary utility.”

Breton’s elder, J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), later observed in his essay “A Secret Vice” how:

Language has both strengthened imagination and been freed by it. Who shall say whether the free adjective has created images bizarre and beautiful, or the adjective been freed by strange and beautiful pictures in the mind?

After Tolkien, in one his early studies called The Death of Tragedy (1963), Franco-American critic George Steiner (1929–2020) noted of the English poet Robert Graves (1895–1985):“Graves says, the imagination has extra-territorial rights, and these are guarded by poetry.”

Even so, poetry is not policy.


As Owen Barfield (1898–1997) once put it, “if law is the point where life and logic meet, perception is the point where life and imagination meet.” So even political and societal perceptions (and the political and societal problems we perceive) inevitably contain a substantial component called imagination.

Moreover, as British philosopher Gertrude Anscombe (1919–2001) reminds us that “what is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.” I think she means that imagination and institution rarely go hand-in-hand. (One might dare argue that anything “institutional” can never be “imaginative.”)

When faced with a dilemma between the institutional and the imaginative, Tolkien, as a young student, chose the latter path:

I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faerie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. (“On Fairy Stories”)

In a similar vein, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), someone of a quite different British disposition that that of Tolkien, nonetheless once pointed out that philosophy too has a greater need for imaginative thinking than brute science requires:

[In Voltaire’s novel Candide] Dr. Pangloss’s in his study can ascertain what soil of universe would, to his way of thinking, be the best possible; he can also convince himself, so long as he stays in his study, that the universe means to satisfy his ethical demands [that “we live in the best of all possible worlds”].

Bernard Bosanquet, until his death one of the recognized leaders of British philosophy, maintained in his Logic, ostensibly on logical grounds, that “it would be hard to believe, for example, in the likelihood of a catastrophe which should overwhelm a progressive civilization like that of modem Europe and its colonies.”

Capacity to believe that the “laws of thought” have comforting political consequences is, a mark of the philosophic bias.

Philosophy, as opposed to science, springs from a kind of self-assertion: a belief that our purposes have an important relation to the purposes of the universe, and that, in the long run, the course of events is bound to be, on the whole, such as we should wish.

Science abandoned this kind of optimism, but is being led towards another: that we, by our intelligence, can make the world such as to satisfy a large proportion of our desires.

This is a practical, as opposed to a metaphysical, optimism. I hope it will not seem to future generations as foolish as that of Dr. Pangloss.

So how do we sort the philosophy from the fairy story, the institutional science from an unbound civic imagination? Is democracy the best of all possible governance? We might ought to follow the method given by the narrator of Stephen King’s novel Revival (2014):

We debated the validity of each (first in my living room, later in this same bed), eventually putting them into four categories: utter bullshit, probable bullshit, impossible to be sure, and hard not to believe. (p. 239)

Some Notes to Some of the Above

Gertrude E. M. Anscombe, “On the Source of the Authority of the State” (1978) The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), p. 131.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning (1928), (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973; Third Edition), p. 29.

Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge, (New York: Macmillan, 1968), p. 159.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Lecture on the Slave Trade,” June 16, 1795, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Vol. I Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, eds. Lewis Paton and Peter Mann, (Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1971),pp. 235–36; Coleridge, Watchman No. 4. March 35, 1796. Coleridge Works Vol. II, p. 131.

Bertrand Russell, “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives,” Unpopular Essays, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950, 1969), pp. 56–57.

George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy,(New York, Hill & Wang, 1963), p. 240.

Jul 2 2022

On “Fellowship” (A Literary Meditation)

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

On “Fellowship” (A Literary Meditation)

I’ve been studying Chaucer lately, and soon stumbled on to some of his usages of the word fellowship.

For wher-so men had pleyd or waked,
Me thoghte the felawship as naked
Withouten hir, that saw I ones,
As a coroune withoute stones.
(The Book of the Duchesse, ll. 977–80)


Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon,
That I was of hir felawshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take our wey, ther as I yow devyse.
(Tales of Canterbury, General Prologue, ll. 25–34).

And, in describing the Wife of Bath, Chaucer’s Narrator notes:

In felawschip wel coude she laughe and carpe.
(General Prologue, ll. 474)

In a time of frequent mass-shootings, controversial court decisions, and pandemic supply chains … a turn toward fellowship might not be so much an exercise in idleness, but one of escapism.

So fellowship is the root word fellow with the added suffix –ship.

For fellow, The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says it’s Anglo-Saxon (Old English) but borrowed from Scandinavian:

The early Scandinavian etymon is a derivative formed on the compound reflected by Old Icelandic félag , Norwegian felag, Old Swedish fælagh, Old Danish fælagh (Danish fællig ).

Likewise, the suffix –ship is Anglo-Saxon:

Added to adjectives and past participles to denote the state or condition of being so-and-so. Such compounds were numerous in Old English, and many survived (or were re-coined) in Middle English, but few have a history extending beyond the 15th century; e.g. Old English árodscipe briskness, dolscipe folly, druncenscipe drunkenship n., drunkship n. (Middle English), glædscipe gladship n., gódscipe goodship n., láþscipe hardship, prútscipe pride, shendship n. (Middle English), snelscipe boldness, wildship n. (Middle English), wódscipe madness. The only survivals of this formation now in common use are hardship n. (first in Ancren Riwle), and worship n. (Old English weorþscipe).

But fellowship as an entire word, according to OED, doesn’t show up till the 1200s, that is, about a century before Chaucer.

In his book The Idea of the Holy (1917), German philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) lists fellowship as one of three types of spiritual silence:

Devotional Silence may have a threefold character. There is the numinous silence of Sacrament, the silence of Waiting, and the silence of Union or Fellowship.

(Das Heilige. Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen (The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational) (1917), trans. John W. Harvey, (Oxford UP, 1923), p. 216)

Otto here admits that he found these ideas in the works of George Fox (1621–1691), founder of the Quakers, who formally call themselves The Society of Friends—that is, literally an organization devoted to fellowship. And the silence in fellowship that Otto mentions is what Mrs. Mia Wallace was trying to explain to Vincent Vega oh-so-many years ago:

In the Prologue to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954), one finds a casual, cozy fellowship:

‘How Old Toby came by the plant is not recorded, for to his dying day he would not tell. He knew much about herbs, but he was no traveller. It is said that in his youth he went often to Bree, though he certainly never went further from the Shire than that. It is thus quite possible that he learned of this plant in Bree, where now, at any rate, it grows well on the south slopes of the hill. The Bree-hobbits claim to have been the first actual smokers of the pipe-weed. They claim, of course, to have done everything before the people of the Shire, whom they refer to as “colonists”; but in this case their claim is, I think, likely to be true. And certainly it was from Bree that the art of smoking the genuine weed spread in the recent centuries among Dwarves and such other folk, Rangers, Wizards, or wanderers, as still passed to and fro through tat ancient road-meeting. The home and centre of the art is thus to be found in the old inn of Bree, The Prancing Pony, that has been kept by the family of Butterbur from time beyond record.’

Though the word fellowship isn’t used in this particular passage, the idea of it bleeds over from writer to reader, for fellowship is a prominent theme in Tolkien’s very big book.

And I find a deeper, more formal fellowship than that above in both the Nine adventurers who constitute the Fellowship of the Ring, as well as between reader and writer, such as when Gandalf (but let us imagine author-professor Tolkien speaking in his stead), explains the fellowship-like task of the writer, (in this case, a historian):

And Gandalf said: ‘This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended.’

(“The Steward and the King,” The Return of the King, VI, v)

Gandalf-Tolkien goes on to explain that the task of the reader, with regard to fellowship with the writer, is to be a sapling (for the writer is a planter):

And Gandalf coming looked at it, and said: ‘Verily this is a sapling of the line of Nimloth the fair; and that was a seedling of Galathilion, and that a fruit of Telpherion of many names, Eldest of Trees. Who shall say how it comes here in the appointed hour? But this is an ancient hallow, and ere the kings failed or the Tree withered in the court, a fruit must have been set here. For it is said that, though the fruit of the Tree comes seldom to ripeness, yet the life within may then lie sleeping through many long years, and none can foretell the time in which it will awake.  Remember this. For if ever a fruit ripens, it should be planted, lest the line die out of the world. Here it has lain hidden on the mountain, even as the race of Elendil lay hidden in the wastes of the North. Yet the line of Nimloth is older far than your line, King Elessar.’

(“The Steward and the King,” The Return of the King, VI, v)

Nor is fellowship limited to the realm of readers and writers. Fellowship can extend to religion, as Walter Kaufman (1921–1980) once pointed out, for fellowship is meant to counter loneliness:

Religions do not so much offer truths as a common language in which to express truths as well as superstitions. Whitehead once said that “religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” This definition tells us more about the age in which it was written than about religion. Religion offers man a way out of his solitude. Even when it does not lure man into church or visible fellowship with others, religion offers man a language which makes real loneliness impossible. The language of religion may be ritual, prayer, or an idiom based on Scripture: the man who speaks this language breaks out of the solitary confinement of his mute emotions, transcends the isolation of his boredom or despair, and becomes part of a community. He belongs.

(Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958), p. 350)

And fellowship may even extend to nationhood:

Justice Felix Frankfurter spoke of the need “to shed old loyalties and take on the loyalty of American citizenship,” which is a kind of “fellowship which binds people together by devotion to certain feelings and ideas and ideals summarized as a requirement that they be attached to the principles of the constitution.”

(Benjamin R. Barber, “Constitutional Faith,” For Love of Country? ed. Martha Nussbaum, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996; ed. Joshua Cohen, 2002), p. 32)

Feb 1 2022

My Best Read for 2021: Short Story Review of “The Feast” by Mark Marchenko (2020)

la casa

My Best Read for 2021: Short Story Review of “The Feast” by Mark Marchenko (2020)

After spending a month brooding on what I’ve read over the past year, I’ve determined that Mark Marchenko’s “The Feast” (Zeenith, (Wyandotte, MI: New Pop Lit, 2020) was the best short story I read for 2021.

It is a straightforward narrative of entanglement with bureaucracy (and those armed bureaucrats we call “cops”), genuinely Kafkaesque in the best sense of the word (as the LA Review of Books recently pointed out)—a nightmare of inane questioning, hindering, holding (as in being held in custody):

“Yes, I understand,” I assured him, but at the same time, to say the truth, I felt a bit lost. It is like when you explain something so simple that is not even worth explaining, and if you are not understood, you start doubting if the problem is not in reality on your side. (“The Feast”)

In other words, this is a place where all logical arguments fail to change the circumstances. The story also contains a bit of radically juxtaposed imagery, in a very dreamlike, authentically surreal manner.

And though it is a “fictional” Moscow where Marchenko’s story takes place, the endless netting and knotting of empty explanations from security officials, accompanied by a preference for nonsensical commands that must be obeyed, reminds one of Baylor professor Alan Jacob’s recent encounters with American healthcare bureaucracy—a nauseous trek and trial that led him to later compare his experiences to Dicken’s circumlocution machine. For Jacobs, “the object of these systems is the generation of despair.”

 Yet I was also reminded of the dread from Yiddish writer (originally from Ukraine) Sholom Aleichem’s (1859–1916) short story of “The Pair”––a story where a couple are doomed to be cannibalized, and yet, while in their holding cell (or coup), one explains to the other how

There is nothing in the world to which God’s creatures can’t become accustomed. Our prisoners had grown so used to their troubles that they now thought things were as they should be, just like the proverbial worm that has made its home in horseradish and thinks it sweet. (“The Pair,” trans. Shlomo Katz, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, eds. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, (New York: Viking, 1954) p. 202)

Marchenko’s “The Feast,” however, also resembled that moment in “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm” chapter to The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf reads from the Book of Mazarbul the words of the doomed dwarves: “we cannot get out.” But while the circumstances are crystal clear for the characters in Tolkien, in Marchenko’s tale, the main character is trapped in convolutions of organizational documentation, entangled in endless obscurities:

The document consisted of two parts: the main text and the area below where you put your signature. The annotation said that the person who signed it was aware of the information in the text and that this person was not going to file any complaints should he decide that he in fact wasn’t acknowledged with the text. (“The Feast”)

Still, let us hope for Marchenko’s protagonist, as well as for Jacobs and ourselves, that we never get too used to these obstacles of institutionalization. Let us hope that we too, like the hardy band in Tolkien, are able to “get out.”

Jan 17 2020

Arcadia and Middle-Earth: Prose Plus Poetry in Sidney and Tolkien

After finishing C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) (1954) last autumn, I was curious to then read Sir. Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580): a strange work of mostly prose, but interspersed with much poetry. I’d read Sidney’s Apology (1580) several times and mostly understood it, but the Arcadia was more ambiguous. When reading it, sometimes (at least the older version) felt like a medieval romance (like the first part of the Roman de la Rose [c. 1230]). At other times, the Arcadia felt like an ancient epic (the Argonautica (c. 200 BC) comes to mind). Either way, Arcadia is definitely not a novel, though it is a fantasy.

And it also reminded me much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892–1973) works—another fantasy world told mostly in prose but containing much poetry. Both authors take these old literary forms and add something fresh to them by mixing them together. They are “fun,” even when their tones turn toward things serious. In this regard, they have mirth.

This freshness of song and speech also reminded somewhat of Miguel Cervantes (1547–1616) Don Quijote (1605, 1616), which contains a few handfuls of sonnets, and along these lines we might add Johanna Spyri’s (1827–1901) Heidi’s Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) (1880) and Heidi Kann Brauchen, was es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (1881) as well as John Bunyan’s (1628–1688) The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) with their Protestant hymns and songs intermixed with prose tales.

But the going-back-and-forthness between prose and poetry in Sidney’s Arcadia and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mostly reminded me of classic Hollywood musicals. (I’m a South Pacific (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964) kind of guy.)

Post Scriptum

Finally, with feelings more of somberness than sadness do we wish Christopher Tolkien (1924–2020) and his kin the best as he now journeys westward toward the Grey Havens. His task as steward to his father’s work is now complete. And I expect the father to soon say to all around him, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

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First edition…. RIP Christopher Tolkien

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Jul 25 2017

How Much was a Plum Worth in the Middle Ages? Reading Richard Rolle

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

How Much was a Plum Worth in the Middle Ages? Reading Richard Rolle

So a while back I was reading The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School (1932) by Raymond Wilson Chambers (1874–1942), a friend of Tolkien’s, and came across this intriguing passage concerning someone I’d never hear of before, the medieval mystic Richard Rolle (1290/1300–1349):

Rolle’s date, his style and his popularity give him a supreme place in the history of English prose. In English or in Latin he was, during the latter half of the Fourteenth Century and the whole of the Fifteenth, probably the most widely read in England of all English writers. Investigation of English wills and of documents bearing on the ownership of books seems to show a dozen owners of manuscripts of Rolle for one or two of the Canterbury Tales. Such devotional books were likely to be worn to bits, and not to come down to posterity at all: yet Miss Allen has examined between four and five hundred of them, in Latin or in English, scattered through the libraries of Europe and America. [1]

And later I learned from an article by Margaret Deanesly (1885–1977):

Among English books, those of Richard Rolle seem to have been most frequent—partly because his glossed English psalter was the only biblical book which the laity might use without license.[2]

So in light of the life-long quest to understand the Middle Ages I undertook several years ago, I recently decided to read some Richard Rolle. Hence I found Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse (1988) edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson for the Early English Text Society.

I must say I found very little “mysticism” in Rolle. His religion seems pretty plain, ordinary, and orthodox, even when compared to a non-radical like Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758),[3] but maybe that’s what made Rolle so popular.

Now it’s been a while since I dove into Middle English, and it took some slow adjusting (is his surname pronounced like rôle, or does it rhyme with Raleigh?), but I found a few gems by Rolle such as:

þe fyre of his loue lyght oure hert, and þe swetnesse of his grace be our comfort and our solace in wel and in woo. [4]

[the fire of His love light our hearts, and the sweetness of His grace be our comfort and our solace in well and in woe.]

Elsewhere Rolle writes that “loue is hard as helle.” [5]

But I was especially struck by his strange comparison of apples to castles:

Bot sum men þat loueth nat wisely, like to children þat loueth more an appille þan a castelle. So doth many; þay gvf þe ioy of heuyn for a litel delite of har fleisshe, þat is noght worth a ploumbe. [6]

[But some men that loveth not wisely, like to children that loveth more an apple than a castle. So doth many; they give the joy of heaven for a little delight of her flesh, that is not worth a plum.]

Just how old is the metaphor and phrase “not worth a plum?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, both “plum” and “worth” are very old words, even within Old English. Google Book’s Ngram viewer finds the phrase extremely rare before 1800, [7] peaking at about 1837 and slowly decreasing since then.

And are (or were) plumbs worth less than apples? Were they worth less because they bruise more easily?

Plums and pennies #books

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[1] Chambers, R. W. The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School. An extract from the introduction to Nicholas Harpsfield’s Life of Thomas More edited by E. V. Hitchcock and R. W. Chambers. EETS: Oxford UP. 1932. 1957. p. ci.

[2] Deanesly, Margaret. “Vernacular Books in England in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.” Modern Language Review. Vol. 15. No. 4. (October 1920.) 349–58 at 352.

[3] Rolle doesn’t dig too deep into epistemology and ontology as Edwards occasionally does:

BEING. It seems strange sometimes to me, that there should be Being from all Eternity; and I am ready to say, What need was there than anything should be? I should then ask myself, Whether it seems strange that there should be either Something, or Nothing? If so, it is not strange that there BE; for that necessity of there being Something, or Nothing, implies it. (Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings. Edited by Ola Elizabeth Winslow. NY: Signet Classic. 1966. pp. 45–46)

[4] Rolle, Richard. Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse. Edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson. Oxford UP. EETS. No. 293. 1988. “The Form of Living” 5.

[5] Rolle, “Lyrics” i, 43.

[6] Rolle, “The Form of Living” 22.

[7] Under its entry for “nose” the Oxford English Dictionary quotes from Frances Burney’s (1752–1840) novel Ceclilia, or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782): “Bad way too,” cried Briggs, “never get on with it, never see beyond your nose; won’t be worth a plum while your head wags!” (V, ix, 67).

Mar 30 2017

A Eulogy to Bookclubs (in the form of Confession & Resolution)

A Eulogy to Bookclubs (in the form of Confession & Resolution)

The few bookclubs I’ve been in have given me the opportunity to network and befriend (at a distance) a few people–but as goes the act of reading (whether for fiction or non) these overall experiences have left me with a bad taste in my mouth– they’ve helped me discover that I don’t read the way other people read, and I’m somehow now resentful to the idea of bookclubs (but not their members) because I feel like an outsider.

I’ve always admitted to being a dilettante, a Tolkien taster,[1] and not a professor, not an expert in anything I’ve ever read or reread.

I have a poor memory, so I take notes when I read, and I reread those notes, so that I can attempt to grasp some inking of the author’s intention upon the page. Then I reread my notes and try to connect them to things previously read (and those notes previously taken).

And I’ve found many good points from a few good people in previous bookclubs and have been exposed to many (not just several) life-changing works I never would’ve discovered on my own.

And yet I don’t miss going to bookclub, though I sometimes miss meeting and seeing some of the people–I now must come up with some way of reminding myself that whenever I take notes on something I’m reading (and I tend to take notes on the things in a book that make me excited) that I must additionally attempt to remember that I am an oddball when it comes to the act of reading–and I must remember that overbearing, out-of-place feeling so oft felt when attending bookclub–a feeling that on reflection later reveals all the things I overlooked in the books I thought I had already read.


[1] As Tolkien puts it:

I have, in this peculiar sense, studied (‘tasted’ would be better) other languages since. Of all save one among them [Welsh?] the most overwhelming pleasure was provided by Finnish, and I have never quite got over it.

“English and Welsh – the O’Donnell Lecture – Oxford 21 October 1955” The Monsters and Critics: and other Essays. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. NY: Harper Collins. 1983. 2006. p. 192.



Nov 22 2016

A Dialogue of High Adventure & Misdemeanors

bookbread typewriter

A Dialogue of High Adventure & Misdemeanors

let us try / Adventurous work

––Satan, Paradise Lost[1]

Everything is legal.

––Thénardier, Les Misérables[2]

SCENE: Consider the Plagiarist who was successful and had money to spare and how he encountered the Crime Writer who was muddling through her career, sometimes writing fiction, sometimes non:


CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever called you a criminal?

PLAGIARIST: I prefer to be called a “master of disguising quotations.” It’s the thrill of masquerade when all the world’s a stage….

CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever accused you of being an adventurer?

PLAGIARIST: No, but I think I know what you mean. There is something of a riddle in how adventure sometimes functions as a synonym for criminal enterprise. An Oxford don named Tolkien played around with this idea in the opening chapter of The Hobbit (1936). But I first learned of this riddle from that Gallic journalist André Gide (1869–1951) and his character of Lafcadio in The Caves of the Vatican (1914): a motiveless criminal:

“No doubt his apparent inconsequence hides what is in reality, a subtler and more recondite sequence—the important point is that what makes him act should not be a matter of interest, or, as the usual phrase is, that he should not be merely actuated by interested motives…. A crime without a motive,” went on Lafcadio, “what a puzzle for the police! As to that, however, going along beside this blessed bank, anybody in the next-door compartment might notice the door open and the old blighter’s shadow pitch out. The corridor curtains, at any rate, are drawn…. It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he’s capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point…. What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! … And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there’d be no interest in the game! …. Between the imagination of a deed and … Hullo! the bank’s come to an end….”  He preferred adventure—a word as pliable as his beaver and as easily twisted to suit his liking…. There is no reason that a man who commits a crime without reason should be considered a criminal.[3]

CRIME WRITER: You certainly can quote when called upon. But don’t expect me today to pay you for yesterday’s words.

PLAGIARIST: There’re plenty who do pay. I don’t need you. And I can perplex at will. I will perplex you with a question: can one be a law-abider––a non-criminal, full of motives or empty of inclinations––and still, nonetheless, possess “the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do?” Or is that urge something that happens only amid the anarchy in the heart of the African jungle of Nod, rather than the governance of the Arabic garden of Eden?[4]

CRIME WRITER: With all my experience of writing about high adventures and misdemeanors, I well remember what Captain Conrad taught me:

Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation, a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious.[5]

which was why––

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to [Jim’s] imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages.[6]

So to seek adventure—to pursue crime—is rather boring, at least for crime writers like me. Yet the incurious teem with intrigue….


CRIME WRITER: Gide, Conrad, and Gramsci. Besides being a bunch of men, how are these relevant to our dialogue?

PLAGIARIST: the political prisoner Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), whether or not technically a “criminal,” certainly possessed motives and rendered them upon the pages of his notebooks. He was motived to philosophize in order to rise above religion and common sense:

Philosophy is intellectual order, which neither religion nor common sense can be. It is to be observed that religion and common sense do not coincide either, but that religion is an element of fragmented common sense. Moreover common sense is a collective noun, like religion: there is not just one common sense, for that too is a product of history and a part of the historical process. Philosophy is criticism and superseding of religion and “common” sense. [7]

On the other hand, for sea captain Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) if a society’s objects of royalty and religion make not good targets for terrorists (who are criminals, members of anti-society), then– at least in his novel The Secret Agent (1907)––science emerges as the preferred target for terrorists, the new motive of criminality:

“You are too lazy to think,” was Mr Vladimir’s comment upon that gesture. “Pay attention to what I say. The fetish of to-day is neither royalty nor religion. Therefore the palace and the church should be left alone. You understand what I mean, Mr Verloc?” …. But there is learning—science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish….[8]

Finally, through his character of James Duffy, exiled penman James Joyce (1882–1941) shows that to be a good citizen of a murderous empire, a non-criminal needs merely no royalty (if Irish at least), a few friends, and a little religion. These things make the life of the good citizen “adventureless”:

He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his hank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.[9]

CRIME WRITER: Crime and adventure….

PLAGIARIST: Advice and censure….



[1] Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 1667. X, 254–55. Compare 439–41.

[2] Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. 1860. IV, vi, i.

[3] Gide, André. Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures.) 1914. Translated by Dorothy Bussy. NY: Knopf. 1953. IV, vii; V, i and ii.

[4] Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. § I.

[5] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale. 1907. XI.

[6] Conrad, Lord Jim. 1900. II.

[7] Gramsci, Antonio. Quaderni del carcere. 1929–1935. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.) Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. NY: International Publishers. 1971. “The Study of Philosophy” 325–26.

[8] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale II.

[9] Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914. “A Painful Case.”

Jun 15 2016

Stuck in Class: A Pseudo Story


Stuck in Class: A Pseudo Story

If all language is metaphor, then, there is literary nothing literal.

––C. S. Lewis[i]

Attempt to defrag: You are Charlie Parton. You step over the dead snakes in the street and enter a convenience store where everything smells clean but many (though not all) products have been used and/or opened, not as if the place has been robbed or vandalized, but as if someone had earlier been invited there by the proprietor for a random, rampant, unsealing of the wares…. And out in the parking lot the trees see you, but the forest sees through you….

Come to think of it–have you actually been daydreaming in class this whole time and are now about to get called out for it? Hasn’t Professor Lewis just been explaining to you how, when you don’t play, you argue, that whenever you misplace your creativity, you turn to deliberation?[ii]

I remember misplacing my creativity the day I raised my hand, and got called on from behind the lectern, and thereby confessed that I wanted no more to read about local food and national politics, not when humans are being merely advertised rather than advertised to.[iii] I attempted to say: “Just because it’s on the radio doesn’t mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses.”[iv]

But Professor Tolkien curtly replied back: “It is to idols that men turned (and turn) for quick and literal answers.”[v] And I say what’s wrong with being weary of idols and advertisers and empty answers? Yet this failure of my intellect left me impatient.[vi] After all, Tolkien’s answer was an easy answer! Were these words mine I would’ve said to the advertisers that “I despised them for daring so little when they could do so much, they lacked faith and I had it.”[vii]



[i] Lewis, Clive Staples. “Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays. London: Oxford UP. 1939. Reprinted in The Importance of Language. Edited by Max Black. NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1962. 36–50 at 45.

[ii] Rhetoric is the readiest substitute for poetry (Lewis, Allegory of Love. Oxford 1936. Second Edition. 1946. p. 56). “The greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them,” (ibid 7). Proverbs were often admired for their rhetorical beauty, but not their substance (ibid 101). And:

Very roughly, we might almost say that in Rhetoric imagination is present for the sake of passion (and, therefore, in the long run, for the sake of action), while in poetry passion is present for the sake of imagination, and therefore, in the long run, for the sake of wisdom or spiritual health—the rightness and richness of a man’s total response to the world. (ibid 54)

When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: It only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (Lewis, Mere Christianity. 1944. Macmillan, NY. 1952. p. 10)

[iii] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “IV. Sounds.”

[iv] Delillo, Don. White Noise. NY: Penguin. 1985. VI, 22–23.

[v] Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics” Monsters and Critics – the Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. 1983. 2006. Harper Collins. 44.

[vi] Johnson, Samuel. “Rambler No. 32 – Saturday, 7 July 1750.”

[vii] Camus, Albert. “Le renégat.” From The Fall and Exile and the Kingdom. Translated by Justine O’Brien. New York: Modern Library. 1957. 187.


Mar 25 2011

A Welcoming to Welsh Ways (A Dialogue)

For all impractical purposes let us examine the divisions of poetic persona by interrupting a scene from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. In our take on the play, Audrey, an American country dame, continually questions Touchstone, a European clown of the court. The two banter back and forth in the forest of Arden.

Touchstone: When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical. (As You Like It III, iii)

Audrey: I do not know what “poetical” is. Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?

Touchstone: Are you implying, then, that you cannot understand my verses, Audrey? Come on. I know you have more than a mere child’s understanding of the world, even if it doesn’t include comprehending “poetical” things quite as well as I.

Audrey: If you say so.

Touchstone: Come, Audrey, don’t be confused. There’s nothing wrong with a child’s understanding when it comes to things poetical. Some have said that it’s a good thing—and not just Martha Stuart. Take a contemporary of our creator Shakespeare: Sir Philip Sidney, and how he observes in his Apology to Poetry (1595):

If then a man can arrive, at that child’s age, to know that the poet’s persons and doings are but pictures of what should be, and not stories of what have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively but allegorically and figuratively written.[i]

So all I mean, Audrey, is that you must learn to arrive at a child’s age, that is, if you are to someday know the nature of things “poetical” and not give in to the lies of literalists who have no understanding for what is allegorically and figuratively written.

Audrey: You may know what you know, but because you talk so much, I hear everything that you know as well as otherwise. And though I am but a country hick compared to you, tall, terrible Touchstone, understand, my man, that I still hear all things from all beings.

Touchstone: Well, stop with all the hearing and start listening to me, for I will speak of things poetic. I think it best to begin with the pre-origins of the English language poets, those found in the persona of the ancient Welsh bard.

Audrey: But why Welsh?

Touchstone: Because I am specifically interested in how the historical personage of the Welsh bard compares to the English poet—a cultural archetype sometimes called “the good writer.” I am interested in whatever functions, obligations, and responsibilities are required of the modern “good writer” and how they compare to those of the ancient bard. And if that is not enough to inspire indulgence in the subject of bardism, then for no other reason, Audrey, let us be led in the same scholastic spirit as J. R. R. Tolkien:

For myself I would say that more than the interest and uses of the study of Welsh as an adminicle of English philology, more than the practical linguist’s desire to acquire a knowledge of Welsh for the enlargement of his experience, more even than the interest and worth of the literature, older and newer, that is preserved in it, these two things seem important: Welsh is of the soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain; and Welsh is beautiful.[ii]

Touchstone: Welsh as an adminicle of English philology contains some compression of thought, Audrey: “adminicle” is fairly rare according to my searches through both the Oxford English Dictionary and Google. It principally means supportive, so we might take Tolkien to mean that the study of the Welsh language is supportive of the original study of English philology. But adminicle has another meaning—that of the decorative graphics that surround the main figure on a coin.

Audrey: So then, we can interpret Tolkien for our purposes to say that Welsh is a kind of decorative graphic, an ornamental interlacing that surrounds the main (and more important) figure of English? And yet both are embossed on the coin of philology (or what today we call linguistics)?

Touchstone: In so many words, Audrey, yes. And from this same essay, “Welsh and English” (1955), Tolkien adds:

If I may once more refer to my work, The Lord of the Rings [1954], in evidence: the names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modeled on those of Welsh (closely similar but not identical) [particularly “Arthurian romance”]. This element in the tale has given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it.[iii]

Audrey: So Tolkien is a modern bard, The Lord of the Rings is his song, a song supported by the decorative graphics found in Welsh tales of Arthur, the most notable I suppose, being found in the Mabinogion. Therefore: the Mabinogion functions as an adminicle to Lord of the Rings, or so Bard Tolkien tells us, and this adminicle is what gives readers the most pleasure.

[i] Sidney, Philip. An Apologie for Poetrie. (1595). Ed. John Churton Collins. (1907). Clarendon, Oxford. p. 39. GB. The original Elizabethan spelling reads:

If then a man can ariue, at that childs age, to know that the Poets persons and doings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what haue beene, they will neuer giue the lye to things not affirmatiuely but allegorically and figuratiuelie written.”

[ii] Tolkien, J. R. R. English and Welsh. (1955). O’Donnell Lecture Series. October 21, 1955. In The Monsters and the Critics – the Essays of J. R. R. Tolkien. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. (1983) (2006) Harper Collins. p. 189.

 [iii] Ibid. p. 197, n. 33.

Feb 21 2010

The Limits of Logic within the Limits of Fiction

At D.G. Myers’ A Commonplace Blog, a post entitled “Fiction’s Job,” endorses American Fiction Notes‘ Mark Athitakis’ definition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction.”  For Myers, this proposition by Athitakis is not a true tautology.  Myers goes on to explain that the modified statement, “fiction’s job is to be fiction,” would be tautological.

Assuming, with Wittgenstein [01], that all words are either tautologies or contradictions, the question beckons: Cannot attentive readers, whenever trying to define literature, rely on contradictions to the same extent they do towards tautologies?

The question is proposed because Bookbread abides by Paul Valéry’s proverb that “even in the best head, contradiction is the rule, correct sequence the exception.” [02]


After endorsing Athitakis’ proposition, Myers writes: “The real question is what such a proposition denies and rejects.” So Bookbread must also ask: How limiting is Athitakis’ proposition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction?”

Can literature/good writing/good fiction be redefined as a sequence of words (that is, a text) that alleviates the reader’s apathy towards that sequence and the author of it? Yes, but only by further conceding to a contradiction which underlies this new definition: the contradiction that not-reading might also alleviate individuals from textual and/or authorial apathy. After all, there are plenty of fiction authors whom folks may claim to “like” and think “are good” even though they’ve yet to read them. People have no qualms against living fictitious lives, and novelists have never hesitated to write about them.

Continuing with “Fiction’s Job,” Myers supports his position on the limits of fiction via Chesterton, whose views on fairies and fiction, particularly the necessity of the believability of a story, can be supplemented by Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1939):

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. [03]

Like the limits of fiction, we arrive at the limits of logic: And whether or not we book bloggers limit our logic by agreeing on either a tautological or contradictory definition for fiction, we should learn to never completely rely on logic for support of our literary judgments—because as Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928) reminds us:

It is quite true that logical speech is tautologous and cannot add to the sum of meaning or of knowledge. But the historical function of logical method has not been, to add to the sum of knowledge. It has been to engender subjectivity—self-consciousness. Once this has been achieved, as in the West it has very largely been achieved, today, there is no more that logic can do. Self-consciousness is indeed a sine qua non of undreaming knowledge, but it is not knowledge, it is more like its opposite; and once it has been achieved, logic, as far as the business of knowing is concerned, is functus officio. Or rather its surviving function is, to prevent a relapse. [04]


[01] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus. 1921. See § 6.1, 6.11, 6.111, 6.12. See also: Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 16.

[02] Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” Translated by Jackson Matthews, from the Southern Review, Winter 1940, Vol. 5, No. 03. Extracted from The Creative Process. Ed. by Brewster Ghiselin. UC Press. Mentor Books Edition, Ninth Printing. 1952. pp. 92–106. pp. 100, ¶ 48.

[03] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” 1939. The Monsters and the Critics. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Harper Collins. 2006. pp. 132.

[04] Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 30.