Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Quid est Liber?

This is the first of a series of pieces about the book in poetry to be released at this blogspot.

Philip Harvey

Quid est Liber?

Liber est lumen cordis;
Speculum corporis;
Uictiorum confussio;
Corona prudentium;
Diadema sapientium;
Honorificentia doctorum;
Uas plenum sapientia;
Socius itineris;
Domesticus fidelis;
Hortus plenus fructibus;
Archana reuelans;
Obscura clarificans;
Rogatus respondet,
Iussusque festinat,
Uocatur properat
Et faciliter obediens.

This delightful 12th century poem about what is a book started circulating online a few years ago. It comes from the Codex Miscellaneus, Ms. 381 in Toledo’s Biblioteca Pública del Estado, copied out again in the 18th century by Francisco Santiago Colmenas. Several, yes several, Spanish translations can be found on Hispanic and Latin American blogspots. Here is a good version by Ana Mosqueda:

¿Que es el libro?
Un libro es la luz del corazón,
espejo del cuerpo,
confusión de vicios,
corona de prudentes,
diadema de sabios,
honor de ilustrados,
vaso lleno de sabiduría,
compañero de viaje,
fiel amigo de la casa,
huerto lleno de frutos,
revelador del arcano,
clarificador de lo oscuro.
Si se le pregunta, responde,
y si se le ordena,se apresura.
Si es llamado, acude rápidamente
y obedece con docilidad.

It was in 2007 on Atlantis, the list of the American Theological Library Association, that I first saw this poem and an English version by a librarian working in San Diego, Mariel Deluca Voth:

What is a book?

The book is light to the heart
Mirror to the body
Vice confuser
Crown to the prudent
Diadem to the wise
Honor to doctors
Glass full of wisdom
Partner in travels
Faithful servant
Garden full of fruit
Revealer of secrets
Dissipater of shadows
Answers when asked
Moves swiftly when sent
Responds quickly when called
And readily obeys.
The end

One commentator on Atlantis asked if the poem could not also include e-books, especially in light of the line Uas plenum sapientium and the opening line Liber est lumen cordis. Glassy words and light cords? Maybe, but the poem uses analogies from a world in which reading is dependent on sunlight and candlelight. We can even see the medieval reader sitting there with their wax taper and text when we read Liber est lumen cordis, but also Obscura clarificans. The candle and the book together drive away shadows as well as the obscurity in the reader’s mind. Likewise the mirror at this time is becoming a useful device in everyday life and so also in literary usage. Speculum corporis might remind us of anatomy atlases, which are a modern literature unimaginable in the 12th century, but the line I think is talking about the growing awareness at this time amongst the educated of the book as capable of describing and reflecting and expressing the whole person. Speculum itself is an emerging genre at this time in medieval writing, i.e. the production of manuals of all known knowledge. The growth in book-making for all sorts of subjects was showing people that a library could explain every known thing about themselves, direct from the shelves. This included the ethical reality of human existence, hence the next line Uictiorum confussio. The next six lines then show in miniature the feudal worldview out of which this poem emerges. That a book can be Corona prudentium and Diadema sapientium is praise indeed in a world where monarchs rule and hand out the hats. It is logical that the learned will benefit from books, Honorificentia doctorum, though the poet is wise enough to know that learning does not start or end in books, which is a meaning hidden I think in the next line, Uas plenum sapientia. This particular line indicates too the Christian context of the poem, with its eucharistic implications, wisdom being available to all through the taking of the bread and wine. The miniature social picture is rounded off with the book being Socius itineris, true not just for journeys generally to this day, a Penguin for the trip, but also true for pilgrimage, that religious practice where reflection on life journey is made by taking a literal journey to a destination of deepest meaning. Then the poem anthropomorphizes the book as, last but not least, Domesticus fidelis, expressive of an attitude we daily have toward most things printed, whether on page, on wall, online. Domesticus fidelis reminds me too of the books at home that we probably use more than any others, and ultimately treasure for those reasons: cookbooks, user’s manuals, garden guides. Speaking of which, the book is also Hortus plenus fructibus. The original punctuation encloses this garden in by itself, suggesting to the modern ear that language in books is self-sufficient and replenishing with each new visit. This is an attractive thought in today’s world, where the book is so often regarded in many quarters as simply another commodity. Notice that the next line in the original Latin is also a single statement: Archana reuelans. The word arcana is nowadays immediately associated with the tarot, but at this time means any kind of secret or mysterious thing. The sensation of seeing a new book that we really want to read is generally associated with the excitement of finding out some new secret. This line taps into that desire, the hope of fulfilling our initial expectations. A really good book does more than that, books that not even a critic can spoil with easy summary. But as if to qualify concerns that books might be arcane, the poet rightly asserts that the book is equally Obscura clarificans. We are back in the reading room at night with the lighted candle and the words. The concluding lines then seem to describe the behaviour of the book as Domesticus fidelis. Though one could insert here the warning Cave canem. What kind of book is it that does all of these things? One would like to think that the book could Rogatus respondet, but life can prove more complicated than that and no monograph tells you all the facts. The same goes for the rest: Iussusque festinat, Uocatur properat Et faciliter obediens. If only. Librarians in particular are liable to give a rueful chuckle at the claim that an overdue item will instantly Uocatur properat. It is curious that the poet moves from sturdy similes throughout to an extended poetic metaphor at the conclusion. The poet makes claims for the book here that are idealizations rather than precise analogies, implying at least to me that the poet is indulging in wishful thinking. That said, we need to remember it is wishful thinking that has produced such facts as sets of encyclopedias and the e-book. The poem then says Explicit, rather as a child writes The End after saying everything they need to say in their school composition. The Latin holds meanings that we have lost in our use of The End. Explicit literally means unfolded, that is the poem has now revealed what a book is, it has provided a complete set of dictionary definitions for us to use. The poem has been utterly explicit about the book, or however we understand this word Liber. One of the beauties of the poem itself, nevertheless, is how the explicitness of each line contains implicit meanings that go way beyond the literal or descriptive.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Waste and Wisdom

Some Reflections on the Scale of Mechanised Information

Philip Harvey

One day soon a novelist will compose a work consisting entirely of internet citations that can no longer be traced. Files have been removed, first documents replaced by updates, websites de-linked by a Google gremlin. Even better, novels will be composed that consist of fictitious websites full of any amount of falsely attributed author information. That such a slippery situation exists at all is the private nightmare of the rational academic, scrupulous bibliographer, and internet spook. The imagination can be put to mischievous as well as constructive ends, but we are reminded too that online technology is more unstable and unreliable than the book.

Almost every week I hear from a lady living in Ivory Coast who addresses me fetchingly as Dearest in the Lord Jesus Christ and wants to meet me at Heathrow Airport with a suitcase of money and a few shared tears for her dead husband. I have come to delete her electrical blandishments with a prompt indifference I never knew I had before. Invitations to be guest speaker at a Future Intelligence Conference or to accept my claim to First Draw in an Italian Super Lottery are met with the same sangfroid and press of Delete. One doesn’t have to be a Cassandra to know that clicking with a Trojan could bring your whole world tumbling down.

I don’t use these examples to gripe about the internet, but to air this regular awareness that most of us have of the massive amount of waste that fills our lives each time we logon to the internet. There is the email waste that we have to fend off as it heads toward us like an unfunny and very obvious April Fool’s joke. And there is the spam we spend precious minutes differentiating from the stuff that may have some meaning. My Beloved from Ivory Coast is easy to identify, but in a mailbox of fifty messages what if in a hurry I remove the email that trumpets a friend’s genuine desire? Is the micro email note the one with the jumbo meaning? Have I missed the elephant in the room?

Never mind the news, where online papers give equal screen space to a footballer’s fame-drenched peccadilloes, the unpretty opinions of a fashionista, misguided polls about passing fads, and the imminent collapse of the European currency. All of this interrupted by noisy advertisements for products we will never buy. Where is the information we have lost in information? Never mind if knowledge is being imparted.

I find that so much of our life comes down to our habits of reading. And the value is in having the space to read closely and properly. The internet is a gift, a continuum of free knowledge, but how are we reading the internet? And will what we read today still be there tomorrow? Either online or in our thoughts? And will we be wiser? I mean, we’re not robots.

In his mordant comic novella ‘Too Loud a Solitude’ the great Czech satirist Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) writes about the life of a wastepaper baler. For the 35 years of his working life Hanta, the main character, has two main occupations: the day job putting paper into a press for pulping, and drinking beer. Paper, whether books, magazines, cartons, butcher’s paper or other industrial product, all of it goes into the baler. This mindless job has its perks, however. Hanta can take home to his cottage outside Prague books he finds of interest. Thus the personal account of his life becomes interspersed with sayings from Lao-Tse and Jesus Christ, Nietzsche and Holderlin, select authors that he studies in gorgeous morocco-bound volumes, whether or not he is drinking beer at the time. He even starts to differentiate the endless paper he commits to the baler, opening books of poetry at his favourite verse before they go down to be pressed.

Hrabal’s 100-page masterpiece is open to varying interpretation, but for anyone who deals in books, like librarians and booksellers but also readers in general, it is a reminder of the huge scale of the printed record of humanity, of the need to choose what we save, and of the excess waste that is implicit in this process. We simply don’t have time to read everything. We have to trust our instincts about what is worth reading now and what is best left for later, and what is best left. And then there is the business of what we are learning, as distinct from what we are simply reading.

Mechanisation sped up the possibilities of collective knowledge. From Victorian times books became a means to increased education, not just for the autodidact like Hanta but way into the higher reaches of institutional education. However, mechanisation also brought improved means to pulverise and eradicate the means of learning. Printed matter like books and journals could be removed from sight and even access forever with the same efficiency as totalitarian regimes could remove all trace of people’s lives, which is itself another meaning to Hrabal’s story.

Digital speeds us up further, which is why I stare at the rows of Google links to my next Search with a certain sobriety. All of those sites, all those attachments, images, downloads, blogs, going on forever. Behind each link are words that could be instrumental to our well-being, and individual humans with the potential to improve our state. Yet the rate of appearance seems equal to the rate of disappearance. Fast information outmanoeuvres slow information and we are none the wiser. Our access, we are told, is now unlimited to the information, yet are we reaching it? Is it all really there? Is that all there is? And how much of it will have evaporated from the silicon in twelve months time? I try not to get concerned, but as someone taught to value knowledge for its own sake, both the scale and the turnover of online information seems fraught with the possibilities of waste and loss. I reach out to take what I need, certain still there is something I have missed. And what of the remainder?

I keep coming back to the nature of reading itself, how the eye and the mind connect to words and images. In the precious time allowed us, how are we selecting and collecting? How are we prioritising what we read? The false dichotomy of book versus online is a distraction from the real issue: how do we read most effectively in order not just to know, but to become wise? And is wisdom the final purpose of our reading?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Occasional Imperfections

Philip Harvey

Two recent acquisitions to the Carmelite Library exemplify the growing problem of online purchasing of unsighted books and the racket, for want of a quainter word, in reprinted monographs that now seems to be gripping book agencies and polluting the in-trays of good libraries.

The first is the reprint of an important Dutch work of the early 16th century, a Carmelite account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that influenced the thinking of Saint John of the Cross. The book was written before 1539, the imprint in hand is Ghent, 1612. Well, actually, a small town in Tennessee this year if you check inside the back cover. This title is scarce as hen's teeth, which is why any copy at all will be ordered through a reputable online agency, and no agency is more reputable than the one we are talking about here. What we have is a book-on-demand, but demand is not what Acquisitions was doing when it asked for this. The late renaissance typeface is so blurred in places that whole words become smudges, with sentences like approaching thunder clouds. The magnifying glass is an important utensil in any library and will be essential in this case. The Library has acquired a crucial source work that it would not otherwise be able to provide, but the scholar will be walking into rough weather. The book will go into the collection and, to be fair, this particular reprint business publishes covering statements like this: "... we have chosen to reproduce this title even though it may possibly have occasional imperfections, such as missing and blurred pages, missing text, poor pictures, markings, dark backgrounds and other reproduction issues beyond our control." Buyer, beware! Even though the book was bought before being able to read the warning. Nor did the agency really indicate that it was a book-on-demand, it simply displayed it online as available for purchase.

The second is a history of certain hagiographers, written a century ago and not reprinted since 1922. Is this a necessary book to add to the collection? Yes. Do we expect an accurate printing of this 'rara avis'? Yes, as if we would expect anything less. The online agency would seem to promise that the text is word perfect. Upon arrival of the book, the reprint company advises on the verso of the t.page that "we automated the typing, proof reading and design of this book using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on a scanned copy of the original rare book." The results test one's ideas about recognition. For example, parts of the original that are obviously in Greek, Old Church Slavonic and Syriac script have been scanned, but the lettering reminds me of the more exciting moments in a Klingon monologue. Though I doubt if the text under discussion would meet the stringent standards of the Klingon Language Institute: http://www.kli.org/ The company says it has produced the book this way "to keep your cost as low as possible," but this book must not go into the Library as it is not an exact or even vaguely recognisable imitation of the original. It is not a reprint or facsimile. It is unusable. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker from a famous book review, this is not a book you put aside lightly, it is a book you hurl across the room with great force.

If this phenomenon becomes any more widespread, it is going to test the library world's confidence in quality reprinting. Books, any books in the public domain and outside copyright are simply being seized and reprinted by any business with the available technology. The results are often underwhelming, to say the least. Much of what is coming out in this form is a disservice to the authors, a danger to the scholarly community, and a waste of our collective resources.

Those practising their RDA skills will also be interested. Exhibit One is published in 2012 if you use AACR2, but 1612 if you use RDA. Notes fields in both sets of Rules will clarify any confusion. A second author is named on the cover who doesn't appear anywhere in any text inside the book. Unless I can find out who is he is I cannot even make a note, let alone an added author entry. Or can I? Who is he? Exhibit Two is published only in Milton Keynes, as there is no title page to inform you that it was originally published by the press of a reputable American university. It is unlikely that the press in question would have anything to do with the contents, as the Optical Character Recognition software has failed to scan much of the text in a language that even resembles grammatical English, let alone Greek, Syriac or good Old Church Slavonic.


Today, while searching an internationally respected book agency, I came across an exciting reprint for sale that included the following editorial review in the description.

Editorial Reviews
Product Description
This is an EXACT reproduction of a book published before 1923. This IS NOT an OCR'd book with strange characters, introduced typographical errors, and jumbled words. This book may have occasional imperfections such as missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc. that were either part of the original artifact, or were introduced by the scanning process. We believe this work is culturally important, and despite the imperfections, have elected to bring it back into print as part of our continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide. We appreciate your understanding of the imperfections in the preservation process, and hope you enjoy this valuable book.

The Carmelite Library will not order this book.

At the risk of stating the obvious, permit me to make some observations about this Product Description.

What does 'EXACT reproduction' mean?

Notice how the seller is keen to assure us that the reprint has not been done using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), for reasons exactly similar to those I spelt out above in my description of an OCR book.

Are we meant to accept as standard the expectation that there may be 'occasional imperfections'?

Can we believe that the reprint company's prime concern is a 'continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide'? If this was their prime concern, wouldn't they be doing something better than this?

Why should the prospective buyer be placed in a position where they will (or must) have an 'understanding of the imperfections in the preservation process'? Shouldn't we expect 'perfection' as a basis for purchase?

What is 'valuable' about a book that is potentially useless and unusable?

I strongly encourage members to be on the lookout for such Product Descriptions on the databases of bookselling agencies and to make judicial reviews of the sale item accordingly, based on the inherent warnings.

A Short History of Christianity

Philip Harvey

This review of 'A Short History of Christianity' by Geoffrey Blainey (Viking Penguin, 2011,  ISBN 9780670075249) first appeared in the Australian Book Review, June 2012

Any recent 'big picture' church history will suffer by comparison with Diarmaid MacCulloch's incredible A History of Christianity (2009). That book discovers all manner of new evidence about this protean religion and opens up questions about its life in every age and across every continent. Even its subtitle, The First Three Thousand Years, wants us to appreciate that Christianity has to be understood through its origins in the Hebrew and Greek cultures of the millennium before Bethlehem. Geoffrey Blainey’s history begins more conventionally with the birth of Jesus.

The major peaks and troughs reappear before our eyes with Himalayan regularity: Jerusalem, Nicaea, Cluny, Chartres, Wittenberg, Trent, Plymouth. In such territory we look for the interstices, the small details and asides that give character to the storyteller as well as his story. Blainey can be good, as in this quick portrait of the least of the apostles: ‘Paul was an outspoken perfectionist, a sure formula for making enemies. His loyalty to the new Christian Churches was unshakeable.’ His summary of the medieval papacy as in effect ‘a huge service industry’ is irresistible. His thread of Antipodean references entertains the local readership, of which my favourite is his proof that James Cook was a crypto-Deist.  His penchant for the big and momentous delivers memorable facts, like in 1880 Rouen and Cologne cathedrals ‘were briefly the two tallest buildings in the world at the very moment when the first American skyscrapers were planned.’ And he presents useful formulas: communism and fascism were new religions that ‘set up their own twentieth-century version of the Inquisition, and it was more efficient and deadly.’   

When working on this scale a clue to an historian's thinking is preferences. MacCulloch devotes a full ten pages plus to Erasmus, but never even mentions Dante. This assists in our reading the ‘ironic smile of the divine and the sacred’ that animates his book, as well as registering his resistance to the kind of judgemental categorisations that are the stock-in-trade of the Florentine master. Raised a Methodist Geoffrey Blainey, perhaps not surprisingly, gives a lot of time to the Wesleys. He is terribly excited about John Calvin, who he calls ‘one of the most influential men in the history of the world,’ a claim that could be made with even more sureness about several others named in this book. Blainey rarely commits to a firm position himself, but ultimately this strong Protestant lean helps explain his cautiousness with Rome, his tentativeness with Byzantium, and his shyness (or is it antagonism?) towards Anglicanism.

Blainey, an Australian democrat, binds his text with timely reflections. He explains that ‘religious toleration is almost a modern invention,’ that in former times it was ‘important to hold the correct religious views rather than hold the freedom to reject them.’ This helps get inside the minds of ancestors for whom heresy could be a matter of life or death. He is also realistic about the mischievous cliché circulating these days, that religion is the cause of all wars. This book discloses very quickly how Christianity, like the other religions, has been used through time for other people’s wilful purposes, and has probably stopped more wars from starting than can be calculated. Even the scandalous Crusades became largely commercial enterprises, where the financiers and shippers reaped the rewards. The infamous Venetian destruction of Constantinople in 1204 Blainey puts down to revenge. He makes the telling observation that if there were Wars of Religion in the 16th century, then World War II could well be called the War of Irreligion.

Unlike MacCulloch, Blainey is not averse to authorial intrusion. Most startling is when he seems to speak for Jesus himself, as in his take on monasticism. We are told that Jesus much ‘preferred the company of people in the towns and countryside’ and had ‘no intention of devoting most of his day to prayer and the reading of sacred works.’ The Gospel is open to varying interpretation, as Blainey says himself, and no one would gainsay his attraction to a convivial Jesus, but there are many biblical warrants for the eremitic and communal life, just as there are repeated calls to pray and read the Word. Blainey is extensive on monasticism but his uneasy Protestant scruples spoil his presentation. Similarly, while he is versed in Reformation controversies over the sacraments, Blainey is curiously incurious about the centrality of the sacraments and the liturgy in either East or West.

A recurrent question is how Christianity survived while other religions, even whole movements and empires, did not. How indeed it flourished through persecution and centuries of radical change. Even reading its earliest documents (Paul’s Letters) today we are amazed at the speed and distance with which it moved. There is no simple answer. Geoffrey Blainey, typically, privileges the success stories while minimising the negatives, leaving the impression that except for the occasional setback, like the arrival of Islam, Christianity is a gold rush that never ended. That said, he is sensitive to eschatological imperatives, which ought to be the guide for our understanding of any kind of Christian, and the key to their own understanding of the future and the past.    

A problem with church history too is that while Christ declares that his kingdom is not of this world, here is all this worldly history.  What an historian renders to Caesar is Caesar’s. Judgements about Christian history are inevitably Brechtian. For every bishop famous for demolishing an Arian, there is a diocese of individuals practising their version of caritas. For every abbess interpreting her Teresa of Avila there are communities who have freely chosen humilitas and anonymity. One may be born into a Christian culture, but no one is born a Christian. Blainey likes the main characters but we sometimes wonder where everyone else has got to, which leaves this work somewhere between a textbook made from books and an avuncular armchair tour of historical events.  One chapter opens, ‘The ocean of Christendom could be placid for long periods, but sometimes the winds and currents were swift.’ This storybook approach to the narrative is deceiving and too easy. The idea that church history was ever ‘a placid ocean’ is, at best, a naïve assumption that MacCulloch would reject. Even that questionable term Christendom is left to work its magic, as though Christianity was ever one supra-national and undivided realm.

So, while Blainey at 80 keeps an informative and enthusiastic style, his grand narrative is discontinuous, too given to personal likes and opinions. He privileges congregationalism when the religion from the outset is indisputably episcopal. He recognises that ‘most of the modern debates of profound significance were originally dialogues with or within Christianity,’ but his book is not an indepth history of ideas. And while he believes in a worldview, Blainey exhibits a dependent eurocentrism and an unease with the other major religions. This is particularly so where he makes several seemingly gratuitous connections about Islam that may be construed as negative criticisms. The worst of these is his comparison of the shock felt by the world at the Fall of Constantinople (1453) with the surprise people felt when a seemingly defenceless city was attacked in broad daylight in 2001. Blainey is not referring to Kabul or Kandahar.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

E-Book Citations

Philip Harvey

Afternoon anxiety attacks are affecting academics agonised over an absence of authority for e-book citations. Behind this nervousness reside conservative attitudes about why have these e-books at all if you cannot quote them accurately in a bibliography. The news, meanwhile, is that the horse has bolted.

One institution has supplied guidelines with the following example of a rule and citation model for a source accessed via Kindle, i.e. a Kindle (or other) location, using Turabian 17.7.1 : “Citation of e-Book Sources: There are a number of electronic book sources now available for general use and some materials only exist in that format. When citing an electronic book of e-Book the reference must contain the actual type or model of e-Book being used (Amazon Kindle, Microsoft, Sony, etc.) and the location number of the quote (since actual page numbers are not created). For example: 1D. Brent Laytham, ed., God Does Not...: Entertain, Play Matchmaker, Hurry, Demand Blood, Cure Every Illness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), Kindle e-book, locations 552–53.

“In addition students must be aware that a professor may request to see the device and examine the quotation and that the student must be able to comply with this request.”

As well, it is worth knowing about this direction, from the same document: “Online and Internet Sources: All online and internet source examples will be guided by Turabian 17.7.1. It must be remembered that a URL will not necessarily take the reader back to the original article (if it was generated by a database for instance), and that they need to retain a printed copy or a electronic copy of the item(s) that can be easily produced in case the source or citation is called into question.”

I would give you the actual link to these guidelines, but since the time I found them this year it has dropped off the internet. The fact that it has done so is another growing issue in this area of technology and bibliography. What to do with online books and articles that have been cited but no longer exist online? How do we cite a scholar who no longer exists because his words have been removed from public view? The professor has no proof that their student is quoting accurately, or even that it may not have been all made up by the student. At least with hardcopy there are normally enough copies shelved in the universe for the professor to confirm their student’s in-depth reading.

This and other in-house style guides are using a combination of Turabian and commonsense. In the absence of any guideline, the sensible thing is to follow the existing pattern of citations in the approved guidelines, using minimum space to record everything pertinent. No doubt e-book formats will be invented with new and even more wonderful ways of page-numbering the text. As with so much in digital, the rulemakers' hesitancy to apply definitive rules is influenced by the unpredictability and variety of formats that keep coming out. Some of us watch for the next edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, Turabian &c. in the hope that definitive directions for e-books will be supplied. But we are not holding our breath. The process is necessarily conservative.

Monday, 10 September 2012

In Prayer God Humanises Us

Rowan Williams on the Self in Saint John of the Cross

On January 16th 1998, Rowan Williams, then the Bishop of Monmouth, gave a seminar to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, in Melbourne. The subject was one of his favourite writers, the Carmelite mystic and poet St John of the Cross (1542-1591). Fr Paul Chandler, O.Carm. took notes of the bishop’s paper, which are reproduced here for the first time. Edited by Paul Chandler and Philip Harvey.

Rowan Williams opened by asking, “To meet Jesus do you have to go through a ‘dark night’?” This ‘night’ is especially associated with Saint John of the Cross, who suggests that to come to a mature relationship with God inevitably requires a ‘dark night’, a loss of the sense of God. This idea has led to rather negative perceptions of John, and especially of his works Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night, with their stress on nothingness and abnegation. Williams asked, What then is left to say about the self? Is John really more of a Buddhist than a Christian?

A different side of Saint John of the Cross is revealed in the series of poems called the Romances, about the love affair between God and creation. There is hardly a word about sin: the poems are focussed on God’s will to share the divine joy. We are to be drawn to enjoy all things for enjoyment’s sake. In the trinitarian life, divine life seeks to diffuse itself. The universe is created with the view of extending this communion, and humans are destined for the fullest possible reception of divine peace. (In John’s meditations for Advent, for example, there is the expectation of the one who becomes flesh so that we can “touch him with the hand and walk with him.”) Creation ends with incarnation: all divine joy is given to humans and all human sorrow is taken into God. Creation exists for joy. God wants to live in us as God lives in God.

There is an imago Dei theme here, but it is not the central issue. John prefers rather to speak of the divine indwelling, as he does especially in the Living Flame.  The centre of the soul is God. God wants to be in the world what he is in himself. In prayer God humanises us. Though the path seems negative it is the path to our true humanity. God’s love for God is a force that draws us to God. Apart from this we really are nothing. Much of life as lived is alien to this truth.

The real self is what develops in discovering groundless joy. When you are at home with the self, with the truth, with God, and without other cause, you are really yourself. This is like the joy of the Trinity in itself; nothing outside the persons of the Trinity makes them joyful; that is, their joy is in what they are. When we are joyful without cause we are somehow in the divine world.

But there is a problem. We look for grounded joys. We ask, what will make me happy? The Ascent is a diagnosis of ways, wrong ways, in which we try to make ourselves happy. John’s treatment is based in Augustinian psychology, but he does something fresh within the traditional perspectives. For John there are three levels on which the self is seeking for something. First, the memory seeks views of the self that will satisfy it. Second, the intelligence seeks ideas and a worldview that will satisfy it. Thirdly, the will seeks for satisfaction of its desires. In such ways we are drawn away from ourselves and shrink from what we really are. Therefore, part of the deepest self is its incompleteness, its seeking; but this self-image of life is a false picture, i.e. a false memory, a partial understanding, a misdirected longing. And yet to omit the questing restlessness of life would be false to our experience. How do we account for both?

John explores these themes systematically in the Ascent of Mount Carmel by plotting out the effects of the virtues faith, hope and love on the human faculties of memory, understanding, and will. John’s teaching is that each of these faculties must enter into darkness and loss in order to be transformed by the corresponding gift.

Memory, or self-awareness, must become hope. My self-picture then begins to come not from the past but from the future. The hinge is the moment when I don’t know who I am.

Understanding must become faith. A realisation of how little I know produces a growth in truthfulness and a loss of illusion which allows me to move forward. The crisis will be, I don’t know what I know.

Will becomes love. The crisis here is likely to be, I don’t know what I want.

The dark night therefore is a process by which the faculties are transformed by the action of the virtues. The virtues cause emptiness in the faculties. Faith, for example, reveals the emptiness of our understanding, which is always utterly inadequate before the divine transcendence. This dark faith brings certainty rather than clarity, confidence rather than answers. John says we must go through this bottleneck, this narrow pass of the hourglass. He also relates all of this to the central mystery of Christianity, the paschal dynamic of death and resurrection (cf. Ascent 2:7): the Cross is the only way to salvation. John’s ruthless honesty is both compelling and off-putting. In Ascent and Dark Night of the Soul he wants to track down every kind of self-deception and every form of idolatry, even in religious practice, and the difficulty of this task is why these works are so long and gruelling. Rowan Williams stated that, “John of the Cross stands over the operating table saying, ‘It’ll have to come out.”’ But every self-denial is not for its own sake but for the sake of freedom and growth.

He then turned to the mature self in John’s thought. The soul emerges clothed in white, green and purple (faith, hope, love), but clothed in a kind of defencelessness, an openness to God. The soul now desires with God’s desires. The vision of God is a vision of what God is doing, i.e. making the world, creating and maintaining life. In other words, John’s aim is not to see an isolated God from the viewpoint of an isolated soul, but to see that God is the context of our work and love, and indeed of everything that is. Things, therefore, are no longer mere objects, but points of creativity and communion in the context of God’s creation.

Our desire, then, is immersed in God’s desire. Just as God’s love irresistibly overflows, so the soul overflows, even in a body  which ‘feels glory’. We become ourselves as and when we receive God’s joy, and the difficult thing is in receiving; our egoism is abraded ruthlessly. We are free to look on creation, even God, as God looks. To see God is to see the acting, creating God, and so to look at the world differently. Therefore, John doesn’t hate or punish the self, but is interested in analysing the ways in which we hate and punish the self. He wants us to be as large as God makes us to be. I must abandon the short circuit of valuing things only insofar as they make me happy.

In The Wound of Knowledge and again here Williams uses the word epectasis from the Greek Fathers: stretching out to what is before. We want the end of desire, to stop our frustrated
wanting. John of the Cross says there is nothing which will achieve this: our hunger can only
be released Godward. The bishop warned that the danger in this language is when I start telling you that you can’t have satisfaction.

What does this mean in today’s culture? Modernity is equated with the revolt against being told what you should want. It says: I must define, and own, my own desires. The Enlightenment rhetoric of liberation, whether political or feminist or in some other form, says I must define what I want. At certain borders this crosses into what John criticises as a  rhetoric of ‘I have the right to what makes me happy.’ This begins with a false picture of the self, dominated by demands to be fulfilled. Certain kinds of modern spirituality buy into this, e.g. those based on personality typing (which is a good servant but a bad master), if they consecrate the givenness of personality and underestimate the task of transformation. John says, forget oppositions like self-denial/self-affirmation. Your self doesn’t exist yet, and it grows through a paradoxical conflict with self. The self comes into being in the experience of contradiction: “To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.” The soul must refuse to be satisfied too easily; if it does that, it can grow in amazing ways.

John thinks intensely about our individualism. He is conscious of the illusions of which we are full, and does not shrink from the harshness involved in undermining them. He is, of course, aware of the formative role of relationships and community, but his insight is that our love must be founded in God’s love, and therefore in a renunciation of the ordinary which takes us beyond manipulation and possessiveness. Love becomes most joyful and fulfilling when it does not seek for itself. What becomes important is the sacramentality of the world around.

John of the Cross encourages a vision of humanity in which the future plays a central role. Rowan Williams signalled that this is not the future in the Marxist sense, not the next government, the next revolution. The future plays a central role poignantly through the huge potential we have in God. Overflowing, creative love of God is at work in each one of us, which is why its oppression is so appalling. Respect for the other brings freedom, not making the other conform to me; there is no obsession with what happens to me. Union with God is not experiences, but living in a way whose centre is God.

John’s writings are a long commentary on ‘Take up your cross’, but also on ‘Now I live, not me, but Christ lives in me.’ This is not negative, though his path can be appallingly difficult. John proposes ‘the way by which we are not’, meaning not a life in the void, but the way of God’s presence, which mysteriously presses us towards a transcending of everything we might choose for ourselves.

Thursday, 6 September 2012


Philip Harvey

A commonplace of history is that after the fall of Rome Europe fell into a dark age and that were it not for brave monks on remote Irish islands, holding onto civilisation by what Kenneth Clark called “the skin of our teeth”, humanity may never have recovered. That this is a Euro-centric, even Anglo-centric, view of the early Middle Ages becomes blindingly evident when you open Averil Cameron’s sweeping introduction to Byzantium. (‘The Byzantines’, by Averil Cameron, published by Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4051-9833-2) The world of the East proceeded in an agreed and purposive way at a time when the world of the West was disintegrating into competing Augustuses and barbaric tribes.

Byzantium itself has become the focus of huge scholarly attention over the past two decades and this book summarises a lot of the main discoveries and debates. For this reason alone the book should be in every theological library, but especially in any that is concerned with Patristics, Greek theology, and the meaning of Orthodoxy. International conferences on the subject are now perennial and we add encyclopedias and sets of studies on the subject to our libraries as a matter of course.

The historical textures of the ancient world keep being revised by new historians. In recent times some historians have come to view Rome as going through not so much a Fall as a Transformation or Transmutation. Alaric notwithstanding. The Eastern Empire was part of this transformative process. It is remarkable that a contiguous empire could exist between Europe and Asia for such a period of time in which a church patriarch wielded greater influence than the emperor and their deity was Christ, the supreme ruler, the servant of all. This was going on all over the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, Asia Minor and beyond into Russia. The so-called fall of the Soviet Union in our own time has brought Byzantium back into focus as one of the historical constants of East and West, a way of explaining the international contours.

Byzantium was responsible for the formulation of Christian belief at the great Ecumenical Councils of the 4th and 5th centuries. It developed traditions of spirituality that are now so much a part of mainstream religion we don’t recognise them as Byzantine. Byzantium sustained the first and possibly greatest dispute over religious images, due in part to its direct encounters with the new religion of Islam, with the iconphiles winning out over the iconoclasts – and not for the last time. And, of course, for centuries it maintained its position against Islamic pushes westward.

In fact, Cameron has a determination to revise our understanding of Byzantium. If the word is thrown into conversation today its meanings are still all negative. Either it connotes slippery and convoluted politics or a society infinitely remote and mysterious. It means a society that is decadent and doomed, this last meaning coming to us from Edward Gibbon and the powerful spectre of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. It is a meaning that Cameron questions. After all, how can an empire be doomed that survived for over a thousand years? There must be something more to it and to decide how conclusively the author refutes this perception, you need to read the book. Cameron handles the vast amount of material at her disposal with delicacy and economy. Her conclusions familiarise us with a world we expected to be strange and opens our minds to new questions about the past, including our own.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Compound Surnames

Philip Harvey

A recent message to the British Theological Library list from Judy Powles of Spurgeon’s College in London states that Judy is “scratching my head over how to catalogue the latest book by Stuart and Sian Murray Williams called Multi-voiced church and which I have on my desk – it is the difficulty over the form of the authors’ surname(s).”

Judy outlines the cataloguing issue. “Stuart Murray (who used to be on our staff here) has written several books under his “old” name. However since his marriage to Sian Williams they tend to call themselves Murray Williams (NB no hyphen). All of Stuart’s other books have been catalogued under “Murray, Stuart”. If talking about himself, Stuart describes himself as Stuart Murray and other recent books have been published with this form of name on the cover and title page. But what do I do with this joint publication? Sticking to old fashioned cataloguing practice, I was always taught that for Anglo-American names you always used the last element of a name, unless there were a hyphen, so in this case it would be under Murray for both Stuart and Sian but clearly the Murray Williams don’t want this.

“If I catalogue the book giving the authors as “Murray Williams, Stuart” and “Murray Williams, Sian” the book won’t appear in the list with Stuart’s other books.

“Probably it doesn’t matter in the end but do any of you who have a feeling for good cataloguing practice have any suggestions?”

Since the advent of feminism we have witnessed a proliferation of compound surnames and, history being what it is, this practice is now not untypical amongst those with little knowledge or interest in feminism. In my own experience I have catalogued books by an author using her family name, then had to change them all when she added her husband's name to her own, then changed them all again when, sadly, she announced that the marriage was over and she was going back to her original name.

There is something to be said for keeping to the established name in a catalogue. While you have the 'see reference' facility then it should be easy to cross reference any new forms of the name to the established one. This generally seems to be the way it goes with names established by Library of Congress or other name authority files. It raises a question of respectable vintage in cataloguing: at what point in time can we confidently claim one form of a person's name as the common or established usage?

Our problems begin when we are required to establish the name ourselves at home on our own catalogue because the name has not been established on LC or elsewhere. This is where the magical power of 245c statement of responsibility comes into action: both forms of the name can appear on the one record, making verification that much easier. Computer programmers who like to remove that subfield from record settings because "it's already in the main entry" have not done us any favours.

If your 'see reference' facility is unsightly or just not in sight to start with, then I can only recommend using one form as the authority with a note in the record explaining the variations in name. I will not mention the unspeakable, which is to use both forms in the one record; this doesn't mean you can't talk about it.

Who knows what RDA has to say about compound surnames, possibly nothing new, though there is an assumption in some RDA writing that keyword search is the standard means of searching. If this is the case then your colleagues the Murray Williams will be found via any use of those names, albeit with results that include everyone else with those names in their name.