Posts Tagged ‘Diarmaid MacCulloch’

Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence

March 27, 2017

I felt drawn to re-read this (there’s an earlier review on this blog if you want to look) by Maitland‘s occasional columns in The Tablet, which I always enjoy. She’s a radical Catholic hermit – at least that’s how I’d sum her up – and recently mentioned a lengthy period of recuperation which had tested her decision to live in extreme isolation in Galloway.

She considers silence compared with solitude, observing that they do not necessarily go together, and nor are they mutually exclusive. Her own journey, in the latter part of her life, has moved from noise to silence to solitude. In many ways I see her personal account of silence as a companion to the excellent Silence: A Christian History, by Diarmaid MacCulloch, which I’ve also written about.

Is silence the absence of language or the absence of sound? Is written language silent? I noted that she always has reading matter with her when she isolates herself. As I Quaker, I worship in silence, but share that silence with a group of other like-minded people. Maitland had me reflecting again, in many different ways.

My personal interest in silence comes from how I find the world increasingly noise-ridden; perhaps this is exacerbated by my hearing difficulties. But I dislike how everywhere I go I must be accompanied by noise: traffic and people (and I choose to live in a town rather than miles from anywhere, I know) but in shops I am assaulted by random music, and quite often driven out of shops before I’ve made any contemplated purchase; in the street harangued by talking vehicles; deterred from entering cafes and restaurants by the thought of music I haven’t chosen accompanying my food or drink…I find unnecessary noise intrusive, and I also do worry about how so much of the world gets on my nerves as I age!

Maitland reminded me how much of every other aspect of life apart from the human is quiet or silent; I’d not ever seen the world like that before. She explores an enormous range of human experiences of silence and solitude, and places of hermitage in woods, mountains, islands and deserts through the ages, quoting in detail, as well as narrating her own journey of self-discovery and the choices which led her to her current retreat from the world. At times, she seems to take her pursuit of attentiveness to extremes, certainly much deeper than I might; she is fascinated by others’ observations and wants to emulate them, perhaps in the way that a novice hermit might seek a mentor? It was interesting to follow her as she gradually worked out what, exactly, it was that she was seeking…

She catalogues closely and in great detail the effects that silence and isolation has on her, particularly during a lengthy retreat on the isle of Skye, and links these in to others’ experiences as well. Her observations about research which suggest that too much exposure to noise has the potential to make people ill, made sense to me.

When I go away travelling, I often spend considerable lengths of time alone, walking and thinking, as far away from other people as I can get; curiously, this does lead to occasional very interesting chance encounters and conversations. But I am always glad to get back to the company of those I know and love; though I’m occasionally tempted by the thought of hermit-like silence and solitude, I honestly don’t think I’m called to it. But I really enjoyed seeing how someone else gradually found herself in that place.

My A-Z of Reading: H is for History

November 15, 2016

With the arrogance of a sixteen year-old, I decided that I wouldn’t study History for A-Level, I’d do English Literature instead, reasoning that I could always just read the history… and if ever there was a life-changing decision, that was one. I have always read history, but I’m not a historian; sometimes I wish I were, but that’s for another existence, someday. With more mature reflection, I still approve of that decision so long ago, since my love of literature has been lifelong, and the basis of three degrees and an entire and very enjoyable career as a teacher.

I can’t count myself a historian because my reading has been haphazard and wilful, because I’m not trained in the evaluation of source material, and I have no way really of knowing if the knowledge and understanding I think I’ve acquired is sound, although it seems to have suited my purposes.

I have read quite widely in the history of Poland and Eastern Europe, and have authors on whom I choose to rely: Norman Davies on Poland I find excellent, and Timothy Snyder on the borderlands and ethnic mishmash that was Eastern Europe before the 1945 ethnic cleansing. I’ve read quite a lot on the Soviet Union, an experiment which has always interested me, perverted though it ultimately was, as well as unsuccessful. This has been as a background to my reading of the literature of those areas and countries: my training as a literature expert taught me the importance of context and background.

I’ve read widely in religious history: I’m particularly interested in the earliest years of Christianity and how it developed before it became an official state religion and more interested in temporal power than spiritual soundness. Again, my reading is rather unsystematic: I have found Geza Vermes very interesting, and Diarmaid MacCulloch most knowledgeable and thought-provoking, but whether that counts as balanced study, I know not. Similarly, the rifts in Christianity that resulted from the Reformation have long gripped me. I studied that period several times in history lessons at school, both from a Catholic and an Anglican perspective. Since then I’ve read more widely; again, MacCulloch has impressed through his thoroughness and contextualisation, but I have also gained much from the work of the relatively little-known Catholic historian Philip Hughes, who wrote serious tomes in the 1950s, particularly on the English Reformation. I have the abiding feeling that an awful lot was lost in the cultural vandalism of those times in England. But is my knowledge and understanding balanced? And then I comfort myself with the realisation that my knowledge and understanding of literature, wide and broad as it is, is hardly balanced or comprehensive, and nor is it capable of so being.

As and when the whim has taken me, I’ve branched out: I needed background on Arabic literature I was reading and so took in Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples; I’ve found E P Thompson’s history of revolutions very thought-provoking; I have had an enormous tome on the history of the United States on my to-read list for over a decade.

Why history: the triteness of ‘those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it’ is nevertheless true; I want to understand why we, as a species, have made such a hash of our world and ourselves, and to discover some hope, perhaps, that we aren’t permanently doomed to be in a mess, even though we will surely not draw nigh to utopia in my lifetime. At the moment, my feeling is that the tension between the individual and the group or collective is not being given sufficient attention, that competition rather than co-operation is not good for us, and that meddling in the affairs of others rather than just getting to know and live peaceably with them, isn’t helping either. And those are probably not the conclusions of an historian…

On reading history…

May 4, 2015

I had planned to do A-level History when I entered the sixth form, but on the first day, I switched to English Literature. Thus are historic decisions made. This means that, although I have never lost my interest in history, my knowledge is scattered, unstructured and probably pretty uncritical. It hasn’t put me off, though!

I studied Ancient History at school and still retain some interest in Ancient Rome and its politics and achievements; it enabled me to make sense of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, too.

Having had a fairly religious upbringing, I’m also interested in religious history. I’ve been taught the history of the Reformation several times, from various different perspectives. For me, the crucial issue has been how spiritual organisations have so quickly lost their way and got into bed quite shamelessly with secular powers, and the subsequent mayhem that this has caused throughout the centuries. I have found books written half a century ago by Philip Hughes very interesting, and much more recent tomes by Diarmaid MacCulloch very stimulating. I don’t think my reading counts as balanced historical knowledge, though.

I’m somewhat interested in the history of this country, although I am put off by the Ruritanian monarchy to which we are expected to submit, and the appallingly damaging and damaged class system which endures while everything else seems to crumble around us. Delusions of grandeur based on the glory of past centuries don’t help either. Norman DaviesThe Isles was very interesting, and challenging, when I first read it, and I’m thinking of going back to it. Shakespeare’s history plays have made rather more sense when I’ve explored their historical background.

As someone who is half-Polish, I’ve long been interested in the history of that country and of Central Europe in general, which has been so radically different from the experiences of the natives of our small island that I’m repeatedly brought back to the idea that here in England we don’t really know very much about the rest of the world at all. Poland fascinates me in numerous ways: an elective monarchy (!?), the first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools (allegedly), a country with crazy and romantic notions about itself, delusions perhaps in a similar way to those of the English. A country that has moved around the map over the centuries, so that maps of where my forebears came from are maps of nowhere, places that do not exist. Here again, Norman Davies’ writings have informed me and also made me think a great deal, and more recently, books by Timothy Snyder which explore the incredibly complex national, political and racial issues of that part of the world have been very illuminating.

My previous post alludes to my interest in the history of the Second World War; my teaching of literature at school has led me recently to become very interested in the First World War too, visiting various battlefields and trying to imagine the mindset of politicians who could make such mayhem happen, and those who participated in it (often voluntarily!) as soldiers.

Finally, I suppose because somewhere I yearn for utopia, I read quite widely about the Soviet experiment. It failed, horribly and murderously, and has enabled capitalism to retrench its hegemony on the grounds that communism and socialism ‘have been tried and have failed’. And, as one Polish relative, who is a historian, pointed out to me once, the Soviet era was just another way for a different group of people to get their snouts in the trough… But, I am fascinated by the possibility that humans might find a way to do things differently, though they probably won’t in my lifetime, and I will always remember that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it…

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Silence – A Christian History

December 11, 2014

51+F-GVm+XL._AA160_I knew I needed to re-read Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s excellent book as soon as I finished it; I’ve waited nearly a couple of years, and found it just as interesting and provocative as first time round.

He begins with a history of the development of the many different strands of the Christian Church in the early centuries after Christ; much survived and much did not; much was consigned to the dustbin of history as heresy. Most Christian history has been written by those who won the various arguments, and by men who wanted, for all kinds of reasons, to exclude women. He raises the broader connections of the mutual influences of early Christianity and Islam on each other, in the Middle East where both faiths originated; he also reminds us that the area lay on the Silk Route, by which trade and ideas came from China and India to the West.

I liked his new perspectives on the Reformation (actually, he posits three: the iconoclasm of the ninth century, the renewal of the Western Church in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the one we all know about): Protestants, with their insistence on communal worship, left little space for the private, individual relationship with God; they also destroyed the places of silence (monasteries) and could not offer anything to replace them.

He considers silence from many angles: as evasion and avoidance, particularly of awkward moments in church history; as compromises that allowed all kinds of dissidents to hide and survive persecution and worse. Was there silence before the creation of the world (or the Big Bang)? Perhaps God is best characterised by silence…

Christianity has many things it has wanted to be silent about: Catholic priests abusing children, Christians failing to speak out against the slaughter of Jews during the Second World War, Christians supporting slavery through many centuries.

What I appreciated most about MacCulloch’s book is the recognition of the complexity of the issues, the recovering of so many topics that have been overlooked for so long, the questioning and the reflecting which he does in a very fair and balanced way, whilst shining a torch into so many dark corners. Silence is a very rare and increasingly precious thing in our bright and noisy world, and it is useful to slow down, to remember and appreciate it.

Reinventing the wheel, or recycling books…

November 20, 2014

As I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that books are just as disposable as other items in our consumer culture, and don’t enjoy any special qualities as physical objects or, increasingly, in terms of their content. Lest that seem an incredibly sweeping statement, I’ll explain myself.

It seems each generation rewrites the books of previous generations. In science, technology and a few other fields, this rewriting reflects real advances in discovery. Sometimes in history, new documents shed new light, so some of the history written since the collapse of communism such as the books of Timothy Snyder or Norman Davies, to mention a couple of my favourites, does contain genuinely new and enlightening material. But otherwise it does seem as if writers are rehashing and re-presenting old wine in new bottles. How much does Ian Kershaw‘s work on Hitler add to Alan Bullock‘s, from the previous generation? How much does another history of the Reformation add to previous knowledge and analysis? I’ve appreciated Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s books, but what have they really added to Philip Hughes‘ books from fifty years ago?

It’s obviously more profitable to package and market new books rather than reprint the old ones. And new academics have to build their reputations and make a living. Research continues, but I do wonder just how much new stuff is really uncovered. A raft of new books on Jane Austen and Shakespeare appear each year; I used to be interested, but now I realise there’s precious little that’s new.

Novels are retranslated. I have really enjoyed, for example, the new translations of classic Russian novels by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but if they hadn’t been done, I’d have been perfectly satisfied with the previous versions. Similarly with the new translation of Grass’ The Tin Drum: yes, it was good, but until then, I’d been fine with the original one. So what have we gained, really?

This feeling of re-inventing the wheel is often brought home to me as I – increasingly rarely – comb second-hand bookshops in search of – what? There, I often see thousands of ageing and crumbling books, fusty, mouldering and unloved, and unsellable: most of them will stay there until they disintegrate or are recycled, because nobody wants them, and we have conditioned ourselves to think that books are precious and we shouldn’t destroy them.

I wonder what this means for the future. Perhaps digital readers and e-books are a good thing, perhaps the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are where it should be at. But the realisation that my treasured companions – my books, dammit – are consumer articles just like anything else, is rather too disturbing…

Sara Maitland: A Book of Silence

October 2, 2013

9781582436135I’ve written about silence before (Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Silence: A Christian History) and recently re-read this book, which is also about silence with a Christian perspective, but also about the personal need of, and quest by the writer to find a suitably silent place to live out the rest of her life.

We live in an incredibly noisy world: traffic noise, ambient music, machinery that beeps and squeaks whenever we use it. There is an awful lot of meaningless conversation and talk to fill up the gaps, and in some ways perhaps many people are afraid of silence. Maitland explores the issue from all angles: it’s an erudite read, and yet she is always in there herself, and thus enabling a reader to explore for themselves, too. In some ways she follows in the footsteps of Thoreau, except the house that she creates for herself (in an isolated part of Scotland) is not seen as a temporary, but a permanent home. There were times when I felt she was being rather self-indulgent, but her quest made sense and I was happy that she seemed to have achieved her goal. It is good when a writer can acknowledge and explore more than the material aspects of our existence, and this is an account of a spiritual quest, too.

It is hard going in places, but a good book and thought-provoking, which is why I went back to it.

%d bloggers like this: