J. S. Bach rides through L’Enfant Plaza

I originally posted J. S. Bach rides through L’Enfant Plaza in March 2013, after riding twice through L’Enfant Plaza in one weekend, and for the occasion of J. S. Bach’s birthday. A cool subsequent discovery: The Washington Post article I referenced, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” inspired Son of Laughter‘s song “The Fiddler.”

This weekend I rode through L’Enfant Plaza.

There is nothing especially remarkable about riding through L’Enfant Plaza; many thousands of people did the same this weekend.  Not so many, though, had the music of Johann Sebastian Bach playing in their earbuds.  Maybe only one had Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin playing in his earbuds. At least one did.

I’ve associated L’Enfant Plaza with Bach’s Chaconne ever since reading this fascinating article a few years ago. The article tells the story of how one morning, Joshua Bell played a free forty-three minute concert in L’Enfant Plaza, and hardly anyone noticed. One of the pieces Bell played in his concert to the deaf in L’Enfant Plaza was Bach’s Chaconne.

Much could be said about the article; it is worth a good read and not a little thought. What’s always fascinated me most about it, though, is this quote from Johannes Brahms about Bach’s Chaconne:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

I won’t linger over Brahms’s first sentence, except to note hearty agreement. It’s the second sentence that interests me most here. For Bach did, after all, create the Chaconne – and creating it did not drive him out of his mind.

monument-to-johann-sebastian-bach-outside-st-thomas-church-leipzig-germanyYou may credit a number of things for keeping Bach’s boat from tipping over as he composed pieces of such magnificence that composing them would have overthrown Brahms. For example, Bach’s siring twenty kids gave the man’s domestic life plenty of heft, enough heft to provide a good ballast for him as he worked on the Chaconne – next to the demands of his wife and kids, the Chaconne probably seemed to Bach rather a light thing. Or you may look at the astonishing diversity of Bach’s genius – he was a brilliant composer, a formidable organist, and an expert in organ-building, among many other things – as something that kept him balanced and sane.

I attribute Bach’s sanity, though, to a few letters he wrote on most of his transcriptions. Bach began most of these with “J.J.” – Jesu, Juva (“Jesus, help”), or “I.N.J” (In Nomine Jesu).  He ended them with “S.D.G.” (Soli Deo Gloria – “to God alone the glory”). He opened with invocations, closed with dedications. Here the contrast between Bach’s thoughts and Brahms’s – “if I imagined that I could have created” – is as great as the contrast between Chesterton’s poet, who wants to get his head into the heavens, and Chesterton’s logician, who wants to get the heavens into his head. The one gets a good view; the other gets a bad headache. A sanity-killing headache.

Nothing kills creativity, or sanity in the midst of great creative exertion, like a creator’s interest in his own identity. A creator may create worlds – whole worlds of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings, for a small instrument, on one stave – but only so long as he is not busy creating himself, and not a moment longer. Here is the difference, not just between Brahms and Bach, or between Chesterton’s logician and Chesterton’s poet, but between the Serpent who ever provokes us to make names for ourselves, and the eternal Word of God, who rests wholly in the identity given Him by His Father, even as He creates and then renews the world.


Mr. Darcy’s Lent

Originally posted March 11, 2013, in the middle of the penitential season of Lent.

It would be fun to edit a collection of Jane Austen’s letters called From Miss Austen, With Tongue in Cheek.  The thought occurred to me this week as I perused Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra.  One comment, which Jane wrote almost exactly two centuries ago, shortly after sending Pride and Prejudice off for publication, particularly caught my attention: she said her great masterpiece “wanted shade.”

The subject matter of the book underscores the preposterousness of the comment.  Had Jane written that about Emma, one might take it as earnest self-criticism. But when she wrote it about Pride and Prejudice she hardly needed to add any further comment to make clear that she was jesting. Six women threatened with financial ruin on account of an entailed estate, whose ruin is then all but assured by the foolishness of the youngest daughter, isn’t exactly “lite” stuff.  But there’s more to the book’s shade than the threat of financial ruin, or the threat posed by blackguards like George Wickham.  For the longest and deepest shadow on the story is cast by its hero, Mr. Darcy.

darcy-elizabethMr. Darcy remains a near-perfect mystery until the last pages of Pride and Prejudice.  This owes nothing to calculated aloofness or distance, and everything to the subtlety of his mind and the depth of his character.  Such depth, by its nature, cannot appear on the surface.  Thus the man casts deep shade despite his total lack of shadiness; without being secretive, he yet remains a very great secret.

So we are surprised as Elizabeth Bennet’s prejudices against Mr. Darcy are broken gradually by the real Mr. Darcy.  “When I said that he improved on acquaintance,” she says to Wickham, “I did not mean that either his mind or manners were in a state of improvement, but that from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood.”[1]  The change in Elizabeth’s opinion of the man, however, conceals Mr. Darcy’s greatest surprise: that, following his first (rejected) proposal to Elizabeth, his mind does undergo a state of improvement.  He repents.

That he repented at all is noteworthy enough.  Darcy had (correctly) observed that Elizabeth’s particular defect “is willfully to misunderstand”[2] everyone, and it would have been easy enough for him to attribute her rejection of his first proposal to her particular fault, rather than his own. But the depth of his repentance is truly remarkable:

I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty . . .[3]

That Darcy has the keenness of mind to trace appearances, actions, and principles down to their root motives, we learn early in Pride and Prejudice.  For example, in one brisk exchange with Elizabeth and the Bingleys on the subject of Mr. Bingley’s humility, Darcy says, quite correctly, that “nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”[4]  Where Darcy surprises is in having enough real humility to turn his well-trained mind upon himself – to take the time to do a careful Lenten inventory of his life, and to follow his established flaws down to their deep root: pride.  By that combination — subtlety of thought, with humility and contrition to repent of pride — Mr. Darcy has cast his shadow, over the pages of Pride and Prejudice and beyond, for a full two centuries.

[1] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ch. 41 (1813).

[2] Pride and Prejudice at ch. 11.

[3] Id. at ch. 58.

[4] Id. at ch. 10.

Everything I need to know about romance, I learned from Tolkien (part III): Out of my league? and other questions

This week I received more mail from poor unfortunate souls seeking romantic guidance from Tolkien. These epistles included several variations on the following theme:

I’ve been pining for this guy at work for months. He’s absolutely gorgeous, but he’s also witty, modest, courteous almost to a fault. I’ve thought about how to give him some subtle hint that I’m interested, but I can’t shake this feeling that he’s too good for me, and that it’d be silly for me even to try to catch his eye. Do Tolkien’s books suggest any remedy for my problem?


Out of My League in Omaha

Dear Out of My League,

I suggest a thorough perusal of the story of Eowyn and Faramir in Lord of the Rings book six, chapter five – especially since your man sounds like about as close to a facsimile copy of Faramir (the real Faramir, not the faux-Faramir of Peter Jackson’s movies, also known as Far-from-the-book-amir) as exists in the modern world. Objectively, Eowyn wasn’t in Faramir’s league. And yet, despite having to work her magic in the decidedly unromantic setting of a hospital, she won him over within the span of a few pages. And Eowyn wasn’t even trying, because she still had a crush on Aragorn.

The principle you may distill from these pages of Tolkien, then, is that no one really is out of your league. Eowyn “married up.” And even Eowyn’s “failure” with Aragorn had less to do with his being out her league than the fact that Aragorn was already engaged to “marry up” to someone else.

Which serves as a segue to a final point: since I received several out-of-my-league letters from both sexes, “no one is really out of your league” goes equally for the gentlemen. Aragorn with Arwen, Beren with Lúthien, Tuor with Idril – Tolkien makes it abundantly clear that no quantum of objective superiority of one party over another is a per se impediment to the blossoming of a fine romance between those parties. Depending on how high you aim, you may have to become the equivalent of the hardiest man in Middle-earth, or do something on par with swiping one of the finest jewels in Arda from the Dark Lord.

But then, you gentlemen didn’t really want to do something easy, did you? I mean, if you were looking to pick the low-hanging fruit, you wouldn’t have bothered writing me, right?

One final bit of mail before I put away the mailbag . . .

I’d had a brutally hard life. My father went to a war from which he never came back; I was exiled from my homeland as a boy; I haven’t seen my mother in decades, and I’ve never seen my younger sister. After bouncing about in exile for many years, though, I recently found a decent homeland. And something even more hopeful happened more recently: I met a really sweet woman. Actually, some of my neighbors and I found her out in the woods, where she’d been left for dead – where she certainly would have died from exposure, had we not discovered her in time.

I don’t know how she came to such extreme circumstances; she cannot remember. Actually, she can’t even remember her name. But she’s really quite lovely, and for some reason her countenance brightens in my company.

Is this a portent? Is she the one?


Wondering in Wolf Trap

Dear Wondering:

To your last question: Dude. No.

To your penultimate question: Yes, it is a portent. Your damsel in distress, who can remember neither her past nor her name, is your long-lost sister.

Tolkien is crystal clear on this point: If you have a long-lost sister, don’t marry anyone who can’t remember her own name. If you do, God help you: no matter how hard your life to date has been, it will get worse.

So be Wondering no more. Cease and desist from any and all non-fraternal attentions. As a consolation, Tolkien gives you joy that you have found your sister at last.

Everything I need to know about romance, I learned from Tolkien (part II): On quests involving grave danger and small chance of success

After I introduced the riches of Tolkien on romance last week, my inbox flooded with pleas for help on the subject “how can Tolkien help me win the love of my life?” So I won’t shadowbox the shrubbery’s periphery any further, but shall get right to the mail.

This week’s question comes from Diffident in Des Moines:

“I’m really smitten with this girl in my church’s college and career small group. However, her father – who is very protective – looks upon me skeptically. Maybe even scornfully. He says that anyone good enough to marry his daughter will have to “prove his worth.” While I don’t know exactly what that means, I’ve reached a point where I wouldn’t put anything past this man. So now I’m wondering: How should I respond if her father sends me on a quest [almost] certain to result in death?”

Dear Diffident,

Killing off suitors by sending them on perilous quests, once considered a perfectly acceptable practice for fathers, is now deemed passé in most circles. In other words, Diffident, your contingency is remote. Still, the practice of assigning perilous quests, though fallen out of favor in recent years, has an undeniable quaint charm to it. So don’t fret if your prospective father-in-law orders you, say, to march into Hell armed only with a butterknife and a quiver of Nerf® arrows. Think of the one-in-a-billion opportunity before you, and the heavenly cause.

As for pertinent intelligence you might gain from Tolkien, you should know that he addressed your unlikely contingency in the story of Beren and Lúthien and the quest for the Silmaril. The obstinate father in that story was Thingol, Elf-King of the realm of Doriath, who would rather have seen Beren die than allow his daughter to marry a mortal man. So he sent Beren to steal a Silmaril, one of the great jewels, from the iron crown of the Dark Lord Morgoth.

Since the story so squarely addresses your question, I recommend you read it in full. And while I won’t spoil the story here, I can, without spoiling it, relate a few pertinent observations:

  • Do not advise your beloved’s father against sending you on the quest. Sending Beren to fetch a Silmaril backfired on Thingol. You may be tempted, therefore, to advise your beloved’s father that by sending you on a perilous quest, he’d be moving forces whose effects he couldn’t begin to fathom. Resist the temptation. Such an observation, however wise and commendable coming from a matron or trusted advisor, should never come from a suitor. Gallantry, not wisdom, is the virtue that best adorns your office. Therefore . . .
  • Accept the quest in the most gallant possible manner. That you should accept the dangerous quest is a no-brainer, in every sense of the term. But give thought to the manner of your acceptance. Laughing in the father’s face, for example, is recommended. So are public declarations that the object and dangers of the assigned quest are but small things compared to winning the hand of your beloved.
  • Remember that death cannot stop true love. While I borrowed that quote from another fantasy world, it’s about as good a one-line summary of the tale of Beren and Lúthien as you’ll find anywhere.

In short: take courage, my good fellow, and be Diffident no more. If Tolkien was right about anything, as the probability of the success of a noble quest falls, the certainty of its success rises.