James Boswell attributes this near quotation of William Camden (originally “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found.”) to Samuel Johnson, and goes on to report that Johnson said “Sir, we are not to judge [with certainty] the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted of God.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson 543 (1830) [link].*
We can never know the depth of God’s grace or the end of his persistent pursuit of each human heart. Let us resolve to speak the gospel of grace whenever we can.
*In the novel Brighton Rock (1938), Graham Greene has his character Pinkie rely on this quotation as a basis for rejecting grace on the assumption that he will be able to repent at the last moment. But in a moment in which his death seems imminent, he finds that he has hardened himself against repentance.
This poor author proves that fact-checking old language (what would you guess “death recorded” means?) is really pretty critical. Yelena Dzhanova, “Here’s an Actual Nightmare: Naomi Wolf Learning On-Air That Her Book Is Wrong,” New York: Intelligencer” (May 2019) [link]. Alan Jacobs comments with compassion and a very appropriate pair of C.S. Lewis references. Alan Jacobs, “death recorded,” Snakes and Ladders (May 24, 2019) [link].
Matthew Butterick, “Typography 2020: A special listicle for America,” Practical Typography [link] delightfully describes the font choices and errors of the 2020 candidates (comparing them to those of the past):
For those who think it trivializes our political process to judge candidates by their typography—what would you prefer we scrutinize? Qualifications? Ground into dust during the last election. Issues? Be my guest. Whether a candidate will ever fulfill a certain campaign promise about a certain issue is conjectural.
But typography—that’s a real decision candidates have to make today, with real money and real consequences. And if I can’t trust you to pick some reasonable fonts and colors, then why should I trust you with the nuclear codes?
Alan Jacobs, “choice”, Snakes and Ladders (Feb. 9, 2018) [link]:
You can’t understand the place and time you’re in by immersion; the opposite’s true. You have to step out and away and back and forward, through books and art and music, and you have to do it regularly. Then you come back to the Here and Now, and say: Ah. That’s how it is.
But maybe 2% of the people you encounter will do this. The other 98% are wholly creatures of this particular intersection in spacetime, and can’t be made to care about anything else.
You can, then, have understanding or attention. Pick.
In 2018 I read an old book of miscellaneous addresses and essays by my favorite Canadian curmudgeon Robertson Davies called The Merry Heart (1998 [amazon]), and in previous years enjoyed similar compilations of material from Neil Gaiman (The View from the Cheap Seats, 2016 [amazon]); and Neal Stephenson (Some Remarks, 2012 [amazon]).
This year’s delight is certainly going to be Scalia Speaks (2017 [amazon]), a compilation of speeches by the late justice known for his staggering erudition, his biting wit, and his personal warmth. One of his sons (Christopher J. Scalia) and one of his former law clerks (Edward Whelen) have chosen and introduced a number of addresses given on many occasions. They are marvelous! Scalia’s good friend and fellow justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Notorious RBG herself) wrote the forward.
Here are a few tidbits:
Continue reading The Delightful Scalia
I originally read about Luca Turin about 10 years ago in Chandler Burr’s book The Emperor of Scent [link]. In trying to find a copy for one of my daughters, I picked up a book of Turin’s columns from a Swiss magazine called NZZ Folio.
The first columns are (mainly) about perfume, but the editors of the magazine seemed to realize that Turin’s cleverness should not be restricted to the sense of scent, and he is entirely unleashed in the later columns. The columns are very short, wildly allusive, and quite stimulating. Here are some more excerpts:
Even if you try not to pay attention to it, a messy place is a nagging worry, a moral stain, which I assume is why ‘scruple’ originally meant a small stone in your shoe.
This leads me to propose the Law of Optimum Waste: only too much is barely good enough. Great things in teaching, in science, in the arts often happen when exceptional people are forced to look for jobs below their station. A revolution is currently taking place in science because defense budgets are cut, physicists cannot get the job they wanted, and are forced to slum it in biology. The great Italian design boom of the sixties was largely the result of a surfeit of architects who wanted to design skyscrapers and ended up doing ashtrays. Note that in literature—Shakespeare’s villains are a good example—and in life, much evil comes from those who are ambitious beyond their means. Conversely, it seems that enormous good comes from those who are modest beyond their rights. This is not a moral principle, but a practical one. Greed repels, generosity inspires.
You learn a lot about a country’s public space by driving, a wordless game for high stakes that you play with complete strangers. Roads and cars are the same the world over, and local color shows up nicely against an asphalt grey background. Most countries play a game of cops and drivers. In the US, the cops are fierce and the drivers dopey. In France both cops and drivers are fierce. In Italy they are both petulant. In Greece there are no cops.
Very entertaining, and currently available as a Kindle Unlimited book (though with an oddly uninspiring cover): Luca Turin, Folio Columns 2003-2014 (2015) [link].
This was one of those “Yes, exactly!” moments.
For those not previously enlightened:
Cremains, pl. n., the ashes of a cremated body (either a portmanteau or shortened form of “cremated” and “remains”)
The “Yes, exactly!” moment came when a friend gave me Lydia Davis’ short piece “Letter to a Funeral Parlor”:
I am writing to you to object to the word cremains, which was used by your representative when he met with my mother and me two days after my father’s death.
* * *
Then we were sitting there in our chairs in the living room trying not to weep in front of your representative, who was opposite us on the sofa, and we were very tired first from sitting up with my father, and then from worrying about whether he was comfortable as he was dying, and then from worrying about where he might be now that he was dead, and your representative referred to him as “the cremains.”
At first we did not even know what he meant. Then, when we realized, we were frankly upset. Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate. Or it sounds like some kind of a chipped beef dish.
Lydia Davis, “Letter to a Funeral Parlor,” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009).
The full piece is reproduced on the NPR website [link].
No, English isn’t uniquely vibrant or mighty or adaptable. But it really is weirder than pretty much every other language.
John McWhorter, “English is not normal” Aeon (November 2015) https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-english-so-weirdly-different-from-other-languages.