Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Let's play a game!: name your obscure heroes

I was looking at my book shelf the other day (thinking I spend more time on the internet and less time reading them than I'd really like) and noticed that I like a great number of people whom the world would think very odd and obscure writers. It got me thinking; perhaps one of the things we can do, perhaps the only thing, to counter the evils of the celebrity-worship culture is to adopt another type of hero.

I'm betting that in our little O's P circle of readers we have amongst us a wonderful array of interesting, obscure and forgotten people who have influenced our thinking and lives who should be made more generally known.


name ooooh, let's say, four, interesting writers, artists, political thinkers, philosophers, adventurers, explorers, warriors, gardeners, scientists, saints or relatives who have strongly influenced you to think and behave independently of the general crowd of our degenerate post-everything anti-culture.

I'll go first.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the writer, professor and literary philosopher who I most want to be when I grow up. He more or less invented the notion of studying literature as an academic field, and instituted the chair of English literature at Cambridge. Of a long and fruitful lifetime of works, including the monumentally important Oxford Book of English Verse (of which I think I have at least two editions) Sir Arthur's work that got me thinking about literature in a new way was his address to students in 1916 that was later published as "On the Art of Writing".

He was the inspiration for the character of Ratty in the Wind in the Willows (my first literary influence) and invented the adage for all writers of fiction, "murder your darlings."

Roger Tory Peterson
whose bird books got me started as the (half-assed) amateur field naturalist I am today. When I was eight, or so, I saw a TV programme about him and knew, right then, that I wanted to be a field naturalist artist when I grew up. (Too bad real life intervened so brutally about then, but that's another sob-story).

Sir Thomas Browne
the wacky 17th century English doctor whose book Religio Medici was condemned by the Vatican and demonstrated that pure, and very endearing, bull-headed English attitude that with the right sort of education, an Englishman can just damn well write about any subject he pleases, and to hell with the facts. His description of elephants will make you fall on your face laughing.

His literary style is the very model of a 17th century Protestant gentleman, and his whimsical spelling and random capitalisations are a delight to behold. I have a very nice three-volume edition of his collected works given to me by the late, great John Muggeridge from his father's collection which I treasure. His religious ideas are proof that what we today regard as nutty liberalism, born in the 60s, has been the mainstream of Anglicanism from its earliest days. But from a literary viewpoint, he, with John Donne and John Evelyn, epitomises all that was best and worth preserving about post-Medieval, early modern Anglicanism, and will do very nicely as part of the booty when we bring them in.

Blessed Margaret of Castello
who was a dwarf, born blind and hunchbacked with a gammy leg in 13th century Italy. She was rejected by her shallow, noble parents who wanted none of their rivals to know they'd spawned such a misfit. She was locked up in a kind of hermitage for most of her childhood where she was allowed only to speak to the parish priest and the servant who brought her food from her parents' palace.

Then, when she was 20, her parents took her to the town of Castello where miraculous healings were rumoured to be taking place, and when after a day of prayer she failed to be miraculously restored, they walked away, abandoning her to the streets. She was at first adopted by beggars and street people who protected her and taught her to beg. She became known in the town for her great holiness and cheerful disposition and was eventually (after many adventures) allowed to join the early Dominican Mantellatae, the third order for widows who wore the habit and took vows but did not live in community.

As a mantellata, she cared for the sick and poor, and especially visited and talked to poor prisoners, converting all of them. She was a wonderworker, putting out house fires with her cloak and healing people of blindness and cancer and all manner of things, including one little girl whom Margaret healed after her own death, rising briefly to life from her funeral bier to stretch out her hand to heal the girl.

She remains incorrupt in her glass Snow White coffin in Citta di Castello, Italy. And just as soon as I get it together, I'm going to work out the Trenitalia route and go see her.

I adopted Margaret as my patron at my confirmation because she was abandoned by her parents and in her whole life was not bitter and was never heard to criticise them for it.

...and if I'd said seven obscure heroes, I'd have added Fr. Frederick Faber (WAY more holy than Newman), John Ruskin, and Richard Lack for nearly single-handedly rescuing Art from the abyss of postmodern nihilism.

Oh, and Roger Scruton, for telling the entire academic philosophical world they're full of shit;

And of course, John Muggeridge who didn't let his famous surname make him into a twit, and who showed me that it is possible to overcome one's personal failings and become a saint in ordinary day-to-day life. Yes, I said it; John was clearly a saint and the three years I lived in his house totally changed me and my life.

OK, now you.



Karen K said...

I just saw a movie about Irena Sendler, whom I've never heard of until recently. She was a German woman working as a social worker in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, and is credited with smuggling about 2,500 Jewish children out of the ghetto because she understood what the Nazis were planning to do to them at the "Work camps" they were being deported to. She was found out by the German authorities and tortured by having her legs and feet broken, but would not betray the children or her cohorts. She was sentenced to be executed, but escaped, living in hiding through the remainder of the war. She died in 2008, at the age of 2008. She was actually ashamed of herself for not having done MORE to help! Truly a hero and a model of courage and righteousness.

Anonymous said...

1. Mother Gavrilia (Gavrielia Papayannis): Born in Constantinople at the end of the 19th C. to Greek parents. Well educated and trained as a chiropodist and physiotherapist, gave everything away in her late 50s and left for India penniless where she gave free treatment to lepers. Eventually became a nun and spiritual mother to many Orthodox. Her biography left me speechless.

2. Nha Chica: Born in Brazil, daughter and granddaughter of slaves. Spent 30 years building a church and helping the poor, even though she was poor herself.

3. St Maria Skobtsova: Russian noblewoman and member of the French resistance. Originally an atheist, came back to Christianity and was eventually tonsured a nun. She was sent off to Ravensbruck concentration camp for helping the Jews in Paris. She took the place of a Jewish woman who was going to be sent to the gas chambers.

4. Blessed Charles de Foucauld: lived an eremetical life in the Sahara, hoping to convert the Muslims to Christ. Was assassinated by a Tuareg. He's probably not that obscure but I couldn't leave him off my list as he's one of my favourite saints.


Mark S. Abeln said...

1. Donald Knuth, who wrote “The Art of Computer Programming,” a book which abstracted and elevated programming to become something other than electrical engineering. It’s a magnificent book, simultaneously funny, unexpected, and highly rigorous. His use of the word ‘art’ for the title of the book puzzled me for years, leading me to read Aquinas, and thereby I discovered the key to all art.

2. St. Benedict and his Rule. I read this in college, and re-read it several times since. It was my first clue that there was a kind of life very different from what our culture demands.

3. Dan Margulis with his book “Professional Photoshop.” What separates this from innumerable and dreary other books on Photoshop is that he only considers a handful of features of the product, and goes into them in great depth, showing how they ought to be used and why. This is contrasted to more modernist books on the subject that refuse to distinguish good practices from bad, and insist that photographers do simply what makes them feel good. Margulis instead insists that photographers ought to do things that make publishers feel good. That book made me successful in photography. In the book Margulils also writes about original sin, virtue, getting a raise at work, and how to deal with skeptical tradesmen.

4. St. Boethius and his book “Consolation of Philosophy.” The last of the noble Romans, Boethius worked for a barbarian king and got executed for his effort. He made a valiant effort to keep classical learning alive in the new dark age. I find this quite inspirational, since we are ruled by a new kind of barbarian. He is remarkably clear about the problem of evil, the nature of power, and the harmonization of free will and predestination, as well as keeping your wits when the world is falling around you. I’d like to find an English translation of his book on arithmetic: I’ve been told that his study of number theory and proportion was extremely important in Medieval art and the liberal arts.

HJMW said...

St. Benedict isn't "obscure" of course, but I'll let it slide.

I'm very partial to Dom Paul Delatte, the second Abbott of Solsmes who wrote a wonderful commentary on it, which I bought when it was re-published in English a few years ago


df said...

Dear Father Faber!!! I find it interesting to think how you two would have got on; probably like house on fire (with raging arguments included).
Whatever your shortcomings Hilary (I am, of course, imagining that you have them), your instinct for what is right and good is surprisingly sure.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

You're in a friendly sort of mood. Have you been drinking?

df said...

'friad not; I'm just like that some times.

DP said...

1. Christina the Astonishing--not quite a saint, but fascinating as all get out.

2. Whoever did the frescoes at Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello.

3. Dom Bernard Orchard. Thank you a thousand times over for the Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture.

4. Gary Gygax. The man who helped keep the flame of imagination guttering through the 70s and 80s.