Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Path to Rome

Prose just doesn't get any better (or funnier) than this! First, Belloc deftly and humorously details an encounter where he was almost knifed in a tavern in a small Italian town on his pilgrimage, by foot, to Rome:

"The room within was of red wood. It had two tables, a little counter
with a vast array of bottles, a woman behind the counter, and a small,
nervous man in a strange hat serving. And all the little place was
filled and crammed with a crowd of perhaps twenty men, gesticulating,
shouting, laughing, quarrelling, and one very big man was explaining
to another the virtues of his knife; and all were already amply
satisfied with wine. For in this part men do not own, but are paid
wages, so that they waste the little they have.

I saluted the company, and walking up to the counter was about to call
for wine. They had all become silent, when one man asked me a question
in Italian. I did not understand it, and attempted to say so, when
another asked the same question; then six or seven--and there was a
hubbub. And out of the hubbub I heard a similar sentence rising all
the time. To this day I do not know what it meant, but I thought (and
think) it meant 'He is a Venetian,' or 'He is the Venetian.' Something
in my broken language had made them think this, and evidently the
Venetians (or a Venetian) were (or was) gravely unpopular here. Why, I
cannot tell. Perhaps the Venetians were blacklegs. But evidently a
Venetian, or the whole Venetian nation, had recently done them a

At any rate one very dark-haired man put his face close up to mine,
unlipped his teeth, and began a great noise of cursing and
threatening, and this so angered me that it overmastered my fear,
which had till then been considerable. I remembered also a rule which
a wise man once told me for guidance, and it is this: 'God disposes of
victory, but, as the world is made, when men smile, smile; when men
laugh, laugh; when men hit, hit; when men shout, shout; and when men
curse, curse you also, my son, and in doubt let them always take the
first move.'

I say my fear had been considerable, especially of the man with the knife,
but I got too angry to remember it, and advancing my face alsoto this
insulter's I shouted, _
'Dio Ladro! Dios di mi alma! Sanguinamento!
Nombre di Dios! Che? Che vole? Non sono da Venezia io!
Sono de Francia! Je m'en fiche da vestra Venezia! Non se vede
che non parlar vestra lingua? Che sono forestiere?'
_ and so forth.
At this they evidently divided into two parties, and all began raging
amongst themselves, and some at me, while the others argued louder
and louder that there was an error.

The little innkeeper caught my arm over the counter, and I turned
round sharply, thinking he was doing me a wrong, but I saw him nodding
and winking at me, and he was on my side. This was probably because he
was responsible if anything happened, and he alone could not fly from
the police.

He made them a speech which, for all I know, may have been to the
effect that he had known and loved me from childhood, or may have been
that he knew me for one Jacques of Turin, or may have been any other
lie. Whatever lie it was, it appeased them. Their anger went down to a
murmur, just like soda-water settling down into a glass.

I stood wine; we drank. I showed them my book, and as my pencil needed
sharpening the large man lent me his knife for courtesy. When I got it
in my hand I saw plainly that it was no knife for stabbing with; it
was a pruning-knife, and would have bit the hand that cherished it (as
they say of serpents). On the other hand, it would have been a good
knife for ripping, and passable at a slash. You must not expect too
much of one article.

I took food, but I saw that in this parish it was safer to sleep out
of doors than in..."

And just a few pages later he succinctly describes why the modern world hates the Church, and why, at the same time, it loves some of what the Church has given to the world, for instance much of the greatest art, architecture and the soul of Europe:

"Have you ever noticed that all the Catholic Church does is thought
beautiful and lovable until she comes out into the open, and then
suddenly she is found by her enemies (which are the seven capital
sins, and the four sins calling to heaven for vengeance) to be hateful
and grinding? So it is; and it is the fine irony of her present
renovation that those who were for ever belauding her pictures, and
her saints, and her architecture, as we praise things dead, they are
the most angered by her appearance on this modern field all armed,
just as she was, with works and art and songs, sometimes superlative,
often vulgar. Note you, she is still careless of art or songs, as she
has always been. She lays her foundations in something other, which
something other our moderns hate. Yet out of that something other came
the art and song of the Middle Ages. And what art or songs have you?
She is Europe and all our past. She is returning."

You can read more at the Project Gutenberg site:

Monday, February 22, 2010

Reading Belloc at Ecola Beach

I think I might be the first person to compare Belloc writing of the Alps to Ecola beach in Oregon, or the first person to have read Belloc at Ecola beach, period! But that does not mean Belloc was a stranger to the west coast; in fact, he imported his wife from California, after having traveled there cross country, mostly on foot--at a time when there were no cars! Belloc was also a man who loved the sea; he wrote about, and others wrote about, his sailing adventures around England. So Ecola beach is a fitting place for Belloc, since no where else in America does it appear that mountains proceed out of the sea (though, in reality, they are only hills.)

So, before I proceed in getting sentimental, placing Belloc’s quotes above pictures from Ecola (which, you will see, I’m soon about to do, to either your approbation or bemused amusement), I want to make it clear that Belloc is anything other than a sickly-sweet sentimentalist. He is actually one of the funnier writers in recent memory. His Path to Rome is full of hilarious episodes.

To give one example, he describes an episode where he had just emerged from the Alps in Switzerland, crossing several peaks, and averaging thirty miles on foot a day, when a peasant with a “brutal face” driving his cart “very rapidly, came up with me. I said to him nothing, but he said to me some words in German which I did not understand. We were at that moment just opposite a little inn upon the right hand of the road, and the peasant began making signs to me to hold his horse for him while he went in and drank.

How willing I was to do this you will not perhaps understand, unless you have that delicate and subtle pleasure in holding of horses’ heads, which is the boast and glory of some rare minds. And I was the more willing to do it from the fact that I have the habit of this kind of thing, acquired in the French manoeuvres...I held the horse for the peasant; always, of course, under the implicit understanding that he should allow me when he came out to have a drink, which I, of course, expected him to bring in his own hands.

Far from it...the peasant sat in there drinking with his friends for a good three-quarters of an hour. Now and then a man would come out and look at the sky, and cough and spit and turn round again and say something to the people within in German, and go off; but no one paid the least attention to me as I held this horse.

I was already in a very angry and irritable mood, for the horse was restive and smelt his stable, and wished to break away from me. And all angry and irritable as I was, I turned around to see if this man were coming to relieve me; but I saw him laughing and joking with the people inside; and they were all looking my way out of their window as they laughed. I may have been wrong, but I thought they were laughing at me. A man who knows the Swiss intimately, and who has written a book upon ‘The Drink Traffic: The Example of Switzerland,’ tells me they certainly were not laughing at me; at any rate, I thought they were, and moved by a sudden anger I let go the reins, gave the horse a great clout, and set him off careering and galloping like a whirlwind down the road from which he had come, with the bit in his teeth and all the storms of heaven in his four feet. Instantly, as you may imagine, all the scoffers came tumbling out of the inn, hullabooling, gesticulating, and running like madmen after the horse, and one very old man even turned to protest to me. But I, setting my teeth, grasping my staff, and remembering the purpose of my great journey, set on up the road again with my face towards Rome.” [Rome, 125-126.]

“Here were these magnificent creatures of God [beholding the Alps]...” [114]

“These great Alps, seen thus, link one in some way to one’s immortality.” [114]

“...and could strike one motionless with the awe of supernatural things. Up there in the sky, to which only clouds belong and birds and the last trembling colours of pure light, they stood fast and hard; not moving as do the things of the sky.” [114]

“Their sharp steadfastness and their clean uplifting lines compelled my adoration. Up there, the sky above and below them, part of the sky, but part of us, the great peaks made communion between that homing creeping part of me which loves vineyards and dances and a slow movement among pastures, and that other part which is only properly at home in Heaven.” [114]

“So little are we, we men: so much are we immersed in our muddy and immediate interests that we think, by numbers and recitals, to comprehend distance or time, or any of our limiting infinities...” [113-114]

“Let me put it thus: that from the height of Weissenstein I saw, as it were, my religion. I mean, humility, the fear of death, the terror of height and of distance, the glory of God, the infinite potentialty of reception whence springs that divine thirst of the soul; my aspiration also towards completion, and my confidence in the dual destiny. For I know that we laughers have a gross cousinship with the most high, and it is this contrast and perpetual quarrel which feeds a spring of merriment in the soul of a sane man.” [114]