I could make anything a body wanted

Yesterday, we finished listening as a whole family to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. It was a car trip listen, and we drove by the Mark Twain House near Hartford while hearing the last chapter. It was my second reading, and it seemed a rather bleak double satire (on both the “old” and the “new” England) by this Mississippi River boy. The critique of old England is bitter and relentless. However, I’m not sure that Yankee New England fairs any better in the end. For example, it’s hard not to read this passage without a hint of satirical critique against the spirit of “Yankee ingenuity.”

I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words. My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why, I could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make any difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, I could invent one—and do it as easy as rolling off a log.

In the moments after the end of the book, Nessa (14 years old) said wanted to name her first baby girl “Hello Central” in honor of Sandy and her child. Nessa was really sad to think of this mother and child abandoned in the sixth century as a victim of the dueling powers of Merlin’s magic verses the Yankee’s modern science. Both kids had some very thoughtful questions about the story. Merlin’s old sorcery powers were mocked throughout, but they seemed to come out decisively ahead in the end (banishing the Yankee through time and getting a grizzly “last laugh”). Twain was a wild and tragic fellow.

fight magic with magic

Fairy-tale Logic
by A.E. Stallings

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks—

You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve,
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.

if the church no longer has “good” magic

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith:

One can see how this entails a kind of disenchantment: “we reject the sacramentals; all the elements of ‘magic’ in the old religion” (p. 79). If the church no longer has “good” magic, “then all magic must be black” (p. 80); all enchantment must be blasphemous, idolatrous, even demonic. …The Reformer’s rejection of sacramentalism is the beginning of naturalism, or at least opens the door to its possibility. It is also the beginning of a certain evacuation of the sacred as present in the world. And that leads to a completely new understanding of social and cultural life as well. …The king or monarch can’t be any sort of “sacramental” reality.

…The “naturalization” that is essential to exclusive humanism was first motivated by Christian devotion. “The irony is that just this, so much the fruit of devotion and faith, prepares the ground for an escape from faith, into a purely immanent world” (p. 145).

…Most germane to understanding the point of this chapter is appreciating what Taylor calls “the triple embedding” of premodern societies, a configuration of society that goes along with what he’s been calling enchantment: “Human agents are embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine” (p. 152).

bless each apple by kind

A Charm Against the Language of Politics
by Veronica Patterson

Say over and over the names of things,
the clean nouns: weeping birch, bloodstone, tanager,
Banshee damask rose. Read field guides, atlases,
gravestones. At the store, bless each apple
by kind: McIntosh, Winesap, Delicious, Jonathan.
Enunciate the vegetables and herbs: okra, calendula.

Go deeper into the terms of some small landscape:
spiders, for example. Then, after a speech on
compromising the environment for technology,
recite the tough, silky structure of webs:
tropical stick, ladder web, mesh web, filmy dome, funnel,
trap door. When you have compared the candidates’ slippery
platforms, chant the spiders: comb footed, round headed,
garden cross, feather legged, ogre faced, black widow.
Remember that most short verbs are ethical: hatch, grow,
spin, trap, eat. Dig deep, pronounce clearly, pull the words
in over your head. Hole up
for the duration.

Published in The Sun magazine (November, 1992, Issue 203).