The Best of People, the Worst of People

Charles DickensI have long thought that every generation believes theirs to be the worst, and every generation is right. But that does not mean that things only get worse. My experience of life indicates that things are ever getting different. And for conservatives souls, which all humans are, this is bad. I’ve long noted that when at the grocery store the day before the Super Bowl when there are 12 check stands open, that everyone would choose, if they could, to get into a single queue. The mad rush to find the best stand is not about getting ahead of others but only about maintaining their rightful place.

It is only reptiles and vicious beasts who will not share a kill that they cannot eat all by themselves. We are, at base, cooperative creatures that want nothing more than our due. And when we behave badly it is not because we are greedy but because we fear others’ greed.

If this time seems worse than times we remember, it is because we inevitably lose our connection to each other, and thus our belief in each other. But none of this really matters, and anyway: Dickens was right about our times and ourselves:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Don’t expect me to be so cheery tomorrow.

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The Other Brontës

The BrontesI decided, for reasons not all together clear to me, that I ought to read a little Anne Brontë. I certainly wasn’t going to read any Lord Byron wannabe poetry, so that left me with her two novels: Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Andrea told me that the latter was better and so I picked up a copy at the library today. I mentioned to the librarian that I figured I should read “the other Brontë” and she asked if I had read the brother. I had not. All I knew of him was that he was an opium addict, and I said as much.

I wish I hadn’t. It seems clear that had he been an opium addict, it was probably to medicate his undiagnosed tuberculosis. We tend to forget in this modern age of pill variety, where those with erectile dysfunction have a large choice of pills to take, that it was not always so. Indeed, most of the push during the 19th century to develop drugs from morphine to heroin came from a desire to treat tuberculosis. Even today, there really isn’t an effective cure and if you aren’t dying from it, it is probably more due to public health measures than anything.

Now I can say that I have read Branwell Brontë. And I can see why he is generally referred to as an artist rather than a poet. The painting in this article is an example of his work. This is Anne, Emily, and Charlotte—from left to right. But if you look in the space between Emily and Charlotte, you can see a kind of ghostly figure. This apparently was where Branwell originally painted himself. Later he decided to paint over himself. This could have been because he didn’t think it was very good. But I prefer to think that this is what a tortured soul like him would do. He was 31 when he died.

All the Brontë children died young: Charlotte at 38, Emily at 30, and Anne at 29. Anne also died of tuberculosis shortly after her brother, so she probably got it from him. This has led me to speculate that the Family had bad genes, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Their father, Patrick Brontë, lived to be 84 years old. He outlived his wife, Maria, by almost 50 years.

As for the writing of the Brontë’s, I used to be very fond of both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. But I’ve cooled off on them. Jane Eyre has too much nonsense in it (like the first 100 pages and the last 100 pages) to make up for the good parts. And Wuthering Heights is just 400 pages of foggy mood. But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has potential. It starts well enough:

You must go back with me to the autumn of 1827. My father, as you know, was a sort of gentleman farmer in —shire; and I, by his express desire, succeeded him in the same quiet occupation, not very willingly, for ambition urged me to higher aims, and self-conceit assured me that, in disregarding its voice, I was burying my talent in the earth, and hiding my light under a bushel. My mother had done her utmost to persuade me that I was capable of great achievements; but my father, who thought ambition was the surest road to ruin, and change but another word for destruction, would listen to no scheme for bettering either my own condition, or that of my fellow mortals. He assured me it was all rubbish, and exhorted me, with his dying breath, to continue in the good old way, to follow his steps, and those of his father before him, and let my highest ambition be to walk honestly through the world, looking neither to the right hand nor to the left, and to transmit the paternal acres to my children in, at least, as flourishing a condition as he left them to me.

And you must know by now: I will let you know.

The Blood of St. Valentine’s Day

St. ValentineIn my ongoing efforts to destroy any joy you might have during holidays or other gift-buying opportunities, I thought I’d say a few words about Valentine’s Day.

When I was confirmed in the Catholic Church, my mother bought me a book of saints. It amazes me to this day that I managed to get this far in the Catholic Church knowing almost nothing about the Catholic Church. I knew about St. Francis, of course. Partly, this was because I shared his name. Mostly, however, it was because I was crazy for Theater of the Absurd and I had read Tiny Alice. But the thing is, Francis of Assisi was an exception for a Saint—in terms of his death; like the rest, he was a nut-job. The book of saints showed that the normal way to become a saint was to get murdered, usually in a suicidal effort to push your religious beliefs in the faces of others.

And so we come to St. Valentine. Unfortunately, St. Valentine was not one guy, but two or maybe three. The early church was not good at keeping records.

First, there is Valentine of Rome. According to Catholic Online:

Valentine was a holy priest in Rome, who, with St. Marius and his family, assisted the martyrs in the persecution under Claudius II [Not the I, Claudius guy -FM]. He was apprehended, and sent by the emperor to the prefect of Rome, who, on finding all his promises to make him renounce his faith ineffectual, commanded him to be beaten with clubs, and afterwards, to be beheaded, which was executed on February 14, about the year 270.

That’s how I want to go: beaten with clubs in defense of an imaginary god! You go, priest!

Second, there is Valentine of Turni, who was born around 175 AD in Turni, Italy. Check out this bit of information from Saints.SQNP [Bold mine]:

Noted evangelist, miracle worker and healer, he was much loved by his flock. Imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded by order of the prefect Placid Furius during the persecution of Aurelius. He was murdered in secret and at night to avoid riots and revenge by the people of Terni. Some scholars believe that he and Saint Valentine of Rome are the same person.

Okay, more of the same: tortured, beheaded; the usual things you associate with Valentine’s Day. But dig that last sentence! Some scholars think that a guy who died around 197 AD might be the same guy who died around 270 AD. They aren’t even sure that these guys who lived almost a century apart aren’t the same. And they think we should believe them about Jesus who supposedly lived 200 years earlier. Amazing!

Have a happy Valentine’s day! Do your part for the chocolate, flower, and greeting card industries. But just remember: real men were beheaded so you could have this day. So keep their headless corpses in your mind while you enjoy this day with your special someone. And if you don’t have a special someone, go find a cop to abuse; I’m sure he’ll be happy to beat you to death with a club.