Reviewed by Lauren F. Winner
The essay is a genre that has fallen much out of favor. Readers don't want to buy collections of essays, so publishers turn up their nose at them—and, to be sure, teachers and students don't spend much time considering essays qua essays, either their writing or reading.
But I adore essays. And one of the great essayists of our time is Alan Jacobs, who teaches English at Wheaton College, and is currently at work on a biography of C. S. Lewis. In Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling, he brings together a dozen gems, a few of which were first published in Books & Culture. Jacobs's essays are perfect. They recall 19th–century miniatures, small paintings you could hold in your hand, paintings of such detail and depth and artistry that they deftly captured a person, and sometimes a world. Alan Jacobs' essays are like that. (By the way, if you missed it, you should pick up his first collection, A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age.)
I get jealous when I sit down with this book. I wonder: where did he learn to craft sentences this well? And, how does he know so much about so many things? That is another way of saying that this book is learned, and elegant, and surprising. There's a probing reading of W. H. Auden (the poet on whom Jacobs first cut his scholarly teeth), which asks, pointedly, why Christians "are so indifferent to Auden." That is followed by an exposition of "Iris Murdoch's Added Vowel"; the vowel is "o," and the essay concerns how the Platonic novelist and philosopher understood both God and the Good. And there's also a reading of P. T. Anderson's Magnolia—upon reading Jacobs' account, I felt for the first time that I understood that concluding scene, the one where Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the cast are singing like Muppets while frogs rain down all around them. The scene, Jacobs argues, is about grace. "Certainly, it is because of our sin that we must be spoken to in such a harsh language; but we are being spoken to, not destroyed."
Another of my favorites is "The Re–Invention of Love," which is, on one level, a withering review of a recent translation of the poetry of Sappho. Anne Carson, a classicist and poet, titles the translation If Not, Winter, and that enigmatic, epigrammatic phrase captures both the loveliness and the elusiveness of Sappho's poetry. Maybe it would be less elusive if we had more than shattered fragments of verse; but all we have is bits and pieces, which Carson renders thus:
]and know this
]I shall love
The brackets, Jacobs explains, are Carson's way of indicating tears in the papyri on which Sappho's poetry survives.
A review of a review is admittedly a tad meta, but I highlight "The Re–Invention of Love" because Jacobs' beef is not with Carson's translation per se. Rather, the subject of his ire is a whole school of love–making, a school Carson (not to mention Foucault) seem to embody. Carson is of the school that says "beauty makes sex possible. / Beauty makes sex sex" (this from her book The Beauty of the Husband). She is of the school that says "I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime" (from her book Plainwater). Blessedly, Jacobs offers an alternative to Carson's weary, hip eros: a reading of Song of Songs, which, he says, offers "a more fully human picture of the love between man and woman … than anything made available by the trifling arithmetic of desire."
The final essay in Shaming the Devil is a triptych in which Jacobs recounts his quest to learn Linux and buck the Bill Gates machine. It is called "Computer Control (the Virtues of Resistance)," and I very much like that parenthetical; it reminds me that Christians are called to be, inter alia, pockets of resistance to the powers and principalities.
Which leads us to the title of this collection, alluding to the proverbial injunction to "tell the truth, and shame the devil" (and by the way, Jacobs' introductory musings on the meaning of that phrase are alone worth the price of admission). The pieces in Shaming the Devil get to the heart of the matter. They don't indulge in obfuscating lit crit; they don't preen or pander. They introduce us to great writers and great texts, and they make plain why these writers and texts matter. They are attempts to tell the truth, and they model an ancient discipline the world couldn't need more urgently. Truthtelling is a Christian virtue, and a civic virtue; and Alan Jacobs gives us a glimpse of what the world would be like if we did it more often.
Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God. Her latest book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity, will be out from Brazos in April.
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