Wednesday, October 28, 2015
When I was a kid there were certain ads in the popular press and on matchbooks that fed my fantasies and, no doubt, the fantasies of thousands of others. After all, that is what the advertising industry of the 1950s was all about, and largely still is. The common theme of the ads was the nearly miraculous power of certain goods or services, purchasable by postal money order and deliverable to you no matter how remote your rural route, to transform sows' ears into silk purses. The remarkable metamorphosis, at least as marvelous as two thirds of those in Ovid, would be swiftly accomplished—“in only a few short months,” “in only fifteen minutes a day”, that sort of thing.
My pathetic musical abilities, which exist in strictly inverse proportion to my admiration for good music, were a source of pain to me. I accordingly was much taken by an ad hawking a certain method of mastering the piano. “They laughed when I sat down at the piano,” it said, “but when I started to play…” Oh, the satisfaction to be gleaned from that dot, dot, dot. I dreamed of electrifying that audience of sniggering smart young know-it-alls by galloping through the Paderewski Minuet in G. I had read somewhere that Chopin and Liszt had developed the following party trick. The two would sit side by side on the piano bench and Chopin (or Liszt) would begin playing some extremely difficult, fast piece. Lackeys would then bring in a screen that would shield them from the gaze of the audience. After five more minutes of uninterrupted music played at a frantic pace, the attendants would remove the screen to reveal—mirabile dictu—that it was Liszt (or Chopin), anyway the other one, who was now pounding the ivories. Nobody in the audience was able to identify the musical bar at which the switch had been made. Wild applause! And that is the sort of thing that I would be able to do “in only a few short months” and for negligible financial outlay.
Of course the plan did require access to a piano, and as I didn’t know anybody who had one, this turned out to be a cost-free fantasy. Not so with the Charles Atlas body-building regime, in which I invested an amount I cannot remember, but way more than I could afford. “Charles Atlas” was a Muscle Beach type, who boasted “the world’s most perfectly developed” body. He specialized in turning nerds like me into lean, mean, fantasy-machines. The objects of his tuition were pale, emaciated guys sometimes called “Skinny Mac” and sometimes the “Ninety-Eight Pound Weakling.” A hulking bully picked on this poor fellow, often by kicking sand in his face at the beach, until he filled out the matchbook and sent it. The sexual element in the come-on was approximately as subtle as the hydrogen bomb. Just imagine the look on the bully’s face after the WHAM!...
Eventually I made a virtue of necessity by becoming a professional nerd, otherwise known as a college professor. The fantasies of amazing my friends and relatives with unsuspected super-powers receded, then went entirely dormant; but it turns out that they were still there. On Sunday morning last my wife and I attended an early Eucharist, at eight o’clock. Between that service and the larger one at 10:15 the church often has an educational forum, beginning a little after nine. Recently, these programs, organized by a very able priest who is also a seminary professor, have been excellent. This particular Sunday was to see the inauguration of a new five-week series on major Christian theologians, to wit, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Kicking it off, with a presentation on Augustine of Hippo, would be a certain professor of historical theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary.
We took our places on our folding chairs just before nine. Slowly the room filled up. They had to put out more chairs. The crowd was not quite up to the standard of a Grateful Dead concert, but there were way more people than I might have expected for Original Sin—which as I think of it would be a great name for most rock bands of my acquaintance. But I was aware of disquiet among the Authorities at the back of the room, a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing, serious sotto voce exchanges. The Augustinian professor was a no-show! She had confused the time! You know, καιρος, Χρόνος and all that.
The flustered organizer stepped to the podium and explained the situation. The hungry sheep looked up but were not fed. The organizer was prepared to make a few impromptu remarks. “I am not an expert on Augustine...” he began. But leaping to my feet, I cut him off: “I am!” And I strode to the podium and delivered a fifty-three minute lecture on Augustine of Hippo. “Saint Augustine,” I began, “was born in 430 and died in 354.” Things could only get better after that, and did they ever. WHAM! POW!, res and signa, caritas and cupiditas, frui and uti, the freedom of the will, literary artifice in the eighth book of the Confessions, you name it. Then I stepped back into the telephone book in search of my Clark Kent costume. Thank God it had not been Schleiermacher Sunday!
Aurelius Augustinus, leading a Sunday forum