I wish I could tell you that I have been a long-time reader of Thomas Howard. I can’t. Discovering his absolutely splendid The Night is Far Spent filled my Easter weekend and occasional moments with joy, insight, ruminations, and pleasure in his delightful prose.
Any fans of Thomas Howard out there? Any former students? Who’ll speak up for this man?
I must unload one little point first: Sometime ago Thomas Howard must have discovered, perhaps in an old box of things no longer used, the word “piquant” and then and there decided it might be the finest word in the English vocabulary. Go ahead, I say to you my reader, read straight through The Night is Far Spent and underline each instance. (I give the definitions below.)
Howard mastered the Inklings — Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Owen Barfield and Warnie, with others. That distinguished group of beer drinking, manuscript reading, and Christian thinking group met at The Eagle and the Child. A friend of mine sent me a picture of the pub.
Howard tolerates fools impatiently, and by “fools” I mean uncareful and untraditional cozy Christian thinking and praxis. So, he comes off as a curmudgeon, but the kind where you say, “You know, Howard, you’ve got the angels — or most of them — on your side.” So, even when I disagree, I love what he has to say and he makes me think.
Then comes his prose… exceptional, exquisite and at times eloquent.
On fiction and the gospel: “The odd thing about all these stories is that we cannot seem to get very far in them without finding our sleeves being plucked by the hint that we are reading about ourselves” (7). And “they seem to lead us away into imaginary regions, but they have an unsettling way of discovering for us the immediate place where we are” (9).
On a similar theme: “My own guess is that, on the contrary, a well-chosen image draws us further into truth than, say, the syllogism, or the equation” (28).
Or this one: “Imagination … may, rather, be the faculty in us corresponding in a unique way to reality. We cannot pit it over against intellect and will and affection” (46).
On CS Lewis’ capacity to make things clear: “Stand up and wave a hanky if you had had things plotted out with such stark clarity before you read Lewis” (67).
Splendid essays into the worlds and minds and hearts of Waugh and Lewis and Tolkien and Muggeridge and, perhaps a new name to you, Dietrich von Hildebrand — a brilliant Catholic theologian who didn’t write sparkling prose but he wrote solid theology and ethics.
And did I mention that Howard grew up in the heart of American evangelicalism and, after flirting at length with the Anglicans, crossed the Tiber and entered into fellowship with the See of Rome. That story of his I read long ago — but this set of essays has made me a fan.
Go, see how many times “piquant” appears.
1. agreeably pungent or sharp in taste or flavor; pleasantly biting or tart: a piquant aspic.
2. agreeably stimulating, interesting, or attractive: a piquant glance.
3. of an interestingly provocative or lively character: a piquant wit.
4. Archaic. sharp or stinging, esp. to the feelings.