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November 2004
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December 2004

Sunday Night Journal — December 26, 2004

Just Your Luck

My job as director of administrative systems at a small college is very much a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none affair that involves a lot of direct support of the people who use the administrative information system. Over the years I think almost every one of them has asserted confidently that he or she has been unfairly singled out by fate to experience an inordinate number of computer-related problems. I often hear personalized versions of Murphy’s Law such as “If it can happen, it will happen to me.” Phone calls frequently begin with remarks that may be apologetic (“I’m sorry I’m always bringing you a problem”), irritated (“I just did this yesterday and now today it doesn’t work”), self-deprecating (“I broke it again”), or anthropomorphically paranoid (“My computer hates me”).

I never know whether it’s a comfort or otherwise when I feel obliged to tell them the truth, which is that their problems are nothing special, and that every single one of their co-workers feels equally put-upon. Today’s computer systems don’t really work that well, all in all (compared, say, to your car) in spite of the fact that they have a quantity of memory and horsepower that the artificial intelligence researchers of thirty or forty years ago would have deemed sufficient to support reasoning on the level of HAL, the conscientiously homicidal computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Systems do far, far more than they did when I first got into the business in the late 1970s, but I don’t know that they do it any more reliably.

I think we all suffer from this impulse to believe that we are specially chosen for bad luck, but obviously it can’t be true that everyone has more bad luck than everyone else. Twice in the past few weeks or so I’ve heard my wife use the phrase “with my luck” or “just my luck” in expectation of some inconvenience, and I daresay most of us use it from time to time. Most often we say these things half-humorously, because most of the things we complain about most of the time—those of us in affluent societies, at any rate—are fairly minor. We don’t generally speak this way when something truly terrible happens, such as the sudden death which overtook a friend of mine two days before Christmas; the idea that such a blow was delivered with conscious malevolence is too dreadful to be trifled with.

So either we all suffer from the same persecution complex or we are all being persecuted, and as I have no doubt at all that a statistical analysis of problems encountered on any given day ranging from minor annoyance to death would show a pretty even distribution, it must be the latter. “Persecuted” may not be the right word; there may be no intention behind the general tendency of things to go wrong. But our impulse to feel persecuted is evidence of something—of two things, actually. In the first place, we feel that we have some right to expect that things go well rather than badly, and in the second place, we feel that there is something personal in the way we are treated by the universe.

If the Christian faith is true, then both these impulses—these emotional beliefs—are in fact correct. The world was meant to be a better place, and each of us is the object of particular consideration on the part of the ruler of the universe. In a way that is not mere illusion, that is accurate at least in relation to perspective, each of us is the center of a universe, the pole around which all else revolves. The fact that the earth is in motion relative to the sun and to the other planets, and all of these in motion relative to the rest of the galaxy, does not alter the functional relationship of the sun to the earth. By rights the interlocking movements of these worlds should be harmonious, blessing all equally. Instead, the worlds depart from their orbits frequently, disturbing, abrading, and colliding, with consequences ranging from comic to tragic.

But that of course is not the end of the story. We may or may not be individually persecuted—I’m not about to venture into speculation about the details of the interplay among our own sins and errors, the malicious schemes of evil spirits, and the permissive will and providence of God. But salvation, escape from misfortune both trivial and great into a world of never-interrupted, never-even-diminished perfection, is specifically offered to each of us, at the cost of nothing and everything. Just our luck.

Sunday Night Journal — December 19, 2004

A Christmas Meditation

I spent the time I would normally have spent writing a journal entry locating and re-typing this Christmas piece which I wrote many years ago for the National Catholic Register.

But a note in passing: two recent news stories related to some of the themes I touch upon in that piece, and which you may have noticed are dear to my heart, have appeared in the past week or two. One is an intriguing entry on Touchstone’s blog —scroll down to the December 15 entry entitled “Second Spring and Who's Your Brain?”— in which a philosopher named Jerry Fodor, whose research specialty seems to be cognitive science, is quoted as saying:

Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.

Exactly. Far too many thinkers and researchers in fields ranging from evolution to artificial intelligence operate on the assumption that consciousness is a by-product of brain activity and is basically a computational function, inevitable when the computations become sufficiently complex. I have never understood what makes them think they can assume this. On the basis of mere intution and common-sense I have always thought it far (far, far) from obvious that it is true. For the sake of argument, I’m willing to suppose that it might be true, but its mere assertion is based on materialist assumptions, nothing more. And I’m glad to have my intuition confirmed by someone who has been studying the theoretical basis of consciousness for decades.

The other story is the news that formerly atheistic British philosopher Anthony Flew has changed his mind and now believes that the world we know is too complex to have developed by chance. Now of course people move back and forth between belief and unbelief all the time, and Flew is at pains to say that he is not postulating the God of Christians and Jews. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to me that this certifiably very bright man now believes it is more reasonable to assert the hypothesis of intelligent design than the hypothesis of evolution by chance.

The grip of materialism on the Western mind is loosening. Happy Fourth Sunday of Advent, and Merry Christmas.

Sunday Night Journal — December 12, 2004

The Meditations of John Coltrane

I first heard John Coltrane’s Meditations when I was a freshman in college, almost forty years ago. The hip graduate student who played it for me and a few other youngsters seemed much older and more sophisticated than the rest of us, and though we were determined to be cool and our reactions were probably evasive, I think we were all appalled by it. I know I was. I’m not sure that the graduate student didn’t prize it mainly for its shock value, because he described it as sounding like a slaughterhouse. That seemed pretty accurate to me, and although I soon learned to love some of Coltrane’s earlier works, such as My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme, I didn’t bother with Meditations again. I supposed that he had, toward the end of his life (Meditations was recorded in ’65 and he died in ’67) wandered off into some angry musical wilderness.

I hadn’t thought about it until right now, but I think that impression was reinforced by some people I knew in the early ‘70s who were admirers and practitioners of what still, in spite of its now rather advanced age, tends to be called “avant-garde” music—unstructured, atonal, arrhythmic, usually abrasive, often improvised: it sounded hostile, for the most part, and hostility was certainly present in the musicians. They were likable people person-to-person; the hostility I’m referring to was the social and philosophical hostility of hippies discovering the anti-bourgeois avant-garde of the Dadaists and others. It seemed to me that the whole point of it was to attack conventional ideas of what music should sound like, and by implication to attack conventional society. Resistance on the part of the audience (which of course soon dwindled to the vanishing point) seemed welcomed as a confirmation that the music was doing its job and that the musicians were superior to less advanced persons. I’m being careful to say “seemed” here, because I may have been misjudging them, but the fact remains that they left me with the impression that not music per se but some vague program of philosophical liberation was the point of their activities.

Although I don’t consider myself a serious jazz fan, and am not terribly knowledgeable about it, I’ve always been drawn to Coltrane’s music. Over the years I accumulated eight or ten of his albums, twice as many as those of his nearest competitor, Miles Davis, but still avoided his late work. A few years ago, by way of a visit from my son Jesse Canterbury, who both listens to and plays this kind of music, I had a chance to hear a sample of Meditations for the first time since 1967 and thought it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered. So I decided to give it another try.

I like it, a lot, and am a little surprised by the fact. It’s as if I suddenly heard the music in an entirely different way, a bit like the sensation you get when you look at one of those optical illusions that can be either a single vase or the silhouettes of two faces, depending on the setting of some mysterious optical-mental switch. The sound is pretty much as I remembered it (at least in the more intense sections) but it isn’t saying what I thought it was. What I took to be anger and anguish now seems like intense yearning, so intense that it explodes out of the limits of ordinary means of expression. This could be, perhaps paradoxically, a recipe for monotony, and in fact I find most music that lacks the clear and naturally recognizable elements of music to be monotonous. But Coltrane and the other musicians on this recording make it work by their inventiveness. The experience is mesmerizing. I’m still far from convinced that this approach to music is a good example for anyone else to follow, as I’m not convinced it’s wise for a fiction writer to try to follow Joyce, but in this case at any rate it succeeds.

I don’t often find an opportunity to listen at any length to music without interruption or distraction, but I’ve been able to hear Meditations under those circumstances twice now, and both times the forty-plus minutes of the suite seemed more like ten. I didn’t read Nat Hentoff’s liner notes until after I’d heard the piece, and I found that the same metaphor had occurred to both of us: that of speaking in tongues. To quote Hentoff, it’s “…as if their insights were of such compelling force that they have to transcend ordinary ways of musical speech and ordinary textures to be able to convey that part of the essence of being they have touched.” The idea that there is something to do with religion going on here is unavoidable, and I don’t think that’s entirely because the first section is entitled “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Coltrane is quoted as saying he “believe[s] in all religions,” which is logically impossible, but that doesn’t matter: he’s not a theologian and I think what he’s expressing in this music is the longing for God that exists in every single human heart and is indeed the basis of all religions, however near to or far from Him their solutions may take the believer.

Another religious reference comes to mind, the somewhat mysterious words of Christ which were used by Flannery O’Connor as the title of The Violent Bear it Away: “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” I was puzzled by that until I read her explanation of it in one of her letters. If I remember correctly, her idea was that an extraordinary and in a sense violent effort to attain the Kingdom would be rewarded. (I just tried to find her comments, but the index to The Habit of Being contains several dozen references to The Violent Bear it Away, and I don’t have time to check them all.) Something of that seems to be involved in Meditations: an effort to climb into the transcendent by the sheer force of desire to get there.

Music, specifically the symphony, is often used as a theological metaphor, to convey the idea of many and frequently conflicting chains of event and meaning woven together to form a fabric that God alone perceives in full. If there is any such structure in Meditations, it isn’t apparent to me. But I think it functions as a variant of that metaphor: a lot of things happening at once that seem to have little structure in themselves and hardly any in relation to each other, but which nevertheless cohere in some broad and fundamental way. It’s an emotional coherence rather than a formal one, and suggests to me another way of thinking about the apparent near-chaos that is this world. I can’t quite articulate this on short notice, but I suppose that’s fitting when the subject is music.

Sunday Night Journal — December 5, 2004

Some Kind of Artist

A few weeks before the recent election the arts section of our local paper featured a discussion of the fact that so many artists are on the political left, sometimes the fairly radical left. The editor put the question to a number of local artists, and the unsurprising answer that many of them gave was a variation on the theme that artists are superior people who naturally embrace superior ideas. This of course brings to mind Orwell’s “herd of independent minds,” and I can think of several less flattering explanations for the phenomenon under discussion.

But I’m really more interested in the underlying assumption: that “creative people” are fundamentally different from everyone else. I consider this idea not just false but pernicious, doing an injustice to the vast majority of the human race and considerable harm to art, artists, and culture. Among other things, it carries an implication which is pretty much insane: that the definition of art is “what an artist does.” Some twenty-five or so years ago I heard on NPR an interview with an artist which made clear both the madness of this idea and its grip on the world of the visual arts (at least—it doesn’t seem to have the same hold on literature and music). This disturbed fellow’s art included cutting himself with razor blades before an audience. The interviewer, a nice intelligent liberal fellow, was obviously appalled, but, not wishing to appear a Philistine, seemed to be trying not to show it and to treat this sick stunt as just the latest manifestation of the same gifts and intentions that were exercised by Leonardo. But at one point he couldn’t resist asking the question “Is this really art?” The “artist” of course pounced on this; I remember thinking that he had been waiting for just such an opening: “Yes, it is. I am an artist, and therefore what I do is art.” I wanted to reply “No, you are a nut, and therefore what you do is nuts.”

The truth, I think, is that every person is a creative person. The artist—by which I mean one whose primary vocation is one of the arts—may be more creative than most people, and he really must be more skilled in some particular craft than most people, but I deny with every fiber of my being the idea that he is intrinsically different from, still less superior to, them. It’s hard to see that the term “creativity” can mean anything more than the manifestation or expression of the interplay between a unique self and the rest of the world, which of course is always subjectively unique. In that fundamental sense almost everything we do, unless it is a strict and mechanical obedience to the orders of another, has in it some tincture of creativity. We all, for starters, have our own way of talking. We have our characteristic ways of constructing sentences, turns of phrase, witticisms, the occasional simile of our own invention, and so forth. Language in fact is a torrent of mostly anonymous creativity: the other day, listening to a sports talk show, I heard a football coach describe a thin player as having “a neck like a roll of dimes.” Various schools whose football programs are not doing very well have been described as being under attack by the terrorist duo of bin Losin’ and bin Cryin’.

Going a step further into what we more typically mean by “creativity,” we see it in much of our everyday work: a woman rearranging the furniture in her living room or decorating a cake, a bricklayer fitting the pieces of a paved path, a software developer designing a more efficient algorithm, all are exercising a degree of creativity. Our technological civilization in fact surrounds us with the work of engineers, product designers, and advertisers of all sorts who are extremely creative; although we may not consider what they do to be art and don’t credit them with being members of the fragile and superior class of creative persons, I don’t know how one could reasonably define creativity in such a way as to deny that they possess it.

A number of 19th and 20th century thinkers, such as the Catholic artist, typographer, and sculptor Eric Gill, railed against the factory system precisely because it removed the element of creativity from work, making the worker an inhuman automaton. Indeed we are now seeing the replacement of traditional assembly line workers by robots and if this did not involve unemployment we would have to consider it a good thing.

I certainly would not deny that there is a distinction between the fine arts, in which the object is made and valued principally for itself, and the useful arts, in which the object has some function outside itself. But the distinction is not hard and fast and I don’t believe there is any qualitative difference in the human impulses and gifts exercised in either case.

And when I say that everyone is creative in some way, I don’t mean to imply that there is no hierarchy of quality in the arts, or that everyone should be encouraged to write or paint or make music, whether or not they have any talent, on the grounds that creativity is only real if exercised in those arts. I’d have us understand Eric Gill’s aphorism: “The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.” I might even go so far as to say that the term “creative person” is redundant, although the addition of an adjective such as “more” or “less” can make it useful.

Whenever I think of Gill’s words, I remember a poem by James Seay, whose writing classes I took in college. The poem was called, if I remember correctly, “Kelly Dug a Hole,” and although I don’t remember much of the poem itself I remember Jim’s account of its subject, a man who could dig a hole with perfectly square corners and perfectly straight sides. As I remember, Jim said he thought Kelly could have been, in the right circumstances, an artist of some kind. But that’s only half-right: he was an artist of some kind—as was my uncle Jimmy, who was a bookkeeper (or something) by trade but painted the walls and ceiling of his children’s playroom with vertical stripes that tapered perfectly from a foot or so wide at the baseboard to a point where they met at a light fixture in the ceiling. When I expressed my astonishment (not too strong a word) at the skill involved, he just laughed, as if to say it wasn’t that big a deal. And in a sense he was right: the skill was unusual, but the impulse and some ability, however slight or mundane, to exercise skill and imagination belong to us all.