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July 2006

Sunday Night Journal &mdash July 30, 2006

What Are They Among So Many?

There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?

—John 6:9

War between Israel and Hezbollah, with a particularly heart-rending incident yesterday, as Hezbollah continues its evil but shrewd practice of placing its weapons among civilians; the savage internal terrorism in Iraq and the deaths of four more Marines there; the strong possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran: it’s a terrible-looking world this weekend.

But you don’t have to go to the Middle East to find trouble. Today we attended a memorial Mass for a young man who died of a drug overdose. And just as we were leaving for Mass someone who works with my wife called to say that she won’t be in tomorrow because she’s recovering from injuries inflicted by the man she lives with. (And if the thought is forming at the back of your mind that she somehow brought this on herself by living in what the Church demurely refers to as “an irregular situation,” you should temper your judgment with the knowledge that this woman took in and raised to adulthood four teenagers who were not her sons because, as she put it, “people kept throwing away perfectly good boys.”)

I could go on. You could add your own reports. Sometimes human evil, which is so much harder for me to take than the natural evils of storms, plagues, and the like, seems an ever-rising tide. Whatever we can do in our own sphere seems very small and weak in comparison.

So the miracle of the loaves and fishes is encouraging. That bit of food looked useless in the face of the multitude to be fed. Surely it’s significant, though, that the miracle began with a small amount, rather than with none. Presumably Jesus could have produced food from nothing, or from stones. And he didn’t simply produce enough to feed everyone, but rather replenished the small source even as it was being distributed. Again, as in other accounts of Jesus’ miracles, something is required of the recipients: a word, an action, a bit of food. And given that, he does everything.

One of my daughters graduated from nursing school on Friday. It was a joyful occasion: she has worked extremely hard, going to school and holding down a job at the same time, and she’s done well in school, and we’re very proud and pleased. She’ll start her first nursing job in a few weeks. It was moving to see her and her fifty or so jubilant fellow graduates receive the credentials that will allow them to set out on a career which has as its whole purpose the provision of healing and comfort. That’s not a great number of people setting out to push back against the effects of evil, the never-ending depredations of disease and injury and death, but those loaves and fishes didn’t seem to amount to much, either. May the Lord be with them and multiply what they provide.

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Music of the Week &mdash July 16, 2006

I was too busy with a demanding job and a growing family to listen to much pop music during the 1980s. What I did hear usually came from friends who sent me tapes. But somehow or other I did hear The Dream Academy’s debut single, “Life In A Northern Town. ” I seem to remember hearing it from some distance, perhaps from someone else’s car radio (commercial radio in the area was a wasteland into which I didn’t venture very often). Maybe that gave the song’s striking chorus an added hint of wistfulness. At any rate, I’ve always wanted to hear it properly, so when something reminded me of it recently I bought the whole album from over-priced and irritating iTunes.

I’m happy to report that “Life In A Northern Town” is a great song. According to AMG it’s intended to be an elegy for Nick Drake; this knowledge gives the nostalgic atmosphere and the mysterious departure described in the last verse an added tincture of melancholy. However, I’m sorry to report that the rest of the album is a bit of a letdown in comparison. The other songs are good, in a complex and interesting way, but, for me at any rate, they don’t quite connect emotionally. Still, it’s a very fine album, with elaborate arrangements and production that are always throwing something not quite expected at you. The songs would have benefited from a better singer—the one male voice that carries nearly all the load is decent enough but something stronger and richer would have helped the songs. Occasionally the production slips over into the excessively slick and grandiose sound that seemed to be popular through much of the ’70s and ‘80s. But those are minor flaws. All in all, it’s a very fine piece of work. And you probably really need “Life In A Northern Town,” even if you have to buy it from iTunes.

B

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You'll Laugh, You'll Cry, You'll Hurl

Isn't that the way the Wayne's World ad went? I think it applies in all seriousness to this account of the descent into narcissistic lecherous madness of some aging feminists (read the piece before you accuse me of exaggerating). I honestly can't say which of my reactions is stronger: that it's sad, that it's funny, or that it's just sickening. I've been saying for some time that the aging of the baby-boomers, of whom I'm one, would be graceless, and dreadful to behold. Most of these women are a few years older than that, but I expect they're establishing a trend.
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Sunday Night Journal—July 23, 2006

Resentment Studies

When I was in my mid-20s (quite some time ago) I started down the path that would have led to a PhD in English literature and then, after what would probably have been a lengthy job search, to an academic position. Circumstances at the time caused me to change my mind, and I went into a completely different line of work. I can’t say I’ve regretted the switch, but I do sometimes take a wistful look back at that fork in the road and wonder how things might have turned out if I had taken the other one.

I know what I thought I was aiming for. There’s a portrait of it in Jeffrey Hart’s affectionate memoir of Mark van Doren in the May issue of The New Criterion, and it initiated in me a bout of nostalgia for the world I had expected to enter. You’d really need to read the whole piece to get a good sense of what the intellectual atmosphere was like, and what Van Doren himself was like, but here’s an important passage:

No one then doubted that there were such things as great writers, nor that they could be named. Part of the classroom drama thus consisted of [Van Doren] measuring himself against such writers, and inviting the students to join him, everyone trying to rise somewhere near those peaks of intelligence.

This was the tone and atmosphere of literary study in the academy for a large part of the twentieth century—from, say 1920 or so until sometime in the ‘70s. It seemed to me in my youth, and still seems, a noble thing. From my present vantage point as a Catholic I see some deficiencies: it was an officially secular atmosphere, and it showed a tendency to turn literature, according to Matthew Arnold’s prescription, into a replacement for the religion which was now considered intellectually untenable. Men like Van Doren looked to literature for answers, or at least the nearest thing to answers which they believed might be available. They may have expected too much of it but they contemplated it from a posture of humility. They were there to learn from the classics and to help their students do so, and if the students did not wish to learn it was never supposed that it was because the classics were not worth learning.

From what I hear, this world has been lost not just to me but to all, swept away by the hostility of the cultural revolutionaries who came to dominate the academy, or at least the humanities, after the 1960s. Not long ago I ran into a young woman who was the close friend of one of our daughters when they were in their teens. I was pleased to hear that she was working on a doctorate in English. But my heart sank when I asked her what her area of interest was: “gender studies.”

There’s nothing wrong with looking at the situation of women as it’s reflected in literature through the centuries, or picking out the relationship between the sexes as an aspect of a great work worth studying. But one would have to be very naïve to believe that the term “gender studies” means anything so straightforward and unobjectionable. Just as in the struggle for racial justice “states’ rights” and “civil rights” carried quite a bit of very specific significance beyond their literal meanings, so “gender studies” and related terms mean something considerably more specific than “the study of gender.”

Gender studies is only one of the attitudes and prejudices that turn the study of literature upside down, making it a tool with which people holding an obscure but deep resentment for the world that made them can batter away at Western (read Christian) culture. Where someone like Jeffrey Hart under the tutelage of someone like Mark Van Doren felt himself judged by the classics, the prevailing (or at least common) attitude now seems to be that it is we who sit in judgment on the classics: they are to be put on trial, interrogated but not allowed to speak, found guilty, and their alleged crimes used as a stick with which to beat the Euro-American past and, more importantly, those who see themselves as being in continuity with it.

These pathologies get a lot of publicity, but I wonder how dominant they really are. I’m sure the old mode of encountering the great books is still alive in at least a few corners here and there. Great scholars and critics have always known themselves to be less than the books they studied. Mark van Doren had this kind of humility. Our practitioners of what might be called in general resentment studies try to make themselves greater, and in so doing have made themselves considerably smaller than even their predecessor critics.

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Everybody Wants to Buy Ross Douthat a Beer

The lad (Harvard '02) is emerging as one of the brightest commentators around. I join what seems to be a vast number of Christian bloggers and pundits cheering this piece in First Things, in which he takes on the assertion that George Bush and the Christian right are on the verge of implementing a theocracy in the USA (George Bush?!?!). It's an obviously mistaken, if not completely insane, notion, and yet there is a spate of books maintaining it. Douthat's great insight is that this is the latest manifestation of the paranoia and conspiracy-mindedness that once led some anti-Communists into absurdities. One writer, he says, is "Like a diehard John Bircher poring over Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speeches in search of the Supreme Soviet’s marching orders..." Bingo.

I must say say in passing that I don't really care for the sensation of feeling obliged to a pundit who is probably younger than one or two of my children. Guess I'd better get used to it, though.

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You Want to See Disproportionate? I'll Show You Disproportionate

Rod Dreher describes the way Syria resolved a problem with violent Islamists. As I said in a comment at The Dawn Patrol earlier, if Israel were really as ruthless as she is accused of being, these problems would have been "solved" long ago. As it is, Israel is in quite a bind, either allowing the enemy to continue little attacks while preparing bigger ones, or taking serious action and giving the enemy a propaganda victory. No doubt every Lebanese casualty is treasured by Hezbollah.
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Sunday Night Journal—July 16, 2006

The Laughter of Contempt

I’m writing this on Monday night, having thought better of publishing what I wrote last night, a somewhat dark meditation on the subject of accidents and the problem of evil. Maybe some other time.

Instead, I’ll say something brief on a question I’ve been thinking about for a while: the meanness of much contemporary humor. To start with, I had to satisfy myself that it isn’t just my own quirk that detects this excess of meanness, and I’ve run across several instances lately of people pondering the same or a similar question. There was, for instance, this post by Anthony Esolen on Mere Comments, which makes an excellent case for the connection between humor that does not despise its object—“the laughter of fellow-feeling,” he calls it, in a nice phrase—and Christian culture.

Humor at another’s expense always involves a certain amount of malice, I suppose, but there are degrees, and there is the question of the fundamental attitude of the mocker toward the mocked. It seems to me, for instance, that there is a significant difference between the humor of, say, the Marx Brothers, which I love, and that of a contemporary effort such as the cartoon Family Guy, which is indeed sometimes funny but spoiled by a coldness, a sense that at bottom the writers of Family Guy genuinely despise the middle-class American families they caricature, and not for any particular harm they do or malice they bear, but simply because they aren’t cool. They aren’t the right sort of people; they are the sort of people who inspire disgust in hip show-business people.

In contrast, when Groucho Marx makes fun of the vain rich lady played so well by Margaret Dumont, it isn’t an attack on a set of social markers. It’s predominantly a mockery of her vanity, her fatuousness, her pretensions, and the gullibility into which these other faults lead her, faults which are encouraged by her social station but hardly unique to it. And perhaps it’s only their skill at work, but we always sense that the various parasites and hucksters played by Groucho and the others are exaggerations of their own foibles. The target of the mockery is the array of absurdities into which greed, pride, and miscellaneous other sins lead people, especially those who are eager to follow.

Moreover, there’s the spirit of sheer anarchic delight, the spirit of play, that bursts out of the Marx Brothers in, for instance, the passport scene in Monkey Business. I can’t think of any comedy of recent years that has anything of that spirit—the ironic smirk has long since replaced both Harpo’s grin and Groucho’s over-the-top leer.

There’s not a clear line here. Some of the best satire is the most savage (Swift, Waugh). But I think there is a useful distinction to be made between mocking the proud, the unscrupulous, or the foolish, and sneering at someone because you think he’s beneath you. A witty snob is still a snob. The laughter of contempt is dry and hollow.

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