Previous month:
June 2006
Next month:
August 2006

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.


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.



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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


Music of the Week—July 9, 2006

American Analog Set: Set Free

I keep getting this band’s name mixed up with that of The Monochrome Set, whom I’ve never heard but whose name seems a good fit for this music. American Analog Set’s approach is in some ways the opposite of Calexico’s (reviewed last week): instead of variety and eclecticism they have chosen to take a very limited set of tools and perfect them: softly strummed low guitar strings, bass, light drums, keyboard or vibes unobtrusively filling out the sound, and whispery (but still precise) vocals, all beautifully produced with great space and clarity. The result is a very warm, full, simple sound, and an emotional tone somewhere between subdued and depressed, maybe hearkening back to the Velvet Underground’s self-titled mostly acoustic album. There are almost no “lead” instrumental passages. I suppose you could call it minimalist. The textures and volume are so consistent throughout that the album can almost become ambient music that you can either listen closely to or leave in the background.

The very appealing but very limited palette puts a pretty heavy burden on the songs, and for the most part they carry it well musically—but not lyrically. If every song were as irresistible as the opener, “Born on the Cusp,” the lyrics wouldn’t matter that much. But most of them aren’t quite that engaging, and they need lyrics that are as sharp and focused as the music: a haiku-like simplicity, or something like those famous imagistic poems of William Carlos Williams like “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Too many of these lyrics are merely vague without suggesting profundity, dull, or even annoying, like those of the disappointing “Cool Kids Keep,” which has one of the catchier tunes on the album but whose lyrics are uninteresting variations on an uninteresting theme. Only a few of the songs, like the nearly perfect “Jr,” have lyrics that rise to the level of the music. Occasional crudities don’t help. I’ve taken to skipping the last song, “F*** This, I’m Leaving,” which is pretty but has a lyric which, taken with the title, seem to be an obnoxious sexual ultimatum.

In spite of the weak lyrics, though, it remains enjoyable after repeated hearings, and so deserves:



Me Neither, Mr. Johnson

The New Criterion's blog passes on these remarks from historian Paul Johnson which serve very well for my views on the state of contemporary fiction:
The other week I found myself sitting at supper next to someone called Zadie Smith. I thought her rather snooty, to be honest, but gave a novel of hers a try. Alas! I do not want to dwell in the world of multicultural, multisexual squatters, speaking a difficult argot, thinking alien and (to me) nasty thoughts.
More accurately, I should say my expectations of contemporary fiction. I know there must be good work being done, but time spent searching for it doesn't seem to me a good investment. The Atlantic has quit publishing fiction, which is okay with me since I had quit reading theirs. I think the last one I read was a first-person narrative from a girl with a Helen Keller-type disability. It was, naturally, embittered in tone, and I remember thinking, a page or so in: Before this is over I'm going to have to hear all about her masturbating. Sure enough...

Sunday Night Journal—July 9, 2006

The Round-Earth Conspiracy

I had an unexpectedly hectic weekend that left little time for reflection, but I did manage to write the following letter to the local archdiocesan weekly in response to a rather peculiar letter that recently appeared there:

To the Editor:

I have not read The DaVinci Code or seen the movie, but I've followed the controversy with great interest. And I'm struck by a pattern which I've seen again and again on the part of the book's defenders. They begin by insisting that "it's only fiction," and that the book's critics are being stupid and unreasonable in objecting to its portrayal of the Catholic Church as a murderous conspiracy.

But in the next breath they talk about it as if it were true: they like it because of what it teaches them about history--because it reveals the real Jesus (meaning one who was not the Son of God), because it exposes the Church's suppression of the sacred feminine, and so on.

The letter from Anthony Stojak in your June 30 issue seems to exhibit this pattern, although I admit I'm not entirely sure I understand Mr. Stojak, and I hope I'm not doing him an injustice.

He begins by saying that the book is fiction and that it did nothing to shake his faith in Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity. But a couple of paragraphs later he is denouncing the Church for slandering Mary Magdalene, notwithstanding that it considers her a great saint, and seeing some sort of unspecified malign intent in the Church's treatment of the non-canonical gospels, ending with the suggestively unanswered question "What were they trying to hide?" He then goes on to suggest that Opus Dei conspired with the Vatican to "lower the ratings" (I'm not sure what that means) of the movie.

So which is it? Are the book and the movie harmless fun, or do they advance plausible accusations of a sinister cover-up perpetrated for nearly two thousand years by the Church? And if you think the Church is hiding something important, why would you trust it to tell you the truth about something as esoteric as the doctrine of the Trinity and as important as your salvation?

If someone made a movie which involved the "fact" that the world is flat and that a sinister conspiracy of round-earthers is responsible for suppressing the truth, it could be a lot of fun. But I would be concerned if I heard people leaving the theater asking each other "What are those round-earthers trying to hide, anyway?"


Music of the Week—July 2, 2006

Calexico: Feast of Wire

I have a serious fascination for the Southwest, partly as a result of a sojourn in Tucson when I was about four: certain images fixed themselves permanently not just in my memory but in my emotions. And maybe the fascination is also partly a result of the Western movies that were popular when I was growing up. At any rate there's a romance that clings to all that imagery, and predisposes me to like Tucson-based Calexico. I first heard them, and of them, when I found mp3s of a couple of their songs somewhere a few years ago (probably at I liked those and filed the name away for future reference. I've actually had this copy of Feast of Wire sitting around unheard for a year or two. Listening to Neko Case's Blacklisted spurred me to bring it to the top of my list.

It's always nice not to be disappointed. This is a wonderful album, constantly interesting in its eclectic variety. A huge array of instruments is involved, many of them played by Joey Burns, who is a major contributor to Blacklisted. I don't know how much sense it really makes to say that the music has a Southwestern atmosphere, but it is certainly very American, with a strong Mexican flavor. There are elements of country (pedal steel), desert-movie atmospheres (deeply reverb-ed guitars), mariachi, electronica, jazz, and even a little dub. The song titles suggest the variety: "Dub Latina," "Attack el Robot! Attack!" "Sunken Waltz." And I don't mean to imply that these are just stunts, or that the album is only a set of effects--it has real emotional power. The only relatively weak spot is the songs, and in particular the lyrics: the songs are certainly not bad, and are better than average for indie rock, but still not quite as good as their settings and performances. With the right set of songs these guys could give us one for the ages (well, okay, the decades): an Astral Weeks or a Revolver. But I'll settle for extremely good.


More info and audio samples can be found at the eMusic page for Feast of Wire.


Sunday Night Journal—July 2, 2006

If I Could Just Touch the Hem of His Garment

That’s a line from an old country hymn, alluding to an incident in Matthew 9, which was part of today’s Gospel reading, and which of course I heard in the New American translation, but include here in the King James, partly because I love this old-fashioned use of the word “virtue”:

And much people followed him, and thronged him.

And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years, and had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse, when she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment.

For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole. And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.

And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?

And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?

And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.

But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.

And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.

Presumably others in the crowd also touched Jesus. That seems to be the disciples’ assumption. Presumably these others also had ills, physical or spiritual, which could have been healed just as the woman’s hemorrhage was. But they weren’t. And why did the woman need to touch him at all? Why wasn’t her faith alone sufficient?

There are two errors which come naturally to the human race regarding our relation to the spiritual, and both are rejected here: the magical-mechanical and the gnostic-psychological. In the first, we suppose that procuring favor from the spirit or spirits that rule the cosmos is a matter of performing certain actions and/or saying certain words. If we make the right sacrifice in the right way, or inscribe the right symbols and pictures in the right medium, or speak the right spell, the powers will do as we ask. The merits of the petitioner are almost, perhaps altogether, irrelevant. Although skill and strength and knowledge may be required, it is not so much a question of goodness as of ritual correctness and purity. At its purest, this approach is simple superstition: it doesn’t matter who you are or what you think as long as you do what’s prescribed, as when I try to cause rain by leaving my umbrella in the car. (I’ll leave aside the question of actual efficacious commerce with evil spirits, who are probably more obliging than God in responding to human requests—in their own way, of course.)

In the second error, the gnostic-psychological, the petitioner or devotee’s state of mind is paramount. Actions may be important for attaining the correct state of mind, but in themselves they are of lesser or perhaps no importance. I suppose a very pure form of Buddhism would be the ultimate form of this: the state of mind itself is what is sought, and its attainment allows one to abandon the physical altogether and forever.

Christians are by nature as susceptible to both errors as anyone else. Catholic and Orthodox theology reject them explicitly, and Bible-based Protestantism certainly ought, on thebasis of this Gospel passage, to see the problem. I suppose most Catholics have seen sacraments or sacramentals approached in a superstitious way. Protestantism, mostly rejecting the mixture of material and spiritual in the concept of sacramentality, can easily take the gnostic direction, most obviously in the tendency to eliminate all physical gestures and materials in worship, but also in a tendency I’ve seen among some fundamentalists to think of faith as a condition of mental certainty, in which they try to make something happen by attaining a perfectly pure conviction that it will happen. The mental traps into which this can lead one are obvious (or ought to be).

This Gospel story implies that neither the physical nor the mental act alone is sufficient. If others touched the Lord, no “virtue [went] out of him,” and presumably nothing happened to or for them. But neither was the woman healed, though she obviously had both the wish and the faith that she could be, until she actually touched the hem of his garment.

The story obviously reinforces the point often made in Catholic theology about the inseparability of body and spirit in the human world, and the need for both to play a part in worship and prayer. There is for us no commerce between souls except through some physical medium, and physical contact is significant only to the soul, whatever its physical effect might be. But I think it's also meant to teach us something a little more subtle, too: that interaction between man and God is an interaction between persons.


Music of the Week — June 25, 2006

Joni Mitchell: Blue

This is a great album. So why don't I like it better?

Let's get that question out of the way first. The fundamental problem is that the personality that emerges from Joni Mitchell's recordings is somewhat off-putting to me. She comes across as the sort of sensitive romantic who's very conscious of her own sensitivity and romanticism and wants you to be as taken with it as she is. And then, on the immediate sensory level, there's her voice, which is very versatile and sensitive but just isn't to my taste--it doesn't touch me emotionally, and there's nothing I can do about that.

Nevertheless, setting those personal quirks of taste to one side as far as possible, I very much see why critics use terms like "landmark" and "watershed" to describe Blue. It's just plain brilliant. The flow of inventive melody never stops, and Mitchell's perfectly controlled voice negotiates their range and complexity effortlessly. And while the lyrics are of a confessional nature that's not to my taste (and they lapse into occasional hippie-isms that now sound dated), they're coherent, articulate, and elegantly and seamlessly wedded to the tunes. The spare acoustic arrangements are beautiful, the touches of backup singing always perfectly placed. To reverse Dorothy Parker's famous remark, for those who don't like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like anyway. I have to call it a classic in spite of myself, some kind of Platonic ideal of the female singer-songwriter genre.

Even though it's not on my best-loved list, objectively I have to give it A-

Comments, the spice of blog life

I think I finally have comments configured the way I want them. No more confusion between Blogger and HaloScan comments. I moved all the Blogger comments to HaloScan and turned off Blogger comments, so this should be consistent and stable now--no need to worry if your comments are actually going to make it or not, so bring 'em on. (Actually I have no good idea how many people are visiting this blog--the minimal stats I get from my hosting service leave it pretty obscure.) I also just discovered that Blogger does support post titles, via a check box that had escaped my notice. That had been bugging me because the "Previous Posts" list was just snagging a certain number of characters from the beginning of the post. Now it's nice and neat.

More on the Dorms of Babylon

I finally had a chance to read the article by Vigen Guroian, who teaches at Loyola Baltimore, which Chris Ryland mentioned in a comment on my last Sunday Night Journal. It's terrific. He says everything that needs to be said. Read it here. What will it take to turn this around? First and foremost, a recognition that it's actually a problem, which I'm not sure my generation in general--the baby boomers--will ever be willing to admit.