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August 2006

Music of the Week — August 27, 2006

Kate Bush: The Hounds of Love

Some years ago (probably closer to twenty than fifteen) a co-worker lent me his copy of a Kate Bush best-of collection called The Whole Story. I liked most of it quite well and have had in mind ever since to hear more of her music, but it wasn’t a high priority, and it was only recently, when I paid a dollar or two for a used cassette of The Hounds of Love, that I finally heard the album from which my favorite songs on The Whole Story were taken.

I haven’t been disappointed. This a brilliant album. Also a very eccentric one—I’m trying not to use the word “quirky,” which has become rather tiresome, but it fits. There are a few odd touches here that don’t work. For instance, a couple of songs are marred by an effect which I suppose seemed provocative at the time but now just sounds like a cd on fast-forward. But overall it’s adventurous without being tiresomely “experimental,” and the quirky touches are more often effective than not, like the melodic barking on the title song, which actually works. Really, it does.

I’ve had the impression of something a little spacey and dizzy about Kate Bush (which made the title of one song, “Hello Earth,” amusing at first glance). But the artist who wrote, sang, and produced this album while still in her mid-twenties is no dummy, and no fragile flower. I’m not sure how one would categorize it. AMG uses “art rock” and “progressive rock,” and those will do. It seems that few are able to discuss her music without using the words “lush” and “romantic,” so keep those in mind, too. Hounds is richly melodic, complex and lavish in production and arrangement, and very feminine in a way that’s both warm and strong, but not hard-edged in the way of too many self-consciously Strong Woman artists. The lyrics, always very important for me, are well-crafted and interesting, and although they’re frequently (well, mostly) somewhat cryptic one feels that they actually have quite specific meanings; it’s just that she doesn’t give us crucial background information. “Cloudbusting,” for instance, is obscure, bordering on nonsensical, unless and until you know it’s about the child of the crank sex-maniac psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, and then it makes perfect sense.

The final seven tracks (which comprised the second side of the LP release) are a sort of suite which seems to describe some kind of process of awakening, renewal, and engagement. It includes a few missteps: I could do without the mostly spoken and creepy “Waking The Witch,” which seems to involve the trial-by-water of a woman accused of witchcraft. And it includes the songs marred by the aforementioned fast-forward effect. Overall, though, it works, and ends beautifully with this:

Being born again
Into the sweet morning fog…
I’ll kiss the ground.
I’ll tell my mother,
I’ll tell my father,
I’ll tell my loved one,
I’ll tell my brothers
How much I love them.

I’m looking forward to hearing more of Kate Bush’s work, and I’m far from tired of this one.

B+

By the way, I’m going to change this rating system, or do away with it. I intend it to be very much tongue-in-cheek, but I’m not sure other people would get the joke. I keep having this nightmare in which I try to explain to somebody like Kate Bush or Patty Griffin why I gave her album a B+. If you’ll recall, I defined "A" as being a masterpiece, by definition a rarity. A work can be very, very good, like this one, without quite reaching that level.

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Another Movie Rec: The Station Agent

Ok, my wife is two for two in picking movies just because they sound interesting that turn out to be very good. The one I mentioned a few days ago as being something about a dwarf living in a train station turned out to be a wonderful little movie called The Station Agent (link is to imdb.com entry, which will give you a bit more info). I say "little" because it's low-key and modest in its ambitions, but one might say it's big on the inside. I'm not going to try to write a review--just see it. You won't be sorry. If nothing else, you'll see some stunningly beautiful photography of small-town New Jersey (apparently all of the state is not an urban-industrial wasteland, as those of us in other parts of the country tend to assume).

It's rated R, for no very good reason that I can see. I don't see why this is R and The Chorus is PG-13. It's not for children--it contains crude language and sexual references, and the characters smoke marijuana a couple of times. (Besides, it would bore children to tears.) But if you've seen some of the stuff that gets a PG-13 rating these days, you'll be as baffled as I am as to why this deserved an R, so don't let that stop you.

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Sunday Night Journal — August 27, 2006

A Fit Instrument?

Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.

–John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (1963)

At least as far back as Pacem in Terris, and as recently as certain remarks made by Pope Benedict, the argument has been made that the huge and undiscriminating destructive capacity of modern weaponry has made it impossible for any war at all to be licit. Some say this is a necessary development of just war teaching, some say it’s a departure from it, at least as the teaching has been stated at times in the past. I’m no theologian and can’t discuss the pros and cons of those views. But anyone can describe the lay of the land as we presently see it.

The argument for extending the just war teaching to forbid any war that might actually occur in our time is that it has become impossible to meet the proportionality requirement of that teaching, the requirement that the good to be achieved be proportionate to the harm to be done, and in particular that non-combatant casualties must be incidental and unintentional and not excessive. “Excessive” may be, obviously, difficult to determine, but no one can reasonably maintain that civilian casualties greater by a factor of five or ten than military ones is not excessive.

Ignoring the quibbling side roads into which these definitions can lead, is it not obvious to any Christian that the vast carnage involved in modern warfare is an abomination before God? And, indeed, setting aside the reference to God, any reasonable person would surely agree that it is an abomination. I’m not addressing the assertion that precision weaponry has made these objections obsolete, partly because it appears that they don’t necessarily make all that much difference—“collateral damage is somewhat reduced”.

The belief that it’s wrong to kill the innocent is hardly a specifically Christian one. Even those who claim justification for doing it generally feel obliged to defend their view on the grounds that the other side did it first, as when Osama bin Laden calculates the number of American non-combatants who can justly be killed as recompense for injuries done to Muslims.

An argument for pacifism-in-practice arises from the contemplation of such vast horror and injustice: if war cannot be conducted without producing it, war cannot be conducted at all. Even though there remains an abstract right of self-defense, it cannot be exercised if doing so would involve committing grave sin.

At least from the Catholic point of view, the logic of this is irrefutable. It’s an elementary principle of Catholic morality that one may not do evil in order that good may come. (Catholic moral theologians sometimes seem to stretch this rather far in analyzing hard cases which a common-sense view would simply describe as a choice between two evils, but the distinction between allowing and actively willing is an important one.)

But just as the logic is irrefutable, so is it morally certain that no state will pay much attention to a teaching that says it cannot defend itself. Not only would it require national suicide for the state, and quite possibly the surrender of its own non-combatants to murder and other brutalities, but it would implicitly cede governance of the world to the most ruthlessly violent.

Supposing there were such a thing as a state that regarded the moral guidance of the Catholic magisterium as authoritative: that state would accept the principle that war could not be waged for anything except the gravest reasons of self-defense, but it would insist on retaining that latter option. It would take very seriously the obligation to protect its own citizens, and as a means of obtaining moral permission to do so, it would probably take refuge in the part of the practical pacifist argument that regards disproportionate non-combatant casualties as intrinsic to war, perhaps saying something like “We don’t accept the assertion that we are unable to defend ourselves except by practicing indiscriminate slaughter. We think we can. And if we find it necessary to defend ourselves, we will do our very best to avoid civilian casualties, but defend ourselves we will.”

Now of course even that position, taken seriously, would render many or most wars illicit. But I wonder if it would really reduce their actual occurrence, because states do go to war most often in the belief that they are mortally threatened. In short, an opening does remain in the practical-pacifist logic—the assertion that such-and-such a course of action must always produce such-and-such a concrete result—and human nature assures that a great deal of traffic will probably move through it.

Moral reasoning and admonishment alone can only do so much. What, then, can the Church—what can Christians—do? Given that the carnage is unacceptable, what actions can we take that would limit it? I know there are a lot of people thinking about this, and they’ve proposed a lot of solutions. Some of them seem quixotic to me, as I’m somewhat fatalistically cynical about mankind, but maybe they will bear fruit.

Here’s a thought—a discomfiting, in fact dreadful thought—and only a thought, which I haven’t considered at length or at all thoroughly, so don’t expect me to be able to defend it. Perhaps in the end literal self-sacrifice might be required of some. To issue from a position of security a moral precept, however compelling and authoritative, that might require martyrdom of the recipient inevitably smacks of “binding heavy burdens and laying them on other men’s shoulders.” The example of Our Lord points the way: he never asked of his disciples any suffering which he himself was not willing to undergo.

Imagine the heavenly counterpart of the hellish suicide bomber. Imagine a cadre of witnesses ready to accept martyrdom by entering war zones (or potential war zones), having no physical power to protect the innocent but standing alongside them and saying “If you kill them, you must kill me, too.” Harmless as doves, some of them would die, and the spiritual effect of such sacrifice would surely be great. But, wise as serpents, they would serve, in a world where vivid images and stories have an immeasurable impact on the way people think and behave, as a means of inducing revulsion for slaughter. In the recent (and not really concluded) war between Israel and Hezbollah, for instance, could such a witness have made a difference?

I think there have been attempts to do this kind of thing, but from what I’ve read they didn’t seem entirely serious—more like media events than a firm intention to interpose oneself. To be effective, such nonviolent tactics would have to be very serious indeed. And a plea, in the name of God and humanity, for the two parties to find some other way of settling a dispute must be addressed to both parties. The great weakness of Western peace movements is that they apply their efforts almost exclusively to their own side, which is generally the one where just war principles are already at least somewhat respected and which is very unlikely to punish them in any serious way. And so their gestures often seem just that: at worst just a self-affirmation of the protestor’s moral superiority, at best a rebuke to only one of two warring parties, and not likely to be very effective. A one-sided protest may even encourage an aggressor.

But a peace movement whose members were willing to put their own lives on the line, as ordinary soldiers do every day (which is probably one reason why most people have more respect for soldiers than for war protesters), could not fail to win the respect of all.

No, to answer the obvious question, I’m not ready to volunteer for such a war. Maybe later, when I have fewer responsibilities. Besides, I can think of a lot of reasons why it might not help very much—it might not be of much use in a Cold War sort of situation, for instance. Maybe it’s a foolish idea. But it does seem Christian.


Movie Recommendation: The Chorus

Les Choristes in French (click to go to IMDB entry, but watch out for spoilers). Not being any sort of serious film buff, I don't know whether this is the work of a famous director, or anything about its reputation. But it's good. We recently joined NetFlix, mainly because I had decided the time has come for me to get better acquainted with Wagner's Ring operas, and the copies in the local library seem to be defective, and partly because I'm tired of looking at the huge lineup of Hollywood sludge in the local video stores. My wife picked this one out because "it sounded interesting." (I never know what's going to strike her as interesting--she also picked one which involves a dwarf living in a train station, which we haven't watched yet.)

Anyway, this is a very fine work, about an unsuccessful middle-aged musician taking a job as prefect (a step below actually teaching) at a school for troubled or delinquent boys shortly after World War II. I'm having trouble coming up with adjectives that wouldn't make it sound a little sappy. Let's just say it covers some of the same territory that a Hollywood inspirational weeper-heartwarmer might--the kind of thing Robin Williams often does--but with more grace and subtlety, and fewer cheap emotional effects. And it's very beautiful to look at.

Not suitable for children, as it deals pretty straightforwardly though not pruriently with some of the dark stuff that you would expect to go on in a home for adolescent boys.

UPDATE: I have corrected the lamentable error in which I gave to Robin Willams the name of an artist who means considerably more to me.


Music of the Week — August 20, 2006

Yes: The Yes Album

Here’s the latest stop on my continuing tour of ‘70s progressive rock. As I’ve mentioned before, I treated this music with disdain when it was current: I thought of it as a place where grooves went to die, an often empty display of technical brilliance by people with much more talent than artistic judgment. But I began to reconsider it six or seven years ago when I bought a copy of Yes’s Fragile for one of my children, with the idea that it might be less harmful than the dour late grunge she and her friends were listening to—at least its vague mysticism was a more positive thing. She didn’t especially like Fragile, but I did, at least more than I had when “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround” were inescapable.

This one is actually the fourth Yes album that I’ve gotten acquainted with over the past few years. I haven’t approached them in chronological order, and the others all came out after it: Fragile, Close to the Edge, and Tales of Topographic Oceans. So far it looks to me as if Close to the Edge is their masterpiece. The Yes Album is apparently the one where the group’s very distinctive sound came together fully, and it has some great moments. “Seen All Good People” (which includes the section which most people know from the radio edit, “Your Move”) is irresistible—in fact the radio edit was one of the few prog-rock songs that I genuinely liked during the genre’s heyday. This track, and the other two which made up side two of the original LP, seem to me equal to the group’s best work. However, I haven’t been able to get enthusiastic about the first two long tracks, “Yours is No Disgrace” and “Starship Trooper,” which, along with a skillful but undistinctive and very out-of-place folk guitar piece, made up side one. There’s nothing wrong with them, but I just don’t find them very affecting or memorable. In other words, there’s a really fine half-album here.


Pluto: a Conservative Conundrum

Pluto was only declared a planet in 1930, apparently with some opposition. So what's a conservative to do--deplore its expulsion as a needless upset of tradition, or applaud it as the restoration of a traditional order upset by reckless innovation? Deep matters....

(In case you're wondering, I had notions, when I was about sixteen, of being an astronomer or astrophysicist. Then I realized how mundane the actual work would be, and how much math would be required. But I look forward to renewing my interest Some Day When I Have Some Free Time.)


Hysteria or Head in the Sand?

What is the real threat from Iran? This column by Thomas Sowell, who is not an idiot, says it is grave: if Iran gets nuclear weapons it's only a matter of time until it uses them against Israel and, via terrorist proxies, the U.S. Others write that off as hysteria, perhaps deliberately fostered by neocons who want war--are they just hiding their heads in the sand?

I wish I knew. I suspect both are wrong. Some on the right really are in a state of near-hysteria, expecting the mushroom clouds to appear any minute, and far too eager for war. Some on the left appear incapable of seeing any threat in the world that wasn't caused by American or Israeli misbehavior, and therefore disarmable by a change in that behavior.

President Ahmadinejad certainly knows how to appeal to the latter group. I saw on C-Span most of the uncut interview Mike Wallace did with him a couple of weeks ago and it was really astonishing to see how adept he is at appealing to the sensibilities of Western liberals. He has certainly learned how to handle the media. What touching solicitude he showed for the forty million Americans who lack health insurance! Google "world without Zionism" to add nuance to this picture of benevolence.

I don't have a lot of doubt that those who think Ahmadinejad and his comrades are harmless are engaged in wishful thinking. The question is just how bad and/or crazy they really are. Would he really court the destruction of his own country that would follow, sooner or later, if he used nuclear weapons? I tend to doubt it, but in a climate of opinion divided between "see no evil" and "see no good," it's very hard to tell. I pray to the God whom we both acknowledge that the Iranian rulers have, or will develop, a core of sense that will keep them back from the brink.


Sunday Night Journal — August 20, 2006

Provoking the Provocateurs

“The artist is a provocateur.” Surely this all-too-common claim has done a great deal of harm to the arts. It appeared in our local paper a week or so ago in connection with the lionization of a flamboyant artist at the opening of an exhibit of his work here. Not everyone was impressed, and the arts reporter apparently overheard some disparaging and ungracious remarks.

To give the man credit, he followed the “provocateur” remark immediately with the qualification that the artist is a purveyor of sometimes discomfiting truth. That’s much better. But provocation is only a potential side-effect of telling the truth, and ought not be treated as the point of the game. Truth may indeed be a challenge, but it may also be a comfort. The notion that to provoke is somehow intrinsic to the nature of art is easily disproven by appeal to all the works that are inarguably great art but which give delight and foster serenity: the painting of Fra Angelico, for instance, or Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” which would irritate only a touchy atheist. (Well, there’s also the occasional reader who doesn’t care for Hopkins’ highly compressed and mannered style, but that’s a different matter.)

More importantly, the emphasis on provocation invites and encourages the sort of meretricious sensationalism that’s easily found in the art world, especially in the visual arts, and which is far more likely to communicate a combination of hostility and self-righteousness than any meaningful challenge.

The classical formulation that art is to “delight and instruct,” which strikes the modern ear as hopelessly antiquated, is much more useful. “To instruct” may seem condescending and potentially moralistic, but in fact the “provocation” to which contemporary artists lay claim is just a variation on that theme: what is the point of it if not to somehow change and correct a bad idea or attitude attributed to the viewer by the artist? I should say, rather, the ostensible point—it’s pretty obvious that the real point in many cases is precisely not to challenge those expected to encounter the work, but rather to invite them to join the artist in his hostility to some third party.

To instruct is more humble than to provoke, because it implies that truth exists independent of either party. The instructor must be as humble before it as the instructed. But the impulse to provoke is responsible only to its own instincts and whims. Instruction may very well tell us something we need to know but do not wish to hear. In that case it is indeed provocative, as in the work of Flannery O’Connor. Her Christian provocation is the real thing, not a sly appeal to self-satisfaction; it’s as discomfiting to the believer as to the skeptic.

You’d think the shock-the-bourgeoisie stuff would have run its course after these hundred or so years. I think the bourgeoisie are now in fact more capable of shocking the artsy crowd than vice-versa. And as a member of the bourgeoisie myself I must say that it’s kind of fun, and I can see why they don’t want to give it up. It may well be that the person who disparaged our local artist at the opening was actually a sort of performance artist.