Previous month:
September 2006
Next month:
November 2006

October 2006

Sunday Night Journal — October 29, 2006

Scary Stuff

I had intended to write about the question brought up in the comments on last week’s journal, that is, the responsibility of the baby boomer generation—my generation—for various unhealthy social tendencies. But I think I’ll postpone that till next week, because I’ve had something else on my mind for the past day or two, and it’s more topical. Tuesday is All Hallows’ Eve, which always makes me think of Charles Williams’ novel of the same name, and I’ve been re-reading some of my favorite passages.

Next Sunday, of course, the obvious topic for discussion will be the elections coming up a couple of days later. But I find myself less and less inclined to talk about politics. It’s not that I’m not interested—there are a lot of very important things going on and I have my very definite opinions on them. It’s just that for the most part anything I might say is already being said just as well by someone else. And participation in the debate has become very unpleasant due to the level of emotion involved; calm disagreement in good faith is very difficult to manage.

Back to Williams: I’m not sure where I’d rank him from the purely literary point of view, but All Hallows’ Eve and another novel, Descent Into Hell, would probably place in the top twenty or so among books that have had a great and continuing influence on me. I doubt that a period of more than a week or so ever goes by without my thinking of one or the other of them. If you haven’t read them, you should know that they’re not entirely healthy. I recommend them, but not without hesitation. Williams seems never to have gotten his involvement with occultism entirely out of his system. But it seems to have left him a powerful sense of spiritual reality as reality—not symbol or myth or abstraction. And, his imagination being baptized (to use C.S. Lewis’s phrase), he writes fiction in which that spiritual reality—Christian in conception whether or not accurate in its details or not—is very convincingly the world inhabited by his characters. That is, the real world of the fiction, which is partly the world we know and partly the spiritual world, is rendered not as something ethereal but as a place, with people in it, a place as substantial as our own, and more significant. Well, maybe not more significant, but more directly significant, less mediated and mediating.

One of the crucial events in All Hallows’ Eve is the viewing of a painting, first by a friend of the painter, then by an acquaintance of the painting’s subject, then by the subject himself. Without going into detail which would be tiresome to one who has read the book and would give away too much to one who has not, I can say that the painting reveals something of which the painter himself was unaware while he was painting, but which is very plain to the others who see it. It is the essential nature of the painting’s subject, and since that nature is evil, most who see it are disturbed. The subject is, among many other things, a sort of cult leader, and the painting reveals something not only about the real nature of the leader but about the real condition of those who follow him. Says the painter, after his friend’s remarks have confirmed what he has begun to see in the picture:

This man looks as if he were being frightfully definite and completely indefinite at the same moment—an absolute master and a lost loony at once.

The next person to view of the painting asks “Why have you painted [him] as an imbecile?” But the subject of the painting is in fact a very powerful and intelligent man who knows exactly what he is doing. What the painter has captured is the essential emptiness of evil.

This sort of insight is one of the things that art is supposed to be good for. It isn’t necessary that the artist hold correct ideas about God and man and truth and lies and good and evil, although it’s all the better if he does. But he must be able to see the difference between good and evil, or at least be unclouded enough in both his receptive and his executive faculties to see them and render them as they are. Unfortunately, many of our artists are no longer of much use here, having joined the cult themselves.

Where in our time do we find the combination of mastery and madness that Williams’s painter sees? Not, I think, in the more or less comic and fundamentally light-hearted trappings of Halloween which bother some Christians a great deal but in which I think there is little real harm. Look for it wherever there is a great deal of lying and evasion about fundamental things—where, in other words, there is a determined attack on reality. I don’t mean the everyday lies of hypocrisy and expediency, which we have always with us, but the sort of angry denial of objective good and not-good which is at heart a guilty resentment of truth.

If you want a good scare on Tuesday night, you might try reading Maureen Mullarkey’s piece in the September issue of Crisis, “Painting Money,” about the conjunction of art-world nihilism and the very wealthy and powerful people who invest in it. There’s something unholy about the deliberate derangement on display in certain quarters of the art world. “Does their wealth absolve them from all rationality except market calculus?” asks Mullarkey of the manipulators of the art market. One would almost feel comforted to find no worse an explanation than greed.


Ain't That America 4

I'm kind of glad I don't live in Texas, because if I did I would be very, very tempted to vote for Kinky Friedman for governor. If you're going to celebrate the American tradition of quirkiness and eccentricity, as a certain sort of conservative is inclined these days to do, you can't leave this guy out. Since I don't live in Texas, I can have the luxury of sort of hoping he wins.

Recent Comments

As you can see there is now a list of recent comments in the sidebar. This is a script supplied by HaloScan, which provides the commenting function itself, and it doesn't do exactly what I'd like--it doesn't indicate what post the comment is attached to. I don't think I can change it and am not 100% sure I'm going to keep the feature. I decided to try it because it seems to happen fairly often that someone leaves a comment on a post that's pretty far down on the page, and unless you were checking that post you wouldn't notice the comment. There is, for instance, a bit of discussion on the question about my statement, re Rod Dreher's move to Orthodoxy, that John Paul II considered Orthodoxy "part of the Church." Anyway, we'll see how this works out. Let me know if it's distracting--seems a little on the busy side to me.

Sunday Night Journal — October 22, 2006

Handing Over the World

The older of my two daughters was married last night. She was beautiful, wearing a simple and elegant dress made by her mother. The groom was handsome. The church, an old one by the water, was, to my taste, a more than adequate foreshadowing of the ambience of heaven. The choir from the local cathedral provided the music, including a wonderful wedding anthem (“Set me as a seal upon thine heart” by William Walton). The reception was merry, with many friends and family, a bluegrass band, and plenty of shrimp and barbecue and beer and wine. The groom’s brother gave a moving toast which managed to involve both a line from Tupac Shakur (“I ain’t mad atcha”) and the phrase “holy sacrament of matrimony.” Most of all, we—my wife and I—think our daughter’s husband is a fine young man and that we have good reason to hope that they will have a solid marriage.

I’m left with an odd bittersweet feeling that I haven’t quite sorted out. But there was one very clear insight that has been growing on me over the past few weeks as this event approached: the world will go on. Without me, that is. This of course is the sort of thing we all know but don’t usually feel. I feel it now. I’m not yet elderly, but old age is nearer to me than youth. And I’ve begun to have hints of a diminishing responsibility for the world.

Which is not to say that I’ve been in command. I live a small life, working at a small job, with small influence. But it’s begun to dawn on me that from the time my first child was born I’ve felt an enormous sense of responsibility that went beyond my immediate concern for my family. I felt an obligation to care about the problems of the world at large, to do whatever I could to solve them. I never saw that there was much I could do, and probably haven’t done half what I should have, but that didn’t lessen the sense of obligation. You could call it a sort of extension of my vocation as a father: I felt a desire and a duty to shape the world in which my children would live.

But as they have become adults, finishing school, getting jobs, getting married, I find the weight lifting. The world is becoming theirs. My generation is aging. We’ve done some good and some bad, and the time is not that far off when our record will have been completed, for better or for worse. People my age will hold the reins of power for a while longer, but increasingly the everyday work of the world will be done by younger people, and in time they will assume authority. For some years now I’ve been disconcerted upon finding myself in the hands of a doctor or nurse or dentist who was born after I graduated from high school. But now the experience has become normal, and no longer shocks me as it did.

The process of handing over the world to the next generation has begun. It’s not a bad feeling, really, once you get used to it.


I've Been Busy

I've been mostly off-line for the past four days, occupied almost exclusively with my daughter's wedding, which took place last night. I'll probably say more about it later—at the moment suffice to say that the occasion was a great success but most of those who were very much involved are exhausted. I owe emails to several people and hope to catch up on that over the next few days.

Music of the Week — October 15, 2006

Cocteau Twins: Heaven Or Las Vegas

We all know about the alienation and inauthenticity of technological civilization, we all wonder if it’s sustainable, etc. But I couldn’t help feeling fortunate to live in this time and place a couple of weeks ago when I found myself driving east across the bay at twilight, with the full moon directly in front of me, listening to Heaven Or Las Vegas. If you know and like the otherworldly, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes wistful sound of the Cocteau Twins, you have an idea of what I mean. Someone once described Treasure, an album considered a masterpiece by most Twins lovers, as sounding like a roomful of angels. I don’t know how accurate that is but it serves well enough as an indicator of the sort of magic the group can work.

I only recently heard this album, having let it slip by for a long time, partly because of the mistaken idea that it came after the group moved from 4AD to Capitol and became more mainstream and, to my taste, less inspired. But it was in fact their last 4AD release, and if Heaven is at all inferior to Treasure, it’s by very little. I’d say at least half the songs here are as good as anything they ever did. And for someone who likes them that’s very, very good. There are a couple of songs where Elisabeth Fraser’s cascading melodies (I’ve always assumed she writes them, as they seem so inseparable from her voice) attain the uncanny ability to make you feel as if your spirit is literally being lifted.

eMusic has it. Go here and listen to the samples if you don’t know the Cocteau Twins. For what I consider their absolute best moment, go here and listen to the sample of “Aikea-Guinea,” which appeared on an EP by the same name and became a collector’s item on vinyl.


The Parousians

What's more depressing than the drunks and joyless libertines who seem to comprise a good percentage of today's college students? What's more heartening than a bright, lively bunch of Catholic students challenging the conventional morbid hedonism? The Parousians are such a group at LSU, doing good things. Here's one of them taking on Margaret Sanger in the LSU student paper. That's nerve. And they have an interesting blog: a look at their links indicates a healthy disregard for some of the unhealthy divisions in the Church: First Things alongside the Catholic Worker. Good for them.

And, all together now: Wouldn't That Be A Good Name For A Band? Or an interesting one, anyway.


Sunday Night Journal — October 15, 2006

What Happens

The other day I ran across a set of parodies of the contenders for England’s Booker prize. Although I’d never heard of any of the books or their authors, and thus had only a slight grasp of what was being satirized, I still found the parodies funny. Here’s a sample:

It is January, a dark Sunday in winter, and I sit with my mother and father at the kitchen table. “Don’t stare at me like that, John,” my mother says.

“Why not?”

“Because you are 11 years old and we are all very Irish.”

My father goes upstairs to drown the cats.

Recognizing here the broad outlines of a very widely-practised sort of contemporary fiction, I’m confirmed in my view that I needn’t bother with much of it.

Once upon a time, and for all I know even down to this very day, there was an approach to literary criticism which classified narrative works into a set of paradigmatic or mythic types: the Heroic, the Picaresque, and so forth. I don’t recall that there was a Stoic Resentful category, but modern fiction needs one. Most works in this category are variations of one basic narrative line which could be titled How They Ruined My Life (substituting His or Her as required). The protagonist is a miserable soul, fundamentally pure, sensitive, and good, but crushed and thwarted by a brutal and uncaring world. They are first of all the protagonist’s family, and then larger forces: capitalism, religion (or, more specifically, Christians, especially in American fiction), authority in general, ignorant people, insensitive people, people with bad taste, Republicans. I gather that in British fiction many of the authors are emigrants from one-time imperial colonies, so colonialism is a prominent object of their blame.

The protagonist’s chief role in this narrative is to suffer, more or less passively, but gracelessly, always drawing from and replenishing deep wells of resentment. Something of the attitude seems borrowed from Hemingway, or perhaps I should say inherited from his influence. Despite his famous remark about “grace under pressure,” I think his stoicism sometimes has one eye on the mirror, and the current practitioners of the Stoic Resentful narrative give the impression of practicing their poses. I have been dealt a terrible blow—please note the understated way in which I draw your attention to my courage in bearing it.

I know I’m painting with far too broad a brush here. I’m sure there is good fiction out there. But I haven’t read all of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Dickens or James (just to pick the first novelists who come to mind), and I don’t have time or inclination to read numerous variants of How They Ruined My Life in order to find those good novels. Whenever I do venture into contemporary fiction, as when I subscribed to Granta some years ago, I find enough confirmation of my prejudice to send me away again.

The question of why so many artists in the richest civilization the world has ever known are so morose and embittered is always interesting. Whatever the answer is, though, and whatever justification they may or may not have for their state of mind, I think it will in time be admitted that their work is deficient and unsatisfying as fiction because there is so little movement and resolution in it.

I remember from my truncated literary education some remarks by Matthew Arnold on this, something to the effect that a situation of static unhappiness is not a fit subject for drama (I think it was drama—the observation would apply equally to any form that requires a story). I think this is correct. The movement may be subtle, but movement there must be, and it must move toward an end. Our minds are made for stories: we want and expect a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we want the end to be a resolution of some sort. Not necessarily a happy ending, but a satisfactory answer to the questions posed by the action with which the story began, questions of intent and action and consequence that come down to: what will happen? how does it end? If the answer is “nothing much,” we aren’t pleased. We’ve wasted our time.

Are our minds made this way because the world is made this way, and our lives are themselves stories? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it?

She ate the fruit. What will happen now?


Pop Culture vs. Wagner

It's tough when you decide the time has come to get seriously acquainted with Wagner's Ring and you start getting the DVDs from NetFlix (because the VHS versions in your local library are damaged), and the whole thing takes a nose dive halfway through because you can't stop noticing that Siegfried looks and acts an awful lot like Dudley Do-right.

The attempt to take it seriously was given up for lost when Siegfried was walking around staring up into the trees, trying to figure out where the bird song (aka flute) was coming from, and my wife called out "Look in the orchestra pit!"

Note to opera fans: it's Manfred Jung, in the Boulez-conducted version on Deutsche Grammophon from the early '80s. I just looked it up on Amazon to verify the date, and found this title on a customer review: "I wish Mime had been successful at killing Siegfried." So maybe it's not just me.


Music of the Week — October 8, 2006

Frank Zappa: Hot Rats

In contrast to last week’s album, this was a pleasant surprise. I must say right off that I had never taken very seriously Zappa’s ambition to be taken very seriously as a musician. Maybe “ambition” is the wrong word, since the general air of dadaist clownishness with which he invested his work certainly encouraged one to treat it as a joke. That was my original difficulty. Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were essentially a musical comedy act, and when albums like Lumpy Gravy and Hot Rats came out, people didn’t know what to make of them. I think I heard each of them approximately once. I have a faint memory of hearing them in the company of friends, all of us waiting for the jokes to start, puzzled and bored when they never arrived.

Subsequently I heard Zappa’s music praised often enough, but usually by the sort of people who think songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” are tremendously funny, so that the commendation of the music came across as an unpersuasive afterthought, a bit reminiscent of an old-time Playboy reader praising the magazine’s journalism. Nor did Zappa’s general air of angry cynicism—which seemed, on the basis of occasional media reports, to harden over the years, along with his liking for crudeness and obscenity—suggest that I should reconsider his music. Ryan C., who comments here, was the first to convince me otherwise. He succeeded because he first established that he knows good music from bad.

Even so, I had to play Hot Rats through at least a couple of times before I could stop looking over my shoulder, so to speak, and get the old Zappa associations out of the way enough to hear the music as music. I wasn’t exactly expecting it to break out into satire, but I kept looking for the musical irony, having the expectation that, for instance, the sunny Saturday morning ebullience of “Peaches en Regalia” was not to be taken at face value and would somehow take a pratfall.

But with all that, finally, cleared away, what has emerged is a wonderful album. It’s difficult to categorize or describe. I’ve heard it referred to as fusion (i.e. jazz-rock fusion) and as “fusion for people who hate fusion.” I guess that’s accurate, although I don’t really know that much about fusion. I would describe much of it as a sort of instrumental progressive rock (the only vocals being a few verses of “Willie the Pimp” sung by Captain Beefheart). The description especially fits my favorite tracks, “Peaches” and “Son of Mr. Green Genes,” which seem to be pretty tightly composed and played—that complex doubled flute and guitar line in “Green Genes,” for instance, certainly wasn’t improvised. The six tracks can be grouped into three styles: the aforementioned prog-rock, the blues-rock jams of “Willie the Pimp” and “The Gumbo Variations,” and the most jazzy-sounding tracks, “Little Umbrellas” and “It Must Be a Camel.”

With the one reservation that “The Gumbo Variations” goes on too long (almost seventeen minutes), the album never fails to be interesting. And I don’t mean that it’s cold or empty technique, either; there’s a kind of happy excitement throughout. It’s an odd sensation to have any sort of emotional response to Zappa’s music, and I certainly never thought I’d apply the word “delightful” to any of it. But it comes to mind at many points in this album, especially in “Peaches” and “Green Genes,” which are intricately flowing streams of melody. Ryan C. describes “Peaches” as “joyous,” and although that’s not precisely the word I would choose, it’s not far off. (What is the word? I’m not sure, otherwise I would use it.) And “Willie the Pimp” more than justifies a claim I’ve heard and discounted: that Zappa was a terrific guitarist. Even though it’s time to move on to another album for these weekly reviews, I keep wanting to hear this one again.


Rod Dreher Goes Orthodox

Read all about it. Of course this is no surprise, even if Dreher's apparent enemy had not been snooping around trying to prove it. A number of Catholics seem outraged by his having kept it a secret for some months. I don't see it that way, and frankly I see this as another lesson in not judging the motives of another without solid reason. I didn't see that there was any huge and sinister gain to be had by the concealment. I saw no evidence in fact or logic for the suggestion that he wanted to pretend to be Catholic the better to bash the Church, and chose to assume that he had some good reason for not making public his move to Orthodoxy (if indeed he had moved). This appears to have been the case.

As a Catholic I can't applaud this step. But I can't condemn it or call it apostasy, either, although I think that insofar as this was a theological decision it is a decidely mistaken one. The late pope made it clear that he believed Orthodoxy to be part of the Church. Not being a theologian, I'm not even going to discuss the particulars of that complex question. As a man, I have some sympathy, because I've certainly experienced more than a little darkness in own my life as a Catholic. I never considered leaving, not only because I never really believed there was a better place to go but, more importantly, because I've always felt that my commitment to the Church had the nature of a vow. "Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders." Others must do as they must.

So I'll just say God bless him and his family, and pray that somehow this will work for the good of all who love God.


How Does She Do It?

I refer, of course, to Dawn Eden's uncanny ability to write headlines. They're like witty little poems in five or ten words. Like this one. Anyone who reads her blog would guess at once that she's the author of most of the headlines for Touchstone , e.g. the ones you can see right now on their homepage, "Over the Counterculture" and "Gall In The Family." (No, I don't know that for certain, but I'd be willing to bet that at least one of them is hers.)

Sunday Night Journal — October 8, 2006

Torture: Safe, Legal, and Rare?

I dare say not one American in a hundred really understands the legal and diplomatic niceties surrounding the interrogation and detention of suspected terrorists. That in itself ought to be cause for grave concern, because if any people on earth ought to know the mischief that can be done by lawyers crafting and interpreting complex laws, we should.

Setting the lawyering aside, looking at it through the eyes of ordinary common sense, it seems to me that we are going where we shouldn’t. To search for loopholes in a moral principle is most likely to have violated it already in one’s heart. And even if you find the loophole you ought not step through it. But I’m afraid that the Bush administration’s sidling up to torture is just such an effort. This seems like a textbook illustration of the aphorism that hard cases make bad law.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are extreme circumstances where it might be morally justifiable to inflict pain on someone to thwart a grave crime. I’m not at all sure that this is true, but, as I say, for the sake of discussion, suppose the most persuasive sort of case: a genuine ticking-bomb situation, where the timer on a nuclear device hidden somewhere in the heart of Rome is counting down, and the police have captured someone who is known to be involved in the plot. Let’s make it even more airtight—let’s say the person is bragging of his involvement, convinced that no one can now prevent the detonation. Would the police be justified in inflicting pain on him in an effort to make him reveal the location of the bomb?

Suppose the answer is yes. Would it be advisable to pass laws allowing torture in such a case? How could you specify with precision, in advance and in the abstract, the seriousness of the calamity to be averted and the level of certainty about the person’s involvement that would have to be met? How could you be sure you had stated these in such a way as to make it extremely unlikely that an innocent person would be tortured, or that it would not be used under circumstances less grave than intended? Wouldn’t you expect that the very existence of such a law would almost guarantee that it would be abused?

That’s the nature of the rules we make for ourselves. Wherever the line is drawn, we can assume that people will cross it. To pass laws allowing torture in some circumstances, however limited they may be, is to declare it fundamentally licit, and its use a matter of judgment on the part of those most likely to be tempted to employ it.

That’s part of the reason why Bill Clinton’s famous sound-bite compromise on the abortion problem—that it should be “safe, legal, and rare”—is empty, even if those who advocate it are sincere. If it should be safe and legal, there must not be anything essentially wrong with it, so why should it be rare? Since it provides an apparent solution to a serious problem, it will be used fairly frequently.

A better approach, it seems to me, is to think of scenarios such as the ticking-bomb one as similar to the case where a starving man steals food. Because no reasonable person (in our culture, at least) would blame him, we would expect a sensible administration of justice to let him off with little or no penalty. But we don’t set about trying to modify the laws against theft to try to accommodate such cases. That’s partly because the excusable circumstances are too subtle: how hungry does the man have to be? How hard must he have tried to get food by normal means? Etc.

Suppose, in the scenario above, that the police are operating on the assumption that torture is both wrong and illegal. Under those conditions—the impending nuclear destruction of Rome—they might, in desperation, start, say, breaking the man’s fingers. Suppose then that he reveals the location of the bomb, and the city is saved. The right thing for the police to do, then, is to confess and throw themselves on the mercy of the law. Or perhaps, as in the closing scene of Casablanca, the authorities to whom the police are responsible might simply look the other way. If this is hypocrisy, it is not as grave a sin as calling evil good, which would be the effect of legalizing it.

What makes the administration’s approach even more pernicious is that there does not seem to be any claim that “stressful interrogation” is confined only to the rare ticking-bomb sort of situation. It would be (and is being) used on persons who are only suspected of involvement with groups that might be plotting attacks. It’s probably safe to assume that this will result in the mistreatment, possibly the grave mistreatment, of people who are either innocent or, if not entirely innocent, not in possession of the knowledge the interrogators want. What could be worse than to be tortured for information one does not possess?

And about the word “torture”: Mr. Bush says “we do not torture.” It appears that he can say this because he is defining torture to mean only gruesome and damaging violence, excluding the relatively mild techniques that we are widely said to have used. But I don’t see how it can reasonably be claimed that waterboarding is not a form of torture, notwithstanding the fact that it doesn’t produce permanent physical injury. And threatening to kill a man’s children is psychological torture which we did not hesitate to condemn when it was used by the Iranians who seized the American embassy in 1979.

Commenter Francesca on the Caelum et Terra blog cites an observation by Elisabeth Anscombe: “If you want to turn young people into relativists, you think up some impossible situation, some 'what would you do if....' and since they can't think of a moral way out, they give up the moral principle altogether.” Exactly, although it doesn’t have to be a strictly impossible situation, just a terribly difficult one.

Along the same lines, I’ve remembered for thirty years something an Episcopal priest told me he’d heard from one of his seminary professors: that Americans even more than most people have serious difficulty coping with the concept of original sin, that they want to conclude that “if it’s a sin you ought to stop doing it, and if you can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin.” Maybe some such psychological tension is a factor in the American need to resolve moral quandaries with a network of regulations. Better to keep it simple: torture is wrong, and we shouldn’t do it.

A note: although I’m a Catholic and consider myself bound to the moral teachings of the Church, I haven’t mentioned the Church teaching on this subject here because I want to put the argument in terms that are not specifically Catholic. But here is what the Catechism says:

Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.

(The text is here—scroll down to Section 2279.)

I note that there is no mention of anything comparable to the ticking-bomb scenario—torture used to prevent a grave and imminent crime—unless it’s to be subsumed under extracting confessions. Whether this language was intended to leave such a possibility open or is an accidental omission, I’ll leave to the teaching authority of the Church. It doesn’t affect my conclusion as to how we ought to act, and how we ought to write our laws.


Music of the Week — October 1, 2006


What a disappointment. I’d been wanting for a while to hear this group. They’re often mentioned as one of the stars of the ‘70s German “krautrock” style, and NEU! was an offshoot of one of those bands, Kraftwerk, which I like quite a bit. And another band at least loosely classified as krautrock, Tangerine Dream, made several albums of which I never seem to tire.

One doesn’t expect to agree with reviewers all the time, but I can’t think of an instance when there’s been as great a disparity between my opinion and that of a reviewer as there is between my view of this album and that expressed by Thom Jurek in this All Music Guide review. We’re already off to a bad start with the description in the first paragraph: “a sound that was literally made for cruising in an automobile.” I disagree, or rather would say that it applies only to the first track, the ten-minute “Hallogallo.” I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past twenty years or so listening to music while driving, and I concluded early on that I wanted music with a fairly consistent dynamic level—otherwise I was constantly missing quiet passages, turning up the volume, then getting painfully blasted by a sudden crescendo. (I quickly abandoned listening to any classical music later than Mozart for this reason.) NEU! is far too variable in dynamics to be enjoyable while driving. It’s consistent for a while, then drops off into barely audible miscellaneous sounds, then something like a jackhammer bursts out.

That aside, Jurek finds all kinds of things here to be rapturous about, but I just don’t get it. “Hallogallo” is vaguely similar to Kraftwerk, sort of a guitar-bass-drums version of some of Kraftwerk’s “motorik” synthesizer tunes (everybody who was around in the ‘70s has heard “Autobahn,” I guess). It’s not bad, but it’s not as enjoyable as Kraftwerk, and it’s the best thing on the album. Based on most of the rest, I’d have titled it Hippies at Play in the Studio, ca. 1972. Jurek describes “Sonderangebot” as a “tense ambient soundscape.” I’d call it boring noises—and I like ambient music. “Im Glück” is barely audible voices and watery sounds and bumps that could be someone rowing a boat, joined by drones and noodling wah-wah guitar. And so forth.

The fact that the sound quality is very thin, dry, and distant doesn’t help. All in all, NEU! gets ALT! fairly quickly. Here’s the eMusic link, if you’re interested. I see “Sonderangebot” is missing now. Just as well.


Sunday Night Journal — October 1, 2006

Gospel of Terror

You thought I was going to talk about Islamic terrorism, didn’t you? Sorry—I’m thinking rather of the Gospel of Mark, the verses from chapter 9 which all Catholics heard read at Mass today. They include the warning that it would be better to have a millstone fixed round one’s neck and be cast into the sea than “to cause one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,” as the more recent translations say. This is followed by some of the most dire and most disturbing warnings uttered by Our Lord: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off…” (The priest who read it today described this as “the Long John Silver Gospel”—hook, peg-leg, eyepatch).

Nothing but the lassitude of habit can account for ability of anyone who believes these words to hear them without fear. It is possible, though, since the sin warned against is not named very precisely, to believe that they don’t at the moment apply to oneself. Less easily evaded, perhaps, is the warning in the Epistle of James (chapter 5), also in today’s readings: “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries…You have lived on the earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.”

I live in a small town which became fashionable some years ago. Well-to-do and downright rich people have moved in, driven property values through the roof, and in general tried to turn it into a quaint little museum. It’s irksome to feel that they look down on those of us of modest means. (My wife grew up here, and it more than irks her.) It’s tempting to me to rail against “the rich.” But I usually bite my tongue, remembering that in relation to most of the world I am the rich. This is true for all but the poorest Americans.

We can and do argue, at length and inconclusively, about why and how such a gross disparity in wealth came to be, and who is culpable for it. Assigning blame is always pleasant and comforting. And the whole passage from James above includes a stern rebuke for those who defraud workers, which is probably not something that most of us do on a regular basis. Here’s the whole passage, in the King James version, which I prefer, although the later translations make that fifth verse more intelligible (and more scary):

1 Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. 2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. 4 Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. 5 Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. 6 Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.

But it seems to me that it’s not only oppression that’s condemned here—there is also a warning against wealth itself, against “liv[ing] in pleasure on the earth.” Those of us who live in the industrialized world don’t have to be rich by the standards of our own society to immerse ourselves in pleasure and comfort. We dare not assume that these warnings don’t apply to us as well as to those still wealthier, to whom we would prefer that God direct his attention.