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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.