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February 2007

Music of the Week — February 18, 2007

Mozart: Piano Quartet in Gm (K.478)

I think I know why this quartet, which is an earlier composition than the Eb (K.493), follows it on the cd. The matter was clarified by a fragment of conversation I heard on the radio on my way home a night or two ago: a journalist was interviewing a gymnastics coach who thought that one of her athletes would have received higher marks if she had not appeared early in the program, when the judges want to leave themselves room in case they want to score another contestant higher.

If I had heard K.478 first, I would have used up my superlatives on it, and been left with a difficulty in explaining why I like K.493 even more. I do like it more, though I don’t know that it’s a greater achievement—I think my preference is just a subjective one for the melodic building blocks of the first and second movements of K.493.

Like the Eb, the Gm quartet is heavier on the front end. The first movement is quite a spectacular ride; even a listener without the ear and the technical knowledge to understand what’s going on can hear the basic materials being taken through some exciting changes. (And that, of course, is the big difference between, say, Mozart, and a good deal of modern music: the materials are pleasing in themselves to the naïve ear, and don’t require any knowledge of theory on the listener’s part in order to be in some sense understood. Not many people can recognize a dodecaphonic tone row, but anyone with receptive ears can hear and feel a Mozart melody.)

The second movement isn’t as rich as its counterpart in the Eb, to my taste, and the third, again, seems a bit light. Overall, despite its being in a minor key, the Gm seems to have just a bit less gravity than the other, which is not necessarily either a good or a bad thing, but it’s less to my taste. Still, at this stage of my acquaintance with Mozart, which is mainly confined to the dozen or so best-known works, I’d say that both these quartets should make the “essential” list, along with the best of the symphonies, concertos, and chamber music.


Music stuff

The 2006 Music of the Week archive is finished. I didn't realize I had quite as many gaps as I do. I'll start a 2007 list and try to keep it more current. Part of the reason I did this, by the way, is that there is now an eMusic blog, and Yancey Strickler kindly put LoDW on its blogroll when I mentioned my weekly note. But since music is not the main topic here, I thought I should at least make the music-related posts, especially pop-music-related ones, easy to find.

I'm giving up secular music for Lent (not just pop/rock, but classical, too). However, I have a backlog of several albums for MotW. I will go ahead and post those. There may be a gap of a couple of weeks toward the end of Lent, depending on whether and how much I decide to post about the music I do plan to listen to.

For five or six years now I've planned to listen to Bach's St. Matthew Passion during Holy Week, and never managed to do it. So this year I'm going to start early, hoping to hear the entire work at least twice before Easter. I also hope to give Elgar's Dream of Gerontion an attentive listen. Whether or not I write about these here depends on whether I think I have anything useful or interesting to say, something more specific than "Wow, this is really good."


Sunday Night Journal — February 25, 2007

Chickens, Eggs, and Spirits

I’ve thought for many years that Jung was onto something with his idea of a collective unconscious, a subterranean movement of thought and sentiment that affects many people at once and may produce similar manifestations simultaneously in different places. There are a number of examples of this in the history of science and mathematics, the most famous being the simultaneous discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibniz. Two recent and very different discussions here have me thinking about this phenomenon: the one about the role and power of materialist evolutionary thinking, and the one about the role played by the baby boom generation in various developments of the last forty years or so.

In the discussion of evolutionism (meaning a Dawkins- or Dennet-style commitment to materialistic evolution as an all-explaining paradigm), the question was raised as to whether a way of speaking based on material facts helped to form the way people thought, or whether the thought formed the language. No doubt this is an unanswerable question; we can assume a sort of feedback effect where each reinforced the other, but we can’t say where the germ was. And we really can’t say why it flourished at the time and place that it did. We can only fall back on statements like the time was ripe or the world was ready or it was an idea whose time had come.

It’s not that no one had ever thought this way before—some of the Greeks did, and I’m sure someone who knows more history than I do could supply more instances. Why did it catch on in the post-medieval West, to the point where it became a potent and even dominant cultural force? Of course we can come up with some answers to these questions, noting cultural movements that seemed to prepare the ground, and following lines of propagation. Advocates of materialism might say that people recognized its truth; opponents might say that it appealed to the ever-present human desire to escape the truth. But those are only more detailed versions of the world was ready. Why was it not ready in the time of Democritus?

Similarly, one of the most striking things about the youth movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s was the way it took hold among people far removed from the centers of cultural ferment, such a hold that they felt compelled—the word is not too strong—to look and behave as much as possible like people in California and New York. You can say it was a fad or a fashion, and that would be true, but it was also a good deal more than that. I was one of those provincial imitators (or bandwagon-jumpers) and I remember vividly the sense that these were my people, that they represented something to which I belonged. The long hair and all the rest of the externals were fashions, yes, but also more than fashions: indicators of an identity entirely distinct from what we dismissively called the “straight” world, membership in a sort of quasi-religion.

Why did the specific form and content of this rebellion capture the souls of so many who first heard of it on television or in a magazine and were instantly and powerfully drawn, rather than repelled, as so many were, not only in our parents’ generation, but in our own? Say that we felt alienated—but why did this particular response compel our immediate assent? Again, advocates and opponents can present plausible good and bad reasons, but these only push the question back a little. In the end we fall back again on the catch-phrases: the time was ripe. But precisely why, at that moment, and in what respect, was it ripe? We can’t really say; the best we can do is come up with plausible contributing causes: affluence, alienation, and the like. From my perspective now I can say that, among other things, it was the moment of dispersal into mass culture of ways of thinking that had been developing in the West since at least the early 19th century. But that, again, only pushes the question back a little further.

I’m certain that there is far more to the world and to human life than we know, probably more than we can know. Jung’s “collective unconscious” may or may not exist, but it’s really a pretty thin idea, a vaguely scientific way of stating a conjecture about a mysterious phenomenon. C. S. Lewis had a more specific conjecture. In a poem called “Infatuation,” which I would quote if I could find my copy of the book, he suggests that we may often be the unknowing objects of direction or manipulation by spiritual beings—by angels and demons, to put it bluntly. (“Reined and ridden” is the phrase I remember. Lewis clearly was referring in the poem to dark spirits, and presumably would not have described angelic influence as compulsion.) From the Christian point of view, this is perfectly plausible, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t operate on groups as well as individuals. That’s a somewhat disturbing thought, to be sure; thank God we have a rock on which to stand, and a touchstone with which to prove any shiny thing offered to us as gold—even if reading the result is not always perfectly straightforward.


Here's an Example...

...of what I was talking about recently when I said neither the left nor the right really cares about the village anymore. Here's a reminiscence about a drugstore in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, a town which was having a hard enough time before Katrina half-destroyed it.

To most of the right, this sort of business is inefficient, and rightly a victim of "the creative destruction of capitalism." To most of the left, the people of Bayou La Batre are morally retrograde hicks to be enlightened and policed.


Music Of The Week Archive - 2006

May 7 - King Crimson: Red
May 14 - Mahavishnu Orchestra: The Inner Mounting Flame
May 21 - Galaxy 500: This Is Our Music
May 28 - Jimi Hendrix: First Rays of the New Rising Sun
June 4 - Massive Attack: Mezzanine
June 11 - Neko Case: Blacklisted
June 18 - no entry
June 25 - Joni Mitchell: Blue
July 2 - Calexico: Feast of Wire
July 9 - American Analog Set: Set Free
July 16 - The Dream Academy: The Dream Academy
July 23 - Ishq: Orchid
July 30 - Patty Griffin: 1000 Kisses
August 6 - no entry
August 13 - Love: Forever Changes
August 20 - Yes: The Yes Album
August 27 - Kate Bush: The Hounds of Love
September 3 - Gang Gang Dance: God's Money
September 10 - no entry
September 17 - Blue Sky Frequency: And Then She Smiled
September 24 - Gentle Giant: In A Glass House
October 1 - NEU!: NEU!
October 8 - Frank Zappa: Hot Rats
October 15 - Cocteau Twins: Heaven Or Las Vegas
October 22 - Eric Johnson: Live From Austin, Texas
October 29 - Funkadelic: Maggot Brain
November 5 - Lanterna: Desert Ocean
November 12 - Roy Buchanan: Sweet Dreams: The Anthology (Disc 1)
November 19 through December 17 - no entry
December 24 - My Favorite Christmas Music
December 31 - Roy Buchanan: Sweet Dreams: The Anthology (Disc 2)

Das Ist Keine Babyboomerwerk

This is not the first time that I've come across evidence of the need for remediation in some quarters with respect to the nature and works of the baby boomer. The Anchoress has a blog that I read occasionally and enjoy. But like a few others I've come across here and there, she has an exaggerated view of what my generation can actually be held responsible for, which leads to an exaggerated animosity. Not that we don't deserve a lot of it, but please, let's limit the blame to what we actually did.

One of the things for which we can't take anything like all the blame is the post-Vatican-II decline of the Catholic Church. A refresher: the first of us were born in 1945 or 1946, depending on whose definition you like. That means the oldest of us were teenagers during Vatican II and barely twenty when the silly season began. The worst excesses occured in the late '60s and into the '70s, when we were most certainly not in charge. I suppose the first baby boomer priest was ordained around 1975 or so. I think it's entirely possible, maybe probable, that the first clown mass was not the work of a baby boomer.

Now, about the crucifix that lit the Anchoress's fuse: following links back from her post takes me to the web site of the German parish where it hangs. Scroll down to the Hangekreuz. My scraps of German lead me to believe that the crucifix is the work of Ewald Mataré (1907-1965).

The conclusion seems unavoidable to me that there was deep rot in the Church before Vatican II. Baby boomers exacerbated and institutionalized the problem, but we didn't create it.


One of the great things about living here... that most people get Mardi Gras off--"Mardi Gras Day," as we redundantly call the Tuesday itself, to distinguish it from the season, and sometimes the day before. Alas, Ash Wednesday is typically not included. May I confess that I always rather dread Ash Wednesday? I don't do even mild fasting very well at all, especially as I have to be at work.

I can honestly say, though, that I'm looking forward to a certain amount of withdrawal from the world that will begin tomorrow. I'm giving up pop music and focusing my reading on spiritual works. Traherne's Centuries will probably be the first. One of last week's Scripture readings included a description of a tree stretching out its roots to a river. That's how I feel going into Lent. Unfortunately that feeling doesn't usually last for more than about four of the six weeks.


Notes & Followups

Some items related to recent posts and/or comments:

Reader rjp linked to this piece by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., on the inapplicability of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" to most of life's questions. "There is, in the end, something beyond liberal and conservative. That is the truth of things according to which we have a criterion that is not constantly changing between liberal and conservative..."

My initial reaction to this is, "well of course—that's obvious." But it probably needs to be restated now and then. I tend to get a bit impatient when the topic is political and social trends and someone makes an objection along the lines of "truth is neither liberal or conservative." Again: well, of course it isn't. I take that as axiomatic. In fact, I would put it a bit differently: There is something that precedes liberal and conservative, something that a Christian at any rate assumes, or ought to, before he opens his mouth about politics. This is so fundamental to me that I don't bother saying it. To me it seems like halting a weather forecast for an explanation of why "the sky" is not an actual thing and not actually blue.

But maybe it does need to be said once in a while. So, for the record: "liberal" and "conservative" are like "left" and "right," positional descriptors that don't say anything about the essential nature of whatever they're applied to. But their usage is conventional in discussions of politics and culture, and they have a comprehensible meaning in that limited context. If I say "the conservative press" you know roughly who I'm talking about.

And, speaking of the conservative press: I belittled The American Conservative as "cranky" the other day. No sooner had I done so than I looked in on their web site and found really good stuff about condition and future of conservatism. There's a lot I could say about their diagnoses and proposals, but I'll limit it to one observation: they are tending to turn conservatism from a socio-political movement into an all-encompassing world-view. And I've already got one of those.

On the topic of evolution: Francesca sent me a piece on the subject by Stratford Caldecott which I had hoped to read before writing about evolution on Sunday. I wasn't able to, but have done so today. It's a bit long for online reading but very much worth the effort. I won't try to summarize it, but will say just that I am very pleased that my inchoate wonderings about viewing the Fall as some kind of ontological, not historical, event resemble some things that serious thinkers have come up with. However, I also have to note the point that I made in my Sunday journal: there is some pretty abstruse philosophy here, nothing easily communicable in any kind of concrete way.


Sunday Night Journal — February 18, 2007

Atheistic Evolution: The Plausible Myth

In a discussion here a couple of weeks ago, I bemoaned the influence of the theory of evolution with some scattershot comments that never quite said what I meant. I’m going to try to clarify that now.

In my title I mean “myth” in the sense of a story that helps the human mind to make sense of the world. And while evolution may be a reasonably well-established fact in that there seems to be a pretty good scientific consensus that the earth is billions of years old and that its life forms developed from the simple to the complex over a period of millions of years, the atheistic conclusions drawn from those facts, though not in the least proven by them, take the scientific assertion into the category of myth. And that myth has some very strong advantages over the Christian myth. (I’m not averse to using the term in reference to the Christian story—as C. S. Lewis said, it is a myth in the sense I used above, with the difference that it is also literally true.)

The difficulty presented to Christians by the evolution myth is not chiefly the popular “science vs. religion” struggle so beloved of the secular press. It need not be a case of having to choose between belief in the literal story of Genesis and losing one’s faith. It’s not that Christianity can’t be reconciled with the current scientific understanding of the size and age of the cosmos, but that the arguments required for the reconciliation are abstract and require some crucial departures from the way Christians were able to think about origins before the scientific revolution.

I expect that most readers of this blog are Christians, predominantly Catholic, who are at least somewhat familiar and at ease with the way this reconciliation proceeds: the essential philosophical and theological concepts (essential to Christianity) are abstracted from the Genesis story, which is accepted as symbolic in its details but accurate in its principles, something like Jesus’ parables. I expect most are also people who read a fair amount, who like ideas, and who spend a good deal of time thinking about precisely such questions as the reconciliation of faith and science.

But most people don’t operate this way. This may very well leave them better off, if they’re Christians; they may simply practice their faith every day without going to a lot of mental trouble about its intellectual infrastructure. But it may also create a dangerous rupture between what they believe by faith and what they accept as scientific fact, leaving them with a vague sense that religion is only a feature of their emotional life. Or, if they’re not Christians, they may absorb, without really noticing it, a cultural presumption that science has disproved religion, and live their lives accordingly.

Here’s the point I kept fumbling around with in that earlier discussion: the problem of Christianity and evolution in the modern world is not that the materialism of, say, Richard Dawkins is likely to be victorious when pitted against the philosophically well-armed Christianity of, say, C.S. Lewis, in a struggle to the death in the realm of ideas. It’s that the picture of the cosmos given to us by science renders atheistic evolution particularly plausible, especially to people who don’t give it a lot of thought.

Why? Because the spiritual facts presented by Christianity are based on scriptures which assume a cosmology contradicted by science: a human and earthly world only a few thousand years old, created immediately as a paradise, a heavenly realm which is literally above it, a man and a woman, a serpent, a fruit, a literal expulsion from a literal Garden. To reconcile this with scientific knowledge requires an effort. It requires treating as symbolic narratives which give no internal evidence of being intended that way, and which proceed seamlessly from creation story to factual chronicle, culminating in the life of Jesus. It requires some means, not present, or at least not obviously so, in the text of deciding what can be taken as symbolic and what must remain literal. It requires turning the Garden into a metaphor for some condition of perfect grace. We shouldn’t be surprised that heterodox theologians proceed to symbol-ize everything, turning salvation itself into a psychological event or condition (or even a political achievement). Catholics are a bit better off than many other Christians, in that we have a teaching authority which, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can make these judgments, and generally makes them in a way that is reasonable to anyone disposed to listen. Still, the tension is there.

No such adjustments are necessary for the evolution myth. A cosmos which is inconceivably large in both space and time in which nothing happens except the interaction of material forces is a picture into which evolutionary explanations for the origin and development of life fit easily. Solar energy causes changes to certain molecules, they begin to replicate themselves, and mechanical procedures insure that these systems will, given enough time—and we have billions of years to play around with—become ever more complex. This picture has three gigantic conceptual holes: it can’t account for the fact that anything exists at all, or for the structure of the system which produces everything else, or for human consciousness. But it seems that the first two are easily ignored, and the last one is assumed to be a byproduct of complexity, despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever that such is the case.

I venture to say that for most people the word “evolution” is summed up in that picture that occurs in so many biology textbooks, often spread across two pages: at the left margin is a little monkey, like Curious George, taking a step toward the right. As he walks across the page he gets steadily taller, less hairy, and more erect, until at the right margin he’s walking upright, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. It’s a simple, powerful image, and it can’t be reconciled with the Christian account of Creation, Fall, and Redemption except by some decidedly unstraightforward philosophizing. And that puts us at a disadvantage in presenting our message.

I take comfort, though, in the fact that the Gospel has never been all that easy to believe. The obstacles to its acceptance were different in 100 A.D., having to do with the strange assertion of the simultaneous particularity and universality of Jesus in a world where gods were plentiful. But I don’t know that they were any weaker.


Music of the Week — February 11, 2007

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall

My remedial education in jazz continues. Strictly speaking, this one can’t count as something I should already know, since it wasn’t released until late in 2005. (It’s from recently-discovered tapes of a 1957 concert.) But it represents my first serious acquaintance with Thelonious Monk. I have a couple of old Monk LPs, but I guess I’d never really listened to them very attentively.

Considering how much I like Coltrane, I was slightly surprised to find that it’s Monk who captures my attention here. I’m not sure what he’s saying, but it makes me smile, and almost laugh, not at anything but in an exhilarated sort of way, the way you feel going down a playground slide. It’s playful and introspective at the same time. As complex and sophisticated as it is, it still has something of the air of a four-year-old child exploring a piano, banging here and tapping there, enthralled by the mere sound and his ability to produce it.

Coltrane’s playing seems, by comparison, more ordinary. It’s extremely good, of course, but it lacks the yearning and searching quality that his later work would have, and I can’t help hearing it as less than what was to come.

The AMG review calls this “one of those ‘historic’ recordings that becomes an instant classic.” Sounds right to me.


The Archbishop of Canterbury Is A Christian!

Ok, I shouldn't be snide, but over the years I've come to expect from Anglican leaders a smoggy rhetoric that seems designed to obscure the fact that they don't really believe anything much resembling Christianity. Former Episcopal presiding bishop Frank Griswold was reportedly a master of it. Here (via the First Things blog) is a fine piece published in 1998 by then-bishop of Monmouth and current archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. I've had the sense that Williams is fundamentally a solid man, someone Catholics and other Nicene-Creed-believing Christians can at least talk to, and this confirms it. Williams is responding to retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong on the occasion of the latter's propagation of a set of "controversial" theses attacking the Christian faith. Of course they're controversial only in the fact that they reveal an Episcopal bishop not only failing to believe the faith but vigorously attacking it.

Williams treats Spong's attack with more seriousness than I think it deserves, but along the way he says some fine and memorable things. E.g.: "Doctrinal statements may stretch and puzzle, and even repel, and yet they still go on claiming attention and suggesting a strange, radically different and imaginatively demanding world that might be inhabited." And: "God is never competing for space with agencies in the universe."

I see hints of ideas that would still perhaps cede too much theological ground to modern prejudices. Still, it's refreshing.


Music of the Week — February 4, 2007

Mozart: Piano Quartet in Eb (K.493)

The piano has never been my favorite instrument; I would verbalize its basic sound as “clank.” But I’ve been drawn to it recently, partly because there is so much great literature for it, and am finding myself becoming more enthusiastic about it. I’ve also, since watching Bergman’s Magic Flute some weeks ago (more about that later), had a Mozart yen, and this Quartet and its companion (K.478) happened to be the only Mozart piano music I have on cd.

It’s been said that the string quartet is the most perfect musical ensemble, but I’m not so sure. After having listened to this piece four or five times, I’d say a string quartet—or, in this case, a trio—plus piano is, if you’ll pardon the expression, more perfect. (I know, “more perfect” has a good pedigree, but it always strikes me as similar to “more unique.”) The contrast of the cool, percussive, staccato of the piano and the warm legato of the strings is piquant and immensely versatile. The first two movements of this quartet have taken a place near the top of my favorite Mozart. There’s nothing wrong with the third movement, but its main theme is one of those Mozart melodies that I think of as slightly frou-frou, a little too dainty for my taste. He does fascinating and no doubt technically impressive things with the material, but the movement just doesn’t touch me as much as the first two.

This is the recording I’m listening to. Next up in the classical category is the other, G minor quartet K.478, which is apparently the earlier of the two. I don’t know why the Eb comes first on the disc.


Sunday Night Journal — February 11, 2007

Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful

I’ve never considered myself an official movement conservative; “conservative for lack of a better word” is my favored description. (I’d like to have a catchy abbreviation for it, but can’t come up with any pronounceable variation of CFLOABW, the “W” being both essential and intractable.) Therefore I tend to get bored fairly quickly with debates about the definition of conservatism and which of many factions has best title to the word. Nevertheless, I’ll go out on this limb: if true conservatism can be located anywhere, it must be at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, or at least in its publishing arm, ISI Books (

National Review may have the best claim in a common-law or de facto sort of way. But its traditional project of fusing conservatism and libertarianism was always rather a patch job, and seems to be coming apart now. It still publishes a lot of good commentary, but more and more I find that certain of its regular contributors are entirely dispensable, and not conservative in any reasonable sense. Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative and other paleo-con publications such as Chronicles seem, judging by what they put on the web, to tend toward a dispiriting crankiness (dispiriting to me, anyway; a lot of people seem to enjoy crankiness).

ISI, though, seems to manage to maintain its equanimity while keeping a firm grasp on what the term “conservative” must mean, if it’s to mean anything conceptually distinct from chunks of libertarianism and nationalism simmered in a thin broth of “traditional values.”

Case in point: Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful: Economics As If Families Mattered. This is, obviously, a revisiting of Schumacher’s classic from the 1970s—which I must confess, up front, that I have never read, mainly because I thought I knew what was in it. I don’t think I’ve mentioned here the blog devoted to the book, where I have not contributed as much as I had intended to, thanks to an onslaught of other demands on my time. The blog is worth reading, especially if you’re interested in some pretty detailed discussion of questions of property ownership and the like.

Pearce’s book—and I think this was also true of Schumacher’s—is concerned precisely with what ought to be conserved against the onslaught of big government, big business, and big science (more accurately, big technology, but the phrase “big science” has a certain resonance).

I confess I haven’t given much attention to these matters for a while. They were very much on my mind when I was was working on Caelum et Terra, and I never rejected most of the ideas, but the day-to-day demands of life—simply getting by, raising a family, trying to keep my faith alive—have pushed them aside. Nor do I now have any particular grasp of how they should affect my life, or any plan for having them do so.

Yet I’m determined to hold on to them intellectually, if in no other way. And I think conservatism must hold on to them. There are some details in Small Is Still Beautiful with which I might argue. I’m more of an agnostic on the question of global warming than is Pearce, for instance, and think it not the best foundation for an argument against Bigness. But the essentials seem sound. Don’t most of us have a sense that industrialized society must somehow tame its appetites—all of its appetites—in order to survive, both psychologically and materially? Don’t most of us agree that a globally hyper-industrialized and hyper-commercialized society on the lines of the USA is not a reasonable or desirable aspiration? Those are Pearce’s theses, in broad outline, and I don’t see how any intellectual movement that wants to describe itself as “conservative” can disagree with them.

Hilary Clinton’s book It Takes A Village was roundly attacked from the right, but not always for the right reasons (or so it seemed from observing the controversy—I haven’t read that book, either). The African proverb from which she took her title, “It takes a village to raise a child” is a beautiful piece of folk wisdom (whether or not it’s actually an African proverb), and those who shouted “It doesn’t take a village—it takes a family!” were only half-right. Mrs. Clinton was perfectly correct in intimating that individual families do not exist in a void, and require a surrounding and supporting community.

Where Mrs. Clinton goes wrong, I venture, judging by her general policy views, is in smudging “the village” into “the government,” preferably run by herself. And it’s all very well to challenge her on this subterfuge. But it does take a village, or something like it, to sustain a family, and a number of villages to make a nation. And one of the chief problems of current American politics is that, in general, neither the left nor the right, neither the Democrats or the Republicans, really gives a damn about the village at all. For both, it’s an obstacle to progress rather than a crucial part of a truly human way of life.


Music of the Week — January 28, 2007

Horace Silver: Song For My Father

I knew this was considered a classic album but hadn’t heard it until recently, courtesy of a jazz trumpet student who believes, correctly, that there are some significant gaps in my education. Sure enough, it is a classic, if the word of a non-expert can be trusted. It immediately went very high on my fairly short list of jazz albums I would hate to be without, up there near Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, and others of that class. I’m not going to say a lot about it, since I don’t really have the knowledge and vocabulary to say much more than that I like it, and that it’s the kind of jazz album that’s accessible to anyone. No, make that “irresistible,” I would think: slightly Latin-flavored, melodic, generally catchy.

The original album ended with a meditative piece called “Lonely Woman” (not the Ornette Coleman tune by the same name). The cd reissue includes four additional cuts. I’m normally not enthusiastic about these extras—typically they’re outtakes that aren’t that different from the ones that ended up on the first release, and not different enough to be of great interest to anyone except very serious fans. These, however, are very much worth having. The only repeat of a tune is a trio version (piano, bass, and drums) of “Que Pasa,” and the absence of the horns makes it a very different piece, moodier and more reflective. The others are previously unreleased tracks from the same group of sessions, and are worthy additions.

Most pop fans hearing this for the first time will have a bit of a shock at the opening notes: Steely Dan stole…borrowed…copied this little riff for “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” which speaks well of their taste.

Here’s the AMG review, if you want more detail.


Speaking of Evolution

There's an interesting discussion about evolution going on in the comments. This is a subject that I think about a lot and have written about several times. To wit:

Great IDea What ID can and can't hope to accomplish. And why the evolutionary timeline strikes me as more of a problem for Christians than the simple-minded materialism of the Dawkins types. This post prompted a lengthy discussion on the Caelum et Terra blog, which I will track down later, and the consensus seemed to be that the "problem" is my own idiosyncrasy. It didn't seem to bother anyone else much.

Philosophy of Evolution, Science of Geology Follow-up to the previous post, explaining why I'm not a six-day creationist, although it would be nice.

Let's Get Religion Out of the Biology Textbooks Gripe about the way evolutionists are allowed to call their philosophizing "science."

Evolution: The Heart of the Catholic View Why Catholics can live with evolution-by-chance. If we have to.


Sunday Night Journal — February 4, 2007

The Liberal Conservative (4)

This is probably the last in the series, at least for a while. I wanted to add one more note to my list of reasons for wishing to preserve the institutions of liberalism—meaning, of course, the philosophical liberalism that goes back at least to the Enlightenment, not contemporary political liberalism. In fact I’m not entirely sure that “liberalism” is the correct term; perhaps something like “Anglo-American constitutional pragmatism” would be closer. But I’ll stick with “liberalism” for the moment.

So far I’ve adduced the specific achievements of the liberal order: widely representative government, constitutionalism, material prosperity. But there’s another, more elemental reason. America (meaning the United States of America), is, more than any other nation, the embodiment of these ideas, it is my country, and I love it.

There’s a tendency among those of conservative or traditionalist leanings to decry or deny what used to be, and for many people still is, the standard American patriotism, which, as has been pointed out many times, is more a devotion to an idea than to a place, or even a nation. Chesterton said it best, in his often-quoted remark that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” This devotion, a traditionalist says, is not patriotism by any reasonable definition, because patriotism is first and most importantly devotion to a place and a people. I agree with this, and have written about it (see this journal). Devotion to an idea is not patriotism.

But love for the USA is not only love for the American idea, and love for one’s town and region don’t preclude love for the country at large. Lately I’ve been more conscious of this latter emotion. It’s an exasperated sort of love, the love you might have for an eccentric relative. Make no mistake, this is a crazy place. Its craziness is a direct result—no, make that an integral part—of its success. (See this post by the very interesting Eve Tushnet, which I ran across a few weeks ago and which helped crystallize some of these things for me: “Americans are bats crazy….There are insights to be gained from our particular brand of crazy.”)

America is what you get when you give the masses the money and freedom to do what they want. A great deal of it is deplorable, to say the least. I’m as oppressed as anyone can be by the sight and the spread of the miserable ugly chaos of strip development. I rarely visit a shopping mall and when I do I generally come out depressed, angry, or both. I can’t stand the inescapable hucksterism which is now as much a part of politics as of commerce. Our entertainment industry is a reckless and shameless source of pollution on a global scale, made doubly maddening by its self-righteousness, and surely at least as responsible for the hostility of other nations to us as anything George Bush has done. And so on.

But there is also in this madhouse a great deal that is creative, courageous, generous, and good. It can be maddening, but also maddeningly likeable. And finally there is just the sheer magnificent spectacle of it, which always makes me think of Bruce Springsteen’s words:

And the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all—
they just stand back and let it all be.

Whether loving it or hating it, surely few active minds could fail to find America interesting; to do so would strike me as evidence of mental torpor.

If you’re an American, don’t think you aren’t part of this. Don’t think you can withdraw from it to a place of traditional order and dignity. It doesn’t exist here, and probably won’t within your lifetime. More importantly, if you were to go where it does exist, your restless discontent would probably make you unhappy there, and your presence might well harm it. You’re too used to having your way: taking your business elsewhere; moving to escape your neighbors or your town; finding a different parish if you don’t like the priest or the music in yours; switching jobs or switching religions when you don’t like the one you have.

The tragedy, and the agony, of America is that this personal willfulness is extended where it is not just a questionable habit but a sin. People leave their marriages when they’re unhappy, they abort their unplanned children, they indulge every appetite, they flout natural and divine law at every turn. This may be, probably will be, our undoing. And here, of course, is where conservatism has a job to do: in the effort to pull the country back from the brink. Success does not seem very likely, but then conservatism is almost always at least mildly pessimistic, in temperament if not by definition.

Here, also, is where conservatism should be liberal in the root sense: generous and tolerant, always with an eye toward the good to be preserved and encouraged as much as to the evil that must be resisted. If you are an Evelyn Waugh whose bitter ire toward the modern world can be turned to the purposes of great satire, or if you are a prophet chosen by God to warn and admonish the world, then by all means do what you have to do. If not, to surrender to a very understandable vexation will most likely just leave you complaining on the sidelines while the outcome of the contest is determined by others.


Recent Netflix Movies

Here are brief comments on some interesting, not necessarily good, films that we've rented from Netflix over the past few months. My wife picked the majority of them. She has a pretty good record at this point.

Children of Heaven: Iranian, by, I think, the same director who did The Color of Paradise, which is great. This one is not as good but still very much worth seeing. It involves two children and a very important pair of shoes.

Coffee and Cigarettes: a series of vignettes by Jim Jarmusch. Pretty slight, but intermittently amusing. Tom Waits and/or Iggy Pop fans may want to see it--their segment was my favorite, and each has a rather striking screen presence. Iggy is either a pretty good actor or is in fact more nerd-like than one would have imagined.

Lemonade Joe: That's LEEmoNAHduh YO-uh. A 1964 Czech parody of early Hollywood westerns (Tom Mix era). Amusing in spots but, as wife said, really not much more than ten minutes' worth of humor stretched out for well over an hour.

Born Into Brothels: A documentary about the children of prostitutes in Calcutta. Heart-wrenching, as you might imagine, but not utterly bleak. It's also about the effort of a photographer, Zana Briski, to save some of them.

Genghis Blues: Another documentary, about a blind blues singer in San Francisco who hears the throat singers of Tuva on the radio, figures out how to do what they do, and goes to Tuva for the annual singing competition. Beautiful. Leaves you thinking hippie thoughts: music does bring people together; why can't we just all get along and learn from each other? And what's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

Antonia's Line: Strong women and the men they don't need. Strong, and tiresomely smug. The film is pretty to look at, though: the story takes place in a Dutch village ca. 1946-present.

The Big Sleep: Not the Bogart one, but the 1978 one with Robert Mitchum. Mitchum could have been the best Marlowe ever, with the right director. This is not bad, but something's missing. For some reason they decided to move it to England, which was a major mistake for a book deeply embedded in California. An elderly Jimmy Stewart is great as General Sternwood.

The Lady in the Lake: More Chandler. Yes, this and the previous one were my selections. Robert Montgomery as Marlowe, 1947. Pretty good, but marred by a gimmick: you're supposed to see everything literally from Marlowe's point of view, so the camera is "him," and so are you. Yes, that means you never see him except in a mirror, and in a couple of intro/outro speeches. There's a reason why the technique didn't catch on.

Divided We Fall: A very fine 2001 Czech movie about gentiles hiding Jews in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. I was wary of this one, as I really find those cat-and-mouse-with-the-villain situations excruciating to watch. But this is good. A more intricate and precise plot than you think it's going to be, entailing a moral choice which can't exactly be applauded but is hard to condemn.

The Hawks and The Sparrows: the first Pasolini film I've ever seen. Just plain odd, featuring a talking Marxist raven, but also with a strong Catholic flavor. Can't say it wasn't interesting, but I don't have much desire to see it again. The hawks and sparrows are, approximately, the rich and the poor.

Them!: Giant mutant ants move from desert to city (I guess it's LA). Don't bother if you don't like cheesy 1950s sci-fi/monster movies, but if you do, this is one of the better ones.

The Thing (from another world): Giant vegetable from outer space stalks (oops) people at an Arctic research station. Not very good at all, really--too many logic holes. James Arness (Marshal Dillon) is in both these: the hero in Them!, the alien in The Thing. (Yes, these last two were also my selections.)

I've previously commented on The Chorus, The Station Agent, and Saints and Soldiers.