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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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)
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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.

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One of the great things about living here...

...is 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.

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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.

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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.

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