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May 2007

Sunday Night Journal — May 27, 2007

A Speculation on Pentecost

Today at Mass I had a brief glimpse of what Pentecost might have been like. Two men sitting behind me were annoying me with loud muttering, loud enough to be distracting but not quite loud enough to be understood. Then as the homily began I heard quite clearly one of them say “Ich kann nicht verstehen”—“I cannot understand.” But it was a heartbeat later that I realized that I had heard German words. What happened in the instant that I heard them was that I understood them. It was only after I had heard the man say that he could not understand the homilist that I realized he had said it in German. I had understood the German directly, without translating it into English.

This would be a perfectly ordinary occurrence for one who is truly fluent in more than one language, but that’s far from the case with me. I had a couple of years of German in high school forty years ago, a bit more in college to which I paid scant attention. Somehow a bit of it has stuck with me all these years. Now that I think about it, the fact that I hadn’t previously heard the man’s voice clearly enough to realize he was speaking German probably allowed the thing to happen. Because I was not expecting the German words, the conscious effort of translation was bypassed and the words went straight into some deep part of the mind where they were simply known: perfectly normal for one who knows that he knows German, startling for one who does not.

As I’ve had occasion to mention before, I have only a smattering of theology and philosophy. But what I do have, I mull over at length, and I seem to get something out of it. Lately I’ve been thinking about nominalism, (see Wikipedia article) and about the assertion made by a number of 20th century Catholic thinkers that its rise in late medieval times was the beginning of modern materialism. As I understand it, nominalism entails a rejection of the reality of ideas, such as truth and justice. Real existence belongs to the concrete specific things, not to the abstractions by which we describe them. So incomprehension, for instance—the thing which my German speaker communicated to me—is only a mental construct which we derive from observing instances of it. It’s not hard to see how this habit of mind tends toward the abandonment or at least attenuation of belief in spiritual reality, which comes to seem a sort of watery derivation from the material.

But experiment for a moment. Play with the idea that incomprehension is a thing, a real thing, though not a material one. Think about that, and then think about language. Language, in this light, is, among other things, the means by which we convey a real thing from one mind to another (and there is probably a hint of insight into the nature of spiritual reality in the realization that the thing conveyed is now in both “places” at once and equally).

When language is understood without conscious thought, as it is for everyone in his native language, these spiritual things pass easily from one mind to another; little more than an act of will is required, assuming there is no physical impediment, and that both minds are capable of grasping the thing.

I suppose I’ve always taken the miracle of Pentecost to be a kind of instantaneous translation, like those scenes at the U.N., where every delegate hears the words of a speaker whose language he does not know, while hearing it almost immediately rendered into his own language by an interpreter. And the words of Acts support that view. But the text can also support the sort of immediate apprehension I’ve described. Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? This would happen if the hearer truly did not know the language being spoken at all; upon having the idea communicated to him, he would instantly and instinctively put it into his own language, as the other would be an arbitrary string of sounds.

We can’t really conceive of ideas without language, just as we can’t really conceive of souls without bodies (personally I find that idea frightening, but that’s another topic). But if there is spiritual reality, and if the Holy Spirit is its absolute fullness and perfection, then it makes a sort of sense that it could push or pull one beyond dependence on words, presenting one’s own spirit with the unmediated and unrepresented idea. So, perhaps, at Pentecost the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the apostles produces a desire to communicate what is known; language results; but the presence is so rich and pure that ideas jump from mind to mind, like a spark across a gap—this perhaps is what’s meant by “infused knowledge”—where they become at once embodied, so to speak, in the hearer’s own language—as in my experience, momentarily after the fact. Asked in English, “what did he say?” I would have replied, “He said he couldn’t understand.”

Most likely this speculation is a commonplace among theologians, but it’s new to me.


Music of the Week — May 27, 2006

Joe Satriani: Flying in a Blue Dream

This one is probably of interest mainly to lovers of flash guitar, but to these it offers a lot. Satriani is by reputation one of the wizards, and there’s plenty here to justify the reputation. I didn’t find it particularly appealing at first listen, and if not for a recent reversal of audio fortunes that has me listening to cassettes that I was on the verge of discarding a few months ago I might have missed it. I had picked it up for a few dollars several years ago when cassettes were disappearing from the stores, half-listened to it once, didn’t particularly care for its general sound, which I would loosely describe as ‘80s hard rock, and had never gone back to it.

I’m glad I did; I would have missed some truly wild and spectacular guitar. Knowing only a little about rock guitar, I can’t imagine how he gets some of those sounds, especially as he seems in this video to get them without using a lot of effects (at any rate he isn’t using a bunch of pedals).

Roughly half the album is instrumental, and these are my favorite tracks. The more conventional songs tend to be, well, more conventional: musically more complicated than most, perhaps, but to my taste not all that engaging, and lyrically so-so. My favorite of these is “Big Bad Moon,” not so much for the song itself as for the fact that, unlike most of the rest of the album, it’s very bluesy and the combination of the blues vocabulary and Satriani’s wild technique and imagination is compelling.

You could buy the first track and the last five from iTunes and have a great instrumental EP. But you really ought to throw in “One Big Rush,” too, at least. By then you’re halfway toward the cost of the whole album, and if, as noted, you’re a guitar freak, you’ll find something worth hearing on every track, so go ahead and buy it.

I kind of think he looked better with hair, though, as dated as the 1989 rock star look may seem now.


I Am a Victim

How very pleasant to say that! As a southern white male Christian I don't get many opportunities for it. Sadly, though, I'm only a victim of my own stupidity. I am having massive self-inflicted computer problems. I won't bore you with the details but suffice to say that I know how Wile E. Coyote feels in that moment when he realizes he has run off the edge of a cliff, but before he starts to fall. So if you are here for one of my weekly updates, it may be a day or two yet before they appear.

It's Memorial Day. Whatever you think of the war in Iraq, the people who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country deserve our respect. Here's what John Ruskin had to say about them. Say a prayer for them, and for all victims of war.


Sunday Night Journal — May 20, 2007

That Longing Which The Aeroplane Cheats

…the longing for the noiseless, gracious, economical flight of a bird, that longing which the aeroplane cheats, except in rare moments, seen high and by wind and distance noiseless, turning in the sun….

—Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Ok, it’s official: I hate to fly. That’s what I was thinking a few days ago as I passed the last security inspection before boarding a plane for the first time in several years. I suppose one gets used to it, but I’m a very infrequent flier, and for me it’s mostly stress: make a mad dash; now wait, but don’t relax; hurry up; stand in line; watch the time; watch your bag; watch your step; listen to the announcements although they’re 98% irrelevant, lest you miss the one that matters (this happened to me once: I didn’t notice the announcement of a gate change and would have missed the flight if it hadn’t been delayed).

The stress begins with planning the trip to the airport. I don’t do well with a rigid deadline imposed on me by others, where there is a serious penalty for not meeting it and a number of things not under my control that could interfere with my doing so, such as traffic conditions. How early do we need to get there? How long might the lines be? What are the security procedures like these days? What are we thinking of taking with us that could cause us a problem? How much is three ounces of shampoo? What are they doing with computers now (not too many years ago you had to turn them on)? Cell phones? MP3 players? If I take my iPod with me, will they confiscate it? Or if I pack it in the bag I’m going to check, will they take the whole thing out somewhere and blow it up? In the end I leave the iPod at home; likewise my laptop.

It’s hard to find a parking place at the airport. It’s a long walk to the terminal, and I never have enough hands for everything I’m trying to carry: you need quick access to ticket and ID, but you can’t take a chance on losing them. And you have to choose between lugging bags around a terminal for what could be a long way and a long time between connecting flights, or checking them and running a real risk that they won’t go where you’re going. Come to that, there’s a real risk that you won’t get where you’re going when you were supposed to, now that cancellations and delays have become so commonplace. Stand in line to check your bags. Stand in line to have them inspected by TSA. Stand in line to be inspected. And all these procedures are a bit different from one airport to the other.

It’s not that the TSA people are unpleasant—most are not, and one small middle-aged blonde woman with cheerful eyes is much the contrary. But most are brusque and cool at best, ready to turn belligerent, as is usually the case with people who have to run other people through a series of mechanistic procedures. And it only takes one or two who seem actively hostile to get me into the same frame of mind, since the whole process is intrinsically irritating. The removal of shoes and emptying of pockets leaves me feeling faintly embarrassed and obscurely vulnerable, almost helpless. I’m anxious and undecided about some items: will the rosary in my pocket set off the metal detectors? Should I throw it into the basket? Change? Keys? What if somebody grabs them? My poor wife has metal pins in one knee because of a fall from a ladder seven or eight years ago, and the metal detectors nearly always detect them. “Step over here, please,”—not discourteous but stern. “I need a female agent,” comes over the intercom.

Well, at least it’s the pleasant blonde woman; my wife doesn’t have to be searched by that pompous-looking guy. But Blondie is thorough. For five minutes my wife is waving her arms, turning around, unsnapping her jeans to prove that the waistband is not explosive. The jeans make it impossible for her to support her story by exhibiting the prominent scar on her knee.

At last we’re released into the gate area, like cattle out of a chute. The crowd disperses down the concourse. It’s been several hours since we left home. “Family Restroom”? What the hell? Keep on till you see a Men’s.

“Don’t be grouchy.”

“I’m not.”

“You look grouchy.”

It’s only when I’m seated at the gate, looking out at the tower and the vast expanse of runway that I feel some hint of the old jet-age kick that airports once gave me, back when flying was a rarity for most people except executives (whatever they were), when you got dressed up to fly, when there were no metal detectors and searches but there were meals on the plane. It’s official, and it’s sad, to think that I hate to fly: there used to be such a promise about it. Flying was new, it was clean, it was modern, and most of all it partook of the shining future. It wasn’t this grim, harried business. It’s a victim of its own success; it’s like taking the bus.

Once in the air, though, I do feel a bit of the old transcendence: the sight of the small, small, small world below, and of the cloudscapes never meant to be seen by creaturely eyes save those of a few eagles and dwellers in the Himalayas.

As we land in Atlanta I can see planes taking off, and I still love to watch it, the way the plane seems to leap off the ground when the nose comes up, the way it seems so impossible and yet continues to happen successfully over and over and over. If our technological civilization should collapse I hope there will remain some way that our inheritors will still be able to see this sight; it is an image of our time.

When we touch down someone toward the back of the plane cheers.

“I always feel like doing that,” says my wife, relieved.

“Really?” I say. I’m a little surprised, and I realize this is the first time in thirty years of marriage that we’ve ever flown together—the little flying I’ve done from time to time has all been work-related. And for my part I don’t feel like cheering upon touchdown, but am rather a bit disappointed; there’s a brief but distinct touch of sadness when I know that I’m back to the literally mundane.

When I die
Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away


Music of the Week — May 20, 2007


Au Revoir Simone: Verses of Comfort, Assurance, and Salvation

This slight (28 minutes) but memorable album (or EP) is the work of three girls who sing in sweet unaffected voices backed by slightly old-fashioned-sounding synthesizers and drum machines. The effect may be intended as nostalgic, a supposition strengthened by the “wah-ah-ahh”s and “ooo-wah”s in the vocals. What it conveys to me, though, is not so much desire for a synth-pop revival as naivete and relative innocence. It’s not hard to imagine the group beginning with three teenaged friends fiddling around with the electronic keyboards that can be found these days in many or most suburban homes.

The songs are irresistibly tuneful, romantic, and a bit melancholy, or maybe just wistful. The album’s devotional title (Catholic in origin, perhaps?) doesn’t seem to have any direct connection to the songs, but it certainly fits the atmosphere. I referred above to the artists as girls, which is not generally considered good form, but this is a girlish album, and I mean that as a compliment: it’s sweet, though not the least bit sugary, and full of hope and longing, as young girls ought to be, rather than prematurely jaded and embittered by having given themselves too soon and too often to the unworthy. There are some indications here that they may have started down that road. This male listener who’s undoubtedly more than old enough to be their father feels protective toward them, gets a welcome touch of emotional springtime from their music, and hopes they don’t eventually give us Verses of Sarcasm, Anger, and Depression.

eMusic page for Verses





Off the Air for a Few Days

I'm about to go out of town till Sunday and am not taking my laptop with me. I may have the opportunity here or there to get online, or I may not. So if you email me or leave a comment for me, you may not hear back until Sunday or Monday.

Also, in case anyone has wondered, I am not doing anything to disable or otherwise interfere with the comments here. As of this moment they are not working, and that's been the case several times over the past four or five days. The comment system is provided by HaloScan and is completely separate from the blog--when you click on a comment or the "comments" button at the end of a post, you're in effect hopping over to and working with it. They seem to have been having a lot of problems lately.

Perhaps they're overloaded with blog readers commenting on Jerry Falwell's death. There are an awful lot of people raging with glee--that sounds contradictory but I think it's a good description--about it, even on sites that have nothing to do with politics, such as eMusic. A depressing spectacle.


Sunday Night Journal — May 13, 2007

A Permanent Culture War?

About one in six Americans have changed their religious identity at some point in their lives….. Boston University’s Peter Berger notes that “modernity in its essence means an enormous change in the human condition, from fate to choice” and that such switching is inevitable. (“Religion in America,” Touchstone, April 2007)

That observation about modernity strikes me as accurate. Catholics may look back on the Middle Ages, say, as the Age of Faith, or Protestants may look back on the centuries of the Reformation’s triumph in northern Europe and America as the time when most people practiced the true religion. Or neo-pagans may think the people of pre-Christian antiquity were more enlightened than any since, at least in the Western world. The truth probably is, though, that the vast majority of mankind in all times and places have not given a great deal of thought to matters beyond the mundane, and that when they did so they thought in the categories with which their culture provided them. In religion as in most matters they stepped into the beliefs and the roles which were prepared for them; there were no visible alternatives, and most probably never even thought that there could be.

But it isn’t that way for the modern American or European or a citizen of any culture formed since the Enlightenment. It’s impossible for us not to know, at a minimum, that other religions, other complete worldviews, exist, and for anyone with the least bit of education and curiosity it’s difficult not to know at least a little about them. It takes a certain amount of deliberate effort to remain insular. It can be said, I think, that the most perfectly modern citizen is also the most fully conscious of the extent of the religious and cultural possibilities open to the human mind. He is also the least suited to live entirely—that is, with irrevocable and uncomplicated commitment—in any one of them.

For this ideally pure modern citizen, religion is something chosen, and most of us approximate the type. Most of us have at some point made a conscious decision as to the religious or un-religious path we will follow. Few get very far into adulthood without at least becoming aware that many of our fellow citizens do not share many assumptions we once assumed to be everyone’s. It will become more and more rare to run across people like the sweet Southern Baptist lady who declared that a Jewish philanthropist of her city was “such a good Christian.” It’s even possible that Manhattanites will cease to be shocked by contact with Baptists.

The culture war is a side effect of this “change from fate to choice.” After several generations in which individuals have had an increasingly free and actual opportunity to decide, with little risk of unpleasant consequences, what to believe and how to live, we have something which ought not to surprise us at all: a widespread and serious disagreement about fundamental principles. (By “unpleasant consequences” I mean seriously unpleasant ones: loss of life, liberty, or livelihood, not simply disapproval or tension and estrangement among family and friends.)

Most of those who acknowledge the existence of this struggle implicitly expect that it will some day end. Some day all those other people, those unpleasant and unreasonable ones, will be pushed to the margins where they belong, and the nation will be guided mainly by our principles. It’s hard to imagine the present hostile stalemate continuing indefinitely.

But if modern convictions really are as fluid and changeable as Berger suggests, and continue to be so, it could be that neither side ever gains the decisive majority it needs for dominance. Although the views of millions of individuals may shift, moving them from one side to the other in the culture war, it could be that a rough balance of strength is maintained, with movement in both directions keeping the two sides at comparable strength.

A person grows up in a religious culture and begins to resent the limits it places upon him. All around is the allure of a world where personal liberty seems unlimited, above all in the realm of sexual behavior. He turns away from faith and tradition and becomes the sovereign master of his own fate, believing nothing and doing nothing (as far as possible) that does not commend itself to his personal preference.

But in time, like the prodigal son and like many a saint, he finds that such freedom is empty, and that the gain of pleasure does not in the end compensate for the loss of purpose, and he turns back to the community of faith, now embracing it freely and with genuine personal conviction.

We see this pattern sometimes from one generation to the next: the children rejecting the teaching of their parents, then their own children in their turn reaching back to their grandparents in search of the wisdom that seems to be missing from their parents’ lives.

It’s not hard to imagine a continual and roughly equal movement between the traditionally religious and the secular-atheistic subcultures of the modern world. A child of the former comes to resent its restrictions; a child of the latter comes to long for meaning; each moves to the other side.

It is, however, hard to imagine our current level of division persisting for many generations. Or, more precisely, it’s hard to imagine a society so divided remaining cohesive and strong. More likely, I suppose, than a permanent culture war is decline and replacement by a more unified civilization. But what might that be? If modernity is choice rather than fate, are “unified,” “modern,” and “lasting” adjectives that cannot long be applied to the same society? I can only think of two ways in which the freedom of modernity might be undone, barring divine intervention: by a catastrophic return to pre-modern conditions of technology, wealth, travel, and communications, or by totalitarianism. What we have seen of that second possibility in the last hundred years has been far more secular than religious in origin, but religion will serve, given the right religion and the right conditions, and there are some fairly effective experiments in that line currently in progress.


I Enjoy Being Right

I've been predicting for a while now that the tattoo fashion would lead to a profitable trade in tattoo removal.

My parents had a collection of cartoons from Punch that gave me many hours of pleasure in my youth. I think it was there that I saw one which has come to mind often since the fad began: a tattoo artist drawing something huge on a man's back and remarking "Of course it's the fellows who can take them off who make the real money."


Music of the Week — May 13, 2007

Miles Davis: Miles Ahead

One of my perpetual complaints is the treatment of the 1950s in popular lore, in journalism and entertainment. The way some of these people talk, you’d think they really do not understand that Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver were sitcoms, not documentaries, the silly pap of their time just as Desperate Housewives is of ours. Or even that physical reality was very much the same then as now: that colors, for instance, existed, and that human beings were physically the same creatures we are now, although they dressed differently. The usual view is that life was gray, repressed and miserable from roughly 1945 until 1964, when, as Philip Larkin tells us, sex was invented.

In fact that twenty-year period was very fertile culturally and produced some enormous artistic achievements (granted, much of it was devoted to criticizing the society that produced it—still, it was produced). Data supporting that statement is maybe a project for another day, but this album is one instance. The art of jazz reached some kind of pinnacle in the 1950s, and Miles Ahead is a summit among a number of towering peaks. It’s one of Miles Davis’s best, and that means it’s one of the best, period.

As even casual jazz fans know, this, like several other Davis classics, is a collaboration with Gil Evans, who produced and arranged it and by most accounts deserves a great deal of the credit for it. It could be described as big-band art jazz and for me it’s the pure sound of sophisticated American culture in the 1950s: the instrumentation is like that of the old big bands, but the music is considerably more adventurous; it’s tremendously energetic and inventive, yet still somehow cool and elegant. It’s music for intelligent adults—for grown-ups, not adolescents and especially not for those who have made it their mission to remain adolescents far past their teens.

If you don’t know it, you need to. Here’s the AMG page.