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June 2007

My Daughter the Nurse

This link may not work for very long, but as of this posting you can click on the "Watch this video" button associated with this news story and see one of my daughters in action in her job as an emergency room nurse. (You have to sit through a commercial first--sorry.) I've often thought it would feel pretty good to have a job where your whole purpose is to help people who really need help. I'm proud of her.
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Tom Jones with Notes

There was a comment sometime in the past few days, possibly from Janet C but I'm not sure, saying that she had started Tom Jones but was having trouble understanding some of it. I can't find the comment now, so am just making this a post.

I've been reading an old Modern Library edition because it's compact and physically comfortable, and just plowing on when I hit a reference I don't get, and haven't found that to be much of a problem. Part of the reason I started it in the first place, though, was the recommendation of my college student daughter who had just read it in an 18th century lit class. The edition she used is a Penguin Classic and has copious notes. Possibly too copious, and they're at the back, but anyway, if you want an edition with notes, this is worth looking at.

And speaking of Tom Jones, someone mentioned really liking the character of Squire Western in a BBC production. Yeah, he is funny, but at this point, maybe a third of the way through, I'm thinking he's too much of a real jerk to like very much. The scenes of his arguments with his sister are just laugh-out-loud funny, though.

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Wit

This is the title of a play by Margaret Edson which I just read. Several months ago my mother offered it to me with the description "It's a downer but it's very good." I wasn't going to take it, because, as I'm always complaining, my reading list is always too long, and this didn't look like something I would like: a play about a woman dying of cancer. I don't especially like reading plays (except Shakespeare) and it didn't sound like a promising subject.

(Digression: one of the experiences that caused me to give up sending poems to magazines and just put them on the web was the time I had several returned with a note that the editor was "at this time only considering poems that deal with women's health issues." I mean, why bother?)

Then I noticed a blurb from John Simon on the back: "A dazzling and humane play you will remember till your dying day." Simon, for many years National Review's movie critic, is a hard-nosed and hard-to-please kind of guy, and if he called it "dazzling" I was pretty sure it would be worth reading.

It's great. It's powerful on the page, and I can only imagine that a good performance would knock you over completely. The woman with cancer is an English professor who specializes in Donne's Holy Sonnets, and let's just say the play delivers on the promise of that situation.

I see there is a 2001 movie starring Emma Thompson which has an awful lot of five-star reviews on Amazon. Anybody have an opinion on it?

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Postscript to the Liturgy Discussion

I must say that, even though I think he was giving Bishop Trautmann far too much credit, it's very encouraging to me that a young Catholic like Ryan C would find the whole liturgy war sort of foreign and incomprehensible. Bishop T. is pretty old, and I'm far from young, and I'd like to think younger people are going to be more united in their sense of what the liturgy ought to be. Much of the problem of the last thirty years has been that a fairly extreme horizontalism that frankly disliked the whole idea of the transcendent has been very influential, and there has been a corresponding tendency on the part of its opponents to be touchy and suspicious (not a good thing, even if warranted). The progressive banality which many bishops still support or at least tolerate is on the wane, as are those bishops. Maybe with more agreement about ends there will be less warring about means.

I personally, however, am never going to get over the Anglican liturgy. I'm reconciled to that.

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Sunday Night Journal — June 24, 2007

Some Anniversaries

I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me the entry into the process of growing old seems to mean being buffeted by gales of nostalgia, accompanied by regrets and second thoughts as windstorms are accompanied by rain. This year brings several notable anniversaries that have me thinking about the past even more than usual.

My wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago. And the above-mentioned regrets don’t include any misgivings about having taken that step. At the time of our marriage we were both new, or newly-revived, Christians, in the process of returning to the Protestant faith in which we had been raised (she Southern Baptist, I Methodist), and attending an Episcopal church. As far as I remember I hadn’t yet begun to toy with the idea that the Catholic Church would be our destination; we would have to confront first the rudderless drift of the Episcopal Church.

No, no regrets there, but terrible nostalgia, as I recall the enchantment of encountering C. S. Lewis for the first time. As Lewis himself says of George McDonald, there was a morning freshness about his work, an enchantment in finding an approach to Christianity that made us see the springs of life that had been there all along.

In the public realm, this summer brings the fortieth anniversary of the so-called Summer of Love. I’ve been dreading the flurry of media comments and retrospectives, because I don’t expect they’ll get it right, and I’ll want to argue with them. I think I’m going to have to ignore most of them. I’ve thought of writing something about it myself, but I don’t think I will, at least not now; the scope of the task is too great.

I gather there has been a tendency in historical studies over the past couple of decades to deprecate the approach to history that emphasizes big things and big events—rulers and their wars—and to give more attention to the effort to dig out a sense of what life was really like in the past. This seems a good thing. But in pop history, by which I mean a fairly superficial look at a past which begins in roughly 1950 and can speak of the career of a pop star as an “era,” the two approaches meet in a way that combines the worst of both. Pop history selects an external event, such as the release of an influential movie or recording, and then attempts to read it as a record of the convictions of individuals. In so doing it isolates and exaggerates certain landmarks, such as the Summer of Love or Woodstock or Watergate, which become hopelessly imprecise and overloaded labels for the complex movements of a whole culture, credited with providing an insight that is mostly spurious.

The summer of 1967 did indeed witness an eruption into public awareness of what a relatively small number of hippies were doing. But the little group of bohemians at the very provincial state university which I attended had long followed and imitated what was going on in California and elsewhere, and the radical counter-culture had been developing for many years in something like its recognizable form. Even within that world, the rather distorted hippie concept of “love” that was bandied about was hardly the only game going: Sgt. Pepper was released that spring, yes, but The Velvet Underground and Nico and The Doors, two of the darkest recordings in the history of rock, preceded it by a few months. And if my experience is an accurate indicator, they were at least as popular among the real hipsters. There was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but there were also “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and Father, I want to kill you. And I’m not even touching on the grim political events of the time, such as the Six-Day War, which rather dwarf the significance of any pop album.

In the current media treatments of the Summer of Love (I find it hard to type the phrase without snickering), I know what to expect. Conservatives will denounce it as an outbreak of madness, and liberals will defend it as an essentially sweet if impractical gesture. Consider these opposing op-eds from the Los Angeles Times, one by Dawn Eden—in this context the conservative—and one by a liberal. Dawn has by far the better of the argument; she’s right about the significance of the fundamental errors of the hippies, and is in general far more substantial than her opponent, who doesn’t get much past superficial stuff about “speaking out,” accepting people who are different, etc. But neither piece does justice to the complexity of the times, much less to one’s experience of them. Of course that’s an unfair complaint to make about a thousand-word op-ed, but I want more. I want an account that will do justice to every aspect of the time, and communicate to the reader at least a little of what it felt like to live then.

All this makes me realize how much is forever inaccessible to history. Even those who live in a time can only capture portions and aspects of it. And once it passes out of living memory, no one will ever again truly know what it was like. We’re approaching that point with the Second World War, which was a powerful presence in the lives of my parents’ generation and therefore some kind of presence in mine, far less so in my children’s, and soon enough in no one’s.

I was very much part of the youth movement—whatever you want to call it—of the late 1960s, but whatever went on in San Francisco during the summer of 1967 had nothing to do with me. Instead of going west I went east, and had experiences that profoundly affected me but which are not for public exhibition. And I can best mark this anniversary by keeping my memories to myself.

Not everything is unsayable in words—only the living truth.
      —Eugene Ionesco

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Music of the Week — June 24, 2007

The Innocence Mission: We Walked in Song

Never in the history of pop music has there been a more aptly-named band. Let me emphasize that I do not suggest that any member of the group was immaculately conceived or that they do not all need to go to confession with the rest of us. But there is something in their art, especially their more recent work, that seems to give some hint of something that we can’t easily imagine: a human consciousness unstained by sin.

There is a persistent and pernicious idea, one to which we all probably incline, that evil is somehow more alive and engaging than good. This is not so, but for most of us—for me at any rate—that’s often more an intellectual conviction than an immediate perception. Simone Weil remarks somewhere that fictional evil is generally more attractive than fictional good, whereas real good is more attractive than real evil. Substitute “imaginative” for “fictional” and I think you have a good description of the way most of our minds work. Moreover, there’s a tendency to see and portray the good person as somehow insipid, evasive of reality and possibly hypocritical, as in the phrase “goody two-shoes.”

The music of The Innocence Mission is a rare instance of success in the conflict described by Weil. When I listen to it I have the sense that I’m looking at the world through eyes which are enchanted by what is good and simply do not perceive “the glamour of evil.” It’s innocence, but an innocence of virtue and wisdom, not mere ignorance of evil. I have the feeling that it would recognize evil, in fact recognize it more quickly and fully than I, but perhaps fail to understand it, because unable to enter into the state of mind that would commit it or be drawn to it.

Some such explanation is required in order for me to understand what there is about this music that transcends any external description of it, which would be something along the lines of “gentle mostly acoustic folk-rock.” I’ve heard it described that way, somewhat dismissively, but I find much, much more here. A great deal of it is in the voice and lyrics of Karen Peris, the voice simultaneously womanly-warm and little-girlish, the lyrics simple but full of devastatingly effective moments where certain words are repeated and take on a resonance that never seems to end. And it’s in the melodies on which the lyrics float, and the simple but oddly moving arrangements, full of deeply evocative touches like the background vocals of “Into Brooklyn, Early in the Morning” (a song which I might wish to have played at my funeral, though the Brooklyn reference would be puzzling).

In my opinion this album is at least as good as the Mission’s last, Befriended. And in my opinion that makes it great. Most pop music is evanescent stuff, but I think I’ll still want to hear this twenty years from now, if I’m still around.

Here is the album’s page at the band’s web site. It contains links to eMusic and iTunes, where you can hear samples.

Here is my review of Befriended, most of which applies equally to We Walk in Song. I have not, obviously, changed my mind about Befriended.

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Russell on Romanticism

With a hat tip to Clio, who quotes this in a comment on her blog, I have to pass on this remark by Bertrand Russell: a Romantic is "someone who liberates the tiger from his cage and then admires the graceful leaps with which it devours the spectators."

Of course that doesn't say all there is to say about Romanticism, but it certainly pins down a certain aspect of it, or perhaps I should say a certain danger inherent in it.

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Just a Few More Things

Courtesy of Happy Catholic, you can read this pdf which juxtaposes old and new versions of Eucharistic Prayer #1. This is probably enough of a sample to give us a pretty good idea of how the new translations are going to shape up. Personally I vote for them.

The question of how much theological difference is communicated by verbal subtleties (or not-so-subtleties) is the subject of this really fine essay by Anthony Esolen, who as you may know is a translator and has given a lot of thought to these things.

A commenter on the Open Book thread referenced earlier makes a point which has often occurred to me but which I'd more or less given up on as a lost cause: the degree to which shifting scripture translations have damaged our ability to read our own literature or even understand many aphorisms, because scriptural allusions aren't recognized. He or she wishes we could start with the classic translations and update where necessary. I could certainly get on board that train, but I don't suppose it's a possibility.

Speaking of Open Book, by the way, I noticed a comment from Amy that she had forgotten about approving comments for the the past day or so, so that probably explains the apparent non-approval mentioned by Dave G.

Finally, the point was raised in the comments that we are sometimes excessively suspicious and therefore excessively sensitive to little things which we take as confirmation of our suspicions. That's very true, and something we (I) certainly need to be on guard against. Still, it's a fact that small signs can be indicators of big things, and some of what seems like hyper-sensitivity is not totally irrational. There really are some serious and significant theological divisions within the Church, with some progressives espousing something much closer to liberal Anglicanism than to the Catholic faith. Charity and generosity are always in order, but not blindness.

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Summing Up the Liturgy Discussion

Rather than try to respond directly to everything in the comments, I thought I'd try to hit it all at once.

A little background: I grew up Methodist, which is an offshoot of Anglicanism, and the Methodist service still carried a good bit of the old Book of Common Prayer language, which is, in general, the finest liturgical English ever written. Later I spent a couple of years in the Episcopal Church, right before becoming Catholic. I knew I was giving up a liturgy that was rich in both music and words for something that was decidedly not, and was prepared to make the best of it. But lemme tell you, the best has at times been pretty sad. It was like going from Shakespeare and Bach to the reading of the city council minutes punctuated by clunky renditions of John Denver songs.

Nevertheless, at this point in my life I'm over it. I've gone from frustration to something pretty close to despair to acceptance. It helps a lot that I now have access to the liturgy at the local cathedral, which has sublime music and a generally reverent atmosphere. The language still tends to pull the rug out from under things, especially some of the scripture readings ("no one gives one's life for oneself" or however that goes). But, to put it very brutally, I don't much care anymore. As I put it a while back in a letter to Daniel, it's a little--maybe a lot--like being in an unhappy marriage, where you quit expecting anything better. I can live with this and even be happy with it, especially if I can avoid some of the Glory and Praise songs that produce a visceral irritation in me.

So why did I bother writing this? Because Bishop Trautman's piece ticked me off--his condescension, his apparent tone-deafness to beauty in the liturgy, and his apparent persistence in the belief that the current liturgical situation is just peachy and is about to be ruined by the Vatican. It's not because I'm so wild about the new translations. I've only seen bits and pieces of them, and from what I've seen, they are richer than what we currently have. I agree with Ryan that they're not great poetry. However, they are conceptually richer and at least more varied verbally. And that brings me to what may be the most important thing here, something that I haven't addressed because I'm really not qualified.

We can agree or disagree about the aesthetics of the new translations. However, I've read over and over again that the ones in current use are simply not adequate as translations--that they simplify to the point of distortion. IF that's true, it constitutes for me a decisive argument in favor of the new translations. The texts of the liturgy represent the patrimony of over 1500 years of reflection. We have no business hacking this luxurious growth back to a few bare sticks just because we can't be bothered to learn a few new words or make a bit of effort. It requires vastly more brain power to operate a computer, evaluate high-definition TVs and surround-sound systems, or play a video game than it does to understand even the most complex of the samples of the new translations that I've seen so far. It's tooooo haarrrd is just not a complaint with which I'm going to sympathize. Here's a chance to use my newly-learned English/Australian word: stop whinging.

We can all agree that there is in theory some proper balance of simplicity and complexity. But to say that the use of, for instance, the word "suffused" (one of Bishop Trautman's example) errs on the latter side is just preposterous. I cannot avoid the suspicion, to which I alluded in the original piece and on which Robert Gotcher remarks in the very first comment below, that this is evidence of a mistaken view of the liturgy (and perhaps even of the faith itself) which is certainly very easily found in progressive Catholicism and which involves an exaggeration of the horizontal dimension.

Ryan says, "If I had to settle for simple translation versus a poor attempt at an overly literal translation, I would choose the former." I agree with that in principle. But I think what we have is a bad simple translation, and going to a translation which at least preserves the sense of the Latin may be a necessary start. We can't get to a really rich liturgical language just by wishing ourselves there, but we can slowly, over generations, polish and develop it. I don't see how progress of that sort can be made if radical simplification and lowest-common-denominator accessibility are the overriding goals.

From the moment I read the Bishop's letter I've been thinking about my high school Shakespeare class. I remember vividly my surprise at the way classmates whom I'd never suspected of having a serious thought, much less an interest in literature, responded to Shakespeare at the hands of a capable teacher. To this day I remember having an interesting conversation about Hamlet with the football player in the next row. We're underestimating John and Mary Catholic if we think they can't understand anything more complex than a simple declarative sentence.

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