Previous month:
July 2007
Next month:
September 2007

August 2007

Suppose someone asked you...

...what you were doing on this day ten years ago when you heard the news? Would you know what he was talking about? I had no idea what the title of this post of Rod Dreher's meant: "Where were you when you heard?" Turns out he's talking about the death of Princess Diana. I could not have told you what month or year she died, much less the exact date. There are many things in this world I Just Do Not Get, and Diana-mania is one of them. I would assume that maybe you have to be British to understand, except that plenty of Americans seem to have it, too.

I mean no disrespect to the poor woman, but "poor woman" is as far as my very few thoughts about her ever went once the stories of the broken marriage began to appear in the press. I've always been inclined to like Prince Charles, maybe just because we're the same age and are both sort of nerdy and he seems to have the occasional interesting thought. And I wished the couple well when they married. But by the time she died Diana registered on my consciousness only as another sad lost celebrity. Poor woman. RIP.

Of course, for Americans of a certain age (over fifty, roughly) "Where were you when you heard?" will always refer first to the Kennedy assassination (Mr. Siniard's 10th grade biology class, if you want to know).


No Mortal Place At All

I had one cheer (from Ryan, in the comments) and one jeer (via email, from Robert, who has heard "A Whiter Shade of Pale" a few too many times) for my inclusion of Procol Harum in my desert island music picks. I hadn't listened to my favorite Procol album, A Salty Dog, for some years, so I wondered if maybe I would change my mind if I heard it now.



Sunday Night Journal — August 26, 2007

Such Beauty Can’t Disappear

A week or two ago I linked to an entry on Rod Dreher’s blog where a Russian woman who signed herself simply as “Masha” had left some comments that struck me as beautiful, so much so that I’m going to reproduce them here in their entirety. I can’t ask her permission as there’s no way to reach her via that blog, but would certainly be happy to give her credit if she should see this and contact me. Aside from correcting a few spelling errors, I’ve left her words as she posted them.

If it is possible to call epiphany some particular moments which made me think about God's existence, there were some. Perhaps they are too banal.

1. First time—aged 13 or 14 i was sitting by the window at the second floor of our house (in the evening) and looking at piles of clouds and slanting beams coming from behind it, pile of clouds looked like a mysterious city, in the garden where many blossoming flowers and scent of wild roses reached balcony, i thought about paradise and that i m such lucky person to live in it—such beauty around and no one of my friends or relatives or even acquaintances ever died, i lived in the world where death existed only in books or TV and then thought about my grandfather who was about eighty and soon had to die, and looking at that city of clouds through hand i closed eyes and imagined that when i open eyes it will look like hand of 90 years old woman, tried to persuade myself that life will pass the same quickly as closing and opening of eyes—the clouds will look the same, roses will smell the same and i will see the same tops of pines and birches, i thought that such beauty can't disappear and my grandfather will not disappear and perhaps we will meet after death. the city of clouds looked very material and it encouraged that thoughts

2. Second time—several years later—we visited cemetery one morning in May, also nature was blossoming, and suddenly we heard singing of psalms or something other religious, it seemed strange in deserted end of cemetery overgrown with trees, we went to the voice and seen an old priest at one of the graves singing alone, he looked big and respectable, dressed in red-golden clothes (it was in closest weeks after Easter), he waved censer over the grave (the grave was old), he was completely absorbed by singing of that psalms or prayers and obviously did it with all his heart, bumble-bees flying around and birds singing, the whole picture was so beautiful and inspiring that i again thought about eternal life.

Posted by: masha | August 17, 2007 4:47 AM

And third time was 2 years ago, when i first seen mountains. In moscow region landscape is either flat as chess-board or has small hills, i hadn't seen even big hills before going to Crimea, and i didn't expect mountains would impress me, after seeing them on tv and on pictures, besides, by 25 i became very dry cynic. But when i seen big hills in both windows of car it was such a joy that it was taking my breath away, and when car made several big turns suddenly appeared a view which almost made me cry—gigantic mountains and rocks and light blue sea looked simply unreal to me, i never expected that such beauty exists, i have been there again this year, tears didn't appear this time but still it brings to mind one psalm (i don't know it in english) about greatness of creation, there are words 'above mountains will stand waters' (it is frightening even to imagine how above mountains can be water)

Posted by: masha | August 17, 2007 4:55 AM

“Such beauty can’t disappear.” This is something I think about frequently. Three times last week within thirty-six hours I witnessed beauty that shouldn’t disappear. Early one morning, down by the bay, there was an offshore breeze broken by the trees on the shore so that the surface directly in front of me was mirror-smooth, while further out, where the waves were stirring, was a sailboat, white with a white sail and gleaming in the sun, moving slowly parallel to the shore.

That evening I walked down to the bay at sunset for the first time in many months and was well rewarded for my trouble. It always makes me a bit ashamed that I take these sunsets for granted. Cynics may think it banal to be enraptured by a sunset, but that’s only because it happens every day and cost nothing but a moment’s leisure to observe: if sunsets were so rare that one could hope to see no more than one or two in a lifetime, or if access to them could be restricted and sold, they would be cherished and treasured more than diamonds.

Around eleven that same evening, at the bay again, the moon, waxing a little past its quarter, hung low in the southwest, bright enough to create a pathway of light on the water from me to it, then slowly disappeared into the murky clouds nearer the horizon.

But now, only a week or so later, my memory of these images has already become a bit vague. I’m losing bits of them, and even at best memory is not nearly as good as the real experience. And moments like these generally don’t have any significance outside themselves: how much more difficult is it to accept the loss of pieces of our lives that were not only beautiful but also filled with meaning, like Masha’s epiphanies, either in themselves or by virtue of their place in a human relationship? How many parents, for instance, can be content never to see their children as children again? I find it very difficult to accept that these moments are gone forever as soon as we have experienced them.

In fact I don’t accept it. From the point of view of eternity, those moments will always exist, and I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to believe that we will somehow have access to them in the life to come. Nor does it seem unreasonable for me to be schooled by a thirteen-year-old girl in this question—personally I had more sense at thirteen than at twenty. The obvious objection, of course, is that in heaven we will no longer care about anything that happened in this life. But that seems to me to reduce the significance of our lives, and if there’s one thing of which I feel confident it’s that these moments are significant, and that our intuition of their meaning is a real perception, not just a passing sensation.

Surely in 2000 years this idea has come up and been considered by saints and theologians. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I can tell me whether there is any widely accepted opinion on it.


Music of the Week — August 26, 2007

Louis Philippe: An Unknown Spring

It’s pretty rare for an artist to go from “never heard of him” to “indispensable” in my book, but it just happened with Louis Philippe. He’s been making music for twenty years or so, but for some reason, undoubtedly having to do with the fact that he works in an unfashionable style, he remains little known. I only know of him because of the valiant (and persuasive) efforts of the eMusic subscriber who calls himself PapaLazarou to draw attention to him. PapaLazarou drew me in by connecting Louis Philippe to The Clientele.

What’s the unfashionable style? Well, for starters, it’s a very highly polished sort of pop music that owes more to Bacharach and David than the Beatles. I’m not a pop music historian and there are a lot of gaps in my knowledge, but it seems to me that the very careful and sophisticated craftsmanship in songwriting practiced by, say, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer almost disappeared sometime in the ‘60s; the same is true of the sophisticated arrangement and production seen in some of the classic Frank Sinatra albums of the ‘50s. Bacharach and David were in the same basic tradition and succeeded in the ‘60s by adding a rock flavor to songs that were not rock-and-roll at all. And there were a few soft-rock groups who may have aspired to continue in that mode. But for the most part rock crowded it out, and rock’s origins in folk and blues made it relatively primitive almost by definition. Artists who might have been capable of the same technical achievement had different aims.

Louis Philippe’s work harks back to that mid-‘60s attempt to incorporate a bit of rock instrumentation into a songwriting tradition that owes far more to Cole Porter than to the blues. In fact it owes the blues, and country, approximately nothing. Philippe is a Frenchman who moved to England as a young man, and I have a vague idea that French pop music of the ‘60s may have sometimes sounded something like his arrangements.

Whether or not that sounds appealing to you, anyone who appreciates the art of songwriting really ought to hear this album. I don’t know of anyone today writing at this level of craftsmanship, unless some of the people still writing musicals are capable of it. Last week I was praising the matching of words to music in songs co-written by Rupert Hine and Jeanette Obstoj (see last week’s review), but they’re clumsy in comparison to Philippe. His matching of the musical to the lyrical phrase is flawless, truly in a class with Porter and Mercer: there’s no cramming of too many syllables into the musical phrase, and no awkward dragging out of a word to fill it up. To an almost astonishing degree the natural spoken rhythm of the words follows the accents of the music.

None of that would matter if the tunes and the words weren’t good, and they’re superb. The melodies are inventive, complex, and graceful; the lyrics are intelligent, coherent, and poetic. Some listeners might be put off by the arrangements, which are light, pretty, and lush, and which feature strings and breathy choirs of backing voices and in general the sort of instrumentation one hears in some ‘60s soft pop. But the effect is not sugary at all. The word “exquisite” comes to mind, but that almost implies “effete,” and that would be way off base. Nor is there the least hint of irony that would make the whole thing seem fey; the album seems as genuine as it is elaborate, and as intelligent as it is romantic. There’s a sort of tensile strength in the melodies that gives the music a core of strength, as if it were built on a frame of some light but very strong metal.

Listen for yourself at eMusic. Here is an overview of the man and his work at All Music Guide. And here’s his web site, where you can find downloads of some complete tracks, although as of right now none from this album. I’m going to be hearing a lot more of Louis Philippe; I’ve already gotten Azure from eMusic.

UPDATE: For a richer description, please read Chris Evans's AMG review. Sample: " album of pure melody, melody untrammeled and unconfined by the conventions of what passes for modern popular music, melody that unfurls gracefully, languorously and then, when you think it can't help but fold in on itself, unfurls a little more.On first hearing, this can be somewhat daunting. Not because An Unknown Spring can in any way be described as a tough listen, but because our cosseted ears simply aren't used to processing melodies that don't ingratiate themselves by means of repetition or overfamiliar resolutions. A delectable turn of phrase that might pass for a chorus or a hook drifts past and you wait confidently for a reassuring reprise. But it never comes: instead, the melody just carries on evolving."


Blue Cafe

By way of registering his complaint that I didn't include Chris Rea in my desert island list, Robert sends me a link to this staggeringly fine song on YouTube. Rea should indeed be a candidate for "essential"--his best work is about as good as it gets.

In Which I See an Alligator

My daily commute takes me across Mobile Bay. There are two routes, the long bridge which is part of I-10, and the causeway, a combination of raised roadway and bridges. I like the latter, which is much more scenic and leisurely. Most of it is only a few feet above water level. (Here is what it looked like shortly after Tropical Storm Cindy a few years ago.) For years my wife has reported seeing the occasional alligator in the water while crossing the causeway, but she is more observant than I am, and I had never seen one till yesterday. At a particularly low place, where a lot of people fish, there he was, thirty or forty feet from the bank--just a couple of dark shapes in the water, the first one the top of his head, the second his back: something like this. (I seem to be falling into my wife's habit of using the masculine pronoun for every critter, bug, or varmint of questionable intentions, a practice which may or may not say something about her view of the human male.)

I'd guess he was in the range of six feet or so, large enough to do some harm. Alligators are really not nice creatures at all. My animal-loving brother brought a baby one home from a Florida vacation once. By the time it was a foot long it was seriously unpleasant.

(I have no interesting reflection on this, I just thought it was cool.)


A Question About the Preceding Post

Who's notable for his/her/their absence? If you solicited similar lists from people, especially critics, with a strong interest in the pop music of the past few decades, who would probably show up very frequently but is unrepresented here? It suddenly struck me that a majority of those polled would probably find him/her/them a big omission in my list, although no one so far has.


Music of the Week — August 19, 2007

Rupert Hine: Waving Not Drowning

It’s been well over twenty years since my friend Robert sent me a tape of this album, which had gone out of print within a couple of years of its 1982 release. It’s still (or again?) out of print in this country, although you can get it as a thirty-dollar import. But it was only recently that I discovered that two of the best songs on the tape were actually from another Rupert Hine album, Immunity, also available now only as an expensive import, and according to the All Music Guide an even more unsettling work than this one. I’d really like to hear it, but am not sure I’m altogether prepared for it, as Waving Not Drowning captures certain aspects of urban/industrial society in the late 20th century better than any other work of popular music I know, and it’s not a comfortable experience.

Those “certain aspects” are unpleasant ones that were particularly prominent in the late 1970s and early 1980s: anxiety, paranoia, disorientation, isolation, and plain old fear. The music relies, fittingly, although not exclusively, on the cold timbres and unnatural strength and agility of synthesizers and other electronics. To dismiss it as “synth-pop,” though, would be seriously misleading. If “pop” implies something at all frivolous and lightweight, it’s not a word that belongs anywhere in the vicinity of this music, which renders a very dark world with great skill.

The first song, “Eleven Faces,” appears to be about someone trying to pick a rapist (or maybe a rapist-murderer) out of a lineup. The last one, “One Man’s Poison,” is a bleak survey of the unjust vagaries of fortune. Between the two, the mood never lightens, although it runs through many varieties of unease. The experience could be extremely unpleasant if it didn’t keep you so busy admiring its brilliance.

The songs, arrangement, and production are truly extraordinary, all the way through. I have my favorite tracks, of course, but every one holds my interest. A large part of the credit goes to the lyricist, Jeanette Obstoj. As anyone who reads these reviews regularly knows, I place a lot of importance on lyrics in pop music. These misfire occasionally, becoming obscure or possibly just confused, but overall I know of very few more successful marriages of words and music this album.

I’ve found a couple of videos on YouTube and will direct you to them rather than attempt to describe the music further. Personally I have never liked music videos in general and don’t think these are very good even by standards of the genre, but they’ll give you a taste of the music. The first of these, “Surface Tension,” is actually one of the Immunity songs that was on my tape. But it conveys the atmosphere of Waving better than the other one, a bitter look at a disturbed family called “The Set Up.” Bear in mind that the poor sound quality of these videos means that you’re missing a significant amount of the sonic detail that makes the album so compelling.

I should point out that as bleak as the album is, its title suggests hope, being a reversal of the lines from the famous Stevie Smith poem:

I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Running Late

Weekly posts will be a bit late this week--I was out of town all weekend and a few things had come up in my absence. In the meantime, this post by Dawn Eden rather struck home to me, and I particularly like the Chesterton line she quotes: The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. It would do as well as the Keats quote for my epigraph.

Sunday Night Journal — August 19, 2007

Pop Music for the Desert Island

(Not sure how this is going to display, so it may be shifting around for a while.)

I knew I was going to be pretty busy this weekend, so, just for fun, I dredged up this list. I have always resisted the sort of name-your-top-N albums/songs/artists games that pop music fans like to play, because I’m too indecisive and there never seems to be enough room alloted to the category for everything that deserves to be there. But a co-worker brought it up repeatedly, sending me his top 10 this and that, so I started to produce a Twenty-Five Best Albums list. I quickly discovered I couldn’t stand to limit myself, so I started adding multiple albums per artist, then allowed compilations, then broke out of the twenty-five limit and started calling it my Desert Island list—you know, the music you would want with you if you were shipwrecked (with, most improbably some means of listening to music). I think it was eighteen months or so ago that I first wrote this, and I made several additions and deletions while formatting it. I’m sure I’ll do the same if I look at it a year from now.

  • The Allman Brothers Band: The Fillmore Concerts
  • The Beatles: Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour 
  • Chuck Berry: His Best, volumes 1 and 2 
  • Big Country: The Crossing 
  • Jack Bruce: Songs for a Tailor 
  • Buffalo Springfield: Again 
  • The Byrds: favorites from the first five albums 
  • Jimmy Cliff & others: The Harder They Come 
  • Cocteau Twins: Treasure, Aikea-Guinea 
  • Leonard Cohen: Songs from a Room, Recent Songs, selections from Various Positions and I’m Your Man 
  • Julee Cruise: Floating Into the Night 
  • Donovan: Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow 
  • Nick Drake: Fruit Tree 
  • Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde 
  • Everly Brothers: favorites 
  • Fairport Convention: Liege and Leaf, What We Did on Our Holidays 
  •  Emmy Lou Harris: Wrecking Ball 
  • Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced?, favorites from Electric Ladyland 
  • Joe Henry: Shuffletown 
  • Buddy Holly: 20 Golden Greats 
  • Rupert Hine: Waving Not Drowning 
  • The Incredible String Band: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Wee Tam, Big Huge 
  • The Innocence Mission: Befriended, We Walked in Song 
  • Jethro Tull: Stand Up 
  • King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King 
  • The Kinks: Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society 
  • Love: Forever Changes 
  • The Mermen: A Glorious Lethal Euphoria 
  • Van Morrison: Astral Weeks, Moondance, Veedon Fleece 
  • Pink Floyd: favorites from More, Ummagumma, Meddle, Obscured by Clouds 
  • Portishead: Dummy 
  • Procol Harum Procol Harum, A Salty Dog 
  • Judee Sill: Heart Food 
  • Steeleye Span: large selection from 1970-75 
  • Slowdive: Just For a Day, Souvlaki 
  • Ultravox: Vienna, favorites from other albums 
  • Tom Waits: Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years, numerous favorites from Swordfishtrombone, Mule Variations, Blood Money, Real Gone

It was interesting to find that the largest total amount of music from any one artist comes from Tom Waits. I started to replace the King Crimson album with something by Yes—basically I wanted to include one ’70s prog-rock album, but it could have been one of several. I’m not sure about Pink Floyd, but the songs I have in mind are the spacey, dreamy ones, like “Fearless” from Meddle. Veedon Fleece is an addition—I had not heard it for some years when I originally made the list. Hmm, St. Dominic’s Preview and/or Common One should perhaps be on there, too. And what about Al Stewart?...


Hurricane Watch

As we nervously watch the projected path of the season's first hurricane, memories of Katrina return. I wrote about our brush with Katrina here, but never posted any pictures. Here are a couple.

Keep these facts in mind as you look at the pictures: Our house is a bit over 100 yards (90-100m) from Mobile Bay, about ten miles or so up the bay from the open Gulf. We're on the eastern shore of the bay, so probably about 100 miles (160km) in a straight line from the point where the eye of the storm came ashore. The land rises gently from the bay, so that our actual elevation is something like 14 ft (4m) above sea level. There is an unpaved street running east-west directly in front of our house. It ends at a patch of trees which go down to the water's edge, maybe 100-150 ft (30-45m).

This first picture, the only one I have handy, was taken a few days after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The person who took it was standing in the street directly in front of our house, looking toward the bay, which is beyond the trees at the end of the road. The two logs are the trunk of a pine tree that had fallen across the street and has been cut in two and moved aside. That's a downed power line on the left side of the street, and the splintered stump of the pine.

Now here is a similar view, taken during Katrina, when the storm itself had mostly passed but the flooding had not receded much. It's not exactly the same view--the person was standing another fifty feet or so further east (away from the bay) than in the first one. See that clump of broad-leaved plants (elephant ears) on the right? They're directly in front of the house. The person who took the first picture was probably standing right beside them.

That's only a foot or so (.5m?) of water. The person taking the picture was probably standing at the very edge of the flooded area, or at most in a few inches of water. Because the ground rises a couple of feet to the north, the water wasn't in our house. The scary thing about the picture, though: see that light-colored horizontal band at the end of the road? That's the face of a breaking wave. I don't want to see that again; there is something scary about seeing not just water but waves where there is supposed to be land. The monstrousness of Katrina is evident in the fact that we have had direct or almost-direct hits from hurricanes that did not push this much water up the bay.



I have almost completely given up reading the comments at Rod Dreher's Crunchy Con blog, which contain more sneering and ranting than I'm willing to read—more and more I am unwilling to waste even a minute of my life on such stuff. But this thread is very much worth your while. Rod asks for stories about particular moments or events that affected one's religious views. If you don't have time to read the whole thread, be sure to scroll down and read the ones by Chris (Aug. 16, 3:30pm) and two by Masha (Aug. 17, 4:47am). Says Masha (who is Russian):

...looking at that city of clouds through hand i closed eyes and imagined that when i open eyes the it will look like hand of 90 years old woman, tried to persuade myself that life will pass the same quickly as closing and opening of eyes...

It will, Masha, it will.

...the clouds will look the same, roses will smell the same and i will see the same tops of pines and birches, i thought that such beauty can't disappear and my grandfather will not disappear and perhaps we will meet after death.


Masters of Science Fiction, 2nd episode

Bah. I doubt I will bother watching again. This one was preachier than the first and had some massive lapses in logical consistency, or at least in explication. When I feel like watching another iteration of Super-Wise Super-Powerful Aliens May Save Us From Ourselves, I'll rent The Day the Earth Stood Still again. My wife liked it better than I did, because she thought the angel-like aliens were in fact angels. Maybe so. But why would angels need to be packaged in a Mysterious Substance Unknown to Man for shipment to the earth's surface? Whatever.

There was one cool thing: Cigarette Man from The X-Files (William B. Davis) played the warmongering and moreover culturally insensitive U. S. President. Nice to see you again, Cigarette Man, even though you disappointed me in X by not turning out to be a good guy.


Sunday Night Journal — August 12, 2007

What Keats Didn’t Say (and May Not Have Known)

Ryan C wondered last week about my addendum to the famous line from Keats in my epigraph above. Here is a reflection on the subject in which I’ll try to articulate something that is mostly a bundle of intuitions, so it may not be perfectly coherent, and certainly not logically air-tight.

I understand that when considered from the technical point of view in philosophy and theology, the ideas of truth and beauty can be distinguished from each other and analyzed in detail. Nevertheless, I have always believed that the true and the beautiful are on some deep level identical to each other (and also to the good, but for me truth and beauty have always come first to mind). What is beautiful is also true. What is true is also beautiful.

The obvious objection to Keats’ formula is that something can appear beautiful and yet be false or evil. To be precise, though, the beauty is not false so much as deficient. The beautiful is that which is pleasing to behold. If it is not pleasing in its entirety, to that degree its beauty is less. So if we say that although a certain woman is beautiful she is malicious, we really are saying that she is beautiful in one aspect but not in another.

The true (considered as a human statement or perception) is that which represents or corresponds to what is. This is pleasing to behold. That which does not correspond to what is, is less true and therefore less pleasing to behold, less beautiful. Unless our souls are darkened, we all want to experience more and more truth and beauty and goodness. And we want to believe that they are truly present in the great What-Is, the total reality of which we are a part, and not to believe that they are only illusions in our own minds.

Whether or not we believe in God, we know by experience and intuition that no human mind can contain (comprehend) all the components of the What-Is. So we accept that no statement or work of ours can encompass all truth or beauty, and that it cannot tell or show the truth about all things all at once. But the more it can tell or show, the more we admire it and love it and benefit from it. Hence we recognize degrees of intellectual or artistic achievement and afford more respect to the larger, the one that encompasses more. One perfect quatrain or syllogism does not make a great poet or philosopher.

In our imperfect and fallen condition—our condition of being less than we know we should be, which every sane person recognizes—we require ugliness and falsehood to help us recognize, by contrast, the beautiful and true. The larger the work of art or intellect, the more of this contrast it can contain and illuminate. In fact, it must contain the ugly, false, and evil, or we will not recognize the beautiful, true, and good. When man encounters the pure and infinite truth and beauty and goodness that are God, one of two things will happen: he will be destroyed by it (that is, destroyed as a limited human person—whether he is unmade or becomes something else, we don’t know). Or he will not be able to see it at all, which is far more common and happens to every one of us every day, and is how we live our lives.

Genesis begins by saying that God looked at his creation and saw that it was good. But in our natural condition we cannot say this without qualification, because we have to consider the vast amount of evil and pain in the world. Moreover, because we are not God, God is included in the great What-Is that we behold, and so we cannot say with all our hearts and all our minds that God is good; the best we can do is to say with Job that we have no right to question him. Many of us cannot even get that far, and cannot believe that God is there at all.

So the presence of evil in the world appears to make it impossible to say that truth and beauty are always one. Evil is not only opposed to good but also to truth and beauty, because all three are ultimately one. The attempt to affirm that the What-Is is beautiful does not convince us: we see the false and ugly and evil, and we must either persuade ourselves that they are not real, or else qualify the affirmation, saying that the true is not always the beautiful and good. In our hearts we even go further and say that this “truth” does not deserve to be called true, because we have within us an idea of what should be true that is better than it.

But the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection solve this problem. They make it possible for us to affirm without qualification that the What-Is, the creator and his creation, are good, because they provide the means whereby the presence of the Not-Beautiful, the Not-true, and the Not-good can be harmonized and reconciled in the work of art that is God and all his creation, the Great Work that satisfies us by including everything.

Beauty and truth are truly one only if there is an infinitely True and Beautiful and Good God who entered the realm of the false and ugly and evil—the Incarnation; suffered its agonies—the Crucifixion; and lifted and transfigured that realm into his own without any compromise or degradation of the latter—the Resurrection. If what Keats said is true, so is the Christian faith. And we need to know that.

The Keats reference, by the way, in case anyone doesn’t recognize it, is to the last two lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the urn is represented as saying to mankind:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.


Music of the Week — August 12, 2007

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

This year marking the fortieth anniversary of the release of this album, I thought it appropriate to listen to it for the first time in many, many years. I had made its acquaintance in 1967 via a soon-scratchy LP and a portable record player, and was curious to hear it in digital audio on a good system. I half-expected to be able to say that the experience was a revelation, that I heard things I’d never heard before. But that didn’t really happen. It was much as I remembered it, just fuller and richer.

I had decided long ago that the album was more important as a triumph of production and arrangement than as music per se, and that still seems true, too. There really aren’t that many great songs here, and apart from the reprise of the opening song the “concept album” aspect—the notion that the album is a unity with a definite theme—is mostly an illusion, no more present than on many other albums of the time, such as the Kinks’ Something Else—rather less so, actually, in that comparison.

It was a bit of a surprise to me to find that the arrangement and production on many of the songs—“Fixing a Hole,” and the title tune(s), for instance—are really not that elaborate; you’re just hearing a good (really good) rock band, well-produced. And because these songs are, by Beatles standards, not that great, they ended up being the less-interesting tracks. I found myself more interested in exactly the ones that I thought might sound most dated because they’re more gimmicky: “Lucy in the Sky,” “Mr. Kite,” “Within You Without You.” The latter in particular (George Harrison’s Indian piece) I was prepared to snicker at, but it strikes me now as quite lovely. And “A Day in the Life,” with the sole exception of the stupid “I’d love to turn you on” line, is as vivid and powerful and strange as it was forty years ago. “She’s Leaving Home” is a truly lovely song and arrangement, marred by what I would nominate as the worst line the Beatles ever wrote: “Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.”

The single most striking thing in my revisiting of the album was the brilliance and effectiveness of the rhythm section. McCartney’s bass in particular, prominent because of its bright, rubbery tone and avoidance of the lower range, often seems to be the engine of the music, both supporting and leading. If he’d been so inclined, he could have established himself as an independent virtuoso on that instrument alone, in the manner of Jack Bruce, and that was only one of his gifts.

All in all, I wouldn’t call this the Beatles’ greatest musical achievement, and I don’t even like it as much as I do the thrown-together Magical Mystery Tour, but it certainly remains interesting, and not just as a product of its times. What a monumental talent these guys collectively possessed!


A Little Gift for Music Fans

I recommend that you gift-wrap it: make sure your sound is adjusted to a comfortable level for a YouTube clip, click on this link, then immediately close your eyes or turn your back. Listen for at least a minute or so before you look. This is not some kind of trick--it isn't a blood-curdling scream that's going to make you jump, or anything of that sort. If you haven't heard the song, you may be surprised at the artist's identity. (Thanks to old friend Robert for putting me on to this.)

Also, give this a look and listen. Via Julianne Wiley, it's a group of Pakistani artists singing against terrorism. According to Juli it's the number one song in Pakistan. Her comment: "My God, dear Holy Spirit, You get around..."

The other guy gets around, too, of course: sobering to think that a Taliban type would see the beautiful young woman in the group and think "we need to stone her."


St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

She is one of the saints to whom I'm very much drawn. Nevertheless I only realized tonight, when I opened up the Magnificat, that today is her feast day. As there are still some forty minutes left before midnight, I can still mark the day with a few of her words from the paragraphs reproduced in Magnificat from A Word in Season.

The words "Your will be done" must be the rule of the Christian's life in all their fullness.... For all other cares the Lord will make himself responsible....[E]very one of us is always balancing, as it were, on the edge of the knife between nothingness and the fullness of the divine life....If we belong to Christ, we have to live the whole Christ-life. We must mature into his humanity, we must one day begin the way of the cross to Gethsemane and to Golgotha. And all sufferings that come from without are as nothing compared with the dark night of the soul, when the divine light no longer shines, and the voice of the Lord no longer speaks. God is there, but he is hidden and silent.


Three Words About Pornography

Another note from my perpetual consideration of the question of the differences and relations between the sexes: Dawn Eden has a fascinating post on the number of men attending her readings because they are trying to get control of their sexual impulses and behavior and are finding little or no help. And there's an equally fascinating discussion in the comments, to which I have added the following three words:


This is from a bumper sticker, produced by the Knights of Columbus, I think, and one of the few instances where the bumper sticker version of an idea really manages to say it all.


Music of the Week — August 5, 2007

Sufjan Stevens: Seven Swans

I could hardly have gone further in the opposite direction from last week’s artists, goth-metal Tristania, than this gentle, intimate, and explicitly Christian album. Yet I’ve been listening to both these albums to the exclusion of almost everything else for the past couple of weeks, well past the three mandatory hearings for a Music of the Week selection, and liking each of them more and more. Both speak to spiritual questions, Tristania indirectly and negatively, Sufjan Stevens directly and positively.

Stevens is an artist who’s been on my to-be-investigated list for quite some time. He’s a favorite of the indie-rock set, and although I consider that a positive recommendation it isn’t unqualified: more than once I’ve found that an artist who comes on a wave of applause from that corner has brilliant moments but doesn’t hold up for an entire album, or for more than one album.

I have an uneasy feeling that I may not be listening to Seven Swans seven years from now, but I really can’t point to any particular reason, except possibly the fact that the lyrics on many of the songs are rather on the slight side. If the simpler and less coherent ones are supposed to be symbolically weighty, it isn’t working for me. This is very spare, almost minimal, music, entirely exposing each song. Under these conditions every word needs to count, and too often they don’t.

That disposes of the negatives; let’s proceed to the positives. The album is full of simple yet striking melodies, supported by beautiful and slightly quirky arrangements, mostly acoustic: banjo, guitar, a Farfisa-sounding organ, piano, occasional drums and bass. The banjo is used very imaginatively, so that you’re almost not aware at first that it is a banjo; one rarely speaks of introspective or intimate banjo music, but there’s some of that here. Some very sweet and subtle female vocal touches are provided by members of another group high on my must-hear-more list, the Danielson Famile. These play a significant role in imparting a winningly innocent quality to the whole production.

More than half of these songs are exquisite, and even those that seem comparatively less interesting have something that ends up grabbing me, like the wordless chorus of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which seems to have some connection with the Flannery O’Connor story though I couldn’t say exactly what. I think my favorite song is “In the Devil’s Territory,” which creates an image in my mind of something rising slowly to the light. If I had written this a few days ago I would have said that the last song, “The Transfiguration,” didn’t really do much for me, but on my last hearing it finally sank in, and now I think it’s one of the better tracks.

By the way, the high regard in which Stevens’ work in general and this album in particular are held by critics and fans at large explodes the mistaken belief under which some Christians in the arts labor: that secular audiences will not hear them. If you come up with something good, they’ll listen. Read the review at the Seven Swans eMusic page, not as far as I know written by a Christian, and notice the comment from the atheist at the end of the subscriber reviews.


Sunday Night Journal — August 5, 2007

The Sixty-Forty Ratio

…just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the non-believer is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world which he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole…. Both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief. [Doubt] saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds…it prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction…. It opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever, for the other the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him….

Faith can only mature by suffering anew, at every stage in life, the oppression and the power of unbelief, by admitting its reality and then finally going right through it, so that it again finds the path opening ahead for a while.

The man who is now Pope Benedict wrote these words when he was a university professor. Upon reading them a few weeks ago, I immediately ordered a copy of the book in which they appear, Introduction to Christianity. Because the year 1967 is significant to me both personally and historically, it intrigues me that the book was substantially written in that year, based on lectures given at the University of Tubingen in the summer of that year.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I haven’t stopped thinking about this passage since I read it. But it would be no exaggeration at all to say that I’ve thought of it every day, and more than once. I don’t know how many Christians experience faith as Ratzinger describes it here, but he paints an accurate picture of own spiritual life, and also sheds light on why I sometimes, or often, feel closer to some people who don’t believe than to some who do. Many of my fellow Christians seem far more certain that the faith is indeed true than I do. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Catholic say this, but one often hears from Evangelicals the assertion that the believer knows that he is saved—“if you died tonight, would you be certain of going to heaven?” is a question often put to potential converts, meaning “Come join me in this certitude.” And it implies that he also knows that the basic teachings of Christianity are true.

Of course one wonders how much of this is bravado or even self-deception. In any case, I don’t understand it. Never mind the theological proposition about the assurance of salvation, which of course is in error from the Catholic point of view: I can’t understand the psychology of it, the level of confidence. On an average day the ratio of faith to doubt in my mind is probably somewhere around 60-40. On a bad day it might be 51-49 (and in the occasional dark moment 1-99).

But never let it be said that I am not entirely committed to the faith. Commitment and confidence are not the same thing; a soldier can be 100% committed to a mission in which he has very little confidence. The commitment might come from a sense of duty, of fidelity to an oath, or from a desperate conviction that no other course of action offers any hope at all. Both are operative in me.

I should be more confident. I would certainly like to be. I can offer an explanation for my high level of doubt: a congenital melancholy and pessimism, reinforced by one or two events in my life that put me in the habit early on of thinking that in the end one is most likely to be disappointed. It’s rare that I contemplate the possibility of heaven without a voice in my head saying it’s probably too good to be true, you know.

And yet I can say with as much certainty as one can ever have about one’s future behavior that I will never abandon the faith. That resolve only becomes more firmly fixed as the number of years I have already lived outstrips the number I can expect to have still before me. I used to think Pascal’s wager a rather shallow and perhaps cowardly thing, but no more. Now it seems a grave and worthy argument.

Of all religions and philosophies, Christianity provides the most thorough and complete explanation of the facts of the human condition, and is simultaneously the answer that most satisfies my sense of the fitness and order that ought to be. My pessimistic temperament says that it is probably not true. But my ability even to have such a concept as truth must arise from the existence of a real external world and my consciousness of a possible gap between what I believe about it and what is in fact the case. I’m certain that truth exists; why not Truth? And must not the explanation that best accounts for the facts be true, or at least more true than others? Christianity, then, the most wildly improbable of systems, remains, paradoxically, the most reasonable, and (therefore) the one that commands my assent.

This is all I can offer the unbeliever. I have no miracles or direct communication from God to which I can testify. I can think of a number of events in my life which seem providential, but it’s in the nature of these that their origin and meaning are ambiguous. This leaves me, as Ratzinger says, open to the unbeliever—not, any longer, to unbelief itself, in the sense of any real possibility of exchanging faith for denial—but to the unbeliever’s heart. And sometimes I see there a reciprocal openness, and hope. I was touched when a friend who does not believe asked for my prayers regarding a situation about which she was gravely anxious. I don’t think this was an attempt to cover all possibilities but rather an instinct of the heart, in conflict with the judgment of the head: a natural impulse to hope and to ask for help from something or someone who is capable of giving it. And although she didn’t believe she asked someone who did to serve as an intermediary to the not-impossible God. (Although she didn’t say so I expect she also made prayers of her own.)

I prayed as requested, of course. The outcome of the situation was as she hoped, and not as she feared. Whether my prayers had any influence on that outcome, neither she nor I will know in this life. We share the fate, to use Ratzinger’s phrase, of not knowing.


To Blog or Not to Blog

Amy Welborn is backing off her blog, which has been sort of a major hub of the Catholic blogosphere. This doesn't come as a great surprise. I've often wondered how she ever got anything else done. Even the relatively small amount of posting I do here takes a fair amount of time, which is in a very direct way time not spent on more extensive writing projects. I've considered giving it up, but I plan to continue for a mildly amusing reason: it's a sort of trick I play on myself. Having started something like the Sunday night journal (which will be up later today, btw), I feel some sense of obligation to keep it going as long as there is even a handful of people who show up from week to week to check it out. This means that I will do some writing. Theoretically, time spent on the journal is time not spent on, for instance, the great unfinished yea barely begun narrative poem. In practice, though, time not spent on the journal might well be time wasted. So I continue.

A favorite aphorism: In theory there's no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.


For Sci-Fi and Mystery Fans

Update: The first Masters of Science Fiction episode, "A Clean Escape," was, to my taste, a disappointment. Tiresome and tendentious, and I saw the big revelation coming within the first ten minutes or so. I'll give the series one more try.

Those who have a tv, that is. I just read in the local paper that ABC has a four-part Masters of Science Fiction series beginning tonight (10 Eastern/9 Central). I wouldn't ordinarily bother with something like this but it's based on stories by writers (Heinlein, Ellison) of what I consider the golden age of science fiction, roughly 1950-1965. Coincidentally, that happens to be the stuff I read as a teenager, when for a couple of years I read hardly anything but sci-fi. I didn't develop into a serious fan, but I do still enjoy it sometimes, and when I occasionally dip into an anthology of stories from that period they seem more substantial than much current popular entertainment.

Also, PBS has had an Agatha Christie series running for several weeks on Masterpiece Theatre/Mystery. I'm a very big fan of Mystery in general, somewhat less so of Agatha Christie, and their Christie adaptations often seem better than the books to me. I find it hard to imagine a better Miss Marple than this one, played by Geraldine McEwan, as I've never seen a better Poirot than David Suchet's. This series is apparently almost over, so it's a bit late for me to mention it, and for some reason the next episode doesn't show until the 19th, but if you like this sort of thing and haven't been watching, do yourself a favor. Each episode is a different story, so you don't need to have seen the others.


More on Bergman

Still simmering over J. Podhoretz's sniping at Bergman and his suggestion that Bergman admirers are a species of poseur, I went looking for more substantial commentary. (Not your fault, Mary Ann--I had read the piece before you mentioned it here.)

Here is a fine overview by self-described "right-wing film geek" Victor Morton. I only skimmed his detailed comments, as I've either not seen most of the works he mentions or saw them thirty or more years ago, and I'd like to see them first, or again, on my own, so to speak. But his overall view lines up with mine pretty well, and unlike me he's truly knowledgeable about film in general.

I note with approval that Morton lists Cries and Whispers as one of his all-time favorite movies. I saw it only once, when it came out, 1973 or so, and I don't think I've ever been so moved by a film. I think, looking back, that I can say it changed my life. More precisely, I guess, it changed my mind and heart, so that there were certain aspects of life that never looked the same afterwards.

When I ask myself why I fell in love with even Bergman's extremely bleak work, one part of the answer is that while he's telling us, through the actions of his characters, how terrible life can be, he's also, through his imagery, telling us how beautiful it is. I've heard people say that such-and-such a painter taught them how to see. I could say that of both Bergman and Antonioni.

By the way, if you click on the "view profile" button on this page, you'll see an off-the-top-of-my-head list of my favorite movies which I think should dispel the notion that grim existential stalemates are the only ones I like.


LP to CD Update

Back in March I posted a description of how I do this. At the end of that post I mentioned that I planned to try a program called Golden Records which is supposed to make the process simpler, and promised to report on it. Here's the report, finally.

Verdict: it works fine and makes the process pretty straightforward. But it's a little too straightforward for me--I want more tweakability. As far as I could tell it doesn't allow you to make adjustments to the click/pop/scratch reduction parameters, and I found that it didn't do the job as well as my combination of CoolEdit 2000 (now Adobe Audition) and ClickFix Lite. I tried it with a very beat-up LP--the copy of ZZ Top's Tres Hombres that was a recent Music of the Week--and there was a very noticeable difference. (My wife mocks me for caring about this, and thinks I'm some sort of obsessive audiophile, which only proves that she's never known a real one.)

So if you want something that will do the job pretty quickly and simply, and you either have LPs that aren't in real bad shape or aren't that concerned about eliminating noise, Golden Records would be a good choice.

The program also has some cassette-specific capabilities, which I had planned to try out, as I also have a fair number of old cassettes. Handling the various Dolby schemes can be a problem when digitizing cassettes, and I was hoping GR would help me out with that. But I carelessly let the 30-day trial period expire and didn't get to evaluate that functionality.