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September 2007

Music of the Week — September 30, 2007

Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball; Red Dirt Girl; Stumble Into Grace

As everybody knows, Emmylou Harris came to prominence in the 1970s as a vocalist and band leader who primarily interpreted other people’s work in a country-rock style. Her work in that vein is extremely good, and I’ve always loved her voice, but as a style country and country-rock are not my favorites, so I didn’t follow her work closely and for many years only knew it through a couple of albums, such as the exquisite Roses in the Snow (1980). In later years, through the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s, I assumed she had settled into a pattern along the lines of other artists who were primarily vocalists (say, Linda Ronstadt or Rod Stewart), doing more or less the same thing she always had. It was not until sometime in the late ‘90s when my friend Daniel Nichols sent me a tape that included several songs from Wrecking Ball that I realized she was developing into something far more than a gifted performer.

I’m trying to keep these weekly reviews brief, so I’ll get to the point: with the three albums named above Emmylou Harris has created a body of work that in its combination of beauty and profundity is the equal of anything anyone has ever done in American popular music. The best tracks here are as good as anything by Dylan, Cohen, Waits, Springsteen, or any other of the bardic singer-songwriters of the past forty-plus years one could name. Let me emphasize that: anything by any of them. I suppose one could quibble mildly with that judgment by pointing out how important the producer’s work is in creating the haunting mysterious atmospheres which fill these recordings—Daniel Lanois’s influence is certainly obvious and huge on Wrecking Ball—but they don’t all have the same producer, so we have to assume that Harris is ultimately responsible. Nor does she write all the songs, but clearly hers is the vision that chooses and shapes them.

The term “cosmic American music” was coined ca. 1970 by Gram Parsons, who seems to have been a sort of guru for Harris as well as her tragically lost love (I’ve assumed that he is the subject of the gorgeous and heartbreaking “Michaelangelo” from Red Dirt Girl). It was left to Harris, carrying on alone after Parsons’ early death, to bring the idea to fulfillment in a way that I don’t suppose they could have imagined in the early ‘70s. There could be no more apt description of this music, although it may not give you much of a clue as to how it actually sounds. For that, you need to listen. I included Wrecking Ball in my desert island list a few weeks back, but probably any or all of these three albums would qualify. Possibly Red Dirt Girl would be the best place to start, as it includes “The Pearl,” which would be in the running for the best song from the three and contains the lines:

If there’s no heaven
What’s this hunger for?

That question might serve as an epigraph for all three albums: they’re filled with an intense and even desperate yearning, sometimes spiritual, sometimes erotic-romantic, sometimes both. I’m tempted to quote more of that lyric but you really need to hear it sung.

For biographical and career information, here is Emmylou Harris’s page at All Music, and here is Gram Parsons’s.


I Don't Get Out Much

It takes a lot to get me to go to a non-classical concert these days. Prices have gotten so high that I can't convince myself that an hour or two of music is worth it, and my wife has very little interest in pop music, and I'm generally a creature of habit, and I'm always a little concerned about aggravating my tinnitis. So it takes a lot to get me to go to the trouble and expense. But with a little push from a co-worker and fellow music-hound I'm off to see and hear an angel a siren Emmylou Harris tonight. Her Wrecking Ball is one of those works that are so good I only rarely listen to them, so it wasn't that hard to talk me into this one.

Co-worker informs me that the bar where we will dine before the concert is rated one of the best in the country by Esquire. I don't quite get that--it's just a little corner bar that also serves sandwiches--my kind of place, but I wouldn't have thought it would be Esquire's. All in who you know, I guess.

Anyway, I will report tomorrow.


Theodore Dalrymple on the Problem of Good

The always-perceptive Theodore Dalyrymple has some interesting things to say about the question of what causes people to be good.

More recently, perhaps on account of my advancing age, the problem of good has begun to preoccupy me. How is extraordinary goodness possible? Where does it come from? Is it innate? And if it is innate, is it real goodness? For there cannot be real goodness where the possibility and temptation to its reverse is not present.

Read his observations and speculations here (Hat tip to Robert).

Second Thought on "The War"

Yes, it is really good. But I'm not sure I can watch two hours of anything for seven (!) nights in a row. That means pretty much doing nothing else in the evenings for a week. And they should have put in some kind of break between the two hours. (I know, record it, but that introduces other hassles.) Still, you should check it out, at least.

And if you've never heard real Southern accents, now's your chance. The woman from Mobile that they spend a lot of time with has a classic "magnolia mouth" that you don't hear much anymore in younger people.


Ken Burns: "The War"

I guess this only applies to people in the U.S. We watched the first segment of Ken Burns's new documentary on World War II last night. It's really good. If you didn't see it last night, it's not too late to jump in with tonight's episode.

One small complaint: the narrator does not pronounce "Mobile," the city, correctly. He tries but he just can't quite make himself put the accent all the way on the second syllable, where it belongs. It's "moBEEL," not "MObeel" or, still worse, the way you'd ordinarily pronounce the adjective "mobile" (MObel). It helps to think of it as a French word--it was originally founded as a French city (in fact it was the first capital of the French territory, before New Orleans).


Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2007

Nature’s Indifference?

I think every person has a sense that he is at the center of a world which exists mainly in relation to him, that he is the main character in a novel or play. And that’s because he is. We understand that a human author imbues, as far as possible, everything in his composition with significance for its limited set of characters, and that the same event will have a real but different meaning for each of them. So it shouldn’t be difficult for anyone who believes in the infinite creator God to accept that our lives are filled with significance, even at the most mundane level; that we are constantly being spoken to by everything around us.

I don’t mean, of course, that we should try to get a specific message or a bit of instruction out of every little thing that happens. That’s a bad idea, partly because we are likely to hear what we want to hear, as when someone says something like (and I’ve heard this) “God wanted me to have that parking space.” And partly because our minds are too small, our ignorance too great, and we get caught up in trying to unravel things that we simply can’t know—why was this person killed in the airplane crash, while another was briefly delayed by a telephone call, missed the flight, and lived?

Moreover, very little that life is telling us, great or small, is comprehensible till after the fact. Mainly, I think, and most of the time, we’re invited first of all to attend to existence of so much that is not ourselves, and to enjoy our contemplation of it. It’s not just your imagination; the great show really is being put on for your sake—only not for yours alone.

Last night it was nearly midnight when I walked the dogs down to the bay, and I ended up staying there longer than usual. The very bright and nearly full moon was in the southern sky, to my left, just beginning to descend. In spite of the fact that we had been under a tropical storm watch, there was almost no wind, and the soft ripples coming in to the shore did so at a slight angle away from the moon, so that as they rose onto the sand their faces were painted silver by the moonlight. Directly across the bay, in the west and low in the sky, a heap of anvil-shaped clouds rose from the horizon, growing smaller toward the top in a sort of rough pagoda shape, their upper surfaces glowing in the moonlight. Now and then there was a very faint flash of lightning, so far away that I couldn’t tell what direction it was coming from and never heard the thunder. Very thin fast clouds were blowing in from the east, from the direction of the storm, trailing across the moon. Otherwise the sky was mostly clear and when I looked straight up I could see a few stars, in spite of the moon and the lights of town. There was enough moonlight that I could see gulls flying out over the water. The great dark silhouette of a heron came gliding silently into the branches of a nearby magnolia tree, then glided away again a few moments later.

In short, it was hypnotic, and that’s why I stayed so long, even though the little dog, who has to be kept on a leash because we haven’t trained him very well, grew impatient to move on. It was as if the picture was being painted for me. And it was—but not for me alone.

It’s a familiar rhetorical tactic of materialists to point out the indifference of nature to suffering and any human concern whatever—which only serves to show how much one’s philosophy determines what one makes of the facts of the world. We often speak of natural beauty as a sign from God. I’ve begun to think it’s something more: not so much a sign, which implies a distance, as his very voice and face, shown to us in a form that we can see and understand, perpetually speaking to us of who and what he is.

Nature is for all of us; it ought to be unaffected by the fortunes of any one of us. Suppose something bad had happened to me while I stood by the water last night. It’s extremely far-fetched but not utterly implausible that I could have stumbled upon a fifteen-foot alligator and been dragged into the water and drowned, or perhaps just had a limb torn off, or that I could have been bitten by a cottonmouth, or simply fallen dead of a heart attack. Why should the beauty of the night have been spoiled because something bad happened to me? It was entirely possible that a couple of hundred yards downshore, in the city park that also borders the bay, two lovers were enraptured almost as much by the moonlight and the water as by each other. Should my pain have spoiled their delight? Should the moon have vanished from the sky because I was suffering?

No. What we call nature’s indifference is its constancy in beauty, intended to represent that of God himself, a reminder that no matter what happens to us as individuals his presence never fails and his nature never changes, and that beauty is a part of the very deepest fabric of what is. It would be dreary, in fact it’s almost frightening, to think that my own pain could undo it. Where then would be my hope of escape? No, I want nature to be untouchable by my mind, the vast space and time of the cosmos to remain utterly independent of me, and all this imperturbable persistence a promise of eternity and infinity. I’d like to think that if I should die at such a moment as the one I’ve described some corner of my consciousness would, in spite of the pain and fear, still know that I was in the presence of beauty as the darkness came on.


Music of the Week — September 23, 2007

Joanna Newsom: Ys

It appears that hippies still walk the earth. Not just the survivors of that long-ago age, the often rather dazed-seeming geezers and grannies who show up at rock concerts and political demonstrations, but young people who seem to have adopted the sensibility and the style of a certain element of the ‘60s (without, one hopes, the self- and socially-destructive behavior that went along with it). I say “adopted” but perhaps it should be “reinvented”—maybe this is a perennial expression of an attractive sort of bohemianism rather than a conscious imitation or attempt to revive the movement.

At any rate, here’s an example, which might be described as The Incredible String Band meets Victoria Williams. With the invocation of those names you can figure the word “quirky” is probably going to make an appearance, and indeed it’s a hard one to avoid, tiresome though it may be, when speaking of Joanna Newsom. A quick way to get an idea of what her music is like is to look at the cover art:

If that doesn’t say “hippie girl” to you then you’ve never seen a real one.

I would expect most people to find Ys a love-it-or-hate-it thing: either you’ll find it mannered and affected and possibly unlistenable, or enchanting. I’m firmly in the second camp, more so every time I hear it; I think it’s wonderful, but it’s definitely not for everybody. Its five songs range from just over seven to almost seventeen minutes in length, each an unbroken cascade of long melody lines, complex lyrics, and very…umm…unusual singing. Newsom’s voice has been called child-like but if that’s true it’s a somewhat peculiar child. I would describe it rather as a little girl trying to sound like a grownup (or should it be the other way around?), but that’s only one mode of her style, which is full of unexpected timbres. There are no purely instrumental interludes. The arrangements consist of Newsom’s own harp and orchestrations by the legendary Van Dyke Parks. There’s no trace of rock-and-roll here at all, which, I’ll note in passing, points out the futility of trying to generalize about the state of contemporary (or for that matter post-‘60s) popular music.

Like the best of the Incredible String Band’s work, this is music which takes you into its own strange and fascinating world, restlessly inventive both musically and lyrically, jumping back and forth between the mundane and the mystical, the personal and the cosmic, the playful and the serious. Newsom spent some time studying creative writing, and it shows, but in a good way: not in the sense that she sounds like a veteran of too many workshops, but in that she obviously puts a lot of care into her use of words (including what I’m guessing is the only know instance of rhyming “amen” and “hollerin’”).

Squint skyward and listen:
loving him,
we move within his borders,
just asterisms
in the stars’ set order.

We could stand for a century,
with our heads cocked,
in the broad daylight
at this thing: joy.
in bodies that don’t keep,
with the sweetness of being,
till we don’t be.
Told: take this
and eat this.


The line breaks and punctuation are my attempt to represent the rhyme and rhythm as well as the sense of the lyric. I had to look up “asterism”; it’s actually the perfect word here.

The “Y” in Ys, by the way, is apparently pronounced “ee,” since Newsom has released an EP called Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band. No, I don’t know what Ys means, or whether it should rhyme with “ease” or “grease” (the noun—and why are those two words pronounced differently anyway?).

Here’s a YouTube clip which combines an interview with a bit of a performance (young single men should approach with caution, as it may be a romantic hazard). Here’s another which is a partial performance of “Emily.” The sound quality is poor, the performance a bit unsteady, and the arrangements are reduced to harp, guitar, and something which looks and sounds like an overgrown mandolin. But between these two you should be able to get an idea of whether you want to hear more.

Update: It just occurred to me to see if there is an entry for Ys in Wikipedia. There is. Maybe you already knew this.


Two Completely Unrelated Links

(1) Grumbling to myself yesterday about Chris Rea's Blue Cafe not being distributed (through normal channels) in this country, it occurred to me to look him up on Wikipedia and see if there was any interesting information about his work over the past few years. Quite a lot, as it turns out: he was seriously ill a few years ago (the article is a bit vague) and has taken his career in a totally different direction. Here's the article. At the end of it there's a link to his official site which contains more info and some sound samples.

(2) Maybe I'm the last one to hear about this, but I just discovered The Poetry Archive. I came across it because I was talking to someone about the recording I once heard of Yeats reading "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (which I remember as sounding something like "I WILL arise and ghoooh nooow / and ghoooh to Innis. Frreeee"). The Archive has it, and, to my astonishment, recordings of Tennyson, Browning, and Kipling. It had never occurred to me that the lives of the first two did, just barely, overlap the introduction of sound recording (Edison introduced his machine in 1877). Unfortunately I haven't been able to listen to any of these because they're in RealAudio format, which I really don't want to install, but I guess I'll have to.


There's Something About Bono...

...that makes some people do things like this, and makes other people, for instance me, laugh at them.

Even funnier, though, (and nothing to do with Bono) is the title of the last song on that album: "We Built This Village On a Trad. Arr. Tune." (If you don't get the joke, don't worry—in fact, congratulate yourself on not having your mind cluttered up with pop music trivia.)


Walker Percy and the Lovesick Astronaut

I noticed a headline on CNN's site a little while ago saying that the astronaut involved in the infamous NASA love triangle incident some months ago is back in court. When the story first appeared I naturally thought at once of Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos; specifically, the first of the two science fiction sketches, Space Odyssey I & II, with which Percy ends the book.

In Space Odyssey I, a starship from Earth carrying six men and six women has been sent out to search for intelligent life and has discovered it on the third planet of the star Proxima Centauri. Communication has been established and language worked out. For reasons which become apparent as the story progresses, the captain of the starship wishes very much to land, but discovers that the ship is being forcibly held in orbit by some unknown force. Someone on the planet explains that there are three types of consciousness and the earthlings' C-type must be determined before they can land. "C1s and C3s are benign. C2s are dangerous."

The following dialog ensues (PC3 is the spokesman for the planet):

Earthship: May we land?

PC3: Not yet. What is your C-type?

Earthship: What is a C2 consciousness?

PC3: A C2 consciousness is a consciousness which passes through a C1 stage and then for some reason falls into the pit of itself.

Earthship: The pit of itself?

PC3: In some evolving civilizations, for reasons which we don't entirely understand, the evolution of consciousness is attended by a disaster of some sort....It has something to do with the discovery of the self and the incapacity to deal with it, the consciousness becoming self-conscious but not knowing what to do with the self, not even knowing what its self is, and so ending by being that which it is not, saying that which is not, doing that which is not, and making others what they are not.

Earthship: What does that mean?

PC3: Playing roles, being phony, lying, cheating, stealing, and killing. To say nothing of exotic disordering of the reproductive apparatus...

Later, PC3 inquires about sexual relationships on board the starship, and has been assured by the captain that relationships are unencumbered by "the usual cultural and sexual hang-ups."

PC3: How has it worked?

Earthship: Among the nine survivors, very well until just recently.

PC3: Nine survivors? What happened to the other three?

Earthship (after a silence): They died.

PC3: Were they killed?

Earthship: Yes.

PC3: Were they men?

Earthship: Yes.

PC3: Were they killed in quarrels over the women?

Earthship: Yes. How did you know?

PC3: We've had some experience with C2s.

The switching of the gender roles in the real-life story may account for the fact that no one was actually killed, women being generally less given to physical murder.


Music of the Week — September 16, 2007

Chris Rea: Auberge

Everytime I hear Chris Rea I wonder why he isn’t more popular. His warm, gruff voice is striking and powerful, and his slide guitar work, although not flashy, is expressive in a way that doesn’t rely on the standard blues vocabulary. His best songs are terrific. He deserves a bigger audience.

Then I listen to this album, and get an idea of why he doesn’t have it. About half the songs here are magnificent, starting with the opener, but the others are a little dull. The musicianship is top-notch throughout, making every track worth hearing, and if you give them a chance the lesser songs will grow on you, but in the end they still don’t quite measure up, and they’re similar enough to each other that I can see why some listeners would not stick with the album. Also, to my taste the production is a little too slick; it’s flawless, but Rea’s strengths might be better served by a more immediate and less polished sound.

Something else, however, which might have tended to limit his popularity is a plus for some of us: he’s a grown-up who makes music for grown-ups. There is absolutely nothing trendy or shallow or meretricious about his work; you feel like you’re listening to a solid man with something solid to say. He writes about his family a lot, and is interested in quieter pleasures than partying; when he talks about heavy drinking and so forth it’s usually as of something in the past. He dwells on the past quite a bit, actually, and for me personally the fact that he leans toward the melancholy and nostalgic is also a draw. I think I should revise my desert-island list of a few weeks ago to include a best-of selection from his work.

Reportedly his more recent releases are just as good as if not better than this, which dates back fifteen years or so (but the newer ones can be hard to find—see this post). Here is the title song from Auberge on YouTube (the “video” appears to consist only of audio). You may think you aren’t hearing anything for the first thirty seconds or so; they’re a little sound-picture of someone walking around in his garage, starting his car, and driving away. It’s quite evocative on speakers that can do a really good job of imaging.


Sunday Night Journal — September 16, 2007

Five Books Everyone Should Read

Someone asked me a couple of weeks ago to name five books I think everyone should read. As an habitual maker of pop music lists (see the movie High Fidelity) I was intrigued, but the scope of the charge was really impossibly broad, so I had to narrow it somewhat by adding the reason why the books should be read. I couldn’t pick five books as being the best or most important (why else would they be books one should read?) without any further qualification of “best” or “important.” And it seemed that the reason should be the most important I could think of. So here are five books I think everyone should read for the purpose of becoming wise in this life and, by practicing the wisdom so learned, saving his soul in the next.

The New Testament. What could be more important than the discovery of what life is for and how it is to be lived, and why it matters? This book contains the answers, with the Resurrection as proof of its authority. If you want to know what happens after death, who better to tell you than the one who had the power to enter it and then return to us? And the historic truth of the Resurrection has far more support than the casual materialist usually imagines. My first thought was to name the Bible as a whole, but I think it would be somewhere between difficult and impossible to understand the Old Testament in isolation from the religious traditions which regard it as Scripture. Almost the same could be said of the New Testament, but I think one could get the general idea from reading it in a way that one could not with the Old.

Walker Percy: Lost in the Cosmos. Here you can find an account of what the New Testament is talking about in terms that bring it home to the modern mind in a striking way. It is, essentially, a diagnosis of the Fall of Man, a description of original sin—the catastrophic flaw in human consciousness that so reliably makes both the external world and every human spirit such a very troubled place. One aspect of the book that makes it so useful for our time is that Percy is not particularly concerned with the specifics of how the Fall occurred—the Garden, the temptation, the fruit—but with the psychology of it. It’s also one of the funniest books I know.

C. S. Lewis: The Great Divorce. Read this one to learn what is at stake in the choices we make throughout our lives, to understand how our own free will can determine whether our lives end in an eternity of bliss or of misery. And to learn something important about the nature of good and evil.

Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov. The list should include one great novel in the realist tradition that shows the big ideas working themselves out in individual lives. That sounds too philosophical: what I mean to say is that we need to see that the ideas are not merely ideas, that they operate powerfully in determining how we live. It’s been many years since I read The Brothers K, but if my memory is reasonably accurate it fulfills this purpose as well as anything ever written.

Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings. And here is a great novel in the non-realist tradition that is not only one of the most enchanting and powerful stories ever written but also a profound meditation on time, providence, fate, free will, love, and virtue.

I could have made the fourth item a list from which to choose one title. Other possibilities: Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the stories of Flannery O’Connor. I can imaging others nominating, say, Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, although to my thinking they don’t quite come up to these others in wisdom.

The Screwtape Letters might do just as well for the third item.

Why not include Dante and Shakespeare? For one thing, I found myself thinking of the person to whom such a list would be recommended, and I could only think of this person as a citizen of our times: intelligent and interested but only superficially educated, spiritually both naïve and cynical—or, more accurately, naïve because cynical without really understanding the object of the cynicism. So I had also as a mental guideline that the books be ones that such a person might be willing and able to read without too much difficulty presented by archaic language and culture. Dante, I think, almost has to be taught to one—at a minimum you need a certain amount of support in understanding his cosmology and theology. Shakespeare suffers less from this, but presents also the very practical question of what constitutes a book for this purpose. One play? Impossible to pick one. All the plays? Too broad and wide-ranging for the stated purpose.

And this is not a list of the books I consider greatest from the literary point of view. For that list, I might well include something by Faulkner, but as great as he is at his best he does not possess the deep wisdom that these others do. Likewise for Joyce, and many others. I really wanted to work T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in there; it might do in place of The Lord of the Rings, but is much less accessible.


A Couple of Katrina Pics

I'm going to be out of town for a couple of days. For your entertainment and education, here are a couple more pictures from Hurricane Katrina. I don't do graphics very well at all, and it always takes me a while to get images cropped and size to appear correctly on this page, so I'm going to do it the easy way and just link to them.

These pictures show part of our front yard, first under normal conditions and then during Katrina. Unfortunately they aren't from exactly the same angle. Here's the first one. This one was taken from a position in the driveway in front of the house, facing more or less due west. The second is taken from the front porch, three or four feet higher, ten or twelve feet further away, and facing more southwest. But you can orient yourself by the sycamore tree which is on the left in the first picture and on the upper right in the second. The swing would be just out of the frame, on the right.

When the water began to recede we found a couple of fish stranded in the yard. We threw them into deeper water and wished them luck.

That bush, all bent over, by the steps is a lemon tree. It actually bears fruit--more than we can use. There are some nice things about living in this climate. The thing in the corner of the fence with two or three big leaves is a banana tree. It doesn't bear but it looks cool, especially when it has more leaves than it did that year.


I Have to Face This. Alone.

I take a day off work to hang around at home while two guys from Affordable Plumbing rework all the plumbing in the house. They finish around 1 and I sit down at the dining room table with one of them to settle the bill. While he's writing it up I idly scan the tv listings in the newspaper lying on the table and discover that the Sci-Fi channel is having an all-day X-Files marathon.

I will not spend the rest of the day in front of the tv. I will not.

Ok, I watch one episode while I eat lunch. It helps that it's one of the Scully-only episodes, when David Duchovny was sulking or something. Somehow those episodes always seem to revolve around Scully's emotional life and are considerably less interesting to us insensitive males than the ones that involve aliens and conspiracies, monsters, or scientific projects Gone Horribly Wrong.

However, it does not help that this is the first of a two-part episode. So the tv is off, but the vcr is not.

Only on The X-Files does a family eat Christmas dinner in brooding semi-darkness. And I had forgotten how obnoxious Scully's brother is.


The Door Not Opened

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

—Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

As regular readers have probably recognized, I have something of an obsession with the idea of what might have been, and this passage is one that I think of often. If this taste gives you a yen to read the entire Four Quartets, well, you probably want to get out your copy, but if you want to read it online, here is a readable version. No doubt it‘s a copyright violation, but Eliot has been dead for a long time and he had no children.

(Of course the more immediate problem in human life is usually the doors we did open that did not lead to the rose-garden, but rather quite elsewhere.)


Music of the Week — September 9, 2007

Procol Harum: Shine On Brightly

The conversation with Ryan C about this album (see comments on this post) made me get it out and give it a listen for the first time in quite a few years. Shine On Brightly was Procol Harum’s second album, and I still find it, as I did when it was new, something of a disappointment. The first album, Procol Harum, was pretty uneven but about two-thirds brilliant. This one begins with half a dozen or so songs that are very much in the style of the first album, but to my taste not quite as good as its best—not bad by any means, but just not as memorable. These are followed by a long suite which might be described as either ambitious or pretentious, depending on how much self-conscious striving for profundity one thinks suitable for a rock group.

I was very definitely one of those who used the second word when the album came out. In the spirit of the times (1968), the suite includes everything from hard rock to sitars and spoken passages, and I found it almost comical. I remember a conversation with an acquaintance which began with my speaking derisively of the suite. There was a long pause while the look on his face went from shock to defiance, and he said, very deliberately, “I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” There was another pause, and we changed the subject.

More generous in my old age, I find the suite better now than I remembered, but still, to put it gently, not a success, although there are some very good moments. A couple of the individual sections would have made excellent songs on their own, especially “In the Autumn of My Madness.” And I’m struck now, as I wasn’t then, by the courage involved: you certainly can’t say the group was afraid of taking artistic risks. This is especially true for lyricist Keith Reid, who swapped his Dylan-influenced surrealism for painfully awkward soul-searching. That they followed this album with a rather different one which is now widely considered to be a classic, A Salty Dog, is a testimony to the virtue of learning from mistakes and keeping at it.

And give them credit for:

They say that Jesus healed the sick
and helped the poor
and those unsure
believed his eyes
—a strange disguise


Sunday Night Journal — September 9, 2007

Prepared to Love

If I am not at least prepared to love God, I cannot “see” him.

—Roman Guardini

“Prepared” can mean “willing” or “able” or both. In context, Msgr. Guardini’s remark has more to do with “willing,” but taken alone it is equally applicable to “able,” and in fact it is difficult to separate the two where love is concerned. (I think “see” is in quotation marks because Guardini is referring first to the ability to recognize God’s existence.)

It appears that in the end there are only two sorts of people: those who respond to God with joy, as the fulfillment of all their hopes, and those who respond to him with hatred, as the fulfillment of all their fears. The question springs to mind: is it possible to see God and not love him? We all know that many people have false and ugly ideas of God and think that in rejecting these they are rejecting God. But we must suppose that in the end every soul will be given some way to get past this error, to see God as he really is, and then to choose freely. If it is possible to choose, it is possible to choose wrongly, and so it must be possible for a person to see God and not love him. Or would it be more precise to say that such a person has chosen not to see?

Is it possible to love God and not see him? I think not. To love him is to see him, or at least to begin to see him. I think in fact it is impossible to love anything or anyone at all and not begin, if ever so dimly and partially, to see God (I mean genuine love, of course).

Of this I’m sure: the heart that is prepared to love God must also be prepared to love its companions in human life, and the world in which God has placed us all. To a young heart love may come easily and quickly; for an old and wounded one it may be difficult, requiring conscious effort. Either way, love in this world is rarely unaccompanied by pain: at the very least there is always the pain of time, of knowing that the person or thing one loves is passing away, either as a result of its death or decay, or one’s own. And this is the heart of Christian faith, the paradoxical secret hidden in plain sight: to recognize, as the old song says, that love hurts, and yet insist that we must love anyway, and in fact that it is only by entering into this pain that we can ever be healed of it. Only by accepting the pain of love can we attain its joy, the greatest pleasure of which we are capable.

We know that there are some people who suffer greatly and still seem able to love easily, and some who suffer greatly and seem unable to love. Is there some secret movement of the will that makes the one or the other?

There must be. It seems impossible that, as some Christians have said, there are some souls that are so constructed that they will hate God and must be lost, that it is God’s will that they be lost. It must be that thousands of tiny choices made over the course of a lifetime, choices of unlove over love, choices of self over everything else, can so corrode the soul that when it sees perfect love and light it sees only an enemy, something which intends to take away everything it thinks it must have.

This is probably true, but haven’t we also known people who, even as children, were mean, in both senses of the word: closed, petty, unseeing, uninterested in anything except their own will and their own pleasure? Were they born unable, or at least unwilling, to love? We can’t know the answer to that, or how they will end. But we know that God is good, and so we know that he must somehow, at the end, make the choice to love possible for everyone. We say that faith is a gift and a mystery, but those are only ways of resisting the temptation to believe we can fully understand the secret and subtle movements of the soul in its relationship to God.

There’s a passage in Prince Caspian where Aslan romps through a country and every person he meets either sees him with delight and wants to go with him, or sees him with distaste and wants to get away from him. The most interesting thing about this passage (if I’m remembering it correctly) is that they have never seen him before. They simply know, instantly, either that they want to be with Aslan or that they want nothing to do with him.

I think it will be something like that one day for all of us. Though we may seem to make our choice in a heartbeat, we will have been making it all our lives.


On Being Jaded (or Not)

Earlier today I read a very interesting post on another blog which was, in part, about the possibility that pornography is damaging relations between the sexes, and in fact damaging the capacity to enjoy and appreciate sex itself, to experience sexual pleasure with another person, or maybe at all. I was going to link to it, actually, until I noticed that it links in turn to an explicit discussion of perversions which I think are merely disgusting to most people. (Trust me: I'm not being prudish--I am talking really gross). So: no link, but I wrote about this question a couple of summers ago in this Sunday Night Journal.


Antonioni's L'Eclisse

Last weekend I finally saw this (The Eclipse), the last in the so-called (not by the director) trilogy that also includes L'Avventura and La Notte. Judging by other comments I've read here and there, I'm not alone in thinking L'Avventura the best of the three. And I might have said this is the worst if not for the last ten minutes. The section from the moment Vittoria walks out of the building until the end of the film might be the most haunting ten minutes or so of cinema I've ever experienced. Late last night, about to put the disk into its envelope for return to Netflix, I wanted to see it one last time and ended up watching it three times in a row. I think I could have sat there for an hour or more watching those ten minutes over and over again.

It's just a series of shots of mostly empty urban spaces moving from daylight to darkness. There's no way I could describe it in any way that would communicate the effect, and I can't even expect that anyone else would have this reaction. My wife didn't ("heavy-handed" was her comment).

As for the movie as a whole: well, it almost seemed at times a parody of brooding European modernism. It's almost plotless, and even such narrative movement as there is stalls frequently and is sometimes simply uninteresting. And I am forced to consider the possibility that Monica Vitti was really not such a great actress. Someone has said she was "born to be an icon." Yes, but that's not the same thing as being an actress. Her face is magical, and you can see why Antonioni dwells on it, but I found her a little unconvincing when she was doing anything in particular aside from looking deep and mysterious. But there are enough instances of the Antonioni visual magic to make it interesting. And you have to have seen the whole thing to understand some of what appears in the conclusion.

UPDATE: in case you don't know what Monica Vitti looks like--I think this is from L'Avventura:



I almost believe in synchronicity. Let's say I don't believe it doesn't exist. On the face of it I don't see why it shouldn't be considered an aspect of God's providence. And those weird little coincidences just happen too often. Case in point: for the past few days I've been pondering the fact that the yearning for heaven is the sweetest pleasure on earth. Today I read in this very, very good piece by Anthony Esolen about Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul, these words: "For the desire for God—by the very nature of God and of love—is more fulfilling in emptiness than is any pleasure."

It's not that the idea is so rare or original (as most will know, this is C.S. Lewis's "joy") but it's not something you come across every day. Anyway, read the Esolen piece. And while I'm at it: I'm slightly embarrassed, because I linked to it a week or more ago, that it was only today that I finished the Time article about Mother Teresa. It is quite surprisingly good, so if you weren't going to bother with it, reconsider.


Music of the Week — September 2, 2007

Louis Philippe: An Unknown Spring (again)

In an unprecedented development, Light on Dark Water devotes two weekly reviews to one piece of music.

I suppose—no, I know—that part of the reason popular music has such a hold on me is that it makes use of both words, my natural and favorite medium, and music. Really good pop music is not pure or absolute music; it has to be about something, in a literary sense. In last week’s rave about this album I never gave any indication of what it’s about. I think the content and placement of the songs would repay more close attention than I have time for, but here are a few things worth mentioning.

The majority of the songs are about romantic love, very fittingly so for the very romantic musical atmosphere. These are lyrically rich and fresh, giving new life to that old, old subject which sometimes seems exhausted. But the opening and closing songs deal with war and peace. Although it’s a little obscure, the opener, “No Sun, No Sky At All” seems to be a description of the moment when normal life is interrupted by the onset of apocalyptic war. The closer, “Wild-eyed and Disheveled” is an address to the United States, colored by the Iraq war, that’s both affectionate and sad.

I keep coming back to the title song, which seems to deal with some of the things I’ve been writing about here for the past few weeks: the longing for what is transcendent and perfect, and the hope that when we reach it we will also find what we have lost along the way. There are a couple of crucial lines here that I couldn’t make out by listening, and Louis Philippe himself kindly answered my email asking for the lyric. Here is the key stanza:

For it’s God’s own justice
If we all dream like this
If we all keep looking
For an unknown spring

What I like so much about this is not just the reference to the fact that we’re looking, but the fact that we must look; it’s the way we’re made, it’s what we’re designed for. Of course you really have to hear it sung; the melody is instantly memorable, a higher moment in an album that’s almost all high moments.


Sunday Night Journal — September 2, 2007

A Few More Notes on the Question of Doubt

This is a follow-up to the journal of August 5 on the mixture of doubt and faith which I, and apparently quite a few others, experience. In passing: it seems to be happening to me more often than usual lately that a spiritual matter that’s on my mind pops up everywhere; so it was with this question, which was followed in a day or two by a great deal of publicity about Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul—not, I hasten to add, that my anxieties should be given that name. As Francesca said in the comments on one of those posts, most of us have not reached that level—have not, so to speak, known the daylight upon which that night can descend. We are, rather, to borrow again from the comments, this time from Daniel, only muddling around in the murky twilight of the flesh.

First, a clarification. A couple of people wondered whether the degree of doubt to which I confess implies the absence of genuine faith. Someone on the Caelum et Terra blog quoted this from the Catechism:

Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.” (157)

And I finally troubled myself to look in the same source, and found this, which I posted in a comment there, and which would have saved some confusion had I included it in the original piece:

Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness. (2088)

So: involuntary doubt is what I’m talking about, although none of the three formulations of the concept seems perfectly precise as a description of my own experience, which I think can be summed up as anxiety that the faith might not in fact be true. I find in myself, on what I hope is an honest appraisal, no voluntary doubt at all. What I’ve been calling “doubt” is not an intellectual act contrary to faith, but an emotion that accompanies it. Anthony Esolen, at the Touchstone blog, says it well (as usual):

Dubiety is inseparable from the human condition. We must waver, because our knowledge comes to us piecemeal, sequentially, in time, mixed up with the static of sense impressions that lead us both toward and away from the truth we try to behold steadily. The truths of faith are more certain than the truths arrived by rational deduction, says Aquinas, because the revealer of those truths speaks with ultimate authority, but they are less certain subjectively, from the point of view of the finite human being who receives them yet who does not, on earth, see them with the same clarity as one sees a tree or a stone or a brook.

It does sometimes seem that this doubt, or this anxiety, is especially strong in the modern world (meaning the world of the past two hundred years or so), the world which has been rearranged intellectually by science. It certainly seems to be more prominent in Catholic art: the stereotypical literary Christian of our time is a Graham Greene or Walker Percy character. I think there are good reasons for this. It was never the case that people in general saw the truths of the faith “with the same clarity as one sees a tree.” But science has made it more difficult (or perhaps only created a different sort of difficulty?) for at least two reasons.

One reason is that the relation of the scriptural account of history to the truths of the faith has been rendered complex and difficult by the replacement of the straightforward Genesis story with a scientific picture of evolutionary development over billions of years. Those who accept Genesis as literally historical can only do so as a conscious choice and with constant struggle. Those who are willing (like me) to take Genesis as symbolic have to live with a level of skepticism about the literal truth of scripture which did not much trouble people five hundred years ago. We have accepted the introduction of the principle that scripture may not always be factually accurate about the physical world and human history, and suffer an inevitable anxiety that the assignment of “merely symbolic” to key components of the story might not stop there (as, indeed, it has not among many theologians). This anxiety may be slight, almost nonexistent, for many of us, but I think it’s there in everyone, as one can demonstrate to oneself by spending a few minutes in the psychological experiment of imagining that one has no doubt whatsoever that human history is literally and exactly described in scripture.

The other reason is the presence in our consciousness of the scientific approach to truth. This, I’ve realized in the course of these reflections, is very strong in my own mind. I’m not a scientist (I’m far too undisciplined) but I’ve always admired it and loved its elegant method of arriving at truth by hypothesis and experiment. The truth so arrived at is objective, available to everyone, and demonstrable. Anyone who doubts it can (at least in principle) prove it for himself. And contrary to a misapprehension one sometimes encounters, facts arrived at in this way are rarely proven wrong except on the basis of procedural or technical mistakes in the experiment. They may be refined and made more accurate and precise—this is the relation of Einstein’s work to Newton’s—but they are not disproved. (Hypotheses, on the other hand, and to a lesser extent theories, are disproved regularly, and it’s sometimes the over-eagerness of scientists to state a strong hypothesis as fact that leads to the perception that science is constantly undoing its own findings. And I’m not talking about the areas of science, such as cosmology or evolution, which are more a matter of reasoning from observation than of experiment.)

When a group of scientists set out to start a science humor magazine they couldn’t think of anything funnier to call it than The Journal of Irreproducible Results. Faith, of course, offers us only the irreproducible result, from any perspective we can measure. No two people can pray for the same thing and be certain—or even reasonably hopeful—of obtaining the same response. No one person can expect the same response twice. This makes perfect sense, because every person’s relationship to God is unique and constantly changing. But it only serves to highlight the greater level of confidence we have in the facts proved by science. Against that standard, the persuasive claims of faith appear relatively weak, at least in the abstract. It doesn’t really help much to state the obvious, that spiritual reality is not subject to the same sort of interrogation that science performs on the physical.

In the personal realm, of course, faith has at least as much power as it ever has, perhaps in part to a certain clearing of the air, aided by science, which has aided us in seeing more clearly the difference between genuine religion and magic. But we’re left with that gap between the psychologically and the scientifically plausible.

Although many or most of us may have to resign ourselves to a certain amount of involuntary doubt, of anxiety about the faith, we shouldn’t be too passive or too accepting of it. It should be not merely endured, but questioned as vigorously as it questions faith, and used in that way it can press the latter to become stronger and more profound. Resignation can go too far, relinquish too much. As someone in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest says (quoting from memory): “Resignation is a dreadful thing when by slow degrees it prepares the soul to live without God.”

(By the way, you can find The Journal of Irreproducible Results here.)


Weigel on the Diana Phenomenon

I read this piece by George Weigel earlier today and, however accurate or otherwise his specific observations may be, I think he gets at the reason why the thing seemed so strange and even disturbing to some of us: it just was not what we expected of England. It was more like something you'd see in this country. Although I can't think of anyone on the public scene right now who could command this sort of devotion, who would be the least surprised at displays of mass hysteria here? We Americans are crazy, and everybody knows it. But we still think of the British as more sensible and stable. Or at least we want to.

More Chris Rea

I had a scary thought while watching/listening to this one, Looking for the Summer: would I sell my soul to have this voice? For an instant "yes" seemed a real possibility. This man is scandalously under-appreciated. I was so knocked out by "The Blue Cafe" that I went to Amazon to buy it and found that it's out of print in this country, and available only as a $30-plus import. I'm not sure whether that says more about the record industry or about the taste of the American public.