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October 2007

A Little Williams for Halloween

I'm not sure it makes sense to talk of tradition where a blog is concerned, but I know I mentioned Charles Williams' All Hallows' Eve here last All Hallows' Eve, and perhaps another year as well, and I think I'll make it a tradition. This is one of my favorite books. I don't know of anything else which makes the spiritual quite so real.

In this passage, a woman named Lester (yes, that's right) encounters her husband, Richard. She is dead. He is living. They are working together on something which I can't explain without a long synopsis, so I'm editing out the parts that wouldn't make sense without that.

Lester saw him. She felt, as he came, all her old self lifting in her; bodiless, she seemed to recall her body in the joy they exchanged. She said—and he only heard, and he rather knew than heard, but some sound of speech rang in the room...—she said, "I'll wait for you a million years." She felt a stir within her, as if life quickened....If Richard or she went now, it would not much matter; their fulfillment was irrevocably promised them, in what manner so-ever they knew or were to know it.

I'm not absolutely sure what that last clause ("in what manner...") means. I think it indicates that their fulfillment would be, in fact, fulfillment; it would not be subject to any deficiency whatever.

(Here is the post from last Halloween.)


Ain't It Grand? (2)

Perhaps the phrase "ain't it grand?" comes across as "ain't I grand?" Or "ain't we grand?"—we Christians, self-congratulatory rather than grateful. I don't hear it that way in Blind Willie McTell's song, and certainly didn't intend it that way. I think, rather, of someone walking around in a marvelous place, exclaiming in delight. Or myself, standing on the seashore: "Lord, it is good for us to be here." This is not a boast, but an expression of gratitude. I have no idea why one person receives the faith—is called, and answers—and another does not; I mean, I know the theological explanations, but they still leave me in the dark as to the interplay between the secret movements of any soul and the grace of God. But the believer deserves, at most, credit only for saying "yes."

On the subject of atheism: Theodore Dalrymple offers another interesting view of the current crop of wrathfully atheistic writers (Christopher Hitchens vs. Christianity. Dalrymple is in an uncomfortable position: he doesn't believe, but he sees that the Christian view is much richer and more human:

A few years back, the National Gallery held an exhibition of Spanish still-life paintings. One of these paintings had a physical effect on the people who sauntered in, stopping them in their tracks; some even gasped. I have never seen an image have such an impact on people. The painting, by Juan Sánchez Cotán, now hangs in the San Diego Museum of Art. It showed four fruits and vegetables, two suspended by string, forming a parabola in a gray stone window.

Even if you did not know that Sánchez Cotán was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us. Once you have seen it, and concentrated your attention on it, you will never take the existence of the humble cabbage—or of anything else—quite so much for granted, but will see its beauty and be thankful for it.

You can read the whole thing here.


Sunday Night Journal — October 28, 2007

Ain’t It Grand?

Ain’t it grand
To be a Christian?
Ain’t it grand?

—Blind Willie McTell

A few weeks ago my wife and I were in a restaurant which had a pretty good selection of pop music playing in the background. The music wasn’t loud enough to be heard clearly, but I kept recognizing songs when a loud guitar or vocal line cut through the ambient noise. One of these was the guitar solo in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” which is not a favorite song of mine but has always caught my attention because of these poignant lines:

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown, the dream is gone

I suppose most people recognize the sensation described there, and the sadness that comes with it. I know it very well myself, and have done for as long as I can remember. But it struck me that evening, with a great sense of relief, that to be a Christian is to believe that the sadness is not the end of the story. That “fleeting glimpse” is not just a stray emotion, a meaningless fluctuation of consciousness, a bit of irrational hope that is ultimately no hope at all. It is a real glimpse of something that is really there. The inexpressible yearnings known by every human heart have a real object, and a real hope of attaining it.

Materialism and atheism have their built-in presuppositions and prejudices, and one of these is the notion that the burden of proof is always on the non-materialist. They scoff at this universal desire for the transcendently perfect, but as a matter of objective reason, it is at least as plausible that the desire itself should constitute evidence of its object as that it should be considered a pointless emotion. After all, as many have pointed out: we know hunger, and food exists; we know thirst, and water exists; we know sexual desire, and sex exists; we long for love, and love exists; we desire to know, and knowledge exists. It should be at least puzzling to anyone who thinks about the question with an open mind that we could have a spiritual hunger that cannot, in the nature of things, ever hope to be satisfied.

A week or two after the “Comfortably Numb” incident I was reading an article in The Atlantic by an evolutionary biologist arguing for a purely naturalistic explanation of altruism and generosity. The underlying assumption was that it’s very important to have such an explanation. It’s not enough that evolution be able to explain the material development of the human body; it must explain everything, including our moral development and the existence of morality itself. For those committed to the idea that scientific materialism is the only valid approach to reality, all of reality must, obviously, be seen as the sort of thing that can be approached this way. Therefore evolution must be an all-encompassing explanation. The author said nothing about this goal, but it was implicit throughout the article.

The theoretical objections to this view are obvious, and have been taken up by people much better equipped for it than I am. What struck me was the sheer unnecessary constriction and narrowness of it, and the sense of how much larger my mental world is than the author’s. My conception of the world includes the material, and more; the materialist’s cannot admit even the least trace of the spiritual. I can believe in everything that science can establish about the material world; I can also believe in a God who created that world for purposes of his own. Therefore I do not have to forcibly crush my natural instinct to look for purpose in the world, or in my own life. I do not have to crush my instinctive belief that love is something real, not just a byproduct of material phenomena. Or my belief that the self which is the one thing of which I am immediately and indisputably conscious has no actual existence. Or my belief that good and evil are objective categories. Or my belief that to choose one over the other must have some sort of ultimate consequence for the chooser.

None of this proves that Christian belief is true, of course. But it does mean that one who holds it lives in a world that is far more naturally suited to human beings than the world of the materialist. It is a grand world, in two senses: it is both large and splendid. I have yet to hear a convincing materialistic explanation of how such creatures as ourselves got into a world which is so much less than they are.

Note: you may, depending on how your computer is configured, be able to hear a thirty-second sample of that Blind Wille McTell song here, at the Amazon page for the CD. Or try this eMusic sample. But the one at Amazon is better; it’s a later recording on which you can really hear the big ol’ 12-string guitar.


Music of the Week: October 28, 2007

The Ramones: The Ramones

I pretty much skipped punk rock in its day. What little I saw and heard of it didn’t much appeal to me—both the sound and the marketing imagery suggested flat, dull, monotonous. I didn’t even hear the Sex Pistols until sometime in the late ‘80s, when a younger co-worker lent me Never Mind the Bollocks. “I think you’re going to find this a bit of a letdown,” he said. “I guess it was something new at the time but now it just sort of sounds like bad heavy metal.” Yep.

But now and then someone tells me there really was something to the whole thing, and of course it became a major part of the pop music culture. So I’ve been trying to give myself a little education in the punk classics, and it doesn’t get much more punk and more classic than this album.

I can certainly see why, at a time when pompous and over-elaborate progressive rock shared the spotlight with dull country-folk rock (stigmatized for me by the term “mellow”) and vacant disco, the idea of going back to three chords and a cloud of dust (to borrow a football image) was both appealing and in fact needed. And I’m all for the do-it-yourself aspect of the punk movement, for encouraging people to make their own music without waiting to be spoon-fed by the radio (although of course the effect was mostly to have them spoon-fed by a different set of fashionable people, but that’s another story).

But I just don’t really like this album that much. I do get the joke, I think. I know the stupidity is deliberate. And it’s fun in small doses—four or five of these fourteen songs are extremely catchy and would be great to hear in the middle of a mix of more substantial stuff.

But there’s too much irony in it. It might seem strange to say that the problem with the Ramones is that they’re too artsy, but it’s true. The Ramones is almost a sort of conceptual art (starting with the stage names), less music than a statement about music, and a curiously flat one. The musical and emotional range is so deliberately limited that it begins to feel oppressive. This is a very short album (about 29 minutes), but I find it difficult to listen to the whole thing at once; to hear more than four or five songs in a row gives me a sense of unpleasant constriction.

I’ve read more than one tribute to the Ramones that goes on about how they restored rock-and-roll to its position in some extra-musical project, usually an incoherent desire for cultural revolution, which in turn is what rock-and-roll is “really about.” (Example from the liner notes of the Ramones anthology I’ve been listening to: “The four short lines of ‘Commando’…in one absurdist swoop obliterated the religio-jingoistic cold warspeak of the day.”)

Wrong. It’s about music, and the obscure rockers of the ‘50s and ‘60s who were claimed as inspiration for punk were making the best music of which they were capable, not dumbing themselves down as some sort of cultural statement. “96 Tears” may have been dumb but it wasn’t ironic. Although this music deliberately imitates certain aspects of the garage-rock sound that appeared in the mid-‘60s, its flattened emotional quality is totally different, and in that respect more truly a testimony to the atmosphere of the mid-‘70s than it was probably meant to be.

But I admit it probably would have been fun to be at this gig (CBGBs, 1977):

Although this song always leaves me wanting to hear “I Fought the Law.”


Nightwish: Sleeping Sun

Nightwish is one of the most well-known goth/symphonic metal bands, and one that I've been wanting to investigate for some time, but hadn't, mainly because they aren't available on eMusic and cds are too expensive for experimenting. It occurred to me the other day to look for them on YouTube, and I found the video below.

There are no doubt those of you—almost all of you, more likely—who scoff at my interest in this sub-genre. And I admit I feel slightly sheepish about it—not only is the music often at least implicitly anti-Christian, but it's frequently way over the top aesthetically. So I'm offering this by way of partial explanation: it's moments like this, mixed in with the blast and thunder, that make the style affecting. Not that there are many quite this good, but it doesn't take many to keep me looking.

By the way, if you sample any of their other videos that will appear on the page with this one, be aware that they're mostly pretty definitely metal, and quite loud.


Speaking of Flannery O'Connor

Robert pointed me to an excellent post at Church of the Masses discussing O'Connor. It's mostly from a talk by Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco, and he quotes O'Connor a lot. My favorite:

I don't think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times. It's hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not.

And I like this from the Archbishop:

Genuine Christian faith transforms the meaning and value of everything; cosmetic Christianity merely brightens Sunday morning and highlights the tiny compartment of life labeled "religion.

So many in the post-Christian West have rejected the cosmetic Sunday morning thing without ever encountering the reality. (Personally I would not say that superficial Christianity "brightens" Sunday morning, but rather the opposite.)

You can read the whole thing here.


"He wasn't absent, I was"

That's from a brief but striking statement by German director Wim Wenders about his return to belief in God. I'm tempted just to quote the whole thing, but that's bad manners, so please go read it for yourself, over at Mere Comments. MC in turn is quoting it from a recent issue of Image magazine (see link in sidebar), which has a sort of symposium in which a number of artists comment on the question "Why believe in God?" Sounds interesting, or more.

I saw Wenders' film Wings of Desire some years ago and have been wanting to see it again. As I recall it had a pretty questionable theological slant but was fascinating, including some really memorable images, and probably the only film that has appearances by Nick Cave and Peter ("Columbo") Falk.


In Memoriam: Jean Horton Blythe 1947-1979

In addition to my own brothers and sisters, four in all, I grew up with three cousins, daughters of my father's brother, who lived close by, across the pasture about a hundred yards or so away. The older two were about my age—Jean a little older, Susan a little younger—and were almost like extra sisters. I think I still remember all of our birthdays. Today is Jean's.

When I think of Jean, I think of three things: golden hair, green eyes, and sickness. Even when we were very small—I mean four or five years old—I was vaguely aware that there was something pleasant about looking at her, even when we were fighting. Retrieving memories now, I see that she was really a beautiful child.

I was also aware that there was something wrong with her body. She had violent and frequent coughing fits and her breathing was sometimes oddly loud and heavy. And I knew that she sometimes went to the hospital, and that there were things she couldn't do, and that sometimes the family's activities were limited by some concern for her health. She was always thin and frail-looking, although surprisingly strong and energetic. For some years—until she was eleven or twelve, I think—her mother taught her at home while the rest of us went off to school. But I just accepted all this, as children do, without giving it a lot of thought, as being the way things were. It was perhaps easier to do that because she was always so full of vitality and good spirits; any weakness that got in the way of her playing with the rest of us was just a sort of natural obstacle, like the briars and the cow manure that interfered with our pasture baseball games, that we all worked around. Her mother, I can see now, was understandably riddled with anxiety, but managed to give her the freedom to be as much of an ordinary child as possible.

I was somewhere well into my teens before I knew the name of her disease: cystic fibrosis. In those days children diagnosed with it were not expected to live past adolescence. Jean lived long enough to graduate from college, marry, and have a daughter, making it about halfway through her 31st year. Her daughter has her eyes.

When I learned of Jean's death I had a very strong reaction of disbelief. I don't mean disbelief that her death had occurred, as I had long understood that she would die young. I mean disbelief that she had ceased to exist. Whatever had happened to her, and it certainly involved her removal from our world, I knew that there must be somewhere, somehow, on some plane of reality, a green and gold essence of Jean that still lived. And I could only imagine it freed from the sickness that had always hobbled her.

I find these days that I have an increasing confidence that heaven exists and less and less of a coherent and specific idea of what it might be like. Nothing that I can imagine can transcend the limits and defects of this present world; I mean that literally; where I begin to imagine such transcendence, my imagination begins to fail me. But I do find myself thinking of it, broadly, in somewhat Platonic terms. In some reality which we can never hope to enter by our own power, to which we can only be taken, is the real Jean, the one who always has existed and always will exist in the mind of God, the one who exists perfectly because God has thought of her that way and whatever is in the mind of God is real, eternally. doth not yet appear what we shall be (1 John 3:2)


On the Feast of St. James

You'd think that after 25-plus years as a Catholic I'd be more conscious of saints' days. Especially this one, since my first name is James, although the name was given to me, as one in a long line of Protestants, only as a family name. I wouldn't have noticed that this is St. James's day if I hadn't happened across a mention of it at the Touchstone blog (see sidebar for link).

Anyway, here is a thought from the Epistle of James, from the King James version:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

I've always liked that phrase "shadow of turning," usually translated nowadays as something like "shadow caused by change."

And another:

For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.

As Chesterton says (approximately): children, being innocent, love justice, but adults, being guilty, love mercy. "Is there no mercy?" asks Professor Borg in Wild Strawberries. His accuser can't answer the question. But apparently there is.


Sunday Night Journal — October 21, 2007

An Extraordinary Logic: Wild Strawberries

I’ve been planning to re-acquaint myself with the Bergman films I saw and loved many years ago, and to see those I haven’t, which are many. This is my first step, and as it turns out a very good place to begin. I would recommend it to anyone who’s curious about Bergman but has been put off by what they’ve heard about him, or perhaps, as someone said here a while back, by a bad experience with one of his more difficult or disturbing works.

This film is also a good example of what makes the non-religious Bergman so interesting to some Christians, especially to Catholics. It’s not only that he takes on the big questions and treats them profoundly. It’s that many of the themes of Christian spiritual life work themselves out on an earthly level in the lives of his characters. Wild Strawberries is very similar in that respect to Babette’s Feast, another great film which has no religious intention but is much loved by Catholics because it bears such deep and clear parallels to certain aspects of the faith. It’s not hard to suppose—in fact it’s hard not to suppose—that Bergman’s childhood as the son of a Lutheran clergyman left his mind deeply impressed with Christian ways of thinking even though he rejected the faith. He consistently confirms our belief that the empty place in the human heart is, in fact, as we are so often told, God-shaped.

Wild Strawberries might be described as a story about Purgatory, an earthly and secular rendering of the process we can all expect to undergo after death. It’s a process that frequently begins before death for one who is open to it, a painful process of recognizing how and where one has failed and what one may have lost as a result—a recognition which may itself be the punishment for those failures—and of preparing to accept forgiveness. The film is the account of one day in the life of an elderly physician, Isak Borg, in which both internal and external events come together to confront him with his failures as lover, husband, and father, bringing him a deep and almost unbearable pain (“Is there no mercy?” he begs at one point) followed by the beginnings of reconciliation. And it’s so beautifully done in every way, so rich in its details and their meanings, that anyone who is susceptible to Bergman’s art is likely to find himself wanting to watch it over and over again.

The Criterion Collection (may it be praised) DVD also includes an interview with Bergman. Any Bergman fan who’s acquainted with Wild Strawberries but hasn’t seen this interview should seek this disk out at once. It was done in 1998, when Bergman was 80 and semi-retired. He comes across as a surprisingly unpretentious man, given his achievement and celebrity. Toward the end of the interview he speaks interestingly and movingly about death and faith.

The first comes up in reference to his beloved third wife, whom he married in 1971 and who had died in 1995. His grief is plain; he describes himself, calmly, as “crippled” by her death. And he goes on to say that after having been terribly afraid of death for many years he had, around the time he made The Seventh Seal, at last taken comfort in the idea that it would be a simple extinction. But his wife’s death has disturbed this comfort: that he might never meet her again is “an unbearable thought,” in “violent conflict” with his previously comforting views. Anyone who has his own unbearable thoughts will sympathize.

And when the interviewer asks him if he has perhaps returned to faith in his old age, Bergman dismisses the idea with a laugh, but then begins to reflect: he is “not what you would call religious in any way” but has “a whole lot of ideas about other realities that surround me. I have the feeling sometimes that we’re part of an infinitely larger pattern….You can feel that sometimes.”

Indeed. Or, in the words Bergman gave to Isak Borg some fifty years ago: “In this jumble of events, I seemed to discern an extraordinary logic.”


Postscript: This Is More Like It

On the occasion of Bergman’s death in July of this year, I was irritated by a rather stupid (may as well speak plainly) dismissal of his work by John Podhoretz. Some weeks later my friend Robert sent me a link to this far more perceptive piece by John Simon. Perhaps the Shakespeare comparison reaches too far, but I have no doubt that Simon is far closer to the mark.


Music of the Week — October 21, 2007

Elis: Griefshire

I came across this album in my search for something in the symphonic/gothic metal genre as good as Tristania’s Illumination. I haven’t found it, but this one is rather striking.

Griefshire could just as well be classified as progressive rock, and in fact I can imagine that if the heavy guitars were lightened up it might even be possible to believe that it’s a product of the 1970s. Moreover, it’s what used to be called a “concept album”—a collection of songs on a single theme and, in this case, a narrative. The narrative is only implied in the songs; to get the whole story you have to read this explication (note: link is to a PDF file which loads slowly).

It’s an ambitious work, and that’s one reason why it stands out for me in relation to some others which are artistically comparable. I wouldn’t be able to argue if someone described it as pretentious and excessive, but I have a certain admiration for the grand effort even when it falls short. Like a lot of prog-rock, it’s more interesting than affecting, but it’s quite interesting.

The narrative involves a couple of brothers, a woman they both love, and a sort of spiritual quest which ends in disaster. It’s full of promising references to eternal truth and redemption and salvation, but these seem to be resolved in a conventionally vague psychological package of answers found within etc. The disappointing final song, which seems to promise some sort of transcendence, delivers only a decidedly trivial-sounding promise of “a new decade of solutions,” which sounds like a commercial.

The major weakness, and it’s a big one, is in the lyrics, which are talky and discursive, too often talking about emotions rather than summoning them. Maybe some allowance should be made for the fact that the band’s native language is not English (it’s German—they’re from Liechtenstein); still, they chose to write in English. Two songs are, for no obvious reason, in German, and to my ears they work better, but maybe that’s because I’m at best sub-literate in German. They certainly sound good: German might be a better standard language for heavy metal than English.

So the album is far from being an entire success, but—here comes that word again—it’s consistently interesting. And there’s an extra-musical aspect that makes it more so. The narrative and the lyrics are the work of the band’s very fine lead vocalist, Sabine Dünser. A couple of days after she finished recording the vocals for Griefshire, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died the next day, still in her twenties. Given the obvious sincerity of the spiritual search evidenced by the lyrics, a Christian can’t help but speculate: did God take her because she was at her nearest approach to him, more open than she would ever be? Not a question that can be answered, of course, but one wonders, and hopes.

You can hear thirty-second samples of the album at eMusic.


Walker Percy and Women

Or perhaps I should just say the women in Love in the Ruins. At any rate, I think the following passage is the key to understanding the way women are portrayed there:

Women are mythical creatures. The have no more connection with the ordinary run of things than do centaurs.

There are two errors that men are likely to make in the way we think of women, and the way we expect women to think and behave. One is to assume that they are just like us. The other is to take them as more or less a different species, aliens with whom we can converse but whose inner lives—and, consequently, their behavior—we must expect to remain a mystery. In time, of course, we learn, or at least most of us do, that the truth is somewhere in between.

The fact is that female beauty and sexuality do sometimes, especially when he is young and she is beautiful, seem to be for a man the definitive and most interesting (at worst, the only interesting) qualities of a woman. That's the way More is seeing his three girlfriends in this novel. If it seems to women that this portrayal is unreal, well, yes, it is—very unreal. But this is a first-person narrative, and so the author's first job is to make the narrator real. The question is not whether More's perception of women does justice to them, but whether that perception is rendered accurately and convincingly. To this man at any rate the answer is a firm yes.

If this is granted, though, the question naturally follows: is Percy capable of developing a female character who is a convincing portrayal of a real woman? I'm not so sure. I haven't read his novels for some years and would want to re-read them before venturing a judgment. But I did notice that the one scene in Love in the Ruins where a plausible view of the real inner life of a real woman is required doesn't work for me. I mean the conversation between More and his wife in which he tries to talk her out of leaving—it's a flashback while he is hiding from the sniper in the "enclosed patio." (And by the way does anyone know why "enclosed patio" is always in quotes?) Almost all the dialog given to Doris in this scene strikes me as wrong and unconvincing.


Walker Percy on Why Writers Drink

It has been observed that artists live longer and drink less than writers. Perhaps they are rescued from the ghostliness of self by the things and the doing of their art. The painter and the sculptor are the Catholics of art, the writer is the Protestant. The former have the sacramentals, the concrete intermediaries between themselves and creation—the paint, the brushes, the fruit, the bowl, the table, the model, the mountain, the handling and muscling of clay. The writer is the Protestant. He works alone in a room as bare as a Quaker meeting house with nothing between him and his art but a Scripto pencil, like God's finger touching Adam. It is harder on the nerves.

...his work, if he is any good, comes from listening to his right brain, locus of the unconscious knowledge of the fit and form of things. So, unlike the artist who can fool and cajole his right brain and get it going by messing in paints and clay and stone, the natural playground of the dreaming child self, there sits the poor writer, rigid as a stick, pencil poised, with no choice but to wait in fear and trembling until the spark... Then, failing in these frantic invocations and after the right brain falls as silent as the sphinx—what else can it do?—nothing remains, if the right won't talk, but to assault the left with alcohol, which of course is a depressant and which does of course knock out that grim angel guarding the gate of Paradise and let the poor half-brained writer in and a good deal else besides. But by now the writer is drunk, his presiding left-brained craftsman-consciousness laid out flat, trampled by the rampant imagery from the right and a horde of reptilian demons from below.

Lost in the Cosmos

None of which, fortunately, has any connection with what I've been doing this afternoon, since I've had a guitar in my hands most of the time.


Sunday Night Journal — October 14, 2007

Complaining of the People (A Metapolitical Comment)

Yeats tells how Maud Gonne (“my phoenix”) admonished him for regretting that he had spent much of his life working for the ungrateful Irish people:

Thereon my phoenix answered in reproof,
‘The drunkards, pilferers of public funds,
All the dishonest crowd I had driven away,
When my luck changed and they dared meet my face,
Crawled from obscurity, and set upon me
Those I had served and some that I had fed;
Yet never have I, now nor any time,
Complained of the people.’

Yeats argues with her, but ends:

And yet, because my heart leaped at her words,
I was abashed, and now they come to mind
After nine years, I sink my head abashed.

—“The People”

One night last week I watched part of the “debate” among the Republican presidential candidates. I couldn’t muster a great deal of interest, and it wasn’t long before I decided I had something more important to do. I felt a little guilty about this, as though I were shirking my responsibility to be an informed citizen. But there are good reasons for not paying too much attention: it’s far too early in the campaign for these productions, and the “debates” themselves are somewhat fraudulent anyway, not being real debates at all but rather a chance for the candidates to air their preferred sound bites. For the media there’s always the hope that one of the candidates will commit what’s known as a “gaffe”—meaning, usually, the utterance of a forbidden truth—which can be turned into a forty-eight hour scandal.

Still, one of these men may be the next president of the most powerful nation in the world, and some of them seemed pretty solid, as if they might really care about the country and really want to right what’s wrong with it, and govern it for the general good. So I ought to find out what they believe and what they intend to do and decide whether I should vote for one of them.

Yet I began to think, depressingly, that it doesn’t really matter that much who wins, because events are being driven by forces too great for one person to turn or counter, no matter how well-intentioned. One by one the big questions came up in the “debate”: health care, Social Security, race relations, immigration, oil consumption, and of course the war in Iraq. And I found myself thinking that it’s all but certain that none of these will be addressed in a way that would lead to any hope that they would be resolved (with the possible exception of the war), for the simple reason that too many of the American people do not want it to happen. To resolve any of them would be painful, and would require some degree of general sacrifice. And no politician is going to ask that of us. We don’t want to hear anything except promises of more.

One psychological stress of living in a democracy (however imperfect) is the knowledge that ultimately there is no one to blame for its problems except the voters. Similarly, in a more-or-less free-market economy, consumers make most of the final decisions; the roads are jammed with enormous SUVs, and WalMart thrives, because that’s what large numbers of people want. We all like to blame the government or big business for doing what we don’t like, and yet we reward them for continuing to do it. We don’t like the size of the government or the amount of money it spends, we recognize that Social Security is headed for trouble, and yet we aren’t willing to face any proposed solution that doesn’t, in the end, give us more for less. We complain about taxes and the size of the government, and yet it’s always someone else’s spending that we want to see cut. We complain about American jobs going overseas, and yet we aren’t willing to pay the higher prices that would be required to keep them here.

More fundamentally, we don’t like or trust each other enough to have a sense of agreement about the common good, or to practice self-discipline for the sake of it. Everything I said above is open to the objection that the problem could in fact be fixed without pain to most of us if only some other group would cooperate: if the government wouldn’t tax us so heavily or spend so freely on those other people, if corporate CEOs didn’t make so much money, and so forth. And I’m sure these objections are partly true, enough so that we all feel justified in holding out for our own demands—after all, everyone else is.

Most fundamentally of all, I don’t think the majority of the American people really understand or care much for the tradition of self-government and responsible citizenship. The obligations and privileges of the latter that were taught to earlier generations seem to have little place in modern schooling. (I’ll never forget the deep and almost romantic passion with which my high-school civics teacher spoke of them.) Apart from specific clauses of the Bill of Rights, we don’t really care much for the Constitution anymore. We’re losing the concept of law as abstract, impersonal, and binding on everyone. And we’re replacing it with a desire to be ruled by a class of benevolent authorities who will solve problems on the basis of their private sense of justice and of who among their constituents is most in need of special treatment, creating a body of law that is a tangle of rules unconnected to the Constitution or indeed to anything fixed.

This is a pessimistic judgment—and, I admit, a somewhat petulant one—but it is not a partisan one; I could fill it out with examples from Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. I very much hope it’s excessively pessimistic, but I don’t feel especially abashed about voicing it. Possibly Yeats, an aristocrat at heart, did not see Ireland’s future as requiring of most of her citizens what I think is required of ours.


Music of the Week — October 14, 1007

I didn’t plan it this way, but it’s appropriate that this album follows Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, because there’s a definite similarity in general technique and atmosphere: a stripped-down rock sound, a melancholy atmosphere, a very distinctive singer. The sound of Dear Sir can be very roughly described as somewhere between the rawer Neil Young and the Velvet Underground. I’ve never taken narcotics, but the word comes to mind here: this is slow, basically simple, and very dispirited music. The songs are fragmented both lyrically and melodically—there are no tunes you’ll go away humming, and the best you can say about the lyrics is that they sometimes suggest something deep.

Yet it works, mainly because, like Neil Young, Cat Power (aka Chan, pronounced “Shahn,” Marshall) has a remarkably expressive voice and because her assistants—only two guitarists and a drummer—give it an instrumental framework that seems perfect for it, making the whole package come together as a pretty raw expression of the sort of somewhat disoriented depression that seems, sadly, to characterize a lot of young women these days. This will never be one of my favorite albums, but it’s not one I’ll forget, either.

You can hear samples here.


Emmylou Harris on YouTube

I've been meaning to post a couple of these since the marvelous concert last weekend. Here she is with some guitar player, singing a song that leaves one with the question: would it be worth it to die young if somebody would sing about you like this afterward? (I've assumed that this song is at least partly about Gram Parsons--right-click here and open a new window if you want to read the lyrics while you listen.)

And here she is, much younger, doing one of the greatest songs of one of the greatest songwriters, Townes van Zandt:

And one of the greatest country-gospel songs:

If you like "Michelangelo," you really need to get the album Red Dirt Girl.


A Good Way to Spend $15

I've been reading The Best Catholic Writing 2007, an excellent anthology from Loyola Press. I ordered it mainly as a gesture of support for Dawn Eden (see links at right), who has a piece in it, but it's proved to be an excellent collection overall. I've read something over half of it now and am not hesitant to recommend it on that basis. The editor, Jim Manney, has done a fine job of covering the spectrum of Catholic opinion, with no noticeable extra-religious agenda, and has included writers ranging from the Pope to bloggers.

I'm not at all sure I agree—no, wait, I'm pretty sure I disagree —with the guy who thinks Bruce Springsteen is "the greatest Catholic poet of our time," but that's ok. Dawn Eden's piece, by the way, is on her blog, and I remember thinking at the time it appeared that it was excellent. But I'm not going to link to it. Buy the book.


Sunday Night Journal — October 7, 2007

Cart and Horse and Caritas

This is a follow-up to last week’s journal; I want to expand a bit on my reasons for more or less dropping out of the bitter and embittering American cultural-political debate. (My apologies if I repeat myself; I felt that I had not said all that I wanted to say. And for convenience I’m going to use the word “politics” and “political” to refer to the whole complex of issues.)

I say “more or less” because I don’t mean to say that I’ll never comment on these questions at all, much less forbid that they ever be mentioned in the comments. And I certainly don’t mean to say that I’ve abandoned my views on the specific matters that make up that debate. But I don’t want to be defined by them. I don’t want to write so that someone who doesn’t know me well would take one look at this blog and say “Oh, a conservative” (or “Oh, a liberal”—yes, there are some who would see me that way) and dismiss everything I have to say. As I mentioned last week, I think this may have happened at least once or twice. And I really don’t want it to happen because I am far more concerned with other more fundamental things.

My recent multiple re-readings of the opening sections of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritus Est (God Is Love) have confirmed me in taking this direction. The pope’s wonder-filled vision of love as the essence of reality is deeply moving to me. And my own perception of that same reality is what I want above all to communicate to anyone who reads what I write. Most especially, it’s what I want to communicate, or at least suggest, to anyone who has not seen it.

Truth divides, necessarily. There’s no getting around that. But if division must exist I would much prefer that it involve the ultimate questions. Who and what are we? What are we for? What is the world, and what is it for? To whom, if anyone, are we responsible, and what does that responsibility entail? What do we dare to hope? One’s answers to those questions are much more important than one’s views on any political matter.

The word “divisive” is thrown around much too freely. Usually “you are being divisive” means “you are unwilling to accept my judgment that this matter is unimportant.” But our political debate is all too often genuinely divisive with respect to the ultimate questions: disagreement about secondary things can create a climate of suspicion in which primary things can’t even be discussed.

As we all know, it’s the so-called “social issues” that are the source of much or most of the rage that has characterized the American debate for many years now. Is it good for anyone to have sexual relations with anybody as long as they both consent? What is marriage? Should abortion be restricted? What about pornography? How should homosexuality be treated in the law? Is materialistic evolution deniable? And so forth. As things presently stand, there’s not much place for dialog on these: if you come down on one side or the other, anyone on the other side is not likely to listen any further to you. I want to avoid displaying the tribal symbols, so to speak—to avoid giving the signals that too often produce reflexive hostility and rejection.

The broad political questions involved here are, for any one of us, less urgent and important than the individual souls we encounter. If someone I know has had an abortion, my first concern is not for her status before the law, but for her. I want her to know that the heart of reality is love, not just love in the abstract but love for her in particular, and that in the end nothing can separate her from that love except her own refusal of it. Almost certainly there is some pain, or a scar covering that pain, in her heart, and it may be keeping her away from God by many different means. She may not be able or willing to face God, or even the possibility that God exists, unless she can believe that he is ready to pour out his love and mercy on her. My job is to help her see that. If by my words—harsh or callous or merely careless words commenting on the political question—I fail to assist her toward that vision, or, God forbid, even hinder her, what is God’s judgment on me likely to be?

Similarly for the practicing homosexual: the idea that men can marry men and women marry women is akin to the idea that a circle can have four corners. It implies an understanding of the word “marriage” that makes it mean something altogether different. But that argument, and the following one about laws, is secondary to my encounter with that person. Only if I am guided first and foremost by the desire that he (or she) would see and know divine love do I have the right to expect him (or her) to listen to anything I have to say about human love. If by flippant or derogatory remarks in the context of the political argument I make it more difficult for him or her to see divine love, what is God’s judgment on me likely to be?

I realize, of course, that there is a place for hard words. Sometimes a shock is what’s needed; we have the example of the prophets and of Jesus himself for that. But I can think of several arguments against a resort to denunciation on the part of those who are not explicitly called to it. There’s the simple fact of human nature, that one is far more likely to respond to kindness and sympathy than to anger and condemnation. There’s the fact that the harshness of the prophets and, at times, of Jesus was directed mainly to those already of the household of faith who were not living up to their calling. And there’s the example of Jesus and the woman about to be stoned for adultery: only after he had saved her life did he tell her to go and sin no more.

At any rate I’m about as certain as one can ever be about this sort of thing that hard words are not what God wants from me. And if he does want it he will have to tell me so directly.

It’s occurred to me, in thinking about all this, that Christians across the political spectrum have been guilty of putting the cart before the horse. I think it’s pretty obvious that many “progressive” (to use their preferred term) Christians have less interest in the faith itself than in the political purposes to which it can be put—anyone paying attention can see the association of doctrinal skepticism with left-wing activism. But Christians who are orthodox in doctrine can slip into a more subtle mistake which still puts the cart before the horse: they can, perhaps unconsciously, see the establishment of a Christian social order as the crucial step toward saving souls rather than vice-versa. The paradox is that it’s only the conversion of individuals that can bring about solid and lasting social change.

We all know this, I think, but sometimes we need a reminder. I got a useful one recently from, of all people, the entertainment editor of the local paper. Discussing the controversy over an appearance by the rapper Ludacris, he said, “Funny thing about the [culture war]—yelling ‘charge’ tends to signify that you're actually a re-enactor, rehashing a battle that was over before you woke up. Actually being a culture warrior means living a life people want to emulate.”


An Item from The War

Everybody, especially Americans, should see this, although perhaps only Americans, and maybe even only Americans who have some sense of direct connection with the events, will find all fourteen hours of it engrossing, as I did. I may have something more to say about it later, but I wanted to note this bit from the last installment. A former American soldier describes a conversation with a German POW, noting that the German spoke English with no discernible accent:

German: Where are you from?
American: The United States.
G: Where in the United States?
A: The Northeastern part.
G: But where exactly?
A: Connecticut.
G: Oh. Where in Connecticut?

(The American has begun to be puzzled by the German's level of interest.)

A: Waterbury.
G: Oh yes--where the Naugatuck and Mad Rivers meet.

(Now the American is really surprised and puzzled, because most people who aren't from the area would only know the Naugatuck, the Mad River being much smaller and less significant there.)

A: How do you know so much about Waterbury?
G: I was in school for the administration.
A: "The administration?"
G: The administration of the territories.

I suppose this is no surprise to students of the war, but it was startling to me. It sort of weakens the argument that the U.S. should, or in the long run could, have stayed out of the war.


Edward Oakes, S.J. on Faith and Doubt

Going back yet again to the recent discussion of faith and doubt, here's a piece at the First Things blog, "Does Doubt Belong to Faith?", which is interesting not only for what it says but for the fact that it starts from exactly the same passages which rjp (Newman) and I (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) used in explaining our positions.

...we can at least say that—for believer and unbeliever alike—the world is darker now than it was when Newman was alive. A long tradition of Christian theology speaks of “the eyes of faith”, but eyes need light to see.

I have no reason to think Fr. Oakes reads this blog, so I suppose it's just an odd coincidence. (Hat tip to Robert.)


This Deserves Some Emphasis

Via rjp in the comments:

The soul never grows old.

—Sigrid Undset

That's what the Berryman quote a couple of posts back points to, and as I noted there it's a datum that grows ever more real and significant to one with years. I've seen it as an observer, in my own parents and other people as they age—the way my father, for instance, at the age of 70 or more, would open a Christmas present with the single-minded gusto of a five-year-old. Now, with each passing year, it becomes more a fact of my own experience.

I've seen something from Victor Hugo (of whom I know very little) to similar effect but can't remember it clearly enough to include it here.


On Re-Entering History

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

—Walker Percy, from Love in the Ruins

Which reminds me: I thought the most nearly insane book title of recent years was The End of History. Naturally I didn't read the book.


Henry is Old

This is #7 from John Berryman's 77 Dream Songs. Berryman was born in 1914, and is here remembering movies of roughly the late '20s. If these references were replaced with ones from the late '50s these lines would do very well as a description of a state of mind very familiar to me and, I dare say, with some adjustments to the movie titles, to most adults, especially those of a certain age. "Henry" is Berryman's way of referring to himself (more or less).

Henry is old, old; for Henry remembers
Mr. Deeds' tuba, & the Cameo,
& the race in Ben Hur, —The Lost World, with sound,
& The Man from Blankley's, which he did not dig,
nor did he understand one caption of,
bewildered Henry, while the Big Ones laughed.

Now Henry is unmistakably a Big One.
Fúnnee; he don't féel so.
He just stuck around.


Sunday Night Journal — September 30, 2007

Goodbye to Politics and Culture Wars

It’s been twenty-five years or so since I first heard someone explicitly take politics into account in his views of another person. A friend was asking me about a mutual acquaintance, saying “I’m not sure about him. He seems like a nice guy and his politics are okay, but…”

I don’t really remember what followed, partly because I was so shocked. I certainly had (and have) my own strong political and cultural views, but have never thought of such views as elements of character. Since then, of course, I’ve learned that the impulse to view them in exactly that way is quite strong in a lot of people, and that the intensity with which they are not simply held but insisted upon often makes any extensive social contact with people holding them difficult or impossible for one of differing views.

A week or two ago I ran across the blog of someone I know. In his most recent post he lamented the fact that he doesn’t believe in hell, because he wants very much to believe that President Bush will go there. He was probably not 100% serious but neither was he 100% in jest. I know this person fairly well and like him, though I haven’t seen him for a while. But if I were in the room with him and he began to talk this way I would only want to get out of the situation: I wouldn’t want to get into what would only be an unpleasant and fruitless argument, but even a silent failure to assent would soon become obvious and awkward, and a gulf would open between us.

My first thought was that here was an example of just how vicious things have gotten, but then I remembered the way the left felt about Nixon and Reagan, and the way the right felt about Clinton; this sort of thing is not entirely new. But I doubt more than a handful of cranks would have wished, say, Eisenhower or FDR or JFK in hell. I remember the horror and dismay with which JFK’s assassination was greeted in the South, where he was not at all popular; those who felt otherwise would have hesitated to express it publicly. But I have no doubt that if Bush were assassinated there would be open and unashamed celebration by many.

These bitter divisions took hold of this country in the 1960s and have never healed. I don’t think they ever will heal, actually; I think they will get worse, barring some sort of near-miracle. There are, very broadly speaking, two hostile parties in the nation and each regards the other as an enemy—not just a group of people who have the wrong ideas but an entity which must either conquer or be conquered. I think only the fact that the division is not geographical and that there is no physical property at stake keeps our metaphorical culture war from breaking out into actual violence. It’s a religious conflict in the sense that it’s a conflict over first principles; “liberal” and “conservative” are often not just intellectual or ideological terms but expressions of allegiance to a set of assumptions that go all the way to the root of what one believes about what it means to be human.

But it’s not my purpose at the moment to talk about the nature of the division, only about how I plan to treat it on this blog—which from here on will be rarely if at all.

I’ve leaned this way for a long time. I never intended my original web site or, later, this blog to be a vehicle for political discussion, partly because I don’t think I have anything particularly distinctive or useful to contribute to it. Scattered through my Sunday Night Journal entries you’ll find statements to that effect. But now it’s a firm and explicit conviction and intention which follows from my reasons for writing in the first place.

What are those reasons? Well, mainly I write because it’s a sort of compulsion which I’ve felt for as long as I can remember. But secondly, and more relevantly for this discussion: I see something beautiful and I want to tell people about it. As things stand today, politics and the broader struggle that we call the culture wars can only get in the way of that effort.

This realization crystallized for me over the past year or so. In the almost four years since I started the Sunday Night Journal, I have renewed my acquaintance with half a dozen or so people with whom I’d had little or no contact for many years, as long ago as high school (which is now quite long ago). In a couple of cases this was because the person happened across my name somewhere on the web. In a couple it was an actual meeting in which the question “Have you been doing any writing?” was asked. And I said, “Well, yeah, a little—I have this web site where I post things…” and gave them the URL.

Some of these people are not of my mind on politics and culture, and I think at least one or two were pretty well put off by some of my views, and that I became in their eyes an ideological opponent, someone to be argued with or ignored. It’s bad enough that this distancing occurs in everyday interactions, but I don’t want it to get in the way of my being heard on matters that are more important than the sloganeering and divisions of American politics.

I have to suppose that from time to time people who don’t know me happen across this blog. I don’t want those who might disagree with me on social and political questions to take flight because they detect unpalatable views. Nor do I want people whose minds are not dominated by politics to think that mine is, and that my writing is just more of the same rhetorical warfare that can be found in a million other places. Whether a reader finds my writing to be attractive or repellent, I want that reaction to come from a more fundamental level, where ideological divisions fade in the presence of the common things that matter to every human being—or, less grandly, everyday things whose enjoyment carries no ideological charge.

I know, too, that even the culture wars are not going to be settled by argument, but by the action of deeper currents in human affairs. And most of all I find that a declaration of non-combatancy serves an even more important purpose, one I mentioned in my journal some months ago (here).

Postscript: Greg Wolfe of Image magazine came to a similar conclusion some years ago and published a statement called “Why I Am A Conscientious Objector in the Culture Wars”. Re-reading that statement now, I find myself very much in agreement with him, though my concerns as an individual are a little different from his as a publisher and editor