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November 2007

The Intolerable Story

It appears all too frequently: an account of a child horribly abused, tortured or raped or murdered or all three. There’s one in the news right now. I’m not going to link to it—if you’re in the US, you’ve probably seen it; if not, well, just take my word for it that it’s horrible, and you can probably supply an example of your own. This little girl’s body was found in a plastic storage box washed up on an island off Texas, and the police called her Baby Grace for a while, until investigation established her identity and put her mother and stepfather in jail. But I find it very difficult to find any grace in this story.

I wrote Sunday that “Meaningless and severe suffering is almost intolerable to contemplate....” This is the sort of thing I had in mind. I’m not a saintly person; there are all sorts of crimes I can understand, maybe even imagine myself committing, if I were pushed hard enough: the ones that involve losing one’s temper, and even the really stupid and pointless ones, the sort that seems to happen around here every now and then, when two acquaintances get into a drunken argument and one ends up shooting the other. But I will never, never understand how anyone can deliberately harm a child.

I must believe that there is some meaning in what happened to Baby Grace, but I certainly don’t see it. On the way to work this morning I was listening to the Irish band Solas. Not looking at the song titles, I was surprise to hear them covering the Tom Waits song “Georgia Lee,” which is about a murdered girl.

Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
For Georgia Lee?

I believe God was there, and watching, and listening. I even believe he felt the pain of Baby Grace. We tend to think of him as being above our suffering, but I think rather that he feels every pain in the universe, but can bear it without any diminution of his joy, because while the pain is finite his joy is infinite.

So I’m left with the question “Why didn’t he stop it?” And no answer comes. I, and you, are left with a simple and stark choice: we can either believe there is some meaning here, or that there is not. Neither reason nor evidence can supply an answer for us. It’s as close to a pure choice of the will as we can get—a pure act of faith in the Crucified, whose suffering also appeared meaningless when it happened, if the answer is yes.


Sunday Night Journal — November 25, 2007

My Head Hurts

I really don’t feel like thinking very hard about anything tonight, so I thought I’d tell you about my headache.

It’s a sort of quasi- or semi-migraine that I get sometimes. It was present when I woke up this morning and nothing I could have done would have made it go away until four or five in the afternoon; this is the way it always works. Now, around nine, the pain is mostly gone, but I still feel vague and shaky. I know of a few things that can bring this on—certain foods eaten late in the evening, for instance—but sometimes the cause is not clear. When I’m going to have one I usually wake up sometime around three or four in the morning knowing that it’s coming. Sometimes taking three aspirin then will quell it, sometimes not: last night, not.

I’ve known people who have real migraines, and this isn’t as bad as some of those. I had a co-worker once who could get them at any time and if he felt one coming on during the work day he had to call his wife to drive him home. I can function with mine, more or less. But I’d much rather not. It’s not just the headache itself—there’s an overall feeling of weakness and sickness and a curious sensation of being somehow out of touch with everything, including my own body. It hurts to use my eyes. It hurts to use my mind (and I wonder what the mechanism of that is? what goes on in the brain that causes thinking to produce physical pain?).

So I puttered around this morning, feeding animals, eating breakfast, reading part of the newspaper (including, masochistically, the account of last night’s wretched Alabama-Auburn game). Then I spent several hours on the couch, occasionally reading a bit until my head hurt too much, attempting to read again when I got too bored, occasionally drifting into a half-sleep.

There was one useful thing I could do, though, one that’s always available in any unpleasant situation as long as at least a little consciousness and will remain: I could offer my bit of pain to God, in reparation for my own sins and on behalf of all those I love.

Although there is plenty of warrant for this form of prayer in the New Testament, it’s very much a Catholic thing that most Protestants don’t go in for (I don’t know about the Orthodox). I suppose it sounds too much like salvation by works for traditional Protestants, and just sort of weird and primitive to liberal Protestants. Which is unfortunate, because even on the most pragmatic grounds it’s a very useful practice: one isn’t generally allowed to see what effect it may have in the lives of those for whom one prays, but it benefits immediately the one who prays.

You have to willfully ignore human psychology in order not to see that the need for purpose, in small things and great, ranks below only the most fundamental requirements of the body in importance. We instinctively despise meaningless activity, even if it isn’t painful. Meaningless and severe suffering is almost intolerable to contemplate, much less to experience. But to make any pain or unhappiness or discomfort something offered to God as a prayer gives it a purpose that instantly makes it much easier to bear.

This is one of many instances in which Catholic belief, which seems at first glance the most difficult to accept, full of doctrines which seem to fly in the face of everyday practical sense and to be in opposition to much of what we want, is surprisingly well fitted to the deepest structure of the human psyche. It doesn’t offer a simple or easy intellectual resolution of the problem of suffering, or promise to put an end to it in this life. But it gives us a way to turn it into an act of love. I hope that if the time ever comes that I must suffer in earnest, I’ll have the will and the ability to use this gift.


Music of the Week — November 25, 2007

Van Dyke Parks: Song Cycle

When it was released in 1968, I read some reviews that praised Song Cycle as a revolutionary masterpiece and Van Dyke Parks as a genius— this Rolling Stone review appears to have been contemporary, and gives you a good idea of the reception I remember. But it didn’t sell very well, which came as no surprise to anyone who heard it. In fact, considering how much it must have cost to make, it’s amazing that it ever saw the light of day, and, I suppose, a tribute to the adventurousness of some record companies at the time. I seem to recall having to look for a while to find a copy, and after listening to it a few times thought, “Well, that’s interesting,” and as far as I can remember never listened to it again until a few weeks ago, when Parks’s beautiful arrangements on Joanna Newsom’s Ys prompted me to dig out my old LP of Song Cycle, clean it up, and digitize it.

The result is that I’ve heard it as if for the first time. Yet my basic opinion is more or less the same as it was almost forty years ago: interesting. It’s more interesting than I gave it credit for at the time, partly because the recorded sound isn’t that good, at least on this LP, and there’s a lot of important detail that I would have missed in hearing it on my little portable stereo. It’s a sort of brilliant pastiche of American musical styles, and technically on a level far above most pop music, but it leaves me thinking that it’s more brilliant than profound. The lyrics are a problem, consisting of Joycean wordplay that for the most part doesn’t really add up to much:

Cracks in the heat and then caught by the wheel catch the country store feel for the hackamore crew view the crackerbare coterie standing by. One line bred randyrand and too few wretched meals.

Whatever. Ultimately it seems light, much of it merely playful. But really, it’s worth hearing; I can’t think of anything else in its class. I imagine there’s a remastered CD version around that does more justice to its complexity and nuance.

(By the way, here is my review of Ys.)


Daniel Nichols on Judee Sill

My old friend Daniel has an excellent post on Judee Sill over at the Caelum et Terra blog. If you can play YouTube videos, be sure to use the link at the end to see the video he's talking about and hear the song, which is one of Sill's best, and that's saying a lot.

Also, this Sunday Night Journal from a couple of years ago is about her.

You can tell I'm off work because I'm blogging at 12:15AM. (See time stamp on previous post, too.)


Happy Thanksgiving

I've been away for Thanksgiving Day—will take up some of the topics in the comments sometime on Friday. Hope all of you in the USA, which I think is the vast majority of people who read this blog, had a good holiday. I find that being congenitally pessimistic actually makes me more thankful—I can so easily imagine things being so much worse, and am very thankful that they are not.

This however does not prevent me from complaining disproportionately about those small irritations that do come my way. I'm working on that, but not very successfully.


Mark Steyn (and Allan Bloom) on Pop Music & Culture

I thought this merited emphasis and a separate discussion. Francesca Murphy brought up this New Criterion article by Mark Steyn in which he describes the omnipresence of pop music in public places as turning our lives into "a movie with a bad sound track."

Steyn is writing in the context of a New Criterion retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. I subscribe to the NC but had not yet read any of the six or seven articles in the retrospective. Have been considering them uneasily, in fact, because I haven't read Closing, and frankly don't really want to, but also don't want to read the retrospectives without having read the book. Why don't I want to read the book? From what I know of it, it seems to be a sort of secular conservative attack on the decay of American (and European?) culture. And although I would no doubt agree with a lot of it, it seems to me that an appraisal of this sort is bound to miss much that's important if it isn't made from a Christian persepective, or at least with a deep understanding of that perspective, and of the place of Christianity in shaping our culture.

But anyway: I did read the Steyn piece last night, and am in substantial agreement with it. I take his main point to be the destructive effect of pop music being the only music most people know. This, I think, is an important point about what's gone wrong:

“Popular culture” is more accurately a “present-tense culture”: You’re celebrating the millennium but you can barely conceive of anything before the mid-1960s. We’re at school longer than any society in human history, entering kindergarten at four or five and leaving college the best part of a quarter-century later—or thirty years later in Germany. Yet in all those decades we exist in the din of the present. A classical education considers society as a kind of iceberg, and teaches you the seven-eighths below the surface. Today, we live on the top eighth bobbing around in the flotsam and jetsam of the here and now. And, without the seven-eighths under the water, what’s left on the surface gets thinner and thinner.

And this is just hilarious:

But Bloom is writing about rock music the way someone from the pre-rock generation experiences it. You’ve no interest in the stuff, you don’t buy the albums, you don’t tune to the radio stations, you would never knowingly seek out a rock and roll experience—and yet it’s all around you.... This is one of the most constant forms of cultural dislocation anybody of the pre-Bloom generation faces: Most of us have prejudices: we may not like ballet or golf, but we don’t have to worry about going to the deli and ordering a ham on rye while some ninny in tights prances around us or a fellow in plus-fours tries to chip it out of the rough behind the salad bar.

I consider myself very fortunate, by the way, that I'm not very often in places where music is forced on me in this way. If I worked in some sort of bullpen where it was impossible to escape the radio, I'd...well, I don't know what I'd do, but it wouldn't be pretty.

However: with all that said, I make no apologies for my own love of popular music. Obviously I believe there's a lot of really fine art being made in that area, and I agree with Francesca that life would be less rich without the best of it. And I don't suffer from the top-of-the-iceberg syndrome Steyn describes. I even think it's possible—possible, mind you; this is not something of which I feel certain—that some of it will outlast a lot of our serious fiction, poetry, and classical music (using "classical" in the sense of art-music made by composers who see themselves as part of the classical tradition). Our pop music is a sort of half-folk art, and it isn't at the level of, say, Four Quartets. But it's not absurd to compare it to folk ballads composed and modified anonymously hundreds of years ago and still sung today.

(By the way: I'm off work today, in case you're wondering why I have time to write at such length on a Wednesday.)


Speaking of Women and Music

I was going to post something by and about Judee Sill as a follow-up to the surprisingly active discussion about female musicians. Sill is one of the major figures in this category, even though she only released two full albums. But Daniel tells me he's going to post something about her on the Caelum et Terra blog soon (I'll link to it here when he does—I'm not sure how many people read both). So I'll await his post, and have thought of something else that rather knocks me out.

If you've watched any football this fall, you've probably heard a bit of this song: it makes a ten or fifteen second appearance in that insurance commercial that features people doing nice things for other people (which of course is the only thing insurance companies are interested in). I noticed it on the second or third hearing of the commercial, and on the fourth or fifth I thought "That's rather nice—I wonder who it is." And then I realized that I was refraining from muting the commercial just so I could hear the ten or fifteen seconds, and at that point I went looking for it.

It's a group called Hem, and the song is "The Part Where You Let Go." I think it's great:

I don't think the group produced the video, so it may not stay around permanently. In my search for information about the song, I think I read somewhere that it was written by one of the male members of the band. But I don't think it would be the same with a male vocal.

I also found out that a lot of people have sought it out because of that commercial, as you can tell from this on eMusic. Here is the band's web site—you can hear more, and buy the cd, there.


Sunday Night Journal — November 18, 2007

Women, Music, and Modernity

“You’re into girls.”

That was the startling but not inaccurate remark my wife made last Saturday when she walked by as I was browsing YouTube for Patty Griffin songs. Since 90% of my music listening is done when I’m alone in my car going to and from work, and she is constitutionally pretty indifferent to pop music anyway, I was a little surprised that she would notice any sort of trend. I guess it had come to her attention a few Saturdays earlier when I was repeatedly playing that Nightwish video featuring Tarja Turunen that I posted recently.

Anyway, she’s right. I do listen to a lot more music by women, from very American singer-songwriters like Griffin to Nordic metal sirens, than I did fifteen or twenty years ago. For most of the many years, going back to the mid-‘60s, that I’ve been seriously interested in music, my favorite singers have been male. I didn’t give this any thought for a long time, but at some point I became aware that it was a definite preference. Male singers, especially those with really distinctive and unconventional voices, like Van Morrison, were the ones who moved me. Theirs were the voices capable of conveying the emotions I felt. Most women’s voices seemed, in comparison, almost insipid: pastels, where I preferred strong and vivid colors.

I’m not sure exactly when this began to change; it may have been around 1990 or so, when I discovered the Cocteau Twins: I liked Elisabeth Fraser’s voice precisely as a female voice. And I remember thinking something along those lines when listening to Portishead’s Dummy. At any rate, the shift in taste continued steadily. I don’t know that one can expect to have an explanation for a change of this sort, but I can say this much about it: where I once preferred the male voice because it’s more capable of expressing what I feel, I now value (I won’t say “prefer”) the female voice in part because it expresses something else, something that seems mysterious and other. It is, in fact, a bit similar to the sight of a beautiful woman, but sexual only in the very broadest sense: a consciousness of the other sex as a rich and alluring mystery.

The music world has changed, too: there are a lot more women making a lot more good music in a lot more different styles than there were thirty or forty years ago. Back in the ‘60s women were generally present only as singers. In the folk-singing world, there were Joan Baez and Judy Collins and others like them who sang the traditional repertoire and, as time went on, more and more songs written by the emerging mostly male singer-songwriters of the time. In rock, the girl, or girls, in the band worked generally in the “canary” model of the jazz era—they added something different and distinctive to the sound, and of course to the visual presence, but they usually didn’t compose or arrange or play; the musical vision as a whole was at most only partly theirs. I suppose Joni Mitchell was the first, certainly one of the first, women to put the whole singer-writer-instrumentalist package together. More followed, until the present flood. Women like Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin and Karen Peris (of The Innocence Mission) have recently produced, or had a key role in producing (a role beyond singing, that is) some of the music I love best and think most likely to stand the test of time.

This isn’t surprising, considering the general and steady increase in freedom and opportunity for women that’s happened over the past hundred-plus years, developments made possible by the combination of technical and social changes that we call modernity. As a Catholic with a deep love of the traditional Christian culture of the West, I’m very much aware of the dark side of these changes: the damage to family life, for instance, and all the other things that I don’t need to belabor here. Yet the world is a richer place for the work of these artists, and unfortunately we don’t get a chance to pick which aspects of our culture we would like to preserve and which to change or discard.

I was thinking of this last week after reading a news story about a woman in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail after being gang-raped. It was carefully explained that she wasn’t actually being punished for being raped, but for her behavior leading up to the rape: being present in a car with a male who was not her father, brother, or husband. A few days earlier I had read an account of the practice of stoning in Iran; it’s a legal punishment for adultery. I cannot conceive of the mind of a man who could bury a woman up to her neck and then throw stones at her until she is dead, which must involve battering her head beyond recognition. (The stones can’t be too small, or they won’t do enough damage, but they can’t be too big, or the victim will not suffer enough.) I don’t understand how a man could do such a thing to a woman and still respect himself as a man. Even less do I understand what is probably the case, that these men would not respect themselves if they did not do it.

I don’t agree with those who say that we, as a civilization, are faced with a stark choice between embracing the worst of our own culture and submitting to radical Islam; I don’t see why we can’t try to reform ourselves even as we resist them. But if I am ever somehow forced to choose between modernity and the violent reaction against it, I’ll unhesitatingly take the problems of emancipation over those of oppression.


Music of the Week — November 18, 2007

Bob Marley & The Wailers: The Complete Upsetter Singles 1970-1972

I’m actually talking about the first volume of this two-disk set here; the second disk seems to be dub versions—mostly-instrumental “remixes,” as they would be called today—of some of the songs on the first disk. (Since eMusic charges per song, I’ve downloaded only the first disk.)

This material pre-dates the Island records heyday of Marley and the Wailers. In fact, as best I can tell from a little bit of reading on AMG and Wikipedia, it was probably originally credited only to The Wailers. It’s simpler and cruder and not as well recorded as the Island stuff, but in some ways I like it better. The Island sound is slicker, thicker, more complex, maybe overall a bit slower, with more varied instrumentation. I’ve read that it was consciously aimed at the rock audience in England and the U.S. But although albums like Natty Dread are indisputable classics, I miss in them a certain lilt and lightness. And besides, I tend to like music that’s a little rough around the edges. These tracks are definitely that. This is reggae of the sort produced by artists who did not, at least at the time, become big stars outside Jamaica; it’s the sound you hear on much of the classic reggae anthology, The Harder They Come. In other words, it’s about as irresistible as pop music gets, if you ask me. Of course it has the weird mixture of hedonism, eccentric religion, and politics that characterized reggae at the time. Watch out—when you listen to the music, it can all begin to seem plausible.

Check out the samples at eMusic. Or this complete song on YouTube (I think this is the same take), “Small Axe.”.


All you need to know...

...about the origin of the universe: in a comment a day or two ago, Jack quoted this from Benedict XVI's Introduction to Christianity. I think it deserves emphasis:

Christian belief in God means that things are the being-thought of a creative consciousness, of a creative freedom, and that the creative consciousness that bears up all things has released what has been thought into the freedom of its own, independent existence.

One of many things that occur to me on reading this is that if you really make it your foundational premise for looking at the world, the whole evolution-vs.-creation controversy just sort of disappears. It remains interesting, to be sure, for those with the intellectual urge to look further into how it all developed.

More importantly, I don't see how one can believe this and contemplate it without experiencing a sense of joy. It is inconceivable that the One who brings all else into existence is not more than they in every respect, including goodness, and that he would not will their ultimate good, however long and dark the road might be upon which he has set them. In my end is my beginning says Eliot (I forget where he borrowed it from). And it seems to me that the end, in the sense of ultimate purpose, of all things is implied in this statement about their beginnings. And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

This was written forty years ago when Benedict was just Josef Ratzinger, a theologian. Presumably it was written in German, and that term "being-thought" is probably one of those German compounds that often strike me as faintly comical: "Dasein-gedanke" or something.