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December 2007

Sunday Night Journal — December 30, 2007

The Secret History of the Sunday Night Journal

A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.
—James 1:8

The end of 2007 marks the fourth full year since I began this web site and the Sunday Night Journal. It thereby constitutes one of the most sustained efforts at writing that I’ve ever achieved (the other is a not-very-successful children’s or young adults’ story), and I’m very pleased by that.

I started Light on Dark Water mainly as a place to publish miscellaneous writings of mine that had nowhere else to go. It was also an exercise in learning basic HTML and CSS, which I needed in my job. The Sunday journal, which I began very soon after the main site, was something else: a “mind game,” as people used to say in the ‘60s, a psychological trick that I played on myself.

The term “double-minded” might have been invented to describe me. I can almost always see at least two sides of every question; I can never make a decision without a period of miserable vacillation; I can rarely do anything without thinking that I should be doing something else; I can rarely look back at the major decisions of my life without wondering if they were mistakes (except in those cases where I’m certain they were, and the very few which I’m certain were not, such as my entry into the Catholic Church.) My daughter Clare, when she was dependent on me to drive her to school, even diagnosed and named a psychological disorder after my inability to leave home in the morning without going back into the house at least once and otherwise delaying us: Departure Avoidance Disorder, or DAD.

One chronically troublesome aspect of this double-mindedness is that for as long as I can remember I’ve felt a compulsion to write, but have never been able to keep at it for very long. This is partly because I’m lazy and have difficulty concentrating, but in a greater degree because I have to earn a living and fulfill various other responsibilities. Thus writing seems a self-indulgence to which I really have no right, and time spent on it seems stolen from something else that has a better claim to it (at this moment, for instance, I’m harried by the thought that I should be washing one of the dogs). And when I do take time to write, I have trouble deciding what to focus on; the past thirty years are littered with scraps of unfinished work, including a couple of big projects which I was never able to sustain.

I noticed some years ago that I was far more likely to make the time for writing if I had some sense of obligation to do it: if I promised someone a book review, for instance, or when we needed material for Caelum et Terra. If I’m obligated to someone else, I don’t feel so much that writing is an act of theft.

The Sunday Night Journal, then, was a public commitment (however small the public), to write something every week. At first it was mainly just a promise to myself. Soon my web site statistics indicated that there were a few people showing up every week to read the journal—and, voila, a sense of obligation arose, and I had the extra bit of push I needed to keep up the weekly commitment. I haven’t missed a week, even if all I produced was a short note saying that I was okay after a hurricane.

I now have over 200 of these weekly columns, and can look back on the past four years and see that I’ve accomplished something; I haven’t accomplished nothing. If each these pieces is roughly the equivalent of a printed page, I’ve written a short book. The trick worked; I won the mind game I played with myself.

Now I have another problem. After resisting the temptation to start a blog, I finally started using Blogger for my weekly journal, because that made it simpler and easier. Soon it began to turn into a blog in the full sense. I added Music of the Week. The comments feature enabled feedback and many interesting and lively conversations. I began to post more frequently. As I noted when I started the site, I feared a blog would take over my life, and while it hasn’t done that I do spend a fair amount of time on it.

The result is that this site is crowding out other writing projects. I have several essays in mind that would be much too long for blog entries, and I think I could place some of them with a magazine or two. I have dozens of half-finished or barely-begun poems, and some other things that I superstitiously won’t even mention until I’ve made more progress on them.

Now I’m looking for a way to keep doing this, or most of it, and still make some time for other things. I’ve really been enjoying the normal blogging aspect of this site, and I may give up the weekly journal in favor of shorter and more frequent blog posts. I definitely plan to spend less time on the music reviews, and if I can’t make them shorter and less time-consuming I may drop them altogether. I need to reorganize the whole site—there is, for instance, no SNJ index past March 2007, there is no MotW index past 2006, there is no subject index, etc. I’d like to reorganize the whole site, possibly moving it to WordPress, which has facilities for maintaining non-blog entries. And so forth.

So there may be some changes here. One thing I definitely don’t want to give up, though, is the conversational aspect. I’ve been enriched, entertained, and spurred to deeper thought by everyone who comments here. The site does not, if my web stats are accurate, have all that many visitors—a few hundred every week, a handful in comparison to more widely-known blogs—but that’s more than enough to keep me feeling that it’s worthwhile to continue, and I’m gratified that you find the place interesting enough to keep coming back. My thanks to you, and my wishes for a happy new year.

(Here, by the way, is the first Sunday Night Journal )


A Toast to the Women of Christmas

I know, that sounds like the title of some sleazy Playboy feature. But what I mean is: what a great amount of work the women of the world do to make the Christmas holidays what they are, and what a great deal of appreciation they deserve for it. All the shopping and cooking and decorating and planning...yes, many of the men who live with these women sometimes quietly wonder if they aren’t overdoing it a bit. But in the end, ladies, we’re glad you do it, and hope you didn’t work so hard that you didn’t get to enjoy any of it. Here’s a toast to you. If we were left to our own devices very few people would receive cards or gifts, and we’d probably all end up alone at Christmas, eating leftover pizza and drinking beer and watching old action movies on tv.

(Which actually sounds pretty nice—but come on—not on Christmas Day.)


Married Love

Arlo and Janis is pretty much my favorite comic strip; Dilbert is the only near competitor. My wife and children have often accused me of secretly being its author, or at least the model for Arlo. He’s not actually that much like me, but we have enough in common that it’s occasionally startling.

My wife and I disagreed about the intention of the Christmas Day strip. She thinks (or at least thought at first—I may have talked her out of it) that the emergence of the sloppy, sleepy, coffee-sipping Janis is a joke at Janis’s expense and an expression of disappointment on the part of Arlo. I say Arlo is delighted by the sight of Janis, even when she’s sloppy and sleepy and clinging desperately to her coffee mug.

I mean, see the look on the guy’s face.


Party at Midnight

This is where I'll be at midnight tonight.

Oddly, there's a whole web site devoted to the Cathedral, and yet very few good pictures of it. Here is all you get of the windows. You can see the exterior here.

I went to Christmas midnight Mass here about ten years ago, and it was completely ruined by the presence of a TV broadcast crew which shone lights about as bright as the sun directly into the eyes of the congregation. It was miserable, and a classic case of the attempt to capture an event technologically resulting in the ruin of the actual event. Since then, though, the TV people have either improved their technology or adapted their techniques, as they haven't been very intrusive for the past few years.

The building has magnificent acoustics, and the music tonight will be very beautiful (and one of my daughters is in the choir).


Sunday Night Journal — December 23, 2007

The Shepherd’s Complaint

I’d hoped to have as this week’s journal a presentable first draft of a poem I’ve been working on, but as usual the combination of other demands on my time and my own difficulty in concentrating have kept that from happening. The poem is still some hours’ work away from completion even in rough form, which works out to a couple of weeks of total time. But I’ll give you, briefly, its theme, which I’ve had in mind for some time.

Consider the shepherds whose quiet watch was disturbed by the angels singing on the night Christ was born, who went to see the child lying in the manger, and who “returned, glorifying and praising God.” Into a perfectly ordinary night came this massive shock, this intrusion of something that they probably, like most people, didn’t ordinarily give much thought to. They must have felt that they were living in a new world.

And then, after life went back to normal? As far as I can remember we don’t hear anything else about them in the Bible, nor did the world at large seem to know anything of the coming of the Messiah for another thirty years or so.

So I imagine one of the shepherds many years later, at least disillusioned and perhaps even bitter. He’s middle-aged, at least. He thinks something should have happened by now. There was all that fuss on that one night long ago, and then…nothing. It must have been some kind of false sign, or maybe just a delusion. That’s the way life is, isn’t it? A wonderful and exciting beginning, followed by a slow declension into the same old thing, and, in the end, disappointment, as usual.

Let’s say it’s twenty-eight years later. Traditionally it’s been thought that Jesus began his public ministry at around the age of thirty. So the shepherd is again standing at the brink of great events, of another and greater manifestation of the power of God, but he has no idea that it’s coming. From his observation point in time, nothing has happened, nothing is happening.

That’s the situation of our civilization, and the way we all live our individual lives. It’s easy to scoff at the expectation that God is once again going to intervene, this time bringing an end to earthly history as we have known it. It’s easy to become disheartened about our personal hope of attaining the perfect joy and peace which has haunted our lives since we were born. I said disheartened, but it’s worse than that—it’s easy to give up completely, as most of the post-Christian West has given up.

Yet the end of what we know, the end of our personal lives and the end of history, followed by the beginning of something else which we can hardly imagine, is coming at us at an unknown speed, arriving perhaps tonight or perhaps not for many years yet, perhaps not even for centuries with respect to the world as a whole. But it’s out there somewhere, coming at us still, in the dark and impossible to avoid. Like the shepherds, we’ll have the same old thing until suddenly one day we don’t.


“Spiritual But Not Religious”

At the risk of annoying readers who are not religous (I think I have a few), I must express my irritation at this popular phrase. It’s both self-congratulatory and far less coherent than those who use it generally seem to realize.

The self-congratulation is in the clear implication that the “spiritual” speaker is superior to those who are merely “religious”—religion is something that defective people get stuck in because they’re incapable of progressing to spirituality.

The incoherence is in the odd usage of the word “spiritual,” which logically refers to something generally denied by the “spiritual but not religious” person: a real non-material world with its own order and inhabitants, in which we participate simultaneously with our participation in the physical world. Instead, it generally refers only to human psychology, and usually to a vague combination of emotion and ethics which can be summed up as a commitment to being nice, in the terms approved by contemporary secular liberalism.

I bring this up not because it’s either appropriate or welcome a few days before Christmas, but because David Mills at Touchstone has just written an excellent short analysis of the problems with it, saying more or less what I just said but more precisely and extensively.

I’m sometimes tempted to say, when I hear this phrase, that I’m religious but not spiritual. But the word “spiritual” is too important to be surrendered so flippantly.

UPDATE: no sooner had I posted this than I thought it required some acknowledgement of those who are genuinely seeking spiritual truth but have not found it, and so might use this phrase to describe themselves. I assure any such person that I intend no disparagement of you or your quest. I do ask you to consider one question: are you really open to the possibility of an answer?


Christmas Music

I have to do this every year, because I can't let Christmas go by without pushing my favorite Christmas album, A Tapestry of Carols, by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band. If you liked that Steeleye Span "Gaudete" that I posted a few days ago (here), or for that matter if you like anything by Steeleye Span, you already like Maddy's singing and will probably like Tapestry of Carols. I'll just recycle my post from last Christmas, which has more details about this and a few other favorites.


A Few Words

In comments attached to another post below (I think it was the one with the Incredible String Band video), Dave and Francesca discuss the question of whether poetry is the oldest art form and/or the oldest form of language. Which reminded me of a few things:

There's a blaze of light in every word.

—Leonard Cohen

Language is a virus from outer space.

—William S. Burroughs

Every word is a poem.


Or, to put it another way, language is poetry. That of course is using the word in a loose sense: the construction of a verbal representation of something in the external world (external to the mind, e.g., "sky," "love").

Walker Percy, and I'm sure he's not the only one, seems to suggest that language and consciousness are so closely associated as to be almost inseparable.


Two Things Worth Reading

Alias Clio has a really nice series of posts about several of the less widely sung Christmas carols, including audio (and sometimes video) for some of them and appropriate art. If you’re like me you’ll recognize most of them but will have heard them less than ten million times. The link takes you to her December archive; you can go down to the bottom and work up if you want them in the order she posted them—I think “In the Bleak Midwinter” is the first.

And at Mere Comments, Anthony Esolen has a wonderful meditation that really hit home to me for a number of reasons with which I won’t bore you. It isn’t very susceptible to summation or even brief description, so I’ll just suggest that you go read it.


Sunday Night Journal — December 16, 2007

Movie Roundup, End of Year Edition

Hard to believe it was back in June when I did the last one of these. I see by our Netflix history that we’ve had 27 rentals since then, and there have been a few from other sources, so I’m not going to mention all of them, just the ones that made a strong impression one way or the other. I’m also leaving out a few, like Wild Strawberries, that I’ve written about separately.

The Queen. As good as people have said.

The Passenger. I’ve now exhausted most of the Antonioni available at Netflix. This one is not in a class with his best (e.g. L’Avventura), but it’s very good. As always with Antonioni, there are some wonderful images. I’ll want to see it again sometime.

Band of Outsiders (French Bande à Part). Except for a barely-remembered viewing of Weekend in the late ‘60s, this is my first exposure to Godard. I really can’t justify it, but something about this movie got under my skin, some kind of early ‘60s sense of possibility. Considering it objectively, I don’t think it’s really that great, but there’s something wistfully charming about it. Or maybe I just fell for Anna Karina. Anyway, I think this was the first Netflix rental that I couldn’t send back without watching it a second time. There is a dance scene which I thought was wonderful—and I’m not one to admire dance scenes—and which I’ve learned since is quite famous.

Invaders from Mars. Yet another instance of my fascination with early ‘50s sci-fi. Pretty awful. Somewhat similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but not nearly as good.

The Leopard. Visconti’s version of Lampedusa’s highly regarded novel, which I have not read. Lavishly well done, but I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for it. Interesting performance by Burt Lancaster as the Prince; I was disappointed to learn that his Italian was dubbed.

Loves of a Blonde (Czech Lásky Jedné Plavovlásky). The seduction and abandonment of a naïve factory girl set in the dreary world of socialist industrialism. The pathos is almost unbearable. It’s very good but so painful that I don’t think I’ll want to see it again.

White Nights (Italian Le Notte Bianche). Visconti again; very beautiful imagery, and an opera-like melodramatic romance. Worth seeing for anyone who likes black-and-white photography, but basically rather slight.

The Fast Runner. This was another one of my wife’s selections which I probably would never have picked, but which I ended up liking. It’s a drama set among the Inuit people and is almost three hours long. I can’t stay awake for a three-hour movie unless it’s really good, or at least really exciting, and I didn’t think I was going to make it through the long slow opening of this one. But it sort of picks up after the first hour and a half or so. The window onto Inuit culture and the Arctic environment alone make it worth watching, and the plot is good, though a bit frustrating for me (and my wife had the same opinion): I found the opening setup—past events which are going to be worked out in the rest of the story—extremely confusing, which meant that some of the later parts were also confusing. And, although it’s embarrassing to admit this, I had trouble telling some of the characters apart. I know, that sounds bad, but it wasn’t just that they all have the same eye, hair, and skin color—they’re also wearing very similar heavy parkas almost all the time, except for when they’re wearing almost nothing.

But it’s worth seeing in spite of all that. Really. I guess I should note, for those with young children who might wonder if theirs would find the exotic subject matter interesting: no, it’s not for children. Inuit culture is not cuddly.

Down by Law. Even relatively casual American film buffs are very well aware of this one, I’m sure, but I had never seen it. It’s a good story, but what’s unforgettable about it to me, and what I’d like to watch over and over, are the opening scenes of New Orleans. As I’ve probably said (and is anyway probably obvious) I love black-and-white photography/filmography, and it doesn’t get any better. Those scenes really capture something about New Orleans, too.

The Star Maker (Italian L'Uomo Delle Stelle). Another wife pick. This one really took me by surprise. For the first half or so I thought I was watching one of those charming bittersweet stories about life in rustic Italy (actually Sicily, I think), maybe a little like Il Postino or Christ Stopped at Eboli or maybe even The Tree of Wooden Clogs. But this takes a darker turn. A con man wanders through the villages claiming to be a talent scout and charging people to photograph them for what he claims is a screen test, but of course they never hear from him again. Without revealing anything essential, I’ll just give you two hints: there is a beautiful girl named Beata, and at a crucial point one of the con-man’s victims, a police official, insists on a screen test for which he chooses to recite Dante (I think). Whether intentional or not—and the quoting from Dante makes me think it is intentional—there are some definite religious implications here.

I’m a little hesitant to recommend this, partly because of two over-explicit sex scenes, but more importantly because the events become very painful. If you haven’t seen it, consider it, but also consider yourself warned. I slept very badly after watching it.

Metropolitan. As with Down by Law, most people who have an interest in American films outside the usual Hollywood run are familiar with this. I’d been wanting to see it for a while. It’s been compared to Jane Austen in its ability to use the rather small doings of well-to-do people as a way of pointing to something more substantial, and that seems accurate. But just as a matter of personal taste it isn’t something I’d be in a hurry to see again.

10 Items or Less. This one was borrowed from my daughter Ellen and her husband. It’s in every way a small film, but one of those which is far more appealing than any description could communicate. It’s the sort of thing that might be called a feel-good movie, but not in any sappy or sentimental way. Morgan Freeman plays a semi-retired actor considering a semi-comeback role in a small film very much like this one and is doing a bit of on-site research at a supermarket in a heavily Latin area of Los Angeles. A delightful Spanish actress, Paz Vega, plays a checkout girl who is hilariously venomous about being stuck in the express lane. They spend the day together. They go home, each feeling a bit more encouraged about facing the next phase of his or her life. That’s it. But it’s great. There is a certain amount of very crude language, most of which is very justifiable in context. If you’re willing to put up with that, it’s a marvelous experience. Hint: if you like Napoleon Dynamite (I do) you may like this; not that it’s in any direct way similar, but it has a similar sort of charm (and I’m really trying hard not to use the word “quirky”). However, if you don’t laugh out loud the first time Paz Vega’s character speaks this may not be the movie for you.

Intervista and Juliet of the Spirits. These are both by Fellini, of course, and they’ve caused me to consider seriously the possibility that I don’t much like him. I saw years ago, in a dark print with murky sound, and it didn’t make much impression on me one way or the other. I saw Amarcord sometime in the ‘70s and remember liking it, although I don’t remember anything specific about it. I actively disliked most of Intervista. My wife didn’t even sit through it; she went off to do something else before it was even half over. I persevered, determined that there must be something worthwhile beyond the chaotic activity and manic people chattering incessantly but uninterestingly at high speed. In the end I liked two scenes: a very affecting one where the aged Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, playing themselves, watch themselves in the famous fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, and the ending sequence where…well, let’s just say some really weird stuff happens.

But Intervista is described as being eccentric even for Fellini, a sort of semi-autobiographical comment on life as a filmmaker. I was expecting more from Juliet. But here was the same incessant fluttering and chattering, and in addition a clumsy and somewhat dated Be Yourself sort of message. The best I can say for it is that it has some really arresting imagery. But as a complete work of art: thumbs down.

Winter Light. I was startled to learn that the Swedish title is The Communicants, which is probably better, although “winter light” certainly has its applicability and resonance. I saw this back in the ‘70s without really understanding it. I just finished watching our Netflix copy for the second time, and it’s magnificent. From the Christian point of view there is obviously a great deal to be said about this portrait of a Lutheran clergyman admitting to himself that he has lost his faith—far, far too much for me to try to go into here. So I’ll just say that almost every image and every line of dialog is pregnant with meaning. And that while Bergman was not a believer he understands what faith is about, what the implications of having or not having it are. The film seems to me very ambivalent on the subject, and certainly gives no comfort to atheists.


Music of the Week — December 16, 2007

Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime

Continuing my investigation of punk classics, I arrive at this collection of 43 songs averaging something less than two minutes each in length, some under a minute. Aside from the brevity of the songs, the punk-ness here seems more a matter of attitude than sound. Musically, they remind me of something else—two somethings, actually: an artist and a style. The artist is Captain Beefheart; the style is math-rock.

As with Beefheart, the “songs” are bursts of often-intricate instrumental activity overlaid with fairly tuneless vocal lines, but without the Captain’s bizarre charisma and skill in the latter department. The result is more interesting than it sounds, mainly because the Minutemen have some very impressive instrumental chops—that’s where the math-rock parallel comes in, and in fact one of the songs refers to the Minutemen’s music as “scientist rock.” Frankly, the short songs are a good idea, because most of them would become tiresome if they went on much longer. Lyrically the band leans heavily on vaguely political ranting about the oppressiveness of American life, but they do it with a certain amount of humor that makes it, again, less dull than it might be.

I’m afraid I can’t go much further in the way of praise than “interesting,” though. There’s just not much here that touches me at any deep level. I stuck to my self-imposed requirement of listening to it three reasonably attentive times before committing myself to an opinion, but although I enjoyed the album it’s entirely possible that I may never listen to it again. Or at least not the whole thing: I’ll probably go back to a few nuggets, like “Take 5, D.,” a very funny recitation of what appears to be a note from a landlord (or landlady). Or “Maybe Partying Will Help”:

As I look over this beautiful land
I can’t help but realize that I am alone…
Maybe partying will help.

Samples at the eMusic page; you can actually hear a 30-second sample of a 46-second song.


For Gaudete Sunday

The inimitable and beloved Steeleye Span:

It's hard to believe their studio recording of this song was a hit single in the UK (or so I've heard). There's no indication of when this performance was recorded, but judging by the appearance of the band—not young, but not so old—I would guess sometime in the '80s.

Of course you don't have to know much Latin at all to know that the refrain is Rejoice, rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary, rejoice.


Coincidences: Benign, Neutral, Perverse

(1) Some weeks ago, as we discussed here, I re-read Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins. Toward the end of the book the narrator notes that he hears the cry of a kingfisher in the swamp. I don’t know what that sounds like, thought I. Funny that I live in the same part of the country but have never seen a kingfisher. Except in pictures, that is, which is how I recognized it when, a couple of days later, during my usual twice-daily walk with the dogs, I stood watching the bay, heard a sort of chattering cry, and watched a kingfisher land on a branch no more than twenty feet away.

(2) Yesterday I saw a note on CNN that the fantasy author Terry Pratchett has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. I’ve never read anything by him and only know his name because one of my children has read (and recommended) him. Last night my wife and I went to eat at a local Mexican restaurant. When I went to the cash register to pay (this place still does it that way, rather than take your money at the table), there was a young man ahead of me. He had a book under his arm and laid it on the counter while he paid. It was a novel by Terry Pratchett.

(3) For several months now I’ve been wanting Chris Rea’s Blue Cafe. It’s out of print in the U.S., and I could only find it as an import in the $40 range. I buy a fair number of used cds from, and have had Chris Rea on my watch list there for at least a year or so. I started checking frequently for Blue Cafe, hoping to find a used copy for a reasonable price, but it never showed up. Last week, with a $30 Amazon gift certificate in my possession, I decided to squander it, plus the additional $10 or so out of my pocket, on BC. Within 48 hours it showed up on Second Spin for $13.99.

No conclusions. It’s just weird.


Sunday Night Journal — December 9, 2007

Klaatu the Genocidal Peacenik

NOTE: spoilers follow. Don’t read any further if you’ve never seen The Day the Earth Stood Still and don’t want to know how it ends.

(I think this is fair use of this image, copied from Wikipedia).

If you’ve seen it, you know this classic 1951 movie involves an alien emissary sent to earth to teach us the ways of peace. Most people with a taste for such things consider it one of the best of the early science fiction movies. (I’m one such person, and I’m very fond of it.) I think it’s also one of the first, maybe the first, to present the aliens not as evil monsters but as wise, intelligent, compassionate beings, not only a lot smarter than us but a lot nicer.

Well, maybe not so nice, once you get to know them.

The emissary, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, spends a big part of the movie demonstrating how much nicer than the barbaric earthlings the aliens must be. He’s gentle, intelligent, kind, sensitive, and tolerant, and he possesses the patrician dignity of voice and manner which Americans like to attribute to an English gentleman.

We, of course—the earthlings—are naturally going to do violence to a man like this in a movie like this. Or did that plot have yet to become a cliché in 1951? At any rate, that’s what happens. And in the end Klaatu departs, disappointed, but not before giving a speech explaining to the people of earth exactly where they stand in relation to the galactic civilization which he represents: their warlike habits are nobody’s business but their own as long as they are confined to their own planet. But once they venture into space their war-making will not be tolerated. If they know what’s good for them, they’ll give it up. Here is the key passage:

I came here to give you these facts: It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.

The movie is generally considered an anti-war classic, the vehicle of a Cold War message about the menace of nuclear weapons. For me, and I suspect for many viewers, Klaatu seems such a very decent person that we don’t really absorb the full significance of his words. Peace--yes! No war, ever again. Wonderful! Sure, he threatens grave measures should earth begin to export its violence, but he’s established himself as such a fine and reasonable man that the threat seems less horrendous than it is. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I ran across the text of the speech and met the bare words separated from Michael Rennie’s urbane delivery that I really grasped their icy ruthlessness.

The civilization which Klaatu represents cherishes peace so dearly that it will not hesitate to incinerate every living thing on this planet in order to preserve it. Obliteration will happen automatically, carried out by an army of robots which exist only for that purpose. No one will agonize about it. No one will even have to make the decision or give the command.

There’s something about this cold-blooded fantasy that’s even worse than the typical ways we justify our wars, or used to—it’s also more than a little reminiscent of more recent dreams of high-tech weapons systems that will make war obsolete. That it should be considered a message of peace must be evidence of something, but I’m not sure what. Of several things, I suppose: the intensity of our dread of war, for one. A politically-induced blindness, perhaps: the object of shaming the ruthless powers that rule the earth seems so compelling that the fact that this fantasy replaces them with something even more ruthless isn’t immediately noticed. And of course there’s always the perennial temptation to disregard the means if the end is worthwhile.

It also points up the maddening logic which the desire to end war—not just a particular war, but all war—eventually must face. Because the only way to stop the unjust or illicit use of force is, finally, the possession of greater force, the message of this anti-war film is one heard more often from militarists than pacifists: peace through strength.

There is of course another response to aggressive violence, the response of non-violent resistance, in which one is willing to suffer and die rather than resort to violence. I think this is an honorable and virtuous action on the part of an individual, but I’m not convinced that it can be so on the part of a state. In any event there are certainly no signs that any state intends to behave this way. I think we are going to be struggling for the foreseeable future with the question of when and how violence is justifiable for the purpose of stopping violence.

Klaatu’s speech:


Music of the Week — December 9, 2007

Solas: The Edge of Silence

This is a very good album, and I feel slightly churlish for not liking it more than I do. Solas is an Irish group that, at least on this album, does a sort of pop/Celtic crossover thing in the tradition of Clannad. And I’d predict that anyone who likes Clannad will like Solas. The level of musicianship here is extremely high, and any reservation I have about it has more to do with me than with the band: Celtic music is just not my favorite style. A few jigs and reels go a long way with me, which is not exactly reasonable, since I can listen to the blues, a more monotonous form, all night long.

Like Clannad, Solas has a female lead singer. I’m not extremely enthusiastic about her, but, again, I think that’s more a matter of my personal taste than any defect on her part: her voice is technically flawless and fits the band’s style and the material very well; it’s just, to my taste, somewhat on the pale side.

I’d be more enthusiastic if I liked all the material as well as I do the two or three songs that knock me out. Chief among these is the first track, which is the one containing the phrase which is the album’s title: a cover of the Jesse Colin Young classic “Darkness, Darkness.” It’s a great song, and this arrangement is at least as good as, and maybe better than, the Youngbloods’ original. If you don’t know this song, you probably should. There are also covers of songs by Nick Drake (“Clothes of Sand”) and Tom Waits (“Georgia Lee”), which are good although maybe not quite as striking as the originals (although those who can’t take Waits’s growl may prefer this version). There’s a relatively obscure Dylan song, “Dignity,” which in my opinion deserves its relative obscurity, but the band does as well by it as anyone could. There are two intriguing songs by a young writer named Antje Duvekot which maybe show more promise than achievement but are definitely worth hearing.

If you aren’t familiar with Solas but like Clannad and others in that vein, by all means check them out. You can hear thirty-second samples at the album’s eMusic page.


Weekend Music Video

Not my very favorite Incredible String Band song, but a good one. If you've never heard them, this will give you an idea of why people either love or hate them. I'm in the former group. The video is not embeddable so click here.

Is Kristin a Brat?

Janet quotes her daughter to that effect in a comment on Kristin Lavransdatter in another thread, and I think a lot of readers have an opinion somewhat along the same lines.

If I were going to pick a word to describe Kristin at her worst, it would also start with a “b” but would be stronger than “brat.” But whatever word(s) you want to use, I don’t think you can read the book without being periodically appalled by Kristin’s propensity to bring disaster on herself and everybody else by some impulsive and stupid act. My wife read the book before I did, and I remember her remarking on that: “She just...does these crazy things, over and over again.”

I think it was not too long afterwards that a quotation from Undset appeared on our refrigerator, where it stayed for some years. I’ll have to quote it from memory, but it was something like this:

Is there something we ought to have known but weren’t told, and is that why we do such terribly stupid things with our lives?

I don’t know exactly where that comes from, but it certainly seems relevant to Kristin. I’d like to track it down and see the context, because there seems a bit of irony in it: quite often we are told, and just choose to do otherwise. Kristin’s problem seems not so much not knowing as not thinking; she seems to lean toward the wrong move as if it exerted a force like gravity on her, a quality which is implied in that quotation.

But I like Kristin, and see her flaws as tragic rather than merely annoying or stupid. I like her passion and courage and her odd cranky fidelity. I’m not one to say of a novel that the characters all seem so real—usually they don’t, to me. But while reading Kristin I found myself constantly assuming that these were real people, and Kristin herself was the most real of all. What’s most striking to me about her is not so much her terrible impulsive judgment as her capacity for both reckless sin and heroic virtue.

I’d like to know her, or perhaps I should say I’m glad I do know her, although I admit I’m also glad I’m not married to her.


Two Interesting Literary Discussions

At Mere Comments (the Touchstone magazine blog): Top Twenty Books Nobody Reads and Top Ten Bad Books Everybody Reads. The first should more accurately be called "Top Twenty Good (Or At Least Highly Spoken-of) Books Nobody Reads."

I can't really comment much on the first list, because I have, in fact, not read most of them. I was just talking about Undset's Master of Hestviken with someone the other day: I read Kristen Lavransdatter (a very great book) twenty-plus years ago, and bought a copy of Master around the same time. I put it aside until the day when I might have the leisure to give such a huge book its proper attention. That day still hasn't arrived.

I have, however, read Mauriac's Viper's Tangle, and strongly recommend it. It's apropos to the discussion we were having here the other day about offering one's suffering to God on behalf of another. One such offering is crucial to this story, but I can't say any more without giving too much away for those who haven't read it.


Sunday Night Journal — December 2, 2007

The Dark Door Thrown Open

I’ve spent most of the time that I would normally have spent writing my weekly journal in reading Benedict XVI’s new encyclical Spe Salvi (In Hope We Are Saved). So I’m going to content myself now with some very unorganized comments on a few passages that particularly struck me. I’d be happy to hear the views of others—there are already some in the comments on the “Intolerable Story” post below.

“Hope”, in fact, is a key word in Biblical faith—so much so that in several passages the words “faith” and “hope” seem interchangeable.

This is a crucial insight for me. Perhaps the words are not technically interchangeable (as we have discussed here about truth and beauty) but it is true that you cannot have either of them without also having the other.

The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life

One who does not recognize the enormous, shouting, leaping importance of this has not truly experienced the transition from not-faith to faith. I don’t mean that as a criticism; it may well mean that he has never truly been without faith, and that’s good. It could also, of course, mean that he says and maybe even believes that he has faith, but really doesn’t. And that’s bad.

…the liberation that [St. Josephine Bakhita] had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.

The attempt to share this hope with others is very difficult in the modern world, especially if the other is post-Christian or nominally Christian in the way that many Americans and Europeans are: having been surrounded with a dessicated and emptied Christianity, they believe they know what it is, and have rejected what they see. It is harder for them to see it as it really is than for someone to whom it is completely new. Some of my favorite writers (O’Connor, Percy) made the attempt to break through those barriers a major component of their art.

The effort to evangelize is perverted, it becomes a rotten and stinking thing, when it ceases to be a burning desire that the other would know joy and becomes instead an arena of egotistical combat, a sort of war or perhaps mere bullying, a determination to make the other submit. Some people who flee from evangelization do so because they are afraid of what the faith might require of them; more, I think, flee because they are afraid to hope—they do not dare to risk the disappointment of believing the promises and then finding that they are not true. But some flee because of the stink, and I don’t blame them.

On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want? Our paradoxical attitude gives rise to a deeper question: what in fact is “life”? And what does “eternity” really mean? There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true “life” is—this is what it should be like.

I’ve know this in certain dreams: a combination of peace and joy that if encountered in waking life at all lasts only for an instant. I’ve had only a few such dreams in my life. But I remember them vividly, and I think I always will. And nothing that this life can offer could replace my hope that those dreams are a taste of a kind of life that I can really attain someday.

…we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like. We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us… All we know is that it is not this. Yet in not knowing, we know that this reality must exist.

Does the word must refer to my inability to bear the thought that this thing might not exist? Partly, perhaps. But also there is the mysterious half-formed intuition that there would be something that didn’t quite make sense, something that didn’t add up, in a cosmos where my soul is imprinted with the absence of this thing if it does not in fact exist.

Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we “live.”

And I would add: we have also those other human beings whom we love who also are, or should be, in this relation. Because I am joined to them by love, my hope literally does not exist if it is not also hope on their behalf. I don’t speak of “humanity” here; I can’t love “humanity” as a whole or in the abstract. I speak of specific individuals.

We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them.

This is something I look to with both hope and dread. Anyone who has ever found such a lie in himself, a successful lie which did in fact deceive the very self that told it, must ever after feel unsure of his motives and wish to have them purified.

Suffering and torment is still terrible and well-nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

This frightens me. I doubt my ability to participate in this conversion of suffering to praise. I can only hope that God will not test me past my limits.

In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love.

Like the song says: “Love hurts.”

The Christian faith has shown us that truth, justice and love are not simply ideals, but enormously weighty realities. It has shown us that God —Truth and Love in person—desired to suffer for us and with us. Bernard of Clairvaux coined the marvellous expression: Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis—God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with….Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity.

Or for the sake of love—meaning love in its fundamental sense, the will toward the good of the other. And let us not say only will; although I know that’s the traditional term, it only represents the essential: this “will” may, and properly should, include an active emotion of desire for the good of the other; Benedict describes this in Deus Caritas Est as a fusion of eros (not only in the sexual sense but in a broader sense, an actual and specific emotion of affection) and agape that is particularly, if not exclusively, a feature of Christian love. At our best, we will the good of the other not cooly but ardently.

Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright.

“And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song…”

(Note: the online copy of Spe Salvi at EWTN is much more readable than the one at the Vatican site, in my opinion.)


Music of the Week — December 2, 2007

Delerium: Nuages du Monde

UPDATE: I left out a step in the directions to the samples at the official Delerium site: click on the link I gave, then click on “Discography” to see the album cover thumbnails.

This is an album of which I’ve grown pretty fond and which I never would have heard if not for eMusic’s free daily download, which I rarely miss. I think it was the first track, “Angelicus,” which was the daily freebie a few months ago, and which led me to try a couple more tracks, and then to get the rest of the album. It’s also an instance of my continuing seduction (for lack of a better word) by the female voice. Everything here is a variant of one basic technique: lavish female vocals (except for a boy soprano on one or two tracks) over mid-tempo mostly electronic arrangements. It’s almost a synth-pop or even dance-club kind of sound, which may, on the face of it, not seem very appealing—at least, it wouldn’t to me. But it’s better than that description makes it sound.

The vocals, provided by several different singers, are terrific, ranging from classical heavenly-angelic-ethereal (with soprano allelujas, for instance), to warm and sensual. The songs are very strong melodically, some of them really haunting (e.g. “The Way You Want It to Be”)—and in addition to good tunes, they even have some lyrical substance. The effect is sometimes closer to a much less eccentric Cocteau Twins or Dead Can Dance than to dance music. I make no claim of greatness for it, but I’ve gotten pretty attached to it.

You hear samples of a minute or so hereNuages is the album in the upper-right corner of the thumbnails—click on it to get a track listing. The eMusic page is here, but the 30-second samples aren’t nearly as helpful because they don’t get past the instrumental intro. If you can’t play the Flash samples at the first location, try tracks 1, 3, 8, and 11 on the eMusic page.


A Slight Delay b/w Geaux Tigers

I’ve gotten into sort of a routine with my weekly posts: write them on Sunday afternoon and/or evening, format and post the music one that night if it’s not too late, format and post the journal on my lunch hour Monday (and of course the music one if I didn’t do it the night before). This procedure requires that I remember to bring to work with me the flash drive on which the material resides. Which I forgot to do this morning. So that stuff will be along tonight, probably, or else tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I was thrilled to see the Great Pumpkin go down to defeat in the SEC Championship, and am happy to see this morning that LSU will be playing for the national title. What a weird season this has been, especially in the SEC, Greatest of Conferences. I was sorry to see West Virginia lose, though, as their quarterback, Patrick White, is a local boy.

In other, trivial, boring news: Alabama will face Colorado in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport. Nothing against Shreveport—I’m sure it is every bit as pleasant as north Alabama, where I grew up—but it’s a long, long way, cachet-wise, from New Orleans. I know what will happen on the day of the Independence Bowl. It’ll be like the Auburn game: I’ll think maybe I won’t watch it, because I won’t want to suffer through another Bama loss, and then I’ll start thinking but what if we don’t lose? what if it turns out, against the odds, to be a classic or at least memorable victory, like the ’79 Penn State game or the ’85 Auburn game? and you didn’t get to see it because you were too much of a defeatist?

And then I’ll watch it anyway. And Alabama will lose.

(I wonder how many people know what that “b/w” in the title of this post means. Not many people under 45 or so, probably, unless they’re Dawn Eden.)



I did my best, it wasn’t much.
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.
I’ve told the truth. I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

I’m pretty sure this is lip-synced from the album version.