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January 2008

An Interesting Conversion Story

Of course conversion stories are always interesting; it’s always interesting to see the different ways and means by which God calls people. Some he commands directly, with a presence that can’t be denied or refused; others follow a trail of faint and ambiguous intuitions. I find it especially intriguing to hear the story of someone who grew up without religion and found his way to it as an adult, against what would seem to be strong odds. Such is the case with Jennifer F.:

When I was 26, I had never once believed in God. Raised entirely without religion, I was a content atheist and thought it was simply obvious that God did not exist. I thought that religion and reason were incompatible, and was baffled by why anyone would believe in God (I actually suspected that few people really did). After a few years in the Bible Belt, I became vocally anti-Christian. Imagine my surprise to find myself today, just three years later, a practicing Catholic who loves her faith (my husband and I both entered the Church at Easter Vigil 2007). This is the chronicle of my journey.

It’s in two parts, Why I Believe in God and Why I’m Catholic.

This section in particular struck a chord with me:

The more I went through the motions of believing in God, the more the world started to make sense to me. The more I started to make sense to me....I saw the psychological harm that certain actions that seemed totally innocuous in my atheist worldview had caused me; I was finally able to put a name to the deep stirrings within my soul I’d experience when listening to a profound piece of music or hearing about an act of evil....

Sometimes I think it all comes down to those deep stirrings: you have to decide whether they’re just a more sophisticated version of the pleasure and pain reflexes that all animals have, or are trying to tell you something about the real, and I mean real, world.

I might leave the word “me” off that sentence about the psychological harm caused by certain actions; I’m more worried about the harm I’ve caused other people.

(Hat tip to Mark Shea.)


Sunday Night Journal — January 27, 2008

Ingenting: The Death Spasm of Christian Civilization

Ingenting is the Swedish word for nothing and the word which comprises what I take to be the climax of Bergman’s Persona, which my wife and I watched a couple of weeks ago. I had seen it in the late ‘60s and been both impressed and baffled by it, and was eager to see it again.

It tracks the increasingly intimate and yet hostile relationship between two women, one a mental patient who refuses to speak and the other the nurse who cares for her. It’s obviously meant to say something about the nature of self and identity, but I will be honest and say that I have no clear idea at all of what that statement might be. About ten minutes into it, after a series of disconnected, bizarre, and sometimes gruesome images accompanied by music that now seems a dated near-parody of the random whistles-and-bangs school of high modernism in music, my wife said “It’s trying too hard.”

I think that’s true, and I was, overall, disappointed in it, although as is almost always the case with Bergman’s work I found much of its imagery extremely, almost painfully beautiful. A large part of it involves close study of the faces of two of the most beautiful women ever featured in cinema, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson. The contrast between their beauty, especially that of Ullman, who is in a sense the villain of the piece, and the desolate emotional and spiritual landscape of the film is potent.

Through most of the film Andersson’s character, Alma (the nurse) seems more the victim, and Ullman’s character, Elizabeth, is dominant, precisely by her refusal to speak, which drives the other to more and more desperate attempts to make her do so. But in that climactic scene to which I referred it seems that Alma has finally gained the upper hand, and she forces out of Elizabeth the only word she speaks in the entire film: ingenting, nothing.

The previous scene had concluded with Alma seeming to have a sort of breakdown, her speech disintegrating into anguished fragments. She has progressed from a comfortable worldly complacency to torment to disintegration and arrived at ingenting. From here she seems to recover herself and resume an outwardly normal life, but the viewer is left wondering how normal it can ever be.

Alma’s incoherent efforts to express her agony reminded me of another work of art which appeared around the same time, W.S. Merwin’s The Lice. Merwin is one of my favorite poets, and in a series of books in the ‘60s he appropriated some of the techniques of surrealism for the expression of a vision similar to Eliot’s in The Waste Land. Most of the poems are hardly coherent at all, but the cumulative effect of the tone and imagery produce a terrible sense of isolation and despair. This fragment is typical:

Shutting your eyes from the spectacle you
Saw not darkness but

On which doors were opening

      (“Pieces for Other Lives”)

One of the reasons why it remains so difficult to get a firm grasp on the events of the 1960s is that more than one thing was happening. One of those things, I believe, was a sort of death spasm of Christianity as the living heart of our civilization. As we all know the faith as a formative idea for society had been in decline for a long time, but if I were going to pick one historical moment as the point where death occurred, I think it would be somewhere in the middle of the ‘60s. After that it soon became less conventional to be a practicing Christian than not to be in the culturally dominant circles of the USA and Europe.

Persona and The Lice are only two of many convulsive works of art that appeared in the 1960s, works of disorientation and despair which differ from the similar artifacts of early modernism in that they have less connection to the Western tradition. They don’t look backward, as, for instance, The Waste Land does, but rather forward, and what they see is a blank. Laurence Lieberman’s blurb on the original edition of The Lice describes it as capturing “the agony of a generation which knows itself to be the last.”

Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister. He rejected the faith but continued to grapple with it, rejecting it very definitely in a series of bleak visions of which Persona is one of the most bleak. I did not know until a few minutes ago when I looked up Merwin on Wikipedia that he also was the son of a minister, a Presbyterian. The work of both these men seems to me at once to exemplify and reveal the truth of the death of Christian culture. It is not a pretty sight. There is darkness, there is disorientation, and in the end there is nothing. In a sense nothing came after them, in that no one much younger than they has been formed by the Western-Christian tradition in the way that they were; those who have come after are shaped by a world in which that tradition is only one of many elements comprising the mental landscape of their civilization. And even if they choose that tradition the act of choice makes their relationship to it very different—very self-conscious, among other things.

There were of course a lot of lively things happening at exactly the same time that these artists were producing their darkest work—the eruption of the counter-culture and left-wing radicalism throughout Europe and America, for instance. Not all of this was bad, and some of it represented an instinctive reaction against some of the forces that were killing the soul of the culture. Speaking broadly, though, I think much of the cultural revolution of the time can be seen as a sort of release, the children of a wealthy man going wild with their inheritance upon his death. And in this light the emergence of what we now call the Christian Right seems an understandable but hopeless attempt to cure gangrene in a limb when the patient’s heart is no longer beating.


Music of the Week — January 27, 2008

Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)

For most of this album you’re hearing one voice and two guitars, sometimes only one. There’s a second voice singing harmony on the choruses; there’s a banjo on one track, and a faint drum, or maybe just a foot stomping, on another. To hold a listener’s attention for the better part of an hour with these limited resources requires some really fine songs. And this album delivers: it’s just a few songs short of greatness. The overall pace is slow, the tone melancholy, and it was a very justifiable decision to throw in a couple of more up-tempo songs for variety. But to my taste those two (“Red Clay Halo” and “I Wanna Sing That Rock and Roll”) just don’t measure up; they come across as throw-aways.

The others vary from very good to great, including the best song about Elvis Presley I’ve ever heard (“Elvis Presley Blues”), a striking two-part meditation on certain great events and (one gathers) a couple of private ones that have occurred on April 14 (“Ruination Day”), and, most improbably, a song lasting almost fifteen minutes which tells no story and is fairly repetitive musically but nevertheless never gets tiresome for me. Welch’s voice is wonderful without being outstanding, if that makes sense: I mean that it isn’t striking, like Emmy Lou Harris’s, or spectacular, like Patty Griffin’s, but it’s perfect for what she does—warm and relaxed and just slightly countrified, which is pretty strange for someone who grew up in Los Angeles as the child of two television writers.

If you read these little reviews regularly you know I place a high value on lyrics, and these hooked me from the very first verse:

Darling remember
When you come to me
I’m the pretender
And not what I’m supposed to be
But who could know
if I’m a traitor?
Time’s a revelator.

I assume Welch wrote the lyrics, but the songs are credited to Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings, who is also the provider of the other voice and guitar, making one wonder if crediting the album to Welch alone is quite accurate. But that’s their business. You can listen to samples here.


Fun With Stereotypes

While we're on the topic of racial stereotypes:

Extra nerd points if you know the name of the publisher of the JavaScript book; award yourself one extra point if you didn't even have to think about it.

Many or most readers may need to have it explained that this is a parody of a song called "Ridin' Dirty"—I did. According to the title refers to riding around with felony-level quantities of illegal drugs or firearms.


Comment Problems (again)

Once again comments are failing to display. They show up in recent comments and I can see them if I log in to my HaloScan account, but when you try to view them you get either nothing or only some of them. I guess I'll move ahead with my plan to switch to WordPress sooner rather than later, although with anything software-related you never know when you're jumping out of the frying pan into the fire (I speak as one who's in the trade).


Sunday Night Journal — January 20, 2008

We Got to Live Together: A Note on MLK Day

I went to a Martin Luther King Day event at a local college last week. There were some encouraging things about it, and some discouraging things. Among the former: the deep connection to Christian faith, the warmth and charm of the gospel singers and the sweet little girls performing a “praise dance,” and the main speaker, whose theme was more or less “now it’s up to us.” Among the latter: a recitation of Langston Hughes’ well-know poem “A Raisin In the Sun,” with its implicit threat of violence in the context of a situation of direct oppression that no longer exists, and the fact that there were very few young black men in attendance, partly no doubt because there are far fewer of them in college.

Toward the end of the event ushers handed out paper and pencils to the audience and asked us to write down something that we would like to see happen toward the advancement of racial harmony. I wrote that I would like to see black and white discuss their differences openly and with good will on both sides.

Good will is what is conspicuously lacking in our racial situation (as in so many others). If “racism” can be defined straightforwardly as race-based hostility, then what we have now is a standoff between two forms of racism. I had a conversation recently with a white man who confessed that he had given up trying not to be racist. He had decided that it was silly and useless to pretend that black people in general are not going to look out for their own above all else, and he saw no reason for white people to do otherwise. He had a lot of evidence for his first point, some of which was irrational and some not—for instance, a couple of situations locally in which black people had gained control of some institution and looted it for themselves and their cronies (doing so rather recklessly, which is why they got caught).

What struck me about this is that it’s more or less the same attitude that many blacks have. They assume that whites are racist and react accordingly. Any conflict with a white is assumed to be driven at least partly by racism. I dare say most of us have seen this in action, especially in the workplace, when the simplest disagreement, something that would be worked out straightforwardly (not necessarily happily) between two members of the same race becomes a racial minefield and of course a potential lawsuit. In fact it’s probably true that almost all interaction between whites and blacks is a minefield, except in situations where the participants really know and trust each other.

Needless to say, both sides often end up wary and paranoid and behaving in ways that confirm the suspicions of the other. And there is always enough foundation for suspicion to make it seem the obvious and prudent path. The naïve assumption of the civil rights movement, that our real differences are superficial and that our prejudices therefore are also superficial gave way long ago to a recognition, not always confessed, that the two peoples are different in real and significant ways and that it isn’t easy to bridge the gap.

What can we do to break this cycle? How do we get to a place where we can approach the problem with an assumption of good will on each side? I’ve been saying for many years now that only supernatural help in the form of Christian faith and love will ever have the power to do it. But there’s one thing in the natural realm that would help a great deal: for each group to recognize how much it needs the other. Try to imagine the United States without either its white or its black population: it would be a totally different country, and one that would be missing a great deal of its richness and vitality.

In racism there is an implicit assumption that things would be much better for each group if the other did not exist. That’s a false assumption. For all its past violence and oppression, and all its present tension, the connection of European and African cultures in the United States (and in the Americas in general) has enriched both. God, as we know, can bring good out of even so great an evil as slavery, but he generally expects a good deal of human cooperation with his providence. At any rate there is no separating us now, at least nothing that would not involve violence as great as that which brought us together. We had best accept the verdict of the old Sly and the Family Stone song: we got to live together—accept it on a very deep level, and live accordingly.


Music of the Week — January 20, 2008

Karen Dalton: In My Own Time

Karen Dalton is sometimes described as a cult artist, and it was apparently a pretty small cult for many years, as I’m fairly familiar with pop music but as far as I can remember I had never heard her name until a couple of years ago. She was a ‘60s folksinger who issued two albums in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and then was lost to drugs and alcohol until her death in 1993. She’s become more widely known lately with people like Joanna Newsom praising her and citing her odd vocal style as an influence.

This is the second of those two albums. Judging by it, I would rank her near the top of the list of great singers with unbeautiful voices, up there with people like Dylan in his prime. She’s often compared to Billie Holiday, with good reason, but her voice is very different, sounding more a product of a rural white culture than an urban black one, and considerably rougher, sounding just a little like a crow at times. But like Holiday, she seems to consider the written melody and rhythm of the song as no more than suggestions, a rough sketch rather than a blueprint, and she somehow makes it work.

The version of the old folkie standard “Katy Cruel” on this album is astonishing, and several other tracks are equally good. But there are really only four or five songs here that I wouldn’t want to be without. Someone thought it would be a good idea for her to try soul classics like “When A Man Loves A Woman,” and although her supernaturally weird phrasing makes them interesting the tracks don’t really succeed as complete works. She’s at her best with more rural blues and country material and minimal acoustic instrumentation—banjo and fiddle, say, or just a guitar, like this (not on the album):

On the other hand, though, the first track here gives a tantalizing hint of what might have been a sort of female Astral Weeks. You can hear 30-second samples from the album at the eMusic page.


“I'll pray for you”

I ran across something a few days ago that rather took me aback. I have no way now of retracing the steps that got me there, but in the course of following a political discussion I ended up at some left-wing blog that was also, as is too frequently the case, fairly scornful of Christianity. Nothing new in that, of course, but here’s what struck me: the writer asserted something to the effect that “I’ll pray for you” is among the most frequently told lies. (The only other one I remember from his list was that old standby “The check is in the mail.”)

The immediate question, of course, is how he would know. More significantly, though, I wonder what made him say it. The only thing I can suppose is that he has received or otherwise encountered hate mail from Christians of the sort we’ve probably all seen somewhere, the sort that usually goes something like this:

You are a despicable creature. My belief in a just God leads directly to the expectation that you will spend eternity in torment rivalled in intensity only by the pleasure I anticipate in contemplating it. I will pray for you, you filthy swine.

But setting aside the case of a person who’s obviously lost his temper, I’m pretty sure the blogger is quite wrong. When I say I’ll pray for someone it has almost the character of a vow. It’s a sacred duty, and only forgetfulness will keep me from doing it—for that reason I try to offer at least a quick mental prayer at the moment I make the promise. I doubt very much that I’m any more sincere or conscientious than the average Christian. And I imagine most Christians would, at a minimum, sincerely intend to do it when they say they will, and would probably carry out the promise. To lie about it—to say it with the knowledge that you had no intention of doing it—would seem to be a pretty serious sin.

I wonder if the blogger’s view indicates that he thinks we don’t really believe this stuff. Curious.


Reading the Paper

I posted a shorter version of this as a comment over on the Crunchy Con blog yesterday. The topic was the demise of the gatekeepers of news—a few big newspapers and the three major broadcast television networks (before Fox came along). As it happens, I had been planning to post something here on the same topic, and this will serve the purpose:

My wife & I went for many years with no cable TV, thus no CNN etc., and very little TV news at all, which gave us an odd perspective on the news—we never had much idea of the TV pseudo-events (so-and-so's gaffe, etc.) that drove so many things, didn't recognize parodies of politicos or catch-phrases, had little idea of the TV presence of major figures. Then we got cable and for a year or two switched between CNN and Fox News at breakfast. It was fun for a while, but then one day we said to each other "I'm really sick of these people"—their ginned-up urgency, their saturation coverage of the trivial and superficial coverage of the serious, their endless teasing of some big story "coming up soon," their self-importance, their prejudices, and of course the damned commercials. Now we read the morning paper at breakfast. It's very pleasant. It's mostly local stuff. For non-local news we browse multiple sources on the net.

Newspapers may very well be dying. Ours no longer makes any pretense that it believes you are turning first to it for news of the world. Almost every day the major headline involves something local. And they do a good job; you feel that the people writing the stories have an attachment to the community and understand it. Television news may be dying, too, victim of the Internet as newspapers were, in part, its victim. I don't think I'll miss it much, but I would miss the newspaper. I almost hate to say this, because it sounds like the effete note one sometimes hears in a certain kind of conservatism, nostalgic for something that was a disruptive innovation in its day—but reading the paper seems like a civilized thing to do. It is certainly easier on the nerves than television news.

Younger people (younger than, I would guess, 40 or so—I'm pushing 60) may not realize the stranglehold that Walter Cronkite and a handful of others had on the news for so long. It was a very tendentious, to say the least, view of the world, and it literally defined reality for millions of people, or rather that part of reality outside their local environment. Good riddance to them.


Regina Doman on the Upcoming Prince Caspian

Regina Doman sends a link to her discussion of what she expects, or fears, in the movie of Prince Caspian, which, I just learned from her piece, is due out in May. I expect most people who read this blog know that Prince Caspian is the second of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. I also expect most people have read it, but just in case you haven't, be aware that the article gives away some early parts of the story.

I had forgotten that this movie was on the way, actually. I liked the first one well enough but was not extremely enthusiastic about it, for no reason that I could immediately state. Regina's pessimism is probably justified. I agree completely with her about the Moria episode in The Lord of the Rings (the movie); I believe that was the first of several points where I thought the movie went seriously amiss; suddenly you were in a standard Hollywood scene of exaggeration, crudity, and implausibility.

Regina also has an overview of the Narnia series and a piece on The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

And lastly: congratulations to Regina and Andrew on the birth of Paula Kathleen.


Sunday Night Journal — January 13, 2008

Anti-Clintonism: A Description of the Symptoms

This was intended to be a quick post during my lunch break Friday, but it kept growing, so I waited until Sunday to finish it.

Dave’s technically-not-a-question (in a comment a few days ago) about the reasons why so many people detest Hillary Clinton so much has had me thinking about the reasons for this dislike. My flippant answer—“if you have to ask you’ll never know”—is correct in that the core of this dislike is something that one either sees or does not see. And although Mrs. Clinton seems to attract more of this ire from a broader range of people than does her husband, millions feel the same way about him. It doesn’t really have that much to do with anything that the Clintons have or have not done politically; it’s a perception of the sort of people they are. Although naturally most of the Clintons’ enemies are on the political right, it’s not at all uncommon to hear those on the left confess that they, too, find the former First Couple somehow odious.

So in a spirit of scientific inquiry I have assembled a few samples of Clinton dislike that happened to be handy. I think they are representative enough to serve as clinical specimens. Consider them as data representing a set of symptoms; I will leave it to the reader to decide whether the symptoms are part of a pathological condition or are the reaction of a healthy system to a pathogen. I don’t want to get bogged down in that, or in the question of which Republicans are even worse, or how much so. I admit to being among the anti-Clintonites, but here I’m only trying to describe the phenomenon.

One prominent theme among anti-Clintonites is a conviction that the Clintons combine dishonesty with self-righteousness. This combination is detestable to most people, so the fundamental division between those who like and those who dislike the Clintons is not so much a political one as a question of whether they have this perception. (NB: my apologies if the links to The Atlantic below block non-subscribers; I can access them but that may be because I am a subscriber and am “remembered” as such on my computer.)

Few conservatives, for instance, have denounced Mrs. Clinton as colorfully and thoroughly as Camille Paglia, who intends to vote for her if she’s the Democratic nominee, but nevertheless says:

...Hillary herself, with her thin, spotty record, tangled psychological baggage, and maundering blowhard of a husband, is...a brittle, relentless manipulator with few stable core values who shuffles through useful personalities like a card shark (“Cue the tears!”). Forget all her little gold crosses: Hillary’s real god is political expediency. Do Americans truly want this hard-bitten Machiavellian back in the White House?

Maureen Dowd, also on the left, is probably not throughly anti-Clinton but nevertheless considers Mrs. Clinton a cynical manipulator:

Yet, in the end [of the New Hampshire campaign], [Mrs. Clinton] had to fend off calamity by playing the female victim, both of Obama and of the press.

Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic, a more or less conventional liberal who really wants to like Hillary Clinton, describes the failure of that attempt. I think her introductory anecdote about Socks the cat is probably as significant as any larger story in illuminating the sources of anti-Clintonism:

When I first heard, during the strange final days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, that the first couple were going to jettison Socks, the family cat, I assumed that it was one of those weird rumors that attach themselves to the Clintons, in this case one easily dispelled: a single photograph of the kitty happily curled up on a window seat in his new home, and that would be the end of it. But then, as so often happens with weird rumors that attach themselves to the Clintons, the story turned out to be 100 percent true.

A conservative evangelical wonders why he may vote for Obama even though he wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton:

I cannot escape the reality that personality, tone and even voice qualities are shaping my preferences. I recognize that Obama is to Hillary’s left on some important points, and I find myself not caring. The thought of living with Hillary’s schoolmarm demeanor, her cackle and all the baggage of Clintonism greatly agitates me. I feel no such dread about an Obama presidency.

And a commentor on that thread says:

While I don’t agree with Obama’s policy directions (what I know of them) I at least get the sense that he might be honest (though it is more a gut feeling than evidence at this moment) and if a democrat were to be elected as pres. I would rather have him than Hilary because at least I think there is a better chance of getting the truth from him, I hope.

Here is an attempt by Jonah Goldberg, a National Review conservative, to analyze the phenomenon. The column ranges far and wide, and you really need to read the whole thing to get the full picture, but here is one important point:

There is something distinctly baby-boomer in everything he does, but most of all in his eagerness to be a victim....

And there is something that makes people hate Bill Clinton that goes beyond personifying the worst aspects of his generation. He is a liar. He lies about big things and small things. He lies when it might be necessary and he lies when it is necessary not to lie. He takes offense when confronted with his lies because he considers that a form of blame, and we know what he thinks about blame. And because he believes words are a substitute for action, he considers questioning his words mean-spirited and reactionary.

Goldberg also has what I think is a telling comparison of Clinton and Nixon, and I think he’s right in that the similarities between the two are striking. Whether you think this unfair to one or the other, I think it’s plainly true that both were loathed by their political opponents less for what they actually did than for the sort of men they were (those old enough to remember know that Nixon was deeply loathed by the left, and unloved by much of the right, long before Watergate). And it’s worth noting something that I don’t think Goldberg mentions: that both Nixon and the Clintons communicate a strong and personal malice for their political opponents, which naturally tends to produce an equal and opposite reaction.

I myself am sympathetic to the evangelical quoted above. Barack Obama is if anything further from my own political views than is Mrs. Clinton, and I hope he isn’t elected, but if he is his presence in the office will not be a constant annoyance to me in the way that Mrs. Clinton’s would. Here is my attempt to describe and explain my own anti-Clintonism.

And, lastly, backing away from the immediate question and taking a larger view, here is a lengthy piece by Andrew Sullivan from the December 2007 Atlantic in which he rather breathlessly lauds Obama’s candidacy as a path toward escaping the ruinous partisanship of the last twenty or thirty years. I disagree with a great many of the details of what Sullivan says, but I think there’s more than a little truth in his central insight: that our present divisions are rooted in those of the 1960s and will probably only be transcended by people who were not formed by those times. Sullivan’s essay is, at a minimum, real food for thought.

Let me emphasize, again, that I’m not insisting that the anti-Clintonites are right. I think we are, of course, but that argument will always be inconclusive (and therefore tiresome); I’m only trying to get at the question of why they/we react to the Clintons as we do.


Music of the Week — January 13, 2008

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds

Ok, I’m a little late in recognizing this album; almost forty-two years late, to be exact. But now, finally, I understand why it’s so highly regarded by so many people—for instance, Paul McCartney.

A few words about my reasons for taking so long to get around to it: first, I never much cared for the Beach Boys in their ‘60s heyday. Although I wouldn’t have known to put it this way at the age of sixteen or so, their early stuff struck me as a bleached-out imitation of Chuck Berry and others. In particular I didn’t much like their vocals, which struck me as thin and whiny. Of course I mostly heard them on AM radio through tiny speakers, and that made it worse.

And second, they seemed the acme of commercial pop at a time when I disdained it. There was a brief period when I was a bit of a folk music snob looking down on rock altogether, and even after I got over that it was the more adventurous music that attracted me: the British Invasion, American folk-rock like the Lovin’ Spoonful, and of course Dylan’s new rock-oriented work. The Beach Boys were just top-40 music, loved by the cool kids at school, of whom I was not one, and that didn’t help, either. I didn’t hate the group, but they were just something I heard on the radio and didn’t take seriously. Pet Sounds came out the year I graduated from high school, and I do remember a friend who was a fan saying it was something special. But I wasn’t interested.

Well, it was my loss. This is, just as critics have been saying for decades, a masterpiece, one of the ‘60s landmarks that unquestionably deserves its prominence not for any sociological or cultural reason but because it’s really, really fine music. From first note to last it’s as inventive as anything the Beatles ever did, though without their counter-cultural poses. And it’s all the better for that, because it’s a picture of the heart of a young man presented with no big axes to grind and no big message beyond the struggle to grow up. I had a friend in high school named Carolyn who started crying when “Caroline No” came on the radio one summer day when several of us were riding around. I thought she was being a bit melodramatic at the time, but looking back on her, and hearing the song now, as if for the first time, she was right to weep; it’s an absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking song, capturing the first youthful experience of loss about as well as it ever has been.

Speaking of hearing things for the first time: Pet Sounds was available only in mono or phony stereo for many years. In 1999 Brian Wilson worked with an engineer to produce a real stereo mix which can be found on a CD containing both versions. I strongly recommend it. The stereo version has been a revelation to me. I had always thought of songs like “God Only Knows” as having a muddy, over-crowded, and indistinct sound. In the new mix all is spacious and clear and detailed, as if a very dirty window has been cleaned. I can say truthfully that I had never really heard the Beach Boys before.

I tend to be impatient with talk of lost American innocence, but in certain limited contexts there’s something to it. Wouldn’t it be nice if Brian Wilson had not fallen prey to whatever combination of drugs and mental illness it was that kept him from continuing to develop the gift that brought us Pet Sounds?


Politics, Once More

Daniel’s and Dave’s comments on the “Hillary’s Tears” post below have made me realize that I’ve been mixing up two distinct points about politics and possibly creating some confusion as to what I think. So let me try to clear that up.

The more important point is the one I intended to make with that quotation from St. Catherine of Siena the other day. That post had a very specific context in my mind which was not necessarily apparent to the reader. I think I gave the impression that I was using the spiritual realization described in the post as a justification for holding myself above politics, or saying that politics don’t matter, or insinuating that those who are interested are insufficiently spiritual. That wasn’t my intention at all. In my mind that post was in the context of a series over the past few months in which I’ve reflected on the barriers to evangelization created by the way our political battle lines have been drawn on religious lines. In one sentence, this is what I meant: I want to invite the non-Christian to enter the divine sea of which Catherine spoke, and I don’t want disagreement about secondary matters like politics to prevent the invitation from being heard.

The other point is much more mundane: I get pretty impatient and/or bored with the tenor of the debate as we mostly encounter it these days. It tends to be imprecise, emotional, and unproductive, and I don’t want to spend much time doing it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what’s going on politically, or that I don’t think it’s important, or that I have taken a vow never to discuss it.

In passing: one of the funniest things I’ve read lately was in Ross Douthat’s review of one of the recent anti-war movies (National Review, Dec. 3 2007 issue): a scene involving the pro-war villain and the anti-war heroine was “like watching Sean Hannity debate Jane Fonda after they spent the whole day together sniffing glue.”


And on a more substantial note

(than the preceding post): Thursday Night Gumbo has a quote from Newman which describes all too many online discussions (well, offline ones as well, I suppose).

And Clio has a simple and touching reflection on the death of her mother. I hope that when I’m dying the eternal happiness of the people I love will be as much on my mind as was the case with her. I’m particularly struck by her concern that Clio would lose her faith because her prayers for her mother’s recovery were not answered. I long ago came to my own terms with the question of unanswered prayer, but no one can do that for another, and there isn’t even very much one can say; it is a struggle between that person and God.


Because You Need to Know

There is a local figure whom I will not name who publishes a weekly column with the above title. It's become a bit of a joke between me and my wife to use it when we communicate something fairly trivial to each other. In that spirit, I am sharing with the world the fact that after years of struggle I have achieved one of my dreams: I have stopped all notification of incoming email in Outlook 2000 while still allowing it to check automatically for new mail. I had long ago turned off the sounds and dialogs, but couldn't get rid of the little envelope in the space on the Windows task bar officially known as the "notification area."

The matter became urgent a few weeks ago when, after a lengthy period of evasion, I was finally cornered and forced to start using XP and Exchange. This took away my ability to specify the interval between checks for new messages and caused Outlook to notify me whenever (I assume) a message arrives at the Exchange server. Since I get email pretty frequently in my job, the result was that I couldn't concentrate because I am incapable of ignoring that notification; it's like a ringing phone that won't stop until I pick it up. When the little envelope appears, I can't continue what I'm doing until I've looked to see what just arrived and then opened a message, any message, and made the envelope go away.

I'm sure I will be more productive now, eventually making up for the hours I spent solving this problem.

Sometimes I'm afraid that I will turn into Wally.


Comment Problems

Update: Problem seems to be resolved now--things have been working normally since sometime late yesterday.


I suppose everybody is seeing the same malfunction I am: comment headers appear in the Recent Comments sidebar, but when you click on them nothing's there. I don't know what's going on. As you may or may not realize, the commenting function here is provided by, which is an independent service--independent of Blogger, which provides the blogging software, and of the hosting service where this blog resides. Sometimes Haloscan is flaky. I'm thinking seriously about moving the blog to Wordpress or TypePad, which have built-in commenting (well, Blogger does, too, but for several good reasons with which I won't bore you I don't want to use it).

Anyway, I hope this will clear up soon.


Hillary's Tears

Political pundits have been buzzing for a couple of days now about whether Mrs. Clinton's teary-eyed-on-TV moment was genuine or fake, and whether it would/did help or hurt her in the New Hampshire primary. As to the first question: I don't care. As to the second question: if it made any difference one way or another, American democracy is actually in as much trouble as I thought.

Sunday Night Journal — January 6, 2008

Singing With the Choir

I’m one of those unfortunate people who have a great love of music but very little aptitude for it. My singing voice is marginal at very best. I long ago gave up any hope of having a good voice, and consider any effort at singing a success if I can stay on pitch fairly consistently.

For the past year or two my wife and I have been going to Mass at the local cathedral on most Sundays. The cathedral has wonderful acoustics, an organ, and a very good choir, so the building is filled with sound. With this support I find myself attempting to sing more often than I usually do in church. Anyone with a similarly uncertain voice will know what I mean by “support” here: it’s not just the psychological effect of feeling that my mistakes won’t be noticed, but also a very literal physical support. I’m not quite sure how to explain this, but somehow the sheer volume and presence of sound seems to communicate itself to my whole body and to make it easier for me to find and hold the pitch. It’s fairly loud, but it’s a human level of sound, not the bludgeoning volume of a rock concert that overloads your system and makes it insensible of any other sound, even one you’re trying to make.

I’ve discovered something that I suppose good singers, especially those who sing in groups, have always known. When I’m exactly on pitch, I cease to hear my own voice; it disappears into the larger sound. I can feel it, but I don’t hear it, except insofar as it may be contributing to the total sound. It’s as if my whole body is in tune with the choir. Or perhaps it’s as if I’m one small pipe in a large organ.

It occurs to me that this might be an image of how the unfallen self would have related to other selves. The Fall is a mysterious event; we know that the first conscious human beings disobeyed God and immediately became ashamed of themselves in some fundamental way: they were “ashamed of their nakedness,” which was not limited to their physical nakedness. One imagines that they had trouble looking each other in the eye. And they were suddenly afraid of God, who had been their companion. Walker Percy, in Lost in the Cosmos and other works, offers an explanation of this phenomenon as having to do with self-consciousness in the negative sense: the self “falling into itself,” alone and uncertain and afraid that there is something wrong with it, something which it must at all costs conceal from the other selves which it encounters. Thus lying, among other sins, is born.

This is interesting and something like it is undoubtedly true, but I find it difficult or impossible to imagine any other way of being. The fallen and fearful condition which we call original sin is now intrinsic to us, and, as the Church teaches, we’re born with it and are powerless to get ourselves out of it. We can imagine it ending only with the end of our existence itself. We want to live, but we can’t imagine life without this miserable self-consciousness. Some religions resolve this dilemma by accepting that individual consciousness is itself the problem, and proposing its disappearance into the One as the solution. But I don’t see the difference between that and death.

When I experience the sound of my own voice as something separate from the sound of the choir and the organ, it means that my voice is not quite perfectly integrated with the others; it’s in conflict with them, fighting with them. But when I hit the note with the choir and the organ and cease to hear myself, I don’t feel that my voice has disappeared. I can still feel myself singing, but the sound is now both within me and outside of me. It seems to be all one sound, yet my individual voice does not cease to exist; it remains distinct, though I feel it as a pleasant physical sensation more than hear it. It not only produces sound, but also takes it in; it adds something to the greater sound and simultaneously receives something from it. The sound is for others, while the pleasure of making it is for me. But this can only happen if the voice is on pitch. Paradoxically, it’s my out-of-tune notes that I perceive as existing only outside me; in other words, my out-of-tune singing disconnects me not only from the choir but from myself. So the idea that I would somehow be more true to myself, more fully an individual, by singing off-key thus is pure nonsense; it would be like an auto racer asserting his individuality by hitting a wall.

Perhaps this is a hint of how the paradox of the individual consciousness will be resolved, and of what it might be like to live as an unfallen consciousness.

Solo singing presents a different set of questions and metaphors.


Overheard at work today

Several Alabama fans are discussing tonight's BCS game. All except one--call him Fan A--are agreed that they will cheer for LSU because they usually cheer for the SEC team against an opponent from another conference.

Fan B: Why don't you want LSU to win?

Fan A: I don't know, I guess I just hate to see LSU fans happy.

Fan B: But...why would you want to cheer for a team named for a nut that's not even good to eat?

(Sorry, Ohioans, I just thought it was funny, and I know "buckeye" is also the name of some kind of candy.)


Benedict Loves Cats

Some people are dog people, some are cat people, some like both. The pope seems to be in the second group. He plays a little Mozart on the piano every evening for relaxation, and he takes in injured cats and nurses them back to health. Draw your own conclusions.

I’m in that last group myself, although I confess I do sometimes wonder if cats are evil when I catch one of ours staring at me in a very unfriendly sort of way. No doubt they really love me deep down inside.


Music of the Week — January 6, 2008

Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back

This is a revisiting of the themes and some of the songs of the ‘60s civil rights movement by one of the greats of gospel music. In the abstract that idea strikes me as one that, however well-intentioned, could prove a little dull, but the combination of Mavis Staples’ voice and Ry Cooder’s production and playing have resulted in something that keeps my attention for every one of its sixty minutes, then leaves me wanting to hear it again.. The arrangements are spacious and bluesy, with big drums, a lot of great guitar and mandolin playing, and rich backing vocals provided by the likes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Since I’ve resolved to keep these weekly reviews short, I’ll send you over to AMG for a fuller description. I don’t always agree with their reviews but I’m totally on board with this one. I’m betting that you will move when you listen to “99 ½”, even if you’re sitting down.

Any musical quibbles I might have here are exactly that, and not worth mentioning. But there is one problem. As a Southerner old enough to remember segregation, I find these memoirs of the civil rights struggle deeply moving, especially in light of its victories. But there seems to be an implication here, especially in the spoken sections of a couple of tracks, that nothing fundamental has changed, and that the problem faced today by the black community is still, above all, that the white community is holding them down. I almost wish that were true; it might be a more tractable problem.

But I’ll leave that topic for another day, and just add a big amen to what Staples writes in the liner notes: “Well, I tell you—we need a change now more than ever, and I'm turning to the church again for strength.”


Goodbye Christmas

I mean that in two ways: first, Christmas 2007-8 ends tomorrow, of course. Second, maybe it’s just me and my age, but it seems to me that the charm of the old semi-secular American Christmas has faded. We complain about the secularization and commercialization of Christmas, but I have to admit that I’ve always liked those things up to a point. I mean, I liked the public decorations, on the streets and in the stores. They were a little like wrappings on the real gift. But now they’re overdone, shallow, and perfunctory, and they start appearing, absurdly, in October, ruined by the relentless hyper-commercialization of everything in our culture.

Anyway, the songs and lore that are not so much of Christmas as about Christmas certainly aren’t what they used to be. Here’s one of my favorites. The song of course was written by the Jewish Irving Berlin, who is said to have had a genuine love for the Christmas holidays. While the song stands apart from Christmas proper, it somehow retains a sense of its presence. Or, like I said, maybe it’s just me.

I admit there’s a big component of nostalgia in my affection for things like this. It comes from a world in which “adult entertainment” was not a euphemism but meant what it said, and it has the atmosphere of the adult background of my childhood. I can’t imagine something with the grace and dignity of either the song or the movie being produced by the popular culture of today.


Into the Sea

I am inviting you, in this blazing charity, to plunge into a peaceful sea, a deep sea. I have just rediscovered the sea—not that the sea is new, but it is new to me in the way my soul experiences it—in the words “God is love.”....these words echo within me that everything that is done is simply love, because everything is made entirely of love.

—St. Catherine of Siena

This is a much better and more concise way of explaining why I’m not talking about politics much anymore.