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February 2008

A Movie You Should See

Landscape in the Mist, by Theo Angelopoulos.

It may be too slow-moving for some people. And there are one or two scenes of devastating pain, one in particular. But it is the story of every human life, revealed in the lives of two people.

In the beginning was the darkness. And then there was light....

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RIP WFB

I finished up my lunchtime emailing and web-browsing and before getting back to work clicked over to a news site just to see if anything major had happened in the last couple of hours, and I see that William F. Buckley, Jr. has died. I'm not surprised; I had read that he was devastated when his wife died not so long ago. I can't say that the man himself had a great deal of influence on me, but the magazine he founded had a fair amount. Perhaps I'll write a bit more on that in the next day or so. Meanwhile, a brief prayer for his soul.

A few years ago he wrote about selling the sailing yacht on which he apparently spent a fair amount of his time. In closing, he described it as an exercise in giving up things, in preparation for giving up everything.

Update: If you want to get an idea of his influence and the affection and respect he inspired, take a look at National Review's blog—scroll down to Kathryn Lopez's announcement at 2/27 11:13 and read upward.

Update #2: Via Ross Douthat, here is the passage I was thinking of.

I'm having trouble parsing that last sentence and am wondering if there is a misprint in it, but the sentiment is clear.

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Luminarium

Ryan C. let me know of the existence of Luminarium, an excellent site devoted mainly to English literature from medieval times to the 18th century. It includes, or links to, works, biographies, criticism, and anything else that seems relevant. There’s a book store with links to Amazon for purchasing books by or about the authors, and even a poster store. And it covers all the major writers and most of the minor ones, including several I hadn’t heard of. (Yes, I know, that doesn’t mean much. But I had managed to miss, for instance, William Alabaster.)

The site’s editor says it’s a labor of love, and she wants to keep it a free resource—to that end you do have to put up with Google ads on the right sidebar.

Note: some of the author home pages automatically play MIDI tracks of historically appropriate music, so if this bothers you, you may want to mute the sound on your computer.

And one question: where’s Traherne?

Ryan also apprised me of another online repository, Renascence Editions, which has English works printed between 1477 and 1799.

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Cardinal Dulles on the Magisterium

You know, it’s funny how blog discussions go: who’d have thought that a very brief post linking to an article about people who have trouble deciding between their interior decor and their children would have ended up going deep into the question of how we evaluate the authority of a controversial teaching of the Church? Toward the end of that discussion I suggested that there are probably some good books on the subject: this recent one by Cardinal Dulles seems a good candidate.

I’ll just ignore the fact that the first review is from a teacher at Ave Maria University and the book is published by Ave Maria University’s publishing company.

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Sunday Night Journal — February 24, 2008

Desire and Expectation

Somewhere in a recent discussion here about music the blogger who calls herself Pentimento noted that popular music is especially focused on emotions of desire and longing that are particularly useful for a consumer society. The first part of that statement is something I’ve noticed for a long time. I’d never thought about the second part, but I suppose it’s true. And if it is useful for a consumer society, that’s because the emotions are so powerful and universal.

Some more-than-fifty percentage of popular songs deal with romantic love, and a large number of those deal with incomplete or unhappy love: the one I love does not love me, or has stopped loving me. (The cruder ones, of course, of which there are very many, only deal with lust.) But the overall spirit of the music is not so much romantic as Romantic, in the 19th century cultural sense.

Once I was a few years into a happy marriage, these songs of romantic love ceased to work on me in the way they once had: I had what the singers claimed to want, so their plaints no longer meant to me what they had once meant. But I continued to like the songs just as much, or almost as much, because the yearning never went away. Even though the lyrics no longer applied directly to me, the emotional content of the songs did, very much. Without making a conscious decision to do so, I did the same thing with much popular music that the Church has always done with The Song of Solomon: I made it allegorical, redirecting the erotic longing toward the spiritual. Even if (or maybe especially if) our personal circumstances are happy, we are still, if we’re at all reflective, conscious of a still-unsatisfied longing, a desire for some sort of perfect happiness that simply is not available to us in this life.

In popular music, the outstanding expression of this great yearning for me is Van Morrison’s masterpiece, Astral Weeks. I’ve never been able to put into words the emotion it arouses in me, although I did find in C.S. Lewis a description of it: it’s a painful yearning that is sweeter than pleasure. (The passage is in Surprised By Joy, which for some reason I don’t have a copy of, so I can’t quote it exactly.) It’s sweet because it promises something far more wonderful than anything we can hope to encounter in our earthly life; it’s painful because we can’t have what we yearn for. It’s like a fragrance that brings back a memory of some enchantment lost in the past.

Sometimes we find the yearning more or less consciously expressed in popular music, or at least removed from its connection with romantic love. It always interests me when I encounter it in places where I don’t expect it. I think the most surprising of these may have been in an interview with the leader of the heavy metal group Emperor. I came across it a few years ago when I became curious about the phenomenon of death or black metal: heavy metal music, mostly Scandinavian in origin, which celebrates death and violence. Emperor was one of the most notorious of these bands: some of its members were involved in the burning of historical wooden churches in Norway, and at least one murder. I can’t easily locate the interview now, so I have to rely on memory, but it included an observation to the effect that their band speaks to the longing in everyone for something transcendent, something greater and more wonderful than anything offered by ordinary life. I can’t help wondering if someone like this is really in much worse spiritual trouble than the hedonistic bourgeois who anesthetizes the longing with pleasure and shopping.

I know several people my age or older, which is to say that they’re either within sight of the gates of old age or have already passed through them, who are afflicted with the yearning but who do not have the faith that promises that the yearning will be fulfilled. I see some of them becoming more frightened of age and death, or more bitter toward life, or both. It was only life in this world that ever held any promise of giving them what they desired, and now they know it never will. That is very hard to bear.

I certainly have had my share of those hopes, and many of them have been disappointed: for instance, I never had any intention of spending thirty-five years in a line of work which doesn’t interest me that much and which I’m not all that good at. But I’m happy to have been able to earn a decent living from it, and now I only hope that I will be allowed to keep at it until I can afford to retire with my mortgage paid. But whereas one who has no other hope can only expect more of the pain of disappointment, I am now finding that mine is disappearing. And even though I certainly have far fewer years remaining than I have already lived, I look to the future with hope, albeit it with the awareness that I probably have some very difficult trials ahead of me.

Some of my favorite pop music is made by people who have no religious belief (that I know of) but an acute grasp of what it means to yearn for heaven in a world which cannot supply it. Tom Waits is one of the first of these who comes to mind. Melancholy is everywhere in his work, and bitterness common. It seemed in one recent album, Blood Money, in which one of the gentler songs, “Lullaby,” has the refrain

Nothing’s ever yours to keep
Close your eyes; go to sleep

that he might give way to bitterness altogether, but there are moments of something like desperate prayer in the one that followed, Real Gone:

Since you're gone
Deep inside it hurts
I'm just another sad guest
On this dark earth

I want to believe
In the mercy of the world again
Make it rain, make it rain

But the world is not merciful, except for brief periods, and never finally. You have to look elsewhere for that. I want to offer these people the words of Traherne which I’ve quoted before (this time I’ll modernize his archaic spelling):

We love we know not what: and therefore every thing allures us. As iron at a distance is drawn by the lodestone, there being some invisible communications between them: so is there in us a world of love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance, by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel your self drawn with the expectation and desire of some great thing?

To feel the desire, and to believe that the expectation is not in vain: these are the foundations of peace and joy in this life. Without them, the best we can strive for is resignation.

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This Plant Is Not Very Smart

This is an azalea, one of many in our yard.

Every year, we have some warm days in February. Every year, the azaleas bloom enthusiastically. Nothing will convince them that the warm weather is not here to stay. And almost every year we get a freeze in late February or early March that reduces these blossoms to something that looks like wet brown tissue paper.

They never learn. Oh, well, they’re pretty while they last.

(staff photos)

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Sunday Night Journal — February 17, 2008

Newman’s Dream of Gerontius

I mentioned a week or two ago that one of my aims for Lent is to get to know Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius (not Gerontion, as I keep mistakenly saying—that’s Eliot), based on Newman’s poem of the same name. Thinking I ought to familiarize myself with the poem first, I hauled out my ancient (1955) Poetry of the Victorian Period and sat down with it. (I was not, by the way, precocious enough to have been reading Victorian poetry in 1955, at the age of seven. This is a college textbook and was still in use in the mid-‘60s when it belonged to my college roommate, from whom I seem to have stolen it.)

I was, to be honest, expecting the poem to be a little on the dull side, and hoping the music would make up for it—after all, Newman’s reputation doesn’t rest on his poetry. Well, I was quite wrong about that. This is a very fine work, vividly imagined and skillfully executed in a variety of forms. Weighing in at around 900 lines, it could serve as a sort of miniature substitute for Dante’s Purgatorio. It describes the journey of a soul from death to purgatory, with just the barest hints about the eventual destination of heaven, and the hell which was escaped. Newman was sixty-four years old when he wrote it, and I suppose must have thought he was describing something he might soon face, although as it turned out he had to wait another twenty-five years to discover whether his vision was accurate or not.

And I do wonder whether it was based on a vision. I suppose it need not have been, as there is really nothing in it that imagination and Catholic faith could not provide, but it certainly is convincing, particularly the description of the process of dying. It is not the physical symptoms as such that dismay Gerontius, but

‘Tis this new feeling, never felt before…
That I am going, that I am no more.
‘Tis this strange innermost abandonment,…
This emptying out of each constituent
And natural force, by which I come to be…
As though my very being had given way
As though I was no more a substance now,
And could fall back on naught….

The poem is in two sections, a short opening of 170 lines which brings Gerontius to the moment of death, and the longer remainder which describes what he experiences between death and the moment when he is taken by his guardian angel to Purgatory, which Newman, interestingly, conceives as a lake. There are a number of passages which would be of interest to those who followed the speculations here over the past week or so about the condition of the soul after death. In particular, there is a passage, too long to quote here, in which the angel tries to explain to Gerontius how he can be a disembodied soul and yet experience perceptions: it’s a sort of trick, akin to phantom pains in an amputated limb, provided so that the soul will not be in total isolation.

Although Gerontius must still be purified, he is on his way to heaven, and when he wonders if it’s proper for him to ask questions of the angel, the angel replies, in a few words that sum up what it might be like to be no longer fallen man:

…You cannot now
Cherish a wish which ought not to be wished.

What a happy state that would be. And I can’t think of many more sweetly hopeful lines of poetry than the closing quatrain in which the angel bids farewell to Gerontius until his time in purgatory is done:

Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.

I come away from the poem convinced that although the details are imaginary and conjectural, something like it must be true. I say that not only, in fact not even firstly, because it accurately renders Catholic doctrine, but because it simply feels too perfectly an extrapolation of the evidence in every human heart. Considered coolly, the desire of the heart and the consciousness of our own faults do not suffice as evidence of heaven and purgatory, but yet there is something to be said for the argument.

The more I reflect on these things, the more it seems to me that our longing is at the very least a very odd fact. If we are truly the products of a purely physical process, how does it come about that we see things which are far more than that? And make no mistake: we all see them, every one of us. Some of us believe they are real, some believe they’re imaginary products of our emotions, but all of us are aware of them—aware, for instance, of love, to pick only one example. How can chemical processes come to dream of something beyond chemical processes?

Some hold that as a theologian Newman is a bit muddled, but no sensible person will argue that he is not a genius, one of the finest minds of the 19th century. Among other things, he is a supreme master of English prose whose work is studied for its literary value alone. Does the fact of his genius hold any weight as an argument for the truth of his beliefs? Not necessarily; genius is no guarantee against error. But it is another very odd fact about the world that there is a long line of geniuses—looking backward from Newman I think immediately of Pascal, Dante, Aquinas—who believed the Christian faith with all their hearts, not as an insignificant passing notion held without much thought, but as the object of lifelong close attention. Is there any system of thought, I wonder, that is now generally considered to be false, but has been held in substantially the same form by many of the world’s greatest minds over a period of two thousand years? I can’t think of one. That doesn’t prove it’s true, but it’s a point worth pondering.

Here is the poem, if you care to read hundreds of lines of verse online. The site which hosts the poem looks like a great resource.

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