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June 2008

Sunday Night Journal — June 29, 2008

Cries and Whispers

This DVD had been sitting around the house for a couple of weeks or so before we finally watched it tonight. I had been putting it off, waiting for the right time, because I expected it to be a somewhat intense, maybe painful, experience and I wanted a little time before and after so that I could see it and reflect on it with a clear mind. I knew it was not something to be viewed for entertainment on a Saturday night or relaxation after a day’s work.

If Bergman’s name had not been enough to make me treat Cries and Whispers with a bit of respect and caution, my memory of it would have. I had seen it when it came out in the early ‘70s and been deeply moved, far more so than I had expected to be. I remember being more or less unable to speak for some minutes after the end. My reaction tonight, though strong, was not so strong as all that; I’m not sure entirely why. It may be that the vision with which the final scene left me both then and now is something with which I’m more familiar than I was at 24 or so; I certainly stood in more need of it then than now. It’s a glowing vision of immense joy and gratitude for the sweetly perfect moments of life, and an assertion (or at least a suggestion) that it is these, and not the long hours or years of struggle and pain, that matter most, and are in fact eternal. It makes me think of the lines that close “Burnt Norton,” the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after

Some consider this Bergman’s finest work. Maybe so, although I don’t think it’s reasonable to try to pick a single finest. Certainly it’s among his best. It concerns three sisters, one of whom is dying painfully—cancer, I assume, although that’s never stated—and the servant girl who does most of the work and most of the caring. The two other sisters are both very much wrapped up in themselves and closed to others, each in a different but equally effective way.

I suppose Bergman, the atheist son of a Lutheran minister, just couldn’t help weaving Christian themes and imagery into his work, perhaps unintentionally. At any rate they are prominent here. The dying sister is named Agnes, which is derived from a Greek word meaning “sacred” or “pure” and also has an obvious resemblance to agnus, as in Lamb of God. Her suffering and death provide an opportunity for her sisters’ redemption. The faithful and loving servant is named Anna, from the Hebrew Hannah, “favor” or “grace.” There is an obvious evocation of Michelangelo’s Pieta in one scene, far too close a resemblance to be accidental.

If these remarks seem a little scattered, it’s because they are; the film is too rich and complex for me to do it justice quickly or briefly, and more thoughts and emotions are coming than I have time to write down. And for the sake of those who haven’t seen it, I don’t want to be too specific about the plot. Nor would I want to reduce it to a statement. But I can say that it left me with a very clear sense of how it is possible for a person to choose hell over heaven, and that we are making that choice at every moment of our lives when we make the choice between loving and not loving.

Sartre’s famous play No Exit is said (I’ve never read it) to make the point that hell is other people. This suggests to me that Sartre was already entering hell, because hell is the absence of love. Or rather the refusal to love, because I mean the absence of love given, not love received. To love and not be loved is immensely painful, but it isn’t hell. If one were loved by no creature in the universe, if one were unloved even by God himself, but were still able to love, one would not yet be in hell.

I should also mention that in simple visual terms Cries and Whispers is one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see. (And warn you that there is one pretty horrifying scene.)


Music of the Week: Mark Heard - High Noon

Those who read this column (or whatever you want to call it) regularly may remember that Mark Heard’s name came up in comments recently, very strongly recommended by a couple of people. I admitted with a little embarrassment that I owned this cd, a selection of material from his last few albums, and had never listened to more than a few songs from it.

I had picked up the cd five or six years ago (at least), either used or on sale, out of curiosity because I’d encountered his name here and there as a highly regarded Christian singer-songwriter who lived a tragically short life (1951-1992). Since I don’t care much for most explicitly Christian pop music—what’s generally known as CCM, or Contemporary Christian music—I’m always on the lookout for Christian artists who don’t seem to be just slapping a Christian message on commercial pop. I was disappointed in Heard, though. I put on the cd and half-listened to the first four or five songs, didn’t care especially for the sound, put it aside, and then forgot about it.

Now, thanks to those recent comments here, I’ve given High Noon another chance, and changed my mind. I won’t go as far as the commenter who said Heard is a better songwriter than Bruce Cockburn, but at his best he is very, very good. The best songs here are certainly in the league with those of Cockburn and a few others. There are a few that I don’t care much for, but considering that someone else’s idea of an artist’s best stuff is never going to coincide with mine, I definitely plan to seek out more of Heard’s work.

Unfortunately I’m not enthusiastic about him as a performer. In particular I don’t care much for his voice and general signing style. He sounds a good bit like T-Bone Burnett, but somehow more abrasive and a little over-intense. This is purely a matter of my personal taste, and shouldn’t discourage anyone who might be interested. It doesn’t by any means ruin the songs, but it does make me wish I could hear more of them sung by performers whom I like better: Buddy Miller, for instance, whose version of Heard’s “Worry Too Much” (not on High Noon) is one of the very best tracks on a magnificent album, Universal United House of Prayer (see here for my review). I’m probably going to be checking out the tribute album Orphans of God in which other artists perform Heard’s songs.

Here’s a video of one of my favorite songs from High Noon, “Treasure of the Broken Land.” I think his singing works better in this song than in some others. The lyrics are essential, so read them here. If you like this, you’ll like a lot more of Heard’s music.

If that ending seems abrupt, it’s because the video doesn’t include the whole track, which runs over six minutes and includes a lengthy instrumental break.

The Wikipedia article has a bio and links to more related stuff.


Testing the search bar

I decided to try the blog search bar that you see at the top of the page; it's a Blogger feature that I can turn on or off. I don't much like the way it looks but I wondered if it might be useful to people. Let me know if it is. Or if you find it really annoying. I'm not at all sure it's going to stay there.

Driving in the Rain

I like rain and I like to drive. And I like driving in the rain a lot. I drove through a couple of nice thunderstorms on the way to Nashville a few weeks ago and have several souvenirs like these.

(Click to enlarge)

It wasn’t actually raining in the second one.


The Pictures On My Wall

Speaking of Coltrane (see comments on Guilty Non-Pleasures post below): the pictures below are the only ones on the wall of my office. They’re the actual LP jackets—did you know you can buy frames designed specifically for this purpose?

In light of the fact that I’m not a really serious jazz fan, and listen to far more pop/rock/whatever than jazz, it seems a little odd, even to me, that these images, and the music they represent, mean so much to me.

It has something to do with what they mean to the American soul. And it’s connected with that moment of brilliance and promise that occurred in the USA in the period roughly 1960-66. I don’t know...I need to get back to work now; I’ll perhaps think about it and say something more. Or perhaps not. At any rate, here they are for your enjoyment.


Sunday Night Journal — June 22, 2008

Guilty Non-Pleasures

It’s been an extremely busy weekend, and I’m pretty short on time and energy, so here’s something light:

I’ve mentioned guilty pleasures here before, meaning pleasures that are not actually wrong, but which one is embarrassed to admit that one enjoys: action movies, for instance, or soap operas, or junk food. (In that last category, for instance, here is a major weakness of mine.)

But the discussion of the movie Into Great Silence (see the Two Movies post below) got me to thinking about the reverse of a guilty pleasure. This is not a thing one ought not to enjoy but does, but a thing one ought to enjoy but does not: a guilty non-pleasure (“guilty pain” would of course be the real opposite, but I think this is usually more a case of indifference than pain). Several were mentioned in the comments, e.g Francesca’s failed attempts to learn to like Mozart. The key here, I think, is that one is willing to admit that the fault is probably in oneself, not in the artist or the art. One sees that the thing is, objectively, good, or at least accepts that verdict on the authority of people one respects. But one takes little or no real pleasure in it.

Here are some of my guilty non-pleasures:

The Iliad. I prefer to assume that my indifference to this is a result of the fact that poetry is generally untranslatable. I know it has been considered a great poem for several thousand years, and who am I to argue with the judgment of the ages? But in translation all you get is the story, and I found the story, when told at this length, tiresome. Of course in its broad outlines the story is a classic and a foundation for much other literature. But without the music of its verse, the details all run together into a catalog of gruesome deaths and some rather arbitrary finagling on the part of some rather unlikeable gods. (The Odyssey is different, far more entertaining; as a child I read it several times in an abridged prose form and loved it.)

Dante. Again, I assume the problem here is that I’m reading it in translation. I’ve read Inferno three times, I think, in different translations, and never gotten much further. It’s interesting, and I know all about Dante’s significance, his Catholic imagination and wisdom and influence, but not once in reading him have I ever found myself moved as I am when reading Shakespeare; not once have I rejoiced in the sheer magnificence of it; not once have I taken my eyes off the page to savor and ponder a passage as poetry.

Milton. Translation, however, is not the problem here. Milton just isn’t that interesting. I’m not so sure this qualifies as a guilty non-pleasure, since it seems so widely shared among critics; does anybody really love Milton? I haven’t looked at him for decades. Perhaps I’ll like him better if I ever get around to him again.

Most religious painting since, say, Fra Angelico. Granted, I am not terribly interested in the visual arts; you’ll note that I mention literature and music in the sub-heading of this blog, but not painting or sculpture. Still, there is a great deal of art I like, in a casual sort of way. But I have yet to feel what I’m supposed to feel when I look at pictures of the Renaissance and Baroque art that fills the Vatican and which I have almost zero desire to see. Perhaps one day I’ll see it in person and understand. For now, though, most paintings of the Crucifixion and other Christian themes leave me completely cold.

I would say something similar about icons, by the way, if I were to judge them as art. I do find them very helpful in prayer and worship, which is what they’re meant for.

Most jazz before 1950. I mean traditional or Dixieland jazz as well as big-band. I’ve never been able to enjoy it much. I read someone’s account of how much Louis Armstrong’s music meant to him, and I recognized the feeling it gave him: it sounded a lot like what I feel when I listen to reggae. But it doesn’t do that for me; early jazz is of interest to me mainly as history.

Charlie Parker. Everyone who’s knowledgeable about jazz seems to believe that Parker was a first-class genius. I accept that on authority, but I don’t hear it. In fairness, I have to say that I’ve never really heard that much of his music, and maybe (probably) not his best. But what I’ve heard didn’t touch me, although I could see that it was technically astonishing.

I’m sure I’ll think of more of these later. I’m a little surprised that there is no pop music in the list; I think that’s because there isn’t much of it, perhaps none, that I take seriously enough to feel that I really ought to like it. I’d be interested in knowing what similar blind spots or failures to connect other people have.


Music of the Week: Beethoven - Symphony #3

(Continuing my tour of the Beethoven symphonies)

Now, suddenly, we’re in the realm of the master. There’s something unformed and hesitant about the first two symphonies, but it’s gone in this one. Now he speaks with authority, clearly established in the first few seconds. Perhaps a trained musician would have seen something like this coming, or at least its potential, in the first two symphonies; I don’t think I would have. But even a listener like me who doesn’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to understand how or why it works can tell that there is a wonderful combination of wild creativity and discipline here. It’s long—the longest ever when it was written, I think—but nothing seems superfluous, out of place, or out of control.

I still don’t feel the deep affection for this work that I do for some other music which is probably not its equal, if considered dispassionately. I think it’s fundamentally a question of personality and temperament; I don’t feel that Beethoven is speaking for me or to me. The romantic-heroic spirit which we are told is celebrated here is not one to which I’m much drawn. The second movement, for instance, the funeral march, leaves me a little disappointed, in spite of the marvelous main theme, because it seems too intent on making grand gestures to mourn.

Nevertheless, I like to think that I can recognize a masterpiece when I hear it, and this is surely one.


The Power of Images

It’s funny the way images from a movie can haunt the real world and give it the ambience of the movie, almost making you feel that the line between them is blurred. For instance, you can be at a wedding reception in a public performance room having a stage at one end, its curtain drawn. And you can see a single loudspeaker cabinet, part of the p.a. system being used to provide music, standing alone against that deep red curtain, with a footlight shining up at it, lighting it and the rest of the curtain immediately around it, while beyond the halo of light the curtain is a much darker red. And suddenly you feel like you’re in a David Lynch movie, especially if they’re playing ’50s rock-and-roll.



This is that rainbow that I mentioned the last time I posted pictures, the one that I missed getting a really good shot of because I didn’t have the camera with me. At this point it’s barely visible; five minutes before it had been very bright. I suppose there’s a lesson there about trying to capture something and thereby missing the enjoyment of it; instead of just looking at it I rushed back to the house for the camera.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rainbow over the bay before. Which is not as surpising as it might sound, because usually the sun is behind you when you see a rainbow, and I’m facing west here, meaning it’s fairly early in the morning—not, as a rule, when I’m most active.

(click to enlarge)


Two Movies That Could Hardly Be More Different from Each Other

And I liked the wrong one.

Movie #1: Into Great Silence, German Die Grosse Stille, which, if I remember my high school German correctly, is simply The Great Silence, which I like better.

I’m going to have to be the first Catholic I know to be unenthusiastic about this lengthy (almost three hours) visit to one of the most famous monasteries in the world, the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. Well, one of the first two Catholics, anyway—my wife shared my opinion. We had to force ourselves to watch it all the way to the end. The first time we tried it, I fell asleep after forty minutes or so. We tried it again a few days later, backing up to the point where I had fallen asleep. After half an hour or so we were both getting sleepy and gave up. At the next attempt, a week or so later, we made it up to roughly the 90-minute mark, and she fell asleep. A couple of weeks went by before we decided (well, actually, I was determined, and she came along reluctantly) that we would make one last push. This time we made it all the way to the end.

This film is very, or rather very, beautiful, but it has no narrative at all, and—this is maybe what made it so difficult for us—often not even a coherent sense of connection from one scene to the next. After our first failed attempt my wife referred to it sardonically as “Sesame Street Monastery.” Like Sesame Street, it’s a sequence of vignettes ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes in length, and there is often no transition or apparent connection, other than the monastery, between one and the next.

I think it would work in a theater. The images are rich and striking, and I can well imagine that if they were the size of a wall they would be hypnotic. Maybe on a large and detailed TV they would work similarly. But we were looking at it on an ordinary CRT television from across the room, and it just didn’t hold our attention. It was made worse by the fact that many scenes are very dimly lit, and the shiny reflective surface of a CRT always makes those problematic. It was only toward the end, when one of the monks is allowed to speak and the thing somehow comes together, that we began to feel as we were supposed to feel throughout.

Here, for instance, is what the film company says about it: “One of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created, Into Great Silence dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life.”

I’m sorry, it didn’t do that at all for me. Here’s the official web site, where you can get some sense of what it’s like.

Movie #2: Mulholland Drive. This is one of only two or three David Lynch films I’ve seen, and by far the best. It’s weird, of course; sometimes disturbing, of course; often mysterious and in fact baffling. And it also has that odd Lynchian quality that I’ve called “bent nostalgia” which I suspect is effective only on Americans of a certain age. Some of Lynch’s fans seem to regard it as his masterpiece. I don’t know about that, but I’m not likely to forget it.

I think I’m glad I didn’t see this one in a theater—it might have been too much, too creepy. There is not much violence, but there is a pervasively menacing feel about it. I’m not going to say much about the plot, because to know very much of it in advance would seriously spoil one’s first viewing. I’ll just say that it concerns a young woman who has come to Hollywood to make her way as an actress. And it will not make you feel good about Hollywood.

My wife and I were so taken by it that we watched it a second time a day or two after the first. Many elements of the plot remained, and remain, cryptic, and I suspect that the legion of people who have attempted to figure it all out are wasting their time, because I’m not convinced all the mysterious pieces really fit together logically, but rather are there to create visual and emotional impact. And I’m not convinced that it adds up to a profound philosophical statement, as some of Bergman’s similarly cryptic work often seems to do. But it was, especially on second viewing, very moving and, like I said, I don’t think I’ll forget it.

I recommend it only with caution. Some would find its menace too disturbing, and I should mention, too, that there are a couple of somewhat graphic lesbian sex scenes, which I have to admit are artistically justifiable, although they could just as well have been less pornographic.


What you hate to see in your rearview mirror

Enormous SUV coming up fast, must be doing over 80 because you're doing 70. Agitated-looking woman at the wheel with left hand holding phone to ear and right hand waving freely for emphasis and punctuation. Does she have a knee or an elbow on the steering wheel? Who knows?—hit the gas.


No Past Tense in Love

Perhaps you thought all the Brideshead Revisited posting was over. Not quite; I have one or two more passages that I want to mention and/or discuss (which in this case seems unnecessary). This is Charles and Cordelia; she has just finished telling him what’s become of Sebastian. Charles:

“Have you told Julia this about Sebastian?”

“The substance of it; not quite as I told you. She never loved him, you know, as we do.”

Do.” The word reproached me; there was no past tense in Cordelia’s verb “to love.”

Update: I said above that this quotation didn’t really need any discussion, but I changed my mind. It’s an interesting question: we speak of love “dying,” usually meaning romantic love. But does it? Can it? Does love have a past tense?

I’m speaking of all kinds of love, not romantic love particularly. And with respect to romantic love I mean actual love, not infatuation, or even of a longer-lasting erotic intoxication that’s perhaps deeper than infatuation but hasn’t matured into the deep bond of love—we all know that these can arrive unexpectedly and disappear quickly without a trace. (And how sad for people who get married in that brief interval.)

It’s worth thinking about: defining love in the most ordinary way—having affection for someone and caring what happens to him or her—and looking all the way back to my earliest memories, from family to playmates and schoolmates, onward to lovers, spouse, friends, co-workers, adult relationships of all kinds, is there anyone I once loved but no longer do? Anyone to whom I feel a settled hostility where there once was affection? Anyone to whose fate I am now completely indifferent?


Sunday Night Journal — June 15, 2008

Standing in Line at the Sinners’ Hospital

I think one of the biggest barriers between Christianity and non-believers is the perception of the latter that Christianity is for people who are virtuous, or believe that they are virtuous. The opposite is true, of course. Yes, there are Christians who are self-righteous and who regard their membership in a Christian communion as a component of their right to feel superior to the unchurched. But nobody can be the least bit acquainted with the New Testament and fail to realize that such an attitude is condemned in no uncertain terms by Christ himself.

I’ve known a number of people over the years who seemed to be pretty good by nature. Unless they were hiding dark secrets, they appeared to find it relatively easy to behave well. And I don’t think there was any particular consistency or pattern as to whether they were Christians; a lot of them were atheists or agnostics. Logically, atheism leads very clearly to the negation of moral principles as principles, but most atheists don’t follow that implication of their beliefs. Some in fact seem to take a sort of pleasure in proving that they can be good without believing that their ideas of what is good, and their reasons for keeping to it, come from anywhere but their own instincts.

But just as the person whom doctors have saved from certain death is likely to be the one who most appreciates the medical profession, it is the sinner who most appreciates the Church. One who has sinned and received forgiveness has a sense of gratitude and relief that isn’t shared by anyone, Christian or not, who doesn’t think he’s done anything much for which he needs to be forgiven.

There’s a line that divides Christians from non-Christians, obviously. But there’s another line that runs perpendicular to that one, and divides those who are conscious of their sins from those who are not, whether they are inside or outside of the Church, so that you have a square divided into four quadrants: for convenience, we could call them Christian non-sinners, Christian sinners, non-Christian non-sinners, and non-Christian sinners. (I’m of course not literally calling anyone a non-sinner, for there is no such thing among ordinary human beings, but referring to the way they see themselves and their situation.) Christian non-sinners may feel that they have more in common with non-Christian non-sinners, and likewise for Christian sinners and non-Christian sinners.

That’s certainly true for me. I’m definitely in the Christian sinners quadrant, and I feel closer to non-Christian-sinners than to Christian non-sinners. It’s as if they and I are afflicted with the same disease, but I’ve somehow managed to find the hospital where it can be treated, and eventually cured. I don’t feel superior to them; I just feel lucky. I think this is part of the reason why so much of the art that I like deals, implicitly or explicitly, with the consciousness of sin and of God’s absence.

When I speak of the consciousness of sin for a non-Christian, I’m aware that it may not be explicit in the way that it is for a Christian. I’m speaking of people who are oppressed by their own failings, even if they don’t use the word “sin,” and feel powerless to solve the problem on their own. To use the disease metaphor again: they are conscious that something is terribly wrong with them, but they have not received the diagnosis or learned that there is hope for a cure.

Yesterday I went to confession and met some friends, John and Rose and their two daughters, standing in line ahead of me. “This is the place where sinners meet,” said John, and we laughed because it was true. And it was true not only of the confessional but for our little parish church in general, and for the Catholic Church as a whole, and for all the Christian denominations. Many or most Christians have heard the observation that “The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” (I’ve heard it attributed to Chesterton, but in looking for the source online I find that it’s most often credited to a 19th century Methodist, L. L. Nash.) I wish I could meet more of my fellow sinners there.

And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. –Luke 5:31


Music of the Week: The Cure - Disintegration

Like most people who grew up when what is now called “classic rock” was new, I’ve grown accustomed to hearing some very incongruous music in public places. I think it was back in the ‘70s when I first heard an easy-listening instrumental version of a Dylan song in the background music of a dentist’s office or a shopping mall. It’s still a bit amusing to hear something that was rebellious and subversive in its day so domesticated, like hearing a Black Sabbath riff from a high school band at a football game. But it’s not usually a shock anymore.

One night last week in the grocery store, though, I was shocked. I realized I was hearing “Pictures of You,” from The Cure’s Disintegration, a sad song from an album which would surely be among the candidates for saddest pop album ever made. If I were the only voter, Disintegration wouldn’t win—it would come in behind the Julee Cruise/David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti collaboration Floating Into the Night, which is the saddest pop music I’ve ever heard, too sad for me to listen to very often. But Disintegration would definitely be in the top ten or so.

So I stood there in front of the dog food at the grocery store, half-hypnotized by “Pictures of You,” then began to smile when I thought about what the CEO of Food World might think about a store providing these lyrics as an accompaniment to the grocery shopping experience:

Remembering you
fallen into my arms
crying for the death of your heart
You were stone-white, so delicate,
lost in the cold,
you were always so lost in the dark

Here’s a video of “Pictures of You”:

Disintegration is a great album, but, as the title suggests, the state of mind it depicts is certainly not something one ought to cultivate.


The Island (Ostrov)

You need to see this movie. Not the American one made in 2005—which may be good, I don’t know—but the Russian one made in 2006. I’m not going to take the time to describe or explain it; I’ll just say that it’s Christianity with no damn bullshit whatsoever, and you should see it. Pardon my language, but I think it’s appropriate.



The diamond as a symbol of the soul has been on my mind lately; I know I’ve referred to it in some comments here and in conversation with a friend. It always makes me think of this Hopkins poem, “That Nature Is A Heraclitean Fire” (which I recall having the subtitle “And of the comfort of the Resurrection”). Hopkins stretches his already eccentric technique to the breaking point here, and I hardly understood the poem, and never really cared much for it, until I heard someone read it really well.

Here’s our future, folks, if we’ll have it:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is |, since he was what I am, and
Thís Jack, jóke, poor pótsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.


Look out, he’s got a camera

Recently someone my wife knows bought a new camera and gave my wife her old one, a very decent little Nikon. (I don’t know why she didn’t sell it.) And since my wife has a better one, she is graciously allowing me to use this one when she isn’t carrying it around with her because it’s a lot smaller than the better one. So you’re probably going to see more pictures here. I claim no skill as a photographer, and have gotten no further in learning how to use this camera than pointing and shooting, but I like being able to capture images that I see around me.

Naturally the first thing I did was fire the flash into a mirror. I call this Self-Portrait with Landscape.

I wanted to claim it shows the light of holiness shining from me but the camera is clearly visible. A little later it rained. I really like the way things look in the rain, like these trees. I call this Trees in the Rain.

I took the camera with me to Nashville a couple of weeks ago and have some pictures from that trip that I’ll post as I get around to it, one or two because I like them and one or two to impress upon anyone who’s interested how gargantuanly big the atrium of that hotel was. Unfortunately the ducks in the swimming pool were a little too far away to make a good picture.

Yesterday morning when I walked the dogs down to the bay (a twice-daily routine) there was a rainbow over the water. I hurried back to the house and got the camera, but by the time I got back down there the rainbow was almost gone. Well, that’s life with rainbows, isn’t it?

By the way, you can click those pictures for bigger versions.


Yoda vs. Numa-Numa

Well, since Will hasn't shown up again to direct us to the remarkable video of which he asserted the existence a few days ago, I went looking for it. And here it is—and on the off chance that you've never heard the Numa-Numa song, be aware that it is highly infectious (4 minutes 21 seconds):

Actually this is one of several Numa-Numa videos featuring Star Wars characters. The storm trooper one is pretty funny.

And here is the story of the song which most English speakers know merely, and for obvious reasons, as "Numa-Numa." And here is the story of the phenomenon—in case you somehow missed it a few years ago.


Sunday Night Journal — June 8, 2008

To Know and To Love

I can’t seem to stop thinking about Brideshead Revisited. I don’t have time or inclination to write an extensive or systematic essay about it, but here are a few of those thoughts. They do constitute something of a plot spoiler, so don’t read past this paragraph if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know yet what happens.

The movement of the story seems to me to be summed up in two moments, both of which I’ve quoted here before. In the first, Charles is enduring an unwanted counseling session from his tiresome cousin Jasper, who is concerned only that Charles should be well-regarded by the right people. Charles thinks:

I could tell him, too, that to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.

The second is the climax, when Charles, who until this moment has resisted the intrusion of God, or even the idea of God, into this situation and into his life, suddenly finds his resistance collapsing among the events at Lord Marchmain’s deathbed:

Then I knelt, too, and prayed: “O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin,”…. I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a sign.

In the first quotation Charles is speaking of Sebastian, but it is the Catholic Charles of 1944 who speaks, not the agnostic or atheist student of 1925—that is, he knows where love of this one person will lead him. Since his love for Sebastian is, in 1925, primarily a sort of refined hedonism which is entirely of this world, and is, in its physical expression “high on the list of grave sins” (as he himself puts it), how will it prove to have been “the beginning of wisdom?” The answer is that it’s the first time the rather closed-off and self-centered Charles is drawn out of himself into two conditions which are among the highest and most God-like faculties of the human person: contemplation and communion, to know and to love. (Or is it to love and to know?—at our best they are one.)

With respect to the first: his delight in Sebastian’s beauty is almost disinterested; his pleasure in Sebastian’s presence seems to be at least as much sheer appreciation as desire. With respect to the second: his emotional intimacy with Sebastian is deep, and constitutes a radical change in him, because he has been, as far as we know, pretty well cut off from emotional warmth since the death of his mother and the withdrawal of his eccentric father. And he wants not only to love but to know Sebastian; he delights in Sebastian not just for his own pleasure but because Sebastian is inherently, intrinsically worth knowing.

A love that manifests itself sinfully can still be real love. This is true of Charles’s homosexual relationship with Sebastian and of his adulterous relationship with Julia. Much of the latter part of the novel involves the purification of these loves, the removal of what is selfish and wrong in them, the renunciation of the erotic—or rather I should say the physical expression of the erotic—in favor of the love that understands that if it is to be worthy of the name it must desire the highest possible good for the beloved.

What makes his prayer at Lord Marchmain’s deathbed so moving to me is not so much his own hesitant first step of faith as the fact that he is doing it for Julia. It is mainly for Julia, not for himself, that he desires a sign from God. He sees that it is desperately important to her, and, realizing that it is not in his (or any other human being’s) power to give, he turns in desperation to the only possible source: Oh God, if there is a God…He loves her so much that he is willing to open himself to God, to this possibility he has scorned until now, for her sake. He is not even thinking, yet, of his own salvation; her happiness is what matters.

And this leads him to the next step: beginning to understand that it is not her mixed happiness for a few years on earth that is at stake, but her pure happiness for eternity, he sees that he must give her up precisely because he loves her so much. It’s true that he doesn’t really do this willingly, but he accepts its necessity.

In this last section of the novel we see a whole network of love drawing all the participants together. It is Julia’s love for her father that impels her to call for a priest, even though she is not at all sure that she herself believes. It is Cordelia’s love for Lord Marchmain that helps open the road to repentance for him, when she gently but firmly refuses to excuse his abandonment of his wife:

“I was too young. Then I went away—left her in the chapel praying…. Was it a crime?”

“I think it was, Papa.”

The “ruthless” and eccentric Bridey and his Beryl have their place, as Julia admits: their prayers have in all probability affected her situation, and Bridey’s stubborn and clumsy insistence on calling for a priest, although unsuccessful, certainly helps to put the wheels in motion. And surely Sebastian, veering between prayer and drunkenness at a distant monastery, has an influence—and Nanny Hawkins, who hardly stirs from her room but loves all the family as her own.

The classical definition of love—“to will the good of another”—may seem a bit dull in comparison to the rhapsodies that romantic love produces, but romantic love (as well as the other strongly emotional loves such as that of parents for children) leads directly toward it and is encompassed by it. Real love does indeed find its own delight in the person loved, but it doesn’t stop there; it wants above all the happiness of the beloved, even at its own expense. The more real it is, the less concerned it is for its own pleasure and happiness and the more for that of the beloved.

It’s true that one can exercise a form of this love in a bloodless and passive way: I can say that I will the good of everyone, even the people who annoy me every day. But I am fundamentally pretty indifferent to them. As limited creatures we are not ordinarily capable of loving very many people with real emotion, with real delight in them for what they are, not for anything they give us: spouses, children, parents, other family, a few friends—these are as many as most of us can love in a personal way. These loves are the school in which we learn to love as God loves: not disinterestedly benevolent, but intensely interested, desiring their good not passively but passionately, and desiring to know them and to be in communion with them because it is a pleasure to us.

I suppose most of the world regards Benedict XVI as a dull old man with a lot of irrelevant ideas. They should read Deus Caritas Est, of which the first half is devoted precisely to this reconciliation of erotic and/or emotional love—the love of the sentiments—with charity. Ultimately the intensity of emotional love is not suppressed but enhanced, purified, and increased by its incorporation into charity. Charity is, in the end, what burns between Charles and Julia.


Music of the Week: Beethoven - Symphony #2

Overall, I like this one better than the First. I like the second movement, the larghetto, quite well, actually; it has a pleasing combination of lilt and melancholy. And the scherzo is a lot of fun. The outer movements seem, still, like your basic Beethoven and I find my mind wandering away from them.

Next up is, of course, the Eroica, which I probably haven’t heard for twenty years, and the one which is generally considered to be Beethoven’s first great symphony. It includes a funeral march. That sounds promising.


What Color Is this Page?

Thanks to the computer problems I’ve been having, I’ve used four different monitors in the past week or so, and have discovered that the background color of this page is very different on each one. On the LCD screen of the laptop where I originally picked the color, it’s a sort of mild tan-ish or beige-ish color, I guess somewhere between yellow and brown, which is (obviously) the way I intend it to look. On a CRT monitor it’s an unpleasantly bright yellow. On a larger desktop LCD monitor it’s also more yellow than tan or brown, although not as bright as on the CRT, but still way too yellow.

I’ve heard graphic designers complain about trying to use color on the web, that they can never be sure what the viewer is actually going to see. I see what they mean. Now I’m wondering how many people see this as definitely yellow. I’ll probably be fiddling with it some over the next week or so.


Why I Read Eve Tushnet

If you’re not familiar with Eve Tushnet’s blog or her other writings and have clicked on the link in my blogroll, you may have wondered why I’ve included her. She has a lot of interests I don’t share: horror movies, comics, recipes, gay literature. But she’s brilliant, and she frequently says things that just knock me out. Like her definition of the word religion: “an understanding of the nature of love.”

She is, by the way, a Catholic convert of Jewish background and homosexual orientation (if I may use that clumsy phrase) who tries to live by the Church’s teachings. I think you have to be fairly brave to be in that first group, and very brave to be in the second. It includes some of the bravest people around, and I’ve read some truly inspiring stuff on her blog and some of others to which she links.

An understanding of the nature of love. That’s what the whole Catholic thing—theology, sacraments, morality, hierarchy, everything—comes from and returns to, and, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor: if it doesn’t, then to hell with it.

Oh, and here’s the post containing that quote.


Brideshead: The Formal Recognition

I hereby pronounce Brideshead Revisited to be one of my favorite novels, and one of the dozen or so great Catholic novels of the 20th century, ranking with the work of Sigrid Undset, Flannery O’Connor, and all the others.

Then I knelt, too, and prayed: “O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin,” and the man on the bed opened his eyes and gave a sigh, the sort of sigh I had imagined people made at the moment of death, but his eyes moved so that we knew there was still life in him.

I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a sign.


Blogroll Additions

I have been wanting to do some additions and removals to the list of blogs on the right sidebar, but thought I would wait until I move to WordPress. But that keeps getting put off, and looking like a bigger project than I had thought. So I've added the two that I particularly wanted to include, Pentimento and All Manner of Thing. The first, as you might guess, is by the same person who comments here sometimes as Pentimento. The second is by Craig Burrell, who comments here as cnb.

You will not be surprised to learn that both tend to focus on Catholicism, music, and literature. I still have not made time to read/hear/watch cnb's really interesting-looking collection of information on Olivier Messiaen, but I still plan to. And Pentimento a day or two ago did me the honor of commenting very favorably on this autobiographical essay of mine.


Sunday Night Journal — June 1, 2008

Love. Love. Love.

On my way back from the conference in Nashville that I attended last week I made an overnight stop to visit my mother (my father died in 2001) in the little town in north Alabama where I went to high school. I put it that way rather than saying “my home town” because it was never my home; we lived some miles out in the country and the town was only where I went to school, and that for only three years. I was a pretty unhappy and alienated adolescent and I have never wished, as many apparently do, to return to that period of my life. I am filled with memories whenever I visit, and beset with waves of painful nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia for youth itself, for its expectations and desires, rather than for the time as I actually lived it. I would wish to change rather than to relive the past, and I’m glad that Satan doesn’t seem to have that possibility in his toolbox of temptations.

I always have an eye out for people I knew in high school, but I never see any. For many years it was young people I took note of, expecting my old classmates to look as they had twenty, then thirty, now more than forty years ago. I do remember now to expect grey or bald heads and wrinkled, sagging faces. But I’m not sure that the seventeen-year-old me would recognize the fifty-nine-year-old me, and it’s entirely possible that I’ve passed by people I knew without recognizing them.

I don’t expect to see anyone I know when I go to Mass at the little Catholic parish. If any of my classmates were Catholic I was not aware of it. This area has a very small Catholic population, much smaller than the Gulf Coast, where I now live, which was settled by the French and Spanish before the British arrived. The priest there now is Indian, and I like him. I sometimes have trouble understanding his speech, but to the extent that I can follow them his homilies are excellent.

Today he related an anecdote about St. John the Evangelist. It may be traditional, and I don’t necessarily think it actually happened, but it tells the truth. It describes St. John as a very old man being asked to tell the people about Jesus, from the time when John was his companion on earth. The people gathered around him expectantly, but John spoke only three words to them, or rather one word three times: “Love. Love. Love.”

A couple of weeks ago I read something that caused me a little distress. I can’t lay my hands on it at the moment or remember the author’s name, but she, an apparently respected spiritual advisor, described experiencing the Holy Spirit as an all-encompassing sensation of being loved, saying that anyone who experiences this never again feels unloved, and that furthermore—this was the distressing part—anyone who has not experienced it has not experienced the Holy Spirit.

Well, I’ve never had that experience—a taste or hint of it now and then, maybe, but nothing so strong and permanent as this writer describes. I take it on faith that God loves me, but I don’t experience it, or, to tell the truth, give it a lot of thought; I just hope he’ll be merciful to me. But I love him—one can’t really conceive of him properly and not love him—and surely that is of the Holy Spirit. The sense of belonging to, of being in, the Holy Spirit is for me an experience of giving rather than receiving love.

Oddly—or, perhaps, now that I think of it, fittingly—the first real experience of that sort occurred in this same little town, among those high school classmates where I never really felt that I fit in or belonged and where I was never at ease. It was after one of the big yearly dances, at an after-party gathering at someone’s house. We were about to have breakfast at 1AM or so, and someone, probably a parent, asked one of us to say grace. I remember the person who volunteered, or was appointed. He spoke briefly, and I don’t remember his words. But as he spoke I was suddenly possessed with an overwhelming feeling of love for everyone present. It was a great shock to me, and an embarrassment, and my immediate concern was not to give any indication of what I felt. It was certainly not something I had sought or deliberately worked myself into. I was an atheist at the time, and I can’t remember whether it occurred to me to connect the experience with God. But surely that was the Holy Spirit. And how I wish I had paid attention to it and followed it, instead of the spirit of darkness that I did follow for most of the next ten years.

It was almost exactly ten years later that I attended a class reunion—attended it against my better judgment, which was vindicated when I found myself feeling that I had been jerked back into a past that I was happy to have behind me. At the reunion, the person who had said the prayer that night refused to shake hands with me. I didn’t (and don’t) know why, but decided later that it was probably because I was a draft dodger and generally a bad character in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Perhaps that refusal was also a work of the Holy Spirit, although by then I had put most of the evil of the counter-culture behind me and was in the process of returning to God.

Well, one day the Holy Spirit will triumph, and all the alienation and the quarrels will be…I was about to say forgotten, but perhaps not—perhaps not forgotten but resolved, like dissonant chords in music. And by the grace of the Holy Spirit there’s no one that I don’t hope will be there.

Black snake highway—sheet metal ballet
It’s just so much snow on a summer day
Whatever happens, it’s not the end
We’ll meet again at the festival of friends.

—Bruce Cockburn, “Festival of Friends”


Music of the Week: Sirenia - “Save Me From Myself”

A friend put me on to this striking song by Sirenia, a goth-metal group (and a spin-off of my favorite group in this sub-genre, Tristania). Since most people who read this blog are probably not interested in that kind of music, I’ll mention that you shouldn’t seek out the album from which the song is taken, An Elixir for Existence, hoping to hear more like it, because most of the rest of the album is definitely metal and not at all like “Save Me.” (If, on the other hand, you do like that kind of music—I know there are at least one or two of you—you will almost certainly like the rest of the album.)

This belongs with Tom Waits’s “Make It Rain” on a list of songs about the absence of God. It seems to me that one who cries out “Save me from myself” is halfway toward understanding what Christianity is about, perhaps halfway toward faith. And I wonder if any culture not shaped by Christianity could have produced the song.

Note: the video (actually a series of still images) contains a rather bloody vampire image toward the end, if that sort of thing bothers you.