Previous month:
June 2008
Next month:
August 2008

July 2008

The New Brideshead Movie

Both Deal Hudson and self-proclaimed Rightwing Film Geek Victor Morton say it’s actually not too bad. I think I said, in reaction to the trailer, that unless the people who made the trailer were deliberately trying to make the movie look bad, it was going to be pretty terrible. I still don’t think it sounds very good, and I don’t have any interest in seeing it.

I am almost certain Charles and Julia do not meet in Venice, much less start their fire burning. I don’t remember Julia even being there. Janet?


Beatrix Potter’s Birthday

As you may have noticed if you’ve used Google today, it’s Beatrix Potter’s birthday. Which reminds me that I saw the movie based on her life, Miss Potter, a few months ago and thought it was excellent.

And let us remember that the fact that a gentleman is civil and handsome does not mean that he has a duck’s best interests at heart.

I think Jemima Puddleduck is my favorite Potter story. Most of us are about as bright as she is when it comes to knowing what’s good for us. (You can read the whole story here, sort of—you have to switch back and forth between the text and the pictures.)


Sunday Night Journal — July 27, 2008

Three Epiphanies Concerning Religion – Three

This last epiphany came retroactively, as an illumination of something I had done more than twenty years earlier. The act it illuminated was my decision to become a Catholic, and it crystallized for me an essential difference between the Catholic and Protestant ways of looking at the sources of authority in Christianity.

I suppose it must be ten years or so now since the conversation. My wife and I are friends with a Mennonite couple, who unfortunately have since moved away from this area, and I used to have lunch occasionally with the husband, who is a Mennonite minister. Our conversations often touched on the Catholic-Protestant division. And as we had both come (or come back to) Christianity by winding roads, we sometimes talked about those journeys. In describing his own arrival in the Mennonite church after a certain amount of church-hopping, he put it something like this: “I asked myself which church’s teachings were closest to what I believe, and the answer was the Mennonites.”

“I guess I did it the other way around,” I said. “I asked myself which church had the authority to tell me what to believe.”

I had not thought of it in those terms at the time; it was only as I said these words, years later, that I realized that they were a succinct description of what I had done. During my fairly brief time in the Episcopal Church I had participated in any number of discussions about various Christian teachings. No conclusions were ever reached, at least none having any more solid foundation than “Well, I think…” I had in the back of my mind that somewhere there must be someone or something—some sort of council, perhaps, or a set of writings, which I pictured vaguely as a heavy tome printed on parchment—which could settle these questions.

It had become clear to me that there were a number of people in the Episcopal Church, including many of the clergy, who did not believe much or most of what Christianity had traditionally taught. In a pattern which soon became familiar to me, they treated the faith as a sort of philosophical poem or novel which provided a certain amount of wisdom and insight into the human conditions, but which had nothing much to do with any reality outside the human mind (apart, that is, from progressive politics).

There were others who did believe the traditional teachings; I had become one, and I wanted to know whether the skeptics or the believers spoke authentically for the church as a body. I heard occasional references to “the teaching of the Church,” and assumed that there must be some authority which could settle these arguments. And the moment when I realized that there was no such authority was the moment I began to leave the Episcopal Church.

My friend and I talked about this for a while. It seemed to me, I said, that in Protestantism the individual is the ultimate authority, whereas in Catholicism the individual must, in the end, submit his own judgment to that of the Church on questions of faith and morals. He replied that Catholicism only pushes that individual responsibility back one level, to the act of choosing the authority: in choosing to accept the authority of the Church I was still exercising a choice as to what to believe. And that’s perfectly true. There’s no escape (if anybody is looking for one) from the need to make that personal decision for or against God, for or against Jesus Christ, for or against a particular approach to Christianity as embodied in the various churches.

And it’s also true that Protestantism, at least in its more traditional forms, does in principle recognize an authority beyond the individual, namely the Bible. The difference is that once one accepts the authority of the Church one has agreed to submit in matters where one’s own reasoning might lead to a different conclusion. It could be said that the Protestant is in the same position with respect to the Bible, but the Bible is mute when a dispute arises, and if one finds in it what one wishes to find there is no source of correction. Since there is no authority in Protestantism which can resolve disputes about what the Bible means, there is a natural, continual, and inevitable process of division as people part company with each other when they can’t agree.

The conclusion I came to was that in order for the essential teachings of Christ to remain known over the centuries there must be a living authority; I mean living in flesh and blood, able to consider and adapt to historical changes but yet not be swept away by them. That authority was what I sought, and no Protestant denomination can credibly claim it; only a body which can trace itself and its doctrine back to the very beginning can do so. Which is not to say that the Bible doesn’t matter; a book has the advantage of not changing; the book and the living authority balance each other.

The Orthodox churches, of course, are a different thing altogether, being clearly connected to apostolic tradition. The Catholic-Protestant division is a calamity, but the Catholic-Orthodox division is almost a fatal wound to the whole concept of apostolic authority. Almost.


What I just said to my wife

“Hallelujah—I have finished that damned book.”

One or two people may remember that I mentioned a month or so ago that I was reading a very long novel but didn’t want to name it until I had finished it. It was Atlas Shrugged. I’ve been wanting for some time to read it because it’s apparently very influential, and I wanted to know why. The fact that my daughter had been assigned to read it for an economics class brought a copy into the house conveniently. I can now report that it’s awful, really awful, but that I’m still not sure why it’s so influential. That sucker is almost 1200 pages long—1200 fairly well-packed pages, around 645,000 words according to a couple of references turned up by Google—and most of it is astonishingly tiresome. I can’t believe that a large number of people have liked it enough to plow through till the end.

I’ll have more, lots more, to say about it later, probably not till next Sunday.


Music of the Week: Beethoven - Symphony #5

The 5th is to classical music as the Mona Lisa is to painting: a work so often seen, popularized, parodied, used in advertising, and in general made to serve as a representative or stereotype of its entire art form that it’s difficult to see it for itself anymore. It helps, then, in such a case not to look at it for a while, perhaps for a few decades. I didn’t set out to do that with the 5th, but I really can’t remember when I had last heard it before this weekend. I’m pretty certain that it must have been at least twenty years, and possibly thirty or more.

What I find, coming back to it with fresh ears and an open mind, is pure musical gold. This may well prove, in the end, my favorite of the symphonies, despite my earlier statements that the 4th and 7th were the ones I remember liking best. It seemed to me, as I listened to this one a little while ago, that there is no human emotion which is not expressed here. I don’t feel able at the moment to sort that out any further, to describe what seems to be the shape and meaning of those emotions. But to give one example: there is a beautiful moment in the second movement where a loud and dissonant chord which lands in the mind as a sudden outburst of dismay or fear produces a sort of mental pivot by becoming the opening of a joyful song. This, I think is the sort of thing that makes people feel a love for the man behind the music; anyone who can put this much of life into music seems like someone we want to know, or at least someone for whom we have a respect that goes beyond admiration for his art.

I’m sometimes a bit impatient with Beethoven’s repeated climaxes and near-endings, but here they seem to work perfectly. I don’t know if it’s technically a coda or what, but near the end of the last movement there’s a point where it seems that the symphony is about to end, and you think no, not yet, that’s not good enough. Then it comes back with another minute or two of intensity, ending with a sequence of—I’m sorry, I don’t have the technical vocabulary for this—what I can only call power chords that really do end it with the assurance and emphasis that everything previous seems to have led us to expect. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but to illustrate how carried away I was: I applauded at the end, though I was sitting in a room alone.

The recording I listened to was this one, Christoph von Dohnányi with the Cleveland Orchestra. I’ve been getting this set from eMusic over a period of several months with the idea that it should be a good choice for both convenience and quality, but for some reason I have not, so far, been very excited about it. It seems vaguely mechanical somehow. That’s probably just me; everyone who’s reviewed it at says it’s great.


The Living Infinite

The infinite is not an abstraction without living reality; it lives, it thinks, it loves, it is free, it has a great name inscribed upon the portal of all life as the proper name of life itself; it is called God.

—Fr. Henri-Dominique Lacordaire

(Another gem from the daily meditations in Magnificat.) And this is why people cry out God’s name at moments of intensity—“Oh God, that’s beautiful”—when only the evocation of the infinite is enough to express what is felt.


Sunday Night Journal — July 20, 2008

Three Epiphanies Concerning Religion – Two

(The first is here.)

The second of these epiphanies occurred within a couple of years of the first. I had two friends who had joined the Episcopal Church around the same time that I did. One of them, a very close friend, had in fact been an important influence on my taking this step and would precede me into the Catholic Church. The other, as I soon discovered, had a rather different view of things. I’m not entirely sure what his view was, actually, as it always seemed pretty vague. He later became an Episcopal priest, and while I have no doubt that he is in every personal way an excellent pastor I also have no doubt that we disagree about a great many important things.

It was this second friend who inadvertently gave me a major insight into what my conversion would mean, henceforward, for my sense of where I fit in society. Or, as it turned out, where I didn’t fit, and never would fit.

We were chatting (if I remember correctly) one Sunday morning before church. He had just heard on the radio or seen on tv a preacher of the sort who was very common in the South thirty or more years ago and is in fact still not hard to find if you browse low-power AM stations at night or on Sunday morning: a fire-and-brimstone ranter, long on passion and short on reason, a walking inventory of Bible verses disconnected from context and tradition. He was denouncing sinners and consigning them to hellfire in the most un-nuanced manner imaginable, and screaming that only JAEEE-sus offered them hope of escaping the fate they deserved.

My friend was as outraged by the preacher as the preacher was by sinners, so much so that he seemed to believe that if the preacher was a Christian then he was not, and vice-versa. “I have nothing in common with a man like that, nothing whatsoever” is the comment that sticks in my mind from all those years ago.

I don’t remember what response, if any, I made, but I do remember thinking about the matter. And the conclusion I reached was the opposite of my friend’s: that the preacher and I had in common a conviction about the most important question in life, that of God and our relationship to him. As much as my friend, I had always sneered at fundamentalist Christians, especially those were both uneducated and aggressive in their proselytyzing. But however much I may have disliked the radio preacher’s manner or deplored his ignorance and clumsiness, I was fighting on the same side as he in the spiritual war which defines human life, the battle between God and Satan for the souls of mankind. Whatever I might think of him personally, whatever I might think of his theology, I had in some way bound myself to him. We were now brothers in arms, and brothers in Christ.

This moment brought home forcefully to me that in claiming the title “Christian” for myself I was making myself one with all sorts of people whom I did not much like but with whom I agreed about the one thing needful. I wasn’t especially happy with that conclusion but it seemed unavoidable. As long as he was willing to say “Jesus is Lord” and mean by those words more or less what I meant, which was what the Church had meant for two thousand years, I could never repudiate the hick with the microphone and the Bible, never say that he was too crude and unpleasant to be included in my definition of the word “Christian.” I was not entering a society that I should expect to give me a comfortable home in this world. I should not expect the word “Christian” to imply “someone I like.”

Conversely, I was putting myself on the other side of a very clear line from people with whom I had far more natural sympathy and far more in common. I soon found that this would be not just a possibility but a pattern. More often than not, the people with whom I agree about the most important thing in the world are not the people to whom I feel a strong natural affection and sympathy, or who share my interest in things like literature and music. This can make for a difficult social life; with people of either group there are important aspects of life that are not shared and must be discussed cautiously, if at all.

There was one sort of person that I did, and do, repudiate, though, and consider an enemy: the one who speaks the language of Christian faith but means something else, who empties the faith of its objective content and makes it a literary or psychological artifact. I have no choice but to stand, proudly if not happily, with the redneck preacher and the televangelist against that man or woman.


Music of the Week: A Tribute to Ian and Sylvia

A few days ago there was a discussion over at Craig Burrell’s blog, All Manner of Thing, about whether “Down By the Salley Gardens” is a folk song, a poem by Yeats (he published it as his own), or a folk song modified by Yeats (my supposition, and here is the post and ensuing discussion). This reminded me of an American murder ballad, “Down By the Willow Garden,” which begins with a similar phrase and which I know from one of Ian and Sylvia’s albums. And it occurred to me that I had never looked for any of their work on YouTube.

A quick search was quickly rewarded. Although I bought Ian and Sylvia’s records in my teens and listened to them over and over again, I never saw them perform in their heyday, the early-to-mid ‘60s. But they had made a few TV appearances, and I was delighted to discover them on YouTube. And even more delighted that one of them included a song that is to me one of their finest moments, an a cappella version of the English ballad “Greenwood Side.”

To my taste these two Canadians, Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker, were the best of the pop-folk artists of the ‘60s. By “pop-folk” I mean performers who weren’t directly a product of the authentic folk tradition, but who selected songs from many sources—American, British, black, white—and delivered them in a more polished way for an urban and mostly young audience. Usually this meant a certain sentimentalization and prettification, often a great deal. And the closer those artists approached the style of a Mitch Miller sing-along, the more weightless and dated their music sounds today. Ian and Sylvia were pretty sophisticated musicians, but their style had a harder center and a sharper edge than, say, Peter, Paul, and Mary’s, and their music remains more appealing today than that of most of their peers.

They were especially good on country, Appalachian, and British material. For me they aren’t as persuasive on gospel and blues. They do it skillfully, as in the following clip, but not as convincingly. Most of the pop-folk groups got this music wrong, putting a sort of over-earnest self-consciousness onto music that was meant to be rough and exuberant; Ian and Sylvia don’t escape this, but they’re better than most.

They did, however have a real connection to the Appalachian tradition via country music; this was especially true for Tyson, who had grown up working on ranches in Alberta and British Columbia. His voice sounds a lot like bourbon tastes, and although his natural mode seems to be something close to country and western he can do the old rural sound, too. And Sylvia’s voice has that real plaintive, keening, astringent country tone that can be chillingly beautiful. They could take a genuine country song like “Ol’ Blue” and polish it up without ruining it; all right, it wasn’t “authentic,” but their embellishments were in the spirit of the material.

I don’t remember where I first heard them, but I do remember asking my uncle Jimmy about them. He and his wife Libby introduced me to folk music when I was fifteen or so, and I have very fond memories of hearing people like Furry Lewis for the first time on Saturday nights in their living room. (Someday I’ll write about them; I don’t think they were very happy but they had a lot fun, and they died a few months apart ten years or so ago, not a great deal older than I am now.) Jimmy’s response about Ian and Sylvia’s music was “It ain’t nothin’ but fine.”

I guess that convinced me, because if my memory is not playing tricks on me, the first record I ever bought with my own money was the first Ian and Sylvia album, self-titled. I listened to it and its four successors continually (or so it seems in my memory) throughout my high school years. The last one I bought was Play One More, which came out in 1966 and saw them moving in a more pop-based and less appealing direction, although the good stuff on that album is as good as anything they ever did. The ones that followed were not well-received and I never heard them. But those first five albums—Ian and Sylvia, Four Strong Winds, Northern Journey, Early Morning Rain, and Play One More—still captivate me for the most part, the exceptions being some of the blues and gospel tracks.

They were terrific interpreters of contemporary songwriters, such as Dylan—their “Tomorrow is a Long Time” is my favorite version—and Gordon Lightfoot (ditto for “Early Morning Rain”). They also wrote some great songs: “Four Strong Winds,” “You Were On My Mind.” And Ian was a killer guitarist, especially when paired with a second guitarist who was just as good, John Herald or Monte Dunn. The guitar work on “Ella Speed” (Four Strong Winds) still knocks me out.

Ian has had a fairly successful solo career but I’ve heard very little of his work, an omission which I’ll have to remedy.


Rain at the Beach

We went to the beach (the Gulf beach, not the bay) last Sunday, for the first time in a long time, even though we're only 45 minutes or so away. This is one time I wasn’t especially pleased to see rain. But at least I didn’t get the sunburn I was expecting. (Click the pictures for larger versions.)

This cloud is scary, isn’t it?

Somewhat to my surprise, this next photo actually captures the pearly quality of the sky immediately after the rain:

I had a rather nice post-rain picture in which the sun is shining on the face of a tall cumulus cloud which emerged ten or fifteen minutes later, but can’t find it at the moment; I hope it’s on my external hd at home.


Tillich quote

I found a copy of Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions in a local library and looked up the quote referred to in the Three Epiphanies post. I’m relieved to find that my memory wasn’t too far off:

This leads to the last and most universal problem of our subject: Does our analysis demand either a mixture of religions or the victory of one religion, or the end of the religious age altogether? We answer: None of these alternatives! A mixture of religions destroys in each of them the concreteness which gives it its dynamic power. The victory of one religion would impose a particular religious answer on all other particular answers. The end of the religious an impossible concept.... For the question of the ultimate meaning of life cannot be silenced as long as men are men. Religion cannot come to an end, and a particular religion will be lasting to the degree in which it negates itself as a religion. Thus Christianity will be a bearer of the religious answer as long as it breaks through its own particularity.

The way to achieve this is not to relinquish one’s religious tradition for the sake of a universal concept which would be nothing but a concept. The way is to penetrate into the depth of one's own religion, in devotion, thought, and action.

(My emphasis.) I don’t know exactly what that stuff about “negat[ing] itself” and “break[ing] through its own particularity” means. Not too much, maybe.


Six Quirks

I've been tagged by Craig Burrell for this “meme” (more about the term in a moment). One of the rules is that you post the rules, so here ya go:

  1. Link the person(s) who tagged you
  2. Mention the rules on your blog
  3. Tell about 6 unspectacular quirks of yours
  4. Tag 6 fellow bloggers by linking them
  5. Leave a comment on each of the tagged blogger’s blogs letting them know they’ve been tagged

And here is my list of quirks; I trust they are unspectacular enough:

  1. I dislike the word “meme,” for reasons that may (or may not) become clear if you read the Wikipedia article to which I’ve linked the word. Moreover, even if you think it’s a useful term, it seems misapplied to online games like this, which is the blog equivalent of a chain letter.

  2. In any group of people having a meal together, I’ll almost always be the last one to finish. (I would have left out "almost" until recently, when I discovered that someone I know eats even more slowly than I do.) I think this is mainly because I really like to eat and don't want to rush it.

  3. I’ll watch at least a few minutes of almost any movie or tv show that has impressive spaceships in it.

  4. I have a great love of canned chili, which stems at least in part from eating it while camping in the woods with my two good friends at the age of 13 or 14. We heated it over our campfire in a cast-iron skillet. Obviously we didn't have sophisticated or even sensible gear and supplies (canned food? cast-iron utensils?) but then our hike or bike ride was not very long.

  5. I have a compulsion for saying precisely what I mean, which I think makes me a little odd in conversation, as I keep revising and refining what I’ve said or pause while trying to find the right word. Related to that, I can’t endure being misconstrued, or tolerate being misrepresented. If I think someone doing either of those is acting in bad faith or just not listening, the conversation is over.

  6. I am more happy to hear a prediction of rain than of fair weather. I’m not sure whether this is congenital or if it’s a result of having grown up where the summers are very hot and very dry. And of working on the farm in those summers, when rain meant a break from work. And of feeling that if it’s raining I am more likely to be able to read, and less likely to be told that I’m wasting a beautiful day and should go outside and play. But mainly I just think rain, and the world being rained on, are beautiful.

Now, whom shall I tag? Let's see...various people who have linked to me...Alias Clio, Pentimento, the guys at Thursday Night Gumbo (who haven’t posted for a while), Garrett at Postmodern Orthodoxy (who also hasn’t posted for a while, Red Cardigan...and now for something completely different, Saint Kansas (who also hasn’t posted for a while). I’m passing over some of the more popular blogs, which have probably already been tagged. And anyway Dawn Eden is in Australia for World Youth Day.


Sigur Rós “Glósóli” video

Thanks to Rob G for linking to this beautiful video. I think it deserves a post of its own. Like Rob, I found it very moving. Don’t be in a hurry or distracted when you watch it. It’s a little over six minutes long.

My next post may be from Iceland.


Sunday Night Journal — July 13, 2008

Three Epiphanies Concerning Religion - One

I’ve had this essay in mind for a while. It’s too long for a blog post, and I thought I would try to place it with some magazine, and perhaps I will do so later, but it occurred to me the other day that I could go ahead and get it written by treating it as three separate Sunday journals. So here we go.

Thinking back over the progress of my commitment to the Catholic Church, I note three moments of particularly strong insight, three moments which either caused me to take a step or to understand the meaning of the step I was about to take or had taken. I don’t know whether it’s significant or not that none of them came from a Catholic source.

The first happened sometime in the latter half of the ‘70s, probably 1977 or so. I had been a fairly typical religious seeker of my generation, dabbling in different traditions, exploring none of them very deeply or seriously. Had I thought of the term I might have described myself as “spiritual but not religious,” in the manner of so many today. Unlike many of those, however, I did not exclude Christianity. I thought it a profound tradition but supposed, in the thoughtless way of that fool, “modern man,” that such a thoroughly supernatural set of beliefs had somehow been rendered unbelievable by the modern world, if not actually disproved.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I had come up against the fact that a mixture of beliefs, chosen from among many on the basis of whether or not I liked them, could not provide me with a sure sense of meaning for my life, or with a useful set of ethical principles. They could only guide me where I had already decided to go, because I was free to abandon them if they didn’t suit me. And yet I didn’t see how, “in this day and age,” one could accept the principles of any one religion.

Partly out of some sort of sense that I needed something more specific, I had begun to attend an Episcopal church. It gave me a way of connecting to a tradition without requiring a commitment to much in the way of definite belief. And it was while I was in this in-between condition that I read Paul Tillich’s Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions. I’ve just discovered that I seem to have gotten rid of the book—I thought I still had it—so I can’t quote the passage that made such an impression on me, but here’s my best recollection of it:

After discussing the similarities and differences between Christianity and other religions, Tillich says something like “Does this mean that one should attempt to select and combine the best elements of all traditions into something new? No, on the contrary, one should enter ever more deeply into one’s own tradition.” I think he also included something to the effect that dabbling could never be a substitute for attempting to live one faith.

Now, Tillich is, of course, a pretty questionable theologian from the Catholic point of view, or for that matter from the point of view of many Protestants. But there is profound wisdom in this statement of his.

You can’t experience marriage by thinking about all the women (or men, as the case may be) you know and imagining one who combines the best features of all of them, or by spending time with each of them now and then. You can only experience marriage, and receive the blessings and trials of it, by picking one of them and marrying her (or him). To follow any serious spiritual path, not just the Christian, you have to follow it. Even if the popular idea is true, which I don’t believe, that all paths lead to the same place in the end, you must pick one path and follow it; otherwise you’re merely wandering. Of course you may get where you want to go by wandering, but that’s not the most sensible approach, if you actually do want to get somewhere. And at any rate I was tired of wandering.

It was plain to me that Christianity was the only path really open to me, the only one that I was prepared by my culture and my temperament to embrace. It was the religion that my ancestors for a thousand years or more had held, and the one that had shaped the civilization that had shaped me. Tillich’s counsel gave me the impetus to go ahead and join the Episcopal Church, which required making an affirmation of faith.

There is something a bit hazy and confused at this point in my memories, and probably it was in fact hazy in my mind at the time. I’m not entirely sure what I believed. I think my action had something of the character of a test drive; I would enter the Christian faith as if I believed, even if I wasn’t entirely sure that I did, or that I believed the orthodox tradition, or even exactly what the tradition held. I would give it an honest try; I would see what happened if I believed and behaved (as best I could) as a Christian.

I can’t say at what point the trial became a real commitment, but it wasn’t very long, probably a matter of months, before I realized that I was no longer holding anything back and did in fact believe the essentials of the faith, not as symbols but as facts. In the space of two or three years I went from being a sort of tourist looking in on Christianity to a pilgrim trying to reach the heart of it, a journey that soon carried me out of the Episcopal and into the Catholic Church.

It would probably be an overstatement to say that I would not have taken that first serious step without Tillich’s admonition. Nevertheless, it did give me a needed push and was important in helping me to see that an uncommitted syncretism—the somewhat smug belief that all religions have some truth in about equal measure but none is worthy of genuine allegiance—is no way to make spiritual progress.


Music of the Week: Beethoven - Symphony #4

Here, finally, in the first two movements, is the Beethoven I love. I accept, on the testimony of people who understand the technical aspects of music, that the Third Symphony is a great achievement from that point of view, and that it does things that no one had done before. And as I said when I wrote about it a few weeks ago, I admire it and feel its greatness.

But if the Third constitutes a breakthrough, I would emphasize the breaking. There’s a violence in it, as in much of Beethoven. If we think of it as music breaking out of prison, we imagine not a cunningly planned and stealthy escape—a tunnel, perhaps—but giants smashing stone walls. I don’t know whether the Fourth is a consolidation and consideration of new freedom, or whether it is in some degree a return to older rules. But there is an ease and serenity about the first two movements which is not found any of the preceding three symphonies. It seems to flow freely, bearing little of the sense of straining after something that marks the others. It’s as if he is no longer struggling to become free, but being free.

The first two movements are simply beautiful, graceful and relaxed. The scherzo is brilliant and sunny, but I find the last movement a bit of a letdown. Taken as the end of a progress from reflection to joyful exuberance, it doesn’t, for me, quite live up to the promise of the earlier movements.

In a famous remark Schumann said that the Fourth in relation to the Third and Fifth is a slender Greek maiden between two Norse gods. Well, given that vision, I have no doubt that my eyes would be drawn to the maiden, so it’s not surprising that I like the Fourth so much. I don’t see why she has to be Greek, though—she can just as well be a maiden of the North, or for that matter a goddess herself.


Desire, God’s and Ours

This is from one of the daily meditations in Magnificat:

Man’s desires are, in some extraordinary way, the image of God’s desire.... Our desires can only be understood in the light of God’s desire.... We must not shut our hearts against desire, but learn how to desire rightly.... We cannot learn to love God by learning not to love. If we kill off in ourselves the faculty we have for desire, then we shall paralyze our faculty for loving God.

—Fr. Simon Tugwell, O.P.

This reminds me of some of the things Traherne says about learning to want like God, a curious topic that I meant to explore a year or two ago when I was commenting on Traherne, but never got around to.

Of course maybe my posting this is an example of someone being pleased with advice that confirms him in what he’s already doing, as my faculty for desire is in excellent working order, always has been, and I’ve never been very good at disciplining it.


Zombie Time

I’ve added a link in the sidebar to Janet’s undead thread—the one on which most recent comments have been made and which is attached to no post, which ordinarily would be the source of life for a comment thread (hence “undead”). It’s a bit like a zombie process in Unix, but those are really more precisely described as comatose, since they exhibit no vital signs or activity. But our zombie walks and talks. Or at least talks.

I hereby make it available for anyone to say anything (well, of course, not anything—you know what I mean), regardless of its relevance to any post or any preceding comment. We will perhaps find out how long a HaloScan comment thread can be.


A Few Images from the 4th

My wife’s sister and her husband (not my wife’s, her sister’s) live on a bayou that opens onto a bay that opens onto the Gulf of Mexico, a thirty mile or so drive from here. They invited us down for the Fourth of July and we had a wonderful time. These are a few of my souvenirs. Click on the images to see larger versions; click a second time for even larger.

They half-live on this 34-foot sailboat; it’s docked at a little house in which they also half-live. They have lived on it altogether at times, and have crossed the Atlantic in it, twice, which totally boggles my mind.

Standing on their pier:

Standing on the pier looking down:

Just trees, mostly a live oak. Ok, it’s boring; sorry; I like trees and I like sky. I had a better picture but I ruined it by accidentally saving it while experimenting with the editing software.

Unfortunately I’m not a good enough photographer to have taken some night-time views from the beach a block or two away, which looks toward the condos on the Gulf, a string of lights on the horizon over which distant silent explosions of fireworks appeared from time to time while we were mildly and happily drunk; at least I was. God bless the U.S.A., y’all, and God bless my in-laws.


Sunday Night Journal — July 6, 2008

Gone To A Better Place

The goodbye party is a feature of life in any workplace. Someone takes another job or retires, and the occasion is observed with a gathering that may be anything from a few friends and co-workers having lunch to an institution-wide party involving food, drink, gifts, and speeches, depending on the importance of the person and the length of service.

A few weeks ago I attended one of the second type. Someone who’s been with us for over twenty years, and with whom I have worked for fifteen or so of those years, is retiring. There was a lot of talk of what she had meant to the place—all of it true—and how much she would be missed, most of that not quite so true. She will be missed, of course, by those who worked side-by-side with her every day, but much less so by others who, like myself, dealt with her much less often: we will adjust to her absence fairly quickly.

I was thinking as I drove home after this little party that these occasions are something like a death. Apart from a few people who are particularly close to the departed, her absence just isn’t going to matter all that much for very long. She’ll be replaced, we’ll deal with the new person, and soon we’ll hardly think about her at all. In time, as other people come and go, there’ll be few and eventually none who remember her or even recognize her name. I don’t mean to sound cold, because I like her, but that’s the way it is.

Even for those who worked closely with her, life will go on. For over ten years I was one half of a two-person department. I was completely dependent on the other half; we were a good team because we were each good at things the other wasn’t. She had seemed quite young to me when we met, and was pregnant with her first child. By the time she left abruptly in 2003, she was in her forties and the child was entering adolescence. We shared an office, and got to know each other very well; I can say we were friends, on a certain level—one of those partial friendships that can only happen at work between two people who really don’t have much in common.

I was personally sorry to see her go, but more so professionally: I really didn’t know how I was going to get along without her, because she had been doing work that I simply didn’t know how to do. But although it was almost a year before we got a really adequate replacement, I survived, and the institution survived. Eighteen months later her absence was hardly noticeable; now, five years later, not at all—not even by me as far as work is concerned, although those of us who worked closely with her still occasionally mention her (“Man, she would have really hated this…” etc.).

Robert Frost sums it up in the last line of his devastating poem “Out, out—”. After a sudden and rather horrible death, the survivors are described this way:

…. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

But I’ve been on the other side of those workplace departures, too; I’ve been the one leaving. And it works both ways. The one who leaves does not cease to exist; for him, rather, it’s the place he leaves behind that begins to seem unreal and soon ceases to matter at all.

In 1990 I left the most interesting, but also most challenging, job I’ve ever had, working for a high-tech company that was at the time in the forefront of its field. I had been there for about ten years when I left. What we were doing in those years had seemed exciting and important. I had worked with some really good people, a couple of whom became close friends. Leaving was a pretty major event in my life. Still, it wasn’t long at all before I ceased to feel much connection to the place. I quickly lost touch completely with the sense of urgency that had driven us, and I remember emailing one of my friends, six months or so after my departure, that the company and the market in which it competed seemed like a war from which I had been sent home. I felt a little sorry for those still caught up in it. I missed the place and the people for a while, but soon I forgot most of the people, and no doubt they forgot me, and I expect that within a few years it would have been hard to find many people who remembered me, apart from a few friends and close co-workers. It was, from their point of view, almost as if I had died.

But from my point of view it was they who remained behind in a world of which I was no longer a part, worrying about things that no longer concerned me. Within four or five years the old job had become unreal to me, of interest only as history. And no one there who remembered me had much real sense of what my new life, in a very different sort of job, was like.

This is worth keeping in mind when we think about death. The way life closes over the vacant place left by the departed, like the sea closing over a sunken ship, seems sad to us, and leaves us with a sort of guilt: did we really care? did he or she really matter? But it doesn’t look that way to the person who has died, who now is concerned with matters of which we have only a dim conception, and who may be looking back at us with pity.


Music of the Week: The Ornette Coleman Trio - Live at the Golden Circle, Vol. 2

Considered objectively, I’m sure this is not the best Ornette Coleman album, but it’s a sort of sentimental favorite for me, partly for non-musical reasons. I listened to it a good bit at a particularly dark time of my life, and, as we used to say back then, it took me to a good place; it somehow seemed an opening to a world I would have much preferred to inhabit.

Partly this was a matter of ambience. The album was recorded in Stockholm and at the time I had a romantic longing to be somewhere in northern Europe (still do, actually), which at least in my mind was a more beautiful and peaceful place than the U.S.A. of 1970 or so. There was the cover photo, which I assumed was taken in Stockholm: the black-and-white image of the three musicians in a snowy landscape, three very American-looking men in a European setting, a very appealing combination. They were dressed unostentatiously, conventionally and tastefully, unlike me and my hippie friends. And yet they were undeniably way more hip than any of us. They were hip but not stupid; they didn’t live in the world of Grand Funk Railroad. There was still a certain intellectual cachet about the world of jazz, or at least there recently had been, and Coleman and his friends were playing for an audience which I supposed to be much more sophisticated than an American one; after all, this was the country that gave us Bergman.

And then there was the music. This album begins with a track, “Snowflakes and Sunshine,” that’s usually treated lightly or even disdainfully by critics, because Coleman plays violin and trumpet on it, neither of which he was especially good at. The first reaction of most listeners to it is to wonder why anyone would ever want to listen to what seems like frenetic and aimless scratching on the violin. That was my reaction at first, but then somehow I began to enjoy it; the swirling fall of notes began to seem like snowflakes falling in sunshine, patternless but bright and enchanting.

And the next track, “Morning Song,” which is more typical Coleman, is the sort of slow loose lyricism that one could imagine feeling, if not being able to produce, on a quiet and hopeful but slightly melancholy morning. Those two were the first side of the LP, which I listened to far more than the second. Listening to it now as I write this, I see that its two tracks, “The Riddle” and “Antiques,” are at least as good, although more…well, “conventional” is not the right word for any of Coleman’s music, but they are certainly less strange than “Snowflakes and Sunshine.”

Free jazz is not my favorite sort of music, and it’s hard for me to explain why Coleman’s engages me while most does not. It seems to me that though his phrases don’t necessarily have a logical relationship to each other, they are striking in themselves. I have to resort to a literary analogy: it’s like poetry that’s a series of unrelated images and statements that are so striking in themselves that you don’t really mind the fact that they’re disconnected. And in the end they do make a sort of intuitive picture.

Best, though, is the fittingly offhand phrase used by Jesse Canterbury in trying to explain to me what captivates him about Coleman’s music: “the sheer beauty and humanity of it.” It’s that second word that’s most important; you feel like you’re hearing something that comes from the deepest places in the heart, the inchoate emotions themselves expressed by someone who happens to have a gift for giving them just enough shape and order to make them felt by others.

If you don’t know Ornette Coleman’s work, this is not necessarily the best place to start. That would probably be The Shape of Jazz to Come, which begins with the lovely-by-any-standard “Lonely Woman.” But then, who knows, you might hear in this one the same things I hear.


Happy 4th of July

To those in the U.S., of course.

My wife took this a few years ago during the annual fireworks display from the Fairhope pier, which we can see from the bay shore near our house. They’re very pretty over the water. I like the sound almost as much as the sight, and the game of anticipating the delay between the flash and the bang. There’s one that produces only a single bright flash but a very big bang. We’re going to miss the show this year—visiting some family an hour away.


Tom Waits in Mobile

It was a great concert. I’m not sorry I paid $100 for it. If you’re a fan, don’t miss a chance to see him. Details follow for those interested.

Let me get the negative out of the way first. At least for live performances, Waits seems to have abandoned most of his many vocal styles for the abrasive bellowing roar, or roaring bellow, that he uses frequently but not always in his recordings. (You can hear what I’m talking about here: listen to the samples of the first two tracks; the second is the voice he used 90% of the time last night.) This is really too bad, because there’s a huge and very effective range of vocal expression on his recordings. Maybe he’s wrecked his voice for anything subtle; I can’t imagine how anyone can make the sounds he does for more than a minute or two, let alone for an entire concert.

For the first thirty minutes or so of the roughly two-hour concert, I was less than enthusiastic. As is too often the case with amplified music, it was too loud for the space—not very loud in comparison to an out-and-out rock band, but still loud enough to muddy everything up and lose all nuance. And there seemed something slightly…I don’t know, stiff, or at least not relaxed, about the performance (both Waits and the band).

But as it went on either my ears adjusted or the sound guys tweaked things, so that the sound got better, and, whether because the artists were more into it or because I was, the whole thing seemed to kind of catch fire, and the rest of the concert was a delight, my complaint about the singing notwithstanding. Not surprisingly, the band was great, including a reed player who faked a horn section by playing two instruments at once.

Waits is a compelling performer visually as well as musically, coming across as some kind of eccentric but fascinating minstrel-hobo (with a dash of Pentecostal preacher). There was a lot of skillful and effective lighting, with the high point being toward the end where he put on a hat covered with spangles of some kind and became a human disco ball, with lights focused on the hat (I think that was during “Eyeball Kid,” which was another and better song than the one on the album).

Speaking of the Eyeball Kid, someone who blogs under that name has already provided a set list, for those interested.

From my Catholic point of view, a few songs toward the end were notable. There was “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” which, yes, is ironic, but never seems to me to be 100% so, followed immediately by one of his bleakest songs, “Dirt in the Ground” (we’re all gonna be just…). But then the closer was the desperate prayer of “Make It Rain,” and at the end of it a rain came down in the form of a shower of glitter. This is, after all, the aptly named Glitter and Doom Tour.

The crowd was interesting, by the way: from teenagers to people as old as Tom and me (he’s just a few months younger than I am). Not that many teenagers, really: the younger end seemed to be college-age and a bit up, like my daughter and her husband and their friends, all in their mid-20s, with the majority falling maybe (I’m guessing) between their age and the mid-40s. There were people covered in tattoos (and I wonder how many were fake) and people who looked like they just came from their white-collar jobs (e.g., me).