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October 2008

All Hallows’ Eve

On this day I like to browse a bit in Charles Williams’s wonderful novel by that name. Here is an account of a baptism. The speaker is a young woman who was intended from her conception to play a role in a very evil scheme. But she was secretly baptized by her nurse, a crucial event in the story. This is how she remembers the baptism, at a time when she is partly in the next world and can see spiritual reality. I don’t think she even knows what she’s describing:

“I know I needn’t [be afraid]—when I think of the lake; at least I suppose it was a lake. If it was a river, it was very broad. I must have been very small indeed, because, you know, it always seems as if I’d only just floated up through the lake, which is nonsense. But sometimes I almost think I did, because deep down I can remember the fishes, though not so as to describe them, and none of them took any notice of me, except one with a kind of great horned head which was swimming round me and diving under me. It was quite clear there under the water and I didn’t even know I was there. I mean I wasn’t thinking of myself. And then presently the fish dived again and went below me, and I felt him lifting me up with his back, and then the water plunged under me and lifted me, and I came out on the surface. And there I lay; it was sunny and bright, and I drifted in the sun—it was almost as if I was lying on the sunlight itself—and presently I saw the shore—a few steps in a low cliff, and a woman standing there. I didn't know who she was, but I know now, since you made me remember—Lester, I do owe you such a lot—it was a nurse I once had, but not for very long. She bent down and lifted me out of the water. I didn’t want to leave it. But I liked her; it was almost as if she was my real mother, and she said: ‘There, dearie, no one can undo that; bless God for it.’”

No one can undo that.


Dogs Are Smart

In the argument between cat lovers and dog lovers, I’m more or less neutral. I like both. But about the specific question of which is smarter, I think dogs clearly have it. Cat lovers can only fall back on the argument that the reason cats don’t appear to be all that bright is that they’re so smart they don’t want us to know how smart they are, or some variation on that idea.

Right. Well, whatever the real truth is, there’s no doubt that dogs demonstrate a great deal of intelligence, especially when it comes to reading people. Here’s an account of a study which showed that dogs use some of the same face-reading techniques with us that we use with each other. And here’s another that shows they’re better than chimpanzees at locating something by following a human’s gaze.

I’m always experimenting with our dogs to see how subtle I can make the signal that they’re about to get something to eat or about to go for a walk, and am amazed at how little it takes.

However, cats are more beautiful.


“God and beauty are one...”

I’ve been reading (finally) Whittaker Chambers’s famous autobiography, Witness, and finding that it’s as good as people say. I’ll probably talk about it more when I’ve finished it, but I had to post this passage. Chambers is discussing the fact that there was no religion in his home, but that he nevertheless felt that it entered his life through three experiences. This is one of them, which he says occured “in early childhood”:

One day I wandered off alone and found myself before a high hedge that I had never seen before. It was so tall that I could not see over it and so thick that I could not see through it. But by lying flat against the ground, I wriggled between the privet stems.

I stood up, on the other side, in a field covered from end to end, as high as my head, with thistles in full bloom. Clinging to the purple flowers, hovering over them, or twittering and dipping in flight, were dozens of goldfinches—little golden yellow birds with black, contrasting wings and caps. They did not pay the slightest attention to me, as if they had never seen a boy before.

The sight was so unexpected, the beauty was so absolute, that I thought I could not stand it and held to the hedge for support. Out loud, I said: “God.” It was a simple statement, not an exclamation, of which I would then have been incapable. At that moment, which I remembered through all the years of my life as one of its highest moments, I was closer than I would be again for almost forty years to the intuition that alone could give meaning to my life—the intuition that God and beauty are one.

I am very familiar with that experience.


Sunday Night Journal — October 26, 2008

C.S. Lewis’s Idea of Joy

I recently re-read C.S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy, partly because I wanted to think again about the experience to which he gave the name Joy and defined as:

…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.

I never thought joy the right word at all, but have not been able to think of a better one. That first description is exactly right, I think. But since it’s an unsatisfied desire it feels to me more like “a particular kind of unhappiness or grief;” I could almost call it Loss rather than Joy. Most of all it’s a yearning that’s almost unbearably painful, but yet it is, as Lewis says, a kind of pain we want. I’m not a masochist. The reason the pain is desirable is that it implies that the thing I’m yearning for must exist, or at least might exist. It is an effect, and every effect must have a cause. At the moment when I feel it I would give everything to attain whatever it is that the yearning points to. 

It sometimes seems like something remembered, and sometimes like something never known. Certain memories give it to me, so it’s tempting to say that it’s just nostalgia. But when I’m nostalgic I remember the past perfectly well, and remember the way I felt, which was perhaps very happy, but was still ordinary, not the heavenly sweetness which the memories give. Also I find that the memories which produce the feeling are not just any pleasant memories but what Peter DeVries calls somewhere in one of his novels “the most poignant emotion: the memory of expectation.” (I don’t think I’ve quoted that exactly but it’s close.) It’s especially powerful when the memory is of some moment which seemed to hold a promise down a road from which I later turned aside.

In other words, it’s not so much nostalgia, a memory of something once possessed, as the memory of a moment when it felt—or feels now, when I look back at it—as if the yearning could have been fulfilled. Eliot might have been thinking of this when he wrote

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

(“Burn Norton”)

Lewis says, at the end of Surprised by Joy, that after becoming a Christian he did not much dwell on this experience, which was, after all, only a signpost pointing the way, and not the destination. I can’t say that’s true for me. Perhaps my faith is weaker and I need that infusion of yearning, and the sense that it is evidence of something, more often. At any rate it’s a good thing for me that the sensation cannot be produced by a drug.

I’ve often wondered whether it’s a universal experience. Some people seem so dull, so completely fixed on the next immediate physical comfort or pleasure, that I find it hard to imagine that they ever experience it. But that’s certainly a reflection of my own limits and prejudices; my experience in getting to know people is that there’s always much more to everyone than meets the eye.

If it is a universal or at least extremely widespread phenomenon, it’s one of those facts of human experience which is of very high importance and yet is beyond both the reach and the interest of science. And this in turn explains why the sort of atheism that attempts to extrapolate the physical sciences into a total philosophy of everything seems blind and deaf about the things that matter most.


Tony Hillerman, RIP

The author of some of my favorite mysteries died yesterday. Here is a nice obituary, one of a great many that will no doubt be forthcoming.

I’ve spent many enjoyable hours listening to his books on tape or cd while traveling, and there are still some I haven’t read, so I have them to look forward to even if there will be no more. I think—no, I know—that part of the reason I like his work so much is that I’m fascinated by their physical and cultural setting: the Navajo reservation of the Four Corners area in the Southwest. But that doesn’t explain it entirely; he was a very good writer who wrote stories that came alive and meant something, about people who became real for as long as you were reading. For me he’s in the ranks of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, mystery writers whose work continues to give pleasure when read a second or third time.


Music (Video) of the Week: Sigur Rós - Heima

The pronunciation of Sigur Rós seems to be, very roughly: “seeger,” as in Bob Seeger, “rohss”—“o” as in “rose”, “s” as in “toss.” According to the Wikipedia article on the band it means “victory rose,” and is the name of the singer’s baby sister, who was born on the day the band was formed. That tells you something about them: this is not your average rock band, and not even your average indie band.

This is a documentary which opens with these words:

Summer 2006: Having toured the world over, Sigur Ros return home to play a series of free, unannounced concerts in Iceland.

The title means “at home.” The format is pretty simple: images of Iceland and its people interspersed with performances from the concerts and conversations with the band members.

The visuals of Iceland are stunningly beautiful. My wife’s interest in pop music is about as close to zero as it can be without being totally non-existent; measured on a hospital monitor, it would be pronounced dead. (And yes, it is pretty funny that we’re married, but it just goes to show…something or other.) But she watched this with me because she was interested in seeing the pictures of Iceland. Part way through she said “Let’s move there.” Really, it’s that beautiful.

If you haven’t heard any of their music: it consists mostly of long, slow, mysterious compositions that usually start quietly and build to crescendos, sometimes quite noisy ones. They may sound similar to each other on first hearing, but they do grow on you. There are some truly enchanted melodies, perhaps made more so by the singing, which is mostly a single very high-pitched male voice (I guess a lot of it is falsetto). I don’t have any idea what the lyrics are about, as they’re all either in Icelandic or an invented nonsense language called Vonlenska, or Hopelandic. For all I know they could just be singing “oh baby I love you so” over and over again, but the effect is enigmatic.

I don’t want to go on too long here; I only want to recommend this very strongly. But I can’t leave without saying something about the whole atmosphere of the thing. It couldn’t be more different from the phoniness, vulgarity, conventional hipsterism (or simple stupidity, depending on the band), drugginess, and so forth that accompany most rock bands. The concerts are held in all sorts of venues, outdoors and in, and are attended by crowds of the most ordinary-seeming people: yes, there are the young people with green hair, nose rings, etc., but also whole families—middle-aged parents, children, old people. And for the most part the music is something in which they can all find something to enjoy. Some of the most beautiful images in the film are of the faces of people in the audience. And Sigur Rós themselves are almost freakishly unpretentious in conversation; they seem like genuinely decent people without big egos or the generally adversarial stance to the world of ordinary people that so often afflicts artists all across the spectrum. In concert they seem utterly focused on the music; there’s none of the bogus extravagant posing that makes many bands unwatchable to me.

In sum: do yourself a favor and find this. There is a second disk, by the way, which I haven’t seen yet, which I think is straight concert footage. Also by the way, the strings are provided by a string quartet called Amiina, who seem to be interesting in their own right.

Here’s the trailer, which gives you a pretty good taste of what to expect (3:54):

And here is a rather remarkable video. I’m only providing the link, because you need to read the info (click “more info&rdquo to the right of the video box). I don’t entirely understand the story, but…well, like I said, this is not your average rock band. You’ll need a bit of time, as the video is over nine minutes long.


Sad Song of the Week

No, I’m not going to make this a regular feature. I just happened to think about this song and found it on YouTube. There’s no actual video, so don’t bother watching, just listen. If you like this, don’t go looking for the album expecting to hear more of the same, as the rest of it sounds completely different. The song is based on Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, which I read long ago and have been wanting to re-read: Jack Bruce, “The Consul at Sunset,” from Harmony Row. (4:13)


Sigrid Undset on Dogma

I’m feeling guilty about having kept this book, Sigrid Undset on Saints and Sinners, checked out of the library for quite a number of months now. Before I return it I wanted to post the following snippet, apropos the discussion we were having a few days ago (I forget which thread) on the mistake of thinking that knowing the doctrines of the faith is the same as knowing God:

Between accepting the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church and experiencing the spiritual reality of the content of the dogmas, there is the same difference as there is between a photograph of Rondane and a foot trip through it. Or between studying the map in a general’s office (if the map is completely reliable) and walking out in the terrain.

Just to emphasize the point, here is Rondane.