Previous month:
September 2008
Next month:
November 2008

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.


A Few Miscellaneous Things

On the financial crisis: I don’t understand this stuff in the least, but the picture that has emerged strikes me as a sort of witches’ brew of deregulation and government fiddling in the market. Government seems to have encouraged foolish risk-taking while failing to restrain the predators who predictably took advantage of the situation. This Washington Post editorial seems to sum it up pretty well. “Government-sponsored upside-only capitalism” sounds about right.

Be that as it may, in a comment the other day Francesca provided the best description I’ve heard of the situation the rest of us are in: “like a dog or a cat being taken somewhere in a box.”

Where I work: if anyone reading this subscribes to Touchstone, you may have seen a piece of mine in the October issue. The byline tells where I work: Spring Hill College. I have deliberately not mentioned that fact here, as I wanted to keep a very strict separation of blog and work. Since it’s not only a college but a Jesuit college, and since I’m...who I am, it could be anticipated that what I write here would not necessarily be sympatico with my employer. But having decided to come out of this closet in the pages of Touchstone, I’m doing so here as well. I work in a really beautiful place: go here and click on the slide show for proof (it’s near the bottom of the page). My office is in the library. It’s probably not more than a hundred yards from the chapel, and I’m ashamed of how seldom I go to daily Mass; it’s mainly because I spend my lunch hour blogging and emailing (I do stop in and pray for a minute most days).

I see the Touchstone thing is online now, here.

Antiaphrodite’s blog: Here. The trick to reading it is to use the down-arrow key until the text is clear of the graphics. “If anybody asks how I died, I was walking on sunshine.” Nice.

There was supposed to be another item here, about some changes I was about to make to the blog, but I just changed my mind and decided not to do them today after all.


Sunday Night Journal — October 19, 2008

Madonna’s Living Death

No limited object, however beautiful, is able to appease the inner hunger that consumes you, because as soon as you possess it you have exhausted it.

—Fr. Henri-Dominique Lacordaire

I’ve found Madonna an irritating presence on the public scene ever since she appeared there. At the time, the early or mid-‘80s, I didn’t hear much pop music except what my friend Robert taped for me, and I never saw MTV, so I was aware of Madonna’s existence as a video-pop star and sex symbol only because the news media talked about her so much. And I was aware of that media presence before I heard a note of her music. When I eventually did hear “Material Girl” on the radio, I thought That’s it?! That’s what all the fuss is about? It struck me as  very ordinary and uninteresting commercial pop. Since then I suppose I’ve heard at most a few minutes of her music. Maybe some of it’s good; I know some critics take it seriously. I never tried to find out because, as I said, she irritates me.

Why? Mainly the fact that she’s used a title that properly belong to Our Lady and made it synonymous with sleaze, part of the long campaign by a segment of our society—or should I say the ongoing human effort?—to cheapen sex and separate it from love and marriage. Who knows how much damage she did to young women who took seriously her advocacy of casual sex? There was also the fact that her popularity seemed way out of proportion to her talent; even then her antics seemed to have a slightly desperate quality. The one thing that sticks in my mind from her early career, besides “Material Girl,” is a phrase from a newspaper story about her marriage—I guess it was the one to Sean Penn: “The bride, whose nude photos appeared last month in the pages of Playboy and Penthouse…” It was something Waugh might have dreamed up, another example of the self-satirizing bent of our culture.

But of course it’s hard to ignore her completely, because she had then, and still does have, the ability to keep the news media talking about her. Whenever I see a story about her latest tour I think When is she going to go away? For a few weeks or months now I’ve been seeing bizarre-looking photographs of her, and headlines about the state of her current marriage, but not bothering to read the stories—until this morning, when I saw this headline on the Drudge Report, one of a list of several Madonna-related items: Rice milk, no TV and sleeping in plastic suit covered in $1,000 cream...

Well, I couldn’t resist that bit about the plastic suit, so I clicked over and read the story.  It seems that Madonna’s life is becoming one of those spectacles so prized by the press and much of the public: the celebrity train wreck. The picture of her that accompanies this story is just plain scary. That is not a healthy human body, and unless its condition is the result of some disease it’s not the home of a healthy human mind. It made me think of the passage in The Great Divorce where a spectre who had once been an attractive woman is visiting heaven from a suburb of hell, and tries to exercise her old powers:

More than one of the Solid People tried to talk to her, and at first I was quite at a loss to understand her behaviour to them. She appeared to be contorting her all but invisible face and writhing her smokelike body in a quite meaningless fashion. At last I came to the conclusion—incredible as it seemed—that she supposed herself still capable of attracting them and was trying to do so…. In the end she muttered “Stupid creatures,” and turned back to the bus.

I’m not proud to admit that my first reaction to the account of Madonna’s desperate effort to stay young was a certain pleasure. This was partly the schadenfreude that makes us ordinary folk tend to enjoy the sufferings of the rich, famous, and powerful, and partly something more personal having to do with my old resentment of this person in particular. Ah, reality is finally catching up with her, I thought.

But that was quickly replaced by something else that had both pity and horror in it. This woman has everything that the world can offer, and even though she must know by now that it can’t satisfy her or make her happy, her life is dominated by the need to hold on to it. Worse, she’s beginning to understand that she can’t hold on to it forever. I began to sense the terror of time, of death, and ultimately of insignificance that must drive such extreme behavior. I am certainly no stranger to that fear, and I wonder what it might drive me to if I had Madonna’s money and had spent most of my adult life being adored by crowds.

What we see in Madonna is an exaggerated version of the drive that all human beings experience to hold on to a life that must inevitably pass away. The portrait in that story, and I don’t mean only the photo, is of living death. Even from a purely earthly point of view there is a sort of psychological law expressed in “He that finds his life shall lose it.” The more desperately you try to thwart the passing of your life, the less you really possess it. One wonders if Madonna is capable of experiencing a single moment of honest untroubled pleasure.

Surely great wealth and power must only make more desperate the struggle to stop time; you would have more to cling to, and be more accustomed to having things your way, than most people. There’s probably a lesson here for all of us who live in the industrialized world, who have wealth and comfort undreamed of by most of our ancestors. One begins to think that the story about the camel and the needle’s eye is not only a matter of morality but also of something like—pardon the expression—spiritual physics. It’s impossible for you to get there carrying all that. I suppose one reason for old age is to make it ever more difficult for us to hang on—or, to put it positively, easier for us to let go. Although I personally am not finding it in the least easy.


Story of My Life (Square Peg)

From C.S. Lewis’s autobiography:

...Kirk had said of me in a letter to my father..., “You may make a writer or a scholar of him, but you’ll not make anything else. You may make your mind up to that.”

Though in my case “scholar” wouldn’t really have worked, either. And “may” should have been emphasized.


Wednesday Morning

Because I’m on the eastern shore, I can only see the full moon over the water by getting up at 3 or 4am. Or staying up that late, of course. This is about as close as I get—probably thirty or forty minutes after sunrise. If you don’t really know what you’re doing and you don’t have a good camera, the picture never looks as dramatic as the real thing, but still...kinda pretty.

The second one is zoomed, which seems to cause loss of focus.


A Good Moon Is Hard to Find

This is a guest post by Janet Cupo. If you find the meaning unclear, it will help to read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

My drive to work is almost always beautiful, but this morning it was particularly so because of my awareness of the moon hovering in front of me. At one point I was driving through fields with heavy mist obscuring everything close to the ground. You could just see the top of the dark, green treeline with a band of lavender above them and then the moon, surrounded by blue sky. Then, the mist parted a bit and I saw that I had reached a bend in the road. Too late, I drove into a ditch, was thrown from the car and died. I was lying on the ground with my face smiling up at a cloudless sky and the man who had stopped to help said, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shove the moon in her face every minute of her life.”


The Prisoner

We have these green frogs all over the place where I live. This little fellow somehow found his way into the house a few days ago and was hopping weakly across the tile floor in the kitchen, which must have seemed like an endless expanse of stony desert to him (or her). I picked him (?) up to take him outside and he looked so amusing peering out of my grip that I took this picture.


I’m experimenting with Google’s Picasa picture editing program; it’s pretty cool—lets you post to your Blogger blog straight from the program. But without the preview feature, so I don’t actually know what this is going to look like.
Posted by Picasa

Full Moon

I hope you got to see it tonight. Or last night, if it's already morning where you are, or you're reading this some hours from now (I'm writing around 11pm, US Central Time). It's an absolutely beautiful night here, and I've been sitting by the moonlit water drinking bourbon. The temperature is pretty much perfect, at least if you're wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sandals. There's a very slight breeze. Two herons croaked and flew up from somewhere to my left and passed right over me as big black silent silhouettes. I thought about the Nazgul but the atmosphere was far too benign for the thought to have any power.

The life of the senses only gets slightly better than this. Skoal and goodnight, y'all.


Sunday Night Journal — October 12, 2008

Those Mysterious Atheists

(Reading the first draft of this, I noticed that I had been obliged to qualify the words “atheist” and “atheism” several times, so I decided it would make things simpler if I explained myself in the beginning: when I use the word “atheist” below, I don’t mean the casually atheistic and areligious person who doesn’t give the matter much thought. I mean the doctrinaire atheists like Richard Dawkins who believe that nothing exists except physical phenomena and for whom evolution is not just a scientific theory but an all-encompassing explanation of everything, a religion for materialists.)

When I find myself feeling (and it is feeling, more than thinking) that atheism is actually more plausible than belief in God, it always helps to listen to the atheists and realize, once again, that although science has done a marvelous job of explaining physical phenomena it is utterly unable to explain the human person. I was brought up against this recently by an argument on National Review’s web site in which John Derbyshire, one of the resident atheists, gave this typically snide response to the charge that evolution cannot account for unselfish behavior:

The evolution of moral behavior has been an active field for over 40 years, since William Hamilton's 1964 papers. It has all been extensively explained to interested nonscientists—most issues of the New York Times Science section has something related. Or you could read up on the Prisoner's Dilemma in Chapter 12 of Richard Dawkins' excellent book The Selfish Gene. (The chapter title is "Nice Guys Finish First.")

Altruism and co-operation in social animals, including this one, are perfectly explicable by the laws of biology—what you call the "reductionist understanding of Darwinian natural selection." (I guess the Moon is maintained in her orbit by "the reductionist understanding of Newtonian gravitation.")

This isn't even God of the Gaps; the gap in question here is pretty well filled. Supernatural agents are no more required for explaining moral behavior than they are for explaining earthquakes (for which the wrath-of-Poseidon model is a dead letter, I'm afraid).

(This was a post on NR’s blog some weeks ago; I neglected to bookmark it and don’t want to take the time to find it now, but I assure you the three paragraphs above were copied and pasted directly from the NR page).

In the specific context here, Derbyshire is correct—evolutionists can provide plausible after-the-fact explanations for unselfish behavior. But “altruism and co-operation” are hardly synonyms for “morality.” They may or may not be elements of a particular set of moral principles, but they are not morality itself. To say that altruism and co-operation exist is one thing; to say that they are good is quite another. There is at least one philosophical system—objectivism—which has millions of adherents and which denies vehemently that altruism is good.  To say that altruism can be accounted for by evolution says nothing at all about whether it (or any other human quality) is good. To say that it assists in survival is only equivalent to saying it is good if you believe that survival is good.

Anyone who wants to take a serious look at atheism and morality must ask this question: on what grounds can one say that even physical survival, much less co-operation, altruism, or any other mode of behavior, is good in any definite and permanent way?

The debate usually doesn’t get very far from here, because most atheists prove, upon examination, to have very fixed and definite ideas on some fundamentals of morality. They tend to believe, for instance, that it’s a self-evidently good thing for the human race to survive and prosper. But one can make a reasonable argument that this is not a good thing at all, that the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short and that most people are better off dead, or that we pose an unacceptable danger to the rest of nature and should be eliminated, and that the well-lived life is the one spent killing as many people as possible.

Or, at the individual level, one could quite reasonably conclude “To hell with co-operation; I want not just any human genes but my genes to survive, and to that end I devote my life to impregnating as many females, and killing as many males, as possible.”

At this point the atheist, unless he happens to be one of the very small number of people who actually believe things like this, usually begins to bluster and shout and appeal to what is obviously right, to some universal sense of what is decent, or to a presumably shared purpose such as “building a better world for everyone” (I saw that not long ago at the end of a furious denunciation of Christianity).  But what are any of these except the sort of abstract moral principles that are by definition not accounted for by evolution—which is, we’re forever being told, a process that operates on the purest sort of pragmatism by preserving only whatever is conducive to physical survival? This is not my parody of evolutionary thinking but one of its proudest boasts, the assertion which is held to prove that moral principles have no metaphysical standing.

Evolution simply has no logical means for speaking of right and wrong, only of what works, and that only with reference to the production and survival of offspring. It can’t, as the saying goes, move from is to ought.

That we should concern ourselves with building a better world is either an abstract principle independent of our wishes or it is a mere subjective preference. And if it’s a subjective preference there is no reason why it should be binding on anyone other than the person doing the preferring. Atheists tend to say that moral questions are indeed a matter of personal preference until you come up with an example that they don’t prefer.

A very few atheists will go so far as to admit this: “All right, the rule against, for example, murder is just a subjective preference, but most people share it, and we will enforce our will upon you if you break the rule.” Well, that’s consistent, at least. But it is not morality. The appeal to morality as such is an appeal to the sense that some things are either right or wrong with reference to some general rule or standard. Not that they are either useful or un-useful, pleasant or unpleasant, but right or wrong.

The fact is that most people including atheists experience the sense that some things are simply right because they’re right and other things are wrong because they’re wrong. Of course there are many differences about the specifics, but almost everyone knows the sensation I’m describing, and the rare exception would be considered sick or evil in any society.

Evolution can offer an explanation of these feelings by asserting that they were conducive to survival, and insist that “right” and “wrong” are simply names for feelings of attraction or aversion to behavior that either does or doesn’t facilitate survival. It can’t say that anything is in fact right or wrong, and it must deny that the sense of right and wrong is what we all experience it to be: a reference to some standard outside our selves and our species. In short, the atheist must deny his own direct experience in order to maintain his intellectual consistency.

Another, similar wreck happens when the atheist confronts the universal direct experience of being a self, a conscious soul which is somehow in a body and is continually perceiving, desiring, deciding, and acting, and conscious of itself as doing so. But for atheism there can be no “ghost in the machine,” no entity which is distinct from the body and which is truly acting freely. Apparently a lot of effort these days is being put into research hoping to prove that consciousness is purely physical in origin and that the notion of the choosing and acting self is some sort of illusion. But this leads to the bizarre and self-contradictory notion of an illusion experiencing itself.

I wonder how evolution might explain the development of an entity that denies its own existence.


Music of the Week: Scarlatti - Sonata in E K.380 (piano vs. harpsichord)

The first Scarlatti I ever heard was a collection played on the harpsichord by Wanda Landowska. And for a long time I didn’t want to hear his music played any other way. The truth is that I have never really loved the sound of the piano, in spite of all the great music that’s been written for it. And I’ve always liked the sound of the harpsichord. Now that I think about it, that Landowska recording may have been the first time I heard the instrument; certainly one of the first times, anyway, as it was back when I was in college.

But I’m beginning to change my mind. I don’t own the Landwoska recording (I think it was out of print for a long time) but I have a couple of other Scarlatti-on-harpsichord recordings and never really warmed up to them. The sound often seemed just as jangly and clanky and buzzy as people who don’t like the harpsichord have always accused it of being. I’ve begun to wonder if maybe it was something in the atmosphere of the Landowska recording that I liked; it was recorded in the ‘50s at the latest, maybe earlier, and perhaps the poorer reproduction actually improved the sound of the instrument.

Anyway, I’ve recently been comparing piano and harpsichord versions and finding that I prefer the piano: more expressive, more varied, more clear, and generally more listenable for a longer period of time (although three or four Scarlatti sonatas in a row is usually enough). I’ve heard four versions of K.380, one of my favorites (if you’ve ever heard much Scarlatti you’d probably recognize it): two piano, two harpsichord. Only one of these is by a performer, Horowitz, generally considered great, so maybe the comparison is unfair, but I do like his best of the four. I resisted it a bit, as Horowitz seems to play Scarlatti as if he were Chopin, which doesn’t seem exactly right, but, still, it’s very beautiful.

The Horowitz performance is from a Carnegie Hall appearance in 1968, found on YouTube, though with fairly bad sound. (I have the same sonata on an LP, Horowitz in Moscow, but I like this performance better.)

And here’s a harpsichord version; compare for yourself—the instruments, anyway; it’s probably not fair to compare the performers..

By the way, both these seem to omit some repeats, or something: at any rate they’re barely half as long as the other performances I have (Michele Campanella on piano, Richard Lester on harpsichord ). I’m inclined to think the omissions are a good idea, much as I like this sonata. And I do still like the sound of the harpsichord, but less as a solo instrument than as a color mixed with strings or other instruments.


More Escapism (Or Maybe Not)

Pink Floyd: “Grantchester Meadows.” The funny thing about nostalgia is that you can have it for places and times that you didn’t actually experience. That was the way I felt when I first heard this ca. 1969. Then, hearing it again years later, I had that same feeling, plus the memory of the pleasure of hearing it for the first time. It’s atypical Floyd, and the one track of theirs that I would hate to be without. I bought Ummagumma, a two-disk album, a few years ago, mainly to get this song.

Studio recording with fan video of the real Grantchester Meadows (6:53):

I think it was C.S. Lewis, or maybe Tolkien, who remarked of what is usually called escapism that the people who are typically most concerned about escape are jailers.


Weekend Music Video

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a pretty depressing week. In an attempt to escape I’m indulging myself in a bit of sentimental nostalgia, which I here share with you. It’s a little over two minutes long. Don’t adjust the volume until you’ve gotten past the screaming girls at the beginning.

The album on which this song appeared, Catch the Wind, was probably among the first dozen or so records I ever bought.


Martin Moleski, S.J., on Newman and Polanyi

I think I mentioned a few days ago that I had come across a very interesting essay bringing together the central insights of these two men, Polanyi’s “tacit knowledge” and Newman’s “illative sense.” At the time I hadn’t finished the essay, but now that I have I recommend it very strongly. I haven't read any of Polanyi at all, and although I read Newman’s Grammar of Assent some years ago it was a very fragmented, late-night reading and I really didn’t get it. The basic idea in both cases seems to be summed up in the phrase “we know more than we can say”—that we can have genuine knowledge that is not reducible to propositions and not expressible in words at all (or not fully expressible). Here’s a key paragraph:

The faith that can be put into words is not the real faith. At the core of the act of faith is a personal encounter between God and the believer. Newman held that there were two luminous beings in our experience, the self and God. But the very fullness of direct apprehension of the self and God mocks all of our efforts to capture self or God in words. Even in the act of speaking as best we can, we know that the self that can be put into words is not the real self and the God that can be put into words is not the real God. No set of propositions can fully disclose who I am. Even as I try to tell a few truths about myself, my mind surveys other aspects of my interior life that run deep into the tacit dimension. When the words run out, I remain—a mystery even to myself, luminous, real, incommunicable, a small image of the inexhaustible mystery of God. In both cases, the material that resists abstraction and that cannot be communicated in words is not a negligible residue, devoid of intellectual meaning, but is instead the heart of the whole matter and the point of every proposition.

(My emphasis). I can’t agree strongly enough with this; it’s behind a lot of what I write, including the name of this blog. The echoes of the Tao te Ching (“The way that can be known is not the eternal way...”) are deliberate.. But don’t think there is some kind of mushy syncretism going on here. On the contrary, this is a model of the way insights from other religions can illuminate and augment Catholic thought without being used as a tool for undermining it.

Here’s the essay. The author teaches at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. I had not encountered his name before but I may read his book, Personal Catholicism, although maybe I should read Newman (again) and Polanyi first. By the way, the formatting of the essay leaves something to be desired; it isn’t typographically obvious where the quotations are.


Agreeing to Pray

Interesting bit from Wednesday’s meditation in Magnificat (Thursday is my Adoration night, and that’s when I catch up):

It really isn’t up to us whether or not we’re going to pray, as though prayer were something we start. It’s up to us whether or not we’re going to agree to pray. Because prayer is going on inside of us all the time.

—Fr. Francis Martin

In the context, he’s speaking to and of believers, but I wonder if it isn’t true of everybody.


Speaking of Rand

The mention in comments earlier today of the recent Ayn Rand discussions (here and here) reminded me of something I ran across during those discussions and meant to link to, but never did. It’s an account by Michael Prescott, a former Objectivist, of why he was attracted to the philosophy in the first place, and of why he left it. On the basis of having read Atlas Shrugged and nothing else by Rand, I can say at least that he more than confirms the impression I was left with by the book. I’m tempted to quote at length but instead will just invite you to read the whole thing.


Sunday Night Journal — October 5, 2008

The First Beautiful Thing I Ever Saw

I was at the home of my maternal grandparents. I was probably about four years old, maybe a bit older. Some of the men had been out duck hunting. Later when I was old enough to hunt, I found it mainly boring, and I didn’t like killing things. But I remember being intrigued from the beginning by the paraphernalia: heavy canvas jackets and hats lined with red and black checkered flannel, the guns of dark metal and polished wood, shotgun shells with bases of gleaming brass and red or green cardboard sleeves. Later on the winter sky and the dead fields were added to these impressions.

They had brought back at least one duck, a mallard. The male mallard is the one with the bright green head; here’s a good picture. They must have let me hold it; at any rate I remember not only how it looked but how it felt to the touch. The feathers were miraculously soft and smooth and lustrous, but the body was unnaturally limp.

I had some idea what death was; at least I knew that it was possible for people to go away and never come back, though I’m not sure whether I had ever actually seen a dead thing. Anyway, I knew the duck was dead, and there was a sadness in that. But it was beautiful. I didn’t have that word and couldn’t have expressed my feelings. All I knew was that looking at the bird was intensely pleasurable and that I wanted to keep on looking at it. This is my earliest memory of that sensation.

The duck’s head was a dark green that remains one of the colors I like most—dark, and yet shining, green with streaks of something like gold where the light struck feathers at a certain angle. And on that green there was one perfect drop of brilliant red blood. That drop of blood still bothers me, because it was part of the beauty. 


Gone for the Weekend

Just letting everybody know that I’ll be out of town for the weekend. I may have a chance to check in once or twice but will mostly be offline. Enjoy your weekend. Clare’s links to her pet photos in the comments (whatever thread that was) reminded me that I’ve been meaning to post this one. I have a larger version somewhere but no time to find it now.


The Four Temperaments Test

Ok, I finally did this. If I tell you either the results or the length of time it took me to complete the test, you can probably guess the other: (1) melancholic (59%) / phlegmatic (41%) and (2) 45 minutes or so, i.e., too long. I kept getting hung up on questions that didn’t really have a definite answer. For instance, in a question about the condition of my house I wanted to know where “cluttered” ends and “a mess” begins. (For this one I considered not my house, which, obviously, is shared with my wife, but my office at work and my study/office/whatever at home, the places that are totally under my control.)

And then there were a number of questions to which I wanted to answer either “all of the above” or “none of the above”, like this one:

When I realize that I have made a mistake, I tend to want to:

  • deny it
  • apologize and try very hard to make sure everyone still likes me
  • blame others
  • wish that I could deny it, but I take full blame
  • fix it

(Correct answer: all of the above, although the first, third, and fifth may be a bit stronger. And yes, I realize some of them are mutually exclusive.)

Reading the description for this type, I find it reasonably accurate, as far as these things go, except for this: “...capable of long-range planning, organization, and attention to detail that makes them excellent and conscientious scholars.” That’s just totally, laughably inaccurate. Unfortunately.