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November 2008

Music of the Week: Various Artists - Mariachi Music of Mexico

Based on snippets heard here and there, I’ve wanted for some time to hear some genuine mariachi music. There’s a ton of it on eMusic—a search for “mariachi” turns up 153 artists and 117 albums, and that would catch only titles that actually included the word—but I had no way of knowing what was good. Where folk music is concerned, my taste tends toward the rougher and less polished—in general, the more it’s slicked up, the more it loses its flavor. This album caught my eye first because of its cover. It looked just old enough and low-budget enough to be authentic. When I noticed that it was distributed by Smithsonian Folkways, I really got interested. Then the samples convinced me to download the whole thing. Good move, as it turned out.

In the tradition of the Folkways label, these are field recordings of a sort, from the early ‘50s. I don’t know anything about mariachi in general, so I’ll just say this is great stuff. It’s not polished at all—the violins are often a bit off-key, and the sound quality is mediocre—but it’s not crude, either; I’m still trying to get my head around some of the rhythms. It has in common with reggae an infectious high-spirited quality, sort of an automatic mood-brightener. One Friday night a few weeks ago I was feeling rather low and found that a few tracks from this album combined with a few sips of bourbon was a wonderful cure.

Listen to the sample of the first track here.  If you don’t like it, this music is not for you. If you do, you’ll enjoy the whole album. You can hear a different set of samples and read the fascinating liner notes here, as well as order a cd if you don’t do mp3s.

I’ll mention in passing that the world owes a huge debt to Folkways Records. Read more about its history and work here.



Alabama 36, Auburn 0.

I’m sorry, Auburn fans, I don’t like to gloat but this is sweet. I used to be willing to admit that Alabama fans are more obnoxious than Auburn fans, but that was before y’all started winning so much.


Possible weirdness

If I can find time for it over the Thanksgiving holiday, I plan to experiment some with this blog and with my home page(s)—I’m looking for a solution to the problem of publishing longer non-blog pieces in a way that doesn’t require a lot of hand-coding of HTML. Part of that will involve publishing it to instead of to, so that I can experiment with some Blogger features that only work if they're hosting the blog. So if you happen to hit the blog while I’m doing that, you might get some weird behavior. I think you'll get redirected but I’m not sure. Just letting you know.



I think we need a God, if only to have someone to thank.

—Jessica Denenholz Levin

Jessica Denenholz Levin was Dawn Eden’s grandmother; here is the post in which I read the statement above, which I immediately posted on my web site (before I added this blog). That elemental sense of gratitude is something that I’ve managed, thank God, to hang on to through all but the very darkest times of my life.

Down at the bay one Saturday afternoon a month or so ago I took about thirty pictures in an attempt to capture the way the light was coming through the clouds. None of them really did, but I’ve tinkered with this one until it’s somewhere close. (Click for a larger image.)

And God said, Let there be light. And God saw the light, that it was good.

—Genesis 1:3-4

Lord, it is good for us to be here.

—Matthew 17:4


Everyone Must Make Their Own Decision

Is the above sentence grammatically acceptable? I would say no. It really grates on my ear, and has the added negative of seeming to be one of those clumsy usages insisted upon by some feminists in order to avoid the use of a masculine term where both sexes are meant. I was taught (or at least grew up hearing) “Everyone must make his own decision,” and that’s what sounds right to me.

In the comments thread in which this is being discussed (see most recent Sunday Night Journal), I mentioned that I thought I had read somewhere that the “Everyone...their” actually has a history way earlier than the 1970s, and complained that I didn’t know how to find the answer quickly. Well, this morning it occurred to me that Fowler might have something to say, and indeed he does.

It would take too long to type in the whole entry, which is very entertaining, but suffice to say that he supplies an instance (via the OED) from Fielding—that is, from the 18th century: Everyone in the house was in their beds. And another from Thackeray, fifty years or so later: A person can’t help their birth. And he notes that “...the inconvenience of having no common-sex personal pronoun has proved stronger than respect for the grammarians.”

So those of us who don’t care for it must at least admit that it isn’t necessarily a product of political correctness, which perhaps will help it to go down more easily.

By the way, I’m using the 2nd (1965) edition of Fowler. I haven’t seen the 1996 update but naturally regard it with deep suspcion.


Defiance and Damnation

Sunday Night Journal — November 23, 2008

With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred, and have suppressed all the love within themselves... In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.

—Benedict XVI

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it.

—C. S. Lewis

I ran across the above passage from Benedict a few weeks ago at the same time I was re-reading, for the first time in twenty years or so, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, from which the second quotation is taken. I expect most readers of this blog have read The Great Divorce or at least know of it, but for those who don’t: it’s an imaginative attempt to understand how the idea of Hell can be reconciled with the idea of an all-loving and all-merciful God. The answer Lewis gives—and of course he’s hardly the only one to have said it—is that God doesn’t so much send people to Hell as allow them to choose it. Or, to put it the other way around, to refuse Heaven.

Lewis’s premise is that the damned are free to visit Heaven and to stay there. All they have to do is give up something in themselves that makes it impossible for them to receive God, some sin to which they are so attached, some illusion so powerful, that it cannot co-exist in their hearts with God. And one after another the characters in The Great Divorce refuse to surrender. There is the cynical man who thinks all the God and Heaven stuff is some kind of trickery which he doesn’t intend to fall for. There’s the unjust man who won’t let go of his insistence that he treated everybody fairly. And so on.

Ultimately all those who choose Hell seem to be driven by pride. To let go of their sins and illusions requires that they accept a certain amount of embarrassment, admit that they were wrong, and submit to looking very foolish in their own eyes—in short, to be humbled.

All of this is familiar to most Christians, I think. But have you ever known anyone who seemed capable of making the sort of refusal described by Lewis? Someone who seemed in real danger of actually making it, of making the choice that will send him to hell? I don’t remember asking myself that question when I first read The Great Divorce many years ago, but I’ve seen a lot more of mankind since then.

Benedict’s formulation (“...people who have lived for hatred...”) seems to suggest a monster who would be easily recognizable as such. We tend to think of Hell as being reserved, if it exists at all, for such monsters, for people who have done some enormous wickedness, like Hitler. But the people I’ve known whom I could imagine making that ultimate refusal, choosing the Hell of their self-made prison over the love and grace offered to them by God, were not wicked in any obvious or dramatic way. (I’m using the past tense because the people who come first to mind are dead, but I can think of one or two among the living who worry me.) They didn’t live for hate, and as far as I know they had not suppressed all love within them.

What they did seem to have done, as far as I could tell—and I stress seem because obviously I didn’t know the real state of their souls—was to have erected a wall of pride between themselves and God, or anything having to do with God. It appeared to me not just that they didn’t believe, but that not believing was a matter of defiance with them. Any mention of God in their presence was met with reflexive anger or contempt. They were like the cynical man in The Great Divorce: nobody was going to trick them. They seemed to feel that anyone who mentioned God to them was only attempting to dominate them or in some way to take something from them, and they were determined not to let that happen.

I hope those were only reactions, probably at least somewhat justified, to bad behavior on the part of Christians, or to clumsy or misguided or even hostile approaches by them. And I know that all the people I’m thinking of here had been hurt by life in some pretty significant way, and I’m sure that those injuries had a role in their defiance. But while everyone has suffered, or will suffer, not everyone reacts in this way; I also know people who have suffered far worse things without becoming embittered. This is the mystery of freedom.

It seems to me that it isn’t so much the entire suppression of love that is the decisive step toward damnation, but the refusal to surrender to love, the determination to hold on to some bitterness, some anger, some resentment, some pleasure, that cannot in the end coexist with love. The total suppression must eventually follow, but the real decision seems to lie in the refusal to submit: in pride, not hate. It’s a frightening thing to look at someone you know and care about and think that you might be watching him or her erect walls that will, if he persists, become an eternal prison. It makes the matter of praying for him seem pretty urgent. And it makes one fearful of doing or saying anything that might further provoke the defiance and the pride.


Music of the Week: Apocalyptica - Apocalyptica

Your first reaction to the phrase “Heavy metal cello” might be to laugh; it sounds as if it would just be a stunt. Apocalyptica is four Finnish cellists, and I wonder if maybe their rock experimentation started out as something of a stunt, as their first album was a set of Metallica covers. But what they’ve done is much more than that; it’s a potent and versatile sound, unlike anything else I know. A friend of mine put me on to the group a month or two ago and I got this self-titled album from eMusic. I can’t say it’s a great album overall, but I keep coming back to it because what I like in it I like very much.

Start with the basic sound. If the first thing you heard was one of their hard rock uptempo songs like the first track here, “Life Burns!,” and you weren’t listening closely, you might think you were just hearing heavy electric guitars playing power chords. But there’s something different about this sound, sort of a rich deep growl, that’s very powerful. And most of the tracks combine this with the warm singing natural tone of the cello, to sometimes very beautiful effect.

I like at least half the tracks here a great deal, especially the melancholy ballads like “Bittersweet” and “Farewell.” What’s missing is a fully-developed artistic identity. This is almost all instrumental music, and pop music is a partly verbal art: it needs words and voices. The vocals here are very ordinary, sort of a generic and lackluster hard rock style; I like “Bittersweet” in spite of the vocals, not because of them. With a really gifted songwriter and singer, this group could do something really important.

Here’s an instrumental version of “Bittersweet” that really showcases their sound. It’s 5:25 long and doesn’t get heavy until about 3:50. Although you don’t hear it on this track, they’re capable of some impressive virtuoso “shredding” as practiced by guitar players like Joe Satriani.

And here is the eMusic page where you can hear samples from the album.


Does this bother anybody besides me?

Referring to people as “humans,” as in the sentence “humans have always created art.”

I take it to be one of the many constructs which English speakers have come up with to avoid the gendered nature of our language; in the past one might have said (and many of us would still say) “man has always created art.” I sympathize with the impulse, but “humans” really bothers me, because it suggests a quasi-scientific distancing, as if one is referring to another species. It’s the way extraterrestrials talk in science fiction. “I must say, Captain, the ways of humans are often quite puzzling to me.” If one is determined to avoid gender, “people” seems a much better term.


November in the Tennessee Valley

Sunday Night Journal — November 16, 2008

So we made a quick overnight trip for my uncle Ed’s funeral, leaving here on Friday morning, driving 350 miles (560km) to Athens, Alabama, leaving there on Saturday afternoon and driving the 350 miles back, arriving around 11pm. I’ve gotten so accustomed to the warm and colorless autumn of the Gulf Coast that I sometimes forget how different it is in the Tennessee Valley, a long low stretch of land running alongside the Tennessee River in north Alabama. At a rest stop north of Birmingham I found myself almost hypnotized by the deep red leaves falling from some ornamental tree. It was a sunny morning when we left on Friday, and cold, dark, and raining when we arrived in Athens around 6pm. The weather for the funeral on Saturday afternoon was chilly, windy, and gray. Partway through the graveside service the sun came out, as if providentially; then as soon as the service was over the clouds closed in again and it began to rain, hard. I was grateful for that bit of sun, as I suppose was everyone.

I would be dishonest if I said that I felt a deep personal grief at Ed’s passing. For thirty years or more I had seen him only briefly at holidays. And he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years ago, and I don’t think we’re obliged to wish many years of Alzheimer’s on anyone. More than an immediate personal loss, I felt the melancholy of seeing another of my parents’ generation leave the world’s stage. At the funeral I saw many of them for the first time in six or seven years, and was struck by how much more frail some of them seemed. For the first twenty years or so of my life they were the adult world, and that’s the way they’ve remained in my mind, even as they disappear one by one, leaving my generation as the eldest. It’s disconcerting.

I have the sense of a world slipping away. Whenever I visit my old home ground I’m vividly aware of how it has shaped me. I suppose people who stay where they were raised and spend their whole lives among the same people are more strongly and continually shaped, but those of us who move away may be more conscious of the influence, and every visit becomes an occasion for examining that influence, for seeing it in a slightly different—and, one hopes, slightly clearer—light. But one never gets quite the clarity one wants, because home has, of course, been changing all along. There’s an unnoticed expectation that the return will be a return in time as well as in space, and an almost unnoticed mild jolt and adjustment when it is not. Little by little, the world into which I was born disappears, and one day I’ll follow it and exist, as far as earthly life can tell, only in the past.

I like seeing people who were a part of my childhood and youth—cousins and friends at this funeral, for instance. Even though we aren’t close—we’re like the branches of a plant that get further apart as they grow—there’s a sense of deep acquaintance among us that comes (on my part, anyway) from that sense of shared roots. We know the world that used to be, and when we mention certain times or people or places we know that the other recognizes them, that they aren’t just meaningless items in a list. Even though we are very different people who don’t necessarily have a lot in common, we do share that history and are parts of that world, the world that impressed itself upon us when we were at our most impressionable.

The natural world plays its part, too, in some ways a stronger part, because it has changed less. The little country crossroads where I grew up is not a beautiful place, or at least not the kind of place that I would seek out for its beauty. It’s flat and open, with not nearly enough trees to suit me; it’s parched and dusty in summer, damp and drab in winter. Yet it has a lonely beauty I often remember, and am always glad to see when I return.

When we were there on Saturday the weather was cloudy and cold. I remember many, many such days, in late autumn or winter: the vast fields, either bare earth or something brown and dead, with pale leafless woods and dark hills on the horizons, the sky a dull grey, crows calling, ducks and geese passing high toward one of the wildlife refuges run by the TVA, the light failing early.

Sometimes I went hunting on such days, or what I called hunting. I never had any desire at all to kill anything (and that’s not self-praise; it’s arguably a sign of decadence). But I sometimes took a gun and went walking in the fields and woods and called it hunting. In that time and place, and perhaps still, once a boy had learned basic gun safety at the age of twelve or so he was free to take a gun and hunt whenever or wherever it was permissible. There were a bolt-action .22 rifle and a single-shot 20-gauge shotgun that I used—I liked them because they were simple and easy to shoot—and I would take one with me, shooting now and then at a crow or a squirrel or, maybe, a rabbit, almost never hitting anything. It was just an excuse to wander alone outdoors.

At the heart of that drab brown and grey season was the color and light of Christmas, and so Christmas has always been to me, a burst of brilliant life in a dead or dying world, which of course it is, whether or not one’s environment emphasizes the contrast. I’m glad mine did.


Music of the Week: Music from the Hearts of Space - Shadowplay

Ok, I’m going to confess a guilty pleasure, because I really ought to give these folks a bit of publicity, at least, for all the enjoyment they’ve given me over the years. The guilty pleasure is what’s variously called ambient or space music, or, more bluntly, background music—except that it isn’t only background music, because if it’s good it can keep your attention if you wish to give it.

In Brian Eno’s famous definition, “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” That (like many things that look simple) is harder to accomplish than one might think. (Here is the Wikipedia article if this is new to you and you want to know more.)

Music from the Hearts of Space (I always cringe a bit when I say that) is an hour-long weekly radio program that specializes in this kind of music. I’ve been listening to (and recording) their broadcasts for years. This week’s is especially good. It’s called Shadowplay and is a collection of mostly cello-and-piano-based chamber compositions; here’s the playlist. There is really some good music here, instrumental works that don’t fit any standard category.

So if it’s good music, why do I call this a guilty pleasure? Well, there is a certain California/New Age smarm and hokum about the program (hearts of space?!?). And the concept of ambient music is kind of hard to defend. And a lot of the music presented is, well, not going to be of permanent interest. But the show’s repertoire ranges from electronic science-fictiony “soundscapes” to folk music to very substantial contemporary classical works: for instance, one broadcast was dedicated almost exclusively to an hour of music from Arvo Part’s monumental Kanon Pokajonen. A final word on the repertoire, which will be enough said for those who know: ECM appears frequently.

You can sign up to listen to the weekly program online on Sundays at no cost, or for three dollars a month you can hear the weekly broadcast whenever and as often as you like during that week. (And, um...if you’re just a bit knowledgeable you can figure out a way to record them.) There are other plans that give you access to their entire library.

So: I’m posting this at 2pm USA Central time on Sunday; depending on where you are, there’s still time for you to go to the site, register, and hear Shadowplay, assuming you have a high-speed Internet connection.


The Loyal Opposition

There’s a guy up the road in Spanish Fort, a veteran who’s very active in veterans’ affairs, who had a series of “Veterans for McCain” signs on this building (which I think he owns) during the campaign. This appeared the day after the election and I stopped and took a picture of it. Not a good picture but you get the idea—the sign says


(click on the image for a larger version, and on that one for even larger)

That’s the spirit. Many of us must now be the loyal opposition. No matter what our misgivings about the future of the country may be at present, I trust we will pray for him.


Mister Ed, RIP

I’m not talking about the famous talking horse, but about my uncle, James Edwin Horton, known to his family and many of his friends by the name his farmhands used, Mister Ed. He died this past Saturday, and today is Veteran’s Day, an appropriate time for me to mention him.

He was my father’s brother, and two years older. Both served in the Army in World War II. My father was young  enough that he got into combat only at the very end of the war, although that was long enough for him to get seriously wounded. Ed was in it longer, and although I never asked him to talk about it I’m told that he was in some pretty heavy house-to-house fighting in Germany. After the war the brothers came home, went to college, married, and settled down. My father became an engineer. Ed joined their father in running the family farm, and as far back as I can remember clearly his was the main responsibility, as my grandfather was already in or near his seventies.

We lived on the farm, although my father commuted to work in town every day. When I was in high school I worked for several summers as a farmhand for Ed. I hated the school year and have never wished, as many people seem to do, to be back in high school, but those summers were some of the happiest days of my life. I didn’t mind the work, and took some pride in it. I seemed to have the respect of the other hands, and of Mister Ed.

He was a quiet, dignified, and intelligent man, with a deadpan sense of humor that could sometimes be morbid. When we—my siblings and cousins—were children, he used to tell us the tragic story of his twin sister Edwina, who one day was accidentally put into the oven with the cornbread (or was it a cake?). We were sure he was teasing, but I think our laughter was a bit nervous.

The farm economy rested, especially for a fairly sizable place like ours, on the poverty of the people who did most of the physical labor. But although the system was objectively unjust, Mister Ed was consistently fair and honest with everyone, and had the respect and affection of those who worked for him.

In the early ‘60s he was elected to the state Senate. This was of course the time of the civil rights movement, and George Wallace was the governor. Although Ed was no anti-segregation crusader, he didn’t like Wallace’s bigotry and demagoguery, and he didn’t like Wallace, period. He was part of a group of legislators who blocked Wallace’s bid to change the state constitution so that he could seek a second term as governor. Wallace was wildly popular, so this damaged, if it did not eliminate, Ed’s chances of winning a second term in the Senate. For that reason, and because his wife (“Miss Ann”) didn’t like running the farm during his lengthy absences, he didn’t run again.

I’ve often wished he had stayed in politics; he was personable as a campaigner and would have had some success, and he would have been a force for good. Years later, when interviewed about the Wallace years, he didn’t say much, only that he “didn’t think Wallace had the kind of ethics we want to see in a governor.” (I’m quoting from memory.) I thought that was classy. Mister Ed had a lot of class. RIP.


Alabama 27, LSU 21

Before this game recedes too far into history, I want to make it a matter of public record that a little of the credit for Alabama’s victory goes to me. I contributed by not watching the overtime period. When Leigh Tiffin’s last-second field goal attempt was blocked, I left the room and waited for my wife to tell me the outcome of the game.

I do not watch overtime when I have an interest in the game, because when I do, my team loses. The details of the cause-and-effect relationship here are obscure, but over the past five years or so I have a perfect record, so there must be something to it.


Another Movie Roundup

Sunday Night Journal — November 9, 2008

In the past I’ve done a few posts in which I gave capsule reviews of the movies I’d seen since the last such post. I think the last one was almost a year ago, but I know I’ve posted about a number of specific movies since then—for instance, in the context of the long-running discussion of Brideshead Revisited (yes, the 1981 BBC version is a masterpiece.) The combination of Netflix and an empty nest has caused my wife and me to see more movies in the past couple of years than we had seen in the previous fifteen or more, and a lot of that viewing has been devoted to classics that I had either never seen at all or had seen once thirty-five or forty years ago. So I’m not going to try to mention everything I’ve seen—a lot of it is old X-Files episodes—but here are the most interesting ones.

Breathless. This is Godard’s most famous (I think) movie. I loved Bande à Part, probably without much real justification, and was really looking forward to this. What a letdown. I didn’t much care for it. It seemed a sort of exercise in pre-hippie bohemian posturing, and consequently rather sad.

and La Dolce Vita. It’s official: I don’t much care for Fellini. I’ve seen Juliet of the Spirits, Intervista, and now the two that are widely considered masterpieces, and found them all more irritating than anything else, despite some excellent moments. I can’t entirely explain this. The apparently aimless talking—high-speed chattering, actually— and wandering around is not fundamentally different from some of Antonioni’s work, which I like very much. But Fellini’s people just annoy me, and I don’t find much imagery that touches me (often Antonioni’s saving grace), or the sense of mystery that some modernist films have. I came closer to liking La Dolce Vita than any of the others; I may see it again sometime.

Double Happiness and Catfish in Black Bean Sauce. These are connected only in that they are small independent films dealing with family problems produced by cultural collisions in the United States. Each is the sort of thing I would never have picked, but which sounds interesting to my wife. They’re both quite enjoyable in a low-key way. Double Happiness deals with the conflict between a young Chinese-American woman who wants to be an actress and her staid family. Catfish is about a Vietnamese brother and sister who were adopted as orphans by an African-American soldier at the end of the Vietnam war and are now as young adults having trouble figuring out exactly where they belong, especially after their mother appears. I think I liked the second of these a little better.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. These are the 1980s BBC productions of John Le Carré’s novels, starring Alec Guiness as George Smiley. I missed them when they were televised, and find now that they’re as good as people said at the time. If you have any taste at all for Le Carré’s work and espionage stories in general, you shouldn’t miss them. Everyone of course has his own mental image of fictional characters, but I find it hard to imagine a better Smiley than Guinness.

Cover Her Face. More BBC from the 1980s, one of several dramatizations of P. D. James mysteries starring Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh. It’s great if you like this sort of thing, which I very much do. I found myself thinking that it and others like it were the last representatives of something in England, though I’m not entirely sure what the something is. It might be worth more thought; all I can say right now is that I’ve seen similar BBC mysteries produced recently—for instance the Inspector Lynley series—and there is a moral courage in the earlier works, and in the society which they depict, which is not there in the more recent ones.

Diary of a Country Priest. This is a faithful 1950 version of one of my favorite novels, and thus I feel bad about saying that it didn’t really affect me, and that I have no real explanation for that fact. Perhaps it’s that so much of the novel is interior. It’s worth seeing; maybe my reaction is idiosyncratic.

Bleak House. And yet more BBC, but recent, 2005. The BBC still does this sort of thing beautifully. I read the novel decades ago and really didn’t remember it very well, so I can’t evaluate the film’s representation of the book. But taken on its own terms it’s great: stupendously good acting and general production which certainly convince you (or me, anyway) that this is really what Victorian England was like. And of course since it’s Dickens it’s a great story.

I did have one major complaint: the claustrophobic cinematography. For far too much of the time you see only one person, in a fairly tight close-up, often around or through some object like the back of a chair or a partially closed door. When two or more people are talking you usually see only one of them at any moment. It feels like you’re watching through a keyhole. It really bothered me for the first hour or so, to the point where I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep going. Eventually I was able to ignore it, but it’s a significant defect.

The Silence, the third in Bergman’s so-called “faith trilogy,” which also includes Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly. I’ve already written about Winter Light—see the last item in this journal, and one sentence on Through a Glass Darkly here, which I stand by, though it was written in the immediate aftermath of the experience. I only recently saw The Silence. I didn’t like it as well as the other two, but have found it lingering in my mind and am wondering if I’ll change my opinion later. The Silence is about two sisters who are headed for opposing disasters: one is sick, cold, cerebral, and isolated; the other is healthy, warm, sensual, and promiscuous. Both are completely miserable. Part of my problem with the film was that the eroticism involving the second sister was so powerful that it almost crowded out everything else. It’s pretty tame by today’s standards—R-Rated, we’d say in the U.S.—and undoubtedly my reaction is partly due to the fact that I find Bergman’s women more compelling than most Hollywood sex symbols. But it’s a good thing Bergman didn’t do pornography. Still, it’s intellectually coherent and often very beautiful. I don’t quite see why it belongs with the other two, although one could say that it describes pretty well a world in which faith is no longer the object of a struggle but has been long since completely extinguished, a world without even the memory of God. And a terrible world it is.

I may write at some length about these, though it might be difficult and tedious to organize my thoughts. For the moment I’ll say that although these films are generally taken to be (and I think were said by Bergman to be) a statement of his final break with Christianity, they are a very, very ambiguous statement. Perhaps he himself did not realize how ambiguous they are. Perhaps he did not realize how much of what he was discarding was only a false conception of God, the product of an overly rigorous upbringing as the son of a Lutheran clergyman. I think he saw something of what God really is, but it didn’t occur to him that such a thing could be real, and so thought he was an atheist when he rejected the false God. Through a Glass Darkly illustrates this perfectly—I mean, consider the title (1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face…”).

The Virgin Spring. Bergman again, and one of his best, a re-telling of a medieval legend. I should warn anyone who hasn’t seen it that the central incident is a violent crime, and although, as with the eroticism of The Silence, its depiction is very tame by contemporary standards, Bergman’s artistic skill makes it very powerful.

It was just a couple of days ago that my wife and I watched this one, and I really have as yet few words for it. I think every adult Catholic should see it—well, every adult Catholic capable of appreciating non-Hollywood movies. After it was over, I had this exchange with my wife, following a long silence in which I think each of us was trying to master his emotions:

He: It’s hard to believe that was the work of an atheist.

She: I don’t understand why he did it.

He: When you get to heaven you can ask him.



This is really sweet: From 52 to 48. (Obama got 52% of the popular vote—actually I think it’s up to 53% now.) We love y’all, too.

A 48-hour thought on the election: last night my wife and I were both late heading for home and decided (via mobile phone—how times have changed) to meet and have dinner at a little bar/restaurant that we like. There were three TVs going with the sound off, and the one we could see kept showing scenes of black people celebrating all over the country. And although I knew this meant a lot to them, watching all those joyous faces made me think that it probably means even more than I had realized.

The racial problems in this country have worried me a great deal for some time, and I’ve grown pretty pessimistic about them. The possibility that Obama’s presidency might help African-Americans to believe that this is their country, too, gives me hope.


Conservatives and Humor

I started to add this to the comments on the previous post, in which Dave refers to “glum” conservatives, then amends that to “pessimistic,” but I thought it deserved the visibility of its own post. It’s true that we conservatives have a somewhat pessimistic view of things in general and of human beings in particular; it’s not true that we’re glum or humorless. On the contrary, a certain amount of pessimism can free one to laugh.

This item, from the New York Times, of all places, points to some studies which indicate that conservatives might actually in general have a better sense of humor than liberals—an amusing thought.

And I’m often reminded, on this subject, of the closing lines of Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli”:

There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.


A Note on the Election

Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. Either way the outlook is not so good.

—Walker Percy, from Love in the Ruins

I’m exaggerating; I don’t really expect a catastrophe in the sense of a sudden and enormous destructive event. But I think we’re heading in a bad direction. Or perhaps I should say we’ve increased our speed in that direction; it’s not as if we were heading in a good direction before.

There is a brief lift of spirits in the fact that a half-African man can win the presidency, a testimony to how far we have moved from slavery and segregation. That will be pleasant for a moment. Beyond that, I can only hope Obama disappoints many of his most fervent supporters.

Don’t ask me to elaborate on that “wrong direction” remark; I’m only going to do so if I can state my case very clearly, and I’m not sure I want to put that much work into it.

Addendum: Jim Manzi speaks for me here.

Addendum 2: Great advice from Eve Tushnet: “Offer this $#@! up, y’all.” (Thanks to Francesca for pointing this out.)


Sunday Night Journal — November 2, 2008


This is a follow-up to last week’s discussion of C. S. Lewis’s concept of “joy:”  “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Someone mentioned that there is a German word, sehnsucht, for this longing, and I have been looking around a bit on the web for more information about that. There is a very good discussion of it in the Wikipedia article. A few things worth noting:

“…any attempt by the artist to evoke Sehnsucht in the viewer is likely to fail.” I’m sure this is true. No one can predict what will produce the feeling in anyone else. I’ve tried to remember my first experience of it, and I think it was a moment when I was quite young. I can’t be sure how old I was but I think it must have been no more than six, possibly a couple of years younger. I was holding an Easter basket and looking into it. It was filled with that green cellulose stuff that’s supposed to look like grass (and it did to me). Candy eggs and other Easter things lay in this grass, some buried beneath it. I suddenly saw the basket as a sort of little world and felt a strange pleasure which vanished almost as soon as it was felt. I think there was a sort of oscillation where I had the thought, had the pleasure, lost it, had the thought again, and had the pleasure again. I wanted to be in that little world, but I think it was less the desire to be in it than the thought of it as a little world that gave me the feeling. I remember having similar feelings about a Grandma Moses print that hung in our kitchen. The phrase “green pastures” once gave it to me: obviously my paradise tends to be pastoral.

“…it is a starting point for the Argument from Desire.” The argument from desire is, in a nutshell, the idea that this desire must have an object—or, as Emmylou Harris put it, “If there’s no heaven, what’s this hunger for?” I give this argument much more credit now than I would have when I was younger. As the article says, it’s not by any means a proof in any strict sense. But the counter-argument—that people imagine all sorts of things they can’t have or that don’t exist—seems to miss the essence of sehnsucht: it is not a desire for some particular object available in this world, or at least conceptually available, like, say, a spaceship capable of travel to the stars. The whole nature of it is that you know in the instant that you feel it that nothing in this world can satisfy it. Which of course doesn’t stop a lot of people from trying, going in search of ecstacies (drugs, sex, etc.) that can never satisfy the longing but may kill their ability to feel it and possibly lead them to despair. And it seems to be something we are born with, not something that comes as a sort of extension of natural desires for food and other pleasures; anyone who has felt it knows that it is not at all the same thing as, say, a desire for an unlimited supply of Wild Turkey. It’s difficult to articulate, but it seems to me that there is a real philosophical problem in trying to explain how creatures who are purely a product of this world can have developed this very definite desire for another one.

(By the way I don’t think everything that might be included in the hunger mentioned by Emmylou Harris is sehnsucht; there is a less elusive and more definite sort of desire that points heavenward: for instance, the desire for eternal life, or for the preservation or recovery of things lost in the past.)

Someone else mentioned that St. Therese of Lisieux talks about a longing that seems to be the same or very similar. Wikipedia quotes this passage:

Let me suppose that I had been born in a land of thick fogs, and had never seen the beauties of nature, or a single ray of sunshine, although I had heard of these wonders from my early youth, and knew that the country wherein I dwelt was not my real home—there was another land, unto which I should always look forward. ... From the time of my childhood I felt that one day I should be set free from this land of darkness. I believed it, not only because I had been told so by others, but my heart’s most secret and deepest longings assured me that there was in store for me another and more beautiful country.

I don’t think that in itself is sehnsucht, but it may be evidence that she experienced it.

I’m still unsure as to how widespread this phenomenon is; some people seem to recognize it immediately when it’s described, some don’t. In the comments on last week’s piece one or two people took it as referring to the direct experience of God or of God’s love. I envy them that experience, but I’ve never had it; what I recognize in Lewis’s description, and in the Wikipedia discussion, is very definitely a consciousness of something not here, something I want to see and to feel and to know but which is hopelessly distant. I’m certain that what Lewis describes is the same thing I’ve experienced.

Interestingly, my search for sehnsucht on Google turned up several pop music occurrences, most of them German, the most frequent being a song by the German industrial-metal group Rammstein. The words are a bit more sexual than I want to quote here, so I’ll leave it up to the reader to search out the song and the lyrics (which are in German), but here is the crucial part:

Longing hides
like an insect
while asleep you don't notice
that it stings you
I can't be happy anywhere

longing is so cruel

One of the reasons I like a lot of music and other art which is on the immediate level hostile to Christianity is that I see sehnsucht at work in it, or that (perhaps) more definite yearning that Emmylou Harris describes. I’m much more in sympathy with those who feel and express the longing, even if they don’t understand it or have any idea where to go to satisfy it, than with those who don’t seem to feel it at all. One example is my favorite heavy metal group, Tristania. I wrote about them last year, here.

Finally, I was reminded of these lines from W. S. Merwin; unfortunately I can’t remember what poem they’re from:

Tell me what you see vanishing
And I will tell you who you are.

Sehnsucht is almost unbearable, but yet it seems better to have experienced it than not, unless one has been fortunate enough to experience instead that to which it points.


Music of the Week: Delius - On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring

Many years ago, roughly 1970, I had an LP that included this and several more of Delius’s more familiar orchestral works. Although I thought the music somewhat bland and shapeless, I came to like it, but more as a sort of tranquilizer than as music properly speaking; it was very peaceful and for twenty minutes or so took me away from the very stressful life I was leading to a much nicer place, a place of green pastoral beauty and running streams.

Somewhere in that chaotic period the LP got away from me, and I don’t think I heard Delius again until recently, when, in a bout of nostalgia, I got this collection from eMusic. So far I haven’t gotten past the first piece, because I keep wanting to hear it again. What absolutely beautiful music—a pure, open sweetness to which the title is perfectly suited (although I admit I’ve never heard a cuckoo). You can hear it in this audio-only YouTube clip:

If you haven’t heard it before, it may not grab you right away, but give it a chance.


Let’s talk about sci-fi

Janet has stumbled across this old post, I Miss the Future, which led to this one, Blade Runner vs. 2001. A conversation has begun, and since those posts are not visible on the main page here I thought I'd just provide this anchor for the discussion. Janet says:

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I read lots of Science Fiction. In fact, I probably was not reading anything else. A couple of years ago, I decided to reread Asimov's Foundation and Robot series which I used to really love. I was so disappointed, although I think the Foundation series poses some interesting questions. They seemed very flat to me. Maybe it's because I was reading them at a time when my faith was at it's lowest ebb and they offered a kind of futuristic hope. Now my hope lies in a different direction and the mask is off their promise--which, I suppose, just repeats what Maclin said. I still like Bradbury, though I see his work in a totally different way now.

WRT the anachronisms in older sci-fi, you really notice that in Benson's Lord of the World. In his future (which is set in our past) they use a lot of asbestos. They can fly, but they don't have air conditioning. Still, while his scientific predictions miss the marks sometimes, his observations about the direction of materialist thought are pretty much on par and his ultimate hope in the Church and the Eucharist are, of course, absolutely on target. The last scene of LotW reminds me a lot of a scene in Mr. Blue. Have y'all read Mr. Blue?

No, I haven't read Mr. Blue, or Lord of the World, either.