Previous month:
November 2008
Next month:
January 2009

December 2008

Bad Moon Pie Rising

Let them drop whatever that toy is in Times Square. Down here in Alabama we are going to raise something: a 600-pound mechanical Moon Pie, undoubtedly the baddest Moon Pie in the world. Many lucky folks will also get a taste of the world's largest edible Moon Pie.

Let me pre-emptively address the objections of those who would say that no Moon Pie is edible: have a cucumber sandwich—white bread, no mayonnaise.

City Councilman Fred Richardson’s Moon Pie Dream

Behold, the thing itself:

(You have to sit through a commercial first.)

Happy New Year! And blessed be Mary the Mother of God—you’re going to Mass tomorrow, right?


The Machinist

This is an open, spoilers-allowed post for discussion of the movie The Machinist (link should take you to the Netflix description, but note: there are spoilers in the reviews.) If you haven’t seen it but think you might want to, don’t read the comments here. Also, if you comment, please tag your comment as being part of this thread, since I can’t get the HaloScan feature that includes post names in Recent Comments to work.

I would, by the way, recommend the movie, with the proviso that it's very dark and sometimes disturbing; one scene especially is quite gruesome.



“Well, he gets by. He’s self-supporting.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s an author.”

“Good heavens! Oh, well, I suppose authors are God’s creatures, too.”

—Wodehouse, Pigs Have Wings


The Last Sunday Night Journal (For A While At Least)

Sunday Night Journal — December 28, 2008

The end of 2008 marks the end of five full years of Sunday night journals. I haven’t checked recently, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss a Sunday between January 4, 2004, and today. That adds up to 260 weekly entries. If they average at least 600 words per entry, which I believe they do—my guess is that it’s more like 700 or 750—the total comes to over 150,000 words. If those numbers mean nothing to you, consider that the low end for a novel is probably 50,000 words or so, the average probably 70-100,000, and the high end (e.g. Moby Dick) over 200,000. So in five years I’ve written enough to make a decent-sized book (not counting non-journal blog posts).

I will now reveal to you the secret purpose of the Sunday Night Journal. In late 2003 I had a dream in which I was told that every week for five years I must write a short commentary on any subject that came to mind and publish it on the web. At the end of that time I was to count all the words I had written, and that number would be one of the terms in a mathematical formula that would solve the dark matter problem and, incidentally, resolve the enigma of the continuing popularity of reality television. I expect to have the dream that will reveal the formula as soon as I’ve finished counting the words.

Ok, sorry. Here is the real sorta-secret purpose. All my life I’ve had a compulsion to write, but have done very little of it. Notice I don’t say I’ve wanted to write. Obviously, as Senator Craig could have told you as he prepared to explain his men’s room misadventures to the nation, to feel compelled to do a thing is not the same as to want to do it. We discussed the silly notion of “wanting to write” in a comment thread here a couple of weeks ago; I think anyone who says he “wants to write” without adding “a book about…” or otherwise specifying what he wants to write is probably fooling himself. I don’t want to write: writing is work, and I don’t much like work. I want to have written, yes, much as one wants to have exercised, but not actually to go to the gym or mount the Nordic Track.

Even when I’ve managed to work up the will to write, my laziness, procrastination, and a lack of concentration that borders on ADD have generally kept me from sticking with anything for very long. I have almost forty years’ worth of fragments to show for my efforts. I’d like to blame someone or something else for this, but, like Faulkner, I’m very skeptical of the “mute inglorious Milton” theory (see Gray’s Elegy, approximately line 60). I’ve engaged in a certain amount of complaining over the years about various obstacles life has put in the way of my writing, but I don’t think they’ve been decisive. If  I’d been really good and really determined, I’d have found a way. I’ve gotten over the idea that possessed me for a while in my early twenties, that I was meant to be a great poet or novelist.

Yet the compulsion persists, and I’m haunted, sometimes tormented, by the parable of the talents (explanation here for folks who don’t know the Bible). It is no pleasant thing to set foot on the threshold of old age with the sense that there was some work which one was supposed to do but has not done.

I discovered years ago that since I don’t like to write, it helps a lot to have some external force pushing me to do it. I noticed that I’m more likely to write if I’ve somehow obligated myself to do so. And that was the origin of the Sunday night journal. I publicly stated that I was going to do it, and at least a few people read that statement, and so the seed of a sense of obligation was planted. As time went on, and especially after I created a blog to make the journals simpler to post and maintain, the number of visits to the site went up, thus increasing the sense of obligation and supplementing it with evidence that people were actually reading and enjoying what I wrote.

In short, the weekly journal has been, in part, a sort of mind game I played with myself, a way almost of tricking myself into writing regularly. I could tell myself that even if I produced nothing else, there would be something after a few years.

And so there is. So why stop it now? Partly because I’ve produced enough that if I died tomorrow I would leave something solid behind for (at a minimum) that small number of people who have read me, and for any descendants who might be interested in knowing what sort of man their grand- or great-grand- or great-great-grand-father was. And partly because I want to pick up some of those fragments and incomplete projects and finish them, if I can (which is by no means certain).

I turned sixty this year. Perhaps I’ll live to be ninety, or perhaps I won’t see another Christmas. But taking the biblical three-score-and-ten as a rough guide to what to expect, I figure that the chances are pretty good that I have ten productive years left, but am taking no bets beyond that. Ten years no longer seems like a very long time to me. The recent removal of a melanoma also serves as a warning that the time ahead of me could well be less than the time between today and, say, the beginning of this century, which seems like yesterday. I wouldn’t say I have a sense of urgency, exactly, but I do have—finally—a sense that procrastination is no longer permissible if I want to get any substantial work done.

The journal, then, along with my other weekly commitment, Music of the Week, is going on hiatus for the next twelve months, and might or might not reappear after that. The two of them together have pretty much consumed my weekend writing time (Music of the Week was usually short, but often required a lot of thought and preparation). I want to work on some other things, including longer essays that require focus lasting more than a day or two. I want to go through several decades’ accumulation of poems and fragments of poems and see what can be preserved or completed.

The blog will continue, and in fact I may find myself posting more often but more briefly. The longer things may well appear on the web site, although one or two of them may find a place in magazines first. The poems certainly will—I have no interest at all in trying, probably without success, to place them in magazines that don’t pay and are mostly read only by poets anyway. I want to redesign and organize the web site, or at least clean it up, the better to post longer pieces in a readable way. And I have some other things in mind that I don’t even want to mention unless or until they show more sign of viability.

If I fall back into my old habits of laziness and procrastination, or if, after a year, I’ve run out of other things to do, I’ll restart the journal. I hope everyone who has enjoyed the blog will continue to read it.

As a retrospective glance, here is the first journal entry, transplanted after the fact to the blog—that, too, is one of the projects I want to finish. Here is how it looked originally—I would be interested in knowing whether you think one is more readable than the other.


Wish Me Luck

I’m off work for most of this week. I’m about to venture into some dark territory: reinstalling Windows (and everything else) on my wife’s computer. I hope it doesn’t occupy the rest of my break.


Music of the Week: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

I wouldn’t want to have to pick a favorite Christmas carol, but if I had to, I think this would be it. I think part of its appeal is the combination of the minor-key melody and lively good cheer—quite boisterous, in some performances. It’s very English and conjures all those wintry English Christmas associations that we Americans tend to love: holly, snow, and all the rest.

I’ve just spent an hour or so searching YouTube for a performance to include here. I couldn’t find my favorite, which is Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band’s, from my favorite Christmas album, A Tapestry of Carols (that’s a link to the eMusic page, where you can hear samples). One of the things I was looking for was a performance that includes all the verses. I didn’t find that, either. But here’s a good one, by the King’s College Choir (3:35):

And here, for something with a different flavor, more comparable to Maddy Prior’s, is Loreena McKennit’s version, featuring her characteristic Middle Eastern-flavored instrumentation. I have mixed feelings about her voice: it’s very good, but a bit...I don’t know, over-emotive or something. Still, this is very nice (6:49):


Updated Links

I’ve changed the list of links in the right sidebar—several additions, one or two deletions; check ‘em out. Most are blogs, a few are personal sites of friends and family.


Merry Christmas

We had planned to get a live tree this year and plant it afterwards, but the tree farm didn’t have the variety we were looking for (eastern red cedar). So we cut one. It’s a lot bigger than the live one would have been.


A Prayer Request

For the soul of Will Tynes, the brother of my daughter Ellen’s husband Gabe. Will died unexpectedly in his sleep, of causes as yet unknown, yesterday at his parents’ home. He was about thirty, I think. You can imagine how this is affecting the family; please pray for them also. Thank you.

I didn’t know Will at all well, but he was the one who gave the toast described in this post about my daughter’s wedding. May eternal light shine upon him; may he rest in peace.



Sunday Night Journal — December 21, 2008

I haven’t quite finished Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, but I’m ready to declare that it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the 20th century and the spiritual battle being waged in the modern world generally—meaning, by “modern,” roughly “post-Enlightenment.” This will probably not be my only post on the subject, but there’s one aspect of Chambers’ story as seen from the early 21st century that I want to note especially.

(If you aren’t familiar with Chambers and the controversies in which he was involved ca. 1948-51, this 1961 obituary of him in Time gives an excellent overview and what seems to me a fair assessment of Chambers’ character. A very brief summary is that Chambers was a communist who left the party and actively worked against it, to the extent of exposing communists within the government, which embroiled him in considerable public controversy and legal difficulty.)

At the end of The Lord of the Rings Sauron is defeated and destroyed. But we are given to understand—I can’t remember whether it’s in the book or in some remark of Tolkien’s elsewhere—that his evil does not cease to exist, but rather spreads as a sort of vapor, dispersing itself throughout the world; from this time on, evil will not be so concentrated and easy to identify, but will work subtly and obscurely.

Something like that is the situation we’re in after the fall of the great totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, communism and fascism. Of the two, the evil of fascism has generally been easier to recognize, or at any rate more widely recognized, principally because of the Holocaust but also because its mythos is in general less appealing, especially to those who set the terms and tone of opinion in our society. Communism had a deeper and wider appeal, in part because it spoke, superficially at least, to more benevolent motives. But if it’s possible to say that one is worse than the other, I would say that communism takes the prize, in part because it was more successful and thus able to murder more people, and partly because it was more consciously and systematically an assault on God. Communism involved a cold intention to remove from the universe any moral authority external to man, to seize that authority for man—for the handful of men worthy of it, on behalf of all the rest—and to exercise it for the purpose of creating heaven in the only place where it could possibly exist, in this life. (Fascism, in contrast, seems to have been less coherent.)

This is what Chambers makes vividly clear. He did not simply repudiate communism; he also found faith. From my point of view it’s more than a little strange that the mode of Christianity he adopted was Quakerism, because Quakerism as I have encountered it seems as secularized as Unitarianism, but never mind that at the moment: it’s certain that Chambers came to a deep and strong belief in God. And it was this belief that showed him with more clarity than most ex-communists—Solzhenitsyn also comes to mind—that the argument between communism and Christendom was not about economic and social conditions, but about God, and that there could be no permanent compromise between them any more than there can be compromise between those who say that two and two make four and those who believe the sum is five. There are some disagreements on which compromise is intrinsically impossible, because they’re based on mutually exclusive propositions.

Like the cloud that was Sauron, communism as an all-explanatory philosophy and an all-encompassing program of action, both directed against God, has been dispersed. There is no single ideology or mass movement with both its coherence and its popularity at work today. But the basic idea—there is no God, and we’re glad there isn’t, because now we can get on with the business of solving our problems without interference from superstition—is everywhere. The intellectual and spiritual presuppositions of much of our political and social discourse are the same as those of communism.

For many intellectuals, evolution has replaced communism as the all-explanatory philosophy (see Daniel Dennett, It hasn’t yet become a program of action for very many, but you can see the impulse at work. Utilitarianism is the program of action: whatever works is right, and in this context “works” means maximizing comfort and pleasure. There is really no need for me to make a list of every moral question in which these views are aggressively at war with Christianity; anyone reading this is likely to know. Some are straightforward and involve specific acts, like euthanasia; some are more subtle and involve a general disposition, like hedonism.

Whittaker Chambers thought communism would win, and probably would have been surprised by the fall of the Soviet Union and the general eclipse of communism as an ideology. He thought what remained of Christian society was too weak and compromised to resist communism. He might have been surprised by the fall of the Soviet Union and the general eclipse of communism as an ideology. But he would not have been at all surprised by the persistence of the drive to destroy the metaphysical restraints on human appetites. And probably would have been just as pessimistic about the prospects of Western society resisting it:

It is part of the failure of the West to understand that it is at grips with an enemy having no moral viewpoint in common with itself, that two irreconcilable viewpoints and standards of judgment, two irreconcilable moralities, proceeding from two irreconcilable readings of man’s fate and future are involved, and, hence, their conflict is irrepressible.

Though it is no longer a question of “the West” against something external, this passage ought to be noted by Christians who still haven’t grasped the nature of their situation. The visible empire may have been defeated, but the evil lives on.


The Fourth Sunday of Advent

(Photo by my wife, Karen Horton. You’re welcome to copy it for use on another site but I would appreciate your acknowledging its source. Thanks.)

Google is mysterious sometimes. I’ve noticed for a week or so now that I’m getting a lot of hits from people doing Google searches for “fourth Sunday of Advent” or variations on that phrase. I discovered that this picture is one of the first few results returned for the phrase by a Google image search. However, searching for the other Sundays of Advent doesn’t bring you here, even though I have pictures like this one for every week of Advent.


Music of the Week: The Clash - London Calling

This is the third, and maybe last, of my investigations into classic punk. (The phrase itself is amusing, as the aging of a youth fad always is.) As I noted in the other two installments, on The Ramones and The Minutemen, I was not drawn to the whole punk vibe when it was new (I was in my late 20s at the time). And I’m still not. But I like this album, or at least about half of it.

If there was any pretense at the time of its release (1979) that this was just a group of untrained kids doing what comes naturally, I hope it was laughed at, because it’s plainly ridiculous. These guys are real musicians, and it shows. I don’t usually pay much attention to the drums in rock music, but I can’t help noticing that this is a really good drummer. Most of the songs here are top-notch lively impassioned catchy rock-and-roll. The title track is an absolute killer, by far the best thing on the album in my opinion.

This was originally a double LP, and to my taste there’s too much of it; of the 19 songs, at least half a dozen don’t do much for me, and most of those are on what would have been the second disk of the original release, assuming that the CD preserves the original song order. I think there’s a terrific 40-minute album in here. In general I don’t find their lyrics very interesting, so the album wouldn’t land near the top of my personal chart. But it’s good stuff. And anybody who wants to put the title song in their list of the top 50 or so greatest-ever rock singles would get no argument from me.

I was surprise to find that I recognized the last cut, “Train in Vain.” I had heard it on the radio without knowing its name or realizing it was The Clash, without thinking of it as anything very out of the ordinary. Outside the context of the album it just seems like a pretty good pop song, which makes me think that if this was punk, then punk was less a matter of specific musical values than of style and attitude.

I wonder if it was some natural quirk or a deliberate mannerism that made Joe Strummer often sing as if his tongue were anesthetized.


A Few More Thoughts About Hollywood

To repeat what I said in response to Mary Ann’s question in the comments: I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Hollywood never hits the mark; I was generalizing pretty widely. I do think it happens more often that Hollywood does something good when it aims no higher than entertainment, and produces some kind of resonance almost by accident. It may be that this happens less often than it used to, since Hollywood takes itself more seriously now and also is attached (as I noted) to the more unhealthy trends of contemporary art generally: the crassness, hostility, and so forth. And I think, too, that the awesome technology now available to Hollywood must produce a sort of inertial force in the direction of big, loud, and dumb (propensities which seriously damaged The Lord of the Rings for me). And because the technology is expensive it requires that the filmmaker try to appeal to the largest possible audience.

Likewise, I didn’t mean to imply that the consciously arty is necessarily better. I can’t think of an example offhand, but I have no doubt that determinedly artistic/intellectual filmmakers have made pretentious junk which is far less worthwhile than a first-rate pop film like Star Wars (choose your own example if you don’t agree about that one). Bergman himself occasionally skates close the edge in this respect, and there probably have been lesser talents ruined by his influence.

I feel a little bad about slagging Children of Men, since its pro-life view and Christian resonance (which may be unintentional, judging by something or other I read) deserve some credit when Hollywood often does so much worse, and a lot of Christians—people, as I said, whose judgment I respect—liked it a lot. If I had seen it in a theater I might very well have been as moved as they were. I watched it on dvd, with a small picture and bad sound. (By the way, my failure to respond to it was not because I thought it misrepresented the book, although it did—I’ve read the book but was not much taken with it, either.)

It’s A Wonderful Life is a good example of Hollywood at its best. Sure, it’s sentimental and sometimes more than a bit cheesy, but the basic story is not at all sentimental. A man reluctantly spends his life doing something he didn’t really want to do because he thought it was the right thing to do, and then even that blows up in his face, confronting him with the possibility that his life has been utterly wasted. This is not sissy stuff, and it’s powerfully done, within the basic terms of the techniques of the day. And the feel-good ending, which might be considered a little much, is just a coda: the real resolution is when George Bailey recognizes the gift of life, any life, and chooses it.


Versus Hollywood

Sunday Night Journal — December 14, 2008

I said a few days ago that I would try to articulate the reasons why there aren’t very many Hollywood movies that I really care about. I don’t think I can construct an intellectually coherent argument based on the specifics of film-making, because I don’t know much about it, and I have a limited store of examples ready to hand, so all I can really do is describe what works for me and what doesn’t. In the interests of simplicity I’m not going to precede everything I say with “in my opinion,” but you can assume it as a qualification to any dogmatic-sounding pronouncement.

By “Hollywood” I suppose I mean the mainstream film industry. I don’t know any more about it as an industry than I do about the process of film-making, so let’s just say I mean the usual stuff that’s shown in the average multiplex across the U.S.A., and I suppose probably in Europe, too.  And I don’t mean just the movies of our own time but of the American film industry for most of its lifetime.

As I thought about this question in odd moments over the past few days, certain words kept occurring to me: big; loud; crude; cartoonish. Followed by unconvincing; unbelievable; shallow; heavy-handed; sensationalistic. The one that turns up most often is crude—not crude in the sense of being vulgar, but in the sense of being clumsy. Hollywood movies are like comic books to me. I can get very caught up in them while I’m watching them, but the impression usually dissipates quickly and leaves no lasting impression. They rarely touch anything very deep in me. They often leave me impressed with their means but indifferent to their ends.

All this seems obviously applicable to the sort of movie that doesn’t really purport to be anything more than entertainment: Spiderman, for instance, which I like, or the original Star Wars, which I love. But for me it’s also mostly true for the more serious ones. In fact, I tend to prefer the merely entertaining, because Hollywood’s ability to mount an impressive spectacle is unrivaled, but when it tries to get serious it usually fails, because it just doesn’t have a subtle enough touch. Its efforts to be deep and serious are also frequently undermined because it is tainted, or perhaps I should say poisoned, by the same cultural illness that has weakened the other arts: a simple-minded political and social leftism, a quasi-religious devotion to the sexual revolution, a tendency to take mindlessness and violence as proof of authenticity, etc. But even without those I don’t think Hollywood would do much better. If I imagine it dominated by right-wing jingoists I don’t imagine myself liking its products any better.

Thanks to Netflix, I’ve probably watched more movies in the past two years than I had in the previous ten. Almost every one that really moved me, or that at least interested me so much that I wanted to watch it again, was either a foreign and very un-Hollywood-ish film like Bergman’s Winter Light or a low-budget American one like Napoleon Dynamite (which I think I’ve seen three times, and could watch with pleasure right now).

Rarely do I encounter  in Hollywood movies people or situations that seem real; all seems exaggerated and superficial. I know that a lot of the actors in Hollywood movies are very skilled, and yet they generally seem to me to be striking a series of attitudes and poses. I conjecture, then, that the directors want it this way. The apparent need for simple conflict and simple action drives out subtlety and ambiguity and keeps one’s attention on the surface. There’s a lot of excitement, but not much sense of seeing into the real depth of the human situation.

I’ll let my reaction to The Children of Men serve as one instance of the pattern. (SPOILERS follow.)

It’s a story set in a dystopian near-future in which the human race has suddenly become physically unable to reproduce. (It’s “based” on the P.D. James novel, but it really only uses the one idea.) A lot of people whose judgment I respect found it very moving and profound. But for me it was just an action movie—busy, fast, loud, and violent—and pretty good on those terms; I didn’t dislike it, but it failed to move me.

I never felt that the film showed any real sense of what the end of fertility meant; the troubles of the society it depicted seemed to be based more on current politics than on the infertility plague. I never had a strong sense of the inner lives and motivations of the characters. I never felt any sense of engagement with the obvious questions about the significance of human life raised by the central plot device. The miracle pregnancy seemed only a MacGuffin justifying chases and gun battles. Within ten minutes of the end of the movie, I had stopped thinking about it; a few weeks later the only scenes that remained very strongly with me were the poignant and gentle moments between the Michael Caine character and his catatonic wife.

And that pretty much sums up my view of Hollywood: even the movies that are not action movies seem to be a product of the same sensibility. American Beauty comes to mind. Its treatment of suburban-consumerist malaise seemed superficial and clumsy, reaching strenuously for obvious conclusions and crude shocks. As with Children, little of it remained with me for very long; almost the only thing I remember now is the long shot of some lightweight bit of debris—a plastic bag?—being floated about by a breeze.

It occurs to me that my complaint could be summed up in one word: sentimentality. Sentimentality in art is sometimes defined as the effort to extort rather than earn emotion. Present-day Hollywood has changed dramatically since the late ‘60s, and seems to pride itself on its toughness and honesty. But I don’t know that there’s been a fundamental aesthetic change; sentimentality, in the broadest sense, seems a constant.

I’m quite sure I’m being unfair here to some movies I haven’t seen, but these are some of the reasons why I haven’t seen them. And while writing this I remembered an exception: Tender Mercies.

Coincidentally, just as I was about to post this, Francesca Murphy, commenting in another thread, seems to anticipate and respond to me:

Film is a medium both crude and brilliant. One has got a few seconds to communicate to the thickest dolt a sense of pathos, or of expectation. All the tracking signals in film have to be larger than life, because it's art for everyman.

I think this is true of what I’m calling Hollywood films, and perhaps it has to be this way: expensive films require large audiences. I don’t think it has to be true of film in general as an art form. But Bergman isn’t art for everyman.


Music of the Week: Mahler - Symphony #1

I haven’t done much listening this week since Tuesday afternoon when I listened to Mahler’s 2nd. So, since I’ve been on the subject of Mahler, I’m going to cheat a little and pull a comment on his 1st from an old Sunday Night Journal. I was writing about a concert I’d attended and I had this to say about the symphony:

This was as enthralling a musical experience as I’ve ever had. It had been so long since I’d heard the symphony that it sounded fresh, and I found it to be even better than I remembered. Mahler originally saw the work as depicting an artist’s innocent exuberance, rejection, disillusionment, suffering, and rebirth, but I hear something else. From my vantage point in the early 21st century I hear this late 19th century work as a prophecy of what the next hundred years would bring. The third movement in particular, Frere Jacques transmuted into a funeral march that turns slightly deranged as it goes on, seemed a window opening onto the distant vista of Germany’s impending madness. And the putative triumph of the fourth movement seemed overwrought and unsound, a victory likely to prove temporary.

You can read the entire post here; it’s mainly a tribute to the Mobile Symphony and other small orchestras. I always recommend this symphony to anyone who doesn’t know Mahler, because it’s of a manageable length and very melodic (the opening is magical to me). However, the discussion here of the 2nd indicated that my view is not shared by everyone.


Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., RIP

Those who frequent Catholic sites on the web have no doubt seen the above headline a number of times already, but I want to add my voice to the chorus, with perhaps a slightly different twist.

I haven’t actually read very much of Cardinal Dulles’s work, though from what I know he deserved the esteem in which he was held. But he’s long had a sort of cultural significance for me. Dulles was of the old Anglo-Protestant establishment that once defined the United States, and a scion of one of its prominent families: his father was Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, a fact which is just barely within my personal memory, and his uncle was director of the CIA. Avery Dulles became a Catholic in 1940, at the age of 22, and entered the Society of Jesus in 1946. I don’t know how his family reacted to his conversion, but I expect there was at the very least some dismay.

The old WASP establishment certainly had its flaws, and is now held in wide disdain. Moreover, in its decadence it often joins in the disdain. But there is a great deal of nobility in its heritage. It laid down the principles of this nation and guided its development. At its best it sought, and often found, a careful balance of abstract principle and practical application.

But of course it needed, and needs, as much as any other human tradition, the supernatural wisdom of the Church. And the career of a man like Dulles gives us a glimpse of what is possible when the best of that world is baptized into a wisdom that it must always lack on its own

I also am a product of that world, albeit of a rather more obscure part of it, and the witness of converts like Cardinal Dulles and Walker Percy (not to mention Newman and Chesterton) is for me a sort of mini-tradition of its own, a place where the best of the Anglo-American tradition can flourish even as it withers in the world at large, and the place—or at least the atmosphere—in which I feel most at home.


Avoiding Controversy for Advent

I’ve been doing a sort of experiment for...let’s see...about a week now, I think. Inspired by Janet Cupo’s plan to go mostly off-line for Advent, but not willing to go that far, I’ve given up reading a couple of blogs that maintain a pretty high level of angry argument, mostly on socio-political questions. (One of them I still look in on and skim, as it’s less relentlessly fired up, the other I haven’t seen at all for about a week now.) And I’m finding the effect beneficial. Even though I didn’t generally participate in these arguments, just reading them induces a certain level of irritation and distraction. When I catch myself about to go to one of these blogs out of habit and then stop myself, there’s a definite sense of a sort of burden being lifted.

I don’t know if I’ll go back to either of these after Christmas. It’s not healthy to disengage completely from the questions of the day, so maybe I will. But it sure is nice to take a break.


Mahler’s 2nd

Question: is there anything more wonderful?

Answer: No, not really. As wonderful, yes: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Sibelius all have their works equal to this. But more wonderful? I don’t think so.

I last heard this work some years ago, perhaps eight or ten, at Brevard, North Carolina, where there is a well-known summer music camp. My son Will was in the orchestra. It was a great experience, but I don’t think I really got the last movement as I did this afternoon (I’ve had a day off work).

Also, the contralto may be my favorite voice—or the lower female voices in general.

All Nordic symphonic-metal music aspires to the condition of the first few minutes of this symphony.

Of course I am writing not only under the influence of Mahler but also of Old Crow. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Jay Nordlinger has an interview with Marilyn Horne in the Dec. 1 issue of National Review:

Our conversation turns to Gustav Mahler, who loved the mezzo voice, and wrote immortal music for it. Horne sang it all, including the solo part in the Second Symphony, known as the “Resurrection.”.... She relates something extremely personal, and perfectly understandable, to me: Her brother was killed in a plane crash. And “I could not get over it, it was such a blow. I just walked the floor at night with the headphones on, listening to the ‘Resurrection,’ trying to find some peace.”

I can’t think of any music except some of Bach more likely to provide that peace.


The Essence of Sin

Sunday Night Journal — December 7, 2008

This is still another follow-up on the topic of sin and defiance. In email conversation with a friend (two different friends, actually) after last Sunday’s journal, I tried to articulate what I believe to be the essence of sin, and this is what I came up with: it is to see the light, to know that it is the light, and to turn away from it.

I really only have myself as a laboratory specimen for investigating this proposition, but when I think of what happens in my own mind when I sin, that’s what I see. The words I’ve given above are, of course, not entirely adequate. Or perhaps I should say they are too adequate, because they are an analytic statement, a disassembly, of something that is, often, a single mental event. And even if it is a lengthy process in time it is, finally, a single act. I don’t know what responsibility one has if one sees the light without recognizing it. But it is impossible to recognize it without making a decision as to whether to go toward it or away from it.

It’s easy to see this act in a small event. Take detraction, for instance: in a conversation you find you have the opportunity to reveal some minor misdeed or failing of a person which others really have no right or need to know. But you don’t like this person, and you’ll enjoy letting others know of the fault. There’s the sudden tug of the desire to do it, and the simultaneous discomfort of knowing that you shouldn’t, and then either the continued discomfort of suppressing the urge, or the almost physical sensation of shoving your conscience aside, followed by the pleasurable release of telling your tale.

It’s not only in directly and specifically moral acts that this happens. There is a broader and more fundamental decision which orients one’s entire life. One of the friends with whom I was discussing this mentioned the idea that God gives everyone enough reason to believe in him, and I think that’s true; I would even say it must be true, or else God would not be just. But that obviously doesn’t mean that he gives everyone an opportunity to say yes or no to the Nicene Creed. It must mean that everyone, by virtue of being human, can see something of the light that is God, and know, even if he does not use the word “God,” that he is seeing what is good and true and beautiful. And that everyone must make that fundamental decision, either to attempt to follow that light—never mind how often he fails or blunders—or to turn away from it toward something that seems more desirable, something that demands that he turn away from goodness and truth and beauty.

Of course it’s a continuing decision, beginning when one becomes conscious enough to make it and ending when one ceases to be so conscious. And to be damned is to persevere in the decision to turn away.

Why would anyone do that? Surely anyone who (for instance) chooses wealth as his God must discover eventually, even if it’s in the last instant of life, that he is wrong. And why, having made that discovery, would he not repent?

In the end, it seems, the answer to that question must be pride. Pride at the end leads to Hell, obviously. I think there is also a way that pride at the beginning may set one on the path to Hell, and make it very difficult to get off that path. And it’s a form of pride that’s especially characteristic of our time: intellectual pride, the refusal to believe anything that cannot be proved “scientifically,” that is, by physical evidence or a narrow sort of logic very well suited for investigating the behavior of matter but almost useless in questions of the spirit. Surely this pride keeps many a man or woman from acknowledging that the light really exists as something more than a subjective experience.

Some time ago in the comments here we were discussing this question, and the necessity for the believer to move forward even in the absence of quasi-scientific proofs of the faith. And someone (I don’t remember who) said something like “If you see light, why should you not move toward it?”—with the implication being that anything you could say or deduce or prove about the light is secondary to the fact that you know it is the light. I was really struck by this, and it has helped me to fret less about intellectual difficulties. Even if we cannot satisfy our intellects that God is real, we all, every one of us, sense an obligation to follow the light, and if pride keeps us from doing so we will lose our souls.

Voltaire said “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” I’ll go a step further: even if God did not exist it would be necessary to follow him; the obligation to follow the light would retain its force. And I don’t mean simply the obligation to do the right thing; I mean also the obligation to believe the right thing, as far as we are capable of understanding it: to believe that truth and beauty and goodness are real and that they ultimately matter. We sense the obligation to do this even if our intellect tells us otherwise. And that may be a proof of God’s existence, a proof built into our souls.


It’s Over

I refer, of course, to western civilization. Although I’ve almost given up talking about politics here, I still like to issue the occasional bulletin in support of the idea that we’re finished, it’s over, the lights are going out.

Today’s evidence: at this moment the following headline can be seen on CNN’s web site:

Nicole Richie’s accessory philosophy.

Philosophy?!?! Actually it’s a link to the People mag web site, but still...philosophy?!

It was bad enough hearing football coaches talk about their defense philosophies etc.


Music Of The Week: Amiina — Kurr

Amiina is the group of four young women who comprise the string section for Sigur Rós in their Heima concerts, and I think on some of their studio recordings as well. Having discovered from the credits of Heima that they are a musical unit in their own right, I went looking for more information and discovered this wonderful album. If you’ve seen Heima and liked what you saw of them there, you’ll like this; it’s very much in keeping with their contributions to Sigur Rós. It’s not rock music at all, but quiet, subtle instrumental music played on a variety of instruments; the occasional vocals are wordless.

The album cover is an excellent indicator of what you hear:

There’s something about this music that strikes me as what young women should be, young women a little past girlhood, no longer high-strung and flighty, but not yet into, or not far into, the heavy responsibilities and inevitable suffering of marriage and motherhood. It’s pretty, modest, gentle, quiet, pensive, sweet, inward, a little whimsical. It makes me see a quiet and sunny kitchen, with a handful of wild flowers in a brightly painted mug on the windowsill.

Here is the eMusic page; as usual, if you like the samples, you’ll like the whole album. I especially recommend the 2nd track, “Rugla.” I have no idea what any of the titles mean.


New Criterion back issues

I’ve been keeping these magazines since I first subscribed in 2000, because there are usually at least a couple of things in every issue that I’d like to re-read. But the time has come to face the fact that I’m very unlikely to look at them again, considering all the books I still haven’t read, and our house is too small to give three feet of shelf space to unread periodicals. It’s not quite a complete set, as at least three or four of the years are missing an issue (although the missing ones may yet turn up around the house). The local library has a magazine give-away rack, but I’m afraid that if I take this stack to them they’ll just toss it, especially if they know or discover what kind of magazine TNC is. So if anyone would like to have them I’ll ship them to you. First come, first served, I guess.