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April 2009

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

As he tells the story, in 1971 composer Gavin Bryars was fooling around with a tape loop of an old tramp singing a fragment of a hymn, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”

When I copied the loop onto the continuous reel in Leicester, I left the door of the recording studio open (it opened onto one of the large painting studios) while I went downstairs to get a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual, and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

Later he wrote a quietly evolving instrumental accompaniment for the loop. The original 1975 version was tailored to fit one side of an LP and was about 25 minutes long. In 1993 Bryars reworked it for CD, resulting in a 74-minute version. For this recording he also added the voice of Tom Waits. The above is an excerpt from it.

I’ve always wondered about those people who were quietly weeping: where are they now?

(Quotation from the liner notes of the 1993 version.)


Summer Is Here

Current temperature at my house: 83F / 28C. It’s about 3:15 in the afternoon. I know you folks in northern realms are just now getting well into spring, but in effect our spring is over, and summer has begun. We’re beginning now to have the weather that the northern part of the USA will have in July. Bill Finch, the garden writer for the local paper, says we have six seasons, as follows:

Spring: February 15-April 15
American summer: April 15-June 15
Gulf summer: June 15-August 15
Hurricane summer: August 15-October 15
Fall: October 15-December 15
Winter: December 15-February 15

Note that there are three summers. And our winter is a pretty poor excuse for one: the temperature doesn’t get below freezing very often. Finch’s “Fall” might be called “American Fall;” it’s the closest we come to a real autumn, anyway.

Just thought you ought to know. And I guess this is a bit of a complaint, too.


From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

Meaning: from Shakespeare’s poetry and Francesca Murphy’s deep and rich theological work to...Dr. Who.

I just thought I ought to let everybody know that IF you’re a fan of the later incarnations of the show—for instance, the Tom Baker period—and IF you have a Netflix subscription, and IF you notice there the three disk set that includes the first episodes and IF you think it would be a lot of fun to see what happens at the very beginning of the longest-running science fiction tv show in the world: don’t bother.

These shows are truly awful. I didn’t even find them fun-awful, but just plain awful. Of course the props and effects are terrible, but that’s to be expected, and often part of the fun. But almost everything is bad here. The plots range from sloppy to incoherent. The dialog is dreadful. The characters are dull. The Doctor himself is a completely unappealing and uninteresting character, hostile and apparently not especially bright. Even the acting is shaky, with William Hartnell, who plays the Doctor, blowing his lines regularly. This will give you a good idea (though the person who put the video together apparently disagrees with me):

I was at first inclined to chalk all this up to the fact that it was 1963 and things were more primitive then, but then I remembered that The Twilight Zone, which was frequently brilliant, began in 1959. Ok, American tv producers probably had a lot more money to work with, but the Brits should have been as good or better at writing and acting.

On top of everything else, the disks are mispackaged or mismanufactured or something, because the first episode, which is the only one I really wanted to see, is apparently on disk 3. Which we haven’t gotten yet.. I would only recommend these to someone who’s enough of a fan to want to listen to various people involved in the production reminisce about it.

I’ve learned two things that have interested me: (1) the wonderful theme music, which reminds me of early Pink Floyd and which I’d always taken as a late ’60s thing done with a synthesizer, was there from the beginning, written by a composer hired for the job and realized in a BBC lab with various electronics. And (2): the sound made by the Tardis when it takes off and lands, and which has also been there from the beginning, was originally the sound of something scraped along (not across, I think) a string in a piano, and further messed with electronically. I always wondered why it was such an unpleasant sound. It’s supposed to suggest the ripping of the fabric of space and time.

Also, the Daleks were introduced very early and have changed hardly at all.

Why am I wasting our time on this? The number of people who read this blog and are interested in Dr. Who is probably between 0 and 5, inclusive.


For Shakespeare’s Birthday

Wanting to post a bit of Shakespeare for the occasion, I thought of these two passages.

From King Lear, bitterest grief:

KING LEAR: A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee.
And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!

And from The Tempest, sweetest love:

MIRANDA: Do you love me?
FERDINAND: O heaven, O earth, bear witness to this sound
And crown what I profess with kind event
If I speak true! if hollowly, invert
What best is boded me to mischief! I
Beyond all limit of what else i’ the world
Do love, prize, honour you.
MIRANDA: I am a fool
To weep at what I am glad of.
PROSPERO: Fair encounter
Of two most rare affections! Heavens rain grace
On that which breeds between ’em!
FERDINAND: Wherefore weep you?
MIRANDA: At mine unworthiness that dare not offer
What I desire to give, and much less take
What I shall die to want. But this is trifling;
And all the more it seeks to hide itself,
The bigger bulk it shows. Hence, bashful cunning!
And prompt me, plain and holy innocence!
I am your wife, if you will marry me;
If not, I’ll die your maid: to be your fellow
You may deny me; but I’ll be your servant,
Whether you will or no.
FERDINAND: My mistress, dearest;
And I thus humble ever.
MIRANDA: My husband, then?
FERDINAND: Ay, with a heart as willing
As bondage e’er of freedom: here’s my hand.
MIRANDA: And mine, with my heart in’t; and now farewell
Till half an hour hence.

Text and some HTML borrowed from

The lines which get to me the most are, from Lear: I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee. The line falls like a lead anvil, and there’s a moment of satisfaction in it—did any man ever deserve killing more?—but only a moment. And of course Never, never...

And Miranda: I am your wife, if you will marry me; If not, I’ll die your maid.... Not I will be your wife but I am your wife. Happy the man whose love has said these words to him, or, since she probably didn’t have these words, the thought.


Christ the Form of Beauty, by Francesca Murphy

As regular readers know, the author of this book is a theology professor at the University of Aberdeen, and a frequent contributor to conversations here. This is a published version of her doctoral dissertation, and that partly accounts for the fact that I didn’t understand a great deal of it. Not only didn’t, but couldn’t: I just don’t have the intellectual background required. What’s missing on my part is twofold, I think. As a dissertation, it naturally builds on the work of the big names in the field, and I have no more than a minimal acquaintance with most of them. And there’s a natural tendency in any discipline to develop a specialized terminology, with which I’m unfamiliar. I don’t want to call it a jargon, because that sounds pejorative, but I can’t help feeling that certain words and phrases have a meaning that I’m not getting. For instance, the word “extended” in this passage:

In the realistic image, the extended fact and the interior world are related. The image is not ‘extended’ within the mind.

Often the sense of these things began to sink in as I went along, and I found that in leafing backward through what I’d already read it was often more comprehensible. Still, I can’t get around the fact that I just don’t have the prerequisite knowledge assumed of its audience. Reading it was a lot like reading the broadly similar work of Marion Montgomery: while accepting the fact that I’m not entirely getting it, I find much that I can connect with. So I’ll do my best to make an intelligent comment about it.

It’s a work of theology, philosophy, and literary theory, converging on theology. The major names involved are the Fugitive group (especially John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate), William Lynch (S.J., I think?), and von Balthasar. The theme is the relationship of imagination to Christology: “It argues that our ability to enter into the Incarnation is in proportion to our willingness to imagine realistically.”

I think it’s accurate to say that a great deal of the book is taken up with the questions of what “imagine” and “realistic” mean, and with the question of whether imagination is useful, or perhaps necessary, in order for us to apprehend the real. And I think one of the conclusions is that the nature of Christianity is such that it is itself structured in a way that is not only eminently suited to be understood with the aid of the imagination, but presents this way of understanding as the only way of apprehending, or at least touching with the mind, Being itself. That is, it not only justifies but requires the imaginative—as opposed to the abstractly reductive—mind. Christ himself is an analogue.

The Son—not only seen statically, in a moment, but most of all in the drama of his life—is in a sense the work, the art work, of the Father and also represents the Father in a finite way that we can apprehend. He is however totally different from any “work” that we know in the ordinary course of things, or from the kind of work which we ourselves are, in that he is a work which works itself, fully and perfectly participates in its own shaping. The Father is God in his infinity and the Son is God in his apprehensibility, his knowability.

This makes Christianity a fundamentally aesthetic religion. Or perhaps I should say it is a religion whose fundamental mechanisms are aesthetic, or like those of aesthetics. It is not a religion which happens to have produced beautiful art, but one in which the process of beauty, so to speak, is intrinsic and essential. Beauty is, in a perfectly literal way, a sign of God.

The mental processes by which we know a work of art are essentially the same as those by which we know God, in this present life, with our present capacities and limits. Art, then, from both sides—that of the artist and that of the beholder of art, both the one who sees the vision and attempts to render it in some medium and those to whom he communicates it—is a way of knowing, and a way that is ultimately superior to, if of less immediate practical value than, the “univocal” way of scientific empiricism, which has no place for meaning, and for the organic complexity and ambiguity which point to meaning. Indeed, it has in the end no room for the human at all, as popular atheism continually reminds us.

All right, that’s as far as I’m going to try to go in trying to describe (or maybe just react to) the substance of the book. What I’ve said is certainly not a reasonable summary, and is maybe a little off to one side of the main point, but it’s what made the strongest impression on me. Here are a few passages that seemed important to me, and which express things I’ve long believed, however inarticulately:

Maritain describes beauty as the “radiance of all the transcendentals united.” This means that beauty is an objective property of being. If it is a transcendental—and thus coextensive with being—beauty is an element of everything that exists. It is not only present in lovely or majestic things such as seahorses or the Acropolis. Part of what it means to be, is to be beautiful. Beauty is not superadded to things; it is one of the springs of their reality. (p. 48)

Beauty is the meeting place of finite form with infinite light. It unites a definitely shaped form, upon which the mind can come to a stop, with an endless sea of radiant being, into which the mind can move without limitation. The human mind can only graps forms; boundless things elude it. …. Form concretizes a transcendence which overflows it, but which is its lure. (p. 142)

Beauty is reality under the aspect of form. (p.31)

Perhaps that’s a good explanation of the book’s title: how Christ is indeed the form of beauty.

And a good last word:

The beautiful is the presence of being. As such, it is pleasurable. This is not the aesthete’s escapist pleasure…. To accept the transcendentality of beauty is to make an act of faith in the giveness of being no matter how appalling or terrifying or repulsive. (p. 203-4)

And now maybe Francesca will tell me how much or little what I’ve said reflects what she actually meant.


Go Johnnies Go

Students at St. John’s College in Annapolis are known as “Johnnies.” St John’s is a small liberal arts school where the curriculum is the great books of (mostly) Western civilization—a non-Catholic Thomas Aquinas College, you might say. One of my children went there. It’s literally next door to the Naval Academy, and every year the Johnnies confront the Midshipmen in a ferocious battle of intellectuals vs. warriors. Guess who wins.

(Not that the Naval Academy guys aren’t themselves a very bright bunch, but I think the emphasis there is not on ideas.)

Update: I shouldn’t have to do this, but there is a comment on this post which apparently reads the above sentence in exactly its reverse sense. So for the benefit of careless readers: the meaning of the preceding paragraph is “The Naval Academy guys [and gals, I should add] are themselves a very bright bunch, but the emphasis there is different.”

Presumably the emphasis is on running a great navy, not on exploring philosophy and literature. I don’t want anyone thinking I hold our military academies in low esteem. The smartest guy in my high school class went to West Point.

Of course a careless reader is probably not going to read my explanation anyway.


Men, Women, Sex, and Babies

These are just a few off-the-cuff (what does that mean, anyway?) thoughts which I’m not going to make any great attempt to organize. They’re provoked by two things: one, this remark by Louise in a comment on the previous post:

What women seem to want (from my POV, though I am reluctant to extrapolate to others, even from my actual experience of being a woman!) is love and it seems, these days, that they are willing to settle for sex.

The other thing is the fact that my wife has been exchanging text messages since late yesterday afternoon with a friend who is out in Texas with her daughter, who is, as I write, in the process of giving birth to her first child. It’s now about noon on Sunday, and the young woman has been in labor since Saturday evening, and as far as my wife has heard the baby has still not been born.

I suspect Louise is right, although I admit the question of what and how women think about sex remains a mystery to me. All I can say with any confidence is that it isn’t the same as what and how men think.

It appears that a very large factor for women is the sense of being desired, of being affirmed as attractive. I was struck, many years ago, even as many women were asserting that there really wasn’t any big difference between men and women, by the fact that the covers of men’s magazines featured sexy women, and the covers of women’s magazines also featured sexy women. And I suspect there is often a misunderstanding of the connection between being desired and being loved. There is not necessarily, in the male mind, a connection between physical desire and emotional affection—there may be one, but there may well not be.

The ideal of the attractive woman is the beauty of youth, and, implicitly, of fertility. So we see women, long after the point where they can hope to compete in the beauty contest with young women, desperately trying to make themselves look younger, to emulate the look that goes with the ability to make babies.

And yet our culture has done everything it possibly can, and is always trying to do more, to separate the sexual act from procreation. Women try desperately to keep themselves forever looking as if they are of childbearing age and eligibility, and yet the child is the last thing they want. You don’t have to accept, or fully accept, the Catholic teaching about this to see that there is something fundamentally misguided about it. Our bodies are designed for reproduction, and this is more strikingly true for women than men—that is, more of their physical system is oriented to reproduction than is the case for men.

So it stands to reason that on some level, even if it’s unconscious, women would always have some awareness of the seriousness of sex. After our first baby was born—and it was a difficult birth—my wife said she was just amazed to think that every person walking around in the world was here because some woman had gone through what she had just gone through. And I remember thinking that I should always remember that every sex act had the potential to bring about the scene I had just witnessed (and, in an obviously limited way, participated in).

I think the separation of sex from marriage and procreation may be the single greatest cultural disaster of our time. If I had the power to make one idea fully accepted by young people, it would be the consciousness that sex naturally leads to babies, and that one should not engage in sex unless one is fully prepared to accept the baby. This applies just as well where contraception is being used, because as we all know it can always fail.

For the man, of course, this means accepting the woman as she really is, with all her potential fertility, not as an attractive toy forever frozen at the moment of greatest sexual attractiveness—always a flower, never a fruit. It’s hard to do, because the flower is so alluring, and because she is going to change in ways that are going to make her less physically alluring and also less concerned with him and more with their children. But the man should know that his love for a woman means being there with her, nine months after the fun, when she is struggling in pain and fear to bring forth the new life. A woman should be able to know that he will be there.

It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer his respected and beloved companion.

“Respected and beloved companion.” I think most of us, men and women alike, want to be one, and to have one. How old was Pope Paul VI when he wrote those words? 75 or so? Funny that a celibate old man could see that, while most of the world couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.

If a woman feels herself to be that respected and beloved companion, she won’t have to be so anxious about her looks as she grows older. And if a man feels himself to be such, he won’t feel so anxious about what the world thinks of his accomplishments, or lack thereof.


The New Flannery O'Connor Biography (2)

I finished this earlier in the week, and considered writing a somewhat extensive review. But I have a backlog of things I’ve been trying to write about, and some unfinished correspondence, so I think I’ll just confine myself to this short notice. Those who are very interested in O’Connor are probably going to read the book anyway, and I would recommend that they do so. I’m not wildly enthusiastic about it, but I certainly enjoyed it.

There have been some rather harsh reviews, like the one quoted here (at an interesting blog whose owner really should post more often). I think Wood makes some valid points but is overly harsh. It is true that the author doesn’t seem the most sympathetic possible biographer, and that the clammy hand of religious progressivism is in evidence from time to time, but on the other hand Gooch is far from unsympathetic. I think Rob Grano, aka Northern Agrarian, sums it up pretty well in his review at Amazon. And, in fairness, I don’t think Gooch intended to write a critical biography. It seems to me a good solid factual account, which is enough to make it interesting to any Flannery fan. And I must say I thought he ended it very touchingly.

P.S. Here is the review by the If-Flannery-Had-a-blogger; I broadly agree with it, too.