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January 2010

Sally Thomas On the Death of A Goldfish

Dealing with the question every parent has to answer—Will my dog/cat/bird/fish/any-kind-of-pet go to heaven? Is it dead forever?—this is one of the best meditations on the old question of the relationship of earthly to eternal existence I’ve ever read:

Hard as it is to comprehend not missing the things of this world which we love, our hope -- not our hopeful feelings, but our objective hope -- lies in the promise that we will not. And if we don't, it won't be because our loves have somehow been anesthetized, but because we will find their objects, and more, in the face of God.

The whole thing is here.

I think the suggestion that our loves will be anesthetized is sometimes a huge mistake in our understanding of heaven. To be told that we just won’t care any more about the pet that we loved so much, to say nothing of the possible eternal loss of people we’ve loved, is no consolation whatsoever.

The instinctive intuition of children that death somehow must not be forever is striking. From the time we become conscious we are simultaneously in time and outside it, which is the whole human problem in a nutshell.

Lenten Reading

Ash Wednesday is only two and a half weeks away, and I’ve been making an effort to think about Lent a little before it gets here this year. Usually it seems to appear so suddenly that I’m a week or so into it before really becoming attentive to it. I’ve decided what reading I’m going to focus on: The Dove Descending, Thomas Howard’s explication of Eliot’s Four Quartets. I’ve deeply loved the Quartets since I first read them back in 1972 or so. But I realized on the third or fourth reading that I really had no clear idea of what he was talking about at several points, for instance in the rhymed sequence that begins the second section of the first quartet, “Burnt Norton.” In an effort to correct this, I bought Howard’s book a couple of years ago, but haven’t yet read it.

I mention this now in case anyone wants to join me in reading or re-reading the Quartets (which can be found online here) and Howard’s book.

J.D. Salinger, R.I.P.

I haven’t read him in decades—not since college, if my memory is correct. His name has come up in public several times over the years in connection with some scandalous or creepy story. I don’t know how much I’d like his work now, but I suspect the answer is not very much. But Catcher in the Rye meant a lot to me as an alienated teenager, though it was probably not a good influence. As is probably the case with a lot of things that appeal to unhappy adolescents, the thing that comforted me in my alienation also fed it. I don’t remember it very clearly now.

But the one passage which gives the book its title has stayed with me for the forty-five years or so that have passed since I first read it.

“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like—“

“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”

“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”

She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

There are many far worse ambitions. R.I.P.

Catholic and Conservative (1)

Sunday Night Journal — January 24, 2010

This is another topic I that need to get out of the way before I can focus primarily on the memoir upon which I’ve embarked. It’s a bit of unfinished business from last year, and there will be at least one more installment, possibly two.

Back in April I was one of a group of people who received an email from my friend Daniel Nichols on the use of torture by the American government. A discussion followed, and soon, via attention to the approval of so-called “enhanced interrogation” by many conservatives, became focused on the nature of conservatism. Things became a bit testy, and a bit later the argument spilled over into a post (by Daniel) and comments on the Caelum et Terra blog. That discussion in turn became heated; I lost my temper and withdrew. Since then I’ve intended to revisit the topic at enough length to state my position clearly and then be done with it.

The email discussion of course is not publicly available, but the blog discussion is here. I mention the email only because I want to note that the antagonistic tone of the C&T exchange did not spring up as quickly as it appears to have done, but had already been established in the email discussion. One remark in particular had fired me up: the assertion that the term “conservative” is “an idol of the mind.” A debate with a Catholic man ceases to be friendly when someone suggests that he is in thrall to an idol.

Normally I just allow these teapot-tempests in the blogosphere to slip away and be forgotten. But I want to say more on this subject because, beyond the immediate provocations in those two exchanges, I’ve had a long-simmering resentment of the insinuation, discernible in this debate, that to be a conservative is to be less than fully Catholic.

It is certainly true that conservatism as a socio-political category, and a very broad one, encompasses all sorts of people who are not Catholic and have all sorts of ideas that are not Catholic. Some of these ideas are “not Catholic” only in the sense that the one who holds them arrived at his position by some other means than reasoning from Catholic principles. Some are “not Catholic” in the sense that they are in contradiction to Catholic principles, and of course there’s a danger that a Catholic conservative will be unduly influenced by these. Our political life today operates at a pretty high level of anger—dangerously high, I think—and in the heat of battle people tend to become reactionary and to accept ideas and behavior from their own side which they would condemn from the other. Obviously a Catholic has to be on guard against letting this tendency lead him astray. And there’s nothing wrong with challenging a Catholic conservative on some specific instance of this; in fact if the matter is serious one ought to do it. But the suggestion that merely to classify oneself as a conservative in itself compromises one’s fidelity to the Church is wrong, and rests on a misconception about conservatism.

For a Catholic to participate in any political activity at all involves some risk of absorbing views which are to some degree incompatible with the teachings of the Church, because it involve collaborating with people who hold those views. You have to make common cause with people who don’t share your fundamental principles, and you must be ready to defend your cause on the grounds that it promotes the common good in ways that are at least widely, if not universally, agreed upon, not on the grounds that the Church teaches it. If you aren’t prepared to deal with this, you really aren’t prepared to engage in politics in our society. To refuse the compromises inevitable in politics is a defensible position, though I don’t think the purist necessarily occupies higher moral ground than the participant. The tension between the two is always with us, and each helps keep the other from absurdity.

But I digress. I think the main point of contention here lies not in the matters of participation and contamination, but in a more basic disagreement about the nature of conservatism. What sort of thing is it? I don’t mean “what do conservatives believe?” but rather “to what category does conservatism itself belong?”

My opponents in the disagreement documented above seem to believe that it is, or at least intends to be, a systematic philosophy, which makes it a rival to the Church, which in turn makes a Catholic who is also a conservative less than fully faithful to the Church because, as we all know, a man cannot serve two masters. They also insist that it fails as a system, because it is full of contradictions and inconsistencies; it is not only a rival to the Church, but an incoherent one.

I have to say that the attempt to respond to this complaint reminded me of arguing with objectivists, in that in both cases there is an insistence that certain terms must be defined with absolute precision or be dismissed as meaningless. The statement that the word “conservative” does not have a very precise meaning is taken as an admission that it has no meaning at all.

But life is full of things which don’t lend themselves to precise definition, but yet exist, thereby making meaningful the words by which they are named. There are many such terms in the arts. Terms like “romantic” and “classical” cannot be defined in such a way that as to remove all doubt about whether or not any given work belongs to one of those categories, and there are others that are even more slippery—post-romantic, neo-classical, jazz. There are very few, if any, artists or individual works of art which fit perfectly into any of these categories, or which does not contain elements of both. Yet we continue to use these words because they serve a purpose in describing broad tendencies. If a critic describes one pianist’s playing as more romantic than another’s, everyone knows what he means; no one shouts Define your terms! And if he did, he would be laughed at, and deserve to be.

In answering the question “what sort of thing is conservatism?” these aesthetic terms provide the most useful analogy I’ve been able to come up with. Like them, the word “conservative” is more descriptive than prescriptive (as conservatives often note). Like them, it does not begin with a set of abstract principles. Like them, it is more understandable as a product of temperament and attitudes than as a book of rules. As Russell Kirk insisted, it is not an ideology, but rather the negation of ideology. It is a concrete human phenomenon, not an invented system. It has no necessary metaphysic, and one may be a conservative and an atheist, or a conservative and a Catholic. It is a loose alliance of people with broadly similar views about the management of worldly affairs.

I began to call myself a conservative thirty years or so ago because I kept noticing that my views on socio-political matters were very often in agreement with what people who called themselves conservatives believed. I studied no catechism and assented to no body of doctrine. I certainly never expected to agree with everyone who calls himself a conservative, and in fact did, and do, disagree frequently with many of them. But the areas of agreement were, and are, great enough that the label continues to fit me, more or less. When or if that ceases to be true, I’ll cease to accept the term for myself.

I judge conservative ideas by the light of the Catholic faith, and not vice versa. Certainly there are plenty of examples of people who seem to be doing the opposite, though I think one ought to be careful about drawing that conclusion, as it presumes knowledge of another’s mind and heart which is ordinarily not available to us. And it is important to recognize that no political faction can be identified with the Catholic faith (this seems so obvious to me as to hardly need stating, though I sometimes see evidence that it does). But I reject absolutely the charge that to call myself a conservative constitutes, in itself, a lapse or defect, conscious or unconscious, in my fidelity to the Church.

Foggy Morning in the Trees

For several reasons, including a football game (Geaux Saints!), I’m not ready to post the Sunday night journal, and won’t be until late tonight or sometime tomorrow. Since I haven’t posted anything since Friday I thought I’d post another picture from the same foggy morning as this one. It was taken from the road in front of our house, looking north toward a swampy wooded area. If you could zoom out further you’d see my house on the lower right, our new neighbors’ on the left.

I couldn’t decide whether I liked it better in color or black-and-white, so I’ll just give you both.

Really Really Fine Piece by Eve Tushnet

This is one of those things that’s so good it makes me want to jump up and down. You have to read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

I knew there was some sharp cruel distance between myself and the world around me. Then I found that the Catholic Church was where I turned in the lock, where I turned upside down, and the world unlocked around me.

...there are two important ways in which the claim that the Church provides "answers" is false. First, if you are "seeking," most often what you need most is to know which questions to ask. I often say that my conversion was prompted because I accepted the Catholic answers to three questions: Why is poetry important? Why is sex important? Why is justice important?

...And yet it would be more accurate to say that my conversion was prompted by my acknowledgment of these three as the questions I needed to ask.

...To be Catholic is to accept that no answers in this life will ever be adequate, but the Catholic questions and the Catholic ways of living are better and truer than alternatives.

...To be a Catholic is to accept certain questions as things to be lived through rather than to be answered.

I repeat, you have to read the whole thing, here, at Inside Catholic.

Foggy Morning on the Water

Dec. 15, 2009. A lot like others I’ve posted, but I never get tired of looking at things like this, or taking pictures of them.If you look closely you can see a bird, a small heron I think, on a post in the water—you might need to click through to the full-size image.

Sounds to Grow On: The Smithsonian-Folkways Podcasts

Sunday Night Journal — January 17, 2010

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a couple of months or so and have had trouble making the time for it, so I’m going to allocate this week’s journal to it.

Anyone with an interest in American folk music is probably aware of Folkways Records, a company founded in 1948 by Moses Asch which did much to document and preserve the American folk legacy, as well as folk music of other countries. The recordings now belong to the Smithsonian Institution, and the Smithsonian, in collaboration with Moses Asch’s son Michael, is producing (or has produced) a series of 26 hour-long radio programs in which Michael rambles around the Folkways collection playing music and commenting on it. The programs are available as podcasts and can be found here. (Note to the technologically less-than-up-to-date: they’re really just MP3 files which can be downloaded and played with any audio software, e.g. Windows Media Player; the “podcast” paraphernalia just provides some extra conveniences.) I don’t especially like the title of the series, which rather smells of “social consciousness” didacticism, and indeed there is some of that—more on that topic in a minute—but in general this is great stuff.

Each program is organized around some particular theme, and of course some are more interesting than others. I’ve listened to six of them so far, and the most interesting of these has been “The Unfortunate Rake,” which traces the evolution of a folk song from 18th century England to 20th century America. Did you know that the songs “The Streets of Laredo” and “St. James Infirmary” are both descendants of a song called “The Unfortunate Rake”? I had no idea; they have very little in common now.

It’s indicative of…something or other…that although I grew up in the south, which is the  source of much of the most memorable American folk music, I knew almost nothing of the real thing until I encountered it in recordings. This began with the pop-folk of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with groups like the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four and the Highwaymen. I am indebted to an uncle, one of my mother’s brothers, and his wife for introducing me to music that was much closer to the roots. At first much of this was too rough and ragged for me, but I got over that, and still listen to the music I first heard there, which I can’t say about the Kingston Trio (though I think some of their music is worthwhile on its own terms, as a variety of pop music).

Much of what I heard at my aunt and uncle’s house was on the Folkways label, and I remember being fascinated by the packaging of the records themselves: they looked crude compared to the products of the big companies, and the notes appeared to have been typed (I mean, on a typewriter) and crudely duplicated. But the jackets were thick and sturdy, as was the vinyl on which the records were pressed. Some of mine are in much better shape than major label LPs that I’ve had just as long and treated no more badly. And the notes were full and factual and interesting. I remember in particular a Furry Lewis record (here) which, as far as I can recall, was my first encounter with slide guitar, which I love to this day. As B.B. King said of hearing Bukka (Booker) White’s slide, “that sound would go all through me.” And it still does. (Listen to the sample of “Pearlee Blues” at the link above.)

The Smithsonian is doing a great, great service by preserving and distributing these recordings and producing shows like “Songs to Grow On.” You can buy CDs and MP3s online, and in the latter case, you can download the liner notes in PDF format, something which very few labels are doing and which deserves particular praise on the part of those of us who like to learn something about the music we’re listening to.

As everyone with any interest at all in the topic knows, the interest in American folk music in the 1940s and ‘50s was predominantly a left-wing phenomenon. Though the authentic artists themselves had no particular political agenda, their urban admirers most certainly did. The Folkways catalog reflects this, sometimes in a pretty heavy-handed way, as does the “Songs to Grow On” series. Some of the material is not “folk” by normal definition, e.g. a program devoted to the Harlem Renaissance. And Michael Asch is pretty obviously a committed leftist. So you have to put up with a certain amount of left-wing propaganda in the programs, and mostly that’s not hard for a non-sympathizer like me to do. It’s well meant, I think, if naïve. But there is one moment of foolishness—to use no harsher term—that requires comment.

It’s toward the end of the first program in the series. Asch is discussing the optimism that followed World War II, the hope that a better world would follow the carnage. But these hopes were not to be realized, he says. I waited for what would come next, the explanation of what went wrong. And I shouldn’t have been surprised when it came, but I was. The answer, according to Asch: the hope for a better world was “a dream dashed with the Red scare.”

Perhaps it was understandable at the time, but there is no excuse for such views today, though I know they are still widely held (see almost any Hollywood treatment of the times). Anyone who can look at what the Soviet Union and China were doing in the years following WWII, or simply to refuse to look at all, and conclude that anti-communism was the great evil of the time is willfully blind. I’m not sure whether such blindness deserves pity or scorn, but it certainly does not deserve respect. It’s like a southerner blaming abolitionists for ruining the old South.

That didn’t stop me from enjoying the rest of the programs I’ve heard, and I’m hoping there won’t be anything else quite as egregious, though I may skip the program devoted to Sacco and Vanzetti.

There is an interesting rundown of the politics of the folk movement in this recent article at First Things. I think it’s factually correct though it exhibits little awareness of the fact that most people who liked this music simply liked the music.