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December 2010

Prince Caspian, the Movie

I had skipped this when it first came out, having been less than happy with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. But I'm half-planning to go see Voyage of the Dawn Treader, so I thought I ought to see PC, too. (Why? I don't know, exactly, it just seems that I should, but I guess that doesn't necessarily make sense.)

Depending on how generous I felt at the moment, my opinion of it could range from "not very good" to "really terrible." This Touchstone article by Steven D. Boyer covers a lot of the problems, focusing on the more abstract philosophical mistakes of the film.  But I think those problems are the result of a fundamental aesthetic error. At any rate, the two aspects are certainly very closely connected. 

Prince Caspian includes an attack on Miraz's castle, which as the Touchstone article points out does not exist in the book. It seems to have been invented partly for the purpose of showing what jerks Caspian and Peter are, and partly because the filmmakers believed they needed to have more big loud Hollywood action stuff than the book could justify. It was during this long scene that it occurred to me that the filmmakers were trying to turn The Chronicles of Narnia into The Lord of the Rings (movie version). 

Well, it's totally wrong. I didn't think the Lord of the Rings movies were really very good, overall, as adaptations of the book, despite many wonderful moments.  But apart from that, the Narnia books are vastly different from LotR. The world Lewis creates is utterly unlike Tolkien's. It contains little to none of the grand scale, the high and serious nobility, and the deep tragic sense of Tolkien's story. It's small and modest and homely.

Worse than that, though, is the intrusion of an immensely tiresome contemporary sensibility which has nothing in common with Lewis's vision. This is partly noted in the Touchstone article. My daughter Clare summed it up pretty well in an email exchange:

"Yes, injecting 'emotional realism' into a Narnia story is like putting giblet gravy on a cupcake. I can see what the director was trying to do, but it just doesn't work for Narnia. You can have either Narnia, where everyone (except a few select folks like Miraz and Eustace) is basically good and their actions are generally in good faith even if they're wrong, or you can have emotional realism, where everyone is deeply flawed and disagreements are often completely irrational. I mean, if it's all about the gritty realism, it's just not Narnia."

Perhaps the most telling example of the fundamental wrong-headedness of the film's approach is in the fact that it invents a romance between Susan and Caspian. Fortunately, they didn't go as far with this as they might have, but it was still a big mistake. Clare again:

"I thought they messed up Susan pretty thoroughly in the first movie. They were going for no-nonsense tough girl who can stand up for herself, I think, but the line between that and cranky troublemaker is very thin. On the other hand, I don't think book-Susan would put up with all the sighing and longing glances. She's always struck me a profoundly down-to-earth person - even if she did have some kind of relationship with Caspian, they wouldn't be all ostentatious and Epic Romance about it (more like the cab driver/king and housewife/queen from The Magician's Nephew if you remember them). It's almost like the director and screenwriters haven't read the books at all and are just working from a plot outline."

My emphasis above, because I think that sums it up pretty well. Susan is, in my opinion, as big an indicator of the fundamental problems as Peter and Caspian are in the eyes of the Touchstone writer. She's almost always sullen and irritable in what has become the pretty cliched Hollywood depiction of the Smart Woman Who Is Not Being Listened To By the Egotistical Males Even Though She Is Always Right.

I'm sure the filmmakers did read the books. The problem is that they decided to turn them into something they're not. 

The Heart of Christmas

Sunday Night Journal — December 26, 2010

When I was a child, Christmas was the most wonderful thing in the world to me. The only thing that even came close to matching its appeal was a trip to Florida, to the white sand and blue-green waters of the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Not surprisingly, I was more interested in Santa Claus and the presents he brought me than in the Nativity of Christ. I learned fairly early that this was not really the correct way to think or feel about Christmas, but I couldn’t help it. Mary and Joseph and the baby and the stable and the manger and the shepherds and the angels and the Wise Men were all very sweet, but a little off to one side in the Christmas picture, not nearly as entrancing as the Christmas tree and the magical surprise of the presents that would appear around it on Christmas morning.

And yet I was conscious that without the Nativity the rest of it was meaningless and without real delight. When I say I was conscious of this, I don’t mean that I reasoned it out in a chain of logic—B is dependent on A, and therefore if I want A I must also have B—or put it into words for myself, but that I perceived, directly, that the things I loved about Christmas could not be separated from the event it commemorates. From the time I could read I felt that there was something amiss when “Season’s Greetings” was substituted for “Merry Christmas.” (Even in the 1950s, there was sometimes an impulse to make “the holidays” a generic secular winter festival; it would make an interesting subject of study to see just how far back that goes in popular culture and advertising, and how it developed.)

There was a seasonal or holiday magazine of sorts that appeared in our house sometimes. It was called something Ideals: that is, Christmas Ideals, Easter Ideals, and so on. I mainly remember the Christmas one. It was something more than an ordinary magazine, much heavier and thicker, really a sort of book, and as far as I can remember it consisted mainly of pictures, stories, and poems associated with the holiday. The Christmas one of course relied heavily on snow and evergreens and all the other trappings of Christmas in the northern parts of the U.S. and Europe. I loved it and pored over it again and again in the weeks before Christmas for the pleasure of tasting that sense of magical expectation that anything connected with Christmas gave me. Some of the pieces were of the generic winter variety: a snowy landscape with no hint of red and green to suggest Christmas, a description of a holiday gathering which did not name the holiday. Living in a hot climate, I felt a romantic attraction toward snowy landscapes, but in this context I felt that something was missing if they were no more than that.

And the music: I always felt that “Winter Wonderland” had something missing, but I think I was twelve or fourteen before I realized that it is not in fact a Christmas song. I never even much cared for the Santa Claus songs which left everything but Santa out of the picture.

I knew instinctively that the story of the Nativity, with all its implications about the nature of the world and our place in it, was the heart of Christmas. Maybe I preferred to look at the face, but I knew, unconsciously, that it was dependent on the heart for its life.

And this was true whether or not I recognized it. Those who celebrate a Christmas without Christ don’t recognize it, and don’t believe the connection between the two is a necessary one. But I’m pretty sure they’re mistaken. We can still see Christ in the popular American commercial Christmas by his absence; it’s as if all the a-religious trappings outline his form. If you try to imagine a Christmas which had never been founded in the Bethlehem story at all, you get something very different.

The secularizers who for various purposes of their own—anti-Christian or merely commercial—wish to eliminate Christmas in favor of a featureless Holiday that commemorates nothing in particular may eventually succeed. But that Holiday will inevitably be dull in comparison with what it replaces, and probably increasingly squalid as well, given the general drift of our society. The particular festive spirit that animates Christmas is a product of hope, a hope that cannot be entirely defeated by the world, because it looks toward something beyond the world. But anything which does not look beyond the world will sooner or later be defeated by it.

As with the holiday, so with the culture at large. The increasingly post-Christian culture of America and Europe are nevertheless more deeply rooted in Christianity than is usually recognized by its opponents (and some of its adherents). It’s at least theoretically possible that this culture will eventually get Christianity out of its system, out of the roots of its consciousness, and negligible as a cultural force, reduced to the private practices of an eccentric few. This would take several generations, and I don’t think it will happen, but it certainly could. And if it did, the resulting culture would, like Christmas, lose the hope and the humanism which had been its legacy from Christianity. As with Christmas, if the heart were to stop beating, the body would die.

We have seen the prospects for that new culture already, in the totalitarian nightmares of communism and fascism, in the wasteland of pleasure-and-power-seeking which is offered as the good life by much of the entertainment and advertising produced by capitalism, in the drab materialist collectivism of “Imagine” and the absurd materialist egoism of Atlas Shrugged.

Perhaps it’s not even too much to say that if Christmas were to die, the remains of Christian culture would die, too, and with it that softness toward the individual human person—imperfect, of course, and slow to develop—that has characterized it. As long as the mad mixture of the very earthly and the very heavenly which is Christmas—the poor and vulnerable newborn baby among the animals on the one hand,  choirs of angels on the other—remains at the heart of the holiday, and the holiday remains very much alive in the culture, the natural coldness and brutality of the human race is always challenged from within the culture itself. Should that challenge be removed, no one would be more surprised by the result than those who worked to remove it. They might not live to see that result, but if their souls were not lost altogether, part of their purgatory might be the knowledge of what they had done to their descendants.

How wonderful, on the day after Christmas, to sit in a comfortable chair near the lighted tree, take up a volume of Wodehouse received as a gift from one's spouse, and find that the title of the first story is "The Custody of the Pumpkin."

It was as good as the title suggests. "Lord Emsworth could conceive of no way in which Freddie could be of value to a dog-biscuit firm, except possibly as a taster..."

Maddy Prior & The Carnival Band

Weekend Christmas Music

Pretty much my favorite Christmas album. 


And thanks to YouTube I learn that there is a DVD of them doing a Christmas show. Here's "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," performed very much as heard on the album. I love Maddy Prior--she's so unpretentious and engaging, while singing so wonderfully.


(Also, I find it somehow encouraging that she's slightly older than I am.)


If you use Wikipedia...

...please read this appeal and consider making a donation. I realized a while back that I have come to rely very heavily on it. The small donation I just made doesn't come close to paying for the use I get out of it, but it's something.

Interesting detail (to me, anyway): Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, is from Huntsville, Alabama, near where I grew up and where I lived 1984-1990.  Disheartening detail: he's an objectivist. But Wikipedia is still a good thing.

Waiting for Joy

Sunday Night Journal — December 20, 2010

One of the more irritating ways of dismissing the major Christian holidays is to declare that they “celebrate the turning of the seasons” or something of that sort. You know: Christmas marks the winter solstice by placing light and music at the darkest time of year; Easter is about the renewal of life in spring; etc. It’s not that these are wrong, and it is very fitting that these celebrations are placed where they are in the calendar (for the northern hemisphere, and especially for northern latitudes). But they are only a part of the truth, and when put forward as explanations they distort the truth by putting the lesser above the greater.

To treat these holidays as if their purpose is to mark the passage of the seasons is to deny their real meaning. It is a more accurate view of the matter to say that the seasons are used to emphasize the events commemorated by Christmas and Easter than the other way around. The traditional European Christian calendar, with Advent beginning in late autumn, Christmas near the winter solstice, Lent in deep winter, Easter beginning near the spring equinox, and the rest of the year designated as “ordinary time” is a way of organizing the time marked by the passage of the earth around the sun. It sanctifies the seasons but does not make them objects of worship or near-worship. It is not drawn down into them but draws them up into itself. It uses the cycle of seasons to point toward the end of all cycles. Both Christmas and Easter commemorate events that happened once and only once in all of history. And their appearance in history constitutes the beginning of the end of the cycles in which we live.

There are people who are naturally disposed to look on the brighter and warmer side of the earthly cycle, and those who are naturally disposed to look on the darker and colder side: optimists and pessimists, the sanguine and the melancholic. The sanguine can always say, at the winter solstice: the days will now begin to get longer, and summer is coming; things will get better. The melancholic can always say, at the summer solstice: the days will now begin to get shorter, and winter is coming; things will get worse. Each appears to have more or less the same degree of justification for his views. It’s the nature of life in this world that things change, that the very worst situation will either get better or come to an end, and that the very best situation will either get worse or come to an end.

But in the long run the melancholy view of this earthly life is the true one. Yes, in the day-to-day and year-to-year course of life, the results may be about even: day follows night, night follows day. Summer follows winter, winter follows summer. But life and death do not join that dance. Death follows life, and that’s the end of it. In the long run time is the destroyer. Every pleasure, every good thing, will disappear into the past of the one who experiences it, never to be retrieved. New joys may come, but they won’t last, and the time will come when those that are passing will not be replaced by new ones. Eventually the one who experienced them will also pass away into time, and all his experiences disappear with him.

Man is in love, and loves what vanishes:
what more is there to say?

The melancholic is one who cannot ever entirely forget that time and death are waiting for everything. It is this that make even the sweetest of earthly joys bittersweet to him—this, and the yearning for a joy that neither disappoints nor passes away.

The joy of the melancholic is always in the shadow of his knowledge that it can never be complete or permanent. “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will,” says the country singer Mac Sledge in that wonderful movie Tender Mercies. And who would be so foolish as to tell him he should? Even a life miraculously fortunate and untroubled will come to an end. A young man wins the heart of the beautiful woman for whom he yearns, and promises to love her forever. But even if they live long and happily together, the end will come. They will lose the glow of youth and fade together, growing weak and wrinkled and slow. And no matter how much grace and devotion they bring to those years, time is bearing down on them, and will bring his scythe down to separate them.

The melancholic doesn’t celebrate the seasons so much as accept them, knowing that each brings its pleasures but that none of those will last. He prepares himself to let each one go even as it arrives. And he does this with everything in life.

But if Christianity is true then the melancholic is wrong in the longest run of all, and the sanguine are right. The significance of Christianity is not that it celebrates the cycles but that it ends them, and not by extinction, but by fulfillment. It promises joy that does not disappoint or fade away, and a life that is not closed by death.

It may appear to the sanguine that the melancholic lacks the capacity for joy. I suppose this is sometimes the case, and it’s a frightening thought, because for anyone to lose that capacity truly and completely would be to lose his soul. But I think more often the melancholic is wounded: he will no longer give his heart to a lover who has betrayed him more than once and will certainly do so again. Fault him for being weak or timid, too easily defeated, if you like, but you can’t say he’s unreasonable.

But he ought to celebrate Christmas without any such reservation, because it points toward an eternal Christmas. The lover will return, forever faithful and forever beautiful. And if the melancholic seemed in this life to lack the capacity for joy, well, just wait until you meet him in the new creation.


Marian Program on Hearts of Space

By all indications, Stephen Hill of Music from the Hearts of Space is a secular/New-Age-y/all-religions-are-equally-valid kind of guy. But he certainly speaks very respectfully and often empathetically of Christianity.  Read the notes for this week's program, which is devoted to Mary, and you'll see what I mean: ...the spirit of Mary floats over Christian history like a beneficent cloud, carrying a message of eternal feminine wisdom, patience and compassion. That's a nice way to put it, I think. And be sure to look at the image gallery.

Virginia Woolf on Faith

In a letter to her sister:

"I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot," wrote Woolf, "who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God."

I think something like this is behind much of the hatred of Christians and Christianity that shows itself in the political arena from time to time. 

This is quoted in Peter Hitchens' new book, which promises to be much superior to his brother Christopher's work. (Hat tip to Robert for the link.)

Enya: O Come O Come Emmanuel

Weekend Music

Ok, if you want to say the timeless purity of this hymn is not especially well served by Enya's lush treatment, I won't argue with you. I'll grant the case in the abstract. But I think it's beautiful, and besides I've already revealed my weakness for Enya by posting "Orinoco Flow" last weekend. And credit to Enya for singing it in Latin as well as English. I also realize that my mostly Catholic readers may be just a bit weary of the tune by this point in Advent, because you've probably heard it at every Mass since the beginning of Advent. You are hereby granted a dispensation from clicking the "play" button.


Fog and Moonlight

Last night I saw something very beautiful which I'd never seen before and may never see again. I had been out around 9 and seen that the sky was very clear, so the three-quarters moon was very bright. Later, around 11, I walked the dogs down to the bay as usual. A light fog had formed, just thick enough to soften and blur everything, but not thick enough to block the moonlight altogether. The moon was halfway down the western sky and was clearly visible, though somewhat dimmed, and looking straight at it revealed the way the mist was constantly swirling. The tiny droplets of which the fog was composed scattered the light, giving a very faint radiance to the fog itself.  

We don't get fog very often, and the chances of this combination of circumstances occurring again are not great. I wish I could keep the picture in my mind but it's already fading.

The End of Literary Culture (part 2)

Sunday Night Journal — December 13, 2010

The flight from Christianity has been a prominent feature of Western intellectual life since the 18th century, and it can be said that the anti-culture has existed since then. Mockery has always been an important part of its response to the faith it rejects. Mockery is a good thing as far as it goes; there is much in the world that deserves it, and much in the Church (or churches). Christian artists have always known how to mock those who speak in the name of God without mocking God, but the anti-culture does not know that distinction. Where the Christian tradition is concerned, it operates chiefly with mockery, sarcasm, and irony, with occasional lapses into violent rage (which seem to be growing more frequent).

Mockery is required because one cannot seriously engage Christian thought, and the entire Christian worldview, without realizing that it is a deep and deeply coherent understanding of what mankind is, why we exist, and where we are going. Such an engagement does not necessarily lead to conversion, but it leads almost necessarily to respect and to some degree of sympathy, which is not helpful when waging war. Moreover, it requires thought and effort. It is much easier and more effective (seemingly) to assume all such matters settled long ago, that all of it is myth and superstition now disproved by “science.”

Mockery is the natural expression of this attitude; one does not argue with the absurd. In our time it is less likely to be active wit (as in Mark Twain, who is funny even to those who disagree profoundly with him) than the pose of wit: the sneer, the smirk, the merely snide. An excellent new word has appeared in recent years to denote the verbal equivalent of these: “snark.” I don’t know its origin, but it suggests “snide,” “sneer,” and “bark,” making it an excellent name for the thing itself, which is a bit of quick, casual, and petty meanness, not deeply significant but annoying. One disagrees with a politician’s views; one snarks about his haircut. (Or, in Sarah Palin’s case, the names of her children.)

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, snarks are not literature. But the snarky tone is widespread in the literature and especially in the criticism of our day. I won’t say it is dominant, because I don’t read enough of it to make that judgment. I will say that it is common enough that I ceased many years ago to find bookstores the alluring places they once had been. Aside from the preponderance of frothy popular titles that I always ignored, far too many of the serious books seemed to come from the anti-culture, or at least to be heavily influenced by it: the snarky tone, the ill-concealed desire to reduce the stature of everything that came before the 1960s, the heavy-handed but light-headed leftist political attitude applied retroactively to the past two thousand years. I find the influential reviews mostly a waste of time (Benjamin Schwartz in The Atlantic is a happy exception, and one of the main reasons I keep my subscription to that magazine). I have fewer friends with literary interests, and those of my friends with whom I still enjoy talking about books are not part of the literary establishment. Libraries have remained as attractive and fascinating as ever: it’s easy to walk past the new-book shelves and lose oneself in the stacks. But the only booksellers that intrigue me are secondhand stores where one may hope to find gems from a generation or two ago.

Having taken up a posture of disdain toward the Christian tradition, the anti-culture finds itself needing to mock not only the Christian faith itself but all those absolutes which are associated philosophically with the tradition. (I should pause here to mention that what I’m referring to as the Christian tradition is not only Christian, but also Jewish and Greco-Roman. And many other things, but especially those. When I speak of the Christian tradition, as distinct from Christian doctrine, or of Western culture, I intend to include those.) And so the anti-culture has difficulty using words like beauty, truth, and goodness without irony. It knows them, of course—you can’t be human without recognizing them and being drawn to them—but it has difficulty in talking or thinking very seriously about them, because one cannot do so without coming up against the question of their objective validity—whether or not they refer to anything other than personal opinion (that semi-sacred thing)—which in turn leads to the question of their source and authority.

But these are the matters toward which all serious thought naturally gravitates. “Gravitate” is the apt word: we are pulled toward them, as lesser cosmic bodies are pulled toward greater, and we can only hold ourselves back from them by effort. More importantly, we gravitate toward the belief that those three things—beauty, truth, and goodness—do in fact exist as standards of judgment independent of our own minds.

In spite of its bourgeois-baiting (now the most tiresome cliché of all) and revolutionary posturing, the anti-culture is fundamentally materialistic. I now return to Eliot as quoted by Epstein:

…[contemporary literature’s] tendency is to encourage its readers to get what they can out of life while it lasts, to miss no ‘experience’ that presents itself, and to sacrifice themselves, if they make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future.

This keeps its literature confined within limits which make it unsuitable as a dwelling for the human soul.

And this is appropriate, because it denies the objective reality of spirit. Even when it uses the language of spirit, it adapts more than it adopts, as in the “spiritual but not religious” self-description favored by many. This spirituality is in general more accurately described as emotionality, because it is primarily concerned with maintaining a balanced and orderly emotional life: a worthy enough effort, but one concerned only with living comfortably in this world. It characteristically borrows religious doctrines meant by those who formulated them as referring to an objectively existing spiritual order, and treats them as meaningful only as aspects of psychology.

(Who hasn’t heard this done with “The kingdom of heaven is within you”? I happened to run across a good example as I was writing this, in an obituary: “[she] seemed increasingly embedded in what might be described as the ‘communion of saints,’ relying on those around her to provide the spiritual support she so badly needed and desired.” Well that, of course, is only a small part at best of what the communion of saints means to a Christian, and it’s clear in the context that the spiritual support referred to is primarily emotional support.)

In its need to escape from the gravitational force of the Christian tradition, the anti-culture attempts to escape from the human. I don’t know a great deal about non-European art, but I venture to say that as a producer of humanistic art—art that is specifically interested in the phenomenon of the human—the Christian culture of the past thousand years has no equal. That humanism appears to be dying. Abstract art, music without recognizable structure, free verse of almost impenetrable obscurity, all have their aesthetic merits (there are works in all these styles that I like a great deal), but they do not point a way forward, but rather represent exhaustion.

Eliot spoke of the Incarnation as having bisected history. It is now impossible to disconnect consideration of the ultimate questions from consideration of Christianity. Christianity is too big, its answers too profound, to be ignored. And so the dismissal of Christianity is often, in a post-Christian culture, the dismissal of any possibility of ultimate meaning. However much it may try, the world cannot will itself into a condition in which Christianity has not been. The word cannot be unsaid, though in principle it could in time be forgotten.

I speak not as a professional with a wide acquaintance of contemporary literary culture, but as an amateur who has concluded that it isn’t worth the trouble to make that acquaintance. It’s not that the literature is so bad; most of the literature of any time is not very good. It’s the particular way in which it fails, by looking in every possible direction except up, inducing a sense of oppression, a sort of modified claustrophobia, such as one might experience in a large open room in which the ceiling is only an inch above one’s head.

Once again an unexpected work emergency (this one partly my fault, alas) has gotten in the way of the SNJ. Tuesday afternoon or night, I hope.

Has anybody seen Voyage of the Dawn Treader yet? And if so what did you think?

We watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe last night. This was the third time I'd seen it, and my reaction overall is more or less the same as when it first came out: flawed but pretty good. I wish I hadn't just a day or two ago heard Liam Neeson's (voice of Aslan) inane remarks about Jesus, Mohammed, etc.  It's been a long time since I read the books, so maybe my memory is wrong, but I don't recall Susan being as whiney and petulant in the book as she's portrayed in the movie. I haven't seen Prince Caspian.

Fanny and Alexander

I haven't been watching many movies for a while now. Last night I finally saw the second half of this, having watched the first half last weekend (it's over three hours long). It's not going to be my favorite Bergman, although like almost all Bergman it's worth seeing, and better than most films. 

This is not a review, exactly. I just wanted to note one or two things: it can be seen as having a definite anti-Christian bias, and it's definitely hostile to a certain brand of severe Protestantism. The villain is a Lutheran bishop who is probably modeled on Bergman's father. I haven't read any reviews or criticism of F&A, but remarks made by Bergman in interviews make that conclusion unavoidable, down to specific things said by the bishop when he is punishing--persecuting, really--the boy Alexander, his step-son.

Of course it's terrible when a bad early experience with Christianity produces a lifelong reaction against it. The inhuman quality of the bishop's approach to the faith is present not only in his severity (and in fact cruelty, though that is his own and not particularly justified by his beliefs). Perhaps more important than that, and contributing to it, is the fact that his sort of Christianity has no place for the life of the imagination at all. This, as much as the severity, is what Alexander cannot bear. And I think many, many people experience a sense of suffocation when they contemplate it.

 The estrangement of Christianity from the imagination and from the imaginative arts has been a great tragedy. A good many artists have put a lot of work into trying to reconcile them, with quite a bit of success. I wish Bergman had been one of them. Much as I love his work, I can't help thinking what a tragedy it was that he remained alienated from the faith. A Catholic Bergman--if I may entertain that fantasy for a moment--might have been the greatest artist of the 20th century. But to be merely great, and not the greatest, is still a pretty fair achievement.

Hail Mary / Gentle Woman

Although this is a bit late for yesterday's Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I'm posting it because I heard it at Mass then. Over the years I have certainly done my share of complaining about the banal soft-pop hymns that have been the staple of Catholic music for the past thirty years or more. Some of them are truly awful (I'll resist the urge to name them). But there are a few I like, and this is one of them. The middle part (beginning with "You were chosen...") is a little questionable, but I truly love the setting of the actual Hail Mary at the beginning. So this is partly my way of making up for all the mean things I've said about this sort of music. The volume on this is rather low; I had to turn my speakers way up. And then remember to turn them down, so the next sound that comes from my computer won't make me jump out of my chair.


More Anniversaries

I've always know that Veterans' Day, November 11, originated as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, and was later expanded to include all war veterans. So I was mildly surprised when I noticed some discussions indicating that a lot of people had never heard of Armistice Day. I wonder how long it will be before most people no longer remember the American significance of December 7: Pearl Harbor Day. It was very much part of my consciousness, growing up in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Now the veterans are in their 80s and their children are entering their 60s. I'm musing again on that phenomenon of living memory. These memories don't have that much longer to live. Here is an interesting set of day-after reactions to the attack.


Happy Birthday to Tom Waits. He's 61. Here are a couple of songs from Mule Variations. The first one is sort of sad. The second one is heartbreaking, so don't say I didn't warn you. But if you choose to watch it, pay close attention to the teddy bear at the end, because he has the answer to the question asked by the song. The volume on both of these is rather low. I had to turn my speakers up a good bit. 



The End of Literary Culture (Part 1)

Sunday Night Journal — December 5, 2010

(I started this piece last Sunday, and had to stop writing to deal with a software emergency at work. But I had already seen that I was probably not going to be able to handle the subject in a blog post. I took it up again today, and once again had to stop and address a problem at work. But it had become clear that I wasn’t going to be able to fit the topic into a blog post of a thousand words or so. The more I wrote, the more the topic demanded that I write. And so I’m calling this part 1. It stops rather abruptly, and will resume next Sunday.  It really should be an essay, and perhaps will find its way into my book.  Thanks to Toby Danna for posting on Facebook the link to the Commentary piece which set me to thinking about this.)

How many people know that the United States has a poet laureate? Of those, how many can name him, or at least would recognize the name if they saw it? (It is “him” right now, so that eliminates half, at least, of our poets.) Of those, how many have read any of his work? My first thought in formulating those questions was that they would describe a progressively smaller group of people. But having written them out now, I think most people who would be able to answer “yes” to the first question would also be able to answer “W. S. Merwin” to the second question, and “yes” to the third.

In any case that group is quite small. Within the United States, one person in a thousand? With a population of three hundred million, that would give a number of roughly 300,000, which seems perhaps a little high to me, although I have no way of knowing whether it is. Surely not more than a million, anyway.

Perhaps more significantly, I would guess that the group of people who know those facts overlaps very heavily with the group of those who are writing or have made some attempt at writing serious literary poetry. In short: poetry in our time is of interest mainly to poets, and perhaps their friends and family.

In contrast, Joseph Epstein tells us in this recent Commentary piece that in 1956 T .S. Eliot lectured to an audience of 15,000 at the University of Minnesota. Even if we assume that some large percentage of those did not really know or care very much about Eliot’s work, they did at least know that he was a famous poet and critic, and they felt at least the they ought to care about such things, or, at very least, wanted to appear to care. Eliot was a celebrity. And he was not an entertainer, playing to the tastes of the crowd: he stood for the highest standards, and his poetry and criticism were austere. Everyone with a little education knew his name, even if they weren’t quite sure who he was and had never read a word he wrote. Bob Dylan wrote him, along with Ezra Pound, into a song (“Desolation Row”)  in 1965, when it was still possible to assume that a mass audience would recognize the names.

There is no comparable figure today. There is no one of his intellectual and artistic stature, and if there were he would not be as widely known as Eliot was in 1956. There are many reasons for the near-extinction of poetry as an art for anyone other than a few specialists, and for the fact that poetry has suffered a greater decline than fiction. But the things for which Eliot was famous—poetry and criticism—are extreme indicators of a trend which has been clear for some time in literature in general. As Epstein says:

Understatedly spectacular is the way Eliot’s career strikes one today, at a time when, it is fair to say, poetry, even to bookish people, is of negligible interest and literary criticism chiefly a means to pursue academic tenure. Literary culture itself, if the sad truth be known, seems to be slowly but decisively shutting down.

I believe this is true. Literary culture is not dead, but it is either dying or becoming something different, which amounts to much the same thing. There are many reasons for this, and Epstein names the obvious ones:

…the distractions of the Internet, poor rudimentary education, the vanquishing of seriousness in university literature departments owing to the intellectually shallow enticements of modish subjects, and the allure of the pervasive entertainments of popular culture.

But there is a more fundamental problem:

Although none of these things help,  literary culture is, I believe, shutting down chiefly because literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.

And here is his diagnosis:

For Eliot, literature was a moral enterprise, but moral in a way that purely secular moralists—the moralists of economics, of social science, of contemporary politics—cannot hope to grasp. He wasn’t accusing modern writers of immorality, or even amorality, but of ignorance “of our most fundamental and important beliefs; and that in consequence [contemporary literature’s] tendency is to encourage its readers to get what they can out of life while it lasts, to miss no ‘experience’ that presents itself, and to sacrifice themselves, if they make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future.” Not, any of this, good enough.

I think this is exactly right, and would carry it further: the current intellectual climate is extremely moralistic, but in a way that is antagonistic to what Eliot still felt justified in calling “our most fundamental and important beliefs.” The gap between the contemporary literary community and that of Eliot’s time is in part the product of something more active than mere neglect, mere failure to preserve: it involves a conscious act of destruction.

The moralism of contemporary intellectual culture, the culture which is the ungrateful inheritor of the Western literary and philosophical tradition, produces and is produced by an attitude of hostility and skepticism toward that very tradition. It is a broad movement, much larger than literary culture specifically. It is amorphous, and has no agreed-upon name. I’ve sometimes called it the cultural left, meaning that it is a cultural movement which is primarily concerned with reforming or destroying cultural institutions, as the political left is concerned with reforming or destroying political institutions. (In both cases destruction is supposed to be followed by new construction, but those plans are usually somewhat vague.) And I’ve sometimes called it the anti-culture, because its defining characteristic is opposition to the culture in which it is embedded. I think I’ll stick with this second term here.

I don’t mean that all intellectuals are part of this anti-culture, but that it is dominant enough to set the characteristic tone of intellectual life. It is strong in the academy, but that doesn’t mean that all academics are part of it. Only a minority, I suspect embrace its more explicit anti-Westernism, but most are affected by it and have made its pieties—“diversity,” multiculturalism, feminism, etc—their own. And those who oppose it will be conscious of swimming upstream.

The anti-culture is rooted in social-political progressivism, by which I mean the view that history is a record of progress toward a goal of pure freedom and equality (a contradictory dream, but that’s another story), in which effort we are the latest and greatest workers. It sees that the history of the West is full of violence and injustice, which is true enough, but it sees little else. It sees history as a power struggle, and is very much a partisan on one side of that struggle, and therefore it is narrow. It allows little or no room for balance and perspective, or any real sympathy with the past. It is sympathetic to the oppressed, or those counted as oppressed; that qualification is necessary because some of those who were in fact mistreated do not merit much sympathy or attention—persecuted Christians, for instance—because they were allied with non-progressive forces. But it has little interest in the broad humane approach which seeks to comprehend the past in its living complexity, its tangle of good and evil. In its eyes Western culture is either a criminal to be prosecuted, or a fool to be scorned or pitied.

When it reads the literature of the past thousand years or so, it sits in judgment on what it encounters. It looks for and praises what seems to anticipate its own views. It looks for and condemns what offends those views. It makes compliments of the words “subversive” and “transgressive” because it admires whatever undermines the existing order, even if it is in itself repulsive, as in the case of de Sade. (It is not of course at all tolerant of subversion or transgression directed against itself).

The thing to which it is most hostile is exactly the transcendent moral dimension which Epstein describes. Let’s be plain: its chief enemy is the Christian faith, and in particular the Catholic Church, the oldest and largest and most intransigent of the institutions which embody that faith or which sprang from it.

(to be continued)

Best Space Pictures of 2010

Via National Geographic. Some really spectacular pictures. I love stuff like this.

And while I'm at it, and speaking of pictures, this week's Hearts of Space theme is austerity, and the gallery is really nice. The music is spectacular: a series of excerpts of music from northern and eastern Europe, particularly the Baltic area, from the wonderful ECM label. Unfortunately you have to pay to hear it.

Autumn Leaves

Weekend Music

I'd like to make the argument that this is the greatest pop song ever written, but that's really a little foolish, not because it isn't unquestionably a very great song, but because there are so many great ones. Most of my favorites in this pre-rock-and-roll vein have lyrics by Johnny Mercer, who so often has a wistful melancholy touch, along with a gift for the striking visual image, which seem particularly of the 20th century.

Of the versions I found on YouTube, I couldn't decide whether I preferred Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra, so here are both.  Sinatra's is immaculately somber, a single run through the lyric with a string arrangement. Cole's is warmer, with an excellent quiet jazz accompaniment. Take your pick. Caution: risk of tears, especially with the Sinatra.



For the fascinating history of the song, see this piece by Mark Steyn, sent to me by my friend Robert. In reply to Robert, I said:

We will not see [Mercer's] like again, just as we won't see the great poets and composers of the 19th century again. It takes a whole culture to produce artists like him, and that culture is gone.

To which Robert replied: True alas, alas. At least we spent a part of our youth in its afterglow.

I heard this song when I was ten or twelve years old, I think on one of the few recordings my parents owned, and I was somehow better for it; I recognize now that the experience was of perfect beauty in art. Much has changed since the middle of the 20th century, and much of that has been for the better. Yet unquestionably something in the soul of our culture has been lost.

Want to read a story with a happy ending?

Read the first letter on this page. It's really...well, I won't say miraculous, but the chances were very much against the happy ending.

The person who stopped was as brave as he was kind. The "Bayway" referred to in the letter is the long bridge by which Interstate 10 crosses Mobile Bay. Traffic is often heavy and runs 65-85mph or more (100-135kph), and includes a lot of 18-wheelers. People dread having car trouble on it, because the space in which you can pull over is not very much wider than your vehicle--a little less than the width of the traffic lanes, I think. So you're stuck between the traffic flying by a few feet away, and the guardrail of the bridge. If this link works, you can see it on Google Street View.