Previous month:
February 2011
Next month:
April 2011

March 2011

Raccoons Partying

My wife has a couple of bird feeders in the back yard. Two of them hang from poles, and she had a problem with raccons pulling them down (see this post). She ended up attaching one of them at an angle to the railing of a deck, so that it was out of the coons' reach. This morning it was on the ground, which I can only conclude means that a coon managed to get far enough out on the pole that his weight brought it down. Apparently it was a big night in the raccoon world, because when I picked up the morning paper I saw these pictures (the link is to a pdf). You can almost hear the one on the lower right yelling "Woo-hoo!!"

Another Spring Image

So where is it? Here. I was thinking on the way home yesterday that I needed to take some pictures of the beautiful spring green of the cypress trees in my yard and round about. Then I remembered that I had posted one last spring--almost exactly a year ago, in fact. Then I thought I would say something about the huge mess our cypress makes in the fall and winter, dropping enough needles and sticky little cones to cover the patio beneath it at least six inches deep, if I didn't clear it off from time to time, and how I forget all that in the spring because it's so pretty. Then I remembered I had said all that before as well.

I do want to try to get a better picture, although this one is not bad.

Definition of Irony

I gripe a lot about people using the word "irony" when they really only mean "coincidence." Sportswriters are especially bad about this, as in "ironically, the two teams have the same colors." And sometimes people use it when they're referring only to chance or luck, usually bad luck, as in "ironically, it began to rain when we arrived at the beach." To clarify the definition, I offer the following:

When you are officially forbidden to eat lunch in your office but are in the habit of doing so anyway, and your lunch is frequently a sandwich and a container of milk, and you have been using a little Mason jar for the milk, and have been concerned because it would be very easily spilled, although you have never actually spilled it, and have expressed that concern to your wife, who has procured for you a cup with a very small opening that, even if overturned, would permit only a small amount of spillage, and on the second day of using that cup, you spill milk for the first time since you moved into the office in 2004--that is irony.

If only a small amount is spilled and most of it stays on the desk and your shirt, with only a few drops actually reaching the carpet, that's luck.

Belloc On Islam

Writing about Fr. Samir's book on Islam sent me back to Belloc's The Great Heresies for another look at his view of Islam, in the chapter called "The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed." I have to say right off that I don't think "heresy" is a good description for Islam, which seems to me a term only rightly applied to something that appears within a religion. Islam seems less a variant of Christianity or Judaism than a new religion based on both. Of course Belloc uses the antique  and erroneous terms "Mohammedanism" and "Mohammedan" instead of "Islam" and "Muslim" And as always there's a sort of bluster and some sweeping historical conclusions that I suspect are not quite sound enough to justify the confidence with which they're pronounced.

But with all that said, the core of the essay seems perceptive, shrewd, and strikingly prescient. Writing in the late 1930s, Belloc foresaw a serious possibility that Islam would rise from a condition of near-total civilizational collapse and defeat and challenge the West again. He bases this on Islam's continuing spiritual vitality, and contrasts it with the decay of Christianity in Europe.

In Islam there has been no such dissolution of ancestral doctrine—or, at any rate, nothing corresponding to the universal break-up of religion in Europe. The whole spiritual strength of Islam is still present in the masses of Syria and Anatolia, of the East Asian mountains, of Arabia, Egypt and North Africa.

The final fruit of this tenacity, the second period of Islamic power, may be delayed:—but I doubt whether it can be permanently postponed.

There is nothing in the Mohammedan civilization itself which is hostile to the development of scientific knowledge or of mechanical aptitude. I have seen some good artillery work in the hands of Mohammedan students of that arm; I have seen some of the best driving and maintenance of mechanical road transport conducted by Mohammedans. There is nothing inherent to Mohammedanism to make it incapable of modern science and modern war. Indeed the matter is not worth discussing. It should be self-evident to anyone who has seen the Mohammedan culture at work. That culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no reason whatever why it should not learn its new lesson and become our equal in all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over it—whereas in Faith we have fallen inferior to it.

As I write this, of course, a very orthodox and militant Islamic nation, a nation in which Christianity is allowed to exist only precariously at best, is in possession of atomic weapons, and another is making steady progress toward the same goal. Belloc would not have been surprised. Or perhaps he would have been more surprised by the existence of atomic weapons than by Islam's acquisition of them.

The entire chapter can be found online at EWTN, though in a not especially readable format. In fact the whole book is there, but it's one long page(!).

When someone's Facebook status is "Icy wind of night be gone, this is not your domain" and in your mind you hear it sung, not spoken, you've really probably spent too much of your life listening to pop music.  (Explanation.)

Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.: 111 Questions on Islam

Sunday Night Journal — March 27, 2011

If you want a single book that will serve as both an introduction to Islam and a careful consideration of its relationship, past and present, to Christianity, I doubt you could do better than this one. The author is an Arab Christian with many years of direct experience and a great deal of scholarly work on which to base his views, and the result is an excellent synthesis, grounded equally in honesty and good will. It avoids the hysterical fear and hostility of those in the West who can see no good whatsoever in Islam, and also the sentimental irenicism which blinds itself to the serious and intractable conflict between Christianity and Islam. Those secularists on the right who believe that western civilization began with the Enlightenment,  along with certain fundamentalist (for lack of a better word) Christians, are often among those most hostile to Islam, the one because of its hostility to secularism and the other because of its hostility to Christianity. And on the left, those who wish to think of themselves above all as liberal and tolerant often seem wilfully blind to the conflict between their values and any  realistic and historically justifiable view of Islam (an illusion which is not held symmetrically). 

In this situation Christianity finds itself in a three-way struggle. Islam is its ancient enemy, and in much of the world its conquerer. But the post-Christian civilization of Europe and the U.S.A., officially a-religious if not atheistic, is often equally hostile and continually becoming more so. With Islam, Christianity shares a conviction that the world is the creation of one God, that the meaning of this life lies beyond it, and that our life in it must be ordered with that in mind. With secularism, Christianity shares a willingness to declare the existence of a public philosophical, cultural, and political space which is not the exclusive property of any religious or anti-religious group. I would not want to say which poses the greater threat to Christianity as a way of life, and which is more likely to be something with which Christianity can coexist in some reasonable degree of harmony.

To the drama of the modern Christian encounter with unbelief is now added the encounter with a religion at least equal in power and appeal (in worldly terms) to Christianity. Islam is intrinsically “fundamentalist” in one sense—not in the loose and pejorative sense, but in the sense that it is founded on a book, and that fidelity to the book is the measure of one’s practice of the faith. (Samir affirms the applicability of the term to Islam, noting that it has been adopted, in Arabic translation, by many Muslim authorities.) My personal conjecture as to its future is that it will suffer from the same tension as Bible-only Protestantism: that there will be an increasing degree of conflict between literalists and liberals, between those who adhere strictly to the word as written, and those who feel free to interpret it according to the changing standards of the times. As in Protestantism this has produced extremes in each direction, with a rigid refusal to adapt on one end, and on the other end a near-collapse of any sense that the text has any objective permanent meaning, so I expect Islam to develop in opposing directions. But this is truly, I emphasize, only conjecture. And even if it proves to be true, there is no assurance that the fundamentalist and liberal forces will be even roughly equal in influence.

There is no doubt that Christianity can co-exist with Islam, because it has done so, and the experience has not been entirely negative. Contrary to a widely held misunderstanding, Islam did not spread by forcible conversion. It is true to say that it spread “by the sword,” by conquest. But the conquered were not forced to embrace Islam, only to accept a condition of something less than equality with Muslims. Conversion offered many practical benefits, and Islam was and is a much simpler religion than Christianity, and so in time most of the conquered peoples submitted. But the existence of large Christian communities in Muslim lands for thousands of years testifies to the willingness of Islam to tolerate other faiths.

What is in question is whether Islam can co-exist with Christianity as an equal, within a basically secular political framework. Fr. Samir makes a good case for the idea that this is not something that can be easily achieved, because Islam has not in general seen that it has anything to gain from dialogue with other, i.e. false, religions, and, more importantly, it is a tenet of Islam, in both teaching and practice, that it is the perfect revelation containing the perfect rule not only of spiritual but of political and social life. Christianity has always separated church and state conceptually, even while envisioning them as working hand-in-hand. Islam, by all accounts, does not do this. So it may prove that Islam is not able simultaneously to accept a position as one religion among many in a secular political order, and to maintain its integrity.

Fr. Samir outlines what he believes to be the conditions for authentic and fruitful dialogue in a passage which I would reproduce in its entirety if it weren’t two pages long. It will sound familiar to anyone familiar with Catholic teaching on inter-religious dialog in and since Vatican II:

Today, especially on the Christian side, [dialogue] is a time of masking one’s face and cultural heritage in order to engage the other person. This is a dialogue of the lowest common denominator, of so-called common values searched for at all costs as a starting point instead of being arrived at as the possible result of a common journey.

This position is often motivated by good intentions and by an authentic desire for encounter, but it does not lead anyone very far. It neither helps us understand each other more nor forms the conditions for a better coexistence. Saying what the other likes to hear belongs more to diplomacy.... Authentic dialogue requires love for the truth at all costs and respect for the other in his integrity. It is not minimalist but rigorous.

111 Questions is actually a series of interviews, which makes the grace and coherence of Fr. Samir’s reflections even more impressive. It is divided into five sections:

  1. The Foundation
  2. Can Islam Change?
  3. The Challenge of Human Rights
  4. Islam Among Us
  5. Islam and Christianity: the Unavoidable Encounter, the Possible Dialogue

Section I is an overview of the history and basic teachings of Islam. Section II confronts, without timidity, the relationship between Islam and violence. In another passage worth quoting: the Qur’an there are two different choices, the aggressive and the peaceful, and both of them are acceptable. There is need for an authority, universally acknowledged by Muslims, that could say: From now on, only this verse is valid. But this does not—and probably never will—happen. This means that when some fanatics the name of pure and authentic Islam, nobody can tell them, “You are not pure and authentic Muslims.” All they can say is “Your reading of Islam is not ours.” …this is the ambiguity of Islam, from its beginning to the present day: violence is a part of it, although it is possible to choose tolerance; tolerance is a part of it, although it is possible to choose violence.

Section III emphasizes religious freedom and the rights of women. Section IV is focused on Europe and especially Italy, a somewhat different situation from that in the U.S., as we have not had a similar influx of Muslim immigration from former colonies, or as “guest workers.” Section V ends with a reflection on the contribution which the Arab Christian communities can make to the dialogue. One reads it sadly conscious of the escalating attempt on the part of Islamic fanatics to destroy those communities, and the tragic consequences for them of American interventions in the region.

Not to be forgotten is a point made several times in the book and emphasized at the end: the encounter with Islam is certainly a challenge, and sometimes a threat, but it is also an opportunity for witness which may lead to good things we might not have foreseen. And hostility and fear are not sound bases for witness.

Here is an interview with Fr. Samir in which he makes some of the same points found in the book.

A Few Spring Images

These are not especially good photographs. The first two were taken with my phone, and are small and not of high quality, the other with a camera which is new to me and, since I haven't bothered to read the documentation yet, produces somewhat unpredictable results.  But they can serve as suggestions.

From my office window a week or so ago:


Azalea bush at the home of my daughter & her husband (and my grandson!):


Blackberry blossoms in the front yard:


Feast of the Annunciation

I'm supposed to be offline today, because it's a Friday in Lent. But it's also a feast day, so I'm allowing myself brief visits.

I always think of Fra Angelico's Annunciation on this day.  I am far from a connoiseur of the visual arts, and often feel a little guilty that I don't respond very fervently to most art on religious themes. But I loved this painting the moment I set eyes on it, many years ago, and I still do. Most depictions of Mary leave me cold, and many are actually off-putting, and obstruct rather than enhance my sense of devotion. But I find her face here enchanting, a look of pure willing unfearing expectancy. This image was lifted from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's site. Google image search found some that have more vivid color, but this one is large enough (click on it) to show more detail.


Ents? Old Man Willow?

Secret military project gone horribly wrong? Why haven't we heard more about this? What are they not telling us?


(Thanks to Janet Cupo.)

(The handwriting on the sign says "The one on the right mugged my grandma.")

Praying When Angry

I've been saying the rosary on my way home from work for a while now (I know, not the best time for prayer, but I figure better to do it this way than not at all). And I've left work angry a number of times lately (arrived that way, too--things are not going well there). When that happens--when I find myself angry at a time when I had intended to pray--my first impulse is to ditch the prayer.  "How can I pray when what I really want to do is...[!#@&^!!(*&#@! etc.]?" It really seems just about impossible. But I force myself to do it anyway, telling myself that this is probably one of the times I most need to do it. And nearly always I find, by the time I'm finished, that I'm not very angry anymore.

You'd think I would have learned that by now, but it's finally beginning to sink in. Now I need to work on not going back, after the prayer is over, to dwell on whatever I was all torqued up about and ending up back where I started.

Bergman: Hour of the Wolf

Sunday Night Journal – March 20, 2011

(I generally try not to give away too much of the plot of a book or movie I’m discussing, but it’s almost impossible to discuss this one without giving away something about how it ends. Since that is more or less revealed, in broad terms, in the beginning, I don’t think I’m telling too much, and I won’t not be very specific.)

It would be a sort of pun, but a true one, to say that I am haunted by this film, because it is itself about a haunting: an artist, Johann, is tormented by...things—it’s hard to say with certainty what they are—and his wife, Alma wants very much to help him but doesn’t know how. Nor is he able—or willing—that isn’t clear—to accept her help.

The hour of the wolf is the dead time of night, around three o’clock, when the only people who should be awake are those whose work requires it, which is mostly those whose work involves caring for others: doctors, nurses, other hospital staff, policemen and firemen, ambulance drivers. Even most revelers except perhaps the most decadent are generally asleep by three. For most of us, to be awake at that hour generally means that something bad is happening: insomnia or nightmare or illness. “It’s the time when most people die and most children are born. It’s now that the nightmares come to us. And if we are awake, we are afraid.”

For Johann, it is the time when he is attacked. If Satan is, most literally, the Accuser of mankind, one can say that Johann is being attacked by Satan, in the person of lesser demons, or “ghosts,” as he calls them. (I think he refers to them at least once as “cannibals,” which is appropriate, and apparently this movie and Persona were originally part of a single project called The Cannibals.) When we first hear of these it seems likely that they are nightmares or visions, but they become progressively more real. It is not at all clear, even at the end of the film, just what is real and what is in Johann’s own mind (and later perhaps in Alma’s). In the beginning he draws pictures of them, which he shows to Alma—the bird-man, the woman whose face comes off, and others. Later they are embodied in the wealthy and corrupt inhabitants of a castle on the other side of the island where Johann and Alma live. Even then, one is not entirely sure if those people really are the demons of his waking nightmares, or if his madness has caused him to see real people—not very pleasant ones, perhaps, but not supernatural—as demons. In the end it doesn’t really matter, because the assault is real, whatever its relation to the physical world.

The attacks come in different forms—hostile, fawning, seductive—but all are aimed ultimately at humiliating him as both artist and man, forcing him to see himself as evil, weak, and ridiculous. Did he commit a murder? We are not entirely sure, but he seems to think he did. We are told in the beginning that his work had not been going well when these visits began, and the entire series of events can be seen as the collapse of an artist losing his gift, or at least his ability to exercise it. Toward the end of the film, all the ghosts come together to mock him brutally, leaving him shattered and defenseless. At the end of this scene we see him mouth words but cannot hear what he says, if indeed he is saying anything coherent, so near to destruction that he has lost one of the fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.

Bergman had, by the time he made this film, cast off definitively the Christianity with, and against, which he struggled in his great works of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. But the struggle never really ended in his work, and among those films with which I’m familiar, (with the possible exception of Persona, the immediate predecessor of Hour of the Wolf) the operation of grace—God’s offer of healing love—is never altogether absent. Grace is offered to Johann in the person of the wife who loves him deeply. I seem to remember learning that the familiar phrase “alma mater” meant something like “dear mother,” but the Latin meaning seems to be something closer to “nourishing” or “nurturing.” The Wikipedia article on the name gives “spiritually supportive one” as the Latin sense when the word is used as a proper name. It is unlikely that Bergman’s choice of the name was an accident, since there is also an Alma in Persona who plays, at least initially, a somewhat similar role.

Johann lives increasingly in a world which is populated only by himself and the ghosts. It is difficult to sympathize with him, however horrible his predicament, because he seems to choose it. Alma attempts several times to reach him, to get him to allow her to help him, but for the most part he rebuffs her coldly, even brutally in one scene, which seems to be (if I’m remembering the sequence correctly) his last chance. Whether or not the ghosts are physically real, their attack isolates him, and one feels that if he could only allow love into his world things might change. At times he seems to know that this is true: he tells Alma that he needs her simplicity and wholeness. But it seems that he is incapable of moving from this abstract recognition to an actual opening to her, and giving of himself to her. Alma is pregnant, but I don’t recall any indication that Johann is at all interested in this fact.

And yet the suggestion that Alma could have saved him is ambiguous, because there are equally strong, if not stronger, suggestions that her attempt to get closer to him only brings her into the same danger he faces, and would in the end leave her as helpless as he is against the ghosts.

But even if Johann cannot be and could not have been saved, Alma’s existence, and her desire to save him, is proof that hell need not have the last word. This is surely one of Bergman’s darkest films, and yet the vision of Alma’s life-giving love is one of the most powerful things in it. The opening scene shows us a basket of apples sitting on a table outside the home of Johann and Alma, and this image of peaceful fruitfulness seems not only ironic in relation to the story we are about to see, but also indicative of what could have been, of what was offered and refused. I’m left thinking of the Biblical “I have set before you life and death...choose life.”

I don’t pretend to fully understand Hour of the Wolf. I think I’m right in my broad interpretation of it, but any number of details remain obscure to me. I said in the beginning that I am haunted by the film. I mean that in the sense that I have continued to think of it often over the weeks since I watched it for the first time (well, actually the second, but the first was in 1968 or so). I also mean it in a possibly more literal sense. I watched it alone one night, and went to sleep soon afterward. I was awakened around the wolf hour by a nightmare in which I was being attacked in much the way that Johann was, and yet nothing in my dream was borrowed from the film: it was tailored very specifically to my personal fears and experiences. I don’t know whether there was anything supernatural in that or not, but at a minimum it testifies to the power the film exercised over me.

I watched it again before sending it back to Netflix and had no ill effects, but found it even more fascinating. It is the light in it, and not the darkness, to which my mind returns. I would not attempt to reduce it to a “message,” but certainly one of the things that remain with me is the vision of Alma’s radiant and vulnerable love, and the tragedy of Johan’s flight from it. I expect I’ll see it again, and more than once. I really must find some critical and biographical material on Bergman; it is more than slightly interesting that he had a breakdown of some kind around the time of this film.

And I ought at least to mention what first struck me about Bergman’s work when I encountered it as a baffled college student more than forty years ago, and keeps me returning to it for simple pleasure as well as for psychological and philosophical insight: its sheer visual beauty. When I first saw Liv Ullman (in Persona, I think) I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, at least as Sven Nykvist photographed her, and I still think so. She seems the very face of love, and when I see her the word “beautiful” is joined immediately in my mind by others like “rich” and “luminous.” And the pleasure of looking at that face, even when it is troubled, is not the least of the pleasures of Hour of the Wolf. Someone seems to have put most or perhaps all of it on YouTube. I wouldn’t recommend watching the whole thing in that low-quality format, but here is the first scene:


More Sense About Radiation

From the fellow who does the xkcd comic, a chart putting the reported radiation levels at Fukushima in perspective. If you have trouble interpreting the chart or don't want to bother, here's a fact: everybody, every day, receives a small dose of radiation from natural sources, and the additional radiation measured at many places in the vicinity of the Fukushima reactor was, on March 17th, only about 1/3 greater than this natural daily dose. And that in turn is only a small number of millionths (I don't want to take the time to do the exact math) of the dose that would make one seriously ill, or dead. The highest measurements near Fukushima have been a bit less than what one receives in a CT scan or mammogram.

Obviously one does not want a CT-scan-level of radiation every day, but this is near the plant. If you look at the chart on which Mr. xkcd based his, you'll see that the dosage varies as the inverse square of the distance from the source: doubling the distance gives you one-fourth the dose. So the fraction of next-to-the-reactor dosage received by someone a thousand miles away is 1/1,000,000 (assuming it even traveled that far). California is approximately 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from Japan.

(Thanks to Karen for pointing me to this chart.)


Some very beautiful images for the day at Hearts of Space (scroll past the astronomical diagrams if you aren't interested). I hope everyone had a chance to see the really big and bright full moon last night.

What other people experience as the first day of spring is more like the first day of summer here. I had to mow the whole lawn yesterday (I did a couple of especially weed-ridden spots last weekend) and soon had sweat running down onto my glasses.

Time to Turn Down the Nuclear Hysteria

I have been trying to follow what's going on at the crippled Japanese nuclear plant, but it's very difficult because the press is being so hysterical. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at the Drudge Report again (yes, I still have the habit of checking it several times a day--I mean, it is a useful headline summary under normal circumstances). Here, via someone on Facebook, is sci-fi/sci writer Jerry Pournelle with a common-sense worst-case summary.

This thing is bad, but it is not a planet-threatening event. It's not even a health-threatening event right now to anyone who isn't pretty near the reactor(s), and even if the worst does happen, it will only be a serious health threat to people near enough to get a big dose of radiation before it gets diffused and distributed enough to make it pretty harmless.

There's something a little crazed about the way the press is focused on this when Japan's problems are so much greater. They talk as if "radiation" were a single thing, like a rattlesnake--you either get bitten or you don't, and if you do get bitten, you die. 

First Glance at David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite

Sunday Night Journal — March 13, 2011

This book has been highly recommended to me by more than one person whose opinion I respect. The title and subtitle certainly make it sound like my sort of thing. And I’ve been convinced from an early age (when I first read Keats’s “Ode On a Grecian Urn”) that beauty and truth can be separated from each other conceptually but not actually—that is, that the one cannot be present without the other, when fully beheld, so the book seemed to hold great promise.

And so it had been on my intended reading list for some time before I asked for and received it as a present this past Christmas. Upon glancing through it that day, I was a bit dismayed, and began to worry that it might be too difficult for me—too dependent on theological and philosophical knowledge that I don’t possess. It is a big, dense book, and I was not comforted by several things that were apparent at a glance: fragments of untranslated Greek, for instance, and the names of philosophers and theologians of whose work I’ve read nothing: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, others whose names I don’t even recognize.

I decided not to attempt it right away, but to wait until Lent, when I generally try to eliminate some distractions and make an effort to focus on a book or author of direct spiritual significance. So, on Ash Wednesday, having taken a day off from my job in order to get the season off to a more recollected start than usual, and having dried myself off from the soaking I received while returning to my car during a violent thunderstorm which began while I was at Mass, I settled down with the book and a cup of herbal tea, coffee being another thing I’m doing without for Lent, ready to begin contemplating the beauty of the infinite.

Well. I’m not at all sure that this new relationship is going to work out. I quickly found myself bogged down, reading sentences over several times and still not really understanding them. Eventually I managed twenty pages, which puts me only two-thirds of the way through the introduction, and leaves me with over 400 pages of very dense prose ahead of me. I don’t think I understood more than half of what I read, and I’m not sure that I learned very much from what I did understand. I’ve found myself in postmodern territory, and I am not at ease there.

Here’s an anecdote comes to me from the distant past, the late 1960s. I’ve long forgotten the source. The topic was popular music. An old-time songwriter of the pre-rock-and-roll school said that he had begun writing songs “in a more contemporary idiom.” Asked to explain what that entailed, he replied, “Oh, you know—use the word ‘mind’ a lot...”

My understanding of postmodernism is on a similar level. If asked to define postmodernism, my immediate response would be “Even worse than modernism.” If asked what it means to speak or write in a postmodern way, I would say, “Oh, you know—use the words ‘text’ and ‘discourse’ a lot...” And I would add “and be very obscure.”

I don’t know whether The Beauty of the Infinite is itself a postmodern work or not. But it certainly speaks often of the postmodern, and seems to be at least in part a response to the postmodern. And it often speaks in a manner which I associate with the contemporary academy and therefore—at least I suppose that is the link—with postmodernism. It’s not only the use of a technical philosophical vocabulary, some elements of which are familiar to me; there’s also a use of simple words, such as “distance,” which seem intended to convey something more than their everyday sense. At any rate, it’s often baffling to me. I have read the following sentence at least half a dozen times and still don’t think I understand more than about half of it:

And while I gladly praise any postmodern desire to give utterance to a genuine discourse of difference and distance, I shall also argue that the forms of postmodern theory addressed in this book, under the constraints of a dogmatically inflexible metaphysics concealed deep within them, can conceive of ontic difference only under the form of an ontological tautology, which reduces difference to mere differentiation (the indifferent distribution of singularities) and which suppresses the only real difference (the analogical) whose affirmation can liberate thought from “totality.”

I know what “ontological” means and I know what a tautology is, but I haven’t been able to get my head around the idea of an “ontological tautology.”

One of several subsections exploring aspects of a definition of the word “beauty” begins with “Beauty is objective.” Excellent; I understand that, and believe it to be true, and the next few paragraphs contain some obscure but useful elaborations of this idea. The next subsection begins with “Beauty is the true form of distance.” Well, that isn’t quite so clear to me. In fact it isn’t clear at all, and as I read on in search of clarification I find that “Within the world, beauty does not merely adorn an alien space, or cross the distance as a wayfarer, but is the true form of that distance, constituting it, as the grammar of difference.” And I am not enlightened. I have no idea what “grammar of difference” means.

Understand, it’s not that I think there is nothing here; I’ve read other things, of a more casual or popular nature, by Hart, and been impressed by them, and so I’m quite sure there is a great deal here. I just don’t know whether it’s accessible to me. And, all right, I admit to harboring the suspicion that it really doesn’t have to be so obscure—and the further suspicion that a phrase like “grammar of difference” is more poetry than theology. But poetry is not easily made from the abstract.

I must either give up on the book, or press ahead with the expectation that I will fail to understand a fair amount of it, and the hope that what I do understand will prove useful to me in some way. I’ll press ahead for now. While writing this I’ve re-read several pages of the introduction and found that some passages make more sense on a second reading. But I don’t think I have what it takes to read the whole thing twice. A back-cover blurb from an unnamed reviewer at National Review says that “This is theology as high adventure, and the excitement continues after the last page has turned...” Maybe I just need to allow more time for the excitement to kick in.

What can you do but pray?

About the catastrophe in Japan. As I mentioned before Ash Wednesday, I plan to stay offline on the Fridays of Lent, and so I didn't hear much about this yesterday. Checking in this morning, it seems things are worse with that one nuclear reactor where the backup generators were flooded. May God be with and assist those who are trying their best to prevent further calamity.

A few things

This looks good: what a great bunch of guitar players...though I'm not so sure about the material.

This is sad; no one who's seen The Wire can forget Snoop.

This is good to know, if you're a Chrome user (which I am).

This is funny, and probably won't be seen by the people who could most benefit from it.

AND: this explains why Ash Wednesday is better than Christmas. (Hat tip to Craig)

Ash Wednesday

I'm going to be offline all day tomorrow. And also on the Fridays of Lent. I'm taking the day off work tomorrow, too, in hopes of getting a better start on Lent this year. This is Mardi Gras country, and most places close on Tuesday and are open on Wednesday, including the Catholic college where I work. (We do close on Good Friday, but I suppose that's partly for the three-day weekend.) The day usually ends up being hectic, with me trying to squeeze Mass in somewhere, and hardly thinking about the day at all, except for my usual grumble about having to hear the non-hymn "Ashes." And it shouldn't be that way, of course.

Elizabeth Goudge: Gentian Hill

Sunday Night Journal — March 6, 2011

Elizabeth Goudge should have been an Inkling. At least from the literary point of view she fits perfectly with those gentlemen who gathered in Oxford at the Eagle and Child, and I’d like to think they would have enjoyed her company, and she theirs. But in any case her work is like theirs on a very deep level, though very different from them all on the surface. As the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams, all vastly different from each other, are connected at the deepest level, so Goudge’s work resembles none of theirs, but shares with theirs a 20th century English Christian sensibility which is, to my mind, one of the great flowerings of Christian culture, and to me personally the most attractive of all.

One way of looking at this book is to say that Goudge does here for the historical romance novel something akin to what Lewis did for science fiction. “Romance” can be applied in two senses: conventionally, to denote a love story, or in the older sense, referring to a long story of marvel and dangers, generally with a reasonably happy ending. I can imagine someone considering Gentian Hill to be romantic in a bad sense, sentimental and unreal. But that would be a great misjudgment. It is not naturalistic, but it is spiritually realistic.

Anyone who has read science fiction has come across the idea of parallel realities or alternative histories which resemble our own in many ways but in which some major event—World War II, for instance—turned out differently and brought us to a present very different from the one we know. (Presumably ours is the only one there is in fact, although some scientists maintain that the alternates really exist, thus explaining why ours is so well suited to producing and maintaining life.) I have sometimes entertained a similar idea, but with the separation existing on the vertical and spiritual axis rather than the horizontal and temporal one: I’ve toyed with the idea that the world we know also exists at spiritual levels above ours. (It seems almost universally impossible to speak of spiritual things without using words like “above,” “below,” “higher,” and “lower.”) At these higher levels—I’ve preferred not to dwell on the lower possibilities—the earth and the life and history we know are recognizable, but cleaner and clearer. They are not devoid of evil, but good and evil are more plainly recognizable, and good is stronger and more pure, less thoroughly tainted with the petty moral and physical squalor that seems to define so much of everyday life. The earth itself has a freshness less touched by decay, and a more direct correlation with the spiritual. In short, these worlds are fallen, but not as far fallen, as ours. I imagine these levels ascending, each one more pure and beautiful than the one below, and having less of evil in it. This progress breaks down at some point; it cannot be thought of as having at its summit an unfallen world, because an unfallen world could not resemble ours in its history, because the Fall is our history.

I don’t take this idea seriously as fact. It’s really only a way of thinking about the Fall, and of what might have been lost, as we don’t really have the means of imagining an entirely unfallen world.

It seems to me that Elizabeth Goudge does something like this in her novels. This book appears at first glance to be intended as a normal naturalistic modern novel, and one who expects it to be such might dismiss it as sentimental. The world of the book is better than ours, and most of the people are better than we are. But this better is achieved not so much by eliminating evil and pain as by drawing out truth and goodness, showing us what the real relationship between good and evil is—that is, that goodness is overflowing richness and joy, while evil is paltry, empty, and dull. And as for pain: there is much pain inflicted by evil in the story, but there is just as much caused by good—I don’t mean pain inflicted by a misunderstanding or misdirection of good, but pain as the direct and necessary action of good, the natural effect of the perfect on the imperfect.

I don’t actually want to say very much about the specifics of the story, because I assume the book will be new to most people who read this, and I think it’s better to come to it fresh. But, to sketch out the basic situation: Goudge tells us in a brief preface that it is “a retelling of the legend of St. Michael’s chapel at Torquay[, b]uilt in the thirteenth century....” The legend begins with a sailor rescued by monks from a shipwreck, who, with their help, builds the chapel and lives out the rest of his life as a hermit there. He has a particular concern for young lovers separated by wars and oceans, a concern that continues beyond his physical death. Goudge’s story is set in the early 19th century, during the Napoleonic Wars. One of the principals is a teenaged midshipman in the English Navy. He is one half of the couple who make the word “romance” in the conventional sense applicable to the book. The other is a ten-year-old girl. It may be hard to imagine, in our debased cultural atmosphere, that such a situation could be portrayed as sexual but not as perverse. I assure you that it is not only not perverse, but holy and beautiful. It is not carnal, there is no question of physical sexual contact, and yet it is an extraordinarily rich depiction of the masculine-feminine duality at the heart of things.

The girl, Stella, is the adopted daughter of a farming couple, Father and Mother Sprigg. Among the pleasures of the book is the portrayal of their life, which forces one to consider how necessary a part of a healthy culture is life on a well-run farm. How Stella came to Weakaborough Farm, the mystery of her parentage, and especially the love between her and the boy Zachary, are the principal strands of the narrative. It ranges back and forth in time, encompassing another pair of lovers and another hermit, not long after Henry VIII made the monastery and the chapel desolate, and a French couple who had escaped the Revolution’s terror ten years earlier.

If the ways in which these strands are woven together sometimes seems a little too dependent on coincidence, remember what I said about naturalism above, and remember, too, that it is generally not possible to distinguish with certainty coincidence from providence.

I can’t begin to say in this short piece all that could be said about Gentian Hill, but one thing that I really can’t leave out is that Elizabeth Goudge is what seems to me a very rare religious bird: an Anglo-Catholic who is genuinely Catholic. Perhaps real Anglo-Catholics are, or at least were, not so rare in England as they seem to be here; in this country Anglicanism seems mostly divided between those who lean toward the combination of doctrinal skepticism and social activism characteristic of liberal Protestantism generally, and evangelicals, who are more orthodox in fundamental doctrine but very definitely Protestant. Had she been an Inkling, Goudge would be known as the most Catholic of the group, notwithstanding Tolkien’s position as the only Roman Catholic. The Catholic spirit of his work lies so deep that it escapes the notice of those who don’t know the faith, but not so with Goudge: she deals with it explicitly, and with an obvious deep and real understanding, an understanding which I think would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve without the actual practice of it.

I’ll close with a passage that can serve as a brief exemplar of the novel’s theological and aesthetic sensibility:

At that moment he believed it was worth it. This moment of supreme beauty was worth all the wretchedness of the journey. It was always worth it. “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” It was the central truth of existence, and all men knew it, though they might not know that they knew it. Each man followed his own star through so much pain because he knew it, and at journey’s end all the innumerable lights would glow into one.

My deep thanks to Janet Cupo for introducing me to this writer, not to mention giving me two of her books.

Interesting Interview With Bono

Janet sent me this link with the observation that "he sounds more orthodox than I thought he would." Indeed he does. I'm not the biggest U2 fan, though what I like of their music I like a lot, and have assumed for a long time that their much-reported Christianity didn't amount to very much any more, that it had become a veneer over ordinary secular liberalism. Well, this would indicate that I'm wrong, at least about Bono himself, and I'm happy to be so. Setting aside his conventional objections to the Catholic Church and her difficult doctrines, and a general suspicion of institutional religion in general, he seems to have a pretty good grasp of the heart of the matter. 

The web site where the excerpt appears is interesting, too. I especially liked this quote from the proprietor's About Me page: "The world's deteriorating moral climate was starting to get to me, especially since I was in the camp of those adding to it. "