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May 2011

NOVA Chorale at St. Joseph's, Covington

I mentioned that I had been out of town for a couple of days. On Sunday my wife and I went to St. Joseph's Abbey (Benedictine) and Seminary in Covington, Louisiana, for a performance by the NOVA (New Orleans Vocal Arts) Chorale, in which my daughter Clare sings. Covington is across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans. It was held in the abbey church, which I thought quite beautiful, though I am no architecture critic. The interior strikes me as rich without being ornate, simple without being austere. More important for the concert, the building has stunning acoustics, and the choir is extremely good, and the program was very well chosen and sequenced, including a good balance of old and modern music; all in all, it was one of the more memorable concerts I've ever attended. 

Of course I forgot to bring my camera, but I did take a few pictures with my phone, and more with my wife's camera. The latter should be better, but I haven't had a chance to get them off the camera yet. If they're good I'll post some. Meanwhile, these from the phone will give you the general idea:



Walker Percy is buried in the abbey cemetery. I had hoped to visit his grave, but the cemetery is fairly big and I had no idea where the grave was, and there was no one around to ask, so I decided not to search. Maybe another time. The Abbey has a nice web site, though in a few minutes of looking around there I didn't see any pictures of the church.

My wife and I talked about buying ourselves a couple of the products of the Abbey woodworking shop. We don't anticipate needing them anytime very soon, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared.

A Late Memorial Day Post

Sunday Night Journal — May 30, 2011

Monday night, actually. I went out of town yesterday, expecting to be back in time to write something more on this. But our plans changed, and I only have time to link to this Memorial Day post from the first year of the Sunday Night Journal. And I'll add this editorial by Frances Coleman of our local paper, saying much the same thing.

These sentiments are not pro-war; they are simply pro-courage and pro-sacrifice. And I would add: woe to those who, in a position to command such sacrifice, would do so for unworthy reasons.

Where I live (and maybe why)

One of the most difficult things for a believer to do is to help a doubter. ...we must...according to Paul's words, mourn with those who mourn, question with those who question, and doubt with those who doubt, for these will overcome their distrust of splendor only in this muted light.

--Hans Urs von Balthasar

Debussy - Arabesque No. 1 (as interpreted by Tomita)

Weekend Music

I give you permission to laugh at me for this one. I can't really defend it artistically, though I won't apologize for liking the first thirty or forty seconds. Let me explain why I like it so much:

Somewhere back in the 1980s, when our children were small, my wife and I discovered Dr. Who, which was broadcast (yes, the old-fashioned way, through the atmosphere) on Saturday nights by Alabama Public Television. It was the Tom Baker period. We were hooked from the first notes of the theme music (well, at least I was). We never have been the sort of people who go out much, and that was especially true when we had young children. So watching Dr. Who on Saturday nights, after the children were in bed, became our big entertainment treat of the week (and if you think that's sad, you need to learn more appreciation for life's little pleasures).

Immediately after Dr. Who came a show called Star Hustler, a brief talk about the astronomical events of the week by a fellow named Jack Horkheimer. It was a perfect somewhat cheesy, somewhat weird dessert to follow the somewhat cheesy, somewhat weird Dr. Who. This Debussy/Tomita piece was the theme music. For years I wondered what it was, but it was only fairly recently that I found out, thanks to the Internet. Hearing the first notes of it takes me right back to those Saturday nights.


And here is an episode of Star Hustler. It's worth sitting through the whole thing to hear his "Keep looking up!" sign-off. And isn't that set great?


Most Astute Political Comment I've Seen Recently

Purporting to offer a middle ground between radical individualism and collectivism, what [liberalism] really gives us is a diabolical synthesis of the two, a bureaucratically managed libertinism.

This is from Edward Feser, quoted by Graeme Hunter in Touchstone, in a review of Feser's book the Last Superstion: A Refutation of the New Atheism. I gather he means "liberalism" in the more or less everday sense, not in reference to classical liberalism.

Just as the Gulf Stream continues to flow generally northeast no matter what storms and local variations are happening on the surface, beneath the specific controversies that are the stuff of our politics, there are deeper and more powerful currents at work. I think this is one of the strongest. It's one of the reasons why I tend to ally myself with those who want to reduce the size and power of the federal government, even though my motives are not necessarily the same. 

What would you say if you met a member of Monty Python?

Surely you wouldn't quote a Python routine at him, would you? I mean, they must be thoroughly sick of that stuff. Or maybe not.

Actually, I'm pretty sure what I would say: nothing. I would pretend not to know who he was, assuming that the last thing he wants is for some stranger to start a conversation with him. If, in the grip of some wayward impulse, I did speak, I'm pretty sure I would say something stupid.

Actually, I probably wouldn't recognize him, unless he was John Cleese and looked exactly as he did in the 1970s.

Dylan's 70th Birthday

Here's something a little different in the Dylan birthday tribute line: his Top 10 Most Overlooked Songs. That's in the opinion of one guy, so naturally no other Dylan fan in the whole wide world will agree with every choice. I have to admit that I haven't heard them all, and one or two I don't really remember. But I agree that "When the Ship Comes In" and "Series of Dreams" deserve to be there. Though Daniel Lanois really should get half-credit for "Series." I'm having trouble getting this video to play, but maybe it's just my connection.


Craig Burrell has a nice post, too.

Update: The link above only works inside the U.S., because eMusic isn't licensed to sell the Dylan stuff in other countries, so I've lifted the list and added it here, along with the accompanying remarks.


Top 10 Overlooked Bob Dylan Songs

by Douglas Wolk

"As I Went Out One Morning"

Given his obsession with history and vernacular American music, Dylan was eventually going to have to confront the legacy of slavery head-on. He did it with this affectless, totally twisted John Wesley Harding song, a three-verse koan in which a beautiful slave tries to convince the terrified narrator to be her lover and "fly south" — and she's not just any slave, but Thomas Paine's slave. Extra points for the way Dylan's asthmatic harmonica and Charlie McCoy's indelible bass counterpoint play off each other.

"Gonna Change My Way of Thinking"

Two underrated talents of Dylan's are his ability to rattle off killer blues couplets and his willingness to go back and tweak "finished" songs. The original version of this Bible-thumping blues appeared on 1979's Slow Train Coming, but when Dylan and Mavis Staples remade it as a duet for 2003's Gotta Serve Somebody compilation, he threw out all but the first verse, came up with a bunch of much funnier half-secular lyrics, cranked his rasp up to "lacerate," added a bit of spoken dialogue lifted from "Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family," and ended up with one of the fiercest rockers of his career.

"If You Gotta Go, Go Now"

The Beatles and Dylan spent a lot of the '60s volleying songs back and forth, and this salacious Bringing It All Back Home outtake is hilarious both on its own and as a parody of the Fab Four's sound circa "I Should Have Known Better." It was a British hit for both Manfred Mann and Fairport Convention (the latter in a French-language, Cajun-style arrangement, as "Si Tu Dois Partir"), but Dylan didn't bother to put it on an album until The Bootleg Series in 1991.

"Nettie Moore"

Dylan's spent his whole career repurposing the language of songs written before he was born, but this Modern Times masterpiece is nearly wall-to-wall references. The beginning of the chorus here is lifted from a pre-Civil War tune, "The Little White Cottage, or Gentle Nettie Moore." (It can't have escaped Dylan's notice that another Nettie Moore was a contralto who recorded "Deep River" and "Song of India" in 1922 for Black Swan Records, "The Only Records Using Colored Singers and Musicians Exclusively.") The "Lost John" of the song's first line comes from a Woody Guthrie tune; the "blues... falling down like hail" is from Robert Johnson; "where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog" is not just a line from W.C. Handy's jazz standard "Yellow Dog Blues," it's the particular line Handy claimed he heard a black musician singing in 1903. And so on: As Dylan puts it, "too much paperwork." What all those allusions add up to, though, is more like a papier-maché mask — "Nettie Moore" is ultimately about a fading consciousness ("the world has gone black before my eyes") reassembling a lost world of experience around itself.

"New Pony"

Occasionally, Dylan's recordings sabotage a terrific song. This two-chord Street-Legal number about sex, voodoo and flirtation with evil has a bunch of terrific lines: "Come over here, pony, I wanna climb up one time on you," Dylan growls. Somehow, the recorded version ended up with a crawlingly slow tempo, a trio of backup singers ceaselessly repeating "How much longer?" and a cheeseball sax solo. Imagine it without the bombast, though, and it's as deep and unnerving as any blues he's written. (For another version of the song, sans cheesy sax solo, check out the Dead Weather's cover of it.)


Dylan doesn't have much of a rep as a groove artist, but the title track of the second album from his born-again Christian period is the funkiest thing he ever recorded. That's partly the work of the ace rhythm section — bassist Tim Drummond (a veteran of the James Brown band, who co-wrote the song) and drummer Jim Keltner. More broadly, though, Dylan had finally figured out how to integrate some of the sound of the gospel and soul records he loved into his own music.

"Series of Dreams"

"Look, I don't think the lyrics are finished," Dylan groused to producer Daniel Lanois about this surging, dramatic song. "I'm not happy with them. The song's too long. But I don't wanna cut out any of the lyrics." In some ways, "Series of Dreams" was Dylan returning to the lyrical mode of his mid-'60s songs — except, this time, their namedropping specificity has been ripped out, and all that's left are stasis, ambiguity and the bare walls that once held his grand visions. The arrangement, though, is the closest he's ever come to Lanois's other associates U2; its slowly cresting dynamics and thunderous rhythm are unlike much else within the Dylan catalogue.

"Tweeter and the Monkey Man"

Having done a mighty good impression of being creatively blocked in the mid '80s, Dylan graced the Traveling Wilburys with a long string of awesome throwaways. This loving tribute to/parody of the Bruce Springsteen canon, in which a transgender Vietnam-vet coke dealer and her boyfriend go on the lam to New Jersey, might have been too silly for one of his own records, but the very point of the Wilburys project was for Dylan and his friends to simply have some fun on record.

"When the Ship Comes In"

Dylan's memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1 discusses the seismic impact that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera song "Pirate Jenny" had on him. This 1964 "finger-pointing song" is Dylan's own "Pirate Jenny": a revenge fantasy where Dylan explores the dark side of his demands for social justice. It's pretty clearly inspired by Brecht and Weill's song — particularly its scenario, in which the ship arrives to wake the sleeping villains and settle some old scores.

"You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"

Blood on the Tracks has so many earthshaking songs that it's easy to overlook the ones that are merely wonderful. "Lonesome" is as simple as a Hank Williams standard in some ways, but it's filled with masterful touches: Dylan rhyming "Honolulu" with "Ashtabula," the "crickets talkin' back and forth in rhyme," the image sequence of "purple clover, Queen Anne lace/ crimson hair across your face," that heartbreaking chord shift at the end of the bridge. It's a rare example of a gentle Dylan come-on.

Harold Camping Is a False Prophet, and It's Actually Not That Funny

Sunday Night Journal — May 22, 2011

Now that May 21 has come and gone over the entire world and there can be no trace of hope that Harold Camping's predictions of the apocalypse will come true,  most of the world, including me, is having a good laugh about it. But now that it's all over there's a very sad side to it: what will happen now to the faith, not to mention the physical welfare, of all those people who really believed it and spent the last few months preparing and preaching, some quitting their jobs and selling their houses? This is the evil done by a false prophet. There might be no harm in it if Mr. Camping had simply remained alone in his home, poring over the Bible with fanatical intensity, but he has pulled in many others, which puts one in mind of a certain remark about a millstone.

I assume he was sincere and that this isn't just a swindle, so I wonder if it was pride that led to his fall--a refusal to admit or accept that he couldn't wrest from scripture this knowledge, which the vast majority of Christians are willing to accept as not meant for us to know. He's 89 years old and will no doubt be going to God before many more years pass. I hope he repents rather than hardening his heart.

As far as I remember, I had never heard of the guy before this episode. Daniel Nichols has heard him on the radio and has an amusing post about him: "a man of great opacity." I suppose one has to give him credit of a sort for the fact that he did put himself and his teachings out there where the whole world could see whether he was right or wrong.

In calling Mr. Camping a false prophet I speak from a Christian point of view, from which one sees many like him, and among those are some who have done much more harm: Mohammed, for instance, or Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormons). It's not always polite to speak so bluntly, but that conclusion is forced upon anyone who affirms anything close to orthodox Christianity. It's simple logic: if one person says that A is true, and another says that A is false, both cannot be correct. Whether or not the one who is incorrect is innocently mistaken, or simply lying, or somewhere in between, is another matter. I'm inclined to think most are in the third category, and judging them would be too delicate a task for anyone but God. Nevertheless, I must, as a Catholic, respectfully affirm that Luther, Calvin, and many other Protestant reformers preached a doctrine that was false in important ways, as Protestants must affirm the same of the Catholic Church. Happily, our shared situation in the modern world has made us more willing and able to look at what we have in common rather than what separates us; but the separation is nonetheless real, because the divergences in teaching are significant.

People who don't believe in any God at all would naturally say that all prophets are equally wrong, and that it's absurd for one group of deluded people to quarrel with another over the details of their delusions, that it's simple "intolerance." ("Tolerant" has become for us what "respectable" once was to the bourgeoisie, an imprecise acknowledgement of social acceptability and propriety; the officially "tolerant" person is not tolerant of everything, but of the proper things.) But every human being must live his life according to the way he answers the most important questions we face: does my life have a purpose? and if so, what is it? and all the other questions that follow those. This is true for the non-religious and the anti-religious as well as the religious. The consciously anti-religious acknowledge this implicitly by the emphasis they place on it. 

Anyone who gives a false answer to these questions and persuades others to believe him is obviously doing some degree of harm, even if he is perfectly sincere. Consider it for a moment on the individual and practical level: suppose someone had convinced Mozart that he was really not meant to be a musician (which probably would have been impossible in Mozart's case, but let's consider it for the sake of argument). The world would be a far poorer place. And yes, for one who believes in God's providence, any such mistake can be seen as ultimately encompassed within it, but I'm speaking within the scope of what we can know.

What of those who follow a false prophet all the way to the grave?  C. S. Lewis, in the Narnia books, poses an answer which I think is now a pretty standard Christian response: that one who faithfully follows what he sincerely believes to be the truth is in fact following Christ, who is truth. That is not mere word play, but of the essence of what we believe about who Christ is.

Perhaps the danger faced by those who have followed a false prophet and then seen him exposed is greater. It would be a natural reaction for them to decide that everything he said must be false, and to try to rid themselves of it, root and branch. They're likely to be angry--I certainly would be. Some of the most vigorous enemies of Christianity are ex-fundamentalists. The recently exposed scoundrel Fr. Maciel was not a false prophet, exactly--what he taught was not wrong (as far as I know), but by his abominable behavior he discredited the truth, and only God knows how much harm he has done to those who trusted him.

We no longer believe, as our ancestors did, that adherence to (or at least refraining from public denial of) what we believe to be correct ideas about the great questions of life should be coerced by law, and that's a good thing. But though they were wrong in the way they dealt with the question, they were right in their understanding of its importance. To refuse to take it seriously is to refuse engagement with the heart of what it means to be human.

Come to think of it, Harold Camping may be more attuned to the apocalypse than I thought. Isn't the appearance of false prophets supposed to be one of the signs?

Signs of Decline

Sometimes I'm tempted to have a continuing series of posts with this title, but it might be too depressing even for me. It seems that in California the fraudulent use of handicapped parking spaces is so widespread as to constitute a serious problem. I expect something like that might be true in most places; I've certainly wondered about the number of handicapped-parking permits I see on other cars.

It seems a fairly small thing, but there are so many like it. I fear that the social fabric is coming apart, dooming any attempt to solve our political and economic problems. If we can't govern ourselves as individuals, government will be imposed upon us, as we see happening increasingly.

Can't you just hear that woman whining "It's not fair"?--the new voice of America.

Getting our attention

I just returned from Mass. Yes, Saturday evening "vigil" Mass, which I don't really like to attend, but I will have some extenuating family circumstances tomorrow. Besides, my wife had suggested a couple of days ago that it would be a good place to be if the end of the world did actually occur at 6pm. (Yes, I understand it was the guy's idea that it would begin at the first place where 6pm occurred. But I reasoned that it's quite possible that this is God's favorite part of the world, and so he might start here. Or maybe his least favorite part. Depends on how you look at the end of the world, I guess.)

Anyway. We had a visiting priest who is Indian, and speaks with a pretty strong accent. And my hearing is not what it used to be. At the end of Mass he paused and I thought I heard him say

I feel like...attacking all of you.

Well, that certainly made me sit up. Then I realized he had actually said, with a slight hint of "uh" after the word "like" and a "t" rather than "th" sound, 

I feel like...(uh)thanking all of you.

Braids: Lemonade

Weekend Music

Both eMusic and Amazon offer a free mp3 every day, frequently from some artist I've never heard of. That comes out to about 60 tracks a month, and for a while I tried to hear them all. I had to give that up because there were just too many of them. But I do, most days, at least listen to the sample, and download the song if it seems promising. I then listen to them a couple of times, and mark them (in my audio software) as keepers or not.

I can't remember now which service I got this one from. I'd never heard of the band and don't know anything more about them than this song. When I heard it in full, in my car on the way to work (where I usually audition these finds) I found it enchanting musically. But the lyrics, which I couldn't entirely understand, seemed to be the typical emotionally hardened casual-sex stuff that is so prevalent and so depressing: 

What I
What I've found

is that we
are all just sleeping around

So I wasn't going to flag it as something worth returning to--like I say, I find the current sexual climate deeply depressing, and I don't need reminders of it coming at me from my stereo.

Then I listened to it at home and was able to make out the line repeated at the end:

All we really want to do is love

That puts the whole thing in a very different light. (You really need to listen to this with decent speakers or headphones to hear everything that's going on sonically.)


He's a Scientist, So We Better Listen

That seems to be the rationale for the media attention paid to the latest bit of very ordinary religious speculation on the part of Stephen Hawking. It's a tribute to the authority and prestige of science and scientists--much of it deserved--that a scientist's views on almost anything, no matter how far removed from his area of competence, are usually given more weight than those of a non-scientist. Hawking's opinion on this is no more or less valuable than a janitor's. Actually I would give it less weight than that of the janitor I know best, the woman who cleans the building where I work, because I know she has a fair amount of native wisdom, and I don't know that about Hawking.

For something in the science line that's far more interesting--being actually in the science line--see Craig Burrell's review of The 4% Universe, a book that sounds truly fascinating. Wish I had time to read it.

Art and Fear

Sunday Night Journal — May 15, 2011

Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Originally published by Capra Press, 1994; current edition Image Continuum, 2010.


One thing that annoys me about my writing is that it’s so self-centered. It’s not just that I write about myself a lot, it’s also that even when I write about something else—politics, literature, music—I don’t seem to be able to get very far from my own subjective reactions. That’s justifiable to a great extent, especially when writing about art, but I’d like to have enough knowledge to be able to say, in many of those cases, not just I think but I know: to be able to make the case for my views on something more solid and comprehensive than my own small store of knowledge and limitless store of opinion.

This piece is even worse, like the memoir to which I am trying to force myself to return: not just self-centered but possibly even narcissistic, a bit of introspection about my writing. I don’t mean “writing” in the sense of the finished work, but in the sense of the activity, the actual labor of writing. I wouldn’t think it worth communicating to anyone else except that it’s occasioned by the book named above, and the book is worth writing about.

I’m greatly indebted to Jesse Canterbury for introducing me to it. I think it’s going to be a useful catalyst for me, and perhaps it will be useful to anyone else engaged in any work which can be called art in the broadest sense: that is, the creation of something which you yourself design and construct. It could include the work which is normally separated from Art and referred to as Craft. It could even include the task facing a software developer working at night and on weekends on a project of his own.

This book is about...trying to do the work you need to do.... It is about finding your own work.

More specifically, it is about the ways in which fear prevents you from doing the work you need to do. The need referred to is internal: if it’s external, such as the need to produce an income, there are other incentives at work. The book is divided into two sections, and for me it’s Part I which is by far the most useful, focusing on the artist’s interior struggles: “Fears About Yourself,” “Fears About Others,” “Finding Your Work.” The writers are visual artists, and Part II deals more with problems specific to that medium: galleries, critics, the academy, etc. (I have thus far deliberately avoided learning anything about their work, because I didn’t want my opinion of it to affect my opinion of the book.)

I should say right off that the authors are relatively free of the mistakes and cant of what Eric Gill called “art nonsense.” They are quite aware that the situation of art in the modern world is historically anomalous and really a little sick:

Throughout most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art.

This resembles Gill’s famous formulation: “The artist is not a special sort of man, but every man is a special sort of artist.” The authors go on to say that

In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed.

This I don’t think is true. I think it much more likely that art arrived with consciousness and is a product of consciousness. But that’s only an aside to the book’s main argument.

ARTMAKING INVOLVES SKILLS THAT CAN BE LEARNED. The conventional wisdom here is that while “craft” can be taught, “art” remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so.

This is important. The idea that art is a sort of visitation from outside forces (or inner genius) is deeply destructive, contributing to the idea that the artist is Not Like Other People, a special and higher creation, which is bad for both art and artists. It’s especially bad for the vast majority of artists who do not possess the vanishingly rare genius of a Mozart or a Bach. And even they had to work very hard. (It is true that bursts of inspiration do sometimes come, seemingly from elsewhere, but they must be nurtured and the material so delivered must be developed further.)

In truth, if there is any useful distinction between “craft” and “art,” it’s in the fact that a work of craft generally has some purpose other than itself, while a work of art is its own end. Even that distinction is blurry in the cases of Mozart and Bach. This bad idea also reinforces the pernicious view of the artist as a sort of seer or prophet or shaman, qualitatively different from the rest of us. He may in fact be somewhat more perceptive, sometimes (not very often) even a somewhat deeper thinker, but what’s far more important is his ability to convert his perception into some external form which communicates that perception to others. This in turn is purely a matter of skill. And skill in turn is a matter of natural gift—talent—plus work.

The belief that one must be a special kind of person, a freak of nature, to be an artist is terribly destructive to anyone who wants to make art but is not a natural genius. It has been destructive to me. Throughout my twenties, as I tried to make literary art, I looked constantly in myself for that natural genius, that power that Keats referred to when he said that “poetry ought to come as easily as leaves to a tree, or not at all.” (I’m pretty sure I don’t have that wording exactly right, but that’s the idea.)

It was a dark day for me when I read those words. The occasional line, maybe several lines at a time, did indeed come to me as leaves to a tree, but a complete poem never did. Anything I wrote which was worth reading was the product of an initial idea—call it an inspiration if you like—a happy combination of words and thought or emotion which had to be extended and completed with a lot of work, work which I did not and still do not find pleasant. Having done it is pleasant; doing it is not. This quotation, which the authors use to introduce one of their chapters, describes me:

Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.

The remark is from someone named Stephen DeStaebler, whose name I do not recognize, as I suspect most who read this will not (I learn from Wikipedia that he’s a sculptor). But we all recognize Keats’ name. The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that Keats was a real artist, and Stephen DeStaebler is not. But that’s the wrong conclusion. The one we ought to draw, if any, is that Keats had greater natural gifts, and moreover that his personal circumstances and industry enabled him to exercise those gifts (for, despite what he said about those leaves, the progression of his work and the quantity of it could not have been achieved without much labor).

The next step from there, for anyone who is not a Keats or a Mozart, is to convince oneself fully that it does not matter. It does not matter that Keats had greater natural gifts than you or I, and it does not matter if he produced better work than you or I. What matters for us is that we do the work we are capable of doing. The writers of this book are not (apparently) religious, so this is me talking, not them: the combination of interest and aptitude that make a person capable of doing art (of any kind, at any level of quality, for the distinction between good art and bad art is not something intrinsic that is found in one and not in the other, but only a difference in skill) is a gift from God, and one to whom it is given is obligated to exercise it. Not at any cost—this is another part of the pernicious myth of the Artist—one is not justified in neglecting the natural virtues and obligations of life for the sake of art any more than for the sake of power.

For years my entire sense of self-worth depended on my belief that I was an Artist—not just someone with a certain knack for words, but a Great Man in the making, with a Great Vision, and that I could hope eventually to produce Great Work, work that would put me on the level of Yeats and Eliot and all the others whom I all but worshiped. If it sounds like my wish to be an Artist—no, a Great Artist—was stronger than my wish to produce any art, well, it was.

One crippling effect of this was that I constantly compared myself to the greats, and my work to theirs. I could not write the first line of a poem or a story without asking myself whether it would someday be ranked with “April is the cruellest month” or “Call me Ishmael.”

The belief that “real” art possesses some indefinable magic ingredient puts pressure on you to prove your work contains the same. Wrong, very wrong. Asking your work to prove anything only invites doom.

Especially if you fear that you are Nothing, and you are asking the work to prove that you are Something, and even more especially if your real urgency is to prove it to other people rather than to yourself, because it is their approval that you really seek.

The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over—and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful. A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns.

I was pleased to read this, because it provides me with an explanation other than laziness and distraction for the fact that after an occasionally promising start in my twenties, I did very little writing for many years, sometimes none at all for years on end. And what I did do was like this blog, fragmented short pieces, mostly of transitory interest. I seemed unable to do more, and once again found myself looking pretty bad, in my own eyes, in comparison to the great artists whom I had once hoped to join. I started a few big projects but was unable to sustain them, except for one which I forced through to the end, knowing that it was not what it should have been and might have been if I’d been able to give it more attention.

One of the things I’ve learned from this book is to recognize that I could not do my work in the circumstances in which I lived—a demanding job unrelated to my interests, and responsibility for a family. I do not resent those circumstances; I chose them. But for me they were not compatible with sustained literary work. It doesn’t matter that John Gresham, for instance, wrote at least one lengthy best-seller by getting up early in the morning and working for a while before spending the day at his law practice, because I am not he, and his work is not mine, and what worked for him does not work for me. There is a great sense of liberation in accepting this.

By happy chance I’ve been reading, along with this book, a collection of interviews with Ingmar Bergman. It provides a fascinating counterpart to Art and Fear, because it deals frequently with Bergman’s work habits and the sources of his inspiration. I’ll probably have more to say about it, but I was delighted to learn that he operated on a strict routine, especially when he was writing a screenplay. As far as possible he wrote at a certain time and for a certain length of time every day, in the same place, and was quite emphatic to his interviewers that it was this routine that supported his creativity.

And of course I’ve also learned from Art and Fear how great a role fear, in the various aspects described in the book, has played in my inability to make the best use even of the opportunities that I did have. To recognize this is to be at least half-armed against it, and ready to carry on in spite of it. And in any case most of them no longer have the power over me that they did forty years ago. If good sense did not cure me of the hope that I would be the T.S. Eliot of my generation, time did. I don’t know that I have anything very important to contribute to the world, but I do have my own particular vision, and my own pictures to paint, and whether they are, in the end, good enough to merit the attention of others is not nearly as important to me as it once was. The only thing I’m responsible for is doing the work as well as I can. I think I’m finally, at the age of 62, ready to get started.

Best Wishes, Fr. Farmer

The vicar general of our archdiocese is going to Rome. Our loss, Rome's gain.  His background--Alabama Protestant convert--is similar to mine, which of course I always like to find in a church where I sometimes feel a bit of a cultural and ethnic outsider. The high opinion of him mentioned in this news story is widely shared. I generally think American society is going to hell in a handbasket, but the streams of renewal in the Church reassure me that grace always increases along with sin.

Red Sovine: Phantom 309

Weekend Music

I listened to Tom Waits Nighthawks at the Diner for the first time a couple of days ago. He performs this story--it's not exactly a song, though it has a musical accompaniment, and I noticed that he didn't write it, which led me to discover that it was once something of a hit for country singer Red Sovine.


I love Tom Waits, but I may prefer Sovine's more straightforward version. Here is Waits's rendition, much longer although it's pretty much the same words.


I think most people are immediately and strongly moved by a story of someone sacrificing himself for another. Ayn Rand has been in the news a lot lately, with the release of the Atlas Shrugged movie. I wonder what she made of that emotion, and its persistence. 


An email from Rob Grano:

You all have heard of the Catholic TV network EWTN.  I'm recommending to Fox that they change their name to EITN.


That's pretty much all they've talked about since Ben Ladin got nailed. The motto could be something like, "All torture talk, all the time."

I haven't watched Fox lately, but I don't doubt this is true. I said several years ago that it was looking as if torture might turn out to be for the right what abortion has long been for the left: a fatal abdication of principle. The usual pattern in these things, with groups as well as individuals, is often that unacknowledged and repressed guilt becomes anger toward anyone who challenges the guilt-inducing position. 

Happily, there are some on the right who have not joined this parade: columnist Jeff Jacoby and Senator John McCain, who can hardly be accused of being soft on terrorism. And here's David Mills at First Things, not primarily a political commentator but more or less on the right as well.


This 1966 adaptation of Ross Macdonald's The Moving Target is worth seeing if you like detective stories. But Macdonald fans may, or rather should, find it disappointing.

The plot is adapted in a reasonable way, but the portrayal of Macdonald's detective, Lew Archer, is badly flawed.  He's played by Paul Newman, who insisted on renaming the character "Harper." I'm tempted to say Newman was just the wrong choice, period, because he's too good-looking and in general projects the wrong sort of image. But even if I allow that he could have done it well, he didn't. I don't know whether to blame Newman or the scriptwriter, William Goldman, but this Harper/Archer simply has the wrong personality. He's more like an updated Philip Marlowe: brash, full of wisecracks, somewhat flashy. Archer is a somber, in fact melancholy, character, low-key in his dealings with clients and crooks.  Newman's Harper wears an annoying ironic smirk much of the time, and, even more annoyingly, is constantly chewing gum.

Compounding the mistake is the decision to introduce H/A's estranged wife and a love scene between them: he appears in the middle of the night, begs her to go to bed with him, then gets up and leaves in the morning while she's fixing him breakfast. This functions only to make Harper a less likeable character. In the books we know that Archer is divorced, though we never learn much about his wife or their marriage--both remain distant but clearly suggested as contributors to Archer's general melancholy. 

Still, if you get over that (assuming you know the books and have expectations), it's a pretty good re-working of the '40s private eye genre (not exactly noir, but close) in a 1960s California setting (and a beautiful setting it is, when the natural world is involved). It's full of big-name stars apart from Newman (Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters), most of whom do a good job, and is well produced and photographed. I notice a lot of the reviewers on Amazon consider it a sort of '60s period piece, and that's justifiable. I expect it looked very up-to-the-minute when it was released, the sort of thing that reviews call "stylish." But of course the more stylish it looks today, the more dated it will look tomorrow (until it comes around again as nostalgia).

Oh, and Lauren Bacall is in it, too. Here's the almost-opening scene--just a couple of minutes into the movie, the standard detective-meets-client scene that opens so many mystery stories:


Perelandra, Again

Sunday Night Journal — May 8, 2011

I was out of town this weekend and didn't get back in time to do any writing, so I am revisiting a couple of old SNJs which had not yet been moved from my original site to this one.

I was thinking about Perelandra the other day after reading someone's comment on Facebook that it is "the most difficult to get through," or something like that, of the trilogy. Well, I don't think any of them is difficult to get through, and I think Perelandra is the best of the three, from both the literary and theological points of view, though only by a slight margin. Not that the others aren't excellent, but Out of the Silent Planet seems a bit lesser in both scope and depth, and That Hideous Strength a bit rougher and less unified.

Both these journals are from 2004, when I was listening to a recording of the space trilogy (a very enjoyable experience which I'd like to repeat): Re-reading Perelandra and Further Thoughts on Perelandra.

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra: Air à danser

Weekend Music

Note: I'm posting this early because I'll be offline Friday and most of Saturday.

Somewhere around 1981 or 1982, at an outdoor arts festival in Huntsville (Alabama), I saw a troupe of dancers perform to this music. Not surprisingly, I don't remember anything about the dance, but the music was so great that I managed to catch one of the dancers as she was leaving and ask her what it was. My memory was better then than it is now, but still, the fact that I remembered the name until I found the self-titled album (which took a while) testifies to how much I liked the music. 

The whole album is excellent, though this tune is not necessarily representative: whimsical, tuneful, and often wistful. They released several other albums which I have not heard. You can read about the group here.


Personally I find the art work somewhat disquieting and recommend that you look somewhere else while you listen to the music. 


I used to really like National Review. I still read their web site. But I have had about all I can stand of the term "enhanced interrogation."

On the tornadoes

It's beginning to sink in on me that I have not grasped the extent of the devastation from the tornadoes in north Alabama. Two things have helped bring it home to me: This map (a pdf file) shows the number, path, and intensity of the individual storms. Bear in mind that the typical touchdown point of a tornado is only a few hundred yards wide, or less, and not very long--a mile or two (four or five km), at least the ones I've had occasion to pay much attention to. Look at the distances on the map: 132 miles, 80 miles, 71 miles (211, 128, 113 km). And some of them were a mile wide, like the one that hit Tuscaloosa. That's basically like a bomb going off with an explosion covering an area of, in that first instance, 132 square miles. This is worse than most hurricanes.

The other thing is some pictures a friend sent me. They show a relative's house before and after the storm. It takes something specific like that for me to fully grasp the destruction. It was an expensive and beautiful house, full of handsome furniture, elaborately decorated. Now it's rubble. Moreover, it was only a few blocks from a house I once lived in, so I assume that house is gone, too.

This is to north Alabama what Katrina was to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a catastrophe from which full recovery will take a generation or more. Figuratively and literally, the aftermath was "the darkest Alabama night in a century."

A Thought from Newman

The outward exhibition of infinitude is mystery.

I figured out years ago that most of the art I really care about, in every medium, has one thing in common: that it conveys to me a sense of mystery. This goes a long way toward explaining that phenomenon. I love the sense that there is always something beyond, something yet unknown. We will never fully absorb and comprehend the beatific vision, or exhaust the experiences of the kingdom of heaven.