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June 2011


From Smithsonian magazine:

In 1960, Columbia Pictures released a movie about NASA rocket scientist Wernher von Braun called I Aim at the Stars. Comedian Mort Sahl suggested a subtitle: But Sometimes I Hit London.

I posted that only because it made me laugh, but it got me to thinking: I grew up near Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Marshall Space Flight Center of which von Braun was the director.  (Everyone pronounced his name vahn brahn, rather than what I think would have been the correct fone brown. ) I don't remember anyone ever mentioning any concern about his being an ex-Nazi; he was our local celebrity, and as far as I ever knew was respected and admired.  At the time this didn't seem the least bit strange to me. I realized, as a teenager, that he was a former enemy, but that was all extremely ancient history to me and there seemed nothing strange about people having put it all behind them. But now the 10-to-15 years that had elapsed between the end of the war and von Braun's public prominence as the face of U.S. space flight works strikes me as a very short period of time, and it seems slightly odd that his past would have been overlooked so lightly.

The Arts & Faith Top 100 Films

I've been meaning to post a link to this apropos the continuing discussion about films to be used in Francesca's class on Theology and Film.  Only, I thought it was Image magazine's list, and didn't recognize it when Craig linked to it by its proper name. 

Actually I had intended to post it a couple of months ago, when I first saw it on the Image site, but kept forgetting about it. My first thought on it was "Well, that looks like a good argument-starter." And it probably is--I mean arguments of the enjoyable sort.  My second reaction was to count the number of them that I've seen: 21, not as many as I would have expected. Of those, there are a few that I wouldn't have included, such as 2001 (which I like very much, and which does certainly raise Cosmic questions, but is "theological" only in a negative way, i.e., it's implicitly atheistic). But it's certainly an interesting list, and I'm going to be looking for some of them. 

I notice a lot of them came up in our discussion. I can't believe I didn't think of Sophie Scholl.

The Hawk In Heaven

Sunday Night Journal — June 26, 2011

On my way to work Friday morning, crossing Mobile Bay, I saw something I’d only seen once before, though I’ve made that crossing twice every workday since 1992: a hawk of some kind with a fish in its claws, flying away toward its nest, or wherever they go to eat what they’ve caught. Since it’s early summer and a lot of young birds have hatched and are growing, perhaps it was on its way to feed its family. (It may have been an osprey, although I thought it was a little smaller than that—I sometimes see one sitting in a dead tree by the bay near my house.)

At any rate, it was very beautiful, flying away from me so that I had a clear silhouette of its slow graceful wings, and I had to force myself not to keep watching it out of sight, but to pay attention to my driving. It wasn’t only the immediate beauty of its flight that caught me, though; it was the whole picture: the hunting, the dive, the catch, the instinct that would, if my conjecture about the babies was correct, cause the bird to give its catch to its young.

The experience was not so beautiful for the fish, of course: to make this picture complete, to make it intelligible, the fish had to be abruptly pierced and seized by stout claws, and lifted out of the water to gasp futilely for breath until it died, or perhaps be eaten alive. I hate to be the sort of absurd sentimentalist who muses about the agonies of a fish while millions upon millions of human beings live in miserable conditions and suffer far more horribly, and for longer, and are conscious of their suffering in a way that I’m pretty sure a fish is not. But a sight like the hawk with its prey always sets me to thinking about the fallenness of the world, about the irreducible amount of death and pain which seem to be built into the fabric of it, and about what an unfallen world would be like.

The Fall brought death into the world, we’re told. It also made sacrifice necessary: we see it all around us, every time one insect eats another, a bird eats an insect, a cat eats a bird, even when a cow eats grass: something dies so that something else can live. Usually the one thing does not give its life willingly, or without struggle and pain. It remained to man to introduce the worst horror: suffering consciously and willingly inflicted, with pleasure. And that in turn was answered by God in the one Sacrifice: suffering consciously and willingly accepted, with love.

We’re left a few reminders of the way things might have been, in those situations where one creature creates what another needs to survive, as in the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange between plants and animals, or the relationship between bees and flowers. But we can’t extend that to hawks and fish, or lions and antelope. To imagine the hawk or the tiger as something other than a predator is to imagine its essential nature changed altogether, and to diminish its magnificence. Does that mean that such creatures will have no place in the redeemed world?

Or can it perhaps be that the world we now know as fallen will be still somehow itself and still somehow present when all has been redeemed? James Dickey, though not as far as I know a Christian, paints one part of that vision in his poem “The Heaven of Animals:”

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.

They are magnificently powerful, beyond anything in this world, couched in trees and waiting, and as for the prey:

Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle's center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

But a cycle of bloodshed that never ends and never goes beyond itself would seem in the end to be more hell than heaven. If it is to be heaven, it must be part of a consciousness in which pain is subsumed into something that transcends it. We can perhaps imagine this with relatively mild pains, as when we recognize the discomfort of thirst as part of the pleasure of drinking. But it is difficult to do it with really serious suffering. I venture into this speculation with hesitation; I can’t even think it without misgiving. I don’t want to spin an airy theory that seems to make little of the agony that is such an inescapable and dreadful part of this world.

As it happened, later on the same day I saw the hawk, I read a story about a gruesome murder, an act that could have been a scene from a truly hideous horror film, and was so shaken that I found it difficult to work for the rest of the day. And I still haven’t shaken it: it disturbs my sleep, and pops into my mind without warning now and then through the day, usually, perversely, when I am thinking of or doing something pleasant. I really cannot imagine that such a thing can ever be caught up into joy, and it seems offensive even to make the attempt. If one who has suffered in this way can do it, well and good, but how can I, who have not, even suggest the possibility?

And in truth I would not choose first, if I could, for such things to be redeemed: I want rather that they not have happened at all, or to be somehow erased from the fabric of time and space and memory. But I don’t want to lose the beauty of the hawk’s wings in flight, either.

Earlier Christians pictured martyrs in heaven as displaying the gruesome trophies of their suffering. And I have always disliked these portrayals, so much that I don’t even want to illustrate this paragraph with examples. But I remind myself that Christ’s wounds were visible in his resurrected body. These, I suppose, are the only hints I can expect about how it will all be reconciled, but they suggest that the hawk may not be lost.

An Interesting Reaction To the Corapi Mess

I assume anyone who would be interested knows exactly what I mean when I refer to "the Corapi mess." If you don't, Google something like "corapi black sheep dog" and you can quickly find out all you want to know (Daniel Nichols tells me he started getting thousands of hits when he put up a post with those words in the title). I haven't written anything about it, first because I really wasn't much aware of Fr. Corapi beyond the fact that he was a popular preacher on EWTN, and second because I didn't have anything to say that others weren't saying. 

But here's a perspective I have not seen elsewhere: Jennifer Fulwiler, at her popular blog Conversion Diary, explaining how much Fr. Corapi's preaching meant to her, and the very wise way she is handling his disgrace (which, in my eyes, is what it is).

(Hat tip to Janet.)

The Zombies: She's Not There

Weekend Music

The local paper has a daily list of famous people whose birthday is on that day. Today happens to be Colin Blumstone's: he's 66 (!). If I'm not mistaken, he was the lead singer on this song, which I liked at least as much as anything by the Beatles when I was in high school. 

And it's an odd comment on human nature--or my nature, anyway, on the longing that can't be satisfied. It's 45 years later, I'm 62 years old, I'm happily married...and yet, in some way, she's still not there.


A Couple of Recent Movies

Late Spring

This is a 1949 Japanese movie directed by Yasujiro Ozu.  I'm not enough of a film expert to have recognized his name, but I've learned that he is a very highly-regarded director.  Late Spring is a long, slow,and very low-key story about a father and his adult daughter. I think I would have been more moved by it if not for a difficulty I've had with other Japanese films made prior to 1960 or so: the facial and vocal expressions are just culturally different enough for me to feel that I'm not quite sure what's going on underneath, not quite connecting as I should. But it is extremely beautiful. There are a lot of long still shots of interiors and landscapes that are just pure visual pleasure.  And it's one of those beautiful Criterion Collection editions--here's the Criterion page for it

Besides the personal story, I think there are some interesting things here about post-war Japan. For starters, I didn't realize movies like this were being made in Japan at the time. And I think I can see between the lines some reflections on the changes in Japanese society. Not a movie for the impatient, but very much worth the trouble. I don't think I'll forget it, and I'd like to see it again sometime when I have more leisure.

Barchester Chronicles

One can almost get jaded about these near-perfect BBC productions of classic novels. Well, this is another one, and if you like the genre, you can't go wrong. I've never read Trollope, so Barchester and its people were new to me. What a delight! It includes one of the most mesmerizingly detestable characters you'll ever see in this sort of production--a bishop's wife--and I found myself thinking that the actress, Geraldine McEwan, must surely be just as unpleasant as the character she plays. She was just too convincing, and the very features of her face were too unpleasant. But I also thought she looked a little familiar, and learned that she has also played sweet, shrewd Miss Marple, every bit as convincingly. And you also get Professor Snape Alan Rickman as the repulsive Obadiah Slope. 


The Palin Rorschach Test

I said a couple of weeks ago that I thought Sarah Palin's acceptance speech at the 2008 convention "served as a sort of test of whether one likes or dislikes middle-class evangelical Christians." (The post is here.) Interestingly, a writer at Vanity Fair has had a somewhat similar reaction to something discovered in that recent email dump which was searched so assiduously, but fruitlessly, for something that could be used to damage her. 

This email was sent to various relatives and friends to let them know that the baby Palin was carrying had Down's syndrome. Here's what Vanity Fair says:

But the one e-mail that we cannot stop considering is the one she wrote to family members shortly before Trig’s birth. It struck us as the Sarah Palin Rorschach test. You might see it as a brave, optimistic way of telling everyone in her family that the new baby will have Down syndrome. Or you might get stuck on the fact that she wrote it in the voice of God. Or you might have a completely different reaction

Read it for yourself here. Me, I'm in the "brave, optimistic" camp. Yes, it's very sentimental. Yes, it's a bit strange that she tried to write from God's point of view.  No, I don't think God would use that many exclamation marks.  But underneath all that stuff, which would be easy to make fun of, there is steel. There is a great deal of compassion and courage and determination to do what is best for this baby, and to trust God completely. One may not care for the style, but the substance is wholly admirable.

The INTS Party

Sunday Night Journal — June 19, 2011

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with some relatives whom I don’t see very often. The conversation turned to politics, and as has been my habit for a good while now when people are discussing politics, I listened but didn’t speak. Eventually someone noticed this.

“So what do you think, Mac? Didn’t you used to be into...causes and all that?”

I took the opportunity to make the first announcement of my plan to form a new political party. I call it the INTS Party: It’s Not That Simple. You may consider this post the public announcement. Anyone is welcome to join this party; the only requirement for membership is affirmation that the namesake statement applies to almost all political positions and debates and programs as presently shouted at us: whether they are on the right or the left or somewhere between or altogether outside, most of them most of the time take a complex situation or decision and oversimplify it. Normally the result is a few sound bites and slogans that are intended to make any disagreement untenable by portraying it as insane or immoral or, preferably, both. Since everyone is doing this, the result is a lot of bullying and yelling by people who have no intention of making an effort to understand how anyone can see things differently.

Since I classify myself in a broad way as a conservative and tend to sympathize more with the right than the left, most of the examples that come immediately to my mind are cases like the current controversy over Medicare, in which the Democrats seem to have decided that their chief debating tactic will be to accuse the Republicans of planning to kill old people. But it certainly works both ways. Just the other day John McCain labeled anyone who questions our military action in Libya as “isolationist,” a word that has become almost completely meaningless. That most people on both sides of most questions may simply want what is best for the country, but have different ideas about how to reach that goal, is not an allowable admission. (The underlying disagreement is often over the definition of “best,” but that’s another discussion.)

Perhaps what I’m really objecting to is not so much the proposal of over-simplified policies as the reduction of the debate to over-simplification—hostile over-simplification. (There are a few pundits who don’t do this—Ramesh Ponnuru and Jim Manzi of National Review, for instance, and I’m sure they have their counterparts on the left. But they are not much listened to.) It certainly cannot be said that a policy such as Obamacare is simple. Its complexity is in fact one of the objections to it. But both it and many of the objections to it—not all, but many—rest on a simplistic assumption that the health care problem can be “solved” in some magic way that will be socially, fiscally, and medically sound without some serious sacrifice on someone’s part. I feel perfectly confident in saying that it cannot be.

At bottom I’m relatively uninterested in politics. I do care, and I do pay a modest amount of attention, and I do have my opinions, but politics is simply not anywhere near the top of the list of things I’m interested in. This was the case even in my left-wing days; I always thought people who expected to transform society through politics were at best very naïve. (One could argue that to a great extent they did succeed in transforming society, but it was less by means of politics than by reshaping cultural habits and presuppositions.)

My move away from the left originated in this realization that things are not so simple, and I can say with some accuracy exactly when that movement began. In the early 1970s I knew two married couples who lived across the street from each other. Each had a new baby, their first child. Neither wife held an outside job. One husband worked as a retail clerk making two dollars an hour. The other worked as a welder making three dollars an hour. You can see where this is going: yes, it was the welder’s household which an observer would have considered poor in comparison to the clerk’s; it was the welder’s wife who occasionally borrowed money from the clerk’s wife to buy milk for the baby. The reason for the disparity was that the welder spent so much of his pay on marijuana and beer. Hmm, thought I. It’s not that simple.

That was one of my first steps away from the left. A few years earlier I would have subscribed to an idea that I haven’t heard of for some time: the guaranteed annual income, in which every citizen would be given a certain amount of money every year, whether he worked or not, and so the problem of poverty would be solved. But this experience gave me some insight into the mess ordinary human failings would inevitably make of that scheme. This sort of observation, in which the liberal-left picture of reality was compared to the evidence of my own eyes and came up wanting, was repeated more times than I can count. The result, by the end of the 1970s, was what I call a generally conservative view, but for me this means a recognition of the limits of politics and programs. (I know of people who made a similar transition from youthful right-wing zealotry to something more cautious and balanced.) It certainly does not mean the adoption of an equal-and-opposite-to-liberalism ideology. It is, in the practical sphere, empiricist and pragmatic: what is actually the case? And what is likely to be the result of any action? Good motives are not enough. Even good principles are necessary but not sufficient, because they may be misapplied as readily as bad ones.

(Possibly the greatest and most tragic failure of liberal hopes in my lifetime has been the end of legal segregation; the disaster that has befallen the black family since then, and the huge percentage of young black men who are in jail or otherwise under the loving care of the criminal justice system, oblige one to say that at the very least things have not turned out anything like as well as expected. And what are the reasons for the failure? Well, to any single explanation I would have to say it’s not that simple.)

It may be that practical politics has to operate in this either/or mode of false dichotomies and poisoned wells, or at least politics in a democracy, or at least politics in a democracy in which marketing is all. Well, so be it: that’s why I’m not in politics. As one with no more power than resides in a single vote, I have the luxury of being able to look at both sides of any question and come to a conclusion that does not fit on anyone’s bumper sticker.

It occurs to me that It’s Not That Simple would make a good bumper sticker.

By the way, my announcement was well received by my relatives. Perhaps there’s a constituency for the party.

Are Women More Loyal Than Men?

A somewhat idle question, but: yesterday my wife and I were discussing the phenomenon of men who marry again fairly soon after their wives die, and that this seems to happen more often than widows remarrying. The context was of people well up in years, no longer raising families, which is a rather different circumstance. I said this seemed a bit surprising to me, because I think of women as having a greater need for companionship. My wife said it was not surprising to her, because women are more loyal. Thinking about it, I believe she's more in the right, though of course no more than a broad generalization is possible about things like this. 

On the other hand, the men can't remarry unless there are also women who want to do so. And the difference may be only due to the fact that women generally live longer and so there are more widowed women than men. And there is that phenomenon of the widowed seventy-year-old man being pursued by a dozen seventy-year-old women.

Like I said, an idle question.... 


—You're not a believer, are you? Haines asked. I mean, a believer in the narrow sense of the word. Creation from nothing and miracles and a personal God.

—There's only one sense of the word, it seems to me, Stephen said.

—Joyce, Ulysses

Indio: Big Hard Sun

Weekend Music

Having been reminded of this song, I looked for it on YouTube. 


If memory serves, Daniel Nichols gave me his copy of the album (Big Harvest) because he didn't care for it. I had never heard of the artist and after a couple of hearings decided it was a real overlooked gem. Apparently I'm not the only one: it appears to be something of a collector's item--out of print and expensive. Click on one of those and read some of the reviews. Hmm, interesting story.

Big Hard Sun


("Big Hard Sun" is the name of an excellent song from an excellent and under-rated album by Indio, Big Harvest.) I took this picture this evening about 7:20. I was taking out the garbage and there was such a brilliant glow beyond the trees by the bay that I got my camera and walked down there.  I hope this doesn't make your head hurt.

The Tired Old Game of Shocking the Middle Class

The point has been made very often by now, but this is a particularly good and compact instance, from the unsigned "Notes & Comments" column in the May issue of The New Criterion:

Épater la bourgeois: shocking the middle class has been a cherished goal of the avant garde since the birth of the movement in the nineteenth century. The fact that the middle class long ago enlisted themselves as co-collaborators in this project of rote titillation transformed the avant garde into a reactionary force in everything but posture and rhetoric. The amazing thing has been the longevity of this new incarnation of Salon art: year after year, decade after decade, “artists” and their eager if jaded public rehearse the tired old pantomime: the party of the first part recycles some bit of Dada while the party of the second pretends to be shocked or at least interested. 

Most of this takes place well beyond the notice of the actual bourgeoisie, some of whom (mostly Christians) are still capable of being shocked. Now and then, those do have their attention directed to something that offends them, and a grand time is had by all as each side attempts to surpass the other in outrage. The same TNC issue contains an interesting article, "Fires In Their Bellies," by Judith H. Dobrzynski, which documents a recent instance of which you may have read, in which an 11-second segment of a film got noticed by the wrong person and became the occasion of a few days' worth of news. The article may be available only to subscribers, but here's a good summary paragraph:

Shall we file the recent debacle at the National Portrait Gallery under “Return of the Culture Wars,” “Homophobia,” “Christian Bashing,” “Media Circus,” “Politics As Usual,” or “Men Behaving Badly”? All of the above would be accurate. But “Men—and Women— Behaving Badly” seems most appropriate. Nearly every person or group who claimed a part in this sorry episode in American cultural history exacerbated what should have been a minor incident, or perhaps not an incident at all.

(NB: I don't accept "homophobia" as a legitimate or even very honest term for objecting to those who believe homosexual behavior to be wrong, but other than that I think she's right.)

Want to hear a real southern accent?

Listen to Kathryn Tucker Windham.

Notice the way she says the "i" in "silence" and "I". That's the way I say it, although my accent is not nearly as rich as hers--mine is more nasal/twangy. This is the "i" that people render as "ah" when they're trying to capture a southern accent in print. I suppose I was twenty years old before I realized that that's what they meant, because it really isn't "ah". 

Sadly, Mrs. Windham's accent is disappearing. I don't think I know anyone under 65 or so who sounds like that.

"Infinite" Does Not Mean "Really Big"

Sunday Night Journal — June 12, 2011

I normally don't get involved in political or religious discussions on Facebook, because I'm "friends" with people who have strong views on all sides, and who needs more rancor in his life? I ventured into one a week or so ago, much against my better judgment, and then withdrew quickly when my remarks were not well received. (Not that the reception was rancorous; it was merely...unreceptive.) But I've wanted to say more about the question, which is an important one.

The post (a Facebook Note, similar to a blog post) argued, in essence, that the immensity of the universe makes Christian beliefs absurd, and much of it consisted of examples of just how very, very, very immense the universe is. It was not exactly the familiar argument that nothing so tiny as a human being could be significant in so vast a space, and that therefore if there is a God, then he, she, or it is not particularly interested in us. It was a variant: if there is a God, then he, she, or it could not possibly be identified with anything so tiny as a human being--that is, that there could be no human incarnation of God. ("Identified" doesn't strike me as the best term to use about the Incarnation, but that was the writer's word.) And it had a second component: that it would be even more absurd to hold that the salvation or damnation of every being in the universe could depend on whether he, she, or it believed in that incarnation. (The writer didn't specify, but presumably he meant conscious beings with the ability to make moral choices.)

That second component is at very best much too simplistic, as most people who read this blog will probably see at once. For one thing, the conditions, according to many of the most ancient Christian traditions, for the salvation of a human being are somewhat more complex than that. More importantly, there is nothing in Christianity which holds that any conjectured inhabitants of conjectured other planets would share our condition. Perhaps there are some who did not fall as we did, and do not need to be saved. Such things can only be the object of speculation. The Christian revelation was made to the inhabitants of this planet. We don't even know--one has to remind certain enthusiasts of this--that there are any others, all such speculations being just that, no matter how many statistics are cited in their support; even the relevance of the statistics depends on many unproven assumptions.

The first argument, though, rests mainly on the emotional force of what we know about the size of the universe. That force is indeed strong; surely anyone can feel it. We literally cannot imagine such vastness. We can formulate the ideas that measure it and state the numbers, but we cannot imagine it, in the sense of forming a real mental picture of it. I'm not sure we can really even do that very well with distances inside the solar system, which itself is not as much as a grain of sand in relation to the rest of the cosmos. It is difficult to imagine a God who created all that, and that he cares about us. But I think this difficulty rests partly on an inadequate idea of what infinity really means.

It does not mean "really big" or even "really really really big, way bigger than you can even begin to imagine."  Mathematics gives us a way of talking about it, even giving us a symbol to represent it so that it can be incorporated into the same apparatus that includes small and simple numbers, and maybe that also serves to tame it a little. I suspect that a lot of us see it as sitting at the top or bottom or end of a long sequence of numbers, and that we tend to view it, at some basic psychological level,  as being simply the very largest number. 

Similarly, when we think of God, we think of him as the very greatest being, an entity existing within some limit, some greater fundamental structure of space and time (or spaces and times). So when we ask a question like "Does God care about us?" and then take a look at the cosmos, we feel that the answer must be "no"--because how could he? How could any thing or person which is capable of creating and comprehending all that space and time and number possibly be concerned with us, when there are so very many things for him to be concerned with? 

When we do this, we are imagining God to be limited, to have a very very large but nevertheless limited amount of attention and care to dispose around the universe. But if there is a God, and if he is infinite, then things are really neither great nor small in relation to him, only in relation to each other. And he does not have to divide his attention, or run the risk of having something go amiss in Andromeda because he's busy in the Magellanic Cloud. Infinity means that he can devote infinite attention to every thing. Jesus said that every hair of our heads is numbered, and I suspect most of us probably take that as a poetic exaggeration. But if we take the concept of infinity seriously, it is not.

 I am not going to argue that it is easy for the human mind to grasp how it would be possible for the infinite God to be united with a human nature. Not only is it not easy, it is not possible. We don't believe it because we've figured out how it could work, but because we credit the testimony of those who knew this man-God. I do say, though, that the immensity of the universe has nothing much to do with whether it is credible or not. Suppose the entire created universe consisted only of this planet, and we believed that an infinite God had created it and was causing it to continue in being at every moment, and knew the precise location and behavior of everything in it, the minds of every human being, every molecule in the atmosphere and the oceans and the rocks and soil and living things, every subatomic particle in all of these. Would it make the idea of the Incarnation any easier to believe, much less to understand? I don't think so.  This planet alone is vast enough, from the human perspective, to make such belief difficult. That was in fact the position and perspective of the human race in Jesus's time (apart from the molecules etc.), and I don't see any reason to think that the Incarnation was any easier for them to believe than it is for us. Our greater knowledge may make this world seem smaller, but their lesser knowledge made it seem greater.  

Pictures from St. Joseph Abbey

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had been to St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, Louisiana, and that I had taken more photos with my wife's camera in addition to the two with my phone that I posted. I finally got around to getting them off the camera and selecting some to post here. There are ten of them, so rather than put them all in this post I decided to try TypePad's photo album feature: click here.

A Sixth Season of The Wire?

Only under conditions which are unlikely to be met. I agree with Simon about the war on drugs. I read the other day that Mexican drug gangs, who are in something close to a full-scale war, killing thousands, now have more or less permanent positions as much as fifty miles inside our border. At least we had sense enough to end the prohibition of alcohol after ten years. It's not even a case of the cure being worse than the disease: the cure isn't even a cure.

I'm not sure exactly what restrictions on the use of really harmful drugs should remain--I don't think I'm in favor of fully legalizing absolutely everything--but at a minimum marijuana should be legal. 

But as for The Wire: a Facebook friend said recently that she thought Lost was the Great American Novel on film (actually video, of course, but do they even use film in film anymore?). I only saw a couple of episodes of Lost and it didn't strike me as appealing, though I might change my mind if I started at the beginning. The Wire would be my choice.

The Derek Trucks Band: Mr. P.C.

Weekend Music

Trying to drink from the fire hose of inexpensive music over the past ten years or so inevitably causes me to give less attention to a lot of music that really deserves more. One instance is the self-titled first album by the Derek Trucks Band. I played it a few times when I got it some years ago (almost free in eMusic's early days), mostly while I was doing something else, and was impressed, but never really listened to it closely. Well, for some reason I latched on to it last week and listened to it in the car.

Wow. This album was made when Derek Trucks was eighteen, and it's enough to put him in the ranks of greatest slide guitar players ever. It's basically a sort of jazz fusion, which is not my favorite kind of music in general, but man...the guitar work is just mind-boggling. His speed and precision are astonishing, and it's not just empty virtuosity, it's got heart. Not to mention nerve: not many 18-year-old musicians would venture to record tunes written and completely owned by John Coltrane ("Mr. P.C.", "Naima") and Miles Davis ("So What"). I won't say his versions rival the originals, but he certainly does something respectable and worthwhile with them.

I couldn't find anything from this album on YouTube, but I did find a video of the fifteen-year-old Derek Trucks and his band doing "Mr. P.C" in what seems to be a club of some kind. The performance on The Derek Trucks Band is considerably more impressive than this, but you can certainly see what was coming. Fifteen years old.

The Wikipedia bio is worth reading. He was a genuine prodigy. Here's another one, when he had just barely turned fourteen:


I hope Sarah Palin doesn't run for President

I've often thought that Palin's speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination in 2008 served as a sort of test of whether one likes or dislikes middle-class evangelical Christians. (White ones, I mean; black evangelicals are treated differently, though they are very much on the same page religiously.) If you basically like them, as I do, your first impulse was to like Palin. If not, your first impulse was, at a minimum, not to like her. And of course "not like" doesn't begin to do justice to the loathing she provoked in many, especially academic feminists, most famously the one who declared that Palin was not a woman. A lot of it seemed to be raw class and regional disdain ("She doesn't have a passport! She went to the University of Idaho!").

After that, of course, things took a bad turn, and even a great many people--again, like me--who were sympathetic to her decided that she wasn't really qualified for high office. The last nail that went into that coffin was her resignation as governor of Alaska. Whatever the reasons, it communicated "flake," and her apparent focus on self-promotion since then has only made things worse, e.g. the "reality" show. (Okay, for the sake of argument, let's say she really is driven mainly by patriotism etc.; if so, her strategy is counter-productive.)

Qualifications aside, she really doesn't seem temperamentally suited. Her recent semi-coherent remarks about Paul Revere are a case in point. Never mind the fact that she was apparently not entirely wrong; it's not at all clear what she intended to say. She surely knows that her enemies, who include much of the press, are going to slam her mercilessly for every misstep, and she ought to be able to handle it more gracefully. Instead of laughing it off as a brief lapse, she complained, humorlessly, that it was a "gotcha" question and that she was, too, right. You can blame the media all you want for treating her unfairly, and there's a great deal of truth in that: no Republican could have made  some of Joe Biden's gaffes without being permanently tainted ("clean articulate black man" would have been career death for a Republican). But it's the way things are, and if you're going to put yourself in the public eye, you have to deal with it in a way that leaves you looking better than your opponents.

I doubt there is much chance she could win. But Daniel Foster at National Review Online offers an interesting speculation: that she might run as an independent. There will certainly be a lot of happy Democrats in the land if she does. 

I wonder... many people think (fantasize) like this? And how much of that reflects the success of advertising strategies?

(I do, sometimes, though I don't usually act on it. I also have a weird mental habit, a result of reading too many murder mysteries, of imagining myself  describing to a cop or a lawyer something that just happened: "I think it was somewhere between 10 and 11. She said she was going to lunch early, but I didn't think anything about it, because she does that sometimes. It must have been before noon, otherwise she wouldn't have said 'early'....")

And while we're at it: by now I guess everybody has heard of "the cloud," the bajillions of computers that support services like Gmail and Facebook. Here is a nice non-technical explanation of it.

Excavating the Remains of a Career That Didn't Happen

Some may remember that I have a web site that includes three categories of writing: Prose, Verse, and Blog. I brought the prose over to this blog some time ago, but the verse has taken some time. I've finally got the poems that were on the old site here--see the Verse item in the sidebar.

I used to think I was going to be a poet, though outside a span of four or five years in the 1970s it was always a pretty off-and-on effort, and mostly off after I decided to go into the computer programming trade. And one of the many, many items on my list of things to do, one that's been there for a long time, is to go through all my old poems and publish here those that seem worth salvaging. Here is the first, "That Night". It never had a title till now but I thought it needed one, so there it is.

I hope to add at least one poem a week until I've gone through the lot.

Why do I call the category "verse" and not "poetry"? Because of my favorite teacher, Dr. Eugene Williamson, who always used that word to refer to anything that was technically verse, as opposed to prose. It had to have a little more going for it than being broken up into lines for him to call it poetry. "Written any verse lately?" he would say. I was thrilled the first time he congratulated me on having written a line of poetry. The poem disappeared long ago but I remember the line:

The charcoaled embers of our modest hope

Ingmar Bergman: Interviews

Sunday Night Journal — June 5, 2011

Ingmar Bergman: Interviews, edited by Raphael Shargel. University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

It wasn’t until I started to write this review that I looked at the publication data of the book. Why was it published by the University Press of Mississippi instead of some bigger and more well-known house? I don’t mean to disparage Mississippi at all, which is a sort of sister state to Alabama in being often disparaged by the rest of the country, and for the same reasons. But even a patriot does not expect the Deep South to be a center of interest in Bergman, and this is important material. Of course I’m hardly a scholar, so perhaps in the broad realm of Bergman studies this is not a major entry. But it certainly seems important to me: the interviews range in time from 1957, right after The Seventh Seal, to 2002; the interviewers are knowledgeable and sympathetic, some of them well-known critics like John Simon; and Bergman seems to have talked pretty freely to them. I can’t imagine that anyone very interested in Bergman would not find the book fascinating and illuminating. I’ll mention here in no particular order, some of the things that were most interesting to me.

Almost every commentary on Bergman makes note of his difficult relationship with his severe father, a Lutheran minister, whose rigid discipline took forms that might now be termed abusive. Bergman himself mentions this frequently, and it does appear that this relationship is important to the ways in which Bergman addressed the question of faith. From a believer’s point of view, it’s very unfortunate, indeed tragic, because he deals with the matter in such skillful, profound, and moving ways. We can see that his notion of God was deeply flawed, and that at times when he seems to be casting God aside he is really only getting rid of these flawed and inadequate pictures, and in doing so is approaching God as we understand him. Therefore it’s very significant that late in his life (in the mid-1990s) Bergman returned to the difficulties of his family life, aided by the discovery of a diary kept by his mother, and writing a novel, The Best Intentions, based on his parents’ marriage. The result was a deep understanding and sympathy that enabled him to say that

...after this, every form of reproach, blame, bitterness, or even vague feeling that they have messed up my life is gone forever from my mind.

Bergman was not an intellectual, as we would commonly use the term. He never finished his university education and was a working artist from his early adult life onward. This does not mean that he didn’t have a very active intellect, or that he didn’t continue to read and to learn, but he lived in the world of concrete expression, not of ideas. He worked by intuition, and speaks several times of his films as being a species of dream. It is therefore a mistake to approach his work as if everything in it were keyed to some abstract idea. Too much effort has been expended in trying to account for every image in his work, especially some of the more abstract ones, as if everything must be a symbol of something, and the whole work a philosophical puzzle to be solved. This was not Bergman’s way; the image is there primarily for its aesthetic and emotional impact and may have no abstract meaning at all. I admit I was pleased to have this confirmed, as I recall a conversation from my college days in which I argued a similar position with a graduate student, who laughed at me for treating the movie (I think it was Hour of the Wolf) “as if it were a light show.” I don’t mean, of course, that there are not profound meanings in Bergman’s films, but they are not declarative sentences.

In several interviews from the early ‘60s on, Bergman mentions that his films that dealt with religious themes had enabled him to put the whole question behind him once and for all, that he had settled into comfortable disbelief. In my opinion the work that followed is, all in all, somewhat less impressive—not in craft, but in substance. That is undoubtedly an effect of my own views and interests, particularly of my view that the question of God is the question. Still, it seems possible to me that a hundred years from now it will be those works from the ‘50s and ‘60s that are considered his most significant.

He is asked often about his views of other filmmakers, especially those of more or less his generation, those who helped give cinema its place in the art world as a serious medium. He loves Fellini, and doesn’t care much at all for Godard—in fact denounces him pretty thoroughly in the last (2002) interview (“I’ve always thought that he made films for the critics.”). He loves much of Truffaut’s work, and has mixed feelings about Antonioni, considering him an inadequate craftsman on the whole, but praising (to my pleasure) Blow-Up (“incomparably well assembled”) and La Notte.

Considering the widely held view of his work as High Art of a rather forbidding seriousness and complexity, he has a refreshing lack of pretension, indeed a playfulness about it. In that last interview, and at more than one point earlier, he speaks of himself as being first and foremost a craftsman:

I never considered myself anything more than as a craftsman, a hell of a skilled craftsman, if I may say so myself, but nothing more. I create things that are meant to be useful, films or theatrical productions....I have never created for the sake of eternity. I was only interested in producing the good work of a fine craftsman. Yes, I am proud to call myself a craftsman who makes chairs and tables that are useful to people.

Even if he's jiving a bit here—surely he intended a bit more, and knew that he had accomplished it—this is a healthy attitude.

I generally have little or no desire meet or get to know artists whose work I admire. There are some, such as Eliot, whose general intellectual stature is so much above mine that I find it difficult to imagine a conversation with them. There are others, such as Percy, with whom I would expect to be merely awkward. And there are a few, such as Waugh, who were reputed to be quite unpleasant people. But I can imagine enjoying Bergman’s company. This is based partly on seeing a few filmed interviews with him, where he seems very engaging, but the impression is confirmed by this book.

One last note: a happy surprise for me in this book was the 1960 essay-interview by James Baldwin. When I was a student in the late 1960s, Baldwin seemed almost a sort of affirmative action presence on the literary scene: his status as The Negro Author seemed more important than his work, and I never got around to actually reading him. But this piece is really engaging and perceptive, suffused with a sort of warm melancholy, as much a reflection on America and his struggles with it as on Bergman, and it makes me want to read more of him.

More About the Weather

It is an interesting commentary on the changes produced by the Internet that a letter to the editor in the local newspaper contained a link to this piece in the Telegraph. Fifteen or more years ago it would have been rare for anyone in this area to be aware of the Telegraph's existence, and extremely rare for anyone to read it. Perhaps it was (and is) available in some libraries, but it's safe to say few would have read it without some specific reason for seeking it out.

Anyway: the letter writer suggests, based on the Telegraph piece, that the position of the polar jet stream is a major factor in the generally drier weather we've been experiencing, and that the movement of the jet stream in turn is an effect of...sunspots? I don't know--this would imply that the overall rainfall in the eastern part of the U.S., at least, has been lower than usual, and I don't know if that's true. And of course I don't know how accurate this theory may be; I'm passing this on purely as an item of interest. I hope it's wrong, actually, since it predicts forty more years of drier-than-normal weather.

Weather and climate are such very fascinating topics. I've always thought it would be fun to be a meteorologist. Here's more than I previously knew about the jet stream(s).

Cultural Decline: It's Real, Folks

Talk of the English Reformation reminded me that a few days ago my web wanderings (which I really need to cut back on) brought me to this interesting post by a blogger who calls herself Neo-neocon. She's recently compared the 1970 BBC series "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" to a Showtime series about the Tudors. (Not sure if Showtime is U.S.-only--it's a cable tv channel.) I haven't seen the latter, but I remember the former vividly (though surely it was 1971, at least, when I saw it). You need only look at the graphics for the Showtime series to guess what it's like; personally I find the smarmy show-biz dude who plays (I assume) Henry to be comical, looking more like a mediocre rapper than a king, though I suppose women may disagree. A commenter on that post probably sums it up pretty accurately:

As someone who works in that industry (not the programming side, thank heaven), take it from me: no one involved in making ‘Tudors’ is the least bit interested in history, much less an accurate portrayal thereof. It is — as you say — soft core porn — as is about 90% of pay cable (the rest is gratuitous violence); they simply use Tudor-era trappings as gilded backdrop. There are, after all, only so many ways you can dress up meaningless sex; randy royals were just next in line.

I must admit  that some cable shows, of which The Wire comes first to mind, are extremely good. But I don't subscribe to those channels, and watch the good shows on dvd, so maybe that 90% figure is accurate. And Showtime and Cinemax do seem to have a reputation for having a really high proportion of glossy trash. 

A couple of weeks ago Jesse Canterbury and I had a back-and-forth (I think it was in the comments on this post) about the level of sex-and-drugs on college campuses, and I, somewhat reluctantly, had to say "you don't know what it was like before." Jesse is young enough to have grown up after the sexual revolution became institutionalized, while I'm old enough to remember what it was like before (and to have been, to my bitter regret, among the revolutionaries). Though the sexual revolution in the broad sense had been in progress since the early 20th century, there really was a dramatic change in the latter half of the 1960s. Not that things were wonderful before, but they were certainly different.

Yes, there have been changes for the better since 1965 or 1970. What worries me is that the changes for the worse have attacked such fundamental things that the benefits of the positive changes have been greatly undermined. Well, such is human progress.


Alexi Murdoch: Towards the Sun

Weekend Music

Another find from either the eMusic or Amazon daily free tracks.

It has become pretty predictable that almost any introspective melancholy singer-songwriter will be compared to Nick Drake. In my experience, the comparison is not generally particularly illuminating: the net is cast too wide, because Drake was so distinctive, musically and lyrically and emotionally.  But this song and performance strike me as being closer to his work than anything else I've heard. It could be called derivative, I guess. But that doesn't matter much because it's so good.


Dilbert Explains Internet Debating

Click to read the whole strip.

The strip is not political, but those first two frames capture an experience very familiar to most conservatives; if not racism, they'll be accused of some related form of bigotry in almost any debate of a socio-political nature. The only good thing about the wildly indiscriminate charge of racism is that overuse has begun to blunt its impact.