Previous month:
June 2011
Next month:
August 2011

July 2011

Young Heron

I was amused (and complimented) by the remark a few days ago from our resident film and theology expert that "almost anything Mac posts including pictures of herons tells us more about the meaning of life" than the political commentary I had linked to. It reminded me that I have another heron picture I've been meaning to post. This was taken on the same morning as the one I posted a couple of weeks ago. Most likely this bird is the offspring of the other. I thought at first glance that it was some smaller species of wading bird, because the coloring is a little different, but the general shape and proportions are the same as the adult, as well as features such as the eye and beak. So I think what I happened upon that morning was the mother heron taking her baby out for a feeding lesson. 


The adult was about 15 feet or so (5 meters) to the left, out of the picture. This morning I saw what was obviously a heron, but smaller than an adult, fly out of the woods and light in a dead tree which is very popular with birds in the area, especially larger ones. I figure there's a fair chance that it's the same juvenile or one of its siblings, as there can't be that many families in the immediate area.

I'd like to get a good picture of an adult in flight over the water, as they're majestic and graceful...though one would really need a movie to capture that.

UPDATE: Thanks to Janet Cupo for pointing out that this is not a juvenile great blue heron, but a juvenile or immature tri-colored, also known as Louisiana, heron. The picture of the juvenile tri-colored here leaves little doubt. So it seems I was not watching a family picnic.

Duruflé: Requiem - Sanctus and In Paradisum

Weekend Music

Here are two sections of the Duruflé Requiem that I heard last night as part of the Requiem Mass I mentioned yesterday (see here). I was only going to post one, but I couldn't make up my mind. I thought I remembered my recording, which I haven't listened to for many years, having an orchestral accompaniment, but the choir last night was accompanied only by the cathedral organ (not that I'm complaining). It turns out there are are three different orchestrations, including one for organ alone. (More facts about the work in the Wikipedia entry.) These YouTube clips are of that version, so closer to what I heard, but last night's choir had women rather than boys.



A note about the liturgy: I am not a liturgical purist, much less an expert. I found quickly upon entering the Church that I really didn't have a lot of interest in the finer points, or even many of the fairly broad points, of liturgical practice. I've never really asked for much more than some reasonable level of good taste (and as we all know that is still more than we can expect in much of the contemporary Church). And I've never been especially drawn to the old Mass, which I've experienced only a few times. Last night's liturgy was of course an impressive and colorful spectacle, but the strongest impression I came away with was of its wholeness and coherence. It was all of a piece; nothing was out of place. The music was beautiful, but not essential to that wholeness. I question whether the new Mass can ever have that kind of integrity. No matter how carefully and tastefully done, and I have been at some that were very well done, it retains a certain choppy and awkward quality. I haven't tried to figure out exactly why that is; it may have something to do with the Latin.

The cathedral was full, by the way, with no higher a percentage of old people than you would expect at any such event.

Ain't That America

A 15-pound (6.8kg) hamburger.  Your horror should be tempered by the knowledge that it's meant to feed ten to fifteen people, but still.... And of course there must be a contest to see if anyone can eat the whole thing by himself. 

Note the word "Mallett" on the guy's t-shirt. That surely is a reference to what used to be the men's honors dorm at the University of Alabama, in which I resided during my freshman year. (I moved out into an apartment after that.) Sometime later the program ceased to be associated with that specific building, but continued as something called "the Mallett Assembly," and I think it still exists.

A Companion to Brideshead Revisited

As anyone who's read this blog for a while knows, we are big fans of Brideshead Revisited  here. I am not using the royal or papal "we"; I'm referring to others as well as myself--for instance, Janet Cupo, who has pointed out to me this wonderful site. It is an exhaustive companion to the novel, basically a set of extremely precise annotations explaining...well, just about everything that might be outside the everyday knowledge of the average reader, especially the American reader (along with some that are not, but that's ok).

For instance, on page twenty-one of the American edition of Brideshead, which is the opening of Chapter One, we find a reference to female visitors to Oxford drinking "claret cup." When I encounter this sort of thing I wonder only briefly what a claret cup is; I gather it's a drink containing claret, and go on reading. The Companion, however, not only explains what it is but gives us a recipe:

21 claret cup
an iced summer drink made principally from claret, brandy, citrus, and sugar. A typical recipe of the time was : 
1 quart Bordeaux wine, 2 tablespoons brandy, half a cup of Curaçao, sugar to taste, 1 quart mineral water, mint leaves, a third of a cup of orange (or orange and lemon) juice, cucumber rind, 12 strawberries. Mix all the ingredients except the mineral water, using enough sugar to sweeten to taste. Stand on ice to chill, and add the chilled mineral water just before serving.
The original idea was to hand the cup round "with a clean napkin passed through one of the handles, that the edge of the cup may be wiped after each guest has partaken of the contents thereof." (Mrs Beeton)

If I counted correctly, there are sixteen entries for page twenty-one. Some are things most people would know--for instance, what a gable is. Others are things of which one might have a vague notion, which can now be clarified: fools-parsley and meadowsweet are plants, obviously, but what sort of plants? And some things were for me almost totally obscure, like Eights Week, when the claret cup drinkers run wild.

I stand in awe of the labor and erudition on display here. There are even entire separate sets of annotations for the English and American editions. I have only one small complaint: it's rather unattractive, looking like a typical site created with FrontPage or something of that sort from the early days of the web. But that's insignificant in comparison to what it has to offer. The author's name is David Cliffe. I haven't been able to discover on the site anything more about him than that. But I thank him for this wonderful resource, and Janet for pointing it out to me.

Sex Is Just a Problem, and That’s All There Is To it

Sunday Night Journal — July 24, 2011

As almost anyone who is at all interested in the matter knows, the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae reaffirming the ancient Christian ban on artificial (barrier or chemical) methods of avoiding pregnancy came at the end of a decades-long struggle for their acceptance. The pope took his stand in opposition to a Vatican-commissioned committee which had been appointed to study the question and make a recommendation, and his teaching was widely rejected. The ensuing bitterness on the part of the proponents of birth control was a major factor in the doctrinal wars that followed Vatican II and are still not completely over, though the more extreme progressive forces, those which would have turned the Church into a form of liberal Protestantism, seem to have been defeated.

At the time I came into the Church, in 1981, the bitter diatribe of an older Catholic, usually a woman, against Humanae Vitae was a regular part of the life of the Church, not only in progressive publications like the National Catholic Reporter but also in parish life. I vividly remember a talk given by a woman whose name I can’t remember now, but who was at the time (early ‘80s) visible in the liberal-feminist Catholic world. She was ostensibly discussing the moral theology of the question, but by the time she finished was practically jumping up and down in her fury against the Church’s teaching. I still hear this voice sometimes, though more often it’s second-hand, as someone of a younger generation recounts the hardships of his parents, the acceptance of artificial contraception having long since become a non-issue for most Catholics.

Around that same time, a new generation of Catholics, some of them converts and some of them orthodox younger Catholics, were beginning to believe that the Church had a point, after all, on this question. They—we—were appalled by the doctrinal and liturgical devastation wrought by progressive Catholicism in the 1970s, and by the breakdown of marriage and family life in society at large that had followed the sexual revolution, of which the birth control pill had been a major enabler, and were open to the traditional teaching. (My wife and I, as converts, felt that there would have been something dishonest in becoming Catholic if we were not going to follow this difficult teaching.)

So-called Natural Family Planning, NFP—meaning, in general, all the methods of avoiding pregnancy which do not rely on blocking the result of the sexual act itself—appeared to these young couples as a great gift from God. Very few felt themselves prepared to deal with the arrival of a new baby every two years or less, nor did they want to violate the Church’s teaching. But neither did they want to abstain from sex for long periods of time. NFP seemed to solve the problem, and was embraced by a significant number of these younger people (though not, as everyone knows, by Catholics at large, the vast majority of whom were hardly aware that the Church still taught what it had always taught, and would have reacted, if they had known, as if they had been told to treat a fever with leeches).

Now we have come to another stage in the debate, a stage in which those who embrace the teaching have struggled with it and are in some cases asking the same questions that their parents and/or grandparents asked: is this teaching really binding? Do we really have to live with this hardship?

Coincidentally, I have, within the past week or so, come across three very impassioned discussions of the matter on Catholic blogs. There is this post by Danielle Bean at Crisis (249 comments as of the time I am writing this), and this one by Jennifer Fulwiler at the National Catholic Register (138 comments), and this one by Daniel Nichols at Caelum et Terra (202 comments). I’ve read all the comments only on the Caelum et Terra post; the others I only skimmed. The CetT discussion goes off into the casuistic weeds at several points, and to read them all would take quite a while, but the comments from someone who signs herself “AnonymousBadCatholic” are worth seeking out, as they tell a story which illuminates the heart of the problem: a couple who intended to keep the Church’s teaching but have found themselves unable to do so.

What we hear frequently in these discussions is the disappointment of those who have tried to follow the teaching, and have found themselves in serious distress of one kind or another because of it. Some have responded with bitterness and decided that the teaching must be wrong, some have made compromises which trouble their consciences, some have resigned themselves to abstinence. Many feel that practicing NFP has strained their marriages seriously. Many seem to have a sense of betrayal that NFP did not prove to be as easy or as effective or both as they had been led to believe.

I do believe NFP has been, for many people, a manageable response to the problem. But that is not the same thing as a solution. There is no solution to the problem of sex.

The inescapable fact is that sex has a very clear biological function, which is to make babies, but that the activity is so pleasurable that people want it far more often than they want to have a baby. There are a limited number of ways to handle this—I don’t say “resolve”—and none of them is completely satisfactory.

There is, of course, artificial birth control, including sterilization, as practiced by most people in the industrialized world. But few who give it much thought will deny that its widespread adoption has helped to weaken marriage and the family by weakening and in many people destroying the sense that there is a necessary connection between sex and procreation; I have often heard secular progressives make fun of the very idea. Sex has become trivialized, and while there is surely a great deal more of it taking place now than there was 50 years ago, I see no evidence whatsoever that people in general are any happier for it. I could write at length about that, but let it suffice for the moment that there is ample confirmation of Paul VI’s prediction:

Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

On the individual level, there are potential health effects from the Pill (which I suspect have been under-researched or at least under-publicized—I really wonder about the incidence of breast cancer, for instance), and for all methods the the inducement of a false sense of total control which suggests a resort to abortion in the event of failure; nor does it appear to make marriages any happier, as it was promised to do. And that’s to say nothing of the moral argument.

NFP is workable for many, but, as noted above, there are many others who for one reason or another do not seem able to make it work at all reliably, and for those who have truly serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy it may seem—and be—too great a risk.

Prolonged abstinence, for a married couple who love and desire each other, requires heroic virtue, and it’s not reasonable to expect that of very many people; also, it is likely to be a great strain, to say the least, on a marriage, possibly increasing the temptation to infidelity, at least on the husband’s part.

And then there is the entire rejection of “family planning” in the ordinary sense, what Daniel refers to in the CetT post as Supernatural Family Planning: put it all in God’s hands, make love when you like, and accept babies as they come. Again, this is workable for some couples, but others may find themselves with too many children too quickly. The limits naturally vary with income, health, and psychology. Leaving aside the first two, not everyone is equal in their ability to cope with the stresses of childrearing. But we can assume that many if not most couples will find themselves at some point feeling that they can’t handle another child, though they are still fertile, which brings them round to the dilemma.

What emerges from the conversations on these blogs is confirmation that there simply is no solution: that is, no means by which we can make love as often as we like but have babies only when we want them, and that does not have serious negative physical or psychological or social side effects.

Love and sex are two of the sweetest joys of the human condition. It should not surprise anyone who believes in the Fall that we are never able to enjoy them without limit and without pain. I often wonder whether they will exist in the world to come. It seems impossible that something so very central to physical and emotional human life would simply disappear, as it is presumed to do in purely spiritual conceptions of heaven. Speculation as to what form, or trans-form, they may take, is idle, but surely they will be there in some way, if the phrase “resurrection of the body” means anything. In the meantime, all we can do is muddle through, doing our best and trusting in God’s mercy.


This is not a politics and current events blog, but it seems somehow indecent not to mention the events in Norway, though a conventional expression of horror is inadequate. There are no words to express the dismay one feels at the slaughter itself, and its possible or probable social repurcussions. Pray for the dead, pray for the living, pray that the currents of violence are not strengthened by this event.

It was sadly understandable that many or most people jumped to the conclusion that this was Islamic terrorism. But I can't say I was totally surprised that the killer seems to be some sort of right-winger. In fact I'm a little surprised that there has not been more of a militant right-nationalist reaction to European socialism and multiculturalism.

I don't follow Scandinavian affairs closely, but I have been aware that there is an underground of pagan nationalism with an occasional tincture of fascism and admiration of violence, hearkening back to the Vikings. It came to my notice via my interest in pop music: beginning in the early 1990s, there appeared a form of extreme heavy metal known variously as "black metal" or "death metal" or, more specifically, "Scandinavian black metal." And its most extreme form seems to have manifested itself in Norway, where at its peak it was a violent cultural movement which produced several murders and a number of church burnings, these directed against the ancient and beautiful wooden churches of Norway. The music has become semi-mainstream now, but I've come across bands that specialize in a sort of martial industrial-metal with militaristic/nationalistic lyrics. What I've seen of this movement is strongly anti-Christian, whereas this killer is said to be Christian, but at first glance (let me emphasize at first glance) that seems to be more a nationalist and cultural than a religious position. He also apparently plagiarized a lot of his manifesto from the left-wing American Unabomber. A lone maniac? Perhaps, but, like the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre, and the Oklahoma City bombing, with a definite ideological point of view.

The Telegraph is covering the story very thoroughly and all in one place.

Addendum: I was pretty much just thinking out loud when I wrote this. Reading it later, I see it isn't very clear what I was getting at about the death metal scene etc. Insofar as I had a definite idea at all, it was that mostly peaceful Norway has for some time had a violent, though mostly in rhetoric only, underground, and so I was not as surprised as I might otherwise have been by this event. And I did wonder if the killer might have some connection to the death-metal or right-wing martial-industrial music scenes. As it turns out he did not. Apparently he likes techno.

"An Honest and Good Person"

That's the description, by her lawyer, of a woman in a nearby town who runs a tax preparation and loan business and is pleading guilty to "a systematic scheme" to cheat the government by filing "thousands of bogus tax returns over several years."

According to her plea agreement, she and some of her employees cheated the federal government out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by employing a variety of schemes to illegally pump up refunds.

In some cases, she bought Social Security numbers and other information about children who she listed as dependents on tax returns of people who were not related to them. By doing so, she increased refunds based on the child tax credit and, in some cases the Earned Income Tax Credit designed to help the working poor. She also listed phony businesses to get deductions.

In some cases, authorities said, the tax filers conspired with Mobley and split the extra money with her. In other cases, Mobley acted without the taxpayers’ knowledge and kept all of the extra money for herself.

In some cases, authorities said, she even filed returns on behalf of people who did not even know about the returns. Prosecutors said some of those filers were past customers and some were not. Some did not file a return on their own because they did not make enough money to require it. Some filed a separate return through another tax service without realizing that Mobley also had filed returns in their names.

In one example listed in Mobley’s written plea agreement, she filed a tax return in the name of a woman identified in the plea document only as V.C. without that person’s knowledge.

Bordenkircher said Mobley sometimes used information from past clients and sometimes bought information from third parties. Since the Earned Income Tax Credit caps benefits at 3 children, families with more children sometimes would sell information about the additional kids to be used as dependents on other taxpayers’ forms.

But her lawyer says this doesn't provide an accurate picture of her client:

“Ms. Mobley is an honest and good person. It can be clouded by the charges she’s facing,” she said. “We want to reserve our comments for sentencing, when the community will come out and support her because she’s supported the community.”

You can read the whole story here. I do wonder about her support of the community, since the loan businesses are those payday loan outfits which probably deserve the name "usury" if anything does.

I would simply note all this with amusement as the rhetoric of a defense attorney, except that it's a familiar note. I can't remember any specific cases off the top of my head, but it does seem to be an assertion that pops up frequently when people are involved in some colorful crime or scandal. I think it comes from, or is said of, women more frequently than men: "She's a good person." "I'm a good person." The emphasis is often on that word. 

I hold, as both a philosophical principle and a fact of experience, that there is good in everybody.  But I don't think that's what's meant in these cases. It's the therapeutic mentality, in which sin and guilt don't really exist: one may make "bad decisions" or "bad choices," but these facts do not stain the essentially immaculate heart.

Patty Griffin: Long Ride Home

Weekend Music

Don't listen if you don't feel up to a tearjerker. There is no particular significance to my posting this; I just happen to have listened to the album (1000 Kisses) on my commute this week, and was again knocked over by the best songs on it, which is most of them, all but one written by her (including this one). Yes, that's Emmylou Harris helping out.


The End of the Space Age?

The last space shuttle landed safely this morning, and various headlines have announced that this is the end of the shuttle era. I think it may be more than that: the end of an age of which my generation saw the beginning. The term "space age," which for a long time meant whatever is newest and most technologically advanced, now has a somewhat antique flavor. I know the space station is still there, and this isn't the end of the American space program (to say nothing of the Russian, Chinese, But there seems little reason to think (or hope, if that's the way you look at it), that manned space flight will ever reach much beyond these sorts of earth-orbit ventures. I wrote about this in one of the first Sunday Night Journals, back in 2004.

Heron With Fish


Taken a couple of weekends ago. I was too busy trying to get a decent picture to see if or how he (she?) swallowed that fish, but I suppose it happened.

I'm thinking of getting an external monitor to use with my laptop at home--maybe ask for it for my birthday or Christmas. I do my photo evaluation and tweaking on the laptop, but the pictures look significantly better on my machine at work, where I'm doing this post, so I wonder if sometimes I actually make them look worse by trying to make them look better on the laptop. But then every one viewing this has a different monitor. This picture looks much crisper on my work machine than it did at home: if you click on it to get the full-size version, you can see the heron's eye quite plainly.

Speaking of photos: we think of Amy Welborn primarily as a writer, but she's also quite a good photographer: see thisthis, and especially this, though it's really the title that makes that last one. And notice the header.  (I really need to update my links sidebar.)

Paul Fussell: The Boys’ Crusade

Sunday Night Journal — July 17, 2011

I know Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory by reputation, but have never read it. When it was published in the 1970s, it was immediately considered an important book, and seems to have retained that status ever since, as I run across references to it from time to time. I’ve had it in the category of Important Books I’ll Read Someday for a long time. But it’s a lengthy work, and hasn’t made it to the top of my list. A couple of weeks ago I was in the library looking for something else and noticed this little book, which looked like it might serve as a good sample of Fussell’s writing on war. Be that as it may, it is certainly a worthwhile book in its own right.

Subtitled The American Army in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945, it’s a broad overview of the Anglo-American campaign in Europe from D-Day to the end of the war. The two nouns in the title are carefully chosen, and the book’s thesis is a justification of that choice: a large number of the soldiers were in fact boys, and the campaign did, in the end, justify the designation of “crusade”—to which one must add “in spite of,” and much of the book is an enumeration of the many, many items that must follow those three words.

It is a record first of slaughter produced by mistakes, bad judgment, and sheer folly. At this point in the war experienced and well-trained troops were in short supply, and replacements (not “reinforcements,” the author notes) were sent into combat with little conception of what was facing them or how to face it, and often they died, sometimes horribly, before they had even engaged in anything that could reasonably be called combat, in the sense of a conscious and two-sided struggle. They were put into almost certain-death situations by the sometimes thoughtless and sometimes culpably stupid decisions of their commanding officers. Fussell is unsparing. He does not pretend that the campaign could have been waged without terrible loss of life, and he does not rant, but one senses a controlled anger in his account of incidents where troops were ordered to do things which were either impossible or pointless or both. It is one thing to give one’s life in a meaningful act of heroism, quite another to be herded blindly into a slaughterhouse, dispatched, and discarded. I thought over and over again while reading this book of Siegfried Sassoon’s line: The hell where youth and laughter go.

Fussell knows exactly what he is talking about. He “landed in France in 1944 as a twenty-year-old second lieutenant” (from his Wikipedia biography), and was wounded in action (similar to my father’s experience except that my father was not quite twenty when he entered the war near its end in 1945).

Like a lot of boys who grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War, I had a somewhat romantic view of it, reinforced by the sentimental and sanitized portrayal of it in movies and TV. In my teens and after, I read enough about it to begin to understand that the life of an infantryman was more often squalid and full of terror than noble or heroic. But still the idea of “the good war,” as Studs Terkel called it, persisted to some degree, as I think it does for many Americans. This is only one of a number of books—another is Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed—that strips away any hint of romance about the actual waging of the war. It isn’t only the experiences of the men on the ground that make the romance untenable, and it isn’t only the very visible wrongs of the deliberate bombing of cities by both sides. It’s the hell that caught up everyone involved, including civilians who were not targeted but just happened to be in the way. Did you know, for instance, that D-Day was preceded by massive bombing of areas in France far away from the intended landing site, solely for the purpose of deceiving the Germans?

How and why, then, does Fussell use the word “crusade,” and use it without irony, to describe this nightmare? I’ll let him explain:

As the war ignominiously petered out, the troops knew more about the enemy than they had known when, early on, they had sneered or giggled at the word crusade. They had seen and smelled the death camps, and now they were able to realize that all along they had been engaged in something more than a mere negative destruction of German military power. They had been fighting and suffering for something positive, the sacredness of life itself.

Hardly any boy infantryman started his career as a moralist, but after the camps, a moral attitude was rampant and there was no disagreement on the main point.... Major Richard Winters said after seeing the corpses at the camp at Landsberg: “Now I know why I am here.”

Officers and men agreed on this one thing.

Chesterton, describing the determination of Rome to destroy Carthage, asserts that beyond the ordinary commercial and imperial rivalries of the two powers there was a deep repugnance on the part of Rome toward the Carthaginian practice of child sacrifice. Whether or not this was true, Chesterton’s point is that there are abominations so intolerable, exceeding so far the bounds of ordinary human wickedness, that they simply must be resisted and destroyed. Nazi Germany was one such, Fussell seems to be saying. He does not suggest that the end justified the means, and that it rendered acceptable the wrongs and follies of the Allies. He says—if I understand him—only that the Nazis had to be stopped. That so much in the Allies’ conduct of the war was hardly consistent with the principle of “the sacredness of life itself” does not mean that the two sides were morally equivalent. It is one thing to fail to honor that principle in one’s actions; it is another to deny it altogether, and to act on that denial.

There was no desirable choice in this situation, only less and more undesirable. What remained of decency —that simple word that contains so much—in Euro-American civilization could either let Nazism have its way or go to war against it. This is the tragic view of history, the view that I for one would much prefer not to hold, but which seems to me the only one for which there is any evidence, so far as the things of this world are concerned.


"News Badges"?

This keeps showing up on the Google News page, and I keep wondering: why would anyone want to do this?

Welcome to Google News Badges

Collect private badges for your favorite topics. The more you read, the more your badges level up: you can reach Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and finally Ultimate. Keep your badges to yourself -- or show them off to your friends!

For example, if you keep reading articles about Politics, it will earn you a Bronze badge...

So it counts the number of times you read a story on a certain topic, and at some point tells you that you've won a badge? Why? Who cares? I don't get it. Am I missing something?

The obvious response:


"Hope Solo"?

Is it possible that the name of the goalkeeper of the US women's soccer team is really Hope Solo? It's not a made-up name describing her job? I don't think many novelists would be so audacious with a character's name. Well, in any case, I wish them well. Unfortunately I probably won't have time to watch much of the game. I've never played the game but I have a certain sympathy for keepers, as one of my sons played that position in high school. I still can hardly bear to watch penalty kicks.

Elmer Bernstein: Main Title Music from The Great Escape

Weekend Music (and Movie)

I admit that I'm posting this music mainly because I wanted to say something about the movie, which I watched in three segments over the past week or so. It's almost three hours long, and I had trouble finding a single stretch of time to watch it.

I tend to assume everyone has seen it and knows the story, but in case that's not true: it's a dramatization, said to be accurate in its essentials, of the attempted escape of Allied prisoners of war from a German prison camp in World War II. Since my assumption is certainly not true, I'll avoid spoiling the plot.

It was released in 1963, and I saw it on that first run, which means I would have been 14 or 15, 16 at most. It stirred me deeply, and I have a vague idea that it affected my friends that way, too. I saw it a second time, but I'm not sure when that was--whether it was while the movie was still in theaters on that first run, or a few years later on some re-release--but it moved me just as much. I hadn't seen it since, and have been wanting to.

I'm more critical of it now--as with all war movies of the time, it cleaned up and glamorized the heroes, for instance. And there were some things about the escape that  seemed less than completely plausible to me, but as those facts are supposed to be more or less accurate, perhaps that's my problem. And it is a Hollywood movie, so subtlety is not its strong point. The American actors are like most American actors of the time, playing the same basic personae that they always played. But they are among the most engaging of that generation: James Garner, James Coburn, and especially Steve McQueen. The English actors, including Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasence, are typically superb, and perhaps that can be considered a bit of revenge for the fact that the actual escape on which the movie was based was an almost entirely British affair, greatly Americanized for the movie, presumably to appeal to American audiences and American patriotism.

But in spite of any of those reservations, it remains a classic and deeply stirring portrait of courage against overwhelming odds. And we need those: not for any militaristic purpose, but for the health of our souls. It makes me think of Casablanca: whatever the artistic or journalistic deficiencies of either of them, I would suspect that there is something missing in the heart of anyone who is not moved by them.

One odd side effect of which I was only half-conscious was that the last third or so of the movie, which occurs outside the prison camp, caused me to fall in love with the look of Europe, or at least those parts of Germany in which the movie was filmed. The look of the fields, the look of the towns, above all something in the quality of the light, all haunted me afterwards. And I found, on this viewing, that the effect remains, and makes me wonder about the long-past juncture in my life when I might have emigrated to Europe.

As to the music: it's in the old quasi-classical school, and a great example of the way a real composer can re-work a motif into a great range of expression. You'll hear the irresistible main theme here, but you won't get much sense of how it's used in the more sombre parts of the film. This opening sequence is of the German trucks bearing the prisoners arriving at the camp.


 An interesting note: my wife and I have been watching the original Upstairs, Downstairs. It was slightly disconcerting to go from it to The Great Escape and find Hudson (Gordon Jackson) as a British soldier.

Back to the Ship

Somewhere in Chesterton there's a passage that compares the Protestant Reformation to a shipwreck, and it closes with the observation that, as with a real wreck, the survivors are always going back to the wreckage to retrieve something. I thought of that when I read this story about an evangelical group which is practicing perpetual worship. 

I certainly wish them well, and their devotion is impressive. But I fear for them a little: all that fervor, and the central role of a charismatic leader--it's easy for that sort of thing to go off the rails. It's easy enough within an institution like the Catholic Church, where there are plenty of forces to balance and correct a single person's vision. Sometimes, of course, the institution opposes someone it should support, but those problems generally correct themselves with time, and most often either the eccentric visionary doesn't stray too far from the Church's long-studied point of view, or the Church realizes the visionary is really a prophet or a saint, and supports him. As recent scandals have shown, this doesn't always work out, but when there is no institutional weight the danger is greater, I think--I don't necessarily mean the danger of some great scandal, but the danger of souls being led astray, into false or insupportable doctrines that end up damaging them. You can see the possibility with this group, involving the all-too-common prediction that the Second Coming will be quite soon.

Meanwhile, of course,  the Catholic Church (and, I assume, the Orthodox) has hundreds of years of experience with this idea of perpetual worship. Right up the road from me is Christ the King parish in Daphne, which instituted Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration on this past Ash Wednesday. Every hour of every day there is at least one person in the little chapel set aside for the purpose. For many years there was Adoration from Thursday evening till Sunday morning. I had the 10:00pm Thursday hour, and it has been an anchor of my faith. Now my wife and I have Friday at 11pm, because they were having trouble filling that hour and there was no reason why we couldn't do it. There are hundreds of people involved: just ordinary middle-class people, young and old, married and single. The woman who organized it told me that when she called the local police to tell them that people would be in and out of the church at, literally, all hours, the person she talked to was intrigued. "Well, I'm Baptist. Can I come?" Of course she can. I hope she does.

Unused Icons On My Desktop

Whenever Windows starts badgering me about this, which as you might guess it's doing right now, I remember that old warning from somewhere back in the '60s or '70s: "When I want your advice I'll beat it out of you."

Patmore, Lewis, and The Angel In the House

Sunday Night Journal — July 10, 2011

This is something I’ve been planning to mention for some months. It’s been quite a while now—I’m not sure I want to remind myself of just how long—since Dale Nelson sent me a copy of his excellent article on Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s long poem The Angel In the House which appeared in the March-April 2002 issue of the bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. The article focuses, naturally, on the connections between Patmore’s ideas and Lewis’s. I delayed in writing about it because I wanted to take some time to read something of Patmore first; I vaguely remembered that he had appeared briefly in the anthology which served as the text for a course in Victorian literature I’d taken as an undergrad, but that was all.

I still have that anthology, and another, larger one, which I thought had a good selection from Angel. As it turned out, the two together provided me with not much more than a hundred of the several thousand lines that comprise the poem, but those are excellent. (The entire work can be found online at VictorianWeb, but I don’t care to read at that length on the computer).

The Angel in the House, published in parts between 1854 and 1862, ultimately became “perhaps more generally loved than any other poem of the age,” in the words of one of my anthologies. Considering that “the age” included Tennyson and Browning, that’s saying quite a lot. As is often the case, the best-loved poem of its time did not remain so when its time had passed, but neither did it become a mere relic or antique; there seems to be a good deal in it which still speaks to us.

If I had pursued an academic career, I would most likely have specialized in the Victorian era. Part of the reason is that the Victorians were already dealing with the crisis of faith, and the deep anxiety it produced, long before the 20th century would come to be known as the age of anxiety, but were coping with it in a very different way, a way still owing much to Christianity and characterized by common sense and a high sense of personal duty and honor. And where they were or became serious Christians, as Patmore was, they had already begun to hold a kind of faith that has come to be familiar to us, a faith that has to be, for any moderately educated person (apart perhaps from natural saints), self-conscious and self-examining in a way that was not required in the Middle Ages.

And so with Patmore’s long hymn to married love: perhaps I’m showing my ignorance here, but I’m not aware of any earlier literature which approaches the subject in quite this way. Obviously there had been all manner of love poetry, and the idea that romantic love could lead one toward God was hardly novel, but the raptures of that kind of poetry did not feature or even necessarily involve marriage as such, much less domesticity. And what Patmore seems to have attempted, among other things, is to paint married life as a continuing revel in the sacramental beauty and significance of love between the sexes, domesticated but still rich and powerful.

These ideas have been further explored in modern times, by C.S. Lewis among others, and Dale Nelson’s piece reveals that the connections between Patmore and Lewis were conscious connections: Lewis had read and admired Patmore. Unfortunately the article is not online, but it is among the back issues of the bulletin which are available for mail order at the Society’s web site . Here is one of the key points:

A chief conviction of Patmore’s is the centrality of gender for the whole creation (“nuptial contrasts are the poles / On which the heavenly spheres revolve” [Book I, Canto II]). Compare Lewis in Perelandra, Chapter 16: “Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaption to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings....”

Patmore’s wife, Emily, who was the subject of The Angel In the House, died after fifteen years of marriage. Not long afterward, Patmore became a Catholic, and Nelson tells us that he burned all the copies of The Angel that he could get his hands on because he believed it to be heterodox. Perhaps it is in parts; perhaps it goes a bit too far in its exaltation of love between the sexes. That may be—or it may be that it only seemed so from the somewhat puritanical viewpoint that has, it can’t be denied, sometimes characterized the Catholic view of love and marriage. In any case the few poems I’ve read from it did not strike me as problematic in that line.

As Nelson points out, there is (based only on what he quotes and what I’ve read) quite a bit in Patmore that strikes us as Victorian in a bad way: I expect the title alone would be enough to put not only feminists but most contemporary women on guard. It appears that there is a good deal of condescension, to say the least—a good deal of woman as childlike, charming, and saintly, but not the mental equal of her husband. Nevertheless, there can’t be much doubt that he was writing about, and from, real love, and a real grasp of the connection between romantic love and spiritual aspiration. No culture gets everything right, and I’d say a flawed testament of real love and real faith is far preferable to a sick popular culture which speaks of women only as “hot” or not, and has given us the term “hookup.”

In one of the last poems of The Angel In the House, the poet asks himself why, though he is now married to the woman he has been pursuing, he still desires to woo her, and closes with this lovely picture of the something-unattainable that is always there in the woman one loves; I suppose the female point of view has a counterpart, but I suspect it would be expressed differently:

Because her gay and lofty brows,
When all is won which hope can ask,
Reflect a light of hopeless snows
That bright in virgin ether bask;

Because, though free of the outer court
I am, this Temple keeps its shrine
Sacred to Heaven; because, in short,
She’s not and never can be mine.

Bierce on Modern Religion

The sum of religion, says Pythagoras, is to be like him whom thou worshipest. Had Pythagoras lived in our day, he would have seen his mistake. The sum of modern worship is to make him thou worshipest like unto thyself.

—Ambrose Bierce

A co-worker lent me a collection of excerpts from Bierce's journalism, and I've been browsing in it at odd moments. It's well-suited to my attention-deficit-addled habits. 

I discovered Bierce's Devil's Dictionary when I was young, and found it delightful. Now that I am in principle much less cynical, and a little more charitable, Bierce is something of a guilty pleasure for me. I disapprove of invective, except in fairly extraordinary circumstances, but Bierce is so skillful and so funny that I can't resist his. His attitude toward Christianity is interesting: in principle he deplores it and all religion, and yet one finds hints, as in this quotation, that he has a secret respect for the real thing.

Barcelona: I Have the Password To Your Shell Account

Weekend Music

Rupert Murdoch's media empire is trembling because reporters for one of his newspapers "hacked" cell phones of several people on whom they were reporting, including, disgustingly, a murdered girl. Being involved in the computer trade, and not totally uninterested in it, I always wonder what people mean when they a system was "hacked." To me the term implies something technically clever, the discovery of a software flaw that can be exploited for access to a system, or something of that sort, done by someone with a good deal of knowledge and ingenuity. So I was curious as to the nature of this hacking. I finally found, buried toward the end of one of the stories, that it was simply a case of phones sold with very simple passwords, such as "1234", which the owners unwisely or in ignorance failed to change. The reporters apparently just tried some of these default passwords, and sometimes succeeded.

So here, by way of emphasizing the foolishness of this password practice, is a brief and bubbly story of cyber-revenge. ("Shell account" is a term from back in the days of BBS systems running some variant of Unix; it refers to an account that typically has more access and privileges than usual. The implication is that the young lady now has the power to do some damage. Though if she were really going to she would do first and taunt after.)

I love this song.


I tried your birthday

I tried your mom's first name

I tried your cat's name

I tried your favorite bands

So let this be a warning: don't use easily-guessed passwords.