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October 2011

Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest

Sunday Night Journal — October 30, 2011

I was about to say that a couple of months ago I mentioned that this album was available for streaming from NPR. Then I checked the post where I mentioned it and found that it was actually four months ago—late June. This sort of thing is happening to me more and more. The carousel of the year has been continually speeding up for some time, but lately it’s become almost disorienting. Just when I think I’ve begun to get used to it, and am no longer making seriously inaccurate guesses about how long ago something happened, it gets even faster, and I’m doing it again. Can it really be football season again already? More than halfway through football season, as a matter of fact. And how can I have wasted so much time?

Likewise, I was a little surprised to find that it’s been closer to three than to four years since I reviewed Gillian Welch’s Time the Revelator. But a melancholy reflection is an appropriate beginning for a discussion of her work.  HarrowAndHarvest

I liked Time a lot, though there were a couple of songs on it that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about—not that I disliked them, but I found them somewhat less interesting than the rest. On that score, The Harrow and the Harvest is better. In fact it comes pretty close to being perfect, in that every song is extremely fine and extremely well performed. To my taste, the only one that seems to lower the standard a bit is the lively banjo-based “Six White Horses.” But as it’s the only song on the album which could be described as anywhere near bright in mood, it provides a little needed contrast to the dark colors of the others.

Time the Revelator is ten years old now, and yet this new album sounds as if it might have been recorded the following year: similar songs performed in similar ways. I can imagine a critic complaining that there has been too little development, that the duo of Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings are not progressing, not discovering new things. That would be misleading on two counts. First, there is an album between the two, Soul Journey, which I have not heard, but which is said to be rather different in mood and style: more upbeat, and having more elaborate instrumentation, including drums. Second, and more importantly, though they may be doing the same sort of thing here, they’re doing it better. Yes, it’s a relatively small and subtle improvement, but it’s an improvement: not that every song here is better than every song on Time, but they’re even more consistently rich, and I think the new album is more unified. I’m used to musicians who do brilliant things early in their careers, and continue in the same vein but with less inspiration and conviction. Those few who continue to be brilliant usually change substantially, exhausting one style and moving on to something else: Tom Waits is the best example. It’s unusual to find a high level of achievement continued in a similar way at an equally high or higher level.

I supposed, on first exposure to Welch’s country-based voice and songs, that she had grown up in the south and that its musical culture had been part of her life, and was pretty surprised to learn that she was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles, in the midst of the entertainment industry. Well, I thought, that just goes to show you how strong the music is, and how gifted she is, to have absorbed that whole way of expression. But I learned just now that there’s more to the story. Yes, according to the Wikipedia biography, she was born in New York City (on my birthday, which pleases me absurdly), and when she was three her parents moved to Los Angeles and became writers for The Carol Burnett Show. But she was adopted, and there is some reason to think that her biological mother may have been from North Carolina—which provides a starting place for an interesting train of thought about heredity.

This music is commonly referred to nowadays as Americana or American roots music: folk-based, but not directly imitative, comprised mostly of original songs with an obvious debt to either the country or blues traditions or both. In Welch’s case, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s traditional and what’s original. Some songs that make extensive use of folk terms and phrases are obviously original, too sophisticated (lyrically or musically or both), to be folk songs. But I am really not sure about a few of them—the above-mentioned “Six White Horses,” or “Red Clay Halo” on Time, for instance. The latter doesn’t sound really sound like a folk song, but it could be an old Nashville tune from the ‘40s or ‘50s. In other words, the blending of traditional and original elements is pretty nearly seamless, which is high praise.

People would flat-out ask me, 'Don't you have any happy love songs?' Well, as a matter of fact, I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts.

The album is also pretty dark, in a way that is certainly supported by the tradition but is also undoubtedly Welch’s own predilection. The speaker in Welch’s first-person lyrics is sometimes clearly someone else, but “Dark Turn of Mind” seems to be about herself:

I see the bones in the river
I feel the wind through the pine
And I hear the shadows a-callin’
To a girl with a dark turn of mind

But though almost everything here is dark, melancholy, and more resigned than hopeful, it isn’t hopeless. There’s a light out there somewhere. The girl with the dark turn of mind is happy at night. And in “Hard Times,” though the “Camptown man” who sang “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind” as he plowed his fields seems defeated at the end of the song, the story isn’t over:

But the Camptown man he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come all you ragtime kings
And come on you dogs (dolls?) and sing
Pick up your dusty old horn and give it a blow
Playing “hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”

It’s clear that Welch and Rawlings are pretty much equals in this collaboration: certainly in performance, and by their account, and by the crediting of the songs to both, in writing as well. So I don’t know why the duo is persistently known only by the name of one of them. Perhaps at this point it’s just for consistent branding. At any rate, Rawlings’s contribution has to be recognized. He is an extremely fine guitarist. He doesn’t sound anything like Richard Thompson, but like Thompson he applies a very far-ranging vocabulary and a lot of invention to fairly straightforward folk-based chord progressions, and the result has a lot to do with the fact that although most of the material here is similar not only in basic sound but in tempo and mood, I don’t get bored with it. And I really should: an album of consistently slow, somewhat lengthy songs, all very similar in musical texture, sounds on the face of it like something that I wouldn’t be able to sit through all at once. But within those limits there’s a lot of invention: beautiful melody lines, consistently rich and skillful lyrics, and of course Rawlings’s guitar.

As excellent as Rawlings’s playing is, I’ve always wished his tone were bigger and fuller. It’s very tight and trebly, really sort of flat, and I sometimes wish I were hearing the same notes played in a tone like, for instance, that heard on the old Ian and Sylvia albums. I have to admit, though, that the very bright tone fits well with Welch’s broad, soft strumming. She uses the sort of guitar I wish he did: a big Gibson. His, I just learned, is in fact a rather odd instrument, a 1935 Epiphone archtop, a smaller-than-average guitar and apparently not a particularly high-quality one in its day. Well, it’s certainly distinctive. It sounds almost like a resonator guitar.

I haven't said anything about Welch's singing, thinking somehow that it goes without saying that she is really, really good. But then I'm not assuming that everyone who reads this has heard her, so I should say it. She has a low, rich voice, not the sharp sort of sound one associates with country singers: more like a torch singer than, say, a Dolly Parton. And it suits the material perfectly. The fact that she has recorded with Emmylou Harris and Allison Kraus should tell you how she's regarded by her fellow artists.

Anyway: if you have heard and liked the earlier work of Welch and Rawlings, it is pretty certain that you’ll like this. A week or so ago they were on Austin City Limits, and the program can be viewed online at the PBS site. The first half features the very interesting band The Decemberists. In the Welch-Rawlings half, you can see Gillian buck-dance. And by the way, in case you were wondering, it’s “Gillian” as in “gill”, as in how fish breath, not “jill.” as in jack-and. I’m not sure which is standard. I thought I remembered Gillian Anderson’s name (The X-Files) being pronounced as “jillian.”

This Is A Very Large Sycamore Leaf

Sycamore leaves are on the large side generally--about as big as my hand with fingers spread wide. But not this big. We had a strong wind for 24 hours or so starting sometime Friday, and on Saturday morning there were several of these freaks on the ground. They must grow only very high up on the tree, where they get most of the sun, because none that I can see from the ground are this big. I laid a coin (a quarter) on it just to give you some sense of the size: almost 18 inches/45cm across.


Christ In All Men

In case my account of Caryll Houselander's vision of Christ In All Men may have left anyone who hasn't read the book with the idea that it was a sweet but vague sentiment, here are some key passages from her description of the experience and its implications:

I had long been haunted by the Russian conception of the humilated Christ, the lame Christ limping through Russia, begging his bread; the Christ who, all through the ages, might return to the earth and come even to sinners to win their compassion by his need. Now, in the flash of a second, I knew that this dream is a fact; not a dream, not the fantasy of a devout people, not the prerogative of the Russians, but Christ in man...

Although [the vision] did not prevent me from sinning again, it showed me what sin is, especially those sins done in the name of "love," so often held to be "harmless"--for to sin with one whom you loved was to blaspheme Christ in that person; it was to spit on Him, perhaps to crucify Him. I saw too the reverence that everyone must have for a sinner; instead of condoning his sin, which is in reality his utmost sorrow, one must comfort Christ who is suffering in him. And this reverence must be paid to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are his tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ. For the same reason, no one of us who has fallen into mortal sin himself must ever lose hope....

I knew too that since Christ is One in all men, as He is One in countless Hosts, everyone is included in Him; there can be no outcasts, no excommunicates, excepting those who excommunicate themselves--and they too may be saved, Christ rising from death in them.

Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life.


Contradictions of Capitalism

Scroll down to the review of The Great A&P on this page for a fascinating bit about the A&P grocery chain. It was a fixture of life in the U.S. for several decades, and anyone over, I suppose, 55 or so remembers when "A&P" was almost a synonym for "grocery store." Many of us even recall it nostalgically, but when it appeared it was the WalMart of its day, driving small grocers and their suppliers out of business.

BUT. Here's the maddening thing about this sort of trend: Americans spent far less of their income on food after A&P revolutionized the business. That's just one of many, many reasons why our current economic troubles are so intractable: what lowers prices for Joe puts Bill out of work. I suspect that anything that could reduce that instability would also leave us, overall, less affluent. Which is not to say that it wouldn't be the right way to go. But how do you convince people of that? Do we have to have a complete collapse first?

Caryll Houselander: A Rocking-Horse Catholic

Sunday Night Journal — October 23, 2011

As I mentioned back in July when I wrote about Houselander’s book of quasi-poetry, The Flowering Tree, I intended to read this autobiographical work next. I don’t remember for sure now, but I believe that decision was made when I took it off the shelf in the library and read the opening paragraphs, in which she recounts the two attempts at baptizing her which followed immediately upon her birth (September 29, 1901). The poor baby was not expected to live, and the clergyman called to baptize her was disconcerted to find that her mother and uncle, the only other persons present, had no name for her, because they “had not thought it necessary to think of names for ‘something that would not live for twenty-four hours.’”

Moreover, “[my uncle] said that I was so small and so odd, and so like a tiny red fish, that it seemed that I should either be drowned in the baptismal waters or swim away in them.”

Well, how could one not want to read further after that? And so I did. And I would say this might be the best place to start with Houselander’s work. Might be: since I haven’t read anything other than these two books and a few passages here and there, I can’t be sure about that. But it certainly illuminates The Flowering Tree considerably.

It’s a brief and extremely readable book, only a hundred and fifty smallish pages. One could easily read it in a weekend and still get some other things done, and I rather wish I’d had the opportunity to do that. Circumstances mostly beyond my control make my reading pretty fragmented, and although I had no trouble keeping the thread of this story fresh in my mind when I went several days without reading it, its impact and my response were correspondingly fragmented.

To summarize the life very, very briefly: Caryll Houselander was born into a family without religion, except the nominal Christianity implied in the baptism story, in which an almost superstitious fear of hell requires that a baby be baptized though one has no intention of raising it in the faith. Her ill health at birth seems to have continued for most of her life relatively short life; she died of cancer at 53.

Her mother became Catholic when Caryll was five, and had her baptized (conditionally, I suppose); hence the title of the book: she was not a cradle Catholic but a rocking-horse Catholic. Her parents’ marriage dissolved when she was nine, and this came as a terrible blow to her. From then until she was sixteen she was sent to convent schools, the first of which she liked very much and which encouraged a devotional life which I think must have had some influence in preventing her from leaving the Church altogether when, not very many years later, she very much wanted to. At the second convent, which sounds like something out of the upper-class Catholic milieu of Brideshead Revisited, she learned to associate the Church with snobbery, and this began a process of disaffection which lasted until (I gather—it isn’t entirely clear) sometime in her twenties.

She was called home from the second convent to help her mother care for a wayward priest, “a very sick man in mind and body.” Some years later she left home and lived on her own in great poverty. Estranged from the Church, she worked hard to find a substitute for it, but did not succeed.

I referred to this as an autobiographical work, not an autobiography, because although it was written not long before the author’s death, it stops with the last of three mystical experiences, and the one which seems to have led to her return to the Church, although that isn’t entirely clear. And it is very short on details: it wasn’t clear, for instance, to me at any rate, why the presence of the sick priest was cause for ostracism. Was it simply that a priest was there at all, in the home of a divorced woman? Or was it something more, something in particular about him? One reads in the Wikipedia biography that Houselander was left heartbroken by a very improbably-sounding love affair with Sidney Reilly, a famous spy and rather bad man, but nothing of that sort is mentioned here, and nothing very specific about the half-starved years in which she lived among London bohemians.

But that’s all somewhat beside the point, which is the spiritual testament. The only thing that keeps me from saying that it ranks with the great ones is that I’ve read so few of those. Certainly it is a very fine and memorable one. It has the depth of insight that one would assume in a spiritual classic, but it has a somewhat cool, very modern and English tone, which I like very much. She describes coolly episodes of intense feeling, such as this period of severe mental and physical suffering that struck her at the age of (I think) about six:

Before I was able to go to my second Holy Communion I was again attacked by illness, this time an illness which made a deeper impression on my whole subsequent life than anything that has ever happened to me before or since. It occurred with astonishing suddenness. At one moment...I was a normal child, not much afflicted by conscience and usually naughty rather than good; but a moment later I was literally prostrated by what must surely have been an acute and violent neurosis, characterised by an unbearable sense of guilt.

I was walking upstairs, going (unwillingly) to wash my hand for tea, when without a moment’s warning I became too weak to take another step. I sat down on the steps feeling as if all my life was flowing out of my heels, and my wrists were too weak, too fluid, to lift my hands. There, after the tea bell had run repeatedly and vainly for me, I was found, and carried upstairs and put to bed, where I had to remain for the next three months.

I’ll stop there, because you really need to read the resolution of this incident for yourself.

One naturally is reminded of Flannery O’Connor: another sickly woman, Catholic, unmarried, possessed of sharp wit, acute and unsentimental spiritual insight, and a considerable literary gift. O’Connor is more significant, of course, from the literary point of view, but I begin to think that Houselander may be of equal importance as a spiritual writer. And her literary gifts are not inconsequential: this book is a work of artless-seeming art, a well-structured narrative written in graceful prose of great clarity and precision and frequent dry wit (“a normal child, not much afflicted by conscience”).


I had written all the above when it came time to go to 5:30 Mass. I planned to add only another paragraph noting that the vision upon which Caryll Houselander’s spirituality rested was of Christ in all men. It was literally a vision, one which came to her toward the end of that part of her life which is included in this book. Afterwards, “if the ‘vision’ had faded, the knowledge had not”—and the knowledge became the foundation of a sort of ministry to troubled people.

Christ in all men. Yes, certainly I believe that, and I want to see that way, too. And so I went on to Mass, intending to add that last paragraph later.

A woman sat down next to me in church. She was wearing running shorts and a sweatshirt. I’m at ease with the informal way most people (in this country, at least) dress for Mass, and in fact I like it, because it means I don’t have to wear a tie. But...shorts that have hardly any leg at all? That’s a little too much, or rather much too little. And on women it’s certainly distracting to men, though in this case the wearer was mistaken if she thought the shorts made her attractive. Well, at least she’s here, I thought, and it’s not my place to judge her. Then she began fidgeting restlessly and generally giving off an air of being unhappy to be there. And that was a bit distracting, too, and a bit annoying. Don’t let that bother you, I thought.

Then I realized that the thing which was really getting on my nerves, though I had not yet taken conscious note of it, was that she was chewing gum—chewing it vigorously, and very audibly, with frequent loud pops. At that point I went, mentally, over the edge, though I didn’t do or say anything. It happens to be a quirk of mine that any sort of smacking, slurping, or snuffling noise that continues for very long has an extremely irritating effect on me, like fingernails on a chalkboard. I really can’t control the reaction—I mean, I can control my behavior, and I usually am able to stifle my impulse to lash out at the perpetrator, but I go rigid with irritated tension. Of course the more I tried to ignore the sound the more I noticed it, and for a great deal of the Mass all I could hear was the popping and smacking.

Ok, Lord, I get your point

I had a pretty tough time seeing Christ in the gum-smacking lady. No doubt God was at work there, and probably laughing at me. At the Exchange of the Peace, I did manage to look into her eyes and see, if not Christ, at least a fellow sinner for whom I could feel kindness, and concomitant shame for my anger.

I wondered how she was going to receive Communion while chewing gum. At the Consecration she pulled a song sheet out of the rack on the pew and wrapped her gum in it.


I have never been tempted to steal a library book before, but I'm tempted to steal this one. It doesn't appear to have been checked out for many years, and it's just a matter of time until they discard it. And A Rocking-Horse Catholic appears to be in print only in some sort of scanned paperback, and used copies of the old Sheed & Ward edition start at around $45. I'd really like to have one of those, with dust jacket intact: the illustration is based on a design by Houselander.


The one in the library is probably an original edition, but of course it doesn't have the dust jacket. It does have, pasted into the inside back cover, the front and back...what do you call them?...the pieces of the dust jacket that go inside the book, with a fine tribute from Ronald Knox and one of those nostalgic Sheed & Ward offers to send you a copy of Sheed & Ward's Own Trumpet, request to be addressed to J. Buck, Sheed & Ward, New York 3. Can you imagine a publisher today putting an individual's name on something like that?

Don't worry, I'm in no danger of actually stealing it--the thought just crossed my mind, that's all.

Benedict and Bruckner

A few weeks ago my wife suggested that I subscribe to a daily email from the Vatican News Service. I was a bit skeptical, figuring it would be mostly routine Vatican stuff: this guy is appointed bishop of that diocese, the president of such-and-such country will have an audience with the pope, etc. And there is a lot of that, but fairly often there's something interesting that I would have missed, such as this. 


VATICAN CITY, 22 OCT 2011 (VIS) - This evening in the Vatican's Paul VI Hall, the Bavarian State Opera gave a concert in honour of Benedict XVI. The programme included the Ninth Symphony and the "Te Deum" by Anton Bruckner, played by the Bavarian State Orchestra and the "Audi Jugendchorakademie", conducted respectively by Kent Nagano and Martin Steidler.

  At the end of the performance the Pope rose to thank the musicians. Listening to Bruckner's music, he said, "is like finding oneself in a great cathedral, surrounded by its imposing structures which arouse emotion and lift us to the heights. There is however an element that lies at the foundations of Bruckner's music, both the symphonic and the sacred: the simple, solid, genuine faith he conserved throughout his life".

   "The great conductor Bruno Walter used to say that 'Mahler always sought after God, while Bruckner had found Him'. The symphony we have just heard has a very specific title: 'Dem lieben Gott' (To the Beloved God), almost as if he wished to dedicate and entrust the last and most mature fruit of his art to the One in Whom he had always believed, the One Who had become his only true interlocutor in the last stage of his life", the Holy Father said.

  "Bruckner asked this beloved God to let him enter His mystery, ... to let him praise the Lord in heaven as he had on earth with his music. 'Te Deum laudamus, Te Dominum confitemur'; this great work we have just heard - written at one sitting then reworked over fifteen years as if reconsidering how better to thank and praise God - sums up the faith of this great musician", Pope Benedict concluded. "It is also a reminder for us to open our horizons and think of eternal life, not so as to escape the present, though burdened with problems and difficulties, but to experience it more intensely, bringing a little light, hope and love into the reality in which we live".

I really like that last remark. I don't know Bruckner's music very well and have never heard the 9th. The 2nd and 4th are the only ones I'm familiar with, and they merit the praise.

Joy Division: Love Will Tear Us Apart

Weekend Music

Ok, let me explain why I'm posting this very gloomy song, which is hardly what one would expect for something referred to as "weekend music." It's mainly because the title, which is also the chorus, has been floating around in my head since I posted the dream of the young lady in the Occupy Wall Street protest. Her dream, in case you didn't watch that video, was of dismembered corpses, which she saw as representing the human race torn apart by lack of love.

What she still has to learn is what the song says: love will tear us apart. In this fallen world, because it is fallen, love does not bring relief from suffering, but rather suffering itself. As soon as you begin to love, you have made yourself available for suffering, and you will suffer, one way or another. "Man is in love, and loves what vanishes." (Yeats) 

Those bodies are not dismembered not only by hate, or by lack of love, but by love itself. Only after love has torn you apart will it put you back together again, more whole and more joyful than you were before, so that you won't regret the suffering. But you can't escape it, except by not loving, and that's hell.

If you can't make out most of the words in this song, don't worry. They describe a troubled marriage and are not in themselves especially memorable apart from that one line. 


If you aren't familiar with Joy Division, here is their short sad story. And here is another video which shows the band performing the song. I didn't use it above because embedding is disabled for it. Also, it's preceded by a short commercial.

Oh my goodness, am I going to watch a ballet?

Yes, I probably am.  The other day I was reading this complaint by Terry Teachout about the arts programming on PBS, and I have to agree with him that documentaries on Pearl Jam and Women Who Rock are really not what we need PBS for. (And Andrea Boccelli with Celine Dione?!?!)  But one thing in that list caught my eye: the George Balanchine ballets. 

I suppose I have a slightly higher degree of tolerance for ballet than the average man: whereas, on a scale of -10 to 10, most men would probably rate watching ballet at about -5 or so, I might go as high as 2. And I think that's mainly because of happy memories of taking my children to see "The Nutcracker" at Christmas when we lived in Huntsville.

But in recent years my interest has been piqued by two things. One is Terry Teachout's admiration for Balanchine. Here's a guy who likes a lot of the same things I do, and when he described his reaction on first seeing a Balanchine work performed--"Why has no one ever told me about this?", or something to that effect (much like my first reaction to tera misu)--I wondered what he saw in it. 

Second, Laura Jacobs' writing about dance in The New Criterion. I used to skip those pieces, but one day I read one, and found it intriguing: again, what does she see in it? Well, she's a very good writer (though sometimes a bit on the precious and self-consciously artful side), and although I really had no interest in the subject, her descriptions made me feel that it would be nice to see what she sees. Which I suppose is what good criticism of good work should do. Here's a sample: "The Nutcracker": A New Awakening, from the March 2011 issue. I have to admit that what this piece really provokes in me is a desire to hear Tchaikovsky's opera Iolanta, which Jacobs says is sort of a companion to "The Nutcracker."

Anyway, the people who know seem to think that Balanchine is, like, the Dylan of dance or something. So I'm planning to watch this performance. It'll be broadcast on October 28 here but I don't know if that holds for other places. You can read more and find a schedule at the PBS site.

Thinking about starting another blog

To be called You Know What Else Makes Me Mad? 

To be used as an outlet for my considerable irritation at various inhabitants and phenomena of the contemporary world. Sort of a Mr. Hyde to this blog's Dr. Jekyll.


But I really don't think it would be healthy for me.  It certainly wasn't for Dr. Jekyll. 

Aww...this is sweet

More than sweet, really. It's profound. (By the way, if you haven't seen any video from the Occupy rallies, the odd pause-and-echo thing is supposed to be a way of addressing a crowd without amplification--speaker says a phrase, pauses, crowd repeats it, and so on. I guess her bullhorn doesn't carry far enough.)


There's real grace operating here; I pray she follows it. I knew girls like this in the '60s. By the early '70s or so most of them were hard-edged feminists, lesbians, abortion rights activists, etc. 

More Notes and Vignettes from Radical Son

Sunday Night Journal — October 17, 2011

The personal and the political

The interplay of the personal and the political in the book and in Horowitz’s life is interestingly illustrated in this passage.

In our second year [in Berkeley, ca. 1962], Elissa became pregnant. This was not exactly planned, but neither was it entirely an accident. We had never used any contraception except the rhythm method, which was an uncertain precaution at best. Like the vegetarian regime we had adopted after arriving in California, this was a decision Elissa made and I was happy to follow. In declaring her rejection of other contraceptive methods, she might have said something to me like “It’s unnatural.” But it was not really an idea as she presented it, and there was no argument offered to jusify it. She did not think programatically in that way. It was more like an instinct or feeling.

Once I yielded to her will, on the other hand, I felt the need to convert it into a principle. When I had worked it out as a formal position on contraception (pretty much against), I incorporated it into my Root and Branch article on meaning. But when I presented the text to [Robert] Scheer, he responded with a smirk and pretended not to understand the argument at all. His subtext was transparent: Only a reactionary, probably only a Catholic, could have a point of view so perverse. The subject itself was so personal that I was embarrassed to defend what I had written. I removed the explicit reference from my text and approached the matter obliquely. “A sign of the uncertain footing of this generation in the world,” I wrote, “is the reluctace to bring new being into it.”

He goes on to say that his ideology prompted him to feel guilty about Elissa’s pregnancy, because

A maternal state was part of woman’s oppression. I had made it harder for her to become independent and achieve a status beyond motherhood.

But he realizes that “this progressive but abstract understanding” in fact represented a denial of Elissa’s real wishes. Not until years later, after three children, did she tell him that his reaction presented itself to her as lack of emotional support at the onset of her pregnancies, and

For the first time, I began to resent the progressive ideas that had shaped my reactions and, in this instance, separated me from her.

The transcendent

A Catholic reading that last story naturally notes with fascination the correspondence between Elissa Horowitz’s instinctive view about contraception and that of the Church. There are several other such glancing approaches to actual religion, as opposed to the false religion of Marxism; sadly, these are never pursued.

I dedicated my Shakespeare book [1965] “To Elissa, who brings grace to my world.” I’d wanted to call it Shakespearean Grace, but when I mentioned the title to her, she thought it “too Christian,” and I changed it to Shakespeare: An Existential View. Later I came to regret this, because the original title was more appropriate, and this was the only book I managed to write in those years that I can reread comfortably today.

There is almost nothing in the book of what might be called spirituality in any direct sense, and that is, in the end, its greatest weakness, and the aspect in which it most falls short in comparison to Witness. Horowitz never seems to see that it was the godless pride of Marxism that was at the root of its power to delude and destroy. I say “was” because Marxism and its relatives seem of comparatively little influence now, but I think less coherent and more diffuse forms of them are still widely and almost unconsciously held, and that we probably have not heard the last of them.

In the past five or six years Horowitz has written several books in which he faces the ultimate questions, and reportedly he comes down to a sort of humanistic stoicism. His most recent is A Point In Time: The Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next. I plan to read it.

Marxism, communism, and the 1960s

What [various current chroniclers of the 1960s] sought to obscure in their recollections of the past was this: from its beginnings, the New Left was not an innocent experiment in American utopianism, but a self-conscious effort to rescue the Communist project from its Soviet fate.

In 1968, Ramparts sent Sol [Stern] to Bratislava, along with Tom Hayden and an SDS delegation, to meet Madame Binh and other leaders of the National Liberation Front. For the radicals attending, this was not just a fact-finding mission. The organizers allowed Sol to be present only after Ramparts agreed that he would not report on the “sensitive” political discussions taking place. Long afterwards, Sol told me what these were: “The SDSers held a seminar with the Communists on how to conduct their psychological warfare campaign against the United States.” According to Sol, Hayden was particularly vocal in making suggestions on how to sabotage the American war effort.

At the wedding of two radicals at the craziest point of “the ‘60s,” which was roughly 1969-1970

...the couple exchanged rings made from the fuselage of a downed American aircraft. The bride had brought them back from North Vietnam. Their wedding cake was inscribed with a Weatherman slogan: Smash Monogamy. The marriage lasted less than a year.

Why does any of this still matter? I can say from direct personal knowledge that not all those who actively opposed the war in Vietnam, or participated in any of the broadly left-wing movements of the 1960s, had any particular sympathy for hard-core Marxist communism. I am pretty sure that the preceding sentence would still be accurate if I substituted “most of” for “not all.” Even those who might be accurately described as communists, in that they had some wooly-headed idea of everyone sharing everything, were certainly not interested in (much less capable of) establishing a totalitarian state, or for that matter any other kind of state. So why does it matter if their views on the war and other matters happened to coincide with those of communists, or if they were unknowingly influenced by communists?

Because there is a world of difference between opposing a war because you believe it to be immoral and/or unwise, and opposing it because you want the other side to win. I don’t know that my own opposition to the war was even coherent enough to fit the first description, but it most certainly did not fit the second.

Because the left, and to some extent our culture as a whole, at least at the most prestigious and influential levels, still has not faced the truth about communism, and the influence of communism, at least on the emotional level. Yes, there were the Gulags, the famines, the liquidation of whole populations, but that was all done by crazy foreigners far away and has nothing to do with what my socialist history professor teaches. If you credibly accuse someone of having actively participated in a fascist movement—or substitute “racist,” since real fascists are very rare in this country—you disgrace him, and if the participation was earnest and direct, you may ruin him in the eyes of much of the public, and certainly in the circles which would give him access to wide influence at the higher levels of society. But if you accuse him of being a communist, you’re more likely to damage yourself, at least in the eyes of sophisticated people. They’ll laugh and call you McCarthyite, a Bircher, un-American (with no trace of irony), and so forth. Only if, in a case like that of Van Jones, there is an outcry from the unsophisticated public will the accused be inconvenienced. The groom in the wedding described by David Horowitz above was Michael Lerner, who is now editor of the leftist, but respectable, Tikkun magazine and was at one point influential enough on Hillary Clinton that she referred to him as her “guru,” until so much sport was made of her Lerner-derived “politics of meaning” that she distanced herself from him. The point is not that Lerner cannot have changed, but that his extreme left-wing past has been no great barrier to his subsequent success and influence on very powerful people.

Because when we hear someone say he is an activist for “social justice” we need to know if his idea of justice involves the forcible imposition upon the nation of a utopian fantasy, under an absolute state in which the consent of the governed has no place. Because we need to know whether he would, if he could, suppress Christianity and any other unprogressive elements that rival the state’s claim to final authority over every aspect of life.

Because communism and fascism are rival siblings in the same totalitarian family, and we would never dismiss as irrelevant a comparable fascist presence in any political movement.

Because it is difficult enough for human beings to learn the lessons of history even when the facts are clear, and much more so when some facts are deliberately ignored or suppressed.

Horowitz the polemicist

The following passage provides, unfortunately, an explanation of the difference between the tone of the book and the tone of Horowitz’s everyday opinion writing. After quoting from a speech made in the 1980s to “two hundred Berkeley radicals at a pro-Sandinista conclave to which I was invited as a token conservative,” he says

The rhetoric was heated, but by the time I reentered the political battle, I had made a decision to speak in the voice of the New Left—outraged, aggressive, morally certain. I would frame indictments as we had framed them, but from the other side.... I wanted my former comrades to be put on the receiving end of accusations like those they had made against everyone else. I wanted them to see how it felt. Evidently it did not feel good. When I reached the point in my speech where I said “It is no accident that the greatest atrocities of the Twentieth Century have been committed by Marxist radicals in power,” my words were shouted down and the microphone was cut off.

Well, perhaps you have to be that way to have an effect in the world, but it certainly doesn’t appeal to me. Does it appeal to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you? Does it ever result in anyone on the other side re-examining his views? I doubt it, but maybe I’m wrong. There must be some incentive for it, since so many people on both sides do it.

Pentangle: Lord Franklin

Weekend Music

Following on last week's Bert Jansch post, this modest little track is probably my favorite of Pentangle's work. I love the little electric guitar break. 


While looking for information on the song, I ran across a review which said that John Renbourn, the other guitarist in the group, is the singer. I thought it was Jansch, but they have somewhat similar voices. I always supposed that the song, also known as Lady Franklin's Lament, had some historical basis, but assumed it to be vague. That was just my ignorance. I learned yesterday that it actually refers to very specific and well-known people and events. In this version it could be taken as mixing the laments of Lady Franklin and a former crew member. Obviously the former would not speak of "we poor sailors." But the reference to ten thousand pounds in the last verse could either be the sailor's way of expressing his own impossible wish, or the writer's view of the sort of money actually available to the actual Lady Franklin.

Dylan borrowed the tune for "Bob Dylan's Dream," one of his less impressive songs in my opinion. I think he claimed credit for the tune, which is rather shabby. He apparently had a habit of doing that: "Masters of War" is "Nottamun Town." Etc.

If you play guitar and want to know how the accompaniment is done, here is a video of Renbourn demonstrating and explaining it.

The Peculiar Phenomenon of Lennon Worship

I didn't notice that John Lennon's birthday was a few days ago (Oct. 9). He would have been 71 (!). I became aware of it only because I happened across this review of a new Lennon biography

I've always been puzzled by those people who idolized the Beatles and Lennon in particular. The author of this review says

Tangled deep in the nervous system of every earthling over the age of 40, I would argue, is some fiber or filament of peak Beatlemania, some flicker of the old wild adoration. We want, we need — still — to love these men. 

Sorry, dude, but you argue wrong. I'm well over 40, and an earthling (no, really, I am). I liked the music of the Beatles quite a lot in their time, and I still like it, though I don't listen to it very much. But I never felt anything remotely resembling "wild adoration." I never needed to, and never did, love them as people, or give them all that much thought, really. I mean, like any pop music fan, I knew who was who, and who was responsible for which aspects of their music--I could tell the difference between a Lennon song and a McCartney song. And of course one could hardly avoid knowing a bit about their personal lives. But they were gifted artists, not gurus or philosophers. I certainly never looked to them to tell me the meaning of life--or, to tell the truth, even shed any great light on it, as their work is, in relation to the masters, relatively light stuff for the most part.

A significant number of people seem to think Lennon was some sort of genius-prophet. I didn't understand that when he was alive and I still don't. I suppose "Imagine" has a lot to do with it, but those who think it's a magnificent statement mark themselves in my eyes as being at very best very naive, culpably so if they're over 30.

There was one figure in the music world whom I held in that sort of regard for a short time: Bob Dylan. But I got over that about the time Nashville Skyline came out. 

Father and Son

I had been wanting for some time to get a good picture of these two remnants of dead trees. I had tried a few times, but there was always something wrong. Either the light was on them, which was what I wanted, because there was nice color and texture on the trunks, but they were out of focus, or the light was behind them, and all that detail was lost. Then a month or so ago Tropical Storm Lee came along and knocked down the bigger one.  So I'll have to be content with this one, which is the best of what I had.

Would it be better if I cropped out that bit of tree on the right? I thought so, but when I tried it, I didn't like the result as well--the dead ones seemed too isolated somehow. Unsupported.

Radical Son, by David Horowitz

Sunday Night Journal — October 9, 2011

Let me say right off that this is a much better book than I expected, and perhaps better than you might expect if you’re familiar with David Horowitz’s political work. He’s a former left-wing polemicist/agitator turned right-wing polemicist/agitator, and in neither of those roles, where the principal objective is to push a very specific political line and hammer its opponents, is there much room for depth and breadth and balance. And although I am, broadly speaking, conservative, I stopped reading Horowitz’s online magazine, Front Page, some time ago, because of its relentlessly ferocious and narrow approach to political questions (not helped by its cluttered and chaotic visual style). But I was interested in this book because I’m interested in the social and political story of the 1960s, and because I had gone through a broadly similar experience of disenchantment with and repudiation of the leftist movement of the late part of that decade. I expected it to be a polemic, interesting because of the author’s close involvement with the left, but not profound. So when I read the jacket comparison to Whittaker Chambers’ Witness I didn’t take it very seriously.

But the comparison is justified. Radical Son is radically different from Horowitz’s everyday journalism: reflective, open, sober, self-questioning, and fair. No doubt those who don’t come off very well in the book would quarrel with that last adjective, and of course I don’t have any way of knowing whether Horowitz is right in his judgment of individuals (and no doubt some of these would deny that he is accurate about events). But in general he is willing to judge a person’s character apart from his political views.

More germane to the Witness comparison, this book is a similar mixture of the personal and the political, similarly willing to search out the connections and reciprocal influences between them, similarly astute in its judgments, similarly willing to admit the errors of its author.

Horowitz was born in New York in 1938. (This is, in passing, a significant point about the radicalism of the 1960s, which is generally attributed to the baby-boomers: its principal architects were older, and boomers were more often followers than leaders.) He was a “red-diaper baby,” his parents being Jewish Communists—that is, not simply leftist sympathizers, but members of the party, working actively for a cause in which they devoutly believed and toward a revolution which they fully expected, at least for some significant part of their lives. The party was for Horowitz what a Christian church was for the majority of Americans at the time: an institution that defined right and wrong and to some extent one’s place in the world. Horowitz grew up with a very strong sense of revolutionary mission, and a sense of himself as being at once an outsider and a savior to capitalist, patriotic, Christian America.

But because it was genuinely risky, at least to one’s livelihood, if not one’s liberty, to be a Communist in the 1940s and 1950s, this defining institution remained somewhat shadowy, even within the family. Horowitz’s parents were always vague about what they were doing with and for the party, and it was understood that one mustn’t ask too many questions, or talk too freely, about the real political goals of the movement. I once read of the late Senator Ted Kennedy that his approach was always to take the leftmost politically viable position on any issue before Congress (my emphasis). That seems a good description of the public life of people like the Horowitz family: they were generally to be found in support of any position aligned with the broad goal of establishing a communist state, but they never acknowledged the goal.

They were good, decent, intelligent people who really desired to create a just world. And yet their loyalty to the party made them unwilling and perhaps unable to see the truth about the Soviet Union. As that truth became more and more impossible to ignore, especially after the relative relaxation of the hard Russian propaganda line that followed the death of Stalin—when in fact acknowledgement of Stalin’s crimes became the new orthodoxy—the adolescent David Horowitz began, in the manner of young people of all times and places, to question and judge his parents, and so to condemn their silence about and effective complicity with Stalinism. He was able to do this without renouncing his faith in communism itself by holding that the revolution had been betrayed, and began to see himself and others of his generation as the ones who would purify the vision again and make it work. This conflict with his parents is one of the principal threads of the story: much of the rest of Horowitz’s career was a troubled dialog with his father. Radical Son was clearly not a carelessly chosen title.

The public and private sides of this story are inseparable throughout. In 1959 Horowitz married, and the first of his four children arrived soon after that. His wife, Elissa, is not actively prominent in the events of the next twenty years, and yet the reader feels her presence strongly. She seems a powerful and loving presence behind the scenes of her husband’s political activities, and, later on, an accusing one: not explicitly, but by the contrast of her quiet fidelity with the misadventures and misdeeds into which he fell at a point when he felt his life no longer had meaning.

While the social revolution of the middle and late ‘60s was under way, Horowitz seems to have been a fairly conventional family man, not greatly different from others apart from the fact that the means by which he supported his family were always related to his revolutionary politics. This conventional life sets him apart from many others like him, especially those of roughly my age, who encountered the revolutionary mindset at a point when the idea of psychological liberation through drugs and sex had become thoroughly entangled with radical politics. This may have given him a degree of grounding in reality that was clearly absent in the lives of most younger and/or unmarried people in the movement. It almost seems as though he led a typical middle-class American life, except that he went off the office every day and attempted to fan the flames of revolution.

Those flames were burning pretty high at the end of the 1960s. For many radicals, the Black Panther Party represented the purest and most authentic revolutionary movement on the scene. Horowitz, by then living in Berkeley, was of this mind for a while. But unlike those who could, at least in rhetoric, embrace the criminality of the Panthers as another form of direct action and a natural reaction to their oppression, Horowitz expected the ordinary decencies from them. The story of his gradual confrontation with the truth about the Panthers, and his subsequent disillusionment with the whole Marxist enterprise, which was nothing less than the loss of his religion, forms the dramatic core of the book, and I won’t distort either the story or the author’s reflections on it by attempting a quick synopsis. Suffice to say that it was the major crisis of the author’s life, disrupting it dramatically, and setting it on a different course.

There is a good bit here that I recognize, even though my time in the radical milieu was only an episode, albeit an influential one, in my life, and I was never very serious about politics as such. What I recognize especially is the idea of radicalism as virtue, more fundamental and important than all others, and the willful refusal on the part of people who had a made a deep emotional commitment to the cause to recognize that it was producing results very different from what they preached and intended, and very ugly.

One of the more enlightening aspects of the story, though I suppose it is a fact still rejected by many who were further from the center of radical activity, is the direct involvement of communists in setting the agenda of the New Left. Hippies and anti-war protesters laughed at the accusation that they were communists, and they—we—weren’t, in any doctrinal way. But the terms in which they thought and the matter of their protests were strongly influenced by people like Horowitz who were in fact communists, and who quite consciously and enthusiastically sided with communist governments and revolutionary movements against Euro-American democracies. Broadly speaking, the tactic was always the same: a relentless attack on the sins and crimes and simple imperfections of the West, and an equally relentless diversion of attention, including their own, from the truth about communism—and, later, the truth about the movement itself.

It would take an essay-length review to do justice to this book, to its political and cultural insights, its wealth of information about the inner workings of the New Left, and to the personal and familial journey it recounts. I expect to read it again. I’ll mention that in the end Horowitz receives from his father what he describes as “a posthumous gift of healing to his prodigal son,” and that this involves a particular sort of pain that both had experienced.

And I’ll close with a passage that comes as close as any to summarizing Horowitz’s view of the revolutionary left, which is more or less mine:

If the Left was primarily motivated by the desire to “make the world better,” why was it so indifferent to the consequences of its efforts? What else could explain its lack of concern about the deeds of its liberators in Indochina, or its Panther vanguard at home? Its disinterest in whether socialism worked or not? The more I thought about the moral posturing of the Left, the more I saw that its genius lay not in reforms but in framing indictments.

There is a value in those indictments, in their power to trouble the conscience of society when it ought to be troubled. But one need only stop and think for a moment to recall that in very few human activities is there any necessary connection between the ability to recognize a problem and the ability to solve it.

Netflix listens

Dumps universally derided "Qwikster" plan.

Personally, I don't mind some not-too-excessive rate increase, if the selection remains as good as it is. I'm a little worried about that. There are a couple of movies that I thought were in my dvd queue, but are now in the "saved" list, meaning they're currently unavailable. I hope that doesn't mean the company is trimming their inventory.

Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and the Media

I'm completely disgusted by the difference between the way the Occupy Wall Street protests have been treated by the media and the way the Tea Party was and is treated. If the furrowed-brow worriers about the future of journalism want to know why Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, came into existence, they need look no further than this. I have a great urge to go on at length about it, illustrated with numerous examples, but that would pretty much be a waste of time, considering that it probably wouldn't be seen by anyone whose opinion carries weight in those circles. So I'll content myself with saying it. There is ample, more than ample, material from the OWS gatherings to make them look at least as crazy as the Tea Party rallies. Conservatives of course are having lots of fun with that stuff, but the media are mostly ignoring it. That would be okay if they had treated the Tea Party with the same respect. 

Well, okay, just one example:


Envision the media reaction if someone had encountered a Tea Partier in a Nazi uniform. I'm not a Tea Partier, nor am I entirely unsympathetic to the OWS people. Both have, from their different points of view, raised cogent criticisms of the way things are going in this country; neither is perfectly reasonable or correct. The sheer unfairness of the disparity in their treatment by the media galls me.

Touchstone's 25th Anniversary / The Way of St. James

Touchstone's current issue marks its 25th anniversary, and it is a very excellent issue. I've been a fan of its "ecumenical orthodoxy" since I discovered the magazine a dozen or so years ago (if my memory is at all reliable). I've been convinced for a long time that the differences among the three great communities of Christianity--Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant--are less important than what we have in common. Which of course is not to say that they are insignificant, and the Touchstone folks are under no illusions about that. But in the face of a secular Western world growing more and more hostile to any form of Christianity, we need to make a common witness to the fundamental things that we all believe, not to mention banding together for mutual protection.

The magazine has struggled, like most, with the decline in the number of people willing to pay for print journalism. In the past year or two I've thought its quality suffered. But the last two issues--July/August and September/October--have been full of excellent work. 

One of the highlights of the 25th anniversary issue is a long account by Leon Podles of his pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago--the Way of St. James. (I think this is the same one undertaken by our resident expert on theology and film?)  In fact I began this post with the intention only of quoting something from it. It's a counsel offered to the pilgrims by the pastor of one of the churches along the way:

If you have to die tomorrow on the Camino, tell yourself that your life is completely fulfilled because you will be in a state of absolute search. And if you return home, tell yourself that you are still on the way, and that you will always be on the way, because it is a way that knows no end.

I like that phrase "state of absolute search." It seems at first glance like one of those ultimately despairing saws about the journey being more important than the destination ("To travel hopefully is better than to arrive," etc.)  But it's more a statement that the journey and the destination are ultimately one thing; more something that St. Catherine of Siena or T.S. Eliot would say. 

The piece is not among those from the issue that are available online. It's worth seeking out the magazine to read it.

Bert Jansch, RIP

Weekend Music

Call this a tribute and memorial to Bert Jansch, who died of cancer on Wednesday.

I first encountered his name in connection with Donovan, having read somewhere that Donovan's songs "Bert's Blues" and "House of Jansch" were references to a mysterious guitar genius named Bert Jansch. I didn't hear him until a couple of years later when the group Pentangle appeared. I never liked Pentangle as much as I wanted to, because I never really warmed up to Jacqui McShee's voice. But the guitar playing, by Jansch and the equally gifted John Renbourn, was great.


I shouldn't give the impression that his music was more important to me than it was. I have one of his solo albums, and several of Pentangle's, but that's all. I suppose I'm touched by his death as much for his significance to the musical culture of the 1960s and after as for any devotion to his music specifically.  But I do love the guitar style of which he was one of the most important practitioners, and of course the folk songs which were the mainstay of his work, and the way he and others took that material and reworked it with a sensibility shaped in part by pop, jazz, and the folk music of other countries, respectful and loving but not purist. Jansch's "Black Waterside" is a perfect example.  I've always liked his very plain and limited, but somehow engaging, voice.


Here's an excellent obituary/bio.

Steve Jobs, RIP

I'm not even that big a fan of Apple and its products, although I once was. But there's no denying the impact of Steve Jobs and the company he co-founded on the world we live in. In the video below, the Macintosh looks pretty quaint, but it really was a big deal at the time. Later, Jobs lost control of the company and was turned out of it. In his absence it foundered. He came back and turned it into what we know today, performing what would have seemed, ten or twelve years ago, the impossible feat of making Microsoft look sort of irrelevant.

It's a poignant ending: he was a billionaire, with, I have no doubt, all that medical science can do at his service, and yet when the Reaper insists there is only so much human skill can do.

Whatever one thinks the final verdict on techno-capitalist society should or will be, it is full of astonishing things. Steve Jobs was responsible for bringing a lot of them to market, and also for the fact that each becomes obsolete rather quickly.  What did he think about those ultimate questions in light of which all technology is insignificant? I don't know. RIP.


Note that the Macintosh in the video seems to have hard drive.  It looks like that 3.5 inch floppy is its only external storage. Your mobile phone probably has at least several hundred times more storage than that.

The Wall Street Protests and Distributism

I must say I'm more amused than anything else by the protests.  This list of demands posted on the forum of what seems to be a semi-official site is very funny, at least until you consider that the person who composed it is quite serious. It reminds me of the most ludicrous political statements of the late '60s: free everything for everybody, all the time.  In fairness, the same semi-official site contains a semi-official Declaration which although naive and a little goofy at best does point out real problems. 

Richard Aleman of the Distributist Review is doing a smart thing: trying to direct the incoherent but not totally misguided distress of these mostly young people toward the distributist alternative to both socialism and corporate capitalism. Here is a flyer he's printed and, um, distributed at the protests.

The response of the non-Fox media to this has been interesting. The movement has some obvious similarities to the Tea Party. But unlike the Tea Party, it's being treated as a group of people who have something serious to say and deserve respect and perhaps sympathy. (I'm judging this by the stories that appear on Google News.) Whereas the standard news story about the Tea Party, especially in its early days, went something like "Hate crazy racist old white racist unhinged racist violent racist uncivil hate racist racist hostile racist old hate racist racist white troubling racist dangerous racist stupid hate racist disturbing racist crazy white white hate hate racist racist racist." 

Update: here are a couple of interesting things: a mildly amusing suggested manifesto (the last line made me laugh) and a surprisingly sympathetic view from the Financial Times. And: I can't believe I left the word "hate" out of my canned Tea Party story above. The oversight was brought to my attention by an Occupy Wall Street participant who contrasted his movement with the Tea Party by saying it was "not about hate." I have corrected it.

Chapel On a Grey Evening


Grainy because it was taken with my phone, but it was one of those images that I wanted to capture even if inadequately. I tried cropping the palm tree out of the upper right corner but that took away too much of the sky. This is St. Joseph's at Spring Hill College, by the way.