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November 2011

The Origins of Occupy Wall Street

In The New Yorker, by far the most fascinating thing I've read about OWS. Speaking of the movement a few days ago, I said "After all,  if you want people to buy your product, you have to advertise." And I thought I was pointing out an irony. Not at all: it was from the very beginning very deliberately a marketing effort. 

“It’s easy to generate cool if you have the bucks, the celebrities, the right ideas, the right slogans,” he says. “You can throw ideas into the culture that then have a life of their own.”

"Cool" has had a lot more to do with the would-be revolutionary youth movements of post-World-War-II U.S. and Europe than is generally recognized. 

The New Translations: A Bit of An Anticlimax

That's the way it struck me at Mass yesterday. It really wasn't that big a deal, because it really isn't that big a change. Following a few links around the web today on this subject, I found this dreary look into a mentality I haven't paid much attention to in recent years: progressive Catholics angry about change. Their sensitivity is a little puzzling to me. I regard these rather modest changes as an improvement, but hardly a total reconquest of the liturgical territory which has been in dispute for decades.  But to hear them tell it you'd think that not only were we going back to Latin but there would be quizzes before every Mass to determine who's worthy to participate. Some of the comments are hysterical (I don't mean hysterically funny, just hysterical.)

Craig Burrell has an open thread for reactions and opinions over at his blog.


I Fail To Become A Balletomane, and Other News

Sunday Night Journal — November 27, 2011

About that ballet

A month or so ago I wrote about my intention to watch a George Balanchine ballet that was being broadcast on PBS. I recorded it then, and finally found time to watch it this week. I'm sorry to have to report that I didn't really get it. I can certainly appreciate that there is a great deal of beauty in the movements of the dancers, not to mention the enormous level of skill in the dancing and the choreography, but I can't say that I was captivated or very much moved. My reaction really didn't go much beyond interesting.

There were actually three pieces (is that the right word?) on the program: "Square Dance" and "Western Symphony" by Balanchine, and "The Golden Section" by Twlya Tharp. Here is a brief preview which gives you a glimpse of all three.

Watch Miami City Ballet Dances Balanchine and Tharp on PBS. See more from GREAT PERFORMANCES.

I liked "Square Dance" best. That probably had something to do with the music (Vivaldi and Corelli). "The Golden Section" was possibly the most purely interesting of the three, and even to my entirely untrained eye obviously far less classical than the Balanchine works. I suspect the fact that I found it more interesting does not speak well of it. As you might expect from a contemporary work, it was rather heatedly erotic at times, and I won't pretend indifference to that aspect of it. And in general the technique was, well, stranger than in traditional ballet, and...there is no way to say this without making myself look like a clod, but I may as well admit it: much of the vocabulary of classical ballet is not appealing to me. Part of the reason is that it involves prancing and fluttering that is often lovely, if occasionally prissy, on the women, but downright effeminate on the men. Combine that with the extremely skin-tight costumes of the men, and--I'm sorry, but I want to be honest--there is an off-putting gay vibe about the whole thing.  (And let me note here that Edward Villella, the founder and director of the Miami City Ballet and a former dancer of apparently considerable fame, was a good baseball player and boxer, twice-married and father of three.)

My wife, who has more interest in dance and a better eye for it than I do, watched the program  with me, and thought "Square Dance" was "fabulous" (and she was not using the word archly or ironically; she really liked it.) Neither of us cared much for "Western Symphony": we were not able to take seriously male ballet dancers in 1940s-style cowboy suits; it's the last piece on the program and we didn't finish watching it.

Not knowing anything about the art, it's not surprising that I would miss whatever it is that makes Balanchine different. If you didn't know anything about classical music and decided to start with "Rhapsody in Blue," you wouldn't recognize the mixture of the traditional and the innovative in it, because you'd have nothing to compare it to.  By the way, I'm throwing Balanchine's name around as if I know what I'm talking about, but I really don't. I only know that he was a choreographer who seems to have been something of a modernist in a Stravinksy-ish sort of way (as opposed to a Schoenberg-ish sort of way). He worked with Stravinksy, in fact: here is the Wikipedia biography.

So. That's that, I guess. And yet: it still sounds appealing when people talk about it.

OWS and Utopia

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street (or, as it spread, just "Occupy") movement. I think most people recognize that many of the specifically named complaints of the movement are justified: the middle class is shrinking, the economy was driven into a ditch by reckless-at-best financiers who, as the saying goes, privatized their gains and socialized their losses, etc. Yet I keep having the feeling that these things are not what the movement is fundamentally about. I don't claim to have followed it very closely, but I keep seeing and hearing things that remind me of the 1960s counter-culture, things that seem alternately amusing, pitiable, and disturbing, things that are rooted in a quasi-religion to which young people in modern times have been particularly susceptible: the belief that we can, as Joni Mitchell put it in her sweetly air-headed tribute to Woodstock, "get ourselves back to the garden." This piece in The Weekly Standard describe some of its intellectual-spiritual roots. I don't agree with everything in it, but on the whole I think it makes an important point. Read the Weekly Standard piece, then look at the Occupy Wall Street web site, and you can't miss the connections.

I say "disturbing," but it's not because I think anarchist ideas and their proponents really pose a signficant danger in any direct way. They disturb me because for a couple of years at the end of the 1960s I bought into that movement, in the hippie manifestation which is frequently echoed by OWS, and I hate to see its continuing power over young people who long for a noble cause and who turn their fundamentally religious zeal toward a hopeless quest for the earthly paradise. Too many people who shared my experiences in the 1960s (and early '70s) seem to be hoping still that one day they'll wake up and it will be 1969 again.

The slogan "We are the 99%" annoys me a little. Artur Davis, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who might be Alabama's governor now if he hadn't offended the party machine, articulated the problem

it literally links the interest of a hungry child in the Mississippi Delta to those of a six figure accountant whose mortgage is underwater.

Like, by definition, almost everybody, I am part of the 99%. But OWS doesn't speak for me. Not only does it not speak for me, it doesn't even like me, culturally and politically speaking. But I suppose if you're going to do mass politics you have to have a simplisitic slogan, and not be too scrupulous about its relation to the truth. After all,  if you want people to buy your product, you have to advertise.

Newt 2012?

The phone rang this morning and I saw the phrase above, minus the question mark, on the caller ID. I was tempted to answer, just out of curiousity, but decided not to, afraid that if there was a person (as opposed to a recording) on the other end I would find myself in a conversation I didn't want to be in, answering "poll" questions such as "Are you in favor of the Obama administration's attempt to destroy the United States?"

A Newt Ginrich presidency, viewed from many angles, seems such a terrible idea that I was surprised to find myself the other day thinking Well, maybe... There is one reason I might consider voting for him: if I thought that he might be able to engineer a reform of our health care system that would be a real reform. I'm more and more convinced that the mess we have is a signficant factor in our economic problems. It has a paralyzing effect: people fear to take risks, on either the employee or the employer side, because of its burden and uncertainty. But I think Obamacare will make things worse. Why Gingrich? Well, for all his faults and weirdness, he is a very bright guy and willing to think outside the usual categories. But I suppose that by virtue of those same qualities whatever he might want to do with health care would probably be as over-complicated and unrealistic as the Democrats' plan.

Favorite Political Remark of the Past Week or So

"the right is the party of tragedy"

From Reihan Salam at National Review Online.

The full sentence:

At its best, the right is the party of tragedy and the impossibility of creating a perfectly just human society, but also of optimism about the potential of voluntary cooperation to help us achieve (modest) moral and (immodest) material progress across generations.

The context is a comment on an article in NR on constitutional conservatism, which I haven't read but which could be interesting.

Oh, and while I'm at it, it isn't exactly political, but I really loved something Greg Wolfe posted on Facebook a couple of days ago:

I am the 100%. (Screwed-up, fully implicated, complicit, and responsible.)

(For anyone reading this years from now, the reference is to the Occupy Wall Street movement's "We Are the 99%" slogan.)

"I'm a devout Catholic..."

I've come to expect that when I hear someone say this it will be followed by something dumb and probably nasty about the Church. Nancy Pelosi delivers. Pelosi strikes me as one of the more odious politicians around, and there's a lot of competition. 

I don't think I've ever heard an actual devout Catholic say "I'm a devout Catholic." They might say "committed" or "staunch," which describe their intention to be faithful, or "orthodox" or "progressive" to describe their theology. But "I'm devout" is similar to "I'm humble," at least in my experience of the word. You don't say it if you are it.

Christ the Despot?

Sunday Night Journal — November 20, 2011

Today is the feast of Christ the King. The archdiocese of Mobile has a traditional celebration of this occasion which still involves an actual public procession. I was going to say that that’s probably a rare thing in this country in these days, but I decided to look around on the web first, and it seems that there are at least some others. My wife is the diocesan archivist, and she tells me that photos in the archive and the testimony of older Catholics in the area indicate that it was once a bigger deal than it is now, and included a big parade in which all the Catholic schools took part. Catholics are a minority in this area, but a large one. Even in a time when Protestants in general regarded Catholics with much more hostility than most do now, the local church was not ashamed to take over the downtown streets for a public celebration of its faith.

“King of King, Lord of Lords.” Every Christian believes that. The Catholic Church and, I suppose, the Orthodox in a somewhat different manner, make it more concrete than most Protestants, both theologically and in practice, still rejecting “separation of church and state” in the sense that secular fundamentalists use that phrase. In the fundamentalist sense, no opinion rooted in religious conviction has any legitimate voice in government. As a rule the fundamentalists are not very consistent in that view—they are mostly on the political left, and they are indignant when Christians plead the sacredness of human life as an argument against abortion, but untroubled when we plead the equality of all in God’s eyes as an argument against racism.

The fundamentalists notwithstanding, there is a vast territory between their view that religious views should be absolutely excluded from political debate (not to mention from the actual administration of government) and the theocracy which they accuse us of wanting to impose. When I hear the screech of “theocracy!” from a left-winger trying to shut down religious opinion, I’m never sure whether it’s consciously dishonest or merely irrational.

And yet—there are those on my side in that debate who worry even me a little. When some traditionalist Catholics speak of the “the social reign of Christ the King” I get the feeling that what they really want is “the social reign of me and my friends” They seem to be pretty sure about how the world should be run, and that they would sort things out in a jiffy if they had the power. Of course they pay some deference, at least, to the belief that in a fallen world political and social arrangements will never be perfect, but I sometimes get the feeling that they believe they could do a whole lot better than anyone ever has before, and that the process would be a fairly straightforward implementation of the laws they know to be right. They’re disdainful of secular republics—not altogether without reason, but yet not altogether as appreciative as I think they should be of the real gains in human rights and related matters that have been made in these republics. I have heard that case made quite succinctly: secular governments allow people to do things that endanger their souls; a Christian government would establish laws that prevented these things and thus save souls; therefore the establishment of a Christian government is a moral obligation.

Well, in some sense it is, but not necessarily in the theocratic or near-theocratic sense. It’s the over-confident quality of the prescription that bothers me. It sounds too much like other attempts, beginning with the French Revolution, to enforce an abstract ideal of government on the human race. Or like certain strains of Islam, whose leaders believe that they know God’s will in more or less perfect detail, and that all that remains is to implement it. Of course I don’t think this would-be Catholic authoritarianism is as fundamentally wrong as either the atheistic or the Islamic, because it starts with better premises, but I do think it misguided and that it would, if implemented, be bad for the Church. We don’t need a Catholic utopianism.

I often think, when I watch the behavior of American voters, that democracy really is, from the historical perspective, an unnatural phenomenon that may not last very long. Many people seem to want a king, almost naturally—or maybe not even almost; maybe it is natural, not just in the sense that it comes easily but in the sense that it is part of the nature of man. George Washington reportedly had to resist a movement to make him king. The tendency was especially noticeable in the 2008 election, when many Obama voters clearly saw him as a sort of monarch who would, entirely by his own hand, solve most of our problems. And when you look at our relationship to God it makes sense that the desire for a monarch would in fact be built into us There is certainly no reflection there of the modern idea that the power of the government derives from the consent of the governed. There is no question of who is in charge, and the attempt on the part of the creature to claim equality with the Lord, and to prefer his own will to the Lord’s, is the fundamental source of evil.

Unquestionably, and unlike human beings who take the role upon themselves, God does have, intrinsically, the right to act as an absolute monarch. Just as clearly, though, the gospels do not present this as the way he chooses to act. Christ the King is not Christ the Despot. If we look to medieval civilization for a conception of kingship, we see that our relationship to this king is meant to be not that of his serfs, but of his liegemen and vassals: a sworn fealty, given freely.

It’s not an absolute freedom, of course. There are consequences for choosing wrongly, for defiance, and for oath-breaking. But if God is willing to wait on us, we must be willing to wait on our fellow sinners, and there is only so much a government of any sort can or should do to bypass that process. The social kingship of Christ is something that we can only hope to realize very imperfectly in this world; it can’t be a destination at which we expect to arrive before the end of time.

Having said all that, though, I wonder why I bothered. We are more likely to be wiped out by an asteroid strike within the next thirty years than to witness the imposition on the United States of an authoritarian Catholic government that would ban rock-and-roll and allow no television except EWTN. I suppose it’s just that these views get on my nerves. What is actually happening is that the upper class is working to make Christians of all sorts into a despised minority, and to limit the practice of the faith where it conflicts with contemporary dogma on sex, marriage, and reproduction. Here is a good example of the left-wing fear-mongering about “theocracy.” The pattern—and I don’t say it’s a conscious tactic, but the pattern that emerges—is to paint Christians as a danger to the nation. That’s a very old theme. It’s a little surprising that it would be so effective in a country that is so heavily Christian. But the left-wing position now has the prestige and confidence that mainline Protestantism had a hundred years ago. At the same time, because it is smaller in numbers, and because Christianity is still culturally predominant outside the big cities, the universities, and most of the media, it can pose as the brave rebel. Nice position to be in.

Ready For the New Liturgical Translations?

So, a week from today we begin using the new translations ("we" in this case being not just Catholics but Latin Rite Catholics). I'm wondering how much and how effectively other parishes have been preparing for this. In my case, I think not so well, unless it's been different at other Masses besides the one I normally attend.

Our pastor is a very fine priest, but he's also a very down-to-earth sort of guy whom one suspects did not really enjoy his theology studies. His discussion of the changes has not gone much past pointing them out: "We used to say this, and now we're going to say that." I get the feeling that he sees them as being more or less arbitrary, and that he's a bit annoyed at having to bother with them. So I'm expecting a somewhat rough transition.

On the other hand, I saw the bulletin of another local parish the other day, and there was a very good discussion there of what was changing and why. (It's possible there could have been something like that in my parish bulletin, because I don't always look at it.) What about your parish?

I think it will all be fairly anticlimactic, really. I don't think either the alarm and despair of the liturgical modernists or the triumph of the traditionalists is really justified, though I do certainly think these translations are, for the most part, a step in the right direction.

Classic Cinema and Our Future (?)

Everything in the title above except the question mark is in the title of this piece at Front Porch Republic. I'm not so sure that movies of the 1930s and '40s show us the less-affluent life that's coming our way, but be that as it may, I like the reflections on the quality of those movies. 

American films have never been more well-written or resonant than in the 1930s and 40s, because they have never been more gently and consciously populist.

I don't really agree with the "because" part of that sentence, and I would add the 1950s, but our culture has certainly declined in many respects since then. The average movie may be superficially more, but fundamentally less, realistic than it was then. And it is disheartening to think that the average person no longer recognizes Groucho Marx. Personally I think the Marx Brothers movies are the pinnacle of comedy.

Carryl Houselander On the Bohemians

In the art school there were all the conventional unconventionals--long-haired men, short-haired women, both at the time considered to be shocking and delighting in it. They were all interested in ideas more than in things, and most of them were kind, provided that they were not asked to be kind to someone who was obviously not one of themselves. Then they were like wild birds pecking a caged one to death.

(from A Rocking-Horse Catholic)

I wouldn't have said anything quite as harsh as that last sentence about my hippie days, but I certainly saw that tendency. There was a Manichean divide between the hip and the straight, the children of light and the children of darkness. But as soon as a group of people set themselves up as being more tolerant than others,  they naturally tend to become hostile to those whom they believe to be less tolerant. Some of my liberal acquaintances are shockingly vicious about, e.g., the Tea Party. You can only be tolerant by being tolerant, not by joining a group that advertises its tolerance.

T-Bone Burnett has an amusing song called "Trap Door" about this syndrome. Haven't heard it for a while so I can't quote it exactly, but it has lines like "When you think you're humble, you're no longer humble--watch out for the trap door."

And of course "shocking and delighting in it" is a perennial pattern among the conventional unconventionals.

Conservatives And Social Justice

Sunday Night Journal — November 13, 2011

The eccentric right-wing TV/radio personality Glenn Beck attracted a great deal of wrath a while back when he warned people to flee any church that preaches “social justice:”

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.

He was denounced furiously, with some reason. And then one of those tiresome media and internet tempests ensued, people shouted superficial talking points at each other for a few days, and the whole thing was forgotten.

Beck’s opponents were right to condemn the clearly absurd notion they took from his remarks, which was that Christianity has nothing to do with social justice. But Beck, in his goofy way, did have a point. In many contexts, the terms “social justice” and “economic justice” are indeed code words, in that the justice they prescribe is a pretty specific set of policies which can fairly be summarized as support for the modern welfare state, and sometimes, depending on who’s talking, for pure socialism. And it's also true that some Christians have substituted this political program for the faith. So it’s not without reason that one who disagrees with the program reflexively tunes out anyone who uses the terms.

But to stop there is merely reactionary. Obviously the terms in their literal meanings refer to something that has to be taken seriously when we think about politics, especially when we think about politics from a Christian perspective. What, in fact, is the point of politics, if not to foster social justice? Or, to use a less politically charged term, the common good? I assume no one reading this, and few people anywhere in the Western world, would argue that the point is to gain as much power as possible, or to subjugate and plunder other peoples for the glory and enrichment of one’s own country, both of which seem to have been uncontroversial answers to the question in many times and places. It is probably because of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian philosophical and religious traditions that they are now generally disgraced, though still practiced (obviously).

It’s especially important for conservatives to articulate principles of social justice. We live in a more or less capitalist society—I say “more or less” because capitalism, unlike socialism, does not have a specific and generally agreed-upon definition. It is less a system than socialism, in that it is not first a fully thought-out intellectual creation, but rather a messy mixture of ideas and historical developments. An ideology of pure capitalism exists, but it’s somewhat of an after-the-fact thing. And its proponents don’t seem to think that American society, for instance, really meets the definition. Other non-ideological capitalists often seem to think that “capitalism” means nothing more than private property and markets that are free within the limits of laws against fraud, breach of contract, etc.

But at any rate, whatever you want to call the system, conservatives are in general defenders of it. If they wish to preserve it, they should wish to reform it. The uncritical defenders of an institution are often a greater danger to it than its open enemies. By digging in their heels and refusing to acknowledge its defects—which, in the normal way of human things, will get worse if no active effort is made to repair them—they weaken it, and strengthen both the arguments and the animosity of those who wish to do away with it.

The attack on capitalism from the left tends to be simplistic, emotional, and often at least implicitly revolutionary. It goes against the American grain in being fundamentally hostile to capitalism. And so even when it’s correct in identifying this or that problem, as in the Occupy movement’s protest against the current trend for the rich to get richer and for the middle class to become poorer, it loses popular sympathy, as well as persuasive power, by going beyond specific problems and plainly wishing to replace the whole system with something else entirely. Americans by and large do not want that; they want reform, not revolution, and they certainly do not want the sort of revolution envisioned by those who, strangely, still seem to look to the leftist ideologies of the early 20th century for a solution, in spite of their vast record of crimes and failures.

Reform must, by definition, begin with what is here. So those who understand the thing that is to be reformed, and who wish to see it reformed, ought to be in the forefront of the attempt to understand and address its problems. Human nature, of course, tends to produce a different result: the desire to defend the institution becomes an unwillingness to acknowledge its faults, and then an active attempt to ignore and conceal them. That has been the response of a lot of conservatives to the current economic crisis, and it’s a mistake.

Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when I was abandoning my own youthful leftism, I thought the neoconservative defense of capitalism was a needed corrective to the prevailing doctrines of welfare-state liberalism, not to mention the revolutionary delusions of the far left. The prosperity of the ‘50s and ‘60s had been taken for granted, and when things turned sour in the mid-’70s there was a need to examine the welfare-state presumption that business was the problem and government the solution, and to make the case that government redistribution of wealth was only feasible and useful if there was wealth to distribute. Someone said—and I think Ronald Reagan may have used it in a speech, though I don’t know that it was his line originally—that it was time to stop worrying so much about how to distribute the golden eggs and start worrying about the health of the goose.

All right, then: within the framework of the question “how can we maintain our prosperity?”—that is, assuming a reformist rather than revolutionary goal—those were valid arguments. But many who made them stuck there. They dug in their heels. They over-praised capitalism. They minimized its defects. They constructed a sort of academic’s fantasy about how and why it operates, speaking of “the circle of exchange” rather than of war and Darwinian struggle, as actual capitalists often do. And in the current crisis they don’t seem to have anything useful to say. As middle class and poor Americans have to struggle more and more to stay where they are, and the rich enjoy wealth and privilege which make them in many ways more distant from the masses than kings of old, the intellectual defenders of capitalism have little to offer beyond their old formulas of lower taxes and less regulation. Does anyone seriously believe that such things, even if one grants that they are good policies, will do much to stop the erosion of the American middle class? I doubt it. And conservatives who focus on those things only provide cause for others to think that they either do not understand or do not care that it is getting harder and harder for Americans to earn a middle-class living.

I know there are exceptions—Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, for instance—but for the most part the more visible conservatives and neoconservatives seem to just keep repeating formulas that seem irrelevant at best: that people move in and out of the category of “wealthy,” that any tax increase will crush the incentives of “job creators”—as if insanely well-paid CEOs haven’t been busy for many years now sending every job they can to China—that the top 5% of taxpayers pay 40% of the income taxes (or whatever the number is), etc. Long-time Catholic neoconservative George Weigel seemed almost a parody of the breed when, upon the publication of Caritas in veritate, he rushed into print to tell Catholics which parts of the encyclical were not actually representative of Benedict’s thought and need not be given much attention.

All of this is just a prelude to saying how pleased I was to read this piece by Ryan Anderson of the Witherspoon Institute, which is a sort of social conservative think-tank. Reviewing a recent book from the American Enterprise Institute, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, by Peter Wehner and Arthur Brooks, Anderson criticizes the failure of capitalism’s apologists to go beyond the not-necessarily-true argument that capitalism is just because, in the long run, almost everybody benefits. I’ll quote one passage, which I think will cause anyone interested in this subject to read the whole piece:

Perhaps most disconcerting, however, is that Wehner and Brooks offer no principles of justice on how individuals should deploy their wealth, and in a book titled Wealth and Justice this is disappointing. Supporting free markets and limited government doesn’t even begin to address the question of how citizens should behave in the market: Can a citizen be guilty of injustice in how he uses his wealth? Do citizens have duties—in justice—to distribute their wealth? Wehner and Brooks are silent.

In justice. One doesn’t have to believe that the government should micromanage the economy to hold that some positive assertion of the demands of justice, independent of the workings of the market, must have a place in a healthy economic order. I think Ryan Anderson is a young man: a hopeful sign, if true.

And while I’m at it: in searching for the Glenn Beck quote above, I found this solid Christian response to him, from the prominent Southern Baptist Albert Mohler.

Justice is our concern because it is God’s concern.

Another hopeful sign.

Patty Loveless: You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive

Weekend Music

My friend Robert sent these to me a few days ago, and it was not until last night that I had a chance to listen to them. So, though it may seem perverse to label as "weekend music" a song as gloomy as this one, and more so to include two versions of it, it is now the weekend, and it's a great song. I'm including both because I couldn't make up my mind which I preferred. The first is live, the second from the album (Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul). Musically, I like the live version better. But the video on the second one is a nice photo essay. "Harlan" as you probably know is Harlan County, Kentucky, a coal-mining area that was the scene of bitter and violent labor conflicts that earned it the name "Bloody Harlan." Reading about it will remind you why unions exist. 



I wonder about the origin of the somewhat unfortunate name "Loveless." I suppose it was originally the old English name "Lovelace," spelled phonetically as it was passed down through generations with little schooling.

The much over-used word "awesome"... so very much justified by this:


I am not a very adventurous person, physically, but I would like to do that. I suppose "fun" isn't exactly the right word...

There's a sort of strange intriguing Dominican tie-in on the YouTube page.

Too Smart For Their Own Good--And Ours

It seems like a good idea: instead of rule by people who had no more qualification than that they were the offspring of the previous ruler, or someone closely connected to the previous ruler, or simply the strongest, meanest, and most cunning, we should let the country be ruled by smart people. But mere intelligence has no greater component of morality or wisdom than mere physical strength. Ross Douthat describes what went wrong with the meritocracy:

We’ve created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-I.Q. elite in all of human history.

And for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good.

Read the whole thing here

W. S. Merwin: Notes To A Lost Text

Sunday Night Journal — November 7, 2011

For many years I’ve thought of writing some sort of lengthy appreciation of W.S. Merwin, but the project has never made it to the top of my list, and it’s time I accepted the possibility that it never will. Last year when he was appointed Poet Laureate I thought I would at least do some sort of blog post about him; now his year in that position has come and gone and I never managed to get that done, either. So, on the Chestertonian principle that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, or better late than never, or better something than nothing, here is...something, though perhaps the applicable aphorism is “too little, too late.”

Did you even know the U.S. had a poet laureate? I believe it is a renaming of what used to be the nearest thing we had, poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. At least, back in the days when I was somewhat more conversant with the contemporary poetry scene, that seemed to be considered a sort of pinnacle of what passes for fame for poets. As someone said—it may have been John Ashbery—on being asked what it was like to be a famous poet, “being a famous poet is not like being famous.”

In those same days, roughly 1971-1976, Merwin was very highly regarded, and imitated, by aspiring young poets, at least those of my acquaintance. As is often the case with poets having a very distinctive style, the influence was not necessarily for the best. Mediocre work in the vein of, say, Hopkins, or Dylan Thomas, or early Eliot, inevitably seems like mere imitation, and draws attention to the fact that it is not quite as good as the original.

Unlike most of the people I knew in the local literary scene, I didn’t read much contemporary poetry, and didn’t like most of what I read. I held on principle a general sort of disapproval of it. I thought the whole direction of modern poetry—free verse, the French-influenced imagism, the obscurity, the flat rhythms—was a big mistake, and had neo-classical or formalist, and definitely traditionalist, ideas about what I wanted to do. More fundamentally, I just didn’t think much of it was very good—it was competent and occasionally memorable, but it hardly ever affected me deeply. Merwin’s work did, though. I was won over when I read his 1967 book The Lice. Specifically, I think it was this poem, at the time and I suppose still, considered one of his very best, that won me over:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year not knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Setting aside what I thought or think about whether this manner of writing poetry is the way it ought, ideally, to be done—that is, whether one thinks it a healthy development for the art—there is also, philosophically and religiously and psychological, something pretty unhealthy in this book. It’s desolate and disoriented:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

(“The Asians Dying”)

And at night wrapped in the bed of ashes
In one breath I wake
It is the time when the beards of the dead get their growth

(“When You Go Away”)

Out of the morning stars the blood began to run down the white sky and the crowd in tears remembered who they were and raised their hands shouting Tomorrow our flag

(“Unfinished Book of Kings”)

I could go on and on, quoting the whole book. Looking through it again now for the first time in ten years or so, I’m reminded of how many of these poems are perfect in their way, and that even the ones I like less always have something stunning in them. They are often obscure, but not in the tight, logically rigorous way of some of the earlier modernists who were taken with Donne, the way of the riddle or puzzle. This is the way of intuition, instinct, and a definite touch of surrealism. One does not look for a precise physical analog to the bed of ashes, or the blood running down the sky; one accepts them as images of isolation and dread. (Actually the ashes might be pretty straightforward as a reference to a bed empty of the one addressed in the title.)

Isolation. Desolation. Loss. Alienation. Disorientation. Absence. These are the abstractions with Thelice which one attempts to describe the atmosphere of this book. And if those words told the whole story, I wouldn’t like the poems as well. But there is always in them the consciousness of what is missing, and an occasional glimpse of it. My friend Robert said something many years ago about Merwin’s work that has stuck in my mind ever since: that it was like “notes to a lost religious text.” I believe he was talking about Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, but it applies to most of the work that I love.

I’ve never quite made up my mind whether or not I believe in something along the lines of a collective mind or instinct, something that brings certain ideas and moods to the forefront among a large segment of humanity: the skepticism of the 18th century, for instance. Perhaps such things are explainable as being simply a matter of the time being congenial to the idea—but when we say that, what have we really said? Why was the time congenial? In any case, whether or not there is some mysterious force behind it, these phenomena do occur. Something happened in the 1960s, throughout the western world, at least. It involved the breaking down of structures of all sorts. For some people in some situations it was a liberation, for others a collapse, and sometimes the same situation was a liberation to some and a collapse to others. And sometimes the same person felt it simultaneously as liberation and collapse. I think that could be said of Merwin, and of my other favorite artist of the mid-20th century, Ingmar Bergman. Their work of the 1960s is often similar in tone, movies like The Silence and Hour of the Wolf seeming to come from a very similar place as some of the poems in The Lice. Both men were the sons of Protestant ministers, both seem to have lost or rejected belief in God, but were left with a sense of loss and a fear of meaninglessness, and created works of art which express a deep spiritual yearning. Their sense of dislocation is almost apocalyptic; they seem to see an abyss opening, and the modern world plunging toward it, or already falling.

What I’ve seen of Merwin’s early work was pretty conventional for its time, which is not to say it wasn’t very well done. The few poems I’ve seen from that period were formal in structure. It was in The Moving Target, published in 1963, that he began to develop the style that produced his most original work: he dropped all formal regularity, including meter, line length, stanza patterns, and finally punctuation, as in the poem quoted above. At a glance you might think his line no different, formally, from the lifeless “free verse” that a high-schooler might produce, but anyone with an ear quickly discerns that it has its own shimmering rhythm, and that each poem has a definite graceful shape, all the product of considerably more skill than is immediately apparent.

It is The Moving Target and the following three books—The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment—which are for me, and I think for many of Merwin’s admirers, the heart of his work. The Lice, by the way, is the darkest of the four. I have followed him only as far as 1992’s Travels, which has its moments but was the latest of several that didn’t seem to me on the level of his work of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He also seems to have become more political over the years, in the usual left-wing artist sort of way. The great books have some memorable and powerful poems on political and environmental themes, but from the Reagan years forward I have occasionally run across remarks from him that were the sort of bared-teeth leftism that I thought could hardly fail to have affected his art.

But never mind that. The great work remains. Here is another poem from The Lice, one that reminds me of both Bergman and St. John of the Cross. This book, by the way is the darkest of the four mentioned above. And also by the way, the intent of the title is not to disgust and repel: it is the answer to a riddle which, according to Heraclitus, stumped Homer: “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

The Room

I think all this is somewhere in myself
The cold room unlit before dawn
Containing a stillness such as attends death
And from the corner the sound of a small bird trying
From time to time to fly a few beats in the dark
You would say it is dying it is immortal


I haven't really made much attempt here to describe the effect of Merwin's poetry on me, and apparently on a good many other people, and to explain why I like it so much. That is the part of the unwritten essay that would require the most work and even then be inadequate. As with  most art, the old saying applies: for those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't, no explanation will suffice. You will either have responded to the two poems reproduced here, or not. If you did, and are not already familiar with Merwin's work, you should seek it out.

On the Delta

The area directly north of where I live, and north of Mobile Bay, is a huge river delta that goes on for many miles inland. It's said to be a beautiful and important piece of semi-aquatic wilderness, though I've never seen much of it. A few years ago the state of Alabama opened a facility there which includes a space for meetings and other gatherings, a wildlife museum, and a tour boat. My wife and I took our grandson there last weekend for a Halloween-oriented event, though we didn't pay much attention to it. And we took a short ride on the Pelican, the tour boat you see below. It's heading up into a little bayou that reaches a dead end a bit further on. (The tour guide said they send kayakers up there because they can't get lost.) Now I want to go back for a lengthy trip. You can see the city of Mobile in the distance here. 


Laïs: The Ladies' Second Song

Weekend Music

I was reminded of this by mention in another thread of an album by The Waterboys of Yeats poems set to music. This is the title song of an album by Laïs which features several Yeats poems, including two settings of "Leda and the Swan," one in English and one in what I take to be Flemish. This is one of several erotically charged songs on the album. The poem refers to an old story that Yeats adapted, in which a fine lady seeks to separate physical and spiritual love by having her lover sleep with her chambermaid. I'm pretty sure the poem's title is "The Lady's Second Song," and I suppose Laïs made it plural in reference to themselves.


It has become an extremely widespread and annoying practice to describe attractive women as "hot." But it seems applicable to Laïs in a more literal way. The first time I listened to this album I felt like I was in the presence of female sexual heat so powerful that I wondered that they didn't glow. I found myself thinking "Someone needs to marry these gals, soon"--because what they radiate is not just sexiness, but fecundity. They seemed like fruit so ripe that they might burst. So I'm pleased to see in this video that one of them at least is pregnant. Personally I find whatever it is they have far more alluring than the crude gyrations of the usual pop stars of the Britney Spears type. 

Here is the Flemish "Leda." I think it's better musically than the English one.


If you like these, you'll like most of the album. I reviewed another album by Lais a couple of years ago, here.


When I was about ten years old, I used to design cities. It was very easy, and I was surprised that everyone before me had made such a hash of it. I could conclude only that the world had hitherto been populated by fools. 

That's the opening of "Brutal Blueprints,"  an interesting piece by Theodore Dalrymple in which he discusses the city of Brasilia, which was designed and built from nothing in the space of four years or so.

A Couple of Interesting Gillian Welch Items

This long profile is very well done and illuminating. When I was looking for information the other night I saw a lot of commentaries on the spiritual dimension of Welch's work. I didn't have time to stop and read most of them, but the title of this one, "Blessed With a Dark Turn of Mind," caught my eye, and though it's from what seems an overly progressive semi-Christian source, it's pretty good. In that first piece Welch addresses the matter of sticking with her name alone for the duo: "it's a two-piece band called Gillian Welch."

A Broken-Hearted Nation Searches for Answers

So the $10 million Kardashian wedding is followed a couple of months later by a divorce. I hope this doesn't mean we are going to have to mourn America's lost innocence yet again. 

I read a fair amount of journalism, popping in at Google News several times throughout the day to see if there is some big story in progress. Since Google News shows you top stories based on the amount of traffic they're getting, there's a lot of trash in there. And it gives me a weird perspective: I know the names of many celebrities, and a bit about them, without having a clear idea of why they're celebrities. A movie or TV star appears on the scene, but I never see his or her movies or TV shows. Years go by, the star is married, divorced, has affairs, goes in and out of rehab--I learn all this from the headlines, yet still have never seen the things that made them famous in the first place, so their celebrity seems pretty arbitrary. With Kim Kardashian, it may really be arbitrary: there didn't even seem to be any movies, aside from a certain bit of home video, or other achievement. I know there are some young women named Kardashian, and that they seem to be--pardon the language, but it seems to be accurate--rich bimbos, and that they have a "reality" show on tv. But why? Where did they come from? Why are (some) people so interested in them? This is a weird country.