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February 2012

God does not value what the poor have but what they do not have: self-sufficiency, a closed attitude, a presumption of being able to save themselves.

--Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.

Sunday Night Journal — February 26, 2012

Hitchens vs. Chesterton

The last essay by the late Christopher Hitchens appears in the March issue of The Atlantic, and I finally got around to reading it this morning. Craig Burrell has written about it here, and I'm pretty much of the same mind, though he is a little more generous to the piece than I am about to be. I leave myself open to criticism that I'm breaching the rule against speaking ill of the recent dead. But that's a rule of manners, not directly of morality, and I take it as forbidding malice and encouraging charity, with some extra sensitivity to the fact that the person cannot defend himself and is in any case beyond the reach of earthly criticism or correction. I don’t think, though, that there is anything to blame in discussing the very public views of a very public man, even if one will not be dealing out many compliments to him.

I’ll admit right off that I am not very widely acquainted with Hitchens’s work in general, having read mostly his literary essays in The Atlantic and the occasional polemic or interview. So any conclusions I draw are open to correction, if there are other published works that warrant it. 

And I may as well go ahead and make it clear that my opinion of him is lower now than when I wrote an obituary of him a couple of months ago. I had given him credit for being open to the truth and committed to it wherever it could be found, but have found too many instances of frivolous half-truths delivered with magisterial certainty, and important truths missed entirely precisely because they came from a source he hated and to which he was entirely closed. Moreover, there seems to be some real question as to whether he ever repudiated his Communism in principle, though he condemned its evils; he may (may—I don’t know) have been like those Christians who evade the evil done in the name of Christianity by saying that those weren’t real Christians.

And I have to note in fairness that his essay on Chesterton was written while he was literally on his deathbed. But there is nothing in it that doesn’t seem entirely characteristic of him, or that is less skillfully written than usual, so I don't think we need suppose that he might have done better or differently had he been healthy.

I can’t say that Hitchens speaks ignorantly of Chesterton, as he appears to have read quite a bit of him. I can say that he frequently speaks blindly and sometimes stupidly. By the time I was two-thirds or so of the way through this essay, I found myself picturing a dog or other small predator—I think Hitchens bears more resemblance to some sort of cat—chewing on an elephant’s leg, and imagining, when he draws blood, that he has inflicted a mortal wound.

It’s a commonplace that everyone has a religion and a god, something which he believes is the ultimate reality, and which constitutes the meaning of his life and gives it a purpose. For many that place is occupied by the ordinary material circumstances of life, and they don’t think much beyond improving those. For intellectuals it may be something more abstract, frequently art or politics. For Hitchens it seems to have been the sort of metaphysical politics of the Enlightenment, which sees history as the struggle for freedom in general, against rulers of all sorts and especially against religion, which he follows skeptics like Voltaire in regarding as irrational and repressive. And, not surprisingly, the Catholic Church generally seems for him a fount of evil, perhaps the fount of evil, though, unlike many leftists, he did in recent years recognize Islamic theocracy as a greater danger, in fact if not in principle, the Church being pretty much on the political sidelines in the West.

I ought to be used to it by now, but I’m still sometimes surprised by the way the secular, if not atheist, Englishman so often continues to be a Protestant when he has long ceased to be a Christian. It’s almost as if the lore of Bloody Mary and Guy Fawkes and sinister Jesuits is somehow in their very genes. That being impossible, one must suppose that it runs very deep in the culture.

And so Hitchens focuses almost entirely on Chesterton’s politics, and in particular spends far more time than I would have thought warranted on Chesterton's attempt to blame most of what is wrong with the modern world on the Reformation. I don't entirely disagree with Hitchens here; the Chesterbelloc view of history seems idiosyncratic to say the least. But it is far from the most important aspect of Chesterton's writing--unless of course your religion is politics, in the broad sense, and you see the struggle between good and evil as principally manifested there. In that case there is nothing more important than a writer's politics, and the question of whether he is on the right side or not, because whether he is on the right side is the same as whether he is worthy of much admiration.

Not surprisingly, Hitchens finds Chesterton to be on the wrong side, and therefore not in the end worth very much. He cannot be taken very seriously, except in his role as an enemy of the good, his virtues (his charm, as Hitchens calls it) being mostly irrelevant. It is not a completely ungenerous assessment; he closes by admitting that he enjoyed the encounter. But it is not an insightful one.

Hitchens has scathing things to say here, as he frequently does, about inquisitors and heresy-hunters. Yet I can’t escape the impression that he read GKC in much the same way that an inquisitor might, only passingly interested in anything that did not touch upon the effort to establish that he was a heretic. And I don’t see anyreason to think Hitchens began with an open mind on that question.

He misses entirely the essence of Chesterton’s spiritual vision, which is to say that he misses the essence of Chesterton, period. This is the vision articulated best, I think, in Orthodoxy, and is the thing I value most in him. I don't expect Hitchens to share or approve the vision, but you don't have to be a Christian to appreciate the sheer literary skill of its presentation, and to grasp the significance of the philosophical questions it raises. And while I know it’s common for people to think Chesterton wonderful in one genre and negligible in another, to spend a lot of time defending the Reformation against Chesterton’s attacks (which I agree are not always convincing) and yet never mention the great vision which informs everything he wrote, is evidence of at best a severely constricted perception.

I don't idolize Chesterton, and in fact I’m significantly less enthusiastic about him than many of my general beliefs and tastes. I find his prose tiresome at length, and have little taste for either his poetry or his fiction. His political and economic ideas, while sound in principle, are wrapped in romantic sentimentality which helps to make them unpersuasive to many. A touch , and more than a touch, of romance is not a bad thing at all in politics, but sentimentality is ruinous, and I can’t entirely blame those who dismiss Chesterton’s distributism and agrarianism as being only, as Fr. Richard Neuhaus put it in one of his weaker moments, “poetry and preachment.” (I call it a weak moment because Neuhaus was intelligent enough that he should have been able to see through the sentimentality to the core of truth.) So my quarrel with Hitchens is not that he refused to become a Chestertonian. A matter of taste? No, not entirely: we wouldn't think much of a critic who dismissed Dante as "a Christian creep," which I once heard someone do. There is a level of literary achievement which a person of good judgment can recognize and appreciate even if it does not suit him. That's the literary failure of Hitchens's last essay. And I can't help conjecturing that it may also have been a spiritual failure, which, considering the circumstances, seems tragic.

Father Brown

One point on which I did agree with Hitchens was the Father Brown stories.  

Father Brown I give up and return to you. The character is deliberately vacant and the scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley.... The debt is overwhelmingly to Conan Doyle, with no indebtedness to any of the great formulas of detective fiction. As a consequence, the little priest’s summings-up are usually arid and often iffy. 

Some thirty years ago, full of enthusiasm for GKC, I bought a collection of the Father Brown stories and found them disappointing. I don't think I read more than the first three or four: they seemed thin mechanical puzzles with a moral attached.

I wanted to see whether my view of thestories might be different now, and so I sat down with my Father Brown Omnibus and picked a story at random, opening the book somewhere near the middle, so as to be sure it was one I hadn’t read. It was “The Oracle of the Dog,” and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, the plot is a preposterous contrivance—in this case “clanking trolley” may actually be too kind, because it suggested a Rube Goldberg device to me. And Fr. Brown’s powers of deduction and inference are not credible. And it’s all fairly didactic—I laughed out loud, although I doubt I was supposed to, when Fr. Brown turned away from the murder case to work on a series of lectures on Rerum Novarum. But it was great fun to read, full of sharp and frequently amusing descriptions and asides, and with a much more vivid atmosphere than I recalled.

Hitchens complained that the character of Fr. Brown was vacant, but I think he misses something important. It is true that Fr. Brown is in a sense largely absent from the story; he functions as a sort of calculator to which someone brings clues and which eventually dispenses a solution. But the questions he asks, and the observations he makes, and the reasons he gives for his conclusions, all create a sense of the mostly off-stage person as a deeply sympathetic intelligence, the sort one would expect of a very wise and skillful spiritual advisor. 


I’ve given up coffee for Lent, which is a difficult thing for me. Today being Sunday, I allowed myself my first taste of it since Ash Wednesday, when I had half a cup in hopes of staving off the usual caffeine withdrawal headache (it worked). I made myself a cup with great care, and settled into my favorite chair with the Father Brown Omnibus in my hands, a cat on my lap, and a dog nestled between me and the arm of the chair. I was alone, my wife being in Paris helping out with our newest grandon, and the house was silent except for the ticking of the clock. This is a kind of quiet bliss that one will be happy to remember in heaven; it is a pure pleasure, because it doesn't depend on any intoxicant, physical or emotional. I’m pretty tired of taking care of our animals, and of being prevented by them from leaving home for more than a day or two without a lot of preparation and expense, etc. etc. But it was rather nice to have them at that moment.

In order to reach ourselves, to fulfill ourselves, we must take an infinite distance, which is the distance of God, because, between us and our selves, the only way to reach our selves is through the divine presence. The only way to reach others is through the divine presence. The only way to enter the mystery of the universe is through the divine presence.

--Fr. Maurice Zundel

We may cavort for a time on our high horse of vanity and self-deception, but sooner or later the animal will throw us and make off leaving us stranded in the wilderness. We must abandon the fictions we have labored to polish so as to increase their plausibility.

--Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.

Standing Room Only

That was the situation in my parish church for this evening's Ash Wednesday Mass. There had been one at 8:30, presumably less well attended. This was very close to Christmas and Easter levels. I was a few minutes late, and when I was about a block from the church I realized I was in a traffic jam. It was another ten minutes before I could park the car (a block and a half away) and get inside, arriving just in time for the Psalm. The pews were mostly full--the only empty seats being way in the middle of a row, which one doesn't like to push one's way to--and there wasn't even much space to stand against a wall. I went to this Mass for Ash Wednesday last year, and I don't remember it being this full. Surely it's a sign of good things happening.

(Alas, I had to hear "Ashes." I had forgotten about it until after communion, when I realized the choir had not sung it. But they had saved it for last.)

Sunday Night Journal — February 19, 2012

On Not Reading Books

Don't worry, I'm not about to argue against reading books--just asking myself why I've hardly opened one since sometime around Thanksgiving. It began with the fact that I had a project at work that had to be finished by the end of the year, and that was going to require working a lot of extra hours. And it wasn't just the time involved: I really didn't know how to do it, as it involved a lot of Microsoft esoterica with which I'm not familiar, and that cranked up the stress level. I had hoped to have it done by a contractor, but there wasn't enough money or time for that, so I was stuck with it.

So that, combined with the onset of the holidays and the time they would involve, caused me to put aside the two books I was reading until things were back to normal. As it worked out, that wasn't until mid-January. But it's now mid-February (or late February, if you like), and I still haven't touched them.

What's wrong with me? It's not that I don't read at all. I've continued to read three magazines, of which two (The New Criterion and The Atlantic) are monthly, and the third (Touchstone) is bimonthly. And I read, or at least skim, the local daily newspaper. 

In fact I'm a compulsive reader, and have been since I learned to read. I recall sitting at the breakfast table as a child and reading the back of the cereal box, which was generally not at all interesting, but was better than having nothing to read. If I open a book of paintings or photographs my eyes spend only an instant on the picture before seeking out any text on the page.

So why have I been neglecting books? I blame the web--or rather my use of it, and the way the nature of it encourages my bad habits. I am a compulsive reader, yes, but also one who has difficulty concentrating, and is lazy as well. The web is like a drug designed especially for people like me, with the aim of keeping us constantly stimulated mentally, but never focused and certainly never at rest. It's like one of those experiments where mice can give themselves doses of cocaine or some other addictive substance, and soon they don't do anything else, though they're beginning to fall apart physically. No matter what I'm reading online, there is something else already tugging at the edges of my consciousness. One of my children described the syndrome very well: even as you begin reading one thing, part of you has begun to think that there is something more interesting somewhere else. Your mind begins to wander and you skim the page you're on, or abandon it half-unread, and take no time at all to reflect upon it before the next burst of stimulation hits your twitching nerves.

It would be interesting to know how many words I've read on the Web since Thanksgiving, and how far I would have gotten in the books I was reading if, say, two-thirds of that reading had been in them. One of them is long and although not extremely demanding in a technical sort of way does require close and extended attention. But the other is brief and straightforward and could have been finished in a few hours. The problem, as they say about men and romantic involvements, is commitment. If you're going to read a book of any substance, you have to stay with it, and you generally can't make do with five-minute snippets worked in between other distractions. And I seem less and less able to do muster that level of concentration and attention.

Well, it's got to change. Lent begins this week, and I'm determined to break this habit. The best way might be to give up the internet altogether, but I don't want to stop blogging, and anyway my job requires that I make pretty frequent use of internet resources, and it would be pretty hard to stop myself from making the occasional...okay, the frequent stop at Google News or National Review Online or one of the other sites where new material appears often throughout the day. I'm going to have to fall back on something I've never been very good at: consistent self-discipline. Those frequent stops will have to become much less so--only during my lunch hour, perhaps, and for some small period of time in the evenings. I have to prevent the phenomenon which happens to me all too frequently: I sit down at the computer to check whether there are any comments here, check the headlines, check my email...and discover than an hour has passed.

I don't expect to conquer this problem once and for all, but I really must get it under control. You will know the effort by its fruits: if I succeed at all I'll be writing about those books, and others.

Speaking of magazines

The most recent (January-February) issue of Touchstone contains a piece which strikes me as one of the most important I've read on the subject of the government's intrusion into religious matters. Clearly a long piece for a bimonthly magazine was not composed with the controversy over the HHS "contraception" mandate (as it is slightly inaccurately known) in mind, but it is certainly timely. The article, by Douglas Farrow of McGill University, is called "Why Fight Same-Sex Marriage?" and here are a couple of key passages:

Institutionally, then, [same-sex marriage] is nothing more than a legal construct. Its roots run no deeper than positive law. It therefore cannot present itself to the state as the bearer of independent rights and responsibilities, as older or more basic than the state itself. Indeed, it is a creature of the state, generated by the state's assumption of the power of invention or re-definition.

Which means, obviously, that actual marriage--I share the author's resistance to qualifiying it as "traditional marriage"--is in the same situation relative to the state.

Here we have what is perhaps the most pressing reason why same-sex marriage should be fought, and fought vigorously. It is a reason that neither the proponents nor the opponents of same-sex marriage have properly debated or thought through. In attacking "heterosexual monogamy," same-sex marriage does away with the very institution--the only institution we have--that exists precisely in order to support the natural family and to affirm its independence from the state. In doing so, it effectively makes every citizen a ward of the state, by turning his or her most fundamental human connections into legal constructs at the state's gift and disposal. [my emphasis]

That the family, like every human thing, is always defective in some ways and occasionally pathological, is plain enough, a tragic fact of life. The great and prideful delusion of the contemporary liberal or progressive is the belief these problems can be mostly eliminated, and that the proper instrument for eliminating them is the state. Once you recognize that as the essential assumption and quest of liberalism (as the term is currenly used), almost everything about its programs makes sense. People, left to themselves, do stupid and destructive things. Therefore they cannot be left to themselves in matters of any consequence. And those few who understand what is needed must make and enforce very detailed rules for the others. 

Farrow's argument is long and complex and I'm not doing it justice. The whole piece is online at Touchstone's web site, so you can read it for yourself. What makes it most strikingly relevant to the Obama administration's attempt to bring the Church to heel is that it ends by asserting the inevitable movement from contraception, which makes possible the severance of marriage and child-rearing, to the principle that marriage is a mere legal construct. "The fabric of marriage cannot withstand the acid of contraception." That doesn't mean that any specific marriage won't withstand it, of course. But that it's true of the insitution of marriage seems clearer all the time.

Once upon a time a marriage in which the couple intended to remain childless was considered, literally, no marriage at all. The Catholic Church still holds to that view, and is ridiculed for doing so. At the same time, even progressives who aren't hopelessly far gone in some fanaticism recognize that there is something wrong when most births to women under 30 are outside marriage, as this New York Times story tells us. Why is it surprising that if marriage is separated from children, then children are separated from marriage?

For God's Sake

At Mass this evening I was struck by a sentence from the Old Testament reading, Isaiah 43:25:

It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses; your sins I remember no more.

Or, as the King James has it:

I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.

The phrase "for my own sake" opened up a sort of vision to me. Perhaps I'm misconstruing the word "sake," and there is some traditional understanding of it of which I'm unaware, but: why does God even want to save us? Because he wants us for himself. And in some real if inconceivable way he can't have us as we are. It's not just that he doesn't want us as we are--he can't have us, because he wants us to be in a profound union with him, and that's impossible as we are, because our sin is part of us, but it can't be part of him. But it's also impossible for him to have that union if he simply reaches out and destroys the sin, which he could do, because that would mean destroying our freedom, which is part of what he loves in us. Poor God, faced with such a dilemma...and the whole history of the human race, collectively and individual, is a scheme for working out that dilemma in such a way that sin is conquered but free will remains. I know this is not a new idea, not even new to me, but the way it presented itself to me in that moment was new: a brief glimpse of something incomprehensibly vast and complex, a literally awesome vision.

Ok, Try This

Yesterday, doing one of my frequent scans of Google News, I saw a headline Anatomy of a Tearjerker. I thought that sounded intriguing and clicked on it, which took me to this analysis of why Adele's song "Someone Like You" makes people cry, or at least get tears in their eyes.

I have not heard much of Adele's music, but on the basis of the bits and pieces I have heard, I don't think it's much to my taste--a great voice, for sure, but just not my cup of tea. So I felt pretty confident that I would not fall victim to the alleged powers of this song, and went over to YouTube to put myself to the test. When it started with the cheesy '70s power-ballad dinkyDONky dinkyDONky piano arpeggios, I was sure that I would be rock-like in my indifference.

But dang if I didn't get a little misty when she hit the chorus. 


Maybe it's just that my defenses were weakened by the video. I am highly susceptible to moody black-and-white videos featuring pretty girls who are very sad.

Anachronisms in Downton Abbey

In one of the first episodes I saw, O'Brien looked in the mirror and said to herself This is not who you are. That struck me as very much out of place for the time, ca. 1914. It's definitely a contemporary American thing, and I suppose a British one, too. I kept noticing things like that--characters using idioms that seem far too late-20th/early-21st-century to seem authentic for either rich or poor English people of 1910-20: for instance, Daisy following some remark with "I'm just sayin'." Sunday night, just for fun, I kept a list.

Last time I checked  Used ironically to introduce an obvious or indisputable fact, as in "Last time I checked, the sky was blue." (Come to think of it, the character may have said "Last time I looked," but it was the same idea.)

Get on with her life  Need I say more about this pop-psych tic that ranks with "closure" for the most over-used way of describing the need or wish to put the past behind one?

That's not who we/I/you are/am  Ditto, more or less. It's appeared several times since I first noticed it. I recall hearing this in the '70s, and I suppose it may have been around for a time before then, but surely the whole self-regarding real-me stuff comes from the late 20th century therapeutic mindset.

suck up  I think it's very possible that I could be wrong about this one, but surely even if it were around 100 years ago, would a wealthy young lady have openly announced her intention to "suck up to my mother-in-law"?

I don't think this is a good idea  Not the words themselves, but their ironic use, meaning "I think this is a mistake."

How does that work? Again, not the words themselves, but their context and use: not a simple question about, say, an automobile engine, but an odd present-tense way of pointing out an impending obstacle, more or less equivalent to "That's not feasible," as in "Ride a bicycle in this traffic? How does that work?"

Figuring I'm not the only person to be bothered by these, I Googled "Downton Abbey anachronisms," and sure enough, I'm not, at all. Be careful about any sort of query into the series, though: because season 2 has already shown in Britain, it's easy to stumble onto spoilers. Not that I care very much about that at this point.

My World

And yours, too, though you may not know it, every time you read a blog, log on to Facebook, or use a service like Gmail or Hotmail. From an IT trade publication:

Cloud computing builds on automated virtualized infrastructures by using extended management software to deliver environments where users can define, provision, and operate their own services in service models such as IaaS [infrastructure as a service], PaaS [platform as a service], or SaaS [software as a service].

Someday I won't have to think about this stuff anymore. 

The industry likes the term "cloud computing," because it sounds nice and sweet and dreamy and simple. It's anything but. Considered from top to bottom, it might be the most complex thing the human race has yet constructed. The quote above is part of a discussion of a particular set of sub-problems associated with the technology.

Sunday Night Journal — February 12, 2012

There But For Fortune

I watched, in snippets over a week or so, the above-named documentary about Phil Ochs. Once considered along with Dylan a major "protest singer," Ochs had a considerably lesser artistic gift, and stuck with left-wing activism long after Dylan had withdrawn from it. I never listened to him very much, because most of what I did hear of his music wasn't very appealing. Setting aside the intrinsic problem of polemics in art, I just didn't care much for his music as music. It may seem odd for someone who always liked Dylan's weird rasp to say he found Ochs's voice annoying, but there it is. I did come to like a couple of his songs very well when performed by others: Joan Baez's "There But For Fortune," one of Ochs's less topical and more lasting songs, and Ian and Sylvia's "Changes." I didn't hear much of him as he tried to make the transition from voice-and-guitar to a more expansive musical style in the late '60s, and in the '70s he vanished completely as far as I was concerned. I don't think I even heard of his 1976 suicide till long after it happened. He was thirty-six.

The documentary is very good, as far as the treatment of Ochs himself is concerned. He seems to have been fundamentally a good man, but one who lost his way completely as the energy of the '60s radical movement dissipated. Perhaps, in a very different way from more visible figures like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (whose connection to politics as such was pretty well nonexistent, but who were very much of the same broad cultural phenomenon), he was a casualty of the times, in that once the excitement and foolish hopes of the period had ebbed he could find no meaning in his life. I don't mean to suggest that any such simple or single explanation explains his suicide--he had developed serious mental problems, for one thing--but it seems to have been a factor.

The film does engage in what I've come to expect of any treatment of the '60s: it hews to the standard Innocents Abroad line of most of those who participated in the whole political-cultural attempt at revolution. In this view, the movement begins in "idealism" which is never really defined except as opposition to war and racism, rides the enthusiasm of John Kennedy's noble presidency, and is crushed by the oppressive war-mongering capitalist imperialist sexist System. Thus we get Tom Hayden trotting out, yet again, the idea that Kennedy's assassination was the work of sinister forces opposed to "social change"; the '60s began "innocently"

believing in the redemption of the American dream through direct take the New Frontier to a more progressive and radical conclusion.... The murder of Kennedy was the first warning that there was something fundamentally dangerous about embarking on social change.

That's ridiculous on several grounds, which really should be obvious, but is not to the diehards of the '60s. It's hard not to believe that someone like Hayden isn't being deliberately dishonest, but perhaps it's just very powerful self-deception.

It occurred to me recently that these old leftists of the '60s resemble those Southerners who continue to insist that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. They're so committed to their myth that they simply can't consider the possibility that it is wrong in any really important way--in the case of the Southerners, that their ancestors were deeply committed to the institution of slavery, in the case of the leftists that they were driven, whether knowingly or ignorantly, by variants of a utopian ideology which has proven its capacity for destruction and oppression many times over. (I know, slavery was not the immediate cause of the Civil War, but it was the primary reason for the division that was the immediate cause.)

The wisest words in the film come from the somewhat unlikely source of Ed Sanders, who thinks guilt about his marital problems and derelictions as a father weighed heavily on Ochs:

When you make mistakes--there are no time machines to rectify mistakes--so mistakes are lodged like harpoons and fishooks in an intelligent person's soul, and I think Phil couldn't get beyond those personal harpoons that made him feel in some ways worthless.

What he needed, obviously, was repentance and forgiveness. I pray he found them.


A Progressive and Radical Conclusion

What would Tom Hayden's "progressive and radical conclusion have looked like? Something like Cuba, perhaps? With its wonderful free health care? He should be comforted to find that the flame is very much alive in the White House. We can see part of it in the shocking move of the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to subsidize contraception, sterilization, and the abortifacent "morning after" pill. I think it would be superfluous for me to say much about this. The main line of argument by the administration is startling. It seems to go something like this: that one major goal of Obamacare (Affordable Care Act, or whatever the Orwellian name is) is to foster health, that contraception is good for women's health, that therefore they have a right to it, and that this right entails that someone else must provide it. Can this reasoning really be accepted as law in the United States of America?

 This may be the first open skirmish in what I'm afraid is going to be a long war between Church and State in this nation. When I was first seriously considering the possibility of becoming a Catholic, I decided I wanted to read a serious history of the Church. I went to a lot of trouble to obtain all three volumes of Msgr. Philip Hughes History of the Church. I didn't retain many details of the intricacies of events and their causes, but I came away with one single powerful impression: that conflict between Church and State had begun with Pontius Pilate and never really stopped for very long, even during the Middle Ages, and that in this conflict the Church had always stood for the primacy of the spiritual over the material. In this country the two have enjoyed, for the most part, a fairly stable and mutually respectful relationship for the past 100 years or so. But as our government has grown in power so it has grown in pride, and Caesar is always enraged when his claim to final authority over his subjects is disputed. I fear we are entering a new period of active conflict. 

It was probably inevitable that the implementation of Obamacare would take this turn. It was certainly predictable. To quote myself, writing while the law was still being debated:

Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.

(The whole post is here.) 

As I write this, the administration has offered what it describes as a compromise. It seems to be having the no doubt intended effect of dividing Catholics, with those who supported Obamacare feeling that they now have an escape route from their embarrassing situation, and those who say it is inadequate or meaningless in the position of seeming intransigent. If this is accurate, it is indeed meaningless. In any case, does anyone doubt that the Church's opponents will give up short of complete victory? Or that it will be birth control pills today, abortion tomorrow, since the "women's health advocates" of HHS consider abortion equally important to their cause?

(Personally I've always suspected that there may be a stronger link between the birth control pill and cancer, especially breast cancer, than has so far been recognized. It is at any rate a fact that the pill is carcinogenic. So women's health is hardly the only consideration from the HHS point of view.)

And Finally

I must register my offense that the secretary of Health and Human Services has the same name (apart from a variation in one letter) as one of our greatest composers. Click on the picture to hear something beautiful (image from Wikipedia).



I posted these on Facebook, sharing them from other people's posts. I'm putting them here on the assumption that most people who read this blog aren't Facebook "friends" with me (sorry, I can't use "friend" in that context without the quotes.)

This one was from Janet: a truly mind-boggling miniature Bag End. I simply can't fathom the skill and labor that went into this. The builder says she figures that if she had worked 9-5 with an hour for lunch it would have taken her two or three months to do it. I would have guessed two to three years, at least.

And the video below was posted by my son Will with the comment that this is what it feels like to play in an orchestra. Click on the "ZKO Rollercoaster" link for more information.

ZKO Rollercoaster // GREAT EMOTIONS from virtual republic on Vimeo.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata #15, "Pastorale", I (Allegro)

Weekend Music

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have finally been exploring the set of Beethoven piano sonatas I received for Christmas several years ago and which have mostly sat unheard since then, for lack of convenient opportunity. I've finally resorted to listening to them in the car, which is unsatisfactory--the very quiet parts disappear--but I guess better than nothing. This is not the recording I have (Schiff, on ECM), just what I was able to find on YouTube. I love the first two movements of this sonata, but am less taken with the last two. So far, anyway.


Update: Ok,well, the truth is that I really like the second movement best, though it's more modest, so let's have it, too.



As far as I can remember this is the first Greta Garbo movie I've ever seen, and it's completely delightful. It's a sort of romantic comedy, made just before World War II in which Garbo plays a grim Soviet emmisary sent to Paris to find out what's become of three men who had been sent there by the authorities to sell some jewels confiscated from an aristocrat after the Revolution. This was apparently her first mostly comic role—the theme of the advertising campaign was Garbo Laughs!  Of course she soon falls in love with life in Paris, and with handsome Count D'Algout. There are a good many jokes at the expense of the Soviets, and of course who wouldn't prefer to live in a luxury hotel suite rather than share a single small room with several people, with a police informer next door? But she has to return to Russia, and...

Garbo is as beautiful as everyone has always said, and gives a great performance, quite funny at times, especially in the earlier part of the story where she's maintaining her grim political posture. Perhaps it's partly the accent, but she reminds me, oddly, of Arnold Schwarzenegger inTerminator


I find it a little difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying this movie. You might find yourself thinking of all that isn't said or shown about capitalism--there is no underside of Paris visible here--and noting the occasional admissions that the Russian people had it pretty rough before the Revolution, but if that sort of thing keeps you from enjoying it, you really ought to lighten up.

Sunday Night Journal — Feb 5, 2012

Every Way We Ever Looked

It's been...let me check...four weeks now since one of my daughters, the only one of our children who lives nearby, gave birth to her second child. Though it's been a month now, and though this was not the first such experience, I still find myself thinking often of the strangeness of being the parent of a parent, the father of a mother. As I looked at her sitting up in bed and nursing her newborn son, I could--I can--see simultaneously the baby she was, the child she was, the adolescent she was. And as soon as she was no longer in my sight, all those images were equally present to me. Of course they're incomplete and represent only an infinitesimal fraction of the moments in that span of time. But they're all here, and they're all equally real to me.

Some time ago there was a discussion here on the question of what we would look like in heaven. I said I thought we might look every way we've ever looked, but I really had no idea what that could mean as an actual experience, or how it could be. I think that these images of my daughter, and of course my other children and other family members, and anyone I've known for an extended period of time, provide some insight into the possibility. Presumably God sees us all, and the entirety of our existence, in some way of which this is only a fragmented hint. And if we are to be like him, perhaps that vision will also be something of which we are capable. And which we will be for others.

Mercy and Mercy

I've always taken very much to heart the Gospel's admonitions that in order to receive mercy I must show it to others. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" is the most direct of these. The parable of the servant who begged for mercy from his master but refused it to his fellow servant is another and very powerful one, one which I think of whenever I'm faced with a choice of whether to show mercy to someone. In my circumstances these are usually small, if not trivial, matters, but that doesn't mean they aren't significant spiritually. 

On Wednesday, seven time zones from here, in Paris, my daughter-in-law gave birth to another grandchild. (Why Paris? It's a very long story, but suffice to say that my son and his wife move around a lot.) There were complications, and we didn't learn of the birth till early Friday morning. I usually try to pray during part of my morning commute, and of course I was praying for the baby. And so it seemed providential that there was a hitchhiker on the I-10 on-ramp.

There aren't that many hitchhikers on the road any more, and when I do see them I usually pick them up. I don't think at any time in the past twenty years or so any of them have been the sort of young wanderer who used to hitchhike a lot. Most of them are people who are, as the saying goes, down on their luck, and if they're at all forthcoming about what they're doing on the road it usually turns out that a good bit of the luck was of their own making. This fellow, for instance, said he couldn't drive because of a felony DUI conviction for which he had served 22 months in prison. I don't know whether the felony part was because an accident had been involved, or because his number of DUI arrests had passed a certain point. At any rate, his drunken driving hadn't killed anyone, and he thanked God that he had been sent to jail before that happened. 

He was on his way to Texas, and I was only going to Mobile, so I didn't take him that far. But he was glad to be getting anywhere at all, because he'd been stuck for two days about ten miles east of where I picked him up. I let him out at the interchange of I-10 and I-65, where 10 continues west to Louisiana and Texas but I take 65 north to my job.  He thanked me, but I think I was the more blessed.

I don't know whether my giving a guy a ride qualifies theologically as an act of mercy, but the opportunity to do it certainly felt like one to me.

Simcha Fisher Is Very Funny

And equally wise. I think I saw a note somewhere that she had been named Funniest Catholic Blogger; if so, it's well deserved. Here are a few of her recent posts, a couple recommended to me by Janet, one by my wife, and others I just happened across:

Bene, Bene, Bene. "I coo, and she rewards me with a smile of pure rejoicing, a gorgeous, ridiculous, blessedly naive smile of a creature who doesn’t know anything at all, but who can see that I love her. To receive the smiles of a baby who is just learning to smile—shut up, world. This is what is real."

To the Mother With Only One Child. "Dear mother, don’t worry about enjoying your life.  Your life is hard; your life will be hard.  That doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong—it means you’re doing it right."

Talk to Your Mother

Tired Pride.  The most memorable image I've come across recently: "I staggered around the kitchen like a washing machine with too many wet towels in it."

Ten Reasons There Are No Women in Hell. Numbers 2-10: other women. 

Still More on Downton Abbey

I'm beginning to think the reactions to this thing are as interesting as the thing itself. Here's one from an English conservative, and another from an American liberal. Interestingly, both seem to think that the treatment of class is the most important thing about the series: the former because Americans are fascinated by class but guilty about it, the latter because class is evil and the series makes us complicit in it. I disagree; I think by far its greatest appeal is that it's a good story.

Groundhog Day

Oops, I almost let the day get by without mentioning this appreciation of the movie. Is it one of the greatest movies ever? Well, not really, in my opinion, but it is very good, and maybe it is one of the most successful combinations of popular appeal and real substance. Note: the piece I linked to doesn't just contain spoilers, it summarizes the whole plot, so please don't read it if you haven't seen the movie. You have to see it for the first time without knowing what's going to happen.

The Cult of Downton Abbey

Update: spoilers in the comments on this post.

A BBC writer tries to figure out why Americans like it so much.

I didn't realize when I watched my first episode a few weeks ago that it's such a cult hit. I think the "yearning for a simpler time" bit is silly. What's simple about it? A very different time and culture, yes, but yet not so different as to be incomprehensible. But its main appeal is just that of good old soap-opera and costume drama, and the standby of all popular drama, interesting characters in interesting situations.

I meant to mention, when I wrote about it earlier, the way Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Countess, steals every scene she's in. The character is so over-the-top in her commanding bitchy snobbishness, and yet you like her anyway, especially as she occasionally reveals a kind heart. My favorite remark of hers occurs when she's told that two estranged sweethearts are coming to the Abbey for a visit, "but don't worry, they aren't on the same train." The Countess reacts with a somewhat over-enthusiastic expression of relief, then, slightly embarrassed, replies to the quizzical looks with: "I do dislike Greek drama, where everything happens off-stage."

Here's a selection of clips that will give you the general idea (if you haven't been watching):


"There's been a lot of whiskey drunk to that song"

An interesting profile of an interesting fellow in the local paper: Eldon Bryson, who has been repairing stringed instruments for many years. He's a country guy who learned the trade on his own over many years, and now orchestral players with instruments that cost in the tens of thousands of dollars trust him to take care of them. Click here to read the story, which also includes this video:

I've been in that workshop. Mr. Bryson worked on my violin-playing son's expensive instrument, and my guitar-playing son's old Fender Mustang (one of Fender's cheaper guitars). There was a big old Fender amp in the corner when I was there.