Beethoven: Piano Sonata #15, Pastorale (III and IV)
Standing Room Only

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.


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I give up the web entirely during Lent except Gaudete Sunday. It has no affect at all on my web addiction. I start surfing again on Easter Monday and I'm as bad as ever within a few days.

It doesn't have any effect either :)

heh. I was hoping the effect would change the affect. I'm doubtful of my ability to change the affect.

That last part is lovely. I think I may have to sit down and think about it. It reminds me of what Caryll Houselander said about Luke 22:15, "With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you...." He desires for us to receive Him in the Eucharist. That is a powerful word.


I give up the internet, except for email, during Lent, so if you stopped blogging for Lent that would be okay from my perspective. It has had some effect; one year I forgot about a few blogs and stopped checking them altogether, and I got out of the conversational loop on a forum and never got back on. Eventually, though, I discover a new blog or website and the time-sucking creeps back.

That phenomenon of forgetting blogs if you stop reading them for a while is the reason I don't want to shut down for Lent--people might not come back. For my part I have almost declared a sort of moratorium on discovering new blogs. Not very fair, I guess.

Glad you liked it, Janet. I can't think of anything else to say on the subject right now.

That part from the OT also struck me greatly, Maclin. I felt very awed by it.

"traditional marriage" v. "actual marriage" - I agree. In general, I tend to see marriages these days in terms of "married" and "really married." This is a reference to Chesterton's pamphlet "The Superstition of Divorce." In it he notes that the overall affect of the availability of divorce is that there will be "remarriage" (the making and breaking of a vow at the same time) and consequently there will not so much be the married and the unmarried in society, but the married and the really married.

I would like to see three things occur in the near future, which are by no means impossible or unlikely:

1. Real help for marriages in trouble, provided by various sources, especially the Catholic laity.

2. Divorce laws repealed, starting with "no-fault" divorce.

3. The annulment factory closed down, with annulments being once again as rare as they ought to be. (In my more cynical moods, I like to think that annulments should be safe, legal and rare).

If we could at least get rid of "no-fault" divorce, there would be a just end to "gaymarriage."

Most Catholic dioceses (I think) in this country run serious programs to prepare people for marriage. I don't know about helping those in trouble, though. Maybe there are things that I don't know about. I sort of doubt #2 has much chance, though I don't really know. If such a proposal would be opposed by feminists it would certainly have almost no chance at all. I really don't know how it came about, who pushed for and who pushed against. #3...well, maybe that would decline slowly, if the Catholic house were put in better order otherwise.

I'm inclined to think #2 is humanly impossible - but nothing is impossible for God. I do think it might even be possible humanly speaking to roll back no-fault divorce. I'm no legal expert but I've heard that "no-fault" is a bit of a misnomer especially when it comes to the division of property etc. so it might not be too hard to at least get back to having to demonstrate fault for a divorce to be granted.

I looked a bit more into annulments a little while back b/c I'm really just not happy about them. It looks like one small section of canon law was changed which makes it far too easy to obtain one. There's no reason at all why that shouldn't be tightened back up. At any rate, if at least some of us don't start fighting for real marriage, we may well deserve the plague of "gaymarriage." I'm reluctant to include everyone in that b/c not every fight is for every Christian. There's just too much work to do and not enough labourers.

Maybe if the marriage prep courses include a section on "what to do when your spouse walks out" they might be heavy duty enough. We don't have anything like that here judging by the number of Catholics who "repartner" after their spouse deserts them. I'm getting tired of the sheer numbers of marital separations and some of us are saying "enough's enough". But the battle is the LORD's.

I'm haunted by T.S. Eliot's observation that the energy of liberalism is essentially destructive. It's way more interested in breaking down oppressive (or "oppressive") structures than in what happens after they're broken down, which always remains nebulous, as is well demonstrated by the OWS people.

I hear that there is a really wide variation from one diocese to another in the way annullments are handled. I think that provision you're talking about has to do with psychological ability to know what one was really undertaking in getting married? Easy enough to see how that could be abused, but it probably is justified in some cases, too. Seems like the cases where a couple married and raised a family and then got divorced ought to be fairly open-and-shut, though--which is to say, shut.

Yeah, like a man who has eleven children and has been active in teaching in his parish should not be able to get an annulment.


That's not an imaginary example, I suspect? There are a lot of pretty scandalous stories like that floating around.

I've been recommending that article by Douglas Farrow to friends as well. As you say, he makes some very good arguments that I don't recall hearing elsewhere. In support of his general claim, it is worth noting (as perhaps he does in the essay) that in Canada the legalization of 'same-sex marriage' was accompanied by the replacement of "natural parent" by "legal parent" throughout our law books. The state no longer recognizes family relationships as being prior to the law.

I am planning to read some really long books over the next few months (while I'm on paternity leave). But I certainly can appreciate what you say about having difficulty concentrating, especially when one rarely has more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time for reading. But I'll do my best, and I wish you the best as well.

Just in case some people didn't notice, Farrow is Canadian. I don't remember him mentioning the wording specifically in the essay, but he definitely makes that point about family relationships and the law.

Thank you. I guess my basic problem is that I'm having trouble reconciling myself to reading a book of any length in those ten or fifteen minute snatches.

See y'all briefly on Gaudete Sunday and then at Easter.

Bye. Hope your Lent bears much fruit.

Seems like the cases where a couple married and raised a family and then got divorced ought to be fairly open-and-shut, though--which is to say, shut.

Yep. I'd agree to all that you said in that comment above, Maclin.

Not sure when I'll be on the 'net next - stupid server!

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