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March 2012

Getting Started with Kierkegaard

This is probably not a good time to be asking this question, with some people offline for Lent, and Palm Sunday and Holy Week coming up, but while I'm thinking about it: I've never read Kierkegaard, and I think the time has come for me to give him a try. Would anyone like to suggest a good book to start with?

Earl Scruggs, RIP

Here's the first obituary I've seen; there will be many, many more.

I saw Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys somewhere around 1968. They were honored by the folkies of the early '60s, but by the late '60s there were some reservations about them because they were politically suspect. And certainly the country music crowd in general had no liking for hippies. I remember feeling a bit out of place at their concert, which was outdoors somewhere in Tuscaloosa...I wonder if maybe it was a political rally of some kind. I don't really remember much about the show, and anyway bluegrass has never been my favorite music. But I remember Earl--his flying fingers, and the contrastingly calm and slightly dreamy look on his face, as if he were in some place where nothing but the music existed. Apart from admiration of his music, he seems to have been almost universally liked and respected. Another great one gone. RIP.

I considered posting something from YouTube but there are so many--if you want to hear him, go have a look. No, wait...on second thought:


The Left-Wing Theocratic Fantasy

James Bowman, writing in The New Criterion, on the waves of hysteria provoked by Rick Santorum's social conservatism, worth quoting at length:

John Nichols, blogging for The Nation, wrote that Mr. Santorum “has no qualms about rewriting the Constitution as a social-conservative manifesto.” Whether or not he would have any qualms, he would not, even as president, have any power to re-write the Constitution as a social-conservative manifesto, assuming there could be such a thing, and so has not proposed to do so. That at various times he has expressed support for constitutional amendments very unlikely ever to pass, circumventing Roe v. Wade or in defense of traditional marriage, does not make the idea, expressed with affected horror, of a rewritten Constitution any less of a left-wing fantasy foisted upon him on the basis of the media’s neverending barrage of hypotheticals designed to expose what they claim to regard as his outlandish religious views....

...Those on the left may or may not believe in this right-wing bugbear they are at such pains to create, but they undoubtedly have a very strong sense of the convenience of having such a bugbear to attack when people might otherwise want to talk about subjects like jobs, economic growth, or government fiscal policy that the left would prefer to avoid during this election season. Left-wing utopianism is so much the default position of the media that it is easy for such writers to pretend that the most important thing about a candidate is how, if he were absolute dictator, he would fashion an ideal society. By treating Mr. Santorum (or anybody else) as if he were seeking election to the presidency in order to do only things that the president cannot do, the media and their left-wing allies hope they will be able to hold together a bare majority on behalf of President Obama—a majority not of those who approve of him, which he is most unlikely to have, but of those who are opposed to this left-wing fantasy of a right-wing theocracy. And how glad we will all be, amidst our economic doldrums and our fiscal ruin, to have dodged that bullet.

(My emphasis) 

I sometimes wonder how much of the professed fear is real. I suspect it may be both real and not real--I believe the emotion is real, more or less, but that deep down those who cultivate it know that they're just telling each other scary stories. Not that they wouldn't in fact be very unhappy with Rick Santorum (or for that matter Mitt Romney) as president, but in their hearts they know they aren't in any danger proportional to the emotion.

Sunday Night Journal — March 25, 2012

Fish and Lip

Someone in my department at work is leaving us for another job, and Thursday was her last day, so we took her out to lunch. Elimination of places that either weren’t open or were too far away or weren’t to someone’s liking sent us to Red Lobster, a restaurant I used to like before I moved to the coast, but haven’t been to for many years. On a sudden whim, I decided to order fish and chips, mainly out of curiosity to see what I would get. I’d like to try authentic English fish and chips, but the attempt to find them here is a little absurd, because I have no way of knowing how close anything served here is to the real thing. 

The waitress was somewhat on the grouchy side. When I said I wanted fish and chips, she replied “Chips or fries?” This completely flummoxed me for a moment, because, as everyone knows, What We Call Fries the English Call Chips. It was as if she had asked me whether I wanted ham or chicken in my ham sandwich. And the description in the menu said the dish consisted of fish and fries.

All I could manage to articulate in reply was “I thought fries came with it.” And her sarcastic reply was “Chips or fries. That’s why I asked the question. We make our own chips out of—”

“Fries,” I said, cutting her off and handing her the menu.

I guess she realized she was being unpleasant, because she was a lot nicer after that. But it was remarkable how the exchange continued to rankle me. I thought of it several times in the course of the afternoon, and when I did I felt a degree of anger way out of proportion to the incident. She had treated me as if I were stupid, which was bad enough, but what I really couldn’t stand was the fact that I had failed to show her, not to mention my co-workers, that she was wrong. I re-enacted the dialog in my mind, this time ending it with me saying something like You’re acting like I’m stupid, but actually you’re the stupid one.

In short, she had injured my pride, and I suppose that’s a good thing, especially in Lent.

The fish and fries weren’t especially good, either. But for all I know they were exactly what you would get in England. I’d like to think not, because the fries were the usual fast-food type, not actual slices of potato.

Color Photos from the 1930s and ‘40s

One side effect of the invention and development of photography is that it’s almost impossible for many people, maybe most, to resist entirely the idea that the world really looked as it does in old photographs. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were black and white or sepia, and people mostly stood still with grave expressions on their faces. The ‘20s through the ‘40s were less grave, but still monochrome. There were no colors in the world until the 1950s, and even then the colors were faded and everything a little blurry. A lot of movies and TV shows have reinforced this irrational but powerful impression by making any depiction of those times resemble the photographs to some degree. We know it’s a false impression, but we—or at least I—have to make a conscious effort to shake it off.

My mental image of the ‘30s and ‘40s is especially affected by this syndrome. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen enough movies made fairly recently but set somewhere between 1880 and 1930, in which the colors are depicted realistically, to get the impression out of my head. And maybe it’s partly because I watch a good many movies made in that period, and they’re almost all in black and white. Anyway, I was happy to stumble across a wonderful gallery of color images from those days made available online by the Library of Congress. Clicking on the picture below will take you to the gallery. The colors are mostly pretty subdued, sometimes to the point where you would say they're only sort of semi-color, but still, the images are useful for dispersing that monochromeness.


Lenten Music

Maybe you’ve noticed that I haven’t posted a weekend music video for a while. That’s mainly because I’ve cut way back on music for Lent. I gave up pop music entirely, and haven’t listened to very much classical. As Simcha Fisher notes, Lent does not exactly rank with Christmas as an occasion for beloved music. But she has a set of very good pieces , one of which I’m going to insert here:

 And for today, the feast of the Annunciation:


"For conservatives like you..."

"...who watch Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh, and read The Weekly Standard."

That's on the envelope of an ad for Commentary that I received today.  Sorry, folks, you're 0 for 3 on that list. Though actually the offer is sort of tempting: $19.95 for a year. Commentary does publish some stuff that interests me. But also a good deal that doesn't, and I don't need another magazine sitting around the house nagging me to read it. 

Sunday Night Journal — March 18, 2012

Sowing the Wind

From some Olympian height it might be amusing to see the dedication with which mankind pursues folly. No sooner do we flee one error than we fall, swooning, into the arms of another. How naive we were in the 1960s to think that the end of legal racial segregation would mean a gradual lessening of the all-too-natural human tendency to seek the advantage of our own tribe at the expense of all others. The ink was hardly dry on the civil rights legislation of the mid-'60s when we replaced one set of legal racial classifications and preferences with another, in the name of righting wrongs past, present, and future. It was mostly well-meant, but it would be hard to think of anything more toxic to a society in which people of all races must somehow get along, than to begin awarding the favors of government based on race. Instead of striving for a legally color-blind society, we refined and formalized our racial distinctions, and not just in the laws of a small number of southern states but at the federal level.

And how naive it was to suppose that the election of an officially black president would improve the climate. Perhaps it might have; there was a wave of sentimental warmth even among some who did not vote for Obama, who in spite of their opposition to him on policy grounds were happy to think that such a victory could happen, and hoped that at least it might help to reduce racial animosity. But instead the Democrats have used Obama's race as a device for increasing the tension, by their readiness to raise the charge of racism against anyone who opposed his policies. 

This discouraging subject has been in the news this week with publicity about the Obama campaign's African-Americans for Obama effort, which was complemented by stories such as this one, about the coach of the Chicago Bears appearance in a video for the campaign. Conservatives responded instantly by noting that something like White People for Romney would be considered intolerable. If such a thing existed and were officially sanctioned by the Romney campaign, his candidacy would be finished, instantly.

Yes, yes, the situation of a minority is different from that of a majority, and the history of white oppression of blacks makes the racial solidarity of the latter more understandable and less sinister. But we are supposed to be trying to get past those things. More importantly, that situation is changing. We're told regularly, usually with ill-concealed pleasure, that white people will soon be a minority in this country. As the legal oppression of blacks fades further into the past, younger white people will less and less agree to accept their stigmatized position as historical oppressor, and the idea that favorable treatment of the historically oppressed should be encoded in law. A 21-year-old white was born in 1991, twenty-six years after the end of legal segregation. We are now approaching the half-century mark. That 21-year-old is not likely to see any reason why racial consciousness should be encouraged and celebrated in every group but his own. 

It is, I repeat, toxic to have racial classifications encoded in our laws, and supported by the semi-official apparatus of "diversity." I can't prove it, but I suspect that resentment on this score is greater among younger white people than is commonly recognized, and worse, that it will grow. How could it possibly be otherwise? We have built racial partitions and resentments into our legal system. 

They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. 

The Latter Days of a Once-Noble Movement

Also in the news this week, and also fueling the fires of racial animosity, is the shooting of a black teen-ager by a "neighborhood watch" patrolman in a gated community in Florida. The killer is being described as "white," but seems actually to be Puerto Rican, which in our official scheme makes him not exactly white, but "Hispanic." The facts are pretty murky at this point, and obviously if the watchman committed a crime he should be punished. But the story is only in the national news because it can be framed as an instance of white-against-black racial violence. Al Sharpton is getting into the act. Soon there will be calls for national inquiries, the FBI, soul-searching about white racism, and claims that this killing is representative of a widespread menace., etc. etc. etc.

Meanwhile, poor black communities are being devasted by their own internal lawlessness. Hardly a week goes by that our local paper doesn't contain at least one story about a young (usually) black man being shot by another. If the shooting isn't fatal, it isn't even a big story. And needless to say none of them make the national news, or attract the attention of out-of-town activists.

Here is the most recent. It's not unusual: the victim gunned down suddenly in public, for reasons unknown, though often presumed to relate to the drug trade. There were thirty-one murders in Mobile last year, and I feel confident in saying that young black men are disproportionately involved as both slayers and slain. I'm not sure whether that number includes the predominantly black city of Prichard, which is geographically indistinct from Mobile; if it doesn't, the real number is a good bit higher. (Here, if you care to view it, is one of Prichard's murders captured by a surveillance camera at a gas station. I don't necessarily encourage you to view it. But it does give you an idea of the callousness involved--there is no indication that it is anything but a planned cold-blooded murder, committed openly.) 

Everyone knows that the endemic fatherlessness in poor black communities is a major part of the problem, but no one knows what to do about it. In any case the solution to that is not likely to come from outside. So it's not surprising that the Sharptons of the world would focus on the rare white-on-black killing rather than the everyday black-on-black ones. The civil rights movement as it existed until sometime in the 1960s was, whatever flaws it may have had, in its essence one of the most fundamentally virtuous political phenomena in the history of this country. Now it's reduced to looking for the occasional sensational case which it can hope to use to play on the same strings of sympathy that sounded so well in the 1960s, in a very different world, and has little of use to say about the complex catastrophe which has overtaken too many of the people it claims to represent. 

About That Mandate

I haven't said much about the struggle between the Obama administration and the Church, as well as much of the larger Christian community, over the HHS mandate that Catholic institutions must provide insurance to their employees that covers contraception, sterilization, and the abortifacent "morning after" pill. Part of the reason is that I find it difficult to say anything about it without going off on a lengthy rant. I must say I am very proud of our bishops. I'll content myself with two links: first, to Janet Cupo's suggestion that we pray to St. John Fisher; second, a cool and calm appraisal of the situation by Ramesh Ponnuru. The frenzy over a so-called "Republican War Against Women" is the most repulsive demagoguery I've seen from the Democrats since George Wallace. They seem to believe it's succeeding, but Ponnuru is not so sure; I hope he's right.

It has been clear for a long time that Obama's idea of overcoming our divisions, at least on the issues that his party really cares about, is that he should tell us what we're going to do, and that we should do it. I think many of the bishops genuinely feel betrayed, because they believed his rhetoric. They don't seem to be falling for it now.

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers of 1610)

On a more pleasant subject: several months ago my friend Robert sent me, electronically, a copy of the Martin Pearlman / Boston Baroque recording of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers for the Blessed Virgin. I had a lot of trouble finding time to listen to it in its 90-minute entirety. I started it several times and never got past the first twenty minutes. Finally I gave that up and divided it into four playlists of twenty to thirty minutes each, and put those on my iPod. In that way I've listened to the whole thing more than once--not necessarily in order, and not necessarily the same number of times for each section. So perhaps I'm missing some sense of the unity of the work, but I've grown very fond of it. I've found it to be especially welcome as medicine for insomnia. Don't laugh, because I don't mean it's boring and puts me to sleep. I mean, rather, that it interests me without producing tension; it dispels the various anxious thoughts that usually crowd into my mind when I can't sleep, including anxiety about the fact that I can't sleep. The first word that comes to mind when I think of it is "fresh." It seems to open the door to a spring-like place in my mind, a place of sweet and graceful beauty. I've ordered the CD.

Here's the Boston Baroque rehearsing it:



That's what I called the list of sites in the sidebar here, because "blogroll" wasn't exactly accurate. I have been meaning for some time to revise it, to add some things and remove others. It fell victim to a common problem of mine--similar to the one noted above, actually: if I can't set aside the time to do it all at once, I don't do it at all. I wanted not only to make the changes all at once, but to write a post describing and explaining them. I've finally talked myself out of that, and into doing it as I get a moment here and there. Today I added Janet Cupo's excellent (of course) new blog The Three Prayers. And I removed a couple of sites that have been inactive for quite a long time. I'll be doing more of that. I am waiting for someone at The Incarnationalist to start posting again.

Doesn't this look like a David Lynch scene?


It is of course an LP cover from 1955, the music being a selection of what used to be called "light classics," played by the Columbia Symphony, the in-house orchestra of Columbia Records, and conducted by Artur Rodzinski. (I can't believe Columbia Records is no more.)

That's the graphic that accompanies the downloadable version of the album at eMusic. But now look at this photo of an actual copy of the LP.


It looks old-fashioned and all, but it doesn't have that unsettling and possibly sinister feel that the other one does. The difference seems to mainly be in the amount of red, which Lynch uses a lot. Red being normally a joyful high-spirited color, it's strange that Lynch makes such use of it, and to such weird effect. I think the word "lurid" applies. 

I suppose the eMusic version is a scan of a copy of the album. Or maybe the original graphics are still filed away at Sony, which bought Columbia, and it was scanned from one of those. I thought the brand, catalog, and other information had been edited out from a scan of the published cover, but maybe it's the other way around, and that first image is the artist's work, before the information was added. Either way, surely all that red is a product of the conversion to electronic form. 

Sunday Night Journal — March 11, 2011

David Horowitz: A Point In Time: The Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next

The only reason I was not surprised that this book came from the hand of David Horowitz was that I had read his Radical Son, and already gotten over my surprise that such a ferocious political combatant would write so sensitively and reflectively—and so well. I reviewed that book here last October (link). Horowitz ran across the review, thought I might be interested in A Point in Time, and graciously sent me a copy.

“I think you’ll find it challenging,” he wrote to me. And although I did not find it so in the way that I think he meant, I understand why he thought I might. It is a rich and hopeless book, the most affecting attempt I can remember to quiet the human longing for eternity in the face of mortality, individual and collective, and the absence of any hope beyond extinction; to make a sort of meaning out of the acknowledgment of unmeaning. 

I wish I could place my trust in the hands of a Creator. I wish I could look in my life and the lives of my children and all I have loved and see them as preludes to a better world. But, try as I might, I cannot. And so I am left to ponder the pointlessness of our strivings on this earth and to ask impossible questions, and receive no answers.

The book is structured as a series of three meditations, each bearing a date—October 2006, November 2008, December 2010—in which are interwoven, like currents from several streams meeting in a larger one, the personal, the philosophical, the literary, the political, and the history and fate of the Jewish people. It opens with a scene very familiar to me, one in which I play my role twice a day: a man taking his two dogs for a walk, on the same route each time. It is a peaceful routine for the man, a thrill as exciting each day as it was on the last for the dogs:

As though life were an endless horizon always met for the first time. How their excitement when I put on my cap at the onset of our rituals never fades. How they do not contend with their fates but devour them as if their days will go on forever. But I, who do not have the luxury of their comity with nature, see the silence coming, and look on the brief turn of their lives with bittersweet regret, and mourn them before they are gone.

Which situation holds greater pathos: the dogs unaware of death, or the man all too aware? In any case only the man foresees the end, and feels the impact of knowing it. The man experiences this point in time, but also knows that others came before and will come after it, that even a man's lifetime is only a somewhat longer span of time than the daily walk: longer, but no less decisively bounded.

From here Horowitz moves to a theme which recurs throughout the book, and which was also prominent in Radical Son: the sad waste of his father’s gifts on an unworthy object, the dream of a communist utopia. Perhaps even more than in the earlier book he focuses on the hopelessness of this dream, though now more in sadness than anger, and maybe more sympathetic to the longing that produces the delusion: the longing to find a meaning in history, and to see the fulfillment of its apparent movement. He might have added the word “futile” before “search” in his subtitle, with no redemption in the next life, and the quest for it in this life not only hopeless, but often the engine of enormous evil.

The creed of the revolutionary divides the world into forces of good and evil—on the one side enemies of the people, on the other the social redeemers. The passion to create a new world is really a passion to destroy the old one, transforming the love of humanity into a hatred of the human beings who stand in its way.

I think this is the reason why the Church’s zeal for purging heresy when it was the dominant cultural influence did not generally result in the same level of carnage that the revolutions of the 20th century did. I don’t think the effectiveness of modern technology accounts entirely for the difference. The Church insisted that every Christian affirm its theological and moral teachings, and was often intolerant of non-Christians, but it never believed that it could or should create a perfect world on earth, and destroy those who could not or would not be perfected, or who stood in the way of the program of perfection.

In this context Horowitz refers often to Dostoevsky, to that writer’s experience of the revolutionary dream and witness to the demonic turn it took. He looks closely at the famous Grand Inquisitor passage from The Brothers Karamazov, and its description of the potency of the human longing for a fulfillment of history. But Dostoevsky—and I didn’t know this about him—apparently succumbed to a dream which was at least semi-utopian: that of a Russian-led Christendom which would be “the fulfillment of the destinies of humans on earth.”  Even for a Christian whose theology more or less explicitly denies the possibility, it is difficult to resist the temptation to believe that the fulfillment of history will arrive within history.

Similarly, Horowitz spends a good bit of time with Marcus Aurelius: “Be not troubled, for all things are according to nature and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere.” But—and this also I did not know, having read Marcus Aurelius only in brief excerpts—the great Stoic also succumbed to the difficulty of living without purpose, and toward the end of his meditations declares his belief in a kind of God.

If even Marcus Aurelius was, in the end, unable to face the idea that life has no meaning, and if Dostoevsky couldn’t resist the idea that Russia would bring about the nearest thing possible to a perfect Christian society, what is to be expected of the rest of us, who generally have not explored the questions at hand as deeply as they did?

I have some doubt as to whether anyone can truly dispose of the belief that life has no purpose. Even one who comes to that conclusion can’t leave it alone. This book is witness to that fact, an attempt to find out and confront the meaning of non-meaning. I suspect that only someone well on his way to being damned could truly leave it alone—that is, truly ignore it,  not even think about it, not be aware of the problem it poses—because doing so would entail an almost complete insensibility not just to the idea of God but to good and evil, truth and falsehood. I have known any number of people who professed to believe that life has no meaning, but not one who was genuinely indifferent to the idea. They betray themselves by their strenuous insistence upon it, clearly driven by strong emotion, which would not exist if they were truly reconciled.

For me, at least, there is a greater obstacle to the belief that life has a meaning than the absence of proof that it does: the question of evil. Horowitz uses a couple of horrifying stories to bring this home; no more are needed.

I mentioned earlier that I did not find this book challenging in the sense that I took Horowitz to mean it, that is, in the sense that it challenged my convictions as a Catholic. That’s not because it isn’t in fact a challenge, but because it is one to which I am accustomed. I deal with these questions every day. Whatever my faith is, it is not knowledge that was given to me, as it was given to St. Paul—not knowledge of a fact. And it is not a sense of God’s presence, or a consciousness of his love. And it is definitely not a certainty; I am never without some awareness of the possibility that I may be wrong. And I never see a news story about a murder or a war or a natural catastrophe, or even pass by a dead dog on the road, dead only because it was too innocent to fear properly an oncoming automobile, without wondering why the God in whom I place my trust permits such things to happen. My faith is a conscious decision, renewed every day, to accept the Christian revelation and to order my life according to it, or at least make a persistent effort to do so.

The intellect cannot make this decision for me, cannot force it upon me as an indubitable certainty. The heart wants it, but the heart often wants what it should not have. Does it want what it cannot have, not just practically but in the very nature of things? Of course it can and does in the immediate course of life, but can its ultimate longing be for something that does not exist? The idea that it can is a deeper puzzle than is generally recognized.

Is the longing for heaven like a dog dreaming of a bowl which is never empty of hamburger? Well, suppose it is; suppose that is the best a dog might think to ask of heaven. It doesn’t matter. The important question is not what sort of heaven the dog might want, but whether he can want it at all, whether he can have the self-awareness and the ability to step outside the moment necessary for him to have the dream, and to know he is having it. And, after all, hamburger does exist; we assume the dog can't long for something that he can’t imagine. And I’m not convinced that we can, either, though the intensity of our longing and our difficulty in naming its object leads us to use words like sehnsucht. Like the dog with his hamburger, we have tasted it, if only briefly. We have imagined that there is something better than we can imagine.

But back to the book. I don’t think I’ve conveyed just how enjoyable it is: its graceful writing, its contemplative tone, its recourse to the inconceivably precious texture—and, one must say, the meaning—of ordinary life. In spite of the fact that the conclusion it draws are the opposite of my own, I’ll return to it, for the way it faces the problems it raises.

I have sometimes distinguished between deep and shallow atheism: the former understands the seriousness of the question, the latter does not, and thinks a shallow materialism answers all. I don’t think Horowitz describes himself as an atheist—if I’m not mistaken he uses the word agnostic a few times—but like most agnostics he takes the assumption of the absence of God as the outcome of his doubt. At any rate, his unbelief is definitely of the deep variety. And I always suspect that those who hold it are closer to the Kingdom than they realize, or is apparent to us.

Horowitz blames his own people for helping to fuel the expectation that history will arrive somewhere: 

Deep in the millenial past, Jews were the original progressives and invented the idea that we are on our way toward a brighter future, which perhaps is why our history is so filled with tragedy and defeat.

I can't help seeing a trace of ironical Jewish humor here: in other words, the Jews invented a system for making themselves miserable for all time. But did they invent it? Or was it given to them?

I neglected to mark the passage, and may not be quoting it perfectly, but Horowitz says something to the effect that we comfort ourselves by imagining that we inhabit stories that have no end. After I had written most of this review, I ran across the last lines of the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia:

All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no man on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Janet's Three Prayers, and one or two other things

I'm in the middle of trying to write a book review for today's Sunday journal, but wanted to go ahead and mention that Janet Cupo, no doubt the most frequent commenter here from the beginning (and the Janet of the Undead threads), now has a blog and it's off to an excellent start. It's called The Three Prayers, and I will leave it to you to click on the link to learn what the title refers to. 

Also, I wanted to mention, for those who recommended it to me, that I watched Get Low last night, and thought it was extremely good. The only very significant thing that seemed wrong about it was the complete absence of God from the funeral, the actual one. A preacher of that time, especially an African-American one, and for that matter most of the present time, would have been talking about Jesus a lot. It hardly needs to be said that Robert Duvall's performance is great, as are those of most of the other actors. I particularly liked the Alabama boy, Lucas Black.

And while I'm at it, here is a gallery of beautiful images of darkness and dawn, courtesy of Hearts of Space. 


"The kingdom of God is within you." This saying shows, I believe, that the goodness of God is not separated from our nature, or far away from those who seek it, but it is ever present in each individual, unknown, and forgotten when one is choked by the cares and pleasures of life, but discovered again when we turn our attention to it.

--St. Gregory of Nyssa

The Pope on Silence

From his weekly audience today:

To hear God's word requires the cultivation of outward and inward silence, so that His voice can resound within our hearts and shape our lives...

Silence has the capacity to open a space in our inner being, a space in which God can dwell...

In our prayers we often find ourselves facing the silence of God. We almost experience a sense of abandonment; it seems that God does not listen and does not respond. But this silence, as happened to Jesus, does not signify absence. Christians know that the Lord is present and listens, even in moments of darkness and pain, of rejection and solitude. 

(Via the Vatican Information Service.)

Interestingly, he also says 

This principle holds true for individual prayer, but also for our liturgies which, to facilitate authentic listening, must also be rich in moments of silence and of non verbal acceptance.

Americans seem to have difficulty with this idea.

Sunday Night Journal — March 4, 2012

A Little GKC

Chief among my complaints last week about the treatment of Chesterton by Christopher Hitchens was the fact that he passed over Chesterton’s spiritual vision while in the end dismissing him for certain of his political views. I wanted then to describe or summarize that vision, by way of justifying the importance I give it, but found myself at a loss for words. Nothing but reading Chesterton (or any writer) can give one a real sense of what he’s like at his best. No sentence or two that I could come up with in haste seemed anything but conventional and inadequate, and I didn’t have time to go searching for excerpts that might serve, so I let it go. But the only real defense one can make of Chesterton’s faults is to give examples of his virtues, so I spent a little time this morning with Orthodoxy, discovering that I had marked quite a few passages on an earlier reading. The first two are from the “Ethics of Elfland” chapter and although not adjacent are related. The third is from the last chapter, "The Romance of Orthodoxy."

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.


The one thing [modern thought] loved to talk about was expansion and largeness. [Herbert Spencer] popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God.... It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.


I have remarked that the materialist, like the madman, is in prison; in the prison of one thought. These people seemed to think it singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was very large. The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it. It was like telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the country. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.


And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God for an instant seemed to be an atheist.

BergFest 2012

I mentioned last week that my wife was out of town. I took the occasion to watch some movies that I knew she was not much interested in. Last Saturday night it was Bergman’s Shame, which I have been wanting to see for several years now, because it belongs to the same agonized late 1960s period that produced Persona and Hour of the Wolf, both of which fascinate me, and which were its immediate predecessors. (I had actually seen it as a college student in 1968, but remembered only the opening and closing scenes.) Caught up again in Bergman’s world, I decided that the rest of the coming week would be my private Bergman Festival, and that I would watch one Bergman film every night till my wife’s return on Friday. In the end I had to make time for some other things, and only watched four over the six nights. That was enough for now, though I'm eager to see Wild Strawberries and Winter Light again. Here are some brief reactions.


Part of me wants to say that this is a great film; another part says it is too relentlessly brutal and grim to qualify. Persona and Hour of the Wolf were disturbing psychological studies, the former decidedly strange, and enigmatic if not incomprehensible, the latter mixed with something seemingly supernatural (and evil). Shame is straightforward in comparison: a portrait of two people pushed to psychological extremes—to destruction, maybe—by war. Johan and Eva (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman, as in Hour of the Wolf) are a married couple without children, living on an island which is invaded by a foreign army. Wishing only to be left alone, and in the end only to survive, but caught between the invaders and the defenders, they are driven to various forms of betrayal and brutality. The atmosphere is constricted, anxious, and menacing, and watching the film, especially its last half or so, is not what you would call a pleasant experience. As with all Bergman’s work of this period, it’s full of powerful black-and-white imagery, often very beautiful in spite of the subject matter. I’ll watch it again for that, and for the last haunting sequence, with its hint of...not redemption, exactly, but a sort of awareness that hell is not all there is.

A Passion

This was and still is distributed in the US as The Passion of Anna. I don’t know why; perhaps someone thought the suggestion of sex would make it more appealing. If so, I doubt it worked, and anyone who did pay to see it expecting a lot of sex would have asked for his money back. A Passion is certainly the better title, as the characters are suffering on the cross of truth itself, fearing the knowledge of what they really are. This is another Sydow vs. Ullman piece, with a couple, Andreas and Anna, locked in the combat of a destructive relationship. It’s one of the first if not the first of Bergman’s movies to be shot in color. I don’t think it’s as good as some of the other work of this period, but still, it shouldn’t be missed by anyone who loves Bergman. Again in this film certain important facts are left ambiguous, or at least they seemed so to me, but in this case it seemed to me less acceptable not to know them. One wants to know which is the really crazy one, Anna or Andreas. Perhaps it’s supposed to be clear, and it’s my fault that I didn’t see it. I’d like to read some other opinions.

The Seventh Seal

As Beethoven’s 5th is to the symphony, or the Mona Lisa to the portrait, so this movie is to the art film: the familiar example which serves as an emblem of the entire field. Being so familiar (relatively), it may similarly be taken for granted. That’s a mistake, because it is a great work. I believe this was the fourth time I’ve seen it, but the last time was at least ten years ago, and it had faded somewhat in my memory. I devoted one of my festival nights to it because it hasn’t been long since I saw Winter Light and the other works which deal with the question of faith, and I wanted to refresh my memory about it.

It’s at least as good as I remembered, as a work of art. It can be seen as an anguished 20th-century version of a medieval mystery play. The characters represent a wide range of possible responses to the problem of meaning: tormented questioning (the Knight), innocent acceptance (the traveling players), honorable cynicism (the Squire), dishonorable cynicism (the spoiled theologian), decent stolid earthliness (the smith), delusional or fanatical faith (the witch and the flagellants). Lay them out that way, and you see what’s missing: fully conscious Christian faith. The question, then, is framed in a way that more or less excludes the answer that would in fact have been all around an actual medieval knight, and I was left a little dissatisfied on that score.

But the intensity of the Knight’s search testifies to the seriousness of Bergman’s treatment of the questions. And whether one believes that death is the end or the beginning—which is to say, whether one takes the final vision as an actual release into an actual world where “the rain cleanses their cheeks of the salt from their bitter tears,” or as a symbol for accepting oblivion as the resolution of all questions, which seems more likely—the end of the film is a magnificent moment.

I don’t remember grasping, on earlier viewings, that the Knight’s upsetting of the chessboard is not to give himself a reprieve but to allow the young couple and their child to escape—I mean, as opposed to their simply taking advantage of the moment. That’s a pretty important point, and really perfects the story.

Smiles of a Summer Night

It’s been a long time since I saw or heard Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, but I remember its atmosphere as being something like this. It’s a complex romantic intrigue in which a set of unhappy people floundering around in unsatisfactory and mostly immoral situations get shaken up and re-sorted in the course of a Swedish summer night, in which darkness never really falls. Some end up happy, some at least less unhappy, one sadder but wiser. It’s light, witty, poignant, and, well, Mozartean. It was Bergman’s first international success, and gave him the credibility he needed to get approval for his next project: The Seventh Seal. I wonder how the film company liked the result. It must have seemed as if Mozart had followed Figaro with Wozzeck.


Grandma Brown: Amazing Grace

My wife's grandmother, Viola Brown, was born in 1904 into a very poor family in rural Mississippi. Those were not good old days if you were poor. Her mother died when she was quite young, and her father, whom she remembers as harsh, handed off the children to relatives and went away to start another life. By the time she was thirty-five or so she had outlived two husbands and had four daughters, the youngest of whom was my wife's mother. This was recorded in 1994, when she was ninety years old. It's one of several made by her daughter Edna (my wife's aunt), and niece Della Faye. With a cassette recorder rolling, they tried to draw her out on the subject of her early life and her family. Frequently she would break into song, as in this one. Edna and Della Faye tried to add harmony here. That's Edna who gets the last verse started.

Those sessions resulted in several tapes which for some months now I've been converting to digital formats. I finally finished this first one--not just the conversion itself, which is pretty simple, but cleaning up the audio and dividing it into meaningful tracks with titles. It was supposed to be a Christmas present for a number of her grandchildren, but better late than never.

This is not pretty singing, and I don't intend to be either sentimental or ironic in posting it. It's the voice of someone whose early life was marked by greater hardship than most of us have experienced, and who was no saint, but who meant what she said when she sang these hymns.

11_Amazing Grace 2

Faith is not a thing of the mind; it is not an intellectual certainty or a felt conviction in the heart. It is a sustained decision to take God with utter seriousness as the God of my life.... Often it may seem as if we only act "as if," so unaffected are our hearts, perhaps even mocking us: "where is your God!" It is this acting out "as if" that is true faith.

--Sr. Ruth Burrows, O.C.D

Chesterton, Fascism, and Anti-Semitism

I started to link to this in a comment on the previous Chesterton post, but it merits a post of its own: an excellent treatment of the subject by Stratford Caldecott. He quotes Chesterton in a 1932 interview: 

...the Hitlerite atrocities...[are] quite obviously the expedient of a man who, not knowing quite what to do to carry out his wild promises to a sorely-tried people, has been driven to finding a scapegoat, and has found, with relief, the most famous scapegoat in European history - the Jewish people. I am quite ready to believe now that Belloc and myself will die defending the last Jew inEurope. 

If he was saying that as early as 1932, I don't think he can reasonably be accused of Nazi sympathies. Once again Hitchens appears sloppy at best. As I said in comments on that post, Chesterton did say some things that can only be construed as anti-Semitic, but they're not Nazi-level, though it is the legacy of the Holocaust that any negative statement about Jews inevitably seems to us now of the same ilk as Hitler's. As Caldecott quotes a Jewish source as saying, "With Chesterton we’ve never thought of a man who was seriously anti-Semitic."