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April 2012

Sunday Night Journal — April 29, 2012

Dialogue and Motive

A few days ago in a comment thread Paul linked to this interesting report on a study which claims to find that conservatives understand the views of liberals better than liberals understand the views of conservatives. I take Studies of this sort in general with a pretty big dose of skepticism—after all, hardly a week seems to pass that someone doesn’t produce a Study purporting to prove that conservatives are fundamentally stupid, etc. This one is intriguing partly because the results actually go counter to the self-admitted bias of the liberal psychology professor who did it, and partly because, for what it’s worth, my personal experience supports the conclusion.

As far as I can remember I have never encountered, either in person or in print, a liberal who was able and/or willing to understand conservative arguments on their own terms—that is, to address what the conservative says he intends, and the arguments with which he supports that intention, rather than what the liberal assumes he intends. For instance, on the question of our responsibility toward the poor: if a conservative agrees that there is such a responsibility, but that there are better ways to meet it than the federal programs beloved of liberals, the liberal generally does not acknowledge that this is a disagreement about means and not ends. Instead, he concludes that the conservative doesn’t care about the poor, is a social Darwinist, etc. There simply doesn’t seem to be any willingness or ability on the part of liberals to believe that conservatives actually have the common good at heart, but differ about how to achieve it.

I don’t say that conservatives don’t often fall into the same way of thinking. But the study indicates that there are more exceptions to the tendency on the conservative than on the liberal side.

The liberal response seems always to assume that opposition to a particular approach toward solving a problem is opposition to solving the problem at all. In other words, the liberal is incapable of believing, or at least disinclined to believe, that any approach to a problem other than the liberal one can be reasonable and sincere. If you oppose affirmative action, you must favor racism. If you oppose giving more money to any and all government educational agencies, you must want children to be ignorant. (The teachers’ union in my state has been doing this for decades, pretty effectively: any opposition to anything it wants is deemed opposition to education, period.) If you think our programs for the elderly are unsustainable, you must want to push an old lady in a wheelchair over a cliff, as Congressman Paul Ryan was depicted doing in an ad attacking his proposals for Social Security and Medicare reform.

(I always feel obliged to insert this disclaimer: yes, I am mindful of the inadequacy of terms like “liberal,” “conservative,” “left,” and “right,” especially in the American context, but that doesn’t mean the parties don’t exist.)

Ryan, Rand, and Georgetown

Speaking of Paul Ryan: I have long wondered how it is that Christian admirers of Ayn Rand reconcile Rand’s ideas with their faith. At the level of fundamental metaphysics, the two simply cannot be reconciled. Rand’s philosophy as a whole can fairly be described as satanic, except that Satan does not share her foolish belief that there is no such thing as spiritual reality. I’ve suspected that what they, the Christians, do is to separate Rand’s economic ideas from her metaphysics. They read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead and are thrilled by the achievements of the heroes, and filled with indignation toward their malicious collectivist enemies. They either miss or mostly ignore the materialist and atheist foundations of Rand’s didactic stories; what they see is an inspiring story of individual heroism against collective stupidity and venality. It wouldn’t be so hard to do that if one only read Atlas, which is the only work of any length by Rand that I’ve read; perhaps the same is true of The Fountainhead.

And they aren’t totally off base, at least if we ignore the question of literary judgment—I thought Atlas was bad to the point of being funny. Her opposition to collectivism was the one thing that Rand got mostly right. Her family’s pharmacy was confiscated by the early Soviet government, so she had direct experience of what happens when a government decides to confiscate private property, ostensibly for the benefit of the people but in practice for the benefit of those who run the government, either directly or indirectly. It doesn’t seem to be recognized by the most vociferous denouncers of Rand’s ideas that what disgusted her most (at least on the evidence of Atlas Shrugged) was not so much government itself as crony capitalism, the appropriation of government’s power by private interests. The most loathsome characters in Atlas are those who can’t compete with the genius of the heroes and therefore use the power of government to rig the game in their favor, like a football team that bribes the officials.

And she’s half-right about individual achievement. It’s a fine thing when a gifted person exercises those gifts, and a shabby one when the envious scheme to bring him down. Anyone can cheer the one and boo the other, just as audiences cheer and boo the heroes and villains of any melodrama. She was only half-right, because her gifted heroes are grotesquely egotistical, and risibly enchanted with their own (highly implausible) superiority, like characters in some cartoon version of Nietzsche.

Paul Ryan, a Catholic, is somewhat notorious for acknowledging Rand’s influence on him, while simultaneously claiming that his economic vision is compatible with Catholic social teaching. In the past week or so he has made some remarks distancing himself from Rand, and has been accused of lying about his earlier enthusiasm, as expressed in remarks such as “I give outAtlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it. Well... I try to make my interns read it.” (This remark is usually paraphrased as something like “forces his staff to read Atlas Shrugged,” which is not exactly the same thing, and lacks the light tone of the actual words. The primary source and context for this remark seems to be a 2003 article in the Weekly Standard which is available only to subscribers.)

I don’t think there is necessarily any contradiction between Ryan's past and current views (which is not to say that they are entirely coherent). In fact they are what I would expect to hear from the sort of Christian I was wondering about. Every admiring word about Rand that I’ve heard attributed to Ryan has been in the context of economics, and he seems offended that people would think this makes him a full-fledged metaphysical Randian. This doesn’t say much for his intellectual consistency, but it doesn’t surprise me very much.

At any rate, I think there are a lot of good things in his address he gave at Georgetown last week, which you can read here. Some of the Georgetown faculty are up in arms about him, in particular accusing him of being insufficiently orthodox, which is pretty funny coming from them. (Nor do those who signed the letter of protest—theology professors and others—seem likely to have much knowledge of economic reality). But—in line with the study I referred to earlier—they don’t seem even to attempt to meet the argument that his proposals will actually preserve the essentials of the social safety net they advocate. They assume that his disagreement with their means is a disagreement about the end. I am certainly willing to believe that he needs to keep working at the project of basing his economic views less on Ayn Rand and more on the teachings of the Church, but I’m not convinced that he deserves their wholesale condemnation, and I think his ideas deserve an open and charitable debate.

I don’t want to take a position on Ryan’s budget proposal (apart from the fact that I think it should include defense cuts, which it reportedly does not). These things have gotten so vastly complicated that it’s almost impossible for an ordinary person to grasp what a plan like this really contains and what its significance really is. And that in itself is a symptom of something gone badly wrong. What we need are honest and disinterested experts to study it and explain it to the rest of us. But most of the people who have the time for that sort of thing are highly partisan and can be expected to slant things their way, usually in the most hyperbolic way possible. I admit that I tend to dismiss liberal rhetoric about “gutting” social programs, because they say that about any attempt whatsoever to constrain the growth of their favored programs.

I do, however, take Ryan at his word that he believes his plan would be the best thing for the country as a whole, and is not just a cover for his desire to push somebody off a cliff. As he says,

Serious problems like those we face today require charitable conversation. Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.

But you can’t have a civil dialogue when one side assumes that anything said by the other is only meant to divert attention from an evil conspiracy.

The Skatalites: Simmer Down

I'm not calling this Weekend Music because I'm not sure I want to commit myself to doing that post every week. So let's just call it weekend music. I posted this on Facebook the other day as a recommendation apropos the racial tensions in this country. Not that anyone who would have seen it there (or here, probably) has much power to affect the situation.



The Tuscaloosa Tornadoes

Hmm, sounds a bit like the name of a rock band.... But no: Friday will be the first anniversary of the devastating (to put it mildly) tornadoes that hit northern Alabama last year. An old friend of mine, one of a number of people who came to Tuscaloosa for college in the late 1960s and never left, was in a neighborhood that took a direct hit from the one that destroyed a big part of the city. She lived to tell the tale, and has recently put it online here. It's pretty long, too long for me to read in one stretch, but only the first quarter or so of it deals with the day of the storm itself, while the rest describes the aftermath.

On not fanning the flames

If you visited here within the past 4 or 5 hours, you saw a post linking to a story about the beating of a white man by a black mob who may have been further inflamed by the Trayvon Martin case. I took the post down because it served no real purpose other than to express my frustration at the people who have been fanning those flames of racial hostility, and I don't want to do anything that might serve to fan them further. 

Sunday Night Journal — April 22, 2012

Notes on a couple of movies I’ve seen recently.

Islands in the Stream

I saw this movie when it was released in 1976 or 1977 and liked it a great deal. I’ve thought about it occasionally over the years and wanted to see it again. Now I have, and I found it at least as good, maybe better, than I remembered. In fact I’m tempted to call it great. After watching it a week or so ago I looked around on the net for other opinions, and I found several people describing it as a forgotten and/or underrated classic. Not entirely forgotten, obviously, since it’s available on DVD. But offhand I don’t remember ever hearing it mentioned by anyone, critic or friend, since I saw it that first time.

It’s based on Hemingway’s posthumously published novel of the same name, which I hadn’t read in 1977 and still haven’t. I don’t think the critics had (or have) a very high opinion of the novel, and obviously I can’t speak to the relative merits of book and film, or the degree of resemblance between them. But if indeed it’s a mediocre novel, it’s one of those cases of a so-so book inspiring a very fine film.

The story is centered on an aging artist living in a sort of exile in the Bahamas, reasonably content but isolated. You might say it tracks his re-engagement with the people he loves, and the enlargement of that circle in a pretty dramatic way. He has three sons by two marriages who come to visit him for the summer, and a big part of the story involves the establishment or re-establishment of his relationship with them. Later the first of his ex-wives reappears. I really don’t want to say much more than that for fear of spoiling the story, which for me at any rate was very powerful when I was twenty-nine and is just as powerful now that I’m sixty-three. I remember on my first viewing thinking that it was a perceptive and accurate picture of the way men love, and I still think so.

George C. Scott’s performance as the protagonist, in many ways a typical Hemingway character, strikes me as simply perfect. And not the least of the film’s pleasures, by the way, is the Caribbean setting, beautifully photographed. It also has a score that seems to me at least considerably better than average.

I’d be interested in knowing whether anyone else has as high an opinion of it as I do.

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen

One night six or eight weeks ago I was browsing around on Netflix and saw this available for online viewing. Out of curiosity I watched the first ten minutes or so of it. A few days later I found myself thinking about it, and went back for another ten minutes, and so watched the whole thing in ten or twenty-minute pieces.

The Minutemen, if you don’t already know it, were a punk band of the early 1980s, and theirs is one of the names that are always mentioned in any history of punk. I had paid almost no attention to punk at the time it was happening, and a few years ago decided to educate myself a bit on the subject. The Minutemen were one of the bands I had to hear, and I listened to the album which is generally considered their best, Double Nickels on the Dime (that is, 55 miles per hour on Interstate 10). I wasn’t greatly taken with their music, although I found it interesting. (You can read my review of it here.)

Yet I found this documentary fascinating. If punk is a musical style, I don’t care much for it. If it’s the expression of anger, or the simple desire to shock and offend, I don’t like it at all. But if it’s about the rejection of the entertainment industry, about people making their own music rather than passively accepting what the industry sells, and about artistic and personal integrity, I find a lot to like.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with rock-and-roll. A few minutes of watching the typical posturing of the typical commercially successful rock group are enough to make me never want to hear another note of it. The Minutemen, as they come across in this film, are refreshing, determinedly down to earth. There’s nothing of the usual sex-and-drugs-let’s-party rock-and-roll mentality about them. Watch the trailer below, especially that first bit, where the three members of the band are being interviewed. You might think at first that you’re hearing three kids who are just starting a band, but in fact that interview was made after they had become pretty successful—very successful, in the context of the “alternative” scene. They don’t seem to be trying to impress anybody; they’re still just being themselves, three guys who started a band. And look at and listen to Mike Watt, the bass player, the guy in the jeans and blue shirt whose reminiscences and reflections make up a big part of the movie: you’d never guess he’s a rock star. And of course he isn’t, in the sense that, say, Bono, is. He’s an impressive bassist and has been moderately successful since The Minutemen, but he doesn’t have anything like the stagey mannerisms and egotism (and, not infrequently, the apparent stupidity) that are too often the mark of rock musicians.

Punk rock—well, rock in general—usually brings along with it some degree of left-wing politics, and that seems to have been part of The Minutemen’s conception of integrity. To the extent that that’s expressed directly, it seems to be the usual rather simple-minded stuff—hating Ronald Reagan, and so forth. But it isn’t overpowering, and insofar as it’s rooted in a dislike of the commercialization and mechanization of every aspect of American life, those roots are healthy.

The film as a whole is made more affecting by the fact that D. Boon, the brilliant guitarist and not-so-brilliant singer, was killed in an auto accident in 1985 at the age of twenty-seven and at the height of the band’s achievement. Mike Watt’s grief is still (the movie was made in 2005) real and evident. I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is an engaging picture of a very likeable group of musicians. I don’t know that it made me like their music any more, but it made me like and respect them. I think anyone with much interest in pop music would enjoy it. 

Here’s that trailer:


And, by the way, the explanation of the title, from the movie’s Wikipedia entry:

The title is a lyric from their song “The Politics of Time.” It’s also referred to in a comment made near the end of the film by Mike Watt, in a 1985 interview, when the band is asked if they have anything else to say. He answers for them: “We jam econo.” Econo was local slang for economic and described the band's dedication to low-cost record production and touring. It also describes the band’s (and burgeoning underground independent music scene’s) do-it-yourself attitude and philosophy.

Father Dan Makes Gumbo

Not sure if this is going to play correctly--if it doesn't, go here. That is, if you want to see how to make real gumbo. To my mind the phrase "seafood gumbo" is a little redundant. "Gumbo" is "seafood gumbo" unless you say otherwise. This young priest is at St. Mary's in Mobile, where I will probably be attending the annual Crawfish and Bluegrass festival this evening. 

I'm glad to see that he does gumbo the right way. Some people try to pawn off tomato soup with a few shrimp in it as "gumbo," which should be against the law.

The Band: This Wheel's On Fire

The death of Levon Helm a day or two ago means that three-fifths of The Band are gone. To my taste, they didn't produce a great deal of great music. But the best of it, created in the space of a few years in the late 1960s, was really great, and extremely influential. I think most people would probably choose their self-titled second album ("Cripple Creek," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down) over their first, Music from Big Pink. But it's the latter that's indispensible for me, or at least once was--I haven't listened to it for many years. It had a powerful effect on me, coming as it did in 1968 when psychedelia was at its height. Its loose, earthy, messy vibe was unlike anything else at the time, and although it didn't sound remotely like country music, it felt like it had very deep roots. Nowadays it would be called Americana. The second album, which was considerably slicker, didn't have its ramshackle soul. I think Big Pink produced some of my first reservations about where the "counter-culture" was going, by making me aware that there was something deep in the roots of the traditional culture that I loved. It was hardly a traditionalist work, but it had continuity with tradition.

This Dylan song was one of my favorite tracks from the album. I remember sitting in my apartment trying to work out the chords for it. Maybe they'll come back to me if I try.


RIP: Richard Manuel (1943-1986), Rick Danko (1942-1999), Levon Helm (1940-2012)

Anyone for a caption contest? Looks to me like the guy on the left is trying to sell a car to the guy on the right.


Another thought on that last Sunday Night Journal

I couldn't have seen those children as I did, they wouldn't have appeared to me as they did or had the same significance, if I hadn't brought my long life and experiences good and bad to it. And they couldn't have seen each other or themselves as I did. My experience and knowledge were an important part of what made the sight so beautiful and so rich. Life does make us larger, allows us to comprehend more, in both senses of the word. Though it comes at a great cost, we don't generally want to go back to a lesser condition. We are growing toward something. And so I shouldn't wish that the children be frozen in time; they must grow, too, as painful as it may be.

Why Is It Always Me?! (II)

As anyone who has a Gmail account knows, Gmail shows you advertising based on the contents of your email, which is creepy and annoying, and occasionally amusing. Like this one:


In case anyone reading this doesn't know, I am not a girl of any standing at all, whether standout, stand-in, stand-up, or stand-down. No word relating directly to the product being advertised occurs anywhere in my mail (I checked), unless you count words like "girl," "woman," and "female." And if those were responsible you'd think I would get a constant stream of ads stuff, which I don't. The only thing I can figure is that it was triggered by the word "standout," which appears twice, most recently in an email that referred to a movie containing "a number of standout performances." I wouldn't have minded it showing up once but it's been there most of the time for several days now.

I briefly considered clicking on the link to see how standout girls shine, but if I do that Gmail will never believe I don't aspire to be one.

Sunday Night Journal — April 15, 2012

An Unexpected Vision

The past couple of weeks have been difficult at work, due to the departure of someone who not only was responsible for a lot of things that I don’t know much about but who will probably be impossible to replace. I should be working nights and weekends to try to compensate for her absence, but am stubbornly refusing to do so. Long hours are to some extent part of the package when you work in information technology, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m not willing to sacrifice for my employer what little time I have for other things.

I was very much looking forward to the weekend, and when I arrived at home I got an entirely unexpected vision of beauty. The picture below is of the street or road that I live on. “Street” for me implies pavement, and the pavement ends a little before my house. The street comes down a short but fairly steep hill, where the pavement ends, and takes a right turn before reaching my house. There are woods all around, and you can’t see beyond the turn. This is the view you get when you come around the turn.


That’s my mailbox, driveway, and red 1992 Volvo (for which I paid $3000 five years ago, a pretty good investment as it has served me reasonably well). The orange traffic cone presumably belongs to the city; I don’t know how it got there. At the end of the road there’s a path through some trees, and then Mobile Bay. Apart from the presence of my car, this is the way things looked when I came around that turn at about 6:30pm on Friday. The picture was taken a few minutes later, and I’m including it so that you can better imagine what I saw: four children running down the road to the bay.

They were, I guess, ten or eleven years old, three girls and one boy. I’ve met the boy, who lives with his apparently single mother in one of the condominiums a couple of blocks away. I don’t recall having seen the girls before. The girls all had long hair and were wearing jeans or shorts and light blouses or t-shirts, the boy has thick curly hair and was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. When I saw them they were about even with where my car is parked. The last of the group, a girl with light brown hair, heard my car and stepped off into the grass, while the others kept going. Then she saw that I was slowing down and ran to catch up with the others. I could hear them calling and laughing to each other. I stopped, more or less where I took this picture a few minutes later, and watched them till they disappeared into the woods.

I realize as I write this that it’s going to be impossible for me to communicate to you how beautiful they were, and how they moved me: their freshness, their gladness, their seemingly effortless vitality, their grace and freedom. There is a point toward the end of childhood where the body and mind have attained a certain maturity but have not yet fallen into the fears and lusts and longings of adolescence, which seem to stay with us in some degree for the rest of our lives. I found myself wishing they could remain as they were forever. But that’s to wish that they never complete the journey. They made me very happy for a little while, and I said a prayer for them.

1 Samuel by Francesca Aran Murphy

I had planned to write a full review of this book today, but have changed my mind for two reasons. First, the weekend has been busier than I expected. Second, I mentioned to someone in email last week that I was planning to review it, and he asked what publication I was reviewing it for. So I started thinking, well, why not take a bit more time with it, and see if I can place it with Touchstone or some other publication, because I think the book merits the attention. I don’t know how many subscribers Touchstone has, but I’m sure it’s more than the number of people who read this blog. I’m therefore going to make this just a quick first draft of what will be a somewhat longer review.

I don’t know much about biblical scholarship, but this book strikes me as being exactly the way it ought to be done. I should admit that I actually have...let us say low expectations of it, because as a discipline it seems to have played a significant role over the past 150 years or so in undermining Christian faith. It is with a certain weariness and dread that I hear a homilist open his discussion of a scripture reading with “What Matthew (or Mark or Luke or John...) is trying to tell us here is...” What follows is likely to discard the literal meaning of the text in favor of some psycho-literary lesson, possibly of dubious value.

Dr. Murphy does not do this at all. In fact the book seems to engage in a sort of running argument with what I understand to be the conventional literary and historical approaches: the literary one which is all too literary, in that it treats the text as mere literature, the historical one which purports to sit in highly skeptical judgment of its factual truth. This book instead starts with the presumption that scripture means what it says, and that when it clearly treats events as having really happened it is not trafficking in myth and legend (or fiction). Most importantly, it presumes that scripture is intelligible, that the people who put it down were not fools or idiots—nor, on the other end of scholarly mistake, were they novelists, carefully crafting a narrative for literary and theological effect. It takes the biblical author’s historical situation and way of looking at the world as, yes, substantially different from our own, but, no, not so different as to be unintelligible. In short, it sets out to explain, not to explain away.

Broadly speaking, it is an extended and focused effort to bridge the gap between the biblical world and the contemporary believer. In the best tradition of modern theology, it makes ready use of modern discoveries in history and archaeology and languages, but it does not turn these tools against the text. And it doesn’t assume the necessity of what I have always, as a completely unschooled layman, regarded as the suspect practice of resolving disjunctures in the text by assuming them to be the work of multiple hands, in this case with differing agendas. Apparently it is widely held among scholars that the stories of Samuel and Saul, which seem at times to support and at times to condemn the Israelites’ desire for a king, must intermingle the writings of pro and anti-monarchic parties. But Dr. Murphy, in what strikes me as a genuinely literary and yet orthodox approach, tries to show (if I’ve understood her) that this ambivalence expresses something deeper, something about the possibilities inherent in the situation, something about the ultimately incomprehensible but metaphysically real freedom of both God and man.

An assumption of realism must direct our interpretation of the episode, if we want to read it within Christian tradition. The presupposition that the text is describing something that really happened is a tremendous gift to the historical biblical critic. It hinders the formulation of circular hypotheses about source documents and stimulates us to use our historical imagination to try to figure out what is really going on here.

To try to figure out what is really going on here. You would think that would be the primary mission of the scholar but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case always.

This is not the sort of thing I ordinarily read, and with my chronic difficulty in concentrating I had to work at getting started in it. Once I’d gotten fifty or pages or so in, though, it became fascinating, though never easy; every page is dense with ideas and facts and references to other commentaries, from ancient times until the present. I’m somewhat in awe of the labor involved in the writing of it, not to mention the erudition manifested throughout. I really can’t imagine examining any text at such length and in such detail, and to follow it was a mind-stretching experience.

Challenging it is, but not dry. Those who have met Dr. Murphy online won’t be surprised to learn that flashes of wit appear throughout, sometimes most unexpectedly, as in the description of the Ark of the Covenant as a “bonsai temple.” Or the observation that “In the ancient world, they had to fall back on theater, since they did not have Home Box Office.” Nor will they be surprised by a number of references to The Wire and other contemporary dramas.

I haven’t said anything about the actual content of the book being studied, 1 Samuel. If you’re as biblically unlearned as I am, you may not immediately recognize that title as designating the story that begins with the birth of Samuel and ends with the death of Saul. I had never read it from start to finish. It is quite a story, and well worth the time spent reading this commentary on it, which naturally you’ll want to begin by reading 1 Samuel itself, unless you already know it well.

Quite a story indeed. My father, who was a churchgoer but ever inclined to questioning, used to say that the terrible behavior of Biblical figures like Saul and David was an argument for the truth of the Bible, or at least for the fact that the Hebrews believed it to be true: no one attempting to hoodwink or proselytize on behalf of a religion would have so openly exhibited the sins of so many of its major figures. 1 Samuel qualifies as a prime argument for that case.

How Did Things Get To This Point?

My wife sent this to me a day or two ago with the note "Watch the video even if you don't read the article," and I would say the same. It's a blog post by Mark Shea containing a video in which a somewhat dim-seeming young English woman attempts to challenge a group of England-hating Muslim fanatics for their "judgmentalism" etc. Her appeals to tolerance and "I respect you why don't you respect me?" relativism could not produce fewer misgivings in a stone wall. I tend to find Shea's manner tiresome, but he makes some good points about the inability of "watery post-Christian secularism, " as represented by the young woman, to comprehend or respond meaningfully to people who simply play by a different set of rules and do not acknowledge any obligation to respect other beliefs.

It's not only the militancy of the fanatics openly intent on destroying the culture that is playing host to them that's disturbing. If you follow the video to YouTube and read some of the comments, you'll see ominous signs of a reaction which is not at all pretty, and is probably festering beneath the official multicultural pieties. As I said in another, but not completely unrelated, context recently: sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

The Haunting

This 1963 movie is based on Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House,  which I haven't read. So I can't comment on how well it serves or does not serve the book, but it's an excellent work on its own. It must surely be one of the best ghost stories in cinema. I'm qualifying that because there also must surely be many that I haven't seen. But The Haunting really bears comparison with some of the art films of the time. It reminded me of some of Bergman's darker work. It isn't as weird or as profound as Hour of the Wolf, but it's technically comparable--that is, it shows a comparable level of craft in the creation of its atmosphere. The black-and-white cinematography is excellent. The acting is good to excellent. 

Like Hour of the Wolf, it's as much about the psychology of the characters as it as about ghosts. It involves a researcher into psychic phenomena who recruits several people to stay with him at the reputedly haunted Hill House and assist him in investigating it. One of them is a vulnerable and unstable woman, and...well, the fact that it's pretty obvious that she and the house are going to be a bad combination doesn't prevent the story from having its effect.

It's scary. Or at least it was to me. Not nightmare-scary, not gory-scary, just very spooky. There were several scenes that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and gave me that crawly sensation, and those are unusual reactions for me. Not that I can't be scared quite easily--I have no tolerance at all for horror films. But this is a different thing, not just plain physical fear, as of monsters or sadistic murderers, but the psychological fear of the malevolent supernatural. It doesn't actually have to do anything much to scare you; it only has to reveal its presence.

Why Is It Always Me?!

I got a chuckle out of Grumpy Ex-Pat's comment on the preceding thread: "I definitely would have spent Good Friday having a narcissistic self-pity attack." Yes, exactly. And it reminded me of a little-known movie that I saw quite a few years ago and wish I could see again. I couldn't remember the title, but I did remember one of the stars, a very well-known actor, and have just spent fifteen minutes tracking it down by guessing at titles in his filmography. Turns out it was a made-for-TV movie from the early 1990s and is not available on DVD, so the chances are pretty good that I won't see it again. I saw it years ago in a hotel when I was on some work-related trip--I rarely saw TV at home in those years. 

I'm not telling you the name of the movie or the well-known actor, because I'm about to give away the most important parts of the plot, and it's always possible you might run across it somewhere, and I don't want to spoil it. (Email me if you really want to know.) 

 It's a thriller/mystery sort of thing involving a very sleazy blackmailer, not especially notable except for the performance of the above-mentioned star. He plays the blackmailer, and does it so well that you really detest him and long to see him defeated--he's a villain of great craft, but not a sophisticated Mephistophelian one, just a shabby crook who happens to be pretty clever and who stumbles across an opportunity. After many twists and turns in the plot in which he squeezes his victim ever tighter, the tables are finally turned on him. Caught by surprise, and about to be shot, he exclaims, with bitter and whining resignation, "Why is it always me?!"

The idea that he could still, after all his evil deeds, consider himself a put-upon victim gives the scene a definite note of black humor. I think we're all somewhat in that position when we complain about our lot in life. I am, anyway.

Sunday Night Journal — April 8, 2012

Easter Sunday

What were they thinking? In his Good Friday homily at the cathedral in Mobile, Fr. Martin asked this question about the disciples of Jesus as they saw him arrested, tried, and executed. What had they expected of him? Certainly not this. And what did they think when their expectations were utterly crushed? There is no evidence that any of them had any idea that the Resurrection would follow.

I know what I would have been thinking. It would have gone something like this: I should have known it would all come to nothing. This is what always happens; it’s the way life always goes: a beautiful beginning, then disappointment. Nothing ever turns out the way you want it to, or not for long. Dreams always fail. You never get what you longed for, or if you do it isn’t what you thought it would be, or it disappears even as you hold it. And in the end nothing remains but the dream itself, the same old longing.

One of three or four passages in The Lord of the Rings which haunt me, and which pass through my mind almost daily, is this exchange between Gimli and Legolas, upon their parting with a lord of Gondor; specifically, it’s the words of Gimli I recall, and which might be my own:

“That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,” said Legolas. “If Gondor has such men still in these days of its fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.”

“And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,” said Gimli. “It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in the Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”

But Gimli’s is not quite the last word; the exchange continues:

“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimil.”

“And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,” said the Dwarf.

“To that the Elves know not the answer,” said Legolas.

Again, my sympathies are with the dwarf. It is not easy or natural for me to resist the feeling that in the end decline and extinction will have the last word. I almost wrote “the idea” in the preceding sentence, and changed it to “feeling,” because that’s what it is; it’s not a conviction, not a conclusion reached by reason, and in fact is contrary to my conscious belief. Yet to some extent it is an idea, though an unwelcome one. After all, is there anything in our direct experience to suggest, much less prove, that it is not true? I say direct experience: we have the testimonies of others, and our own intuitions and hopes. To believe in spirit as the source of material life rather than its product often requires a conscious effort, while the clear indications of the material world itself, and the conclusions of the sciences which investigate it, are that all, literally all, will come in the end to nothing: the heat death of the universe, utter cessation, futility and un-meaning. 

So I would have been thinking, with whatever adjustments in the imagery required for the knowledge and culture of the times, had I been one of the disciples. Just another of life’s inevitable disappointments, a type of the ultimate disappointment.

And what would I have thought at the news of the Resurrection? Undoubtedly I would not readily have believed it; perhaps not until I had seen it for myself. And when finally I was persuaded, I would have made that leap with tears of joy.

But this is, after all, not really speculative. I was not there two thousand years ago, but I have passed through the same doubts and into the same belief, from darkness to light. It was not as compressed in time, not as immediately intense as the experience of the disciples, but it must be a similar transition. And every Triduum I make the journey again, imagining on Good Friday that I do not know that the Resurrection is coming. What I feel and what I say when it does come begins with “Thanks be to God,” but doesn’t end there.

I have had a smaller and more personal taste of resurrection in the past couple of weeks. I came to the Catholic Church after a sojourn of several years as an Episcopalian. Though I couldn’t stomach the doctrinal problems of the Episcopal Church, I became deeply attached to the Anglican liturgy. Moreover, my roots are in the Methodist Church, which is Anglican at one remove. And then there’s my ancestral connection to the British Isles, and my love of English literature. It was painful to leave the Anglican liturgy, even though at the point I encountered it, in the late 1970s, it was being drearily modernized. I needn’t rehash the usual complaints about the banality of the post-Vatican II Catholic liturgy; suffice to say that I shared them, at times almost to the point of despair and temptation to apostasy, and that it was a trial to my faith.

When John Paul II allowed the use of a modified Anglican liturgy under the term “Anglican use,” I had a flicker of hope that I would see such a thing, but there have never been more than a few parishes in the country using it, none of them anywhere near me. And I was pleased when Benedict XVI went further, to the creation of an Anglican ordinariate, but I didn’t expect ever to benefit from it myself. For some time now I’ve been reconciled to the Catholic liturgy as it is, happy enough to receive the graces of the Mass that I could live with the dullness of its treatment.

Then one morning at work couple of weeks ago, there came, entirely unexpected, an email from my wife telling me that she had just had a telephone conversation which brought her news that a seminarian in our diocese has begun the process of establishing regular Anglican Use worship in this area. Until the seminarian, a former Episcopal priest, is ordained, it will not be a Mass; the first event is Evening Prayer, on April 15, and my wife and I will surely be there, God willing.

Thanks be to God. I can’t even say that this is an answer to a prayer; I regarded it as so unlikely that I hadn’t even bothered to pray for it more than a few times, and those long ago. This is God giving more than was asked for or expected, as he did with his followers at the first Easter. However this works out in the longer run, I’ll remember, when I feel doubtful, the happy surprise of hearing the news.

Happy Easter

I have returned from my time offline, and I must say it was both more difficult and more rewarding than I had anticipated. I was surprised at how strong the pull was, and how I found myself sometimes briefly at a loss for what to do with myself when I couldn't browse around the net in an idle moment. But sometime into Good Friday I began to feel considerably more recollected, more able to concentrate, and less jumpy. I can see that this is something I need to do on a regular basis, perhaps every Friday. I wonder if I could make it through an entire Lent...well, there are things I actually need to do online, so it wouldn't be possible to give it up entirely, and I don't know if I could resist the urge to surf if I got online at all. Although I did wake my computer from its slumber and reload this page on Friday and Saturday mornings just to make sure there were no spam comments, and was able to make that check and immediately put the computer back to sleep without wandering anywhere else. Anyway, it was an interesting experiment.

We went to the Easter Vigil at the cathedral last night. In the past it's usually been packed, but for some reason last night the attendance was pretty sparse. I don't have any explanation for that but I hope it's not a permanent trend.

Offline till Easter

I'm going to do my best to stay completely off the net from now (Thursday evening) till Sunday. I wish and pray for a blessed Easter for everyone, especially those who don't believe.

I would like to leave you with some serious message, if only a quotation from someone else, but I'm distracted and hurried halfway to madness these days, and can't muster any substantial thoughts. Instead, I'll suggest that you go over to Janet Cupo's blog and read her series of posts on the Stations of the Cross. Click here and you'll be taken to a page containing all fourteen of them, though in reverse order. See you Sunday.

But at my back I always hear...

...time's winged chariot hurrying near.

I had a bit of a shock today: a call from the office of a doctor whom I'm supposed to see once a year for a heart exam telling me it's time to come in again. I started to argue that it had only been six months, or maybe at most eight, since my last visit. I really pretty much believed that to be the case, and the only reason I didn't argue was that in recent years I have had too many experiences in which I grossly underestimated how much time had passed since some event.

This is becoming somewhat disturbing. It's not that I'm afraid of getting to the end of life--I dread some of the possible difficulties of old age more than I fear death (but ask me about that again if I live another fifteen years or so). It's that I feel that I have so much more work to do, and that time is running out. It's like being in school and getting close to the end of a term without having started that big paper that was assigned in the first week.

Sunday Night Journal — April 1, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey

This is depressing: it seems that there is a pornographic novel called Fifty Shades of Grey which is extremely popular among women, and that its plot involves a young woman who gives herself as a masochistic sex slave to a billionaire. Here is one of several commentaries on it which I’ve run across recently. I wouldn’t be surprised at such a book coming from a man, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it came from a woman, because I have long since accepted, though very unwillingly, that money and power are extremely attractive to at least some large proportion of the female sex. In my younger and more conventionally liberal days, quick to defend woman as an oppressed minority—and, more fundamentally, naturally chivalrous and a bit idealistic about God’s most beautiful creation—I objected to this. Observation proved me wrong.

It’s not the novel itself but its popularity that depresses. Every man who reads a news story like this must  surely wonder, at least for a moment, if his own wife or girlfriend would drop him in an instant for the first billionaire who expressed an interest in tying her up. And reportedly it is especially popular among married women. 

Also depressing, though simultaneously amusing, is the view of the two women who wrote the commentary linked to above. With that grim and superficial ideological blindness typical of academic feminism, they deplore the novel’s “reactionary gender politics,” though not of course the fact that it’s pornographic. They think its appeal stems from the fact that women have not attained the imagined level of socio-economic power which would make them indifferent to the promise of attaining it by association with a rich and powerful man. What a silly delusion. If there’s another thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is something elemental in desires of this sort, something that can’t be  explained away with socio-economic arguments (even if they’re plausible, which I don’t think these are). Even at its best feminism was never more than a very incomplete account of what women really think and, as Freud wondered, what they really want.

Is it arrogant of me, as a man, to say that? Too bad; I am only proceeding according to the common-sense maxim watch what they do, not what they say. If nothing else has emerged clearly from the gender debates of the past forty years, it is that the presence of “reactionary gender politics” does not in the least deter most women from liking some piece of art or entertainment that otherwise appeals to them. The career of Madonna alone is proof of that (no matter how such sexual exhibitionism is dressed up as “empowerment”).

I suspect, and hope, that women having good relationships with men and a grounding in faith are less susceptible to the likes of this novel. It’s almost an axiom in many intellectual circles—and nowadays not only there, but in decidedly non-intellectual circles, as a result of ideas being propagated into fashion and popular culture—that religion is frequently the expression of a repressed sexual impulse. But I think it’s more often the other way around, that erotic obsessions and perversions are frequently misplaced religious longings. The desire to surrender oneself to a sadist is a perversion of the desire to surrender oneself to God. And, on the earthly level, no matter how reactionary it is to say so, it seems pretty clear that most women want their husbands to be, in a sense, and most certainly a non-abusive sense, in some degree of authority over them—this is only another way of describing the oft-stated preference of women for men who are “confident,” “in command,” etc.

In fact—and this is pure speculation—I wouldn’t be surprised if women who, as a matter of principle and perhaps as an effect of anger, are in the habit of pushing aggressively against the men in their lives are more susceptible to the pornography of submission than those who are at ease do I say this without using words that carrying implications I don’t intend? some fundamental psychological way looking up to their husbands? Nature will have the penultimate, though not the last, word in these things.

Smart Kids in Small Towns

I found this post by Pentimento an interesting twist on a phenomenon I’ve noticed more than once, first of all in myself. She describes her reaction to moving from the life of an artist and intellectual in New York (City) to the life of a wife and mother in a much smaller city in the same state:

I felt that I was in a dull, dreary place that was a poor match for my ...specialness, the specialness I'd long believed to be my birthright.

This is exactly what I and no doubt millions of others have felt while growing up in places like the one to which Pentimento has moved. If you’re one of the bright kids, interested in art and ideas and other things which are not generally high on the list of concerns for most people in such places, you almost inevitably start thinking of yourself as special, by which of course you mean superior.

The usual or classic pattern is that this smart kid escapes from the country or the small town to the metropolis (or perhaps only to the university) and there suffers the humiliating passage from big fish in small pond to very ordinary fish in big pond. This may, but doesn’t necessarily, lead to some degree of humility. I would expect that to go in the opposite direction—from the intellectual life of the metropolis to the dullness of the provinces—would provoke a strong impulse to hold oneself forever above the natives, and it speaks well of Pentimento that she wants to choose otherwise.

Sometimes, whether or not he leaves the small town behind, the smart kid’s sense of superiority hardens into lasting contempt. I think of an Alabama native who used to write for a newspaper here and who, on leaving to take a job in the northeast, bade farewell to the state with a sneer that he was happy to be leaving a place he’d never liked anyway and which was notable only for football and racism. I wonder how he fared in his new place. If he found appreciation there for the abilities that went under-praised at home, it has not achieved enough notice to reach us here.

That person was very proud of being a liberal in this heavily right-wing state. The path of the smart kid often leads to conventional liberalism. The provinces tend to be conservative in an instinctive and unreflective way. The smart kid looks beyond that, criticizes the simplistic and conventional views he encounters all around him, reads books and magazines that present him with other and more well-thought-out opinions, and decides that if his townspeople are conservatives, then he must be a liberal. And that’s perfectly understandable. But if he escapes to the metropolis (perhaps only in his mind—with modern communications one may mentally escape while remaining physically in place), he may find himself again among people who all think alike; only now he may not recognize the force of convention and fashion in maintaining the prevailing opinions, and so become as locked in to a set of received ideas as the people back home.

As one of those smart kids, the thing I had to learn, first, was that I was  not special in the way that I thought I was. Later, I learned that everyone else is special, that those people I thought were dumbbells are every bit as complex and interesting as I thought I was, and often also smarter in some ways than me and my intellectual heroes and friends. And then I could come back around to seeing myself as special, but this time without pride: special not because I am superior to others but because I’m just like them: unique and important in God’s eyes, a fact in which everyone’s sense of being special originates and is objectively justified.

April Fool’s Day

I was planning what I thought would be an amusing April Fool’s Day post, but when I realized that April 1 would fall on Palm Sunday decided it would be inappropriate. Check back next year.

Speaking of Palm Sunday, I’ve always been a little puzzled by the fact that we have a Passion narrative on this day. It seems out of place. Shouldn’t we celebrate the entry into Jerusalem today, the better to acknowledge our perfidy on Thursday?