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July 2012

David Gelernter on the Dismantling of Culture

I had thought I would write a brief post about this interview with Yale computer scientist and cultural critic David Gelernter, but have been too busy, and that's likely to continue through tomorrow, so I think I'll just throw it out for discussion. This is another of those things, like the Heather King piece I linked to last week, that I don't entirely agree with, but which has some striking points with which I do agree. For instance, this bit, which relates to what I was saying yesterday about the two religions in America--they are not Christianity and atheism, but two much vaguer things, one with roots in Christianity, the other with roots in the Enlightenment.

Post-religious thinkers don’t even live on the same spiritual planet as Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish Americans. Old-time atheists struggled with biblical religion and rejected it; modern post-religious thinkers struggled with nothing. Since the Bible and biblical religion underlie the invention of America, it’s hard (unsurprisingly) for post-religious people to understand America sympathetically.... Expecting post-religious, Bible-ignorant thinkers to grasp America is like expecting a gerbil to sing Pagliacci.

People keep struggling to find a single term for what generally gets crudely pigeonholed as "liberalism." Gelernter's contribution is not likely to catch on, but it's accurate: the "Post-Religious Globalist Intellectual" establishment. Well, here's the interview.

Sunday Night Journal — July 29, 2012

At Least It's Out In the Open Now

There are several immediately obvious things to say about the declarations this week by the mayors of Boston and Chicago that they would attempt to block the Chick-fil-a (what a silly name) fast food chain from opening restaurants in their cities. First and most obvious is their violation of their own self-professed love of tolerance. It’s not as if the head of Chick-fil-a had advocated some sort of active oppression of homosexuals, at least not according to any reasonable definition of that idea. Unfortunately it is now a well-established debating tactic on the part of homosexual activists and their sympathizers to insist that to fail to agree with them about the nature of marriage is to encourage their active oppression, if not in fact to oppress them, at least psychologically, by “hating” them.

Second was the pretty blatant illegality of the mayors’ professed intentions. Even if you believe that Chick-fil-a’s views are objectionable, you can’t deny a business the right to operate on those grounds, and you don’t have to be a lawyer to recognize that. Local governments have a lot of discretion in granting licenses for a business to operate in this or that location—zoning laws, noise ordinances, and the like. Here in my little town there has just been a flap over whether a tattoo artist should be allowed to open a shop downtown amongst the snooty boutiques etc. The city at first denied a license for the shop, but happily the tattoo artist won; I say “happily” not out of any liking for tattoo parlors but out of dislike for snooty people.

But I digress: governments do have room for reasonable judgment calls about where businesses may locate, but the political opinions of the business owner are certainly not among the factors that may be legally considered in the decision. Both mayors seemed to have recognized this, or been advised of it by their legal staff, and quickly issued “clarifications.” (There is a good bit of fun to be had with Rahm Emmanuel’s invocation of “Chicago values”: “basically a by-word for political corruption and insane levels of gun violence”.)

But there’s something deeper at work, and it’s the appeal by the mayors to the notion of “values” that points toward it. Throughout the decades of the culture wars the conservative side has been on the defensive, because in resisting any progressive idea they could always be painted as intolerant. The progressives could always say “We just want to be free to do what we like. Why should you care?” America is in many ways fundamentally libertarian and utilitarian, and the argument that anyone should be able to do as he pleases as long as he harms no one else is probably about as close to a commonly-held absolute as one can find here. Tolerance of what ever the progressives wanted could always be portrayed as tolerance, period, not tolerance of anything in particular.

Thus an appeal to any sort of “shared values” was deemed entirely inadmissible, and “harm” came to mean “demonstrable material harm.” People with traditional ideas about cultural matters such as pornography were required to show that some direct connection between, e.g., the easy availability of pornography and crimes such as rape. And if that connection couldn’t be proven, the objectors were ruled out of court.

This superficial approach allowed and still allows most people to avoid dealing with the more difficult and deeper questions about the nature of man as a social animal, about the way societies work and what makes them cohere. The truth is that societies are organic things, and an organic thing must possess unity at some deep inner level. Fingers are not toes, and nerves are not veins, but they are part of one thing. The thoughtless assumption that tolerance is without limits ignores this. The superficial mechanistic formulations of John Stuart Mill assume some level of fundamental agreement about right and wrong, and collapse where that is lacking. A society can only function, or at any rate only be stable, if there is some broad consensus about what man is and what is best for him. This is a fundamentally religious question. And what’s happening now is a struggle over what religion, in the sense of fundamental assumptions about the world and man’s place in it, our society will have.

As the progressives have pushed for more and more tolerance of what they want, they have inevitably, driven by an instinct they don’t recognize or acknowledge, begun to push for the withdrawal of tolerance for views in opposition to theirs, even though this is also in the name of tolerance: opposing views are deemed “hate speech” etc., and declared to be at least a potential source of harm, and therefore not to be tolerated. In the United States this does not yet often take the form of legal penalties, but some other countries are not so diffident, and the Chick-fil-a incident certainly indicates the desire to weild the power of the government against dissenters.  In advocating the punishment or restriction of views that do not reflect the “shared values” of their communities, progressives are unconsciously affirming the views of their long-time opponents that the deep inner unity of a society does, after all, matter a great deal, and that the virtue of tolerance has its limits. Ideas in opposition to that inner unity can be tolerated to a point, but only so far; they cannot be accorded equality with the governing ideas of the society.

A man cannot serve two masters; a house divided against itself cannot stand. Most societies have recognized this, explicitly or implicitly. Among modern industrialised societies, most no longer do. Communist societies, or at least governments, are an exception, making it perfectly clear that the state is the ultimate authority. They tolerate Christianity to some greater or lesser degree, but leave no doubt as to who is the master.

As things are going, that is the sort of future Christians can look forward to in the formerly Christian nations we generally refer to as “the West.” Having gained the upper hand culturally, the progressives are getting an idea of what they need to do to assert and maintain their mastery, and of how they need to organize their society. The contraception mandate in “Obamacare,” and these gestures by the mayors of two of our biggest cities, should be seen as early skirmishes in what promises to be a long and determined campaign to put Christians in a box where they can do whatever they want inside their churches, but are not allowed to act publicly in opposition to progressive doctrine.

"Because you really do love God," [Caryll] writes to one friend, "your suffering, bitter though it is, is healing the world's sorrow. Don't think of it in terms of what is unbearable to you, but when a specially bad hour ends, even in sheer weariness, think, 'That is a drink of water to someone dying of thirst,' or, 'That is a bar of chocolate for a hungry child.' It is mysterious, but true."

--from Maise Ward's biography of Caryll Houselander.

Two by Ivory Joe Hunter

Weekend Music

I debated with myself about the order of these. First I met her, then I lost her seemed more natural, but since it's the weekend let's suppose it's two different women and that there's a happy ending. Actually they're almost the same song with different lyrics, which I guess is appropriate.



St Pius X and the Olympic Games

(from the Vatican News Service)

Vatican City, 27 July 2012 (VIS) - It was 1908 when, in the wake of a serious economic crisis, Rome renounced hosting the Olympic Games which were eventually celebrated in London, England. In the same year Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, sought help from the Vatican to support the Games, and Pope St. Pius X in person offered him his support.

More than one hundred years later, the British capital is hosting the Olympic Games for the third time. The event is due to open this evening.

That moment at the beginning of the twentieth century is described in a book entitled "Pio X e lo sport" by Antonella Stelitano. At that time "less than one per cent of the population practised any sporting activity, ... and sport was used only as a form of military training or as a pastime for the upper classes", the author explained in an interview with Vatican Radio.

However "St. Pius X ... was aware of the educational potential of sport". He saw it as a way "to approach young people, and to bring them together while following certain rules and showing respect for adversaries. I believe", the author explained, "that he understood that it was possible to bring people together simply, without any problems of race, religion or differing political ideas".

At that time in history many people did not understand the importance of exercise, said Antonella Stelitano who concluded her interview by recalling an anecdote whereby Pius X told one of his cardinals: "All right, if it is impossible to understand that this can be done, then I myself will do exercise in front of everyone so that they may see that, if the Pope can do it, anyone can do it".


I can't say I blame her

"Voula Papachristou 'bitter and upset' over Olympic ban." I don't see why her remark was "racist." Or rather I do, of course--it's because of the extreme-hyper-super sensitivity that so many people exercise about any reference to Africa--but I think it's pretty irrational. I can see objecting to it on the grounds that it was tactless when people are suffering from a disease known as the West Nile virus. But racist? Surely banning her from the Olympics was a serious over-reaction. Another news story mentioned that she's "right-wing." I suppose that probably had something to do with it, too.

The Archivist's Lot

I mentioned the other day that my wife is the archivist for the local archdiocese. She tells me that she spent the entire day today trying to find out what color the eyes of someone who died in 1921 were. The person was Fr. James Coyle, and someone wants to have a portrait of him painted, but all they have to work from is a few black-and-white photos. And if there is anyone still living who saw him while he was alive, he or she would have to be over 90, and would have been only a child at the time.

Want to take a guess at the color of his eyes?

Fr. Coyle and his sister, Marcella

In the archiving business, people like my wife, who are the sole person in charge of the archive, are referred to as Lone Arrangers.

Some Thoughts on Religion in the USA

It is a great embarrassment to me that it's now been over two years since I moved this blog from Blogger to TypePad, and I still haven't converted everything from my old site to this one. I moved the blog itself, which was not difficult. I started the blog in June 2006, and of the few people who read it probably only a small number of those are aware that the Sunday Night Journal actually began two and a half years earlier, in January 2004, as a hand-built non-blog website. For various reasons I want to turn those old items into blog posts here, and have still not finished doing it. Lately I've been making more of an effort, and I'm now up to the end of October 2005. 

Some of these pieces seem to me to be pretty good, if I do say so myself. Here's one I thought was relevant to some of the political and religious matters that have been in the news lately: Hitchens, Franklin, and Our Sundered America. I hope you'll find it interesting, too.

Sunday Night Journal — July 22, 2012

Sympathy for the Truth

I almost felt sorry for President Obama for a little while this week, because of the “you didn’t build that” controversy. In case you managed to miss all the fuss (which actually I think got relatively little attention from the pro-Obama press), he included the following words in a speech:

If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

The right leapt on this with the wildest enthusiasm, repeating it as often as possible as proof that Obama believes that individual effort and achievement mean little or nothing, with the further suggestion that the owner of a business has no real title to it.

In its rawest and simplest form, the charge is unfair. My reading of the entire context indicates that this is almost certainly a case of a clumsy ambiguity in the use of the pronoun “that.” Here are the statements with a bit more context:

Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

It seems pretty clear to me that the antecedent of “that” is meant to be “roads and bridges,” not “business.” And this is a more plausible reading because no politician in his right mind would say that a person who built a business did not build it, even if he believed it. This is the sort of verbal misstep that anyone could make when speaking extemporaneously, which I’ve been assuming was the case although I haven’t seen anything definite to that effect. (If it was a written speech, it was an inexcusable blunder and would serve as further  support for the view that Obama is not nearly as smart as he and many others seem to think he is.)

In a reasonable and fair discussion in which the object is to find and propound the truth, Obama’s opponents would grant, at least for the sake of argument, that he meant to say that the person who builds a business makes use of resources that he did not create, and go on to demonstrate that the speech as a whole, or at least this passage, nevertheless was a conglomeration of straw men, banalities, and falsehoods. A number of  conservative commentators did this, more or less. Here is just one example, from Neo-neocon (I laughed out loud at “great teachers all the way down.”) Just to note a few important points: no one outside a few extreme libertarians really believes that the individual stands or falls purely on his own, or that the government should not be involved in building roads and putting out fires. And the person who builds a business paid taxes to support those things just like everyone else. And Obama, along with almost everyone on the liberal side of this debate, persistently, insistently, and falsely equates “society” or “community” with “the federal government.”

But Obama gets no sympathy from me, because liberals and their allies in the media, now so outraged by the treatment of Obama’s remarks, generally practice exactly the same sort of willful distortion against Republicans at every opportunity. Consider two examples from Mitt Romney over the past months, which I still hear repeated by the left, and no doubt will continue to hear until the election, and afterwards if Romney wins.

“Romney says he’s not concerned about the poor.”

Yes, he did say the words “I’m not concerned about the poor,” and they were ill-chosen. But they had a context which gives them a quite different meaning. He was talking about the need to help the middle-class, and saying that there are measures already in place for the poor:

I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there,” Romney told CNN. “If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”(link)

“Romney says corporations are people.”

Yes, he said that, too, but he was not talking about the legal construct which treats corporations as persons for some purposes. He meant only that corporations are composed of people, and that a tax on a corporation is in fact a tax on those people. It’s nice to see a fair-minded liberal, Jonathan Chait, grant this.

If truth is the first casualty of war, the frequency in politics of attempts to kill it would suggest that politics is now a form of warfare, which it certainly seems to be. Democrats, in the long-established habit of showing no mercy in situations like this, should expect none. But if I have no sympathy for them, I do have it for the truth. We’re all losers when the truth–or the justice, or the logic—of what is said matters much less than whether it is politically effective or not. That’s a sin against the word, and the Word, which Christians fighting these battles ought to remember.

Wife gets her name in the paper

For the help she provided to someone writing a history of the Mobile Archdiocese. Only a brief mention, but no mention at all would have been very unjust:

Noland called Mobile's Catholic archives "absolutely wonderful," and praised the archivist, Karen Horton.

As well he might. She downplays her contribution, but I'm pretty sure it was essential. I know she certainly spent a huge amount of time on it, digging up the raw material that Dr. Nolan (the name is misspelled in the story) turned into a book, and doing a lot of the computer-related work.


The best swimmer cannot rescue the drowning man unless he is in the water with him. He may be pulled under, he is taking a risk, but he must be there.

--Maisie Ward, from her biography of Caryll Houselander

The Drifters: Save the Last Dance For Me

Weekend Music

I thought I had posted this earlier this evening. Apparently there is a way to abandon a post in TypePad without a draft having been saved. 


As I was saying earlier: a good song is one that's good no matter who's singing it. By that standard, an awful lot of rock groups have written very few good songs. The vocals and the arrangement here are great, but the song would still be enjoyable sung by anyone who can carry a tune. And the good ones usually make you want to sing them. This is basically a three-chord song, and I picked up my guitar and had everything but the bridge worked out in a couple of minutes. I can barely carry a tune at all, but if I practiced this a bit people could hear it and say "that's a good song" even as they looked for things to throw at me. That's not true of an awful lot of rock songs--think of most of the Rolling Stones' work, for instance.

Heather King on the Risks of Activism

Thanks to Janet Cupo for pointing out this post to me. I don't agree with everything she says, and obviously working "for a better world," as the saying goes, is a good thing to do, indeed an obligatory thing to do for Christians, but nowadays that tends to be defined as political activism and debate. And I find myself having less and less interest in and patience for most of the argumentation that's going on today, both among Christians and between Christian and others. Too often it's simply a form of warfare, and whatever the grand strategies may be, at the combatant level the goal of warfare is always the same and always simple: destroy your enemy. Sample:

Both the right and the left are simply variations on “the world” in which the goal is power, prestige, efficiency, triumph, and the goal is to shame or bully other people into changing without changing one iota yourself. The Catholic media that traffic in this sort of incessant "opinion"-driven "discussion" seem to me to have very little, if anything, to do with Christ.

I also like this:

Listening to a bunch of people try to shout each other down, especially in the name of God, is not only corrupt and depressing, but deathly boring.


The World

The New Testament speaks terrible things about something translated as "the world." Again and again we hear of it as a society of liars and killers, of brainwashed and arrogant men who parrot the gibberish and lurch into the snares set for them by demonic powers. The resulting picture is of a great, roaring machine of idiocy...

 --David Elliot, writing in the July/August issue of Touchstone

That last image is perfect, and it certainly describes our cultural environment, as defined by the media and entertainment--and all too many of our intellectuals and quasi-intellectuals. I don't know if the world, in the biblical sense, is worse than it used to be, but technology certainly makes it louder and more invasive of one's interior life.

Last night my neighborhood lost electricity for thirty or forty minutes. I was alone in the house (not counting animals), and I found myself rather enjoying it and thinking that I should unplug myself from the electronic world more often. Yes, I know it's funny that I'm saying that in a blog post.

Sunday Night Journal — July 15, 2012

A Beautiful Mass

A couple of weekends ago I attended Mass at a parish which I will refrain from naming, in a city on the other side of the continent. I know I’ve mentioned more than once here that after a long period of struggle I eventually became reconciled to the normal American Catholic liturgy. What I tend to forget, though, is that in the archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama, where I live, the general practice is not so bad. Yes, it’s the basically the usual thing, but at least in my home parish and in the cathedral, where I also sometimes attend Mass, it’s generally fairly reverent and tasteful, at least by current standards. And the cathedral has excellent, sometimes superb, music. The architecture ranges from not too bad to beautiful—again, the cathedral is a treasure. The homilies are usually solid.

The unnamed parish of a couple of weeks ago, on the other hand, had pretty much all the bad things in plenitude. It was an ugly barnlike A-frame building. The main entrance was not through one of the “A” ends but in the middle, and I wondered if it had been modified in the spirit of Vatican II, though the building didn’t really seem old enough. At any rate, it was much—several times—wider than it was deep, but it didn’t have the almost semi-circular amphitheater-style seating arrangement that usually goes with those proportions. There were chairs, not pews, and they faced straight forward, so the result was that if you were out on one of the wings, as I was, you were facing a blank wal, which made for a sense of awkwardness and distance. And though the chairs had kneelers we were instructed not to kneel by a big video screen over the choir stall which cheerfully fed us the words to the songs.

The music was pretty bad, although at least not incompetent as it so often was twenty or thirty years ago. The only instrument was a piano played in a sort of rock-and-roll style. The lectors had apparently been advised to read with fervor and drama, and the effect in at least one case was grating. In general there was an extremely casual air, a lot of bonhomie from the white-haired priest, a lot of chit-chat among the congregation, a lot of wandering around and hugging at the Peace.

Well, most Catholics reading this will know what I’m talking about, and there’s no need for me to go on about it. But it did make me realize that what I’ve gotten used to is really not so bad, comparatively, and could be considerably worse.

I was right on time for Mass, and the church was mostly full. The entrance was crowded with the procession, so I went to a side door and slipped into a mostly empty row of chairs near the back. I sat down toward the middle of the row; it’s always annoying when people sit next to the aisle, and instead of moving when someone else arrives, insist on staying put and making the others squeeze by them, so I try to remember not to do that. (And also to remember that some people might have a good reason for doing it, as I try to remember that those people heading for the door after communion may have a good reason.)

Just after Mass started a group of three or four people came in. After squeezing by the people next to the aisle who wouldn’t move, they found that they needed one more space between me and the aisle-sitters. I wasn’t paying attention, so one of them, a young Asian-looking woman, asked me if I would move over, which of course I did. She smiled pleasantly and thanked me. I say “young” because she was a lot younger than me, but not high-school or college-young—in her thirties somewhere, I would guess, possibly even early forties.

She apparently hadn’t been to Mass for a while, or at least not regularly, because she didn’t know the new responses which have been in use for..what? Eight months or so now?--and kept breaking into the old ones.

After communion, in bold defiance of the instructions from the video screen, I knelt, as did a few other people here and there, including the woman next to me. And she remained kneeling, through a longish musical interlude and into a series of announcements. When she finally stood up, I glanced at her and saw that her face was covered in tears.

How long had she been away? Why had she come back? What was the source of those tears? I don’t know, and it’s none of my business, but I know what she came back to. Amid all our complaints about the liturgy, even if they’re justified, we need to remember that the distance between a clumsy or ugly Mass and no Mass at all is infinite. This Mass was not beautiful, but it was beautiful.

Caryll Houselander on Praying for Others

When praying for someone else, I often find it hard to know exactly what to pray for.  I pray for the other's salvation, of course, and that whatever is going on in his or her life will bring him closer to God. And surely it's okay to leave it at that. But sometimes I want to say more, but it's difficult for me merely to find the words, especially if I feel strongly. I mean, if a friend asks you to pray for her grandmother, whom you've never met, you do it, but it's not the same as praying for someone to whom you're close. So I really liked this bit from Maisie Ward's biography of Caryll Houselander:

And in another letter [Caryll] gives the advice, if one can find no words, just to repeat a name to God again and again, "Knowing that He knew all that was behind that name, and keeping it, so to speak, in His ears all day."


Harsh words, I know, but on the basis of this piece by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, they seem justified. I've seen references in other places to most of the ugly stuff related here, and no one seems to have denied very convincingly that it's true.

I have always been completely immune to the fascination the Kennedys in general and JFK in particular seem to exercise over so many people. That was true even when he was president, and throughout my youth, when I shared many of the political views that went along with Kennedy-worship. Maybe I was just always too cynical.

At any rate, I'm glad I didn't fall for it. Caitlin Flanagan did, and still does when her guard is down. My father used to tease my mother about voting for Kennedy, saying it was only because he was good-looking. It seems he was on to something, though looks were only part of it.

Southern Living

What do you do when you see an alligator? You try to catch it, of course. And if you succeed, and the alligator is not too big, what do you do? You take it home and try to put it in a swimming pool, of course. But sometimes these rural idylls don't work out as they were envisioned. Read the whole story. It even has a moral.

A Hero?

What else can you call a man who has put 3,000,000 miles on his car? Especially if the car is a 1966 Volvo P1800, which I consider to be a candidate for the title of Most Beautiful Car Ever Made

I have a Volvo, too, but in general I'm not one of those people who just loves Volvos. It's a 1992 940 which I bought five or six years ago only because I needed an inexpensive car that I hoped would be pretty reliable. Considering that I only paid $3000 for it and have driven it back and forth to work pretty much every day since then, I think I've gotten my money's worth, even if it has stranded me a couple of times, and the brake lights and turn signals are flaky. My mechanic says the engine is almost indestructible. But with around 220,000 miles on it, and 63 years on me, I don't think there's much chance of our making it even to 1,000,000 miles. 

(3,000,000 miles = 4,828,032 kilometers)

Sunday Night Journal — July 8, 2012

The Quiet American

This is about both the movie and the Graham Green novel. A few weeks ago the movie was shown on one of the cable channels that broadcasts movies uninterrupted (it wasn't TCM, so it must have been Sundance). On an impulse of curiosity I recorded it. I had read the novel some years ago--probably twenty-five or more years--with fairly high expectations, and been somewhat disappointed. Not that I had thought it bad, only rather slight, and not providing the insights I had expected of it. And I wondered how a filmmaker would treat it.

What insights? Well, it's set in Vietnam in the early 1950s, when the French were still fighting their colonial war against the communists, and the American of the title represents the earliest phase of the American involvement which would, in the following decade, become a long and destructive agony, one of the most serious crises in the history of the country, and of course devastating to the people of Vietnam. And this was Graham Greene still in his prime, or close to it, when one could still expect the clear presence of the Catholic faith in his work, before left-wing politics had begun to dominate it. I thought the novel would shed some light on the war in Vietnam, both the then-contemporary situation and what was to come. And I expected something beyond politics and history, something significant about the human condition. And the novel seemed a letdown.

So I watched the movie, and thought it was pretty good. And, my memory of the book being pretty hazy, I wondered how faithful the movie was to it, and whether this was perhaps one of those instances where a good film is produced from a mediocre novel. I particularly wondered whether a sort of postlude to the film--a montage of headlines outlining the transition of the French war to an American one, the growing involvement, the protests, and the sad end--was justified by the book's view of the war. So I read the book again. 

I can report that the movie is in fact quite faithful to the book, given the limits inherent in that transition, and that both are excellent. I don't know what was the matter with me when I first read the book, but the fault was definitely in me, and not it. It's a fine novel, beautifully written and well-designed.

The plot: middle-aged world-weary opium-smoking Englishman Thomas Fowler is covering the Vietnam war for an English paper. He has been in the East for some years, has a beautiful young Vietnamese mistress, and never wants to return to England, still less to see the wife he left there. Naive young American Alden Pyle arrives in the country ostensibly as part of an aid mission engaged in humanitarian relief, but in fact as an intelligence agent involved in assisting the growth of a "third force"--not the colonialists, not the communists--to save the country. The story is driven simultaneously by Pyle's endeavors in this cause, and by his falling in love with Phuong, Fowler's mistress, and attempting to win her away from him. The narrative is by Fowler in the first person, and most of it is a retrospective from the opening scene in which we learn of Pyle's death (I am not giving away anything important here, as this becomes clear within the first few pages).

Fowler is of course outraged by Pyle's move on Phoung, and just as much by Pyle's naive meddling in the war. And yet he likes Pyle, who is energetic and genuinely, if not entirely, motivated by high ideals. He wants to take Phuong away from a situation he views as sordid, and he wants to displace both the corrupt and treacherous colonials and the ruthless communists as contestants for the destiny of Vietnam. He wants to bring American-style democracy to this ancient and complex--and far from "freedom-loving"--culture, and he seems to think it will be a pretty straightforward matter.

This sounds all too familiar, of course. And as we all know Vietnam was not the last of our tragic attempts at "nation-building." And those whose praise for the novel is based primarily on its political insights are not wrong, as far as that goes. Alden Pyle is the embodiment of a persistent American trait that I once called "sinister innocence." Another way to describe it is that it's culpable naivete: a willingness to interfere in complex affairs with simple but unworkable solutions, often with very good intentions, sometimes with terrible consequences. In Pyle's case the good intentions are part of what Fowler likes and part of what he hates: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." 

I have heard the novel described as being anti-war, but that doesn't even merit being called an over-simplification. It's anti-war only in the sense of being informed by a sense of fatalistic outrage at the carnage: as propaganda for the anti-war cause, it is decidely listless and far too ambivalent. And, presaging the later Greene's biases, the violence of the communists is taken for granted--not really excused, but for the most part tacitly accepted, as if it were a natural phenomenon.

What's more important, though, is that this is about as far from a simple political tract as one can imagine. Yes, the portrait of Pyle and its implicit condemnation of American judgement and policies is important and strikingly perceptive. But the novel is very much more than that. Its moral complexities are far deeper than can be summed up in a term like "anti-war" or "anti-American," and in the end have more to do with the drama of the individual conscience than with global politics. I have not even touched on those here; you really need to read the book. As for Greene's Catholicism, no, it is not much in evidence directly--Fowler is an atheist--but for those with eyes to see it is there, silent in the background, especially in the last lines.

Back to the movie: I'm speaking of the 2002 film, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. There is also a 1958 version which I have not seen. As I mentioned earlier, I really can't find any major fault with the film at all. But it is a film, and much of the book's "action" is interior. Fowler is the narrator, and his reflections on what is happening, and on Pyle's character--which remains somewhat opaque to us as well as to Fowler--are not transferable to the screen. So the movie is considerably less than the book, but within its limits very good. Its ambience of place and time are convincing, the essentials of the story are not compromised, and the acting of the two principals is very fine. I did not recognize Brendan Fraser's name, but he is eminently believable in this role. And who better could you possibly find to play a jaded Englishman in the colonial Far East than Michael Caine?


Fowler, Pyle, Phuong


Well, not exactly. But it's strange: much of the country is enduring a crushing heat wave, while down here almost in the tropics we're having a more pleasant than usual summer. So far, anyway--I don't expect it to last. Roughly the northwest quadrant of the country has been having temperatures in the range of 100F/38C or more. But ours have not much topped 90F/32C during the hottest part of the day, and once the sun gets low in the afternoon we drop down to 85/29. It's nice. For us, for this time of year, that's cool and refreshing.

Of course some people are trying to make global warming climate change arguments out of this, but I don't think that has much to do with it, since the non-hysterical voices in that debate seem to be talking about a rise of a degree or two (Celsius) over a number of decades. Anyway, there's no such thing as a normal year.

Update: Monday morning temperature: 73F/23C. Slightly lower than the thermostat setting. Frequently at this time of year the temperature doesn't get much lower than 80/26 even at night.

Nobody knew better than Christ that people to whom everday things like holding a job or interacting with another human being are never-ending sources of torture and anxiety are exactly the ones most in need of healing. A guy who hung out with lepers, paralytics, the possessed: this is someone I can trust. We don't have to go up to him, he comes down to us. We want a doctor, a hospital, meds; he gives us himself. We want to stop the suffering; he says, I'll suffer with you

--Heather King

This was part of one of the daily meditations in Magnificat. Heather King is a convert who has written a couple of memoirs. This is the first thing I've read by her and I definitely want to try one of the books. 

Days of Wine and Roses

I'm referring to the 1962 movie starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. We watched it last night, mainly because it's been sitting here (from Netflix) for a couple of weeks, and we felt like watching a movie. It was not particularly Independence-Day-appropriate. 

I've wanted to see it for a long time, but I'm not sure why. I think it has a lot to do with the title, which as you may know is from a poem by Ernest Dowson (text here), and most especially with the great Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini song. I listened to several versions of it on YouTube, including ones by better artists (e.g. Frank and Ella), but they all too lots of liberties with the melody, or were incongruously up-tempo. I feel a bit apologetic about posting this one by Andy Williams, but only a bit, because I've always rather liked his voice (not keen on this arrangement, though). 


It's a pretty good movie, but I don't especially recommend it unless you have braced yourself for a rough experience. It's about the happy courtship and subsequent downward spiral of an alcoholic couple, and it does not paint a pretty picture, not at all. Of course a good bit of it seems dated, and it sometimes seems about to become a commercial for Alcoholics Anonymous, but that's okay, because you really want the characters to get free. Jack Lemmon's performance is very good, if occasionally over the top, and Lee Remick's is even better. I knew her name but couldn't remember anything in particular she'd done. I was impressed.

A Mildly Melancholy Fourth

As anyone who knows me is aware, I don't really need a reason to be melancholy. But I have one today. In spite of its many defects, much too well known to need mentioning, I really love this country, and its future is very much in doubt. Those who refer to it as "the American experiment" are correct. One broad way of describing it is as a balance of Christian principles and Enlightenment skepticism. Now the Christian principles are under intense and so far pretty successful attack, and the skepticism has long since putrified. I don't think many of the sturdy empiricists who were the Founders would recognize much of what their heirs profess. 

But there is still much to love here, and something to hope. This video is very sentimental, hokey even, but if you're an American and it fails to touch you at least a little, there's something amiss with you.


Some have proposed that "This Land Is Your Land" replace "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem. I don't think I'd object.

Sunday Night Journal — July 1, 2012

Gender Studies

I was away from Friday afternoon till Monday night and didn't have time for writing. And I have to admit straightaway that it's cheating a bit to call this a Sunday Night Journal, because the pictures below were taken Monday morning. But I don't want to leave a gap in the SNJ series, so here we are.

These three pictures are of three sections of a magazine stand in the airport in San Jose, California (I suppose there are other San Joses). There were two sections labelled Women's Interest and one labelled Men's Interest. Taken together, I think they're worth considerably more than a thousand words of academic gender studies, because they're the work of people who have gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to find out what people really want, according to the criterion of what they're willing to pay money for.


Women 1


Women 2



On the basis of this, it would seem that women are mainly interested in food, houses, and being sexy, while men are interested in sports and sex (fitness has some connection to both). Those three blacked-out spaces at the top of the men's section are sex magazines apparently too graphic for public display.  Also maybe that women read more than men. 

Of course I don't think this is the whole story, or representative of all men and women, or representative of the truly deep needs of both, but I think it reveals a certain amount of truth.

A Very Large Tree

And here's something else from my travels, something much more rewarding to contemplate.


This was taken in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz mountains of California. 

The News

The news is not unlike the storm, breeding a mood, feeding anxiety, promising the worst and then rolling off into some kind of electronic distance before hammering us. I attempt to bring some balance to my despair of it with such rationalizations as 'Had it been possible in 1599 or just 99 to report what was happening all over the world, would it not have been much the same? Tribes chopping one another to pieces, rulers rising and being toppled, crooks getting away with it, saints labouring on, prisons teeming, poets accusing and fools holding forth?'

--Ronald Blythe, Out of the Valley