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November 2012

Duvall: Standing At the Door

Weekend Music

This is a catchy, slightly noisy pop song (using "pop" in the broad sense, without trying to pin it to any of the myriad sub-genres of pop/rock--emo? post-punk? whatever). It was a free download from eMusic quite a while back, like maybe eight years or so. I liked it but never investigated the group further. I happened across it the other day and it struck me as appropriate for (almost) Advent. 


A bit of interesting background at AMG.

But Hope for the Bookstore?

I started to post this link in the comments to the previous post but decided it was worth a post of its own. I just ran across this while reading something else at The Atlantic (namely this extremely exciting bit of news) and I only had time to read half of it: The Bookstore Strikes Back, an account of someone starting a new and so far successful bookstore in Nashville. 

Update: The statement about the astonishing fact below is inoperative. In my haste on Friday I misread the piece and thought the store owner didn't know what "Parnassus" was.

That link takes you to the first of two pages, which is as far as I read (I'll have to wait till after work to read the rest). Somewhere on that page is a fact that astonished me. I'm curious to know whether it jumps out at anyone else.

Lament For the Book

Anthony Daniels at The New Criterion muses on what appears to be its inevitable slide into irrelevance and obsolescence. He doesn't ignore the conveniences of electronic publishing, but like everyone who loves books he isn't happy about the trend. This is probably definitive evidence for the contention that the trend will not be reversed (barring some more or less catastrophic events that would make the electronic book  no longer viable):

A bookseller, from whom I had been buying for nearly forty years, and with whom I had grown old, told me, shortly before he closed down his shop, that the nature of customers had changed over the years. True browsers like me, who were content to spend two or three hours among the dust to find something of whose existence they previously had had no inkling, but which, by a process of elective affinity, aroused their interest and even sparked a passion, were few and were old. In so far as young people came into his shop at all, they came to enquire whether he had such and such a book, usually required reading for some course or other; and if he had not, they left immediately, having no further interest in his stock. Their need for the book in question must have been urgent, since it was available online for delivery next day; they must have been late with an assignment. So if youth were the future, the future, at least for second-hand booksellers with shops, was bleak.

This was a genuine cultural change, my bookseller said, and not just the complaint of a man who had grown old without seeing the time pass. When he started out in the trade, young people browsed in the way that only the old now did; and so he had been overtaken by a change that owed nothing to him, as wheelwrights, coopers, or blacksmiths had once been overtaken.

As it happens, I've recently been reading a book on a Kindle for the first time, and although there are some things I like about it I would much rather have an actual book.

And I don't really like to admit it to myself, but this is true of me:

...if it had not been for the necessity of earning my living in a more practical way, I could easily, and perhaps happily, have turned into a complete bookworm, or one of those creatures like the silverfish and the small, fragile, scaly moths that spend their entire lives among obscure and seldom disturbed volumes. I would have not read to live, but lived to read.

I don't think I would need the "perhaps" qualifier. I have a very, very happy memory of the moment during my brief time as a graduate student when I came across the bound volumes of The Criterion in the library. I had some notion that a time would come when I would have the leisure to stay in the library all day, and read them all if I wanted to. I think it was probably the feeling that some men have contemplating a retirement in which they would have nothing to do but fish or play golf.


I did not know there was such a word. It means "fear of bridges." Coincidentally, apropos the discussion of bridges in the comments on the preceding post, I was reading a story on some news site and noticed at the bottom of the page a link to The World's Scariest Bridges, and that's where I found the word. Let me tell you, there are some truly scary bridges in that list. I don't have any particular fear of bridges as such, but I have a serious fear of heights, and just looking at some of those pictures gave me that weird shaky sensation in my lower body and legs that heights give me. So you've been warned. 

There is only one bridge in the list that I've been on: the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway. It doesn't bother me a bit. It's not that high, and you don't have the sense that you could drive off the side.

Sunday Night Journal — November 25, 2012

Don and the Unprofitable Servant

When you pick up a hitchhiker, there's a moment when he opens the door and you look at each other, and you're both wondering whether you've made a big mistake: Is this guy going to do me some kind of harm? I could see that question in the eyes of the fellow I picked up the week before Thanksgiving, and I expect he could see it in mine. And for my part I had the impulse to say "Sorry" and drive away, because he looked and smelled so bad. The smell hit me almost as soon as he opened the door. He had stiff gray hair that stuck wildly out from under a baseball-style cap that would have looked dirty even without the painted-on bird droppings and the words "Damn Seagulls." He wore a grungy three-quarter length olive drab coat. His teeth were yellow and wildly crooked. A set of headphones sat askew, still on his head but not on his ears--so that he could hear, I suppose. I guessed his age to be somewhere in the 50s; whatever the number of years, they had not been kind.

This was on Interstate 10 in northern Florida, somewhere not very far west of Tallahassee. I was returning from a work-related conference in Ocala, driving a rented Toyota minivan (because the smaller car I had asked for was not available). It was a seven-hour drive, but flying would have taken just as long and cost more. And anyway, I very much enjoy a long drive alone with plenty of music to listen to. I had no desire for company, and had only stopped for this man out of a sense of obligation.

I often pick up hitchhikers if I think I can take them some useful distance, which means that on my way to and from work I pass up the occasional one near the Interestate who looks as if (or announces with a sign that) he has a long way to go. On my way to Ocala two days earlier, I had passed one by, and felt guilty about it. I had stopped for food--again near Tallahassee, but east of it--and was getting back on I10 when I saw a man sitting on a suitcase at the entrance to the on-ramp. And I hadn't stopped, because I didn't want to be bothered. I had my Zaxby's chicken and french fries open on the console where I could reach them easily, and had just inserted a CD of Mozart piano sonatas. I felt pretty bad about not picking up the hitcher, and for a few minutes wrestled with the thought of going back for him, until I had gone far enough that I could reasonably tell myself that it was now impractical, as I needed to reach Ocala by 6 or so and a time zone change was against me. 

 The drive on I10 across the Florida panhandle is extremely boring. The highway is many miles inland from the coast, and the area is sparsely populated. Towns are few and far between. Most exits take you only to a cluster of gas stations and fast-food restaurants. The man I had just picked up had been trudging along beside the open road, several miles past the last exit and several miles away from the next one. The temperature was a little on the chilly side and the sky was a uniform grey. I was cruising along happily, experimenting with the great variety of music on the XM radio. But having passed up the previous hitcher, I knew I had no choice but to stop for this one.

He was one of those who appears to be going a long way, with a backpack and a sleeping bag. When I stopped he began hurrying to catch up with me, but he was moving prettly slowly, so I backed up. He was a little out of breath when he opened the door and pushed his headphones aside. After that initial appraising moment, he asked me how far I was going. "To Mobile," I said. He  yelled "G*d*mn!", which startled me for an instant before I realized it was an elated and not an angry g*d*mn.

One reason I don't like doing this is the sheer tension of it. The odds are great that anyone you pick up is going to be perfectly harmless, but there's always the possibility that he won't be, so you're on edge, and in my case I generally stay on edge until I've taken the person as far as I'm going to take him. And even apart from that, there is for me the introvert's tension of having a stranger in the car.

Strictly speaking, I wasn't going to Mobile, but to Fairhope, which is on the east side of Mobile Bay, but I figured he probably wouldn't know where that was. I hoped maybe he wasn't going that far, but considering the load he was carrying I wasn't surprised to learn that he was heading for Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, another 250 miles or so beyond Mobile. I decided at that moment that I would in fact take him to Mobile, to get him past the long bridge and tunnel between the eastern and western shores of Mobile Bay.

We introduced ourselves. His name was Don, which happens to be my father's name (or nickname). He made me more nervous than usual because there was something about him that seemed...not crazy, but not entirely balanced, either. The tension was not eased when he pointed out the exit that led to a prison where he had spent several years. "I used to be a bad boy," he said with a chuckle. Nor was I pleased when he asked if I would stop at the next exit and let him get something to drink. I don't know why I agreed to that; mainly because I couldn't think fast enough to say no, and besides he didn't say he wanted alcohol, although I figured that was probably what he meant. But I did stop, and in fact gave him some money when he offered me a canned ham from his backpack in exchange for  something to drink. While he was in the store I considered dumping his stuff in the parking lot and driving away without him. But I discarded that idea, made the sign of the cross, and muttered Lord, into thy hands.

"Something to drink" proved to be four 16-ounce cans of beer, and it was only when he returned to the car with it that he asked me if I minded.

"Not as long as you don't get drunk and crazy," I said.

"Naw, naw, I'm a good drunk."

And he was. I'll go ahead and tell you right now, so you won't think later that I misled you, that this story isn't leading up to some violent or terrifying crisis. But of course at this point I didn't know what to expect.

He was very talkative, and I got more nervous when he mentioned another prison stay, this one at a sort of low-security camp which he considered much superior in the way of food and general atmosphere. At some point in relation to this second sentence I asked him what he'd been in for. Either he didn't notice the question--which is possible, because he didn't stop talking very often--or he didn't want to answer it, and I didn't repeat it.

He talked and talked. He was not unintelligent, and he was interested in many things.

"Tell me something. What's your theory of how the Grand Canyon was created?"

I admitted that I hadn't formulated one of my own. But he had: he thought an earthquake had released vast quantities of water from beneath the surface of the earth, carving, or blasting out, the canyon in one sudden cataclysm. He explained the tides as being caused by the magnetism of the moon pulling on dissolved metals in the oceans.

He talked about why he needed to get to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana: for a court appearance, regarding a matter of battery on an officer of the law--"I might have nudged him a little when he was shoving me into the back of the car." He told me about his deceased wife, and his daughter of whom he thought the world, of various incidents on various jobs. I didn't know whether to believe it all, but it was certainly interesting. He discussed his sex life in extremely crude detail, which combined with the smell to make me feel that I might lose my own appetite in that regard.

The time passed fairly quickly. I suppose he rode with me for three hours altogether. By the time we were thirty or forty miles from Mobile Bay it had come out in conversation that I lived on the eastern shore and needed to return my rental car there. I told him I would take him on into Mobile and asked where he would like to get out.

"Aw, you don't have to do that."

"It's no problem. It's just another half hour or so over and back and I've got plenty of time."

"Well, I would sure appreciate it."

His talk at this point, three beers on, was getting even more lively and rambling. As we got onto the bay bridge, he started talking about the tunnel. The tunnel is on the west side of the bay. The bridge is six or seven miles long, and at the west end takes a sudden downturn into a tunnel which goes under the Mobile River. It is definitely not meant for pedestrians--there aren't supposed to be any pedestrians on the interstate. There is a bit of a walkway for emergencies, but it's very narrow, with only a rail to hold onto and nothing between you and the traffic--always including a good number 0f 18-wheelers--flying by at 60 or 70 miles per hour a few feet away. It would be terrifying to negotiate on foot.

"I hate that g*dd**n tunnel. F***ing hate it. There ain't nowhere to walk."

He got more and more agitated. I told him I had a friend who was the same way about bridges.

"I don't mind bridges. But a tunnel is just not natural. Down in a hole in the ground, with a f***ing river right over your head."

And finally, as we entered the tunnel, it seemed that he was genuinely terrified, as if it had been the mouth of hell. "See what I mean? See?!? Where can you walk?!?" And then just "G*dD**N" over and over.  He was clutching the arm rest, and then he was clutching my arm, repeating "DAMN."


But then we were out, and he rejoiced. He began to laugh, and to thank me profusely.

"You've gone above and beyond, Mac. I really do appreciate it," he said several times. I asked again where he would like to get out. "It don't matter. Long as I'm through that damn tunnel, it don't matter."

So I stopped at the Texas Street exit. While he was gathering his things he kept talking, repeating his appreciation, and I kept telling him I just knew that if I was walking along that highway I would be glad to have a ride. He thanked me for letting him drink, "even though you're a religious man," which was odd because I'd said nothing about religion and there was no sign of it in the car--no Bible, no pamphlets, no books, no rosary. 

 We talked a bit more. I gave him what cash I had, which wasn't very much, and then remembered I had some beef jerky and some trail mix, and I gave him that, too. He was really happy to have the jerky. He had one beer left and he took that. He courteously crushed the empties and was going to take them with him but I told him not to worry about it, I would get rid of them. And we took our leave, shaking hands.

"I hope you get where you're going and don't have to stay there," I said: if the court appearance didn't go well he would end up in the Breaux Bridge jail.

"Amen," he said, "me, too." He squeezed my hand and looked me in the eye for a long time and said, "I know I'm going to be safe, because there must be a hundred people praying for me."

"Well, I'll make it a hundred and one."

He looked at me a little longer. "Let me show you something," he said, and started rummaging in his backpack. Well, here it is, I thought.  Here comes the gun, and he's going to explain why he didn't rob and shoot me, or maybe even do it now.

"Where is it?" He pulled out a battered paperback Bible. "This is my sword. I don't go nowhere without it."

We shook hands again, and I left him there near the off-ramp, driving off with a very mixed set of thoughts and feelings. My most immediate reaction was relief that my anxieties had been proven unnecessary. And you will have surmised that there was more than a little self-congratulation: how generous I had been; how kindly I had treated this near-derelict; how pleased God must be by my virtue, perhaps even more pleased than I. 

But both these were crowded out pretty quickly by the knowledge that I could have done more. I could have offered to take him all the way to Breaux Bridge--it was Friday, and I didn't have to be at work the next day. I could have offered to put him up for the night and given him something better to eat than a packet of jerky and a handful of nuts and raisins. I could have made him a continuing part of my life, giving him a hand now and then, instead of being anxious to be rid of him. And if I could have done more, I should have. 

Common sense argues: no, you did enough. You can't be expected to disrupt your life, or give away too much of your money. There are thousands of people like Don; what would happen if you tried to help them all as you think you should have helped him? Your own substance, spiritual and material, would soon be exhausted. 

But someone else counters:

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

(I don't in any way intend to say that one is always obligated to pick up a hitchhiker. In fact I would say that a woman alone is generally obligated not to. I speak only of my own conscience and of this one episode.)

Lemons and Satsumas

It's citrus harvest time here. And these are our very own trees. Meyer lemon (a larger and mellower lemon):


And satsuma:


I've written before about the glory of the satsuma. I was going to say it was a couple of years ago but I see it was three. This is the tree I mentioned in that post, or one of them. The other didn't make it through an exceptionally dry summer, and, I regret to say, negligence on my part. This is the first year it's borne fruit, and I hope the first of many. The leaves of the satsuma are actually closer, quite close, to the color of the lemon's. I took the lemon picture with a small Nikon point-and-shoot camera, my wife took the satsuma one with her iPhone. Interesting. No doubt the general lighting was different, too. 

I should take a picture of the whole lemon tree. It's all as densely fruited as this shot indicates. We've given away a couple of grocery bags full of them and the tree is still loaded. 

It Really Is

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God.

—traditional English version of the prayer of thanksgiving from the Mass

Anglican Catholic News

(See this post for background.) 

Our little, and I do mean little, group perseveres. We now have our own chapel--well, almost: we don't have an altar yet, but we hope to have the first Mass there on the first Sunday of Advent. There is a group blog called Anglican Patrimony to which our priest, Fr. Matt Venuti, contributes, and he's posted some pictures of the progress on the chapel there. It's the long-disused chapel of a former convent. The convent building is sort of an all-purpose utility space for the parish of St. Mary in Mobile (Alabama). The chapel, as you can see from the first picture, had become more or less a storage room. We put quite a lot of work into cleaning and painting (that's me in the second picture, on the ladder at the back of the room, priming the wall). The pictures are not that great but you get the idea (you can click on them for a bigger view).

We have not grown, though we've had some interest and encouragement. If we don't grow and get to a point of being able to pay our own way as a parish (Fr. Matt's full-time job is with St. Mary), we will not be able to continue. All we can do is give it our best effort and leave the longer run to God.

Meanwhile in the Church of England, the vote to have women bishops failed by a slim margin, and progressives are distraught. But they shouldn't be, because obviously they're going to win eventually. Damian Thompson, on the other hand, is pleased, in a schadenfreudish sort of way. I have to agree with him that Anglo-Catholicism (in the old Oxford Movement etc. sense) is done for, but then I thought that thirty years ago. I like his remark about the Ordinariate:

Six months ago I thought the experiment had failed; now, having witnessed its determination up close, I'm sure it will find a secure place for itself in the English Catholic landscape. But it will do so by evangelism and punching above its weight, not by forming a church within a church.

I'd been thinking along those lines, too.

Dawn Eden on The Journey Home

I expect most people who read this blog know of Dawn. Her conversion story is pretty powerful, and connects with a couple of recent discussions here, including this week's Sunday Night Journal, about the state of relations between the sexes, and this one, which touched on the apparently absent sense of God's absence among so many young people. She was a guest on EWTN's The Journey Home, and it's a fascinating and engaging episode. You can watch the video at her blog, and also at YouTube if that doesn't work as well (sometimes it doesn't).

Sunday Night Journal — November 18, 2012

Can This Marriage Be Saved?: On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewski.

Once when I was, as best I can remember, in my early teens, and spending the night at, as best I can remember, my maternal grandmother's house, I was looking for something to read and couldn't find anything except a stack of Ladies' Home Journal magazines. I am unable to reconstruct how this situation came about, and maybe I'm remembering it all wrong, because it was at the home of that same grandmother that I had found a treasure-trove of Hardy Boys books. At any rate, I did leaf through these magazines, and of course there was not much there to interest a teen-aged boy. However, I did find one thing: a regular feature called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" It told the story of a troubled marriage from the point of view of each spouse, and then gave the views of a marriage counselor on how the spouses might go about working things out.

These little dramas were fascinating to me, which in retrospect seems a little surprising. And when I ask myself what made them interesting, I think it was, first, the fact that they were dramas, and second, the way they illustrated the adage that there are two sides to every story. I was intrigued by the fact that the two people saw things so very differently; frequently it wasn't even two sides so much as two entirely different stories, both spouses portraying themselves as unloved and the other as unloving, both blind to their own faults, or at least oblivious to the other's perception of them.

The phrase occurred to me as I was reading this book, not in reference to any specific marriage, but to marriage itself, and to the general state of relations between the sexes. The old half-humorous phrase "war between the sexes" often seems all too accurate. Is there really more genuine and deep hostility between men and women in general now than there was a generation or two ago? How about a hundred years ago? A thousand years? I don't know how that question could be answered, but it certainly looks to me as if there is. At any rate the institution of marriage is certainly under attack, and in serious trouble. And one of the causes of the trouble is a terrible misconception of the nature of sex, a misconception which Budziszweski attempts to counter in this brief book.

 In seven chapters, beginning with "Does Sex Have to Mean Something?" and ending with "Transcendence," Budziszweski takes on the idea that sex has no meaning, showing that those who say it has none generally cannot avoid being drawn back to the conclusion that it does, and leads the reader through a series of questions about the nature of sex to the threshold of that to which sex points and leads, which is the transcendent love of God.

In equal parts poetic and analytic, the book is beautifully written. It paints a lovely and persuasive picture of sexual attraction, love, and marriage. And at times that almost seemed a weakness to me, as I turned from contemplation of this picture of the mysterious riches of these things when they are rightly understood and practiced to a consideration of what is actually going on around us in our culture. In stark and ugly contrast to Budziszewski's vision (one which of course he shares with other Christian thinkers) stands one of the most repulsive things I've ever read on the subject, Hannah Rosin's piece in the September Atlantic, in which she praises the habit of easy and detached sex among college students. Be warned before you click that link: it contains crude and occasionally disgusting sexual terms, a couple of which, I'm thankful to say, were new to me. Rosin invites us to celebrate and admire the fact that young women have become cold-hearted climbers who put their own material and social success above everything else:

To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.

I couldn't help thinking, when I read this, of Christ's warning about the end times: "...and the love of many shall wax cold."

At the other end of the social, material, and intellectual scale was a very poor and dissolute man--a drunk, actually--whom I met a few days ago, and who spoke of his sexual life in the crudest and coldest imaginable terms. Ms. Rosin would have recoiled from the sight of him, yet he was, in philosophical principles, pretty much of the same mind as she on the subject of sex.

The Christian vision of love, as articulated by this book and many others, may seem impossibly and naively sweet. These are words from another mental and emotional world entirely:

To the lover, the beloved may seem luminous, iridescent, as though she were lit up from within, like a paper lantern. Some lovers say that she reflects light from a lamp which is not present; others that she seems to be encrusted with gems. She is almost too wonderful to look at steadily. The experience has the aroma of eternity. When Dante says "Now my beatitude has been revealed," his phrasing is therefore exact. He does not say that the beloved is his beatitude; she isn't.... It isn't she who is the infinite and perfect Good. Yet by some magic, by some effulgence of grace, she somehow, to some degree, diffracts or reflects it to him.

Who would not prefer to live in this latter world? No one with much health in his soul, I would think. But even many of those who might wish for it and be open to it do not believe that it is real. I don't know whether the temper of our times is better or worse in that respect, though I must say it certainly seems worse. There has never been such a thing as our mass culture of noisy cynicism and prurience and un-love. To the conflict between the sexes that is an inevitable feature of life in our fallen world, we have added a prevailing materialistic philosophy that directly attacks the very idea that anything in human life, especially sex, has any intrinsic meaning beyond the advantage and pleasure to be obtained by the individuals involved.

Can this marriage--of men and women, of love and sex, of physical and spiritual, of human and divine--be saved? The book supplies much-needed assistance. There's only one problem with it: it's  not likely to be read by anyone who doesn't already agree with it, and while those who do agree with it will find much of interest, it will not startle. The author leads the reader from earthly love to the love and knowledge of God but declines to acknowledge his destination until the last chapter. But no one who is likely to purchase a book from this publisher (ISI Books, the publishing arm of a conservative foundation) by this author on this topic will fail to see it coming. That leaves it up to those who do to get its message out into the wider world.

I should add that it seems to me that there are some distinctive intellectual contributions here, beyond the more or less expectable view of sex in the light of Christianity. At any rate there are some ideas here which I haven't encountered before, in particular the chapter on the meaning of sexual beauty. Budziszewski discusses the phenomenon by which a young man discerns beauty in a young woman that he didn't at first recognize after he gets to know her for what she really is, and how this recognition becomes a step toward marriage. By an interesting coincidence, a day or two after I read that passage I heard Frank Sinatra's "Ring-a-ding-ding" (written by Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn):

How could that funny face
That seemed to be common place
Project you right in to space
Without any warning?...
She takes your hand,
This captivating creature,
And like it's planned, you're in the phone book
Looking for the nearest preacher

These are the most natural things in the world, but we live in a culture which denigrates and denies them.They are too elemental ever to be destroyed, but they can certainly be damaged, and they certainly have been in our time. Men and women have always struggled to understand and get along with each other, but the bonds of affection and common purpose that once assisted them in that struggle have been attacked and damaged. One must ask the question: who benefits?

(J. Budziszweski is a convert who teaches at the University of Texas; there's an interesting interview with him here.)

 (And Can This Marriage Be Saved? was a "trademark feature" of Ladies' Home Journal for many years.)

Frank Sinatra: Ring-A-Ding-Ding

Weekend Music

(I know, it's already Saturday afternoon here, Saturday night in Europe, and sometime Sunday in Australia and New Zealand.)

This is by very far not my favorite Sinatra song, but I heard it more or less accidentally, on XM radio in a rented car, a couple of days ago, and the lyric had an interesting connection to the book I'd been reading, and which I'm planning to write about tomorrow.


Computers and Gambling

In a comment on the previous post, Marianne quotes an Atlantic article which compares the stimulus and reward pattern of using a computer to playing a slot machine. This is a topic of great interest to me, since I spend all day at a computer and have done for many years, and I really see that effect in myself. In fact, like an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler, I have had to admit that I have a problem. The effects are not clearly destructive in the way that alcoholism and gambling are, amounting mostly to a great deal of distraction and wasted time. But considering that one only has so much time on this earth, and that much less remains to me than has already passed, it's pretty bad.

Going further back, computer science pioneer of the 1960s Joseph Weizenbaum, in a book called Computer Power and Human Reason that made a big impact on me when I read it back in the '70s when I was just beginning to study programming, made the same connection. At that point nobody except programmers dealt with computers interactively, the way everybody does now. He had an extended reflection on the similarity between programming and gambling, quoting Dostoevsky's "The Gambler." I particularly remembering him describing the sensation that this what one was meant to do: I felt it, too, for a short time, though I soon got over it. Back then only a very small number of people were affected, but now almost everyone is. I think I still have the book. If I have time in the next few days I'll try to find that passage and post some excerpts.

An understatement, perhaps

The spiritual poverty of many of our contemporaries, who no longer perceive the absence of God in their lives as a form of deprivation, poses a challenge to all Christians.

--Benedict XVI

I know so many people of whom this is true. It's very hard to know what to say to them. You're telling a person whose soul is wounded but numb that he would be better off feeling the pain.

I just want to make sure everyone realizes how admirable it is that I'm keeping my promise not to talk about politics, when such topics as CENSORED and CENSORED are begging for comment.

Sunday Night Journal — November 11, 2012

 A Litany of Election Complaints

I have to do this, but when I'm done I plan to abstain from talking about politics at least until the turn of the year. I'm also going to limit, if I can, the amount of time I spend reading political news and commentary. And if I can't limit it, I'll have to give it up entirely. It is not in any way productive for me to occupy my mind so extensively and so irritatingly with something I can't do anything about.


Four more years of President Saruman.


So my friend Robert was right. In 2008, and for a couple of years following, I viewed Obama as a fairly benign figure. Although I didn't support him, I didn't see him as being nearly as dangerous as, for instance, Hillary Clinton. I took his conciliatory rhetoric as being sincere. And, like millions of people, I liked the idea of a mixed-race president and hoped his election would help us get past our racial divisions. But Robert insisted all along: "This guy is bad news." How right he was.


And speaking of being right, I posted this on Facebook a day or so after the election: 

One of the difficulties of being a pessimist is that you're always hoping you're wrong. One of the satisfactions is that you're so often right.

Boy, was I ever right about Obamacare:

To attempt to impose a single national system on the whole country is folly. And I don’t mean just the euphemistically-named “single payer” system, but any system which is managed by the government. Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.


None of this stuff this time around; no "not my choice, but my president." We've had four years to take the measure of the man and of his governance, and there is no point in pretending that he is not doing harm to the nation. Only in the very broadest sense--a bromide such as "We all want what's best for the country"--can I claim to wish anything but frustration for the president in most of what he wants to do. I suppose there might be some common ground on straightening out our fiscal problems, if that's even possible. But he doesn't seem greatly interested in that.


When George W. Bush was president, I read a comment from an anonymous "insider," the sort of thing that always turns up in news stories about big-time politicians: "A lot of people seem to have this image of Bush as not very smart, but a nice guy. Neither is true." Something similar might be said of Obama, with the second part reversed: people think he's very smart, and a nice guy. Neither is true. Sure, Obama is smart in some ways: he seems to be politically shrewd, and he is able to talk the way people who think of themseves as being distinguished by their intelligence talk. But I see no depth of intelligence in him, and certainly no wisdom. And as for the "nice guy" part: only his dazzled fans, and I mean "fans" in exactly the same sense that I would use it of any celebrity's fans, could continue to believe it. Anyone not similarly dazzled can see that he conducted at least as vicious and demagogic a campaign as any in memory, and that when he speaks of unity he means that everyone should do as he says.


E.J. Dionne begins his column on the election by noting that Obama voters were "younger, highly diverse, and broadly progressive." True enough, I suppose, at least if you use "diverse" in its current euphemistic racial sense, and at any rate consonant with the picture liberals like to paint: Obama's opponents are older, predominantly white and presumptively at least mildly racist, and hopelessly intent on turning back the clock. What is most significant here, though, is what Dionne doesn't say, and which progressives will rarely admit: progressivism is a fundamentally anti-Christian movement. I know, Dionne is a Catholic, and there is such a thing as Catholic progressivism, but progressivism is still in its essence an ideology that looks to displace religion, and especially Christianity, with a vision of purely material happiness. There is never any advantage in pretending that unpleasant facts are not facts, and while Christians shouldn't be reactionary in defending whatever progressivism attacks, or vice versa, and certainly shouldn't be hysterical or paranoid, we should be clear about the situation.


Most liberals commenting on the election have made much of the defeat of white males by racial minorities and "women," by which they mean single and Democratic women--they don't like to notice that married women went for Romney and generally tend to vote for Republicans. The observation that a majority of white people voted for the white man usually carries at least an insinuation of racism, and is followed by a note of triumph that power is being wrested from these bad people. This sort of thing is the most poisonous aspect of Obama's presidency. In fairness it must be said that Obama has not done so much of it himself (but think of how a white politician would have fared if he had referred to someone as "a typical black person" in almost any context). But his supporters have been relentless with it, and he hasn't repudiated the tactic. One wonders whether they consciously intend to foment racial conflict, or just can't think in any other terms.

At any rate, they are playing with fire. It has been the assumption since the 1960s that all ethnic groups except whites should band together and seek the advantage of their own people, that this in fact is and should be their chief political interest. Whites were expected to accept this on the assumption that they would always be dominant and must be forced to move over and give space to others, and anyway they owed payment for the sins of their ancestors. And they were not expected to react in kind. Now we are treated to frequent happy reports that whites are soon to be a minority, and last week saw all right-thinking people united in the prospect of their becoming ever less dominant politically. It's madness to think that you can single out a group of people for historical hostility, celebrate its decline and diminishment, and expect it not to begin defending itself. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.


It's not that life changed from Tuesday to Wednesday, not that I expect that in the next few years Homeland Security (thank you, George W. Bush) will start rounding up Catholics as enemies of the state. But the HHS mandate may become, like Luther's assertion of his 95 theses, the symbolic reference point for a great historical change.

If I remember correctly, a short piece called "A Wind of Lies" was my contribution to the first issue of Caelum et Terra.

...many of the goods offered to us, are produced by a system, and for reasons, which most of us instinctively feel to be dreary at best. And so the advertisers make up stories which they hope we will like better—they show us Mr. Kraft in a horse-drawn wagon delivering cheese on a sunny morning, or a white-haired old lady baking bread in a wood-burning oven.

This election may be seen, many years from now, a point for marking the transition of the republic which had been the United States of America something else. Our structures are being hollowed out, their substance removed, and the shell left in place over a new reality. The Constitution and much of the language of the unwritten culture that surrounded it will remain, like the picture of Mr. Kraft and his wagon, while the real machinery is something altogether different.


It's often said that in the United States a movement for greater personal freedom always wins against any attempt to restrain it. And that's generally true, but Christianity is an exception. If it's a high school valedictorian praising Jesus in her speech, or a cross on public land, or a Christian student group at a university, the Christian will be treated as the aggressor to be resisted, though there may not even be any actual person who can plausibly be considered a victim. These scuffles don't usually amount to much, although their cumulative cultural effect is great.

But the HHS mandate that Catholic employers provide insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortifacents is in a different league entirely. I know a lot of Catholics don't think this is a big deal, but I think it is, because it establishes in law (or at least regulation, which, as a consequence of the hollowing-out referred to above, is practically the same as law) that the state has the right to force the Church to do something contrary to its own teachings.  Another Facebook remark I made some months ago: "Freedom of religion vs. free birth control. In 21st century America, the outcome is in doubt."

If it were merely a single act by a single administration, I would not be so concerned. But it's a regulation promulgated under a law of which we are unlikely to rid ourselves. The chances of doing so under a Republican president were not great, but now they're zero.


Of course Mitt Romney was in many ways a very unattractive candidate, and it was very easy to demonize him. Perhaps someone else might have been able to beat Obama, but I doubt it was any of the Republicans who ran against Romney. And he had the media against him.

As for the media--meaning the still-dominant big commercial media including the TV networks except Fox, the big-city newspapers, the general hive of like-minded journalists, and, maybe most influentially, the cloud of pop semi-journalistic babble that surrounds journalism proper--they have simply become a part of the Democratic establishment, and functioned as an arm of the Obama campaign. Self-styled referees in the game of politics, they have shamelessly intervened in favor of one team, sticking out a foot to trip a Republican runner, or spotting the ball ten yards ahead of where a Democrat was tackled.  They have the respect they deserve.


Slow decline or quick collapse due to our trillions of dollars in debt? There's no way to know, but what is extremely unlikely is quick renewal. If renewal possible, will be slow, because the problem is far deeper than politics. 


These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

--John 16:33 (KJV)


Adding To the Sum Total of Love

I've been carrying around for a week or two now a couple of pages from Magnificat bearing this quotation, meaning to post it but either forgetting it when I had the opportunity, or remembering it when I didn't. But it seems appropriate for the first post-election Sunday, when some of us are perhaps a bit more conscious of having enemies than we usually are.

Loves that we had supposed to have no importance but for ourselves--love between husband and wife, parents and children, sisters and brothers, the love of friends--all these natural loves, if we love with Christ's heart, increase the life of the world, and build up the kingdom of heaven here on earth. That harder love to achieve, the love of our enemies, of those who hate us and persecute us, does not merely bring us pardon in our own sins, but is redemptive; it has a reach as wide as the cross, and not only brings mercy to those who are its object, but to the whole world.

Everyone who lives the Christ-life, and therefore loves with the heart of Christ, is adding to the divine love in the world, which is the only force opposed to hate. Whether they love their betrothed, their wife, or children, or their enemy, whether their love is happy and fulfilled or is one that they must forego and seem to frustrate, they are adding to the sum total of love that is redeeming the world.

--Caryll Houselander 

Mozart: Flute and Harp Concerto, 2nd Movement

Weekend Music

I believe it was Monday night that I was listening to a Velvet Underground album, their third and self-titled one, and thinking I had noticed something pretty significant about it, and that I might do a post about it as the weekend music post. But dang: who wants to listen to the Velvet Underground so soon after a miserable experience such as this election has been? Here, instead, is something healing, one of the sweetest things Mozart wrote. Regular classical listeners may be tired of it, but that's not the music's fault. 


And for something a bit sprightlier, some Scarlatti. I had pretty bad insomnia a couple of nights this week, and when I had given up on sleep for a while I listened to some of Mikhail Pletnev's brilliant Scarlatti recording (which I thank my friend Robert for introducing me to).


The suddenly much earlier arrival of darkness in the evenings after the Daylight Savings Time change in fall is always slightly disturbing.

Fisher's Reply

The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore seeing the matter is thus begun, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear that we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery.

--St. John Fisher, replying to the bishops who urged him to submit to Henry VIII

Am I being melodramatic? Perhaps. I do not expect to be executed. But I feel, and fear, that we have passed a turning point. The whole reply is here.

The Election Should Not Matter This Much

From Jonah Goldberg, writing in USA Today:

The mere fact that presidential elections matter this much is not a sign of national health but of national dysfunction. The more the federal government gets involved in every aspect of our lives — for good or ill — the more people will feel that their livelihoods, lifestyles, even their actual lives are at stake in a presidential election. If the federal government didn't have so much leverage over your life, politicians wouldn't be able to scare you into the voting booths.

For instance, beneath the partisan distortions and hyperbole, Obama's "war on women" rhetoric is the idea that the federal government should be the guarantor of "reproductive freedom" — a malleable term that includes everything from the right to abortion on demand to subsidized birth control pills. Whatever the merits of that argument, the simple fact is that a government that has the power to give you everything you want has the power to take it away, as well.

You don't have to be a libertarian to agree with this. I'd go as far as to say that if the combined  tendency toward centralization and micro-control is not reversed the existence of the country, not just its health, will be in danger. Goldberg's whole column is here.

Sunday Night Journal — November 4, 2012

Election Eve Thoughts: Which Is To Be Master?

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."

I really didn't want to write about politics again, but with election hysteria at its height I'm having difficulty putting much thought into other things. Never have I been so tempted to turn this into a mostly-political blog, or to start another one for that purpose.

As a rule I don't think the presence of a Republican or a Democrat in the White House represents any sort of fundamental shift in our situation, because presidents have less power than many people seem to believe. (That belief itself may be indicative of a deep-down longing to be ruled by a wise king, which longing is in turn an accurate intuition about fundamental reality, though not necessarily a good way to approach here-and-now political arrangements.) But this election is a little different, because of the Obama adminstration's attack on religious liberty. Not everyone, even among practicing Catholics, thinks this is terribly serious, but I think it is very serious indeed, by far the most important thing at stake in the election. I am no fan of Mitt Romney or the Republicans, but this is a choice, as usual, between an unreliable ally and an enemy, and the enemy's intention is to institutionalize the "dictatorship of relativism" which Benedict XVI has spoken of.

I really have not turned into an end-times nut, either. Nor am I getting lost in paranoia about dark forces operating as secret puppet-masters in politics. But I have not been able to put out of my mind the thoughts I was mulling over a few weeks ago about the presence of the anti-Christ in our time.

To a great extent the opposition now facing the Church is simply the old familiar trio of world, flesh, and devil, varying their tactics to suit the times. But there seems an element of something more now, and it's bound up with our wealth, our technology, the size and intrusiveness of our government, and its deployment as the vanguard and enforcer of consciously post-Christian principles.

The point that a post-Christian society is not the same as one which was never Christian has been made pretty often over the past century or so, and one of the major differences between them is that the post-Christian one believes it knows what Christianity is, and regards it as an enemy. This accounts for, to pick one example, the fact that many Western liberals are far more sympathetic to Islam than to Christianity. Contemporary secular liberals view Christianity as a deposed despot who still threatens them. 

Secular liberalism is a faith--it was called "secular humanism" in the early days of the culture wars, though the term has fallen out of fashion now.  Perhaps post-Christianism would be a better term, because it retains deep habits of mind formed by Christianity, most importantly the idea of salvation. It commands us to forget God and to seek our salvation in this world. It expects the state to be lifted up and to draw all things to itself.  It has its own list of works of mercy, which sometimes echoes and sometimes contradicts the Christian set, but these are mainly to be performed by the state or its contractors (e.g. Planned Parenthood). It has its beloved creed and hymn in John Lennon's "Imagine." And the most significant aspect of the current presidential campaign is that the incumbent administration is attempting to settle the question of Which shall be master? once and for all in favor of this post-Christian faith.

This curious place called the United States of America, land of extremes and contradictions, is both a progenitor and a natural enemy of the new faith; there seems to be more fight left in the older ways of thinking here, though they have undergone strange mutations. It may seem odd to think of anarchic American evangelicalism as a defender of traditional faith, but in important ways it often is.

What makes this different from the old conflict between Caesar and Christ is that Caesar is now in a much more powerful position: he can go a lot further toward making his subjects comfortable in this world, toward providing them with what he believes to be the good life, but his definition of the good life as well as his means of achieving it place him at odds with the Church. And so the Church must be put in its place, its claim not only of moral authority but of the right to moral influence in public matters denied. It is this recurring image of a pleasant earthly regime which can be sustained only by the supression of the Church that makes me think of anti-Christ.  

The thought pushed itself back into the forefront of my attention one day last week when I was reading the "Brave Thinkers" feature in the November issue of The Atlantic. I've remarked at least once here that there is always at least one thing in every issue of this magazine that makes me want to cancel my subscription, and at least one that makes me want to keep it. I don't think this issue passes that second test, so maybe it really is time for me to dump the magazine. Many of their "brave" "thinkers" do not strike me as particularly brave, and many of them are included for their actions, not for their thinking, like the Saudi woman who struck a blow for women's rights by driving a car. The genuinely brave ones are those who, like this woman, have defied oppressive regimes. Many of the others have simply said or done things that got them criticized by The Atlantic's list of internal enemies: Christians, the Catholic Church, and anyone who believes that marriage is something that happens between a man and a woman and normally produces children.

The Atlantic is essentially a magazine by and for well-to-do secular liberals for whom total sexual freedom is a dogma. And so this list of "brave" "thinkers" is interesting for what it says about those who did the selecting. What's really striking is the proportion of them who are notable only for having challenged or at least irritated those who deny that dogma. Of the twenty-one "thinkers," six or seven are there only because they either made some statement in support of the dogma or against the Catholic Church, which of course is the most formidable opponent of the dogma. (The number is six if you don't count the praise of Chief Justice Roberts for upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare, which is the tool now being used by liberalism to settle permanently the question of who is to rule.) So roughly a third of the entries on the list are there only for their service to sexual liberation. (The traditional and professed concern of liberalism for the poor is not in evidence.)

One way of looking at the culture war is that it is the final and public disintegration of the American attempt to pretend that the state can remain entirely neutral about first principles. The usual argument for the HHS mandate involves a conjectured absurdity: "Suppose there's an employer who belongs to a sect that approves no medical treatment beyond the application of leeches, and objects to paying for insurance involving medical doctors?" (The real answer to this is that the employer shouldn't be supplying the insurance in the first place, but that's another discussion entirely.) This line of argument assumes that there is no difference in kind between the sect's view and the Church's. It maintains the fiction of a religously-neutral but extremely powerful state which pretends to treat all beliefs the same, and avoids confronting the question of whether every imaginable view deserves equal consideration. We Catholics assert that the Church's teaching is objectively an intellectually respectable and morally serious position. Such a view is met with cries of "What is truth?!", and is ipso facto out of court in the secular intellectual environment; it is not an admissible argument.

Like the mandate, the push for same-sex "marriage," which has become a core principle of the Democratic party, has forced the issue; the state will decide what the word "marriage" is to mean, at least in public, and require those who disagree with its definition to go along with it, at least in public. And this implies that a number of related words must also be redefined or eliminated: "husband," "wife," "mother," "father," as is reportedly now the official state policy for government documents in France. This is an attempt to reshape by force fundamental human realities. If successful, it could not last indefinitely, but it could certainly do a great deal of harm while it did last. No one should be under the illusion that the defeat of President Obama would constitute any sort of permanent victory in this conflict, but it still seems to me a battle worth winning.

(You can see The Atlantic's list of "Brave" "Thinkers" here. My posts about politics and anti-Christ are the Sunday journals for September 9 and September 16. I did not re-read them before writing this one, and I probably should have; apologies for any repetition.)

Fred and Adele

I meant to include these links with the clips from Swing Time below. Fred Astaire's first dancing partner was his sister Adele, and they were famous as a stage act long before Fred got into movies. I know this only because there is a recent biography of the siblings which was reviewed in The New Criterion a few months ago. You can read that review here, and one that appeared last week in The Weekly Standard here.

I'm seeing and hearing a fair number of liberal/progressive types continue to advocate "change." Does this mean they think we need a new president, as it did four years ago?

A Couple of Numbers from Swing Time

Weekend Music (and Dancing)

Did I mention that I had finished watching Swing Time a week or so ago? (after discussing it here). These two scenes will give you a good idea of what it's like; they really constitute one scene, from fairly early in the movie, when Lucky (Fred) has only recently met Penny (Ginger). Of course, in the great tradition of romantic comedies, she doesn't like him (with apparently good reason).  In pursuit of Penny, Lucky has signed up for lessons at the dancing school where she's an instructor. First he pretends to be a hopeless klutz:


Penny's boss overhears her telling Lucky that he's hopeless. That's not good for business, so he fires her. But wait, says Lucky--let me show you what she taught me:


Seems to me you'd have to be pretty depressed for this to fail to put a smile on your face. I don't understand how she can swing over that barrier and stay upright on those high heels. There are better songs (e.g "The Way You Look Tonight") and better dances in the movie, but I'll leave those for you to discover, if you haven't already seen it. (There is also a somewhat cringe-inducing blackface sequence, but it's not nearly as bad as it could be; beyond the blackface itself there isn't a huge amount of racial caricature, and the dancing--Astaire only--is stupendous.)

 Looking back, I think it was My Fair Lady that broke down my resistance to musicals. At some point when the children were still fairly young we rented it, and to my surprise I not only liked it, but liked it a lot.