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December 2012

A Christmas Caryll (7)

You have prayed and have not yet, as you think, had the complete answer. This is usually because you have not given Our Lord something he asks for, in order to answer you. For example, when He worked miracles He asked for some trifle which one would suppose useless--as, for example, the loaves and fishes for the feeding of the five thousand; and again, for the Mass, He asks the offering of the simple substance of bread and wine for the miracle of the Consecration. You say, "He hasn't worked the miracle," "He hasn't given me the courage I need." Well, the answer usually is: "You have not given Him anything to work the miracle with." Of course, He can do miracles without, but usually He asks us to give something, and, if the miracle you ask is personal transubstantiation--that you may be changed into Him--then clearly, unless you offer yourself--all of yourself--He can't do it, for what has He got to change?

--Caryll Houselander, Letters

This letter was to a Mrs. Boardman, who wished to become a Catholic but was encountering great resistance and hostility from her family.


I was wondering if I was overstating the growing progressive impatience with the Constitution in the previous post. A few hours later I read this

In good conscience, this Georgetown professor of constitutional law ought to find himself another job. 

Sunday Night Journal — December 30, 2012

This will be the last Sunday Night Journal, at least in this form—I'm holding open the possibility of reviving it as a simple journal, not a weekly essay. I’ve kept it going for eight years, from 2004 through 2012, with a year off in 2009. And now I want to turn my attention to other projects, including longer forms of writing, which I’ve found myself unable to do with the weekly deadline of the Journal always facing me. The blog will continue, only without that weekly feature, and I hope those who have enjoyed the Journal will still find the blog worth reading.

I’ve produced quite a number of words in those eight years and some of them are worth preserving. My daughter Clare and I are working on a book which will include what we consider the best of them. To be called Sunday Light, it will be produced in both electronic and paper forms, and should be available within six months at least.

I said after the election in November that I wasn’t going to write about politics until the end of the year. I’m going to jump the gun by a couple of days now, as it seems fitting for the last Sunday Night Journal to be an attempt to discern the direction of the broad sweep of history even as we are swept along with it.


The Dearest Freshness

The basic question in life is "What is actually going on?" and it often requires a great deal of time to pass before one can find the answers.

--Kenneth Minogue

That remark is the opening of an essay, “A March of Folly,” from a recent issue of The New Criterion. The essay concerns the true nature, implications, and effects, including those not necessarily intended or foreseen, of the feminist and homosexual rights movements. (It’s not available online.) It’s an interesting and I think mostly accurate view, the gist of which can be inferred from the rest of the paragraph:

That is why I have only just begun to understand what is actually at stake in the proposal to recognize civil partnerships as “marriages.” And the clue came when I discovered that Stonewall, the homosexual rights group in Britain, was proposing a memorandum that the terms “husband” and “wife” should be removed from the 1973 Marriage Act and replaced by “parties to the marriage.” This apparently trivial bit of semantics carries a large moral significance.

Hardly trivial, and “large moral significance” is an understatement. This is official madness, and already those who object to it are being treated as the mad ones, suffering from “homophobia,” which is, conveniently for those wishing to eliminate it, both an illness and a moral fault. Should such proposals become established norms in our society, it will have undergone a change at least as far-reaching as, say, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment.

It’s also an understatement to say that we live in an age of great change, some for the better and some for worse, and it is often difficult to discern what the most significant and powerful forces are: as that opening sentence says, “What is actually going on?” I’ve thought about that question a lot over the course of my life, and in relation specifically to my country it has been particularly on my mind since the recent presidential election.

A great many people on both sides think the election marked a decisive shift. Progressives rejoiced at the apparent solidifying of their hold on power, and conservatives mourned for the same reason. What really happened? It is certainly not the case that the election alone decided anything permanent, and those to the left of conventional progressives scoff, with good reason, at the notion that it represents some sort of triumph of their views. At any time during George W. Bush’s presidency many on the left were convinced that the nation was turning into a “theocracy.” Or at least they said they were—personally I never really believed that they really believed it; it seemed rather a sort of ghost story they told themselves, enjoying the thrill of fear without actually being threatened, and justifying in their minds the feverish hatred they felt toward their political enemies. Similarly, I’ve heard many conservatives say that we’re now a “socialist” country, which makes actual socialists laugh. But to say that each of these charges is greatly exaggerated doesn’t mean that something big isn’t happening. For the most part broad and deep social changes do not happen suddenly or turn on one or two major events; rather, an incident such as Luther’s propagation of his famous theses becomes in retrospect a symbolic moment.

Supposing Barack Obama’s second term were to be seen, a hundred years from now, as having a similar importance, what would be the change that it was deemed to signify? What is actually going on? It is most certainly not the case that progressive forces have now achieved their final victory over conservative ones. But it may be that the balance has tipped in that direction.

I’ve discussed here before my view that when the religious right emerged in this country in the mid-1970s it was fundamentally mistaken about the nature of the situation. Jerry Falwell’s choice of a name for his organization, The Moral Majority, encapsulates his assumptions. Rather than reformulate that appraisal I’ll quote myself:

[Falwell] thought that a small number of radicals—hippies, feminists, etc.—had seized control of some of our most visible institutions (the press, especially), and were forcing the agenda of the sexual revolution on a mostly unwilling, mostly conservative Christian population. And that the task before him was to awaken those people to the fact that their society was under attack, and get them to use their political strength to reverse the sexual revolution, at least to the extent that it was becoming institutionalized, most obviously with the legalization of abortion.

But he was wrong. The sexual revolution may have flowered in the ‘60s, and hippies and feminists may have been its most visible advocates (along with Hugh Hefner), but its roots were much deeper. And in any case much of the mainstream soon embraced it quite readily. By the time Falwell attempted to rally socially conservative Christians, they were not the majority (if they ever had been).

Something similar has, I think, occurred in the secular arena regarding the common conception of what the United States is and what people believe it should be. The two contending forces, which are broadly labelled conservative and progressive, right and left, Republican and Democrat, now seem to have very different visions, two very different things in mind when they speak of American ideals.

The conservative view—again, speaking very broadly—is that this nation is a fundamentally good thing, that its Constitution defines an admirable form of republican government which assumes a citizenry competent and responsible enough to make its own decisions, and that the powers of the government are delegated to it by the people and strictly limited. Moreover, at one remove from formal government, conservatives admire American culture: its entrepreneurial spirit, its dynamism, its commitment to the twin virtues of liberty and responsibility, its diversity (in the real and not the cant-racial sense), its religiosity—and, of course, its wealth and power, Sensible conservatives recognize the dark side of American history and the great number of things that are always in need of reform, but wish to preserve, not replace, the fundamental structure and character of what they like to refer to as the American idea. (“A nation with the soul of a church,” Chesterton said.)

Progressives in general do not value these things very much, or do not believe that they actually exist, or define them in altogether different ways (e.g. “diversity,” which means racial diversity only and expects uniformity of thought). They regard the American idea as an endlessly unfolding promise of liberation. Above all, the dominant forces of progressivism as it exists today reject the idea of a competent and responsible citizenry, and of sovereignty as residing ultimately there. It sees the state, in the form of the national government, as the competent and responsible party, and the people as its clients, almost as its children. (Years ago I heard the very progressive Fr. Robert Drinan, S.J., make this analogy explicitly, and favorably.) It divides the people into three classes: oppressors, victims, and those enlightened ones who know how things ought to be run, and who should rightly exercise political and cultural authority in the best interests of all. It sees the great task of politics as involving the duty of the third class to protect the second class from the first class.

Those who once constituted the American norm or type—middle-class people of European extraction—are loosely considered to be in the oppressor class (except when it is useful to treat them as victims). They are seen as always ready to inflict some sort of harm on some one, and left to their own ways would make most of the nation outside the big cities an arena for their oppression of others (“women and minorities”). They must be restrained by Washington by means of a uniform code of finely detailed law regulating almost every aspect of life, the one major exception being sexual expression of any sort. The requirements of this task, not the Constitution, are the final determinant of what is permitted to the government. (The oppressor class does not, as one might expect, in the progressive scheme include rich people as such, because quite a large proportion of the very wealthy hold progressive views, which as generally held today do not include anything which would make them less wealthy.)

This, in a nutshell, is the conservative view of the situation, and I think it’s roughly accurate, though one necessarily paints with a broad brush to cover a large area quickly. A common analysis, often similar in substance from both sides, holds that progressives and victims now constitute a permanent majority which will permanently seize power and remake the country—fundamentally transform it, as Mr. Obama promised before the 2008 election.

Like the Moral Majority in the 1970s, the conservative faction had thought that it could counter this force by appealing to old American virtues, or at least to a consensus of what those virtues ought to be: self-reliance, self-restraint, religion, reverence for the Constitution, voluntary and local action for the common good, personal responsibility, etc. But it may, like the Moral Majority, be mistaking the nature of the situation: believing that what is needed is simply to remind Americans of who they are and what their country means, when in fact such ideals no longer mean much to a very large number of people, who view appeals to them as either amusing in their simple-minded earnestness or sinister, a cover for oppressive intentions.

If this change is permanent, it’s a big one. In essence it is another in a long series of proofs of the adage that people who will not rule themselves will be ruled by others. It changes the nature of the relationship between the people and their government, who are now properly to be called rulers; the people are not citizens in the old sense but dependents whose essential relationship to the state, which is considered to be identical with “society,” consists in paying taxes and receiving “benefits.” It carries along with it a redefinition of what the word “democracy” means in the American context. The conservative meaning is that it denotes the power of the citizenry to decide who will operate the machinery of which the Constitution is the design. The progressive meaning is that the majority is entitled to make the rules. And the rules they want to make are circumscribed not by the Constitution, but by the needs of the day.

(The extent to which the Republican Party, as the electoral representative of the conservative side, constitutes a terrible witness for the virtues it espouses is certainly a part of the picture, but my guess is that it’s not a decisive part. That is, I don’t think it would have much more appeal than it does even if it did not have this problem.)

I don’t mean to be painting this as a question of good vs. evil. The traditional view of America certainly has its problems, and progressives are often honestly attempting to address them (as opposed to pursuing utopia). Call it bad vs. worse, then, from the Christian point of view, because progressivism is now a fundamentally anti-Christian force, and is becoming more aggressively so. It views Christianity as one of the oppressors from which the state must protect the people, and seeks to eliminate it as a cultural and political force. And so if this election really did represent a turning point in American history, we can expect many more attacks on religious liberty like those made by the Obama administration (in the cause of sexual freedom, of course, as that seems to be the one progressive absolute).

Even if it’s too early to tell whether progressivism has really achieved any sort of permanent victory, the increasing secularization of society can’t be denied, and moreover what I’m broadly calling the conservative force has strong anti-Christian elements (e.g. most varieties of libertarianism). So it would seem that the future of Christianity in the United States appears to be troubled at best.

But I’m not here to play Cassandra. All the above is only a prologue to a thought suggested by the title of this piece, from a line in Hopkins’ well-known poem “God’s Grandeur,” a line which has come to me often over the past few months:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

He was speaking of nature, but his words are equally true of the Christian faith—and why shouldn’t they be, since both spring from the same source? The American system may indeed pass away, and if I live to see the time when the change can’t be denied, I’ll mourn it. But this country is, after all, one of the many temporary and at best partially successful human attempts to establish a decent worldly order. The life of faith will continue, alongside the life of the world but apart, and the new situation will be accompanied by new expressions of it. The living waters will continue to feed the green shoots of new life, producing flowers never seen before by human eyes, though familiar and beloved in the eyes of God.

A Christmas Caryll (6)

Our conception of Christ colors our whole life; it informs everything that we touch with its spirit; it makes us what we are.

Nothing could be more untrue than the often-repeated misstatement that we all worship the same God; or that other, that whatever we worship the result is the same.

Nothing matters more than having a true knowledge of Christ....

In the degree of the truth of our conception of Him, our minds grow broader, deeper, and warmer; our hearts grow wiser and kinder; our humor deeper and more tender; we become more aware of the wonder of life; our senses become more sensitive; our sympathies stronger; our capacity for giving and for receiving greater; our minds are made radiant with a burning light, and the light is the light of Christ.

--Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God


A Christmas Caryll (5)

In giving life to Him she was giving Him death.

All other children born must inevitably die; death belongs to fallen nature; the mother's gift to the child is life.

But Christ is Life; death did not belong to Him.

In fact, unless Mary would give Him death, He could not die.

Unless she would give Him the capacity for suffering, He could not suffer.

He could only feel cold and hunger and thirst if she gave Him her vulnerability to cold and hunger and thirst. 

He could not know the indifference of friends or treachery or the bitterness of being betrayed unless she gave Him a human mind and a human heart.

That is what it meant to Mary to give human nature to God.

He was invulnerable; He asked her for a body to be wounded.

He was joy itself; He asked her to give Him tears.

He was God; He asked her to make Him man.

He asked for hands and feet to be nailed.

He asked for flesh to be scourged.

He asked for blood to be shed.

He asked for a heart to be broken.

The stable at Bethlehem was the first Calvary.

The wooden manger was the first Cross.

The swaddling band were the first burial bands.

The Passion had begun.

Christ was man.

--Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God

A Christmas Caryll (4)

Of course, it is true that in human nature there is always a conflict. It is not so much between body and soul as between good and evil, but the body is very often inclined to take the side of evil. It always tends to take the line of least resistance, and that usually results in evil.

--Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God

A Christmas Caryll (3)

Another point: don't imagine, as some people do, that all your questioning and seeking is a sort of prologue to spiritual experience. Of course it is a great spiritual experience in itself, and it is at present your way of union with Christ, who said, "I am the way, not simply, "At the end of the way, you find me." Also He said, "I am the Truth" and "seek and you shall find": so you can be sure that in seeking for truth you are in fact finding Him all the time; and I think that you are getting to know Him with the intimacy that a blind man learns to know a beloved but unseen face, through touching [it] in the darkness...

--Caryll Houselander, Letters

(The same basic point as yesterday's quote, but elaborated, and I really like that image at the end.)

A Christmas Caryll (2)

Christ said "I am the Way," and I am sure that the search and longing for Him, the things that bring you closer to Him, are all means of union with Him. So that it would be silly and wrong not to realize that every prayer said in any church, every act of love to everyone, every doubt or question honestly entertained, is a means of union with Him; and He includes that meaning in "I am the Way."

--Caryll Houselander, Letters

A Christmas Caryll (1)

Our Lord usually turned up with some of His friends; He probably brought a number to the wedding, which was why the wine ran out so early.

--Caryll Houselander

Yes, I have in mind to post something from her for each of the twelve days. Let's see if I can keep it up. This one is from one of her letters, but I'm not sure which one, as I just opened the book at random and saw this sentence.

Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming

Flowering plants bred for cooler climates tend to get confused here, when we can have temperatures anywhere from freezing to 70+F/20+C. This rose is an example. I just noticed yesterday that it was blooming. Appropriate, ain't it? It's amazing that it blooms at all, because it doesn't get the special care that roses apparently need in any climate. It hangs on, not looking very healthy, not growing very much, but now and then putting forth one or two beautiful blooms.


Merry Christmas!


Sunday Night Journal — December 23, 2012

Always Winter and Never Christmas?

 That, as everyone who's read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe knows, was the woeful situation of Narnia under the rule of the White Witch. And it's probably one phrase everyone who reads the book remembers. It's a brilliant way of capturing in a few words the significance not only of Christmas but of the entire cultural presence of Christianity, because the idea of a winter without Christmas does seem terrible, even without the hopeless additions of "always" and "never." (And it's unfortunate that it doesn't really work for people in the southern hemisphere.)

I've always lived in fairly warm climates--well, barring one winter in Denver--and since 1990 have lived in a subtropical one. Winter here is only chilly and drab, not cold and bleak. We don't even lose all of our greenery, and camellias bloom wildly: reportedly the nuns who arrived in mid-winter to found the Visitation Monastery in Mobile were misled by the camellias into thinking they had come to a hospitable climate. But nevertheless it is a dull season, and if it never ended one would eventually despair. 

The modern world is trying to rid itself of Christianity, and achieving some success. But the more it succeeds, the more it reveals that the loss will only leave it bleak, angry, and embittered. If over many generations the very memory of Christianity should disappear altogether, something like pre-Christian paganism might emerge. But, as many have observed, a post-Christian society is a different beast altogether. Cold is one of its attributes; empty is another. Oh, it certainly has plenty of sensual and emotional warmth. But it remembers that it once believed that these things were real and eternal, and now it believes that they're only a side effect of matter rattling around in an inconceivably large, empty, and cold space: a sort of friction, perhaps, producing us and our loves and dreams as flint and steel produce sparks which flame for the barest instant before returning to the cold from which they came. And so the chill of those spaces seeps into its heart.  

It would be one thing to live in a land where it's always winter and always has been and there has never been any such thing as Christmas. It would be quite another to live in that land with the memory of Christmas. The former circumstance might make you a cold-hearted brute, but the latter could drive you mad. 

A couple of years ago I wrote about the way I felt, as a child, about the merely secular approach to Christmas--you can read that post here. I sense that more strongly with each passing Christmas. And there's a struggle within me as well. This Advent I've been even more busy and distracted than usual. I've hardly thought about Christmas, and my observance of Advent didn't amount to much. The signs of Christmas have left me almost completely indifferent, and the need for thinking of presents and family gatherings has seemed more a bother than anything else. I've even found myself wondering if I'm becoming one of those people who really doesn't much like Christmas. But I'm not. All I have to do to correct that impression is to imagine the world without it.

A couple of weekends ago my wife and I took two of our grandsons with us to buy a tree. We ordinarily wait until a few days before Christmas before buying our tree, but we wanted to take the boys, and for complicated family scheduling reasons it looked like that might be the only weekend where it worked out. So off we went to Fish River Trees, where we've bought our Christmas tree for some years now. Sometimes we cut it, and sometimes we bring home a living one and plant it after Christmas, but we've pretty much run out of space for new trees now, so this year we cut one. 

The farm is a commercial enterprise, obviously, and it features as much Christmas hokum as any such. Well, no, that's wrong: it features more Christmas hokum, because it's entirely Christmas-oriented. By hokum I mean Santa Claus stuff, snowman stuff (in a climate which might see a very light dusting of snow every 20 or 30 years), candy cane stuff, a Christmas-themed "train"--trailers pulled by a disguised tractor which half-choked us with its exhaust--that sort of thing. Sometimes that stuff gets on my nerves a little, though I always enjoy the process of finding the tree and bringing it home and am glad every year that I did it, even if I wasn't enthusiastic at first.

This year there was something new; also, perhaps, a bit of hokum, if you in turn are a bit cynical. It was a nativity scene, with nearly-life-size figures situated in a simple wooden structure, and a few live animals wandering around the enclosure: a couple of donkeys, and, representing the bovine family, a rather intriguing species of cattle bred for the Scottish highlands, much smaller than ordinary cattle and having an extremely thick and shaggy coat. The figures in the scene were plastic, and no more realistic nor affecting than you might expect. Yet I found it touching. Not only was it a direct statement of the Christmas story within the commercial Christmas that usually slights or ignores it , but the presence of a stable (more or less) of rough wood, and of live animals with their heavy warmth and rough coats and their smells brought a flavor of reality to the scene. It's good for children, most of whom nowadays never encounter any animals except dogs and cats, to see what an ox and an ass are really like. And it was good for me: having spent a great deal of time around cattle when I was growing up, I find the smell of a barnyard rather homey and comfortable, if not precisely pleasant. To be around animals is to be forced--well, at least to have the opportunity--to consider what it means that our flesh, as the old translations have it, and all flesh, shall see the glory of God.

And I'm also forced to consider what the absence of the hope of redemption means, the direction in which western civilization seems to be headed: always winter, but not even never Christmas, because Christmas itself is no longer conceivable, replaced by a wan "holiday" evacuated of any significance beyond the need of human beings to huddle together for temporary warmth against the everlasting cold and darkness.


Bach/Gounoud - Ave Maria, Kathleen Battle and Christopher Parkening

Weekend Music

Finally, something a bit more seasonally appropriate. Not Advent-specific, obviously, but at least on the general subject. My friend Robert has been praising a collection of Christmas songs by Kathleen Battle, and it was while listening to one of them that I ran across this. Even though Christmas is only three days away, I decided to post this instead. 


The Christmas album, by the way, seems very good on the basis of the selections I heard. In general I tend not to like classical singers in non-classical material--the singers tend to overpower the songs. But these performances seem to be like the Ave Maria, very restrained and pure. It's called A Christmas Celebration.

There's nothing like watching a movie about contemporary young people to make me feel better about being old.

Double Indemnity... a good movie, a classic of its kind. But I never did understand how the murderous couple thought they could get away with it, because the means by which it's done are so implausible. 


Also, it's hard for me to look at Fred MacMurray and not think of Flubber.

I didn't know until today that the screenplay was by Raymond Chandler.

An Interesting Football Story

American football, I mean. Really, it is. And in the New York Times. You don't have to know anything about football, just that Tim Tebow plays quarterback, which is the single most important position on a football team, that he was one of the top players in the country when he was in college but hasn't done so well as a professionial, and that he's an evangelical Christian who's very open about his faith (too open for many people, of course).

As a footnote to the story: Tebow was in the game for a while last night against the Tennessee Titans and didn't do very well, though it's hard to say how much of it was his fault. Tennessee did not fear his passing ability at all and blitzed repeatedly and successfully. So the Jets put the starting quarterback in and lost the game anyway.

Sunday Night Journal — December 16, 2012

 The Waning of Adulthood

This is a subject that comes to mind for me sometimes when I've been watching old, which is to say roughly pre-1960, movies or TV shows, or even listening to the classic American popular songs of the pre-rock-and-roll 20th century. To develop fully a thesis on this topic would require a fair amount of research, which I'm certainly never going to do. So consider what follows as a set of unsupported impressions, hardly definitive but, I hope, worth considering.

I've always been annoyed by those giddy commenters on pop culture who treat what they see in the entertainment or advertising of the "era" between roughly 1930 and 1965 as if it were a real picture of real life in those times. (This use of the word "era" always strikes me as a problem in itself; in my mind an era is quite a long period of time, defined by serious events, such as an ice age or the Protestant Reformation, but these writers are capable of using terms like "the Lady GaGa era.") But yet those images from popular culture are not meaningless or accidental: they do tell us something about the times that produced them. They do not show us what actually was, as anyone old enough to remember the 1950s can attest. But they do show us what some people thought about what actually was, and the way they thought it should be. Frequently they embody what artists or advertisers thought would be appealing to the masses, and in that sense they say something about the masses.

It seems to me that there has been a diminishment and almost a repudiation of the idea of adulthood as it was once understood. The adults in a movie of the 1940s might be bad or good but there was no doubt that they were adults. A thirty-year-old was expected, indeed assumed, to be about as mature as he would ever be. The men, if middle-class, wore suits and ties and hats and worked at something the rest of the world considered serious and significant. If working-class, their dress was simpler but still in some sense dignified, and their position possessed of some dignity, even if it was lowly. The women dressed more modestly and with more dignity than is typical today, and, constricted as we might see their situation to be now, it was at least a fairly clearly defined one. Though the role of housewife may have been treated lightly by men, it also commanded a certain respect, not in the sense that accomplishments in the working world were respected, but respected in its sphere. 

I notice that I mentioned dignity three times in the preceding paragraph, and I think that's a key part of what I'm trying to articulate. In contrast to older expectations, men are now mere "guys" until they are well into their 40s, essentially trivial figures (unless they are action heroes), sex-and-sports-obsessed louts. And although feminist-enforced convention dictates the designation of females as "women," they are often portrayed as acquisitive narcissists, also sex-obsessed, whose feelings are the ultimate law of the universe, and for whom children are an accessory. 

I think the general level of literacy was higher prior to 1970 or so--literacy in the broad sense, what has been called "cultural literacy." It seems that literary and historical allusions were more broadly understood. Consider, for instance, the adult humor of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I doubt it could be produced today, and if it were it would not be accepted, because it is too steeped in the lore that was once absorbed from the surrounding culture and from ordinary education. Consider, for that matter, the phrase I just used: "adult humor". To prefix the word "adult" to any form of entertainment now suggests first that it will be lewd, crude, and possibly pornographic. 

The universal acceptance of crudeness that once had no place in the public sphere is surely one of the most telling symptoms of the decline, because it was once expected that adults controlled their use of what used to be called obscene language. The amount of it that shows up in movies, news, and entertainment has reached levels that once existed only among the very crude, or in certain male-only environments such as the military. In any case, whatever the private use of this language, almost everyone understood that it was not to be used in public, and indeed to use it in certain situations--in the presence of a lady, for instance--was a grave social offense, and often illegal. (Those prohibitions survive as relics in the rules for broadcast radio and television, and are under constant attack.)

Yet now there is a positive enthusiasm for it. Just a day or two ago, in the local paper, I saw a review of a movie about a man and a teddy bear, described in the headline and twice in the first few paragraphs (which was as far as I read) as "raunchy". Well, we know what that means: not only crude language but lots of sex and unpleasant-bodily-function humor. And there's a special delight in putting this language into situations where it collides most powerfully with a natural sense of propriety: in the mouths of children, for instance. Or, I gather from this movie review, a teddy bear, a thing firmly associated with childhood innocence.

I don't think that the whole of society is happy with these changes. Millions of people are not. But they are powerless against the sophisticates.

I certainly don't mean to say that conventional notions (especially in this context bourgeois notions) of propriety are to be identified with absolute right and wrong. But the two are connected, in that they involve a respect for right order. When propriety is consciously rejected--I was about to say in art, but I think this holds in life as well--it should be largely for the purpose of pointing out a divergence between propriety and right order. When propriety is rejected merely because it is propriety, then right order is also being attacked. And I think that's what we see in the entertainment industry now, and in much of society at large.

Adulthood is an essential part of right order. The term suggests maturity, dignity, and decorum. And respect, both given and received: respect for the order of society and for the cosmic order, respect shown to others and expected from them. But some of the most popular comedy on television now, cartoon shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, include a bitter contempt for adults as an essential part of their appeal. The fathers of 1950s sitcoms, who were often portrayed as a bit out of touch but generally decent and to be taken seriously, are now often ugly selfish fools whom no one could possibly respect.

As so often in the modern rebellion, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. If the respectable didn't deserve respect, or failed to respect the people below them in the social hierarchy, the response ought to have been to expose the disparity and press for adherence to standards, not to undermine the whole idea of respect, which has been replaced by an insistence upon approval--a very different thing, as self-esteem is a very different thing from self-respect. What has been enshrined in place of adulthood is a somewhat adolescent self-assertion, a desire to see oneself as above all independent and authentic. This, naturally and inevitably, becomes a convention in itself, but not a very attractive one.

One reason this keeps bothering me (I was thinking about it nine years ago when I wrote about The Twilight Zone) is that I feel its loss. I feel that there was some form of adulthood which I once expected to attain but which vanished before I could reach it, like the top floor of a half-destroyed building. I  may recognize and regret this development, but I'm still affected by it, and a participant in it. I have no more desire than anyone else to wear a tie, and if I didn't have to maintain a certain level of presentability at work--far below coat-and-tie levels, but still not without some standard--I would probably look like a beatnik most of the time. This is a faint and distant echo of the rebellion that helped to produce the whole cultural sea-change which I'm trying to describe.

Dave Brubeck and Ravi Shankar, RIP

Weekend Music

The past couple of weeks have seen the passing of these two musicians who did much to broaden the horizons of music lovers in the 1950s and 1960s. Even people who didn't care much for jazz owned The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out. Everybody knows "Take Five" (actually written by Paul Desmond, the saxophonist in the group) and "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Here's one of the less widely know tracks from that album, "Three to Get Ready."


Brubeck was by all accounts a supremely decent man. He became a Catholic in 1980. When asked about his conversion, he said, "I didn't convert to Catholicism, because I wasn't anything to convert from. I just joined the Catholic Church." (Wikipedia). 

As everyone who was alive then knows, there was a brief and superficial vogue for Indian music in the late '60s, catalyzed by the Beatles' use of the sitar on a few songs and George Harrison's championing of Ravi Shankar's music. The instrument was never really integrated into Western music, though, and the vogue quickly faded. For a time the sound of the sitar seemed to be no more than a way to announce the entrance of a hippie or an Indian in a movie or TV show, and I've even heard people joke about a Shankar album as a silly relic of the '60s, like the lava lamp. But of course that's a great disservice to the music. I thought it was beautiful, and still do, though I don't understand it all. This is from the first of two or three Ravi Shankar albums I bought, Sound of the Sitar.


The New Hobbit Movie

I had definitely mixed feelings about the Lord of the Rings movies. The last of those three was the subject of the very first Sunday Night Journal, back in 2004. Since then my view of them has grown more negative. I think my complaint that 

The films seem driven by a compulsion to overstate and overdo, to crowd every possible moment with action, to pile more and yet more noisy dangers, yet more unconvincing physical stunts, onto the story...

was correct, and in retrospect now these tendencies seem more prominent and less forgiveable. Too much of it seems wrong in tone, and visually wrong, though I realize that's a very subjective opinion. I didn't like the portrayal of Aragorn...etc. etc. etc. I haven't had much desire to see them again.

Well, it looks like those tendencies are even more pronounced in the first of what's intended to be a trilogy (which I didn't know until today). Jeffrey Overstreet says:

[Director Peter Jackson is] too fond of muscular power, drawn to show characters dueling instead of developing. He’ll seize any mention of strife in the story and exaggerate it into absurdity....

But where Tolkien served the head and the heart, Jackson serves the appetite for adrenalin rush....

Presented in 3D—at the much-hyped forty-eight frames per second—An Unexpected Journey has more in common with amusement parks than literature.

The whole review is here.

The bad thing is that I'll probably give in to the temptation to see it, if only because at least some parts of it will be very pretty to look at.

Update: according to Steven Greydanus, it's even worse.

The March of Time

I just did it again: referred to my iPod as a Walkman. And I was already over 30 when the Walkman appeared, or at least when I first heard about it. 

I remember a co-worker, some thirty years ago, painting an amusing picture of the nursing home of the future, full of decrepit hippies demanding Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin on the Muzak. The delivery system may be iPods and iPhones and such instead of Muzak, but I think the time is almost upon us.

Sunday Night Journal — December 9, 2012

Some Pictures

I had a very busy weekend which left me with no time to write about the thing I'd been thinking about in odd moments over the week. Such thoughts as I had were pretty disorganized and I'm not sure the whole thing, which had to do with the nature of adulthood in our time, was worth bothering with even if I'd had plenty of time, and I certainly wasn't going to try to do it in an hour or two.

So what I decided to do instead was to post some pictures I've taken recently. I haven't taken very many pictures at all over the past 6-12 months, and I've missed it. So I have decided to take my little camera with me when possible, whether I'm walking the dogs or driving to Mobile--and, maybe, to fuss over the images a little less once I've taken them. Unless there's something to stop me--e.g. the bird I was trying to get a shot of flew away--I always take at least four or five shots in hope of getting one that I like. So when I get them off the camera and onto the computer, I have to spend a long time deciding which one I like best, which also involves a lot of tinkering--cropping, brightening, darkening, and more exotic tweaks--in Picasa, the only image editing program simple enough for me to use and yet having features that make it worthwhile.


I posted a variant of this one yesterday (click here if you don't see it on this page). As I mentioned in the discussion on that post, I had originally meant to post one without my shadow and the nose of an oncoming vehicle in the picture, and decided at the last minute that it worked better with those. Here, for comparison, is the first one. I definitely think the other is better. Besides the signs of human presence, it also includes more of the road, which also works better to my eye.


And here is the other in black-and-white. I rather like this.



 You'd have no idea, looking at the two pictures above, that just a few hundred yards/meters away is a huge commercial complex comprising auto dealers with vast parking lots, and a huge shopping center (have malls gone out of fashion?--this one is open-air). Just around the corner the businesses trail off into a carpet store and a used-car lot, where I noticed these happy shoppers browsing. Unfortunately it was late afternoon and their faces were mostly in shadow


But I did catch this one in lighting more appropriate to his upbeat mood.


I had passed by the place earlier in the day but hadn't had time to stop. I may try to get by there next Saturday and see if the same crowd is still there.


Thursday morning, about 7:15 or so.


And the next one was taken on the same morning. I don't even remember taking it, and contrary to what I said earlier it was the only one of its type. But I was struck by it when I got it off the camera. It looks like some kind of abstract painting, and to my eye not a bad one as such things go, though I don't know anything about abstract painting and am mostly baffled by the things critics say about it.



And here is a better picture of the chapel of the Society of Saint Gregory the Great, which I was discussing a couple of weeks ago.


(Monday: at my desk at work, and getting this ready to post, I am annoyed to discover that nearly all these pictures look darker on my monitor here than they did at home. It's a reminder that what other people see when I post a photograph may be significantly different from what I see. So if these look murky to you, well, I tried.)

Ella Fitzgerald: Let It Snow

Weekend Music

I apologize for this. I really should post something Advent-related, and had thought I would look for something of that sort. But I haven't had time or mental space. And for reasons entirely unknown to me I've been wanting all day, starting shortly after I got out of bed, to hear Ella Fitzgerald sing "Let It Snow."  So here it is.


The temperature here is about 70F/21C.

That's pretty weird cover art for a Christmas album. I wonder if that was the original cover art. No, probably this one.

Everyone has something missing in life, something that has disappointed, something that does not measure up to a once-cherished hope, something that inhibits freedom, some burden that tires, some hunger that is never satisfied.

People usually accomodate themselves to reduced expectations about life, especially as they get older. How else could they get through the day? Sometimes, however, one can still catch an echo of a cry of pain, that deep and mysterious pain at the heart of every human life.

--John Janaro, via Magnificat

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

--Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"

One Two More Old Movie(s)

I finished that last movie post earlier than usual Sunday evening, and my wife and I decided, after determining that no interesting Masterpiece was showing on PBS, to watch another of the 100+ (yes, really)  movies and other programs saved on the DVR. As it was almost 9, we really didn't want to sit there for two hours, so I looked for something that we might be content to stop watching halfway through. Scrolling through the list, rejecting one thing after another because it just didn't look like what one or the other of us felt like watching, or because it looked like something we wouldn't be able to stop once started, I ended up back in mid-2011, with a movie I'd recorded on a whim from TCM on the basis of a one-sentence synopsis: "An Austrian couple fleeing from the Nazis commits suicide and awakens on a mysterious ship along with several people killed in a London air raid." It was made in 1944 and was called Between Two Worlds. (Maybe the title had been part of the reason I'd recorded it, too.)

It turned out to be a really fine movie. I would say it's an overlooked gem except that maybe it's not--just because I'd never heard of it doesn't mean nobody else has. I found out afterwards that it's based on a very successful 1923 play called Outward Bound, and I really wonder whether C.S. Lewis knew the play, because its treatment of death, judgment, heaven, and hell bears strong similarity to that in The Great Divorce. I think the movie's theology is a bit shaky in places, but the essential idea that we are even now making ourselves into people of heaven or of hell, and that in the end it is our choice, is very much like Lewis's.

The acting is almost uniformly top-notch, the cinematography is good, the quality of the print is excellent (not always the case with these older movies), and although I wasn't paying close attention to it I think the score by Korngold has some passages that would stand alone. (I thought Paul Henreid who plays the suicide was not exactly suited to play a character who is constantly referred to as a young man, because he looks to be in his late thirties at least, but there was nothing wrong with his acting. I kept thinking he looked familiar--it's because he played Victor Laszlo in Casablanca.)

So much for getting to bed on time. We hardly budged from the couch for the full two hours.

Someone has posted the whole thing on YouTube, but I don't recommend watching it there, as the video quality is so poor. I've looked around for information on the playwright, Sutton Vane, but haven't found much more than what is available in the Wikipedia entry.


Also, I remembered a movie that should have been in the Sunday night list: Mrs. Miniver. This is another English World War II story, which I think was recommended to me here by Rob G. It's a story of the impact of the beginning of the war on an upper-middle class English family and is quite powerful, and very well done. I thought it was a bit heavy-handed toward the end in its exhortations for courage and tenacity in the war, but considering that it was made early in the war when the outcome was certainly not assured, I think that can be forgiven.

You Are Being Watched

Or at least your email is. I don't think this is exactly a break in my promise not to post about politics till after the New Year, because it's really beyond politics in the usual sense: an NSA whistleblower says everyone in the U.S. is under virtual surveillance. This is a Russian web site, and I normally wouldn't pay much attention to this sort of thing, but I have heard other reports along these lines that seemed more or less credible. Worse, sad to say, it is the sort of thing one might expect from our government.