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July 2013

Varg in the News Again

Who or what, you ask, is Varg? Varg Vikernes, the most notorious of the Scandinavian black metal musicians who took the ordinary heavy metal fascination with darkness and violence far more seriously than other bands. In an awful lot of metal, there's an element of schtick in the whole thing; sometimes there's a bit of tongue-in-cheek, or just an adolescent desire to shock, not to mention a great deal of macho posturing. The black metal crowd was much more serious, at least a lot of them. They attained great notoriety in the early 1990s when some of them became actively criminal and burned several historic Norwegian churches. Then in 1993 Varg murdered a fellow musician and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. He was released in 2009 after 15 years and moved to France where he lives with his wife and three, soon to be four, children. (See Wikipedia for a great deal of information.)

A week or so ago he and his wife were arrested on suspicion of planning a terrorist massacre. Apparently they were released pretty quickly, but Vikernes is still--if Google's translation of this Norwegian news story is correct--facing charges of violating France's anti-racism laws in writings on his web site. 

He has apparently become a pretty serious racist and nationalist in a very Nazi-like vein: anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, nature-worshipping, pagan-fantasizing. Here's a segment of an interview in which he talks a lot of ahistorical rot about the origins of Christianity, rot which he firmly believes and discusses at great length on his web site.


How seriously should one take this sort of thing?--as a social force, I mean. There's no reason to think he himself is not perfectly serious, and the people who comment on his web site seem to. Is it anything more than a handful of cranks blathering on the web? I really don't have any idea. But it doesn't seem far-fetched that these sentiments would strike a chord with a certain number of alienated young people in a Europe dominated by a culturally self-destructive but personally power-seeking elite.

Curious about his music? Try something from this list. "Burzum," by the way, is the word for "darkness" in the Black Speech that Tolkien invented for the orcs. Vikernes for a time used the stage name "Count Grishnakh," which you may remember as the name of an orc soldier. It is difficult to enter into the mind of someone who could read The Lord of the Rings and want to be an orc. 

Asleep At the Wheel: Hot Rod Lincoln

Weekend Music

I was having trouble finding what I wanted on YouTube (maybe next week) and this appeared in the sidebar. I like it better than what I was looking for.


The Wheel, as their fans call them, as you may or may not know, are a Western swing (sort of country-jazz hybrid)  group who have been deservedly popular for most of the past forty years. It's not the kind of music I listen to on record very much, but I saw them once, at a local music festival, and enjoyed it as much as I've ever enjoyed any popular music performance. That was a good fifteen years ago. They're still touring to enthusiastic audiences, so probably worth seeing if they come your way.

Here's a surprise: Ray Benson, the imposing (6'4", I think) frontman, who seems pure Texas cowboy, is...a Jewish guy from Philadelphia.

The Wheel has pretty much made this song their own, but people of my age may remember hearing it on the radio in the late '50s or early '60s. I think that must have been this version:


But that, apparently, is still not the original, which dates back to 1955. 


The attentive listener will have noticed that the original car has not a mere eight but twelve cylinders, a configuration that I think was pretty much gone from the automobile market by the 1950s (and I suppose had always been rare). Surprisingly, the song is based on a real car and a real race and the description is accurate.

Last Word On the Zimmerman-Martin Case

Last word from me, I mean. I could go on and on about this, and it's mainly the fact that there aren't that many people who read this blog, and of those the majority probably more or less agree with me, that holds me back. So I'll get this off my chest and move on to other topics.

I'm appalled at the number of people who don't seem to understand or care about the concept of proof in a criminal case. I'm appalled at the number of people who seem to think a man should be sentenced to thirty years in prison on the basis of their firm belief that he deserves it, regardless of the evidence. I'm appalled that the basis of that firm belief seems to be that the accused is, for polemical purposes, white, and the deceased was black. I'm appalled by "civil rights leaders" who claim to want racial harmony but have unceasingly spread inflammatory falsehoods. I'm appalled by their assertion that there is some sort of widespread pattern of white men gunning down black children, and by the fact that a lot of black people seem to believe it. I'm appalled by the way much of the press has manipulated and even falsified the story in order to serve their preferred "narrative" of a violent bigot attacking a child.  

In too many minds the racial situation is forever fixed around 1963, with pure-hearted black civil rights activists pitted against wicked white segregationists. But that world is gone. Nobody with sense would deny that white racism still exists. But nobody with sense would cling to the idea that most white people are, at heart, Bull Connor. (I wonder how many people reading this don't even know who Bull Connor was--if you don't, see Wikipedia.)

One can certainly understand the continuing concern of black people about racism. One can understand why they were disturbed by the initial reports about this matter. The truth might have gone a long way toward reassuring them. But there were too many people who didn't want to tell the truth, or even to know it. The work of division has been done. I hope it hasn't been as successful as it seems.

If you want a detailed account of Zimmerman's version of the events, watch this video:


Yes, we only have his word, and the only person who could contradict the essentials of it is dead. But the story is plausible and consistent, and there is some evidence to support it, and none to contradict it. Here's a good summary of the distortion and misinformation spread by the Al Sharptons of the world and their allies in the media; it includes a note about the almost universally accepted belief that Zimmerman disobeyed the police dispatcher's order not to follow Martin--almost universally accepted, but supported by no evidence.

The most egregious distortion is the portrait of Zimmerman as racist. It is certain that he misjudged Martin, with tragic results. But there is no evidence at all that he was motivated by a general animosity to black people. The fact that Martin was a young black male no doubt had something to do with Zimmerman's taking notice of him, but Martin's dress and behavior would have been parts of the impression, too. It is dishonest to assert race as a factor without also mentioning that the neighborhood had experienced a series of breakins perpetrated by young black males. Bill Cosby would not have attracted the same attention. This news story contains a lot of information about Zimmerman's background and the neighborhood where the shooting took place. It's hard to fit that Zimmerman into a pointy hood, and hard to describe that place as a bastion of white supremacy. And I trust anyone who has followed the story at all knows that Martin was not the cute little twelve-year-old that he was in the widely circulated picture, but a pretty tough seventeen-year-old who showed signs of heading in the wrong direction.

Finally, here is Shelby Steele on the sad state of a once-noble movement:

Almost everyone saw this verdict coming. It is impossible to see how this jury could have applied the actual law to this body of evidence and come up with a different conclusion. The civil-rights establishment's mistake was to get ahead of itself, to be seduced by its own poetic truth even when there was no evidence to support it. And even now its leaders call for a Justice Department investigation, and they long for civil lawsuits to be filed—hoping against hope that some leaf of actual racial victimization will be turned over for all to see. This is how a once-great social movement looks when it becomes infested with obsolescence.

You can read the whole thing here.

It was a tragic incident, the result of misjudgments on the part of both Zimmerman and Martin, though Martin's proved the more grave. It never should have happened, but, having happened, it should never have become a racially divisive issue on a national scale. I don't know the motives of those who have used it to inflame hostility, but I don't think concern for the welfare of the nation is among them.

Trayvon Martin, RIP. In spite of the hostility and suspicion surrounding his death, I look around me every day and see black and white people coexisting on reasonably good terms. Riots, thank God, did not happen after the verdict. The Sharpton-organized rallies don't seem to have attracted huge crowds. We can hope that the stale old product of the race-mongers is not selling as well as it used to.

That Was Then, This Is Now

The racial problems in this country have worried me a great deal for some time, and I’ve grown pretty pessimistic about them. The possibility that Obama’s presidency might help African-Americans to believe that this is their country, too, gives me hope.

Oh well.

I mean, not so much about that specific notion--that it's their country, too--but about the general improvement in race relations that even some people who didn't support Obama, like me, hoped might follow his election. But things are actually worse. Obama himself has not been the problem so much as his supporters. 

Sally Thomas: Brief Light

I could go on for a long time--I've already gone on for a couple of months--planning to write a substantial review of this splendid book of poems, with a lot of attention to its specific virtues. The result would be a pretty good appraisal and appreciation. But I have a lot to do, and am generally pretty distracted; it could be a long time. So I'm going to content myself with a brief notice.

I don't have much of an appetite for contemporary poetry. Few people do, of course, but I should, since I make the occasional attempt in that direction myself. Back in the 1970s I knew a lot of aspiring poets who were working on MFAs in creative writing, and they read their contemporaries in great volume, often to the neglect, I thought, of older and better work. Now and then I followed someone's recommendation and read a little in one of these poets, but very little of it made much of an impression on me.

Worse, it was frequently somewhat off-putting for reasons that I couldn't articulate. I think that had to do with the sensibility of the writers, and in that term I'm including not just personality but the effects of the poet's general view of things, including his or her theology, or rather lack of it in most cases. Frequently there was an obvious verbal gift, and an impressively close--often too close--attention to sensory, mainly visual, detail, which is a sort of convention in poetry since the early 20th century. But the poems just didn't seem to add up to much. Stylistically a very mannered school had arisen, as mannered in its way as the 18th century establishment against which the Romantics rebelled, and it was in general not a manner I liked greatly. And the sensibility tended strongly toward what I have elsewhere called the Stoic Resentful. For these reasons, and for some other, more fundamental lack of aesthetic response, I just didn't find much to like. I'm sure I've missed a lot of good work, but I didn't have the time to seek it out among the ordinary.

What that has to do with Brief Light is not that it stands in utter contrast to the prevailing mode, but that it is in fact to a great extent in that mode, yet with so much skill in execution, and with such a different sensibility, that it does seem a different and better thing. I will admit that my spirits tend to sink when I see a Catholic poet praised for being Catholic, especially if at the same time he or she is praised for rejecting the modernist method and writing in strict forms. The result is frequently not much more than adequate, but one hesitates to criticize it because its intentions are so good. It's like much, if not most, Christian rock or "CCM"--Contemporary Christian Music: maybe pretty good, but never quite as good as the secular stuff. There's usually something constrained about it, a sense that the artistic impulse is being forced into a container that doesn't really fit it. We want Catholic artists, yes. But we don't want to have to condescend to them, to make allowances for their defects, to hold them to a lower standard than we would others. 

We want Catholic art that fully and naturally embodies its own life, that goes where it goes not because some disconnected hand is pushing it but because that's where it naturally goes. And we want the same standard of craft that we would expect from any art. Aesthetically at least, we generally have the sensibility of our times--we can't help it--but we want it transformed by the leaven of Catholic faith: transformed, all the way through, not just painted.

We have what we're looking for in this book. Formally, it fits in perfectly well with most of contemporary poetry. It's subtitled "Sonnets and Other Small Poems," and I haven't counted, but I think half at least of the poems have fourteen lines and are in some variant of sonnet form, from fairly loose to fairly strict. This is not unusual nowadays; form has made something of a comeback. Its rhetoric is contemporary, and even, I think, shows the influence of the MFA school (for instance, in the one thing that I would criticize here and there: the creation of a verb from a noun, as in the snake "sluggarding in the woodpile"). But its sensibility is deeply Catholic although belief is hardly mentioned directly. I suppose I mean that it seems to see things in the way a Catholic ought to see them.

 All right, then. But can I be more specific about what makes these poems such a pleasure? I'm not very good at describing poetry, or much inclined to do so. It's no more useful than describing music: a few broad words to indicate the general impression, and then one must read or listen. These poems are intelligent, wise, distinctly feminine, sharply observant, occasionally witty, suffused with deep feeling and a consciousness of the enormous significance of our small lives and the small things that fill them...yeah, yeah, all true, but that doesn't mean much until you experience them. It seems inappropriate to reproduce an entire poem here, and after flipping through the book for ten minutes I find no passage I want to quote, because, fine as the lines might be in isolation, they are on their way to something more powerful than they alone can accomplish, and it seems a shame to interrupt their journey.

I am able resolve this dilemma by pointing you to a poem on Sally's blog: On New Year's Eve: Letting the Time Go Where Time Goes. It's not in the book, but it's representative. That thing she does with the last line is a good example.

Did you read it? See what I mean?  Go buy the book.

Big Country: In A Big Country

Weekend Music

Rob G pointed out to me a few days ago that this past week was the 30th anniversary of the release of Big Country's first album, The Crossing. That's definitely an occasion worth remembering. The Crossing is one of my favorite albums; I think I even put it on a top 25 list...yes, apparently I did, though it wasn't strictly the top 25. I don't know of anything that sounds much like Big Country's music except Big Country's music. As far as I know they are the only group that thought it would be cool to make their guitars sound like bagpipes. 


If you aren't familiar with them and like this song, you can safely buy the album, as pretty much everything on it is just as good. I haven't listened to them for a long time, but judging by this I would still like them just as much. I used to have a tape with The Crossing on one side and R.E.M.'s Murmur on the other. It was my favorite late-night-driving tape.

P.S. Pause and say a prayer for the soul of Stuart Adamson, singer, guitarist, and one of the founders of the group, who committed suicide in 2001.