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August 2013

Joe Pug: Bury Me Far From My Uniform

Weekend Music

 Be warned: this is an emotionally intense song. 


I've seen this referred to as an anti-war song, and implicitly it is, but it's more personal than political, not a statement but a picture of an all-too-real human situation. Pug himself said:

The song nearly wrote itself and yet I released it with great reluctance.  There is a certain reverence that any decent person affords soldiers and their sacrifices. I was, and remain still, troubled that this song might violate that decency.  Having never served myself I’m not always sure whether it is inspiring or insulting. I’ve certainly gotten my fair share of both reactions.  In the end, the song stands on its own, and the distinction is yours to make.

The fact that he gave the song away in honor of Memorial Day (2010) certainly speaks to his honest intentions.

You can stream or download five free songs at his website.  

What's Wrong With...? (Fun With Google)

Sometimes Google's auto-suggest feature produces interesting, amusing, and even vaguely poetic results. The other day I was looking for the blog What's Wrong With the World, which I read occasionally but haven't bookmarked, and this was Google's attempt to be helpful (click on the image to enlarge it):

Assuming these are ranked according to the number of requests made for them, it's interesting that more people asked "What's wrong with me?" than "What's wrong with the world?"

As I began to type "the," "What's wrong with the world?" moved up in the list.

I'm a little puzzled by some of those and am guessing that "What's wrong with the beer we got?" is a song title.... Oh no--it's an Alabama state legislator.



Actually I don't recall that legislation having anything to do with German immigrants but rather with the general interest in higher-quality beers than Budweiser etc.; the bill permitted the sale of beer with higher alcohol content than the standard 4% or whatever it is.

The guy at xkcd seems to have done a lengthy investigation using queries beginning with "Why." You can see the result here.

I should warn you not to start playing with this. It's very addictive.

James Kalb: The Tyranny of Liberalism

This is not a review, because I'm only on page 68 of this book. But I can't resist quoting from it. So far it seems to be the most incisive and thorough critique of liberalism I've seen. It's plain that liberalism, the doctrine of maximum freedom for all, is in fact exhibiting a paradoxical drift toward tyranny. And this book explains a great deal about what's happening, and how and why it's happening. I find myself wanting to quote great sections of it. But here's a taste. I'm sure I will be posting more excerpts.

So dominant is liberalism that it becomes invisible. Judges feel free to read it into the law without historical or textual warrant because it seems so obviously right. To oppose it in any basic way is to act incomprehensibly, in a way explicable, it is thought, only by reference to irrationality, ignorance, or evil. The whole of the nonliberal past is comprehensively blackened. Traditional ways are treated as the simple negation of unquestionable goods liberalism favors. Obvious declines in civility, morality, and cultural achievement are ignored, denied, or redefined as advances. Violence is said to be the fault of the persistence of sex roles, war of religion, theft of social inequality, suicide of stereotyping. Destruction of sex and historical community as ordering principles--and thus of settled family arrangements and cultural forms--is presented as a supremely desirable goal. The clear connection among the decline of traditional habits, standards, and social ties; the disintegration of institutions like the family; and other forms of personal and social disorder is ignored or treated as beside the point.

(Thanks to Rob G for having recommended the book to me some time ago.)

See! See! I Told You!

Obamacare is a bonanza for lobbyists.

...the United States is a large and undisciplined country and includes far too many people who would see the system only as something to be exploited. And I don’t mean only the sort of shiftless people who always exploit welfare, social security, etc. as recipients—I mean doctors, lawyers, corporations, and bureaucrats who would approach the system as vultures would approach a big dead pig, and probably be much greater abusers, in terms of sheer dollars, than the mere dishonest recipients.

--me, four years ago

I didn't specify "lobbyists," but clearly they fit that general prediction.

Grimly Amusing Headline

In Time: 6 Ways Syria 2013 Isn't Iraq 2003.

The Drudge Report linked to this with the text "MSM Scrambles to Distinguish Syria from Iraq." Indeed. It's true that there are signficant differences, at least as of now, but they seem to be mainly of scale: Obama seems to want a mainly symbolic intervention, where Bush was deadly serious. But the reaction of Obama's media supporters is...well, just what you would expect.

The Rite of Spring As It Really Was

I can't let 2013 go by without noting the 100th anniversary of the performance that came to be viewed as Day 1 of the era of modern art. It wasn't really that, of course. Schoenberg's much stranger Pierrot Lunaire had been performed more than six months earlier, and cubist painting had been under way for several years. But it became a sort of mythological event, like the quarrel between Galileo and the Church, marking the beginning of a period when modern art became something shocking and difficult, frequently very consciously so. 

Laura Jacobs published this retrospective in the May issue of The New Criterion, which provides a lot of fascinating detail about that first performance. Toward the end of the piece she mentions the reconstruction of the ballet staged in the 1980s by the Joffrey Ballet, which was said to be about as close as we could hope to come to the original. I saw it on TV at the time but couldn't remember much about it, other than that it was all very un-ballet-like, and that it reminded me of what is often represented as American Indian dancing. Jacobs mentions that it's on YouTube, so I went looking for it. Here it is, in three parts, each ten minutes long.




(There is also an all-in-one copy of the video, but it seems a bit dim compared to the ones above.)

This time around I found it very powerful. I don't know exactly what's going on in most of it, but you don't really need to know anything except that it's a ceremony marking the beginning of spring in pre-Christian Russia, and that it culminates in a maiden dancing herself to death. I always understood why the music created a sensation, and now I see why the ballet did, too. I don't know whether this strange stiff stomping and jerking had any precedent in ballet, but it must have been quite a shock to anyone who went in expecting traditional ballet and was met with something that, as Jacobs says, "was called a ballet, but...did not attempt to dispel or transcend gravity as classical ballets were expected to do; instead, his dancers bowed down under a cosmic weight, burdened by it and in awe of it."

I must say, too, that it strikes me as evidence of a cultural sickness. The music is a great work of art, and I've loved it since I first heard it in college. But this attempt, in which Stravinsky and Diaghilev and Nijinsky were certainly not alone, to regain some kind of authenticity by reaching back to a brutal past, was not an indicator of cultural health. It bespeaks a weariness with the whole idea of civilization. Those who were shocked may have been shocked for the wrong reasons, but it does seem now an indicator of something amiss. I want to say this carefully, being very clear that I do not think The Rite has anything to do with violent movements such as Nazism, or was in any sense a cause of them, but it is really not surprising that a civilization which was weary of itself and feeling, in the highest reaches of its culture, the call of the primitive might begin to develop, in the political realm, an attraction to actual violence as a means of escape from and destruction of a sterile order.

Chopin: Ballade #2

Weekend Music

Several years ago my friend Robert sent me a CD of the Chopin Ballades played by Krystian Zimerman. It disappeared among a welter of home-burned CDs that I was having a lot of trouble keeping track of, and then was forgotten, until Robert mentioned it to me a few weeks ago. I found the disk and listened several times to the first three ballades (there are four). They're wonderful.

I didn't previously know this music. Not being a connoisseur of piano playing, I can't compare Zimerman's version to others, but it is certainly very good, and the recorded sound is magnificent.  I'll have to buy the CD now. 

So far Ballade #2 is my favorite. It might be just as well not to watch this video, as to my rude eyes Zimerman's looks and mannerisms seem almost like a philistine parody of the classical musician from the days when "longhair" meant intellectual and aesthete. Zimerman was born in 1956, so I would guess this video is from sometime in the 1980s. (Yes, 1987, apparently.)


No more "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics?

Time continues to speed up unacceptably. And yet I am obliged to accept it. I thought it was about three weeks ago that pasted the URL for this piece on America's web site into a blog post template intending to write about it later. Actually it was almost two months ago, on June 28.

But anyway: I've never found America very interesting, and in fact found it sometimes annoying. But I applaud this decision to stop using "liberal" and "conservative" as qualifiers for "Catholic." Many years ago I read a remark by Henri de Lubac in which he said something to the effect that insofar as these terms refer to anything more than types of personality, both valid and necessary, they have no place in discussions within the Church. (That's how I remember it; I'll try to find the actual statement.) It's stuck with me because I thought it was true.

As some of the commenters on the America piece point out, even if you decide not to use the words, the reality remains--there are liberal and conservative Catholics, even if you're speaking only with reference to the Church, not politics. And that's true. But I think the effort to avoid them is worthwhile. It might force one, even when the topic seems to demand that sort of distinction, to focus on the subject, and not bring in loaded terms which inevitably conjur up all sorts of associations and implications which needn't be involved.

Above all, regardless of the terms, we need to avoid thinking of the Church in factional terms, which makes it nearly impossible not to see some as more Catholic than others. That, too, may be justifiable sometimes. But we shouldn't start there. We shouldn't look for signals that someone is of a certain faction, and then use that as a reason to discard anything he says. We should start with the assumption, and keep it until or unless there is some reason to think otherwise, that those who disagree with us are faithful and have the best interests of the Church at heart.

Elmore Leonard, RIP

The New York Times has one of many obituaries.

I've read three of his novels: The Hunted, Killshot, and Bandits, in that order. Bandits was a book on tape, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that I liked it a bit less than the other two. But I thought they were all outstanding. It was a good twenty-five years ago that I read The Hunted, yet I remember it in considerable detail, far more than is usual with me--frequently I forget everything but the broad outline of a plot within a few years. I think the reason is the sheer intensity of the storytelling. I don't know of any writer who can create the narrative tension that he does. Well, no, there is one, or at least one book: Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. And the compliment I paid that book was that it's as good as Elmore Leonard.

But I'm not sure I'll ever read anything else by him. The morally vacant world he portrays is so bleak and disturbing that it's not a place I want to visit very often, perhaps never again. I wouldn't say that Leonard's own point of view is amoral; quite the contrary, in fact. But his portrayal of the other is maybe too vivid.

Any writer who wants to learn how to construct a gripping story, and dialog for inarticulate characters, could learn a whole lot from him. And if you want to read a thriller, I can vouch for any of the three above-named. On the basis of those, I'd call him a genius of the style.

H.P. Lovecraft: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

Yes, as I may or may not have said in that long piece about Lovecraft last week, I had decided after those three novellas that I didn't need to read any more Lovecraft now, and perhaps not ever. But one day I needed something to read while eating lunch and the only reading matter I had with me was what was on the Kindle, so I started the next story in the collection. Because it was on the Kindle, I couldn't tell how long it was, and I probably wouldn't have started it if I'd realized that it was over 40,000 words long, at or past the upper limit that would generally be considered to define the novella. But of course once I'd gotten started I had to see how it turned out. It took me over a week to get through it, reading bits whenever I had the opportunity, and I got a little impatient when I realized it was going to take a lot more of my time than I'd planned. Also, I was getting a bit tired of the Lovecraft style, and the Lovecraft apparatus--the constant allusions to extremely dark secrets that will drive you mad if you learn them, etc. 

But in the end I was rather glad I had stuck with it, because it shows a side of Lovecraft that I didn't know existed: what might even be called the Chestertonian side. I can't really explain that without giving away too much of the story, but it was a pleasant surprise. To speak generally, it seems that Chesterton had a period as a young man when he fell prey to very dark thoughts and speculations. I've never read anything very specific about those, but I wonder whether there was anything Lovecraftian about them. And I wonder if Lovecraft might have been anything like Chesterton if he had turned away from those unhealthy conceptions, because this story indicates that he was capable of seeing things differently.

Unlike the other Lovecraft stories I read, this one has a hero. Randolph Carter is a dreamer, literally: the story takes place in "dreamland." It opens thusly:

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles....

At length, sick with longing for those glittering sunset streets and cryptical hill lanes among ancient tiled roofs, nor able sleeping or waking to drive them from his mind, Carter resolved to go with bold entreaty whither no man had gone before, and dare the icy deserts through the dark to where unknown Kadath, veiled in cloud and crowned with unimagined stars, holds secret and nocturnal the onyx castle of the Great Ones.

So off he goes on the quest that comprises the rest of the story, and a long and complex one it is.

Let it be noted, to his credit, that Lovecraft apparently liked cats. At any rate, Carter does, and his affection serves him well on his quest, where he is aided by the cats, and is able to aid them. Here is a little extract by way of illustration, and it also gives some suggestion of the Chestertonian thing I'm talking about. Carter has been taken prisoner by some typically nasty Lovecraft creatures, and is being taken to some unknown but dreadful place for an unknown but dreadful purpose:

Then through that star-specked darkness there did come a normal sound. It rolled from the higher hills, and from all the jagged peaks around it was caught up and echoed in a swelling pandaemoniac chorus. It was the midnight yell of the cat, and Carter knew at last that the old village folk were right when they made low guesses about the cryptical realms which are known only to cats, and to which the elders among cats repair by stealth nocturnally, springing from high housetops. Verily, it is to the moon's dark side that they go to leap and gambol on the hills and converse with ancient shadows, and here amidst that column of foetid things Carter heard their homely, friendly cry, and thought of the steep roofs and warm hearths and little lighted windows of home....

Carter now spoke with the leaders in the soft language of cats, and learned that his ancient friendship with the species was well known and often spoken of in the places where cats congregate. He had not been unmarked in Ulthar when he passed through, and the sleek old cats had remembered how he patted them after they had attended to the hungry Zoogs who looked evilly at a small black kitten. And they recalled, too, how he had welcomed the very little kitten who came to see him at the inn, and how he had given it a saucer of rich cream in the morning before he left. The grandfather of that very little kitten was the leader of the army now assembled, for he had seen the evil procession from a far hill and recognized the prisoner as a sworn friend of his kind on earth and in the land of dream.

 I think Chesterton would agree that some of these sentiments might be enough to save a man's soul if he hangs on to them. 

Alas for me! For I have beheld the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep, which dwelt in the red cooler in the kitchen. Full many and many a dark aeon, even since the Fourth of July, had it brooded in darkness, forgotten of men and nurturing the impious vengeance merited by that forgetting, and gathered unto itself certain unhallowed vermin of the lower air, which whispered foully to it of what it might become. And in the end it was that blasphemous thing of which the sly and ill-favoured merchants who embarked from the black galleons in the port of Dylath-Leen to trade in rubies of doubtful origin would speak only in whispers.  And when it had been carried into the uttermost reaches of Y'ard, and, emerging from the cooler, slid loathsomely over the withered and unwholesome vegetation, none there was who could say what that thing once had been but I, who cast it out, and am the same who beheld it and knew it for what it was. And I fear that the shadow of that unholy vision will never depart from me, nor the stench ever fade entirely from the red cooler.

--from "The Forgotten Watermelon of Ga-Yfer", by Dunwich Arkham

Dylan Interpretations

Weekend Music

First, Dylan vs. Dylan. An acoustic performance of "Visions of Johanna" from 1966:


And now a relatively recent performance, in more or less his current style:


To my taste the second one has its merits, but just isn't on the same plane as the first one.

This post actually started out because the discussion of Dylan's voice had me thinking about the evolution of his style. I was listening to the Telltale Signs collection yesterday. It's one of the clean-out-the-attic collections of previously unreleased material, and I was thinking what a really fine song "Mississippi" is. So I thought I might post it, and looked for it on YouTube. Neither it, nor the album version, from "Love and Theft", is there. The only version I found doesn't seem to be either of those, or the second alternate from Telltale Signs. It must be the one from the bonus disk of the DeLuxe edition, which I did not see fit to purchase. Of the four, my favorite is the first alternate, that is, the first version on Signs.  This one sounds like they were still working on it, but the only other one on YouTube is a live one with terrible sound.


So while I was looking for this, I ran across a performance of the song by the Dixie Chicks. Now I'll admit up front that although I've heard almost none of their work, I am a bit prejudiced against the Dixie Chicks because they're generally described as country-pop, or pop-country, which, either way, is down with there with smooth jazz, and well below metal, at the bottom of my list of preferred musical styles. Still, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But this strikes me as rather awful. The best I can say about it is that it does credit to their taste that they picked it.


Apparently the Chicks were following Sheryl Crow's arrangement. I assume Crow was first, because she got the song straight from Dylan. Pretty much the same arrangement, at least for the first minute or so, when I bailed.

Perhaps the problem is that when you detach the song from Dylan and the inimitable force of his personality and vocal style, there really isn't that much left musically. So they felt obliged to try to flesh it out with that fiddle riff etc. 

In Defense of Dylan's Voice

I pretty much agree with this, except that I don't think Dylan's voice sounded old when he was young. On his first album, which I've never much liked (I almost said "unlistenable," but that's overstating it), he sounds to me like a kid who doesn't really know what he's doing. He wants to sound authentic in some way, like an old country or blues singer discovered in his native place. But his authentic identity is middle-class Jewish boy. He's trying to create a new identity for himself, and he isn't even sure what to imitate: I don't know of any genuine old-time folk singers who sound very much at all like he sounds on most of that album.

Over the next few albums he began to find his own voice, though his country twang is obviously forced. But that voice itself became part of the material that he used to develop what proved, around the time of Bringing It All Back Home, to be an authentic Dylan voice, in both the sonic and poetic senses. It, too, has mutated over time, through both choice and physical changes, but it's been clearly his since then. 

In the liner notes to Freewheelin', which was recorded when he was only twenty-one, he says "I don't carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they're older people." He was right about himself then, but he did get there, as he hoped.

I do however disagree with the writer about bourbon. Nothing against scotch, but bourbon is not a failed scotch any more than Dylan is a failed Paul McCartney. 

Three Novellas by H. P. Lovecraft

Many years ago, when I was 25 or so, and in the same situation as a lot of young college graduates today--a liberal arts degree, and great difficulty finding a job--I had an occasional part-time job as night watchman at a lumber yard. I was a sort of subcontractor to the guy who actually held the position. When he had other plans on a night when he was supposed to work, I filled in for him.

It was a great job: I had to make the rounds of the yard once an hour, which took about fifteen minutes, and was free to sit in the office and read or write for the other forty-five. I can't imagine now what reckless impulse led me to read H.P. Lovecraft there. I was not in a very stable emotional condition, and was prone to all sorts of anxieties and obsessive fears. Moreover, I had noticed in bookstores for some time the particularly nightmarish covers that were being printed for paperback editions of Lovecraft's work at the time. I genuinely can't remember why I did it, but perhaps I had made it a sort of challenge to myself. 

That probably sounds like it's a prelude to a description of the terrors I suffered as I made the rounds of the deserted lumber yard. But that's not what happened. I read a number of the stories, and experienced just enough suspense and horror to keep them in the realm of entertainment, like Poe's work, but was not deeply or lastingly affected. 

I hadn't read any Lovecraft since. Over the years I've seen a lot of references to his work, and "Cthulhu" is a pretty widely-recognized word. I was amused and a bit distressed by a car I used to see in the parking lot at work which had a special extra-cost license plate which, by a simulated child's scrawl that said "Helping Schools," indicated that the owner had made a contribution to the school system. But the actual license text was "CTHULHU". 

The frequency of these references, and the fact that Lovecraft was given a volume in the Library of America series, and the fact that I couldn't really remember anything of what I'd read so long ago, must have had something to do with a morbid impulse to sample his work again. I bought this cheap Kindle edition and read the first three stories in it. 

Since you have the web at your fingertips, you don't need me to tell you all about Lovecraft. Suffice to say that he was the last of an old decaying New England family, that he disliked the modern world and much of the human race, and that he had a pretty morbid imagination. And, of course, some serious literary ability. He was influenced by Poe, and doesn't come off badly when compared to him.

At the Mountains of Madness

This is a first-person account of a scientific expedition to the Antarctic which has discovered, beyond a range of previously unknown and extremely high mountains, the remains of an alien civilization millions of years old. Naturally it turns out not to be entirely dead, and the narrator is trying to warn the world against any further disturbance of the horrors that wait there. He is a geologist, and Lovecraft makes him and other members of the expedition quite plausible in their scientific talk and reasoning. As measured by the degree of creeped-out-ness produced, I didn't find this story as strong as the other two. It's as much an adventure as a horror story, though one of the characters is driven at least half-mad by a glimpse of something terrible: 

He has on rare occasions whispered disjointed and irresponsible things about "The black pit," "the carven rim," "the protoShoggoths," "the windowless solids with five dimensions," "the nameless cylinder," "the elder Pharos," "Yog-Sothoth," "the primal white jelly," "the color out of space," "the wings," "the eyes in darkness," "the moon-ladder," "the original, the eternal, the undying," and other bizarre conceptions; but when he is fully himself he repudiates all this and attributes it to his curious and macabre reading of earlier years. Danforth, indeed, is known to be among the few who have ever dared go completely through that worm-riddled copy of the Necronomicon kept under lock and key in the college library.

The Necronomicon, or rather "the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred," is a book of evil lore (fictitious, though some Lovecraft fans have attempted to find it) which is one of the key components of what is called "the Cthulhu mythos," a grand conception of an essentially monstrous universe, never (as far as I know) presented in detail, but persistent enough in Lovecraft's work to provide a broad picture. The mythos is not prominent in this story; we are, so to speak, at the foot of the mountain, and see only glimpses. The horrible things which come to light in the narrative are, as it turns out, not the real horror at all. 


(One of many images found with Google image search; original here.)

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

This one, on the other hand, gave me cause to regret that I reached for it a couple of times during sleepless spells in the small hours. It is the story of a young man, the title character, who discovers that a 17th-century ancestor was involved in occult researches and practices which passed, as we learn more about them, from the merely sinister to the truly and deeply evil. One wonders if this story had some especial personal significance for Lovecraft, since it takes place in Providence, Rhode Island, where Lovecraft lived much of his life, and one character lives at Lovecraft's own address, though he does not much resemble the real Lovecraft. 

Young Charles Dexter Ward grows curious about his ancestor, Joseph Curwen, and becomes obsessed with learning what Curwen's cryptic notes signified. Curwen had arrived in Providence in the early 1700s, still youthful after an already long life in Salem, Massechusetts, and we learn, as the story goes on, what those witch-doings in Salem were really all about. 

The Cthulhu mythos is more fully present here, although still not spelled out in much detail. Curwen is more or less a disciple of the cult, and also more or less a disciple of the devil, the implication being that what we consider the demonic is only a terrestrial interpretation of contact with the world of Cthulhu, which is also the real world.

Curwen's interest, like that of many magicians, at least in Western lore, is in extending his personal dominion over the world and time. In the Necronomicon he has learned the means of extending his own life far past the normal human span, and of raising the dead, which he wants to do not for any benefit to them--it seems to be a form of torture to them--but to expand his own store of knowledge. The key to the process is in this ancient text:

The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious Man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the Shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated.

Sounds a bit like DNA and Jurassic Park, doesn't it? Curwen's Providence experiments, in which there is in fact quite a great deal of criminal Necromancy, are many and monstrous until they are discovered, and he put to death, in 1771. In 1919--that is, the present day--Charles Dexter Ward begins trying to understand what happened to Curwen, and as he learns more and more he attempts to duplicate Curwen's researches. With, need it be said, unpleasant results.  It's an exciting as well as a disturbing story. The greater part of it takes place in the 18th century, and Lovecraft does a very convincing job of establishing that time and place. 

CharlesDexterWard(Of the many illustrations for this story that I found, this struck me as the most effective. It may not look like much but if you know the story it's potent. The original seems to have been part of some sort of contest in which people drew illustrations for their favorite books.)

The Colour Out of Space

This is a much shorter and simpler story than the others. (I would call it a longish short story rather than a novella; at any rate it is much shorter, at 12,000 words vs. 41,000 for At the Mountains of Madness.) A meteorite lands on an isolated farm near Arkham, a fictitious Massachusetts town which appears in a number of Lovecraft works. It is composed of a substance that resists the inquiries of science, and within that there is a globule of a color that "was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all." The globule is broken by investigators, with no apparent effect, and there is no evidence of anything inside it. The meteor shrinks, then vanishes after a series of lightning strikes. Nothing happens for a time, until

...the time of fruit and harvest. The pears and apples slowly ripened, and Nahum vowed that his orchards were prospering as never before. The fruit was growing to phenomenal size and unwonted gloss, and in such abundance that extra barrels were ordered to handle the future crop. But with the ripening came sore disappointment, for of all that gorgeous array of specious lusciousness not one single jot was fit to eat. Into the fine flavour of the pears and apples had crept a stealthy bitterness and sickishness, so that even the smallest bites induced a lasting disgust. It was the same with the melons and tomatoes.... 

A strange iridescence begins to appear around the well; whatever was released from the meteorite seems to have taken up residence there. It spreads, visible at night. All organic life begins to wither, disintegrate, and die, as do the minds of the family. It is a horrifying story of a creeping pestilence, and it differs from any plague humanity has known not only in its perfect destruction of all life, but of sanity. As is generally the case with Lovecraft, part of the horror resides in the complete opacity of the evil. He starts with something humanity has always known and feared, and by exaggeration brings home to us the true nature of our situation with regard to natural evil: its utter absence of consciousness and intention.

The_colour_out_of_space_by_darksorrow666-d5mpekf(Also from the deviantART site.)


What, besides the enjoyment, if you consider it enjoyment, of a scary story, is in this for the reader, particuarly the Christian reader? Well, Lovecraft had a philosophical agenda, and it is not a comforting one. 

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.... To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities.

He is describing a literary technique here, but it apparently serves also as a philosophical statement. If Wikipedia is to be relied upon, 

Lovecraft's guiding aesthetic and philosophical principle was what he termed "cosmicism" or "cosmic horror", the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally inimical to the interests of humankind. As such, his stories express a profound indifference to human beliefs and affairs.

And if Lovecraft provides us with any service beyond the very worthy one of telling a good story, it is in his effort to make concrete what this indifference and incomprehensibility mean. 

We live in a culture of practical yet sentimental atheism: practical in that it approaches life as if God does not exist or does not matter, sentimental in that it averts its eyes from the stern implications of that view. A purely material and Godless cosmos has no meaning, and no amount of dressing up that fact can do away with the uneasiness which it produces. It may be slight or it may be intolerable, depending on the susceptibility of the one contemplating it, but there is no mature human consciousness which does not attempt to reject it in some measure. Few, I think, are the consciously atheist who will admit to being disturbed by it, but there is a telltale combativeness in their insistence that they are not. Most often, the response is something to the effect of "My life has meaning to me; we make our own meaning; my dog...the sunset, etc. etc." There is a sad and sometimes slightly desperate quality in this. What is meaningful to me alone is not truly meaningful--that is, not intrinsically and objectively meaningful. The blowing of these pretty  bubbles is not fundamentally different from what the atheist accuses the religious of doing, it's only less ambitious. Lovecraft will have none of these feeble efforts at comfort: you and anything you you ever cared about are insignificant, he says, when winged Cthulhu returns, blotting out the stars. 

Lovecraft writes a kind of prose which was not fashionable in his time and is less so in ours, at least among the more sophisticated. It's ornate and, some would say, overwrought; it often seems of the 19th century, or Edwardian at the latest. But it suits his purpose. He doesn't want so much to create narrative suspense, which might be better accomplished with a tighter style, but to create a mood of dread and horror, and that he does. Yes, he does pile it on too thickly at times, and I would be surprised if there haven't been some good parodies. Thanks to technology, and the fact that much of Lovecraft's work is available online, I can tell you that the words "horrible" or "horror" occur thirty-seven times in Mountains. When he really wants to bring the point home, he likes "insane" and "blasphemous"; the latter and its variants occur ten times, as in "the blasphemous, horror-fostering abyss whence all such vapors came." And exactly as often in Charles Dexter Ward; only three in Colour, but then it's a good deal shorter than the other two.

What is being blasphemed in these horrors? Not God, for there is no God, but rather the basic human idea of order, whether religious or materialist. Behind even the apparent cosmic order there is only a nightmare of chaos without meaning. Many writers of the early 20th century and since have dealt with meaninglessness. Lovecraft made it cosmic, and concrete, and alive: a "crawling chaos," as the title of one of his stories has it. 

Not everyone agrees that Lovecraft should be in the Library of America. Here is Stephen Schwarz in The New Criterion

...certainly not an author worthy of standing beside Franklin, Hawthorne, Henry James, and others in our canon. At this rate, we may soon see editions of Zane Grey and Mickey Spillane included in the American pantheon.

Not the equal of Hawthorne, by any means, and not even in the same category as James. But worthy of note and the continuing interest which he has in fact received.  

(I had no intention of writing something this long when I began this piece. My thanks and compliments to anyone who read the whole thing.)

Yngwie Malmsteen: Leviathan

Weekend Music

This is for Fr. Matt Venuti, in compensation for my having failed to deliver the post on H.P. Lovecraft that I told him to expect last weekend and still haven't finished. I suspect not many people who read this blog regularly will care for this music, and I can't defend it musically from any sort of broad perspective. But I have a taste for what I call flash guitar--spectacularly fast and intense electric guitar, referred to in the trade as "shredding"--and it doesn't get much flasher than this. It's from an album I'd forgotten I owned, purchased ten years or so ago from eMusic when eMusic was practically free. I've been going through the backup disks I made then of music that I didn't really listen to at the time. I'm slightly embarrassed to name the album: it's from the heavy metal label Metal Blade and is called The Guitars That Rule the World. Yngwie Malmsteen was a young prodigy in the early '80s, and is now an institution.


Say what you will, that's quite a technical feat. Appropriately, the first sentence of the first review of the album on Amazon is "This album rules." But isn't that supposed to be "rulz"?

Actually, my favorite track on the album is the much less flashy but way more soulful "Blues for Stevie" by Albert Collins. 


That Story About the Mystery Priest

You've probably heard the story about the priest who appeared at the scene of a wreck in rural Missouri at a crucial point in the rescue of a young woman trapped in her car, prayed, anointed the young woman, and disappeared. No one knows who he is; he's not known in the area. I generally maintain a sort of agnostic but not skeptical attitude about stories like this; that is, I don't feel obliged to affirm or deny it, while readily admitting that it certainly could be true. My thought about this one had been not much more than "Hmm, interesting, on to the next news item." But I got a slight jolt when I read the last line of this.

Oddly Amusing

Richard Dawkins, generally lauded for his attacks on Christianity, discovers that some religions are still protected classes in the eyes of the enlightened world. I guess I find it amusing because it's two factions of the neo-Enlightenment snarling at each other, and especially because of the wildly inapplicable use of the weapon of first and last resort, "That's racist!". I don't think it's working as well as it used to. There was a time when I would have been angered at being called a racist; now I think I would just snicker.

I'm actually somewhat in sympathy with Dawkins here, first with "Islam is a race?!?" and second with his skepticism about the scientific achievements of medieval Islam. I realize they exist, but have always suspected that they're exaggerated at the expense of Christendom.

The Wrong Box

I saw this 1966 British comedy when I was a freshman in college and thought it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. Thirty years or so later, I saw it again (on VHS?--I can't remember) and was a little disappointed. It didn't seem as funny as I remembered. Recently, now forty-five years on, on a whim I recorded it from TCM and gave it another chance. This time I found it very funny indeed, maybe not as funny as when I was 19, but funnier than when I was fifty.

I don't know what to make of that, but I recommend the movie. It's the sort of nutty thing that some Americans, such as myself, think of when we hear the term "British humor", though the Brits don't seem to do it anymore. It's the story of two brothers who are the last surviving members of a tontine, a sort of lottery in which the last member to die is the winner. One of the brothers wants to kill the other, while the second is a dotty pedant who is oblivious to the whole thing. Both have relatives who have a stake in the outcome, particularly two very greedy and unscrupulous nephews of the oblivious brother.

The plot is complicated and absurd. The cast includes Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Peter Sellers, whose verbal play is really the funniest stuff. (Sellers's bits are among the funniest of all, but the fact that some of the humor is based on his trade as an abortionist leaves one a bit queasy.) Also in the cast: Michael Caine, John Mills, and Ralph Richardson as the fact-collecting brother Joseph Finsbury.

It's the sort of thing where a line like "You realize you made me drop my grebe" is hilarious. Or "This must be the effect of the nutmeg tart." Monty Python's humor didn't come out of nowhere.

The-wrong-box-movie-poster-1966-1020254974(Notice that some of the graphics in this poster appear to have been done by Edward Gorey.)

The Way It's Supposed to Work

The time will come when you will encounter, more or less unexpectedly, the shock of hearing our doctrines contradicted. Even if the shock is not violent, you will, nevertheless, be aware of the intellectual atmosphere of our times, and perhaps unconsciously you will breath in the air that surrounds young men of the present day, and in time you will be surprised to find that it has intoxicated you, and that you feel uncomfortable in the atmosphere of faith. You will notice that an outwardly spiritual life does not correspond with your interior reality, and undoubtedly, in your surprise and discouragement, you will be tempted to leave behind what will seem to you burdensome and a hindrance to the free development of your intellect. 

Few people, especially few young men, escape this crisis of faith. Perhaps we should not regret it, were it not that so many become depressed and irremediably disturbed spiritually. Those who by God's assistance and by the means about which I now speak pass safely through this dangerous time, possess from then on a courageous spirit and really understand what faith is.

--Elisabeth Leseur

It seems to me that anyone growing up in a Christian home now will hit, or be hit by, this atmosphere and this crisis as soon as he begins to think at all past childhood. I have no broad data, but it seems to me that the majority do not come through, but succumb pretty quickly. Often there is no sense of crisis at all; they just fall into modern secular assumptions, which they experience as liberation (which it certainly is with respect to sex and other pleasures). Leseur was presumably writing roughly a hundred years ago, since she died in 1914. Now we don't need to qualify "atmosphere" with "intellectual"--it's an all-encompassing and almost inescapable thing, all the more powerful because so much of it bypasses the intellect.

More Wheel

Weekend Music

Last week's bit of Asleep at the Wheel made me want to hear more. Here's a nice bit from a live show. This is not the same lineup I saw, at least in that the steel guitar player was a blonde woman (who seemed to be having a great time). I think the personnel apart from Ray Benson have fluctuated a good deal.


By the way, in case you wondered about the title of the previous post, "That's What I Like About the South", this song was in my mind:


The original, by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, inventors--well, leading developers and practitioners--of the Western swing style:


And here's the very archetype, the Platonic form of the style--Wills & Co. doing "San Antonio Rose":


I never have quite understood why he does that weird "Ahh-haa" etc. kind of thing.