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October 2014

This Is Not A Current Events Blog

But some stories need to be propagated as widely as possible, such as the case of Sharyl Attkisson, the former CBS reporter whose reporting on the Benghazi story attracted some special attention from the government

To say that our government has become Soviet-like, Nazi-like, totalitarian, etc. is clearly to exaggerate. To say that it increasingly views itself as above the law is not, and makes the fear that the first claim will one day be justifiable seem reasonable.

Unrelated, but while I'm at it: this story by a journalist held captive for a couple of years by Syrian jihadists makes it more clear that we simply can't fix the Middle East. "Let them kill each other" and "Leave them alone" are in practice the same sentiment.  Perhaps conquest and decades of occupation might end the violence, but even if that were morally justified few would support the attempt now.

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

I'm not sure I would ever have read this book if my wife had not liked it so much. I had heard of it and knew that it was very highly regarded by critics, but that alone doesn't mean a great deal to me. But while my wife was reading it she read me a few passages that were very impressive. And then when she finished she bought half a dozen copies to give away (used copies, I note, so it was not a huge expense). So I thought with that kind of testimony on record I should move it up higher on my list.

It's as good as she said. It's the sort of book of which I can either say a little or a lot, spending either minutes or hours, and since my free time is limited I'm going to make it minutes. 

Gilead is a novel, but the narrative is pretty slight. It almost seems more like a series of reflections or meditations than a novel, but those reflections are rich and illuminating. I considered marking passages that were especially worthy of remembering, then realized I'd be marking almost every page. I'm quite sure I'll read it again, and there aren't many books of which I'll say that.

Gilead is a small town in Iowa, and the book's narrator is an old man, John Ames, who expects to die soon, and the book takes the form of a sort of journal written to and for his young son, or rather to the grown man that the son will one day be. Ames is a Congregationalist minister, and it was a surprise to me, as it probably would be to many Catholics, that he is in many essential ways very orthodox in his faith. The writing of the journal takes place in the 1950s, and the recounting of his experiences reaches back into the lives of his father and grandfather, both also Congregationalist ministers. The grandfather had moved to Kansas from Maine in the years preceding the Civil War for the purpose of assisting in the fight against slavery, helping escaped slaves and participating in the "direct action," as a modern revolutionary might call it, of John Brown. The intensity of the grandfather's convictions and his disturbingly direct implementation of the demands of the Gospel have effects which reach down into the present day.

In addition to the filling-in of this family history, there are events contemporaneous to the writing of the journal. These involve the very wayward son of a friend (also a minister, but a Lutheran) who was named after Ames, and who presents Ames with certain personal challenges. None of this involves any extremely dramatic events, but it all adds up to a picture of one life and glimpses into others. And I understand that in Robinson's other books these glimpses are expanded--her most recent, Lila, is about Ames's wife--and I'm sure each illuminates the others in many ways. 

Ames's own son is the product of a late and unexpected marriage, and the marriage and child constitute for Ames a blessing unhoped-for and in his mind even unmerited. This is the central fact upon which the most striking thing about the novel is built: a sense of enormous gratitude. Because I don't want to do the work of trying to describe that aspect of it, I opened the book to a random page to see if a passage sufficient to illustrate the point would present itself. That page had some good things, but I knew there were better, so I opened to another random page, and this is what I found:

I'd never have believed I'd see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.


There's a shimmer in a child's hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They're in the petals of flowers, and they're on a child's skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you're not prettier than most children. You're just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it's your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I'm about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.

The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I've thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people whn the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it. "The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart." That's a fact.

So if you want to figure that the odds of happening on a passage like that on a page chosen randomly suggest that there are many such passages, you'd be right. 

See the simul-post at Janet's blog, which goes into more depth.

52 Guitars: Week 43

Michael Brook

After Daniel Lanois, Michael Brook naturally comes to mind. He's another guitarist whose strength is in colors and atmospheres rather than power and speed. And Lanois produced Brook's album Cobalt Blue, which is well known among both guitar and ambient music fans--I first heard it on the ambient radio program Music from the Hearts of Space. He invented something he calls "infinite guitar", which I take to mean that it can sustain a note until the player decides to stop it.

"Ultramarine" (apparently this was used in a movie called Heat):




"Shona Bridge":


If you like these, you won't be disappointed in the album.  And if you think you hear a suggestion of Joshua Tree-period U2, especially in "Ultramarine," it's apparently not a coincidence.

One Last Note on the Synod

I like the Pope's list, in his closing address, of things to avoid:

- One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.

 - The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”

 - The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).

 - The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfil the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.

 - The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…

Though I don't understand that last bit about "byzantinisms." You can read the whole address here. Much as I agree with what he says, I don't see a whole lot of definite help in it toward solving the actual problems that have received so much press.

Representing the "wise as serpents" group, Russell Shaw makes some cogent and worrisome points in The Synod and the Media: Culpable Naivete or Shrewd Calculation? 

This piece, which I reached via Rod Dreher, says something similar to what I've said several times, that one very notable feature of Francis's papacy so far is a sad, maybe tragic, re-igniting of the intra-Church factional fights of the past fifty years which had been fading into the background, and a consequent turn inward of the Church in the industrialized nations rather than toward the world so in need of evangelization.

But I don't know any better than the Pope how, specifically, to reconcile the demands of love and truth in relation to the sexual and marital turmoil of our time. Truth without love is not truth. Love without truth is not love.  I have my doubts as to whether any set of rules can adequately codify the attempt to balance them. Nothing the hierarchy says or does can take the place of the encounter of persons, or provide a detailed script for it, or remove the need for every Catholic to approach it with one question always uppermost: How can I help this person move closer to God?  The old medical principle applies: first do no harm.

52 Guitars: Week 42

Daniel Lanois

Most of my entries in this series have emphasized technical brilliance, though not, I hope, empty brilliance: I haven't included anyone who doesn't have something interesting to say musically. But there's a place for people who don't dazzle you with speed, and yet have the ability to move you. Daniel Lanois is one of these.

If he has a lot of money in the bank, it's probably because of his work as producer for many artists whose names are better known than his: Bob Dylan (Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind), U2 (The Joshua TreeAchtung Baby, and others), Emmylou Harris (the masterpiece Wrecking Ball). One thing most of those recordings have in common is a richly reverberant and mysterious guitar sound which is something of a trademark with him. He's also a brilliant artist in his own right, and if you listen to one of his solo albums you see immediately where that atmosphere comes from. Here are two selections from his solo instrumental album Belladonna.

"The Deadly Nightshade": 




To my taste his albums are a little uneven, but if you were to take the best of all of them you'd have a body of work that would stand with anything produced in the past 50 years. Not only is it brilliant musically, but it shows a deep religious sensibility. From his first solo album, Acadie, here's the instrumental "White Mustang II": 


And here's a non-instrumental track which is a great example of the guitar-based texture and ambience he creates for a song. He's the only player/producer I know who can make a full-on distorted guitar chord feel like a warm embrace. You really need to hear this on a decent sound system to appreciate the instrumental work, because there's nothing ostentatious about it. There's a deep bass line that you probably won't even hear on computer speakers. From Shine, "I Love You":


What is that rare quality that makes a work of art a tear-jerker even though it's not sad?

Some Interesting Words from Eve Tushnet

Well, of course, the Catholic neighborhood of the Internet is still ablaze with commentary about the synod, and I'm certainly not going to attempt any summary, especially as I've only read a little of it. But this from Eve Tushnet, which someone posted on Facebook, caught my eye. I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but it is interesting, because she's a gay Catholic who wants to follow the teachings of the Church, and yet without repudiating what she sees as an essential part of her nature.

I admit that I really don't see a good resolution for that problem. One thought the question provokes, though, is that her vision of some sort of place for "celibate partnership" (there's a link to further discussion of that idea in her piece) is something that I can see more easily workable for lesbians than for gay men. Despite the abundant evidence, most women don't really understand just how commanding and obsessive the male sex drive is. They may understand it as an observed datum, but since they don't experience it, they still tend to underestimate its power.

Eve Tushnet has a book out, by the way, which I'm sure would be interesting.


So what do you think about this Synod document?

I agree with most of it. Who could be against a message of welcome and love for people in difficult situations, often ones for which they are not even at fault in any serious way? Who would object to this?:

Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm.

But on the basis of one quick reading alone, I can see that there are huge problems with many of its details. Setting that aside--too big a subject for a quick blog post--I'm disheartened by what people on both sides are saying about it.  It looks as if we are embarking on a smaller-scale repeat of the war that followed Vatican II, when the party within the Church which is effectively of the liberal Protestant persuasion thought victory was within its grasp. As I said to a friend yesterday,  the promulgation of this interim document "stinks of the kind of progressive skill at manipulating 'the narrative' that created the VII mess." Already they have the public relations victory: yesterday I saw one news story after another suggesting that this is clearly a first step toward a wholesale revision of Church teaching on sex and marriage--with, of course, the obsessions of our press being what they are, emphasis on homosexuality.

In something I posted here a few years ago, or perhaps more than a few, I expressed the hope that the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict would have settled the internal disputes that had torn the Church for the better part of twenty years, and that we would be able to turn outward, toward evangelization and generally bearing witness to the world. I was hoping that under Francis that would happen. But it doesn't look that way now. Pope Francis says many wonderful things, but he also has demonstrated an ability to sow confusion and division with occasional questionable remarks. Looks like he's done the same thing on a bigger scale here. He is a loving shepherd, but not always a wise one.

Misfiring Neurons

Like pretty much everyone, I suppose, who reaches a certain age, I fear losing my mind to physical deterioration. Call it dementia or Alzheimer's or whatever the applicable medical terminology is, the thing that strikes many old people is a horrible thing. I saw it with my beloved maternal grandmother when I was in my early teens, and was confused, disturbed and a little frightened by it. And a friend of mine is going through it now with her mother, who no longer recognizes her or anyone else, cannot use a knife and fork, has long since ceased to be able to enjoy things like reading which were a huge part of her life, and is often angry or depressed. I understand and wholly accept the Church's teaching against euthanasia and suicide, but I can certainly understand why people who don't have a belief in some kind of transcendent reality which makes suffering meaningful would see no reason why they shouldn't do it in such a terrible situation. And although one cannot approve of action to make it happen, I don't think there's anything wrong with praying for a speedy end to the ordeal.

Anyway: I don't dwell on it, and mostly maintain a combination of "thy will be done" and que sera sera attitudes when the thought presents itself. But I do feel uneasy whenever I have the sort of odd mental lapse that seems to come with normal aging, and worry that it's a sign of bad things to come. The inability to come up with proper names when they're needed, for instance, happens to me often enough, and I notice it in other people my age. That one, I'm told, is nothing to worry about it, though it can be embarrassing.

There's another little phenomenon which may or may not be a normal old age thing, but which strikes me as interesting with respect to the way the mind works. It's the unconscious substitution, when writing, of one word for another. It happened to me a day or two ago as I was composing an email to a friend. I intended to say "I'll say more in another email later." But when I read over the text before sending it, as I have learned to do for just this reason, I found that I had written "I'll say more in another email letter." 

This happens to me regularly. And it's not what we ordinarily mean by a typographical or spelling error. The substituted word is always related to the intended one in spelling, and often in meaning as well. When it's only spelling, like "through" for "though", it's always a real word. And even if the meaning is rather different, as in this example, it often makes sense in the sentence, though not necessarily as much sense as the intended word. 

What makes it so interesting to me is that it is completely unconscious. The discovery of "letter" instead of "later" in this instance was a complete surprise to me, as much as it would have been if someone else had gotten hold of my computer and changed it. It seems to offer a glimpse into the mechanics of communication, which in one's native language are largely unconscious--the extent to which some sort of invisible machinery goes into play when we write or talk. In a rough way, what seems to happen is that my conscious mind has an idea that it intends to communicate, and a rough notion of what words are required, and it calls on this partly-visible mechanism to come up with the specific words and order the fingers to type them. But what the mechanism actually delivers is not exactly what was called for: close, but not exactly. It seems to indicate that the selection of words, or at least the setting-down of them, is partly carried on below the surface of consciousness. Anyone who has any facility for writing at all is familiar with the sense that words, phrases, and whole sentences sometimes simply appear, popping into existence intact and in toto.

Perhaps this particular phenomenon has mainly to do with the mechanism of typing itself. I learned to type, or at least learned the keyboard, when I was in my mid-teens: an odd skill for a teenaged boy in 1964 or so to have acquired, and it happened only because my father was annoyed that my older sister and I appeared to have nothing useful to do one summer, and made us take a night class in typing. Looking back on it, that seems a strange thing for him to have done. But he's not here for me to ask him why he did it, and I've certainly benefited from the fact that typing is as automatic and unconscious an action for me as driving, which I learned around the same time. There is not much conscious thought between my intention for a word to appear on this screen and the motions of my fingers that make it so. (The following year I started working for my uncle on the farm during the summer vacation, which was a lot better than taking a typing class.)

Whether this foreshadows more serious mental failings, I don't know. But I guess I can see how such misfires could spread and accumulate into a serious problem, resulting in more and more difficulty in connecting with one's surroundings. I wouldn't mind hearing that someone under 55 or so experiences the same thing sometimes. If I did it when I was much younger, I don't remember--which could just be another symptom of age.

And now I've sort of spooked myself about the whole thing. 

52 Guitars: Week 41

Doc Watson

I'm pressed for time today, but I don't want to put this off, so I won't say much. You already know who Doc Watson was, right? If not, you can read about him here. I'll confine my remarks to repeating what Dylan said about him: that his playing was like water flowing from a spring. 

"Windy and Warm": 


"Black Mountain Rag": 


"Deep River Blues": 



The Last Martini of Summer

My preferred alcoholic beverage is beer. I love beer. I'm not sure exactly when my willingness to drink beer for the sake of being grown-up (and drunk) turned into a real enjoyment of beer for its own sake, but I don't think it took very long. And it really solidified when I discovered beers with more character than the standard American product. One instance of genuine progress in this country over the past forty years or so is the wide availability of imported and craft beers. 

Cultured persons are supposed to like wine, and know something about it, but I've never developed any great enthusiasm for it. I actually made a deliberate decision years ago not to attempt to develop the taste for good wine, because I knew it would be an expensive one. But more fundamentally--and I don't care if this marks me as a bit of a clod--I just don't like it as much as I like beer.  I'm not a connoisseur of beer, either, but I know what I like. My wife and I occasionally go out to dinner with another couple, and the three of them share a bottle of wine, while I drink Sweetwater 420. My standing order for birthday and Father's Day gifts is a six-pack of Guinness Extra Stout and a bag of Cheetos. (Someone remarked that that sounded like a vile combination, so I'll clarify: they are two separate indulgences.) But I'm happy with lesser stuff. I'll only drink "lite" beer if I really want a beer and it's the only thing available, but I recently had a regular Budweiser, which I hadn't done in a long time, solely because it was cheap, and enjoyed it.

As for hard liquor, I have over the years only rarely ventured far from bourbon and scotch, straight, or on the rocks, or with water, or, in the case of scotch, soda. Now and then I've experimented with mixed drinks, and I like one every now and then, but mostly they're not something I want regularly. A few years ago one of my sons brought back a bottle of Ron Barrilito rum from a trip to Puerto Rico and introduced me to the Dark and Stormy, which when made with that rum and Reed's Ginger Beer, is wonderful. But it's not something I want to drink regularly, and anyway Ron Barrilito is not available here, and the drink when made with Bacardi and ginger ale is not that different from other soft-drink-and-liquor combinations, which I generally dislike.

But over the past couple of years I've added another drink to my small list of staples: the martini. I don't think I'd ever even had one till eight or ten years ago, and that was only out of curiosity--it is, after all, a storied drink, though associated with a culture rather different from my own. Unlike my other experiments, this one kept drawing me back, and now I think I'm a confirmed fan.

I mainly like it in the summer. The summers here are very hot and humid, and the martini is cold and dry. Sweet drinks have a lot of initial appeal, but for a slow sipper like me they grow thin and warm before I'm finished. Conventionally, a summer drink is something sweet and tropical. But where the summers are brutal, the most desirable drink for the season is one that is the opposite of summer, a drink with the chill and clarity of a windless and cloudless winter day. There is absolutely nothing sweet about the martini as I make it, and I make very sure it's cold and will stay that way until I've finished it. 

I've experimented with different approaches preached by various self-styled experts on the web, and what I've settled on seems to make me somewhat of a traditionalist, but also somewhat of maverick. On the traditional side, I refuse to use the unqualified term "martini" for any drink that does not include gin and vermouth. A vodka martini is just that--not a martini, period, but a qualified one. Nothing wrong with it, but it should be called what it is. Concoctions that are labelled as martinis just because they are served in a martini glass don't even deserve mention; vodka and apple juice may make a pleasant drink, but they don't make a martini.

I also observe the olive tradition, if only because I very much like olives, and love that finishing touch of salty gin-soaked olive at the end of the drink. One is not enough, but having read that a gangster was once identified to his assassins by the placement of three olives instead of two in his martini, I superstitiously limit myself to two. And four seems excessive.

On the other hand, my martini is not served in a martini glass, because I don't have one (I did, but it got broken), and, more importantly, because a normal-sized martini glass doesn't leave enough room for ice. Yes, I have it on the rocks, which seems to make it in some views not a true martini. I tried the crushed-ice-and-shaker technique, and the result is fine for a few minutes, but it gets warm long before I'm done with it. And I keep the gin and vermouth in the refrigerator, which seems to be frowned upon.

And I have no patience at all with the extreme dryness snobs, who seem to take it as some sort of a challenge to see how little vermouth they can use and still feel entitled to use the word "martini." You know the sort of thing: "wave an open bottle of vermouth back and forth several times over the glass", etc. If you want to drink straight gin, or gin with olives, go ahead. But why make a fetish of minimizing the thing that makes the martini something more? I don't measure, but I think my gin-vermouth ratio is about five to one.

I use inexpensive gin and vermouth. I actually prefer the cheaper and harsher Gallo vermouth over Martini, because the latter, while smoother, and better as a drink on its own, is a bit sweeter.

It's October, and of course that's still late summer here. This afternoon I came to the end of both the gin and the vermouth. There was a little too much of both for a single martini, but not enough to save for another day. So I made myself a martini-and-a-half, of which I enjoyed every sip, and which left me wondering how anyone could, as legends have it, drink three martinis at lunch and still be able to do useful work--or, in my case, even walk. Sometime around next May I'll replenish the supplies. Or maybe sooner. Maybe I'll try some kind of expensive gin; one always wants to make a good thing even better. But then again, that may not be a taste I ought to cultivate. 


Martini on the Rocks

(Except for the number of olives, and maybe the amount of ice--I use less--this looks very much like one of my martinis, down to the style of the glass. This photo is from the Flickr account of Josh Ames; since code for embedding is provided, I assume it's ok for me to use it. 


By the way, speaking of mixed drinks in general: five or six years ago I was at an event--I suppose it was a cocktail party, though that is a pretty foreign term to me--hosted by a consulting firm looking to be hired by my employer. A young lady came around taking drink orders, and I asked for scotch and soda. I thought she looked a little disconcerted, and she hesitated for a second, maybe as if she were about to ask a question, then decided not to. A few minutes later she brought me something that looked like scotch and soda, but I almost spat out the first sip: it was scotch and Seven-Up, or Sprite, or something of that sort. It was nasty. 

Dostoevsky: Demons

When I finished this book a few weeks ago I wanted to turn back to the front and begin reading it again right away. I'm not going to, because there are too many other things I want to read. But I do want to return to it in time. This is not because I enjoyed it so much that I didn't want it to end (an experience I've had only a few times), but because I felt like I had missed something that might become clear on a second reading, and that a second reading might be more rewarding, even more enjoyable, than the first.

I made the same mistake with Devils that I did with The Brothers Karamazov: I read a couple of hundred pages fairly quickly, and then, because I'm never reading only one thing, I lost focus and went several weeks reading very little in it at all. By the time I got back to it in a serious way, I had begun to forget some of what was going on, and to have trouble keeping the characters straight (the chronic complaint of American and European readers, a result of both the relative complexity and general unfamiliarity of Russian names).

It was probably another hundred pages or so before I began to really get back a sense of coherent narrative flow. Even then, I had some trouble following what was happening: not the bare events, but their significance. Some of that is inevitable, for me at least, in a long and complex novel, since it's not possible for me to read for hours at a time. But I think it's worse with Dostoevsky than with some others. He is not obscure in the way that a 20th century poet is likely to be obscure, or in the way James Joyce is obscure--at the level of language, description, and action. One understands well enough what is happening on the stage from moment to moment--these two people have a conversation, that one starts on a journey, etc. But the motives and purposes are often obscure, to me at least. I frequently have the sense that I'm looking through some kind of fog, and in poor light. The psychology often escapes me. Opening and leafing through a few pages, I find this exchange.

"They're cunning; they had it all set up on Sunday...." he suddenly blurted out.

"Oh, no doubt," I cried, pricking up my ears, "it was all patched together, with the seams showing, and so badly acted."

"I don't mean that. You know, they left the seams showing on purpose, so that it would be noticed by...the right people. Do you understand?"

"No, I don't"

Well, neither did I. You might suppose that if you knew what had happened on Sunday, you would know what they meant. But you wouldn't necessarily. The events were straightforward enough, but the element of contrivedness, and the assertion that the contrivedness was itself contrived, and the identity of "the right people," are certainly not notions that had occurred to me on reading the account. Nor are they clarified in the rest of the exchange.

Much of the book consists of conversation, and much of that is filled with suggestions of innuendo and insult, remarked upon but not always explained, that are often obscure to me. In general I often felt, as with Karamazov, that many of the characters were, in the words of a friend, "just barely sane," though perhaps somewhat less so that in that work. 

The edition I read was the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, which is clear enough in its own right. It has an introduction by Joseph Frank, author of a five-volume biographical study of Dostoevsky and one of the great authorities on his work. The introduction closes with this:

For Demons is not only a novel that deals with some of the profoundest issues of the modern world, and indeed of human life--it is also a riveting page-turner, a great read, a thriller par excellence that is impossible to put down.

I don't know how many readers of the novel would agree with that. I certainly would not. And yet, as I said, I would like to read it again, because I recognize that it's a rich and profound book, and that my grasp of it is inadequate to say the least. I feel as I have often felt on hearing for the first time a symphony acknowledged to be great--Brahms's Third, for instance--but which did not immediately appeal to me: I didn't entirely get it, but I got enough to make me want to return to it. A second reading would be easier and no doubt bring more clarity, and an easier flow to the narrative--provided, of course, that I could stick with it and make the reading more of a piece.

To say a little about the story itself: this is Dostoevsky's most political novel, and although it was written almost a hundred and fifty years ago, it remains timely, because it deals in part with the nature of political ideology and its temptations, with the radical impulse to destroy everything and start anew, and the incompetence of the establishment in meeting the challenge. The fact that we have since then seen just such a demolition and starting-over only makes Dostoevsky's view of it seem more astute. 

But as always with Dostoevsky, it is the spiritual crisis of the age that is the essential matter. And in that respect the book was badly compromised by the refusal of its publisher to publish a critical chapter. The character Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin (I think I got that right) is a sort of would-be nihilist who cannot entirely get rid of his conscience. In the originally unpublished chapter, he goes to visit a monk and confesses a terrible crime. This chapter, "At Tikhon's", was considered too shocking to print, and although it was not lost, Dostoevsky did not restore it to any edition published in his lifetime. Apparently it has become the common practice in modern editions to include it as an appendix. If you haven't read the book, I recommend that you read this chapter in what was to have been its position, as Chapter 9 of Part Two. I did not, and Stavrogin made very little sense to me until I had. That is one of the things I'll have in mind the next time I read it.

I should mention something that might not be expected, which is that the book is very funny in places. One of the central relationships is that of the liberal father Stepan Trofimovich and his radical son Pyotor Stepanovitch. The latter is dangerous, and the former in the end gets more of our respect, but the opening chapters of the book involve some very sharp satire of the liberal who wants to think of himself as bold and dangerous but is actually perfectly tame.


52 Guitars: Week 40

Chet Atkins

This is for Robert Gotcher, who asked if I was ever going to feature Chet Atkins. Actually I wasn't planning to. I know Atkins was an extremely good player, but the kind of music he played has never been all that appealing to me. And I have to admit I was prejudiced against him early on, by a classical player who was dismissive of Atkins's forays into that repertoire. That's really beside the point, of course;  I doubt that Atkins intended to put himself into competition with Julian Bream; he probably just wanted to play good music of any kind.

On the basis of what I've been able to find on YouTube, my first reservation still holds. But man, the guy could play. "Stars and Stripes Forever":


I don't know if it would be correct to call "Wildwood Flower" his signature tune, but it's one I used to hear associated with his name. Embedding of the video has been disabled, so I'll just have to link to it: "Wildwood Flower".

Also not embeddable: "Orange Blossom Special". Astonishing clarity and fluidity--and he makes it look so utterly effortless.  (Sorry about the harp player's getup etc.--he is really good, though.) I recall a friend, many years ago, saying "If you ever start thinking you're good [on guitar], go to Nashville." Well, notice in the "Orange Blossom" clip that the other guy is doubling Atkins's lead through most of it, except for the really high-speed stuff. 

The Dale Cooper Quartet

When we were discussing Twin Peaks a week or so ago (on the Favorite Movies thread?--I can't remember), I mentioned that I had discovered that there's a band named Audrey Horne, and one named The Dale Cooper Quartet. (For those who don't know Twin Peaks, those are prominent characters.) I wondered if the Dale Cooper name was just a coincidence. I think it pretty clearly is not.


I've listened to the album from which this is taken, Metamanoir, a few times on Rdio, played softly in the background while I worked,  and on the basis of that I think I'm going to like it a lot.

The Waning of Adulthood (2)

Lena Dunham is an actress whose name I recognize, though I have never seen her perform, because she gets into the news now and then. She attracted some attention during the 2012 election for some asinine comments comparing voting for the first time to losing one's virginity to a special someone, with the special guy in this case being, naturally, Barack Obama.

A few days ago she attracted the attention of Kevin Williamson of National Review by publishing a list of five reasons for voting,  most of which are as asinine as her 2012 remarks. Reason #1: "When you vote, you feel so, so good." Williamson's scathing response is "Five Reasons You're Too Dumb to Vote", and if you want to skip his scath and see what she said, it's here.

There are two things that principally strike me about her piece: 1) its generally vapid and childish tone, which seems deliberate;  2) the fact that its chief political concern is the preservation of the right to sexual freedom without consequence.  

Surely these are connected. Miss Dunham is 28 years old. Two generations ago that would have been considered mature. The typical 28-year-old would have been married with children and therefore holding some responsible position in the world, whether as breadwinner or housekeeper. It was still the case more often than not for my generation, though the large contingent of bohemians and quasi-bohemians were holding on to their adolescence for as long as they could. Now, at least if you judge by popular culture--not necessarily a valid approach--that attempt seems to be the norm for a lot of people. And of course sexual indulgence is at the core of it.

We were talking here a week or so ago about the diminishment of the concept of adulthood, and I mentioned a New York Times piece on the subject. I had not at the time read the whole thing, but now I have--it's here--and it more than confirms the impression I've had for some years now, that the dimishment is real, and that it's actively encouraged and applauded by many influential voices. The piece is by a film critic, and there's a lot of the sort of silly stuff I've come to expect in popular culture--he can use the word "era" to describe a period within the last decade when certain TV shows were current--but there is some real perception there, too, and a worrisome appraisal of the culture--worrisome because of what it says, and because the author seems to approve, though with some qualifications, as in this typical paragraph (the "figures" referred to are adults in American literature going back to Huckleberry Finn and further):

Looking at those figures and their descendants in more recent times — and at the vulnerable patriarchs lumbering across the screens to die — we can see that to be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story. And that’s no way to live. It is a kind of moral death in a culture that claims youthful self-invention as the greatest value. We can now avoid this fate. The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all. We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.

As is suggested by "vulnerable patriarchs," the writer through most of the piece comes close to making "adult" and "patriarch" synonymous, which is pretty significant. The implications of all this for our future are as disturbing as the extent to which they actually represent social reality, and not just the daydreams of people immersed in pop culture.

(Why is this The Waning of Adulthood (2)? Because I wrote about the same thing back in 2012.)