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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":