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October 2015

Chris Rea: You Must Be Evil

I can't tell you how many times I had similar feelings when I was raising children. Not so much about the nightly news and similar things, which we never watched, but about the news/entertainment industry in general.


Broadchurch 2

We (my wife and I) finished watching the second series of Broadchurch a couple of weeks ago. I liked it almost as much as the first one. The plot was more diffuse, taking up where the first series left off, with the trial of the murderer arrested in that case, and also re-activating the unrelated and unsolved case which seemed to torment Detective Inspector Hardy in the first series. Arguably the two pieces aren't really fitted to each other that well, but they're both strong stories, so I didn't mind.
The acting is mostly superb. I have to mention especially Olivia Colman as Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, one of the two main characters (the other being David Tennant as Hardy). This is one of those portrayals that cause me to lose completely any sense that I'm watching someone playing a part. 
(I haven't decided whether this is a pattern or not, but it seems to me that a lot of these British TV shows deal more interestingly and effectively with their female characters than American shows do. Now and then I get a glimpse of an American cop show, and the policewomen and other female characters very often make it impossible for me to see them as anything other than beautiful and vain actresses. None of the women in Broadchurch is presented that way. Though several of them are quite attractive, they don't have that look-at-me-I'm-so-beautiful air. And Ellie is rather plain. That's part of what makes her so real-seeming and effective--Olivia Colman is willing to look downright ugly when her character is dealing with terrible pain, and she makes you feel it.)
And then there's the place, and the photography, and the music. I can't imagine how they make those seacoast scenes look as rich as they do--very soft but at the same time very clear and vivid. I can only hope no one sold his soul for the gift. 
I didn't find the lesbian subplot to be distracting, but it is superfluous. Except for the one scene in the last episode, the relationship could just as well have been a friendship. And, as has often been pointed out, that's an insidious thing about the current obsession with homosexual relationships: now any close friendship between two people of the same sex is at least suspected and often presumed to be a sexual relationship.
We discussed Broadchurch and the thrown-in lesbianism in the comments on #29 of the 52 Authors, Josephine Tey. It was brought to light there that the BBC actually has an official policy--part of its "diversity" code--of presenting homosexual relationships often and positively. It's becoming a cliche. My wife and I watched a good many episodes of the mostly excellent series Call the Midwife, up until the point where it became obvious that they were about to announce that one of the midwives was a lesbian. We gave it up in exasperation, not wanting to sit through another round of the Struggle Against Homophobia. Currently we're watching Home Fires, a drama about the lives of women in the early days (and presumably on) of Word War II. The preview of one episode showed the unmarried schoolteacher having an unexpected female visitor. "Well, here it comes," I said. And sure enough.... The lover came and apparently went in that episode, so maybe, as with Broadchurch, the lecturing is not going to get in the way. I would think homosexuals might find this diversity checkoff patronizing. 
SPOILERS ALLOWED in the comments.

52 Authors: Week 43 - Madison Jones

I first came upon the name Madison Jones ten or so years ago while reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters. In a letter to “A” dated July 6, 1963 Miss O’Connor says that she was currently reading Jones’s new book, and goes on to say “It’s a shame about his books. They are excellent and fall like lead clear out of sight the minute they are published.” Trusting her judgment, I got a copy of his first novel, The Innocent, and jumped in. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Jones, born in Nashville in 1925, was almost an exact contemporary of O’Connor, the two of them born within days of each other. Jones attended Vanderbilt, where he studied under Donald Davidson, one of the Fugitive poets and “Twelve Southerners” of I’ll Take My Stand fame. He went on to get his Master’s at the University of Florida under Andrew Lytle, another one of the twelve. Jones had several short stories published in the 1950’s, but his first novel did not appear until 1957. He had in the meantime become a friend and correspondent of O’Connor. Jones went on to write eleven more novels over the next 50 years, his last one appearing in 2008. He also taught writing at Auburn from 1956 to 1987. He died in 2012.

Although he received several major writing awards Jones largely flew under the radar of the contemporary literature scene. One can probably mark this down to several things, including his conservative Southernness and the stark traditional morality apparent in his writing, neither of which tends to get you positive attention from the literary movers and shakers. Critical attention to him is therefore largely lacking, and only one book on him has appeared, a collection of essays by various hands published by the University of Southern Denmark (!). In any case, Jones does write excellent books as O’Connor said, and they are well worth reading.

Of the twelve novels that he published I’ve read nine. Often he reads like something of a cross between O’Connor and Mauriac – he’s got some of the “Southern gothic” imagination of the former combined with the psychological insight of the latter. But he’s more readable than Mauriac in my opinion, and his plots and characters aren’t as outré as O’Connor’s sometimes are. He wasn’t a Catholic, but a Calvinist, and although his work isn’t often explicitly religious, there is a deep sense of the understanding of original sin present in all his works. Many of the books follow a roughly similar plotline: a man makes a moral error, usually involving either a woman, money, or both, and we watch him unravel as he tries to justify and/or cover up his sin. His great theme seems to be, “What you sow you shall reap,” and where he is masterful is when he shows the interior effects of this on his characters.

A good example of this theme is his short novel An Exile (1967). A small town sheriff, bored in his marriage, has an affair with the much-younger daughter of a local moonshiner. In order to protect this secret he begins having to steer police attention away from her father, causing him to lie to his fellow officers and misuse his police power. Things rapidly go out of control, and his attempts to fix things just make it all worse. (This book was made into an okay but not great film with Gregory Peck and Tuesday Weld, I Walk The Line. The title song by Johnny Cash is much better known.)

Two of his better known novels actually veer away from these themes, however. Nashville 1864, which won the Shaara Award for Civil War fiction in 1998, concerns a young boy searching for his father in the aftermath of the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. And A Cry of Absence, set in 1957, has as its protagonist a middle aged woman who comes to believe that her son may have committed a terrible crime. When it appeared in 1971 it was hailed as one of the great recent novels about racial issues. But the rest of the books that I’ve read tend to follow that rough “sowing and reaping” template. One might think that this would get monotonous or predictable from book to book, but Jones always manages to make things interesting, and his characters come across as real people, not just cutouts to fit the template.

Jones’s prose style is straightforward but well-crafted; his writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, but particularly good sentences or paragraphs nevertheless often jump out at the reader. In the main, however, the writing serves the story in an almost perfect balance.

For the newcomer to Jones I’d recommend The Innocent, A Buried Land, or A Cry of Absence. Or for a good shorter introduction you can go with An Exile, which runs to about 130 pages. The combination of great craftsmanship with a strong moral sense and profound character insight makes Madison Jones a unique and appealing figure in late 20th century fiction.


 —Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.

I Finally Read Laudato Si

It is a very windy document. It would have been much better at half the length. It's repetive, and consciously so. From the opening chapter:

Although each chapter will have its own subject and specific approach, it will also take up and re-examine important questions previously dealt with.... These questions will not be dealt with once and for all, but reframed and enriched again and again.

I'm not so sure that was a good idea. I found much to applaud in the first half or so, but long before I reached the end I was impatient and felt that little was being added. 

As we all know, the most immediately notable thing about the encyclical was its highly politicized reception: the left was jubilant, far too many on the right dismissive and even contemptuous. Both did it a disservice. The left immediately wielded it as a weapon against the right, which naturally encouraged the right to find fault with it. Now that I've read it, I have to say that many of the more strident critics on the right look like fools. There are plenty of specifics here that one might argue with, but to dismiss its principles is wrong for Catholics, and a mistake for anyone. And by the way, it explicitly invites debate, so a Catholic needn't feel hesitant to disagree with it on matters of fact, or about the wisdom of this or that specific proposal. Daniel Mahoney, writing in National Review, has the best reaction from a Catholic conservative that I've come across, though I'm sure there are others--which doesn't mean that I agree with everything he says.

Mahoney says that Chapter 3, "The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis", is the strongest part of the encyclical, and I agree. To do it justice would require quoting long stretches, but here's a small sample:

It can be said that many problems of today's world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. 

I have to wonder if some of the noisiest people on both sides have even read it. The thing that's gotten the most attention is its commitment to the cause of combating "climate change." But that's really quite a small part of the whole, and an unessential one; that is, you could remove every mention of climate change without in the least diminishing the force of its call for environmental responsibility, for which it makes a case very persuasive on both religious and common-sense grounds.

My biggest reservation about it is that it doesn't really connect physical ecology and cultural ecology very effectively, especially the moral ecology involving sex and the family which has been clear-cut in the past fifty years or so. The passage quoted above, for instance, would seem to lead naturally in that direction, but is in fact followed by a caution that the "model" described "[shapes] social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups." Perhaps, but I think the more significant and powerful shaping is toward a general preference for ease and comfort over more substantial goods. I am less worried about "certain powerful groups" than about the character of people in general.

The encyclical says some strong things about the connection between environmental damage and greed (though I'm not sure it uses the word "greed"), and about the folly of believing that man's power to manipulate nature is absolute and unlimited. And it does connect these errors with the decline of the family and related questions. But that connection is not emphasized or elaborated upon. Of course I recognize that one document can't treat every question, and this one is explicitly about the environment (a phrase which I always want to put in quotes because it seems clumsy. and to admit in the very nomenclature of the debate a view of nature as an object separate from ourselves). But I think an opportunity was missed. 

And because it was missed, the actual impact in the U.S. and Europe seems likely to be a strengthening of the anti-Christian forces with which we're all familiar. There really is not much here to challenge them, and what there is will be easily ignored, as demonstrated in something Marianne posted in a comment last June:

As if on cue to prove your point, Mac, here's Hillary Clinton with two back-to-back Tweets:

@Pontifex is right—climate change is a moral crisis that disproportionately harms the neediest among us. We need leadership, not denial. -H

Welcome news: The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled to protect women's ability to access safe & legal abortion throughout the state. -H

The greatest impact of the encyclical--and I hope I'm being too pessimistic--may be in its renewal of the protections provided by the "seamless garment" doctrine elaborated by the late Cardinal Bernardin, this time at the papal level. This idea, while not in principle incorrect, gave, in our cultural context, cover to Catholic politicians and others who promoted the sexual revolution and other pathologies; as long as there was some cause under that garment they agreed with, they felt themselves to be relieved of the obligation to support others that were and are more fundamental--and not only not to support, but to attack. It established moral equivalence between matters of politics and matters of principle, so that support for a job training program was a license to support Planned Parenthood. 

So, for instance, Catholic colleges that have felt themselves to be in tension (at best) with the Church, can, without changing anything, now claim magisterial approval. As long as they support environmentalism, which of course they already do, they can, for instance, leave students to navigate the wilderness of the sexual revolution with no guidance beyond the amoral what's-right-for-me sort. It is a safe bet that at many of these environmentalism will get more classroom attention than the Catholic faith.

Is it that the pope doesn't understand what Christianity in the West is up against in the utopian left, that the natural aim of the latter is to render Christianity marginalized and impotent as a cultural force? Or that he does understand and is attempting to disarm and perhaps convert the opposition? I suspect it's the former but I hope it's the latter. 

"The Triumph of Drivel"

I don't know anything about Canadian politics or the real significance of the newly-elected premier. But this piece by David Warren says some insightful things that are as applicable to our political culture as to our neighbor's.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by “drivel.” I could write, “lies,” but these are only possible to those who have criteria for the truth. Drivel is what people talk who have no such criteria. “Bullshit” is the interchangeable term. The fact that what they’re saying may be true, or untrue, is of no significance to them. It is enough that it sounds plausible. The truthful man knows when he is lying; the post-modern neither knows nor cares. He can believe himself “good,” as drivellers will do, because truth doesn’t come into it.

The old-style politician told knowing lies. The new-style politician does not know what “lies” are. He uses the term rhetorically, against anything he does not want to hear. The old-style politician would back down when confronted with the truth. The new-style politician does not know what you are talking about. He assumes you are only trash-talking him.


52 Authors: Week 42 - Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

Hopkins ranked with Yeats among the poetic enthusiasms of my college years. This was in part the result of the influence of my roommate, who was a couple of years older than I, and of a teacher for whom we shared a great admiration. At the time it meant nothing to me that Hopkins was a Jesuit; I could not have told you coherently what the word meant. It also meant nothing to me that he was a late Victorian convert, and thus in continuity with the movement from Canterbury to Rome which had attracted so much attention a generation earlier, most prominently in the person of John Henry Newman, who crossed over to Rome in 1845, the year after Hopkins was born, and in 1866 received the twenty-two-year-old Hopkins into the Catholic Church. I did at least understand that he was a Christian, but I was not particularly interested in that fact.

What I was interested in was the special intensity, the almost ecstatic quality, of his poetry, which was the result of (among other things)

  • an unnatural compression of meaning (unnatural in the sense of being far from ordinary speech, even by the standards of poetry), often involving the use of short, forceful, archaic, or arcane words and invented compounds;
  • an exaggerated music which uses alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme well beyond what would generally be acceptable, going right up to the edge of the ridiculous, but made effective by precision, and by mastery of the whole;
  • stressed and contorted syntax;
  • an irregular but highly controlled meter which he called “sprung rhythm”.

These effects are easier illustrated than described. Here is stanza 26 of “The Wreck of the Deutschland”:

   For how to the heart's cheering
      The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
   Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
      Of pied and peeled May!
Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,
With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky way,
      What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

Among Catholics a few of his poems have become fairly popular, for me to the point of over-exposure. “God’s Grandeur” (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God...”) is probably the best example, and then perhaps “Pied Beauty” (“Glory be to God for dappled things...”). Supposing that most of my readers will be familiar with those, I’ll include here one not quite so well-known, but which, if my memory serves, was the first of Hopkins’s poems to impart to me something very much like the sensation described in the last line.

Hurrahing In Harvest

SUMMER ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Hopkins’s technique is at the service principally of two subjects: an intense religious devotion, and an equally intense love of nature which tends to focus on precise individual details captured as precisely as possible. Individuality—”all things counter, original, spare, and strange”--was both an aesthetic and a theological matter for him, and are nowhere better expressed than in this poem, left untitled by the poet but generally known by its opening phrase:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Hopkins didn’t write very much. Given his technique, it’s hard to see how he could have. Moreover, he died young (in 1888, at 44). And upon entering the Jesuits at the age of 22, he gave up poetry entirely, as being incompatible with his vocation, and wrote nothing for seven years, until a superior expressed the wish that someone would write a poem about the deaths of five Franciscan nuns in a shipwreck. Taking this as permission, Hopkins produced a striking, even astonishing, classic, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” I would like to be able to say something like “He burst upon the literary scene...” with this poem, but in fact the only publisher that saw it, a Jesuit monthly, turned it down, apparently because it was too strange—and it is strange. After this a little less than fifteen years of life remained to him. In that time he produced, in obscurity, the few dozen poems that, when finally published in 1913 by his friend Robert Bridges, left open only the question “whether he is a great lesser poet, or a lesser great poet.”

At one time I would have not hesitated to choose the second of those characterizations. I’m not quite as enthusiastic as I once was about some of these poems as poems only. I now find myself a little impatient with the obscurity and compression of the poems that are less than entirely brilliant, or are so obscure that I’m still puzzled by certain passages (and a few whole poems). And in encouraging those qualities on the part of 20th century poets, I think Hopkins’s influence was not 100% for the best; this has retroactively, and quite unfairly, colored my view of him.

Nevertheless: the best of these poems are among the best ever written. There’s pretty general agreement on that, and I’d still say “lesser great” rather than “great lesser.” And if one share’s Hopkins’s faith, the enjoyment and appreciation naturally go much deeper than for one who does not: we read his poems not only as elegant verbal artifacts unfortunately attached to an obsolete “belief system,” but as expressions of truth. We feel something of what he feels, not as a moment of openness produced by the poem, but as an aspect of our relationship to the real world. This is not the usual experience of a Catholic with the art of the past couple of centuries, and it’s pleasant not to have in the back of one’s mind a voice saying “Of course one can’t take his philosophy as-is...”, which I at any rate often do.

The joyful contemplation and adoration encountered in Hopkins’s most popular poems was not the whole of his work, just as it is not the whole (to say the least) of ordinary Christian life. There is a set of poems written fairly late in his life which are know as “the terrible sonnets” because of the desolation they describe. He had difficulties with his vocation (of course). And the work he was given, and the places where he was required to do it, were sometimes ill-suited and uncongenial to him. It’s hard to imagine him as a parish priest. I believe some of these poems were written while he was in Ireland, where he apparently found himself at odds even with his fellow Catholics over Irish-British politics.

I had intended to include one of them here, but they are so dark, and so intense, that to toss one in to be read casually seems wrong, to both reader and poet. So I’ll give you a link to No. 42, “No worst, there is none...” and suggest that you read it at leisure

W.H. Gardner’s Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose gives the non-specialist all the Hopkins he will need in a single volume: all the completed poems, significant fragments, and a selection of prose from journals and letters. Gardner’s introduction is an excellent brief biography and a sympathetic view of the poetic and theological matters with which the poet was concerned, and of the tension between his vocation-by-grace as Jesuit and priest and his vocation-by-nature as artist. Wisely, and happily for the reader weary of contemporary obsessions, he notes the likelihood that Hopkins was troubled by sexual tensions (as most celibates naturally are), but declines to speculate further. I could have used a bit more help with some of the obscurities in some of the poems. Hopkins said “Obscurity I do and will try to avoid so far as is consistent with excellences higher than clearness at first reading.” He certainly sacrificed nothing to that latter consideration.



If even after a couple of readings you're baffled, or half-baffled, by certain poems, my advice is to give up on them for the moment and try them again now and then at long intervals. That seems to have worked for me, at any rate. It's a concession to my laziness, I admit, but there is a point in struggling with a poem where frustration overpowers enjoyment, sometimes fatally for the moment. In that case I find it better to let it go for a while, and to read it again occasionally without making any great effort at puzzling it out. The words sink in, and on one of those subsequent readings come together. I recall years ago finding "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire, and of the comfort of the Resurrection" more or less unintelligible, except for the last two lines. Then a decade or so ago I heard it read by a Jesuit expert on Hopkins whose name I can't remember now, and it made perfect sense.  

—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Chris Rea: Auberge

More Chris Rea, who is very under-rated. I admit I don't really understand what this song is about. The artwork shown in this video is relevant in part because the album cover has one of the same artist's pictures, and also because in the full version of the title song there is a sort of sound-effects intro in which you hear someone walking back and forth across a garage (or so it sounds), opening a door, saying he's "Just popping out," closing the door, and starting a car. Also, Rea is into race cars.


There is an official video for this song, which is shorter, dropping not only the non-musical intro but the long slow instrumental intro. I'm including it here because it is so extremely weird, and seems to have so little to do with the song. You wonder if they thought "You know, music videos are basically a dumb idea, so let's just do something completely silly."


I wonder if that little girl (I think it's a girl) is his daughter. Rea seems to be something of a family man. I don't know whether he actually got himself one of those Stainsby girls or not, but he married someone "with whom he has been in a relationship since they met as 16-years-olds in their native Middlesbrough." There's a song on the same album as "Stainsby Girls" (Shamrock Diaries) called "Josephine," which I always assumed to be a basic love song ("Josephine, I'll send you all my love..."), but which is actually to his daughter. And there's a song, I can't remember which one now, in which he denounces the people who've made the world a place where his little girl has to be afraid. 

Here's some clarification as to the song's meaning. You've probably heard "Road to Hell", but here it is in case you haven't.


Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus

When Craig Burrell wrote about Thomas Mann for Week 32 of the 52 Authors series, I decided that the next fiction I read would be Doctor Faustus. I had been irrationally prejudiced against Mann, somehow imagining his books to be very dull novels of not very interesting ideas. But Craig made him, and especially this book, sound interesting, and I thought I ought to at least make Mann's acquaintance. 

Well, I was completely wrong about him. This book is not dull, and although it is among other things a novel of ideas, they are very interesting ones. I'm having a busy week, and so am not going to make much of an attempt to explain why I'm saying this, but will just say it: this is one of the great novels of the 20th century. It's great in the way that Dostoevsky is great, in that it brings together abstract ideas (including theological ones), the movements of culture, rich characters, and a powerful story. In fact I'll say that by the measure of simple enjoyment it's better than Dostoevsky, though that may only be because Germany is less foreign to me than Russia. 

It will probably be a while before I attempt one of Mann's very large novels (Faustus is a modest 500 pages), but I will surely do so. If the others are in the same class as this one, he is certainly one of the Nobel Prize winners who truly deserved the award.

52 Authors: Week 41 - Louise Fitzhugh

In researching for this piece, I discovered that Louise Fitzhugh (1928-1974), the author of two of my favourite childhood books, was a lesbian. The two books, Harriet the Spy (1964) and its sequel, The Long Secret (1965) are peopled by strongly drawn eccentric characters. Few of the figures in her novels are simply ‘eccentrics’, but most are ‘eccentric characters,’ that is, not people living in their own private world (‘eccentrics’) but rather people whose eccentricity is played out in public, adding to the gaiety of the nation. Another word for such ‘eccentric characters,’ at least in the period of which Fitzhugh writes, is ‘native New Yorkers.’ Much of the genius of Harriet the Spy lies in its realistic capture of a certain Manhattan milieu, in the early 1960s, when eccentricity was still recognizable as such, and high rents had not driven the odd balls from the city. Although it depicts the wealthy ‘Upper East side,’ the world of Harriet the Spy was directly recognizable to myself and to my contemporaries at P.S. 41, on the opposite side of Manhattan, as our own. The oddest characters on whom Harriet spies, like Harrison Withers with his 26 cats, are the kind of person one could see through a skylight, making Victorian bird cages, in this city, in 1967.

Since I want to say that the glory of Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret is their realism, we need to get the notebook out of the way. Harriet has been told by her nurse, Ole Golly, that if she wants to be a writer, she must observe and write down her observations. Harriet takes this advice literally, carrying a black and white A4 notebook in which she describes her reactions to everything she sees at home and at school. Harriet also operates a spy route, in which she follows the routines of half a dozen victims, such as Harrison Withers, and the Italian Dei Santi family, who run a delicatessen which is regularly plundered for provender by their delivery boy, Joe Curry.

He was always eating. It was strange the Dei Santis made any money at all the way Little Joe ate. Harriet peeked in. He was sitting there now, when he should have been working, eating a pound of cheese. Next to him, waiting to be consumed, sat two cucumbers, three tomatoes, a loaf of bread, a custard pie, three quarts of milk, a meatball sandwich about two feet long, two jars – one of pickles, one of mayonnaise – four apples, and a large salami. Harriet’s eyes widened and she wrote: WHEN I LOOK AT HIM I COULD EAT A THOUSAND TOMATO SANDWICHES.

Many of us read Harriet the Spy at a time when we didn’t really know what fiction is. Fiction is a narrative enacted in an imaginative world in which one can, for instance, carry around an A4 notebook and write in it. Reader, this is not possible, and I know because I tried it, as did many of my contemporaries. Enthralled with Harriet, we tried to become note-book writers like her. It cannot be done. One cannot carry on with daily life while writing down one’s observations of ones friends, family, teachers, and spy-victims in an A4 notebook. One’s interlocutors, and school teachers, and friends, simply get in the way of it. We tried, and it doesn’t work. Louise Fitzhugh, with her genius for exaggerated realism, makes it look possible. But it’s not. Today, of course, the obvious parallel to the notebook is the smartphone which possesses nearly every one. But a phone is a quarter the size of Harriet’s notebook, and you don’t need a pen to write in it. Harriet the Spy captivated us in a way that made eight year old girls want to emulate the heroine. But that’s not exactly how fiction works. The only way in is through the author’s imagination, and the key to the door of Louise Fitzhugh’s imagination went up in smoke when she was done with these stories, as do the keys to all the fictive worlds of every author in history.

It’s obvious even to an eight year old that Harriet is the hinge of it all. In studying for this piece, I read that when Louise Fitzhugh first took her jottings to a publisher, all she had to show the editors at Harpers were the contents of the spy’s ‘notebook,’ and those fine ladies made Fitzhugh turn the notebook’s majuscules into a story.

The story of Harriet the Spy tells how our heroine has two best friends, Sport, whom she intends to marry when they grow up, and Janey, who intends to blow up the world. Ole Golly is her nurse. This lady quotes Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, but seems to have a perfect understanding of children. She is the true authority figure for Harriet in this book: both her parents seem loving but uncomprehending. The parents are distant in the way that the parents of that generation in fact were. The crisis is precipitated by two events. Ole Golly departs to marry a delivery man, Mr. Waldstein. Harriet is thus caught rudderless at her moment of trial, when her notebook is lost during a ‘tag’ type game at school, and read by her school acquaintances, enemies, and best friends. They gang up against her. Harriet learns that they have a secret plan:

A PLAN. THIS IS SERIOUS. THEY MEAN BUSINESS. IT MEANS THEY HAVE BEEN TALKING AMONG THEMSELVES. ARE THEY GOING TO KILL ME? IS THIS MY LAST VIEW OF CARL SCHURZ PARK? WILL THERE BE NOTHING LEFT HERE TOMORROW ON THIS BENCH? WILL ANYONE REMEMBER HARRIET M. WELSCH? She rose stiffly and walked slowly to school. Everything looked very green and holy in that sad light before a rain. Even the Good Humor man on the corner, the one with the ridiculous nose, looked sad and moody. He took out a large blue handkerchief and blew his nose. It was somehow so touching that Harriet had to look away.”

This is the nadir of Harriet’s fortunes. The book uses comical exaggeration but it touchingly depicts the loneliness to which a writer is exposed when she tells the truth in a hurtful way.

Only an idiot would not guess the secret of The Long Secret, and one would have to confess that it is only at our most recent re-reading of the novel that it struck us how obvious it is who is leaving ‘notes’ around the upstate New York summer resort of Water Mill. The identity of the Bible-quoting note leaver is not just obvious but blindingly so. The twin heroines of the book are Harriet, again, who spends the book trying to discover the identity of the hard-hitting note leaver, and Beth Ellen, the blushing, shy ‘Mouse.’ Beth Ellen has lived with her grandmother ever since the disappearance of, first her father, and then later her jet-setting mother. The re-emergence of the stunningly beautiful Zeeney, along with Wallace, her new husband, whose vocabulary consists of the words ‘hup, hup, hup’, forms the center-piece of the book. Beth Ellen learns that she has the courage to fight for her true identity.

The girls are now twelve, and they learn about how their bodies work. The last time I spoke about The Long Secret in public was in 1969 when I delivered a book report on it to a class. I had skipped three grades during the school-teacher strikes of the previous years, and now found myself a nine year old, surrounded by young teenagers. Not for the last time, my lecture evoked unintended hilarity in its audience. That evening, in the car with my parents, I told them what happened, and the mystery of the other children in my class breaking into uncontrolled laughter when explained to them, ‘she gets this thing called menstruation…’ My father explained to me what that meant as he drove us through the Lincoln tunnel.

When I looked for the books in Barnes and Nobles to write up this second report on them, perhaps in memory of that experience, I looked in ‘Young Adults’. But they are still, rightly, classified as children’s books. They are not about the teenager’s world, but the child’s world, the world in which, for that generation at least, adults were omnipotent and yet foolish and outlandish aliens.

The ostensibly ‘pious’ character of the notes spurs Harriet to question her parents about God, prayer, and faith. She learns from her father that he does not pray, but figures one should ‘never laugh at anyone’s religion, because whether you take it seriously or not, they do.’ Next, Harriet interrogates Beth Ellen.

‘What does it feel like when you believe in God?’ asked Harriet into the darkness. ‘I don’t know,’ said Beth Ellen. I’ve never really thought about it, she said to herself. ‘Oh, Beth Ellen, what a funny mouse you are,’ said Harriet with rather kind disgust. She turned over noisily in bed to indicate that the conversation was ended and she would soon be fast asleep. Beth Ellen began to think about the beginning of the world, the beginning of time. Who started it all anyway? She let her mind creep back to the cave men. A cave. At the end of the cave, God. She was falling asleep. Right before she fell asleep she turned a corner in the long winding path of the cave and came to the end. At the end there was a clay shelf. Spread on the shelf was a fur blanket and on the fur was a tiger, a huge tiger who said not a word but stared at her. God? Then who made the blanket?

Even before I knew what menstruation is, that struck me as a somewhat unsatisfactory question.

Of course, what Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret have in common is the theme of truth telling. Both the spy Harriet and the note-leaver use language to tell the blunt truth. And yet both of them are misusing language, because they are using it in the service of anger. ‘Truth’ can be too blunt an instrument for the exposition of moral character.

These books both delighted me as a child. Later, when I was really too old for it, in 1974, just before she died, Fitzhugh published another novel, Our Family is Never Going to Change. It’s about the ambitions of the children of a middle class African American family. As I recall it, the boy wants to be a dancer, which could not be further from his parents’ dreams for him, and the girl aspires to be a lawyer. I remember this book as being on the moralistic side. It seems that Fitzhugh left her original publisher, Harper, and was never able to recapture the editing and ‘nursing’ she had received from them, with Random House and other houses. I may some day read Sport, another companion which Fitzhugh wrote to Harriet the Spy, but then again I may not. Fitzhugh probably lost the key after The Long Secret was published.

Fitzhugh also wrote a novel about a relationship between two girls, which was lost and never published. I’m glad she did not live to write the kind of books she might write today. That’s because I think that self-censorship belongs to great imaginative creativity. When authors feel free to expose the ‘whole blunt truth’ they write less well than authors who express the truth in more guarded ways. What is fiction if not a means of telling the truth in a roundabout way?

Fitzhugh’s characters inhabit a fictional world, but at least two of them get hurt because they tell the truth, as they see it, about real life situations. Language is powerful in fiction, and even more so in relation to reality. Censorship by external authorities is problematic, and raises the question, ‘who guards the guards?’ But the habit of self-censorship often makes for better writing, and better thinking, whether the subject is sex or the Pope. The habit of self-censorship in speech and in writing reminds us of our obligation to use language with due reverence.


—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.


Not Hobbes's book, but a recent movie from Russia, by director Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose name I would probably recognize if I were more knowledgeable about contemporary film-making. I only know about it because my late friend Robert recommended it. He described it as "a Bergmanesque masterpiece," and I regret that I didn't have a chance to tell him before he died that I more or less agree with him: "more or less" because I didn't find it as good as the best of Bergman. But it's still very, very good, and it is indeed Bergmanesque. 

Apart from Eisenstein's Potemkin, which I saw in college, the first Russian film I saw was with Robert, in the late 1970s when we both lived in Tuscaloosa. I have no idea what the name of it was. As I recall, it opened with a young boy seeing his father killed by a falling tree. It ended with that same boy, now a grown man, being murdered with a hatchet or hammer or some similar implement. "Very Russian," we agreed. Leviathan is also very Russian. It is not a pleasant or cheerful story, but it's a powerful one, very effectively told, and full of striking images. I wish I could see it on the big screen.

The title refers to the leviathan of Job 41: "Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?" And this is a story about a man afflicted by malicious forces for nothing he has done. But the Hobbes reference is also relevant, because a corrupt and powerful state is one of those forces. One hopes that its picture of contemporary Russia is darkened for dramatic purposes. The basic situation is that a man named Kolya lives, with his second wife and his son by his first wife, in an old house on property which is coveted by a local politician and an affluent cleric--a bishop, I suppose, but I'm not sure. Here's the trailer:


If you think that last bit of the score sounds like Philip Glass: it is.

52 Authors: Week 40 - Mary Douglas

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In the late 1940s Mary Tew, an Oxford doctoral student in anthropology, was looking around for a suitable place to do fieldwork. These days that could mean anything (Kate Fox’s Watching the English is an entertaining example of turning an anthropologist’s eye on one’s native surroundings), but in the 1940s, in a European context, it meant trying to understand the foreign thought-worlds of less developed communities in far-flung parts of colonial empires. She later wrote that her choice fell on the Lele people of what was then the Belgian Congo because she had been given to understand that they practiced not just polygyny (a relatively widespread form of polygamy) but also polyandry (much rarer), and she was intrigued by the idea of a woman having more than one husband.

By the time her doctorate was published as a book, in 1963, she had been married for about a decade and was working under the name Mary Douglas. (There is a Wikipedia entry, but it is not very informative.) The Lele of the Kasai is a readable observation-based analysis of a vanishing way of life in Central Africa, but it would be of little interest to those outside the academy. So far as polyandry was concerned, the Lele might have been something of a disappointment: male elders controlled access to brides, but there was also a ‘village wife’ who would take turns with the available men. This is not quite the harem of husbands that the word ‘polyandry’ might bring to mind, and missionaries regarded it as a form of prostitution. Mary Douglas, however, saw elements of honour and agency in the village wife’s status that gave her a key role in village life, not the sort of marginalised status one would associate with a prostitute in Western societies.

It might have been polyandry that first piqued Douglas’s interest in the Lele, but once living among them her intellectual engagement shifted to beliefs and practices relating to divination, sorcery, witchcraft, and notions of pollution and ritual purity. The fruit of her reflection on pollution and purity, encountered among the Lele but explored intellectually for over a decade once back in Britain, was the book for which she is probably most famous, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.

The book is the work of a brilliant mind, honed in the intellectual discipline of social anthropology, broadened by life among an utterly alien people, reflecting not just on theoretical questions but on the everyday concerns of a wife and mother. Douglas ranges widely through anthropological literature of all kinds, on castes in India, Nigerian smallpox priests, sexual taboos in New Guinea, to her own fieldwork among the Lele, but questions that she addresses include why it should be thought shameful to serve a guest tea in a chipped cup, and why we happily let children play in the sea, knowing that it houses many corpses, when we would not let them into a swimming pool with a single corpse in it. At what point is pollution perceived, and at what point is it perceived as a danger?

This is a question that has bearing on ecological questions as well, and Douglas explored these implications in Risk and Culture (1983), written with Aaron Wildavsky, although this made her unpopular with some ecologists who felt she had described them as a tribe whose beliefs about purity could be understood anthropologically (Roger Scruton, in contrast, says that the book 'captures tendencies within social and political thinking that help to show why there is a real, lasting and rooted difference between "left" and "right". And it provides a language with which both left and right can discuss their shared concerns without regarding their opponents as inhuman.')

To return to Purity and Danger, one of the most famous aspects is her discussion of Jewish dietary laws. She takes issue with the 19th-century idea, still apparently widely prevalent in the mid-20th century, that the dietary prohibitions of the Mosaic law were primitive regulations of health and hygiene, designed for the avoidance of disease. Instead, she seeks to understand them through notions of ritual purity. She points out that Jews are permitted to eat animals of the land, water and air that clearly fall into the category of a herd animal, or a fish, or a bird that does not eat carrion, but not those that lacked some of the key defining characteristics, or had ‘mixed’ features. Pork became the symbol of Jewish difference because it was the one animal prohibited that was widely eaten by neighbouring peoples, but the reason it was prohibited was not hygienic but conceptual: it shares some but not all of the key characteristics of herd animals as a set. This was a modelling of the body on the sacrificial altar: humans could eat only those animals that they would be permitted to give to God, and should avoid even physical contact with the rest.

If the proposed interpretation of the forbidden animals is correct, the dietary laws would have been something which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, surety and completeness of God. By the rules of avoidance, Holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and at every meal.

Later she revised her view on the dietary rules, in two books I have not read, In the Wilderness (1993) and Leviticus as Literature (1999). When this series was mooted late last year, I put my name down for three authors (Christopher Derrick, Mary Douglas and Edith Stein) thinking it would encourage me to read those of their works that I had been meaning to get round to reading. So far, this has not actually happened. If anything, I have been reading what others have written about, rather than what I am supposed to be writing on. I gather indirectly that in her later thinking the concept of ‘covenant’ came to the fore: the ancient Israelites ate only those animals that did not eat other animals and that humans could in some sort raise. But this is something I may have misunderstood.

Douglas’s writing is fascinating for the broad themes she addresses, but also for the many anthropological details she fishes up from the literature as well as from her own experience both of fieldwork and of life in the United Kingdom (unlike most of her academic peers, she was herself consciously involved in making rituals happen, as a parish volunteer, and knew how much thought and work went into them each time, even when they were ‘traditional’). A lot of her books are relatively pricey (as academic books tend to be) and sometimes hard to get hold of, but the two major works, Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols, are both still in print in paperback editions.

This latter, Natural Symbols, published in 1970, examines the importance of shared symbols to social cohesion. It is a logical next step (in the Jewish case, having thought about why the prohibition on pork arose, she was now thinking about how it set them apart as a people; and also about how Friday abstention from meat set Catholics apart from non-Catholic neighbours.) As a social anthropologist she was convinced that ‘There is no person whose life does not need to unfold in a coherent symbolic system. ... it is an illusion to suppose that there can be organisation without symbolic expression.’ She placed both symbols and societies on spectra of hierarchy and informality, seeking to correlate world-view and life-style through a plethora of contemporary and historical examples.

One of the insights of Douglas’s work is that people have a remarkable tendency to model the concept of the person on the concept of society, and to regard people who do not fit standard social categories as being dirty people (disease-bearing sexual delinquents who will cheat you or steal from you and who eat disgusting food) — who can then be labelled as lepers, witches, an underclass, ‘dirty foreigners’, or whatever else might fit the circumstances. This fits with her earlier work on sorcery and pollution, but questions of symbol and community also bring her to consider the sacraments. Writing of the modernizing liturgists and catechists of the day, she says:

The mystery of the Eucharist is too dazzlingly magical for their impoverished symbolic perception. Like the pygmies (I say it again, since they seem often to pride themselves on having reached some high peak of intellectual development) they cannot conceive of the deity as located in any one thing or place. But ... vast unlettered flocks scattered over the globe do not share this disability. ... What is too strong meat for the pastors is their natural food. ‘The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.’ There is no question now that the flocks are neglected by jolly, hunting parsons bent on pleasure. But there seems to be a case for arguing that serious, well-intending pastors misunderstand the need for a nourishing food, because it does not seem to suit their own digestive systems.

Speaking personally, to find an intra-ecclesial polemic such as this in the midst of a learned book that discusses every possible type of symbolic action and social system was exhilarating and breath-taking. (Perhaps this post should include a spoiler alert?)

Much of social anthropology as it developed up to the middle of the 20th century was, directly or indirectly, part of the colonialist project to understand what made the natives tick. There was a sense that our behaviour made sense, while that of other societies needed explaining. If there is a single main point throughout Douglas’s writing it might be that ‘primitive’ people (whether backwoods African tribesmen, or Bronze Age Israelites, or anybody between) are no more stupid than the rest of us: their behaviours make perfect sense, and are perfectly rational, when understood in the light of their societies and their preconceptions; and our own behaviours are just as much conditioned by the presuppositions we imbibe from our societies.

As Risk and Culture puts it: “standing inside our own culture, we can only look at our predicament through our culturally fabricated lenses”. Social anthropology gives us one way of getting a longer perspective on our own culture. This aspect of her writing has led some to label her a ‘postmodernist’, but don’t let that put you off. All it means is that she could see through modernism. She had none of the anti-humanism so typical of literary postmodernism, and she certainly didn’t take the view that people are prisoners of their cultures: a culture makes it possible to be human, providing the tools with which people respond to their environment; but the different ways in which people respond are conditioned by what tools they have available. Mary Douglas herself provides some of the sharpest tools one could wish for. While not a novelist, Mary Douglas is a writer who engages the sympathetic imagination at every turn, in helping to understand social behaviours and beliefs that are sometimes amazingly foreign.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Belgium.

On the Pope's Visit (2)

I mentioned in the previous post on this topic that I had seen something somewhere comparing speeches made by Francis on his recent visit to some made by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Whatever it was I saw, I couldn't find it again. So I compared speeches made by all three at the U.N. Then, because I had been struck by the favorable comments made about Francis by some non-Catholics, I posted this on Facebook:

 I was naturally pleased, but also a bit puzzled, by the positive reactions shown by several liberal non-Catholic friends and relatives to Pope Francis's speech to Congress. It wasn't all that different from similar speeches given by his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The other two never spoke to Congress, but all three spoke to the UN, so I looked up those speeches. Links below. There really is not all that much difference among them--different emphases, and JP in particular had a fairly distinctive (slightly eccentric) writing style (all those italics). But in both tone and substance they're more alike than different. All three focused intensely on respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. This tends to confirm my view that JPII and BXVI got a worse press than they deserved (B especially). And perhaps that Francis has gotten a better one. They're all about the same length, 6-8 pages, if you want to read them.

John Paul II

Benedict XVI


My hope (obviously) was that maybe they would see that Francis is not an aberration, and maybe the Church is not really so bad. I didn't get much reaction, and what I did get indicated that the effort was fruitless. I don't think there's much the Church can do to change liberal opinion at large, short of abandoning its moral teachings completely, and perhaps its formal theological teachings as well. At best it will achieve the sort of thing that Marianne described in a comment a while back: Hillary Clinton applauding the pope's support for climate change action, followed immediately by a bit of cheerleading for abortion rights.

But anyway: I think the comparison of these three speeches is also worthwhile for conservative Catholics worried about Francis. There really isn't a dramatic difference.