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September 2017

52 Albums, Week 39: Hourglass (Kate Rusby)


In 1997, the year my first child was born, Kate Rusby, the Barnsley Nightingale, brought out her debut album, Hourglass. At the time I was working on my doctorate, and sharing a flat with an old school friend, also a doctoral student, who spent money on music. I had not yet then myself got out of the habit of spending money only on books. The combination of a colicky child who was quiet only when held, and my friend’s purchase of the newly minted CD of Hourglass, meant that I spent many, many hours rhythmically ambling around the flat with a baby in my arms, to the sound of Kate Rusby’s voice (Eliza Carthy sometimes providing variety).

The album’s centre of gravity is traditional. About half the songs are anonymous folksongs, and those that aren’t are stylistically similar. The performance is acoustic. None of Steeleye Span’s or Fairport Convention’s electric folk here. The opening track, “Sir Eglamore”, is a light version of a combat between dragon and knight (in the spirit of the St George of winter entertainments), with the knight of the title unable to pierce the dragon’s hide with his sword, and finally jabbing for its open mouth, only for the dragon to run off home with the sword stuck between its jaws. It is related to the American “Old Bangum”, in which a hunter fights a wild hog.

As I Roved Out” (Roud 3479) is perhaps more familiar from Planxty's version of the 1970s . “The Jolly Ploughboys” was entirely unfamiliar to me:

When six o' clock comes, me boys, at breakfast we'll meet,
And cold beef and pork we'll heartily eat.
With a piece in our pockets, to the fields we do go
For we're all jolly fellows that follows the plough.

And so on through the day. Two of the songs, both about drownings, were sung by Nic Jones in the 1970s: “Annan Water” (a Child Ballad) and “The Drowned Lovers”, my absolute favourite from the album, and the one the baby most often slept to. It is not only a tragic story of thwarted young love, but also a dramatic piece in different voices, as much direct speech as narrative reporting. 

A little under half of the songs are original or new compositions — “A Rose in April”, “Radio Sweethearts”, “Old Man Time”, and a couple more. These are very much in the same style but somehow, to my taste, do not match up to the traditional material. A piece that falls somewhere between the two is another of my favourites, “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” (recorded by Sinead O’Connor a few years before, but in nothing like so effectively creepy a rendition), a modern translation of an old, and anonymous, Irish poem. 

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

Sunday Night Journal, September 24, 2017

A few weeks ago here I was griping about a bit of simple-minded stereotyping of a Christian character in the TV series Endeavour. Endeavour, in case you aren't aware of it, gives us the early life of Inspector Morse, whom every fan of British mystery stories knows; I found it disappointing but interesting. The stereotype was a cold and malicious Christian woman crusading against dirty words on television; according to the rules of this game, she had to be exposed as being not only ugly and self-righteous but a monster to her own family. [yawn] It was so crude and such a cliche that I couldn't even be much offended.

I was, however, a bit surprised, because I had some notion that this sort of thing has been done so often that writers are tired of it, and that portrayals of Christians and Christianity have tended recently to be more interesting. Well, I don't know how I can venture to make such a broad statement, as the number of movies and TV shows I see is very small. But for what it's worth, here are two instances of what I mean. Both are long and complex made-for-Netflix shows. 

First, Bloodline. This is a combination family saga and crime drama set in the Florida Keys (which are photographed with exceptional beauty, so that I want to live there, hurricanes or no hurricanes). I think I watched the first episode out of curiosity, Netflix having recommended it to me, without really knowing what to expect. One episode was enough to hook me. It is very well done. There's a lot of first-rate acting in it, especially on the part of Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn.

The Rayburn family runs a successful hotel, but--you know how this goes--Behind The Facade Of The Happy And Prosperous Family Lie Dark Secrets. Mendelsohn's character, Danny, is a sort of black sheep son who has been absent for a while and whose return sets in motion a chain of bad things. Chandler's character, John, is a detective in the county sheriff's department. The bad things play out over three "seasons" of a dozen or so episodes each. 

I read somewhere that the writers had originally envisioned five seasons, but that reviews and ratings declined steadily after the first season. At any rate the third season was the last. I can sort of see why, because most of the original story had run its course by then. But some strange and interesting things appeared toward the end of that last season. In particular there's a scene where Sally Rayburn, the family matriarch (played very effectively by Sissy Spacek), in desperation seeks out a Catholic priest for counseling and/or confession. The family is not Catholic and there's been no presence of religion in the show before this point (except for a funeral or two). Sally's troubles are of course all mixed up with her children, and the priest says something to her that really made me sit up and take notice:

You know who God is? A parent with insanely violent and destructive children. He had two choices: destroy them or die for them.

Now that's the real deal. I don't expect or even want TV and movies to preach Christianity to us. But I do want it to recognize the existential situation we face, and, if it deals with the faith, to understand that it is a serious response to a serious question. 

 (Later it appears that this encounter may not have really happened, and that a character named Ozzie, who has heretofore been a pretty frightening criminal lurking around the family, has become--or may have become--a sort of weird Christ figure, or maybe an angel or prophet. May have--it wasn't at all clear to me. I'm going to watch the last three or four episodes again and read some reviews and see if I can make sense of it.)

I recommend Bloodline, with a fair amount of qualification. The first season especially is very painful to watch in many ways. It's not sensationalistic--not a lot of violence etc.--just painful.  

The other show, The Killing, is not as good, and I don't really recommend it. This is the American version of a Danish series which Rob G has recommended to us here a number of times, but which is hard to find in the U.S. I think I started watching it out of curiosity (and impatience at not being able to get the original). I won't say I was hooked after the first episode, but there was enough what's-going-to-happen pull to make me continue. There was a lot about it that I really disliked. It is very dark, and I mean that literally as well as figuratively: it's set in Seattle, and if I were to take it as a realistic portrait of the city and its people I would be astonished that anyone could live there. It's almost always dark and almost always raining. Even the rare bit of sunlight is pale. The people are miserable. They never really turn on the lights in their houses, apparently making do with a few 40-watt bulbs. And the crimes depicted are dark, sometimes gruesome, and heartbreaking: the third season (there are four) involves the murders of teenaged girls living on the streets, and the mere fact of teenaged girls living on the streets is heartbreaking.

I expected the murder which happens in the opening scenes to be solved at the end of the first season and if it had been I would have stopped there. But it wasn't. It took two seasons to solve that crime, and by then I had gotten so interested in the two detectives working on the case that I wanted to follow the rest of the series just to see how things would work out for them. They are Sarah Linden (just "Linden" most of the time) and Steven Holder (just "Holder" most of the time), played by Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman. As tends to be the case in contemporary crime stories, the detectives themselves have major personal problems of their own.

Anyway--to get to the point, since I'm not recommending the series--Holder's biggest problem is that he's a former (recovering?) meth addict. (Do they really let former addicts join the police?) Throughout the series there's always the fear that he's about to fall back into using. At one point, fairly late in the series, when a number of things have gone very badly wrong for him, he and Linden are driving around Seattle and he abruptly demands that she stop and let him out. She thinks, as do we, that he's off to buy drugs. But where he actually goes is to the church of a women's monastery/convent which I think is called Our Lady Queen of Peace. Like Sally in Bloodline, he's not Catholic. But also like Sally, he is in desperate need, and that's where he goes. He sits--maybe he kneels, I can't remember now--while the nuns chant from behind a screen. Nothing magical happens. But he isn't back on the needle.

An episode or two later he returns to the church, this time in even more desperate need. This time he's falling apart. After a minute or two he begins to storm around the church, yelling "Where is he?! Where is he?!" He goes over to the nuns' screen and beats on it, yelling; they are frightened and scurry away. 

Again, nothing happens. For all I know the writers intended to say that all that God stuff is meaningless. That's alright. The significant thing to me is that those scenes give us the question, the hard question, and a Catholic church as a place which at least might have the answer, ought to have the answer, and to which one naturally looks for it.

Perhaps the entertainment industry has gotten some of the simple-minded attacks and stereotypes out of its system and there is some kind of a trend toward intelligence and seriousness in treating Christianity. It would not be surprising. And this is suggestive for what seems to be a darkening cultural future: the darker the night, the brighter the light. As they say, it's science.

By the way as far as I can tell the Seattle monastery is fictional. 

Actually, now that I think about it, the intelligent-serious view of religion was present these many years ago in The X-Files. My all-time favorite line from that show, in an episode where suburban satanists have gotten themselves into grave danger: "Did you think you could call up the devil and make him behave?" An epitaph for our times, maybe.

Another line from The Killing that struck me: "To love a child is to open yourself up to all the hurt in the world."


As of 12:32pm Friday Sept. 22 I have essentially completed a first draft of my book. I know there are several places that need to be filled out further, but it's just a matter of paragraphs here and there. More dauntingly, there's a huge amount of sculpting to do on what's a fairly shapeless mass right now. But a presentable manuscript is within sight, although still distant. I should be able to get it done by the end of the year at least, if I don't get lazy and/or distracted. Next week I'll post an excerpt.


 I saw this goose about to take off and pointed the phone ahead of it and pressed the button several times. I didn't really expect to catch it but I guess I got lucky.


52 Albums, Week 38: A Deeper Understanding (The War On Drugs)


I think this will be the first piece in this series to look at a current album (this one came out three weeks ago) but this is a good enough record to warrant the attention. I also thought about doing either Slowdive’s recent self-titled comeback album or Ride’s Weather Diaries, both of which are also current and also very good, but this one’s the most recent, and it’s been spending a lot of time in my player, which makes it easy to write about.

I first heard of Philly band The War on Drugs in 2015 after the release of their widely acclaimed album Lost in the Dream. Upon my first listening I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all, but I liked it a lot and listened to it fairly incessantly. The new album continues in a similar vein to the last one, and except for one small misstep is very close to its equal. Imagine a mash-up of Dylan, Tom Petty, and Springsteen, with some 80’s influence as spice, and you’ll have some approximation of what W.O.D. sounds like. That, and layers. Lots of layers. (Some of the songs on here have as many as a dozen instruments being played at once, often in overdubs.)

One of the things I love about this band is that it seems that lead man/songwriter Adam Granduciel takes a strong devil-may-care attitude when it comes to arranging and recording. You want six guitars and a glockenspiel included in a song? Got it. You want the album’s initial “single” to be an eleven-minute slowburn folk-rocker with an intermission in the middle? You got it. You want a stinging feedback-laden electric guitar solo to show up in a slow acoustic ballad? You got it. Unexpected harmonicas show up out of nowhere, odd snatches of 80s-sounding synthesizers appear in places where they shouldn’t, and on several songs it’s hard to tell if the drumming is real or electronic (or both). Believe it or not it all works wonderfully.

Granduciel’s voice does sound a lot like Dylan’s, and the songs are often constructed in a basically Dylan-esque manner, but the resemblance probably stops there. Ditto Petty and Springsteen – at their best they’re both better songwriters than Granduciel, but Petty’s never been nearly as musically creative, and The Boss only came close in his early days. Some of this risk-taking creativity may be due to the fact that Granduciel is in his late 30’s, and thus has had a fair amount of time to hear and process what’s come before him, unlike some of the younger artists currently taking a stab at being “retro.” As one reviewer put it, The War on Drugs is simultaneously one of the newest sounding and most retro things you’ve probably ever heard.

The other thing I like is the way that the songs take their time in developing. Most of the tracks on A Deeper Understanding are five minutes or longer, and even the ones that seemingly start off rather plain usually take interesting turns. Which brings me to the one minor negative about the record. I’m not sure why it was decided to end the album with two long slow songs back-to-back, especially when one is much more interesting than the other. It serves to reduce the magic of one of the album’s best tracks, the majestic “In Chains,” by following it with the okay-but-not-brilliant “Clean Living.” I think the feel would have been better maintained in going straight to the album’s excellent closer, “You Don’t Have to Go,” a slow song with some real power. But this is a small complaint when gauged against the album’s strengths.

I’ve included videos for two songs, one slower, one more up-tempo, and can say that if you like these two you’ll like the rest. Best way to listen to these is loud and/or with headphones. Cheap computer speakers will not do them justice. 


—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.

Sunday Night Journal, September 17, 2017

Yesterday I finally started working on a project that's years overdue: going through old notebooks and throwing away everything that doesn't seem worth keeping. The eventual goal of this is to get my office or study or whatever you want to call it into some kind of order, and to clean out one of the two desks there and turn it over to my wife. 

(Wait--no, you can't call it whatever you want to. You are forbidden to call it a "man cave.")

The first notebook I took up was a little three-ring binder with roughly 5"x7" paper which I remember using in the late '70s. The contents reveal that it was not long after my conversion/reversion to Christianity, so it was 1978-79; not later than '79, because I remember the little house in Tuscaloosa where we lived at the time, and we moved later in that year. I was 29-30 years old, and an Episcopalian. It would be two or three years before I became Catholic. Here are some notes and excerpts from an essay I was writing:

The contradiction between Christianity and capitalism

The necessity for the Christian not to consider socialism or communism as the alternative to capitalism, but rather Christianity itself

Liberal-socialist and conservative-nationalist Christianity are both submission of the Church to the world. 

...the ideas (if such notions can be dignified with that term) which govern the day-to-day behavior as well as the long-term aspirations of most of us are pagan through and through. What are these notions, and where do they come from? They are a wild mixture, having in common only the firm principle that one should be occupied mostly in pleasing oneself, and they come from almost everywhere, from liberal psychologists to conservative capitalists. The psychologist talks of fulfilling one's potential, the capitalist of economic incentives, but in both cases the message is that you have a right to whatever you can get, that the universe in some way owes you a continual increase of goodies. A Christian, I think, is bound to reply that we are owed nothing, that even our very existence puts us in the debt of Another, a debt we can never hope to repay, and that furthermore we continually increase that debt by our wickedness....

It is almost impossible to accumulate wealth without becoming more interested in wealth than anything else. This may apply to a nation as well as to an individual, and I think our own nation is an excellent example--as a nation, we are almost incapable of seeing life in other than economic terms--and when we do, we are often simply resorting to euphemisms, as in the phrase "quality of life," which was once used by social critics in reference to intangibles like the sense of community but which has increasingly come to refer to the number of gadgets and goodies a person or nation can afford to buy, or to the number of hours one has free for the pursuit of pleasure. And if one is devoting more [I guess I meant "most", or "too much"] of one's energy to maintaining and increasing one's wealth, one is disobeying Christ's commandment to love the Lord with all one's heart. We cannot serve two masters--it is as simple and as hopeless as that.

The essay was unfinished, and I don't think much of it is worth preserving. It's all fairly obvious stuff. But it brought home to me why I have to stifle a yawn whenever some Christian discovers, and tells us with great excitement, that American culture, especially in its economic aspects, is in many ways at odds with Christianity. This is often accompanied by the news that the Republican Party is not the Church, and that its program is not a program for advancing the kingdom of God, and may even at times be opposed to it. 

This kind of thing usually comes from someone who has been pretty wrapped up in right-wing politics, at least to the extent of thinking that conservative politics is a necessary part of being Christian, and that right-wing policies, including a pretty uncritical support of "capitalism" (not a very well-defined term) are in general Christian ones, and the Republican Party is the vehicle for putting those policies into practice. 

As the excerpts above show, I didn't believe that in 1978. I didn't come to believe it afterward, even as the battle lines of the culture war were drawn clearly and starkly. It was therefore never an idea that I needed to get past, as it was for Excited Christian above.

It happens that I am in fact a political conservative (for lack of a better word) and think that in the American context conservatism (for lack of a better word) is preferable to liberalism (for lack of a better word), and that conservatism is more congenial to Christianity than liberalism as both currently work. But I think I can say truthfully that never for a moment have I believed that any political program or party, that any conceivable political reform, was the path to the deep renewal of human life that we long for. It might be able to improve conditions and even ameliorate serious evils, but it could never turn us into good people. It might provide some of the conditions for happiness, but it could never make us happy. Even at the height of my investment in the counter-culture of the 1960s I never saw that revolution as primarily a political one, but rather as a sort of religious movement. 

And so when somebody announces as if it were a new discovery that no political party can be conflated with the Church, I agree, but I wonder why they are bothering to say it. It's as if they've just discovered that circles don't have corners and want to tell everybody about it. I want to say "Well sure, obviously. But now what?"

The thing I miss, of course, is that a lot of people apparently do make the mistake that Excited Christian is trying to correct. It really does come as a shock to them that Republican orthodoxy and Christian orthodoxy are not only not the same thing but may be in contradiction. A good number of them, I suspect, are young people who have grown up amid the culture wars and have been hearing since childhood that Republicans Are Good and Democrats Are Bad, and now as adults are seeing things less simplistically, which probably became easier when so many Christians supported Trump so unreservedly. The past year certainly indicates that there are a lot more people who don't fully see the distinction between Republicanism and Christianity, or who are blinded to it by some kind of tribal loyalty, than I had realized.

The left tries to do the same sort of thing, the same sort of conflation of their program with Christianity, but they aren't as convincing, in part because if they are any sort of Christian at all they tend to be nominal or heterodox. 


There was also this in my notebook:

How mistaken to associate virtue, wisdom, intelligence with what we ordinarily call the intellectual faculty or with aesthetic sensibility. I've known too many semi-literate people who were wise and gentle, too many literary persons who brought to their studies the philosophy and ethics of a mugger.

When I wrote this down I was probably thinking, among other things, of something that had happened at the clinic where I was working part-time as a programmer. (I know I've told this story here at least once, so please bear with me if you remember it.) My desk was in a trailer out back, and I often worked odd hours. Sometimes I was there when the two cleaning women came in. They were past-middle-age black women--I'm sure I would have called them "old" at the time, but now I'd guess they were probably in their late 50s, not young but not exactly elderly. Sometimes they would sit for a bit and we would chat. One night we were talking about the state of the world, which we agreed was declining. "Everything gettin' so high," one of them said, meaning prices--this was the period of high inflation. We listed other signs of trouble. One of them sighed and said "I reckon the Lord'll take care of us. He know we all crazy."

I think that is the single wisest thing I have ever heard anyone say in actual conversation, in my presence (as opposed to something I've read in a book). I suppose hardly a week has gone by since that night that I haven't thought of it. It sums up our situation pretty neatly.

This reminds me of another gem heard many years ago, from a black preacher I heard on the radio: "Folks is not yo' enemy. The devil is yo' enemy." I have heard some great stuff from black preachers on the radio, stuff I very much wish I could have recorded. 


More nostalgia from that 1958 Life magazine. 


My parents subscribed to Life. I learned a lot from it. I remember a long and horrifying but morbidly fascinating piece they did in the mid-196os about heroin addicts in New York. Oh my goodness, here it is, at least the photos. February 1965. I was a junior in high school. I remember some of those pictures. I never thought heroin addiction would come to little towns in Alabama.

52 Albums, Week 37: A Salty Dog (Procol Harum)


Seems like I recently said that something was one of the great albums of the '60s...what was it?...maybe not...well, anyway, this one is, or close to it. I've always felt that Procol Harum was under-appreciated. Most people only know "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which is a great song wonderfully performed, but there's much, much more to them than the one song. I think the whole album, which is just called Procol Harum, on which that song appears is very fine, though reportedly it was put together hurriedly. Their second, Shine On Brightly, is a mixed bag, with several very good songs in the vein of the first album but marred by an grandiose 17-minute suite which in my opinion doesn't succeed. A Salty Dog, released in 1969, was their third, and I think their best, though the next one, Home, is very good as well. The one after that, Broken Barricades, seemed a real falling-off, and I didn't hear the ones that came after, though I've heard good things about a couple of them and should give them a listen.

My only reservation about A Salty Dog is that the second side doesn't quite measure up to the first. Yes, I still think of all the albums from that period in terms of "sides," not just because they were physically sides but because you tended to hear each side as a unit; at minimum there was going to be an interruption when you turned the record over. I don't think there's a better side in all of pop-rock music than side 1 of this album. If I had to, I'd swap at least half of the Beatles' catalog for those five tracks. I say "tracks" instead of "songs" because although these are very fine songs the performances and arrangements are essential parts of the package.

Having written the two preceding paragraphs a couple of days ago, and not having heard the album for years, I thought I should listen to it again and see if I'd changed my mind. I listened to the "sides" separately, a day apart. Side 1 is at least as good as I remembered, maybe even better. The title track, the first on the album, is simply a masterpiece. It's not rock, exactly-- I don't know how you'd classify it. It's a slow, majestic, soaring tune with a haunting piano and string arrangement, and lyrics that tell a story of a ship and crew that sail right out of this world. There are no guitars, and the drums don't come in until halfway through. If I were going to pick one song to make my case that a deep spiritual yearning sometimes showed itself in '60s rock, this would be my best choice. I found it almost unbearably moving when I heard it all those years ago, and it hasn't lost any of its power. I almost hesitate to include it here, because if you don't know it you're liable to hear it in some inconvenient setting where you can't fully appreciate it. But here it is anyway. 

Procol Harum was one of the few groups who had a lyricist who was more or less a member of the group but not a musician. This might be his best lyric.

The other four tracks of side 1 are all different and all more or less brilliant: pretty straight-up rock ("The Milk of Human Kindness"), a gentle song about failing love ("Too Much Between Us"), heavy(ish) rock ("The Devil Came from Kansas"), and a lively and whimsical complaint about "Boredom."

Perhaps the side should seem like a hodge-podge. Maybe some people think it is. But to me it all flows together very nicely.

Next day I listened to "side 2." For the first three songs I thought You were wrong. This is great. "Juicy John Pink" is a blues with potent death-and-judgement lyrics:

 Won't you have mercy on your wicked son
Take me up to heaven not hell where I belong

"Wreck of the Hesperus" is a great song, classic Procol. But they made a mistake in having Matthew Fisher, the keyboard player responsible for that majestic organ in "Whiter Shade," sing it. His voice is not bad but Gary Brooker was one of the great rock vocalists, and the song would have been even more powerful with his voice. "All This And More" is more classic Procol, deficient only in comparison with their absolute best--and Brooker sings it. 

With "Crucifiction Lane" came the big letdown, reminding me why I didn't like side 2 as well. It's a long, slow, bluesy song, at five minutes the longest on the album. It's not that great a song, and Robin Trower sings it, and he's not that great a singer. 

But then it's back to excellent with the closer, "Pilgrim's Progress." Once again Fisher sings, and it probably would have been better if Brooker had. but it's still fine, even if it seems to be trying to be another "Whiter Shade of Pale." It's freshened up with an outro that makes for a nice farewell.

If side 2 isn't as good as side 1, it's better than I remembered. That means it's an even greater album than I remembered. I'll amend my earlier statement: I'd swap half the Beatles' catalog for this album minus "Crucifiction Lane." 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, September 10, 2017

I finally watched the John Huston film of Wise Blood that's been sitting on my DVR for many months now. I recommend it. I can find some faults with it--one significant one, which I'll get to in a minute--but overall it's excellent. Huston obviously respected the book and intended to be faithful to it, and succeeded very well. I doubt we could hope for a better film adaptation.

Most of the characters are very well cast, especially the all-important Hazel Motes. I had read that Harry Dean Stanton was in it and assumed he would be Motes, as he certainly looks the part, but he's Reverend Hawks, and it was obvious on first sight of him that he was already in 1979 somewhat too old for Haze. Haze is played by an actor whose name I didn't recognize, Brad Dourif, but on reading a bit about him I realized I had seen him in one memorable role: Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (a good movie which I never want to see again). Billy, if you recall, is a pretty messed up young mental patient; apparently Dourif has a gift for such roles. He doesn't really quite fit my physical image of Haze, but I can't hold that against him, and the important thing is that he manages to get Haze's intensity.

Some of the southern accents are a little shaky at times, but not so much as to interfere. The only major character that I felt was not well done was Enoch Emory, and it was perhaps a little miscast: Emery is not a nice person, and Dan Shor makes him seem more ordinary, harmless, and likeable than he really is.

One decision surprised me a little: instead of placing the story circa 1950, when the novel was written and seems to be set, Huston makes it contemporary--that is, in 1979. That could have been an economic decision, I guess. I thought at first that it might be a problem, but it really isn't. Possibly some of the devices that were appropriate in 1950 would not, in real life, have existed in quite the same way and with quite the same effects in the late '70s. I'm thinking of Gonga in particular, the supposed gorilla exhibited at movie theaters. One could assert plausibly that characters like Motes, Hawks, and several others would have been very different in 1979. But those concerns are pretty minor; I at any rate didn't find it difficult to accept them.

Now, about that one significant flaw: it's the very ill-advised music. Considering how well the director and the actors seemed to grasp the book at least in its psychology if not its theology, I don't know how it happened that a banjo-ridden sound track appropriate to one of those Burt Reynolds trucker movies got attached to this movie. "Tennessee Waltz" plays during the opening credits and off and on throughout, and it's not very appropriate. But the upbeat bluegrass stuff that bursts in from time to time is about as fitting as rap. The effect is really pretty jarring. No music at all would have been preferable. But it doesn't by any means ruin the film.

Not surprisingly, watching the film sent me straightaway to the book for comparison. It had probably been thirty years since I last read it, and although I retained powerful images of the big scenes, and a few details that happened to stick with me ("high rat-colored car," for instance), much of it had faded. Now I'm obliged to say that although the film is very good, it doesn't approach the power of the book. It's quite faithful to the narrative, on the whole, but is still much less than the book. It doesn't include everything in the narrative, but it keeps the essential story intact. What's missing is not so much people or incidents, but the narrative voice, which gives the book so much of its depth. No matter how well an actor does at creating on screen someone who looks and behaves like Haze Motes or Enoch Emery, he can't give us those explicit guides and glimpses into their inner lives which the narrator of the book does. He can't, for instance, by words and action alone communicate the weird and disturbing compulsion that drives Enoch Emory.

I put the book down feeling something close to awe. It is surely one of the strangest novels ever written. It's easy for people to get the impression that O'Connor is writing about people whom one might have encountered in real life anywhere in the South. And of course we have had our fanatical country preachers and so forth. But let me tell you: these folks would have been about as bizarre in the eyes of most Southerners of the time as they would be now. I'm really a little surprised that the novel was published, and that it was fairly well-received.

It may be that literary Catholics of our time have come to take O'Connor for granted. "Yeah, yeah, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, we know all about them, what else do you have?" Or maybe that's just me. At any rate, that's a mistake. Wise Blood is as strange and brilliant and shocking as it ever was. What strikes me above all is the way it scorches to ashes the spiritual evasions and pretensions of post-Christian modernity. The scene where Haze Motes and his nemesis Hoover Shoates engage in dueling sermons based on opposing errors does the job all by itself: the Church of Christ Without Christ vs. the "new Jesus" who wants everybody to be happy. But of course post-Christian modernity doesn't get the message, doesn't feel scorched at all, and still wants to follow one or the other, sans the hick trappings.

I remain a little puzzled, as I was when I first read the book, by Enoch Emery. I see him as driven by something much more primitive and dark than the philosophical and theological problems that plague Haze Motes. He seems to represent a third current, something worse than Haze's nihilism but maybe implicit in it: a desire to get rid of the burden of being human altogether, a drive toward death and/or animality. Whatever that force is--we can certainly speculate--it is very much alive among us now, even among very sophisticated and scientifically knowledgeable people.

I also remain a little unsatisfied by one element of the story. I thought, on first and second readings many years ago, that Haze's abrupt repentance is too abrupt, that we don't get sufficient insight into it. He's doing all right in his terms, heading for a new place in his rat-colored car, with no reservations of which we're aware, and then suddenly, deprived of the car, he's completely transformed, though we don't know it until he takes the next step. We can attribute the revelation to the destruction of the car and the consequent sense of helplessness and of being thrown back on his own inadequate resources--which is to say his feet--but we don't get the picture of the workings of his mind that was built up previously by his actions and by the narrator's descriptions of him. I don't know if that's a common reservation about the book or not. Maybe that's just me, too.

Netflix has the film on DVD, by the way. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: I had recorded it from Turner Classic Movies, before we gave up most of our cable subscription. It was introduced by Ben Mankiewicz as a film "set in the American South, detailing the complexity of one man's return home from war." I think Flannery O'Connor would have enjoyed that.


Speaking of Catholic writers who write strange things: the Catholic Herald had an interesting piece about Alice Thomas Ellis a couple of weeks ago. She's someone who's been on my Read More Of list for a long time, since I read a couple of her books maybe twenty years ago, but I've never gotten back to her. The two I read were a novel, Fairy Tale, which though it has nothing else in common with Wise Blood is at least as weird, and Serpent on the Rock, a collection of essays. There's also a good essay about Ellis by Sally Thomas, published in First Things back in 2008.

And speaking of Sally Thomas, she has a very fine short story called "Not Less Than Everything" (T.S. Eliot, if you think the phrase sounds familiar but can't place it), in the Pentecost issue of Dappled Things. It's one of two stories in that issue which deal with--sorry to use the stock phrase--unplanned pregnancies. But don't let that give you the impression that they are in the least didactic. They aren't. They simply explore the situations, one from a male and one from a female point of view, and neither one simple or conventional. The second is by Abigail Rine Favale and is called "Obedience Lessons." To read them you'll need to buy the magazine, which you can do here. I subscribed a while back and though I don't like everything in the three issues I've received so far, I intend to renew my subscription.


A week or so ago I had occasion to look at a 1958 issue of Life magazine and was more fascinated by the advertisements than by the stories. My first car was a 1959 Chevrolet, similar to the one here but much duller: plain white, no chrome trim, blackwall tires, and I don't remember the rear of the roof having that snazzy overhang. I think of it as mine but it really wasn't. It was a joint investment on the part of my father and his brother for the purpose of their five high-school-age children getting from our home in the country to Athens High, fifteen or so miles away. But I often had the use of it on weekends. I don't think my father and uncle got such a good deal on it. I remember a few times when it barely chugged to the top of a not-very-steep hill. And it apparently had been shipped to Alabama from some dealer up north where they put salt on the roads in winter, because the floorboard in the back seat rusted through. I remember driving around town on Friday or Saturday night once and somebody putting a stick through the hole and dragging it along the pavement. It made a lot of noise, which we enjoyed.


52 Albums, Week 36: Dummy (Portishead)


I think I first encountered the term "trip-hop" in a description of this album. I don't remember exactly what the description said, but it was intriguing. I also don't remember if or how I managed to hear a bit of it, as this was in the late '90s or early '00s, before YouTube and various other means of sampling music online were available. (Napster was probably around, but I scorned it; it seemed little different from theft.) It seems unlikely that I would have bought it entirely unheard, but maybe I did.

At any rate I did hear it, and I did like what I heard, and I did buy it, and I did like the whole album, quite a lot. Moreover, I soon learned that I could count on the label "trip-hop" to be pretty much a guarantee that I would like the music to which the label was attached. Not that I would necessarily like the particular instance a great deal, but I would like the basic sound, the basic style, enough to listen to and enjoy even a run-of-the-mill effort. 

What is that sound? Well, the name would seem to mean "trippy hip-hop," but the relationship is a little obscure to me, since I don't know that much about hip-hop. I guess it refers at minimum to the slow-ish, smoky, shuffling beats, like those you hear a lot in rap and hip-hop, and to the use of samples. (Dummy also includes scratching, but I don't think that's typical.) "Smoky" is a good adjective in general. Trip-hop tends to be smoky, slow, mysterious, melancholy, somewhat strange, heavy on the electronics, maybe somewhat jazzy. Moody and warm female vocals are favored. Samples of old recordings sometimes give it a nostalgic or retro feel.

At any rate all of that applies to Dummy. the 1994 debut release of Portishead, a three-person group consisting of singer Beth Gibbons, Geoff Barrow, and Adrian Utley. The album is basically a studio concoction put together by the three of them, and I think they have to bring other people on board to perform it live. Barrow is credited with various tasks involving electronics, and Utley usually with guitar and bass. The writing credits go to all three, though I think I read somewhere that Gibbons is the lyricist. 

So. A listen will be far more helpful than more verbiage from me in acquainting you with their sound, if you aren't already familiar with it. Here are the first two tracks, which are very representative of the whole, as the album is remarkably consistent in style and quality. The spy-movie-sounding guitar in "Sour Times" is a sample from an album called More Mission Impossible by Lalo Schifrin, who did the famous TV show theme music.


One more. This one is a special favorite because of the surprising and effective quotation from Jude 1:3. 

Portishead have not been very prolific. They put out a second album, just called Portishead, three years after this one. I bought it a few years ago but am embarrassed to say that I have yet to hear it. I think part of the reason is that this one album seems such a complete and perfect statement of a particular aesthetic that more almost seems superfluous. There are also a live album and, ten years later, in 2008, one called Third. And Beth Gibbons has a solo album, Out of Season (2002),which I own and have only heard once. It seemed at first hearing rather different from Portishead. I'll get back to it eventually.

I'm having trouble thinking of a lot to say about this album, but it's not for lack of enthusiasm. It's actually one of my favorite popular music recordings. As you can probably imagine if you've listened to these tracks, it's great for listening to in the dark, with a drink in hand. (I don't know, smoke might be more appropriate, but I don't do that.)

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, September 3, 2017

When I was in high school and thinking about college, I thought of the admissions process as a test which I might or might not pass, a door whose default position was closed and which was only opened to those who met certain standards. The college, in my mind, was not offering to accept me; I was asking it for that privilege, and couldn't assume that it would be granted. In fact I probably could have assumed that about the school I ended up going to, the University of Alabama, since I had decent grades and good test scores, but I didn't know that, and there was at least some selectivity involved. 

Years later when I went to work at a small Catholic liberal arts college, I was more than a little shocked to discover that the admissions office could just as well (and more accurately) have been called the sales office. The job of the people who worked there was to sell the college to potential students, and while it did and does have some standards and does not admit everyone who applies, the task of the admissions staff is not to weed out the less qualified and select the best, but to recruit anyone who might possibly be able to manage both the course work and the expense. They were salespeople, as you sensed immediately if you spent time among them. (That's not a put-down; in my experience people who are good at selling are generally likeable.) That was twenty-five years ago. The task was difficult then and is just as much so now. 

I've read a good deal over the past decade or so, especially over the past five years, about the state of higher education. In many ways, as we all know, it's not very good. Among many other things, it has gotten insanely expensive, the cost far exceeding the general rate of inflation, and that's the topic of a lot of the commentary, which attempts to find causes and cures. But most of what I've read looks only at the big public universities, and possibly the bigger and more prestigious private ones. The situation of smaller and poorer institutions is very different. 

One thing which drives the overall development, and which is perhaps the biggest and most obvious thing affecting small colleges, is that there are too many of institutions pursuing too few potential students. I'm not sure exactly how this happened. There was the post-World-War-II baby boom, of course, and the fewer number of children produced by them than by their parents. But these little colleges didn't spring into existence to serve the baby boom--they existed before it. How were they managing before? I don't know. But I came into that job after a decade in the computer industry, and although I don't claim any great business insight it soon became obvious to me that if higher education had been like other areas of business,  it would have been long overdue for a shakeout: that is, for some significant number of the "companies" to fail because they were all selling very similar products and there simply weren't enough customers to support them all. 

That didn't happen, and the biggest single reason for that is federal financial aid. But the "business"--and in some ways, much as academics might like to think otherwise, higher education is in certain fundamental ways a business, even if it isn't intended to make a profit--the business has in some ways changed a great deal in twenty-five years, and in ways that are generally not much to the liking of those who really care about liberal education as an end in itself.

Last week I ran across a piece by John Seery in Modern Age called "Somewhere Between A Jeremiad and a Eulogy" which comes closer than anything else I've read to an accurate description of the situation in small liberal arts colleges. If you're interested in the subject, I recommend reading it. However, it still doesn't quite get to the fundamental problem of schools like mine, because the writer is at a school with a lot of money in the bank as well as a good deal of prestige. He doesn't understand (or at least doesn't address) the situation of schools which don't have big endowments and thus are dependent year-to-year on tuition and donations to keep them afloat.  One such, Marygrove College in Detroit, is essentially closing down, eliminating all its undergraduate programs. If you read the article at that link, you'll get a picture of the threat faced by every similar school; Marygrove has apparently hit a wall toward which many others have skidded fairly close but so far managed to avoid hitting. "Facing budget shortfalls and enrollment declines"--that prospect is all too familiar for similar colleges. And by the way note the names of the schools paragraph toward the end beginning "Other colleges....": a disproportionate number of small private liberal arts colleges are Catholic. (I suppose the early 20th-century improvement in both the numbers and the finances of Catholics in this country, combined with the desire to have specifically Catholic education, is part of my earlier question about how they came into existence pre-baby-boom.)

But the Modern Age piece misses a couple of things that perhaps apply to all institutions but are especially serious for small and relatively poor ones. One is the extent to which many of the changes which faculty deplore are driven by that market problem I mentioned (a "structural" problem, I think they call it). There are not enough qualified (financially and academically) students to go around. Therefore there is competition for them, and therefore every school is constantly looking for something to distinguish itself from other similar ones. For rich schools, the competition is for prestige. For lesser ones, it's for survival. This creates a sort of arms race for amenities. 

My field is software and my job involves (I'm still working part-time) the systems that support the dull everyday administrative work of the school. When I started at my school, there was much talk among technologists of using ("leveraging"--I hate that term) technology to set one's school apart. I groaned. I thought that was a recipe for disaster, or at least trouble. What would happen, obviously, I thought, was that the schools with bigger budgets would introduce new technology-based services, and for a while that would give them a competitive advantage, but other schools would be forced to follow along in order to keep up, and for the poorer ones this would not be an advantage but a simple necessity for keeping the doors open. I specifically remember thinking and saying that some twenty years ago when schools began to provide free internet access for their students. This, I said, would do nothing for our school but raise the cost of operating the place, which is exactly what happened. Free internet, including campus-wide wireless coverage, is now considered as much a necessity as electricity--and the school gets just the same appreciation and advantage for providing it.

Seery complains about the escalating cost of software. This is a a fact, and I sympathize. Technology is expensive and it plays a significant role in the rise of tuition. But it is more and more pervasive mainly because people want it, both students and faculty. Some faculty are clueless and frankly a bit bratty about technology: they want it, but they don't want to recognize the expense involved. I've been in more than one meeting where a faculty member has sneered at the school's IT staff because Other School has this or that cool new technology and we don't, unaware of and uninterested in the fact that Other School has three times the staff and four times the budget. In extreme cases the complaint is comparable to griping that the maintenance department is not building new buildings. 

The question of whether all this technology should even be provided is moot at most schools. Some people might argue that it is only a distraction and a drain, and I'd be inclined to agree about a lot of it. But it is not being forced upon people by the IT department--at least not at my school, where IT staff are just desperately trying to keep their heads above water.

A substantial part of Seery's complaint is the expansion of the school's administration. This is certainly a valid complaint. He is dubious that the explanations that point to federal regulations and the demands of accrediting agencies are sufficient. Well, they may not be sufficient, but they are certainly significant. I mentioned earlier that many institutions would have to shut their doors without federal financial aid (mostly loans). That happens to touch on the, um, dare I say, intersection of technology and administrative demands. As it happens my college uses the same administrative software that Seery's college does (unless they have recently changed). I'm very familiar with that software. The financial aid module is definitely the most complex piece of the system. And worse, it changes constantly, requiring attention in various ways from both IT and financial aid staff. And that change is driven by the decisions and policies of the Department of Education, and the college has no more choice about keeping up with those change than it does about paying the utility bill. 

Accreditation, I think, is driven by some of the same forces as technology. Bigger and richer schools establish "best practices." Smaller and poorer ones have to keep up because they have to stay accredited. They would not be eligible for federal programs if they were not, so withdrawal of accreditation would be a death sentence for most schools. (I believe Hillsdale College is one of the very few, if not the only, schools able to prosper outside this system. It would be interesting to know how they do it but it must involve a large endowment.)

Is it any wonder that in the midst of all this the role of faculty is diminished? I deplore that, but I think faculty often fail to comprehend the forces that are driving the change.

There's one thing in the Seery piece I'd like to emphasize, as I suspect it's not know outside of academia. He denies that faculty are, in general, the main drivers of campus leftism:

If you look closely, the most unabashed forms of politically correct scripting on campus—the hunt to root out microaggressions and supposedly traumatizing speech—originate from the bloated administrative wing of campus, often from the Dean of Students Office(s). The people ventriloquizing students, through relentless sensitivity campaigns, about safe spaces, hate speech, structural oppression, and diversity imperatives are the deans and deanlets of residential life (as one of my colleagues puts it, the “Residential Life Industrial Complex”).

I think this is more or less true on most campuses. It was only in the past five or ten years that this began to sink in on me: that the administrative arm which is responsible for overseeing all the non-academic aspects of campus life has a decided impulse toward left-wing proselytizing. I'm on the administrative, not the academic, side of the house, and have very little involvement or contact with academics. But my impression of the faculty at my school is that, though they may be pretty uniformly liberal-progressive in their views, they are also intellectually serious and honest, and are not the single-minded ideologues from whom we hear occasionally, and who seem to be mostly in those dubious specialties that are more less left-wing-activist by definition.

The growth of the whole student life sector is also related to the amenities arms race. As is the need for constructing elaborate recreational centers. As is the need to have a coffee shop in the library. And let's not leave out the effects of general cultural decline and stress which have helped to produce more students with bigger problems than was the case a generation ago, and the corresponding growth in various forms of support and therapy for them. And that reminds me of the lawyers: fear of lawsuits probably also generates defensive measures that require administrative overhead.

Both students and parents expect as a matter of course services and facilities that would have been considered luxurious and unnecessary even twenty years ago, to say nothing of forty or fifty. In short you could probably account for a substantial portion of the rise in college costs if you could figure out a way to measure the impact of the arms race, the constant push for schools to keep up or at least not fall too far behind in the competition for making themselves attractive to students.

If this sounds like students (and parents) are in the position of being picky and demanding customers in a buyer's market, they are. I've heard many times a student complaint that begins with "I'm paying $N,000 every year to go to school here, and I expect..." And this mentality, I hear, gets into the classroom as well, and probably has an effect on grade inflation.

Well, I'm running out of time, so I'll stop there, though I could run on at length. As an academic manqué, and a firm believer in the ideals of liberal education, as well as an employee at an IHED (institution of higher education), this is a subject of great import to me. I had several other things I'd meant to discuss but they can wait till next week.


I went out to bring in the garbage can one morning last week and looked up and saw this. I think I looked up because I had walked into a spider web and couldn't figure out what it was doing in the middle of the driveway. It made me think of Mirkwood. It's at least fifteen feet from one of the two trees to which the web was attached to the other.