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January 2018

Miike Snow--"Sans Soleil" (live)

This is a guest post from Rob Grano.


You are unlikely to have heard of this group, or heard this song, unless you’ve watched early episodes of the TV show Justified, in one episode of which this song was played over the closing sequence. I liked it very much, but can’t remember how I tracked it down, eventually discovering that it was by a Swedish group, Miike Snow. The group consists of two Swedish multi-instrumentalists and the American singer Andrew Wyatt. I liked pretty much everything about the song – the soulful vocal, the touches of electronica, the memorable tune – and it became a new favorite.

A couple years back while looking around on Youtube I found this live version of the song and it just blew me away. The smoothness and perfection of the recording made me wonder if it were possibly lip-synched or sequenced, but the more I watched it the more it became clear to me that that wasn’t the case. There are enough variations between it and the album version to mark it out as different, not including the length, which is about two minutes greater here.

I’ve come back to the video many times, and it strikes me as a performance with an almost classical level of precision. There’s not one bad note anywhere, and while it’s possible that any flubs were fixed after production, the fact that it was a live Myspace transmission makes that seem unlikely. Of course, the recording was done through the board, so the balance we’re hearing is not what it would have sounded like live in the studio, but that’s unrelated to performance quality.

What’s also interesting to me is that nothing being played is actually acoustic except for the little xylophone-type thing. The singer is playing an electric piano, and the other guys are all working with some sort of synthesizer. To my mind this only increases the attractiveness of it, because there is unexpectedly no “coldness” to the electronics here at all. In fact it all sounds incredibly warm and organic. Yet it’s almost all electronic except for the vocals, which are lovely -- smooth and precise, close harmonies and all. Obviously the basic drum pattern is sequenced, but the rest of the sounds all are played live along with that sequenced pattern.

I could be wrong about it, but if this is a true live recording, it’s rather an amazing thing, and beautiful. I’ve never really run across anything else quite like it.

(I’d add that there is another song from the same performance on Youtube, “Animal,” which is a more energetic “techno” type thing. Very good, but not up to the level of “Sans Soleil”, in my opinion.)

Sunday Night Journal, January 28, 2018

When I was young--not just younger than I am now, but actually young, around twenty or so--I placed something close to a moral value on aesthetic judgment. That is, if someone had what I deemed to be incorrect aesthetic judgment, I considered it a personal defect. If not an actual sin (though I would not have used that word), it certainly seemed to me evidence of something amiss. And chances were, I felt, pretty good that the person's judgment in many other areas would also be defective. I say "felt" deliberately, because it wasn't a conscious thought. But I did suspect that he or she was not altogether to be trusted, and might exhibit worse traits: dishonesty, for instance.

This was ridiculous, and once I became aware that I was doing it I tried to stop, and to squelch the idea that misjudging beauty--failing to appreciate the good, or liking the bad--had anything to do with misjudging virtue, with misjudging right and wrong. I had the same sort of tendency with truth, to suppose that correct (in my eyes) or incorrect aesthetic judgment was likely to be an indicator of whether the person's beliefs were true or false.

Ridiculous though this may have been with respect to specific persons, it was based on an accurate intuition: that beauty, goodness, and truth are flowers of one plant, aspects of one thing. But at least where beauty is concerned I was expecting too much. Truth is one, and if the appeal to "my truth" vs. "your truth" is taken as anything other than a truism about a certain inevitable degree of subjectivity in the perception of concrete situations it's nonsense. Goodness is similar, though trickier: it can't be in principle right for me to lie but wrong for you, though many personal and concrete factors may make one more or less culpable. 

Beauty is much trickier. I believe with all my mind and heart that beauty is an aspect of God, and has an objective core that is independent of personal taste and judgment. I believe that someone who claims that some bit of commercial pop is superior or even equal to an aria from Bach's St. Matthew Passion is objectively wrong, as wrong as if he insisted that 1 + 2 and 2 + 1 give different sums. Yet the materials of which any earthly, actual, incarnate beauty is made, and the ways they can be combined, are so various that there is vast room for individual preferences that have no necessary connection to whatever that essential objective core of beauty is. One person likes green better than blue, another likes blue better than green. But it is impossible to say that one color is objectively and impersonally more beautiful than the other. Similarly, there's a level of artistic achievement where individual taste can justly be decisive. I claim that Keats's poetry is objectively superior to the words of a Nikki Minaj song. But I wouldn't make that claim about Keats in general vs. Shelley in general. I like Keats better, but they are at least rough peers in absolute merit. And in preferring Keats I'm saying something closer to "I prefer green to blue" than to "I prefer Macbeth to CSI: Miami."

All this is on my mind because I'm re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Today I had lunch with three people who all said they didn't care for it, and I had to fight the urge to say "What is wrong with you?!?" (I did pronounce them excommunicated, but I was joking...more or less.) It's by no means the first time I've encountered this, and sometimes it's been people whose literary judgment I generally respect. I think first of my old friend Robert. When I first read The Lord of the Rings in my mid-twenties, and mentioned to Robert that I had, he said, skeptically, "Well, is it literature?" And I may have said a simple "yes," or I may have said nothing, but I remember feeling something more or less along the lines of: if this is not literature then nothing is. I don't think I encouraged him to read it, because I suspected he wouldn't like it and didn't want to hear a scornful dismissal of something that had instantly become very precious to me. (As far as I know he still had not read it when he died several years ago, so I never found out what he thought or would have thought.)

For the most part I've found that the people who have fairly sophisticated taste in literature and don't like The Lord of the Rings have a strong bias toward the naturalistic mode of the modern novel. If your expectation of what a novel should be is determined by, say, Flaubert, or Dostoevsky, or really almost any novelist, Tolkien's work may seem absurdly naive and childish. There are things in it that even I would describe as naive and childish, though I would leave off "absurdly." Many have complained of its lack of "realism": a valid complaint if your expectation is that a novel should deal with everyday material life just as it is. But to those of us who do respond to Tolkien's vision the criticism that it doesn't deal with "real life" is misguided by an unjustifiably narrow conception of what that phrase means, or of how it can be treated in art. Tolkien himself was certainly aware that everyone was not sympathetic to his aims and technique:

Some who have read the book, or at any rate reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing they evidently prefer.

(from the preface to the second edition)

I have for the most part learned to accept this diversity of sensibility, and to be tolerant of those who dislike Tolkien's work. I even, as noted, recognize the validity of some of their criticisms. But still there is that voice in my head that wants to get out and say "What is wrong with you?" The book is for me so deeply engrossing and affecting that it's genuinely difficult for me to understand how anyone could fail to find it, at absolute minimum, an engaging story. I try to understand, and not criticize, much less condemn. But I do recall that W. H. Auden said something to the effect that he would never entirely trust the literary judgment of anyone who didn't like it. (I read that years ago, and have not been able to find it again, so I suppose I could be misremembering it.) I wouldn't put it so strongly. I'd say only that it's the recognition of something that I can only think of as a blind spot. And I take that into account if we're discussing literature.

And anyway, I have my own blind spots. I don't much like the sort of static fiction in which a miserable person goes on being miserable. 

The last time I read The Lord of the Rings was at least twenty years ago. I would have read it again before now, but after seeing the movie versions I found that I didn't want to read it again while those images were still strongly present in my mind. As it happens the very first Sunday Night Journal, posted in January 2004, was about the movie of The Return of the King; you can read it here. As time went on my opinion of the movies diminished, until I hoped that I would never see them again. I find now that they've faded to a point where they aren't overly obtrusive.

The book is as good as I remember. My first reading of it was pretty hasty, compelled by the narrative. Others involved reading to my children, which of course had its distractions. Now I'm taking it very slowly, sometimes reading no more than a few pages a day, and enjoying it intensely. I'm also keeping handy Karen Fonstad's amazing and valuable Atlas of Middle Earth, which contains maps of all the major physical features and many events of Tolkien's entire sub-creation. His achievement in imagining this world was astonishing, even if you think it was a waste of time. An important part of this imagining is visual; Tolkien obviously saw this world very clearly and in a great deal of detail. Not having a very visual sort of mind myself, I find it all too easy to be confused by it, or to lose the clear sense of what is where, which is very important because it's above all the account of a journey. The book comes with a map, of course, or at least it used to, but the maps in the atlas are far more detailed, and moreover include the whole of Tolkien's world in time and space, not just the parts that are important to The Lord of the Rings

I've just finished the "Farewell to Lorien" chapter, much of which is almost unbearably moving to me. Maybe sometime I'll write a full appreciation of the book, though I should first dig out and re-read the one I wrote for Caelum et Terra twenty-plus years ago. At the moment I think I am, still, one of those other readers whom Tolkien notes along with the hostile reviewers: those who found it too short.


When I was visiting in north Alabama last week I hoped to see the phenomenon described by Janet in a comment recently, where a bare tree is turned to gold by the setting (or rising) sun. I never quite saw that, because there were buildings and trees that blocked the sun before it got quite to that point. I did however see this.


52 Poems, Week 4: This Is Just to Say (Williams)

This has got to be one of my favorites:

This Is Just To Say 

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

(1934, William Carlos Williams, 1883 – 1963)

Those last three lines are exhilarating, with the “-cious,” “sw-“ and “so cold.” He didn’t even have to say “juicy.”

Each stanza has four beats by my count, making it more formal than free verse (which I don’t usually care for). The first two stanzas have twelve syllables; the third has thirteen—giving it the emphasis.

I also like how the title is part of the poem.

Was he really sorry?

Week 4-plums-1574651_1280

—Robert Gotcher is a theologian from Milwaukee, where he and his wife have been raising their seven children, five of whom are out of the house, more or less. He is a recovering Beatlemaniac.

Sunday Night Journal, January 21, 2018

I've been having some unusually vivid dreams lately, and some of those have stayed with me longer than dreams usually do, and were more coherent than dreams usually are. One from a week or so ago can justifiably be called Kafkaesque: I was about to be executed for no reason that I knew of. I was in the custody of several people who were charged with carrying out the sentence. I didn't know any of them. There seemed to be some confusion about the place and manner of death, and I was led from one place to another, with my hands tied. Shortly before I woke up I was tied to some sort of pillar, and it seemed as if they were about to kill me in some unspecified way, but they untied me and led me off to some other place. 

I was, naturally, not very pleased about all this, but I was not very upset, either, but rather sort of unhappily resigned, and I wasn't making much of an effort to get away. And although I didn't know what crime I was being punished for, I felt in a mild and vague sort of way that I had it coming.

Still, it was a relief to wake up. 


Maybe the reason I had been sentenced to death was that I'm such a cold, callous, cynical person that I laughed out loud when I read that Britain has appointed a Minister for Loneliness who is to oversee the development of "a cross-government strategy on loneliness in England" (NPR story here; there are many others). I was about to explain why I laughed, but on second thought I think I'll resort to the Louis Armstrong rule: if you have to ask, you'll never know. Suffice to say that this is another entry in the list of instances proving that satire is futile today.

But I'm not as bad as I sound. I don't make light of the situation of elderly people who are all alone, which seems to be the main focus of the ministry. I'm sure it is a very real problem, and in another ten or fifteen years I might be one of these people myself. It's just the idea that it's a problem that government can and should address that strikes me as weird--and funny.

It makes me think of the "Julia" character who appeared in one of Obama's campaign ads, and the life envisioned for her. I think it's a useful Rorschach test. I can't find the original ad online, though I haven't looked very hard; surely it's out there somewhere. But, in brief, it presented the life of a fictional "Julia," her hand held and her material needs fulfilled at every step by a government program. I thought at the time  that whether one reacts with pleasure or disdain to this vision is an indicator of whether or not one actually believes in the ideals of the American republic ("no" and "yes", respectively).


Julia is mentioned in this very interesting interview with Patrick Deneen about his new book, Why Liberalism Failed. I'm trying to cut back on the amount of time I spend reading and thinking about the social and political situation in this country, but I'll probably read this book. Liberalism, using the word broadly as denoting the views that are embodied in modern Western societies, and especially in the United States, is clearly in crisis, if not yet "failed," having run up hard against, among others, the problem of treating individual liberty as its only absolute, with every aspect of life considered to be a field for the exercise of that liberty. That the insistence on personal autonomy is most absolute and intense where sex is concerned, going even as far as to nullify the relationship between a woman and her unborn child, is surely going to fascinate future historians (if the world lasts long enough).

It's an old story to those of us who have been talking about this for decades, but the noncommittal stance, the attempted neutrality, of classical liberalism toward objective truth and, more importantly, objective right and wrong, always had a fatal weakness: it assumed and relied on fundamental agreement about fundamental things. Neither Jefferson nor Mill would ever have imagined that there would be a serious disagreement about whether marriage had anything to do with sex, or whether sex had anything to do with procreation, or whether one can change one's sex by declaring that it has changed. As shared cultural assumptions dissolve, the powers and duties of the state increase. The state, theoretically detached from fundamental questions and once expected only to protect individual freedom, is now required to decide between views which are so fundamentally opposed that they cannot permanently coexist.

The "social issues" are not silly side-shows; they have become matters of political life and death, questions which the government is expected to answer, and then to enforce its answer, with vast consequences. And that situation is the logical consequence of a paradigm that envisions the political order as comprising fundamentally only individuals, on the one hand, and the state on the other, with no standard beyond the rights of individuals considered to be decisive. In that situation it's not surprising that Julia, wanting and needing reliable support, should, in effect, marry the state. Here's Deneen:

The political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel once wrote that “state of nature” scenarios were obviously the imaginings of “childless men who had forgotten their own childhood.” He meant that the imaginary version of our true “nature” as radically individuated selves is in fact no-where to be found as our “natural” condition. We are first and foremost by nature relational creatures. And yet, we see a different reality now coming into being, not as the result of our “natural” condition, but through the efforts of a massive architecture that has been erected to make possible human lives increasingly lived in disconnection from permanent relations and absent constitutive cultural forms of membership and belonging.

The state becomes the main creator and supporter of this condition. A range of policies – economic, social and political – have as their aim the realization of this creature once only imagined in the state of nature, but now increasingly the default human of modern political and social world. The best representation of this phenomenon is probably found in the Obama campaign ad, “The Life of Julia,” which portrays the lifespan of a woman, from childhood to old age, whose complete independence was the result of a slew of government programs. She has no apparent relationships with other human beings (she seems to have a child for a brief span, but that nameless little person is taken away on a yellow school bus and never reappears), and the point of the ad is that her complete freedom is the result of the total lack of reliance upon any other particular human being.

Your relationship with the state is your only absolutely binding one. All others are, as Deneen says, "permanently reversible and easily exited." Why, then, should Julia, already looking to the state as her guarantor of material security, not look also to it for emotional security, by means of such things as a Ministry for Loneliness?


On a more pleasant subject: for years I've seen references here and there to a band called The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, but had not heard any of their music till quite recently. This piece in the Church Times (which I just noticed is from 2015) makes their music sound as interesting as their name suggests. To me, at least. Here's the video that the Church Times piece refers to: 

There are other tracks on YouTube, and three of their albums, with samples, at their Bandcamp site. And Wikipedia describes their music thusly: 

The group's music is a blend of folk and sacred music, industrial and ambient sounds, and samples that has drawn comparisons to neofolk artists like Current 93 and Death in June, as well as artists including Dead Can Dance, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Henryk Górecki, and Arvo Pärt.

That package has my name on it.


I've been meaning to mention for several weeks a movie I want to dis-recommend: The Honeymoon Killers. This is one of the many movies on our Netflix queue that I don't remember putting there. I must have seen it recommended somewhere, but I have no idea where. It finally got to the top of the queue a month or so ago, and arrived unexpectedly in the mail. We (my wife and I) watched it, but I think the only benefit we can claim from the experience is that now we know that we don't like it.

It's a cheap film from the late '60s which for some reason struck the fancy of critics, and is now considered something of a classic--the DVD is from the Criterion Collection. As the title suggests, it's about a married couple (at least I think they got married) who commit a series of murders set up by the husband's wooing of a vulnerable woman who has money. He marries the woman, they kill her and collect her money. In my naive opinion it's an ugly piece of work in every respect, and if it had any appeal to me it would be in the so-bad-it's-good line, and I can't help suspecting the critical embrace it's received has something to do with the embrace of nihilism. You can read Criterion's review of it here, but I don't find that this applies to me:

You’re not sure you really want to do it again, but who can resist the thrill of confronting one’s own moral ambivalence? Compulsively diverting, it’s a movie that taunts you for having a good time. 

I'd say rather that it's a movie that leaves you feeling dirty not because you had a good time but for the much simpler reason that you've touched something dirty.


Not wanting to leave you with that, I'll mention another movie I saw recently which struck me as completely delightful: Cluny Brown. It's a trifle, but a very enjoyable one. It's a 1947 romantic comedy starring Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones. The dialog is witty, the characters sweet but not sugary, the satire accurate and funny, the plot happily improbable. It's not on Netflix and I'm not sure it's commercially available at all, but you can watch the whole thing on YouTube. Here's a link to the first ten minutes (it's not embed-able); if you like this, you'll enjoy the whole thing. I admit that I was just a bit disappointed with the ending, because I had wanted them to deliver on a certain promise they had made.


This picture was taken in north Alabama. You can find images like this down here on the coast if you look for them, but they aren't so plentiful, as so many of our trees keep many of their leaves through much of the extremely mild winter. It's an image I've always loved.


52 Poems, Week 3: Drachenfels (Byron)

On New Year's Eve we went to a party in Germany, invited by my brother who lives in the Westerwald. It's a three-hour drive each way, and we didn't intend to stay more than two or three hours at the party, so I cast about for something to break the journey, and increase the proportion of time spent in pleasurable activities rather than speeding along a motorway in winter. A short detour added twenty minutes to the drive, but provided us with two hours stretching our legs up and down the steep hill, overlooking the Rhine, at the top of which perches the ruin of Drachenfels castle.

I had heard of Drachenfels, and seen it in pictures, and had a vague notion it was connected to Romanticism in some way. Along the road up the hill we passed a booth selling trinkets and wind chimes, a mulled wine stall, a wine lounge, a beer garden, a fancy-looking restaurant, and a reptile house called Nibelungenhalle. There was even a little railway up the hill, but the trains were not running on New Year's Eve. I did not see any animatronic dragons, but have a sneaking suspicion that the sign to Fafnir's Lair might lead to one. We arrived relatively late in the day, and everything was closed or closing, so we could enjoy the quiet woods and the magnificent views without too many distractions – walking up in the sunset and back down again in the dark. There was an information panel which indicated, among other things, that the strongest connection to English Romanticism can be found in canto 3 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron had visited in 1816, on his way to Switzerland. I read the poem for the first time the next day.

The sensation behind the poem is familiar to me. In travelling to conferences I have often wished that my wife or children could be with me. This feeling was particularly strong in Venice. I enjoyed the quiet, damp, misty beauty of it during a February conference (in the tourist lull after carnival and before the coming of spring). It was quite literally an awesome experience, but at the same time it was tinged with regret, as I kept wishing that my loved ones were there to share it. And of course I bought them souvenirs – I don't remember what; something tacky but not too tacky, I imagine, since it had to be recognisably a souvenir and not obviously trash; something to show that while in that immensely moving city my mind had also been on them. Nothing quite as trashy, or Romantic, as wilted lilies, though.


The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o’er the wide and winding Rhine,
Whose breast of waters broadly swells
Between the banks that bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossom’d trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine,
And scatter’d cities crowning these,
Whose far white walls along them shine,
Have strew’d a scene, which I should see
With double joy wert thou with me.

And peasant girls, with deep blue eyes,
And hands which offer early flowers,
Walk smiling o’er this paradise;
Above, the frequent feudal towers
Through green leaves lift their walls of gray;
And many a rock which steeply lowers,
And noble arch in proud decay,
Look o’er the vale of vintage-bowers;
But one thing want these banks of Rhine,
– Thy gentle hand to clasp in mine!

I send the lilies given to me;
Though long before thy hand they touch,
I know that they must wither’d be,
But yet reject them not as such;
For I have cherish’d them as dear,
Because they yet may meet thine eye,
And guide thy soul to mine even here,
When thou behold’st them drooping nigh,
And know’st them gather’d by the Rhine,
And offer’d from my heart to thine!

The river nobly foams and flows,
The charm of this enchanted ground,
And all its thousand turns disclose
Some fresher beauty varying round:
The haughtiest breast its wish might bound
Through life to dwell delighted here;
Nor could on earth a spot be found
To nature and to me so dear,
Could thy dear eyes in following mine
Still sweeten more these banks of Rhine!

—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, January 14, 2018

I finished the two remaining Charles Williams novels (see the November 26 post) a week or two ago, and I'd better say something about them while I still remember them well enough to do so. They are The Greater Trumps and Shadows of Ecstacy. The short verdict is that it was fitting that I read them last, as I would put them in that order for merit. I was hoping to discover a neglected gem, but was disappointed. I'll take them in the order I read them, which is also the order of their publication.

I thought from the title that The Greater Trumps probably had something to do with Tarot, and it does. The GTs are a suit of the Tarot deck, and apparently the most powerful. I know nothing much about Tarot, and possibly would have enjoyed this book more, and understood it better, if I did. 

In Williams's telling, it seems that there is one original Tarot deck, and it possesses great power. More or less accidentally it has come into the possession of a rather sour and unimaginative middle-aged man, Lothair Coningsby (and who wouldn't be sour with that name?). The first sentence of the novel consists of him saying something "peevishly," and he continues to do that throughout, though he shows something more before it's all over. He is employed as a "Warden in Lunacy," and if there is an explanation of that I missed it. I suppose it means that he is the director of an insane asylum. He has a daughter, Ruth, who is engaged to a young man named Henry Lee, who seems a pretty typical upper-middle-class English character except that he is of Gypsy extraction. He recognizes the cards for what they are, and conspires with his grandfather, Aaron, to steal them from Coningsby.

These gypsies are not the sort you'd expect, at least not in a story having to do with ancient and powerful Tarot cards: they are both affluent and stably domiciled. The grandfather has a big house in the country, equipped with servants, and he invites the Coningsbys to spend a few days there at Christmas, with the intention of getting hold of the cards.

I thought it might be a mistake to read so much Williams all at once. I think it was, and that probably had an effect on my view of this book. Most of his novels involve the unleashing of mighty cosmic forces at great risk to the world. Exactly what these forces are going to do is often rendered rather murkily. Long and complex descriptions of their activity and its results, frequently involving the transportation or absorption of an ordinary person and an ordinary place into some cosmic-spiritual reality which somehow leaves me more or less befuddled. Part of the problem is that he sometimes paints a picture of more or less abstract qualities and forces behaving as if they are physical entities. At any rate, by the time I read this book I had grown impatient with it, and not much interested in trying to make sense of it. I'd begun to have a sort of ok-fine-whatever reaction to those passages, and to hurry through them in order to find out what's actually happened. And so I can tell you that possession of the Tarots will enable them to do some really big things, but I'm not quite sure what they all are, though they do seem to include seeing the future, and also, more or less by the way, to give one the ability to control the weather, which is important to the story. 

The Lees are already in possession of a rather remarkable thing, one of the more interesting things in the book. It is a set of little golden figures representing the entities of the Tarot. They reside in a special room in the Lee house where they engage in a perpetual dance across a chessboard-like surface. And I do mean perpetual. The dance never stops, and it has something to do with the cosmic dance of all things; I think in some way it is that dance. And I think part of the idea is that one who possesses the original Tarot deck can use it, in conjunction with the dancing figures, to know the future, really and accurately.

I may very well be doing this book an injustice by reading it so soon after three others. I can imagine that reading it fresh, without being, as I was, a little tired of Williams's devices, might be a much more enjoyable experience. But on the other hand--there is a sort of subplot involving an old woman, a relative of the Lees, who believes, possibly correctly, that she is the incarnation of an Egyptian goddess--Isis, I think. That was one of the parts that I ceased to care about so am not sure what it was all about. 

I should mention a very engaging character: Sybil Coningsby, sixty-ish unmarried sister of Lothair. She is a quiet, modest, but perceptive and shrewd and preternaturally agreeable person, having acquired that latter quality, it is suggested, through a lifetime of spiritual discipline. She's a bit too agreeable sometimes: when the old Isis-woman wants her to kneel to her and more or less worship her as a goddess, she complies at once. Her spiritual power gives her an important role in the proceedings. I'd like to have heard more of her. She's given a bit of dialog that I very much enjoyed. She and her brother are discussing the Christmas visit to the Lees:

"I'm afraid it'll be very dull for you," he said.

"Oh, I don't think so," she answered. "It'll have to be very dull indeed if it is."

"And of course we don't know what the grandfather's like," he added.

"He's presumably human," Sybil said, "so he'll be interesting somehow."

A few pages into Shadows of Ecstacy I thought "This may be either the best or worst of Williams's novels." Maybe I didn't think "best" and "worst." I may have thought "most interesting" and "least interesting." In either case, after a few chapters I had pretty well decided on the latter. 

A recurring theme, and even a recurring character, in Williams's novels is that of the spiritual adept who, even if he is a Christian, sees ordinary Christians and ordinary Christian faith and practice as naive, pitiably naive if not plain stupid, not understanding the religion they profess, which is really about other, more subtle things than sin, forgiveness, heaven, hell, and all the rest. Sibyl Coningsby has a bit of this quality. The archdeacon in War In Heaven has a good deal more, as does Stanhope in Descent Into Hell. It's Gnostic, obviously, and I can't help thinking that it represents a fairly serious defect in Williams's theology--or perhaps only in his character. Perhaps he was wise enough to see the problem, even if he couldn't entirely extirpate it in himself.

Anyway, this tendency more or less takes over in Shadows of Ecstacy. The adept here is not even Christian, and is by any mundane standard a pretty evil man--at least if you consider the willingness to foment the murder of thousands of people to be a measure of evil. He is Nigel Considine, an Englishman who has traveled and lived for a long time in Africa, and discovered a great secret. He believes that the passionate energy of Africa (or Africans) holds the key to complete mastery of the life force, to the point that one sufficiently adept in the technique can bring himself back from the dead. He has launched a great quest for this ability, not simply to attain it for himself--he is too noble for that, although he does want it--but to give it to the world. This is going to require, first, that he more or less conquer the world, or at least Europe, so that he can lead it out of its dead rationalism into the glorious life of the passions. I wouldn't have been surprised to have him declare his intention to dare I say it?--rule the world! But this would be done not for the mere exercise of power, but for the spreading of his technique.

Passion, it seems, is the key to immortality, and here we get some all-too-Williams-ish (or Nietzchean) malarkey:

I have always, so far as I could, done according to the gospel which moves in me and my friends, the doctrine of transmutation of energy, of the conscious turning of joy and anguish alike into strength and will, and of that passionate strength and will into the exploration of all the capacities of man.

Ok, fine, whatever. There's much more but that seems to be the basic idea. We've heard a whole lot of this sort of thing over the past hundred years or so, and I would hope that whatever persuasive ability it had has pretty much faded at this point. 

Another familiar motif in Williams's fiction is that of the woman who submits to the will of a man in service of some spiritual enterprise. Some of these are lovely, for instance the relationship of Lord Arglay and Chloe Burnett in Many Dimensions. But its occurrence here is ludicrous. A would-be disciple of Considine, Roger Ingram, a professor of literature who recognizes in Considine's teaching what he had always felt about poetry, decides to give up everything, including his wife, and follow Considine into great adventures of passion to be mastered and transmuted, probably not excluding sexual passion, if he follows Considine's example, and from which he may very well never return. And this is perfectly fine with his wife.

"Why did you tell Roger to go?"

"Because I wanted him to, since he wanted to," she said. "More; for I wanted him to even more than he did, since I hadn't myself to think of and he had.... I want it--whatever he wants. I don't want it unselfishly, or so that he may be happy, or because I ought to, or for any reason at all. I just want it. And then, since I haven't myself to think of, I'm not divided or disturbed in wanting...."

My response to this was yeah right.

I would have supposed that these two books represent the ebbing of Williams's novelistic gift, but I learn from his Wikipedia page that Shadows of Ecstacy was actually the first written, though it was the fifth published, in 1933. So one can hope that he abandoned some of its ideas. The first five were published quickly, between 1930 and 1933. There is a gap of four years between Shadows and Descent Into Hell (1937) and another eight before All Hallows' Eve (1945).I think most readers would agree that both these are at least strong contenders for being his best novel, so, far from ebbing, his ability was at its height just before he died in 1945.

If I were asked to recommend some of Williams's fiction to someone who had read little or none of it, I would first ask whether he or she (or they) was looking more for a good story or for spiritual depth. If the former, I would say either War In Heaven or Many Dimensions; if the latter, either Descent Into Hell or All Hallows' Eve

52 Poems, Week 2: I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud (Wordsworth)

This is the first poem that came to mind when Mac brought up the idea of 52 Poems before the group. It is silly, of course. Romantic poetry always seems a little silly. Nevertheless, it is the one poem, perhaps along with "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which I have never forgotten from a poetry course I took in college. Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley …. these are the guys I think of when I think of poetry. I suppose I need this year of poems to break me of this to some degree. Meanwhile, I still find that the last stanza of this poem is quite sublime, and I certainly feel that way about nature in general, very much in preference to the city life that I live most of the time.


I wandered lonely as a cloud 
That floats on high o'er vales and hills, 
When all at once I saw a crowd, 
A host, of golden daffodils; 
Beside the lake, beneath the trees, 
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. 

Continuous as the stars that shine 
And twinkle on the milky way, 
They stretched in never-ending line 
Along the margin of a bay: 
Ten thousand saw I at a glance, 
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. 

The waves beside them danced; but they 
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: 
A poet could not but be gay, 
In such a jocund company: 
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought 
What wealth the show to me had brought: 

For oft, when on my couch I lie 
In vacant or in pensive mood, 
They flash upon that inward eye 
Which is the bliss of solitude; 
And then my heart with pleasure fills, 
And dances with the daffodils.


--Stu Moore spends more time than he should in a vacant or pensive mood.

Sunday Night Journal, January 7, 2018

How, how is it possible that this is the year 2018 A.D.?  I have a clear memory of sitting in Mrs. Bruce's 6th grade class, which means it was 1959 or '60 and I was eleven or twelve years old, and wondering for the first time (as far as I remember) how old I would be in the year 2000. I remember doing the arithmetic to find out...borrow one, ten minus eight is two, nine minus four is five.


Astonishing! Inconceivable! I truly had no way to conceive of that length of time, much less what it would be like to be that age.

A few years later I was reading science fiction, much of which was set in that far-distant time. As late as 1969 Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick thought it reasonable to set their drama of the next step in human development (guided by those substitute gods, super-intelligent extraterrestrials) in 2001. They furnished their vision with a space travel infrastructure comparable to that which existed for air travel at the time. Well, that has strikingly failed to appear, along with many other visions of a future set in or just beyond the beginning of the millennium. The bright sleek shiny ultra-modern future has in general strikingly failed to appear (as has the dystopia that apparently became the preferred vision sometime after the 1960s). The only really significant technological development since 2000 has been the emergence and spread of the pocket-size supercomputer, otherwise known as the smart phone. Arguably the web of information and communication, and the computers which constitute and give access to it, are the only really significant technological development since 1970--at least if by "significant" we mean something that changes daily life in some important way for almost everyone. 

And culturally--well, some would say we've advanced, some that we've declined, and I favor the latter view, but all in all the change has not been so dramatic as science fiction writers expected. We've been pretty well stalled for most of the past fifty years, actually: the cultural revolution of the late 1960s happened, and things were rather different in 1975 from what they had been in 1965. But since then they've been fairly static, really, at least domestically--the culture war started and the antagonists have been locked in a struggle ever since, neither side winning a clear and decisive victory. 

Most striking to me is the swiftness of the passage of the eighteen years since 2000. It's a tiresome thing for an old person to say, I know, but it keeps occurring to me because it's so astonishing. The turn of the millennium is roughly as many years in the past for us no as the end of the Second Word War was at the arrival of the Beatles.  This year, children born in 2000 will be finishing high school.  They've gone from being newborns with everything to learn to having at least some level of education and ability to manage for themselves. But for me it's mostly been a sort of plateau, and I've traversed it very quickly.

For someone my age the phrase "the year 2000" once had the aura of distant, exciting, hardly imaginable futurity. Now it's just an ordinary and rather dull bit of the past, and for me not a very far distant past, as it must be for someone who will be, say, just old enough to vote and buy alcohol this year. 

And fifty-two seems fairly young. Or at least not old.

I'm happy to say, by the way, that I never was much worried about the Y2K disaster. There was a guy who gained a fair amount of fame for himself at the time by predicting, with a great deal of confidence and a fair amount of irrelevant or invented data, that civilization as we know it could not survive. I thought he was nuts, unless he was lying. A few years after the day had come and gone with barely a ripple, I went looking online to see what he had to say about having been proved wrong. I couldn't find any trace of him.


I'm also happy to say that I've managed pretty well to keep to my resolve to stay out of the controversy surrounding Amoris laetitia, and in general the controversies surrounding the papacy of Pope Francis. I've not only stayed out of them but have gotten pretty good at ignoring them. But yesterday someone recommended to me this piece by Christopher Altieri at Catholic World Report as being "the most balanced explanation" of the situation he'd read. Well, to be honest, he actually said "of the current mess." And it does seem to be something of a mess. Maybe it shouldn't be, maybe it's really much ado about nothing. But in that case the fact that it seems so important would have to be counted as part of the mess. At any rate, Altieri's piece does seem a pretty good explanation of why it isn't crazy (pharasaical, etc.) to have concerns about what the pope seems to want to do.

It strikes me, and it is not a happy stroke, that what's going on in the Church looks a lot like what's going on in American politics:  bitter factions hurling invective at each other, "Pope Francis can do no wrong" vs. "Pope Francis can do no right." As with the political situation, though, I don't really see that much effect in my own life and in my own place. My diocese, the parishes within it, and my Ordinariate group muddle along as usual, trying to practice the faith to the best of our ability. The Pope is far away and the fight doesn't directly affect us (not counting the clergy, for whom it may have immediate practical import in their ministry). I think I'll be glad if the era of the celebrity pope fades away. Much as I loved John Paul II, I was always a little concerned about that. 

One happy effect of all this, as Altieri notes (though not happily), is that the folks at America magazine, and the similarly-minded, now have the opportunity to denounce their opponents as "dissenters." It's a pretty silly charge, but it must feel pretty good to be able to make it, after several decades of digging in their heels against the last two popes. So let them have their fun, I say.


I've been meaning to mention that Francesca Murphy is now doing a bi-weekly blog post at First Things. They're excellent, and I think this piece, "The Secrets of the Confessional," is my favorite so far, a reflection on the fact that "Feeling great after confession is probably the most widespread experience in Catholicism, a religion not founded on religious experience as such."


I never was very good at learning the rules of grammar, and am only bothered by the mistakes which I don't usually make. One such has been bothering me lately. Isn't it the distinction between "transitive" and "intransitive" verbs that describes whether the subject is doing something or having something done to it? Whatever the correct terminology is, the distinction seems to be breaking down. I keep running across sentences which seem to be misusing transitive verbs, if that's the right way to describe it. For instance, I was about to subscribe to a certain magazine a few days ago, and the web site referred to "the Spring issue which releases in March." Shouldn't that be "is released"? 

And this: if you do this or that on your computer, you're told, "a message displays." Shouldn't that be "is displayed"?

And this: "It transforms into...." Shouldn't that be "is transformed into"?

Like I said, I don't really even know the rules. I just play by ear. But these are like off-key notes to me.

I'm giving up on "I'm going to lay down" and "He said to John and I." Those battles are hopelessly lost.

But I reserve the right to laugh when I hear individual persons referred to as "they" and "them" in deference to gender-bending fads. As in "My boyfriend has recently come out as transgender, and they are saying I'm a bigot because I'm thinking of breaking up with them." I actually read something like that a few days ago, though I can't find it now. As I've mentioned before, those who think Donald Trump is inaugurating the reign of Orwellian Newspeak and thoughtcrime are barking up the wrong tree entirely.  


We had an actual cold snap last week. By "actual" I mean that the temperature was low enough (mid-20s Fahrenheit) and the wind from the north strong enough (mid-20s MPH), to qualify as being, so to speak, objectively cold. Sometimes in winter, or in a hurricane that hits at the right angle, a strong north wind can blow much of the water right out of the bay. That was the case when this picture was taken on New Year's morning. Under normal conditions the only thing you would see besides water and sky in this picture would be the top of that furthest post. This debris by the way is partly trees fallen years ago and partly the remains of the city's original sewer line. I really should try to get them to remove it.


Banana trees do not take the cold very well. This was taken the following morning.


52 Poems, Week 1: The Darkling Thrush (Thomas Hardy)

I suppose I read this poem a dozen times or so when I encountered it in one of my college textbooks. It was either second-semester English, where we used the old favorite Sound and Sense anthology, which I still have, or in a higher-level course in Victorian poetry, where we used a lime-green paperback called something like Victorian Poetry: Clough to Kipling. I have just been surprised to find that I still have it, too--I thought it had fallen apart long ago. And it is the one that contains the poem. Both courses were taught by a great instructor, Dr. Eugene Williamson of the University of Alabama. 
As many times as I've read the poem, I never knew what a "coppice gate" was. I didn't think it mattered--I just assumed that whatever sort of gate was, the image of any gate would serve the purpose, and so I never bothered to find out. Just now I looked it up, and learned that a coppice is "An area of woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber." That was slightly surprising, as I had supposed that a coppice gate was a particular style of gate, not the gate to a coppice.
I was more inconveniently puzzled by "outleant", which made for a sort of bump in the reading. Clearly it was supposed to be a visual description, but I couldn't make it work. One would suppose it to mean "leaning out," but that doesn't make a lot of sense in the context. Now, thanks to the Thomas Hardy Society (link is to a PDF), that's cleared up: it means "stretched out, one of Hardy’s own compounds."

I've always thought of it as a New Year's poem. 

I leant upon a coppice gate 
      When Frost was spectre-grey, 
And Winter's dregs made desolate 
      The weakening eye of day. 
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky 
      Like strings of broken lyres, 
And all mankind that haunted nigh 
      Had sought their household fires. 
The land's sharp features seemed to be 
      The Century's corpse outleant, 
His crypt the cloudy canopy, 
      The wind his death-lament. 
The ancient pulse of germ and birth 
      Was shrunken hard and dry, 
And every spirit upon earth 
      Seemed fervourless as I. 
At once a voice arose among 
      The bleak twigs overhead 
In a full-hearted evensong 
      Of joy illimited; 
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small, 
      In blast-beruffled plume, 
Had chosen thus to fling his soul 
      Upon the growing gloom. 
So little cause for carolings 
      Of such ecstatic sound 
Was written on terrestrial things 
      Afar or nigh around, 
That I could think there trembled through 
      His happy good-night air 
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew 
      And I was unaware. 
I often find those last two lines running through my head.

Sunday Night Journal, December 31, 2017

I hate to admit it, but for four or five years now I've been slowly turning into one of those people who feel depressed at the approach of Christmas. Still, I usually find that I snap out of it, more or less, by the time the day itself arrives--if I don't feel so very good, I at least stop feeling bad, and even rise to mild cheerfulness. This year I didn't make much attempt to talk myself out of it or fight it, but just accepted that this is the way it is now.

My wife and I seriously considered not getting a tree. She's been leaning that way for a while, as most of our children are far away, and our local grandchildren would not be at our house for more than a few days of the two weeks or so that are generally encompassed in the term "the holidays." So the two of us would for the most part be the only "audience" for it, and in that case was it really worth the trouble? Left to her own devices I think she would not have had one, but I can't quite bear to let the custom go. We decided to compromise by getting a small one, so on the Saturday two weeks before Christmas I went off to Fish River Trees while she worked on the deep carpet of cypress needles and sycamore leaves that covered the yard.

Some years ago my late friend Robert sent me a mixtape that included a lot of pre-rock-and-roll Christmas music by people like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. I've never been very fond of secular Christmas-pop songs like "The Christmas Song" (aka "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire"), and the truth is that much of the material on that tape struck me as cheesy. But for several years while we still had children at home I played it in the car on the way to the tree farm. And I learned to like the Sinatra album with which it began, A Jolly Christmas. In time I bought the CD, and when my youngest child was still at home, and it was sometimes just the two of us going to get the tree, it was a bit of a tradition for us to hear it on the way there and back, not without a certain irony produced by the old-fashioned swingin' '50s way in which it starts off: a jazzy re-working of "Jingle Bells" which includes a group of background singers  in an upbeat chant of "I love those j-i-n-g-l-e bells--OH!--those holiday j-i-n-g-l-e bells." 

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to listen to it the other day. I thought it might just be sad. But I decided to do it anyway, and if it made me feel sad about past Christmases, well, I would just wallow in it. 

And it did turn out to be a bit of a wallow, not for anything personal to me, but for what has been lost in our culture since 1957, when the album was recorded. This is not a desire to "return to the 1950s", as is generally charged against anyone who feels any sort of nostalgia for the time. There were certainly a great many things wrong with American life at the time, and we can be glad that some of them have been corrected. But only a fool--well, an old fool or a young person who doesn't know any better--can fail to see that in many significant ways American culture is now meaner, cruder, dumber, more dishonest, and vastly more cynical than it was then. You may argue that on the whole things are better; fine, I might even agree with you, depending on what's in front of me at the moment. But still: something has been lost. Much has been lost, in fact. It seems inevitable that mankind will always throw out babies along with bath water, and steer clear of Scylla only to be dragged under by Charybdis.

The Sinatra album is an instance. It's about evenly divided between secular pop Christmas songs (why is "Jingle Bells" even considered a Christmas song, anyway?) and carols. The carols are truncated, made to fit the two-and-a-half-minute strait jacket of the popular music of the time, but are simply and tastefully arranged (by Gordon Jenkins) and presented with an unforced respect, even reverence. A word comes to mind, a somewhat casual word which acknowledges that some things are better than others in ways that ought be obvious to all, not as profound moral truths but as a matter of a properly formed sense of what is decent and appropriate: "class," as in "classy." It has a bad and laughable sense, as used by people who lack the thing itself, in which it refers to something meretricious, something marked by an insincere or misguided attempt to appropriate class: "Let's put an "e" on "old" to give it more class." But in its good sense it signifies respect for that which actually has merit, for a certain dignity and grace: "The losing team showed its class by congratulating the winners."

The Sinatra album has class, which is something we don't often get from popular music today, and I ended up listening to the CD five or six times over the past few weeks, and deciding that I like it quite a lot.

I kept returning to one song, one of the pop-Christmas songs that I've heard for most of my life and never paid much attention to: "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." This is an odd little song. The title, which begins and ends the lyric, seems somewhere between wry and spiteful. The whole thing is subdued, almost somber, wistful, and a little mysterious. You have the sense that something is going on, something not explicitly referred to, and that the hopeful words ("From now on our troubles will be out of sight") may be in defiance of that something, or at least relief that it's over. And the music is definitely melancholy, and far from jolly. But then in the next to last line the melody ascends where it had descended, so that "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough" becomes a cry of hope.

The song comes from the musical Meet Me In St. Louis, and until tonight I didn't know what its context in the drama is. I could have found out easily enough, but had very deliberately not yet done so because I like the ambiguity of it, and the sense of its being extracted from a conversation we haven't heard.

So just now I did look it up, and now its melancholy makes perfect sense. It was in fact as originally written resisted by Judy Garland, who was to sing it in the original play, and others because they found it depressing. You can read the whole story of its revisions here; "depressing" it certainly was in the original:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last


The lyrics were revised heavily for the play, but the next-to-last line remained "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." This was replace by the shining star for Sinatra, who thought muddling through wasn't quite the touch he wanted in his "jolly Christmas" album. And though one might decry it as bowdlerization I think in this case the late revision really makes the song.  At the moment it's certainly my favorite of the pop-Christmas repertoire.

All my quirky personal reactions aside, by the way, I can recommend this album to anyone who has any taste at all for this kind of music. Sinatra's voice was in its golden cello-like prime, and Gordon Jenkins was a top-notch arranger.

The tree turned out very nicely, by the way. It's only five feet tall, small enough that all but a few inches of it fit into the trunk of my Honda Civic, and light enough that I can pick it up with one hand: easily set up, and it will be easily taken down, but still bringing a sufficient amount of greenery, colored lights, and glittering ornaments, to the living room.  


Now that the 52 Albums project is over, there will probably be more discussion of music in this post. For instance: here is a Christmas playlist put together by Sigur Rós for BBC Radio 6. I don't see that it has anything to do with Christmas, but those who like the band will probably like at least some of the music. I know I'll be looking for more music by some of the artists represented. And at the very beginning you get to hear the voice of Sigur Rós herself. As fans of the band know, she is the sister of Jónsi, the band's vocalist, and she was only a few days old when the band was formed in 1994. So now she's twenty-three and introducing the band's playlist on the radio. It's interesting to hear the way she pronounces her name. I wouldn't have recognized it.


Speaking of 52 Things: as we discussed over the past week or two, this year it will be 52 Poems, appearing on Thursdays. I have something in mind for this week. Beyond that it's open. I said in that discussion that I would have specifications for the format, because formatting poetry for the web can be difficult. But after doing some experimenting I think that may not be necessary. We'll see. For now you can just send the poems in a Word or Word-compatible format, or in plain text. Or you can just send me a link, if the text is online, which is quite likely. So you can send me things whenever you want. If I have nothing by Wednesday morning, I'll supply a poem. If I have more than one I'll post them in the order received. And if two people send the same poem...well, I guess we'll cross that bridge if we come to it. Should I post a "dibs" list? Did anyone ever consult those in the past?

Also, I'm not soliciting original poems, or publishing any of mine. No offense but I just don't want to be in that position. 


Sunset, Christmas Day. SunsetChristmas2017Best wishes to all for a happy new year.