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April 2018

Sunday Night Journal, April 29, 2018

I had planned to write about something else tonight, but last night I watched the last two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, and for the moment am obsessed with it. I can't remember whether anyone who comments here besides Rob G is a fan and would care, and I know he's seen it, but I'll avoid spoilers for the new series, just in case there are readers I don't know about who might not want to encounter them. I'll assume that anyone who's interested has seen the original. If you have no interest in the series at all, this is going to be somewhat cryptic; if you really have no interest you may not want to bother reading the rest.

A bit of orientation for those who have seen the old series, but not the new: in case you don't remember, the original ends with Agent Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge, and the demon Bob loose in the world in the form of a doppelganger Cooper. In a Red Room scene in that series Laura Palmer tells Cooper that she'll see him in twenty-five years (warning: this clip ends on a scary note):

The new series takes place at that twenty-five-years-later point.

My three-word overall verdict: fascinating, but disappointing. Or maybe I should say disappointing, but fascinating. Fascinating enough that I want to see it again, preferably sooner rather than later. But there are some things that the original had which are lacking here. And some things here which were not in the original, and the inclusion of which is for the worse. 

Things I missed: well, in general it just doesn't have the charm of the original, which is in large part a sort of eccentric campiness. Another aspect was the weird bent American nostalgia which has been present in a lot of Lynch's work, and which I think may strike baby-boomers more than others. The music is a good instance: the Badalamenti/Lynch/Cruise soundtrack of the original, which takes certain elements of '50s pop and gives them a melancholy, uneasy, mysterious ambience. Some of that music is still present in the new one--the introductory title sequence, for instance, with the big reverb-y guitar. But whereas the original series spent a lot of time on teenagers and teenage romances which carried some of the same nostalgic vibe, the world of the new one is colder and contains more and deeper evil than that of the original. So that music doesn't fit it as well, and isn't used as much. Ominous static-filled drones and rumbles are more often present. In a nice but somewhat incongruous touch, almost every episode ends with a band playing at the Roadhouse, and most of these do have the old vibe. But they seem disconnected from what's going on. 

I find less humor in the new one than the old. It's not lacking in the new one, but, again, this series is on the whole darker. I don't think I'll be giving away too much if I mention that Agent Cooper, as we knew him in the old series, is absent for much of this one. His corny but noble character is one of the delights of the original. His evil doppelganger is far more prominent in this one, and he's not in the least funny. 

The love stories that were so important to the original are much less prominent here. Some of them are resumed, but in a way that seemed somewhat perfunctory to me. And for that matter some of the best-loved original characters are either missing or considerably less prominent. I really wanted, for instance, to know what might have happened between James and Donna in the intervening years. But the actress who played Donna turned down the new series, or so I read somewhere. And although James is here he's on the sidelines. I should mention, though, that most of the Twin Peaks Sheriff's Department is still here and still engaging, though unfortunately Sheriff Harry S. Truman has been replaced by his brother, the actor who played Harry having declined to participate. 

The biggest single disappointment for me, I think, was Audrey. She was a key character in the original, and in so many ways a very appealing and sympathetic one. It wasn't clear at the end of the original whether she was still alive or not (you remember the bank explosion?). Well, she is, but her role in the new series is slight and uninteresting. No, not just uninteresting, disappointing, as the person she is now seems to be uninteresting and indeed unpleasant, a far cry from the Audrey we knew. There is a twist that suggests that this is not the whole story, and is one of several things that very strongly suggest that the door has been left open for another series. But as far as I know there are no definite plans for that. 

I have to admit that the somewhat dull and/or disappointing futures which have been the lot of some of these characters is all too true to life; vivid and exciting youth generally does not lead to the vivid and exciting future that it seems to promise.

Less present in the old series, but much more present in the new, and not for the better, are elements which can be summed up in one word: violence. Gruesome violence. There was some in the original, and maybe if it hadn't been done for network TV there would have been more of it, but for whatever reason there is more of it here. Some of it is quite sudden and shocking. Much of it is dwelt on more lingeringly than need be. Lynch has apparently always had this desire to shock, and he does it pretty freely here. There's also a certain amount of semi-explicit sex, relatively tame by current standards, but not nearly as much sex as violence.

I deliberately avoided reading much about the new series before watching it, but I stumbled across a few observations, and one that seems to be common is that it's both slow-moving and confusing. It is indeed, both. I am a vocal complainer about the frantic pace, the fast cutting, of much TV and movie drama (e.g. Doctor Who and Sherlock). So in many cases the long lingering camera shots in the new series were appealing. But they're sometimes too long even for me. There are long periods where nothing much happens and nothing is said. Sometimes this is effective in heightening the atmosphere, sometimes not, though reactions to that will naturally vary. If I was impatient in some of these it's a tribute to the power of the narrative: I wanted to get on with it, and I didn't want a lot of time to be wasted out of the typical fifty-minute running time of each episode.

Which brings me to the story itself. I guess you ought to expect to be frustrated by a David Lynch story. It isn't only David Lynch's, it's also his collaborator Mark Frost's, and Frost is a much more straightforward storyteller. So perhaps we can thank him that TP:TR is as intelligible as it is. There is, at least, one over-arching story: the release of Cooper from the Black Lodge, and the effort to put doppelganger Cooper back into it. But there are a lot of sub-plots, some of which hardly even rise to that level, just bits of story that appear and disappear and don't seem to have any connection to anything else, or for that matter even make sense (what is that black box in Buenos Aires, anyway?!). In some of those cases a good deal of time is spent on them, and you end up wondering why. And the overall effect is of a very complicated and sometimes nearly-unintelligible narrative. And there are things that I just thought weren't all that effective: the frustrating situation of "Dougie," for instance, seemed to go on way too long.

I should qualify my complaint about the difficulty of following the story by mentioning that I watched the series one Netflix DVD at a time. There are eighteen episodes, usually two episodes per disk, and I only got one at a time. So with at least three or four days of turnaround time between disks it took me over six weeks to see the whole series, and of course I forgot a lot of details along the way. So it's probable that I missed some connections. I discovered earlier today, for instance, that an important event in the last episode is prefigured in the first ("Richard and Linda", if you've seen it).

And it's the story, and the mysterious worlds in which it takes place, that are fascinating. I say "worlds" because even more (I think) of this story than the original takes place in some sort of world-other-than-ours. Should I call it the spiritual world? I suppose. It's not a very appealing place--it's mostly monochrome, and has a cold and empty feel--but it is certainly other, and powerfully communicates a sense that reality is far more complex and mysterious than we can perceive. 

If I had leisure, I think I'd start with the "prequel" movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and watch it, the old series, and the new one again, as soon and as quickly as possible. For all its sensationalism and sometimes craziness, there is a very strong moral vision present in the thing as a whole, a vision which takes very seriously the struggle of good against evil, and is willing to risk depicting that struggle as both a natural and a supernatural one. As with what I know of Lynch's other work, the evil is depicted more powerfully. But that's a common problem with art.

I also discovered today that there is another Mark Frost book, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, which apparently clears up and fills out a lot of things, or at least some things. I didn't find that his previous book,  Twin Peaks: The Secret History, which was written in advance of The Return, shed as much light on the new series as I'd expected. Maybe I'll re-read it, too. 

By the way, have I ever mentioned that at the time I first watched the original series (not that long ago), we had two dogs named Lucy and Andy? I thought that was pretty funny.


Views of the median on I-65, taken last weekend while at a standstill in a miles-long traffic backup between Montgomery and Birmingham. 

I65MedianIf you think the color looks manipulated, you're right. But the original images were so washed-out, so far from what I actually saw, that jacking up the saturation was the only way to get anywhere near it. 

52 Poems, Week 17: To Charles Williams (C.S. Lewis)


Your death blows a strange bugle call, friend, and all is hard
To see plainly or record truly. The new light imposes change,
Re-adjusts all a life-landscape as it thrusts down its probe from the sky,
To create shadows, to reveal waters, to erect hills and deepen glens.
The slant alters. I can’t see the old contours. It’s a larger world
Than I once thought it. I wince, caught in the bleak air that blows on the ridge.
Is it the first sting of the great winter, the world-waning? Or the cold of spring?

A hard question and worth talking a whole night on. But with whom?
Of who now can I ask guidance? With what friend concerning your death
Is it worth while to exchange thoughts unless—oh unless it were you?


One last poem by C. S. Lewis. I decided to post this because we have been talking about Williams’s books.

I don’t have much to say about this other than it would make me cry to read aloud.

It’s a very odd poem for Lewis, in that it neither rhyme nor meter.


—Janet Cupo is a great-grandmother (and a great grandmother) on temporary (maybe) sabbatical from the workaday world.

Sunday Night Journal, April 22, 2018

It seems I'm not the only person who thinks the most noticeable thing about Twitter is the amount and level of venom it seems to produce, very often in combination with stupidity. I freely admit that this is unfair on my part, because I'm not on Twitter, and so all I hear about for the most part is the controversies that spill out onto the Internet at large--the "Twitter mobs," as they are aptly called, which form and attack someone who has attracted their hostility. But the other day I saw a graphic associating various "social media" platforms with one of the seven deadly sins, and whoever composed it assigned Wrath to Twitter.

I know it isn't all bad. Much of it is harmless, and some of it is probably good. My wife the archivist occasionally mentions Twitter posts from archivists, or from museums or libraries, which contain interesting bits of lore. The Archbishop of Mobile uses it to tell the world that, for instance, he will be in Thomasville doing confirmations this weekend. I've seen jokes from Twitter that were actually funny.

But none of that changes my basic animosity toward it, which pre-dates any of the pathological phenomena. I was ill-disposed to it from the moment I heard of it, because of its name and because what one does with it is to "tweet." I took this as an open declaration that it was designed to be a vehicle for noisy, frequent, and trivial remarks. "Venomous" did not immediately occur to me as a likely possibility, though it probably should have; it's not as though the Internet was an altogether benign place before Twitter.

I had an instant conviction that it was not for me and that it was to be ignored, and I noticed with mild horror as it grew over the years and became one of that very small group of Internet platforms that, taken together, almost seem to define the net itself: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. My disdain has even extended to a reluctance to refer to it at all, and a great resistance to beginning a sentence with "So-and-so tweeted that...." How can you possibly take seriously anything that follows those words? It's like saying "So-and-so yapped...." "So-and-so grunted...." "So-and-so belched..."

Never of course did it cross my mind that a duly-elected president of these tenuously-united states would use Twitter as his favored means of addressing the nation and its problems (to say nothing of his own personal grudges) and that he would do it every day, so that no day would pass without a news story beginning "The president tweeted that...."

I found myself unwilling to use the word "tweet," whether noun or verb, in a sentence, without putting it in quotation marks. To do otherwise seemed to give it some kind of legitimacy that it didn't deserve, to suggest that I was somehow approving of it as a means of rational conversation. But this week I've had a slight change of heart. Very slight. I'm giving up the quotation marks.

This change was catalyzed by a case you probably heard of: a nutty professor who took the occasion of Barbara Bush's death to tweet (there, I've done it) that the former First Lady was, among other bad bad things, an "amazing racist," and that her death was an occasion for joy. A great furor immediately erupted, of course, including, apparently, a length exchange of hostilities between the professor, Randa Jarrar of Fresno State University, and people who criticized her. If you have somehow managed to remain ignorant of it, this Washington Post story has the basics. And it struck me: why should I feel any need to find a word more serious than "tweet" for this sort of jibber-jabber? Tweeting is appropriate and pleasant from a goldfinch. Coming from a human being it's ridiculous. If people are going to use this medium which makes them appear bird-brained, why should I try to dignify their twittering with a less silly-sounding word? 

Almost as striking to me as the professor's charge of racism was the way she used the word "amazing." This is a verbal tic which I associate with teen-aged girls, who seem to use it as a sort of all-purpose positive hyperbole, the way they used to use "awesome" (maybe they still do). Anyone the teenager likes is "an amazing person." To enjoy oneself is to have "an amazing time." She just ate"an amazing apple." And so on. I think this is the first time I've heard it used in a negative sense, though I suppose the word itself is just as applicable to something amazingly bad as amazingly good. 

Actually, looking more closely at what the professor said, I'm not sure that she meant "amazing" as negative. Her words were "Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist." What exactly does "amazing" mean there? Positive, but ironic? But then, who cares? It was a tweet.

I can't say I was much surprised to learn that what the professor professes is creative writing. Maybe she can write. Who knows, and, again, who cares? I don't plan to find out. I was actually a little surprised to find that her title is in fact "professor." The news media tend to use that word for anyone who teaches at the university level, though it is in fact a specific title, coveted and respected.

Naturally there have been calls, loud calls, for her firing. Some conservatives have spoken against that and I think they're right. In truth Jarrar seems like a rather pathetic person, who would be more pitiable than anything else if she didn't have such a mean streak.


Here is Kevin Williamson's summary of the role of Twitter in his firing from The Atlantic.  

Where my writing appears is not a very important or interesting question. What matters more is the issue of how the rage-fueled tribalism of social media, especially Twitter, has infected the op-ed pages and, to some extent, the rest of journalism. Twitter is about offering markers of affiliation or markers of disaffiliation. The Left shouts RACIST!, and the Right shouts FAKE NEWS! There isn’t much that can be done about this other than treating social media with the low regard it deserves.

You may be able to read his side of the whole story here at The Wall Street Journal. (Thanks to Grumpy for the link.) I found that from my phone that link was blocked as being subscriber-only, but from my laptop it wasn't.


Speaking of people shouting "RACIST!": a month or two ago I stepped briefly into a discussion on Facebook in which Rod Dreher was being taken to task for having a "race problem." This seems to be what you say when you want to call someone a racist but don't have enough evidence to justify that word and are not, as someone like the professor above is, willing to use it anyway. Dreher had linked, in one of his many, many columns, to an article in which a former Peace Corps volunteer who had once spent a year in Ethiopia talked about how much she had disliked it. The context was Trump's alleged remark about not wanting immigrants from "s**thole" countries; Dreher was thinking aloud, as he often does, about whether some countries are in fact very messed-up places whose emigrants might not be desirable.

I didn't think Dreher's link was evidence of racism, especially considering that Dreher has written often and sympathetically about the situation of black people, and said so, remarking that the charge of racism is becoming meaningless. That was immediately taken to mean that I was denying the existence of racism. I of course intended for "meaningless" to apply to the making of the charge, not to the existence of the thing itself. It rankled me that I was being misunderstood, but there were at least a couple of people in the conversation who seemed very eager to make the charge, and it looked to me like any attempt to clear things up would only result in my acquiring a "race problem," if in fact I hadn't already, if only because I was defending Dreher. So I made a sort of quick intuitive cost-benefit, risk-reward assessment and dropped out of the discussion.

In our current polemical environment, to attempt to defend yourself from a charge of racism is one of the dumbest things you can do. It's like blood in the water for the attackers, and you cannot win. The more you protest your innocence, the guiltier you will look to them. Best to just walk away.

Why am I even relating this little incident? Because it did rankle, and it gives me some sort of satisfaction to say publicly and clearly what I meant. Why didn't I say it then and there? Because of the factors I've already mentioned, and because it was Facebook, and I don't personally know any of the people involved. I have no reason to think any of them reads this blog, but if they want to argue with me here, I can require a level of respect and decorum that I can't on someone else's Facebook post. In all the years I've been blogging I don't think I've deleted more than two comments, but I like having the tool available. 


And speaking of Dreher: I have often criticized his overly-agitated approach, and in fact have for long periods not read him at all. Lately I've gotten into the habit of reading him regularly. That's not altogether a good thing, because he does focus on all the bad things that are happening, and specifically on the deteriorating situation of Christianity in this country and in Europe. But though those are not the whole story, they are happening, and it's well to keep an eye on What Is Actually Happening


I don't know whether this is referring to some of the German bishops or what.


Blog may be unavailable tonight

TypePad is doing more hardware and software upgrades tonight beginning at 8pm Central Time (the email says CST but it's probably CDT). They don't say how long they expect it to last but I assume a few hours or so. I gather they won't necessarily be offline during the whole period. But if you can't access this blog tonight, that's probably the reason.

52 Poems, Week 16: World-Telegram (John Berryman)

The time may not be very far away when this poem will need a footnote explaining that the speaker is reading a "newspaper," and how they worked. The New York World-Telegram was a daily that ran from 1867 until 1966, and is probably the paper referred to here. The poem was written in 1939. It is undoubtedly still under copyright, though Berryman died in 1972.



Man with a tail heads eastward for the Fair.
Can open a pack of cigarettes with it.
Was weaving baskets happily, it seems,
When found, the almost Missing Link, and brought
From Ceylon in the interests of science.
The correspondent doesn't know how old.

Two columns left, a mother saw her child
Crushed with its father by a ten-ton truck
Against a loading platform, while her son,
Small, frightened, in a Sea Scout uniform,
Watched from the Langley. All needed treatment.

Berlin and Rome are having difficulty
With a new military pact. Some think
Russia is not too friendly towards London.
The British note is called inadequate.

An Indian girl in Lima, not yet six,
Has been delivered by Caesarian.
A boy. They let the correspondent in:
Shy, uncommunicative, still quite pale,
A holy picture by her, a blue ribbon.

Right of the centre, and three columns wide,
A rather blurred but rather ominous
Machine-gun being set up by militia
This morning in Harlan County, Kentucky.
Apparently some miners died last night.
'Personal brawls' is the employers' phrase.

All this on the front page. Inside, penguins.
The approaching television of baseball.
The King approaching Quebec. Cotton down.
Skirts up. Four persons shot. Advertisements.
Twenty-six policemen are decorated.
Mother's Day repercussions. A film star
Hopes marriage will preserve him from his fans.

News of one day, one afternoon, one time.
If it were possible to take these things
Quite seriously, I believe they might
Curry disorders in the strongest brain,
Immobilize the most resilient will,
Stop trains, break up the city's food supply,
And perfectly demoralize the nation.


Just think how much we've advanced since then.

Back when I was somewhat in touch with the world of (then-)contemporary poetry, Berryman's reputation rested mainly on his Dream Songs, and especially on the selection therefrom called 77 Dream Songs. I don't know whether that's still true or not. This poem is from a collection of mostly pre-Dream Songs work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and other poems. There are a number of good poems in it. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog. 

Sunday Night Journal, April 15, 2018

On Friday I finished reading The Master of Hestviken. On Saturday I had a conversation via text messages with a friend who had just finished Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. He asked whether I had any recommendation as to what to read next. I replied, "At the moment I don't think any novelist except Undset is really worth reading."

I'm sure that enthusiasm will fade at least to the extent that I'll be willing to grant merit to other writers. It already has, really. But still, right now, although I will prudently refrain from insisting that Undset is the greatest novelist of all time, I will say that I don't think there's anyone better.

Such comparisons are fundamentally frivolous, I know. How can one seriously say of two indisputably great but very different writers that one of them is in some absolute sense greater than the other? Consider even the Tolstoy-vs.-Dostoevsky contest: I think a fair judgment of the two leads us to back away from a verdict. As 19th century Russians given to long complex novels filled with ideas, they have a lot in common. Yet they are still so different that it seems an apple-and-oranges comparison.

I'm tempted right now to say that Undset is better than either of them, but I know that's an even more incommensurate comparison. However, I will say this: I enjoy reading Undset more than I enjoy either Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. In Tolstoy's case I'm thinking of War and Peace, which I read fairly recently; I read Anna Karenina many years ago, over forty years, and don't remember it very clearly. Dostoevsky's narrative often seems somehow murky, in part because his characters seem crazed and remote. Tolstoy's is rambling and loose. But in reading Master I very rarely felt that I was engaged in a long slog and would be a little relieved when I got to the end, no matter how many interesting sights I'd seen along the way. The power of Undset's storytelling in the most elemental sense, the constant pull of wanting to know what will happen next, never really weakened for me.

Maybe this is partly a matter of focus. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset's other great work, Master is principally the life story of a single person, in this case a man named Olav Audunsson. It's been at least thirty years since I read Kristin and I don't remember it in detail, so I can't fairly compare the two, but I feel fairly safe in saying that Master is at least as good. Kristin seems to have the greater reputation, but I don't know why that should be so. Perhaps it's only because Kristin came first, and Master is fundamentally similar, even in length. Kristin is a trilogy and Master a tetralogy, but at least in the editions I have Kristin is actually a bit longer (both roughly a thousand pages). 

Master, like Kristin, is set in medieval Norway, but a little earlier, and in the same region. (In fact Kristin's parents make a brief appearance in Master, as a young couple: Olav is already middle-aged at that point, and Kristin is not yet born.) One of the most impressive things about the book (both of them, actually), is the way Undset convinces us that we are getting a truly accurate and detailed picture of the way people lived and thought in Norway ca. 1200 A.D. If she was not a walking encyclopedia of lore about the details of daily life that period, she had an astonishingly fertile and audacious imagination. 

That's part of the sheer technical accomplishment of this novel. Another is its scope. A few people may be the focus of the narrative, but the number of others involved in their lives is enormous. There is a vast network of kin, neighbors, servants, and lords, priests, and religious. And very few of these characterless place-holders; Undset also has the top-rank novelist's gift of making characters come alive in some mysterious way that's difficult to account for by analysis. And the story itself gradually assumes great complexity. I admit that i did not always follow or retain all the details, but all of this is maintained with apparent effortlessness. I suspect that anyone who challenged Undset on the internal consistency of the world she creates would probably be quickly shown where he was mistaken. 

In a philosophical sense The Master of Hestviken is also more focused than, say, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy.  Both of those play with a number of big ideas--religious, ethical, political. These are not much present here. The emphasis is almost entirely on sin and redemption, which is the biggest idea and the greatest drama of all. Olav is a good and brave man, but at the center of his life is a secret and unconfessed sin which he believes he must keep that way for the benefit of those he loves and for whom he is responsible. There is an incident in Kristin Lavransdatter in which a man receives a minor wound, just a cut, which becomes infected and eventually kills him. (Someone dies in a similar way in Master as well, but it is a more serious wound to begin with.) Olav's spiritual life is similarly threatened by the infection of this sin. 

It's appropriate that our word "doom" has roots in the Norse tongues. Early on it meant only a judgment or sentence, not necessarily a bad one, but our sense of it as meaning not just an end, but a bad end,  is very appropriate to the atmosphere of this book. I don't think I'd read more than thirty or forty pages before I started to think "These poor people are headed for trouble"--these people being Olav and his wife-to-be, Ingunn Steinsfindatter. Nothing bad was happening to them; on the contrary, they were just discovering the sweetness of young love. Having been raised together, Olav as a foster child in Ingunn's family, and betrothed to each other while they were still children, they are taken completely by surprise when erotic and romantic emotions suddenly made themselves felt. Perhaps only because I had read Kristin and had some idea of what to expect, I trembled for them, a reaction which of course proved to be well justified. 

I don't see any mention on Sigrid Undset's Wikipedia page that she practiced painting or drawing, but I'd be a little surprised if she didn't. She is certainly very, very concerned with physical description. It seems as though almost every page of this book includes a fairly detailed description of a place or a person or an object (she is almost amusingly precise in describing what people are wearing). Not having a very visual imagination, I often find these difficult to follow. And especially where people are concerned I don't really get a clear picture from descriptions of the shape of a nose or a chin, the spacing of eyes, etc. But all the visual details nevertheless have an effect, especially those involving the landscape to which the characters are very closely bound; these are very rich and create a strong impression, even if (for me at least) it's a somewhat vague one. I found myself wanting to visit Norway so that I could see what the place really looks like.

I also would like a map of the Hestviken manor--the word seems to mean not a house or houses but an entire estate--because I don't have a clear picture in my mind of its general layout with respect to certain natural features of the area. This is not Undset's fault, but I could use some help.

By the way, Google Translate tells me that in modern Norwegian anyway the word is pronounced "HestVEEken."

I haven't gone into any detail here about the story proper, partly to avoid spoiling it for those who haven't read the book. However, I'm going to allow spoilers in the comments. It's hard to discuss a book in any depth without that. 

Craig Burrell had some good comments on Master at his blog a few years ago. There are spoilers.


I suppose anyone who's interested knows about the affair of Kevin Williamson vs. The Atlantic: he was hired away from National Review, published one column, and then was fired when some remarks he had made about abortion were publicized. This piece by Conor Friedersdorf, also at The Atlantic, and dissenting from the firing, is very, very good. I'm not being coy in saying that the remarks were merely "about abortion," but rather turning the floor over to Friedersdorf to describe in detail exactly what Williamson has said. The piece is long but very much worth reading if you care about the state of public debate. In case you don't want to go to that much trouble, here's something I want to pass on:

Word of Williamson’s hiring was greeted by some as if by mercenary opposition researchers determined to isolate the most outlying and offensive thoughts that he ever uttered, no matter how marginal to his years of journalistic work; to gleefully amplify them, sometimes in highly distorting ways, in a manner designed to stoke maximum upset and revulsion; and to frame them as if they said everything one needed to know about his character. To render him toxic was their purpose.

That mode was poison when reserved for cabinet nominees; it is poison when applied to journalistic hires; and it will be poison if, next week or year, it comes for you.

Not so long ago I would have said that I encounter that sort of thing every day on Facebook. I still do see it from time to time, but in recent months things have grown quieter. I think that's only because people grew sick of the fighting and withdrew, not because there has been any lessening of passion. Certainly the evidence is that in general the war of words via Twitter etc. is at least as intense as it ever was. It is vicious, an offense not simply against civility but against truth itself, and the people who do it seem to really get a thrill from it.


Seen in the parking lot at Piggly-Wiggly (affectionately know as The Pig) a few weeks ago:


52 Poems, Week 15: Upon a House Shaken By the Land Agitation (Yeats)

This is not one of my favorite poems. So why am I writing about it? Because it contains one bit, one clause of a sentence, that I think of at least once a week, possibly more often than that.

The "land agitation" in the title was a series of efforts at land reform in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I don't know much about it and I don't want to describe it in an overly-simplified way, but it's enough for purposes of reading the poem to know that it sometimes involved the breakup of large estates. I've always assumed that the specific house (synecdoche for the whole estate, I also assume) to be Lady Augusta Gregory's, because she, her home, and her circle were so important in Yeats's life, and he often wrote about them in the sort of terms used here. Possibly it is indeed true that it was Lady Gregory's house, and that this was mentioned in a footnote when I read the poem in college, but I don't remember for sure, and it isn't essential to the poem. Very unfashionably, even in 1910 when the poem was published, Yeats is here defending such estates.

CooleParkThe house at Coole Park, Lady Gregory's estate

The part that haunts me is "Although / Mean roof-trees were the sturdier for its fall...", and it often comes to me when I think about Society And All.

It always troubles me to think about the extent to which the achievements of civilization tend to rest upon a foundation of slavery or something close to it: that it was assumed to be the natural order of things that many or even most people were there simply to perform hard labor for the benefit of a few. And I think about the fact that for all my complaints about the modern world and especially about the classical liberal tradition which defines it, it remains true that in that one respect at least modernism has been right, at least in principle. It's in modern times that the democratic idea has come to whatever fruition it has.

The idea that some people are by nature servants, if not slaves, and that there is nothing much wrong with keeping them in poverty, has been widely rejected and hardly anyone will explicitly justify it now, although the rich in general are certainly still willing to act as if they believe it. Yes, there's a strong argument that Christianity has a great deal to do with this, but nevertheless the great visible shift in fundamental attitudes, toward the presumption that everyone has an equal claim to liberty and material comfort, came as Christianity was subsiding as a cultural and social force. 

Yeats's line often comes to me when I consider the cultural degradation that's going on around us now. I don't mean just, say, the astonishing crudity of rap and other pop music lyrics. I mean also things like the sheer ugliness of our urban and suburban landscapes, which doesn't generally excite a lot of indignation. Aristocrats would not make or put up with such aesthetic messes (usually), as can still be seen when, for instance, someone tries to open a WalMart too close to an affluent neighborhood. And I think, "Well, maybe this is just the price we pay for living in a democratic society." That one line is a concession to democracy, to "leveling," in a poem that is decidedly anti-democratic, at least in the cultural sense.



How should the world be luckier if this house,
Where passion and precision have been one
Time out of mind, became too ruinous
To breed the lidless eye that loves the sun?
And the sweet laughing eagle thoughts that grow
Where wings have memory of wings, and all
That comes of the best knit to the best? Although
Mean roof-trees were the sturdier for its fall,
How should their luck run high enough to reach
The gifts that govern men, and after these
To gradual Time’s last gift, a written speech
Wrought of high laughter, loveliness and ease?


I don't mean to say that it isn't a very good poem. It is--just not one of my favorites. I'm not sure exactly what that "lidless eye" is. The intellect that looks unblinkingly at truth, maybe? Quite possibly it's a reference to some arcane system of symbols of the sort that always fascinated Yeats.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, April 8, 2018

Still thinking about the gun control question: I've had trouble articulating even to myself my reasons for thinking that a definitive repudiation of the right to keep and bear arms--i.e., repeal of the 2nd Amendment--would represent a major change in the culture and the self-understanding of this country, and even imply at least the possibility of rejecting other provisions in the Bill of Rights, such as the freedoms of speech and press. That's not just paranoia: reports of efforts to shut down free speech on university campuses appear frequently. And of course there is an awful lot of overlap between the gun-banners and the would-be censors. Reports of the latter aren't just about the shout-downs and the "no-platforming": they're also about polls of young people that show support for the censoring of "hate speech." That might not be so worrisome, as no right is absolute, if it weren't for the practice of so many on the left of declaring that any speech which offends them is simply an expression of hate, and even implicitly a physical threat. It's primarily about political speech, with a grossly overextended definition of "political"--the personal is the political! and vice versa. And political speech is precisely what the first amendment is intended to protect, and precisely what these people want to censor, not pornography, libel, or any other kind of speech that used to be considered outside of constitutional protection.

This piece at National Review about Joyce Lee Masters, a scholar who is an expert in the history of the right to keep and bear arms, provides some support for my intuition. She shows that prior to the American founding it was well known that rulers believed that they had very good reasons not to grant that right, and that accordingly there were good reasons for America's founders to insist upon it and to put it into the Constitution.

You can argue that those considerations no longer apply, and that's a fair point. But I sometimes hear people say "Only the police and the military should be allowed to have guns." Whatever you think of that, it implies a view of the relationship between governed and governing which is very, very different from that assumed in the Constitution, and, more subtly but no less strongly, in the whole spirit and temperament of the American republic.  

Routine disclaimer: I'm not a gun enthusiast, not an NRA member, and not opposed to legal measures that would keep guns out of the hands of those who would use them to harm others while leaving the basic right intact.

Chances of that last thing happening--the prudent balancing of the two concerns--seem to be growing slimmer, though. As a practical matter it's difficult. And laws have to be enforced: from what I've read it seems pretty clear that the Parkland shooter could and should have been stopped under existing law. As a political matter, in this as in so many other matters, the country is becoming more polarized. Gun controllers are more and more open about their desire to repeal the 2nd Amendment as a step toward getting rid of private ownership of guns altogether, or at least severely restricting it. And gun proponents therefore resist any regulation at all as precisely one of those steps.  When "common sense restrictions" are discussed, there's little agreement on what "common sense" means. Both sides might say with John Prine 'That common sense don't make no sense no more."


I've read different opinions on the question of whether Sundays during Lent should be considered part of Lent or not, at least as far as whatever Lenten discipline one has undertaken is concerned. Like a lot of people, I've chosen the answer I prefer, which is that you can give yourself a break on Sundays. That's how it came about that on a long drive on the fourth Sunday of Lent this year I listened to several of NPR's Tiny Desk concerts, though I had decided to listen only to classical music during Lent. 

I had subscribed, via my phone, to the Tiny Desk podcast some months ago, but had never actually listened to an episode. So the podcast app on the phone was perpetually pointing out to me that I had some fifty or sixty unheard episodes, and it was getting on my nerves a bit. It wasn't actively nagging me, but every time I looked at the phone I'd see that little red dot with a number in it, and it gave me a very slight but real sense that there was something I needed to take care of; these smart phones have a way of inducing such feelings. (I know, I could probably turn off even that relatively unintrusive notification, but that itself requires giving some attention to the device.)

I was getting a little tired of Mozart, and Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time had proved to be very unsuitable for the car--too much dynamic variation. So the last couple of hours of the five-and-a-half hour drive seemed like a good opportunity to get some of those podcasts out of the way. I had never heard of most of the artists on the list, so I didn't pick and choose, just plugged the phone into the car's stereo and hit "play" on the most recent episode and just let it go till I was almost home.

Each Tiny Desk concert is twenty minutes or so long. I think I had heard three or four and wasn't much taken with any of them until Anna Meredith came up. I'd never heard the name and expected to hear a singer-songwriter with her guitar, and, to be frank, was not going to be surprised to find her a bit on the dull side. I mean, you know...the one gal or guy with only voice and guitar...if the songs aren't really top-notch, that can be a bit dull. But then the music started, and it grabbed me and didn't let go until the end of the first piece, which is called "Nautilus." Here's a YouTube video for it; what I heard was pretty much the same, except for that wobbly sound that comes in around 2:30, but a couple of minutes longer.

I find this weirdly exhilarating. I was of course only hearing it, and I guess I had it turned up fairly loud. I thought it must involve a dozen or more people banging and blowing on things. I was surprised when I learned later that there were only five of them. 

When I got home, I naturally I had to find out right away who Anna Meredith is. She is a young (b. 1978--well, young to me anyway) Scottish composer. I think, based on her Wikipedia entry, that she started out in the classical world but now is sort of all over the place. So let's just leave it at "composer and performer of music." 

Lent being over, I sought out the Tiny Desk video. The music had been fun to hear, but seeing it performed was even more fun. I have now watched this video three times, and enjoyed it more each time. Their energy and enthusiasm and lack of pretension or posturing, the way they seem to be enjoying what they're doing so very much, are a joy to watch. See for yourself:

I don't know how you'd classify this music. Just file it under "Delightful." 



Easter amaryllis.


52 Poems, Week 14: There Never Was Time (Byron Herbert Reece)


I wish, he said, the years would linger
And fly less fast to make me old;
My face is a mask that time’s swift finger
Models, moulding wrinkle and fold
In sagging flesh youth fashioned true
To the ageless image engraved on brass,
Of a young face Rome or Athens knew.
(There was time for youth to pass.)

Time had a long look when I was twenty;
Was there anything I had not done
And yet would do? Well, there was plenty
Of daylight left in the cycling sun.
The roughs of knowledge that wanted scaling
Loomed --- there was time to be a sage;
Time and to spare to heal all ailing.
(And time enough for a man to age.)

But now the night that has no breaking
Shadows the sun gone down the west,
And my heart in its damaged case is aching
After lost years too brief at best.
I know a journey that yet wants going,
I know a song that is still to sing,
I know a fallow that waits the sowing ---
(There never was time for everything.)

Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958) was an Appalachian farmer-poet from Georgia, who was fairly well-known at mid-century. He was praised for both his rustic lyrical poetry and his ballads, and received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his 1950 collection Bow Down in Jericho. “There Never Was Time” is from his 1952 collection A Song of Joy. Although Reece’s poems are hit and miss for me, there are some, like this one, that I like very much. It strikes me as especially poignant, as it speaks in the voice of an aging man, and while Reece was only 35 when it was published, in some ways he was already an old man, and perhaps had an inkling that he was not long for this world. He would die by his own hand a mere six years later, suffering from depression and tuberculosis.

--Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies, which he's put to good use working for a medical laboratory for the past 15 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews and occasionally has gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa

Sunday Night Journal, April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday

When I was twelve years old, an aunt and uncle gave me two books for Christmas, both part of a series or set called The Looking Glass LibraryThese were The Haunted Looking Glass and The Looking Glass Book of Verse. The first was a collection of classic ghost stories, though of course I didn't know they were classic and didn't recognize names like M.R. James or even Bram Stoker; I think Charles Dickens was the only name I knew. I loved it and read most of the stories several times over the next five or six years. It included "The Monkey's Paw," which is a great story, but also a peculiarly disturbing one. I've sometimes thought I might better not have read it, because it colors my attitude toward prayer. (If you don't know it, suffice to say that it's probably the ultimate be-careful-what-you-wish-for tale.)

The Haunted Looking Glass was edited by Edward Gorey, and illustrated by him. That explains why, years later, in the early or mid-'70s, when there was a sort of Edward Gorey vogue, his work looked so familiar to me. The illustrations are rather brilliant: there is almost nothing at all in their subject matter that's directly frightening, but they manage to communicate a sense that something uncanny is invisibly present and about to act.  

The Book of Verse, however, I don't remember reading at all. I must surely have looked into at least, but obviously it held little appeal for me. I still have both books. Sometime in the relatively recent past--i.e. sometime in this century--I got out the Haunted one, recalling that I had thought the stories very good when I was twelve, and discovering that I had been reading classics of the genre. The other book, though, had been sitting unopened on various shelves as it moved around with me over the years.

One day last week a discussion here about ghost stories reminded me of The Haunted Looking Glass, and that in turn reminded me of its companion, and I wondered for the first time in many years what was in it. I found, somewhat to my surprise, and somewhat to my embarrassment, that it is a very fine anthology perhaps more fit for adults than for children, certainly more so than for my twelve-year-old self. Name any great poet (in English) that you like, and he or she is included here, including some very surprising names like Elizabeth Bishop. 

The editor is someone name Janet Adam Smith, of whom I had never heard, but she certainly had excellent taste in poetry. The biographical note in the book makes her sound interesting: 

...born in Scotland in 1905, [she] is literary editor of the British weekly, The New Statesman. She is also the author of books on mountaineering and of a critical study of Robert Louis Stevenson, and is at present writing a biography of John Buehan [sic--surely that was supposed to be Buchan].

Moreover, this anthology is a revision of her The Faber Book of Children's Verse, made "more suitable for American readers." And the fact that I'd never heard of her says more about my ignorance than her obscurity: here's her Wikipedia entry. Yes, that is supposed to be "Buchan."

Perhaps I would have found the book more interesting at, say, sixteen, than when I received it that Christmas, as by then there was some poetry I liked, but as far as I can recall I never looked at it. I hate to admit that an anthology of this quality was beyond me, though I suppose it was just as much a lack of interest in poetry that stopped me, as there are plenty of poems in the book that would have been accessible and entertaining to me, had I given them a chance. I doubt a similar project done today would be of this quality. And if it were intended for general audiences, it wouldn't contain the explicitly Christian poems that this one does.

All of this is to get around to saying that as I flipped through the book my eye was caught by the name of Christopher Smart, which I was surprised to see. And I read this poem of his, which strikes me as a great Easter piece:

Glorious the sun in mid career;
Glorious th' assembled fires appear;
Glorious the comet's train:
Glorious the trumpet and alarm;
Glorious th' almighty stretch'd-out arm;
Glorious th' enraptur'd main:

Glorious the northern lights a-stream;
Glorious the song, when God's the theme;
Glorious the thunder's roar:
Glorious hosanna from the den;
Glorious the catholic amen;
Glorious the martyr's gore:

Glorious—more glorious is the crown
Of Him that brought salvation down
By meekness, call'd thy Son;
Thou that stupendous truth believ'd,
And now the matchless deed's achiev'd,

Ordinarily I would be put off, at least, by that use of capital letters, but in this case it seems perfect: "a blare of trumpets for the Lord," as one of the Psalms puts it. I wondered at first if they were Janet Smith's doing, as various copies of the poem which I found online don't have it. But it seemed very unlikely that she (or any anthologist) would have taken such a liberty, and such an odd one.  This PDF version from W.W. Norton, though, does have it.

The poem is untitled in the book, and that's because it's only a bit, the last bit, of a much longer poem called "Song To David," which is what you'll see at that link. I wondered who "thou" in the last stanza is meant to be. I thought at first it was the reader, but in the context of the whole poem I think it must be David.

DETERMINED'D, DAR'D, and DONE: Happy Easter.

Christopher ("Kit") Smart, as you may know, was confined to a madhouse for some years because of his "religious mania." Here is what his friend Samuel Johnson had to say about that:

My poor friend Smart showed the disturbance of his mind by falling upon his knees and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is a greater madness not to pray at all than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question.

And on another occasion:

I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him, and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else.


Here's a list of all the Looking Glass Library titles. I never had any but the two I've mentioned.


We went to the cathedral in Mobile for Mass on Holy Thursday. This was the view when we came out. The whole arc of the brighter rainbow was visible, though partly obscured by trees.