Previous month:
April 2018
Next month:
June 2018

May 2018

52 Poems, Week 22: somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond (e.e. cummings)

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain, has such small hands


I never seek out poetry, but my interest in the arts does put me into contact with it occasionally. I remember enjoying e.e. cummings when I happened to be in a poetry course back in college, and even in one of my AP English courses in high school taught by Mr. Cox. He seemed sort of “a stiff”, but when he got going about poetry it transformed him in a way, and those were the most memorable class periods.

However, where I remember hearing this poem first is in the great Woody Allen movie, Hannah and Her Sisters. Michael Caine’s character is either having an affair with his wife’s sister Lee, or is wooing her at the time he picks out an e.e. cummings book while they are both in a bookstore and tells her to read a poem on a certain page. In the next scene, she is sitting and reading it, and you hear Caine’s voiceover reciting the words. It is a very wonderful poem.

--Stu Moore

Sunday Night Journal, May 27, 2018

Having been immersed in the world of medieval Scandinavia for a couple of weeks while reading The Master of Hestviken, I wanted to get more acquainted with its mythology. I knew the main figures and one or two stories, but had never read anything very systematic or complete. So I started reading the Prose Edda, which I've now almost finished, and...well, as a somewhat naive acquaintance said many years ago on hearing a performance by a Captain Beefheart-style band, them dudes is weird. What seemed strangest to me are the creation stories. The Edda (written down in the 13th century) begins with what seems to be a tacked-on Christian creation, then quickly moves into what I suppose were the pre-Christian stories:

The sons of Bor killed the giant Ymir.... When he fell so much blood gushed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of the frost giants except for one who escaped with his household....

They took Ymir...and made from him the world. From his blood they made the sea and the lakes. The earth was fashioned from the flesh, and mountain cliffs from the bones.... They also took his skull and from it made the sky. 

And so forth. Eventually the eyelashes are used to build a fortress around Midgard, which seems to be the world of men--I'm not really sure, to tell the truth. No doubt someone has taken these and set them into as much order as they'll bear, which I think is probably not all that much. Where did Bor and his sons and Ymir live before Ymir became construction materials?Does it matter? From the little I know most creation myths are comparable. There's Chronos eating his children, for instance, in the Greek/Roman myths. 

The creation account in Genesis is a model of simplicity in comparison. "In the beginning God created...." No giants were harmed in this creation. The basic idea--that God said "Let there be...", and they were, is not necessarily incompatible with what science tells us. 

One thing that can't be missed is that whatever is meant by the word "god" in these myths is not the same thing that either the Old or New Testament means by God. They're simply not commensurate. Whatever Odin, the father of the gods is, he's not in the same order of being as God. The latter is what David Bentley Hart refers to as the One God of classical theism. Odin himself has a father, and is born into a world that was long since created. You can find things in the Old Testament that might seem made of the same stuff as myths, but overall it's a pretty straightforward narrative of human activity, even if you don't think it's accurate.

Even more striking is the contrast between the remaining stories, all the doings of Odin and Thor and Loki and the rest, which are wild, and the New Testament. For instance: Thor in a test of his strength arranged by the magician Utgarda-Loki is challenged to lift a cat off the ground. With his utmost effort he manages to get one of its paws off the floor. Later Utgarda-Loki explains:

Truly all those who saw you raise one of the cat's paws off the ground grew fearful, because that cat was not what it seemed to be. It was the Midgard Serpent, which encircles all lands, and from head to tail its length is just enough to round the earth. But you pulled him up so high that he almost reached the sky.

In another incident Thor, out fishing with the giant Hymir, manages to hook the Midgard Serpent. In the struggle, Thor's feet go through the bottom of the boat, and he stands on the sea floor for the rest of the struggle, in which he is almost victorious, but when the head of the serpent appears Hymir is terrified and cuts the line.

Reading the Edda brought home to me just how silly it is to dismiss the Gospels as "myths handed down over the centuries." You'd have to be really quite thick to go from the Edda to the opening of Luke's Gospel and not see that you are dealing with an entirely different species of writing. It's obviously an account of events that happened in a specific time and place, and for a nearly-contemporary audience which is familiar with both. To borrow from Dorothy Sayers, it's as if it begins with something like "During the Carter administration..." It's plainly not a misty-dawn-of-time situation. The New Testament might be the product of delusions or lies or some combination of the two, but it is very obviously not mythology in the sense that the Eddas are.


Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Back on Memorial Day of 2004, the first year of this blog, I posted this quotation from John Ruskin, which has stayed with me since I first read it many years ago. 

Philosophically, it does not, at first sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavoured to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honor than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier.

And this is right.

For the soldier’s trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo’s trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he may be—fond of pleasure or of adventure—all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact—of which we are well assured—that, put him in a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that this choice may be put to him at any moment—and has beforehand taken his part—virtually takes such part continually—does, in reality, die daily.


A brief follow-up on last week's remarks about "toxic femininity" (TF): I should have mentioned that the discussions of "toxic masculinity" which had caused me to start thinking about what its feminine counterpart might be were not about seriously bad things like sexual assault but about rudeness, egotism, "mansplaining," and the like: things which I regard as being more in the realm of bad manners than of serious pathology. I was thinking of everyday human interaction, not crime and abuse. Obviously the story I linked to of the woman trying to damage a man's professional standing because of a remark made in bad taste is not in a class with rape.  

Janet once said to me that she thinks it's displeasing to God when men and women criticize each other for faults attributed to their sex per se. Or something like that--that's what I took her to mean, and she can correct me if that's wrong. I think she's right, depending on the spirit in which it's done. It should never be done in a spirit of competition and domination, with the intention of elevating one sex over the other. But I also think sex and the whole male-female dance is one of the richest and most fascinating things in human life, and I often think about those differences, and sometimes write about them, not with the intention of disparaging either sex as such,  but in an almost scientific sort of spirit: look, isn't this interesting? 

And if you think about those things you inevitably find yourself comparing the different directions each sex tends to take when behaving badly. You can think about those without intending to find each member of the sex guilty of them. Or to deny the general mistreatment of women by men throughout history. Both sexes are equal in absolute worth and in importance to the scheme of things, and each is equally fallen. Some  years ago someone--I think it was Grumpy, but I'm not sure--commented here, apropos some similar discussion, that "Men tend to be selfish; women tend to be self-centered." I think that's one of the sharpest observations on the subject I've ever heard.


Freight train a-comin' on a rainy night.




52 Poems, Week 21: Home Is So Sad (Philip Larkin)

Now, when you've read this poem, before you say or think "Why did he post this miserable depressing little poem?!?" read my comments following it.



Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.


Ok. First of all: it doesn't actually work like this, at least in my experience as both child and parent. Larkin didn't have children himself. You may know his famous and really very unpleasant poem which ends "And don't have any kids yourself." (I looked that up to see if I was remembering it correctly, and I was not. I was remembering it without "any", which I think is actually better--more emphatic and final. Glad to be of assistance, Mr. Larkin.) So what does he know about how it may have looked from home's point of view? Presumably he was describing the home in which he grew up. The poem was written in 1958, when he had been gone for about fifteen years, and I think he was in fact the last (of only two) to leave. So maybe his childhood home did more or less stay as it was left; I don't know, of course.

But that was certainly not the case in my childhood home, which changed continually after I left (the second of five). My parents lived happily for many years after we were all gone, in the same house which changed significantly as they rearranged things to suit themselves. And it hasn't been the case for my wife and me as our children have left home. Neither we nor the house are sitting here forlornly. I am writing this, for instance, in a room which was the bedroom of one or more of the children for a long time, and which I like to call my study though I don't think it will really merit that name until I get an easy chair in here--right now it looks more like an office. 

Second: the reason I posted this poem, though if I were thinking of this series as The 52 Best Poems Ever I would not include it, is that, like the Yeats poem I posted for Week 15, it contains one image, one thought, that comes into my mind very often, and has done for years. How often? At least once a week, I'm sure. It's this:

A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide.

That's an almost unbearably poignant image of the way life tends to go, especially family life. I've lived long enough to have seen way too many joyful beginnings end in sadness. Somehow for me Larkin's image captures perfectly both the eager hope and the disappointment, the way we aim and the way we miss.

So it's not so much that I like this poem as that I consider it brilliant in a very narrow way, and that the one bit has become part of me. Fortunately disappointment is not the end of the story. Frequently even in this life disappointment is transcended.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.  

Sunday Night Journal, May 20, 2018

[Update: the first part of this post attracted some hostile attention on Facebook. It was taken as intending to disparage and dismiss concerns about the mistreatment of women by men. That was most certainly not my intention. I was about to say "Needless to say..." but clearly it's not needless, at least for some people.]

[Update 2: see also some follow-up in next week's journal (scroll down to the third section).]

I was reading someone's complaint about "toxic masculinity" the other day and thinking "Yeah, that's true, and there's also such a thing as toxic femininity." I figured I was not the first person to have that thought, so I did a net search for the latter term, but it didn't turn up much of interest. When I looked for "toxic masculinity" I got a long list of discussions, many of them academic-scientific, starting with a Wikipedia entry. But though "toxic femininity" returned a good many results, only a few of them actually took the subject seriously, and those were just complaints by right-wingers. I don't think I saw anything, at least in the first fifty or so items, that treated it in a serious or academic sort of way. Well, that's not surprising, considering the power of feminism--or at least fear of feminists--in the academy and journalism. You'd probably need tenure and a thick skin to make it a subject of academic study. Pretty quickly the list of search results was mostly about toxic masculinity.  And there is no Wikipedia entry. 

TM certainly exists, and at its worst it takes the form of violence or is a precursor to it. So what would qualify as TF? I'd say it's similar in that the goal is to impose one's will on others, but it doesn't involve physical violence. An attempt to define it can begin with something like this: the infliction or threat of emotional injury, or the claim of having suffered emotional injury, as a means of getting one's way. If I remember correctly, the mother in The Screwtape Letters does that sort of thing: "You know how it upsets me when you.."--which means that her son must stop doing whatever it is. 

I've noticed that an awful lot of the crazier stuff we hear about on college campuses involves women (or girls) doing pretty much the same thing--"You aren't allowed to say that because it upsets me"--just with a thick overlay of left-wing academic jargon.

The "safe space" thing, for instance: I first heard the term some twenty-five years ago, and that's the purpose it served. I was in a pre-Web online discussion group for Catholics. A woman arrived one day and announced that she wanted the group to be a safe space for discussing the Church's teachings on sexuality. And then she denounced the teaching on contraception in what I thought were fairly wrong-headed terms. So I made an attempt--and you'll just have to take my word for it that I made it as non-confrontational as I could, with (as best I remember) a sort of "have you considered this or that angle?" approach. Well, she freaked out. "I THOUGHT THIS WAS GOING TO BE A SAFE SPACE! This is so upsetting to me!" Etc. And of course that was the end of that conversation. Or any, as far as I was concerned.

Conservatives (myself not excluded) tend to jeer at campus leftists' insistence that words are a form of violence. But really, when you consider it in the context of TF, it makes a kind of sense. If words are your most important tool for controlling others, and punishing them when they don't fall into line, well, those words are weapons of a sort. And using them this way is in a sense a form of violence.

No sooner had I gone through this little train of thought than I happened across this piece in The Guardian: "How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour." Perfect. If you've paid attention to the feminist movement over the past few decades, you know the in-fighting can get extremely vicious. Consider the sad story of Shulamith Firestone.

And then the next day there was a story about the professor (male) who made a rather lame, meant-to-be-funny remark, and found himself in serious professional trouble. I'd say the remark was at worst in bad taste, but that's not how a woman who overheard it reacted. Which put me in mind of an old joke:

Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: That is not funny.


Last week I said I would report this week on Marillion's album Brave. Along about Tuesday I began to have misgivings about that, because I wasn't sure I'd have time to hear it properly. I have a sort of personal policy--no, let's call it a code: a man's got to have a code. And mine requires that I not publicly express an opinion of a piece of music until I've heard it at least three times at least somewhat attentively. My code also requires that if I state here that I'm going to do something, I have to do it, or at least make a serious effort to do it. So at the cost of neglecting a couple of other things I needed to do, I took, over the space of four days, some three and a half hours to listen to Brave (seventy minutes) three times.

It's very, very good. If you are a prog fan, or if you just like any of the great (canonical, you might say) progressive rock groups of old (Yes, Genesis, the rest) you will probably like this. It's continuously interesting both musically and lyrically. It's brilliantly performed and so well recorded that it's a pleasure on that count alone. I don't think I've ever heard electric bass that sounds so clear and deep. You might need to hear it on a good system with a real subwoofer to appreciate some of that. One of my three hearings was mostly on headphones that I think are fairly decent--not great, but many steps up from earbuds--and simply as a recording it wasn't nearly as impressive, the bass especially. I listened to the new Steven Wilson remix only, so I can't compare it to the original, but suffice to say this is one of the best-recorded albums I've ever heard.

It's what used to be called a concept album, the songs all involving a girl who has run away from sexual abuse at home. And it works better than most. As a narrative it's not always clear. I'm not sure who is "speaking" at some points. But the overall picture is plain enough, and powerful. 

Like a lot of prog albums, Brave doesn't have many memorable songs in the usual sense, compositions that stand alone and that you can imagine another band or a singer at an open mike night covering. That's an observation, not a complaint. There aren't a lot of tunes that stand out as being catchy, but that doesn't mean the compositions don't touch your emotions. And unlike some prog, it's not instrumentally excessive or indulgent.  You never get the feeling that they just like to play, and that composing is an instrumental affair, with lyrics something of an afterthought. Musically the album is all over the place, ranging from very delicate to thunderous, but it's all in the service of the overall vision, of which the lyrics are an essential and memorable part. All in all, I'd rank it up there with the absolute best progressive rock albums. This is definitely a band I want to hear more of. 

Here, just to give you a taste, is a track that pretty much includes all the elements. 


Janet Cupo has started a really interesting blog project: Reading My Library. I guess most people who read a lot end up buying more books than they can read, and if you do this for a long time you can end up with a lot of unread ones. I certainly have. Janet has a plan for working her way through all of hers, and it sounds like a good one. You can read the details of the plan in her first post. It involves doing a blog post about each one, though she's not promising  She's done five books so far, all this month, which I'd say is excellent progress. Anyway, it's very enjoyable and I hope she keeps it up.


Easter ended today--or rather yesterday, I guess (today is Pentecost). These lilies didn't bloom in time for Easter Sunday, but this picture was taken on the 11th, so well within Eastertide. They have now all wilted and look pretty sad, as is always the way with flowers. But while they last...


52 Poems, Week 20: Ballad of Fine Days (Phyllis McGinley)

The collection of Phyllis McGinley's work called Times Three is organized by decade. This poem is from the "The Forties." 



"Temperatures have soared to almost summer levels...making conditions ideal for bombing offensives."
--Excerpt from B.B.C. news broadcast

All in the summery weather,
  To east and south and north,
The bombers fly together
  And the fighters squire them forth.

While the lilac bursts in flower
  And buttercups brim with gold,
Hour by lethal hour,
  Now fiercer buds unfold.

For the storms of springtime lessen,
  The meadow lures the bee,
And there blossoms tonight in Essen
  What bloomed in Coventry.

All in the summery weather,
  Fleeter than swallows fare,
The bombers fly together
  Through the innocent air.


I knew that I was going to include a poem by Phyllis McGinley in this series, but had no idea which one, as I hadn't read her for a while and didn't remember many particulars, but rather a general sense of low-key enjoyment. Nor had I thought about when I would include her. But I was spurred to do it this week by this appreciation of her in National Review. I don't like conscripting artists into the culture war, and I don't like the headline on that piece:"The Left's War on Motherhood." Yeah, yeah, there's certainly something bad going on there, but do we really have to call everything "The [Other Side]'s War on [Good Thing]"?

You'll notice that the headline is not part of the URL, which sounds much less pugnacious: "mothers-day-writer-phyllis-mcginley-reminder-importance-of-motherhood." It's a Mother's Day piece, and it is certainly true, as the writer says, that McGinley's work presents a view of domesticity that's greatly at odds with feminism and the propaganda for it that contributes so much to the way we see these things now, and it's refreshing. But that's not why I like it. I like her dry, wry, modest, shrewd, elegant, and very skillful voice. 

This poem is actually somewhat atypical. No, not somewhat, quite a bit. Much or maybe even most of her work is indeed at least loosely classifiable as "light verse," though I don't really know why that should be considered such a distinct thing. She sometimes gets close to Ogden Nash territory, but less acrobatic. That makes the occasional very serious note seem even more powerful. This one I find very much so; that last line is stunning. When I picked up the book to look for a poem to post, I found that this poem was the only one I had marked, though there are many others that should be.

Coventry, you know, was pretty much devastated by German bombs in November of 1940. Essen I think did not fare as badly.

I was only vaguely aware of McGinley's name when, fifteen years or so ago, I picked up a copy of Times Three at some kind of used book sale. Maybe it was Auden's name on the foreword that sold me. I eventually read it cover-to-cover, and it's a pretty large volume (for poetry). I guess it's no surprise that she would be thoroughly out of fashion now, but I suspect her work will be read for a long time, possibly longer than that of some currently much bigger names. I read Sylvia Plath back in the '70s when the feminist movement had made her a very big name (as she probably still is--I'm not really in touch). And I thought she was good, in that outraged, enraged woman way, but I've never felt much inclination to read her again. Whereas Times Three is a book I'll probably keep with me if I ever have to greatly reduce my holdings. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, May 13, 2018

"The Murray project is dead." 

I saw that statement somewhere on Facebook some time ago, and I can't remember who said it, or I would give him or her credit. It struck me, though, and, obviously, stayed with me. The reference is to John Courtney Murray, S.J., whom I have never read, but I know that he is someone "who was especially known for his efforts to reconcile Catholicism and religious pluralism, particularly focusing on the relationship between religious freedom and the institutions of a democratically structured modern state" (Wikipedia). He seems to have been a sort of intellectual father to the movement within American Catholicism represented by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, First Things magazine, Catholic neo-conservatives, in other words. 

I'm still thinking about Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, and that remark about the Murray project keeps coming back to me. Murray apparently believed, in a nutshell, not just that the Church and the liberal state could and should co-exist, but that they were in some fundamental way compatible and in agreement on questions such as religious pluralism. Like I said, I haven't read Murray, so I'm subject to correction on that. But I think it's a fair assessment of the Nogelhaus project (Novak, Weigel, Neuhaus). 

Maybe it would be more precise to say that Murray and his heirs believe(d) that Vatican II and liberalism were in agreement about liberalism (that would make sense, considering that Murray helped construct the Vatican II documents on religious pluralism). Anyway, whatever the intellectual lineage and precise nature of these ideas may be, I think there's reason now to question whether orthodox Christianity of any kind will be able to coexist peaceably with the liberal state for much longer. There were always reasons in principle why this might be a problem, and there has been a great deal of more or less abstract discussion of the question. But things have changed in the past ten-to-fifteen years, and it's now becoming a practical matter, with the question presenting itself as something like "To what degree will or can the liberal state tolerate Christianity?" meaning of course any form of Christianity that continues to hold the fundamental doctrinal and moral principles which have been central to it for most of its history.

The main thing that's changed, of course, is the liberal view of acceptable attitudes toward homosexuality, and sexuality in general. The ruling class in this country has pretty well reached a consensus that the belief that homosexual acts are immoral is not just comparable to but the exact equivalent of racism, and should be dealt with accordingly. This means that those who hold it should, at minimum, be pushed to the margins of society, and that actions based on that belief should be punishable by law; hence all the lawsuits involving bakers not wanting to bake cakes for same-sex weddings, etc. In addition, that class, as it has come to be constituted over the past twenty years or so, has in general a disdain, to say the least, for orthodox Christianity and orthodox Christians, and is little inclined to listen to arguments in their defense. How this will work out over the next few decades is, obviously, uncertain, but the outlook is not very good at the moment. If you think, for instance, that there is little or no chance that Christian colleges and universities will be faced with loss of accreditation if they teach that homosexual activity is in the same general class of immoral acts as adultery, you aren't paying attention.

I wouldn't normally apply the term "Vatican II Catholic" to myself, because it generally refers to a set of progressive views which are pretty compatible with liberal Protestantism of the Episcopalian type. I am to say the least not on board with that. But if you take away all those connotations, it does apply to me reasonably well, in that I have thought that Vatican II was basically a good thing, that its celebrated opening to the modern world was a good thing, and that the manifest problems which followed it were a result of distortions, willful and otherwise, of its teachings, distortions put into the service of a program of revolution which would fundamentally alter the faith. As a great admirer of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, I held to the very widespread view that they were engaged in a sort of rescue of the Council, getting rid of those distortions and repudiating the revolution while salvaging what was good in it.

In that sense they could be seen as the ecclesiastical counterpart of the Murray project: they wanted to reconcile the Church to the modern world, which is as much as to say to liberalism, as far as was compatible with maintaining the faith. And lately a troubling thought has been nagging at me: is the Vatican II project, understood as the John Paul II and Benedict XVI project, like the Murray project, over--finished, dead for all practical purposes?

And further: if the papacy of Pope Francis is in fact, as many say, in perfect continuity with the project as just described, only attempting to go further toward a reconciliation with liberalism, is it the last losing battle in a losing war? Is it possible that no matter how a pope tries to make nice with the modern world, in the end the conflict cannot be resolved? That the whole attempt was a mistake--or, if not mistaken, merely futile? And that the Church of the 22nd century (if the world lasts) will look more like that of Pius X than that of Paul VI? Are the traditionalists right in saying that much of Vatican II--not just flagrant abuses, but much of what seems to be the core of it--was a wrong turn that must be corrected?

I'm not saying that I believe the answers are definitely "yes," but I've really begun to wonder.


Speaking of Pope Francis: I decided a year or two ago not to speak of Pope Francis, not publicly. Moreover, I've made an effort not to pay much attention to the controversies he's provoked. As I've said here more than once, whatever you think of Francis, you can't deny that he has re-ignited the Church's internal war between progressives and...let's just call them anti-progressives. When I came into the Church in the early '80s the extreme progressive interpretation of the Council was still dominant, and I rejoiced that it seemed to have been definitively put in its place by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I had thought that we had put all that behind us and were now reasonably well-united, and could look outward again.

I was, obviously, quite wrong, and have been heartsick that the war has flared up again. I am reluctant to think badly of Francis, but it's impossible to deny that the war is with us and that at best he doesn't seem to mind. I will say this one thing about him now: I don't have confidence in his judgment as ruler of the Church. Make of this what you will--and I don't know quite what to make of it myself--but from the moment he stepped out on that balcony as the newly-elected pope, I felt uneasy about him. I had no reason for it; I'd never heard of him. I've tried to quash that feeling, but it has never left me, and now and then something happens to revive it.  So I've decided that the best thing for me to do, for my own spiritual health, is to keep my mouth shut and stay out of the fight. 

But though I haven't spoken publicly about things like the Amoris Laetitia controversy, I haven't been able to ignore them completely. Sometimes I think Francis's critics are wrong and unreasonable; sometimes I think his supporters are gaslighting us, working to change important teachings while denying that they are doing any such thing. Mostly I try not to dwell on it all, which mostly is not very hard to do: I have all I can do to try to live a faithful life in my own little milieu. To attend closely to the controversies is to take sides in it, and to take part in a factional war within the Church is precisely what I do not want to do.

Accordingly, I did not plan to read Ross Douthat's new book about Francis, To Change the Church. However, I have read Craig Burrell's review of the book, and I recommend it strongly. I think you would have to look for a long time to find a more sensible, fair, judicious, perceptive assessment of the situation. Perhaps I'll even read the book, in case it's as good as this review.


I don't expect to find interesting popular music recommendations at The American Conservative, but this column about the progressive rock band Marillion got my attention. I've heard of them for years, but never gone out of my way to listen to them. For one thing, prog-rock is not my most favored genre, although I do like some of it. For another, I couldn't help suspecting, for reasons beginning with the name, that they might be both a bit pretentious and a bit twee--I consider a band name borrowed from Tolkien (The Silmarillion) to be a bad sign. (Mediocre metal and prog bands tend to go for it.) But this piece, especially its discussion of the album Brave, makes them sound very much worth investigating. What really convinced me was the fact that Steven Wilson thinks it's a great album and put a lot of work into a recent re-mix of it. Wilson is the main brain behind Porcupine Tree, a more-or-less prog band which is very highly regarded. The PT album Stupid Dream, the only one I've heard more than once, is highly regarded by me: interesting both musically and lyrically.

I sent the AmCon piece to a friend who is a very enthusiastic Marillion fan who says that Wilson's remix "took a great album and made it a masterpiece." So Brave is now pretty close to the top of my listening list. I'll report next week. 


Find the cat.


52 Poems, Week 19: As One Listens to the Rain (Octavio Paz)


Listen to me as one listens to the rain,
not attentive, not distracted,
light footsteps, thin drizzle,
water that is air, air that is time,
the day is still leaving,
the night has yet to arrive,
figurations of mist
at the turn of the corner,
figurations of time
at the bend in this pause,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
without listening, hear what I say
with eyes open inward, asleep
with all five senses awake,
it's raining, light footsteps, a murmur of syllables,
air and water, words with no weight:
what we are and are,
the days and years, this moment,
weightless time and heavy sorrow,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
wet asphalt is shining,
steam rises and walks away,
night unfolds and looks at me,
you are you and your body of steam,
you and your face of night,
you and your hair, unhurried lightning,
you cross the street and enter my forehead,
footsteps of water across my eyes,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
the asphalt's shining, you cross the street,
it is the mist, wandering in the night,
it is the night, asleep in your bed,
it is the surge of waves in your breath,
your fingers of water dampen my forehead,
your fingers of flame burn my eyes,
your fingers of air open eyelids of time,
a spring of visions and resurrections,
listen to me as one listens to the rain,
the years go by, the moments return,
do you hear the footsteps in the next room?
not here, not there: you hear them
in another time that is now,
listen to the footsteps of time,
inventor of places with no weight, nowhere,
listen to the rain running over the terrace,
the night is now more night in the grove,
lightning has nestled among the leaves,
a restless garden adrift--go in,
your shadow covers this page.

I have always thought that poetry was not very translatable. Reading this poem several times, the words flow very nicely for me. I suppose it is not the type of poetry where rhyme, meter, etc. is much of a concern. Everything I once knew about poetry was left back in college during the 80s so I only know what I like.

Octavio Paz is of interest to me because of the great novel by Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives in which he makes an appearance. I have therefore been interested enough to seek out some of his poetry to read in translation. I believe he only wrote in Spanish. Paz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990.

For some reason this one reminds me a little of Walt Whitman; it may just be me.

—Stu Moore lives on the Gulf Coast and suffers from existential angst.

Sunday Night Journal, May 6, 2018

I would prefer to think that a more accurate title for Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed would have been Why Liberalism Is Failing. That it is failing seems clear. It's a Carnival Cruise liner heading for the rocks while the drunken captain tries to seduce a passenger, a 747 with three engines out and slowly losing altitude, piloted by a man who refuses to believe that the cumulo-granite mass ahead is an unappealable statement of natural law. But I still allow myself a certain hope that the wreck will be somehow avoided, or that when it comes it will be a relatively gentle impact from which most of us will emerge relatively unharmed.

However, I don't think that's the most likely outcome. I think that if the liberal order does crash and burn it will be a very destructive event, and that whatever new order arises will be, at least for the next century or two, a pretty ugly and perhaps really evil one. An old friend of mine used to say that he lusted for the apocalypse, and I can sympathize with the feeling. But he had no children, and I have children and grandchildren.

And anyway, I rather like much of what liberalism has produced. All in all, I rather like representative government, and science and technology--surgery with anaesthesia, for instance--and heretofore-impossible levels of prosperity and personal freedom. However deficient, however productive of unwanted and unforeseen consequences, however unsustainable it may all be, I would prefer that we be able to keep those things that most of us agree are basically good things.

And I don't think it's possible to construct a new order by saying "we'll keep this, but discard that, and add this other." The development of civilizations doesn't happen that way. That's not to say it can't be guided, that the good can't be fostered and the bad suppressed, but it can't be assembled from pre-fabricated parts. It can't even be grown like a plant without the proper seed, soil, and climate. I went on record here some years ago as describing myself, where our immediate political and cultural situation is concerned, as a liberal conservative, meaning (in part) that I would like to conserve what I value in the liberal order. (It's in my book! Which has sold literally dozens of copies!) So I would like to believe that it isn't all over yet. 

I pause here to make it clear that we're talking about liberalism in the broad philosophical and historical sense, not the contemporary political faction which also bears the name. It's probably accurate to say that liberalism in this broad sense is more or less identifiable with modernity, with the characteristic way of looking at the world that has obtained in Western culture since the 18th century at least. The American republic is its most visible and successful implementation. 

Deneen points out that the "liberal" and "conservative" factions in current politics, the "left" and the "right," are all liberals in that they basically accept the philosophical foundations of classical liberalism, and are more accurately described as left-liberal and right-liberal. This is not new--I've seen those terms used for many years, with right-liberals being the true classical liberals and left-liberals being...what, exactly? Deneen uses the term "progressive liberalism," which is handy; I don't know if it's original with him or not.

I've always been a little puzzled as to how the transition from classical to progressive liberalism happened. The latter is now a form of statism, and at first glance it may seem unreasonable to see it as a natural development of classical liberalism, which is in great part about freeing the individual. Dennen devotes a whole chapter, "Uniting Individualism and Statism," to the question of how and why this is so. He argues that progressive liberalism is not an attempt to reverse individualism, but to preserve one aspect or sort of individualism that is endangered by another: 

The more individuated the polity, the more likely that a mass of individuals would inevitably turn to the state in times of need. This observation, echoing one originally made by Tocqueville, suggests that individualism is not the alternative to statism but its very cause

The individualism arising from the philosophy and practice of liberalism, far from fundamentally opposing an increasingly centralized state, both required it and in fact increased its power. Indeed, individualism and statism have powerfully combined to all but rout the vestiges of pre- and often nonliberal communities animated by a philosophy and practice distinct from statist individualism. Today's classical liberals and progressive liberals remain locked in a battle for their preferred end game--whether we will be a society of ever more perfectly liberated, autonomous individuals or ever more egalitarian members of the global "community"--but while this debate continues apace, the two sides agree on their end while absorbing our attention in disputes over the means, thus combining in a pincer movement to destroy both the vestiges of the classical practices and virtues that they both despise.

The expansion of liberalism rests upon a vicious and reinforcing cycle in which state expansion secures the end of individual fragmentation, in turn requiring further state expansion to control a society without shared norms, practices, or beliefs.

(My emphasis throughout.)

For a long time I've thought that the essential flaw of liberalism is its attempt to organize collective life without making a commitment to any core principles as to what human life is and what it is for, to prescind (or attempt to prescind) from the ultimate questions of meaning, and to operate on the assumption that people can believe whatever they want to believe on those questions as long as they don't bother other people. As has been pointed out over and over again, this requires that there be some basic metaphysical and ethical consensus among citizens--specifically, what we call the Judeo-Christian tradition--and it begins to disintegrate when that consensus does so, as it manifestly has done in the U.S.

And I've hoped that the disintegration could be avoided if we could return to what I take to be the original constitutional vision, a federal system which allows for real philosophical and practical diversity among the states--if, to be clear, we could defuse our current conflicts by abandoning the idea that the central government must enforce upon all the states exactly the same responses to questions, such as abortion, on which there are irreconcilable differences of opinion arising from irreconcilable philosophical views. Part of this solution, if it were a solution, would be the encouragement or at least the non-discouragement of all those entities--"mediating institutions," as they're often called, which stand between the individual and the state: family, religion, local community.

Well, Patrick Deneen is here to quash that hope. He thinks the problem is even more basic; in his view the system is working as designed. The diminishment of mediating institutions is a feature, not a bug. In his view, it is not the misuse of the Constitution that's the problem, but the document itself. Liberalism, he maintains, is in fact intended to reduce and eliminate every social structure that would limit the free exercise of the individual will, with only the state granted that limiting power, and then only in the name of protecting the same exercise of will on the part of others. In a striking bit of rhetoric, he describes the Constitution as a species of technology which implements that function:

The precondition of our technological society was that great achievement of political technology, the applied technology of liberal theory, our Constitution. The Constitution is the embodiment of a set of modern principles that sought to overturn ancient teachings and shape a distinctively modern human.

That puts things in a different, and, to me, rather unwelcome light, as I tend to see the Constitution, as a practical document, as a bit of genius. Some of what Deneen says in that area depends on support from sources like The Federalist Papers, and I'm not in a position to say whether they justify his conclusions. But what is happening around us certainly seems to fit.

There's a great deal more in the book, and I encourage anyone who's interested in these matters to read it. It's fairly short (under 200 pages) and very accessible to the non-academic. 


By the way, at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher reports on a very interesting conversation between Deneen and Ross Douthat. I must state for the record that I've been saying for over thirty years that we would see more and more people who believe that Brave New World describes a very desirable utopia.

I more or less agree with Douthat's point about the world outside the media seems to be doing a lot better than it looks from inside. Which is certainly not to say that all is well. 


Somewhat related: I recently had a chance to look at the August 1938 issue of Progressive Farmer. This commentary about the influence of the automobile struck me. "So it has proved," indeed. You may need to enlarge this to read it.


The cover is by N.C. Wyeth. Sorry it's out of focus. There's a caption at the lower right that says "Lunch for Father," or maybe "Daddy."


52 Poems, Week 18

My first introduction to the poem I am writing about was in a novel I was reading about 30 years ago. An artist was talking to a young woman about poems that are pictures. The first poem was The Lady of Shalott, and then he quoted a more recent poem. He could only remember the first two lines which were,

O fat white woman who nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the field in gloves?

This immediately brought to my mind an image of a field in Africa where the wife of some colonial plantation owner was walking through a field where black men were harvesting some crop or other. It was a very vivid image. I can still see it; on the lefthand third of the picture, the woman's back from about the waist up, dressed in white with a wide-brimmed white hat which she is holding on with a gloved hand; a wide field of golden grass, and in the distance the dark bodies of men working in the field.

Eventually, I read the entire poem somewhere, I have no idea where, but it only reinforced my image.

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

In my mind the author was a black man writing from the perspective of the laborers.

Well, I could not have been more mistaken. I recently found that the title of the poem is To a Woman Seen from a Train, and it was written by a white woman, Frances Darwin Comford, granddaughter of Charles Darwin. This pretty much shattered my image of the poem.

But this image is the reason I chose to write about the poem, because it illustrates the power of poetry to elicit eloquent little worlds from the readers' minds. Poems reverberate with our own thoughts, memories and experiences, and bring forth images that are unique to each reader. This can also happen with prose, but it happens more intensely in poetry.

I remember classroom discussions of poems, and how I loved to hear all the different interpretations that students were putting forth. Some of them were obviously mistaken for some reason or another, e.g., they did not know what some of the words meant, but they were still interesting. Some were plausible and some were crazy, but everyone seemed to have seen something in the poems.

I originally liked the poem, but then I found out who had written it, and the perspective of the speaker. I got defensive of the poor fat white woman, because, you know, I am one. And then, how could that judgmental person on the train know the woman in the field was unloved, or what memories she was having in the field. And then, my cynical self says that my wide experience of tall grass is that it can be itchy and full of bugs—or snakes.

G. K Chesterton apparently had some of the same thoughts that I did when he wrote this answer to Ms. Cornford's poem.


Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much.
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?

And how the devil can you be so sure?
Guessing so much and so much.
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?


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