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December 2018

The Last Sunday Night Journal, December 30, 2018

And this time I really mean it. (But I'm going to continue the blog; more on that in a moment.)

It's always funny to see someone make a decision, then change his mind, then change it back again. Those who have been reading this blog for a long time know that the Sunday Night Journal ended in 2012, then was brought back in 2017. Those who have been reading the SNJ for a really long time know that it started in 2004, and that Light On Dark Water was not a blog, but rather a hand-coded web site, created partly so that I could fool around with HTMLc which i needed to do for my job. (Here is the very first post: my review, if you want to call it that, of the movie The Return of the King.) I turned it into a blog in 2006, and I think it was then that I began doing miscellaneous posts apart from the SNJ. So Light On Dark Water in its several incarnations has been around for fourteen full years now.

Anyway: that 2012 ending also occurred on December 30. And the post that announced it still serves reasonably well as a description of the general movement of the times, and my opinion thereof: here it is

Since then the book I mentioned has been published, by me, designed by one of my children. It's called Sunday Light and there is some good stuff in it, though it's a miscellany and so not very unified. Few copies have been sold. It was never going to be a big seller, but if the author had made some sort of attempt at promotion it might have sold somewhat more. Or maybe it still will--here's the Amazon listing, and your local independent bookstore can order it at a better price from Ingram.

I've completed another book, a sort of combination of memoir and socio-cultural observation revolving around the cultural revolution of the '60s. It's tentatively titled Som Great Thing (sic) and is currently being read by a small publisher, and I have a sinking feeling that its both-fish-and-fowl nature leaves it not very tasty as either.

That post discussed the significance of Obama winning a second term. I did not of course so much as imagine, much less predict, the Trump phenomenon. Still, I think the general drift described in the post has continued: "it would seem that the future of Christianity in the United States appears to be troubled at best."

Three years later the Obergefell decision made it the law of our land that the word "marriage" no longer refers to something which intrinsically, by its very nature, involves the union of man and woman. I think one of the deep psychological currents of our time is a desire to deny and escape reality, and this decision is a landmark in that movement. One could go on at length describing phenomena in which this desire plays a role, but the sex-related ones are particularly emblematic, because sex is the great obsession of our time. 

Many cogent arguments against this change in the concept of marriage have been made. But from the time the debate got really serious, around the same time I started this site, I thought the opponents (of whom I am one) were going to lose. I remember a specific moment when this hit me: when a Catholic commenting on a post on a Catholic blog (Amy Welborn's) scoffed at the opposition with the question "How does same-sex marriage damage my marriage?" It's a flippant and essentially irrelevant response, a cousin of "If you don't like pornography, don't watch it," but apparently it  seems telling to a lot of people. If Catholics, and not just any Catholics but readers of an orthodox Catholic blog, were looking at it this way, what hope was there?

It seemed to me from the beginning that if you did not instantly and intuitively see that the idea that two people of the same sex can be married in any reasonable sense of that word, that men can have husbands and women can have wives, is a contradiction in terms, and therefore implied the redefinition of the terms, then there was probably almost no chance that you could be argued into changing your mind. A few experiments supported this perception.

Since then this particular front in the sexual revolution has advanced in two ways. There is the transgender movement, which takes the defiance of reality much further, insisting that a man can become a woman simply by declaring that he is one, and vice versa. That might seem only a bit of lunacy, except for the other advance, toward coercion. The activists who are pushing these efforts to redefine fundamental human realities are now attempting not so much to gain acceptance of their ideas as to quash dissent from them. I suppose this was inevitable. Since you cannot actually change reality by changing the words you use to describe it and the concepts by means of which you think about it, and since a quite large number of people won't willingly cooperate, you have to resort to a sort of force.

Progressive activists have the support of the most powerful and influential segments of society--entertainment, journalism, the academy, and apart from the Trump anomaly the government. They've been pretty successful at setting themselves up as Martin Luther King v. 2.0, and happily branding any opposition as bigotry, which is the greatest of evils and must be suppressed. In accordance with this logic, they will not only attempt to deprive an opponent of his livelihood and as far as possible ruin his life, but feel a warm glow of virtue when they do so. Rod Dreher's blog at The American Conservative documents a continuing stream of accounts of intimidation and suppression against people who dissent on these and other progressive issues.

This is the reality that Christians are going to have to live in, and as Dreher constantly and plausibly insists, it's only going to get worse. For Catholics, the continuing discoveries of corruption, especially corruption related to homosexual activity within the priesthood and the episcopacy, mean that the Church may not feel like much of a help in this struggle. 

We're living through a new phase in the long metamorphosis of Western-Christian-Euro-American civilization into something else. What that something else is going to be, I don't know. The signs point to something like Huxley's Brave New World, but I doubt that such a thing is really possible. The tension between the desire for that thing and the intractable nature of reality is going to be intense, already is intense, with effects that I can't even guess at.

The faith will survive, though as so many have said, we are not promised that it will survive among great numbers of people. Still, who knows but that a flight from the flight from reality will begin, perhaps sooner than we think, though at my age I can't expect to see a significant change.

Back to the blog: I did consider giving it up altogether, the better to focus on other writing. But I really would miss it, especially the conversations. I extrapolate from my own experience that when more than a week or two or three goes by without new posts on a blog, readers tend to abandon it. So I'm going to try to post at least once a week, but not on a strict schedule. It's really the strict schedule that's causing me to stop the SNJ. And I'm going to try to stick more closely to the books, music, movies subject matter that I set out as my emphasis in the beginning--seen, as always, through Catholic eyes. I'm sure I'll give vent now and then to commentaries like this one, but when I get the urge I plan to ask myself, in a very skeptical tone, "Do you really need to write about this?" .


Oh, and by the way, about the whole business of any opposition to the goals of LGBTetc activism being labeled "bigotry": that really doesn't work on me. I've often laughed silently to myself while listening to some young progressive talk about older people being "bigots" on this matter because they've "never known a gay person," and so on. I usually don't say anything, partly because I know that attempting to defend oneself against such charges only makes the accuser more indignant and more certain that you're guilty. And partly because--and I'm sorry, I know this is not nice--it amuses me a little that he or she is in fact speaking very foolishly but doesn't know it. 

But I'm going to say this, just once, to get it off my chest: I started college in 1966. I was very much a part of the bohemian, literary, artsy, left-wing, counter-culture scene. I continued to live in that same college town and to socialize in the same circles for the next ten years and more. To save you the trouble of calculating, I'll point out that this included the early and mid '70s, the years when David Bowie and glam-rock were wildly popular and gayness was very fashionable. 

Do you really think I didn't know any gay people? Do you think I didn't have any gay friends? If anything I tend to rather like gay men than not--I mean, I'm fairly far off the norm myself, in my dull way, and there's a better than average chance that we have some common interests. Whenever this matter comes up, my memory for some reason immediately goes to a moment in the Chukker, a Tuscaloosa bar famous as a bohemian hangout. I was sitting with a lesbian friend when a pretty girl walked by and we burst out laughing because we realized that we were both ogling her. God bless you, Beth, wherever you are. 


Just another sunset.

JustAnotherSunset (2)

52 Poems, Week 52: The House of Christmas (Chesterton)


There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.


And so the 52 Poems series comes to an end in what I think is a very appropriate way. There is a roughly 4/5 complete list of the entries in "Here" section of the sidebar. Thanks to all who contributed to, discussed, or just quietly enjoyed this project. 

Sunday Night Journal, December 23, 2018

It must be close to twenty years ago that I wrote a science-fiction story in which Christmas had been replaced by "Holiday." (That wasn't a major part of the story, just a passing remark by a character.) I thought it was clever at the time, but it soon became an interesting and personal reiteration of a lesson I had long since drawn from the work of others: that when the real future gets here it's likely to make past imagined ones look dated at best, and absurd at worst. That usage is now expected in many situations and effectively mandatory in others.

Some years ago (less than twenty, not less than ten) I began to notice it in my workplace. No one insisted upon it, but I could see that certain co-workers, especially those very much aware of prevailing cultural winds in the academy, said "Happy Holidays" in a way that was just ever so slightly self-conscious, almost pointed. And to say "Merry Christmas" to them, one realized, was a bit of a faux pas. And some of these were highly-placed people, whom their subordinates did not wish to offend. It made the exchange a little awkward, a little uneasy. To call this an exercise in political correctness would not be completely wrong, but it was also in part a genuine desire to be "inclusive" and considerate, though it was a little peculiar at a small Catholic college where both parties were usually at-least-nominal Christians. 

Soon, of course, the matter became an explicit skirmish in the culture wars, with Christians, especially politically right-wing Christians, denouncing "the war on Christmas." That was rather an exaggeration. But as with those who so scrupulously avoided using the C-word, they weren't completely wrong, either. Trump was able to score points with them by including in his list of great things that would happen if he were president the item "We're going to say 'Merry Christmas' again." I wonder if it occurred to him that if your "Merry Christmas" is administered to your political enemies as a blow to the face you're not altogether in the right spirit.

Arguments about a war on Christmas seem to have died down somewhat now. Culturally we've reached a point where Holiday really has replaced Christmas for most public purposes, and I guess we're all coming to take it for granted. I almost never watch commercial television--that is, old-school television, where whatever you're watching is interrupted frequently by advertisements. Unfortunately the thing that necessitates the "almost" is college football. And a little bit of pro football. And unfortunately these mostly occur in the three months preceding Christmas, and after Thanksgiving almost every advertisement involves "the holidays." I can hardly stand them, and I don't know what I'd do if there were no such thing as a "mute" button on the remote control. There's the grotesque consumerism itself, such as the commercial in which a young man has bought himself and his wife (or girlfriend), as "holiday" presents, giant SUVs which probably cost at least $40,000 each. And there's the scrupulous avoidance of any mention of the religious content of "the holidays." I'm going to stifle my impulse to complain at length about these. It serves no purpose and anyway everyone knows what I'm talking about. 

There was a time when the commercialism and American Christmas customs coexisted. The distinction was there, though I think it was often unnoticed. Even as a child in the 1950s I was vaguely aware that some of the "Christmas" paraphernalia had nothing to do with Christmas. I distinctly remember wondering why some advertisements said "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas." I think I was in my early teens when it suddenly dawned on me that "Winter Wonderland" and several other songs associated with the season had no connection at all to the Christian celebration. 

But even as a child in the 1950s I was vaguely aware--I guess I could say unconsciously aware, if that isn't contradictory--that without Christmas, Holiday would be an empty thing. This was true even though I was vastly more interested in the presents I would be getting than in the birth of Christ. Somehow I knew that to remove the stable and the shepherds and the angels and Mary and Joseph and the baby from the picture would take the life out of it all. 

The disconnect between Holiday and Christmas grew over the years, but they were still closely enough associated that the former had much of the allure of the latter for me. That's pretty well over now. Part of the reason, I guess, is the jadedness of age, but in any case I've been slowly reaching a point of almost complete indifference to Holiday. It's a little sad, or more than a little, because I miss that old feeling.

The loss has some advantages: appreciation of Advent, for one. I find it difficult in our culture to focus on Advent. And yet I very much want to, which has not always been the case for me. And Christmas itself means more now, much more. The sad and shallow frenzy of Holiday is now becoming part of the darkness, a pathetic attempt to strike a few sparks that kindle no lasting flame. 

And so I still enjoy the lights, even if they're only Holiday lights. At night you don't necessarily see the difference. I have imagined what might easily be the case ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, when I might be unable to get out by myself, hoping or asking that someone would take me out one night a day or two before Christmas so that I could see the lights and think of Christmas Past and Christmas Yet to Come.

These thoughts were flitting through my head one night last weekend as I sat in my car waiting to make a left turn onto Highway 72 in Athens, Alabama, looking at a house across the way, its roof outlined in lights which, though unspectacular as these things go, were for me nevertheless expressive. 


52 Poems, Week 51: Miami Woods (William Davis Gallagher)

MIAMI WOODS (excerpt)

Sage monitors of youth are wont to say
The eye grows early dim to nature’s charms,
And commerce with the world soon dulls the ear
To heavenliest sounds. It may be so; but I,
Whose feet were on the hills from earliest life,
And in the vales, and by the flashing brooks,
Have not so found it: ---deeper in my heart,
Deeper and deeper year by year, has sunk
The love of nature, in my close, and long,
And fond companionship with woods and waves,
With birds and breezes, with the starry sky,
The mountain-height, the rocky gorge, the slope
Mantled with flow’rs, and the far-reaching plain
That mingles with the heavens. It is not so –
It is not so save where the ear grows dull
To God’s own voice, and the averted eye
Thick filmed with sin, is darkened thus, and lost
To all his visible glory. The green fields
Are studded with their golden buttons still
And living with their gilded butterflies,
That pass not unobserved. The rocky pool,
In which the robin bathes his dusky plumes,
The tufted flow’rs that smile beyond, the slope
That from its margin greenly steals away
To bordering woodlands fill’d with airy tongues
Still lure us from the hot and dusty road
As in the years gone by…..

…..Years change us not so much,
Nor commerce with the world; but groveling thoughts,
Vaulting ambitions, unrepressed desires,
Whose oft-indulgence blunts the edge of youth:
These early dim the eye to nature’s charms,
And early dull the ear to heavenliest sounds.


Child of my love!
Oh, count it fortunate thou art the child
Of Nature also. To this double bond
Be faithful. Coming years will tempt thee sore –

But in the trials and the triumphs Life
May have in store for thee, forget thou not
The haunts wherein thy childhood met with love,
And peace, and beauty; where in tranquil ways
Thy chafing spirit thou didst often soothe;
And where, as thy young heart has felt, God walked
With Nature and with thee.


This is an excerpt from a long poem (roughly 1500 lines) by William Davis Gallagher (1808-1894), Miami Woods, published in 1881. I came across this poet quite by accident, while looking up another author in the Oxford Companion to American Literature. This poem was apparently quite popular in its day, and although its style is both imitative and dated, the Companion says that Gallagher’s original descriptions of nature are “among the region’s best,” the region here being the American Midwest (the “Miami” referred to is at the western edge of Ohio, north of Cincinnati, an area still known for its beauty).

The thing that struck me most, however, and something I was not expecting, was the poem's theological vision. I have no idea of Gallagher's religious background, but the occasional theological bits in the poem are reminiscent of Hopkins. They show a belief in God as present in Creation, not pantheistically as in Wordsworth, and not as a transcendent Being of whom Nature is a mere sign, as in Emerson, Whittier, etc., but as a God who is both immanent and transcendent. This comes through quite directly and unapologetically, although the poem is not "religious" verse.

The other thing that’s striking is the thread of sadness that runs through the poem. It seems that Gallagher lost a teenage daughter to a lengthy illness of some sort, one symptom of which affected her reason. The poem, written over a number of years, reflects on this loss quite movingly.

--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, December 16, 2018

I have to report that I'm not enthusiastic about Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. On the basis of this and the one other PKD novel I've read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I guess I'm not enthusiastic about his work in general. In both cases, however, I read the book after having seen an excellent movie or TV series based on it, and thus couldn't avoid having at least some of my expectations set in advance.

Androids, as you probably know, is the rather loose source for the movie Blade Runner, which most critics, including me (I mean, if you define critic as "a person who has an opinion"), consider one of the best science-fiction films ever made. It's very potent emotionally. The novel is not, at least it wasn't for me. The characters never engaged me or even seemed particularly real, and I felt very little sense of drama in the story--which, again, makes it compare poorly with the movie.

More or less the same thing is true of The Man in the High Castle. As you probably know, the premise of the story is that it's an alternate history in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. The idea obviously has a lot of dramatic potential. Although I had a good many reservations about the Amazon TV series, it did deliver on that potential fairly well. Comparing the book to an expensively and skillfully produced ten-hour TV series (to limit the comparison to Season 1 only) may seem unfair, but I can think of several such comparisons where the book very much holds its own even to a very well-done adaptation (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for instance).

The novel seems pretty slight, and I suspect that most people who come to it after watching the series would find it so. Apart from the basic concept, and half a dozen or so of the major characters--Frank, Juliana, Togomi, Childan, a few others--the two don't have all that much in common. It's almost--not quite, but almost--as if the producers of the series took those elements and wrote their own story. After the first season, that's definitely true. 

The novel takes place almost entirely in the Japanese-ruled Pacific states, the rest in the neutral Rocky Mountain region. We get no sense at all of what life is like in the American Reich, apart from the fact that the Nazis have remained monsters in the roughly fifteen years since the end of the war, and if anything are worse than ever, having turned their genocidal mania on the whole African continent. (Obergruppenführer John Smith, from the TV show, does not exist in the book.) The Japanese are portrayed fairly sympathetically, somewhat more so than in the series. Dick clearly has a fondness and fascination for Japanese culture. The I Ching plays a bigger role in the novel and in fact is a major presence in it. (In passing: if Dick is accurate, the I Ching, which is Chinese, is more important in Japanese culture than I would have thought.)

Well, it's tempting but would probably be tiresome to go on with a comparison of book to film. I think the book would seem slight even without the comparison. It seems basically cerebral. For me at any rate it held very little dramatic tension. The premise, the characters, and the events that ought to make for a very good story are there, but the intensity is not. And I doubt that anyone has ever claimed that the author writes memorable prose.

I felt more or less the same way about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Now I'm thinking that PKD may be basically a novelist of ideas. But what ideas? I'm not really sure. I gather from his Wikipedia article that he held (or played with?) somewhat gnostic metaphysical and spiritual ideas, the sort of thing that sometimes appeals to the sort of person who has both philosophical and scientific interests--who wants, for instance, to somehow combine or reconcile Taosim and advanced physics. Actually he seems to have been a bit crazy, in the way that a very smart person who has a great drive to fit everything into a mental scheme can be--Chesterton's logician who wants to get the heavens into his head. Maybe more than a bit crazy, actually. 

The Man in the High Castle seems to conclude with some sort of revelation, but I'm not sure what it is. It may be that the novel's reality is not the real reality, that the world where the Allies won the war is the really real one. But then Who's To Say What's Real Anyway? And to be honest I'm not all that interested. 

Merits of the novel as novel aside, I was disappointed in my main reason for reading it, which was to find out more about the films possessed by the mysterious title character which are of such crucial importance in the TV series. They don't exist in the book. The only testimony to a world in which the Germans and Japanese lost the war is a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the title character, the man in the high castle, Hawthorne Abendsen. Cool name.


Here's something I meant to post last week. Stu sent me the link to this article about the farmhouse in rural France which W. S. Merwin bought in the early '60s and still owns, though he apparently doesn't live there most of the time. The somewhat surrealistic poems that he was writing then touch occasionally something that seems to belong in just such a place--a door, a wall, a stone, a path--and I always thought it was a place where he lived, or had lived. This is very much like what I imagined, though the one in my imagination was much closer to being a ruin, which will not surprise you if you know those poems. 


Another LP from the closet: Joni Mitchell's Hejira. Released in 1976, it was the successor to The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which I wrote about few months ago, and it's just as good. I'd be hard put to choose one over the other, either for my own listening or as a recommendation. Musically they're fairly similar, though the instrumentation on Hejira is sparser overall--but it also has on several tracks the amazing Jaco Pastorius on bass. The lyrics on Hejira are somewhat more focused on herself and her romances than on Summer Lawns. Here's one of the best songs, "Amelia." It's one of Joni Mitchell's best songs, period, which is saying a lot: as a matter of personal taste she's not my favorite artist, but she's certainly among the major talents to have emerged from the '60s pop wave. 

I'm very glad that I have these two albums on LP, because the covers, which Mitchell designed, are beautiful (and on Summer Lawns include her own drawings). They're so good that I went to my local record store and bought, on LP, the two albums that came out after this one and which I've never heard, Mingus and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. I'm sure I will be reporting on them in due time.

Used LPs, by the way. I'm shocked at what people are paying for new ones. I certainly never thought vinyl would come back, and when it did start to come back I thought it would be a short-lived fad. But there's no sign of it going away that I can see.


As I have mentioned, we don't get much brilliant color here in the fall from the trees that actually choose to lose their leaves. But if you look closely you can still see some beauty even in the dull sycamore leaves, especially when they retain some of their green.


52 Poems, Week 50: The Wish (Abraham Cowley)


Well then! I now do plainly see
This busy world and I shall ne'er agree.
The very honey of all earthly joy
Does of all meats the soonest cloy ;
    And they, methinks, deserve my pity
Who for it can endure the stings,
The crowd and buzz and murmurings,
    Of this great hive, the city.

Ah, yet, ere I descend to the grave
May I a small house and large garden have ;
And a few friends, and many books, both true,
Both wise, and both delightful too!
    And since love ne'er will from me flee,
A Mistress moderately fair,
And good as guardian angels are,
    Only beloved and loving me.

O fountains! when in you shall I
Myself eased of unpeaceful thoughts espy?
O fields! O woods! when, when shall I be made
The happy tenant of your shade?
    Here's the spring-head of Pleasure's flood :
Here's wealthy Nature's treasury,
Where all the riches lie that she
    Has coin'd and stamp'd for good.

Pride and ambition here
Only in far-fetch'd metaphors appear ;
Here naught but winds can hurtful murmurs scatter,
And naught but Echo flatter.
    The gods, when they descended, hither
From heaven did always choose their way :
And therefore we may boldly say
    That 'tis the way too thither.

How happy here should I
And one dear She live, and embracing die!
She who is all the world, and can exlude
In deserts solitude.
    I should have then this only fear:
Lest men, when they my pleasures see,
Should hither throng to live like me,
    And so make a city here.


I approve this message.

As I said at the beginning of this project, I knew I wouldn't have any trouble finding a poem to post every week, and I haven't. But I didn't think about how difficult it might be to pick one from the many possibilities. That difficulty became acute this week, since there were only three weeks left. I've tended to shy away from obvious Great Poems, not because I'm tired of them, because I'm not, but because I thought it would be interesting to explore roads less traveled by. I agree with Nabokov, or at least with a character in one of his novels, that "Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening" is one of the greatest lyrics in the English language. But I think just about everybody with the least bit of interest in literature is familiar with it, not to mention a lot of people who aren't particularly interested, but read the poem in school and found that it touched something in them.

So I leafed through both volumes of the Norton Anthology I used in college fifty years ago and happened on this poem (in Volume 1, which goes up to roughly 1800). If I read it back then I've forgotten both it and its author (1618-1667). The anthologist's note slights Cowley, charging that he

persuaded himself not only that he should be, but that he actually was, a poet of overpowering wit and rhapsodic genius. "The Muses' Hannibal" was his favorite epithet for himself.... [A]fter his death he quickly sank in public esteem.... "The Wish," with its modest scope and genuine appreciation of homely pleasures, suggests where his tastes and talents really lay.

I copied the text from the estimable Luminarium site.

Sunday Night Journal, December 9, 2018

I have long been under the impression that All the King's Men is about a populist demagogue similar to Huey Long. Having read the book at last, I don't think that's quite right. It's closer than saying that Macbeth is about Duncan, but it's off the mark in that general direction. All the King's Men does indeed chronicle the rise and fall of the politician Willie Stark, but the real subject of the book is the narrator, Jack Burden, who is Stark's close adviser and assistant and sometimes what would be called today his political "fixer." If you've seen House of Cards (the U.S. version), think of Doug Stamper. 

The story takes place in the 1920s and '30s in an unnamed coastal Southern state that could be Louisiana, Mississippi, or maybe Alabama--the descriptions of the town where Burden is from sounds to me more like the Mississippi coast. Stark is a country boy without money or connections who is elected treasurer of his home county. In that role he resists a corrupt deal pushed by the people who run the place, and although he is expelled from local politics his resistance is spectacularly vindicated, and he attracts attention from outside. Jack Burden is a newspaper reporter in a larger city (perhaps the capitol, I'm not sure) sent to cover the story.

From this point on their lives are joined. Stark is flattered by powerful politicians into running for governor, not grasping that their purpose is only for him to take votes from a candidate they oppose. He pours his heart and all his energy into running as an earnest reformer with a fistful of detailed plans, loses badly, and soon discovers that he has been manipulated. And then he discovers that he himself has quite a talent for manipulating people, not only the voters but the people behind the scenes, and begins to exercise his gifts ruthlessly. Burden leaves his newspaper job and goes to work for him. Together they are especially effective at the political technique of more or less blackmailing people by threatening them with exposure of dirty secrets. Stark's anger at the wealthy and powerful and his desire to improve life for the people of the state are genuine, but his methods are demagoguery and "busting"--that is, ruining the lives--of those who oppose him.

Burden is in many ways Stark's opposite: he is from an old, wealthy, and powerful family, well-connected to other such families. And it is the drama of his life, his family, and two other families close to his, that is the real center of the novel. Stark's rise, which of course is in the foreground publicly, is almost in the background of the novel, serving as the engine which drives developments in Burden's story. We don't hear many of the details of that rise. In fact it's already a fait accompli when the novel opens, some fifteen years after Burden's first meeting with Stark. Stark is now governor, and running for another term. Burden, who among other things is ruthlessly effective at what we now call opposition research, is directed by Stark to find some dirt on a Judge Irwin, a prominent man who opposes Stark. They are driving back from a late-night meeting with the Judge at which he has made clear his disdain for Stark:

The Boss said, "Well, Jackie, it looks like you got a job cut out for you."

And I said, "Callahan?"

And he said, "Nope, Irwin."

And I said, "I don't reckon you will find anything on Irwin."

And he said, "You find it."

We bored on into the dark for another twenty miles and eighteen minutes....

At about the end of that eighteen minutes and twenty miles, I said, "But suppose I don't find anything before election day?"

The Boss said, "To hell with election day...if it takes ten years, you find it."

We clocked off five miles more, and I said, "But suppose there isn't anything to find?"

And the Boss said, "There is always something."

And I said "Maybe not on the Judge."

And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

Two miles more, and he said, "And make it stick."....

Little Jackie made it stick, all right.

Those are the closing words of the first chapter. You figure when you read them that they are setting the stage for something, and you're right. The rest of the book can be seen as a working out of the significance of that exchange, and the working-out involves not only what will happen but what has happened, and how the has-happened affects the will-happen--not determining it, quite, but driving it, not beyond the reach of free will to change it, but to an end which is inevitable unless a deliberate and determined act of will prevents it.

Narrative, character, and effective prose are the essential components of a good novel. (In that order? I think so.) This one gets five stars (out of five) on all counts. I haven't read any of Faulkner's Big Books for some years, but I have been inclined to think them just a bit over-rated. Not that they aren't extremely good, but that they aren't quite as good as they are commonly considered. I thought of Faulkner often while reading All the King's Men, and what I was thinking was this is like Faulkner, but better. Just as rich, but more clear, in both its sentence-level detail and its broad narrative. It moves back and forth in time, as Faulkner often does, but the pieces seem both more distinct in themselves and more clear in their relation to the whole; it is truly a story, not a meditation upon a story, as Faulkner's approach sometimes tends to be. (Take that comparison as an impression, not a considered judgment, as I might change my mind when or if I re-read Faulkner.)

Warren's descriptive passages are extensive and fecund, like Faulkner's, and some might feel that they are excessive. Some indeed might feel that the book is somewhat over-written. But I didn't find it so; for me it's one of those books, like Moby Dick, of which I can say that I enjoyed every word, or almost. I especially liked the rich atmosphere of the many scenes set on the coast, which is a good deal like the area where I've lived since 1992.

Philosophically the book is for the most part quite grim. Here is Stark trying to persuade an idealistic doctor who thinks very badly of him to run the hospital Stark wants to build:

Goodness. Yeah, just plain, simple goodness. Well you can't inherit that from anybody. You got to make it, Doc. If you want it. And you got to make it out of badness. Badness. And you know why, Doc?" He raised his bulk up in the broken-down wreck of an overstuffed chair he was in, and leaned forward, his hands on his knees, his elbows cocked out, his head outthrust and the hair coming down into his eyes, and stared into Adam's face. "Out of badness," he repeated. "And you know why? Because there isn't anything else to make it out of."

Stark again, trying to persuade Jack to use ruinous information against someone:

He kept on studying me. "Boy," he said then, "I'm not asking you to frame him. I never asked you to frame anybody. Did I?"


"Because it ain't ever necessary. You don't ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient."

"You sure take a high view of human nature," I said.

"Boy," he said, "I went to a Presbyterian Sunday school back in the days when they still had some theology, and that much of it stuck. And--" he grinned suddenly--"I have found it very valuable."

Quite grim, that is, until the end. This goes on my very short list of books that I not only may read again, but intend to read again. It has also made me interested in reading more of Warren, with whom I previously had only slight acquaintance, though I've always been very aware of his importance, in Southern literature especially.


It's satsuma time here. This truck appears at a farm a few miles out of town around this time every year. Aside from it being a source of delicious satsumas, it represents something which I am always happy to see and which I hope will survive. You probably can't read that little T-shaped note on the box directly below the word "Now." It says "Pay Here," with an arrow pointing to a locked box where you deposit your money. I think it's wonderful that people are at least mostly honest enough that this works.


52 Poems, Week 49: Corruption (Henry Vaughan)


SURE, it was so. Man in those early days
   Was not all stone and earth:
He shin’d a little, and by those weak rays
   Had some glimpse of his birth.
He saw heaven o’er his head, and knew from whence 5
   He came, condemnèd, thither;
And, as first love draws strongest, so from hence
   His mind sure progress’d thither.
Things here were strange unto him; sweat and till;
   All was a thorn or weed;
Nor did those last, but—like himself—died still
   As soon as they did seed;
They seem’d to quarrel with him; for that act,
   They fell him, foil’d them all;
He drew the curse upon the world, and crack’d
   The whole frame with his fall.
This made him long for home, as loth to stay
   With murmurers and foes;
He sighed for Eden, and would often say
   ‘Ah! what bright days were those!’
Nor was heav’n cold unto him; for each day
   The valley or the mountain
Afforded visits, and still Paradise lay
   In some green shade or fountain.
Angels lay leiger here; each bush, and cell,
   Each oak, and highway knew them;
Walk but the fields, or sit down at some well,
   And he was sure to view them.
Almighty Love! where art Thou now? mad man
   Sits down and freezeth on;
He raves, and swears to stir nor fire, nor fan,
   But bids the thread be spun.
I see, Thy curtains are close-drawn; Thy bow
   Looks dim too in the cloud;
Sin triumphs still, and man is sunk below
   The centre, and his shroud.
All’s in deep sleep and night: thick darkness lies
   And hatcheth o’er Thy people—
But hark! what trumpet’s that? what angel cries
   ‘Arise! thrust in Thy sickle?’


I'm told that part of this poem is an Advent selection in Elizabeth Goudge's book A Diary of Prayer, which sounds like a book worth having. The poem strikes me as more Last Judgment than Advent, but it's nevertheless applicable as a picture of the situation in which our waiting takes place.

Sunday Night Journal, December 2, 2018

I find that I'm unable to stick with the intention of only reading one book at a time, so I try to limit myself to two, one fiction and one non-fiction. But I've just broken that, too, by starting Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle before finishing Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. (The non-fiction is Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise.) I had looked for Man in the High Castle at the library a month or so ago after watching the third series in the Amazon adaptation, but it was checked out. Yesterday my wife happened to be going to the library, so I asked her to see if the book was back on the shelf. It was, she got it for me, and now I have to finish it within two weeks, because it's on her card. As King's Men is pretty long and I'm only halfway through it, I thought I'd better go ahead and get started on High Castle

I'm only a few chapters in so have no opinion yet beyond the fact that it's interesting, but I was struck by this exchange between a Nazi artist and a Swedish businessman. (For those who don't know, the book is set in approximately 1960 in an alternate universe where the Germans and the Japanese won the Second World War.) 

"Afraid I do not care for modern art," [the Swede] said. "I like the old prewar cubists and abstractionists. I like a picture to mean something, not merely to represent the idea." He turned away.

"But that's the task of art," [the artist] said. "To advance the spirituality of man, over the sensual. Your abstract art represented a period of spiritual decadence, of spiritual chaos, due to the disintegration of society, the old plutocracy."

As a skeptic toward the religion of High Art, I enjoyed this. The notion that art is always on the way toward something ever more antagonistic to the ordinary and human has been a harmful one, and accounts for some of the pathologies, especially in the current visual arts scene. To have cubists and the like put in the position of being the old fogies is amusing. But of course in this picture the cure is considerably worse than the disease. If you don't know what Nazi art was like, see this Wikipedia article.

Nazi art resembles Communist art, for reasons that should be obvious, and which I will leave you to figure out for yourself if you don't think they're obvious. Art driven by ideology is generally bad, and if it succeeds it's in spite of the ideology, not because of it. And art driven by totalitarian ideology is some of the worst.

This got me to thinking of a topic that comes up now and again among conservatives: someone asks "Why aren't there more conservative artists?" and that's often followed by a list of books and music and movies that are either produced by conservatives or have a conservative message. (Of course there have plenty of artists who could broadly be described as "conservative," though not necessarily in the contemporary sense. T.S. Eliot, for instance.)

The subject came up on Rod Dreher's blog one day last week, and I responded with a comment which I can't find now but which was something along the lines of "The term 'conservative art' nauseates me." It makes me think first of Ayn Rand's awful fiction (she wasn't a conservative, but she was right-wing), and then of those lists. I can sum up the way the lists tend to go by saying that the Beatles' "Taxman" is always on them. It's a good song, or rather a good track, because while I like the music the words are not very interesting. Is griping about taxes really a very important aspect of conservatism?

Such discussions and such lists always make me think that if there were somewhere a master list of conservatives and my name was on it, I would take it off. After an initial period of resistance ca. 1980, I long ago acquiesced to the fact that "conservative" is a more or less accurate description of my political views. But as someone said once the term is descriptive, not prescriptive, and sometimes it's much more less than more, especially when I see the term defined with some such formula as "free markets and strong defense." Russell Kirk always insisted that conservatism is the negation of ideology. 

Well, few things are duller to me now than an attempt to define The Nature of True Conservatism, so I won't go off on that path. Almost as dull is the discussion of how Liberal and Conservative Are Inadequate Descriptions Of Contemporary Political Reality, so I won't go off on that path, either. But that one's dull for a very different reason: it's so plainly true that discussing it seems to be unnecessary. The gap between anything that the terms can reasonably be said to mean, and the beliefs and behavior of the parties to which the labels are still attached, is so great that they serve no purpose except for distinguishing two things that are, whatever you call them, still pretty different from each other in principle, and very different with respect to what they want.

Also last week...or was it the week before?...someone on Facebook linked to this piece at The Week (which by the way seems to be a somewhat balanced publication, socio-politically speaking). It's about the possibility of splitting the U.S. into separate nations as a way of dealing with our deep and seemingly intractable divisions. In discussing that, I found myself discarding "left," "right," "liberal," "conservative," and the like in favor of the conceptually empty but politically and culturally significant Red and Blue. I think I'm going to continue that. The terms are functionally intelligible, and they allow one to discuss the division without getting bogged down in definitions.

Of course as I'm always saying we don't actually need to split the country. We only need to accept its diversity and quit attempting to impose uniform national rules in matters where there is deep disagreement. But--and I think I said this in the Red-Blue comment I just mentioned--I think Red would be willing to accept that (though unhappily), but Blue wouldn't, because of its quasi-religious sense of mission. (I think I'll refrain from following that line of thought at the moment, because I want to finish this post fairly quickly.)

In any case it does seem to me that the great American experiment in republican government is coming to an end. There are many reasons, but the one that makes the situation seem hopeless is that the number of citizens who really want it to continue is diminishing. I suspect that human nature makes human government tend more or less automatically toward the monarchical and autocratic. There are many, many signs that both Red and Blue are going this way, knowing little and caring less about the scheme of government defined in our constitution. Red's enthusiasm for Donald Trump is one such. I mock those who think Trump is a Nazi, but that doesn't mean that he wouldn't be a dictator if he could; it's just that Nazism is far (far, far) more than that. And Blue has been for a long time now plainly longing for a king-messiah, and thought it had found one in Barack Obama, which is why Trump's occupation of the throne is simply intolerable to those on that side.

And then there's the outcry against the Electoral College. And, very strangely, the notion that if Blue (i.e. Democrats) gets more votes, in nationwide total, in congressional elections than Red (i.e. Republicans), then Blue ought by rights to have control, and that if it does not an injustice has been done. It's hard to overstate how bizarre that is when considered in light of our actual form of government. Kevin Williamson said it well:

The Democrats don’t seem to understand what it is they are really fighting, which, in no small part, is not the Republicans but the constitutional architecture of the United States. The United States is, as the name suggests, a union of states, which have interests, powers, and characters of their own. They are not administrative subdivisions of the federal government. All that talk about winning x percent of the “national House vote” or the “national Senate vote” — neither of which, you know, exists — is a backhanded way of getting at the fact that they do not like how our governments are organized, and that they would prefer a more unitary national government under which the states are so subordinated as to be effectively inconsequential. They complain that, under President Trump, “the Constitution is hanging by a thread” — but they don’t really much care for the actual order established by that Constitution, and certainly not for the limitations it puts on government power through the Bill of Rights and other impediments to étatism.

A simple nationwide democracy might or might not be a good idea (I think not, but for the sake of argument can admit that it might not). But it is not the system we have. I don't know what will replace the republic. We probably won't really feel the difference for a long time. It won't even necessarily be bad, or all bad, but it won't be the "constitutional architecture," as Williamson calls it.


All the King's Men is great, by the way, and I'm sure I will have something to say about it when I've finished it, presumably by next week.


Also by the way: I am almost certainly going to end the Sunday Night Journal at the end of the year. I'm finding it too burdensome to devote several hours every Sunday to it. I'm considering ending the blog altogether, but I probably won't do that. Most likely I'll keep it going, but revert to posting whenever I have something I want to say, and the emphasis will be on books and music and film/tv. That will probably reduce the readership, which is not that high anyway: as best I can tell from the site stats, there are somewhere between 100 and 200 people who read the blog regularly. That's minuscule in comparison to very popular blogs. But to increase that number would probably require posting much more often and about more controversial topics, and I don't want to do that.


Usually the photos I post here are recent, but this one is from 2009. Yesterday on the way to Mass we passed a gingko tree in full autumn glow. I didn't have time to take a picture of it, but I remembered a set I had taken at Spring Hill College. 


It was windy today, and on the way back from church it seemed to me that there were many fewer leaves on the gingko than there had been several hours earlier. A girl who looked to be about thirteen or so was taking a picture of her companion who was stretched out on the golden carpet.