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October 2019

Louis L'Amour: Guns of the Timberland

When I was a child in the '50s and early '60s I liked Western movies and TV shows. But somewhere in adolescence I lost the taste, and apparently so did most of the rest of the country. The culture had changed, and the movie industry had changed, with barriers to realistic depictions of violence and sex coming down, and a desire to emphasize the grim and gritty side of life coming up. I've always thought Bonnie and Clyde was a sort of turning point in that way. And I guess the Clint Eastwood movies of the late '60s were maybe even more significant for the end of the Western as we had known it, with their far more dark and brutal vision of the the Old West. 

But as far as I can remember I never read a Western novel. I may have read a Zane Grey novel in early adolescence. I think I recall finding one in a stash of old books that included what interested me most, the Hardy Boys books. But I don't think I read it. I don't remember it, anyway. 

Oh, wait: I did read The Virginian, and thought it was not much more than all right. And at the urging of an elderly relative, Harold Bell Wright's When A Man's A Man. At sixteen or so I was already way too cynical for its story of the manly cowboy who defeats the professor of aesthetics in competition for the heart of the beautiful girl. At least that's how I remember the plot. I am almost certain that there was a professor of aesthetics involved. I didn't even know what that meant. But maybe my impulse to scoff at the book was aided by my suspicion that I might be more like the professor of aesthetics than the manly cowboy (though I actually grew up around cattle, which I don't think Harold Bell Wright did).

So anyway: I took this book from a library discard table a while back, and started reading it one night last week when I was having trouble sleeping. It wasn't a good choice for that situation--too interesting. Yes, it's a hackneyed plot in many ways, not all that different in outline from When A Man's A Man, except that the villain is a vicious businessman, Jud Devitt, who wants to harvest timber from land claimed by our hero, Clay Bell. Devitt is also engaged to pretty Colleen Riley. It's pretty obvious how that's going to end up. But it's an entertaining story, capably told, and it was certainly no worse for my soul and mind than yet another episode of a British murder mystery.

For some reason I expected this book to preach a fairly pure form of Rugged Individualism, one man against the world. I was pleased to find that not the case at all, and I'm sure I would have enjoyed it less if it had been. The hero is indeed a pretty rugged individual, formed by war and very much able and willing to fight if necessary, but preferring not to. He is part of a community which he cares about, and which cares about him, and which has a role to play in the defeat of the villain. He loves his land not just for the livelihood it provides but for its own sake, because it's rich and beautiful. And apart from Jud Devitt's willingness to steal and kill to get what he wants, his crimes are truly crimes against society as well as against Bell: he cares only for his own gain and nothing for the community; he is a man who "considered the law as a tool to be used rather than as a means to justice"; he is willing to reduce a beautiful stretch of country to a wasteland for the sake of a quick profit. 

Old traditional American values, in short, are on offer here as well as an entertaining story. Yes, you could do a lot worse for yourself than read a Louis L'Amour Western. This one is going back to the library, but I may read another someday.

LouisLAmour-GunsOfTheTimberlandsThe book was originally published in 1955 but this cover is from later, probably the late '60s or early'70s. This particular image is probably from the late '70s, judging by the price, or maybe even later. My copy has the same cover but the price is $1.75. 

"In fact, you will not be saved."

That's a line from Stephen Vincent Benet's poem "Nightmare, With Angels." I first read it long ago, but I'm not sure when or where. I had thought it was freshman English, in the Sound and Sense textbook/anthology. But I've just looked, and it's not there. Could it have been in high school? That seems unlikely, but it's possible. Anyway, it made an impression on me, and I think of it from time to time. Here is a link to it.

It's been on my mind especially in recent weeks and months, as the American republic seems to be having some kind of breakdown. So is the Catholic Church, at least large segments of it. A few days ago, in a Facebook group devoted to the renewal of the Church, someone posted a list of proposed responses, basically theological, to a recent survey indicating a serious decline in the number of American Christians (of any and all denominations). It included things like reviving a genuinely Christian philosophy, getting rid of hyper-political partisanship within the community, and so forth. It was all perfectly sound, but very unlikely to have any discernible effect anytime soon--and by "soon" I mean within the next several decades. I guess I was feeling grumpy that day, because I responded with the Benet poem, among other helpful observations:

Fine, good things in response to bad errors. But as far as Western Formerly Christian civilization is concerned, Stephen Vincent Benet had the general idea right: "In fact you will not be saved." This train is not going to be stopped until it goes off a cliff or, best case, runs out of fuel. Either way it looks to be a long time.

Nothing would make me happier than to be proven wrong. And I'm sorry if I sounded like a jerk. But I don't see how any any theological adjustment can possibly turn things around, or even slow them down. [This program] is a good thing but a project for generations, maybe centuries.

I mean--pardon my crudeness, but: we live in a society which has decreed that as a matter of law and custom there is no ontological or teleological difference between a vagina and a rectum. How do you even converse with that? Unless we're in the final apostasy of the end times, which is certainly a possibility but not one to which I've ever committed myself, the Church will be renewed, and a new culture will arise around it. But I can't see a turnaround in our present trajectory. I think we'll have to hit a wall of some kind.

This may sound like despair, but it really isn't. The ship of the Church will eventually right itself, at least to the degree that it is ever really righted. The ship of state is a different story; perhaps it will be righted, but perhaps it will slowly turn into something else, something that may or may not preserve the form but definitely does not preserve the substance of the constitutional order.

It's a rejection of the belief, so beloved of those of us who spend a great deal of our time thinking and writing and talking, that if we can only formulate and propagate the correct set of ideas things will be put right. It's a recognition that we are riding extremely powerful waves generated by the uncontrollable movement of great masses far below the surface of the sea. It's true that ideas have consequences. But this doesn't mean, as those who traffic in ideas are tempted to think, that ideas determine events. 

I find that I've lost interest almost entirely in that kind of talk, especially talk that involves proposals for the reform of society, sometimes the construction of societies in the air, according to distributist, or Christian democrat, or Christian liberal, or integralist, or whatever, principles. It's a sort of hobby for which I've lost my taste. 


Addendum: in putting forth the Benet poem, I don't mean to be saying that we in the U.S.A. and Europe are headed for cataclysmic violence. I don't in fact think we are. The poem was written in the 1930s, when the fact that war was coming was pretty clear to perceptive people. I think we are, rather, in a decline the outcome of which I don't claim to foresee. But the first angel's lament for all the unfulfilled hopes and promises of history is poignant, and the second angel's brutal crushing of such hopes applicable enough in general.  

Apostrophes Matter

I went to the local "ordinary Catholic" parish yesterday (as opposed to my normal "Ordinariate Catholic" Mass). We sang "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," using the music and text from the seasonal missalette. As usual, I grumbled to myself at the second line:

All on earth thy scepter claim

I'm pretty sure the sense of that is supposed to be "acclaim," not "take possession of." Though the latter is arguably a good bit closer to the truth. And I'm sure that I've seen it printed

All on earth thy scepter 'claim

where the apostrophe is meant to indicate the missing "ac." And I've always thought--this is where the grumbling comes in--that whoever worked up this hymn for the missalette simply didn't understand that "acclaim" was meant, and that "claim" is actually rather ludicrously contrary to the intent of the hymn.

Or at least I was sure that I'd seen it with the apostrophe. I decided to track it down, so, back home, I consulted no fewer than six hymnals--I didn't even know we had all these: The Methodist Hymnal (1966); The  Hymnal (Episcopal, 1940--they just call it The Hymnal, because obviously there is only one); The St. Gregory Hymnal (Catholic, 1920); The Pius X Hymnal (Catholic (duh), 1953); The Summit Choirbook (Catholic, 1983); The Adoremus Hymnal (1997); Baptist Hymnal (1956). 

And every one of them has "claim"--except the Baptist, which doesn't have the hymn at all.

Then I looked on the internet: "claim" after "claim" after "claim." The closest I came to what I was looking for, and thought I remembered, were a few variants that had a somewhat different line there, like this one

Saints on earth your rule acclaim

So did I just supply that apostrophe and plant it in my own brain as a memory? If anyone else has ever seen it, please let me know.

The odd thing is that in the "claim" version "sceptre" takes three notes--"sce-ep-tre", so the melody could accommodate "sceptre acclaim" perfectly well. As the hymn is based on the Te Deum, "acclaim" is certainly what's meant. But "claim," as I said, is all too appropriate. I wonder if Providence slipped "claim" in there as a sort of grim joke about the modern world.

I also looked for some definition or widespread use of "claim" in the sense of "acclaim" or "acknowledge," but didn't find that either. 

Sharing Is Not Necessarily Caring

Like any reasonable person, I am annoyed by the tendency on the part of some people to use the word "share" in place of "said" or some equivalent. "Jane shared that she had pizza for lunch." I guess it's one of those infections that has spread from the world of psychotherapy. But I very much enjoyed this item from a news story about a fitness instructor who apparently went a little berserk and started sending death threats to people she viewed as competitors:

“All hell is gonna rain fire down on your world like never seen before,” Steffen allegedly shared in a message to one victim.

A Few Remarks from Newman

Today everyone in the Ordinariates is rejoicing in the canonization of our hero, Saint John Henry Newman. Well, okay, "everyone" is probably an exaggeration. But "hero" is not. 

I'm referring to the ecclesiastical structures created by Pope Benedict's Anglicanorum coetibus, by which Christians from the Anglican tradition can come into the Catholic Church bringing with them many elements of their worship and spirituality.  "Structures," because there are three, for the UK, Australia, and the Americas. The obvious natural thing to call them is "the Anglican Ordinariates." But we have actually been told not to use that term, or to refer to them in any way that includes the word "Anglican," apparently out of concern that it will appear that we are still Anglican. It's frustrating, as I've found whenever I mention it to what I can't help calling "regular Catholics." If I use the word "Anglican," they think I've left the Church. If I say "the Ordinariate" they just look blank, quite understandably. In general they really just don't get it at all. Which is disappointing. 

But anyway: Newman is our great model, a sort of patron saint long before he was canonized. And of course he's an important writer and thinker by any standard. I have a book called A Newman Treasury, a selection from his prose works which appeared in 1943. It includes a section called "Aphoristic Selections," which has some brief gems. Relatively brief--I don't think I'd call an excerpt which occupies a full page and contains a dozen sentences "aphoristic."

(Attributions: Essays Critical and Historical; The Idea of a University; Oxford University Sermons; Grammar of Assent; Difficulties of Anglicans.)

Man is born to obey quite as much as to command. Remove the true objects, and you do not get rid of a natural propensity: he will make idols instead; remove heaven, and he will put up with earth, rather than honour nothing at all. The principle of respect is as much a part of us as the principle of religion. (ECH)

This is similar to what I was getting at a week or two ago about Downton Abbey.

If literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man. (IU)

Of course he's not using the term "Christian Literature" in the sense that we would use it of, say, Flannery O'Connor. But his point gets at the problem with a lot of art produced by Christians.

In morals, as in physics, the stream cannot rise higher than its source. Christianity releases men from earth, for it comes from heaven, but human morality creeps, struts, or frets upon the earth's level, without wings to rise. (DA)

Nothing is more common in an age like this, when books abound, than to fancy that the gratification of a love of reading is real study. (IU)

This stings a bit. I did realize it for myself but not until I was well along in life. I'm always bothered by those people who want children to read as if it that alone were good in itself. It isn't. It may even be a bad thing, if they only or mostly read books that communicate bad things.

When men understand each other's meaning, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless. (OUS)

The current state of our politics.

Whence comes evil? why are we created without our consent? how can the Supreme Being have no beginning? how can he need skill, if He is omnipotent? if He is omnipotent, why does He permit suffering? If He permits suffering, how is He all-loving? if He is all-loving, how can He be just? if He is infinite, what has he to do with the finite? how can the temporary be decisive of the eternal?--these, and a host of like questions, must arise in every thoughtful mind, and, after the best use of reason, must be deliberately put aside, as beyond reason, as (so to speak) no-thoroughfares which, having no outlet themselves, have no ligitimate [sic] power to divert us from the King's highway. (GA)

I take "no-thoroughfare" as meaning the same thing as "dead end." I've known more than one person, as we probably all have, whose impulses toward faith were killed by their inability to answer or move beyond these questions.

One thing, except by an almost miraculous interposition, cannot be; and that is, a return to the universal religious sentiment, the public opinion, of the medieval times. The Pope himself calls those centuries "the ages of faith." Such endemic faith may certainly be decreed for some future time; but, as far as we have the means of judging at present, centuries must run out first. (DA)

Those who seem to think we are on the brink of some widespread return to the faith may be right, but I doubt it. And they are definitely defying the clear tendency of things.

Reason can but ascertain the profound difficulties of our condition, it cannot remove them. (OUS)

A really philosophical mind, if unhappily it has ruined its own religious perceptions, will be silent; it will understand that Religion does not lie in its way: it may disbelieve its truths, it may account belief in them a weakness, or, on the other hand, a happy dream, a delightful error, which it cannot itself enjoy;--any how, it will not usurp. (OUS)

Unbelievers call themselves rational; not because they decide by evidence, but because, after they have made their decision, they merely occupy themselves in sifting it. (OUS)

It is only necessary for Reason to ask many questions; and, while the other party is investigating the real answer to each in detail, to claim the victory, which spectators will not be slow to award, fancying (as is the manner of men) that clear and ready speech is the test of Truth. (OUS)

These last three made me think of the Dawkins-style superficial atheists. They do not have the "really philosophical mind."

The aspect under which Almighty God is presented to us be Nature, is (to use a figure) of One who is angry with us, and threatens evil. Hence its effect is to burden and sadden the religious mind. (GA)

I like this as a counter to our tendency to sentimentalize nature, now that we have gone so far in being able to control it. For most of history man's relationship to nature has been in great part the struggle to stay alive against it.

All men have a reason, but not all men can give a reason. (OUS)

That complements the earlier one about "clear and ready speech." A long time ago I wrote something against the idea that mere intellectual and verbal facility are the determinants of victory in a controversy. I said this was no different from the belief that physical strength should serve that purpose. 

This has been the course of lawless pride and lead us, first, to exult in our uncontrollable liberty of will and conduct; then, when we have ruined ourselves, to plead that we are the slaves of necessity. (O.U.S.)

The instance cannot be found in the history of mankind, in which an anti-Christian power could long abstain from persecuting. (O.U.S.)

In spite of my basic pessimism, both temperamental and, as I think, objectively justified with regard to the prospects for Christianity in the West, I think this is in many ways a good time to be a Christian: so much is being clarified. And we have all the wonderful minds and souls like Newman who have penetrated the fog of the times for us. But I have to qualify that. It's a good time to be an old Christian who knows what he believes and is firm in it and no longer has much responsibility--everyday temporal responsibility, I mean--for other people. It is not at all a good time to be a Christian trying to raise Christian children. I should spend more time praying for those who are.

It seems that David Mills, writing at The Stream, had the same notion that I did, to post a number of aphoristic quotations from Newman. There's a bit of overlap with my list, more with the book I was working from.

800px-John_Henry_Newman_by_Sir_John_Everett_Millais _1st_Bt

I'm In Touchstone Again

You can read most of the first paragraph here

Heh. Sorry. It's subscriber-only. But you can see a nice picture of the little Methodist church in which I grew up, and which is the subject of the piece. If you get the magazine, you'll see that the byline says the article is an excerpt from my as-yet-unpublished memoir. That was true when I submitted it, but may not be now, as I'm rewriting the book and aiming to make it roughly half its original length. Which was...I hesitate to say...a bit over 130,000 words. Which I'm told is way too long--roughly the length of Merton's Seven Storey Mountain

I'm touched that the editors went to the trouble of finding a picture of the actual church to include with the article. 

The Turn of the Screw, Again

(Note: this is at least somewhat spoilerish. Also, it's a follow-up to this post from last month.)

I keep on being bothered by the question of whether the governess is mad and the ghosts objectively nonexistent, or the governess is quite sane and the ghosts both real and malevolent. The secondary questions--are the children malicious? did James intend any ambiguity?--don't matter much if the primary is undecided.

I grant that one can make a reasonable argument for what I will call the all-in-her-head view. Or, if you prefer, for the intentional-ambiguity. What puzzles me is the question of why anyone came up with the AIHH view in the first place. As I said when writing about it before, it never occurred to me when I read the story. If that simply marks me as being a little thick, well, that's all right; I grant that, too; subtlety has never been a strength of mine, neither the acting of it or the recognition of it.

In pursuit of the question, I read another James ghost story, which I happened to have at hand in a collection called The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (recommended!). The story is "The Friends of the Friends," and it's a good story. As a ghost story it suffers from the same problem (if you want to call it that) as "Turn of the Screw": it's not actually very scary, in part because James is not exactly a master of suspense, much less action, though it does deliver a chill. 

And I'm wondering why it should not be subject to the same doubt as the novella ("The Friends" is of standard short-story length). This story is also narrated by a woman whose testimony is the only account of the (purported) events, and who is to say that she is not unreliable? The ghostliness of the story rests mainly on two events. The narrator's account of the first of these is directly contradicted by another person, and involves something that could be ascribed to coincidence. The second is even more easily dismissible as coincidence, and in fact seems to be regarded as such by the narrator's friends. So I don't see why, if one is going to doubt the governess in "Turn of the Screw," one should not also doubt the narrator of "The Friends of the Friends." Well, perhaps people do, I don't know.

So then, a few days later, while looking for something else in the DVD collection at the local library, I ran across a 1999 BBC/Masterpiece Theater adaptation of "The Turn of the Screw" and checked it out. (I guess it was BBC--British, anyway.) I had a curious experience with it--no, not a ghostly one, just a curious one.

By the time I was five minutes or so into it I was thinking that I wasn't going to like it. I didn't like the way the governess was portrayed--breathless and palpitating from the first moment. I thought the score was intrusive, and the whole thing rather overdone; I'm a bit tired of that high-gloss BBC period drama style. So it went on, with me thinking I don't like this, I don't like that. And it looked for a bit as if they were going to veer off from the story into something (I didn't know what) that the director thought would be an improvement on James.

But then, rather abruptly it seemed, it was over, and suddenly I was saying in surprise "Well, damn, that was actually pretty good." What happened, in part, was that it totally dashed my expectation that it was going to be unfaithful to the story. It is in fact quite faithful. I might quarrel with the way various things were done, but they were in substance true to the story. 

And another curious thing happened: suddenly I understood why one would doubt the validity of the governess's story. I can't really account for that. I just sort of saw it, the way one sees an optical illusion one way and then, as if a switch has been flipped, in another quite different way. (Well, actually, there was one very important detail that is not in the story but is in the film, and which definitely tips the balance toward "She's crazy.")

I went looking for some discussion of the film, and found a very interesting blog post: Top 8 Film Adaptations of "The Turn of the Screw". (The link is worth clicking on just to see the painting that serves as background for the site.)

"Top 8" implies that there are more, which is surprising. And also somewhat to my surprise I found the 1999 one at Number 2 on the list, second only to The Innocents, a 1961 film which seems to be pretty highly regarded, and which is now near the top of my Netflix DVD list (the only place I could find it). 

I also learned from that site that those (of whom I still count myself one) who believe the governess was seeing real ghosts have a label: we are called "apparitionists." 

True Detective, Series 2

I finished watching it less than an hour ago, which I mention because my initial reactions are always subject to revision and often in fact are revised when the dust has settled, when the immediate impact has passed. But I'm going to register what is apparently a minority opinion: I think it's really good, maybe even, in its very different way, as good as Series 1, which is extraordinary.

Yes, the plot is madly complicated, and I got lost. There are too many characters, at least for me, so that as it went on I frequently stopped to ask my wife "Wait--now, who's he? Why are they talking about him?" And as often as not she didn't know either. I can criticize a great many specific aspects of it.

Nevertheless, the broad outline is pretty clear: some very flawed characters trying to get to the bottom of crimes committed by much worse characters--not just crimes, but a whole network of crimes and corruption. And I found it in the end quite moving. I think it can be ranked with the great noir novels and films: with Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, and others. The fact that it's set in California makes me wonder if the show's creator, Nick Pizzolatto, was consciously courting that comparison. In any case, I think this work belongs in that company.

If you liked Series 1 but are wondering whether you should bother with Series 2, well, my advice is: yes, do bother--see it. And I'd be interested in knowing what you think. 

Le Spleen de Samsung?*

My DVD player is having problems so I started looking for a new one. Of course all sorts of stuff has changed since I bought this one--everything is Internet-enabled, etc. So, trying to figure out what I actually need and/or want, I was reading the users' questions and answers for one I'm interested in, and saw this:

Question:  Does it have app for MLB tv
Answer:     i’m not good with tech stuff - i don’t know what MLB means and i hate apps
By Brandy [name redacted] on March 5, 2019

I would almost sort of like to meet Brandy.

* (Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris: "The title of the work refers not to the abdominal organ (the spleen) but rather to the second, more literary meaning of the word, "melancholy with no apparent cause, characterised by a disgust with everything".)