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December 2019

Two Christmas Reflections

One from Joseph Ratzinger, as he was then (1959):

It is the birthday of the undefeated Light, the winter solstice of world history, which gives us the certainty amid the rise and decline of this story that here, too, the light will not die, but has already achieved the final victory.

Christmas drives out of us the second, greater fear that physics cannot dispel. This is the fear of humanity and before man himself. It is a divine certainty that the light has already conquered in the hidden depths of history, and that all the great progress of evil in the world in the end can do nothing more about it. The winter solstice of history has irrevocably taken place in the birth of the Child from Bethlehem.

And one from National Review's Kevin Williamson, a somewhat grim one:

Man is meat. About that there is no question. The question is whether he is to be only that. We Christians should not be too otherworldly, because the facts as we understand them are bloody before they are glorious and glorious only because they are bloody. The truth of the Incarnation — God as meat — is not that the facts and events and suffering of this world do not matter in light of the glorious kingdom to come but that they do matter. Meat matters. Blood, too. Metaphor won’t do. The Incarnation is our only link to that other kingdom.

Hating "Holiday"

And not much liking "the holidays."

Every year I get more annoyed with the de-Christianized winter festival formerly known as Christmas. Unfortunately the advertising for that season begins in mid-November, which means that it's during football season, which is almost the only time I watch standard TV and am exposed to any great number of commercials. I am unreasonably annoyed by advertisements that begin "This holiday....", usually followed by something like "make your family happy by buying our thing." I might not be so put off by the whole thing if I weren't seeing those commercials.

The American Christmas has always, or at least since the middle of the last century or so, had its secularized aspect. That was fine: we were a predominantly Christian country, but plenty of people who did not celebrate the religious holiday as such found much to enjoy in the cultural paraphernalia. Irving Berlin gave us "White Christmas," which no decent person could dislike or resent, and he was Jewish. Notice, though, that he didn't shy away from using the word "Christmas." From an early age I had a sense that something was missing when the decorations and greetings and such of the season left out any mention whatsoever of Christmas itself. And at a not so early, but not very late, age it occurred to me that "the holiday season" would lose the essence of its charm if the religious core of it were removed.

Well, that has pretty much happened now as far as public speech is concerned. It seems that Christmas has become That Which Must Not Be Named in most situations that are not specifically Christian. And as far as I'm concerned all that paraphernalia I mentioned, which I used to enjoy for the most part, has begun to seem lame, dull, tawdry, and often depressing. I guess every Catholic who's ever read a book has heard of Flannery O'Connor's famous response to the suggestion that the Eucharist is only a symbol: "If it's only a symbol, then the hell with it." That is pretty much my view of Holiday carefully scrubbed of any Christian reference whatsoever.

The good part of this is that as I lose interest in Holiday I take more notice of Advent. I can't say I've observed it very well this year, but I did a little better than last year. And this year, thanks to the Anglican tradition, I've discovered what is called "the Advent Prose": an English translation of the Latin Rorate caeli. You can read it at the Wikipedia page for Rorate caeli. It's obviously not a contemporary translation, but I don't know how far back it goes. It's good strong stuff; here's how it begins:

Drop down, ye heavens, from above,
and let the skies pour down righteousness.

Be not wroth very sore, O Lord,
neither remember iniquity for ever:
thy holy city is a wilderness,
Sion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation:
our holy and our beautiful house,
where our fathers praised thee.

I guess it would be wrong for me to think it would be fine with me if that deluge washed Holiday away. 

Written In Sand

This was taken from a room in a motel at Gulf Shores over the Thanksgiving weekend. It struck me as very poignant. Where will Mike, Angie, Logan, and Blake be ten years or more from now? Will they remember each other? Will they remember Thanksgiving 2019? And where will I be? Possibly not in this world.

This message was well above the waterline, but would have been blown away, or mostly blown away, by now, as we've had some windy days since then. WrittenInSand

"Walking Like Agag"; Ngaio Marsh; Death of a Peer (Surfeit of Lampreys)

Let me explain that odd subject line. This post exists for one reason: to make search engines come up with a quick and definite answer for anyone who encounters the phrase "walking like Agag" in the Ngaio Marsh novel Death of a Peer, which was originally (and better) titled A Surfeit of Lampreys, and turns to the internet for an explanation. It took me a while to find one.

Here is the context in which the phrase appears:

At their first meeting Dr. Kantripp had warned Alleyn that Lady Wutherwood was greatly shaken. "I suppose she is," Alleyn had said; "one expects that, but you mean something else, don't you?" And Kantripp, looking guarded, muttered about hysteria, possible momentary derangement, extreme and morbid depression. "In other words, a bit dotty," Alleyn grunted. "Curtis had better have a look at her, if you don't mine." He left the doctors together and afterwards accepted Dr. Curtis' view that Kantripp was walking like Agag....

The reference is to 1 Sam 15:32. In the King James version, which is almost certainly what Inspector Alleyn would have known, it goes like this:

Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amal'ekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past.

So Alleyn means something akin to "walking on tiptoe," or maybe "walking on eggshells" when those are used metaphorically in reference to someone's conversation: speaking carefully, in short. Dr. Kantripp is not saying outright, but strongly suggesting, that Lady Wutherwood is in fact a bit dotty.

Apparently that translation is now considered inaccurate, at least by some translators. Here's how it goes in the New American Bible:

Afterward Samuel commanded, “Bring Agag, king of Amalek, to me.” Agag came to him struggling and saying, “So it is bitter death!” (NAB)

According to both translations, Agag in the first was quite mistaken and in the second quite right about what was coming: the next thing that happens is that he is " pieces before the Lord."

The book is excellent. I took it with me on a long flight last weekend and didn't finish it, and sat down with it as soon as I could after I got home. My old paperback edition has a blurb claiming that Marsh writes better than Agatha Christie, and I'm inclined to agree, though it's been a long time since I read anything by Christie.

The story involves a rich, charming, feckless family, the Lampreys. They're delightfully portrayed in the way that only the British can do, possibly because they're the only nation that produces people like them. I wondered if the word "lamprey" meant the same thing in England that it does here, and I deduce from the original title that it must, though the family, who can be fairly considered somewhat parasitic, is not monstrous. On the other hand, it certainly suggests that Marsh didn't consider them, at bottom, very charming.

Death of a Peer-1

Not, unfortunately, the edition I read, but art work more accurate than many mystery novel covers.


The current edition. Not especially appropriate art, except for the Art Deco vibe.

The Crown 3

It's good. Olivia Colman as Elizabeth is superb, just as you would expect if you know her work. There is another actor from Broadchurch present, playing a very different role; I'll let that be a surprise. Helena Bonham-Carter is really a little too glamorously beautiful as Margaret, but of course her acting is first-rate. 

This season takes the story into roughly the mid-1970s. It's a little frustrating, never knowing how much of the story is gossip and hearsay and how much is certainly true. I assume that all public appearances and speeches and so forth are accurate, and that private conversations are invented, but that leaves a big middle area that could be roughly accurate or wildly wrong--portraits of relationships and so forth. I suppose the filmmakers didn't go too far out on any limbs, though I figure they probably turned up the elements that lend themselves to a soap-opera-ish treatment.

Here's the trailer:

I really must find out the name of the music that's playing at the end of the last episode (not heard in the trailer). 

I sort of dread series 4, which will have to wade into the Charles-Diana misery.

Antonioni's Trilogy

I mentioned the other day that I haven't really used my Criterion Channel subscription very much. I'm thinking of dropping it. But I did recently make use of it to watch Antonioni's three early '60s films that are considered a trilogy: L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse (The Adventure, The Night, The Eclipse).

I last saw them in 2007...hard to believe it's been twelve years ago. I was not as impressed as I hoped to be. I only know the year because I wrote about L'Avventura (here) and L'Eclisse (here). Of the first I said:

According to the critical commentary on the DVD, the title refers to the adventure of self-discovery, or something. Whatever. If you want to call it a nearly plotless portrait of some unappealing rich people, with unavoidable implications about The Emptiness of Modern Life and The Difficulty of Really Communicating With Another Person, that’s ok with me. It’s beautiful and evocative. The camera can’t stay away from Monica Vitti’s strikingly soulful face, and the contrast between what one sees there and the lives these people lead is unforgettable, even if I’m unconvinced that the philosophical depth claimed for the film is really there.

I'm a little sorry to say that my opinion hasn't changed very much. I did enjoy them, at least those two--La Notte is definitely my least favorite of the bunch. I remain unconvinced that they are as profound as many critics say. I don't think they compare with Bergman, for instance. When the dust settles, what I like most about them is certain purely visual moments. But I like those a lot.

To be fair, there may be something being said without words or actions that I just didn't get, not being very visually astute or even observant. I watched one relatively brief critical commentary, also on Criterion Channel, and the critic (whose name I didn't recognize and don't remember) "read" the opening scene of L'Eclisse as a series of visual statements. It seemed entirely plausible and added a good deal of subtle information to the portrait of the two people depicted.

I didn't go back and read those two blog posts until after I'd seen all three this time around. Back then I had said this about L'Eclisse:

The section from the moment Vittoria walks out of the building until the end of the film might be the most haunting ten minutes or so of cinema I've ever experienced. Late last night, about to put the disk into its envelope for return to Netflix, I wanted to see it one last time and ended up watching it three times in a row. I think I could have sat there for an hour or more watching those ten minutes over and over again.

It's just a series of shots of mostly empty urban spaces moving from daylight to darkness. There's no way I could describe it in any way that would communicate the effect, and I can't even expect that anyone else would have this reaction. 

I didn't remember that I'd said that, so I smiled when I read it, because this time I had very much the same reaction to that last ten minutes, except that this time I only watched it twice.


How Rap Works

Rap has always been a bit frustrating to me, because I like blues and jazz so much, and so have figured that I should find at least some rap appealing. I've made some effort to find something I like, but for the most part even the artists who are reputed to be the very best don't really do that much for me. I discuss that in this post from 2011 about The Roots' How I Got Over. Despite what I said there, I haven't gone back to the album since then (but something like that is true of almost everything, because there is so much more music than I can listen to).

Nevertheless, I always figured that it's probably one of those things which looks a lot easier to do than it is. How hard can it be (thinks the unsympathetic outsider) to talk over a musical background? Well, I ran across this video today which gives some insight into that. It's called "Rap Deconstructed" but I think my title is better; I don't think deconstruction is actually what they're doing (see Wikipedia). It gave me some appreciation of the skill involved, but I can't say it made me like rap any better. The brutal truth is that none of the examples they analyze say anything of much interest. And I've never heard much rap that did. Of course there is some crudeness.