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December 2020

Joy and Fear

If we had been told merely to fear [the coming of Christ], we should have mistaken a slavish dread, or the gloom of despair, for godly fear; and if we had been told merely to rejoice, we should perhaps have mistaken a rude freedom and familiarity for joy; but when we are told both to fear and to rejoice, we gain this much at first sight, that our joy is not to be irreverent, nor our fear to be desponding; that though both feelings are to remain, neither is to be what it would be by itself.... I say that whatever be the duty of fearing greatly and trembling greatly at the thought of the day of judgment, and of course it is a great duty, yet the command so to do cannot reverse the command to rejoice....

How joy and fear can be reconciled, words cannot show. Act and deed alone can show how.... 

May we learn to mature all graces in us: fearing and trembling, watching and repenting, because Christ is coming; joyful, thankful, and careless of the future, because he is come.



Madison Jones: A Cry of Absence

One reason for reading this novel is that it's an extremely good one, and that's reason enough. Another, and one that's more important to me personally, is that it is a remarkably perceptive account of the racial situation in the South in the 1950s, when the push against segregation was really getting under way, producing the resistance which now occupies a decisive symbolic place in the American consciousness: a simple narrative of KKK goons vs. saintly black people and their enlightened Northern supporters. That aspect isn't false, of course, but reality was, as always, more complex. 

The story takes place in an unnamed small Southern town in 1957. According to the back cover of the book the town is in Tennessee, although if that's mentioned in the novel I missed it. But the description of the seasons certainly fits Tennessee more than it would south Alabama or south Mississippi. (Madison Jones was from Nashville, and I grew up less than a hundred miles due south, in a similar landscape and climate.) The year is specifically stated, so it's after Brown vs Board, but before the decisive years of the early '60s. And that's important. The foundations of the Southern segregationist order were shaking, but still far from collapse.

Hester Glenn is a middle-aged divorced mother of two sons, Ames and Cameron. Ames is a college student, Cameron, or "Cam," still in high school. The novel alternates in viewpoint between Hester and Ames. The family is of the upper class, at least in the context of the region. Hester is a genuine believer in the romantic ideal of the old South: wealth and privilege are expected to carry with them, perhaps to justify their existence by, adherence to a code of honor, duty, justice, and generosity. She reveres her ancestors. She's a member of a local preservation society of which the main purpose is to remember and honor the past--including, for instance, a statue of a Confederate soldier, cherished, not apologetically, because Hester does not acknowledge that there is anything for which to apologize, but in the beginning simply, and then, when such honoring is attacked, defiantly.

The culture of the town is changing not only with the times in general--the federal courts, the civil rights movement--but specifically and directly with the arrival of new people from outside the South who run the new industries which promise to save the town from economic decline. These people hold the native white people in contempt, and their contempt finds ample justification in the blatant racial oppression. From the broad cultural point of view, then, there are four forces at work in the narrative: Hester and her kind, the newly arrived white people, the black people, and, faintly, natives who are of Hester's people but see, or begin to see, the justice of the case against them. Perhaps a fifth should be separated from the latter group: the townspeople who don't necessarily disagree with segregation but can see the economic price they will have to pay for its continuation and are willing to let it go. They are not portrayed as being especially admirable.

Cam is accused of participating in the murder of a young black man. Hester and Ames come to suspect that he may be guilty. And since the jacket blurbs refer to the novel as a tragedy, I'm not giving anything away in saying that the events which follow are in fact tragic.

Hester is a rigid sort of personality. We are given to understand that her divorce was, from her point of view, due to her husband's incorrigible immorality, but to suspect that from her husband's point of view it may have been that her uprightness made her cold, maybe even, to use a word one doesn't hear much anymore in its sexual sense, frigid, and at any rate remote.

In reaction to the news of the murder, she says

"It makes all those things they are saying about us up north seem to be true. About how cruel we are to Negroes. All of us. Because of a few scum," she said, her voice hinting at her passion. "As if we were all scum and didn't hate such people as much as anybody else."

But do they really? Is it perhaps the case that it is the violence of the "scum" that helps to support the hierarchy near the top of which Hester resides, and which she loves for more than crudely selfish material reasons? It is a devastating question. 

The book is beautifully written, and I have only a couple of mild reservations about it. One, the narrative sometimes proceeds by flashback in a way that can be confusing. Two, I'm a little skeptical about the plausibility of one part of the climax, though I can see the argument that it is inevitable. 

But these are mild indeed. I was only nine years old in 1957, and so wasn't really aware of the racial situation--not, I mean, with an adult consciousness of right and wrong. But by 1964 I was very much aware of it, and can remember enough of that period to know that the book's portrait of it is quite accurate. Anyone who wants to understand it in the kind of depth that is generally foreign to present-day views should read it. And, as I said, it's a first-rate novel by any standard.

I have Rob Grano to thank for introducing me and readers of this blog to Madison Jones. Here's a link to the piece on Jones which he contributed to our 52 Authors series.

I guess everybody knows about the intense rivalry between the University of Alabama and Auburn University (UA vs. AU). I went to Alabama, and I don't recall that I ever considered Auburn, because at the time I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and Auburn didn't have a journalism program. The fact that Jones taught at Auburn made me wonder for the first time (as far as I can remember) whether maybe I should have gone to Auburn. He was probably writing this book, which was published in 1971, at the time when I would have been there. I would surely have taken at least one course from him.

This little image was the only one I could find of the cover of the LSU Press edition that I have. There are at least three others.


But Better Than Nothing

The very best that can be said of the fallen and redeemed race of Adam is that they confess their fall and condemn themselves for it and try to recover themselves. And this state of mind, which is in fact the only possible religion left to sinners, is represented to us in the parable of the prodigal son, who is described as receiving, then abusing, and then losing God's blessings, suffering from their loss, and brought to himself by the experience of suffering. A poor service indeed to offer, but the best we can offer, to make obedience our second choice when the world deserts us, when that is dead and lost to us wherein we were held!




Let us then consider this most serious question, which concerns every one of us so nearly: what is it to watch for Christ?

He watches for Christ who has a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind; who is awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honoring him; who looks out for him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if he found that he was coming at once.


It's the last bit there that gives me pause. The quotation is from a sermon, but I don't know which one. Janet sent me a book, Waiting for Christ, which is a set of excerpts from Newman's sermons, one for each day of Advent. 

image from

Chausson: Symphony in Bb, Op. 20

If you read the comments on the recent Delius post, you read me verbally scratching my head about this symphony, in response to Rob G's recommendation of the composer:

I'm puzzled and slightly disturbed. A Chausson symphony was one of the first things I listened to out of the Fr. Dorrel trove, and I could have sworn I wrote about it here. I do remember what I was going to say about it, which was that I wasn't extremely keen on it, that it was in the "ok" class. And that the part (a movement I guess) that I liked the best was one that most resembled his more well-known work, the Poeme for violin (and orchestra?). But I can't find any mention of his name on the blog. It's not among the unpublished posts, either (of which I see there are more than I realized). So apparently I never actually wrote about it...wonder if I started it on paper, which I do sometimes....?... Anyway, that's my Chausson opinion.

To my relief, the mystery is solved, and my memory is not totally delusional. On my computer I found a text file with the same title as this post, containing a few notes for the intended post. Obviously I never got around to actually writing it. It says, in a few sentence fragments, what I said in that comment. Admitting that I would be damning it with faint praise, I said that it was good, but that I couldn't help comparing to to Mahler's Fifth.

I don't remember now exactly what in the music prompted the comparison, which is quite unfair, but the Mahler was very much on my mind because a good friend had just been recommending it to me. No, that's not strong enough: she had been strongly urging me to get better acquainted with it, going to the length of mailing me a DVD of a performance by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra conducted by Andris Nelsons. My friend's right about the symphony.  Of course. And I really liked that performance, better than the late '70s one with James Levine and the Philadelphia Orchestra that I have on CD. Maybe it was the quality of the digitally remastered sound but the Levine one seemed too aggressive somehow.

And I really shouldn't have listened to anything composed in the late 19th or early 20th centuries for at least two weeks afterward. 

There are several performances of the Chausson symphony on YouTube.

Time For Me to Read The Moviegoer Again

Rod Dreher quoted this, in a post about celebrity:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

A few days ago I was watching the movie Alabama Moon with my wife. I don't especially recommend it, at least not for grownups. Some children may like it, and in fact that's why we were watching it--the DVD was part of a big gift basket my wife had bought at our parish's Christmas bazaar, and we wondered if our grandchildren might like it. (Verdict: very doubtful, as there are no spacecraft, superheroes, or battles in it.)

I had a vague notion that some parts of the movie might have been filmed where I live. Several locations did look familiar. Then came a scene set in a hospital, and I was almost sure that it must have been filmed in the local hospital (labeled, for purposes of the story, Tuscaloosa General, which I think does not exist, as if you care). This gave me a completely absurd moment of elation. And later, when I looked for information online and found out that it was mostly filmed in Louisiana and so the hospital was probably not ours, I felt an equally absurd moment of letdown. 

It's still possible that the hospital scene was filmed here. The film credits thank Fairhope along with Covington, Louisiana. And it really looked like Thomas Hospital. But of course I don't really care. 

Some Delius

When I first encountered the music of Frederick Delius way back when I was in college, the label "the English Debussy" was attached to him. That kind of thing always sounds like a bit of a putdown to me: you know, "sort of like, but not as good as the original." And that unfortunately is not a totally mistaken label. But it's not very useful, either. I suppose it arises from the small number of small orchestral pieces which are all most people, including me, ever hear of his music. 

In any case, I like him. Some years ago now I posted a few remarks about his music here, along with a YouTube video of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. I recall Janet saying that it sounded like 1940s film music--which it does, and to my mind that's not necessarily a bad thing, though if there was an influence it probably began with Delius, who died in 1934, and "Cuckoo" was written in 1912. The music of his that I know can fairly be described as dreamy: slow, sweet, quiet, rhapsodic, impressionistic (whatever that means, but if it's true of some of Debussy it's true of Delius), loosely structured (or so it seems to me).

Continue reading "Some Delius" »

Minor Novels Argument-Starter

If you don't read the blog called "Prufrock" at The American Conservative, you probably should. It's an always-interesting compendium of mostly literary and general cultural stuff. Monday's post included a list of "recommendations of favorite minor novels." There are dozens of them, of which I've read seven. Many I'd never heard of. A few I think I may have read decades ago. Of course there's no arguing with anyone's designation of a favorite, but there are many possibilities for arguing with "minor." I'm thinking there of promotions from minor to major, but I suppose one might argue that this or that book doesn't even rise to the level of minor.

For my part, of the seven I've (definitely) read, the only one for which I'd argue "major" is Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Some are questionable, but that's the only one that would cause me just to shrug and feel sorry for anyone who disagrees.

There's one on the list I'd recommend strongly to Catholics: J.F. Powers's Morte d'Urban. Especially Catholics who've worked for small Catholic liberal arts colleges.