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January 2021

Dea Matrona / Fleetwood Mac: "Oh Well"

On one of my very very few ventures outside the US, I was in Belfast in 2018. In the middle of the city I heard a familiar riff and realized it was Black Sabbath's "Paranoid." It came from two girls busking--guitar, bass, and a drum machine. They looked like they were having the most fun in the world, and their vocals sounded better than Ozzie's. (I mentioned them in this post at the time).

A few days ago I was looking for early (when they were good) Fleetwood Mac on YouTube and this popped up. They are now officially a band called Dea Matrona, with a drummer who is the younger sister of one of them. I love this. And I love the line about God in the song (be careful what you ask for).

At first I wasn't certain that it was the same girls I'd seen, because I was pretty sure that one of them, the one with the more abundant hair, had been blonde. But that, as my wife remarked, is easily changed. Also, I thought the blonde had been the guitarist.  But watching a few more of their videos shows that they swap around and are equally adept on both instruments and vocals. 

It sounds to me like little sister is maybe trying to keep up with them rather than vice-versa, but she's probably come a long way in a short time. I think a note on one of the videos says she's only fifteen. 

Jeremy Beer on Technocracy, Liberalism, etc.

Front Porch Republic's magazine, Local Culture, devoted its last issue to Christopher Lasch. One of the highlights is this lengthy and excellent essay by Jeremy Beer: "Limits, Risk Aversion, and Technocracy." It explores the curious juxtaposition of license and coercion that is now such a visible feature of the leftward side of our politics, observing that the squaring of this circle is accomplished by the appeals to safety promised by technocracy, which is considered the only source of truly reasonable approaches to any problem.

Continue reading "Jeremy Beer on Technocracy, Liberalism, etc." »

The Crown Series Four

This has been out for some months now, and although I enjoyed the first three series a good deal, I was dreading this one a bit. The previous season had taken the Queen and her story up to the late '70s, so this one was inevitably going to deal with Charles, Diana, and Thatcher. And that was, also inevitably, going to be painful at best. Apart from the pain intrinsic to the Charles and Diana story, I know that the hatred of Margaret Thatcher among the sorts of people who run the BBC was and is at least on the level of the hatred of Ronald Reagan among the same sorts of people here. 

So I can't say I was disappointed by the treatment of those two stories. They were no worse than I expected. Well, not much, anyway: Charles is treated as more or less a monster crushing the gentle dove Diana, with a fair degree of assistance from the rest of the royal family, and I wonder how much justification there was for that. I certainly hope it was not as bad as portrayed.

The Thatcher story could have been worse. There was some attempt to treat her as a human being. But that aspect of the series was severely handicapped by the strange and unpleasant manner in which Gillian Anderson portrayed her. I admit that I doubt Anderson's ability to act on the level of those superb English actors. But even if that's not the case and these were conscious artistic choices, this particular portrayal struck me as pretty awful. She's utterly stiff, cold, and just plain weird. For some reason--and I assume there must be some real-life reason--whenever she's in conversation she tilts her head oddly, almost unnaturally, in a way that finally began to make my neck hurt. By the last couple of episodes I was actually looking away. 

I couldn't imagine that Anderson's version of Thatcher could ever have won an election. Wondering if she was really that off-putting, I watched several videos of Thatcher speaking, and while she was certainly no one's idea of easygoing, she was in those clips far more relaxed and normal in her speech and general manner than this series portrays her.

I suppose anyone reading this who's interested at all in the series has already seen it. But in case you haven't and are on the fence: I don't especially recommend it. It's extremely well produced and acted, apart from Thatcher. And Olivia Colman as Elizabeth is great again. What an actress she is!--as convincing when playing a middle-class policewoman (Broadchurch) as when playing  Queen Elizabeth. But in addition to the unpleasant aspects I've mentioned there is the frustration of never knowing how much, apart from public events, is history, how much is reasonable filling in of blanks, and how much is pure invention, with an agenda. And apart from the question of accuracy there's a certain cruelty in treating in raw detail the agonies of real people, most of whom are very much alive. I would not want to be William or Harry watching it. 


Addendum: here, for the moment, is the trailer. I say "for the moment" because I noticed that my link to the series 3 trailer (in this post) is no longer valid:


"Of all deceivers...

"...fear most yourself."


One slightly annoying aspect of the current state of this blog is that at least half, maybe more, of the visits to it are from people who have searched for some relatively obscure thing and gotten a link to one of my posts. Whether or not whatever they found here is useful to them or not, they don't stick around, and they don't come back, at least not soon or regularly. Well, that's fine--happy to be of help, if I was. But it means that when I look at my statistics and want to know how many people read the blog intentionally, I have to figure the number of visits by those people, as opposed to those who have been pointed to some specific post on some specific topic and are otherwise not interested, is at best half of the already small number.

One of the more frequent hits is the 2012 post called "Getting Started with Kierkegaard." A fair number of people want to do that, I guess. The post consists of little more than the question: where to start? And there are some good recommendations in the comments.

Which did I pursue? None. The last two comments there reveal the sad picture: about this time last year someone asked if I had an answer to the question. Sadly, I did not, because after eight years I had not so much as picked up one of Kierkegaard's books: it was another of my intellectual projects that failed before it really got started. 

But I have resumed it, thanks to the Eighth Day Books catalog that I received some months ago. They offered a book called Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard, which is a compendium of brief excerpts intended to provide an introduction to Kierkegaard's thought. I thought that might be a good way to take up my abandoned but not forgotten plan. 

Having bought the book (from Eighth Day), I was a little disappointed to find that the editor has in some cases resorted to paraphrase and abridgement in the interests of making Kierkegaard's meaning clear to the more casual reader. Perhaps I'll want to go on from here to specific works. But on the other hand this may be all the Kierkegaard I need.

At any rate I'm finding it very rich in insight, and besides that enjoying it very much. Isn't that epigram fantastic? 


Here's a link to the publisher's description. And by the way it doesn't seem to be available from Eighth Day anymore. 

Beethoven: Septet in Eb Op. 20

An admission: I admit that I don't love Beethoven as I should. "Should" is a questionable term, I know: why should one love this or that artist? Well, in this case, he is such a giant that to feel a little standoffish from his work seems to be a fault in oneself rather than the artist. It probably is. 

Before I go any further, I have to say that this is most certainly not any sort of denial or even diminishment of his universally acknowledged greatness. And I love some of his music as much as I love any. I think it's a matter of personality: there is something in his which I don't warm to. I don't, for instance, think that I would have enjoyed his company (which would no doubt be true of many composers, Wagner coming first to mind). I mean his musical personality, or his personality as it comes through in his music--I probably know about as little of him as a person as someone who's been listening to him for over fifty years possibly could.

How to describe it, that something which I seem to hear sometimes in the music? Irritable. Impatient. A bit ponderous: I can imagine Beethoven fulfilling the stereotypes about Germans and humor. Perhaps somewhat egotistical. Unsympathetic. The opposite of genial.

But never mind all that. It's my idiosyncrasy, and I certainly don't proffer it as an accurate remark about Beethoven. 

It's all a preface to, and maybe sort of a justification for, my reaction to this recording: lukewarm. The septet is a relatively youthful work, written in 1799. Beethoven was twenty-nine, not exactly a youngster by comparison with, say, Mozart, or Schubert, neither of whom made it very far past thirty. It's not the brilliant and profound Beethoven who would appear just a few years later. 

By any reasonable standard it is a good piece of music, but I have no enthusiasm for it. I was mulling over exactly how to explain that when I remembered that in the earlier days of this blog I had written about the symphonies. Here's what I said about the First (you can read the whole post here): 

I admire it, but I do not love it. There is obviously a great gift at work here, and the symphony is interesting, but little of it moves me. It’s of course very much more of the 18th century than Beethoven’s later work, but it seems a heavier Mozart, and a less orderly Haydn. I have the sense that he’s gotten hold of a powerful force but isn’t yet quite in control of it. And I hear some of the things that have always bothered me: the spasmodic leaping rhythms, the repeated quasi-climaxes, and a quality I can only describe, not very informatively, as “dryness.”

That's more or less the way I reacted to this piece. I gave it my obligatory three hearings, and I did warm up to it, but it isn't going to be a favorite. Here's a performance, the first one that popped up when I looked for the piece on YouTube.

The recording is another from the Fr. Dorrel trove: London CM9129, released in 1960. It doesn't seem to me to have any special merit as a recording. And I wonder if, and how much, the ugly cover may have influenced me. That portrait of Beethoven might have been done by someone who disliked him. 


Politics and Pretty Boy Floyd

As through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen

I've found myself thinking of that verse from Woody Guthrie's song "Pretty Boy Floyd" off and on for the past few days, since the Trump-inspired debacle of the 6th. (How sickening that it occurred on Epiphany.) Obviously there's a great deal to say about that, and many are having their say, but I don't have much interest in doing so, except to note that my gloomy view of where the country is headed is now significantly gloomier.

I've done a certain amount of retrospection about How We Got Here, and I keep coming back to that verse. Which is worse, the outlaw or the banker? Pretty Boy Floyd was an outlaw: a Robin Hood sort, according to the song; not exactly, according to Wikipedia. And Trump is a sort of outlaw (setting aside the question of whether he has actually broken any laws). He doesn't care much about the principles of the Constitution and pretty clearly would, to say the very least, be willing to disregard them in some situations.

The Democrats, on the other hand, don't really care much about those principles, either, but are extremely good at working within the structures of the system to do things that undermine or contradict the principles. Which is worse? At the moment Trump is spectacularly worse, but looking at the larger picture and the longer term, he may not be. 

In any case, as Michael Brendan Dougherty says today in National Review, "Anything that was good in Trump or Trumpism will be overshadowed by this disgrace." And if there is any national renewal, any regaining of some degree of unity, in our future I sure don't see it.

Anyway, here's the song. 

Re-reading The Moviegoer

I first read The Moviegoer sometime in the mid-1970s, and I loved it. But I was almost completely oblivious to the religious and philosophical aspects of it. I just thought it was a somewhat satirical, yet affectionate, and altogether delightful slice of a certain kind of Southern life. But that was all. After reading his other work, I could see, in retrospect, what I had missed. But as far as I can remember I didn't actually re-read it until now.

I did, clearly, browse through it a bit when I wrote about Percy in the 52 Authors series--browsed it enough to harvest the quotation I included there. That was five years ago, and I haven't changed my general view of Percy since then. On this reading, several things especially struck me:

1) It's even better than I remembered. I've long said, mainly on the strength of that first reading forty-five or so years ago, that on purely literary grounds this might well be considered his best. I say that now. All the others have their considerable merits and pleasures, but this one is the most perfectly formed.

2) All of the philosophical Percy is present here. If he'd never written anything else, this would stand as a statement (insofar as a novel can or should be a statement) of those views. Other works clarify and expand upon the basic ideas, and work them out in different situations with different characters (well, somewhat different). But the essentials are here, and I don't think they changed much over his career. And that implies a certain amount of repetition.

Percy's religious thought, the Catholic Percy, is hardly evident at all, though--only gently suggested. Binx has just realized that "a search is possible," and hardly begun it, though something has been found, or rather has found him. This was a good aesthetic choice, apart from the things Percy has written about theological questions--and answers--being best approached obliquely. For Binx and/or Kate to be converted would have required at least half again as long a book, and as this book stands it is slim and perfectly shaped.

3) I don't really have any clear idea of what's wrong with Kate. It isn't the same thing that's wrong with Binx, though there seems to be some sort of connection. Perhaps it's just that they are both rather severely "maladjusted," as psychologists used to say. I don't know whether they still say that or not, but it doesn't seem to fit with post-'60s attitudes.

4) I realized that I'm also unclear about the exact nature of the "certification" problem mentioned in that quote from Percy which caused me to re-read the book (see this post from a few weeks ago). This business of ordinary reality becoming unreal, and made real by sudden danger or catastrophe, or by being mentioned or represented in a movie, is something he brings up often, and I'm not sure exactly what its philosophical import is. In the first case--the ordinary made real at a moment of danger--is it really anything more than the fact, remarked on for ages and not particularly "modern," that we naturally grow accustomed to things and cease to pay much attention to them? And that we can be jolted into paying attention again by some out of the ordinary event? This is what Percy calls "everydayness" and is really not a strange phenomenon, or at least not one that has anything in particular to do with modern psychological dislocations.

The matter of extra-real existence being given to a person or place appearing in (for instance) a movie is a different story. If you recognize your home, or your hometown, in a movie, or your cousin as an extra in a crowd scene, you do see them as somehow made more real and significant--"certified," to use Percy's term. This is widely true, maybe universally true, and I think most of us have experienced it. I certainly recognize it. And am really quite puzzled by it. I recognize Percy's description, but I can't recall that he really explains it.

I've been thinking about it, and maybe one aspect of it--not the whole thing, but an aspect--is related to Rene Girard's ideas about mimetic desire: that we desire things because we see that others desire them. Similarly, the significance we assign to something is affected by the significance which others assign to it. It isn't desire, specifically, but it's related; it's certainly a type of valuation.

The prevalence of mass media like movies and television makes us tend to see what is represented there as having more significance than our own personal selves and surroundings, which means in a sense more ontological status: the significant is in some way more real to us than the insignificant. I and my surroundings are only significant to me; what I see on that screen is significant to many others. To that is added the vividness, selectivity, and drama with which movies and television invest everything. Few people have in real life the experience of magnificent bravery and skill shown by John Wayne's character in a scene from Stagecoach mentioned by Binx. Or the sheer power, also magnificent though evil, on display when Walter White says "I am the one who knocks." The common phrase "larger than life" says quite plainly what we feel.

Whether it's a great film or a bad film or a glimpse of the spectators at a football game or just a local news broadcast, that "larger than life" factor enters. And so if you see your town or your house or your cousin in one of these, they absorb some of the extra significance possessed by the thing as a whole. We know that others, thousands or millions of them, invest it with significance, if only by virtue of the fact that they see it. If so many think it's more significant than whatever is outside their own front doors, then it must be--you could in a certain way say it is in fact more significant--and therefore seems so to us as well. It has been certified.

Maybe that's what Percy says. I know he goes into this in more detail in Lost in the Cosmos, but I haven't read it for a while.

5) When I first read the book, I had never been to New Orleans, or for that matter to any part of Louisiana. And although I'd been to the Alabama and Florida Panhandle coasts enough to have a sense of what "spinning along the Gulf coast" is like, I didn't really know the feel of the place and its culture in the way that I do now, after living there for thirty years. I don't claim to know New Orleans well, but I've now been there often enough that Percy's descriptions of it have a flavor that they did not before. I've been on Freret Street, though I don't remember noticing a movie house there. and know that the campus which Binx and Kate walked through to get there is Loyola. It might even be possible to figure out which steps they sat on when they stopped to talk, though I'm sure the campus has changed a lot since the late '50s.