Terror Stalks the Retirement Home
I thought I had posted this picture before, but if so I can't find it.
Happy All Hallows' Eve and All Saints' Day.
I thought I had posted this picture before, but if so I can't find it.
Happy All Hallows' Eve and All Saints' Day.
I read the other day on an Ordinariate forum that Church of England Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has been received into the Catholic Church. Well, that's nice, I thought, but that was about the extent of my reaction. These crossovers happen now and again and are of course always welcome, but they are few and don't generally have a great deal of larger significance; they don't represent a broad trend.
But then I actually read one of the posted articles, and found that it's more significant than I thought. I was vaguely aware of Nazir-Ali's name and that he was somehow fairly prominent, but that was all I knew. It turns out that
...he formed the centre of a nucleus of evangelical resistance to the slippage in the secular progressive accommodation embarked on by the Anglican Church. He was particularly outspoken on the serious consequences of ignoring the implications of the growth of Islam, and the importance of the Christian definition of marriage being restricted to a man and a woman with the intention of having children.
Previous high-profile Episcopal conversions were mainly of Anglo-Catholics. It was almost expected of them. Others shrugged their shoulders and passed them off as almost inevitable and of no great surprise or perhaps even of no great significance.
But Nazir-Ali is different. The route by which he came to prominence, which included holding the post of General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, was evangelical. And of course evangelicalism is usually uncompromisingly hostile to Catholicism.
I recommend that you read the entire article if you're interested. It's in a British publication called Christian Today, which initially and carelessly I thought was our well-known Christianity Today, in which I can't find any reference to this news. One bit in it made me smile:
What this crisis revealed was that Anglicanism lacked an essential tool in the struggle with secular relativism, the Magisterium.
Ya think?!? I thought that was clear forty years ago; also that Anglicanism had pretty well already lost that struggle and was not likely to find its way back. That was probably the single most important factor in my conversion.
As I've mentioned (haven't I?) my local Ordinariate group is no more, but I'm still interested in its fortunes, which are in general not so promising right now, and cling to the hope that in time it will have a positive effect on the Church as a whole, chiefly through its liturgical and devotional traditions. So I rejoice that Bishop Nazir-Ali was received into the Ordinariate. I hope he doesn't have too bad a time there.
...but haven't, and/or if you like film noir, you might want to consider subscribing now. See this for their November new arrivals, which feature a lot of noir, including many with Robert Mitchum, who's the star (along with Jane Greer) of my favorite in this genre, Out of the Past. I wrote about it in the 52 Movies series.
Also among the new arrivals is Thunder Road, which appeared to be available on Netflix back when I first subscribed, when it was all or mostly DVDs by mail. I put on my list but it soon went into the "Saved" category, from which few titles seem to return. I've been wanting to see it again for years. I thought it was great when I was about twelve.
By an appropriate coincidence, on the same day that I did that last post the new issue of The Lamp arrived. It includes an essay of mine which discusses the development of the counter-culture of the 1960s toward the current culture war, and the post reiterates a point made in that piece:
The essential feature of the youth rebellion of the Sixties is that it arrived at the point at which the simultaneous decline of Christian culture and the rise of secular materialism produced a mass movement which was in fact a new ersatz cultus, the Great Awakening of a religion of human liberation. It has attracted converts ever since and gone a great way toward converting the culture of which it is an antagonist, recapitulating the conversion of the Greek and Roman world to Christianity. It is for many a feverishly impassioned faith. Like the Church it looks with fervent longing for a world to come. If it stops short of explicit utopianism, it nevertheless postulates an “arc of history” which is an asymptotic approach to utopia.
My title for the piece was "What Happened in the 1960s?" The editor(s) changed it to "What The Culture War Really Is," which I didn't quarrel with. ("Ersatz cultus" also is the editor's phrase, not mine--I just said "religion.")
It was originally a chapter in the book for which I'm currently trying to find a publisher. My initial intention and ambition for the book was that it would be a combination of personal and cultural history, part autobiographical narrative and part discursive reflection and/or analysis of the times. Reactions from the people who read it either suggested or stated outright that I hadn't really unified those two aspects, and I think they were right. And among other things the book was way too long, and so I removed a lot of the discursive impersonal stuff, like the chapter which became the essay on the Sixties.
What's left is basically a memoir, and I think there's an oversupply of memoirs these days, so I'm not very optimistic about getting it published. Yesterday I ran across this rather wonderful quote from Wittgenstein's introduction to one of his own books:
I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.
That's something like the way I feel. I don't think I can rewrite the book as it now stands in such a way that it would be greatly improved, though I have not stopped fiddling with details, and will soon try sending this new version to a publisher.
Though I had excised that one chapter, I thought it was worth preserving. I cut it down from its original 7,000 or so words (by removing personal stuff) to 4,000. Almost exactly 4,000, in fact, which I know because I aimed for that in order to get it down to the maximum word count for First Things, thinking it might be something that would interest them. Well, it didn't. Nor did it interest several other conservative/Catholic publications to which I submitted it, so I put it on this site for a while. Perhaps you read it.
Then Robert Gotcher told me about a new Catholic magazine called The Lamp. It looked interesting, and they were (are) considering unsolicited work, so I sent the piece to them, and somewhat to my surprise they accepted it. At that point I took it down here.
The Lamp is an interesting publication, describing itself as "A Catholic Journal Of Literature, Science, The Fine Arts, Etc." It's eclectic to say the least. I'm tempted to add "to a fault," and very handsomely produced. It is, however, a bit pricey at $60 for a print subscription, $45 for digital. You can read their editorial statement here. And here is a list of the issues. I'm pretty sure that you can read them online if you register first. It will offer to link your registration to your subscriber account, but you can close that tab, go back to the issues page, and view the articles. I think.
The end of the Cold War three decades ago followed by the terror attacks in 2001 should have ushered in an era of consensus and low-intensity politics in the United States. That was the expectation at the time—but it turned out to be wrong. Over the past few decades Americans have turned on themselves, dividing into hostile tribes and parties with little common ground to hold the national enterprise together. As a result, as many now agree, the United States finds itself more polarized and divided over politics than at any time since the 1850s. But today, in contrast to the slavery issue of the 1850s or the Great Depression of the 1930s, there is no single crisis or line of conflict to account for the situation. We live in a time of general peace and relative prosperity and do not face any single challenge comparable to slavery or mass unemployment. America is coming apart, but no one can quite explain why.
That's James Pierson writing in a recent issue of The New Criterion (you can read the piece here, I think). With all respect to Mr. Pierson, who is far more qualified than I to discuss political and economic history, I believe I can explain why. The details are very many and sometimes contain contradictory and ambiguous evidence, but I think I've grasped the big picture, the essence of the conflict.
You can state the basic nature of the European aspect of World War II in Europe straightforwardly: Germany was an aggressive, repressive, and violent state that set out to conquer others, which then defended themselves. Even as a summary this leaves out a lot, starting with all the reasons why Hitler had come to power in the first place, the various ideas and obsessions that came together in National Socialism, the history of relations between the powers, and so on and so on, eventually for many volumes. But the simple statement is true.
Similarly, the essence of the current conflict can be stated like this: within Euro-American civilization a new religion has appeared, and has gained many powerful adherents who seek to impose it on the entire society, and are resisted by those who have not accepted it.
Obviously that doesn't begin to cover the subject. First of all one might discuss the sense in which "religion" is the right word for this new movement, and whether "pseudo-" or "crypto-" should be prefixed to it. And then one wants, of course, to describe the new religion, to understand it, to consider the ways in which the existing order produced the conditions for it, the ways in which it seeks to achieve its aims, to trace the history of its development and of the conflict between it and the society which gave birth to it.
And so on and so on. But if you don't see that one essential point--that this new movement is for all practical purposes a religion in the sense of providing a meaning and a mission for human life, and that it seeks to impose itself on everyone, you're missing the biggest part of the big picture.
I know I'm far from the only one making this basic point, or a similar one. But many of those who get it seem to me to stop short of what I'm saying. They note that politics has taken on a religious fervor and centrality for many people, and that is certainly true. But I think it's more than that: for the new religion, there is no distinction between religion and politics. Even that is too limiting a way to put it, because it treats religion and politics as separate things, which the new religion does not. Politics is its practice in exactly, not just analogously, the same way that prayer and church attendance are the practice of Christianity.
The fact that the new religion doesn't have a name and doesn't demand an explicit profession of faith makes its religious nature easier to miss, and also makes it easier to embrace. Nor does it see itself as "a religion" among others, but rather as the self-evidently true and good--which means that opposition to it can only constitute a choice of the false and evil. This likewise makes it easier to embrace, and also accounts for its almost perfect moral self-confidence.
The immediately apparent historical analogies are the establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the conquest of much of the Mediterranean world by Islam. I think the latter is really more comparable, for the same reason that I used the words "establishment" and "conquest"--the conversion of the Empire to Christianity was not primarily or initially by force, but the replacement of Christianity by Islam in much of the Mediterranean world was (though there was more to the story than that of course). And although the new religion does not (as yet) use physical force, it does use whatever means of informal and legal compulsion it can.
The course of the actual campaign of this attempted conquest is murky, as is generally the case. Relatively few people are firmly and consciously on one side or the other. Most people are down-to-earth and pragmatic and don't generally think too much about consciously-held abstract principle. Many who casually support it don't really grasp its totalitarian implications, or draw back from its more radical doctrines, such as the denial of sex.
Is this a fire that will burn itself out fairly quickly? Or is it the beginning of a long age of domination by a fundamental falsehood? Is that even possible for any great length of time? I don't know. I take a little comfort in considering how long Hitler's thousand years lasted. And totalitarian communism didn't do all that much better. Unlike fascism, though, communism didn't die. It has too much in common with the new religion (and both have more in common with fascism than they can admit). Many millions of people get misty-eyed when they sing "Imagine," which means they have accepted some of the doctrines of the new faith, whether or not they realize it.
A few days ago I was looking for a CD to play while I was doing some not-very-demanding software work--something more or less in the ambient vein, not too insistent on attention. I noticed this one, which I hadn't heard for quite some time, put it on, and very quickly wondered why I even had it. The first couple of tracks are a sort of slick rock-jazz-new-age-world-music hybrid and I started thinking that I should get rid of it. Toward the end it got better, and finally with this track I remembered why I had bought it in the first place.
The album is called Bridge, and it's by Øystein Sevåg. The jacket describes it as a "fusion of jazz, ambient, and world music elements with a classical dimension." It was released in 1997 on the Hearts of Space label, and I remember now that I bought it specifically because I had heard this track on the Hearts of Space radio show, which I used to tape faithfully every Sunday night (remember tape?). I recall even leaving my wife and/or children instructions about how to do it once when I was going to be out of town.
Much of the album is not to my taste and I wouldn't recommend it as a whole, but there are several tracks almost as good as this one, also featuring the violinist, who is the composer's wife, Maria Sevåg.
...it probably should. This of course is from the Department of Homeland Security.
I cringed when the Bush administration created DHS. Apart from its ominous name, it seemed an admission that the Department of Defense is not primarily about defense, and that the existing law enforcement and intelligence agencies weren't up to the job. Now that the Washington establishment, with help from some Trump followers, is trying to make the case that right-wing "extremists" pose a major threat to the nation, this kind of thing is more unsettling than ever. Even parents yelling at school boards, when the complainers are on the wrong political side, are now open to some very unwelcome attention from the FBI.
I'm sure there are some violent right-wingers out there, but the FBI and others managed to keep the Klan, the Weathermen, and other domestic outlaws in check back in the '60s and '70s. More, and more politicized, federal surveillance and policing are not comforting thoughts now. You could hardly ask for a better definition of mission creep, or a better example of the tendency of any government department to expand indefinitely, than the DHS Focus page, which lists climate change and COVID-19 as "part of the department's mission." Meanwhile, the southern border is porous, to say the least.
I hope that guy doesn't live in my neighborhood. If I see him I'm going to report him. He makes me feel unsafe.
Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor Solo, Horn, and Strings, Op 21; Les Illuminations for Tenor Solo and Strings, Op. 18.
Peter Pears, tenor; Dennis Brain, horn; The New Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eugene Goosens. London LL 994
Clearly, the use of the word "perfect" requires some justification and explanation. What I mean is that this is great music, performed and recorded in such a way that I can't really imagine it done better. If you don't care for Britten's music, or for these particular pieces, then obviously this can't be considered a perfect recording. But I do like the music, very much. And the performances seem to me to be perfect in the sense of being ideally suited to the music. And the sound is about as good as one could expect for 1944, when this LP was issued; moreover, it has a living quality which can be absent from more technically sophisticated recordings. (It's from the Fr. Dorrell trove, by the way, described in this post.)
Whenever I talk about classical music I feel obliged to note that I am no judge of performances. If it's devoid of obvious mistakes, I think it's ok. Still, I think this one is ideal, even though I suspect that someone really knowledgeable about singing might find some things to criticize in Pears's performance. I at any rate find his performance here very effective.
Is it great music, in the sense that, say, the Goldberg Variations are great music? Perhaps not. On second thought, in fact, I'll say no, I don't think it is. But I'll let critics of the future worry about Britten's place in the tradition. It's distinctly "modern," although not defiantly so; it demands no theoretical knowledge or an ear that's capable of tracking a twelve-tone motif (if that's the right word). What I mean is that it's accessible to me, and I think to anyone, in the sense that it isn't abstract--atonal and dissonant.
Les Illuminations is a set of prose poems (a dubious term, but never mind that for now) by Rimbaud. I was in a mild sort of way an enthusiast for his work in my youth. If I spoke French I might have been more enthusiastic, but at any rate I was drawn to his quasi- (or proto-) surrealist visions. Here's a sample, from "Cities," one of the pieces Britten sets:
Cities indeed! This is a people for whom those Alleghanies and Lebanons of dream were staged! Chalets of crystal and wood that move on invisible rails and pulleys. Old craters circled by colossi, and palm-trees of copper roaring melodiously in flames. Feasts of love resound, on canals that hang there behind the chalets. The hunt of chimes cries in the gorges. Guilds of gigantic singers flock among robes and oriflammes dazzling as the light on the summits.
Britten uses seven of these in his work, with a sort of refrain drawn from one of them, "Parade": "I alone hold the key to this savage parade." Fortunately I still have the New Directions translation that I bought when I was in college, and it includes the French. You really need something like that to fully enjoy the work, unless your French is good enough that you can understand the sung text. You can read the entire work in English at this useful site, Poetry In Translation.
The other work, the Serenade, is also a setting of poems, this time in English and by several different poets. One of them, the poem of Tennyson which we know as "Blow, Bugle, Blow" is titled "Nocturne," but really the whole thing is a nocturne. The opening horn solo almost inevitably and irresistibly evokes sunset, and all the poems are related to evening and night. I haven't made up my mind yet which I like best (not that I need to), but I think most people would find the eerie "Lyke-Wake Dirge" among the most striking of the settings.
Thanks to YouTube, you can hear this work, and even hear this recording, so I don't need to try any harder to describe it.
(If you are reading this months or years after I posted it, you may well find that the video is gone. That's the way it is with YouTube.)
This was another one of those unplanned reading detours that I mentioned earlier. I went to the shelf intending to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons (the novel formerly known as The Possessed), maybe in the old Constance Garnett translation, since my previous reading was the newer one. I'd been thinking of re-reading it, although it hasn't been that long since the last time, because of its relevance to what's going on politically and culturally now.
But for reasons unknown I found myself hesitating and thinking instead of Henry James, and that I would really like to read one of his full-length novels; I've only read his shorter works, and most of those were many years ago. So I picked up The Portrait of a Lady, which I think someone recommended to me relatively recently.
I very much enjoyed it, but at the same time I found myself thinking fairly often that I could really see myself coming to dislike Henry James. More about that in a moment.
Daisy Miller was one of those shorter works that I read long ago, no doubt as a class assignment. I don't remember much about it except that it was described as the encounter of a lively and somewhat innocent or naive young American woman with the staid and perhaps even corrupt, or at least cynical, traditions of Europe. Actually I think there was sort of a hint of salaciousness in that description--perhaps it was on the cover of the book and was an attempt to deceive a bookstore customer into thinking that it was something racy, which I feel pretty confident in saying it is not.
Anyway, The Portrait of a Lady might get a similar one-sentence blurb. The lady of the title is a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who comes to England full of a desire to see and experience as much of life as she can. (That is not to be taken as it might in today's culture, as suggesting wild adventures with sex and drugs and so forth. I doubt that Henry James would treat it that way even if he were writing today.) And she becomes ensnared in the machinations of profoundly duplicitous people. But it is not Europe, or at least not Europe alone, that's to blame: those people are also Americans, though tenuously, having been born in America or of American parents in Europe, but having spent most of their lives in Europe. Maybe James intended some sort of point about the mixing of the cultures, I don't know.
Isabel is like some of the female protagonists in Austen and Eliot (George): an attractive young woman with a great seriousness of purpose and an intense consciousness of personal integrity, impatient with the conventional dishonesties and compromises of social life. And of course she has suitors, and the question of whom she will marry is a major component of the plot. She has a cousin, male, of somewhere around her own age who is enchanted with her at their first meeting (and thereafter), but apart from their kinship is not eligible as a suitor because he is dying slowly of tuberculosis. For those reasons he exercises real love--the desire for her good--in the only way he can, by wishing and doing for her what he can, which is considerable, to bring about the conditions for her flowering. The working out of his beneficent intention drives the crucial developments of the story.
The reader likewise wishes the best for her. Henry James is not known for his page-turner plots, and this one certainly moves slowly, but the sense of movement builds, and by the time I was within a hundred or so pages (out of nearly 600) of the end I didn't want to put the book down. And I'll leave my remarks about the story proper at that.
One of the vague impulses that made me think of Henry James when I was heading for Dostoevsky was a sudden desire for some really well-crafted, very highly polished, even ornate, prose. And of course I got that. But if there is such a thing as prose that is too well-crafted, there is a lot of it in Henry James. And that touches on my reasons for saying that I could imagine coming to dislike him.
The long and tortuously complex sentences can be annoying. They seem forever trying to get at the last, least, most subtle and evanescent nuance of meaning, in the service of detecting and extracting the last, least, most subtle and evanescent nuance of character and intention. I was occasionally defeated by this, and forced to admit that I really did not know exactly what had been communicated in a conversation (and the book is largely conversation). There were times when the characters have clearly understood some subtlety about which I was not at all clear, and that the exchange was in effect an act as decisive as a slap in the face, but which left me not entirely sure what the act had been--as if the slap had taken place offstage, and I could only infer it by the changed relationship, and even there the change was often quite subtle.
James has a penchant for compounding negatives which sometimes got on my nerves.
It is not to be supposed that he was unaware that he could not fail to deny that the intimation that her remark displeased him was not indelicate.
I made that one up, obviously, and I don't think James actually ever puts together more than three, or maybe four, negatives. And it's justifiable, as a means of suggesting a very slight nuance. But it is a habit that is occasionally annoying and/or amusing. If he talked in anything like the way he wrote, he must have been maddening sometimes. Sometimes his work seems like a huge complex flower grown on the moon, with a stem that can't support it in earthly gravity.
Another thing that bothered me, and one I'm a little embarrassed to confess: these people are for the most part the truly idle rich, and I guess there is enough little-d democrat in me that I now and then I found myself thinking along the lines suggested by snarky remarks about first world problems: "Get a job!"
Even the guy who is said to have "no money" seems never to have hit a lick at a snake, lives in "an ancient villa crowning an olive-muffled hill," and has an envied collection of the sort of expensive and exquisite bric-a-brac--china and such--that Henry James characters tend to have collections of, and of which I have no doubt that James himself was a connoisseur.
Connoisseurship, whatever its object, is something which we are likely to admire a little (at least) in ourselves but to disdain a little (at least) in others--effete and, we suspect, very likely affected, if not fraudulent. I had the latter reaction to the kind of exquisite, snobbish, and expensive tastes exercised by some of James's characters. But however much James himself may have had the same proclivity, he sees that to extend it to people and to become a connoisseur of human specimens, not in their fullness but insofar as they may be possessed and cause their owner to be admired as a man of wealth and taste, can be monstrous.
Still: underneath all the artifice, all the human virtues and vices are still there. The beast in the jungle, to borrow the title of another James work which I have not read, is very much alive in the mansions, palaces, and parlors of these highly privileged people who live a life of artifice such that we, or at least I, can hardly imagine being able to bear.
One final mild reservation: the story ends on what struck me as a slightly strange, decidedly modern, note of liberation, something at least hinting at the follow-your-heart liberationism that flowered (so to speak) in the 20th century. Well, it is modern, in the broad sense, so I shouldn't be surprised, but I didn't really expect it of Henry James.
Cover of the first edition, from Wikipedia