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January 2023

Dixon; Shakespeare

Dixon, as you will have guessed, is Franklin W. Dixon, the author's name on the cover of the Hardy Boys books. He did not actually exist, at least not as the author of those books, which were a group effort, and not always the same group. Usually there was at minimum an outline written by one person and a manuscript produced from the outline by another. You can read an overview of the various people involved here, and details of who did what in each book here. It was all done at the direction of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Knowing that, you won't be surprised that the same company produced the Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, Bobbsey Twins, and other similar books. Goodbye to Carolyn Keene.

All of that suggests something less than a sincere creative effort on the part of a Mr. Dixon, and I'm glad I didn't know that when I was ten or twelve years old and discovered the books.

I used to spend the night sometimes at the home of my maternal grandparents, and the little room I slept in had a bookshelf which held a number of books belonging to my uncle Al. He was the youngest of three, and only a dozen or so years older than me. I had been sleeping in that room for a while but apparently had not thought the grown-up-looking books would be of interest to me until one day I picked up one with the intriguing title of What Happened At Midnight. I was quickly hooked, and eventually read all of the two dozen or so on the shelves in that room. As best I can remember in consultation with a chronological list of the books, I read every title from the first, The Tower Treasure, published in 1927, through The Sign of the Crooked Arrow, published in 1949 (though of course I had no idea of their order of publication, or interest in it, but just picked up another when I finished one). 

It seems there were at least two that I took home and never returned: The Disappearing Floor (1940) and The Clue of the Broken Blade (1942). How they managed to stay with me from my late teens  until now is a mystery. Perhaps they didn't stay with me; perhaps they just stayed at my parents' house for over thirty years and I appropriated them when they moved in 2000.

A few weeks ago, partly because those two books had surfaced even though most of our books are still in boxes after moving (awaiting final determination of bookshelf placement), and partly with the thought that it might be a pleasant exercise in nostalgia, I decided to read one of them and picked up The Clue of the Broken Blade.

What a disappointment. The book is colorless and lifeless. Frank, Joe, and their father are blanks. The prose is not just wooden but ill-made, like furniture banged together crudely from the pieces of a shipping pallet. The plot seems barely coherent but that may be partly my fault, as I chose to read one chapter a night in bed, when my mind is pretty sluggish at best. I could not find in my reaction any trace of the enjoyment I had at twelve or so, or even a perception of the reasons for it, even though if no longer operative, as might happen with an old episode of Gunsmoke. I must have thought the story was exciting and suspenseful, and I know I liked what Frank and Joe represented, and wanted to be like them. Maybe, just maybe, if I had not been reading when drowsy, I would still have felt some sense of the mere what's-going-to-happen appeal of the plot. But the best I can do is assume that I must have felt it at the time. 

The most I can say in favor of the book is that the simplicity, naivete, sincerity (by which I mean the absence of irony), and absence of vulgarity were mildly refreshing in contrast to much or most of what's offered to, or pushed at, young people today. But it's so very unreal--and maybe that sheds some light on what's happened over the past half-century. 

*

At the opposite extreme: two unrelated incidents caused me to watch a 1980 BBC production of The Winter's Tale. First, a recent issue of The New Criterion includes an article on that play by Anthony Daniels. He's always an interesting writer, but although I had read the play some years ago (twenty or so, maybe?) I didn't remember it very clearly, and I didn't want to read the article without better knowledge of the play. And my Shakespeare is still packed away in one of a dozen or so large heavy boxes stacked in a hallway, and I don't know which one. 

Second, a comment on some post somewhere online informed me that subscribers to the BBC's streaming service, BritBox, have access to the BBC Television Shakespeare, which includes essentially all the plays--thirty-seven of them, and I say "essentially" because there is apparently still some scholarly disagreement about a couple of them. I had not known that the series even existed, much less that I had access to it. 

So I immediately looked for, and found, and watched, The Winter's Tale. I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed it. I was almost rapturous. The marvelous Mozart-like flow of language was a non-stop pleasure. It was just as well that I didn't have the text handy, with notes, because I would have been constantly stopping and starting the film to figure out some knotty figure or to explain an unknown or obsolete word or usage. After twenty minutes or so I decided to just let those go by, since I could follow well enough without them, and surrender to the flow. 

And the story: this is a late play, and it seems to share with The Tempest a sort of mellowness, neither tragedy nor comedy, and it ends with events described by that term Tolkien gave us, eucatastrophe. The "catastrophe" part of that, as we commonly use the word, is applicable: it could almost be termed violent in its reversal of what came before. And a critic could fairly call it dramatically unconvincing, or worse. 

Moreover, the play is oddly constructed, and fairly criticized for that. It's in two parts, and the first part is a sort of mini-Othello story, the second part a sequel which takes place some years later, and redeems the tragic first part. This makes for something of a stitched-together quality, and it can't be considered one of Shakespeare's best. But I was greatly moved by it, and will certainly turn to it again. I guess I'm something of a pushover for a story which has that general arc. I like to think that's because it is fundamentally true to...well, I shouldn't say "true to life," because in general use that  phrase implicitly refers to earthly life, but true to the deepest realities. At any rate I was greatly moved, and will certainly turn to this play again. 

And I hope this video will continue to be available so that I can turn to it. A list of the play's productions (on Wikipedia, I think) called this one "orthodox." That's probably not meant to be a compliment, but it's fair enough: there is nothing gimmicky about the production, nothing that smacks of someone trying to put his own personal stamp on the work, or to render it somehow more fitting or engaging or palatable to a contemporary audience. In this case "orthodox" means excellent acting and appropriate, fairly simple, stylized but unobtrusive staging. I could quibble with this or that detail of either, but it would be just that, quibbling. 

Somewhere online in the past day or two I saw an advertisement for a Shakespeare in modern language. Well, it's true enough that in many cases the plot alone of many of the plays, and the plain matter of much of the dialog, has plenty of appeal. Still, that seems like Raphael in monochrome. 


Some Music

This is another trip into the only partially explored territory of music I bought in MP3 format when it was very inexpensive at eMusic.com, and I could experiment in a way that I never could have before. 

His Name Is Alive: Livonia

To some of us, the phrase "4AD in the 1980s" suggests magic. 4AD, in case you don't know, is the name of a record company, and in the 1980s it released some of the most wonderful popular music ever made, including most of the work of the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. And that continued into the 1990s and beyond. (I'm not dismissing later releases, but I haven't heard many of them.) Most likely it was those associations that were responsible for my having bought no less than seven albums and/or EPs by His Name Is Alive, a band I had not previously heard of. 

I decided to start with their first album, Livonia, released in 1990. Livonia is the name of the town in Michigan where the apparent mastermind of the project, Warren Defever, grew up. From what I've read "project" is a better term than "band," as it seems to involve a constantly shifting cast of musicians with Defever as the only constant. You might expect--at any rate I expected--that an album named for the midwestern home town of the writer would be a rootsy sort of thing, an Americana sort of thing, straightforward light rock or folk-rock with lyrics reflecting on the writer's origins. But it's every bit as other-worldly and mysterious as anything else in the 4AD lineup. 

If you aren't listening closely much of it will seem simpler than it is, and fairly uniform throughout: a single female voice, usually with a noticeable amount of reverb, singing pretty tunes with lyrics that tend to run from the vague to the cryptic, though sometimes evocative. But when you turn it up and listen more closely you hear an elaborate background of mysterious and distant sounds: voices, instruments, noises. 

It's difficult to pick one track as a good example, but this one, "If July," will do.

They follow me here then I know what I have
If I swallowed it whole they'll show me the path
Pretending to pray this is missed once a day
Please allow faith to find what's new is her first name

I look forward to hearing more of their work. According to AllMusic, music meriting at least four stars has continued to be released under this name until at least 2015. Of the more than twenty albums listed, the most recent I have is Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth  (I love the title), from 2001. There are over twenty albums altogether. There's bound to be some great stuff in there. 

One song on Livonia, "How Ghosts Affect Relationships," begins with a line from Yeats, "I dreamed that one had died in a strange place," from "Dream of Death." I wonder if I missed other literary allusions in the lyrics. 

Faith and the Muse: Elyria

This is not a 4AD release. But the second song on the album, "Sparks," certainly sounds like it could have been. Specifically, it sounds remarkably like the Cocteau Twins, so much so that you might mistake it for them if you heard it from across a room. But it's the only track that sounds like that. The rest of the album is as extravagantly varied as Livonia is consistent.

If it fits into any box, it would be the one labelled "Eclectic." It could quite justifiably be called progressive rock, if that term is meant to include complexity of any kind, not just the instrumental virtuosity with which it's often associated. It's big, romantic, dramatic, and ambitious, encompassing some fairly hard rock, the complex artsy work (musical and lyrical) of women like Kate Bush and Loreena McKennit, folk music (including one actual folk song, "The Unquiet Grave") and vaguely medieval-renaissance classical music. Goth and darkwave need to be mentioned in there, too. I've seen some photos of them in which they're seriously, almost comically, goth. 

One remarkable track is a song by the Elizabethan composer-poet Thomas Campion (an old favorite of mine), "When To Her Lute Corrina Sings." The tune, which I think is not Campion's, is straightforward, but the accompaniment is very dissonant piano and cello (I think) that sounds like it could have come from "Pierrot Lunaire" or some other early 20th century work.

Possibly the most effective description of the music is that it sounds like what you might expect of someone who looks and dresses like this (and is an extremely gifted musician).

Monica_Richards

(From Wikimedia Commons)

Why, knowing nothing much about this band, did I buy four albums by them fifteen or more years ago? I suspect it had something to do with their name. That's intriguing, isn't it? Faith and the Muse. Maybe I thought they dealt with Christian themes, especially as one of the albums is called Evidence of Heaven. But there's a simple explanation for the name and it has nothing to do with the noun or the concept "faith": the group is primarily two people, William Faith and Monica Richards, the latter (pictured above) presumably being the muse.

I'm not including a video clip because to pick one would not be truly representative. But there are plenty on YouTube. Some may find the music pretentious and overblown. Personally I like it very much. 

*

Speaking of music, the past couple of weeks have seen the deaths of two well-known figures from the '60s, Jeff Beck and David Crosby. Beck, if you don't already know, and if you don't already know you probably don't care, was one of that trio of flash guitar players who passed through the Yardbirds, and later achieved personal fame as very visible members of much better-known bands (Cream, Led Zeppelin), and later on their own. I strongly suspect that he was, in the end, the best of the three, as the other two (Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page) seemed to more or less rest on their accomplishments, musically speaking, of the '60s and '70s, while Beck continued to be adventurous. (By "best" I mean produced more worthwhile music over a longer span of time.) Much of his work was in the jazz-rock fusion genre, which is definitely not a favorite of mine. But if you fancy electric guitar at all you should hear, really should hear, Live At Ronnie Scott's.

Hear and maybe see, as it's available as both audio and video. The benefit of the latter is that you get to see Beck and a very impressive band at work; the drawback is that Beck has some annoying physical mannerisms. And, as he was 64 at the time, I suspect that black hair is not all his. And why is a guy at retirement age still wearing that sleeveless shirt-vest thing? It's funny, really--as adventurous as he was in his music, he seemed to want to continue to look exactly like he did in 1970 or so. 

Guitarists and guitar fans sometimes talk about the great music Jimi Hendrix might have made if he hadn't died so young. Maybe he would have. Or maybe he would have been one of those '60s stars who faded after the age of 30 or so. That's more or less how I think of David Crosby: for me he is significant mainly as a member of the Byrds. Personally I prefer their work and Buffalo Springfield's to anything I've ever heard by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and/or Young, together or separately, with the exception of some of Young's solo work. CSN and CSN&Y made some undeniably brilliant music, but I never really cared about it in a way I did that of their earlier bands.

This brief obituary of Crosby at The American Conservative contains a strikingly accurate summary of what happened to the hippies: "the counterculture‚Äôs collapse into Clintonite politics." I can't think of anyone I knew from those days who isn't now a conventional, often near-fanatical, Democrat. 


What Is Actually Happening: 2023

The collection of writings by Alfred Delp, S.J. which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago has a long introduction by Thomas Merton. I'm not a Merton enthusiast, having found what I've read of his work (not all that much) a somewhat mixed bag, but this essay, dated October 1962, is excellent.

Fr. Delp reminds us that somewhere in the last fifty years we have entered a mysterious limit set by Providence and have entered a new era. We have, in some sense, passed a point of no return, and it is both useless and tragic to continue to live in the nineteenth century.... [T]here has been a violent disruption of society and a radical overthrow of that modern world which goes back to Charlemagne.

Now, sixty years after Merton wrote this, roughly eighty years since Delp wrote, the truth of these words is hardly arguable. The end of the Christian era and its impending replacement by something yet to be known had already been a frequent topic of notice and speculation since sometime in the 19th century and has continued ever since, so neither Delp nor Merton can be credited with any unusual insight on that point alone. The difference between them and, say, Matthew Arnold ("two worlds, one dead") or Yeats ("what rough beast") was that they were seeing the likely shape of the new age: violent totalitarianism.

Delp was, naturally, speaking mostly, and with the utmost personal concern, of Nazism and the devastating war it had brought upon the world. And much of Merton's essay takes up a similar theme. After quoting Delp that "Modern man is not even capable of knowing God," Merton says:

In order to  understand these harsh assertions by Fr. Delp we must remember they were written by a man in prison, surrounded by Nazi guards. When he speaks of "modern man," he is in fact speaking of the Nazis or of their accomplices and counterparts.

Delp and Merton both feared that violent totalitarianism might be the most characteristic face of the new age, though both were wise enough to see that it was only the face, and that the inner nature of the thing involved, in fact required, a revolution in the idea of what human life is, what it is for, and what it can be. 

The Soviet Union continued to carry the totalitarian banner until 1990. And when it fell there was a sigh of relief: that danger had been quashed, maybe or even probably forever, and modernity, understood as a general application of classical liberalism, was free to continue on the wide bright road illuminated by the twin beacons of Science and Freedom. But liberalism had either turned into or been replaced by something else: the same philosophical or religious disease that had produced fascism and communism, the faith and hope that mankind (or, in the case of fascism, a certain subset thereof) can achieve self-salvation by transforming the immanent world.

This involves the liberation of mankind, either collectively or individually or both, from the limitations which thwart us. It requires, first, liberation from God, who always in one way or another says "Thou shalt not" to something that man deeply wants to do. And then it involves all other constraints once thought (still thought by many) to be an essential part of the way things are, not subject to removal. These include, especially include, physical reality. As for moral reality--well, is there any morality apart from that which produces a result which makes us happy? And don't trouble yourself too much about analyzing the nature of happiness: how can it be anything but a condition of comfort in both mind and body? And every person will have his own view of what that entails.

In apparent, but not actual, contradiction, this total liberation requires molding and controlling people to make them fit inhabitants of the new age. If it doesn't begin with explicit totalitarianism, it eventually arrives there, because people won't naturally become what the ideology requires that they become. The fanatical progressivism that has seized so much of our culture is of this cloth. At bottom it's of a piece with fascism and communism, in that it is an attempt to create a new humanity. It isn't very violent now and may never be, because it exercises so much power without violence, and is steadily gaining more. If it can, for instance, close off certain important lines of work to anyone who dissents from its program, or shut down the public expression of dissenting views, it doesn't need violence. (If you think it isn't working on those and achieving some results, you aren't paying attention.)

I'm hardly the first or only person to make these basic observations. I'm working up to saying two things:

1) We can now see pretty clearly the shape of the new ideal of civilization that is replacing the Christian one. And we can see that it is in essence a product of the same force that produced fascism and communism, even though progressivism, loathes the former and doesn't take the crimes of the latter very seriously, and in principle abhors violence. But compulsion may be exercised without violence. Relatively non-violent totalitarianism--"soft totalitarianism," as some have called it--may succeed where violent hard totalitarianism failed.

2) The thing that I refer to as a "force" is the spirit of Antichrist. I've never been one, and still am not one, to make judgments about whether we are or are not in the end times. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't. And I don't claim that we are now or soon will be under the rule of the Antichrist. What I think is pretty clear is that the spiritual driving force of the current effort to remake humanity is the same one that will become or will produce, if it hasn't already, the Antichrist. "You will become as gods." It may not be the regime of the actual Antichrist, but it is of the Antichrist.

Rod Dreher recently quoted a letter of Pope Benedict

We see how the power of the Antichrist is expanding, and we can only pray that the Lord will give us strong shepherds who will defend his church in this hour of need from the power of evil.

In short, this is What Is Actually Happening, and it's important that Christians recognize it and have no illusions about it, especially as the humanitarian aspects of the Antichristic spirit are often superficially similar to Christian ethics. The essential difference is that the former always points and leads away from God, where the latter always points and leads toward him.

*

These thoughts were provoked not only by Delp and Merton, but by a remark in a fascinating book which I recently began to read: Jacques Barzun's history of the modern world, From Dawn to Decadence. This was another case when I picked up a book from the library discard shelf, let it sit around for a couple of years, and then, when I moved recently and had to pack up the books, considered giving it back to the library. But I leafed through it, read the opening pages, and decided to keep it.

The book begins with the Protestant revolution. In discussing Puritanism, Barzun says this:

Revolutions paradoxically begin by promising freedom and then turn coercive and "puritanical," to save themselves from both discredit and reaction.

Is that the meaning of the frenzied efforts by fanatical progressives to restrict any and all speech that contradicts their views or even causes them distress? Many institutions and areas of life are now well under their control, but there is certainly reaction. Maybe the intensity of the effort to suppress it is indicative of a grip not yet as tight as it wishes to be.


Epiphany

I was working on a post earlier today but didn't have time to finish it, and may not tomorrow, so, briefly:

A remark from a priest seen on Facebook on Thursday: "I thought I was having an epiphany this morning but it was transferred to Sunday."

This evening my wife and I were shamefully late for Mass. We deserved to be escorted to the front pew and mocked, but fortunately that's not done. We sat on a bench in the lobby with a woman and a girl, presumably mother and daughter and presumably also having been quite late to Mass, though not as late as we were. (I know "lobby" is not the right word, but this is a fairly modern building and that's what it feels like. Fortunately, for the kind of architecture it is, the building is not unpleasant.) The doors were closed but there's a speaker in the lobby which is wired to the priest's microphone. That made for a slightly odd effect, since we could hear the priest very well, and during the hymns a few voices from people who were especially close to the priest or especially loud, including one especially loud but not very tune-capable one, and not much else. The choir was audible but muffled.

Feeling that we really ought not to receive, we remained where we were during communion. During that ten minutes or so I couldn't hear anything much except the soft near-whisper of the priest: Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ. I could see people leaving and returning to the pews, including a little boy who looked no more than eight and is in a wheel chair and seemed eager. So many people, so many unique little worlds full of unique and yet universal thoughts and cares and hopes and pleasures. 

It was quite beautiful to kneel there while that was going on, to watch the people, to hear Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ, on and on, like little waves splashing quietly on a shore. 

The choir sang "What Child Is This?" As you probably know, the tune is an old English folk one called "Greensleeves," and no words of mine can do justice to its beauty, which will last as long as music does. But I had never given any thought to the English words written for it. I had unthinkingly supposed that they were traditional, too, or at any rate anonymous. But they were written in the 19th century by William Chatterton Dix, and they are extremely well-wrought. Since I was old enough to notice and understand them I've loved these two lines:

Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent word is pleading.

I think it's that paradox of the silent word that gives me such a sense of reverence bordering on awe. "Fear"? Isn't that out of place? No, not if we really grasp what's going on. And I always notice that it's "Christian," singular. Not a collective but you, me.