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June 2023

The Trouble With Intellectuals

All intellectuals take the strengths of their societies for granted, or do not even notice them: problems, by contrast, loom large in their imagination--that is why intellectuals are often destructive forces.

--Anthony Daniels, in The New Criterion

An advantage--though that's perhaps not the right word--of having a melancholy and pessimistic cast of mind is that one never says things like "Well, it can't get any worse." It can always get worse. For most of us most of the time it could get a lot worse: we have many things that many or most people have not had through all of human history, and which many still do not have, and there is nothing in the nature of things guaranteeing that we will always have them.

For instance, it's unlikely that anyone reading this is in danger of starvation or even malnutrition, unless, in the latter case, it's from eating too much of the wrong things. It's unlikely that you don't have access to clean drinking water, except perhaps because of some temporary disruption, such as a natural disaster. But there are many millions of people alive today for whom neither of those is true. And we have them because we live in a material infrastructure that's the product of an enormous amount of knowledge and skill accumulated over centuries, and continues to function because those are in constant application for maintaining and expanding it. War could destroy it overnight; neglect and forgetting could do it less quickly but just as thoroughly.

I've remembered for over fifty years a passing remark by my college roommate, who was more radical than I was: that we needed a revolution because "anything would be better than what we have." If my memory is correct I didn't respond, partly because I was too shocked. How could he possibly say such a thing seriously? It required no imagination to see many possible societies that would be much worse than ours; I say it required no imagination, because they existed and could be observed, if one was willing to believe reports from various unhappy places all over the world. And if one did exercise a bit of imagination, which I did, it was not hard to envision not only worse but much, much worse. I guess that was an early sign that I was not going to stick with the radical leftist program. 

We were not intellectuals, of course, but as college students--fairly serious ones, not just there for job training--we were, to use the current formulation, intellectual-adjacent. And we certainly exhibited the tendency Daniels notes. In fact it's reasonable to say that all the rebellious college students of the time did. In material things we were the most privileged people who had ever walked the earth. And yet many of us more or less sincerely claimed that the system which supported us was rotten to the core and should be destroyed and replaced with a (usually very nebulous) dream of our own. There was a spiritual source and aspect to that alienation, but that's another matter; I'm speaking here only of the liberty and plenitude we had. 

We weren't necessarily wrong in our criticisms and complaints, of course. There was certainly a great deal wrong with American society at the time. But we took its fundamental strengths for granted.

Such attitudes, such blind spots, come fairly naturally to the young; the middle-aged and older should become more judicious. But the syndrome did not fade away with the '60s, and has advanced steadily since then, becoming institutionalized as the conventional view of intellectuals and the intellectually-adjacent of all ages. Consider this story (sorry if the link is subscriber-only) about a professor of marketing (!) who required her students to contribute to something called The Rebellion Community: “The Rebellion community is a safe place to coordinate our efforts to burn everything to the f***ing ground.” 

What does she think her life would be like if her "community" actually succeeded in that endeavor? Chances are fair to good that she would end up desperately trying to avoid starvation or some other very unpleasant end. Or perhaps she would manage to come out on top of that revolution, and be in a position to starve or otherwise put down its enemies, an activity which her statement suggests she might enjoy. In any case, there certainly would be no need for professors of marketing in that wasteland.

It's just rhetoric, of course. But why do those words even present themselves to her as an expression of her wish? "...that is why intellectuals are often destructive forces." Yes, and also why the word "intellectual" often takes on the connotation "not very smart." 

Actually, The Rebellion Community has a hint of grift about it, or perhaps of multi-level marketing: there's a $2400 entry fee (only $2000 if you pay it all at once). And: "find two community organizers to join you and your registration fee is paid for!"

The remark from Anthony Daniels comes at the end of a discussion of a play by John Galsworthy which suggests an attitude toward criminality which, detached from good sense by "incontinent extension," would lead to a general denial of the criminal's responsibility. It's in the May issue of The New Criterion, but I'm not including a link because it's subscriber-only.

The title of the post alludes to an incident in Wise Blood: the crooked preacher Hoover Shoats aka Onnie Jay Holy, rebuffed by Haze Motes in his proposal for commercializing Haze's "Church Without Christ, the church peaceful and satisfied," complains "That's the trouble with you don't never have nothing to show for what you're saying." The phrase, in O'Connor's spelling, is also the title of a short book by Marion Montgomery, which I read many years ago and now don't remember very well. I should read it again. 

Headline of the Week

Adele's Fungal Infection Has People Talking About Jock Itch

Which people, we wonder? What percentage of the population were aware of this significant news? Of those, what percentage are talking about it? 

Never mind, I don't really want to know. And FYI I saw the headline on the Brave browser's news feed, which gathers stories from about a million sources. This one was on WebMD.


Of course the really significant headlines of the week involve the five people who, last Sunday, boarded a 22-foot submersible vessel for a visit to the wreck of the Titanic, 12,500 feet down on the north Atlantic floor, and have not been heard from since. Pessimistically, I figured they died abruptly that day. But as I write this there is a "banging" noise picked up by sonar in the area every thirty minutes, which hardly sounds like a natural phenomenon. If the people are still alive they have less than 24 hours worth of oxygen remaining. Even if they're located nobody seems to have a very definite idea of how they might be rescued. It would depend partly on exactly where they are and what's gone wrong, I guess.

Stuff of nightmares. God help them. 

Addendum: here's a powerful meditation on the subject from Charles Cooke at National Review. It's good, but I find myself thinking how useless  powerful meditations are "for those in peril on the sea"--or under it. (Sorry if that link is subscriber-only.) 

Shakespeare so often cast the ocean as the author of human destiny, and even of conscience, and that reason is that the place is truly terrifying. From time to time, we forget that. And then, all of a sudden, we know.

And sure, there is something weird, a little sick, about the way so many of us are following this story, while we read of a boat full of migrants sinking off the coast of Greece with dozens, at least, of people drowned, think "oh, too bad," then go on about our business. It's the extremity of this situation, the terror and horror of the depth involved, and the suspense, that hold us. It's not all that weird to be gripped by it. 

Dead Can Dance: The Serpent's Egg

Dead Can Dance is a two-person group comprised of Lisa Gerrard (of the amazing voice) and Brendan Perry. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Gerrard's solo album The Mirror Pool led me to this one. Or, I should say, back to it, because although I have it I had not listened to it for at least twenty years. Judging by it there seems to be a tendency for their joint effort to be clearly separable into Gerrard tracks and Perry tracks (as the work of the Incredible String Band was clearly separable into Robin Williamson and Mike Heron songs). The first one, for instance, "The Host of Seraphim," could have been included on The Mirror Pool, as could several others featuring Gerrard's voice, often multi-tracked: vaguely Middle-Eastern-sounding chants, either in some foreign language or none at all. 

There are two songs on this album that I really love, and they are sung by Brendan Perry, perhaps written by him, with clear and interesting lyrics (in English). This is one of them, "Severance":

The other is "Ullyses" (sic). And I also like a third one which Perry sings, "In the Kingdom of the Blind the One-Eyed Are Kings." I don't dislike the others at all, but neither do I love them. Still, the album as a whole is a rich experience, a stately, often grandiose, mysterious and distant sound-world. The instrumentation is sparse and fairly simple, as in "Severance": droning organ (or something of the sort), a tinkling harpsichord, big slow drums, bells, strings. The credits list only hurdy-gurdy, violin, viola, and cello, but there are many sounds here obviously not produced by any of those (unless they were transmogrified electronically).

The album was released in 1988, during the glory days of 4AD Records. Since that was pre-CD, or at least early in the CD takeover, it's of LP length, meaning that it does not overstay its welcome. I'm sure you can hear the whole thing on most of the streaming services, and if you like "Severance" you probably should.

What about the title? I vaguely thought that it had some proverbial sort of meaning, and the phrase is common enough that it has a Wikipedia page. It's the name of one of Bergman's lesser films, one which I have not seen. But Brendan Perry is quoted as saying

In a lot of aerial photographs of the Earth, if you look upon it as a giant organism—a macrocosmos—you can see that the nature of the life force, water, travels in a serpentine way.

And Shakespeare uses it, though my guess is that this is not what Perry had in mind. From Julius Caesar:

And therefore think him as a serpent's egg,
Which, hatch'd, would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

I mentioned in that Lisa Gerrard post that something of a spiritual nature had put me off this group not long after I first heard them decades ago. This is the only one of their albums that I've heard, and now I don't find anything seriously off-putting in it. So I wonder if it was something I read, or if I'm just less critical. They do in general have that New Age vibe, a sense of interest in or connection with esoteric spirituality-but-not-religion, but not to an annoying or offensive extent. I definitely want to investigate their work further. AMG gives most of their albums 4 to 4 1/2 stars; this one gets 4 1/2. 

I have the album on cassette, almost certainly bought used. And now I have to make a decision: I have a lot of cassettes--should I get rid of them? I rarely listen to them, and they take up a fair amount of space. I have a perfectly good player, so I can't use the excuse of having no way to hear them. Perhaps a third are pre-recorded, i.e. commercial products. Probably very few of those are essential. The rest are mixtapes, compiled with care by friends through the '80s and into the early 2000s. But it seems a shame to throw them out. Maybe I'll just leave that task for my children, who won't have my same scruples. 

A Couple of Questions I'm Not Interested in Discussing (Anymore)

Some years back there was, in the comments here, an exchange about the tendency of political and other opinions to harden in older people. If I remember correctly, one person suggested that this was essentially a sort of ossification, with certain opinions becoming so much a mental habit as to become an unchangeable part of the person. There may also have been an implication that it was a form of fatigue or laziness; I can't remember for sure and have not been able to formulate a query that will locate the exchange for me.

But I do remember thinking--I don't know whether I said--that the mechanism is a little different. A few years before he died, when he was getting too old and infirm to sail, as he had loved to do for most of his life, William F. Buckley, Jr. published a column in which he mentioned that he had at last sold his boat, giving it up as "a prelude to giving up everything." (I put that in quotation marks because I remember the words that way, but I could be mistaken. I'm pretty sure I'm not mistaken about the meaning.)

Old age is among other things a process of giving up, willingly or not; of letting go. That, I think, is a factor in the way this  narrowing of opinion happens. You simply recognize that the limits on your remaining time and abilities force you to abandon certain things that you had once done, or wanted to do. And it applies to thought as well as to activity. Perhaps you once had enough interest in the debate about health care, insurance, and so forth to formulate and publish an opinion about it. At a certain age you may, possibly without consciously deciding to do so, put that question among those on which you no longer want to expend your time as the remaining amount of it diminishes. That opinion thus becomes "hardened," not so much because you are obstinate and ossifying but because you no longer devote mental space to it. It's like moving to a smaller house or an apartment: you no longer need or want or perhaps even are able to use and maintain the larger one. 

Here are two matters which have for me passed into that stage of abandonment:

(1) What is conservatism? And its ancillary, what does it mean to be a conservative?

Attempting to define words that are intrinsically--by definition, you might say--impossible to define with great precision can be an enjoyable pastime, and in some instances useful. Discussing these questions can lead to a clarification of one's thinking. But sometimes it's a waste of time. And in this particular case there is, lurking behind the debate, an attempt to draw a boundary which allows one to say "So-and-so is not a real conservative" or "Such-and-such is not real conservatism." Often the word "real" is dropped. A standard of orthodoxy is erected, and some attempt at enforcing it is made. 

On this subject the debate is made even more frustrating by the fact that in this country "conservatism" is usually classical liberalism. Trying to sort it out is tiresome. I've never cared very much about doing it, and now I don't care at all.

Someone once raised his main objection to the whole debate by noting that, for him, the word "conservative" is descriptive, not prescriptive. Exactly. I'm willing to call myself, and be called, a conservative, because the word seems reasonably accurate, both abstractly and practically, as a description of my views. But debating the nature of True Conservatism? In the early days of that recognition I was mildly interested in debates about the definition. By now I think I've heard it all, and I don't care if someone says I'm not a True Conservative. (I especially don't care about the juvenile taunt from progressives who think they've won a victory when you say something that doesn't fit their idea, usually equally juvenile, of what conservatives think.)

And now it's almost crazy to have the debate at all, with the institutions that conservatives wanted to preserve being dominated by progressives who use them to destroy the principles behind them, to keep the name and facade while turning the institution into something else entirely. (Another debate in which I am rapidly losing interest: whether or not that is happening. If you don't see it, it's very unlikely that you can be persuaded to do so.)

(2) What is Catholic art? And the ancillary, what does it mean to be a Catholic artist?

This one's been abandoned for different reasons, almost the opposite reasons, from the previous one. In this case the question is not intrinsically forever unsettled, but pretty definitely settled, and the debate can only go back and forth repetitively over the same ground. Maritain, O'Connor, Percy, and many others have said what needs to be said: Catholic art is informed by Catholic belief but need not and in general should not be didactic. If you want to discuss that further, go ahead, but I'm going to go read or listen to music. 

This crochety post was prompted by an encounter with that second question. Frequently it's accompanied or prompted by a complaint that "There is no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today" or, in question form, "Why is there no [or little] worthwhile Catholic art/fiction/poetry today?" 

Simon Caldwell discussed the matter at The Catholic Herald:

And in the secular culture the Catholic Faith is once again a source of scandal, viewed, in the words of Dana Gioia, the American Catholic poet, as disreputable, déclassé and retrograde. It means that it is nearly impossible today to get a “Catholic” novel published. Mainstream publishers are not well-disposed to books with religious content.

What makes a novel “Catholic”? 

I wanted to stop reading at that point, and in fact only skimmed the rest. I agree with almost everything he says in answer to his question. But do we really need to go over it yet again? Maybe some do, but I don't. And by the way his "nearly impossible" is not true. There is surely prejudice (and more) against visibly Catholic writing in secular literary circles. But if the work is really good it has as much of a shot at publication as anything else of comparable quality. I put it that way because it's surely the case that bad or mediocre work that flatters progressives and pushes their ideas is more likely to be published than bad or mediocre work that pushes Catholic ideas. So write better, Catholic novelist.

In response to Caldwell, Katy Carl, novelist and editor of Dappled Things, wrote an exasperated response, "We still have no Catholic fiction?":

Our time is precious and tragically brief, so I will get straight to the point. The point is that I want ever so gently to suggest, in response to a recent Catholic Herald (UK) piece, that “the time for the 21st-Century Catholic novel” has not only arrived, it dropped its luggage on our metaphorical doorstep a good round number of years ago and has ever since been crashing on our collective couch. It’s time we all noticed. Maybe it would be cool if we brought it a cup of coffee or something.

Last time the Herald got worried about the state of Catholic fiction—a bit less than three years ago, now—I was invited to participate in a response piece that pointed to the actual, vibrant, flourishing state of Catholic contributions to the culture of arts and letters. Since then the picture on the ground has only grown lusher. The truth is that we are living in an explosion of high-quality Catholic fiction being produced in every quarter, by writers from around the world and around the corner.

She goes on to list a number of recent distinctly Catholic works of literature, mostly novels, some published by big-name publishers and pretty well-received. She's right. In this case it's not age, but relative youth, that should leave the debate behind. The time for fretting about the nature of Catholic literature and its current prospects is past. Time to just get on with it. 

Astrud Gilberto, RIP

If you weren't there, it may be difficult for you to grasp the effect that "The Girl From Ipanema" had on a young man of the mid-'60s. You needed only her voice to convince you that she was the girl from Ipanema, and to strike in you the deep chord of longing which the song describes and expresses. This was confirmed when you saw a picture of her. 

The album on which the song appeared, a collaboration between Stan Getz and João Gilberto called simply Getz/Gilberto, is a masterpiece which ought to be in every music lover's collection. The video below is the album version, not the hit single which was edited down to little more than half the five-minutes-plus of the album track, removing João's vocal and shortening Getz's solo.

The song would never have been the hit that it was without Astrud's vocal, which came about half-accidentally. She and João divorced a year or two after the album was recorded. She had a "relationship" with Getz and toured with him. She was mistreated and cheated financially by Getz, who was notoriously something of a monster.

Coincidentally, a little while before I read that story I was listening to Nick Cave's song "People Ain't No Good." There's way too much evidence of that. 

But Astrud Gilberto did go on to have a fairly successful musical career in her own right. I have a solo album of hers, The Shadow of Your Smile, recorded a few years after Getz/Gilberto. It's an LP, picked up at Goodwill or someplace when everybody was dumping their vinyl, and I don't think I've ever played it. 

Lisa Gerrard: The Mirror Pool (speaking of big voices)

Listening to Mary Fahl made me think of this artist, another of those who helped make the name of the 4AD label revered for many years. Lisa Gerrard was one half of the duo Dead Can Dance who released a number of albums on that label in the '80s and into the mid-'90s. I'm familiar with only one of these, The Serpent's Egg (1988), and I haven't heard it for a while. But as I recall--and it's a pretty vague recollection--I had a mixed opinion of it, and that was partly because of a sort of dark quality--not emotionally dark, with which I am usually happy (contradictory though that may be--or not), but spiritually dark. That was and is not something I can easily articulate or explain, but I felt that the band (if that's the right term) was inclined to that often foolish spirituality which involves a sort of non-judgmental syncretism that should in some instances be a bit more judgmental. 

But then maybe I was over-reacting. I think the "while" since I've heard it probably approaches twenty years, and perhaps I was in fact a little overly judgmental. There was a time when I was not only heartily sick of what so many people now call "spirituality" but also wary of it to a degree that I may not be now. If so, it's probably more a function of age and fatigue than of any real softening toward very bad ideas; I'm tired of the fight. And, too, things have gotten much worse, so whatever bothered me about Dead Can Dance may not seem as significant now. 

Well, I probably shouldn't even have said all that, as it's based only on a vague memory. My next close listen will be The Serpent's Egg; I'll find out what I now think about it and report back.

Anyway, about Lisa Gerrard and The Mirror Pool: as with the Mary Fahl album, I have it on CD, and there is enough about it that I like that I intend to keep it. I'd give them both 3 1/2 stars on a five-star scale. But beyond the star count and the fact that both feature very powerful female singers, there's very little in common between them. Mary Fahl is a writer and interpreter of songs, whereas Gerrard, like Elisabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, often sings wordlessly. In fact as far as I can tell there is no English on this album at all. And for that reason (and the 4AD connection) I've sometimes seen the two bands associated. But there, again, there isn't really much similarity.

And this solo project of Gerrard's has even less in common with the work of the Twins. In fact it has very little connection with pop music at all, in any ordinary usage of that term. It would not be unfair to describe it as one long dirge. And by "long" I mean an hour and eight minutes.  The lively moments are few, and not all that lively. Most of it is extremely slow and, perhaps unintentionally, gloomy in tone, or at least somber: minor keys, and a frequent use of what I think are Middle Eastern melodic turns that to my ear always have a somewhat dark quality, as do some of Gerrard's vocal techniques. The arrangements are grandiose and monumental. There's some use of non-Western instruments which adds to the exotic--or, to use a term which is now frowned upon, foreign--atmosphere. More than a few moments strike me as sort of...well, the word that comes to mind is "spooky," and maybe that's what bothered me a little about Dead Can Dance. There is a fair amount of keening and wailing--in fact, I learn from Wikipedia that Gerrard's music has been prominent in the use of the "wailing woman" in movie soundtracks. 

And yet I found myself letting it play over and over while driving. Every time the CD reached the end, instead of ejecting the disk and picking something else I would allow it to start again (which the player in my car does automatically), which I don't think I would or could have done if I'd been sitting quietly at home, as too much of the album is too much the same. It's partly, or mainly, because the first several tracks are pretty much my favorites, so I was always ready to hear them again. 

I haven't actually mentioned the voice yet. It's magnificent. This is my favorite track on the album: "Sanvean: I Am Your Shadow." 

I think the reason the string arrangement seems familiar is that it strongly resembles Pachelbel's famous "Canon in D." It's melodically and harmonically less "exotic" than some of the other tracks. Another such is an aria, "Ombra ma fui," from the Handel opera Serse (Xerxes), here titled "Largo." Whether she is singing the words of the aria or not I do not know. Those two tracks, with others that are somber without that spooky quality, are enough to make me hang on to the CD.  I'd give a five-star rating to an EP composed of my favorite thirty minutes or so of the album. 

I understand the justification for the wordless singing, or rather, as Gerrard might say, singing in the words of an invented language meant to communicate emotion directly. But it seems a bit like cheating, or at least corner-cutting. I don't know much about singing but I would think it would be very convenient to put sounds together as you like, and not have to deal with whatever constraints are involved in singing notes fitted to an actual word made of sounds not devised with singers in mind.