The Free Press, the new online news site founded by New York Times escapee Bari Weiss, has a weekly feature in which the English writer Douglas Murray offers one of his favorite poems. It's called "Things Worth Remembering," which, if I remember the original announcement correctly, means that these are poems he liked enough to memorize. If he really has them all by heart, that's impressive, though I wouldn't hold him to it.
This week's poem is one by Thomas Hardy that I hadn't encountered previously; my acquaintance with Hardy doesn't go beyond a small range of anthology pieces. It's called "The Choirmaster's Burial." I'm not sure that link will work. I'm a subscriber and that's the URL I get when I click on the "Share" button for the post. If it doesn't work, I'm sure you can easily find the poem elsewhere.
A Scientist Has Confirmed That Humans Have No Free Will
This was in Popular Mechanics; you can read the story here. To be fair to the magazine, the tone of the article hints that the writer doesn't take the "findings" of the scientist altogether seriously. And he gives the last word to another scientist who contradicts the first.
But how many people would take it seriously? Science says so! Not surprisingly, the scientist utterly contradicts himself by recommending ways that we should, but may not, choose to think, and actions that we should, but may not, choose to take in response to his conclusion--even to the point of asserting that certain things are good, in some presumably absolute sense, and that we should therefore choose them.
It would be hard to come up with a better example of the absurdity of asserting the findings of physical science as metaphysical truths.
I may actually start doing this every week. I use the Brave web browser, which includes a news feed that gives me headlines and links to a great range of publications. I can cull out anything I know I'm not interested in, but a fair number of strange, irritating, or ridiculous things still appear.
I try not to pay too much attention to current developments in the Catholic Church, as probably does everyone not in some way directly involved with the Church. It isn't difficult. It's like following, or rather abstaining from following, political campaigns. Every day brings some development which is reported upon excitedly for a while, then fades, and within weeks or months may be completely irrelevant and inconsequential, like, for instance, Bill Weld's 2020 campaign for the presidency. This effort is part of my broader attempt to break my habit of anxiety and worry about things over which I have no control.
But, as with political campaigns, in the longer run what happens in the Church does affect me, and so I don't ignore it completely.
I take it as more or less given that the Synod on Synodality is a waste of time at best, at worst a source of further trouble. All the sanctimonious talk about accompaniment and inclusion is fatally compromised by the malice of Traditionis Custodes. So I'm not paying much attention. The fact that the thing is happening at all is more interesting than the thing itself: what, really, is going on? What makes so many in the hierarchy, and others, see this as an important activity?
I’ve often said that one of the negative outcomes of the Second Vatican Council was the emphasis on internal church affairs. Not only that people got the notion that the most important Catholic marker of all was being “involved in the Church” but more importantly, because everything – everything was up for grabs afterwards, that’s where the energy went, that should have been about continuing to share the Good News with the world – it became all about organization, dividing spoils and struggling for power.
This Synod on synodality – is the pinnacle. It truly is peak Post-Conciliar.
I guess I could ask whether this is really the peak, and whether there are greater heights which the churchy can attain. I am constitutionally inclined to say "Things could always be worse." Still, I love the phrase. And it is plainly the case that since the Council the Church has spent more energy on internal conflict than on the outreach to the world that was the justification for it.
There's more worth reading in that piece. It's brief, but it links to this one from July, which in turn links to others, all equally perceptive and worth reading.
If you're interested, I gave what is probably my last extensive remark on Vatican II in this post from about a year ago. I suppose I'll never leave it completely alone, but it seems unlikely that my views will change significantly.
I copied this from a Facebook post which didn't give the source, and it was too funny not to share. I have discovered just now that it's by Asher Perlman and appeared in The New Yorker.
In case you don't recognize it, the logo on the guy's t-shirt is the Grateful Dead's. Originally it was Phish's, but I think it's much funnier with the Dead's. In my circles Phish does not occupy the same position, either culturally or musically, as the Dead.
After laughing--LOL in fact--I'm moved to reflect on the brevity and fickleness of fame and fashion. In the late '60s and for some time afterward (till punk arrived, maybe?) nothing could have been more hip than the Grateful Dead. Now...well, the cartoon tells the story: the bald head, the unfashionable shorts, the vaguely tentative quality of the figure, suggestive of age and physical fragility, the disdain of the others (the guy vaulting over the bar is a great touch). And Jerry Garcia has been dead for almost thirty years.
I hesitated about my title, thinking that surely that the pun has been over-used. But a quick search turned up only this instance.
I read and often enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but was not really a great admirer of them. So when I heard that J.K. Rowling had published, under a pseudonym, a detective novel meant for adults, I was not particularly interested. I suppose the only reason I even knew about it was that someone had revealed that "Robert Galbraith" was in fact Rowling. That of course attracted some publicity, and she was quite put out about the disclosure, for which I don't blame her. I assume she wanted to see whether she could write a book that would succeed on its own, without the assistance of the Harry Potter author's vast fame.
Well, that's a might-have-been; sales took off, and that book, The Cuckoo's Calling, has been followed by six more in the series, under the same pseudonym. I think they've all been fairly successful, so it's safe to assume that Rowling's reputation is not their main attraction.
Time passes ever more quickly. If you had asked me when the publicity about the first book and its authorship appeared, I would have guessed five years or so ago. It was actually ten. But then if I had known that she had published six more books in the series since the first one I would have guessed longer, perhaps something more like fifteen years. Whatever you think of Rowling's writing, her ability to spin a complex and effective narrative in a fairly short time is astonishing. I think of one of Flannery O'Connor's letters in which she tells a friend that she's been working on The Violent Bear It Away for seven years and is trying to convince her publisher that this is normal.
My wife read the The Cuckoo's Calling, liked it, and soon read most or all of the novels in the series, which is known, in the usual fashion of detective stories, by the name of its primary sleuth: the Cormoran Strike series. Then she discovered that there is a BBC TV series based on several of those books, so we watched it. It's called Strike in the UK and C.B. Strike here. And it's very good. We had to rent it, as it's not available on either Netflix or Prime, and it was worth it. I recommend it to anyone who likes that sort of thing.
What does this have to do with the sexual revolution? I'm getting to that.
When I graduated from high school I thought I wanted to be a journalist. Really I wanted to be a poet or some other more literary sort of writer; mainly I just had a very strong impulse to write, and journalism seemed like the way to go, the way to earn a living by writing. So in my first semester of college I took a journalism course, and that, along with a very good freshman English course, soon showed me that I ought to discard the idea of majoring in journalism. It was good that I figured that out quickly, because I would have been terrible at it. One of the things they used to teach journalists--perhaps still do, somewhere among the urgings to change the world, speak power to truth, etc.--was to include in the first paragraph of a news story the Five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.
It's a good rule for a news story, which implies that I am not cut out to write news stories, because I don't write that way. I don't want to write that way. I like to take a bit of time, supply a bit of background and prelude, perhaps ramble a bit, before getting to the point. And I usually do in a blog post. Why not? Nobody is paying me, nobody is enforcing space limits, not many people are reading. So I may as well enjoy myself. I do try to keep in mind that I am asking for a degree of attention from the reader that he or she may not wish to provide, so I try to limit myself to a thousand words or so.
Here is the first paragraph of this post as I might have written it if I were observing the Five Ws:
Under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling [Who], author of the Harry Potter books, has published a series of detective novels known as the C. B. Strike Mysteries [What], after the name of the detective protagonist. The first one appeared in 2013 [When] and six others have followed. They have been made into a BBC series called C.B. Strike. I haven't read the books, but as seen in the series certain aspects of the stories may be taken as suggesting that the sexual revolution may not have been an altogether good thing. [That will have to serve as the Why; Where is not really relevant, unless we treat Capitalist-Industrial Civilization as the location.]
I would go on to say that I don't know whether Rowling intends that suggestion, but that I at any rate found it unavoidable. Cormoran Blue Strike is the child of a famous rock star and a not-equally-but-still-famous groupie. (No doubt "Blue" is one of those offbeat names that hippies and rock stars sometimes gave their children; I don't know about "Cormoran.") I assume, though I don't recall the TV series mentioning it, that he was born in the late '60s or early '70s. He was mostly raised by relatives. His mother died of an overdose when he was in his late teens, no doubt a faded shadow of her formerly glamorous self. His father repudiated him and has never had anything at all to do with him. He has a number of half-siblings with most of whom he has little to do. He left college to join the Army where he served in the military police, lost a leg in combat in Afghanistan, and now earns a none-too-lucrative living as a private investigator.
All I know of J.K. Rowling's views on social and political questions is that she seems to be in general a pretty typical liberal, except for the fact that she has opposed the transgender movement's insistence that sex is not a biological reality, has consequently been branded a "TERF" (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), and is now despised by the left, including many who once loved the Potter books. As I say, I have no idea whether Strike and his situation are intended to reflect Rowling's view of the '60s and the sexual revolution. But they certainly reflect the reality. Strike is the accidental product of the mutual pleasure-seeking of two people who don't seem to have cared much about anything else. Not abandoned but certainly neglected and damaged, he leads a life which is the opposite of the "lifestyle" pursued by his parents, defined by ugly and often violent realities and symbolized by his missing leg.
You can't get much more biological than conception and birth. Implicitly, that is an objection to, if not a repudiation of, the sexual revolution's doctrine that there should be no limits on sexual expression, that it doesn't really matter in any fundamental way, and that children are an optional and expendable result of contraceptive carelessness. Strike is a living embodiment of that objection, a walking, and limping, reminder of the serious consequences of its fundamental unseriousness.
That's 1229 words, including this note.
In case you missed it in the comments on the previous post, Marianne gave us a link to a discussion between Rod Dreher and Louise Perry (and a moderator whose name I didn't get) about her book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. It's an hour and ten minutes long, but worth your time (and I say that as someone who usually doesn't have the patience to sit through such things).
Louise Perry, a British woman whom I'll describe for lack of a better word as a journalist, has recently published a book called The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. I have not read it, and probably won't, not because I don't think it would be worthwhile but because I have other priorities for my reading. She has also published something which I have read: in First Things, a profound reflection on the significance of the sexual revolution (click here to read it) with the somewhat surprising title of "We Are Repaganizing."
I call it surprising because Perry is not a Christian (though First Things of course is a Christian publication), and the essay is a practical defense of Christian sexual ethics. That is, it does not appeal to certain moral principles because they are Christian, but because they produced, over the centuries, a moral revolution, or at least a shift, which Perry approves. She makes points which have been made repeatedly over the past century or two by Christians, but are generally not only not accepted but not even comprehensible to the modern secular mind. For instance, there is the point about abortion and infanticide:
It was the arrival of Christianity that disrupted the Romans’ favored methods of keeping reproduction in check, with laws against infanticide, and then abortion, imposed by Christian emperors from the late fourth century. Christians have always been unusually vehement in their disapproval of the killing of infants, whether born or unborn, and their legal regime prevailed until the mid-twentieth century when we experienced a religious shift that will probably be understood by future historians as a Second Reformation.
(The comparison to the Reformation is not very apt, but let that go.)
And the one about the status and treatment of women:
Paul’s prohibition of (to use the Greek term) porneia—that is, illicit sexual activity, including prostitution—upended an ethical system in which male access to the female body was unquestioned and unquestionable. Whereas the Romans regarded male chastity as profoundly unhealthy, Christians prized it and insisted on it. Early converts were disproportionately female because the Christian valorization of weakness offered obvious benefits to the weaker sex, who could—for the first time—demand sexual continence of men. Feminism is not opposed to Christianity: It is its descendant.
In general, as the title of the piece suggests, she sees modern Western culture as in the process of returning to something like the fundamental assumptions of those Romans who saw no reason why an unwanted infant should not be disposed of. (In passing: it's unusual and refreshing to hear a non-Christian use the word "pagan" in a negative sense.)
It's a somewhat lengthy (for online reading) and very rich statement, and I don't want to leave the impression that those snippets are sufficient. You really should read the whole thing, so here's the link again. One of its themes is the connection between sex and reproduction. The sexual revolution has pretty much destroyed the general sense of that connection. In that it's of a piece with many of our technological triumphs--and it is made possible and sustained by one of those triumphs--which have encouraged us to think that physical reality is not something by which we need be overly constrained.
In this context I often remember a moment from the 1980s when I worked for a large technology company. Though I tried not to make a show of it, my co-workers knew that I was a Catholic and a "social conservative," as the unsatisfactory term has it. One co-worker who was somewhat younger than I questioned my opposition to abortion. "Why," he asked, "shouldn't I be able to have sex whenever I want to?"--and, implicitly, without caring about pregnancy. He wasn't attacking me. He was genuinely puzzled as to why there should be any limit on his sexual desires. He had completely absorbed the attitude of the sexual revolution--which, I must say, is the more or less natural attitude of the human male. The triumph of the sexual revolution is the extension of that attitude to the female.
The most basic answer to his question, obviously, is not "Because it's wrong," much less "Because Christianity teaches that it's wrong," but "Because that's not the way sex works." In the normal course of things, there is some fairly strong probability that normal sex will result in conception. And if you aren't prepared to deal with that, you ought not to be engaging in the act. As Garrison Keillor has one of his Lake Woebegon characters say, "If you didn't want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the bus?"
Most people--most women, anyway--in the industrialized world today do prepare to deal with it by means of contraception. But if they don't prepare, or if the plan fails, abortion is the absolutely necessary recourse, the "Plan B," which is the grimly appropriate term for abortifacient drugs. "Just get rid of it." One of the things Louise Perry does in the First Things piece, and presumably in her book, is to investigate that reality with an honesty and clarity rare for non-religious thinkers. Her treatment of abortion is especially strong, mainly by being especially honest.
If the sexual revolution is to be rolled back, if we are to stop thinking as my co-worker of 35 years ago thought, women will have to lead the way. Even setting aside the nature of the male, a man speaking out against that mentality is regarded by many men as a prude and a spoilsport, and by women as an agent of The Patriarchy who wants to return them to The Dark Ages. Or the 1950s, which is about as far back as many people can now stretch their imaginations.
Here's a thought experiment; I call it that because there is no chance of it ever actual being anything more than a thought. Suppose there were a law requiring that every pornographic film be followed by a scene of a woman giving birth--a realistic scene. I am tempted to answer my own obvious questions about how such a thing could be implemented, but since it is only a thought experiment I'll leave it at that.
Louise Perry was also a participant in a debate staged by The Free Press: "Has the Sexual Revolution Failed?" I've been meaning to mention The Free Press for a while. It was founded by a disgruntled New York Times writer, Bari Weiss. She is what was until fairly recently a more or less conventional liberal, but was appalled by the closed-minded and authoritarian progressives who were effectively controlling the Times. I'm not sure whether she left the Times entirely of her own volition or was pushed out, but at any rate she left, and The Free Press began as a Substack called "Honestly." That pretty much sums up her sense of her mission: to stand up for journalistic honesty in both reporting and opinion. In today's climate, that requires an unusual independence of mind, and The Free Press shows that. Its basic orientation is still what I would describe as formerly-conventional secular liberalism (Weiss is legally married to a woman). Obviously I have many disagreements with that mind-set, but the publication is genuinely open-minded and publishes all sorts of people and views. I subscribe to it in spite of those disagreements because I haven't entirely given up hope that our classical liberal order can be salvaged, and this is a worthwhile effort.
If it's not subscriber-only, you can watch the debate at the Free Press site: click here. The video seems to be hosted there, not on YouTube. I just watched the first couple of minutes which sort of disheartened me: it consists of news clips from the '70s and '80s featuring various unpleasant feminists.
A friend pointed this out to me a week or two ago: the Chromatic Fantasia/Fantasy in D Minor. It's spectacular. I'm not sure I would have recognized it as Bach if I hadn't known. Or, rather, I would have wondered if it was a Bach piece with which some more modern composer had taken a few liberties. Most of it is very Bach-like, but from time to time it sounds more "modern" to me, by which I must mean that it has harmonies which are more...chromatic, I guess?...than my ear expects from Bach. In any case, it's quite a ride.
Here's the performance she sent me--a live performance by Glenn Gould, which, since it's on video, is not only musically but visually unusual. By which I mean "odd." As she notes, he conducts with his left hand when it's otherwise idle.
And here's a vastly different performance by Wanda Landowska on harpsichord. You'll notice that the title says "Fantasia and Fugue." The work is BWV 903, and it does include both the fantasia and the fugue, but both these performances are of the fantasia only. I don't know why Landowska's is two minutes longer. It doesn't seem that much slower, overall, than Gould's. I haven't attempted a careful comparison but someone with a better ear might be able to point something out.
I love these old Landowska performances and have several of them (not this one) on LP. I think part of the reason I like them is somewhat extra-musical, having to do with the sound of the harpsichord itself, which for me has a slightly mysterious quality. I was going to add "antique," but that's superfluous.
Click here to hear part of it played by Jaco Pastorius (famous jazz bassist)--on electric bass. The track is three minutes long but only the first half or so is Bach, as far as I can tell--perhaps the second part has some relationship that I don't hear. It's an astonishing feat of dexterity. But as Johnson said of a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." It is of course done "well" in the technical sense, but it's not very musical.
Johnson, as you very likely know, made that remark of a woman's preaching. By mentioning it, I may seem to be advertising and agreeing with his jibe. But by not mentioning it, I might seem to be suppressing it to avoid offending feminists and perhaps women in general. I prefer to take the first risk, as the second seems overly timid.
The truth is that I don't know whether I agree with Johnson's general sentiment, shorn of his particular mean-but-funny comparison. I can recall offhand only one instance of hearing a woman preach. It was in a Methodist church, not so very many years ago, and there was something awkward about it, a feeling that the woman was out of her element. But maybe that was only her, or only me, though I think I recall that my mother didn't care much for her either. There certainly are women preachers in plenty in some Protestant denominations, and to that I would apply the tolerant appraisal I heard long ago from one of my mother's friends, who was then probably about the same age that I am now: "If it suits them, it suits me."
I feel that way about many things, and perhaps there should be more of them. It does not injure me if someone drives an ostentatiously expensive automobile. It's not like using "cliche" as an adjective. Or modifying the words of a hymn from "unless the Father calls him" to "unless the Father beckons." The image that puts into my mind is ludicrous and persistent. I am in fact injured by it.