Nice to See You Again, Mr. Tchaikovsky

I think perhaps it was your representative at the piano who gave me a bad impression of your first piano concerto. And perhaps it was only the visual distraction of his mannerisms and his gold lamé jacket that got the performance off on a bad footing with me, more or less ruining the first movement, which of course constitutes more than half of the work, from which I only partly recovered before the end of the performance. But I am happy to say that on further acquaintance with the work I have completely recovered.


I thought I would wait a while after my less-than-wonderful experience with Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto two weekends ago (see this post) to listen to a recording of it. By "a while" I had in mind, very vaguely, a month or two. But curiosity* got the better of me. Within a week I had listened to no fewer than three recordings of the concerto.

(New paragraph, for emphasis) I am now announcing officially that I love this concerto. I'll go even further: I very much love it.

The first recording I listened to was Van Cliburn's of 1958. Although I was only ten years old when Cliburn won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in that year, I was vaguely aware of the event. It had gotten massive publicity because of the Cold War implications of this  young pianist from Texas beating the Russians at their own game, on their own turf. I heard Cliburn's name, at least, and knew that he played the piano, which was not the sort of information that would typically be found in the head of a country boy in Alabama. Now that I think about it, it occurs to me that I may have heard it from one of my aunts, who was herself a pianist and a music lover. 

The conductor on this recording is Kiril Kondrashin, and there's something bit odd about the packaging: the orchestra is not named. It's not on the cover, which is a little unusual.

CliburnTchaikovskyBut it's not on the back, either. And unless I managed to miss it, it isn't mentioned in the text, which I doubt  you can read. (These are not photos of my copy, but they seem identical. The photos were poached from Discogs.)


According to Wikipedia, it's the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. So I speculate that RCA omitted the name because they were not confident that their own orchestra was so highly regarded as to constitute a selling point. 

Anyway: this recording sufficed to get me over my bad experience. I was curious about others, and discovered that I own two more. One is Yevgeny Sudbin with the São Paulo Symphony. Fifteen years or so ago a friend acquainted me with Sudbin's Scarlatti recordings, which I like very much, and I suppose that must be why I bought the Tchaikovsky recording on MP3. But I don't think I had ever gotten around to listening to it. I like it, and I doubt that there's an argument about Sudbin's performance being technically first-rate, but I kept having the feeling that the orchestra didn't quite match the vitality of the piano.  

Then on to the third: Sviatoslav Richter and the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Karel Ančerl. It's a 1960 recording on the Czech Supraphon label, released in this country on the Parliament label. Small print on the jacket says it's 'A Parliament "Cultural Exchange" Presentation.' Which I suppose was another Cold War thing, Czechoslovakia being a Soviet thing, and Supraphon a state-run thing. 


I found this one really exciting, and moving, and everything else that one could ask for. Nor is the 1960 sonic quality an obstacle; good recordings of that period may not match the clarity and dynamic range of what has come since, but are still excellent (and sometimes even preferable, but that's another topic). And it made me really appreciate the concerto, which, as I said, I now love.

So the question arises: is this performance really superior, or was it only that, as the third hearing (fourth if you count the concert) it benefited from my increased familiarity with the work? I really don't know, but I can say one thing: it seemed to me that the piano and the orchestra were more evenly matched than in the others. The orchestra seemed a more present and vital part of the performance. 

Also, I suspect now that part of what put me off in the concert performance was that the piano seemed in almost violent competition with the orchestra. I think this was the doing of the soloist, Maxim Lando, who really seemed to be crashing and banging excessively. But perhaps it was relative weakness in the orchestra, which, after all, is not composed of full-time professionals. I'm not a skilled-enough listener to judge definitively, but I do trust my ears enough to say that in the opening bars the beautiful theme played by the orchestra, which should be accompanied, not overpowered, by those powerful chords in the piano, was very much in the background. The overall effect was of bombast instead of the deep passion that I hear in these recordings, especially the Richter/Ančerl one.


* Why do we not spell "curiosity" as "curiousity"? I usually type it that way, then notice the red underlining indicating that the software does not approve. What was wrong with adding the "ity" suffix to the word "curious"? 

Ann Cleeves: Raven Black

My wife and I listened to an audio version of this book on an overnight trip a couple of weeks ago. I picked it from one of several options she gave me (ordinarily she's the one who locates the book and downloads it to her phone) because it is the first of eight novels in a series set in the Shetland Islands, and we've been watching the TV series Shetland, which is based on those books, since it began about then years ago. (I note in passing that this series is only one of several by Ann Cleeves, which come up to a total of several dozen novels, of which the ones I've read are lengthy and complex. I don't understand that level of inventiveness. Granted, Cleeves was born in 1954 and has been at this for a long time. But still.)

We both like the series a great deal, and I recommend it if for no other reason than the gorgeous cinematography of Shetland. So I was curious about the novels. This one is good, an excellent detective story with a complex plot and interesting characters and setting. However, though I am not a connoisseur of detective fiction, and so am subject to correction, I think this one cheats a bit according to what I take to be the traditional rules of the genre. And I can't say any more than that without committing spoilage. 

I was going to remark that Cleeves is not an especially poetic stylist; that is, I didn't find her prose, as a listening experience, noticeably enjoyable for itself. But then I thought that might be unfair: one doesn't, or at least I don't, have the opportunity to savor the language of an audio book, and this is especially true if one is driving a car, as I was for most of this. In that situation I can only try to follow the narrative.

Perhaps if I read her on the page I would have a different view. I tested that conjecture by going to Amazon and reading a few excerpts; it is correct. Here is the opening, poached from Amazon's sample: 

Twenty past one in the morning on New Year’s Day. Magnus knew the time because of the fat clock, his mother’s clock, which squatted on the shelf over the fire. In the corner the raven in the wicker cage muttered and croaked in its sleep. Magnus waited. The room was prepared for visitors, the fire banked with peat and on the table a bottle of whisky and the ginger cake he’d bought in Safeway’s the last time he was in Lerwick. He could feel himself dozing but he didn’t want to go to bed in case someone should call at the house. If there was a light at the window someone might come, full of laughter and drams and stories. For eight years nobody had visited to wish him happy new year, but still he waited just in case.

Outside it was completely silent. There was no sound of wind. In Shetland, when there was no wind it was shocking. People strained their ears and wondered what was missing. Earlier in the day there had been a dusting of snow, then with dusk this was covered by a sheen of frost, every crystal flashing and hard as diamond in the last of the light, and even when it got dark, in the beam from the lighthouse. The cold was another reason for Magnus staying where he was. In the bedroom the ice would be thick on the inside of the window and the sheets would feel chill and damp.

He must have slept. If he’d been awake he’d have heard them coming because there was nothing quiet in their approach. They weren’t creeping up on him. He’d have heard their laughter and the stumbling, seen the wild swaying of the torch beam through the uncurtained window. He was woken by the banging on the door. He came to with a start, knowing he’d been in the middle of a nightmare, but not sure of the details.

‘Come in,’ he shouted. ‘Come in, come in.’ He struggled to his feet, stiff and aching. They must already be in the storm porch. He heard the hiss of their whispers.

The door was pushed open, letting in a blast of freezing air and two young girls, who were as gaudy and brightly coloured as exotic birds. He saw they were drunk.

Magnus is a recluse, not exactly mentally retarded but not very bright, and quite eccentric. He is one of the people who will be suspected of murdering one of the girls. And I'll leave the plot at that. It is, as I mentioned, pretty complex, and involves in a great deal of the history of the main characters. I'll probably read the next one, at least, to watch their further development. 

Raven Black

Of course I already had, from the series, some sense of their personalities and background. Naturally I was constantly comparing the book to the series--favorably for the most part. And a few days later we (re)watched the Shetland episodes which are based on this book. Naturally there are major differences, and in general I thought they were justifiable, though I wondered if some of them were necessary or smart. I've often thought it would be interesting to sit in on the deliberations of directors and writers developing a dramatization of a novel. It must be a pretty difficult thing. The necessity of putting everything into action and dialogue would force some changes, obviously. And others might be dictated by practical necessity.

One striking change, though not an important one, is that the main detective, Jimmy Perez, is played by an actor who is the visual opposite of the book's Perez. He is not, as the name might suggest, an imported Spaniard, but a native Shetlander whose ancestry goes back generations. The name is attributed by family lore to a sailor of the Spanish Armada who was shipwrecked on one of the Shetland islands, married a native, and never went home. And in the book his complexion and hair are dark. But Perez in the series is played by a very blond and fair-skinned actor, Douglas Henshall. Plausibility is addressed by a remark that the current Perez must have inherited his appearance from the maternal line of that first marriage.

I assume that change was a simple result of the choice among available actors. Another, which is more substantial and which I would have liked to see in the series, is the switch of the series from winter to summer, which significantly changes the atmosphere (no pun intended)--consider the opening quoted above, which is very much determined by the season and even by the particular night. It also eliminates a fairly large piece of furniture from the story: a sort of Viking Mardi Gras festival, Up Helly Aa, pronounced something like UP-ayly-AH, accents on the first and last syllables. (If you don't already know, look at a map and you'll see why Shetland has a Viking connection.) Much of the story involves this festival, and a general winteriness, and I speculate that the change was due to practical constraints of filming.

There was something a bit disappointing in this audiobook. The narrator seems to be English, and apart from dialogue reads in an English accent. I think all the actors in the TV series are actual Scots, and I missed that in the reading. Even in the dialogue, I think the narrator is sometimes a little off.  He pronounces the name of the city of Lerwick, for instance, exactly as it's spelled: Ler-wick, "Ler" rhyming with "there." Whereas in the series it's something like "Lerrick," rhyming with "derrick." Or even "Lerrig." Or  something closer to "Layrig." I have learned, beginning some years ago when I listened to an audiobook of one of M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth mysteries, read by a woman who was either Scottish or very skilled at sounding that way, that I very much like the Scottish accent, especially in a woman. And I would have preferred the woman who did the M.C. Beaton book (possibly Davina Porter, but I'm not sure, as I'm not even sure what the title of the book was), or someone like her. (Beaton's career, by the way, makes Cleeves look like a slacker.)

And there's one thing entirely missing from the book that I like very much about the series:  Detective Sergeant Alison McIntosh, known as "Tosh," played by Alison O'Donnell. She is pretty much my favorite character in the series, because I am delighted every time she speaks. And also by a facial expression she uses from time to time, a sort of grimace in which one side of her mouth turns up and the other down; my wife suggested that she might have been cast specifically to make that face. Perhaps she appears in the later books. You can catch a few glimpses of her in this trailer for the current season, which does not include Perez, because of the departure of Douglas Henshall. I learned from something I came across while looking for a suitable clip that there was a Team Tosh composed of viewers who wanted Tosh to be promoted to Perez's position. Had I known about it, I would have signed up.

Some Other Night, Perhaps, Mr. Tchaikovsky

I went to hear the Mobile Symphony last night, and had a very mixed reaction to what I heard. As follows:

Duke Ellington: Suite From The River

I had never heard this piece, a suite from a ballet, before, but I suppose I can say I had some expectations, and that it met them, but that that was not altogether a good thing. My expectations were based on a generally not all that favorable view of jazz-classical mixtures: they tend to suffer from neither-fish-nor-fowl syndrome. The jazzy elements seem stiff, and the classical-y elements limited, and that was more or less my reaction here. I don't want to sound too negative, as it was very enjoyable. But relatively lightweight.

Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird

The pairing (as they say of food and drink) of this with the Ellington was unfortunate. No doubt it seemed a good idea, but Ellington did not come off well: it was the difference between very enjoyable and magical.

The first Stravinsky I ever heard was The Rite of Spring, most likely when I was a college sophomore taking Dr. Frederick Hyde's music history course at the University of Alabama, ca. 1968. I mention that because Dr. Hyde was a wonderful teacher who deserves to be remembered, and that course was a wonderful experience, which I certainly remember. When I think of him I remember him coming into the classroom struggling with a stack of several dozen LPs, from which he would choose examples to illustrate his lectures. In my perhaps exaggerated memory, there were so many records in the stack that the top ones were always tending to slide off onto the floor. 

I loved The Rite, instantly, and was eager to hear more Stravinsky. The obvious next step was The Firebird. But on one hearing I found it considerably less interesting, almost bland in comparison. And though I've listened to The Rite occasionally over the years, I didn't seek out The Firebird

Well, that's changed now. As of last night, I absolutely love The Firebird. I learned this morning that there are several suites drawn from the score, and this is the 1919 one, apparently the most frequently performed. It is sharp, clear, clean, making use of unusual instrumental techniques--very "modern" in that respect--and yet lyrical, and yet exciting. And I think the Mobile Symphony, whose players are, I assume, not full-time, did it justice. As a recording their performance would no doubt be inferior to the work of big-time orchestras, but last night it had the great advantage of being heard live. And whatever else  might be said about this orchestra, it does not lack energy, which surely has everything to do with its energetic conductor, Scott Speck. I can't recall ever before having the impulse to jump up and yell "Bravo!" at a performance, but I did last night--have the impulse, I mean. I wasn't the only one; there was in fact a standing ovation, which I think is not usual for the second work on the program, especially one without a star soloist. (I didn't actually do it because I didn't want to dump the big coat, hat, and program book in my lap onto the floor.) 

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto #1

Because I'm so thoroughly in touch with pop culture, I know that "It's not you, it's me," spoken by one member of a romantic relationship to the other as part of the announcement that he/she is breaking up with her/him, is a sort of standing joke. I am resorting to it now in relation to this concerto. I did not enjoy it, but it's not the work, it's me--probably. I can't say why I didn't enjoy it--well, I can say, and I will, but I don't really understand the reaction. I like Tchaikovsky. I like big romantic works with heart-tugging melodies. Granted, the piano concerto is not my favorite genre--I don't think there is one that I would place among my very favorite works--but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it.

I think it was partly, as with the Ellington, an unfortunate pairing. It was as if I'd had a drink of some of the best whiskey in the world, and, still savoring the aftertaste, tried to eat (drink?) one of those gooey fast-food pseudo-milkshakes. Wrong moment. I was not consciously prejudiced, but something in me rebelled with those first thick, crashing piano chords, accompanied by a famous melody (which was used in a popular song, "Tonight We Love," and I can't keep those words out of my head when I hear the melody).

Part of the problem was the pianist, Maxim Lando, and that began before he ever touched the keys. He came out wearing a shiny gold jacket of the Elvis style, though only waist length. And when he did begin to play, his physical mannerisms were distracting to the point of annoyance: he crouched low over the keyboard in the Glenn Gould style. And those chords were so huge, so crashing, so much more like heavy metal (which I like in its proper place) than I was ready to hear, that I couldn't help blaming the pianist for what is probably the composer's doing. 

And so it went for the entire first movement. The pianist, or the composer, couldn't seem to do anything right for my ears. Things got somewhat better in the second and third movements, and I figured out that I needed to keep my eyes closed to avoid being distracted by the gold lamé (if that's the right word) and the mannerisms. Still, I never really got on board. 

Almost certainly it's not Tchaikovsky or Lando. I'm pretty sure it's me, my frame of mind at the moment. Sometime soon I'll find a recording of the concerto to listen to (I'm not even sure whether I own one) and see if we get along better. Or then again maybe that would be a mistake. Maybe better to wait a while.

In the program notes, Scott Speck has a perfectly reasonable explanation for his choice of these three works.

An unlikely trio of composers. What on earth could have possessed us to combine Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington into a single concert? Well, the connections are broader than you might think – and Igor Stravinsky is the key. Stravinsky grew up and spent his most formative musical years in the land of Tchaikovsky – and he spent his last three decades in the land of Ellington.

And he goes on to cite several other connections. Fair enough. It just didn't work for me.

Wodehouse: Ring For Jeeves

I think it's been almost thirty years now since I discovered that the works of P.G. Wodehouse are a wonderful anti-depressant, producing a bubbling levity which I have previously described as feeling the way champagne looks. This effect, though, is sadly brief, and I've been a little concerned that, as with alcohol, steady use might reduce it, so I don't read Wodehouse all that often. 

I'm speaking mainly of the Jeeves and Wooster books, of which there are, I think, fourteen; it's a little difficult to fix the number because the U.S. and U.K. editions differ somewhat. Not wanting to go through them too quickly, I haven't read them all. Certainly they will continue to be delightful on re-reading--I've read Joy In the Morning and Code of the Woosters at least twice. But the happy shock of the first encounter with an especially funny bit can't be repeated. 

Lately, however, I've been thinking that this careful husbandry could be a mistake: being pretty old now, I might, if I'm too dilatory, die or be incapacitated with some of the novels still unread. And that would be very regrettable.

So it was time for another, and Ring For Jeeves was the next one in the approximately chronological order in which I've been reading them. Somewhat to my surprise, it doesn't seem to me to be quite up to the usual mark. When I noticed the publication date--1953--I speculated that this slight lessening in quality--and it is fairly slight--may have had something to do with Wodehouse's situation at the time. World War II had left him somewhat disgraced. Stranded in France in 1940, he had made several broadcasts at the behest of the Nazis, and although they were humorous and not political in content they caused Wodehouse to be reviled as a Nazi collaborator, which naturally cast a shadow over the following years. He had begun the previous Jeeves and Wooster novel, The Mating Season, in 1942, though it was not published until 1949. Ring For Jeeves seems to be the first one written entirely after the war. 

It seems to have been an experiment: it is the only novel to include Jeeves but not Bertie Wooster. Perhaps--this is pure speculation--Wodehouse thought the pattern had become a little stale, and wanted to vary it. The novel takes note of its actual situation in time in a way that I don't recall others doing. There is explicit mention that the time is the early 1950s. Television is acknowledged to exist, and even figures slightly in the action, though it remains offstage.

The plot involves the high taxation of the wealthy and the general leveling which were occurring at the time. Bertie is absent because he is at a school in which the aristocracy are taught the rudiments of taking care of themselves in the new order. Jeeves is in the employ of William Egerton Bamfylde Ossingham Belfry, ninth Earl of Rowcester, pronounced "Roaster."  The Earl, who for most of the book is referred to simply as Bill, is the inheritor of a vast and dilapidated mansion, Rowcester Abbey, which he cannot afford to keep up, and which he is desperate to sell. His sister Monica believes she has a likely buyer, a twice-widowed, rich, and still beautiful American woman, who, as the story opens, is on her way to view the place. But there are complications. Of course. And of course they're zany.

In a desperate move to get hold of some cash so that he can marry the young neighbor Jill Wyvvern--one of Wodehouse's delightful down-to-earth and pretty "girls"--Bill has gone into the bookmaking business, at the suggestion and under the direction of Jeeves. Calling himself Honest Patch Perkins, he frequents the race tracks in disguise: addition to wearing a very loud check coat with bulging voluminous pockets and a crimson tie with blue horseshoes on it which smote the beholder like a blow, he had a large black patch over his left eye and on his upper lip a ginger moustache of the outsize or soupstrainer type.

He seems to have been doing all right until a bet went against him at spectacularly long odds, leaving him owing three thousand pounds, which he does not have, to a Captain C.G. Brabazon-Biggar, a fierce White Hunter stereotype who has spent some large part of his life Out East, with, for some reason, a particular emphasis on Kuala Lumpur. The Captain is also on his way to Rowcester Abbey, in hot pursuit of Honest Patch. And it turns out that both he and Bill have had previous involvement with the rich and beautiful widow. 

Naturally it all gets more and more complicated, with more and more elaborate stratagems and deceptions and narrow escapes when the stratagems go wrong. But it all works out in the end. And Jeeves will be returning to Bertie, who is no longer at the school, under circumstances which I would enjoy relating but must refrain from doing so, for the sake of your enjoyment, on the presumption that you haven't read the book. 

I hope it isn't because I've become jaded that this book seems to sparkle less than others. Bertie's absence is part of that; though Bill is a somewhat similar character, he lacks Bertie's effervescent goofiness. And this makes him less effective as a foil for Jeeves. Perhaps as a consequence, Jeeves himself seems to me a bit overdone. His circumlocutions and literary quotations become at times obtrusive, a little too frequent and lengthy. And I felt that the winding up of the plot threads was a bit rushed. Still, less than the best Wodehouse is very, very good. 

In my limited experience the Blandings books are just as good as the Jeeves and Wooster ones, so I have several of those to look forward to as well. I've only read one novel that was part of neither series, Picadilly Jim, and although it was enjoyable it was not in the class with the others. 


The rich widow is interested in psychical research, and is thrilled by the family lore which holds that an old family ghost, Lady Agatha, wife of Sir Caradoc the Crusader, is sometimes seen in the chapel (ruined, naturally).

A Question About Eliot's "Journey of the Magi"

This poem is now in the public domain. So I've copied it from another site. It is of course appropriate for today, the Feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic calendar. Normally I set off quotations longer than a sentence or so as "block quotes," which means that they're indented on the right, which means, if line breaks are significant, as they are for a poem, they may not appear as they should. Just how they appear may be partly dependent on the browser. To avoid that, I'm not making this a block quote, but will switch typefaces instead. It probably won't look right on your phone anyway, but that's the price you pay for reading on your phone.


T.S. Eliot: Journey of the Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


I've always been a little puzzled by that last line. The last two lines, really. The Magi (or this Magus at least, but I'll keep it plural because he keeps saying "we"), have understood that the coming of the child means the end of the culture or civilization of which they are a part, and in which they have a privileged place. That's the "hard and bitter agony."

But do they know something pretty specific about what is coming? Have they, in some sense, been converted? Why else are their own people now "alien" and "clutching...gods" for whom the Magi seem to have no respect? Surely these people and these gods were their own before their journey, but that no longer seems to be the case. 

And what death would he be "glad of"? His own? That's probably true. But he doesn't say so, and the vagueness of the reference makes me wonder. Is he glad that his culture has received its death warrant and looking forward to its actual death? That seems a little odd, but maybe it's just a measure of his sense of exhaustion. Maybe it's both, just a broad resigned Let's  just get it over with. But it seems to me that there is an intimation of the Child's death, and what it will mean, and why the birth, the necessary first step toward that death, is hard and bitter, but at the same time something to be glad of.


Journey of the Magi, Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni). Image lifted from The Metropolitan Museum, where you can see a much larger version

Rounding the Next Turn

In 2022 I was thinking seriously about ending this blog. Then I realized that if I kept it going through 2023 it would have run for exactly twenty years, a nice round multiple of ten. (You can read the very first post, from January 4, 2004, here.) I liked that idea, and decided to give it one more year. (I don't recall mentioning that here, but I may have.) So all through the past year I've been seeing December 31, 2023, as the end of the line.

And I was looking forward to it. I was, I am, tired of the almost-constant sense that I need to be preparing the next post. The Total Posts number below sheds some light on that: over twenty years, it's an average of more than three posts every week. 

BlogStatsNotice the daily pageview average. That's not very many, compared to even moderately popular blogs, which get, I think (based on hearsay), several thousand views a day. Hundreds, anyway. And judging by the individual page stats, a majority of the visits are pretty random searches for something for which Google happened to turn up something here. For instance, back in 2012 I did a post called "Getting Started With Kierkegaard." For years afterward that post would get several hits per day from Google. It still shows up in the first page of Google results when you search for that phrase, which is a bit surprising because all the post does is ask for recommendations. I can't be sure, but my guess is that there are no more than a few dozen people, perhaps a hundred, who read the blog regularly. It never caught on in the way that some blogs did back in that heyday of blogging, before Facebook shoved it aside and made it somewhat unfashionable.

But though the Kierkegaard post itself doesn't contain any recommendations, there are some good ones in the comments. And notice the number of comments. That comes to an average of around eleven per post. And that's far lower than the actual number, because the first five or six years of the blog were the most active for commenting, and all those comments were lost when I had to move the blog from Blogger to Typepad, which I think was in 2010. It was unfortunate, and I'm sorry now that I didn't make more of an effort to convert the comments, or at least put them into some kind of archive, because there were some very good conversations there. I remember in particular a long one about Brideshead Revisited, and another about Ayn Rand, which I think was the record-holder for quantity, running over three hundred, if I remember correctly. Apparently the post, which was negative to say the least ("Ayn Rand, Crank"), had attracted the attention of some objectivists, and a vigorous discussion ensued. 

Those conversations have been one of the reasons I continued the blog as long as I have. I only have a few people in my physical vicinity with whom I can talk about the things I like to talk about, so the blog has provided a bit of social and intellectual life, albeit disembodied, that I would not otherwise have had. And it was more than just enjoyable--I have often been informed and challenged by it. At some point in the past ten years or so the amount of conversation declined, which I think, or at least speculate, was in part because of that general displacement of blogging. Or maybe what I was writing just wasn't as interesting. At any rate, that incentive for continuing wasn't quite as strong as it had been.

And though I don't like admitting it to myself I don't have as much energy as I did. I was in my mid-fifties when I started the blog, and am now past the biblical three-score-and-ten expectation for a reasonable lifespan. For the first twelve of those twenty years I was working full-time, and a pretty heavy part-time for another two or three. Yet I wrote some things which I think were reasonably well-thought and well-crafted, and still worth reading, and now I wonder how I did it, as it seems to take more effort now to write anything more than a very casual piece, though I have much more free time (I still put in a few hours on my old job). Words don't seem to flow as readily as they used to. Also, I have some other writing projects that I want to pursue, and have found that the constant need for a new blog post is pretty distracting. 

So my decision was pretty firm, and I had made mental notes for a goodbye post. But then around the end of November I resumed work on that Rilke post, which I had begun and abandoned months ago. And I really enjoyed doing it, and though it's hardly an important contribution to the literary world I felt a sense of accomplishment, which, unlike actual writing, is entirely pleasant. 

My resolution wavered. I realized that I would always want to write that sort of thing, and had no reasonable expectation of being able to publish it anywhere else. I'm in fact a compulsive writer. Light On Dark Water began as an outlet for that compulsion (and as a work-related exercise in learning the basics of HTML etc.). It was not originally a blog, just a static hand-coded web site, which I transferred to the Blogger platform in 2006. When I first set it up I included a tongue-in-cheek FAQ in the form of a self-interview (thanks, Walker Percy):

Why are you doing this?


Putting odds and ends of your writing on the web.

—Oh. Well, on Halloween 2003, a teenaged surfing star named Bethany Hamilton had her arm bitten off by a shark. Several weeks later, when asked if she would return to surfing, she said, “If I don't get back on my board, I'll be in a bad mood forever.”

Bethany Hamilton is now in her thirties and did in fact continue her surfing career; you can read about her on Wikipedia. And I appreciate the inspiration she gave me, which I suppose might surprise her. 

I knew I would still feel something of that bad mood if I gave up the blog. And I would certainly miss the conversation, even if there is less than there once was. As my resolution continued to waver over the past month or so, I remembered that initial sense of compulsion. I continued to change my mind right up until yesterday (I am also pathologically indecisive), when the encouragement of a friend finally tipped the balance in favor of continuing. 

But with a difference: I intend to write only about books and music. No more politics, no more analyzing and lamenting the apparently irreversible decline of our civilization--and even as I type those words I'm fighting the almost-overwhelming urge to go off into remarks about the nature of that decline and the possible destinations toward which our progress is taking us. No more mockery of ridiculous headlines, no more brief posts about this or that odd or amusing item, or complaints about broccoli. No more Church stuff, though the faith will necessarily be present in what I write. I will miss those, but I think giving them up is necessary. Sometime within the next week or so, if I can figure out a good way to do it, I'll add a subtitle to the blog's name: "A Journal of Reading and Listening." And that's what it's going to be, until I either change my mind or stop blogging altogether. 

Now, see, if I were a better writer I would probably not have blathered on like this, to the extent of 1300 words. But I want to post it today, at the beginning of the year, and I don't have time to revise it more carefully because I have to watch Alabama vs. Michigan an hour from now. So thank you for reading this far, and please continue to visit. And converse.

And Happy New Year.

This Is the Last Time I Write About the Current State of the Catholic Church

Well, at least during this papacy. 

The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therefore seeing the matter is thus begun, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I fear that we be not the men that shall see the end of the misery.

Wherefore, seeing I am an old man and look not long to live, I mind not by the help of God to trouble my conscience in pleasing the king this way whatsoever become of me, but rather here to spend out the remnant of my old days in praying to God for him.

    --St. John Fisher's "reply to Bishops Stokesley, Gardiner and Tunstal, sent to the Tower by Thomas Cromwell to persuade Fisher to submit to the King" (full text at the link)

I do not of course identify myself with St. John Fisher's courage in the face of the immediate and fairly certain prospect of decapitation. I'm not in any personal danger from either secular or religious authorities. I'm not even in danger of financial or social penalties. I suppose I might experience either or both of those if I were in a situation where the opinion of progressives had that kind of power over me, but I'm not. Nor do I mean that the Catholic Church, in my country or universally, has been decisively conquered in the way that Fisher witnessed. 

What I identify with is Fisher's understanding that it was the authorities within the Church who had given it over to its enemies, his resignation in the face of the result, and his certainty that the trouble he sees will long outlast him. 

The turmoil in the Catholic Church, the conflict between the Faith more or less as it has been understood for 2000 years and doctrinal revisions intended to make it acceptable to that godless fool, "modern man," is a grave crisis which is not going to be resolved in my lifetime. The evangelization which Vatican II and other changes were meant to enable is now crippled by that internal conflict (among many other things). And this crisis has mainly been the work of church authorities.

I know I've said things like this before, but not, I think, with quite so much emphasis and finality. The occasion, as you might have guessed, is the issuing of the decree Fiducia supplicans. I don't think I need to say much about it. If you want to dig into what it actually says and what it actually means, there are plenty of opinions out there. (I think Larry Chapp has it right.)

My own view is simple: the decree is the answer to the question "How can we do this while denying that we are doing it?" I know the document is carefully constructed to be technically orthodox, and I recognize the good will of those who argue that it changes nothing. But I think they're mistaken. The homosexual rights activist Fr. James Martin, S.J., thinks so, too, quoted by Chapp: “Be wary of the ‘Nothing has changed’ response to today’s news. It’s a significant change.".

Fisher of course did not live to see the church which replaced his own be surrendered in a similar way, not to a king but to the diffused sovereignty of the spirit of the times, which I think is clearly the spirit of the Antichrist. Many of us who watched, helplessly, the internal apostasy of most of Anglicanism recognize Fiducia supplicans as a maneuver in the struggle which wrecked that communion. Whether that maneuver will be followed successfully by others I won't try to guess. I think the most likely long-term result is a gradual continuation of the hollowing-out process which leaves "official teaching" more or less intact but a dead letter. 

I don't care to speculate about the motives of the pope. I'll just go back to something I've said before, but with more emphasis: Pope Francis is a bad pope in the functional sense that he is bad at his job, like a builder whose buildings fall down. He has  exacerbated--deliberately, it appears--the divisions in the Church and insured that the crisis of which I spoke above will be prolonged for quite some time. It is entirely possible that it will become much, much worse, in part because of his approach to it.

There's something else on this subject that I may or may not have said here before, though I have certainly said it in other places. I'll repeat it as I leave the topic: I had never, as far as I recall, so much as heard the name of Cardinal Bergoglio before his election to the papacy, and therefore had no prejudice against him. But when he stepped out onto that balcony to greet the crowds after his election, I immediately had what I can only describe crudely as a bad feeling. It had no particular content and I wouldn't call it a premonition, just...a bad feeling. I've thought about it often since then, and have spoken to others who had the same experience. It's a small thing which may be significant. Or not.

Thought I might buy the Kleiber Brahms 4

Maybe even on vinyl, just for fun? However:

BrahmsKleiberApparently it's out of print. Used CDs are available pretty inexpensively. Or I could buy it as an MP3.

But on Discogs there are several LP copies at reasonable ($15-30) prices. Those are used copies, and the only reason I can think of for the discrepancy is that the high priced one is new. 

Giving Up On Rilke (Sort of)

A couple of years ago I found myself with a strong and persistent urge to get to know Rilke's Duino Elegies, one of the landmarks of German poetry and of modern poetry in general. I suppose the impulse had been there in a mild way for many years, but I don't know of anything in particular that made it grow strong enough to make me act on it. I had bought my copy of the once-standard Spender-Leishman translation many years ago, I think not later than the mid-'70s, and I had read a little of it, drawn in by the famous opening lines of the First Elegy (there are ten of them):

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty's nothing 
but beginning of Terror we're still just able to bear....

But I had always gotten bogged down after a few pages. Rilke is often obscure, but that's not necessarily a big obstacle to me. I had loved on first reading many parts of "The Waste Land" (just to pick one example) without understanding them. The fact that I didn't entirely grasp the prose sense of the poem, or even feel sure that there was a prose sense, as there is in, for instance, Tennyson's "In Memoriam," didn't prevent me from being moved by the imagery and the music. I did not, for instance, understand the significance of these lines, but they were clear enough in themselves, and affecting:

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

I'm not leaving out any useful context there. Who is Marie? We don't know. Is she the same person who, a few lines earlier (before an apparently random line of German, which may or may not have been spoken by the same person), stopped in the colonnade and drank coffee? Why are we hearing this reminiscence? Is this the same voice that complained about April in the famous opening line? How many speakers are there in the first eighteen lines of the poem? One? Or perhaps as many as three or four? We get no help from Eliot, either in the poem or in his notes. There is obscurity here, but the immediate literal sense is clear enough. More to my point, the words have a wistful charm while seeming entirely natural as talk, perhaps having come to Eliot as a bit of "found poetry."* (He was often attentive and fortunate in that, probably more the former than the latter; probably we all miss a good deal.)

But Rilke gave me things like this, at the end of the Second Elegy:

...For our heart transcends us 
just as it did those others. And we can no longer
gaze after it into figures that sooth it, or godlike
bodies, wherein it achieves a grander restraint.

I cannot tell you with confidence in plain English what those lines say, much less what they mean. That in itself is not necessarily a major barrier to enjoyment. But neither do they speak to me in a mystical-intuitive sort of way, as "The Waste Land" did (and as much modern poetry does): Yes, I feel the import of that, even though I can't articulate it. Nor, to my ear, is there much beauty in the words themselves.

I'm pretty sure I never got past the Second in those earlier ventures into the work. Yet for some reason which I can't explain I kept having the feeling that there was something there for me. That was the way the impulse presented itself to me: There is something there for you. When I discovered that Fr. Romano Guardini, whose work I admire, had written a book about the Elegies, I decided the time had come to act on that vague sensation, bought the book, and went at the project in earnest, reading each elegy a couple of times in conjunction with Guardini's associated chapter.

Perhaps a different translation would help? I bought Alfred Corn's recent translation, and got Stephen Mitchell's from the library. So I've now read the Duino Elegies at least three times through, and several of them more than that, in three different translations. And I'm not much more enthusiastic about them than when I started.

I was reluctant to admit that Guardini was not really helping much. His lengthy glosses were sometimes themselves obscure, in a different way: not just close readings but extremely close, to the point of extracting ideas which I was sometimes not convinced are really there, or which at any rate seemed far more important to Guardini than to Rilke. Or to me. For Guardini, who is obviously enchanted and fascinated by the poems, is also, as a Catholic, distressed by their non- and even anti-Christian spirituality. Sometimes he argues with the poet, as in his commentary on lines 17 and 18 of the Fourth Elegy:

...we that don't know our feeling's shape
but only that which forms it from outside.


"Shape" means the contour of a thing. It can be regarded as having two aspects, one facing inwards and the other out. Here "shape" in its first aspect is meant--the form or contour which expresses a thing's inner character. According to Rilke it is impossible to form any picture of such a shape. Our experience only reaches our consciousness from without, namely through our proximity to whatever is alien or hostile to us.

Again the same phenomenon often noted before: the weakness attaching to the human personality. In fact it is simply not true that we are only conditioned from outside....

The Elegies are abstract and philosophical or theological, though stuffed with concrete images. They are often obscure in a deep way; "cryptic" is a fair description. And the obscurity does not obtain my indulgence by the appeal of the language when rendered into English; in none of the three translations I read is there much charm, much that gives the elemental thrill of great poetry. And that is the fundamental problem for me.

Poetry, good poetry anyway, and great poetry always, has a sensual appeal which comes from the actual, specific, individual words. "Sensual" is a puzzling term, because none of the five senses is being touched, unless you're hearing the lines read aloud, but that isn't necessary, and hearing them alone would do nothing much for you if you couldn't understand them. Puzzling, but I think most people who are very sensitive to poetry would agree that the word is apt.

It's a peculiar and paradoxical mental sensuality, and it requires a word-by-word combination of sound and sense. "To be or not to be" can be very easily stated in very many different ways. But the power even of that phrase can be half-destroyed by the change of one word: "To live or not to live." That's not terrible, and the sense is pretty close to the same (not exactly, and a little weaker, but close). And it even preserves the rhythm. But the sound is changed for the worse. 

For many years I've been leaning toward the conclusion that poetry simply cannot be translated. I'm no longer leaning. I'm willing to make it a declaration: it is not just difficult, but intrinsically impossible, to translate poetry, in the sense that a translator can provide the reader with something close to the same artifact that a reader of the original knows. Perhaps it's impossible to translate anything at all except for purely functional work, all denotation and no connotation, such as the safety warnings for a lawn mower. For anything greater, anything composed with care and skill, the translation can never be anything but a paraphrase; this is intrinsically so. And in poetry this is fatal; a good poem is composed of these words in this order, and when you substitute other words you no longer have the poem. (I think good translators know this and are not offended by seeing it stated.) You may have something good in its own right, and certainly it can and should carry pretty much the same prose sense. You could, in principle, even have something better. But it is not the poem. You can't substitute scotch for bourbon and say that it's good bourbon. You could even say that the scotch is better by some semi-objective measure; you could certainly say that you prefer it. But it is not the same thing. 

I had gotten through half of the Guardini book when my Rilke project was halted last year by a move to a new house. The books were packed away and remained in boxes for months. The books are out of their boxes now, but that halt, expected to be temporary, looks to be permanent. At any rate I have not resumed it and don't have any plans to. I've come to the very unwelcome conclusion that the Duino Elegies in English are not a great poem. That is a bold thing to say, perhaps offensive to those who love Rilke in English. 

There are three (at least) essential levels or aspects of good and great poetry. There is the quasi-sensual word-by-word appeal I've described, which is not translatable. Then there are simile, metaphor, description, and all the species of analogy, illustration, and decoration, all more or less translatable: "my love is like a red, red rose" can be put into the language of any culture that knows deep red flowers, though it might not sound as prettily. And there's the sense of the whole, or of distinct parts of the whole, built of the other two: an idea or set of ideas, a meditation, a narrative, an observation. In a very short poem maybe not much more than a remark ("This is just to say..."), in an epic a long and complex story, possibly with deep philosophical import. This, too, is translatable, in fact may be almost independent of the language in which it is put forth, and worth reading for that alone.

A serious deficiency of the first is fatal to poetry as such; the work may still be a great one, but it will not be a great poem. To my taste, Rilke in English has little of it, and what I have understood of the third aspect does not appeal to me much. There, I suppose, is where Guardini failed to persuade me: Rilke is a thinker, and, whatever the merits of his thought may be, it seems that my notion that there was something in it for me was mistaken. There remain a number of instances of the second aspect which are remarkable and memorable, passages which are thrilling to read, like the opening I quoted. 

I wonder if some of the first-aspect defects of Rilke have to do with the German language itself. Some poets in some languages seem to survive the translation journey in better shape than others. Baudelaire, for instance, is to my taste, in the translations I've read, better English poetry than most of the Rilke I've read in English. That's an almost-ridiculous statement, because the poets are so vastly different, and that difference is probably more important than the difference in languages. But it makes me wonder.

Consider the German word "dasein," which is translated as "existence" in the Spender-Leishman Rilke quote above, and as "being" in Corn's. I only have a smattering of German, but I think the word combines "there" ("da") and "being" ("sein"), and I think it implies a very concrete sense of existence, something stronger than the abstract "existence" or "being." It even sounds more forceful. But we don't have an English word for "there-being" or "being-there-ness." And something is lost. 

Another instance: on my first reading of the Spender-Leishman translation I was struck by the awkwardness of a sentence from the Seventh Elegy: "Life here's glorious!" Ugh. Corn has "just being here is glorious." Better. But the German is "Hiersein ist herrlich": roughly, "here-zein ist herrlish": catchy, you might say. And as with "dasein," "hiersein" combines "being" with a sort of placement, and, again, with no English equivalent.

Well, I have gone on well past my usual limit for a blog post. In my own experience as a reader of online stuff, impatience sets in at around a thousand words. And this is about to top two thousand. So, one last thing: I will probably read Rilke again, but mainly for those second-aspect passages, those rhapsodic figures:

But because being here amounts to so much, because all
this Here and Now, so fleeting, seems to require us and strangely
concerns us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
                                (Ninth Elegy, Spender-Leishman translation)


* If you want to know who "Marie" was, see this excellent annotated version of "The Waste Land" at The Poetry Foundation.

Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh, conducted by Carlos Kleiber

I can't find it now, but I'm almost certain that it was someone's comment here, probably Rob G's, that made me aware of Kleiber's recording of these two symphonies. I don't think it was all that long ago--five years? surely not ten?--but it was probably before I had most currently available recorded music at my fingertips via streaming, because I bought the CD. But it was only a week ago that I finally got around to listening to it.

This event was set in motion several weeks ago when I heard Beethoven's Sixth performed by the Mobile Symphony. I had really been looking forward to it, and I did enjoy it, but found it a bit of a letdown. Perhaps that had to do with the performance, and the unfair comparison between the perfection of recordings by the world's greatest performers, and the good but not world-class work of a lesser orchestra. On the other hand, any half-decent live performance has something that no recording can provide. So I don't think it was the orchestra's fault. I felt more that it was the work itself, that I just didn't like it as much as I had thought. Perhaps it was just my mood. Or perhaps it's age: I was effusive about the Sixth fifteen years ago.

Discussing this with my friend who's a classical music expert led to her recommending this recording. "Well, actually, I have it, but have never heard it." She assured me that it would knock my socks off, or words to that effect. I attempted to dampen that expectation, reminding her that I'm not all that sensitive to performance. 

But she was right. I suppose I've heard the Fifth a dozen or so times over fifty years, and of course I like it, but it had never electrified me before. If my socks had physically behaved as the metaphor says, they would have landed on the bookshelf across the room. And the Seventh was if anything even better. 

I'm obliged, in honesty and in acknowledgement of my lack of sensitivity to nuance in performance, to say that I think the recording itself, I mean the sonic quality of the production, played a part in my reaction. It is stunningly sharp and clear and its dynamic range is so great that I thought it must be a digital recording. But it was made in the '70s, when digital recording was still in its infancy. The conversion to digital for the CD used "Original-Image Bit-Processing," whatever that means, so maybe that's part of the reason.

And obviously the clarity is primarily the work of the Vienna Philharmonic itself, which seems almost superhumanly precise. 


I guess it would be superfluous to say that I recommend this recording. Looks like it's on YouTube but I doubt that the sound quality would be as good as the CD.

I didn't know anything about Kleiber beyond his name. I vaguely wondered why, if this recording is considered so great, I had not heard his name more. I found part of the answer in the Wikipedia article; he seems to have been an unusual character, with an unusual career. A conductor who "kept out of the public eye"? That's odd. He didn't make all that many recordings. 


By the way, the Mobile Symphony concert included a flute concerto by Lowell Lieberman. I had no more than the vaguest recollection that I might have heard the composer's name before, and figured that this was what someone has referred to as the OOMP of this concert: Obligatory Opening Modern Piece: spiky, slight, not particularly engaging, and, one hopes, not too long. And I didn't expect it to be especially good. But it is. I wanted to hear it again.

Also, it was not the opening piece. That was Beethoven's Creatures of Prometheus overture. As far as I recall I had never heard it before. I don't really care whether I ever hear it again, either. I've mentioned before that I feel some sort of basic temperamental incompatibility with Beethoven. That doesn't matter with his great works, like the two symphonies here, but I don't think this is one of them.

Ridiculous Headline of the Week

From the New York Times:

DeSantis Says He Would Pass a Bill to ‘Supersede’ Obamacare

I'm not even bothering with a link, just as I didn't bother clicking on the headline. I wouldn't have been able to read it, and in this case the headline is the story.

I hope I don't have to tell you what's wrong with it. Was it written by an intern who never had a civics class? Who knows?

There's a serious matter behind this, though. Far too many Americans have no real idea of how our system works, still less how it's meant to work, and don't really care. They think they are ruled by one person--whoever has the presidency--and the idea doesn't bother them. They don't want self-government. They want to be ruled by a benevolent despot who will take care of them. I cringe every time I hear someone say "Obama gave us" or "Trump gave us" or "Biden gave us" some desirable thing, frequently one over which the president has little or no control. 

I wrote about this at some length a year and a half or so ago.

Andrew Marvell and That Chariot

Douglas Murray, in his weekly poetry column at The Free Press, pays tribute to the most famous poem of Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress." (I was told long ago that his name is pronounced "marVELL," rhyming with "bell.")

I should say "deservedly famous." The poem is a standard anthology piece, and until yesterday I don't think I had read the whole thing since I was in college. But it occupies more space in my mind than that would suggest, partly because it occupies more space in literary culture. Eliot alluded to it in "The Waste Land":

But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors....

I can think of several other references, including a well-known poem by Archibald MacLeish, "You, Andrew Marvell."

And partly, in recent years, because I'm haunted by the couplet which Eliot is echoing:

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near....

As a friend of mine who's around my age said not long ago "Time's wingèd chariot is idling in my driveway."

It seems to be a well-known fact of psychology if not of physics that the velocity of time's passage increases in inverse proportion to its remaining quantity. Almost as big a mystery is this question: Knowing that time is passing more swiftly, and that I don't have all that much of it left, why--why why why?--do I continue to waste as much of it as I do? 

Jordan Peterson's Wife Becomes Catholic

See this article in the Catholic Herald.

I don't, obviously, try to follow the news here. I didn't even write about the October 7th invasion/massacre in Israel, or anything that's followed it, but I have certainly given it a lot of my attention. But this seems significant in a way not very far distant from some of the things I do write about, e.g. posts in the "Catholic Stuff" category, to warrant mention.

Peterson is an interesting guy. Interesting and smart. I haven't read any of his books but I've seen him in interviews and talks and he has, as you probably know, a great many very sensible things to say, and apparently a strong and healthy respect for the religious traditions of Western civilization. That's enough to make him unusual for someone who has as much popular appeal as he does. I don't think anyone would be surprised if he followed his wife into the Church. 

Ridiculous Headlines of Recent Days

This one actually appeared on the 15th, so is more than ten days old. But it didn't get any less ridiculous.  

Government Can't Solve the Loneliness Crisis

It appeared in National Review, and, as you might suppose, it's a government-skeptical response to an outlandish idea for a new government project.

I just can't think of anything much to say about the very idea that government could possibly do anything at all about loneliness. I think you have to be...well, I won't say crazy, but definitely somewhat off, to believe that it could. And as for the alleged "loneliness crisis," the term suggests that, as with inflation, there is some acceptable level of loneliness in society, that it can be measured, and that when it exceeds the acceptable level Somebody Ought To Do Something.

That widespread loneliness exists is surely true; that it's worse and more widespread than it used to be is probably true. That the government, which is to say politicians and bureaucrats, can or should try to do something about it is extremely doubtful. George W. Bush once said "When people are hurting, government has to act." In context, which was a natural disaster, the remark made more sense, but still, it struck me as odd.

Ok, that's all pretty goofy. But the NR story is responding to something that strikes me as being out-and-out crazy. It's a press release from the office of the governor of New York:

Governor Hochul Appoints Dr. Ruth Westheimer New York State's Honorary Ambassador to Loneliness

You remember "Dr. Ruth," right? An old bawd--that was always my impression of her--who ran a talk show giving sex advice? She's now 94 years old but is nevertheless ready to "work day and night to help New Yorkers feel less lonely!" Filling in the background, the press release defines the terms for us: "Loneliness is defined as the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social interaction, while social isolation refers to a lack of social connections." 

There's a great deal to mock in that press release, but it's more trouble than it's worth. (Why is it an ambassador to loneliness? How can you have an ambassador to an emotion? Why not to the lonely?) And anyway the word "honorary" suggests that it's only meant as a gesture. I'll just make one broader observation: Dr. Ruth's career (my impression confirmed by Wikipedia) was as a propagandist for the sexual revolution. Like essentially all of that stripe, she apparently has never considered the possibility that the success of that revolution may have contributed to the loneliness and other social ills that she does at least notice. No; the solution is always that the revolution has not gone far enough and must push ever onward. It's as if the successors of Robespierre and Company had concluded that the problem was that too few heads had been separated from bodies, and more must roll.

Some social progressives seem to be very close to proclaiming something which is strongly implied by things like this: that the enemy is the human condition, and that they intend to eliminate it. Which perhaps they are doing, but not exactly in the way they imagine. 

Here's a current ridiculous headline, from the Washington Post:

Antagonisms flare as red states try to dictate how blue cities are run

This is funny because "blue" America is constantly striving to dictate how "red" America is run, and has been doing so for many years. It's a major component of Democratic Party politics now, as well as of the work of many progressive institutions. And it's a major component of the forces dividing the country. (I haven't looked at the story; it's behind a pretty opaque paywall.)

Kids These Days and Their Crazy Music

When I was twenty-ish, and probably for some years afterward, I assumed that the music of my generation would be received by my children and those who came after in the way my generation received the popular music of our parents' generation--Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, and all the other music of the '30s and '40s which began to be pushed aside by rock-and-roll in the 1950s, but persisted into the '60s, to be disdained by young people for many of whom popular music was many things more than music. It was music for old people, meaning middle-aged and older. It was boring, it was corny (what is the contemporary equivalent of that term?), it was a fashion that had had its day and was now deader than the racoons in a racoon coat, deader than twenty-three-skidoo (whatever that meant) and speakeasies. And moreover for those who were really part of the youth culture that produced the music, it was an emblem of the old straight conformist commercialized world against which we had rebelled. 

All that was at least half absurd, of course, as the putatively counter-cultural music of the mid-to-late 1960s was inextricably bound to the corporate music business which sold it to us, profiting very well from it. It still surprises me a little to recall that The Velvet Underground and Nico was available in record stores in the small southern town where I went to college. Granted, it was a college town, but still....

I expected my generation, and the music of my generation, to meet the same fate. Somewhat to my surprise, that didn't happen. My children (for the most part) took to rock music as readily as my generation had. By 1980 or so, when the '60s kids were well into middle age, the music of our late adolescence had become "classic rock," and younger people listened to it as much as we did. Now, forty years later, the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix are still widely liked by people who were young enough to be their children, and even, theoretically at least, young enough to be their grandchildren. On my bookshelf there is an instructional book for guitar called Jimi Hendrix Note-for-Note, which is exactly what the title says, and was left behind by one of my now-forty-something children.

In expecting that rejection, I was of course completely misreading what was going on: the music of the cultural revolution continued to be favored in part because the revolution succeeded. But that's another topic.

On the other side of that division were the old folks whose reaction to rock-and-roll in general and to post-1965 rock in particular ranged from puzzled to outraged. They might acknowledge that the Beatles sometimes had some good tunes, and the radio still played a lot of fairly conventional music, but the whole hippie side of the thing made no sense to them. Why would a band call themselves the Grateful Dead? Or the Jefferson Airplane? Why would anybody want to look like that? Why would anybody want to listen to that stuff?

Now, at last, I have some idea of what they felt. I've noticed for several years now that on the infrequent occasions when I hear current pop music that I have a distinct and sometimes strong--very strong--aversion to it, not just to individual pieces but to the basic sound. A few days ago, deciding that I should take a closer listen, I watched this video in which Rick Beato listens to the Top 10 songs (as measured by Spotify, not Billboard, as of old) and evaluates them. You may know of Beato--his music-related videos are very popular and usually interesting. The title of this one tells you what he thought.

I had that adverse reaction--by which I mean "I hate this"--to at least half the songs he samples. (I've forgotten which ones now.) Beato supports his reaction with rational, music-based specifics. But I don't really care to analyze my reasons. Suffice to say that in those cases I hate the vocals and the instrumentation and, usually, the songs, or "songs." (With that last bit of snark I recall my grandmother, ca. 1966, saying "These songs today don't have any tune to them.") 

A few remarks: (1) I think rap/hip-hop has had a big part to play in all this, especially in the un-song songs which tend to consist of uninteresting complaints. (2) I absolutely cannot stand the "warble" effect produced on vocals with Auto-Tune--the impossible leaps and twists of pitch and tone that don't even sound human, because they aren't. Beato and others say that Auto-Tune, when used for its intended purpose--to make a note absolutely on pitch--takes the life out of music, and I believe it. But that warble is, to my ears, death itself, musically speaking. I suppose to say that a sound is like fingernails on a chalk board may no longer make sense, when chalkboards have probably long since disappeared from classrooms. If so, I guess it's appropriate that I use an obsolete comparison. (3) I was a little surprised at how bland and dull the Taylor Swift track is. I've never heard much of her stuff but I've had the impression that she is pretty gifted.

In general most current commercial pop doesn't register on my ears as music. It seems just a sort of processed sound product--Cheez-Whiz for the ears. I denounce it without shame, embracing my out-of-touch-old-man identity.

I am by the way very aware that there is plenty of good pop music being made, some of it no doubt by people under thirty. But it doesn't seem to make it into the mainstream. 

The Synod's Deep Depravity Revealed

They want us all to participate in a structured "discernment" process guided by facilitators. Perhaps, being progressives with a bureaucratic-administrative sort of mindset--i.e. the sort of people who like this sort of thing--they don't realize that for many or most others it's partly to be ridiculed and partly to be feared. It's frequently manipulative, aimed at pushing a group in a certain direction while providing a veneer of consensus.

I wonder if it's not just frequently but intrinsically so. Maybe not. But I don't think I'm far off in thinking that most people who have been obliged to participate in it see it as something of a sham. This is especially true if the "facilitators" are in positions of power over the facilitated. I'm slightly surprised that America magazine would spill the beans on this. But here is the former editor, Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., asserting that "Pope Francis wants the synod in every parish":

Like the members of the synod, parishioners should be divided into groups of 10 members sitting at round tables.

In addition, at the synod, there was an experienced facilitator to guide the members of each group in the process. The facilitator’s job is not to impose his or her views on the group but to be an impartial moderator who encourages respectful listening and makes sure everyone is able to participate.

Each group also chooses a secretary to draft a report of the group’s discussions.

The actual work of the small groups involves “conversation in the Spirit” on the question they want to discern. The question could be a decision facing the parish or any of the topics (Communion, Mission, Participation) outlined in the synod working paper or Instrumentum Laboris. Perhaps most fruitful would be reflection on the questions that come out of the first session of the synod, which ends this week.

Etc. etc. You can read his whole proposal here. And here's a link to a PDF of the PowerPoint presentation (of course) outlining the process as implemented in the synod. 

At the parish level, I doubt that many people apart from those odd ones who thrive on committees and meetings and such would really want to do this. Likely conclusion, whether at synod or parish: "The Spirit is telling us to do what we wanted to do. Our God is a God of surprises!"

Or maybe I'm just too cynical. That's probably it. 

There was a similar program back in the '80s. It was called Renew. Everybody who participated recalls it with excitement and nostalgia. Those who are too young speak of it reverently and regret that they were not present for it. Right?

Ridiculous Headline of The (Previous) Week

Starbucks Reveals Holday [sic] 2023 Menu and Cups

Last week I had to choose between this one and the one about racist birds. Unlike that one, this one is merely ridiculous. Or maybe not. The position of Starbucks in American culture is creepy to say the least. And I really don't like the thing we now call Holiday

I was sorry to hear recently that a Starbucks may be opening here. It's likely to displace several locally-owned coffee shops. 

Also, I don't like their coffee.


As I think I mentioned not too long ago, I've been going through old notebooks containing odds and ends of writing, with the aim of getting rid of the notebooks, as part of a bigger de-cluttering process. Some of the material is drafts of blog posts or essays which were eventually published. Much is only fragments, briefly noted ideas, not worth preserving. A few are more substantial. This is one. I have no very definite idea of when I wrote it, but I think it was at least fifteen  years ago. 

I seem to develop allergies to certain words or phrases from time to time. I'll notice myself having an irritable reaction to a word such as, for instance, "empowerment." Once I realize that this is happening I begin to analyze the term and usually find that it is being used in some way that strikes me as dishonest, evasive, or simply wrong.

The first instance of this which I can recall at the moment occurred in the late '60s or early '70s, and the word was "lifestyle." It seemed a harmless, perhaps even useful, term, but it always rubbed me wrong. Eventually I figured out that it was the savor of self-indulgence about it that put me off, and soon enough it became clear that it had two meanings: one, a way of living which ran defiantly counter to traditional morality, as in "alternative lifestyle," and, two, money, as in "we'd like to maintain our lifestyle." (Test-drive it and see: try talking about "the Trappist lifestyle"; it should make you feel uneasy.)

"Values" is another such irritating word. What's wrong with it? Isn't the lack of "values" one of our serious problems? Don't we need values? If so, why do I feel gloom descending upon me when I read in the bulletin of a Catholic college that it is "committed to Catholic values"?

The problem is that values alone are not worth much. The term has come to mean a mere preference.

That was all I wrote at the time. But I know that what I meant to go on and say was that "values" are not principles. "Values" are soft, malleable, somewhat subjective, possibly even a matter of personal inclination. Principles are hard and fixed. You can stand on them.

Catholic values are fine; they ought to include many qualities which almost everyone would applaud--in a Catholic college, they ought to include, for instance, academic excellence. Concern for justice and peace, if taken in a non-ideological sense, is a worthy value. But notice that those are abstract and a little vague. Why are these things valued? What are the principles which justify their being valued? If they aren't founded on Catholic principles--by which I mean the faith itself, starting with the creeds--then what? And with what justification? 

The gloom I described arises from a suspicion that use of the word "values" is often an attempt, possibly unconscious, to avoid or minimize that foundation, in the interest of appearing more accommodating to the secular modern suspicion of religion as such.


One casualty of the winnowing and discarding process I mentioned was some dozens of pages of a novel for which I once had great hopes. I could still see glimpses of promise in it, but not many. It was a little painful to discard those scribbled pages and close the door on that project forever.

I'm always a little annoyed by the cheerful counsel that "it's never too late!" to do this or that thing that you always wanted to do. Sometimes it really is. Sure, I could start working on that novel again, but it would be at the expense of spending time on other things I want to do or should do. At my age I can be pretty certain that I won't have time and/or good health for them all. 

Ridiculous Headline of the Week

Say Goodbye to America’s Racist Birds

The headline is ridiculous, and the news it links to is not only ridiculous but much more: crazy, sick, arguably wicked. You may have seen other news stories about this: the American Ornithological Society has decided that many bird names "have associations with the past that continue to be exclusionary and harmful today." 

Are these people not among the most insufferably self-righteous twits who have ever walked the earth? They have taken passive-aggression to undreamed of heights. And it's very hurtful.  

The headline makes the effort sound even crazier than it is. Even "activists" would have a very hard time convincing themselves that the birds themselves are racists. 

There is a hawk called Cooper's Hawk. I have no idea who Cooper was--not James Fenimore, I presume? Or maybe it was. In any case, he lived before our Red Guards began to do their work of purification, and is therefore automatically under suspicion. It won't take much to convict him. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Judging individual cases would be a big hassle, so they're just going to rename all the birds whose names include the names of persons. I expect the people who will actually feel better when this is done are not those who are said to feel "excluded" when they hear the words "Cooper's Hawk," but the activists who are enjoying the exercise of their power. 

And I suppose they won't get rid of the slur-adjacent "woodpecker," which is pretty much the same thing as "peckerwood."

I must, however, applaud the first comment on that story:


Shoegaze and Not-Shoegaze

Here are two albums I've been listening to recently: Under the Milkyway...Who Cares? by Seasurfer, and everything is alive by Slowdive. (I'm following the typography used by both bands.) The first can fairly be classified as "shoegaze;" one recognizes the basic sound immediately. I think of the other as "not-shoegaze" because Slowdive helped to define the style, and is always one of the first names mentioned when it's discussed, but this album really doesn't fit the mold. 

Slowdive existed for roughly five years in the early 1990s, then broke up, with three of its four members carrying on as a mostly-acoustic band called Mojave 3. Then Slowdive reformed around 2015 and in 2017 put out a new self-titled album, which is very much in their old style and is one of those fairly rare comebacks which fans generally consider as good as the band's earlier work.

All of which is to say that I expected this new release to continue in that vein.

Well, I was wrong. The first song, "shanty," opens with a synthesizer loop which made me think I was listening to Tangerine Dream, but then moves into something closer to the old sound. The next song, "prayer remembered," is almost ambient; there may or may not be a faint vocal mist in there somewhere. I thought of instrumental post-rock groups like Hammock and Explosions In the Sky. "alife" comes closer to a typical shoegaze sound than most of the album, and it's excellent. "andalucia plays" sounds more like Mojave 3 than Slowdive. And so on. Actually the whole notion of "typical Slowdive" was exploded by Pygmalion, the last album of the band's initial incarnation, so the variety here is not a new thing for them.

Though very varied in texture from one song to the next, the album remains fairly subdued throughout; not much jumps out at you as being brilliant. I was a bit disappointed in it on first listen, but it's continued to grow on me. Set aside categories and expectations: it's subtle, evocative music with a quiet emotional touch, well and carefully produced with a lot of interesting sonic detail. I remain disappointed only with the closing track, "the slab," which is to my taste monotonous without compensatory beauty.

This is possibly the closest track to what one might expect of the band. You might want to look away from the video if you're bothered, as I am, by spacey visual patterns. 

Under the Milkyway opens with a blast of noisy guitars and drums which more than justifies the oft-noted commonality between some shoegaze and some metal. That leads into "It's Too Late," which will do as well as any as a sample track--unlike the Slowdive album, this one is fairly consistent in basic sound. 

It's a curiously habit-forming album. I've listened to it at least five times over the past couple of months, which is unusual for me. And I haven't tired of it; I just keep liking it more. Definitely recommended to anyone who likes the basic sound. 

(p.s. Thanks, Rob)

A Halloween Poem

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. 

(I don't understand the relatively recent American fixation on Halloween.)

Ridiculous Headline of the Week

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. 

"Peak Post-Conciliar"

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?

And so I am passing along these remarks from Amy Welborn

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.

Night of the Living Deadhead

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

DeadheadIn 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

J. K. Rowling and the Sexual Revolution

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). 

That's 1304 words. Sorry.

Louise Perry On The Sexual Revolution

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 Wild Bach Composition

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.

Great Expectations

(If I'm going to assume people know who wrote Dune, I should do no less for this much greater novel.)

I think now that the version of Great Expectations which I read in the ninth grade must have been abridged, as it appeared in our literature textbook along with a number of short stories and poems, and it's not a brief book--not that long as Dickens novels go, but substantial. I also wonder whether it was simplified for us, because there are many passages that would be difficult for most fifteen-year-olds. Nor do I recall the confusion I think I would have experienced in trying to make sense of the locations in and near London which Dickens assumes are known to his readers. But maybe I've just forgotten that.

I do remember the principal characters--the orphaned boy Pip; his shrew of a sister who has grudgingly taken him in, along with her good-hearted husband Joe; the convict Magwich; the half-crazed and vengeful Miss Havisham and her young ward Estella. And I remember the basics of the story. Above all I remember the cold beauty Estella and Pip's hopeless obsessive love for her. I don't know about the average fifteen-year-old, but I at that age was ever ready for and usually involved in some intense infatuation. Pip's condition spoke to my own.

I doubt that I missed the irony of the title. But I also doubt that I fully savored it, because I would not have known that it was a conventional phrase with a more specific meaning than I would have realized. Apparently it referred to the expectation of a substantial inheritance or other gift of money and/or property, and of course would not have had for me the connotations that it did for those accustomed to its everyday use. If there were today (and maybe there is) a novel called Doing Well about a person or family with a lot of money and as much trouble, the title would have a resonance for us which it might not have a century from now, or to anyone who for cultural reasons did not recognize the financial implications of the phrase. (I've heard it said of the Philadelphia Quakers that "they came to America to do good, and they did well.")

But I didn't need that nuance to feel the shock of the difference between what Pip expected and what he actually received. If you know the story you know that the irony twists around again to make the collapse of Pip's expectations the making of him as a man. At the height of his brief ascent, he seems to be turning into an insufferable popinjay. I really didn't remember how he dealt with his benefactor after he learned the truth, and was pleased to find that he rose to the occasion, at great cost to himself.

Great Expectations was right around a hundred years old when I first read it. Now we are both sixty years older, and I've just re-read it for the first time. I like it more now than I did then--perhaps with less intensity, but certainly with more respect. Pip's lunatic quasi-love for Estella no longer touches me as it did, except as a memory of my own youth. More interesting to me now is the Estella who appears in the last few pages, humbled by suffering. And still more interesting is the Estella she might have become: if Pip had married her, would he have found, fifteen or twenty years later, that he had married the temperamental twin of his sister? Or would she have become a solid woman, as Pip became a solid man, a woman whom he would not have loved less as her beauty faded?

Dickens, as you may know, wrote two endings, one happy and one unhappy. The latter was his original intention, but he was talked out of it by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and wrote another, which was the one published. Personally I would like to have them combined. The happy one has a meeting and a substantial conversation between Pip and Estella, and a promise that they will never part; the unhappy one has only a brief encounter, and a parting that seems almost deathlike. I like the conversation in the happy one, in part for the insight it gives into the development of the two people. But a happy ending stains the sadder-but-wiser purity of the condition in which we leave them.

The two endings have in common a memorable figure: the possibility that Estella now understands (in the happy ending), or will someday understand (in the unhappy one), "what [Pip's] heart used to be." Dickens must have thought that was worth keeping, and he was right.

The 19th century was the great age of both the symphony and the novel, the age which fully defined and perfected them. The latter has fared better than the former since then (or has it?--I'll have to think about that), and Dickens's best work might serve as the exemplar. Yes, Great Expectations, like some other Dickens novels, is often sentimental and often relies on improbable coincidences. But it's a great story, and although it doesn't deal explicitly or directly with the big questions (as, for instance, Dostoevsky's work does), they are very much alive in the plot and characters. There's a strong argument that they should only or mainly be found there, but there are many exceptions. Dostoevsky would not be a great novelist if they were only explicit, and not also implicit; that is, not only also fully embodied.