No More Posts Till Easter Monday

As is fairly usual with me, I started off pretty well with Lent and gradually got slacker and lazier. I'm going to make an effort during Holy Week to attend more to the occasion. It seems especially important this year since I can't actually go to Mass. So I won't be posting anymore till Monday April 13. I'll still participate in conversations, if there are any, but there won't be any new posts. 

Today for the first time since public Masses were cancelled I watched one on television. As I said in a comment here a couple of weeks or so ago, a televised Mass just seems all wrong to me in some fundamental way that I haven't made the effort to articulate. I don't mean religiously wrong, just off. Unreal. Weird. But I have already noticed a tendency on my part to start drifting without the anchor of weekly Mass (and also in my case a weekly holy hour--which I still do at home but of course it's not the same). I keep thinking of what Janet said about the Japanese Christians who held on to the faith for...what was it?...250 years without priests, and I'm ashamed.

Slant Books: Web Site and Blog

Perhaps you're aware of Greg Wolfe's new enterprise, Slant Books. Slant is:

a literary imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers specializing in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essay collections, and beyond. 

Wipf and Stock, as you probably know, is a theologically-oriented publisher. You can read a bit more about both the house and the imprint here

Slant has a new web site, and a new blog called Close Reading, which is off to a very interesting start. That title phrase is one I'm fond of, and haven't heard for a long time. It was a sort of ideal or at least a highly regarded practice back when I was on the fringes of literary academia, and to me it was tied up with a more or less moral ideal of intellectual integrity. I'm a little surprised that it's survived, since the kind of close reading I hear of these days often seems to be more along the lines of the "interrogation" practiced by post-modernists, for which the association of the word with secret police and beatings is often far too appropriate. But here is what it means at Slant:

Close Reading is the art of paying attention to the ways that literary form and meaning interact. In our politicized era, when craft and vision have often been replaced by propaganda, the art of close reading reminds us that great literature deepens our respect for mystery and the divided nature of the human heart — and in so doing offers us hope for healing and reconciliation.

I'll certainly be following the blog. And as for Slant's titles, well, at this point I don't have much personal experience, but what I have seen is excellent. As those who read this blog may be aware, I don't read a lot of contemporary literature, which is in large part because I'm still trying to read the classics. But I did buy Daniel Taylor's mystery, Do We Not Bleed?, some months ago.  It's the second in a series, and I enjoyed it for several chapters until I decided that I really needed to know more about the background of the narrator and his odd sister, Judy. So I bought Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, which I've barely started but is off to a great start: its more-or-less-accidental detective seems to be a Walker-Percy-ish sort of character, "expert on a thousand things I wish I didn't know." (That reminds me of one of my favorite pop song lines, Bob Seger's in "Against the Wind": "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then.") 

One thing I can say with certainty is that these books are beautifully produced. Here are the links again:

Slant Books

Close Reading

"intrinsically alive"

Today's Gospel reading is the story of Lazarus. The daily meditation in Magnificat is a couple of paragraphs from Romano Guardini's The Lord in which he comments on this incident. This in particular struck me:

Jesus stands alone with all that he is, the only one intrinsically alive among so many mortals.... [my emphasis]

You could say that that is the essential fact about Jesus. I only say "could say," not that it certainly is, because one could probably make that claim for other formulations, other declarations about his nature as God and man. But it strikes me as especially decisive. No one else who has ever walked on earth has had life as an intrinsic attribute. Only God does. 

You should be able to read the whole meditation at this link. I heartily recommend the book.

This month's Magnificat cover is Rembrandt's depiction of the raising of Lazarus. Or rather a detail thereof: the cover "zooms in" on Jesus, and does not include the figure of Lazarus, which is visible in the painting.


The Minding Scripture Podcast

Here's something for you to do at home if or when you are sick of reading, listening to music, and watching movies and TV. (That's meant as a joke. Personally I don't think I could ever get entirely sick of doing those things; each of them separately, maybe, if I couldn't switch to one of the others.)

"Minding Scripture" is a podcast from Notre Dame (University of, not cathedral) in which a group of scholars drawn from the Big 3 monotheistic traditions look at the various scriptures of each from the point of view of their own faith. There is a core group of four Notre Dame faculty members (see this), of whom Francesca Murphy is one, and who are joined for specific episodes by experts in the topic at hand. 

When I first heard of this I didn't think it would be my cup of tea; scripture scholarship is not high on my list of interests. Much lower on my list of interests, usually down into the realm of active avoidance, is discussion of "the historical Jesus," which I generally take as suggesting that the Jesus of the Church is, to put it bluntly, imaginary. But out of curiosity I decided to give Episode 2: The Historical Jesus a try, and found it quite interesting, though if I heard correctly, the visiting expert--John Meier, author of Jesus: A Marginal Jew--said near the end that there is almost nothing in the Gospels that we can take as being the actual words of Jesus. I emphasize "if I heard correctly," because I was listening while out for a walk and was crossing a busy street at that point. I never went back to see if he really said that, but even if he did, I don't have to (and don't) buy it, and there were a lot of interesting details about the life and language of the times.

I went from there to Episode 4: The Translation of Scripture, in part because David Bentley Hart is one of the visitors (the other is Robert Alter), and I really wanted to hear what he sounded like. Answer: exactly what I expected. That episode was completely fascinating, and I can recommend it without reservation.

I've listened to a couple of others now, and I don't know that I'll listen to all of them (there are currently seven). But the series is certainly worth checking out; the conversations are both engaging and interesting. Here's the link again.

Since you can't go to Mass today...

(I think this is relevant to all Christians, not only Catholics but at least those whose communions have a liturgy, and worth the attention of those who don't. Or for that matter anyone who cares about the Western musical and spiritual tradition.)

Since you can't go to Mass today, probably, allow me to suggest that you listen to one of the great musical settings of the Latin Mass. One of my Lenten things this year--I can't truly call it much of a penance, but "discipline" is justifiable--is to confine my listening to sacred music. So far that's mostly been settings of the Mass, and, if you do this attentively--not just playing it in the background while you cook or wash the dishes or something--it's more or less inevitable that you will attend very carefully to the words and reflect on them.

So far I've mainly spent time with Bach's Mass in B-Minor, which of course I had heard before, having bought one recording way back in the late '60s (I think) and another in the '80s,  but never really gotten to know. It takes a bit of effort, as the work is something of a monster. It requires somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours to perform, depending on the conductor, and was never performed in Bach's lifetime. And if you're like me you may have trouble listening to two straight hours of non-operatic music (opera has a plot, and characters). But that's ok. The Kyrie and Gloria together run well over half an hour, the Credo most of a half-hour. And each of those sections is a complete musical work as well as theological statement.

My two recordings are pretty much opposite interpretations. You can gather that from the running times: two hours and fifteen minutes for one, an hour and forty-five for the other. The slow one is the one I bought when I was in college: Otto Klemperer, the BBC Chorus, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and an all-star group of vocal soloists including Janet Baker. The faster one is John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists, and vocal soloists whose names I don't recognize (not that that means much, except that they aren't superstars). (I don't know why an orchestra calls itself "Soloists".) 

The Klemperer is rich and majestic. The Gardiner is clear and lively. The former is, to speak very loosely, more or less in the more or less romantic tradition of Bach performance, while the latter is pretty much a textbook example of what's called the "HIP" approach--Historically Informed Performance.  (You can read about it at Wikipedia.) I think the two camps have at times been at war over the past several decades. I know some traditionalists hate the thinner, drier sound of period instruments, and some HIPsters mock the grandiosity of Mahler-ready orchestras and choruses applied to 18th century music. 

But I am very happy to have both these recordings. Very happy indeed. The traditional recording brings greater depth (in every sense) to some parts, but the big powerful choir and orchestra sometimes overwhelm the counterpoint or just seem inappropriate, too much. The HIP one is wonderfully clear, but the more somber, heavier parts have less emotional power. 

Thanks to YouTube, you can compare them for yourself. Yesterday I listened to the Laudate section of the Gloria four times, twice in each version. (The work is so massive that each idea or sentence in the text gets its own separate composition.) And I really like both. This is one part where there is, to my taste, no definite preference. I really like the light, bright quality of the Gardiner. The singer, compared to Janet Baker, sounds almost girlish, which for this section is appropriate, as is the sprightly tempo. But the violin obbligato, which is beautiful in the Klemperer, is anemic in the Gardiner. And so on.

I'm speaking as if you only have to take your recording off the shelf and put it on. But if you don't own one maybe you subscribe to one of the streaming music services. Or you can listen to one of the many recordings, whole or partial, that seem to be available on YouTube. If your knowledge of the Latin texts is no better than mine, and you don't own a recording which would typically include the texts, you'll probably need something you can read. You could start here and find the parts.



My Contribution to KOVID Konfusion this article at a health and science site called Stat: A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data

The site seems sane and credible, and most of the stories about COVID-19 are fairly typical; that is, it's not some dodgy sensationalist site. And the author has credentials: "John P.A. Ioannidis is professor of medicine, of epidemiology and population health, of biomedical data science, and of statistics at Stanford University and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center."

He believes the evidence on which decisions are being made is "a fiasco." And if it's seriously overestimating the danger, then

...locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational. It’s like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.

You can read it for yourself at the link above and make up your own mind. Well, no, I guess it won't work that way, because the author doesn't know, either, and one can still say "Better to do too much than too little."

Up to a point.

3:10 To Yuma

Several years ago (more than several, actually) I had the notion of watching the old-time Westerns that are considered classics. I went through several of them--The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and maybe a couple of others. I was somewhat disappointed, especially as I loved Western stuff when I was a kid, and didn't go any further. 

The other day something reminded me of another film that's usually ranked with those others, 3:10 To Yuma, from 1957. I found it on the Criterion Channel, which I have not used very much and am wondering whether I should cancel, and watched it, in two roughly 45-minute sessions.

I really liked it, and it's definitely my favorite of its type at this point. It's a good story, pretty convincing for the most part in spite of the conventions of the time. It's about a rancher who ends up, more or less against his will, solely responsible for getting a captured outlaw on that 3:10 train, with the outlaw's gang trying to stop him. Glenn Ford, atypically, plays the outlaw, and is very effective--genial and charming with just a hint of menace. 

But what I really love about it is the photography. It's very crisp black-and-white, and full of the Western scenery that I love. The story is set in southern Arizona, and I think it may have been shot there, or perhaps in some part of southern California where the landscape is similar. You can get a sense of the quality in this Criterion Collection trailer:

The song, by the way, has nothing at all to do with the plot, except for the title reference. 

The movie is based on an Elmore Leonard story by the same name. Being an admirer of Leonard, I was curious about the original story, and found it at the local library in a collection called The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories. I suppose I have to say that I was disappointed in the story. It's pretty slight, its action including only roughly the last half of the movie. It's a case where you could argue that the movie is better than the story, though I don't really trust my judgment there, since I encountered the movie first. Some of the other stories in the collection are really good, though. And they have a sort of potato-chip, can't-eat-just-one appeal. I think I've read half of them now, and I only got the book a couple of days ago, with no intention of reading more than the one story.

There's a 2007 remake of the movie which apparently got pretty good reviews. I may watch it sometime. My interest was dampened a bit by a clip which I saw on YouTube, thinking it was just sort of a trailer, which gave away the very different ending.

Many years ago in college I had a Southern Lit teacher who had a very old-style  genteel southern accent, and who once, when whispering and giggling broke out in class, said to the culprits "I fail to see the humor." Only in his accent it came out as "I fail to see the Yuma."  It's unfortunate for me that I still remember that after almost fifty years.

Words and Numbers

As you may have seen, people have been having a lot of fun with this:

The actual number of dollars per citizen, of course is not 1,000,000, but 1 (sticking with whole numbers). It is a ludicrous mistake, and I had my laugh. And I wouldn't bother to comment on it, but I got to thinking about it, and I think I can see the mental mechanism that probably led to the mistake. I suspect it has to do with the use of the word "millions" instead of numerals. You see this:

Mike spent 500 [million]. There are 327 [million] people in this country. If he had distributed his 500 [millions] equally among the people, how many [millions] would each have received?

Since both numbers are a count of "millions," the mind tends to drop the words and focus only on the numbers:

Mike spent 500. There are 327 . If he had distributed his 500 equally....

Any third grader can see that 327 goes into 500 once, but not twice. So the answer is "one each, with something left over," right? 

Only of course it's massively, massively wrong. The first "million" is not a single object, but 1,000,000 objects. If you saw the problem presented with numbers instead of words, the string of zeroes would keep you from making that mental slip: 

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 = 1 and some remainder

500,000,000 / 327,000,000 obviously ≠ 1,000,000

Unless of course you're the sort of person who tends to skip numbers, but in that case you wouldn't make the mistake, either, because you wouldn't think about it.

That no one caught this before it was discussed on MSNBC, that both the host and the guest (a member of the New York Times editorial board!) sat there exchanging amazed remarks about the riches that could have been everyone's if Bloomberg had not squandered it on his political campaign, is pretty astonishing. 

I was about to say that what they lacked was what people who deal with data and calculations of various sorts call a "sanity check": asking whether a result is even within the bounds of reason and possibility. If a policeman's radar tells him that a car is going 1,000 mph, something is wrong with the radar or his reading of it. But anyone ought to have questioned that number. How many people behind the scenes saw that same tweet and assisted in getting it on the air, but never noticed that it was nuts? Why did no one think "A million per person, 327 million people...hang on, that's got to be way more than 500 million." (It's actually in the trillions, 327 of them.)

"It all became clear." "It's an incredible way of putting it." Yes, it is incredible, but not in the way you mean it.

As many have noted, this does provide some insight into those who believe that we can fund all sorts of massively expensive social programs--universal health care and the like--simply by "taxing the rich." Charles Cooke at National Review has filled in some of the details about that fallacy.