Sunday Night Journal 2004 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — December 26, 2004

Just Your Luck

My job as director of administrative systems at a small college is very much a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none affair that involves a lot of direct support of the people who use the administrative information system. Over the years I think almost every one of them has asserted confidently that he or she has been unfairly singled out by fate to experience an inordinate number of computer-related problems. I often hear personalized versions of Murphy’s Law such as “If it can happen, it will happen to me.” Phone calls frequently begin with remarks that may be apologetic (“I’m sorry I’m always bringing you a problem”), irritated (“I just did this yesterday and now today it doesn’t work”), self-deprecating (“I broke it again”), or anthropomorphically paranoid (“My computer hates me”).

I never know whether it’s a comfort or otherwise when I feel obliged to tell them the truth, which is that their problems are nothing special, and that every single one of their co-workers feels equally put-upon. Today’s computer systems don’t really work that well, all in all (compared, say, to your car) in spite of the fact that they have a quantity of memory and horsepower that the artificial intelligence researchers of thirty or forty years ago would have deemed sufficient to support reasoning on the level of HAL, the conscientiously homicidal computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Systems do far, far more than they did when I first got into the business in the late 1970s, but I don’t know that they do it any more reliably.

I think we all suffer from this impulse to believe that we are specially chosen for bad luck, but obviously it can’t be true that everyone has more bad luck than everyone else. Twice in the past few weeks or so I’ve heard my wife use the phrase “with my luck” or “just my luck” in expectation of some inconvenience, and I daresay most of us use it from time to time. Most often we say these things half-humorously, because most of the things we complain about most of the time—those of us in affluent societies, at any rate—are fairly minor. We don’t generally speak this way when something truly terrible happens, such as the sudden death which overtook a friend of mine two days before Christmas; the idea that such a blow was delivered with conscious malevolence is too dreadful to be trifled with.

So either we all suffer from the same persecution complex or we are all being persecuted, and as I have no doubt at all that a statistical analysis of problems encountered on any given day ranging from minor annoyance to death would show a pretty even distribution, it must be the latter. “Persecuted” may not be the right word; there may be no intention behind the general tendency of things to go wrong. But our impulse to feel persecuted is evidence of something—of two things, actually. In the first place, we feel that we have some right to expect that things go well rather than badly, and in the second place, we feel that there is something personal in the way we are treated by the universe.

If the Christian faith is true, then both these impulses—these emotional beliefs—are in fact correct. The world was meant to be a better place, and each of us is the object of particular consideration on the part of the ruler of the universe. In a way that is not mere illusion, that is accurate at least in relation to perspective, each of us is the center of a universe, the pole around which all else revolves. The fact that the earth is in motion relative to the sun and to the other planets, and all of these in motion relative to the rest of the galaxy, does not alter the functional relationship of the sun to the earth. By rights the interlocking movements of these worlds should be harmonious, blessing all equally. Instead, the worlds depart from their orbits frequently, disturbing, abrading, and colliding, with consequences ranging from comic to tragic.

But that of course is not the end of the story. We may or may not be individually persecuted—I’m not about to venture into speculation about the details of the interplay among our own sins and errors, the malicious schemes of evil spirits, and the permissive will and providence of God. But salvation, escape from misfortune both trivial and great into a world of never-interrupted, never-even-diminished perfection, is specifically offered to each of us, at the cost of nothing and everything. Just our luck.


Sunday Night Journal — December 19, 2004

A Christmas Meditation

I spent the time I would normally have spent writing a journal entry locating and re-typing this Christmas piece which I wrote many years ago for the National Catholic Register.

But a note in passing: two recent news stories related to some of the themes I touch upon in that piece, and which you may have noticed are dear to my heart, have appeared in the past week or two. One is an intriguing entry on Touchstone’s blog —scroll down to the December 15 entry entitled “Second Spring and Who's Your Brain?”— in which a philosopher named Jerry Fodor, whose research specialty seems to be cognitive science, is quoted as saying:

Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.

Exactly. Far too many thinkers and researchers in fields ranging from evolution to artificial intelligence operate on the assumption that consciousness is a by-product of brain activity and is basically a computational function, inevitable when the computations become sufficiently complex. I have never understood what makes them think they can assume this. On the basis of mere intution and common-sense I have always thought it far (far, far) from obvious that it is true. For the sake of argument, I’m willing to suppose that it might be true, but its mere assertion is based on materialist assumptions, nothing more. And I’m glad to have my intuition confirmed by someone who has been studying the theoretical basis of consciousness for decades.

The other story is the news that formerly atheistic British philosopher Anthony Flew has changed his mind and now believes that the world we know is too complex to have developed by chance. Now of course people move back and forth between belief and unbelief all the time, and Flew is at pains to say that he is not postulating the God of Christians and Jews. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to me that this certifiably very bright man now believes it is more reasonable to assert the hypothesis of intelligent design than the hypothesis of evolution by chance.

The grip of materialism on the Western mind is loosening. Happy Fourth Sunday of Advent, and Merry Christmas.


Sunday Night Journal — December 12, 2004

The Meditations of John Coltrane

I first heard John Coltrane’s Meditations when I was a freshman in college, almost forty years ago. The hip graduate student who played it for me and a few other youngsters seemed much older and more sophisticated than the rest of us, and though we were determined to be cool and our reactions were probably evasive, I think we were all appalled by it. I know I was. I’m not sure that the graduate student didn’t prize it mainly for its shock value, because he described it as sounding like a slaughterhouse. That seemed pretty accurate to me, and although I soon learned to love some of Coltrane’s earlier works, such as My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme, I didn’t bother with Meditations again. I supposed that he had, toward the end of his life (Meditations was recorded in ’65 and he died in ’67) wandered off into some angry musical wilderness.

I hadn’t thought about it until right now, but I think that impression was reinforced by some people I knew in the early ‘70s who were admirers and practitioners of what still, in spite of its now rather advanced age, tends to be called “avant-garde” music—unstructured, atonal, arrhythmic, usually abrasive, often improvised: it sounded hostile, for the most part, and hostility was certainly present in the musicians. They were likable people person-to-person; the hostility I’m referring to was the social and philosophical hostility of hippies discovering the anti-bourgeois avant-garde of the Dadaists and others. It seemed to me that the whole point of it was to attack conventional ideas of what music should sound like, and by implication to attack conventional society. Resistance on the part of the audience (which of course soon dwindled to the vanishing point) seemed welcomed as a confirmation that the music was doing its job and that the musicians were superior to less advanced persons. I’m being careful to say “seemed” here, because I may have been misjudging them, but the fact remains that they left me with the impression that not music per se but some vague program of philosophical liberation was the point of their activities.

Although I don’t consider myself a serious jazz fan, and am not terribly knowledgeable about it, I’ve always been drawn to Coltrane’s music. Over the years I accumulated eight or ten of his albums, twice as many as those of his nearest competitor, Miles Davis, but still avoided his late work. A few years ago, by way of a visit from my son Jesse Canterbury, who both listens to and plays this kind of music, I had a chance to hear a sample of Meditations for the first time since 1967 and thought it wasn’t nearly as bad as I remembered. So I decided to give it another try.

I like it, a lot, and am a little surprised by the fact. It’s as if I suddenly heard the music in an entirely different way, a bit like the sensation you get when you look at one of those optical illusions that can be either a single vase or the silhouettes of two faces, depending on the setting of some mysterious optical-mental switch. The sound is pretty much as I remembered it (at least in the more intense sections) but it isn’t saying what I thought it was. What I took to be anger and anguish now seems like intense yearning, so intense that it explodes out of the limits of ordinary means of expression. This could be, perhaps paradoxically, a recipe for monotony, and in fact I find most music that lacks the clear and naturally recognizable elements of music to be monotonous. But Coltrane and the other musicians on this recording make it work by their inventiveness. The experience is mesmerizing. I’m still far from convinced that this approach to music is a good example for anyone else to follow, as I’m not convinced it’s wise for a fiction writer to try to follow Joyce, but in this case at any rate it succeeds.

I don’t often find an opportunity to listen at any length to music without interruption or distraction, but I’ve been able to hear Meditations under those circumstances twice now, and both times the forty-plus minutes of the suite seemed more like ten. I didn’t read Nat Hentoff’s liner notes until after I’d heard the piece, and I found that the same metaphor had occurred to both of us: that of speaking in tongues. To quote Hentoff, it’s “…as if their insights were of such compelling force that they have to transcend ordinary ways of musical speech and ordinary textures to be able to convey that part of the essence of being they have touched.” The idea that there is something to do with religion going on here is unavoidable, and I don’t think that’s entirely because the first section is entitled “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Coltrane is quoted as saying he “believe[s] in all religions,” which is logically impossible, but that doesn’t matter: he’s not a theologian and I think what he’s expressing in this music is the longing for God that exists in every single human heart and is indeed the basis of all religions, however near to or far from Him their solutions may take the believer.

Another religious reference comes to mind, the somewhat mysterious words of Christ which were used by Flannery O’Connor as the title of The Violent Bear it Away: “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” I was puzzled by that until I read her explanation of it in one of her letters. If I remember correctly, her idea was that an extraordinary and in a sense violent effort to attain the Kingdom would be rewarded. (I just tried to find her comments, but the index to The Habit of Being contains several dozen references to The Violent Bear it Away, and I don’t have time to check them all.) Something of that seems to be involved in Meditations: an effort to climb into the transcendent by the sheer force of desire to get there.

Music, specifically the symphony, is often used as a theological metaphor, to convey the idea of many and frequently conflicting chains of event and meaning woven together to form a fabric that God alone perceives in full. If there is any such structure in Meditations, it isn’t apparent to me. But I think it functions as a variant of that metaphor: a lot of things happening at once that seem to have little structure in themselves and hardly any in relation to each other, but which nevertheless cohere in some broad and fundamental way. It’s an emotional coherence rather than a formal one, and suggests to me another way of thinking about the apparent near-chaos that is this world. I can’t quite articulate this on short notice, but I suppose that’s fitting when the subject is music.


Sunday Night Journal — December 5, 2004

Some Kind of Artist

A few weeks before the recent election the arts section of our local paper featured a discussion of the fact that so many artists are on the political left, sometimes the fairly radical left. The editor put the question to a number of local artists, and the unsurprising answer that many of them gave was a variation on the theme that artists are superior people who naturally embrace superior ideas. This of course brings to mind Orwell’s “herd of independent minds,” and I can think of several less flattering explanations for the phenomenon under discussion.

But I’m really more interested in the underlying assumption: that “creative people” are fundamentally different from everyone else. I consider this idea not just false but pernicious, doing an injustice to the vast majority of the human race and considerable harm to art, artists, and culture. Among other things, it carries an implication which is pretty much insane: that the definition of art is “what an artist does.” Some twenty-five or so years ago I heard on NPR an interview with an artist which made clear both the madness of this idea and its grip on the world of the visual arts (at least—it doesn’t seem to have the same hold on literature and music). This disturbed fellow’s art included cutting himself with razor blades before an audience. The interviewer, a nice intelligent liberal fellow, was obviously appalled, but, not wishing to appear a Philistine, seemed to be trying not to show it and to treat this sick stunt as just the latest manifestation of the same gifts and intentions that were exercised by Leonardo. But at one point he couldn’t resist asking the question “Is this really art?” The “artist” of course pounced on this; I remember thinking that he had been waiting for just such an opening: “Yes, it is. I am an artist, and therefore what I do is art.” I wanted to reply “No, you are a nut, and therefore what you do is nuts.”

The truth, I think, is that every person is a creative person. The artist—by which I mean one whose primary vocation is one of the arts—may be more creative than most people, and he really must be more skilled in some particular craft than most people, but I deny with every fiber of my being the idea that he is intrinsically different from, still less superior to, them. It’s hard to see that the term “creativity” can mean anything more than the manifestation or expression of the interplay between a unique self and the rest of the world, which of course is always subjectively unique. In that fundamental sense almost everything we do, unless it is a strict and mechanical obedience to the orders of another, has in it some tincture of creativity. We all, for starters, have our own way of talking. We have our characteristic ways of constructing sentences, turns of phrase, witticisms, the occasional simile of our own invention, and so forth. Language in fact is a torrent of mostly anonymous creativity: the other day, listening to a sports talk show, I heard a football coach describe a thin player as having “a neck like a roll of dimes.” Various schools whose football programs are not doing very well have been described as being under attack by the terrorist duo of bin Losin’ and bin Cryin’.

Going a step further into what we more typically mean by “creativity,” we see it in much of our everyday work: a woman rearranging the furniture in her living room or decorating a cake, a bricklayer fitting the pieces of a paved path, a software developer designing a more efficient algorithm, all are exercising a degree of creativity. Our technological civilization in fact surrounds us with the work of engineers, product designers, and advertisers of all sorts who are extremely creative; although we may not consider what they do to be art and don’t credit them with being members of the fragile and superior class of creative persons, I don’t know how one could reasonably define creativity in such a way as to deny that they possess it.

A number of 19th and 20th century thinkers, such as the Catholic artist, typographer, and sculptor Eric Gill, railed against the factory system precisely because it removed the element of creativity from work, making the worker an inhuman automaton. Indeed we are now seeing the replacement of traditional assembly line workers by robots and if this did not involve unemployment we would have to consider it a good thing.

I certainly would not deny that there is a distinction between the fine arts, in which the object is made and valued principally for itself, and the useful arts, in which the object has some function outside itself. But the distinction is not hard and fast and I don’t believe there is any qualitative difference in the human impulses and gifts exercised in either case.

And when I say that everyone is creative in some way, I don’t mean to imply that there is no hierarchy of quality in the arts, or that everyone should be encouraged to write or paint or make music, whether or not they have any talent, on the grounds that creativity is only real if exercised in those arts. I’d have us understand Eric Gill’s aphorism: “The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.” I might even go so far as to say that the term “creative person” is redundant, although the addition of an adjective such as “more” or “less” can make it useful.

Whenever I think of Gill’s words, I remember a poem by James Seay, whose writing classes I took in college. The poem was called, if I remember correctly, “Kelly Dug a Hole,” and although I don’t remember much of the poem itself I remember Jim’s account of its subject, a man who could dig a hole with perfectly square corners and perfectly straight sides. As I remember, Jim said he thought Kelly could have been, in the right circumstances, an artist of some kind. But that’s only half-right: he was an artist of some kind—as was my uncle Jimmy, who was a bookkeeper (or something) by trade but painted the walls and ceiling of his children’s playroom with vertical stripes that tapered perfectly from a foot or so wide at the baseboard to a point where they met at a light fixture in the ceiling. When I expressed my astonishment (not too strong a word) at the skill involved, he just laughed, as if to say it wasn’t that big a deal. And in a sense he was right: the skill was unusual, but the impulse and some ability, however slight or mundane, to exercise skill and imagination belong to us all.


Sunday Night Journal — November 28, 2004

The Elemental Thanksgiving

I’m sure we’ve all, in the last week or so, seen a number of lists of Things For Which We Are Or Should be Thankful. Having just read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1, I’m of a mind to add something which I haven’t seen on anyone’s list: most of us should be thankful that we have never achieved great fame, the kind of fame that prevents one from being able to live a normal life and going about one’s daily business unnoticed. I’ve long suspected, and Dylan’s book confirms, that this is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.

But more about Dylan’s surprisingly good book another time. Much higher on my Thanksgiving list than the absence of fame is existence. Not my personal existence but the simple fact that there is anything at all, something rather than nothing. Why should there be anything? Taking Occam’s Razor—not to multiply entities without necessity—as far as it will go, why should there be any entities in the first place? Would not a pristine nullity be as it were the most natural…what? Thing? Condition? State? Each of those words implies existence. Some months ago I picked up in a bookstore a book about the concept of nothing. The few pages that I sampled seem to indicate that the author was dealing more with the concept of zero or emptiness or specific instances of absence rather than of nothing: no space, no time, nothing, which is as difficult to imagine as infinity. To the extent that one can conceive of it, there would seem to be no way at all to get from Nothing to Something. Steven Hawkins, I read somewhere, disposed of the concept of God as unnecessary because “a quantum fluctuation in the void” would be sufficient to begin the cosmos. But quanta are not Nothing. And as Nothing is a great deal simpler and more reasonable than Something, it seems that surprise and gratitude that there is Something should inform our attitudes and our thinking.

Second on my Thanksgiving list is my personal existence: the fact that I exist and have a consciousness capable of perceiving other entities and of knowing that I perceive them. This seems to me the elemental pleasure of human life. Once in my college days I attempted to comfort a despondent friend by saying that the simple ability to see things like sunlight and green leaves ought to be enough reason for living. I learned later that there are states of agony in which this is not true, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the seeing becomes impossible. Moreover, as life goes on it is possible, if one has no belief in transcendent purpose, for this simple pleasure of existence to be blighted by a sense of futility; indeed it is probably inevitable, given a long enough life and no hope of heaven. Still, for a soul in anything less than deathly sickness or decrepitude I think my old insight is valid.

I am thankful that I have and can perceive Being. Thanksgiving becomes rejoicing when I reflect that Being is itself a person: the I AM, the great revelation given to the Jews and later through them to all the nations. God is not an entity among others, he is existence itself, the Uncontingent One, without whom was not anything made that was made, and he encompasses and exceeds everything we can see or imagine in the entities for which existence is only an attribute and not their essence, including persons and their personhood. Surely it is only habit and apathy which can render such an idea tiresome to us, and so it is well that we have a day set aside for Thanksgiving, even if we do not use it in contemplation of God. The contemplation, in gratitude, of anything outside ourselves will do for a start.


Sunday Night Journal — November 14, 2004

Rediscovering Jimi Hendrix

A few months ago, writing about the pleasures of driving, I described myself listening to a Jimi Hendrix album on my daily commute. As soon as I wrote that sentence I felt slightly embarrassed: what a stereotypical baby boomer pop fan, on the far side of middle age, tooling down the highway to the nostalgic accompaniment of the music that was new when he was in college and has long since passed into the realm of the conventional. I considered changing or removing the reference, but in the interests of honesty left it in; it was, after all, what I was listening to on the day I was describing.

But I can also, in honesty, say that I was not indulging in nostalgia. In fact, at the time it was current Hendrix’s music never really meant that much to me. There was a period of six months or so when Are You Experienced? was inescapable, at least in certain circles, and although I was, like everyone else who was interested in pop music, pretty amazed and intrigued by the guitar work on it, this was not music that really touched my emotions. His second album was a disappointment and the third a mixed bag, and by the time of his death in 1970 I had pretty much lost interest in his music and didn’t hear it again for many years, except for the few songs that had become staples of classic rock radio.

At some point in the ‘80s I had a yen to hear Hendrix again and discovered that I had lost my copy of Are You Experienced? and gained a copy of a greatest hits compilation which included most of the more popular songs from Experienced. Listening to it, I found I had completely lost the little taste I had ever had for the noisy riff songs of sexual bravado like “Foxy Lady,” but the album contained a gem I had missed in the ‘60s, a straight-up blues called “Red House.” I had always heard that Hendrix could play the blues when he wanted to, but I hadn’t known he did it with genius. This cut was timeless, unlike a lot of Hendrix’s recorded work.

It was only this year that I discovered the existence of an entire CD of Hendrix playing the blues (called simply Blues). After one hearing it took its place in my mind as one of the great blues albums of all time, even though it’s mostly comprised of jams and outtakes that were never meant to be released. Hendrix’s guitar work is just staggering. A song like “Once I Had a Woman” begins with fairly straightforward blues licks, then with every verse gets more imaginative and further out until it’s full of the intensely expressive screams and roars and wails that only he at the time could produce and few have matched since, even with electronics that can produce similar tones at the touch of a button.

The blues vocabulary is of course fundamentally limited, and even Hendrix doesn’t avoid clichés and repetition completely. I find myself wondering what it is about his playing that sets it apart. I think part of the explanation is in the rhythms, which somehow manage to be simultaneously tight and loose, heavy and light. It’s as if the temporal space in which he places each note is larger than it is for other players; as if he has some extra room to work with, and doesn’t have to be in a rush to put the note exactly where he wants it, so that there is a underlying relaxed quality even when he’s playing fast and intensely. Someone like Eric Clapton, who is equally quick, seems a bit four-square, almost stiff in comparison. Someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan seems like he’s working really hard. Almost everything Hendrix does seems effortless, unstrained, as if he has as much speed and power in reserve as he is actually using at any moment.

And then there’s the tone, or rather there are the tones. Few others have (and nobody at the time had) as wide a range, and yet most electric guitar aficionados need only a few notes to recognize the Hendrix sound. To compare him to his contemporary Eric Clapton again (and no criticism of Clapton intended, because he’s a great guitarist), Clapton’s tone is very pure and clean, while Hendrix’s is scuffed up, richer, thicker, and more varied. His playing in the middle and higher range of the instrument has a liquid quality which as far as I’ve heard has not been duplicated by anybody. And of course there are what might be called the post-guitar tones. Hendrix was the first pop musician to find a way to make an expressive tool out of what at first seems to be sheer noise.

It’s when Hendrix combines the controlled noise of feedback and whatever else he stirred into the mix with ventures into melodic territory well outside the blues vocabulary that people trying to describe it come up with terms like “blues from Mars.” It’s a combination of earthiness and abstraction that to me is nothing less than gripping. There are people who play faster and louder and with more complexity, but I don’t know of anyone whose playing has more emotional power than Hendrix at his best.

This blues album sent me back to some of the other Hendrix albums for the first time in many years. I have to say that most of his songs don’t really amount to a great deal as anything except guitar vehicles, and you have to overlook a lot of gimmicky lust and psychedelia to enjoy them. The tracks that I keep going back to are the longer mostly instrumental ones, like “Voodoo Chile” on Electric Ladyland (the less said about the title song the better), or the strange ones like “Third Stone from the Sun” on Are You Experienced?. One wishes he had recorded more covers, as “All Along the Watchtower” has probably had wider popularity than anything else he recorded. Speaking of which, its famous solo is a perfect example of that intense-but-relaxed quality, with moments where many notes are dropped into a small space and yet still have plenty of room. And I downloaded from iTunes a copy of the famous Woodstock “Star Spangled Banner” (I have no desire at all to hear the whole album) and it strikes me as some kind of unique American masterpiece.

Like anybody who admires the work of Jimi Hendrix, I find myself wondering what might have been. I suppose drugs had a lot to do with the wildness of some of his experimentation, but I find it hard to believe that they did not also limit and hamper him musically (aside from the fact, of course, that they also killed him.) I find myself thinking of him less as a pop star who stumbled into moments of brilliance than as an innovator who was too bogged down in the stupid and destructive aspects of stardom and hippie culture to flower fully before his untimely death.

Attempting to be realistic in one’s speculations, one must suppose that had he lived, his subsequent development would probably have been like that of most of his contemporaries: an increasingly uninspired recapitulation of his early achievements. But there are moments in some of the pop songs on Are You Experienced? and his other official releases when it almost sounds like John Coltrane has dropped in on a recording session of the Rolling Stones, and I wonder if the work of a forty-year-old Hendrix might have had more in common with that of later musicians whom he helped to inspire, such as Bill Frissel, than with what he did at twenty-five.


Sunday Night Journal — October 31, 2004

All Hallows’ Eve

I’m writing this on All Hallows’—that is, All Saints’—Eve. Tomorrow begins the traditional Christian month of praying for the dead.

I had an especially vivid and disturbing dream of death a few nights ago which has left the subject very much on my mind. I can’t describe the dream in detail, but I remember very clearly the emotion it provoked, which was something close to panic. It was not a dream about the pain and fear of the process of dying, but about the state of death itself. In the dream this state was one of disorientation, helplessness, and disconnection. I could not think or perceive clearly and could not act at all. I was aware of other souls around me but could not in any way commune with them. I think it was very much like the state which C.S. Lewis somewhere describes as possibly being what it might be like to be a ghost. And it made me think of the scene in Perelandra where the hell-bound spirit of Weston returns briefly to his body and begs Ransom to help him: what Weston describes is somewhat similar to what I dreamed, and he is in pure panic to escape it.

Somehow in my dream I did pull (or was pulled) away from this state, but only to find myself in a state of dread similar to Weston’s and feeling that it must be possible somehow to escape the inevitability of re-entering what I had just left. I felt the full horror of that inevitability and the hopelessness of escape. I saw the world as a sort of ever-narrowing tunnel through which all the human race must proceed, and as it narrowed we would lose more and more of life—our bodies, our memories, our ability to think clearly and to use language—but never lose everything, that is, never entirely cease to exist or to have some kind of broken and fragmentary consciousness—a sort of permanent burial alive.

I awoke feeling certain of the inevitability of death and simultaneously that the certainty was perfectly intolerable. Most especially, I couldn’t bear the fact that we don’t really know what death will bring. I can face the idea of extinction well enough, but not the idea of permanent living death. I felt a need to know what would happen after death with an intensity that I can only compare to the need for air one feels after holding one’s breath for thirty seconds or more. How, I thought—I was still half asleep and in the grip of the dream—could it be possible that we must all face such a thing without knowing what will happen? How can it be that no one has ever returned to tell us?

And then, of course, coming fully awake, I realized that someone has done so, or claims to have, and moreover claims to be able to tell us what we must do in order to escape a condition which is perhaps something like what I had dreamed. And I remembered that his claim is not merely his own but one well attested by eye-witnesses. Why should we not believe it? I have been a Christian for many years but I think this was the first time I experienced viscerally the intense relief and joy and release from dread with which many pagans have received the Gospel.

O Death, where is thy victory?

A Followup from Last Week

Moving rather abruptly into the mundane: the following questions and comments are ones which might have been, but were not, directed to me about to my last journal entry.

You’ve used an inversion of the Fox News slogan “Fair and Balanced” as part of the title for your attack on CBS and implicitly the other established TV networks. This is a low blow, since Fox is just as biased. Besides, its mere existence with its Republican bias contradicts your claim that a monolithic left-wing media bias has distorted public perception of the issues surrounding the war in Iraq.

Fox is indeed biased. For the record, I don’t particularly admire its news programs (and on the basis of its own advertising have a very low opinion of most of its entertainment programming). Fox news tends to be hasty and superficial compared to, say, CNN. And its bias is arguably more blatant. But I don’t think it’s worse—in fact I think I prefer an open bias to a sneaky one. And in any case I’m glad Fox is there. If we can’t have a reasonably non-partisan press, at least we can have a multiplicity of partisan views.

I also think it’s interesting and amusing that so many on the left are beside themselves about Fox on the grounds that it does not report objectively. This tells me that either they cannot see the bias of a network like CBS, probably because they share it, or that they’re not being honest—presumably the former.

Many on the left think the mainstream media are corporate shills for right-wing forces. Doesn’t the fact that both extremes are offended prove that the media are balanced?

Not at all. First, what constitutes “extreme”? Obviously that’s a relative and somewhat subjective term. I can locate the extremes and the center of a yardstick fairly accurately and in a way with which most people would agree. But the political spectrum is not so well defined. If you think the Republican Party or even the Christian Coalition represent the extreme right, you probably resist even naming the extreme left. Perhaps you’d accept the Shining Path movement? So you’re saying that conservative American evangelicals are comparable to an armed guerrilla force? To that, all I can say is “snap out of it,” because I don’t think I can reach you with reason.

No, the right-wing counterpart to the Shining Path would be something like the Aryan Nations (ideologically speaking—in actual deeds the Aryan Nation has done very little, while Shining Path once seemed to have a fair shot at taking control of Peru). Show me where the media gives the Aryan Nations favorable treatment. The left-wing counterpart to the Christian Coalition would be, say, MoveOn.org . Which is more likely to get sympathetic treatment from the media?

But let’s drop this language of extremes and middle. The point is that the mainstream media do have a pretty definite political point of view and that they report the news in such a way as to reinforce it. The fact that people of other views than mine also believe this does not mean that we are both wrong. And my specific complaint is that by reporting and editorializing on the war so as to reinforce their belief that it was unjustified, they have seriously exacerbated the divisions within our society. This is a serious accusation and I believe it is true.

How can you dismiss Fahrenheit 911 without having seen it?

I haven’t read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, either. Sometimes reputation is enough.

I once had a very educational conversation with a Seventh Day Adventist fanatic who believed that the Catholic Church is a satanic conspiracy controlled by the Anti-Christ himself, the Pope. It was educational for me, not for him; as far as I could tell he was entirely unchanged. What I learned was the power of maneuvering someone into trying to prove a negative. I cannot prove that the Pope is not the Anti-Christ, George Bush cannot prove that he did not go to war for Halliburton, and Michael Moore cannot prove that his baseball cap is not the receiver through which he obtains his orders from the Daleks.

One can construct from facts a web of false inferences which do not admit of disproof. Here’s how:

First you select any actions on the part of your subject which reflect badly on him. Discard all other facts which cannot be made to serve this purpose. Interpret the ones you keep in the worst possible light, and reject out of hand all possible alternative interpretations. Freely dispense with the distinction between correlation and causation. Insert as many unfalsifiable assertions as needed (the motives of your subject and any other participants are always a nice blank slate for this, as you can impute any content you want to another’s unknown thoughts). If assertions are too risky, innuendo will usually serve the purpose. Finally—and this may be the most important part—stick with monomaniacal perseverance to your core conviction that your subject is evil through and through; this will protect you from dropping your guard against other views.

Michael Moore is telling the truth and you just can’t face it.

Snap out of it.

Seriously. Say the war was immoral, say it was a strategic blunder, and give your rational account of why you believe these to be true, but come out of the shadows and fog of Mooreism. Give the administration credit for acting in good faith. Besides what should be the crippling defect of being incorrect, the Moore account of current events makes it impossible for political opponents to have a dialogue, because it is based on the imputation of bad faith to the other. The country’s divisions are dangerous enough already.

And with that I am swearing off political commentary for at least the next four weeks, no matter who wins on Tuesday.


Sunday Night Journal — October 24, 2004

Unfair, Unbalanced, Unrepentant

I did not intend to emphasize politics in this journal, and, more specifically, I did not intend to write about politics again this week. But I find myself unable to stop thinking about the current presidential campaign. What follows has been bothering me for months; maybe I’ll be able to leave it alone for a while now, although the biggest news is yet to come. I have bitten off a bigger subject here than I can handle in the time or space I usually devote to these pieces, so I may revise it later in the week.

What an exhausting and depressing campaign this has been. I feel that way and I have been involved only as a spectator. The sheer level of acrimony has begun to affect me like psychological sandpaper. The country has not been so divided since the Vietnam war.

The media bear a lot of responsibility for the intensity of the division. Never has the partisanship of the most visible media empires—the New York Times, CBS, et.al.—been more evident and less ashamed. I suppose the clearest example of this is in the treatment of the military service of Kerry and Bush, in which the media made it their business to question Bush’s service and to defend Kerry’s. When the Swift Boat Veterans began their attacks on John Kerry’s military record, the New York Times ignored the story for a couple of weeks and then, when it did not go away, attempted not to investigate the charges but to discredit the veterans. When Bush’s record was attacked, the attacks either originated with or were happily amplified by the media, as in Dan Rather’s eager trumpeting of what seem to have been bogus documents.

But the bias shows itself in less colorful but more damaging ways. For instance, the Deufler Report ( see here for the CIA’s summary) apparently indicates that although Saddam Hussein did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, he was nevertheless playing more or less the sort of game the Bush administration and indeed the Clinton administration had accused him of: attempting to wait out the inspections and sanctions with the intention of restarting his WMD programs when he could safely do so—which is to say that he did in fact represent a long-term threat. But as far as I can tell most news stories have emphasised only the fact that no stockpiles existed and no active work was in progress.

Similarly, the media have repeated interminably, as a point against the administration, the assertion that Saddam Hussein had no ties to the 9-11 attacks, which is true but beside the point: the administration’s claim was not that he masterminded 9-11 but that he was very much involved with the promotion of terrorism. And although this latter claim is certainly true, the media have left an impression in the public mind that Bush lied—or, rather, BUSH LIED!!!—about Saddam’s terrorist connections.

There was and is a reasonable and principled argument to be made against the war, but most of its opponents have not bothered to make it. The Kerry campaign is certainly not making it, since its need to please both hawks and doves leaves it with little room for anything but Monday-morning quarterbacking which runs the gamut from nonsense to cheap shot. Probably the most cogent domestic opposition came from the right, from the Pat Buchanan-America First school of non-interventionism. And the most persuasive international opposition was from the Pope, who simply and passionately decried the loss of life that would surely be involved. From the left, domestic and international, we mostly had the unending shriek of BUSH LIED!!!, even before the war started. It’s easy to forget now that this accusation preceded not just the determination that Saddam Hussein possessed no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, but indeed the war itself. It was a given; most of the anti-war left began with the assumption that the administration were simply bloodthirsty liars (or psychopaths, or Zionist/neoconservative conspirators, or fools, or sometimes all of the above).

The media in general have done very little to raise the level of debate, and have helped in creating an environment in which not only the bitter leftists of A.N.S.W.E.R but prominent Democrats feel perfectly at ease in asserting (or at least insinuating) that the president took us to war based on a lie, even going so far as to seat prominently at their convention—with an ex-president no less—Michael Moore, whose film about the war is by all accounts a tower of mendacity, and not very brave mendacity at that, for it apparently proceeds by innuendo and association, generally stopping short of actually stating the lie which it is implying. (I am relying here on reports about the film, because every time I considered going to see it I was stopped by the prospect of my money ending up in Michael Moore’s pocket. This analysis seems to be a pretty thorough justification of my opinion. I have browsed Moore’s books in stores, enough to get a good sense of what he thinks and how he operates rhetorically; on the basis of that I agree with Victor Davis Hanson’s view that they are “simple big-print screaming.”)

I sometimes wonder if the BUSH LIED!!! brigade really understand and mean what they say. Sometimes it seems that they don’t understand the distinction between lying and being mistaken. Why would anyone tell a lie such as the one Bush is accused of regarding WMD, knowing that it could not possibly escape being disproved by actions which he himself was initiating? It would be like a tax evader asking the IRS to audit him. Or, on the other hand, if he was so very unscrupulous, why would he hesitate to plant a little nerve gas or something of that sort here and there to cement the deception? None of this passes a basic sanity check, yet apparently millions of people believe it.

And do Bush’s attackers really, truly believe that the president of the United States started a war for the purpose of enriching himself and his friends? I cannot think of anything short of aiding an invading army which would so clearly qualify as the “high crimes and misdemeanors” which are grounds for impeachment. I believe Bill Clinton was a very dishonest president, and in many ways a bad one (though not so bad as he might have been had he been less concerned with his own popularity). But I never would have entertained such an accusation against him, at least not without a lot of indisputable evidence. And if I believed it about George Bush I would be agitating for his impeachment.

I don’t think people like Michael Moore care much about the truth as such; or say rather that they have a Larger Truth, for instance that America is run by and for evil men, which makes them indifferent to lesser truths, and certainly uninterested in being fair. (This of course is an occupational hazard for anyone with strong convictions, but a more honest person makes at least some attempt to engage opposing arguments.) Moore reminds me of people I knew in my own days as a student radical, and I was struck then by their lack of interest in truth. Their motivation lay elsewhere, in some mysterious urge to savage the society which had produced them (an urge which I also felt at the time and still have not satisfactorily explained to myself) and their interest in facts did not extend beyond those which could be exploited for that purpose. Or perhaps Moore and others like him are best understood as conspiracy theorists, convinced that they have the key to the Real Story which explains everything and which causes them to filter out any data which does not support the theory.

Perhaps all I’m doing here is describing the fanatic mind, from which breadth and balance can hardly be expected. But the press is supposed to be a corrective to fanaticism. It is supposed to be the means by which citizens in a democracy are informed of the truth, enabled to see as comprehensive a picture as possible, and if the press fails, for partisan reasons, to do its duty it is guilty of a serious dereliction.

And what of the putatively serious statesmen of the Democratic party who fawn over Moore and repeat, in more decorous language, his assertions? Why, again, have they not moved to impeach a president who, were these charges valid, would be a criminal the like of which has never yet occupied the Oval Office? I conclude that they don’t really believe what they are saying, and that their willingness to keep saying it marks them as far more unworthy than the man they are attacking.

Consider these three items, which paint a pretty good picture of what the Democratic Party has come to in this campaign:

  • The image of the weeping and terrified CARE worker begging for her life last week after being kidnapped by men who have already demonstrated that they regard with demonic glee the prospect of using a butcher knife to saw off the head of a helpless and harmless person.

  • Michael Moore’s encouragement of men like these. Do you think I’m being harsh or unfair? Judge his words for yourself: “The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists or ‘The Enemy.’ They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow—and they will win.” And this: “I’m sorry, but the majority of Americans supported this war once it began and, sadly, that majority must now sacrifice their children until enough blood has been let that maybe—just maybe—God and the Iraqi people will forgive us in the end.” ( Entire piece here; it was written back in April and Moore does not seem to be talking this way anymore, perhaps having decided, after the televised beheadings, that praise of these “Minutemen” is impolitic.)

  • Jimmy Carter’s statement that his two favorite movies are Casbablanca and Fahrenheit 911. Carter may be a decent man in his private life but with his support of people like Moore he is putting the final nails in the coffin of his already shaky reputation as a statesman.

Note that the Democratic convention, at which Moore was very visibly seated next to ex-President Carter, occurred months after Moore made the statements above. The Democrats have embraced a man who has made it his business to poison the wells of debate about the war and who believes that the other side should win. Most of the media apparently think this is acceptable, but that there is something illicit about a group of Vietnam veterans questioning Kerry’s service. The Democratic Party and the Kerry-Edwards campaign ought to be pressed to confront their association with these repulsive statements and tactics, either to repudiate them or to justify them openly, as would be demanded of, say, a Republican candidate who hobnobbed with the KKK. But the mainstream media, willing to denounce as liars some 250 Vietnam veterans, is silent on this, either because they agree with it or because they think Bush’s defeat too important to put at risk.

Journalists ought to be like judges, intent on making sure that all the facts are put plainly before a jury. Instead too many of them have become mere bellowing lawyers, concerned only with winning and indifferent to justice. My opinion of George W. Bush’s presidency is very mixed (for the record, I describe myself as an uneasy supporter of the war). But I hope he wins this election. More than that, though, I hope and pray that the truth will win. Let the chips fall where they may, not where fanatics of any stripe want to put them.


Sunday Night Journal — October 17, 2004

The Litmus Test Test

My old friend Daniel Nichols, with whom I worked on Caelum et Terra is one of those relatively rare people who is genuinely conservative on social issues but tends to lean left on other matters. Though he’s vehemently opposed to the Iraq war (not necessarily a leftward position, of course), he wrote me recently that he intended to hold his nose and vote for Bush for the same reason that many social conservatives continue to support Republicans: the Supreme Court. Although Republicans in general and President Bush in particular can’t be counted on to appoint judges who will resist the judicial imposition of the liberal social agenda, the Democrats can certainly be counted on to promote it vigorously.

A day or two after the third presidential debate I heard from him again. Disgusted by Bush’s refusal to take a definite or specific stand on judicial appointments other than “No litmus tests,” he was reconsidering the idea of voting for the president.

Now there are a lot of arguments to be made for and against Daniel’s position, and I am at the moment entirely sick of them. I have been spending far too much time lately reading and occasionally participating in the debate at Amy Wellborn’s blog, which gravitates frequently to the intramural Catholic quarrel over whether it’s permissible to vote for someone as committed to unrestricted abortion rights as John Kerry manifestly is.

What really strikes me about the matter is the role played by the media—or, perhaps I should say, since The Media is not quite the monolith it once was, the MSM, or MainStream Media. The triumphant cries of bloggers in the wake of Dan Rather’s recent debacle notwithstanding, the MSM still have a great deal of power to frame the terms of political debate, and the question of judicial appointments is one where a conservative who takes any kind of definite stand simply cannot escape being horsewhipped for “imposing a litmus test,” illicitly injecting ideology (or theology) into the law, etc. ad nauseam. “Litmus test” is itself only a scare phrase which means nothing unless attached to a specific test—would anyone scream “litmus test” if a candidate said he would not appoint a justice who supported striking down the first amendment as unconstitutional? But a liberal can openly assert a very strict ideological test and the MSM will not complain in the least.

If Bush were to say that he intended to appoint only justices who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, he would be all but crucified by the Democrats and most of the press. Bush of course knows that, and so, even if he does believe the decision should be reversed, he doesn’t dare say so in such a close race. I can imagine Dan Rather’s introduction to the story: “A troubling admission today from the Bush campaign...”, and then would come the quotes from unnamed “observers” talking about “red meat for the president’s right-wing base” and asking whether the election of such a fanatic might not mean that the light of justice would wink out forever like the light from a dying star.

John Kerry, on the other hand, can stand tall for his ideology, secure in the knowledge that none of the big media, with the possible exception of Fox News, will make trouble for him, and will in fact congratulate him for his integrity. Here’s how Bush answered the question as to whether he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned:

What he’s asking me is, will I have a litmus test for my judges? And the answer is, no, I will not have a litmus test. I will pick judges who will interpret the Constitution, but I’ll have no litmus test.

And here’s the followup from Kerry:

I’m not going to appoint a judge to the Court who’s going to undo a constitutional right, whether it’s the First Amendment, or the Fifth Amendment, or some other right that's given under our courts today—under the Constitution. And I believe that the right of choice is a constitutional right.

So I don’t intend to see it undone.

Question 1: Which of these men has a “litmus test” for judicial appointees, that is, a pre-determined position, to which any potential appointees must assent, on a specific legal matter?

Question 2: Which of them will be credited by the Democrats and most of the media with having such a test?

Question 3: Why do many conservatives long to dance on the grave of Dan Rather’s career?

And a bonus essay question for advanced constitutional scholars: Comment on Mr. Kerry’s conflation of the authority and standing of Roe v. Wade with that of the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. Express your feelings about the fact that John Kerry may soon be in a position to nominate Supreme Court justices. Does this thought make you happy or sad?


Sunday Night Journal — October 10, 2004

In Gratitude to a Donor

Back in the early ‘70s I worked in a couple of record stores and I heard a lot of music to the point of satiety and well beyond. Sometimes music that I liked mildly, such as the Eagles’ Desperado, was run into the ground, and music that I didn’t much like, such as Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, became hated. Records that weren’t very popular didn’t get played very much, which was fine with me whether I liked them or not: if I didn’t like them, it was nice not to have to hear them, and if I did like them, they didn’t get ruined by over-listening. One of these less-popular works was Judee Sill’s Heart Food. I remember feeling that there was something a bit haunting about it, something that was kind of getting under my skin, but for reasons I can’t now remember I never bought it and soon forgot about it when it stopped being played in the store.

More than ten years later something brought it to mind again. I can’t remember now what sparked the memory, but I do remember that a couple of lyrics came to mind: something about a road to Kingdom Come, and something that included the Kyrie. And I had a vague sense of Out West—deserts, cowboys, horses, tumbleweeds—as well as the notion of some kind of Christian-sounding spirituality. So I asked my old friend Robert Woodley, who for a long time seemed to know every pop album ever produced, and to own most of them, about it. He knew right away what I was talking about and, the record being out of print, made me a tape with Judee Sill on one side and the best of Ultravox on the other. Now there was a contrast: mystical Christian cowboy folk-pop paired with alienated world-weary synth-pop. I listened to both sides a lot, and the tape is much the worse for wear. I eventually bought most of Ultravox’s work, but Judee Sill’s remained unavailable.

In the mid-‘90s as more and more music resources became available on the web—retailers, fans, reviews—I made it a point to go looking every now and then for Heart Food. At a time when it seemed that almost everything that had ever been available on LP was appearing on CD, Heart Food remained absent. At one point I almost paid $50 for a copy of the LP on Ebay, but was held back by imagining the scene in which I attempted to justify to my wife paying that much money for a used LP.

This past summer Dawn Eden happened to mention it on The Dawn Patrol, which reminded me that it had been a while since I looked for it. Happily, it was now available, albeit at $26. I emailed Dawn complimenting her on her taste and complaining about the high price. She advised me to buy it anyway, quickly because it was a limited edition, adding that I shouldn’t balk at the price because I would get $260 worth of enjoyment out of it.

Still put off by the high price, I didn’t buy the CD right away, but put it on my birthday wish list. My wife having granted the wish last week, I can now say that Dawn’s advice was right on. It has probably been ten years or more since I listened to my old tape copy, and hearing it now in CD-quality audio is almost like hearing it for the first time. The sound is far richer and warmer and more detailed, and the music itself seems better than ever.

It’s always difficult to describe music, and this more so than some, because it produces an effect which is somewhat at odds with its raw materials. That is, if I say that in addition to Sill’s voice and guitar the first song (“There's a Rugged Road,” the “kingdom come” song I remembered from 1973) includes steel guitar and fiddle and in general sounds somewhat country-western, it will be accurate as to the sound but not as to the atmosphere, which is mystical. Country music is pretty down to earth and straightforward, as is the folk-country music of people like Kate Wolf and Nanci Griffith. But there is an indefinable air of mystery about this song. Those images that I mentioned earlier—deserts, cowboys, and the like—are there, but as archetypes and symbols, not as their down-to-earth selves. Perhaps one way to put it is that the Western-ness is movie-Western: cinematic, not really meant to be the real thing, lifted out of history and put to work for other purposes, in this case to provide imagery for spiritual matters. Not all the songs are in this Western mode; there are touches of gospel, Gregorian chant, and soft rock. The album as a whole really should seem like a hodge-podge, but it’s held together by Sill’s voice and visionary songwriting.

Although the lyrics are full of Christian symbols and allusions, and at least two of them seem to be quite explicitly Christian, the album’s liner notes make it sound as if Sill’s Christianity was eccentric at best. That’s as may be, but it needn’t bother the listener. I’m always at risk of hyperbole when praising a work that I really like, but it seems to me that this album as a whole is worthy of being ranked with anything produced in post-1965 popular music. And the final song, “The Donor” (this is the one I remembered as including the Kyrie) is, whatever Judee Sill may actually have believed, one of the most moving cries to God that anyone has ever put to music.

Strong words? Well, listen for yourself. And say a prayer for the soul of Judee Sill. She had been a drug addict before getting straight enough to pursue a serious music career and make Heart Food and its predecessor, Judee Sill. Like a lot of addicts, she apparently never really shook off the lure, and returned off and on to heroin and other drugs, including pain-killers for injuries suffered in a car accident. She never made another album, although there are some demos for a projected third, and in 1979 died alone of an overdose which, as in the case of Nick Drake, may or may not have been suicide.

A long and lonely road to Kingdom Come, says the first song, and I suppose that’s what Judee Sill had, although in years it was not so very long. But “The Donor” pretty well describes her relationship to the rest of us. The making of art is a curious thing. The artist does his work for motives almost never entirely pure—Judee Sill apparently wanted very much to be a star—completes it, and moves on. The gift remains.