Sunday Night Journal 2005 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — December 25, 2005


The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder…
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree…
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience….
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is the last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

—T. S. Eliot, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

I was a child in 1954 when Eliot wrote those lines, and I can’t say that I experience the Christmas tree as I did then. But neither must I say that my pleasure in it has disappeared, and I certainly have not forgotten my childhood experience. There is a great mystery in the fact that no one would recognize that six-year-old as me, and yet the consciousness that beheld the tree in 1954 is the same one that beholds another tree in 2005. To sit quietly looking at the tree remains one of the deeper pleasures of Christmas for me, one for which there are often more opportunities in the days of Christmas following Christmas Day itself, which is to say during Christmas proper. In other words, this is only the beginning.

Sunday Night Journal — December 18, 2005

Stained Glass and Organ Music

I listen to a lot of recorded music. Too much, really. That overused word “addiction” could perhaps be legitimately applied to my habit, and I find it useful but very painful to give it up or at least cut it way back for a while, which I often do during Lent. And my tastes are very wide-ranging. But there’s one kind of music of which there is little or none among my recordings: organ music.

I’ve always found the organ to be, frankly, rather tiresome in recordings. Even a good recording and a fairly decent home stereo just can’t do it justice. It’s an odd instrument. It can sound more notes simultaneously than the piano, and unlike the piano it can hold them for a long time. This, in combination with the similarity in tone among these notes, can result in a muddled quality. Its majesty can easily tip over into pomposity, and pomposity into something almost silly: because it’s so big and complex, and its elaborate mechanism is so slow to react (in comparison with other instruments), it can have a sort of dancing-elephant quality.

But in its proper environment—say, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile—it is matchless. I found myself thinking today at Mass that it is not the organ alone but the combination of the organ and its building which constitute the instrument. I know almost nothing of the complex lore of these instruments, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that what I just said is a commonplace.

Toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Jane Studdock is beginning to feel a renewed interest in the Christianity in which she was raised. She remembers the stodginess, the “stained glass attitudes” of the Christians she knew, and then “…in a sudden flash of purple and crimson, she remembered what stained glass was really like.” Something like that happens to me whenever I hear the cathedral organ. Gone is the pompous blare that I remember hearing from my stereo speakers, gone is the dancing elephant: in their place are golden majesty and glory, the sound we might hear if the sun himself could sing. It’s a sound that is felt as well as heard, but it isn’t so loud as to be punishing and destructive, like live rock music. It does not crush, but exalts.

Stained glass and organ music have been unfashionably “churchy” for some time now, but there is a reason why Christendom, having invented them, remained attached to them for hundreds of years. It’s mainly the unfortunate propensity of mankind to become bored and to seek novelty that has made them fall out of favor. But plainly we have not come up with anything better, and it’s time we encountered them again.

Sunday Night Journal — December 11, 2005

Solemn Advent Vespers at the Cathedral

You can’t read much in the history of Christianity without running across the story of the 10th century Russian emissaries who, being sent by their ruler Prince Vladimir to discover the true religion, decided that they had found it when they witnessed the Divine Liturgy in the Church of Hagia Sophia. “For we knew not,” they told the Prince, “whether we were in heaven or on earth.” I don’t think anyone—at least, anyone who knows the state of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church—has much hope, still less expectation, of having such an experience in any Catholic church in our time. But it can happen. It has happened to me.

For some years now, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile, Alabama (that’s mo-BEEL, not MO-buhl) has offered solemn vespers on the Sundays of Advent. I haven’t attended as often as I would like; the cathedral is twenty miles away and for one reason or another it has more often than not been inconvenient for me to take the time. But it was at one of these services a few years ago that I had a momentary taste of what it might actually feel like to praise God in heaven, and I knew that there might be more than metaphor to those images of the redeemed singing eternally there.

The idea of an endless church service sounds more like hell than heaven to most of us, and is one of the reasons why people say those very ignorant and foolish things about preferring hell because it will be more interesting than heaven. But that’s a defect in us, and in our modes of worship. I have spent many years complaining, sometimes bitterly, about the drab and deadening quality of most Catholic worship: ugly buildings, wretched music, lifeless language. So it delights me to be able to report a ray of sunlight in the gloom.

The interior of the cathedral is beautiful and has unusually fine acoustics. For a cathedral, it’s rather small, and so an organ and a small but talented and well-directed choir can fill it with sound. The choir director knows how to use the space, with long slow lines of chant and polyphony that have time to bloom sonically. Most of the texts are sung, which means that our dispirited liturgical translations have little chance to work their negative spell. There is no badinage whatsoever. Offhand I don’t in fact recall a single word spoken this afternoon that was not part of the liturgy.

Above all, I think, there are two things operative here that make this service so worshipful: the first, the sine qua non, is reverence, and the second is a kind of taste which follows from and is supported by reverence. I don’t mean simple aesthetic taste, although that’s important. I mean also a sense of propriety as to what is compatible with reverence. The worst days of marginal competence in Catholic choirs may be over—I hope they are over—but I have heard any number of capable choirs sing a hodgepodge of peppy pop-worship songs and traditional hymns which always somehow seem to be calling attention to themselves, a quality strengthened by too-prominent placement of the choir and all their guitars, amps, mikes, keyboards, and mixers at the front of the church. In the cathedral the choir is in a traditional loft at the rear of the church, and the sound floats out into the huge reverberant space above us.

This reverence doesn’t seem the least bit strained or inauthentic, nor this taste self-consciously exquisite. Rather they seem to be the natural unforced result of a sense that we are approaching God and that our understanding of Who He Is leads naturally not to any sort of shallow conviviality but to a respectful attentiveness that necessarily becomes an external and internal quiet, because its object is outside itself. Nothing, therefore, seems directed toward the nurturing or manipulation of our feelings. The music is at the service of the texts. The texts are at the service of the Advent message: Something wonderful is about to happen. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

The only disappointing thing about this afternoon’s vespers was the slight attendance. I don’t think more than fifty people were there. If anyone in the Mobile area is reading this: there’s still one more Sunday in Advent.

Sunday Night Journal — December 4, 2005

Let’s Get Religion Out of the Biology Textbooks

I’ve been thinking a lot—“brooding” might be an applicable term—about evolution, materialism, and the nature of science. It seems plain that materialists, in their eagerness to suborn science in aid of their views, have drawn conclusions that aren’t supported by the physical facts. And it occurs to me that the almost violent objection of the scientific establishment, which I think can fairly be called predominantly materialistic in philosophy, to the concept of intelligent design may be a tactical mistake.

The charge against intelligent design is that it is not science. As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, if “science” means laboratory or experimental science, it is indeed hard to see how ID qualifies. But the same objection applies with the same force to the materialistic conclusions drawn from facts by doctrinaire evolutionists.

One need not be a scientist to see this. It requires only common sense and open eyes. A week or so ago I ran across a brief article describing the relationship between the chromosomes of chimpanzees and humans, which was presented as a vindication of Darwinism. But what struck me was that it was nothing of the sort. It did not even touch on the Darwinian mechanism—common descent by means of chance variation and random selection. It illustrated a resemblance: a striking and fascinating resemblance, and an even more striking difference which nevertheless emphasized the connection between the two. But it was only evidence of common descent if you brought that assumption to the data. (My apologies for not citing the piece; I ran across it on the net, failed to bookmark it, and now can’t remember where it was.)

I’m not particularly concerned to deny common descent. Once you’ve conceded ground on the literal interpretation of Genesis, which I’m willing to do, there’s no particular difficulty in accepting the idea that the human body has as its ancestor some sort of ape body—no problem in the idea that God used, so to speak, existing material with a long developmental history to receive the first human soul. Granting this, and granting that the transition from ape body to human body was gradual, the facts do not supply any reason whatsoever to believe that the changes were the result of the Darwinian mechanism or any other array of purely material causes. Let me emphasize that: no reason whatsoever. The facts can tell us at most only that a very complex transition seems to have occurred; they tell us nothing at all about how it occurred.

If scientists want to take material causes as a working assumption for further investigation, that’s fine. That indeed is what they are supposed to do. But when they go beyond this and declare their certainty that purely physical forces have produced the unimaginably complex structures which fill the cosmos, still more when they imagine that they have disproved the existence of God, yet more, absurdly and unacceptably more, when they declare the question closed, they have stepped far beyond the facts and beyond science, and are pretenders to knowledge which they do not have.

I think the time is ripe for theists of all stripes—and for that matter rationalists who can see the question of intellectual integrity at stake—to press the attack here. It is no more tolerable in a secular biology textbook to state materialist conclusions on these questions than to state religious ones. If science, and, more to the point, spokesmen for science, would get out of the philosophy and theology business, the level of acrimony in this controversy could be greatly reduced. Unfortunately the tactic which comes immediately to mind for this effort is the very acrimonious one of the lawsuit. But that battle is already under way. The scientific establishment is making legal war on any attempt to include the idea of purposeful design in scientific education, and that, as I mentioned above, may be a tactical mistake. Darwinism and Intelligent Design are both attempts to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of origins. Neither has been proved or is, in my opinion, likely to be proved, by physical evidence alone. We are constantly being told that science textbooks are no place for religion. Very well; let’s get all the religion out of them.

Sunday Night Journal — November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving Morning

The street in front of my house is unpaved. It used to be an ordinary gravel road, but a few years ago the city came in and covered it with some sort of dark gritty stuff that looks and feels like it could be old pavement ground to bits. It’s coarser than sand but finer than gravel and gives the street a dingy appearance.

The wooded areas which surround the house still show, and will continue to show for some time, the effects of the hurricanes and tropical storms we’ve had in the past two years. There are fallen trees decaying in place among the living, and the living ones have a threadbare look, having lost many of their smaller branches. Many of them lean southward because the main force of hurricane Ivan, which had worse winds than Katrina, came from the north. Along the street and among the trees there is still a certain amount of storm debris, piles of leaves, pine needles, and branches swept along by the water that came all the way up the street from the bay during Katrina until they were blocked, where they accumulated and were left in heaps when the water receded. All of which is to say that our street does not provide a very beautiful walk these days, although to my taste greenery (which we have almost year-round) is almost always pleasant, even if it’s not in the best condition.

On Thanksgiving morning I went out fairly early to walk our two dogs. When I stepped out of our driveway and turned to the east, the same old street was transfigured. The street turns a bit just past our house in that direction, so that it almost seems to end. From this apparent end, and over my neighbor’s house and the woods behind it, the morning sun was shining straight along the street. There was a bit of mist around, just enough to hold and magnify the golden light. The surface of the street itself was shining. It might have been the path to an enchanted castle.

I often speculate about the creation, Eden, and the Fall. I don’t know how to reconcile the Genesis account of a paradise with the story the scientists tell us, of a very old world and a very old human race that developed out of the same sort of nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw that we see around us now. Maybe the sight of my street on Thanksgiving morning was a hint. Maybe the first conscious male and female homo sapiens did indeed inhabit a world that looked more or less like our own, but was transfigured for them by the sensible grace and presence of God.

Sunday Night Journal — November 20, 2005

Is Evolutionism Science?

The indignant charge I keep hearing against the theory of intelligent design is that it isn’t science. As best I can tell this complaint can mean one of two things: either that ID allows for the possible existence of non-material reality, or that it is not an experimental science. The first of these is just materialist philosophy trying to pass itself off as science. But the second, I suppose, is true. I’ve always thought that the function of ID is necessarily only negative. It seems to me that the term itself might involve a bit of over-reach, because it can only hope to show that the theory of development by accident is inadequate to explain the facts, not to prove positively that any other mechanism is operative.

The Darwinist antagonists of ID say that it is non-testable and non-falsifiable, and has no predictive power. How could one test it, they say?—wait around for God to create something? And they seem to find this a very witty and telling question.

But it strikes me, as a layman, that this charge can just as easily be made against materialistic evolutionism—let’s call it evolutionism, for convenience. The simplest claims of evolutionism are not, as far as I know, contested by any one, even the young-earth creationists: everyone agrees that organisms undergo modifications which are passed on to their progeny, and that if conditions favor the survival of individuals with a certain modification it will eventually become a characteristic feature. This sort of evolutionary theory has been understood and put to practical use for millennia, although, obviously, no one had any idea of the mechanisms involved. What is only predicted by the theory, and in principle can never be verified experimentally, is that chemical and genetic events are sufficient to account for the entire development of the cosmos, including the presumed evolution of our planet from lifeless rock to the home of millions (billions?) of species, including one which has the ability to ask how it came to be here. How could one test this?—wait around for evolution to create life on a bare rock?

There are three great transitions which, I think, are likely always to remain mysterious: that from nothing to something, from non-life to life, and from life to consciousness. The first of these is inherently unknowable, and evolutionists seem content to ignore it—understandably enough, because it shakes their whole edifice. As for the second, I’m aware that some scientists claim to have produced in the laboratory minute changes in both non-living and living materials of a sort that they believe might be involved in the evolution of life on the grand scale. Although I’m not remotely qualified to pass judgment on their real significance, I think I’m entitled to say, as a reasonable person exercising reasonable judgment, that they do not constitute anything approaching a proof of the dogma that no causes other than material and accidental ones are required to produce everything we know, up to and including human consciousness. And as for that third transition, well, I can’t think of any bigger leap of credulity than that taken by those who assume that consciousness is a by-product of the activity of the brain. There is no evidence whatsoever for this; it is a logical deduction from materialist premises, but no more.

How can evolutionism ever conceivably be anything more than an hypothesis? Its adherents insist that science in general would be retarded significantly if it could not proceed on the assumption that evolution works more or less as they describe it. I don’t see why this should be true: why it is necessary to make so many hypothetical postulates about the origins of things in order to study them as they presently are? As a matter of pure logic, the fact that all living things share fundamental building blocks, and that they can be grouped into smaller categories on the basis of more specialized components (e.g. bones), doesn’t imply common descent from the more simple to the more complex any more strongly than it implies the sort of design that we practice every day—i.e., variations on certain basic ideas and features. (I understand that there are other reasons for believing in common descent, but the existence of common features has never struck me as very persuasive one way or the other.)

Would it really damage science so badly to admit that we simply don’t know, and probably never will know, exactly how things came to be? What drives someone like Richard Dawkins to venture so far beyond any knowable facts in insisting that evolutionism is proven? And whose is the real offense against the method and spirit of scientific investigation?

Sunday Night Journal — November 13, 2005

Ending Up

Twenty to thirty years ago the first wave of young orthodox Catholics formed not only by Vatican II but in reaction to the errors that followed upon it, formed perhaps above all by the exciting early days of the papacy of John Paul II, began marrying and raising families. Many of them were converts or reverts. They were filled with good intentions and high expectations, determined to live out their vocations as Catholic parents in a way that could hardly avoid being in opposition at least some of the time to the prevailing secular culture. My wife and I were among them, and we’ve met many others along the way.

Most of these have been reasonably successful, but I know of some fairly spectacular crashes: divorces, children going seriously astray, and in general all the ills that beset society at large, to which no family is completely immune and from which no family is completely isolated. Daniel Nichols relates, on the Caelum et Terra blog, a particularly sad story of a woman abandoning her husband and children. Daniel’s point is not so much the particulars of that situation as the scandal of easy annulments in the Church today, but I found myself brooding over the situation itself. How does a couple come to such a pass when, unless one of the spouses was deliberately deceitful, both had begun with the best of intentions to live a Catholic marriage?

And beyond such highly visible tragedies, I know—I expect everyone knows—of Catholic families which appear from the outside to be fine and faithful, but which have serious internal fractures. Or parents who have become perhaps too well-adjusted to the culture, and whose children are fallen-away or nominal Catholics.

I think one reason these things trouble me is that somewhere in some sub-rational part of my mind there is a stubborn belief that if parents try to do the right thing God will see to it that their marriages work out and that their children remain in the Church. I emphasize that this is not rational, and I don’t need to be reminded that the effects of original sin persist in spite of the sacraments, and that personal sin is a stubborn thing, never entirely or perhaps even mostly eradicated. I know, I know. And yet the question keeps presenting itself to my mind: how can things go so wrong? There is no definite answer to that, but, doctrine aside, every sensible person knows that things will go wrong in this world, no matter how hard we try. That’s why they call it a vale of tears.

It helps to alleviate the melancholy of contemplating these situations to remember that in none of them do we know the end of the story. Many years ago, in the mid-1970s, I made the decision, for purely pragmatic reasons, to give up my plans for an academic career in literature and to take up a practical trade, studying computer science. Some time after that I ran into an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen for five or six years. We were standing in line for something or other and briefly catching up on what each of us had been doing. I told him I was learning to be a computer programmer and added, perhaps a bit defensively, that this was an odd place for me to end up. He replied, “Well, maybe you ain’t finished ending up yet.”

That remark comes back to me often. Those disasters that I mentioned are stories still in progress. I sometimes hear people who read The Chronicles of Narnia complain of or lament what seems to be the loss of Susan, one of the four siblings who enter Narnia. In one of the late books in the series she is no longer present, and the other three are given to understand that her interest in worldly things has taken her away. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but I’ve never taken it to be the final word on Susan’s eternal destiny. She is on the wrong road, clearly, but as far as I remember it is not stated that she will never regain the right one and that she will not, by some other and harder route, eventually enter Aslan’s country. No one still on this earth has finished ending up yet. And it’s worth remembering that this is no less true of those who seem to be doing fine as of those who are in desperate straits.

Sunday Night Journal — November 6, 2005

Robert Johnson and Me

Over at The Corner, National Review’s blog, several people recently were playing a variant of the degrees-of-separation game, in which you count the number of persons linking you to some famous and important one. They were counting handshakes—John Derbyshire, for instance, had shaken hands with someone who had shaken hands with Trotsky. All very entertaining, but I didn’t give it much thought until a day or two ago when I was listening to Robert Johnson, feeling the strange deep movements of emotion that listening to the blues generally produces in me, and I remembered: I once shook hands with someone who had shaken hands with—or at any rate knew very well—the King of the Delta Blues, as an old LP compilation of Johnson’s music described him.

It was in 1969 or 1970, at a club in Tuscaloosa. I had gone with a friend, known as Kim because his last name was Kimberly, to hear the bluesman Johnny Shines. Although he wasn’t as well known as Johnson or Muddy Waters, he was of their generation and played their kind of music, and he played it very well. When I heard him he had a bass player and a drummer and was playing electric guitar, but he was close enough to the country blues of Robert Johnson that he could hold your attention just as well (as I found out a few years later) with only his own acoustic guitar.

It was a great night. Kim was a capable musician, good enough to have earned a living at it for a while, but I hadn’t known he could play blues harmonica, or harp as it’s generally called. He had brought a couple of harps with him and after a beer or two, during a break, he went up to Shines and asked if he could sit in. Although I couldn’t hear what they were saying, it looked to me as if Shines didn’t really think this was such a great idea, but maybe he figured that since he was playing to an audience of mostly white college kids he might as well humor this one. At any rate, he agreed.

Kim pulled a stool up onto the little stage, on the other end from Shines, and the band started up again. Kim sat out a few verses and then Shines gave him a brief nod, giving him a chorus, as if to say go ahead and get it over with. But Kim played with authority, and everybody heard it, including Shines, who looked around at him with an expression of mingled surprise and respect. For at least the next thirty minutes or so, Kim was part of the band.

Well, this music is intoxicating enough under any conditions, and in combination with actual intoxicants I did something I wouldn’t ordinarily do. At the end of the set I went up to Johnny Shines and shook his hand, thanked him for his music, and told him what a thrill it was to shake hands with somebody who had known Robert Johnson.

I suppose this was less than flattering to him, and he didn’t seem particularly pleased. I hadn’t thought it about the incident for many years, but when it came back to me the other day my pleasure was as great as it was irrational. I couldn’t have been more delighted if I’d discovered or remembered a connection to T.S. Eliot or another of my literary heroes.

That handshake means more to me now than at the time it occurred because I have over the years become more and more deeply aware of how much the blues means to me. I am hard put to account for the intensity of my feeling for this music. Someday I intend to write at more length how I first encountered the genuine article in my teens, at the home of an aunt and uncle who had a pile of old 78s and introduced me to Big Bill Broonzy, Furry Lewis, Leadbelly, and others when I was a teenager in the early ‘60s. (Yes, I know, Leadbelly wasn’t mainly a blues artist, but his work is part of the same musical world.)

At the time, and for a long time afterward, I liked it only as music, the way I also liked, at the time, pop groups like the Byrds. Now, though, if I had to choose between taking some of my blues recordings and the those of the Byrds or the Beatles to that postulated desert island, I’d pick the blues. I would in fact be hard put to choose between T.S. Eliot and the blues.

Of course a lot of people like the blues, and a lot of people like it a lot, but I don’t know how many people regard it as indispensable. Part of it, obviously, is just a simple liking for the sound, particularly the sound of blues guitar. I know exactly what B.B. King meant when he described hearing Bukka White’s slide guitar for the first time: “the sound...would go all through me.” And part of it is the pure human truth of many of the lyrics, so often so pithy and wry and plaintive:

I mistreated my baby
And I can’t see no reason why

But my feeling for the blues goes deeper than that, into a sense of connection with a tradition. It may seem false, and would certainly be unwelcome in some quarters, for a white man to make any sort of claim to personal membership in that tradition, which comes from a culture which existed alongside and was oppressed by the one of which I was directly a part and a product. But the two cannot be separated so neatly. As a white boy in the rural south I was surrounded by the culture which produced Robert Johnson. When I hear him and others like him, I hear not something exotic but the voice of people I know and love. The only other sort of music that has this effect on me is certain English and Scottish folk music, particularly the devastatingly understated tragic ballads such as “Sir Patrick Spens,” and old-time country and bluegrass music like the Carter Family.

I wonder whatever became of Kim. The last time I saw him, a few years after the night he played with Johnny Shines, he was on his way to Naval Aviation flight school at Pensacola.

Sunday Night Journal — October 30, 2005

Rosa Parks, RIP

I was only a child at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott. I didn’t know what it was, but I was old enough to read, and I remember seeing the word “boycott” in newspaper headlines and being puzzled by it. Obviously it had to do with boys, but beyond that I couldn’t make much sense of it. It seemed to be something serious—I may have picked that up from the adults. I think I had some inkling that it involved people refusing to ride buses, and was puzzled as to why there was anything wrong with that. I certainly would have been more than happy to give up riding the school bus.

Ten years or so later, as a teenager in the middle of the ‘60s when the civil rights movement achieved its greatest successes, of course I understood. Those who never knew the segregated south have difficulty understanding what a different world it was, and how much has changed. Of course it’s easy enough to understand the bald facts, and easy enough to appreciate how wrong the system of segregation was. What’s hard to understand is not so much the horror as the lack of horror: the degree to which a superficial peace prevailed, the apparent stability of things.

A typical Hollywood view of the period involves continual acts of intimidation and violence and an all-suffusing atmosphere of vicious meanness on the part of whites. But it wasn’t like that, at least not in my part of the South—I’ve heard that in other places the reality bore a greater resemblance to the mythology. What I saw was far more subtle. Acts of racial violence on the part of whites were rare: I never saw one or heard directly of one, or of a lynching occurring locally, or saw a Klansman in his regalia, but it doesn’t take many lynchings or beatings to make matters clear. And in personal interactions a certain courtesy, not intimidation, was the norm. For the most part it was only when the rules were broken—when the black man failed to keep to “his place”—that the underlying brutality showed itself.

In the Hollywood version of the South, Rosa Parks would have been instantly lynched when she defied white authority to its face. That she was not, and that her refusal to move to the back of the bus launched a mostly peaceful struggle, says much about the complexity of the situation. (This is not to imply that she did not act with great courage—Emmett Till was murdered later in that same year, 1955.) White people had a bad conscience, and an underlying sense of decency that made the moral force of the civil rights movement something they could only avoid by giving in to their worst passions, which most of them, most of the time, did not do.

It’s a cliché to call the 1950s “a more innocent time.” Far more innocent, in more ways, I think, were the early and middle ‘60s, when it seemed that removing legal segregation would be enough to allow the South and the whole nation to attain racial harmony. The choice was clear: Bull Connor, firehoses, and bombs vs. a simple and peaceful request for basic rights. “Free at last!” cried Martin Luther King, and a few years later the specific freedom—legal freedom—for which he marched was obtained.

But the blessings of that freedom fell far short of expectations. Now, forty years after the passage of the crucial civil rights legislation, we confront a racial situation in some ways not really much better and certainly far more complex. White racism is far from dead, but it has no legal sanction or official power. For the most part it doesn’t dare show its face (although I’ve seen recent signs that this is changing, as some white people try to assume to themselves the prized status of victimhood). Yet far too many black people live in a state of cultural pathology at least as bad as that of the 1950s at their worst, and for which the blame cannot easily be laid upon whites. Now there is no straightforward measure to be taken, no law to be passed, no barrier to be removed, that anyone seriously believes could make a large and immediate difference.

I don’t know what the solution is—I don’t even in fact believe that there is A Solution, but I believe there must be and can be improvement. As Sly and the Family Stone sang in the late ‘60s, we got to live together. We don’t have a choice. Africans and Europeans are, in effect, married in the United States of America; we are, whether we like it or not, one flesh, and we must find a way to get along. As in a marriage, the only way to bring this about is love. And I suspect that the only avenue for the attainment of that love, or at least of an understanding of its necessity, is a broad and deep revival of Christian faith. Secular materialism cannot, in the long run, nourish or encourage much beyond the desire to take care of oneself and one’s own. Its love is a doomed impulse, not a law.

Sunday Night Journal — October 23, 2005

Black Sabbath On A Friday Night

Because my youngest daughter plays in the band, my wife and I have been going to high school football games for the past few years. The season is almost over, and as our daughter is a senior this year, the remaining few games will probably be our last. Although I’m not interested enough to go to the trouble of attending without some reason other than the game itself, I’ll miss this routine. There are few scenes more thoroughly American than the Friday night football game: the lights are bright, the grass is green, the crowd is cheerful, and if you don’t think too much about the dark side of our sports cult you can feel as if you’re participating in something innocent and earnest and harmless, something relatively untouched by the cultural decay of the past few decades.

And so it was with a little surprise that I recognized, after searching my memory for a minute, the rock-‘n’-roll riff that the band was playing at one of the first games we attended: “Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath. The incongruity made me laugh out loud: here in the midst of an all-American ceremony was a bit of the cultural movement that had set out to destroy such things. I remember very well seeing the sinister covers of the first couple of Black Sabbath albums in stores when they came out in the early ‘70s, and hearing a little of the music. Both gave me the creeps, and I wanted nothing to do with them. But some of their music floated out of the then-new heavy metal ghetto into the broader stream of pop music, and now here, under the lights of a football stadium, competing with the p.a. system and the roar of the crowd, slammed out by a marching band, was one of those riffs which, I would guess, a majority of Americans under the age of 55 or so would recognize, even if they could not name it.

“Iron Man,” I soon discovered, is only one of many ‘70s riff songs that have become part of the repertoire of high-school and college bands. I suppose this is evidence that a lot of today’s high-school band directors came of age in the ‘70s. Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” is a standard, and I’ve also heard another Black Sabbath song, “Paranoid” (which is, like “Louie Louie,” one of the great riffs of all time, at once dumb and unforgettable) played there. And is my imagination getting ahead of the facts, or did one band actually feature a Black Sabbath medley in its halftime show?

It seems almost quaint now, after so many far worse things have come down the pike of popular music, to think that Black Sabbath’s music and lyrics were regarded as evil. I really never heard that much of them, but I just looked up some of their lyrics online and for the most part they aren’t that bad: there are images of menace and fear, but very little of the Satanism implied by the name of the band, and a surprising number of the songs seem to be the typical complaints about a girlfriend that comprise a lot of rock music. The lyrics of both “Iron Man” and “Paranoid,” though grim and gloomy, are not satanic. I doubt anyone would find them seriously frightening or disturbing now.

Still, the band did, if I remember correctly, cultivate a dark and occult atmosphere, conveying at the very least a fascination with evil. Does it mean anything that their music is now part of the Friday night football experience? Is this a testimony to the absorptive power of American culture, or a measure of its subversion?

Both, I think. Almost everyone today would recognize the name of Black Sabbath’s original lead singer, Ozzie Osbourne, who after a long career of bizarre behavior is now almost an establishment figure, greeted familiarly and affectionately by the president of the United States at a public gathering a couple of years ago. Pundits argued about the TV show which followed the clearly rather damaged Ozzie and his family around for a year or two: did it prove how far gone we are? Or did it show that even a drug-addled shock-rocker could be a good-hearted family man?

This sort of side-show can almost always be counted on to generate a controversy, and a fairly useless one. Traditionalists deplore, liberationists applaud, ho hum. Meanwhile, I noticed on CNN’s web site the other day a story about some corporation’s attempt to revive Penthouse magazine, the former and now fallen rival to Playboy. The story analyzed the business plan—which included, of course, cheerful prospects for the role the Internet and other “new media” would play in getting the products into as many hands as possible—in the same terms in which one would discuss selling office supplies or building materials.

Why worry about whether Ozzie Osbourne and Black Sabbath may have done a bit of subcontracting here and there for Satan, when we have allowed him to set up shop openly in the town square, and treat him as a respectable merchant?

Sunday Night Journal — October 16, 2005

Hitchens, Franklin, and Our Sundered America

I read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography in high school. At least I think I did. I’m sure I must have read at least some of it, because otherwise how would I have such a vivid memory of disliking it? The doubt comes from the fact that I remember nothing specific about it, while I remember with perfect clarity what it was like to read the works of Shakespeare and Eliot and any number of others that caught my heart, even ones which I now see are of a lesser order, such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (which may once have been over-rated but might now, I suspect, be under-rated), and Carl Sandburg’s poems about Chicago and war and fog. In some of these cases I can in fact call to mind the look of the pages themselves, and often the place where I read them: I see “The Hollow Men,” for instance, laid out in my high school English textbook, and the book on my desk, and the desk in the classroom with painted concrete-block walls and some kind of institutional linoleum flooring, and the window to my left.

But Franklin? I remember only thinking that this was pretty dry stuff. It was all about being prudent and industrious, all worldliness and pragmatism. Though I wouldn’t have used those words at that time, I was able, over the next ten years or so of reading, in and out of school, to recognize what it was that I disliked in Franklin and many other American writers: a rationalistic practicality which seemed to have no eye at all for the mystery and richness of life.

I never read Franklin again, and having just read Christopher Hitchens on the Autobiography in the latest issue of The Atlantic, I doubt that I ever will. The number of books I want to read or re-read is now so great in proportion to any reasonable expectation of time remaining to me in which to read them that it seems unlikely that I will re-visit any of those with which I have little sympathy.

Mr. Hitchens is, of course, well-known for his detestation of religion. And if he reads Franklin correctly, he confirms my adolescent aversion, for he sees the Autobiography as being filled with a subtle but intense disparagement of Christianity, and the evidence he brings forward for his view says to me that Franklin was, as I think more than one of our founders were, an adherent of a sort of bloodless Whiggery, a thin and superficial skepticism which, while scoring just points against religious fanaticism and hypocrisy, leaves me feeling that I’m listening to a tone-deaf man complaining about the histrionic gestures of an orchestral conductor. He may be right that the conductor is a ham and perhaps even something of a sham, but if he doesn’t understand music, and why someone making music might be so moved as to seem eccentric, he is no more than a dog barking at a stranger.

We think of the American conflict between the irreligious and the believer as a relatively new thing, and it is newly virulent and now impossible to ignore, but in truth it has been there since the beginning. Most American writers and intellectuals have been at least quietly skeptical and often openly hostile to religion—meaning, specifically, Christianity—all along. My own sense, which pre-dates my conscious conversion, that the religious mind sees more deeply into things is most of the reason why I preferred English literature to American and never could bring myself to read much of Emerson and Thoreau. It was not that the English writers of the same period were more religious, only that they understood the issue: a writer like Carlyle knew what it meant for England to lose her religion.

Of course the religion which Franklin, Jefferson, and others rejected provided plenty of justification for their doing so. Puritanism was unattractive and difficult to sustain, and where it ebbed it left an even more unattractive shell. And so the American soul was split, with skeptical rationalism on the one hand and narrowness and emotionalism on the other.

The Catholic faith provides space and support for both these human impulses to fulfill themselves, where rationalism need not finally fling itself into the void and emotional fervor need have no fear of the facts, for it is perfectly justified by them. Although I can’t say it seems likely, it does sometimes seem possible that the future of the USA, or at least of its Christianity, is a Catholic future.

Sunday Night Journal — October 9, 2005

What was Caelum et Terra all about?

An exchange on the Caelum et Terra blog prompts me to bring up a question which often presents itself to me: what was the magazine all about, really? Perhaps the most frequent description I’ve heard is that it was an agrarian publication (agrarian and Catholic, of course). I myself always thought of that as only an implication, one of many, of some of the magazine’s central ideas, and not necessarily a necessary implication, albeit a fairly strong one.

Since Daniel Nichols was the founder and editor and the magazine was very much a reflection of his personality, he’s the one who, in the end, is most authorized to answer this question. It was also Daniel who located the contributors and, for the most part, decided what to publish. Apart from mostly relatively minor editing, my direct contribution was largely in what I myself wrote. So in a sense the question I’m going to answer is not the one I posed above but something closer to “What did Caelum et Terra mean to me?”

For me, the magazine was fundamentally about re-connecting Catholic life and thought with two things: first, the Christian culture and traditions eclipsed by secular modernism; second, nature. Let me take the latter of these first because, although it is the less important of the two, I don’t want to leave room for misapprehension. I want to be clear that I’m not talking about a romantic or Rousseau-style return to nature, and certainly not nature-worship. I mean first of all human nature, but I’ve never thought it possible to discuss human nature intelligibly without acknowledging the degree to which it is grounded in physical reality generally. Daniel included in the first issue a quotation from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger which became a sort of touchstone for me:

In the world of technology, which is a creation of man, it is not the Creator whom one first encounters; rather, man encounters only himself.

This is an extraordinarily pregnant observation. In what it says, and in what it implies, is contains a great deal of what is wrong with the modern world. To acknowledge that we first and most often encounter the Creator by means of his creation is not nature mysticism, but sound common sense and good theology. If this encounter becomes difficult or impossible, first illusion and then evil are bound to follow. In the end one can envision arriving by this path nowhere else but at the place inhabited by Milton’s Satan: Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.

I cannot doubt that man in his attempt to make the world revolve around himself, and to enforce his sin-bent will to power not just on external but on his own nature, is constructing a hell. Acknowledgement of our own nature and our situation in creation is a necessary instrument of virtue, of understanding what is and isn’t possible and permissible to us.

As for the first connection, to Christian culture and tradition, of course I mean attention to what those cultures and traditions have to say to us (and I use the plural because Caelum et Terra was always intended to be both intensely Catholic and deeply and broadly sympathetic to other traditions), but I also mean something more: a re-incorporation of some of the Christian (and indeed simply human) mental habits we have lost. As I’m attempting no more here than a hasty sketch, I’ll mention only two things.

First: what has become of our appetite for the real? For the true? We live in a culture which tends to devour every genuine cultural artifact and then offer it back to us as a flimsy and often ridiculous decoration. We accept that we should swim in a sea of half-lies for which those who utter them bear no moral responsibility whatsoever. The most advanced of us may openly deny the existence of truth, but far too many of the rest treat it in practice as optional and negotiable. I noted in a short piece published in the first issue of Caelum et Terra that advertisers do not show us the factories in which their goods are actually produced, but instead romantic images of artisans, or, if the product is something inherently factory-based such as an automobile, a fantasy which makes comparatively little reference to what the actual product actually does, but rather shows it creating a kind of heaven in which we can live in effortless pleasure. A real interior appropriation of Christian thought on a wide scale would eventually render impossible this establishment of deliberate miscommunication as a cultural habit.

Second: how can we think in all this noise? I was talking the other day about the 18th century poets who wrote entire volumes of verse in rhymed couplets, and of other artists whose accomplishments now seem almost superhuman to us. Surely one reason they were able to do these things is that their minds were more free than ours, in the sense that they had fewer distractions and were less superficially busy. They could attain, far more frequently and easily, the state of inner silence required for real thought, or real creative work, to present itself. But these accomplishments were only the flowers of culture. It seems reasonable to assume that everyone’s attention was occupied by fewer but more substantial matters than is ours—more substantial in the literal sense, harkening back to what I said earlier about nature. As with our attitude toward nature (using the term broadly), this doesn’t mean indulging in a medieval fantasy, but it does mean recognizing that something important has been lost and needs to be restored.

It may be said, quite accurately, that there is nothing specifically Christian in the preceding two paragraphs. One of Caelum et Terra’ concerns was the way in which the Gospel becomes unintelligible to people who have lost all sense of connection with the fundamentals of human life. We (I think I can use the plural here) were concerned that contemporary culture was a soil increasingly hostile to genuinely human life, and therefore to Christian faith.

Unfortunately I can’t remember his name, but not long ago I read about a saint who maintained a peaceful little garden in the midst of a city, and by means of this garden brought many to step away from the world for a short time and allow the eternal to speak to them. That garden serves as well as anything I can think of as a metaphor for what I conceived Caelum et Terra to be. For me, any specific position articulated in the magazine—any opinion on economic, politics, education, art, technology, marriage—was to be judged in light of its support for those fundamental concerns, which I considered to be compatible (in principle at least) with quite a wide range of specific opinions on controversies of the day.

Sunday Night Journal — October 2, 2005

Simply Dispose Of Them

I noticed a change in the language of the pamphlet that was inserted in today’s bulletin for Respect Life Sunday. In place of the phrase we’ve heard for some years, that human life is sacred and to be protected “from conception until natural death,” the pamphlet has “from natural conception until natural death.” What a world of disorder and disorientation is implied in that change.

It put me in mind of a conversation I had with a co-worker some years ago, when in-vitro fertilization was new. She was young, staunchly Catholic, and either recently or soon to be married to another co-worker. Last I heard, more than ten years ago, she had quit her corporate job, and she and her husband were happy and well on their way toward a large family. I mention all this by way of saying that she was certainly not disposed to reject Catholic teaching. But she was puzzled by this one, especially when juxtaposed with the teaching against artificial birth control: she couldn’t understand why, if the Church were so keen on married people having children, it would forbid this technique for accomplishing precisely that.

Thinking about this, I realized that I really don’t know much at all about IVF, so I did a Google search which took me straight to this site. There I got a very clear answer as to the Church’s reasons for condemning it, in the question-and-answer section, in response to the question “What happens to any extra pre-embryos?” The answer: “One option is to freeze pre-embryos for your later use. Other options are to donate or simply dispose of them.”

Whether or not that last phrase gives you a cold chill says a lot about your attitude toward the question which is the most decisive and fundamental of our time: whether human life is a sacred thing or just another object, whether there are any limits upon our liberty to manipulate it for our own ends. I’ve sometimes thought that “Respect Life” is a bit weak and vague as a slogan, but suddenly it seems perfect. One of my teachers in junior high school used to say that the hallmark of Western culture was the idea that every human life is sacred. I think she was right, but whether or not she was right, no one can dispute that this idea is now held in contempt by the educated elite of our society.

There is indeed something close to a lust for the destruction of the old Western idea. It’s of a piece with the lust to destroy what remains of Christian culture altogether. Perhaps I’m being hyperbolic, but I don’t think so. I don’t know what else to make of developments such as the state of California, a state acknowledged to be in fiscal crisis, pouring millions of dollars into embryonic stem-cell research which is, from what I’ve read, a questionable scientific enterprise.

One engine of this drive to foster contempt for the idea that human life is unique and sacred is the desperate need clearly felt by many people to keep abortion available. Any effort to devalue embryonic life assists that effort. And does anyone really believe that the fundamental motivator of the drive for unrestricted abortion is not the drive for the end of all constraints on sexual activity? The abortion culture wishes to make uncontroversial that statement I quoted from the IVF FAQ: that a perfectly good answer to the question of what to do with the unwanted lives that are sometimes the by-products of sexual activity is “simply dispose of them.”

I don’t think I knew enough to give my co-worker a very good answer, all those years ago, about in-vitro fertilization. I hope she eventually figured it out for herself, perhaps when she apprehended for the first time that a new person had come into existence in her womb.

Sunday Night Journal — September 25, 2005

The Storms that Herald the End?

The subject of the end times came up at dinner the other night, apropos of the recent hurricanes: it seems that one of my daughter’s teachers suggested that they might be a sign of the end. I doubt that, myself. For one thing, hurricanes of this strength are far from unheard of, although it’s true that these have been unusually close together in time, were unusually strong at least while they were still well out at sea, and have struck in unusually close proximity to each other. Ivan, Dennis, Katrina, and Rita were all very strong storms, and they all struck a section of coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border on the west to the Alabama-Florida border on the east, a span of roughly four hundred miles, perhaps an eighth (I’m looking at a map and guessing) of the coastline bordering the Gulf of Mexico. I think those of us who live in that area can be forgiven for wondering if there is some design at work here. Still, if the events have been unusual, they can’t be said to have been so improbable as to be anomalous, and the fact is that more and more severe hurricanes struck the United States in the decade of the 1940s.

There’s a simple reason why Americans are engaging in apocalyptic speculation: these hurricanes have affected us dramatically. I don’t remember hearing any of us talk this way in 1998, when Hurricane Mitch, a late-season (October 29) monster, struck Nicaragua and killed some 11,000 people.

I’m a resolute agnostic as regards the end of the world, and in fact tend to believe that the more widespread the belief that it is near, the less likely it is to be so. Sooner or later, of course, someone is going to be right in predicting it, but every age has provided ample reason for those living in it to believe that wickedness is so widespread that it meets the criteria of prophecy, that the end must be soon or else the world will be utterly given over to evil, and so I neither make nor believe any very specific predictions.

There is, however, one thing that gives me pause. The old familiar wickedness of the human race we know very well: the wars, the tortures, the oppression, the lust and the lying. C. S. Lewis once speculated that the quantity of good and evil in the world remains more or less constant, but gets distributed differently in every age: so (for example) our age is horrified by the brutality and cruelty of punishments once handed out for very minor crimes, but has positively encouraged people to abandon on a whim marriage vows made before God, and to throw over the whole concept of sexual morality. Perhaps it all adds up to equal measures of virtue and vice.

But we have invented a new crime. We propose to meddle with the very substance of human life. We propose to destroy human embryos in order to improve our own health. We propose to tinker with the genes of the newly conceived so that when they grow up they will look like we want them to look and behave as we want them to behave. We propose to grow duplicates of living people in a laboratory for purposes of our own.

Once, back in the 1970s when I was more or less testing the waters of Christianity after a long absence, I had a conversation with an Episcopal priest known for his “liberal” views. I had the feeling that he was trying to impress me, under the mistaken impression that I was looking for a modernized and contemporary religion, long on secular enlightenment and short on revelations and commandments. I only remember one specific thing from the conversation; as best I remember, he said something like this: “We (the Episcopal Church) don’t hold the sort of only-God-can-make-a-tree position that the Roman Catholics do. We would see nothing wrong, for instance, in genetically engineering people with gills so that we could mine the bottom of the sea.”

I was dumbstruck and horrified by this, not yet being aware of the apostasy happening within every Christian community at the time. Ten years or so later I related the conversation to a great-aunt of mine, who as far as I know had no religion and was in her late 80s at the time. She considered what I had said for a moment, then replied simply “Well, I suppose people will always want to have slaves.” She saw plainly what the Christian bien-pensant could not.

Perhaps our experiments with cloning and genetic engineering and all the rest of it will prove to be unfeasible. Perhaps they are just slavery under a new name, and perhaps God will let us get away with it, as he has let us, individually and collectively, get away with so much. But it seems to me that they have the potential to distort beyond recognition the elementals of human life: the bond between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, one generation and the next. And I find myself hoping, if not expecting, that God himself will put an end to these obscenities, since it seems unlikely that we will voluntarily turn aside from this path, those of us who oppose it being, apparently, in the minority.

Sunday Night Journal — September 18, 2005

Is There Such a Thing as Price-gouging?

As usual when there’s a hurricane, the topic of price-gouging has come up, and, also as usual, I’ve come across a few columns by libertarian free-market purists saying, in essence, that there’s no such thing, and that what we may call price-gouging is just the natural operation of supply and demand. The latter part of that sentence may well be true; if it is, it is a confirmation of the fact that the law of supply and demand is not sufficient as an ethical guide.

I’m very much a proponent of economic liberty and believe that, speaking broadly, we’re better off if prices are set by market forces rather than legal mandate. But I emphasize the speaking broadly part. There are certainly situations in which prices can be set unreasonably and unethically high. To the libertarians who would argue that no price is unreasonable if buyer and seller agree on it, I would say that your definition of reasonable is unreasonable.

Let me tell you about two businessmen and our recent spate of hurricanes. Both these men are in the home construction and remodeling business. One of them is the husband of a co-worker of mine; let’s call him Barry. The other is known to me only via the story I’m about to tell; let’s call him Harry.

Barry, like a lot of people in his line of work, finds, in the days before a hurricane, that his services are in great demand for boarding up windows. Before Hurricane Dennis, I was one of those who asked to be put on his list; we’ve never been consistent about boarding, had never kept the supplies on hand, and decided it was time to do it right. Barry had all the work he could handle, and in fact had to turn people away. He made money off the hurricane, money which I do not begrudge him in the least. He left his prices at their usual reasonable level, and took people more or less on a first-come-first-served basis, with perhaps some exceptions here and there for people whom he saw as having a stronger claim than others, such as several elderly widows who have come to rely on him. If he made more money than he might have in a normal week, he certainly earned it.

In fact, Barry embodied in that week the virtues that would give all businessmen a better name if they were more widely practiced. He worked himself to exhaustion, trying to service as many people as he possibly could, and made no attempt to jack up his prices to exploit the situation.

One reason I’ve never boarded up my house is that I didn’t know how to do it easily and effectively. It’s a brick veneer house, with the windows set back several inches into the brick. I wasn’t sure how to do it without a lot of drilling into brick and other things which seemed a little too much for my limited knowledge and skill. But some clever soul invented Plylox, and if he’s gotten rich off his invention I’m happy for him. It’s a brilliant solution to the problem consisting of spring steel clips which lock a sheet of plywood into place, making it pretty simple to put up and take down your plywood once you’ve cut it to the right sizes. Barry planned to use these on my house, but they were in short supply. Calling around the area, he located a store which still had some, and, since it was close to where his wife and I work, he sent her—let’s call her Ann—to buy them.

It was there that Ann encountered Harry, who got there just before she did and scooped up all the Plylox still in stock. They were selling for somewhere around fifteen dollars for a bag of eight or ten clips. He made the mistake of bragging that he intended to charge his customers thirty dollars a bag for them. A bit of an argument ensued. In the end, I think partly by appealing to the store manager, Ann was able to get a reasonable share of the Plylox.

It might be said that Harry was merely being a rational economic actor. Well, maybe, but he was also being a jerk, and what he was doing was wrong. No amount of abstract economic theory can convince me that it’s right to snatch the entire supply of a scarce commodity for the sole purpose of extracting an unusually high price from people who really need it. And any theory which leads to the conclusion that it is right has got some problems, most likely with some of its fundamental axioms.

Sunday Night Journal — September 11, 2005

A Few More Hurricane Notes

I haven’t felt much like writing since the hurricane, and still don’t. I don’t, in fact, feel like doing very much of anything. I realized a couple of nights before the storm, as we made merry in a restaurant after a high-school football game, that the discomforts I kept feeling were the early symptoms of a cold. That was over two weeks ago, and I haven’t felt entirely well since. And there’s been quite a lot of work to do, along with a vague uneasiness that seems to be some sort of effect of the disaster.

So here, in lieu of anything requiring that I think very hard, are some additions to the hurricane story:

First, regarding the question of global warming and its role in this year’s epidemic of hurricanes: this chart from NOAA seems to put that question pretty well to rest for the time being, at least as far as this country is concerned. There is no correlation between whatever warming has occurred since the 1850s and either the number or severity of hurricanes striking the U.S. The possibility remains, of course, that the U.S. is not representative of the entire planet.

This piece by Quin Hilyer strikes me as a pretty sound appraisal of the events surrounding the storm. Hilyer is an editorial writer at our local newspaper, the Mobile Register. He grew up in New Orleans and knows (or knew) the Mississippi coast well. He gets at the agony of knowing that a place one loved is, for all practical and near-term purposes, gone. He’s also seriously ticked off at everybody who had anything at all to do with the government’s response in New Orleans.

If this is not too paradoxical a thing to say, I’m not sure that all the anger is reasonable, although it’s certainly understandable. That is, I’m not sure exactly how much culpability to assign, and to whom. It can’t be denied that the failure of the levees was a possibility that could have been foreseen and prevented, and it certainly appears that the response, after the storm, was bungled in many ways. But I would like to see a serious and reasonably dispassionate investigation into both problems.

Regarding the first of them, let’s note that the widely-cited Times-Picayune story about the potential damage a big hurricane could do to New Orleans discussed the levees mainly with regard to the possibility of their overflowing, not breaking., which seems to be a reasonably even-handed source, confirms that yes, it’s true that the Bush administration cut funding for levee work, but that the failure of the levees was not considered a high probability. As a co-worker said when we were discussing this the other day, nobody builds for the absolute worst-case scenario. That’s why your car can move at speeds far greater than any at which it could protect you from the effects of a head-on collision.

Regarding the second, well, there seems to be hardly any doubt that some egregious errors were made, but I’m waiting for a balanced appraisal before I pass judgment on the entire effort. In sheer scale, if not in loss of life (at the moment reports on this count are encouraging), this is one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history. But it’s also been one of the largest rescue efforts, with an enormous number of relatively happy endings (I mean, how happy can the ending be if it involves losing everything you own?). This editorial provides a needed reality check. I don’t think we should be surprised that things did not go smoothly, but I also don’t think we should leave it at that. There are worse things that could happen, and, wherever the blame may lie, we need to be better prepared to deal with them.

I’m afraid that the political climate is going to prevent an honest appraisal of what went wrong. My most intense disdain right now is for those who have leapt upon the crisis to exploit it for immediate partisan advantage. In that war, truth is not just a casualty but a primary target.

Sunday Night Journal — September 4, 2005

Uneasy in the Aftermath


The photograph above was taken last year as Hurricane Ivan bore down on the Alabama-Florida Gulf coast. The restaurant survived Ivan with light damage. When I drove by it on my way home the day before Hurricane Katrina, it looked very much as it does in this picture, except that the writing on the plywood used to board it up said “Pray for New Orleans.” When I drove by it two days after Katrina, nothing remained of its first floor except the pilings that still support the upper floor, which looks salvageable.

Everybody knows what happened to New Orleans, and I don’t have any intention of speculating on what role prayer played or didn’t play in it, or for that matter what role God played. It seems to me that the only reasonable answer to the question of Why? in these situations is We don’t know. I said this at slightly greater length last summer, in this journal entry, and that may be as much as I will ever have to say on the subject.

We got off pretty lightly here on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. No lives were lost, and serious property loss was limited to homes directly on the waterfront. I got a good scare but only light damage.

We decided to stay in town for this storm. We have two children at home these days, and my wife’s brother, who’s diabetic and spends most of his time in a wheelchair, lives across town. My wife and son went to sit out the storm with him, while my seventeen-year-old daughter and I stayed at home. Around 11am or so it looked like the wind might be about as bad as it would get, and it didn’t seem too bad, so we figured we were all right as long as a tree didn’t fall on the house. Then I looked out from the glassed-in porch on the northwest corner of the house and saw water lapping into the backyard. For the next hour or so it continued to rise until it was lapping against the house. We have a little sailboat which was soon tossing around in a light chop in the back yard, so we had to wade out and secure it. Part of the picket fence floated up out of the ground, concrete footings and all.

To hear little waves slapping against your house when you live a hundred yards from the water is a disturbing sound. I’m glad the storm arrived during the day; to have these storms come at you in the dark, when you can’t really see how bad they are—where the water is, how much the trees are swaying—is far more frightening. But the water came right up to the house and then receded. Aside from the carpet of debris, the broken fence was, in the end, the only real damage.

Our lives were not in danger, because our house is at the bottom of a thirty-foot-bluff, and if the water had kept coming we would simply have walked up the hill. But it was clear that if we got a direct hit from a storm like Katrina we would most likely lose the house. To contemplate that, and its aftermath, is enough to give me some sense of what the people from here to New Orleans must be feeling. By American standards my home and possessions are pretty modest, but they are part of me, and I don’t want to let them go, especially family memorabilia and other things that have sentimental value. My wife and I have begun to expand our disaster preparation plans to include packing the family scrapbooks early in hurricane season and leaving them that way for the duration.

I’ve lived in this area for fifteen years now. I’ve always been too busy to explore the coast to the west of us, which is rich in history and atmosphere, but expected to have the leisure to do it one day. On the occasional trip to New Orleans, usually to pick up or drop off someone at the airport, I’ve noticed the sign pointing to Jefferson Davis’ home and marked it in my mind as one of the places I’d visit when the time came. Now it’s gone, although it had been there a hundred and fifty years and had weathered storms like Camille in 1969. (“This storm can’t be worse than Camille,” many people thought. But it was.) The whole coast from Bayou La Batre in Alabama to New Orleans is, in its human structure and history, gone. Whatever is built there now will not be the same—and indeed the Mississippi coast had already lost a lot of its charm to casinos.

I can only speak for myself, but it seems to me a that a sense of melancholy and unease hangs over even the areas that were not badly affected by Katrina. It comes partly from knowledge of the terrible misery, loss, and disruption to the west of us, and partly from the knowledge that it could be us next time. With near misses from three major hurricanes in less than a year, and most of September, which is generally the most active period, still to go, there’s an anxiety in the air, a sense that it would be unwise to let one’s guard down, worsened by the unnerving speed with which this storm went unexpectedly from relatively mild to one of the most intense on record—as Erik Larson puts it in Isaac’s Storm, the story of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, “it exploded forth like something escaping from a cage.” God keep all other such creatures locked up and far away.

This is the Oyster House after Katrina:


Sunday Night Journal — August 28, 2005

Not So Calm Before the Storm

Yet again, only six weeks after Hurricane Dennis, we are preparing for a hurricane. Although Hurricane Katrina is as of right now (10pm Sunday night) heading for New Orleans, a lot can happen in the next twelve hours or so. And besides, this storm is so large and intense that even if it doesn’t change course we’ll still get a hurricane.

We completed most of our preparations much earlier in the day, and now although there is nothing much that I can do I find it hard to focus on anything. I had intended to write tonight about a movie that I saw for the third or fourth time Friday night: The Day the Earth Stood Still. But that will have to wait till next Sunday, or some other time.

I find this foreboding idleness very hard to bear. I figured out many years ago that I have a very low tolerance for novels or plays or movies in which the characters brood and fret and talk inactively and unproductively. I think I remember an essay in which Matthew Arnold declares this a fatal fault in drama, and I agree with him. I understand perfectly well that beneath a superficial calm profound inner dramas may occur, psychological or spiritual crises may arise and be resolved. But it had better be done with genius, as by Ingmar Bergman. If not, bring on the car chases.

Sunday Night Journal — August 21, 2005

How Guns ‘n’ Roses Came to My House

Continuing from last week’s journal the train of thought about the difficulty of keeping the entertainment industry at arm’s length, an anecdote:

Although I have a fairly big collection of pop LPs (I didn’t start buying CDs regularly until ten years or so ago), I rarely listened to them when our children were young. This was partly because I didn’t want them to grow up on that diet, and partly a practical consideration: when I listen to music, I like to listen, and it’s hard to do that in a houseful of children. When I did play rock music around the house, it was fairly benign: tuneful and tasteful music from the mid-‘60s and such.

For several years when our two oldest children were around ten or twelve years old, we listened regularly to Shickele Mix. If you’re not familiar with this radio program, it’s an entertaining musical miscellany hosted by Peter Schickele, the musico-comical mastermind behind the works of P.D.Q. Bach. A typical episode takes a particular musical technique and looks at the way it’s used in all sorts of music, including various folk and popular forms. It’s a lot of fun and you can learn a good bit about music from it, even if you disagree with Schickele’s dogma that “all musics are created equal.”

Frequently it was not convenient to listen to the program when it was broadcast; also, in many cases programs were worth listening to more than once. So I often taped it. One broadcast which consisted mainly of baroque arrangements of Beatles songs also included a string quartet transcription of a Guns N’ Roses song, “Welcome to the Jungle.” Most people who were anywhere near a radio in the late ‘80s will have heard this song, but if you haven’t suffice to say that it’s very abrasive hard rock. And the original song was included, by way of comparison, along with the string quartet version.

One of my sons, who was probably about eleven at the time, fastened onto the song with dismaying alacrity and intensity, listening to it often until I over-wrote the tape with the following week’s Shickele Mix. It was striking to see how powerfully it took hold of him.

The point of this story? There isn’t much of one, really: simply to note how easily the less desirable elements of pop culture can slip, uninvited, into a home where a reasonable effort to suppress it is being made. I don’t want to say “you can’t be too careful,” because in a sense you can: I do believe that some, or perhaps many, Christians, go too far and become overly fearful and paranoid. And obviously listening to one song a few times is not going to undo anyone. But it is very hard to escape pop culture entirely, and as it’s the steady diet that matters most, not the occasional snack, I return to my point last week about the importance of the surrounding community: it surely makes a difference whether the likes of “Welcome to the Jungle” are to be heard regularly in the homes of your friends, neighbors, and family.

Sunday Night Journal — August 14, 2005

Advice to Parents(?!)

Now that all but one of our children have left home, and the last is about to begin her senior year of high school, I’ve attained the de facto status of old-timer at the Catholic child-rearing game. That, and my association with the counter-cultural Caelum et Terra, cause me to get the occasional request for advice from Catholic parents who are not as far along in the journey.

My first reaction to this request is that I have no advice to offer. And then, of course, I give a little anyway, against my better judgment, which instructs me to say no more than “anything can happen.” I can’t say that I myself have succeeded as a Catholic father, and I’ve seen all kinds of children from all sorts of families go in all sorts of directions. Children are not mechanisms, and there is no guarantee that doing the right thing will produce the right results, even when it’s clear what the right thing is, and much of the time that’s far from clear.

The one thing I’d say without qualification—the one piece of advice that I usually give in spite of my disclaimers—is that the nearer you can come to living within a Catholic culture, the better off you’re likely to be.

Obviously to find a genuinely or at least seriously Catholic milieu of any size at all is not easy nowadays. Less obvious is that you may not actually have achieved it even when you think you have, because even among pretty zealous Catholics—yes, even among Catholic home-schoolers, who are obviously among the most determined to do the right thing educationally—there can be a surprising amount of disagreement about how to manage a problem like that presented by the entertainment industry.

There are three basic approaches to dealing with something like television which is not intrinsically wrong but which is questionable or unhealthy, depending on what and how much: prohibition, moderation, and license. A surprising number of fairly serious and traditionalist Catholic parents practice the last of these with television, at least in respect to quantity: that is, they may strictly limit what may be watched, but not how much. I’ve always thought this a bad idea, not for specifically religious or moral reasons but in relation to basic mental soundness. This was never an option for us (although I must say we’re a lot slacker with our youngest than we were with the older ones—an old story for parents in general).

Prohibition, on the other hand, may backfire and produce a reaction in the other direction, unless the family is part of a community where pretty much everyone does the same thing. When I think of this, I always remember a family in our home-schooling group who were extremely strict about diet: they were vegetarians and moreover what I think of as health-food puritans, allowing no food in the house that wasn’t positively and certifiably good for them. When the group got together and less restrictive families brought bags of potato chips and the like, the children of this family descended like locusts on the junk food. (That was eight or ten years ago, and the family moved away, so I don’t know how the children behaved when they became old enough to make this decision for themselves.)

My wife and I were of the moderate party (see this Caelum et Terra article), but moderation may seem to the children just a sort of prohibition lite, unless, again, all or at least most of the families with whom they might spend time agree with you about what is permissible. In the absence of this, the children are more likely both to resent their restriction and to have an opportunity to escape it, and you may find yourself with a choice between isolating them and knowing that at the homes of friends and relatives they’re watching things you don’t want them to.

This community of parents probably needs to be fairly large to work very reliably. A small group of like-minded families may not suffice to give the children sufficient scope and opportunity for making friends. We never had a very large group, and as all the children got older and their personalities more distinct, children who had played happily together as eight-year-olds found that at fourteen or fifteen they no longer had much in common. Or a child would develop a serious interest which no one else in the group shared and which could only be pursued outside the very small Catholic milieu. (To be honest, this was a problem for the adults, too: despite our shared interest in Catholic home-schooling, very few real and continuing friendships developed.)

Sometimes I think that in the end none of these considerations are as important as heredity, and I’m sure that they’re no more important. The more you watch children grow up (yours and others’), the more you see in each of them an irreducible essence which will find a way to manifest itself. And we parents do well to remind ourselves that in the end we do not have the power to save anyone else, not even our children. We can certainly help or hinder, make the road straighter and shorter or crooked and longer, but ultimately the choice for salvation is made by each soul alone.

Sunday Night Journal — August 7, 2005

A Few More Words about Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Amy Wellborn at Open Book picked up my last week’s journal entry, along with a letter from the Bishops’ Conference on the same subject, and an extensive discussion followed. I must say that I’m irrationally flattered that something of mine played a role in setting off a 200-plus comment discussion—Open Book regulars know that’s a very high number, and not infrequently an indicator of hot tempers at work, but in this case the discussion was very civil and the quality of argumentation mostly high. Here are a few notes in follow-up to that discussion.

There were three main arguments in support of the bombings:

(1) That the victims of the attack were not actually classifiable as non-combatants because they supported the war effort either directly or indirectly. I don’t see how eliminating the traditional distinction between combatants and non-combatants can gain any purchase at all as a Catholic position. I first heard this basic argument some twenty years ago in a speech by William F. Buckley, and I think it’s one of the things that’s always made me keep a bit of distance between myself and the mainstream conservative movement, even though I pretty well fit there in most respects.

(2) That both cities contained legitimate military targets and the non-combatant deaths were not directly intended by the U.S. government. I don’t think this is supported by the facts. And even if it were, it would seem to stretch the principle beyond the breaking point.

(3) That the magnitude of the horror that was the apparent alternative to the use of the bomb justified its use. This argument was the major topic of debate and is indeed the most compelling. I think I went about as far toward granting it as one can without taking a fatal step into consquentialism, a term which I take—and I have no theological training—to be, in common sense terms, the doctrine that the end justifies the means, and that an action is good if it produces a good result. It seemed to me that many of those making this argument were in fact making a case for consequentialism.

Many years ago—more than thirty—I took what might have been my first conscious step toward embracing traditional Catholic morality when, in the context of writing a research paper on some aspect of Coleridge’s thought, I came to the conclusion that it is only by insisting on the highest ethical principles that we can expect to sustain a minimal level of decent behavior. I am now more fully convinced of that. One commenter at Open Book took me to task for not specifying what I wanted in saying that we must acknowledge that our action was wrong. But it is precisely the acknowledgment itself, and our continuing affirmation of the principle upon which it is made, that is important now.

“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

"No, I wouldn't consent," said Alyosha softly.

              —Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Purification of Memory

Sunday Night Journal — July 31, 2005

I have little patience with the historical self-righteousness that comes so easily to much of the pampered West nowadays. Those of us born after the Second World War, who have had at least in physical terms the softest lives of any people who have ever lived, often seem to find it easy to pass the most severe judgment on everyone who lived before us, even regarding situations in which they were struggling for a decent life, or even for their very survival, against dangers which we have never had to face, partly and precisely because they did. If we had been there, we seem to believe, we would have done the right thing. I sometimes even get the sense from people my own age (mid-50s) that we have never entirely let go of the pity we felt for ourselves when we were young, finding ourselves in a world which, to our aggrieved astonishment, was not perfect.

This readiness to condemn seems odd when contrasted with the widespread belief that we have no right to judge the actions of anyone else, especially if we have not walked a mile in his shoes. Such caution apparently applies to everyone except our own ancestors, who are vilified for every occasion when they failed to meet the ethical standards we have retroactively set for them. “Liberal self-loathing” is the term sometimes given to this contempt for one’s own cultural past when it’s found on the left, but that doesn’t seem really accurate, as the condemnation is not directed toward self either individually or collectively: the judges do not really view themselves as being part of the culture they condemn. They themselves belong to the new, all-tolerant, all-liberating, all-knowing culture toward which evolution has been working for millennia and the main task of which is to finish off its mortal enemy, the old stupid vicious culture. And besides, a variant of the phenomenon can be found on the right, although it is less straightforward. I think both instances are at least partly mutant forms of American exceptionalism, but that’s a subject for another note.

Rejection of this almost mindless refusal even to attempt to understand the past should not and need not mean a reactive attempt to whitewash it. In fact, contempt for the past is probably at least in part a reaction against versions of history which painted a too-pretty picture of it. The temptation to believe our enemies to be thoroughly evil and our friends to be almost perfect is almost as strong when we look at history as when we look around us in the present day. But I recall how stunning and somehow liberating it was to me to read Swift’s Tale of a Tub, in which English Puritans are portrayed as ridiculous fanatics. It was not so much that I thought Swift was entirely correct about them—he had, of course, his own polemical goals—as that it was refreshing to get a different view of them, one in which they were neither the noble crusaders of one strain of American history, or the evil witch-hunters of another strain. Perhaps that was the point at which I understood with my heart as well as my mind that history was not simple and that those who acted in it were facing a world in which good and evil, truth and falsehood, were as mixed and murky as they are to us.

Under John Paul II, the Catholic Church has recently undertaken an historical evaluation of itself which has been called “the purification of memory.” The phrase (I am not sure whether the Pope himself was the author of it) is meant to describe a process of facing the Church’s past with the greatest attainable degree of humility and honesty. But it is not an abstract or academic exercise; “it is also meant to be an occasion for a change of mentality and certain attitudes in the Church, as well as the source of a new teaching for the future, in the consciousness that the sins of the past remain as temptations in the present.” (See this document.)

Something like that, I think, is needed in the United States with respect to—well, with respect to many things, but in particular to the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 60th anniversaries of which are coming up this week. Those bombings are only the most dramatic and terrifyingly efficient instances of the general practice of bombing civilians in which the U.S.A. engaged during the Second World War. Of course every other belligerent having the capability did the same, but it is we who now stand in a position of dominance over much of the earth, and our ability to see the right path and to follow it will have a decisive effect on the rest of the world, and will determine whether our future is to be that of a nation intent on justice or of one devolving into just another large-scale criminal enterprise, like most of the world’s now-fallen empires.

We must face, and take responsibility for, the simple fact that what we did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong. I call this a “simple” fact fully aware that not everyone grants its status as fact, much less that it is simple. The simplicity to which I refer is not that of the historical decision, which was indeed complex, but of the abstract ethical principle: it is wrong to target noncombatants in war. It is wrong to incinerate non-combatants in their hundreds of thousands at a swoop. It is wrong, and, what perhaps most needs saying in our present ethical climate, even if you have powerful reasons for doing it, it is still wrong. And if it is not wrong, then our argument with, say, Osama bin-Laden becomes a question of who struck first and who had the greater provocation; that is, we have no principled argument against his methods.

I am not saying that the circumstances surrounding the decision to use the atomic bomb were such that the right decision should have been easy. That is exactly the error I want to avoid, and of which those who defend the acts might accuse me. I do not even want to evaluate the objective moral culpability of those who made the decision and those who carried it out. That is for God to determine. I want to emphasize that there were strong reasons for the decision, and most of all to stress what is so easy to ignore for those evaluating such acts from the comfortable, safe, and omniscient vantage point of the future: that the cost of deciding otherwise might have been enormous.

If you think it was easy to be Harry Truman in 1945, and that you would certainly never have done what he did, spend a while imagining yourself looking at the casualty figures from the war in the Pacific and contemplating those that could be expected in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Think of asking a nation which had already sent most of its young men into the hell of modern war to keep sending them, with the expectation that an even higher percentage of them would not return. Read something real and unsentimental about the war and imagine yourself as a soldier who has survived the Philippines or Guadalcanal and would now face something worse. Think, too, of the nightmare that would have faced the civilian population of Japan, caught in the middle of a land war that would involve the entire country until the last soldier surrendered or was killed. Then imagine that you could make all these horrible possibilities go away by one or two acts that would cost no American lives and quite probably fewer Japanese lives than would have been taken in an invasion.

No, it was not an easy decision, and anyone who thinks it would have been if only he had been there to make it is fooling himself. Even one untempted to swerve from absolute principle would have been, and ought to have been, daunted, to say the least, by the possible consequences of not doing the forbidden thing. There is indeed much we might say, much that has been said, in extenuation of the decision. But what we cannot and must not say is that it was right.

Why is it important to recognize this? Because “the sins of the past remain as temptations in the present.” One who believes that stealing is wrong may, given the right combination of temptations and pressures, steal anyway. But one who does not believe stealing is wrong is almost certain to do it regularly. We Americans have a tendency to believe that if we really, really need to do a thing, it must therefore be right. I sometimes think that may be our fatal flaw. But it is a far lesser sin to fail to live up to the moral law than to reject it.

Sunday Night Journal — July 24, 2005

Heat. Humidity. Sex.

It is miserably hot and humid here, as it normally is in mid-July. Air conditioning has transformed the South, so that this sort of heat is only a nuisance, not a major factor in how one lives, except that it drives people to stay indoors, so that the southern summer now resembles the northern winter in that one doesn’t willingly spend much time outside except for certain seasonal recreational activities.

Now and then I hear someone wonder aloud how people endured this climate in the days before air conditioning. Well, I’m old enough to remember a time when air conditioning was relatively rare, when the doors of those businesses that were air-conditioned often displayed an advertisement for Kool cigarettes which read Come in—it’s KOOL inside, and I don’t even remember it as being all that bad: it was just the way things were, and you lived with it. But getting used to air conditioning makes being out in really hot weather for more than a few minutes seem miserable to most of us, and utterly intolerable to some, to hear them talk.

I would like to say that I scorn this effete comfort, but I don’t. My house and car are air-conditioned (and if I had to choose I might give up cooling the former before the latter). I do still regard it as a luxury, though, and one that might not always be there. I don’t take it for granted, and I find it salutary to be reminded of what life is like without it.

Yesterday I mowed the lawn at around three in the afternoon, when most of it was in shade. The lawn is not large, requiring only half an hour or so to mow, but the heat was so overpowering that I took a long break in the middle of the job. I would not have been much wetter if someone had poured a bucket of water over me. So rather than go inside, where it was twenty degrees cooler, I sat in the swing outside, aware of each little rivulet running down my face and neck, clothes sticking to me everywhere.

If you’re out in this heat you don’t ever actually get cool. You only go from miserable if you’re active to uncomfortable if you’re still. If you get this hot and then go into an air-conditioned house, you get an instantaneous chill of rapidly evaporating moisture; it can even become uncomfortably cool. But if you’re outside, you don’t get that. Rather, you realize after a lapse of minutes that you’re not sweating as much as you were. And you never dry out; you just go from thoroughly wet to merely damp.

In this condition any movement of air is a cool touch, the only thing you feel that is not describable as “heat.” And so you become aware of the least little breeze. There is nearly always some movement of air where I live, as it’s close to the water, but my house is sheltered beneath a bluff and surrounded by trees, so I can frequently see the treetops moving but feel no wind at all. Yesterday was comparatively still, the breeze reaching me only in intermittent light puffs, each one a delight. I sat quietly for ten or fifteen minutes, swinging a bit, waiting for and enjoying these, until I went back to work.

When every interior is air-conditioned it’s easy to lose touch with the wonderful reality signified by the phrase “cool breeze.” It’s good to be reminded of these elemental pleasures, too easily lost in a world of more powerful and pervasive ones. The former are in fact to me, and I suspect to most people if they will slow down to experience them, often more deeply satisfying than the latter, even though, as I say, I don’t really want to give up my air conditioning, if only because not having it would cause me to be even more indolent than I already am.

I read recently of some sociologist’s finding that the use of pornography among young men is causing them to grow jaded about sex. I can’t provide the reference, as I have no idea now where I read it, but the researcher made the claim that for those who absorb a steady stream of pornography—which the Internet has made it very easy to do—mere casual fornication is no longer sufficient, that the young men expect the young women to perform for them as the prostitutes of pornography do, and that it takes more and more exotic and no doubt perverse activity to excite them.

This is sad and disgusting but predictable. Of course saturating the environment with sexual imagery will in time decrease most people’s reaction to that imagery, and it is no new discovery that profligate sexual activity eventually leaves one jaded and unresponsive and in need of ever stronger stimuli. As C.S. Lewis has Screwtape say, “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.” The complete eroticisation of culture leads naturally to the diminishment of the erotic. The flood of sexual imagery that now engulfs us was by comparison only a trickle when I was a teenager, and when I recall the electric jolt I could then experience as the result of a touch or a glimpse of a bit more leg than was ordinarily revealed, I have no doubt as to which kind of society I would rather be young in.

Unlike the pleasure of a cool breeze, the pleasure of eroticism is the object of obsessive anticipation. It also frequently suffers from a considerable falling-off between the anticipated pleasure and the reality. What happens when the fantasy crowds out the reality altogether? Even if no moral considerations were involved, pornography would be something to deplore as leading in the long run to a much reduced ability to experience and appreciate real pleasure.


Sunday Night Journal — July 17, 2005

To Pray As We Ought

I don’t say this at all proudly, but I’ve never been much for reading Scripture on my own. Catholics of course are often criticized for this lack of attention to the written Word, but in my case the Church can’t take the blame, since I grew up Protestant and certainly didn’t lack for good examples and encouragement in this respect. I’ve been noticing, though, as I get older, that Scripture speaks to me more and more, whether encountered in solitary reading or at Mass. Frequently it’s almost oracular, as if a very specific message were being given to me, which I have no doubt is in fact the case for everyone who has “ears to hear”—the same words, with distinct and providential import for each one who receives it.

Today’s Epistle, for instance, always strikes me as immensely comforting and directly applicable to my own life:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.    (Romans 8:26-27)

It seems that I often find myself unsure of what to pray for beyond the always-safe “thy will be done.” I feel myself to be intruding on God’s prerogatives when I pray very specifically. I second-guess myself, particularly when praying for other people, and wonder if what I want is really what is best for them. This is true especially when the context is some situation where I’ve made such a mess of things that no resolution, no correction of the original wrong, is possible without further damage.

There is, moreover, something worse at work in me, a superstitious streak which is directly traceable to that well-known story by W. W. Jacobs, “The Monkey’s Paw.” It can be found online easily enough, but I’m not providing the link: if you haven’t read it, I don’t particularly recommend that you do so, because I don’t want it to haunt anyone else as it has haunted me. Suffice to say that it’s a variant of the old three-wishes pattern, and gives a truly horrible turn to the adage “Be careful what you wish for.” It’s marvelously effective, a masterpiece of the Edgar Allen Poe school of implicit horror. I read it as a child, and have (obviously) never forgotten it; I might have had this quirk about prayer without the story, but the story gives my misgiving a very definite and unforgettable shape: suppose I pray for the wrong thing, and God grants it, and something bad follows? Of course I know that this is nonsense, a defect in me, and that God is not the malign nemesis at work in the story, but still the idea floats around in the back of my mind when I pray for anything very specific.

It’s interesting that the King James Version from which I quote above—and which of course is not what I heard at Mass—has “what we should pray for” while the New American Bible has “how to pray.” They’re not necessarily contradictory—“how to pray” can, obviously, include the object of prayer—but I prefer the KJV. It emphasizes a more elemental form of assistance. “How to pray” might refer only to the difficulty of finding the right words; “what to pray for” gets at the fundamental problems of will and understanding, and offers to correct our deficiencies at their root and heart, assuring us that those groans—those longings, praises, regrets, petitions, and confessions—which cannot be uttered are perfectly known to the One to whom we so imperfectly direct them.

Sunday Night Journal — July 10, 2005

You Can’t, In Fact, Always Get What You Want (Waiting for Dennis)

This is a Sunday Morning Journal. By Sunday night it’s very unlikely that I’ll have electricity, which means I won’t have Internet access. It’s possible that I won’t have a home, at least not one that is habitable without major repairs. We are waiting for Hurricane Dennis, a vicious storm, frightening not only in itself but because there has never been a storm so bad this early in the season.

Being a hundred yards from Mobile Bay, our house is vulnerable to wind, water, and falling tree damage in a hurricane. At the moment the last of these seems the most likely. As a tree lover I had never wished for fewer trees until last year when Hurricane Ivan poked a hole in our roof. I wish now I had taken the trouble and expense to have some of the trees around the house trimmed or removed. Now I can only wait. The newer suburbs, big open tracts that used to be fields or orchards but now have no trees more than twenty or thirty feet tall, suddenly look secure and desirable.

We don’t have much of a house. In a situation where we could not afford both house and location we favored—“privileged,” to use the currently popular jargon—location. The house is just a couple of steps above a trailer—small, pre-fab, low-ceilinged, built in the mid-70s, rather flimsily for its time but I’m told not so badly by current standards. I can’t say I’ve ever been fond of the house for its own sake, but it’s full of things that I value, and besides I want my grandchildren to be able to know the place where their parents spent at least part of their childhoods (we moved here in 1992). Now, like George Bailey, I’m singing a different tune and trying to strike bargains with God, just like a million or so people along this stretch of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi coastline. One thing’s for sure: we aren’t all going to get what we’re asking for.

Tuesday Afternoon Update

We were spared this time. The storm weakened considerably and went further east than intially predicted. Mindful of the ethical and theological problems raised by the fact that the storm hit someone else instead (see this item from last summer), I emphasize the sudden reduction in strength which made Dennis considerably less destructive than it might have been. My wife points out that this was the Psalm from yesterday’s Mass:

Then would the waters have engulfed us, and torrent gone over us; over our heads would have been swept the raging waters. Blessed be the Lord, who did not give us a prey to their teeth!

Our help is in the name of the Lord.

Our life, like a bird, has escaped from the snare of the fowler. Indeed the snare has been broken and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Our help is in the name of the Lord.

Sunday Night Journal — July 3, 2005

Independence Day and Indian Larry

I occasionally watch a couple of TV shows, American Chopper and The Great Biker Build-Off, which, in case you don’t know, involve building custom Harley-style motorcycles. I guess I have enough Anarcho-American in me to be susceptible to the romance of motorcycles, and actually owned a couple of small ones in my younger days. Also, the show appeals to my appreciation (discussed here last week) of people who can do things that require a lot of physical intelligence and skill. Building these bikes requires an impressive combination of craftsmanship and engineering, with both at the service of a very American aesthetic. For my money these guys are far better and more interesting artists than the average Turner Prize winner.

One episode featured a bike builder named Indian Larry, previously unknown to me but apparently very well known in motorcycle circles. At the end of the show there was a memorial note along the lines of “In Memory of Indian Larry, 1949-2004.” Out of curiosity I looked up Indian Larry on the web and found that he had been killed while performing a stunt—standing on the seat of a moving motorcycle—without a helmet.

In my continual effort to figure out the United States of America, I sometimes think of it as an experiment on God’s part, as if he had said, in a sort of limited recapitulation of Eden and the Fall: I’m going to allow these people to attain an unprecedented level of freedom and abundance. I’m going to take away many of the excuses—hunger, famine, brutal oppression—for sin that I’ve been hearing for lo these many millennia. They’ve been telling me they would be more virtuous if life wasn’t so hard. Let’s give them a chance to prove it. Or perhaps it’s a sort of reversal of Job’s story; perhaps Satan made a wager with God that his beloved human race could not become prosperous without also becoming corrupt.

If either of these is the case, we have clearly let God down. We’ve misunderstood the nature of freedom. As one wise man after another, most prominently the late Pope, has tried to tell us, the point is what we choose, not simply that we choose; to freely choose the good, not to freely choose, period, with all choices being considered equal and the choosing itself a godlike and unquestionable act.

We’re like Indian Larry, who would probably be alive today if he had been wearing a helmet: gifted and freely exercising our gifts, but unable to resist taking that extra step into recklessness and ruin. Admittedly, there is, at least to my fallen eyes, a bold grandeur in Larry’s gesture. But it can’t be considered wise, and it is unwise in a very defiant and American way.

Here we are at another Independence Day, and it seems that with every passing year the concept of freedom as a path toward the good is less honored, and the concept of freedom as the power to follow every least dictate of whim or sensuality is more exalted. One can say for Indian Larry that he at least took his risks knowingly, and would probably not, had he survived, whined and tried to sue somebody because of his injuries. Increasing numbers of Americans seem to see government’s role in maintaining freedom as an obligation not to interfere before, but to be ready to assist after, the crash—non-judgmentally, of course.

I hope that, if he was not in the habit of doing so, Indian Larry sought God’s mercy as he died. I hope that we as a nation will not wait until we are “between the stirrup and the ground” before changing our ways. I’m hopeful, but not optimistic.

People Who Can Do Things

Sunday Night Journal — June 26, 2005

Last Saturday I went out to mow the lawn and the starter cord on the mower broke on the first pull, without starting the engine. Since the grass was well overdue for cutting I went right out to the hardware store to look for a replacement cord, based on a vague notion that I’d seen them for sale. I didn’t think it would be very difficult to replace, but had another vague notion, based on some previous incident, that it was not quite that easy.

It took me a while to remove the three housings which enclose the starter wheel, or whatever it’s called: there was a flimsy plastic one which was mainly decorative, another and heavier plastic one which included the gas tank, and lastly the starter housing itself, which includes the spring-driven recoil mechanism that rewinds the cord after you yank it. At that point I remembered that the tricky part was to wind the recoil rotor to a point where it would, upon release, rewind the cord all the way—otherwise you wouldn’t have enough cord on the rotor to crank the engine—but not so much that there was too much tension on the cord, making it hard to pull and more likely to break. At this point I thought at least one extra hand would be useful, so I asked for my wife’s assistance. Together we managed to get the new cord in place. I reassembled the mower and gave the cord a yank. It didn’t feel quite right—it seemed to be catching somewhere—and the mower didn’t start. I yanked it again, and the mower started, but the cord popped out, broken where we had knotted it to hold it in place. Perhaps we’d been a little too aggressive with the flame we had been instructed to apply to the knot, to melt the nylon strands into a blob that couldn’t come untied.

Well, at least I had the mower started, but now I would have to mow the entire lawn without letting the engine shut off. I used the broken cord to tie down the safety bar which shuts off the engine if you let go of the handle, so that the engine would keep running if I accidentally let go. This is one of those safety mechanisms—lawsuit-inspired, I assume—which may protect truly careless people but at the same time encourages more carelessness: rather than let go of the handle and have to restart the engine, I frequently find myself hanging on to it while stretching to reach in front of the mower to remove an obstacle.

And so the lawn was mowed. But we’ve had so much rain lately that I don’t want to go two weeks without mowing, so yesterday I was faced again with the task of replacing the cord. This time I put some thought into figuring out how to get the right amount of tension. I measured the amount of cord required for one revolution of the starter and determined how many rotations would be needed to pull the cord a few inches farther than the bracket which stops it on recoil, figuring this should be about the right amount of tension. I turned the rotor backward that many rotations (about three and a half), jammed it there with the pair of scissors I had used to trim the cord (thus dispensing with the need for an extra hand, my wife being busy elsewhere). I managed to thread, knot, and seal the cord again, this time being very careful not to heat the load-bearing side of the knot.

I put the main housing back on, with the four bolts that held it just tight enough to keep it in place, and tried it. It felt right and worked beautifully. The motor cranked nicely. The cord remained intact. I tried it several times, and it seemed fine. I put the second housing on and tightened down the four bolts of the main housing, getting them as tight as I could. Since I’m not that strong, I usually figure “as tight as I can” is about right. But not this time. I twisted the head off the fourth bolt.

So the mower works, but it’s wounded. Eventually I suppose the vibration allowed by the missing bolt will cause other problems, and I’ll have to take the thing to a shop and get the bolt drilled out and replaced. Or perhaps just give the mower to the shop as a ten-dollar trade-in on a new one.

This is a fairly typical of what happens when I try to fix something or undertake any other task that requires more than a very minimal amount of manual skill. I don’t have much in the way of motor skills or mechanical-spatial sense. I feel some sense of grievance about this on genetic grounds, since my father was a mechanical engineer and my maternal grandfather was a very skilled cabinetmaker. But my paternal grandfather was a lawyer and judge whose lack of mechanical sense sometimes had people snickering behind his back. (His son, my father the engineer, once said that he would have trouble putting salt in a shaker—but on the other hand he had a decent prose style, and he distinguished himself in other ways [1].)

My wife did not know this about me, or at least did not fully appreciate it, when we married, but it didn’t take her long to figure it out. I think the light began to dawn when we attempted to collaborate on building a bookshelf. She kept taking issue with my notion of how to do things, and I thought she was looking at me oddly. Her father and brothers are union electricians and the sort of men who can build or fix most anything, and she just assumed that this was true of all men. The truth is that she has a lot more mechanical and structural sense than I do, and might have been as skilled as her brothers if her father had taught her in the same way. I think she was annoyed about this for a while, but eventually accepted it as an opportunity to do things herself without a condescending male looking over her shoulder.

I’ve always felt myself to be fundamentally out of touch with the physical world. I often feel that I’m operating my body at one remove, like a person using dials and levers to control a robot. And whatever I’m thinking about at any given moment is most likely not what is directly in front of me. I was a terrible athlete as a child and adolescent and was happy when I got old enough to opt out of sports. I tried gamely at Little League but was the kind of kid who was stuck in right field when almost all the hitters pulled left, in the hope that he might not do too much damage, and who might or might not be paying attention if the ball came his way. I played basketball in junior high and when I think of my very few minutes of playing time in actual games all I remember is a blur of confusion. In fact the only sport I remember enjoying much was football in P.E. classes, where all that was required of me was to try to run over, or avoid being run over by, the guy who lined up across from me. Being on the small side, I generally got the worst of these matchups, but it was an enjoyable level of violence and since we all had to play no great skill was expected.

I think my wife summed me up pretty well once, after she had long accepted and become amused by my incompetence. We were discussing some household repair or project which I was thinking of attempting, and she said it might be better to have it done by “someone who has a better relationship with the laws of physics.” Actually I have an excellent relationship with those laws, abstractly speaking: I found physics one of the more interesting courses in high school, love the elegance of Newton’s laws, and still occasionally dabble in popularized accounts of new developments. It’s the actual things that exemplify the laws that I have trouble with.

Yeats had an elaborate and not very convincing cosmic scheme which gave great prominence to the ideas of thesis and antithesis, and, if I remember correctly some thirty years after reading A Vision, included some idea about a person seeking to become his opposite. I can see a little of that in me, in the form of a great admiration of people who can actually do things. I contemplate with childlike wonder and enthusiasm the feats of acrobats, athletes, painters, sculptors, craftsmen, builders, mechanics, and engineers.

One might expect that I would be sympathetic to gnostic spiritualities which regard the body as being an essentially unimportant prison for the spirit, and promise liberation from it. But not at all: on the contrary, I look forward to the resurrection of the body in the hope of experiencing the integration of mind and body that at my age can only elude me further. I don’t know what we will do with our glorified bodies, but surely we will be at perfect ease in them.

I am, nevertheless, pleased to suppose that there will be no need for lawn mowers in heaven, nor have I ever heard anyone suggest that there would be machinery of any sort at all there.

[1] Without Fear or Favor: Judge James Edwin Horton and the Trial of the “Scottsboro Boys”, by Douglas O. Linder

Sunday Night Journal — June 19, 2005

A Ride Through Covington

Last Sunday my wife and I delivered our daughter to a band camp at LSU, which is in Baton Rouge, a couple of hundred miles away on Interstates 10 and 12. Covington, Louisiana, the town where Walker Percy lived for most of his adult life, is just off I-12, and on the return trip Karen suggested that we go and have a look at it.

I haven’t read Percy for a while, and was just a bit surprised a few weeks ago when, having been asked to name five books that have been important to me, I felt that the list really had to include at least one of his books. I chose Love in the Ruins, but The Last Gentleman or Lost in the Cosmos would have served almost as well. I don’t regard Love in the Ruins as his best book, but it’s the one for which I have the most affection. The Moviegoer might reasonably be considered its superior as a novel, and Lost in the Cosmos is the most engaging presentation of Percy’s ideas, but for sheer joy in reading Love in the Ruins tops all his other books, if only just.

I first read it back in the 1970s. If I remember correctly I was only beginning to consider seriously a return to the Christianity of my youth, and the Catholic Church was well out on the horizon. I imagine some of the Catholic ideas in the book went right past me. But I was captivated by Percy’s wry approach to the most serious questions, and most of all by his manifest delight in and love for the world around him. I mean here both the natural world, which shimmers brilliantly on nearly every page of the book, and the human world, including both the immediate milieu of a small Louisiana town and the civilization of which it is a part: the old violent beloved U.S.A. and…the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world

I was also at that time not long recovered from what I now consider to have been a somewhat deranged youthful hostility to the world that had made me, and I think Love in the Ruins helped me come to terms with the mixed emotions I suppose I’ll always feel about my country. Percy could be ruthlessly accurate and precise in diagnosing the psychic and social illnesses of the U.S.A., but his vexations were always rooted in love and delight, and his example encouraged a similar tendency in me which had never quite disappeared even in my most alienated years.

I think it was his way of seeing the natural world that touched me most, though:

It is still hot as midafternoon. The sky is a clear rinsed cobalt after the rain. Wet pine growth reflects the sunlight like steel knitting needles. The grove steams and smells of turpentine. Far away the thunderhead, traveling fast, humps over on the horizon like a troll. Directly above, a hawk balances on a column of air rising from the concrete geometry of the cloverleaf.

We left the interstate for Covington by what may well have been the same cloverleaf where Dr. Thomas More made the above observation, waiting with his rifle, watching the abandoned motel. It came as no surprise to me that Covington is a pleasing little town, although there are indications that it is now becoming self-consciously so, and fashionable. Enormous live oaks grow everywhere, and it seems that most of the smaller streets are shady. One feels that one is entering a dimmer place, and in the Deep South in summer that’s a good thing. Gracious-looking homes sit on deep lawns. There’s an older downtown area which has clearly declined and shows signs of efforts to make it quaint and artsy, while the everyday activity takes place in the automobile zone, outside the older part of town and nearer the Interstate, which of course is exactly like the comparable zone of any other American city.

A river called the Bogue Falaya runs through Covington, and I read somewhere that Percy’s home looked out on it. We made no effort to seek out his address (and saw no evidence that Covington considers itself notable for his presence) but we did drive around in the area near the river looking for the sort of place where we thought he might have lived. He was not poor, and so it seems entirely possible that one of the big serene riverfront houses which would serve me very well as an image of the earthly paradise might have been his.

I’ve never had much inclination to try to make personal contact with writers whose work I love, because I figure that it would just be awkward (and in any event most of them have been dead for decades). But even though I would have made no attempt to see him, I was sorry that Percy was not there. I would have liked to think I was in the same town with him, and that he’s still there, writing. I’ve always thought the words of Job among the saddest in Scripture: He shall return no more to his house, neither shall his place know him any more.

In one of his essays (I can’t remember which one and am relying on memory) Percy describes his search for a place to settle and says that he finally chose Covington because it was a “no-place,” a town of no dramatic tradition, haunted by no personal ghosts, a locale to which he had no doleful ancestral ties. But he’s not fooling anybody. It’s clear that he loved this place.

Sunday Night Journal — June 12, 2005

Distracted from Distraction by Distraction

The phrase is Eliot’s, from the Four Quartets. I’ve always thought there was a certain amount of jive in Eliot’s work, as much as I love it, and until recently might have offered this line as an example: does it really say anything more than “distracted”?

Yes, I think it does, at least if you make that second “distraction” refer not to the abstraction but to the presence of specific distractions. It refers to a condition of being so distracted that you are no longer conscious of being distracted, or don’t remember what it’s like not to be distracted, and I think I’ve been in that condition for some months now. I only realized it when I was asked to contribute to the so-called “book meme” in which bloggers list the books they own, the books they’re currently reading, and so forth. (I dislike the term, partly because I don’t think the term “meme” really conveys anything useful and partly because the “book meme” doesn’t actually seem to meet the rather vague definition of a meme.)

But whatever you want to call it, I did participate in this listing of books (and posted it on the Caelum et Terra blog), and it caused me to realize that it’s been many months since I actually read an entire book. Last Christmas my wife gave me a copy of Wendell Berry’s most recent novel, Hannah Coulter, and I got about halfway through it before the holidays ended, I went back to work, and a flood of more pressing concerns pushed the novel aside. Before that, I think it had been some months since I read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the last book I actually read all the way through.

It’s not that I don’t read. In fact I often feel that I read too much and am unable to let my mind cease absorbing data and enter a more reflective state. But what I read has been for some time now almost entirely journalism, both in print and on the Internet. I have several books in progress, but they go untouched for months because more ephemeral matter seems, partly because it is ephemeral, more pressing. Some of the journalism is very good, like the Chesterton Review. But even there I’m not reading primary sources; I’m not reading much of Chesterton himself, and there is much that I would like to read before I die.

I’ve always had trouble concentrating, and almost every aspect of my life seems to encourage that fault. My job involves technically demanding tasks which demand extended concentration and yet requires that I be available for interruption at any moment. Comparing notes on this with a co-worker, I found that we had each arrived at a similar state: that even when there is no interruption or distraction present, the constant expectation of it makes concentration extremely difficult.

That same syndrome has now spread into my off-work time. I don’t pick up a book because I know I won’t have time to get deeply involved in it before I have to do something else. So I go off and read someone’s blog instead, absorbing one two-or-three paragraph bit after another, getting involved in discussions which will be forgotten in a few days. Or I read one of the too-numerous magazines to which I subscribe.

This has to change. I’m going to start making the book—at least one book—my highest reading priority, and work in the journalism and blogs only after spending time with the book. It will mean cutting down on my Internet time, and possibly letting a magazine subscription or two lapse. Well, so be it.

Sunday Night Journal — June 5, 2005

Call Me Shiftlet

Some years back there was a widely reproduced frame from the Peanuts comic strip which showed one of the characters—I think it was Lucy—with a look of consternation saying “I love mankind—it’s people I can’t stand.” It comes into my mind frequently when some event, large or small, a local case of child abuse or an account of murder and torture on a nationwide scale, causes me to face what I would really prefer not to think about: the intransigent willingness of some human beings to do, consciously, deliberately, and willingly, things to other human beings that one would like to think could not even occur to the imagination, much less be carried out in deed.

I disagree with Lucy. I like people—it’s mankind I can’t stand. That’s assuming that by “mankind” she means the human race as a whole and in abstract, and by “people” she means individuals. I have to change “love” to “like” in that first clause, as “love” would be too much for me to claim, but with that change I can say it quite honestly. I certainly don’t mean that I like everyone immediately and entirely, and I admit freely that there are in fact some people I dislike strongly, but I can say that as a rule I have liked more than disliked most individuals I have ever known. And I can say that I have never met anyone in whom I could not find something to like, even if an effort on my part was required.

I began to do this many years ago, in one of my first jobs, with a co-worker who annoyed me greatly in a number of ways. I undertook to combat this by making an effort to look for things to like or admire in him, and when I found them they not only made me less intolerant of what I didn’t like about him but gave me some kind of real concrete sense of his worth as a human being independent of my self-centered and subjective preferences. This little discipline has never really been put to the test; that is, I have never had to try it with someone who has done me a serious injury, or done great evil in the world. But it does help with the daily give-and-take of life, and it helps me to conceive how God continues to love us all as individuals, in spite of what we do. And I remind myself often that I stand at least as much in need of charity as those toward whom I exercise it.

But as for mankind as a species, my opinion is that of Swift’s King of Brobdignag: “the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” The misery we inflict on each other is more than I can bear to contemplate, and if I suddenly found myself with God’s power at my disposal (but not his love) I would probably think it best to put an end to the whole affair, as Genesis tells us God himself was minded to do (“And God saw that the wickedness of mankind was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”) until he decided to spare a few.

One of my favorite Flannery O’Connor stories is “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” in which a man, a Mr. Shiftlet, commits a despicable act which appears to leave his conscience perfectly serene. Yet when he himself is merely insulted he calls down the judgment of heaven upon the offender. We are given to understand that it is he who stands in the greater danger from this judgment, which threatens but does not arrive.

I read the daily paper and want to cry out, like Mr. Shiftlet, “Oh Lord, break forth and wash the slime from this earth!” But nothing happens, which is fortunate, not least for me.