Sunday Night Journal 2006 Feed

Sunday Night Journal—July 16, 2006

The Laughter of Contempt

I’m writing this on Monday night, having thought better of publishing what I wrote last night, a somewhat dark meditation on the subject of accidents and the problem of evil. Maybe some other time.

Instead, I’ll say something brief on a question I’ve been thinking about for a while: the meanness of much contemporary humor. To start with, I had to satisfy myself that it isn’t just my own quirk that detects this excess of meanness, and I’ve run across several instances lately of people pondering the same or a similar question. There was, for instance, this post by Anthony Esolen on Mere Comments, which makes an excellent case for the connection between humor that does not despise its object—“the laughter of fellow-feeling,” he calls it, in a nice phrase—and Christian culture.

Humor at another’s expense always involves a certain amount of malice, I suppose, but there are degrees, and there is the question of the fundamental attitude of the mocker toward the mocked. It seems to me, for instance, that there is a significant difference between the humor of, say, the Marx Brothers, which I love, and that of a contemporary effort such as the cartoon Family Guy, which is indeed sometimes funny but spoiled by a coldness, a sense that at bottom the writers of Family Guy genuinely despise the middle-class American families they caricature, and not for any particular harm they do or malice they bear, but simply because they aren’t cool. They aren’t the right sort of people; they are the sort of people who inspire disgust in hip show-business people.

In contrast, when Groucho Marx makes fun of the vain rich lady played so well by Margaret Dumont, it isn’t an attack on a set of social markers. It’s predominantly a mockery of her vanity, her fatuousness, her pretensions, and the gullibility into which these other faults lead her, faults which are encouraged by her social station but hardly unique to it. And perhaps it’s only their skill at work, but we always sense that the various parasites and hucksters played by Groucho and the others are exaggerations of their own foibles. The target of the mockery is the array of absurdities into which greed, pride, and miscellaneous other sins lead people, especially those who are eager to follow.

Moreover, there’s the spirit of sheer anarchic delight, the spirit of play, that bursts out of the Marx Brothers in, for instance, the passport scene in Monkey Business. I can’t think of any comedy of recent years that has anything of that spirit—the ironic smirk has long since replaced both Harpo’s grin and Groucho’s over-the-top leer.

There’s not a clear line here. Some of the best satire is the most savage (Swift, Waugh). But I think there is a useful distinction to be made between mocking the proud, the unscrupulous, or the foolish, and sneering at someone because you think he’s beneath you. A witty snob is still a snob. The laughter of contempt is dry and hollow.


Sunday Night Journal&mdash June 25, 2006

No Complaint, No Problem

One of my daughters just graduated from high school, and a few months ago we were visiting colleges. One large state school had invited her to enter a program advertised as providing, within the context of the big school, a sort of intensified liberal arts program like the one offered by St. John's College. All the students in this program, male and female, live in the same building, and we were given a tour of it.

The boys were separated from the girls only by a hallway. I asked about visitation. I was pretty sure I knew what the real practice would be, but I wanted to see what kind of answer the student who was conducting the tour would give me. She paused for a moment and said, "If there's no complaint, there's no problem."

Right, I thought. I know how that will work out. There would be no surer way to make yourself unpopular than to be the tattletale in that scenario.

Our daughter isn't going to that school, but I had a sad confirmation of my prediction a few days ago. I talked to someone whose daughter has just ended her first year at college (not the one described above, but a similar large state institution) in a state of serious depression which had sapped her motivation so badly that she did poorly in her second term and almost lost her scholarship.

I don't know the girl, but she's apparently brilliant, a National Merit Scholarship winner with math-science aptitudes and interests who wants to be an engineer. And I don't know the whole story. But I do know that she went to college excited about learning, and that she found herself living in an environment which, except for the fact that no money changed hands, might as well have been a brothel.

What is euphemistically called "partying" went on constantly in the whole dorm. But worse, her roommate's boyfriend was in the room at all hours, a sort of unregistered third resident of her room, with all that implies. And she felt that if she complained it would only cause trouble for her. "They'll think I'm a prude." Her mother asked if she couldn't ask the resident assistant (i.e. the person paid to keep order) privately to intervene. "No, she'll just laugh at me. Her boyfriend stays in her room, too."

It's not a new thing that the young person trying to avoid vice should be taunted and rejected by those who have embraced it. I recall my one year in a college dorm forty years ago, and the earnest evangelical young man who was laughed at because he wouldn't go in a room where Playboy centerfolds were on display.

What's different now is that the institution, and for that matter the society which sponsors it, offers such a person little or no moral support. It's like living in a society in which the police are in league with the criminals. At best this girl could have gotten a different room and roommate, but with the real likelihood that she would have ended up with the same difficulty, except that now she would bear a burden of ill will. If she had spoken out, she would have been considered the problem—that is the real implication of "no complaint, no problem."

So in the end there was no problem, so far as the institution was concerned: just a disoriented girl with an obsolete idea of what constitutes minimal decency. What a pretty world we've made, where vice is filled with self-esteem and virtue is expected to hang her head and keep to the shadows.


Sunday Night Journal &mdash June 18, 2006

Blood and Sapphire

It will come as no surprise to any non-Catholic reading this that we Catholics believe some pretty strange things. Catholics, on the other hand, are in some danger of losing sight, by force of habit, of this strangeness. I thought of it as I listened to today's readings for the feast of Corpus Christi.

First there was the Old Testament reading, Exodus 24:3-8, which describes the sacrifices performed by the Israelites at the behest of Moses after his return from his encounter with God on Sinai. What a scene that must have been—slaughter and butchering, burning flesh, blood collected in vessels and thrown about on the altar and upon the people. And sacrifices like these continued for centuries, especially in the great Temple of Jerusalem, constituting the core of the faith in which Jesus was raised and in the context of which he announced that he himself was to be the ultimate sacrifice, and that once his action was complete there would be no further need to slay any living thing as a sacrifice.

Leap forward a few thousand years, and see what happens in almost every Catholic church almost every day. There is an altar patterned after those in the Temple. Somewhere around it hangs a more or less realistic representation of a man cruelly put to death. Followers of this same Jesus believe that their priest, standing over this altar, re-creates the one sacrifice by speaking certain words over wine and unleavened bread. And when he has done this they become in some invisible supernatural way the literal presence of the man Jesus, who by the way was also God.

One who does not believe this can surely be forgiven for muttering "yeah, right" when told that this bread and wine are actually the flesh and blood of God. And if he thinks much about it at all he may even be repulsed by the fact that the priest and people will now eat this purported flesh and blood. He may think that they are doing something either insane, if their faith is not true, or repulsive, if it is. The whole thing, going all the way back to Moses and his basins of blood, looks like nonsense piled upon delusion.

But if he looks much further into Catholic doctrine he'll find it full of sound good sense, teaching reason, humility, honesty, peace, love, and forgiveness. Of course if he's a man very much of our times he'll also find a lot of things there—mostly those pertaining to sex—with which he will disagree and maybe even consider harmful, depending on how "liberated" he is. But if he reads the theologians and the popes, especially our two most recent popes, he'll at least have to admit that the teachings are logical and coherent. And in the case of the popes he'll hear a very down-to-earth reason, very much alert to and conversant with the world. In fact, if our man is very much a child of his time, he will begin to complain that it's all too logical. (Or at least this sort of reaction used to be possible—nowadays I'm afraid there are many in whom the natural light is so clouded that they can't even see the virtue of, for instance, the Christian concept of marriage.)

How can this be? It's as if one discovered streams of pure fresh water flowing out of an oil well. Sometimes it seems like the emergence from this faith of primitive sacrifice of so clear and reasonable a mind as that of St. Thomas is a miracle in itself. We can find part of the answer by reading the two verses from Exodus that follow the Sunday readings:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

You may recall that the initial encounter on Sinai involved darkness, fire, thunder, earthquake, and a sound like trumpets. Moses had to brave these alone in order to see the Lord. Yet now all is tranquility and clarity, and the seventy don't seem to be afraid.

Catholic teaching may seem as clear and bright as that sapphire pavement, but it has to be preceded by an acceptance of darkness and mystery. If we are going to understand anything at all, we must first accept that we cannot understand everything.


Sunday Night Journal — June 11, 2006

One Cheer for Roy Moore

Roy Moore, running for the Republican nomination for the Alabama governership, was easily defeated last week by incumbent Governor Bob Riley. All the polls had predicted this, so if those were correct then the majority of the state’s citizens were pleased by the defeat. Although he continues to refer to himself as a judge, Moore was deposed from the Alabama Supreme Court after he defied a court order to remove from the Supreme Court building a monument quoting and honoring the Ten Commandments and delineating the connection between the laws of man and the laws of God. (See the monument here).Alabama is a conservative and religious state, and so the widespread rejection of Moore’s stand may seem a little surprising. “Conservative” probably trumps “religious” in the citizenry as a whole, though, and if there’s one thing you could probably always count on a large majority of them to disapprove it’s a deliberate defiance of the law. When Moore, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, refused to obey a court order, he was finished. The attorney general at the time, Bill Pryor, himself a firm conservative and a Catholic, was in sympathy with Moore’s views but did not hesitate to set in motion the legal machinery for Moore’s dismissal.I did not want to see Moore become governor of my state. His use of the Commandments smacked of demagoguery, and his insistence on displaying them hardly amounted to a qualification for rule. He strikes me personally as something of an egotist and grandstander, and there’s an off-putting self-righteousness in his face and manner. And like many Alabamians I’ve had more than enough of politicians who give the rest of the country reasons to maintain their prejudice that we’re all morons and/or fanatics. Of course the prejudice is, like most, not without foundation, but I’m not at all sure we’re worse than other states—we’re just more colorfully moronic and fanatical than most of them. But for all his faults Moore was fundamentally in the right, and like many grandstanders he has hurt his cause. No doubt his reading of history tilted inaccurately in an evangelical Protestant direction, but he was clearly right that American Constitutionalism arose in a culture which took for granted the existence of the absolute moral norms of the Ten Commandments. For insisting in an unseemly way on this connection between the laws of man and the laws of God, Moore lost his office and seems to have little prospect of reviving his political career. Moore created a controversy which was at bottom an attempt to force into public consciousness and public debate the question which almost all our politicians and opinion-makers wish to avoid: what, in the end, is the foundation of social order? Either there are absolute rights and wrongs, or there are not. If there are, what are they? If there are not, on what authority does any society declare one thing lawful and another not so? And on what authority does it enforce those declarations?

The conventional answer to these questions is incoherent: there are no absolute moral laws, but there are things one mustn’t do. Up until 1960 or 1970, there was a rough consensus about these, and the lack of a solid foundation for the consensus could be ignored. The abortion question among others shattered that consensus. This was a disagreement which could not be exorcised with the chant of “You’re entitled to your opinion.” There is too much at stake; both sides know it is not a merely private concern. The attempt to sever once and for all the concept of marriage from the concept of family by allowing something called marriage between persons of the same sex is similarly intractable: there is no way to resolve the dispute without one side or the other losing in a definitive way, and finding itself trapped in a society which is hostile to it.

Moore’s essential insight, however badly or contentiously he may have framed and pursued it, was that the refusal to acknowledge the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Constitution is, in the end, an attack on the Constitution itself. In order to avoid acknowledging this dependency, doctrinaire secularism must attack not the specific teachings of the Ten Commandments but their authority, which means in practice, and for now, the denial of the very concept of a transcendent authority.

No society can exist indefinitely without some sort of consensus on fundamental questions, because these determine the way people behave toward each other. In the absence of a moral law to which appeal can be made, the ultimate arbiter is the force of the state. And the state which is at bottom lawless and entirely the tool of a dominant faction will in time prove a much more severe master than any Alabama fundamentalist.


Sunday Night Journal — May 28, 2006

Speed Bumps and the End of Civilization

There’s a lot one could say about the publication by National Review of a list of what they consider to be the top fifty conservative pop songs. I find this in general to be an odd thing to do, but one thing that struck me as significant was the inclusion of the Sammy Hagar song “I Can’t Drive 55” (lyrics here). I’ve only heard it once or twice but it struck me as not much more than an anthem for louts in cars. I can’t see anything conservative about it at all. If any ideological significance can be extracted from it, surely it’s a fairly pure libertarianism: I see no hint whatsoever in the lyrics that the driver of a car recognizes any obligation to other people, although maybe it’s a concession to civil order on Hagar’s part that he’s willing to surrender his license rather than head for the hills to prepare an armed resistance.

I consider a more conservative view on driving practices to have been captured in a cartoon I saw some time ago—two men are sitting in hell, and one says to the other something like (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Pulling up behind people and flashing my headlights at them. What about you?”

My local paper regularly publishes letters and phone calls from people who are outraged that speed bumps (or breakers, or lumps, or tables, or traffic circles, as the various obstructions are called) have appeared on a street where they had not previously been. My sympathy is all with the residents of the street, not the drivers. I assume that anyone outraged enough by a speed breaker to complain about it at length to the paper is one of those who caused the obstacle to be needed in the first place. Usually the street involved is a residential one that has gotten adopted as a short cut which avoids bigger and more congested ones. This would be only annoying if the short-cutters were well behaved, but inevitably a number of them believe themselves entitled to drive forty or fifty miles an hour where the posted limit is twenty-five or thirty, and are not shy about showing their impatience and disregard for anything that might slow them down.

So the people who live on the street find their lives and those of their children and pets at risk from the reckless drivers, and they ask the city to put in speed breakers. I figure they have to be pretty concerned and unhappy to ask for something which is, after all, going to be a big inconvenience for them, too.

I suppose it’s possible that the behavior of the drivers hasn’t really changed much in recent years, and it’s just that the residents are pushing back more vigorously. I wonder the same thing about the phenomenon of people running red lights. Every day upon leaving work I have to pull out into a major street from a small side street. There’s a light there, but I know better than to assume that green means, unqualifiedly, “go.” At least once a week someone runs the light, and I don’t mean that the car just slips by as the yellow turns to red, but that it accelerates from a block away at the first sight of yellow and flies through the intersection well after the light has turned green for me. Have people always done this so regularly and with such abandon? I have no statistics upon which to decide the question, but I certainly seem to see it more often.

If they really are increasing, these bad habits are small signs of a bigger decay, of increasing indifference to the rights of others, the common good, and for that matter simple courtesy. So goes the devolution of liberty, as intolerable behavior requires the imposition of more and pettier rules upon matters which used to be managed acceptably by a general presumption of self-restraint.

Sunday Night Journal — May 21, 2006

The Da Vinci Code and the Concept of Fact

I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code and don’t plan to see the movie, because by all accounts the book is dumb and the movie no better. Yet I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of its influence. If what I read about it is accurate, it’s another in a long line of attempts to replace orthodox incarnational Christianity with a form of gnosticism. That’s nothing new, and we’re used to making the arguments against it. A popularizing academic like Elaine Pagels writes a book for people who will probably never go near the primary sources, claiming that orthodox Christianity is just another conqueror writing history in his own favor and that the heresies of old have just as much claim to be considered “true” as any other beliefs, and anyway are much more fun. She reaches a moderately large number of people, and Christians respond, but most people never hear the argument at all.

The Da Vinci Code has changed that. Suddenly the Gnostic-Christian argument is everywhere. (People like Pagels like to speak only of competing “Christianities,” but I have no intention of giving up that ground.) And people who seem very poorly equipped for thinking have a lot of opinions about it.

What’s most interesting, and disturbing, about the phenomenon is that both the author and his defenders seem to want to have it both ways: the book is fiction, they say, and so no one should be upset about the fact that it portrays the Catholic Church (and indeed most of Christianity, insofar as it maintains core Christian doctrines) as a monstrous and murderous conspiracy. But on the other hand they insist that its version of history is in the main true, and that the reason Christians get upset about it is that they’re so blinded, rendered so mindless, by their oppressive doctrines that they can’t cope with the truth.

I didn’t fully appreciate this serene incoherence, or experience the bang-head-on-desk frustration it can induce, until a couple of weeks ago when the religion editor of our local paper published a selection of comments on the book from her readers. Over and over again the writer would sneer “It’s only FICTION!!!” and in the next sentence talk about how much the book had taught him or her about the real origins of Christianity, the real story behind the Catholic Church, and so on. (There are many similar examples in the reader reviews of the book at Amazon.)

Most bizarre of all, some of the respondents identified themselves as Christian, yet said that even if the conspiracy alleged by the book were true it would not affect their faith. Faith? What faith? Or faith in what? Can they simultaneously worship Jesus as the incarnate God and yet “be comfortable with” (as the silly phrase has it) the idea that the Incarnation was an invention forced upon the world by Constantine? Is “faith” just a synonym for “warm feeling”?

Some of the respondents were clearly pretty anti-Catholic, from both the Protestant and the atheistic sides. One woman identified herself as a member of the Assembly of God and remarked that the Catholic Church had done so many evils that no one should be surprised at or skeptical of this one. Others, clearly (although probably unconsciously) siding with the “Jesus of history/Christ of faith” dichotomous view, said that the historical facts were irrelevant, and the only thing important was what one believes and, presumably—that warm feeling again—the way it makes one feel.

Is something new happening here? There have always been obstacles in the way of knowing the difference between fact and fiction, and without doubt many of the human race have had a lot of trouble figuring it out. But this is something different. This is an inability to grasp the difference between the concepts of fact and fiction.

Perhaps this is not a new thing. But if it is, I can think of two possible causes. One is the constant disregard for truth evidenced in the advertising and marketing that surround us. Whether the product is toothpaste or a politician, everybody knows that the object of any communication about it is to avoid any definite truth and produce a favoring emotion. Is it possible that many people, inundated with this stuff more or less all the time, begin to slip into a fog where the truth no longer matters?

The other possible cause is an idea which has for several decades now been seeping down from nihilistic intellectuals into the mass mind, the idea that it’s impossible to know the truth and therefore all “truths” are equal. There is my truth, and your truth, and even though they may contradict each other mine is still true for me, and yours for you. Few people will defend this idea if it’s stated as plainly as I just did, but many seem willing to float along on it, half asleep.

This leaves Christians in a position that would be amusing if it weren’t so frustrating. Accustomed to the accusation that we are irrational and obscurantist, we find ourselves in this controversy the only party insisting desperately—and, I’m afraid, not very successfully—on the necessity of looking at simple facts in the cold light of day.

Sunday Night Journal — May 14, 2006

On Mother’s Day

Among the many little things that have, over the years, impressed upon me the fact that men and women really are different psychologically was a moment twenty or so years ago when one of our daughters was a baby. My wife was changing the baby’s diapers or giving her a bath, talking idly, partly to me and partly to our daughter, about what a beautiful baby she was, enumerating her delightful qualities, counting the toes and fingers, and so forth, adding at the end “And she has a tiny little mole here, here, here, here, and here,” putting her finger on the spot with each “here,” which involved turning her over for the last two or three.

I remember being more than a little surprised that she had memorized the precise location of every variance in the baby’s skin—there was no hesitation or searching involved as she jumped from one to the next—and I’m sure she had done so without any conscious effort. It was just a natural result of the amount of attention she gave the baby, the same mechanism which had once enabled me to sing effortlessly from memory every verse of Bob Dylan’s eleven-minute “Desolation Row.”

I don’t really think I loved our daughter any less, but I certainly didn’t have such details at my command, and I imagine this pattern holds for most mothers and fathers. There’s a humorous list of male-female differences floating around the Internet, one of those emails that circulate for years on end and thus presumably say something that hits home to a lot of people. On the topic of children, the anonymous writer notes a mother’s very thorough knowledge of her children in every physical and mental respect, then says that “A man is vaguely aware that there are some short people living in the house.” That’s pretty harsh, but most couples will recognize the truth it exaggerates.

Concomitant with that level of attention is something more subtle. Some part of a mother somehow goes out into the members of her family, especially her children. I can imagine that if one had the right parapsychological gift one would be able to see a psychic strand connecting them, through which some sort of unconscious communication takes place, an operation which requires that a part of the mother’s soul go out into these strands. She is never altogether compact in herself; some part of her is always with those she loves and for whom she feels responsible. No doubt this can be true of women in other relationships, and is probably true of some men, but by and large it’s a feminine thing, and most strongly a mother-child thing.

I think it explains part of the reason why most women are so enchanted by the prospect of spending a day at a spa or something of that sort: it’s a circumstance where in addition to physical rest she can get psychic rest. No one expects anything from her, no one needs anything from her. All those psychic connections can be rolled up into herself for a while and the part of her that operates them can be rested and restored.

Although our children are mostly grown now, I still see this attention and responsibility in operation, even at a distance, on the part of my wife. And along with her care for our children she devotes a lot of attention to her chronically ill brother. Her mother passed away four years ago, having spent a large part of her life worrying about and providing for her son. And my wife seems to have inherited that responsibility; I mean not just the fact of it but the consciousness of it.

She’s not much for spas and that sort of thing, but I’ve been trying to get her to let go of things for at least a little while. I wanted her to take a glass of wine and the Jane Austen novel she’s been reading and go to bed. She wouldn’t take the wine, saying it would only put her right to sleep. But she’s back there with the book, and the door is shut. That’s good.

Sunday Night Journal — May 7, 2006

What We Shall Be

Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. – Isaiah 6:5
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. –I John 3:2

Today’s Gospel always makes me think of the belief—manifested, if memory serves, in more than one Biblical passage like the one from Isaiah quoted above—that to see God is death. Although the details are never specified, the older passages suggest that the ordinary human frame would be destroyed by whatever unimaginable forces would constitute the direct experience of God. The passage from St. John seems to be the other side of this coin, implying that one must in some way (also unspecified) become like God in order to survive his presence, and that this change is in store for the redeemed. (It also suggests, interestingly, if the English grammar is reflective of the original intent, that it works the other way—to see Him is also a cause of the change.)

Much has of course been written about the nature of that vision, and its position as the summit of all imaginable happiness. But I sometimes wonder, thinking of the accounts of the risen Jesus: what else might this change allow us to do?

One of the taunts of the materialist to the believer is that the universe is so vast, so inhospitable and indifferent to human life, that the latter cannot really mean very much. If the numbers involved in counting the objects in the universe and measuring the distances between them are so great that we can only express them as mathematical concepts so far out of scale with anything we are capable of experiencing that we can’t really claim to grasp them, how is it possible that our existence is anything other than an insignificant by-product of the forces that have produced those numbers and distances?

That’s hardly a syllogism, of course—as many have pointed out, it’s a mere subjective impression, and not a very convincing line of attack for someone wanting to prove that others are operating on subjective impressions. The numbers and proportions prove nothing, they only amaze. And the imputation of purposelessness is an unsupported materialistic preconception that has nothing to do with science. We assume that because we do not see what purpose distant galaxies have, they must have none. And we assume that because we are very much smaller than, and very distant from, them, we must be insignificant to them, and they to us. So might a cell in the far reaches of my little left toe assume that nothing as far away as the heart could possibly have anything to do with it.

It’s odd that we inhabitants of technological civilization should make this sort of assumption, since we know there is more to the world—our immediate world—than meets the eye: electromagnetic radiation, for instance, of which our ancestors of even two hundred years ago knew nothing, and of which we make very ingenious use. Isn’t it likely that there is also more to the cosmos? When we look up into the night sky we see tiny lights which we are assured are terribly vast and distant balls of something which is like fire but far, very far, more intense, and which is produced by an altogether different physical process. There is no reason whatsoever to think that this is the last word on stars. In fact, there is very good reason, based simply on extrapolation from past progress in knowledge, to assume that there is a great deal more to learn, and I don’t mean simply the filling in of details in the picture we have.

Who knows what the phenomena available to our senses really are? One supposes that the resurrection of the body, as mysterious as it is, means that we will have some relationship to the physical world. What will the stars and planets look like to the resurrected person? What will they be? Is it possible we could live among them? Having deduced the conditions on or in them, we feel certain that they have no inhabitants anything like us, but could they have as inhabitants, or somehow be material manifestations of, living entities whose nature we don’t even have the means to conceive?

Before you laugh too much at that, think of what Alexander the Great might say if someone traveled back in time and showed him a radio. No matter how much he and his sages studied it, they would never be able to guess what it was for, and if you told them, they’d either call you a liar or think you were describing magic—which might make them a bit more open-minded than the average modern, who believes he knows what is and isn’t possible.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people complain that they don’t understand the ending of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The astronaut who is the only human character in the latter part of the story is seen, in a series of vignettes, to go through the process of aging, and in the end to be on what appears to be his death bed. And then a human embryo is seen floating in space above the earth: The End. Maybe it’s because I had already encountered the basic idea in one of Arthur C. Clarke’s earlier novels, but I thought what had happened was obvious: the hero had been taken away to a world ruled by super-beings of some kind who had conveyed him into a new mode of existence and sent him back to earth for some mysterious purpose, probably having to do with the enlightenment of his fellow humans.

Clarke was not a Christian (I think he was a sort of atheist with Buddhist trappings), and he was only daydreaming, as science-fiction writers often do, about a god-like race of aliens who would rescue us from our earthly misery. But perhaps he was closer to the truth than he suspected. Perhaps “Mother Earth” is more than just a figure of speech. Perhaps the moist, warm atmosphere of our planet is a sort of amnion in which we are only passing through the first stage of our growth, and death will be the doorway to a mode of life in which we are hardy enough to live outside it, much as a baby, when its time comes, is ready to live outside the womb.

This is only a flight of fancy; I’m not proposing anything for belief. I’m only trying to find ways of saying that we should take seriously all those Biblical passages that tell us we have, and for the time being are capable of having, only a faint hint of how very much more than we have imagined may be true. It doth not yet appear what we shall be.

Sunday Night Journal — April 30, 2006

Interior Design Meets the Grim Reaper

As I think I’ve mentioned before, there are far too many unread or partially-read magazine around my house. Whenever I sort through them with an eye toward dropping a subscription or two, the Atlantic rises high on the list at once. I greet the arrival of each new issue with a certain amount of dismay, because it puts me that much further behind in my reading. Just this morning I managed to discard the November 2005 issue, but decided there were a couple of things in the January/February issue that I still want to read.

There is relatively little in each issue that seems either significant enough or potentially enjoyable enough to qualify as a must-read. It’s a secular, more or less conventionally liberal magazine, and therefore most of the writing stems from a view of the world which, from my point of view as a Catholic, is inevitably deficient, and blind to some of the most important aspects of most subjects. And there’s a lot in it that just doesn’t interest me much, like the March cover story on the application of scientific methods to matchmaking.

But unlike its similar and, I presume, rival publication, Harper’s, The Atlantic has its feet on the ground most of the time, and its head level. Whenever I pick up Harper’s I have the impression that I’ve entered the atmosphere which is found all too often on the left, in which anger and scorn have replaced or at least corroded thought. Not so The Atlantic. I disagree vastly with the very left-wing and anti-Christian Christopher Hitchens, but his book reviews in The Atlantic rarely fail to tell me something interesting. If I let this subscription drop, I would miss Benjamin Schwartz on books. I would very much miss Caitlin Flanagan’s droll insistence on looking at what is actually happening in the realm of marriage and family instead of what political fashion insists ought to be happening.

And I would miss the occasional entirely unexpected piece that gives me a surprising insight or a brilliant bit of writing. Such was the article about God and evolution which I discussed here, and such is “Home Alone,” by Terry Castle, one of those putative book reviews which is less about the books and more about the author’s views on the same subject as the books. The subject here is something I didn’t know existed, or rather had not considered as a category of its own: “shelter-lit,” books and magazines about interior design.

I think of décor (to use the author’s preferred term) as something which can be afforded only by people who have either a great deal of money, no children, or both. Of course I want my home to be a physically appealing and pleasant place to be, but if nothing else the presence, often dominating, of overflowing bookshelves in almost every room of our too-small house renders anything that could be called “décor” impossible, or at least problematic. So I started this piece figuring that I would read a few paragraphs and, if it lived down to its promise, move on. I admit that when I continued to read I was impelled at least in part by a mild pleasure of the Lord I thank thee that I am not as this sinner sort, mildly pleased that I did not recognize any of the presumably expensive brand names and French terms. I soon became interested in the bits of autobiography woven into the discussion, and the way such things as the very traumatic (“nuclear-war style”) divorce of her parents had affected the author’s attitudes and emotions toward her physical homes. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of writing, and if you’re not a subscriber check it out the next time you’re in the library. (You can read the first few paragraphs here but most of it is available only to subscribers.)

But the reason I’m writing about this review/article is the surprising turn it takes toward a connection between mortality and the pursuit of the perfect interior. In particular I want to note this paragraph:

The habits of bourgeois life—first adumbrated in Northern Europe as early as the sixteenth century—have been for some time the buffer of choice, civilization’s all-purpose comfort-and-happiness maximizer. But the bourgeois outlook could hardly be called valiant or hardheaded: it’s all about not staring death in the face. Under its sway one seeks a world without pain.

This is right on target, I think, and I also think it reaches into an area where the author did not intend to go. I’ve believed for a long time that part of the explanation for the strange manifestations of alienation in the industrialized world is that all people sometimes, and some people most of the time, recognize that this bourgeois outlook is an attempt to set aside the most important, most disturbing, and most mysterious questions of human life. A way of life which tries to pretend that material comfort and pleasure are sufficient for real human well-being is false at heart and headed for some painful awakenings.

I like my comfortable and quiet bourgeois life a great deal, and I don’t want to have it upended by, for instance, another Hurricane Katrina. But I don’t fool myself into thinking it’s all I need. To quote Terry Castle again:

There’s one big problem here, and you don’t need to rent old Ingmar Bergman movies to see it. There’s a real skeleton at the door, and whoa—looks like he’s aiming to get in.

I once wrote most of a full-length essay on the connection between bourgeois comfort and alienation. It is now stranded on an obsolete computer. I may try to retrieve it.

Sunday Night Journal — April 23, 2006

Reading Lear in the First Week of Easter

Earlier in the week some train of thought led me to pick up King Lear, and I soon found myself reading it for the first time in thirty years or so. This would seem to be on the face of it not at all what one should be reading in the week following Easter Sunday, but I’ve found it to be perfectly fitting.

In order to understand what it means that Christ has set us free from sin and death, we have to know what sin and death are. We live in a time when it is easier to forget this knowledge than it has ever been, at least for those of us us in the wealthy and industrialized world, who find ourselves in a culture where many people believe quite seriously that scientific and social technique can at least in large part eliminate all the old enemies of human happiness. And most of us live in such comfort that the idea seems superficially plausible. I don’t mean that it is really very plausible to most people who think very much about it, but it may seem so at a glance to those who don’t.

I had forgotten how sudden and terrible is the onset of disaster in Lear. All the gears of ruin are engaged and in motion by the end of the first scene. Nowhere else that I know of in literature is there such a pitiless account of horror and desolation following from a single act of prideful folly. And the disaster sweeps away the innocent along with the guilty, giving us the lines which surely few who have read the play can forget, spoken by the innocent (well, blameless in these events, anyway) Gloucester:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;
they kill us for their sport.

Less widely quoted are the words of Gloucester’s son Edgar on discovering his father’s mutilation:

World, world, O world!
But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee,
Life would not yield to age.

Just so. I don’t mean, of course, that everyone must expect to suffer such great evil as Gloucester and Cordelia do. But for my part I don’t think I can ever be reconciled to a world where—just to pick one horror—little girls can be raped and murdered. And all of us must, in the end, lose everything to time and death. There is only so much that wealth and power can do to protect us from these “strange mutations.” Technocratic dreams of mankind’s self-salvation will come to little in the end, even if we avoid doing the extremity of violence to ourselves and our natures.

St. Paul said “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” There is a corollary to that: if Christ is risen, it is rather those who do not follow him who are most miserable. The tragedy of Lear shows us what the world without the Resurrection really is, and therefore assists our celebration of it.