Sunday Night Journal 2007 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — December 16, 2007

Movie Roundup, End of Year Edition

Hard to believe it was back in June when I did the last one of these. I see by our Netflix history that we’ve had 27 rentals since then, and there have been a few from other sources, so I’m not going to mention all of them, just the ones that made a strong impression one way or the other. I’m also leaving out a few, like Wild Strawberries, that I’ve written about separately.

The Queen. As good as people have said.

The Passenger. I’ve now exhausted most of the Antonioni available at Netflix. This one is not in a class with his best (e.g. L’Avventura), but it’s very good. As always with Antonioni, there are some wonderful images. I’ll want to see it again sometime.

Band of Outsiders (French Bande à Part). Except for a barely-remembered viewing of Weekend in the late ‘60s, this is my first exposure to Godard. I really can’t justify it, but something about this movie got under my skin, some kind of early ‘60s sense of possibility. Considering it objectively, I don’t think it’s really that great, but there’s something wistfully charming about it. Or maybe I just fell for Anna Karina. Anyway, I think this was the first Netflix rental that I couldn’t send back without watching it a second time. There is a dance scene which I thought was wonderful—and I’m not one to admire dance scenes—and which I’ve learned since is quite famous.

Invaders from Mars. Yet another instance of my fascination with early ‘50s sci-fi. Pretty awful. Somewhat similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but not nearly as good.

The Leopard. Visconti’s version of Lampedusa’s highly regarded novel, which I have not read. Lavishly well done, but I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for it. Interesting performance by Burt Lancaster as the Prince; I was disappointed to learn that his Italian was dubbed.

Loves of a Blonde (Czech Lásky Jedné Plavovlásky). The seduction and abandonment of a naïve factory girl set in the dreary world of socialist industrialism. The pathos is almost unbearable. It’s very good but so painful that I don’t think I’ll want to see it again.

White Nights (Italian Le Notte Bianche). Visconti again; very beautiful imagery, and an opera-like melodramatic romance. Worth seeing for anyone who likes black-and-white photography, but basically rather slight.

The Fast Runner. This was another one of my wife’s selections which I probably would never have picked, but which I ended up liking. It’s a drama set among the Inuit people and is almost three hours long. I can’t stay awake for a three-hour movie unless it’s really good, or at least really exciting, and I didn’t think I was going to make it through the long slow opening of this one. But it sort of picks up after the first hour and a half or so. The window onto Inuit culture and the Arctic environment alone make it worth watching, and the plot is good, though a bit frustrating for me (and my wife had the same opinion): I found the opening setup—past events which are going to be worked out in the rest of the story—extremely confusing, which meant that some of the later parts were also confusing. And, although it’s embarrassing to admit this, I had trouble telling some of the characters apart. I know, that sounds bad, but it wasn’t just that they all have the same eye, hair, and skin color—they’re also wearing very similar heavy parkas almost all the time, except for when they’re wearing almost nothing.

But it’s worth seeing in spite of all that. Really. I guess I should note, for those with young children who might wonder if theirs would find the exotic subject matter interesting: no, it’s not for children. Inuit culture is not cuddly.

Down by Law. Even relatively casual American film buffs are very well aware of this one, I’m sure, but I had never seen it. It’s a good story, but what’s unforgettable about it to me, and what I’d like to watch over and over, are the opening scenes of New Orleans. As I’ve probably said (and is anyway probably obvious) I love black-and-white photography/filmography, and it doesn’t get any better. Those scenes really capture something about New Orleans, too.

The Star Maker (Italian L'Uomo Delle Stelle). Another wife pick. This one really took me by surprise. For the first half or so I thought I was watching one of those charming bittersweet stories about life in rustic Italy (actually Sicily, I think), maybe a little like Il Postino or Christ Stopped at Eboli or maybe even The Tree of Wooden Clogs. But this takes a darker turn. A con man wanders through the villages claiming to be a talent scout and charging people to photograph them for what he claims is a screen test, but of course they never hear from him again. Without revealing anything essential, I’ll just give you two hints: there is a beautiful girl named Beata, and at a crucial point one of the con-man’s victims, a police official, insists on a screen test for which he chooses to recite Dante (I think). Whether intentional or not—and the quoting from Dante makes me think it is intentional—there are some definite religious implications here.

I’m a little hesitant to recommend this, partly because of two over-explicit sex scenes, but more importantly because the events become very painful. If you haven’t seen it, consider it, but also consider yourself warned. I slept very badly after watching it.

Metropolitan. As with Down by Law, most people who have an interest in American films outside the usual Hollywood run are familiar with this. I’d been wanting to see it for a while. It’s been compared to Jane Austen in its ability to use the rather small doings of well-to-do people as a way of pointing to something more substantial, and that seems accurate. But just as a matter of personal taste it isn’t something I’d be in a hurry to see again.

10 Items or Less. This one was borrowed from my daughter Ellen and her husband. It’s in every way a small film, but one of those which is far more appealing than any description could communicate. It’s the sort of thing that might be called a feel-good movie, but not in any sappy or sentimental way. Morgan Freeman plays a semi-retired actor considering a semi-comeback role in a small film very much like this one and is doing a bit of on-site research at a supermarket in a heavily Latin area of Los Angeles. A delightful Spanish actress, Paz Vega, plays a checkout girl who is hilariously venomous about being stuck in the express lane. They spend the day together. They go home, each feeling a bit more encouraged about facing the next phase of his or her life. That’s it. But it’s great. There is a certain amount of very crude language, most of which is very justifiable in context. If you’re willing to put up with that, it’s a marvelous experience. Hint: if you like Napoleon Dynamite (I do) you may like this; not that it’s in any direct way similar, but it has a similar sort of charm (and I’m really trying hard not to use the word “quirky”). However, if you don’t laugh out loud the first time Paz Vega’s character speaks this may not be the movie for you.

Intervista and Juliet of the Spirits. These are both by Fellini, of course, and they’ve caused me to consider seriously the possibility that I don’t much like him. I saw years ago, in a dark print with murky sound, and it didn’t make much impression on me one way or the other. I saw Amarcord sometime in the ‘70s and remember liking it, although I don’t remember anything specific about it. I actively disliked most of Intervista. My wife didn’t even sit through it; she went off to do something else before it was even half over. I persevered, determined that there must be something worthwhile beyond the chaotic activity and manic people chattering incessantly but uninterestingly at high speed. In the end I liked two scenes: a very affecting one where the aged Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, playing themselves, watch themselves in the famous fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, and the ending sequence where…well, let’s just say some really weird stuff happens.

But Intervista is described as being eccentric even for Fellini, a sort of semi-autobiographical comment on life as a filmmaker. I was expecting more from Juliet. But here was the same incessant fluttering and chattering, and in addition a clumsy and somewhat dated Be Yourself sort of message. The best I can say for it is that it has some really arresting imagery. But as a complete work of art: thumbs down.

Winter Light. I was startled to learn that the Swedish title is The Communicants, which is probably better, although “winter light” certainly has its applicability and resonance. I saw this back in the ‘70s without really understanding it. I just finished watching our Netflix copy for the second time, and it’s magnificent. From the Christian point of view there is obviously a great deal to be said about this portrait of a Lutheran clergyman admitting to himself that he has lost his faith—far, far too much for me to try to go into here. So I’ll just say that almost every image and every line of dialog is pregnant with meaning. And that while Bergman was not a believer he understands what faith is about, what the implications of having or not having it are. The film seems to me very ambivalent on the subject, and certainly gives no comfort to atheists.

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Sunday Night Journal — December 9, 2007

Klaatu the Genocidal Peacenik

NOTE: spoilers follow. Don’t read any further if you’ve never seen The Day the Earth Stood Still and don’t want to know how it ends.

(I think this is fair use of this image, copied from Wikipedia).

If you’ve seen it, you know this classic 1951 movie involves an alien emissary sent to earth to teach us the ways of peace. Most people with a taste for such things consider it one of the best of the early science fiction movies. (I’m one such person, and I’m very fond of it.) I think it’s also one of the first, maybe the first, to present the aliens not as evil monsters but as wise, intelligent, compassionate beings, not only a lot smarter than us but a lot nicer.

Well, maybe not so nice, once you get to know them.

The emissary, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, spends a big part of the movie demonstrating how much nicer than the barbaric earthlings the aliens must be. He’s gentle, intelligent, kind, sensitive, and tolerant, and he possesses the patrician dignity of voice and manner which Americans like to attribute to an English gentleman.

We, of course—the earthlings—are naturally going to do violence to a man like this in a movie like this. Or did that plot have yet to become a cliché in 1951? At any rate, that’s what happens. And in the end Klaatu departs, disappointed, but not before giving a speech explaining to the people of earth exactly where they stand in relation to the galactic civilization which he represents: their warlike habits are nobody’s business but their own as long as they are confined to their own planet. But once they venture into space their war-making will not be tolerated. If they know what’s good for them, they’ll give it up. Here is the key passage:

I came here to give you these facts: It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.

The movie is generally considered an anti-war classic, the vehicle of a Cold War message about the menace of nuclear weapons. For me, and I suspect for many viewers, Klaatu seems such a very decent person that we don’t really absorb the full significance of his words. Peace--yes! No war, ever again. Wonderful! Sure, he threatens grave measures should earth begin to export its violence, but he’s established himself as such a fine and reasonable man that the threat seems less horrendous than it is. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I ran across the text of the speech and met the bare words separated from Michael Rennie’s urbane delivery that I really grasped their icy ruthlessness.

The civilization which Klaatu represents cherishes peace so dearly that it will not hesitate to incinerate every living thing on this planet in order to preserve it. Obliteration will happen automatically, carried out by an army of robots which exist only for that purpose. No one will agonize about it. No one will even have to make the decision or give the command.

There’s something about this cold-blooded fantasy that’s even worse than the typical ways we justify our wars, or used to—it’s also more than a little reminiscent of more recent dreams of high-tech weapons systems that will make war obsolete. That it should be considered a message of peace must be evidence of something, but I’m not sure what. Of several things, I suppose: the intensity of our dread of war, for one. A politically-induced blindness, perhaps: the object of shaming the ruthless powers that rule the earth seems so compelling that the fact that this fantasy replaces them with something even more ruthless isn’t immediately noticed. And of course there’s always the perennial temptation to disregard the means if the end is worthwhile.

It also points up the maddening logic which the desire to end war—not just a particular war, but all war—eventually must face. Because the only way to stop the unjust or illicit use of force is, finally, the possession of greater force, the message of this anti-war film is one heard more often from militarists than pacifists: peace through strength.

There is of course another response to aggressive violence, the response of non-violent resistance, in which one is willing to suffer and die rather than resort to violence. I think this is an honorable and virtuous action on the part of an individual, but I’m not convinced that it can be so on the part of a state. In any event there are certainly no signs that any state intends to behave this way. I think we are going to be struggling for the foreseeable future with the question of when and how violence is justifiable for the purpose of stopping violence.

Klaatu’s speech:

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Sunday Night Journal — November 18, 2007

Women, Music, and Modernity

“You’re into girls.”

That was the startling but not inaccurate remark my wife made last Saturday when she walked by as I was browsing YouTube for Patty Griffin songs. Since 90% of my music listening is done when I’m alone in my car going to and from work, and she is constitutionally pretty indifferent to pop music anyway, I was a little surprised that she would notice any sort of trend. I guess it had come to her attention a few Saturdays earlier when I was repeatedly playing that Nightwish video featuring Tarja Turunen that I posted recently.

Anyway, she’s right. I do listen to a lot more music by women, from very American singer-songwriters like Griffin to Nordic metal sirens, than I did fifteen or twenty years ago. For most of the many years, going back to the mid-‘60s, that I’ve been seriously interested in music, my favorite singers have been male. I didn’t give this any thought for a long time, but at some point I became aware that it was a definite preference. Male singers, especially those with really distinctive and unconventional voices, like Van Morrison, were the ones who moved me. Theirs were the voices capable of conveying the emotions I felt. Most women’s voices seemed, in comparison, almost insipid: pastels, where I preferred strong and vivid colors.

I’m not sure exactly when this began to change; it may have been around 1990 or so, when I discovered the Cocteau Twins: I liked Elisabeth Fraser’s voice precisely as a female voice. And I remember thinking something along those lines when listening to Portishead’s Dummy. At any rate, the shift in taste continued steadily. I don’t know that one can expect to have an explanation for a change of this sort, but I can say this much about it: where I once preferred the male voice because it’s more capable of expressing what I feel, I now value (I won’t say “prefer”) the female voice in part because it expresses something else, something that seems mysterious and other. It is, in fact, a bit similar to the sight of a beautiful woman, but sexual only in the very broadest sense: a consciousness of the other sex as a rich and alluring mystery.

The music world has changed, too: there are a lot more women making a lot more good music in a lot more different styles than there were thirty or forty years ago. Back in the ‘60s women were generally present only as singers. In the folk-singing world, there were Joan Baez and Judy Collins and others like them who sang the traditional repertoire and, as time went on, more and more songs written by the emerging mostly male singer-songwriters of the time. In rock, the girl, or girls, in the band worked generally in the “canary” model of the jazz era—they added something different and distinctive to the sound, and of course to the visual presence, but they usually didn’t compose or arrange or play; the musical vision as a whole was at most only partly theirs. I suppose Joni Mitchell was the first, certainly one of the first, women to put the whole singer-writer-instrumentalist package together. More followed, until the present flood. Women like Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin and Karen Peris (of The Innocence Mission) have recently produced, or had a key role in producing (a role beyond singing, that is) some of the music I love best and think most likely to stand the test of time.

This isn’t surprising, considering the general and steady increase in freedom and opportunity for women that’s happened over the past hundred-plus years, developments made possible by the combination of technical and social changes that we call modernity. As a Catholic with a deep love of the traditional Christian culture of the West, I’m very much aware of the dark side of these changes: the damage to family life, for instance, and all the other things that I don’t need to belabor here. Yet the world is a richer place for the work of these artists, and unfortunately we don’t get a chance to pick which aspects of our culture we would like to preserve and which to change or discard.

I was thinking of this last week after reading a news story about a woman in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail after being gang-raped. It was carefully explained that she wasn’t actually being punished for being raped, but for her behavior leading up to the rape: being present in a car with a male who was not her father, brother, or husband. A few days earlier I had read an account of the practice of stoning in Iran; it’s a legal punishment for adultery. I cannot conceive of the mind of a man who could bury a woman up to her neck and then throw stones at her until she is dead, which must involve battering her head beyond recognition. (The stones can’t be too small, or they won’t do enough damage, but they can’t be too big, or the victim will not suffer enough.) I don’t understand how a man could do such a thing to a woman and still respect himself as a man. Even less do I understand what is probably the case, that these men would not respect themselves if they did not do it.

I don’t agree with those who say that we, as a civilization, are faced with a stark choice between embracing the worst of our own culture and submitting to radical Islam; I don’t see why we can’t try to reform ourselves even as we resist them. But if I am ever somehow forced to choose between modernity and the violent reaction against it, I’ll unhesitatingly take the problems of emancipation over those of oppression.

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Sunday Night Journal — October 14, 2007

Complaining of the People (A Metapolitical Comment)

Yeats tells how Maud Gonne (“my phoenix”) admonished him for regretting that he had spent much of his life working for the ungrateful Irish people:

Thereon my phoenix answered in reproof,
‘The drunkards, pilferers of public funds,
All the dishonest crowd I had driven away,
When my luck changed and they dared meet my face,
Crawled from obscurity, and set upon me
Those I had served and some that I had fed;
Yet never have I, now nor any time,
Complained of the people.’

Yeats argues with her, but ends:

And yet, because my heart leaped at her words,
I was abashed, and now they come to mind
After nine years, I sink my head abashed.

—“The People”

One night last week I watched part of the “debate” among the Republican presidential candidates. I couldn’t muster a great deal of interest, and it wasn’t long before I decided I had something more important to do. I felt a little guilty about this, as though I were shirking my responsibility to be an informed citizen. But there are good reasons for not paying too much attention: it’s far too early in the campaign for these productions, and the “debates” themselves are somewhat fraudulent anyway, not being real debates at all but rather a chance for the candidates to air their preferred sound bites. For the media there’s always the hope that one of the candidates will commit what’s known as a “gaffe”—meaning, usually, the utterance of a forbidden truth—which can be turned into a forty-eight hour scandal.

Still, one of these men may be the next president of the most powerful nation in the world, and some of them seemed pretty solid, as if they might really care about the country and really want to right what’s wrong with it, and govern it for the general good. So I ought to find out what they believe and what they intend to do and decide whether I should vote for one of them.

Yet I began to think, depressingly, that it doesn’t really matter that much who wins, because events are being driven by forces too great for one person to turn or counter, no matter how well-intentioned. One by one the big questions came up in the “debate”: health care, Social Security, race relations, immigration, oil consumption, and of course the war in Iraq. And I found myself thinking that it’s all but certain that none of these will be addressed in a way that would lead to any hope that they would be resolved (with the possible exception of the war), for the simple reason that too many of the American people do not want it to happen. To resolve any of them would be painful, and would require some degree of general sacrifice. And no politician is going to ask that of us. We don’t want to hear anything except promises of more.

One psychological stress of living in a democracy (however imperfect) is the knowledge that ultimately there is no one to blame for its problems except the voters. Similarly, in a more-or-less free-market economy, consumers make most of the final decisions; the roads are jammed with enormous SUVs, and WalMart thrives, because that’s what large numbers of people want. We all like to blame the government or big business for doing what we don’t like, and yet we reward them for continuing to do it. We don’t like the size of the government or the amount of money it spends, we recognize that Social Security is headed for trouble, and yet we aren’t willing to face any proposed solution that doesn’t, in the end, give us more for less. We complain about taxes and the size of the government, and yet it’s always someone else’s spending that we want to see cut. We complain about American jobs going overseas, and yet we aren’t willing to pay the higher prices that would be required to keep them here.

More fundamentally, we don’t like or trust each other enough to have a sense of agreement about the common good, or to practice self-discipline for the sake of it. Everything I said above is open to the objection that the problem could in fact be fixed without pain to most of us if only some other group would cooperate: if the government wouldn’t tax us so heavily or spend so freely on those other people, if corporate CEOs didn’t make so much money, and so forth. And I’m sure these objections are partly true, enough so that we all feel justified in holding out for our own demands—after all, everyone else is.

Most fundamentally of all, I don’t think the majority of the American people really understand or care much for the tradition of self-government and responsible citizenship. The obligations and privileges of the latter that were taught to earlier generations seem to have little place in modern schooling. (I’ll never forget the deep and almost romantic passion with which my high-school civics teacher spoke of them.) Apart from specific clauses of the Bill of Rights, we don’t really care much for the Constitution anymore. We’re losing the concept of law as abstract, impersonal, and binding on everyone. And we’re replacing it with a desire to be ruled by a class of benevolent authorities who will solve problems on the basis of their private sense of justice and of who among their constituents is most in need of special treatment, creating a body of law that is a tangle of rules unconnected to the Constitution or indeed to anything fixed.

This is a pessimistic judgment—and, I admit, a somewhat petulant one—but it is not a partisan one; I could fill it out with examples from Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. I very much hope it’s excessively pessimistic, but I don’t feel especially abashed about voicing it. Possibly Yeats, an aristocrat at heart, did not see Ireland’s future as requiring of most of her citizens what I think is required of ours.

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Sunday Night Journal — October 7, 2007

Cart and Horse and Caritas

This is a follow-up to last week’s journal; I want to expand a bit on my reasons for more or less dropping out of the bitter and embittering American cultural-political debate. (My apologies if I repeat myself; I felt that I had not said all that I wanted to say. And for convenience I’m going to use the word “politics” and “political” to refer to the whole complex of issues.)

I say “more or less” because I don’t mean to say that I’ll never comment on these questions at all, much less forbid that they ever be mentioned in the comments. And I certainly don’t mean to say that I’ve abandoned my views on the specific matters that make up that debate. But I don’t want to be defined by them. I don’t want to write so that someone who doesn’t know me well would take one look at this blog and say “Oh, a conservative” (or “Oh, a liberal”—yes, there are some who would see me that way) and dismiss everything I have to say. As I mentioned last week, I think this may have happened at least once or twice. And I really don’t want it to happen because I am far more concerned with other more fundamental things.

My recent multiple re-readings of the opening sections of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritus Est (God Is Love) have confirmed me in taking this direction. The pope’s wonder-filled vision of love as the essence of reality is deeply moving to me. And my own perception of that same reality is what I want above all to communicate to anyone who reads what I write. Most especially, it’s what I want to communicate, or at least suggest, to anyone who has not seen it.

Truth divides, necessarily. There’s no getting around that. But if division must exist I would much prefer that it involve the ultimate questions. Who and what are we? What are we for? What is the world, and what is it for? To whom, if anyone, are we responsible, and what does that responsibility entail? What do we dare to hope? One’s answers to those questions are much more important than one’s views on any political matter.

The word “divisive” is thrown around much too freely. Usually “you are being divisive” means “you are unwilling to accept my judgment that this matter is unimportant.” But our political debate is all too often genuinely divisive with respect to the ultimate questions: disagreement about secondary things can create a climate of suspicion in which primary things can’t even be discussed.

As we all know, it’s the so-called “social issues” that are the source of much or most of the rage that has characterized the American debate for many years now. Is it good for anyone to have sexual relations with anybody as long as they both consent? What is marriage? Should abortion be restricted? What about pornography? How should homosexuality be treated in the law? Is materialistic evolution deniable? And so forth. As things presently stand, there’s not much place for dialog on these: if you come down on one side or the other, anyone on the other side is not likely to listen any further to you. I want to avoid displaying the tribal symbols, so to speak—to avoid giving the signals that too often produce reflexive hostility and rejection.

The broad political questions involved here are, for any one of us, less urgent and important than the individual souls we encounter. If someone I know has had an abortion, my first concern is not for her status before the law, but for her. I want her to know that the heart of reality is love, not just love in the abstract but love for her in particular, and that in the end nothing can separate her from that love except her own refusal of it. Almost certainly there is some pain, or a scar covering that pain, in her heart, and it may be keeping her away from God by many different means. She may not be able or willing to face God, or even the possibility that God exists, unless she can believe that he is ready to pour out his love and mercy on her. My job is to help her see that. If by my words—harsh or callous or merely careless words commenting on the political question—I fail to assist her toward that vision, or, God forbid, even hinder her, what is God’s judgment on me likely to be?

Similarly for the practicing homosexual: the idea that men can marry men and women marry women is akin to the idea that a circle can have four corners. It implies an understanding of the word “marriage” that makes it mean something altogether different. But that argument, and the following one about laws, is secondary to my encounter with that person. Only if I am guided first and foremost by the desire that he (or she) would see and know divine love do I have the right to expect him (or her) to listen to anything I have to say about human love. If by flippant or derogatory remarks in the context of the political argument I make it more difficult for him or her to see divine love, what is God’s judgment on me likely to be?

I realize, of course, that there is a place for hard words. Sometimes a shock is what’s needed; we have the example of the prophets and of Jesus himself for that. But I can think of several arguments against a resort to denunciation on the part of those who are not explicitly called to it. There’s the simple fact of human nature, that one is far more likely to respond to kindness and sympathy than to anger and condemnation. There’s the fact that the harshness of the prophets and, at times, of Jesus was directed mainly to those already of the household of faith who were not living up to their calling. And there’s the example of Jesus and the woman about to be stoned for adultery: only after he had saved her life did he tell her to go and sin no more.

At any rate I’m about as certain as one can ever be about this sort of thing that hard words are not what God wants from me. And if he does want it he will have to tell me so directly.

It’s occurred to me, in thinking about all this, that Christians across the political spectrum have been guilty of putting the cart before the horse. I think it’s pretty obvious that many “progressive” (to use their preferred term) Christians have less interest in the faith itself than in the political purposes to which it can be put—anyone paying attention can see the association of doctrinal skepticism with left-wing activism. But Christians who are orthodox in doctrine can slip into a more subtle mistake which still puts the cart before the horse: they can, perhaps unconsciously, see the establishment of a Christian social order as the crucial step toward saving souls rather than vice-versa. The paradox is that it’s only the conversion of individuals that can bring about solid and lasting social change.

We all know this, I think, but sometimes we need a reminder. I got a useful one recently from, of all people, the entertainment editor of the local paper. Discussing the controversy over an appearance by the rapper Ludacris, he said, “Funny thing about the [culture war]—yelling ‘charge’ tends to signify that you're actually a re-enactor, rehashing a battle that was over before you woke up. Actually being a culture warrior means living a life people want to emulate.”

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Sunday Night Journal — September 30, 2007

Goodbye to Politics and Culture Wars

It’s been twenty-five years or so since I first heard someone explicitly take politics into account in his views of another person. A friend was asking me about a mutual acquaintance, saying “I’m not sure about him. He seems like a nice guy and his politics are okay, but…”

I don’t really remember what followed, partly because I was so shocked. I certainly had (and have) my own strong political and cultural views, but have never thought of such views as elements of character. Since then, of course, I’ve learned that the impulse to view them in exactly that way is quite strong in a lot of people, and that the intensity with which they are not simply held but insisted upon often makes any extensive social contact with people holding them difficult or impossible for one of differing views.

A week or two ago I ran across the blog of someone I know. In his most recent post he lamented the fact that he doesn’t believe in hell, because he wants very much to believe that President Bush will go there. He was probably not 100% serious but neither was he 100% in jest. I know this person fairly well and like him, though I haven’t seen him for a while. But if I were in the room with him and he began to talk this way I would only want to get out of the situation: I wouldn’t want to get into what would only be an unpleasant and fruitless argument, but even a silent failure to assent would soon become obvious and awkward, and a gulf would open between us.

My first thought was that here was an example of just how vicious things have gotten, but then I remembered the way the left felt about Nixon and Reagan, and the way the right felt about Clinton; this sort of thing is not entirely new. But I doubt more than a handful of cranks would have wished, say, Eisenhower or FDR or JFK in hell. I remember the horror and dismay with which JFK’s assassination was greeted in the South, where he was not at all popular; those who felt otherwise would have hesitated to express it publicly. But I have no doubt that if Bush were assassinated there would be open and unashamed celebration by many.

These bitter divisions took hold of this country in the 1960s and have never healed. I don’t think they ever will heal, actually; I think they will get worse, barring some sort of near-miracle. There are, very broadly speaking, two hostile parties in the nation and each regards the other as an enemy—not just a group of people who have the wrong ideas but an entity which must either conquer or be conquered. I think only the fact that the division is not geographical and that there is no physical property at stake keeps our metaphorical culture war from breaking out into actual violence. It’s a religious conflict in the sense that it’s a conflict over first principles; “liberal” and “conservative” are often not just intellectual or ideological terms but expressions of allegiance to a set of assumptions that go all the way to the root of what one believes about what it means to be human.

But it’s not my purpose at the moment to talk about the nature of the division, only about how I plan to treat it on this blog—which from here on will be rarely if at all.

I’ve leaned this way for a long time. I never intended my original web site or, later, this blog to be a vehicle for political discussion, partly because I don’t think I have anything particularly distinctive or useful to contribute to it. Scattered through my Sunday Night Journal entries you’ll find statements to that effect. But now it’s a firm and explicit conviction and intention which follows from my reasons for writing in the first place.

What are those reasons? Well, mainly I write because it’s a sort of compulsion which I’ve felt for as long as I can remember. But secondly, and more relevantly for this discussion: I see something beautiful and I want to tell people about it. As things stand today, politics and the broader struggle that we call the culture wars can only get in the way of that effort.

This realization crystallized for me over the past year or so. In the almost four years since I started the Sunday Night Journal, I have renewed my acquaintance with half a dozen or so people with whom I’d had little or no contact for many years, as long ago as high school (which is now quite long ago). In a couple of cases this was because the person happened across my name somewhere on the web. In a couple it was an actual meeting in which the question “Have you been doing any writing?” was asked. And I said, “Well, yeah, a little—I have this web site where I post things…” and gave them the URL.

Some of these people are not of my mind on politics and culture, and I think at least one or two were pretty well put off by some of my views, and that I became in their eyes an ideological opponent, someone to be argued with or ignored. It’s bad enough that this distancing occurs in everyday interactions, but I don’t want it to get in the way of my being heard on matters that are more important than the sloganeering and divisions of American politics.

I have to suppose that from time to time people who don’t know me happen across this blog. I don’t want those who might disagree with me on social and political questions to take flight because they detect unpalatable views. Nor do I want people whose minds are not dominated by politics to think that mine is, and that my writing is just more of the same rhetorical warfare that can be found in a million other places. Whether a reader finds my writing to be attractive or repellent, I want that reaction to come from a more fundamental level, where ideological divisions fade in the presence of the common things that matter to every human being—or, less grandly, everyday things whose enjoyment carries no ideological charge.

I know, too, that even the culture wars are not going to be settled by argument, but by the action of deeper currents in human affairs. And most of all I find that a declaration of non-combatancy serves an even more important purpose, one I mentioned in my journal some months ago (here).

Postscript: Greg Wolfe of Image magazine came to a similar conclusion some years ago and published a statement called “Why I Am A Conscientious Objector in the Culture Wars”. Re-reading that statement now, I find myself very much in agreement with him, though my concerns as an individual are a little different from his as a publisher and editor

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Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2007

Nature’s Indifference?

I think every person has a sense that he is at the center of a world which exists mainly in relation to him, that he is the main character in a novel or play. And that’s because he is. We understand that a human author imbues, as far as possible, everything in his composition with significance for its limited set of characters, and that the same event will have a real but different meaning for each of them. So it shouldn’t be difficult for anyone who believes in the infinite creator God to accept that our lives are filled with significance, even at the most mundane level; that we are constantly being spoken to by everything around us.

I don’t mean, of course, that we should try to get a specific message or a bit of instruction out of every little thing that happens. That’s a bad idea, partly because we are likely to hear what we want to hear, as when someone says something like (and I’ve heard this) “God wanted me to have that parking space.” And partly because our minds are too small, our ignorance too great, and we get caught up in trying to unravel things that we simply can’t know—why was this person killed in the airplane crash, while another was briefly delayed by a telephone call, missed the flight, and lived?

Moreover, very little that life is telling us, great or small, is comprehensible till after the fact. Mainly, I think, and most of the time, we’re invited first of all to attend to existence of so much that is not ourselves, and to enjoy our contemplation of it. It’s not just your imagination; the great show really is being put on for your sake—only not for yours alone.

Last night it was nearly midnight when I walked the dogs down to the bay, and I ended up staying there longer than usual. The very bright and nearly full moon was in the southern sky, to my left, just beginning to descend. In spite of the fact that we had been under a tropical storm watch, there was almost no wind, and the soft ripples coming in to the shore did so at a slight angle away from the moon, so that as they rose onto the sand their faces were painted silver by the moonlight. Directly across the bay, in the west and low in the sky, a heap of anvil-shaped clouds rose from the horizon, growing smaller toward the top in a sort of rough pagoda shape, their upper surfaces glowing in the moonlight. Now and then there was a very faint flash of lightning, so far away that I couldn’t tell what direction it was coming from and never heard the thunder. Very thin fast clouds were blowing in from the east, from the direction of the storm, trailing across the moon. Otherwise the sky was mostly clear and when I looked straight up I could see a few stars, in spite of the moon and the lights of town. There was enough moonlight that I could see gulls flying out over the water. The great dark silhouette of a heron came gliding silently into the branches of a nearby magnolia tree, then glided away again a few moments later.

In short, it was hypnotic, and that’s why I stayed so long, even though the little dog, who has to be kept on a leash because we haven’t trained him very well, grew impatient to move on. It was as if the picture was being painted for me. And it was—but not for me alone.

It’s a familiar rhetorical tactic of materialists to point out the indifference of nature to suffering and any human concern whatever—which only serves to show how much one’s philosophy determines what one makes of the facts of the world. We often speak of natural beauty as a sign from God. I’ve begun to think it’s something more: not so much a sign, which implies a distance, as his very voice and face, shown to us in a form that we can see and understand, perpetually speaking to us of who and what he is.

Nature is for all of us; it ought to be unaffected by the fortunes of any one of us. Suppose something bad had happened to me while I stood by the water last night. It’s extremely far-fetched but not utterly implausible that I could have stumbled upon a fifteen-foot alligator and been dragged into the water and drowned, or perhaps just had a limb torn off, or that I could have been bitten by a cottonmouth, or simply fallen dead of a heart attack. Why should the beauty of the night have been spoiled because something bad happened to me? It was entirely possible that a couple of hundred yards downshore, in the city park that also borders the bay, two lovers were enraptured almost as much by the moonlight and the water as by each other. Should my pain have spoiled their delight? Should the moon have vanished from the sky because I was suffering?

No. What we call nature’s indifference is its constancy in beauty, intended to represent that of God himself, a reminder that no matter what happens to us as individuals his presence never fails and his nature never changes, and that beauty is a part of the very deepest fabric of what is. It would be dreary, in fact it’s almost frightening, to think that my own pain could undo it. Where then would be my hope of escape? No, I want nature to be untouchable by my mind, the vast space and time of the cosmos to remain utterly independent of me, and all this imperturbable persistence a promise of eternity and infinity. I’d like to think that if I should die at such a moment as the one I’ve described some corner of my consciousness would, in spite of the pain and fear, still know that I was in the presence of beauty as the darkness came on.

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Sunday Night Journal — September 2, 2007

A Few More Notes on the Question of Doubt

This is a follow-up to the journal of August 5 on the mixture of doubt and faith which I, and apparently quite a few others, experience. In passing: it seems to be happening to me more often than usual lately that a spiritual matter that’s on my mind pops up everywhere; so it was with this question, which was followed in a day or two by a great deal of publicity about Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul—not, I hasten to add, that my anxieties should be given that name. As Francesca said in the comments on one of those posts, most of us have not reached that level—have not, so to speak, known the daylight upon which that night can descend. We are, rather, to borrow again from the comments, this time from Daniel, only muddling around in the murky twilight of the flesh.

First, a clarification. A couple of people wondered whether the degree of doubt to which I confess implies the absence of genuine faith. Someone on the Caelum et Terra blog quoted this from the Catechism:

Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.” (157)

And I finally troubled myself to look in the same source, and found this, which I posted in a comment there, and which would have saved some confusion had I included it in the original piece:

Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness. (2088)

So: involuntary doubt is what I’m talking about, although none of the three formulations of the concept seems perfectly precise as a description of my own experience, which I think can be summed up as anxiety that the faith might not in fact be true. I find in myself, on what I hope is an honest appraisal, no voluntary doubt at all. What I’ve been calling “doubt” is not an intellectual act contrary to faith, but an emotion that accompanies it. Anthony Esolen, at the Touchstone blog, says it well (as usual):

Dubiety is inseparable from the human condition. We must waver, because our knowledge comes to us piecemeal, sequentially, in time, mixed up with the static of sense impressions that lead us both toward and away from the truth we try to behold steadily. The truths of faith are more certain than the truths arrived by rational deduction, says Aquinas, because the revealer of those truths speaks with ultimate authority, but they are less certain subjectively, from the point of view of the finite human being who receives them yet who does not, on earth, see them with the same clarity as one sees a tree or a stone or a brook.

It does sometimes seem that this doubt, or this anxiety, is especially strong in the modern world (meaning the world of the past two hundred years or so), the world which has been rearranged intellectually by science. It certainly seems to be more prominent in Catholic art: the stereotypical literary Christian of our time is a Graham Greene or Walker Percy character. I think there are good reasons for this. It was never the case that people in general saw the truths of the faith “with the same clarity as one sees a tree.” But science has made it more difficult (or perhaps only created a different sort of difficulty?) for at least two reasons.

One reason is that the relation of the scriptural account of history to the truths of the faith has been rendered complex and difficult by the replacement of the straightforward Genesis story with a scientific picture of evolutionary development over billions of years. Those who accept Genesis as literally historical can only do so as a conscious choice and with constant struggle. Those who are willing (like me) to take Genesis as symbolic have to live with a level of skepticism about the literal truth of scripture which did not much trouble people five hundred years ago. We have accepted the introduction of the principle that scripture may not always be factually accurate about the physical world and human history, and suffer an inevitable anxiety that the assignment of “merely symbolic” to key components of the story might not stop there (as, indeed, it has not among many theologians). This anxiety may be slight, almost nonexistent, for many of us, but I think it’s there in everyone, as one can demonstrate to oneself by spending a few minutes in the psychological experiment of imagining that one has no doubt whatsoever that human history is literally and exactly described in scripture.

The other reason is the presence in our consciousness of the scientific approach to truth. This, I’ve realized in the course of these reflections, is very strong in my own mind. I’m not a scientist (I’m far too undisciplined) but I’ve always admired it and loved its elegant method of arriving at truth by hypothesis and experiment. The truth so arrived at is objective, available to everyone, and demonstrable. Anyone who doubts it can (at least in principle) prove it for himself. And contrary to a misapprehension one sometimes encounters, facts arrived at in this way are rarely proven wrong except on the basis of procedural or technical mistakes in the experiment. They may be refined and made more accurate and precise—this is the relation of Einstein’s work to Newton’s—but they are not disproved. (Hypotheses, on the other hand, and to a lesser extent theories, are disproved regularly, and it’s sometimes the over-eagerness of scientists to state a strong hypothesis as fact that leads to the perception that science is constantly undoing its own findings. And I’m not talking about the areas of science, such as cosmology or evolution, which are more a matter of reasoning from observation than of experiment.)

When a group of scientists set out to start a science humor magazine they couldn’t think of anything funnier to call it than The Journal of Irreproducible Results. Faith, of course, offers us only the irreproducible result, from any perspective we can measure. No two people can pray for the same thing and be certain—or even reasonably hopeful—of obtaining the same response. No one person can expect the same response twice. This makes perfect sense, because every person’s relationship to God is unique and constantly changing. But it only serves to highlight the greater level of confidence we have in the facts proved by science. Against that standard, the persuasive claims of faith appear relatively weak, at least in the abstract. It doesn’t really help much to state the obvious, that spiritual reality is not subject to the same sort of interrogation that science performs on the physical.

In the personal realm, of course, faith has at least as much power as it ever has, perhaps in part to a certain clearing of the air, aided by science, which has aided us in seeing more clearly the difference between genuine religion and magic. But we’re left with that gap between the psychologically and the scientifically plausible.

Although many or most of us may have to resign ourselves to a certain amount of involuntary doubt, of anxiety about the faith, we shouldn’t be too passive or too accepting of it. It should be not merely endured, but questioned as vigorously as it questions faith, and used in that way it can press the latter to become stronger and more profound. Resignation can go too far, relinquish too much. As someone in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest says (quoting from memory): “Resignation is a dreadful thing when by slow degrees it prepares the soul to live without God.”

(By the way, you can find The Journal of Irreproducible Results here.)

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Sunday Night Journal — August 19, 2007

Pop Music for the Desert Island

(Not sure how this is going to display, so it may be shifting around for a while.)

I knew I was going to be pretty busy this weekend, so, just for fun, I dredged up this list. I have always resisted the sort of name-your-top-N albums/songs/artists games that pop music fans like to play, because I’m too indecisive and there never seems to be enough room alloted to the category for everything that deserves to be there. But a co-worker brought it up repeatedly, sending me his top 10 this and that, so I started to produce a Twenty-Five Best Albums list. I quickly discovered I couldn’t stand to limit myself, so I started adding multiple albums per artist, then allowed compilations, then broke out of the twenty-five limit and started calling it my Desert Island list—you know, the music you would want with you if you were shipwrecked (with, most improbably some means of listening to music). I think it was eighteen months or so ago that I first wrote this, and I made several additions and deletions while formatting it. I’m sure I’ll do the same if I look at it a year from now.

  • The Allman Brothers Band: The Fillmore Concerts
  • The Beatles: Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour 
  • Chuck Berry: His Best, volumes 1 and 2 
  • Big Country: The Crossing 
  • Jack Bruce: Songs for a Tailor 
  • Buffalo Springfield: Again 
  • The Byrds: favorites from the first five albums 
  • Jimmy Cliff & others: The Harder They Come 
  • Cocteau Twins: Treasure, Aikea-Guinea 
  • Leonard Cohen: Songs from a Room, Recent Songs, selections from Various Positions and I’m Your Man 
  • Julee Cruise: Floating Into the Night 
  • Donovan: Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow 
  • Nick Drake: Fruit Tree 
  • Bob Dylan: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde 
  • Everly Brothers: favorites 
  • Fairport Convention: Liege and Leaf, What We Did on Our Holidays 
  •  Emmy Lou Harris: Wrecking Ball 
  • Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced?, favorites from Electric Ladyland 
  • Joe Henry: Shuffletown 
  • Buddy Holly: 20 Golden Greats 
  • Rupert Hine: Waving Not Drowning 
  • The Incredible String Band: The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Wee Tam, Big Huge 
  • The Innocence Mission: Befriended, We Walked in Song 
  • Jethro Tull: Stand Up 
  • King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King 
  • The Kinks: Something Else, The Village Green Preservation Society 
  • Love: Forever Changes 
  • The Mermen: A Glorious Lethal Euphoria 
  • Van Morrison: Astral Weeks, Moondance, Veedon Fleece 
  • Pink Floyd: favorites from More, Ummagumma, Meddle, Obscured by Clouds 
  • Portishead: Dummy 
  • Procol Harum Procol Harum, A Salty Dog 
  • Judee Sill: Heart Food 
  • Steeleye Span: large selection from 1970-75 
  • Slowdive: Just For a Day, Souvlaki 
  • Ultravox: Vienna, favorites from other albums 
  • Tom Waits: Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years, numerous favorites from Swordfishtrombone, Mule Variations, Blood Money, Real Gone

It was interesting to find that the largest total amount of music from any one artist comes from Tom Waits. I started to replace the King Crimson album with something by Yes—basically I wanted to include one ’70s prog-rock album, but it could have been one of several. I’m not sure about Pink Floyd, but the songs I have in mind are the spacey, dreamy ones, like “Fearless” from Meddle. Veedon Fleece is an addition—I had not heard it for some years when I originally made the list. Hmm, St. Dominic’s Preview and/or Common One should perhaps be on there, too. And what about Al Stewart?...

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Sunday Night Journal — August 12, 2007

What Keats Didn’t Say (and May Not Have Known)

Ryan C wondered last week about my addendum to the famous line from Keats in my epigraph above. Here is a reflection on the subject in which I’ll try to articulate something that is mostly a bundle of intuitions, so it may not be perfectly coherent, and certainly not logically air-tight.

I understand that when considered from the technical point of view in philosophy and theology, the ideas of truth and beauty can be distinguished from each other and analyzed in detail. Nevertheless, I have always believed that the true and the beautiful are on some deep level identical to each other (and also to the good, but for me truth and beauty have always come first to mind). What is beautiful is also true. What is true is also beautiful.

The obvious objection to Keats’ formula is that something can appear beautiful and yet be false or evil. To be precise, though, the beauty is not false so much as deficient. The beautiful is that which is pleasing to behold. If it is not pleasing in its entirety, to that degree its beauty is less. So if we say that although a certain woman is beautiful she is malicious, we really are saying that she is beautiful in one aspect but not in another.

The true (considered as a human statement or perception) is that which represents or corresponds to what is. This is pleasing to behold. That which does not correspond to what is, is less true and therefore less pleasing to behold, less beautiful. Unless our souls are darkened, we all want to experience more and more truth and beauty and goodness. And we want to believe that they are truly present in the great What-Is, the total reality of which we are a part, and not to believe that they are only illusions in our own minds.

Whether or not we believe in God, we know by experience and intuition that no human mind can contain (comprehend) all the components of the What-Is. So we accept that no statement or work of ours can encompass all truth or beauty, and that it cannot tell or show the truth about all things all at once. But the more it can tell or show, the more we admire it and love it and benefit from it. Hence we recognize degrees of intellectual or artistic achievement and afford more respect to the larger, the one that encompasses more. One perfect quatrain or syllogism does not make a great poet or philosopher.

In our imperfect and fallen condition—our condition of being less than we know we should be, which every sane person recognizes—we require ugliness and falsehood to help us recognize, by contrast, the beautiful and true. The larger the work of art or intellect, the more of this contrast it can contain and illuminate. In fact, it must contain the ugly, false, and evil, or we will not recognize the beautiful, true, and good. When man encounters the pure and infinite truth and beauty and goodness that are God, one of two things will happen: he will be destroyed by it (that is, destroyed as a limited human person—whether he is unmade or becomes something else, we don’t know). Or he will not be able to see it at all, which is far more common and happens to every one of us every day, and is how we live our lives.

Genesis begins by saying that God looked at his creation and saw that it was good. But in our natural condition we cannot say this without qualification, because we have to consider the vast amount of evil and pain in the world. Moreover, because we are not God, God is included in the great What-Is that we behold, and so we cannot say with all our hearts and all our minds that God is good; the best we can do is to say with Job that we have no right to question him. Many of us cannot even get that far, and cannot believe that God is there at all.

So the presence of evil in the world appears to make it impossible to say that truth and beauty are always one. Evil is not only opposed to good but also to truth and beauty, because all three are ultimately one. The attempt to affirm that the What-Is is beautiful does not convince us: we see the false and ugly and evil, and we must either persuade ourselves that they are not real, or else qualify the affirmation, saying that the true is not always the beautiful and good. In our hearts we even go further and say that this “truth” does not deserve to be called true, because we have within us an idea of what should be true that is better than it.

But the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection solve this problem. They make it possible for us to affirm without qualification that the What-Is, the creator and his creation, are good, because they provide the means whereby the presence of the Not-Beautiful, the Not-true, and the Not-good can be harmonized and reconciled in the work of art that is God and all his creation, the Great Work that satisfies us by including everything.

Beauty and truth are truly one only if there is an infinitely True and Beautiful and Good God who entered the realm of the false and ugly and evil—the Incarnation; suffered its agonies—the Crucifixion; and lifted and transfigured that realm into his own without any compromise or degradation of the latter—the Resurrection. If what Keats said is true, so is the Christian faith. And we need to know that.

The Keats reference, by the way, in case anyone doesn’t recognize it, is to the last two lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the urn is represented as saying to mankind:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

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