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.


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:


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.


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.


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.”


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


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.


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.)


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?...


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.


Sunday Night Journal — July 15, 2007

Idiot Winds

You probably saw the news story that appeared in the past week or so giving an account of a study that claims to have disproved the common notion that women talk more than men. (It’s a common notion among men, anyway—women in general may not agree.) Clio has an amusing yeah! in response.

I’m not convinced that the study’s conclusions are correct. It was, after all, only a few weeks ago that I ran across another news item (which of course I can’t find now) about another study which claimed to have established that women’s brains are far better equipped for verbal communication than men’s. I believe the researcher illustrated her findings with a metaphor comparing a six-lane freeway to a country lane. If those findings are true, well, it stands to reason that there would be more traffic on the freeway.

But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the first study is indeed correct, and that most women don’t use a statistically significant greater number of words in the course of a day than most men do. What would account for the perception that women talk more? Supposing that the perception is held and propagated by men, I think it might be a result of the fact that men and women tend not to be interested in the same things, or rather not equally interested. If you are talking about something in which I have little, zero, or negative interest, I will probably think you are talking too much.

Any generalization about male vs. female psychology should be preceded by a big flashing sign acknowledging that it can never be more than broadly accurate. So consider such a caution as being inserted here, and here is my generalization, unsupported by any evidence other than my own observations: women in general are more down-to-earth than men in general. I’ve often been tempted to say that women (please assume the qualifier “in general” after the words “women” and “men” in the rest of this piece) are more practical than men, but that’s not really correct, as it implies effective practicality, and I don’t necessarily think that’s predominantly the case. But men are more likely to be interested in the abstract, the general, the large, and the grand, women in the concrete, the particular, the small, and the humble.

This, I think, is at the root of the conviction widely held by members of each sex that the other is sort of stupid. A man may think less of a woman’s intelligence because she is uninterested in big ideas, big systems, big plans. The same woman might think the same man is an idiot because he has no idea what’s going on right under his nose.

It’s also, I think, unquestionably true that women are more interested—more actively and consciously interested—in human relationships than men are (cf. The Lifetime Channel vs. Spike TV). It’s not so much, as men charge, that women want to talk about their “feelings” as that they want to talk about their relationships with other people. Arguably, I suppose, this is an instance of concern for the particular, but at any rate, it becomes part of the stereotypical scenario: it’s the end of the day, husband and wife are both tired, and the wife wants to chat about what she’s been doing all day, family matters, and other very down-to-earth things in which the husband, especially at that moment, has low-to-negative interest. His conclusion: she talks too much. (I’m not, by the way, assuming a stay-at-home wife in this example; it applies equally to a marriage where both husband and wife have jobs.) If, however, he is an Alabama football fan and she wants to talk with equal volubility about Nick Saban’s prospects for the next season, he’ll probably think her quite a conversationalist.

A few more observations that may or may not be valid: I think it’s in The Screwtape Letters that C. S. Lewis places the observation that women tend to talk more when they’re tired, men to talk less. If I remember correctly, the junior tempter is instructed to exploit this. I’ve seen some evidence that this is true. Also, I think it may be true that women are more likely to go into a sort of idle chat that is perhaps an effect of the ease with which words travel the above-mentioned six-lane freeway, and to which the speaker herself is not entirely attending. And women may have more of a need and propensity to “vent”—to unload frustration or anger by talking (i.e., complaining), as opposed to, say, shouting, cursing, and hitting things.

Any of these might register in the male mind as she talks a lot. Likewise, a long discourse by a man on Myself: Accomplishments, Plans, and Significance would get much the same reaction from a woman, at least any woman who’s not in love with him.


Sunday Night Journal — July 8, 2007

An Uneasy Fourth

As a member of the melancholic-American community, I don’t generally feel a lot of exuberance on the 4th of July. Quietly reflective is more my style: I usually go down to the bay, a few hundred feet from my house, and watch the fireworks launched from the town pier a quarter of a mile or so away. Or, if our daughter is playing in the local pops band, we go to the park where they play and sit on the grass. Hearing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which is a magnificent piece of music, in the dark as the fireworks begin is celebration enough for me. This year it rained and the band didn’t play. I was torn between walking down to the beach for the fireworks and staying inside and watching another episode or two of The Twilight Zone from the SciFi Channel’s marathon. Only a sort of duty led me to choose the former at the last second.

I love The Twilight Zone, and part of the reason is that it seems the product of a better America. By “better” I don’t mean that I think it was necessarily a morally superior time; in that respect I’m inclined to see the changes since that time as a break-even affair: much has changed for the better, much for the worse. What I mean is that I think the American soul was healthier. It may not have been wiser, but it was more open to genuine wisdom, and its principles were more fundamentally sound and more generally accepted. It would be more difficult now to articulate a set of principles acceptable to all or most of our myriad factions. And I think the national character was more sound. That vague but powerful set of sentiments and unarticulated principles to which we give the name “decency” has decayed vastly.

I found myself on the afternoon of the 4th thinking I love my country but I’m tired of her. And maybe we need some time apart, I thought, like a character in a movie romance. There’s a madness about the USA. There always has been, but—and maybe this is just a personal quirk—to me it seems worse in recent years, and to be driving us toward a fall.

I’m tired of little things and big things. I’m tired of the way dirty parking lots seem to be taking over more and more of the landscape. I’m tired of belligerent drivers in bloated-looking vehicles. I’m tired of the sheer bogusness that surrounds me, of shopping centers with names like “The Shoppes of Olde Towne Pointe” and subdivisions with pseudo-rustic names that must have been chosen from a mix-and-match list of words (“Orchard Ridge,” “Hunter’s Trace”).

I’m tired of the well-off who have pushed the cost of housing in my little town so high that it’s becoming impossible for the children of people who grew up here to stay. I’m tired of their expensive smug little boutiques that have replaced all the bread-and-butter businesses downtown. I’m tired of the violence and squalor of the poor that drive away anyone who can afford to move. And I’m worried about the chasm that separates the two. I’m tired of our intractable racial problems, of reading in the paper every other day of some stupid and vicious crime perpetrated by young black men while the black leadership apparently continues to believe that responsibility for solving the problem lies primarily with whites.

I’m tired of free-marketers who enthuse about “creative destruction” from their secure perches in foundations and universities. I’m tired of socialists who want us to believe that the Leviathan government is a species of family. I’m tired of the sophistical intellectuals who believe that their awesome mental powers make them superior to the rest of mankind who cling to superstitions like the sacredness of human life.

I’m wearied in my soul by the tragedy of the Iraq war—and I do think it’s a tragedy, not a crime, as many believe. And in respect to that and many other questions I’m tired of the journalists and pundits (and for that matter of my fellow citizens) who grab hold of a half-truth and try to beat their opponents to death with it. I’m extremely tired of lawyers, politicians, and bureaucrats who conceive of the law as a struggle for power by means of the creation and manipulation of rules.

Most of all I’m tired, sick and tired, of the hate, hysteria, and unreason of our politics. I don’t believe a nation can hold together indefinitely when two large minorities—I refer, roughly, to liberals and conservatives—believe that our fundamental problem is the existence of the other. I don’t think I’m an alarmist, and I don’t think we are presently in any real danger of civil war. But this level of hatred prepares the ground for violence. Don’t fool yourself that we aren’t capable of it.

Much of this is a mere funk, and it will pass away. What troubles me more deeply and persistently is the fear that we are no longer a people who either understand or desire the concept of liberty as we once did. The famous prayer from “America the Beautiful” expresses the idea with perfect accuracy and concision:

America, America,
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

For how many, or how few, of us are these words any longer an aspiration? It’s hard to imagine a Wellesley professor even feeling, much less writing, such sentiments today (see the song’s Wikipedia entry). “Liberty” is degenerating into a superficial “freedom,” the license to do anything you like in private life, at the price of surrendering genuine political and economic freedom. “Self-control” seems a quaint notion, perhaps evidence of internalized oppression. The government becomes not the guarantor of some reasonable level of order and fair play but a source of “benefits,” and politics a scramble for them.

I wonder if they teach Carl Sandburg in the schools any more. He was in my high school literature book, and a couple of his poems made a lasting impression on me. He wasn’t as great a poet as some thought him in his time, but he’s not negligible, either. Whenever I hear someone describe us as “the greatest nation in the world,” I hear this poem in the background.


Sunday Night Journal — June 17, 2007

Hey, Bishop, Leave Those Texts Alone

I knew fairly soon after I became a Catholic twenty-five years ago that I was not going to be the sort who takes a great interest in the intramural affairs of the Church. Vatican politics, the niceties of liturgical rubrics, canon law: none of that interests me very much, and in the three or four years that I’ve been producing this web site, I can’t recall saying anything about them. My attention is turned outward, toward the culture at large, which is, I think, as it should be for a layman. I do, however, precisely in that role as layman, care a great deal about the music and language of the liturgy, because it is they which surround and, in a sense, mediate the great Sacrament to me. I can live—I have been living—with these mediating artifacts being drab and even irritating, but I can’t participate fully, as we are supposed to do, in the liturgy if I’m being distracted and annoyed by them; I can only brace myself and hang on.

I’ve never acquired the habit of deference to clergy, and particularly to bishops, but I try to maintain a decent level of respect, and I don’t like to speak harshly in public of a bishop. That intention has been powerfully tested by the recent article in America by Bishop Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, in which he not only denounces the new liturgical translations but calls upon the faithful to resist them, while simultaneously insulting our intelligence. The article is accessible only to subscribers at America’s site, but can be read here at the web site of the Erie diocese. I have started to write about this on two occasions and stopped because I was becoming intemperate. I’ll now try again.

The substance of the bishop’s complaint is simply appalling. To address it thoroughly would require a magazine article, at least, so I’ll limit myself to two points:

  • He believes that lay Catholics—John and Mary Catholic, as he patronizingly describes us—cannot understand English words such as “sullied” and “thwart,” or a phrase such as “incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” To fully grasp his low opinion of our reading comprehension, you need to read the entire America piece. Among other things, it’s a striking revelation of an odd rift I’ve noticed before in the progressive Catholic mind: on the one hand, we’ve been told for decades that the modern Catholic is intelligent and educated and will not sit still for the antiquated devotional practices and simple answers to moral questions that contented his illiterate ancestors. But this only seems to apply when the case is being made for a progressive innovation; otherwise, that same modern Catholic is treated like a somewhat simple-minded child, to be protected from anything difficult, either to comprehend or to do. How many times has a lay Catholic objecting to some progressive project been told that he has no business challenging professional theologians and liturgists?

  • He appears to have little or no use for, perhaps no perception of, any dimension of language except the purely denotative. Of the connotative, of the musical—in general, of the poetic, and of its possible role in the liturgy—he seems unconscious or indifferent. I believe this is a serious handicap for someone who serves as chairman of the bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy.

I suspect that these two points are indicative of some mistaken views about the liturgy: what it is meant to do, and how it does it. But I’m not going to try to sort that out; many volumes have been written about it, and I would have nothing new to add, and no expertise on which to draw. And I’m not qualified to judge whether the currently-used translations are sufficiently faithful to the Latin. Reportedly they are not. Certainly they are unattractive. I’ll go to what is, for me, the heart of the matter: the overly simplified, often clumsy, sometimes banal English currently found in both the liturgy and the scriptures has not been a help to my life as a Catholic. It has been an obstacle, a very serious obstacle. Of how many Catholics this is true, I can’t say, but I know for certain that I’m not the only one.

I’m not necessarily arguing for complexity in liturgical language, and certainly not complexity for its own sake, much less obscurity; simplicity can be poetic. But from the samples I’ve seen of the new translations that have so angered the bishop, they are much richer than what we now have, and although they may cause some initial confusion I don’t doubt that most Catholics can cope, and will soon benefit. You can only go so far in simplification before you begin to distort and omit. I believe it’s a mistake to interpret calls for clear and accessible liturgical language to mean that every sentence must be instantly and effortlessly understandable by someone with the comprehension, vocabulary, and attention span of a middle-schooler.

Bishop Trautman calls for the laity to write to the bishops’ committee and other authorities to voice our opinions on this matter. I think I will.


Sunday Night Journal — June 3, 2007

Movie Roundup

I’ve been meaning to do another one of these for a while. The films are listed in the order in which I saw them, or at least in which Netflix sent them.

Blow-up: I’ve somehow gotten the impression that this movie is no longer regarded as highly as it once was. Well, if that’s true, I don’t care; I think it’s a masterpiece, and phooey to those who disagree. It made a huge impression on me when I first saw it, when it was new and I was a college freshman, but I didn’t really know why. I suppose it was a matter of mood and atmosphere more than anything else. Now I think I understand it, and I think it comes closer to capturing an essential aspect of the cultural upheaval of the ‘60s than pretty much any other work of art I know of. I’m ready to see it again.

L’Avventura: Going straight from Blow-up to this earlier classic by Antonioni was interesting; the connection in technique is plain. According to the critical commentary on the DVD, the title refers to the adventure of self-discovery, or something. Whatever. If you want to call it a nearly plotless portrait of some unappealing rich people, with unavoidable implications about The Emptiness of Modern Life and The Difficulty of Really Communicating With Another Person, that’s ok with me. It’s beautiful and evocative. The camera can’t stay away from Monica Vitti’s strikingly soulful face, and the contrast between what one sees there and the lives these people lead is unforgettable, even if I’m unconvinced that the philosophical depth claimed for the film is really there. I’m ready to see it again, too. I haven’t yet completed the putative trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’eclisse.

The Long Goodbye: 1973, directed by Robert Altman, Elliot Gould as Marlowe. Forgettable, apparently, as I’m already hazy about it and it was just this past February that I saw it. I think Robert Altman is overrated. Can’t point to anything in particular wrong with it but it just didn’t really work for me. Maybe it’s impossible to move Chandler into any milieu but 1930-1950 (approximately) Los Angeles.

In A Lonely Place: A 1950 Bogart noir, sort of—more of a character study than a crime drama. Highly regarded, I gather, and maybe I should give it another chance, but I was underwhelmed.

Junebug: Dysfunctional family piece, for which my appetite is very limited. Young man who moved away from redneck Carolina to be somebody in the big city returns with sophisticated art-dealer wife, many conflicts occur. Very well done but not really my cup of tea.

Monsieur Ibrahim: Sentimental story about a semi-abandoned Parisian boy taken under the wing of a kindly Muslim shopkeeper. Philosophically unconvincing—Ibrahim’s Islam would not be at all out of place on Oprah—but engaging. You can’t help liking the boy and Ibrahim (played by Omar Sharif). Almost worth seeing for the whirling Dervishes, if you’ve never seen them.

Central Station: Brazilian, also an abandoned-child story, and more convincing than Ibrahim. The adult in this case is a hard-nosed middle-aged single woman who really doesn’t want to bother. I notice that Netflix quotes reviewers’ praise of the actress, Fernanda Montenegro, who plays the woman, and rightly: she is what I mainly recall. Not a truly great film, but worthwhile.

The Dark Corner: More noir, about a private eye with a past being framed for murder, and I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t like noir as much as I thought I did. It wasn’t bad but I wasn’t enthused, either. Interesting to see Lucille Ball in an early non-comedy role.

Intimate Stories: Yes, I know, the title sounds like some kind of quasi-porn, and although I don’t know Spanish I suspect that whoever translated Historias Minimas this way probably made a mistake. It is indeed a small movie about small people and small events, but it’s thoroughly beautiful, not least in the straightforwardly visual sense. The slight but well-constructed plot revolves around the partly interlocking journeys of several small-town or rural people to the big city. Highly recommended.

Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring: I have had these recommended to me many times over the years, but have, to be honest, avoided what seemed an obligation, like that of reading a classic that doesn’t really interest you. From the descriptions I expected them to be long, ponderous, and sad. The first and last are accurate; the second is not. If you haven’t seen them, I strongly suggest you treat them as a unit. They’re probably too much for one viewing—they would be for me—but watch them on consecutive nights if you can, as they are really one story. And together they comprise a masterpiece. The first seemed to be meeting my expectation of a mildly unpleasant experience, as we watch the deliberate destruction of a good man. It’s excruciating, and I would just as soon have stopped there. But Manon turns the story from a portrait of brute suffering into a genuine tragedy, classical in its lines, and profound; a classic indeed. I suspect most people who read this blog have seen it, but if you haven’t, make a note: this is one you must see.

I see I still have another eight or ten movies to go, so I think I’ll split this up. More next week.


Sunday Night Journal — May 27, 2007

A Speculation on Pentecost

Today at Mass I had a brief glimpse of what Pentecost might have been like. Two men sitting behind me were annoying me with loud muttering, loud enough to be distracting but not quite loud enough to be understood. Then as the homily began I heard quite clearly one of them say “Ich kann nicht verstehen”—“I cannot understand.” But it was a heartbeat later that I realized that I had heard German words. What happened in the instant that I heard them was that I understood them. It was only after I had heard the man say that he could not understand the homilist that I realized he had said it in German. I had understood the German directly, without translating it into English.

This would be a perfectly ordinary occurrence for one who is truly fluent in more than one language, but that’s far from the case with me. I had a couple of years of German in high school forty years ago, a bit more in college to which I paid scant attention. Somehow a bit of it has stuck with me all these years. Now that I think about it, the fact that I hadn’t previously heard the man’s voice clearly enough to realize he was speaking German probably allowed the thing to happen. Because I was not expecting the German words, the conscious effort of translation was bypassed and the words went straight into some deep part of the mind where they were simply known: perfectly normal for one who knows that he knows German, startling for one who does not.

As I’ve had occasion to mention before, I have only a smattering of theology and philosophy. But what I do have, I mull over at length, and I seem to get something out of it. Lately I’ve been thinking about nominalism, (see Wikipedia article) and about the assertion made by a number of 20th century Catholic thinkers that its rise in late medieval times was the beginning of modern materialism. As I understand it, nominalism entails a rejection of the reality of ideas, such as truth and justice. Real existence belongs to the concrete specific things, not to the abstractions by which we describe them. So incomprehension, for instance—the thing which my German speaker communicated to me—is only a mental construct which we derive from observing instances of it. It’s not hard to see how this habit of mind tends toward the abandonment or at least attenuation of belief in spiritual reality, which comes to seem a sort of watery derivation from the material.

But experiment for a moment. Play with the idea that incomprehension is a thing, a real thing, though not a material one. Think about that, and then think about language. Language, in this light, is, among other things, the means by which we convey a real thing from one mind to another (and there is probably a hint of insight into the nature of spiritual reality in the realization that the thing conveyed is now in both “places” at once and equally).

When language is understood without conscious thought, as it is for everyone in his native language, these spiritual things pass easily from one mind to another; little more than an act of will is required, assuming there is no physical impediment, and that both minds are capable of grasping the thing.

I suppose I’ve always taken the miracle of Pentecost to be a kind of instantaneous translation, like those scenes at the U.N., where every delegate hears the words of a speaker whose language he does not know, while hearing it almost immediately rendered into his own language by an interpreter. And the words of Acts support that view. But the text can also support the sort of immediate apprehension I’ve described. Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? This would happen if the hearer truly did not know the language being spoken at all; upon having the idea communicated to him, he would instantly and instinctively put it into his own language, as the other would be an arbitrary string of sounds.

We can’t really conceive of ideas without language, just as we can’t really conceive of souls without bodies (personally I find that idea frightening, but that’s another topic). But if there is spiritual reality, and if the Holy Spirit is its absolute fullness and perfection, then it makes a sort of sense that it could push or pull one beyond dependence on words, presenting one’s own spirit with the unmediated and unrepresented idea. So, perhaps, at Pentecost the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the apostles produces a desire to communicate what is known; language results; but the presence is so rich and pure that ideas jump from mind to mind, like a spark across a gap—this perhaps is what’s meant by “infused knowledge”—where they become at once embodied, so to speak, in the hearer’s own language—as in my experience, momentarily after the fact. Asked in English, “what did he say?” I would have replied, “He said he couldn’t understand.”

Most likely this speculation is a commonplace among theologians, but it’s new to me.


Sunday Night Journal — April 22, 2007

American Exceptionalism and the Culture War

Pardon me if I’m announcing my solution to the equation 2+2=X. I’ve been thinking about the question of so-called “American Exceptionalism,” raised in this post and its comments, and I may have come up with an observation that’s perfectly commonplace among people who study these matters on a regular basis.

But I’ll proceed anyway. It occurred to me that the sense of exceptionalism is a factor for both sides in our current cultural conflict. Despite their intense opposition to each other, both are rooted in the tendency to regard the founding of America as some sort of definitive break with the past, at least symbolically. And they basically think this break a good thing, though they disagree about why it was good.

Let me make clear, in passing, that I don’t think America (United States of) is “exceptional” in any intrinsic sense that would imply an exemption from the general limitations of history and the human condition (hence “so-called” above). I’m not even sure that the belief in exceptionalism—by which I mean something stronger and more clearly held than the normal human belief that one’s own people and nation are superior to others—is terribly exceptional: many civilizations seem to have thought of themselves as divinely founded and/or favored. What may be unusual, if not unique, in America is the particular form of our exceptionalism: the belief that we represent an elemental fresh start for the human race, a chance to walk away from history—literally from an Old World—and get things right.

Contrary to the desires of both sides in the controversy, it’s untenable to view the nation, either in its founding or in its subsequent history, as exclusively the expression of a Protestant Christian or a secular skeptical world-view. (There is of course the Catholic argument that the Protestant revolution was the first step toward the displacement of Christendom by secularism, but whether or not that’s true it was certainly not the intention of the early Protestants.) The fact is that what we would call today Protestant fundamentalism and religious skepticism were both very powerful influences in the founding of the nation.

Both believed they were doing something new, making a radical break with a corrupt world. Both had a strong sense of purpose and a sense that what they were beginning was the first step toward some sort of consummation. The Puritans wanted to build the kingdom of God. It’s tempting to say that the other party, the party of the Enlightenment, wanted to build a kingdom free from God. That’s not quite fair, but it does seem that they wanted a world that neither required nor desired God’s immediate attention. With time it has become more clear to both parties that the achievement of the two purposes are mutually exclusive, and for that reason among others the present-day successors of the tolerant deists of old are likely to be explicitly, sometimes ferociously, anti-Christian.

From the sociological and historical as well as from the Catholic point of view, both are deficient. Fundamentalism has the inherent tension of a faith which is totally dependent on a text: the tension always tends to be resolved either into narrowness and fanaticism or indifference, with the meaning of the text becoming so elastic as to be useless. (We’re going to see the same problem working itself out in Islam for some time to come.) Secularism, on the other hand—meaning a worldly order with no transcendent mandate for its axioms—is likely to lose or discard its moral compass and slide into greater and greater evil, or else simply fade away from sheer lack of will to live.

From the sociological and historical point of view, there is really only one institution on the American scene which can synthesize the insights of both parties: its non-negotiable core of transcendent truth puts the divine at the center of things where it must always be in the eyes of the truly religious, while its emphasis on mediation and on secondary causes allow a reasonable space for the liberty prized by secularists (though, unfortunately, no longer enough to satisfy most of them). Not least, it can correct in both the pride of exceptionalism, the sense of exemption and escape from history, the presumption of superiority. (Regarding that last: it’s true that much prestigious American opinion now holds that America is actually worse than almost everybody else, but this seems to me just an inversion of the pride, like the narcissist who is equally self-absorbed whether he thinks too well or too badly of himself.)

Of course this does not mean that Catholicism is true, nor am I advocating that the faith should spread because it would be socially useful. It’s funny, though, how the practical and the truthful turn out, in the long run, to be the same. In a contest between American secularism and American fundamentalism, I would bet on secularism; it seems to me in a stronger position and to have the momentum of history with it. I think it likely that the future of America will be either Catholic or monstrous.


Sunday Night Journal — April 15, 2007

Pacifism in the War of Words

I found the Marcotte-Edwards controversy of a few weeks ago extremely disheartening. In case you have a very short memory, here’s a synopsis: John Edwards hired Amanda Marcotte, impresario of a left-wing blog called Pandagon, to run web operations for his presidential campaign; Christians in general and Catholics in particular objected on the grounds of Marcotte’s apparent hatred of them and their faith; Edwards, after shuffling around for a bit, accepted Marcotte’s resignation.

Pandagon is one of those blogs which gives one the impression that its contributors’ normal state of mind is a combination of burning rage and icy contempt. I had visited it a few times before this controversy because Dawn Eden, irrepressible controversialist that she is, sometimes links to it in the course of arguing with opinions stated there. I’ve never spent much time there because I find the hostility oppressive, to put it mildly. I was appalled that Edwards, a man who wants to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, would hire its most visible writer to manage his image on the web. As many a commenter pointed out, he looked equally bad whether one believed that he understood what he was doing, or that he did not.

Marcotte was, of course, vigorously and sometimes viciously denounced by Christians. Reportedly she received a number of physical threats, including graphically vicious threats of rape and death. Even if we dismiss these as the work of the anonymous nuts who always come out of the woodwork in any bitter controversy (right-wing bloggers get these kind of threats, too), the Christian response tended to answering malice with malice, which can achieve nothing except a momentary and unsatisfying pleasure of release not unlike that of lust, and made sure that the controversy left no one clean.

A few years ago my friend Reuben, a Mennonite minister, and I were discussing the notorious Westboro Baptist Church which seems mainly devoted to expressing its hatred of homosexuals. This was when the group had first appeared on the national scene and when they still seemed merely obnoxious, not entirely unhinged (“Pray For More Dead Soldiers” is one of their current slogans). Although we agreed that homosexual activity, like any other extra-marital sexual activity, is wrong, we were appalled by Westboro’s tactics. Reuben observed that in any encounter with someone estranged from or hostile to the Christian faith, as is generally going to be the case with a practicing homosexual, one ought to say and do nothing that cannot stand the light of the question How can I bring this person closer to Christ?

One didn’t get much sense that this question was much on the minds of the Christians who denounced Marcotte. The anger was natural, of course; I certainly shared it and probably would have expressed it if I had taken the time to comment. But to respond in kind to anti-Christian insults is not only ineffective—what are the chances that Marcotte’s hostility to Christianity was lessened by any of this?—but in contradiction to the Lord’s instructions: …but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The Church does not hold that this admonition denies the right of self-defense against physical violence. Yet surely if there is any situation in which it ought to be taken as literal and binding it’s the response to a verbal attack. One might argue that an insult to the faith justifies or at least allows a more vigorous response than insult to oneself, but even there we should be guided by the question above—How can I bring this person closer to Christ? If a stern response is required, it should be delivered with dignity and respect and without personal animosity or insult. We should be guided by the hope that the person we’re addressing will come to understand the offense he or she has committed, which is not least an injury to himself, and not by the desire to inflict injury in response.

And if the attack is upon oneself, there seems to me no question but that we must turn the other cheek. If someone calls me a wicked fool, I have no right to say the same to him in return; if this is not true, then Matthew 5:38-48 is just pleasant poetry. I’m within my rights to deny the false accusation of a specific act. If someone says I robbed a bank, I can and should deny it, and disprove it if I can. But I’m not justified in assassinating his character in response. If he says he finds me loathsome and despicable, I don’t see how I can justify a response in kind. Is Matthew 5:44 meant seriously or not?—But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

None of this should be taken as a desire to impose upon us all a bland “civility” which would preclude or discourage the utterance of any difficult truth. Genuine civility (to say nothing of Christian teaching) does not require suppressing the truth; quite the contrary. But one can tell the truth without rancor and hatred. Indeed, we’re obligated to do so. It’s a question of the salvation of souls, both our own and those of our enemies. Ferocious anti-Christians like Amanda Marcotte often seem to be in some obscure pain, and of course hatred itself is a kind of pain. When I face God I don’t want to have to explain why I saw fit to increase the pain of a person already suffering.


Sunday Night Journal — April 8, 2007

Discovering Traherne (3): On the Cross

Improperly excerpted, Traherne might appear to be a proto-romantic heretic, viewing the soul as naturally good and pure until corrupted by the world, and “saved” by recovery of the primeval innocent vision. (Of course one can be a romantic and a Christian, but not a Romantic, in the sense of holding as a philosophy the post-Enlightenment emotionalism and subjectivism of Shelley The third Century contains passages which out-Wordsworth the man who gave us “splendor in the grass…glory in the flower”:

Certainly Adam in Paradice had not more sweet and Curious Apprehensions of the World, then I when I was a child. All appeared New, and Strange at the first, inexpressibly rare, and Delightfull, and Beautifull. I was a little Stranger which at my enterance into the World was Saluted and Surrounded with innumerable Joys. My Knowledg was Divine: I knew by Intuition those things which since my Apostacie, I Collected again, by the Highest Reason.

But Traherne’s mind is broad and orthodox enough to contain these views without losing sight of the Christian facts of life. Here is a selection from a lengthy rhapsody on the Cross from the first Century:

The Cross is the Abyss of Wonders, the Centre of Desires, the Schole of Virtues, the Hous of Wisdom, the Throne of Lov, the Theatre of Joys and the Place of Sorrows; It is the Root of Happiness, and the Gate of Heaven….

If Lov be the weight of the Soul, and its Object the Centre, All Eys and Hearts may convert and turn unto this Object: cleave unto this Centre, and by it enter into Rest….

That Cross is a Tree set on fire with invisible flame, that Illuminates all the World. The Flame is Lov….

Here you learn all Patience, Meekness, Self Denial, Courage, Prudence, Zeal, Lov, Charity, Contempt of the World, Joy, Penitence, Contrition, Modestie, Fidelity, Constancy Perseverance, Holiness, Contentation, and Thanksgiving. With whatsoever els is requisit for a Man, a Christian or a King….

But above all these our Saviors Cross is the Throne of Delights. That Centre of Eternity, That Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradice of GOD!….

There are we Entertained with the Wonder of all Ages. There we enter into the Heart of the Univers.

I bid you a good and holy Easter season.


Sunday Night Journal — April 1, 2007

I’m going to let further discussion of Traherne wait for a week, or maybe two. A topic more appropriate for Palm Sunday occupies my mind today.

Pontius Pilate and the Infinitely Thin Line

This sentence, a brief aside in the Passion according to St. Luke which was read today at Mass, strikes me as one of the most dreadful judgments in the New Testament:

And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together; for before they were at enmity between themselves.

          —Luke 23:12

When Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was released, some of the hostile non- or anti-Christian reviewers mentioned that Pilate struck them as a decent and reasonable man. If I remember correctly, this became part of the complaint that the movie was anti-Semitic, because Pilate, the Roman, is portrayed more favorably than, say, Caiphas and other Jewish leaders. But as several reviews of the reviews pointed out, this complaint said more about those who voiced it than about the film: it says that Pilate seems to them one of their own, a worldly man of tolerant sensibility, puzzled by the fury of the apparently irrational quarrel which his position requires that he settle. One senses that he thinks they’re all crazy, the would-be King of the Jews with his tagalong rabble as well as those who want him executed. He’s a civilized man who wants a peaceful and equitable solution, so he offers compromises. How about I just have him flogged? No? Well, how about we kill this other guy who actually committed a crime that we can all understand? No?

One of the most striking things about the Passion controversy was its revelation of a very high degree of ignorance about Christianity on the part of pundits and critics who count themselves, and are generally counted, as educated. Anyone who understands Christianity ought to recognize that the Gospel portrait of Pilate is not an admiring one. A Christian ought to have at least as much sympathy for Caiphas, whose objection to Jesus is religious and whose outrage is very much in order if his judgment of Jesus is correct; Pilate, arguably, is further from God. But though Pilate fails the test to which many of the actors in the Passion story are put, he fails it in the way that a secular modern man would be likely to do, so naturally the secular modern man finds him a sympathetic character.

What strikes disturbingly home to me about Pilate’s complicity is that, although I understand that he is at least as much in the wrong as Caiphas, I share the impulse of the secular critics to like him. I’m one of those people who can always see both sides of any dispute, and almost always believe that each side is in possession of some truth. I’d rather look for the common ground than stay at sword’s point over the disputed. And I’m almost always ambivalent about any practical question (down to the most mundane, which is sometimes a trial for my wife: Would you rather eat in here or on the porch? may be followed by several minutes of mental gridlock).

This mental tendency is a good thing in some matters, and harmless in many, but a fault where serious life-determining questions are involved. Truth and falsehood are ultimately divided by a geometric line—not the proverbial thin line, but one which has no second dimension at all. It is infinitely thin. You can’t really stand on it. There is no surface, so even if you think you’re straddling it every atom in your body is on one side or the other. You’re divided, and you can stay that way indefinitely about many questions, but not on a matter or in a circumstance that requires a decision, because in the end there is no indeterminate state between action and non-action: you may hesitate for a while, but eventually you either do, or do not.

Pilate has to choose either to have Jesus killed, or not, which, because he alone has the power of capital sentencing, means either accepting (however passively) or denying the charge that Jesus deserves to die. The question will not go away, even if he is allowed to postpone his decision; he can’t simply tell everyone involved to go home and forget the whole thing, and even if he did they would be back the next day. So, against his will, or at least against his better judgment, he gives his answer, choosing to stand on the same side of the line as those who demand the execution.

Suddenly Pilate is not such a decent guy. It’s as if a light has gone out in him. He has joined a bloody tyrant on the wrong side of the line, and now finds that they have a lot in common. They can be friends, in fact; complicity in sin unites them, with each able to affirm (as we would say today) the other. Pilate may have meant well to begin with, but he’s ended up in the same place as Herod, a man who executed at least one of his wives and several of his sons. He will discover, like Lady Macbeth, that no amount of hand-washing can erase the stain of that fact.


Sunday Night Journal — March 18, 2007

Som Great Thing: Discovering Traherne

When the encounter with a single sentence sends you looking for more of a writer’s work, it must be a pretty striking sentence. And naturally you wonder if his other work is going to live up to the hopes produced by the one sample. My Lenten reading involves just such an investigation. The writer is Thomas Traherne, my judgement as of now is so far, so good, indeed very good, and the sentence is this one:

You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea it self floweth in your veins, till you are Clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars.

Actually the sentence goes on for a while, but this stands alone well enough, and is the fragment I heard back in 1969 It occurs in a song called “Douglas Traherne Harding” by the Incredible String Band, an eccentric and eclectic band which, if any musicians ever did, deserved to be called “hippie.” They were too eccentric for most people’s taste, but those who liked them liked them a great deal (and I for one still do). They borrowed styles and instruments from all manner of times and places, throwing them all into a kaleidoscopic mix. Lyrically they specialized in a sort of free-ranging poetic mysticism which meant a lot to me back then, as did this song in particular. It spoke of something paradoxically unattainable and yet still to be hoped for. It gave me a powerful taste of what C.S. Lewis called “joy,” although I’ve never thought that the best word for it. One of the brightest memories I have from that dark time is of standing on a strip of sand in the salt marshes at St. Mark’s near Tallahassee, with the water lapping at my feet and the late golden sunlight all around, and that song running through my head.

Eclectic and new-agey, probably gnostic, as they were, the String Band maintained a respect for Christianity, and the song also contained a reference to that rather striking figure from Luke 11:34, “when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light” (it’s much more pedestrian, of course, in recent translations). And I think they helped prepare the ground for my return to Christianity after I had thrown it over in my teens.

I didn’t learn until many years later that the author of that sentence was a man whose name I knew only as that of a minor 17th-century poet. And it was only a year or two ago that I bought this book, a selection of his religious writings, and only this Lent that I’ve begun to read it. So far this year Lent has been remarkably busy and unreflective, so I haven’t read as much as I’d intended. But I’ve already found passages to which I am certain I will return again and again for as long as I’m able, like this one (I’m preserving the non-standard spelling of the book, which I’m glad the editor chose to do):

We lov we know not what: and therefore every Thing allures us. As Iron at a Distance is drawn by the Loadstone, there being some Invisible Communications between them: So is there in us a World of Lov to somwhat, tho we know not what in the World that should be. There are Invisible Ways of Conveyance, by which som great Thing doth touch our Souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel your self Drawn with the Expectation and Desire of som Great Thing?

I think he’s a writer who will prove very important to me, or perhaps I should say more important than I’d realized, since he had already exercised a definite influence. I can’t compare this edition with others, as it’s the only one I’ve seen, but this one is very fine, and includes a fascinating introductory essay. It seems that much of Traherne’s work was lost for two hundred years, and began to be recovered only at the end of the 19th century. One manuscript was snatched from a burning pile of rubbish in the 1960s, another discovered in 1997. Providential, at least, I’d say.


Sunday Night Journal — March 11, 2007

Nap Time

It’s late Sunday afternoon, and I just woke up from a nap.

I never thought I would say such a thing with such pleasure. I recall reading Blondie as a child, and wondering why Dagwood Bumstead was always trying to take a nap. What was the matter with him? What was the point? But now I understand. It seems that every month or two there’s a story in the news about someone’s research showing that most Americans are short on sleep. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I certainly am, and it’s been this way for most of my adult life.

When there’s a baby in the house a certain amount of getting up in the night is inevitable. I expected that once our last child was out of that stage the sleep schedule would stabilize. Perhaps if I had the personality and authority of a military drill instructor it would have happened, but I don’t, and it didn’t. It wasn’t just that the children didn’t want to go to bed: my wife was, if not on their side, then overly sympathetic to it, being a night owl herself, and a bit of an anarchist where schedules and routines are concerned. (It’s in the genes: her father said that his own mother could sometimes be found doing housework at one in the morning.) One way or another bedtime usually ended up being an hour or two later than needed to give me the seven or eight hours of sleep that I need to be reliably alert the next day.

And so for most of the past three decades I’ve found myself sinking into drowsiness at times when I shouldn’t be—sometimes wishing for sleep, sometimes having to vigorously fight it off while at my desk, or, worse, in a meeting, or, worst of all, while driving. I now assume that the usual and fairly quick result of the combination of physical inactivity and boredom is likely to be sleep, especially after about noon or so, and avoid such situations as much as possible. Some years ago I attempted a daily regimen of prayer to the Holy Spirit which included attempting to empty the mind for five minutes. I gave it up because I always started nodding off after a minute or two.

Later, as the children grew up and left home, I thought surely it would become possible to get enough sleep regularly to be freed from the constant drowsiness—there would not be, for instance, the distraction of having a number of people on different schedules in one small house. But it hasn’t happened, even though our youngest went off to college last fall. At least five nights out of seven find me still going to bed too late, spending too much time in the evening online or reading or watching a movie, then starting the bedtime chores (taking the dogs out, etc.) when I should already be asleep. It wouldn’t be honest of me to say I can’t help myself, and to blame it all on the technological supports for this behavior, beginning with electricity. But it is true that without them I would almost certainly not stay awake so long; reading by lamplight, unless it were a pretty exciting story, would not produce the nervous energy aroused by watching television or reading blogs. Nor can I plausibly blame it on my wife, although that would be nice.

And so I arrive at a moment like this afternoon. We had taken an overnight trip to visit our daughter at college, and got up early this morning to go to Mass. We left around one for the three-hour drive home. I managed to remain reasonably alert on the drive by drinking extra coffee and listening to a book on cd. The book wasn’t interesting enough to keep my wife from dozing off, which I encouraged her to do, in case I should need her to drive. I didn’t, but after we got home and had a bite to eat the pall of drowsiness began to gather.

This happens so often at times when I’m obliged to fight it that the opportunity to give in to it is not to be missed. To close one’s eyes when really sleepy is as great a pleasure as to drink when thirsty and eat when hungry. The need is so powerful that, as we know from recent events, sleep deprivation can be used as a form of torture (and let’s not pretend that it isn’t that). There was no household task that required immediate attention, nowhere we had to be for the rest of the day. I got comfortable on the couch and thought This one’s for you, Dagwood before dropping blissfully into oblivion for half an hour or so.


Sunday Night Journal — March 04, 2007

A Glimpse of Moral Common Sense

This will be brief, as we’ve been busy visiting family this weekend.

I may have mentioned before that I’m fascinated by the American southwest. Not surprisingly, I’m a big fan of Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, which are set in the Navajo and Hopi country of New Mexico and Arizona and feature two Navajo tribal policeman as the principal detectives. The long drive this weekend provided a nice opportunity to listen to another of them, Skeleton Man.

I know absolutely nothing about Tony Hillerman beyond what’s revealed in his books and in the few sentences of biography on their dust jackets. I know nothing of his religious views beyond the obvious fact that he has a very deep respect for Navajo religion. And I know nothing of his political views unless something can be inferred from the fact that his characters sometimes complain about federal authorities and distant Washington officials. But of course that kind of griping is normal in detective fiction: when the detective is a private eye, the cops are likely to be portrayed as bumbling and/or corrupt, vice-versa if the detective is a cop. And there’s a similar tendency with local police vs. the FBI, etc.

In short, I have no reason at all to think that Hillerman has any particular sympathy for or association with the religious right, which conventional wisdom holds responsible for most of the opposition to abortion and premarital sex. So I was struck by a couple of in-passing notes in this book which portrayed both those practices negatively—the first as very bad, and the second as unwise.

The abortion reference was particularly striking: a woman is explaining to her adult daughter that her father was a wealthy young man by whom she, the mother, had been pregnant when he died in a plane crash, and that his family’s lawyers had pressured her and offered her money to have an abortion because the unborn child would have been the young man’s heir. The mother says something like “They wanted to pay me to kill you.”

The premarital sex reference is in the context of the engagement of two of the characters. They are both Navajo, and the bride-to-be’s mother counsels her to “keep some sand between” her and her fiancé—that is, not to sleep with him—because it tends to cause problems in the marriage. (It isn’t clear whether this is meant as practical wisdom or as a cause-and-effect consequence of the violation of a religious principle.)

What struck me was the naturalness, the un-forced-ness, of these references, not as propaganda points but as simple moral common sense. Sometimes I allow myself to hope that this common sense will eventually win out over the ideology of sexual liberation. It might help if everybody would stop screaming for a while.


Sunday Night Journal — February 25, 2007

Chickens, Eggs, and Spirits

I’ve thought for many years that Jung was onto something with his idea of a collective unconscious, a subterranean movement of thought and sentiment that affects many people at once and may produce similar manifestations simultaneously in different places. There are a number of examples of this in the history of science and mathematics, the most famous being the simultaneous discovery of calculus by Newton and Leibniz. Two recent and very different discussions here have me thinking about this phenomenon: the one about the role and power of materialist evolutionary thinking, and the one about the role played by the baby boom generation in various developments of the last forty years or so.

In the discussion of evolutionism (meaning a Dawkins- or Dennet-style commitment to materialistic evolution as an all-explaining paradigm), the question was raised as to whether a way of speaking based on material facts helped to form the way people thought, or whether the thought formed the language. No doubt this is an unanswerable question; we can assume a sort of feedback effect where each reinforced the other, but we can’t say where the germ was. And we really can’t say why it flourished at the time and place that it did. We can only fall back on statements like the time was ripe or the world was ready or it was an idea whose time had come.

It’s not that no one had ever thought this way before—some of the Greeks did, and I’m sure someone who knows more history than I do could supply more instances. Why did it catch on in the post-medieval West, to the point where it became a potent and even dominant cultural force? Of course we can come up with some answers to these questions, noting cultural movements that seemed to prepare the ground, and following lines of propagation. Advocates of materialism might say that people recognized its truth; opponents might say that it appealed to the ever-present human desire to escape the truth. But those are only more detailed versions of the world was ready. Why was it not ready in the time of Democritus?

Similarly, one of the most striking things about the youth movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s was the way it took hold among people far removed from the centers of cultural ferment, such a hold that they felt compelled—the word is not too strong—to look and behave as much as possible like people in California and New York. You can say it was a fad or a fashion, and that would be true, but it was also a good deal more than that. I was one of those provincial imitators (or bandwagon-jumpers) and I remember vividly the sense that these were my people, that they represented something to which I belonged. The long hair and all the rest of the externals were fashions, yes, but also more than fashions: indicators of an identity entirely distinct from what we dismissively called the “straight” world, membership in a sort of quasi-religion.

Why did the specific form and content of this rebellion capture the souls of so many who first heard of it on television or in a magazine and were instantly and powerfully drawn, rather than repelled, as so many were, not only in our parents’ generation, but in our own? Say that we felt alienated—but why did this particular response compel our immediate assent? Again, advocates and opponents can present plausible good and bad reasons, but these only push the question back a little. In the end we fall back again on the catch-phrases: the time was ripe. But precisely why, at that moment, and in what respect, was it ripe? We can’t really say; the best we can do is come up with plausible contributing causes: affluence, alienation, and the like. From my perspective now I can say that, among other things, it was the moment of dispersal into mass culture of ways of thinking that had been developing in the West since at least the early 19th century. But that, again, only pushes the question back a little further.

I’m certain that there is far more to the world and to human life than we know, probably more than we can know. Jung’s “collective unconscious” may or may not exist, but it’s really a pretty thin idea, a vaguely scientific way of stating a conjecture about a mysterious phenomenon. C. S. Lewis had a more specific conjecture. In a poem called “Infatuation,” which I would quote if I could find my copy of the book, he suggests that we may often be the unknowing objects of direction or manipulation by spiritual beings—by angels and demons, to put it bluntly. (“Reined and ridden” is the phrase I remember. Lewis clearly was referring in the poem to dark spirits, and presumably would not have described angelic influence as compulsion.) From the Christian point of view, this is perfectly plausible, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t operate on groups as well as individuals. That’s a somewhat disturbing thought, to be sure; thank God we have a rock on which to stand, and a touchstone with which to prove any shiny thing offered to us as gold—even if reading the result is not always perfectly straightforward.


Sunday Night Journal — February 18, 2007

Atheistic Evolution: The Plausible Myth

In a discussion here a couple of weeks ago, I bemoaned the influence of the theory of evolution with some scattershot comments that never quite said what I meant. I’m going to try to clarify that now.

In my title I mean “myth” in the sense of a story that helps the human mind to make sense of the world. And while evolution may be a reasonably well-established fact in that there seems to be a pretty good scientific consensus that the earth is billions of years old and that its life forms developed from the simple to the complex over a period of millions of years, the atheistic conclusions drawn from those facts, though not in the least proven by them, take the scientific assertion into the category of myth. And that myth has some very strong advantages over the Christian myth. (I’m not averse to using the term in reference to the Christian story—as C. S. Lewis said, it is a myth in the sense I used above, with the difference that it is also literally true.)

The difficulty presented to Christians by the evolution myth is not chiefly the popular “science vs. religion” struggle so beloved of the secular press. It need not be a case of having to choose between belief in the literal story of Genesis and losing one’s faith. It’s not that Christianity can’t be reconciled with the current scientific understanding of the size and age of the cosmos, but that the arguments required for the reconciliation are abstract and require some crucial departures from the way Christians were able to think about origins before the scientific revolution.

I expect that most readers of this blog are Christians, predominantly Catholic, who are at least somewhat familiar and at ease with the way this reconciliation proceeds: the essential philosophical and theological concepts (essential to Christianity) are abstracted from the Genesis story, which is accepted as symbolic in its details but accurate in its principles, something like Jesus’ parables. I expect most are also people who read a fair amount, who like ideas, and who spend a good deal of time thinking about precisely such questions as the reconciliation of faith and science.

But most people don’t operate this way. This may very well leave them better off, if they’re Christians; they may simply practice their faith every day without going to a lot of mental trouble about its intellectual infrastructure. But it may also create a dangerous rupture between what they believe by faith and what they accept as scientific fact, leaving them with a vague sense that religion is only a feature of their emotional life. Or, if they’re not Christians, they may absorb, without really noticing it, a cultural presumption that science has disproved religion, and live their lives accordingly.

Here’s the point I kept fumbling around with in that earlier discussion: the problem of Christianity and evolution in the modern world is not that the materialism of, say, Richard Dawkins is likely to be victorious when pitted against the philosophically well-armed Christianity of, say, C.S. Lewis, in a struggle to the death in the realm of ideas. It’s that the picture of the cosmos given to us by science renders atheistic evolution particularly plausible, especially to people who don’t give it a lot of thought.

Why? Because the spiritual facts presented by Christianity are based on scriptures which assume a cosmology contradicted by science: a human and earthly world only a few thousand years old, created immediately as a paradise, a heavenly realm which is literally above it, a man and a woman, a serpent, a fruit, a literal expulsion from a literal Garden. To reconcile this with scientific knowledge requires an effort. It requires treating as symbolic narratives which give no internal evidence of being intended that way, and which proceed seamlessly from creation story to factual chronicle, culminating in the life of Jesus. It requires some means, not present, or at least not obviously so, in the text of deciding what can be taken as symbolic and what must remain literal. It requires turning the Garden into a metaphor for some condition of perfect grace. We shouldn’t be surprised that heterodox theologians proceed to symbol-ize everything, turning salvation itself into a psychological event or condition (or even a political achievement). Catholics are a bit better off than many other Christians, in that we have a teaching authority which, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can make these judgments, and generally makes them in a way that is reasonable to anyone disposed to listen. Still, the tension is there.

No such adjustments are necessary for the evolution myth. A cosmos which is inconceivably large in both space and time in which nothing happens except the interaction of material forces is a picture into which evolutionary explanations for the origin and development of life fit easily. Solar energy causes changes to certain molecules, they begin to replicate themselves, and mechanical procedures insure that these systems will, given enough time—and we have billions of years to play around with—become ever more complex. This picture has three gigantic conceptual holes: it can’t account for the fact that anything exists at all, or for the structure of the system which produces everything else, or for human consciousness. But it seems that the first two are easily ignored, and the last one is assumed to be a byproduct of complexity, despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever that such is the case.

I venture to say that for most people the word “evolution” is summed up in that picture that occurs in so many biology textbooks, often spread across two pages: at the left margin is a little monkey, like Curious George, taking a step toward the right. As he walks across the page he gets steadily taller, less hairy, and more erect, until at the right margin he’s walking upright, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. It’s a simple, powerful image, and it can’t be reconciled with the Christian account of Creation, Fall, and Redemption except by some decidedly unstraightforward philosophizing. And that puts us at a disadvantage in presenting our message.

I take comfort, though, in the fact that the Gospel has never been all that easy to believe. The obstacles to its acceptance were different in 100 A.D., having to do with the strange assertion of the simultaneous particularity and universality of Jesus in a world where gods were plentiful. But I don’t know that they were any weaker.


Sunday Night Journal — February 11, 2007

Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful

I’ve never considered myself an official movement conservative; “conservative for lack of a better word” is my favored description. (I’d like to have a catchy abbreviation for it, but can’t come up with any pronounceable variation of CFLOABW, the “W” being both essential and intractable.) Therefore I tend to get bored fairly quickly with debates about the definition of conservatism and which of many factions has best title to the word. Nevertheless, I’ll go out on this limb: if true conservatism can be located anywhere, it must be at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, or at least in its publishing arm, ISI Books (

National Review may have the best claim in a common-law or de facto sort of way. But its traditional project of fusing conservatism and libertarianism was always rather a patch job, and seems to be coming apart now. It still publishes a lot of good commentary, but more and more I find that certain of its regular contributors are entirely dispensable, and not conservative in any reasonable sense. Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative and other paleo-con publications such as Chronicles seem, judging by what they put on the web, to tend toward a dispiriting crankiness (dispiriting to me, anyway; a lot of people seem to enjoy crankiness).

ISI, though, seems to manage to maintain its equanimity while keeping a firm grasp on what the term “conservative” must mean, if it’s to mean anything conceptually distinct from chunks of libertarianism and nationalism simmered in a thin broth of “traditional values.”

Case in point: Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful: Economics As If Families Mattered. This is, obviously, a revisiting of Schumacher’s classic from the 1970s—which I must confess, up front, that I have never read, mainly because I thought I knew what was in it. I don’t think I’ve mentioned here the blog devoted to the book, where I have not contributed as much as I had intended to, thanks to an onslaught of other demands on my time. The blog is worth reading, especially if you’re interested in some pretty detailed discussion of questions of property ownership and the like.

Pearce’s book—and I think this was also true of Schumacher’s—is concerned precisely with what ought to be conserved against the onslaught of big government, big business, and big science (more accurately, big technology, but the phrase “big science” has a certain resonance).

I confess I haven’t given much attention to these matters for a while. They were very much on my mind when I was was working on Caelum et Terra, and I never rejected most of the ideas, but the day-to-day demands of life—simply getting by, raising a family, trying to keep my faith alive—have pushed them aside. Nor do I now have any particular grasp of how they should affect my life, or any plan for having them do so.

Yet I’m determined to hold on to them intellectually, if in no other way. And I think conservatism must hold on to them. There are some details in Small Is Still Beautiful with which I might argue. I’m more of an agnostic on the question of global warming than is Pearce, for instance, and think it not the best foundation for an argument against Bigness. But the essentials seem sound. Don’t most of us have a sense that industrialized society must somehow tame its appetites—all of its appetites—in order to survive, both psychologically and materially? Don’t most of us agree that a globally hyper-industrialized and hyper-commercialized society on the lines of the USA is not a reasonable or desirable aspiration? Those are Pearce’s theses, in broad outline, and I don’t see how any intellectual movement that wants to describe itself as “conservative” can disagree with them.

Hilary Clinton’s book It Takes A Village was roundly attacked from the right, but not always for the right reasons (or so it seemed from observing the controversy—I haven’t read that book, either). The African proverb from which she took her title, “It takes a village to raise a child” is a beautiful piece of folk wisdom (whether or not it’s actually an African proverb), and those who shouted “It doesn’t take a village—it takes a family!” were only half-right. Mrs. Clinton was perfectly correct in intimating that individual families do not exist in a void, and require a surrounding and supporting community.

Where Mrs. Clinton goes wrong, I venture, judging by her general policy views, is in smudging “the village” into “the government,” preferably run by herself. And it’s all very well to challenge her on this subterfuge. But it does take a village, or something like it, to sustain a family, and a number of villages to make a nation. And one of the chief problems of current American politics is that, in general, neither the left nor the right, neither the Democrats or the Republicans, really gives a damn about the village at all. For both, it’s an obstacle to progress rather than a crucial part of a truly human way of life.


Sunday Night Journal — February 4, 2007

The Liberal Conservative (4)

This is probably the last in the series, at least for a while. I wanted to add one more note to my list of reasons for wishing to preserve the institutions of liberalism—meaning, of course, the philosophical liberalism that goes back at least to the Enlightenment, not contemporary political liberalism. In fact I’m not entirely sure that “liberalism” is the correct term; perhaps something like “Anglo-American constitutional pragmatism” would be closer. But I’ll stick with “liberalism” for the moment.

So far I’ve adduced the specific achievements of the liberal order: widely representative government, constitutionalism, material prosperity. But there’s another, more elemental reason. America (meaning the United States of America), is, more than any other nation, the embodiment of these ideas, it is my country, and I love it.

There’s a tendency among those of conservative or traditionalist leanings to decry or deny what used to be, and for many people still is, the standard American patriotism, which, as has been pointed out many times, is more a devotion to an idea than to a place, or even a nation. Chesterton said it best, in his often-quoted remark that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” This devotion, a traditionalist says, is not patriotism by any reasonable definition, because patriotism is first and most importantly devotion to a place and a people. I agree with this, and have written about it (see this journal). Devotion to an idea is not patriotism.

But love for the USA is not only love for the American idea, and love for one’s town and region don’t preclude love for the country at large. Lately I’ve been more conscious of this latter emotion. It’s an exasperated sort of love, the love you might have for an eccentric relative. Make no mistake, this is a crazy place. Its craziness is a direct result—no, make that an integral part—of its success. (See this post by the very interesting Eve Tushnet, which I ran across a few weeks ago and which helped crystallize some of these things for me: “Americans are bats crazy….There are insights to be gained from our particular brand of crazy.”)

America is what you get when you give the masses the money and freedom to do what they want. A great deal of it is deplorable, to say the least. I’m as oppressed as anyone can be by the sight and the spread of the miserable ugly chaos of strip development. I rarely visit a shopping mall and when I do I generally come out depressed, angry, or both. I can’t stand the inescapable hucksterism which is now as much a part of politics as of commerce. Our entertainment industry is a reckless and shameless source of pollution on a global scale, made doubly maddening by its self-righteousness, and surely at least as responsible for the hostility of other nations to us as anything George Bush has done. And so on.

But there is also in this madhouse a great deal that is creative, courageous, generous, and good. It can be maddening, but also maddeningly likeable. And finally there is just the sheer magnificent spectacle of it, which always makes me think of Bruce Springsteen’s words:

And the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all—
they just stand back and let it all be.

Whether loving it or hating it, surely few active minds could fail to find America interesting; to do so would strike me as evidence of mental torpor.

If you’re an American, don’t think you aren’t part of this. Don’t think you can withdraw from it to a place of traditional order and dignity. It doesn’t exist here, and probably won’t within your lifetime. More importantly, if you were to go where it does exist, your restless discontent would probably make you unhappy there, and your presence might well harm it. You’re too used to having your way: taking your business elsewhere; moving to escape your neighbors or your town; finding a different parish if you don’t like the priest or the music in yours; switching jobs or switching religions when you don’t like the one you have.

The tragedy, and the agony, of America is that this personal willfulness is extended where it is not just a questionable habit but a sin. People leave their marriages when they’re unhappy, they abort their unplanned children, they indulge every appetite, they flout natural and divine law at every turn. This may be, probably will be, our undoing. And here, of course, is where conservatism has a job to do: in the effort to pull the country back from the brink. Success does not seem very likely, but then conservatism is almost always at least mildly pessimistic, in temperament if not by definition.

Here, also, is where conservatism should be liberal in the root sense: generous and tolerant, always with an eye toward the good to be preserved and encouraged as much as to the evil that must be resisted. If you are an Evelyn Waugh whose bitter ire toward the modern world can be turned to the purposes of great satire, or if you are a prophet chosen by God to warn and admonish the world, then by all means do what you have to do. If not, to surrender to a very understandable vexation will most likely just leave you complaining on the sidelines while the outcome of the contest is determined by others.


Sunday Night Journal — January 28, 2007

Mr. Martins, From The Other Side

I had planned to write about something else this evening, but this afternoon my wife and I sat down to watch our latest NetFlix arrival, The Third Man. As I may have mentioned here before, I don’t, in general, take movies all that seriously as art. In particular, I don’t take the commercial products of Hollywood very seriously at all: even the better ones are rarely more than a couple of hours’ entertainment. Those that I would bother seeing a second time are pretty rare, and even with many of those, like The Big Sleep, it isn’t so much that I think them great art as that they establish some kind of atmosphere that I enjoy visiting now and again, or that they’re simply a big entertaining spectacle, like the first three Star Wars movies.

But this is the real stuff. Unless I’m succumbing to an over-enthusiastic first impression, it’s one of the very rare movies that can be thought of in the same way as a first-rate novel or poem, as something to which one might return now and again, and come away enriched each time. We might have watched it again immediately if we hadn’t had other things to do, and we’ll probably watch it once more before we send it back.

I had seen it once before, perhaps twenty years ago, in a rather murky VHS copy, on a rather small television with bad sound. It didn’t make much of an impression on me, which I have to attribute to some combination of the poor technical quality and my own inattention. I have to postulate the latter, because murky sound and video don’t explain why I missed the brilliance of Graham Greene’s screenplay. (Since then the original film has been restored and the DVD version is beautifully clear and rich, and although we haven’t gone in for the home theater business we now have a medium-sized TV, and the sound from the DVD player runs through the stereo, which is good enough for me.)

The Third Man is worthy of comparison with Greene’s best work. It combines utterly convincing naturalism—involving, as is customary with Greene, a pretty seedy milieu—and a great deal of symbolic resonance and power. It features a device to which Greene was drawn more than once: the encounter of a naïve American with real evil, his difficulty in recognizing it, and his clumsy response. (Unlike some of the other instances, in this case the American does not end up doing more harm than good.) The milieu is the underworld of occupied and partitioned Vienna after World War II, and the evil is, most immediately, a childhood friend of the American who is now a cold-blooded racketeer, and, more subtly, the whole sad and corrupt condition of Western civilization at the middle of the twentieth century.

In one of a hundred touches that make this picture vivid, Greene has the American, Holly Martins (a man, despite the name), be a writer of simplistic Westerns. When a scatterbrained cultural propagandist recruits Martins to speak to a literary society, he introduces Martins as “Mr. Martins, from the other side.” The symbolic weight of a phrase like that is not likely to have been an accident, coming from the pen of Graham Greene. Nor is it an accident that the topic of Martins’ speech is to be “the crisis of faith,” or that he has nothing at all to say about it. Dozens of similarly pregnant examples could be mentioned. There is fertile ground for a great deal of literary analysis here, and I suppose critics and graduate students have done it.

In addition to the screenplay, and a lot of pretty much perfect acting, there is one other major contributor to the film’s power: the marvelous black-and-white cinematography, and the war-damaged city of Vienna, its combination of grandeur and ruin perfectly suited to the story. I could paper a room with still shots from this movie—in scene after scene I had to stop myself from hitting the pause button so that I could fully take in the image, and the next time I watch it I’ll do so. “What makes black-and-white so good?” my wife asked, and then answered her own question: “It’s only about light and shadow.” Yes, and that’s perfect for a story in which moral complexity is, to use a phrase now forever associated with Greene, the heart of the matter.

I came away from this movie feeling that I’d looked deeply into the heart of the modern world. Offhand I can’t think of any Hollywood film of the past thirty years or so which has caused me to say anything of that sort. It’s not that directors don’t try—they try all too hard, in some cases. But when they do, they nearly always seem heavy-handed and crude. Perhaps it’s partly that the technical resources now available to big-budget filmmakers create a bias toward the big, loud, and dumb. It also seems fair to say that there’s been a decline in sensibility and dignity in the culture at large and in Hollywood in particular, and of course a huge distortion of the moral sense. The movie industry of 1949, when The Third Man was made, was probably pretty corrupt, and certainly made plenty of heavy-handed and crude films, but it hadn’t yet gone in for the strange combination of nihilism and manicheanism so characteristic of it now. It occurred to me after I wrote that last sentence to imagine what a contemporary remake of The Third Man would be like. A bad thought; I hope it never happens.


Sunday Night Journal — January 21, 2007

Is Wagner Bad for You?

Returning to the discussion, postponed last week, of the E. Michael Jones essay “Music and Morality: Richard Wagner’s Adultery, the Loss of Tonality and the Beginning of Our Cultural Revolution,” from the December 1992 issue of Fidelity:

There is a great deal to commend in this essay; I’m sorry it’s not online, as I don’t imagine it can be found in many libraries. It’s lengthy and rambling, but entertainingly so. The gist of it can be summarized pretty easily: that Wagner was first a political revolutionary and later, after that failed, a cultural revolutionary driven by adulterous passion to develop a musical technique consciously intended to overthrow the musical order as part of the effort to overthrow the social and moral order. In a passage worth quoting, Jones sheds light on that cultural revolution:

In the modern age, there are revolutions and there are revolutions, and virtually all of them are an incongruous mixture of ressentiment against the human condition as represented by a particular political institution.

The revolutionary agenda espoused by both Wagner and Bakunin was so politically diffuse that no political reform could have accomplished it. As a result, it is only natural that its political death would only release its revolutionary soul into freer flights of fantasy, where its disembodied soul was free to posit conditions that it was safe to say could never find incorporation in any political system anywhere…..a revolution which was essentially metaphysical in its scope.

I used to be puzzled by affluent and privileged people who complained that they were not free, because there never seemed to be anything in particular that they wanted to do or to have that was not already available to them. But their complaints were quite sincere; they would feel themselves oppressed as long as it was possible for anything to be other than they wished it to be. The dream of an earthly life free from the limits of the human condition is still very much with us (Imagine there’s no heaven…).

Knowing very little about Wagner, I’m not in a position to determine the accuracy of Jones’ conclusions about him, although they seem plausible on the basis of what I do know. The question of interest to me is whether and how they ought, if true, to affect the way we receive Wagner’s work. It’s a logical inference from his harsh judgment of Wagner, and from the warnings of Aristotle and many others about the malign effects of disordered music which he applies to Wagner’s work, that he would counsel us to avoid it.

In a subsequent issue (May 1993) of Fidelity, Madeleine Stebbins takes issue with Jones. She denies any connection between Wagner’s personal life and his music, and suggests that the erotic longing in a work like Tristan und Isolde should be considered a metaphor for mystical love, invoking John of the Cross and others—all well and good, but it doesn’t address the question of whether and to what degree Wagner’s bad intentions make his music bad, and bad for you. Everyone surely understands that the personal sins of an artist do not automatically render his work unfit. But it’s one thing to be a sinner, quite another to be a propagandist for sin, which is the essence of Jones’ charge against Wagner.

I suppose I fall somewhere between Jones and Stebbins (bearing in mind that I only know Wagner by the Ring, which is not the example used by either of them). Part of the question is whether it is possible for a musical technique to be intrinsically evil in its influence. I am extremely skeptical of this. (I was going to mention some barely-remembered stuff about the tritone here, the diabolus in musica, but according to Wikipedia its name may never have been meant very seriously.) Jones quotes Greek descriptions of physical and mental illnesses produced by listening to certain modes. I doubt a scientific test would be able to demonstrate these effects. It is certainly true that music can exert a powerful influence for good or ill. But I think the question of any destabilizing emotional impact based on purely musical techniques, such as chromaticism (which Jones sees Wagner cultivating as intentionally subversive), is to a great extent a matter of culture and expectations. Today’s technical innovation becomes tomorrow’s everyday tool of expression, to be used for purposes quite other than those the innovator had in mind. You don’t have to look any further than Bruckner for an example.

None of this is to say that there are not better and worse tools, and a valid argument that the technical innovations of Wagner and others constituted a change for the worse in the history of music, but that’s a somewhat different discussion.

Still, after viewing the Ring in the mostly unfortunate Chéreau production, I’m left with a slight distaste for it, considered as an epic drama, and consequently for Wagner, notwithstanding the fact that I very much liked a good deal of the music itself. I don’t know that this is fair, and I don’t even know that it’s an impression that would survive a more extensive acquaintance with his work, or even the viewing of a different Ring. And I can’t deny that awareness of what transpired in Germany over the next sixty years or so after Wagner’s death plays a role in my view of him, as does the knowledge that Hitler (at least) thought Wagner’s music eminently suitable for his party.

But with all allowances made, there still seems to me something unwholesome in Wagner. Almost all Romanticism is at least somewhat guilty of emotionalism and self-absorption, but Wagner’s work seems to contain something more than usually unhealthy: something almost morbid, involving a desire to surrender to what it imagines to be the purer and stronger passions of a more heroic age. I assume Siegfried is supposed to be at least a somewhat sympathetic character, but I disliked him strongly (and this, too, may be unfair, as it’s all wrapped up with a single performance). He has the spontaneous and instinctive pure self-interest of an animal, and yet he also knows what it is to look in a mirror; there’s a touch, at least, of Narcissus in him. If I envision him escaping his early death I can only see him becoming ever more self-righteous and resentful, incapable of knowing himself and uninterested in knowing others, proud and humorless, capable of jeers and sneers but not wit, utterly without empathy: possessing, in short, a personality suitable for a tyrant.

As I said, I’m intrigued by what I’ve heard of Wagner and don’t mean to sound as if I’m condemning his work wholesale. But on the basis of the Ring alone, I see something in him which I don’t think I’m imagining and which I dislike: a bourgeois aesthete in a waning Christian civilization, at ease in the salon and the drawing room but weary of them and perhaps of civilization itself, looking enviously toward the primitive and the exercise of power. It isn’t fair to tar Wagner retroactively with Nazi associations, but it’s possible to see in his work, as in that of his fellow parlor-primitive Nietzsche, the early stages of a deep sickness, one which has by no means been cured.


Sunday Night Journal — January 14, 2007

A Couple of Miscellaneous but Not Entirely Unrelated Items

Apropos the recent discussions of Wagner here, the reader who signs himself “rjp” kindly sent me a couple of back issues of Fidelity (December 1992 and May 1993) containing some interesting views of Wagner: a lengthy article by E. Michael Jones, who edited Fidelity, called “Richard Wagner’s Adultery, the Loss of Tonality, and the Beginning of Our Cultural Revolution,” (pretty clear where the author is going there), a letter to the editor from Madeleine Stebbins, who was (I think) one of the founders of Catholics United for the Faith, and a rejoinder by Jones. That was to be the subject of this week’s journal; however, I got too distracted reading some of the other stuff in those magazines, so Wagner must wait till next week. Herewith are a few gems, unrelated to Wagner but very much related to some other interests of mine.

I subscribed to Fidelity for several years in the 1980s and always found it a mixed bag. Jones was, I thought, clearly a sharp and perceptive fellow, often brilliant, and a pungent writer, but sometimes overly pugnacious and tending toward a somewhat conspiratorial view of things, by which I mean he seemed to have a tendency to attribute to conscious malice what was probably more conventional human blundering (a phenomenon not unusual on what I’ll call, and hope you understand my shorthand, the ecclesiastical right in the Catholic Church). I really can’t remember a specific reason why I let my subscription drop, aside from a general sense that the magazine was becoming fanatical and unbalanced. At some point in the 1990sFidelity folded, and was replaced by Culture Wars.

I have never seen a copy of Culture Wars, but it is, as they say, “controversial.” I have heard it charged with anti-Semitism by people whose opinion I respect, and looking around on its web site I have noticed evidence of some kind of hostility to Jews. I’m inclined to doubt that it is anti-Semitic in the classic sense; I would speculate that this is the above-mentioned slightly paranoid style at work again.

At any rate there is certainly no sign of anti-Semitism in the two copies of Fidelity that I’ve been reading. In fact one of the pieces from which I want to quote is a very favorable review of a book by Jewish conservative Don Feder. The book is called A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America; the review is titled “Real Conservatism”:

[This] book … makes an important distinction. Feder is a conservative because he is a Jew who believes in the Torah. Religious adherence to the moral law is the bedrock of the social order. Without the moral law there is no social order. The Republican Party can ignore this fact, but it will do so at its own peril….

Feder understands as a Jew what many of us have learned as Catholics: that the genius of the West is its moral genius, which was bequeathed to humanity through Moses on Mount Sinai and nourished by Christianity. Any conservatism which fails to face up to this one fundamental fact is simply a variant form of liberalism and doomed to be defeated by the real liberals anytime there is a contest….

The genius of this country, the main reason it could accommodate so many disparate peoples into one unified social fabric lay primarily in the ability of its institutions to incorporate the only source of unity in this world, namely the moral law, into the fabric of its culture…

Born in 1946, [Feder] grew up with the conviction that a political system compatible with his religious beliefs was something eminently doable. It worked then, he tells us; it can work again. The system he proposes is not only possible; it is the only possible system. The Republican Party would do well to sit up and listen. There is no social progress outside the moral law.

(Jones is quoting Pius XI in that last sentence.) This summarizes much of what I’ve been getting at in the “liberal conservative” series: not just a call for a personal reliance on the moral law, but the necessity of a cultural acknowledgement of the moral law in any effort to conserve American institutions.

Another essay, “Surviving the Sixties: How Cults Came About,” by Thomas W. Case, is an excellent addition to the attempt to make sense of the strange cultural revolution that overtook this country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s actually the opening chapter of a book about cults, Mind-Forged Manacles: Cults and Spiritual Bondage, which appears to be out of print, although it can be had on Amazon and no doubt elsewhere.

I was never a leading agent in the formless mess of the 1960s…but I was right on the spot, creating it, loving or hating every minute of it. And if there was anything good in what we did—I’m thinking of serious (if unconventional) spiritual searches, poetry and poetic lyrics, the best rock music of the century, honest dreams for a harmonious and peaceful world, intense searches for perfect love—the larger contemporary society has thrown it away while it has embraced our drugs, our selfishness, and our sexual immorality. It has taken to its heart everything we did wrong and nothing we did right, perhaps because what we did right was mostly subtle and mostly a dream. It wasn’t marketable.

As T-Bone Burnett put it in a song called “The Sixties”: “Keep all the bad, destroy the good.” I would add that there really wasn’t all that much that was truly good, either (where is the really first-rate art other than rock music produced by the revolutionary culture?) and that there were some decidedly evil things on the loose, a point which Case gets to later:

Something went wrong in the early 1960s, and I don’t know why. If we search out the philosophical corruption stemming from Germany with Kant and his progeny or look to the long breakup of Christendom over four centuries or look at ugly twentieth century changes in art and architecture and high-brow music, we will find a wealth of causes, as we see all of it percolate down from the academies and the coffee houses to the ordinary citizen. But why did teenagers stop going steady in rural towns all over America in the 1960s? Why did they stop preparing for marriage? Was it Nietzsche or LSD or the devil himself who finally broke through the firm tribal customs of small town America? Or was it Vietnam?

All of the above, I suppose, and the point has been made many, many times that the virtues of pre-revolution America were pretty fragile. But Case is one of the few writers on this topic who seems to think, as I do, that the late ‘60s in particular—I’m talking about 1968-1969—were a very dark time. Joan Didion is another: read the first essay in her collection The White Album for a sense of what those last few years of the ‘60s felt like to a lot of us. That could be dismissed as a subjective view based on my own struggles, or Didion’s, or Case’s, but I would argue, of course, that the perception of darkness was objectively accurate (and no small contributor to my problems at the time). Most people who lived through that period seem to think of it as a brief taste of paradise. I couldn’t disagree more. A while back my wife and I started to watch the movie Woodstock, I suppose in a moment of nostalgia. I had to turn it off after twenty minutes or so; it was a bit like watching the early moments of a horror movie, as the characters enter the trap which the killer has set for them.

Things lightened up a bit after 1970; I suppose the moment of greatest struggle had passed.


Sunday Night Journal — January 7, 2007

The Liberal Conservative (3)

Here is a shoe. It fits far too many conservatives, I’m afraid, although we don’t like to admit we’re wearing it. Of course it fits most Americans in general, but principled conservatism, and still less Christian faith attempting to work in the world, must find a way to get rid of it, and to begin the attempt to undo some of the damage it’s done.

In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn recounts a series of reflections prompted by one of the movies shown in the camp every few years. The movie was about sports, and, as terrible as the camp was, it produced and in fact almost compelled, in the right sort of person, reflection:

…from the screen they kept drumming into the audience the moral of the film: the result is what counts…

..And you kept thinking about it on your bunk. And Monday morning out in the line-up. And you could keep thinking about it as long as you wanted. And where else could you have concentrated on it like that? And slow clarity descended into your brain…

He recounts the gradual encroachment of the idea into the Russian mind, and then:

…from all kinds of socialists, and most of all from the most modern, infallible, and intolerant Teaching, which consists of this one thing only: They result is what counts! It is important to forge a fighting Party! And to seize power! And to hold on to power! And to remove all enemies! And to conquer in pig iron and steel! And to launch rockets!

And though for this industry and for these rockets it was necessary to sacrifice the way of life, and the integrity of the family, and the spiritual health of the people, and the very soul of our fields and forests and rivers—to hell with them! The result is what counts!

But that is a lie!

Substitute “pragmatists” for “socialists,” and remove the reference to the Party, and it’s hard to see how one could quarrel with this is as an indictment of the present state of things in the United States and the industrialized world in general.

I consider romantic nostalgia for the pre-industrial world something to be avoided. But that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been changes for the worse, and you don’t have to look back very far at all to see it. Even in my lifetime—which, though I am not young, does not encompass the pre-industrial era—there has been a palpable decline in “the integrity of the family, and the spiritual health of the people.” (The forests are doing well enough as museums and scenery, but as for the fields, they are practically empty, and the connection between them and the food on our tables is only mythological in the minds of most people.)

Most conservatives have always acknowledged the principle that, in the words of Pope JPII, “there are many human needs which find no place on the market.” But the principle remained an abstraction in the hurly-burly of political life, especially when the opposition was more or less socialist. The predation, the commercialization, the inanities, the saturation marketing of big business were perhaps something to be sighed over—but, after all, prosperity is fundamentally a good thing, and conservatives are rightly prejudiced in favor of liberty, even when we aren’t entirely pleased with its fruits.

The time is past when that response is adequate. With corporations increasingly able and willing to sell—not just to sell, but to market with the utmost cunning and aggression—anything to anybody, and to exert the considerable power of their wealth and propaganda on behalf of “progressive” causes which attack religion, the family and indeed the person at the root, it’s time for some sort of definite resistance. There should be the potential here for alliances with political liberals in limiting corporate power, although I’m not sure how much interest “social issue” liberals have in doing such a thing now that corporations are increasingly on their side.

Solzhenitsyn goes on to say:

No one is going to argue. It is pleasant to win. But not at the price of losing one’s human countenance.

Can we really look around at our society and say it is not in danger (at least) of losing its human countenance?