Sunday Night Journal 2010 Feed

Sunday Night Journal, August 26, 2018

I had intended to write about something else today, a couple of somethings else, actually, but was occupied with other things well into the evening, and in any case I would have a very hard time focusing on anything but the letter released yesterday by Archbishop Vigano. Surely you've heard the story. If not, here is what I think is the first report. One of the first, anyway. Naturally the factions went to war immediately, either believing Vigano's assertions and supporting him, or disbelieving them and attacking him. I don't think you need for me to cover the arguments and the evidence and the parties involved. I'm not a journalist, and there are plenty of them, professional and amateur, doing that job, and you can find their work online in an instant. So I thought I would just state my personal reaction.

Then I wrote a thousand words of personal reaction. Then I threw them away. So these two paragraphs are all there's going to be for a Sunday Night Journal this week. I'll say this much: I think Vigano is most likely telling the truth, so at first I was excited to think that rumored facts were finally going to be dragged into the light of day. But the most likely outcome is no real "outcome" at all. Just the further escalation of the factional war and the further deterioration and demoralization of much of the Church. 

Is the Future Here to Stay?

Sunday Night Journal — January 2, 2011

Here I am, writing on the second day of a year which would once have seemed impossibly far in the future to me, and which I would have expected to be a very different place, more “futuristic” in what is now itself an antique sense of that word. When I was a teenager reading science fiction in the early and middle 1960s, even Orwell’s 1984 seemed distant enough that one could imagine his vision coming to pass—that is, there still seemed time enough for those massive changes to occur. (Of course I was looking at the idea of “twenty years” through the eyes of one who had lived fewer years and could remember fewer still, so it seemed a far longer time to me than it does now.)

The science fiction writers, middle-aged men (and a few women) with a longer perspective, nevertheless still apparently saw the year 2000 as being far enough into the future to serve as a canvas on which all sorts of technological and social changes could be painted. Most famously, Arthur C. Clarke postulated a permanent moon base and easy airline-style travel to and from it, and saw these as marking the end of humanity’s childhood. Now we are ten years past that, and in the most fundamental ways our society has not really changed substantially. Technologically, there has been less development than expected in some areas—air and space travel—and more in others, mainly electronics, and specifically in digital electronics, which now allow us to hold in one hand more computing power than could be found in an entire floor of an early computer installation. (I’m particularly conscious of this because I entered the computing field just as the personal computer was moving out of the hands of hobbyists and into the hands of ordinary people, beginning the revolution which is still in progress.) Socially and politically, there have been many changes, some good—the end of legal racial segregation—and some bad—the terrible weakening of marriage, and its almost complete collapse in some segments of society. (I’m inclined to think the bad outweighs the good, but that’s another topic.)

But those changes have not produced a world that would be unrecognizable or disorienting to a person transported abruptly from 1965 to 2011. Some details would be startling—the mp3 player in place of the transistor radio, for instance—but the fundamental structures and mechanisms of society would be more or less the same. This is perhaps a bit surprising not only to those of us who remember the future imagined in the mid-20th century, but to another group with which I’ve also had something in common: the apocalyptics. I don’t mean those Christian groups who believe that the end of the world is very near, but others who believe that our industrial-democratic civilization will inevitably collapse in the fairly near future. You can find these all over the political spectrum, from environmentalists who believe that technologists are destroying the plant to technologists who believe environmentalists are destroying civilization. (For the record, I think both have a point.) And in the space of a year or two we went from having a large number of people saying that the apocalypse was not coming but actually in progress during the Bush administration, to an equally large (or at least equally loud) group saying the same about the Obama administration. (For the record, I think both have a point.)

The apocalyptics, too, have been around for a while—as long as the things they worry about. I remember some of this sort of thing from the 1960s, and quite a lot of it from the 1970s, when the term “survivalist” became familiar to us. And of course from 1945 until the end of the Soviet Union everyone, at least in the industrialized world, had a perfectly rational fear of a nuclear apocalypse.

Underlying much of this alarm, I think, is a sense that this can’t go on forever. The civilization we know is very new, in historical terms. For several thousand years, the basic circumstances of life had changed very little, and for much longer than that in societies that did not develop agriculture. But the industrial revolution turned things upside down in roughly a hundred years. In 1820 it was just getting under way; by 1920, it had made a new world. Most of what shapes this thing we call “the modern world” have been in place since 1920. The distance between societies with and without the telephone, for instance, is far greater than the distance between “hello central” telephony and the hand-held smartphone. If you pick any year after 1800 or so and look forward fifty years, you find a society very much changed, often by the introduction of some technology which enables man to do things never done before. This holds until roughly 1930, when the pace of fundamental technological change slows down: except for television and computers, all the major technological components of our contemporary society are there and in fairly widespread use (and radio performed much of the same function that television does today). The difference between, say, 1870 and 1920 is far greater than the difference between 1950 and 2000.

And similar observations apply in politics and economics. So are we entering a new equilibrium? Is this the point at which the future, a phrase which has for almost a hundred years now suggested a much different and much better world, signifies more or less a continuation of the present, as it did for thousands of years?

I’m no historian but I don’t know where one would look in history for another example of change of such simultaneous speed and scale, change that alters the fundamental conditions of life. The pace of change has been so rapid that it’s almost redundant to say the situation has been unstable. Any person who gives the matter much thought at all must recognize this, to feel that the instability continues, and to wonder if the speeding vehicle might not spin out of control at any time and end up overturned in a ditch, or smashed against a wall.

It seems very likely to me that present conditions—advanced technology, great material wealth for large numbers of people, rulers chosen by the people—will not last for more than fifty or a hundred years, and that they might come to an end in one of two different ways (apart from the Second Coming and the end of the world as we know it).

One: the complex technical, social, financial, and political machinery might break down, for reasons either external (e.g. the end of cheap energy) or internal (e.g. a collapse of morality and discipline rendering nations incapable of maintaining the institutions that make the system work). There is a very respectable body of Catholic opinion that actively desires this result, not as an unwilled catastrophe but as a decision, and envisions a return to agriculture and handicrafts. I’m very sympathetic to this movement, but have never quite been able to commit myself to it, because I don’t see how it can happen without great hardship. At any rate, it doesn’t require much imagination to envision something like this happening; from a simple common sense standpoint it seems more likely than not, and I suppose there are a hundred books published every year explaining that it must and will happen unless dramatic action is taken to prevent it.

Two: the complex technical, social, financial, and political machinery might succeed all too well in producing the society toward which it naturally tends, a society something like that foreseen in Brave New World, in which most of mankind is emptied as far as possible of all that is genuinely human and becomes a slave to pleasure and to those who control the availability of pleasure for purposes of their own. In this soft totalitarianism, the individual would surrender all other freedoms in favor of the freedom to seek the maximum personal pleasure, under the control and guardianship of the government and large corporations. This requires the weakening and suppression of the family and religion, and I admit I fail to see how it could come to pass and endure for more than a very short time. But it is certainly what some people want, though they would not describe it in the same terms I have, and they have made some progress toward it.

I used to be more alarmed by these possibilities than I am now, but pessimism has jaded me somewhat—pessimism, and the continual advance of the forces of disintegration which often seem unconquerable, because most people have already accepted them. I can still be amazed that we are taking seriously the logically absurd idea that a man can marry a man or a woman marry a woman, but I don’t think we are likely to stop it from assuming the force of law. The contradiction is to be removed by a redefinition of the word “marriage,” and no matter what is done with the word, reality will not change, and the union of husband and wife will always be something different from the association of “partners” (wretched clinical term). But it’s difficult to see what reason and persuasion and political activism can do in the face of such…I was about to say such madness, but it is the logical result of a process that has been under way for several generations, and not many people are willing to reconsider those old mistakes about sex and marriage and children.

Still, the feeling that this can’t go on is not necessarily correct. Perhaps it is at least possible that we can carry on enjoying the benefits of technological and social progress without either destroying them through folly or leaping into the abyss where souls die. If this can happen, it requires a repudiation of certain aspects of the Enlightenment and its offshoots: of utilitarianism, of the philosophical silence at the heart of classical liberalism, of everything that encourages the human person to see himself as the center of an ever-expanding sphere of personal liberation, and government as the guarantor of that expansion.

When I was a new convert, I read a three-volume history of the Church by Philip Hughes. The volumes were subtitled The World in Which the Church Was Founded, The Church and the World the Church Created, and The Revolt Against the Church: Aquinas to Luther. Since the time of Luther, the revolt and the arguments on which it was based have continued and advanced. The Church has not always been right on everything in these arguments; she was right on spiritual matters, certainly, but not always on questions of the management of worldly life. But the Church has learned, and now sees the strengths and weakness of the modern world more clearly than that world itself does. It remains to be seen whether the world can learn.

The Heart of Christmas

Sunday Night Journal — December 26, 2010

When I was a child, Christmas was the most wonderful thing in the world to me. The only thing that even came close to matching its appeal was a trip to Florida, to the white sand and blue-green waters of the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Not surprisingly, I was more interested in Santa Claus and the presents he brought me than in the Nativity of Christ. I learned fairly early that this was not really the correct way to think or feel about Christmas, but I couldn’t help it. Mary and Joseph and the baby and the stable and the manger and the shepherds and the angels and the Wise Men were all very sweet, but a little off to one side in the Christmas picture, not nearly as entrancing as the Christmas tree and the magical surprise of the presents that would appear around it on Christmas morning.

And yet I was conscious that without the Nativity the rest of it was meaningless and without real delight. When I say I was conscious of this, I don’t mean that I reasoned it out in a chain of logic—B is dependent on A, and therefore if I want A I must also have B—or put it into words for myself, but that I perceived, directly, that the things I loved about Christmas could not be separated from the event it commemorates. From the time I could read I felt that there was something amiss when “Season’s Greetings” was substituted for “Merry Christmas.” (Even in the 1950s, there was sometimes an impulse to make “the holidays” a generic secular winter festival; it would make an interesting subject of study to see just how far back that goes in popular culture and advertising, and how it developed.)

There was a seasonal or holiday magazine of sorts that appeared in our house sometimes. It was called something Ideals: that is, Christmas Ideals, Easter Ideals, and so on. I mainly remember the Christmas one. It was something more than an ordinary magazine, much heavier and thicker, really a sort of book, and as far as I can remember it consisted mainly of pictures, stories, and poems associated with the holiday. The Christmas one of course relied heavily on snow and evergreens and all the other trappings of Christmas in the northern parts of the U.S. and Europe. I loved it and pored over it again and again in the weeks before Christmas for the pleasure of tasting that sense of magical expectation that anything connected with Christmas gave me. Some of the pieces were of the generic winter variety: a snowy landscape with no hint of red and green to suggest Christmas, a description of a holiday gathering which did not name the holiday. Living in a hot climate, I felt a romantic attraction toward snowy landscapes, but in this context I felt that something was missing if they were no more than that.

And the music: I always felt that “Winter Wonderland” had something missing, but I think I was twelve or fourteen before I realized that it is not in fact a Christmas song. I never even much cared for the Santa Claus songs which left everything but Santa out of the picture.

I knew instinctively that the story of the Nativity, with all its implications about the nature of the world and our place in it, was the heart of Christmas. Maybe I preferred to look at the face, but I knew, unconsciously, that it was dependent on the heart for its life.

And this was true whether or not I recognized it. Those who celebrate a Christmas without Christ don’t recognize it, and don’t believe the connection between the two is a necessary one. But I’m pretty sure they’re mistaken. We can still see Christ in the popular American commercial Christmas by his absence; it’s as if all the a-religious trappings outline his form. If you try to imagine a Christmas which had never been founded in the Bethlehem story at all, you get something very different.

The secularizers who for various purposes of their own—anti-Christian or merely commercial—wish to eliminate Christmas in favor of a featureless Holiday that commemorates nothing in particular may eventually succeed. But that Holiday will inevitably be dull in comparison with what it replaces, and probably increasingly squalid as well, given the general drift of our society. The particular festive spirit that animates Christmas is a product of hope, a hope that cannot be entirely defeated by the world, because it looks toward something beyond the world. But anything which does not look beyond the world will sooner or later be defeated by it.

As with the holiday, so with the culture at large. The increasingly post-Christian culture of America and Europe are nevertheless more deeply rooted in Christianity than is usually recognized by its opponents (and some of its adherents). It’s at least theoretically possible that this culture will eventually get Christianity out of its system, out of the roots of its consciousness, and negligible as a cultural force, reduced to the private practices of an eccentric few. This would take several generations, and I don’t think it will happen, but it certainly could. And if it did, the resulting culture would, like Christmas, lose the hope and the humanism which had been its legacy from Christianity. As with Christmas, if the heart were to stop beating, the body would die.

We have seen the prospects for that new culture already, in the totalitarian nightmares of communism and fascism, in the wasteland of pleasure-and-power-seeking which is offered as the good life by much of the entertainment and advertising produced by capitalism, in the drab materialist collectivism of “Imagine” and the absurd materialist egoism of Atlas Shrugged.

Perhaps it’s not even too much to say that if Christmas were to die, the remains of Christian culture would die, too, and with it that softness toward the individual human person—imperfect, of course, and slow to develop—that has characterized it. As long as the mad mixture of the very earthly and the very heavenly which is Christmas—the poor and vulnerable newborn baby among the animals on the one hand,  choirs of angels on the other—remains at the heart of the holiday, and the holiday remains very much alive in the culture, the natural coldness and brutality of the human race is always challenged from within the culture itself. Should that challenge be removed, no one would be more surprised by the result than those who worked to remove it. They might not live to see that result, but if their souls were not lost altogether, part of their purgatory might be the knowledge of what they had done to their descendants.

Waiting for Joy

Sunday Night Journal — December 20, 2010

One of the more irritating ways of dismissing the major Christian holidays is to declare that they “celebrate the turning of the seasons” or something of that sort. You know: Christmas marks the winter solstice by placing light and music at the darkest time of year; Easter is about the renewal of life in spring; etc. It’s not that these are wrong, and it is very fitting that these celebrations are placed where they are in the calendar (for the northern hemisphere, and especially for northern latitudes). But they are only a part of the truth, and when put forward as explanations they distort the truth by putting the lesser above the greater.

To treat these holidays as if their purpose is to mark the passage of the seasons is to deny their real meaning. It is a more accurate view of the matter to say that the seasons are used to emphasize the events commemorated by Christmas and Easter than the other way around. The traditional European Christian calendar, with Advent beginning in late autumn, Christmas near the winter solstice, Lent in deep winter, Easter beginning near the spring equinox, and the rest of the year designated as “ordinary time” is a way of organizing the time marked by the passage of the earth around the sun. It sanctifies the seasons but does not make them objects of worship or near-worship. It is not drawn down into them but draws them up into itself. It uses the cycle of seasons to point toward the end of all cycles. Both Christmas and Easter commemorate events that happened once and only once in all of history. And their appearance in history constitutes the beginning of the end of the cycles in which we live.

There are people who are naturally disposed to look on the brighter and warmer side of the earthly cycle, and those who are naturally disposed to look on the darker and colder side: optimists and pessimists, the sanguine and the melancholic. The sanguine can always say, at the winter solstice: the days will now begin to get longer, and summer is coming; things will get better. The melancholic can always say, at the summer solstice: the days will now begin to get shorter, and winter is coming; things will get worse. Each appears to have more or less the same degree of justification for his views. It’s the nature of life in this world that things change, that the very worst situation will either get better or come to an end, and that the very best situation will either get worse or come to an end.

But in the long run the melancholy view of this earthly life is the true one. Yes, in the day-to-day and year-to-year course of life, the results may be about even: day follows night, night follows day. Summer follows winter, winter follows summer. But life and death do not join that dance. Death follows life, and that’s the end of it. In the long run time is the destroyer. Every pleasure, every good thing, will disappear into the past of the one who experiences it, never to be retrieved. New joys may come, but they won’t last, and the time will come when those that are passing will not be replaced by new ones. Eventually the one who experienced them will also pass away into time, and all his experiences disappear with him.

Man is in love, and loves what vanishes:
what more is there to say?

The melancholic is one who cannot ever entirely forget that time and death are waiting for everything. It is this that make even the sweetest of earthly joys bittersweet to him—this, and the yearning for a joy that neither disappoints nor passes away.

The joy of the melancholic is always in the shadow of his knowledge that it can never be complete or permanent. “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will,” says the country singer Mac Sledge in that wonderful movie Tender Mercies. And who would be so foolish as to tell him he should? Even a life miraculously fortunate and untroubled will come to an end. A young man wins the heart of the beautiful woman for whom he yearns, and promises to love her forever. But even if they live long and happily together, the end will come. They will lose the glow of youth and fade together, growing weak and wrinkled and slow. And no matter how much grace and devotion they bring to those years, time is bearing down on them, and will bring his scythe down to separate them.

The melancholic doesn’t celebrate the seasons so much as accept them, knowing that each brings its pleasures but that none of those will last. He prepares himself to let each one go even as it arrives. And he does this with everything in life.

But if Christianity is true then the melancholic is wrong in the longest run of all, and the sanguine are right. The significance of Christianity is not that it celebrates the cycles but that it ends them, and not by extinction, but by fulfillment. It promises joy that does not disappoint or fade away, and a life that is not closed by death.

It may appear to the sanguine that the melancholic lacks the capacity for joy. I suppose this is sometimes the case, and it’s a frightening thought, because for anyone to lose that capacity truly and completely would be to lose his soul. But I think more often the melancholic is wounded: he will no longer give his heart to a lover who has betrayed him more than once and will certainly do so again. Fault him for being weak or timid, too easily defeated, if you like, but you can’t say he’s unreasonable.

But he ought to celebrate Christmas without any such reservation, because it points toward an eternal Christmas. The lover will return, forever faithful and forever beautiful. And if the melancholic seemed in this life to lack the capacity for joy, well, just wait until you meet him in the new creation.


The End of Literary Culture (part 2)

Sunday Night Journal — December 13, 2010

The flight from Christianity has been a prominent feature of Western intellectual life since the 18th century, and it can be said that the anti-culture has existed since then. Mockery has always been an important part of its response to the faith it rejects. Mockery is a good thing as far as it goes; there is much in the world that deserves it, and much in the Church (or churches). Christian artists have always known how to mock those who speak in the name of God without mocking God, but the anti-culture does not know that distinction. Where the Christian tradition is concerned, it operates chiefly with mockery, sarcasm, and irony, with occasional lapses into violent rage (which seem to be growing more frequent).

Mockery is required because one cannot seriously engage Christian thought, and the entire Christian worldview, without realizing that it is a deep and deeply coherent understanding of what mankind is, why we exist, and where we are going. Such an engagement does not necessarily lead to conversion, but it leads almost necessarily to respect and to some degree of sympathy, which is not helpful when waging war. Moreover, it requires thought and effort. It is much easier and more effective (seemingly) to assume all such matters settled long ago, that all of it is myth and superstition now disproved by “science.”

Mockery is the natural expression of this attitude; one does not argue with the absurd. In our time it is less likely to be active wit (as in Mark Twain, who is funny even to those who disagree profoundly with him) than the pose of wit: the sneer, the smirk, the merely snide. An excellent new word has appeared in recent years to denote the verbal equivalent of these: “snark.” I don’t know its origin, but it suggests “snide,” “sneer,” and “bark,” making it an excellent name for the thing itself, which is a bit of quick, casual, and petty meanness, not deeply significant but annoying. One disagrees with a politician’s views; one snarks about his haircut. (Or, in Sarah Palin’s case, the names of her children.)

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, snarks are not literature. But the snarky tone is widespread in the literature and especially in the criticism of our day. I won’t say it is dominant, because I don’t read enough of it to make that judgment. I will say that it is common enough that I ceased many years ago to find bookstores the alluring places they once had been. Aside from the preponderance of frothy popular titles that I always ignored, far too many of the serious books seemed to come from the anti-culture, or at least to be heavily influenced by it: the snarky tone, the ill-concealed desire to reduce the stature of everything that came before the 1960s, the heavy-handed but light-headed leftist political attitude applied retroactively to the past two thousand years. I find the influential reviews mostly a waste of time (Benjamin Schwartz in The Atlantic is a happy exception, and one of the main reasons I keep my subscription to that magazine). I have fewer friends with literary interests, and those of my friends with whom I still enjoy talking about books are not part of the literary establishment. Libraries have remained as attractive and fascinating as ever: it’s easy to walk past the new-book shelves and lose oneself in the stacks. But the only booksellers that intrigue me are secondhand stores where one may hope to find gems from a generation or two ago.

Having taken up a posture of disdain toward the Christian tradition, the anti-culture finds itself needing to mock not only the Christian faith itself but all those absolutes which are associated philosophically with the tradition. (I should pause here to mention that what I’m referring to as the Christian tradition is not only Christian, but also Jewish and Greco-Roman. And many other things, but especially those. When I speak of the Christian tradition, as distinct from Christian doctrine, or of Western culture, I intend to include those.) And so the anti-culture has difficulty using words like beauty, truth, and goodness without irony. It knows them, of course—you can’t be human without recognizing them and being drawn to them—but it has difficulty in talking or thinking very seriously about them, because one cannot do so without coming up against the question of their objective validity—whether or not they refer to anything other than personal opinion (that semi-sacred thing)—which in turn leads to the question of their source and authority.

But these are the matters toward which all serious thought naturally gravitates. “Gravitate” is the apt word: we are pulled toward them, as lesser cosmic bodies are pulled toward greater, and we can only hold ourselves back from them by effort. More importantly, we gravitate toward the belief that those three things—beauty, truth, and goodness—do in fact exist as standards of judgment independent of our own minds.

In spite of its bourgeois-baiting (now the most tiresome cliché of all) and revolutionary posturing, the anti-culture is fundamentally materialistic. I now return to Eliot as quoted by Epstein:

…[contemporary literature’s] tendency is to encourage its readers to get what they can out of life while it lasts, to miss no ‘experience’ that presents itself, and to sacrifice themselves, if they make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future.

This keeps its literature confined within limits which make it unsuitable as a dwelling for the human soul.

And this is appropriate, because it denies the objective reality of spirit. Even when it uses the language of spirit, it adapts more than it adopts, as in the “spiritual but not religious” self-description favored by many. This spirituality is in general more accurately described as emotionality, because it is primarily concerned with maintaining a balanced and orderly emotional life: a worthy enough effort, but one concerned only with living comfortably in this world. It characteristically borrows religious doctrines meant by those who formulated them as referring to an objectively existing spiritual order, and treats them as meaningful only as aspects of psychology.

(Who hasn’t heard this done with “The kingdom of heaven is within you”? I happened to run across a good example as I was writing this, in an obituary: “[she] seemed increasingly embedded in what might be described as the ‘communion of saints,’ relying on those around her to provide the spiritual support she so badly needed and desired.” Well that, of course, is only a small part at best of what the communion of saints means to a Christian, and it’s clear in the context that the spiritual support referred to is primarily emotional support.)

In its need to escape from the gravitational force of the Christian tradition, the anti-culture attempts to escape from the human. I don’t know a great deal about non-European art, but I venture to say that as a producer of humanistic art—art that is specifically interested in the phenomenon of the human—the Christian culture of the past thousand years has no equal. That humanism appears to be dying. Abstract art, music without recognizable structure, free verse of almost impenetrable obscurity, all have their aesthetic merits (there are works in all these styles that I like a great deal), but they do not point a way forward, but rather represent exhaustion.

Eliot spoke of the Incarnation as having bisected history. It is now impossible to disconnect consideration of the ultimate questions from consideration of Christianity. Christianity is too big, its answers too profound, to be ignored. And so the dismissal of Christianity is often, in a post-Christian culture, the dismissal of any possibility of ultimate meaning. However much it may try, the world cannot will itself into a condition in which Christianity has not been. The word cannot be unsaid, though in principle it could in time be forgotten.

I speak not as a professional with a wide acquaintance of contemporary literary culture, but as an amateur who has concluded that it isn’t worth the trouble to make that acquaintance. It’s not that the literature is so bad; most of the literature of any time is not very good. It’s the particular way in which it fails, by looking in every possible direction except up, inducing a sense of oppression, a sort of modified claustrophobia, such as one might experience in a large open room in which the ceiling is only an inch above one’s head.

The End of Literary Culture (Part 1)

Sunday Night Journal — December 5, 2010

(I started this piece last Sunday, and had to stop writing to deal with a software emergency at work. But I had already seen that I was probably not going to be able to handle the subject in a blog post. I took it up again today, and once again had to stop and address a problem at work. But it had become clear that I wasn’t going to be able to fit the topic into a blog post of a thousand words or so. The more I wrote, the more the topic demanded that I write. And so I’m calling this part 1. It stops rather abruptly, and will resume next Sunday.  It really should be an essay, and perhaps will find its way into my book.  Thanks to Toby Danna for posting on Facebook the link to the Commentary piece which set me to thinking about this.)

How many people know that the United States has a poet laureate? Of those, how many can name him, or at least would recognize the name if they saw it? (It is “him” right now, so that eliminates half, at least, of our poets.) Of those, how many have read any of his work? My first thought in formulating those questions was that they would describe a progressively smaller group of people. But having written them out now, I think most people who would be able to answer “yes” to the first question would also be able to answer “W. S. Merwin” to the second question, and “yes” to the third.

In any case that group is quite small. Within the United States, one person in a thousand? With a population of three hundred million, that would give a number of roughly 300,000, which seems perhaps a little high to me, although I have no way of knowing whether it is. Surely not more than a million, anyway.

Perhaps more significantly, I would guess that the group of people who know those facts overlaps very heavily with the group of those who are writing or have made some attempt at writing serious literary poetry. In short: poetry in our time is of interest mainly to poets, and perhaps their friends and family.

In contrast, Joseph Epstein tells us in this recent Commentary piece that in 1956 T .S. Eliot lectured to an audience of 15,000 at the University of Minnesota. Even if we assume that some large percentage of those did not really know or care very much about Eliot’s work, they did at least know that he was a famous poet and critic, and they felt at least the they ought to care about such things, or, at very least, wanted to appear to care. Eliot was a celebrity. And he was not an entertainer, playing to the tastes of the crowd: he stood for the highest standards, and his poetry and criticism were austere. Everyone with a little education knew his name, even if they weren’t quite sure who he was and had never read a word he wrote. Bob Dylan wrote him, along with Ezra Pound, into a song (“Desolation Row”)  in 1965, when it was still possible to assume that a mass audience would recognize the names.

There is no comparable figure today. There is no one of his intellectual and artistic stature, and if there were he would not be as widely known as Eliot was in 1956. There are many reasons for the near-extinction of poetry as an art for anyone other than a few specialists, and for the fact that poetry has suffered a greater decline than fiction. But the things for which Eliot was famous—poetry and criticism—are extreme indicators of a trend which has been clear for some time in literature in general. As Epstein says:

Understatedly spectacular is the way Eliot’s career strikes one today, at a time when, it is fair to say, poetry, even to bookish people, is of negligible interest and literary criticism chiefly a means to pursue academic tenure. Literary culture itself, if the sad truth be known, seems to be slowly but decisively shutting down.

I believe this is true. Literary culture is not dead, but it is either dying or becoming something different, which amounts to much the same thing. There are many reasons for this, and Epstein names the obvious ones:

…the distractions of the Internet, poor rudimentary education, the vanquishing of seriousness in university literature departments owing to the intellectually shallow enticements of modish subjects, and the allure of the pervasive entertainments of popular culture.

But there is a more fundamental problem:

Although none of these things help,  literary culture is, I believe, shutting down chiefly because literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.

And here is his diagnosis:

For Eliot, literature was a moral enterprise, but moral in a way that purely secular moralists—the moralists of economics, of social science, of contemporary politics—cannot hope to grasp. He wasn’t accusing modern writers of immorality, or even amorality, but of ignorance “of our most fundamental and important beliefs; and that in consequence [contemporary literature’s] tendency is to encourage its readers to get what they can out of life while it lasts, to miss no ‘experience’ that presents itself, and to sacrifice themselves, if they make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future.” Not, any of this, good enough.

I think this is exactly right, and would carry it further: the current intellectual climate is extremely moralistic, but in a way that is antagonistic to what Eliot still felt justified in calling “our most fundamental and important beliefs.” The gap between the contemporary literary community and that of Eliot’s time is in part the product of something more active than mere neglect, mere failure to preserve: it involves a conscious act of destruction.

The moralism of contemporary intellectual culture, the culture which is the ungrateful inheritor of the Western literary and philosophical tradition, produces and is produced by an attitude of hostility and skepticism toward that very tradition. It is a broad movement, much larger than literary culture specifically. It is amorphous, and has no agreed-upon name. I’ve sometimes called it the cultural left, meaning that it is a cultural movement which is primarily concerned with reforming or destroying cultural institutions, as the political left is concerned with reforming or destroying political institutions. (In both cases destruction is supposed to be followed by new construction, but those plans are usually somewhat vague.) And I’ve sometimes called it the anti-culture, because its defining characteristic is opposition to the culture in which it is embedded. I think I’ll stick with this second term here.

I don’t mean that all intellectuals are part of this anti-culture, but that it is dominant enough to set the characteristic tone of intellectual life. It is strong in the academy, but that doesn’t mean that all academics are part of it. Only a minority, I suspect embrace its more explicit anti-Westernism, but most are affected by it and have made its pieties—“diversity,” multiculturalism, feminism, etc—their own. And those who oppose it will be conscious of swimming upstream.

The anti-culture is rooted in social-political progressivism, by which I mean the view that history is a record of progress toward a goal of pure freedom and equality (a contradictory dream, but that’s another story), in which effort we are the latest and greatest workers. It sees that the history of the West is full of violence and injustice, which is true enough, but it sees little else. It sees history as a power struggle, and is very much a partisan on one side of that struggle, and therefore it is narrow. It allows little or no room for balance and perspective, or any real sympathy with the past. It is sympathetic to the oppressed, or those counted as oppressed; that qualification is necessary because some of those who were in fact mistreated do not merit much sympathy or attention—persecuted Christians, for instance—because they were allied with non-progressive forces. But it has little interest in the broad humane approach which seeks to comprehend the past in its living complexity, its tangle of good and evil. In its eyes Western culture is either a criminal to be prosecuted, or a fool to be scorned or pitied.

When it reads the literature of the past thousand years or so, it sits in judgment on what it encounters. It looks for and praises what seems to anticipate its own views. It looks for and condemns what offends those views. It makes compliments of the words “subversive” and “transgressive” because it admires whatever undermines the existing order, even if it is in itself repulsive, as in the case of de Sade. (It is not of course at all tolerant of subversion or transgression directed against itself).

The thing to which it is most hostile is exactly the transcendent moral dimension which Epstein describes. Let’s be plain: its chief enemy is the Christian faith, and in particular the Catholic Church, the oldest and largest and most intransigent of the institutions which embody that faith or which sprang from it.

(to be continued)

What Happened at Cana

Sunday Night Journal — November 7, 2010

(This will be brief, as I was out of town all weekend.)

I went to a wedding this weekend. As is often (or is it always?) the case at a Catholic wedding, one of the readings was the story of the wedding at Cana. I’ve always thought there was something odd about this story—I mean, apart from the fact that it is hardly normal for water to become wine so quickly, and with no grapes involved.

In the King James version:
And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.

In the New American version:
When the wine ran short, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” (And) Jesus said to her, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.”

“How does your concern affect me?” has always struck me as one of the low points in a translation which rarely rises to beauty. But no matter how it’s translated, there is an element of rebuff in Jesus’s reply, a bit short of “Go away and leave me alone,” but not very far short.

But that’s not the odd thing, or at least not the oddest. I realized, hearing this passage yesterday, that what’s always bothered me slightly about it is that it seems disconnected. There seems to be some missing dialog between what Jesus says and Mary’s response. He suggests pretty strongly, though not quite saying explicitly, that he doesn’t intend to do anything to help her. And her response? Not a word to him, just an order to the servants. She doesn’t answer him, he doesn’t seem to change his mind, and she tells the servants to do whatever he tells them without giving any indication that she knows what, if anything, he is going to do.

Something must have passed between them in the silence between his question and her response. What was what, and how was it conveyed? What changed his mind—if that’s what happened, if he wasn’t simply challenging her? Did he communicate to her that he would provide the wine, or simply that she should trust him? The latter seems a bit more likely to me, though of course one can only speculate—but it seems as if her instructions to the servants would have been more specific if she had known exactly what was going to happen. Did the look on his face tell her something, or did they have some means of reading each other that was more acute than the normal human ability to guess what someone whom we know well is thinking—something perhaps closer to telepathy?

However the two are mixed, there seems to be, on Mary’s part, some combination of trust and understanding, or perhaps I should say she understands that she must trust. Even if he told her what he was going to do, this is, as far as we know, his first miracle: she would have to trust that he could do it. At a minimum, she understands that she is to turn the matter over to him. The lesson for us is obvious, but maybe there’s something else here which is not quite so obvious: a glimpse of how accurate and intimate and beyond words may be the communication between two unfallen people. Unfallen, or redeemed.

The Difference

Sunday Night Journal — September 26,2010

We now have a Catholic radio station here: Archangel Radio, AM1410. It’s the creation in part of my fellow St. Lawrence (Fairhope, Alabama) parishioner Joe Roszkowski and broadcasts from an office in the parish center. Joe is a partner in one of the more successful restaurants in the area, the Original Oyster House. (That’s not the original Original Oyster House; the original Original Oyster House was mostly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the new one is a mile or so away from the old site, and on very high pilings.)

The station went on the air just last week. I don’t listen to the radio very much, and when I do it’s usually not AM, but I tuned in Friday afternoon. I was almost home, so I only had a few minutes to listen. It was some sort of call-in question-and-answer program, and when I tuned in the host (a priest, I think) was discussing with the caller the last days of St. Therese of Lisieux: the terrible agonies she suffered from the tuberculosis which killed her, and her effort to accept that suffering and offer it willingly to God.

There are a lot of small Christian radio stations in this area, and Archangel Radio was first intended to occupy this building: WLVV

It had previously housed another station which had also been badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina (like the Oyster House, it’s located on the Mobile Bay Causeway, which frequently gets flooded by hurricanes). But something went wrong with that deal, and the building went to another station. I pass the building most days on my way to or from work, and I had noticed recently that it now bore new call letters: WMOB, AM1360.

The Archangel program was winding up, and I thought of this other station. Since it was only a few clicks away, I tuned it in. I caught just a minute or so of the speaker making a concluding point having something to do with the Book of Life described in Revelation, and then his signoff: “This is Roland Dart, and you are born to win.”

What a contrast: agony, blood, sputum, suffocation on the Catholic side; on the other side, winning. I almost said “the American side,” which actually would be appropriate; I shouldn’t say “the Protestant side,” because the broadcast I was hearing was a very American form of Protestantism which is by no means approved by all Protestants.

There is a lot to admire in American evangelicalism, but this tendency to picture worldly success as a natural consequence of embracing the Gospel is not one of them. I had not heard of Roland Dart before that moment, and I don’t want to misjudge him, and perhaps his slogan is not meant to refer to worldly success. If he is any kind of Christian at all, he doesn’t mean only that. But at a minimum, it indicates a questionable emphasis. (Here is his web site, if you want to judge for yourself.)

One may hear, in evangelical circles, suffering viewed as a necessary trial and as something which makes one stronger, but I can’t recall encountering in any form of Protestantism the idea that suffering has a positive meaning in itself. That seems to me a mostly Catholic thing (I have to plead ignorance on Orthodox views).

Catholic emphasis on suffering can become morbid, and I can’t deny that a good bit of what I’ve seen in that respect—some of the art of the Renaissance, for instance—has struck me as excessive. But it’s an excess of something (paradoxically) healthy. Viewed simply as a matter of psychology, it’s a great benefit. We will all have pain in our lives, and the Catholic way of looking at it turns it into something we can give, a personal sacrifice that actually has an effect.

There is an element of sacrifice in every gift: in even the smallest, one has given up something of one’s own, a bit of time or money or effort, with the intent and hope of making someone else happy, at least for a moment. And in general a greater sacrifice is a greater gift (setting aside various forms of manipulation, which are not really gifts at all but attempts to control, or to purchase affection and gratitude). To be in physical or mental pain, and to offer that pain to God, as a gift and a prayer for not just the brief, but the eternal, happiness of those one loves...well, if there is another way of looking at suffering that could give it more meaning (for it is suffering that seems to be meaningless that is hardest to bear) and more assistance in bearing it, I can’t think of it. (I’ve written about this before; it’s something I often think about.)

As far as I know this idea is not found in Protestant thought generally, and that’s unfortunate. Perhaps it’s being rediscovered, as seems to be happening with some other Catholic ways of looking at the faith. It seems to me a very striking and significant difference. I don’t know that it necessarily involves in itself a serious doctrinal disagreement, but it certainly illustrates the way doctrinal differences can produce very different cultures of faith. Probably 80% or so of what Roland Dart believes is not seriously at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church, but that 20% can make a pretty big difference.

Resurrection Means Bodies

Sunday Night Journal — September 19, 2010

I finished reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope some weeks ago, and have been wanting to write about it, but having difficulty finding the time to do so. To let it be the subject of this week’s Sunday Night Journal seemed a way out of the impasse. But now that I have a few hours available, and the book in my hand, I find the task almost overwhelming. There’s so much in the book that is valuable that any review longer than “It’s good; you should read it,” seems misguided: an attempt to do too much, ending in doing too little. But I’ll give it a try.

I prefer to avoid learning anything much about the life and personality of an author when I first encounter him or her, because I don’t want to be prejudiced by such knowledge. Accordingly, I’ve resisted the temptation to look around on the net for any information about N.T. Wright beyond what I already knew: that he is the Anglican bishop of Durham, that he is a well-regarded biblical scholar and theologian, and that his work has had positive responses from Catholics such as Amy Welborn (I believe it was her review of this book that made me want to read it). On the basis of the book itself, I would add that he seems to have an Evangelical perspective, but with the Anglican inclusion of emphasis on sacraments. He seems to have a typically Evangelical definition of the word “church,” which is to say, a pretty broad one, of the “mere Christianity” sort. But apart from that, and apart from what strikes me as an over-hasty dismissal of the idea of purgatory, I don’t think there’s much here that is incompatible with Catholic teaching.

It’s important to establish that at the beginning, because Wright’s purpose in this book is to dismantle what he believes to be some seriously erroneous views about the ultimate destiny promised by Christianity. And I think he’s right. Like C.S. Lewis, whose influence on this book is clear from the title down through many details, his over-arching doctrinal views are derived from sources and directed toward conclusions which are held in common by most reasonably orthodox Christians.

What is it that Christians hope for? “To go to heaven when we die” would be the obvious immediate answer. And what or where is heaven? The answer to that is less ready to hand, because our notions of it are too vague. And that, says Wright, is because we have unconsciously adopted a too-spiritual view of it, and have lost our sense of the real meaning of resurrection and have begun to think in terms that are not specifically Christian at all, but rather are quite ordinary and widespread.

Most people in the ancient world, Wright says, would have found it not at all unsurprising to hear the followers of Jesus say that he continued to live in a spiritual form in a spiritual world. What was astonishing and in some sense offensive was the claim that he had come back to life in a physical body, albeit one with powers and qualities unknown to us. It is not the claim of “life after death” that scandalizes, but the claim of life renewed in a human body, in this world.

We are not to think of the next life as an escape from this one, of our souls escaping from the physical into the spiritual. The Christian hope is not that we will depart this world and that it will be discarded as being of no further use, having served its purpose in testing people so that they can be judged worthy of heaven or hell. Our hope is for the transformation of this world, and ourselves, into what they were always intended by God to be. As Wright says:

When St. Paul says, “We are citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t at all mean that when we’re done with this life we’ll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the savior, the Lord, Jesus the King…will come from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people. The key word here is transform…Jesus will not declare that present physicality is redundant and can be scrapped…. In a great act of power—the same power that accomplished Jesus’s own resurrection…he will change the present body into one that corresponds in kind to his own…this will take place within the context of God’s victorious transformation of the whole cosmos. (that last emphasis is mine).

Speaking of the passage in Revelation, Wright says …the image is that of marriage. the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband….This is the ultimate rejection of…every worldview that sees the final goal as the separation of the world from God, of the physical from the spiritual, of earth from heaven. It is the final answer to the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as in heaven.

Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated forever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth…they are different, radically different, but they are made for each other in the same way…as male and female.

What, then, is “heaven,” exactly?

…when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call time…. God’s space and ours—heaven and earth, in other words—are, though very different, not far away from one another….God’s space and ours interlock and intersect in a whole variety of ways even while they remain, for the moment at least, their separate and distinct identities and roles. One day…they will be joined in a quite new way, open and visible to one another, married together forever.

…This world [heaven] is different from ours (earth) but intersects with it in countless ways, not least in the inner lives of Christians themselves...

To fail to understand the difference between this cosmic resurrection and the conventional bland idea of “going to heaven when we die” is to fail to understand what Christian hope is all about, and therefore to get the message wrong in significant ways. Surprised by Hope is not, in general, impressive for its prose style, but there are some striking passages, one of which makes this point:

…if God’s good creation—of the world, of life as we know it, of our glorious and remarkable bodies, brains, and bloodstreams—really is good, and if God wants to reaffirm that goodness in a wonderful act of new creation at the last, then to see the death of the body and the escape of the soul as salvation is not simply slightly off course, in need of a few subtle alterations and modifications. It is totally and utterly wrong. It is colluding with death. It is conniving at death’s destruction of God’s good, image-bearing human creatures while consoling ourselves with the (essentially non-Christian and non-Jewish) thought that the really important bit of ourselves is saved from this wicked, nasty body and this sad, dark world of space, time, and matter! As we have seen, the whole of the Bible, form Genesis to Revelation, speaks out against such nonsense.

And what will this renewed and transformed creation, this earth-heaven, be like? Well, Wright doesn’t indulge in too much speculation on that score, and of course he’s right not to.

It is of course only through imagery, through metaphor and symbol, that we can imagine the new world that God intends to make. That is right and proper. All our language about the future…is like a set of signposts pointing into a bright mist. The signpost doesn’t provide a photograph of what we will find when we arrive but offers instead a true indication of the direction we should be travelling in...

The last third or so of the book deals with the implications of this proper understanding of hope. It points, says Wright, to a serious responsibility for attempting to improve the conditions of life here and now, for everyone, as a sign and a first manifestation of the kingdom. He cautions, of course, against the idea that we can create the kingdom ourselves, but also against the opposite error, of believing that the world is so hopelessly corrupt, and is anyway doomed to the garbage dump, that we can only endure it and can’t expect to do much to improve it. This part of the book is really quite clearly aligned with Catholic social teaching, and while it’s perfectly good it isn’t as noteworthy as the earlier parts.


Personally, I want to speculate about the new creation, and cling desperately to the hope of it. By nature I’m gloomy enough to find myself sometimes thinking that it would be better if the creation had never happened, because the pain in it sometimes seems so very much greater than the joy or hope. I very much need to believe that the pain has a meaning and that we are on a difficult path that leads to what we most desire. So speculating about what it will actually be like serves a good purpose for me, as long as I keep in mind that it’s almost certainly wrong or at best a little bit right, because the new condition will be something I can’t really imagine now.

I think, for instance, about romantic love, about sex in both its narrow and broad meanings. If this new creation has anything at all to do with the existing one, it seems inconceivable that we will not still be men and women. What will that mean? I long to find out. And I know that the best way for us to find out it is to try to be good men and women here and now. I don’t mean only morally good in the sense of following the rules, although that’s necessary: I mean good in the sense that a great work of art is good, or that a flourishing healthy tree is good: being what their creators intended them to be.

By the way, the title of this piece is from the book, though I can’t locate it now.

War in the Closed World 24

Sunday Night Journal — September 12, 2010

It won’t surprise anyone who’s read much of this series, or of my blog, to hear that I’ve never been one to entertain nostalgic visions of a golden age of childhood and youth. I was always inclined to be melancholy and anxiety-ridden, and that doesn’t make for entirely happy memories. Some years ago I saw a cartoon by Gahan Wilson (famous for grotesque and macabre cartoons) which made me laugh out loud because it summed up one aspect of my personality: a little boy is walking down the sidewalk past two women, one of whom is saying “There goes that little Wilson boy, all alone as usual.” But the little Wilson boy is stark-eyed with fear of monsters that only he can see hovering all around him.

That was far from the whole story, though, and really there’s some ingratitude even in mentioning it, because I’m sure my anxieties were disproportionate to anything in my life that might have provoked them. If I don’t look back toward a golden age, I certainly have at least my share of golden moments. I think of my early teens, the years from roughly twelve to fifteen, as a happy time, a time when I had the good fortune to be a boy with two good friends, and miles of countryside to run around in. I was thinking about this the other day, as I read something about the suburban kids whose lives are entirely organized and closed in: they’re always at school, or in some organized activity, or in their rooms watching tv or playing video games or wandering around on the web or talking on the phone. The thought is almost suffocating to me.

My friends were named Johnny and Lynn, and they both lived in Belle Mina, which meant that I went to see them more often than they to see me. And anyway, there was more to do in Belle Mina, tiny village though it was. Johnny lived in the same top floor of the same old house that I had lived in as an infant. His father farmed, and was a bit rough—not mean, but strict, and accustomed to using language that wasn’t allowed in my family, apart from the occasional outburst by my father. His mother had what I recognized even then as a somewhat faded prettiness, and radiated kindness and warmth. And that impression is not just a product of the youthful tendency to think everyone else’s family is nicer than one’s own: I think it was a universally held opinion, and when I saw her again after a lapse of many years, when I was in my thirties, it still struck me.

Lynn’s father ran a service station, the old kind that you don’t see much anymore, that sold gasoline and did repairs, major and minor. He must have had some hired help, but I don’t recall anyone except Lynn and his older brother being there consistently. He was a small, intense, strong man, whom I remember as always wearing a coverall grimy from the shop, and generally smiling if he had no particular reason to do otherwise. Lynn’s mother was jovial and friendly; I cannot summon an image of her in which she is not smiling. (It is women like these, by the way, that I think of when I see the pre-liberation 1950s and 1960s portrayed as unrelentingly oppressive.)

My memories are always an imprecise jumble; I can’t pin down exactly when or how often I spent time in Belle Mina; I only know that it was in the period when we were old enough to roam around on our own, but still young enough to be in school together at Mooresville-Belle Mina (which is how I arrived at the roughly-twelve-to-fifteen estimate).

What did we do? None of it sounds like much, but we had a great deal of fun. A railroad line ran through Belle Mina, and there was even a little train station there. I’m not sure whether it was still in use at this time or not, but it seemed to be empty most of the time. There was a platform surrounding an office. The platform had a long ramp, and we used to ride bicycles up it and then fly back down. Lynn’s house was no more than a hundred feet or so from the tracks, and I remember being startled awake by trains when I spent the night there (which is a little odd, since a few miles east the same track ran behind my house, though maybe three times as far away—enough to make a difference in the sound, obviously).

Half a mile or so east of Belle Mina is Limestone Creek. In some places it would be called a river; I was surprised once, on a trip out west, at the small size of some of the bodies of water that were called rivers there. The creek was slow, green, and muddy, thirty or forty feet across, maybe fifty at its widest. We swam there, having walked or ridden bicycles through the fields that lay between the town and the creek. There was a wide shallow spot where there was a raft, a platform of boards built over oil drums, which was moored in the middle of the creek specifically for kids to jump off of.

Now and then we went camping along the creek, hiking off through the fields, laden with a ridiculous set of gear and food that we could not possibly have hiked very far with—but then we didn’t need to hike very far: canned goods, and a cast iron skillet for heating things like chili. I don’t recall that I’d ever eaten chili before, and it instantly became one of my favorite foods; only in recent years has Hormel reduced their chili to something I no longer find very palatable (or was it always this bad, and is it only I that have changed?). We slept in the open the first few times; later on Lynn got a pup tent which we used once or twice.

The first time we did this, we shared our no doubt very limited store of scary stories with each other—not ghost stories, exactly, just brief, frightening sketches, urban (or in this case more or less rural) legends, like the one about the man with the hook. We went to sleep uneasily, and not long afterward were wakened by a lot of crashing and stomping in the brush, and had a few moments of real terror before we realized that we were being disturbed by some farmer’s mule coming down to drink from the creek.

When we were a bit older—at least fourteen, I suppose—many of us got motor bikes. Lynn, if I remember correctly, was the first: he had one of the little red-and-white Honda 50s (Honda’s first presence in the U.S. market, as far as I know), barely fast enough to ride in traffic, but exciting for us. My father had a standing offer to his children that he would match money we earned toward the purchase of something expensive; that’s how my brother and I got our Daisy Golden Eagle BB guns. I’m not sure now how I came up with the hundred and fifty dollars or so that were my half of the cost of the slightly sportier Honda 50, a black and chrome version that looked somewhat more like a motorcycle. We rode those bikes all over the southeast corner of Limestone County, and, amazingly, never had a serious accident. The worst I remember happened before I got my own bike. I sometimes rode an old Cushman scooter that belonged to some relative of Lynn’s, and one day we were playing chase on the dirt roads of the state agricultural experiment farm. I was in the lead, and, having just made a sharp left turn, took advantage of the angle to look back and see where the others were. When I looked again at the road in front of me I saw a barbed-wire gate stretched across it, no more than twenty feet or so away. I remember vividly the instant of hopeless panic; it was far too late to stop, though I suppose I slowed myself a bit, and I went right through the gate. But it must not have been very securely fastened: it gave way and I landed in the dirt with no more than a few scratches and bruises, nor was the scooter much worse for the crash: it had looked pretty beat-up already, and it still worked, so no harm done.

I remember reading Mad magazine at Johnny’s house, and listening to the crazed southern humor of Brother Dave Gardner. I remember—and this was later, after Johnny’s family had moved from Miz Tolley’s house to one of their own—the three of us in Johnny’s room, reading aloud to each other from From Here to Eternity, flipping through it looking for the bad words and the sexually suggestive scenes, laughing hysterically at the former, which we had never seen in print, and being fascinated by the latter. We were still half-innocent, preoccupied just short of obsession with girls and sex, but not being entirely sure how it all worked.

On a few occasions we took the train to Decatur on a Saturday afternoon to see a movie. It was possible for me, in Greenbrier, to flag down a passenger train that would not otherwise have stopped (there was a little platform, and a sign that said “Greenbrier,” and if anyone was standing on it when the train came by it would stop.) Johnny and Lynn would get on at Belle Mina. It was a longish walk to the Princess Theater from the station in Decatur, but that was ok. The only movie I specifically remember seeing on one of these trips was Teenagers from Outer Space, a title which seems a little prophetic now. Sometimes we stopped on the way back to the station and looked at guitars in the music store. Johnny and I were fascinated by guitars, and he had a real Fender electric, and an amplifier, of which I was deeply envious.

Most of this companionship ended when we graduated from Mooresville-Belle Mina at the end of the ninth grade, in 1963. For various reasons specific to each family, the three of us all went to different high schools (one could choose back then): Lynn to Decatur, Johnny to Tanner, which was where most of our classmates went, and I to Athens. It became more difficult and less frequent for us to visit each other. Our lives had begun to diverge permanently.

But Lynn and I were still hanging out together, still riding around on our motorbikes, when the Beatles appeared in 1964 (I would not be 16, and able to drive, until that fall). And when A Hard Day’s Night came out we went to see it in Decatur at the Princess. Afterwards, full of the movie’s whimsical high spirits, we rode our bikes crazily—riding in circles in the street, running up on the sidewalks, getting all the speed we could out of those tiny engines once we got out of town and onto the dark highway, driven by a wild exhilaration that we couldn’t have explained.