Sunday Night Journal 2011 Feed

The Queen's Message and Other Christmas News

Sunday Night Journal — December 25, 2011

We've had a pretty quiet and very pleasant Christmas Day. Only one of our four children is here, and we slept late and didn't eat breakfast until after 11 or so. Now it's getting late, and I'm sitting in the living room near the Christmas tree and listening to the rain. My wife and I had been so busy for the past couple of months that we hadn't thought about Christmas as much as we usually do (I certainly hadn't; she still managed to make some definite plans about food and family get-togethers.) Last weekend we bought a tree and she put the lights on it. We planned to wait till this weekend to finish decorating it, but suddenly realized late last night that we'd completely forgotten about that. So we've left it that way. It's actually rather nice, having only lights, although I think I prefer it with the full outfit, especially the glass ornaments that multiply the light.

I never have been able to take a good picture of one of our Christmas trees. I probably need to set up a tripod, because the exposure time is too long for me to keep the camera still. So I took one of my bad ones and messed it up even further, the way it might look if you were falling asleep while looking at it.


I'm not sure how I ended up at the BBC's site earlier today watching the Queen's Christmas message. But I'm glad I did. I found it impressive and touching, and began to think that it might not be a bad thing to have a monarch. As I've mentioned here more than once, I get the impression from conservative British writers that the Queen's domain is in steep and irreversible decline. But you certainly wouldn't think that from listening to her. It is a heartening message, and makes me hope that there really is such a thing as the Anglosphere.

A Marmite Encounter of the Third Kind

Speaking of British things, I have finally tasted Marmite. As it turns out, one can in fact buy it in at least one of the supermarkets here (the Publix chain). I of course am a great lover of English literature, and my wife and I have watched an awful lot of BBC TV productions, and read an awful lot of English novels, and we've both been curious about some of the English foods that are always being mentioned in those works. So for Christmas I bought a number of various English foodstuffs that could be found locally and packaged them as a present, officially for my wife, but really for both of us. And I included Marmite.

My wife had been snarking about my plans to eat "that stuff made out of motor oil." I thought that unjust, because it appeared to me (or rather I assumed) from photographs that it looked more like apple butter. But on opening the jar I discovered that my wife's impression was more accurate. No, it doesn't look like motor oil, but it looks almost exactly like that heavy grease that mechanics put in a thing called a grease gun (I'm not sure if those are still in use or if they've been made obsolete by some other technology). 

In accordance with instructions from actual English and Australian persons, I buttered and toasted a piece of bread (inauthentically, however, I used pumpernickel rye), and spread a thin layer of Marmite over it. I resisted the temptation to taste the pure stuff first.

I suppose it's a bit of an anticlimax that I was neither appalled nor delighted. Overwhelmingly, it is salty. As salty as tinned anchovies--which I like. I can't say I like it very much, but I didn't find it sickening, either. If you haven't tasted it: imagine anchovy paste, but with a yeasty rather than fishy taste under the saltiness. I am rather surprised that anyone ever thought to market it as a food, and even more so that he was successful.

I had asked my wife, half-jokingly, to buy me some Marmite for Christmas, so I had to tell her I'd already done that, so she wouldn't. Other than that, I didn't mention any of these foodstuffs to her. One of things I bought was lemon curd. Imagine my consternation when she announced a day or two ago that she had just seen a recipe for lemon curd and was going to try making it for Christmas. I couldn't believe it. We have been married for 34 years, and I think one small jar of lemon curd which we had bought or perhaps been given some years ago was the only time lemon curd had ever so much as been named between us. I couldn't tell her not to bother without giving away my whole plan, so I let her go to all that trouble. Well, it was delicious, and the bought stuff can stay in its jar for a while.


A few weeks ago I was thinking that this might be the last Sunday Night Journal. As in 2009, when I took a year-long break from it, I have been wrestling with the tension between producing it and doing some of the bigger projects that I have in mind. I don't quite want to give it up, though. I think I'll keep it for a while longer, but make it shorter and lighter, not try to cram serious essays into it. We'll see whether this results in any actual increase of work on those other projects.

Christopher Hitchens, RIP

Sunday Night Journal — December 18, 2011

At least half the Christian and/or conservative bloggers and pundits will have something to say on the passing of Mr. Hitchens, and most of it will be somewhere between mildly sympathetic and adoring. This is a curious phenomenon, because he was not a conservative, and he was an anti-Christian bigot. We feel this way—I say "we" because I'm in the mildly, or perhaps a bit more than mildly, sympathetic range—because we believe him to have been intellectually courageous and honest. We believe he loved the truth, and his Christian sympathizers and admirers believe that love of the truth is love of God, and so we were willing to forgive him his bigotry. And, more importantly, to believe or at least hope that God would forgive it.

Before going any further I have to say emphatically that I don't intend what follows as any sort of definitive judgment. My acquaintance with Hitchens's work is relatively slight, most of it the book reviews in The Atlantic, the occasional essay in Slate or Vanity Fair, the occasional interview. So it's entirely possible that I'm not judging him fairly. 

With that qualification stated: I do not think he was quite the thinker or writer that many consider him. That he was brilliant and wrote brilliantly I wouldn't deny. But I haven't seen much evidence that he was profound.

I used the word "bigotry" above. I think it's the correct word for his attitude toward Christianity and toward religion in general, and bigotry is a pretty grave intellectual flaw. One cannot wholeheartedly admire the intellect of a man who exhibits such a depth of it on such an important matter. It is a failure of both the honesty and courage which we imputed to him (I don't believe that it takes any great courage to attack Christianity these days). I had always enjoyed his writings on literature, but once I became aware of how unreliable he was on the subject of religion I began to wonder whether I could trust him on other subjects. Read, for example, his review of Wolf Hall, a novel about reformation England, and then this one by the anonymous blogger who calls herself Alias Clio (well, actually, she calls herself Musette, the mortal servant of Clio).  I think the second is more perceptive. 

And his writing is fluid, rich, and elegant, often witty, supported by what appears to be a comfortable erudition. But is it? Once you have realized that, in speaking of religion, Hitchens was able to combine an enormous and intimidating confidence with ignorance and incomprehension, you're suspicious. Those of us who have little learning of our own, and little opportunity to acquire it, can only trust or distrust those who appear to have it; we can't judge for ourselves. It's a bit like your relationship with an auto mechanic, if you have no appreciable knowledge or skill in that area: if you once discover that the mechanic has confidently replaced a part that wasn't broken, you don't have the same confidence in him—especially if he refuses to acknowledge his mistake.

The first sentence of the book review I linked to above is a good example of this combination of skill and quite false assurance:

Early last fall, the Vatican extended a somewhat feline paw in the direction of that rather singular group of Christians sometimes denominated as “Anglo-Catholic.”

A somewhat feline paw. That's a striking and effective image. And yet it grossly distorts the event it describes. A deep, intense, and difficult dialogue has been going on between Rome and Canterbury for decades, with high hopes often entertained for its success, and this latest development represents not a move in a chess game—in which the object, of course, is victory—but something closer to an act of despair, a recognition that the hoped-for reunion is not going to happen. It is the result of a painful decision balancing the hopes of bringing the two institutions closer together against the desire to welcome a group of Christians who have been abandoned by their own communion. Hitchens, as the rest of the paragraph makes clear, can see only a power struggle. Moreover, he exhibits the sometimes amusing but mostly exasperating reflex of some post-Christian Englishmen: no longer Protestant, but still anti-Catholic in a paranoid sort of way, he seems to think it still possible that a Jesuit might spring from a priest-hole and sweep him away to the torture chambers. Pope Benedict personally gets only a passing mention in the review, but elsewhere Hitchens has written not only viciously but stupidly about this man who has, I would guess, twice the erudition and three times the wisdom of Hitchens himself.

I had a teacher once who was a great lover of Yeats. But in a conversation with me late in his career he confessed that he no longer regarded Yeats as being quite as important as he once had. It was not that his enjoyment of the poetry, as poetry, had lessened, but that he had come to see Yeats's style as a sort of rhetoric that was often greater than its subject: that there was somewhat less to the poetry than meets the eye. It appears to me that something like that is operative in Hitchens's work; its brilliant surface—brilliant in an English way that's especially impressive to Americans—often makes it appear better—more accurate, more profound—than it really is. 

Yet, with all the reservations above, I don't think we are wrong to admire him. The fact that he had huge blind spots, and was perhaps not so accomplished a writer and thinker as some esteemed him, does not mean that he didn't have the virtues often attributed to him. If a man sets out willingly to battle a dragon, he deserves credit for courage even if it turns out that the dragon was not a dragon at all, or that he attacked it in the wrong way with the wrong weapons. 

Hitchens was applauded by conservatives and especially neo-conservatives for his willingness to question and then to break with the left, with a quasi-religious view of the world that he had inhabited for most of his life. That took courage. His support of the Iraq war, whether it was right or wrong, was based on a genuine attempt to understand what is happening in the Middle East and what the West can and should do about it. 

Whether we agreed with him or not, those of us who admired and respected him felt that he was trying to see and understand the world as it really is, and to follow that understanding wherever it led, whatever offense might be done to conventional opinion. I find it impossible to believe that he wasn't sometimes speaking out of a simple and somewhat juvenile desire to shock and to play the rebel. But I also believe that he genuinely hated cant, whatever its source, and that his fundamental intention was always to seek out and to face reality. This is the stuff of which great faith is made, and what made so many Christians feel a kinship with him. We hoped he would convert, of course, and put his brilliance to a better purpose. And after his cancer was diagnosed some hoped, and a few predicted, that it would be the catalyst for a change of mind. But to tell the truth I'm almost glad that didn't happen: I wouldn't have wanted to see him back down out of a simple fear of death. In his last illness he refused to avert his eyes from the reality of his situation, and in this piece in Vanity Fair (was it his last?) he shoots down that popular and obviously shaky proverb of Nietzsche's, "Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger." If there is some element of spiritual truth at the core of that, it is manifestly false in the physical realm, and often enough in the psychological, and I don't think Nietzsche would have cared for the power-of-positive-thinking twist it has been given in recent popular culture.

I also don't think Hitchens would have wanted obituaries that were anything less than honest, which is why I've said here exactly what I think.

I had thought I might gather up some of the obituaries and tributes, but there are simply too many for me to sort through. Google the name "Hitchens" and you'll turn up plenty of them. You really must read his brother Peter's first published reaction, though. (Thanks to Robert for passing that along to me.)

I was about to post this when I ran across this piece by Hitchens in which he discusses the death in Iraq of a young soldier whose decision to enlist was partly due to Hitchens's writing. I believe it settles the question of whether he could be profound.


Sunday Night Journal — December 11, 2011

It was about twenty years ago that I worked briefly with Idell. I was still pretty new in my job, and was not at all happy in it. In fact I was considering whether my decision to take the job would rank among the top five worst mistakes of my life—I was pretty sure it would make the top ten, at least. I had fled from a situation where I was expected to do software development of a very demanding nature and at the same time manage a group of half a dozen programmers. I was in over my head in both capacities, and in addition I hated the second one. So I had left the corporate high-tech world and taken a job at a small liberal arts college, where the work was a huge comedown in the level of technical skill involved: a mixture of programming and general support for the users of the administrative database system.

It proved much more challenging than I expected, not because the technology was so advanced but because it was so crude and backward: the mid-1970s hardware (a PDP 11-45, if that means anything to you, with a 20-megabyte disk drive the size of a washing machine) was falling apart, the software was a badly designed mess implemented with the crudest tools—even then, PCs were far more capable—and there was no documentation. There were supposed to be two programmers, but my predecessor had recently been fired, and the other had resigned, with only her last two weeks overlapping with my arrival. Worse, the most important part of the job was something I really hadn’t anticipated: the users expected me to know as much about their jobs as they did, and of course I had no idea what people in a registrar’s office or an admissions office, to say nothing of a roomful of accountants, did, and moreover didn’t really care and couldn’t make myself get interested, except to the extent that I was facing unemployment if I failed.

I think it was sometime within the first year or so of my tenure that Idell was hired as the admissions office manager: by “office manager” I mean not the director, who was in charge of the whole operation and was focused mainly on strategies for recruiting students, but the person in charge of the internal workings of the office, specifically the maintenance of the database. That was one of the most important parts of the job, and she wasn’t very good at it. She was a middle-aged woman and in 1991 it was pretty likely that someone over fifty or so had little experience with computers or sense of how to work with them. For those who remember the PCs of the time: in 1991 PC applications were still DOS-based, with Windows 3.1 not arriving till early 1992; only the Macintosh had a point-and-click graphical interface. And our administrative system was 15 years or so behind even the PCs in clarity and ease of use.

It was pretty obvious to me that Idell wasn’t comfortable with computers and didn’t really understand that part of her job, and was trying simultaneously to hide that fact and remedy it. Complicating the picture was the fact that she was black. As anyone who has ever been in a situation like this knows, some degree of awkwardness is almost inevitable, and friction and tension are not unusual. There will be people who expect black employees to be less competent and are not sorry to see them fail; there will be others who want them to succeed, or are afraid of being accused of racism, and ignore their deficiencies, which of course causes resentment on the part of those who have to work around those deficiencies.

Part of Idell’s way of coping with this seemed to be to adopt a certain truculence in her manner—at any rate, she had it, whether it was deliberate or not. So I was a little put off in my first dealings with her. And, being frustrated and angry about my own situation, I was pretty impatient, especially with someone whose shortcomings appeared likely to create more problems for me. So I remember thinking that she and I were not going to get along.

But I was also sympathetic to the feeling she must have had of having been thrown into deep water and of struggling to stay afloat—after all, I shared it. And anyway it wasn’t her fault that I was in the situation I was in. And anyway one ought to be nice to people. So I tried to be nice to her. When I worked with her I tried to stifle my impatience, making an effort to explain things when I could, rather than just assuming that she already knew them or would figure them out on her own. That was all: no great deed of virtue on my part, just a small effort to be decent and not to be the slave of my own worst impulses.

So Idell and I got along pretty well for what proved to be her fairly short stay at the college. I think it was probably less than six months. I don’t remember now whether she left on her own or was fired. On her last day she came by to see me. She told me that she had enjoyed working with me and would miss me, and that I was one of the few people she at the college who had seemed to care about her and been willing to help her when she needed it.

I was very much surprised by this, and didn’t know what to say. I thanked her and wished her well. I kept thinking about the disparity between the little effort I had made and what it apparently had meant to her. Was that all it took to make someone’s life a bit less difficult? Just trying not to be a jerk? I’ve tried to keep that lesson in mind since then; I’ve certainly had plenty of occasions to need the reminder.

Well, in spite of the rocky start, I have remained in that job. One day some years after Idell left—more than five, not more than ten, I think—I had something to do in an office that I don’t ordinarily work with. The secretary there, Frances, had been a friend of Idell’s and had stayed in contact with her. Idell had moved away and was now living in Florida, Frances said, if I remember correctly. She had told Frances to tell me hello. And Frances went on to say that Idell had been diagnosed with cancer and wasn’t doing too well. And she gave me Idell’s address in case I wanted to send her a greeting and a good wish.

I really meant to do it, too, but as is often the case with me I put it off, and then one day I saw Frances again, admitted that I hadn’t gotten around to writing Idell although I still meant to, and asked how she was doing. But now it was too late: Idell had died some weeks before.

It still bothers me that I never wrote to her. It would have been, again, only a little thing, but this time I failed to do it. I hoped she had plenty of family and friends around, so that the gesture that I didn’t make would have had less relative importance if I had made it.

I don’t mean to give the impression that I brood over this. I don’t think of it very often, but I happened to see Frances one day last week, and that always reminds me of Idell, and recalls a bit of the surprise I felt when she thanked me on that last day I saw her. I hope she’s with God, and that maybe she’ll put in a good word for me.

Upstairs Downstairs: Journeyman Art

Sunday Night Journal — December 4, 2011

Perhaps you’ve noticed that for some time now I haven’t said much on the subject of movies. Part of the explanation for that is that watching movies is something my wife and I tend to do together, and she’s now in graduate school and has far less free time. (I’m not sure why, but I’ve taken surprisingly little opportunity to empty our Netflix queue of things that I chose and she isn’t likely to enjoy.) The bigger part of the explanation is that the time we have had has been spent on watching the entire five years—sixty-eight episodes!—of Upstairs Downstairs. As those of my age or somewhere close to it may remember, it’s an English television drama which aired in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theater from 1973 till 1977 (and a couple of years earlier on the BBC). It follows the lives of an upper-class English family, the Bellamys—the upstairs people—and their servants—the downstairs people—from 1903 till 1930, a span of time which obviously provides many opportunities for interweaving the affairs of the household with great changes and events in the larger world. I remembered enjoying what I saw of it on that first go-round, and when an updated mini-series was produced last year, I thought the original might be something my wife would like, so we got the first DVD from Netflix, and off we went. That was back in June, and I think it was this past Tuesday night that we reached the end.

We liked it, yes, but it was also very convenient, considering our limited time, to have something that came in neat hour-long episodes. Sixty-eight hours of anything is a lot and I have to admit I was tiring of it by the fourth season, and by the fifth was downright impatient. My interest was renewed toward the end, but still it seemed that the producers and writers had pretty well run out of things to do with the material they had to work with. However, they had done something impressive: created a set of characters who came alive, whom you came to care about, and in whose lives you were interested, so that even if you weren’t really all that taken with a particular episode (and each episode is a self-contained story), you wanted to stick around and find out what was going to happen to the people in the longer run.

In that respect, also, the series is an impressive achievement, which must have been partly a matter of luck and partly a matter of commitment on the part of the principal actors. The only other TV series I know of which attempted the same sort of thing is The X-Files, and it, after a promising start, was not so fortunate: in addition to the usual uncertainty about whether the series would be renewed each year, after the first few seasons the producers apparently never knew whether the two actors who played the crucial main characters were going to return. And although many episodes of The X-Files were self-contained stories, many were not, and that larger narrative fell apart completely. The Wire, which I consider eminently successful, took a smarter approach: individual episodes did not necessarily stand alone as stories, but each season did, so that if there was doubt at the end of a season whether the series would be renewed, or a certain actor would be back, there would still be a reasonably satisfying resolution. The Upstairs Downstairs producers did have to cope with the departure of a few important actors who decided to quit after the first couple of seasons. One of the characters was killed off in a way that was dramatically effective and continued to have effects through the rest of the series; the other, less convincingly, simply went to Canada and never came back. It was an advantage, too, that there was no need to work out in advance exactly what would happen over the five years: if you start with a family and their servants in episode one, you can proceed with the broad plan of following them through the years without needing to know that you are working toward, for instance, an alien invasion in episode forty.

I don’t remember how much of the series I saw at its initial release, but I certainly don’t remember anything of the later episodes. I do remember thinking, after a certain number of episodes, that it was essentially a high-quality soap opera, made to seem better than it was, at least in American eyes, by its classy British tone and subject, helped along by the general popularity of Masterpiece Theater and the mild Anglophilia of what used to be called the middlebrow audience. I remember a reviewer or two saying something similar. And it’s not a completely unfair judgment. This is not great art. But it is good solid work, what you might call journeyman art.

From today’s point of view one can see that the producers were laboring under pretty severe restrictions. Like other Masterpiece Theater productions of its time, it clearly had a pretty limited budget. Especially for the first couple of seasons, a small number of sets provide the setting for almost all the action. It was only later, when the series had become a great success, that the producers were able to shoot on location, or on complex exterior sets, or with crowds. If a visitor arrives in an impressive carriage, we see someone observing and describing it from a window, with some canned clippity-clop on the soundtrack. And I wondered if it was for budgetary reasons that in so many episodes one or more main characters are entirely absent—“gone to Southwold with her ladyship” disposes of two characters in a few words.

But the acting and the writing are almost uniformly excellent. Even when the overall narrative of an episode is weak, the details remain interesting. Anyone who’s ever gotten hooked on the series soon comes to think of Rose and Hudson and Mrs. Bridges (downstairs) and Lord and Lady Bellamy and their children as real people, and I found myself really wanting things to come out all right for them. Partly that’s the acting and writing, of course, but it’s also partly the length of one’s exposure to them, something a long-running series has going for it that a two-hour movie doesn’t.

One comes away from the series feeling that one has really learned something about life in England at the time, of the relations between classes, of English history between 1903 and 1930, and of the effects of events and technological progress on the Edwardian world. Whether what one thinks one has learned is accurate or not, I don’t know, but it is certainly convincing. The series as a whole is essentially a good piece of naturalistic fiction, not as good as Dickens, maybe, but probably as good as many lesser writers in that tradition (I am not naming any because I’m insufficiently familiar with the field). It touches the great philosophical and religious areas of life only glancingly and implicitly, and its strengths of plot and character are not of the same order as those of Dickens. But it does not, like so much art of our time, present trivial or mocking answers to the big questions, and it is never simplistic or sneering—much less, thanks be to God, self-congratulatory—about the social and political questions it inevitably raises. The deep injustices of the class system, for instance, are clear, but so are the stability and sense of order it provides for those who have a place in it. You might call this entertainment, but entertainment as it should be—art of a lesser but far from worthless order.

Judging by the reviews on Netflix and Amazon, Upstairs Downstairs remains popular, as it deserves to do. A recent three-episode revival was, in my view, only so-so, although I'm curious now to see it again. If you're a devotee, there is a great deal of information about the series, old and new, including episode guides, at this site, which appears to be unofficial but pretty thorough. If you're not, but are curious, the site is still worth a look, but be aware that the episode guides may contain plot spoilers.

NOTE: comments here may contain spoilers, too.

I Fail To Become A Balletomane, and Other News

Sunday Night Journal — November 27, 2011

About that ballet

A month or so ago I wrote about my intention to watch a George Balanchine ballet that was being broadcast on PBS. I recorded it then, and finally found time to watch it this week. I'm sorry to have to report that I didn't really get it. I can certainly appreciate that there is a great deal of beauty in the movements of the dancers, not to mention the enormous level of skill in the dancing and the choreography, but I can't say that I was captivated or very much moved. My reaction really didn't go much beyond interesting.

There were actually three pieces (is that the right word?) on the program: "Square Dance" and "Western Symphony" by Balanchine, and "The Golden Section" by Twlya Tharp. Here is a brief preview which gives you a glimpse of all three.

Watch Miami City Ballet Dances Balanchine and Tharp on PBS. See more from GREAT PERFORMANCES.

I liked "Square Dance" best. That probably had something to do with the music (Vivaldi and Corelli). "The Golden Section" was possibly the most purely interesting of the three, and even to my entirely untrained eye obviously far less classical than the Balanchine works. I suspect the fact that I found it more interesting does not speak well of it. As you might expect from a contemporary work, it was rather heatedly erotic at times, and I won't pretend indifference to that aspect of it. And in general the technique was, well, stranger than in traditional ballet, and...there is no way to say this without making myself look like a clod, but I may as well admit it: much of the vocabulary of classical ballet is not appealing to me. Part of the reason is that it involves prancing and fluttering that is often lovely, if occasionally prissy, on the women, but downright effeminate on the men. Combine that with the extremely skin-tight costumes of the men, and--I'm sorry, but I want to be honest--there is an off-putting gay vibe about the whole thing.  (And let me note here that Edward Villella, the founder and director of the Miami City Ballet and a former dancer of apparently considerable fame, was a good baseball player and boxer, twice-married and father of three.)

My wife, who has more interest in dance and a better eye for it than I do, watched the program  with me, and thought "Square Dance" was "fabulous" (and she was not using the word archly or ironically; she really liked it.) Neither of us cared much for "Western Symphony": we were not able to take seriously male ballet dancers in 1940s-style cowboy suits; it's the last piece on the program and we didn't finish watching it.

Not knowing anything about the art, it's not surprising that I would miss whatever it is that makes Balanchine different. If you didn't know anything about classical music and decided to start with "Rhapsody in Blue," you wouldn't recognize the mixture of the traditional and the innovative in it, because you'd have nothing to compare it to.  By the way, I'm throwing Balanchine's name around as if I know what I'm talking about, but I really don't. I only know that he was a choreographer who seems to have been something of a modernist in a Stravinksy-ish sort of way (as opposed to a Schoenberg-ish sort of way). He worked with Stravinksy, in fact: here is the Wikipedia biography.

So. That's that, I guess. And yet: it still sounds appealing when people talk about it.

OWS and Utopia

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street (or, as it spread, just "Occupy") movement. I think most people recognize that many of the specifically named complaints of the movement are justified: the middle class is shrinking, the economy was driven into a ditch by reckless-at-best financiers who, as the saying goes, privatized their gains and socialized their losses, etc. Yet I keep having the feeling that these things are not what the movement is fundamentally about. I don't claim to have followed it very closely, but I keep seeing and hearing things that remind me of the 1960s counter-culture, things that seem alternately amusing, pitiable, and disturbing, things that are rooted in a quasi-religion to which young people in modern times have been particularly susceptible: the belief that we can, as Joni Mitchell put it in her sweetly air-headed tribute to Woodstock, "get ourselves back to the garden." This piece in The Weekly Standard describe some of its intellectual-spiritual roots. I don't agree with everything in it, but on the whole I think it makes an important point. Read the Weekly Standard piece, then look at the Occupy Wall Street web site, and you can't miss the connections.

I say "disturbing," but it's not because I think anarchist ideas and their proponents really pose a signficant danger in any direct way. They disturb me because for a couple of years at the end of the 1960s I bought into that movement, in the hippie manifestation which is frequently echoed by OWS, and I hate to see its continuing power over young people who long for a noble cause and who turn their fundamentally religious zeal toward a hopeless quest for the earthly paradise. Too many people who shared my experiences in the 1960s (and early '70s) seem to be hoping still that one day they'll wake up and it will be 1969 again.

The slogan "We are the 99%" annoys me a little. Artur Davis, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who might be Alabama's governor now if he hadn't offended the party machine, articulated the problem

it literally links the interest of a hungry child in the Mississippi Delta to those of a six figure accountant whose mortgage is underwater.

Like, by definition, almost everybody, I am part of the 99%. But OWS doesn't speak for me. Not only does it not speak for me, it doesn't even like me, culturally and politically speaking. But I suppose if you're going to do mass politics you have to have a simplisitic slogan, and not be too scrupulous about its relation to the truth. After all,  if you want people to buy your product, you have to advertise.

Newt 2012?

The phone rang this morning and I saw the phrase above, minus the question mark, on the caller ID. I was tempted to answer, just out of curiousity, but decided not to, afraid that if there was a person (as opposed to a recording) on the other end I would find myself in a conversation I didn't want to be in, answering "poll" questions such as "Are you in favor of the Obama administration's attempt to destroy the United States?"

A Newt Ginrich presidency, viewed from many angles, seems such a terrible idea that I was surprised to find myself the other day thinking Well, maybe... There is one reason I might consider voting for him: if I thought that he might be able to engineer a reform of our health care system that would be a real reform. I'm more and more convinced that the mess we have is a signficant factor in our economic problems. It has a paralyzing effect: people fear to take risks, on either the employee or the employer side, because of its burden and uncertainty. But I think Obamacare will make things worse. Why Gingrich? Well, for all his faults and weirdness, he is a very bright guy and willing to think outside the usual categories. But I suppose that by virtue of those same qualities whatever he might want to do with health care would probably be as over-complicated and unrealistic as the Democrats' plan.

Christ the Despot?

Sunday Night Journal — November 20, 2011

Today is the feast of Christ the King. The archdiocese of Mobile has a traditional celebration of this occasion which still involves an actual public procession. I was going to say that that’s probably a rare thing in this country in these days, but I decided to look around on the web first, and it seems that there are at least some others. My wife is the diocesan archivist, and she tells me that photos in the archive and the testimony of older Catholics in the area indicate that it was once a bigger deal than it is now, and included a big parade in which all the Catholic schools took part. Catholics are a minority in this area, but a large one. Even in a time when Protestants in general regarded Catholics with much more hostility than most do now, the local church was not ashamed to take over the downtown streets for a public celebration of its faith.

“King of King, Lord of Lords.” Every Christian believes that. The Catholic Church and, I suppose, the Orthodox in a somewhat different manner, make it more concrete than most Protestants, both theologically and in practice, still rejecting “separation of church and state” in the sense that secular fundamentalists use that phrase. In the fundamentalist sense, no opinion rooted in religious conviction has any legitimate voice in government. As a rule the fundamentalists are not very consistent in that view—they are mostly on the political left, and they are indignant when Christians plead the sacredness of human life as an argument against abortion, but untroubled when we plead the equality of all in God’s eyes as an argument against racism.

The fundamentalists notwithstanding, there is a vast territory between their view that religious views should be absolutely excluded from political debate (not to mention from the actual administration of government) and the theocracy which they accuse us of wanting to impose. When I hear the screech of “theocracy!” from a left-winger trying to shut down religious opinion, I’m never sure whether it’s consciously dishonest or merely irrational.

And yet—there are those on my side in that debate who worry even me a little. When some traditionalist Catholics speak of the “the social reign of Christ the King” I get the feeling that what they really want is “the social reign of me and my friends” They seem to be pretty sure about how the world should be run, and that they would sort things out in a jiffy if they had the power. Of course they pay some deference, at least, to the belief that in a fallen world political and social arrangements will never be perfect, but I sometimes get the feeling that they believe they could do a whole lot better than anyone ever has before, and that the process would be a fairly straightforward implementation of the laws they know to be right. They’re disdainful of secular republics—not altogether without reason, but yet not altogether as appreciative as I think they should be of the real gains in human rights and related matters that have been made in these republics. I have heard that case made quite succinctly: secular governments allow people to do things that endanger their souls; a Christian government would establish laws that prevented these things and thus save souls; therefore the establishment of a Christian government is a moral obligation.

Well, in some sense it is, but not necessarily in the theocratic or near-theocratic sense. It’s the over-confident quality of the prescription that bothers me. It sounds too much like other attempts, beginning with the French Revolution, to enforce an abstract ideal of government on the human race. Or like certain strains of Islam, whose leaders believe that they know God’s will in more or less perfect detail, and that all that remains is to implement it. Of course I don’t think this would-be Catholic authoritarianism is as fundamentally wrong as either the atheistic or the Islamic, because it starts with better premises, but I do think it misguided and that it would, if implemented, be bad for the Church. We don’t need a Catholic utopianism.

I often think, when I watch the behavior of American voters, that democracy really is, from the historical perspective, an unnatural phenomenon that may not last very long. Many people seem to want a king, almost naturally—or maybe not even almost; maybe it is natural, not just in the sense that it comes easily but in the sense that it is part of the nature of man. George Washington reportedly had to resist a movement to make him king. The tendency was especially noticeable in the 2008 election, when many Obama voters clearly saw him as a sort of monarch who would, entirely by his own hand, solve most of our problems. And when you look at our relationship to God it makes sense that the desire for a monarch would in fact be built into us There is certainly no reflection there of the modern idea that the power of the government derives from the consent of the governed. There is no question of who is in charge, and the attempt on the part of the creature to claim equality with the Lord, and to prefer his own will to the Lord’s, is the fundamental source of evil.

Unquestionably, and unlike human beings who take the role upon themselves, God does have, intrinsically, the right to act as an absolute monarch. Just as clearly, though, the gospels do not present this as the way he chooses to act. Christ the King is not Christ the Despot. If we look to medieval civilization for a conception of kingship, we see that our relationship to this king is meant to be not that of his serfs, but of his liegemen and vassals: a sworn fealty, given freely.

It’s not an absolute freedom, of course. There are consequences for choosing wrongly, for defiance, and for oath-breaking. But if God is willing to wait on us, we must be willing to wait on our fellow sinners, and there is only so much a government of any sort can or should do to bypass that process. The social kingship of Christ is something that we can only hope to realize very imperfectly in this world; it can’t be a destination at which we expect to arrive before the end of time.

Having said all that, though, I wonder why I bothered. We are more likely to be wiped out by an asteroid strike within the next thirty years than to witness the imposition on the United States of an authoritarian Catholic government that would ban rock-and-roll and allow no television except EWTN. I suppose it’s just that these views get on my nerves. What is actually happening is that the upper class is working to make Christians of all sorts into a despised minority, and to limit the practice of the faith where it conflicts with contemporary dogma on sex, marriage, and reproduction. Here is a good example of the left-wing fear-mongering about “theocracy.” The pattern—and I don’t say it’s a conscious tactic, but the pattern that emerges—is to paint Christians as a danger to the nation. That’s a very old theme. It’s a little surprising that it would be so effective in a country that is so heavily Christian. But the left-wing position now has the prestige and confidence that mainline Protestantism had a hundred years ago. At the same time, because it is smaller in numbers, and because Christianity is still culturally predominant outside the big cities, the universities, and most of the media, it can pose as the brave rebel. Nice position to be in.

Conservatives And Social Justice

Sunday Night Journal — November 13, 2011

The eccentric right-wing TV/radio personality Glenn Beck attracted a great deal of wrath a while back when he warned people to flee any church that preaches “social justice:”

I beg you, look for the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.

He was denounced furiously, with some reason. And then one of those tiresome media and internet tempests ensued, people shouted superficial talking points at each other for a few days, and the whole thing was forgotten.

Beck’s opponents were right to condemn the clearly absurd notion they took from his remarks, which was that Christianity has nothing to do with social justice. But Beck, in his goofy way, did have a point. In many contexts, the terms “social justice” and “economic justice” are indeed code words, in that the justice they prescribe is a pretty specific set of policies which can fairly be summarized as support for the modern welfare state, and sometimes, depending on who’s talking, for pure socialism. And it's also true that some Christians have substituted this political program for the faith. So it’s not without reason that one who disagrees with the program reflexively tunes out anyone who uses the terms.

But to stop there is merely reactionary. Obviously the terms in their literal meanings refer to something that has to be taken seriously when we think about politics, especially when we think about politics from a Christian perspective. What, in fact, is the point of politics, if not to foster social justice? Or, to use a less politically charged term, the common good? I assume no one reading this, and few people anywhere in the Western world, would argue that the point is to gain as much power as possible, or to subjugate and plunder other peoples for the glory and enrichment of one’s own country, both of which seem to have been uncontroversial answers to the question in many times and places. It is probably because of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian philosophical and religious traditions that they are now generally disgraced, though still practiced (obviously).

It’s especially important for conservatives to articulate principles of social justice. We live in a more or less capitalist society—I say “more or less” because capitalism, unlike socialism, does not have a specific and generally agreed-upon definition. It is less a system than socialism, in that it is not first a fully thought-out intellectual creation, but rather a messy mixture of ideas and historical developments. An ideology of pure capitalism exists, but it’s somewhat of an after-the-fact thing. And its proponents don’t seem to think that American society, for instance, really meets the definition. Other non-ideological capitalists often seem to think that “capitalism” means nothing more than private property and markets that are free within the limits of laws against fraud, breach of contract, etc.

But at any rate, whatever you want to call the system, conservatives are in general defenders of it. If they wish to preserve it, they should wish to reform it. The uncritical defenders of an institution are often a greater danger to it than its open enemies. By digging in their heels and refusing to acknowledge its defects—which, in the normal way of human things, will get worse if no active effort is made to repair them—they weaken it, and strengthen both the arguments and the animosity of those who wish to do away with it.

The attack on capitalism from the left tends to be simplistic, emotional, and often at least implicitly revolutionary. It goes against the American grain in being fundamentally hostile to capitalism. And so even when it’s correct in identifying this or that problem, as in the Occupy movement’s protest against the current trend for the rich to get richer and for the middle class to become poorer, it loses popular sympathy, as well as persuasive power, by going beyond specific problems and plainly wishing to replace the whole system with something else entirely. Americans by and large do not want that; they want reform, not revolution, and they certainly do not want the sort of revolution envisioned by those who, strangely, still seem to look to the leftist ideologies of the early 20th century for a solution, in spite of their vast record of crimes and failures.

Reform must, by definition, begin with what is here. So those who understand the thing that is to be reformed, and who wish to see it reformed, ought to be in the forefront of the attempt to understand and address its problems. Human nature, of course, tends to produce a different result: the desire to defend the institution becomes an unwillingness to acknowledge its faults, and then an active attempt to ignore and conceal them. That has been the response of a lot of conservatives to the current economic crisis, and it’s a mistake.

Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when I was abandoning my own youthful leftism, I thought the neoconservative defense of capitalism was a needed corrective to the prevailing doctrines of welfare-state liberalism, not to mention the revolutionary delusions of the far left. The prosperity of the ‘50s and ‘60s had been taken for granted, and when things turned sour in the mid-’70s there was a need to examine the welfare-state presumption that business was the problem and government the solution, and to make the case that government redistribution of wealth was only feasible and useful if there was wealth to distribute. Someone said—and I think Ronald Reagan may have used it in a speech, though I don’t know that it was his line originally—that it was time to stop worrying so much about how to distribute the golden eggs and start worrying about the health of the goose.

All right, then: within the framework of the question “how can we maintain our prosperity?”—that is, assuming a reformist rather than revolutionary goal—those were valid arguments. But many who made them stuck there. They dug in their heels. They over-praised capitalism. They minimized its defects. They constructed a sort of academic’s fantasy about how and why it operates, speaking of “the circle of exchange” rather than of war and Darwinian struggle, as actual capitalists often do. And in the current crisis they don’t seem to have anything useful to say. As middle class and poor Americans have to struggle more and more to stay where they are, and the rich enjoy wealth and privilege which make them in many ways more distant from the masses than kings of old, the intellectual defenders of capitalism have little to offer beyond their old formulas of lower taxes and less regulation. Does anyone seriously believe that such things, even if one grants that they are good policies, will do much to stop the erosion of the American middle class? I doubt it. And conservatives who focus on those things only provide cause for others to think that they either do not understand or do not care that it is getting harder and harder for Americans to earn a middle-class living.

I know there are exceptions—Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, for instance—but for the most part the more visible conservatives and neoconservatives seem to just keep repeating formulas that seem irrelevant at best: that people move in and out of the category of “wealthy,” that any tax increase will crush the incentives of “job creators”—as if insanely well-paid CEOs haven’t been busy for many years now sending every job they can to China—that the top 5% of taxpayers pay 40% of the income taxes (or whatever the number is), etc. Long-time Catholic neoconservative George Weigel seemed almost a parody of the breed when, upon the publication of Caritas in veritate, he rushed into print to tell Catholics which parts of the encyclical were not actually representative of Benedict’s thought and need not be given much attention.

All of this is just a prelude to saying how pleased I was to read this piece by Ryan Anderson of the Witherspoon Institute, which is a sort of social conservative think-tank. Reviewing a recent book from the American Enterprise Institute, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism, by Peter Wehner and Arthur Brooks, Anderson criticizes the failure of capitalism’s apologists to go beyond the not-necessarily-true argument that capitalism is just because, in the long run, almost everybody benefits. I’ll quote one passage, which I think will cause anyone interested in this subject to read the whole piece:

Perhaps most disconcerting, however, is that Wehner and Brooks offer no principles of justice on how individuals should deploy their wealth, and in a book titled Wealth and Justice this is disappointing. Supporting free markets and limited government doesn’t even begin to address the question of how citizens should behave in the market: Can a citizen be guilty of injustice in how he uses his wealth? Do citizens have duties—in justice—to distribute their wealth? Wehner and Brooks are silent.

In justice. One doesn’t have to believe that the government should micromanage the economy to hold that some positive assertion of the demands of justice, independent of the workings of the market, must have a place in a healthy economic order. I think Ryan Anderson is a young man: a hopeful sign, if true.

And while I’m at it: in searching for the Glenn Beck quote above, I found this solid Christian response to him, from the prominent Southern Baptist Albert Mohler.

Justice is our concern because it is God’s concern.

Another hopeful sign.

W. S. Merwin: Notes To A Lost Text

Sunday Night Journal — November 7, 2011

For many years I’ve thought of writing some sort of lengthy appreciation of W.S. Merwin, but the project has never made it to the top of my list, and it’s time I accepted the possibility that it never will. Last year when he was appointed Poet Laureate I thought I would at least do some sort of blog post about him; now his year in that position has come and gone and I never managed to get that done, either. So, on the Chestertonian principle that anything worth doing is worth doing badly, or better late than never, or better something than nothing, here is...something, though perhaps the applicable aphorism is “too little, too late.”

Did you even know the U.S. had a poet laureate? I believe it is a renaming of what used to be the nearest thing we had, poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. At least, back in the days when I was somewhat more conversant with the contemporary poetry scene, that seemed to be considered a sort of pinnacle of what passes for fame for poets. As someone said—it may have been John Ashbery—on being asked what it was like to be a famous poet, “being a famous poet is not like being famous.”

In those same days, roughly 1971-1976, Merwin was very highly regarded, and imitated, by aspiring young poets, at least those of my acquaintance. As is often the case with poets having a very distinctive style, the influence was not necessarily for the best. Mediocre work in the vein of, say, Hopkins, or Dylan Thomas, or early Eliot, inevitably seems like mere imitation, and draws attention to the fact that it is not quite as good as the original.

Unlike most of the people I knew in the local literary scene, I didn’t read much contemporary poetry, and didn’t like most of what I read. I held on principle a general sort of disapproval of it. I thought the whole direction of modern poetry—free verse, the French-influenced imagism, the obscurity, the flat rhythms—was a big mistake, and had neo-classical or formalist, and definitely traditionalist, ideas about what I wanted to do. More fundamentally, I just didn’t think much of it was very good—it was competent and occasionally memorable, but it hardly ever affected me deeply. Merwin’s work did, though. I was won over when I read his 1967 book The Lice. Specifically, I think it was this poem, at the time and I suppose still, considered one of his very best, that won me over:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year not knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Setting aside what I thought or think about whether this manner of writing poetry is the way it ought, ideally, to be done—that is, whether one thinks it a healthy development for the art—there is also, philosophically and religiously and psychological, something pretty unhealthy in this book. It’s desolate and disoriented:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

(“The Asians Dying”)

And at night wrapped in the bed of ashes
In one breath I wake
It is the time when the beards of the dead get their growth

(“When You Go Away”)

Out of the morning stars the blood began to run down the white sky and the crowd in tears remembered who they were and raised their hands shouting Tomorrow our flag

(“Unfinished Book of Kings”)

I could go on and on, quoting the whole book. Looking through it again now for the first time in ten years or so, I’m reminded of how many of these poems are perfect in their way, and that even the ones I like less always have something stunning in them. They are often obscure, but not in the tight, logically rigorous way of some of the earlier modernists who were taken with Donne, the way of the riddle or puzzle. This is the way of intuition, instinct, and a definite touch of surrealism. One does not look for a precise physical analog to the bed of ashes, or the blood running down the sky; one accepts them as images of isolation and dread. (Actually the ashes might be pretty straightforward as a reference to a bed empty of the one addressed in the title.)

Isolation. Desolation. Loss. Alienation. Disorientation. Absence. These are the abstractions with Thelice which one attempts to describe the atmosphere of this book. And if those words told the whole story, I wouldn’t like the poems as well. But there is always in them the consciousness of what is missing, and an occasional glimpse of it. My friend Robert said something many years ago about Merwin’s work that has stuck in my mind ever since: that it was like “notes to a lost religious text.” I believe he was talking about Writings to an Unfinished Accompaniment, but it applies to most of the work that I love.

I’ve never quite made up my mind whether or not I believe in something along the lines of a collective mind or instinct, something that brings certain ideas and moods to the forefront among a large segment of humanity: the skepticism of the 18th century, for instance. Perhaps such things are explainable as being simply a matter of the time being congenial to the idea—but when we say that, what have we really said? Why was the time congenial? In any case, whether or not there is some mysterious force behind it, these phenomena do occur. Something happened in the 1960s, throughout the western world, at least. It involved the breaking down of structures of all sorts. For some people in some situations it was a liberation, for others a collapse, and sometimes the same situation was a liberation to some and a collapse to others. And sometimes the same person felt it simultaneously as liberation and collapse. I think that could be said of Merwin, and of my other favorite artist of the mid-20th century, Ingmar Bergman. Their work of the 1960s is often similar in tone, movies like The Silence and Hour of the Wolf seeming to come from a very similar place as some of the poems in The Lice. Both men were the sons of Protestant ministers, both seem to have lost or rejected belief in God, but were left with a sense of loss and a fear of meaninglessness, and created works of art which express a deep spiritual yearning. Their sense of dislocation is almost apocalyptic; they seem to see an abyss opening, and the modern world plunging toward it, or already falling.

What I’ve seen of Merwin’s early work was pretty conventional for its time, which is not to say it wasn’t very well done. The few poems I’ve seen from that period were formal in structure. It was in The Moving Target, published in 1963, that he began to develop the style that produced his most original work: he dropped all formal regularity, including meter, line length, stanza patterns, and finally punctuation, as in the poem quoted above. At a glance you might think his line no different, formally, from the lifeless “free verse” that a high-schooler might produce, but anyone with an ear quickly discerns that it has its own shimmering rhythm, and that each poem has a definite graceful shape, all the product of considerably more skill than is immediately apparent.

It is The Moving Target and the following three books—The Lice, The Carrier of Ladders, and Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment—which are for me, and I think for many of Merwin’s admirers, the heart of his work. The Lice, by the way, is the darkest of the four. I have followed him only as far as 1992’s Travels, which has its moments but was the latest of several that didn’t seem to me on the level of his work of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He also seems to have become more political over the years, in the usual left-wing artist sort of way. The great books have some memorable and powerful poems on political and environmental themes, but from the Reagan years forward I have occasionally run across remarks from him that were the sort of bared-teeth leftism that I thought could hardly fail to have affected his art.

But never mind that. The great work remains. Here is another poem from The Lice, one that reminds me of both Bergman and St. John of the Cross. This book, by the way is the darkest of the four mentioned above. And also by the way, the intent of the title is not to disgust and repel: it is the answer to a riddle which, according to Heraclitus, stumped Homer: “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

The Room

I think all this is somewhere in myself
The cold room unlit before dawn
Containing a stillness such as attends death
And from the corner the sound of a small bird trying
From time to time to fly a few beats in the dark
You would say it is dying it is immortal


I haven't really made much attempt here to describe the effect of Merwin's poetry on me, and apparently on a good many other people, and to explain why I like it so much. That is the part of the unwritten essay that would require the most work and even then be inadequate. As with  most art, the old saying applies: for those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't, no explanation will suffice. You will either have responded to the two poems reproduced here, or not. If you did, and are not already familiar with Merwin's work, you should seek it out.

Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest

Sunday Night Journal — October 30, 2011

I was about to say that a couple of months ago I mentioned that this album was available for streaming from NPR. Then I checked the post where I mentioned it and found that it was actually four months ago—late June. This sort of thing is happening to me more and more. The carousel of the year has been continually speeding up for some time, but lately it’s become almost disorienting. Just when I think I’ve begun to get used to it, and am no longer making seriously inaccurate guesses about how long ago something happened, it gets even faster, and I’m doing it again. Can it really be football season again already? More than halfway through football season, as a matter of fact. And how can I have wasted so much time?

Likewise, I was a little surprised to find that it’s been closer to three than to four years since I reviewed Gillian Welch’s Time the Revelator. But a melancholy reflection is an appropriate beginning for a discussion of her work.  HarrowAndHarvest

I liked Time a lot, though there were a couple of songs on it that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about—not that I disliked them, but I found them somewhat less interesting than the rest. On that score, The Harrow and the Harvest is better. In fact it comes pretty close to being perfect, in that every song is extremely fine and extremely well performed. To my taste, the only one that seems to lower the standard a bit is the lively banjo-based “Six White Horses.” But as it’s the only song on the album which could be described as anywhere near bright in mood, it provides a little needed contrast to the dark colors of the others.

Time the Revelator is ten years old now, and yet this new album sounds as if it might have been recorded the following year: similar songs performed in similar ways. I can imagine a critic complaining that there has been too little development, that the duo of Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings are not progressing, not discovering new things. That would be misleading on two counts. First, there is an album between the two, Soul Journey, which I have not heard, but which is said to be rather different in mood and style: more upbeat, and having more elaborate instrumentation, including drums. Second, and more importantly, though they may be doing the same sort of thing here, they’re doing it better. Yes, it’s a relatively small and subtle improvement, but it’s an improvement: not that every song here is better than every song on Time, but they’re even more consistently rich, and I think the new album is more unified. I’m used to musicians who do brilliant things early in their careers, and continue in the same vein but with less inspiration and conviction. Those few who continue to be brilliant usually change substantially, exhausting one style and moving on to something else: Tom Waits is the best example. It’s unusual to find a high level of achievement continued in a similar way at an equally high or higher level.

I supposed, on first exposure to Welch’s country-based voice and songs, that she had grown up in the south and that its musical culture had been part of her life, and was pretty surprised to learn that she was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles, in the midst of the entertainment industry. Well, I thought, that just goes to show you how strong the music is, and how gifted she is, to have absorbed that whole way of expression. But I learned just now that there’s more to the story. Yes, according to the Wikipedia biography, she was born in New York City (on my birthday, which pleases me absurdly), and when she was three her parents moved to Los Angeles and became writers for The Carol Burnett Show. But she was adopted, and there is some reason to think that her biological mother may have been from North Carolina—which provides a starting place for an interesting train of thought about heredity.

This music is commonly referred to nowadays as Americana or American roots music: folk-based, but not directly imitative, comprised mostly of original songs with an obvious debt to either the country or blues traditions or both. In Welch’s case, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s traditional and what’s original. Some songs that make extensive use of folk terms and phrases are obviously original, too sophisticated (lyrically or musically or both), to be folk songs. But I am really not sure about a few of them—the above-mentioned “Six White Horses,” or “Red Clay Halo” on Time, for instance. The latter doesn’t sound really sound like a folk song, but it could be an old Nashville tune from the ‘40s or ‘50s. In other words, the blending of traditional and original elements is pretty nearly seamless, which is high praise.

People would flat-out ask me, 'Don't you have any happy love songs?' Well, as a matter of fact, I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts.

The album is also pretty dark, in a way that is certainly supported by the tradition but is also undoubtedly Welch’s own predilection. The speaker in Welch’s first-person lyrics is sometimes clearly someone else, but “Dark Turn of Mind” seems to be about herself:

I see the bones in the river
I feel the wind through the pine
And I hear the shadows a-callin’
To a girl with a dark turn of mind

But though almost everything here is dark, melancholy, and more resigned than hopeful, it isn’t hopeless. There’s a light out there somewhere. The girl with the dark turn of mind is happy at night. And in “Hard Times,” though the “Camptown man” who sang “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind” as he plowed his fields seems defeated at the end of the song, the story isn’t over:

But the Camptown man he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come all you ragtime kings
And come on you dogs (dolls?) and sing
Pick up your dusty old horn and give it a blow
Playing “hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”

It’s clear that Welch and Rawlings are pretty much equals in this collaboration: certainly in performance, and by their account, and by the crediting of the songs to both, in writing as well. So I don’t know why the duo is persistently known only by the name of one of them. Perhaps at this point it’s just for consistent branding. At any rate, Rawlings’s contribution has to be recognized. He is an extremely fine guitarist. He doesn’t sound anything like Richard Thompson, but like Thompson he applies a very far-ranging vocabulary and a lot of invention to fairly straightforward folk-based chord progressions, and the result has a lot to do with the fact that although most of the material here is similar not only in basic sound but in tempo and mood, I don’t get bored with it. And I really should: an album of consistently slow, somewhat lengthy songs, all very similar in musical texture, sounds on the face of it like something that I wouldn’t be able to sit through all at once. But within those limits there’s a lot of invention: beautiful melody lines, consistently rich and skillful lyrics, and of course Rawlings’s guitar.

As excellent as Rawlings’s playing is, I’ve always wished his tone were bigger and fuller. It’s very tight and trebly, really sort of flat, and I sometimes wish I were hearing the same notes played in a tone like, for instance, that heard on the old Ian and Sylvia albums. I have to admit, though, that the very bright tone fits well with Welch’s broad, soft strumming. She uses the sort of guitar I wish he did: a big Gibson. His, I just learned, is in fact a rather odd instrument, a 1935 Epiphone archtop, a smaller-than-average guitar and apparently not a particularly high-quality one in its day. Well, it’s certainly distinctive. It sounds almost like a resonator guitar.

I haven't said anything about Welch's singing, thinking somehow that it goes without saying that she is really, really good. But then I'm not assuming that everyone who reads this has heard her, so I should say it. She has a low, rich voice, not the sharp sort of sound one associates with country singers: more like a torch singer than, say, a Dolly Parton. And it suits the material perfectly. The fact that she has recorded with Emmylou Harris and Allison Kraus should tell you how she's regarded by her fellow artists.

Anyway: if you have heard and liked the earlier work of Welch and Rawlings, it is pretty certain that you’ll like this. A week or so ago they were on Austin City Limits, and the program can be viewed online at the PBS site. The first half features the very interesting band The Decemberists. In the Welch-Rawlings half, you can see Gillian buck-dance. And by the way, in case you were wondering, it’s “Gillian” as in “gill”, as in how fish breath, not “jill.” as in jack-and. I’m not sure which is standard. I thought I remembered Gillian Anderson’s name (The X-Files) being pronounced as “jillian.”

Caryll Houselander: A Rocking-Horse Catholic

Sunday Night Journal — October 23, 2011

As I mentioned back in July when I wrote about Houselander’s book of quasi-poetry, The Flowering Tree, I intended to read this autobiographical work next. I don’t remember for sure now, but I believe that decision was made when I took it off the shelf in the library and read the opening paragraphs, in which she recounts the two attempts at baptizing her which followed immediately upon her birth (September 29, 1901). The poor baby was not expected to live, and the clergyman called to baptize her was disconcerted to find that her mother and uncle, the only other persons present, had no name for her, because they “had not thought it necessary to think of names for ‘something that would not live for twenty-four hours.’”

Moreover, “[my uncle] said that I was so small and so odd, and so like a tiny red fish, that it seemed that I should either be drowned in the baptismal waters or swim away in them.”

Well, how could one not want to read further after that? And so I did. And I would say this might be the best place to start with Houselander’s work. Might be: since I haven’t read anything other than these two books and a few passages here and there, I can’t be sure about that. But it certainly illuminates The Flowering Tree considerably.

It’s a brief and extremely readable book, only a hundred and fifty smallish pages. One could easily read it in a weekend and still get some other things done, and I rather wish I’d had the opportunity to do that. Circumstances mostly beyond my control make my reading pretty fragmented, and although I had no trouble keeping the thread of this story fresh in my mind when I went several days without reading it, its impact and my response were correspondingly fragmented.

To summarize the life very, very briefly: Caryll Houselander was born into a family without religion, except the nominal Christianity implied in the baptism story, in which an almost superstitious fear of hell requires that a baby be baptized though one has no intention of raising it in the faith. Her ill health at birth seems to have continued for most of her life relatively short life; she died of cancer at 53.

Her mother became Catholic when Caryll was five, and had her baptized (conditionally, I suppose); hence the title of the book: she was not a cradle Catholic but a rocking-horse Catholic. Her parents’ marriage dissolved when she was nine, and this came as a terrible blow to her. From then until she was sixteen she was sent to convent schools, the first of which she liked very much and which encouraged a devotional life which I think must have had some influence in preventing her from leaving the Church altogether when, not very many years later, she very much wanted to. At the second convent, which sounds like something out of the upper-class Catholic milieu of Brideshead Revisited, she learned to associate the Church with snobbery, and this began a process of disaffection which lasted until (I gather—it isn’t entirely clear) sometime in her twenties.

She was called home from the second convent to help her mother care for a wayward priest, “a very sick man in mind and body.” Some years later she left home and lived on her own in great poverty. Estranged from the Church, she worked hard to find a substitute for it, but did not succeed.

I referred to this as an autobiographical work, not an autobiography, because although it was written not long before the author’s death, it stops with the last of three mystical experiences, and the one which seems to have led to her return to the Church, although that isn’t entirely clear. And it is very short on details: it wasn’t clear, for instance, to me at any rate, why the presence of the sick priest was cause for ostracism. Was it simply that a priest was there at all, in the home of a divorced woman? Or was it something more, something in particular about him? One reads in the Wikipedia biography that Houselander was left heartbroken by a very improbably-sounding love affair with Sidney Reilly, a famous spy and rather bad man, but nothing of that sort is mentioned here, and nothing very specific about the half-starved years in which she lived among London bohemians.

But that’s all somewhat beside the point, which is the spiritual testament. The only thing that keeps me from saying that it ranks with the great ones is that I’ve read so few of those. Certainly it is a very fine and memorable one. It has the depth of insight that one would assume in a spiritual classic, but it has a somewhat cool, very modern and English tone, which I like very much. She describes coolly episodes of intense feeling, such as this period of severe mental and physical suffering that struck her at the age of (I think) about six:

Before I was able to go to my second Holy Communion I was again attacked by illness, this time an illness which made a deeper impression on my whole subsequent life than anything that has ever happened to me before or since. It occurred with astonishing suddenness. At one moment...I was a normal child, not much afflicted by conscience and usually naughty rather than good; but a moment later I was literally prostrated by what must surely have been an acute and violent neurosis, characterised by an unbearable sense of guilt.

I was walking upstairs, going (unwillingly) to wash my hand for tea, when without a moment’s warning I became too weak to take another step. I sat down on the steps feeling as if all my life was flowing out of my heels, and my wrists were too weak, too fluid, to lift my hands. There, after the tea bell had run repeatedly and vainly for me, I was found, and carried upstairs and put to bed, where I had to remain for the next three months.

I’ll stop there, because you really need to read the resolution of this incident for yourself.

One naturally is reminded of Flannery O’Connor: another sickly woman, Catholic, unmarried, possessed of sharp wit, acute and unsentimental spiritual insight, and a considerable literary gift. O’Connor is more significant, of course, from the literary point of view, but I begin to think that Houselander may be of equal importance as a spiritual writer. And her literary gifts are not inconsequential: this book is a work of artless-seeming art, a well-structured narrative written in graceful prose of great clarity and precision and frequent dry wit (“a normal child, not much afflicted by conscience”).


I had written all the above when it came time to go to 5:30 Mass. I planned to add only another paragraph noting that the vision upon which Caryll Houselander’s spirituality rested was of Christ in all men. It was literally a vision, one which came to her toward the end of that part of her life which is included in this book. Afterwards, “if the ‘vision’ had faded, the knowledge had not”—and the knowledge became the foundation of a sort of ministry to troubled people.

Christ in all men. Yes, certainly I believe that, and I want to see that way, too. And so I went on to Mass, intending to add that last paragraph later.

A woman sat down next to me in church. She was wearing running shorts and a sweatshirt. I’m at ease with the informal way most people (in this country, at least) dress for Mass, and in fact I like it, because it means I don’t have to wear a tie. But...shorts that have hardly any leg at all? That’s a little too much, or rather much too little. And on women it’s certainly distracting to men, though in this case the wearer was mistaken if she thought the shorts made her attractive. Well, at least she’s here, I thought, and it’s not my place to judge her. Then she began fidgeting restlessly and generally giving off an air of being unhappy to be there. And that was a bit distracting, too, and a bit annoying. Don’t let that bother you, I thought.

Then I realized that the thing which was really getting on my nerves, though I had not yet taken conscious note of it, was that she was chewing gum—chewing it vigorously, and very audibly, with frequent loud pops. At that point I went, mentally, over the edge, though I didn’t do or say anything. It happens to be a quirk of mine that any sort of smacking, slurping, or snuffling noise that continues for very long has an extremely irritating effect on me, like fingernails on a chalkboard. I really can’t control the reaction—I mean, I can control my behavior, and I usually am able to stifle my impulse to lash out at the perpetrator, but I go rigid with irritated tension. Of course the more I tried to ignore the sound the more I noticed it, and for a great deal of the Mass all I could hear was the popping and smacking.

Ok, Lord, I get your point

I had a pretty tough time seeing Christ in the gum-smacking lady. No doubt God was at work there, and probably laughing at me. At the Exchange of the Peace, I did manage to look into her eyes and see, if not Christ, at least a fellow sinner for whom I could feel kindness, and concomitant shame for my anger.

I wondered how she was going to receive Communion while chewing gum. At the Consecration she pulled a song sheet out of the rack on the pew and wrapped her gum in it.


I have never been tempted to steal a library book before, but I'm tempted to steal this one. It doesn't appear to have been checked out for many years, and it's just a matter of time until they discard it. And A Rocking-Horse Catholic appears to be in print only in some sort of scanned paperback, and used copies of the old Sheed & Ward edition start at around $45. I'd really like to have one of those, with dust jacket intact: the illustration is based on a design by Houselander.


The one in the library is probably an original edition, but of course it doesn't have the dust jacket. It does have, pasted into the inside back cover, the front and back...what do you call them?...the pieces of the dust jacket that go inside the book, with a fine tribute from Ronald Knox and one of those nostalgic Sheed & Ward offers to send you a copy of Sheed & Ward's Own Trumpet, request to be addressed to J. Buck, Sheed & Ward, New York 3. Can you imagine a publisher today putting an individual's name on something like that?

Don't worry, I'm in no danger of actually stealing it--the thought just crossed my mind, that's all.