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.

More Notes and Vignettes from Radical Son

Sunday Night Journal — October 17, 2011

The personal and the political

The interplay of the personal and the political in the book and in Horowitz’s life is interestingly illustrated in this passage.

In our second year [in Berkeley, ca. 1962], Elissa became pregnant. This was not exactly planned, but neither was it entirely an accident. We had never used any contraception except the rhythm method, which was an uncertain precaution at best. Like the vegetarian regime we had adopted after arriving in California, this was a decision Elissa made and I was happy to follow. In declaring her rejection of other contraceptive methods, she might have said something to me like “It’s unnatural.” But it was not really an idea as she presented it, and there was no argument offered to jusify it. She did not think programatically in that way. It was more like an instinct or feeling.

Once I yielded to her will, on the other hand, I felt the need to convert it into a principle. When I had worked it out as a formal position on contraception (pretty much against), I incorporated it into my Root and Branch article on meaning. But when I presented the text to [Robert] Scheer, he responded with a smirk and pretended not to understand the argument at all. His subtext was transparent: Only a reactionary, probably only a Catholic, could have a point of view so perverse. The subject itself was so personal that I was embarrassed to defend what I had written. I removed the explicit reference from my text and approached the matter obliquely. “A sign of the uncertain footing of this generation in the world,” I wrote, “is the reluctace to bring new being into it.”

He goes on to say that his ideology prompted him to feel guilty about Elissa’s pregnancy, because

A maternal state was part of woman’s oppression. I had made it harder for her to become independent and achieve a status beyond motherhood.

But he realizes that “this progressive but abstract understanding” in fact represented a denial of Elissa’s real wishes. Not until years later, after three children, did she tell him that his reaction presented itself to her as lack of emotional support at the onset of her pregnancies, and

For the first time, I began to resent the progressive ideas that had shaped my reactions and, in this instance, separated me from her.

The transcendent

A Catholic reading that last story naturally notes with fascination the correspondence between Elissa Horowitz’s instinctive view about contraception and that of the Church. There are several other such glancing approaches to actual religion, as opposed to the false religion of Marxism; sadly, these are never pursued.

I dedicated my Shakespeare book [1965] “To Elissa, who brings grace to my world.” I’d wanted to call it Shakespearean Grace, but when I mentioned the title to her, she thought it “too Christian,” and I changed it to Shakespeare: An Existential View. Later I came to regret this, because the original title was more appropriate, and this was the only book I managed to write in those years that I can reread comfortably today.

There is almost nothing in the book of what might be called spirituality in any direct sense, and that is, in the end, its greatest weakness, and the aspect in which it most falls short in comparison to Witness. Horowitz never seems to see that it was the godless pride of Marxism that was at the root of its power to delude and destroy. I say “was” because Marxism and its relatives seem of comparatively little influence now, but I think less coherent and more diffuse forms of them are still widely and almost unconsciously held, and that we probably have not heard the last of them.

In the past five or six years Horowitz has written several books in which he faces the ultimate questions, and reportedly he comes down to a sort of humanistic stoicism. His most recent is A Point In Time: The Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next. I plan to read it.

Marxism, communism, and the 1960s

What [various current chroniclers of the 1960s] sought to obscure in their recollections of the past was this: from its beginnings, the New Left was not an innocent experiment in American utopianism, but a self-conscious effort to rescue the Communist project from its Soviet fate.

In 1968, Ramparts sent Sol [Stern] to Bratislava, along with Tom Hayden and an SDS delegation, to meet Madame Binh and other leaders of the National Liberation Front. For the radicals attending, this was not just a fact-finding mission. The organizers allowed Sol to be present only after Ramparts agreed that he would not report on the “sensitive” political discussions taking place. Long afterwards, Sol told me what these were: “The SDSers held a seminar with the Communists on how to conduct their psychological warfare campaign against the United States.” According to Sol, Hayden was particularly vocal in making suggestions on how to sabotage the American war effort.

At the wedding of two radicals at the craziest point of “the ‘60s,” which was roughly 1969-1970

...the couple exchanged rings made from the fuselage of a downed American aircraft. The bride had brought them back from North Vietnam. Their wedding cake was inscribed with a Weatherman slogan: Smash Monogamy. The marriage lasted less than a year.

Why does any of this still matter? I can say from direct personal knowledge that not all those who actively opposed the war in Vietnam, or participated in any of the broadly left-wing movements of the 1960s, had any particular sympathy for hard-core Marxist communism. I am pretty sure that the preceding sentence would still be accurate if I substituted “most of” for “not all.” Even those who might be accurately described as communists, in that they had some wooly-headed idea of everyone sharing everything, were certainly not interested in (much less capable of) establishing a totalitarian state, or for that matter any other kind of state. So why does it matter if their views on the war and other matters happened to coincide with those of communists, or if they were unknowingly influenced by communists?

Because there is a world of difference between opposing a war because you believe it to be immoral and/or unwise, and opposing it because you want the other side to win. I don’t know that my own opposition to the war was even coherent enough to fit the first description, but it most certainly did not fit the second.

Because the left, and to some extent our culture as a whole, at least at the most prestigious and influential levels, still has not faced the truth about communism, and the influence of communism, at least on the emotional level. Yes, there were the Gulags, the famines, the liquidation of whole populations, but that was all done by crazy foreigners far away and has nothing to do with what my socialist history professor teaches. If you credibly accuse someone of having actively participated in a fascist movement—or substitute “racist,” since real fascists are very rare in this country—you disgrace him, and if the participation was earnest and direct, you may ruin him in the eyes of much of the public, and certainly in the circles which would give him access to wide influence at the higher levels of society. But if you accuse him of being a communist, you’re more likely to damage yourself, at least in the eyes of sophisticated people. They’ll laugh and call you McCarthyite, a Bircher, un-American (with no trace of irony), and so forth. Only if, in a case like that of Van Jones, there is an outcry from the unsophisticated public will the accused be inconvenienced. The groom in the wedding described by David Horowitz above was Michael Lerner, who is now editor of the leftist, but respectable, Tikkun magazine and was at one point influential enough on Hillary Clinton that she referred to him as her “guru,” until so much sport was made of her Lerner-derived “politics of meaning” that she distanced herself from him. The point is not that Lerner cannot have changed, but that his extreme left-wing past has been no great barrier to his subsequent success and influence on very powerful people.

Because when we hear someone say he is an activist for “social justice” we need to know if his idea of justice involves the forcible imposition upon the nation of a utopian fantasy, under an absolute state in which the consent of the governed has no place. Because we need to know whether he would, if he could, suppress Christianity and any other unprogressive elements that rival the state’s claim to final authority over every aspect of life.

Because communism and fascism are rival siblings in the same totalitarian family, and we would never dismiss as irrelevant a comparable fascist presence in any political movement.

Because it is difficult enough for human beings to learn the lessons of history even when the facts are clear, and much more so when some facts are deliberately ignored or suppressed.

Horowitz the polemicist

The following passage provides, unfortunately, an explanation of the difference between the tone of the book and the tone of Horowitz’s everyday opinion writing. After quoting from a speech made in the 1980s to “two hundred Berkeley radicals at a pro-Sandinista conclave to which I was invited as a token conservative,” he says

The rhetoric was heated, but by the time I reentered the political battle, I had made a decision to speak in the voice of the New Left—outraged, aggressive, morally certain. I would frame indictments as we had framed them, but from the other side.... I wanted my former comrades to be put on the receiving end of accusations like those they had made against everyone else. I wanted them to see how it felt. Evidently it did not feel good. When I reached the point in my speech where I said “It is no accident that the greatest atrocities of the Twentieth Century have been committed by Marxist radicals in power,” my words were shouted down and the microphone was cut off.

Well, perhaps you have to be that way to have an effect in the world, but it certainly doesn’t appeal to me. Does it appeal to anyone who doesn’t already agree with you? Does it ever result in anyone on the other side re-examining his views? I doubt it, but maybe I’m wrong. There must be some incentive for it, since so many people on both sides do it.

How the Light Gets In

Sunday Night Journal — October 2, 2011

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
—Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

For those outside traditional Christianity, the whole Catholic (and Orthodox) emphasis on the Eucharist is weird, to say the least. Even setting aside the strangeness of the doctrine that the consecrated bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Christ, it might seem over-emphasized. With so much else on the Church’s agenda—worship, the struggle for personal virtue, evangelization, helping the poor and others in various kinds of need, it might seem a bit strange that again and again popes and theologians describe the Eucharist as the center and foundation of the Church and all it does.

Even if you stipulate belief in the improbable doctrine, aren’t other things just as important? The attempt to justify to the world the Church’s existence usually starts and ends with “all the good it does”: the charities, the hospitals, the schools, even the advocacy of those things. So why do we not, when talking among ourselves, treat doing good as the foundation?

In making our case to the world we naturally tend to pick something the world will understand. We know that the practical help that we render to the world rests on the foundation of what we receive within the Church—what we are taught, and what we eat and drink. But we can’t expect those outside the Church to understand the place of the Eucharist in that process.

Maybe so. Maybe we can’t expect them to understand it; sometimes we have trouble understanding it ourselves. But it isn’t only the practical, material good works that make the Church important to the world. Although its effects are subtle and not measurable, the mere presence of the Presence is even more significant, not only to those within but to the world at large, than any concrete activity of the Church. The world is made different by its presence. One who knows of it is changed, even if his reaction is incredulity and denial—the idea of it has entered his mind, and he knows that he lives in a world where it is not only conceived but believed, and such a world is different from one where it is not conceived at all. Even one who does not know of it is touched by its spiritual light, though perhaps at a great distance, which shines on everyone and everything in this world, whether or not they perceive it.

I assume that what Cohen was getting at in these lines is the idea that the world is never all right. It’s never whole and unbroken. It always leaves us wishing that something were different, that our hopes had been, for once, completely fulfilled, not smashed to pieces or at best only partly realized. And that those broken places are essential to us, because if we were perfectly at home and satisfied in this world, then we would be truly lost, not even realizing that we were in darkness.

Last Sunday at Mass, at the consecration, I saw the disk of unleavened bread raised by the priest for a few seconds as a small bright hole in the fabric of our world, letting in light from outside, allowing vision from inside, and I thought of Cohen’s words.

The presence of God in the Eucharist is the crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in. It’s nothing less than the Incarnation itself, continued in time, without which the world would be dark. Not completely dark, because there is some genuine light in each of us, and the better ones among us always try to nurture and spread it. But they can’t get very far, and they get confused about what the light is and what it requires of them. That little disk is like something out of science fiction, a portal through which another world visits and is visited by ours. The shape is conventional in the Latin rite and is not part of the actual doctrine, but it seems appropriate, suggestive of many things, one of which is an opening, a hole or a little round window. From a distance, it may be only a pinhole, but we have all experienced how bright even the faintest light can seem when there is no other. I’ve often thought that if one had eyes that could only see spiritual things, in the way that certain mechanisms detect only infrared light, or the way bats perceive by sound, the world would seem a pretty dark place, but every Catholic church would be seen to be illuminated from within, with light from the tabernacle pouring through the windows and doors.

A Few Notes on the News

Sunday Night Journal — September 25, 2011

Two Executions

If you paid any attention at all to news in (or from, as the case may be) the U.S. for the past week or so, you know that the state of Georgia executed a man named Troy Davis for the 1989 killing of a police officer. And you also know that the execution was widely protested on the grounds that Davis may have been innocent, and on the grounds that the death penalty is wrong, period. I take no position on his guilt or innocence; I've read persuasive arguments both ways, and am generally slow to be convinced one way or another on a disputed factual question on which I have no direct knowledge. I look at Google News, which collects news stories from all over the net partly on the basis of the number of people who read them, several times a day, and can't count the number of stories I saw about Davis's case, almost all of them either clearly opposing the execution or highlighting the opposition to it.

On the same night, a Texas man, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was executed for one of the most sickening crimes in recent American history, the murder of James Byrd, killed by being dragged behind a truck for two miles. The crime was apparently racially motivated, since Byrd was black and Brewer and one of the others were known white supremacists. Brewer's execution attracted comparatively little publicity and almost no opposition, one notable exception being Brewer's son.

I could be described as an unenthusiastic opponent of the death penalty. I accept the current Catholic teaching on the matter, though I think it has tended to create confusion about the much more important teaching against the deliberate taking of innocent life and, worse, political cover for Catholics who promote abortion rights. The Catechism says that although the death penalty is permissible in principle in order to protect society, the circumstances under which it is necessary for that purpose are "very rare, if not practically non-existent."

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

(The "very rare" quote quote is from Evangelium Vitae.) This strikes me as a somewhat unsatisfactory argument, particularly the point about the possibility of the criminal redeeming himself (an odd phrase for an official document of the Catholic Church). It is far from obvious that repentance is more likely on the part of a man facing decades in prison than one facing death. But never mind that for the moment: surely from this point of view Brewer's execution deserves to be condemned every bit as much as Davis's. The Cathechism's argument starts with the presumption that the accused is guilty; it hardly needs to be said that the innocent should not be punished. Principled opponents of the death penalty should be willing to make their argument for the most detested perpetrators of the most loathsome crimes, but we didn't hear that this week.

 Software Is Eating the World

There seems to be pretty widespread agreement that the American middle class is shrinking, and that fewer and fewer jobs pay a middle-class wage.  I would be amused by the people who on the one hand excoriate the American middle class for its cultural failings, its tacky religiosity, etc. etc., and on the other hand lament that it's shrinking, if the situation weren't in fact alarming. I think the reasons for the phenomenon are complex, but one of them is that the ever-expanding role of technology in the economy has, over the past thirty years or so, caused the value of mental work--everything from law to computer programming--to increase, and the value of physical work to decrease. There is an interesting (if ungraceful) formulation of this by Jim Manzi at National Review Online:

The way I have put this is that workers in our economy are in a race between development of as-yet-non-commoditized cognitive capabilities on one hand, and wage reductions, as capabilities are commoditized through technological advances (broadly defined) on the other. This has been going on for a long, long time, but it does seem to be speeding up — why?

In other words, American workers are having a tough time finding things to do that can't be done by machines or people who are willing to work like machines. You can read the whole thing here. I find Manzi's commentary generally interesting, because he's pretty non-ideological, in the sense that he really makes an effort to see what's there, not what his political views tell him should be there. Also because he's very bright. And the two pieces to which he links are interesting.

However, this raises a question not just about the future of the American middle class but about that of the human race. We're not really supposed to notice this, but the fact is that not everybody is capable of work which is predominantly mental, which requires a fairly high level of abstract reasoning ability and is done mostly at that level. We've all known people who are very good at some form of physical work but not "book learning." And that doesn't mean they're stupid: a lot of them have a high degree of intelligence where the solving of physical problems are concerned. They're much smarter than I am in that way--I may have scored higher than they did on academic aptitude and achievement tests, but I'm an idiot when it comes to building something.

Moreover, there are people who are in fact not very bright at all; they do not have the intelligence to do any sort of very demanding work. But they are people, and there is absolutely no warrant for believing that God prefers the intelligent to the unintelligent. Or rather I should say that it is wisdom, not mere reasoning ability, that God prefers. To the extent that we can plan our society, they must be included in the plan, with the assumption that their intrinsic value is no less than that of anyone else.

Software entrepreneur Marc Andreessen (one of the co-founders of Netscape), in an article called Why Software is Eating the World, predicts that everything which can be automated and software-driven will be, and says

many people in the U.S. and around the world lack the education and skills required to participate in the great new companies coming out of the software revolution. This is a tragedy since every company I work with is absolutely starved for talent. Qualified software engineers, managers, marketers and salespeople in Silicon Valley can rack up dozens of high-paying, high-upside job offers any time they want, while national unemployment and underemployment is sky high. This problem is even worse than it looks because many workers in existing industries will be stranded on the wrong side of software-based disruption and may never be able to work in their fields again. There's no way through this problem other than education, and we have a long way to go.

If his last sentence is correct, then there might as well be a period after the word "problem." I know something about software development. The number of people who can do it is fairly small, and the number of people who can do it really well is very small. And sales and marketing certainly require abilities that most people don't possess (and many don't want to possess). This is only partly a matter of education. Anyone who believes that anyone can be educated to be a computer programmer is living in a fantasy. Human differences in aptitude exist, and no amount of education can make those differences go away.

And anyway, how could one even hypothesize a world in which everyone makes his living working on the machines that do all the work? It doesn't take as many people to program robots to weld auto bodies as it does to weld auto bodies. If we can't or won't think any further or deeper than the old sci-fi dream of eliminating all manual labor, we're headed for trouble. The fantasy used to be that when hard work was no longer necessary, everyone would sit around reading Shakespeare and listening to classical music. Surely nobody believes that anymore. Mindless and sensationalist entertainment will beat Art by a factor of 50 to 1, at least. For that matter, the actual practice of what is depicted in mindless and sensationalist entertainment will beat cultivation of the civilized virtues for some very large percentage of the human race. The idea that people will be happy with enough money to live on, no onerous work to do, and no purpose other than enjoyment is another fantasy; "idle hands are the devil's workshop" is a sounder view.

 I don't have a solution for this problem. I note that it was not very long ago that we were denouncing the soul-killing life of the factory worker, but now that those jobs have either been automated or outsourced to China (, we lament their loss. Should we turn our backs on technological innovation? I don't think that's feasible or desirable.  But one thing we can and should do is fight against the devaluation of physical work, and against the assumption that we can just somehow write off people who don't do very well on intelligence tests.

Why We Need Unions. And Journalists.

 I followed a link from The Atlantic to this story in the Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call, though I can't find the Atlantic piece now. It seems that Amazon achieves its shipping efficiency by driving their warehouse workers very hard, and that high unemployment is making it easier for them to do that.

I don't feel obliged to cheer for unions in every circumstance. The teacher's union here in Alabama, for instance, has long been considered one of the more corrupting political forces in the state, and was responsible last year for what I think is the single most disgustingly dishonest campaign ad I've ever seen. And it was, naturally, directed against the candidate who was most serious about improving the educational system.

Nevertheless. The right-wing version of the left-wing fantasy that every poor criminal would be law-abiding if he only had better economic opportunities is that every business would treat its workers decently if the unions and/or the government would get out of the way. I am skeptical, to put it mildly, of the argument that improved conditions for workers and the rise of labor unions were unconnected. I read a lot of anti-union stuff in the conservative press, and I'm sure a lot of the specific complaints are, like mine above, correct. But we always need to distinguish between a bad thing and the abuse of a good thing. Unions came into existence for very good reasons,  and I hope we don't have to go too far back down that road to refresh our memories.

Similarly: like most people of conservative leanings I complain a lot about journalistic bias. But that doesn't mean I think journalism is a bad thing. When I complain about the press, I don't mean that I want it to go away (my son-in-law is a journalist); I mean I want it to do a better job. A free society needs it, and I am alarmed as I watch the almost daily shrinking of my local newspapers. I salute the reporter who investigated the Amazon situation. Here, by the way, is a followup which includes Amazon's response.

Not A City Boy

Sunday Night Journal — September 18, 2011

Now and then I talk to someone who’s visited Rome, and almost always, especially if the person is Catholic, I’m told that it’s a wonderful experience. And I say “Yes, I’m sure it is,” but I always feel a little guilty that I don’t feel more enthusiasm for the idea. I’m not against it, and I’m sure that if I ever do it I’ll enjoy it as much (or almost as much) as most people seem to. And I am interested in seeing the magnificent churches, and absorbing the sense of the Church’s history, etc. But Rome just isn’t at the top of my list of places I’d like to visit.

In fact, no city is at the top of my list. When I think of the traveling I’d like to do if I had the time and money, I think of the American West, or the English countryside, or of the lakes and forests and cold seas of the Nordic countries. There is nothing made by the hand of man that compels my attention, imagination, and longing the way the natural world does.

And I really don’t care much at all for big cities. I recognize their importance as centers of culture and civilization, but I don’t like spending much time in them. I grew up in the country and am never comfortable without a certain amount of space around me, and, more importantly, plenty of green growing things. The blogger who calls herself Pentimento is a native New Yorker, now in exile (as she sees it) and writes movingly of her love for the city. I can appreciate that and enter into the spirit of it, but I don’t think I could ever feel that way. When I think of being surrounded entirely by tall buildings, I feel constricted, confined, cut off, alienated.

It’s not that I’m any sort of outdoorsman. I’ve never been much interested in hunting, though I would enjoy fishing if I had the leisure and skill. I don’t camp or hike, though I did when I was a teenager and perhaps would enjoy it again if life were not full of so many more pressing things. But what’s important to me is not anything in particular that I want to do in the outdoors, but only that it be nearby. In the main I’m content to sit and read near a window, or in the swing in the front yard. I just need to be able to see something other than the man-made, something organic, to which I can feel a physical connection.

I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with the fact that I grew up in the country or not. Perhaps it does, but, just as likely, it’s a matter of natural temperament; others in the same situation dream of escaping to the city (I did, too, but only for a short time in my teens).

This is not a conclusion to which I reasoned my way, nor is it a principle. I don’t hold that my inclinations in this are anything more than that, or that there is anything superior in them.

In the abstract, to erect an opposition of nature and civilization, or nature and art, is useful only for analytical purposes; in life as we actually experience it, we cannot separate them; we are incapable of doing so, because we are creatures of matter and spirit, nature and consciousness. Art and civilization (which for purposes of this discussion are the same thing) are products of our distance from nature; they operate on nature, refining it and, in a sense, purifying it. But nature comes first, and art and civilization are not conceivable apart from it. And it is this given reality (whether one believes in a giver or not) that I prefer, and in fact need, to have near me in my daily life. No city, however magnificent, can inspire in me the sense of wonder and delight that the natural world does. And I don’t mean only magnificent scenic views, the sort of thing that the Romantics called sublime; the very ordinary domesticated environment around my home—the trees and grass and bushes and flowers, the birds and small animals, my beloved bit of shoreline—is quite enough. When I look at the technical and architectural achievements of man, all the complexity of a modern city, I am awed, but more by the skill and ingenuity of the human race than by the things themselves.

I freely acknowledge my need for the city and for civilization. I would not find nature so wonderful if nature were all I had, and I were obliged to spend most of my energy in the struggle to survive. It is from my comfortable house and my comfortable position in the modern world that I can meditate upon nature rather than engage in combat with it; I have no illusions about that, but my preference remains.

There is a loose analogy here to my relationship to the Church. The Church is the city, and the unredeemed wilderness of human life is nature. After my conversion in the late ‘70s, and even more after my entry into the Catholic Church in 1981, I felt a certain obligation to interest myself in the Church as an institution, but I soon discovered that I had little interest in its internal life. I have some interest in theology, but mainly in those areas where the most fundamental questions are treated. I have never, for instance, been able to keep the Christological heresies straight in my mind for very long. I once knew the difference between a Monophysite and a Nestorian, but without looking them up I have at this moment no idea of their doctrines (apart from what the term “monophysite” suggests on its face).

There was indeed a time when I was exercised about denials and evasions of clear doctrine among influential persons in the Church, but that danger is not what it was. I have little inclination to accuse anyone to whom the charge would matter of being unorthodox, and I’m content to leave such things in the hands of the Magisterium; that’s what we pay them for.

I wish we had a beautiful liturgy, but have never had any interest whatsoever in rubrics and vestments and so forth. I have less than no interest in the internal politics of the Church, and never read those web sites that are filled with rumors and speculation about who is going to be bishop of where. I can tell you the name of the pope, and of my bishop and my parish priests, and perhaps one or two others, but beyond that it’s a uniform sea of clerics.

It’s what goes on outside the Church that interests me, or rather what goes on where the Church meets the world. It is the world as viewed from within the Church that fascinates me, and what fascinates me most of all is the dialogue between belief and unbelief. Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy dramatize this encounter in the most memorable ways. But people on the other side—artists and others—often shed their own sort of light upon it. Even in unbelief they may present the essential questions in powerful ways, or express, as well or better than a believer, the longing for pure unattainable love and beauty which is what I seem to have in place of the sense of the presence of God.

The Church is my home, and without it I could not view the world as I do, or engage it in the same way. (I’m speaking only of the psychology of the thing here; obviously the Church is, objectively, much more than that.) But the world outside gets most of my time and attention. To change the metaphor a little, I live in a sort of borderland, or perhaps one could say on the outskirts of the city, where the fields and forests begin. I’ve often had misgivings about this, since I first began to notice it some years ago: is this not the same thing that has always been condemned as worldliness? If I am really converted, shouldn’t I be more attentive to the Church than to the world? But I’ve become convinced that this is where I belong.


Sunday Night Journal — September 11, 2011

It often seems to me that no one of genuinely conservative temperament and instincts is ever entirely at ease in the mental atmosphere of the United States. As has been pointed out many times, the whole spirit of the place is fundamentally progressive, and a major component of what American conservatives seek to conserve is the promise of a continually improving future. But if you’re the sort of person who believes not only that things could get worse but that there’s a fairly good chance that they will get worse, that the capacity of the human race to improve itself is quite limited, and that every improvement is subject to the law of unintended consequences, you just don’t ever feel fully on board the progress train. Whether you’re on the last car, looking back at the landscape disappearing behind you, or up front with the engineer, fretfully anticipating dangerous curves, damaged tracks, and menacing obstacles, you are never very confident that the journey is going to end well, and that you might not better have stayed home.

From this perspective, the American left and right appear to be in fundamental agreement, in that they both believe that tomorrow can and should be better than today: they both believe in some variation of the traditional American idea of progress. The right believes that the bright future is to be attained by unleashing the enterprising genius of the people, with little interference from the government. The left believes that the people need mostly need to be restrained, and that the government must intervene constantly to protect them from themselves and each other. In a nutshell, it’s the old argument which pits equality of opportunity against equality of result.

Also from my perspective, it is immediately obvious that there is some truth in both views, and that in each case that there is a valid point to be made in favor of what they advocate and against what they denounce. Obviously the wealth of this country was produced mainly by enterprise and invention, and it is foolish to contemplate the redistribution of wealth without considering whether your actions will result in there being little to distribute. Equally obviously, enterprise and invention do not always operate ethically when left to themselves (the institution of slavery serves as sufficient illustration of that fact), and there are always predators who must be restrained by the force of law. And there are always those who cannot provide adequately for themselves and must be helped by others.

Both sides tend to press their own case in a Manichean sort of way—forces of good vs. forces of evil, and as we all know this is a big part of the reason for the extreme levels of hostility in political life. But underlying the programs of both is the assumption that we can do something about our problems: most problems can be solved, given the willingness to do so.

This is certainly not a bad thing in itself. It is surely a major part of the reason why we have in fact solved many problems. The conservative voice whispers but the solutions have introduced their own problems and that’s generally true, but surely even the most pessimistic of us can admit that sometimes people really do succeed in making things better, and that to believe the attempt is worth making is not necessarily foolish utopianism.

When Americans see a problem, we think “Somebody ought to do something about that.” And a significant number of us follow that thought with “And that somebody is me.” I am not usually one of these people, and I’m glad we have them. They may sometimes be quixotic, and they may sometimes be partially or completely wrong about what they want to accomplish. But on the whole I think we’re better off for the prevalence and strength of this impulse.

It has its limits, though. It can lead us to think not only that we can Do Something about every problem, but that when we have done it the problem will be gone. It becomes an ideological commitment, in which one believes that even the biggest problems have fairly straightforward solutions, and that the only moral thing for us (that is, society at large) to do is to implement them. Do-something-ism becomes do-everything-ism. It is not content with modest measures, but is determined to be radical, to solve the problem at its root, so that it will cease to be a problem.

It is not enough to help the poor; we must have a War on Poverty. It is not enough to take prudent straightforward measures to protect ourselves from homicidal fanatics; we must have a War on Terror. One of those notions comes from the left, the other from the right, but they originate in the same American confidence that there is a solution to every problem, and that big problems must be addressed by big plans from a big government. The conventional voices of the left and the right all want a big government, either for social justice (on the left) or for national security (on the right); they differ in what they want it to to do, but they agree that it must be very big and very powerful. (I emphasize “conventional” because there are those on the right who question our militarization, and those on the left who question our centralization.)

This is a very American way of approaching things, and one hardly needs to point out the hubris that may go along with it. America has done so much: why should there be anything at all that we can’t do, if we but choose to and set our will to it? With the economy a mess, with social life deteriorating, with our military ventures failing to transform the Middle East, we now seem to be coming to the end of that fantasy. Now that the money has run out, and there has begun to be some recognition that we can’t keep borrowing and printing more of it indefinitely, we may hope to see some lessening of our destructive over-confidence.

There are many good things which might never have been if the people who attempted them had listened to people like me. But sometimes the conservative voice that says you can’t really solve that problem; you can only alleviate it is right. And the more fundamental the problem, and the more grandiose the plan for solving it, the more likely that is to be true. There is, in the end, only one truly radical solution, and that is the Gospel, which never promised an end to trouble in this world.


Although this piece is not specifically about 9/11/2001, it was written with that anniversary very much in mind; specifically, with the ill-advised war in Iraq and the weird, sometimes scary, internal security measures which were responses to that attack in mind. I'm sixty-two years old. I'm not going to live long enough to get over being bothered by the fact that the United States has a Department of Homeland Security.

The Atlantic As Seen Through Its Advertisements

Sunday Night Journal — September 4, 2011

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that I have a love-hate relationship with The Atlantic, as my feelings toward it are generally not as strong as that. Like-dislike would be closer, though sometimes it tips over into like-hate. Hardly an issue arrives that does not contain at least one thing that causes me to ask myself why I subscribe to it at all, but usually there is also at least one thing that I’m glad I didn’t miss. More broadly, the reason I continue to read it is that it is one of my few substantial encounters with the educated secular progressive world.

I have plenty of insubstantial encounters, of course. The secular progressive worldview dominates journalism and popular culture and the academy, and I have acquaintances whose conversation and Facebook traffic are full of affirmations of that faith (or, more often, denunciations of unbelievers). But most of what one gets from those sources is pretty conventional and unchallenging stuff, easily and best ignored. The vast majority of my reading comes, naturally, from sources which are closer to my own interests and ideas, and these are mostly Christian and mostly conservative. But I feel a sort of duty to be at least somewhat aware of what’s going on in foreign parts.

It is not only religiously and philosophically that I feel myself to be an intruder in a different world when I read The Atlantic; it’s socially and financially as well. The magazine’s advertisements have little or nothing to offer someone like me. Let’s look at the July/August issue, as a handy instance—for brevity, I’ll note only the full-page ads.

The company formerly known as Shell Oil, now apparently just Shell, occupies the back of the magazine, the inside front cover plus the next page, and the inside back cover. That probably represents a pretty good sum of money. And what is Shell advertising? Well, apparently their biggest concern is increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles and reducing pollution, as three of the four pages deal with those matters. And why did they spend that much money on a magazine with a fairly small readership? My only direct contact with Shell is at the gasoline pump, but I doubt the patronage of Shell stations by Atlantic readers would justify the cost of these ads. Perhaps they’re aimed at investors—as we’ll see in a minute, there’s some justification for that conjecture.

Next comes IBM, which, as you know if you’ve seen their TV commercials, is interested in building a Smarter Planet™. A page further on, after the table of contents, we find a two-page spread for Fidelity Investments (“My client knows his complex investments could be doing more,” says the attractive, but not too attractive, female investment counselor of the handsome going-gray man who is not wearing a tie.)

Allstate Insurance, it seems, is devoted to making the world a safer place to drive; admirable. The Samsung Galaxy tablet computer will allow you to “see more and do more.” Singapore Airlines can provide you not just with a comfortable seat and a lot of attention on your Los Angeles to Tokyo flight, but with a private suite. The passengers pictured in this ad are sixtyish, white-haired, with that sleek and assured look that often goes with wealth; the pearls around the woman’s neck and dangling from her ears are probably real.

Membership in the Hilton Honors club seems to imply the company of a beautiful young woman who appears to be wearing only a sheet pulled from the bed of the luxurious hotel room where she stands at the window, her bare back toward us, looking enticingly over her shoulder. “It’s good to be you,” begins the text, ending with “everyone will wish they were you.”

Buying a Porsche will “turn small errands into short adventures.” No doubt. Novartis (a pharmaceuticals company) is mostly interested in eradicating dengue fever in the developing world. Hitachi is wants to “reduc[e] CO2 emissions and the impact on our environment.”

There is a full-page ad for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese “enjoyed by people with a passion for the very best man and nature can bring to the table.” Delicious, surely, and expensive, more surely. You might buy a Lincoln because “Knowledge is power.... It’s not just luxury. It’s smarter than that.”

Cathay Pacific Airlines repeats the luxury travel motif, though less impressively, with a sort of cubicle rather than a suite. First Republic Bank offers private banking and wealth management, and “always gets the job done,” according to the testimonial from the co-founder and management director of Vantage Point Venture Partners (who is not wearing a tie). The mission of Siemens is “building cities worth building a future in.” The Dyson vacuum cleaner claims to be better than all others, and is no doubt priced accordingly.

Thomson Reuters is interested in “leading scientists to greater discoveries, making financial markets fair and transparent, and promoting the rule of law.” Nice. They have three full-page ads. U.S. Trust (“Bank of America Private Wealth Management”) has two pages, in one of which it discusses the benefits of buying land as an investment. “Investors don’t need to be experts on land, however: leases and property management can be administered by the experts at U.S. Trust....” The investor probably never even needs to see the boring stuff, which is probably somewhere in the middle of flyover country, although of course the ad is illustrated with pictures of a bike rider surveying the wilderness and an old man talking to a child on the shores of a pretty lake.

Mercedes has two pages: “The best or nothing.” And here’s Shell again, in the middle of the magazine: “Sustainable development today builds sustainable energy for tomorrow.” HP invites you to “see what HP can do for the environment and you.” Computers are just an adjunct to the real mission, I guess. Principal Financial Group has created The Dreamcatcher, “a new online tool to help imagine the kind of future you want.” MSNBC believes the reader will be impressed by the words of Chris Matthews. Buick Regal has two pages.

Here’s another HP ad full of environmental concerns. Here’s Boeing, with more luxury travel in the form of the 787 Dreamliner (“It’s more than a dream”), with multicultural, young and casual (the guy is not wearing a tie) but obviously affluent passengers. MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Texas...why would they advertise here? I doubt most people’s insurance policies will pay for specific clinics far from home, so the ad must be aimed at people who can afford expensive treatment in part out of their own pockets. CFA Institute, a professional organization for financial advisors, features an advisor who happens to be an extremely vigorous-looking middle-aged woman in the act of kicking the hell out of a soccer ball. Ally Bank “treats your money like it’s actually yours.”

Well, enough of that, though I’m only two-thirds of the way through the magazine. What’s striking about all the big-corporation ads is that they suggest that making money is at most only a sideline in their real work, which is To Make The World A Better Place. Toward the end, in the book section, there are several full-page ads from publishers, and a good many smaller ads (scarce in the rest of the magazine). The message is pretty clear: the Atlantic reader is expected to be affluent—and I think we can assume that a major publication like this knows who its readers are—and also socially responsible, in a particular way: many of the ads emphasize care for the environment, an uncontroversial yet progressive position.

I am therefore pretty unusual among the magazine’s readers: apart from the books, there is nothing offered for sale in any of the ads I’ve mentioned for which I am a potential customer (with the possible but fairly remote exception of the Samsung tablet). I do have some dealings with an investment management company, but that’s only because the retirement plans of the organizations I’ve worked for are based on investing; my little fund is hardly the sort of thing that financial firms hope to lure with expensive advertisements.

The content of the magazine is, in the main, decidedly left-leaning, culturally and politically, although not radically so. It has tended to become more uniformly left and less diverse intellectually since the sad death of the independent-minded editor Michael Kelly, who was killed in an accident while covering the Iraq war in 2003. “Left of center” would probably be the correct socio-political category. Taken with the magazine’s audience, this is another confirmation of a tendency that has been often noted in recent years, and was especially striking in the 2008 election: wealth, which used to be associated with the Republican party and the right, is now at least as strongly associated with Democrats and the left. The Democrats’ constituency is mostly at the lower and upper ends of the economic scale.

None of this should surprise me very much; there has always been an affluent educated liberal class, and it has always had its publications (The New Yorker, for instance). Certainly not all the audience for magazines like these has been affluent, but most of it must have been, or businesses in search of people with plenty of money would not have continued to advertise with them.

Yet there is something especially irritating to me about the comfortable presumption, so clearly in evidence in both the advertising and the content of The Atlantic, that being “socially conscious” (repellent phrase) is very much compatible with personal luxury, and is in fact a fashion accessory in itself. You, the reader of The Atlantic, are not like those stuffy old rich people of the past, who dressed and spoke with stiff formality and grumbled about Roosevelt and taxes. You don’t wear a tie, but your casual elegance does not come cheap. Your politics obtain for you a pardon for your wealth. You can be simultaneously rich, virtuous, and cool.

The Atlantic was was founded by New England intellectuals of Unitarian and Transcendentalist bent, descendants of the Puritans, and one can still detect in it a distant echo of those older New Englanders who believed that God would reward his faithful in this world as well as the next.

A Couple of Videos

Sunday Night Journal — August 28, 2011

I've been out of town all weekend, and once again I lack both time and mental focus to write anything substantial. Instead, I've spent a couple of hours doing something I've wanted to do for a while, which is to figure out how to do some simple stuff with video and put it on YouTube. I think I've succeeded. Although these videos will not play smoothly for me from YouTube, I think that's a problem with my network connection. 

There's nothing extremely striking about either of them. They're just things I saw and wanted to record (an impulse which has to be kept in check, because it tends to get in the way of simple and attentive experience). This first one was taken back in April, on a Sunday afternoon, when I was writing at the table on our patio. It was a sunny and breezy day, and I noticed a beautiful thing happening with the nearby hydrangea bush. It was in the patchy shade of a tree--must have been the big sycamore off to the left from this picture--and the wind waving the leaves and branches of the sycamore made a constantly shifting pattern of light and shadow on the hydrangea, so that at moments it looked as if it were burning with a cool yellow-green flame, or as if it were underwater with the refracted light of waves playing on it. Of course as soon as I pressed "record" on the camera the phenomenon all but ceased. In this clip, you only really get the effect for five seconds or so beginning at about the twenty-eight-second mark, and again around the one-minute mark. You can hear the wind and the birds, though you might have to turn the sound up a little.


The next one was taken last Sunday afternoon. There's a pole with two bird feeders hanging from it just outside the back door, and it can be seen through the kitchen window. Walking through the kitchen, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the feeders were swinging wildly, more than the usual small birds could possibly account for. There was a raccoon hanging from the "V" where the two brackets holding the feeders meet, digging furiously into the birds' food. I went and got my camera. I took this from maybe eight feet (less than three meters) away, but could have gotten closer. You'll notice at the beginning that the raccoon is looking toward me--he heard my approach and I suppose saw me, but decided I wasn't a threat and went back to work.


I was curious as to how he got up the pole, and whether he would have trouble getting down, so I opened the door. He scrambled down very quickly, if awkwardly, and ran away. But of course he was back in a few minutes. And there was no great magic about his climbing of the pole--he just went up hand-over-hand, like a person climbing a rope. There was a good bit of thrashing around while he got himself into the position you see here.

It's actually a bit crazy that I'm posting these, because I rarely play the videos that people post on blogs and on Facebook, because at least half the time they don't play smoothly, and I can't stand that, especially if there's music involved--I can feel a headache coming on within seconds.  I've noticed that sometimes they play more smoothly if you actually go to YouTube than if you play it on the blog, so you might try that if they won't play properly for you--click on the YouTube button at the bottom-right of the video frame.

Odds and Ends

Sunday Night Journal — August 21, 2011

I've been so busy and pressured in my job, not only last week but through the weekend, that I'm really not equipped to write anything of substance on a specific topic tonight. Instead, I'm going to mention a few things that I had filed away with the intention of posting something about them.


I mentioned here some weeks ago that the traffic on this blog has declined over the past year or so. It never was very high--at most it averaged a bit over 100 unique visitors a day, and about twice that many page views. That is very small potatoes: really popular blogs count their page views in the thousands. And my numbers now are more like 80 and 160. If I subtract the number of accidental tourists--people who arrive here because they happened to be searching for Emmylou Harris or images of translucence--the number is even lower. It seems to be pretty typical that somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of visits to the site are from Google searches, and most of those are for something that's not closely connected with the main emphases of the blog, so I don't think those hits generate many continuing readers.

So when I read this post at Neo-Neocon a few weeks ago I was a little relieved to find out it isn't just me: it seems that fewer people are reading blogs in general. I'm pretty sure Facebook and Twitter are at least partly responsible for that.  


What's the most beautiful car ever made? I'm not a car fancier especially, and even if I could afford it I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to buy anything very expensive. But I do have an eye for a good-looking automobile. When I was a teenager in the 1960s I thought the Jaguar XKE (picture lifted from here, if you're interested in buying it) was by far the most gorgeous:

I'm not sure I ever saw one on the hoof until many years later. I also thought the smaller Volvos (I think the model number is 1800, which shows you how little of a car buff I actually am) of the 1960s were extremely handsome, and later decided that I really thought them more beautiful than the XKE, which began to seem a bit flashy and overdone. I took these pictures a while back of one that was sitting outside a garage that I pass every day on my way home from work:



But of the cars I see on the road today, the last iteration of the Ford Thunderbird is the winner, and maybe the all-time winner. I suppose there must be some unbelievably expensive European cars that are more beautiful, but I've never seen those, even in pictures.


There's something vaguely retro and classic about the style, though it doesn't look like any old car in particular, certainly not the old Thunderbird, so it doesn't seem like a self-conscious throwback (like the Chrysler PT Cruiser), and yet it's clearly different from the average contemporary car. Here is an interesting review of the T-bird's history. It seems emblematic of the progress of America in the last 50 years or so: an initial good idea, followed by a series of revisions which make it ever bigger and dumber, and finally an attempt to return to the vision of the past that fails: for as beautiful as the new Thunderbirds were, they apparently weren't very well made. Which was the point I intended to make when I saved that article in the first place.


The Atlantic has a story about the over-supply of virtuoso classical musicians. I've seen a little of this, having two children who would have liked to have made a career of music if there had been more jobs available. I was especially interested in that paragraph toward the end where the writer makes a similar point about the proliferation of writers. Anybody--look at me--can "publish" for next to nothing, or in fact nothing, if he uses one of the free blogging services. At the same time, the number of paying jobs that involve writing is in decline, as journalism struggles to find a place in the new electronic world (possibly a disaster in the making, because we need good journalists, but more of that another time). Similarly, digital recording technology has made it possible for anyone to make a decent-sounding recording with a couple of thousand dollars' worth of computers and software, or a professional-quality one for vastly less money than would have been required twenty or thirty years ago. The result is a flood of recorded music that mostly goes unnoticed. The piece concludes:

The big issue for education in the arts is not cutting enrollment to match supply, depriving gifted people of the chance to develop as far as possible. The challenge is to develop alternative career models that let people continue to develop their gifts.

I'm all for that but I can't imagine what it would be.


The state of Alabama recently passed a very aggressive law targeting illegal immigration, something like the one Arizona passed not long ago. Alabama has far less justification for something like this than does Arizona, where some reports I've read say that areas near the border are becoming dangerous for Americans. I assumed the law was in large part political grandstanding for the benefit of certain reflexively truculent descendants of the old Scotch-Irish, commonly known as rednecks. I also assumed that it didn't mean much, so when I read that some politically liberal religious groups were bringing suit against it, saying it would make simple charity toward illegal immigrants a crime, I supposed it was just their usual equally reflexive posturing.

But apparently I was mistaken. Sober people have read the law and concluded that it would indeed criminalize ordinary Christian ministry toward illegal immigrants. And the Archdiocese of Mobile has joined the lawsuit. 

Here is Archbishop Rodi's excellent statement. I agree with it, and I particularly like this:

The control and regulation of our national borders is the responsibility, first and foremost, of the federal government. An argument can be made that the federal government has not acted adequately to control and regulate our borders and to implement a just and workable immigration policy. Laws, such as this new one in our state, are born out of frustration with this governmental failure. However, the Church is not in charge of our borders. We do not determine who enters our country. But once immigrants are in our midst, the Church has a moral obligation, intrinsic to the living out of our faith, to be Christ-like to everyone.

If the federal government were doing its job, states wouldn't be passing laws like this. But be that as it may, this one ought to be repealed.


I'm sorry I haven't written any more about Tree of Life. I really wanted to, but it was crowded out by the same pressures that have produced this grab-bag post. I'm afraid now that much of it has slipped from my grasp. I'm really sorry I didn't go see it again--it was only going to show for one more night after I saw it, and I suppose now I won't have another chance until the DVD is available. I'll say one thing: the opening quotation, from Job--"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?"--and the mother's words near the end--"I give you my son"--seem to me to define the vision.

Love of the World

Sunday Night Journal — August 14, 2011

Some months ago in a Sunday Night Journal I talked about the melancholy person’s view of this world as being substantially correct, in that we must ultimately lose everything:

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. …

...he will no longer give his heart to a lover who has betrayed him more than once and will certainly do so again. 

(The entire post can be found here.) A couple of the comments that followed made me realize that I had left some important things out of this reflection. In particular, someone quoted C.S. Lewis:

Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the suffering inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.

I’ve been meaning to get back to this topic. “He will no longer give his heart” was not the best way of putting it; what I really wanted to say is that he will no longer trust the world; he will no longer give his weight to it as a boy climbing a tree gives his weight to the next branch that seems to be sound. I didn’t mean that he will no longer love, but that he will not have illusions about the permanence of what he loves.

In fact I’ve always been troubled by the conventional spiritual counsel against loving the things of this world. When I say “conventional” I don’t mean that it’s false or shallow, but that it is widely given (though not nearly so widely accepted). I don’t have any specific examples ready to hand, but certainly any Catholic has encountered it, and there is plenty of support for it in the words of Jesus himself.

I love the things of this world very much indeed, and am troubled in both my conscience and my intellect by the thought that I should not. The problem for conscience is obvious; the problem for intellect is that I don’t know how one is to love at all without loving the things of this world. We know, of course, that we are to love each other. But as a matter of practical psychology I at least am unable to love people without also loving a great many other things, because the wellsprings of both loves are the same, having their source in delight. I don’t mean here the sort of distant benevolence,  or even (somewhat paradoxically) compassion, that one might have for people whom one does not know personally. I mean a kind of love that at its best encompasses both the most mundane and the most exalted response to the other, with the mundane being the simple pleasure of seeing and knowing, of liking. I try to love in the proper degree: I don’t love my books nearly as much as I love my children, and although I often think of my little bit of bay shore as a woman, I don’t love her nearly as much as I love my wife.

I think we must distinguish between appreciation and possession. The love for a passing sight can be our model—the love for something we can see but cannot possess, not because we aren’t allowed to but because possession is impossible. One of the things I love most is a moonlit night: I love the moonlight on the water and the shadows made by moonlight shining through trees. I don’t just mean that I love them in the sense that they give me pleasure. It’s somewhat more than that. It’s sensual pleasure first, but it also includes something like admiration, and reverence, and affection, and a great deal of gratitude. You might argue that what I am really reacting to is the beauty of God in these things, that they are pointing to God, and that it is he whom I should love instead. And that’s more or less true, except that I would say “more” rather than “instead.” I also love these things in themselves, and for themselves, for what they are. And I really don’t think there’s anything amiss in that. The essential thing is to keep things in their proper rank, and not to let appreciation turn into the desire to possess. In this case the latter is relatively easy, because I cannot possess these visions. I can’t even capture them with a camera, though someone with the right equipment and skill might be able to. And anyway a picture is not the same: it may be a useful memorial of the thing itself, or a thing of beauty in its own right, but it isn’t the thing and can’t give me the same experience.

C. S. Lewis has a great illustration of this principle in Perelandra. The floating islands on which the King and Queen live are sources of great pleasure which the Queen receives gladly (if you’ve read the book, you know we see little of the King). But it has never occurred to the Queen to try to stay on one island, and have continual access to its particular beauties. There is fixed land on the planet, but the King and Queen are forbidden to stay there, lest they begin to think that they have more control over the world than they do. I wrote about this some years ago, so I won’t repeat myself—the piece is here.

Something like that should be our model; at least that’s the way I resolve the difficulty. I’m not sure how much this resembles the Buddhist concept of non-attachment, but I think it’s more passionate. It’s vastly easier said than done, of course, especially when there is at least the promise of holding on to the thing we love, or of repeating the experience whenever we like. Surely this is part of the reason why it is difficult for a rich man to be saved.

I confess that I can’t accept the thought that the things of this world are lost forever when time takes them away from us. If I really believed that they were, I would be...well, I started to say I would be tempted to despair, but that’s overstating it, I hope; suffice to say I would be greatly disheartened.

I suppose this means that I’m not where I should be spiritually. But I can’t see God, or conceive of him in any very definite way. The Lewis quote above alludes to I John 4:20: “...for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I admit my love is more eros than agape, but I hope that’s all right. I’ll continue my monthly assignations with Lady Moonlight, though I know she can never be mine.

American Responsibility

Sunday Night Journal — August 7, 2011

I’m still thinking about the questions raised by Walter McDougall’s piece that I linked to a week or two ago. Not long after that came the news that the Vatican’s envoy to the U.S., Archbishop Pietro Sambi, had died, and his obituary contained these remarks from a 2008 interview, in which he reflected on his reassignment from Jerusalem to the United States:

In the Holy Land, everything is small, and every small thing can become a big problem. In the United States, everything is huge: the country, the people, the possibility, the opportunity and the responsibility.

Responsibility. What sort of responsibility, I wonder? There are some obvious answers to that, which the nuncio mentioned in another part of the interview: moral and cultural responsibility. But what about other, more concrete responsibilities? As the most powerful nation in the world, the U.S. is obviously obligated to use that power for the greater good. And in some situations it’s obvious what that means: to assist Haiti after a devastating earthquake, for instance. In others it’s not so obvious: should the U.S. intervene to defend another country from invasion, or to depose a tyrant, or to stop the advance of tyranny? I’ve never been one of those who think the answer to those last questions is an automatic “no.” But nor do I think it’s an automatic “yes.” I never unequivocally declared either support or condemnation of the war in Iraq, because I could see the arguments on both sides. I thought I understood in part what the Bush administration hoped to do—to cut the Gordian knot of Middle Eastern politics by introducing a reasonably free regime in one important country. (I also thought they had much more reliable information about those now-infamous WMD than they did.) But I was worried that the attempt would not only fail but do more harm than good. It is difficult to argue now that—as is so often the case—the fears were not more accurate than the hopes. Still, I’m haunted by something an Iraqi human-rights activist said while the war was at its height: that if the U.S. had deposed Saddam some years earlier the troops really would have been met by people rejoicing in the streets. (That was in The Atlantic, and is probably available online, but it would take me a while to find it.)

Whatever the ultimate resolution of these issues may be, and whatever the verdict of history may be—I don’t say the ultimate verdict of history, because historians change their minds—it seems that such conundrums may arise less often in the coming years, because this period of global American responsibility is going to end. We can’t afford it any longer.

I doubt very many people really understand our financial situation. And even the supposed experts disagree violently with each other about the causes and possible solutions. But it seems to be a generally agreed-upon fact that we are spending far, far beyond our means, and have been doing so for some time. The twenty years or so following World War II, in which the U.S.A. was vastly more wealthy than almost all of the rest of the world, and in absolute terms more wealthy than any people had ever been, were anomalous in many ways, because the war had devastated so much of the industrialized world. It was real wealth, and we expected its growth to continue. We thought we could have everything, at both the individual and national level, and as our desires outstripped our resources we started borrowing. We lived in a fantasy in which we couldn’t accept that anything in the way of material goods or government services (including the maintenance of an enormous military force deployed throughout the world) that we really wanted was out of our reach. So we started borrowing.

Through the 1980s I worked for a growing computer company and was fairly well paid. I think my salary at the time was somewhat above the national median for families with children. But we lived modestly because my wife didn’t have an outside job, because we had several children, and because we didn’t like borrowing money. Other than the mortgage on our very unimpressive house, we just didn’t owe a great deal of money. We never bought new cars, we never took expensive vacations, we spent negligible amounts on clothing and entertainment, and we weren’t saving a lot. I used to wonder how it was that other people who probably made somewhere around the same amount of money seemed to be able to afford so much more.

In 1990 I left the corporate job for a support position at a small college, and took a significant pay cut. At that point I think our income was somewhere a little below the national median. Things were tighter, and our house even less impressive, and I often took part-time work in addition to my main job, but we were certainly far from poor. We were also far from rich, though, and I wondered even more, as I saw what appeared to be most of the world driving nicer cars and living in nicer houses, where all the money came from. If we were somewhere around the median, that meant that half the country was poorer than us and half the country richer. But it looked more like a 25-75 ratio.

The answer, of course, was that an awful lot of these people were and are very deep in debt, not just paying their living expenses from paycheck to paycheck, but minimal payments on their debt as well. Several years ago, before the crash of 2008, I listened to the conservative financial advisor Dave Ramsey’s radio show, and was amazed at the amount of credit-card debt many of his caller’s confessed to.

A lot of people who were barely getting by before the recession found themselves in serious financial trouble through no fault of their own. Others who were caught pretty far out on a limb where they had crawled of their own free will and against common sense. And they’ve paid the price.

The federal government is not subject to the same sort of encounter with unbending reality, because it can simple create more money, at least up to a point. The recent battle over raising the debt ceiling was the result of an attempt by some members of Congress to insist that we can’t go on this way. Depending on whose version of the events and numbers you believe, there may or may not have been a real and binding commitment to cut spending in a significant way. Right now there is a furious debate as to whether defense or “entitlement” spending (Social Security etc.) should be cut, but surely a reasonable approach would involve cutting both (as well as raising taxes or eliminating tax breaks). I can’t prove this, but I feel pretty sure that both could be cut significantly without doing severe damage to the really important work of both spheres.

But is there any reason to think that the reasonable will win out? I started this piece with the intention of saying that the necessity of pulling back from our fiscal irresponsibility would inevitably mean a withdrawal of much of our presence in the rest of the world. Does it really make sense, for instance, that we still have military installations in Europe? Undoubtedly that would be better for some people, worse for others.

But it’s probably more likely that rather than take large visible steps that make a significant difference, we’ll have a slow hollowing-out, pretending to do what we used to do while doing less.

I moved into an office in a new building in 2004. It was a great improvement over my old one, which was a grungy and cramped corner. The new building cost millions, and in many ways it’s great. It certainly looks great. But the roof leaks, chronically, and has since the beginning. (Mobile, Alabama, has the heaviest rainfall of any city in the United States—over five feet, 1.7 meters, per year. Why do they put flat roofs on buildings in Mobile, Alabama?) On the other side of my office wall is a men’s room. One of the fixtures in it has a tendency not to stop running when it’s flushed. The noise this makes is pretty noticeable in my office, and once or twice a day I realize that something is getting on my nerves, and that it’s the sound of the water running much longer than it should. It’s done this since the beginning, and no attempt to fix it has ever made much difference. So when the noise gets my attention I go give the pipe in question a few hard chops with the edge of my hand and it stops. A few weeks ago this happened, and apparently the outlet pipe was not draining normally, because when I went to stop the flow there was water running out from under the door. Someone found a mop and we cleaned up as best we could. It wasn’t until we had it under control that someone observed that there was a drain in the middle of the floor, as there would normally be, but that the water was flowing away from it. Whoever the contractor hired to install the tile for the floor had made the drain slightly higher than the rest of the room, rendering it perfectly useless.

I think there were efforts early on to fix the known problems, like the leaking roof, but whether by negligence or incompetence the problems persisted. Whatever legal obligation the construction company had for fixing these things has probably long since expired. I wish I didn’t find so much significance in this.

Caryll Houselander: The Flowering Tree

Sunday Night Journal — July 31, 2011

I picked up this little book at a used-book sale a few weeks ago and immediately began reading it, partly because it’s so short. I’ve had a copy of The Reed of God sitting around the house unread for years, and have encountered intriguing samples of Houselander’s work here and there, but this is the first extended exposure I’ve had to her. It looks like a book of poetry, but Houselander doesn’t claim that description for it; rather, she calls these free-verse meditations “rhythms.” That was nicely diffident of her, because they aren’t especially good when considered as poetry. But as vivid devotional and theological pieces they are very good.

These Rhythms are not intended to be poems in a new form but simply thoughts, falling naturally into the beat of the Rhythm which is all around us.... The theme which recurs in them is the flowering of Christ in man.

Her use of the word “flowering” in that sentence would seem to be deliberate: it is her consistently used analogy for the Christ-life within us all. Neither is “man” an accident; she did not say “Christian,” because it seems to be a central aspect of her view of the world that Christ is present in all of us, not only in those who profess him.

The book was published not long after the end of the Second World War, and many of the pieces refer to the war, and so it is often the crucified Christ that she sees. And the tree that flowers is of course the Cross. “In an Occupied Country” is about the anguish of a woman standing in the ruins of her home, “Frans” about a refugee boy. The final piece, “Holy Saturday 1944”, describes the preparation for Easter Mass in a time of war, and the hope which includes and transcends hope for peace in this world.

Perhaps it’s only because the room in which I’m writing this has suddenly grown dark from the approach of a thunderstorm, and I’d rather watch it than write, but I’m feeling rather impatient with the role of book reviewer here. I think I’ll just reproduce what is at the moment my favorite of these meditations; better that you should read one of them for yourself than my attempt to describe them.


The Young Man

There is a young man
who lives in a world of progress.
He used to worship a God
Who was kind to him.
The God had a long, white beard.
He lived in the clouds.
But, all the same,
He was close to the solemn child
who had secretly shut him up in a picture book.

But now
the man is enlightened.
Now he has been to school
and has learnt to kick a ball
and to be abject
in the face of public opinion.
He knows, too
that men are hardly removed from monkeys.
You see, he lives in the light
of the twentieth century.

He works twelve hours a day
and is able to rent a room
in a lodging house
that is not a home.

At night he hangs
a wretched coat
upon a peg on the door
and stares
at the awful jug and basin
and goes to bed.
And the poor coat,
worn to the man’s shape—
round-shouldered and abject—
watches him, asleep,
dreaming of all
the essential,
holy things
that he cannot hope to obtain
for two pounds ten a week.

Very soon
he will put off his body,
like the poor, dejected coat
that he hates.
And his body will be
worn to the shape
of twelve hours’ work a day
for two pounds ten a week.

If he had only known that the God in the picture book
is not an old man in the clouds,
but the seed of life in his soul;
the man would have lived,
and his life would have flowered
with the flower of limitless joy.

But he does not know,
and in him
the Holy Ghost
is a poor little bird
in a cage,
who never sings
and never opens his wings,
yet never, never
desires to be gone away.


That last image is worthy of any poet, though Houselander's line in general lacks the mysterious tension of free verse at its best. Her writing seems to have been only one part of her work; she was also a wood carver and, perhaps most importantly, a mystic with a gift of spiritual healing. The Wikipedia article seems to be a pretty good introduction, and there is more material in the external links provided there. I notice that the library which houses my office has her autobiography; I plan to read it next.

Sex Is Just a Problem, and That’s All There Is To it

Sunday Night Journal — July 24, 2011

As almost anyone who is at all interested in the matter knows, the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae reaffirming the ancient Christian ban on artificial (barrier or chemical) methods of avoiding pregnancy came at the end of a decades-long struggle for their acceptance. The pope took his stand in opposition to a Vatican-commissioned committee which had been appointed to study the question and make a recommendation, and his teaching was widely rejected. The ensuing bitterness on the part of the proponents of birth control was a major factor in the doctrinal wars that followed Vatican II and are still not completely over, though the more extreme progressive forces, those which would have turned the Church into a form of liberal Protestantism, seem to have been defeated.

At the time I came into the Church, in 1981, the bitter diatribe of an older Catholic, usually a woman, against Humanae Vitae was a regular part of the life of the Church, not only in progressive publications like the National Catholic Reporter but also in parish life. I vividly remember a talk given by a woman whose name I can’t remember now, but who was at the time (early ‘80s) visible in the liberal-feminist Catholic world. She was ostensibly discussing the moral theology of the question, but by the time she finished was practically jumping up and down in her fury against the Church’s teaching. I still hear this voice sometimes, though more often it’s second-hand, as someone of a younger generation recounts the hardships of his parents, the acceptance of artificial contraception having long since become a non-issue for most Catholics.

Around that same time, a new generation of Catholics, some of them converts and some of them orthodox younger Catholics, were beginning to believe that the Church had a point, after all, on this question. They—we—were appalled by the doctrinal and liturgical devastation wrought by progressive Catholicism in the 1970s, and by the breakdown of marriage and family life in society at large that had followed the sexual revolution, of which the birth control pill had been a major enabler, and were open to the traditional teaching. (My wife and I, as converts, felt that there would have been something dishonest in becoming Catholic if we were not going to follow this difficult teaching.)

So-called Natural Family Planning, NFP—meaning, in general, all the methods of avoiding pregnancy which do not rely on blocking the result of the sexual act itself—appeared to these young couples as a great gift from God. Very few felt themselves prepared to deal with the arrival of a new baby every two years or less, nor did they want to violate the Church’s teaching. But neither did they want to abstain from sex for long periods of time. NFP seemed to solve the problem, and was embraced by a significant number of these younger people (though not, as everyone knows, by Catholics at large, the vast majority of whom were hardly aware that the Church still taught what it had always taught, and would have reacted, if they had known, as if they had been told to treat a fever with leeches).

Now we have come to another stage in the debate, a stage in which those who embrace the teaching have struggled with it and are in some cases asking the same questions that their parents and/or grandparents asked: is this teaching really binding? Do we really have to live with this hardship?

Coincidentally, I have, within the past week or so, come across three very impassioned discussions of the matter on Catholic blogs. There is this post by Danielle Bean at Crisis (249 comments as of the time I am writing this), and this one by Jennifer Fulwiler at the National Catholic Register (138 comments), and this one by Daniel Nichols at Caelum et Terra (202 comments). I’ve read all the comments only on the Caelum et Terra post; the others I only skimmed. The CetT discussion goes off into the casuistic weeds at several points, and to read them all would take quite a while, but the comments from someone who signs herself “AnonymousBadCatholic” are worth seeking out, as they tell a story which illuminates the heart of the problem: a couple who intended to keep the Church’s teaching but have found themselves unable to do so.

What we hear frequently in these discussions is the disappointment of those who have tried to follow the teaching, and have found themselves in serious distress of one kind or another because of it. Some have responded with bitterness and decided that the teaching must be wrong, some have made compromises which trouble their consciences, some have resigned themselves to abstinence. Many feel that practicing NFP has strained their marriages seriously. Many seem to have a sense of betrayal that NFP did not prove to be as easy or as effective or both as they had been led to believe.

I do believe NFP has been, for many people, a manageable response to the problem. But that is not the same thing as a solution. There is no solution to the problem of sex.

The inescapable fact is that sex has a very clear biological function, which is to make babies, but that the activity is so pleasurable that people want it far more often than they want to have a baby. There are a limited number of ways to handle this—I don’t say “resolve”—and none of them is completely satisfactory.

There is, of course, artificial birth control, including sterilization, as practiced by most people in the industrialized world. But few who give it much thought will deny that its widespread adoption has helped to weaken marriage and the family by weakening and in many people destroying the sense that there is a necessary connection between sex and procreation; I have often heard secular progressives make fun of the very idea. Sex has become trivialized, and while there is surely a great deal more of it taking place now than there was 50 years ago, I see no evidence whatsoever that people in general are any happier for it. I could write at length about that, but let it suffice for the moment that there is ample confirmation of Paul VI’s prediction:

Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

On the individual level, there are potential health effects from the Pill (which I suspect have been under-researched or at least under-publicized—I really wonder about the incidence of breast cancer, for instance), and for all methods the the inducement of a false sense of total control which suggests a resort to abortion in the event of failure; nor does it appear to make marriages any happier, as it was promised to do. And that’s to say nothing of the moral argument.

NFP is workable for many, but, as noted above, there are many others who for one reason or another do not seem able to make it work at all reliably, and for those who have truly serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy it may seem—and be—too great a risk.

Prolonged abstinence, for a married couple who love and desire each other, requires heroic virtue, and it’s not reasonable to expect that of very many people; also, it is likely to be a great strain, to say the least, on a marriage, possibly increasing the temptation to infidelity, at least on the husband’s part.

And then there is the entire rejection of “family planning” in the ordinary sense, what Daniel refers to in the CetT post as Supernatural Family Planning: put it all in God’s hands, make love when you like, and accept babies as they come. Again, this is workable for some couples, but others may find themselves with too many children too quickly. The limits naturally vary with income, health, and psychology. Leaving aside the first two, not everyone is equal in their ability to cope with the stresses of childrearing. But we can assume that many if not most couples will find themselves at some point feeling that they can’t handle another child, though they are still fertile, which brings them round to the dilemma.

What emerges from the conversations on these blogs is confirmation that there simply is no solution: that is, no means by which we can make love as often as we like but have babies only when we want them, and that does not have serious negative physical or psychological or social side effects.

Love and sex are two of the sweetest joys of the human condition. It should not surprise anyone who believes in the Fall that we are never able to enjoy them without limit and without pain. I often wonder whether they will exist in the world to come. It seems impossible that something so very central to physical and emotional human life would simply disappear, as it is presumed to do in purely spiritual conceptions of heaven. Speculation as to what form, or trans-form, they may take, is idle, but surely they will be there in some way, if the phrase “resurrection of the body” means anything. In the meantime, all we can do is muddle through, doing our best and trusting in God’s mercy.

Paul Fussell: The Boys’ Crusade

Sunday Night Journal — July 17, 2011

I know Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory by reputation, but have never read it. When it was published in the 1970s, it was immediately considered an important book, and seems to have retained that status ever since, as I run across references to it from time to time. I’ve had it in the category of Important Books I’ll Read Someday for a long time. But it’s a lengthy work, and hasn’t made it to the top of my list. A couple of weeks ago I was in the library looking for something else and noticed this little book, which looked like it might serve as a good sample of Fussell’s writing on war. Be that as it may, it is certainly a worthwhile book in its own right.

Subtitled The American Army in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945, it’s a broad overview of the Anglo-American campaign in Europe from D-Day to the end of the war. The two nouns in the title are carefully chosen, and the book’s thesis is a justification of that choice: a large number of the soldiers were in fact boys, and the campaign did, in the end, justify the designation of “crusade”—to which one must add “in spite of,” and much of the book is an enumeration of the many, many items that must follow those three words.

It is a record first of slaughter produced by mistakes, bad judgment, and sheer folly. At this point in the war experienced and well-trained troops were in short supply, and replacements (not “reinforcements,” the author notes) were sent into combat with little conception of what was facing them or how to face it, and often they died, sometimes horribly, before they had even engaged in anything that could reasonably be called combat, in the sense of a conscious and two-sided struggle. They were put into almost certain-death situations by the sometimes thoughtless and sometimes culpably stupid decisions of their commanding officers. Fussell is unsparing. He does not pretend that the campaign could have been waged without terrible loss of life, and he does not rant, but one senses a controlled anger in his account of incidents where troops were ordered to do things which were either impossible or pointless or both. It is one thing to give one’s life in a meaningful act of heroism, quite another to be herded blindly into a slaughterhouse, dispatched, and discarded. I thought over and over again while reading this book of Siegfried Sassoon’s line: The hell where youth and laughter go.

Fussell knows exactly what he is talking about. He “landed in France in 1944 as a twenty-year-old second lieutenant” (from his Wikipedia biography), and was wounded in action (similar to my father’s experience except that my father was not quite twenty when he entered the war near its end in 1945).

Like a lot of boys who grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War, I had a somewhat romantic view of it, reinforced by the sentimental and sanitized portrayal of it in movies and TV. In my teens and after, I read enough about it to begin to understand that the life of an infantryman was more often squalid and full of terror than noble or heroic. But still the idea of “the good war,” as Studs Terkel called it, persisted to some degree, as I think it does for many Americans. This is only one of a number of books—another is Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed—that strips away any hint of romance about the actual waging of the war. It isn’t only the experiences of the men on the ground that make the romance untenable, and it isn’t only the very visible wrongs of the deliberate bombing of cities by both sides. It’s the hell that caught up everyone involved, including civilians who were not targeted but just happened to be in the way. Did you know, for instance, that D-Day was preceded by massive bombing of areas in France far away from the intended landing site, solely for the purpose of deceiving the Germans?

How and why, then, does Fussell use the word “crusade,” and use it without irony, to describe this nightmare? I’ll let him explain:

As the war ignominiously petered out, the troops knew more about the enemy than they had known when, early on, they had sneered or giggled at the word crusade. They had seen and smelled the death camps, and now they were able to realize that all along they had been engaged in something more than a mere negative destruction of German military power. They had been fighting and suffering for something positive, the sacredness of life itself.

Hardly any boy infantryman started his career as a moralist, but after the camps, a moral attitude was rampant and there was no disagreement on the main point.... Major Richard Winters said after seeing the corpses at the camp at Landsberg: “Now I know why I am here.”

Officers and men agreed on this one thing.

Chesterton, describing the determination of Rome to destroy Carthage, asserts that beyond the ordinary commercial and imperial rivalries of the two powers there was a deep repugnance on the part of Rome toward the Carthaginian practice of child sacrifice. Whether or not this was true, Chesterton’s point is that there are abominations so intolerable, exceeding so far the bounds of ordinary human wickedness, that they simply must be resisted and destroyed. Nazi Germany was one such, Fussell seems to be saying. He does not suggest that the end justified the means, and that it rendered acceptable the wrongs and follies of the Allies. He says—if I understand him—only that the Nazis had to be stopped. That so much in the Allies’ conduct of the war was hardly consistent with the principle of “the sacredness of life itself” does not mean that the two sides were morally equivalent. It is one thing to fail to honor that principle in one’s actions; it is another to deny it altogether, and to act on that denial.

There was no desirable choice in this situation, only less and more undesirable. What remained of decency —that simple word that contains so much—in Euro-American civilization could either let Nazism have its way or go to war against it. This is the tragic view of history, the view that I for one would much prefer not to hold, but which seems to me the only one for which there is any evidence, so far as the things of this world are concerned.


Patmore, Lewis, and The Angel In the House

Sunday Night Journal — July 10, 2011

This is something I’ve been planning to mention for some months. It’s been quite a while now—I’m not sure I want to remind myself of just how long—since Dale Nelson sent me a copy of his excellent article on Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s long poem The Angel In the House which appeared in the March-April 2002 issue of the bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. The article focuses, naturally, on the connections between Patmore’s ideas and Lewis’s. I delayed in writing about it because I wanted to take some time to read something of Patmore first; I vaguely remembered that he had appeared briefly in the anthology which served as the text for a course in Victorian literature I’d taken as an undergrad, but that was all.

I still have that anthology, and another, larger one, which I thought had a good selection from Angel. As it turned out, the two together provided me with not much more than a hundred of the several thousand lines that comprise the poem, but those are excellent. (The entire work can be found online at VictorianWeb, but I don’t care to read at that length on the computer).

The Angel in the House, published in parts between 1854 and 1862, ultimately became “perhaps more generally loved than any other poem of the age,” in the words of one of my anthologies. Considering that “the age” included Tennyson and Browning, that’s saying quite a lot. As is often the case, the best-loved poem of its time did not remain so when its time had passed, but neither did it become a mere relic or antique; there seems to be a good deal in it which still speaks to us.

If I had pursued an academic career, I would most likely have specialized in the Victorian era. Part of the reason is that the Victorians were already dealing with the crisis of faith, and the deep anxiety it produced, long before the 20th century would come to be known as the age of anxiety, but were coping with it in a very different way, a way still owing much to Christianity and characterized by common sense and a high sense of personal duty and honor. And where they were or became serious Christians, as Patmore was, they had already begun to hold a kind of faith that has come to be familiar to us, a faith that has to be, for any moderately educated person (apart perhaps from natural saints), self-conscious and self-examining in a way that was not required in the Middle Ages.

And so with Patmore’s long hymn to married love: perhaps I’m showing my ignorance here, but I’m not aware of any earlier literature which approaches the subject in quite this way. Obviously there had been all manner of love poetry, and the idea that romantic love could lead one toward God was hardly novel, but the raptures of that kind of poetry did not feature or even necessarily involve marriage as such, much less domesticity. And what Patmore seems to have attempted, among other things, is to paint married life as a continuing revel in the sacramental beauty and significance of love between the sexes, domesticated but still rich and powerful.

These ideas have been further explored in modern times, by C.S. Lewis among others, and Dale Nelson’s piece reveals that the connections between Patmore and Lewis were conscious connections: Lewis had read and admired Patmore. Unfortunately the article is not online, but it is among the back issues of the bulletin which are available for mail order at the Society’s web site . Here is one of the key points:

A chief conviction of Patmore’s is the centrality of gender for the whole creation (“nuptial contrasts are the poles / On which the heavenly spheres revolve” [Book I, Canto II]). Compare Lewis in Perelandra, Chapter 16: “Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaption to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings....”

Patmore’s wife, Emily, who was the subject of The Angel In the House, died after fifteen years of marriage. Not long afterward, Patmore became a Catholic, and Nelson tells us that he burned all the copies of The Angel that he could get his hands on because he believed it to be heterodox. Perhaps it is in parts; perhaps it goes a bit too far in its exaltation of love between the sexes. That may be—or it may be that it only seemed so from the somewhat puritanical viewpoint that has, it can’t be denied, sometimes characterized the Catholic view of love and marriage. In any case the few poems I’ve read from it did not strike me as problematic in that line.

As Nelson points out, there is (based only on what he quotes and what I’ve read) quite a bit in Patmore that strikes us as Victorian in a bad way: I expect the title alone would be enough to put not only feminists but most contemporary women on guard. It appears that there is a good deal of condescension, to say the least—a good deal of woman as childlike, charming, and saintly, but not the mental equal of her husband. Nevertheless, there can’t be much doubt that he was writing about, and from, real love, and a real grasp of the connection between romantic love and spiritual aspiration. No culture gets everything right, and I’d say a flawed testament of real love and real faith is far preferable to a sick popular culture which speaks of women only as “hot” or not, and has given us the term “hookup.”

In one of the last poems of The Angel In the House, the poet asks himself why, though he is now married to the woman he has been pursuing, he still desires to woo her, and closes with this lovely picture of the something-unattainable that is always there in the woman one loves; I suppose the female point of view has a counterpart, but I suspect it would be expressed differently:

Because her gay and lofty brows,
When all is won which hope can ask,
Reflect a light of hopeless snows
That bright in virgin ether bask;

Because, though free of the outer court
I am, this Temple keeps its shrine
Sacred to Heaven; because, in short,
She’s not and never can be mine.

The Other Culture War

Sunday Night Journal — July 3, 2011

(I was going to write about something else today, but this is something I’ve been thinking about, and it’s appropriate for Independence Day, so I think I’ll go ahead and get it out of the way.)

The term “culture war” in this country generally refers to the conflict over matters involving sex, marriage, and the family. In the 1970s organized reaction to the social earthquake of the 1960s began to take shape, and one of the most visible of these reactions was Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the organization that for a while more or less defined the term “Christian Right” or “Religious Right.” It, and Rev. Falwell himself, quickly became among the most hated entities in the country in the eyes of sophisticated people. Falwell was widely viewed as a hick, a bigot, and a fanatic. (When he died a few years ago, I was both shocked and amused by the number of people who appeared to have no particular religious belief but nevertheless were certain that Falwell was in hell.)

I came to feel a bit sorry for Falwell, because I think he fundamentally misconstrued the situation. He thought that a small number of radicals—hippies, feminists, etc.—had seized control of some of our most visible institutions (the press, especially), and were forcing the agenda of the sexual revolution on a mostly unwilling, mostly conservative Christian population. And that the task before him was to awaken those people to the fact that their society was under attack, and get them to use their political strength to reverse the sexual revolution, at least to the extent that it was becoming institutionalized, most obviously with the legalization of abortion.

But he was wrong. The sexual revolution may have flowered in the ‘60s, and hippies and feminists may have been its most visible advocates (along with Hugh Hefner), but its roots were much deeper. And in any case much of the mainstream soon embraced it quite readily. By the time Falwell attempted to rally socially conservative Christians, they were not the majority (if they ever had been). And although the Christian right became a serious political force, it has at best only slowed the social revolution it was meant to reverse.

I think something similar is going on now with economic ideas. The Tea Party and various free-market politicians are in a position similar to that of the Christian Right. They believe that most Americans still believe in the old concept of individual freedom combined with responsibility, and that they interpret the American ideal of liberty to mean, second only to self-government, economic liberty; that they want the freedom to succeed economically according to their natural talent and willingness to work hard. That they recognize that things are not always going to work out well for everyone in this system, and that such is the price of freedom. And that they are willing to admit a role for a government safety net for those who aren’t able to survive on their own in this system, but envision the safety net as being of limited scope, and certainly not something that encompasses everyone all the time.

I think there are strong reasons to doubt that most people feel this way anymore. Part of the intensity of the social culture war arises from the fact that neither side can quite believe that the other really wants what it says it wants. In the sexual realm, for instance, the religious conservative can’t believe that anyone can truly fail to see that there’s something unhealthy in homosexuality; the secular liberal can’t believe that anyone can think there is. Likewise, in the economic realm, the Tea Partier can’t believe that anyone of sound mind can fail to see the essential rightness of the traditional American ideals of independence, and the liberal (for want of a better word) can’t believe that anyone of sound mind can fail to see the essential rightness of the welfare state. Each believes that he has only to sound the alarm, and the majority of Americans will rally to his cause.

I have a feeling that the Tea Party and others of similar mind are mistaken about the antagonism among the general population to the welfare state. I don’t have time now to pursue my various conjectures about why this is true, but I suspect that support for measures that would actually shrink the scope of what the federal government provides is actually pretty small. If you put the question abstractly, yes, they’ll say they want to cut this or that, but at the same time they reject cuts to anything that might benefit them personally. And there’s the rub: almost all of us are now caught up in the web of “benefits,” money handed to us by the government directly or indirectly—and are faced with financial pressures that make dependence, either on the government or on a large-scale employer, the normal case.

This train of thought was started by a comment on the Caelum et Terra blog (see sidebar) a week or two ago. I can’t remember now what post it was on, so I can’t link to it, but it was by someone whose husband is self-employed, and she was lamenting all the ways in which her family is penalized financially for it. This sort of independence should be something close to the American ideal, but almost everything in our system now assumes as the norm that one works for a large organization of some kind, and that the organization subsidizes you financially beyond the cost of your actual salary. The two main pieces of this are the Social Security tax, half of which is paid by one’s employer, and health insurance, which is at least heavily subsidized by the employer—or at least is widely considered the employer’s responsibility, so that an employer who doesn’t provide it is considered to be callous and unethical.

The independent contractor or small business owner not only has to find a way to pay all this himself, but will usually pay much more for health insurance, because he isn’t getting group rates—or else take his chances on being able to pay for his own health care, which is difficult and risky.

Almost everything in our system now is designed to discourage true economic independence. Neither the government nor the big corporations nor the labor unions have any interest in encouraging it. I can think offhand of several people I know personally who are in various undesirable or unwanted job situations purely because they can’t afford not to have access to financial support that is available only through some collective.

It is very difficult to get out of this web even if you want to, because your participation in so much of it is forced, and the sacrifice of foregoing the rewards is great. I’m a case in point. In a few years I’ll be eligible for social security (actually I already am, but at a reduced rate). I want to retire, but should I really have a right to expect that? If I am still capable of working at sixty-six, what right do I have to expect that younger people should support me? How is this different from going on welfare? This bothers me, but when the time comes, I’ll probably take the money, telling myself that, after all, I have been paying to support other retirees for most of the past forty years. And the Tea Party itself seems to contain an awful lot of people who are very exercised about preserving Medicare.

And that doesn’t take into account the large number of poor or nearly poor people for whom dependence on the government is simply the unquestioned normal way of life. (I’m not considering here whether they could do otherwise; no doubt some could and some could not, but that’s another question.) Or the corporations that rely on complex tax breaks and subsidies and general cronyism. Or the people who work directly for the government. Or those whose employers are heavily dependent on government contracts or subsidies: again, I’m a case in point, because the independent college I work for would not be able to survive without government-subsidized financial aid programs.

The independence that came with the territory of being a small farmer or shopkeeper or artisan is now available only to those who are unusually adventurous (or of course wealthy, but that’s always true). Few of us even own the homes we live in; “home ownership” is a euphemism for most of us most of the time, because the house was bought with borrowed money that we’re still trying to pay off (or, often, not even trying, but expecting to hop from one loan to another for the rest of our lives). The presumption that most people should be somewhat independent, with a small minority needing assistance, has been inverted.

All in all, I suspect that as the Tea Party leads the charge for small government economic freedom, they’re not going to see, when they look behind them, nearly as many people following as they expected. As with the moral components of the other culture war, the assumption that most people want a society based on the sort of freedom the Tea Party advocates may not be warranted. One can’t judge only by the cultural climate as exemplified in the predominant cultural expressions—the press, the entertainment industry, the academy—but on the basis of those one would be justified in supposing that sexual freedom is now the most important and essential American freedom, and that other freedoms can and should be sacrificed to it.

It’s always possible, some say probable, that the whole structure will come tumbling down because the government doesn’t actually have the money it dispenses to us. If so, that won’t be a pretty sight, and it won’t be seen as liberating.

The Hawk In Heaven

Sunday Night Journal — June 26, 2011

On my way to work Friday morning, crossing Mobile Bay, I saw something I’d only seen once before, though I’ve made that crossing twice every workday since 1992: a hawk of some kind with a fish in its claws, flying away toward its nest, or wherever they go to eat what they’ve caught. Since it’s early summer and a lot of young birds have hatched and are growing, perhaps it was on its way to feed its family. (It may have been an osprey, although I thought it was a little smaller than that—I sometimes see one sitting in a dead tree by the bay near my house.)

At any rate, it was very beautiful, flying away from me so that I had a clear silhouette of its slow graceful wings, and I had to force myself not to keep watching it out of sight, but to pay attention to my driving. It wasn’t only the immediate beauty of its flight that caught me, though; it was the whole picture: the hunting, the dive, the catch, the instinct that would, if my conjecture about the babies was correct, cause the bird to give its catch to its young.

The experience was not so beautiful for the fish, of course: to make this picture complete, to make it intelligible, the fish had to be abruptly pierced and seized by stout claws, and lifted out of the water to gasp futilely for breath until it died, or perhaps be eaten alive. I hate to be the sort of absurd sentimentalist who muses about the agonies of a fish while millions upon millions of human beings live in miserable conditions and suffer far more horribly, and for longer, and are conscious of their suffering in a way that I’m pretty sure a fish is not. But a sight like the hawk with its prey always sets me to thinking about the fallenness of the world, about the irreducible amount of death and pain which seem to be built into the fabric of it, and about what an unfallen world would be like.

The Fall brought death into the world, we’re told. It also made sacrifice necessary: we see it all around us, every time one insect eats another, a bird eats an insect, a cat eats a bird, even when a cow eats grass: something dies so that something else can live. Usually the one thing does not give its life willingly, or without struggle and pain. It remained to man to introduce the worst horror: suffering consciously and willingly inflicted, with pleasure. And that in turn was answered by God in the one Sacrifice: suffering consciously and willingly accepted, with love.

We’re left a few reminders of the way things might have been, in those situations where one creature creates what another needs to survive, as in the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange between plants and animals, or the relationship between bees and flowers. But we can’t extend that to hawks and fish, or lions and antelope. To imagine the hawk or the tiger as something other than a predator is to imagine its essential nature changed altogether, and to diminish its magnificence. Does that mean that such creatures will have no place in the redeemed world?

Or can it perhaps be that the world we now know as fallen will be still somehow itself and still somehow present when all has been redeemed? James Dickey, though not as far as I know a Christian, paints one part of that vision in his poem “The Heaven of Animals:”

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.

They are magnificently powerful, beyond anything in this world, couched in trees and waiting, and as for the prey:

Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle's center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

But a cycle of bloodshed that never ends and never goes beyond itself would seem in the end to be more hell than heaven. If it is to be heaven, it must be part of a consciousness in which pain is subsumed into something that transcends it. We can perhaps imagine this with relatively mild pains, as when we recognize the discomfort of thirst as part of the pleasure of drinking. But it is difficult to do it with really serious suffering. I venture into this speculation with hesitation; I can’t even think it without misgiving. I don’t want to spin an airy theory that seems to make little of the agony that is such an inescapable and dreadful part of this world.

As it happened, later on the same day I saw the hawk, I read a story about a gruesome murder, an act that could have been a scene from a truly hideous horror film, and was so shaken that I found it difficult to work for the rest of the day. And I still haven’t shaken it: it disturbs my sleep, and pops into my mind without warning now and then through the day, usually, perversely, when I am thinking of or doing something pleasant. I really cannot imagine that such a thing can ever be caught up into joy, and it seems offensive even to make the attempt. If one who has suffered in this way can do it, well and good, but how can I, who have not, even suggest the possibility?

And in truth I would not choose first, if I could, for such things to be redeemed: I want rather that they not have happened at all, or to be somehow erased from the fabric of time and space and memory. But I don’t want to lose the beauty of the hawk’s wings in flight, either.

Earlier Christians pictured martyrs in heaven as displaying the gruesome trophies of their suffering. And I have always disliked these portrayals, so much that I don’t even want to illustrate this paragraph with examples. But I remind myself that Christ’s wounds were visible in his resurrected body. These, I suppose, are the only hints I can expect about how it will all be reconciled, but they suggest that the hawk may not be lost.

The INTS Party

Sunday Night Journal — June 19, 2011

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with some relatives whom I don’t see very often. The conversation turned to politics, and as has been my habit for a good while now when people are discussing politics, I listened but didn’t speak. Eventually someone noticed this.

“So what do you think, Mac? Didn’t you used to be into...causes and all that?”

I took the opportunity to make the first announcement of my plan to form a new political party. I call it the INTS Party: It’s Not That Simple. You may consider this post the public announcement. Anyone is welcome to join this party; the only requirement for membership is affirmation that the namesake statement applies to almost all political positions and debates and programs as presently shouted at us: whether they are on the right or the left or somewhere between or altogether outside, most of them most of the time take a complex situation or decision and oversimplify it. Normally the result is a few sound bites and slogans that are intended to make any disagreement untenable by portraying it as insane or immoral or, preferably, both. Since everyone is doing this, the result is a lot of bullying and yelling by people who have no intention of making an effort to understand how anyone can see things differently.

Since I classify myself in a broad way as a conservative and tend to sympathize more with the right than the left, most of the examples that come immediately to my mind are cases like the current controversy over Medicare, in which the Democrats seem to have decided that their chief debating tactic will be to accuse the Republicans of planning to kill old people. But it certainly works both ways. Just the other day John McCain labeled anyone who questions our military action in Libya as “isolationist,” a word that has become almost completely meaningless. That most people on both sides of most questions may simply want what is best for the country, but have different ideas about how to reach that goal, is not an allowable admission. (The underlying disagreement is often over the definition of “best,” but that’s another discussion.)

Perhaps what I’m really objecting to is not so much the proposal of over-simplified policies as the reduction of the debate to over-simplification—hostile over-simplification. (There are a few pundits who don’t do this—Ramesh Ponnuru and Jim Manzi of National Review, for instance, and I’m sure they have their counterparts on the left. But they are not much listened to.) It certainly cannot be said that a policy such as Obamacare is simple. Its complexity is in fact one of the objections to it. But both it and many of the objections to it—not all, but many—rest on a simplistic assumption that the health care problem can be “solved” in some magic way that will be socially, fiscally, and medically sound without some serious sacrifice on someone’s part. I feel perfectly confident in saying that it cannot be.

At bottom I’m relatively uninterested in politics. I do care, and I do pay a modest amount of attention, and I do have my opinions, but politics is simply not anywhere near the top of the list of things I’m interested in. This was the case even in my left-wing days; I always thought people who expected to transform society through politics were at best very naïve. (One could argue that to a great extent they did succeed in transforming society, but it was less by means of politics than by reshaping cultural habits and presuppositions.)

My move away from the left originated in this realization that things are not so simple, and I can say with some accuracy exactly when that movement began. In the early 1970s I knew two married couples who lived across the street from each other. Each had a new baby, their first child. Neither wife held an outside job. One husband worked as a retail clerk making two dollars an hour. The other worked as a welder making three dollars an hour. You can see where this is going: yes, it was the welder’s household which an observer would have considered poor in comparison to the clerk’s; it was the welder’s wife who occasionally borrowed money from the clerk’s wife to buy milk for the baby. The reason for the disparity was that the welder spent so much of his pay on marijuana and beer. Hmm, thought I. It’s not that simple.

That was one of my first steps away from the left. A few years earlier I would have subscribed to an idea that I haven’t heard of for some time: the guaranteed annual income, in which every citizen would be given a certain amount of money every year, whether he worked or not, and so the problem of poverty would be solved. But this experience gave me some insight into the mess ordinary human failings would inevitably make of that scheme. This sort of observation, in which the liberal-left picture of reality was compared to the evidence of my own eyes and came up wanting, was repeated more times than I can count. The result, by the end of the 1970s, was what I call a generally conservative view, but for me this means a recognition of the limits of politics and programs. (I know of people who made a similar transition from youthful right-wing zealotry to something more cautious and balanced.) It certainly does not mean the adoption of an equal-and-opposite-to-liberalism ideology. It is, in the practical sphere, empiricist and pragmatic: what is actually the case? And what is likely to be the result of any action? Good motives are not enough. Even good principles are necessary but not sufficient, because they may be misapplied as readily as bad ones.

(Possibly the greatest and most tragic failure of liberal hopes in my lifetime has been the end of legal segregation; the disaster that has befallen the black family since then, and the huge percentage of young black men who are in jail or otherwise under the loving care of the criminal justice system, oblige one to say that at the very least things have not turned out anything like as well as expected. And what are the reasons for the failure? Well, to any single explanation I would have to say it’s not that simple.)

It may be that practical politics has to operate in this either/or mode of false dichotomies and poisoned wells, or at least politics in a democracy, or at least politics in a democracy in which marketing is all. Well, so be it: that’s why I’m not in politics. As one with no more power than resides in a single vote, I have the luxury of being able to look at both sides of any question and come to a conclusion that does not fit on anyone’s bumper sticker.

It occurs to me that It’s Not That Simple would make a good bumper sticker.

By the way, my announcement was well received by my relatives. Perhaps there’s a constituency for the party.

"Infinite" Does Not Mean "Really Big"

Sunday Night Journal — June 12, 2011

I normally don't get involved in political or religious discussions on Facebook, because I'm "friends" with people who have strong views on all sides, and who needs more rancor in his life? I ventured into one a week or so ago, much against my better judgment, and then withdrew quickly when my remarks were not well received. (Not that the reception was rancorous; it was merely...unreceptive.) But I've wanted to say more about the question, which is an important one.

The post (a Facebook Note, similar to a blog post) argued, in essence, that the immensity of the universe makes Christian beliefs absurd, and much of it consisted of examples of just how very, very, very immense the universe is. It was not exactly the familiar argument that nothing so tiny as a human being could be significant in so vast a space, and that therefore if there is a God, then he, she, or it is not particularly interested in us. It was a variant: if there is a God, then he, she, or it could not possibly be identified with anything so tiny as a human being--that is, that there could be no human incarnation of God. ("Identified" doesn't strike me as the best term to use about the Incarnation, but that was the writer's word.) And it had a second component: that it would be even more absurd to hold that the salvation or damnation of every being in the universe could depend on whether he, she, or it believed in that incarnation. (The writer didn't specify, but presumably he meant conscious beings with the ability to make moral choices.)

That second component is at very best much too simplistic, as most people who read this blog will probably see at once. For one thing, the conditions, according to many of the most ancient Christian traditions, for the salvation of a human being are somewhat more complex than that. More importantly, there is nothing in Christianity which holds that any conjectured inhabitants of conjectured other planets would share our condition. Perhaps there are some who did not fall as we did, and do not need to be saved. Such things can only be the object of speculation. The Christian revelation was made to the inhabitants of this planet. We don't even know--one has to remind certain enthusiasts of this--that there are any others, all such speculations being just that, no matter how many statistics are cited in their support; even the relevance of the statistics depends on many unproven assumptions.

The first argument, though, rests mainly on the emotional force of what we know about the size of the universe. That force is indeed strong; surely anyone can feel it. We literally cannot imagine such vastness. We can formulate the ideas that measure it and state the numbers, but we cannot imagine it, in the sense of forming a real mental picture of it. I'm not sure we can really even do that very well with distances inside the solar system, which itself is not as much as a grain of sand in relation to the rest of the cosmos. It is difficult to imagine a God who created all that, and that he cares about us. But I think this difficulty rests partly on an inadequate idea of what infinity really means.

It does not mean "really big" or even "really really really big, way bigger than you can even begin to imagine."  Mathematics gives us a way of talking about it, even giving us a symbol to represent it so that it can be incorporated into the same apparatus that includes small and simple numbers, and maybe that also serves to tame it a little. I suspect that a lot of us see it as sitting at the top or bottom or end of a long sequence of numbers, and that we tend to view it, at some basic psychological level,  as being simply the very largest number. 

Similarly, when we think of God, we think of him as the very greatest being, an entity existing within some limit, some greater fundamental structure of space and time (or spaces and times). So when we ask a question like "Does God care about us?" and then take a look at the cosmos, we feel that the answer must be "no"--because how could he? How could any thing or person which is capable of creating and comprehending all that space and time and number possibly be concerned with us, when there are so very many things for him to be concerned with? 

When we do this, we are imagining God to be limited, to have a very very large but nevertheless limited amount of attention and care to dispose around the universe. But if there is a God, and if he is infinite, then things are really neither great nor small in relation to him, only in relation to each other. And he does not have to divide his attention, or run the risk of having something go amiss in Andromeda because he's busy in the Magellanic Cloud. Infinity means that he can devote infinite attention to every thing. Jesus said that every hair of our heads is numbered, and I suspect most of us probably take that as a poetic exaggeration. But if we take the concept of infinity seriously, it is not.

 I am not going to argue that it is easy for the human mind to grasp how it would be possible for the infinite God to be united with a human nature. Not only is it not easy, it is not possible. We don't believe it because we've figured out how it could work, but because we credit the testimony of those who knew this man-God. I do say, though, that the immensity of the universe has nothing much to do with whether it is credible or not. Suppose the entire created universe consisted only of this planet, and we believed that an infinite God had created it and was causing it to continue in being at every moment, and knew the precise location and behavior of everything in it, the minds of every human being, every molecule in the atmosphere and the oceans and the rocks and soil and living things, every subatomic particle in all of these. Would it make the idea of the Incarnation any easier to believe, much less to understand? I don't think so.  This planet alone is vast enough, from the human perspective, to make such belief difficult. That was in fact the position and perspective of the human race in Jesus's time (apart from the molecules etc.), and I don't see any reason to think that the Incarnation was any easier for them to believe than it is for us. Our greater knowledge may make this world seem smaller, but their lesser knowledge made it seem greater.  

Ingmar Bergman: Interviews

Sunday Night Journal — June 5, 2011

Ingmar Bergman: Interviews, edited by Raphael Shargel. University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

It wasn’t until I started to write this review that I looked at the publication data of the book. Why was it published by the University Press of Mississippi instead of some bigger and more well-known house? I don’t mean to disparage Mississippi at all, which is a sort of sister state to Alabama in being often disparaged by the rest of the country, and for the same reasons. But even a patriot does not expect the Deep South to be a center of interest in Bergman, and this is important material. Of course I’m hardly a scholar, so perhaps in the broad realm of Bergman studies this is not a major entry. But it certainly seems important to me: the interviews range in time from 1957, right after The Seventh Seal, to 2002; the interviewers are knowledgeable and sympathetic, some of them well-known critics like John Simon; and Bergman seems to have talked pretty freely to them. I can’t imagine that anyone very interested in Bergman would not find the book fascinating and illuminating. I’ll mention here in no particular order, some of the things that were most interesting to me.

Almost every commentary on Bergman makes note of his difficult relationship with his severe father, a Lutheran minister, whose rigid discipline took forms that might now be termed abusive. Bergman himself mentions this frequently, and it does appear that this relationship is important to the ways in which Bergman addressed the question of faith. From a believer’s point of view, it’s very unfortunate, indeed tragic, because he deals with the matter in such skillful, profound, and moving ways. We can see that his notion of God was deeply flawed, and that at times when he seems to be casting God aside he is really only getting rid of these flawed and inadequate pictures, and in doing so is approaching God as we understand him. Therefore it’s very significant that late in his life (in the mid-1990s) Bergman returned to the difficulties of his family life, aided by the discovery of a diary kept by his mother, and writing a novel, The Best Intentions, based on his parents’ marriage. The result was a deep understanding and sympathy that enabled him to say that

...after this, every form of reproach, blame, bitterness, or even vague feeling that they have messed up my life is gone forever from my mind.

Bergman was not an intellectual, as we would commonly use the term. He never finished his university education and was a working artist from his early adult life onward. This does not mean that he didn’t have a very active intellect, or that he didn’t continue to read and to learn, but he lived in the world of concrete expression, not of ideas. He worked by intuition, and speaks several times of his films as being a species of dream. It is therefore a mistake to approach his work as if everything in it were keyed to some abstract idea. Too much effort has been expended in trying to account for every image in his work, especially some of the more abstract ones, as if everything must be a symbol of something, and the whole work a philosophical puzzle to be solved. This was not Bergman’s way; the image is there primarily for its aesthetic and emotional impact and may have no abstract meaning at all. I admit I was pleased to have this confirmed, as I recall a conversation from my college days in which I argued a similar position with a graduate student, who laughed at me for treating the movie (I think it was Hour of the Wolf) “as if it were a light show.” I don’t mean, of course, that there are not profound meanings in Bergman’s films, but they are not declarative sentences.

In several interviews from the early ‘60s on, Bergman mentions that his films that dealt with religious themes had enabled him to put the whole question behind him once and for all, that he had settled into comfortable disbelief. In my opinion the work that followed is, all in all, somewhat less impressive—not in craft, but in substance. That is undoubtedly an effect of my own views and interests, particularly of my view that the question of God is the question. Still, it seems possible to me that a hundred years from now it will be those works from the ‘50s and ‘60s that are considered his most significant.

He is asked often about his views of other filmmakers, especially those of more or less his generation, those who helped give cinema its place in the art world as a serious medium. He loves Fellini, and doesn’t care much at all for Godard—in fact denounces him pretty thoroughly in the last (2002) interview (“I’ve always thought that he made films for the critics.”). He loves much of Truffaut’s work, and has mixed feelings about Antonioni, considering him an inadequate craftsman on the whole, but praising (to my pleasure) Blow-Up (“incomparably well assembled”) and La Notte.

Considering the widely held view of his work as High Art of a rather forbidding seriousness and complexity, he has a refreshing lack of pretension, indeed a playfulness about it. In that last interview, and at more than one point earlier, he speaks of himself as being first and foremost a craftsman:

I never considered myself anything more than as a craftsman, a hell of a skilled craftsman, if I may say so myself, but nothing more. I create things that are meant to be useful, films or theatrical productions....I have never created for the sake of eternity. I was only interested in producing the good work of a fine craftsman. Yes, I am proud to call myself a craftsman who makes chairs and tables that are useful to people.

Even if he's jiving a bit here—surely he intended a bit more, and knew that he had accomplished it—this is a healthy attitude.

I generally have little or no desire meet or get to know artists whose work I admire. There are some, such as Eliot, whose general intellectual stature is so much above mine that I find it difficult to imagine a conversation with them. There are others, such as Percy, with whom I would expect to be merely awkward. And there are a few, such as Waugh, who were reputed to be quite unpleasant people. But I can imagine enjoying Bergman’s company. This is based partly on seeing a few filmed interviews with him, where he seems very engaging, but the impression is confirmed by this book.

One last note: a happy surprise for me in this book was the 1960 essay-interview by James Baldwin. When I was a student in the late 1960s, Baldwin seemed almost a sort of affirmative action presence on the literary scene: his status as The Negro Author seemed more important than his work, and I never got around to actually reading him. But this piece is really engaging and perceptive, suffused with a sort of warm melancholy, as much a reflection on America and his struggles with it as on Bergman, and it makes me want to read more of him.

Art and Fear

Sunday Night Journal — May 15, 2011

Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Originally published by Capra Press, 1994; current edition Image Continuum, 2010.


One thing that annoys me about my writing is that it’s so self-centered. It’s not just that I write about myself a lot, it’s also that even when I write about something else—politics, literature, music—I don’t seem to be able to get very far from my own subjective reactions. That’s justifiable to a great extent, especially when writing about art, but I’d like to have enough knowledge to be able to say, in many of those cases, not just I think but I know: to be able to make the case for my views on something more solid and comprehensive than my own small store of knowledge and limitless store of opinion.

This piece is even worse, like the memoir to which I am trying to force myself to return: not just self-centered but possibly even narcissistic, a bit of introspection about my writing. I don’t mean “writing” in the sense of the finished work, but in the sense of the activity, the actual labor of writing. I wouldn’t think it worth communicating to anyone else except that it’s occasioned by the book named above, and the book is worth writing about.

I’m greatly indebted to Jesse Canterbury for introducing me to it. I think it’s going to be a useful catalyst for me, and perhaps it will be useful to anyone else engaged in any work which can be called art in the broadest sense: that is, the creation of something which you yourself design and construct. It could include the work which is normally separated from Art and referred to as Craft. It could even include the task facing a software developer working at night and on weekends on a project of his own.

This book is about...trying to do the work you need to do.... It is about finding your own work.

More specifically, it is about the ways in which fear prevents you from doing the work you need to do. The need referred to is internal: if it’s external, such as the need to produce an income, there are other incentives at work. The book is divided into two sections, and for me it’s Part I which is by far the most useful, focusing on the artist’s interior struggles: “Fears About Yourself,” “Fears About Others,” “Finding Your Work.” The writers are visual artists, and Part II deals more with problems specific to that medium: galleries, critics, the academy, etc. (I have thus far deliberately avoided learning anything about their work, because I didn’t want my opinion of it to affect my opinion of the book.)

I should say right off that the authors are relatively free of the mistakes and cant of what Eric Gill called “art nonsense.” They are quite aware that the situation of art in the modern world is historically anomalous and really a little sick:

Throughout most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art.

This resembles Gill’s famous formulation: “The artist is not a special sort of man, but every man is a special sort of artist.” The authors go on to say that

In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed.

This I don’t think is true. I think it much more likely that art arrived with consciousness and is a product of consciousness. But that’s only an aside to the book’s main argument.

ARTMAKING INVOLVES SKILLS THAT CAN BE LEARNED. The conventional wisdom here is that while “craft” can be taught, “art” remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so.

This is important. The idea that art is a sort of visitation from outside forces (or inner genius) is deeply destructive, contributing to the idea that the artist is Not Like Other People, a special and higher creation, which is bad for both art and artists. It’s especially bad for the vast majority of artists who do not possess the vanishingly rare genius of a Mozart or a Bach. And even they had to work very hard. (It is true that bursts of inspiration do sometimes come, seemingly from elsewhere, but they must be nurtured and the material so delivered must be developed further.)

In truth, if there is any useful distinction between “craft” and “art,” it’s in the fact that a work of craft generally has some purpose other than itself, while a work of art is its own end. Even that distinction is blurry in the cases of Mozart and Bach. This bad idea also reinforces the pernicious view of the artist as a sort of seer or prophet or shaman, qualitatively different from the rest of us. He may in fact be somewhat more perceptive, sometimes (not very often) even a somewhat deeper thinker, but what’s far more important is his ability to convert his perception into some external form which communicates that perception to others. This in turn is purely a matter of skill. And skill in turn is a matter of natural gift—talent—plus work.

The belief that one must be a special kind of person, a freak of nature, to be an artist is terribly destructive to anyone who wants to make art but is not a natural genius. It has been destructive to me. Throughout my twenties, as I tried to make literary art, I looked constantly in myself for that natural genius, that power that Keats referred to when he said that “poetry ought to come as easily as leaves to a tree, or not at all.” (I’m pretty sure I don’t have that wording exactly right, but that’s the idea.)

It was a dark day for me when I read those words. The occasional line, maybe several lines at a time, did indeed come to me as leaves to a tree, but a complete poem never did. Anything I wrote which was worth reading was the product of an initial idea—call it an inspiration if you like—a happy combination of words and thought or emotion which had to be extended and completed with a lot of work, work which I did not and still do not find pleasant. Having done it is pleasant; doing it is not. This quotation, which the authors use to introduce one of their chapters, describes me:

Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.

The remark is from someone named Stephen DeStaebler, whose name I do not recognize, as I suspect most who read this will not (I learn from Wikipedia that he’s a sculptor). But we all recognize Keats’ name. The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that Keats was a real artist, and Stephen DeStaebler is not. But that’s the wrong conclusion. The one we ought to draw, if any, is that Keats had greater natural gifts, and moreover that his personal circumstances and industry enabled him to exercise those gifts (for, despite what he said about those leaves, the progression of his work and the quantity of it could not have been achieved without much labor).

The next step from there, for anyone who is not a Keats or a Mozart, is to convince oneself fully that it does not matter. It does not matter that Keats had greater natural gifts than you or I, and it does not matter if he produced better work than you or I. What matters for us is that we do the work we are capable of doing. The writers of this book are not (apparently) religious, so this is me talking, not them: the combination of interest and aptitude that make a person capable of doing art (of any kind, at any level of quality, for the distinction between good art and bad art is not something intrinsic that is found in one and not in the other, but only a difference in skill) is a gift from God, and one to whom it is given is obligated to exercise it. Not at any cost—this is another part of the pernicious myth of the Artist—one is not justified in neglecting the natural virtues and obligations of life for the sake of art any more than for the sake of power.

For years my entire sense of self-worth depended on my belief that I was an Artist—not just someone with a certain knack for words, but a Great Man in the making, with a Great Vision, and that I could hope eventually to produce Great Work, work that would put me on the level of Yeats and Eliot and all the others whom I all but worshiped. If it sounds like my wish to be an Artist—no, a Great Artist—was stronger than my wish to produce any art, well, it was.

One crippling effect of this was that I constantly compared myself to the greats, and my work to theirs. I could not write the first line of a poem or a story without asking myself whether it would someday be ranked with “April is the cruellest month” or “Call me Ishmael.”

The belief that “real” art possesses some indefinable magic ingredient puts pressure on you to prove your work contains the same. Wrong, very wrong. Asking your work to prove anything only invites doom.

Especially if you fear that you are Nothing, and you are asking the work to prove that you are Something, and even more especially if your real urgency is to prove it to other people rather than to yourself, because it is their approval that you really seek.

The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over—and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful. A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns.

I was pleased to read this, because it provides me with an explanation other than laziness and distraction for the fact that after an occasionally promising start in my twenties, I did very little writing for many years, sometimes none at all for years on end. And what I did do was like this blog, fragmented short pieces, mostly of transitory interest. I seemed unable to do more, and once again found myself looking pretty bad, in my own eyes, in comparison to the great artists whom I had once hoped to join. I started a few big projects but was unable to sustain them, except for one which I forced through to the end, knowing that it was not what it should have been and might have been if I’d been able to give it more attention.

One of the things I’ve learned from this book is to recognize that I could not do my work in the circumstances in which I lived—a demanding job unrelated to my interests, and responsibility for a family. I do not resent those circumstances; I chose them. But for me they were not compatible with sustained literary work. It doesn’t matter that John Gresham, for instance, wrote at least one lengthy best-seller by getting up early in the morning and working for a while before spending the day at his law practice, because I am not he, and his work is not mine, and what worked for him does not work for me. There is a great sense of liberation in accepting this.

By happy chance I’ve been reading, along with this book, a collection of interviews with Ingmar Bergman. It provides a fascinating counterpart to Art and Fear, because it deals frequently with Bergman’s work habits and the sources of his inspiration. I’ll probably have more to say about it, but I was delighted to learn that he operated on a strict routine, especially when he was writing a screenplay. As far as possible he wrote at a certain time and for a certain length of time every day, in the same place, and was quite emphatic to his interviewers that it was this routine that supported his creativity.

And of course I’ve also learned from Art and Fear how great a role fear, in the various aspects described in the book, has played in my inability to make the best use even of the opportunities that I did have. To recognize this is to be at least half-armed against it, and ready to carry on in spite of it. And in any case most of them no longer have the power over me that they did forty years ago. If good sense did not cure me of the hope that I would be the T.S. Eliot of my generation, time did. I don’t know that I have anything very important to contribute to the world, but I do have my own particular vision, and my own pictures to paint, and whether they are, in the end, good enough to merit the attention of others is not nearly as important to me as it once was. The only thing I’m responsible for is doing the work as well as I can. I think I’m finally, at the age of 62, ready to get started.