Sunday Night Journal 2012 Feed

Sunday Night Journal — October 21, 2012

George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia

This is Orwell's account of the six months or so that he spent in Spain fighting, or intending to fight, or recovering from fighting, on the Republican side of the Civil War. (In case your history is as hazy as mine, that was the side of the left-wing government, in opposition to the right-wing forces of HomageToCatalonia Franco.) He puts the Catholic reader in the uncomfortable position of sympathizing with a soldier in a cause devoted to the destruction of the Church, and who is at very best indifferent to the killing of Catholics, including priests and nuns, and the demolition and desecration of churches. Moreover, he is more or less universally and justly acknowledged to be a great truth-teller and an important writer; he can't simply be dismissed as an unprincipled leftist.

One approach is to treat the book as the work of art that it is. Reasonably classifiable as journalism and memoir, it transcends the former category because it remains, three-quarters of a century after its initial publication, interesting for its own sake and not only as a document of its time. When the Spanish Civil War has become a bit of history of little contemporary relevance, Homage to Catalonia will still be read by non-historians. One need know little of the larger circumstances of the war, or of its rights and wrongs, to be interested in the events recounted and the man recounting them. It is a straighforward narrative of the author's experience, and its simple unornamented prose may appear at first glance to be merely functional, but such clarity and easy flow don't happen by accident.

Orwell's position as an Englishman among Spaniards makes for an engaging perspective. He is in many ways an almost stereotypical Englishman, or rather a certain kind of Englishman, one of the imperial and military sort, which by birth and early training he was: practical, orderly, at once impatient and indulgent of the foibles of the natives: "As usual, Spanish standards of marksmanship had saved me." He speaks of fear and danger with classic reserve, detachment, and understatement:

The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detal.

Having been shot and believing he was bleeding to death, he says:

My first thought, conventionally enough, was for my wife. My second was a violent resentment at having to leave this world which, when all is said and done, suits me so well.

Although he was on the front lines for some months, the situation was something of a stalemate, with Republican and Nationalist positions separated by hundreds of yards and engaged mainly in desultory and ineffective sniping and shelling. There is in fact only one instance of real close combat in the story, one in which he remembers calling out to someone "This is war! Isn't it bloody?" Mostly his experience at the front consisted of boredom, cold, lice, and filth, all of which he renders very vividly. Taken simply as a well-written memoir, the book is worth reading.

HomageToCataloniaFlowerAnd the Catholic can also take it as history, and as a testimony to the situation of the Church in Spain (and probably in all of Catholic Europe) with regard to the working class. How did it come about that the institution which ought to have worked to aid and protect the poor was, in the eyes of those same poor, so often seen as a tool of the oppressor? I suppose it must in fact have been, at least to some extent, and a scandalous extent, the tool of the oppressor. Orwell says little directly about this, but what he does say is revealing:

It struck me that the people in this part of Spain must be genuinely without religious feeling--religious feeling, I mean, in the orthodox sense. It is curious that all the time I was in Spain I never once saw a person cross himself; yet you would think such a movement would become instinctive, revolution or no revolution.... To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon, the Church was a racket pure and simple.

Never once? That's hard to believe, and yet there is no reason to think that Orwell is not telling the truth. He also remarks on the almost complete lack of religious texts and symbols on gravestones which long pre-date the revolution. At any rate it is not surprising that this close association of the Church and an oppressive social order helped to produce the over-reaction of liberation theology.

In immediate-post-revolutionary Barcelona, Orwell found an egalitarian society which he found greatly attractive: everyone dressed more or less alike, no one bowed or cringed before anyone else, and a genuine sense of community cooperation seemed to be the organizing principle. This did not last long, of course, and the Catholic reader is likely to suspect that it could not have lasted long, mankind being what it is.

But the specific causes which brought about the end had a lasting influence on Orwell, and are still significant today. The latter part of the book relates the intramural fighting on the left which resulted in the POUM ("Workers' Party of Marxist Unification") with which Orwell was affiliated being purged, and Orwell himself making a hasty dash for England a few steps ahead of the police.  In brief, what happened was that the international Communist party, controlled by the Russians, took steps to suppress the revolutionary parties in Spain, because a thoroughly entrenched and thoroughly socialist government there was not at the time in the best military interests of the Soviet Union. Suddenly a propaganda campaign painted Orwell's confederates as "Trotskyists," no better than actual Fascists, and people began to disappear. The bold and shameless lying by which this was effected made a deep impression on Orwell, and is a clear influence on his later work.

Like many an Anglo-American leftist before him, Orwell wanted to take refuge in the law. 

All the while, though I was technically in hiding, I could not feel myself in danger. The whole thing seemed too absurd. I had the ineradicable English belief that 'they' cannot arrest you unless you have broken the law. It is a most dangerous belief to have during a political pogrom.

But the law of Spain, much less the law of revolutionary Spain, was not the law of England. I was reminded of the words spoken by someone or other in A Man for All Seasons: "This is not Spain." And further, of More's speech in the same play, to someone who would dispense with the law to get at the Devil:

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake! 

This notion of law is not universal; it is one of the greatest things in the Anglo-American tradition, and we are in danger of losing it at the hands of people who are interested only in results--but that's a topic for another day.

Homage_cataloniaOrwell's brand of socialism seems to have been benign and perhaps romantic: decentralized and democratic. I suppose he had read Chesterton, and I wonder what he thought of him. I sometimes suspect that the promising political movements promoted by such literary dreamers are doomed always either to be crushed or betrayed by the hard-headed, hard-hearted men who are most capable of seizing and using power. 

A personal footnote: somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago I met a young man who spoke with pleasurable anticipation of killing Catholics, simply because they are Catholic. My best guess is that this was Christmas of 1999, because we spoke of the then-recent riots in Seattle protesting the World Trade Organization; I forget whether he had participated in them or only praised them. He was related by marriage to one of my cousins, and was at this family gathering more or less by accident, so I've never seen him again and can't remember his name. I made conversation with him, and drew him out on the subject of his revolutionary beliefs. He said it would be necessary to kill the enemies of the people, such as Catholics. I pressed him on that point--"Really? All the Catholics"--and he retreated a bit.

"Well, not the ordinary Catholics. Just the priests."


"Because they're oppressing the people." 

What form he believed this oppression took, I don't know. I think I told him I was Catholic, but I can't remember for sure, because we were interrupted soon after that point in the exchange. He was, I would guess, in his late twenties at the time, so he would be forty or so by now, and I wonder if he still thinks killing all the priests, at least, would be a good idea.


Sunday Night Journal — October 14, 2012

Some Old Movies

I've been a little surprised over the past ten years or so to hear young people apply the term "old movie" to movies made as recently as the 1980s or mid-1990s. It makes perfect sense, of course, from their point of view. Or for that matter from a fairly neutral point of view: in movie industry terms, twenty years is a pretty long time. But for me an "old movie" is one that was old when I was young, which is to say, something made before roughly 1960. Here are notes on a few such that I've seen over the past month or so.

Some Like It Hot

Although I grew up in the time when "Marilyn Monroe" was as much a synonym for "sex symbol" as "Cadillac" was for "luxury car," I don't think I'd ever actually seen one of her movies in its entirety. I was only thirteen or fourteen when she died, so she was no longer an active screen presence when I was a young man, and of course in those days, when a movie had run the course of its release, it wasn't seen again unless it happened to turn up on late-night old-movie shows. Perhaps I saw bits and pieces, but I really can't recall an entire movie.

Some Like It Hot is apparently regarded as one of her best performances, and seems to be considered a classic even apart from that. I've run across extremely enthusiastic references to it over the years, and therefore had high expectations when I sat down to watch it a few weeks ago.

So it's certainly not prejudice that causes me to report a decided lack of enthusiasm for it. At best I would put it in the "somewhat amusing" class. I had no idea at all what it was about, but if I had known, my expectations would have been much lower. Some people seem to find men dressing up as women one of the funniest things in the world, but I am not one of them. I find it a little creepy; at best it gets an occasional mild chuckle from me. The plot of Some Like It Hot involves Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as small-time musicians who witness a gangland murder and flee for their lives by dressing as women and joining an all-"girl" band, which features a seductive (to say the least) singer named Sugar Kane, played by Monroe (obviously). Naturally the boys fall for Sugar, and are fallen for by men, and all sorts of complications ensue. 

I won't say it's badly done, and I didn't hate it, but...well, as I said, "somewhat amusing" is about the best I can do.

But Marilyn:  she was a bit of a revelation. Now I understand what all the fuss was about. She plays a stock, stereotypical dumb-but-sexy-blonde, but there's something about her that transcends the role. Yes, she's a bombshell (and platinum blondes are not my type), and the character is a drunk who has lived with a series of no-good men, but in spite of that there seems something sweet and innocent about her, as if the sleazy life she's lived has not really touched her soul. You want to take her away from all that and protect her. Whether this has much relation to the real Marilyn I don't know, but if it does then I can see why a decent man like Joe DiMaggio kept trying to save her, even after their marriage had collapsed, and why he continued to behave like a gentleman toward her long after her death, until his own, after which we can hope they have had a happy meeting.


Strangers On A Train

This is a fairly early Alfred Hitchcock, which, like Some Like It Hot, most people who have any great interest in movies have probably seen. This was my first viewing, and although I doubt I'll ever watch it again, the experience was the reverse of the above: I had low expectations, which were exceeded. I have generally thought Hitchcock's reputation somewhat greater than is justified. Not that I've disliked his work, but I didn't quite see why he is held in such high regard. I think I liked Rear Window best of the ones I've seen. And maybe I Confess, which was made around the same time as Strangers.

Two men meet on a train. Both have domestic difficulties and would like to be free of the person causing the difficuly: one is a tennis player who wants a divorce from his cheating wife, the second a rich young man who wants to get his domineering father out of the way and take possession of the family fortune. The rich young man suggests that they agree to murder each other's Inconvenient Person. The tennis star, a good man, is horrified and quickly detaches himself from the other. But the rich young man proves to be a psychopath who is not so easily discouraged. 

I think maybe one of the reasons I've thought Hitchcock's reputation somewhat exaggerated is that some critics seem to find a depth there that I don't see. But with that expectation put aside, and taking the movies simply as good stories, I greatly enjoyed this one, except that, as with several other Hitchcock works, I found the closing resolution a bit of a letdown after the skillfully-built tension of everything up to that point. 

I'm left with one question: why did Farley Granger, who plays the tennis player, not become a major star? He's handsome and strikes me as a better actor than a lot of leading men of the period. But then he doesn't have a single memorable persona like a lot of the others: Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Cary Grant,

Strangers On A Train-04

Mark of the Vampire

 This is a fairly low-grade installment in the Dracula series, but it's very atmospheric and enjoyable if you like this sort of thing. There's Bela Lugosi, who actually plays a fairly minor role. But the star of the show, vampire-wise, is the Lugosi character's daughter, who looks like her cover job could be singing in a goth-metal band. She doesn't say anything until the very end, but she's a notable presence. And there's Lionel Barrymore as the Van Helsing-type professor who knows all about vampires and guides the struggle against them. And Lionel Atwill as the policeman who doesn't believe all this nonsense. And there's a plot twist that sets it apart from similar films. Like I said, if you like this sort of thing...


Swing Time

I really shouldn't mention this one yet, as I've only seen half of it (my wife and I have taken to watching movies in one-hour segments on weekday evenings, when we'd like to relax for a bit but can't spare time for an entire movie). But this is the second time I've seen it, and I already know what I think about it. It's a Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers dancing romance, and many say it's the best of that lot. I don't know about that, but, to speak again of "this sort of thing," I find it hard to imagine that it gets much better than this. 

And I'm mildly astonished, if that makes sense, that I like this sort of thing. At twenty or thirty I probably would have scoffed at it. At forty I might only have been bored. At fifty I had begun to see the appeal, and now I find it entirely delightful. 

Come to think of it, I remember scoffing at it, sometime in my early twenties: to someone who loved musicals, I said I couldn't quite accept the idea of people suddenly bursting into song and dance in the middle of ordinary life. But that, she replied, was exactly what she liked so much about them. And now I'm much more of her mind. Swing Time doesn't appear to have much to do with the world we live in, but it does: it's the world as it might be, not in heaven, but on some plane considerably nearer to heaven than is the one we inhabit. As on earth, Fred and Ginger must negotiate a series of difficulties, but you know all along that nothing will prove insurmountable, and along the way there will be a great deal of rejoicing, with much more at the end. The Astaire-Rogers dance numbers are an expression of pure joy, not only because of their skill but because the personalities they radiate are so engaging.  

I discovered some years ago that reading P.G. Wodehouse is a wonderful medicine for depression; it's effervescent, like mental champagne. Swing Time has much the same effect.  And what Waugh said of Wodehouse is true of this movie:

Mr. Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

 To the Wodehouse comparison I would add one to Mozart. Surely, as long as people are capable of enjoying the lighter works of Mozart, they will be capable of enjoying Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 


Sunday Night Journal — October 7, 2012

What to do? What to do?

I said that to my dog Andy a little while ago, by way of remarking on his confusion and indecision. He is a Bichon Frisé--and no, as I know I've said here before, I never wanted a cute little dog--he came to us more or less by accident. (I started to say "wimpy little dog," but he's actually pretty brave--just the other day he challenged a dog that towered over him and must have weighed seventy pounds, as opposed to his twelve.) And the breed is genetically disposed toward a very strong need to be with people, even stronger than for most dogs. His main activity is to seek my wife or me and settle down to sleep as close to us as possible, preferably in physical contact. He's visibly distressed when we won't stay put. Before I sat down to write this my wife and I were both going about different activities, going to different rooms and perhaps sitting down for a few minutes, long enough for Andy to get settled, then getting up and going somewhere else. Finally he was trotting anxiously back and forth from one to the other of us, with a slightly frantic edge, unable to decide which of us was more likely to be still for a while. 

Anyway, it occurred to me that "What to do?" is the right title for what I had planned to say today. I'm often in a state of mind similar to Andy's, going back and forth among things I want to do, and finding myself unable to stick with any of them for very long.

I've got to make a decision about the future of this blog. "Not again!", some of you will say. "He went off on that tear a few years ago." Well, yes, I did. And those who were reading then may remember that I gave up the Sunday Night Journal for a year, with the intention of focusing on other projects, and that I resumed it after that year because I hadn't made much actual progress on any of them. For a while after resuming the SNJ I made it a weekly chapter in a memoir. For complex reasons I stopped doing that, although the memoir remains a live, if rather neglected, project.

The memoir, in fact, is one of the reasons that I find myself again at the same place I was at in December 2009. (Question for grammar experts: is that sentence grammatically correct?) Without boring you with a lot of details, I have to say that it's become clear that I really must cut down the amount of time I spend online, and that includes the amount of time I spend on this blog. 

I've given serious consideration to the possibility of doing away with it altogether, but I don't think I'll do that. The reason I'm discussing this out loud, so to speak, instead of just deciding what to do and then doing it, is that although I don't have a lot of readers, I really value you, and the conversations we have here. And there is good reason to believe some of you would miss the blog if it weren't there.

At this point those are really my strongest reasons for keeping it going.  I've written enough here over the past eight years (it will be nine in January) that I don't feel the urge to keep producing material as strongly as I did. I could live without that now, but I really don't want to lose the talk. I've often wished that I had a neighborhood bar where I could have a couple of beers and some conversation with similarly-minded people--not identically-minded, but similar enough for good talk. I don't have that, and this serves a somewhat similar purpose.

I've read that blog readership in general has declined over the past few years, and I think part of the reason is Facebook. But although I'm on Facebook, it's not nearly as good a place for conversation as a blog, at least for me. For one thing, it just doesn't work that way. Everything flows into one feed, so that a topic appears, and may get a few comments, but soon is pushed way down or off the page. Just as important, for me, is that Facebook is a place where I have to practice the traditional caution in talking about religion and politics. I have Facebook "friends" with all sorts of views, some of them quite different from mine and held quite heatedly, and I don't want to find myself in unpleasant and unproductive arguments. But nobody comes here unless they want to, and so this entirely public forum seems more private.

 I'd like to know what you think. Two things are pretty clear to me: I do want to keep the blog going, but I have to spend less time on it. So I can't continue the Sunday Night Journal as it is. Among other things, attendance at an Anglican Use Mass in Mobile has seriously reduced the amount of spare time I have on Sundays. And I think that I won't write as many lengthy serious pieces as I have done, at least for a while ("lengthy" in blog terms meaning more than 500 words or so)--not weekly, anyway. 

Would it be better if I post something brief quite frequently, preferably every day or close to it, or that I publish a single weekly miscellany? Or perhaps more substantial posts, like the typical Sunday Night Journal, but at greater intervals? How about subject matter? Should I stick with my original books-music-movies-through-Catholic-eyes theme? Or have more posts on current affairs? I'm sometimes tempted to start another blog devoted entirely to politics and associated matters. I would probably have more readers if I did. But I suspect it is, literally, a temptation: I don't think it would be good for my mental health, possibly not for my soul, because I'd stay even more agitated about that stuff than I already do. And anyway, doing that would probably be even more demanding of my time, because the controversies of the day come and go fairly quickly, and if you don't write about them right away you might as well not bother. Also, I really would rather write things that might still be of interest five or ten or more years from now, which is not true of very much political commentary at all.

I do plan to continue the SNJ through the end of the year, by the way. It's sort of a compulsion.

Sunday Night Journal — September 30, 2012

Where Are The Bumper Stickers?

 One day last week I saw a Romney/Ryan bumper sticker, and I realized it was the first one I'd seen. Since then I've seen, I think, one more, two at most. And then I realized that I haven't been seeing many Obama stickers, either. Most of the Obama stickers I've seen are faded leftovers from 2008, and "Obama 2012" is fairly rare. 

Both these phenomena are quite a change from 2008. I live in a place which has become pretty heavily dominated by the Republicans over the past twenty or thirty years. But there are also a good many diehard and vocal Democrats. In 2000 and 2004 Bush stickers were all over the place, especially those which appeared sometime after the 2000 election: the black squares with the big white "W" and, in smaller print, "The President." Those were popular and recognizable enough to generate imitations and parodies: "S: The Coach" (for Nick Saban); "W: Wine"; and the charming "F: The President."

(A couple of funny stories about that last one: I'm sometimes very slow to catch on to word-play, and the first time I saw this I was in the car with my wife and then-teenaged daughter. I made the mistake of wondering aloud what it meant. They laughed. I still didn't get it. My daughter said something like, "Um, Dad...say it." Pause. "F. The. ...oh."

And the other: I was waiting at an optometrist's office for a new pair of glasses, standing around in their showroom. I can only look at fashionable variations on "eyewear" for so long, so I started watching the customers. A fellow came in whose whole bearing radiated anger: his face seemed to be set in the beginning of a scowl, and there was something tense and hostile in his posture. About that time the technician appeared with my new glasses, and I ended up leaving the store at the same time as Hostileman. He got into a car with the "F" bumper sticker--and a faculty parking tag for the local university.)

In 2008 the wild enthusiasm for Obama produced an unusually large number of stickers for the Democrats, though they were still not as numerous as those for McCain/Palin. I recall wondering how even a staunch Republican could be so enthusiastic about McCain; I suppose it was Palin who created whatever excitement there was for that ticket, in addition to the general hostility to the Democratic Party that is widespread here.

But this year: almost nothing. It's peculiar. The lack of new Obama/Biden stickers is not too surprising, as the enthusiasm for Obama has been badly damaged in a collision with reality. And as for Biden--surely even Democrats are embarrassed by him. But the opposition to them is stronger than ever, fueled by the president's own actions. Even those of us who voted against him but were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, not to mention feeling a certain amount of pride in the fact that the country could elect a mixed-race president, are now decidely antagonistic.  There is no more room for doubt about his intentions. He never meant to be the healer and uniter that he spoke of being, or if he did have the intention he quickly abandoned it. His concept of healing and unity is that everyone should get in line with his program, and those who refuse are be steamrollered to the best of his ability. And as we all know the steamroller is now headed for the Catholic Church. 

I am certain that there is widespread outrage against the Obama administration, opposition at least as intense as there was toward the Clinton administration. I am certain that a great many people have arrived at the same anybody-but-Obama view I have. So why am I not seeing any more public support for  the Romney/Ryan ticket? It's not as if this were a liberal district in the northeast, where openly expressing support for a Republican could invite hostility. It's not that people are intimidated by the possibility of being called racist--they weren't intimidated in 2008. 

The problem, I'm pretty sure, is that Romney is a terribly unappealing candidate. He can't ignite Palin-style fire among "the base," as Republican establishment types apparently refer to the majority of people who actually vote for them. To others, who might or might not vote Republican, depending on the candidate and the issues, he is a walking stereotype of the establishment Republican: a fabulously wealthy man running for office at a time when millions of people have seen their material standard of living decline. Though he and his party attempt to represent him as a successful entrepreneur, the effort is unconvincing because he was less an entrepreneur than a financier and manager. He did not, in the classic mold, develop a useful new product and sell it to the world, but rather bought and sold existing companies. When a company changes hands, it is, to say the least, not always good news for the company and its employees, and so Romney's business success is, to say the most, not entirely of the sort that can be described as "creating jobs." 

Were it not for the fact that he's a Mormon, he would be the sort of old-line WASP for whom the term "country club Republican" was coined. His credentials as a social conservative are mixed. Worse, he has on several occasions confirmed the out-of-touch-rich-guy stereotype. And with most of the media apart from Fox News acting as an arm of the Obama campaign, every such instance is being pounded into the consciousness of people who aren't really paying very close attention, but who may decide the election.

Very few people seem to have any great enthusiasm for him.  He's discouraging even to many of the anybody-but-Obama people, because they fear he would, once in office, actually do very little to undo the damage. And that, I think, is the main reason for the dearth of bumper stickers. 

 Almost exactly four years ago, in the Sunday Night Journal of September 21, 2008, I was critical of the idea that the election of either candidate would dramatically affect the future of the nation. I was mistaken about that election, because I failed to anticipate the passage of Obamacare, aka the laughably misnamed Affordable Health Care Act. Were it not for that, I would be prepared to shrug off this election for the same reasons I gave in that column. But I didn't anticipate the will and power of a Democratic president and a Democratic congress to push through a very dodgy "reform" of the health care system. I hope I'm being overly pessimistic, but so far I have seen nothing to make me question what I wrote about Obamacare in 2009. Arguably the Act is only the latest in a long line of similar constraints, but it may represent some sort of last straw in the process described by De Tocqueville:

Thus, after having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Th end of that last sentence seems to be a pretty fair factual description of what contemporary liberalism has in mind.

And I noted, but seem to have underestimated, this factor:

Among many other problems with the idea is that it would increase the polarization of the country by locking our disagreements about abortion, euthanasia, etc. into a health care system that no one can escape, either as a patient or as a taxpayer.

I didn't foresee that the Democrats would move so quickly to force Catholic employers to subsidize the unacceptable. Leviathan is a jealous God.

Sunday Night Journal — September 23, 2012

W.E.B. Du Bois: The Souls of Black Folk

Some months ago I saw a copy of this priced at fifty cents or dollar at a used book sale, thought "I really should read that sometime," and bought it. Well, I was right about that, more or less: I should have read it a long time ago. But better late than never. 

I'll go straight to my conclusion: anyone who cares about the race problem in America should read this book, for the illumination of both our past and our present. And that's especially true for Southerners, and not only white Southerners. I don't know exactly what I expected from it; I think I had no more than a vague idea that its treatment of the question was considered to be particularly insightful. Well, it is.

Du Bois was of a free black New England family, and he had the education of a 19th century New Englander: the classics, and Harvard. I'm pressed for time this evening, so will leave you in the capable hands of Wikipedia for further biographical information. What's more important for a discussion of the book is the sensibility, and the tools for expressing it, that this background gave him. It's worth reading simply as a work of American literature. The prose style is elaborately poetical, to the point of being florid, full of classical references and extended rhapsodical passages in the 19th century manner. Applied to a lesser subject, it might be considered overblown and sentimental. But it comes across to me more as Whitmanesque, because the matter is so important and the passion of the work so strong. Here, by way of illustration, are the first two paragraphs:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card,—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the words I longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head,—some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The shades of the prison-house closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly, watch the streak of blue above.

 There is a fair amount of anger here, which is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the breadth of vision and sympathy. I suppose I expected, more or less, a diatribe. But it really isn't that. It is a genuine and, I think, successful attempt to see the situation steadily, and see it whole, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold. The book appeared in 1903, and anger about the slavery of the recent past, and the segregation and oppression of the present are what I would have expected. I did not expect that anger at whites, and especially at the South, would sit alongside genuine sympathy, and a serious attempt to understand what motives beyond sheer brutality and avarice would make them cling to the legal segregation of the races. And I did not expect that natural sympathy with blacks would sit alongside an honest assessment of their failings.

There are no simple caricatures in the book: no devilish white and saintly Negro (that's the term Du Bois uses, and it's very difficult not to follow him in discussing the book.) Du Bois sees real human beings on all sides. Of course he spends more time and sympathy on the subjects of his book, who are moreover his own people. But he does not idealize them. He confronts fairly the charges of laziness, shiftlessness, ignorance, and so forth laid against them by the white world, and makes no attempt to pretend that these don't exist. 

As the 20th century rolled on, Du Bois became a pretty strong sympathizer with Communism, though never actually joining the party until very late in his life. This tempts one to dismiss him, but that would be a serious mistake. He did not attack racial oppression because he saw it as a useful tactic for discrediting capitalism, but because he knew all too well what that oppression really meant and how entrenched it was, and had begun to despair that it would ever change within the existing institutions of American life. He died in 1963, at the age of 93, not quite having lived to see the passage of the legislation that killed legal segregation.

One could wish for more here; one could wish Du Bois had been more informed by Christian tradition and more shaped by Christian spirituality, instead of having an apparently pretty conventional New England skepticism, perhaps somewhere between Unitarianism and atheism, though, like many of his time, he was still heavily and unconsciously influenced by Christian habits of mind and speech. He might have seen more deeply, and further, that education and the "elevation," as he puts it, of the African-American population alone would not be easy, nor sufficient to dissolve the barriers between the races; that is to say, he might have been less hopeful of human nature, and more of supernatural charity. But as a socio-cultural observer he is more than sufficient, and most of what he says is still very relevant:

It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither will alone bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent. 

Du Bois believed that progress for the Negro was mainly a matter of education, of bringing down the barriers that shut him out from opportunity and from "white," i.e. Euro-American, culture. From our vantage point a hundred years on, there is a good deal of pathos in this. What would he have thought of the situation now, when segregation has been in its grave for almost fifty years, yet the educational level of so many blacks has actually declined? And what would he have thought of the catastrophic decline in marriage which followed those longed-for legal victories, when he blamed slavery and segregation for the difficulty of maintaining marriage in the black community, though the percentage of intact black families was then, if his suggestions are correct, actually higher than it now is? What would he think of the predominance of violent and obscene rap as the most visible representative of black culture?

There is hardly a week that goes by here, and in most places in the United States where there is a large black population, that the local news does not include at least one story about a black man (or, all too frequently, a boy of 16 or 17 or even younger) shooting someone, hardly a day without news of some lesser crime. Usually the victim in the shooting is another black man, but sometimes it isn't: there is the young white engineer who was shot dead when he had no money for the robbers who broke into his house, and the white woman who was gunned down in the street because she shouted at a speeding car to slow down. The inevitable result is more fear and prejudice on the one side, more resentment and frustration on the other. Would all this not have broken the heart of W.E.B. Du Bois? 

But maybe that's too gloomy a picture. After all, much progress has been made, and if the black community has not been elevated as Du Bois hoped, it must be admitted that the white community has descended: in the lower socio-economic levels there, the same pathologies exist. 

In any case the words that come near the end of the book remain as true and significant as they were when they were written.

Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song--soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire twohundred yearsl earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation's heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our givt of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nathion--we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

No, of course, she certainly would not have been. And no one who really loves this America that actually exists can wish it otherwise.

(The entire text of The Souls of Black Folk can be found online at Project Gutenberg.)

Sunday Night Journal — September 16, 2012

Politics and Anti-Christ (2)

As I said in a sort of disclaimer about last week’s post, the subject was really too big for the work of a few hours. Toward the end I touched on some things that need elaboration, so I’m doing that now. The subject is still too big, but I've covered the main elements of what I’d been thinking about it.

I said the ground had been well-prepared for the anti-Christ. And although one of my main points was that I think the anti-Christ more likely to be a thing of the left than the right—using the terms broadly, to include not just political but social and cultural movements—the right has had at least as much to do with that preparation.

I’m using “the right” here as broadly as possible, and in the American context: the mixture of something that can reasonably be called conservatism with decidedly un-conservative forces like libertarianism, utilitarianism, capitalism, consumerism, and militarism. Though many Christians are part of this “right,” it is not in itself a Christian thing. In recent years many Christians have looked upon it as a defense against secular progressivism, not to mention sharing some of its bad ideas, but the alliance is uneasy and full of contradictions.

I don’t particularly like the term “consumerism”: its meaning is vague, and it’s impossible really to say where a sensible concern for material needs becomes destructive and obsessive grasping for ever more: indoor plumbing and hot water are hardly necessities in any literal sense, but no one in the developed nations views them as luxuries. And if the term does refer to that sort of grasping, it is not a set of ideas but a vice, and no one is advocating it as a principle. Moreover, it’s at best a debatable assertion that modern industrialized societies are any more acquisitive than most in the past have been. What is different is that the combination of industrialism and capitalism has presented us with so much more to acquire, including a sort of feedback system in which the activity of acquiring results in the production of more and better, or at least more desirable. things to acquire.

But yet there is a pathology which has developed in the industrialized world, especially in the United States, and it has no definite name, so consumerism will serve. It tends to take the relationship of the buyer to the seller as a pattern for everything in life. The buyer wants something; the seller wants to provide it, and is in a practical sense obliged to provide it if he wants to stay in business. It’s not in the seller’s interest to think about whether the buyer needs the thing purchased, or what he intends to do with it, or whether it’s good for him: in capitalism at the ideological level the question of the intrinsic worth of what is bought and sold is not to be asked. The buyer’s desire, and the purchaser’s willingness and ability to satisfy it, are the only things to be considered. At the extreme, there is no such thing as “intrinsic worth,” only price. And so we have a huge and entirely legal pornography industry.

This is the point (or one of them) at which right and left impulses converge. Or perhaps one should say it is a common point of origin. At any rate, what we’ve seen emerging over the past 50 years or so in capitalist societies is a view of the person as first and foremost a complex of needs and desires, the satisfaction of which he views as something to which he has a right, as a customer has a right to expect that the buyer offer what he wants. Deep and genuinely human needs, desires which in reality cannot be satisfied in this world, are mixed with mere wishes, whims, and pleasures by what has been called the imperial self. As the imperial self sees things, what it wants is also what it deserves, and has lately become not just what it hopes for but what it expects, and what the world and circumstance are expected to provide. Soon there arises the sense that if these are not provided, someone must be to blame, and something must be done.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m an habitual reader of “Dear Abby.” Just the other day there was a letter from a widow with four teen-aged children. She was considering re-marrying, but her children were very opposed to the idea. Should she or shouldn’t she do it anyway? Well, I don’t know, and I don’t necessarily say she shouldn’t, but she intended to go ahead, and I was struck by her justification for it: “I know I deserve to be happy.” This, I think, is not something that would have been said fifty years ago. It bears the stamp of the combination of popular psychology and new-age spirituality which since 1970 or so has rivaled and infiltrated Christianity in the U.S. Years ago someone writing in the National Catholic Register described it as “America’s evolving religion of self-worship.”

The right may deplore the rise of this sensibility, but it cannot be divorced from the sense of self-indulgence and entitlement produced by capitalism, in which the desire of the consumer is the supreme value.

Simultaneous with this has been the expansion of the reach and power of government, especially the national government. The right has objected to some of this, but makes a notable exception for the military. In the name of defense it has supported placing any amount of money and quite a bit of power in the hands of the military and various security and intelligence agencies. Over the past ten years, with the appearance of the scarily-named Department of Homeland Security and various other anti-terrorism measures, many on the right have begun to have second thoughts about this. The futile “war on drugs” also has a great deal to do with it, especially with the militarization of local police, and I should note that some on the right have been sounding the alarm about that for many years.

For many years most of the right in general assumed that all this military power was truly there only to protect us, and would be used only against our enemies. By the time they begin to consider that its apparatus might one day be used against them by a left-wing government, it was far too late to begin reigning it in.

So. The “prepared ground” I referred to above involves at least two important developments in which the right has been as complicit as the left: a growing number of people who expect to have everything they want as a matter of entitlement, and an extremely powerful central government. (At least some on the right can say that they have opposed other threatening developments: the rise of technology for the direct manipulation of human life, and the tendency for the Constitution to become a dead letter, reinterpreted as meaning whatever a majority of the Supreme Court says it means. And opposition to abortion has been almost entirely a phenomenon of the right.) What remains is for the government to pass into the hands of people who believe they know what’s best for everyone and are willing to use the government’s power, untethered by Constitution, religion, or traditional notions about the character of the nation, to give it to them, whether they want it or not. This last step is one that the right does not aspire to take. But the left is eager for it. They assume that most will want what they promise, which is nothing less than peace, justice, and comfort for all—and that those who don’t—those who cling to outmoded religions, for instance—will have to be pushed aside. And it’s when I come to that thought that I begin to wonder about the anti-Christ.

I feel somewhat embarrassed about even talking about this subject because it attracts so many nuts and fanatics, so many that I think of it as being primarily their territory. But although it has always been a subject of controversy, consisting as it does of little more than hints, it has been a constant presence in Christian thinking from the beginning, and we’re told to watch the signs of the times. I do want to make it clear that I don’t at all claim to have this thing figured out; I’m only voicing suspicions and speculations.

Whether or not any of this has anything to do with the anti-Christ, it is the situation we find ourselves in: on the brink of social and technological transitions which, if carried through as their proponents hope, will lead to a condition for Christians which we can only hope is benign enough to be called marginalization, and not outright persecution.

Sunday Night Journal — September 2, 2012

My Word (A Letter to the Editor)

I'm afraid this isn't going to be of great interest to most people. It's something I've been wanting to do for several months, but couldn't find time for, so I decided to devote to it the time I would ordinarily have spent working on the SNJ. The local paper (the Mobile Press-Register) has a feature called "Your Word" which is a sort of step up from a normal letter to the editor: it can run up to 600 words, and is published as a separate item on the editorial page. I am submitting the following 592 words as a candidate for that feature. It may well be too late for them to want to publish it, having been sparked by a story published three months ago. But it was going to bother me until I wrote it. Better late than never.


Back in June the Register ran a story by Roy Hoffman about Fr. Matthew Venuti, the newly-ordained Catholic priest who is the pastor of a group of Catholics affiliated with the somewhat awkwardly-named Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter. As a member of that group, I was happy to see the story. I was, however, a little disappointed that it was focused on the fact that Fr. Venuti is married. Moreover, an exchange of letters over the next few weeks dealt almost entirely with arguments for and against the admission of married men to the Catholic priesthood in general. That is, obviously, an important question. But I want to point out that it’s not what the Ordinariate is about.

The Ordinariate was created by Pope Benedict in 2009, and is intended primarily for Christians of the Anglican tradition who wish to be in full communion with Rome. It allows these Christians to worship as Catholics in a mode to which they are deeply attached: the liturgy based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Anglicanism in this country is of course represented most prominently by the Episcopal Church, and it has a rich and beautiful liturgy

I grew up in the Methodist Church, which is an offshoot of Anglicanism, and much of the language in its worship is drawn from the Book of Common Prayer. After throwing over Christianity in general as an adolescent, I found myself being drawn back to it as an adult, and joined the Episcopal Church. I was surprised and pleased to hear in the Episcopal liturgy the source of many of the things I remembered fondly from the Methodist Church. Over the next few years, however, I began to feel called to the Catholic Church, and was received into the Church in 1981.

But I always missed the Anglican liturgy. Indeed, I pined for it. It is a regrettable but unfortunate fact of history that when Rome decided, after Vatican II, to translate the liturgy into English, the language simply was no longer as rich and powerful as it had been in the 1500s. And the Catholic Church did not have the tradition of congregational singing that had developed in the Protestant churches, so music in Catholic worship has often been pretty thin stuff (though Mobile’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is a striking exception, and the situation in general has improved).

This may seem only a matter of aesthetics, and it is, but not only: beauty is important. Worship should touch the heart as well as the mind, and for many people there is nothing that brings the two together more effectively than the English of the Book of Common Prayer and the hymns and chants which are part of the Anglican and indeed general Protestant tradition.

The local “chapter,” so to speak, of the Ordinariate is the Society of St. Gregory the Great, named after the pope who decreed that the Catholic Church in England should be free to worship in a manner suited to its culture. We have Mass—yes, a fully valid Catholic Mass—at St. Mary of the Visitation parish, at the corner of Old Shell and Lafayette on Sundays at 4:30, preceded by Evening Prayer at 4. We are as yet a tiny group, but we feel that we have something good that we want to share. We invite anyone who’s interested to join us: Catholics who are former Anglicans, Anglicans who have wondered about becoming Catholic, and Catholics who are simply curious about the liturgy we love so much.

Sunday Night Journal — August 26, 2012

Waiting for the Hurricane

This will be brief, as I've been busy most of the day making preparations for Tropical Storm Isaac, which is expected to be Hurricane Isaac by the time it makes landfall somewhere along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The tropics have been pretty quiet since Hurricane Katrina in 2005--it's hard to believe that's seven years ago now--and we had gotten complacent. Even if these storms end up being relatively mild, they still produce a lot of anxiety, and it's a lot of trouble to get ready for them. You need to move things like patio furniture inside, or tie them down, so they don't end up coming through your window. Lots of people board their windows, but we're going to skip that this time. I hope we don't regret it. We're pretty protected from the wind here, and I always figure the biggest risk is of a tree falling on the house. Hurricane Katrina did send water up to the house, but fortunately not further, so we didn't get flooded. It would have to be a pretty extreme storm for our house to flood or be damaged by a surge, and at this point Isaac isn't expected to be one of those.

Here are a few hurricane-related posts from that period in 2004-2005 when we had Ivan and Katrina and several smaller storms:  Sunday Night Comes On a Tuesday Morning This Week, about waiting for Ivan. You Can't, In Fact, Always Get What You Want, written while waiting for Dennis, which preceded Katrina by six weeks or so. Then, a few weeks later, Not So Calm Before the Storm, written the night before Katrina. And Uneasy In the Aftermath, after Katrina.

I can't find it now, but I'm pretty sure I had a post at some point about how unprepared we were for one of the storms, and how bad it would have been if the storm had not turned out to be relatively mild, and how we had learned our lesson and would be prepared with food, water, flashlight batteries, etc. etc. for the next one. Well, that didn't last. But at least we no longer have the filing cabinets full of family records and important things like insurance policies in the part of the house that's on the side closer to the bay and four feet lower than the rest.

Truffaut: Day for Night

I watched this last weekend. I don't really know much of Truffaut's work. Jules and Jim was a staple of art film screenings in the 1960s, and I think I may have seen it twice. I liked it. I think I may have seen The 400 Blows back then as well, but can't remember for sure, so obviously it didn't make a lasting impression on me if I did. And I saw Stolen Kisses when it was in theaters in the late '60s--yes, there was a theater in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that showed the occasional artsy or foreign film. I remember liking it a good deal, though I don't remember anything specific from it. I recorded it off Turner Classic Movies a few weeks ago and will be watching it sometime soon (if the house doesn't get destroyed by a hurricane). 

Day for Night is apparently considered one of Truffaut's best. It's a movie-about-a-movie, or rather about making a movie, which didn't produce great expectations in me. I've seen 8 1/2 and another Fellini film about movie-making of which I can't remember the name right now. I was unenthusiastic about both. I suppose I'll have to watch 8 1/2 again sometime, since so many critics regard it as a masterpiece, but am in no hurry.

I like Day for Night considerably more than either. It's an engaging and charming work, though it doesn't touch great depths. There's a kind of sweetness about it, a gentle touch: you feel that the director likes his characters, and wants them to be happy. And though they pass through a number of tribulations in the process of making the movie, they come out reasonably well in the end.

Jacqueline Bisset plays Julie Miller, an American actress recruited for the title role of the film-within-the-film, Meet Pamela. Before she arrives, she's described as fragile, having recently suffered a breakdown of sorts. And "fragile" is just what she seems. I didn't know much about her; beyond recognizing her name I can't remember whether I'd seen her in anything else. I was impressed. Truffaut himself plays the much-harassed director. 

I hate to sound like I'm damning with faint praise, because I really did enjoy it, perhaps the more because I wasn't necessarily expecting to.  But although I can recommend it, I can't muster a really passionate recommendation. I suppose it takes something either very big and serious, or very funny, to get that kind of reaction from me. 




Sunday Night Journal — August 19, 2012

A Few Simple Commands

Thursday was the Feast of the Assumption, and I made my way across town to St. Mary of the Visitation, where our little Anglican Use congregation was having Mass at 12:15. I was having an extremely busy day at work, and had trouble getting away. Then the drive took a little longer than expected, and so I was late. I walked in just as the reading from Revelation was beginning. It was a bit of a shock to step so suddenly from the workaday world to the very strange events described there: a woman clothed with the sun and crowned with stars, about to give birth; a dragon with seven heads and ten horns waiting to devour the child; the defeat of the one who accuses “the brethren” day and night before the throne of God.

What can all this mean? What is it really describing? We’re often told that it’s all symbolic and we shouldn’t take the specific imagery too seriously. No doubt it is symbolic, but that doesn’t mean the images are connected to what they symbolize only by the thread of metaphorical logic. I think we’re justified in supposing that the symbol is also an accurate picture of some aspect of the reality. But I also think the full reality is most likely something we could not possibly understand, the way the two-dimensional creatures in the classic Flatland are utterly unable to imagine the third dimension. We’re given these very strange but fundamentally simple representations because we aren’t capable of understanding anything more. 

I sometimes wonder what the reality represented by the term “throne of God” might actually be like. I can’t really say that I conjecture, or imagine, because I can’t even get that far. And I wonder about the relation of stories like the woman and the dragon to time and eternity. They happened, or are happening, or will happen, or perhaps all three together. How does it all work, this spiritual world of which the Bible and the traditions of the Church give us only hints and simple pictures? Dragons, thrones, women, moon and stars—we can make sense of these, but what the combat between God and evil really looks like, from an angel’s point of view, is probably as incomprehensible to us as a book on mathematics is to a dog. What does “looks like” even mean in that realm? The possibility of getting some sort of real understanding of these things is not the least of the pleasures I hope to experience in the next life. No doubt we’ll never be able to understand it all, but our understanding will grow and grow as we become more and more like God.

Meanwhile, we have to recognize our limits. I find it useful to consider my two dogs, Andy and Lucy, in connection with this. My wife and I from time to time have an exchange about their mental abilities. She’ll say, for instance, that they think its unfair if one of them gets some sort of treat or special treatment and the other doesn’t. I insist that dogs don’t “think” in that sense. It’s clear that when either of the dogs gets something, the other expects to get it, too, but I don’t think that is evidence of a concept of fairness, but rather simply that the second dog wants it. In any case, they certainly can’t form any conception of the reasons for that unequal treatment. Andy has to stay on a leash when we walk, while Lucy gets to go free (in the immediate neighborhood), because she’s reasonably obedient and he isn’t. I have explained this to him, but have never received any indication that he understood.

The human purposes that govern these things, indeed almost every aspect of the human life that goes on all around them, and occasionally makes some sort of direct intervention in theirs, are utterly incomprehensible to them. What , for instance, do they make of the sounds that we continually make and which to us constitutes a symbolic language referencing everything from the temperature of the house to theology? They recognize their names, though Lucy seems not to know the difference between “Lucy” and “Andy.” And they recognize a few simple commands: “no,” “come,” “sit.” They’re pretty good at recognizing a tone in the human voice that indicates displeasure or something bad about to happen, and they recognize a comforting gentle tone, but there’s no reason to think that they understand the content of a specific sentence like “Stop making that noise—it’s driving me crazy.” Essentially everything that isn’t a command signifies nothing more specific than approval or disapproval: “No!” “Good boy” (or girl)

Most of the activity that goes on in the house is utterly meaningless to them. What could they possibly make of, say, sweeping the floor, or washing the dishes? Every weekday morning they get put into cages,where they stay for the nine-to-ten hours we’re away at work. This was a last resort which we finally arrived at as the only way to prevent the trouble they got into while we were gone. They can have no least idea of where we go and what we do when we leave every morning, or why they have to be caged.

I think our relationship to God is very much like this. What we know is not false, but it is only a very small hint of the reality. Everyone knows the story of the vision St. Thomas Aquinas had toward the end of his life which made him declare that everything he had written was only straw. But I don’t think that meant that what he had written was false, only that it came nowhere near doing justice to the reality. All our theology tells us little more about God than my dogs know about me, which likewise is not false but which does not even have a vocabulary for the sort of knowledge it does not contain. We are capable of knowing a few things: who the food and the petting come from, and with a lot of training we can manage to understand a few simple commands—do not steal, do not murder, do not commit adultery—but, like ill-trained dogs, we are not at all reliable about following them.

The big difference between the two cases is that we have been told that we are capable of more, and will one day pass into a different order of being where we will be capable of understanding things that are perhaps now as far beyond us as human speech is for a dog. I sometimes think we can learn something from our dogs about obedience to mysterious commands.


I’m sure this image is under copyright but I haven’t been able to find its source.

Sunday Night Journal — August 12, 2012

Father Oddie and Me

 From 1984 until 1990 I lived in Huntsville, Alabama, and my parish there was St. Mary of the Visitation, or, as it was generally called, simply Visitation. It was the oldest parish in town, and was therefore located near the original center of what had been a very small town until after World War II, when the Defense Department made its military base, Redstone Arsenal, a center for rocket development which eventually became the Marshall Space Flight Center. 

Across the street that ran behind Visitation was an Anglican church, of which I can't remember the name. Anglican, not Episcopal: it was one of those groups which had broken away from the Episcopal Church because of the latter's departure from its traditional beliefs and indeed from traditional Christianity in general. That's an old story with which anyone who's been around for the past thirty or forty years is very familiar. Some of the groups that struck out from the Episcopal Church were low-church evangelicals--there is an Anglican church not far from where I live now which describes itself as Traditional Protestant Episcopal (my emphasis), and which appeared, on the one occasion when I peeked inside, to have no altar. Others were on the Catholic end of the Anglican spectrum, and the Huntsville group was one of those. 

Suffering from occasional bouts of liturgical distemper which included both unhappiness with the Catholic liturgy and fond memories of the Anglican liturgy as I'd known it at Canterbury Chapel in Tuscaloosa before turning Catholic, I sometimes wondered about the little Anglican church behind Visitation. But I never made any attempt to get acquainted with the place and its congregation, partly because I was concerned that it might be too great a temptation. 

So as far as I can remember I entered the building on one occasion only. That was sometime in the late 1980s, when I attended a talk by a Fr. William Oddie, a priest in the Church of England. I think I saw some sort of advertisement for the talk, and though I can't remember now what it said it was interesting enough that I decided to attend. Perhaps it was advertised as being specifically about Anglican-Catholic relations, the dialog and the future possibilities. At any rate, I went. 

There are really only three things I remember about the event: first, that I was greeted at the door by a pleasant and somehow very Episcopalian gentlemen--by that, I suppose I mean that he was courteous and pleasant, though not exuberantly glad-handing, well-dressed, and had about him an air of tasteful affluence. The talk was to be held in the basement, and either I asked to see the church, or he offered to show it to me. The interior was simple and pleasing, handsome without any ostentation, and there was an altar. And when we entered it my host genuflected. I was pretty disconcerted by that and didn't know whether to follow suit or not. I think I finally did, figuring that if the body of Christ was there I was doing the correct thing, and if not God would understand that I intended no idolatry. 

Second was, of course, Fr. Oddie himself, who was the sort of well-spoken Englishman who tends to impress and captivate Americans, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. He was a middle-aged man perhaps five or ten years older than I (I was forty at the time), stocky, bespectacled, and I believe he wore a clerical collar. Of his talk, which was, overall, very sympathetic to Rome, I remember only two specific things: an ironic reference to "the redoubtable Bishop Spong," who was then much in the news for his ability to deny almost every article of Christian belief while remaining a bishop, and the assertion that the best Anglican theology was currently being done in Rome. I believe he may have mentioned then-Cardinal Ratzinger as an example, though I'm not sure about that--he did mention some names, and that would have been a likely one.

Third was a brief exchange I had with him after the lecture, when he made himself available for chat with the attendees. I told him that I'd enjoyed the talk and was interested in the whole question because I had left the Episcopal Church for Rome less than ten years before. His response has stayed with me because it was not the sort of polite "oh really how interesting" sort of thing one might have expected. Instead he looked me in the eye, paused for a moment, and said "How do you find it?" It seemed to me that it was not simply a conventional response, but that he really wanted to know. 

I don't have any memory of my reply, which was probably inarticulate. I know it was somehow affirmative. Perhaps I only said "Fine." 

In the years following that talk I saw Fr. Oddie's name here and there, sometimes in Catholic publications, and supposed he must have come over to Rome, which was no surprise at all; I think I must have heard him fairly early in the process of considering the decision, though perhaps he was farther along and keeping it to himself. Lately, with the unlooked-for appearance of an Anglican Ordinariate mission here, I've thought about that exchange with him back in the 1980s, and it occurred to me the other day to search for him on the web. 

I discovered that he's now a regular columnist for the UK's Catholic Herald, which he edited for a time, and, the Olympics being in progress in London, this admirable diatribe was near the top of the search results. He wrote a book in 1997 which seems to have foreseen the Anglican Ordinariate. Somehow I managed to escape hearing that he had written a biography of Chesterton. And, judging by this list of his Herald columns, he might be called "redoubtable" without irony. I look forward to reading a number of them. I think the Herald will become a regular stop for me.


A postscript: the Web is a wonderful thing. I couldn't remember the name of the Anglican church in Huntsville, but Google turned it up immediately: it's the Church of St. Charles King and Martyr (can't get much more Anglican than that), still there and still Anglican. And here is the web site of St. Francis at the Point, which is a few miles down the road from where I live. You'll note the descriptions of the two: "Traditional Episcopal" for the first, "Traditional Protestant Episcopal" for the second.

And here is Canterbury Chapel in Tuscaloosa. Or perhaps here