Sunday Night Journal 2017 Feed

Sunday Night Journal, December 17, 2017

One of the things that make being a pessimist less enjoyable than it might be is that the pleasure of being proven right about the impending collision with the oncoming train is substantially diminished by the discomfort of experiencing the collision itself. On balance, I would rather be wrong than right about many of my predictions and expectations.

Recently someone remarked that the culture of Catholicism on the Internet seemed to be dominated by those whose motto was taken from Flannery O'Connor's Misfit ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"): no pleasure but meanness. You can certainly see his point, and of course it's not only the Catholic subculture that has this problem. It's everywhere. I'm not on Twitter, and I don't think I ever will be, so my impression may be distorted, but that impression is that some very large portion of what goes on there consists of people savaging each other, and sometimes of a large number of people attacking one person in what can fairly be described as a verbal lynch mob. 

Almost twenty-five years ago, in the Fall 1993 issue of Caelum et Terra, I published a short piece in which I considered the potential for the world of online communication to increase the level of hostility in the world rather than to bring people together. I don't think I had heard the term "World Wide Web" at that point. It did exist but if its existence was known to me at all I'm fairly sure I hadn't yet experienced it, as the original browser, Mosaic, had not yet been introduced to the world at large. But I'd had five or six years of experience in pre-Web online forums, including Usenet, the text-only discussion groups on the Internet, and at least one of the commercial services which provided similar capabilities by subscription. (America Online, or AOL, you may remember, was pretty big at the time.) And I'd seen the way people could turn on each other with startling viciousness.

That piece was called "Global Metropolis," and I've thought about it often since the Web changed our lives so strikingly. But I don't think I'd read it since it was published, so I decided to dig the magazine out of the closet and, if it still seemed relevant, spend some of the time this evening when I would have been writing typing it in instead. Well, I did find it interesting as a view from 1993, and at least part of it seems pretty accurate. The next-to-last paragraph is the one that seems a fairly accurate prediction of the Internet's potential for exacerbating rather than pacifying conflicts.

I sometimes think it might be more accurate to say that we are creating a global metropolis, a violent one like those of the United States, where people perceive each other socially either as naked individuals in isolation from family and community, connected, if at all, by financial ties, or as anonymous components of a class or race. In these great warrens, people live in close physical quarters but without much sense of belonging to the same community; with, in fact, a dangerous sense of having tribal enemies everywhere. What this combination of proximity and anonymity has done for the great cities, television, along with increasing economic interdependencies, may perhaps do for the world at large: to increase both the level of tension and the degree of isolation.

You can read the whole piece here (it's not very long, about a thousand words). I certainly didn't imagine anything like Twitter, which as far as I can tell is an active deterrent to substantial discussion, which is actually intended to reward the quick and superficial remark. The glimpses I get of it make me think of an enormous number of dogs barking hysterically and ineffectively at each other. And if I had imagined it I would never have dreamed that we would have a president who sits in the White House and uses such a ridiculous medium to bark at anyone among the citizenry who annoys him.  

I'm not saying that the Internet in general and "social media" in particular are altogether bad--I mean, here I am. And I even have a Facebook account. Still, it seems that the "bringing people together" effect of it is very often to bring them into tribes united by their detestation of another tribe, and thereby to purify and concentrate their anger. The net did not cause the political divisions in this country, but it is certainly exacerbating them.

Still, when I look at the people around me going about the ordinary business of their lives, I don't see this division, and that's a hopeful thing.

*

A couple of weeks ago on the first Sunday of Advent our priest made the point in his homily that Advent is as much about the Second Coming as it is about the Nativity. "We await the birth of a sweet little baby who will one day destroy the world," was more or less the way he put it. 

*

While watching The Crown on a chilly evening last week I discovered that my old dog, who is too blind and deaf to notify us of strangers in the vicinity, still is capable of service as an all-natural toe warmer. 

ToeWarmerI enjoyed The Crown considerably, by the way, and I think my wife enjoyed it even more. It's wise to keep in mind that they filled in some historical blanks with their own speculations and that it's a mixture of fact and fiction, not a documentary. Claire Foy's performance as Elizabeth is extremely convincing. I must say, however, that I remain puzzled to say the least about the function of the British monarchy.

Have I mentioned that we also recently watched the third series of Broadchurch? I suppose it's not surprising that I didn't like it as much as the first two, but it's still very good. There is apparently little to no chance of a fourth series, which might be a good instance of quitting while you're ahead, but this one left an important matter unresolved, which is a little frustrating. Well, maybe it isn't unresolved--maybe that was just the end of...well, if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't I shouldn't say any more.


Sunday Night Journal, December 10, 2017

Somehow or other I've become Facebook friends with half a dozen or so people who know a lot of theology. Some are professional theologians (i.e. they are theology professors) or just have studied it extensively. Several of them seem to be very excited about René Girard. I'd never read anything by him and really only vaguely recalled having heard of him, so I decided to read one of his books. I chose I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, I think on the recommendation of one of those Facebook people. 

I finished it a few days ago and...well, I'm not sure what I think, though I can certainly say it was interesting. One of the blurbs is from the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, who advises the reader to "prepare to be changed" by this book. My reaction to  that was, approximately, Yeah right. But having read the book, I could almost say the same thing. Only almost--I'm not exactly a disciple, but I think the book is going to stick with me, and Girard does show us a way of looking at things unlike anything else I've ever encountered in the theological line. That of course isn't saying a whole lot, as I haven't read very much theology, but a number of people who have seem to think it's true. 

There's an overview of his life and thought in his Wikipedia entry. Sometimes those are questionable, of course, but having read this book I'll vouch for the accuracy of this description:

Girard's fundamental ideas, which he had developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, were that desire is mimetic (i.e. all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.

Girard's thought seems to have puzzled some readers, not only in the sense of being puzzled by his ideas but of being puzzled as to what exactly those ideas are. For that reason, I assume, the translator of this book (originally published in French)  provides a foreword in which he these ideas explicitly in a numbered list (1-10). (Not a "forward" (!) as I see more and more often in discussions of books.)

That first idea, that all our desires are borrowed from other people--we want what others want, and learn those wants from  models, beginning with our parents--seems so obviously wrong, so obviously at best a partial truth, that I keep thinking I misunderstand it. All these very intelligent, very knowledgeable people who esteem Girard so highly seem to understand and accept it; if I don't, it must be my error. Or at least there's a good chance that it's my error. Note that these are all people whom I have reason to respect intellectually; that is, it's not just their academic credentials that I respect, as those lost their association with good sense in my mind a long, long time ago.

Obviously this mimetic desire operates in some cases: we only want the blue ribbon in a contest because we want the prestige it symbolizes, and we absorb the whole idea of prestige, and attach value to it, by the influence and example of others. We learn manners and to a great extent virtues and vices from others, and rivalries involving them can easily arise. But surely there are many desires that are not mimetic, and Girard does not seem to limit his claim very much. The translator seems to say that Gerard asserts this for all desires except the instinctive, but he doesn't go into much detail. So perhaps the range of desires which he counts as instinctive is much greater than I think. 

Take the desire of a child for ice cream, for instance. Most of us learn this desire the moment we taste the marvelous substance. No one has to tell us that it's something we should like. We don't have to observe our parents enjoying it in order to desire it for ourselves. I could multiply instances of this sort a great length, and so could you. Men don't desire beautiful women primarily because other men do, but because they are beautiful, and a man's immediate spontaneous reaction to the sight of them is to desire them. That desire begins with instinct, certainly, but goes well beyond it. 

And "mimetic rivalry"? Yes, certainly, rivalry for a desired woman (to continue the last example) can certainly produce conflict, and envy and prestige play a part in increasing the conflict. But they aren't its root. I would think that in a great many cases, including both my examples, scarcity is at least as much a contributor to conflict as rivalry. Ice cream usually has to be shared, and every bite that my siblings eat is one that I don't get. Not all women are beautiful, and any one beautiful woman is desired by more than one man; they can't all have her. Or consider the desire for wealth: it is in part a means toward the satisfaction of desires that are thwarted more by scarcity than by rivalry as such. 

So before I'd read a single word of Girard himself, I seemed to disagree with him. I'm going to stick with "seemed" there because I'm still allowing for the possibility that I'm misunderstanding. Like I said, the objections seem to me so obvious that they must not apply to what Girard actually means. Perhaps the examples of desire I've given are ones which he would count as instinctive, and therefore outside his sweeping assertion. If so, it would help if he made that clear. And perhaps he does in other books. (And if any Girardians read this and can straighten me out, please do so.)

Why, then, do I say that Neuhaus's prediction of the book's effect might be true for me? Why did I proceed from skepticism to excitement about the book? Because, having mentally registered my objection to at least part of Girard's premise, having placed some limits on its applicable scope, I found that it does shed a great deal of useful light on the relationship of Judeo-Christian religion to human culture. The "Judeo" part of that is not a formality, as Girard very explicitly includes both the Old and New testaments in his analysis. Let me see if I can briefly sum up this relationship:

Human culture, Girard believes, is produced by the efforts of a community to mitigate the effect of intra-group violence caused by mimetic rivalry. Conflict intensifies and if not somehow resolved and dissipated will destroy the community. The mechanism for doing this is the scapegoat: the community unites in blaming one person, kills him or her, and is restored, at least for a time. The cycle repeats itself. The release of collective violence against a single victim makes the continuation of a culture possible, i.e. prevents its self-destruction. Often the victim is, after the fact, accorded a god or god-like status by the (unconscious?) conviction of the community that the sacrifice of the victim is the direct cause of the restoration. 

In order for this mechanism to work, the community has to believe, at the time of the killing, that the victim is in fact guilty and deserves to die. The victim must truly be, in the eyes of the group, responsible for the trouble which it is experiencing. This conviction is the work of Satan, who was also responsible for the trouble in the first place. By the victim/scapegoat mechanism, Satan casts out Satan. But the casting-out is temporary. It is based on a lie about the victim, and the violence of mimetic rivalry sooner or later returns. 

What Judeo-Christian religion does--uniquely, according to Girard--is to unmask this cycle, to reveal the actual innocence of the victim, and thus to expose the Satanic power of the scapegoating mechanism. And to expose it is to end its power.

Girard elaborates all this in some detail, though perhaps still not enough, which may cause me to read more of his work. Is he really accurate, for instance, when he grounds all of non-Judeo-Christian mythology in the single-victim process? I'm not knowledgeable enough either to agree or disagree with this.

Through most of the book I tended to applaud Girard's passing observations more than his principal thesis. It is in the latter part that he really makes his mark on me. He winds up his story with an explication of the place of the victim in contemporary secular culture, and it was there that I most often found myself getting excited, saying Yes!, and marking passages. I just counted and I've placed thirteen book darts (what?) in this book. That's a good many for a relatively short book (193 pages).  One of them marks the entirety of Chapter 13, "The Modern Concern for Victims." Here he makes the case that such a concern is almost unheard of in pre-Christian cultures (I think in fact he would remove the "almost.") 

This is, as usual, going on a bit too long for a blog post. I'm skimming Chapter 13 in search of a quote that will serve as an example of Girard's insight. It's hard to isolate one bit, but I'll make do with this:

There is just one rubric that gathers together everything I am summarizing in no particular order and without concern for completeness: the concern for victims. This concern sometimes is so exaggerated and in a fashion so subject to caricature that it arouses laughter, but we should guard against seeing it as only one thing, as nothing but twaddle that's always ineffective. It is more than a hypocritical comedy. Through the ages it has created a society incomparable to all the others. It is unifying the world for the first time in history.

To some extent this is a variation on the oft-made point that our society is living on the moral capital of Christianity. Girard seems to be a little hopeful that universal concern for victims is a sign that Christianity is still very much alive and well. But he also wonders (I think) how this will play out when separated from its foundation. At any rate I wonder that. Right now I'd say that the signs are not encouraging, that the secularized community of concern for victims is now characterized by mimetic rivalry in victimhood, is tearing at itself, is therefore in search of a scapegoat, and is looking toward Christianity as a candidate for that role. 

It's probably inaccurate to classify this book as theology. It's more a species of anthropology--religious anthropology, maybe. Whatever it is, it's worth reading. If the list of things I really, really want to read were not so long I think I'd immediately re-read it.

 *

This afternoon I went Christmas shopping with my wife at the local Barnes and Noble store. I had not been in one of those for a long time, some years at least. Browsing the shelves there made me actively question the notion that reading is in itself a good thing. What a lot of drivel, some harmless and some not at all harmless, is on display there. You would be better occupied in staring at a tree then reading most of it. 

*

It's almost the end of the year. Does anybody want to do 52 Things next year? I think we considered 52 Poems. I would be willing to do that. However: as I've said before in this context, if I say it's going to be 52 Things, I want it really to be 52. It will really bother me to miss a week. I know I can't count on other people delivering something every single week, so I have to be prepared to do it, and I'm finding that to be more of a distraction that I can really afford (my book is not going well at all). It shouldn't be, but I have trouble concentrating under the best conditions. So if we do something this year it will have to be something for which I can do a post without actually writing anything. Poems would work, as I could just copy-paste the poem into a post, or link to it, without necessarily writing any commentary beyond "Here's one I like." 

If we should decide to do poems, I would have some specifications for how they're submitted to me. Nothing too complicated, but formatting poems for the web can be time-consuming, so I'd like to have them in a form where they can just be copied and pasted. Details if we decide to do it. 

*

This picture was taken a few minutes before 11pm Friday night. I was on my way to Christ the King church in Daphne for my hour of Adoration. Yes, it was taken from the driver's seat of a car in motion. No, I should not have done it. But snow is so very, very rare here that I wanted to capture the image. It was really much thicker than this. I guess a lot of it just wasn't bright enough for the camera to catch.

SnowWhileDriving

I've been living in this general area since 1990, and I think this is only the third time that there's been enough snow to leave a visible accumulation, though only for a few hours. This is midnight at Christ the King.

SnowAtChristTheKing


Sunday Night Journal, December 3, 2017

The 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, as dated from Luther's famous 95 theses, is almost over. From my perspective it seems to have been a rather muted observance. One local Presbyterian church which I pass by occasionally has a big sign out front announcing it, but offhand I can't think of any other visible evidence of it around here. But then I suppose it's not something that most Protestant churches would treat as a major public event. Maybe part of the reason--if my impression is even accurate--is that its legacy is so fragmented in this country. It's a long way, both chronologically and theologically, from Lutheranism to non-denominational evangelicalism. 

The discussion of the anniversary in Touchstone, which describes itself "A Magazine of Mere Christianity," and is genuinely ecumenical in a way which I share, and whose writers tend a bit more Protestant than Catholic or Orthodox (I think), has been distinctly muted. I don't think it was discussed at all outside of the September/October issue, and there is certainly no Protestant triumphalism there. There is a brief history of the "Reformations" by James Hitchcock, who is Catholic, which, as the title suggests, treats not only the birth of Protestantism but the reforming movements within Catholicism at the time, all pretty objectively, not pressing the point of who was right and who was wrong. (You can read it here.) The lead editorial, which usually presents an opinion representative of all the editors, stops very far short of treating the birth of Protestantism as a good thing. (You can read it here.) I suppose the similarly-minded First Things must have dealt with the subject this year, but even though I'm a subscriber (after many years of reading only the bits that they put online), I have not been reading it regularly. (That has to do with the fact that my subscription is electronic-only, which I should probably change--the "out-of-sight-out-of-mind factor is at work).  

A Catholic naturally has some difficulty in using the word "Reformation" alone to describe the events of 1517 and after which produced Protestantism. I have to qualify it: not "the Reformation," but "the Protestant Reformation." (I resist the practice of some Catholics in calling it "the Protestant Rebellion" or "the Protestant schism" even though the terms are technically accurate, because they sound unnecessarily negative.)

I recall a conversation with one of my uncles shortly after I became Catholic. He was not hostile but, as I think tends to be true of Protestants raised in parts of the South where Catholicism is, at least until recently, almost nonexistent, he didn't seem ever to have considered the possibility that the rise of Protestantism was not a good thing. "Could you have had reform without Martin Luther?" he asked me. Well, yes. Luther did nothing to reform the Catholic Church. He repudiated it, left it, and took half of Europe along with him. You can argue that his rebellion goaded the Church toward reforming itself, or that reform would not have happened if he had not rebelled, so in that sense you might argue that he was necessary. And it should go without saying that reform was desperately needed. But the reformation was not his work.

It's difficult now to speak of Protestantism as such in any general way. The term encompasses so many beliefs that the only really accurate description of the whole field would be something like "forms of Christianity which are neither Catholic nor Orthodox." What does a conservative Baptist have in common with a progressive Episcopalian? Almost nothing beyond a historical separation from and continuing opposition to Catholicism. (Even the Anglo-Catholics are more Protestant than they want to recognize.) 

Similarly, as has often been observed in recent years, an orthodox Catholic has more in common with an orthodox Baptist (for instance) than with many "progressive" Catholics whose theology is not really distinguishable from that of progressive Protestants. My casual working definition of "Christian" is that it includes anyone who can say the Nicene Creed and mean it pretty much as written, with a bit of wiggle room allowed on the definition of the Church. I might therefore be more inclined to give the name to some Protestants than to some Catholics who seem not to believe the traditional teachings of the Church. This, however, neglects the Catholic concept of the Church as mystical body of Christ, in which "Church" refers to a specific visible body. That progressive Catholic and I are still members of that body, unless he has done something so dramatically wrong, or denied the teachings of the Church so clearly, as to be excommunicated. And however much I might have in common with that Protestant, he is not a member of that body. In Catholic eyes this membership has a supernatural aspect which my friendship and theological kinship with a Protestant does not.

The existence of the gulf can't be wished away. One of the strengths of the Touchstone/First Things approach to ecumenism is that it does not attempt to ignore substantive differences; their Catholics are Catholic and their Protestants are Protestant. It's not possible to eliminate the gulf by saying "Well, we agree on the essentials, so let's not worry about everything else," because we don't agree on what is essential. Much of what Catholicism regards as absolutely essential--for instance, the authority of the Church--is not just inessential but flat wrong from the Protestant point of view. 

I have the impression, based on very limited data, that the tendency of orthodox Protestants now is more to lament than to celebrate the Protestant Reformation: as a sad necessity, maybe, but still sad. There's an increasing willingness to concede that it was a tragedy, and that it resulted in a state of disunity is contrary to the will of God. That's actually a pretty long way from Luther and Calvin, I think. This piece from several years ago by the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas is a good example.

Now that so much is going wrong in the contemporary secularized world, there may also be more of a willingness to admit that the development of Protestantism is linked to the dominance of secularism and the diminishment of Christianity. It seems pretty obvious to me that the skepticism that the first Protestants turned on the Catholic Church is related to the skepticism that was soon turned on the Bible and on Protestantism itself. I won't say that Protestantism caused the various more or less atheistic developments which have transformed what used to be Christian society, but it seems pretty obvious that it was a part of that larger trend, which perhaps has roots much deeper than we can see.  If Luther can defy and deny the Church, why can't I deny and defy Luther? That happened within Luther's lifetime, and just from the anthropological point of view seems an inevitable tendency. At any rate the connection between Protestantism and modernity is pretty much taken for granted by a lot of well-informed people, many of whom take it as an obviously good thing.

The theological arguments for Protestantism don't have much force for me anymore. The concept of scripture alone as the source of authority for Christians now strikes me as almost self-evidently wrong. It seems starkly obvious that Protestantism began in the 16th century, while the Catholic and Orthodox churches began in the 1st, and therefore that only they have any remotely plausible claim to be the early Church continued into our time. The worship of the Church in the beginning looked like theirs, not like a Baptist service. And so on. But though I don't think highly of Protestantism as a body of doctrine, I think very highly of many Protestants, among whom are most of my relatives and many of my friends. I'm grateful for everything I received from my Protestant upbringing (Methodist, to be specific), and would never repudiate it. But as Hauerwas says of Reformation Sunday, the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation "does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure." 

I'm not going to end this with any sort of prediction about the ecumenical future. Well, ok, just one: the official talks between the Catholic Church and various Protestant communions will never result in formal unity. I won't even speculate about whether any other path to unity exists or can succeed. But I'm pretty sure that one won't. 

I lifted this picture of my childhood church, Belle Mina Methodist, in Belle Mina, Alabama, from the church's Facebook page. I don't think they'll mind.

BelleMinaMethodistChurch


Sunday Night Journal, November 26, 2017

Following Many Dimensions, which I mentioned a few weeks ago, I decided to read all the Charles Williams novels that I had not previously read, in order of publication. According to Wikipedia, that's:

War in Heaven (1930)
Many Dimensions
(1930)
The Place of the Lion
(1931)
The Greater Trumps
(1932)
Shadows of Ecstasy
(1933)
Descent into Hell
(1937)
All Hallows' Eve
(1945)

I've since read War In Heaven and The Place of the Lion. Or rather re-read: as with Many Dimensions, as soon as I'd read a few paragraphs of War In Heaven I realized that I'd read it before. And I thought I remembered reading The Place of the Lion, and I had. In all those instances the previous readings were some thirty-five years ago, and I had only vague memories of the books. I've read Descent Into Hell and All Hallows' Eve twice and thrice, respectively (I think), the last times relatively recently. In short, there were and are only two that I've never read, The Greater Trumps and Shadows of Ecstasy. So, onward to those next. 

Of the two most recent, I liked War In Heaven better. I hadn't paid any attention to publication order when I read the novels back in the 1980s, so it was interesting to see that all of William's themes and, more or less, his plots, were already in place in his first novel. (I assume it was the first written.) War involves an evil magician attempting to do evil things with the aid of dark powers, and this is, very broadly, also the basic situation of All Hallows' Eve. I think it's done more richly in the latter, but more excitingly in War. There is at least in the first two novels what Alfred Hitchcock called a "maguffin" or "MacGuffin," an object which is desired and pursued by various parties and thus provides the impetus for the plot. The Wikipedia entry for the term mentions the Holy Grail as an early example, which is interesting because the Holy Grail is in fact the MacGuffin of War In Heaven

It's called the "Graal" here, which seems a bit of an affectation, and bothers me a little because I hear it in my mind as a sort of long growl, "Ghrrraaallll". The Graal Grail has been tracked down by a character, Sir Giles Tumulty, whom I had previously gotten to know in what is actually the next novel. Turns out it is a rather ordinary-looking chalice which has for some time been sitting unrecognized in the little parish church (Anglican) of Fardles. The priest there is an archdeacon (a term I haven't heard in the Catholic Church, and refers to a sort of practical assistant to a bishop). He is something of a mystic and something of a spiritual warrior, in a passive, almost Zen-ish sort of way: he doesn't do much, and he doesn't do it until he knows what to do, but when he does, it's right. In this brief note I won't go into all the people who get involved in the pursuit of the Grail. Suffice to say that some of them are evil (of course) and wish to use the Grail for evil purposes, and that it is a very good story. It almost deserves to be called a thriller, and has some elements of detective fiction--there is a murder, and a police inspector who is investigating it.

This is the one that Janet mentioned in the discussion of Many Dimensions, saying that she had stopped reading it because it was too disturbing, especially as it involved a child in danger. Well, I wouldn't try to talk anyone into reading it, but I will say that it is safe to press on, provided you don't mind learning somewhat more than ordinarily comes our way about truly evil people in league with truly evil forces. It is undoubtedly true that this work, like other Williams novels, suggests a much-too-close acquaintance with sorcery. But he is in the end clearly and literally on the side of the angels--the good angels, that is, and perhaps his experiences with darkness help to make his visions of light more powerful; they certainly are powerful to me.

Also in the comments on that post, Marianne quoted C.S. Lewis as saying that Williams "did not always know how to hit the golden mean between Dante and Wodehouse." That's funny, but it didn't at first make a lot of sense to me. But the more Williams I read, the more I see what he meant. The truth is that a number of his characters are potentially Wodehousian--bright and often flippant young people, eccentric older ones, and the like--and could fairly easily be turned into comic-farcical rather than serious-heroic characters. 

I don't think I'll be giving away too much if I tell you that Prester John makes an appearance here. And I'll say that I didn't entirely understand him or his role...well, I understand what he does, but I don't understand exactly what or who he is. This is my ignorance, as I know almost nothing of the Prester John legends. If you share my ignorance and are thinking of reading this book, it might be worth your while to learn a little something about him first--though I would not be at all surprised to learn that Williams modified and embellished the legend to suit his purposes. 

The Place of the Lion is a considerably lighter book than either of the two that preceded it, though "lighter" is not the most apt word, the potential destruction of the world of matter and of the human beings who live in it is not being, all told, the material of sunny romance. But there is no dark magician involved, just a Platonist who wants to get closer to the Forms. This enterprise has dramatic effects, but I didn't see any indication that they were intended. This philosopher is unconscious throughout, so he doesn't really figure as a character, and we don't really know what he was thinking. But one of his disciples gives this account of what he is up to:

"He believes--and I believe it too," Mr. Foster said, "that this world is created, and all men and women are created, by the entrance of certain great principles into aboriginal matter. We call them by cold names; wisdom and courage and beauty and strength and so on, but actually they are very great and mighty Powers. It may be that they are the angels and archangels of which the Christian Church talks....those Powers are the archetypes of the beasts, and very much more.... Now this world in which they exist is truly a real world, and to see it is a very difficult and dangerous thing, but our master held that it could be done...."

This master is the unconscious philosopher, who has apparently succeeded in seeing these Principles, but by so doing has brought them into our world, to very destructive effect, as they tend to absorb into themselves all individuated manifestations of themselves--i.e., the world and everything in it. The Principles are visible, first of all in the figure of the enormous lion referred to in the novel's title. And the story is the story of the effort to put these mighty forces back where they belong. It gives the word "metaphysical" a force which it does not ordinarily have.

In every one of Williams's novels I've read--that is, five out of seven--there occur passages which are always puzzling and a little frustrating to me. These are attempts to put into language actions and experiences which occur in the spiritual world. These are semi-abstract, not pure ratiocination, but in a reality where discrete entities, motives, and actions exist and must be described as such although they have no material presence, or are connected only loosely to the material. I don't say that they are incomprehensible, but I often find them obscure, and on finishing them ask myself "What just happened?" Perhaps a little more effort and a re-reading or two would help. But I am sometimes impatient with them.

And then you have passages like this one from The Place of the Lion; Anthony's close friend Quentin is in great danger, and Anthony, wanting to help him, is in their "rooms," as the English say, and remembering him:

Light and amusing, poignant and awful, the different hours of friendship came to him, each full of that suggestion of significance which hours of the kind mysteriously hold--a suggestion which demands definitely either to be accepted as truth or rejected as illusion. Anthony had long since determined on which side his own choice lay; he had accepted those exchanges, so far as mortal frailty could, as being of the nature of final and eternal being. Though they did not last, their importance did; though any friendship might be shattered, no strife and no separation could deny the truth within it: all immortality could but more clearly reveal what in those moments had been.

This is applicable to all relations of love. It makes me think of Brideshead Revisited, of this exchange between Charles and Cordelia, Charles first:

“Have you told Julia this about Sebastian?”

“The substance of it; not quite as I told you. She never loved him, you know, as we do.”

Do.” The word reproached me; there was no past tense in Cordelia’s verb “to love.”

 Perhaps in the end there isn't in anyone's. No, not perhaps: probably. Probably certainly.


Sunday Night Journal, November 12, 2017

One Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago some friends invited my wife and me to go to a flea-market-sort-of-thing with them. I didn't really want to go until they told me there would be books. There were--and records, too.

Part of the market seemed to be someone's estate sale, and it was interesting and more than a bit sad to see what must have been someone's prized possessions laid out on tables, priced at a nickel or a dime on the dollar of what the owner had paid for them, stripped of any personal association except perhaps the owner's name on the flyleaf of a book or the back of a record jacket, or notes and underlinings in the text.

I was seriously tempted by a box of two dozen or so opera recordings (on LP). They seemed to be in pretty good shape and I've been wanting to get more widely acquainted with opera, but I don't want to invest in CDs, and streaming is unsatisfactory without a libretto, to me anyway. But I don't have room for another two feet of LPs. And would I even get around to listening to them...?.... In the end I decided to let them go, although I hate to think that they might end up being discarded. Yes, a huge revival of interest in vinyl has been in progress for some years, but I don't know if it extends to opera. 

And I only bought one book. I've been making a serious effort to limit my acquisition of books to ones which I have a definite intention of reading in the not-too-distant-future. I'm resisting those in the might be interestingheard it's good, and maybe someday categories. I deduced from the selection here that the person who had owned these books was around my age or not more than ten years older, as there was a certain amount of junk that recalled to me my mid-1970s tenure in bookstores. Some Watergate stuff, some pop psychology and self-help stuff--that genre really flowered in the '70s--and, the only specific title I remember now, The Joy of Sex. I resisted the temptation to open it. 

The one book was The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes. I've been enjoying the English counterpart of this book since I bought it in roughly 1978. I read a fair amount of it in the first couple of years I had it. Then life became very busy and since then it has sat undisturbed on the shelf for years at a time, until some whim takes me, I pick it up and read a story or two at random, then put it back on the shelf, and let years go by before I open it again. I'm pretty sure there are still anecdotes in it that I haven't read. 

For some reason, though, I read this American version more or less straight through, off and on in a matter of weeks. Part of the reason is that it's shorter, because there just isn't as much interesting American literature as there is British. And the anecdotes themselves tend to be shorter. It's a potato-chip sort of book: it's hard to read just one. Or maybe it's a cheese-curl sort of book: it's hard to stop until the whole bag is gone. 

This is probably my favorite item from the book: Henry James explains how he came to catch a cold on a visit to New York.

I had brought availably with me two overcoats, one somewhat heavier and one somewhat lighter, and in Boston I had worn with comfort the somewhat lighter overcoat and was carrying, for possible immediate need in New York, the slightly warmer overcoat on my arm. All had gone well, until I found myself here, seated in a cab beside my friend, David Munroe, known to you doubtless as a fellow-editor, albeit much older, editing, yes, The North American Review, and so faithfully replete with welcome and so instantly exacting of responses that I was only vaguely, though somewhat venially, aware of my impulse and need to doff the somewhat lighter overcoat and to don the slightly heavier overcoat, which I by all means should have done, to be sure, on account of a rapid change in temperature, or else a difference in temperatures at the place where my journey began and the place where it ended, or perhaps merely a change in hour, but a change all in all,--and, as I have noted, my good friend, David, so engrossed me in greetings and reminiscences and interrogations that I continued, despite a disquieting chill in my marrow, to wear the somewhat lighter overcoat, protecting only one arm with the slightly thicker overcoat, which I should assuredly have been wearing in order to avoid this probably thus avoidable touch of influenza with which I must begin my--under otherwise auspicious aspects--visit to New York, and all, let me charge, on account of your beastly, and by me long foresworn, climate.

Delightful as this is, I am not at all sure I believe it. Witter Bynner claimed to have written it down at the time James said it--to him, I assume. But could anyone really have retained this long enough to write it down? And anyway, Witter Bynner was one of the conspirators in a famous literary hoax, the Spectric school of poetry. I remember reading about that hoax in my teens, and being a little puzzled, because I couldn't really see any difference in the hoax poems and some of the seriously-intended work of the early 20th century, or for that matter of the then-present, and even the now-present.

I also learned from the American anecdotes volume that Edgar Allan Poe's mother called him Eddie.

*

Tom Waits has a very poignant song about an estate sale or a flea market and the sadness of keepsakes that eventually are no longer kept, "A Soldier's Things". 

A tinker, a tailor, a soldier's things
His rifle, his boots full of rocks
Oh, and this one is for bravery
Oh, and this one is for me
And everything's a dollar in this box 

 *

I didn't start this post intending to dwell on mortality, but: it just happens that Saturday afternoon I had the new and decidedly odd experience of seeing my future grave site. My wife and I have been saying for some years that we should go ahead and make some of those arrangements so that when the time comes the one still living and/or our children won't have to deal with it. 

There is a Catholic cemetery on this side of the bay, six or seven miles from our house, in an area called Belforest. A little before the turn of the 20th century there was a significant migration of Italians into this area. They were prominent in the founding of the little town of Daphne, and many of them farmed the flat and open land out in the county east of town. Their names are still prominent locally, which gives the place a slightly different flavor from the very Anglo northern end of the state where I grew up. They established the first Catholic parish of modern times in this immediate area, and, a few miles out in the country, a cemetery. It's relatively small, four or five acres I'd guess, and only about half-populated. It's much less out in the country than it was when we first moved here in 1992; at the time it seemed isolated, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but also a little raw and unappealing, just a bit of flat land fenced off from the surrounding flat fields. But it doesn't seem isolated now, so many people having moved into this area (a phenomenon I strongly dislike) that there's a big subdivision across the road, and I suppose in another twenty or thirty years, fifty at most, it won't even seem rural anymore. And I suppose I'd rather have the isolation, modern development being the ugly business that it is. But more importantly, it's planted with live oaks that have grown significantly since I first saw them twenty or so years ago. And it's a Catholic cemetery, consecrated ground, though I'm not at all sure what the import of that is. 

It's a little absurd that one should wish to be buried in a location that is pleasant. But I like the fact that this one is. So is the name Belforest, presumably "beautiful forest." Though it surely can't matter to me, the climate here is such that I don't like the idea of being buried in a place that has no shade. Our plot is over in that open space to the left of this tree, which my wife has already referred to as "our tree." 

CemeteryTree


Sunday Night Journal, November 5, 2017

The November-December issue of Touchstone contains an article on Charles Williams's novel Many Dimensions. I dislike reading about books I haven't read but which I intend or at least hope to read. With a lot of classics that's almost impossible, because so much has been written about them. But Williams is relatively obscure, and I've read and liked at least three of his seven novels, and intend to read the others. So I decided that before reading the Touchstone piece I would read the novel itself. Having had all seven on my shelf for many years, I picked this one up.

But as soon as I'd read the first few paragraphs I realized that I had already read it.

The Persian, sitting back in his chair, and Sir Giles, sitting forward on the edge of his, were both gazing at the thing which lay on the table. It was a circlet of old, tarnished, and twisted gold, in the center of which was set a cubical stone measuring about half an inch every way, and having apparently engraved on it certain Hebrew letters. 

The description of the stone told me that this was a book I'd read roughly thirty years ago, and liked.  But I didn't remember it very clearly, so I proceeded.

Someone asks if the letters are important:

"They are the letters of the Tetragrammaton," the Persian said drily, "If you call that important. But they are not engraved on the Stone; they are in the centre--they are, in fact, the Stone."

The circlet in which the Stone is set is the crown of Suleiman ben Daood. It wasn't until I was twenty or thirty pages along that it dawned on me that "Suleiman ben Daood" is "Solomon, son of David." To say that the Stone has magical powers would be to trivialize it. Even to say that it has powers is not fitting: it is power in some sense. In fact it seems to be everything in some sense. It's not God, but it is somehow very intimately connected with God. At one point it is called the First Matter, the first thing created by God, and said to have been in the possession of Adam in Eden. For many centuries it has been in the possession of Muslims, who have kept it secret and dormant. But it has been stolen and sold to Sir Giles Tumulty.

Tumulty is a kindred spirit to Josef Mengele (though the book was written in 1931, before Mengele's name and deeds were known), an amoral inquirer who seeks knowledge as a means of power and is psychopathically devoid of human sympathy. Also present at the meeting described above is his nephew Reginald Montague, who wants to use the Stone to make money. The Persian is Prince Ali, attached to the Persian Embassy in London, and outraged by the blasphemy of Tumulty's possession of the Crown and the Stone. Tumulty and Montague discover that a person holding the Stone and willing himself to be somewhere else will be instantly transported there. So Montague immediately conceives a business plan: to sell chips of the Stone at enormous prices to wealthy people who would like to be able to travel anywhere instantly.

Unsure about several legal aspects of the venture, Montague decides to consult another uncle, Lord Christopher Arglay, Chief Justice of England. He and Tumulty take the Stone to Arglay, show it to him and to his young secretary, Chloe Burnett, and demonstrate the one power that they've so far discovered. They also learn that an attempt to chip off a piece of the Stone creates a duplicate of it--a copy in their word, a Type in the word of those who have more understanding of it. 

And thus is set in motion a story which is both exciting and profound. It is fundamentally a three-way struggle over the Stone. There is the Tumulty-Montague party, which wants to use it for various instrumental purposes, including especially the making of large sums of money, though Tumulty himself is not interested in that possibility--he is less human than that. Soon there are multiple Types of the Stone abroad, and more powers are discovered, powers that bring people into conflict with each other. One such power is that of healing, so now there is a party that wants to distribute it everywhere and heal every physical ill. But that is not in the interests of those who want to sell it as a means of transportation and need to keep it rare and expensive. And so on. 

Then there are the Persians, led by Prince Ali, who want to retrieve the Stone and put it back where it belongs (wherever that is) and are quite willing to kill any infidel who possesses it, or one of its Types.

And there is the party which wants to do what is right, what is most in keeping with the nature of  the Stone. This party consists chiefly of Lord Arglay and Chloe Burnett, with a few allies, including a wise Muslim called the Hajii who objects to Ali's violent single-mindedness. 

Arglay, Chloe, and Tumulty are the chief characters. Tumulty is simple enough, perhaps a little overdone in his brutality and spiteful pride. But Arglay, Chloe, and their relationship could be studied at length. Arglay's concern with Law and Justice assumes cosmic significance. And Chloe--well, she is really in many ways the center of things, eventually...well, that would be giving away too much. The relationship between them is a beautiful picture of the masculine and feminine dynamic. It's not romantic--he is many years older than she and more of a father, even addressing her as "child." But if it's father and child, it's not father and son, which would be a very different thing. He is master and she is both daughter and servant. And yet it is she who leads the way in their understanding of the Stone. She alone of all the characters has a direct intuitive grasp of what it represents, and of how one ought to comport oneself toward it, beginning with reverence. She doesn't learn this by reasoning or study; she simply sees it, and teaches him. Arglay asks her what she "would have the Stone to be," which seems to mean at least as much "What do you believe it to be?" as "What do you want it to be?" 

"I am afraid of it but I--don't laugh--I love it."

Lord Arglay looked at her thoughtfully. Then, "Do you believe in God?" he asked.

"I suppose so," Chloe said. "I think I do when I look at the Stone. But otherwise--I don't know."

"Well," said Lord Arglay, "I will make you a fair proposal--I will if you will. It's all perfectly ridiculous, but since I saw those people [Tumulty and others of the first party] this morning I feel I must be with them or against them. So I suppose I'm against them. Not, mind you, on the evidence. But I refuse to let you believe in God all by yourself."

Chloe looked up at him, her eyes shining. "But dare I believe that the Stone is of God?" she said. "And what do I mean by God--except..." she half added and stopped.

"Except--?" Arglay asked, but she silently refused to go on and he said: "If you will believe this way, then I also will believe. And we will set ourselves against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and not sit in the seat of Giles Tumulty...."

If that dialog intrigues you, read the book. Philosophy and theology aside, it is really quite a good story.

I'll also note in passing the very respectful treatment of Islam in the novel. Christianity in fact is hardly mentioned at all; the English characters (and one American), are pretty much the sort of post-Christian moderns we know well, even, more or less, Arglay and Chloe in the beginning. Interestingly, Prince Ali is representative of the fanatical and violent aspect of Islam with which we are too familiar--he threatens to rouse "all the places of Islam" against the English until the blasphemy is avenged and the Stone returned. But the Hajji (see Wikipedia for a bit of information about the title) is a deeply devout and very wise man. And one whom the prince, for his own well-being, would have done well to heed.

I know I've written about Williams more than once here. I think this post is the first; it's mainly about All Hallows' Eve. And there is this book review of Descent Into Hell which was published some thirty-five years ago, but which seems still fairly well on target to me. As with these others, there is a good deal in Many Dimensions that I don't understand very clearly. 

I'm fairly sure that I've read at least one other Williams novel but I'm not sure now (obviously) which one it was. Now that I think of it, I believe it involved the Holy Grail. War In Heaven, perhaps. 

The Touchstone piece, by the way, focuses on the Stone, and the uses to which those who see it as an instrument wish to put it--as a metaphor for technology and its perils. It's an interesting piece, but I'd like to know more about the Stone itself. I don't entirely understand what it is supposed to be, and I don't know to what extent it and its powers are Williams's invention, and to what extent, if any, he is drawing upon existing legends. 

This review of a Williams biography at The University Bookman is a nice brief overview of his life and work. I quibble with that opening sentence, though: at least since the early '80s, when Eerdmans reissued his novels, Williams is considered one of the Inklings, and has been known for many years among those who are interested in Tolkien and Lewis. Relatively obscure, yes, but certainly not forgotten until 2008, as the writer seems to imply. 

This is the cover of the edition of Many Dimensions that I have. On the lurid side but well-founded in the book. 

Williams-ManyDimensions


Sunday Night Journal, October 22, 2017

Last week I spent a couple of days in Athens, Alabama, for the dedication of a statue of my grandfather, Judge James E. Horton. He was the judge in one episode of the long-running and shameful Scottsboro Boys case: a notable episode, because he set aside a jury verdict which he believed to be a miscarriage of justice. I think most people have heard at least the broad outlines of the case: in 1931, nine black youths were accused and convicted of raping two white women. If you don't know about it, here is the Wikpedia account. As the article says, it was and is "widely considered a miscarriage of justice," and my grandfather has long been honored for his resistance to it. 

You can read about the statue and the ceremony here. In the photo gallery there are several shots just before and after the unveiling. The people gathered around are all my family; I'm the guy in the dark coat and sunglasses just to the left of the statue. It was a very beautiful day, though a little hot for late October even in north Alabama. That's my sister giving the speech; she did a great job. There were several speeches, all good, none overly long. 

JudgeHortonHistoricalMarker

For me this is an old family story, and as I suppose sometimes happens its very familiarity has preserved for me a surprising level of ignorance. I discover this whenever someone asks me certain fairly obvious questions about it: for instance, exactly how is it that a judge can overrule a jury verdict? Under what circumstances can this happen? Well, I'm not exactly sure. I have owned for many years a book which I think is considered the definitive account of the case, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, by Dan Carter. But I have never read it, and I really should.

One of the main movers of the statue project was retired Judge James Woodroof of Athens. He's six or seven years younger than I am, which makes the "retired" part of that a little shocking to me. His parents and mine were friends, so I knew him slightly growing up, and ran into him a few times around the University of Alabama in the '70s. Those are my images of him, and I still haven't quite adjusted to the fact that he is not only grown up and then some, but in a position of prominence and grave responsibility, far more responsibility than I've ever had. He has a great regard for the statement my grandfather made, and that touches me. 

Some people seem to regard what my grandfather did as first and foremost a blow struck against racial oppression, and it certainly was that. But I'm fairly certain that he didn't see it primarily in that way. For him it was the discharge of a sacred duty: to apply the rule of law in a sternly impartial way, without concession to popular sentiment, much less to mob sentiment, without consideration of race, status, or anything else apart from the law and the facts of the case. I do not have any at all of the talents that make for a good lawyer or a good judge, but that ideal moves me deeply. And I'm gratified that it still resounds in the legal profession. I sometimes think it has little place there nowadays, and maybe it isn't as widely revered as it should be, but it isn't dead. A sitting judge from neighboring Morgan County came up to me after the ceremony to tell me how much my grandfather's example means to him.

It's an odd sensation to be the descendant of such an admired figure. Most of us, the descendants, were at the ceremony. Of his eight or so grandchildren and roughly twice that many great-grandchildren (none of the very young great-great-grandchildren were there), only one, the daughter of one of my brothers, has made the law her career. There is thus no direct way in which the rest of us can think of ourselves as carrying on his legacy. Nevertheless it's difficult not to feel that we--well, I suppose I should speak only for myself--that I have some sort of share in his virtue. I don't. I know that. And yet I'm proud to be his grandson, to be a part of the same elemental community, the family, which produced him. And since I do not and can not and would not deny that my family were also part of the system of oppression which began with slavery, his deed is a reminder that there was always nobility in that culture alongside the evil: the good crop and the weeds existing together, mysteriously, as they always do. 

I didn't grow up in Athens, exactly. My parents did, but we lived out in the country, and I went to school there. We visited in Athens frequently, but only for the three years of high school was it really a major part of my life. For thirty years or so after high school I rarely went there and mostly lost touch with the people I'd gone to school with. In 2000, not long before my father's death in 2001, my parents moved into town, and so since then visits home have been visits to Athens. I feel closer to it than I think I ever did as a teenager, and very much enjoy seeing old acquaintances. I find that the older I get the more I value these precisely because they are old, because they go so far back into youth and in some cases childhood. It is a community of memory. 

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This appeared in the September issue of Magnificat. It's by Fr. Donald Haggerty, whom I know nothing about beyond what's given in the magazine, that he's a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, currently serving at St. Patrick's Cathedral. I like it so much that I'm going to the trouble of typing the whole thing into this post.

For some people, the intensity of their belief in God is matched by an inclination to ask questions of God. The correlation is not a sign of disrespect or of doubt. They would not ask questions in this manner except for a conviction that God can be addressed in an utterly personal manner. In fact, their questions, which often begin with a "why is it" or "how can it be," tend to summon a deeper act of faith from their souls. Inasmuch as their questions are not answered so readily, as usually they are not, these questions plunge their souls much more blindly into the mystery of God. The unanswered question demands a surrender to God and a greater offering. The surrender can only be made with a conviction that God has heard the request for some light and accepted the offering of one's soul for others. If no clarity is forthcoming, the soul can still remain at peace, certain that God has been listening and will extend grace to others.

Logical labors of thought that seem to provide clear answers and explanations are usually false solutions in the realm of sacred mystery. Only in waiting and in darkness do quiet spiritual insights come upon us, and when they do so, they are like the light slowly emerging at dawn. And often they have to do with our need to offer ourselves more fully in love for others. 

I realized recently that in a sense it no longer matters to me whether a prayer is answered, the sense being that the lack of the hoped-for result, or even of some sense of response, does not disturb "the conviction that God has heard...and accepted...."

*

This afternoon I went to pick up our dog and cat at the office of the vet where they have to be boarded when we go out of town. While waiting my turn, I saw the cover of a cat-lover's magazine which announced an article called 5 New Litter Trends! 


Sunday Night Journal, October 15, 2017

 I finally got Stalker from Netflix and watched it over a couple of nights last week. I'm sorry to say that I was disappointed. And that's not just a formula: I really am sorry, and I was, specifically, disappointed, because I had really wanted and expected to like it. Though I don't know where I got the expectation from, as I was at best unenthusiastic about the only other Tarkovsky film I've seen, Solaris

It seems to be a very philosophical work, and interesting from that point of view. But to my sensibility the ideas were not especially well embodied; to discuss them is like discussing an essay, not a work of art. It's also a somewhat puzzling work. Many of Bergman's films are also both philosophical and puzzling, but I loved those immediately, even when I couldn't make much sense of them, because they're so visually rich and emotionally involving. Stalker just wasn't either of those for me. Perhaps it's a personal quirk, but there it is.

"Stalker" may not be the best translation of the title, or at any rate the best word for what it refers to. "Tracker" or perhaps "Guide" would seem more accurate. Moreover, it has associations in contemporary English which are both unpleasant and misleading as far as the movie is concerned. You might expect something with that title to fall into the thriller or horror categories. But the stalker of the title is a man who knows how to get around safely in a mysterious place called the Zone.

In an unspecified time and country, something has fallen out of the sky and landed in a rural area. No one knows what it was, but those who went to investigate never returned. The authorities have determined rough boundaries for the mysterious phenomenon and surrounded it with heavy security. The area is now known as the Zone, and almost no one ever enters it. The soldiers manning the barricades shoot anyone who tries, and are themselves too terrified to attempt it themselves. The exceptions to this blockade are the men known as stalkers, at least two that we know of, and anyone whom they are willing to guide. One of the two is one of the film's three principal characters--I don't recall that we even know his name--and the other was his mentor, referred to only as Porcupine.  We learn fairly early on that Porcupine was very skilled and that he is now dead, having hung himself shortly after an experience in the Zone that first made him rich and then drove him to suicide. 

The other two principals are two men who have engaged the Stalker to take them into the Zone. One is a scientist--"the Professor"--and the other is a writer--"the Writer." The Stalker also has a wife and child, who have smaller though significant roles. There are very few other people and I'm not sure any of them ever speak. 

The opening is promising, to me at least; others might think "what is this?!" It's a very long, very slow shot of a somewhat shabby-looking room seen through opening doors. There's a bed in the center. The camera moves over it and very slowly pans right-to-left across three figures in the bed: a woman, a child, and a man. The man is the stalker, the woman and child his wife and daughter. We see that the man is awake. The man gets up and gets dressed, obviously trying not to wake the others. But the woman is awake, too, and follows him out into the kitchen. He's apparently intending to go to the Zone, and the woman begs him not to, but he doesn't listen. He goes to a bar where he meets the Professor and the Writer.

All this is shot in a sort of sepia monochrome, as in this image, which was the only one I could find from the opening scene. I don't think it was quite this dark on the screen.

Stalker-OpeningScene

The sepia is maintained for the next half hour or so, while the men make their way toward the Zone, hiding from soldiers and eventually taking a little gasoline-powered railroad car into the Zone itself. All this takes place in what is possibly the ugliest environment I've ever seen. Imagine an old, decrepit, abandoned industrial zone: junk machinery, collapsing or makeshift  structures,  muddy streets, puddles of dirty water, all filmed in dingy brown. Such a scene could be made poetically evocative, and maybe some viewers do see it that way. I didn't. It was only ugly, and dead.

As the travelers enter the Zone normal colors appear, and we're in a landscape of meadows and forests. While this is a welcome relief from the industrial wasteland, it isn't photographed in such a way as to make it appear anything other than ordinary. And it's strewn with debris and ruins which continue the motif of desolation. 

What follows is roughly two hours of these three men wandering around and having somewhat sententious philosophical talk, mostly on the part of the Writer. 

It's in this long sequence that Stalker really fails for me. The Stalker tells the others (and us) of the mysterious powers and dangers of the Zone--"a complex maze of traps," but containing, if one can evade the dangers and find it, a place called the Room in which one's deepest desires are granted. Apparently they are searching for the Room, which Porcupine had found before he killed himself. (What is your deepest desire? Perhaps not what you think it is.) The Stalker tells us, but nothing is shown that seems to support his warnings; no atmosphere is created. Only in one scene did I ever get any sense of either mystery or menace about the place. And to make things worse, even in the Zone there is a great deal of that industrial ruin, with its toxic-looking pools and general hideousness. The journey, or search, never developed much dramatic tension for me. 

If you've seen it and are thinking "You're wrong; I was deeply moved; it's a masterpiece," and are eager to explain to me why that's true, well, okay, I'll listen. Maybe it is. In the abstract, I see its merits. But for the most part, after that first thirty or forty minutes, it engaged me only mentally, not emotionally. There's a good deal to think about here, but not as much to enjoy. I may see it again sometime, and perhaps have a better impression. 

*

Speaking of Bergman: Stu sent me this BBC piece which calls him "the greatest film-maker who ever lived." I agree with the sentiment in general, and also with most of the specific opinions of the author. He refers to "Bergman's Christian humanism," which I think is accurate, not withstanding that Bergman was not a believer. As the writer says, "...one can sketch a notion of salvation in his depiction of Christian love and its virtues – fidelity, sanctity, devotion."

I have not seen his last film, Saraband, and rather like the idea that there is still at least one to see (not counting his very earliest ones, which in my experience are not so great, interesting mainly because he made them). I saw the movie version, abridged from a TV series, of Scenes From A Marriage long ago, and would like to see the whole thing. I notice this writer mentions Summer With Monika. I only saw it relatively recently. It's also an earlier one (1953), among the first of his mature and lasting works: a very beautiful but heartbreaking picture of young and impermanent love.

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Speaking of movies, I meant to mention, when I wrote about Wise Blood a few weeks ago, this article on Flannery O'Connor which Rob G sent me. It mentions the film favorably, and I think that was part of the reason that I finally got around to watching it.

 *

What came ye forth to see?

 


Sunday Night Journal, October 1, 2017

Literally anything that one considers to be good can be called "pro-life." And any apparent contradiction can be reconciled with the addition of the word "truly." Almost by definition, any conception of what is good for people is aimed at saving or enhancing their lives, and can therefore be called "pro-life" by those who hold it. Both free-marketers and socialists can insist that their favored policies make more people better off, and so are pro-life. The fact that the term was first applied to themselves by people opposing abortion, and still is generally associated with that cause before others, doesn't mean that those who disagree have accepted it. Even advocates of abortion and euthanasia can claim that even though their immediate aim is to cause a death (though that is generally not admitted in the first case), their broader intention is to reduce suffering and to relieve people of burdens they can't or won't bear, and so they are "truly pro-life."

For these reasons I've thought for a long time that it was a mistake for the anti-abortion movement to adopt the label "pro-life" for itself. It's not that I think it's inaccurate. I understand the reasons for it, especially as its application was broadened a little to include euthanasia and assisted suicide. I have always supposed that part of the motive for using it was to make it appear a positive thing. The abortion rights movement presented itself from the beginning as a vehicle for liberation, a movement for women's rights. In the American context especially, and especially since the late '60s, any movement to restrict a right is almost always going to fare more poorly than one to expand a right. This is especially true if the right is favored by the upper crust of society and by journalism and entertainment, but even the movement to restrict gun rights, which very much has their support, has not been very successful, and part of the reason surely is that it is trying to stop people from doing something they want to do; maybe not the biggest part, but a part. So it probably seemed preferable to advertise opposition to abortion as being "pro-life" rather than "anti-abortion." 

But on the face of it, it's a vague term, and the price of that vagueness is an endless argument about "what it means to be truly pro-life." And, worse, that argument creates an opening for dividing and undermining the movement by making opposition to abortion only one part of a bigger political package, one that is "truly pro-life." I don't mean that the dividing and undermining are necessarily intentional. It's unarguable that Christians in general and Catholics in particular should have a coherent set of political principles that are aimed at the good of each and every human person. It's hardly necessary to say that Catholic ethics--in particular the social teachings of the Church--should guide Catholics, and that we should always seek to apply them as thoroughly and consistently as possible. But it's probably always going to be the case that we disagree about how those principles are to be actualized. To proclaim that one and only one approach to politics is "truly pro-life" is just a recipe for division.

For various reasons, starting with the takeover of the Democratic Party by abortion supporters, and the welcoming of abortion opponents by the Republican Party, the latter has been for a long time the only home of the anti-abortion movement in electoral politics. This has had some very bad effects. Abortion opponents tended to adopt the entire Republicans political package as their own, and to regard its enemies as their own. Correspondingly, abortion opponents who were otherwise ideologically disposed toward the Democrats had to choose between opposing abortion and supporting other causes favored by the Democrats but opposed by the Republicans. There really are some left-wingers who are serious opponents of abortion, and they've found this situation to be intolerable, especially over the past fifteen years or so as Republicans initiated an apparently endless state of war in the Middle East, and domestic conditions deteriorated in ways that, to them, cried out for the sorts of more or less socialistic interventions favored by the Democrats.

In recent years some of these people have become as vociferously hostile to the pro-life movement, as it has existed for the past few decades, as any secular left-wingers, over and over again making the long-standing charge that pro-lifers only care about people before they're born, and probably only white people at that, etc.; that they hate women, etc. And that the pro-life movement is not truly pro-life because it supports war-mongers, etc. etc. Some of these attacks have some justification, some don't. But I don't want to argue about those. The point I want to make is that it's the use of the term "pro-life" that justifies the attacks and gives at least some of them some weight. 

So now there is something called the New Pro-Life Movement (sometimes called the "whole life" movement) which is attempting to make opposition to abortion part of a package that includes various policies favored by liberals: for instance, a call for "universal health care," which seems to be the so-called "single-payer" plan, a British-style National Health Service for the U.S. Maybe that's a good idea. Maybe it's not (personally I don't think so). But from the Catholic point of view it's perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, it's not mandatory; other views are also perfectly acceptable. What the NPLM does is put together a package of "truly pro-life" policies, implicitly declaring disagreement not truly pro-life. In short, it inverts the identification of the pro-life movement with "conservative" causes and identifies it with "liberal" causes. You can read a statement of their basic principles here.

If there must be a package deal, if opposition to abortion can only be discussed in inextricable linkage to various other proposals, it's just as well that there be a left-wing package as well as a right-wing one. But it shouldn't have to be that way. People who are opposed to abortion should be able to unite and work together on that issue even if they disagree on others. It seems to me that it would be better if anti-abortion people simply called themselves anti-abortion rather than using the ill-defined and endlessly debatable "pro-life."

The package deal approach almost guarantees that proponents of each will be at each other's throats a good deal of the time. This is especially true now that our politics have in general become so viciously polarized. And it has to be said that Donald Trump is a pretty horrible horse for the right-wing pro-life movement to hitch its wagon to; I can't really blame left-wingers opposed to abortion for wanting to make it crystal clear that they are not on his side.

And going for each other's throats is exactly what has happened. Rebecca Bratten Weiss (the link is to her blog) is one of the leaders of the NPLM. I've seen enough of her views to know that I disagree with her about a lot of things, but have not seen any reason to think her expressed opposition to abortion is insincere. She was the subject of a really vicious personal attack from LifeSiteNews, which I'm not linking to because I don't want to give it any more oxygen. And that set in motion an Internet war between her opponents and her supporters. From what I saw it was one of the nastiest intra-Catholic fights I've seen, and that, unfortunately, is saying a lot. One observer was moved to say that it resembled the state of things described by Flannery O'Connor's "Misfit": "no pleasure but meanness." 

The Human Life Review recently had a symposium called Whole Life vs. Pro-life? that includes a number of views on the question. The first and last contributions pretty well reflect my opinion. As several of the writers say there, we shouldn't be ashamed to say that we're anti-abortion. I'll quote the last one, written by Matthew Schmitz of First Things:

Earlier this year, Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told the Washington Post that she considers herself anti-abortion rather than pro-life. “We’re against abortion. I think it’s much simpler. It gets across what we’re about in a faster way . . . To say you’re against it is okay. I am anti-smoking. I’m anti-sex trafficking. I’m anti-drunk driving. And yes, I’m anti-abortion.”

Debates about whether we should be consistent life, whole life, or plain old pro life ought to remind us of the virtues of precision. From first to last, we are anti-abortion. All else distracts.

All that being said, there are some limits, pretty obvious ones, to what can be accomplished in this matter by political action. Whatever political approach one favors, none of them prevent the offering of direct help to pregnant women in need. Anyone who thinks abortion is a tragedy can support those efforts. 

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I've just finished reading God or Nothing, a collection of interviews with Cardinal Sarah. The title had me expecting something a bit different, something focused on the elemental struggle between belief and unbelief. Instead it's, first, a sort of autobiography (maybe the first third or so of the book), and second, a very wide-ranging commentary on Christian life, the state of the world, and the state of the Church. The autobiographical part was the most interesting to me: he has had an extraordinary life, beginning with his childhood in a rural village in Guinea. One thing that struck me was the influence he ascribes to the French missionaries of the Holy Ghost Fathers (Lefebvre's order!) who converted his parents and catechized him. Throughout the book he returns to the power of their example.

The rest of the book has its more and less interesting parts, but on the whole is--I hesitate to use this word, because it sounds dull, but it's accurate, and not dull--inspiring. Here are a few passages I marked.

I think this is the best definition of freedom I've ever read:

...God..created us free so that, by the reasonable exercise of our freedom, we might go beyond our wild impulses and tame all our instincts by taking full responsibility for our life and growth.

On the apparent religious indifference of the West:

Man wishes for what is exceptional, which is God, but he has never really encountered him. In our time of religious indifference, the search is even more vital. For temporal things are in league with eternity. Although the aridity of the era seems frightening, we must not forget that the divine source is still more present than ever. Man may search without knowing why, or he may even reject the path toward God; but his quest exists in the depth of his soul... I think that man will never be indifferent toward God. He can try to forget him, by following fashions or by an ideological mind-set. But this timid withdrawal is merely circumstantial.

On Christian doubt:

[The words of Jesus on the cross are] not a cry of rebellion, but a filial lament. Today too, when we are lost, like the witnesses of the crucifixion, our doubt is still a hope. If we call out to God, it is because we have confidence. Christian doubt is not a moment of despair but another declaration of love.

On affluence and materialism:

A society that takes material development as its only guide inevitably drifts toward slavery and oppression. Man is not born to manage his bank account; he is born to find God and to love his neighbor.

And the best definition of holiness I've ever read:

God deeply desires that we might resemble him by being saints. Charity is love, and holiness is a sublime manifestation of the ability to love.

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About to get in my car after buying a few groceries, I looked back and saw this. My house is only a couple of miles away, to the south, and I expected a downpour to be in progress by the time I got there. But surprisingly, the storm never arrived here. This picture is facing east, and the storm was apparently moving southwest, but more south than west, which is unusual.

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