Sunday Night Journal 2017
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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 interesting, heard 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sunday Night Journal, September 24, 2017
A few weeks ago here I was griping about a bit of simple-minded stereotyping of a Christian character in the TV series Endeavour. Endeavour, in case you aren't aware of it, gives us the early life of Inspector Morse, whom every fan of British mystery stories knows; I found it disappointing but interesting. The stereotype was a cold and malicious Christian woman crusading against dirty words on television; according to the rules of this game, she had to be exposed as being not only ugly and self-righteous but a monster to her own family. [yawn] It was so crude and such a cliche that I couldn't even be much offended.
I was, however, a bit surprised, because I had some notion that this sort of thing has been done so often that writers are tired of it, and that portrayals of Christians and Christianity have tended recently to be more interesting. Well, I don't know how I can venture to make such a broad statement, as the number of movies and TV shows I see is very small. But for what it's worth, here are two instances of what I mean. Both are long and complex made-for-Netflix shows.
First, Bloodline. This is a combination family saga and crime drama set in the Florida Keys (which are photographed with exceptional beauty, so that I want to live there, hurricanes or no hurricanes). I think I watched the first episode out of curiosity, Netflix having recommended it to me, without really knowing what to expect. One episode was enough to hook me. It is very well done. There's a lot of first-rate acting in it, especially on the part of Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn.
The Rayburn family runs a successful hotel, but--you know how this goes--Behind The Facade Of The Happy And Prosperous Family Lie Dark Secrets. Mendelsohn's character, Danny, is a sort of black sheep son who has been absent for a while and whose return sets in motion a chain of bad things. Chandler's character, John, is a detective in the county sheriff's department. The bad things play out over three "seasons" of a dozen or so episodes each.
I read somewhere that the writers had originally envisioned five seasons, but that reviews and ratings declined steadily after the first season. At any rate the third season was the last. I can sort of see why, because most of the original story had run its course by then. But some strange and interesting things appeared toward the end of that last season. In particular there's a scene where Sally Rayburn, the family matriarch (played very effectively by Sissy Spacek), in desperation seeks out a Catholic priest for counseling and/or confession. The family is not Catholic and there's been no presence of religion in the show before this point (except for a funeral or two). Sally's troubles are of course all mixed up with her children, and the priest says something to her that really made me sit up and take notice:
You know who God is? A parent with insanely violent and destructive children. He had two choices: destroy them or die for them.
Now that's the real deal. I don't expect or even want TV and movies to preach Christianity to us. But I do want it to recognize the existential situation we face, and, if it deals with the faith, to understand that it is a serious response to a serious question.
(Later it appears that this encounter may not have really happened, and that a character named Ozzie, who has heretofore been a pretty frightening criminal lurking around the family, has become--or may have become--a sort of weird Christ figure, or maybe an angel or prophet. May have--it wasn't at all clear to me. I'm going to watch the last three or four episodes again and read some reviews and see if I can make sense of it.)
I recommend Bloodline, with a fair amount of qualification. The first season especially is very painful to watch in many ways. It's not sensationalistic--not a lot of violence etc.--just painful.
The other show, The Killing, is not as good, and I don't really recommend it. This is the American version of a Danish series which Rob G has recommended to us here a number of times, but which is hard to find in the U.S. I think I started watching it out of curiosity (and impatience at not being able to get the original). I won't say I was hooked after the first episode, but there was enough what's-going-to-happen pull to make me continue. There was a lot about it that I really disliked. It is very dark, and I mean that literally as well as figuratively: it's set in Seattle, and if I were to take it as a realistic portrait of the city and its people I would be astonished that anyone could live there. It's almost always dark and almost always raining. Even the rare bit of sunlight is pale. The people are miserable. They never really turn on the lights in their houses, apparently making do with a few 40-watt bulbs. And the crimes depicted are dark, sometimes gruesome, and heartbreaking: the third season (there are four) involves the murders of teenaged girls living on the streets, and the mere fact of teenaged girls living on the streets is heartbreaking.
I expected the murder which happens in the opening scenes to be solved at the end of the first season and if it had been I would have stopped there. But it wasn't. It took two seasons to solve that crime, and by then I had gotten so interested in the two detectives working on the case that I wanted to follow the rest of the series just to see how things would work out for them. They are Sarah Linden (just "Linden" most of the time) and Steven Holder (just "Holder" most of the time), played by Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman. As tends to be the case in contemporary crime stories, the detectives themselves have major personal problems of their own.
Anyway--to get to the point, since I'm not recommending the series--Holder's biggest problem is that he's a former (recovering?) meth addict. (Do they really let former addicts join the police?) Throughout the series there's always the fear that he's about to fall back into using. At one point, fairly late in the series, when a number of things have gone very badly wrong for him, he and Linden are driving around Seattle and he abruptly demands that she stop and let him out. She thinks, as do we, that he's off to buy drugs. But where he actually goes is to the church of a women's monastery/convent which I think is called Our Lady Queen of Peace. Like Sally in Bloodline, he's not Catholic. But also like Sally, he is in desperate need, and that's where he goes. He sits--maybe he kneels, I can't remember now--while the nuns chant from behind a screen. Nothing magical happens. But he isn't back on the needle.
An episode or two later he returns to the church, this time in even more desperate need. This time he's falling apart. After a minute or two he begins to storm around the church, yelling "Where is he?! Where is he?!" He goes over to the nuns' screen and beats on it, yelling; they are frightened and scurry away.
Again, nothing happens. For all I know the writers intended to say that all that God stuff is meaningless. That's alright. The significant thing to me is that those scenes give us the question, the hard question, and a Catholic church as a place which at least might have the answer, ought to have the answer, and to which one naturally looks for it.
Perhaps the entertainment industry has gotten some of the simple-minded attacks and stereotypes out of its system and there is some kind of a trend toward intelligence and seriousness in treating Christianity. It would not be surprising. And this is suggestive for what seems to be a darkening cultural future: the darker the night, the brighter the light. As they say, it's science.
By the way as far as I can tell the Seattle monastery is fictional.
Actually, now that I think about it, the intelligent-serious view of religion was present these many years ago in The X-Files. My all-time favorite line from that show, in an episode where suburban satanists have gotten themselves into grave danger: "Did you think you could call up the devil and make him behave?" An epitaph for our times, maybe.
Another line from The Killing that struck me: "To love a child is to open yourself up to all the hurt in the world."
As of 12:32pm Friday Sept. 22 I have essentially completed a first draft of my book. I know there are several places that need to be filled out further, but it's just a matter of paragraphs here and there. More dauntingly, there's a huge amount of sculpting to do on what's a fairly shapeless mass right now. But a presentable manuscript is within sight, although still distant. I should be able to get it done by the end of the year at least, if I don't get lazy and/or distracted. Next week I'll post an excerpt.
I saw this goose about to take off and pointed the phone ahead of it and pressed the button several times. I didn't really expect to catch it but I guess I got lucky.
Sunday Night Journal, September 17, 2017
Yesterday I finally started working on a project that's years overdue: going through old notebooks and throwing away everything that doesn't seem worth keeping. The eventual goal of this is to get my office or study or whatever you want to call it into some kind of order, and to clean out one of the two desks there and turn it over to my wife.
(Wait--no, you can't call it whatever you want to. You are forbidden to call it a "man cave.")
The first notebook I took up was a little three-ring binder with roughly 5"x7" paper which I remember using in the late '70s. The contents reveal that it was not long after my conversion/reversion to Christianity, so it was 1978-79; not later than '79, because I remember the little house in Tuscaloosa where we lived at the time, and we moved later in that year. I was 29-30 years old, and an Episcopalian. It would be two or three years before I became Catholic. Here are some notes and excerpts from an essay I was writing:
The contradiction between Christianity and capitalism
The necessity for the Christian not to consider socialism or communism as the alternative to capitalism, but rather Christianity itself
Liberal-socialist and conservative-nationalist Christianity are both submission of the Church to the world.
...the ideas (if such notions can be dignified with that term) which govern the day-to-day behavior as well as the long-term aspirations of most of us are pagan through and through. What are these notions, and where do they come from? They are a wild mixture, having in common only the firm principle that one should be occupied mostly in pleasing oneself, and they come from almost everywhere, from liberal psychologists to conservative capitalists. The psychologist talks of fulfilling one's potential, the capitalist of economic incentives, but in both cases the message is that you have a right to whatever you can get, that the universe in some way owes you a continual increase of goodies. A Christian, I think, is bound to reply that we are owed nothing, that even our very existence puts us in the debt of Another, a debt we can never hope to repay, and that furthermore we continually increase that debt by our wickedness....
It is almost impossible to accumulate wealth without becoming more interested in wealth than anything else. This may apply to a nation as well as to an individual, and I think our own nation is an excellent example--as a nation, we are almost incapable of seeing life in other than economic terms--and when we do, we are often simply resorting to euphemisms, as in the phrase "quality of life," which was once used by social critics in reference to intangibles like the sense of community but which has increasingly come to refer to the number of gadgets and goodies a person or nation can afford to buy, or to the number of hours one has free for the pursuit of pleasure. And if one is devoting more [I guess I meant "most", or "too much"] of one's energy to maintaining and increasing one's wealth, one is disobeying Christ's commandment to love the Lord with all one's heart. We cannot serve two masters--it is as simple and as hopeless as that.
The essay was unfinished, and I don't think much of it is worth preserving. It's all fairly obvious stuff. But it brought home to me why I have to stifle a yawn whenever some Christian discovers, and tells us with great excitement, that American culture, especially in its economic aspects, is in many ways at odds with Christianity. This is often accompanied by the news that the Republican Party is not the Church, and that its program is not a program for advancing the kingdom of God, and may even at times be opposed to it.
This kind of thing usually comes from someone who has been pretty wrapped up in right-wing politics, at least to the extent of thinking that conservative politics is a necessary part of being Christian, and that right-wing policies, including a pretty uncritical support of "capitalism" (not a very well-defined term) are in general Christian ones, and the Republican Party is the vehicle for putting those policies into practice.
As the excerpts above show, I didn't believe that in 1978. I didn't come to believe it afterward, even as the battle lines of the culture war were drawn clearly and starkly. It was therefore never an idea that I needed to get past, as it was for Excited Christian above.
It happens that I am in fact a political conservative (for lack of a better word) and think that in the American context conservatism (for lack of a better word) is preferable to liberalism (for lack of a better word), and that conservatism is more congenial to Christianity than liberalism as both currently work. But I think I can say truthfully that never for a moment have I believed that any political program or party, that any conceivable political reform, was the path to the deep renewal of human life that we long for. It might be able to improve conditions and even ameliorate serious evils, but it could never turn us into good people. It might provide some of the conditions for happiness, but it could never make us happy. Even at the height of my investment in the counter-culture of the 1960s I never saw that revolution as primarily a political one, but rather as a sort of religious movement.
And so when somebody announces as if it were a new discovery that no political party can be conflated with the Church, I agree, but I wonder why they are bothering to say it. It's as if they've just discovered that circles don't have corners and want to tell everybody about it. I want to say "Well sure, obviously. But now what?"
The thing I miss, of course, is that a lot of people apparently do make the mistake that Excited Christian is trying to correct. It really does come as a shock to them that Republican orthodoxy and Christian orthodoxy are not only not the same thing but may be in contradiction. A good number of them, I suspect, are young people who have grown up amid the culture wars and have been hearing since childhood that Republicans Are Good and Democrats Are Bad, and now as adults are seeing things less simplistically, which probably became easier when so many Christians supported Trump so unreservedly. The past year certainly indicates that there are a lot more people who don't fully see the distinction between Republicanism and Christianity, or who are blinded to it by some kind of tribal loyalty, than I had realized.
The left tries to do the same sort of thing, the same sort of conflation of their program with Christianity, but they aren't as convincing, in part because if they are any sort of Christian at all they tend to be nominal or heterodox.
There was also this in my notebook:
How mistaken to associate virtue, wisdom, intelligence with what we ordinarily call the intellectual faculty or with aesthetic sensibility. I've known too many semi-literate people who were wise and gentle, too many literary persons who brought to their studies the philosophy and ethics of a mugger.
When I wrote this down I was probably thinking, among other things, of something that had happened at the clinic where I was working part-time as a programmer. (I know I've told this story here at least once, so please bear with me if you remember it.) My desk was in a trailer out back, and I often worked odd hours. Sometimes I was there when the two cleaning women came in. They were past-middle-age black women--I'm sure I would have called them "old" at the time, but now I'd guess they were probably in their late 50s, not young but not exactly elderly. Sometimes they would sit for a bit and we would chat. One night we were talking about the state of the world, which we agreed was declining. "Everything gettin' so high," one of them said, meaning prices--this was the period of high inflation. We listed other signs of trouble. One of them sighed and said "I reckon the Lord'll take care of us. He know we all crazy."
I think that is the single wisest thing I have ever heard anyone say in actual conversation, in my presence (as opposed to something I've read in a book). I suppose hardly a week has gone by since that night that I haven't thought of it. It sums up our situation pretty neatly.
This reminds me of another gem heard many years ago, from a black preacher I heard on the radio: "Folks is not yo' enemy. The devil is yo' enemy." I have heard some great stuff from black preachers on the radio, stuff I very much wish I could have recorded.
More nostalgia from that 1958 Life magazine.
My parents subscribed to Life. I learned a lot from it. I remember a long and horrifying but morbidly fascinating piece they did in the mid-196os about heroin addicts in New York. Oh my goodness, here it is, at least the photos. February 1965. I was a junior in high school. I remember some of those pictures. I never thought heroin addiction would come to little towns in Alabama.
Sunday Night Journal, September 10, 2017
I finally watched the John Huston film of Wise Blood that's been sitting on my DVR for many months now. I recommend it. I can find some faults with it--one significant one, which I'll get to in a minute--but overall it's excellent. Huston obviously respected the book and intended to be faithful to it, and succeeded very well. I doubt we could hope for a better film adaptation.
Most of the characters are very well cast, especially the all-important Hazel Motes. I had read that Harry Dean Stanton was in it and assumed he would be Motes, as he certainly looks the part, but he's Reverend Hawks, and it was obvious on first sight of him that he was already in 1979 somewhat too old for Haze. Haze is played by an actor whose name I didn't recognize, Brad Dourif, but on reading a bit about him I realized I had seen him in one memorable role: Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (a good movie which I never want to see again). Billy, if you recall, is a pretty messed up young mental patient; apparently Dourif has a gift for such roles. He doesn't really quite fit my physical image of Haze, but I can't hold that against him, and the important thing is that he manages to get Haze's intensity.
Some of the southern accents are a little shaky at times, but not so much as to interfere. The only major character that I felt was not well done was Enoch Emory, and it was perhaps a little miscast: Emery is not a nice person, and Dan Shor makes him seem more ordinary, harmless, and likeable than he really is.
One decision surprised me a little: instead of placing the story circa 1950, when the novel was written and seems to be set, Huston makes it contemporary--that is, in 1979. That could have been an economic decision, I guess. I thought at first that it might be a problem, but it really isn't. Possibly some of the devices that were appropriate in 1950 would not, in real life, have existed in quite the same way and with quite the same effects in the late '70s. I'm thinking of Gonga in particular, the supposed gorilla exhibited at movie theaters. One could assert plausibly that characters like Motes, Hawks, and several others would have been very different in 1979. But those concerns are pretty minor; I at any rate didn't find it difficult to accept them.
Now, about that one significant flaw: it's the very ill-advised music. Considering how well the director and the actors seemed to grasp the book at least in its psychology if not its theology, I don't know how it happened that a banjo-ridden sound track appropriate to one of those Burt Reynolds trucker movies got attached to this movie. "Tennessee Waltz" plays during the opening credits and off and on throughout, and it's not very appropriate. But the upbeat bluegrass stuff that bursts in from time to time is about as fitting as rap. The effect is really pretty jarring. No music at all would have been preferable. But it doesn't by any means ruin the film.
Not surprisingly, watching the film sent me straightaway to the book for comparison. It had probably been thirty years since I last read it, and although I retained powerful images of the big scenes, and a few details that happened to stick with me ("high rat-colored car," for instance), much of it had faded. Now I'm obliged to say that although the film is very good, it doesn't approach the power of the book. It's quite faithful to the narrative, on the whole, but is still much less than the book. It doesn't include everything in the narrative, but it keeps the essential story intact. What's missing is not so much people or incidents, but the narrative voice, which gives the book so much of its depth. No matter how well an actor does at creating on screen someone who looks and behaves like Haze Motes or Enoch Emery, he can't give us those explicit guides and glimpses into their inner lives which the narrator of the book does. He can't, for instance, by words and action alone communicate the weird and disturbing compulsion that drives Enoch Emory.
I put the book down feeling something close to awe. It is surely one of the strangest novels ever written. It's easy for people to get the impression that O'Connor is writing about people whom one might have encountered in real life anywhere in the South. And of course we have had our fanatical country preachers and so forth. But let me tell you: these folks would have been about as bizarre in the eyes of most Southerners of the time as they would be now. I'm really a little surprised that the novel was published, and that it was fairly well-received.
It may be that literary Catholics of our time have come to take O'Connor for granted. "Yeah, yeah, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, we know all about them, what else do you have?" Or maybe that's just me. At any rate, that's a mistake. Wise Blood is as strange and brilliant and shocking as it ever was. What strikes me above all is the way it scorches to ashes the spiritual evasions and pretensions of post-Christian modernity. The scene where Haze Motes and his nemesis Hoover Shoates engage in dueling sermons based on opposing errors does the job all by itself: the Church of Christ Without Christ vs. the "new Jesus" who wants everybody to be happy. But of course post-Christian modernity doesn't get the message, doesn't feel scorched at all, and still wants to follow one or the other, sans the hick trappings.
I remain a little puzzled, as I was when I first read the book, by Enoch Emery. I see him as driven by something much more primitive and dark than the philosophical and theological problems that plague Haze Motes. He seems to represent a third current, something worse than Haze's nihilism but maybe implicit in it: a desire to get rid of the burden of being human altogether, a drive toward death and/or animality. Whatever that force is--we can certainly speculate--it is very much alive among us now, even among very sophisticated and scientifically knowledgeable people.
I also remain a little unsatisfied by one element of the story. I thought, on first and second readings many years ago, that Haze's abrupt repentance is too abrupt, that we don't get sufficient insight into it. He's doing all right in his terms, heading for a new place in his rat-colored car, with no reservations of which we're aware, and then suddenly, deprived of the car, he's completely transformed, though we don't know it until he takes the next step. We can attribute the revelation to the destruction of the car and the consequent sense of helplessness and of being thrown back on his own inadequate resources--which is to say his feet--but we don't get the picture of the workings of his mind that was built up previously by his actions and by the narrator's descriptions of him. I don't know if that's a common reservation about the book or not. Maybe that's just me, too.
Netflix has the film on DVD, by the way. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention: I had recorded it from Turner Classic Movies, before we gave up most of our cable subscription. It was introduced by Ben Mankiewicz as a film "set in the American South, detailing the complexity of one man's return home from war." I think Flannery O'Connor would have enjoyed that.
Speaking of Catholic writers who write strange things: the Catholic Herald had an interesting piece about Alice Thomas Ellis a couple of weeks ago. She's someone who's been on my Read More Of list for a long time, since I read a couple of her books maybe twenty years ago, but I've never gotten back to her. The two I read were a novel, Fairy Tale, which though it has nothing else in common with Wise Blood is at least as weird, and Serpent on the Rock, a collection of essays. There's also a good essay about Ellis by Sally Thomas, published in First Things back in 2008.
And speaking of Sally Thomas, she has a very fine short story called "Not Less Than Everything" (T.S. Eliot, if you think the phrase sounds familiar but can't place it), in the Pentecost issue of Dappled Things. It's one of two stories in that issue which deal with--sorry to use the stock phrase--unplanned pregnancies. But don't let that give you the impression that they are in the least didactic. They aren't. They simply explore the situations, one from a male and one from a female point of view, and neither one simple or conventional. The second is by Abigail Rine Favale and is called "Obedience Lessons." To read them you'll need to buy the magazine, which you can do here. I subscribed a while back and though I don't like everything in the three issues I've received so far, I intend to renew my subscription.
A week or so ago I had occasion to look at a 1958 issue of Life magazine and was more fascinated by the advertisements than by the stories. My first car was a 1959 Chevrolet, similar to the one here but much duller: plain white, no chrome trim, blackwall tires, and I don't remember the rear of the roof having that snazzy overhang. I think of it as mine but it really wasn't. It was a joint investment on the part of my father and his brother for the purpose of their five high-school-age children getting from our home in the country to Athens High, fifteen or so miles away. But I often had the use of it on weekends. I don't think my father and uncle got such a good deal on it. I remember a few times when it barely chugged to the top of a not-very-steep hill. And it apparently had been shipped to Alabama from some dealer up north where they put salt on the roads in winter, because the floorboard in the back seat rusted through. I remember driving around town on Friday or Saturday night once and somebody putting a stick through the hole and dragging it along the pavement. It made a lot of noise, which we enjoyed.
Sunday Night Journal, September 3, 2017
When I was in high school and thinking about college, I thought of the admissions process as a test which I might or might not pass, a door whose default position was closed and which was only opened to those who met certain standards. The college, in my mind, was not offering to accept me; I was asking it for that privilege, and couldn't assume that it would be granted. In fact I probably could have assumed that about the school I ended up going to, the University of Alabama, since I had decent grades and good test scores, but I didn't know that, and there was at least some selectivity involved.
Years later when I went to work at a small Catholic liberal arts college, I was more than a little shocked to discover that the admissions office could just as well (and more accurately) have been called the sales office. The job of the people who worked there was to sell the college to potential students, and while it did and does have some standards and does not admit everyone who applies, the task of the admissions staff is not to weed out the less qualified and select the best, but to recruit anyone who might possibly be able to manage both the course work and the expense. They were salespeople, as you sensed immediately if you spent time among them. (That's not a put-down; in my experience people who are good at selling are generally likeable.) That was twenty-five years ago. The task was difficult then and is just as much so now.
I've read a good deal over the past decade or so, especially over the past five years, about the state of higher education. In many ways, as we all know, it's not very good. Among many other things, it has gotten insanely expensive, the cost far exceeding the general rate of inflation, and that's the topic of a lot of the commentary, which attempts to find causes and cures. But most of what I've read looks only at the big public universities, and possibly the bigger and more prestigious private ones. The situation of smaller and poorer institutions is very different.
One thing which drives the overall development, and which is perhaps the biggest and most obvious thing affecting small colleges, is that there are too many of institutions pursuing too few potential students. I'm not sure exactly how this happened. There was the post-World-War-II baby boom, of course, and the fewer number of children produced by them than by their parents. But these little colleges didn't spring into existence to serve the baby boom--they existed before it. How were they managing before? I don't know. But I came into that job after a decade in the computer industry, and although I don't claim any great business insight it soon became obvious to me that if higher education had been like other areas of business, it would have been long overdue for a shakeout: that is, for some significant number of the "companies" to fail because they were all selling very similar products and there simply weren't enough customers to support them all.
That didn't happen, and the biggest single reason for that is federal financial aid. But the "business"--and in some ways, much as academics might like to think otherwise, higher education is in certain fundamental ways a business, even if it isn't intended to make a profit--the business has in some ways changed a great deal in twenty-five years, and in ways that are generally not much to the liking of those who really care about liberal education as an end in itself.
Last week I ran across a piece by John Seery in Modern Age called "Somewhere Between A Jeremiad and a Eulogy" which comes closer than anything else I've read to an accurate description of the situation in small liberal arts colleges. If you're interested in the subject, I recommend reading it. However, it still doesn't quite get to the fundamental problem of schools like mine, because the writer is at a school with a lot of money in the bank as well as a good deal of prestige. He doesn't understand (or at least doesn't address) the situation of schools which don't have big endowments and thus are dependent year-to-year on tuition and donations to keep them afloat. One such, Marygrove College in Detroit, is essentially closing down, eliminating all its undergraduate programs. If you read the article at that link, you'll get a picture of the threat faced by every similar school; Marygrove has apparently hit a wall toward which many others have skidded fairly close but so far managed to avoid hitting. "Facing budget shortfalls and enrollment declines"--that prospect is all too familiar for similar colleges. And by the way note the names of the schools paragraph toward the end beginning "Other colleges....": a disproportionate number of small private liberal arts colleges are Catholic. (I suppose the early 20th-century improvement in both the numbers and the finances of Catholics in this country, combined with the desire to have specifically Catholic education, is part of my earlier question about how they came into existence pre-baby-boom.)
But the Modern Age piece misses a couple of things that perhaps apply to all institutions but are especially serious for small and relatively poor ones. One is the extent to which many of the changes which faculty deplore are driven by that market problem I mentioned (a "structural" problem, I think they call it). There are not enough qualified (financially and academically) students to go around. Therefore there is competition for them, and therefore every school is constantly looking for something to distinguish itself from other similar ones. For rich schools, the competition is for prestige. For lesser ones, it's for survival. This creates a sort of arms race for amenities.
My field is software and my job involves (I'm still working part-time) the systems that support the dull everyday administrative work of the school. When I started at my school, there was much talk among technologists of using ("leveraging"--I hate that term) technology to set one's school apart. I groaned. I thought that was a recipe for disaster, or at least trouble. What would happen, obviously, I thought, was that the schools with bigger budgets would introduce new technology-based services, and for a while that would give them a competitive advantage, but other schools would be forced to follow along in order to keep up, and for the poorer ones this would not be an advantage but a simple necessity for keeping the doors open. I specifically remember thinking and saying that some twenty years ago when schools began to provide free internet access for their students. This, I said, would do nothing for our school but raise the cost of operating the place, which is exactly what happened. Free internet, including campus-wide wireless coverage, is now considered as much a necessity as electricity--and the school gets just the same appreciation and advantage for providing it.
Seery complains about the escalating cost of software. This is a a fact, and I sympathize. Technology is expensive and it plays a significant role in the rise of tuition. But it is more and more pervasive mainly because people want it, both students and faculty. Some faculty are clueless and frankly a bit bratty about technology: they want it, but they don't want to recognize the expense involved. I've been in more than one meeting where a faculty member has sneered at the school's IT staff because Other School has this or that cool new technology and we don't, unaware of and uninterested in the fact that Other School has three times the staff and four times the budget. In extreme cases the complaint is comparable to griping that the maintenance department is not building new buildings.
The question of whether all this technology should even be provided is moot at most schools. Some people might argue that it is only a distraction and a drain, and I'd be inclined to agree about a lot of it. But it is not being forced upon people by the IT department--at least not at my school, where IT staff are just desperately trying to keep their heads above water.
A substantial part of Seery's complaint is the expansion of the school's administration. This is certainly a valid complaint. He is dubious that the explanations that point to federal regulations and the demands of accrediting agencies are sufficient. Well, they may not be sufficient, but they are certainly significant. I mentioned earlier that many institutions would have to shut their doors without federal financial aid (mostly loans). That happens to touch on the, um, dare I say, intersection of technology and administrative demands. As it happens my college uses the same administrative software that Seery's college does (unless they have recently changed). I'm very familiar with that software. The financial aid module is definitely the most complex piece of the system. And worse, it changes constantly, requiring attention in various ways from both IT and financial aid staff. And that change is driven by the decisions and policies of the Department of Education, and the college has no more choice about keeping up with those change than it does about paying the utility bill.
Accreditation, I think, is driven by some of the same forces as technology. Bigger and richer schools establish "best practices." Smaller and poorer ones have to keep up because they have to stay accredited. They would not be eligible for federal programs if they were not, so withdrawal of accreditation would be a death sentence for most schools. (I believe Hillsdale College is one of the very few, if not the only, schools able to prosper outside this system. It would be interesting to know how they do it but it must involve a large endowment.)
Is it any wonder that in the midst of all this the role of faculty is diminished? I deplore that, but I think faculty often fail to comprehend the forces that are driving the change.
There's one thing in the Seery piece I'd like to emphasize, as I suspect it's not know outside of academia. He denies that faculty are, in general, the main drivers of campus leftism:
If you look closely, the most unabashed forms of politically correct scripting on campus—the hunt to root out microaggressions and supposedly traumatizing speech—originate from the bloated administrative wing of campus, often from the Dean of Students Office(s). The people ventriloquizing students, through relentless sensitivity campaigns, about safe spaces, hate speech, structural oppression, and diversity imperatives are the deans and deanlets of residential life (as one of my colleagues puts it, the “Residential Life Industrial Complex”).
I think this is more or less true on most campuses. It was only in the past five or ten years that this began to sink in on me: that the administrative arm which is responsible for overseeing all the non-academic aspects of campus life has a decided impulse toward left-wing proselytizing. I'm on the administrative, not the academic, side of the house, and have very little involvement or contact with academics. But my impression of the faculty at my school is that, though they may be pretty uniformly liberal-progressive in their views, they are also intellectually serious and honest, and are not the single-minded ideologues from whom we hear occasionally, and who seem to be mostly in those dubious specialties that are more less left-wing-activist by definition.
The growth of the whole student life sector is also related to the amenities arms race. As is the need for constructing elaborate recreational centers. As is the need to have a coffee shop in the library. And let's not leave out the effects of general cultural decline and stress which have helped to produce more students with bigger problems than was the case a generation ago, and the corresponding growth in various forms of support and therapy for them. And that reminds me of the lawyers: fear of lawsuits probably also generates defensive measures that require administrative overhead.
Both students and parents expect as a matter of course services and facilities that would have been considered luxurious and unnecessary even twenty years ago, to say nothing of forty or fifty. In short you could probably account for a substantial portion of the rise in college costs if you could figure out a way to measure the impact of the arms race, the constant push for schools to keep up or at least not fall too far behind in the competition for making themselves attractive to students.
If this sounds like students (and parents) are in the position of being picky and demanding customers in a buyer's market, they are. I've heard many times a student complaint that begins with "I'm paying $N,000 every year to go to school here, and I expect..." And this mentality, I hear, gets into the classroom as well, and probably has an effect on grade inflation.
Well, I'm running out of time, so I'll stop there, though I could run on at length. As an academic manqué, and a firm believer in the ideals of liberal education, as well as an employee at an IHED (institution of higher education), this is a subject of great import to me. I had several other things I'd meant to discuss but they can wait till next week.
I went out to bring in the garbage can one morning last week and looked up and saw this. I think I looked up because I had walked into a spider web and couldn't figure out what it was doing in the middle of the driveway. It made me think of Mirkwood. It's at least fifteen feet from one of the two trees to which the web was attached to the other.
Sunday Night Journal, August 27, 2017
The Sunday Night Journal is now a bit different from its earlier version, the one that appeared for most of the years from 2004 through 2012. Many of those earlier ones (not all by any means) were worked on for much of the week before they appeared. Not necessarily written, but much thought about, and perhaps written in a partial and/or rough draft. By Sunday I generally knew pretty much exactly what I was going to say, and put a good bit of effort into the attempt to say it well.
That's no longer the case, as regular readers (all two dozen of you) may remember: when I decided to revive the journal this year I meant for it to be a more casual thing, in great part an outlet for my unstompable urge to comment on this or that thing that has nothing directly to do with the book project that's getting whatever attention I can manage for writing during the week. I actually do sit down Sunday afternoon or evening with no more than a mental list of one or two or three or four things I want to mention. And so much of what comes out is more or less off the top of my head. I may just be thinking out loud.
Such was the case last week, when I wrote what amounted to a prolonged grumble about various parties who have been trying to bully everyone who is remotely associated with the political right into denouncing Nazis and Klansmen. I really had only intended to write a paragraph or so, but I kept banging on. I am naturally, and no doubt too cynically, a little suspicious of public expressions of deep emotion about events that the expresser is not personally involved in, and much more so about the species of it for which the useful phrase"virtue signaling" has been coined. I think there's been a whole lot of virtue signaling going on. And the demand had pushed my contrariness button.
Anyway: that's all by way of saying that there's a provisional quality about what I write here now, and I may have second thoughts, which I may or may not voice later on. Last week someone privately brought up a more substantial reason--more substantial than virtue signaling--for making the denunciation loud and clear. Among other things, this person pointed out that Trump's presidency has from the beginning had the potential to destroy the conservative movement, and that this has been the reason why so many principled and thoughtful conservatives appropriated the label NeverTrump for themselves (yes, that's supposed to have a Twitter "hashtag" but I refuse to cooperate, as Twitter seems to be an important vehicle for fulfilling the worst possibilities of the Internet).
I more or less agreed with their basic position although I never claimed the label (like I said, I'm contrary). But the reason was more straightforward: I couldn't see Trump as a competent president. I really didn't give a whole lot of thought to the farther-reaching implications and possibilities.
From the period in the late '70s and early '80s when I began the process of admitting that I was in fact some sort of conservative, I've tended to keep the movement at arm's length. That was mainly because I always had significant disagreements with it and am anyway not much of a movement-joiner. Worse, the vehicle for the expression of more-or-less-conservative ideas in practical politics was and is the Republican Party, and a pretty poor vehicle it is. I've more than once said that I don't care at all about the fortunes of the Republican Party, and I haven't really changed my mind. But more than one person on both sides of the Democrat-Republican divide have speculated that Trump's ascendancy could destroy the Republican party.
A lot of Trump's supporters would say that would be a good thing. But that would depend entirely on what replaced it. Being a pessimist, I am always ready to point out the folly of thinking that things can't get worse. What might replace the Republican Party? Trumpism? Well, what is that? I honestly don't know. I've mocked those who call him a fascist, because fascism is an ideology, and if there is anything that Trump is not, it's an ideologue. If he can be compared to any dictatorial type, it's to what we used to call tin-pot dictators: the ones who have tended to rise to the top in some countries where the balance between authoritarianism and anarchy is difficult to find. These men are typically motivated mainly by wealth and power, not the desire to impose an abstract system, which is the essence of both fascism and communism.
At any rate I have never seen any evidence that Trump is a conservative in any meaningful sense of the word. I've often made a distinction between "conservative" and "right-wing," and I think it applies to him. He may (or may not, depending on his mood) be right-wing, but he's not conservative. That doesn't mean that he won't do things that conservatives applaud, and if he gets to nominate one more conservative Supreme Court justice his presidency could turn out to be more good than bad for conservatism. But because he is more or less on the right, his association with nasty forces could produce such animosity that it would cripple anything resembling conservatism as a political force. (I started to say "taint", but that's not strong enough; liberals have believed that conservatives are racist fascist etc for fifty years and nothing is going to change that.)
A lot of conservative Christians, mainly evangelicals but a fair number of Catholics as well, see Trump as a sort of warrior who will stop and maybe turn back the revolution of militant secular progressivism that seems determined to force Christians into a choice between capitulating to anti-Christian doctrine (error has no rights!) or being expelled from legitimate society. But any victories for Christians in this situation could well turn out to be Pyrrhic.
Seems to me there are two possible outcomes. One: Trump and Trumpism turn out to be flukes, and after one term (or perhaps an uncompleted term), national politics returns to the old Democrats-vs.-Republicans pattern more or less as if nothing had happened. Two: Trumpism splits the right, broadly construed, into the factions that I've called conservative and right-wing, with conservatism a minority. It's not far-fetched to imagine that progressivism would be both the cultural and political beneficiary of that.
And why should we care? What does it matter whether conservatism is conserved? The whole question of what conservatism can mean in a fundamentally liberal order has also bothered me from the beginning, and of course conservative thinkers have chewed away on it for a long time. The question of what is left to preserve seems more challenging every year. Still: the liberal order had Christian roots and respected Christian belief and institutions, and it produced a pretty decent society, all the obvious evils notwithstanding. What is likely to replace it is the intolerant and totalizing progressive religion that is currently flourishing all over the place.
There was a striking comment on one of Rod Dreher's posts a few days ago. As I write this I don't have the link handy but will try to find it and post it in a comment. The topic was, well, all this stuff. As you know I find Dreher's high level of agitation a bit much and don't read him that often, but have been doing so recently, and he has been saying some useful and interesting (if sometimes overwrought) things about the current controversies. Anyway, this commenter observed that some Christians see Trump as a Constantine figure, one who will (re-)establish Christian faith as the dominant political force in the U.S. (Impossible by that means, I think.) But he suggested that they might have it wrong: perhaps the actual Constantine was Obama, and Trump is Julian the Apostate.
A whole lot of pixels over the past week or two have been generated by arguments over whether the fascists or the anti-fascists are worse. It seems a moot point to me. What strikes me as more important, and more worrisome, is the thought of two very nasty factions battling in our streets. That, more than Trump himself, seems to me to conjure 1920s Germany.
The evil of the "fascists" is obvious. (I put the word in quotes because I have the impression that they haven't fully adopted (or maybe even understood) the ideology, but are acting out some bit of theater.) I hear people saying that it's more important to condemn them than to condemn their violent opponents. I don't know about that. I know that the only two people I've ever heard explicitly state their intention to kill their political enemies were on the left. One was a young man who had been part of the protests in Seattle in 1999. This was at my parents' house at Christmas, probably of the same year. He was an in-law of an in-law who was only there the one time, and I don't remember his name. He sat across from me in a comfortable chair and calmly spoke of the necessity for the revolution to kill all the Christians. I didn't take him all that seriously, but still, it was disturbing.
The other is a guy whose bloodthirsty hopes I've seen on Facebook via his comments on other people's posts. I don't know how seriously to take him, either. But on my personal scorecard of threats, that's anti-fascists 2, fascists 0.
Oh yeah, and there was the guy I knew in the '60s, whose ex-wife I discovered lived down the street from us in the 1980s. I asked about him and she said he had gone far into hard leftism (she herself was still an unreconstructed hippie), and that the last time she'd seen him he'd been talking about the necessity of killing not only the bourgeoisie, but their children, so that there wouldn't be anyone left to seek vengeance.
At any rate I don't see why we should have to declare ourselves less unfavorably disposed toward the one than the other.
Changing the subject (at last!): I noticed a week or two ago that there are new episodes of the British mystery series Hinterland on Netflix. I liked the previous episodes pretty well, though not as much as some similar productions. I like this series better than the others. I'm not altogether sure why. Partly it was the plot (or plots--there are per-episode stories and a continuing one). Also, it seems to me that the cinematography is exceptional. And the sound track, a subdued minimalist combination of piano and electronica, is very good.
Fans of the previous series will be relieved to know that the red parka is still there.
There are also new episodes of Shetland. I don't know how long they'd been there. Here, again, I liked this series even better than the earlier ones.
And there is a new series of Endeavour in progress. Which I also think is better. Maybe I just always think the most recent one is the best. But no, that's not true. I could give instances that went the other way. House of Cards, for one.
[A Monday morning addendum: I had only seen the first episode of Endeavour when I wrote the paragraph above. Later last night I watched the second one. It was fairly terrible. Aside from the fact that it featured a walking cliche of a nasty Christian as a major character, seeing to it that she was humiliated even though she really didn't have that much to do with the main plot, the main plot was a mess that almost became nonsensical. The only thing good about it was a pretty good portrayal of a rock band of the time (ca. 1967), though even there I think it got some things wrong: an English rock band in the late '60s afraid of taking LSD?]
Sunday Night Journal, August 20, 2017
After the disturbance and the murder in Charlottesville, I saw more than one demand that anyone who considers himself a conservative or in any way on the political right make a public denunciation of the Klan, the Nazis, and all others of their ilk. I have not done this, although I do detest their views and was shocked by the murder. There is something in me that resists making such public announcements, and I've been asking myself what it is. It would cost me nothing, really, so why not do it?I think my reluctance has two components.
The first, and strongest, is that it is a bullying accusation, saying, in effect, "You resemble certain people whom I consider to be monsters, and so I suspect that you may be a monster, too. I'm generously giving you an opportunity to prove to me that you are not." (Not very generously at all, actually, because the demand tends to come from those who already consider conservatism to be next door to fascism. I know someone who seems to believe very sincerely that the Republican Party is the political arm of the Ku Klux Klan.) The demand for a public statement of correct opinion is not made of those who are not already suspect. It's a variant on the ancient rhetorical trap of the loaded question: when did you stop beating your wife? Most people who recognize the game refuse to play it. I do.
Not very long ago at all a progressive activist took a rifle and a pistol and plenty of ammunition to a softball field where a group of Republicans were practicing for a game. It seems that he would have killed them all if he had not been himself killed by police. As it was, he only managed to injure gravely one congressman, and give a police woman, Crystal Granger, an ankle wound. It didn't occur to me to demand that my friends or anyone else on the left prove their good faith by formally denouncing the shooting. I assumed that at the very least they did not approve of it, even though this fellow apparently is generally of the same mind as they on politics, which is not the case with me and the Charlottesville demonstrators. Probably I could with a few minutes' searching turn up some leftists who did approve, but I would not take those as evidence that all did.
I expect the same courtesy to be extended to me. And if that's naive, there's not much point in my trying to demonstrate my good faith; it's already presumed bad, and the burden on me to prove otherwise, and what argument will succeed in that? I deny that my political views bear any resemblance at all to those of Nazis and Klansmen, and do not deign even to argue the point because arguing with a loaded question is a losing game, and meant to be.
But there's another and more fundamental reason that I tend not to make public statements of grief or outrage about events like the Charlotte mess. This is mainly a matter of personal temperament, but I generally find such statements a little unconvincing when made by other people, and in making one would feel whatever I said to be unconvincing. The reason is that any words I might come up with would be so vastly inadequate to the thing. What, for instance, can I say to what happened a few days ago in Barcelona, which as of right now has killed fourteen times as many people as the Charlottesville attack? To write a few words expressing shock and horror, perhaps to add, on Facebook, a few emojis signifying weeping and/or prayers, would feel absurd, almost offensive in its triviality as compared to the horror.
I don't mean to mock or belittle anyone who is in the habit of making such statements. If you do, I assume that you are expressing what you actually feel, and that you are not merely engaging in pro forma gestures. But it feels that way to me when I do it. And so I generally don't. If that makes me seem indifferent or callous, I regret it, but don't intend to do differently. Person to person, in the face of someone's grief, I'll say words that I know are inadequate, because I know that as a rule in those situations any gesture of sympathy is worth something; it is truly the gesture that matters. But publicly, in a matter that has nothing directly to do with me, and addressed to the world at large rather than to those who are actually suffering, it feels insincere. It feels like cant.
Samuel Johnson's "Clear your mind of cant" was said in a somewhat different context, but it's relevant:
BOSWELL: “Perhaps, sir, I should be the less happy for being in Parliament. I never would sell my vote, and I should be vexed if things went wrong.”—JOHNSON: “That’s cant, sir. It would not vex you more in the House than in the gallery: public affairs vex no man.”—BOSWELL: “Have not they vexed yourself a little, sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, ‘That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’?”—JOHNSON: “Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor ate an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dog on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.”—BOSWELL: “Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less.”—JOHNSON: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are bad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care sixpence whether he is wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”
(I copied and pasted that directly from Bartleby.com.) As often with Johnson, you have to remember that he delighted in verbal combat, and not take everything he says as the last word on the subject. I believe we all these days sometimes experience real anxiety caused by the times, and may in fact sleep less, or eat less. But for the most part it is our private joys and sorrows that really affect us, for better and for worse. As Johnson also said:
How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.
In Barcelona, a heartening rejection of Islamophobia : that's a Washington Post headline. It's a pretty disheartening contrast to the wild cries of "This is Trump's America!" that have been the progressive reaction to Charlottesville. Guilt by association is forbidden where Islam is concerned, but required toward Trump-supporting Americans.
Something else that I've seen more than once since the election: anti-Trumpers declaring their intention to cut Trump supporters entirely out of their lives. This really rather shocks me. Political differences, and even more so religious differences, can certainly, and in fact have, come between me and people I know, to the point that we don't much enjoy each other's company, and so have little to do with each other. But it's certainly not, on my side and I hope not on theirs, a deliberate act of rejection or excommunication, just a sad consequence of having too little in common to sustain the relationship. But to those for whom politics has taken the place of religion, Trump is a blasphemy, a sacrilege, the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not. I suppose the effect is especially brutal since he succeeds a man who was a sort of saint to them, the philosopher-king Barack the Good.
I was at a gathering of my wife's family on Friday night. There were twenty or thirty people there, and I never heard a single word about politics. I know there was at least one avid Trump supporter there, and at least a couple who oppose him, though maybe not passionately. I think this is more typical of Americans as a whole than the obsession with politics that results in the sort of animosity I described.
Yesterday afternoon I was browsing the news and, naturally, found myself thinking "How can people be so stupid?" Then I went outside and mowed the lawn in flip-flops.
I don't understand the coloring of this picture. It's the late afternoon sun a few weeks ago, but where are the colors? It does have some hints of color, so I didn't just change it to black-and-white. I use the now-obsolete photo editing tool Picasa to fiddle around with pictures, but it saves a history all modifications, and there's no record of any change to this one. Some quirk of the no doubt overwhelmed iPhone camera, I guess.
Sunday Night Journal, August 13, 2017
Some time back, maybe two years or so, I saw a "meme" on Facebook which contrasted the educational backgrounds of left-wing and right-wing TV-radio controversialists, much to the disadvantage of the right-wingers, at least in the eyes of whoever constructed the "meme." (I'm sorry, I cannot resign myself to the unqualified acceptance of that silly term.) For the left, it was people like Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, who have degrees from prestigious schools (the only one I remember now was William and Mary). For the right, it was people like Rush Limbaugh, who have little or no education past high school. (This required some cherry-picking, excluding, for instance, George Will, Ph.D, Princeton, but then he is more a print than a television presence. If the comparison were made entirely within the realm of print, conservatives would certainly hold their own, though they would be outnumbered.)
I reposted the "meme" with some sort of derisive comment about people who place excessive value on educational credentials. I don't remember exactly what I said, and although it's presumably still available on Facebook it would take a while to find it. In any case I apparently did not express my meaning very clearly, because I immediately got several responses from people making remarks along the lines of "If you needed a lawyer, wouldn't you want one who went to a good law school?" and, if I remember correctly, at least suggesting that I might be anti-intellectual.
The episode distressed me, because I hate being misconstrued. I don't mind disagreement at all, but I want the disagreement to be about what I said--or, if I said it badly, what I meant to say--not about something I did not intend to say. (The most unpleasant interchange I've ever had on Facebook involved someone misinterpreting my assertion that white people cannot fix what is wrong in poor black communities as meaning that the condition of those communities is unrelated to white racism. Or something like that. Not sure it ever got cleared up.)
In the remark about education I meant to be saying two things: first, that formal education in itself is hardly a requirement for engaging in combat journalism on television and radio, which is essentially a branch of the entertainment industry. Any reasonably intelligent person can gather up rocks to throw at his political enemies. But very few can mount their attacks convincingly and entertainingly on television or radio. That takes a good deal of natural talent and no doubt a good deal of practice. It's not a skill I much admire, but it is both rare and lucrative, and those few people who do it really well make a great deal of money.
It does not, however, require any specific type of formal education, or very much of it. Nor does it make much use of the breadth and depth of mind which are supposed to be acquired through higher education. Excessive care for the disinterested pursuit of truth would in fact be a handicap for it.
Second, I meant that in general to make formal education a primary indicator of the respect due to the person is a serious mistake. I meant that first in relation to wisdom and virtue; I have known a great many educated and uneducated people and have never seen any indication that either is generally superior to the other in those qualities. Moreover, in our time (maybe in all times) there are special forms of foolishness that are far more likely to be found in those who have had a great deal of schooling, and therefore are pervasive today in our educated class. Much of it falls broadly under the condemnation of the adage: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you do know that ain't so." (See this for attribution of the remark.)
I meant it in more down-to-earth terms as well. Many occupations--law, medicine, plumbing--require specialized "KSAs", as personnel managers call them: Knowledge, Skills, and Ability. In some cases the K and S are best acquired through formal training. But in the end it is the A that matters most, and in many occupations a combination of natural aptitude and hands-on work in the field can be as likely as formal training to impart it. I would think performing on television and radio would be among those.
Why is this old conversation on my mind? It was a train of thought that began with this, a "tweet" (another term I can't bring myself to use as if it were a real word except in the context of birdsong):
Difference between Nazi and Communist is when you say how horrible Nazis have been, they don’t say “Well, real Nazism has never been tried.”
I saw it at Neo-neocon's blog, and thought it was pretty funny. Reading the comments, I came across a reference to the Nazi's "Einsatzgruppen." Consulting Wikipedia, I learned that these were essentially death squads charged with carrying out massacres of certain categories of civilians considered to be enemies of the Reich. And I found this:
Many Einsatzgruppe leaders were highly educated; for example, nine of seventeen leaders of Einsatzgruppe A held doctorate degrees. Three Einsatzgruppen were commanded by holders of doctorates, one of whom (SS-Gruppenführer Otto Rasch) held a double doctorate.
Franz Jägerstätter, on the other hand, was a farmer with "little formal education."
Maybe technology has too much of a hold on me. No, not "maybe", "definitely." A little earlier today I was looking for a magazine that I have mislaid. I found myself thinking for an instant that I could just call it on my phone, as many of us have done using someone else's phone to locate ours.
Regarding the incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend: haven't I been saying that many in this country have been sowing the wind, and can expect to reap the whirlwind?
Although it's only mid-August, summer is in a sense over for me. As I've mentioned before, two of my grandsons, ages five and seven, have been spending three or four days a week with us, and since it's now my wife who goes out to work every day, and I who stay at home, more than half of that time is spent with me. But school starts tomorrow, and Friday was their last day here. It's bittersweet. I've gotten almost no work done on my book, and I want to get back to it, and for that matter I've done little work of any kind at all that wasn't directly related to caring for them. But it's been good in many ways. We settled into a comfortable routine and I think it has not been an unpleasant experience for them.
One thing we've done every day unless the weather prevents us is spend a while splashing around in the bay. Happily, Friday morning was sunny and almost windless. After they'd gotten tired of playing in the water, I suggested that we walk up to the public beach and park, a quarter-mile or so away, just for a change. There are ponds there with ducks and geese and we hadn't taken that walk for a while. Depending on the water level, it can involve a lot of clambering over fallen trees or wading around stumps.
A few days before we had been playing with a tennis ball that had washed up on shore (they float and are fun to throw around in the water). But we'd forgotten to take it back to the house with us, and apparently it had washed back out with the tide. We had not gotten very far toward the park, just a few hundred feet, when they found what appeared to be the same bright green tennis ball. The boys were a bit ahead of me, as usual, and Lucas, the five-year-old, ran back and gave me the ball, in that funny way that children have: "Here"--and they hand you the pizza crust or the apple core that they don't want, or the ball that they do want but do not want to bother with at this moment.
Well, I wanted to have my hands free to deal with obstacles, and a tennis ball is too big for the pockets of the old cut-off pants I was wearing. So I said I would walk back to "our" beach and put it with our things--the bag containing towels and sun-screen and fruit juice and pretzels. "Okay," said Lucas, and he started to go and catch up with his brother. But then he stopped, apparently a little uneasy about going too far without me, hesitated for a moment, and said "But you'll be right behind us, right?"
"Yes, I will."
Yes, God willing, now and always.
Sunday Night Journal, August 6, 2017
I've been out of town for a week and only got home late today, so this will be hasty, just a few notes on things I've read here and there over the past couple of weeks.
I've managed to avoid reading most of the reaction to that weird "ecumenism of hate" piece by Fr. Antonio Spadaro and Marcelo Figueroa. But I did see a rather telling remark from him reacting to the reaction:
The reaction of the "haters" seems a clear sign that our article is telling the truth about the "ecumenism of hate".
That strikes me, first, as astonishingly juvenile, and, secondly, pretty much of a piece with the original article in its clarity of thought. If someone accuses Fr. Spadaro of being a bad priest, and he reacts angrily, does that prove the accusation? I read somewhere that he has written about Flannery O'Connor. I wonder what he said. I suppose he may have gotten the theology right but it's hard to believe that he understood the culture. Did he take Francis Tarwater to be a typical evangelical?
One reaction that I did read was from Matthew Schmitz in The Catholic Herald, and he says something that struck me as possibly being the key not only to this little teapot-tempest but to an important aspect of what Pope Francis is doing and hopes to achieve. These two remarks, distant from each other in the article, are the nub of it:
[The article] is an attempt to defend the liberal order against what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an existential threat.
Pope Francis and his advisers believe the Church must defend the system of open borders and celebratory diversity exemplified by liberal Europe.
You need to read the whole piece--it's not very long--to establish the context and flesh out what Schmitz means. It is at least in part a conjecture about a new Catholic order. Since sometime in the 19th century (at least), the Vatican and the Church at large have been trying to figure out what the place of the Church in the modern world can and should be. In a nutshell (if I'm not misreading him), Schmitz proposes that Francis and his allies are attempting to establish a relationship between the Church and the secular liberal state similar to the one it once had with the old order in Europe. It's a fascinating thesis, and if true would explain a lot.
I just skimmed the original piece again. What a dog's breakfast it is. It's not completely wrong, nor its concerns unwarranted, by any means. It's just a mess.
It's not all that often that I read George Will. I saw a link to this piece somewhere and followed the link purely because the title was intriguing: "Trump Is Something the Nation Did Not Know It Needed."
Furthermore, today’s president is doing invaluable damage to Americans’ infantilizing assumption that the presidency magically envelops its occupant with a nimbus of seriousness....
Fastidious people who worry that the president’s West Virginia and Ohio performances — the alpha male as crybaby — diminished the presidency are missing the point, which is: For now, worse is better. Diminution drains this office of the sacerdotal pomposities that have encrusted it.
We very badly need to rein in the power, pomp, and circumstance of the presidency. He is not a king (nor will she be a queen, when that finally happens). Part of the reason that our factions consider it a matter of life and death to get one of their own in the office is the unconscious belief that he is. I often think that some form of monarchy really is most natural to mankind. Many Americans seem to want to revert to it.
In a comment on a recent album of the week, Don linked to NPR's list of The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women. It's an interesting list, if you find that sort of thing interesting, though it seemed to me that in a few cases "made by women" was a bit of a stretch (Fleetwood Mac?). But as I was reading along I was astonished to find the assertion that in 1992 Tori Amos was writing about "typically taboo topics including but not limited to sex, religion and sexism. " What?!? How can anyone seriously assert that in 1992 any of those topics were "taboo"? I guess some people still get a thrill out of thinking that there's something courageous about saying things that might have been shocking in 1960 but have long since ceased to be so. It's a pretty cheap thrill, though.
Slightly related: in The Atlantic, James Parker has an account of visiting a San Francisco museum exhibit called "The Summer of Love Experience." He notes a striking omission:
...Where are the drugs? Their symptoms and sequelae are everywhere, of course, splattered wall-to-wall and chiming from the overhead speakers. But where, in this “Summer of Love Experience,” is LSD itself? Because—not to be too drearily materialistic about it—without that, none of this. Without the willing deliverance of an entire generation to artificially induced mental blowout, to swiftly sacramentalized psychic disruption/expansion, no Jefferson Airplane posters. Indeed, no Jefferson Airplane. A 50-year retrospective might have been a good moment to confront this a little more squarely: The pop culture of the ’60s, with all its ideological ramifications and projections, was a by-product of the drugs.
I don't think that last sentence is quite accurate. Some sort of culturally revolutionary youth movement would have happened without the drugs. I'd put it this way: the movement as it actually happened was inseparable from the drugs.
The view from behind a rest stop somewhere on Interstate 81 in central or western Virginia. I could stand to live among those big rolling hills and their vast green fields and pastures.
I could stand to live in a great many places that I've visited, actually, and probably a great many that I haven't. What a great variety of rich beauty the world offers us!
Sunday Night Journal, July 30, 2017
I am beginning to accept the fact that there are simply too many books for me to read and too many recordings for me to hear in the amount of time I have left to live, even stretching my potential longevity as far as it can be stretched. I'm finding this surprisingly difficult. It was always true, and would have been true even if I had continued to pursue both at something like the rate I was doing it before I devoted the better part of forty years to job and family. But I had in the back of my mind that when I retired I would finally be able to do all the writing and reading and listening that I'd been putting off.
Well, even apart from the fact that I'm only about two-thirds retired, it isn't working out that way. Life still makes a number of demands that I hadn't really considered. I don't mean to sound whiny, because I am thankful every day that I don't have to go off to a job that will, including the commute, occupy at least ten hours of the day. Still, a reckoning with reality must be made, priorities must be set.
I'm saying all this as preface to an admission. I have just done something which as far as I can remember I have never done before, and of which I am somewhat ashamed. I have chosen to skim a book that I chose to read. I suppose I have skimmed a book before--my freshman biology textbook in college, for instance, when I was desperately trying to absorb enough information to avoid failing a final exam. But I don't think I've ever done it with what I am tempted to call a real book, and one that I wanted to read. Now I have.
The book is William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale. As anyone who's ever been anywhere near the conservative movement knows, this was Buckley's first book, written when he was a recent graduate of Yale. I've always had the impression that it's considered a conservative classic. It's been sitting on my shelf for some years, and I decided to check it off my list.
It's a disappointment. If it were not by the man whose initials all conservatives and many liberals recognize, it would probably have been mostly forgotten, and of mainly historical interest. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the book is more specifically about Yale at that moment (the late 1940s) than I anticipated. It's a case study of the state of instruction on religion and economics at Yale--or rather, I should say, the process of secularization and liberalization (in the political sense) at Yale, because that's what Buckley is describing. As such, much of it is far too detailed to be of much interest to me. It includes a discussion of specific instructors, textbooks, events, speeches, and controversies which I would think only a historian or very dedicated Yale alumnus would care about. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone not specifically interested in Buckley or Yale or both.
That said, I am struck by how familiar Buckley's complaints sound. The process by which we arrived at the almost complete domination of leftist thought in the academy was well advanced by 1950. Buckley chastises Yale for pretending to be engaged in a disinterested search for truth but actually having an orthodoxy favoring secularism and statism. By our standards it was relatively conservative, giving lip service to Christianity and opposing communism. Buckley wanted Yale to dispense with the pose of neutrality and to openly favor what I will very loosely call Americanism (not that he puts it that way). Well, he certainly got part of that wish: the pose of neutrality is not fooling much of anyone these days. I wonder if even those who preach it belligerently on their own behalf really believe it. When cant words like "diversity" are part of the mission statement, and institutions insist fervently on their dedication to them, everyone knows what is meant. And every day brings us a new story of some notable incident involving the enforcement of this orthodoxy.
I will say of God and Man at Yale that it is well-written and well-argued, and in general pretty impressive for a 25-year-old. But it's a period piece now.
I referred back there at the start of this little piece to reading and listening. I used two different words for two different things. It might have been handy to have one word. But not at the cost of resorting to a construct I see often, sometimes used by people who I think should know better. I mean the word "consuming," as in "consuming art" in reference to multiple arts. How can anyone write or read that without a shudder? It makes me think of this character, the vacuum monster, from Yellow Submarine, which I had not thought of since I saw the movie ca. 1970.
When I think of something being consumed, I think of it being gone, chewed up and swallowed or otherwise used up. Years ago I read some technology writer predicting the ways--the devices and the media--by which we would "consume infotainment." The phrase comes close to physically nauseating me.
Last week, writing about the film Mother and Child, I meant to mention Annette Benning's performance as Karen, which was one of the best of several excellent performances in the film. And it made me think about acting in general. For much of my life I really didn't have a great deal of regard for the art of acting, for the gifts required to do it well. I just took it for granted that some people had a knack for pretending to be other people, or for creating an appealing screen persona (e.g. John Wayne), and in fact for pretending in general.
I just spent an hour looking for a remark, which I was sure was by Samuel Johnson, which disparages acting. What I recall is that he said it needed only "great plasticity of features" and...something else...I can't remember what.
Well, if Johnson said that, I don't know where. I must have read it somewhere, because I don't think I would have invented that phrase. I've searched an online version of Boswell's Life without finding it, and done a number of Google searches for the phrase and variations of it, with no luck. At the moment I'm suspecting that it wasn't Johnson who said it, but someone else of roughly the same period, and that I read it in The Oxford Book of Literary Quotations. But if so it'll take me a while to find it.
Anyway: when I first read it, I knew, of course, that it was hyperbole, but came close enough to agreeing that I thought it was pretty sharp. At at some point, maybe fifteen or so years ago, I began to appreciate just how difficult good acting must be. The thought crossed my mind during several scenes in Mother and Child when the camera is on Karen's face: for instance, the moment when she is combing her mother's hair and chatting about her day at work. She mentions that a new guy has started there, and that he seems nice.
"Karen, don't get your hopes up," is her mother's response. Karen says nothing, and there is not a great deal visible in her face, but it's enough to say everything about Karen's relationship with her mother and indeed about her life in general.
"Plasticity of features," indeed. Yes, that's required, just as an unusually high level of manual dexterity is required for playing a musical instrument well. But that's just the minimal requirement.
Of course the writer, who was also the director, must get credit for creating the exchange. He's the composer, the two women are the performers who bring it to life.
I'd like to know how these roses came to be here, stuck in a log on the beach. Was it a sad story or a happy one? There were several others here and there, one some distance away as if perhaps it had been tossed.
Sunday Night Journal, July 23, 2017
Some months ago The New Criterion offered a look back at Kenneth Clark's old BBC documentary Civilization. I had never seen it, though I vaguely remembered hearing of it. In 1969 when it first appeared I was in college and rarely caught so much as a glimpse of a television. And even if I'd had the opportunity I probably wouldn't have been much interested: it would have struck me as middle-brow eat-your-cultural-spinach stuff. But the NC piece praised it highly and made me curious, so, finding that it's available on Netflix, I put it on our queue, all four disks and thirteen hours of it. It made its way to the top of the queue some weeks ago, and we've watched one disk, four episodes, now.
My conjectural prejudice was not altogether wrong. There is something almost quaint and a bit stuffy (some would say a lot stuffy) about watching and listening to this stereotypical British connoisseur giving us a tour of the great art of Europe. And, not surprisingly, it's more than a little out of step with our times, with few traces of the apologizing for the civilization it describes that would be expectable in such a venture today. But as the New Criterion writer, Drew Oliver says:
The intellectual journey that Clark chaperones is plenty invigorating, and more than sufficient to justify the series. But the production itself is a worthy vessel for his learning. Throughout, it maintains a majestically slow pace. Luxuriously long moments where the visuals are completely unencumbered by any commentary whatsoever are hallmarks of Civilisation; you can almost feel the delight that the cinematographers must have felt as they tested the full power of their new, full-color medium. And the wide range of geography, architecture, art, music, and ideas that are explored is its own intrinsic expression of civilization, as well as a defense of it.
I especially appreciate that slow pace, though I'd like for some of those long moments to be even longer. Now and then I see an advertisement for a documentary that looks interesting, but have learned that unless it's something I really want to see, I'd rather not bother, because they never give you more than a three or four-second look at anything. Five seconds is generally the maximum. (Yes, I have timed it.) I find this extremely frustrating: just as I'm getting a good look at something, it's snatched away.
I think the whole series is on YouTube, by the way, though I haven't looked for it.
I didn't--we didn't--want to watch all thirteen episodes of Civilization in a row, so I had moved the DVD that followed it to the top. It was The Lady In the Lake, which is not about King Arthur but a dramatization of the Raymond Chandler novel. I thought I might have seen it before, and I have. I'm not sure how it got onto our queue when it had been there once before.
But anyway: although our Netflix subscription is limited to one DVD at a time, we occasionally get an extra one. When the one at the top of the list is temporarily unavailable, Netflix will go ahead and send the next one, then the first when it becomes available. The result, since we don't usually watch them immediately, is that we have two at once. So apparently The Lady in the Lake was unavailable, and so was the rest of the Civilization series. In any case Netflix reached down to the fifth item in the queue and sent us a movie called Mother and Child. As far as I can remember, I had never heard of it. I figured my wife must have put it on the list, but if she did, she didn't remember it. I wondered if maybe someone in the course of our many discussions about movies here had recommended it to me, so I searched the blog for the title (using Google, not the unreliable Typepad search, which I really ought to get rid of). No luck. Well, maybe someone recommended it to me via email. I searched my email. No luck there, either.
So I have no idea why this movie was on our queue. (Please let me know if you did recommend it.) It came out in 2009 and for all I know has been in the queue for years, as a number of other titles have. But here it was. And I wasn't at all sure I even wanted to watch it. The Netflix description was not at all promising to my taste:
Fifty-year-old Karen (Annette Bening) regrets giving up her daughter, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), for adoption; years later, Elizabeth questions her own approach to life. Their stories intersect with that of Lucy (Kerry Washington), who hopes to fulfill her dreams of motherhood through adoption. Rodrigo García writes and directs this drama about parenting, sacrifice, romance and self-fulfillment. Eileen Ryan and Samuel L. Jackson co-star.
Oh yeah, that sounds great: two hours of female emotional travail--just what I want to relax with on a Saturday night. Maybe this was going to end up being one of those disks that I send back without watching it. And then The Lady in the Lake arrived. So last night when we got ready to watch a movie, we had a choice. I really wanted to watch Phillip Marlowe. But for some months now my movie-and-television diet has consisted almost entirely of murder mysteries, grim sensationalist fare like House of Cards and The Americans, and BBC costume dramas that are basically very well-produced soap operas. Feeling, out of some odd sense of duty, that a change might be beneficial, and also that Mother and Child sounded like something my wife might like more than Marlowe, I suggested it, trying not to sound like I meant "let's get it over with."
Somewhat to my surprise I found it totally engrossing and very moving, even though it was in fact two hours of (mostly) female emotional travail. To expand that Netflix description a bit: the movie opens with a vignette that takes place in 1973, where we see fourteen-year-old Karen getting pregnant and giving up the baby for adoption, never so much as holding her. It is suggested that this was at her mother's command. Then we jump forward thirty-five years or so to find Karen, at almost fifty years old, never married, caring for her aged mother, lonely, bitter and prickly with everyone around her. And we meet the daughter, Elizabeth, a beautiful, gifted, and successful attorney in her mid-thirties who lives in a hard shell of self-will and self-protection. This doesn't preclude her having an active and selfish sex life, which leads to some cataclysmic consequences. At the same time we follow a young couple, Lucy and Joseph who, having failed for a long time to conceive a child, are looking into adoption and encountering various difficulties with it. For most of the film it isn't clear what the two story lines have to do with each other, but they are in the end very much connected.
First impressions sometimes mislead, but as of right now I would certainly recommend this film, with the one reservation that it has a couple of fairly explicit sex scenes of which the dramatic need is questionable, as is generally the case. They do have some justification, which is more than can be said of many such instances. And anyway any objection to them is more than outweighed by several very good things which I would like to mention but will not because they need to be encountered within the film. It's a story of love breaking through walls, but at very great cost.
I didn't notice, when I first glanced at the Netflix description, the name of the writer-director. After seeing it, I would have confidently bet that it is the work of a woman. But unless "Rodrigo" is the name of a woman it is not.
Yesterday I went to a funeral. The deceased was the mother of a sister-in-law, and I had never met her, so my attendance was an expression of sympathy for the family, not of personal grief. Yet there was a moment when I did feel it: when I saw a photograph of the woman taken when she was young, perhaps a high-school yearbook photo. She was about my age, and so the picture resembled in a general way--hairstyle and so forth--the pictures of the girls in my high-school yearbook, the girls I knew as a teenager. In the picture she is fresh and pretty and smiling, expecting good things from life, as most of us do when we are young. But life was going to deal her some terrible blows, and the difference between what that sweet young girl hoped for and what happened seemed heartbreaking to me. As I've mentioned several times in recent months, I feel a little sorry for young people now.
And yet I know there was joy in her life as well. A country song, a sort of hymn, that I didn't recognize was played during the service. I was struck by one line of it, where the singer, facing death, bids goodbye to this "sweet world of sorrow." That sums up our situation pretty accurately, doesn't it?
With that phrase I was able to find the song. It's "Lead Me Home," sung by Jamey Johnson. You can hear it on YouTube.
I read somewhere that the Huffington Post is going to put a bunch of its staffers on a bus and send them out from whatever metropolis they inhabit to have a look at those parts of America which have upset them so badly by voting for Donald Trump. This is a very funny prospect. I expect there are many frightening moments in store for them. The whole country probably ought to have a trigger warning. Especially the South.
Sunday Night Journal, July 16, 2017
I suppose Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. and his co-writer, Marcelo Figueroa, thought "ecumenism of hate" was a clever turn of phrase. They were wrong. It is unjust and seems to be malicious, though perhaps less malicious than ignorant. The article as a whole (I assume you've heard about it, it's in La Civilta Cattolica, considered to be something of a mouthpiece for the pope) is so incoherent that it doesn't warrant much further comment. It's not entirely wrong, but that could be said about almost anything from the people it attacks.
I know someone who is associated with the anti-Trump movement called "Indivisible." He has said forthrightly that he "has always despised" the religious right, apparently not noticing the irony.
"Lord, I thank thee that I am not as this Pharisee" rather misses the point.
I remember when my children were young thinking that observing them gave me a very different view of Jesus's counsel that we must "become as little children." Before that I had tended to think of the prescribed surrender as a sort of passivity, accepting without much thought what one was told about grownup matters. But one evening at dinner I remarked to my wife that of the three people at the table, the two-year-old was clearly the most intellectually active. Young children may be ignorant of a great deal, but it is certainly not because they aren't trying to learn. They are relentless inquirers, testers, and speculators. There's nothing passive about the "childlike faith" which we attribute to them. The faith they exhibit consists not in their lack or suppression of intellectual energy, but in their trust that we are telling them the truth.
This has been on my mind a lot in recent weeks, as two of my grandchildren, boys ages 5 and 7, are spending several days a week with me while school is out for the summer. Except when they're asleep, they never stop looking, wondering, questioning, investigating, experimenting, and in general trying to figure out literally everything in the world, as far as they can see it. They noticed this stack of back issues of The New Criterion.
It was jumbled, and they--mainly the seven-year-old for this--put it in order by year and month. They noticed that an issue was missing, and we looked around the house until we found it on my desk. Then they put it in its proper position. They hypothesized that each month had the same color every year (I had never bothered to notice), and to the extent that they could verify that, they did, and rearranged them to put like colors together. They wondered why the September issue was black (the 15-year-anniversary of 9/11/2001, I think). It was mid-June when they started this, but the June issue had not yet arrived, and they wanted to know why. They asked every day if it had arrived, until it did, and then they put it with the others. Once July had begun they wanted to know why the July issue hadn't arrived. When I told them that the magazine is not published in July and August, they were a little offended, and wanted to know why. And almost every day they ask me if I've finished reading the June issue yet (not quite), and why not (well, something to do with dealing with two small boys all day).
Why? Why? Why? I read somewhere years ago that the average four-year-old asks some great number--in the hundreds I think--of questions every day, and I believe it. And no doubt a large percentage of them begin with "Why?"
"All men by nature desire to know," said Aristotle. Well, ain't that the truth? And much of what they want to know involves purpose: what is it for? why do you do that? why do I have to stop playing games on the iPad? Why?
Watching my grandsons gives me confidence that the commitment of the modern world to suppressing the question of ultimate purpose will not stand indefinitely. One way or another, that empty space will be filled. I hope it will be filled by truth.
I've been reading The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacobs, and I recommend it to anyone who has any interest at all in the Book of Common Prayer itself or the history of Anglicanism in general. It is just what the title suggests, the story of how the BCP came into existence, and how it has developed over the centuries since its birth in 1549. Well, before that, actually, because Jacobs goes into some of its antecedents, and naturally has to deal with the whole matter of the establishment of Protestantism in England.
I think I've been half-consciously half-suppressing my awareness of that history. I know it, of course--what Catholic has not seen A Man for All Seasons at least once? But having grown up in an Anglican-ish tradition (Methodism), and spent some time in the American Episcopal Church, and now being a member of the Anglican Ordinariate (which is not what we're supposed to call it), and having a great love of many elements of the Book of Common Prayer, I didn't especially like to contemplate how thoroughly rooted in heresy and schism it really is. I found myself wondering "Why do I want to be associated with this thing? Is it really salvageable?"
Of course most of it is salvageable; a prayer written by a heretic needn't be heretical; I can (and do) pray right along with most of what would be included in any Protestant prayer. And in fact it has been salvaged--thank you, Benedict XVI--and purged of its heretical elements. And as to why I want to be associated with it, to use it: the prose. Ecclesiastical criminal Cranmer may have been, but he was also a great writer of devotional prose.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
That is a sample of what I loved, what as a Catholic I missed, and what keeps me going in the effort, always on the edge of failure, to keep our local Ordinariate group alive.
Chesterton has a great commentary on the Prayer Book in The Well and the Shallows, one of the books I read long ago when I was considering conversion.
Distant rain, 6/29. We're having a rather wet, cool summer so far.
Sunday Night Journal, July 9, 2017
Johnson said of Paradise Lost that "No one ever wished it longer." I can't give my opinion on that, since I've never read more than excerpts from it. But on the basis of those I suspect I'd agree. And by that standard I would have to rate J.R.R. Tolkien's Lay of Leithian at least as high as Paradise Lost, because I've just read a substantial portion of it in a newly released book, Beren and Lúthien, and I definitely wished it longer.
This book is Christopher Tolkien's attempt to publish as one semi-coherent narrative the story of those two lovers, which is an important part of his father's mythology. He tells us in his introduction that he is now ninety-two years old (which surprised me, though it shouldn't have, as my father would be almost that old now if he were still alive). Accordingly, he expects that this will be the last of the books he has edited and published from his father's many scattered and unfinished manuscripts. I am not a Tolkien...what?...I'm trying to find an alternative to "geek" and not succeeding. "Fanatic" I guess would do, but it has a slightly unpleasant connotation, while "fan" doesn't suggest the same zeal and dedication. And "scholar" is too formal. "Nerd" is a little derogatory. "Geek" suggests, nowadays, an innocent sort of enthusiasm, while "enthusiast" doesn't convey the absorption in minute detail which "geek" does. (The development of the term is interesting: how did it go from denoting a person who performs disgusting acts in a carnival show to its current sense denoting intense and maybe obsessive interest in the details of something or other?)
Anyway: I am not one of the people who has pursued extensive knowledge of Tolkien's entire created world and languages. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite books, also to a lesser degree The Hobbit. I read The Silmarillion in the early 1980s and found it not much more than interesting, though I had young children and a new job at the time and might have gotten more involved with it had there been fewer other demands on my attention. Of the many later books (more than a dozen) compiled by Christopher Tolkien, I've read no more than bits and pieces, though there are one or two on my shelf. I probably wouldn't have read this one if my wife hadn't given it to me for Father's Day.
It's a nicely produced volume, with illustrations by Alan Lee, whose illustrations for other Tolkien volumes I've liked more than most. I took it up because I thought it might be a pleasant diversion, maybe just shy of escapism. I found myself more involved than I expected to be, and more moved. It's something of a hodge-podge, as the attempt to put the entire narrative in one volume requires grabbing bits and pieces from a number of manuscripts composed over a period of decades, some in prose and some in verse, and in many instances varying significantly in details about the characters and events, .
And so, back to the poem: it's by far the longest sustained piece in the book, comprising more than half of the actual J.R.R. Tolkien material (as opposed to Christopher's explanatory material). It tells, in brief, how the man Beren and the elf-maiden Lúthien met, fell in love, and, in order to gain her father's permission to wed, undertook to steal a Silmaril, one of the fabulous jewels for which The Silmarillion is named, from the crown of the evil lord Morgoth. Frankly, I expected all this verse to be rather tedious, especially as I had greatly enjoyed the first piece in the book, an early prose version of the legend called The Tale of Tinúviel (Tinúviel being another name for Lúthien).
Well, I didn't find it tedious at all. First I was impressed by the skill with which Tolkien handled his form: tetrameter couplets. Granted, there are vast quantities of 20th century literature I've never read, but I don't know of anything else in it which sustains such a strict form so well for so long. And it's no empty technical feat: the story is a good one, the narrative moves well, and the verse is skillful and powerful. Here's a sample. Luthien and Beren have come in disguise, he as a wolf and she as a bat, to Morgoth's fortress and are challenged by a great supernatural wolf, Carcharoth. Luthien is wearing a cloak which gives her the power of casting a man or beast into an enchanted sleep.
.... The vampire dark
she flung aside, and like a lark
cleaving through night to dawn she sprang,
while sheer, heart-piercing silver, rang
her voice, as those long trumpets keen
thrilling, unbearable, unseen
in the cold aisles of morn. Her cloak
by white hands woven, like a smoke,
like all-bewildering, all-enthralling
all-enfolding evening, falling
from lifted arms, as forth she stepped
across those awful eyes she swept,
a shadow and a mist of dreams
whereon entangled starlight gleams.
Okay, maybe you find that archaic--well, it is archaic, but maybe you also find it corny, maybe even funny. I could quote some passages that might strike you even more that way. He makes use of all the old-fashioned artifice required to maintain the form he has chosen; conversational or prosy this poem decidedly is not. And then there is the whole legendary-mythological subject. But I think it's good.
I know there are a lot of people, people of intelligence and taste, who find Tolkien's whole enterprise ridiculous, who are so formed by and committed to the naturalistic methods of modern literature (as I see it), that they can't take this sort of thing seriously outside of its natural element in time, which is to say some centuries ago. I do understand that; Tolkien was certainly something of a freak, and he knew it. But I can enlist Auden on the side of those of us who do like it--The Lord of the Rings, at least, of which Auden said "If someone dislikes it, I shall never trust their literary judgment about anything again." I won't go that far, but I do take a dislike or dismissal of The Lord of the Rings as a mysterious and odd gap in taste which one neither approves nor disapproves but as a quirk, like hating the taste of beer.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I believe there is at least a fair possibility that a time will come, say at least a century or two in the future, when this poem of Tolkien's will be of more interest to critics than many of our lesser contemporaries. The poem is, sad to say, unfinished: only seventeen of a projected twenty cantos were written. They run to something over 4,000 lines of verse, less than half of Milton's 10,000-plus, and, as I said earlier, I'm sorry there aren't more.
I think the entire poem can be found in one of the other Christopher-edited Tolkien volumes, so I guess I'm going to have to find out which one and read it. I see a slight but real possibility of my becoming a Tolkien geek. Perhaps fortunately, I don't really have time.
Whatever one thinks of Tolkien's work as literature, the sheer scope of his invention is rather stunning. Until you've delved into it a bit, beyond The Lord of the Rings, you don't appreciate just how vast and detailed his invented world is. It is simply astonishing that one man could have invented so much, while maintaining a respected career as an Oxford professor and raising a family.
Another Fourth of July has come and gone, and with it the usual round of meditations and appreciations. I particularly liked this one by Charles Cooke, a young British expat. I like it not because I agree with his admiration of this or that specific thing about America, much less his general view of the world (he's a secular libertarian-leaning conservative--or conservative-leaning libertarian), but because I like his enthusiasm, and in general share it.
I don’t know why I love the open spaces in the Southwest or Grand Central Terminal or the fading Atomic Age Googie architecture you see sometimes when driving. I don’t know why merely glimpsing the Statue of Liberty brings tears to my eyes, or why a single phrase on an Etta James or Patsy Cline record does what it does to me. It just does. I have spoken to other immigrants about this, and I have noticed that there is generally a satisfactory explanation — religious freedom, the chance at self-expression, the country’s size — and then there is the wistful stuff that moistens the eyes. Show me a picture of two canyons, and the fact that one of them is American will make all the difference. Just because it is American. Is this so peculiar? Perhaps.
I have to say, though, that I always thought this Oscar Wilde remark that he criticizes is actually quite funny: "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between." I'd heard it before but didn't realize it was Wilde.
When I read that piece and came across the term "Googie architecture" I thought at first it was a misprint for "Google" and wondered what sort of architecture was associated with Google. So I googled (of course) the term and found that according to Wikipedia "Googie architecture is a form of modern architecture, a subdivision of futurist architecture influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age." For instance:
(By Cogart Strangehill - Ext. Car Wash, San Bernardino, CA, CC BY-SA 2.0)
I like it, too. I mean, in a backwards sort of way. Or more accurately I feel a kind of affection for it, even though it's pretty ugly.
Here's an image from my Fourth of July. From here we have a great view of the fireworks launched after dark from the end of the big pier, three-quarters of a mile or so away over the water.
Sunday Night Journal, July 2, 2017
My view of the current political-cultural situation in the U.S. is unquestionably somewhat dark. It always has been. I'm a pessimist by nature; I was born this way. But is it darker than it was ten years ago, as Quite Grumpy said last week? I'm not so sure that it is. But if it is, the reason is that certain tendencies are further along now than they were then, considerably further than I even expected.
I'm thinking in general of the intensity of division in the country. Stu said that it "Doesn't seem like the 'end times' to me, with the blue and red either battling it out, or living in separate states." I disagree--not that I think it's necessarily the end times for the U.S., but I do think that we are in new and dangerous territory, and I see a real possibility of some sort of schism. Not anytime soon, but within, say, the next fifty years. California, as you no doubt have heard, now forbids state-funded travel to several other states, including mine. This amounts to a declaration of political war, and is certainly a step in a very bad direction. And for what it's worth, I'm very, very far from alone in my worry on this score. I've read pundits on both right and left who see it as a possibility, though I think on the left it's viewed as being not necessarily a bad thing, maybe even a desirable one. The right is in general more attached to the whole historical concept and reality of the United States. (Rudy Guiliani got a lot of criticism for saying that he didn't think Obama loves America, but I thought he was at least partly right, in that Obama, presumably owing to his unusual circumstances, never seemed to have that visceral love of country that many or most Americans do, or at least used to.)
And I'm thinking in particular of the divisions created and continually intensified by disagreements about sex which involve fundamental disagreements about the nature of society, of government, and even of what it means to be human. Looking for evidence of what I was thinking about this ten or more years ago, I found a very relevant post from May 2004, less than six months into the life of the site (which was not, strictly speaking, a blog for its first couple of years). It's about the division that would be deepened and made permanent by the creation of same-sex marriage, and it is really prettyaccurate in its prediction of what the effects would be:
If this arrangement is given the force of law throughout the country, it may very well be seen by history as the point where the deep and bitter division in American society which we call the culture war became once and for all irreconcilable. Or perhaps I should say recognized as irreconcilable, for it may already be so. This will be a tragedy, and like all tragedies all the deeper for having been preventable.
Please read the whole thing if you want to discuss it. Things have of course moved far in the direction I predicted there. What I did not foresee, what I don't remember even occurring to me, was that as soon as victory in the marriage campaign seemed assured, the same forces (I'm not sure what to call them) would immediately take up the "transgender" cause with exactly the same fervor, self-righteousness, and intolerance toward disagreement. It certainly didn't cross my mind that the government would ever attempt to coerce schools into opening toilets and locker rooms to members of any and all "genders."
It would be said by gender activists that my emphasis on this whole complex of issues is a product of "homophobia," "transphobia," etc. That's to be expected. But it might also be said by less extreme voices that I'm unduly concerned with the morality of certain sexual practices. Why should I care? Why pick on this one sin? Why not divorce, or adultery? (Or climate change denial!) The answer is that it is not the morality I'm concerned with. It's the principle: the legal redefinition of a fundamental institution.
The reason for resisting these things, for me at least, is not to try to prevent people from sinning. Even if you agree with the traditional Christian teachings on sexuality, anyone with a mind in reasonably good working order can see that not everything which is wrong is a matter for the law. Most people, regardless of religion, would agree that in general, it is wrong to lie. This does not mean that we want the state to monitor everything everyone says, rule on its truth or falsity, and prosecute everyone caught in a falsehood.
But there is a point where lying becomes punishable by law: lying in a legal contract, for instance, or when under oath in a court of law. It is in those situations that lying becomes a matter for the whole commonwealth, and can't be tolerated, because it threatens the very fabric of society, its principles of order.
The objection to same-sex marriage, and all the many demands of the transgender movement, is not that they enable or encourage immoral or simply unwise acts, but that they seek not only to redefine the institution of marriage (which is more fundamental than the state), but to require that everyone participate in a denial of fundamental biological, psychological, and social realities regarding sex.
This is a big deal. It turns the concept of marriage into something created, rather than recognized, by the state, and in essence, by making sex irrelevant to the concept, makes it meaningless except as a legal construct, seen, from that point of view, primarily as another avenue by which one receives "benefits" (tangible and intangible) from the state. This has enormous, far-reaching consequences, and I don't think they're good. I think the ones I predicted in 2004 are very much with us now, and I was speaking in 2004 only of the divisiveness. It's more than divisive, of course: the question now is to what extent dissent from the new order will be allowed. And that in turn has a great deal to do with the reasons why so many Christians supported the manifestly non-Christian Donald Trump for president.
It's been pointed out that the times are less troubled than were the 1960s: there are no cities in flame, for instance. And that's true. What's different now is that the country is more evenly and more intensely divided on fundamental principles, and each side believes that the other wants to subjugate it. If more open conflict comes--violence, or a serious attempt to break up the country--part of the tragedy of it will be that most of these people can get along perfectly well with each other at the immediate, personal, and local level. It's the deep religious difference, the difference as to what society is for, what life itself is for, and the attempt to shape it accordingly, that really fuels the conflict. And makes the situation seem so dark. Or partly, anyway--it's not as if we don't have other serious problems. But the division makes it difficult or impossible to work on them together.
Grim reflections for the Fourth of July, I know. The most hopeful note I can sound is one I've sounded before: that a willingness to allow for more diversity across the nation, to let California be California and Alabama be Alabama--federalism--might yet preserve the republic as something deserving of the name.
Anyway, perpetual crisis is pretty much the human condition.
I'm actually not much more concerned with trying to discourage homosexual activity than I am with trying to discourage any number of other sins, sexual and otherwise. Aside from the fact that discouraging anyone's sin is usually not my responsibility, and I'm more than fully occupied in trying to discourage my own, I tend to assume that by now, forty or fifty years on in the sexual revolution, most of us are knowingly acquainted with homosexuals, male and female, have been on friendly terms with them, and do not want to see them demonized or persecuted. In my case that has included at least one very close friend. And so I tend to assume that the accusation that Christians hate homosexuals--are "homophobic"--is grossly exaggerated at best. It also causes me to feel that there is no particular need for me to say that my objection to same-sex marriage etc. is not malicious and personal. But this post by David Mills at Aleteia reminds me that my view may not be typical, and maybe there is such a need. Though the effort is probably pretty hopeless now: if you aren't supportive of the whole program, you're an evil bigot, and that's that.
By the way, my view of life, the universe, and everything is in general definitely not darker than it has been in the past. I'm in fact more serene now, or closer to being serene. I think this is mainly the result of age, and an increasing ability to resign the troubles of life to God's care, because there is so little I can do about them. The blog may give a misleading impression in that respect. I tend to comment more on the passing scene, on Vanity Fair rather than the permanent things, and most of that is not edifying. The deeper reflections are going into my book, or into other writings which I will try to place in magazines.
True love is always bleeding in our mortal life. You simply cannot have love in this life without pain.
--Sr. Ruth Burrows, O.C.D. (quoted in Magnificat)
Sunday Night Journal, June 25, 2017
I sometimes feel that I'm a bit of an impostor in the former-Anglican culture of the Ordinariate, in which people often refer to "our Anglican [or Episcopalian] heritage," "the hymns and prayers we grew up with," and so forth. But I didn't grow up in Anglicanism, although a certain amount of it had been carried over into the Methodism in which I did grow up. My time as an Episcopalian was really a fairly brief stop (four years or so) on my way from unbelief to the Catholic Church. So there's a fair amount of Anglican lore and terminology that I don't recognize.
One such, for a while, was reference to "the Coverdale psalms." The first time I heard that I had no idea what it meant. I hadn't known that the Anglican Book of Common Prayer had for centuries used a 1535 translation of the Psalms which had been part of a Bible translation by Miles Coverdale. I did, however, know that I very much liked the psalms in the BCP.
For a couple of months now, since sometime in Lent, I've been trying to pray at least one or the other, and preferably both, of the morning and evening prayer sets in Magnificat. These generally include a psalm, and I often read the Coverdale translations instead of the Grail versions which are printed in the magazine. I'm fairly sure that the Coverdale is inaccurate sometimes, and occasionally it uses words that have shifted in connotation enough to make them sound odd or even silly to modern ears: "naughty," for instance, in Psalm 86, where current translations have "ruthless." But in general the Coverdale translations are much richer, more vivid and more powerful. Here, for instance, is the beginning of Psalm 38 in the Grail translation:
O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger; reprove me not in your rage. For your arrows have sunk deep in me; your hand has come down upon me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of your anger: there is no health in my limbs because of my sin. My guilt towers higher than my head; it is a weight too heavy to bear. My wounds are foul and festering, the result of my own folly. I am bowed and brought to my knees. I go mourning all the day long. All my frame is burning with fever; there is no soundness in my flesh. I am spent and utterly crushed, I cry aloud in anguish of heart.
Put me not to rebuke, O Lord, in thine anger; neither chasten me in thy heavy displeasure, for thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore. There is no health in my flesh, because of thy displeasure; neither is there any rest in my bones, by reason of my sin. For my wickednesses are gone over my head, and are like a sore burden, too heavy for me to bear. My wounds stink, and are corrupt, through my foolishness. I am brought into so great trouble and misery, that I go mourning all the day long. For my loins are filled with a sore disease, and there is no whole part in my body. I am feeble and sore smitten; I have roared for the very disquietness of my heart.
There's nothing wrong with the first one. If I didn' t have the second for comparison, I'd think it was fine. But when juxtaposed this way it seems like Bud Lite followed by Guinness Stout. "Roared" may seem too much for us, but it might be quite accurate for men of less restrained times.
There is a very nice PDF of the Coverdale Psalms at an Orthodox site called Synaxis. (According to another page at Synaxis, the PDF was prepared by/for a web site called Lutherans Online, but the link to it doesn't work.)
The discussion last week of postmodernism left me leaning more strongly toward something I've long suspected: that postmodernism is not something fundamentally different and separate from modernism, but is rather a late, decadent, and perhaps terminal phase of modernism. The terms are fluid and imprecise and refer to somewhat amorphous developments, and I won't deny that the word "postmodern" entails some useful distinctions. But still, both seem to me to be aspects of the great cultural dissolution that's been in progress for a couple of centuries now.
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,The other powerless to be born....--Matthew Arnold, "Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse"
One characteristic of modernity in both its broad and limited senses (that is, the couple of centuries just mentioned as well as the contemporary) is a predilection for dividing history into distinct periods (eras, epochs) with distinct names. Calling our own time "modern" was therefore a failure in planning, and the term "postmodern" is evidence of that. Something has to come next, but the classifiers have boxed themselves in, since everything that comes after "modern" is by definition "postmodern," nor will "modern" make much sense once the era so named is past. Perhaps modernism will not truly have ended until the practice of dividing history into named periods has ended, and we have been for a while in an age that does not attempt to name itself.
There is often a smug quality in contemporary intellectual talk that I suspect is connected with postmodernism. Our culture now values pleasure above all things. Sexual pleasure is the greatest of these, but there are many others, and one of them is the sense of being superior to the past. It's a natural corollary to the notion of progress, but it's much more pronounced now than even fifty years ago. It induces a general spirit of mockery and cynicism which is really just incomprehension and which I suspect can be connected to postmodernism: it views the past as something always on trial, always under attack, always to be"interrogated," always required but always failing to justify itself to us. This again is not new and in a different tone is certainly seen in modernity in general, but it seems to have a different and more unpleasant flavor in postmodernism, as in the literary academic I once heard describe Dante as "a Christian creep."
Like so many unhealthy things that trickle down from the intellectual class to the masses, this disdain has become an unconscious assumption for a lot of people, and the younger they are they more likely they are to have it. I get the feeling from many young people now that they hardly even know that the past existed except as a sort of nightmare of racism, sexism, and "homophobia." It's natural for young people to be that way to some degree, and maybe this is just my age speaking, but it seems more pronounced now.
I never have liked the phrase "having sex." It's a strikingly cold and empty description. But "hooking up" is worse. It always makes me think of something mechanical, like hooking up two railroad cars. That's a thought provoked by reading a young woman's astonishingly shallow comments on the reasons she does and does not choose to do it with this or that male.
I apologize in advance for putting into your head the image you're going to see in a moment, but it's too funny for me to keep to myself. Writing for National Review, Kyle Smith devotes some time to making fun of pop singer Katy Perry making an attempt to be all serious 'n' stuff, which seems to be an occupational temptation for entertainers these days. I'm not sure why he bothered, except perhaps that he thought it was fun to do, and I'm not sure why I read it, except that I thought it might be amusing, which it was, especially this:
[A]s a pundit Katy Perry has about as much appeal as George Will does in a halter top.
In an interesting Facebook post, someone speculated that the current polarization in politics has something to do with the prominence of the baby boomers, and with the tendency of older people to want to simplify their lives, and to care less about what others think of them. The writer suggests that this might result in a tendency for Christian public intellectuals to take positions that are more blunt and less qualified and nuanced. He also suggests this might involve the casting off of a career-related reluctance to avoid giving offense on topic A in order to be heard on topic B, no longer necessary as the end of the career approaches.
I don't exactly qualify as a public intellectual, but I have spent a fair amount of energy over the years voicing my opinions about many things, and I'm 68 years old, so I asked myself if I might be doing this. It's the sort of thing one could fool oneself about--who, me? I'm not like that. But I don't think that particular syndrome is really operative in me; that is, I don't think I've become more harsh and more given to polarizing rhetoric, or that I'm falling into those old-guy mental habits.
I do, however, believe that in objective fact our social-cultural-political situation has changed significantly over my lifetime in that (among other things) our society is very deeply and angrily divided, to a degree that endangers the future of this and perhaps other nations. There have been changes for the better, but this division, this attempt of two hostile cultures to co-exist, is clearly not one of them, and it may be ruinous--and that's apart from whatever harm might be done by the ideas pushed by either side. (I can think of several ways in which that might be the case, but will leave out the specifics for now.)
And in some respects I am definitely on one side of the division. I'm thinking, of course, specifically of the sex-related matters like the assertion that the distinction between male and female has no relevance to marriage. So when I write about that, it may seem that I am in fact falling into old-man syndrome. Perhaps I am. But I argue that this is an objectively bad situation, not just an old man's cranky opinion.
Since I have written very little for pay over the years, and so have mostly been completely free to say exactly what I think, the career-related reasons for reticence have not applied. There is, however, one respect in which they have: since 1990 I've worked for a Jesuit institution, and I haven't said much at all about it. This is not because I have nothing to say. Perhaps one day I'll say it. I don't mean that to be mysterious or threatening; it would not be all bad by any means. But it would not be all good, either.
We had a lot of rain from tropical storm Cindy. On Thursday afternoon, after most of it had passed and the clouds were beginning to break up, I was at the bay with the two grandsons who are staying with me several days a week this summer. For a few minutes one shaft of sunlight dropped straight down from the clouds away to the west. This picture was the best I could do by way of capturing it.
Sunday Night Journal, June 11, 2017
Over the past couple of weeks I've read a couple of interesting memoir-autobiography sorts of things, one new and one an old friend. The new one is Swimming With Scapulars by Matthew Lickona. I had heard of it when it was published ten years or so ago, and can't remember now what prompted me to read it--whether it was another of those saw-it-at-a-library-sale finds or I actually and deliberately bought it from some place like Amazon. At any rate I had been curious about it. I had the idea, based mostly on the title, that the author was a product of the super-orthodox sort of Catholic milieu which has flourished (or failed) here and there since the early 1980s or so, and had not entirely rejected it. I was interested in hearing what he had to say about it, good and bad, as he is not much older than the oldest of my children.
In my impression of the book I was partly wrong, as his experience of Catholicism in childhood and adolescence seems to have been a fairly typical contemporary American one, except that his parents were unusually serious and active in their parish. It was his own spiritual development that led him in a somewhat more traditionalist direction, wearing the scapular in his late teens, and attending Thomas Aquinas College. But he did this without taking the turn that similarly-minded people sometimes do, toward an attempt to escape as much as possible the influence of an increasingly hostile secular culture. So although the book was not exactly what I expected, it was as interesting as I had hoped. Lickona's approach to the faith, and to the stresses and strains of living it out in contemporary America, is down-to-earth and devoid of the tendency toward a slightly strained--or constrained--piety that one sometimes encounters in Catholic writing.
The advertising for the book, such as the blurb at the publisher's site, makes a little too much of the fact that he is Not One Of Those Reactionaries--he listens to Nine Inch Nails! (kind of an old blurb I guess)--but the book is better than that.
I really like the cover:
Matthew Lickona is one of the principal writers at the popular (I think) blog Korrektiv, which I would read if I didn't already spend way too much time reading things online.
The other book, the old friend, is C.S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy. I had read it over thirty years ago, and I think once since then but still quite some time ago. I needed a couple of quotes from it for the book I'm writing, and, never having bought my own copy, checked it out of the library just to get those quotes. I ended up reading the whole thing, and enjoying it even more. There are several passages that are more dense philosophically than I recalled--I'm thinking of several toward the end of the book, where he's describing his movement from an acknowledgement that some sort of Spirit exists to an openness to the idea of the Christian God, and I think I must have just sailed over them without really grasping them before. This time around I'm more impressed than before with Lewis's erudition and intellectual rigor. In the unlikely case that you're a Lewis fan but haven't read this one, you should.
I had forgotten how much time he spends describing his frustrating relationship with his father, whom he describes with a phrase I don't remember noticing before, but will not soon forget, as "a man not easily informed.... What he thought he had heard was never exactly what he had said."
A few people are that way congenitally, very few in my experience. But in recent years politics seems to have induced the condition in many more.
Whenever I read Lewis, and many others of the early-to-mid-20th century Christian writers, especially the British ones, I have a sense that these are my people. Never mind that I would have been only the most awkward sort of presence if I had ever, in violation of the limits of both time and space, found myself drinking in a pub with them; I can only hope I would have had the sense to keep my mouth shut. They are nevertheless the people I would most like to emulate in my thinking and writing, and whom I do in fact resemble, in a very small and distant way, in my thinking and general sensibility. As far as I know their kind no longer exists. They are of, roughly, my grandfather's generation, and now I'm a grandfather myself. That makes them antique, and me a sort of relic, too. Those writers will be as distant to my grandchildren as the Victorians were to me. Much of contemporary intellectual life, insofar as it comes to my attention, even Christian intellectual life, seems somewhat alien to me, so it's always something of a comfort to revisit these writers.
Two memorable remarks (unrelated to each other) I've seen on Facebook in recent days:
Yes, it's poetry but it's beautiful.
I concur whole heatedly.
From watching five episodes of the American version of The Killing, I have learned that Seattle is the most dismal, dark, depressing city on the face of the earth. It's so dismal that people keep their homes and offices only half-lit. Perhaps it's an environmentalist thing: as long as a few 40-watt bulbs give you enough light that you can move around without stumbling over things, why contribute further to global warming?
Or maybe it's that at a time when dismal, dark, depressing crime dramas are popular, the makers of this one decided to make the dismalest, darkest, depressingest one of all? I'm a little sorry I started watching it, because now I have to finish it, and it's long. I suppose I could just read a synopsis.
Speaking of this, and of last week's discussion of the dark-'n'-gritty Netflix series based on Anne of Green Gables: according to Eye of the Tiber, the USCCB is getting in on the trend:
USCCB Announces Plans To Come Out With Dark, Gritty Reboot Of The Mass
A couple of weeks ago, apropos a wedding, I said that I pity more than envy the young now, and even fear for them a little. I thought of that again last weekend when I attended the ordination of now-Father Nick Napolitano at the Cathedral in Mobile. (You may be able to see a picture and read the diocesan paper's story here. I say "may" because the page wants you to install Adobe Flash, if you don't already have it, but it seems to more or less work without that.) I don't know him very well, but am acquainted with him because he's a friend of a couple of people in our Ordinariate group. It was Nick who, one memorable Sunday, was serving as thurifer, and in the recessional was swinging it in a circle (vertically). The chain broke, the thurible went flying, burning incense went flying, and the next few minutes were spent trying to put out a number of small fires in the carpet that covered the aisle.
I believe Fr. Nick is younger than the youngest of our children, which makes it pretty odd to call him Father, though not a big step from the same experience with a priest who's roughly the age of our oldest. It's daunting to me to think that he may be a priest for another fifty years, and to think of the challenges he will face. It takes a great deal of courage to become a Catholic priest today. It always does, or should, but now along with the normal difficulties anti-Catholics now are ready and willing to call you a pedophile whenever you contradict some pet belief of theirs, or, even worse, get in the way of some part of their program. That would be hard to bear. God only knows what the climate will be like in another forty or fifty years. I'll be praying for Fr. Nick, and all priests.
I've finally posted an excerpt from the book I'm writing. I've pretty definitely settled on the title War in the Closed World. You can read the excerpt here for at least the next week or so. The excerpt consists of a partial preface and the first 5,000 or so words of the text. I'm at a somewhat frustrating point in the work. It's probably 85-90% complete in actual composition, and was so several months ago, but I'm writing in longhand, then transferring the text to the computer and revising as I go, and for various reasons, some my fault and some external, have made fairly slow progress at that. There are still a few significant bits to be written, mostly having to do with my high-school years. And there's a good bit to do in the way of organization and structure. Anyway, if you're interested in this project, I would very much appreciate having your opinion on this excerpt. You can comment on the page, or privately if you prefer (see the blog Profile page for my email address, or send me a private message on Facebook). The next excerpt will probably jump forward in time to my college/hippie years, so I can get some reaction to that part of the story.
The book, in case you haven't heard me mention it before, is a sort of spiritual autobiography, but with a strong element of cultural history, as I try to get at the significance of what we call "the Sixties." I was serializing it here five or six years ago but decided that wasn't a good way to do it.
Sunday Night Journal, June 4, 2017
If you've been reading the Sunday Night Journal since its early days (2004(!)), you may remember that from time to time I mentioned "the dogs": walking the dogs, feeding the dogs, being amused or annoyed by the dogs. I also mentioned cats. At the time we had two dogs and three cats. Since then the ranks have thinned out considerably, and we are now down to one dog and one cat, Andy and Meme (pronounced "Mimi").
Of all these animals, only Meme was deliberately acquired by the people who had the care of them for the past ten years or so, i.e. my wife and me. Like many parents, we came to have pets which were either requested (begged for) by one of the children, or bequeathed to us by an out-of-the-nest child who was moving to a place where he/she couldn't take the animal along. Andy was a sort of accident. Someone my wife worked with was trying to give him away, and my wife was the intermediary for the dog to be given to our nieces (her brother's children). It turned out that the girls were allergic to the dog and wanted to give him back. But the original owner didn't want him. So we were stuck with him.
Andy is a bichon. He was so cute that he even charmed my wife, who is not a dog lover. Of course all puppies are cute, but he was especially so--a little ball of white fluff. Full-grown, he looks something like an animated teddy bear. The other dog was Lucy. She died in 2015, more or less of old age, as she was about the same age as the century. She was only a little older than Andy, but she was a big(ger) dog, and apparently small dogs live longer. (The two cats also died more or less of old age--more in one case, as she was over twenty.) We aren't sure exactly how old Andy is but we think he's about sixteen. I know we had him in 2002, but I think not very much earlier than that, maybe a year, so he was probably born in 2001.
Age is really catching up with him now. Something or other I read about bichons years ago described them as "merry," and it's a good word. They are very attached to people, very affectionate, and lively without being hyperactive, as so many small dogs are. I'm one of those (probably a majority of the human race) who dislike, if not detest, small dogs that exercise their high-pitched yap with hysterical frequency and intensity. Happily, Andy is not like that. In spite of his twelve-pound size, his bark is not gratingly squeaky, and he doesn't bark any more, or any more frantically, than any other dog. Until recently he was sometimes subject to what is known as the "bichon buzz," in which he would run around the house at top speed, leaping wildly over any obstacle, flying up, over, and down the furniture. It's a funny sight.
He hasn't buzzed for a long time now. Once in a while he still gets a little playful, but it doesn't last very long. His eyesight is going. He's not blind, and I can't tell for sure (of course) exactly how well he can see, but it's obviously not very well: he walks into things. And he apparently doesn't hear as well, either. If someone, for instance a 5-year-old grandchild, comes within a foot or two of him and then makes a loud noise, Andy is violently startled, and afraid--he hasn't seen or heard it coming and doesn't know what it is. He's often afraid in general, trembling violently in any stressful situation, such as getting a bath or going to the vet. He and Lucy used to start barking when someone walked down our street even before they came into sight, and long before I heard or saw them. Now Andy apparently doesn't hear this at all, or perhaps he just doesn't care anymore. At any rate he goes for days at a time never barking at all, even when a UPS driver comes to the front porch.
In his prime he was something of an alpha dog. He generally seemed to be the boss with Lucy, in spite of the fact that she outweighed him five to one. And he was feisty and even commanding with other dogs, no matter how big they were. Once two poodles, fifty or sixty pounds each, were loose down at the bay where I was letting Andy run around, and in no time at all he was the boss. He seemed to have no idea of the disparity in size, or that they could have dispatched him with a few snaps of the jaws. Now he quails at the approach of any other dog.
His attachment to us has a sort of neurotic edge now. He gets a little frantic when I walk away, because he seems to have trouble following me, and he can't settle down until I do. When both my wife and I are here, it upsets him for us to be in different rooms, and he hurries back and forth between us, making worried little sounds.
I think he's arthritic. Sometimes his back legs seem to just go out from under him. He's always been a little skittish about steps, but now I have to give him a little push to start him down the front steps, and others he won't attempt at all, so I just pick him up and take him up or down.
Worse, he's losing some control over his bladder. I have to remember to take him out every hour or two if I don't want to find a puddle somewhere. Fortunately we don't have a lot of rugs and carpeting in the house. And when he gets upset about something--for instance, being stuck with a flight of stairs between him and the people, and unable to get to us--he's liable to lose it even if it hasn't been all that long since he went out. If you're wondering why I don't just make him stay outside most of the time, it's because it would make him crazy, and because he would be thoroughly flea-infested, and when he has flea bites, or any other skin irritation, it becomes a major problem, as he chews and licks on himself until he creates bloody ulcers.
In short, he's a lot of trouble. Always has been, really, but more now. Oh yeah, one more thing: we can't travel anywhere that involves one or more nights away without boarding him--and the cat if it's more than one night--because there's no one close by who can come and feed them. So why do we have them? I'm fond of Andy, and will miss him when he's gone, but I won't be heartbroken. How decrepit would he have to get before we decided to "put him to sleep"? The only answer I can give you is "Much worse." And as to the "why," well, partly it's just the way I am--soft-hearted. But lately there's a little more to it than that.
I was in my mid-fifties when I started the Sunday Night Journal. I'm now in my late sixties. Victor Hugo once said that "Fifty is the youth of old age." I amended that to sixty, because we tend to live longer now. But I'm nearing the end of that youth and feeling a little alarmed at the approach of actual old age. Fortunately I'm in good health overall, so I don't have much cause for serious complaint, but it seems that every few months there is a new addition to the list of Things That Hurt or Things That Don't Work Right Anymore.
And in my mind there is a semi-superstitious connection between my old age and Andy's. I feel as if there's some sort of do-as-you-would-be-done-by principle involved, as if my treatment of him is somehow going to affect the way I'm treated if I live long enough to get pretty decrepit. Or then again maybe it's just sympathy for one old creature for another. I see him anxious and struggling to figure out, in dog terms, what's going on around him, or afraid to go down a flight of stairs because he's feeble and he can't see clearly, and I think "That may be me in five or ten years." And I feel more patient.
Obviously I like animals, and am perhaps a bit unusual in being neither a dog person nor a cat person, but liking both. But I'm a little horrified by the recent tendency of people to talk of their pets as if they were their children. I was shocked once when someone referred to me as "Lucy and Andy's dad." NO!
Sometimes a guest appropriates your favorite chair and good manners dictate that you just have to accept it. This is my daughter's dog.
I've never read Anne of Green Gables. I don't know if it's a good book or not. But I gather it doesn't merit the "dark" and/or "gritty" TV adaptation that's recently been released. At Dappled Things, Michael Rennier has a good discussion of the odd trend of which this is only one example: the impulse to take some kind of beloved and relatively innocent classic and give it the dark-'n'-gritty treatment.
This darkening of the classics to achieve modern relevance is an ongoing problem (I’m looking at you, Brideshead Revisited) because it seems as though our storytelling has lost confidence in the fact that there is actual goodness to be found in the world, actual, real-life goodness buried deep in the marrow of creation.
I don't disagree with that, and no doubt it's part of the story. But I think there's also something more fundamental and worse at work: an actual desire to sully or even defile the good and innocent simply because it is good and innocent, and the one doing the sullying knows that he is not. Anyway it makes me think of Dylan's lines:
While one who sang with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat-race choir
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole that he's in
--from "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"
Movies started getting dark-'n'-gritty at the end of the 1960s; I think Bonnie and Clyde, in 1968, was one of the first examples. Some of that was a desire to break out of the Hollywood tendency toward sentimentality and idealization and general un-reality, and it produced some good work. But at this point dark-'n'-gritty has become its own form of sentimentality.
Speaking of movies, I notice that a Wonder Woman movie (called Wonder Woman, if I'm not mistaken) is a big hit. I know it's the latest in a long line of movies about comic-book superheroes, of which I've seen only a few. I saw the first Spiderman movie, which I enjoyed, and the second one, which I didn't much like. And I watched one of the Batman "Dark Knight" movies on TV, the one with the very creepy Joker, and didn't much like it. I don't have any interest in seeing more of this type of thing. Big noisy action movies featuring heroes (or heroines) with more or less magical powers actually tend to bore me. There's not much real dramatic tension because the more-or-less magical things that happen just seem arbitrary, like Wile E. Coyote falling a thousand feet, making a hole in the ground, climbing out of it, and getting after the Road Runner again.
Batman, Superman, and other superhero comics were very popular when I was growing up (I was twelve in 1960), in what I have just learned from Wikipedia is considered the Silver Age of comics (1956-1970). I read them and enjoyed them when I ran across them, usually at a friend's house, but I wasn't really an enthusiast and didn't go much out of my way to get hold of them. It seems to me that self-conscious and obsessive comic-book fandom developed sometime after the mid-1960s. Obviously a lot of people are very much into it, and serious critics are writing seriously about the movies. Well, it's lost on me, and in fact I'm a little puzzled by the whole phenomenon. Maybe it's just because I'm old.
Sunday Night Journal, May 28, 2017
It's pretty obvious that there is some significant number of people on the left who simply don't believe in freedom of speech anymore. There have been a number of incidents lately that make the point. There were the attack on Charles Murray, the conflict at Duke Divinity School, the simultaneously hilarious and disturbing fight at the feminist journal Hypatia. In the latter case, fury was directed at a feminist author, and the magazine that published her, for considering the possibility that a person could be "transracial" in the same way that current academic orthodoxy believes one can be "transgender." That controversy is so demented that it's funny, but the attackers are deadly serious, and I have no doubt that if they could they would deprive the offender of her job, and will try to find ways to punish her.
The most recent one is the case of a biology professor who refused to go along with a racial-consciousness event that asked (ordered?) white people to stay off campus for a day. Threats of violence prevented Ann Coulter from speaking at Berkley, and a parade in Portland was reportedly canceled when leftists promised to disrupt it because a Republican group was going to be part of it.
There's a lot to be said about this that pertains to our politics and the rule of law, especially that last one. If its implications are not immediately obvious to you, consider what the reaction would be if the KKK attempted something similar against Democrats. But stepping back from the current situation a little, and trying to view it somewhat dispassionately, I think this may be one of several indications that the Enlightenment/liberal consensus about speech and ideas is falling apart. A week or two ago I got into a discussion of the Catholic Church and science on Facebook (Galileo!), which led into the general topic of forbidden ideas and speech, which led me to say this:
A further thought on censorship and the suppression of ideas in general: I suspect that our ideal of completely free speech and thought are somewhat anomalous historically, not only with respect to the past but maybe also with respect to the future. There are signs that it isn't going to last. A lot of progressives, especially young ones and especially in academia, apparently just don't believe in it anymore, and that could have a big impact over the next fifty years or so. It's a natural thing that a society would try to suppress ideas that pose a threat to its very existence, or offend its sense of what is sacred. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but it's natural, and we may be going in that direction again. The classical liberal, John Stuart Mill style ideal of totally free and open debate may be on its way out. Like classical liberalism in general.
One possible positive result of this might be a bit of understanding and sympathy for the medieval Church and society.
Possible. Not probable.
Last weekend I went to the wedding of a niece, daughter of one of my sisters. I'm not keen on attending weddings anymore, because I've seen far too many marriages end. But I went. The ceremony was supposed to take place at 5:30 Saturday afternoon on the big front porch of our old family home in north Alabama. A lot of rented white plastic folding chairs were set up on the front lawn for the guests. Planning an outside event is always a gamble in a climate and at a time of year when rain is fairly frequent. An hour or so before the appointed time I was putting gas in my car and noticed big dark clouds moving in from the southwest. They kept getting bigger and darker until they were a little scary, with a touch of that slight greenish hue that always suggests "possible tornado" to me. A few minutes before 5:30 the wind began to pick up until it was fierce, and soon I could see a mix of dust and rain coming across the fields. At almost exactly the minute the ceremony was supposed to begin, the cloudburst came.
I think the rain plan was more or less "improvise." All the many guests crowded into the house, overflowing the front hall and all the nearby rooms and crowding the stairs. The minister and attendants took up their positions just inside the front doors, which were open. From where I was standing I could see a really potent storm going on: the rain was horizontal, and so heavy that I couldn't see the end of the driveway several hundred feet away. The worst of it was over fairly soon, and though the rain continued well into the night, it didn't seem to lower anyone's spirits.
I'm sure there was some cynical "Well, this is a bad sign" joking about the rain, especially the way the beginning of the downpour was timed almost to the minute with the ceremony. But this is farm country, and the rain was badly needed. The forecast had been showing an increasing chance of rain for two or three days, and I had heard several people say "We sure need the rain, but I hope it holds off till tomorrow." My brother and I decided it was not a bad sign at all. Just the opposite: it may have been a sign of blessing. I hope so.
...and I will cause the shower to come down in his season; there shall be showers of blessing.
I find lately that I feel more pity than envy when I contemplate young people. There's such a long road ahead for them. I even fear for them a little--there's such a strong chance for varieties of grief and pain that they can't foresee. Nevertheless, life is good.
From a piece about Hogarth in the April issue of The New Criterion:
Hogarth is a wonderful character—self-made and self-mocking, candidly ambitious and patriotic, easily slighted and angered. His life is a grand tour through the social and moral microcosm of Georgian London. His satires abound in easy English pleasures—lechery, drink, gambling, mockery, sanctimony, slapstick, cruelty to animals, and abuse of the French.
That's not relevant to anything. I just thought it was funny.
We were talking about Roger Scruton last week. Here's an interesting review of one of his books at Craig Burrell's blog. The topic is education and its role in the transmission of culture. What happens when education is suborned to the repudiation and destruction of a traditional culture?
I begin to see the appeal of the individualized, even fractured model of education and culture (or, “culture”), for in troubled times it would, ironically, at least permit one to promote and pursue the traditional aims of education.
Sunday Night Journal, May 21, 2017
The new Twin Peaks started tonight on the ShowTime network. I'm not sure when I'll get to see it, as I don't get ShowTime. I guess it will be available online somehow sometime. It's a little late for me to be making this recommendation, but if you're a fan of the show, you should read this book as soon as you can, because I feel pretty sure it will shed some interesting light on the new series:
It's a sort of novel, written by Mark Frost, the co-creator of the series. It provides a great deal of fascinating background for the story by means of a wonderfully entertaining mixture of truth and fantasy. You learn a lot about people and events from the series, but you also get some history and context that are not even suggested by the series. For instance, the book opens with some odd incidents in the life, and odd circumstances about the death, of Meriwether Lewis, and works forward in time until shortly after the time of the original story, with a link to the present day. I'm expecting that link to be present in the new series; we'll see.
Frost obviously had a good time doing this, connecting the strange events in the town of Twin Peaks with all manner of conspiracy theories and popular lore about unexplained phenomena--UFOs, occultism. It made me think of some of the more interesting aspects of The X-Files, which in turn was (I hear) influenced by Twin Peaks. Frost weaves the secret history into real history very smoothly--the Lewis stories, for instance. Before I'd gotten very far into it I began checking references to any person or event presented as being known to real history, but unknown to me, and every one was genuine. (Shall I give you an instance? Would it be giving away too much? Well, here's one.)
And I had a very good time reading it. The premise is that in the present day a cache of documents relating to the town of Twin Peaks, its inhabitants, and certain events that occurred in the late 1980s, has been "recovered on 7-20-2016 from a crime scene." Deputy Director Gordon Cole has given it to an agent identified only by the initials T.P. for "comprehensive analysis, cataloging and cross-referencing.... We need to learn and verify the person or persons responsible for compiling this dossier...."
The book then consists of "documents" assembled by that unknown person, who refers to him or herself as "the archivist," typewritten annotations by him/her, and marginal notes from TP. It's a very elaborate physical production, and you can easily pretend that it's all genuine history, or at least I could. I noticed the other day that an audio version is available. Don't. That would at best be like reading a script instead of watching a film.
Obviously I don't want to give away anything important, but I can't resist a few remarks:
- I always did like Major Briggs a lot.
- Doug Milford is full of surprises.
- The Log Lady's attachment to her companion is eccentric but not crazy.
My wife gave me the book for Christmas last year. I started reading it, but when it reached the point in time where characters from the series began to appear, I realized that my recollection of the series was pretty spotty. So I stopped reading and over a period of weeks we watched the series again, and then the "prequel," and then I went back to the book.
I ended up being very impressed all over again with the series. Even the latter part of the second season, generally thought of as a mess and a letdown, seemed better than I remembered. I now feel fully prepared to watch the new series and hope it won't be a disappointment.
I deliberately refrained from reading any reviews or commentary on The Secret History because I didn't want to be prejudiced, or to learn anything that might have reduced the pleasure of reading it. And I still haven't read any. But I can imagine that some readers might be disappointed that it really does not answer a lot of questions that the series left open, questions about the specific events portrayed. I didn't feel that way, but others might. It's not about those events, and really only touches on them; it is, as the title says, about the history of the place, the forces at work there, and certain of the people; many characters from the series do not appear at all. And in what it does tell it not only leaves a lot of earlier questions unanswered, but raises new ones without answering them. It wouldn't really be true to Twin Peaks if it didn't.
And in one important respect the book is not Twin Peaks: it's not really very Lynchian, which is to say it's not seriously weird. It doesn't have the depth or mystery of the series, even though it's about mysterious things. But then the whole premise is that it's a strictly factual dossier.
In response to the related phenomena of Brexit and Donald Trump's rise, The New Criterion has been running a series of essays on populism (which naturally includes an effort to define the term, which is used pretty loosely). The seventh one, appearing in the March issue, is by Roger Scruton and is called "Representation and the People". The title refers to the tension between representative government and the direct, immediate wishes of the people. I won't try to summarize it, as it's long and fairly complex. But as part of his analysis Scruton illuminates an aspect of the Brexit and Trump movements which I think is very important. I'm going to excerpt it at length:
...democracies are held together by something stronger than politics. There is a “first person plural,” a pre-political loyalty, which causes neighbors who voted in opposing ways to treat each other as fellow citizens, for whom the government is not “mine” or “yours” but “ours,” whether or not we approve of it. Many are the flaws in this system of government, but one feature gives it an insuperable advantage over all others so far devised, which is that it makes those who exercise power accountable to those who did not vote for them. This kind of accountability is possible only if the electorate is bound together as a “we.” Only if this “we” is in place can the people trust the politicians to look after their interests....
But what happens when that trust disintegrates? In particular, what happens when the issues closest to people’s hearts are neither discussed nor mentioned by their representatives, and when these issues are precisely issues of identity—of “who we are” and “what unites us”? This, it seems to me, is where we have got to in Western democracies—in the United States just as much as in Europe. And recent events on both continents would be less surprising if the media and the politicians had woken up earlier to the fact that Western democracies—all of them without exception—are suffering from a crisis of identity. The “we” that is the foundation of trust and the sine qua non of representative government, has been jeopardized not only by the global economy and the rapid decline of indigenous ways of life, but also by the mass immigration of people with other languages, other customs, other religions, other ways of life, and other and competing loyalties. Worse than this is the fact that ordinary people have been forbidden to mention this, forbidden to complain about it publicly, forbidden even to begin the process of coming to terms with it by discussing what the costs and benefits might be.
Of course they have not been forbidden to discuss immigration in the way that Muslims are forbidden to discuss the origins of the Koran. Nor have they been forbidden by some express government decree. If they say the wrong things, they are not arrested and imprisoned—not yet, at least. They are silenced by labels—“racism,” “xenophobia,” “hate speech”—designed to associate them with the worst of recent crimes.... Hillary Clinton made the point in her election campaign, with her notorious reference to the “deplorables”—in other words, the people who bear the costs of liberal policies and respond to them with predictable resentments....
And when the pre-political “we” has, for whatever reason, been jeopardized, it is too late for the political process to deal with it. Emerging from behind the politics there then appears another and deeper question, the question who we are.
There's considerably more to the essay than this, and I think the whole thing is available online to non-subscribers, so I suggest you read it. But the deterioration of that 'pre-political "we"' is part of the reason that Trump was elected, and no doubt part of the reason for Brexit. And both those events have damaged it even further. Do committed Hillary voters feel that committed Trump voters have anything much in common with themselves? When left and right say "we" do they intend to include the other? Not that I can see. We're at a point in the U.S. where a presidential election is seen by one side as a sort of coup by the other, with dire consequences expected for the latter. I'm inclined to think the breach is irreparable, but maybe that's too pessimistic. Scruton himself proposes some attempts at repair.
We were discussing drinks last week. I seem to have invented one which I like very much. I more or less stumbled on it last summer one day when I wanted a martini. I was out of gin, and I don't consider vodka martinis to be martinis. So I messed around and ended up with vodka, vermouth (dry), lime slice (squeezed), and club soda. I make it roughly half-and-half alcohol and soda, but obviously that would be a matter of taste. It's really good if you like non-sweet drinks. There is no trace of sweetness in it at all.
As far as I've been able to determine by asking people and searching the web, it's not a known species. So I think I get to give it a name. I immediately thought of something related to moonlight. I wanted Half Moon, because that's the phase of the moon I enjoy most, when the moon is over the bay at the time I'm typically there. But Half Moon is already in use, as is Full Moon.
Bay Moon? Silvery Moon? Silver Moon? Feel free to vote and/or make suggestions. And fix yourself one, if you think it sounds good.
Sunday Night Journal, May 14, 2017
As you know if you read (or contributed to) the 52 Authors series a couple of years ago, I am a great fan of the mystery writer Ross Macdonald. "Ross Macdonald" was the pen name of Kenneth Millar. Most biographical notes included in the Macdonald books say something like this, from my 1973 Bantam printing of The Wycherly Woman: "[his wife] is now well known as the novelist Margaret Millar." I've been seeing that since I began reading Macdonald in the early '70s, but had never heard her name mentioned anywhere else, and supposed that she had been a sort of pop novelist whose work was no longer read. (I did, however, in the course of writing that 52 Authors piece about Macdonald, come across some signs that a revival of interest in her might be under way.)
I was mildly curious about her work but had never sought it out. Then a couple of months ago I saw a copy of Wives and Lovers at a library sale and grabbed it. I read it last week and can report that this instance at least of Millar's work is still very much worthwhile.
I started reading the book with low expectations but found myself getting excited: This is sort of interesting...This is not bad...This is pretty good...This is really good. By halfway through I was comparing her to Flannery O'Connor: "Flannnery O'Connor without the faith," I said to my wife. I've learned over the years to distrust my initial reaction, especially initial enthusiasm. So maybe the O'Connor comparison is a little too much, and maybe after a bit, or on a second reading, I'll back off a little from that. But this is not fluff, which I guess is what I was expecting. If nothing else, it is a very well-written novel.
It's what would once have been called a "woman's novel," and though it may not be polite to use it, I think the description is justified. I say that because the book is principally about four women--Elaine, Hazel, Ruth, and Ruby--and their relationships to each other and to the men in their lives. Elaine is married to a dentist, Gordon. Hazel is Gordon's assistant and the ex-wife of George, a restaurant owner (see the jacket cover). Ruth is Hazel's cousin; she has been a schoolteacher but, having suffered some sort of breakdown, is now unemployed and living with Hazel; she also baby-sits Elaine and Gordon's children. Ruby is a rootless young woman who is in love with Gordon, and he with her; George also develops a crush on her.
The story takes place in a small town on the California coast, which is where the Millars lived. Although the men are pretty crucial to the story, it is the women whose character is most thoroughly depicted and exposed. That latter word is the main reason for the O'Connor comparison: Millar is surgically skilled at portraying the ways people attempt to disguise from themselves their pursuit of selfish and malicious ends. She is particularly hard on Elaine, a cold and self-righteous woman who despises her husband and keeps him in line with the skillful exercise of a sort of psychological cattle prod. That may sound like a bit of a cliché, and maybe it is. The book was written in the early '50s and I think there was a sort of pop-psychology fashion at the time for blaming a lot of social problems on emasculating women. Maybe there's even some Freudianism lurking in the background of Wives and Lovers.
Well, okay, thinking about it a bit more, I'll concede that Elaine's malice and hypocrisy are a bit overdone. Still, overall it's a very well executed novel and very much worth reading. Here are a few bits that I marked:
Right was something you were going to do anyway, and if it didn't justify itself afterwards it became wrong.
George was an incurable optimist. Like an alcoholic who needs only one drink to set him off, George needed only one happy thought....[the "happy thought" that follows is completely without factual foundation]
Elaine folded her troubles away in one corner of her mind, neatly and carefully, so that it wouldn't be hard to find them again and unfold them as good as new.
"My land, the things that happen. The things that happen that aren't really anybody's fault."
"Something must have happened."
"Something always does."
The Republicans have produced a health care plan, and of course the Democrats have immediately denounced it as "the worst, most heartless, most cruel thing on earth, causing untold suffering and death." That's Neo-neocon being sarcastic, but it's really not much of an exaggeration of the Democrat/media reaction. I find the whole thing very depressing. I had had at least a faint hope that the Republicans might try to come up with a truly different approach rather than attempting to patch a crazy mess. In 2009, before Obamacare was even passed, I wrote this assessment of the situation. I know nothing in detail about health care policy, but I think it was accurate then and still is. That's possible because what we've been doing for so long is obviously mistaken in its broad outlines. You don't need to know the details of how an automobile works to recognize that a design that includes wings and propellers is not going to work very well. On this point in particular I was basically correct, except that it proved to be an even bigger problem than I thought:
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.
It didn't necessarily have to be that way. The Obama administration deliberately chose to force that conflict, and it's reasonable to assume that progressives implementing a national system will not let up in that effort. For today's progressives, "divisive" means "you're in my way."
One of Obamacare’s major architects, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, has just co-authored (with bioethicist Ronit Y. Stahl) a major attack on medical conscience in the New England Journal of Medicine. His position is that physicians must abandon their own moral sensibilities once they don the doctor’s coat.
(That's Wesley J. Smith writing in National Review, and I'm including the link for the sake of accuracy, but I don't recommend following it, as their web site seems to get worse all the time for hogging up system resources and generally behaving badly.)
Also, I would say now that we should be aiming for a system where small, routine expenses are not involved in the insurance system, and that medical insurance should be more like other forms of insurance (with some kind of government assistance for those who can't afford it). The employer as purchaser of insurance needs to be out of the picture altogether. I think it would be hard to overstate the damage this linkage has done and is doing. But if any politicians are trying to move us in that direction I haven't heard about it. At this point I think it quite likely that we will eventually have a government-run health care system, it will be extremely expensive and insanely complex, and, as noted, it will help to perpetuate the culture war.
Speaking of Neo-neocon: she has an amusing account of her experience tasting a reputedly very high-quality Scotch whiskey. Her quotation from a review of the whiskey amused me. I never really believe connoisseurs of whiskey, wine, and beer who detect flavors like "boggy peat, strawberry jam, and chocolate fudge." "Boggy peat," yes. I have no actual experience of tasting actual peat or peat bog water, but I find it very believable that it tastes a bit like Scotch (which is not to say that I dislike Scotch--it's not my favorite thing but I like it). But strawberry jam? Come on.
I tend to be skeptical of connoisseurs in general, and strongly suspect them of making things up. I consider that the correct sensitivity to various nuances in whiskey, wine, beer, audio, and most anything else is roughly mine. Anything less is cloddish, anything more is probably just a pose. But I once knew someone who believed that those who claim to be able to taste the difference between butter and margarine were lying, so maybe I'm just a clod.
With the Comey firing and even more with his raving and lying after it, Trump convinces me that I was right last year in saying "Donald Trump is not right in the head." I had hoped he would get better but he doesn't seem to be.
The gardenias are blooming. It's too bad you can't smell this one.
Sunday Night Journal, May 7, 2017
Well, I finally saw Manchester By the Sea. It was as good as everyone has said, and it deserved the honors it got. But I don't want to see it again: so much pain, and for me the artistry, as good as it is, is not enough to make me want to experience it again.
Addendum, on re-reading this after posting it: why do I not feel that way about Bergman's equally pain-filled films? Why do I actually own copies of most of his best ones? I don't have a very good answer for that, beyond the fact that Bergman's work just moves me more, and more deeply, and that this is in part at the fundamental level of imagery, character, and dialog. And I'd also say that in many instances Bergman often seems to show more spiritual depth.
I wish the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, commonly referred to as the Anglican Ordinariate, had a more concise and descriptive name. Or, failing that, a more vivid one, one with a bit of poetry in it. If you don't already know what it is, the name won't tell you. And that's a fairly big reservation to have about a name, although a pretty small reservation to have about the thing itself. We are not supposed to call it "the Anglican Ordinariate", because that apparently leads to the impression that we aren't Catholic.
If you don't know what it is, it's the structure so generously established by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 to allow people in the various Anglican churches to come over to Rome and bring with them whatever Anglican traditions and practices were compatible with Catholic faith, which is quite a lot. Click here to learn more. Actually I should be using the plural, as the St. Peter ordinariate is one of three: one in this country, one in the U.K., one in Australia. Each is a sort of non-geographic diocese.
I also wish it had come about earlier. In 1980 John Paul II implemented a somewhat similar but more limited arrangement, the Pastoral Provision. I can't recall the details now, but its applicability and availability were limited in ways that the Ordinariate is not, and some (including me) have speculated that if the Ordinariate had been instituted in 1980 it might have attracted more Anglicans than it is doing. By 2009 most Anglicans (including me) who were open to Catholicism had already converted on their own. And those who have stayed, either in the Episcopal Church (or the Church of England, etc., as applicable), or in various "continuing Anglican" bodies, have made their peace with the situation.
It looked for a couple of years there as if the Ordinariates were going to languish and fade. And they may still. Certainly they aren't doing as well--i.e., attracting as many people--as was initially hoped. But recently things have been looking up a bit.
One significant development concerned Our Lady of the Atonement parish in San Antonio. It was the first parish established under the Pastoral Provision, and it has been very successful. It's a large and thriving parish with a well-regarded school. Some months ago a crisis arose there. The Pastoral Provision parishes are ordinary diocesan parishes, their main distinction being their liturgy. Atonement wanted to join the Ordinariate. The local bishop tried to stop them, removing their pastor and directing him
to dedicate some time to reflect on some specific concerns that I have shared with him. These specific concerns relate to expressions in the life of the parish that indicate an identity separate from, rather than simply unique, among the parishes of the archdiocese.
Apparently this meant, being interpreted, "I have no intention of allowing this parish to leave my diocese." The parishioners were up in arms. A crisis ensued. Appeal was made to Rome, and the decision did not go the bishop's way: not only was Atonement allowed to join the Ordinariate, but "the Vatican"--I'm not sure whether it was the pope or some bureau--decreed that all the Pastoral Provision parishes would become part of the Ordinariate. As, obviously it seems to me, they should. There aren't many of them, but I think several have been quite successful, so their inclusion strengthens the Ordinariate.
My own tiny local group, The Society of St. Gregory the Great, seemed for a while at death's door. Our founding priest had literally been there, having suffered a heart attack that would have killed him if he hadn't been near a hospital. Due to problems related to that initial attack, he has not been able to return to active ministry and now, though only in his mid-30s, is considered legally disabled. We have been in existence since 2012, had a few people come in early on, and then lost some of them. We could not, obviously, continue without a priest. But a local priest who was a former Anglican volunteered to celebrate Mass every other week for us. Then a few months ago an Ordinariate priest, retired from the Episcopal Church, moved to the area. And now we have Mass every Sunday again. And at Easter (well, actually the week after Easter, due to some logistical problems) we received two converts. And several new people have begun attending regularly, either Latin Rite Catholics who just like our liturgy, or potential converts.
So. As far as I'm concerned, the Ordinariate in this country at large, and locally, is Not Dead Yet. The mustard seed has sprouted, and may yet grow in to a tree, and the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.
Assuming that Pope Francis himself decreed that the Pastoral Provision parishes would become part of the Ordinariate, I'm grateful to him. But I thought he was somewhat unfair to some young people in remarks he made last week: "I think of the many young people in the Church today who have fallen into the temptation of rigidity."
I know such young people exist. But "many"? I would have said "a few." A miniscule number, surely, in comparison to those who are so far from being rigid that they have hardly any conception of what it means to be a Catholic. He is probably thinking of those inclined to be traditionalist in liturgy etc. But I know several young people (under 40 at least, some under 30) who want a rich liturgy, and who take the teachings of the Church seriously. I would not call any of them "rigid," self-righteous, or anything of that sort. My Ordinariate group would not exist without them.
Over the past year or so I undertook a couple of more or less organized classical music listening projects, getting acquainted with related works I either had never heard or had heard only piecemeal. One of these was Bruckner's symphonies. I had heard some of the earlier ones a couple of times and never been all that taken with them. This time I started with the 1st (I skipped the 0th) and listened to each one three times before going on to the next. Those three times typically weren't all that close together, just because life doesn't make such things convenient, and I took a long break after the 5th because I was getting a bit tired of Bruckner.
I wish I had made some notes as I went, because now I can't remember which symphonies, and which movements, I liked best. In general it tended to be whichever I had most recently heard. So if you'd asked me a couple of weeks ago I might have said the 9th, despite the fact that it's unfinished. Rob G's account of attending a performance of the 8th caused me to listen to it again last week, and I think maybe it takes the prize. Definitely I like it better than the 9th, and although if I work my way back down the list I know I'll find individual movements that I like as well, this may be my favorite as a whole. The Adagio seems almost literally heavenly.
It's hard not to compare Bruckner to Mahler, both of them composers of monumental late-Romantic symphonies, but as of now I have to say I like Mahler a little more. That's not necessarily healthy. Bruckner, a solidly faithful Catholic, is fundamentally serene, however effectively he may blow your socks off in his grandest moments. The jacket illustrations of Bruckner recordings tend toward mountains and other majestic scenes, and there's a good reason for that. But as I said after I'd heard Bruckner's first three or so, to a friend who also loves Mahler but doesn't (yet) know Bruckner, there's more pain in Mahler, more anguished yearning, and I guess I like that.