Sunday Night Journal 2018 Feed

The Last Sunday Night Journal, December 30, 2018

And this time I really mean it. (But I'm going to continue the blog; more on that in a moment.)

It's always funny to see someone make a decision, then change his mind, then change it back again. Those who have been reading this blog for a long time know that the Sunday Night Journal ended in 2012, then was brought back in 2017. Those who have been reading the SNJ for a really long time know that it started in 2004, and that Light On Dark Water was not a blog, but rather a hand-coded web site, created partly so that I could fool around with HTMLc which i needed to do for my job. (Here is the very first post: my review, if you want to call it that, of the movie The Return of the King.) I turned it into a blog in 2006, and I think it was then that I began doing miscellaneous posts apart from the SNJ. So Light On Dark Water in its several incarnations has been around for fourteen full years now.

Anyway: that 2012 ending also occurred on December 30. And the post that announced it still serves reasonably well as a description of the general movement of the times, and my opinion thereof: here it is

Since then the book I mentioned has been published, by me, designed by one of my children. It's called Sunday Light and there is some good stuff in it, though it's a miscellany and so not very unified. Few copies have been sold. It was never going to be a big seller, but if the author had made some sort of attempt at promotion it might have sold somewhat more. Or maybe it still will--here's the Amazon listing, and your local independent bookstore can order it at a better price from Ingram.

I've completed another book, a sort of combination of memoir and socio-cultural observation revolving around the cultural revolution of the '60s. It's tentatively titled Som Great Thing (sic) and is currently being read by a small publisher, and I have a sinking feeling that its both-fish-and-fowl nature leaves it not very tasty as either.

That post discussed the significance of Obama winning a second term. I did not of course so much as imagine, much less predict, the Trump phenomenon. Still, I think the general drift described in the post has continued: "it would seem that the future of Christianity in the United States appears to be troubled at best."

Three years later the Obergefell decision made it the law of our land that the word "marriage" no longer refers to something which intrinsically, by its very nature, involves the union of man and woman. I think one of the deep psychological currents of our time is a desire to deny and escape reality, and this decision is a landmark in that movement. One could go on at length describing phenomena in which this desire plays a role, but the sex-related ones are particularly emblematic, because sex is the great obsession of our time. 

Many cogent arguments against this change in the concept of marriage have been made. But from the time the debate got really serious, around the same time I started this site, I thought the opponents (of whom I am one) were going to lose. I remember a specific moment when this hit me: when a Catholic commenting on a post on a Catholic blog (Amy Welborn's) scoffed at the opposition with the question "How does same-sex marriage damage my marriage?" It's a flippant and essentially irrelevant response, a cousin of "If you don't like pornography, don't watch it," but apparently it  seems telling to a lot of people. If Catholics, and not just any Catholics but readers of an orthodox Catholic blog, were looking at it this way, what hope was there?

It seemed to me from the beginning that if you did not instantly and intuitively see that the idea that two people of the same sex can be married in any reasonable sense of that word, that men can have husbands and women can have wives, is a contradiction in terms, and therefore implied the redefinition of the terms, then there was probably almost no chance that you could be argued into changing your mind. A few experiments supported this perception.

Since then this particular front in the sexual revolution has advanced in two ways. There is the transgender movement, which takes the defiance of reality much further, insisting that a man can become a woman simply by declaring that he is one, and vice versa. That might seem only a bit of lunacy, except for the other advance, toward coercion. The activists who are pushing these efforts to redefine fundamental human realities are now attempting not so much to gain acceptance of their ideas as to quash dissent from them. I suppose this was inevitable. Since you cannot actually change reality by changing the words you use to describe it and the concepts by means of which you think about it, and since a quite large number of people won't willingly cooperate, you have to resort to a sort of force.

Progressive activists have the support of the most powerful and influential segments of society--entertainment, journalism, the academy, and apart from the Trump anomaly the government. They've been pretty successful at setting themselves up as Martin Luther King v. 2.0, and happily branding any opposition as bigotry, which is the greatest of evils and must be suppressed. In accordance with this logic, they will not only attempt to deprive an opponent of his livelihood and as far as possible ruin his life, but feel a warm glow of virtue when they do so. Rod Dreher's blog at The American Conservative documents a continuing stream of accounts of intimidation and suppression against people who dissent on these and other progressive issues.

This is the reality that Christians are going to have to live in, and as Dreher constantly and plausibly insists, it's only going to get worse. For Catholics, the continuing discoveries of corruption, especially corruption related to homosexual activity within the priesthood and the episcopacy, mean that the Church may not feel like much of a help in this struggle. 

We're living through a new phase in the long metamorphosis of Western-Christian-Euro-American civilization into something else. What that something else is going to be, I don't know. The signs point to something like Huxley's Brave New World, but I doubt that such a thing is really possible. The tension between the desire for that thing and the intractable nature of reality is going to be intense, already is intense, with effects that I can't even guess at.

The faith will survive, though as so many have said, we are not promised that it will survive among great numbers of people. Still, who knows but that a flight from the flight from reality will begin, perhaps sooner than we think, though at my age I can't expect to see a significant change.

Back to the blog: I did consider giving it up altogether, the better to focus on other writing. But I really would miss it, especially the conversations. I extrapolate from my own experience that when more than a week or two or three goes by without new posts on a blog, readers tend to abandon it. So I'm going to try to post at least once a week, but not on a strict schedule. It's really the strict schedule that's causing me to stop the SNJ. And I'm going to try to stick more closely to the books, music, movies subject matter that I set out as my emphasis in the beginning--seen, as always, through Catholic eyes. I'm sure I'll give vent now and then to commentaries like this one, but when I get the urge I plan to ask myself, in a very skeptical tone, "Do you really need to write about this?" .


Oh, and by the way, about the whole business of any opposition to the goals of LGBTetc activism being labeled "bigotry": that really doesn't work on me. I've often laughed silently to myself while listening to some young progressive talk about older people being "bigots" on this matter because they've "never known a gay person," and so on. I usually don't say anything, partly because I know that attempting to defend oneself against such charges only makes the accuser more indignant and more certain that you're guilty. And partly because--and I'm sorry, I know this is not nice--it amuses me a little that he or she is in fact speaking very foolishly but doesn't know it. 

But I'm going to say this, just once, to get it off my chest: I started college in 1966. I was very much a part of the bohemian, literary, artsy, left-wing, counter-culture scene. I continued to live in that same college town and to socialize in the same circles for the next ten years and more. To save you the trouble of calculating, I'll point out that this included the early and mid '70s, the years when David Bowie and glam-rock were wildly popular and gayness was very fashionable. 

Do you really think I didn't know any gay people? Do you think I didn't have any gay friends? If anything I tend to rather like gay men than not--I mean, I'm fairly far off the norm myself, in my dull way, and there's a better than average chance that we have some common interests. Whenever this matter comes up, my memory for some reason immediately goes to a moment in the Chukker, a Tuscaloosa bar famous as a bohemian hangout. I was sitting with a lesbian friend when a pretty girl walked by and we burst out laughing because we realized that we were both ogling her. God bless you, Beth, wherever you are. 


Just another sunset.

JustAnotherSunset (2)

Sunday Night Journal, December 23, 2018

It must be close to twenty years ago that I wrote a science-fiction story in which Christmas had been replaced by "Holiday." (That wasn't a major part of the story, just a passing remark by a character.) I thought it was clever at the time, but it soon became an interesting and personal reiteration of a lesson I had long since drawn from the work of others: that when the real future gets here it's likely to make past imagined ones look dated at best, and absurd at worst. That usage is now expected in many situations and effectively mandatory in others.

Some years ago (less than twenty, not less than ten) I began to notice it in my workplace. No one insisted upon it, but I could see that certain co-workers, especially those very much aware of prevailing cultural winds in the academy, said "Happy Holidays" in a way that was just ever so slightly self-conscious, almost pointed. And to say "Merry Christmas" to them, one realized, was a bit of a faux pas. And some of these were highly-placed people, whom their subordinates did not wish to offend. It made the exchange a little awkward, a little uneasy. To call this an exercise in political correctness would not be completely wrong, but it was also in part a genuine desire to be "inclusive" and considerate, though it was a little peculiar at a small Catholic college where both parties were usually at-least-nominal Christians. 

Soon, of course, the matter became an explicit skirmish in the culture wars, with Christians, especially politically right-wing Christians, denouncing "the war on Christmas." That was rather an exaggeration. But as with those who so scrupulously avoided using the C-word, they weren't completely wrong, either. Trump was able to score points with them by including in his list of great things that would happen if he were president the item "We're going to say 'Merry Christmas' again." I wonder if it occurred to him that if your "Merry Christmas" is administered to your political enemies as a blow to the face you're not altogether in the right spirit.

Arguments about a war on Christmas seem to have died down somewhat now. Culturally we've reached a point where Holiday really has replaced Christmas for most public purposes, and I guess we're all coming to take it for granted. I almost never watch commercial television--that is, old-school television, where whatever you're watching is interrupted frequently by advertisements. Unfortunately the thing that necessitates the "almost" is college football. And a little bit of pro football. And unfortunately these mostly occur in the three months preceding Christmas, and after Thanksgiving almost every advertisement involves "the holidays." I can hardly stand them, and I don't know what I'd do if there were no such thing as a "mute" button on the remote control. There's the grotesque consumerism itself, such as the commercial in which a young man has bought himself and his wife (or girlfriend), as "holiday" presents, giant SUVs which probably cost at least $40,000 each. And there's the scrupulous avoidance of any mention of the religious content of "the holidays." I'm going to stifle my impulse to complain at length about these. It serves no purpose and anyway everyone knows what I'm talking about. 

There was a time when the commercialism and American Christmas customs coexisted. The distinction was there, though I think it was often unnoticed. Even as a child in the 1950s I was vaguely aware that some of the "Christmas" paraphernalia had nothing to do with Christmas. I distinctly remember wondering why some advertisements said "Season's Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas." I think I was in my early teens when it suddenly dawned on me that "Winter Wonderland" and several other songs associated with the season had no connection at all to the Christian celebration. 

But even as a child in the 1950s I was vaguely aware--I guess I could say unconsciously aware, if that isn't contradictory--that without Christmas, Holiday would be an empty thing. This was true even though I was vastly more interested in the presents I would be getting than in the birth of Christ. Somehow I knew that to remove the stable and the shepherds and the angels and Mary and Joseph and the baby from the picture would take the life out of it all. 

The disconnect between Holiday and Christmas grew over the years, but they were still closely enough associated that the former had much of the allure of the latter for me. That's pretty well over now. Part of the reason, I guess, is the jadedness of age, but in any case I've been slowly reaching a point of almost complete indifference to Holiday. It's a little sad, or more than a little, because I miss that old feeling.

The loss has some advantages: appreciation of Advent, for one. I find it difficult in our culture to focus on Advent. And yet I very much want to, which has not always been the case for me. And Christmas itself means more now, much more. The sad and shallow frenzy of Holiday is now becoming part of the darkness, a pathetic attempt to strike a few sparks that kindle no lasting flame. 

And so I still enjoy the lights, even if they're only Holiday lights. At night you don't necessarily see the difference. I have imagined what might easily be the case ten or fifteen or twenty years from now, when I might be unable to get out by myself, hoping or asking that someone would take me out one night a day or two before Christmas so that I could see the lights and think of Christmas Past and Christmas Yet to Come.

These thoughts were flitting through my head one night last weekend as I sat in my car waiting to make a left turn onto Highway 72 in Athens, Alabama, looking at a house across the way, its roof outlined in lights which, though unspectacular as these things go, were for me nevertheless expressive. 


Sunday Night Journal, December 16, 2018

I have to report that I'm not enthusiastic about Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. On the basis of this and the one other PKD novel I've read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I guess I'm not enthusiastic about his work in general. In both cases, however, I read the book after having seen an excellent movie or TV series based on it, and thus couldn't avoid having at least some of my expectations set in advance.

Androids, as you probably know, is the rather loose source for the movie Blade Runner, which most critics, including me (I mean, if you define critic as "a person who has an opinion"), consider one of the best science-fiction films ever made. It's very potent emotionally. The novel is not, at least it wasn't for me. The characters never engaged me or even seemed particularly real, and I felt very little sense of drama in the story--which, again, makes it compare poorly with the movie.

More or less the same thing is true of The Man in the High Castle. As you probably know, the premise of the story is that it's an alternate history in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. The idea obviously has a lot of dramatic potential. Although I had a good many reservations about the Amazon TV series, it did deliver on that potential fairly well. Comparing the book to an expensively and skillfully produced ten-hour TV series (to limit the comparison to Season 1 only) may seem unfair, but I can think of several such comparisons where the book very much holds its own even to a very well-done adaptation (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for instance).

The novel seems pretty slight, and I suspect that most people who come to it after watching the series would find it so. Apart from the basic concept, and half a dozen or so of the major characters--Frank, Juliana, Togomi, Childan, a few others--the two don't have all that much in common. It's almost--not quite, but almost--as if the producers of the series took those elements and wrote their own story. After the first season, that's definitely true. 

The novel takes place almost entirely in the Japanese-ruled Pacific states, the rest in the neutral Rocky Mountain region. We get no sense at all of what life is like in the American Reich, apart from the fact that the Nazis have remained monsters in the roughly fifteen years since the end of the war, and if anything are worse than ever, having turned their genocidal mania on the whole African continent. (Obergruppenführer John Smith, from the TV show, does not exist in the book.) The Japanese are portrayed fairly sympathetically, somewhat more so than in the series. Dick clearly has a fondness and fascination for Japanese culture. The I Ching plays a bigger role in the novel and in fact is a major presence in it. (In passing: if Dick is accurate, the I Ching, which is Chinese, is more important in Japanese culture than I would have thought.)

Well, it's tempting but would probably be tiresome to go on with a comparison of book to film. I think the book would seem slight even without the comparison. It seems basically cerebral. For me at any rate it held very little dramatic tension. The premise, the characters, and the events that ought to make for a very good story are there, but the intensity is not. And I doubt that anyone has ever claimed that the author writes memorable prose.

I felt more or less the same way about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Now I'm thinking that PKD may be basically a novelist of ideas. But what ideas? I'm not really sure. I gather from his Wikipedia article that he held (or played with?) somewhat gnostic metaphysical and spiritual ideas, the sort of thing that sometimes appeals to the sort of person who has both philosophical and scientific interests--who wants, for instance, to somehow combine or reconcile Taosim and advanced physics. Actually he seems to have been a bit crazy, in the way that a very smart person who has a great drive to fit everything into a mental scheme can be--Chesterton's logician who wants to get the heavens into his head. Maybe more than a bit crazy, actually. 

The Man in the High Castle seems to conclude with some sort of revelation, but I'm not sure what it is. It may be that the novel's reality is not the real reality, that the world where the Allies won the war is the really real one. But then Who's To Say What's Real Anyway? And to be honest I'm not all that interested. 

Merits of the novel as novel aside, I was disappointed in my main reason for reading it, which was to find out more about the films possessed by the mysterious title character which are of such crucial importance in the TV series. They don't exist in the book. The only testimony to a world in which the Germans and Japanese lost the war is a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the title character, the man in the high castle, Hawthorne Abendsen. Cool name.


Here's something I meant to post last week. Stu sent me the link to this article about the farmhouse in rural France which W. S. Merwin bought in the early '60s and still owns, though he apparently doesn't live there most of the time. The somewhat surrealistic poems that he was writing then touch occasionally something that seems to belong in just such a place--a door, a wall, a stone, a path--and I always thought it was a place where he lived, or had lived. This is very much like what I imagined, though the one in my imagination was much closer to being a ruin, which will not surprise you if you know those poems. 


Another LP from the closet: Joni Mitchell's Hejira. Released in 1976, it was the successor to The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which I wrote about few months ago, and it's just as good. I'd be hard put to choose one over the other, either for my own listening or as a recommendation. Musically they're fairly similar, though the instrumentation on Hejira is sparser overall--but it also has on several tracks the amazing Jaco Pastorius on bass. The lyrics on Hejira are somewhat more focused on herself and her romances than on Summer Lawns. Here's one of the best songs, "Amelia." It's one of Joni Mitchell's best songs, period, which is saying a lot: as a matter of personal taste she's not my favorite artist, but she's certainly among the major talents to have emerged from the '60s pop wave. 

I'm very glad that I have these two albums on LP, because the covers, which Mitchell designed, are beautiful (and on Summer Lawns include her own drawings). They're so good that I went to my local record store and bought, on LP, the two albums that came out after this one and which I've never heard, Mingus and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. I'm sure I will be reporting on them in due time.

Used LPs, by the way. I'm shocked at what people are paying for new ones. I certainly never thought vinyl would come back, and when it did start to come back I thought it would be a short-lived fad. But there's no sign of it going away that I can see.


As I have mentioned, we don't get much brilliant color here in the fall from the trees that actually choose to lose their leaves. But if you look closely you can still see some beauty even in the dull sycamore leaves, especially when they retain some of their green.


Sunday Night Journal, December 9, 2018

I have long been under the impression that All the King's Men is about a populist demagogue similar to Huey Long. Having read the book at last, I don't think that's quite right. It's closer than saying that Macbeth is about Duncan, but it's off the mark in that general direction. All the King's Men does indeed chronicle the rise and fall of the politician Willie Stark, but the real subject of the book is the narrator, Jack Burden, who is Stark's close adviser and assistant and sometimes what would be called today his political "fixer." If you've seen House of Cards (the U.S. version), think of Doug Stamper. 

The story takes place in the 1920s and '30s in an unnamed coastal Southern state that could be Louisiana, Mississippi, or maybe Alabama--the descriptions of the town where Burden is from sounds to me more like the Mississippi coast. Stark is a country boy without money or connections who is elected treasurer of his home county. In that role he resists a corrupt deal pushed by the people who run the place, and although he is expelled from local politics his resistance is spectacularly vindicated, and he attracts attention from outside. Jack Burden is a newspaper reporter in a larger city (perhaps the capitol, I'm not sure) sent to cover the story.

From this point on their lives are joined. Stark is flattered by powerful politicians into running for governor, not grasping that their purpose is only for him to take votes from a candidate they oppose. He pours his heart and all his energy into running as an earnest reformer with a fistful of detailed plans, loses badly, and soon discovers that he has been manipulated. And then he discovers that he himself has quite a talent for manipulating people, not only the voters but the people behind the scenes, and begins to exercise his gifts ruthlessly. Burden leaves his newspaper job and goes to work for him. Together they are especially effective at the political technique of more or less blackmailing people by threatening them with exposure of dirty secrets. Stark's anger at the wealthy and powerful and his desire to improve life for the people of the state are genuine, but his methods are demagoguery and "busting"--that is, ruining the lives--of those who oppose him.

Burden is in many ways Stark's opposite: he is from an old, wealthy, and powerful family, well-connected to other such families. And it is the drama of his life, his family, and two other families close to his, that is the real center of the novel. Stark's rise, which of course is in the foreground publicly, is almost in the background of the novel, serving as the engine which drives developments in Burden's story. We don't hear many of the details of that rise. In fact it's already a fait accompli when the novel opens, some fifteen years after Burden's first meeting with Stark. Stark is now governor, and running for another term. Burden, who among other things is ruthlessly effective at what we now call opposition research, is directed by Stark to find some dirt on a Judge Irwin, a prominent man who opposes Stark. They are driving back from a late-night meeting with the Judge at which he has made clear his disdain for Stark:

The Boss said, "Well, Jackie, it looks like you got a job cut out for you."

And I said, "Callahan?"

And he said, "Nope, Irwin."

And I said, "I don't reckon you will find anything on Irwin."

And he said, "You find it."

We bored on into the dark for another twenty miles and eighteen minutes....

At about the end of that eighteen minutes and twenty miles, I said, "But suppose I don't find anything before election day?"

The Boss said, "To hell with election day...if it takes ten years, you find it."

We clocked off five miles more, and I said, "But suppose there isn't anything to find?"

And the Boss said, "There is always something."

And I said "Maybe not on the Judge."

And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

Two miles more, and he said, "And make it stick."....

Little Jackie made it stick, all right.

Those are the closing words of the first chapter. You figure when you read them that they are setting the stage for something, and you're right. The rest of the book can be seen as a working out of the significance of that exchange, and the working-out involves not only what will happen but what has happened, and how the has-happened affects the will-happen--not determining it, quite, but driving it, not beyond the reach of free will to change it, but to an end which is inevitable unless a deliberate and determined act of will prevents it.

Narrative, character, and effective prose are the essential components of a good novel. (In that order? I think so.) This one gets five stars (out of five) on all counts. I haven't read any of Faulkner's Big Books for some years, but I have been inclined to think them just a bit over-rated. Not that they aren't extremely good, but that they aren't quite as good as they are commonly considered. I thought of Faulkner often while reading All the King's Men, and what I was thinking was this is like Faulkner, but better. Just as rich, but more clear, in both its sentence-level detail and its broad narrative. It moves back and forth in time, as Faulkner often does, but the pieces seem both more distinct in themselves and more clear in their relation to the whole; it is truly a story, not a meditation upon a story, as Faulkner's approach sometimes tends to be. (Take that comparison as an impression, not a considered judgment, as I might change my mind when or if I re-read Faulkner.)

Warren's descriptive passages are extensive and fecund, like Faulkner's, and some might feel that they are excessive. Some indeed might feel that the book is somewhat over-written. But I didn't find it so; for me it's one of those books, like Moby Dick, of which I can say that I enjoyed every word, or almost. I especially liked the rich atmosphere of the many scenes set on the coast, which is a good deal like the area where I've lived since 1992.

Philosophically the book is for the most part quite grim. Here is Stark trying to persuade an idealistic doctor who thinks very badly of him to run the hospital Stark wants to build:

Goodness. Yeah, just plain, simple goodness. Well you can't inherit that from anybody. You got to make it, Doc. If you want it. And you got to make it out of badness. Badness. And you know why, Doc?" He raised his bulk up in the broken-down wreck of an overstuffed chair he was in, and leaned forward, his hands on his knees, his elbows cocked out, his head outthrust and the hair coming down into his eyes, and stared into Adam's face. "Out of badness," he repeated. "And you know why? Because there isn't anything else to make it out of."

Stark again, trying to persuade Jack to use ruinous information against someone:

He kept on studying me. "Boy," he said then, "I'm not asking you to frame him. I never asked you to frame anybody. Did I?"


"Because it ain't ever necessary. You don't ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient."

"You sure take a high view of human nature," I said.

"Boy," he said, "I went to a Presbyterian Sunday school back in the days when they still had some theology, and that much of it stuck. And--" he grinned suddenly--"I have found it very valuable."

Quite grim, that is, until the end. This goes on my very short list of books that I not only may read again, but intend to read again. It has also made me interested in reading more of Warren, with whom I previously had only slight acquaintance, though I've always been very aware of his importance, in Southern literature especially.


It's satsuma time here. This truck appears at a farm a few miles out of town around this time every year. Aside from it being a source of delicious satsumas, it represents something which I am always happy to see and which I hope will survive. You probably can't read that little T-shaped note on the box directly below the word "Now." It says "Pay Here," with an arrow pointing to a locked box where you deposit your money. I think it's wonderful that people are at least mostly honest enough that this works.


Sunday Night Journal, December 2, 2018

I find that I'm unable to stick with the intention of only reading one book at a time, so I try to limit myself to two, one fiction and one non-fiction. But I've just broken that, too, by starting Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle before finishing Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. (The non-fiction is Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise.) I had looked for Man in the High Castle at the library a month or so ago after watching the third series in the Amazon adaptation, but it was checked out. Yesterday my wife happened to be going to the library, so I asked her to see if the book was back on the shelf. It was, she got it for me, and now I have to finish it within two weeks, because it's on her card. As King's Men is pretty long and I'm only halfway through it, I thought I'd better go ahead and get started on High Castle

I'm only a few chapters in so have no opinion yet beyond the fact that it's interesting, but I was struck by this exchange between a Nazi artist and a Swedish businessman. (For those who don't know, the book is set in approximately 1960 in an alternate universe where the Germans and the Japanese won the Second World War.) 

"Afraid I do not care for modern art," [the Swede] said. "I like the old prewar cubists and abstractionists. I like a picture to mean something, not merely to represent the idea." He turned away.

"But that's the task of art," [the artist] said. "To advance the spirituality of man, over the sensual. Your abstract art represented a period of spiritual decadence, of spiritual chaos, due to the disintegration of society, the old plutocracy."

As a skeptic toward the religion of High Art, I enjoyed this. The notion that art is always on the way toward something ever more antagonistic to the ordinary and human has been a harmful one, and accounts for some of the pathologies, especially in the current visual arts scene. To have cubists and the like put in the position of being the old fogies is amusing. But of course in this picture the cure is considerably worse than the disease. If you don't know what Nazi art was like, see this Wikipedia article.

Nazi art resembles Communist art, for reasons that should be obvious, and which I will leave you to figure out for yourself if you don't think they're obvious. Art driven by ideology is generally bad, and if it succeeds it's in spite of the ideology, not because of it. And art driven by totalitarian ideology is some of the worst.

This got me to thinking of a topic that comes up now and again among conservatives: someone asks "Why aren't there more conservative artists?" and that's often followed by a list of books and music and movies that are either produced by conservatives or have a conservative message. (Of course there have plenty of artists who could broadly be described as "conservative," though not necessarily in the contemporary sense. T.S. Eliot, for instance.)

The subject came up on Rod Dreher's blog one day last week, and I responded with a comment which I can't find now but which was something along the lines of "The term 'conservative art' nauseates me." It makes me think first of Ayn Rand's awful fiction (she wasn't a conservative, but she was right-wing), and then of those lists. I can sum up the way the lists tend to go by saying that the Beatles' "Taxman" is always on them. It's a good song, or rather a good track, because while I like the music the words are not very interesting. Is griping about taxes really a very important aspect of conservatism?

Such discussions and such lists always make me think that if there were somewhere a master list of conservatives and my name was on it, I would take it off. After an initial period of resistance ca. 1980, I long ago acquiesced to the fact that "conservative" is a more or less accurate description of my political views. But as someone said once the term is descriptive, not prescriptive, and sometimes it's much more less than more, especially when I see the term defined with some such formula as "free markets and strong defense." Russell Kirk always insisted that conservatism is the negation of ideology. 

Well, few things are duller to me now than an attempt to define The Nature of True Conservatism, so I won't go off on that path. Almost as dull is the discussion of how Liberal and Conservative Are Inadequate Descriptions Of Contemporary Political Reality, so I won't go off on that path, either. But that one's dull for a very different reason: it's so plainly true that discussing it seems to be unnecessary. The gap between anything that the terms can reasonably be said to mean, and the beliefs and behavior of the parties to which the labels are still attached, is so great that they serve no purpose except for distinguishing two things that are, whatever you call them, still pretty different from each other in principle, and very different with respect to what they want.

Also last week...or was it the week before?...someone on Facebook linked to this piece at The Week (which by the way seems to be a somewhat balanced publication, socio-politically speaking). It's about the possibility of splitting the U.S. into separate nations as a way of dealing with our deep and seemingly intractable divisions. In discussing that, I found myself discarding "left," "right," "liberal," "conservative," and the like in favor of the conceptually empty but politically and culturally significant Red and Blue. I think I'm going to continue that. The terms are functionally intelligible, and they allow one to discuss the division without getting bogged down in definitions.

Of course as I'm always saying we don't actually need to split the country. We only need to accept its diversity and quit attempting to impose uniform national rules in matters where there is deep disagreement. But--and I think I said this in the Red-Blue comment I just mentioned--I think Red would be willing to accept that (though unhappily), but Blue wouldn't, because of its quasi-religious sense of mission. (I think I'll refrain from following that line of thought at the moment, because I want to finish this post fairly quickly.)

In any case it does seem to me that the great American experiment in republican government is coming to an end. There are many reasons, but the one that makes the situation seem hopeless is that the number of citizens who really want it to continue is diminishing. I suspect that human nature makes human government tend more or less automatically toward the monarchical and autocratic. There are many, many signs that both Red and Blue are going this way, knowing little and caring less about the scheme of government defined in our constitution. Red's enthusiasm for Donald Trump is one such. I mock those who think Trump is a Nazi, but that doesn't mean that he wouldn't be a dictator if he could; it's just that Nazism is far (far, far) more than that. And Blue has been for a long time now plainly longing for a king-messiah, and thought it had found one in Barack Obama, which is why Trump's occupation of the throne is simply intolerable to those on that side.

And then there's the outcry against the Electoral College. And, very strangely, the notion that if Blue (i.e. Democrats) gets more votes, in nationwide total, in congressional elections than Red (i.e. Republicans), then Blue ought by rights to have control, and that if it does not an injustice has been done. It's hard to overstate how bizarre that is when considered in light of our actual form of government. Kevin Williamson said it well:

The Democrats don’t seem to understand what it is they are really fighting, which, in no small part, is not the Republicans but the constitutional architecture of the United States. The United States is, as the name suggests, a union of states, which have interests, powers, and characters of their own. They are not administrative subdivisions of the federal government. All that talk about winning x percent of the “national House vote” or the “national Senate vote” — neither of which, you know, exists — is a backhanded way of getting at the fact that they do not like how our governments are organized, and that they would prefer a more unitary national government under which the states are so subordinated as to be effectively inconsequential. They complain that, under President Trump, “the Constitution is hanging by a thread” — but they don’t really much care for the actual order established by that Constitution, and certainly not for the limitations it puts on government power through the Bill of Rights and other impediments to étatism.

A simple nationwide democracy might or might not be a good idea (I think not, but for the sake of argument can admit that it might not). But it is not the system we have. I don't know what will replace the republic. We probably won't really feel the difference for a long time. It won't even necessarily be bad, or all bad, but it won't be the "constitutional architecture," as Williamson calls it.


All the King's Men is great, by the way, and I'm sure I will have something to say about it when I've finished it, presumably by next week.


Also by the way: I am almost certainly going to end the Sunday Night Journal at the end of the year. I'm finding it too burdensome to devote several hours every Sunday to it. I'm considering ending the blog altogether, but I probably won't do that. Most likely I'll keep it going, but revert to posting whenever I have something I want to say, and the emphasis will be on books and music and film/tv. That will probably reduce the readership, which is not that high anyway: as best I can tell from the site stats, there are somewhere between 100 and 200 people who read the blog regularly. That's minuscule in comparison to very popular blogs. But to increase that number would probably require posting much more often and about more controversial topics, and I don't want to do that.


Usually the photos I post here are recent, but this one is from 2009. Yesterday on the way to Mass we passed a gingko tree in full autumn glow. I didn't have time to take a picture of it, but I remembered a set I had taken at Spring Hill College. 


It was windy today, and on the way back from church it seemed to me that there were many fewer leaves on the gingko than there had been several hours earlier. A girl who looked to be about thirteen or so was taking a picture of her companion who was stretched out on the golden carpet.

Sunday Night Journal, November 25, 2018

Terrence Malick's Tree of Life was released in May of 2011, so it must have been at least sometime in that year that I saw it. Surely I mentioned it here...oh yes, I saw it in August of that year, and here's the brief post I wrote about it. An interesting conversation follows in the comments. 

I saw it in a theater--a small independent one, not a grand one made for big spectaculars, but still vastly superior to home. We didn't even have a flat-screen TV at the time. And contrary to my statement in a comment on that post I decided I really didn't much want to see it at home. The experience was so intense that I knew it wouldn't be replicated there, and would probably be diminished.

For the same reason, I haven't seen Malick's subsequent movies which have been compared to Tree of Life. Either they weren't shown in theaters around here, or I missed them, and I haven't wanted to see them at home. But I finally decided a month or two ago to try Knight of Cups anyway, as there seems to be very little chance that I'll ever see it or To the Wonder in a theater.

Well...either I was right about the Malick Experience being dependent on good equipment, or I just didn't like Knight of Cups as much. I liked it but that's damning with faint praise compared to my reaction to Tree of Life. Maybe the subject matter--a Hollywood screenwriter (I think) lost in a hedonistic wilderness, with some suggested family trauma in the background--didn't hit home to me in the way that Tree did. It's hard to say. It's beautiful, but it didn't seem as beautiful.


Still exercising what remains of my FilmStruck subscription, I watched a movie which I think was on my Netflix list at one time, but disappeared before it reached the top. Or maybe it wasn't. Anyway, it's not available on Netflix now, but it is on FilmStruck: the 1975 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely--starring Robert Mitchum, who had always been the obvious perfect choice to play Phillip Marlowe. By 1975 he was really too old, but that doesn't matter much. This is a great film if you like this sort of thing: imagine the best of '40s and '50s crime drama, based on a classic detective novel, filmed in color and in general with more sophisticated technique all around than had been available thirty years earlier (and, of course, more explicit sexual talk and nudity, but not an excessive amount by later standards). That of course is no guarantee of improvement, and in fact could easily have been a de-provement. But in this case it isn't. 

There's a Criterion Collection intro on the site which suggests that the movie may be a little too perfect, adhering too closely to convention. I don't think so. I mean, it's not some great creative leap forward, but it doesn't need to be. It certainly belongs in the noir canon, born out of time though it is. I had not previously heard of the director, Dick Richards, who, I see from Wikipedia, also directed Tootsie. Ugh. 

Mitchum played Marlowe once more, in a late '70s remake of The Big Sleep, which I have seen and which I don't think is very good. Not that it's badly executed, but the filmmakers decided to set it in London and in the then-present day, which in my opinion didn't work very well. The book is just too 1930s and too Los Angeles. 


I don't remember how I got there, but I followed someone's link to this discussion in The New Yorker of the recent release of several thousand or so alternate takes from Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. (See recent discussion here.) The second sentence stopped me in my tracks, and may have left a trace of psychological blood there:

It is a ten-song study in romantic devastation, as beautiful as it is bleak, worthy of comparison with Schubert’s “Winterreise.”'

My incredulous emphasis. I mean, I think Blood on the Tracks is a really good album (though not a favorite of mine, as I mentioned in that discussion). But as it happened I had just finished listening to Winterreise, and I just don't see the two works as being of the same order (though Winterreise is a song cycle, so there is that fundamental similarity of form). I suppose I can't support that claim without sounding elitist. I think Schubert's work is more complex, more varied, more profound...etc.--I don't want to belabor it, but if "worthy of comparison" means "of comparable worth," I disagree.

I figured well, you know, these pop music critics, they don't really know much else. Then I looked at the byline of the piece. It's by Alex Ross, who has more knowledge of classical music than I can dream of, in part because he has more musical sensitivity than I can dream of ("Occasionally, a stray F-sharp bleeds through, adding a Romantic tinge"). He's the author of a highly-regarded history of 20th century music, The Rest is Noise, which I am currently (and slowly) working my way through. 

So who am I to disagree with Alex Ross? Nobody. But...I do. It would be interesting to know what critics and audiences of the 23rd century will think. I'd be willing to be that Schubert will still be considered a great artist. I'm not so sure about Dylan. 

By the way: the Winterreise recording was this one, by Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach. It was recently given to me by a friend who was concerned that the recording I have, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jorg Demus, from the mid-'60s, wasn't going to truly convince me of the greatness of the cycle. Well, as I'm always quick to point out, I'm not all that sensitive to nuances of classical performance...or maybe I am without realizing it, because the newer recording engages me more. F-D sounds somewhat bombastic in comparison. And yes, it's a very great work. My friend has converted me to her enthusiasm for both the work and the performance.


I have just finished reading a book that I've had in process for several months. I found it pretty slow going at first, but about halfway through I got very interested and pressed on fairly quickly. The book is English Reformations, by Christopher Haigh. It might be described (very roughly) as a more concise version of Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars, in that it is a history of English religion as it changed during the Protestant Reformation. I have Duffy's book, got bogged down in it (apparently on page 84, where there is a bookmark), and wandered off onto something else. That was a couple of years ago, and my priest (ex-Anglican) recommended Haigh's book as a way of surveying some of the same territory. 

The two books probably should be considered as companions rather than alternatives. Duffy focuses on the details of religious practice, Haigh on events and people. Perhaps Haigh is a good prelude to Duffy. 

Anyway: if Haigh is correct, the English Reformation was in no sense a popular movement. Or, I should say, as he does, Reformations. In his view there were four:

  • Henry's, which was essentially political, involved the declaration of supremacy and the plundering of the monasteries, but was otherwise meant to remain Catholic;
  • Edward's, which was full-on Protestant and imposed on an unwilling populace;
  • Mary's, which was full-on Catholic and, though brutal to the defiant, was more welcomed than not by the people, and would have succeeded permanently had she not died when she did, leaving a Protestant succession;
  • Elizabeth's, which was Protestant but in a latitudinarian sort of way, fundamentally more concerned with the politics of the time.

I'd like to quote Haigh's very interesting conclusion at enough length to do it justice, but it's too long. One of its points, though, is that when the dust settled, the dust had not really settled. There was no real consensus. There was a minority of seriously and consciously committed Protestants--the Puritans and others--another of seriously and consciously committed recusant Catholics, another of what he calls "old Catholics"--in the main unsophisticated people, mostly well away from London, who simply wanted to go on doing what they had always done. And there was a majority of what he calls "parish anglicans" (uncapitalized), who were more or less of the same temperament as old Catholics but were willing to go along with the new ways and teachings. The first group disdained the other three, and was in turn disdained by them: a pattern still in evidence.

Given the official, decisive, unambiguous rejection of most of Catholic theology and ecclesiology by the Church of England, I am puzzled as to why any Anglicans ever believed that their Church, as church, had any claim to continuity. I don't wonder that Newman left; I do wonder that anyone in the Oxford Movement remained.


Sunset from a different angle.


Sunday Night Journal, November 11, 2018

This is the 100th anniversary of what used to be known as Armistice Day. God help us, what a century of slaughter that war began. What do we make of the fact that the modern era has seen both a greater awareness of and sensitivity to injustice and suffering of all sorts, not to mention a supposed flowering of reason via the sciences, and killing on a scale never before seen in history? We can say that the body count of the wars has been so high only because we have such wonderful technology for accomplishing it, and that may be true. But that doesn't account for the killing that was mass murder by any definition, planned and executed with modern organizational and technological methods, for the specific purpose of eliminating whole populations in the name of one of the big totalitarian ideals. I think of C.S. Lewis's observation that both good and evil seem to advance simultaneously in history.

Nobody much wanted to listen to Pope Benedict XV at the time, but he looks pretty good in retrospect. As does Blessed Karl of Austria. I am sure he is in many ways an unacceptable figure to the contemporary mind, but a bit of very casual reading about him from secular sources (e.g. Wikipedia) seems to support the idea that he was a ruler who genuinely sought the common good, in particular the end of that terrible war.

It was not the end of civilization, but it was the end of a civilization. What followed has yet to find an order that seems likely to last. Our most widely agreed-upon principles, foremost of which is individual freedom, do not tend toward stability. I used to say, back before the fall of the Soviet Union, that we were heading for either 1984 or Brave New World. The former doesn't have nearly the constituency it used to. But something like the latter is even more now the logical end point of Western consumerism, hedonism, and technocracy.


So FilmStruck, the artsy/classic movie streaming service, will be no more after the 29th of this month. I have an absurd feeling of slight guilt about that, because although I subscribe I haven't used it very much at all. I know that makes no sense. 

I was excited when it appeared, and immediately subscribed. But I was disappointed to find that a basic subscription didn't include access to the Criterion Collection, which was the big attraction. That was part of the reason we didn't use it very much; the other and probably more significant part was a heavy diet of the mystery/crime dramas available on Netflix and Amazon. And when I did look at FilmStruck, it seemed that everything I wanted required the upgraded subscription.

I finally took that step a few weeks ago, just in time to hear that it's shutting down. So I'm trying to make time to watch some things I had put on my watchlist. To wit:

The Asphalt Jungle. This is a film noir classic, according to a wonderful book my wife gave me a few years ago, Into the Dark. (Unfortunately most of the movies listed in the book aren't available on either FilmStruck or Netflix.) Made in 1950, this was John Huston's fourth film. He already had several classics to his credit and while I wouldn't rate this one quite up there with, say, The Maltese Falcon, it's a very good one, and anyone who likes noir will probably like it. It's a "caper" story--about the planning and execution of a complex theft, which of course does not go as planned. 

Summer Interlude. Early Bergman, though "early" in this case means his tenth film. I had never heard of it before. I agree with FilmStruck's description:

Touching on many of the themes that would define the rest of his legendary career—isolation, performance, the inescapability of the past—Ingmar Bergman’s tenth film was a gentle drift toward true mastery. In one of the director’s great early female roles, Maj-Britt Nilsson beguiles as an accomplished ballet dancer haunted by her tragic youthful affair with a shy, handsome student (Birger Malmsten). Her memories of the sunny, rocky shores of Stockholm’s outer archipelago mingle with scenes from her gloomy present, most of them set in the dark backstage environs of the theater where she works. A film that the director considered a creative turning point, Summer Interlude (Sommarlek) is a reverie about life and death that unites Bergman’s love of theater and cinema.

 It's definitely worth seeing, even if you're not especially a Bergman fan. Those sunny summer scenes are very beautiful and worth it by themselves. I'll watch it again.

From the Life of the Marionettes. Also Bergman. I had seen references to it and was under the mistaken impression that it was another early one, but it isn't. It's from 1980, which makes it actually quite late. In 1976 Bergman got into trouble with the Swedish government over some tax-related matter. I say "into trouble"--he was actually arrested, and though the charges were dropped he left the country and lived mostly in Germany until 1984. This movie was made in Germany, with German actors speaking German, which is a little disconcerting to this fan: Bergman's people are supposed to speak Swedish.

It is an extremely dark story about a man who murders a prostitute for reasons having to do with his very unhappy marriage.  As the title suggests, the general theme is that people are puppets in the hands of forces they can neither control nor understand. I didn't much care for it, not because of the darkness but because it doesn't seem to me to be all that well executed. The acting is excellent, but the cinematography, which is so often such a big part of the appeal of Bergman's work to me, is dim and fuzzy. I assumed as I watched it that Sven Nykvist, Bergman's usual cinematographer, was not involved, but I was wrong. According to Wikipedia (plot spoilers at that link) it was originally made for television, so maybe that's the problem. I speculate also that Bergman was just not at his best at this time in his life.

It's not worthless by any means. There are some good moments, moments when the Bergman gift for putting profound philosophical and psychological  insights into the mouths of his characters emerges. One that especially struck me comes from a psychologist who is counseling the man who commits the murder. He suggests that the notion of a soul is a problem, and that one should simply get rid of the whole idea. "No soul, no fear" is the way the subtitles translate his rationale, but my bit of German enables me to say that it's better in that language: "Keine seele, keine angst." Maybe that will be the motto of that still-forming new order that I mentioned earlier.

I was going to say that I won't watch it again, but as I think about it more I think maybe I will, though I would recommend it only to dedicated Bergman fans. It's very fixated on sex, and I should warn you that one scene, in a peep show (I guess that's what you'd call it) where the murderer meets the prostitute, is pretty much pornographic.


I don't know the name of this plant. The way a few of its leaves turn bright red while the others remain green is interesting.



Sunday Night Journal, November 4, 2018

There was a time when I could not have imagined being indifferent to the release of a new Dylan album. But it was a fairly short time, only five years or so in the last half of the '60s. Nashville SkylineSelf-PortraitNew Morning, and Planet Waves pretty well cured me of Dylan-awe. Not that those were all bad--I think New Morning is pretty good. (At least I used to. I don't think I've heard it for decades.) But they didn't matter to me. My cultish fascination with Dylan, the conviction that "he was never known to make a foolish move," was gone. 

So when Blood on the Tracks came out in 1975 I didn't pay very much attention. When reviewers said it was great I thought yeah, right. Not only did I not rush out to buy it, I didn't even hear it for a while, when a friend insisted that it really was very good and played it for me. And it was. I was pleasantly surprised. But still, my reaction was something like "Pretty good for a post-'60s Dylan album." Something like the way I thought of the post-Beatles work of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Apparently I bought it, because I have it. But it's certainly not on my Favorite Albums Ever list.

Over the years I heard people acclaim it as a masterpiece, even calling it his best album. Puzzling. There's no accounting for tastes, but I didn't understand how anyone could rank it with those '60s monuments. I suspect it has something to do with age. If I'd heard it at 17 instead of 27, it might have made a bigger impression on me.

With the release of More Blood, More Tracks, a 6-CD collection of variant recordings of the songs that made it onto the album, I've heard more of that talk. So I listened to the album again, for the first time in many years. And it is good. Very good. But my basic opinion hasn't changed. It's definitely a high point of post-'60s Dylan, but on a level below, say, Highway 61 Revisited

I'm puzzled by the market for these multi-disk collections of outtakes etc. from famous albums. Twelve versions of "Buckets of Rain"? I can imagine it would be interesting to hear these once, maybe even twice, to see how the songs developed in the studio and all that. But I have no interest in owning it, especially at a price well over $100. 

Then again, I did pay $100 to see him live a couple of weeks ago, so who am I to talk?

I notice that the 6-disk set includes only three takes of my favorite track, "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts," which also is unlike every other song on the album in that it's not a direct personal statement. I don't know what to make of that. 


In the Department of What Is Actually Happening: two recent pieces in The American Conservative struck me as significant. First, this one by Rachel Lu: "Men and Women: Should We Just Call the Whole Thing Off?"

Relations between the sexes have always fascinated me--I mean intellectually, philosophically, as well as practically and personally. Sometimes I think I might write something substantial on the subject, and by "substantial" I mean at least a lengthy essay. But chances are pretty good that I won't, so here's Lu on one thing I would discuss:

The truth is, women do feel more vulnerable than men, in public, at work, or in social gatherings. That’s because, in a very real sense, we are. We shouldn’t treat all men as likely aggressors, but men should be expected to conform to behavioral standards that serve, among other things, to help women feel safe. That’s always been a major function of gentlemanly behavior, without which men and women rarely find one another bearable for very long.

Women's vulnerability seems almost frightening to me. It's elemental and physical. It's not only the basic physical weakness relative to men, but the vulnerability, both physical and emotional, to and of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing--the enormous risk of sex. I've been paying attention to feminism since the early '70s (it would be an overstatement to say studying it), and I've thought for a long time that some part of feminist anger comes from this vulnerability, which seems more profound than any of the specific identifiable injustices of human arrangements. Those are many, it's true, and many of them can be ameliorated (and have been). But prior to that is a vulnerability that's intrinsic to human biology and psychology and can't be erased. 

Camille Paglia once said something to the effect that many women feel that the sexual revolution has not been a good deal for them. (I'm paraphrasing from decades-old memory but I think that was the idea.) It liberated them, but it also broke down structures of custom that, though confining, had also served to protect them. And (said Paglia) part of the drive for establishing explicit rules and procedures governing sexual consent is an attempt to re-establish some of those protections.

I think she's right. And I think Rachel Lu is right that there is much to be said for the old notion of gentlemanly behavior. Good men respond to feminine vulnerability with respect and an impulse to protect. And men who exploit and abuse it should be disgraced in the eyes of other men. That's not a capital-S Solution, but it would help. In the world of male sports, cheaters are held in contempt. The same should be true of a man who would, for instance, take advantage of a drunken young woman, to say nothing of the kind of active extortion reportedly practiced by the likes of Harvey Weinstein.

One defect in the gentleman's code is that it frequently (mostly? always?) applied only to women of the man's own class, excluding those who for whatever reason were not considered respectable--that is, worthy of respect. But a real gentleman would treat the both the Duchess of Cambridge and Stormy Daniels with courtesy and respect.

The other piece, by Michael Vlahos, bears the dispiriting title "We Were Made for Civil War." It's a consideration of the present state of division in this country, and it's pretty pessimistic. It's a bit lengthy by web standards (3000+ words) and I don't agree with everything in it, but I think it's all too accurate in its assessment of the current situation, accurate enough to be worth reading.

I've been saying for some time that we're in a sort of non-violent undeclared civil war. As Vlahos says:

...even though these two divided visions of America have been opposed for decades, and so far have controlled the urge to violence, there is in their bitter contest a sense of gathering movement toward an ultimate decision. In no way is this more clear than in the 2016 election and ongoing political conflict. This divide is no status quo “agree to disagree,” but rather two moral armies moving towards a showdown.

Moreover, and worse, it's a religious conflict:

Red and Blue already represent an irreparable religious schism, deeper in doctrinal terms even than the 16th-century Catholic-Protestant schism. 

He doesn't elaborate on the doctrines involved, and I guess I won't try to, either, in this brief note. But I don't think you can understand what's going on unless you recognize that aspect of what's happening. If you want to define "religion" fairly narrowly, you can call it a quasi-religious conflict, but it's effectively religious. In any case it's a struggle between fundamentally irreconcilable views.

This may all seem alarmist, but I agree with Vlahos that to fail to take the situation seriously is to keep moving toward the showdown. I, of course, as people who have read this blog for a while know, think the way to avoid it is to reduce the reach and power of the central government, to give control back to state and local governments regarding some of the flash-point issues. The big problem now is the one Vlahos identifies: the belief on each side that the other represents a dire threat to it. And that comes straight from the belief that whoever controls the national government can and will force the opposition to submit. This bomb needs to be disarmed.

I think it's important for Christians to recognize this state of affairs--signs of the times, wise as serpents, etc. But even more important is to avoid getting caught up in the war mentality, not to allow oneself to demonize and hate the other side. Hate is against the Law.


If all that's depressing, or if you didn't get the reference in the title of Rachel Lu's piece, watch this. Guaranteed mood-elevator. Or, if not, the fault is in you.


 It's about this big.


Sunday Night Journal, October 28, 2018

I don't think I've ever been as happily surprised by a book as I have been by Waugh's Helena. My expectations for it were not very high. In fact the truth is that I picked it up partly out of a vague sense of duty: he's a writer I like, love when he's at his best, but the subject is the life of a saint, and hagiography is a category which does not usually make for truly interesting reading, at least not from the literary point of view. I suppose I supposed that Waugh had himself approached the subject at least partly with a sense of duty. In short I expected the book to be edifying but just a bit dull.

But it's an absolute delight, and is now up near the top in my estimation of Waugh's novels. It has the wit and sparkle of some of the early comic novels and the spiritual depth of Brideshead Revisited. I'd like to write a full appreciation of it, to attempt to do it real justice, and maybe I will, but for right now I'll follow Chesterton's advice that if a thing is worth doing it's worth doing badly.

Probably anyone reading this blog knows, but I'll state anyway: Helena was the mother of Constantine, and is credited with unearthing the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified. Waugh's approach to telling the story is what I would presume or hope is standard procedure for writing a novel about a real person. In his preface he makes

This is a novel.

a paragraph unto itself, to make sure the reader understands that he is not proposing the work as a substitute for history.

Where the authorities are doubtful, I have often chosen the picturesque in preference to the plausible; I have once or twice, where they are silent, freely invented; but there is nothing, I believe contrary to authentic history (save for certain wilful obvious anachronisms which are introduced as a literary device), and there is little that has not some support from tradition or from early documents.

Chief of the "wilful obvious anachronisms" is the language of the characters. Waugh has given them the speech of 20th century English men and women of the upper classes, including, sometimes, the slang. Whenever they open their mouths you feel that they might have stepped out of any other Waugh novel. "I hate Rome. It's a perfectly beastly place"--that sort of thing. In the first scene in which Helena speaks, she's a teenaged girl looking out from an upper window, listening to her tutor read from Homer, and distracted by what she sees below. The tutor is a bit annoyed.

".... Do you think I read this to amuse myself?"

"It is only the fishermen," said Helena, "coming up from the sea for tonight's beano. There's basketfuls of oysters. Sorry; go on about the ox-eyed Klymene."

Possibly the greatest liberty with history (I'm not equipped to judge) taken by Waugh is his making Helena a Briton. Apparently the birthplace of the real Helena is not known for certain, though, just as apparently, there is no positive evidence to suggest she was born in Britain. There's no evidence that she wasn't, and this is enough for Waugh. And it's a good thing, because the English-ness of his Helena is not only part of her charm but in a sense integral to the power of the story. Helena as a girl is a bit of a tomboy; her father, King Coel, says she has a masculine mind and that he doesn't expect her to marry. Helena as an adult is more and more a good solid practical-minded Englishwoman who just wants to know the facts. When her husband joins the cult of Mithras:

She pressed her husband for information. "There's no harm in your knowing the general story," he said. "It's very beautiful," and he told her the tale of Mithras. He told it rather well and she listened intently.

When it was finished, she said, "Where?"


"Yes, where did it happen? You say the bull hid in a cave and then the world was created out of his blood. Well, where was the cave when there was no earth?"

"That is a very childish question."

"Is it? And when did this happen? How do you know, if no one was there?"

It's a wonderful, funny exchange, and there's more of it. It's one of many instances where Waugh manages to integrate the philosophical and theological concerns of our time into the narrative without being overly explicit. 

Helena, later on, in middle age, on hearing that "her boy"--that is, the Emperor Constantine--has turned Christian:

"Not exactly, m'am, as far as we can learn. But he has put himself under the protection of Christ."

"Why will no one ever talk plain sense to me? Am I too stupid? It is all I have ever asked, all my life, a straight answer to a straight question; and I never get one. Was there a cross in the sky? Did my son see it? How did it get there?.... All I want is the simple truth. Why don't you answer me?"

The search for the True Cross appeals to her down-to-earth nature. It's a simple, solid thing, not a theological abstraction.

"Just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union, there's a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against it. I'm going off to find it," said Helena.

Now and then you meet a fictional character whom you'd like to know in the flesh. Helena is one.

I'm running out of time this evening so will only mention two other things I loved about the book. First, there's the way major events of the history of the times, political and ecclesiastical, take place off stage, appearing only as what we would now call news items, not necessarily of great concern to those who hear it, but of course very significant to the reader. The Council of Nicea is noticed, and there are little asides about the people and questions involved which are significant to us but aren't to the characters. Waugh has a good deal of fun with this. Eusebius of Caesarea, who took the Arian side in that controversy, is slyly mocked as unreliable. One especially memorable passage, which I should have marked and can't find now, involves a Christian thinking out loud rather bitterly about how the story of the times and of the Church may be distorted by a future historian. Nearby as he speaks is a caged gibbon.

Second, there are some wonderful lyrical passages, as good as any in Brideshead, like this one about the mood among Christians when the persecutions were ended: 

The huge boredom which from its dead centre in Diocletian's heart had soddened and demented the world, had passed like the plague. New green life was pricking and unfolding and entwining everywhere among the masonry and the ruts. In that dawn, reflected Lactantius, to be old was very heaven; to have lived in a Hope which defied reason; which existed, rather, only in the reason and in the affections, quite unattached to common experience or calculation; to see that Hope take substantial and homely form near at hand and on all sides, as a fog, lifting, may suddenly reveal to a ship's company that, through no skill of theirs, they have silently drifted into safe anchorage.

Today, by the way, is Waugh's birthday.


I think this piece by Kenneth Woodward at Commonweal is the best, most balanced thing I've read about the sexual crisis (crises?) involving the Catholic clergy. He doesn't minimize the prevalence and significance of homosexuality in the scandals.

One cannot deny that homosexuality has played a role in the abuse scandals and their coverup, and to dismiss this aspect as homophobia one would have to be either blind or dishonest.

At the same time:

Perhaps the hierarchy is afraid of giving aid and comfort to right-wing zealots who would like to use the McCarrick scandal as an excuse to out and purge all homosexual priests and bishops. There can be no excuse for such a purge. We have all met gay priests who live chaste lives and honor their vows of celibacy, just as we know there are more than a few heterosexual priests who fail to honor theirs.

And he is willing to discuss calmly but firmly the high likelihood that part of the problem is

...networks, I mean groups of gay priests, diocesan and religious, who encourage the sexual grooming of seminarians and younger priests, and who themselves lead double lives—breaking their vows of chastity while ministering to the laity and staffing the various bureaucracies of the church.

He goes on to discuss the stories he heard over his forty years of covering religion for Newsweek. And he gives a fair account of Archbishop Viganò's testimony. This is just the sort of level-headed approach that's needed. 


Last week, in the context of discussing "the comprehensive racialization of almost everything," I mentioned the role played by white people attacking other white people. Someone objected to that, suggesting (as far as I could tell) that this was some eccentric notion of mine. As if in support of what I said, this piece at USA Today appeared today. It shows that, if nothing else, the phenomenon is at least widely enough noticed that it's discussed in a mainstream middle-of-the-road outlet.


Friday night lights.

FridayNightLightsThe abode of refreshing, of light, and of peace.





Sunday Night Journal, October 21, 2018

Several weekends ago my wife and I went to the opening at the Mobile Medical Museum of an exhibit which featured Dr. James A. Franklin, Sr., and his work: "Dreaming at Dawn: African Americans and Health Care, 1865-1945." This rather inadequate photo is of the portrait of him displayed in that exhibit:


 This is a photo of the placard accompanying the portrait:


I don't know whether you'll be able to read it or not, so I'll give you the high points. James A. Franklin, Sr., was born in Chattanooga. In 1914 he became the first African-American to receive a medical degree from the University of Michigan. Instead of escaping permanently from the segregated South, he wanted to return there "because he wanted to be closer to his people and felt that there would be more of a demand for his services." (That last part was probably an understatement.) He landed in Evergreen, Alabama, a small town a hundred miles or so north of Mobile. During the 1918 influenza epidemic a local white farmer asked him to treat his wife. Franklin did--successfully, we were told at the opening--but then was forced to leave town under threat of being lynched for touching a white woman. He moved to the Mobile area and established a very successful medical practice, so successful that he was written up in Ebony magazine as "The Richest Doctor in the South."

I would not have known this was happening except that my wife is the archivist for the Mobile Archdiocese, and she had provided several photographs from the archives for the exhibit. This was one of them:

StMartinDePorresHospitalIn case you can't read that card under the photo, the picture is of a ward in the St. Martin de Porres hospital, a Mobile hospital for African-Americans, established by the Archdiocese in 1947 and run (I think) by the Sisters of Mercy.

The opening was very simple affair but a somewhat moving one for me. A couple of prominent members of the black community gave brief speeches. I didn't catch the name of one (well, okay, I missed it altogether, because we were a little late), but the other was Karlos Finley, a well-known local lawyer/politician who is, if I understood correctly, the son of Dora Finley, who for many years was the regular Sunday morning lector at the Cathedral and whose father was Dr. Franklin. Also present were several teenagers, Karlos Finley's children, Dr. Franklin's great-grandchildren, which I found particularly touching.

I was moved both by Franklin's story, by what he did in the face of racial hatred, and also by the distance we've come in removing racial barriers and hostility. Sometimes, reading the national news, and even more reading national opinion, I feel despair about the racial situation in this country, and fear that we are heading in a direction that can only lead to more and worse conflict. There are a lot of people, or at least some very loud and prominent ones, who seem intent on inflaming racial hostility and grievance rather than working for harmony. In a strange twist, the loudest, most prominent and prestigious of these are now on the left, where for many the comprehensive racialization of almost everything seems to have mostly replaced the old liberal ideal that race shouldn't matter. In an even stranger twist, many of these are white people vilifying other white people--but then that's basically just another front in the culture war, another reason to hate the enemy whom you would hate in any case.

I think some of this is fueled by people who see our existing problems and despair. And I also think most of these are too young to understand just how much things have changed for the better, and might not despair if they did understand it. No one under sixty or so can have much personal memory of it; for younger people, segregation and the civil rights movement are just things in history books. But I saw them both, up close, and I remember it very well, and I know that the change has been vast.

I'm encouraged by the fact that the vitriol that emanates from the most politically vocal, and the conflict that seems to exist in some places, mainly the big cities, just don't seem to be major factors in everyday life where I live. I would certainly not claim that the Mobile, Alabama area is a paradise of racial harmony. Tensions exist. De facto segregation very much exists. I'm sure old-time hard-core racism still exists, though it isn't respectable.

Yet I don't have the sense of intense and furious conflict, of outright hatred at work, that I get from activists and the media. People get along tolerably well. They are reasonably courteous in public spaces, they work together, go to school together, shop together, eat at the same restaurants, cheer the same football teams, which are often predominantly black but no less loved by white fans. Social interaction is less common but it certainly happens. Inter-racial dating and marriage happen. Black politicians can get elected with a fair share, in some cases a majority, of the white vote. Fairhope, where I live, is a predominantly white town which had a black police chief until he retired a couple of months ago.

My local grandchildren started attending a "magnet" school this fall--a predominantly black school, in a less-than-upscale area of town, which emphasizes academics in an effort to attract white students and achieve more racial balance. My wife and I went to Grandparents' Day there a couple of weeks ago. We found neat and orderly classrooms full of bright and eager children, teachers who struck me as sharp and engaged, and a lot of very attentive parents and grandparents. My grandsons are in the minority there, but at least at this point (middle school and high school may be a different matter) I'm not worried about them. (I mean, about their schooling. I'm plenty worried about a lot of other dangers they face in these times.)

And so on. In short, the problems are real, and I emphasize that I'm not denying them. But they don't seem apocalyptic. 


On Tuesday night I went to see Dylan at the Saenger in Mobile. I hadn't planned to go, as the tickets were expensive and I've seen him three times before, but the mother of the two aforementioned grandchildren talked me into it. "It may be the last time he ever tours!" And it may very well be, as he's 77.  I was glad I went. You don't go to a Dylan concert to hear a reprise of his greatest hits of days gone by, as you might with some old band of the '60s or '70s (or '80s or '90s) which hasn't done anything very interesting for a quarter of a century or more. You go to hear him rework those old songs, and some new ones, with the help of a really fine band. For the most part the songs are unrecognizable until or unless you make out some of the words. And the results are often really effective, in spite of the fact that I'm not sure Dylan's vocalizing now should even be called singing. My only real complaint was that they were too loud for the space, so that the sound bounced all around and muddied everything up. I was sorry I hadn't brought earplugs, not to protect my ears--it wasn't that loud--but to suppress the sludge and clarify the sound. 

Some YouTube user called Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands has posted a lot of audio-only recordings of recent Dylan concerts.  They sound very much like the one I heard, with very similar set lists. Here's one from just a couple of weeks ago, in Tucson. Click on "Show More" and you'll see a set list with links which will take you to specific songs. Try a couple that you know well and you'll see what I mean.

By the way Dylan never so much as touched a guitar during the performance. He was behind a piano except for two songs where he stepped out and sang at a standalone microphone. 

Sunday Night Journal, October 14, 2018

A few years ago I picked up two of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s spy novels from a giveaway table at the library. I've never been a big fan of Buckley's writing as such, but I like the genre, and was curious as to how Buckley handled it. Recently, having begun to look at the overflowing bookshelves in this house with an eye toward culling the stock, I put these two in "read it or get rid of it" status. I picked one of them, The Story of Henri Tod, to sample.

Henri Toddweiss and his beloved sister Clementa are the children of a wealthy German Jewish family. They are in their teens when the Nazi nightmare takes hold. When the Gestapo come for their parents the children are spirited away to live with and be protected by a farm family. (The background of this arrangement is not made clear but I think the family had no previous connection with them, but rather are members of a resistance group.) When he approaches draft age Henri is sent to school in England, and he and Clementa are separated for the first time in their lives, swearing that they will be re-united.

Before that can happen the Nazis learn that Clementa is Jewish. I will leave out the details of how this comes about because they are extremely important to the story. The couple who have been protecting them are shot on the spot, and Clementa is sent to Auschwitz. 

The above events are seen in retrospect; the novel takes place in 1961. In Berlin. In August. If you are a better student of history than I am, you will see that it probably involves the erection of the Berlin Wall, and you will be right. Henri Toddweiss is now Henri Tod--"Tod" means "death" in German. He is the head of an underground organization known simply as the Bruderschaft, the Brotherhood, fighting the Communists. Why is he fighting the erstwhile enemies of Nazism? He believes that

What Nazism and Communism had in common was that both systems sanctioned the killing and torturing of innocent people, and if one saw that, all else that was sayable about the nice ideological differences of the two systems was, well, trivial.

Which I pretty much agree with.

Berlin is full of uneasiness about what the Russians may do to get control of their problem, which consists mainly of the fact that people are leaving East Berlin for the West in droves. Buckley's spy protagonist, Blackford Oakes, enters this situation as an agent charged with figuring out what the Russians may actually do, so that the American government and its allies can decide what they will do in response. Oakes is put in touch with Tod. 

What happens from here also involves a resourceful young man who happens to be the nephew and secretary of Walter Ulbricht, the East German ruler, his girlfriend, and Hitler's private railroad car, which has been sitting unnoticed in a garage with hundreds of other similar ones. It also involves Clementa; here again I'll say no more, for fear of spoiling the story. And it involves John F. Kennedy, not just off-stage in his role as the American president but in chapters which give us Buckley's notions of what Kennedy might have been thinking. 

It's a heartbreaking story, but I don't think Buckley quite does it justice. He is competent, but not brilliant. His approach could be described as understated, but it could also be described as flat. Or, if that's not really fair, let's just say it's lighter than the story calls for. Still, I'm haunted by certain aspects of it. In John Le Carre's hands this basic story would have been devastating, perhaps one of the best of his novels--and I say that as one who thinks Le Carre one of the better novelists working in our time. 

I might add that the Americans don't come off very well in this. That's not surprising, I guess, given Buckley's strong anti-communism. I surmise from the story that he thought we should have made an effort to stop the closing of East Berlin. There's an amusing moment in the book where Oakes reads (and agrees with) an article on the subject--by William F. Buckley writing in National Review. I'd be surprised if that article isn't real. 

And I'll note in passing that the book contains a really cringe-making sex scene. It involves Oakes and a woman he meets on a train. The incident adds nothing to the book except to give Oakes a bit of James-Bond-ish glamour by making him irresistible to women. It needn't have been there at all, and it needn't have been described. It's not explicit, it's just...I'm having trouble thinking of a word to describe it, and the only one that comes to mind is "corny," in a romance-novel sort of way, male version. I don't think "corny" is used very much now. "Cheesy" is a more recent similar usage. 

I do plan to read the other Buckley novel I have, High Jinx. I doubt that I'll keep them, though. 


Actually I lean toward the view that it's almost impossible to write effectively in any detail at all about sex. It usually just seems a little silly and somehow embarrassing, unless it's actually meant to be pornography, and in that case the effectiveness is a bad thing. I can't think offhand of any such effort that I thought worked well. Best to just close the bedroom door, making sure, if you think it necessary, that the reader knows it's happening, then leave it behind that door. 


I mentioned the term "resistance" above in reference to resistance against the Nazis. It strikes me as ridiculous and a little disgusting that those who object vehemently to Donald Trump and all his works have described themselves as "The Resistance," as if marching, screaming at politicians, and griping on the Internet, all with complete impunity, were in any way comparable to risking torture and death. 


I live on the Gulf Coast, 150 miles or so from where Hurricane Michael hit, but I can't tell you anything more about it than you can learn from the news. You probably know it was possibly the most devastating storm ever to hit the Florida panhandle. All we had here was a somewhat windy and cloudy day, not even any rain. I don't think I'd have known that a hurricane was anywhere near, though perhaps someone more weather-wise would have been suspicious of the wind and the rapid and steady movement of the high clouds. Hurricanes of course are a fact of life here. You just have to live with the risk, and sometimes your area is the one that's hit. This one was particularly disturbing, though, because we usually don't get bad ones past the end of September, and it strengthened so much so quickly. When it first developed in the Caribbean and seemed likely to come this way, everybody thought "Oh, even if it does hit here, it won't be that big a deal." And then just a couple of days later it was looking bad, then worse.

I have no big conclusion to draw from this, just a sense of awe. And, I admit, relief that it didn't come here. I always feel a little guilty about that. 


When your mailbox comes loose from the post and you don't have time to fix it, you improvise.


Sunday Night Journal, October 7, 2018

So Kavanaugh has been confirmed. As I fully expected would be the case, the result is not peace but mutual declarations of war. There isn't going to be any post-game handshake and congratulation here. Rather, many or most on both sides are saying "Our enemies now stand revealed as the devils we always knew they were, and must be destroyed." Few seem to grasp or care about the possibility that playing with matches and gasoline could result in a fire.

Some Democrats have already announced that they will attempt to impeach Kavanaugh. I said last week, and have said before, that all political victories are Pyrrhic now, because they only serve to inflame the other side. That's certainly the case here. Chances look pretty good to me that we just passed the point of no return in this conflict, though what lies at the end of it is not clear. We may be seeing the unfolding of a great historical tragedy, the self-destruction of a great nation.

As is usually the case in war, neutrality becomes difficult and eventually impossible. I personally refused to take a side in the question of whether Kavanaugh was guilty of the charge made by Christine Ford, on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to support it. But I'm assured that failure to believe Ford wholeheartedly makes me something of a monster; anyone who doubts that what she says is true is a misogynist and an apologist for sexual assault and rape. This is pretty much self-evidently false (not to mention irrational) and it distresses me that anyone would think this of me. But I have to either accept that, or say that I believe what I don't believe, so there really isn't a choice.

In fact I'm more in doubt about Ford's accusation today than I was a week ago. I assumed at first that she was at least telling the truth as she saw it, but in light of various pieces of information that have come out since then (such as the report issued by the attorney who questioned Ford at the hearing) I'm not so sure that she isn't lying outright, though the truth is still unknown and will most likely remain so.  


As far back as I can remember there was a copy of Nelson Algren's novel The Man With the Golden Arm on my parents' bookshelf. I don't think I ever attempted to read it but the title intrigued me. A few years ago...well, probably at least ten and maybe fifteen years ago, when they were moving into a smaller house, I brought the book home with me, and now at last have read it.

It won the National Book Award for fiction in 1950, so I expected it to be at least pretty good. And it is--but not great. It's a novel of low life in Chicago just after the end of the Second World War. All the characters are poor, mostly first or second-generation immigrants from Poland, and live in a sort of shifting middle ground between the lower end of the working class and criminality. The protagonist, the man of the title, is Frankie Machine, and the "golden arm" refers to his skill as a card-dealer and gambler. But it takes on a different connotation as we learn that he's also a heroin addict, having picked up a morphine habit while recovering from wounds in the army. 

It's a story of more or less uninterrupted misery. Frankie's wife, Sophie, is in a wheel chair, as a result of a drunk-driving accident in which Frankie was at the wheel, and their relationship now consists mostly of mutual torment, of guilt and anger on Frankie's part, anger and despair on Sophie's. Most of the few bright spots involve memories of the past, of a brief youth when better things seemed possible. By this point in Frankie's life, though he's still pretty young, perhaps not out of his twenties, it's clear that the future offers nothing for him or for anybody around him. His doom, which involves his heroin habit and various crimes, is worked out in a narrative that often reveals, stylistically, the limits of dialect and slang in fiction.  A dialog between Frankie and the man who's come to get him and his friend Sparrow out of jail:

"I don't even ask how come you're in," Schwiefka complained. "I just come to spring you--what's the big squawk?"

"You know all right why we're in, that's the big squawk," Frankie let Schwiefka know. "Every time you duck Kvorka for his double sawzie he cruises down Division till he spots me or the punk 'n' pulls us in on general principles. This time he caught us together. The next time it happens you're payin' me off 'n' the punk too."

I think what's being said here is that Schwiefka failed to pay protection money to a cop named Kvorka. "Big squawk" and "double sawzie" probably sounded authentic and up-to-the-minute at the time, but nothing sounds as outdated as slang that failed to make it into the language permanently. (Why is "cool" still cool but "groovy" is not?) That kind of late '40s urban slang in particular is unavoidably associated with movies of the time which are often difficult for us to enjoy without irony. 

But there are lyrical passages, often despairing, that are very effective. A scene late one night in the bar where Frankie deals poker:

Thus in the narrowing hours of night the play became faster and steeper and an air of despair, like a sickroom odor where one lies who never can be well again, moved across the light green baize, touched each player ever so lightly and settled down in a tiny whiff of cigar smoke about the dealer's hands.

Now dealer and players alike united in an unspoken conspiracy to stave off morning forever. Each bet as if the loss of a hand meant death in prison or disease and when it was lost hurried the dealer on. "Cards, cards." For the cars kept the everlasting darkness off, the cards lent everlasting hope. The cards meant any man in the world might win back his long-lost life, gone somewhere far away.

I often thought of Allen Ginsberg's Howl while reading this book. It even includes the phrase "the Negro streets," which made me wonder if Ginsberg had borrowed it (Howl was published in 1956.) And also of some of Tom Waits's characters. I wonder if he's read it.

This adds up, I guess, to a recommendation, but not a very enthusiastic one. 



Sunday Night Journal, September 30, 2018

I can't remember whether it was before or after the Ford accusations became public, but at some point a couple of weeks ago I said of the Kavanaugh hearings that their one absolutely certain effect would be a net increase in the amount of hate in this country. Rod Dreher put it a bit more strongly: "When this is over we will all hate each other even more." (At least that's what I think he said. I can't find that exact quote now.)

Well, those prophecies have certainly proved true. No matter what the result of this fiasco is, a huge number of people are going to be enraged and will stay that way. And it's not only those on the losing side: the winners will also feel that their fear and loathing of the others--the Other--will have been fully justified, and that the effort to crush them must not flag. As I said some time ago, all political victories are Pyrrhic now, because they serve to inflame the other side.

I cannot understand how people can fail to see where this is leading. Perhaps it won't be violence, but if it isn't it won't be for lack of hatred to fuel the flames. We are surely destroying the foundations of our system of law and government, which depend on some basic elemental presumptions, such as that we are fellow citizens of one country, and that we have something close to a shared understanding of its principles. We, at least those of us who are most politically engaged, don't seem to have those anymore. 

I have a constitutional reluctance to take a stand on questions of material fact where I have no direct knowledge and there's a lot of room for doubt. So I reserve judgment on whether Brett Kavanaugh is guilty of the assault with which he's been charged. But I loathe mob passions and mob behavior, always have done, and am very disturbed by the degree to which they are active now. There's a widespread willingness to say "We know he did it because people like him do things like that." And "people like him" refers to his class, sex, and race. Do people not see where that leads? 

Another direction in which this whole mess leads is to the diminishment of the Me Too movement. I've been very much in sympathy with its stated aims, if not its feminist ideological framework. But this dishonestly-handled business tends to discredit it. As Alexandra DeSanctis of National Review wrote:  

This debacle is teaching onlookers to take the stories of victims with a grain of salt. How can the average person be expected to care about seeking justice when so many in the public square seem to care more about advancing an agenda than about discerning who has actually been mistreated or abused?

The Me Too movement has gained immense influence over the last year precisely because it has encouraged us to acknowledge the reality of sexual abuse and follow the truth wherever it leads. Now, the question of whether the accusations against Kavanaugh are true has been subjugated to a political endgame. That promises to destroy the cultural power of the Me Too movement.

Surely no reasonable person can believe that Christine Ford's unprovable accusation, whether true or false, was not uncovered and deployed primarily as a weapon to block the confirmation of a justice who would (probably) tip the balance of the Supreme Court decisively rightward. And why? I think everyone knows, though Kavanaugh's opponents in the Senate don't want to say it, that this is above all about Roe v. Wade. I think everyone knows, even if they won't admit it even to themselves, that if Kavanaugh had the endorsement of Planned Parenthood we would never have heard of Christine Ford. A few centuries from now when reasonably dispassionate historians are writing about the dissolution of the United States, that arrogant and imprudent decision will be seen to have been a major factor. 

Oh, and by the way: completely lost in this war is the small number of principled conservatives who have serious reservations about Kavanaugh because they think he is far too indulgent of executive power. See this. Few care much about anything except the "social issues" which should not be settled in Washington in the first place.


Switching topics rather abruptly: we watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri last night. For the first hour or so (of its nearly two) I was impatient with it. Well done, yes--extremely so, especially the acting. But I'm really pretty sick of the Small-Town White Hick stereotype in movies and TV. In the end, though, it won me over, partly by cleverly undermining the stereotypes. It's not an easy story to watch, its events being rooted in violence, hatred, and revenge. But those don't get quite the last word. 

In the comments where we were discussing this a week or two ago, several people mentioned being seriously put off by the language. I'm a little surprised at that, as it didn't seem any worse in that respect than the average movie. It was a bit shocking that the sheriff talked that way in front of his children. But other than that....


Something I've been meaning to mention for several weeks: also in recent comments, there was a mention of Eric Clapton. I said I would have more to say about that later. Well, what I meant to say was that anyone who is interested in the sort of flash guitar (I don't know where I got that term but I guess it's reasonably clear) that Clapton represents really should check out Jeff Beck Live at Ronnie Scott's. It's available as an audio CD, but I really recommend that you watch it on DVD. There's more music on the DVD, and watching Beck and his three bandmates (bass, drums, keyboards) is terrific. Here's an example, in which you get to see bass prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld at work. She looks like she's about fourteen but actually she was twenty-one when this was recorded in 2008.

I do wish Beck had not worn that sleeveless shirt and given the audience so many glimpses of his armpits. And does anybody know who that woman in the audience at the very end is? She seems familiar. I did recognize several people in the audience, including Jimmy Page (not in this clip), and there were several others on whom the camera focused, leading me to believe that I was supposed to recognize them.

Rock fans (at least those of a certain age) have a tendency to argue about which of the three former Yardbirds guitarists--Clapton, Beck, and Page--is the greatest. Well, if that discussion is limited to the music of the '60s and '70s, it could go on forever. But if the question is who's the most interesting now--well, in my opinion it's clearly Beck. Clapton himself said once that "When he's on, there's nobody better." Agreed. 

This concert has a guest appearance by Clapton, by the way. Also Joss Stone and Imogen Heap. The DVD includes some interviews which I found quite interesting. One gives the impression that the old rivalries of the Yardbirds days still have a bit of life in them, at least in Beck's mind.

It looks like the entire concert is available on YouTube at the moment. Not an official page so it may not be there indefinitely.


A building somewhere in Belfast. I just liked the image.


Sunday Night Journal, September 23, 2018

I'm writing this post on Thursday afternoon and scheduling it to be posted on Monday, as I'm going to be out of town for the next few days, and am a bit compulsive about not missing a week. 

I say "writing" but actually I'm mostly transcribing, as I don't really have time to compose anything new. I read this passage from Caryl Houselander in Magnificat a week or so ago, and it really struck me, for reasons I'll state after the quote.

Most people who want to know God and who are outside the Church have just one thing that is precious to them, though to us with our clear-cut definitions, our discipline, and our sacraments, it may seem so vague that it is hard for us to realize how much it means to them. This is their personal approach to God. Very often it seems to be hardly that at all, so vague is it, so closely does it lean to sentimentality. It may be simply a memory of childhood, or a stirring of the spirit when a certain familiar hymn is heard; it may be just a fling of the heart to God, on seeing the first wild spray of blossom that proclaims the spring. But it is quite surely an indication of that individual's approach to God and of his approach to them, and it is as sweet to them as it would be to a blind man if, reaching out in darkness, he touched the garment hem of Christ.

Too often, through our own fault, we give people who are thus clinging to their own personal contact with God the idea that Catholicism would sweep it away. Quote wrongly, we give them the idea that we are not seeking any more, that we have a formula for everything, that we hold feeling in contempt, live only by acts of will, and that there is nothing that we cannot explain.

 Of course this is untrue. We too are always seeking for God, always reaching out by blind fingers to touch his garment, and we are blinded by the very light of the mysteries of our faith, which we can live by but cannot explain and can barely begin to understand.

To the enquirer, our hard, unanswerable arguments, dealt out blow by blow with our sledgehammer of zeal, are all too convincing--the the mind. But the heart rises up in revolt against "apologetics" which may convince against the will and sweep away that lovely touch in the darkness which is at the heart of their lives.

I've had the whole concept of dogma on my mind for a week or two, because I've been writing something about it: whether such a thing can be, how one would come to believe it. It--or to use a related and somewhat less forbidding word, doctrine--is obviously a crucially important part of Catholicism, and for that matter of any serious variety of Christianity. And yet even as I try to frame and express those ideas I'm always conscious that pure intellectual belief is insufficient--necessary but not sufficient, as they say. I think of doctrine as something like the skeleton of a body. It's necessary for shape, structure, and motion. Without it, the body would hardly exist. But the skeleton alone is scary.

I suppose most Catholics, at least those who move in consciously orthodox circles, have met people who fit the description in Houselander's second paragraph--"a formula for everything." Men are considerably more prone to that syndrome than women, especially young men. Defending the faith can become for them a sort of intellectual boxing match. It's not a bad thing in itself, in fact it's a good thing. But it can seem, and sometimes even be, a mistaken and futile attempt to lock up the truth rather than to set it free.

Things have changed a good bit since Houselander's time: I think fewer people are even able to hear arguments addressed to the intellect. How they feel is the only thing that matters. 


Also, something I meant to mention last week: someone pointed out to me a very good discussion of Bergman at Commentary. "Oh Lord, Why Did You Forsake Ingmar Bergman?" Just one or two quick remarks: I was slightly surprised to read that Bergman is not held in the critical esteem that he once was. I shouldn't be surprised, of course, and of course my reaction is "well, so much for critical esteem." And I don't think the Lord did forsake him, exactly. Bergman's case is relevant to my preceding bit about doctrine, in fact: I never felt that he truly rejected God, but rather false and misleading conceptions of God which his harsh Lutheran upbringing gave him. This is more or less directly stated at the end of Through A Glass Darkly. I mean, look at the context of the title's scripture reference. I don't think it could be much more clear that he knew that "fling of the heart to God" (what a great description!). Too bad his mind didn't see the way.

Just a day or two ago I ran across something else on Bergman that looks interesting, "Remedial Bergman" by John Simon,  in The Weekly Standard. I haven't had a chance to read it yet but am posting it in case anyone else is interested.

Sunday Night Journal, September 16, 2018

Television is a drug, we've been told for decades. It really is. I don't like to think I'm hooked on it, and I can say in a certain sense that I "don't watch television." But that certain sense is what the phrase used to suggest (and I guess still does in many cases)--watching the stuff that's broadcast all day and night on various networks, the original big three and all the others that have proliferated. I never have watched much of that, not because of any virtue on my part but because I don't like it. And I've always found the commercials almost unendurable. 

But if by "watch television" you mean "watch moving pictures on a television screen," I can't deny that I'm hooked. For a long time it was only movies, which I felt entitled me to a certain self-respect--at least I wasn't watching "that network junk." But I can only say that now if I mean only CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox, because thanks to Netflix and other options a great deal of what I watch now was originally made for TV, either here or in the UK. 

My wife and I have gotten into the habit of watching an hour or an hour-and-a-half of some sort of crime drama almost every night. Most of the variations from this have been other made-for-TV productions like Victoria and The Crown. And the majority of them are British. (See this post from two years ago.) One wants to relax at the end of a working day (and yes, mine are still largely work of one kind or another though I am supposedly retired). But one does not want to be bored. And crime dramas provide a mixture of the stimulating, even frightening or disturbing, and the reassuring: for the most part, at least in the ones I watch, there is in the end something close to justice: the murderer is found out and apprehended. The links in the list below go to the Wikipedia pages for the shows, in case you want to find out a bit more about them. I only noticed a spoiler in one of them (noted below).

Midsomer Murders is the least demanding, and the best option for the end of a particularly stressful day. It falls pretty well within the definition of the "cozy" genre.  Predictable, likeable characters (I mean, not counting the killers, with which these little English villages seem to be crawling), and not too gruesome or psychologically creepy. There are a lot of episodes, but I am trying to ration our consumption of them because eventually we will get through them all. And I have to admit they get somewhat repetitive. How could they not?--it's been going since 1998.

Marcella is another entry in what seems to be almost a sub-genre now: the detective with major personal problems. I watched this one alone...oops, I forgot to mention that I frequently watch half an hour of TV on my lunch break--and sometimes a whole hour, if what I'm watching lasts that long and I can't make myself stop in the middle. (But I don't have a problem, really. I can quite anytime I want to.) Anyway, I watched it alone because when my wife and I started watching it the opening promised to be so gruesome that she decided to bail out. Marcella Backland is a police detective in London, and her major personal problems (MPP) involve a collapsing marriage, the death of a child, and blackouts in which she does crazy things which she can't remember afterwards. I guess I'd give it a qualified recommendation. It's produced, directed, and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, who was the guiding hand of the original Swedish The Bridge. Despite that opening scene, it is not extremely gory. 

So, The Bridge: having had this strongly recommended so strongly by Rob G, I finally watched the first season of it a couple of months ago. It's very very good, though sometimes gruesome and disturbing. As you know if you've seen conversations about it here, the bridge in question is the one between Sweden and Denmark, and each country provides a detective. Both, not surprisingly, have MPPs. I haven't watched any of the subsequent seasons, because I can only get them from Amazon for $24 or so each.

The Tunnel is a sort of remake of The Bridge with the Channel Tunnel between England and France in the role of the bridge. The detectives are similar, including MPPs. I didn't like it as well as The Bridge, but it's good. It's also more disturbing. The third and final season was recently shown on PBS to say this without giving away too much? does not have the sort of resolution one expects in a crime drama. In case you're on the fence about watching it. And NOTE: that Wikipedia entry does contain one major spoiler.

DCI Banks is based on what is apparently a very popular series of novels by Peter Robinson. I haven't read any of them so obviously have no idea how the show compares to them, but I like the show enough to be interested in the novels. Banks is, I suppose, a pretty basic police detective in the mold of, say, Inspector Morse: he's got his quirks and his problems and is on the prickly side, but not MPPs to the extent that some of the aforementioned have. Really, if I were to summarize this, it would sound an awful lot like any number of similar shows, but it's very well done, the stories are good (though not always entirely believable, which I guess is not unusual), and the recurring characters, starting with Banks, are sympathetic enough that you care about them.

Case Histories stars...Lucius Malfoy? Yes. I was not a big fan of the Harry Potter books or movies, but when I saw the lead character in this series it didn't take very long for me to go from "He looks familar, I've seen him in something else" to the scary image of Malfoy. I've never been one to be greatly fascinated by movie stars, but over the years I've become more and more impressed by the ability of actors to transform themselves convincingly into utterly different people. It may be hard to believe that Jason Isaacs could be both Lucius Malfoy and the kind, strong-but-sensitive Jackson Brodie, who, as Wikipedia says, "hides a deeply empathetic heart under his tough-guy exterior." This series lasted only two seasons, apparently, and I would have liked to see more. Brodie is, in his basic situation, the classic private eye: an ex-cop who lost his job for exposing corruption, trying to get by on whatever miscellaneous investigative problems happen to walk in his office door. The problems usually meet first Brodie's secretary, Deborah, who is herself a very engaging character, sharp-tongued and quick-witted. Icing on this cake is an intriguing and somewhat quirky sound track. Definitely recommended, along with Banks

The Doctor Blake Mysteries is an Australian series. It falls somewhere between Midsomer Murders and the others mentioned here on a scale that runs from cozy to disturbing. It's not exactly cozy, but on the other hand it's not terribly dark, either. Doctor Lucien Blake is a "police surgeon," which seems to be something like the forensic pathologist who is often a second-tier character in mysteries, in the town of Ballarat. In this case the pathologist is the one who actually figures out the crimes. The stories take place in the 1950s; Blake is a World War II veteran who has returned to Ballarat after certain traumas. He's a bachelor and lives with his housekeeper and a couple of lodgers. I'm not wildly enthusiastic about this show, but I do enjoy it. As with Midsomer, each episode is a self-contained story, but the main characters persist from one episode to the next, and you come to care about them and want to know what happens to them.

Ozark is the lone American entry in this list. I might describe it very broadly as an attempt to do something like what Breaking Bad did so very effectively. It involves a Chicago financial planner, Marty Byrde, whose business partner has been laundering money for a drug cartel, and stealing from them in the process. They figure this out, of course, and arrive to kill both men. Marty talks his way out of being murdered by promising great things in the money laundering line. This involves moving to the Ozarks, where he predictably gets into ever-deeper trouble, with his wife, Wendy, becoming a very capable co-conspirator, and his children being dragged in as well. There are some darkly funny bits where Marty and Wendy lecture the children on honesty and other virtues while lying constantly, deceiving and abusing people in various ways, and causing the deaths of several. There are two seasons, and I'm not quite done with the second. I don't know whether more are planned but I doubt that the story is going to be wrapped up very satisfactorily in the two remaining episodes. I'm not very enthusiastic about this one, but the story got its hooks into me. It's pretty dark and has some especially gruesome deaths. 

All these shows, including the later Midsomer episodes, are filmed in HD, and frequently provide some very beautiful imagery. Banks and Case Histories, set in Yorkshire and Scotland respectively, are especially good in this respect.


I have managed to see a few movies in recent months. Just this past week I watched, for the first time, the classic Western High Noon. I admit that this was sort of a check-off item, as I've wanted to see all the acknowledged classics in this genre. And I've been a little saddened to find that they don't in general have the appeal that they did when I was a child. That wasn't much of a surprise, of course, but some of them have been worse than I expected. This is an exception. It's really pretty good. I guess everybody sort of knows the basic idea from various cultural references if not from seeing the film itself: lone lawman confronts outlaw(s) at high noon. Gary Cooper is the town marshal. The black-and-white cinematography is good and the story works pretty well.

Although I had not seen the film, I've heard the theme song, "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," occasionally over the years, enough so that I recognize it. I knew that it was associated with the movie, and was always a bit puzzled by that: what does asking your darling not to forsake you have to do with standing up to outlaws? Well, I must never have listened past the first line or two of the song, because it was written for the movie and specifically refers to people and events in it. Marshal Kane has just married his sweetheart, Amy (Grace Kelly). She's a Quaker and a pacifist and intends to leave him if he insists on fighting the outlaws. 

Another movie: Europa, directed by Lars von Trier. It's the only thing I've seen by him, and I know he has a reputation for having done some fairly twisted stuff. I don't know about that, but this is an odd one. Not twisted, not offensive, but...odd. I got it from Netflix semi-inadvertently--for some reason I had it in my head that it was an older work by Godard or Truffaut or somebody of that sort. I have no idea why I thought that, but I had put it on my Netflix queue a long time ago, and it finally bubbled to the top. 

I can't say much more for it than "somewhat interesting." It's about crimes and conspiracies in Germany immediately after World War II, the work of unrepentant Nazis trying to keep their resistance alive, and it involves an American who is drawn into such a conspiracy. That might suggest an action-thriller sort of thing, but it isn't really that. It's shot mostly in a murky black-and-white that looks more like something from the '20s than the '40s, if a period-cinema atmosphere is what was intended. I guess that's appropriate in one way, as that was certainly a murky period of history. If someone wants to argue its merits, I'll listen, but I wasn't impressed.





Sunday Night Journal, September 9, 2018

In response to recommendations from Rob G and Janet, I recently read Julien Green's Each Man In His Darkness. Well, I guess it wasn't only in response to them. I've run across Green's name now and then over the years in discussions of modern Catholic novelists. It usually turns up toward the end, in an almost afterthought-ish sort of way: "Oh, and there's also Julien Green." I'd always think well I should check him out, too. And then I'd forget about him.

Well, it turns out he's really very good. As a brief much-too-neat but not-entirely-useless one-sentence description, I'd say he's a sort of combination of Greene and Waugh. More Greene, I guess. And not the humorous Waugh but the Waugh of Brideshead Revisited. What this book has in common with Brideshead is mainly the conflict between faith and desire, which of course is equally important in some of Greene's work. It's been a long time since I read The Heart of the Matter, and its plot doesn't bear much resemblance to that of Each Man, but shares with it, at least with what I recall, a grim sense of movement toward tragedy. And the protagonist is somewhat Greene-ian in that he is a Catholic haunted by a faith he'd rather ignore.

I couldn't figure out at first when or where the book is set. If this is stated in the narrative I missed it (which is certainly possible). Green was born in 1900 of American (and Southern) parents in Paris, and he wrote mostly in French. I assumed in the opening pages that the book was set in England (because the family names are Anglo), and in perhaps the 1920s or even earlier, as the protagonist, Wilfred Ingram, is met at a railway station by a horse and wagon. It soon became clear that that was not the case. The book was published in 1960, and I think its setting is meant to be contemporary and American. It may be New York--some large American city, at any rate. 

Wilfred is in his mid-20s, single, and one of a few Catholics in an old and largely Protestant family. He works in a clothing store and spends his nights in what the novel describes, with a word which must have already been somewhat quaint in the 1950s, as "dissipation." That is, he goes out in search of women to have sex with, and he always finds one.

(In passing: perhaps I'm naive, but I'm a little doubtful that even an attractive and charming young man would, in the 1950s, have so reliably and so often found a willing woman, and never the same one twice, as Wilfrid does. Green was gay, and I suspect Wilfred's sex life resembles that of a good-looking young gay man in the metropolis more than that of a straight one.)

In the midst of this he attempts to squelch his Catholic conscience without abandoning the faith altogether. This struggle comes to a head when he finds himself in the grip of an obsessive passion for a married woman. The outcome of that struggle is strongly affected by his relationships with two homosexual characters, who can almost be said to represent the good and evil angels contending for his soul. That's an oversimplification, as the evil one is also Catholic, mostly fallen-away, and is bent on challenging Wilfred's faith to the maximum. And as things turn out...well, I don't want to give away too much. The other homosexual character is Wilfred's cousin Angus, who is in love with Wilfred, and who is, now that I think of it, the most Waugh-ian element in the novel: a well-off, jaded young gay man of no faith, but deep longing underneath a surface cynicism, and an essentially noble and generous character. There is also a decadent old uncle who puts one in mind of Lord Marchmain. 

In short: a novel very much worth reading and placing alongside those of  some of the other names I've mentioned. I'd like to read more Green. He wrote a lot, including nineteen (!) volumes of journals and a four-volume autobiography. Goodness.... Here is his Wikipedia entry.

WARNING: what seems to be the only edition in English of Each Man has an introduction by Giovanni Lucera which gives away the major events of the plot, including the climax. And this is a big deal because the plot is not predictable. So don't read the introduction first. Fortunately it's always my practice, when a novel includes an introduction or preface, to skip it and read it only after the novel itself.


Another recommendation from Rob G: he sent me the link to this piece in First Things by David Bentley Hart in which Hart recommends the English composer George Butterworth. In the past I would have filed this away mentally and maybe followed up on it sometime, or maybe not. But having access to a streaming service--Tidal in my case--which gives me access to some huge portion of all currently available recorded music allowed me to hear some of Butterworth's music right away. I looked for the orchestral pieces, because I have to admit, with some embarrassment, that the art song is not my favorite form of music. 

Well, I found them, and they are exquisite. And I found them on this recording: 


which, according to the review at Arkiv Music, is "very special." I'm always telling my friends who are connoisseurs of classical music that I'm not very sensitive to nuances of performance. But this one really grabbed me. It was the second one I listened to (I don't remember which was first), and it's the one I saved and listened to repeatedly. 

And by the way I liked the work by Frank Bridge, a four-movement suite for strings, as much as the Butterworth. The one by Parry, a suite of dances in the baroque tradition, hasn't made much of an impression on me.

Here's one of the Butterworth pieces, not from the just-mentioned recording, but with pretty pictures.

And here's one of the songs, a link sent to me by another friend, who is probably going to roll her eyes when I tell her that although I love the song (and of course the Houman poem), I sort of wish the singer didn't do that crescendo in the middle. I guess maybe that was the composer's direction. Yes, I am complaining about the singing of one of the world's great baritones, Bryn Terfel. I'm sorry. I really am. 


I've just acquired two more entries for my list of common phrases heard but not read, and rendered innocently according to the hearer's knowledge, or guess:

for all intents and purposes -> for all intensive purposes

of utmost importance -> of upmost importance


I've sometimes thought of starting a collection of Links On Which I Did Not Click. " Like this one: "Is Your Pre-Workout Under-dosed?" I have no idea what that means. 


Less-Than-A-Hurricane Gordon did me a favor. If you read last week's post, you remember I had been trying to direct the creek that flows into the bay away from a course where it was causing erosion. The creek wanders around all the time, depending on wind and water. I had dug an outlet for it straight out into the bay, but the water level in the bay was fairly high and my ditch was filled in overnight. 

NewCreekThe storm dumped somewhere between 7 and 9 inches of rain in 18 hours or so. The resulting flood of runoff down the creek washed a path straight out into the bay, as I had wanted to do. That's the stream you see in the middle of this picture, taken a day or two after the storm, when the very high water had mostly receded, and from more or less the same place as the picture last week of another one of my attempts. Moreover, it shoved a great pile of sand up on the beach and more or less replaced what had been eroded by the creek. I am very pleased by this development.

Sunday Night Journal, September 2, 2018

I finally decided to pay a little attention to the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, which I have pretty much been ignoring. I first heard of him by way of this post by Neo-neocon, in which she discusses the video in which Peterson is interviewed by an apparently well-known British journalist named Cathy Newman. I soon realized that Peterson's work in general, and his persona, and this video in particular were becoming famous. And I thought Neo's analysis of the interview was fascinating, as she notes the ways in which Peterson uses (so she says) the techniques of a psychotherapist (which he is) to deal with Newman's hostility and her attempts to paint him as a Bad Person. Newman is fond of the low "So you're saying..." gambit, widely favored in political arguments.

"I think nations have the right to control their borders."

"So you're saying immigrants have no rights."

Both sides do it of course.

"I think we have an obligation to take care of immigrants."

"So you're saying we should let the whole world move in and go on welfare."

I thought it was a good thing that someone successfully countered the bullying of a TV journalist, especially someone asserting reason and fact in the face of ideological-emotional aggression. But I did not actually watch the video. (I don't usually watch news-related videos, or for that matter listen to podcasts. I'm not sure exactly why but it often has to do with impatience--just give me a transcript and let me read it, which will take a lot less time than listening to you say it all.)

I didn't, however, intend to investigate Peterson any further. If a writer of self-help books is writing sane advice in defiance of popular cant, good for him, but a book called 12 Rules For Life is on the face of it not my cup of tea.

Then I saw a piece by Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic  called "Why the Left Is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson." Caitlin Flanagan is usually interesting; she is one of those people who are more or less on the progressive side but don't wear ideological blinders, so I thought I would read the piece. But I had not gotten around to it when I came across a rather fevered attack on Peterson by a liberal Catholic on Facebook (friend of a friend kind of thing). He may be a theologian. At any rate he's pretty knowledgeable on the subject, and went into a vigorous attack on Peterson's ideas as being incompatible with various Catholic beliefs as articulated by various theologians. I thought this was odd: why get upset about a non-Catholic psychologist's deviations from Catholic teaching? I'm not perturbed by Oprah's heterodoxy.

That caused me to go and read Flanagan's piece. Now I understand. I'll let her say it:

The left has an obvious and pressing need to unperson [Peterson]; what he and the other members of the so-called “intellectual dark web” are offering is kryptonite to identity politics. There is an eagerness to attach reputation-destroying ideas to him, such as that he is a supporter of something called “enforced monogamy”.... 

There are plenty of reasons for individual readers to dislike Jordan Peterson. He’s a Jungian and that isn’t your cup of tea; he is, by his own admission, a very serious person and you think he should lighten up now and then; you find him boring; you’re not interested in either identity politics or in the arguments against it. There are many legitimate reasons to disagree with him on a number of subjects, and many people of good will do. But there is no coherent reason for the left’s obliterating and irrational hatred of Jordan Peterson. What, then, accounts for it?

It is because the left, while it currently seems ascendant in our houses of culture and art, has in fact entered its decadent late phase, and it is deeply vulnerable. The left is afraid not of Peterson, but of the ideas he promotes, which are completely inconsistent with identity politics of any kind. When the poetry editors of The Nation virtuously publish an amateurish but super-woke poem, only to discover that the poem stumbled across several trip wires of political correctness; when these editors (one of them a full professor in the Harvard English department) then jointly write a letter oozing bathos and career anxiety and begging forgiveness from their critics; when the poet himself publishes a statement of his own—a missive falling somewhere between an apology, a Hail Mary pass, and a suicide note; and when all of this is accepted in the houses of the holy as one of the regrettable but minor incidents that take place along the path toward greater justice, something is dying.

Another LP from the closet: The Grateful Dead, Live/Dead. This is a live double LP that came out in 1969. I liked it at the time but as far as I can remember had not heard it since sometime around the middle of the '70s, so I wasn't sure whether I still would.
I do. In fact I love it. The first two sides are classics of the jam-rock genre, and among the first instances of it on record (maybe the first?). They include only three songs, "Dark Star," "St. Stephen," and "The Eleven." The first occupies a whole side, and seems to be regarded as the quintessential jam vehicle of the quintessential jam band. I was surprised to learn that it was initially a straightforward under-three-minute song, and was in fact issued as a single. Shockingly, it did not make a mark on the Top 40. But it's on YouTube. 

There is a joyous quality about those first two sides. The other two are good, but to my taste not as. "Turn On Your Love Light," which people of a certain age may remember hearing in Bobby "Blue" Bland's hit version on the radio ca. 1960, occupies all of side 3. Side 4 begins with "Death Don't Have No Mercy," a sort of gospel blues with typically stark lyrics:
Death don't have no mercy in this land
Come to your house, he don't stay long
You look in the bed, see your mama is gone
Jerry Garcia was not the greatest guitarist in the world, but he was very good, and often a very emotionally effective one. Same for his singing. In particular he's not a great blues/gospel sort of singer. Still, both guitar and voice work really well in this song. And in the whole album: his voice has a warm fuzzy-hippie quality about it that fits perfectly with the band's sound and general vibe. And vibe is a big part of the appeal of the album.
The sound quality is excellent, but the mix seems unbalanced. It often seems to be all guitar, bass, and voice. I can hardly hear one of the two drummers most of the time, though maybe that's because he isn't doing much most of the time. To tell you the truth, I've never quite gotten the point of having two drummers. I just get confused if I try to listen closely to them. But I'm not a musician, and especially not a drummer. I've only in recent years come to appreciate drummers.

Say what you will about summer in the South, it does frequently make available the experience of being soaked to the skin by heavy rain but not getting chilled. I had that experience yesterday. There's a creek that empties out into the bay near my house, and it wanders around depending on the prevailing winds and tides. I won't bore you with the details, but its course for most of this summer has been causing some extremely unwelcome beach erosion. So I've been trying to change its course by digging an alternative channel in the sand. I was doing that yesterday when this storm came up.

BayStormI just went on digging for an hour or so in the pouring rain, which was actually preferable to sun under those circumstances. Sand is heavy, and wet sand even heavier.

My channel was working when I left, but filled in again overnight, which I pretty much expected, because the tide was going to be pretty high. I had to try, though. Here is an instance from earlier in the summer where I succeeded. This is the day after the dig--the new channel is fairly well established.


Three or four days later:
The creek is still more or less in this position, though a bit further to the north (right). Better than it was, but I want it to be another fifty feet or so south.

Sunday Night Journal, August 26, 2018

I had intended to write about something else today, a couple of somethings else, actually, but was occupied with other things well into the evening, and in any case I would have a very hard time focusing on anything but the letter released yesterday by Archbishop Vigano. Surely you've heard the story. If not, here is what I think is the first report. One of the first, anyway. Naturally the factions went to war immediately, either believing Vigano's assertions and supporting him, or disbelieving them and attacking him. I don't think you need for me to cover the arguments and the evidence and the parties involved. I'm not a journalist, and there are plenty of them, professional and amateur, doing that job, and you can find their work online in an instant. So I thought I would just state my personal reaction.

Then I wrote a thousand words of personal reaction. Then I threw them away. So these two paragraphs are all there's going to be for a Sunday Night Journal this week. I'll say this much: I think Vigano is most likely telling the truth, so at first I was excited to think that rumored facts were finally going to be dragged into the light of day. But the most likely outcome is no real "outcome" at all. Just the further escalation of the factional war and the further deterioration and demoralization of much of the Church. 

Sunday Night Journal, August 19, 2018

I feel obliged to say something about the latest eruption of sex-related scandals in the Church. I'm not sure exactly why I feel obliged. This blog is not primarily about religious matters, and a great deal happens in that realm that I don't feel any need to comment on. But as it is written by a Catholic and looks at things through explicitly Catholic eyes, it seems to me that not to say something on this extremely important subject would look like evasion. 

I've started to write about it once or twice before but came to a quick halt because any expression of outrage and anger that I might come up with is inadequate to the worst of the crimes. I doubt that I need to describe those here, and I certainly don't want to. They are the sort of thing that leave one physically ill and thinking "How is it possible that a human being could do this?" They are not "failings" or "mistakes." They are monstrous evils. Moreover, I don't think I have anything to say about any of it, either in the way of expressed outrage or of opinions about the causes and cures of the problems, that hasn't been said by someone else, usually many somebodies. 

So I'm going to quote a lot of those others. But first I think it's important, really important, to note that the measures that have been taken since 2002 have certainly reduced the number of crimes against minors, especially children. The whole climate has changed, and situations that were once accepted as good and normal (and usually were) but were exploited by child molesters are in general no longer permitted. I mean situations where a priest is alone with a child for any length of time. Neither parents nor priests in their right minds would allow it now. 

Nevertheless: what the McCarrick and Pennsylvania disclosures have done is to reveal that a culture of sexual, mainly homosexual, corruption, exists at the highest levels of the Church in this country, and possibly in Rome, where reports of McCarrick's sexual misconduct were ignored as he was being made a cardinal. The thing that comes up over and over again in relation toMcCarrick is that "everybody knew." That is, "everybody" knew he carried on a homosexual life which involved preying on seminarians. And they kept it secret, and did nothing to stop it. Rod Dreher has described (repeatedly) being told this in 2002 when he was a reporter investigating the abuse crisis: over and over again people in a position to know told him that "everybody knew," but no one would go on the record. 

Well, you can read all about that elsewhere, and probably have if you're interested. The result, for me and for many, many other lay Catholics, is that the American bishops as a body, meaning principally the USCCB, have no credibility at all. Individual bishops may, and do, have it. But the body as a whole: no. No one can be very confident that its official statements are entirely honest.

People will always commit sexual sins, and some of those people will be clergy. That has to be accepted as a sad fact of life. But what can't be accepted is the presence of a circle of men, quite a large circle, and much of it highly placed, who are committed to serious sin as a way of life, in direct and violent contradiction of their vows and of basic Catholic moral teaching. What we hear over and over and over from most of the hierarchy evades this fact. And the clear inference, supported by evidence (e.g. McCarrick), is that at least some of them are part of it, and even more of them know about it, but for whatever reason don't or can't do anything about it.

At least one bishop, Morlino, of Madison, Wisconsin, is willing to speak plainly:

It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord. 

You can read more of his statement here. It is harsh, and I'm sure he will be charged with "homophobia" (a word I don't consider to be of much use) and of scapegoating homosexuals. But the majority of the abuse cases have been male-on-male, and involved adolescents, not pre-pubescent children. And anyway the situation would not be fundamentally different if heterosexual activity were at the center of the "subculture," if that's the right word.

As you may know, Rod Dreher has been writing frequently about all this for some time. As you also know if you read him, his work reporting on the scandals in 2002 played the major role in driving him away from Rome and to Orthodoxy. His blog draws a lot of comments from smart readers with a wide range of views. By way of illustrating what some lay people are feeling and thinking, here's a selection of comments from two posts, this one and this one. (The posts themselves are worth reading though far from pleasant. If you only want to read one, make it the second, "Traitors In Their Midst.") I don't necessarily agree with everything in every one of these, certainly not with those who have left the Church. But I understand and to a great extent share their feelings. And I'm seeing this sort of thing everywhere I look on the Internet, particularly on Facebook, from faithful Catholics. Many of the laity are very, very angry. (I just copied and pasted these--typos and other errors are left as they were.)

The laity need to bulldog this until 100% of the network priests and bishops are laicized. Laicized. Every one of them.

Mandatory clerical Celibacy was required by the Gregorian reforms to solve problems in the medieval church; now it is clearly creating more problems than it solves. It has got to go.


In the case of the present crisis, more pain is in prospect. Many will lose their faith. The process of decline, already well advanced in places like Europe and elsewhere, will accelerate. A considerable portion of the hierarchy will defect, and in fact has already defected, to the Enemy. There is no way to put a happy face on any of this or dress it up as anything other than the disaster it is.

In short, this catastrophe has considerably longer to run. The Church that rises from the ashes will be smaller in numbers and weaker in the eyes of the world. But She will be purified by fire and suffering. And She will again be the light that Jesus called Her to be.


The worst thing is to feel suspicious of every cleric I encounter. [my emphasis]


I do have concerns that clericalism has in fact colored doctrine both intentionally and unintentionally to protect and promote the self-interests of the clergy. Is that not exactly what they have been doing regarding the sex abuse crisis, so why not many other doctrinal issues as well?

It’s past RICO time. These men are utterly and irredeemably corrupt. Nothing but force is going to protect kids.


I am at the point where you were; staying Catholic but not trusting the clergy. But that begs the question, who should you trust?

No one.

You can’t trust the Orthodox priest, the Protestant pastor or anyone, except hopefully your spouse. I’ll stay with the RCC, but always a bit suspicious of those in authority, never ever letting my kids around anyone, as all parents should do the world over and throughout time.


A big part of this horror is the realization that if it wasn’t for the courage of the victims of the Catholic clergy who came forward, the empathy and hard work of the journalists who listed to them, and the law enforcement agencies who put the law into motion, this evil would remain hidden;

Because of this, the bishops, with a few exceptions, have lost trust and credibility in any objective sense. They are a hindrance to authentic healing, and if they have any shred of honor left in them, should leave.


This numbness of faith I’m feeling is something new for me – I was too young to appreciate what was happening in 2002. It’s as if my limbs are being severed one by one as I watch from a distance, and eventually I’m going to have to return to my body and live in this new reality. I love the Church and weep over her. The only thing that consoles me is the understanding that this is in reality a great mercy. Two months ago nothing was different. The only thing that’s changed is a little bit of light has shined on the ugly darkness. Now there’s a chance for change that didn’t exists before.


I cannot be Catholic any long because I don’t see how I can ever trust a cleric again. I have girls that are teenagers and at least in theory they wouldn’t be targets but nevertheless I would never leave them in the company of any cleric, ever. You can’t live a faith like that.
Unlike you I don’t see another form of Christianity as an answer. I’m just done.


I work for a catholic organization in a chancery building and have for the past 11 years. I am beside myself with anger and disappointment (too weak a word, really). We were all led to believe things were different this time, that all the rot was in the past. Now I feel duped, and worse I feel like my work helped a system that gave cover to awful men and their crimes. I feel a fool for having taken Catholicism seriously when it’s clear so many priests and bishops never did. [my emphasis.] I guess I shouldn’t be entirely surprised, there were indications all along that many did not take the call to holiness seriously especially in sexual matters. Look at the way they were ignored or dismissed from the pulpit and in the confessional. I’m trying hard not to fall into despair but it is very, very difficult when I read about all those children abused and discarded, the ongoing McCarrick slime, and the good men scandalized and chased out of seminaries. The crocodile tears of a predator was worth more to these bishops than the innocence, souls, and physical protection of children and vulnerable people. I’m like a man in a bombed out building, looking around in bewilderment and wondering if there’s any good left that’s worth salvaging.


I live in the Archdiocese of Newark and have had my heart broken by our diocese and my parish over this summer. But what living in this tension with my former friend and what has gone on in my diocese is doing for me is helping me to realize that the Lord will use those broken clerics to consecrate the Eucharist and baptize my babies and absolve my sins. And I am now more aware that I am “a sheep among wolves;” very crafty wolves that sometimes dress in shepherd’s clothes.

Ultimately, I love Jesus and His Church too much to take the steps you and your wife took. I am not bashing you. But my faith isn’t any longer an intellectual exercise, it’s a love between me and my Redeemer.

I’m really angry, though. I’m planning to protest the USCCB meeting in Baltimore in November and we’re not giving ++Tobin another cent until he starts acting like a pastor and less like a CEO.


[This is one commenter replying to another.] "What I’m noticing is that the secular media is repeating the same story from 2002..labeling it a pedophila crisis. Understand: every instance of gruesomeness detailed in the Pennsylvania testimony is diabolical.
But no one is speaking about the demographics of the which 81% are adolescent or adult males."

This. If anything is ever gong to change, and children are truly going to be protected, we have to destroy the clerical lavender mafia root and branch, along with the hierarchs who protect them. Not just in the U.S., but globally. And most of all in Rome.

Every other issue is secondary to this one.


The institutional Latin church needs to be burned to the ground and rebuilt — not destroyed, but gutted and rebuilt. Unless it is totally gutted, the rot will remain. All of the hierarchs need to go, much of the priesthood needs to go, and a good chunk of laity needs to go, and from the remains a new Latin church can be built on firmer foundations which are more moral and more accountable and transparent. That kind of reform, which is needed, will prove to be impossible unless the entire current regime is liquidated.


When men made the temple into a trading house, Jesus flipped the tables and drove them out with a whip. These men have made the Bride into a brothel and their crimes demand action swifter and more severe than committees and letters and Very Serious Discussions.

Drag them bodily from the altars. Tear the vestments from their bodies and cast them from the sanctuary. Hand them over to the police.

Mercy does not mean withholding consequences, forgiveness does not mean returning to the status quo, and frankly, a jail cell is a better place for repentance than a rectory.

As for me, there's no chance at all that I will leave the Church. My commitment is irrevocable. There's no chance at all that I will repudiate the Faith. My commitment is irrevocable. But one effect of this for me has been to increase the frequency and volume of those little questions that are always with me, that in one way or other come down to this one: what if none of this stuff is true? If your physics teacher is a criminal, it doesn't mean that the acceleration of earth's gravity is no longer 32 feet per second per second (I can't believe I remember that). And it can be verified by experiment. But the whole foundation of Christian faith is the testimony of others, nothing that one can verify independently for oneself. If the custodians of the testimony are discovered to be repeating a story that they themselves do not believe, it disturbs one's confidence in their teaching in a way that the physics teacher's sins do not. 

Over and over I find myself asking: do these men even believe in God?

One last note in what is already far too long a post: I think the Church should consider ordaining married men. I know this would have many problems of its own--everyone who grows up Protestant knows the term "PK." And even aside from theological and pastoral problems the practical obstacles are immense and could not be overcome quickly. Maybe it's not a good idea. But it's certain that for the priesthood to be seen as heavily composed of gay men who may or may not be celibate is a catastrophe. You could not come up with a better way to drive normal men, husbands and fathers, from the Church. 


Because of the grim subject matter I wasn't going to include a picture this week as I usually do. But having written the above, I feel a need to see and think about some healthy green living thing. This is another picture from my Ireland trip. It's a small tree that seemed to be of the fir family. I have no idea what it's called. But that yellow at the tips of the foliage is not a trick of the light--the color actually varies that much.


Sunday Night Journal, August 12, 2018

Some years ago, probably quite a few though I'm not sure, I read a review of one of Joan Didion's books which said something to the effect that the chief or most engaging characteristic of her work is her sensibility. I may have that wrong, but whether or not it's what the reviewer said, it seems apt to me, based on the fairly small amount of her work I've read: the novel Play It As It Lays, the essay collections The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I just finished the last of these, and that notion occurred to me several times during the reading. 

What is that sensibility? Sensitive, intelligent, unillusioned, depressed, neurotic, nostalgic, fatalistic, romantic, cynical, disappointed--the last three are essentially aspects of one thing. All three of these books were written in the 1960s, and it's pretty clear that she was pretty unhappy at the time. I don't know whether things got better for her or not.

I've had Slouching on my shelf for some time, and had read a couple of the essays in it. I picked it up again because the title essay is her report on the Haight-Ashbury hippie culture in 1967, when it came to the attention of the whole nation as "the Summer of Love." I find Didion's perspective on "The Sixties," by which I mean the whole phenomenon which has been so heavily mythologized since it actually occurred, essential. The prevailing myth, subscribed to by most of the social-political left (which means that it's the dominant one in the media, the entertainment industry, and the academy, and therefore dominant in general) is that it was a time of awakening and liberation, and that the summer of 1967 was one of its high (ha ha) points, the moment when a counter-cultural impulse which included political, social, and philosophical revolutions came to flower. The countervailing myth, subscribed to by most of the social-political right, is that it was a time of disintegration and collapse. 

Didion stands somewhat apart from those categories and those views. I take her to be more or less a liberal, but she is, as I said earlier, unillusioned, and she reports what she sees without, as far as I can tell, any ideological filter. She is, in a sense, conservative, in that she seems to suffer from a sort of civilizational vertigo, and to want to hold on to whatever stability she can find. Accordingly, she tends to focus on the crazy aspects of the hippie subculture, which were undeniably there and significant, whether you think it was on the whole a good or a bad thing. I'd say this essay, like its companion, the title essay of The White Album, is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what was going on then. Or wants to understand what it was actually like. Didion's view is not the whole story, but it is a true and important part of the story.

We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.

She herself seems to be caught out in that vacuum, as the essay "On Morality" shows.

Apart from all that, she is a terrific writer, in both style and substance, and I think anyone who appreciates good prose and deep intelligence would value this book. Not all the essays are of equal quality and significance, but all are at least interesting.

I'm going to quote from one of them, "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind," about the movie industry, because I think it's so striking a picture of the mentality that apparently set in there in the early 1960s, when the decline of "the studio system"--the nature of which has never been clear to me--gave directors new freedom. And is still prominent.

One problem is that American directors, with a handful of exceptions, are not much interested in style; they are at heart didactic. Ask what they plan to do with their absolute freedom, with their chance to make a personal statement, and they will pick an "issue," a "problem." The "issues" they pick are generally no longer real issues, if indeed they ever were--but I think it a mistake to attribute this to any calculated venality, to any conscious playing it safe.... Call it instead--this apparent calcuation about what "issues" are now safe--an absence of imagination, a sloppiness of mind in some ways encouraged by a comfortable feedback from the audience, from the bulk of reviewers, and from some people who ought to know better. Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg, made in 1961, was an intrepid indictment not of authoritarianism in the abstract, not of the trials themselves, not of the various moral and legal issues involved, but of Nazi war atrocities, about which there would have seemed already to be some consensus.... Later, Kramer and Abby Mann collaborated on Ship of Fools, into which they injected "a little more compassion and humor" and in which they advanced the action from 1931 to 1933--the better to register another defiant protest against the National Socialist Party.

She makes a number of judgments about directors which I don't necessarily share, including a negative one about Bergman,  a terrible failing in my eyes. But: "they are at heart didactic." That's still a justifiable complaint. And aren't they self-righteous and self-important about it?

The above is quite inadequate as a review of the book, by the way. I've focused only on a couple of things that happen to especially interest me. There is much more to say of both book and author as seen therein. I might add that her use of Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" in her title and as epigraph were probably not at the time the somewhat tired devices they've since become, when even politicians quote the poem--or at least the one sentence, "The center cannot hold." 


This porch ceiling has been painted a color known around here as "haint blue." I only learned of this recently. Has anyone else heard of it? Here's an explanation.

HaintBlueMost people would just call it sky blue, I guess. 

There is a brewery called Haint Blue in Mobile. I'd like to support them but there is a brewery right here in my town so I usually buy theirs. Haint Blue has an odd beer called Marianne, which is spiced with saffron. You can read about it here. Rather in the "hmm...interesting" than "mmm...wonderful" category to me.

May all these little breweries thrive for generation unto generation. The success of the craft beer movement is a great compensation for living with the craziness of our time. 

Sunday Night Journal, August 5, 2018

This is about language and literacy, and may come across as grumpy old man stuff. I really don't feel grumpy about it, though. Well, all right, I admit I do find it annoying, just a little. But mainly find it amusing, and interesting. Language develops, and frequently the developments are accidental and involve ignorance and/or confusion. And I don't want to sound like I'm coming down really hard on other people's mistakes, because I certainly make enough of my own. In fact this post is probably a trigger or catalyst for me to make a bad one, or have someone point out an old one.

I don't know what the statistics say, but it seems pretty obvious to me that in my lifetime there has been a decline of literacy in several senses of the word. One of these is ignorance of certain words and expressions that were once absorbed from print, seen first and heard later (or perhaps both more or less at once), but are now heard first and maybe never seen at all until some young person, raised on TV and the Internet, has a need to convert them to text. Their general import has been grasped, but the words themselves have been confused with homonyms or near-homonyms, resulting in a mistaken choice for print. And presumably an explanation, also mistaken, has been un- or half-consciously supplied as background. It's that apparent reasoning that I find most interesting. 

I began to notice this some time ago, not only in casual personal communications but in journalism where the writer was presumably paid and standards of some sort ought to apply. I jotted down several of them, by which I mean I wrote with a pen on a scrap of paper, which I have just located on my desk. I thought of  it a few days ago when I saw an ad for a literary magazine on Facebook which invited me to "Take a peak" at their latest issue. 

toe the line -> tow the line

I've always thought the original expression had a military origin, meaning something like "Line up precisely and stay that way." I pictured soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in a straight line, toes touching a line, real or imaginary, directly in from of them.  According to Wikipedia, that's the most likely possibility, although not the only one. But in any case the word is "toe," not "tow," and the meaning is more or less what I said. That has long been generalized to mean, in a word, "conform." In my experience its most frequent use has been to refer to conformity of speech by members of some organization, especially regarding communication with those outside. This has been helped along because the word "line" has for some time been used to refer to an officially approved and supported idea or doctrine, especially in politics, as in "the party line." "He's not sure this legislation is a good idea but he'll toe the line when he talks to the press."

So if you're a young person who's never done all that much reading you may have grown up hearing that phrase on TV but never have read it. And your young head makes the best sense it can of it: the politician in question will "tow"--i.e. carry, i.e. repeat, i.e. stick to--the official "line." If you have to put the idea into text, "tow the line" is what you write.

defuse -> diffuse

As in "The manager spoke calmly to the angry customer in an attempt to diffuse the situation." This makes a kind of sense: instead of conflict seen as a bomb that needs to be defused, it's seen as a kind of poisonous cloud that can be diffused

moot -> mute

As in "It's a mute point." A "moot point" has a legal origin meaning that the point, whatever it is, has no more legal relevance. We generalized it to refer to something related to a debate or discussion but of little or no consequence to the resolution. "Whether the evidence was enough to convict him is a moot point, because he died before the case came to trial." It's easy to see how one hearing this, not knowing the word "moot," would semi-reasonably think it was "mute"--a point that does not speak to the question at hand.

throes -> throws

As in "death throws." I suppose the image here is more or less correctly grasped as a sort of convulsion. But I find it macabre, and a little funny in a macabre way, because it pictures something a good deal more vigorous: the corpse-to-be actually throwing itself about the place, hurling itself across a room. Or, less morbidly, "He was in the throws of infatuation."

cite -> sight

As in "He was sighted for drunk driving." You know, the police saw him driving drunk, so they arrested him.

site -> sight

As in "Emergency workers are on sight at the accident." We know they are there because we saw them. It's hard to believe that many people don't know the word "site," so this may just be the textual equivalent of a slip of the tongue--something I do fairly often when typing, actually. But I have seen it in news stories.

pique -> peak

As in "It peaked my interest." This makes the original expression, "piqued my interest," a good deal more emphatic: interest brought to its maximum point, not merely aroused. 

I think I've also seen "peek my interest," which makes less sense. I have not seen anyone refer to a fit of peak. Or peek.

apprise -> appraise

As in "You will be appraised of any changes to this policy." As with "pique," this one is probably just ignorance of the existence of the original word, and substitution of one that the person knows. But I guess it's not like the others in that it's just pure mistake, not a plausible use of the incorrect word, except in the vaguest way.

beg the question -> beg the question

This is not exactly the same sort of thing, as it doesn't involve use of the wrong word, but it does involve misunderstanding. It doesn't mean "provoke the question." It's a semi-technical term for the logical fallacy of assuming a conclusion in the premise of an argument. (See Wikipedia.) It's a very understandable misconstrual. And it's a fitting instance for this discussion because, as the Wikipedia article explains, it is itself the result of a misunderstanding like the others I've listed here. Also, someone who encountered it through reading is more likely to know its original meaning. 

foreword -> forward

All right, in this case I am grumpy. This one deserves no mercy. Anyone who is writing about books and has occasion to mention a foreword ought to know the word. But there is a kind of very loose sense to it, as the foreword can be seen as forward of the main text.

If you have other instances of this sort of thing, I'm interested in hearing them. 

The "take a peak" I referred to earlier I'll ascribe (not "subscribe") to straightforward old-fashioned typographical error.


Slightly related. I think I'll keep to myself the location of the book of which this is the cover. It is on public display. I can't believe I'm the only one who ever noticed it, but it seemed to have been there for a while.


Sunday Night Journal, July 29, 2018

I once had the ambition of being well-read. I mean really well-read--having read all the major books of the Western tradition, and the more important ones more than once, and being fairly intimate with the most important. Even after I got too far along in a life occupied with other things to have any hope of achieving that state of well-read-ness, I still had this idea that if or when I ever had significant leisure I would take up the effort again and perhaps even achieve what, if I remember correctly, Lewis called the state of being half-educated: having read the great books once. But now I've given up even on that. I have more free time than I've ever had, but it still doesn't seem enough, and I'm going to turn 70 this fall.

I decided to give up not only that plan but any plan at all in my reading, and just follow my nose: to read what I want to read, with the proviso that I limit the amount of relatively lightweight fiction (murder mysteries and such) in my diet. That's how I came to be reading Moby Dick. For several months I had had an odd yen to read it--to read it again, actually, as I had read it in high school or maybe college, but didn't remember it very well. Also when I was ten or twelve I had seen the John Huston movie, with Gregory Peck as Ahab, which I think at least gets the basic plot right (and which I'd like to see again), and it had made a big impression on me. So one day a few weeks ago I picked it up. 

Well. This is a great book, by which I mean a Great Book. It's so great that I'm almost at a loss for words, and I certainly can't expect to do it any sort of justice in a blog post, so I'll try not to try, and just mention a few of the things that most struck me about it.

First of all is the prose. It's wonderful. It's majestic, sardonic, somber, thunderous, learned,'s everything. The best prose ever written by an American? Can't think of a rival, offhand. The comparison that comes to mind is not any other novelist but Shakespeare. 

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I enjoyed every word of this book--only a pedantic hesitation about the word "every" stops me. I admit I did expect that there would be at least a bit of a sense of performing a chore in reading it, but I didn't find that to be true at all. I was captivated and if I'd been free to do nothing but read would probably have finished it in a few days.

That's not because it's such a gripping narrative. It starts out that way, and it ends that way, but for a couple of hundred pages (at least) the narrative more or less pauses and we get a series of meditations prompted by this or that feature of whales and whaling. I think many or most people who read it don't like this, and see the whaling lore as an interruption or digression, and moreover as somewhat tedious. Or, for some, very tedious.

But I didn't find it so, and I think that to consider these as distractions misses a major part of the book's greatness. It's not just a novel. In fact maybe it should not be described as a novel at all, but as a meditative poem. Yes, it's prose, and it does include a powerful story. And yes those digressions, which comprise more of the book than the story proper, are really not digressions at all, if you stop thinking of the book as a novel in the usual sense. They do go into a lot of detail that one might reasonably find uninteresting--I did not, but I can understand that some might. But they don't stop there. Almost every one of these little chapters dealing with some specific detail such as the whale's tail is in the end a little homily. Melville jumps off from the matter at hand to draw some lesson of psychology or ethics or metaphysics. That one in particular is typical: it ends with Ishmael admitting that he does not really know the tail very well:

But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts, and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.

See Exodus 33:19-23, in case your memory needs jogging. It's that constant widening of scope from the mundane to the cosmic that makes Moby Dick more than a great novel. I think Clifton Fadiman is right in the introduction to the edition I read: it's one of the world's great books. It's in the class with Shakespeare, with Dante, with Sophocles--even with the Bible considered as a penetrating look into the depths of the human condition. 

Eliot says in some critical essay or other that the mythic character of Huckleberry Finn is all the more powerful for being unstated and possibly unconscious. That's true, but Melville proves that there's more than one way to construct a potent symbol. The story of Ahab and the white whale could be written in a Hemingway-ish sort of way, all show and no tell, and it would be very powerful. But Melville doesn't hesitate to pour on the explicit philosophizing, and that works, too. 

The matter of that philosophizing is decidedly post-Christian. Maybe it's existential, I don't know enough philosophy to say. But the whale embodies all the incomprehensible and indifferent forces of the cosmos against which man contends and rages hopelessly, in the person of Captain Ahab. The book is soaked in the Christian tradition, and specifically in the King James Bible. It feels like the Protestant tradition, even apart from the KJV influence, though I don't know anything about what Melville himself believed. It seems the voice of someone who knows the faith but can no longer believe. I'm sure scholars have cataloged all the many biblical allusions in the book. In a sly sort of way they are often brought in to suggest questions: "is this really the work of an omnipotent and benevolent God?" But it seems to me that there's more of awe than bitterness in it. The summoning of that awe is also part of the reason for the "digressions": many or most of them are devoted to illuminating the size and power of the whale. 

Well, I have to stop. Maybe I'll write a full-blown essay about Moby Dick. Though I suppose I should first read what others have said.

Oh, one more thing: Moby Dick is generally credited with having one of the great opening sentences. You probably know it: "Call me Ishmael." But it also has one of the great closing sentences. Those who have read the book probably know what I mean. Those who haven't I'll leave to discover it for themselves.


A few nights ago I dreamed that the end of the world was imminent. The setting of the dream seemed to have been borrowed from my visit to Belfast Castle, which is not really a castle but a 19th century estate with beautiful grounds. There were a great many people there, and I seemed to know a lot of them. We sat or walked among the gardens and patios waiting for the end. We all seemed to be Christians and although it was not said that this was the Second Coming that seemed to be the expectation. There was some anxiety but no panic. 

There was a major annoyance, though, for me. There was a guy who was determined to have a theological argument. I kept trying to deflect it but he was persistent. I don't remember what it was about. I'm not even sure that was clear in the dream. I just remember that it seemed ridiculous to be talking about it under those circumstances. I was saying something like "Come on, man, just let it go. We're about to encounter the reality. Those questions won't matter anymore." It was a wonderful feeling.


Speaking of dreams: Is it an omen if a Nash Metropolitan appears in your dream? Actually two Nash Metropolitans? If so, what does it mean?


Neither waving nor drowning.


Sunday Night Journal, July 22, 2018

There's a remark from Chesterton that I see quoted from time to time, something to the effect that the doctrine of original sin, i.e. the intrinsically defective nature of man, is the only one of the Church's teachings that is provable by observation...I think that's the idea. I've been thinking of a sort of converse: that one notion widely held in the modern world is disproven by the same observation. I mean the idea that people are born innocent and good, then corrupted and damaged by "society," and the "conditioning" which it imposes. I started to call this a dogma or doctrine, but it's not really that explicit or, well, dogmatic--it's more just a vague presupposition. 

At any rate, it's hard to see how anyone can be around children very much at all and still hold that idea. I remember my daughter, mother of two young sons, laughing about a woman watching some small children who happened to be playing nicely at the moment, cooing that "It would be so wonderful if we could always be so sweet and innocent." My daughter certainly has cause to laugh. Those two grandsons, ages now six and eight, stay with us a lot in the summer when school's out, and they provide frequent illustrations of the point. They are delightful: full of wonder and curiosity, beautiful, bright, clever, funny, energetic to say the least--all the things that are so appealing to us in children--and I love them massively. But they can also be quite appallingly selfish, dishonest, and abruptly violent when one of them torments the other past a certain point of endurance. Often these episodes of badness are funny, but that's only because they're so small, transparent, usually more or less harmless, and quickly over.

The boys are also, like most children, very quick to grasp the concept of legalism and see its uses:

I told you not to push his head under water!

I didn't, I pulled him.

Nobody had to teach him that stuff. And no theological or scientific framework is needed to prove the fact.


A few weeks ago I mentioned John Courtney Murray's We Hold These Truths, saying that what I (not having read the book) take to be Murray's contention, that the American ideal of religious pluralism and Catholic faith are not fundamentally incompatible and are able to co-exist, is no longer viable. Maybe it's not just Catholicism but serious Protestantism as well. (Oh wait--it was not a few weeks ago, it was two months ago.) Anyway, as it happens, the book was on the list of those that Janet is reading at her Reading My Library blog, and she has now read and reviewed it. Here's a direct link to the post, in case you're reading this after it's no longer the first one. I am going to resist snagging one passage that she quotes from the book and that seems to me an excellent description of the situation we're in now, which Murray at the time (1960) seems to have thought we were luckily not in. I'm resisting it because it's better for you to read the whole review. Maybe it's better to read the whole book, I don't know--I probably won't, for sheer lack of time. 

But I will repeat what I keep saying, feeling very Cassandra-like: our political factions are playing with fire in their desire to crush each other. 


Another LP from the closet: Joni Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Joni Mitchell has been for me one of those artists whom I admire more than like. I had a discussion with someone on Facebook a while back about Steely Dan, of whom I could say the same thing. The other person argued that SD's work is of extremely high quality, and he was right, it is. But for whatever reason of personal taste I've never really liked them all that much. The same is true of some (much?) of Joni Mitchell's work.

I wrote about her album Blue in the very early days of this blog, when it was still on Blogger. I was going to link to it, but it doesn't seem to be here. I've suspected before that some of those posts didn't make it through the Blogger-to-Typepad migration. Fortunately I have a backup of the old site. The review is short, so I'll just paste it in here:

This is a great album. So why don't I like it better?

Let's get that question out of the way first. The fundamental problem is that the personality that emerges from Joni Mitchell's recordings is somewhat off-putting to me. She comes across as the sort of sensitive romantic who's very conscious of her own sensitivity and romanticism and wants you to be as taken with it as she is. And then, on the immediate sensory level, there's her voice, which is very versatile and sensitive but just isn't to my taste--it doesn't touch me emotionally, and there's nothing I can do about that.

Nevertheless, setting those personal quirks of taste to one side as far as possible, I very much see why critics use terms like "landmark" and "watershed" to describe Blue. It's just plain brilliant. The flow of inventive melody never stops, and Mitchell's perfectly controlled voice negotiates their range and complexity effortlessly. And while the lyrics are of a confessional nature that's not to my taste (and they lapse into occasional hippie-isms that now sound dated), they're coherent, articulate, and elegantly and seamlessly wedded to the tunes. The spare acoustic arrangements are beautiful, the touches of backup singing always perfectly placed. To reverse Dorothy Parker's famous remark, for those who don't like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like anyway. I have to call it a classic in spite of myself, some kind of Platonic ideal of the female singer-songwriter genre.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns, on the other hand, is also a great album. And I really like it. I remember hearing it a few times when it came out (1976) and thinking that it seemed interesting. But I didn't buy it--the copy I have is a used one and a fairly recent acquisition--and I don't think I'd ever given it a close listen till now. I'm not sure why I like it better than Blue. If I attempt to be somewhat objective, I can't say one is of higher musical and lyrical quality than the other. 

Part of my preference is for the general musical style of Lawns. She has a backing band here, and they're mostly jazz musicians. They're really good technically, of course, and that's not necessarily a good thing in pop music--that is, it may just mean that the result is too slick for a genre where directness of expression is very important. But that's not the case here; the unconventional and complex nature of her compositions is well-suited to jazz players. This was apparently the beginning of Joni Mitchell's foray into jazz or jazz-like music, and I think it really works. There aren't that many catchy tunes here, but there's a lot of substance, a lot of interesting detail.  

I also find it more interesting lyrically than Blue. There's less of a focus on her and her personal relationships, and more of a look at the broader world. Several of the songs, including the title song, examine the situation of women who have bargained for security and maybe wealth at the expense of some degree of self-respect and independence. That sort of thing can be (often is) treated in a dull ideological sort of way, but these portraits are specific, sympathetic without being sentimental, and very skilfully drawn. The lyrics are so good that one critic at the time of the album's release, not caring much for the music, said that it made for better reading than listening. 

It was somewhere toward the end of the second side, even as I was thinking how much I liked it, that I realized that it reminded me of...Steely Dan. There's no accounting for tastes, even one's own.

Here is a strange and atypical track called "The Jungle Line." It's only Mitchell on synthesizer, with a recording of African drums as the rhythm track. It's Henri Rousseau meets urban America, the persistence of the primitive under the machinery of modern life. The picture on the album (also Mitchell's work) captures the feel and idea of it perfectly.  


The Babylon Bee, as you probably know, is a Christian satire site which is often quite funny. I liked this piece: "Senator Ben Sasse Offered One Last Chance To Bow To Towering Trump Statue Before Being Thrown Into Fiery Furnace".  


Two more Belfast pictures. These two girls were busking in a shopping area in the city center. (Unlike most American cities of its size, Belfast seemed, from my brief impression, not to follow the decaying center + suburbs pattern.) They were playing rock-and-roll, with guitar, bass, and a drum machine, and they both sang. I heard them before I saw them. I couldn't place the song. I kept thinking "what is that?'s so familiar...what is it?" And finally realized it was Black Sabbath's "Paranoid". They were quite good, and I have to say the harmonized female vocals were actually an improvement on Ozzy's squawk. I didn't manage to get a picture without pedestrians in the way. I would have given them something but I didn't have any of that foreign money on me.

ParanoidA fairly ordinary-looking building, right?


But when you look closely at the triangle at the top:

TruthWellToldIn case you can't read it, that says "Truth Well Told." I'm making that my motto. 

Sunday Night Journal, July 15, 2018

(This post is mostly photos and may be slow to load. I hope it's worth it.)

I mentioned last week that I was traveling. Where I was traveling to was Belfast. Why I was there is a longish story. It was a family get-together, and I have this odd reticence about saying anything very specific on the public web about my children and their children, so never mind the details. Suffice to say that my wife and I were hosted by a native couple, were treated royally, and had a great time. The weather was beautiful, and apparently atypical: it was either sunny or partly cloudy, and I heard people use the term "heat wave," which meant temperatures that almost touched 80F. Really.

And I took some pictures. It's an idiosyncratic travelogue, featuring not necessarily what was best or most important, but what I happened to have the inclination and opportunity to take a snapshot of.

This is a view from the front porch (I think--and I doubt that's the right word) of Castle Ward. I'm not sure how far the domain extends--at minimum to the water's edge, behind and below the trees. I think that promontory in the left middle distance is also part of it. 

CastleWardViewWe got there too late to tour the house itself. I would not have called it a castle, at least not the main house, which was built in the 18th century, and looks it. But the estate as a whole includes structures, too many and too large to be adequately described as outbuildings, which look medieval. Some of these are used as sets for Game of Thrones (which I have not seen). Surely the Clock Tower is one of them.


If you deduce that I did not take this picture, you're correct.

Walking down to the water from the house I saw this very impressive and perhaps just a bit creepy old tree. Does anybody know what kind it is? I don't recognize the leaves at all, and have never seen such a gnarled trunk. I think it was a good four feet in diameter.

CastleWardGnarledTreeWhite Park Bay is on the northern coast, maybe 40 miles or so north of Belfast. It's at the foot of a hill which I'm going to guess is 150 feet high. That is just a guess, though. This is a view from the top of the path leading down to the beach.

WhiteParkBayNot too far away is the famous Giant's Causeway, with its strange basalt columns.

GiantsCausewayWaves GiantsCausewayCloseup

You can walk out on a sort of promontory comprised of these columns. (Actually I think the formation goes on for a mile or more along the shoreline--we only saw one part of it.) This is a view from the tip of that promontory looking back toward the mainland. There's something kind of intriguingly ominous about this image.

GiantsCausewayPilgrimsI suppose it happens at least once a week or so on a certain Belfast street  that a car stops abruptly and a tourist jumps out to take a picture like this. I am leaving the finger in as indicative of the excitement of the moment. 


For many years when I listened to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks I thought he was singing about "Cypress Avenue," and never noticed that the title of the song is actually "Cyprus Avenue." It was fairly recently that I discovered this ("fairly recently" for me meaning "in the last ten or fifteen years"), and I was disappointed. Cypress Avenue sounds like a beautiful place; Cyprus Avenue does not. But actually it looks like a lovely place.

CyprusAvenueAnd I'm caught one more time

And speaking of Van, I spotted this mural on the side of a building:

BelfastMuralThat's him in the upper left, of course. Below him is Garry Moore, who is not all that well known in the U.S. I'm guessing that the soccer ("football") player in the upper right is George Best, for whom the airport is named. I don't recognize anyone else, though no doubt I would recognize the name of the guitarist at the bottom.

One day we drove south from Belfast along Strangford Lough ("Loch"), crossed its southern end at Portaferry, and drove back up the northeastern coast. Those little coastal farms and towns are about as close to an idyllic and ideal landscape as I can imagine. Unfortunately I didn't take any good photos on that drive. What I found especially captivating (and my wife felt the same) was the way the farmlands run right down almost to the water's edge. 

And yet: no place on earth is idyllic, really. The shadow of the Troubles still falls on Belfast and the little towns round about. One of the beautiful little towns we drove through on our northward outing was Ballymoney. Leafing through a newspaper on Sunday morning, I read a story about the current doings of a man who had been involved in the incendiary bombing of a home there which took the lives of three little boys. You don't have to look very hard for signs that tensions still simmer, in spite of the peace agreement of 1998. We left on the morning of July 12, not realizing when we planned the trip that "The Twelfth" is a very significant day and a frequent occasion of violence. That night there was some--burning of cars and the like--though happily it was relatively minor.

Being the alarmist and pessimist that I am, I couldn't help thinking about the relevance of Northern Ireland's conflict to the current one in the U.S. I hear more and more talk about the possibility of civil war here, of the culture war turning into actual war, or of an attempt to divide the country, which could certainly lead to violence. It's not serious, in that no one except for perhaps a very very few fanatics is really preparing for violence. And our antagonisms don't have the historical causes and intensity of Ireland's. But it would be foolish to deny that it's possible. After all, as some '60s radical said, violence is as American as apple pie. It's not as if we haven't already demonstrated that we're capable of civil war. 

The possibility is sometimes dismissed because the opposing sides in our culture war are not clearly separable by geography, as in the War Between the States, or easily identifiable by ethnicity. But the Troubles demonstrate that those are not necessary. All you need is a pair of enemies and the belief on each side that the other is a serious threat to its welfare and perhaps to its existence. There are still "peace walls" separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in parts of Belfast. (It's always seemed to me that it's misleading to think of this as a religious conflict: religion serves as a differentiating mark, certainly, but it's not about religion; they aren't fighting about doctrine.) We ought to be uneasy when we hear our fellow citizens declare that they don't want their political opponents as neighbors. We ought to be downright frightened at the level of political and cultural hate that is so frequently on display. If you think this kind of fury can go on indefinitely without expressing itself in deeds you don't know much about mankind.

Ok, enough of that. There is a place on the northern coast called Corrymeela which is an ecumenical Christian community devoted to peace and reconciliation. These peaceful waters are seen from there. 


Sunday Night Journal, July 8, 2018

I'm going to be traveling this weekend, so am scheduling this post ahead of time. I don't have time to write anything much so have invited Dorothy L. Sayers to provide a guest post. This is from her little book Creed or Chaos? It's a collection of essays on faith-related topics, mostly or maybe all written during World War II, some given as talks. It's very C.S.-Lewis-ish and is not diminished by the comparison. I've had it sitting around for years and read it in short bits over the past several weeks. This is from "Why Work?" 

The popular catch-phrase of today is that it is everybody's duty to serve the community. It is a well-sounding phrase, but there is a catch in it. It is the old catch about the two great commandments. "Love God--and your neighbor; on those two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

The catch in it, which nowadays the world has largely forgotten, is that the second commandment depends upon the first, and that without the first, it is a delusion and a snare. Much of our present trouble and disillusionment have come from putting the second commandment before the first.

If we put our neighbor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to worship humanity and make man the measure of all things. Whenever man is made the center of things, he becomes the storm center of trouble--and that is precisely the catch about serving the community. It ought perhaps to make us suspicious of the phrase when we consider that it is the slogan of every commercial scoundrel and swindler who wants to make sharp business practice pass muster as social improvement.

"Service" is the motto of the advertiser, of big business, and of fraudulent finance.

Not to mention politicians. "I have dedicated my life to public service." Desire for power, prestige, money, and the general extension of my ego into the world had nothing to do with it. 

Sayers is talking about the world at large, not the Church, but she's describing the basic error of the attempt to reduce Christianity to humanitarianism, or to justify its existence primarily because of its good works. 

Sunday Night Journal, July 1, 2018

My LPs are in a closet with two sets of shelves, each six feet or so tall.. The closet has folding doors in a frame about four feet wide, and one set of shelves is against the back wall there. When you open the doors, you're looking at those shelves, and can easily reach them. All the classical LPs are in it. In other words, the classical LPs are readily accessible.

The other shelves are to the right of the doors, against the side wall and set back a foot or so. All the non-classical LPs are on them. Between those shelves and the others are a lot of hanging clothes, mostly coats and sweaters. You have to move the clothes out of the way to see the shelves, and maybe take some of the clothes out to actually reach the albums. In other words, the non-classical LPs are not readily accessible. 

Several months ago I took all the clothes out of that side of the closet and picked out several dozen LPs from the non-classical shelf and put them on a bookshelf out in the room. Some of them were familiar ones that I haven't heard for thirty years or more and wanted to hear again. Some, I'm embarrassed to say, I've never heard--I picked them up for fifty cents or a dollar at Goodwill or somewhere over the past twenty years or so, between the time people started discarding their LPs in favor of CDs and the time vinyl started coming back into fashion. I only stopped doing that when I ran out of shelf space and promised my wife I wouldn't expand any further. I'm now working my way through this group I've extracted from the closet. When I'm done with them I'll swap them for another bunch.

It may very well have been more than forty-five years since I last heard The Mothers of Invention's Absolutely Free. I can't recall having listened to it any time after 1970 or so. Back then I thought of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention as basically a comedy outfit, and thought they were very funny. A bit later when people had begun to make much of Zappa's music as music and the Mothers had officially broken up, I lost interest, a condition in which I remained for many years. In the late 1980s I let a co-worker who liked that sort of thing borrow my copy of the first MoI album, Freak Out (1966), and never got it back. I regret that. Apart from the fact that there are several interesting tracks on the album, the physical object was a sort of curio.

At the age of roughly twenty I thought their second album, Absolutely Free (1967) was very funny. The album cover includes an address to which you can send $1.00 for a copy of the the "libretto," i.e. the lyrics and spoken bits, which Verve records refused to include with the album. I never did that, apparently, which is just a bit surprising. Not surprisingly, it can now be found online, and you can view the whole thing in what I take to be something close to a facsimile here

FRANK: (I hear the sound of marching feet...down SUNSET
       BLVD. to CRESCENT HEIGHTS, and there, at PAN-
       DORA'S BOX, we are confronted with...a vast quan-
       tity of PLASTIC PEOPLE.)
       TAKE A DAY         THEN GO HOME
                          'BOUT SOMEONE ELSE
                            ...but you're

Oh, those innocent days, when cultural decay could be symbolized by "plastic people"--and it was, by the way, a somewhat valid and accurate complaint, especially for the way women dressed and wore their hair (all that hairspray!). But as humor this has not aged well, and that's true of most of the album. The absurdist bits are not as funny as they seemed at the time. The once-biting social commentary no longer has many teeth. Zappa used to apply the word "lame" to people he disliked, and it's just the word for much of the lyrical content here ("NAZIS "...yeah, right). The skit describing a middle-aged man's sexual fantasy about a thirteen-year-old girl is just disgusting, nauseating when it turns toward incest. The final track, "America Drinks And Goes Home," with its smarmy cocktail-lounge singer, still works for me.

But all in all my reaction is more or less the opposite of that of my twenty-year-old self: the comedy is no longer very interesting, but the music is. Behind a lot of the silly gabbling there's some complex musical stuff going on. And I like the one long purely musical piece, "Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin." I think the title is a nod to "The Rite of Spring." I'm pretty sure there are some quotations from classical works, possibly Stravinsky's, in other places on the album, though I can't quite place them.

When this album goes back into the closet it will probably stay there. 


Oddly, one little mental cockleburr from the collage on the back cover of Absolutely Free has stayed with me for many years. There's an image of a leafless tree with the words "This tree is ugly and it wants to die." Here's a twelve-year-old post where I refer to it. A variation of it had presented itself to my mind; "This culture is ugly and it wants to die." And I've been thinking about it lately whenever I read about the manifest cultural death wish on the part of a large and influential segment of our society. Rod Dreher has a rather long but mostly interesting and accurate post on that subject, emphasizing the role it has played in producing the Trumpian reaction. I still find it hard to understand that so many otherwise intelligent people don't see that vilifying "white people," especially white men, essentially demanding that they commit ethnic and cultural suicide, is inevitably going to produce a bad, possibly very very bad, reaction. 

I don't have a very high opinion of white people who use "white people" as a pejorative, not in a good-humored way (as in "White men can't jump"--good-natured ethnic humor is actually healthy, I think), but venomously, with real malice and contempt. I hear a lot of that these days. It's one thing, a good thing, to face the evils of your own culture, another to see nothing else in it. And this is made more distasteful by the seeming belief of those who do it that they are somehow exempting themselves from the condemnation, or purchasing some sort of deliverance from it. Or something--I really can't claim to understand it. 


War Beetle! Unfortunately I couldn't get my phone camera to focus on this little bug, but you get the main idea: the bright blue and orange. Very handsome little bug it was.WarBeetle

These are called Stargazer lilies.


* Auburn University's colors are orange and blue, its mascot is an eagle, and its battle cry is "War Eagle!"

Sunday Night Journal, June 24, 2018

First it was "the personal is the political." Now it's "the political is the personal." The politicization of everything, as this National Review writer describes it, is bad. But it's not mysterious. Consider these items from that piece:

I fear that we shall go the way of The Nation’s Liza Featherstone, who recently warned an advice-seeker against dating a man who may be (egad!) a conservative and (perish the thought!) a fan of Jordan Peterson....

In 2012, David Graham, writing in The Atlantic, noted a study that showed that a growing number of Americans would be displeased if their children married someone of the other party. 

That sounds bad. It is bad. But if you change the "liberal" and "conservative" categories to "fervent atheist" and "fervent Christian," it makes sense. Even without actual animosity, two people with such seriously opposing views on such fundamental matters ought to think twice, at least, about getting involved in love and marriage with each other.

More disturbing than such views about romance are the instances I've seen of liberals not wanting to live in the same neighborhood as conservatives. Maybe the same thing happens in the other direction, but I haven't encountered it.

Once again I assert that the culture war is actually a religious conflict. I say this not for the purpose of inflaming the situation but of understanding what is actually happening. It's possible--only possible--that if people on both sides were more aware of this they might make more of an effort to tamp down their anger. Or then again it might make things worse, if people recognize that there are irreconcilable differences over first principles, not just policies. Well, even so, I prefer to have a clear understanding, even if that means recognizing that a situation is more dire than I had hoped.


In that long Facebook argument (381 comments!) I mentioned a few weeks ago in which I was taken to task for my comments about toxic femininity, I was criticized for "attempt[ing] to be reasonable" when the other person thought (apparently) that I should be emotional. I almost took this as a compliment, because I think reasonableness is in pretty short supply these days where political-cultural matters are concerned. That was certainly on display this past week in the matter of parents and children being separated when families enter the country illegally.

As I always take pains to say whenever I discuss anything having to do with Donald Trump, I did not support him, and the best I can say about his presidency is that it hasn't been as bad as I feared. But the open crusade waged by the media, the entertainment industry is so disproportionate to what he is actually doing that when some "Oh my God did you hear what Trump just did?!?" story hits the news, which it does at least once a week, I automatically assume that it's exaggerated. I wait several days before even bothering to check it out, because the chances are very good that it will turn out to be either not as bad or not as significant as reported, and sometimes that it's not entirely true. It often seems that the anti-Trump forces never heard the old fable of the boy who cried wolf. Or didn't understand its lesson, and thought that the problem was that the boy didn't scream loudly enough.

The family separations were  (are?) a harsh and unjust practice and well worth objecting to. And so, the thing in question being in fact bad, nothing apparently would do but to ratchet up the emoting even further, and to ignore the legal and practical complexities that led to it. As usual, the only place left to go when you're stretching for a way of describing your enemy as the Ultimate Evil is the Nazi comparison. This requires equating the temporary incarceration of people who have entered a country without permission with slaughtering them. Even aside from the moral blindness of the comparison, its sheer stupidity ought to have kept anyone but Trump-deranged fanatics from making it. Yet a former director of the CIA made it, very publicly, and then defended it. I think Neo-neocon's rejoinder is worth quoting:

So: no, there is nothing familiar, not even vaguely, to the Holocaust, and it is a disgrace to suggest that there is.

I’m not going to go into a long post describing the Holocaust, but it is clear to all who study history that the death camps and even work camps were not refugee detention centers, and the people in them (Jews and others) were not illegal immigrants asking for asylum or seeking to become German citizens (or Polish citizens for that matter, the country where the Germans located most of the death camps).

In Nazi work camps, many people (if relatively able-bodied to begin with) were set to “work” to be starved, tortured both psychologically and physically, and killed in droves by disease and exhaustion because of the terrible conditions. In Nazi death camps they were killed at the outset, although a very small percentage were spared briefly to help with the cleanup of the mass killing in exchange for a few more months of life, or to work at certain other tasks for a while under conditions that would ordinarily kill them rather quickly (within months as a rule). The object was to eliminate them as a group from the face of the earth, and certainly from Europe.

That was the stark reality, and it is obscene to make the comparison so many people are making.

If you want to read some exasperatingly reasonable discussion of the complex immigration situation, try Damon Linker or David Frum. I'm usually not much of a fan of Frum, but I think he's on target here. Damon Linker is often interesting. He seems to consider himself on the left--"center-left" I think is the term he uses--but is willing to take conservative and/or populist concerns seriously and to characterize them fairly, which is unusual to put it mildly.

Well, I didn't intend to write that much about politics. Now I've run out of time for the music-related post I had planned. Next week.


For more than ten years we had a Meyer lemon tree growing beside our front steps. In many of those years it bore more lemons than we knew what to do with. This is a how it looked in its glory days, a picture of a few branches of a tree that was eight feet or so tall. 

image from

When life gives you this many lemons, limoncello, not lemonade, is the appropriate response. Several years ago my wife made a big batch of it, several quarts at least, stored in Mason jars. It's delicious and very potent, made with a base of Everclear. I've been using this neat little bottle to dispense it. LimonCelloIt originally contained two different and delicious liqueurs, brought from Europe (France, I think) by one of our children. I liked the bottle(s) so much that I didn't want to throw it (them) away, and have been using it for limoncello for a while now. A few days ago I poured the last of the limoncello into it and took this memorial photo.  

I call it a memorial because this not just the last of that big batch: it's the last ever from our lovely lemon tree. Several years ago we had an unusually cold winter which had the tree covered in ice for several days. It lost all its leaves and we thought it might be dead, but it recovered, partially, and gave us a few lemons the next year. Then the year after we had another cold spell, not quite as bad as the earlier one but enough to kill back all the leaves, and that was pretty much the end of the tree. This spring only a few living branches were left and we finally cut it down. I'll spare you the sad sight of the stump.

Sunday Night Journal, June 17, 2018

Speaking of (visual) art: I mentioned that there are some painters whose work I like. At the risk of marking myself as a clod, I will say that Andrew Wyeth is one of them. I can certainly understand that the contemporary art establishment would disparage him. That's all right; I consider it pretty much a certainty that one day in the future that establishment will be the target of vast ridicule for the idiocies it has embraced, idiocies which make those people who admired the emperor's nonexistent clothing look wise.

But I was surprised a few months ago when a piece in The New Criterion, a conservative magazine which gives a lot of attention to the arts, seemed to more or less go along with the despisers. The views of the author, James Panero, seem somewhat ambivalent, but he ends by saying that Wyeth's "compelling images still offer up a voyeuristic escape, all with the timeless stamp of inauthenticity." And in the beginning he quotes the magazine's founder, Hilton Kramer--well, let me just give you the whole passage, which quotes not only Kramer but other critics.

“An image of American life—pastoral, innocent, and homespun—which bears about as much relation to reality as a Neiman Marcus boutique bears to the life of the old frontier,” is how my late colleague Hilton Kramer saw Wyeth in 1970.... Remarking on Wyeth’s “monochrome vision of the world,” here Hilton wondered “if there is not in this art a hidden scatological obsession. How else can one account for the excremental quality of this palette, which censors out anything that might complicate its ‘earthy’ view of nature and human experience?”

Beyond false realism, a near unanimity of critics has accused Wyeth of trafficking, it might be said, in a false consciousness of American life. Wyeth’s images of “frugal, bare-bones rectitude” may be “incarnated in real objects” wrote Robert Hughes in the New York Review of Books, but they have been “glazed by nostalgia . . . which millions of people look back upon as the lost marrow of American history.” A “kitsch-meister” of “dreary vignettes” that “celebrate . . . cultural and social immobility” (Robert Storr), Wyeth painted “formulaic stuff not very effective even as illustrational ‘realism’ ” (Peter Schjeldahl) in a palette of “mud and baby poop” (Dave Hickey). “Not a great artist.” “The press noted when he voted for Nixon and Reagan” (Michael Kimmelman).

A lot of that suggests, or more than suggests, precisely the self-inflicted semi-political stupidity that the magazine normally deplores. Worse, it strikes me as somewhat ignorant. I say that with some hesitation: who am I to claim that these celebrated critics are ignorant? They certainly know vastly more about art than I do. But it reminds me of those naive readers acquainted with only a handful of Robert Frost's more pleasant works who see him only as a painter of quaint New England scenes. 

A little internet searchng shows me that Wyeth was the subject of a Time cover story in the December 27, 1963 issue. This, then, was almost certainly my first acquaintance with Wyeth. I would have been fifteen years old. My grandfather, who lived with us, subscribed to Time, and I frequently read it, which makes me think now of a Garrison Keillor bit about the intellectuals of a small town being the ones who read Time. It certainly was a window onto a different world for me.

I remember very clearly looking at the Wyeth paintings reproduced in the story. I had no idea who Wyeth was. I don't know that I had ever given a moment's thought to painting as an art. But I was instantly captivated by the images. And what captivated me was more or less the opposite of what the critics quoted above seem to see as his appeal. Yes, the paintings were realistic in execution. But it was precisely not their picture of rural America, nostalgic or otherwise, that appealed to me. I was a teenager on a farm in Alabama. I was perfectly well acquainted with rural America as it actually was. What spoke to me in those images was not their depiction of that world, but their mysterious suggestion of another. There was something numinous in them (though of course I didn't have that word.) I think especially of Christina's World and Wind from the Sea. Both of them captured a deep and mysterious yearning, and made me feel it. In spite of, or because of, their carefully rendered detail, they were for me the opposite of a portrait, idealized or not, of the very ordinary world around me. 

For all I know most of Wyeth's admirers see his work as being the same basic sort of thing as the antique advertisements and farm implements on the wall of a Cracker Barrel. All I can say is that it is not that for me. Is the fact that I recall so vividly that experience of 55 years ago evidence of my naiveté or of Wyeth's power? Unlike, for instance, the science fiction I read at that age, Wyeth's work still strikes me more or less as it did then.


Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed and other Catholic-and-or-conservative critiques of the classical liberal project are getting some responses from people on the right who aren't convinced that the current problems of said project are intrinsic to it. (Please note standard distinction between classical liberalism as philosophy and contemporary political liberalism as philosophy and practice.) 

Here is one, a somewhat lengthy one, from Vincent Phillip Muñoz, a Notre Dame colleague of Deneen's, at National Review. He attributes the critique of liberalism in large part to "radical Catholics." Or rather "'radical' Catholics", suggesting that he doesn't consider them radical in fact. I don't know whether that's an accurate description of Deneen or not. I certainly don't think it's an accurate description of me, except in what ought to be an almost tautological sense that I consider the Catholic faith to be at the root of my views about most things. (I'm one of those people who often insist, rather tiresomely, that they just claim to be or want to be Catholic, no preceding adjective needed. But of course the reality is that the adjective often is needed, or at least very useful, in talking about the actual-world-as-it-is. )

Radical or not, I'm more or less in agreement with Deneen about the current condition and likely future trajectory of liberalism. (See this post from last month.) A good part of Muñoz's piece is an argument that Deneen is wrong about the nature of liberalism as it was understood by the American founders. I'm not qualified to judge that. What I can judge is the present state of things, and it certainly seems plausible to me that liberalism, as attractive as it is in many ways, and as successful as it has been in many ways, contains the seed of its own destruction. The absence of a solid metaphysical center may have made it inevitable that eventually liberal man would take that absence to heart--"internalize" it, as they say--and become a law unto himself, with the only seemingly paradoxical result that he must rely ever more on the power of the state.

Muñoz believes that the process is reversible:

If we Americans are no longer sufficiently virtuous, the fault lies primarily with us, not our founding principles. Our political and economic institutions have never been perfect, but (aside from slavery and its legacies, perhaps) they have never been so corrupt that they have made virtuous living impossible. Original sin may make corruption probable, and political liberty may make it possible; but the causes of America’s problems lie primarily in the poor choices we have made.

That means the solution to our problem lies, to a large extent, in our choices. To choose well, we must regain both political wisdom and the character that befits a constitutional people. Reacquaintance with our actual liberal principles and a return to belief in the existence of an obligatory moral law are essential.

The latter may require a reemergence of religious belief, especially among the cultural elite where it has precipitously declined. The necessity of morality for liberal democracy, and of religion for morality, cannot be understated.

I'm sorry, but when I look around at the actual-world-as-it-is, this seems to amount to little more than saying "If things were otherwise, they would not be as they are." The first sentence may well be true. But I see absolutely no reason to hope that the American people at large, and especially its culturally dominant and deracinated class, will regain anything that the founders would recognize as wisdom and character, unless perhaps if forced by some kind of catastrophe to face reality. I don't want this to be true. As I noted in that blog post I linked to above, I would on the whole like to see the liberal order preserved, because I don't think I'd care for most of the likely alternatives. But it seems very improbable. 


Please raise your hand if you have tried to use the search function on this blog and given it up as hopeless. I'm thinking about removing it. I just tried to use it to find that recent SNJ in which I discussed Deneen's book and it failed. DuckDuckGo returned it as the top result. Having a search function that's seriously unreliable is worse than not having one at all. 


We had several thunderstorms during the past week.


And some peaceful sunsets.


Sunday Night Journal, June 10, 2018

I had a very strange experience last Friday night. Does everyone have the problem I have with "last" and "next" in this context? Today is Sunday. Does "last Friday" mean the day before yesterday, or a week before the day before yesterday? Similarly for "next." Anyway, I mean June 1, a week before the day before yesterday. There are several art galleries and a lot of artists in Fairhope, and on the first Friday evening of every month there's an "Art Walk," which means that a block or two in the middle of town is closed off to traffic, the shops--art galleries and everything else--are open, there are musicians here and there: a sort of fair, in other words, or a street party.

I have to preface this with the acknowledgement that I'm not much of a visual arts person. I'm not much of a visual person in general, as my wife, who is, will confirm: my attempts to describe anything I'm not actually looking at are frequently very inaccurate. Literature and music are my big artistic interests, with the visual arts a distant third. Sure, there are pictures I enjoy looking at, and artists I like, but it's just not something I devote a lot of attention to. And where abstract art is concerned I cross over from lack of interest to skepticism and even philistinism. As a rule the best I can say about abstract art is "Well, that's sort of pretty." (The worst is "Gosh, that's really ugly.")

So: we went to last Friday's Art Walk, the first one for me, though my wife may have been before. And we went into this gallery/shop which was full of what I think of as typical Fairhope art. Since this is a coastal town, there are lots of pelicans and piers and sunsets over the water. Some are better done than others, of course, and most of them are pleasant--I love pelicans and piers and sunsets, and if I could paint, that's the kind of thing I would paint so I don't really mean this as a putdown. I've posted a lot of pictures of sunsets here. And the ones in this gallery seemed well done, but still...just pleasant. I wandered through pretty quickly and found myself in the back of the shop looking at some abstractions.

That's when the strange thing happened: I was moved emotionally. I can't really say exactly what the emotion was. It was very similar to the feelings produced by certain moments in certain pieces of music: not really a specific emotion, but a sort of pleasurably piercing sensation felt definitely in the heart; I mean the physical heart. I was a little shocked. There were several paintings there, and most of them gripped me oddly, but there was one that really produced that sensation:

Christine Linson Gallery: Abstract &emdash; 41 - Red Intersecting

I would not have copied the image and posted it, but the web site provides the HTML for embedding it, so apparently it's okay with the artist. Her name, as you can see, is Christine Linson (the copyright notice you see here is not on the painting itself). This photo of it is just that, and isn't the painting itself anymore than a photo of a person is the person. The textures of the canvas and of the paint are a part of the effect, as is the size--roughly two feet wide, I think. Or maybe more like three?--you see what my visual memory is like.

Anyway...I have no conclusion to draw from this, no larger observation; it was just a new and interesting and very pleasurable experience. As far as I can remember I have never before had an emotional reaction to an abstract painting.

Here's a link to the artist's site.


A postscript to last week's discussion of Pope Francis as seen through Ross Douthat's To Change the Church, regarding the persistence of the "liberal" vs. "conservative" struggle over the meaning of Vatican II:

The bigger picture here is not the half-century-plus since the Council, but the century-plus in which the Church has been dealing with the challenge of theological modernism, by which I mean, very loosely, the skeptical spirit which tends to remove or explain away the supernatural elements of the faith, usually in the name of making it more acceptable to Modern Man. And, widening the view even further, the challenge of modernism in the whole broad sense of the incredulity of all Christian belief in the eyes of that same Modern Man. That struggle is far from over. No one reading this will see the end of it, unless the end of this world intervenes. 

I think this is a much deeper and more mysterious phenomenon than we think. We tend to look at specific ideas and specific people who push those ideas, whether world-view-definers like Darwin whose names everyone knows, or theologians and philosophers like Rudolf Bultmann whose names are familiar only to those interested in the subject. But the really significant thing is that millions and millions of ordinary people who never give much conscious attention to ideas think like them. Maybe that's entirely explainable as the effect of culture and education dominated by skeptical assumptions. But I tend to think there is something more powerful at work here. I don't mean to suggest that I think it's the work of the devil, any more than false ideas always are. It just seems to me sometimes that ideas really do have a life of their own--not a conscious will, but an ability to spread and thrive under favorable conditions.

At any rate I often think of something I quoted several years ago from a comment on Rod Dreher's blog: "No matter what the Church did, [modern man] was done with it." Here's the post where I discussed it.


If you were interested in Douthat's book, but not interested enough to read it, you can get a good idea of its gist from this interview with him. This paragraph is pretty much my own view of Pope Francis:

My provisional view is that the real Francis is what he appears to be — a devout, prayerful, pastoral Catholic who has a certain impatience with doctrinal niceties and who has come around to the fairly common Jesuit view that the Church’s teachings on sexual morality are a great impediment to evangelization and need to be tacitly relaxed. This is not the same thing as having a deliberate grand strategy for transforming Catholicism into Episcopalianism, and there are all kinds of ways in which Francis is not a theological liberal as the term is usually understood.

I keep remembering something I said to my wife within, if I remember correctly, a few weeks of Francis's election: "He seems like someone who would be a great parish priest, but I'm not so sure he'll be a good pope."


A few weeks ago in the comments on that post about Nordic mythology we were discussing the disparity between the hard and violent world of medieval Scandinavia and the seeming mild blandness of contemporary Scandinavia. Marianne suggested a connection between that old spirit and the gruesomeness of Nordic noir. Well. Over the past week or so my wife and I watched the first series of The Bridge, the Swedish-Danish crime drama, and I think Marianne has a point. It wasn't the gruesomeness as such, though that was there, but the hardness. After three or four episodes my impression was something like a cold place full of cold people. There was more to it than that, of course, and the impression changed somewhat. Still, it wasn't altogether off the mark. It was reinforced by the cinematography, which is relentlessly washed out, gray and white, almost monochrome. 

But the cinematography is beautiful, especially in HD. I guess I probably discussed here the British-French knockoff (remake, imitation--whatever it should be called) of The Bridge. The bridge of the original is the Øresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen (Denmark) and Malmö (Sweden), and the story involves a crime that occurs on the bridge and is investigated by two police-persons, a Danish man and a Swedish woman who apparently has Asperger's Syndrome. The British-French version is called The Tunnel, with the English Channel tunnel serving a narrative function similar to that of the bridge. 

I liked The Tunnel, but I liked The Bridge better. The plots are pretty similar, but I thought The Bridge did a better job of integrating plot and character, especially that of the shall-we-say-eccentric policewoman. It does have some very gruesome moments, and one or two fairly explicit and unnecessary sex scenes. I've noticed before that some of these shows "front-load" their most sensational moments, as if they need to draw viewers in with sex-'n'-violence (or in this case violence-'n'-sex) before trusting the work to engage them. In this case it could backfire, as the gruesome scene in the first episode could certainly put people off the whole thing.

I discovered recently in the course of an initially very confusing conversation that there is a third variant on this plot, this one American-made and also called The Bridge, this bridge being one between El Paso and Juarez. I didn't know about it and the person I was talking to didn't know about the original. 


There are several magnolia trees in the woods around my house, but they don't bloom much, which is always a little disappointing to me because I really like these huge sweet-smelling flowers. Besides being delightful themselves, they're a pleasant childhood memory, because we had two large and vigorously blooming magnolia trees. When they were blooming there were often some of the flowers in the house. Apparently they need a lot of sun to thrive. I finally noticed this year that one of the ones near us does bloom at the top, where it gets the sun, forty feet or so up in the air. Yesterday at someone else's house I noticed their magnolia, which stands mostly away from other trees, had a lot of flowers, many within reach from the ground. I was able to experience their scent for the first time in a long time. My wife was laughing at the way I stuck my nose into this one. 


Sunday Night Journal, June 3, 2018

Impelled by conversations with a local friend and by Craig Burell's review, I decided to read Ross Douthat's To Change the Church, his assessment of the controversies surrounding Pope Francis. I hadn't wanted to; I explained why in this post a few weeks ago, so I won't repeat myself. I've now finished the book. I'm not going to attempt a full-scale review of it. I don't think I need to go to that trouble, since Craig's review is so through and fair. But here is a personal reaction.

I mentioned in that earlier post that I had an uneasy feeling about Pope Francis from the beginning, and by "the beginning" I mean the moment he stepped out on the balcony after his election. I knew nothing about him, and I can't explain the feeling. But I think it turned out to be justified. You may be thinking "Yeah, you had this prejudice, and you've fed it and allowed it to blind you." But insofar as one can ever know one's own motives, I really don't think that's the case. In fact I worked at trying to ignore and suppress that feeling, and to look for evidence that would prove it wrong. 

In John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, part of the plot hinges on the fact that the "mole" in the British intelligence establishment knows that the man trying to identify him is fair-minded and will attempt to discount evidence that he can attribute to his own bias. So the mole more or less deliberately does something that he knows will cause the mole-hunter to be prejudiced against him, in the expectation that the hunter will be suspicious of his own suspicions. (The book is arguably the best espionage novel ever written, certainly among the best. In the unlikely event that you have a taste for that sort of thing and haven't read it, do so.)

Believe it or not, I have, at least sometimes, the same sort of scruple as the mole-hunter. I do make an effort to be fair, and I'm usually very much aware of it if my negative view of another's actions or ideas is accompanied by any degree of personal antipathy, and try to take it into account. And as that vague uneasy feeling about Francis persisted, and became a concern that went beyond annoyance at some of his less judicious statements, I tried to attribute it to sheer prejudice. I have, for instance, an instinctive suspicion of anyone who seems to be making ostentatious gestures of virtue and good will. Rightly or wrongly, I reacted that way about some of the things Francis has done and said. And I kept in mind that my reaction could well be totally unfair and totally unjustified. Nor do I say now that my impression was accurate, only that it was my impression. 

I also have had more than one experience, as I'm sure we all have, with people who talked much and passionately about love for humanity but were personally harsh or worse with the people in their immediate orbit, or anyone who opposes them. And there were plenty of anecdotes suggesting that Francis has that tendency. One of my motives, a couple of years ago, in posting a quotation from Francis every day during Lent, was to work against these prejudices of mine. There is no lack of inspiring words to be found in his talks and writings.

Another factor that made me want to resist my inclination was the reaction of many or most politically conservative American Catholics to Francis's statements on politics, economics, and ecology. To be blunt, a lot of these people made complete fools of themselves, revealing that they had linked the Faith far too deeply and closely with their politics, to the point where they were ready to declare apostate or heretical anyone who questioned right-wing orthodoxy on, for instance, the virtues of the free market. Not only did I not want to be one of them, I didn't want to be seen as one of them. I had my reservations about Laudato Si (see this post), but I didn't yell "Socialist!" at it. I didn't want to ride a right-wing anti-Francis bandwagon.

Then came the 2014-15 Synod on the Family, and the controversies surrounding it and the document Amoris Laetitia. It became impossible for me to doubt that the war between for-lack-of-a-better-word-liberal and for-lack-of-a-better-word-conservative factions within the Church was still being waged; that the progressives who want changes which I and many others, including the last two popes before Francis, believe to be incompatible with the Faith were as numerous as they ever had been, and that the pope was in sympathy with them; that the apparent coming-together of the Church around John Paul II and Benedict was an illusion; and that the war not only had not ended but had no end in sight, certainly not within my lifetime, possibly not within the lifetime of anyone reading this today. 

So when all that was combined with the constant use of the pope's words as a stick with which to beat orthodox Catholics (to which I did not react at all well) by 2016 I had ended up at the place suggested by the title of this post: "Ignoring the Pope As a Spiritual Tactic." 

But of course I couldn't completely tune out all the commentary, pro and con. Many of those who scoff at the criticisms of what Francis is doing were not of the progressive party, but simply saw Francis as continuing the work of John Paul II and Benedict. That view can be supported by most of what the pope says publicly, but what he does often seems to tell a different story. And I often had the feeling that I was being gaslighted by the open progressives, sometimes even by the pope himself (as with the Scalifari interviews). Those noises you hear at night from a supposedly empty room are not footsteps. The lights aren't going dim. I really think you may be losing your mind. As Douthat notes, the progressives were simultaneously denouncing those who were concerned that important teachings were being changed, and rejoicing that they were, proclaiming "new paradigms" and whatnot.

So here is Douthat to say, with ample documentation and sound reasoning to support him, that:

  • those who are concerned are not imagining things;
  • there is a powerful faction which wants to change the Church's traditional teachings on divorce and possibly other sex-related (of course) matters;
  • the implications of such a change are enormous and go far beyond the specific questions being debated;
  • the pope is on the side of the changers;
  • conflict is likely to be the state of the Church for many years to come.

Whatever else may be said about this book, it is not frenzied and paranoid. On the contrary, though Douthat's views are clear, he goes out of his way to be restrained, judicious, and fair to opposing views. I don't see any reason to think that his analysis is not accurate. In any case this summary of the simple factual state of affairs seems inarguable, apart from its predictive aspect:

[Pope Francis] will probably not be remembered for achieving the goal that he set in the conclave speech that made him pope--the goal of a less "self-referential" church, a church less consumed with its own internal controversies, a church no longer stuck "within itself" but ready to go outward to evangelize and save the world. Instead the theological crisis that he set in motion has made Catholicism more self-referential, more inward-facing, more defined by its abstruse internal controversies and theological civil wars.

Whatever the pope's real views and intentions are, it is a fact that the mess he says he likes to create is here.

I'm grieved that the Church is most likely going to be torn by factionalism for some time to come, and that the confident outward turn I had hoped for is not going to happen. But there is a certain relief, and a certain serenity, in accepting that this is in fact the state of affairs. If you're wondering whether the vessel is too close to the rocks, clear and unobstructed vision is preferable to fog, whether it shows you that you're in danger or that there's nothing to worry about--though that's not a very applicable analogy, because I have absolutely no control over this situation and there's no action I can take.

The curious papal absolutism which now comes from progressives sometimes takes the form of the question "Don't you trust the Holy Spirit to guide the Church?" (And sometimes it's the direct accusation that you don't.) Yes, I do. 


The pastor of St. Ignatius parish in Mobile has generously allowed our Ordinariate group, the Society of St. Gregory the Great, to use their small and beautiful chapel for our Mass. Today was our first Sunday there, and it's also Corpus Christi Sunday, which turned out to be very appropriate, as you can see from this picture. (Sorry it's not quite in focus.)


In case you can't read it, that's "Verbum caro factum est"--the Word was made flesh. Those might be the most important, exciting, fascinating, liberating words ever spoken in human language. The Ordinariate's liturgy retains a feature that was dropped after Vatican II: the "Last Gospel," the reading, at the end of Mass, of the opening of the first chapter of John. It's like the Creed for me--I never tire of hearing it. The vistas of thought and hope and dream it opens up are infinite.