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?" .

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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. 

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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. 

HouseWithChristmasLights


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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

SycamoreLeaf


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?"

"No."

"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.

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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.

SatsumasNow


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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

GingkoLeaves

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Sunset from a different angle.

SunsetLight


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.

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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.

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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.

RedLeaves

 


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. 

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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.

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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.

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 It's about this big.

ThisBig


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?"

"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:

JamesAFranklin

 This is a photo of the placard accompanying the portrait:

JamesAFranklinText

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.