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David Jones, Nativity

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 3

 

Once the voice has quietly spoken, every knight must ride alone
On the quest appointed him into the unknown:
One to seek the healing waters, one the Dark Tower to assail,
One to find the Lost Princess, one to find the Grail.

Through the wood of Evil Counsel, through the Desert of Dismay,
Past the Pools of Pestilence he must find the Way.
Hemmed between the Haunted Marshes and the Mountains of the Dead,
To the Valley of Regret and the Bridge of Dread.

— W. H. Auden, “Song of the Quest”

Gawain postpones his journey as long as he possibly can, for he can imagine no happy ending to the Quest laid upon him: to find the Green Chapel and receive from the Green Knight the promised reciprocation.

In this section of the poem, the passing of the year is marked by the calendar of the Church. It is on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (September 29) that Gawain thinks he should leave Camelot and begin his search. But he does not leave; he tarries. A month later, on All Saints’ Day (November 1) he realizes that he may tarry no longer, and on the next day he sets out.

That next day, as it happens, is the Feast of All Souls. The brilliant, eccentric, maverick scholar Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy believed that the creation of All Souls’ Day was a great revolution in Western culture, because it added to the existing cult of the saints — those holy ones who intercede for us at the throne of God — a salutary reminder of all of us, all the souls, who are on our pilgrimage and need one another’s prayers. All Souls’ Day reminds us that everyone still on the way, whether in this world or in Purgatory, needs the prayers of the faithful. It marks, Rosenstock-Huessy said, “the universal democracy of sinners under judgment.” And that, as we shall see later, is a democracy that matters very much to this poem.

In any case, once Gawain is on his way time ceases to be marked by the sacred calendar: instead, the poet describes for us an increasingly wintry landscape: bare trees and swirling winds in the wild wood, a wilderness — and in the Middle Ages “wilderness” was a word to conjure fear — in which the knight cannot confidently make his way. He does not know where to look he does not know what he is looking for.

Now through England’s realm he rides and rides,
Sir Gawain, God’s servant, on his grim quest,
passing long dark nights unloved and alone,
foraging to feed, finding little to call food,
with no friend but his horse through forests and hills
and only our Lord in heaven to hear him.

Finally he pauses to pray: “Father, hear me, / and Lady Mary, our mother most mild.” What he wants above all is a place “where mass may be heard, / and matins in the morning.” He ends his prayer and crosses himself three times. It is Christmas Eve.

To be continued…

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: 2

Green Knight

All the visitor wants is to play a little “Christmas game” — but it appears that no one at Arthur’s court wants to play with him. Perhaps that’s because he is enormous and green.

a fearful form appeared, framed in the door:

a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,

a hulk of a human from head to hips,

so long and thick in his loins and his limbs

I should genuinely judge him to be a half giant,

or a most massive man, the mightiest of mortals.

But handsome, too, like any horseman worth his horse,

for despite the bulk and brawn of his body

his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.

In fact in all features he was finely formed

          it seemed.

     Amazement seized their minds,

no soul had ever seen

a knight of such a kind —

entirely emerald green.

(It’s hard to get the “bob and wheel” — the short lines that end each stanza of the poem — to render accurately in HTML. In general, HTML is not made for the presentation of verse. Sorry.)

The knight clearly resembles the Green Man of European folklore, a kind of vegetation deity whose attitude towards humanity is ambiguous — he can be generous, he can be threatening. It is interesting, and perhaps relevant to this poem, that the Green Man is often represented in medieval churches, often as a stone carving, and sometimes in quite colorful form, as in this roof boss from Rochester Cathedral:

RochesterCathedral Boss1

Or maybe it’s the particular game he offers that’s the problem: for he carries with him a massive axe, a “gigantic cleaver,” and he suggests that one of Arthur’s knights should take it and chop his, the Green Knight’s, head clean off — and then, he says, in a year and a day he’ll return the favor.

No one steps up to volunteer — until, in the embarrassed silence, King Arthur himself does. This event could be read as a token of Arthur’s courtesy and courage, and surely there’s an element of that; but aren’t the knights sworn to protect and serve their liege lord? Should they not be interposing themselves between their king and this terrifying stranger?

Only when Arthur offers himself does one knight, Gawain, acknowledge that the whole situation is rapidly becoming humiliating:

For I find it unfitting, as my fellow knights would,

when a deed of such daring is dangled before us

that you take on this trial — tempted as you are —

when brave, bold men are seated on these benches,

men never matched in the mettle of their minds,

never beaten or bettered in the field of battle.

I am weakest of your warriors and feeblest of wit;

loss of my life would be grieved the least.

Were I not your nephew my life would mean nothing;

to be born of your blood is my body’s only claim.

Such a foolish affair is unfitting for a king,

so, being first to come forward, it should fall to me.

This is throwing some serious shade on all the other knights, who (if he speaks true) are all more powerful and/or wiser than he. But none of them moves a muscle. So forward Gawain steps and takes the axe.

The Green Knight tells Gawain to search him out in a year — to seek a place called the Green Chapel, where he will wait for Gawain. However, Arthur whispers to Gawain that if he gives the fellow’s neck a truly serious whack, he won’t have to worry about what might happen in a year. Sage counsel; so Gawain lifts the “gigantic cleaver” high and lops the visitor’s head clean off. Problem solved!

Except …

The handsome head tumbles onto the earth

and the king’s men kick it as it clatters past.

Blood gutters brightly against his green gown,

yet the man doesn’t shudder or stagger or sink

but trudges towards them on those tree-trunk legs

and rummages around, reaches at their feet

and cops hold of his head and hoists it high,

and strides to his steed, snatches the bridle,

steps into the stirrup and swings into the saddle

still gripping his head by a handful of hair.

Then he settles himself in his seat with the ease

of a man unmarked, never mind being minus his head!

He then reminds Gawain of his obligations, bids everyone farewell, and rides away, leaving them to contemplate the great feast that’s growing cold on their plates.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

To be continued…

A Child is Born

Althea Willoughby, illustration for A Child Is Born by Henry Newbolt

Nativity in Ivory

Sir Gawain Is Rising

The estimable Robert Macfarlane has helped to organize a group reading on Twitter of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The choice makes sense: it’s the most-loved entry in a much-loved series of books, and its action begins on Christmas Eve and continues to the end of the Christmas season.

And yet the book really has nothing to do with Christmas. It takes narrative advantage of the warm associations people have with Christmas, but Cooper makes a point early in the novel of emphasizing the falsity and ineffectuality of Christianity. Now, of course, I wouldn’t say that the book should therefore be avoided — I have spent my entire adult life studying and teaching books by people who are indifferent towards Christianity, or who despise it, or who know nothing about it at all — but as a Christian I think I might want to make a different choice for reading this season.

So here’s my suggestion: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th century poem by an unknown writer from England’s West Midlands — where J. R. R. Tolkien, who translated the poem, is also from. Not only do we know nothing about the author, but the poem itself, along with three others apparently by the same person, survived in a single manuscript, thanks to the antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton. The poem is written in alliterative verse, which most translations attempt to replicate at least to some degree.

By far the best of those translations, I believe, is the one by Simon Armitage.

It was Christmas at Camelot — King Arthur’s court,

where the great and the good of the land had gathered,

all the righteous lords of the ranks of the Round Table

quite properly carousing and reveling in pleasure.

Time after time, in tournaments of joust,

they had lunged at each other with leveled lances

then returned to the castle to carry on their caroling,

for the feasting lasted a full fortnight and one day,

with more food and drink than a fellow could dream of.

The hubbub of their humor was heavenly to hear:

pleasant dialogue by day and dancing after dusk,

so the house and its hall were lit with happiness

and lords and ladies were luminous with joy.

Such a coming together of the gracious and the glad:

the most chivalrous and courteous knights known to Christendom…

And then a strange and utterly unexpected guest appeared — to propose a “Christmas game.”

To be continued…

Craigie Aitchison, “Nativity and Angels”

Les Murray, “Animal Nativity”

The Iliad of peace began
when this girl agreed.
Now goats in trees, fish in the valley
suddenly feel vivid.

Swallows flit in the stable as if
a hatching of their kind,
turned human, cried in the manger
showing the hunger-diamond.

Cattle are content that this calf
must come in human form.
Spiders discern a water-walker.
Even humans will sense the lamb,

He who frees from the old poem
turtle-dove and snake,
who gets death forgiven
who puts the apple back.

Dogs, less enslaved but as starving
as the poorest human there,
crouch, agog at a crux of presence
remembered as a star.

Pirate and Traveler

Pirate and Traveler geographical board game (1906), from the Bodleian Library

over the bluff and not-so-far away

I’ve been spending a few days of retreat and reflection at the amazing Laity Lodge, whose ministry of hospitality to writers, musicians, artists, and lovers of the arts is one of the best things in Texas — which is to say, one of the best things in the whole world.

On my way down here I decided to stop at a place I hadn’t visited before, Lost Maples State Natural Area — not for the autumn color, which has passed, but just to take a look around. And even post-bright-foliage, it’s a beautiful place:

IMG 2020

And a river (the Sabinal) runs through it:

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After hiking around a while, I headed down the road a bit and took State Road 337 over the hill towards Leakey — and it’s a pretty serious hill. Here’s the view from one of the higher places on the road:

IMG 2059

Then on to Leakey, and up Highway 83 to Laity Lodge, which you can only get to by driving through the Frio River:

IMG 2064

I never get tired of that. While there, I did some hiking around up above the lodge and the river:

IMG 2109

And here’s something I never realized until this visit. If I were to hike up that bluff you see a glimpse of on the other side of the river, probably bushwhacking some of the time, but still hiking for only 45 minutes or so, and got to the top and started descending the other side, you know where I would be? Lost Maples.

Eight Donkeys

Huang Zhou (1997)

Gate

門 (Mon, Gate), 2014, 140 cm by 100 cm., by Kanazawa Shōko

Crowley, Pynchon, and the hippies

In The Solitudes, the first volume of John Crowley’s Aegypt series, the series’ protagonist Pierce Moffett reflects:

He had the idea that not many children had been conceived in the year of his own conception, most potential fathers being then off to war, only those with special disabilities (like Pierce’s own) being left to breed. He was too young to be a beatnik; later, he would find himself too old, and too strictly reared, to be a success as a hippie.

Pierce was born in 1942 — the same year as John Crowley himself, whom he does not in other obvious respects resemble — which means that he would have been a child when the beatniks emerged, but well into adulthood when the Era of the Hippie began. Pierce was therefore born between two possibilities of rebellion against bourgeois conventionality, possibilities at which he could look longingly but into which he could never fully enter.

Thomas Pynchon is five years older than the fictional Pierce Moffett and the nonfictional John Crowley, but in his introduction to Slow Learner, a collection of his early short stories, he describes precisely the same experience. When he returned to university (Cornell) after spending a couple of intermission years in the Navy, he found that he and his classmates “were at a transition point, a strange post-Beat passage of cultural time…. Unfortunately there were no more primary choices for us to make. We were onlookers: the parade had gone by and we were already getting everything secondhand, consumers of what the media of the time were supplying us.“ The Beats had faded, but their commodified leftovers could be picked up at the local five-and-dime — or, by proxy, on TV.

So “when the hippie resurgence came along ten years later,“ Pynchon’s primary feeling was one of “nostalgia”: nostalgia for something he never quite had, and at his age at the time (early 30s) could no longer grasp. He was again an onlooker.

For Tom Wolfe (born 1931) in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, observing the hippies’ world produced a mocking disgust; for Joan Didion (born 1934) in Slouching Towards Bethelehem something more like bemused contempt, leavened by occasional moments of gentle envy. But for Thomas Pynchon and Pierce Moffett and, I think, John Crowley the feeling is more wonderment at a vast world of possibility — possibility for the hippies, but not, alas for those condemned by their age to watch the marvelous parade from the sidelines.

Many readers of both Crowley and Pynchon find their obvious affection for the Sixties hard to swallow, but that’s because we know how it all turned out. The utopian or millenarian hopes of the era — the belief that the Age of Aquarius was being ushered in (Pierce, a historian, keeps telling people that they’re a few hundred years off, though he may be wrong about that) — seem comical in retrospect. Bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts, Wavy Gravy, bathetically pseudo-visionary art by Peter Max….

And whatever elements of it tapped into something genuinely powerful — well, there were people who knew how to commodify that and to do so more thoroughly than those hidden persuaders of the Fifties could have dreamed of. (A point to which I shall return.)

But those bedazzled onlookers like Pynchon and Crowley didn’t know that at the time. It could have worked out differently … could it not?

The great theme of Crowley’s Aegypt is: “There is more than one history of the world.” The past, as well as the future, is a garden of forking paths. Here’s how Pierce explains that theme, about which he hopes to write:

“It’s as though,” he said, “as though there had once upon a time been a wholly different world, which worked in a way we can’t imagine; a complete world, with all its own histories, physical laws, sciences to describe it, etymologies, correspondences. And then came a big change in all of them, a big change, bound up with printing, and the discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler, and the Cartesian and Baconian ideals of mechanistic and experimental science. The new sciences were hugely successful; bit by bit they scrubbed away all the persisting structures of the old science; they even scrubbed away the actually very strange and magical way the world appeared to men like Kepler and Newton and Bruno. The whole old world we once inhabited is like a dream, a dream we forgot on waking, even though, as dreams do, it lingered on into all-awake thinking; and even now it lingers on, all around our world, in our thought, so that every day in little ways, little odd ways, we think like prescientific men, magicians, Pythagoreans, Rosicrucians, without knowing we do so.”

And the emergence of those new sciences changed not only the future — the future they would bequeath to us — but what preceded them. The world of the magicians and astrologers and mystics, of John Dee and Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus and all the disciples of thrice-great Hermes and the wisdom he learned from ancient Aegypt, not only disappeared but became retroactively false. Until the Cartesian moment magic worked and always had; after the Cartesian moment magic didn’t work and never had. The paths fork both ahead and behind.

But if the world can be changed in such a way that the validity of magic is erased from its past as well as its future, might it not possibly change again? Might not the 1960s and 1970s have been another decisive moment, another fork in the path, the initiation of a true novus ordo seclorum?

Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo:
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.

These are the possibilities of that moment as discerned by Crowley and Pynchon, and because they discerned those possibilities then they have remained ever since deeply attracted to the ideals of that era. Had the hippies won, our histories of thought would feature John Dee where they now feature Francis Bacon, and Giordano Bruno where they now feature Descartes; and who knows what the shape of our social order might be?

But the hippies didn’t win. What won instead is the Californian ideology. And if you want to picture the moment when the victory of something genuinely “spiritual” and non-commodified and non-panoptic became impossible, when the fusion of fake spirituality with commerce and governmental control ascended its throne, here you go:

a medieval brooch

Found with a metal detector in Llangattock-Vibon-Avel, Monmouthshire, in 2014. Donated by the finder to the Abergavenny Museum.

Vegetation of the Old and New Worlds

Tableau comparatif des altitudes de l’Ancien et du Nouveau Monde, Dessin de Goethe dédié à Humboldt. Source: A. de Humboldt (1807) Essai… p. 134. Image courtesy of “Société des Lettres, sciences et arts ’La Haute-Auvergne’; Archives départementales du Cantal, 28 J, 1 Ai 186.”

Ann Buttimer, “Alexander von Humboldt’s Geography of Plants:Bridging Sciences and Humanities.”  Click on the image for a larger version.

Mars

Royal Museums, Greenwich: A manuscript globe, hand painted and lettered, representing in 3-dimensional form the maps of Mars published in the American astronomer Percival Lowell’s books, Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908) which developed Camille Flammarion’s views. The globe is mounted on a bronze stand. Emmy Ingeborg Brun was a Danish Mars enthusiast who made a small number of globes, many for presentation to particular individuals and institutions. Her inscriptions suggest that she viewed Mars as a potential model for Christian socialist cosmopolitanism on Earth. There are three inscriptions engraved into the globe’s stand. The title — Mars after Lowell’s Globes ca. 1905-1909 — is near the column. On one half of the edge of the base is a quotation frrom the Lord’s Prayer — Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. On the other half of the edge of the base is a socialist slogan — Free Land. Free Trade. Free Men.

“folks”

David Von Drehle writes:

I say this with love: Folks in Alabama do loyalty and clan as well as anyone in America. That’s a virtue — up to a point. They would go over the falls in a barrel with George Wallace. But they hopped onto the shore when Moore asked them to strap in, and that ought to give pause to the polarizer in chief.

May I make a plea to journalists (and for that matter everyone else)? Don’t  say “folks” when you mean “white folks.” Ain’t a whole lot of black folks in Alabama would go over the falls in a barrel with George Wallace, and there are a lot of black people in Alabama. So let’s sort out our folks, shall we?

In yesterday’s election, 93% of black men and 98% — ninety-eight percent — of black women voted for Doug Jones. Meanwhile, 72% of white men and 63% of white women voted for Roy Moore — they weren’t hopping onto shore, they were riding right over the falls with their hebephile-in-chief. Now, in comparison to the previous election for that particular seat, which Jeff Sessions won with 97% of the vote, that’s some slippage. But I think we’d do well to consider than when offered a candidate who — I’ll set aside for now his romantic proclivities — when he was a judge regularly swept aside the law with contempt if it conflicted with his personal preferences, and who as a candidate openly longed for the good old days of slavery because back then “families were united,” two-thirds of white voters in my home state said: That’s our man. I’m not celebrating the good  judgment of those particular “folks.”

Faustus’s good angel

From my book Original Sin: A Cultural History:

In 1974, the famous theatrical director John Barton staged [Christopher Marlowe’s] Doctor Faustus for the Royal Shakespeare Company and chose for the leading role an unknown young actor by the name of Ian McKellan. Shrewd move, that; but he made other decisions that are equally interesting and important, though from a different point of view. The directorial problem with which Barton was faced is simple yet serious: how … could we [moderns] possibly take seriously the appearance of the Good and Evil angels? And his solution was a brilliant one: he made them into hand puppets, held by Faustus himself, their lines spoken by him.

A brilliant solution on more than one count: not only does he avoid sniggers from the audience at the appearance of the debating spirits, but he simultaneously enables an understanding of Faustus that is perfectly commensurate with twentieth-century psychology. For if it was the genius of Prudentius and his followers to reach into the divided self and pull out its voices, giving them bodily substance and individual identity, it was the genius of Freud and his followers to stuff them all back into the box. When Freud sees the Good Angels and Evil Angels of our stories as projected externalizations of our own inner conflicts — puppets made by us and able to speak only through our acts of ventriloquism — he is simply returning us to the world of Augustine, in which “the devil made me do it” is scarcely a legitimate excuse. Do we sin because we heed the devilish voice in our ears? Or do we heed that voice because we have already sinned? Whatever answer we might give has little practical significance. The divided self is our inheritance no matter what, and in the pain and disorientation of that experience we may not even care whether we were torn from the inside out or the outside in.

more marvelous puppetry

The Tin Drum, at Shoreditch Town Hall 

design wit

By day, a mild-mannered civil engineer …

Moomins in winter

How I would love to see this puppet show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

the politics of long joy

Ten years ago I briefly wrote an online column for the late lamented Books & Culture, and what follows was the first entry. It still seems relevant, to me anyway.


Near the middle of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the archangel Raphael describes for Adam — who has not yet fallen, not yet disobeyed — the War in Heaven between Satan’s rebellious angels and those who have remained faithful to God. Throughout this portion of the poem a major figure is a loyal angel named Abdiel. It is his task, or privilege, to cast the first blow against Satan himself: his “noble stroke” causes Satan to stagger backwards and fall to one knee, which terrifies and enrages the great rebel’s followers. This happens as Abdiel expected; he’s not afraid of Satan, and knows that even the king of the rebels cannot match his strength, since rebellion has already sapped some of the greatness and power of the one once known as Lucifer.

But what if the combat hadn’t gone as expected? What if Satan had been unhurt by Abdiel’s blow, or had himself wounded the faithful angel? In that case, says one Milton scholar, John Rumrich, “God would by rights have some explaining to do.” What right would God have to send Abdiel into a struggle where he could be wounded or destroyed? To Rumrich’s claim that most eminent of Miltonists, Stanley Fish, replies: Every right. God’s actions are not subject to our judgment, because he’s God — a point which, Fish often reminds us, modern literary critics seem unable to grasp.

Moreover, Fish notes, Abdiel himself doesn’t think that God owes him success, or indeed owes him anything at all. In Abdiel’s understanding of what it means to be a creature, all the owing is on his side; all the rights are on God’s. As it happens, there are moments in the story when things don’t go as Abdiel expects, where his efforts seem futile or pointless — or seem so to us. Yet this doesn’t bother him at all. Why not? Because in each case he did what he was made to do: he obeyed. Obedience is the creature’s calling; the ultimate outcome and disposition of events belongs to God, and only to God. God does not need to adjust events to meet our expectations, nor must he offer us an explanation when our expectations are thwarted. And if we focus on our own obedience we will not ask such things of God.

In the long and brilliant preface that Fish wrote for the second edition of his landmark book Surprised by Sin: the Reader in Paradise Lost, he calls Abdiel’s attitude “the politics of long joy,” and sees Milton as a passionate advocate for that politics. Milton himself strove to live by it: having made an impassioned case for freedom of the press in his tract “Areopagitica,” he pauses to say that his argument “will be a certain testimony, if not a Trophy.” That is, whether his argument succeeded or not (and in fact it didn’t), he wrote it simply in order to testify to his convictions. It was within his power to make such a testimony; it was not within his power to control the minds of the members of Parliament.

“The politics of long joy” is an odd phrase, but a rich one. Fish derives it from another moment in Paradise Lost, when the archangel Michael reveals to Adam a vision of “Just men” who “all their study bent / To worship God aright,” who then are approached by a “bevy of fair women” and determine to marry them. Adam likes this vision; two earlier ones had shown pain and death, but this one seems to Adam to portend “peaceful days,” harmony among peoples. But Michael immediately corrects him. This is in fact a vision of the events described in Genesis 6, when, after the “sons of God” become enamored with the “daughters of man,” God discerns that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” “Judge not what is best / By pleasure,” Michael warns Adam, “though to nature seeming meet.” Instead, Adam should judge according to the “nobler end” for which he was created: “conformity divine,” that is, obedience to God. And when Adam hears this rebuke Milton tells us that he was “of short joy bereft.” Of short joy bereft: for the joy which comes from judging according to appearances and immediate circumstances, according to what we now like to call “outcomes,” is always short. Only the joy of conforming our will to God’s is long.

Most important of all, Fish goes on to say, “It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being—the politics of long joy—is not quietism. Its relative indifference to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and and history are not in man’s control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one’s resolve.” Milton says of the loyal angels fighting against Satan’s forces that “each on himself relied” as though “only in his arm the moment lay / Of victory.” Or, in Fish’s summary, “each acts as if the fate of the world is in his hands, while knowing full well it isn’t.”

It seems to me that this politics of long joy is the one thing needful for the Christian cultural critic, as for a warring angel like Abdiel or a poetic polemicist like Milton. Perhaps the chief problem with the “culture wars” paradigm that governs so much Christian action and reflection, in the North American context anyway, is that it encourages us to think in terms of trophies rather than testimonies. It tempts us to think too much about whether we’re winning or losing, and too little about the only thing we ultimately control, which is the firmness of our own resolve. If the culture warrior would prefer not to be governed by Stanley Fish, or even by John Milton, maybe Koheleth provides an acceptable model: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

It seems to me that the careful dance, the difficult balance, of Christian cultural criticism is to be endlessly attentive to the form and the details of the world around us, while simultaneously practicing the “politics of long joy”—and in this way avoiding an unhealthy obsession with “trophies,” and avoiding also being conformed to the ways of this world. It’s a tough walk to walk, because one of the peculiarities of fallen human nature is that we find it difficult, over the long haul anyway, to remember that there is a world of difference between “I have no control over this” and “this isn’t very important.” We tend, against all reason, to diminish the importance of everything we cannot shape or direct. But our joy will be short if it is grounded in circumstances and events, because circumstances and events always change: if they please us now, they will displease us later. And then what will we do?

Central to this discipline, for me anyway, is a constant striving to remember who human beings are and what we are made for. Which brings me to the title of this column. On Bruce Cockburn’s 1980 recording Humans there’s a song called “Rumours of Glory”—a song about “the extremes / of what humans can be,” but also about the imago Dei which each of us bears, the divine image that waits always for the discerning eye to notice it. In the song, perhaps his best (which is saying a lot), Cockburn sees the “tension” between what we were made to be and what we in fact are; he sees that human culture is produced by that tension, which generates “energy surging like a storm.” At once attracted and repelled by that energy, “you plunge your hand in; you draw it back, scorched.” And the hand that has been plunged truly into the human world is always marked by that plunging: it’s “scorched”, yes, but beneath the wound “something is shining like gold — but better.” The truth of who we are, given the extremes of divine image and savage depravity, is hard to discern; perhaps we can only achieve it in brief moments; perhaps we only catch rumors of the glory that is, and is to be. But even those rumors can sustain us as we walk the pilgrim path.

the habitual passenger

The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role. Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social, and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed. He has become impotent to establish his domain, mark it with his imprint, and assert his sovereignty over it. He has lost confidence in his power to admit others into his presence and to share space consciously with them. He can no longer face the remote by himself. Left on his own, he feels immobile.

The habitual passenger must adopt a new set of beliefs and expectations if he is to feel secure in the strange world where both liaisons and loneliness are products of conveyance. To “gather” for him means to be brought together by vehicles. He comes to believe that political power grows out of the capacity of a transportation system, and in its absence is the result of access to the television screen. He takes freedom of movement to be the same as one’s claim on propulsion. He believes that the level of democratic process correlates to the power of transportation and communications systems. He has lost faith in the political power of the feet and of the tongue. As a result, what he wants is not more liberty as a citizen but better service as a client. He does not insist on his freedom to move and to speak to people but on his claim to be shipped and to be informed by media. He wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it. It is vital that he come to see that the acceleration he demands is self-defeating, and that it must result in a further decline of equity, leisure, and autonomy.

— Ivan Illich, “Energy and Equity” (1974)

keep the body receptive

I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow…. So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.

Leonard Cohen

I’m listening

Like many people of my generation, I did a lot of damage to my hearing in my youth, but I can still hear the difference between streamed music and music played on CDs. (Anything above CD-quality encoding is usually unnoticeable by me.)

Before I go any further: Kids, take care of your hearing. Please. Wear earplugs at concerts. Don’t blast music through your earbuds. You’ll thank me later.

Anyway, I have been for some time trying to spend more and more of my listening time on CDs, and reducing my time listening to streams. Sound quality is not the only reason for this: I also want to separate the listening of music from being online. I want to sit down and listen to music without being distracted by Twitter or the temptation to look up some piece of information — if I really need to do that I can make a note on a piece of paper and look it up later. I want my attention to go wholly to the music and maybe the liner notes (especially when I’m listening to classical vocal music in a language other than English and want to know what words the singers are uttering).

CDs are not the only option for my program, of course. I could go vinyl — except that I sold all my vinyl when I moved to Texas five years ago and don’t have the heart to start over from scratch. (When I was in college, thanks in part to a friend who sold stereos, I had a NAD integrated amp, a Luxman belt-drive turntable, and a pair of Magnaplanar speakers. I will never again have such a magnificent stereo system — but then, I’ll never again hear as well as I did then.) In an ideal world, which is to say a world in which I am filthy rich, this is the option I’d choose: lossless audio files on a massive hard drive with an elegant app through which to play them. But four thousand bucks is just a little bit outside my price range.

So: CDs it is. I’m looking forward to many years of more attentive, less distracted musical enjoyment. Wish me well.

autumn textures (central Texas edition)

Teresa Bejan on free speech

I simply don’t understand Teresa Bejan’s argument here. To wit:

While trigger warnings, safe spaces, and no-platforming grab headlines, poll after poll suggests that a more subtle, shift in mores is afoot. To a generation convinced that hateful speech is itself a form of violence or “silencing,” pleading the First Amendment is to miss the point. Most of these students do not see themselves as standing against free speech at all.

Well, no — but then, no one ever does. The universal line is, “Of course, I believe in free speech, but” — with the next line likely to be something about shouting and and fire and crowded theaters. Whether people admit to being “standing against free speech” is not the question at issue.

What they care about is the equal right to speech, and equal access to a public forum in which the historically marginalized and excluded can be heard and count equally with the privileged. This is a claim to isegoria, and once one recognizes it as such, much else becomes clear — including the contrasting appeal to parrhesia by their opponents, who sometimes seem determined to reduce “free speech” to a license to offend.

As best I can understand, the claim here is that, for instance, the students who shut down Charles Murray’s lecture at Middlebury felt that they were being denied a right to speak equal to that of Murray’s, and would have been perfectly happy to allow him to speak if their opportunity had been equal to his. If indeed that is the claim, I see absolutely no evidence that it is true. Certainly Bejan does not provide any.

Recognizing the ancient ideas at work in these modern arguments puts those of us committed to America’s parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power in a better position to defend it. It suggests that to defeat the modern proponents of isegoria — and remind the modern parrhesiastes what they are fighting for — one must go beyond the First Amendment to the other, orienting principle of American democracy behind it, namely equality. After all, the genius of the First Amendment lies in bringing isegoria and parrhesia together, by securing the equal right and liberty of citizens not simply to “exercise their reason” but to speak their minds.

Indeed, but how is any of this at issue in campus protests? Is anyone saying that either Charles Murray, or Ann Coulter, or students who protest their presence on campus, are not allowed to “speak their minds” at all? Who, from the perspective of “American democracy” Bejan invokes here, is being silenced, and by whom?

In contexts where the Constitution does not apply, like a private university, this opposition to arbitrariness is a matter of culture, not law, but it is no less pressing and important for that.

I haver no idea what the phrase “opposition to arbitrariness” means. What is “arbitrariness” in this context? (Earlier Bejan writes of “Diogenes the Cynic, who famously lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light — all, so he said, to reveal the truth to his fellow Greeks about the arbitrariness of their customs.” But who is the equivalent of Diogenes in the current debate?) Who is opposing “arbitrariness”? Are they right or wrong to oppose it? And why?

As the evangelicals, protesters, and provocateurs who founded America’s parrhesiastic tradition knew well: When the rights of all become the privilege of a few, neither liberty nor equality can last.

Again: yes, indeed. So the obvious conclusion, to me, is that when the “few” who want to shut down speech they disagree with win, then liberty and equality (within that particular community) are alike endangered. But I don’t think that’s Bejan’s conclusion. Can anyone help me make sense of this essay?

unmanly emotion

In my squandered youth I was a friend of Ian Hamilton, the biographer of Robert Lowell and J. D. Salinger and a justly renowned figure in London’s Bohemia. His literary magazine The New Review was published from a barstool in a Soho pub called the Pillars of Hercules, and editorial meetings would commence promptly at opening time. One day, there came through the door a failed poet with an equally heroic reputation for dissipation. To Ian’s undisguised surprise, he declined the offer of a hand-steadying cocktail. “No,” he announced dramatically. “I just don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t like having blackouts and waking up on rubbish dumps. I don’t like having no money and no friends, smelling bad and throwing up randomly. I don’t like wetting myself and getting impotent.” His voice rising and cracking slightly, he concluded by avowing that he also didn’t like being repellently fat, getting the shakes and amnesia, losing his teeth and gums, and suffering from premature baldness. A brief and significant silence followed this display of unmanly emotion. Then Ian, fixing him with a stern look, responded evenly by saying, “Well, none of us likes it.”

Christopher Hitchens

Design for Death

my response to Douthat’s response to my answer to Douthat’s question

Ross Douthat, responding in part to this post of mine, writes:

But it’s also possible that evangelical intellectuals and writers, and their friends in other Christian traditions, have overestimated how much a serious theology has ever mattered to evangelicalism’s sociological success. It could be that the Trump-era crisis of the evangelical mind is a parochial phenomenon, confined to theologians and academics and pundits and a few outlier congregations — and that it is this group, not the cultural Christians who voted enthusiastically for Trump, who represent the real evangelical penumbra, which could float away and leave evangelicalism less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated … but as a cultural phenomenon, not all that greatly changed.

Typical NYT columnist! — interested in evangelicalism only in terms of “sociological success,” as a “cultural phenomenon.” SMH.

Slightly more seriously:

  • I don’t think it matters, either in the City of God or the City of Man, whether there are a great many people who (when surveyed by Barna or Gallup or Pew) call themselves evangelical, or only a few.
  • I do think it matters, for both cities, and in a variety of ways, that they contain people who seriously hold to the convictions traditionally associated with evangelicalism, whether those convictions are summed up in the Bebbington Quadrilateral or the Larsen Pentagon.
  • I think it matters a lot more, and again for both cities, whether generally orthodox Christians from all traditions — and including those who have moved from evangelicalism to one of the more ancient traditions — understand what they hold in common and seek to hold still more in common, pursuing the unity in Christ that they are commanded by Him to embody. There were orthodox Christians before there was an evangelical movement; there will be orthodox Christians long after the evangelical movement is but a distant memory.

One more thing, in relation to that move of many young evangelicals to older ways of being Christian: there’s a new book by Kenneth Stewart called In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis. Andrew Wilson comments on it here.

Joe Posnanski wises up

About 15 or 20 years ago, I realized that talk radio was wrecking my writing process. I would be writing a column, and I would hear the talk radio voices in my head screaming, and I thought: “This isn’t helping me.” And so I stopped listening to talk radio. That’s sort of how I feel about Twitter now. All of the good — and there’s a lot of good in Twitter — just doesn’t for me outweigh the negativity, the rashness, the time-suckitude. At some point — I wrote about this — I figured out how many words I have written on Twitter, and it just about broke my spirit. I’ve written a full book on Twitter. A full, lousy, grammatically challenged, snarky, largely unfunny book of snap judgments and surface-level philosophy. I don’t have time for that. I have real books to write.

Joe Posnanski. Every few days or so I check in on Twitter and I see people still trying to write about important, complex matters there. They think, Hey, we have 280 characters per tweet now and I can link thoughts together in a tweetstorm. And then they produce inarticulate, disconnected, logically-challenged clumps of assertion— even when they’re perfectly capable of writing articulate, connected, logically clear arguments, at least when they’re on platforms that don’t enforce the equivalent of the electrical jolts used to keep Harrison Bergeron from thinking clearly.

If you’re trying to address complex issues on Twitter, you are serving as your own Handicapper General. Please stop. Get a blog. You’re damaging your brain and the quality of public discourse. We all deserve better.

leaving the Oasis

I’m pretty sure my body has a peculiar electromagnetic field that wreaks havoc on the batteries of electronic devices. Not all of them: all of my iPhones have had more-or-less the advertised battery life. But all of my Mac laptops, going back fifteen years, have gotten around four hours from a charge. No announced improvement in battery power has ever changed that. (I’m typing this on a MacBook that’s supposed to get around 10 hours from a charge under normal use. It gets four. It has always gotten four.) And my Kindles have been even worse — though never quite as bad as my new Kindle Oasis, which promises “weeks” of battery life on a single charge and gets … about two days. And that’s with limited use of the light. Two days.

So I’m sending it back. It’s all boxed up and ready to go, which leaves me, if I want to read on an e-reader, with this old thing:

And you know, it’s not bad — not bad at all. Yes, it’s a little heavier and the type isn’t quite as sharp, but it has advantages: no touchscreen, so I don’t have to wipe off prints; a hardware keyboard, which is much more user-friendly for someone like me who actually annotates books; underlining of marked text, which I think more readable and less distracting than highlighting. It doesn’t have a light, of course, but I rarely use the light because I read outdoors a lot and even when reading inside it’s easier on my eyes to read by lamplight.

So maybe I’ll just keep using this device I bought seven years ago — as long as the battery holds out.

Babette the Artist

This is a slightly edited version of a post I published a long time ago at The American Conservative. The original has disappeared — removed, I suspect, by someone who has a different interpretation of Babette than I do. Well, this is another reason for me to own my own turf!

Rod Dreher calls our attention to this post about cooking the central dish from Babette’s Feast. The movie is rightly legendary among food lovers and cooks, partly for reasons specified by J. Bryan Lowder here:

Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.

But: in the great story by Isak Dinesen on which the movie is based, Babette isn’t cooking for anyone else at all. She knows that when she cooks she makes people happy, but that isn’t why she cooks. At the end of the story, when the women who employ her learn that she spent all her savings to buy the ingredients for the magnificent meal they and their friends have just eaten, they are deeply moved. But they get a response from Babette they don’t expect.

Philippa’s heart was melting in her bosom. It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.

“Dear Babette,” she said softly, “you ought not to have given away all you had for our sake.”

Babette gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance. Was there not pity, even scorn, at the bottom of it?

“For your sake?” she replied. “No. For my own.”

She rose from the chopping block and stood up before the two sisters.

“I am a great artist!” she said.

She waited a moment and then repeated: “I arn a great artist, Mesdames.”

Again for a long time there was deep silence in the kitchen.

Then Martine said: “So you will be poor now all your life, Babette?”

“Poor?” said Babette. She smiled as if to herself. “No, I shall never be poor. I told you that I am a great artist. A great artist, Mesdames, is never poor. We have something, Mesdames, of which other people know nothing.”

Indeed, Babette’s art gives great pleasure to others — but she does not care. How other people feel about her work is a matter of complete indifference to her, because she knows herself to be a great artist and therefore to be utterly superior to them, to be made of different stuff. Lowder writes, “The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care” — but nothing could be farther from the truth for the Babette of the original story.

There is, from our point of view, which is necessarily that of the sisters, something inhuman about Babette. “Philippa went up to Babette and put her arms round her. She felt the cook’s body like a marble monument against her own, but she herself shook and trembled from head to foot.” Lowder believes, and I guess the movie believes, and certainly I believe, in the beauty of a gift that is both given and received in love. But that is not what happens in the story. There Babette loves only her art. That that art pleases us is not, in her view, worthy even of consideration, and when the importance of our pleasure is suggested to her she responds with contempt.

The movie of Babette’s Feast is lovely, I think, but it takes, or can be read to take, Philippa’s view of the matter: “It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.”  It is therefore something of a sentimentalizing of the story on which it is based, which does not care about gift and grace but rather limns the peculiar character of the capital-A Artist.

on evidence and the life of the mind: a follow-up

A twofold follow-up to yesterday’s post:

1) Some people have written to ask me what my evidence is for the claims I made in that post. There’s a good bit of general evidence for what American evangelicals believe, as well as what larger populations of young Americans believe; and there have been some excellent in-depth ethnographies of small groups of believers; and some studies over several years of, for example, biblical knowledge among students at one Christian college — that last badly in need of updating. But we don’t have (and probably can’t have, given the work that would be required) large-scale, longitudinal studies of how evangelicalism operates day-to-day, of whether what churches preach and teach match up with what they say they believe, of the degree to which congregants accept that they’re taught in church, and so on.

So I have supplemented those accounts with my experience, over 35 years, of talking with young evangelicals from all around the country (and often from overseas as well) about their upbringing and their church experiences; talking with friends and family about their churches; visiting many churches, evangelical and otherwise, often in the role of guest speaker; and reading a great many first-person accounts online. I don’t have an ideal body of data, but it’s not negligible either.

2) In the tweet that kicked this off, Ross Douthat asked specifically about the intellectual life of young evangelicals, so let me say something about that. Mostly, of course, it’s shaped by forces altogether outside of Christianity: as I have frequently commented, our current power/knowledge regime is far better at catechesis than any churches are. But insofar as the Young Evangelical Mind is shaped by forces within Christianity, those almost never involve the local church. The minds of young evangelicals are shaped overwhelmingly by music and stories — I have tried to sketch the emergence of the latter development in this essay. In general, evangelical churches have not understood the intellectual formation of their congregants as part of their mission. As always you reap what you sow — and when you fail to sow….

Ray’s Yellow Plane

Ray’s Yellow Plane (Film Notes), 2013 by Rose Wylie. Photograph: Soon-Hak Kwon/Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, London

where young evangelicals are headed

A long, long time ago, Ross Douthat tweeted this:

I’ve been thinking this over. I may not be as well-placed to answer that question as I was when I taught at Wheaton College — Baylor is a much more religiously diverse institution — but then Wheaton was not exactly representative of the people who now call themselves evangelicals, so maybe I have a clearer view from Waco?

Anyway, as far as I can tell, where young evangelicals are headed is simply out of evangelicalism. They have been, as Jared C. Wilson recently wrote, theologically and spiritually orphaned by pastors and other Christian leaders who were willing to entertain them and occasionally to hector them but who had no interest whatsoever in Christian discipleship. Millions of today’s young evangelicals have been utterly betrayed by a generation of pastors who could pontificate about how essential sexual purity is while simultaneously insisting that every real Christian should vote for Donald Trump, supporting their claims by a random handful of Bible verses wrenched from their context and utterly severed from the great arc of biblical story without which no piece of scriptural teaching can make sense. As I noted here, they cannot even distinguish a penitent from an impenitent sinner — that is how thoroughly they have emptied themselves of moral and spiritual understanding.

And yes: betrayed is precisely the word. A great mass of many* evangelical leaders have betrayed their young followers and congregants — and, equally, betrayed the theological and spiritual inheritance they received from their mothers and fathers in the faith. They exchanged a rich and truly evangelical birthright for a cold pottage of vague moral uplift and cultural resentment. Verily, they have their reward.

So if young evangelicals are leaving evangelicalism, where are they going? Not many, I think, will head for complete unbelief, but some will; a great many will drift further and further into moralistic therapeutic deism, which will offer them very little but, on the plus side, will ask even less from them; a smaller but still significant number will head for the older liturgical traditions, either for aesthetic or theological reasons.

There will of course continue to be vibrant congregations that define themselves as evangelical, but fewer and fewer as the years go by, I think. Most churches that would claim the label have abandoned their historic mission, and the historic Christian faith, no matter what their explicit theological formularies might say. (This, for instance, is simple idolatry, served up straight, no chaser.) As my old friend and long-time colleague Mark Noll has long contended, evangelicalism at its heart a renewal movement within orthodox Christianity, and such renewal will continue — but not in the forms that some of us have grown accustomed to over the past half-century. Renewal will need to find new strategies, new institutions. Some corpses can’t be revived.

UPDATE: See follow-up post here.


*Edited to avoid association with the phrase “the great mass,” typically meaning “a substantial majority.” Thanks to Ted Olsen for the heads-up. 

Auden adapted

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
Tweet, tweet, for the figure is easy,
The tune is catching and will not stop;
Tweet till the stars come down from the rafters;
Tweet, tweet, tweet till you drop.

Hazlitt hating

In private life do we not see hypocrisy, servility, selfishness, folly, and impudence succeed, while modesty shrinks from the encounter, and merit is trodden under foot? How often is “the rose plucked from the forehead of a virtuous love to plant a blister there!” What chance is there of the success of real passion? What certainty of its continuance? Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, and want of understanding, of indifference towards others, and ignorance of ourselves, — seeing custom prevail over all excellence, itself giving way to infamy — mistaken as I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; — have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.

— William Hazlitt, “On the Pleasure of Hating” (1826)

I think all the time about alternative ways of organizing my books, but am always thwarted by the fact that some are at home and some at the office. Probably what I’m most looking forward to about retirement is having all my books in one place. (But that may be what my wife is least looking forward to.) I think at least half of the Kindle books I own I bought because that was easier than getting into the car and driving to the office where I already had a codex copy. I cherish the fantasy that when I finally have all my books in the same building, and discover the ideal way to organize them, then all the chaos of my mind will resolves itself in a single great orderly pattern, and all the connections I have failed to make over the years will suddenly snap into place, and everything I have so persistently proved incapable of understanding will reveal itself in a moment of perfect clarity and unity. And then I will sit cross-legged in the midst of my books smiling like a Buddha. Enlightenment at last.

Verticals

Anni Albers, With Verticals (1946)

the poison of consequentialism

From this conversation:

Rebecca Traister: … the argument for keeping Clinton … was in part that the power he wielded could theoretically shore up or increase the very set of policies and protections that are supposed to ameliorate the gender-imbalanced conditions that make sexual harassment so pervasive, i.e., it was to some degree a compromise on a feminist issue designed specifically to further a feminist agenda. I don’t think there’s the same moral symmetry with Trump voters: that they’ll vote for a man who spews open racism or is accused of groping women specifically because they think that if elected, he’s going to strengthen defenses for women or for people of color; in some cases, the opposite. This week, Kellyanne Conway said that voters should pick Moore because he’ll help pass the tax bill. Is there a line of logic that says that voters upset about pedophilia charges should vote for the accused pedophile, despite their distress, because a lower corporate tax rate would lead to a systemic reduction of child abuse?

Ross Douthat: It’s not precisely the same, but many of Trump’s supporters framed it as “we’re compromising Christian values by electing a man who doesn’t live up to them, because that’s the only way in order to further a Christian agenda on abortion or religious liberty.” There’s some overlap with your view of how feminists thought about Clinton there.

You know what both of these arguments sound like to me? “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Or consider this story that Rod Dreher recounted the other day:

Back in 2002, I interviewed a Catholic woman who had been blackmailed by her confessor into having an affair with him, even though she was married. She finally broke down psychologically, and sought professional help from a psychiatrist who was known to be a faithful Catholic. (I interviewed him too, and he confirmed her account.) When she and her psychiatrist went to the local bishop (who is now dead, by the way), the bishop told her he had sent the priest away overseas (as he had — that I confirmed), and that if she pursued charges against the offending priest, or made his abuse public, then he, the bishop, would be forced to go after her publicly for her messy past.

She quoted him as saying, “I have to protect the people of God.”

Protect the people of God … by destroying this woman who is one of the people of God. As I have suggested in a different context, consequentialism poisons character.

the casting game

Everyone who loves movies plays the Casting Game: Who would you cast if you could make a movie based on this novel or that comic? My son and I play this game on a regular basis and so have developed a series of more-or-less formal rules: for instance, he decreed some time ago that suggesting Daniel Day-Lewis for pretty much any part amounts to using a cheat code: not the sort of thing a person who takes a game seriously should do.

But that example raises another question: Is Day-Lewis eligible for the game at all?

There are two general version of the Casting Game, and it can only be played properly once you decide which version you’re using:

  1. Only actors who are active, age-appropriate, and available may be considered. For instance, if you try to cast a good Fantastic Four movie, you can’t pick Mark Ruffalo as Reed Richards. In the Marvelworld, he’s taken. (But Ruffalo would be a great Richards.) And now you can’t cast Daniel Day-Lewis in anything, because he has retired from acting to become a dressmaker. You can’t say “A young Meryl Streep would be great” for this or that part.
  2. In this second version, you can cast anyone from any time. I can do what I’ve wanted to do for thirty years now: cast a young Day-Lewis in an adaptation — to be written by myself — of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (Other cast members: a young Naomi Watts as Sonia and a middle-aged Wallace Shawn as Porfiry Petrovich.)

My son thinks that V1 offers the proper degree of challenge, while V2 is the equivalent of playing a video game on the easiest setting. I am not so sure — but of course, that may be because I’ve watched more old movies than he has, which gives me a bit of an advantage while playing V2. I like V2 because it allows the imagination free play: it’s wonderful, I think, to consider what a Batman movie directed by Billy Wilder would look like, especially if it starred the best possible Bruce Wayne: Cary Grant.

On the other side of the ledger, a significant advantage for V1 is that what it imagines could possibly happen, which can make for some real excitement.

So maybe the best way to think about V1 and V2 is not as versions of the same game, but as two completely different endeavors. But in any case, you have to know what the rules are before you play, or bickering will ensue.

Old Penn Station

 

I like the Rebuild Penn Station project, if only because of all the pictures of old Penn Station. There are some cool architectural sketches too:

As horrible as these revelations are about sexually predatory men at the highest levels of our culture, they serve as a reminder of what we Christians have been saying all along about the inevitable consequences of the sexual revolution. So even as we lament with the victims, we are, I think, justified in calling attention to the higher standards that we, at least, have held our male leaders …

Um … never mind.

free speech for me …

This is a really good evisceration by Jesse Singal of some recent leftist takes on free speech on campus — it is accurate, incisive, and (to me) compelling. But I don’t think it will be compelling to people who hold the views it criticizes. Here’s a passage, critiquing an article by Angus Johnston, that helps me to explain why:

Johnston is apparently uninterested in answering questions pertaining to this actual incident [At William & Mary] and how the law would view it from a free-speech perspective, so instead he swaps out a different, easier question: “Setting aside, you know, the well-defined legal aspects of this, what do I, Angus Johnston, think about it?” (For those who want to know more about the heckler’s veto, which as it turns out is a very interesting subject, Ken White has a very good explainer on his legal blog Popehat.)

And yet again, this sort of meandering shruggery leads us to a dark place: Johnston very much seems to be endorsing the view that on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech. This is a pretty bad opinion. Not to beat up too much on the South, but there are many southern campuses that would benefit greatly from more pro-choice speakers and events, and in Johnston’s model, it’s fine for the Campus Crusade for Christ to march in and protest these events until they get shut down.

Here is where Singal is wrong: Johnston’s view is not that “on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech”; his view is that when people whose views he endorses can muster the muscle to shut down an event, then that’s acceptable and even commendable. If a pro-life group were to use precisely the same tactics to shut down a pro-choice speaker, then Johnston would decry it as fascism and demand that the cops haul the offenders off to the hoosegow.

Remember: Error has no rights; righteousness has no boundaries.

People vary widely in their proclivities and needs alike, so it’s usually impossible to offer advice that applies equally well to everyone. But I believe the following law is of universal validity: When a tragedy occurs, disappear from all social media for at least 48 hours. 

friendly critic or critical friend?

The other day Rod Dreher referred to me as a “friendly critic” of the Benedict Option. I prefer to say that I’m an occasionally critical friend. I have some reservations about how Rod frames his project — see this post and this one — and I have major reservations about the history he uses to explain how we got to where we are. But the heart of the BenOp, as I understand it, may be found in what I have described as three premises and a conclusion, and in that post I commented that “I simply do not see how any thoughtful Christian could disagree with any of these premises or the conclusion that follows from them.” So I think that makes me a paid-up member of #TeamBenOp.

The questions for me, as we go forward, are as follows:

  1. I think there are likely to be ways other than the ones Rod describes in his book to pursue this project of Christian intellectual and moral renewal — ways that are more engaged with and less strictly oppositional to contemporary culture. What might those ways look like, and how can they retain their integrity?
  2. How can Christians who support the BenOp and those who don’t treat one another with forbearance and charity, and maybe even learn from one another?

Catholicism and Protestantism

The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.

Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

— W. H. Auden, review of Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (in Forewords and Afterwords)

Vladimir Nabokov on his mother’s religion

She found a deep appeal in the moral and poetical side of the Gospels, but felt no need in the support of any dogma. The appalling insecurity of an afterlife and its lack of privacy did not enter her thoughts. Her intense and pure religiousness took the form of her having equal faith in the existence of another world and in the impossibility of comprehending it in terms of earthly life. All one could do was to glimpse, amid the haze and the chimeras, something real ahead, just as persons endowed with an unusual persistence of diurnal cerebration are able to perceive in their deepest sleep, somewhere beyond the throes of an entangled and inept nightmare, the ordered reality of the waking hour.

Speak, Memory

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