Epiphany

I was working on a post earlier today but didn't have time to finish it, and may not tomorrow, so, briefly:

A remark from a priest seen on Facebook on Thursday: "I thought I was having an epiphany this morning but it was transferred to Sunday."

This evening my wife and I were shamefully late for Mass. We deserved to be escorted to the front pew and mocked, but fortunately that's not done. We sat on a bench in the lobby with a woman and a girl, presumably mother and daughter and presumably also having been quite late to Mass, though not as late as we were. (I know "lobby" is not the right word, but this is a fairly modern building and that's what it feels like. Fortunately, for the kind of architecture it is, the building is not unpleasant.) The doors were closed but there's a speaker in the lobby which is wired to the priest's microphone. That made for a slightly odd effect, since we could hear the priest very well, and during the hymns a few voices from people who were especially close to the priest or especially loud, including one especially loud but not very tune-capable one, and not much else. The choir was audible but muffled.

Feeling that we really ought not to receive, we remained where we were during communion. During that ten minutes or so I couldn't hear anything much except the soft near-whisper of the priest: Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ. I could see people leaving and returning to the pews, including a little boy who looked no more than eight and is in a wheel chair and seemed eager. So many people, so many unique little worlds full of unique and yet universal thoughts and cares and hopes and pleasures. 

It was quite beautiful to kneel there while that was going on, to watch the people, to hear Body of Christ. Body of Christ. Body of Christ, on and on, like little waves splashing quietly on a shore. 

The choir sang "What Child Is This?" As you probably know, the tune is an old English folk one called "Greensleeves," and no words of mine can do justice to its beauty, which will last as long as music does. But I had never given any thought to the English words written for it. I had unthinkingly supposed that they were traditional, too, or at any rate anonymous. But they were written in the 19th century by William Chatterton Dix, and they are extremely well-wrought. Since I was old enough to notice and understand them I've loved these two lines:

Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent word is pleading.

I think it's that paradox of the silent word that gives me such a sense of reverence bordering on awe. "Fear"? Isn't that out of place? No, not if we really grasp what's going on. And I always notice that it's "Christian," singular. Not a collective but you, me. 


Last Post of the Year

So Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI has left us. It's an odd and not really very relevant association, but seeing his obituaries in the press makes me think of a remark by a non-Catholic friend of mine early in the pontificate of Pope Francis. His view was based on the appearance of the two popes, mostly as they were seen on television, and my friend admitted that it was superficial. He thought Benedict looked (I don't remember his exact words) stern and vaguely mean, and all too much like the Emperor Palpatine. That latter resemblance was enjoyed by some of Benedict's detractors, and "superficial" is probably too generous a word for any conclusion drawn from it. (Of course you know that Palpatine is the super-evil Sith Lord in Star Wars.)

Francis, on the other hand, struck my friend as open, generous, etc. I think it's pretty clear now which of the two is more likely to speak maliciously. Well, impressions based on television news are apparently as accurate as one might suppose. As far as I know Benedict was never snide or cruel in his public speech. Nor was his concern for preserving the inheritance of the Church--not just his concern of course but his duty--exercised in a brutal way, though I know that for some any resistance to post-Vatican-II progressivism is intrinsically brutal. I have never read anything by Benedict that was not carefully and generously worded, even when it contained stark criticisms and firm directives.

But I suppose millions of people have my friend's image of Benedict as the closed-in, introverted, cruel authoritarian, and can never be persuaded out of it.

As for his actual thought, one of the first things that comes to my mind is a remark quoted in a book-length collection of interviews with then-Cardinal Ratzinger, published in the 1980s as The Ratzinger Report

It must be clearly stated that a real reform of the Church presupposes an unequivocal turning away from the erroneous paths whose catastrophic consequences are already incontestable.

That's true as an abstract principle: if you're headed in the wrong direction you can only correct yourself by changing direction, not by going faster or pumping up your commitment. And it's as true as a description of the state of the Church as it was almost forty years ago. As I've written more than once here, the internal conflict within the Church between what I will call, tendentiously, the drive toward acceptance of the faith as a species of the therapeutic (see this post) and the determination to preserve it as itself is not going to be resolved in my lifetime, and probably not within yours, no matter how young you are.

I can at least tentatively agree in general with this obituary by Michael Brendan Dougherty, Why Future Generations Will Celebrate Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and with its conclusion:

Benedict XVI was the greatest mind to reach the papacy in a millennium. I write his obituary now. But centuries hence, he will be recognized as the man who buried the dictatorship of relativism — and the doubts of the 20th century.

I take Dougherty to mean in that last sentence a philosophical, theological, and just plain logical burial. Obviously the thing is still very much alive. Is it, as a cultural force, a dead man walking, mortally wounded and soon to totter and fall? Or is it about to rule the world for a time? I don't know. And I have to admit that I haven't read enough of Benedict's theological writings to judge whether "burial" is too strong a term. But he was a great man of the Church, and I put it that way because I think his importance, influence, and achievement are greater than his papacy alone. 

*

I long ago lost what little inclination I ever had to make a big celebration of New Year's Eve. I believe it was a New Year's Eve party back when I was in college that played a role in dampening my enthusiasm for the custom. I drank at least an entire bottle of cheap Chianti, and though I don't remember for sure it may have been most of two bottles. It's possible that I smoked something besides tobacco as well; I don't remember that, either. At any rate, the next day was by far the worst hangover I've ever had. I recall waking up with a terrible headache and a dire thirst, going into the kitchen and drinking a big glass of water, and immediately throwing up. I staggered back to bed and slept, not very comfortably, for the rest of the day. Later in life, as a more prudent adult, I just never felt much excitement about marking the stroke of midnight. Ok, well, that's that, here we are, good night. And I'm lucky in that although I very much enjoy a drink and a mild buzz, I have no inclination at all to go much beyond that. Perhaps cheap Chianti was an influence there.

*

Just when I'm finally ready to enjoy the Christmas lights, most people have taken them down. There were still a few last night when I went to my usual Friday night Adoration hour. And in a development that seems providential I was asked several days ago if I could substitute for someone in the 11-till-midnight hour tonight. This seems a good, maybe the best, way to mark the turn of the year. I hope there will still be some Christmas lights to be seen on my drive home afterwards.

Last night I had an opportunity to explain Eucharistic Adoration to a non-Catholic. I don't think I did very well. It is a really weird thing, isn't it?

Happy New Year to all. 


Merry Christmas

MARCELLUS: It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is that time.

HORATIO:
So have I heard and do in part believe it.

--Hamlet, Act I Scene 1

"It" of course is the ghost of Hamlet's father. I once saw, or received, or sent, a Christmas card that had Marcellus's speech for text. That was a long time ago and I can't visualize the card very clearly, but I know it was very handsomely produced. The last line was firmly and permanently impressed upon my memory as a part of Christmas. Permanently, yes, but not with 100% accuracy: until I looked it up just now I thought it was "the time." Not a significant divergence, though.

And I had forgotten Horatio's response. That might be taken as a motto to be placed at the entrance of the modern age, or whatever you want to call the period that began a bit before Shakespeare's time, and which now seems to be ending, to be replaced by something which as yet has no agreed-upon name. For a long time that age, like Horatio, couldn't decide whether it was Christian or not. The decision seems to have been made now, culturally speaking, and the new age seems to be a considerably darker time than the capitalized version of that phrase promises. Still, so hallowed and so gracious is this time

Although I grew up on a cattle farm, I never heard the word "manger" in any context other than that of the Nativity scene. I imagined it as it's frequently depicted, a box or basket lined with straw as a makeshift bed, crude but cozy. I did not connect it with the trough from which our cattle ate. I was well into adulthood before I realized that it was exactly the same thing for which we used the term "feed trough" or just "trough,"  a feature of every stall in the barn into which I poured oats and whatever else I was told to give the cattle. There was nothing cozy about it. It was just a dusty wooden niche, a shelf with sides, attached to one wall of the stall, and when the stall's resident was dining somewhat dampened with bovine saliva. In his homily this morning Father Steve, maybe suspecting that many of us failed to appreciate just how mundane, how low, a thing a manger really is, emphasized it, using the word "trough" repeatedly. "And laid him in a trough" has a much different connotation, doesn't it? 

One of my favorite Christmas albums--and there aren't many--is A Tapestry of Carols by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band. It's a very, very English folk rendition of a number of traditional carols,  also mostly very English (e.g "The Holly and the Ivy") and it's wonderful. But it isn't the only Christmas album they made. There's another, called Carols and Capers, as well as a compilation, A Christmas Caper, that draws from the other two. I listened to it today and was very surprised to hear what seems to be an African-American song, "Poor Little Jesus." It's a striking departure from their usual repertoire, and very beautiful, I think. 

 


An Advent Note

This year I have to a great extent managed to stay clear of the un-Christmas, the festivity now generally referred to in public as Holiday, or "the Holidays." That was partly because of various circumstances that kept me even more at home than usual. And it was partly the silver lining in Alabama having lost two games this season. I loathe TV commercials in general, and rarely watch TV that includes them. But when I do see them it's during football season, and from some time in October until the end of the year many of them involve Holiday, and thus are doubly, no triply, annoying. But Alabama football was over at the end of the regular season--no SEC championship game, no watching other games that might affect Alabama's place in the playoff picture--but also no more Holiday commercials. (I only care about the NFL when former Alabama players are prominent--congratulations, Jalen Hurts.)

And it was partly just the latest phase in a general re-orientation of my feelings at this time of  year. I've realized that one element of my hostility to Holiday was the way it had come to seem like something of a parody of Christmas. So it seemed like a cheat, making me struggle not to dislike it, even to hate it.

But as the divergence has continued I find that the two are now more separate in my mind. I wrote about this last year in my very brief career writing for The Lamp. And I find that this year I've been more able to take my own advice, and that Holiday does not much intrude on my observance of Advent. I'm even mildly cheered by the lights and other spectacles at people's houses, though walking into a store pretty much sours my mood, as does the Holiday music (which naturally gets stuck in my head).

Which does not mean that I've been very good about observing Advent by treating it more like Lent. But I have done something, and in this department something is always better than nothing. And one thing I've done is to begin reading a book that I've had for several years and that is very well suited to Advent: the prison writings of Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.

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Delp was an opponent of the Nazi regime, and in the last days of the Reich he was arrested on a charge of involvement in a plot against Hitler. He was not involved, but the prosecutor was determined to convict him of something, and as is almost inevitably the case when the law becomes a tool in the hands of power, he succeeded. It was late 1944 and early 1945, when the Reich was clearly doomed, and its enemies were pouring destruction upon Germany; the consequences of the nation's madness were being made brutally clear. The prison writings are the voice of a man unjustly imprisoned by and facing death at the hands of unreasoning and implacable enemies, a man stripped of any impulse toward sentimentality and false hope. It's a voice I need to hear. 

Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, we cannot understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly.

First, that life is both powerless and futile insofar as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment. 

Secondly it must be recognized that it is God's alliance with humanity, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement toward fulfillment. But this also means that in this progress toward fulfillment humanity is vulnerable; we are perpetually moving toward, and are capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.

While time lasts there can be no end to it all and to try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion is one of the illusory temptations to which human nature is exposed. In fact hunger and thirst and wandering in the wilderness and perpetual rescue by a sort of life-line are all part of the ordinary hazards of human existence. 


Ronald Blythe: Akenfield

Akenfield, subtitled Portrait of an English Village, is a book I've wanted to read for thirty years or more, and have finally done so. I first heard of it in the old Common Reader catalog, a treasure killed or at least assisted toward death, I assume, by the Internet. The catalog was published by and for book lovers, and was itself an excellent read. (I first heard of Alice Thomas Ellis there as well.) I fear too many of its readers were like me, reading the catalog avidly but not ordering from it very often. In my defense, I had much less free cash in those days.

Ronald Blythe was the subject of one of the first entries in the 52 Authors series here: Week 9. Akenfield is a famous book, but I'm not sure it's Blythe's most famous. That might be Word from Wormingford, one of several collections of weekly columns he wrote for the Church of England's Church Times. (I'm just guessing about that, on the basis of which books I've seen discussed.)

I don't recall ever having heard the term "oral history" before some time in the 1970s, but the thing certainly existed, and Akenfield, which was published in 1969, is a prime example. It is in a sense slightly misleading to call Blythe its author, because most of it is the transcribed voices of the people who live in Akenfield, a pseudonym for the village in which Blythe lived.

All the facts about the economy, the population, and social life of Akenfield are drawn from a village in East Suffolk; only the names of the village and the villagers have been changed.

Blythe, then, was not a journalist who dropped in to inspect colorful rural life and went back to the city or the suburbs to write about it. He was writing about a place and people he knew intimately (though that is perhaps not the right term for his relationship with some of the very reticent people). He was in his forties in 1967 when he decided that the changing culture of the village was worth documenting--what it was changing from, what it was changing to. The former, as has been the case for more than a century now, was fast passing out of living memory, with whole trades, such as thatcher, and the knowledge and skills involved in them ceasing to exist. So he talked to, or rather listened to, dozens of people, from the elderly to teenagers, to assemble this absolutely fascinating picture of a place and a culture. His introductory commentaries on the interviews are a pleasure in themselves, rich in both perception and quality of writing. 

I wonder how many of us mentally prefix the word "quaint," or at least some unarticulated sense of that idea, to the phrase "English village." I've begun to have a grudge against the word. I hear people apply it to any place or structure that doesn't look like it was newly erected in and for suburban sprawl. By now the word is not all that far removed from "cute." It's usually, among other things, patronizing, with suggestions that the thing so described is somehow removed from "the real world."

I can imagine someone approaching this book and thinking, if not in so many words, that he is about to view a picture of something quaint. Picturesque. Charming. And so forth. Well, it may in some ways merit those terms, but not in any sense akin to that of another that sometimes goes along with them: idyllic. There was nothing idyllic about the agricultural life which was still, in 1967, the foundation of Akenfield and which not so long before had been more or less the entirety of it. It was a hard life in its nature, and was often made much harder by injustice, by landowners who held more or less life and death power over farm workers, literally working men to death at times in a condition of near-slavery. The first section of the book is called "Survivors." Here is the first voice, a seventy-one-year-old farm worker describing the situation ca. 1910:

It must seem that there was war between farmers and men in those days. I think there was, particularly in Suffolk. These employers were famous for their meanness. They took all they could from the men and boys who worked their land. They bought their life's strength for as little as they could. They wore us out without a thought because, with the big families, there was a continuous supply of labour. 

Neither Blythe's villagers, nor Blythe himself when he introduces their commentaries, shies away from these dark things. The very long hours of very hard labor were rewarded with bare-subsistence poverty. There was vast ignorance, there was stifling insularity. And there was often a great and quite understandable eagerness to escape the village which seemed defined by those things. 

I'm over-emphasizing the negatives here, in an effort to knock away any expectation that the book is anything less than clear-eyed and hard-headed about rural English life between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, that it is in the least sentimental. But that is far from the whole story. For all the hardship described, there is in fact a great deal of charm in the picture, the deep charm of stable and deeply-rooted human ways. And what comes through in one interview after another is that most of these people are or were in touch with reality, especially the reality of the human connection to the earth, in a way that few of us are now, especially younger people. And it gives them an elemental wisdom hard to find and maintain in the whirlwind of distraction that is contemporary culture.

Akenfield is not explicitly philosophical at all. There is hardly a trace of abstraction in it, but nevertheless it forces one to think about what it means to be human, and whether our luxurious culture makes us less so. How is it that the life depicted here seems to have a depth that can't be found, or at least is hard to find, in a world of advertising and sensational entertainments, that in fact seems to be mocked by them?

Flight from the real is now the single most striking feature, the most ardently pursued goal, of life in our culture, at least for certain prominent and often dominant elements of it. There seems to be a fair number of smart people--"smart" in the sense that they would score well on an intelligence test--who believe that it's possible and desirable to escape entirely from the physical by some technological means. I don't think it's at all unfair to call this insane, even if we set aside the fact that what goes on inside a computer is as physical as what goes on at a construction site. The invisibility of the electronic allows these same smart people to believe that it's something different, something disembodied, more like the mental.

Suppose it were. Suppose it were possible and desirable to live a purely mental existence. Suppose even that it could be supported by technology. We have no technology which is not directly dependent on machinery, whether mechanical or electronic, which in turn had to begin with the stuff of the earth and with physical labor, and which could not continue functioning for very long without physical maintenance. There is no path, even in theory, by which we can sever this dependence. I doubt that anyone interviewed for this book would entertain that sort of delusion for a moment. Maybe "sanity" is the most important idea here, the most essential of the things of which it reminds us.

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This very nice 2015 edition, published by New York Review Books, includes an insightful introduction by Matt Weiland which mentions a 2004 sort-of-sequel, Return to Akenfield, by Craig Taylor, in which he visits the village and interviews as many of the people from Blythe's book as he could find. It's probably interesting, at least, and maybe very good in its own right. But somehow I don't really want to read it. 


A Monster

Our new house is on the water, and I now have the privilege of watching the sun set over Mobile Bay every evening. I was doing so one day a week or so ago, standing on the front porch. I only caught the last moments before the sun went below the horizon, but frequently that's when the real spectacle begins, and goes on for twenty minutes or more. I stood there until it was almost fully dark, and I was about to go in when something odd in the water caught my eye.

Like almost every house on the bay, ours has a pier. I don't know exactly how long it is but it's over two hundred feet. Out a bit past the end of it, between our neighbor's pier and ours, there was a weird thrashing in the water. And when I say "weird" I mean to suggest some of the old connotations of the word, those which made Shakespeare call the witches who helped to doom Macbeth "the weird sisters." 

There was something not right about what I was seeing. It was not any of the normal disturbances of the water. In the bay one often sees mullet leap out of the water, sometimes travelling several feet before they fall back. One sees gulls swoop down and snatch something out of the water, or try to; there's a quick and shallow splash, and they spring away. Hunting pelicans, big heavy birds with a wingspan of four or five feet, climb, hang, then drop like bombs with a noisy splash on whatever they have seen, going well under water. And when they surface they often sit for a few moments or more, perhaps enjoying their catch. Getting back into the air again seems to be a lot of work for them. Now and then there are diving ducks, marvelously slick and cool swimmers and divers; they hardly disturb the surface at all. 

And then there are the dolphins, with their well-known arcing plunge, dorsal fins out of the water in a way that momentarily spooks anyone who's ever seen a movie about sharks. And once in a long while one might see something that looks at a glance like a floating log, but is too low in the water and has a couple of rounded knobs at one end: an alligator, its eyes a little higher than the rest of it. Mobile Bay is an estuary, and though the river delta which empties into it is full of alligators, I saw only a few over the span of the thirty years that we lived in our old house. It was roughly ten miles south of the delta, and now we are another ten miles down. So I may never see an alligator here; the Gulf of Mexico is only a few miles away, and the water is saltier than suits the gator. 

This was none of those things. It was a slow clumsy flopping and thrashing along the surface of the water, almost a hopping movement. But there is nothing that normally hops on the surface of the water. For a few moments I felt a creeping uneasiness. For a few moments I felt I was seeing some unknown and perhaps menacing form of life. I'm not sure whether the word "monster" actually entered my mind or not, but what I felt was something like what I imagine one might feel on spying an actual sea monster. As much as I love being near the water, I also have, at times, a trace of primitive fear of it, the fear that Job implies when he praises God for confining the sea to its limits: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." And whatever I was seeing touched that nerve.

I walked out to the water's edge and soon realized what the thing was: a bird, apparently injured, trying to swim with its wings. It was like a person doing the breast stroke, that absurd method of swimming which seems designed for maximum inefficiency. The poor bird thrashed at the water with its wings and was propelled forward for a foot or two, paused, then thrashed again. It was moving parallel to the shore, and up the bay, which is to say more or less northeasterly, away from the Gulf. 

Then the more-strange began. I was standing on the bulkhead, at the foot of the pier. The bird got a little past the end of our pier, then made an abrupt hard right turn and headed toward me. I stood there and waited for him--I will call him "him" because that's what my wife always does with any wild creature unless its sex is obvious (even when, as with a spider, it may be inaccurate) and I rather like that, and because I soon had a sort of relationship with him which the use of "it" would seem to disrespect.

I stepped out onto the rocks and concrete rubble which constitute the bulk of the bulkhead. The bird continued toward me. I sat down on the rocks. He came to them and very slowly struggled up a few feet over the rocks until I could reach him. I picked him up. He offered no resistance and did not seem alarmed. I took him to the porch, where there was enough light to get a good look at him. 

He was a seabird, a tern, not very large. He was hopelessly, and without human assistance fatally, entangled in some kind of very fine, very strong, pale green nylon (or other synthetic) thread. I thought at first it was fishing line, but I've never seen any fishing line so extremely fine. Some kind of net, perhaps? I don't know. But everything except his wings--his webbed feet, his long pointed beak--was immobilized. He could not properly swim, and he could not open his beak, and so could not eat. I don't know why he could not fly but I suspect that he had at one time been able to, but had completely exhausted himself, so that one flap every ten seconds or so was all he could manage, enough to keep him hopping along the surface of the water but not enough to get him airborne. The thread was also tightly looped around his neck, deep within the feathers, which may have been doing further harm. 

I called for someone to bring me a pair of scissors, and together we spent ten minutes or so snipping away at the thread. The bird remained still and unresisting, though he did manage one squawk of fear or outrage after his bill was freed and he could do so. When we had finished, I set him on a piling by the water, from which he immediately fell. But, feet now free, he paddled over to the sandy shore of the vacant lot next door, stepped out of and away from the water, and settled down onto the sand. 

I offered him a bit of bread and a bit of tuna (they eat fish, don't they?). But he was not interested. He just sat there perfectly still. So I left him there. An hour later I checked on him and he was still there, but at my approach he got up and walked into the water. An hour or so after that I checked on him and he was gone: on his wings, I hope. 

Now, maybe this means nothing. Yes, it was an odd incident. But purely naturalistic explanations are ready to hand and plausible. He had been struggling for God knows how long and come God knows how far. Perhaps initially he had been able to fly, but, unable to eat or free himself, he had gradually become so exhausted that the thrashing breast stroke, wingbeats a couple of seconds apart, was absolutely all he could do. And the exhaustion would certainly explain the docility. 

I'm a natural skeptic and not one to turn quickly to supernatural or even merely providential explanations for phenomena that might suggest them; in fact I probably err on the skeptical side, probably more reluctant than required by strict adherence reason to see the hand of God at work. Physical causality and coincidence can explain almost everything if you want them to.

But as I listen to the interior voice that would explain away this incident I keep being stopped by that hard right turn. That is an accurate description: it was as direct a ninety-degree turn as you would make to turn right at an intersection. The bird turned right and came straight toward me. Considering that it had miles of water in which to decide--by whatever means a bird decides--to head toward shore, the fact that it did so when it was directly opposite me is at minimum a very striking coincidence. And it only did so when I had come out to get a better look at it. And it came straight toward me, in contradiction to the normal behavior of wild things, in which fear and flight are the instinctive responses to the human, not hesitating even when it was only a few feet away, climbing out of the water and struggling over the rocks directly to me. 

It was as if in that extremity the bird's natural barrier broke down. He was going to die if he were not freed from the thread that bound him. And somehow he saw in me the possibility of help, and came to me, against his normal instincts, as the only alternative to death.

I am one of those people, those perhaps somewhat ridiculous people, who are disturbed almost to the point of nihilism by the pain of the world. I'm a little ashamed of this, because my own circumstances are quite comfortable. Get a grip on yourself, I say to myself. But Dante's picture of the love that moves the stars seems untenable in the face of the suffering that happens at every moment of time on this planet. There is nothing in what we can see that plausibly suggests that the cycle of birth, pleasure, pain, and death is less than an absolute rule for all creatures in all places at all times, or that there is any reason for it beyond whatever immediate circumstance produces it, or that any of it has any meaning independent of the subjective experience of the creature.

This bird's approach to me, and my ability to help, was for me a moment when something else shone through material cause and effect. It was a bit of evidence that although all of creation "groaneth and travaileth" there is something beyond, a justification for believing that the promise of redemption and healing is not a fantasy. "Coincidence" is not an adequate word for the force that brought bound and helpless suffering together with mercy and a pair of scissors. 

The word "monster" shares an etymology with words like "demonstrate": Latin words rooted in the basic concept of to show, to point out. The direct ancestor of "monster" diverged early on to mean specifically a strange and uncanny thing, often serving as a warning or omen. But though all monsters startle, the message they bring is not always bad, at least if we have properly understood it, and anyway is almost always one we need to hear.

"Monstrance" comes from the same root. 

TernAs best I can determine, he is of the species known as the Royal Tern. 


Two Three By Chandler

Between trying to get settled in a new house, the Thanksgiving gathering and feast, and a bad cold, I haven't had any time and not much inclination for writing over the past four or five days. The cold is a bigger factor than perhaps it should be, as it's been accompanied by a fairly bad headache which makes me want to avoid exercise of both mind and eyes. But it's better today, enough for a brief post, at least.

The term "cozy mystery," or simply "cozy," refers to a species of detective fiction in the Agatha Christie mold: low in violence and other sensationalism, set in a small community, with an amateur detective. If you've read any Christie at all, or similar others (and who hasn't?) you'll understand the term (and probably already know it). The cozy usually depicts a decent and orderly world, and the killer or killers is/are not terrifying psychopaths or habitually violent. It doesn't usually give you the feeling that you're looking into the abyss; the orderly world is not deeply shaken by the crime, and order returns.

I'm not particularly drawn to the cozy mystery, but I get the appeal. And the detective stories I like most serve a similar purpose for me. It sounds absurd to suggest that there is anything cozy about the worlds of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald's work, but there is something in my attraction to it that's similar to the appeal of the cozy. In Chandler especially it's a dark and violent world, and there isn't so much a breakdown of order as an established and conquering disorder into which the detective forces a very limited and often unwelcomed ordered space. And in both writers there's a pervasive melancholy with a romantic streak, a sense of the world as a fundamentally sad but beautiful place. That's the cozy-ness of it for me, and it's enabled by the knowledge that, unlike some contemporary crime fiction, there is not going to be a sudden injection of truly sickening violence, the kind of thing that will disturb me to the point of not wanting to read further. (That's probably a sad testimony to our culture's increased tolerance for realistic depictions of violence in books and film--and to mine.)

When we were packing up books to move a few weeks ago I held back The Midnight Raymond Chandler because I wanted, in the midst of all the stress, the kind of "comfort reading" I'm talking about. It's a collection containing several novellas and two full novels. I read the first piece, "Red Wind," a fairly early novella which, I just realized, is a Marlowe story which preceded Marlowe--that is, he first appears by name in The Big Sleep in 1939, which was after "Red Wind." But he's essentially the same character. 

"Red Wind" begins memorably:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.

Crypto-Marlowe goes to a bar where the only other customer is a man who seems to have been drinking there for some time. A well-dressed man walks in and asks if anyone has seen a woman, whom he describes. The drunk...well, I'll let Chandler describe it:

[The newcomer] took three or four steps and stopped, facing the drunk. The drunk was grinning. He swept a gun from somewhere so fast that it was just a blur coming out. He held it steady and he didn't look any drunker than I was.... The drunk's gun was a .22 target automatic, with a large front sight. It made a couple of hard snaps and a little smoke curled--very little.

"So long, Waldo," the drunk said.

That's how they wrote 'em for Black Mask, where the story appeared. The story that unfolds from there involves a woman who is still pining for her first love, and who talks of him and that love in almost mystical terms which it is possible that they do not entirely merit. 

Then I skipped to the last work in the volume, The Long Goodbye, which is also the last novel Chandler wrote, published in 1953, and was a little surprised to find in it another woman speaking in much the same way of the same sort of lost lover. It's a big part of the plot in both works, and it makes me think that there was something in Chandler's life that made it an especially powerful device for him.

As far as I can remember I read The Long Goodbye once long ago, probably the early 1980s or maybe late '70s, and not since. It's as good as I remembered, though I can't say that this reading confirmed my opinion from back then that it's my favorite, since it's been more or less as long since I read the others. Suffice to say that it has all the vivid California color, romance, sleaze, and sadness that one expects of a Chandler work. 

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.... There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile.

I don't recall that Marlowe explains what he was doing at such a ritzy club. The "girl" with Terry Lennox is his wife, who disdains him and, when he slides out of the Rolls onto the pavement, drives away without him. Marlowe rescues him, gets to know him a bit, likes him a bit, and they have a sort of friendship that mainly involves meeting now and then for a drink. Then Lennox's wife, who, not surprisingly, was chronically unfaithful to him, is murdered, and he, the obvious suspect, disappears. And it seems for a while as if that little story is over and apparently unrelated to what comes after, in which Marlowe gets mixed up with an alcoholic novelist and his wife, but of course it isn't.

I'm quoting this passage not because it's important to the story but because I like it so much; it's a good instance of Chandler's skill:

I hit the office about ten, picked up some odds and ends of mail, slit the envelopes and let the stuff lie on the desk. I opened the windows wide to let out the smell of dust and dinginess that collected in the night and hung in the still air, in the corners of the room, in the slats of the venetian blinds. A dead moth was spread-eagled on a corner of the desk. On the window sill a bee with tattered wings was crawling along the woodwork, buzzing in a tired remote sort of way, as if she knew it wasn't any use, she was finished, she had flown too many missions and would never get back to the hive again.

There is a twist in the denouement which struck me as implausible. Very implausible. In fact there are several incidents in the plot which struck me that way, but only the last one broke through the suspension-of-disbelief threshold. You might suppose--at least I did--that the title is just a way of referring to death, like calling it "the big sleep." It doesn't, though, at least not primarily; it's more poignant than that. 

The Blue Dahlia is a 1946 movie for which Chandler wrote the screen play. It's Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix again, this time Bendix playing a good guy but still a somewhat unbalanced one, due to a brain injury in the war. 

Three newly discharged veterans return home--to Los Angeles, of course. One of them is married, and after a couple of farewell drinks he leaves the others and seeks out his wife. She is not at all glad to see him; she has been living a life of partying, drinking, and infidelity. (That kind of betrayal was apparently not as rare as one would like to think.) He leaves, determined to have nothing more to do with her. Sometime in the following hours she is murdered, and of course he is the prime suspect. (As this pattern occurs in The Long Goodbye, it's worth noting that the film came first.)

As a whodunit puzzle, and just in general as a movie, it's very good, definitely one to see if you like this type of thing. Somehow, though, it didn't engage me as strongly as some others in this vein; not as strongly, for instance, as Detour, maybe because it isn't as noir. And it isn't a Philip Marlowe story; the hero is somewhat on the vague and ordinary side in comparison, but then he's not a detective, either, just a good man with a bad wife. 

Maybe it should have been in color. The effect of the blue dahlia is rather lost in black-and-white.


Goodreaders on The Summerhouse Trilogy; More Noir

Lat week when I wanted to check certain details about The Summerhouse Trilogy but didn't have access to the book, I looked around on the web a bit for reviews or summaries which might help. I didn't find any, but I ended up looking through all the reader comments at Goodreads. Most were positive, and at least one reader says that she reads the book every year. But the negatives...well, they say much more about the reviewer than the reviewed.

Some seem not to have paid very close attention, as the full story is not "retold" in the three sections, but rather revealed gradually and cumulatively. Unless my memory is wrong, which it could be, or I missed something, the most startling bit is not revealed until the third section. But these folks didn't get it. Or maybe they're just that jaded:

I could have done without the third re-telling of the story.

I had hoped this final chapter would shed some light on things, but it really didn't. I wish I had given up after the first chapter spent time with a book I enjoyed.

And these two people, especially the second, seem to be the sort for whom anything not of the present day and culture is for precisely that reason dull and irrelevant:

Depressing first section in a supposedly funny British satire on trite callous middle class values.

Gah. This book did not age well at all. It was awful and prehistoric.

I don't see exactly how "callous" comes into it. I do have some sympathy for those who found the book dull, as much of it is subtle and without visible drama. Several readers complained about Margaret, the miserable girl of the first section--"a dishrag," one said. That's not unjustified, but it's an aspect of Margaret's problem. Still, these three apparently would have preferred a romance or thriller: 

A perfectly adequate, well written, thoroughly dull book. Not even hashish, sex and suicide could save this book from the monotony of the characters.

I am still reading this book, which is a book club nomination. It is awful! The characters are extremely unlikeable (except for Aunt Lily, and that is only because she is intoxicated most of the time and wears garish clothes). Even the dog has no name. It is the most uninspiring, slow moving, non-interesting book I have read.

Blecchhhh! I can't believe I finished reading this book, or that anyone would think it was interesting enough to make a movie out of! I hated it to the very last page.

At least that last one did push through every hated page.

This one I rather liked, and would suggest to the reader that she keep thinking about the book:

The author is an English Catholic whose work I’ve seen compared to that of Flannery O'Connor. She does not provide a nice, tidy, Christian ending or even tidy Christian answers. If I had read this book in my youth, I think I might even have interpreted it as anti-Christian.

*

Detour is an excellent example of the noir genre, apparently considered one of the classics. It has a pretty simple plot, which makes it different from many of its type. A famous story has it that William Faulkner and another writer working on the script for The Big Sleep were puzzled by a plot point and asked Raymond Chandler for clarification--and he didn't know, either. 

A young man and a young woman are working together as a night club act in New York. They plan to be married, but the young woman leaves for Hollywood, hoping to become a star, and the young man stays behind. (It isn't entirely clear to me why he didn't go with her, but never mind.) Later he decides to follow her after all, and begins hitchhiking across the country. He gets as far as Arizona when he gets a ride from a man in a big expensive car. Thus begins the detour. 

Detour

It's a low budget movie, starring people I hadn't heard of before (Tom Neal and Ann Savage), and it's not much more than an hour long, but it really works. 

*

I'm often struck in these older films by little things indicative of the degree to which many things have changed since the films were made. Many big things are striking, too, of course, but I mean the almost trivial ones. When was the last time you heard someone say "Give me change for a dime"? Or one which I think I may have heard as a child or a teenager, but which has disappeared for very good reason: "That's white of you." I mean that it's disappeared as a compliment. You may still hear it today, but if you do it will be  as an insult. 

Before the young man leaves for California, he calls his girlfriend. Remember long-distance calls? His brief New York-Los Angeles call costs him five dollars. That's eighty-two dollars in today's money, according to this site, which says that the dollar has lost 94% of its value since 1945. That sounds like a catastrophe, doesn't it? 

Another phrase you don't hear anymore: "sound as a dollar."


Alice Thomas Ellis: The Summerhouse Trilogy; A Couple of Noirs

I'm going to be more brief than this book deserves, because it's been several months since I read it and I want to refresh my memory about certain things, but I've just moved to a new house and almost all my books are still in boxes awaiting the resolution of questions about bookshelves. And I have no idea which box this book is in.

I think it was Charlotte Bronte who said of her sister Emily's creation, Heathcliff, that she was not sure that the creation of such a being was morally justified. I had a somewhat similar thought about Lili, the central character in this book. When I say that she is central I don't mean that she is what we usually call "the protagonist," that it is her fate which mostly concerns and engages the reader. But she is central in that she is the agent whose powers of action cause so much else to happen, or, more importantly in this case, not to happen: this is the story of a wedding that does not take place. And she is in a sense more than the others: not only her human self, but the expression, at least, of a powerful, mysterious, and fundamentally unholy force. If "strong female character" is one of your criteria for value in fiction, you'll certainly get your money's worth from this novel. 

In fact it is effectively an all-female cast of characters, though not all are strong. There are men present, but they're more or less stupid, unfortunate necessities. The book is not so much a trilogy as a trio of novellas (or three very long chapters) telling one basic story from the point of view of three different women. The three narrators are all very much a part of each other's lives, and the contrast between what each sees and assumes about the others, and the others' inner life, is striking--as striking as it probably would be in life. It's a technical tour de force, the points of contact among the narratives polished and precisely fitted. I recall one brief incident in particular, involving a dog's attention to a woman's foot, which is very different and rather more significant when seen for the second time and from a different point of view. 

The first section, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, takes us into the mind of Margaret, a young woman who is about to be married. The marriage would be against her will except that she doesn't seem to have much of a will. She has suffered a romantic and religious trauma which has sent her into despair, including the specifically theological sense of that word, resigned and indifferent to the pressures exerted by her mother and the suitor, a boorish older man, Syl. Significantly, Margaret's narration begins with a description of Lili. 

The second book, The Skeleton in the Closet, is the viewpoint of Syl's mother, Mrs. Munro, a somewhat embittered older woman who doesn't think a great deal more of Syl than does Margaret. Alice Thomas Ellis is not the only novelist to give us strikingly different views of a character from outside and inside, but the movement from the first section to this one is a particularly effective turn. Margaret has had much to say about her future mother-in-law, most of it negative and also inaccurate, and we are a little surprised--well, at least I was--to find her so different, and so much more sympathetic. She thinks Margaret is making a mistake. But she is as weary of and resigned toward the troubles of others as she is of her own.

The Fly in the Ointment gives us Lili as she really is and not as we have been seeing her through the eyes of Margaret and Mrs. Munro. She is among other things the sort of person who is often described, with a touch of envy, as a free spirit, or, with a touch of dread, as a force of nature. She is also more or less amoral in many ways. But it is she who not only sees the disaster into which Margaret is sleepwalking but acts to prevent it. I think I can promise you that you won't forget what she does.

When I finished this book I made this comment in an email to a couple of friends:

My reaction is a kind of astonishment, not 100% positive. I read the last paragraph, closed the book, and said "Golly, what a book." Not "golly" but "gah-LEE," the "golly" of someone coming out of a storm shelter after a tornado and taking a look around. 

This was a reaction not only to the closing incident but to the whole thing, superbly executed by an intelligence that sometimes seems a little malicious. The atmosphere is so full of feminine resentment, suspicion, and struggle that I found myself wondering if this sort of thing is what goes on in the minds of most women most of the time. There is an almost cold, almost merciless quality about Ellis's intelligence and wit (there is a fair amount of humor here). I keep the word "almost" because there is more than cold clinical skill at work. The quality which makes me think "merciless" is an unflinching willingness to see these people as they truly are, to let them, so to speak, get away with nothing. And in the end there is mercy, though it comes in such a manner as to lead one to the old question about good coming from evil. This is a religiously grounded work, but, like Flannery O'Connor's and in some ways even more so, hardly comforting. At least two reviews that I came across used the words "witch" and "witchy" of the author, and I can see why. 

*

For various reasons, none especially good but some better than others, I've gotten almost entirely out of the habit of watching serious movies. My Criterion Channel subscription has gone mostly unused for months, and I've wondered whether I should keep it. But they're calling this month "Noir November" and are running a number of noir titles which piqued my interest. 

The 1942 adaption of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key is a good one, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. I admit that I have a thing for Veronica Lake. After watching it I would have immediately picked up the novel, because I want to know whether the somewhat happy ending is Hammett's or not; I suspect not. But that book is also packed away.

The plot is complex, as one expects of Hammett, and the film is more genuinely dark than some of its kindred, especially in the sequence where the hero, Ed Beaumont, is held captive and beaten repeatedly by thugs. It's rare in these movies to see a depiction of the effects of violence that's remotely plausible. Beaumont is beaten almost to death, and we believe it. Far from bouncing back with a band-aid or two on his face, he spends a significant amount of time in the hospital. I have a vague childhood memory of William Bendix as a likeable cloddish sort of guy in a TV series called The Life of Riley, so it was a bit of a surprise to see him as a malicious brute. 

I also watched Call Northside 777 and This Gun for Hire. The former is not really noir, but it features Jimmy Stewart as a reporter trying to exonerate a man convicted of a murder he didn't commit. The latter stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake again, so is automatically appealing to me. It's based on a Graham Greene novel, modified for an American audience in the midst of World War II, and maybe a notch below The Glass Key as a film--less plausible on the whole, for one thing--but still very worthwhile for those who like this sort of thing. And anyway, Veronica Lake. 

VeronicaLakeImage swiped from this site which sells prints. I'm not usually drawn to the Hollywood Blonde types, but there is something about her that charms me. 


Vatican II; Sherwood; Trump the Jerk

Continuing the discussion of the success or failure of Vatican II, from this post: Ross Douthat (as quoted by Rod Dreher, because I can't view Douthat's entire New York Times column) asserts that the council was and is a failure on its own terms. The measures intended to invite and draw "modern man" to the Church have been accompanied not by growth but by decline, as measured by membership and activity, at least in Euro-American civilization. That's a plain fact. Whether the decline would have been greater or lesser without the council can only be speculative. I'm sure that question has been studied and answers attempted, but it's the sort of thing where sociologists can probably make either case, depending on what questions they ask and how, and on their own predilections. (Is sociology a science? Not really. Statistical methods are no doubt mathematically sound, but they don't choose or interpret their own data.)

In that post I linked to this one by Larry Chapp which goes ferociously after the follies that came and have continued, following and often in the name of the council. Let's call that Chapp 1, because there is also Chapp 2, which says that the council was "a success, in spite of the many deviations from orthodoxy and sanity that followed in its wake."

Success or failure, then? It's largely a matter of the time frame in which one makes the judgment. Douthat is looking at the time from the end of the council till now, and in that frame it is certainly true that the council has not succeeded in making the Church any more of a factor in modern life than it had previously been. One could argue about whether it is less so--I think it is--but it is clearly not more so. "Modern man" in the mass has only drifted, or in many cases run, away from Christianity at large and the Catholic Church in particular. In fact it is not at all fantastic to foresee, a century or two from now, the reduction of the Church to a few tiny bands of holdouts, as in Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, at least within that part of the world which was once known as Christendom.

The argument of Chapp 2 is really twofold. The first part, that the council has been a great success, is really not based on a measurement of success in the terms Douthat examines (in fact Chapp agrees with Douthat's assessment in that respect) but on the assertion that many or most of the council's changes (the actual changes, not those speciously done in its name) were for the better--the vernacular liturgy, for instance--and are now taken for granted. Some of those, the liturgy in particular, are, as we all know, still very much debated, but I agree with Chapp that they were good. It's only an accident of history that I appear to be a "conservative" Catholic; I've always said that if I had been an adult Catholic at the time of the council I would almost certainly have sympathized, at least, with its aims and the documents produced by it.

The second part of Chapp 2's argument is that the council will in time be truly successful, contributing powerfully to the long-term health of the Church and the effectiveness of its mission. Chapp 2 accepts that these things can take quite a long time--centuries--to work themselves out. I certainly hope so and am willing to believe it, but none of us will be here to see it. (I personally, as I lamented in that other post, cannot look forward to anything but continued intramural strife.) Chapp presents a picture of a renewal which he believes the council intended, and which he believes may yet come, and I very much share that view and that hope.

As for the present, though, Chapp 1 presents a grim and discouraging picture, not nearly as positive as Chapp 2. For me the grimmest single item in that piece is the mention of the progressive party, encouraged by Pope Francis, as viewing the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as an "interruption" of the council's work. This view represents nothing less than the abandonment of authentic renewal and the re-energizing of the destructive forces which would turn the Church into something like liberal Protestantism, a voice of solicitous approval for whatever is demanded by and for the therapeutic mentality.

Philip Rieff saw this very clearly at the time the council was actually in progress:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic.

Some of the psychobabble I've seen attributed to the "synod on synodality" supports--no, expresses--that view.

*

The emergence of the very well produced cinematic work for which the term "television series" is inadequate is, like craft beer, one of the compensations for living in a culture which seems to be falling apart, both in an organizational sense and in the sense of mental breakdown. I've just finished watching a new one from the Brits, Sherwood. It falls into the pretty conventional category of "crime drama," but a very very good one. It's set in a place referred to bitterly as a "former mining town" in Nottinghamshire; both Sherwood Forest and an archer are involved. 

The story takes place in the present day but has deep roots in the mining strikes of the 1980s. I don't know very much at all about those, but I know the British left hated and still hates Margaret Thatcher as much as the American left hated Ronald Reagan, so I don't necessarily take the show's view of those conflicts as the last word. But I don't doubt that they were as bitter as portrayed. 

It's a very complex story, very well done, on a level with Broadchurch, among the best in this genre. Maybe no single character is quite as memorable or as memorably performed as those portrayed by David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch, but anyone who watches a lot of British TV will recognize many faces, if not the names that go with them. It's available on Britbox via Amazon. 

*

Donald Trump is a jerk. That's been pretty obvious all along. His presidency had some very good results (and some very bad ones), but his basic and base nature didn't improve. He did not, as some hoped, rise to the office. What his supporters liked to dismiss as "mean tweets" were often expressions of a really deep ugliness. He's now vilifying Ron DeSantis, a popular conservative  who actually cares about and is skilled at governing, because, as Rich Lowry says, DeSantis is in his way:

Trump will have no compunction about crushing the future of the party to maintain his grip for another two years and possibly beyond.  

It's grimly appropriate, I guess, that a nation in such decline as ours, committed to narcissism as a way of life, would have two presidents in succession who are men of such plainly bad character, each in his own very special way.