I Never Expected To See This Day

Well, maybe not never. But I didn't think it was very likely. And the fact that it has happened makes me think that it's at least possible that this country, which is in imminent danger of capsizing, might yet right itself. I've thought for many years that Roe v. Wade has been a terrible toxin in our body politic, rivaled only by our racial problem as a source of possibly fatal division. If it is indeed possible for the republic to function again more or less as designed and as specified in the constitution, it's a necessary condition that there be some return of independence to the states on matters where there is no national consensus.

A major part of our problem is that we have irreconcilable differences, and the overextension of the national government's reach and power has created a situation in which each side of that division believes that its only hope of survival is to once and for all defeat and subjugate the opposition. This decision is a major step toward defusing that situation. Or at least it should be; in the short run it will make it worse.

Naturally abortion proponents aren't going to accept anything less than total nation-wide elimination of restrictions. And a lot of anti-abortion people are now calling for a national ban, which I think is a bad idea, almost certain to fail and certain to make divisions worse. (A bad idea under present conditions, I mean--possibly a good one at some time in the future if more people come over to the anti-abortion side.)

Some might reply to that by saying that if a national ban would save lives then it's worth tearing the country apart. After all, that's what it took to end slavery. But the two things in themselves, and the situations surrounding them, are very, very different, in ways which ought to be obvious to anyone, and I don't see how the question could be resolved by any violent means short of near-extermination of its enemies by one side or the other, followed by the establishment of an extremely authoritarian regime. That can hardly be "worth it."

A lot of people are feeling joyful. My own feeling is a sort of somber satisfaction. This was the right decision. But, as has always been insisted upon by those paying attention, it's only one battle in a war: a major battle to be sure, but still only one battle. And I'm braced for a frenzy of hatred, lies, and attempts at political destruction from the pro-abortionists. By "political destruction" I mean, for instance, calls for the Supreme Court to be ignored and in general for the substitution of mob-like demands, perhaps of actual mobs, for law. Significant violence is certainly possible; that's hardly an unreasonable concern, since some leftists have already promised and begun it. 

In other words, the left in general, including the Democratic party, will engage in exactly the same attacks on "our democracy" that they accuse the right of. They may not do anything as dramatic as invading the Capitol--after all, they are the party which controls the presidency and Congress as well as the education and journalistic establishments, so they have many more avenues of action. But they may be more effective. I think it's been pretty clear that when they say "our democracy" they mean "that system of government in which we rule." The "our" is proprietary.

No matter what you think of Donald Trump, it seems beyond question that his presidency is directly responsible for this victory. Obviously a victory by any Democrat, and especially the one actually running in 2016, would have prevented it for another few decades. I don't think highly of Trump and didn't vote for him in 2016, because I live in the reddest of red states and availed myself of the permission, so to speak, to make a third-party protest vote. But this is his doing. You can argue that any Republican would have done the same, though that's debatable, but the fact is that he was there and he did it--with, of course, a lot of help and cooperation from those establishment Republicans whom many conservatives despise (not entirely without reason, but excessively). I think, in retrospect, that more harm was done to the country by "the Resistance" (the disgustingly appropriated title awarded to themselves by many of his enemies) than by Trump himself. But in any case: credit where credit is due. 

Just in passing, and mentioned only because I've already read it a dozen times today: the abortion-rights people have never stopped bringing up rape and incest as reasons to keep it legal. This is not a good-faith argument, because they would never support a law that banned abortion in every case except those. It's just a tactically useful appeal to natural emotions.

We can't lose sight of the fact that the desperation to hang on to the more or less unrestricted right to abortion gets its passion from the sexual revolution, from the need to preserve it at all costs, and, more fundamentally, to uphold the quasi-religious doctrine of the separation of sex and reproduction. That physical, spiritual, and cultural lie can't be defeated by law, in fact can never be entirely defeated. But it can be dethroned from its all-but-omnipotent position of power in our culture. Apart from the obvious duty of Christians to help women with unwanted pregnancies, we should also make some effort to empathize with people who have grown up believing that sexual expression does not and should not have any restrictions, that from some time in adolescence on everyone can and should engage in whatever sexual activity strikes his or her fancy, with no adverse consequences. A young woman growing up with those assumptions might well be terrified--I mean, really and sincerely terrified--by anything which promises to cut off her escape in the event that her sexual activity has what was once considered its natural result.

For Catholics, the timing of this announcement is providential: the feast of the Sacred Heart. That's a devotion which I've never been attracted to, not because I think there's anything wrong with it but because it just doesn't appeal to me. Perhaps I should give it another look. Also, in normal years (see this) June 24 is the feast of St. John the Baptist, which is, you might say, even more providential.

And it came to pass that when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.


Peter Hitchens On the Automobile

At The Lamp's blog, Hitchens has a great little essay on the wrong turning civilization took when almost everyone got a car. It starts as a personal matter with him. He just doesn't like cars, period:

Life would be a lot easier if I did not hate motor cars. But I just do hate them. I have tried not to. I even learned to drive at the age of thirty-one, a terrible surrender made as I sought to fit in with what felt increasingly like a compulsory faith. But I never really submitted, and have since drifted away from it....

I would be dishonest if I pretended to have this fine and unequivocal disdain for the thing. Like most Americans, I got my driver's license as soon as I possibly could when I turned sixteen. I was never exactly what one could call a car person, but there was a period of a couple of years in my teens when I read hot rod magazines and assembled plastic model cars. When Tom Wolfe published The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby I knew what the title referred to. I knew who Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was. I coveted a Jaguar XKE.

image from cdn.dealeraccelerate.com

I spent weekend nights riding around in the nearby towns, although what I was driving was hardly cool: a low-end 1959 Chevrolet with a 6-cylinder engine and a rusting body. It was not improved by the small fire I started in the back seat when I flipped a cigarette out the driver's window and into the open window behind me.

image from www.fritte.net(The one I drove was not decorated like this one.)

A friend of mine sometimes had the use of a T-Bird. My one-time girlfriend had a white Mustang. Those were about as close to cool as I ever got.

By the time I was nineteen or twenty that interest had vanished completely. For some while a sort of detached admiration for certain cars persisted. I recall seeing a dark green Mercedes on Sundays at my parish decades ago, and thinking it was nice looking, but I had no desire to own one. I've never owned a vehicle that would merit any interest or even respect from a person seriously interested in cars.

Even the mild appreciation that continued faintly into middle age dissipated altogether. The arrival of the so-called "sport utility vehicle" really killed it. Once upon a time the term had a connection to reality, but that's gone. I have an active disdain for the really big ones, the Tahoe and such, and the luxury ones, like Mercedes and BMW "SUV"s. Some Americans seem to look back at the big cars of the '50s and '60s and congratulate our modern selves on having better taste than the people of those days. One can argue about the aesthetics but there is absolutely no room for most contemporary Americans to look down on those of the 1950s for their love of the big powerful cushy automobile.

I now drive a 2010 Honda Civic and plan to continue driving it until either I die or it does. But I admit that I still like to drive under certain conditions, still enjoy a long drive on a highway with not too much traffic. So to that extent I am not on the same page as Hitchens.

It isn't just his personal dislike, though. He also hates what the automobile has done to English cities, towns, and countryside. And there I'm very much with him:

And, if you do not love automobiles for what they are, I think you are bound in the end to hate them for what they do. Look at the way they spoil every prospect. A line of garishly colored cars parked in a beautiful city square wrecks the proportions of the place. Their curious shapes, inhuman and flashy, clash violently with almost every style of architecture except the most brutal concrete modernism. The incessant noise and smell of them, the horrible danger they represent to soft human bodies, the space they take up, are all outrages against peace, beauty, and kindness. Near where I live, there are several roads where drivers are officially encouraged to park on the sidewalk, because if they parked on the narrow road, it would be impassable. The logic of this is inexorable, once you have assumed the supremacy of the car. But if you are a car heretic, the thing is a blood-boiling outrage. 

I probably have (if it's possible) an even more intense resentment on that point because of the scale on which America has done this. I doubt that England has as many of the 100% auto-age urban areas that we do. We have vast cityscapes that did not exist before 1950 or so. Some of these have arisen around an existing city of significant size, some have only a little town at their centers, surrounded by a sprawl many times larger. And all of it is built on the assumption that everyone has a car and will get into it and drive somewhere for any activity that does not take place in his own home.

I grew up fifteen miles or so from Huntsville, Alabama. At the beginning of World War II Huntsville was a small town of roughly 13,000 people. Because a military weapons development center was located there, the population grew during the war and was up to 20,000 or so by its end. After that the military installation was mainly devoted to the coming thing in weaponry, guided missiles, and then a major piece of NASA was located there. Its currently listed population of something over 200,000 doesn't tell the story of the growth of the area, as Huntsville and/or its suburbs now extend literally to the driveway of the house I spent most of my childhood in. The two smaller towns within commuting distance have also grown and sprawled so that the three have almost grown together. The connecting highways are clogged. Most of the area between my former home and the middle of the city, the old town square which is only a relic, is literally unrecognizable to me now. When I go there I find it difficult to stop complaining. 

Here is the link to the Hitchens piece again. It's called "The Great God Zil," and I'll leave it to you to discover what Zil is or was. And I'll add that his denunciation of the huge pompous belligerent motorcades that now move our rulers around is not the least important and savagely enjoyable part of the article.


Sigrid Undset: In the Wilderness

(mild spoilers)

This is the third book in the Olav AudunssonMaster of Hestviken tetralogy. (See this for comments on the second book.) It's in two parts, "The Parting of the Ways" and "The Wilderness." The first part is shorter and I take its title to refer primarily to Olav's parting from Ingunn. They were of course parted by death in the previous volume, The Snake Pit, but the separation is made definitive here, with Olav adjusting to life without Ingunn and the state of anxiety and anguish in which he had lived for most of their many years together. As is necessarily the case with the death of someone close, however much the loss may continue to be felt, the shape of day-to-day life re-forms itself, filling in the empty space and becoming normal. 

Olav makes a journey to London and spends (I think) most of a summer there. It's ostensibly a trading voyage but it's at least as much an excuse for Olav to get away from the burdens and sad memories of Hestviken. In London occurs an event which I mentioned in the last post, on The Snake Pit, as one of the few which I remembered vividly from my first reading of the tetralogy. 

At Mass in a London church, he sees a woman who looks uncannily like Ingunn--the young, healthy Ingunn who has not existed for many years. He can't take his eyes off her, can't get her out of his mind; it seems that Ingunn is being offered to him all over again--a new and improved Ingunn, perhaps. A silent flirtation and seduction takes place between them, as they see each other repeatedly at the church. She is married, to a blind man. She arranges, through a servant, a tryst, to take place in the garden of her home, and Olav goes to her. As he takes her in his arms a warning comes to him:

No, this was not [Ingunn]--and it was as though he heard a cry coming from somewhere without; a voice that he heard not with his bodily ears called to him, aloud and wild with fear, trying to warn him. From somewhere, from the ground under his feet, he thought, the cry came--Ingunn, he knew, the real Ingunn, was striving to come to his aid. He could tell that she was in the utmost distress; in bonds of powerlessness or sin she was fighting to be heard by him through the darkness that parted them....

Ingunn called to him, she was afraid he would not understand that this stranger was one who had borrowed her shape, seeking to drag him under.

Well, for the sake of those who haven't read the book but may do so, perhaps I shouldn't quote that. But then you still have to read the book to find out what happens next.

The whole London sequence is especially memorable to me, and I think part of the reason is the essentially minor fact that it is London. It occurs to me now that almost none of the action in Undset's two major works takes place in a city of much size. From time to time someone goes to Oslo, but it isn't portrayed as being very large. London seems clearly to be larger, though much smaller than any contemporary city, with the heart of the city and its waterfront not very far at all from farms and open country, and in fact a certain amount of what we would consider rural life occurring within the city proper. At any rate the somewhat awed perspective on London of Olav and his companions, and perhaps the fact that it's summer and quite a distance south from Norway gives this episode a fresh and almost holiday-ish quality, notwithstanding the fact that not everything that happens there is pleasant. 

One of the decisive spiritual events--and in Undset's vision these are as real as any physical events--is Olav's realization that even many of his sins are less grand than he liked to think. In doing such-and-such, did he sin out of essentially noble motives? Or was he at bottom only driven by the same common, base, and petty appetites that drive men whom he held in contempt? As in Kristin, the process of self-knowledge is at the heart of a lifetime's journey, and one of its essential goals.

Much of the second part, "The Wilderness," involves the gradual shrinking of Olav's life to a joyless routine of managing his estate, Hestiviken. His foster son, Eirik, Ingunn's illegitimate child whom Olav has passed off as his own, now a young man, departs, at least in part because Olav drives him away. Then comes a war which gives him, at least fleetingly, a sense of purpose, a glimpse of a way out of the wilderness. The martial joy with which he plunges into this conflict is something which our time does not readily grasp, except by way of fantasy, as in the Marvel movies and video games. Undset's rendering of the battle in which Olav takes part is remarkable simply as a piece of historical re-creation--I am assuming that she is accurate, and by all accounts that's a safe assumption--and also as a vivid narrative. It's also, I'm sure, accurate with regard to the bigger context of the wars that were taking place in Norway at the time. (In fact the first book of the tetralogy opens with a description of that context.)

But the war ends with Olav gravely wounded, recovering but permanently disfigured. He returns to Hestviken for the last act of his life's drama, in his forties, growing old by the standards of the time, still hiding the sin which he believes will cost him his soul, but which he cannot bring himself to confess.

I've seen a few comments here and there from readers to the effect that this is the least interesting of the four books, and overall they have a fair point. Nevertheless the eighty or so pages of "The Parting of the Ways" remain for me among the most profound and moving of the almost one thousand which make up the whole. 


Julee Cruise, RIP

I first heard her on Peter Schickele's radio program, Schickele Mix. I'll guess the year was about 1991. It was a wonderfully eclectic hour of music and talk about music and I sometimes recorded it to cassette.

One night he played this song. As far as I recall he didn't say anything by way of introduction beyond the singer's name. I had never heard of her. I had never seen Twin Peaks and knew little about David Lynch beyond the fact that he was the director of a movie called Blue Velvet which I had stopped watching part way through because I found it too disturbing. I can only describe my reaction to the song as some weird combination of mesmerized and electrified. And touched by a deep sadness. I kept the tape of that program for a long time, mainly for this song.

This was before the web, and I had no way of learning more about the artist or the music. Of course I had no idea that I would eventually become a big fan of Twin Peaks and some of Lynch's other work. I don't know how much time went by before I got the album, Floating Into the Night, but it was before I ever saw Twin Peaks. That had to wait for Netflix. I liked the album as much as I liked the one song. 

Here's what I wrote about the album in the 52 Albums series. I don't see anything there that I would disagree with now, five years later.

Julee Cruise died within the past day or two. According to this obituary in The Guardian, she had lupus. And the comment from her husband--"she left this realm on her own terms"--makes it sound like she might have taken her own life rather than wait for the disease to take it. I would not judge harshly anyone who takes that step under those conditions, but I hope it's not true. 

Here's the song which was the foundation of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Of the Twin Peaks sound.

 


God Save the Queen

I can't say I've paid close attention to the Diamond Jubilee celebration. I guess I'm not much for lavish public celebrations of anything. I certainly never would have come up with the idea of parades or processions. If I'd been the mayor of some medieval town and citizens had come to me with a proposal for an elaborate procession honoring the town's patron saint, I would have said something like "But what's the point?" I don't get it. I'm certainly not saying there's anything wrong with it, but I just don't get it.

I'm also not really, truly, an Anglophile. Or maybe I am, but if so it's in a mild way. I do love English literature and English folk music and generally enjoy things British. I watch too many British crime dramas. But I don't claim any great knowledge of the country, or its history, or its ways, or attempt in any way to adopt those ways. 

(Well, except maybe for Marmite. A few years ago, out of sheer curiosity, I went to some trouble to obtain a jar of Marmite, and soon discovered that I rather like it. A piece of bread, buttered, toasted, and then spread with a very thin layer of Marmite, topped with a slice of cheddar cheese, is quite a tasty breakfast. My local grocery store now carries it, in the section labelled "International," since "Foreign" would no doubt be in bad taste now, so I can't be the only one, even in Alabama. 

And as far as I know my ancestry for at least the past few centuries is English and Scottish--a bit of Ulster, but that's effectively also Scottish and English, probably in that order. And I feel that there is something in my blood, to use the old-fashioned term, that responds to many things in that culture. Or perhaps I should say those cultures. I don't usually use the phrase "I feel"--it suggests a sloppy and subjective quality to whatever follows, and if whatever follows is meant to have objective validity then it's not the appropriate term. But in this case it is. I can't provide any justification for this feeling, apart from the facts of my ancestry, beyond the fact that I feel it. I also suspect, for similar reasons, that if I were to delve further into my ancestry there would be a Scandinavian connection. The Vikings had a considerable impact, genetic as well as cultural, on the British Isles.)

And yet. The witness of Queen Elizabeth somehow speaks deeply to me, and the fact of the Jubilee touches me. Maybe it's nothing to do with ancestry or Anglophilia. Maybe it's the fact that my life is roughly contemporaneous with her reign. She was crowned in June 1953, when I was a few months away from being five years old. I have a scrap of memory of the event, though I can't figure out how I came by it. I want to say I may have seen it on television, but I don't think my family had one then, so it's more likely that I saw something in a magazine. But then I did not yet know how to read. The memory remains a little mysterious. 

Perhaps it was not at the time of the coronation but a couple of years later, when I could read, that I became aware of it. Somehow I also knew of Prince Charles. There the timelines run very close together: he and I were born approximately six weeks apart (I'm the elder). I was aware of his existence and felt a certain kinship with him. This seems rather odd to me now, considering that I couldn't have been more than six or seven years old, maybe younger, when I learned of him. What could I have known or cared? But I do remember that knowledge and that feeling.

Now we, Charles and I, are seventy-three years old, and the Queen is in her last years. And I don't know about him--maybe he's been fuming for the past forty years or so that he isn't king--but it feels to me that she is the last remnant, soon to vanish, of something which is not much found in our oh-so-proud-of-itself contemporary world. 

Many things have changed for the better in my lifetime. For an American, the end of legally enforced racial oppression is high on that list--on the top of it for me, in fact. But much has deteriorated. Qualities which we used to include in the word "character" have become less valued and accordingly more rare: a strong sense of duty; loyalty; self-restraint; dignity; integrity; simple love of country. We, or at least I, associate these with the British at their best. Perhaps Elizabeth does not in fact embody them as much as I, and apparently many others, want to believe, but at any rate she is a powerful symbol of them.

I don't much associate them with the British at present. Well, in fact, my impression is that the British now rival us in developing a culture which favors and encourages their opposites. The culture of narcissism has gone far beyond anything that Christopher Lasch witnessed. And that makes this Jubilee, and the passing of the Queen which can't be very far in the future, poignant, especially to those of us old enough to recall that not so very long ago her virtues were more valued than they are now.


Alvvays: Antisocialites

Let's get this out of the way: it's pronounced "always." Or so says AllMusic.

Every time I think all the life is gone from pop music, something like this band comes along to prove that it isn't dead yet. I don't mean something that sounds like this, but anything that I can be enthusiastic about, even if it's the kind of dark enthusiasm that I got some years ago when I first heard The Cure's Disintegration: something that's really a fresh achievement, something so good that I want to tell people about it. Antisocialites is not especially innovative, just very very good. Rob G introduced me to it, for which I thank him. 

In a better world this song would be a hit single:

This is the first track, and my favorite, but only by a very narrow margin. Naturally, I like some of the songs better than others, but I like at least half of them about as much as I do "In Undertow," and the others are quite good. Most are irresistibly catchy, to my ears at least. 

I usually try to give any new album three reasonably attentive and open-minded hearings before committing myself to a positive or negative opinion--especially a negative one, because often something that doesn't do much for me at first gets better with more listening. But I liked this one instantly, and have now heard it at least five times with no less pleasure. It's almost hard to believe that guitar-based pop-rock can still sound as fresh as this does.

The singer's voice is a big part of the freshness: it's not spectacular or dramatically emotive or strikingly distinctive, just young and clear and accurate and, well, fresh. It's almost a bonus that the lyrics are intelligible and often clever. In "In Undertow" the speaker says

"What's left for you and me?"
I ask that question rhetorically

and then a bit later

"What's left for you and me?"
You respond to my question metaphorically

Sounds like Aimee Mann, and that's a big compliment.

The album is a bit old-fashioned in that it's short: ten songs of what used to be the typical length of three minutes or so. It occurs to me to wonder whether it was deliberately kept short to be more LP-compatible: at not much over thirty minutes it's comparable to many of the great albums of the pre-CD era. Or maybe they just didn't want to include anything that was less than first-rate. Good decision either way. There aren't that many pop musicians who can keep me interested for the 60-plus minutes that CDs made possible. 

Here's a live performance of "In Undertow." I don't know about you but it's somewhat rare for me to watch a band performing without being annoyed by a lot of stagey forced-looking posturing. They don't do any of that, and it's refreshing. 

 


Third-rate Atheism

I saw this some while back in the comments on some web site:

When religious laws surmount mercy & reason , we must remember that religion was written thousands of years ago, when knowledge was in it’s infancy.

I thought it was striking in the way it illustrates the vast gap, more vast than usual, between the writer's estimation of his own grasp of the subject and the reality of both the subject and his grasp of it. I mean, not only does he not know, but has no idea at all that he doesn't, but is quite sure that he does. The apostrophe is a nice finishing touch.

It's been apparent for many years now that the association of atheism with education and the use (however mistaken) of reason no longer exists. Atheists are just as likely as believers to have come to their views without much thought--to be merely following the crowd, for instance. It's just a different crowd. 

It occurs to me now to wonder if English is the commenter's second language. "Religion was written"?? Even if that's the case, it wouldn't improve the remark much. 


Haydn: Symphony #92, "Oxford"

I think I mentioned in a comment on some other post that I sort of stumbled across this symphony. Unusually for me, I had tuned in to the local public radio station in my car (because I was tired of the CD that was in the player), and the second movement of this symphony was playing. I ended up sitting in the car (the weather was still tolerably cool) and listening through to the end, and really enjoyed it. 

Since then I've heard it several more times, in two different recordings. First was a 1972 version, Klemperer conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Then I tried a newer one, Franz Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century, which, as the name suggests, is more of a period-performance outfit. I liked the Klemperer better. A good bit better, really. I've wondered if perhaps my preference in recordings of a given piece is simply that the first one I hear gets fixed in my mind as the way it should be. But in any case the older recording touches me in a way that the newer one does not. One obvious difference is that Brüggen speeds it up. Look at these times:

Klemperer:
Adagio – Allegro Spiritoso 8:55
Adagio 10:00
Menuetto: Allegretto 6:12
Presto 6:04

Brüggen:
Adagio Allegro Spritoso 7:27
Adagio 6:09
Menuetto: Allegretto 5:08
Presto 5:23

The difference in the Adagio must surely include some cuts. The tempos are not that different. But I think Brüggen's speed makes the music less rich, which is probably also an effect of the period instruments.

It's called "Oxford" because it was said to have been played at the ceremony in which Oxford awarded Haydn a Doctor of Music degree. The Wikipedia article suggests that was not actually the case. But it was apparently written and first performed while Haydn was in England.

I tend to think of Haydn as somewhat on the dull side, and I think I'm far from alone in that. But I'm pretty sure I'd like a lot of his music if I gave it a chance. I'm embarrassed to say that I actually have a CD of his oratorio The Creation and have never seriously listened to it. The only piece I've listened to repeatedly is the string quartet version of The Seven Last Words of Christ, and I like it quite a lot. 

Here's the last movement of the "Oxford." It puts a smile on my face, and perhaps will do so on yours, too. It makes me think of Mozart, but with less razzle-dazzle. Haydn is a very solid composer.


Man Bites Nuclear Dog

Finland's Greens Now Fully Behind Nuclear Power

I don't think I've ever written a post about climate change here. I don't post all that much about political and social issues anyway, but still, it's mildly surprising that in all the years (eighteen!) I've had this blog  I've never written a post specifically about it, considering how much attention it gets. I've mentioned it here and there, but as far as I can tell only in passing. Part of the reason, the major part I guess, is that I don't take it all that seriously.

As a threat, I mean. I'm willing to believe that it's happening, and to believe that industrialism, the automobile, and so forth are causing it, or at least contributing to it. I'm willing to believe it because many people who know a lot about the climate tell me so. And I'm willing to believe that the rising temperature will or at least may cause problems. I say "may" because there is such a blatantly tendentious (to put it mildly) effort to link any problem, especially but not necessarily if it includes weather or any aspect of the natural world, to climate change. Maybe some of those are valid, maybe not, but the political intention is so obvious that it invites skepticism--practically requires it.

But I'm unwilling to believe that climate change is going to make the planet uninhabitable, or result in the deaths of some large percentage of the human population with the survivors becoming hunter-gatherers, or have any of the other world-ending or otherwise massively catastrophic consequences that are predicted. 

I don't mean just that I reserve judgment, or am somewhat skeptical, but that I actively disbelieve it. One reason is that these predictions, like the attribution of existing phenomena, have an obvious political motivation. Another is that many of them seem implausible, predicting consequences that seem far in excess of the predicted rises in temperature. But the biggest reason is that the environmentalists and others who are loudest in their alarms do not appear to truly believe what they are saying. Maybe they're purposely exaggerating for effect, as political crusaders generally do, not apparently having absorbed the lesson of the boy who cried wolf. 

It's not only because so many of the crusaders are hypocritical--owning multiple enormous homes, jetting to climate conferences, and all that. Yes, it's hypocritical, but hypocrites we will always have with us. The biggest reason is that for the most part they don't allow a place for nuclear power in mitigating the problem. Compared to fossil fuels, especially from the point of view of climate change concerns, nuclear power has some major benefits. I won't bother reproducing the arguments on that score, as they are easily found all over the net. 

Obviously it has significant dangers, too. But to rule it out entirely, and put all your hope on the unlikely prospect that wind and solar power can replace fossil fuels anytime soon, only indicates that you don't really believe that the danger is as great as you are saying. If there's an 18-wheeler coming straight at you, and your only alternatives are to go into the ditch or have a head-on collision which will certainly kill you, you don't say "The ditch is not an option. Much too dangerous."

It's good to see at least one environmentalist group be realistic on this point. I get the impression that a not-insignificant number of young people are being driven into terrified despair by the wild alarmism of many. Poor Greta Thunberg is blaming the wrong people for stealing her childhood. 

 


Richard Strauss: Salome

Well, that was something. 

A couple of years ago I read Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise, a history of 20th century classical music. (I wrote about the book last year, in this post.) I recall being a bit surprised that the book opened not with that usual-for-this-subject anecdote about the 1913 premier of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, but with a 1906 performance of Salome. I've never listened to much of Strauss's music and did not think of him as a modernist bomb-thrower. But Salome preceded The Rite by seven years. And, as I just discovered, it is explosive. 

I had thought, on finishing the Ross book, that I would try to work my way through at least some of the major works that he discusses and I had not heard, or not really heard. I'm just now getting around to following up on that. Conveniently, I had come into a recording of Salome not long before, in what I have been calling the Fr. Dorrell trove--several hundred classical LPs left behind when an elderly priest died a few years ago. It's an RCA Red Seal recording from the late '60s, with Montserrat Caballé as Salome and Erich Leinsdorf conducting, and it's one of those wonderful boxed sets of the great age of the LP, with a big handsome booklet containing the libretto and various other material. I put the first disk on and settled into a chair with the libretto.

Never mind the dates: Alex Ross was right to put this opera at the head of the "let's shake things up" line of early 20th century works. It is a far more sensational composition than the Rite, both musically and thematically. A hundred and twenty years later, it still has some power to shock (which I suppose means I am not as thoroughly jaded as I thought).

I had not gotten very far before I thought This libretto was written by a gay man. And sure enough: it's from a play by Oscar Wilde, written before his fall.

He takes quite a few liberties with the biblical text. In the New Testament story, the young and beautiful Salome is the stepdaughter of Herod and daughter of Herod's wife Herodias, and is used by the latter to get rid of John the Baptist. In his eyes the marriage is illicit and immoral, and, being John the Baptist, he says so much too forthrightly for Herodias's liking. Salome dances for Herod, reducing him, apparently, to a state of lustful helplessness such that he swears to give her anything she asks. I can't help figuring he had something more in mind, the dance being over at that point. Herodias prompts Salome to ask for the head of the Baptist, and Herod, trapped by his promise, has to give it to her. 

Not so as Wilde tells the story. In his version, it is Salome who is consumed with lust, and lust with an edge of perversion. She  first appears without the other two, demanding of the jailer that she be allowed to see the prophet, and, when the jailer reluctantly obeys her, begins to slaver over the Baptist in very lurid terms:  

I am amorous of thy body!
Thy body is white like the lilies of a field
that the mower hath never mowed.
Thy body is like the snows of Judea...
...[eight or ten more lines in this vein]...
Suffer me to touch thy body.

See what I mean? John of course rebuffs and denounces her vigorously, which only adds the spice of anger to her weird eroticism. She disparages his body and has a rhapsody over his hair. Eventually she settles, obsessively, on his mouth, determined to kiss him, and then, when he will have nothing to do with her (beyond telling her to repent), to take revenge on him .

As Wilde retells the story, Herod is Salome's tool, very deliberately led into a trap by her, and while Herodias approves of what her daughter is doing, she's really just a bystander. And in the end Salome gets her wish, after a fashion. Whatever one may think of Wilde's version, it is dramatically effective.

But this is an opera. What about the music? I'm afraid I was too busy following the libretto word for word to really get the music. The opera is in German, and the libretto in this package includes the German and a line-by-line English translation. I have just enough of a feel for German to pay attention to it, but not to understand much of it, and so was constantly switching back and forth between the two texts, trying to keep up with both. I only have a general impression of the music: vivid, discordant, colorful, wildly varied. A few passages did jump out at me: for instance, the moments when Herod has a sense of foreboding, imagining a great wind and "the beating of vast wings." I think I'll like it when I listen to it again. If "like" is the right word.

Strauss-Salome-Caballe-Leinsdorf

I think the recording is great, by the way. Sonically it's wonderful, and I see a lot of five-star reviews on Amazon.