Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On the Delights of Susie Boyt

Those who know me well will know that I have a crush on Susie Boyt. On the list of my secret love interests, she ranks very near the top, right up there with Rosie Thomas and St. Clare. While cleaning out my room at the end of the semester, I happened upon an old Financial Times with one of Susie's columns from August, "Remembrance of things pasty". Here's a particularly delightful passage:

When the plan was hatched to buy some pasties and we drove to the dairy and selected the medium-sized Traditionals and watched as they were wrapped by the lady in the pinny whose hair was flecked with flour, and the cost was indelibly scored on the half-cellophaned bags, I was in a wonderful trance.

I hadn’t tasted a Cornish pasty for 10 years – I don’t eat things like that these days – and I pictured a savoury fantasia of crisp, dancing, short-crust pastry crescents, camply crimped at their edges, encasing a luscious yet delicate combination of strong-flavoured meat and thick gravy and tender vegetables ... We were in Cornwall, after all. I licked my lips and felt daring in the extreme. My inner librarian stopped telling people to be quiet and threw off her spectacles and unpinned her hair.

Imagine my shock, then, when I bit into said baked morsel and immediately realised my mistake. I had been fantasising not about a Cornish pasty (mutton, onion, potato, white pepper) but a steak and kidney pie (steak, kidney, mushrooms, ale-gravy)! It’s a wholly different beast. How could I have been so stupid? The Cornish pasty’s innocence in this matter was not under dispute, for it was neither trying nor failing to resemble its distant second cousin. It was a case of mistaken identity, and I was the victim.

Susie is so many things that the modern world is not: classy, well-read, unpretentious and cheerful. In an age when cynicism and depression are almost vogue, Susie writes, "Few people associate cheer with style, as high spirits are the antithesis of cool. Yet I do wish cheer could make a comeback. It’s really not a bad look." Well, perhaps it's making a very small comeback, on the second page of the Life & Arts section each Saturday morning.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

On St. Joseph

On this, the Feast of the Holy Family, I thought it might be appropriate to share a few thoughts on one of my favorite saints, St. Joseph.

Some years ago an interesting detail of Scripture was pointed out to me. When people in the crowds would refer to Jesus as "the carpenter's son," this was not simply a description: it was a back-handed insult. Because, you see, in a town the size of Nazareth, gossip surely spread quickly; not long after the Annunciation everyone in the village would have known that Mary was pregnant, and Joseph was not the father. So when they called Jesus "the carpenter's son," it was with a nudge and a wink. They all knew Joseph did not father this son.

Have you ever wondered why St. Joseph is often depicted holding a lily? Pius tradition tells the story that the lovely Mary of Nazareth had so many men seeking her hand that the suitors eventually had to draw sticks. No doubt one was a bit longer than the rest, to indicate the winner, but when Joseph drew his, the end promptly blossomed into a lily. Whether or not he drew the long one I do not know, but at that point it was pretty clear he was the winner. (Raphael and other artists sometimes depict a loser breaking his stick on his knee in frustration.) While the story is probably apocryphal, I have no doubt that Joseph was thrilled beyond words to be betrothed to Mary. So as much as he wanted to believe the best, he must have been absolutely crushed to discover that she was with child. (Indeed, it took a message from an angel for him to take Mary as his wife [Matt 1:20], and understandably so.)

People who know Greek tell me that Joseph's occupation might better be translated as "builder": a man who worked in wood, yes, but perhaps also in stone. In light of the large Roman building project going on nearby, we can speculate that Joseph was probably a construction worker. From time to time the conversation at the work site probably went a bit lewd, and you can be sure that Joseph came in for his share of abuse. After all, he was the cuckold with the wandering wife, or so it would seem. What answer can you give to such accusations? "No, really guys, she conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit." Right... I have no doubt that, being a construction worker, Joseph was a large, burly man, who could have easily decked someone. But rather than witty retorts or quick violence, I suspect Joseph responded with sorrow. I image that, no matter how often he heard such abuse, the pain never really went away; not that he cared much what other said about him, but how could they say such things about his beloved bride? (And how could he explain the absence of subsequent children? Marital chastity is not exactly the norm.)

We often meditate upon the sorrows of Our Lady, but I think we tend to forget the difficult life St. Joseph must have lived, from the stunning revelation of Mary's pregnancy and the Child's birth in a Bethlehem shed, to the flight into Egypt and the ongoing humiliations of life in Nazareth. And yet, I have no doubt that at the end of his days, Joseph would have told you that he was blessed beyond all just deserts and would not have traded the life he lived for any other.

Indeed, I imagine him on his death bed, with Jesus at his side, telling Him, "Son, I know You've come from God, and I know I don't always understand what that means, but I trust that Your Father hears You whenever You pray." Joseph summons up a little more strength, and with tears welling up in his eyes says, "Please, Jesus, do me this one favor: take care of your mother for me. And... and when You raise us up, on the last day, can I be with her again? It would mean more to me than You know..." And Jesus, Himself now lost in tears, looks at Joseph and tells him, "Father, I do know, and I promise you, it shall be so."

Did you know St. Joseph is the patron of a happy death? Reassured that the love of his family would extend into the hereafter, I have no doubt that his death was just that.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

In the Spirit of Christmas Past

It is no secret that I am a firm believer in celebrating the Incarnation, when the God-Man was born into into time. It was an event which forever changed history, showing that the long reign of sin and death was about to end.

But I would also like to remember another event that happened on this day, two hundred thirty two years ago. On the evening of December 25th, 1776, George Washington and his tiny band of rag-tag Continentals were not sitting around the fire celebrating with their families. In fact, the cynic would say there was rather little to celebrate in those dark days. After the glorious patriot victories at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill in 1775, the reality of facing the world's most powerful military force had begun to sink in during the following year. In August Washington had been resoundingly defeated trying to defend New York. It is doubtful anyone in his position could have held the city: he was outnumbered, with poorly trained, ill-disciplined soldiers and no navy. The autumn had been characterized by a fighting withdrawal, as Washington's army dwindled, with the British ever at his heels. By the time he crossed from New Jersey into Pennsylvania in early December, the force of 28,000 he had commanded at the beginning of August had been reduced to fewer than 2,000 men. On December 31st the enlistments of many of his men would end, further reducing his tattered force.

But by a stroke of luck - or, dare we say, blessing? - Gen. John Sullivan arrived in mid-December with several regiments of reinforcements. These, combined with several hundred Pennsylvania militia men, swelled Washington's ranks to nearly 6,000. It wasn't much, but Washington decided it was enough. On Christmas night he deployed his men in three columns, aiming to cross the icy Delaware River back into New Jersey. Conditions were so bad only one of the three columns managed to get across the river, with the last men arriving in New Jersey at 3:00am. With the 2,400 men he had, Washington pressed on toward the enemy position at Trenton, manned primarily by Hessian mercenaries.

In the folk tales told afterwards, the Hessians had been up far too late on Christmas evening and were all drunk or hung over as dawn rose on December 26th. In fact, most of them were quite sober. They were, nevertheless, caught surprised and ill-prepared. Expecting the rebels to stay on their side of the river for the duration of winter, no fortifications had been erected at Trenton; appalling weather prevented British reinforcements from arriving from nearby garrisons. Of a British/Hessian force of 1,600, Washington's Continentals inflicted 100 casualties and captured 900 enemy soldiers (at the cost of only two dead and five wounded on the American side). It was a resounding success for the young Republic.

Washington quickly crossed back into Pennsylvania before the British could organize to meet his attack, but on December 30th he again crossed into New Jersey, clashing with Lord Cornwallis at Assunpink Creek. At the end of the first day of the battle, Cornwallis was confident the following morning would bring him victory. Instead, Washington left his campfires burning through the night and slipped away, to fight another day. And fight he did. The very next morning he intercepted a British brigade at Princeton, smashing it in another astonishing American victory.

As 1776 gave way to the new year of 1777, the war was by no means won. Indeed, it had really only begun. Many long years, and many defeats for Washington and his Continentals, still lay ahead. But the small band of Americans who crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776, had breathed new life into a dying cause.

So as you honor the Christ Child, Whose birth brought new life to a fallen world, remember to also raise a glass to George Washington, whose tenacity and dedication on Christmas Day may have saved the Republic.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Was Shakespeare in the Army?

I came across this passage in Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma, by George MacDonald Fraser, and could not resist sharing it:

I got two paperbacks from home which I had requested: Henry V, which we had done in my last year at school and for which I had developed a deep affection, and Three Men in a Boat.... I was laying on my groundsheet... when Sergeant Hutton [who, like most members of the Border Regiment, was a Cumbrian] squatted down beside me.

"W'at ye readin', then? W'at's this? 'Enry Vee - bloody 'ell, by William Shekspeer!" He gave me a withering look, and leafed over a page. "Enter Chorus. O for a muse of fire that wad... Fook me!" He riffled the pages. "Aye, well, we'll 'ev a look." And such is the way of sergeants, he removed it without by-your-leave; that's one that won't be away long, I thought.

I was wrong. Three days later it had not been returned, and having exhausted Jerome and the magazines, I was making do with the Fourteenth Army newspaper, SEAC.... I was reading a verse by the paper's film critic... when Hutton loafed up and tossed Henry V down beside me and seated himself on the section grub-box. A silence followed, and I asked if he had liked it. He indicated the book.

"Was Shekspeer ivver in th'Army?"

I said that most schoalrs thought not, but there were blanks in his life, so it was possible that, like his friend Ben Jonson, he had served in the Low Countries, or even in Italy. Hutton shook his head.

"If 'e wesn't in th'Army, Ah'll stand tappin' [ie, "I'm crazy"]. 'E knaws too bloody much aboot it, man."

This was fascinating. Hutton was a military hard case who had probably left school long before 14, and his speech and manner suggested that his normal and infrequent reading consisted of company orders and the sports headlines. But Shakespeare had talked to him across the centuries - admittedly on his own subject. I suggested hesitantly that the Bard might have picked up a good deal just from talking to military men; Hutton brushed the notion aside.

"Nivver! Ye knaw them three - Bates, an' them, talkin' afore the battle? Ye doan't get that frae lissenin' in pubs, son. Naw, 'e's bin theer." He gave me the hard, aggressive stare of the Cumbrian who is not to be contradicted. "That's my opinion, any roads. An' them oothers - the Frenchman, the nawblemen, tryin' to kid on that they couldn't care less, w'en they're shittin' blue lights? Girraway! An' the Constable tekkin' the piss oot o' watsisname -"

"The Dauphin."

"Aye." He shook his head in admiration. "Naw, ye've 'eerd it a' afore - in different wurrds, like. Them fower officers, the Englishman an' the Scotsman an' the Irishman an' the Welshman - Ah mean, 'e's got their chat off, 'esn't 'e? Ye could tell w'ich wez w'ich, widoot bein' told. That Welsh booger!" He laughed aloud, a thing he rarely did. "Talk till the bloody coos coom yam, the Taffies!" He frowned. "Naw, Ah nivver rid owt be Shekspeer afore - Ah mean, ye 'ear the name, like..." He shrugged eloquently. "Mind, there's times Ah doan't knaw w'at th' 'ell 'e's talkin' aboot -"

"You and me both," I said, wondering uneasily if there were more passages obscure to me than there were to him. He sat in for a moment and then misquoted (and I'm not sure that Shakespeare's version is better):

"There's nut many dies weel that dies in a battle. By Christ, 'e's reet theer. It's a good bit, that." He got up. "Thanks for the lend on't, Jock."

I said that if he'd liked it, he would like Henry IV, too. "Falstaff's blood funny, and you'd like Hotspur -"

"'Ev ye got it?"

I apologised that I hadn't, and promised to write for it.... he went off, leaving me to reflect that I had learned something more about Henry V, and Shakespeare. In his own way Hutton was as expert a commentator as Dover Wilson or Peter Alexander; he was a lot closer to Bates and Court and Williams (and Captains Jamy and Fluellen) than they could ever hope to be. And I still wonder if Shakespeare was in the Army. (128-30)

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Search for the Quaint

I am the midst of reading a delightful piece (recommended by Sara) called 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. It takes the form of a series of letters between a New Yorker in the 1950s and a small British bookshop. What starts out as a request for reading material turns into an overseas friendship. I can't tell you the ending since I'm still vastly enjoying the correspondence.

What struck me about this small book is the quaintness that seems to hold such charm for the New Yorker. She could go to Barnes and Noble and buy a second rate book, but instead decides to immerse herself in a small part of London where this small book store acquires treasures for her. Having recently completed a trip to England myself, I am a bit saddened by the fact that while traces of this 'quaint small town feel' is left, so much has been replaced by chains etc...

I understand the search of this woman to move beyond the normality of one's surrounding and search for something that is 'other.' Perhaps London seems not at all quaint to a Londoner, but to this bibliophile, it is an escape from the humdrum. In a sense this book is about two searches for otherness, one in a different country and one through the pages of good literature. I think some new light has been shed on two of my great loves: reading and travel.

Signing Ceremony, by Clive James

Hotel Timeo, Taormina

The lilac peak of Etna dribbles pink,
Visibly seething in the politest way.
The shallow vodka cocktails that we sink
Here on the terrace at the close of day

Are spreading numb delight as they go down.
Their syrup mirrors the way lava flows:
It’s just a show, it might take over town,
Sometimes the Cyclops, from his foxhole, throws

Rocks at Ulysses. But regard the lake
Of moonlight on the water, stretching east
Almost to Italy. The love we make
Tonight might be our last, but this, at least,

Is one romantic setting, am I right?
Cypresses draped in bougainvillea,
The massed petunias, the soft, warm night,
That streak of candy floss. And you, my star,

Still walking the stone alleys with the grace
Of forty years ago. Don’t laugh at me
For saying dumb things. Just look at this place.
Time was more friend to us than enemy,

And soon enough this backdrop will go dark
Again. The spill of neon cream will cool,
The crater waiting years for the next spark
Of inspiration, since the only rule

Governing history is that it goes on:
There is no rhythm of events, they just
Succeed each other. Soon, we will be gone,
And that volcano, if and when it must,

Will flood the slope with lip gloss brought to boil
For other lovers who come here to spend
One last, late, slap-up week in suntan oil,
Their years together winding to an end.

With any luck, they’ll see what we have seen:
Not just the picture postcard, but the splash
Of fire, and know this flowering soil has been
Made rich by an inheritance of ash.

Only because it’s violent to the core
The world grows gardens. Out of earth we came,
To earth we shall return. But first, one more
Of these, delicious echoes of the flame

That drives the long life all should have, yet few
Are granted as we were. It wasn’t fair?
Of course it wasn’t. But which of us knew,
To start with, that the other would be there,

One step away, for all the time it took
To come this far and see a mountain cry
Hot tears, as if our names, signed in the book
Of marriage, were still burning in the sky?

Special thanks to Margaret Perry over at Ten Thousand Places for bringing this poem from the New Yorker to our attention.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sturm und Drang

So who was Johannes Brahms? Part of the difficulty is that the personality of Brahms, and thus his music as well, is somewhat enigmatic, somewhat opaque. Brahms was a difficult person to know -- "difficult" referring to both his reticence and to his somewhat abrasive personality.

In fact, these characteristics of Brahms led to problems right from the beginning. His first opportunity to enter the composing world was through Franz Liszt, who was impressed with the young man's talent and who was a frequent benefactor of young artists. However, Liszt's artistic sensibilities was not very well-suited to that of Brahms.
[Liszt's] new school... tended towards a certain loosening of the fetters of tonality, and demanded, in particular, that the musical form be dictated by the content of poetic ideas. Brahms, however, did not find it possible to become a disciple... [He] firmly rejected an artistic conception that was in some degree derived from an extra-musical point of view.
It is instructive to understand the context of the musical world at the time: Beethoven was a huge influence and overshadowed the entire musical landscape. Wagner and Liszt responded by exploding the old forms and crafting new ones upon the Romantic model; the former by embracing operatic and dramatic themes, and the latter by embracing virtuosity and poetic forms. Brahms responded by recalling and recasting the older forms, synthesizing them with the Romanticism that Beethoven championed. Perhaps it was inevitable, in this idealistic period, that the musical community began lining up behind one school or the other, and using only the most intense rhetoric.

But this "synthesizing" of Brahms gives some insight into his musical sensibilities. Though he was schooled in the Romanticism of his day, he was a classicist at heart. He had a large personal collection of music manuscripts and edited the published works of such composers as Handel, Mozart, Schubert, and Schumann. He was particularly interested and versed in the contrapunctual art of Bach. Moreover, he was quite reserved and shunned dramatic outward expressions of emotion; he expressed himself openly with only his closest few friends, among whom were Robert and Clara Schumann. Thus the strong emotions characteristic of the Romantic period (and characteristic of Brahms himself) were bound and interpreted through the rigorous structure of music. At times the emotion will "break through" in his compositions but never in a way that threatens musical integrity.

Overall, then, the music of Brahms tends to be intense, introspective, complex, and very serious. It's not easy to listen to Brahms with "half an ear" or as background music. His music is also tightly edited: there's very little fluff or fat to his compositions, and demands much of the listener. After hearing a movement from his 4th symphony, a critic quipped: "I felt I was being thrashed by two very clever men."

However, this doesn't relegate his works to music theorists alone. The music of Brahms will open up to the interested ear, and will richly reward those who take the time to listen. It's not rare for me to listen to one of his compositions a couple of times in succession, in order to grasp it better. This is not to say that all of his works are uniformly serious; certainly his Hungarian Dances were and still remain extremely popular. They show as well as anything the combination of his Romantic expressionism with his desire to preserve those old rhythms in a more structured form. I had the opportunity to perform one of his choral works with a choir a couple of years ago, and I found singing the piece both intellectually stimulating and deeply emotional. Even if his symphonies leave you cold, don't let that deter you from enjoying Johannes Brahms.

(quotes and details taken primarily from Brahms: His Life and Work by Karl Geiringer. You might also listen to this NPR clip that is good, though perhaps overly-dour. He wasn't THAT depressing.)

A Few Interesting Passages

Three (completely unrelated) passages from things I have been reading lately:

In an interview with Psychology Today, Whit Stillman spoke of the effect on him of having spent his junior year abroad in Mexico: "It turned out to do the opposite of what it was suppose to do. It didn't make me a mushroom-dropping pothead; seeing another culture and the ways the less affluent in that culture coped with life actually made me much more conventional. It made me more respectful of conventional people in the United States." (Doomed Bourgeois in Love, 46)

I called myself a Marxist from the time I became a socialist. But, reading more history at Oxford, I began to feel that Marxism did not work. Consider the famous sentence in the Communist Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto recorded society is the history of class struggles." Very impressive but not true. Perhaps all history ought to have been the history of class struggles, but things did not work out that way. There have been long periods of class collaboration and many struggles that were not about class at all. I suppose my mind is too anarchic to be fitted into any system of thought. Like Johnson's friend Edwards, I, too, have tried to be a Marxist but common sense kept breaking in. (Accident Prone, or What Happened Next, republished in From Napoleon to the Second International, 5)

Calcutta is still my favorite city.... There was something... which if it did not transform the second city of Empire, lifted it at least a little from the depths. Everybody smiled. That may be at the root of Britain's three-century love affair with India. Nowadays it is taught (usually be people who never saw the Raj) that our passion for the sub-continent was mere pride of possession, arrogant satisfaction of conquest, and lust of exploitation, leavened only by a missionary zeal to improve. No doubt those feelings existed, among some, but they don't account for the undying affection that so many of the island race felt for that wonderful country and its people. Nor do all its great marvels: the beauty of the land and its buildings, the endless variety of its customs and cultures, the wonder of its art and philosophy and ancient civilizations, the glory of its matchless regiments. They may inspire awe, even reverence, but they don't quite explain why thousands of soldiers and merchants and administrators and traders left their hearts there, to say nothing of their mortal remains. One can babble about the magic of India, and convey nothing: I can only say that when I look back at it my lasting memory is of smiling faces, laughter in the bazaar, tiny naked children grinning as they clamoured for buckshee - and it wasn't an act, for they still laughed and joked and play-acted if they didn't get it. There was a life, a spirit about India that was irrepressible, and it outweighed all the faults and miseries and cruelties and corruptions. That, I think, is why the British loved it, and some of us will never get it out of our systems, even in an age when Indian and Pakistani immigration is about as welcome in Britain as the British were in India. (Quartered Safe Out Here, 179-80)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

My Favorite Films of 2008

Advent is upon us and the year is winding down. With that in mind, I thought it might be time for the second annual "Aaron's Top Films of the Year." No, these are not my favorite films that came out in 2008; I do not see nearly enough to compile a list like that. No, these are my favorite films that I have seen this year.

Since I had a trifecta last year, I see no reason to break the habit.

The first of our winners is the 1990 Whit Stillman work of genius, Metropolitan. Stillman, a fan of Jane Austen, presents us with a comedy of intellect and manners, or perhaps of "mannerlessness". (As one critic points out, a comedy of manners usually turns upon the inadequacy of traditional manners in the modern world; Metropolitan instead points out the enduring value of such customs in a world that has forgotten them.) The story follows the lives of a group of upper-class New Yorkers ("urban haute bourgeoisie" or UHBs) and Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), an outsider. Tom initially provides a sense of distance, but is increasingly drawn into the circle as the plot unfolds. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay but has otherwise received little attention. A tragedy, I say.

Whit Stillman - whose other works include equally unknown Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) - has been claimed as an influence upon Wes Anderson (Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic) and Jason Reitman (Juno). In all of them I think you can find certain similarities: quirkiness and a kind of post-modern traditionalism.

If the trailer did not do it for you, try this clip with some dialogue about socialism. (There are some zingers in the film about literary criticism, but I could not find the clip. In any case, there is no point in ruining all the best lines.) And if you would care to read more about Stillman's films, check out Doomed Bourgeois in Love, a collection of essays by such lights as Mark C. Henrie, David M. Whalen, R. V. Young and Peter Augustine Lawler.

The two other films have a certain amount in common, both being stories of lonely couples - one or both of whom are away from their native land - who discover something in someone special. And yet, neither film is quite the standard story you might expect with that set-up.

Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003) tells the tale of Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), two Americans who meet in Japan. Some people have said that Bill Murray always plays the same character: depressed, quiet, witty. Perhaps that is true, and perhaps it is out of place some times. But not here: Murray nails the role.

In talking to others, I find that those who have lived or studied abroad, by themselves, connect with this film in a particular way: the isolation of being in a foreign land can be terribly oppressive. To suddenly discover someone - not to mention a romantic interest - in a situation like that would be a godsend.

My third winner this year is John Carney's Once (2007). If you pay careful attention, you will notice that the main characters in this film, a man played by Glen Hansard and a woman played by the lovely Markéta Irglová, have no names, at least none that are ever given. (The credits list them as "Guy" and "Girl.") It is one of several clues that this is very much a fairy tale, a story of few characters, enacting eternal and archetypal themes.

Set in Dublin, our young couple is brought together by their shared love of music, playing and writing together. Which is fun because Hansard and Irglová - who have become romantically involved in real life - actually wrote and performed the film's music. The result is a work of art which, if sometimes a little rough around the edges - neither lead had any major acting experience and the total budget was a minuscule $160,000 - is strong on pathos and rings quite true.

Finally, while I saw plenty of other quality films in the last year, an honorable mention goes out to Amazing Grace (2006), a period piece about William Wilberforce and the abolition of the British slave trade. History, politics and virtue: what more do you want?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Banality Dressed up as Provocation

When the Financial Times says your English Department is idiotic, you're probably doing pretty bad. Well, that is exactly what has happened to Harvard.

Harvard's plans to change their required courses, "reveal a confusion about what a college English department is suppose to do," writes Christopher Caldwell.

Under the new regime, students will take courses in four “affinity groups” or “common-ground modules”: “Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions” and “Shakespeares”. Two of these (“Poets” and “Shakespeares”) are consistent with English as it has been taught at Harvard for a century. The other two are not. “There is no such thing as writing that is indigenous or ‘native’ to England,” runs a copy of the department’s guidelines for “Arrivals” obtained by the Harvard Crimson. “All the great writing between the 7th and the 12th century is produced by invaders and immigrants who knew that ‘they’ came from somewhere else.” This is a banality dressed up as a provocation. English literature surveys have always stressed the influence on English writers of foreign ones.... If literary influences were what Harvard wanted to stress, there would be no reason to scrap its current approach. “Arrivals” appears to be a pretext for teaching more about migration, building a bridge to the doctrines of post-colonial and cultural studies in which the many professors are heavily invested. The description of “Diffusions” reveals similar preoccupations: “What is this nation, ecosystem, town, region, community, continent? What does it mean to belong to a where, and what are the signs, and forms, and idioms, of belonging – and unbelonging.”

Caldwell is left to conclude that "The goal is to take the most superficial, unliterary and easily politicised aspects of the study of English and pretend they are the throbbing heart of the whole enterprise." Yet it was not always so. "Harvard’s English department was always relatively conservative," but by the 1980s "roughly half the faculty pined for an English department more like Yale’s or Princeton’s, which were quicker to embrace 'deconstruction', 'theory' and cultural studies. Freed of the need to master, say, Milton, junior faculty could devote their reading hours to continental semioticians."

Today, a note to would-be majors on the Harvard English website shows that theory has won there, too: “To ask how and why writers of different times and places have represented men and women (or the rich and the poor, or the coloniser and the colonised) as they have done is the question that compels cultural studies – a form of history and anthropology combined.” This is Harvard’s invitation to “the best that has been thought and said”? Even 25 years ago, we assumed that spending four years with Shakespeare, Donne and Keats was self-evidently “worth it”. Yet here is someone in the English department who feels that, to appeal, English literature must be passed off as anthropology.

An accusation that has beset English since it caught on as an academic discipline in the 1850s is that it is idleness masquerading as scholarship. This view was once held to be the badge of hard-headed businessmen and other philistines. But all those who believe that English is not a real field of study until it is garlanded with practical or political concerns embrace a version of it, even if they do so from the heights of a university English department.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Religion as Contract

I was sitting yesterday morning in a review session for one of my law school exams. We were analyzing a hypothetical problem (based on a real-life case) in which a Catholic priest delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon at the funeral of a young homosexual man who died in a tragic accident. The priest seems to have restated the Catholic Church’s position on the sinfulness of homosexual acts, albeit in rather stark and indelicate terms. The parents then sue the priest for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

I don’t want to discuss the legal issues, because I simply don’t know enough about the 1st Amendment (freedom of speech and free exercise of religion) at this point to give an adequate answer. I also don’t want to discuss the priest’s behavior. Rather, I want to discuss the reactions of some of my classmates for what it reveals about their attitude toward religion. Some of them, in order to find the priest liable, analyzed the case not from the perspective of tort law, but of contract law. Their basic argument was that the family had hired the Catholic Church to hold a funeral Mass for their son and that the priest, the Church’s agent, had breached the contract by delivering a sermon critical of their son’s conduct. My classmates, however, failed to make clear what the essential terms of such a contract are. The contract would look something like the following:

“We, the bereaved parents, pay the Church/priest valuable consideration of X in exchange for the service of saying nice things about our son in front of our friends and family at his funeral Mass. Furthermore, the views of the Church with regard to our son’s conduct are irrelevant and therefore not to be mentioned.”

I find such a contract, and the underlying view of religion, disturbing for two reasons. First, this contract reduces religion to a matter of mere personal choice. Joining the Church (or any other religion, for that matter) has no ontological effect on the individual which would make leaving problematic. Baptism, in this scheme, means just getting wet, and Confirmation is just getting some nasty oil rubbed on one’s forehead.

Second, according to this contract, the Church has absolutely no right to speak on important moral issues. If a member of the Church says he disagrees with certain teachings, no priest could present the Church’s teaching in a forceful manner for fear of a lawsuit. At the same time, the Church would be required to be at the beck and call of all her members. The Church bears all the obligations of the contract, and the individual member bears none.

I think the root problem of this “contractual” view of religion is that it doesn’t even rise to the level of a real contract. Any other contract this one-sided would be voided by a court for unconscionability. The individual demands complete autonomy and freedom, and the Church is told to recognize that. The Church cannot demand anything of the individual, but the individual can demand everything of the church.

Even a real contract, however, between man and Church/God would not be enough. The ancient Romans were said to regard religion as a matter of do ut des: I give so that you give. This at least is a contract; both sides are required to do something for the other party. Such an attitude, though, should strike any Catholic as somehow vulgar, at the very least. Who am I to demand anything from God, if He made me? Can I take Him to court if He doesn’t perform as I expect?

Such a contractual view of religion appears even in the Old Testament, in some misguided understandings of covenant, and still crops up today. It is for some reason extremely hard to avoid. I am referring to the so-called Deuteronomic theory of history, which views all evil as a direct punishment from God for failing to live up to the terms of the covenant. This theory was refuted first in the Book of Job, and later in the death of Jesus. Jesus taught that the sun rises for the just as well as the unjust man. Loving God in this life must be something more than a mere contractual duty, because God makes no guarantee that life will go as we wish, if we love Him.

Some may raise the objection that belief in the afterlife is merely a postponed performance. Yes, it is true that we believe that evil cannot conquer forever. However, the proper response is that we are to love God for His own sake, and not for our sake.

Anyway, I’ve gone on longer than I meant to. Just a few thoughts on contractual views of religion.

Monday, December 8, 2008

It Was Not Enough

- or -
Why I love the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

This morning I happened to be thinking about the concept of "priceless" on my way to school. It is a term the economists would generally avoid. Even a "priceless" work of art like the Mona Lisa can have a price placed upon it. If dollar values seem problematic, think of this: would an art museum trade a Michelangelo for the Mona Lisa? Five Michelangelos? What about ten? Sooner or later we could set a price.

But there are a handful of circumstances where something can truly be called "priceless", where someone is literally willing to pay any price. One of the most notable examples are the martyrs, who gave everything for their Christian faith. Even the most cynical economists would have to admit that, for the martyrs, the faith was priceless.

For various reasons my afternoon was frustrating and by the time I got to mass this evening I was in a rather foul mood. So as I was trying to pray before mass, I was not exactly thinking about what we are celebrating (in spite of the fact that today is the patronal feast for the United States). But as soon as mass began, I was reminded that today is a solemnity. We had three priests, in their finest vestments, clouds of incense, a choir, the gloria... Clearly, no ordinary feast.

As the liturgy unfolded, I began to remember what it is that we celebrate. God, in His goodness, created the world and created us in His own image. But it was not enough: when we fell, He chose to redeem us. But it was not enough: He chose to conquer death and raise us on the last day. But it was not enough: He chose to come among us as a man, sharing in our very nature. But even that was not enough: in His superabundant generosity He decided to preserve the mother of His Son from the stain of original sin. Not because He had to, but because He wanted to. That is how much He loves us.

It is very appropriate that this solemnity falls during Advent, since the Immaculate Conception is such a harbinger of things to come, like a course of appetizers so incredible you almost forget that an even better meal is coming. If this is what God has done for the woman who gave birth to His Son, what mighty deeds will this Child work? What things are yet to come?

Today we remember a lowly woman - a girl, really - who came from a tiny people on the fringe of the Roman Empire. She said "yes" to sharing in the plan of a God for Whom nothing seems to be quite enough when it comes to loving us. And she chose to share in His salvific work, irrespective of what it might cost her. (She knew full well it might cost her life; she probably did not know about the seven sorrows awaiting her, though in time she embraced these too.) For Mary, doing God's will was priceless.

This evening four religious sisters from Italy (belonging to a very young community called the Apostles of the Interior Life) renewed their vows at mass. And as they did so I realized that they too were giving everything to share in that same superabundant life of grace.

I am unashamed to say that I wept at the thought of it all. It was a wholly insufficient response to such a mystery, but then how can we ever adequately respond to the Almighty? Today we celebrate a God Who gives and gives and continues to give, because that is Who He is.

Some Thoughts on Reconstruction

I was recently doing some reading on Reconstruction and I happened upon a book review by Jean Edward Smith of Eric Foner's Forever Free in the CRB. The review had some real zingers, which I thought I would share:

The Civil War was not a war between the states and certainly not a war between sovereign nations. It was a treasonous rebellion mounted by the governments in eleven Southern states for the primary purpose of protecting slavery. It was suppressed by the United States Army after four years of bloody conflict. The bravery of those Confederate soldiers who fought to perpetuate the cause of slavery should not be disparaged. But it is for good reason that the rebel dead are not interred in cemeteries maintained by the United States.

Ouch! But I'm inclined to agree. Works like Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens' Cornerstone Speech demonstrate rather unambiguously that the war was about slavery from day one. Indeed, Smith notes that "today, to reject slavery as the Civil War's root cause is akin to denying the Holocaust." He's right; no serious historian would do either.

In an eloquent epilogue titled "the Unfinished Revolution," Foner charts the progress made during the civil rights era, which he calls the Second Reconstruction, and in the half-century since. He pays just tribute to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and alludes to John Kennedy's use of federal power to enforce integration at Ole Miss in 1962. He neglects President Eisenhower's more decisive action five years earlier when he ordered the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock, Arkansas, to compel compliance with a court order desegregating Central High. Although Eisenhower believed that the Supreme Court's original decision in Brown v. Board of Education was wrong, he took his Article II responsibility to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed" at face value. No focus groups were convened and no opinion polls were taken even though it was a presidential election year. Eisenhower responded instantly with overwhelming force to prevent mob rule. Had he not done so, desegregation in the South would have been set back at least a decade.

Eisenhower is one of the more underrated presidents and one I am increasingly coming to admire.

Among other things, [Foner's] ideological preconceptions keep him from recognizing the role of athletics and the large national chains in breaking down segregationist attitudes in the South. Wal-Mart is a favorite whipping boy for liberal activists, but it is also an equal-opportunity employer in which African-American shoppers no longer are required to step aside for a white customer. Sam Walton put thousands of small merchants out of business in county seats throughout the rural South and he advanced the cause of racial justice in the process, just as McDonald's, another equal-opportunity employer, drove hundreds of segregated Mom and Pop greasy spoons to the wall.

But it has been athletics that has changed the face of the South. When Bear Bryant desegregated the Crimson Tide in 1971, every team in the Southeastern Conference followed suit. When the colleges and universities integrated their squads, the high schools did the same. It is sometimes difficult for ivory-towered academics like myself to appreciate the role of high school athletics in shaping the South's community values. But Friday night football and basketball are major social events. And it is almost impossible to retain the racial hostility that once came instinctively while cheering on the local team with young black men and women playing prominent roles.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Diplomacy of Brahms

I’ve enjoyed the recent reports of Condoleezza Rice playing the piano for the Queen of England in a chamber performance. It’s nice to see an American as important, influential, and busy as Rice, also be so “accomplished,” in Austen terms, with such an appreciation of music – and using it in the service of diplomacy, we might guess.

But the reports, intriguingly, also suggest that she favors Brahms as a composer, and certainly she played a Brahms quintet in this recital. Perhaps Brahms is the choice of pianists. As a non-pianist, I am rather at a loss. His sonatas and other chamber music for strings have never quite made sense to me. Only the second movement of his first sextet ever seemed to have a clear, unified meaning, possibly because, it being a theme and variations, he never goes far from the melody. (Here’s an impossible version of the piece – from Star Trek!) Ordinarily, in his symphonies and so forth, it seems Brahms presents, brilliantly, a wonderful, memorable melody but then begins layering harmonies, countermelodies, modulations, until all one experiences is a wash of saccharine sound that leaves you with no footing. There’s no substance, just sugar! Certainly his music always has a structure, but often, unless the listener studies theory, he won’t see it, he won’t experience it.

Perhaps that’s what he wants. Brahms is, after all, a romantic of the most quintessential sort, always exploring and revelling in emotions. George Bernard Shaw, in his usual way, put his disapproval of this method of expression rather bombastically: “The real Brahms is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary… He is the most wanton of composers… Only his wantonness is not vicious; it is that of a great baby… rather tiresomely addicted to dressing himself up as Handel or Beethoven and making a prolonged and intolerable noise.” And “Brahms is just like Tennyson, an extraordinary musician, with the brains of a third rate village policeman.”

I don’t know if the criticism of Tennyson was just – I leave that to the experts – but Shaw was hardly Brahms’ only critic. Tchaikovsky, his contemporary and fellow romantic, also denounced him as a “scoundrel” and “giftless.” Tchaikovsky’s music is also full of emotion, but it doesn’t have the same sweeping abandonment, near chaos, I associate with Brahms.

And yet something in his music must have put Brahms on the pedestal he held when he lived, and on which he still apparently exists, even in a most unromantic, skeptical society. Does that come through most clearly in his piano music? If Ms. Rice, and those who love him, would care to comment…

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Passion by Rote

In response to Aaron's post, I feel obliged to pass on this delectable analysis that I just cyber-stumpled upon:

Ever since the French Revolution, men have been taught to wear their passions like cockades — as visible political statements. Yet naturally one does not dress oneself by passion; one does so by habit and convention, or by deliberation; and so it is that these displays of passion are often somewhat inauthentic in their putative spontaneity.

(You can find the rest here, at The Joy of Curmudgeonry)

In sum, inauthentic (self-conscious) passion is a self-contradictory phenomenon. Just as Japanese soccer fans have to fake their enthusiasm, many people have to fake their political passions because our current politics sets great store on spontaneous passion.

The post about the French Revolution also raises the intriguing question of the role history plays in inspiring this fake passion. But, that's another post for another day.

Some Boring Numbers...

Just thought I'd mention that since this blog began in August we've had 838 visits (1,344 pageviews) from 300 unique visitors from twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia and sixteen foreign countries (well, if you count China and Taiwan separately) on four continents. And that's not even counting the folks who read The Guild Review through Google Reader or other feed services. So thanks to all our readers!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

On Japanese Soccer Culture

The Financial Times recently had a very interesting article on soccer in Japan, which has one of the best teams in Asia, if not the best. Some of the article related the ups and downs of particular players and matches, but the part I found most interesting was about the fans:

The odd thing was that Philippe Troussier, their French coach, seemed oddly gloomy throughout the tournament. On a windswept terrace at their Beirut hotel, he gave the sort of despairing, dyspeptic interview that usually indicates a manager is coming to the end of his tether.

Japan had no football culture, he moaned. There was none of the ruthless desire to win he had experienced during his years coaching in Africa....
Football existed in Japan before 1993 but not in a meaningful way. Before the J League was inaugurated, Saburo Kawabuchi, the head of the Japanese football federation, sent researchers round the globe to report back on issues such as fan behaviour, tactics and marketing.

In the short term, it worked – the J League boomed and the national team was set on its way to Asian supremacy.

The problem, though, is that what began as mimicry has remained just that – it has not taken root and become organic. Kawabuchi has spoken of fans losing their inhibitions when they enter a stadium, taking on different national characteristics in the style of their support. “They are Japanese living in their own country,” he said, “who have abandoned a little of their Japaneseness.”

But that is the issue: fans put on great shows of colour and noise that are impressive until the game starts, at which it becomes apparent that their spectacle is divorced from what is happening on the pitch: a goal is scored against a team, and their fans carry on their song without missing a beat.

Shunsuke Nakamura (pictured), Celtic’s Japanese winger, made the point indirectly in speaking of his love for the fans in Glasgow. “They let the players raise their level,” he said. “They’re amazing. Their cheers change in response to the play.” Which, implicitly, is not the case in Japan.

It is fandom learnt by rote.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Delighting in Beauty

When trying to make sense of the soul-less lives I see around me, I realized how few people take delight in beauty.

I think - I could be wrong about this - that the reason is that most people are atheists and egotists. Not in the sense that they would philosophically deny the existence of God or that they are haughty and pompous. But in their world there is no God and even the people around them are fairly uninteresting, unengaging. The cosmos is, for them, dead. If there is to be anything interesting in their lives, they have to generate it. (I am reminded, in stark contrast, of the scene near the end of That Hideous Strength where the pantheon of gods appears. The vibrancy of life they share with our human characters is just stunning.) For such atheists and egotists, it is hard to notice the beauty of a sunset, and even harder to see it as a love letter from a pursuing God. The very act of taking delight in something is to admit that we are not alone, that a world exists beyond ourselves.

For some of us, that is a great pleasure. But for many, that is hard to fathom. So my new goal is to share with others my delight in the world that is not me.

PS One of my favorite columnists, Susie Boyt, recently mentioned a collection of essays about the poetry of Keats, titled The Power of Delight, by John Bayley. Perhaps I shall pick it up some day.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Admiral - Trailer

My friend Chris Fulford over at Информация Informatsiya brought this trailer to my attention. Could be good.

Admiral (Адмиралъ) follows the story of Aleksandr Kolchak, played by Konstantin Khabensky.
From an article in the Washington Times:

To the Communists, he was an archvillain: a defender of the oppressors, a class enemy. And for decades, that's the way films and textbooks portrayed Adm. Kolchak, a leader of the fight to roll back the 1917 Russian Revolution, which gave birth to the Soviet Union. Now comes a $20 million state-supported movie epic that glorifies Kolchak as a failed savior of Russia. Such a reversal might seem odd, coming less than four years after Vladimir Putin was decrying the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

As it turns out, I've been reading a bit about about the North Russian Expedition sent by the West to aid Kolchak and like-minded figures. If you're bored, see J. F. N. Bradley’s Allied Intervention in Russia, John Sliverlight’s The Victor’s Dilemma, Robert Jackson’s At War with the Bolsheviks, Clifford Kinvig’s Churchill’s Crusade or Andrew Soutar's With Ironside in North Russia.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Fount of True Fellowship

With the 'holiday season' fast upon us, there will be much talk about what we celebrate. In spite of the general commercialization and secularization of our holidays, there is still a strong desire for the more meaningful things in life.

You will often hear people say that Christmas is about family, a time to be with those you love. This is true so far as it goes, but I would like to propose something a little different. You see, I think our notion of fellowship is deeply impoverished. The typical approach is to bring everyone together, pull ourselves up by our moral bootstraps and have quality 'family time.' Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. (Have you ever wondered why the bickering family at holidays is such a common image in films and other media?) Even at its best, this model can only do so much.

While living at the Quincy House, I saw very clearly that there is another form of holiday fellowship. Triduum and the Easter Octave were a marathon of liturgies and celebrations, leaving participants joyfully exhausted at the end of it all. Dear friends and good food and drink abounded, and ringing in our ears was John Chrysostom's declaration, "You, O death, are annihilated!" The greeting of choice, repeated time and again, was "Christ is risen!" To which the reply could be heard with gusto, "Indeed! He is risen!" This, I would suggest, was the true fount of our overflowing fellowship. We stood before the mystery and glory of the Resurrection and received a grace which we could not but share.

At the end of a nail-biting championship sporting event, you will often see fans of the winning side embracing one another, sometimes embracing total strangers around them. (I have been the recipient of the same sort of behavior when delivering the official word that school is closed for a snow day.) Why? Because their joy overflows and must necessarily be shared. If this is the instinctive response to winning a game (or getting a single day off from school), what must be the response to Christ conquering sin and death, or the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us?

So this Christmas, I would encourage you to keep that in mind. I am not suggesting that you call off your family dinner or forgo time with friends. But try spending a little more time in the overwhelming light of the mystery, and let your fellowship flow from that shared experience. It might just change your life.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Crafting New Positions for the GOP

Having mulled it over the last few days as I bike to and from school, I have decided that I quite agree with Lexington’s recent column in The Economist, “Ship of Fools” (13 November 2008): the future of the Republican Party and conservative politics cannot rest on ignorance and prejudice. If they are to have a future, it will be found in The Wall Street Journal and the Claremont Review of Books, not on Fox News. With the number of college graduates rising, the GOP cannot afford a declining percentage of this section of the electorate. Moreover, it is generally far easier to turn a complex policy position into a handy slogan, than to work the process the other way, teasing policy details out of mindless bumper sticker.

Some people, of course, might be happy to watch the Republican Party die. Let me suggest that a healthy two-party system is better for all Americans, on the left and on the right. The competition forces parties to make compelling arguments and win people over, rather than taking votes for granted.

So following Lexington’s lead, what kind of positions should the GOP begin articulating? Here are a few ideas:

On stem cell research: The Republican Party should fully support, and even happily fund, stem cell research. Just do it with adult stem cells; is that too much to ask?

On energy: The Republican Party should support diversification and fiscal environmentalism. Yes, we should drill in certain domestic locations. Yes, we should allow for the construction of new nuclear facilities (something that has been held up for decades for more political than regulatory reasons). And, yes, we should support low energy use and sustainability. Why? Because it is not only good for the environment, but it is also good business. Walmart is building some of the most energy efficient stores right now, for that very reason. Energy efficiency is not a bad thing.

On global warming: The Republican Party, following Bjørn Lomborg, should argue that trying to fix global warming is a sink hole for money; there are better ways to spend our funds. This does not mean global warming is - or is not - caused by human beings nor that it will – or will not – continue. The real question is what do we do with our scarce resources? Providing micronutrients to the Third World, liberalizing trade and fighting malaria are all likely to yield more gains than fighting global warming. If we undertake carbon emission reductions, it should be tied to business incentives, like the energy efficiency mentioned above.

On torture: The US should not torture. Period. It is contrary to human dignity and generally yields poor results anyway. Some will want to define what is, or is not, torture, and there is a real discussion to be had here. But the GOP should unmistakably underline that it opposes torture. There is nothing conservative about it. Dictatorship torture; the US does not.

On immigration: The multi-pronged approach that John McCain advocated – and then generally ignored or failed to articulate – is generally popular with the American people and is quite sensible. We need to be able to control our borders, know who comes and goes, and have some sort of minimum standards for people coming to work or study here (much less become citizens). But the process for coming here legally is a nightmare and surely needs to be reformed and speeded up. And we cannot kick out the 10 or 12 million illegal immigrants here, even if we wanted to; shy of having a police state, it is just not possible. Some sort of normalization process for them is in order.

On race: The Republican party opposed the Democrats on the question of slavery and fought a war to end it. There should be no room in the GOP for racial prejudice, explicit or implicit. Martin Luther King Jr. said that a man should be judged on the content of his character, not the color of his skin. On those ground, no form of racial discrimination, whatever its purpose, should be sanctioned by the government, including affirmative action.

On homosexuality: This is a tricky question for conservatives, and divides the movement’s libertarian wing from its traditionalist social conservative wing. Indeed, I sometimes find myself torn on what we ought to do politically with homosexuality. (The moral issues are fairly clear in my mind. Just pick up your copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.) Should gay marriage be legal? It seems to me the word “marriage” itself is what traditionalists are most eager to defend, that is, some notion of the sacrament in question. While there are gay activists on the far left who will not rest until they too can be legally married, it is my impression that most gay couples are more interested in matters of benefits, visitation rights and other legal issues. If they want the imprimatur of some person in authority administering vows, let them find a minister of their liking who will do the deed. But if the state is delivering equal legal benefits, I see no reason it has to recognize those vows. A tricky compromise, perhaps, but I have not yet seen a better suggestion.

With regards to the particular question of gay adoption, it seems to me that, so long as we allow single-parent adoption, adoption by gay couples must also logically follow. (What do they lack that a single parent has?) Thus, we should give priority to - if not outright require - adopting couples composed of both a man and a woman. From a legalistic perspective, this is not a matter of sexual orientation, per se; instead, it is an effort to secure the well-rounded development of children, who need both a father and a mother.

On evolution: Frankly, I have been disappointed by the discussion – or lack there of – on this point. There are generally two schools of thought: either Genesis is literal and, if it comes down to it, science be damned; or evolution occurred over billions of years and you can keep your Genesis account as a metaphor (which is a polite way of saying “irrelevancy”) but that is all. Some of this has to do with the breakdown of our ability to really think about myths and their meanings. I feel like there is a conversation that needs to happen here before we can have a sensible, conservative position we can pitch to the American people.

Coupled with a few cornerstones of contemporary conservative politics - low taxes, free trade, right to work (open shops), opposition to abortion, local control of education and strong national defense - I think the positions outlined above might not only be able to create an electoral majority, but might even produce some good policy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

The Anglo-Indian film Slumdog Millionaire has been receiving positive press from National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal and others. Written by Simon Beaufoy and directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire stars newcomers Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, with music by A. R. Rahman.

Friday, November 14, 2008


I, for one, am looking forward to this. Perhaps it has something to do with my fondness for William Pene du Bois' The Twenty-One Balloons.

Special thanks to Nick over at The Trifector for bringing this to my attention.

Monday, November 10, 2008

An Ancient Approach to Political Warfare - Part II

Continued from Part I.

Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, contends that “since the objective of rhetoric is judgment… we must have regard not only to the speech’s being demonstrative and persuasive, but also to… bringing the giver of judgment [i.e. the audience] into a certain condition” (2.1). This requires an understanding of the audience and the sorts of things to which they are attentive; thus, Aristotle spends all of Section 7 discussing the possible characters of men who may hear a speech. The rhetors of the Old Testament understood that their audience valued history and historical continuity; thus, they made a point of framing their message in these terms, often invoking the prophecies of old.

This approach to appropriating tradition for propagandistic purposes was not unique to the Greeks or Hebrews, but can be found all over the ancient world. Philip M. Taylor contends that “Rome lacked the rich mythological sources available to Greek propagandists, so it created a mythology of its own” (35) This is, in fact, a sloppy simplification of a far more interesting process: Virgil’s Aeneid did not so much create a mythology as weave together several pre-existing stories of Rome’s founding – one by Aeneas and the Trojan survivors, another by the twins Romulus and Remus – in a way that supported the imperial government. Put another way, he appropriated a tradition, drawing upon its elements and then going beyond it to cover new ground.

Kautilya, an ancient Indian thinker, was a contemporary of Aristotle’s, though 3,000 miles away. He too understood the importance of appropriating tradition and discussed it in his Arthashastra, a handbook of statecraft. He explains that a king who has recently conquered new territory should “adopt the way of life, dress, language and customs of the people, show the same devotion to the gods of the territory [as to his own gods] and participate in the people’s festivals” (13.5.8; Rangarajan’s 741). Note that Kautilya is not interested in any particular quality of local customs, except that they are local and most likely beloved by the people. Though it is highly unlikely that Kautilya ever heard of Aristotle or his work, both demonstrated the same finesse for understanding an audience and the things that will favorably dispose it.

Modern-day practitioners of propaganda and political warfare would do well to learn from the ancients this lesson of appropriation. Americans, in particular, living in a relatively young nation that is more oriented toward the future than the past, tend to undertake their efforts without first asking themselves if there is already a pre-existing tradition whose terms and concepts they might adopt in order to lend their arguments new credibility. This, of course, requires the effort of first learning about foreign traditions and schools of thought, but the price is well worth it.

One of the uncomfortable qualities of Mason’s work is that it raises a difficult problem: what are we to make of an Old Testament that often bears a striking resemblance to propaganda, but which is claimed to in fact be the Word of God? An understanding of the appropriation of tradition helps us resolve some of this dilemma. A God Who acts in human history, Who stoops to make Himself known to mankind, can be expected to reveal Himself in a way that is conducive to the human mind. This is not so much God acting like a man, as it is God speaking to men; the Divine Rhetor understands His audience quite well and tailors His message accordingly. The point may be illustrated in regards to the earlier example of the lands promised to Abraham. God, in drawing a spiritual parallel between Abraham and Solomon, also draws a geographic one, not because the geography is or is not historically correct, but because the human mind appreciates and naturally grasps this sort of physical parallelism. Aristotle and Kautilya would understand the technique; there is no reason we should not.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

An Ancient Approach to Political Warfare - Part I

In his work Propaganda and Subversion in the Old Testament, Rex Mason makes regular reference to ‘prophecies after the event,’ (vaticinia ex eventu). Mason’s reading of these accounts is rather straightforward: such prophecies were written after the events they predicted and function as legitimizing propaganda, either for a status quo power or for forces of change.* While this may be the case with some prophecies, particularly those whose level of detail cannot otherwise be explained (at least by human factors), there are a variety of other prophetic occasions which allow for a far more nuanced understanding of political warfare as waged in the Old Testament. The appropriation of a pre-existing tradition, rather than the creation of one out of whole cloth, not only provides valuable insights for modern-day political warfare practitioners, but also begins to resolve some of the tension between the human and divine elements of the Old Testament narrative.

In Genesis 15, Abraham is promised the “land from the river of Egypt as far as the great river Euphrates,” including the land of the “Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites and Canaanites.” Mason points out that “these are the very borders ascribed to Solomon’s rule at the height of his fortunes: ‘Solomon exercised rule over all the kingdoms from the River [i.e. the Euphrates], to the land of the Philistines, that is, as far as the border of Egypt’” (33-4; internal quotation from 1 Kings 4:21). Mason comments that “the parallel between the ideal boundary claimed in royal propaganda for Solomon and the extent of land promised to Abraham in the ‘prophecy’ cannot be coincidental,” and concludes that “the stories of Abraham have an element of royal ideology in them” (34). However, an alternative reading of this parallelism is plausible.

It is quite possible that the story of the land promised to Abraham predated the Davidic monarchy; even if some editing has occurred between the Davidic-era version and the one that has come down to us, the essential details – including the borders of the lands promised to Abraham – may have already been set down. In such a case, Solomon would not have created the account of earlier events to match his kingdom, but shaped the perception of his kingdom to imply continuity with the past. Without realizing, Mason himself seems to have considered this possibility when he notes that the boundaries claimed by Solomon were “very largely fancy, for Solomon’s ‘empire’ (if such it may be called) certainly did not extend as far nor did he receive tribute from as many nations,” as named in the Abrahamic prophecy (34).**

A host of similar cases can be found in Mason’s work. He contends, for example, that the accounts of the Israelite tabernacle are “clearly influenced by the later Jerusalem temple,” in an attempt by priestly editors to write the central role of the temple into earlier history (57). While this interpretation is possible, Mason’s chronological gymnastics are hardly necessary to understand the parallelism between the tabernacle and the temple. Just as likely, priestly or royal personnel involved in the construction of the temple reached into Israelite history and consciously drew upon the example of the tabernacle, in order to imply continuity with the past, even if the temple in fact marked a shift in Israelite spirituality, as Mason argues.

Coming soon: Part II.

* I employ the term ‘propaganda’ throughout in the same way Mason does, to indicate ‘the presentation of material so as to express a particular belief or set of beliefs in such a way as to command assent to it from those to whom it is addressed’ (170). Thus, ‘propaganda’ is a neutral term referring to a method, not to the truth or falsehood, justice or injustice of the cause being promoted.

** To be fair, Mason does not explicitly advocate the position that these prophecies were completely fabricated after the fact; rather, he leaves the issue of their original material largely untouched, and appears not to have thought about this question in a systematic way. Thus, we find him at one point claiming that “the priests were creating a social order” (63) and then turning around and writing that the priests “skillfully preserved continuity with what had gone before” (64, emphasis added).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Work, Prayer and Leisure

The other day I was kneeling in my pew before the start of mass. Having said all I had to say to God, I sat down to await the entrance of the priest. And that is when I realized that I had just spent the last five minutes telling the Lord about the two different approaches to my research status report and why a lot of footnotes would really make sense in this particular case.

Now perhaps this was simply an example of me being too tired and too caught up in my studies to focus on my prayer. In fact, I am rather certain that explains at least part of my strange conversation with the Almighty. But I would like to suggest that there may have been something else at work as well.

Some years ago I was creating a folder on my computer for all of my school papers and things. Following the example of "My Documents" I named this one "My Work." But after a time I came to see my studies as far more than monotonous labor, or even passably interesting labor. I came to see it as a calling, and I renamed the folder "My Prayer." You see, for me, studying is not simply something I do; it is existentially part of who I am. Thus, when, on my good days, I offer my studies to the Lord, I am giving Him myself. Not all of us are called to be academics, but all of us have a calling, a vocation, and not just in the sense of married life or religious life. We all have passions, talents, things we love to do; many of us will find ourselves making a career out of them. Offered to God, this can be more than work; it can be prayer.

Related to, but separate from, this line of thought, I would like to propose another. Studying is, for me, not really work at all, but leisure. Oh, of course, there are those days when I am not keen on reading yet another article on the gendering of intercolonial trade in 18th century Burmudan literature, but on the whole, study is a kind of leisure. It is not just a matter of numbers - that a majority of the time I enjoy rather than loath my studies, and therefore they must be leisure - but something more fundamental.

Josef Pieper defines leisure as "an attitude of mind and a condition of the soul that fosters a capacity to perceive the reality of the world." I have neither the time nor the desire to flesh out his whole argument here, so I suggest you pick up a copy of Leisure, the Basis of Culture, one of the great works of the 20th century. In it he contends that religion can only be born of leisure, wherein man finds the time to contemplate Nature and the Divine.

Now, admittedly, the mechanics of footnotes is not quite the same thing as contemplation of the Divine. Still, study is - or at least ought to be - oriented to a right perception of the reality of the world. And who better to tell about my halting attempts to understand the world than its Maker?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why I Love Puddleglum

I was recently reminded of a scene from The Silver Chair, after having a rather depressing conversation with several colleagues who were happily convinced that their soulless lives of drink and loose women were as good as it gets.

Do you remember the scene in the underworld where the witch is trying to cast a spell upon our heroes, trying to convince them that they have simply imagined the real world above? She tries to tell them that they have looked at a lamp and imagined a larger one, and called it "the sun"; they have seen her cat and imagined a greater one, and called him "Aslan." She has just about got them convinced when Puddleglum stamps out her magical fire with his webby foot and proceeds to give one of the greatest speeches in all literature:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only real world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.

~Puddleglum, The Silver Chair, Chapter XII: The Queen of the Underworld

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Shield of Faith

In today's first reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, we heard about the "shield of faith" (Ephesians 6:16). In the ancient world, the shield went through a number of phases. In the heroic age, individual combat was the rule and a champion generally employed his shield without respect to others. But from time to time, one hero's shield would come to the aid of another, as in Book XI of the Iliad:
Three times [wounded Odysseus] called, as much voice as a man's head could hold,
and three times Menelaos the warlike heard him shouting
and immediately spoke to Aias, who was near by him:
'Son of Telamon, seed of Zeus, Aias, lord of the people...
let us go to [patient Odysseus] through the battle...'
Now Aias came near him, carrying like a wall his shield,
and stood forth beside him, and the Trojans fled one way and another.
Then taking Odysseus by the hand warlike Menelaos
led him from the battle...
(XI.462-5, 469, 485-8)
And so the mighty Aias the Greater used his shield to protect Odysseus and pull him back to the safety of the Greek camp.

In classical Greece, warfare was no longer about heroic individual combat, but massed infantry, called a phalanx (seen left).  Discipline, holding the line, was key.  In this age, soldiers carried large round shields, the upper lip of which rested on their shoulder.  Because the shield was on his left arm, a soldier (called a hoplite) was well-protected on the left side, but his right was a little bare.  Here he depended upon the man to his right, and in turn the man to his left depended upon him.  Thus, if one man ran, the man to his left would be exposed and he too would run. Soon the whole line would fold.

In the Roman Republic, the manipular formation replaced the old Greek phalanx. Shields once again became an individual matter, tall rectangular things that did not overlap much with one's neighbor. But in certain situations (usually when storming enemy fortresses) the Roman legions would sometimes form a so-called tortoise formation (seen below), holding up their shields to create a box, protecting everyone inside.

Well, you can probably see where this is going... St. Paul not only spoke Greek, but could even quote the Greek poets (Acts 17:28). So whether he had in mind the epics of Homer, the battles of classical Greece or the contemporary military practice of the Romans, when he wrote the phrase, "the shield of faith," there would have been a communal quality attached to it. Faith is by its very nature intercessory: it not only protects us from "the flaming arrows of the Evil One," but we are also called to reach out with that faith to protect those around us. It is not always a fun thing to do - indeed, sharing our shield of faith in the midst of battle can be dangerous - but St. Paul seems to be calling us to nothing less.