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.