Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Do Wars Make States? - Part II

Continued from Part I

In the case of the United States, the kind of fiscal-military pressures outlined above were instrumental in the development of the young republic. Though possessing a militia tradition and certain resources, the colonies were without significant armed forces at the outbreak of the Revolution. As a result, military and financial institutions had to be created, institutions which gave substance to the new state. “The first central administrative organs of American government came into being during the conflict… They were almost exclusively military or fiscal in their function” (Bruce Porter, War and the Rise of the State, 251).

Even after the fighting of the Revolution was over, other military demands remained, ensuring that the national government, with the authority to “exercise clear priorities” over local institutions, did not slip into powerlessness. Ongoing military threats, both foreign and domestic (such as Shays’ Rebellion), were a major consideration in one of the earliest and greatest political changes in American history: the adoption of the Constitution. “Nationalist leaders… pressed the case for a central government largely on military grounds, arguing that individual states could not wield adequate forces for either defense or the maintenance of order” (Porter 252). The resulting document reflected this emphasis on war powers: “Of the eighteen clauses defining the powers of Congress, nine directly concerned military affairs” (Porter 253).

War not only created important American state institutions, but also helped form American ideology. “The proximate causes of the American revolt were military in substance, stemming from Britain’s attempt to maintain a permanent military force in the western territories of the colonies” (Porter 249). Moreover, the onset of violence helped push colonists off the fence and into one of the two emerging camps. “Each time an American died so did some part of moderation” (Robert Middlekauff, quoted in Porter 248). Finally, the shared experience of war helped to bond together colonies which had previous viewed themselves as separate entities. “At the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, Nathaniel Greene from Rhode Island led a Virginia division, while Anthony Wayne of Pennsylvania commanded troops from New Jersey. This arrangement, unthinkable at the onset of the war, epitomized the unifying effect of military service” (Porter 250-1).

Several thinkers have pointed out that, by placing considerable demands upon the population of a state, warfare changes the relationship of a population to its government.
Reliance on mass conscription, confiscatory taxation, and conversion of production to the ends of war made any state vulnerable to popular resistance, and answerable to popular demands, as never before. From that point onward, the character of war changed, and the relationship between warmaking and civilian politics altered fundamentally (Tilly 83).

In the case of the United States, Bruce Porter notes that “over half the states broadened the franchise during or shortly after the [Revolution]” (251). The general argument is that “universal and compulsory military service” implies “democratic forms of government,” with soldiers demanding political and social rights in return for their service (Eliot Cohen, Citizens and Soldiers, 117). While this is one possible outcome, as the American example shows, there are reasons to doubt that the states produced by war will necessarily or even usually be democratic. Authoritarian sentiment, limited service and militaristic populism all militate against pro-democratic forces.

Adam Smith pointed out that a “‘well-disciplined and well-exercised standing army’ will always be superior to a militia composed of men accustomed to liberty” (Cohen 119). Thus, the desire for victory may bring with it certain undemocratic elements, among them authoritarian discipline. Smith believed that “if the sovereign is commander-in-chief and the nobility and gentry of a country make up the officer corps, a country need have little fear of military dictatorship,” since would-be dictators would have a stake in the system and would therefore be reluctant to overthrow it (Cohen 120). In a democratic system, high pay and social status go some way to ensuring that officers feel invested in the system; however, extraordinary political powers for military leaders would be at odds with the political equality of democracy.

Moreover, Cohen’s argument that universal service military service leads to democracy assumes that war imposes universal service, which is not always the case. Wars may simply be too small to require such outpouring of civic service. Or societies may choose, for reasons distinct from the conflict itself, to limit the size of their military forces. Smith contended that in a commercial society no more than 1% of the population may be spared for military service without imperiling the economy (Cohen 120).

“In the long run,” Tilly writes, “military requirements for men, money, and supplies grew so demanding that rulers bargained with the bulk of the population” (95). But bargaining does not always mean democracy. If the “bulk of the population” must buy in, significant minorities may still be left out or even oppressed. Moreover, populist militarism may win over the population with economic incentives or the glories of conquest, while still withholding participation in the political process. This is precisely what occurred in 19th century Germany. “The advent of the modern cadre/conscript army… was in no way coupled with political liberalism; indeed, the introduction of military service allowed the Prussian monarchy to subvert and eventually abolish the real military bulwark of Prussian liberalism, the voluntary Landwehr” (Cohen 124).

Thus, we see that the pressures of war drive the formation of states and their institutions, as happened in the United States. The need to mobilize a population for war may have democratic effects, but these can be counteracted by a variety of other forces.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Do Wars Make States? - Part I

Due to its high costs, war plays a major role in the formation of states, creating the need for an organization larger than the individual, family or tribe. This and the following post will consider that phenomenon and highlight the United States as a case study. While some scholars contend that war has a democratizing effect, I will argue that democracy is by no means the necessary outcome of the pressures of war.

War is a costly undertaking and has only become more so with changes in warfare. “Every thirteenth-century noble household owned swords, but no twentieth-century household owns an aircraft carrier” (Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990, 84). Mobilizing military power requires personnel, weapons and a considerable variety of supplies, things almost inevitably outside the resources of any single individual. Thus, Charles Tilly points out, “war and preparations for war involved rulers in extracting the means of war from others who held the essential resources – men, arms, supplies, or money to buy them” (15). In order to extract these resources and deploy them for war, states have emerged.

Before proceeding further, it may be useful to define what states are. Tilly describes them as “coercion-wielding organizations that are distinct from households and kinship groups and exercise clear priorities in some respects over all other organizations within substantial territories” (Tilly 1). Three elements of this definition are noteworthy. First, states wield coercion; while this may be domestically or abroad, by physical violence or other means, states are clearly in the business of force. Second, states are distinct from households and kinship groups; neither is sufficiently large to mobilize significant military forces. Third, states exercise priority over other organizations; it is precisely the state’s ability to extract resources from others, by persuasion or coercion, which gives it the ability to meet the demands of war.

When considering the origins of city-states, Lewis Mumford saw that “two great forces drive the growth of cities: the concentration of political power and the expansion of productive means” (Tilly 13). Both forces are required, or at least highly desirable, for an entity waging war. Political power enables taxation and conscription of citizens for military service; productive means increase a state’s ability to produce, and therefore deploy, war materiel. Tilly makes this point explicit when he argues that “the organization of coercion and preparation for war [should be] squarely in the middle of the analysis [of state formation]… State structures appeared chiefly as a by-product of rulers’ efforts to acquire the means of war” (14).

Failure in war has done much to drive the development of states, by destroying those states with few or weak institutions. However, success in war can also be a driver of state formation. “To the extent that [states] are successful in subduing their rivals outside or inside the territory they claim, the wielders of coercion find themselves obligated to administer the lands, goods, and people they acquire” (Tilly 20). These administrative obligations produce new taxes, new garrisons and new administrative mechanisms, which in turn reinforce the state and its ability to wage war.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ten Films to Get You in the Mood for Pulps Gaming!

I have a confession to make: I play miniature war games. Many years ago I got my start with these guys, though I never owned more than a handful. But now I've acquired an army of crusaders for this game, an army which is only slowly getting painted and assembled, but should take the field some time in the spring. However, there is yet a third genre of war gaming which has caught my fancy... Pulps. Yes, like the sleazy dime store novels. Well, sort of. Let me share the description of miniatures craftsman Bob Murch, whose figures you can see below and left:

Pulp Figures and Rugged Adventures are primarily designed for a fictionalized historical setting we call the 'Pulp Era'. The pulps were entertainment magazines of the early 20th century and reached their peak of popularity in the period between the first and second world wars. The pulp magazine venue introduced tough guy detective stories with famed characters like Sam Spade and Philip Marlow, occult action/adventure stories from authors such as Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan or Sax Rohmer of Dr. Fu Manchu fame. They also introduced the jungle fantasy adventures of Tarzan of the Apes. Within the pages of the pulps you might join an expedition into distant lands in search of a lost city. You might sail an airship through a polar gateway to a pre-historic world at the center of the earth. It was an action packed world of brave heroes standing alone against sinister villains plotting world conquest, tough dames, spies and even the occasional brilliant scientist with a newly invented rocket ship. It was a brightly coloured world of action packed, spine tingling adventure.

Is it any wonder that folks want to game this stuff? To get in the mood, I've assembled a few films:

Zulu (1964). Too late for the golden age of pulps, this classic film nevertheless has a lot of the key elements: Europeans in nifty uniforms, exotic setting, guns, danger, heroism... The Battle of Rorke's Drift was a tad early, but there are plenty of figures from slightly later decades of the British Empire.

The adventures of Indiana Jones (1981, 1984, 1989, 2008). This fedora wearing, whip wielding, Nazi (and Communist) fighting archaeologist is probably the most iconic pulp hero known to contemporary audiences. He's also the reason any game worth its salt had better include at least a smattering of these.

The Rocketeer (1991). Though this movie came out in 1991, I have never seen it. But clearly the film (and the comic books) were the inspiration for these guys.

Michael Collins (1996). Not exactly a pulp action film, this historical biopic is nevertheless set in a real conflict featuring soldiers and policemen, spies, guerrillas and gun-runners, and a real-life hero.

The Mummy and sequels (1999, 2001, 2008). High cinema? Probably but. But they feature archaeological adventurers. And a librarian. I don't know; maybe I just have a thing for librarians...

The Aviator (2004). It's a movie about Howard Hughes. Featuring a lot of amazing airplanes. Need I say more? Incidentally, this film references a film Hughes made about World War I: Hell's Angels (1930). Which might open the door to these guys. Alternatively, one could envision a scenario built around Hell's Angels involving these folks.

First on the Moon / Первые на Луне (2005). This fictional documentary of a Soviet lunar landing in the 1930s could be quite interesting, if one could get one's hands on a copy (which might not be easy). Space travel? you ask. Sure: mad scientists are a classic part of the genre. Soviets? Well, true, the Nazis are the totalitarians of choice, but sometimes they're so overused they get a bit out of hand.

The White Countess (2005). This is not really a pulp film; it's more of a historical drama. But it's set in one of the wildest cities of the 1930s: Shanghai. I think the film does a superb job depicting that world of American businessmen, Chinese warlords, Japanese spies, Jewish refugees and White Russian exiles that it deserves inclusion here.

Public Enemies (2009). There are plenty of gangster movies from which to choose. Indeed, Bonnie & Clyde (1967) might be a better film, but a gamer's interested in shootouts more than cinematography. Likewise, The Untouchables (1987) also deserves mention.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (2011). Nevermind that this film has not yet been released. The three comic books upon which it's based are quite fun and Tintin has more than enough pulp hero qualities: intelligence, bravado, world-wide travels and a faithful sidekick (even if he is just a dog).

Some people might worry that the pulp fiction genre - along with the movies and games it has spawned - is violent, racist, sexist and jingoistic. This is all probably true. I would, however, note two things. (1) Modern pulps tend to exaggerate, even caricature, these vices, reducing the danger that we might notice them, even while imbibing them. (2) Modern pulps knock-offs often caricature these vices to the point of mocking them. And it's rather hard to accept ideas you don't even take seriously.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Christmas Dream Tour

Do you ever put together dream tours, groups of musicians you'd just love to see together? Every now and again, these kind of miracles happen, as when Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson played together as The Highwaymen. Oh, that I might have seen that glorious combination...

But today I've been thinking about my dream Christmas tour: Sufjan Stevens, Rosie Thomas, Denny Witmer and The Innocence Mission. They're all friends, so I don't see why this couldn't happen. And just to get you in the mood...

Have a dream tour of your own (Christmas or otherwise)? Do share!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Intercession of Holy Women

Today is the feast of St. Jane Frances de Chantal. I must confess that I do not know that much about her, nor do I have any particular devotion to her. However, I do know that for her feast we use the Common of Holy Women, the intentions from Evening Prayer II of which I really like. I think they beautifully summarize the variety of vocations to which women (and, with minor variation, men) are called.

Through the intercession of holy women let us pray for the Church in these words:

Through all the women martyrs who conquered bodily death by their courage,
-strengthen Your Church in the hour of trial.

Through married women who have advanced in grace by holy matrimony,
-make the apostolic mission of Your Church fruitful.

Through widows who eased their loneliness and sanctified it by prayer and hospitality,
-help Your Church reveal the mystery of Your love in the world.

Through mothers who have borne children for the kingdom of God and the human community,
-help Your Church bring all men and women to a rebirth in life and salvation.

Through all Your holy women who have been worthy to contemplate the light of Your countenance,
-let the deceased members of Your Church exult in that same vision forever

St. Jane Frances de Chantal and all you holy women, pray for us!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Do the Editors of The Onion Read St. Augustine?

A recent headline from "America's finest news source," The Onion (New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths), brought to mind the first book of the Confessions, where St. Augustine reflects on his childhood, even trying to remember his own sins as an infant:

Who remindeth me of the sins of my infancy? for in Thy sight none is pure from sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth.
So, even a day-old baby is a sinner. But, just in case you think he was joking, St. Augustine continues:

Who remindeth me? doth not each little infant, in whom I see what of myself I remember not? What then was my sin? was it that I hung upon the breast and cried? for should I now so do for food suitable to my age, justly should I be laughed at and reproved.
But, you might object, how can an infant sin when it cannot knowingly choose sin? Well, any thoughts you might have had of the innocence of the young, St. Augustine rejects quite explicitly:

Or was it then good, even for a while, to cry for what, if given, would hurt? bitterly to resent, that persons free, and its own elders, yea, the very authors of its birth, served it not? that many besides, wise than it, obeyed not the nod of its good pleasure? to do its best to strike and hurt, because commands were not obeyed, which had been obeyed to its hurt? The weakness then of infant limbs, not its will, is its innocence.
A little later, just to make it clear that he was sinful even as an infant, St. Augustine cites Ps. 51 for support, interpreting it quite literally:

But if I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me, where, I beseech Thee, O my God, where, Lord, or when, was I Thy servant guileless?
Now, if you go back and read the article I linked, you might notice that the "study" sounds a lot like a modern, secularized version of St. Augustine's doctrine of original sin, and of the doctrine of concupiscence. The gist of St. Augustine's arugment and of the "study" is the same. Even the cutest little kids have seriously twisted wills, are self-centered, and manipulative. Even the quote near the end of the article stating that "the disorder is considered untreatable" meshes fairly well with St. Augustine (indeed, orthodox Christian theology, in general) that sin cannot be treated like a simple disease. (Incidentally, today's feast day reminds us that it takes a miracle to make a human being free of original sin.)

Of course, the writers at The Onion turn not to theologians for support, but to psychologists. Rather than invoking a set doctrine, they rely on studies and documented psychoses. They do not speak of the essence of man, but refer to the percentage of children suffering from a psychosis. They do not call for conversion, but rather for rehabilitation.

All in all, it was a striking resemblance, I thought.

Now, to finish, and to do the unspeakable: I will try to explain a joke. Why is the article from The Onion funny, at least to someone with a twised sense of humor like my own? It is funny because everybody today believes in a doctrine of original innocence of children, not original sin. The thought that St. Augustine might be correct would probably never occur to most of The Onion's readers. And that's a problem.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Your Smart Phone Is Making You Look Stupid

Many people - dare I say most? - today have "smart phones", mobile telephones which not only engage in telephony but also have cameras and lots of nifty applications, including email. Smart phone owners may feel very proud of themselves for being high tech, "with it" and, well, smart. Alas, I have bad news: your smart phone is making you look stupid.

The data which have led me to this conclusion have come from several sources over the last few months. The first are emails from my students. An unseemly number of emails - usually asking me to excuse their absences, raise their grades or otherwise do something nice for them - lack a proper salutation. Moreover, they usually lack capitalization. And some days the students really seem to be gunning for my ire, with messages such as, "when r u going to give back the essays?"

The second source of data is an international discussion forum - by invitation only - of highly educated people discussing matters of great importance. One might expect higher standards in such a place, even if it is only an online forum. However, while the incidents are rarer, it is not by a wide margin. Typos abound. Capitalization is frequently optional. And comments are frequently terse, with antecedents unclear and thoughts undeveloped.

A third source of data comes from students who spend their class time twittering, playing games or otherwise distracting themselves from the studies for which they/their parents/the taxpayers are spending good money.

There are, of course, logical explanations for all these occurrences. Classes are boring and, besides, the professor won't notice me texting the girl sitting next to me. The buttons on phones, no matter how generous, are not as large as those on a keyboard (which, oddly enough, are usually just a tad larger than one's fingertips), making typos a fact of life. And in an effort to curtail the frustrating and time-consuming process of typing on such a thing, shorthand is common. Finally, many smart phones simply are not capable of differentiating capital letters.

However, there are good reasons to dismiss all these explanations. The professor can see you and does think less of you for allowing the little gizmo in your hand to distract you from your studies. Many smart phones can do capital letters (though you usually have to press an extra button or two - what a time-waster!), making a lack of capitalization unacceptable. But more to the point: if you cannot craft an adequate business message on your phone, what business have you using it for business at all? If you think that the ability to send über-prompt messages will outweigh their sloppy contents, I assure you it does not. The only message that your terse communiques, sans capitalization, sends is that their contents were not of sufficient concern to you to bother sitting down at a computer and sending a proper email.

It would seem that I must amend my title statement. Your smart phone is not making you look stupid: it is revealing you for the idiot you are.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Celebrating Goodness

Thanksgiving will be here in just a few days and many of us will find ourselves sharing with family and friends those things for which we are thankful. I have noticed that, from time to time, people will formulate their thanks in a negative way. That is, instead of saying, "I am thankful for my health," they will say, "I am thankful for not getting sick this year." This is rarely intended and I probably ought not read too much into it, but it seems to be illustrative of a problem we sometimes have.

St. Augustine, when confronting the problem of evil, argues that evil does not exist. Literally. He contends that being is itself good. All things that are are good. If something seems to be evil, it is deficient in being; it does not as fully exist as a proper, good thing. If I have not yet entirely bastardized Augustine, we might put his concept into colloquial terms by saying that goodness is like heat: there is no such thing as evil (or cold), only the absence of good (or heat).

However, being thankful for "not getting sick" represents a kind of anti-Augustinianism. It places the emphasis on evil (in this case, sickness), and suggests that goodness is only the absence of evil, and not a thing in itself. This is a very dreary form of thanks, since it implicitly says, "The world is full of evil, but I have been lucky to avoid most of it." Such a statement says nothing about goodness, implicitly denying that one is thankful for it.

Last month I was in Dallas for the wedding of two of my classmates. After the reception a gaggle of alumni went out for drinks together at the Gingerman. One classmate suggested that we play a drinking game. I think mine were not the only eyebrows raised just a little. Drinking games, really...? But as our colleague explained, this "game" was different. The concept was simple enough: taking turns round the table, each person would sharing something they enjoy. The speaker, along with any others who enjoy the same thing, would take a swig of beer. Most drinking games are built on coercion: if you fail to do X, you must drink. This, it was explained to us, is a mistake. Drinking should be a joy, and should be associated with joyful things. It should be a celebration, not a punishment.

And a celebration it was. We shared joys from our undergraduate days together and from our more recent adventures in various places. Stories quickly came to the fore, stories about classes and pranks and epic road trips. We toasted academic nerdery and cute children, beloved friends and favorite places. It was more than mere thankfulness for the absence of ill in our lives: it was a celebration of real, active, vibrant goodness in our lives.

Photo credit: Today's picture comes from jypsygen's Flickr account. It is, admittedly, not from our trip to the Gingerman. But it is an authentic Dallas Gingerman photo, which counts for something, I think.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bavarian Baroque

I recently read an interesting poem, entitled "Bavarian Baroque," by Gail White:

At first it's like a painted teacup
inverted, this gold-scalloped dome
containing an apotheosis
of saints triumphant heading home

to God—a Beatific Vision
made relevant to mortal eyes
Then we discover in each cornice
angels, grotesque in shape and size,

in imminent danger of descending
onto our heads, their Sunday-best
huge wings precariously suspended,
hoping the tourists are impressed.

Faith is not like this, needs no laser
sculpture, no cheat-the-eye designs.
Baroque device is insufficient
to baffle unbelieving minds.

Faith was a gift that died with Gothic.
Only the rich medieval heart
(dazzled by love and drunk with logic)
could train the wild stone rose of Chartres.
First of all, here are a few pictures to give you an idea of the Baroque churches the poem is criticizing. These pictures comes from the church of St. John Nepomucene in Munich, often known as the Asamkirche, after the Asam brothers, two Baroque architects who built this chapel next to their house for their private use.

Since the church was originally intended as "just" a private chapel, the church is not set off from the surrounding buildings. In fact, the average pedestrian comes upon it like upon a store-front church. But, a Baroque store-front church is a little different from what we normally imagine in modern America.

The interior is even more impressive. The small size adds to the effect. Upon entering the church, a visitor is immediately confronted with this view:

If we look at some of the details, we see some of what the poet means when she speaks of "angels, grotesque in shape and size." This next picture features a saint surrounded by angels, and it certainly gives an idea of late Baroque style:

And now, the big question: Is the poem right when it says that "Faith was a gift that died with Gothic"? And, how does the supposed death of faith manifest itself in the Baroque?

To begin, I don't believe it's entirely fair to say that faith died with the Gothic. For instance, some of the Church's greatest mystics (e.g., St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila) lived during the Baroque period. Or, more a propos of this post, the Asam brothers built this church as their own private chapel out of their own private funds. Was their faith not a living faith? Moreover, the Gothic was not as free of some of the problems of the Baroque as the poet seems to think. Gothic church towers, for example, were often built to impress medieval "tourists." Just take a look here at the tower on St. Martin's church in Landshut, Germany (the tallest brick tower in the world). On the other hand, the early modern period of European history certainly did witness the spread of some anti-religious feeling, especially in the wake of the Thirty Years' War, and even saw the origins of modern atheism (e.g., Spinoza). Do Baroque art and architecture reflect this decline of faith in some way?

The poem does give some clues as to how the Baroque might reflect the death of Europe's faith. The poet's main complaint about the Baroque seems to be that it relies too heavily on cheap tricks to make us believe in God--"cheat-the-eye designs" and "Baroque device." The Baroque tries but cannot even "baffle unbelieving minds." In other words, the Baroque tries unsuccessfully to confuse us and then tries unsuccessfully to persaude us that our state of confusion is really faith. Mere confusion would seem to be a rather weak foundation for our faith.

In response to this danger of conflating confusion and faith, the poet points in the last verse to the Gothic's passion for logic. Though she does not elaborate much on this statement, White seems to be asserting that clear thought and faith are not incompatible, and are indeed indispensable to each other.

Another possible problem with the Baroque--hinted at in the phrase "hoping the tourists are impressed"--is that the Baroque also relies heavily on "shock and awe" tactics. The sheer size of the statues, the many-colored marbles, the extravagant use of gold plating, are all designed to overwhelm us, make us feel small, and thereby induce us to worship the all-powerful God. Shock and awe was certainly my initial reaction the first time I stepped inside, or even into the colonnade at, St. Peter's in Rome. But again, White seems to be asserting that merely feeling small is not a solid foundation for our faith.

This poem, then, leaves us with the question whether the feelings of bafflement and shock and awe which the Baroque sought to produce are inimical to genuine faith. I am still not entirely sure that White's historical analysis--the contrast between Gothic and Baroque--is true in every detail, but I do believe that she has hit upon two important points. First, she at least partially explains why so many people criticize and are left cold by "Baroque excess." People see through the tricks and the impression of power. Second, she gives two valid warnings about certain weak foundations of faith. Faith is more than just confusion or feeling small.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fleet Foxes

This past summer, while living at Quincy and doing research at the National Archives, I had a chance to see the Fleet Foxes at the 9:30 Club. Who are the Fleet Foxes, you ask. A fair question. I described them to my family thus:

They're a high-energy alternative folk band featuring lots of harmonizing. (Four of the five guys in the band do vocals.) Imagine the Beech Boys had a folk conversion, grew beards and moved to West Virginia for a couple years. That would give you something of an approximation.

Let's be honest: concerts are loud. Too loud, in my opinion. But while the 9:30 Club's audio engineer kept the volume at its usual level, the effect was something different. The concert felt like being hit by a solid wall of harmony. Loud, yes, but far more than just noise. Aja Pecknold, sister of the band's front man, describes a similar experience:

The first time I heard “Boots of Spanish Leather,” it was as if all of the oxygen had been drained from the room, suddenly replaced with the wavering golden longing of this one song.

I've included a few YouTube videos, for your viewing pleasure. Above is "He Doesn't Know Why," from their self-titled album. Below is "Blue Ridge Mountains" from the same.

And then there's this one, "White Winter Hymnal," with some slightly scary claymation, but a really awesome song:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I take the war list and I run down it,
name after name, which I cannot read,
and which we who are older than you
cannot hear without emotion;
names which will be only names to you, the new College,
but which to us summon up face after face,
full of honesty and goodness,
zeal and vigor,
and intellectual promise;
the flower of a generation,
the glory of England;
and they died for England
and all that England stands for.

And now by tragic necessity
their dreams have become yours.
Let me exhort you: examine yourselves.
Let each of you discover
where your true chance of greatness lies.

For their sakes,
for the sake of your College and your country,
seize this chance,
rejoice in it,
and let no power or persuasion
deter you in your task.

-Master of Caius, Chariots of Fire

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Life in the Spirit, Part III: First Things Last

Continuing from Parts I and II...

One of the best ways of discerning the workings of the Holy Spirit is in conjunction with others. This is part of the reason why Rome supports the Charismatic Renewal through the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships, an organization under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. I mentioned the Catholic Fraternity in my first post, but did not elaborate on its significance. This is not just an organizational matter. Discerning the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is not something one learns overnight. Some people attend a single prayer meeting, are told they have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and are then released out into the world, without explanation, without formation and without the support of a community. This is at odds with natural common sense and with God's revelation in the Church, which unites its many members in a single body. Thus, charismatic prayer ought not be separated from community life and the guidance of holy and mature leaders.

Like all aspects of our faith, we should remember that the charismatic life does not happen in a vacuum. As mentioned above, we must be faithful to reading the Scriptures and listening to God's voice there if we also want to hear Him in our hearts. We must be striving to grow in virtue: in patience, generosity, humility, self-control. These and the other virtues orient us to truth and goodness, disposing us to the Lord's will and giving us the continence to act upon it. Moreover, if we are to grow and flourish in the charismatic life we need to be receiving the sacraments, sources of grace and mercy.

I shall conclude this discussion with a point which I probably ought to have made explicit from the beginning. The Holy Spirit is not a force or an idea or a feeling. The Holy Spirit is a person, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, one in being with the Father and Son, but also distinct from them. Thus, we should not think about charismatic prayer as a mechanistic process, whereby we can expect experiences X, Y and Z if we engage in actions A, B and C. No, charismatic prayer is primarily a relationship, a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit, Whom Christ sent to us after His ascension. If we recall that the Holy Spirit is a person and our prayer is a relationship, many things fall into their proper place. Of course we cannot "master" charismatic prayer in a day; relationships take time to grow and develop. Moreover, just as I relate to some friends differently than others, so different people will have different relationships with the Spirit. This is not a deficiency in anyone's prayer, but a sign of intimacy, that the Spirit knows and loves us in unique ways.

These are but a few thoughts that came to me over the course of a couple evenings. I hope they have elucidated a few dimensions of the charismatic life. But if you really want to meet the Holy Spirit, it will not on a blog. Rich Mullins once explained, "If you really want spiritual nourishment, read your Bible, go to church." And if you want to encounter the Holy Spirit, it will be in prayer. So go meet Him there.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Life in the Spirit, Part II: Discerning Words

Continuing from yesterday's Part I: Emotionalism?...

I can only speak from my own experience, but I think my experience is is broadly similar to that of most other Catholic charismatics. Listening to the promptings of the Spirit is a bit like listening to one's conscience. It is, in many ways, simply a gut feeling. However, just as a child must learn to distinguish tears of sorrow from tears of joy, so a mature Christian learns to distinguish mere passing emotions from the tuggings of conscience. I cannot fully explain how this happens, though a large part of it consists in what the Church calls having a well-formed conscience. By studying in an intellectual way the the law of God, we begin to internalize it. By thinking about its application we form our consciences, training our gut emotions, if you will. Listening to the promptings of the Spirit can be similar. If I know the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church, the lives of the saints, my emotions are far more likely to be synchronized with the work of the Spirit. I did not mention it in the tripartite division of the person, but another aspect of who we are is the imagination. By filling our minds with thoughts of God, we conform our imagination to Him. As a result, if only on a strictly natural level, we make it far more likely that our imaginative wanderings will reflect His will. Moreover, in so doing we also increase the docility of our imagination to God, making it easier for Him to use it as a source of supernatural inspiration.

Let us assume that we have received some sort of word or prompting from the Spirit. An idea has crossed our mind, a certain gut feeling has welled up, a phrase has caught our fancy. How do we know if it is from the Lord? Discerning such words is a key part of the charismatic life (and an important check on the dangers of unfettered emotionalism). So how do we do it? One of the most potent tools is the intellect, which - remember - is made by God and is good. The first and most important function of the intellect in this regard is to consider whether or not the received word coheres with the faith. If I received a prompting to encourage someone to persevere in prayer, or an admonition for myself to let go of my pride, these are things which the Holy Spirit might plausibly be telling me. If, on the other hand, I think I am receiving a word that there is a Forth Person of the Godhead or that the Spirit wants me to murder my neighbor, clearly these things are wrong.

But even after rejecting a possible interpretation of a word, the intellect has an important role to play. Why did that idea cross my mind? Is this spiritual warfare, a temptation from demonic forces? If that is the case, calling upon the intercession of St. Michael may be in order. Also note, by the way, that if this transpires, the initial inspiration - wrong in itself - may nevertheless have been a working of the Spirit, drawing your attention to this problem. Thus, discerning a word, rather than simply accepting it at first glace, may be the difference between listening to the Lord's voice and exposing oneself to grave danger. Even if demonic forces are not directly at play, incorrect ideas - which I can know by reason are incompatible with the Christian faith - may be coming from within me. Again, acknowledgment of this fact may be the work of the Spirit. Why am I thinking this way? What is it that has led me to this place? We may rejoice that the Spirit has provided such self-awareness. Finally, a third possibility exists for why we felt or heard a word whose contents we intellectually know to be at odds with the truth: we may have misread it. A fuzzy feeling or a vague notion may easily be misconstrued. If I am feeling a deep revulsion towards another person, I know the Spirit is not calling on me to do violence to them. And if I have discerned that this dislike is not simply something of my own doing or of demonic forces, perhaps there is another interpretation which makes more sense. Perhaps the person in question is a very unholy and harmful person, whose influence should be avoided like a spiritual plague.

More often, however, one will not be confronted with highly problematic words. Instead, one will be faced with a word which is clearly plausible, even permissible. But is it for me or for someone else? What exactly is the Holy Spirit saying? And is this the Holy Spirit or just me? Sometimes we are asked to do something in total faith: share a word of exhortation that means nothing to us, and which we cannot imagine applying to anyone present. But, lo and behold, if we are faithful, we might discover that someone present has a very deep wound that the Lord wanted to address. However, more often than not, we can know by natural reason a thing or two about why a certain prompting has come. We have been struggling with a certain issue which we are prompted to address in a particular way. A friend is anxious and we receive a word of consolation. Considering circumstances can help us make sense of sometimes vague impressions, making sure we get it right.

If this search for a plausible interpretation sounds a bit like doing literary criticism, that is not entirely off the mark. Just as literary criticism is the application of the intellect to understand literature, so too the discernment of words is the application of the intellect to understanding the promptings of the Spirit. On the other hand, we must remember that this is a work of the Spirit. We do not simply wait for the tiniest minutia and then hyper-analyze it to detect the Holy Spirit's movement. Instead, the Holy Spirit should guide the entire activity, through our emotions, our imagination and our intellect, all working in concert.

But how do I know a prompting is from the Spirit and not just from me? This is a question that does not particularly bother me. On most occasions, I suspect that the big prophetic words I receive from the Lord, the sort of thing that comes only once every year or two, are 90% me and 10% the Holy Spirit. This sounds like a fairly poor ratio, so why my optimism? Put simply, I trust the Spirit's ability to transform and fill anything He touches. Moreover, as we have been discussing, if my imagination and intellect and emotions are good things, created by God, and if I have been working to mold and form them according to His ways and purposes, they are already a kind of revelation. Adding just a dash of uncut Holy Spirit can make that potent. I do not need to hear voices from the clouds to believe God is at work.

Tomorrow: Part III: First Things Last

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Life in the Spirit, Part I: Emotionalism?

The Charismatic Renewal is often accused of emotionalism. This is an interesting claim. It is frequently true in practice, but masks a far more interesting understanding of the human person and of the work of the Holy Spirit found in proper charismatic life. Moreover, in addressing the question of emotionalism, I discovered that a lot of other important issues are addressed as well.

By way of introduction, it is worth pointing out that the Catholic Church has endorsed the Charismatic Renewal, particularly in the form of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships. So if one accepts the Church's authority - and I realize not all do - then the question is not whether charismatic spirituality is legitimate, but how or why.

In the first instance, I think it important to remember the integrity of the human person. Loosely following Plato's tripartite division of the soul, we might describe ourselves as physical, emotional and intellectual. Since God made all three, He has declared them all good. Thus, use of reason is of God, and a good thing. (More on that below.) Only slightly less obviously, the body is a good thing and should be used for good purposes. One can take this in a Theology of the Body direction, but even more prosaically, one can look at something like liturgical gestures. Unlike the Gnostics, who contended that the body was at best irrelevant and at worst evil, we respect the body and the physical things we do with it. Thus, it matters if you stand or sit. Waving our hands about in the sign of the cross is meaningful, even good. Through our physical actions we can glorify God. Thus, it should come as little surprise that people may experience a physical response to the presence of the Holy Spirit: tears, laughter, speaking in strange languages.

And here it is worth a brief digression to clarify a point. C. S. Lewis, hardly a tongues-speaking charismatic - so far as I can tell - wrote an interesting little essay titled "Transposition". In it he makes the argument that there are more interior states or experiences than there are physical sensations for them. Thus, your stomach may leap when you hear bad news or when you hear a brilliant musical crescendo, but even if the two feel the same, they are manifestations of different things. (The same might be said for tears of sorrow and tears of joy.) Following this line, Lewis says that we should not be scandalized if speaking in tongues sounds like the kind of gibberish that results from mass psychology and hysteria. They may in fact sound exactly alike. That need not mean they are the same things (even if some people claiming to exhibit the one are actually suffering from the other). But more on tongues to follow...

Returning to the tripartite division of the soul. If God can work through and be glorified in the intellectual and the physical, so too in the emotional. This is not to say that one should give himself totally over to his emotions. But it should come as little surprise that the Holy Spirit might operate at times through our emotions. On a related note: if we sometimes utilize intellectual arguments to convince people of the truth, and we sometimes create beautiful works of physical art to attract them to it, is it so wrong to utilize the emotions to draw people to the truth? As Plato notes, the emotions should not run rampant on their own but should be harnessed to a higher purpose. But if that higher purpose is rightly understood, is a little mood lighting and music to place worshipers in a proper emotional disposition impermissible?

If, then, we conclude that the inclusion of the emotions in one's spirituality is plausible, even desirable, one might ask more specifically about receiving a "word" of insight from the Holy Spirit. Is this anything more than listening to one's own emotions? Here we can note several things: Prophesy happens in Scripture, both for revelation of doctrine (now closed with the perfect revelation of Christ) and for specific exhortations and admonitions for specific people. In some instances we see the prophet actually hearing a message, but as often as not, "the word of the Lord came unto..." How that word came is left ambiguous. But if one receives a word from the Holy Spirit, how do we know that is what it is?

We shall take up that question tomorrow.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Meritocracy & Losers

Some time ago now, I posted here a quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, in which Tocqueville points out the mental strain common in an egalitarian, meritocratic society like America. The reason for the mental strain, according to Tocqueville, is "the constant strife between the desires inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them." In other words, equality makes the average person in society think that the only limitation on what he can achieve is his own ambition. When this person eventually realizes that he simply cannot achieve everything he might desire, he will most likely scale back his ambitions somewhat, but will secretly still end up frustrated because he has not come out on top. High expectations inevitably get dashed--and disillusionment and depression result. This was the mental strain of which Tocqueville spoke.

Here's a much pithier way to express all this:
Frustration is the distinctive psychological characteristic of democratic society. Where all may legitimately aspire to the summit, the entire pyramid is an accumulation of frustrated individuals.
(Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un texto implícito: Selección, p. 196)
For Tocqueville--and I would agree with him--the representative American believes in the virtue of ambition and meritocracy. Indeed, from an early age we are all taught to believe in our dreams in school, to pursue our ambitions. Moreover, we are taught to be proud of everything we achieve. If we reach the top, it is because of our merit.

But what about all those people without ambition? Are they just a bunch of losers? And, what about all those who simply have a hard time with life? There are a lot of them out there, perhaps more than we would like to admit. Are they just a bunch of losers too? Christian charity, I believe, dictates that we answer with a resounding "No."

We have to approach these questions on two levels. First, there is no doubt that we must start on the individual level. Every individual must realize that he does not have to live the rat race, and then make a deliberate choice to live out this insight. Nobody else can make that decision for him.

Second, even though the individual must make the decision himself, he probably cannot persevere all by himself. It is a conceit to imagine that the individual must become some kind of superman and achieve virtue all on his own. It's a Pelagian, perhaps even Promethean, view of virtue. In other words, individuals are generally weak by themselves, and therefore need the support of society at large in their pursuit of virtue and happiness.

But, is there any way to solve this problem? The only societal solution to this problem might be to do away with meritocracy, and the egalitarian ideology propping up the meritocracy.
In societies where everybody believes they are equal, the inevitable superiority of a few makes the rest feel like failures. Inversely, in societies where inequality is the norm, each person settles into his own distinct place, without feeling the urge to compare himself with other, nor even conceiving the possibility. Only a hierarchical structure is compassionate towards the mediocre and the meek.
(Ibid., p. 138)
The mediocre and the meek are the losers of today. They are the "least of these" whom Christ teaches us to care for.

So, here's my question: Is advocating a radical meritocracy just one way of saying that we really shouldn't have to care about others less talented and weaker in faith than ourselves?

I'm not sure exactly where I come out on this question. However, I would like to end by suggesting that any adequate answer to this question has to acknowledge two principles that are in tension with each other. On the one hand, somebody has to govern society, and it is not necessarily a bad idea to let the talented rise to the top. That's the meritocratic approach. On the other hand, it also seems likely that the meritocratic approach induces those few who do rise to the top to become excessively proud of their own accomplishments, and to neglect the mediocre and the meek. What do we do?

Note: Some of the language about it being a "conceit" to imagine we can be virtuous on our own I found on the Internet recently, but I can't remember where now. Somebody else deserves credit, but I don't know who.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Fear of the Abnormal

I recently saw this little promo clip for a new show on ABC, FlashForward:

What struck me is just how frightening the clip is. Or, rather, how frightening it is considering the contents.

The premise, quite honestly, is hokey. Everyone on the planet falls down, unconscious, at the same time. They're all out for 2 minutes 17 seconds. The settings of the clip are not particularly striking: a gal at a computer, surveillance camera footage of people doing ordinary things, like attending a baseball game. Even our villain - if he is indeed such - is not particularly interesting; he's a nondescript man in a coat. Big deal. We've all seen those before.

But juxtapose all these together and the result is fairly unnerving. Who is this man? Why is he walking about? Did he have a hand in this world-wide phenomenon? What makes him different? There is something profoundly sinister about this man whose only real crime is being different. (Ok, the creepy music helps too.)

Is there something in human nature that makes us fear difference? Some people would say there is. They would point to racism, for example, as proof that we instinctively fear those who are not like us. There may be something to that, but let me offer a second explanation: we fear the unknown. There are, of course, lots of things we do not know. But most of our unknowns fit well within our everyday parameters. Who is that man in the car next to me? I don't know, but I probably don't care either. He seems to follow basic traffic laws, thus endangering me in no way. Moreover, I'll wager that he's from our town, or visiting from a neighboring town. One way or another, he probably fits in a category I know.

But what the creators of FlashForward have done is create a situation we do not know, a situation where nothing can be taken for granted. Here every unknown becomes sinister, threatening. There are no categories for thinking about this sort of thing. And that puts a wrench in everything...

PS Did anyone else think of Dark City when they first saw this?

PPS Since watching this clip and writing the above comments, I've taken to watching the first few episodes on Hulu. I'm rather enjoying them. There's the usual FBI investigative drama, but with a strong dose of the abnormal (supernatural? We're not sure). And since the "blackout" covered the whole planet, the show's creators have plenty of material with which to work, something they generally do to good effect. Thus far, at least, they've managed to play out the mystery at a decent pace, always providing more clues and new twists, without giving away too much too quickly. And the situation raises a number of questions about fate and faith in the lives of our characters, questions which are usually treated with a degree of seriousness and intelligence typically lacking in television (but without being over the top).

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Transforming a Suburban Parish

If you've been watching the links on our right sidebar, you might have seen this story from Beatus Est. But the links move pretty quickly, so in case you missed it, I wanted to put it here, front and center. The story needs little introduction; it explains how to turn this...

into this...

...and with minimal disruption and logical revenue flows to fund the project. So give the story a quick read. I think you'll be intrigued.

Monday, October 26, 2009

50 Beers to Drink Before You Die

Some time ago I came across this list of 50 Beers to Drink Before You Die. It includes some of my favorite beers, among them Rogue Shakespeare Stout (pt 1), Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barley Wine (pt 1), Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA (pt 3), Theakston Old Peculier (pg 4) and Stone Arrogant Bastard (pt 10). It's also got some beers I'm now interested to try, such as Orkney SkullSplitter (pt 4) and the Great Lakes Brewing Co. Edmund Fitzgerald Porter (pt 6).

I highly doubt, however, that this is the best beer list out there. In spite of the nice pictures and little write-ups, there are some omissions, such as Delirium, either the Tremens or the Nocturnum. And what about Weyerbacher Heresy? And where was Chimay Blue among the Belgians?

See any favorite beers on the list? Beers that you would add? Lists you'd recommend? Beer experts of the world: please share your wisdom!

In any case, I'm thankful for interesting beers, the people who make them and those who write about them.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Natural Law Theory: George and Arendt

The St. Thomas law school recently hosted Robert P. George, fellow at Princeton and natural law theorist, to receive the Humanae Dignitatis award and speak on “Natural Law, God, and Human Dignity.” His theory of natural law is that it is only known to us humans when we experience it. Knowledge of natural law is not innate, but rather experienced – something that we do rather than that is done to us. Through experience, we come to understand basic moral norms of natural law. The one he cited was a variation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Act so that your action furthers the fundamental reason for man’s existence. Virtue he defined as the habit of acting in accordance with these moral norms.

Yet he did not seem to answer what sort of experience we must make. While it might be assumed that man will always act reasonably, and therefore always act in pursuit of his good, George also noted that whole societies have been misled as to the nature of the good and yet have continued to act entirely reasonably. In fact, as Hannah Arendt describes in her study The Banality of Evil: Eichmann in Jerusalem, the entire German society in World War II seemed to have turned conscience on its head, and accepted that state of affairs. She writes: “[C]onscience as such had apparently got lost in Germany, and this to a point where people hardly remembered it and had ceased to realize that the surprising ‘new set of German values’ was not shared by the outside world.”

Supporting her theory was the fact that Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” was an ordinary man with an ordinary sense of morality, who had initially experienced great aversion to the idea of “liquidating” the Jews. Until that order was given, he had simply assumed the “Solution” was to make Germany judenrein by expelling, exporting, and otherwise physically removing Jews from the country.

He felt these twinges of conscience for approximately 10 weeks, Arendt reports. At the end of that time, he attended the conference at Wannsee, devoted to the particulars of the Final Solution. Everyone, without exception, states Arendt, spoke as though the immorality of the plan was not even in question: it was a nonissue. Since his superiors had adopted this position, and, indeed, everyone Eichmann knew, he gave it no further thought. (Eichmann stated that no one, not even the local religious leaders, ever pointed out to him the evil he was engaging in. Instead, they worked within the “law,” obtaining “exceptions,” but never directly challenging the law.) Eichmann had corrupted Kant’s principle (“act so the principle of your action can become the principle for general laws”) to mean “Act so that the Fuehrer, if he knew what you were doing, would approve.” Hitler’s will was substituted for Eichmann’s and was regarded throughout Germany as having the force of law.

The horrors of the Holocaust are well-known. Following the end of World War II, at the Nuremberg Trials, international law began to adopt a minimum moral standard that would apply regardless of what the law of the individual country had been at the time the crime had been committed. The source of this moral standard was to be what all nations regarded as moral. But, again, there remained the question, which is coming back in the recent debates about medical conscience clauses, whether the conscience can be relied upon to define an objective morality, or whether, particularly if knowledge of morality is predicated on experience and habits of acting, conscience is simply relative and dependent on individual experience, cultural norms, and other subjective and changeable criteria. If the latter, there is no guaranty that something like the Holocaust will not happen again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Catholic, Lay and Modern, All at Once

I hope that this blog is more than just a collection of links, references to other people's work. I hope we generate real content, sharing new ideas and insights. Nevertheless, today I am once again simply going to recommend the ideas of someone else.

Three someones, in fact: The Magdalene Sisters. These pseudonymous blog writers describe themselves as "three women trying to figure out what it means to be Catholic, lay, and modern, all at once."

The other day I was trying to explain to a friend why I'm a reader. One of the things I like is the honesty about living the Christian life. I think they're good about sharing what's really going on in their lives, without giving undue details.

Maybe I've only picked 'em up because I don't have a lot of Catholic conversations in College Station, I suggested. But there's more to it than that: I kind of feel like I'm just keeping up with thoughtful friends of mine. Except I don't know them. That might sound creepy, but perhaps it makes some sense.

I've had moments of, "Yes, I deal with that too!" or "What? Really?!? Women think that way?!?" or "Wow, they're trying to live the Catholic life with way more sincerity than me. I'm humbled." or "Hmm... that sounds like interesting reading." Granted, it's kind of geared toward a female audience, but I find it's still very worth reading: grappling with what it means to be Catholic in the modern world.

Is reading about the personal, professional and spiritual struggles of three anonymous women voyeuristic? For some it might be. But I have found it interesting, insightful and uplifting. And something more: charming, you might say. I may have an inflated appreciation from being a regular reader, building, over time, a sense of who these women are and where they're coming from. Their blog is probably not for everyone, but it's one of my favorite reads.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Things We'll Do for Art's Sake!

The things we’ll do for art’s sake!

Some people, worshipers in the cult of genius, will attribute to artists a godlike status, exempting them from the normal rules of morality. Fortunately, most people would shy away from such a repulsive conclusion. Aspiring artists will show their devotion to art not by explicit artist-worship but simply by devoting their energy and talents to their chosen field. Practice (and study) makes perfect, right? A professional violinist will practice for hours each day perfecting his technique and learning new music. A serious sculptor will examine the works of past masters and learn more about the materials he uses.

Some artists, though, will resort to more extreme measures. Robert Schumann allegedly permanently injured his right hand when, in an attempt to strengthen his weaker fingers, he used a device that held back one finger while he played the piano. Schumann didn't realize that what the device really did was destroy the finger--as well as his concert career. A little manic, no?

But, what happens when the potential artist is only a child, and his parents really want to encourage him in his art? How much pressure should they put on their child? To turn to a more specific example, what about a young boy who is a promising singer? It would be a shame if all his hard work went to waste when he hit puberty, wouldn't it? So, why not just castrate him?

What, that isn’t a reasonable solution? In the last few years a lot of ink has been spilled over the phenomenon of overbearing parents who force their children to become the perfect golfer (e.g. Tiger Woods), or pianist, or whatever. But, at least contemporary parents have not been castrating their boys to advance their singing careers. But, in the 18th century, castration was a surprisingly—shockingly—widespread practice.

The theory was that that for certain physiological reasons only men—albeit evirati (“de-manned men”)—were capable of singing certain soprano pieces. Half a man apparently had more singing power than a whole woman. In the 18th century, the sound of a castrato's voice was all the rage in the opera world, and even in church music. Some historians have charged that besides aesthetics, the Church's restrictions on laywomen singing in church led to the widespread use of castrati. However, it should be pointed out that Pope Benedict XIV had already tried to ban the use of castrati in churches as early as 1748, though this attempt was unsuccessful. No matter what the cause was, at the height of the castrati craze in the middle of the 18th century, hundreds of parents, many of them poor, were castrating their young boys each year. The key advantage in the parents' eyes was that they could assure their boys entry into a lucrative career. Of course, there were also distinct disadvantages. As one might imagine, the surgical procedure was probably not entirely sanitary. Furthermore, these castrati didn't really have any options in life besides singing. (Marriage, of course, wasn't really an option either.)

One (the only?) benefit of the French Revolution is that it seems to have brought castrati into disrepute, since they were closely associated with the reigning fashions of the ancien regime. The last opera to be written specifically for a castrato was probably Giacomo Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto in 1824. In Italy, the use of castrati was outlawed upon unification in 1870. However, it actually survived into the 20th century in the Vatican, until Pope Pius X, with the cooperation of Don Lorenzo Perosi, finally ended the practice in the Sistine Chapel choir. In fact, there are some early sound recordings of castrati available, such as this clip of Alessandro Moreschi singing the Ave Maria.

The phenomenon of castrati is one of the more memorable examples of the mania which art is capable of inspiring: otherwise sane parents mutilating their young boys. But, there must be other examples of this type of behavior, such as Schumann's finger. Is there any general explanation for this mania, or is this phenomenon too idiosyncratic to admit of one general explanation? If you can think of an explanation, please let me know.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

While living at the Quincy House I developed a love of Wes Anderson films (and of one of Anderson's gurus, Whit Stillman). At the time I noticed that Anderson was working on a version of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. At last, that effort is coming to fruition.

I remember enjoying Fantastic Mr. Fox quite a lot as a child. It would be interesting to read it again, (a) to see if I still enjoy it and (b) to see if Anderson's take is a faithful one. From the looks of it, he has taken certain liberties with the story. This is not, in my view, necessarily a bad thing. When translating a work from one genre to another, slavishness can sometimes fall flat. I am hopeful, however, that Anderson has produced a film which works well on the screen and is faithful to the heart of Dahl's work (even if not quite every line).

Thanks go out to the oodles of people who simultaneously brought this trailer to my attention.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Conservatives & Libertarians (Part II)

As a short addendum to my earlier post on conservatives and libertarians, I just wanted to post a link to an article by Friedrich Hayek entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative." This article, then, could serve as the libertarian counterpart to Russell Kirk's essay on conservatism's superiority to libertarianism.

One of the essential differences between conservatives and libertarians, according to Hayek, is the conservatives' "fondness for authority." This fondness for authority is based on its "fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces" and its "lack of understanding of economic forces." All of this is "difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty." Fighting words?

For those of you not familiar with Hayek, he was a famous economist (Nobel Prize laureate in 1974), and one of the key figures in the Austrian school of economics. In other words, he was a libertarian or a classical liberal. His most famous book, at least among the general public, is the now classic Road to Serfdom in which he attacked the creeping socialism of every major political system in the world at the time--Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, the New Deal in America, and similar programs in the other Western democracies.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wonder of Wonders!

Clive Cookson, commenting upon Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, writes:

Two chapters caught my imagination. One describes recent work on the way evolution influences embryonic development - a field sometimes known as evodevo. As Dawkins shows, the widely used analogy of DNA as a "blueprint" for the organism is misleading.

There is no overall plan of development, no blueprint, no architect's plan, no architect. Rather, the embryo grows according to local rules encoded in the genes of individual cells interacting with neighbouring cells. Genes are switched on and off by local biochemical signals. As Dawkins says, "this way of generating large and complex structures by the execution of local rules is distinct from the blueprint way of doing things."

The second high spot is Dawkins' description of the way every organism has its evolutionary history written all over it. This produces many internal structures that are less efficient than they would be if they had been "designed". An example is the "recurrent laryngeal nerve" that links the brain and the voice box. This take an astonishing detour in mammals, via the chest and heart, because it has evolved from more primitive ancestors. In giraffes that means a 15ft diversion down the neck and back again.

When Dawkins watched the laryngeal nerve being dissected in a giraffe, he realised the external elegance of animals is an illusion. A real animal is a criss-crossing maze of blood vessels, nerves, intestines, fat, muscles and more.

I generally find Cookson a sensible writer, so we shall accept his acceptance of the factual accuracy of Dawkins' account. (Likewise, we shall accept Cookson's summation as an accurate representation of Dawkins' thought.) What struck me, however, is that even allowing for this factual correctness, Dawkins fails to see the wonder of it all, or wonders improperly.

If embryos grow due to local conditions, rather than with a central "blueprint", this is a greater, not lesser, cause for amazement. Imagine that a group of construction workers just appeared at an empty lot one day and began building, without any plan or foreman. Each just did his own thing, only stopping or modifying his actions when he bumped into another worker. Each called in friend or associates to aid him in this way or that, as befitted his own little project. And somehow, all these workers, without any coordination, managed to build a complete home. Moreover, this is no mere four walls and a jagged roof: a home which will last for decades, accept expansions, and continue to look beautiful and function properly with only minor maintenance.

Such an occurrence would be exceedingly rare, nigh impossible. Indeed, if it did happen, could we blame anyone for looking for a blueprint, asking if there was an architect or some coordinating genius, some foreman who stepped forward and organized it all? Wouldn't we expect an awe-struck onlooker to ask not once but several times about these things? And if we finally discovered, some how, that a single person had indeed called together these construction workers and started them on their labors, would we not laud him even more than the conventional architect? This man was somehow such a master of human psychology and complex planning that he didn't even need blueprints. Wow.

Dawkins errs widely when he assumes that "no blueprint" means "no architect"; perhaps it means an Architect far greater than any he is willing to acknowledge.

Likewise, it seems to me that Dawkins has missed a key point in his consideration of the internal inefficiencies of animals: these inefficiencies work. He concludes that "the external elegance of animals is an illusion", but this is not the case, seeing as how the "criss-crossing maze of blood vessels, nerves, intestines, fat, muscles and more" on the inside actually does support the beautiful creature we see on the outside. If somehow animals were a scam, if they did not really eat and breathe and run and fly and reproduce and do all the amazing things they do, well, then Dawkins would have good reason to feel cheated. But as long as "external elegance" is real, perhaps we should approach the internal "maze" with a little more wonder, even if some things, like the giraffe's laryngeal nerve, are not as efficient as they could be.

In the end, Cookson concludes that Dawkins has been blinded by his own hatred of religion, reducing what could have been an excellent book to only a mediocre one. Nevertheless, those who do not share Dawkins' fiercely anti-Christian bias ought not dismiss his work simply because of this animosity. Indeed, it seems to me that Dawkins has opened up to the scientist of faith new and exciting ways to marvel at the Maker's handiwork, for which I thank Mr. Dawkins. No doubt to his chagrin.