Saturday, July 30, 2011

Four Films Worth Mentioning

On a recent flight back to the US from Albion I watched four (count 'em - FOUR!) films. All were fairly decent, and worthy of a mention. If they have anything in common, it was that all four did something slightly different than expected.

I expected District 9 to be a standard aliens v. humans film (ala Independence Day), with standard battle scenes and some political overtones relating to apartheid and private military contractors. Instead, it is much more of a drama, centered on a small number of characters. There are some fun action moments, but that is hardly what the film is about.

Sticking with aliens, I next watched Battle Los Angeles. Small, intimate stories must be in: this movie followed a single small unit of Marines through the battle. Although there were occasional allusions to the larger conflict, really all we as viewers care about is the fate of roughly a dozen men and women. Humanity as a whole is not really a factor. The other surprising thing here was that when there were not aliens in the frame, much of this looked like a war about Iraq today. In that sense it is much more of a war movie, and less of what you might traditionally think of as sci fi. (Oh, yes, the aliens also have crew-served weapons.)

Aakrosh (2010, not to be confused with the 1980 and 1998 films of the same title) is a fairly standard story: two cops from the central government visit a small town where the locals are kept in the thrall of corrupt leaders due to fear and ignorance. Outsider cops have to win the trust of locals and solve the murder mystery before all the witnesses end up dead. The unusual thing here is that it is set in India, and most of the film is in Hindi. (Yes, there are also a couple musical numbers - could it be Bollywood without them? - but they're integrated fairly well.) In fact, I learned afterward that the film is a scene-by-scene recreation of Mississippi Burning.

I finished the flight with The Adjustment Bureau. If you are expecting Dark City or The Matrix, you are likely to be disappointed. The plot is simply too predictable, the weirdness not nearly compelling enough. Curiously, if all you ask for is a romantic drama with a few moments of comedy, and you don't mind a strange sci-fi type resolution, it works considerably better.

I doubt any of these films will go down in the annals of cinematic history as canonical works. If you never saw them you'd do all right. But all four have points of interest in terms of genre and expectations and what they do (or don't do) with that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Men Who Opposed Hitler

Rebecca Haynes has recently produced a volume I am keen to read: In the Shadow of Hitler: Personalities of the Right in Central and Eastern Europe. As the title suggests, we often forget that Hitler was not the only politician of the Right in the interwar period. Some of the men Haynes considers were Nazi-sympathizers, but others were rivals or even bitter enemies of the National Socialists.

Today is the anniversary of the July 20 Conspiracy (about which I have written before). The conspiracy was an attempt to kill Hitler in 1944 and remove the Nazis from power. Its center of gravity lay in the Germany army, but extended to other segments of German government and society as well. By and large, these were men of the Right, men who believed in tradition and in German greatness. They opposed Communism and had no desire to see anything like a Soviet state established in the Fatherland. Some of them were anti-Semitic; many were not.

Today I'd like to briefly mention two men who opposed the Nazis, and did so from the right wing of the political spectrum. Neither was a among the most important members of the plot against Hitler, nor is either one a well-known figure, even among history buffs. But perhaps that makes them all the more typical (if we can use the term for such extraordinary men) of those who opposed the Nazis. The first is Friedrich Gustav Jaeger. Born in Württemberg in 1895, his father was a doctor. With the outbreak of World War I he quickly completed his secondary studies (with honors) and joined the German army, seeing service in both Flanders and Italy, and being decorated numerous times. After the war he studied agriculture and joined the National Socialist German Workers Party - the Nazis.

But then an interesting thing happened. Although Jaeger was a member of the Freikorps Oberland and later re-joined the army in 1934, he refused to participate in the Kapp Putsch and left the Nazi Party, becoming a fierce critic before World War II.

During the war Jaeger fought in Poland, France and Russia, receiving Germany's highest military honor. All the while, however, he was making contact with anti-Nazi elements of the German army. It was only with reluctance, however, that he agreed to the plan to try to assassinate Hitler: Jaeger's Christian faith caused him to prefer a trial before a proper court.

On the day of the attempted assassination, Jaeger had a variety of tasks, commanding reserve troops, arresting key Nazis and seizing a radio station. All this fell apart as the conspiracy was discovered, and Jaeger was eventually executed for his role on 21 August.

Ernst Rüdiger Starhemberg was born in Eferding, Austria in 1899. A prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he served in the army during World War I, seeing action in Italy. Like Jaeger, he joined the Freikorps Oberland. Though the Austrian monarchy was abolished at the end of the war, he was keen to enter Austrian politics, joining the local branch of the Heimatschutz (an organization dedicated to protecting Austria's borders, but also its culture). He was intrigued by both Mussolini and Hitler, but gave up on the Nazis after the failed Beer Hall Putsch.

Starhemberg briefly served as Austrian Interior Minister in 1930 and became Deputy Leader of the conservative Christian Social Party in 1932. He then became Vice Chancellor in the right-wing government of Engelbert Dollfuß. Say what you will against Dollfuß - and there is probably much that can be said - he was no Nazi, as evidenced by the fact that they assassinated him in a failed bid to seize Austria. Starhemberg briefly served as acting Chancellor until a new government could be formed.

When the Nazis finally succeeded in annexing Austria, members of the Heimatschutz and various political parties with which Starhemberg had been associated were sent to concentration camps. He fled to Switzerland and eventually fought with the British and Free French air forces. Starhemberg was not a member of the July 20 Conspiracy. He abandoned the war effort when the Soviets joined the Allied side - what was the point of defeating Nazism if it were only followed by Soviet domination? - and moved to Argentina, staying until the year of Juan Peron's coup, and then returning to Austria.

Were these men heroes? The case for Jaeger is probably stronger than for Starhemberg. Both men certainly have associations that cause some raised eyebrows. But if they were not unqualified heroes, they were not villains either. They were men trying to make the best of difficult situations, men subject to all the human weaknesses. But in extraordinary circumstances, these men and other conservatives like them not only resisted the allure of Nazism, but opposed it. That is worth remembering.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Learning about Language & Understanding the Universe

When this video came across my desk a month or two ago, I sat up and paid attention. You should too. Give it a watch.

(For people reading this on Facebook, which doesn't like videos, click here.)

The notion that the arts and sciences are not at odds, but both ask fundamental questions about the most important things, is not news to me. But like hearing the Gospel once more and being born again for the 10,000th time, this hit me pretty heavy. Why? Two reasons.

First. I had not read any math lately. Or anything about math. Or numbers. There was a chapter about the Enigma machine I read a day or two before watching. It had quite a bit about combinations and numbers, but I glossed over that when I could have engaged it, and pressed on to the next bit of history. Now I have gone back and given Enigma a little more numerical consideration.

Second. I had been spending all day - indeed, about six weeks - deep in British archives, doing research. I was living the arts, you might say, being a good historian. But I realized that my history was often failing to ask the great questions of language and of the cosmos. Please, do not misunderstand: I was doing excellent history, with all kinds of primary sources and keen analysis. But my history was just that, and not more. And it should have been more.

One further thought comes to mind: When our video's narrator speaks of "math", what he really means is "pure math" or "philosophy of math," as opposed to "applied math". In some ways a minor detail, but oh so big. At most universities, though the Math Department is housed in a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, it is engineers who take its classes and thereby pay its budget. So although said department may strive to consider numbers as language, as clues to the nature of the universe, it is usually reduced to calculating how heavy the truck can be before the bridge collapses. This is sad.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Martyrs of Compiègne

Today is Bastille Day. But in three days the Carmelite calendar will commemorate the martyrs of Compiègne, sixteen nuns who were killed on this day in 1794 during Robespierre's Reign of Terror. They went to the guillotine singing, and were then buried in a mass grave in Paris in the Cimetière de Picpus.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sex, Drugs, and Mysticism

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
—St. Teresa of Avila,
Autobiography, chapter XXIX

A common objection to St. Teresa’s mysticism is that it is too sexual. The erotic overtones of the passage describing St. Teresa’s transverberation and the sensuality of Bernini’s sculpture are rather obvious. This imagery can shock many pious Christians, especially Protestants, but also many Catholics who are (understandably) disquieted by a middle-aged nun who makes a mystical experience of God’s love sound like a sexual encounter with an angel.

St. Teresa’s use of sexual images to describe her experience, while shocking at first, is actually not blasphemous, when properly understood. Even today in a culture that is saturated with sex and largely agnostic about any kind of ultimate meaning, sex is apparently one thing that strikes most people as existentially important precisely because it points the way to transcendence. People still sense that sex can take them outside themselves—in a sort of ecstasy—and give them love, and perhaps even a foretaste of divine love. This desire to achieve transcendence in sex is reflected in G.K. Chesterton's aphorism, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.” Because sex possesses this awesome power to open man up to transcendence, to God's grace, it is the most apt point of comparison that St. Teresa (and other mystics) can use in trying to express the ineffable.

Another point of comparison that St. Teresa makes use of in her Autobiography, which might also strike the pious as overly sensual, is drunkenness. A number of times St. Teresa compares what she feels during her mystical experiences to being drunk. The similarities between a mystic trance and intoxication (whether from alcohol or drugs) are numerous: both can induce a kind of trance in which time seems to be suspended; both can result in visions; both states are hard to describe to someone who has not experienced them, etc. Because of these similarities, some Native Americans use peyote in their religious rituals, and the more idealistic hippies of the 1960’s (and even Ernst Jünger) used LSD as a way to induce mystical experiences.

Despite these superficial similarities, though, it is probably more accurate to say that alcohol and drugs mimic, rather than induce, mystical experiences because they represent the exaltation of technique over transcendence. Many people (at least those who seek more than mere physical pleasure) apparently think that the right mixture of chemicals or the right position in bed will endow their lives with new meaning. They think these techniques can work as a short-cut to transcendence. These techniques, however, will fail because all they do is produce a subjective feeling of transcendence, rather than objectively transform the person, making him more open to God's grace. St. Teresa emphasizes often—as opposed to Luther’s teachings on grace—that mystical experiences do us no good, and may actually come from the devil, if they do not objectively bring us closer to God. St. Teresa’s mysticism, then, follows the Church’s consistent teaching (as formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas): “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.”

One of St. Teresa’s fundamental precepts (which she gives in a slightly different context) could be applied to alcohol and drugs: “People should not try to rise unless they are raised by God” (ch. XII). Indulging in sex and drugs is nothing like the hard work required in a life of prayer. St. Teresa frankly acknowledges that she spent decades struggling before ever really achieving prayer. She also warns her readers that they must be prepared to endure this aridity (sequedad) for their entire lives. According to St. Teresa, it is less difficult to suffer a quick martyrdom than it is to lead a life of contemplative prayer. In other words, openness to God's grace often requires enduring a certain agony while one waits to be raised by God.

Nevertheless, St. Teresa also assures her readers that prayer can have many rewards even in this life, and many readers, wary of a life of aridity, may latch onto these passages. Can all her talk of sex and alcohol, then, be taken too far or be understood in the wrong way? Of course it can. But, St. Teresa herself provides us with one of the key safeguards against this potential danger: she repeats throughout her Autobiography that anyone who is serious about prayer needs a wise spiritual director. It is a spiritual director's job to keep the individual grounded, away from the danger of subjective whims, and, most importantly, open to God's grace.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor

Being in Britain for Independence Day is slightly odd. If all goes according to plan, my wife and I today will travel from Ipswich, visit the site of Sutton Hoo and then make our way back to London, hopefully arriving in time for a drink in the local pub. There will, however, be no fireworks. I doubt anyone will be singing "The Angry American Song", or even "The Star-Spangled Banner". Indeed, to do so might be a little offensive to our hosts. (After all, the third verse of the National Anthem does refer to the British as "hireling[s] and slave[s]" who "so vauntingly swore" but whose "blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution." Ouch!)

Nevertheless, though I may be an Anglophile (as any reader of this blog could fast discern), and one currently in Britain, today is a day for remembering when the British were in the wrong, denying British subjects their due rights. But the full splendor of Independence Day is not simply the winning by Americans of their due rights as subjects. Nor is it simply a commemoration of the blood, sweat, toil and tears which Americans shed to secure those rights. (Yes, I stole that line from Sir Winston. No, he would not mind. Yes, I'm happy to let him have it back on any other day.) What American Independence Day truly is - or ought to be - about are universal rights. That was the great insight of the American Founders: that their cause, though just within the terms of the British legal tradition, was ultimately about natural rights, rights given by God.

This year I have omitted the list of grievances, fun though the repetition of "He has..." may be. But here is the rest of the Declartion's text. Give it a moment's consideration:

* * *

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

That all men are created equal,

That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,

That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. --Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world....

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare,

That these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states;

That they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and

That all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and

That as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.

And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

Today's image is John Trumbull's Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.