Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Happy Feast of St. Francis!

Regular readers know Francis and Clare are popular around here. Happy Feast of St. Francis, who so earnestly strove to be like Christ in all things, and in so doing set a noble example for all of us. Saint Francis, pray for us!


You are holy, Lord, the only God, and Your deeds are wonderful.
You are strong.
You are great.
You are the Most High.
You are Almighty.
You, Holy Father are King of heaven and earth.
You are Three and One, Lord God, all Good.
You are Good, all Good, supreme Good, Lord God, living and true.
You are love.
You are wisdom.
You are humility.
You are endurance.
You are rest.
You are peace.
You are joy and gladness.
You are justice and moderation.
You are all our riches, and You suffice for us.
You are beauty.
You are gentleness.
You are our protector.
You are our guardian and defender.
You are our courage.
You are our haven and our hope.
You are our faith, our great consolation.
You are our eternal life, Great and Wonderful Lord, God Almighty, Merciful Savior.
Amen.

- A prayer in praise of God, as given by St. Francis to Brother Leo

Friday, September 29, 2017

Happy Michaelmas!


Everlasting God,
You wonderfully ordered
the ministries of angels and mortals,
and sent the archangel Michael,
bearer of the banner of heaven,
to defend us against
the malice of Satan’s pride.
Do not forsake us in the last struggle with evil,
but by the aid of Your holy angels
bring us to eternal life,
through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

How is your family planning to celebrate? There are a wealth of traditional foods for the celebration of the Archangel Michael. As this post explains, carrots, goose, special bread (St. Michael's Bannock) and blackberries are all on the traditional menu, for various reasons. Or waffles are, apparently, traditional in France; this website has a recipe and additional info. Other edible ideas I've seen include angel-shaped sugar cookies or really anything autumnal, since Michaelmas - almost exactly midway between Midsummer (St. John's Day) and Christmas - is the traditional approximation of the equinox and thus the beginning of autumn. If you're looking for decoration, aster flowers are also known as Michaelmas Daisies, because in many places they bloom around the feast.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Teaching Medieval History: How Should We Do It Today?

In an age when controversies and commentary happen at the speed of Twitter, I do not profess to have kept up with all the twists and turns in the saga of Rachel Fulton Brown, a medievalist at the University of Chicago. But, so far as I can tell, the story went something like this: A couple years ago Prof. Brown wrote a blog post noting that medieval white men had done some good. In light of recent white supremacist shenanigans, another medievalist left a comment on this old blog post, essentially asking Prof. Brown what she was doing to set the record straight and fight racism. Prof. Brown took issue with this perceived politicization and the whole thing descended from there.

There are three questions (possibly more) at issue here: How do we teach medieval history? How do we interact as professional historians? And how should history be employed to political ends?

I am currently teaching medieval history to high school students (specifically, a British history survey; the first semester is medieval, the second modern). My basic approach is to point out some of the good things going on - we discuss literary achievements, religious life, and the role of women such as Etheldreda and Leoba - while also acknowledging the shortcomings in justice, knowledge, and material standards of living. So far as I can tell, Prof. Brown has taken a similar approach. She has not claimed that medieval Europe was a paradise, but neither is she willing to suggest - as some in academia do - that the thousand years of medieval history are one long record of unbroken oppression. Likewise, she has not claimed that European or Western civilization is, in every respect, superior to all other cultures of the world; but neither has she characterized Western civilization as inherently bad. One may quibble with some details, but her overall approach is very sound history; to deviate from it would be a shame.

In lashing out at her critics, Prof. Brown has not always used kind or professional language. For that, she deserves a stern talking to from her department head. But calling for her job is a bit much. Her opponents should know that you cannot publicly criticize someone without expecting them to respond, possibly disproportionately, possibly in an unprofessional manner. This is unfortunate but not the end of the world.

But the crux of the controversy seems to be the role of history in contemporary debates. Some people argue that there is an imperative duty for all academics to wield their professional tools in a partisan manner; their central task, the argument goes, is to fight injustice. The error here is not in presuming that academics can weigh in on current debates. Rather, the error is two-fold: presuming that academics must engage in such debates and failing to appreciate the deep long-term contributions of academia to the cause of justice, without mentioning contemporary issues. Teaching students how to reason; how to think deeply about culture, politics, and religion; teaching them to express themselves clearly in speech and in writing - these are profound contributions to the common life of our country. Indeed, I would argue that over emphasis on the latest subject of protest risks undermining the very important work of fostering these necessary habits of thought.

So far as I can tell, Prof. Brown shares the my understanding of the role of history. She has not, to my knowledge, insisted that academics avoid all discussion of current controversies or politics; rather, she simply asks that her non-participation in such crusades not be held against her while she is busy carrying out these other essential tasks of history. I hope, for everyone's sake, this tempest ends soon so that we can stop the comment wars and get back to more important work.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Praying for Mercy

Inspired by recent events here in Charlottesville and by this article by Marc Barnes, I've been convinced ever more of humanity's need for God's mercy and, consequently, of the need to pray for it. As a result, three prayers have been on my lips more often of late.

The first is an ancient prayer popular among Orthodox Christians. It comes in a few minor variations and is often referred to as the Jesus Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The second is a prayer revealed to St. Faustina, typically prayed as part of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and again quite simple:
For the sake of the sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.
The final prayer for mercy comes from Fatima, and against reflects the them of praying for ourselves and others:
O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy.
These are prayers you can easily insert into your day.  Please pray them, often.  Look around - we need them.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Happy Feast of St. Clare - In Word and Imagination


"Brother Leo, what do you think I saw reflected on the water down in that well?"
"My Father Francis," said Brother Leo, "You would have seen the moon that was shining in the sky."
"No, Brother Leo, I saw there the face of our Sister Clare."

The Little Flowers of St. Clare


Francis and Clare, depicted by Giotto


The short passage above, from the Italian writer (and one time mayor of Florence) Piero Bargellini, captures my affection for Clare of Assisi. 

In honor of today's feast day I actually typed out all of Murray Bodo's "The Rooms of St. Clare" before I realized that I had already posted it nearly seven years ago.  Instead, let me offer this bit of verse from Clare's fourth letter to Bl. Agnes of Prague:


Happy indeed is she
                to whom it is given to share in this sacred banquet
                so that she might cling with all her heart
                to Him
                                Whose beauty all the blessed hosts of heaven unceasingly admire,
                                Whose affection excites,
                                Whose contemplation refreshes,
                                Whose kindness fulfills,
                                Whose delight refreshes,
                                Whose remembrance delightfully shines,
                                By Whose fragrance the dead are revived,
                                Whose glorious vision will bless
                                                all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem:
                                                                which, since it is the splendor of the eternal glory, is
                                                                the brilliance of eternal light
                                                and the mirror without blemish.


And, finally, the collect prayer for today's feast:

O God, who in your mercy led Saint Clare to a love of poverty,
grant, through her intercession,
that, following Christ in poverty of spirit,
we may merit to contemplate you
one day in the heavenly Kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Lost Cause: Old, New, and What To Do About It





I am not a Southerner, but I am something of a guest of the South. Although an Arizona native, I went to school in Texas (twice), married a gal from Mississippi, and settled in Virginia. Like many Americans, recent controversies surrounding Confederate monuments have spurred along my ongoing efforts to understand Southern heritage.

I appreciated Gregory S. Bucher's "Romanticism of the 'Lost Cause,'" published in First Things, for one particular insight it brought me: just because one racist raises a monument to another racist, that does not necessarily mean that racism was the motive for raising the monument. Without disputing that the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery - the declarations of secession were pretty explicit about that - one can recognize that the 19th century worldview was considerably different from most contemporary worldviews. Lost causes - not just The Lost Cause, but all of them - had a particular appeal to many, both within and outside the South, quite irrespective of the content of the cause. Seemingly fruitless suffering, most in need of justification, was conveniently - in the Romantic worldview - most noble.

History sometimes grants us insights into the motivations of actors, but those insights are rare gems. More often we know what was done, but not why. Doubtless, some erectors of Confederate monuments raised them with the explicit intention to further white supremacy and do so by casting a cloak of courage and liberty - and thus respectability - over the Southern rebellion. But I suspect that many monument erectors, whether they were racists or not, firmly believed themselves to be honoring courage, sacrifice, and freedom, even if their actions had the effect of entrenching white supremacy in the South and whitewashing the historical narrative.

History informs how we behave in the present, but it does not dictate our behavior. Discussions of history and present policy, though interrelated, are distinct issues. We may be cautious about passing historical judgements, while still being clear about what contemporary society should do. But even if, with the value of hindsight, we recognize certain monuments as racist and conclude that they must go, we can still be charitable, perhaps even generous, toward many who erected them and still value them today.

* * *

While listening to Gillian Welch - whose music, though beautiful, is consistently depressing - it occurred to me that swaths of contemporary America have embraced a new permutation of the Lost Cause myth, depicted in a variety of musical and other cultural representations. The patchwork of folk and country references which follow many strike some readers as eclectic; perhaps other selections could have been made, but I think these demonstrate the breadth of this general pattern.

The story goes something like this: America, or this corner of it, this was once an agrarian place. It was not prosperous, but homey and traditional: "We all picked the cotton but we never got rich," as Alabama sings. Or, in the words of the Carolina Chocolate Drops:
Runnin' with your cousins from yard to yard
Livin' was easy but the playin' was hard
Didn't have much, nothing comes for free
All you needed was your family.
In time, this agrarian world gave way to aspects of modern industrialization, things like coal mines and railroads. But many of its promises were unfulfilled and, after having broken the health of so many workers, this industrialization seems to have left them behind. Dan Zanes laments the railroad that never came:
Then up stepped a politician
He stopped her in her tracks
From what I understand
He turned her sent her back
The people down in Guysborough
Still waiting for a train
The dream they had for many years
Proved to be in vain.
Tom Russell describes the closing of a steel mill: "My wife stares out the window with a long and lonely stare / She says 'you kill yourself for 30 years but no one seems to care.'" 

The evils of industrialization are found in the traditional Lost Cause myth as well. Eric Foner explains, “The antebellum South was recalled as a benevolent, orderly society that pitted its noble values against the aggressive greed of northern industrial society.” In both narratives, industrialization is identified with outside forces; it is, at best, fickle, more likely deceptive and exploitative.

Yet for better or worse, industrialization came, and then largely went. So where does that leave us now? There's a strange mix of sorrow in the new Lost Cause at all that is lost and almost a celebration of the ills left behind. Gillian Welch sings:
A river of whiskey flows down in Dixie
Down along the Dixie Line
They pulled up the tracks now
I can't go back now
Can't hardly keep from cryin'.
Indeed, alcohol is a recurring theme, both in sorrow and in celebration. Charlie Daniels boasts:
People say I'm no good and crazy as a loon
'Cause I get stoned in the morning
And get drunk in the afternoon
Kinda like my old blue tick hound
I like to lay around in the shade
And I ain't got no money but I damn sure got it made.
Or, in a more elegiac form, Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss relate a tragic tale:
We watched him drink his pain away a little at a time
But he never could get drunk enough to get her off his mind
Until the night...
He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger
And finally drank away her memory
Life is short but this time it was bigger
Than the strength he had to get up off his knees.
Like the traditional Lost Cause, this new narrative admits to failure, but also accepts, even embraces it..

The musical threads of the new Lost Cause tapestry are certainly found in the old Confederate states, the traditional definition of the South. But they are also found across a wider geography, including much of the Rust Belt and Middle America. The areas where this new Lost Cause is found probably align well with parts of the country that voted for Donald Trump. And this should come as little surprise: according to this new mythology, much has indeed been lost, hence the need to make America great again. But amidst this narrative’s drunken post-industrial suffering, there is also a sense that greatness cannot be regained, at least not along the old lines. Thus America did not elect a senator or a general or even a Boy Scout, but, rather, a loud-mouthed, twice-divorced zillionaire with no record of public service. In the ruins of American society, you could say, this is the best we can hope for.

* * *

Southern writers reflect something of the new narrative as well. The characters described by William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, or Walker Percy are hardly winners. They are frequently insane and often vicious. If they have not had a stiff drink lately, they could probably use one. Suffering, these writers admit, is the way of our world.

Their writings share a certain quality of anti-modernism with both Lost Causes, the old and the new. Modern society, they implicitly argue, has not reached the deepest corners of the South or, if it has, it has failed to solve its ills. More likely, modernity has made those ills worse.

One might conclude from this sorry state of affairs that some kind of Southern revivalism is needed: if we reject the modern social, economic, and political arrangements imported from the North, if we go back to the old ways, all will be well. But I do not think this the approach that the likes of Percy and O'Connor would endorse.

Though these Catholic writers had a deep respect for tradition, they recognized that the flaws of the modern era run deep. Our common suffering is ultimately rooted not in modernity, however problematic it may be, but in man's fallen nature. We ought not celebrate our brokenness, but we must at least admit to it. Erecting monuments will not solve our problems. Hiding amidst the babble of modern psychology will ultimately leave us deeply unsatisfied, as Percy repeatedly underscores in Lost in the Cosmos. Rather, we must offer our pathetic situation, the husk of our individual selves and our broken society, to the one who has the power to save, Almighty God. Conversion has the power to accomplish what no amount of nostalgia or memorialization ever could. Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Happy Feast of Sts. Louis and Zélie!


God of Love, in Sts. Louis and Zélie
You have provided an exemplary model
of married love, evangelical virtue,
and unwavering trust in You.
May we share in their humble work,
remain ever in joy and Christian hope,
and so, like them, come to be called
the friends of God,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Today's image comes via the Communio blog.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Under God" - On Its Necessity

In 1954 a joint resolution of Congress added the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Among those pushing for this addition were the Knight of Columbus, an American Catholic fraternal organization.

To secularists, these words are anathema, an attempt to establish an official religion and overturn the First Amendment.  To others, these words nail America's flag to the mast of Christianity, underscoring that this country is, and always has been - at least in their view - a Christian nation.

I am both less confident and less interested than this latter party in America's Christian heritage.  This is not a debate I wish to enter today.  Rather, I would like to contend that the words "under God" are essential for Christians, or indeed probably any people of theistic faith, to say the pledge.

My hang up is the word "allegiance."  Christians owe their allegiance to Jesus Christ, their Lord and their God.  He is king of the universe and king of their hearts.  All Christians are, rather literally, monarchists.

This does not necessarily mean that Christians should be theocrats, endorsing government by bishops or other clergymen.  Indeed, Jesus Himself insisted that that which is Caesar's should be rendered to him.  But I would contend - as I tried to flesh out some years ago - that the republics we establish by the consent of the governed must exist under the larger kingship of Christ.  He has granted us, so to speak, the right and responsibility of looking after the affairs of our particular polities. But this does not change the fundamental reality that He is the ultimate lawgiver, judge, ruler, and commander.

So when a Christian - or, so far as I understand, a Jew or Muslim as well - is asked to swear allegiance, the natural question would be, "Do you mean allegiance in the ultimate sense, or in the local, political sense?  If you mean in the ultimate sense, my allegiance is to God alone."

Perhaps, you say, it is obvious that a political pledge is concerned with allegiance in the local, political sense, and not in the universal, theological sense.  Perhaps that should be obvious.  But across the centuries - and certainly in the 20th - regimes have made claims that exceed the political.  They have demanded that their own fiat should trump the consciences of citizens, that the good of the state is more important than the moral law.  In such cases, the political has claimed an unholy, idolatrous precedence.

Let me be clear: I do not think America is on the verge of becoming a totalitarian dictatorship along the lines of the Communists or the National Socialists.  But it never hurts to make clear, long in advance of any problems, the terms of our discussion.  And let us not forget that the dictatorship of relativism is quite strong and that it must be opposed, in culture and, yes, sometimes in politics.

Concerns about the First Amendment's establishment clause are not to be taken lightly, but neither should we overlook the fact that, absent these two little words, large swaths of America would rightly have serious questions about taking the Pledge of Allegiance in good faith.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A UD Education: The Road Goes Ever On

Ten days ago I sent the letter below to the University News at Dallas. I haven't seen it published yet; maybe they had a stack of better stuff coming in. In any event, I thought I'd share my sentiments here.


In May I will again visit the University of Dallas campus to attend graduation. It has been 11 years since that spring morning when I received my Bachelor of Arts degree, concluding an idyllic season of my life. With the passage of time the memories have lost some of their sharpness, and yet the insights, the vision, the thirst for recovering the great ideas of our civilization remain with me, making themselves apparent nearly every day. Far from fading into the darkness, my UD education continues to grow.

This may seem obvious to those currently steeped in the world of ideas that is the UD campus. It is far less obvious when you consider my present circumstances. Since graduating I have moved more times than I care to count, completed two additional degrees, married, settled into a career, started a family, published a book, and purchased a house. Much of my time is spent washing dishes, changing diapers, folding laundry, or drawing pink puppy dogs for the umpteenth time. But somehow, my UD education, time and again, worms its way back into my life.

One day last year my eye fell upon a copy of Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua­ on the shelf. (My wife had purchased it for a graduate class that never actually used it.) Although I wrote a paper on Newman for one of Dr. Norris's classes, I was too intimidated by Newman to actually read more than a couple pages. More than a decade later, I righted that shortcoming, and Newman did not disappoint: with every page his erudition and firmness of purpose show through, bathed in the light of eloquence, honesty, and joy.

Earlier this year a coworker mentioned that she was taking a class on the history of political thought and was writing on Aristotle's critiques of Plato. Excited conversation followed and the next day two large volumes came with me to the office, so I could read the Republic and Politics literally side by side. Just the other day a fellow dad mentioned Jean Leclercq's understanding of Benedictine education; that evening I pulled down my collection of essays in honor of the late Fr. Louis J. Lekai, O. Cist. and turned to Leclercq's contribution to that volume.

But these examples may be misleading: they suggest that a UD education is something contained in books and resting on a shelf, to be brought down as a curiosity. It is far more than this. To paraphrase Dr. Frank's introduction to my Phil & Eth class, a UD education is a sense of wonder, a quieting of the mind to focus on the things that matter most, and a relentless determination to seek the Truth, heedless of the cost.

Learning that I have a PhD, people often ask where I received it. Though I valued my doctoral studies, and am happy to share about them, I try to gently turn the conversation from that final degree to my UD education, the foundation that supports all my subsequent work. Whatever I have accomplished as a researcher, analyst, and writer comes from the skills I learned at UD. But even more important, UD nurtured within me the habits and virtues needed to be a citizen, a friend, a father, a husband, and a disciple. These are the things that matter most.

One cannot repay the kind of debt I owe to this school, just as one can never repay parents for their love. But I write to thank the amazing faculty, who taught me, and my fellow students, with whom I lived, studied, worked, and prayed, for four fantastic years. You are some of the most incredible people I have yet met. May God, who has so richly blessed us, continue to pour out his grace on this school and keep its spirit ever strong!

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Tolkienian Reading of the Annunciation

This morning I published a reflection on the Annunciation and what it means that its celebration, also known as Lady Day, falls during Lent. I would like to add, however, one other thought on the holiday.

Tomorrow is Tolkien Reading Day, an international holiday organized by the Tolkien Society, in which enthusiasts are encouraged to read their favorite passages from the great storyteller. Why March 25th? According to the Society's website, the date was chosen because this is the day Sauron was defeated and Barad-dûr thrown down. Now I have not investigated the matter in any detail, but I think it is unlikely to be mere coincidence that Tolkien chose this major feast day - one of the four great medieval Quarter Days - as the day in which good triumphs over evil in The Lord of the Rings.  I can only conclude that he saw in the Incarnation of God's only Son a similar triumph of good over evil.

(And a quick check of the internet suggests I am definitely not the first to notice this non-coincidence!)

Finding Joy Amidst the Sorrow - A Lady Day Reflection

The Annunciation, by Matthias Stom

Tomorrow, Saturday 25 March, is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, traditionally known as Lady Day. It celebrates the announcement of the archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would bear the Son of God. (Notice anything about the date? Nine months until...?) One of the odd things about Lady Day, a great day of celebration, is that it falls during Lent, a period of penance. In the midst of all our fasting and sacrifices comes this solemnity - liturgically on par with Sundays - when we not only cease from our fasting, but actually commence feasting.

In some ways this odd juxtaposition is simply the result of calendar constraints. If the Annunciation is to be celebrated the biologically proper nine months before Christmas (there, I told you), it's got to be in Lent. But I think we can also discern a deeper meaning to this scheduling coincidence. While Lent is traditionally associated with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary, the Annunciation is the first of the Joyful Mysteries. And yet, if you give some thought to these so-called "Joyful" Mysteries, you see that their circumstances are rather ambiguous, possibly rather unhappy.

At the Annunciation, Mary - an unmarried young woman - is told that she will bear a child. At best, her neighbors and friends will presume she and her fiancé lack the continence to abstain from intimacy until marriage; it is quite possible they will assume far worse things about her character or that she will be exposed to the life-threatening provisions of the Jewish law regarding fornicators.

Mary, the single expectant mother, then travels "in haste" from the town of Nazareth to visit her kinswoman in Judah, to the south. Is she fleeing from Joseph? From her neighbors? Perhaps she simply travels to assist Elizabeth at the end of her own pregnancy. But no matter how noble Mary's actual intentions may be, they probably do little to quell the gossip. And then there is the matter of traveling - which, in Mary's day meant walking - probably by herself, for several days between Nazareth and Judah, while probably experiencing the morning sickness of the first trimester. Having arrived at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary experiences the joy of hearing Elizabeth's inspired words of praise, but also has to deal with the difficulty that Zachariah has been struck mute, no doubt complicating chores and plans for the new baby's arrival.

At Christmas, as Mary's due date approached, she and Joseph - yet still unmarried - are forced to travel to Bethlehem because the Roman occupiers want to conduct a census. Oh joy. There in Bethlehem she gives birth to a son in a cave that's serving as a barn, because no one will offer them even a simple place to stay. Not exactly an optimal delivery experience.

While still in the Greater Jerusalem area - Bethlehem is not far away - Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord. There the prophet Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her heart. A short while later, Joseph is told in a dream by an angel that King Herod is trying to kill Jesus - and will indeed kill many innocent children in pursuit of the messiah. So the whole family, with only whatever possessions they happen to have with them, travel to Egypt, to live in exile for an indefinite length of time.

Finally, having returned to Nazareth after the death of Herod, Mary and Joseph might have thought they could settle into a quiet life. Then they lose track of Jesus while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Is this the thanks they get for trying to fulfil the Law and observe the pilgrimage festivals? For three days they search about, doubtless with great anxiety.

These are the Joyful Mysteries: an unplanned pregnancy, gossip, foreign occupation, inhospitality, exile, heartbreak, and anxiety. If this is joy, I don't want to hear about sorrow!

Mary and Joseph were not naïve or oblivious. They recognized and experienced all these hurts and challenges. But the Joyful Mysteries are joyful because the Holy Family recognized much larger forces at work, the grace of the Incarnate God filling their lives.

Lady Day, the celebration of the Annunciation, is not simply a break from Lent, a moment where we can ignore our penance and the reality of suffering. Rather, Lady Day is a clarion call to see the world and all of life with the eyes of faith, by which we will perceive that God stands ever at hand, ready to transform our sorrows into joy, if only we will say with Mary: "May it be done to me according to your word."

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day

For this St. Patrick's Day, instead of delivering a lecture on the history of traditional Irish music, I will simply post a few videos that are important to me personally.

Most of my music I originally learned from my dad. He kept a small collection of whistles next to his favorite seat in the living room, and he often used to pick one up in the evening after dinner and play for a few minutes. I just loved the sound. And so when in elementary school we started to learn the recorder, while all the other kids dreaded having to practice it in music class, I took right to it. My dad saw this and he bought me a silver E-flat Generation whistle. At home I listened to as much traditional music as possible And so the first video I will show is of Mary Bergin, a whistle player from Dublin, whose debut album, Feadoga Stain, I listened to over and over on our record player, trying to learn her technique.



Besides listening to tin whistle music, I loved the sound of the wooden flute. And as soon as my grade school offered flute lessons (in 5th grade), I signed up, even though it was for a metal Boehm flute. And I practiced and practiced, until my parents had to lay down some rules for when I could play my flute, e.g., not before everyone else was awake! My favorite Irish flute player growing up, and still today, is Matt Molloy, who is well known for his work with the Bothy Band and the Chieftains. I also felt a little more of a connection to him when I found out that he owns a pub (which I visited during my Rome semester) in Westport, Co. Mayo,, my grandfather's hometown. Here he is playing a set of tunes on a low-pitched B-flat flute, starting with the slip jig "A Fig for a Kiss" (the video, unfortunately, is just a slide show of Scandinavia):



I also especially love this set of reels that Matt Molloy plays with Sean Keane, a fellow member of the Chieftains, with whom he recorded another album I loved to play at home, Contentment is Wealth. The middle reel, "The Providence," was written by Michael Coleman, the famous New York fiddler, when he visited Rhode Island.



Finally, while I do like some experimentation within traditional music, the most enjoyable Irish music really is the old-fashioned way of playing. It shouldn't be too slow, because you can't dance to that. But it also shouldn't be too fast, because you can't dance to that either. The best musicians can set a brisk, but steady rhythm that makes you instantly start tapping your feet. And last of all, this music is about friendship. This final video shows Noel Hill on concertina and Tony Linnane on fiddle, two men who made a duet album together (with Alec Finn accompanying them on bouzouki) toward the end of the 1970's. The album was a fruit of their friendship and the many hours they spent playing tunes together. And this video--starting with a rainy day, a humble cottage, a pot of tea and a plate of scones--conveys some of what this music is really about. They play two reels: "Esther's" and "Jenny's Welcome to Charlie" (an allusion to Bonnie Prince Charlie).



Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Beautiful Indian Summers - But to What End?

A little while ago my wife and I began watching Indian Summers, a show about the British Raj's annual move to Simla, in the foothills of the Himalaya, where it sheltered from Delhi's summer heat. The show is visually stunning, marked by the natural beauty of the landscape (actually shot in Malaysia) and the pomp of the Raj. For a historian of the British Empire, the draw is obvious. But we've been on an Indian Summers hiatus of late. By tacit agreement, we just started doing other things in the evening.

The show's characters, though interesting, may have missed a certain je ne sais quoi. The plot, though intriguing, was not quite compelling. But my disquiet about the show was something else. Something more fundamental.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life, described three kinds of history. Monumental history glorifies the past; it holds up the heroes of yesteryear as models to be imitated. Critical history highlights all that was wrong in the past, and in so doing spurs us on to do better today. Antiquarian history is less dynamic: it describes the past as essentially the same as the present. It takes comfort in the great continuity of human society.

Viewed through this lens, Indian Summers is puzzling. It is not monumental. Although the splendor of the Raj is on display, the show clearly conveys that the Raj was oppressive, dishonest, and generally out of touch with the people it governed. And yet I would hesitate to describe the show as critical. The Indian nationalist movement - at least in the episodes we watched - comes off as morally justified, but not dramatically so, not enough to decisively turn our sympathies against the British characters. Given the enormity of the questions at stake, there is a surprising amount of moral ambivalence.

So Indian Summers must be antiquarian, right? Here we come to the crux of my complaint. At first glance, the show would not seem to fit the basic antiquarian mold: its power struggles, deceptions, and unbridled lust for power and the pleasures of the flesh bear little resemblance to my own life. Is this essentially the same as the present day?

Indian Summers is a mirror reflecting many of the worst qualities of 21st century America. The quest for power is taken as a given. Fornication and adultery are essentially no different from a good meal: if the cost is not unreasonable, well worth enjoying. Truth and justice, though not entirely banished, have become moral garnishes. For those who live in this version of modern society, Indian Summers conveys the message that the Raj looked much like the present. That which is enjoyed or feared, valued or despised today was held in similar regard in every age, was it not?

But for those of us who still inhabit those corners of contemporary society where desires are subordinated to duties, where power has value only in relation to the ends it accomplishes, where fidelity is not merely a burden to be carried but a virtue to be celebrated, Indian Summers is a depressing scene. That these shortcomings are not even recognized is more depressing still.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Journey to Colonus: A Historical Novel and Much More

Franklin Debrot's debut novel, Journey to Colonus, though a work of historical fiction long in the making, is a work for the present day, with themes of racial conflict, political divisions, campus agitation, and Russian influence in America. That all this is discussed in a novel which is well crafted makes it a very worthy candidate for your 2017 reading list.

The story begins in 1969, on the campus of a fictional black college in North Carolina, at a time of considerable political maneuvering, with alliances and factions abounding. Our main character, Thomas Doswell, a college professor, stands oddly apart from all this, focusing instead on great works of literature and philosophy. Through his unfolding relationships with his teaching assistants, we learn not only about his approach to education and the vicissitudes of their personal lives, but first and foremost about Doswell's secretive and dynamic past, including involvement with the Communist International.

Journey to Colonus has a measured pace. It takes much of the novel for all the key pieces to get into place, but Debrot ensures that these parts are as compelling as the whole. There are a few moments where the jumping between decades is a bit disorienting, but I was overwhelmingly impressed by Debrot's ability to develop characters and weave together the disparate elements of their stories. (As someone who has toyed with writing fiction, I can tell you that it's harder than it looks, arguably far harder than writing non-fiction.)

Debrot's novel rests on solid historical ground. An extensive appendix points to many of the author's sources for historical context. (From my own reading in American history and the history of the Comintern, including this biography of one agent, Journey to Colonus gets both the broad dynamics and the particular details right.) Moreover, the novel overlaps heavily with Debrot's own biography: growing up in New York, among the West Indian community, and teaching at a black college in North Carolina in the 1960s. This is familiar territory for him.

Some might object to what they see as an overly conservative book. After all, Senator Joseph McCarthy's role in the Tydings Committee's investigation of Communists in the State Department, for example, comes off broadly positive. But accusations of partisanship would be a superficial misreading of Journey to Colonus. The novel acknowledges that McCarthy was right, or very nearly so, about matters of national importance, but it also recognizes some unsavory elements of his personal life and tactical mistakes in his pursuit of Soviet influence. More to the point, Debrot's profoundly humane novel shows that people's actions, both personal and political, arise from a wealth of diverse influences. Without excusing immorality, Journey to Colonus acknowledges that results often differ from intentions, that people are sometimes funneled by their pasts into certain paths, and that appearances are not always what they seem.

At its heart, this novel addresses a topic that has been of considerable interest to me in the last few years, a topic found from Shakespeare's plays to such recent television shows as The Crown and The Man in the High Castle, namely the intersection of the personal and political. National and international politics do not simply happen on their own: they are the products of individuals and their interactions, with all the quirks that entails. Likewise, politics does not simply exist in newspaper headlines, but has real implications for the lives of individuals. All of which makes the pursuit of wisdom and authentic relationships so important. Journey to Colonus is an enjoyable and enlightening guide along that path.