Monday, May 31, 2010

A lovely idea

"I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?"

"Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sound terribly sensible to me."

"But my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all!"

"Can't I?"

"I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass."

"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."

"But you can't believe things because they are a lovely idea."

"But I do. That's how I believe."
from Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh                          

As a general epistemological principle, I'm not sure how far I'd go with that one. Sebastian believes the way a child believes. Then again, there is good scriptural basis for believing as a child and there is no doubt we spend too much time trying to be terribly sophisticated about knowledge even though this rarely gets us anywhere.

Sometimes, though, it just seems right. Today is the Feast of the Visitation. It is of medieval origin according to my Bishop and "it was kept by the Franciscan Order before 1263, and soon its observance spread throughout the entire Church." Much of the Christmas lore that Charles challenges Sebastian about in the quoted section of Brideshead Revisited above also originates with the Franciscans (even with Francis himself).

In any case, what really struck me in the Archbishop's post was that one of the things we commemorate with the Visitation is "the cleansing of John the Baptist from original sin in the womb of his mother at the words of Our Lady's greeting."

The Baptist baptized in his mother's amniotic fluid. There is something just so terribly right about that that I am willing to take it on the sheer loveliness of the idea alone.

in the beauty of the lillies

I love this song, have always loved it.

And what a choir. AS the Serpentine One says, how can that many people manage to sound as tight as barbershop quartet?

(I'll save Mad Men until tomorrow. There are more important things to think about today.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The other reading

Saint Paul to the Romans 5:1-5
Therefore, since we have been justified in faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have have gained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
As always with Paul, there is an immense amount packed into the sentences. One of the things packed in is how terribly important virtue is to Saint Paul. To read Saint Paul as saying how we act doesn't matter is to seriously misread him. (Even more problematically, it is to read him in a  way that cannot be reconciled with large sections of the Bible, including the Gospels and other letters.)

In any case:
Take your afflictions as a good,
and you will develop endurance,
and endurance will given you a proven character,
and a proven character will give you hope.
Faith, is a way of living. Faith is never alone because you cannot have faith without actions.

E.P. Sanders says somewhere that James misunderstood Paul but overlooks the possibility that James may have been responding to others who misunderstood Paul. Or even that Paul needed to learn from James before he could know what to really say. In any case, there are many around today who misunderstand Paul. In sola fide the fide is right and the sola is wrong.

Worse than wrong, really, it's meaningless and useless. You cannot know you have faith without action. Go ahead, have faith as strong as you can with out actions. What does this mean. Are you scrunching up your forehead? Sorry, that is action. When Luther added "alone" after faith, he did nothing at all. That word means nothing whatsoever in that context.

A digression: It's often seemed to me that the same concern applies to "Q". That there were other sources, of course, but there is no good reason to assume just one other source. That Matthew and Luke both drew on additional sources is a trivial point of little profound significance. It is only by making Q into a single source that scholars make him or her seem terribly important. But there is no reason to assume that. In fact, the most likely explanation by far is that both Luke and Matthew were drawing on a common understanding shared among early Christians.

But to admit that would be to deflate the balloons of an awful lot of scholars.


I'm reading this Sunday and have drawn some real gems. The Psalm is #8 and the second reading is the first five verses of Romans. And then there there is this lovely bit of Proverbs:
Thus says the wisdom of God:
"The LORD possessed me, the beginning of his ways,
the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago;
from of old I was poured forth,
at the first, before the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no fountains or springs of water;
before the mountains were settled into place,
before the hills, I was brought forth;
while as yet the earth and fields were not made,
nor the first clods of the world.

"When the LORD established the heavens I was there,
when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;
when he made firm the skies above,
when he fixed fast the foundations of th earth;
when he set for the sea its limit,
so that the waters should not transgress his command;
then was I beside him as his craftsman,
and I was his delight day by day,
playing before him all the while,
playing on the surface of his earth;
and I found delight in the human race."
How different that is from Phillip Neri's saying of the other day.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Original position

John Rawls famously asked us what it would be like to imagine what sort of society we would like if we didn't know what position we would have in that society. The assumption was that we would pick a society based on some sort of liberal compassion because we could not be sure that we might not been one of the people who needs compassion.

I'm sure that is true but what sort of compassion.

Would we really choose a society in which people were infantilized by rules that increasingly took responsibility away from them. I think that even if we accept the Rawlsian rules for imagining a society, we'd still want one in which people were left to fall on their faces if they make bad choices.

The planet is not my mother

Walking through the Glebe on my way back from Mass this morning, I passed a woman wearing a T-shirt that read, "Respect your mother." Underneath this slogan was a picture of the earth.

How did this ridiculous and primitive (in the worst sense of the word) idea get back into our culture. I thought the same thing the other day reading that someone is taking a chip from Newton's apple tree out into space. When did science become a superstitious cult? And when did people start thinking that a hunk of rocks, liquids and gases hurtling through space was their 'mother'?

And when did we turn into a bunch of foolish children?

Sensibilities revisted

As I plug along through Sense and Sensibility, reading it as slowly as I have ever done, I keep being reminded that I'm not really sure what to make of the issue of feelings.  There are some things we do know. I think I can set out a sort of creed of what I believe to be true of Austen on feelings.
  1. Having sensibilities is a good thing and, all else being equal, the person with strong feelings is a better person than the one without.
  2. Sensibility is not something we are born with like blue eyes but something we must develop like the ability to play a musical instrument.
  3. There is no difference whatsoever between Marianne and Elinor in terms of the depth of their feeling. The only difference is that Marianne's feelings are not governed and Elinor's are.
  4. Governing your feelings means controlling them so they do not lead you to act in ways that run counter to society or (as we shall soon see) the basic facts of life.
But what about the ways in which sensibility makes us a better person? There I think the answers are not so easy to tease out. We can see, for example, that it is to Elinor's credit that she can sense Edward's love for her even though he is not a liberty to declare it or even allow it to show. Even Marianne is not, we will later learn, wrong in thinking Willoughby loves her for he does love her.

Conversely, we should probably condemn Lucy for failing to see that Edward does not love her anymore. And she should realize this even though Edward not only cannot say he does not love her but must go on saying he does.

How, for example, would Elinor respond if she were the one that Edward had made the youthful engagement to but she now sensed that he was no longer in love with her? She would know that simply offering to set him free would not work because he would be honour-bound to refuse her. I think, in such a situation, she would choose to tell Edward that she no longer loved him and ask him to free her. Then his honour would oblige him to accept. That would be a terribly lonely choice, a point I'll come back to, but her feelings would demand it.

By the way, should Edward actually be in love with Lucy even now? I mean, if constancy is a virtue then surely having been in love and having made his engagement , perhaps Edward should nurture his love and keep it alive. That would certainly be a challenge. Or does that only come after marriage?

And feeling, whatever it is, seems to be a lonely thing. Elinor, Marianne and Colonel Brandon all have feeling and it seems to isolate them. Willoughby, to give the devil his due, is also isolated by his feelings.

Given all this, we might wonder if feelings are such a good thing to have.

Or is the point more simply that feelings without sense are bad precisely because feelings are not connected to anything outside of us?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Who should inherit the earth?

Coming out of mass this morning I walked uptown. As a group of us came up alongside the exit from an underground garage, the sidewalk was blocked by large truck that had just made a garbage pick up from the building that owned the parking garage. The truck was trying to make a right turn into traffic.

Two women and I waited patiently. A man in the group did not. He shouted at the truck driver and demanded that he back down the ramp again so that we could pass. The driver tried explaining that this was the only way he could get into traffic. No matter to the man. He was in a hurry and as a pedestrian he had rights.

The truck driver gave in graciously and backed down to let us by. The man didn't give him so much as a thank you.

I called him on it. He didn't appreciate it. He appears to work at the Bank of Canada, by the way, which I did not find reassuring.

When I was learning to sail and learning the rules governing right of way I was taught that there were cases where you should not insist on your rights. Sail has right of way over power for example but sailors should show courtesy and tack out of the way when a working vessel such as a fishing boat or a tug comes along. These people are working and we should show some respect.

I apply the same sort of rule in cases like this morning. It's hard work driving a large truck to pick up garbage during Friday-morning rush hour. And we owe that guy. If he wasn't around we'd soon miss him. If we can make his life easier by showing him a little courtesy, then it is beholden upon us to do so.

Thinking about the incident afterward, I remembered a great hat I'd seen years before. It read, "If the meek inherit the earth, who'll drive the big trucks." I've always liked that joke and I've liked it all the more because some people really don't like it. But it occurred to me today, that I'd seen a situation that was the reverse of the assumption behind the joke. The humble, polite man was the one driving the big truck.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fillipo Neri (3)

"The heat and the sweat and the life"
Fitzgerald did that on purpose. In some people's books it would count as blasphemy to echo Christ's words like that. It might seem like setting up a rival good to God's good. In a  section of the story that I did not quote in the earlier post, Fitzgerald seems to literally do that,
... underneath his [Rudolph's] terror he felt that his own inner convictions were confirmed. There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God. He no longer thought that God was angry at him about the original lie, because He must have understood that Rudolph had done it to make things finer in the confessional, brightening up the dinginess of his admissions by saying a thing radiant and proud.
I for one, cannot think of anything gorgeous that doesn't have to do with God. Then again, I think of God when I see women's breasts. Wordly beauty seems to me to have everything to do with God. It is the ugliness of the world that seems to have nothing to do with God.

But I can see how poor old Rudolph got boxed into believing otherwise. He grew up in a  culture that had been set up as a rival culture to what we might loosely call "the world". In the 1920s, when Fitzgerald wrote "Absolution" the dikes around that dry, ascetic culture were beginning to leak.  But we shouldn't think it a weak idea for all that as it had thrived for centuries before that. That rival culture was the work of a lot of people but it was especially the work of Phillip Neri. It was his work that took the life of monastic contemplation out of the monastery and set it up as an ideal for every Catholic.

And not just Catholics.

American* Catholicism has lately lost its ability to present an alternative culture for believers. It was much a part of Catholic life in North America when Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, all lived in the same section of cities where they went to the same church and attended the same school. They had their own rival to the YMCA and groups like the CWL and the Knights were powerful forces within that subculture. It started to lose its grip as more Catholics moved to the suburbs. The recent sex scandals (overwhelmingly the molesters were Irish priests and brothers) were probably the death knell for that sort of culture.

There is a virtual Catholic culture springing up on blogs and at the EWTN but this strikes me as a parallel to the big downtown church that still attracts the big congregations. Few Catholics live around that church anymore so it fills up with people who drive some distance to get there. When they walk out and those big doors close behind them or they log off their computer, they are free of the sort of cultural direction that Phillip Neri and other counter-reformationists sought to create. Like young Rudolph in the story, they take their private pleasures having convinced themselves that God does not disapprove.

Some of my Catholic friends argue that this is because the representatives of the church are no longer teaching Catholic morality. There is some truth to that but when I talk to Catholics who seem to be casually ignoring church teaching on, for example, sexuality or the church's social and economic teaching, it is not because they don't know the church teaches differently. They ignore because they have decided long ago that the church has lost moral authority in these areas. And they don't disagree so much as they just don't pay attention. They might take church teaching as directional but they ignore any specific prohibitions that inconvenience them.

(An aside, although sexuality and birth control gets all the limelight, I think it is actually the church's loss of authority in social and economic matters that has done the most damage. Individual Catholics found it easier to ignore church teaching on sexuality because the social and economic teaching had long ago stopped feeling relevant to most American Catholics.)

I don't think I am telling anyone here anything they don't know. My father did a survey of opinion at his church for his Pastor and found that less than one third of the regular churchgoers (i.e. not just members but people who are sitting on a pew 52 weeks a year) regard the church's economic and social teaching or sexual teaching to be binding. How much longer this can go on is anyone's guess. It might well last for centuries to come. I could be wrong but I don't think the moralistic monastic ideal can be revived again.

* I use "American" to mean the culture that predominates through both the United States and Canada.

Fillipo Neri (2)

"Did you ever see an amusement park?"

"No, Father."

"Well, go and see an amusement park." The priest waved his hand vaguely. "It's like a fair, only much more glittering. Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place—under dark trees. You'll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air, and a long slide shooting boats down into the water. A band playing somewhere, and a smell of peanuts—and everything will twinkle. But it won't remind you of anything you see. It will all just hang out there in the night like a colored balloon—like a big yellow lantern on a pole."

Father Schwartz frowned as he suddenly thought of something.

"But don't get up close," he warned Rudolph, " because if you do you'll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life."


Then a human oppression rose from the priest's worn clothes, and mingled with the faint smell of old food in the corners. Rudolph gave a sharp cry of pain and ran in a panic from the house—while the collapsed man lay there quite still, filling his room, filling it with voices and faces until it was crowded with echolalia, and rang with a steady, shrill note of laughter.

Outside the wind the blue sirocco trembled over the wheat, and girls with yellow hair walked sensuously along roads that bounded along the fields, calling innocent, exciting things to the young men who were working in the lines between the grain. Legs were shaped under starchless gingham, and rims of the necks of dresses were warm and damp. It would be night in three hours, and all along the land there would be these blonde Northern girls and tall young men from the farms lying out beside the wheat, under the moon.

From "Absolution" (1924) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

More to come

Fillipo Neri

Yesterday was the feast day of Saint Phillip Neri.

There was a time in my life when I was much influenced by Phillip. And then I stopped being so. It never occurred to me to wonder why.

Yesterday, on his feast day, my Bishop decided to highlight this quote from Phillip:
If we find nothing in the world to please us, we ought to be pleased by this very not finding anything to please us.
Try to imagine what it would be like to live that philosophy. I keep thinking, Did Jesus find nothing to be please him in this world? And I think, there are a lot of people in this world, should we be pleased if we found that none of the people in the world pleased us?

Wine pleases me. Cheese pleases me. So do bread, flowers, coffee, clean sheets, sunshine, books, songs and so many other things that I couldn't begin to list them all. These things please me so much it strikes me as a travesty of morality that anyone could not find something to like in the world. It's excusable as a symptom of depression of course but if you find yourself thinking that nothing in the world pleases you, you should do something about it. Only someone who is sick could think such a thing.

I should add that of the many things in the world that please, women please me the most. They don't have to do anything in particular. Just being present is enough to please me. That said, it doesn't take me long to imagine taking pleasure in more than just their presence.

That's the step that seems to have worried Phillip the most. He used to gather young men around him and spend hours with them praying through the hours of night when temptation was strongest. His big struggle was not—contrary to what the quote above suggests—being unable to find anything to please him in the world. His struggle was to overcome a desire for the things of this world, particularly the things to be found in the freedom of the city.

He was a big promoter of the use of contemplation as a way to overcome temptation. In his later years he read only two books: the Bible and the Summa Theologica. And there we can see his primary influence: Phillip took the spirit of monastic life and applied it to life outside the monastery.

Was this a good thing? More this afternoon.

An open letter to Andrew

Hey Andrew,

I've been reading your blog Theology of Andrew for a while now and something has been bugging me. I guess the question that keeps popping into my head is "Are you really serious?"

Here is what I mean. In response to one of your recent posts, Fred asked you some personal (and I thought pretty profound) questions:
Andrew - here's a contemporary document for you: how did the disciples meet Jesus? Is the same method possible today? Do you want to know about someone or to know someone?
In your answer, however, you immediately switch over to a question about the authority of the Catholic church:
I would love to meet Jesus, but how do I know that the Jesus taught by the Catholic Church is the true Jesus. 
And that response of yours  helped me clarify a vague concern I've been having about what you have been posting for a while now. You present yourself as a person who has converted to Catholicism but is now having doubts if not going through a personal crisis about his faith. At the same time, however, the concerns you write about always seem to get expressed in terms of classic Protestant critiques of Catholicism or in terms of classic apologetic arguments in response to Protestantism.

And when Fred asks a direct personal question about what you want, what you are seeking, you immediately change the subject to something that sounds like it comes not from your heart but from a pamphlet.

This got me intrigued enough to click on your profile and there I saw that you have two other blogs and one of them has a post from March 29 titled Where Philosophy Gets Fun. And that post includes lines like these:
My favourite philosophy is philosophical theology or religious philosophy. I find it much more intriguing learning about Islam and different Mystic views and then analyzing them by the light of reason, than hacking it out with a 20-something ex-Baptist who is angry at everyone, and thinks Richard Dawkins is the messiah. That's not real philosophy. It's like my fellow Brock students who think they're Buddhists, but don't actually believe that the Dalai Lama is an incarnation of God, don't believe in Karma, and believe in the self, etc.

Comparative religious study is fun. It's like that line in Hamlet "there's more in Heaven and on earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy".


Living is the thrill of the realist philosopher because life is where the theories of philosophy encounter the testing ground.  
And I ask myself, is Theology of Andrew really about deep personal questions of yours or are you just having fun posting a bunch of classic positions from Catholic-Protestant debates to see how it all plays out? Is this a personal struggle I am reading or just the testing ground for a lot of ideas? You have told your readers that this is really about a personal struggle.

Which brings me back to Fred's trio of very good questions:
  1. How did the disciples meet Jesus? 
  2. Is the same method possible today? 
  3. Do you want to know about someone or to know someone?
We've just passed Pentecost, when Jesus told us that he would ask his Father to send us an Advocate. Do you want Jesus in your life? Never mind apostolicity, tradition, magisterium and the rest of the alphabet soup, Jesus has promised you that the Holy Spirit is available to you.

There is a point where you either believe in Jesus or you don't. I have an orange in my hand. I can feel it. I can smell it. I can taste and see its goodness. It would be foolish to ask epistemological questions about how I know that orange is real. Do you want the same experience of Jesus through the Holy Spirit?

Here's another question, God reaches out to everyone: those capable of understanding complex philosophical arguments and those who cannot. He loves the history major and he loves the guy who just sits in the corner rocking back and forth and gurgling.  How do you suppose he makes his presence felt to a six year old child? Why is Saint Paul so adamant on telling us that God thinks little of the wisdom of this world: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,  and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”

And another, your profile lists Brideshead Revisited as one of your favourite books. You may remember that in the climatic scenes where Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte have their big fight over whether to ask the local priest to perform extreme unction for Lord Marchmain, Charles keeps asking "But what is the priest for?" His problem is that God's grace does not require any human intermediary so why not just leave Lord Marchmain alone and he either will or will not ask God to forgive his sins. It's an awfully good question . What is the priest for? Never mind the specifically Catholic priest, why any human intermediary at all? Why any church at all?

Answer this wherever you like. If you prefer to post on your own blog that is fine with me. Or answer it in your heart and don't tell anyone but yourself and God. But, whatever you do, answer personally. Don't dump out a lot of technical vocabulary and call that an answer. Where and how do you feel a need for Jesus? And then just go with that.

Regards, J.A.          

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Godomatic again

I wrote:
All this thinking about what is or is not justification runs out at some point and we turn to God and acknowledge our dependence on Him. For what is impossible for us is not impossible for Him and He will save whom He will.
 Some, reading this have said, but that is just what justification by faith alone is all about. Well, no it isn't. Justification by faith is a desperate attempt to create some sort of mechanism to make justification happen. "Have faith and you will be saved" and that takes God out of the equation.

In the end, our faith is based on God's promise. We trust and hope and love in that but no one can ever claim to know what God will do.

Infidelity again and again

The virtues of mad men
 We don't have any back story on the state of the Draper marriage in the year and a bit since the end of season one so it's up to us to imagine one. I think it is safe to say that Betty did not confront Don about his infidelities for the simple reason that she doesn't know about them in any definite way. What she has done is used her psychotherapist to channel the message that she wants Don to be faithful to her.

And I think we can assume that Don has tried. This is the episode where he falls off the wagon.

"She needs to be told what to do"
Betty is talking about a horse when she says these lines but she could just as easily have been describing Bobbi Barrett.

One of the things that the show fails to recognize is how much of the culture of the time was driven by male anger towards women. The anger is there but it is portrayed as a thing of the past not as what it was which is a major driving force of the 1960s. This anger is one of the things that did lead to the 1960s having to happen.Think of a songs like "Under My Thumb," "Day Tripper," "Stay With Me" and "All Right Now." An awful lot of the 1960s was anti-woman driven by male frustration that women weren't sexually available.

In retrospect, we tell a story about feminism, and this show is very concerned to do do that, but it was a male desire for easier access to sex and more open acknowledgment of sex that made feminism possible. You need Esquire and then Playboy before you can have Ms. We're understandably loathe to admit this because  there is something frat boyish about this earlier male rebellion that feminism has never been comfortable with but it is an absolutely essential part ofthe story.

Without acknowledging this, the show still reflects it in many ways including the contrast between Betty and Bobbi's characters. Both push push men who show weakness around and both respond to some assertion on the part of those men positively although Betty always stops short of actual sex. (Don, unusually, comes off very passive vis a vis Bobbi.)

There is a touch where Don comes home and immediately washes Bobbi's scent off his face and hands and even washes his mouth out. It's all very meaningful I'm sure but Don is the sort of guy who keeps fresh shirts in his desk drawer at work. he'd have the sense to stop at a cocktail lounge on the way home and wash his face and hands and he'd get the inside of his mouth with Rye.

It's there because there is a parallel scene where Betty comes back from the stables where wimpy guy has been putting some moves on her and is obviously excited enough by the event that she wants to get upstairs and have a shower before Don discovers evidence of her excitement.

Which is odd in a sense for if Don were to make such a discovery, he'd be unlikely to worry about the provenance of his good blessing. We men are like that. In another sense, it's not so odd. We can easily imagine a woman behaving as Betty has here.

But this is also the source of much of that male anger of that period. Betty and Bobbi are more or less the same. Both are profoundly sad, both are addicted to endless sexual power games. The only difference is that Bobbi's games end in actual sex. Given the choice, who would you pick?

In the short run I mean. In the long run both women are despicable types and I refer you again to those songs.

Massive hypocrisy
There is a subplot revolving around an old episode of a really lame 1960s show called The Defenders that mentioned abortion and that had no sponsors as a consequence. It's another instance of the moral superiority fixation Mad Men has. We're all supposed to think how very far we have come.  And yet the show is incredibly hypocritical on this front because it won't go there either. Abortion gets mentioned but they wouldn't dare have any character actually choose to have one because they'd lose audience in a big way and probably sponsors too if they did. (Update: I was vinidcated on this in season 4.)

Or do they recognize their own hypocrisy through Harry who goes home to his wife and can't bring himself to tell her what the Defenders episode was about?

The ending
Raymond Chandler famously said that a  good mystery is one you would read even if the ending were missing.  This episode would have been considerably improved if the ending had been left off. It's like someone pasted it on to try and disguise what the episode was really about.

Which is probably exactly what happened. No one really cares about Betty and they know it.

Odds and ends
Two characters evoke the fifties. Roger says he misses the fifties and then Harry's friend at CBS whom he calls tells him he misses the blacklist.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.)

To Kill a Mockingbird at 50

There are always a lot of books of "a certain era" that I don't think get read much anymore. My guess is that hardly anyone today reads To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, and many others (including the works of James Joyce) unless it is assigned to them.

For baby boomers, however, these books seem terribly important and we will be plagued with discussions of them until, as my mother used to say, the last dog is hung. A situation that I might welcome if I wasn't one of the dogs myself.

In any case, To Kill a Mockingbird is 50 years old and that has revived the usual questions about whether Truman Capote actually wrote the book. The only piece of evidence ever advanced for this is that Harper Lee never wrote another book after it. Capote never wrote anything after In Cold Blood either of course.

That said, it strikes me as a silly question. Mockingbird is one of those impassioned books. It was written because its author had to write it. Capote, on the other hand, seems like someone who never did anything (including sex) with passion. He was one of those people more interested in being a writer than actually writing. Once he was famous, he didn't have sufficient incentive to actually write anything again.

But I would think that anyone who has written would see that the authorship question is secondary to the editorship question. It is not, of course, impossible that one or the other wrote all the books but it seems far more likely that these two acted as editors for one another. And when they stopped doing that neither could do anything at all.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A couple of theological matters

Andrew over at Theology of Andrew thinks and reads a lot. Sometimes his reading troubles him as was the case in a recent article by William Webster.

I won't get into the debate because I think much of it is just wheel spinning. Webster is correct in concluding that the argument for much Catholic doctrine is troublesome if you do not wish to accept the authority of the Catholic Church. But surely that is not something we didn't know already.

On the flip side, he is faced with two, I believe, insurmountable problems. The first is that sola scriptura is not scriptural. The second is that sola fide is empty. By the time he and others have finished making the qualifications  necessary to defend it from the obvious objections, the concept is drained of any meaningful content.

But there are two aspects of the Webster article that are worth commenting on

The fundamental problem I have with all theological argument of this sort is that God Himself gets swept under the concept of God. God is a being who exists and is free. He is not and cannot be enclosed by our concepts of Him. I don't mean some bit of trite negative theology by this but a  commonplace point that could just as easily be made about my friend Ellen. No matter how much I think I know about Ellen, she can still act contrary to what I expect of her. Too much theology reduces God to a mechanism, a sort of Godomatic.

To believe in God in any meaningful way is to accept that He is a real being who will decide what He decides. All this thinking about what is or is not justification runs out at some point and we turn to God and acknowledge our dependence on Him. For what is impossible for us is not impossible for Him and He will save whom He will. That may even include a shocking number of rich people for all we know.

The Mary conundrum
Webster says this in his discussion about the Assumption of Mary:
This Church is claiming the authority to bind men’s souls eternally by the promulgation of doctrines such as he Assumption of Mary that have neither scriptural nor traditional support based solely on her own supposed authority. Certainly there are many, many Roman Catholics who though they have never been formally excommunicated are nonetheless informally in that state since they do doubt and even deny certain dogmas and are thereby guilty of heresy.
I know this will trouble many people on my behalf, but I think the really telling thing about the doctrines about Mary is how little difference they make to Christology. They, in fact, make none at all.

If Mary was assumed after her death into heaven does that make her Christ's equal? No it doesn't. Is there any reason to believe that God couldn't have caused the Assumption? No there isn't. There is no reason to believe he had to do it either but he could have done it and nothing about our relationship with Christ changes if he did.

How hard is that to accept? To meet the letter of the law, that is all you have to do. You do not have to have a particular devotion to Mary to be a Catholic. All you have to do is accept these doctrines as true.

The Immaculate Conception is the same. God gave Mary a free choice. She could have said "no".

And here it strikes me that the hard argument is on the other foot. God chose to ask Mary to help him implement his plan to redeem humanity. The scriptural evidence for that is considerably plainer and more compelling than many other more easily accepted doctrines. And once we accept that, it's a little hard to believe that Mary is just an ordinary human being. Human and nothing but human to be sure but there are special human beings and she is undoubtedly one of the more special ones in God's eye.

Ora pro nobis
 To  say the Hail Mary is to do two things. It is to repeat what is in Luke and then it it is to ask Mary to pray for us much as I might ask my friend to pray for me. To ask a particular saint, such as Mary, to do this is to line ourselves up with a particular set of values that are connected with that saint; either you seek the particular virtues and graces this saint exemplified or you see some similarity between their trials and yours.

People who have a concern with this are often concerned that doing this is to step out onto a slippery slope at the bottom of which lies idolatry. And they are right, it's something that needs to be done with extreme care.

And that is the other thing I find odd about Webster's response. He ignores the more salient point. The Catholics who are informally excommunicated are far less likely to be the ones who hesitate at the doctrine of the Assumption but rather those who don't hesitate. This is an issue where we should proceed with doubt and hesitation. Not doubt about what the church teaches but rather in figuring out what it means to our life and if and how we will change our behaviour as a consequence. It's not my business to say who exactly has or has not plunged in too deeply but if I was going to look anywhere for the informally excommunicated, I'd look among those who are always trying to push the parallel between Mary and Jesus as far as they can.


The virtues of mad men
 Driven by preppy guilt

The Serpentine One was reading John P Marquand's Wickford Point and she mentioned to me that she found it odd that Marquand is so consistent in his satire of the very society he was a part of. And it's not as if he spent his actual life rejecting this world. He came from a prominent family and married into an even more prominent one. He spent his life accumulating wealth in classic East-coast upper-middle class style and ended up living in a mansion on a property of a little under 500 acres.

There is an early Anthony Powell novel that has a line in it that I have always loved. In the story, a young writer has been dumped by his girlfriend for another writer. The appeal of the other writer is that he cares about the working class as evidenced by his embrace of Marxism. Anyway, the jilted writer says of this other guy, "Yes, he understands the working class. You can tell he does because he is making certain he'll never be a part of it." (Like a lot of Powell's dry humour, this cuts both ways.)

Marquand is of the opposite phenomenon. He spent his entire life attacking the upper-middle class culture of East Coast while simultaneously making sure he would be part of it. And it's not just him. The New Yorker's entire existence is based on mocking the very values it is most determined to uphold. After a while you begin to wonder if the whole stance of attacking their own culture isn't really a clever way of keeping the riffraff out.

Anyway, to the second episode of Season 2 where we see this same phenomenon beginning to work itself out in the life of our various characters. We see people desperately trying to live certain kinds of life only being dragged down by guilt at ... well guilt about what exactly? And how is atonement to be achieved. This is a big theme in art these days. There is even a novel with that title.

But what exactly is sin and what is atonement?

For example, we learn in this episode that Paul Kinsey stole a typewriter from the office and sat by while a young woman was almost fired for his infraction. And yet he feels no guilt about this. What really troubles him is the sense of not being authentic. The sense that he is just a poseur playing at being a hipster.

Peggy, meanwhile, has had a  baby she has never acknowledged. But again, her entire moral interest is in fitting into the office. What troubles her is never really feeling part of it because she is a woman in a male world.

Finally, we have little Bobby who has traced a drawing out of a book and passed it off as his own work. Francine and Carlton come over for a bridge party and the incident is discussed:
Francine: The book says that they begin fibbing at this age. They want to see if they can make it come true.

Betty: I don't need a book to know what little boys do. (Followed by a significant look at Don.)
Again, the real sin here seems to be failing to be authentic. To which my answer is, but he did make it come true. He is Don Draper. Everyone who follows the show knows that. No one imagines that he is still really Dick Whitman hiding in the Don Draper role.

Old fashioned
Having taken advantage of my position of blogging in hindsight to mock those who have gotten things gloriously wrong, let me take a moment to praise Alan Sepinwall who get it right:
Don has always resisted the flash of the new. His entire career is built on older values. Again and again, he's given chances with his ad campaigns to look forward, and again and again he chooses to look back. 
And he is very old-fashioned. To return to the John P Marquand theme, Draper is very much a  convert to the east coast, upper-middle class culture. He can't afford the sort of ironic stance of Marquand. He has to embrace these values and he does.

The really nice example of which in this episode is his handling of the Mohawk Airlines issue. It's not just that Don is the only one who operates according to the old rules its the way he faces the man from Mohawk. He doesn't try and defend what has happened. He lets that man think he has betrayed the values. Imagine Pete Campbell in the same situation. He'd have blamed his colleagues and said he hadn't supported the decision. Don just takes it because that is the old east-coast way.

Which is what makes the contrast with Pete Campbell so interesting. The creators have not done much with Pete yet. The little we know is that he has consciously rejected the very values Don seeks to embrace by getting disowned by his family to pursue a career in advertising. It's an unusual sort of rebellion. Is there a historical model for him?

In this episode we learn that Pete's father died in a plane crash and seems to have died insolvent. There is an encounter with the family which is odd because no one knows how to behave. This is odd because if there is anything that is supposed to define the east-coast preppy set it is that they always know what to say and how to dress. Weiner has made them something else.

Meanwhile, Don Draper is the guy who always knows how to dress and behave and always knows what to say. The guy playing the role (Don) handles it better than the guy (Pete) who inherited it. There is a deep lesson here.

I don't think Weiner himself sees it though. For him the ultimate sin is about being inauthentic.

It may be simply that he doesn't know any better.  It maybe that he has read the New Yorker and Updike and seen Margot at the Wedding and thinks he knows what it was really like based on that the way a lot of people write knowledgeably about the Vietnam war based on having seen a bunch of movies and having read Michael Herr.

There are certainly no end of weird mistakes and anomalies. Mr. Campbell is supposed to have spent his way into bankruptcy on the oysters, travel and club memberships. That's a lot of oysters. And these people didn't travel, they summered at the place their grandfather bought for $35 decades ago. Finally, the club memberships weren't that expensive. It was the initiation fees that were prohibitive precisely so that guys like Pete's dad could keep up the memberships at little cost while making it hard for others to get in.

Marquand was at least mocking a world he understood. Weiner is mocking a world that is as unreal to him as Oz.

The show also gets Catholicism wrong. First there is the simple matter of rising and going to the communion rail. Catholics just get up en masse and shuffle forward. The show has them getting up in an orderly way row-by-row like Episcopalians.

More importantly, there is Peggy's decision not to receive communion. In terms of strict theology, she does the right thing. If you have a major sin against your soul, you should not receive until you have obtained absolution. But Peggy isn't supposed to believe this, she even says this doesn't matter to her. She is only going so as to please her mother by appearing to be part of the community. But by not receiving, she is signaling that she is not in communion with the others. Once and she could tell others that she accidentally ate something before mass but week after week of not receiving and she would have everyone talking about her.

And the confessional really is absolutely secret. She doesn't actually have to confess her sin if she doesn't really believe it's a sin. Her mother and sister need never know. And Peggy Olson should both know this and be cynical enough to do it.

The problem is probably that Weiner doesn't know any better.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here .

(Oh yeah, Season one begins here if you are interested.)

Girls behaving badly

Yet another sorority party has degenerated in a booze-, vomit- and sex-filled debacle. Unlike some others, this sort of thing does not cause me to worry too much. I find it reassuring in a sense because I think the belief that women are in any sense morally superior to men is one of the silliest and most destructive ideas to ever afflict western culture.

And I find it bizarre beyond words that some feminists continue to support the idea.

Anyway, the phenomenon described above strikes me as a function of having more women than men in universities. A new female-dominated culture is forming as women are increasingly forced into the company of other women. If current trends continue, university will tend to become something of a mirror image of what it used to be. For a long time, most universities had all or mostly male populations meaning that men spent much of the years in which their sex drive was strongest in a male culture.

Women will now do the same.

I leave it to the reader to make what they will of this interesting tidbit from the report above:
... and tried to tear off the clothes of a female bartender ...
It's fascinating that they picked on another woman. One of the central claims of feminism is that women suffered by being expected to live up to male definitions of femininity.

That's true enough. But I wonder, however, if women will feel any better when they are expected to live up to definitions of femininity set by other women. I can think of at least one female bartender who might have her doubts.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The perils of second marriages

I walked by someone I know today and we made eye contact and nodded politely. And that was about it. It's not that we had nothing to say or couldn't have thought of something to say. The problem was the thing that was obviously not to say.

She happens to be she but the same circumstance could have just as easily have arisen with some he.

The problem is her second marriage or, to be more accurate, her failed second marriage since she and her second husband no longer are married. Getting married a second time is a deadly serious thing to do.

As I think I've written here before, marriages (and other serious loving relationships) only end for three possible reasons: it's either his fault, her fault or they are both at fault. If, after a first failure, you never try again, you can always comfort yourself with the notion that it was all the other person's fault or that the fault was shared but was redeemable on your side.

But if you marry again a subsequent failure is going to make it pretty clear to most people (although not necessarily to you yourself) that you just don't have what it takes to make one of these marriage things work. The level of denial that can operate in these circumstances is incredible. It is not so strong, however, that people don't know better at some level. And thus the impossibility of having a conversation with the particular she I walked by today.

Once, for example, we were talking and she started to expound upon the things that had gone wrong. She was doing just fine for a while and then she said something about it being exactly the same as her first marriage. That's the kind of statement that ought to set off alarm bells. As the old saw has it, "If you keep finding yourself in positions where you have to deal with people who are complete jerks, the problem is you."

That time, a few years ago now, she tried to dig her way out of the hole by citing examples. Every example was really an example of her intolerance of frailty in others.

That was the word that came to mind as I walked the rest of the way home. Frailty. Human frailty.

And then I thought of The Philadelphia Story. I have always liked that movie but there was an aspect of morality in it that troubled me. I've never liked the way the movie justifies the extra-marital affair of Seth Lord. What hit me today is that that sub plot is only incidental to the story. The real point is about human frailty and having a regard for it.

Crusading for free speech

In Rocky Mountain, Virginia, five teenagers have been arrested on pornography charges. The whole thing began when a high school student took her boyfriend's cell phone to the washroom and took nude pictures of herself.

Radley Balko (great name) over at Instapundit is concerned that this sort of arrest is happening too often. It's not that I don't see his point, it's just that I'm not sure that crusading for the rights of teenage girls to take nude photos of themselves is exactly the sort of thing for adults to be getting themselves riled up about.

In any case, the article makes it pretty clear that the chances of actual convictions arising from the incident are nonexistent. And the community and its police force do have a reasonable interest in discouraging teenagers from circulating nude photos of themsleves and a good deal of said interest is in the girls's own interest. Granted the felony charges are a heavy handed way to deal with this but it's a new problem.

And, at the risk of coming off as a spoilsport, if you are a teenage girl, taking nude pictures of yourself is a stupid thing to do. Taking the picture with a cell phone that belongs to some guy is beyond stupid.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Scotch Rose

I realize as an adult that the roses I knew as "wild" roses growing up on the shores of the Bay of Fundy were actually Rugosas. When my mother was a little girl, "wild" roses were actually naturalized Scotch roses like this one (Courtesy of Wikipedia):

Was there some overlap? Were there some Scotch roses around when I was a kid? There were. The funny thing is that the twelve year old me was more knowledgeable about these things that I am now. He could identify a whole raft of wild flowers and would have unhesitatingly remembered whether or not the ones on the way down to the beach were Scotch roses or not.

At any rate, by the time I was twelve, escaped Rugosas were well-established down the eastern seaboard but not yet an invasive species. It was considered a blessing to find one. The Scotch roses were different because you usually found them where their used to be a garden. If you looked around the area where you found one there was often a foundation where a farmhouse used to be.

As I say, there were some on the way down to the beach from the place where we used to summer. They might easily have been Scotch roses because the hill side was always eroding and occasionally reclaiming cottages that stood on the hill. It's not hard to imagine a garden rose successfully clinging while the cottage it belonged to was swept away. Whatever type they were, these were growing in an open space by the trail on the way down. They were almost overgrown by raspberries.

It seems like a story someone would tell now and I suppose it is because I'm telling it. Not a specific story. A general story:
"I remember how much fun it was to hang around the beach with all my cousins. We'd swim until we were so cold we couldn't swim anymore. Then we'd get out and sit in the sun until were were so hot we had to go swimming again. Eventually we'd be so tired from this that we'd wander back to the cottage. It was a long hill, maybe 150 feet vertical, and we'd take our time. In the grasses near the edge of the balsam fir stands, there might be blueberries. Higher up there were raspberries and sometimes roses. You could take a long time working your way back like that shouting out, "I found some," to cousins and sisters further ahead or behind on the trail. My sister CK was always best at finding them."

You could retell it as a less pleasant story if you wanted to. It was a rocky beach and the water was pretty cold. No one swims there now because it's too cold for current tastes. Windsurfers in wetsuits are the only people who go in the water nowadays. We used to beg to be allowed to go from May 'til September. And that hill, you could get awful hot climbing that hill.

One of the reasons the memory of that story is so magic now is because I was taught the joyous version of the story as I lived it. My mother taught me to enjoy that experience. It was when we kids came up that path with her and she'd find a rose, a blueberry or a raspberry and she'd respond as to a great treat that I learned that story. She lived that story of walking up that path as a wonderful adventure so we did too. And I can still do it today.

That was something a lot of mothers did. Going to the back corner of the yard and sitting on a blanket and having a picnic you could have just as easily had at the kitchen table a few yards away was an adventure because your mother experienced it as an adventure.

By the time you're thirteen this sort of experience becomes an embarrassment if you see it through your friends' eyes. I never got so jaded that I stopped enjoying it entirely though. And there always were times when you could still do it without reserve; while on family vacations for example.

Toward the end of her life—when she already knew that the cancer was going to kill her but she had not yet told the rest of us—we went to an old country cemetery together. It was all overgrown with tall grasses but over on the side there was a clump of blueberries. I picked some but she wasn't interested in that adventure anymore. She was more interested in showing me some graves of family members that no one remembered anymore.

I picked the blueberries anyway and ate them in the car driving back. They were lowbush blueberries. My mother always told us that they were the best. That was why they were worth looking for  even though you had to crouch down until it hurt and the berries were much smaller so it took much longer to pick a pie.

She never complained that we kids usually ate a pies' worth picking that pie. The important thing was to learn to live that story.

Another weird paradox

Last post I said there was a weird paradox in Edward's love for Lucy. I forgot to say that there is an even weirder one on in Elinor's attraction to Edward. It's this: the very virtue (constancy) that makes Edward so desired a partner by Elinor is the very thing that may make him unattainable. She admires him more for sticking to the promise to marry Lucy even though she thinks he is no longer in love with Lucy and that Lucy is the wrong choice for him. And yet, she wants him more because he is constant to Lucy.

(Yes, I'm being very careful not to say Elinor is in love with Edward. I'm being very careful because she is being very careful not to let go and fall completely in love. For Elinor, hanging on the edge of the water hesitating is a virtue.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The appeal of Edward

Sense and Sensibility
 One of the things about Austen's society that is alien to our more romantic one is the necessity of understanding one another without speaking. This is necessary because people may not speak. Given his secret engagement to Lucy there is much that Edward Ferrars may not say to Elinor. He not only may not tell her that he loves her he may not even let it show.

And yet he wants her to know and she wants to know. In a more romantic culture, someone telling a story of this kind would contrive to bring about a situation in which Edward would accidentally blurt out the truth to Elinor. Ann Radcliffe does exactly that in The Italian by having Vivaldi hang around outside Ellena's window when she conveniently decides to confess to her mirror that she loves him (even though they have not yet spoken to one another at this point).

Elinor, to the contrary, must judge Edward by externals alone. It is precisely that he does not casually blurt out things to her that assures her he does not blurt out to others. Well, that he doesn't do easily anyway. Because it is important that he does blurt out at as it were. (And yes, we should think of sex here.) She does not want a cold fish.

And here the weird paradox of Edward's love for Lucy. Elinor has comforted herself with the belief that Edward cannot be in love with Lucy because she has seen the way he responded to her own presence and knows that, whatever his reasons for restraint, Edward does love her. She can see he is he is holding back.

[And we might pause to remember the conflict between Marianne and Elinor in Book 1 about whether Edward had strong feelings of any sort. Elinor is sure he does. It is the reserve, the classical sense of a smooth outward appearance being achieved because everything underneath is under perfectly balanced tension. A perfectly balanced tension that is intense enough that there is always some fear of tearing.]

Think of someone who is doing their very best to conceal that they are in pain but you can see it. We might respond to such a person by telling them we know they are in pain in order that they know we care and sympathize. But suppose they had very good reason to keep this a secret from others. In that circumstance, we might want to pretend we didn't notice the pain to help. If we were really confident of our abilities, we might want to occasionally let it show that we understood in a way that only the person concealing their pain would know we knew, intending by this to show we support them.

But it would be a delicate manœuvering to achieve this. And that is where Elinor is. She wants Edward to know she sympathizes but she is aware that it will only make his life more difficult if he thinks she knows he loves her.


Because they both believe constancy is important. They both see this virtue is the foundation that the whole house of virtues is built on. No matter how much Elinor wants Edward (and she craves him) she can only want him if he has constancy. She can only want him of he will keep his promise to marry Lucy.

There is a double standard. A woman can end an engagement even though a man cannot. The only way out is if Lucy releases Edward.

Elinor is not without self interest. She means to get Edward is she can and it is not hard to see her taking a certain pleasure in the difficulties standing in the way of any marriage between Edward and Lucy. For example, consider her musings about what she has learned of the predicament from the elder Miss Steele.
Elinor was left in possession of knowledge which might feed her powers of reflection some time, though she had learnt very little more than what had been already foreseen and foreplanned in her own mind. Edward's marriage with Lucy was as firmly determined on, and the time of its taking place remained as absolutely uncertain, as she had concluded it would be; -- everything depended, exactly after her expectation, on his getting that preferment, of which, at present, there seemed not the smallest chance. 
It's hard not to see a certain self-satisfaction in that. 

But how will she act? We'll see.

In our world, the sort of intimacy that feeds Elinor's desire for reserve in feelings is largely gone.

Friday, May 21, 2010

"With my guitar on my back"

That was the line the guy playing guitar at the Rideau-street underpass was singing as I walked through this morning. My thoughts in order.

1. "Why is it significant that your guitar  was on your back?"

2. After he sang the next line about  getting a  ride from a man in a big fancy Cadillac, I thought, "Oh, I see your guitar was on your back because it has to rhyme with 'Cadillac'."

3. As I was walking away, I thought, "This must be an old song because its been 40 years since the last time a Cadillac was any kind of status symbol."

4. As I was waiting for the the light at the cross walk to change, the singer began running down the values of the man in the Cadillac and I thought, "But he gave you a ride."

5. After I was out of earshot, I thought, "Where does someone singing for change in an underpass get the notion that he is morally superior to someone who can afford the payments on a car."

6. And then I thought, "Get a job."

And I didn't feel even a twinge of regret or guilt at having though such a thing.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Blame the daughter-in-law?

The painting below is James Tissot's Return of the Prodigal Son (Courtesy of Wikipedia).

Now that you've admired it, read this story.

Wiki mindset

I use Wikipedia to check dates and names. It's not much good for serious research. Someone once said the less controversial the subject, the more accurate Wikipedia is and that's about right.

What I think it's most interesting for is to see the Wiki cultural views. Entries about Beatles songs, which I was writing about yesterday, often include detailed structural analysis. Stardust, Mood Indigo and I Got Rhythm, on the other hand, receive none.

The other thing is the Rolling Stone list of the best X ever. If a song, artist or group made it onto these more or less arbitrary lists, Wikipedia will cite this information as if it was incredibly important.

Someone should cache all this stuff, future generations will roll around kicking the floor in hysterics when they see the pretentious tripe that was on Wikipedia.

It snowed here May 10th

The first rose of summer was out this morning. Yes it's a Rugossa, which is a weed in many parts of the country (where I grew up out east rugossas were a major invasive species), but my it's gorgeous.

It's been the morning for gorgeous blooms in pink and red all around actually.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Best of the Lennon-McCartney

When I was in university my lack of enthusiasm for certain Beatles records was so odd to my fellow students it was to them as if I'd taken up flat earthism. I never hated the band (although many took my lack of devotion as the equivalent of hatred the way some people respond to others who don't share their religious or anti-religious views). It wasn't just that I didn't like the White Album, Abbey Road or Let It Be, it was also that the Beatles records I did like struck them as bizarre. But I stand by my earlier judgments.

There is a Lennon quip in response to some rather fulsome praise of Ringo Starr by Paul McCartney: "Ringo wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles." Which must have hurt poor old Ringo plenty when he read it but it was true enough.

My view of Lennon-McCartney  is similar.: "Best songwriters of all time," they weren't even the best songwriters of the 1960s. I'd put Burt Bacharach and Antonio Carlos Jobim way, way, way above Lennon and McCartney for starters. And I'd rate Smokey Robinson, Holland, Dozier, Holland, Jimmy Webb and Brian Wilson as their equals.

But they did produce some very nicely crafted pop songs for a while.

I think the Beatles started well. Their first UK record is not worth buying it has one better than average rock and roll tune on it: "I Saw Her Standing there". That said, rock and roll is kiddie music. Better than anything else on it are two songs by others they elected to do their own versions of: "Baby It's You" and "A Taste of Honey". Both of these suggested they at least had a taste to do better.

All My Loving
And the promise was delivered on very next record with "All My Loving". Feeling underwhelmed? Well, give it a listen again. Any idiot could have written "She Loves You". All My Loving shows a rare talent beginning to develop. And the old quip is true, if you think it's not impressive, try it yourself.

It also is wonderful for its complete lack of irony. They mean it. And that was their real strength for a while. This was a period when jazz and adult popular music was mired in facile cynicism of such things as "Strangers in the Night" and "Is That All There is". This stuff was a breath of fresh air.

Things We Said Today
The next album had another gem, "Things We Said Today". This is almost adult music. Again, completely irony free. A nice mature sentiment well expressed. Jobim would have done much better with the same theme but ...

"I'll Follow The Sun" was an old song recorded in 1964 and really doesn't belong here but there isn't much else to like about their second LP Beatles For Sale, which is mostly filler. McCartney seems to have written it before 1960 which is stunning. The man had a gift. It's a shame he didn't spend more time on it in 1964 because it isn't really a completed song so much as a sketch for a song he ought to have completed later. I suspect that they were just looking for tunes to fill up record space at the time.

Things begin to go wrong in my view with the Album Help! It also features a lot of filler but, worse, is beginning to also show some of the gimmicky crap they increasingly filled records up with after this. The exceptional song on the record is "Yesterday". And yes it is good but not really quite so good as everyone makes it out to be. It's better than anything any rock and roll bands of that time were doing but it's still an obvious imitation of adult music rather than an attempt to say something that McCartney himself felt or believed. It also bears a thematic similarity to Charles Aznavour's "Hier encore" (which was getting European airplay as McCartney was writing his lyrics) that strikes me as too close to be a coincidence.

This song and the next also highlight one of the big limitations on Lennon and McCartney as songwriters. The thing that really held them back was that they were always writing for the Beatles. They always wrote with the limitations posed by their own bland vocal abilities in mind. They could, and increasingly did, hire studio musicians to make up for their limitations as instrumentalists, but every Beatles song had to be sung by a Beatle or two or four. None of their songs lend themselves to much interpretation.

And ask yourself, how many memorable versions of Beatles songs are there? A couple by Joe Cocker, maybe Cassandra Wilson and, well, that's about it. The studio wizardry and the session musicians were more of a limitation than a help.

In My Life
I believe this is the only song on the list with a major contribution from John Lennon. The others are all more or less Paul McCartney songs. It's funny that Lennon should be responsible for this because it is one of the very last modernism-free songs the band produced and Lennon was the guy most responsible for bringing the dark clouds of modernism into the Beatles music. The very ugly "Norwegian Wood" and  "Run For Your Life" (both featuring suggestions of violence against women) on the same album with this being good examples of what I mean.

But this little gem, apparently much laboured over, is a real triumph. If you can sing these words to someone and mean them, you're well on your way. (Lennon, unfortunately could not.)

Here, There and Everywhere and Good Day Sunshine
 As I've written elsewhere, the one commonality in successful groups from the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s was close harmony singing. There aren't any exceptional single vocal performances in the Beatles œuvre because none of the Beatles was a great singer. But there are some lovely harmonies and these two songs are probably the very best harmony singing they ever did. (A cynic might wonder how the lead on Here, There and Everywhere" would sound without the double-tracked echo effect giving McCartney's voice extra depth. Singers don't do things like that unless they are trying to hide something. Listen to McCartney's unplugged version from 1991 and it's obvious he can't actually hit all the notes in his own song.)

When I was in university, I had a friend who has now published about ten fairly successful books who claimed to hate "Here, There and Everywhere". It got to be a bit of a thing for the rest of us to put the record on as we were leaving his house in Montreal and then wait outside by an open window until this song began. If he thought he was alone, Bruce would inevitably sing along. It's that kind of song that people don't want to admit they love it but they do.

Eleanor Rigby
This is a lovely record as opposed to a lovely song. Like the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations" it's more of a studio triumph than a good song in its own right. Other performances of this tune are always a let down. Both recordings are kind of like really great photographs of someone who can never appear quite so impressive in any other setting.

She's Leaving Home
This, in my view, was the last moment of glory. It's a lovely, sensitive song and you can really feel the humanity of the people it is about—the humanity of all the people it is about. You worry about the girl (or at least I always have since the first time I heard it at about ten years of age). You can understand what she is doing but this just isn't a good idea. Similarly, you feel for the parents even though your sympathy is always with her.

Musically, it's really nice and someone could do a nice instrumental version of it (perhaps they already have). But to do so would be to take it away from Lennon and McCartney and make a new song out of it.

Some might argue, contrary to what I said above, that John Lennon also had a significant input into this. Well, he had some input but that input unfortunately detracts from the song. His contribution also includes what may be the single stupidest line in any Beatles song: "Fun is the one thing money can't buy." Actually, money can buy quite a bit of fun. That said, this was the last really genuine song they wrote. From this point on the group was increasingly bogged down by gimmicky trash or wasted time earnestly expressing appallingly stupid sentiments such as "All You Need is Love".

The darkness really set in after this and I think the blame for that lies largely with the Doors. That is mostly a subject for another day but all I'll note here is the incredible influence the Doors first album—which was getting heavy airplay while the Beatles were recording Sergeant Pepper—had on this record.

PS: Oh yeah, "Maybe I'm Amazed" was darn promising. Freed from the Beatles, McCartney might have done better but something, either the effects of fame, or Linda or the constant drug use frying his brain cells had happened to make the well run dry pretty quickly.

As to the solo careers of the other three, I can't think of anything nice to say so ...

Nobody asked me ...

... for my opinion about the Beatles but here it comes anyway.

Actually, I have been reading a great book called All What Jazz by Phillip Larkin. It's amazing that it would be great because it is a collection of monthly columns about new jazz releases from February 1961to December 1971. Most of the records he discusses are no longer available.

And yet it is wonderful, independent and perceptive writing from Larkin. Including this gem from December of 1963 about the Beatles:
Finally, what about the Beatles? 'With the Beatles' (Parlophone) suggests that their jazz content is nil, but that, like certain sweets, they seem wonderful until you are suddenly sick. Up until then it's nice though.
Which is about as concise and accurate a summation of the Beatles as I have ever seen.

Which is probably a good cue to just shut up but when has a good reason ever stopped me before.

Next post will be my ideas about what the best Beatles's songs are and when and why I think they went wrong.

Who's got the MacGuffin

The virtues of mad men
Song of the Indian Guest
Okay, it's the Season 2 premiere and Matt Weiner has a hit on his hands. This is a big change from last year when he was taking this terrible chance. So what does he do with it.

Well, he puts the words below into Don Draper's mouth. Don explains to creative how to sell Mohawk Airlines:
That Indian. That's not about the majestic beauty of the Mohawk nation. It's about adventure. Could be a pirate, a knight in shining armor, could be a conquistador getting of a boat. It's about a fantastical people who are taking you someplace you've never been.
We're all terribly up to date, we don't need to be told about meta-language. These are Weiner's words to the creative staff behind Mad Men. The second season was all about Don the adventurer striking out and taking us with him. As he later says to Peggy, "You are the product—you, feeling something—that's what sells."

And just in case those hints weren't enough, when Don meets Betty coming down the stairs at the Savoy lounge, we hear Rimsky-Korsakov's "Song of the Indian Guest" as she comes down the stairs. This song comes from an opera about a man who leaves his wife in search of adventure! And this isn't the last reference to heroes who run away in search of adventure this season (there is a doozy coming in a later episode).

I'm blogging this after the fact, of course, we all know this is the real plot line and we don't have to pretend otherwise. Man searching for something only he isn't sure what it is. It seems like adventure but it also seems like home. Or, as Don reads from Frank O'Hara

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again. 

(Funny thing, if you'd Googled "Frank O'Hara" and "writer" before this episode, you would have been asked, Do you mean John O'Hara? Soon after this episode was aired, though, all the copies of Meditations in an Emergency at the local library here were stolen.)

A man is in a bar somewhere
Although this episode begins by introducing the other characters first, it's Don Draper we are waiting for. The first mention of him is an enigmatic shot of the lock on his door being changed.

The man himself first appears in a bar. Don makes his first appearance in a bar just like last year. It's an oddly timeless bar just like last season. And Don is still the Sinatra-like anachronism still wearing the hat. The whole Mohawk airlines thing makes me think of the classic Sinatra album Come Fly With Me and the individual episodes of Season 2 are a lot like the various songs presenting different types of escapes only to discover home is where he wants to be. This is an old theme in literature. It's the theme of The Odyssey.

It's also one reading of the Bible. A people in perpetual solution of a homeland.

Ugly Betty
Don's problem (and I suspect Weiner's too) is that Don's wife is a dud. One of the great mysteries is how such an interesting guy ends up with such an incredibly vapid woman. The usual explanation—that he might have been so beguiled by her youth and beauty that he didn't notice she had little intelligence and less character—doesn't hold here because Don Draper is the kind of guy who could have done better.

And we can't really blame January Jones. Consider who unappealing Betty Draper is sexually speaking. This isn't an accident.  For a woman who looks like January Jones to appear unerotic on screen is an achievement something like making water feel dry. That has to be intentional.

We get an interesting subplot in which Don and Betty meet an old roommate of hers who turns out to be a call girl. Immediately we brace ourselves for some sophomoric meditation on marriage and prostitution but Weiner turns it around brilliantly. As Betty and Francine discuss it later, it's painfully obvious that both women secretly wish they were like whores. They wish they had that power.

Actual whores don't have that power but this is what they imagine. There is something terribly right about that. I remember back in the 1980s when I was at university some feminist women I knew became all curious about but also disappointed in strippers, prostitutes and porn. They couldn't believe these women could be so ordinary as they soon discovered them to be. That is a recurring, and natural, insecurity. We all worry about others having a sexual mystique we could never achieve. Women who actually have sexual mystique and power never become whores or strippers (although not a few do become models).

What's telling about Betty (and this is hardly a flaw unique to her) is that she is more interested in her public sexual persona than actually being any good in bed. So when we see her appear at riding school or coming down the stairs at the Savoy lounge (although Rimsky-Korsakov does all the heavy lifting in the Savoy scene), she is exotic and appealing. But as soon as she takes her clothes off we begin to see that she couldn't possibly deliver on that promise.

She gives a clinic on how not to behave in the bedroom here. And then she kills it forver with the classic stupid line after the sex doesn't work for Don: "I wish you would just tell me what to do." Free advice, don't ever do this. What a man wants is for you to want. Telling him you care so little that you are willing to go through the motions to please him is the very opposite of erotic.

The point is then underlined when she orders room service. She has no idea what she wants.  And when she finally settles on something, she doesn't give any thought to what he might want. His original order—Vichyssoise and a BLT—was at least an attempt to get something she'd like as well as his own preference of the sandwich. Betty, as usual, thinks only of herself.

When Don cheats on Betty again, it is with a woman who actually likes sex and has very strong desires. She doesn't need to ask herself what she wants. She wants and it shows.

And the MacGuffin?
It's the thing that everyone assumes the show is about. Culture!

It seems so important and everyone I read commenting on the show seems to think they are being terribly learned about the culture of back then and why it had to be replaced. But to repeat the point, Matt Weiner isn't even trying to get the cultural details right. Just two examples

No adman in 1962 would have said "the Mohawk nation". He would have said "tribe".

The one interior place a man was supposed to wear a hat was on the elevator (because you take up too much room if you carry it). The scene where Don makes the man telling the crude sex story take his hat off is brilliant but it wouldn't have happened on an elevator. Not to mention that people didn't talk on elevators back then.

And notice that each of the three seasons so far turns on political events not fashion or culture.

The real action is on the relationship between wanting a home and what that really means.

There is more to say about Peggy and Roger (who, as noted before is now got full status) but later. If the show can buy exotic appeal by inserting Rimsky-Korsakov tunes, so can I.

Next post is here.

(Oh yeah, Season one begins here if you are interested.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Marianne's preserver

I was at a prayer-book service at an Anglican church on the weekend. That is to say, a service that used the older service found in the Book of Common Prayer. As a Catholic, I sit in the back and act respectfully—because I have a lot of respect for the Book of Common Prayer—but don't receive communion because I am not in commmunion.

Anyway, while listening I noticed something that had never really registered before, that the prayer book refers to God the Father as our preserver. And I immediately thought of this:
Marianne's preserver, as Margaret, with more elegance than precision, stiled Willoughby ...
Is this echo intended? I have no way of knowing for sure but it is there. Austen and her audience would all have been very aware of the prayer book language and the echo would have been felt if not registered.

And that religious aspect of Marianne's worldview is the real source of her problem: Marianne's romantic ideas about love are more akin to idolatry than they are to the way actual human relationships work (a perspective that is hardly unique to her). Towards the end of Book 2, we saw that when Marianne learns the truth about Willoughby's character her reaction was more like that of a disillusioned believer than of a hurt lover:
She felt the loss of Willoughby's character yet more heavily than she had felt the loss of his heart ...
 Here at the beginning of Book 3, she continues in a like manner.

Consider what happens when Elinor tells Marianne about Edward's engagement and Marianne sees, for the first time, that Elinor has suffered as much as she has:

Marianne was quite subdued.
"Oh! Elinor," she cried, "you have made me hate myself for ever. How barbarous have I been to you! -- you, who have been my only comfort, who have borne with me in all my misery, who have seemed to be only suffering for me! -- Is this my gratitude! Is this the only return I can make you? Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away."
 The tenderest caresses followed this confession. In such a frame of mind as she was now in, Elinor had no difficulty in obtaining from her whatever promise she required ...
This might seem like a change for the good, but note the bit I have added emphasis to. Even now, it's all about Marianne. All of her responses relate to her feelings and not to any other human being's understanding.

And the foreboding we feel here is vindicated by what happens next chapter when we learn more about how Marianne reacts to her discovery of Elinor's sufferings paralleling her own.
She felt all the force of that comparison; but not as her sister had hoped, to urge her to exertion now; she felt it with all the pain of continual self-reproach, regretted most bitterly that she had never exerted herself before; but it brought only the torture of penitence, without the hope of amendment. Her mind was so much weakened that she still fancied present exertion impossible, and therefore it only dispirited her more.  
And this is so right. It is  deeply prophetic of what romantic nonsense has done to our culture. Think of any crisis or disaster. There is always at least one person in the room for whom the real crisis is their feelings about it.

And let's look at that paragraph again. The rest of the story we are reading is all foreshadowed here:"only the torture of penitence", "without the hope", "so much weakened". There is Ophelia who will not commit suicide but will be so weak and distracted that she will die.

Two further thoughts. First, people who think God is absent Austen are just as blind as the ones who think her sexually repressed. Second, there is a tremendous philosophical sophistication here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Round and Round

The virtues in mad men
You haven't thought this through
This, of course, is the line that Don uses on Pete when Pete tries to blackmail him with his past. We might ask ourselves the very same question about the creators of this series. For example, if I'd been at the writer's meeting to discuss this episode, I would have raised the following issue:
Okay folks, we had this big showdown between Don and Rachel last episode. He shows up suddenly and begins talking about running away. She refuses him because this is not about being in love with her but all about him. Okay, fine. But don't you think we undermine that just a tad if we learn this next episode that Rachel has dealt with the situation by running away? That she has abandoned the store makeover that is so terribly important to her and rushed off to join a cruise?
There is a larger point here as well. If you watched Dawson's Creek or any of the other new soaps that took off from it, you will know that these shows all turn on a central moral point and a MacGuffin. The central moral point of Dawson's Creek was about growing up and leaving things behind. The MacGuffin was about whether Dawson and Joey would fall in love.

To take the reverse order, The MacGuffin in Mad Men is Don's secret identity. The central moral point is establishing him as some sort of Moses figure who will lead people to the promised land of the 1960s. A promised land he will not, presumably, be able to enter himself.

The problem, of course, is that this is a soap opera. That means it just keeps on keeping on until it is canceled. Every season the show has to give it's all. Some individual episodes can afford to digress but the show will mostly have to revolve around this central moral issue over and over again without ever fully resolving it. Matt Weiner has come up with a neat way to deal with this in that it is the penultimate show of each season that deals with the resolution of the big conflicts. This final show is more a tableau without any particular plot advancement.

The seasons they go round and round
And thus we get the Kodak Carousel slide projector. There is a great subtle criticism of it here. "What is the benefit of this thing," asks Don. It's a very good question as there was none and yet when Kodak introduced it, everyone bought one. The reviewers at photography magazines all talked about this novelty as if it were a major technological advancement just like Kodak wanted them to. You almost wonder sometimes if the real reason for some episodes in this series isn't to put the screenwriters' quandaries about how the show should advance into the mouths of characters.

So we have a bunch of slides in this episode with no advancement or resolution.

Portraits of four marriages
 First we get Pete and Trudy. Having commented endlessly about the shallowness of Pete's character, we begin to see him showing some real depth here. He's beginning to see through his father in law. Not in the sense that he is beginning to see the man as an impostor, more in the sense that he is beginning to see that some of his own desires are morally acceptable. He is beginning to see that the fact that you want something does not make that desire evil. That you you do not need to simply accept the done thing as correct.

What he fails to see, at least so far, is how much of his maturity he owes to his wife. Jane Austen makes a big point of how marrying the right person can morally improve even very unpromising people and Pete is a good example of that.

Don, interestingly enough, is at another stage of the same process. There is a lovely moment talking about the upcoming weekend with her family when Betty turns to Don and says, "I don't think you don't want to go," and he says, "I'm sorry, was I unclear about that."

Okay, it's a post feminist age and we're used to taking the desires of women as always justified and those of men as always questionable. And Don has committed the cardinal sin of not being true to his authentic identity; even worse, the sin of rejecting and hiding this identity. And yet, who could possibly not be on his side on this one?

Then there is Francine and Carlton. She confides with Betty after finding out about Carlton having an affair and Betty's reaction is all about herself. It's really quite astounding how little feeling Betty has for any other human being. Even her own children's struggles are just another excuse to focus on herself.

Finally, we have poor Harry and Jennifer Crane. It's telling that Harry is the only guy we have seen pay a significant price for his infidelity. This is perhaps because he has the only truly committed marriage of any of the characters. And thus one of those real-life truths: those who recognize their sins as sins often seem to suffer more for them. Betty's lack of virtue never leads her to suffer for her sin because she is so utterly self-centered she never sees anything as her fault. Ultimately, she loses herself. Harry suffers and suffers horribly.

An interesting side question here is how Jennifer found out about his tryst. There was nothing to stop Harry from simply lying.

The character I will miss most in Season 4 is Ken Cosgrove. He is far more interesting than Pete Campbell to me. We have a delightful subplot concerning he and Peggy this episode, a delightfully male subplot. Ken and Peggy are auditioning women for radio spots and Peggy decides the best-looking of the women sounds most confident.

She is wrong of course. We get this lovely bit of dialogue.
Peggy: Say something to her. Make her feel beautiful. You know, the confidence that comes with beauty.
Ken: Peggy, a woman who looks like that will never sound confident because she never is confident.
All of this takes place in a control booth so the woman they are talking about can't hear them even though they can hear her. This is a lovely touch just like real life. The beautiful woman is always aware that she is being looked at and judged but can't know exactly what others are thinking of her. That's why Ken is correct to say "a woman who looks like that will never sound confident".

I wonder if any of the female actors caught the point. It's one of those things that is perhaps more clear to men. The pursuit of sexual power through beauty ultimately buys a woman very little. And you can see it for yourself by looking at very sexy women, they, as Ken says, never behave confidently because they never are confident.

I have compared this show to a minstrel show in that we have people assuming masks to play the different part. Nowhere is this clearer than with the women. Do an image search for any of the female principals. What will strike you is the extraordinary lengths they go to to make sure that they do not look in real life like the characters they play on the show.

This is odd because one of the features of television stardom is that the character is much more famous than the actor playing the character. Typically, the person playing the role assumes aspects of the character in order to please the public (and actors, having little confidence, are usually painfully keen to please the public). Not here though. Here the characters are masks just like minstrel show characters.

A picture of unhappiness
The rest of the show is mostly devoted to showing us a picture of Don's unhappiness.  And yet, and yet, and yet. What actually happens? For all the pseudo-psychological claptrap that people saddle their explanations of Don Draper with, what we see is a guy functioning and functioning very well.

I don't mind saying it again, the real effect of this show is that men want to be like Don Draper and women want to have a man like him. That is the odd conflict. If the post 1960s world is such an advance, why do we so love Don Draper and his cool behaviour? Don is not morally perfect but he shows us real virtue over and over again. It is something only he and two other characters (I'll get to them in a minute) do.

We see two crucial things here. We see creepy Betty again pursuing Glen Bishop like she was some sort of emotional child molester. I know some people read this scene as proof of how isolated and alone Betty is but, damnit, she is an adult and Glen is a child and her behaviour towards him is inexcusable. What we actually see on the screen is a little boy showing more emotional and moral maturity than a married woman. Put yourself in Helen Bishop's place, wouldn't you do just exactly as she has and keep your son from this creepy woman?

Which brings me to the other thing: the beautiful slide show and Don talking about it. What we see on the screen, of course, are portraits of happiness. What we are aware of is just how unhappy the Draper marriage is. What this show will not do—because no modern show could possibly do this—is accept the degree to which that unhappiness is the fault of Betty Draper. No, I'm not saying Don is blameless. His affairs are appalling. But we can see, even if the screenwriters cannot, that Betty Draper is a lousy wife and a lousy mother

And that is significant because, as I have said many times before, Betty Draper is not an early 1960s character. She is not typical of that era, she is typical of our era. A point that a commenter inadvertently makes below. Betty is the sort of person who expects the world to take her seriously but refuses to act in a morally serious manner. This is where the minstrel show aspect of the show pays off in a big way. Because Betty is an obvious mask, her character can afford to be more real in other ways. The twenty-something and thirty-something men and women watching this show don't have to imagine some far away time and setting to see a Betty Draper. We all have to deal with both women and men of her type now. She is 100 percent 2010.

It's Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Joan Holloway we need the show to help us visualize. These three characters—all obviously intended to be anachronistic to our world—that we admire the most. I don't think the creators pictured it working out this way. They haven't thought this through.