Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Did you hear the news? Narcissism is no longer a personality disorder. It's not a disease anymore.

Much commentary but I don't think anyone else has said the following yet: If it's not a disease to be a narcissist and I am one, then it's my fault.

That makes everything simpler don't you think?


Saint Andrew's day today.

Here's a cool thing, the first Sunday of Advent is always the Sunday closest to November 30. And November the 30 is feast of the first-called Apostle.

Is that supposed to mean something?

It's up to you. It seems more than a coincidence to me.

Anyway, Saint-André de Kamouraska is my patron and today is his feast day. We took the whole day off here at the land of pink and blue and tonight we're celebrating with lamb stew and caramel cake.

I hate spirituality

If you'll pardon me a moment, I took a long drive today and did a little thinking. I was thinking about something I'd read the other day and wondering what it was about the text that bothered me. And it hit me, it was all the references to spirituality.

Spirits I have no trouble believing and spirituals I love listening to but anytime I hear someone say "spirituality" or "spiritual life" I think, "You're lying!"

Not lying to me. To yourself. I think, we've only got one life and that is the one we devote to God. The second someone tells me they have another life they call their spiritual life or they have a special kind of experience they call spiritual, I begin to suspect something has gone deeply wrong.

I say experience  God with your hands, your mouth, your skin, your eyes and your feet. When we start telling ourselves that we need to drift off into a special sphere of experience we call "spiritual" we are just denying that our faith is slipping.

And that make me think of this illustration below. Someone in England came up with it and it makes the point that needs to be made this Advent. It has rubbed the right people the wrong way. I love it.

The preface

First a note about editions because many readers from the USA will not have a preface. Why not? I'm not sure. Perhaps it is a copyright issue but perhaps also because American publishers are lax about classic novels and perhaps a bit of both.

Anyway, here is the thing, in 1959 Waugh sat down and made some very serious revisions to Brideshead Revisited (which I may refer to simply as Brideshead hereafter, italicized to mean the book and not to mean the house). He made some cuts and changes to the text but, much more importantly, he changed the structure. For some reason, his American publishers never made the improved version available so you couldn't buy it in the USA and it may not be possible even yet.

The structure
I won't say anything about the cuts and additions here. They have been much commented on elsewhere.

Here's how to tell which edition you have. The revised edition will have a preface by Evelyn Waugh staring off with the sentence: "This novel, which is here re-issued with many small additions and some substantial cuts, lost me such esteem as I once enjoyed among my contemporaries and led me into an unfamiliar world of fan mail and press photographers." If it's not there you have the older edition.

The other difference is the new structure. The older version had four parts
  • a prologue
  • a longer first book called "Et In Arcadia Ego"
  • a much shorter second book  called "A Twitch Upon the Thread"
  • an epilogue
The revised version has five parts
  • a prologue
  • a first book called "Et In Arcadia Ego"
  • a second book called "Brideshead Deserted"
  • a third book called "A Twitch Upon the Thread"
  • an epilogue
Why is this so important? I don't want to give away too much for anyone reading for the first time but the the first version is much more romantic and the second is much more neoclassical. The new version is much more symmetrical and balanced. It divides into three sections with a crucial event in the centre of each.

Again, I don't want to spoil anything for anyone, but ...
  1. The central turning point of book one is a discussion Charles and Sebastian have about Sebastian's Catholicism while the two of them are alone at Brideshead.
  2. Jumping ahead to book 3, the central turning point is Bridey coming home to announce his engagement and the effect that event has on Julia.
  3. Moving back to Book 2, is the section where Charles and Rex have dinner. The whole book revolves around this scene. Don't believe me? Well, when you get there, notice that the very next section after this dinner begins with "It is time to speak of Julia."
Now if you understand the way Jane Austen structures her books, this will be familiar. The book is in three sections and each section has symmetrical story arc with the important turning point right in the centre. All three of these turning points in Brideshead turn, if you'll pardon the repetition, on Catholicism. You will also notice something that many readers miss: Julia's story is more important than Sebastian's. An awful lot of people get all wrapped up in the Oxford section and project a whole lot of romantic glamour onto it (it's actually a rather bleak story if you pay attention) and miss the much more important sections about Julia. By the way, and I'll get back to this, people also willingly close their eyes to something in that first section that they'd prefer not to see and that is the nature of the relationship between Charles and Sebastian.

You'll also note that there is a book within a book. That is to say, the three central sections stand on their own. If you ripped the prologue and epilogue off the book, you'd be left with a coherent story that could stand on it's own. That's not an accident. There are two steps here. Waugh invents a character named Charles Ryder who then writes his memoirs. Nothing new here; this is an old trick in novel writing. But here is what is different: Waugh tacks a prologue to the front and then appends an epilogue that tell us the story of why the story is being written. We begin with a man whose soul is troubled and those troubles inspire him to tell us his story and, in telling that story (which is actually a very sad story) he rediscovers his purpose and direction in life.

It's a comedy
Here is another rather remarkable thing about the book: it's a comedy. It's an odd comedy in that it does not end, as Shakespeare and Austen's comedies do, with a marriage but it does end with a mystical union based on love and we'll get to that eventually. It's a love story of a  sort leading to several people ending up in unions, they just aren't marriages.

But here is another funny thing, if you were, as I suggested above, to take a cheap edition of the book and tear the prologue off the front and the epilogue off the back, that modified book would be a sad story. It wouldn't be a tragedy but a very, very sad story much like Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier. In fact, I suspect that if the prologue and been lost and Waugh tragically killed so that no one ever knew there was supposed to be a prologue and an epilogue, it would still be remembered as a great novel. Some critics would probably like it better because it would be a very modernist novel in that it would have been a book that found no larger meaning in human life beyond what art can make of it.

The point, as I hope is becoming clear, is that the prologue and epilogue are incredibly important. It is only because the other three books are wrapped up in them that this book is a comedy. And I don't choose my words idly here: Waugh is very much writing against the modernist tradition that says that art has significant form of its own separate from the life it may or may not depict. Life itself has order if you live it fully and to live fully is to live religiously. Waugh is very much an anti-modernist in this sense. Art cannot replace religion here. Art cannot give life meaning and purpose.

Success or failure?
 And if we keep this in mind—that Waugh is very much at odds with his era—we can better understand his own perspective on his novel. Let's read the first sentence of that preface again:
This novel, which is here re-issued with many small additions and some substantial cuts, lost me such esteem as I once enjoyed among my contemporaries and led me into an unfamiliar world of fan mail and press photographers.
My edition (Everyman's Library) comes with an introduction by Frank Kermode and here is how that introduction begins:
The pre-publication history of Brideshead Revisited, probably Evelyn Waugh's most successful novel, is complicated and unusual.
Notice the contradiction in the two bits I have emphasized?

So, who is right?

Well, there is less disagreement here than you might think. Waugh, like Austen, is a master of irony and you'll notice he doesn't say this is a bad book, he merely says that the critical response was not always good. But if you know your Waugh, you'll know that he didn't think much of critical opinion of his time.

The deeper problem for him is that he didn't think much of popular opinion either, especially of American popular opinion, and this book was a huge popular success, especially in America. It has sold more copies than all his other books put together. There are critics who make a case for other books, especially for A Handful of Dust but this is the book Waugh is remembered by and it is the one that his current reputation rests on. Even today it is vastly more popular than other books that critics would have us treat as superior.

I think Kermode and popular opinion are right about this. Why? Well let me digress about the history of the English novel a bit first.

I was recently listening to a whole bunch of lectures by professors from different universities and they all told a remarkably similar story about the English novel. As they told it, the English novel begins with Romantic comedy by Richardson and Fielding and that form reached its apogee with Austen. The rest of the story, as they told it, is a brave battle by various writers to try and break free of the strait jacket imposed by the romantic comedy form peculiar to the English tradition.

Now you can definitely tell the story that way but you can also turn that story on its head. That is, you can say the English novel came to a perfect marriage of form and content in the novels in Jane Austen and novelists have tried and failed to match that ever since. If you see the history that way, then I believe that Brideshead stands out because it comes closer to doing what Austen did than anyone else. And Waugh does this not by imitating Austen but by writing a novel that is clearly modern, although not modernist.

I'll do my best to back that rather extravagant claim over the next few weeks.

The first post in the Brideshead series is here.

The next post is here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Who is Don Draper? And who is Charles Ryder?

The virtues of mad men
This is the first in a series of posts that will draw parallels between Mad Men and Brideshead Revisited. Not because there is any deep affinity between the works but because I am reading Brideshead this Advent.

In an interview with Matt Weiner earlier this year, Alan Sepinwall mentioned the opening question of this season, "Who is Don Draper?" And then he went on to speculate about how the audience is supposed to answer this question. Weiner doesn't answer that question but instead rebukes Sepinwall for missing the point:
The question isn't for the audience to figure out who Don is. It's for Don to figure out who Don is. Thematically, that's what it's about. You take away the institution of marriage, your fatherhood, your home, car, the corporate environment that is way safer. Took away every aspect of his life like that, for a guy who is all about this contrived identity - knew he wanted to be the man in the suit with the wife and the car and all the stuff that the writer talks about in the first episode - that he doesn't have anymore. To me, that leaves Don with a moment of saying, "If I can't define myself with that list of attributes, who am I?" 
He's right, of course. The right way to read novelistic fiction (and the right way to watch it) is to concern ourselves with the characters. It is to care enough about someone who is not us to try to imagine what it is like to be them for a while. We rarely trouble ourselves enough to bother. We either treat a story as if it were mystery novel wherein the point is to try and completely decipher the characters weaknesses so we can toss him or her on the pile of discarded personalities or we treat him as a stand in for the author so we can dismiss not just the creation but the creator. Okay, done him, who is next?

It's another thing altogether to care enough about Don Draper to give the question back to him and see him struggling with it and respect him for that.  Read most TV critics and not a few bestselling novelists* and you will see that they fail this test. Any time we catch someone, or ourselves, saying of a character that he or she is just an empty human being, or that they are too shallow, too selfish, too artificial or whatever, we should stop dead and think about it.

Just about everyone, especially me, actually is too this, or too that but the mark of a real reader is to see a whole that is greater than its faults in everyone. It is not to just read them, nail them and their faults to the wall and brush them off. If you read, for example, the commentary on Mad Men that ran on Slate this year you will notice that every single character in the show gets that brush-off treatment.

Leaving Mad Men for a moment, this tendency should especially trouble us with a great writer like Evelyn Waugh or Jane Austen. Any time we feel ourselves casually sneering at a Lady Catherine de Bourgh or a Bridey Marchmain or a Boy Mulcaster that should tell us that we aren't doing our job as readers. Great writers put a lot of love into creating characters like these and we should return the favour when reading about them.

But what is the answer?
And who is Don Draper once he discards his pile of what Weiner calls "attributes"? Well he is nothing.

The funny thing is that we sneer at him for that. I wonder why?

First off, these things—marriage, your fatherhood, your home, car, the corporate environment—are not really attributes, they are roles. Yes even your car. Lifestyle advertising is not pointless. We buy a car to establish an identity and we have to live up to that identity once we have the car. Even if we make ourselves out to be anti-car and don't buy one but always take the bus, then there is a role that goes with that and people will judge me based on it. And I will judge myself according to the standards of the role.

If you were to take away my roles, there would be very little left. Man, husband et cetera is all that I am. If I lost the Serpentine One I would lose most of myself. There is no core that is the real me left over after you peel all the onion skins away. It is one of the odd obsessions of modernity that we think there should be something else.

I guess the really odd thing, when you think about it, is that we think the question deserves an answer at all. At no other time in history did people think we needed to be something once all our roles are peeled away. In ancient Egypt, classical Greece, biblical Palestine, Medieval Germany, Renaissance Italy or Restoration England, to ask who a person really was was to ask what their proper roles were and how well they fulfilled those roles. Bring anyone from those eras into our era via a time machine and they will see Don Draper in a completely different way. They will see him as a man who has lost everything precisely because he has lost his roles.

By the way, if you rewatch episode one of season four, you will notice that Don deals with the question of who Don Draper is by first telling a story about himself that is not strictly true about who he is but is strictly true about who he is trying to be. That doesn't work, so later he tells another story that is more about who others want him to be.

That is probably one of the reasons we resist the idea of our being our roles. A role is not something we can define privately; we must accept other people's judgment of whether we fulfill the role. I may set out to be a Casanova but others will sneer and say, "You'd better lose some of that weight you've put on the last few years and actually, you know, seduce a few women if you want us to believe this." Or they may say, "Maybe once in your life you might have but now you are too old so stop living in the past and deal with what you are now."

We don't like that. The notion that I really am something deep down under all the roles is really a modernist defense mechanism. It is to claim that nothing—not even death or God— can take me away from me. We must know what a foolish hope that is but we cherish it.

"Take your hat off!"
Other keenheads may remember that line. Don is in the elevator and there are two guys talking about women in explicit terms not caring that they are making a woman actually in the elevator with them uncomfortable. Don orders one of them to take his hat off as a way of reminding this man he has a social role to live up to.

It also tells us something about Don in the first three episodes. One of his roles is that of being the chivalrous, knightly man who keeps trying to make this old fashioned role (he doesn't just drink them, he is one) work in the modern world.

It's an interesting role because we know that Don is chivalrous in public but that out of the public eye he pursues women with predatory zeal. And we might be tempted to say, "What a hypocrite," and write him off because of it.

Except for this, there is nothing about the contradiction I have just described in Don Draper that isn't also true of Sir Lancelot. The knightly role isn't outdated at all. It never will be. Think of just about any knightly character you can and you have a contrast between the public role of courtly lover and the guy who wants to get this woman alone so he can really ... well, I don't have to explain what he really wants to do to her do I? Because you know don't you? If you're a man, you know about the contrast between the ways you behave and think about a woman when you're in public mode and what happens when you finally really get her. And we don't have to pretend anymore that most women are anything but unhappy (under the right circumstances) about men wanting to do these things to them.

We are, however, still in denial about this. A lot of people tortured themselves trying to not so much as explain as explain away the deep attraction Don Draper has for a lot of young women. I wrote about this last April.

At first it might seem to us that it is odd that the knightly role should still appeal to us. We might think, but this is a role full of contradiction and hypocrisy. Or that it is just a role after all. But the strength of it is that it always has been a role full of contradiction. This is true of Roland in the song of. It is true of Lancelot, of Gawain, of the troubadours, of young Prince Harry in Shakespeare. It is more subtly true of Jane Austen's men but it's there (at least in Willoughby and Darcy). It's really there in spades in Keat's Porphyro who, after reassuring the old woman who is his accomplice in wooing Madeline that he has nothing but the purest intentions, watches Madeline get undressed and then has sex with her while she is still half asleep. The contradictions are there in Phillip Marlowe and in John Wayne.

Most of all though, for my purposes today, these contradictions are also to be found in Charles Ryder. He is one of two characters in Brideshead Revisited who really embraces the knightly role (the second may surprise you). The man who tries to keep knightly virtue alive is featured in every Waugh novel by the way. But there is a telling difference in Brideshead for it is only in this novel that the role is treated in a mostly positive way. Early knightly characters are either figures of fun such as Basil Seal or the targets of the most gruesome black humour such as Paul Pennyfeather and Tony Last. In his last books, the Sword of Honour trilogy, knightly aspiration (both on the field and in the bedroom) becomes something that Guy Crouchback ends up atoning for.

Only in Brideshead does Waugh really get behind the ideal. Doing so was, I will argue, an act of courage for him. It is only in this book that he sheds ironic distance and allows us a peak at who he really wanted to be. Charles Ryder is not Evelyn Waugh but he is the representative of values that really mattered to Waugh.**

As to Don Draper, who knows? I'll be honest, it is the knightly aspects including (perhaps particularly) the contradictions in him that make the show attractive to me. Take those away, and I dread that Weiner may be warming up to do just that, and I'll stop watching. To me Don is one of the few really manly characters left who functions in a more or less normal world. Today, Knightly characters exist only in fantasy fiction from Batman to The Walking Dead. Mad Men makes a commitment to realism that makes the character more of a challenge as does Brideshead.

*The execrable John Le Carre, for example, has made a career out of appealing to our sense of moral superiority. We can read his books and think, I may well be a trivial figure ion the great political events of my time but at least I can feel morally superior in my little world.

** Jane Austen does the same, I would argue, in her brilliant Mansfield Park and in the less successful Persuasion. Neither Fanny nor Anne are, nor should they be mistaken for, autobiographical but in both we can see Austen letting us see the virtues that really matter to her, the chief of which is constancy.

And so begins the season of Brideshead

Recognize this guy? The Crucifix in his right hand, the lily in his left hand, black robe and white rochet plus his youth are your big hints. No? Well it isn't the greatest photograph.

This very young Jesuit, he died in his early twenties, is Saint Aloysius Gonzaga. He is the patron saint of youth and, as all Brideshead Revisted fans will appreciate, the reason why the teddy bear is named Aloysius.

I find it hard to figure out why Aloysius was held in such reverence by his contemporaries. He was of noble birth and there were tensions with his family. His letters are a disappointment and they must have been even to their first readers. He died early as a result of caring for people during a plague and while that is tragic it is hardly unique. He seems to have had tremendous charm or maybe even charisma and that more than anything he actually did seems to be the source of his cult.

And, oh yeah, one of his attributes is a skull to symbolize his early death. Waugh knew all these things.

For any and all who've already read Brideshead this will all be ringing bells. For any who have not, grab a copy and join in.

This Advent is going to be all Brideshead all the time. I will blog it every day. My normal theme days will hold as usual but any Mad Men (this afternoon), Catholic culture, moral virtue, manliness or womanliness posts will be tied to the book somehow, even if only tenuously.

I learned the hard way with Rob Roy that blogging a book only once or twice a week doesn't work. The pace isn't fast enough and I lose interest before I get to the end, so daily blogging it will be.

A couple of technical points. I'll be using the revised edition (I've just learned that most American readers have never seen the revised version so I'll explain this further in an upcoming post). It's much better than the first version. In any case, the first version is very hard to find (outside the USA, that is, inside the older version appears to the only one available). I may refer to the first version occasionally but I'll be using the Everyman edition of the revised version.

I'll start tomorrow with the Preface.

I have a few readers whom I know have read this book many times and know it very well. Do feel free to rebuke, chastise and correct as you will should you feel I've missed anything.

The next post in the series is here.

There is also a related post here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wrap up on the condom connundrum

The church's role as a moral teacher in a world where everyone is Louis XIV
It seems to me that the condom flap is most interesting because of the insecurities it exposed on both sides of the Catholic aisle. Up until now, I have been hardest on the liberal/progressive side; and I stand by that because they deserve the lion's share of the blame for this particular flap. But conservative/traditionalists also showed some of their worst traits this time.

Oddly enough, the liberals showed their weakness in the way they were wrong and the conservatives showed their weakness in the way they were right. That's probably a little obscure so let me explain.

Hard-line liberal orthodoxy
A few days ago, Maureen Fiedler, of the National Catholic Reporter, accidentally let the cat out of the bag about what is wrong about the liberal response to the pope's remarks. Here is where she gives the game away, see if you can spot her slip:
As best anyone can decipher, the Pope approves of the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and thus save lives.
Can you see it? It's the word "decipher". Because with that word Fiedler admits the thing no liberal has been courageous enough to admit: the pope's words quite simply do not mean what liberals claim they do. You have to "decipher" them and find some hidden intention that the words literally do not mean.

From there on it's a familiar game, liberals read what they want to read into the comments rather than what is there.

Hard-line conservative orthodoxy
Conservatives seem to have a simpler task. They can focus on what the words literally mean and the words literally mean ... well here is a citation from the actual remarks, see if you think it's hard figuring out the literal intention the pope had in saying this:

Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution ...
It's not a a real or a moral solution.You couldn't get clearer than that.

Okay, but here is the rest of it:

Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.
Again, let's look at the literal meanings here:
  1. "[I]n this or that case, there can be ...." As I've said before, this is casuistry (I mean that in a good way); Benedict is talking about evaluation of individual cases not making a general statement about fighting HIV. In some cases we can find something to praise in an individual's election to make this choice.
  2. "[A] first step..." meaning it is not a good thing in and of itself. The first step is worthless if you don't want to take a second one and a third and so on.
And here is where conservatives are having trouble. Because they are right in saying this has always been church teaching. And it has always been church teaching that everyone is supposed to do the best they can and that the church looks upon these efforts charitably.

And charitably means that the church will see what is morally positive in the efforts of even the person living a blatantly sinful life not in accord with church teachings.

Louis XIV's confessor
I've mentioned this guy before. He's a personal hero of mine. You've heard of him. No really, you have. His name is François de la Chaise and you've heard of him, if for no other reason, because the cemetery in Paris where a whole lot of famous people, including Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, are buried is named after him.

Being Louis XIV's confessor was a peculiarly challenging vocation. Louis was not only completely lacking in self restraint about matters such as sexuality he was also the absolute monarch. It's tough to be a moral authority to a guy you quite literally have to bow and scrape to at every turn. At his merest whim, you, your family and the organization you represented could be wiped out.

So Pere Lachaise had to find more subtle ways of moving. Louis XIV was fond of having affairs with whomever he wanted and no one, even the husbands of the women involved, dared object. Rather than tell him point blank that everything he was doing was wrong, Pere Lachaise decided to gently encourage Louis in the right direction. He found particular areas where the king might be willing to take steps in the direction of moralization and encouraged him to take those steps. Meanwhile, he conveniently ignored other things that he and everyone else knew the king was up to.

This sometimes put him in a position of risking scandal. You can see the problem, if everyone in court plainly knows the king has been having an affair with Madame de So and so, and that Easter Sunday, in plain sight of his confessor, the king receives communion, well, people are going to start thinking, "Oh yeah, one rule for us and a different rule for the guy with all the power."

Pere Lachaise dealt with situations like this by conveniently getting severe colds so he couldn't see the king and therefore was unable to grant absolution immediately before Easter Sunday.

It drove a lot of people crazy. The Jansenists really went ape.

There are always people whose morality is really about controlling other people's lives. You can spot them today because they, like the Jansenists before them, are obsessed with other people's  hypocrisy. But what Pere Lachaise did was the right thing to do.

And the Pope has merely restated that with one perhaps important shift. In today's world, Benedict is acknowledging, everyone is Louis XIV. We all have to be brought along slowly and by degrees because we all have a sort of absolute power to ignore moral teaching we don't want to hear.

And some people, both conservatives and liberals, hate that. They want black and white truth and no room for squirming. Benedict just reminded everyone that the Catholic Church has all sorts of squirm room on moral issues. It always has.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Venus day

Girls and dogs
Yes, that is the kind of title that invites misunderstanding so let me state my intention right off, I think it is almost always a good sign when you meet a woman to discover that she has a history with and deep appreciation for big dogs. A woman who really loves big dogs and knows how to get along with them and how to get them to do what she wants, is most probably exactly the woman for any man worthy of his sex.

Note the "probably" above. There is no such thing as a sure thing. There are even cat people, of both sexes, who can be good partners. I can think of one off the top of my head and there must be more if I really put my brain to work.

Yes, I'm being glib but I'm not entirely kidding. It has to do with sociability and it's not really news.

A recent study purports to confirm the news that dogs are smarter than cats but this is old news. What a lot of people may not realize is the reason why they are smarter. Here's why:
It was often thought that the feline pet was smarter than its canine counterpart because it needed less attention but researchers have discovered that cat’s brains are smaller because they are less social. 
This, as I say, is old news. Animals that form social groups are unfailingly more intelligent than loners. The same is true within groups. The lone wolf, no matter what Kipling believed, is going to be less intelligent than its pack-bound companions. The same is true of humans: the romantic teenage girl who insists that the anti-social rebel she has fallen in lust with is merely "misunderstood" is deceiving herself and quite possibly drifting into a very dangerous situation.

People who like dogs are people who want a pet they interact with socially. Now nothing here means that anything necessarily follows about a person who has a cat. They may just not want the hassle.

The guy who orders Coors Light at a bar may be another helpless victim of lifestyle advertising or it may be that he just doesn't care that much about beer and is ordering the only beer he has actually heard of in order to be social. The woman who lives alone with her can't may well be another neurasthenic, high-maintenance hellcat (see the wisdom embedded right in our language) whose only successful relationship is with her cat because it requires no real effort from her or she may be a perfectly wonderful person who has a cat because she wants a low-maintenance pet that is more cuddly and animated than a goldfish or a cactus.

But whatever pet the grown woman might have, nothing, in my not even mildly humble opinion, can replace the crucial role of a great huge, slobbering, shedding dog in a girl's upbringing. A girl who has had to deal with one of these beasts will never be ineffectual and helpless  nor will she be the type who refuses to tell you what she wants or needs and then gets angry when you don't guess correctly. A dog in her upbringing will cure her of these faults early and permanently.

In addition, a girl who gets knocked flat on her butt by an unruly dog can learn to train the dog  to behave better. A girl who gets scratched by an angry feline can only learn that life is unfair and that there is nothing she can do about it but whine and cry.

Not any type of dog, but one from one of the following groups, starting with the very best and working down:
Sporting dogs (always the choice for preps)
Proper snuffling hounds (Important exception: not an Afghan Hound, a dog only too well qualified to teach girls how to be beautiful but stupid and useless)
Working dogs (with some exceptions such as Ye Olde English Sheepdog which is a fraud and not a true working dog)
Trust me, if you are raising a girl, you will do her a  huge favour by making sure she has a succession of these dogs  through her formative years.

Some Terriers are also great dogs but they are really the quintessential boys dog.

 A Clumber Spaniel demonstrate the breed's deep appreciation for the finer things in life by polishing off a crème brûlé he snagged off the table while diners' attention was elsewhere.

Archaic language in church services

In the comments Billy Carmichael says that one of the things he likes about "thee" and "thy" and so forth is its archaic tone.

I agree absolutely.

One of the things that used to be said much more often about the Catholic mass is that it is supposed to be a conversation between the living and the dead. You don't hear it much anymore but the idea is still there.

Anyway, when WH Auden was living in Europe, he used to attend a Catholic mass in Latin even though he was an Anglican. When the reforms started to come through, he was at a mass where the priest said that it was important to have a mass in the vernacular so the people could understand. Auden marched right up to him afterward and said none of that mattered because the mass was a conversation between the living and the dead.

That's the way I see it. I think we have a sacred duty to understand the language and conventions of those who have gone before.
That the dead will rise
even Moses made known in the passage about the bush,
when he called out 'Lord, '
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
and he is not God of the dead, but of the living,
for to him all are alive."
We show that by keeping alive their worship. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

That was pretty good

Not one of my better photos.

Yes, that is one awfully big bird. I was a little tardy about getting it this year and that was the only option. Eighteen pounds! We had major defrosting drama but it looks like we got away with it.

It was accompanied by sweet potatoes cooked in maple syrup and butter* (yes I'm appalled too but they're soooo good), broccoli in a mornay sauce and roast potatoes. The turkey was stuffed with a wild rice stuffing and the bottle tyou can see in the picture has a nice Cotes du Rhone in it. There is a apple and sour cream pie in the oven, Johnny Hartman is on the sound track and we have love in our hearts.

We'll settled own to watch Holiday Inn in all it's politically incorrect glory now.

Hope yours was as good 'cause it couldn't have been better.

Manly Thor's Day Special

Bring back the Viva
Today's award for chutzpah goes to this young man:
And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.
That's courtesy of Adjunct Law Prof Blog who found this in the New York Times.
All sorts of thoughts come to mind here. Does the University of Maryland really assign essay topics as stupid as "the Great Depression"? Probably not. More likely NYT reporters are too stupid to make the fine distinctions necessary to describe the paper in question more accurately. (Don't blame them, they probably went to Harvard the poor dears.)

More significantly, however, this incident drives home just how important it is to bring back the viva. Make every single student, write a thesis and then (assuming they pass) stand up in front of a panel of professors and defend it for a few hours.

Real life is like that. No matter how good your written proposal might be, it's your ability to stand up and make the case out loud that makes the day. Any career that really requires a university degree requires us to develop this ability.

I'd even do it for undergraduate degree. I'd make the difference between an ordinary and an honours degree hinge on the exam. For undergraduates I'd skip the thesis. I ask those who wanted to qualify for an honours degree to appear before a committee who would assign him or her a series of questions and then allow them to pick any one and base their answer upon anything they had studied in the course of obtaining their degree. I'd allow them to take no more than twenty minutes to say it all. Then I'd make them field questions from the panel for at least an hour.

Any man who would be a man should be able to do this.

I know a lot of people would, if they read this, think, "I never could do that." But you could and if you were given three years to prepare yourself for such a thing, you'd manage it.

The very great Mr. B

The uncool quote of the week is from Billy Eckstine. In a just world, he'd be as well known as Sinatra.

Anyway, here he is; we can hope and we can pray but there will never be another voice like this again.

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving and we celebrate it here in the land of pink and blue even though we're north of the border so posting will be light to non-existent. It's the first Thanksgiving and, to my mind, the real one. Good wishes to all especially my American readers.

I got the last turkey today so we have nearly twenty pounds of roast beast to eat, stuffed with wild rice stuffing. It will be accompanied by sweet potatoes with maple syrup, broccoli, pear pan dowdy and copious amounts of wine and Bourbon.

Have a good one and I hope no one got too badly groped trying to get home.

May The Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

By the way

I mentioned "vous" and "tu" earlier today. When I was a kid, old-school types of my Grandfather's generation used both forms to speak to their wives. When other people were present, these men would address their wives as "vous" and when they were alone they used "tu".

I always found that very beautiful and moving. Later people said it was just a formal distinction and that what really mattered were the "real feelings underneath". And so we go down the primrose path.

What is "thy" will?

I've started discussing Catholic culture on Wednesday's and I thought I'd talk about thee, thy and thou. This, of course, is not solely a Catholic issue.

In my church we still say,
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven
I'm not sure who made the decision to do it that way. It may be no one. The Priest says, In the words our saviour taught us" and then begins "Our Father" after which the people take over and habit reigns.

In any case, why say it this way or some other way? As soon as you ask the question it rapidly gets complicated. A lot of people like the thys and the thous because it sounds formal and elegant and there is a fascinating irony in that. You can get some sense of why if you look at the French version of the prayer:
Notre Père qui es aux cieux,
que ton Nom soit sanctifié,
que ton règne vienne,
que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel.
I've emphasized the pronouns in French. Now if you have even grade school French you will probably remember that second person singular  personal pronouns come in two forms. There is the formal "vous" and the informal "tu".  You use "vous" to talk to the principal and "tu" to talk to your best friend.

And, as you'll note above, we use "tu" to talk to God. The whole point being that we are, thanks to Jesus, on intimate terms with God.

And such a distinction did once exist in English. There are still traces of this today: Thee was informal and ye was formal. And we see this today as in "Ye Olde Fudge Shoppe". We are less aware of the fact that "thy" was informal and "your" was formal.

So you can see the irony. "Thy" was originally chosen because it was informal and now it is opposed because it is thought to be too formal.

Where do I come down. I say "thy" every time I say the Our Father. For the most part I think that simplifying everything is pointless. I even think it is good because it forces people to try and figure things out. When I was kid,  a very famous line from Saint Paul was typically translated:
And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
And I sat there puzzled because as I understood it charity meant to give goods to the poor. So I asked my mother and she explained the deeper meaning of charity and how it had come to be debased over time by, oh the irony, "charities".

But it's not the hill I'm ready to die for. If everyone around me switched to you, I'd probably go with them, with maybe a little heel dragging.

The actual words spoken

I know it's a terrible bore to have someone be a stickler for accuracy but here I go again.

There is a story in the New York Times this morning that opens as following:
Pope Benedict XVI clearly acknowledged on Tuesday that the need to prevent diseases like AIDS could outweigh the church’s long opposition to the use of condoms. 
So there is a quote in the story to back this up right? Well actually, no there isn't. 
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokesman, said that for Benedict, the use of condoms by people infected with H.I.V. could be “the first step of responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom there are relations.” 
That's all you get. It could be a first step in responsibility by an individual. That is long-standing Catholic teaching.

Look, as anyone who reads this blog will know, I have significant reservations about a lot of Catholic teaching in sexuality. But getting the facts right matters.

Here is what Benedict says in the book with some emphasis added by me. If you compare that with the quote by Lombardi above, you can see he adds nothing new.
[T]he sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which , after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You may think that but I couldn't possibly comment

Well, actually I will comment.

Father Z has some quick translation of Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, responding to the whole condom flap. The story, we now all know, broke because 'l'Oseervatore Romano, for reasons they have not chosen to reveal, printed an explosive quote, that they translated badly, in clear violation of an agreement with the publisher, with no context or explanation.

Here is some of Father Lombardi as translated by Father Z:
“To reduce the whole [of the Pope's book-long] interview to one phrase extrapolated from the totality of the thought of Benedict XVI would be an offence to the intelligence of the Pope and a gratuitous exploitation of his words”. (There is more here.)
Father Lombardi does not seem to go further but I think it's time to ask if this, and an increasingly long string of betises by the Vatican newspaper, was just terribly bad judgment or whether there might be evidence of deliberate sabotage here.

Someone who really gets virtue

Simcha Fisher, affectionately known around here as "the pants lady", has a great post up on virtue, what it is and how to get it.

Here is a taste:
Anyway, last week I decided to try something new:  I wasn’t going to have a goal. I was just going to make the teeniest, tiniest improvement I could manage, the slightest motion away from my emotional squalor, and try and do that for one day.  I was just going to try and get control for one stinking day.
The rest is here. I strongly recommend reading all of it.

1-2-3 cheat

This is the book closest at hand because it is the book I was reading in bed last night and I brought it with me. Following the same rules, I get:
May I give you one? They were three splendid men; Ned was the best of them. He was the last to be killed, and when the telegram came, as I knew it would come, I thought: 'Now it's my son's turn to do what Ned can never do now.'
You'd have to know the book in question pretty darn well to peg it based on that.

Here is the funny thing, looking at this more or less random quote, I noticed something rather significant. The son you see—the son who must do what Ned cannot—is not her oldest son. Why not? Which one does she actually love? That's easy, she loves the younger son. Is her love a blessing? No, it's a curse.

That should have made it easier to guess.


The Anchoress has a post up about the 1-2-3 meme. Here are the rules:
1. Pick up the book nearest your hand ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.
The Serpentine one and I both did it. The closest book for me, not surprisingly, was my missal. At first I wanted to cheat and go for something more romantic but I played honestly and I got:
It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve." Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him. The Gospel of the Lord.
The Serpentine One got a more intriguing, though utterly confusing out of context, result:
He had always to be committing some action, whether or not it bore any relation to any he had committed before or was to commit afterwards, and his reasoning self spent most of its time trying to pull these unrelated actions into some sort of coherence. Though his family were good simple Barking stuff, his anxiety to bring his disordered self safe through these storms it raised had given him a nervous glittering smartness: and he had a glittering eye, too, as he told his stories. He was an Ancient Mariner who had never made the trip with the Albatross.
You just want to know more don't you? I do.  It's from The Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Two hours!

I just spent two hours in a small, airless, windowless room discussing Karl Rahner.

I just thought I'd share my pain.

A fair world?

A recent study done at Berkley purports to explain why alarmist messages about global warning fail. What the study establishes is that people who see the world in a certain way react badly to big scares. Here's how the the study's authors explain it:
"Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people's fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable and fair. As a result, people may respond by discounting evidence for global warming," said Robb Willer, UC Berkeley social psychologist and coauthor of a study to be published in the January issue of the journal Psychological Science.

"The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it," agreed Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology and coauthor of the study. 
They go on to say that this can be overcome if the message is presented in "less apocalyptic ways" and that the bad news is accompanied with "solutions".

Well, I suspect the real problem is that all the proposed solutions are the apocalyptic part. Leaving that aside for now, here is the thing that strikes me: Where in tarnation does anyone get the absurd notion that the world is "safe, stable and fair"? Sometimes those of us who believe in a loving God are mocked for being irrational but a loving being can exist. The notion that the world would be fair or that nature or the earth has some intrinsic justice is just insane.

Beings can be fair or unfair, governments can be fair or unfair, civilizations can be fair or unfair but the world is just a collection of impersonal forces. It doesn't care because it can't care. The cancer that could kill Lucy may already be growing in her and the asteroid that will end all human life in a flash may already he hurtling toward the planet. Both are driven by nothing but a huge accumulation of fluke.

Only a childish, immature culture would think that  the world is safe, stable and fair. Sophocles, Saint Augustine and Shakespeare all would have laughed in the face of anyone who believed anything so stupid. And rightly so!

It's not about authenticity

The virtues of mad men
Why Faye loses
 I have an advantage over others here in that I own all the Mad Men episodes and can watch them again rather than relying on my memories. I recently rewatched all of Megan's scenes.

We see her first in the Christmas episode and the notable thing about her is that she is hungry right from the beginning. Nothing about what happens to Megan is entirely accidental. But keep this in mind: she is hungry not just for love but for a partner and consider how attractive a hungry man or woman can be. Not someone hungry for you, that will appeal but only until you've had them. Think of how appealing someone who is or what you represent for them. Someone who wants the things in life they see you as embodying.

Important qualification: I have no idea how this marriage is going to work out. It all feels a bit hasty to me. Please don't think I am predicting happiness. If these two were my friends, I'd tell them quite bluntly that I don't think they are ready for marriage yet. My point here is not to explain why Megan wins but why Faye loses.

The other thing that is pretty clear rewatching is the extent to which Peggy has a certain ambivalence about her relationship with Don. She is still eager to please him but she has become something of an equal as well and she cares for him and provides guidance. She has largely replaced Roger as his main friend in life, although Don's accountant remains to make roguishly male suggestions.

And that leaves her with an obvious question: "Why aren't we more to one another?" She sees Don and these women and she has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she is critical of the casualness of these relationships. On the other hand, she wonders, "Why has he never gone after me?" It's not that she'd necessarily want it (and that has to be part of the answer) but, still, why did it never happen. I'm not sure we should make too much of this. Doesn't every woman have a friendship like this?

The biggest question for us is why he didn't stick with Faye? Part of the answer is the conversation Peggy and Faye have as Faye is leaving the office with her box of stuff. Peggy thinks Faye has it all together, she looks up to her and wants to be like her. But Faye doesn't really believe in herself: "Is that what it looks like."

I think that is what Faye's fans all miss. It's not that she is playing a part and Megan isn't. It is that Faye has impostor syndrome. She talks this therapeutic talk about facing the past and so forth but it's all an illusion. She has no comfort to offer. She is a classic Job's comforter.

Now, I'm sure others are thinking, "Who are you calling an impostor here?"  Isn't Don the bigger impostor? Well yes. But the crucial difference is that Don really, really wants to be Don. He doesn't want to be Dick. For him the point is not that he is trying to be something he is not. Rather he is trying to be something and what matters is the degree to which he succeeds.

Think of it this way: Don Draper lives in fear that his secret will come to light but Don Draper does not doubt that he can be Don Draper. Faye Miller has real doubts about her ability to be the woman she wants to be. When she talks about a life outside work, what she is really offering Don is the chance to live a double life. One where he plays a part and one where he lets his inner Dick rule.

I used to coach kids. These were kids with a lot of potential but they were trying to compete with people who were already elite athletes. There was always a moment when they'd have doubts; there was always a moment when they wondered whether they really belonged here. They'd tell me they weren't sure they could make it but that they would "try". And I'd say, "Don't try, succeed." That is something my Godfather used to say to me and it's good advice. You have to pick reasonable goals, to be sure, but no one gets anywhere trying.

Trust me on that. "Don't try, succeed." Every young woman should write that in her diary, embroider it on her pillow, inscribe it on her vanity mirror in lipstick. Every worthwhile woman, like every worthwhile man, is trying to be something she is not. If she lets her inner "Fanny Whitman" undermine her, she will always fail.

That is where Megan wins the battle. She wants to be something and that is obvious from the start. When she first has sex with Don in his office it is clear that she knows all about the Allison incident and she is very careful to tell Don she won't be like that. Not because she thinks he is likely to fall in love with her because she is putting out. Quite the contrary, she is telling him the prize is his with no commitment. Megan will be true not to herself but to the person she wants to be.

Anyway, back to the action. A key moment is when Don is trying so hard to convince Megan to come to California to help him take care of the kids. After he has made his pitch, she says, "Stop the advertising." That's crucial and underlines the difference between Megan and Faye. Faye tells Don about life outside work, Megan gives him life outside work.

Not crying over spilled milkshakes
I noticed that many of the more cynical critics got really worked up about the milkshake scene. Megan's reaction to that obviously had a huge effect on Don and they cynically suggest that this is proof of how easily he is swayed from the (in their view) obviously superior Faye. But telling details in any narrative only work if they are backed up by everything else in the narrative. Megan didn't respond competently and calmly this time, she did so every time.

And, please, a little realism. Don has kids. That isn't going to change. He also knows that his ex-wife is a selfish, immature brat with all the parenting skills of Joan Crawford. Like it or not, the way a woman interacts with his children is going to be a consideration.

If we go back to the scene where Sally makes her unbidden visit to the office and Faye tries to interact with Sally and fails there are a couple of things to note. The first is that when she and Don are alone afterward, Faye is defensive and angry. She begins by accusing him of putting her in a position. Now she might have a point there but she doesn't stop there. She goes on to say that, "of course", she's thought about his children and how she might interact with them. But, she says, "it feels like there was a test and I just failed it."

Think about that for a moment. What about that episode—Sally arriving without being asked, Mrs. Blankenship suddenly dying—could possibly have been a premeditated test? Yes, there was a test but it wasn't a test devised by Don. It was a test like the tests we all face because life throws these tests up at us. And Faye acts as if that test was something unfairly imposed on her when she wasn't ready for it.

I don't have to spell this out do I? Faye is Betty all over again. Faye's big admirers need to step back from the fantasy they have been projecting onto her and see Faye for what she is.

Don't try, succeed?
Do I really mean that? It used to bother some kids I coached a lot.

This advice  is, of course, entirely a matter of attitude. You can't will success. The point is that you can will failure and you can do so even without realizing it. There are attitudes that engender failure. Everyone knows that we still could fail even if we really are doing our very best and everyone knows that sometimes we convince others and ourselves that we were doing our very best when we aren't really doing our best.

The one thing my approach will guarantee is that if you do fail you'll fail hard. There is a whole lot of stuff about intelligent decisions, worthwhile goals and so forth that I am not saying.

And that stuff is all lingering in the background of Mad Men. Marriage or career? Can a woman have both? The Atlantic put up some of their old pieces a while ago and there was a piece about the new problem facing women: the pressure to "have it all". This new problem gets presented as a new problem every decade but if you think about it it is an inevitable consequence of feminism.

What I am sure of is that I've known lots of Faye Millers in my life. I've known their male equivalents. They always end up as roadkill on the highway of love. And she knew all along that was where she was going. Think of the angry phone conversation Don overhears before they have a relationship. Think of the way she responds when he phones her. Faye doesn't like where she ends up but she knows because she was set up for failure from the outset.

Yes, I do mean it. Try it and you don't risk failure so much as you will risk getting shot down in flames or being stabbed in the Rotunda. Then again, you may succeed. What I do know is this: anything really worth living for is really worth dying for. If you don't believe that, you can always watch Oprah. Check the listings.

Next week, and for the entirety of Advent, I'm going to look at Don Draper. I think, and I know some disagree strongly with me on this, that Don Draper is the most morally admirable character in the series. I'll spend the next few weeks explaining why.

I will also be starting as of next Monday to blog my way through Brideshead Revisited. As far as possible, I will be making connections between my Mad Men posts and that novel.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I guide for those perplexed by the Pope's statement on condoms

Here is an analogy that may help.
A while ago there was a story about a professor at a university in England who had his laptop stolen. Some time afterward, he received an envelope with a USB stick that had all the data from his computer on it.

In returning that data, the thief took, as Benedict puts it, "a first step in the direction of moralization". We can say this because we can see that he or she has realized that their stealing this computer had moral consequences and they chose to act to mitigate those consequences.

That does not change the fact that they should not have stolen the laptop in the first place nor does it change the fact that they should now return the laptop and turn themselves into the police.
It's not the condom that is being praised but the intention behind it. And we can see this in the follow up question and the Pope's anwer.
Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.
You may ask, how much of this do I accept? Well, the sexual revolution more or less corresponds with my life. I've seen people who've tried to live according to the church's teachings and I've seen other people try to realize what they saw as the full benefits of the sexual revolution. Oh yeah, I also lived it myself. On balance, I think that even if the church's position is not perfect it's a lot closer to the truth than the supposed sexual liberation offered elsewhere.

After a lot of muddling around and screwing up (if you'll pardon the expression), this libertine arrived at the position that we have to find a different, more human, way of living sexuality. If I have to pick a side on this one, I'm with Benedict.

By the way, anyone who simply who simply takes it as a given that encouraging condom use would help stop the spread of HIV might want to look at the case of birth control. In theory, making birth control easily available should have sharply reduced or eliminated unwanted pregnancies. In practice, well, it didn't work out that way did it?

More on Christ the King

It occurs to me that I didn't say why I like this feast day so much.

I like it because it is the end. And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

We like to dismiss this. Anglicans for example like to call today the Reign of Christ and focus on the glorious kingdom and leave aside that this kingdom will have a King.

Vengeance is mine sayeth the lord. And he will take it. He will judge the living and the dead and the kingdom that is and will be is his and not just some spa in the sky where we're all going to go hang out.

The Serpentine One sends the following link and it's a good one. This is what the end is about.

Christ the King

My favourite feast day today. It's also stir-up Sunday, so get to work on your puddings and cakes.

Why stir-up Sunday? Because of the Collect originally used on this day in the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And in wonderful, pre-modern logic, the two senses of "stir" were linked and people thought, obviously this is the week to make Christmas pudding. (BTW: Isn't that a magnificent sentence? If only the ICEL could write like that.)

And it is.

So much to be grateful for.

The place we live is so beautiful. I've put up pictures of the gardens before. Here is what you see when you get out beyond the gardens:

(You're right: it isn't fair. We have done nothing to deserve all this. Sometimes people come by and tell us how much they'd like to live in our house. Children like it a whole lot because it has such a fairytale quality about it. I like that too. It's just what I used to dream about.)

As I predicted ...

... the Pope-condoms story is just a flap. No Benedict did not endorse condoms or anything like it.

Last night the headline was Pope endorses condoms. This morning the more accurate headline might be:
Journalists still lazy, shallow and incompetent
Any journalist reading this wondering why your profession is so hated might want to think about this. The people who are supposed to be the very best in your profession were given advanced copies of this book and they skimmed them looking for something that fit their preconceptions. They then quoted that out of context and completely changed the meaning. The rest of you didn't bother doing any actual research yourselves but merely parroted the story you'd read elsewhere.

The worst part is that the relevant context is only a few paragraphs long. It would have only taken you five minutes work, all of which could be done without leaving your computer, to get it right. That's all it took me yesterday afternoon.

This isn't the first time this sort of thing happens. So here is the question, why would anyone trust you?

Anyway, I promised the link to the GetReligion piece on the story when it came up. You can read it here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

That Pope-condoms story

UPDATE: You can get more of the context at this link. I strongly recommend reading because Benedict underlines the point that the church does far more to help prevent the spread of HIV and to help AIDS victims in Africa than the people criticizing her do.

By the way, I suspect the Pope has confirmed an aspect of African HIV transmission—that male on male sex is the primary mode of transmission there as it is every where else in the world—that many of us have suspected for a long time.

It came up in the comments here. I suspect there is less to this than meets the eye.

Look at the Pope's actual words as quoted in the story:
"There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility," Benedict said.
The first thing to note here is  the grammar. The entire statement is conditional. "There may be!" And there may not be.

The second thing to note is that this is nothing any good confessor could not have told you. The male prostitute who moves from unprotected sex to protected sex is moving in a moral direction. Much as some might like to think otherwise, this isn't a new moral position for the Catholic church.

A Catholic priest serving as this young man's confessor would congratulate him on recognizing that there are moral consequences he needs to take into consideration. And then the priest would quietly begin urging the young man taking a further step and then another until he gave up prostitution and then sexual relations with other men.

In the end, however, you have to be at least trying for the whole moral enchilada.

By the way, this sort of moral argument—that is to say moral arguments that take the particularities of the moral situation in mind—is called casuistry.

Anyone really interested in this story should watch GetReligion site. There is obviously a lot of context here and they will be the ones most likely to provide that context quickly and accurately (it won't be the New York Times that does!). I'll post the link if and when it comes up.

That Madonna video

I rarely have the patience to watch music videos so I usually put them on and open another page.

This morning I actually watched the Madonna video (scroll to bottom) that I put up yesterday and though that if I ever needed to back up my claim that Madonna is a clown, all I need do is tell people to watch that video and contrast the words and images.

The words are realistic and encourage women to not get swept up in foolish fantasies and stand up for what they really want.

The images are utterly unrealistic and tell the story of a woman debasing herself in pursuit of a foolish fantasy. Think in particular how uncomfortable it would be to actually be in the situation projected. It would be physically uncomfortable, emotionally uncomfortable and morally uncomfortable.

And it tells you everything you need to know about Madonna that she can't see the contradictions.

Great song nevertheless. Someone with more talent than Madonna should do a version, assuming they could stomach the idea of making Madonna even richer than she already is.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Venus Day

Two kinds of narcissism cont'd
The need for approval
There is nothing wrong with needing other people's approval. We'd all be horrible people if we didn't need approval. It keeps us civil and agreeable and it allows us to cooperate together far more effectively than agape has ever done (which is the root of the failure of Christian social justice).

As Adam Smith, famously, put it:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
And that is a fine way to manage our public relations. But what of intimate relations? What happens when the need to gain others approval in this way starts applying to sexual relations?

Well, I saw an example on Wednesday. There was a group of young women somewhere between 18 to 21 years of age shopping at a store I was at. One of them was wearing a T-shirt that had printed on it the following:
He saw it.
He wanted it.
He got it.
It took me back to an odd conversation I had with my friend Nanci-Jane on the very first day I met her. We were discussing various things and she obviously was concerned that I might have gotten the impression she was a goody goody. So she said to me, apropos of nothing, "Hey, I put out."

That T-shirt sent the same message to the whole world. "Don't get the impression I'm stuck up or difficult." Hell, she's even willing to wear a shirt that implies she is just a commodity, an 'it' to be enjoyed like caramel cheesecake, just so you will approve of her. What else will she do?

Anyone who has been to university knows this effect. You will remember the way that many women in university crave sexual approval. You will remember the more than one woman who was so easily seduced because she so desperately craved approval. I suspect that most women have had sex or been close to giving in at least once just because they wanted approval.

The seduction techniques that guys who talk about "having game" use are all predicated on women's need for approval. You convince her that you are an alpha male, tell her she is beautiful then ignore her. Make her earn your approval. (And most guys, if we are honest, will admit that even without having read the books we know what these techniques are.)

And the odds are pretty good that she will "earn it". One of the odd contradictions in life is that the truly beautiful women are the ones who will go to the greatest lengths to get your approval. They are the easiest to seduce. Perhaps because they know that they have done nothing to merit their special status.

And yet they are the hardest to love because, and this is the crucial thing, the need for approval is really a kind of self love not love of others.  In the short run Doug will think that Jean is the greatest thing ever because not only is she really hot looking, her need for approval makes her incredibly generous and giving in bed. But none of that giving is really for him. She does it all for her self-esteem because she desperately needs someone else to tell her she is desirable.

Later, when Doug is in love with Jean and she is in love with him, he can no longer tell her she is beautiful and have her believe it. She will say, "Oh, you're biased." And now she no longer believes that he is quite so alpha as she once did so she doesn't need to gain his approval.

But she will believe the half-hearted compliment some complete fraud who postures and boasts at the next party she goes to. The lowest gopher from some local law firm will convince her that he is a high-powered litigator and, having gotten her attention, he will ignore her and she will flaunt herself in a  desperate attempt to regain the approval he tauntingly held out to her and she may even have sex with him to prove.

And, here is the really bizarre thing about it, she'll have sex that is really good for her because she'll feel really good about finally getting his approval. Just as we often try harder to like the show we paid more to get into, she will try harder to have a good time for this guy than she does anymore for Doug who loves her. The one small consolation is that the braggart who nails her probably won't enjoy it quite so much because, no matter how effective his seduction technique, he'll never quite be able to shake the impostor syndrome that goes with it for the simple reason that he is an impostor. But, if she never sees him long enough to learn better, she may well cherish the memory for years.

What to do about it?
Oddly, I don't think there is any point in Jean trying to overcome her need for approval. That simply cannot be done. Just try pretending you don't like Frito Lays. Think you can do it? Well, tell yourself you don't and then eat just one. Maybe you really don't like them but if not potato chips, there is something else in your life that plays that role. A woman may not need some kinds of approval from some kinds of men but somewhere there are guys who really ought to be beneath her dignity that she will suddenly feel a strong need to get approval from.

The need for approval is natural and, to a point, it is healthy. What we need to do to control it is develop balance. The thing that can balance our need for approval is to seek dignity.

Okay, but didn't I just last week say that sensual self indulgence pursued to the point that it looks like blameworthy narcissism was actually a good thing? And this week I am suggesting that gaining others approval, which looks like a good thing, can easily be done to excess and be a genuinely bad kind of narcissism. I know, you are perhaps wondering if I am going to say that part pursuing  dignity for women is the pursuit of sensual self-indulgence? Well yes, I am. You can't please the woman who seeks sexual approval for very long. Maybe a few months at most. The woman who works at sensual self-indulgence can be pleased and she can be pleased by giving her things that matter to her. It gives her something to turn around to her man with and say, "Okay, now you earn it!" If he is any sort of man worthy of the name, he will.

But there is more to dignity than sensual self indulgence and I'll get to that next week.

And now a song. Madonna is a bit of a clown but she really hit something with this:

To be a Catholic

The point was made in the comments yesterday or the day before that many people who no longer pay much heed to the institutional church still consider themselves to be Catholics. And that is, true, they do consider themselves to be.

You can really see this in Quebec where I come from. Most Quebecois never go to church except for weddings and funerals and yet most Quebecois consider themselves to be Catholic. They even get their children Christened at Catholic churches, but those children never return again until they get married, if they get married, or until they come in in a box. or urn.

There are other Catholics who join communities that operate outside the boundaries and there are even a few rogue parish priests who operate below the radar.

Is that Catholic? If you look over at my profile you'll see that I describe myself as a "crypto-Catholic libertine" and, as one of my favourite movie characters says, "I'm not completely kidding."

But even I think there is something to the old joke:
Q: What do you call a Catholic who insists on independently making up their mind about doctrine and liturgy?
A: A protestant.
Does that mean a Catholic has to accept every jot of doctrine? Honestly, I think there are some things you can soft pedal. 

On the other hand, about twenty years ago now, The Serpentine One and I were in a Catholic church and she pointed out that some of the others in attendance would skip parts of the creed. There is a certain admirable integrity here; they won't say it if they don't believe it. But if you can't say every line of the creed and mean it, you aren't a Catholic.

And the creed includes this line: "one holy catholic and apostolic church."

I know that can sound all authoritarian and triumphalist but words have meaning and if you put the meanings of "one"and "catholic" together with "apostolic" and you get a religion where the institutional church cannot be ignored.

There is an oft told story about Theresa of Avila riding in a carriage that gets overturned and dumps her in the ditch. As the story goes, she got out of the carriage and shook her fist at the sky and said, "the way you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few of them."

I think a Catholic can take a similar attitude towards the institutional church. We can wonder at how it treats its friends and we can wonder what the hell it thinks it is up to but if we start to treat it as irrelevant we cease to be Catholics.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Remember the natural blonde scene?

From the movie MASH I mean? The guys have a bet about whether Hot Lips Houlihan is a natural blonde. They wait until she is in the shower and keep all the other nurses out and pull up the tent flap so she is exposed to the entire camp.

I was thirteen years old when I saw that movie and I was the only person in the theatre who wasn't laughing afterward. All around me men and women were laughing real hard.

And I thought, "Am I the only one who thinks this is really wrong?"

I totally get wanting to see women naked and I have even quietly wished for a wardrobe malfunction but deliberately humiliating a woman like that is just wrong. And it's just as wrong if she is a vain jerk that everybody hates. Maybe even more wrong in that case.

The previous post got me thinking about this.

I don't know what to think

Courtesy of Ann Althouse, comes a link to a rather odd story about a woman named Kristina Ross in Idaho who told other women she met in bars that she was a plastic surgeon who does breast augmentations. This became the opening for her to touch their breasts while pretending to evaluate them for possible surgery.

Turns out she isn't a plastic surgeon. And she has been charged with, are you sitting down, practicing medicine without a license. As Althouse notes, what she actually did was lie to women in a bar. She also asks, "How it is a crime to lie to a woman to get her consent to touch her breasts?"

Well, I'd like to think it counts as sexual assault but I'm no law professor.

Reading it, I remembered an incident from back in the early 1980s. A bunch of us were in a  bar talking. We weren't close friends; we were in the same class and went out for drinks after class sometimes.  One evening a guy in the group turned to one of the women and bet her twenty dollars he could touch her bare nipples without touching her shirt or her bra. She was incredulous but didn't say "no" outright and they did some back and forth in which he kept chiding her and she kept insisting it was physically impossible and him saying, "If you really believe that then ...."

So she finally called what she thought was a bluff and he grabbed both her breasts, gave them a few good squeezes, said "You win," and handed her a twenty.

She was clearly humiliated by the incident and left the bar almost immediately. She did not call the police.

That's classic flim flam, of course, which is to say that part of the con is to leave the conned person so embarrassed at their own stupidity that they don't take any action.

Morally speaking, motive really matters here. Did the guy think this was a harmless party trick? Or did he want to touch her breasts so much he was willing to trick her? Or did he think she was stuck up and wanted to publicly humiliate her?

I look at cases like this and I have two perhaps contradictory thoughts. part of me thinks that this is small stuff. This sort of stuff goes on all the time. But I also think that we are in danger of robbing the act of touching a woman's breasts of it's power and mystery by taking this so casually. Sometimes legislating morality makes a lot of sense to me.

Oh yeah, there is more. There are some rather salacious details aboput Kristina Ross that may or may not want to know about below the fold.

A point about bad rhetoric

I've been meaning to note a brilliant comment by Anne Applebaum for a while now. I believe it originally appeared in the Washinton Post but I just found it online at Canada's National Post. Here is the crucial bit:
My heart sank when I read about Jon Stewart’s Million Moderate March planned for the National Mall next weekend. My heart sank further when I learned that liberal groups have decided to take this endeavour seriously. ... This is how words, and then ideas, vanish from our political lexicon: Whatever connotations it once had, the word moderate has now come to mean liberal or even left-wing in American politics.
The rest of the article is about politics and I don't do politics here. But the rhetorical point here is right on the money. If I start using the word "moderate" when I really mean "people who agree with me", the word rapidly becomes useless.

This is why ideology is so important. You have an ideology. It may be that you have it unconsciously but you have it and it sways your thought. When people use words like "moderate", or "caring", or "common sense", or "pragmatic" as a way of praising someone's political stance they are really in denial about what they believe and why they believe it.

Here is a useful way to think about it: if I say my views are not based on any ideology but on common sense and basic decency what does that say, by implication, about anyone who disagrees with my views? They have to be lacking common sense or basic decency don't they? I know lots of people make the rhetorical move Applebaum deplores it but it is important to recognize that this move is a conjuring trick to shut down argument by deligitimizing any opposition before any discussion can even start.

The more someone insists that they are the voice of calm moderate reason, the more certain you can be that they are helpless slaves to an ideology they have adopted unthinkingly.

Manly Thor's Day Special

The manly art of rhetoric
The Art of Manliness site is planning a series on rhetoric. I love rhetoric and look forward to it. So far they only have the introduction up.

When I was a university debater, we used to do exhibition debates for high schools. I remember one English teacher was thrilled with me after one such debate. He loved my style of argument and he wanted his students to see this so he made a bunch of admiring remarks disguised as questions afterward.

I disappointed him. He praised my logic and I said that it wasn't about logic. Logic kills debate. I'm not saying that illogic wins or should win but that logic is just the frame you hang an argument on. What really matters is persuasion.

No where is this more clear than in love. Sexual love. That is where rhetoric matters most and huge part of being a man is knowing how to talk someone into love.

I was thinking about this the other day because my niece came to town. She is a staggeringly beautiful young woman and very smart to boot. Every time I see here we talk about writing. She loves Frost at Midnight, Emma and Plato.

This last time we talked about Plato. While eating Indian food with a group of people we know and love, which I think is an ideal setting to discuss Plato. She mentioned The Symposium, The Republic and The Phaedo. I, rather unfairly, asked her questions about the arguments and plots of the dialogues thereby putting her on the spot in front of others. She came through with flying colours as I hoped but was not absolutely certain she would do.

She'd never read The Phaedrus though. I gave her my copy as a going away present.

For my money, this is the greatest Platonic dialogue of them all. It's about erotic love and the central issue is whether it's better to have sex with someone you are in love with or whether it's better to have a casual arrangement with someone you are attracted to but not infatuated with. Three quarters of the book are the greatest defense of erotic infatuation ever written.

Of course, being Plato, it's about man-boy love, Plato was the original NAMBLA man (I love putting things like that in posts as Google bait to see who they draw in).

It has another weird twist though. as I said, three quarters of the book is a defense of erotic love. The last quarter is suddenly about rhetoric. This really puts some readers off. "Where the heck did that come from?" It's not completely crazy, Socrates and Phaedrus (the only two characters in the story, "Phaedrus" is pronounced fee-druss BTW) have been discussing not so much love as speeches about love such that, logically, the transition makes perfect sense.

What is hard to understand is the rhetorical transition. It just seems natural to go from an analysis of a bunch of speeches about love to a discussion of love in general. To go from a these speecehs to a discussion of speeches in general seems weird.

The answer to the puzzle is that Plato thought that love speech was the ultimate form of speech. All of the speeches in The Phaedrus as well as those in The Symposium can be read not just as speeches about love but also as attempts to seduce particular people. I suspect that, for Plato, seduction was the highest form of communication. A political speech or a legal argument was a poor cousin by comparison.

I think he was right. Nothing tells you that a man is not really a man more decisively than his not being able to talk comfortably and persuasively to women.

PS: Percy Bysshe Shelley did a translation of The Symposium and, even better, it is available in a  good, cheap edition today*. He did not do The Phaedrus, and that is tragic, but his one Plato translation is one of those books you have to read; ideally, you should read it when you are nineteen.

*This site is not monetized. I get not a single cent from the links I put up.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

So what changes?

In the comments, Gaius says he has a hard time grasping the significance of what Catholics like me are touting as a big upset at the USCCB.
I'm afraid my protestant self totally missed the political implications..?
I'm sure he is not the only one. The Catholic Church is like one of those supertankers that takes five miles with the engines in full reverse to stop. Since about October 1978, the North American church has been slowing down. Now it has come to rest and it will start moving off in a new direction but it will go painfully slowly.

So why do people care so much? Because of what isn't going to happen.

So what won't happen? There was a big liberalizing moment that ran from 1962 to 1978 and liberals have been hoping ever since that they would someday be able to restart what they call "the unfinished business of Vatican II". That isn't going to happen now.

Catholic liberals, like political liberals, have always assumed that whatever setbacks there might be on the way, history and biology were on their side. They just had to out wait the crusty old conservatives and they'd get what they wanted because the new, young blood would be more liberal.

Much to everyone's surprise, things went the other way. Catholic liberals are a rapidly greying bunch and the younger priests and bishops have tended to be progressively more conservative.  The liberals are now the crusty old reactionaries and the young Turks are mostly conservative.

Elsewhere in the Catholic blogosphere you will see some gloating over this but not here. I thought the liberals went too far in some areas and that some reforms were simply misguided from the beginning but I refuse to gloat when someone else loses the mission that has motivated them for the entire life. And that is what has happened here. The liberal moment in American Catholicism is now irrevocably over. It's dead Jim.

So, what happens now?

The truth is that the spectrum of opinions represented by the Bishops is very narrow. On liturgical and doctrinal issues, even the most liberal bishop is slightly conservative. On social issues, even the most conservative bishop is going to be slightly liberal. It is pretty much impossible to become a bishop otherwise.

I suspect that fans of the Traditional Latin Mass are probably in for a huge disappointment. Novus Ordo is here to stay. The current translation will go but that will most likely be the last nail in the TLM's coffin because the new translation will eliminate most if not all of the cogent arguments against the Novus Ordo.

On the social side of the equation, people like me who would like to see the church accept capitalism more enthusiastically will go to our graves before any such change happens. We will probably see a (very) gradual de-emphasizing of church support of big government initiatives. Catholic support of unions will also decline for the simple reason that most North American Catholics aren't union members anymore.

What will happen on sexual teachings?
  1. Well, the abortion issue is decided. Those who might have hoped to relax the hard anti-abortion stance or change to a more pro-choice position have been completely routed.
  2. Other issues such as birth control, sex before marriage and sex culminating in male orgasm such that pregnancy is impossible? As I've said before, the de facto church position on these things has been don't ask, don't tell for a long time now. The official position is that these practices are not acceptable but you'll rarely hear a priest actually say so from the pulpit or in direct instruction. My sense is that most priests are ashamed to even bring it up and that most Catholics would ignore them if they did. The bishops might make pronouncements now and then but they know no one is listening.*
  3. On sex abuses the hard work is already done. It will take decades to restore the church's reputation and credibility here but it will happen.
As I say, all of this will seem like small beer to outsiders and maybe even to insiders but there you are.

* I have several friends who do the thankless task of explaining natural family planning in marriage prep courses. Their goal is to get people to listen respectfully in the hopes that they might gain a couple of converts and they sometimes do but that is all they aim to do. Having watched several such sessions, I can tell you that the strongest opposition comes from the women. The men are often doubtful but are are ready to go along with whatever their wife to be decides. (I'll expand on this in an upcoming post.)