Friday, January 31, 2014

A little light (Catholic) culture: self-awareness anyone?

This is hilarious. Stephen Schneck, director of The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, appears to know what the word "condescension" means; what he doesn't know is himself.
"The Catholic apologists for libertarianism -- and, sadly, there are a few who try to do this -- always begin with condescension."
 As the Lemon Girl, reading over my shoulder, just said, that is worthy of one of the more laughably despicable Jane Austen characters. Schneck doesn't just stoop to condescension here, he lays on his belly and squirms through it like a snake on his way to accusing others of it.

Schneck may be, how to put this gently, a conceited moron, but he isn't harmless. Notice that his fundamental attitude is that libertarian Catholics have no right to exist. He, like so many on the left today, wants to shut down dissent.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The inner life: feelings

Feelings, for all my life I'll feel it.
I wish I've never met you, girl;
You'll never come again.
 So, is that last line a lament or a threat?

 If you're too young to remember those horrid lyrics you should consider yourself blessed. If you can't help yourself, you can find the song they come from here.

Speaking strictly musically, it's actually a pretty good song. It's the lyrics that make it abominable. And, odd as this may sound Morris Albert is, philosophically, in the same camp as Dante (maybe) and Proust (definitely) about feelings. That is to say, he thinks of feelings as things that happen to us. Dante, in case you are wondering, considered involuntary love to be superior to cultivated affection and Proust thought involuntary memories of the past to be superior to willful attempts of "remembrance of things past" (which is why he hated that title when it was applied to the English translation of his novel).

It's an open question as to whether Dante really believed this or whether it, and his supposed love for Beatrice, were just a literary convention. I think he was too smart to really believe it or really love Beatrice myself. To really believe it seems to me to be a modern problem; it seems to be, as Gottlob Frege put it, a disease in thought peculiar to the modern mind.

In any case, what Morris Albert and Proust share is a belief that there are authentic mental stirrings that are not result of our efforts and that these are superior—even if they cause us pain—to things we consciously try to achieve because they are not sought after.

I think that's just wrong. Feelings are not something that happens to me; they are my reaction to what happens to me. I can control my reactions. I can't control them perfectly. It is going to be difficult for me to control my feelings if I really have to catch the 8:15 bus and the driver doesn't see me at the stop and heads right by. On the other hand, the ancients judged men by how well they handled such situations; men were expected to respond in a controlled way when sentenced to death, for example.

That may seem like so much nonsense now but I believe that controlling your feelings makes you and your life better than they otherwise would be. It not only does no good to get all worked up over the missed bus, it decreases the quality of my life to do so. We're told the opposite. We're told to open up and let our feelings out.

But letting anger out just makes you unhappy. Your pulse races, your body releases adrenalin and you get all tense. You don't feel better for doing it. You feel worse. And people who have to deal with you feel worse too because you become difficult to deal with.

Look at Morris Albert again, a woman has left him and he wishes he'd never met her. Is that healthy? He is now going to treat his entire relationship with this woman as something negative. There are no good memories? There are no lessons learned that he can apply to future relationships? The woman he once loved is so utterly worthless that it would have been better to have never met her? That's a stupid, self-destructive way of considering a past relationship.

The feelings we have about a failed relationship are within our control. We can shape them and mold them; we can train ourselves to respond in certain ways.

Self-analysis is useless for this. What, if anything, would self analysis mean? Notice that any attempt to describe self analysis requires us to use metaphors that do not, in fact, correspond to any real activity: "look deep withing myself", "turn inward", and so forth. What we can know and what we can control are our outward responses. To the extent that we talk about inward responses at all, we do so in a negative way: "stay calm", "don't sit around mulling about it", "don't get worked up".

What we really have when we have feelings

One of the more telling linguistic shifts of modern times has been the substitution of words meaning feelings for words meaning belief. Jennifer says, "I feel like you don't trust me?" As many have pointed out before me, the primary consequence of that shift is to make these statements incontestable. The assumption is that you cannot be mistaken about your own feelings. If I am in pain, then I am in pain and you can't say I'm not.

And there is something to that. Randy may respond to Jennifer by saying he is jealous, and he probably is jealous (although people do lie about such things sometimes). But it should be reasonable to ask whether Jennifer and Randy are entitled to feel the way they do. It's telling that Jennifer doesn't want to have an argument about the facts. Did her actions cause Randy to suspect her? It's equally telling that Randy wants to talk about his feelings of jealousy rather than discuss what actions of Jennifer's might justify his jealousy. What both are trying to do is to avoid acknowledging that their feelings are the result of a thought process. Each has considered the others actions and has reached conclusions about what the other is thinking or doing.

Randy notices that Jennifer is always away and that her absences aren't always explained, that the explanations she does give are vague and perhaps they sometimes don't stand scrutiny. Randy knows this doesn't necessarily mean Jennifer is cheating but he wonders and it shows. This feeling isn't something that just happened to Randy. It took sustained effort on his part to arrive at this feeling.

Jennifer, likewise, knows that things she is doing are causing Randy to wonder. It's not some bizarre, unexpected discovery that he is beginning to wonder what she is up to. Let's stipulate, for the sake of the argument, that Jennifer is not actually cheating on Randy. All she is doing is beginning to develop an independent life away from him. The argument could go either way. What is important to note, however, is that in neither case are their feelings something that just happened to them. Their feelings are the product of the way they have analyzed the actions of the other and of how they have responded.

In both cases, it would be entirely reasonable to ask if these feelings were justified.

One of the telling things about modern life is that we tend not to do that. We tend to do just the opposite. When we train people to interact with others, we teach them to validate their feelings. We teach them to say, "You must be frustrated", or "I understand your anger" because we don't challenge people's right to really have their feelings. When couples see a therapist they are encouraged to discuss the way they feel and not to discuss what they do or don't like about what the other did. Ironically, liberal democracy, which was built on the right to free expression of political and religious beliefs, now suppresses freedom of expression of fact and opinion because of the effect this expression might have on the feelings of others.

This is turning us into a bunch losers and it's undermining the basis of our society. There isn't much we can do about the first but we can at least stop pretending that we don't control our own feelings and start taking responsibility for them.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Some thoughts on the inner life

The inner life is a subject that I have very strong views about. In the past, these strong views have inspired some pushback. I've been rethinking the matter. The following is an attempt to work some stuff out in writing.

I've long been of the opinion that a person would do well to function as if there were no such thing as an inner life. It's not that I deny we have inner feelings and thoughts and so forth. I get suspicious when we call this jumble of inner stuff a separate "life". My suspicion has always been that if you take care of the outer, the inner will resolve itself.

Years ago, a woman I knew admitted to me that there was nothing she could learn about a man by having sex with him that she couldn't have learned by studying his behaviour outside of bed carefully. She admitted this rather ruefully as she had learned this, too late, after spending the best decades of her life taking the first approach, that is having sex with men as a way of getting to know them instead of really getting to know them before deciding to have sex with them. My beliefs about the inner life have tended to be pretty much the same: we spent far too much time focusing on our inner life in the mistaken belief that doing so will improve our outer life when the opposite approach is more fruitful.

I think we make two deceptive moves when we think about our inner life (I'm cribbing all of this from Wittgenstein.). The first is to imagine that it is a thing that we should be able to analyze. Here it is:

Except that is too plain and obvious. If someone asks, "Where and what is your inner life?", you can just point at it. Okay, but play the game and actually do it. Put your finger on the screen right where the box is and say, "This is my inner life". I know, you want to say, "But it isn't really my inner life." I'll get to that. For the time being, play the game. If your inner life really were in the box above, you could just point at it and say, "Here it is."

Okay, let's get back to that concern. The problem isn't, we want to say, simply that my inner life isn't those words in a box. The problem is that it couldn't be. My inner life is this very mysterious thing. It is not easily accessible. It has an opaque black box around it.

 And that's odd. I mean, that should strike us as odd. Most of the time, my inner life is easily accessible. I have feelings, fantasies, secret thoughts, hidden shame, suppressed desires. They're all there and I know about them. If anything, I spend more time making sure my inner life stays inner: I don't want my friend to know that I am actually bored by his problems and am only listening because I want to be a good friend; I don't want my boss to know I think this team-building initiative is a pile of crap; I don't want my women friends to know how curious I am about what it would be like to see and touch their breasts.

Why is it that the inner life suddenly becomes an immensely complex and difficult thing when we try to talk about it? Part of the answer is that the examples I give above don't seem good enough to us. If, like me, you grew up in a good liberal household where people talked about New Yorker short stories with reverence, you will want to say that the above examples are indeed part of the inner life but that the real inner life, the one worth having and knowing about, is (or should be) much richer and more valuable than that.

This is where I take a slightly different tack than Wittgenstein. His approach was to show us, through countless reminders and puzzles, that the way we talk about the inner life is incoherent. We put it in a box, he would say, and we claim that this box is inaccessible to our senses. You can't see, taste, smell, hear or touch it directly. The only way to get at it is ... well, what? Introspection? Freudian analysis? Some sort of direct experience that only works with the inner life? Wittgenstein, with incredible patience, works through each and every one of these examples and shows us that every attempt to spell out this rich inner life ends in confusion.

But there is also a deeply troubling moral aspect that arises when we dismiss the mundane inner life we all know about to focus on something else that we claim is supposedly rich and wonderful and would radically change and improve our lives if only we would take the time to really get in touch with it. If this inner life, this thing that is there and seems terribly important even though you can't touch it or see it and can't prove it exists is beginning to sound sort of like God, then you are beginning to see the problem.

Here is why I have begun to change my mind about the inner life. If we look at someone like Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose feast is today, we get a very different approach to the inner life. Aquinas didn't seek a richer inner life but a more impoverished one. He wanted to empty his inner life in order to make room for God. I've never tried that, not honestly anyway.

Friday, January 24, 2014

I remember Clifford

Today is the fourth anniversary of the death of the best man I ever knew. He was my Godfather and while he is not the Clifford the song was actually written for ... I don't care, it is for me.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What what I read really says about me

Here's a quote.
When Jonah Berger was a graduate student at Stanford, in the early aughts, he would make a habit of reading page A2 of the Wall Street Journal, which included a list of the five most-read and the five most-shared articles of the day. “I’d go down to the library and surreptitiously cut out that page,” he recalls. “I noticed that what was read and what was shared was often different, and I wondered why that would be.” What was it about a piece of content—an article, a picture, a video—that took it from simply interesting to interesting and shareable? What pushes someone not only to read a story but to pass it on?
Does anything about that rouse your suspicions? I don't mean, is there anything here that you KNOW to be wrong. I mean, is there anything here that makes you think that you're not sure this is quite right.

Two things jumped out at me. I wasn't the only one. The first was shared by many wags who posted comments along the line of, "I passed this along without reading it." The second was shared by the commenter who wrote, "What pushes people to do something as anti-social as cutting articles out of a newspaper in the library?!"

The article itself bears out the first criticism. You can see it in the paragraph above: "I noticed that what was read and what was shared was often different ...". Furthermore, Berger's research suggests that people share not because of the content of the article but because of the impression it created about themselves. That is why they wouldn't necessarily read what they pass along. They could achieve that by skimming just enough of the article, and "just enough" may be no more than the teaser, to determine what it is about and that this is the sort of thing that will create the impression they want, and hit "share". I dare guess that at least 70 percent of the things that get shared fit into that category.

(A practical joke immediately comes to mind: post a link of cute puppy pictures that actually goes to hard core porn. I'm sure it's already been done. Also, like a lot of practical jokes, it's only funny in the abstract. It get's a lot less funny when some 14 year old sends the link to her grandfather. It's sort of like cutting articles out of the newspaper at the library.)

Closer to home, I realized that this is why I read Ulysses and Lolita. I disliked both books, found reading them to be boring and tiresome, but read them until the end. I thought, as I was doing it, that this would make me better than the nine million people who claim to have read them without cracking the cover but it made me, if anything, worse. I gave up a chunk of my life deliberately prolonging unhappy experiences because that, I felt, bought me membership in the club of people who actually have read the stuff they talk about. That's pure vanity. The honest solution would have been to not read either and stop hanging out with pretentious gits and make friends with the sort of people who read Wodehouse

I don't doubt, by the way, that lots of people get genuine pleasure out of reading both. That doesn't make the case any better though as both books trade on your joining into a little parlour game with the writer that trades on this not being really about what first appears to be about and aren't we both smart for playing this game. In the end, the man who goes surfing for "barely legal" porn is, like Saint Augustine's drunk, morally superior than the person who reads Lolita for the reasons that Nabokov wanted it to be read.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Saint Agnes Eve

Is tonight. They are predicting -26 Celsius so it will indeed be bitter cold.

She used to be remembered every time the mass was said:
Nobis quoque peccatoribus, famulis tuis, de multitudine miserationum tuarum sperantibus, partem aliquam et societatem donare digneris, cum tuis sanctis Apostolis et Martyribus: cum Ioanne, Stephano, Matthia, Barnaba, (Ignatio, Alexandro, Marcellino, Petro, Felicitate, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucia, Agnete, Caecilia, Anastasia) et omnibus Sanctis tuis: intra quorum nos consortium, non aestimator meriti, sed veniae, quaesumus, largitor admitte. Per Christum Dominum nostrum.
Alas, no longer.

Anyway, do celebrate with song and food. Here are some culinary suggestions from Keats:

While he from forth the closet brought a heap
  Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;      
  With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
  And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
  Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
  From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A little light culture: spiritual versus material

Do you remember Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda? I do. Just barely. He was a Japanese soldier who kept fighting the second world war until 1974. A superior officer told him to hold his position and fight until they came back for him. He said it might take years.

Onoda held out for 29 years.

When people tried to tell him the war was over, he assumed they were trying to trick him. The whole story is fascinating. But there is also something rather intriguing about the way the New York Times has chosen to cover the story today. As Ann Althouse notes, the obituary seems to be trying to tell us something else.

Onoda seems to have become something of a hero in Japan and the obituary quotes admirers framing their praise of him in terms of lessons about the "evils of materialism".
In an editorial, The Mainichi Shimbun, a leading Tokyo newspaper, said: “To this soldier, duty took precedence over personal sentiments. Onoda has shown us that there is much more in life than just material affluence and selfish pursuits. There is the spiritual aspect, something we may have forgotten.”
And notice how quickly it was forgotten that Onoda killed innocent villagers he took to be guerrillas whenever they got too close to the places where he was hiding. That's not much of an advertisement for "the spiritual aspect". Also forgotten is the fact that Japan launched itself into war for reasons of greed and conquest, that its soldiers often conducted themselves abominably and that millions at home and abroad suffered needlessly. That was what Onoda was fighting for those 29 years in the jungle. That was his "duty".

Althouse speculates that the NYT is deliberately trying to send us some message in this obituary. I think something else is at work. I think the entire intellectual class has lost the ability to think intelligently about the material and the spiritual. "Materialism" has become a catch-all tag for everything we don't like and is applied without thought. (Think of how people who say they are fighting poverty, a 100 percent material concern, claim to be opposed to "materialism".) The "spiritual" meanwhile has lost all connection with the belief that there is another level of existence beyond the material. Spiritual has come to me, having to do with the life of the mind.

Worse, we have forgotten that there is good and evil on both sides of the dividing line between material and spiritual. There are many, many material pursuits that are good (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless for example) and there are many things that are spiritual that are evil. Developing a level of fanaticism such that you might spend 29 years hiding out in a cave in devotion to a corrupt and racist regime should stand out as an obvious example of the evil side of the spiritual life. That it does not is a rather sad marker of how depraved our moral culture has become.

Final thought: Why does it never seem to have occurred to Onoda that he was doing something wrong during those 29 years?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Saint Elizabeth: What Charles Kingsley was reacting to

Okay, Kingsley publishes The Saint's Tragedy in 1848. Why, I asked last time, did he pick Elizabeth from the wide range of Catholic saints he might have used as the basis of his story?

I think the answer lies in a number of events from around the time he began writing it. First, there was a Romantic reconsideration of Catholicism. Second, there was an immensely popular "biography", really a romance, of Elizabeth that had appeared twelve years before.

Before going on, let's stop and consider the word "Romantic". We read it now and he here the word "rebellion" coming following after just as "Fortnum" seems to demand "Mason" should come after it. It wasn't always so. Originally, the genre that we today call Gothic was called "romance". It was called that because it was like the romance tales of the high middle ages. These stories featured beautiful ladies and brave men pursuing love in a world where the lines between magic and reality and history and legend where very blurred. "Romantic" originally meant something that was romance-like.

And the truth is that there was much more of that sort of thing about the Romantic era than there is of the spirit of rebellion that you get when you study this stuff at university.

Now, one of the problems that romance-like Romanticism brings with it for English writers is Catholicism. There is necessarily a huge dose of it as all the characters of these tales are Catholic. Whether they meant to or not, the early writers of Gothic fiction made the old Catholic world seem appealing.

A sort of reconsideration of Catholicism and of England's Catholic past were triggered by this. In the decade before The Saint's Tragedy appeared, this reconsideration reached its peak with the Tractarian movement leading up to the conversion Newman in 1845.

Long before Kingsley wrote, there was a tradition in England of balancing the thrills of romance writing with rational explanation. This is what Ann Radcliffe did in her novels and, I think, it is what Keats is up to in The Eve of St. Agnes.

Another thing that happened in the years before Kingsley wrote his work is that Charles Forbes René de Montalembert wrote a book about Elizabeth. He didn't hold back on the Romance at all. In fact, his aim was the exact opposite. We was writing in a post-revolutionary France and was part of a movement that was trying to gather the debris that Catholicism had been reduced to in order to restore its former glory.

I'm just learning about this movement now. It looked to the medieval past as the height of Catholic practice but it was modern and liberal (in the sense of believing in individual freedom). It's a weird but attractive mix. The story tells us, I've just started reading it, is as unrestrained a romance as you'll ever find.

And that is all I have to say for now ...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Some advice on dealing with family bullies

I had an encounter with a aggressive bully of the type you meet on the schoolyard the other day. We were, in fact, on the bus and not in a schoolyard. He was easy to deal with. I stood up to him and he backed down. Thinking about it, it occurred to me that that is why we don't see many such bullies once we leave childhood behind. Their tricks only work on children.

But there is another type of bully who trades on a different kind of power and that is your family relationship with them. They are, in a sense, people who wish you and they were still like you were when you were children.

This really jumped out at me at a family reunion that happened in Quebec City last year. At any family gathering there is a tendency to revert to the old rules and relationships that applied back when you were all brothers, sisters and cousins together. You can spot the family bullies more clearly in that sort of atmosphere. Two in particular really stood out.

The experience was liberating. From that day I started to treat those two differently from how I had treated them up until that reunion because I realized that the many, many unpleasant interactions I had had with them over the years were caused by their being bullies. And when I started treating them differently, things got better.  They didn't get better. They are still the manipulative, bullying jerks they always were. But I got better. Slowly. At first there was  barrage of testing challenges from them on FaceBook that went on for a few months. That was emotionally trying. But every one of these bullying tricks made me stronger. Eventually, I stopped getting worked up at their tricks.

For whatever it's worth, here are the lessons I've learned:
  • The things that really matter to you are things that don't need to be said so DON'T SAY THEM. If you really want to be an honest person, then you will simply be that person. The compulsion to announce that "These are my values," is a sign of weakness and will be recognized and exploited as such by the family bully. "Values" are just crap we spout, virtues are strengths we have internalized.
  • Only apologize when you have done something wrong. Conversely, never apologize simply to placate someone who is acting angrily in response to something you said or did. That person is a bully and needs to be stood up to.
  • One of the primary indicators that you are dealing with a family bully is that they will pretend to discuss an issue rationally while actually being manipulative. Be especially on the look out for the following seemingly rational but actually deeply manipulative arguments:
  1. “I think you know what is wrong with what you did,” or, “If you think about this honestly, I think you will see the problem.” Say to them, “Let’s pretend I’m stupid and you explain it to me.”
  2. “I don’t think you can stop/help yourself.” The correct response is, “I wasn’t trying to stop myself. Why should I?”
  3. Attributing emotions to you that you aren’t feeling: e.g. "I don’t know why you are so angry," or "I don’t know why you are so bitter about this," and, especially, "I don't know why you can't be rational about this". More often than not, the person who does this is in fact telling you how they feel about you without realizing they are doing so.
Sometimes a family relationship will seem like it is not worth saving and it may be that it is not worth saving but there is never any point in breaking it off. First, do your best to be a good person but do not become someone other than the man you want to be simply to gain a family member's approval. They’ll eventually get the message and change or leave of their own accord.

Caveat: don't think of this as a way of winning. Trust me, you will be strongly tempted to try and win but that way madness lies. That is just lowering yourself to their level. Be honest with yourself about the pain they have caused you and the pain that a final break, should it come to that, will cause you. Otherwise you will get tricked into playing a sort of bluffing game with your family and family are too special to bluff with.

Instead, go back to those virtues that really matter—go back to the man you are and the man you want to be—and if you conclude that being that man is more important than staying in touch with this cousin, sister, brother, father, mother, or even, God forbid, child or spouse, keep living those virtues. They can go or stay. Never state it, that's issuing an ultimatum. Just live it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Saint Elizabeth: Charles Kingsley

Charles Kingsley wrote a play about Saint Elizabeth of Hungary in which she, as she dies, renounces the life of denial that (at least as Kingsley sees it) was foisted on her by Konrad of Marburg and announces that she is looking forward to reunion with her husband in heaven, with all that implies.

Kingsley doesn't seem to have put much weight on Jesus's teaching that in heaven, "neither do they marry nor are they given in marriage."

I should tell you that, even though you have probably never heard of him, Charles Kingsley was a huge figure in his day. As one of the leaders of a movement that united male virtues with Christianity, and known as Muscular Christianity, Kingsley was one of the most influential thinkers of the Victorian era.

He was also what feminists would today call "sex positive". Feminists wouldn't like him much for reasons I'll get to.

I'm rather fond of the guy and the whole notion of Muscular Christianity myself. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I accept the original concept uncritically but I do think that current Christianity could do with some masculinity; actually, I think it could do with a lot of masculinity but that's a subject for another day.

To get back to Kingsley, he wrote the play, which he dedicated to his future wife, shortly before he got married and he was rather looking forward to the big night. Here is a nice little excerpt from one of the letters he wrote her in anticipation of their 'union".
When you go to bed tonight, forget that you ever wore a garment, and open your lips for my kisses and spread out each limb that I may lie between your breasts all night.
He meanwhile, would be having similar thoughts in his bed far away and, he goes on to say, they could achieve a kind of union in prayer even though they could not physically unite just yet,
At a quarter past eleven lie down, clasp your arms and every limb around me, and with me repeat the Te Deum aloud.
Kingsley saw sexual bliss as a foretaste of what was to come in heaven.  Strictly speaking, that view is a lot more orthodox than you might guess. With Kingsley's version, however, we might raise two questions. The more important of which is whether he keeps the priority in the right order. If sexual bliss is only a foretaste then his Saint Elizabeth need not look forward to reunion with her husband in heaven as something even better awaits her there. The second, a little more trivial, question is how it is that Kingsley, an unmarried man at this point, is so absolutely sure that sex is going to be great.

In any case, sex was what he wanted and he believed that Catholic teaching about the value of a life of self-denial was a false and misleading. Okay, but why would he pick Saint Elizabeth as his subject? Why not pick one of those virgin martyrs who renounced marriage? What made Saint Elizabeth such a likely subject? The full answer to that will come next Thursday but, for now, suffice to say that he admired Saint Elizabeth. He both admired and feared Catholicism: he thought that the saints had a lot to offer and worried that by excluding them, his faith didn't risk losing adherents to teh Catholic church.

This was not an unusual sentiment at the time.

Kingsley, by the way, was just as certain that sex was going to be really good for his wife as it would be for him, which contradicts the stereotype we have of Victorian men. The subject of the play was Elizabeth after all and Kingsley saw that sex as liberating for her too. To get at how he might see this, we need to consider something that will seem quite weird to us. For, contrary to what we project onto them, moralists of that era did not think that women did not experience pleasure in sex so much as they worried that they were prone to enjoy it so much that it would put them in danger. The self-image of the Victorian lady of high standing who seems impervious to passion was an image of stability and success. The sexual freedom that Kingsley proposed in his play about Saint Elizabeth was freedom within marriage to a man who would protect her. Presumably, this protection involved the predictable home and hearth but it must also, by implication, have included a promise on the part of the man to fully satiate his wife's desires, which he would be able to do because he was a good Muscular Christian who was healthy in mind and in body.

It's a view that is almost modern. Almost. Most, and probably all, feminists would disagree with his views. There is an old Latin saying to the effect that (I don't have the Latin at hand) , "protection drags subjection in its wake", and that would certainly apply here.

For my purposes, though, the question going ahead is, Does Kingsley understand why a woman like Saint Elizabeth would make her great renunciation? He can only see it as something imposed on her by Konrad. But such renunciations were not unique to her and there are good reasons to think that a woman like Elizabeth would have seen this life as a way to freedom. More on that come Thursday.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A little light culture: "Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth"

That's a line from a Pharrell Williams song that redefines inane. I don't mean to discuss the song here. It's called "Happy" and I'm sure you can find it on YouTube. It has some merits. Williams does a good job of sounding like Marvin Gaye and you can dance to it. (And Williams may be having fun here as the above-cited line could have ironic intent. We can only hope so.)

What fascinated me about the song is that some people I know praised it on FaceBook. They are feminist people and were, just a few months ago, condemning the song "Blurred Lines", which Williams cowrote, produced, sang in and appeared in the video, as promoting date rape.

And all it takes is one empty bit of sentimental tripe for them to forgive and forget!

Unless, of course, they never really believed what they were saying in the first place. Going from "this guy is promoting rape" to "I just love this song" isn't just being a cheap date so much as it is not actually believing anything in the first place.

I'd humbly suggest that is the real problem. The outrage against "Blurred Lines" was tribal. It was a way to declare yourself a part of a tribal group and not a real threat to anyone. That is the way we do politics and public morality these days.

I use the "we" advisedly—we are increasingly tribal in our politics.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Saint Elizabeth: Turning the picture back into words

I will not put the picture up with this post. If you want to see it or see it again, it is here.

Phillip Hermogenes Calderon, the painter, was the son of a man who left the priesthood and the Catholic church to get married. He may have had no choice on the second decision after having made the first. One suspects his son Phillip wasn't taught to view the Catholic Church in a positive light.

He got the inspiration for the painting from a play about Elizabeth of Hungary by Charles Kingsley. The play sticks pretty close to the events of Elizabeth's life, as best as they can be known, but takes liberties with the ending. I'll get back to that ending at the ending of this post.

Okay, so what do we know about the real Elizabeth? I've been calling her a "Queen" but the truth is considerably more complicated than that because European royalty is complicated and weird. To give you a notion of how weird, sometimes a Duke can be more important than a Prince. Suffice to say that her husband, Louis, was the leader of Thuringia for ten years until his death.

At which point, Elizabeth became a terribly inconvenient figure on the local political scene. The widows of deceased rulers always were. The problem is that opposition to the new ruler tended to coalesce around the old Queen.

There was a well-established roles for such women to play in medieval society. In the first place, wives of rulers were encouraged to live lives of piety and generosity while their husbands were still alive. This fitted with accepted notions of womanly behaviour and it helped a positive image of the ruling family in the eyes of the people. Of course, the actions could be and probably usually were absolutely sincere. We still see today wives of powerful men who throw themselves into lives of good works.

At the same time, the great lady was also the subject of much erotic interest and it was not uncommon for stories with implicit erotic content to surface about them (implicit because telling a story with explicit content could get you dying a horrible death real fast). For example, there is the tale I cited before of the poor woman whom Elizabeth helped decamping with all her clothes and Elizabeth being unable to leave her bed because she was naked. There is also the story of Elizabeth putting a leper in the conjugal bed and her angry husband pulling back the covers to find a crucifix.

If their husbands died, a very likely outcome given medieval violence and medicine, women in Elizabeth's place were often encouraged to enter convents, sometimes quite forcefully encouraged.

Elizabeth is a bit of a rebel in that she becomes a tertiary, which is to say a lay-member, of the newly founded Franciscan order.  The Franciscans, and the Dominicans founded about the same time, did not stay inside convents but ventured out to serve the needs of the poor. That may have been less convenient to the man who replaced her husband as leader.

Another thing that may have been less than convenient to others was that Elizabeth took her considerable dowry with her. This was accumulated wealth her family had spent generations acquiring; her family might well have preferred to set her up in marriage that would consolidate both their wealth and power. Much of the legend about Elizabeth turns on this.

I should note that Elizabeth was far from unusual in not wanting to marry someone arranged by her family. And it's not hard to think why this might be. They would have arranged the marriage for their convenience, not hers, and shown up with this guy she didn't know or like who would then have the right to do to her everything a medieval husband had a right to do. And while her dowry would have given her family considerable incentive to set up such a marriage, it would also have given her more power to evade such a marriage.

And that is where the story gets a little icky. I say "icky" because stories like hers are fun to tell; stories like hers are the basis of fireside legends because they generally feature obvious black and white moral distinctions and brave heroes and heroines who fight for good and truth against tremendous odds. Enter into this otherwise story one Konrad von Marburg. Not matter how you try to spin his tale, Konrad is one nasty piece of work. He is a severe ascetic given to self flagellation. Like a lot of such people, he also seems to have enjoyed inflicting deprivation and pain on others. He was an inquisitor and  perfectly lived up to the worst stereotypes that go with that role. Even the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which did its level best to make Konrad look good reluctantly concluded there were serious problems:
In the exercise of this authority, even according to the sympathetic accounts of contemporary annalists, Conrad proved too severe and harsh. His assistants, Conrad Dorso, a Dominican lay brother, and John, a layman, were ignorant fanatics unqualified for such work. Conrad believed too easily the declarations of persons accused of heresy; on the strength of their statements, and without further investigation, others were arrested and treated as heretics. The accused either confessed their guilt and had their heads shaved for penance, or denied their guilt, were delivered as obstinate heretics to the secular arm, and perished at the stake. How great was the number of victims cannot now be ascertained.
That's a very roundabout way of admitting that Konrad was a ruthless fanatic who killed innocent people.

He could be a stock villain in a story like Elizabeth's. The problem is that he was her friend and confidant and that he owed much of his initial rise to power to her. After her death, which may have been hastened by the severe asceticism that he encouraged her to undertake (although we should not assume he did so against her will as the opposite is more likely), Konrad wrote up the case for Elizabeth being named a saint and the case was successful.

Jump forward to the 19th century. Saint Elizabeth's story is now viewed differently. Ann Radcliffe would have had a field day with the story and ended it with an Elizabeth-type women escaping her Konrad into the hands of the man who really loved her. And that is more or less the trajectory of her novel The Italian. Of course, she couldn't do that with Elizabeth herself as everyone knows Elizabeth dies. But what you could do is have the dying Elizabeth change her mind and renounce her renunciations on her death bed and tell Konrad that she looks forward to an afterlife of erotic bliss in the arms of her husband when she meets him again in heaven. Why am I so sure you could do that? Because that is exactly what Charles Kingsley did with the story.

More next Tuesday.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

How do you get to be a sexy saint?

Before I begin, let me state the obvious point that "sexy saints" are the work of the fevered imaginations of fans who come along after the saint dies. As with the many homoerotic images of Saint Sebastian and Saint John the Evangelist, the above portrayal has no credible connection to the real Saint Elizabeth. On the other hand, there is no reason a saint cannot be sexy nor is there any reason a sexy person cannot become a saint (although, alas, I must admit I have no personal experience of the challenges of being a good Christian while being a sex object). Perhaps God's grace is at work in these sexy portrayals of his saints?

The key element for a saint being transformed into a sexy icon, as near as I can tell, is for them to be young and plausibly vigorous. Saint Elizabeth was only 24 when she died but was most likely quite sickly in real life. The artist's imagination soon fixed that; people who kick off that early rarely look as strong and healthy as the young woman pictured above, whose image suggests healthy food and regular exercise rather than sickness and fast-approaching death. And this portrayal is far from unique. Check out images of her and you will notice that she is usually presented as young and beautiful. And often with breasts and hips. That's unusual in portrayals of female saints where the breasts and hips tend to be small and hidden behind drapery.

As we will see in coming posts, this also applies to the literary tradition associated with Elizabeth where stories of her hiding secrets under her cloak and in her bed abound.

It is true even in very recent portrayals. Consider A-M Religious gifts who offer a six inch high carved statue of Saint Elizabeth. The carving is the work of Conrad Moroder. Take a moment to go visit the image. Then go to this page and look at the other female saints he has carved. Moroder is not averse to carving the women saints as beautiful women and girls but he gives Saint Elizabeth a little extra sexual oomph that he does not bestow on others. I won't violate his copyright by reproducing the whole image here but I think this little portion of the larger image constitutes fair use:

As they used to say in the 1980s, Is she cold or happy to see us? That is a deliberately erotic image.

Anyway, back to the painting at the top. It is the work of a man named Phillip Hermogenes Calderon who was the son of a former Catholic priest. He was inspired to paint it by an anti-Catholic play by a hugely influential (but now forgotten) figure of the Victorian era named Charles Kingsley. Kingsley feared and hated Catholicism but he revered Saint Elizabeth. The story of how that reverence led to such an overtly sexual portrayal is an interesting one. I'll take it up Thursday.

Monday, January 6, 2014

"That all may promote authentic economic development that respects the dignity of all peoples."

Isn't it great to be able to pray for capitalism? Capitalism is, after all, the only system that can, although it will not necessarily do so, produce economic development that respects the dignity of all peoples.

That's Pope Francis's prayer intention for the New Year. I doubt somehow that he means capitalism, although he should.

For the first year of his papacy, Francis used the intentions that Benedict had already set out so we might think that this is our first sight of the real Francis. It isn't. The very fact that Benedict's intentions for the previous year were all set out already, tells us that these things are a bureaucratic exercise. Francis gives some guidance and then approves the final text but that line is the work of a clerk as in cleric as in the sort of person responsible for clericalism.

I mention that because it's important to regularly remind ourselves what clericalism really looks like. The giveaway is the word "authentic". As I've said many times before, "authentic" and "authenticity" make a certain sense when applied to objects but anytime you see the concept applied to people you can be sure that you're being conned. The word "authentic" placed before some human experience implies expertise in judging authenticity and if you trace that claim to its root, you'll find a cleric, although not always an ordained cleric.

If you wanted to proceed with this, the next step would be to set out what counts as authentic. That in turn would require a committee. Then you'd need to put controls in place that would allow authorities to take action to stop "inauthentic" economic development and so on down the line through all the steps to serfdom.

The good news is that the intention is vague enough that we can all pray for it and mean whatever we want to mean. I cheerfully prayed it yesterday at mass intending my prayer to be one for more economic liberty.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Love is ...

Those of my age will remember that once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there was a line of panties that featured a painfully cute little cartoon character and a caption that always began "Love is ...". "Love" always turned out to be something saccharine and, as The Last Psychiatrist would add, something narcissistic because it was intended to make the wearer feel good about herself rather than encourage her to contemplate loving a man sexually, which, given the location of the printing, is what it should have been about.

Anyway, Dalrock, a blogger I know little about besides the fact that Instapundit reads him and often links to him has hit on something really important this week. I think he gets this one half right but that half is really good stuff:
One of the effects of feminism is that men of my generation have had a much wider opportunity to cook. I can’t think of any men my age or younger who don’t know how to cook. Moreover, I can’t think of any men of my generation or younger who don’t enjoy cooking. This is in stark contrast to the women of the same generations, who (typically) view cooking as an indignity. The reason for the difference in attitude boils down to what cooking is all about. Cooking is an act of love, an act of service to others. It is an opportunity to care for others in a very fundamental way, to literally nourish them through the work of your own hands. This is precisely what troubles the modern woman so much about cooking (or cleaning, or changing diapers). Serving others in the mind of a feminist is an indignity, so cooking, cleaning, or any other act of service and love is the object of revulsion. Women now actually compete to show off their miserliness in caring for others, each trying to outdo the rest in proving they are the greatest scrooge with love. It has gone so far that large numbers of women are quite proud of the fact that they have never learned to cook or otherwise care for others.
I say that this is only half right because he blames feminism for the problem. That's simply not true. The attitude he describes was already common in women of my mother's generation, which preceded second wave feminism.

I think the attitude at base here is very much like that attributed to Sex and the City, which was that women should be able to "F*&k like a man". The implication being that men had sex purely for pleasure without desire for love and commitment. The problem with that thinking is that while some men do indeed do that all the time and while most men try to do that at some times, most men don't do that most of the time. To really "F*** like a man in the way most men actually do it, a woman would need to want to care for, nurture, encourage and support the man she has sex with while willingly accepting that many of the times she wants his love he just isn't going to feel like it—in other words, it would mean going back to what our grand parents understood as married love.

A similar false parallel was drawn with work. The assumption was that men went to work for self-fulfillment and  that what women did while "trapped in the home" was done "for others". Women, tired of living for others, wanted to be "like men". The problem with that is that while some men no doubt did behave as imagined, most didn't. Millions of men went to jobs they hated as an act of love. They did it to nourish others by the work of their hands.

And thus the recurring issue of women wanting "to have it all". Women, rightly, sought the right to join the workforce but expected that, in doing so, they would find a way to be truer to themselves only to discover that even the best jobs consist mostly of tedious, boring work that can only be made meaningful if we do it as a service to others.

One of the many paradoxes of love is that you must experience the one you love as an obstacle to really love them. This so because it is the sense of their being an obstacle that allows us to recognize them as a truly other being whom we need to reach out to love. The person with whom we never felt frustrated or angry with, the person whom, indeed, we didn't sometimes wonder if life wouldn't be better without them, isn't a real person at all but a projection of our narcissistic fantasies. (And this applies most of all to our attempts to love God.)  Everytime we find ourselves crashing into them as an obstacle, that is an opportunity to love.

Remember Kate Bolick?
I’d spent the past year with a handsome, commitment-minded man, and these better qualities, along with our having several interests in common, allowed me to overlook our many thundering incompatibilities. 
Everyone of those "thundering incompatibilities" was an opportunity to love.

But feminism, despite its many problems, didn't create the sense that the most important thing in life is to be true to yourself and that we should try to eliminate from our innermost circle all the people who prevent us from being true our "authentic selves". Feminism is often ugly because it is a symptom of that disease but it is not the disease itself. Women and men were already starting to think the way before feminism and the ugly sort of feminism that is rightly deplored would not have been possible is we hadn't already made that prior move of thinking that the most important thing in life was to be true to ourselves instead of what it really is, being true to another.

(And, no, Shakespeare did not advise us to do this; Polonius is an idiot about everything else, that this spectacularly bad advice is exceptionally credited as a "modern" way to think tells us a whole lot about what is wrong with modern life and nothing about Shakespeare.)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

That is Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. I've left her too big for the frame on purpose.

Or, to put on our Magritte hat, that is not Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. I know, Magritte and his fans are such tedious bores.

So let's take another tack. The men responsible for that picture—there are two, one who painted it and the other who wrote the play that inspired him to paint it—had never actually seen Saint Elizabeth because she had been dead some six hundred years before they came along. The event portrayed is Elizabeth's great renunciation of all her wealth and possessions when she set out to live a new life after the death of her husband.

What we know for sure is that she knelt before an altar and placed her hands on it to make a great renunciation of all she had in this world, and she had a considerable amount to renounce being a queen. Did she actually take all her clothes off? It's possible but not likely; it's almost a certainty that she did not get naked, that part being a Victorian fantasy about her.

That said, getting naked is a recurring theme in the pious tales that are told of Elizabeth. For example, in Charles Forbes René de Montalembert's account of her life there is a tale of Elizabeth bringing home a poor woman she found collapsed from sickness in the street. After Elizabeth has taken care of her and nursed her back to health, the woman decamps stealing all of Elizabeth's clothing. The good Count de Montalembert concludes this anecdote with Elizabeth unable to leave her bed because she has no clothes but praying in gratitude because she got to be naked just like her Lord.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that this story sounds suspiciously like the sort of elaborate tale that might be told to cover up some royal hanky-panky except that the count was also writing some six hundred years after the events. The truth is that that Saint Elizabeth, like Saint Sebastian, was one of those saints that sexy stories accumulated around. It's not difficult to imagine the scene above spinning out into some elaborate sexual fantasy. It was, in fact, part of a sexual fantasy of Charles Kingsley's, he is the man who wrote the play that inspired the painting. I thought I'd spend some time writing about this aspect of the memory of Saint Elizabeth this January as this is the month of the Saint Agnes. More to come as the month progresses ...