Archive for February, 2008

Mater Augusti

February 29, 2008

Helena (1950)
Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics, 1963)
159 p. First reading.

A recent multi-volume edition of Evelyn Waugh’s writings from the prestigious Everyman’s Library included his travel writings, his short stories, and the full complement of his novels — or did it? On closer inspection, one little novel, Helena, was left out. Was it for legal reasons, or because of an unfortunate oversight, or was the novel’s reception really so poor that it was left out intentionally? In any case, its absence from the list piqued my curiosity, so I tracked down a copy.

It’s really quite good, and hardly deserves to be neglected. Granted, not everyone has an appetite for ecclesiastical legends, so a novel about St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, and her finding of the True Cross in fourth-century Jerusalem may not have extremely wide appeal. Certainly readers with an allergy to piety won’t like the book, but what about those of us who have no such impediment? Indeed, I have a liking for books on the lives of saints, though I’ll readily admit that the really successful efforts are rare (Frederick Buechner’s novels Godric and Brendan are the best examples of this genre that I know). On top of the interesting story, the writing is elegant and polished.

He follows the tradition that Helena was born in England. She enters Roman circles of power by marrying the rising official Constantius. She is a pagan, as are most of her associates, but she irritates the religious teachers of her sphere by always asking how they know the stories of the gods, and where and when the events in the stories took place. She wants religion to be tangible and real. Ultimately, this desire is what draws her to Christianity, to which she converts as an older woman. Waugh leaves the conversion itself off-stage, but in the closing chapters of the book he follows her to Jerusalem in search of the True Cross, that most tangible relic of the earthly life of Christ. I very much liked the way that Waugh segued, in the closing pages, from Helena’s time to our own, and from a novel to a historical record. It reminded me of those film scenes in which the camera pulls away from the story’s characters and suddenly emerges from the pages of a book, which sits comfortably, all the while, on a reading desk.

Perhaps the popularity problem for Helena is that, fine as the book is, it doesn’t feel like a book by Evelyn Waugh, and so tends to be set aside by Waughians. There is something to this idea. The book is a fairly straightforward historical novel, and has few of the usual markers of Waugh’s writing: no satire, no comic characters — in fact, very little humour at all. Without that spark, the tone of the book is more muted than usual, and the fact that he is tied to a reasonably faithful historical narrative means that his normally unpredictable plot developments are subdued. It is not, then, one of Waugh’s best books, but there are great crowds of lesser talents for whom it would be their masterwork. I repeat: it doesn’t deserve to be neglected.

William F. Buckley, R.I.P.

February 27, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr. has died. He passed away this morning while at his writing desk. Though I have not read even one of his over fifty books, and do not clearly understand the contours of his thought, I nevertheless admired him from a distance for his eccentric eloquence, wit, and civility, always presented with an air of bemused perspicacity. I am sorry to hear of his death.

Tributes will no doubt be forthcoming from many quarters, not least from National Review, which he founded. The NY Times obituary demonstrates that Buckley’s winsome personality appealed even to his political opponents. To see and hear the man in action, note that Charlie Rose conducted a number of interesting interviews with him over the years, and certain episodes of his television program Firing Line can be streamed online.

Fare forward, traveller.

At least annually

February 27, 2008

A few days ago a friend and I, basking in the afterglow of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, were discussing music that ought to be heard at least once each year — not, of course, from a sense of abstract duty, but because it has something essential to give. Not only does this music delight the mind and thrill the heart, but if the wind (which blows, remember, where it will) is blowing just right, it can awaken the desire for that elusive joy, sweeter than pleasure, which we cannot name, but which is the end of all our striving. That is surely one of the great gifts of great art.

Nothing could be easier than compiling a list of such pieces: if there is any doubt, leave it out. These are the pieces the mere mention of which makes the heart leap. My friend and I very quickly settled on the following:

To this list he (imbued as he is with Italian blood) added Verdi’s Requiem, but I (imbued with Welsh) demurred. My own list would include (and, in practice, does include) the following:

A few of those items are, perhaps, idiosyncratic, but I’m being honest. I note with mild surprise a preponderance of choral works — or is it religious works? I’m not at all surprised by the repeat appearances of Bach. When you’re the best, you’re the best.

Sunday night high-brow MTV

February 24, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I posted a music video, and I alluded to my belief that music videos have about them an inherent silliness. Grown men stand around lip-syncing to their own songs and mugging for the camera. Silliness is not necessarily a bad thing — plenty of silly things are also great fun and worthwhile — but I admit I find the popularity of music videos baffling. I have watched a number of them, and I am hard pressed to name a single one that really enhances the song (well, perhaps there is one).

Videos for pop music are bad enough; things become really ridiculous on those rare occasions when classical artists try to make them. The artificiality of the idiom simply becomes too evident. Here’s a good example of a failed effort: the talented (and awfully pretty) soprano Anna Netrebko sings Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon”, from Rusalka. (Duration: 5 minutes)

Admittedly, they are not all that bad. The most successful one I have found is this one, of the golden-throated British tenor Ian Bostridge singing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ beautiful song “Silent Noon”. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the filming tasteful. And what a voice! (Duration: 4:20)

Feast of St. Polycarp

February 23, 2008

Letter to the Philippians (c.130-155)
St. Polycarp (Harvard University Press, 1952; trans. Lake)
24 p. First reading.

St. Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna in the first half of the second century. According to contemporary sources, he had in his youth known St. John the Beloved, and, as I learned a few months ago, he was a correspondent of St. Ignatius of Antioch. As a follow-up to my reading of the letters of St. Ignatius, and aware that today is the feast of St. Polycarp, I turned to this short epistle.

The letter was written in response to a request from the church at Philippi. They were compiling a collection of the letters of St. Ignatius, and wanted the church at Smyrna to send any pertinent material in its possession. Polycarp granted their request, and wrote this letter to accompany the documents he was sending.

The surviving correspondence between the early Christian churches is important not only because of the insight it gives us into doctrinal development. The letters also, by their mere existence, make clear that the early churches, though they were scattered geographically, regarded themselves as a unity, sharing common teachings and traditions, and concerned for one another’s well being.

Thus the greater part of St. Polycarp’s letter to the church at Philippi simply intends to encourage them to live virtuously, especially the deacons and presbyters, who should lead by example. He warns them against false teachers, “the first-born of Satan”, who would tempt them from fidelity to God’s revelation (consisting, says Polycarp, in the doctrines of Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Judgment). The text is bursting with references to and quotations from Scripture, especially from the Gospels and the letters of St. Paul.

St. Polycarp was martyred in the year 155, at the age of 86. An account of his death is preserved for us in the Martyrdom of Polycarp.

Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

February 22, 2008

The Golden Legend, in its usual pedagogical way, gives four “reasons for the institution of this solemnity”. Last year on this day I posted the first of them; this year I give the second:

A second reason for the institution of today’s feast is one that is taken from the Itinerarium of Saint Clement. There we read that Peter was going about, preaching the Gospel, and when he approached Antioch, all the people of that city came barefoot, clothed in sackcloth, and sprinkling ashes on their heads, to meet him. They did this by way of penance, because they had taken sides against him with Simon the Magician. Seeing their repentance, Peter thanked God. Then they brought to him all the people who were sickly or were possessed by demons. Peter had them laid out in front of him and called down God’s blessing upon them, and an immense light appeared and all were cured, whereupon they ran after Peter and kissed his footprints. Within a week over ten thousand men were baptized. Theophilus, governor of the city, had his house consecrated as a basilica, in which he erected an elevated chair for Peter so that he might be seen and heard by all. Nor does this account contradict what has been said above [last year]. It is quite possible that after Peter, due to Paul’s intervention, was magnificently welcomed by Theophilus and the townspeople, he may have left the city. Then Simon Magus may have perverted the people and stirred them up against the apostle, but later they would have done penance and again given Peter an honorable reception.

- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea
(trans. William Granger Ryan)

Technical tip

February 20, 2008

About a month ago I replaced my behemoth CRT monitor with one of those new-fangled LCD screens. It has been a good change, and my eyes are thanking me. I have been wondering, though, how to properly clean it when it gets dirty. Now I know.

Teachings of the Twelve

February 19, 2008

Didache, or The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles (c.80-130)
Anonymous (Harvard University Press, 1952; trans. Lake)
32 p. First reading.

Some months ago, while strolling home from the pub with a good friend, we were engaged unexpectedly by an enthusiastic street preacher. Personally I am not inclined to tangle with such opponents, but my friend suffers no such inhibition, or perhaps he was just overly lubricated, but in any case we were soon embroiled. The preacher was unhappy to hear of our Catholic sensibilities, and tried to traffic in outrageous slanders against Mother Church. This was quite fruitless, for not only is my friend well studied, but he stands ever ready to wield a valiant sword against all comers. The argument took flight, and I stood back to take it in. I remember quite distinctly the moment the conversation turned to the Didache. It was the preacher who brought it up. “The what?” I said to myself. My friend was unperturbed, however, and took up the new theme with alacrity. The debate continued long into the night, and I have forgotten the details. It ended amicably enough: the preacher had been soundly vanquished and my friend was gracious in victory. But as I walked home I resolved to track down the Didache, and acquaint myself with its contents. So here I am.

The Didache was discovered in Constantinople in 1875, and is, as it turns out, one of the most important Christian artifacts to have been discovered in the nineteenth century. The original date of composition has been variously estimated, some putting it as early as c.45, some as late as c.160, but the general feeling seems to be that it was compiled in the decades around the turning of the first century. Though the manuscript discovery was a major find, the existence of the Didache itself was not a surprise, for it had been known to exist through references to it in early Christian literature. Indeed, in the early Church it was sometimes listed as part of the New Testament canon, though in the final judgment it was excluded.

The Didache appears to be something akin to an early catechism. It contains moral teaching, prayers, and descriptions of early Christian practices. Structurally it may be divided into two parts. The first is called The Two Ways, and presents an ideal of the virtuous life. This portion of the Didache is believed to be very early, and may even have been adapted from pre-Christian Jewish sources. The text contains no overt references to Jesus, though there are numerous allusions to the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke.

The second, longer portion of the Didache contains instructions for Christian living and Church practices. For instance, it specifies that converts should be baptized using the Trinitarian formula (cf. Matt. 28:19). Interestingly, it states a preference for baptisms in cold, running water, but allows that a three-fold pouring of water over the head (as in modern practice) is also acceptable. It specifies that Christians should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and should recite the Our Father thrice daily. Participation in the Eucharist is restricted to the baptized. It proposes some unfamiliar Eucharistic prayers:

And concerning the Eucharist, give thanks thus: First concerning the Cup, “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever.” And concerning the broken Bread: “We give thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child. To thee be glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever. (IX)

Note the emphasis on the Eucharist as a sign of unity that brings Christians together, which remains a central theme today. The Davidic reference in the prayer over the wine surprised me, for I’ve not seen that before. I also notice that the order of the prayers is reversed in comparison to later practice (but matches the order given in St. Luke’s account of the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:14-23)).

All of which makes the Didache a fascinating document. I extend my thanks to that street preacher, wherever he is, for bringing it to my attention.

Put the genius back in the bottle

February 14, 2008

The Use and Abuse of Art
Jacques Barzun (Princeton, 1973)
150 pp. First reading.
Originally written 3 May 2006.

Consider the following:

Sitting down on the bench, I cast my eyes up and across the plaza, letting my gaze rest on the front facade of Notre-Dame de Paris. Another man, a stranger, also carrying a backpack, approached and sat beside me, and we looked at one another with an unspoken sense of understanding. “I had to come see her once more before I left,” he said. “She is beautiful,” I answered.

In Madrid, wandering through the Prado, I turned a corner and, with a sharp intake of breath and a tear jumping unexpectedly to the rim of my eye, found myself facing van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. A group of people were there, simply looking at it, not talking, and not going anywhere. I did the same.

In the eighteenth century, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote that the aim of his art was “the recreation of the mind and the glory of God”. In the twentieth century, Alexander Scriabin said his music would bring about Armageddon and give birth to a new era in the spiritual evolution of humanity.

At a modern art show in Montreal I stood facing a large wooden sculpture that looked vaguely like the facade of a wardrobe. Pointing to a series of holes drilled through it, the artist turned to me and said, with a certain air of solemnity, “The pattern of five dots is used by physicists to represent infinity.”

I visited the National Gallery of Canada’s modern sculpture exhibit. Against one wall was a sheet of plywood, and behind the plywood was a small stack of canned food. In the center of the room was a pile of black stones ringed by a halo of Cheezies.

Experiences like these have often made me wonder about the trajectory of the arts in our culture. To me, based on these experiences and others like them, it seems evident that the trajectory has been one of decline, but why has this happened? In this book, which consists of a series of lectures delivered in 1973 at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the eminent cultural historian Jacques Barzun tries to address this question. His title is intended as an allusion to Nietzsche’s famous study of history, and might, he says, be more accurately given as “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Art for Life”. Tracing the history of the arts over the past several hundred years, and focusing on art’s cultural impact and prevailing spirit, he paints a broad picture of bold ambition undone and brought to naught.

The reason for alluding to Nietzsche in the book’s title is that the launching point for Barzun’s narrative is the early Romantic period, in which Western art repudiated its role as the handmaid of religion, and hatched the notion that art itself was a transcendent power which could rival and replace religion. This doctrine found powerful advocates in Rousseau, Goethe, Schiller, and others, and they expounded a religion centered around nature and the sense of beauty. Nature was for them an object which, commanding awe and being fundamentally free and harmonious, was sufficiently sublime to take the place of God. This doctrine of Nature gave birth to the “genius”, an artist who is no longer a mere craftsman or entertainer, but a spiritual force through whom Nature speaks. The genius embodied an ideal; he was a kind of prophet whose life demonstrated the spiritual possibilities of humanity.

An implication of this view of art was that the genius, the new man of art, must be conspicuously different from the ordinary man. If he is to herald new possibilities, he must stand out. And if he is be a teacher of humanity, preaching the glory of art and the primacy of artistic expression, he must reprove society for its errors. Implicit in the idea of the genius, therefore, was, first, a prejudice against the “triviality” and “philistinism” of bourgeois society, and second, a tendency to assume the role of moralizer. In the concept of the genius, then, Barzun finds “the origin of the war between artist and society”, a war which has produced subversive, transgressive art on the one hand, and political, revolutionary art on the other. Barzun takes these two streams to be central to modern art, and both have had eventful careers. In short, if art is to be the supreme expression of humanity’s spiritual aspirations and powers, it must also become the authoritative moral censor and critic of life.

This war, as he calls it, between artists and society is one of Barzun’s main themes, and he devotes a chapter called Art the Destroyer to unfolding it. As critic and moralist, art has often resorted to shock and abuse in its zeal to subvert social conventions. The much publicized case of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ from a few years ago could serve as a particularly infantile example of this species of art, but I would argue that even Pablo Picasso’s fractured, grotesquely deformed portrayal of humanity is tainted by it. In its quasi-religious role, art has had to assume the burden of reforming society, and this it has done by attacking conventional thought, either by outright dismissal (for example, in the music of Schoenberg) or by inversion (for example, in the plays of Oscar Wilde). Yet, says Barzun, these efforts to disturb the self and society betray a weakness of the religious view of art:

To shock by inversion is of course an old device of religions. The Bible teems with examples of it. The high shall be low, the first shall be last, the rich will be beggars, the poor will be clad in gold raiment. . . But it takes an omniscient God to bring justice out of these overturns. To a godless age, the negative part of the inversion alone remains potent. The negative perpetuates itself as a habit of thought – it becomes the highest form of self-consciousness – and it destroys everything in the most direct way, not by physical means, but by corrosion at the seat of faith and action, the human mind.

Furthermore, as the emphasis in art falls more heavily on originality and spontaneity, the artist feels the burden of the past more heavily. The remedy modern art has discovered for this condition is to destroy the art of the past, whether by satire, by the compulsive founding of new “schools” and by nurturing an appetite for novelty, or even by attacking art itself. Modernity has thus witnessed a swarming proliferation of artistic styles, techniques, and doctrines, each of which tries to carve out room for itself by dismissing its rivals.

Yet this is only one side — the negative side — of the ambition of modern art. Yes, it has sought to undermine conventions, but only so that it might usher in a new world of spiritual greatness, greatness grounded, as Nietzsche insisted, firmly in this world, not in God or divine revelation. This, at least, was the ambition in the beginning. And I must admit that there is a certain plausibility in the idea that art is a religious power capable of bestowing spiritual rewards. After all, art is powerful. History is replete with accounts of its transforming, illuminating strength.

The experience of great art. . .is a massive blow from which one recovers slowly and which leaves one changed in ways that only gradually come to light. While it is going on, the reported physical signs of such a magnificent ordeal have been reported to include sweating, trembling, shivering, a feeling of being penetrated and pervaded and mastered by some irresistible force.

The experience of beauty can lift one out of the ordinary world, conveying an inarticulate sense of the profundity and glory of life. And of course we must not have the impression that all artists are insolent revolutionaries bereft of this spiritual sensitivity. Barzun relates a telling anecdote about a young painter that highlights the genuine connaturality between religion and art:

After striving in several directions, he found that all he could do to communicate his vision was to cover a square of canvas with an even layer of pale yellow. When he was despondent, he would use charcoal on white paper for the same totality of effect. In the end, baffled by the difficulty, he joined a religious order.

It is this connaturality, after all, that lends an initial plausibility to the whole idea that art could rival religion, and it should not be forgotten. For its part, Christianity has recognized this close relationship, not only by being the greatest patron of the arts in our history, but also by teaching that in the creative act itself the person imitates, in a limited but real way, the creative action of God, and so is united, in a limited but real way, with God. This, however, Barzun does not discuss.

Though he is appreciative of this positive side of the ambitions of modern art, in the end he believes it has failed. That it has failed is evident in the present cacophony, in which the destructive force of art has ultimately revenged itself by attacking the arts themselves, and in the collapse of the ideal of the artist as exemplar to the cult of the artist as mere celebrity, a declination in which art has lost sight of the spiritual ambition it once had:

. . .having no unity, no eternity, no theology, no myth, no minister, its cult can only fall into the worship of the instrument – idolatry. And to say idolatry is to say failure, for what is wrong with idolatry is that it is a dead stop along the way to the transcendent.

I myself would add that the project has failed precisely because the object in which it tried to invest the transcendent strength of the deity — whether that was Nature, or beauty, or pure form, or the human breast — was simply unable to receive it. Being finite, these things are by their nature not able to absorb God.

But even this is not the end of the story, for if art seeks influence in society, yet cannot succeed at replacing religion, then another option lies open: it may cast itself as a science. On the face of it this might seem unlikely to succeed, or even unlikely to be tried, but it has been tried. Science and art, when they were not ignoring one another, have had a tense relationship. Science, for its part, has sometimes attacked the arts (as when, in the early days of photography, some claimed that it made painting obsolete) and even sometimes colonizing the arts (as when some physicists refer to their work as art exhibiting all the hallmarks of beauty — a claim to which I am sympathetic, but which does not convince Barzun). For the most part, though, it has been art aspiring to be science, whether by speaking of “experimental” art, or of an artist as “solving a problem”, or by invoking technical jargon of dubious relevance when describing a work. Perhaps the most pitiable example of scientific influence on art is in the sphere of art criticism, which has aspired to sound scientific. “The prevailing mode of criticism is analysis and its medium is pretentious jargon.” (Barzun gives a hilarious example of this, appended below.) In addition, he claims that major artistic movements like Abstract Art, which rescind from representation to the world of pure form, did so under pressure from the sciences, which, they thought, had drained Nature of all meaning, revealing it as nothing but particles in motion and emptiness. This, in turn, only compounded the destructive force of art, for abstraction severs the connection between art and our world and destroys the relationship of art to human life and love. In Barzun’s view the obeisance which the arts have made to the sciences has been disastrous, for he sees the role of art as precisely to counter the sometimes inhumane habits of thought incubated by science, in which, for example, sunsets are reduced to nothing but refraction, or a mother’s love is nothing but animal instinct, and so forth.

In the end, Barzun is not optimistic about the future of art in our culture. He believes that it has failed in its bid to become a quasi-religion, and that it has fallen too much under the influence of science to serve as a humanistic counter-weight. It is too burdened by its past to proceed with confidence, yet the efforts to strike off in new directions have led to a quagmire of conflict. In his view, there are two broad options: either a crisis or social revolution of some sort will produce a fresh environment in which the arts can operate, or they will gradually decline, becoming more and more innocuous until, perhaps, artists will once again warm to the idea that art is a craft at the service of society – and even, perhaps, of religion. I myself don’t know what to expect, but I agree with Barzun that the arc which the arts have followed in the past few hundred years appears to have reached its terminus, and we are reaping diminishing returns.

[The artist against society]
If we adopt Picasso’s formula of art as a weapon to fight the enemy and the enemy turns out to be the public as a whole, the first question is how long the surgery — not to say butchery — ought to last. If we need to be shaken and shattered, if we go to the artist in order to face again and again what an enthusiast of Ezra Pound called `his celestial sneer,’ then it is proper to inquire how the treatment is succeeding. The object presumably is to cure the beholder of his detestable complacency and materialism. (There is about this purpose a curious air of Victorian moralism, scarcely brought up to date.) Yet the cure is to offer him in visual or imaginative shape nothing but visions of deformity. He naturally identifies himself with the misshapen and the malcontented that (says Art) is the way he is. No doubt, but it ought not to cause surprise that the patient continues deformed and malcontent. Add the angry artist’s will to humiliate as he teaches, and you perceive why the process has no end — or rather, it ends in a higher complacency, the complacency of the hopeless.

[Art criticism interpreted]
“– For Rousseau a painting was a primary surface on which he relied physically as a means for the projection of his thought. [Translation: Rousseau wanted to paint on canvas] — But his thought consisted exclusively of plastic elements. While structure and composition constituted the base, the pictorial substance was distributed gradually as execution progressed. [Translation: He painted while painting, since one cannot cover the whole canvas at one stroke] — In his work, what simplicity! Nothing descriptive — only surface relations on the given primary surface. These relations are infinitely varied and, without losing their inherent reality, they can also compete with nature within the limits of the painting. [Translation: He drew natural objects in two dimensions, or, to avoid tautology: He drew objects] — Rousseau does not copy the exterior aspect of a tree: he creates an internal rhythmic whole conveying the true, grave, expressiveness of the essentials of a tree and its leaves in relations to a forest. . . But his style was established neither derivatively nor in obedience to fashion. It stemmed from the determination of his whole mind as it incarnated his artistic aspirations. [Translation: Rousseau painted just as he liked and he liked painting trees]“

Musical matters

February 14, 2008

I have, of late, been reading a book called The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker. It is a history of classical music in the last one hundred years. While reading, I have been revisiting recordings of many of the scores he discusses, and generally ruminating on the many merits, and the much more numerous demerits, of classical music during this period.

It was a happy coincidence, therefore, when Anthony Esolen posted a reflection at the Touchstone blog on the question: “Can there be great composers anymore?” The ensuing discussion, to which yours truly has made several feeble contributions under a secret moniker, has been thought-provoking, and makes worthwhile reading if the subject interests you. Some of what I contributed will likely reappear here when I finish the book and write a Book Note.

The discussion has reminded me of Jacques Barzun’s excellent book The Use and Abuse of Art, which I wrote about several years ago. I think that I will dig up those thoughts and re-post them here.

A-rummaging I will go…


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