Archive for June, 2009

Year of the Priest Film Festival

June 30, 2009

The gentleman proprietors of Korrektiv, along with a few of their friends, have struck on a good idea: mark the newly minted Year of the Priest by reviewing the portrayal of priests and the priesthood on film.  They have put together a list of 52 films (plus some alternates) in which the priesthood plays an important role, and we are encouraged to watch one film each week throughout the next year.

I have seen only a handful of these films, and (considering that I have watched only one film in the last three months) I think it unlikely that I will find the time to participate fully in this enterprise, yet the list is very interesting and I commend it to film buffs and ecclesiastical connoisseurs alike.

Sunday night family reunion

June 28, 2009

For the next little while we’re on summer vacation.  While this city continues to swelter in the stink and chaos, we’ll be frolicking under a wide prairie sky with wheat-stalks behind our ears.  Here’s a song by Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans.   Our family reunion won’t be exactly like this one — we’ll probably have few beers, and fewer Mormons — but it’s still a pretty fun song.

Despotic tyranny strikes again

June 26, 2009

Nothing good ever comes of despotic tyranny.

The Celebrated Dr. Boli

June 24, 2009

Long-time readers of Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine were delighted when, two years ago today, he decided to move his print publication onto the World-Wide Web.  Today, to mark this happy anniversary, Boli admirers the world over are fastening their cravats, pulling on their spats, and venturing out to one of the many balls being held in his honour.

If, by some misfortune, you are unfamiliar with Dr. Boli’s publication, may I suggest that you pause to peruse the electrical form of his Celebrated Magazine.  Few things could be more convenient, and fewer still more edifying.

Of the features and notices which I have recently encountered thanks to Dr. Boli, here are a few which I judge most helpful and informative:

A brief history of Dr. Boli and his Celebrated Magazine can be found here.

Bottoms up, gentlemen!

Wells: Empire of the Ants

June 22, 2009

The Empire of the Ants, and other stories
H.G. Wells (Scholastic, 1977)
152 p. First reading.

There is a long tradition of regarding sight as the noblest of the senses, not least because of the readiness with which metaphors of sight enter into discussions of our rational faculties. H.G. Wells’ story “The Country of the Blind”, about a man who finds himself trapped in a village where everyone is blind and knowledge of sight has faded from social memory, is a very fine reflection on the gift of vision. In this story it is not primarily for its practical advantages that sight is loved — the blind inhabitants of this place have organized their physical surroundings such that sight offers no great advantage — but for its contribution to the inner life, by exposing us to the beauty of the visible world. The story is also about kinds of knowledge, including self-knowledge, and how we calibrate our own openness to the world with an eye to what is socially approved. All in all, it’s a thought provoking and moving piece.

“The Empire of the Ants” doesn’t rise to the same level, though it is also very good. The story is told obliquely, driven by rumour and imagination, and it develops a potent atmosphere of anxious anticipation. Wells asks us to consider the fragility of human life subject to the destructive power of nature. Built around a slow, upstream river journey, its atmosphere composed of equal parts heat and dread, it reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. (Conrad’s story was published three years prior to Wells’, but I know of no reason to claim the one influenced the other.)

The book is filled out by three other stories. “The Crystal Egg” is a sometimes humorous tale about a proprietor of a curio shop who becomes obsessed with a palantír-like crystal. I am told that the story is to Wells’ The War of the Worlds much as The Hobbit is to The Lord of the Rings: a fairly minor prelude into which a central element of the larger work enters almost as a curiosity.  Finally, there are two stories about magic: “The Man who Could Work Miracles” and “The Magic Shop”. Both are about genuine magic, not magic tricks. (The further distinction between genuine magic and miracles is not as easy to make, but given the essentially arbitrary nature of these acts contra natura I prefer “magic”.)  Of the two tales, it is the former that is the better. It well illustrates the perils of having omnipotence without omniscience.

These stories were originally published between 1897 and 1905. I am impressed by Wells’ ability in the short story genre. The quality and range of his style is even better than I had been led to expect from reading The Island of Dr. Moreau.

***

Related reading:

  • “The Country of the Blind” (pdf)
  • “The Empire of the Ants” (pdf)

Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

June 16, 2009

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)
H.G. Wells (Magnum, 1968)
190 p.  First reading.

I have decided to do a bit of reading at the origins of science fiction.  It is a genre that I have mostly avoided in the past.  The reasons for this neglect are as follows: I have been under the impression that most of it is poorly written; I have imagined that the genre is prone to pedantry and abstraction, the “stories” thinly disguising a conceptual skeleton better set forth in non-fiction; and I have an aversion to the placing of too great an emphasis on the value of technology and scientific knowledge, which defect I have taken to be common among the practitioners of the art.  As such, and remembering C.S. Lewis’ dictum that one ought not to pass judgment on books in a genre one dislikes, it might be best for me to leave well enough alone.  But recently I have begun to wonder whether I might be wrong on one or more counts, and bethought me to give the genre another chance.

My initial explorations have been haphazard, limited by what I happen to have sitting on my shelves. I began with Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, and now I turn to one of the early stories of H.G. Wells.  They could hardly be more different.  Verne, for all his affability, is didactic in the extreme.  His book really is a series of technical lectures thinly clothed in plot and character and tied up with a bow of scientific cheerleading: Hooray for rocket-ships and kinematics!  Wells is a far superior novelist: this is a real story with atmosphere, intelligent plotting and dialogue, and imagination.  He paints a dark picture. Contrary to my expectations, already here in the early sources of science fiction we find a dystopian vision and a warning against scientific hubris. I stand corrected.

The novel can be read as a study of a particular perversion of the scientific mentality. On his remote island, Dr. Moreau indulges in a series of grotesque experiments to create human-animal hybrids, which he then, as much for his own safety as anything else, attempts to educate and civilize.  His technical means are skin, bone, and organ grafting combined with blood transfusion (I note that an instructive benefit of reading older science fiction is to realize how poorly scientific speculation often turns out), but the more interesting point is how he thinks about what he is doing. It is “Nothing very dreadful really — to a sane man” — a revealing qualification.  For Moreau, his activities have lost their moral aspect, for he sees only the technical challenge: “You cannot imagine the strange colourless delight of these intellectual desires. The thing before you is no longer an animal, a fellow-creature, but a problem.”  I am reminded of Oppenheimer describing the Manhattan Project as “technically sweet”.  This way of thinking is an enduring temptation for certain scientific minds, for science itself cannot provide moral guidance, and, as with any field of study, absorption in the subject matter can dispose one to forget about what lies outside it.  The consequences of Moreau’s forgetfulness are horrifying.

If Wells seems antipathetic to a certain kind of science, the book also conveys a robust antipathy for a certain kind of religion.  Moreau’s Beast People form a rough society on the island, and recite in unison a self-serving “Law” drawn up for them by Moreau, whom they fear and revere as a kind of god. In Wells’ telling, these recitations come across as grotesque parodies of religious rites, and I suspect that he intends the insult. One might go even further and say that his portrayal of the Beast People, so like us and yet so vulgar and stupid, their savagery held at bay by a fragile civility, conveys an antipathy for mankind in general.  Our narrator, Edward Prendicks, seems to see things this way. Confronted with the horror of the island, he overlooks the particular and peculiar actions that have brought it about to draw broad conclusions about all of our lives:

“I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau, by his passion for research, Montgomery by his passion for drink, the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.”

That is, in the eyes of some, the world according to science, and it is certainly bleak. We have heard it before, of course, but Wells succeeds in giving it literary life. Yet there seems to be a moral incoherence in Prendicks’ both objecting to Moreau’s experiments and assenting to this grim worldview, for if the latter be true, it is hard to understand why Moreau deserves censure.

***

Prendicks: “An animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie.”

Rieff on theory

June 11, 2009

There are two theories of theory.  The first, and earlier, asserts that theory is the way in which “what ought to be” establishes its hegemony over “what is”.  Value and truth are inseparable; thus is content specified, a fact put in its place.  Theory is the reflecting mirror of man’s mind, catching glimpses of an order eternally right and good.  In this first tradition of our culture, which continued unbroken until the time of Francis Bacon, there could be disagreement on the means of bringing mankind to conform to the eternal and stable order of things as they really are, but not on the ends.  Things being what we know them to be, the intellectual and emotional task of life is to make our actions conform to the right order, so that we too can be right.  Theoretical knowledge is therefore of the good; the ideal is therefore most real, the model from which the is-ness of things, in their splendid variety, derives.  Theory is the way of understanding the ideal.  In this theory of theory, knowledge finally emerges, at its highest level, as faith; the best life is that of true obedience.  God is the final object of all classical theorizing; to contemplate God in the unity above all the variety manifested in His natural and social orders (or moral commandments), was the highest good.

But there is a second theory of theory, one that arose both as a response to the death of the gods and also as a weapon for killing off those surviving, somehow, in our moral unconscious and cultural conscience.  In this second and more recent tradition of theorizing, theory arms us with the weapons for transforming reality instead of forcing us to conform to it.  The transformative cast of theorizing, unlike the conformative cast, is silent about ultimate ends.  In the absence of news about a stable and governing order anywhere, theory becomes actively concerned with mitigating the daily miseries of living rather than with a therapy of commitment to some healing doctrine of the universe.  In fact, the universe is neither accepted nor rejected; it is merely there for our use.  In the second tradition, theory at its highest reach is not faith but, rather, power.  A good theory becomes the creator of power.  And from that creation of power derives man’s freedom to choose among the options specified by the reach of potential powers laid down in the theory.

– Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Ch.IV.

Van Cliburn winners

June 10, 2009

The Van Cliburn piano competition is one of the most prestigious and competitive musical contests in the world.  This year’s competition wrapped up a few days ago, and the winners have been announced.  There was a tie for first place between Haochen Zhang, 19, of China and Nobuyuki Tsujii, 20, of Japan.  Here is Zhang in his final round recital, playing the final movement (“Scarbo”) from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.

And here is Tsujii in his semifinal round recital, playing a section from one of the towering monuments of the piano literature: Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata.  Oh, did I mention that Tsujii has been blind since birth?  This is an amazing achievement:

Baptism pictures

June 4, 2009

iona-baptism-jdutton

I am posting two sets of photos from Iona’s baptism.  The first, linked through the image above, were taken by my cousin Jessicah Dutton.  As you can see, she has a very good eye and takes beautiful pictures.  We were so pleased that she brought her camera along!  (If, dear reader, you happen to reside in the Toronto area you would do well to hire her to photograph your special occasion.  More of her work can be viewed at her site.)

She photographed the ceremony, as well as several of those in attendance.  The young (2 year old) gentleman is my godson.  The elderly lady in the wheelchair is Iona’s great-grandmother on her mother’s mother’s side.  The others are friends and assorted family members. The photos are in black and white because the light levels were low and she was working without a flash.  I think they look classy.  Iona’s baptismal gown, an heirloom in Iona’s godfather’s family, is over 100 years old, and shows up beautifully in the black and white palette.

The second set of photos, in living colour, were taken by my father-in-law using my camera.  He wasn’t afraid to get up close in order to capture everything, and the pictures are excellent.  Here is the crucial moment:

Iona was very well behaved throughout the ceremony.  She seems to have a particular predilection for sleeping in church; I suppose that could be interpreted variously.  In any case, she dozed comfortably in my arms for most of the rite, showing only mild surprise (and a touch of displeasure) when the baptismal waters wet her carefully arranged coiffure.  But it did her good.

The rest of the second set, with captions, including several pictures from the post-baptism party, are here.

My thanks to both our photographers.  It is wonderful to have such a variety of pictures to remember this day by.  When Iona is older I am sure that she will be thankful for them too.

Blogroll changes

June 3, 2009

Over the past few days I have made several changes to my blogroll:

  • I have updated the links to the two primary blogs at First Things.  They made major site changes recently and the previous links stopped working.  Their main blog can now be found at First Thoughts, and their ‘daily article’ at On the Square.  They have also begun hosting several other popular blogs covering their basic beat, including Spengler and Wesley J. Smith’s Secondhand Smoke.  But I don’t link to those from my blogroll.
  • The link to Amy Welborn’s blog, previously Charlotte was Both, now Via Media, has been updated.
  • I removed the link to J.H. Bowden’s Thoughts, Books, and Philosophy because J.H. Bowden removed the blog to which I was linking.  I also removed Geoffrey Chaucer hath a Blog.  Time was when this was one of the funniest blog around, but it has changed management and fallen on hard times.
  • I have added two new links. I’ve been reading Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine for a few months now, and recommend it to everyone.  Posts to Armarium Magnum, a blog which focuses on ancient and medieval history, are not frequent, but they are usually informative and worth reading.
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