Archive for April, 2007

Bleak House, again

April 30, 2007

Yesterday I posted some notes on Dickens’ Bleak House. Today I sat down and read Chesterton’s introduction to the book, published back in 1911. This was well worthwhile, and I heartily recommend that you read his thoughts instead of mine. Not only does he have more and better things to say, but he also says them better than me.

For instance, I made the point that the plot was more unified or cohesive than I thought was characteristic of Dickens’ books. Chesterton has the same thought, but puts it this way:

When we come to Bleak House, we come to a change in artistic structure. The thing is no longer a string of incidents; it is a cycle of incidents. It returns upon itself; it has recurrent melody and poetic justice; it has artistic constancy and artistic revenge. It preserves the unities; even to some extent it preserves the unities of time and place. The story circles round two or three symbolic places; it does not go straggling irregularly all over England like one of Mr. Pickwick’s coaches. People go from one place to another place; but not from one place to another place on the road to everywhere else. Mr. Jarndyce goes from Bleak House to visit Mr. Boythorn; but he comes back to Bleak House. Miss Clare and Miss Summerson go from Bleak House to visit Mr. and Mrs. Bayham Badger; but they come back to Bleak House. The whole story strays from Bleak House and plunges into the foul fogs of Chancery and the autumn mists of Chesney Wold; but the whole story comes back to Bleak House. The domestic title is appropriate; it is a permanent address.

Lord, that’s good!

He makes other good points too. He admires, for instance, Dickens’ depiction of the gradual decline of Richard Carstone, for it is subtle and believable. He also argues that the character of young Caddy Jellyby (the daughter, remember, of that implacable do-gooder Mrs. Jellyby) is “by far the greatest, the most human, and the most really dignified of all the heroines of Dickens”, and this is a strength of the book that I missed on my own. About Mr. Skimpole he has an interesting theory: the character simply got away from Dickens, in that he was conceived as an essentially static figure who could not survive immersion in a story:

Poor Skimpole only asked to be kept out of the business of this world, and Dickens ought to have kept him out of the business of Bleak House. By the end of the tale he has brought Skimpole to doing acts of mere low villainy. This altogether spoils the ironical daintiness of the original notion. Skimpole was meant to end with a note of interrogation. As it is, he ends with a big, black, unmistakable blot.

Chesterton also corrects one of my missteps. I spoke of Chancery as though it were a token element of the story, the obligatory social wrong against which Dickens could deploy his satire. But Chesterton sees that in fact Chancery, and the suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that is its plaything, is an essential part of the story from the first page to the last, and that without it much of the action could never have happened. I happily stand corrected.

Not so bleak, actually

April 29, 2007

Bleak House (1853)
Charles Dickens (Duckworth, 2005)
894 p. First reading.

Congratulations are, I think, in order. Reading Bleak House has been a long haul. In one or another edition I carried it with me for several months, through three countries on two continents; in return it carried me on one long and wonderful journey.

It is one of Dickens’ mature novels. His choice to tell the story through two different narrators, one in the first person and the other in the third, seems strange at first, but succeeds, especially as he is able to give each of them a distinctive voice. The plot is not as episodic as those that I have read previously, and several long-range connections are essential to the eventual structure of the story.

This is great storytelling, of course, and I suspect the novel will be even more satisfying upon re-reading than it has been upon first acquaintance. On the other hand, the complexity of the story requires that the reader pay attention, and catch the details, and remember them, even if he happens to be dozing off mid-chapter on trans-atlantic flights or struggling to focus through a fog of babbling foreign tongues. If he should fail in this respect, he will find himself puzzled – and join me, please, it heaping scorn upon his head – he will be puzzled, I say, at the sudden appearance of a letter, or a name, that mysteriously exerts an occult force over all the characters and events of the story. He will be surprised to discover that a character who came and went and hardly seemed worth remarking comes again, half a lifetime later, and doesn’t go, and carries the plot, and says and does things that leave the reader with a nagging suspicion that maybe, just maybe, he is missing something, something lurking in the mists of time that bears directly on the present, but for the life of him he can’t recall it. This could happen, if the reader is sufficiently inattentive, and shame on him!

In fairness, this careful accounting of all the characters and their bearing on one another is no easy feat in Bleak House. The index lists around sixty characters in total, most of whom are there for a reason, and at least a dozen of whom could be accounted fairly central to the story. At the very center, of course, is Esther Summerson, sometime narrator and a strong, attractive figure around whom to build a story. If Nicholas Nickleby was an ideal young man, Esther is the corresponding young woman: modest, sensible, generous, intelligent, and good. I liked her very much. I also liked a number of those closest to her: Mr. Jarndyce her guardian, Mr. Woodcourt her love interest, Mr. Boythorn the boisterous friend of Jarndyce. For a while I was charmed by the fluttering peculiarity of Mr. Skimpole, a self-professed “mere child” whose incapacity for responsibility is convincing, and even delightful, at first, but which at last seems too self-conscious to be genuine, thus souring his image considerably. Among the other best-drawn characters are Mr. Tulkinghorn, the villanous lawyer whose implacable will motivates the novel’s central tragedy, and, in a more minor but still memorable role, Mrs. Jellyby, who will serve hereafter as the literary exemplar of a certain kind of moral disorder.

The story has its evil characters, of course – I’ve just mentioned Mr. Tulkinghorn – but the novel is striking for its wealth of good people: Esther, her friend Ada, Mr. Woodcourt, Mr. Jarndyce, poor Jo, Mr. Bucket, Mr. Boythorn, George Rouncewell, even Sir Leicester – all are either consistently admirable or, at the least, rise to the occasion at key moments. Their goodness if of a particular sheen: fresh, unaffected, transparent, like that of a child.

I suppose it wouldn’t be a Dickens novel if there weren’t a social reform aspect to the story, and in this case the target of his ire is the English court system and its interminable argumentation and wastefulness, all carried on, it seems, without regard for the common good or the good of its clients. It might seem an easy target, but the critique is done with great satiric wit, and salted with sorrow, and adds good weight and gravity to the story.

Dickens disposes of one character by having him spontaneously combust. This was apparently done in good faith, so we can let it pass.

Though I think I still prefer David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby, I really enjoyed Bleak House. It is written on an ambitious scale, has a broad emotional pallet, is full (to overflowing!) with interesting characters, the finest of whom is happily at the very center, and closes with a bittersweet feeling. It has romance, intrigue, comedy, an exciting chase, and a murder mystery all bundled up in one story. I hope I can one day read it again.

Hubble! Bubbles! Satellites! Stars!

April 27, 2007

I’ve come across a number of physics-related items this week, and thought I would share them.

First, I found galleries of photographs that have been taken by the Hubble telescope over the years. I’ve been aware, of course, that these images were being collected, and I’ve admired the rare photo when I’ve come across it, but I’ve never stopped to look through an entire collection. There are some spectacular, fascinating images there.

Second, a major announcement from a pair of physicists working at Princeton University. At long last, and after many other men had failed and fallen below the table, they have succeeded in providing a mathematical description of that most mercurial of substances: beer foam. This discovery will doubtless lead to the founding of many new research institutes, all strategically placed near the campus bar. More precisely, they have studied the time-evolution of packed n-dimensional bubbles; the special case of n=3 applies to beer foam, at least for the first few glasses. At the press conference, one of the pair praised the other’s contribution to the discovery, saying “I had always known he was bright, but until now had not fully appreciated his Guinness.” His colleague, meanwhile, asked pardon of the assembled reporters, remarking that his friend meant well, but was well past the point of hilarity.

Earlier in the week I attended a seminar surveying the history of attempts to measure time. The talk began with ancient sun-dials and ended with modern atomic clocks. Into a discussion of the latter, the speaker brought the GPS satellite technology. Each satellite, it turns out, is equipped with an atomic clock, and it transmits time signals to GPS receivers on the earth. It is by collecting these signals from a variety of different satellites that the GPS receiver is able to deduce its position on the earth. In order for the method to work, however, it is necessary that the satellites be synchronized with one another, and even a drift of a few microseconds would have a serious negative effect on the precision of geo-location here below.Now, this is the interesting part: the need for such great precision requires that the satellites take into account relativistic effects in their time-keeping. They must compensate both for special relativity (on account of their high orbital speeds) and general relativity (on account of their being in a weaker gravitational field than terrestrial clocks). This is the most down-to-earth (so to speak) example of the importance of relativistic effects of which I am aware.

Finally, I discovered a great software package this week called Stellarium. It is a star-gazing aid: tell it your position and it generates sky maps. It is easy to use, and looks beautiful. Best of all, it’s free.


April 26, 2007

“What is talkativeness? It is doing away with the vital distinction between talking and keeping silent. Only some one who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk – and act essentially. Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life. Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it. But some one who can really talk, because he knows how to remain silent, will not talk about a variety of things but about one thing only, and he will know when to talk and when to remain silent. When mere scope is concerned, talkativeness wins the day, it jabbers on incessantly about everything and nothing. When people’s attention is no longer turned inwards, when they are no longer satisfied with their own inner religious lives, but turn to others and to things outside themselves, where the relation is intellectual, in search of that satisfaction, when nothing important ever happens to gather the threads of life together with the finality of a catastrophe: that is the time for talkativeness. In a passionate age great events (for they correspond to each other) give people something to talk about. Talkativeness, on the contrary, has, in quite another sense, plenty to talk about. And when the event is over, and silence follows, there is still something to remember and to think about while one remains silent. But talkativeness is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness.”

– Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age

Good Life

April 24, 2007

Humanae Vitae: A Generation Later
Janet E. Smith (CUA Press, 1991)
441 pp. First reading.

In this book, Janet Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas (at the time of publication), looks at the evolving arguments for and against the teachings of the famous encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). Humanae Vitae confirmed the Church’s condemnation of contraception, and the effects of its teaching are still loudly reverberating through the world. There is probably no moral teaching that has been more unpopular in the intervening decades, and the widespread dissent from the teaching has done great damage to Church authority. Humanae Vitae is, therefore, an important document in our own time, and any book that seeks to clarify its reasoning must be welcomed. In this book, Smith’s intention is not only to clarify the Church’s arguments, but to defend them.

She begins by situating the debate spawned by Humanae Vitae in historical context. The most important point about this debate is that prior to the twentieth-century it didn’t exist. The Catholic Church, and all Christian churches along with her, had been consistent and united in regarding contraception as immoral. Smith quotes John Noonan, who made this point forcefully:

“Since the first clear mention of contraception by a Christian theologian, when a harsh third-century moralist accused a pope of encouraging it, the articulated judgment has been the same. In the world of the late Empire known to St. Jerome and St. Augustine, in the Ostrogothic Arles of Bishop Caesarius and the Suevian Braga of Bishop Martin, in the Paris of St. Albert and St. Thomas, in the Renaissance Rome of Sixtus V and the Renaissance Milan of St. Charles Borromeo, in the Naples of St. Alphonsus Liguori and the Liege of Charles Billuart, in the Philadelphia of Bishop Kenrick and in the Bombay of Cardinal Gracias, the teachers of the Church have taught without hesitation or variation that certain acts preventing procreation are gravely sinful. No Catholic theologian has ever taught, ‘Contraception is a good act.’”

The first crack in this united front came in 1930 when the Anglican Communion – often on the vanguard of the unravelling of tradition, it seems – ruled that contraception could be permissibly used by married couples provided they had “grave reasons”. It was enough. By the late 1960s the use of contraception had become widespread, such that the reaffirmation of the traditional position in Humanae Vitae came as a bombshell.

When I purchased the book, I expected (under the influence of the subtitle, perhaps) that it would be a sociological survey of social changes since the sexual revolution that could plausibly be tied back to the use of contraception: smaller families, greater wealth, upward mobility for women who could now work for longer stretches without children, but also childlessness and death-spiral demographics through large swaths of the West, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and young people who, in the words of John Paul II, “live their love under the banner of impermanence and sterility”. But I was wrong in my expectation. The arguments are not empirical, but philosophical and (at times) theological. Her aim has been to present the best arguments that each side, pro and con, have developed since the encyclical was issued.

After the historical overview, Smith presents the Christian theology of marriage, emphasizing the degree to which the Western idea of marriage implicitly assumes that marriage will lead to children. For instance, the fact that marriage must be faithful and indissoluble is derived from its orientation toward parenthood. Deny that foundation and, as we have seen, the implications begin to waver. She also makes an important distinction between reproduction and procreation, the latter being the ennobled, human form of the former, the form assumed when sexuality is conditioned by a rational, reflective nature.

After a chapter covering a few philosophical preliminaries, such as natural law theory, analysis of acts and intentions, the concept of intrinsic evil, and various principles – the principle of totality, the principle of tolerating the lesser evil, the principle of double effect – which have figured largely in the debates, she presents four distinct arguments in defence of the Catholic position, analyzing each in some detail. She continues by taking up specifically theological questions related to Humanae Vitae, such as how its arguments and conclusions are supported by Scripture, the place of conscience in Catholic ethics, and an inquiry into the degree of authority of Humanae Vitae‘s teaching.

This is followed by a survey of the arguments offered by those who dissent from the Church’s teaching. These arguments include both criticisms of the orthodox arguments and positive arguments in favour of a revised teaching. Smith stresses that revisionists have been unable to defend their own arguments using traditional principles of Catholic moral theory, and so their project has necessarily involved changing that tradition (which changes have implications beyond this one issue).

Finally, she presents the distinctive arguments in defence of Humanae Vitae that have been given by Pope John Paul II. His approach, though non-traditional in many respects, is nevertheless consistent with the tradition.

Probably the most controversial teachings of Humanae Vitae is this: “Each and every act of marital intercourse must remain ordained to procreation” (HV 11) or, equivalently, “The unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act are inseparable” (HV 12). The Church discerns two primary purposes in human sexual activity: to strengthen the love between husband and wife (its unitive meaning), and procreation. It teaches that a proper respect for the dignity of human nature requires that both purposes should be honoured. Though this teaching has been confirmed and strengthened by Christian revelation, the teaching itself does not, at least in some of its forms, depend upon that revelation. Consequently the proscription of contraception is not, in the Catholic understanding, a “religious issue”. It proposes its arguments to all people of good will.

It is sometimes claimed that the Church objects to contraception because it is “artificial”. This perception is probably strengthened by the fact that the form of family planning which the Church condones has been called “Natural Family Planning”, and the conjunction of “artificial” and “natural” is too tempting to resist. It should be resisted, for it places a false stress. Smith argues that if we are to understand the Church’s reasoning we must understand that the argument is not about technology per se, but is deeply connected to the fact that contraception subverts a human, generative act. Each of those three italicized words is important.

The first argument in defence of Humanae Vitae Smith considers is the so-called “Intrinsic Worth” argument. The major premise is “It is wrong to impede the procreative power of actions that are ordained by their nature to the generation of new human life.” Human life is such a great good that actions which could result in its creation should be reverenced and encouraged. We might make an analogy with our treatment of corpses: a corpse is not a living human being, but we treat the body with respect because of its close association with human life. In a similar way, we could argue that the sexual act derives value from its close association with human life, and to deprive it of that association deprives it of that value. True, contraception does not actually destroy a human life, but it is a kind of vote against human life, and why should it be good to vote against something good? (Perhaps because the vote is understood as a vote for some other, mutually exclusive good. I’ll return to this idea below).

Another argument Smith calls the “Contralife Will” argument. The major premise is “It is always wrong to have a contralife will”, the minor premise that “The use of contraception entails a contralife will”. This, it seems to me, is similar in flavour to the previous argument, but differs in that it involves none of the complexities of “powers” and “natures” that are present in the former. It also seems less secure, to me at least. Does using contraception really entail a contralife will? It is objectively contralife, true, but that does not necessarily imply that the will concurs.

Both of these arguments seem to be open to challenge in one particular way. They argue that human life is a good and that having children is therefore good. One may agree, but argue that this does not imply that “each and every act of marital intercourse must remain ordained to procreation”. Is it not enough that such acts be procreative “on average”, or over the course of one’s life? Procreation is one good among many, and it ought to be honoured, but must be balanced against other goods. Contraception would then be licit, so long as it did not proceed from a determination to never have children. This is the so-called “principle of totality”: under certain circumstances it is morally permissible to sacrifice the good of a part for the sake of a whole.

What shall we say about this principle? It seems that it would be licit to sacrifice some physical good for the sake of a greater physical good (as when we amputate a leg in order to save a person’s life), but is the same accounting licit for moral goods? Much turns on the meaning of “sacrifice the good”. Do we merely surrender and forsake a good, or do we undermine and subvert it? If the former (as when one refrains from sexual activity, thereby sacrificing the good of children) it would seem to be licit; no one is obliged to obtain all possible goods. Even here I think consideration would have to be made of the relative values of the good sacrificed and the good obtained. But if by “sacrifice” we mean “subvert”, then the matter is quite different. It seems then to imply that one may do evil in order to obtain a good result, which is false. It would seem to imply, for example, that one could have an occasional affair if it might help one’s marriage in the long run. It is easy to see, then, that the principle of totality must be invalid if it requires that one commit a specific evil act in order to preserve or obtain a good.

It seems, therefore, that the conclusions of Humanae Vitae would be strengthened by an argument with a sharp focus that would clarify why “each and every” sexual act must be open to the possibility of life, why “each and every” contraceptive act is wrong. In my judgment, the best candidate discussed by Smith is what she calls the “Special Act of Creation” argument. The major premise is “It is wrong to impede the procreative powers of actions that are ordained by their nature to assist God in performing His creative act that brings forth a new human life.” This argument relies on the theological premise that each human soul is created by a special act of God. In “each and every” fertile sexual act, a new human being is really and proximately possible, and this means that God Himself is present in a special way. Recall Dante’s beautiful lines in which he says that the Glory of God

per l’universo penetra e risplende
in una parte piu e meno altrove

(penetrates in splendour throughout the universe
in one part more and in another less)

In a fertile conjugal act, God’s glory lies in wait, ready to shine forth with special splendour. Contraception, from this perspective, is “an act that shuts God out of the arena designated by Him as the locus of His creative action”. In the words of John Paul II, use of contraception asserts that “it is lawful not to recognize God as God [that is, as Creator]”. Contraception can only be practiced with a clear conscience to the extent that we are unaware of God’s creative presence in the world. In this sense, the Church’s condemnation can be understood as a defence of the religious worldview itself. The strength of this argument, in my view, is that is applies forcefully to “each and every” contraceptive act. A weakness is that it can be expected to have force only for religious people.

The last argument Smith presents is framed in terms of the two meanings of human sexual acts: the unitive and the procreative. Humanae Vitae declares that these two are inseparable. Retaining only the former leads to abortion and homosexuality; retaining only the latter leads to sperm banks and test-tube babies. The Church rejects both extremes. But it has frequently been claimed by those who challenge the Church’s teaching that these two meanings of sexuality, far from being inseparable, are actually in conflict with one another. After all, how can a couple express their love for one another sexually if they are afraid they would be unable to support another child? Surely there must be room for the unitive meaning without always bringing in the procreative?

A few comments come to mind immediately. The first is that the variability of a woman’s fertility means that there are times when the possibility of conception is not present. The second is that if there is indeed a conflict between the two meanings, why should it always be the procreative aspect that is sacrificed? A glance at the natural world suggests that, whatever purposes the sexual act may have, its primary purpose seems to be the engendering of offspring. Why should it be acceptable to sacrifice that primary meaning? Isn’t that rather like someone who eats for the pleasure and companionship it affords, but rejects the primary purpose of eating — nutrition — by vomiting the meal up afterwards? It does seem a tad disordered.

The Church, however, turns the table on these kinds of questions. She teaches that it is contraception that pits the two meanings of sexuality against one another. There is something odd, after all, about a profession of love that says, “I really want to be one with you — just let me get my barrier in place.” But the argument the Church actually offers goes deeper, and has been set forth with particular consistency and thoughtfulness by John Paul II. He argues that sexual union is a potent expression of the mutual self-giving which is to characterize marriage. Certain acts, like a kiss, or like a slap, have an objective meaning; they are an unambiguous body language. The sexual act is another such act, and it expresses union, love, and commitment. Yet when contraception intervenes in this act, it expresses the opposite.

“Thus the innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love…” (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio)

In other words, a rejection of the procreative potential of the sexual act damages, in an objective way, the personalist, unitive meaning of the act.

There is more that could be said, but I have already gone on at some length, which was not my intention.

In closing, I think it is worthwhile to attempt a sketch of the main considerations that appear to be underlying the Church’s thinking in this matter. The first is that she grounds her whole argument in the dignity of human life: human life is a great good, and ought not be be rejected, even when weighed against other goods. Second, the fact that human beings are invited to collaborate with God in the generation of new human life is an immense privilege and honour, and that invitation ought not to be neglected or disdained. Finally, the sexual act expresses in the deepest way the self-giving that is the heart of a marriage. It is a much grander, more profound thing than the prevailing culture takes it to be.

Feast of St. George

April 23, 2007

The name George is derived from geos, meaning earth, and orge, meaning to work; hence one who works the earth, namely, his own flesh. Now Augustine writes in his book On the Holy Trinity that good earth is found high on the mountains, in the temperate climate of the hills, and in level ground: the first bears good grass, the second, grapes, and the third, the fruits of the fields. Thus blessed George was on the heights because he disdained base things and so had the fresh green of purity; he was temperate by his prudence and so shared the wine of heavenly joy; he was lowly in his humility and therefore bore the fruits of good works. Or George is derived from gerar, holy, and gyon, sand, therefore, holy sand; for he was like sand, heavy with the weight of his virtues, small by humility, and dry of the lusts of the flesh. Or again, the name comes from gerar, holy, and gyon, struggle; so a holy fighter, because he fought against the dragon and the executioner. Or George comes from gero, pilgrim, gir, cut off, and ys, counselor, for he was a pilgrim in his contempt for the world, cut off by gaining the crown of martyrdom, and a counselor in his preaching of the Kingdom. At the council of Nicea his legend was included among the apocryphal writings because there is no sure record of his martyrdom. In Bede’s Calendar we read that he was martyred in the Persian city of Dyaspolis, which formerly was called Lidda and is near Joppe. Elsewhere we read that he suffered under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian, or under the Persian emperor Dacian in the presence of seventy kings of his empire. Or we are told that he was put to death by the prefect Dacian during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian.

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

Pope in Pavia

April 22, 2007

A few tens of kilometres south of Milano is a small town called Pavia. At least, it is a small town today, but in the Middle Ages it was for centuries the capital of the Lombard Kingdom, and later home to one of the earliest and most illustrious universities in Europe.

Overlooking a quiet, tree-shaded piazza not far from Pavia’s train station is a beautiful church called San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. The church has much to recommend it. Literary enthusiasts will take an interest because it is mentioned both in Boccaccio’s Decameron and in Dante’s Paradiso. History buffs will perk up when they hear that the great late Roman statesman and philosopher Boethius is buried in the crypt. But the church’s main claim to fame is that it houses the tomb of St. Augustine of Hippo.

St. Augustine’s presence draws many pilgrims to the church every year. I myself was among them once, and hope to be again. Everyone who makes the visit marvels, I am sure, at the beauty of the tomb – I have seen many grand European tombs, but none comes close to matching the dignity and tender glory of that one – and many, as I did, sit in grateful silence and give thanks for the eloquent witness and example of the man.

Of course, some pilgrims are better able to appreciate Augustine than others, and this past weekend one of the most capable made the journey. Pope Benedict, whose whole theological outlook is much influenced by the spirit of the Bishop of Hippo, went to the church, celebrated Mass, and prayed before the relics of Augustine. I will be watching for translations of the Pope’s addresses, but in the meantime photos of the visit have begun to appear online.

Oh, to be in Italy again!

UPDATE: Fr. Raymond de Sousa expands on the influence of St. Augustine in the life and thought of Pope Benedict in his recent National Post column.

A shimmering piece of Bobdacity

April 18, 2007

I’ve learned today that Bob Dylan will be coming to town again in July. I saw him when he last rolled through town, and will almost certainly try to see him again. Naturally, my enthusiasm at the news spilled out during lunch and, incredibly, one of my colleagues professed near total ignorance of Bob’s music. At this I was seized with an evangelical zeal and vowed to compile for him a list of the best Bob Dylan songs. This ‘best’ business is a tricky one, of course, for there’s no telling how to strictly decide the matter, but nevertheless I don’t think I’m totally at sea.

Initially he asked for a list of two or three songs, which I denounced as a shameful and wholly impossible demand, offering instead to draw up a ‘Top 10’ list. Now, trying to shoehorn Dylan’s vast and rich body of work into such a small space is either a shimmering piece of audacity or a fool’s errand. After trying it, I see it is the latter.

In the end I’ve compiled two lists of nine. The first contains what I would consider to be his most popular songs. In no particular order, they are:

Like a Rolling Stone [Highway 61 Revisited, 1965]
The Times They Are A-Changin’ [The Times They are A-Changin’, 1964]
Blowin’ in the Wind [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963]
Mr. Tambourine Man [Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]
Tangled up in Blue [Blood on the Tracks, 1975]
Subterranean Homesick Blues [Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]
Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright
[The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963]
A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963]
Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35 [Blonde on Blonde, 1966]

The second is a list of my personal favourites. These are the songs that I think best illustrate his humour, lyrical brilliance, or just sheer songsmithery.

Visions of Johanna [Blonde on Blonde, 1966]
Desolation Row [Highway 61 Revisited, 1965]
Love Minus Zero / No Limit [Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]
Girl from the North Country [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963]
Fourth Time Around [Blonde on Blonde, 1966]
To Ramona [Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964]
Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues [Bootleg Series Vol. 1, 1963-ish]
Blind Willie McTell [Bootleg Series, Vol. 3, 1989?]
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue [Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]

From these lists one might conclude that my favourite of Dylan’s albums are The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home, and I think that is a fair assessment. My other favourites are John Wesley Harding, though none of its songs appear here, and Blood on the Tracks.

You don’t have to tell me that I’ve left off a boat-load of gems: All Along the Watchtower, I Want You, Not Dark Yet, Idiot Wind, Tomorrow is a Long Time, Ballad of a Thin Man, and on and on. But if you think I’ve really unjustly overlooked something, or that I’ve included an unworthy, or have any other comments, leave one below.

News Worthy

April 17, 2007

Scoop (1938)
Evelyn Waugh (Everyman’s Library, 2003)
200 p. Second reading.

John Courteney Boot is a rising star in the London literary scene; William Boot is a quiet, retiring man who writes “Lush Places”, a minor column about country life tucked inconspicuously into the London newspaper The Beast. When The Beast wants to send someone to cover the broiling civil war in Ishmaelia, the editor decides to send “Boot”. He means John; they send William. Comedy ensues. Such is the premise for Waugh’s farce this time around.

William reminds me in many ways of Paul Pennyfeather: a naive bumbler who nevertheless somehow manages to find himself in the center of affairs. He is not a journalist, and his relaxed country manner contrasts sharply with the headline-hunting news-now mindset of his employer. Though easily duped, he is sufficiently uninterested in his assignment that he doesn’t pick up on the decoy leads planted by Ishmaelia’s corrupt government. This, of course, lands him right in the middle of all the action, exactly where they don’t want him.

Scoop is a splendid send-up of journalism and the newspaper business. It was written in the days before television, and long before the advent of CNN, but his pointed humour has only grown more relevant:

Corker looked at him sadly. “You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism. Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent a story before us, our story isn’t news.”

Waugh is also well aware of all the ways in which the alleged objectivity of news is subverted: journalists are manipulated by foreign governments, stories are embellished with speculation, and news agencies juggle their own politics with the facts and the need to be entertaining:

“With regard to Policy, I expect you already have your own views. I never hamper my correspondents in any way. What the British public wants first, last, and all the time is News. Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands by them four-square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is The Beast Policy for the war.”

It all seems so familiar.

In the end, this was a thoroughly enjoyable book. Waugh’s writing is as fine as ever. Certain passages are so well put together that I could not help lingering admiringly over them. He has also wrapped the whole story up very well, avoiding the structural problems of his previous novel. I would say it is his most successful book since Decline and Fall. Is it perhaps more successful? “Up to a point.”

[William tries his hand at journalism]
He sat at the table, stood up, sat down again, stared gloomily at the wall for some minutes, lit his pipe, and then, laboriously, with a single first finger and his heart heavy with misgiving, he typed the first news story of his meteoric career. No one observing that sluggish and hesitant composition could have guessed that this was a moment of history — of legend, to be handed down among the great traditions of his trade, told and retold over the milk-bars of Fleet Street, quoted in books of reminescence, held up as a model to aspiring pupils of Correspondence Schools of Profitable Writing, perennially fresh in the jaded memories of a hundred editors; the moment when Boot began to make good.



The unlonely God

April 11, 2007

Let me begin in this way: this Easter, just past, was an occasion for rejoicing. It was, first of all, Easter, the festival of festivals, the triumph of life over death, and the foundational warrant for all rational and wholehearted celebration of whatever form. More specifically, this Easter was an occasion for rejoicing for me because my good friend W crossed the Tiber and was received into the Church. Easter was a joy too, in a more personal way, because I remembered, as well I might, my own baptism and reception into the Church just four years ago. Soli Deo Gloria!

Nothing I now say changes any of this.

A great truth about Catholicism is that at its best, when it is most fully itself and truest to its nature, it is a trysting place of goodness, truth, and beauty. A sad but unavoidable truth about Catholicism is that it is not always, or even often, at its best. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil that I attended this year makes a good case in point, for it mingled the sublime and the appalling with insouciance. True, the singing of the Exultet was dignified and majestic. True, the singing of the choir was ragged and grating, and their choice of material almost invariably banal. One takes the good with the bad, always remembering (and also reminding oneself over and over) that these people mean well, and are doing their best, and that while of course the Mass ought not to be an aesthetic horror, aesthetics are not the most important thing.

Fine. But sometimes something happens in the liturgy that cannot be grinned-at and borne. Sometimes the tastelessness or sentimentality oversteps the aesthetic and begins to burrow its undying-wormy head into the foundations of things, and then it has to be stopped.

As I said, I sat at the Easter Vigil, the glorious tones of the Exultet still hanging in the air. I prepared myself to hear the first reading, which is the great hymn of creation in Genesis 1. I was temporarily bewildered when I saw no-one in the lectern and instead heard a strange swoop, hum, and tinkle from the audio system. It took a moment to recall that someone had mentioned that the first reading would be played as a recording, rather than read. I had thought this odd at the time, and was beginning to think so again, when the narration began. It began in this way: “In the beginning, God was lonely”.

I nearly had a seizure. The ‘reading’ went on; I don’t want to belabor the agony. It had God saying to himself things like “I’ll make me a world!”, and kneeling down and forming the clay into his image, and other horrifying offences. But nothing was more horrifying to me than the thought that somebody had thought this notion of God’s loneliness a fitting thing to be uttered in church. I had a vision of the great edifice of the Catholic theology of the Divine nature lying in ruins, and nobody caring, or even noticing. I looked around, hoping to see an insurrection rising, but I was disappointed.

This has been bothering me ever since, and I need to cleanse my ears with some sound teaching. Tonight I am turning for solace and edification to David Bentley Hart’s amazing book The Beauty of the Infinite. Let’s hear what he has to say on the subject:

Here, in the most elementary terms, is Christian metaphysics: God speaks God, and creation occurs within that speaking, as a rhetorical embellishment, a needless ornament.

Thank you. It is good to have that elemental plank in Christian metaphysics back in place. Just so we’re quite clear that the world was not created to console God or to bring meaning to his otherwise dull and empty life, perhaps another dose is in order:

A God whose very being is love, delight in the glorious radiance of his infinite Image, seen in the boundlessly lovely light of his Spirit, and whose works are then unnecessary but perfectly expressive signs of this delight, fashioned for his pleasure and for the gracious sharing of his joy with creatures for whom he had no need (yet loved even when they were not), is a God of beauty in the fullest imaginable sense.

Amen to that. But what are we to make of this idea that God somehow needs the world, or that it, and we in it, add something to him? Why would we tolerate it, or even endorse it?  Well, Hart has some thoughts on this too:

…the theologians of the ancient and medieval church had the wisdom and strength not to desire such a miserable, imperfect, shadowy god, but to long rather for a God of superabounding and eternal might, life, joy without any trace of pain, the inexhaustible fountainhead of life and light and beauty, a God of infinite ontological health. They were clearly capable, that is, of an ascetic passion that could cultivate real charity by making them seek a well-being and a truth outside their own affections and disaffections and vanities, and so they understood the gospel of divine apatheia as revealed in Christ; and they knew that pain – like resentment, ignorance, or cruelty – is essentially parasitic, a privation of being, capable of enriching or perfecting nothing; they thirsted for the wine of divinity, not the bitter lees of their own indignation. Then again, they did not arrive to late in the history of nihilism as we have, they were not as fragile and devoted to therapy, they were not so very near to the ‘last man’.

I think I agree with him.

I’m feeling a little better.