Archive for September, 2009

Father Brown (1954)

September 25, 2009

This is my (first?) contribution to the Year of the Priest Film Festival hosted at Korrektiv.  It is cross-posted.

When Christ advised his disciples to be as crafty as serpents and as gentle as doves, he might have had Fr. Ignatius Brown in mind. This amiable priest, though simple and guileless, is a keen observer and an astute student of the human heart. He is — or was, when G.K. Chesterton first conjured him up — a new thing in the annals of detection: a kind of anti-Holmes, who captures crooks not by deductive reasoning from physical evidence, but by understanding the wayward ways of sinners.

The great Alec Guinness plays Fr. Brown, and quite well too. My first impression was that the cinematic Fr. Brown was rather too moon-faced, too naive, too much an apparent bumbler, but then I remembered that Chesterton himself described Fr. Brown as having “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling,” and all, or nearly all, was forgiven. The story is based on the very first of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown tales, “The Blue Cross”, and it goes like this: Fr. Brown is taking a priceless treasure, a cross, to a Eucharistic Congress, and the renowned and flamboyent thief Flambeau intends to unburden him en route. Hilarity ensues. (In the film, the cross is said to have belonged to St. Augustine, and also to be “12 centuries old”, which makes it the once-prized possession of a St. Augustine now lost to historical science.)

The trouble with short stories, insofar as they are considered from the vantage point of screenwriters, is that they are so consistently short. The screenwriter is obliged to have recourse to additional diversions and detours, drawing out the existing characters, introducing new ones, and whatever else belongs to the art of adaptation. The screenwriters here have done just that, but not always with grace, or even reason. At one point we see Fr. Brown, in an attempt to fool Flambeau (who is no fool), try the ol’switcheroo with some packages, apparently with the senseless intent of leaving his precious cross sitting unattended at a sidewalk cafe.

More troubling are some none too subtle touches that tarnish Fr. Brown’s upright character. In the short story he leaves clues to assist the police in apprehending Flambeau; here he actually helps Flambeau to escape, and even deceives detectives into arresting an innocent bystander. True, his intention all along is to save Flambeau’s soul, which is certainly a great good, but there is a distinct sense that he is pitting human justice against divine, and that, as the real Fr. Brown would certainly point out, is bad theology.

Yet Fr. Brown’s priestly dignity is not entirely marred by these maladroit additions to the script. He does try to save Flambeau’s soul, and he speaks seriously and perceptively with him about repentance. He is shown preaching, with considerable grace, and even authority, to his congregation. We are left in little doubt that he is, at heart, a good man. In that, at least, the story is true to its original.

Overall rating: B
Priest factor: B-

The Staffordshire Hoard

September 24, 2009

You may have seen in the news this morning a report about the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard in England.  It has been tentatively dated to the 8th or 9th century. It was discovered by an amateur walking the countryside with a metal-detector, and apparently it surpasses even the famous Sutton Hoo treasure in size and interest.

The precise location of the discovery is not being publicized — no doubt to protect it from the Staffordshire Horde — but a website with beautiful photographs of the treasure has been set up.  If this doesn’t inspire you to re-read Beowulf, I don’t know what will.

Bulgaria bound

September 22, 2009

In a couple of weeks I will be visiting Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria.  I’ll be there on business, but should have some time to explore the city during my stay.  I confess that I do not know much about Bulgaria; I even had to check a map to remind myself exactly where it is. (It’s about as east as you can get in Eastern Europe.)

I’ve done a little research on Sofia, and I was delighted to discover that there remain several churches from the period when the city belonged to the Byzantine empire.  I will be sure to seek those out if I can.  But I am wondering what else I should do or see.

If anyone reading this would like to suggest something to me, I would be most appreciative.  Tips about special foods to try or peculiar customs to observe are also welcome.

Wells: The Time Machine

September 22, 2009

Yesterday was the birthday of H.G. Wells.  If I had a time machine, or even if I might someday have a time machine, I would have posted this then.

The Time Machine (1895)
H.G. Wells (Modern Library, 2002)
86 p.  First reading.

The Time Machine was the first novel that Wells published, and Arthur C. Clarke has called it his “masterpiece”.  The case could be made that it initiated the modern genre of science fiction.  My own judgment is that it is a good book, but I did not enjoy it as much as some of Wells’ others.

Although it is a time-traveling story, it is not at all concerned with the conundrums for which time-travel is infamous.  Wells sends his character far, far into the future — nearly a million years — so that there is less danger of his initiating self-intersecting chains of causation.  Instead, the time machine functions as a generic device to transport the hero into another world, one far different from our own, though the lingering temporal connection with our world provides Wells with an opportunity for melancholy reflection on the passing away of all earthly things.

In this future, human beings have evolved into two distinct species, one which lives on the surface of the earth in simplicity and apparent tranquility, and another which dwells underground in a series of caverns and tunnels.  (The similarities of this social structure to that observed in The First Men in the Moon are striking.)  Nothing from our time has survived, save a few trinkets in a ruined museum.  These two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks, are essentially alien races, and part of the interest of the novel is in observing the two groups and trying to deduce their histories and character.  The book is an historicist’s dream: though they are rational creatures, at least to some extent, there is little evidence that their moral code bears any resemblance to ours.  Neither our science nor our art nor our religion has survived.

Wells attempts to introduce scientific concepts into some parts of the story.  The time-traveler describes traveling through time as “like” traveling through space, and argues that space and time are similar to one another.  This was a decade before Einstein made this notion a cornerstone of his theory of special relativity (in a much more precise form, of course).  I don’t claim that Wells invented the idea — Poincaré had discussed the idea at about the same time that Wells was writing, and perhaps someone else had aired the idea earlier — but I do note that Wells was clearly aware of the leading scientific speculations of his time.  In a late chapter, in which our intrepid time-traveler journeys even further into the far future, he brings in the concept of tidal locking.  (Does anyone know how long it would take for the earth to tidal lock with the sun?)

This is mostly a book of ideas: about evolution, about impermanence, about politics, about the conditions for intelligence, and many other things.  There is little plot, and less character development.  But in its own way it is a clearly conceived, neatly executed book.

Sunday night crab canon

September 20, 2009

This is one of the neatest things I’ve seen in a long time.  It’s a visualization of a two-part canon from Bach’s Musical Offering.  The canon in question exhibits both retrogression and inversion — that is, the theme harmonizes with an upside-down and backwards version of itself.  A relationship that complicated can be difficult to hear clearly, so it is really helpful to see it visually as well.  Anyway, have a look:

Rieff: The Triumph of the Therapeutic

September 14, 2009

The Triumph of the Therapeutic
The Uses of Faith after Freud
Philip Rieff (Harper & Row, 1965)
274 p.  First reading.

Imagine a flute girl was to stumble into an Athenian plaza just as Socrates was rising to deliver a final summation and critique of a days-long dialogue.  It would be obvious to her that something important was at stake, and the master would probably appear admirably sagacious. On the other hand, Socrates, taking little notice of a newly arrived flute girl, would assume that his hearers had heard and understood a great deal of what had come before.  He would not define his terms all over again, and he would reason from conclusions previously established.  The flute girl would be obliged to piece together the background as well as she could even as she tried to understand the new points that Socrates was making.  This, I imagine, she would find quite difficult to do.

My friends, I am the flute girl.

This book is a study of Freud, his influence, and his leading disciples.  It has attained classic status in certain schools of thought, which was the main reason that I chose to read it.

In the background of Rieff’s discussion, serving at least as a backdrop and perhaps as a foundation, is a theory of culture and personality.  Culture, he says, is a system of controls and releases in tension with one another.  A cultural revolution occurs when the releases, the permissive elements, overwhelm the stabilizing controls. In such circumstances, the moral commitments of the culture falter, its institutions weaken, until, normally, a new configuration of controls and releases arises.  A fine example of such a revolution was the rise of Christianity in the ancient world, and another is our own time — with one significant difference: in our case, it is not clear that anything new can arise to replace the crumbling past, for the corrosive, permissive element is hostile to all authority and settled convictions.  We are delivered from something to nothing.

This is important for Rieff because culture affects personality.  Personality and self-understanding, he argues, are rooted in culture, and when the latter changes the former cannot but change as well.  Our understanding of good and evil changes, as does our conception of the purpose of life, our duties to others, the importance of social institutions, and so forth, all of which affects our understanding of our own lives.  In the old culture, the self attained stability and purpose by identification with and commitment to ideals and communal purposes. This commitment, which integrates the individual person into a community, is “therapeutic”: it provides stability for the self, protecting one against various psychological problems. Membership, in a word, cures. This Rieff calls a “therapy of commitment”.  Perhaps this theory seems a little odd to you (as it does to me) but Rieff argues that it is simply a re-statement of the classical Western ideal: only by participation in the common life can one’s capacities be fully realized; the healthy person is a good citizen.

This entire model has been challenged and slowly eroded by the modern ideal of the autonomous individual.  This new ideal pits the individual against tradition and authority.  It breaks communal ties and is suspicious of institutions.  The new center is the self.  “By this conviction a new and dynamic acceptance of disorder, in love with life and destructive of it, has been loosed upon the world.” In this climate, binding commitments begin to look too extreme, and even pathological. Because it has unencumbered itself of the weight of history and traditional loyalties, the new culture — if the word can properly be used in this context — is simultaneously more inclusive and more detached.  It prides itself on its tolerance and openness to criticism, but it hunts down settled convictions and keeps all truth claims at arm’s length.  It has proven itself remarkably powerful as an agent of cultural change. “Nothing much can oppose it really, and it welcomes all criticism, for, in a sense, it stands for nothing.”

The punctiliar individual who is the final product of this revolution is without a place to lay his head.  He is alone with himself in the void, and it is into this void, says Rieff, that Freud comes, like an opportunistic infection, for it is Freud’s belief that, precisely because there is no community into which modern man can integrate himself, the former model of a “therapy of commitment” is no longer feasible.  Instead, Freud proposes “analysis”, the purpose of which is to help one live in this state of social detachment.

Analysis endorses a quasi-scientific objectivity, with the self as the object of interest.  It counsels one to observe, but not to judge, one’s own passions and faults.  Rather than see life as a challenge of self-discipline and purification (as with the older ideal), analysis seeks understanding and acceptance of the way one is.  It assumes a peculiarly democratic concept of the soul: within each of us, interestes and desires jostle for attention, but without a natural hierarchy, and the role of analysis is not only to negotiate between these competing interests, but to keep the negotiations from breaking down. (Settling them, remember, is not on the table.)  It is for this reason that, for instance, moral indignation is frowned upon, for enthusiasms of that sort imply an underlying moral commitment.  “The analytic attitude expresses a trained capacity for entertaining tentative opinions about the inner dictates of conscience, reserving the right even to disobey the law insofar as it originates outside the individual, in the name of a gospel of a freer impulse.”  From an analytic point of view, inner maturity does not mean virtue and love, but rationality and self-consciousness.  (“One difficulty with the criteria of rationality and consciousness is that Eichmann, for instance, might well be considered without need of treatment,” Rieff wryly observes.)

The analytic attitude has the property of sapping the drama of life. “The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence,” wrote Freud, and so the great questions that have animated mankind’s religious, philosophical, and even mystical experience are viewed as blunders, founded on mistakes.  Of course, to one who accepts Freud’s account analysis appears simply rational, saving one from all that pointless bustle which dominated the inner lives of our forebears.  “Throw away all the old keys to the great riddles of life; depth in psychology brings men’s minds around from such simplicities to the complexity of everyday tournaments with existence, to an active resignation in matters as they are, to a modest hope, and to satisfiable desires.  Balance is the delicate ethic Freud proposes. . .”  Therefore Freud’s ideas, says Rieff, serve a very important role in modern Western society, for they are an anti-creed for those who consider themselves post-religious.  He gives, not direction, but structure to the inner life, even if the horizon defined by that structure is rather confining in comparison with what came before.  “Freud proclaims the superior wisdom of choosing the second best.”

All of which, if true, is very interesting.  I confess that I am not equipped to judge the merits of the case.  I have the feeling that certain of Rieff’s views are unorthodox among Freudians — he is writing a critique, after all — but which views those are I do not know.  The theory of culture and therapy that he presents is entirely new to me, and I have no idea whether it has, or once had, a substantial number of adherents among psychologists.  Yet, in its broad contours, his description of “psychological man” is recognizable: morally flacid, tolerant even of the shocking, preoccupied with identity and feelings, suspicious of personal commitment, and irreligious. This is a type whom we have all met, and, more than that, I expect that we can all say, to some extent, l’homme psychologique, c’est moi.

The second half of The Triumph of the Therapeutic is devoted to a study of three of Freud’s leading disciples: Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and D.H. Lawrence.  I am not going to dwell in detail on this material, but I would like to say a few words.  All three, says Rieff, were poor disciples.  They were no intellectual match for Freud, and neither did they have his spiritual strength.  All abandoned the unique defining feature of Freudianism: its rejection of “therapies of commitment”.  Jung proposed a kind of religious psychology, a “God without God” amalgam of myth and the unconscious; Reich endorsed radical political activism as the means to self-fulfillment; and Lawrence proposed erotic experience as a therapy to integrate the self.  Each is united in rejecting the past, but each seeks something to support a new conception of the human person, and a new definition of his ultimate good; each needs a rock on which to build his church.  Each is also, in my opinion, unconvincing.

Of the three, I had never heard of Wilhelm Reich, but Rieff’s comments about him are very interesting and worth a brief review.  Consider this passage: “For the anxieties behind all politics, Reich blamed all the familiar scapegoats: first, of course, the patriarchal, or authoritarian, family; second, ‘mystical’ religion; third, the division of labor, or ‘requirements of civilization’, which necessitated that there by big and little men, to do the honors and the drudgery of the world…”  Opposition to patriarchy, the traditional family, religion, economic inequality, and big business… Sound familiar?  It seems that Reich may have had some considerable influence on a certain side of the contemporary political divide.  It makes a kind of sense: if a political revolution is to be brought about, the power of traditional institutions must be weakened.  I was startled to read the forthrightness with which Reich attacked the family: “The chief institutional instrument of repressive authority is the family.  As political revolution must overthrow the power of the state, moral revolution must overthrow the power of the family — all families…”  And just how was the authority of the family to be undermined?  First, “hunting the father-figure” (Rieff’s words), and, second, sex education.  “Sex education becomes the main weapon in an ideological war against the family; its aim is to divest the parents of their moral authority. . .”  All of which is, to say the least, startlingly candid.

The Triumph of the Therapeutic is a major work of cultural criticism.  I cannot claim to have understood all, or even most, of it, but I can say that it appears to be a serious and high-minded response to a powerfully  pervasive cultural movement, and as such is worthy of notice.  It is one of those books that could, I expect, be profitably read numerous times, for the ideas are dense and layered, and the prose is compressed and suggestive.  There is much more between the covers than I was able to harvest on this first pass.

Happy birthday, Henry Purcell

September 10, 2009

Today marks the fourth and last of the major musical anniversaries celebrated this year: it is the 350th birthday of the great English composer Henry Purcell.  Purcell stands out like a musical Eriugena: the British Isles saw no-one of his stature for a long spell on either side of him.  His music is very accessible, with a modest scale and homespun simplicity that are very appealing.

The fifteenth-century had been a good one for English music, with John Dunstable, Walter Lambe, John Browne, Richard Davy, and other lesser known composers making gorgeous and distinctive contributions to the music of the Renaissance.  The English Reformation squashed that particular blossom, though William Byrd and Thomas Tallis carried on in a more subdued mode in the generation before Purcell.  He lived at a time when the polyphonic style was beginning to be replaced by the Baroque, and his music bears little resemblance to that of the earlier English masters.  It is sparer, simpler, with a greater emphasis on instruments and solo voices. He wrote for court and the theatre as well as the church, and his songs often have a charming rustic quality. He set English texts, and is still considered one of the great songwriters for our language.

After he died, in 1695, at the age of just 36, English music fell on hard times.  British audiences became enamored of continental composers, and lavished their praise on Handel, Haydn, and many others.  Meanwhile homegrown music languished, and it wasn’t really until the later nineteenth century that we got another composer, in the person of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music grew from strong English roots and who could match Purcell’s greatness.  At least, that is my opinion on the matter.

Today his best known music probably comes from his operas and semi-operas, The Fairy Queen, King Arthur, and Dido and Aeneas.  These are not operas in the big, melodramatic sense; they sound more like musicals to modern ears.  He is also remembered for the music he wrote for the funeral of Queen Mary, for some of his church music, and especially for his songs.

I’d like to recommend a handful of recordings of Purcell’s music.  Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say that these are splendid recordings of very enjoyable music.  I encourage those with an interest to seek them out.  The first one is a classic that should be heard by everyone who cares about English song.

Music for a While (Songs, sung by Alfred Deller)

Music for a While (Songs, sung by Alfred Deller) (click to hear samples)

Dido and Aeneas (Bott, Kirkby, Ainsley, George, Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood)

Dido and Aeneas (Bott, Kirkby, Ainsley, George, Academy of Ancient Music, Christopher Hogwood)

King Arthur (Les Arts Florissants, William Christie)

King Arthur (Les Arts Florissants, William Christie)

Songs and Dialogues (Kirkby, Thomas, Rooley)

Songs and Dialogues (Kirkby, Thomas, Rooley) (click to hear samples)

Finally, a few examples of Purcell’s art.  The first is a motet, Hear my prayer, O Lord, written for 8 voices.  This is among the most beautiful pieces of sacred music that I know.  I was once a member of a choir that sang it, and I always looked forward to the rehearsals.  Much as is the case with Gregorian chant, singing this music makes one feel elevated and refreshed.  It is also an endlessly fascinating piece to get inside:  each of the 8 parts is based on the same simple musical phrase, and it slowly builds to a searing climax before subsiding into silence: and let my cry come unto thee.  [Online score]

The second example is a song, “O Solitude”, taken from the Alfred Deller recording above.  This is music for the dead of night, when the world sleeps but your heart is awake.  Pass me that bottle of port.

Happy birthday, Mr. Purcell.

Waugh: Sword of Honour

September 2, 2009

Sword of Honour (1965)
Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics, 2001)
727 p.  First reading.

Sword of Honour is a redaction into one volume of three books — Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender — published between 1952 and 1961.  Waugh intended all along that they constitute one book, but they were divided at the publisher’s insistence.  Considered as a single story, it is Waugh’s most ambitious project by a considerable margin.

The story follows the fortunes of Guy Crouchback during the Second World War.  Guy belongs to one of the remaining old Catholic families of England, though at novel’s opening he is living in the family villa in Italy.  When war is declared, he returns home to enlist.  Rejected several times on account of his age — mid-30s — he finally lands in a unit called the Halberdiers, and the novel gives a good, if winking, portrait of the culture of British military units of earlier times. The Halberdiers have a proud tradition, but they are unfit — both too idealistic and too incompetent — for modern warfare.

The book is not a comedy, but there is plenty of humour in it, usually as farce.  The military, that “vast uniformed and bemedalled bureaucracy by whose power alone a man might stick his bayonet into another”, is just the sort of thing for Waugh to stick with his literary bayonet, and he does so.  Guy drifts from one thing to another; his unit gets onto ships, then gets off again; they follow orders to one place, only to find they’re wanted elsewhere; he never fires a shot.  There is no fervent nationalism in Waugh’s view of the war, but only a bemused observation of human folly.  As a Catholic, Guy is an outsider anyway, though he stands ready, quite unsentimentally, to give his life to save the English way of life.  He discovers, to his disappointment, that it may no longer be there to save.

An important theme in the book is vocation and Providence.  Guy’s role in the war seems to him inconsequential, but he remarks at one point that he feels like the labourer in the parable who waited all day to be hired, and was only called upon in the last hour.  And, as it turns out, he is called upon, though not in the way that he expects.

When I began Sword of Honour, I expected and hoped to relish it.  I had been looking forward to it for months.  In honesty I must say that I did not enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would.  I think it would be better on second acquaintance.  I found there were more secondary characters than I could keep track of, and even when they seemed to have left the story, they kept popping up again in unexpected places.  This haphazardness in the narrative is part of the point of the story, so I’m not criticizing it, but it did pose challenges for which I was unprepared.  As it is, I am delighted with certain aspects of the story — the Thunder-Box episode, Guy’s relationship with his father, Major Ludovic’s senility — but the overall effect of the book is fuzzy.


[About the Isle of Mugg]
“It lies among other monosyllabic protuberances.”


With Sword of Honour I have completed my survey of Evelyn Waugh’s novels.  The Book Notes for the earlier books are here:

Decline and Fall
Vile Bodies
Black Mischief
A Handful of Dust
Put Out More Flags
Brideshead Revisited
The Loved One
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold