Archive for May, 2010

Kiser: The Monks of Tibhirine

May 26, 2010

The Monks of Tibhirine
Faith, love, and terror in Algeria
John W. Kiser (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2002)
351 p.  First reading.

In the early morning hours of March 27, 1996 armed men, members of the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA), entered the Cistercian monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas in the Algerian desert and kidnapped seven of the nine monks.  Several months later, the heads of the monks were found.  These events were covered extensively by the European media at the time, all of the brothers being French citizens, but received relatively little attention on this side of the Atlantic.  In this book, John Kiser writes about the history of the monastery, the lives of the monks, and the political unrest in Algeria that eventually resulted in their deaths.

At the center of the story is the prior of the monastery, Christian de Cherge. Born in Algeria, he returned there as an adult to join the Cistercian community, which had been originally founded in 1938.  Christian’s motive for returning was his love for the country and its people, and his life’s work was to further understanding between Christianity and Islam.  The brothers seem to have lived in quiet harmony with their village neighbours, offering medical care and food when it was needed. The monastery itself, being under the patronage of Our Lady, was honoured and admired by the local people.

Yet, beginning in the early 1990s, Algeria experienced a sharp increase in terrorism at the hands of Islamic militants.  The government reciprocated with brutal violence that didn’t always hit the mark, and the conflict escalated.  Foreigners were ordered by the terrorists to leave the country, and many did so.  The monks, however, felt that it was their responsibility to remain as a sign of peace, and also as an encouragement to the small Christian community in Algeria.  It was a commitment they would revisit and renew every few months as the struggle around them raged.  As Br. Paul wrote to a friend following the murder of several priests in another part of the country: “How far does one go to save his skin without running the risk of losing his soul?”

A large part of the book is dedicated to the twisting narrative of the political machinations that brought Algeria to the point of civil war.  What becomes clear is how troubled the country was by the renewed strength of militant Islam.  Many argued that the Islamists were discrediting Islam by their actions, and little wonder, for the boldness and savagery of the GIA’s tactics were shocking.  One is reminded of Pascal’s aphorism: “Men never do evil as thoroughly or as joyfully as when they do it in the name of God.”  Potential recruits to the Islamist cause were sometimes required to prove their devotion by killing a member of their family.  Many dozens of imams were killed because they refused to issue a fatwa supporting the terrorist actions — a fact that ought not to be forgotten.  In all, it is estimated that about 100,000 people lost their lives in the civil violence of the 1990s.

Given that the conflict was on this scale, why focus on the lives of seven French monks?  Mainly, I think, because they were so conspicously devoted to peace, and because they chose to stay and suffer danger with all those whose names are not known.  But also, Kiser argues, because their killing was controversial even within the GIA.  The murders were condemned by the Egyptian Jihad, the Libyan Islamic Fighters, and other militant groups.  The internal struggle within the GIA sparked by these killings led to that movement’s splintering into factions that eventually weakened it enough for some stability to return to the country.

The names of the seven monks were Br. Bruno, Br. Celestin, Br. Christian, Br. Christophe, Br. Luc, Br. Michel, and Br. Paul.  After their deaths, a letter which Br. Christian had written came to light, and has been published as his last testament.  This document makes clear, if there were any doubts, that these were good men.

Kiser has done an excellent job of telling their story.  His prose style is clear and unsensational, which is important for an account like this one.  As of the time of writing, the monastery of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas has been abandoned.  The two surviving monks, Br. Amadee and Br. Jean-Pierre (who survived, by the way, only because they were sleeping in a separate room and the kidnappers didn’t realize they were there), are currently living in Morocco, where they have since been joined by several new candidates for monastic life.  They hope someday to return to Algeria.


The above was written several years ago.  I post it today because a film based on the life of these monks, Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Men and Gods), has just been awarded the Ecumenical Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival.  I don’t know when or if the film will arrive on these shores, but here is a short clip:

Feast of Pentecost, 2010

May 23, 2010

[online score]  [text and translation]

I saw a sign

May 19, 2010

Welcome violations

May 18, 2010

An intriguing experimental result was announced today by the Fermilab particle accelerator.  I was going to sit down and write a layman’s account of what the finding indicates, but happily Stephen Barr has beat me to it.  He states it all quite clearly, and I recommend his article if you’re interested in these things.  My doctoral work was related to the physics under consideration in this experiment, so it is especially interesting for me to see this surprising result.

Essentially — glossing over all the details — they are claiming to have observed a physical process which, if confirmed, would indicate, really for the first time in decades, that the Standard Model of particle physics is incomplete.  (We know on other grounds that it is incomplete, but I believe that this would be the first time a laboratory experiment produced a result that was not consistent with the Standard Model and could not be fixed with a minor tweak.)  It would indicate that some new physics — a new force or new particles previously unknown — was being (indirectly) detected.

Barr makes two good points that I’ll re-iterate.  First, this experimental result could be a statistical fluctuation, and might go away as more data is collected; it does not yet meet the stringent standards for an official “discovery” in the particle physics community.  Second, the heavy breathing in the newspapers (such as in the NYT article linked above) about how this result explains “existence” is sheer puffery.  If it holds up it is certainly important, and it has implications for cosmology, but it is not metaphysical.  Obviously.

The official publication from Fermilab’s DØ experiment is here.  For a good one-slide summary of how this result compares to previous experimental results and the Standard Model expectation, look at slide 46 of this talk.

UPDATE: A kind reader, Vince, sends an update on this matter: another of the Fermilab experiments, CDF, has now published their measurement of the same quantity, with higher statistics, and they find it consistent with the Standard Model.  So it is likely that the DØ result will go away with more data. Too bad.  Thanks, Vince.

Shaw: The Perfect Wagnerite

May 18, 2010

The Perfect Wagnerite (1898)
A Commentary on the Niblung’s Ring
George Bernard Shaw (Dover, 1967)
156 p.  First reading.

On one level, this little book is a basic introduction to the story-line and the music of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  It was written in the days before sound recording, when one would have had to go to an opera house, and maybe even all the way to Bavaria and Bayreuth, in order to hear the music.  Under those circumstances, and when “surtitles” were unknown, English-speaking Wagnerites would likely have been grateful for an elegantly written synopsis of each of the four music-dramas, and Shaw provides it.  The book also includes chapters, mercifully non-technical, on the music of Der Ring, on the leitmotif technique, on Wagnerian singing, and on the Bayreuth theatre which Wagner had built to house his epic drama.

On another level, The Perfect Wagnerite is an examination of (and an evangel for) the philosophical and political program which Der Ring allegorically enacts.  It is possible, says Shaw, to take these dramas simply as dramas, resting content with the literal meaning, but those who do so are very inferior persons:

It is generally understood, however, that there is an inner ring of superior persons to whom the whole work has a most urgent and searching philosophic and social significance.  I profess to be such a superior person. . .

I admit that I am not sure whether he is entirely sincere in these self-regarding assessments, but even, and maybe especially, if he is, this is quite amusing.  Imagine someone who thought that unfolding the allegorical significance of magical swords, sky castles, dwarves, and talking animals was an activity especially indicative of superiority!  Evidently neither Wagner nor Shaw anticipated the tastes of their ideological descendents.  But I digress.

The political allegory which runs hidden, like a thread of Rhine gold, through the fabric of the Ring, is one of revolution: “the gods”, by which, Shaw argues, are meant the ancient powers of Church and State, are to be overthrown and cast down, and in their place will arise the new man, represented by Siegfried, who is to replace power with love and redeem the world through his intense vitality and greatness of spirit.  Oddly enough, Wagner implies that the gods themselves bring this about (as Wotan is himself grandfather to Siegfried) because they realize that their reign is exhausted and must yield to the inexorable progress of history, or something.

This interpretation of the allegory sits uncomfortably with the plot of Götterdämmerung, in which Siegfried dies rather ignominiously, to be survived by the inglorious Gibichengs and the repulsive Nibelungs. What happened to the hero? Shaw says that Wagner was disillusioned by the failure of the revolutions of 1848 that had inspired the Ring in the first place, and that he wrote his disappointment into the story, revising the original ending to portray the sad end to which his revolutionary hopes had come.

The unveiling of this revolutionary subtext is hinted at in Shaw’s plot synopses, which are also generously sprinkled with insults aimed at inferior persons who fail to apprehend and approve the glorious theme, but it is concentrated in two very interesting essays: “Wagner as Revolutionist” and “Siegfried as Protestant”.  The former is principally devoted to elaborating the interpretation that I have already outlined.  The latter argues that Siegfried represents the spirit of Protestantism, which Shaw sees as the historical stepping-stone between supernatural religion and secular liberalism, overthrowing authority in favour of the freedom of the individual will.  (In fact, he argues that although a kind of anarchic liberalism is the true logical telos of Protestantism, the historically-workable form which liberalism will actually take is socialism.)  I have seen this general assessment of Protestantism offered from Catholic critics, but it is interesting, to say the least, to see it argued from the secular side as well.  Sincere Protestants are understandably chagrined to find themselves cast in such a role, but, having made their bed, I suppose they must lie in it.

Implicit in the allegory of the Ring is the recognition that, though the gods be overthrown, not every man will be thereby possessed of heroic attributes.  Siegfried is but one man, and the world still crawls with Nibelungs and shudders with the march of oafish giants.  The presence of this riff-raff is an ongoing irritant to those who await the triumph of the new man.  It is evidently an irritant to Shaw, who is not satisfied that such men should steer clear of the opera house.  In “Siegfried as Protestant” he writes:

The majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive; and no serious progress will be made until we address ourselves earnestly and scientifically to the task of producing trustworthy human material for society.

We can hardly read such words without a shudder and a chill at what they portended. It is all very well to say that Shaw could not have foreseen the manner in which those who had “no business to be alive” would, in fact, be deprived of life, “earnestly and scientifically”, on a vast scale.  The truth is that the thought he expresses was odious then (and Chesterton, let us remember, said so to Shaw’s face on more than one occasion) just as it is odious now. It is also well to remember that such sentiments were considered “progressive” at the time, openly professed by self-consciously superior persons. If historical examples like this do not innoculate one against reflexive admiration for intellectual elites, then I don’t know what will.

There remains the question of just how tainted the Ring cycle is by these unsavoury associations.  Hitler famously said that Wagner held the key to understanding the Nazis, and though I do not know precisely what part of Wagner’s work he had in mind, it is at least plausible that it was the Ring, for the reasons we have outlined. On consideration I am inclined to absolve Wagner.  It is possible, as Shaw shows, to read into the Ring an ugly and, as it turned out, horrifying and bloody imperative to secure the triumph of the new and glorious mankind by the eradication of the old and inglorious, but the possibility is nowhere, to my knowledge, proposed or even suggested by the Ring itself.  In any case, Wagner’s prophecy was disappointed during his own lifetime and even written into the Ring, which effectively tarnishes the ideal he had originally set forth. This hope, he seems to be saying, ended, and ended badly.  To me this does not feel like a summons to action.  Not to worry, however: for those of us who harbour an allegiance to “the gods” there remain plenty of reasons to object to the Ring without needing to drag the Nazis into it.

In the end, I admit that I am most content to take the story of the Ring in its literal sense, leaving the allegorical sense aside.  This makes me, I know, an inferior person, but so be it.  I am, and not only in this respect, a very imperfect Wagnerite.

Sunday night novelty song

May 16, 2010

Today I found myself at an afternoon soiree with a very nice group of octogenarians.   A man with a guitar provided the musical entertainment, and we enjoyed singing along with classic tunes like “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, “Home on the Range”, and “All Shook Up”.  (Incidentally, it is a slightly surreal experience to sing Elvis songs with octogenarians.)  Anyway, the man with the guitar sang a song — a very corny novelty song — that I’d not heard before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I enjoyed it so much that I have been singing it all evening, and driving my family crazy.  So I thought, “Why not enlarge the circle of love?”  The song is called “I’m My Own Grandpa”, and it goes like this:

Tolkien: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

May 13, 2010

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins; 2009)
377 p.  First reading.

The nature of my education was such that I learned of Tolkien’s Ring before I learned of Wagner’s.  Once I knew of both, I naturally wondered about the relationship between them.  There are obvious similarities, but to what extent was Tolkien’s idea of the “ring of power” indebted to the older tradition?  I remembered reading that C.S. Lewis had, in his youth, been enamored of Wagner’s music-dramas, and I thought it possible that Tolkien, who was about the same age, had been similarly influenced.  Only later did I realize that Wagner’s story was rooted in an immense medieval legendary tradition.  Tolkien being the man he was — a man for whom literature was all downhill after Chaucer — those older sources were a much more likely inspiration for Middle Earth, if indeed there was any connection at all.  But was there?

I still don’t know that I can answer the question decisively, but reading The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún has inclined me strongly toward answering in the affirmative.  This book demonstrates, at least, that Tolkien knew the medieval sources thoroughly, and admired them enough to expend time and effort writing his own versions of the stories, for that is precisely what we have here: English-language poetic renderings of two of the central legends in that medieval tradition.  The principal source for this material is the thirteenth-century Icelandic and Norse Edda (and not, as one might have expected, the Nibelungenlied).

The first poem, called by Tolkien Völsungakviða en nýja (“The New Lay of the Völsungs“), covers much the same ground as Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Apart from variations in names (“Sigurd” = Wagner’s “Siegfried”) and some differences in the details of how the plot unfolds, there is a recognizably close kinship between the two.  Tolkien’s version, more faithful (I would think) to the ethos of the medieval originals, has none of the modernist philosophical weight that Wagner larded onto his version.  Indeed, in his very extensive notes that accompany these poems Christopher Tolkien mentions Wagner only briefly, and that simply to note that “in spirit and purpose” Wagner’s dramas “bear little relation” to his father’s work.  Tolkien’s poem is not a translation, in any straightforward sense, of a particular medieval source, but rather an original composition that draws on several strands found in the medieval sources.

The second poem, Guðrúnarkviða en nýja (“The New Lay of Gudrún“, continues where the previous poem left off.  The Gjúking family (called the Gibichungs by Wagner) are threatened by the advancing armies of Atli (the historical Attila the Hun, of happy memory) and they offer their sister, Gudrún, as a bridal peace offering.  She is accepted and there is peace for a time, but, as you can imagine, things do not end well.  Gudrún becomes the central figure in a devastating tragedy that brings everyone to ruin.  Of the two poems, this was my favourite: it has a clearer line of development, greater atmosphere, more pathos, and larger snakes.

Tolkien’s poetry for these stories is quite different from that he wrote in, for instance, The Lays of Beleriand.  There are similar insofar as medieval poetic forms are clear inspirations, but the details are different.  Here Tolkien has used an Old Norse form called fornyrðislag, consisting of a concise eight-line stanza, each line being limited to just a few words, and he has taken pains to observe the rules of stress and alliteration found in his models.  There is no rhyming.  Together, these characteristics give the poems a concise, rough-hewn musicality.  I give an example below.

The book is nearly 400 pages long, but only roughly half of that is Tolkien’s poetry (with sparse typesetting to boot).  Christopher Tolkien has written extensive notes commenting on the relationship between his father’s poems and the medieval sources; I did not read this material in depth.  The poems are prefaced by a fairly long introduction that includes an interesting transcribed lecture that Tolkien once prepared on the subject of Eddaic literature.

I enjoyed reading these poems, although they are certainly peripheral to Tolkien’s oeuvre.  We don’t have much poetry in English that tries to emulate medieval models in this way, and seeing it done — and done pretty well, all things considered — is, I would think, the chief attraction here.


Here is an excerpt from “The New Lay of Gudrún”.  Gudrún’s brother Gunnar, come to rescue her from Atli, has been thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes:

There gleaming-eyed
Gudrún waited;
the heart within her
hardened darkly.
Grim mood took her,
Grímhild’s daughter,
ruthless hatred,
wrath consuming.

There grimly waited
Gunnar naked;
snakes were creeping
silent round him.
Teeth were poisoned,
tongues were darting;
in lidless eyes
light was shining.

A harp she sent him;
his hands seized it,
strong he smote it;
strings were ringing.
Wondering heard men
words of triumph,
song up-soaring
from the serpents’ pit.

There coldly creeping
coiling serpents
as stones were staring
stilled, enchanted.
There slowly swayed they,
slumber whelmed them,
as Gunnar sang
of Gunnar’s pride.

As voice in Valhöll
valiant ringing
the golden Gods
he glorious named;
of Ódin sang he,
Ódin’s chosen,
of Earth’s most mighty,
of ancient kings.

A huge adder
hideous gleaming
from stony hiding
was stealing slow.
Huns still heard him
his harp thrilling,
and doom of Hunland
dreadly chanting.

An ancient adder
to breast it bent
and bitter stung him.
Loud cried Gunnar
life forsaking;
harp fell silent,
and heart was still.
(stanzas 133-9)

Things I never thought I would own

May 12, 2010

The Banana Guard

Baby names

May 11, 2010

The list of the most popular American baby names in 2009 has been recently published by the U.S. Social Security Administration.  It has been said before that such lists are interesting as cultural indicators.   The top five names for boys: Jacob, Ethan, Michael, Alexander, and William; a patriarch, a not-sure, an archangel, a conqueror, and a king.  For girls: Isabella, Emma, Olivia, Sophia, and Ava; an Inquisitress, a fictional character (?), a pop singer (?), wisdom, and a palindrome.

Among the top ten boys’ names are five with Biblical roots, four that are solid and respectable,  and one odd interloper. (Be it noted: I thought ‘Jayden’ was a girl’s name.)  Among the top ten girls’ names are a few pretty ones — I am partial to ‘Emma’ and ‘Abigail’ myself — quite a few strange ones, and one with weight and substance (‘Sophia’).  All in all, these new lists confirm a general observation that has held true in previous years as well: people take the naming of boys more seriously than the naming of girls.

If anyone is wondering, ‘Craig’ was ranked 665th among boys.  The names of the other members of my family did not crack the top 1000.

Mahler anniversary goings-on

May 10, 2010

I have noted before that this year (and next) is a major Mahler anniversary year.  I have been trying to keep an eye out for celebratory goings-on, and recently I learned of two:

  • Universal Edition (the music publishers, I believe) have put together a Mahler blog, the most interesting part of which is a set of interviews about Mahler’s music with leading (and, it must be said, some less-than-leading) Mahler conductors.  Among those interviewed are Pierre Boulez, Michael Tilson Thomas, Michael Gielen, and Christoph Eschenbach.  I’ve watched a few (and one must watch, not just listen, because, rather irritatingly, the questions to which the interview subjects respond are printed on the screen, not spoken), and found them quite interesting.
  • Speaking of Christoph Eschenbach, performances of him conducting the Orchestre de Paris in the full cycle of Mahler symphonies are being made available online through streaming video.  The project began in February, and one new symphony is being added each month. The video is said to be available in both high and low bandwidth versions, although I cannot get the low bandwidth stream to work.  I have also found that the video and audio are slightly un-synchronized, which is irritating — though no worse, I suppose, than what one experiences when sitting at the back of a large hall at a live performance, which is where I usually sit.