Archive for May, 2011

Duffy: Fires of Faith

May 31, 2011

Fires of Faith
Catholic England under Mary Tudor
Eamon Duffy (Yale, 2009)
263 p.

Mary Tudor’s short reign (1553-1558) has not been much admired. She attempted to reverse the religious changes wrought by Henry VIII and Edward VI, but her reforms were abandoned by her successor, Elizabeth I, and ultimately came to nothing, or next to nothing. And, it is said, her reforms themselves were badly conceived, poorly executed, and — speaking of execution — morally reprehensible: more than 280 people were burned at the stake for their religious beliefs during her reign. She is known to history as “Bloody Mary”.

In this book Eamon Duffy, a distinguished historian of late medieval and early modern English religion, attempts to rehabilitate Mary’s reputation. He re-examines the strategy conceived by Mary and her advisors, especially Cardinal Pole, to combat Protestantism, and he re-assesses the evidence for the plan’s success or failure. Had the effort been limited to burning heretics, we should find nothing to admire, but Duffy demonstrates that in fact the counter-reformation program was multi-faceted. It included a renewed emphasis on seminary training and effective preaching, publication of tracts and books aimed at correcting the errors of the Protestants, replacement of bishops by capable and articulate men loyal to the Catholic faith and the papacy, restoration of Catholic liturgy and devotion, re-furnishment of the churches that had been stripped and looted during Edward’s reign, and a renewed focus on the centrality of the Blessed Sacrament and the papacy to Christian faith.

Duffy also argues that, by and large, these reforms were quite successful, and would have resulted in a significant restoration of Catholic faith and practice in England had they been able to continue. Mary’s death brought an end to that possibility. Even so, the Marian initiatives during those few years gave shape and confidence to the Catholic recusant movement under Elizabeth, and it also had a considerable influence on the continental counter-reformation.

The most reprehensible aspect of Mary’s reign was, of course, the policy of burning intransigent Protestants. Duffy partly exonerates the authorities by demonstrating the great lengths to which they would go to avoid passing the death sentence, especially for lay people. Those who were executed sometimes appeared to actually want to die for their faith, and were openly provocative of and belligerent towards the authorities — and some of them were, I think it must be said, almost certainly mentally ill. This of course does not excuse the burnings, but it does signify that they were not all carried out in a spirit of bloodthirsty remorselessness.

Modern historians have tended to regard the Marian burnings as both morally disgusting — evidence of the backward, “medieval” mindset of Catholics — and as counter-productive, for, it was argued, the executions were more likely to inflame the hatred of the people against the regime than to effect a widespread re-conversion back to Catholicism. The most controversial and provocative claim that Duffy makes is that this latter expectation is false. He argues instead that, however it may offend our sensibilities, the policy of burning heretics was successful at combating heresy, and this was so simply because there was considerable agreement at the time that burning was a fitting punishment for heresy. Protestants, of course, did not agree that they should be burned; on the contrary, they thought it a suitable end for Catholics, but the point is that they thought it a suitable end. (Under Elizabeth, the shoe was placed on the other foot, and hundreds of Catholics were executed for their faith, though usually by strangling, disembowelling, and dismembering rather than by burning.)

It is difficult for me to judge the extent to which Duffy restores a fair portrait of Mary Tudor. Fires of Faith is written as a contribution to a long and ongoing conversation, yet this is the only part of that conversation that I have heard. Much of his argumentation is directed at changing the mind of readers who hold particular views about the period. The reigning presumption about Mary’s reign, says Duffy, is that it was saturated by incompetence. Since I do not hold that view, at least not in a considered way, I soon learned that I was not in the book’s target audience. My general impression is that Duffy raises many interesting points, and that his position is defensible, but, by the nature of the case, it is hard to present a true knock-down argument. His rehabilitation of Cardinal Pole, who has often been regarded as an incompetent and ineffective leader, is perhaps the most convincing part of the book.

Bishops reinstate Friday fast

May 27, 2011

Have you heard that the Bishops of England and Wales have decided to reinstate the ancient penitential practice of the Friday Fast?

…the Bishops’ Conference wishes to remind all Catholics in England and Wales of the obligation of Friday Penance. The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat. Those who cannot or choose not to eat meat as part of their normal diet should abstain from some other food of which they regularly partake. This is to come into effect from Friday 16 September 2011 when we will mark the anniversary of the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United Kingdom.

This is surprising news! For those who do not know the history: the Friday Fast fell into widespread neglect after Vatican II, not because the requirement of penance was lifted, but because people were given the option to replace the fast with a penance more personally meaningful. An unintended consequence was that the communal practice disappeared, and today most Catholics do not observe either the communal or the personal penance. Even for those who did continue to observe the Friday Fast, its character was changed: it was no longer an act of filial obedience and religious identity, but almost a personal idiosyncracy. I have often thought that reinstatement of the fast would be a good step toward rebuilding a sense of Catholic identity and cultural presence, but I confess that I have not actually expected it to happen. I am delighted to see that the Bishops of England and Wales have taken this step.

I will make time this week to write to our Canadian Bishops asking that they do the same. I wonder how good our chances are?

Great moments in opera: La Cenerentola

May 26, 2011

La Cenerentola (Cinderella) was once one of Rossini’s most popular operas. It suffered due to the relative dearth of top-shelf mezzo-sopranos in the early and mid-twentieth century, but has been making something of a comeback in recent decades. I had never heard it before this week, when I acquired a recording featuring Cecilia Bartoli in the title role. I have really enjoyed it.

In its basic outline  this is the familiar Cinderella story: there are wicked sisters, a ball, a prince, a lost item (a bracelet rather than a slipper), and a happy ending. Yet, rather oddly and unfortunately, the fantastic elements of the plot have been removed: there is no fairy godmother. Her role has been converted into that of Alidoro, an old philosopher. As such, the charm of the love story is still in evidence, but some of the magic is gone, so to speak.

There is no lack of magic in the music, however. It is as effervescent and winsome as one could hope for, with that seemingly effortless lilt and charm that is so characteristic of Rossini’s music. Astonishingly, it took him only about three weeks to write the entire score.

Here is a lovely scene from near the beginning of the opera in which Cinderella, at her labours, sings about a king who marries a common girl — her own story, of course, in forecast. This clip, like those that follow, is taken from a 2009 Metropolitan Opera production starring Elina Garanca in the title role, with Lawrence Brownlee as the Prince. (Brownlee does not appear in this first clip.)

Later in Act I the Prince arrives, seeking the most beautiful woman in his kingdom to become his bride. In order to have leisure to observe without being himself scrutinized and flattered, however, he and his butler have exchanged roles. In this scene, which I think is one of the finest in the opera, he and Cinderella meet for the first time, neither knowing who the other is, and over the course of the scene they fall in love. This duet is a bit long, but worth it.

Finally, skipping over all of the complications, let us go directly to the happy ending. Here is the final scene, in which Cinderella, at her wedding to the Prince, rejoices at the thought that she shall never again be obliged to do thankless servile labour. Here is Cecilia Bartoli singing the part; not everyone likes her style — I myself do sometimes find her manner to be overly emphatic, and her heavy aspiration can be a distraction — but I have to admit that she sings the heck out of this aria.

For comparison, here is Elina Garanca singing exactly the same aria in exactly the same production. It is quite amazing how differently the two singers come across: Bartoli dominates the stage with her larger-than-life presence; Garanca is more modest, but her voice no less lovely. (Skip to 4:30 to hear only the same segment as in the previous video.)

Trouble with Faust

May 25, 2011

For the past few weeks I have been reading Goethe’s Faust. By reputation, it is one of the greatest epic poems of the Western tradition, one of the mightiest examples of German art, and one of the archtypal expressions of Romanticism.

I am finding it bewildering, impenetrable, and exhausting. Part I was fine; it is Part II that is giving me the trouble. I have now read most of it, and I have no idea what is happening, nor why. No doubt part of my difficulty is that my knowledge of Greek and Latin mythology is not what it might be, and the poem leans heavily on those sources. But there seems to be a great deal of abstraction and symbolism integrated into the text — I might even say that the main substance of the poem is symbolic, if I had any confidence about what the main substance is. Each scene seems to introduce an entirely new raft of characters, unrelated to those that came before or will come after. Reading the poem has been a long and increasingly aggravating exercise.

I think it would help if I had an idea of what the overall point of the poem is supposed to be. Is it a symbolic rehearsal of Western history? Is it a summation and celebration of the Romantic sensibility? Is it a coded message to Freemasons? At this point, I am ready to believe pretty much anything.

I am curious to know if anyone reading this post has read the poem, and, if so, what you thought of it. I doubt that I am alone in finding it opaque, but it is possible; I have learned to never underestimate my capacity to be obtuse.

Septagenarian Bob

May 24, 2011

Mr. Bob Dylan celebrates his seventieth birthday today. In some respects this is hard to believe — we all remember that young man singing about his girl from the north country, and it comes as a shock to think what time, all of a sudden, has done to him — but in another sense Dylan is coming into his own as he ages, for he has always been an old man in his music, as old as the hills.

Happy birthday, Mr. Bob. May you have many more years.

Original versions of Dylan’s songs are hard to find on sites like YouTube, but here is John Doe covering “Pressing On”, which is from the Saved record.

Local news

May 20, 2011

Percy: Love in the Ruins

May 19, 2011

Love in the Ruins
Walker Percy
(Picador, 1999) [1971]
416 p.

Walker Percy was a physician before he became a writer, and I have often thought that the mid-career transition was more apparent than real. When he began to write he remained a diagnostician, but he directed his attention to the human soul rather than the body. In Love in the Ruins he has, rather amusingly, written this part of himself into his protagonist. Dr. Thomas More, a late, lapsed descendent of the great saint, is an amiable, philandering physician with a too-dear affection for bourbon who has invented the Quantitative-Qualitative Ontological Lapsometer, a “stethoscope of the human soul” that allows him to identify and treat the prevailing malaises of the human spirit.

Dr. More lives in an imagined not-too-distant future when the end of the world is nigh. The present political rifts between right and left have intensified to such a degree that the Knotheads (the term is a derogatory adopted in defiance) and the LEFTPAPASANEs (another derogatory adopted in obliging deference to the charms of symmetry [*]) are in a state of near civil war. Government has collapsed, churches are in schism, racial tensions run high, and everywhere the creeping vines encroach on what remains of civilization.

Percy had a gift for cunning black humour, making this much more a farce than a tragedy. Dr. More’s central preoccupation, besides curing the spiritual ills of humanity, is trying to get his favourite mistress into his make-shift love-nest. Meanwhile his lapsometer falls into the wrong hands, and rather than being used to treat the angelism/beastialism and alienation-from-self that trouble his countrymen, it is used to augment them, leading the world — or at least the Southern county of Paradise Estates — to the brink of apocalypse. When Tom is tempted to despair, he finds relief by using the device to tickle his musical-erotic.

The premise of the book is terrific, but the execution does not quite live up to its promise. There is a sustained low-level of subversive humour, and a few wonderfully hilarious episodes (such as Tom’s duel in The Pit, where doctors make impromptu diagnoses of patients before a raucous crowd of students in a kind of medical gladiatorial combat). But I also found that there were many apparently pointless episodes, too many peripheral characters without sufficient characterization, and the farcical tone undermined the story’s drama. If the book had been half its length, it would have been improved. Perhaps, as I found to be the case with his earlier book The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins would be better on second acquaintance. As it is, I found it funny and enjoyable but flawed.

[*] The acronym spells out the policy position of the left: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, The Pill, Atheism, Pot, Anti-pollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia. Some things, it seems, don’t change.

Remembering Mahler

May 18, 2011

Today is the 100th anniversary of the untimely death of Gustav Mahler. If someone had told me ten years ago that I would be marking this day with real sadness I would have denied it, but Mahler’s music, which at one time I dismissed as bloated and hysterical past toleration, finally won me over, and I now confess myself a devotee.

One of his most touching songs, heartbreaking in its melancholic beauty, is Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. Given its theme, hearing it today is most fitting. Here is Janet Baker, from a famous 1969 recording with John Barbirolli leading the Hallé Orchestra.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange von mir nichts vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben.

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgewimmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet.
Ich leb’ allein in mir und meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied.


I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!
(Translation: Emily Ezust)

(Thanks to Alex Ross for the picture above.)

Four great themes

May 16, 2011

“Men read and write only because they are convinced that certain great subjects are worth reading and writing about. Four great themes, it seems to me, have been the inspiration of most important imaginative literature from the dawn of Greek civilization down to our own age. The first of these is religion: the description of the relation between divine nature and human nature, as in Hesiod and Dante and Milton. The second is heroism: the nobility of strong and earnest men, as in Homer or Virgil or Mallory. The third is love: the devotion beyond mere appetite, as in classical legend or medieval romance. The fourth is the intricacy of character and class, ranging all the way from Chaucer to Conrad. Now a society which has lost its religious convictions and its society denies itself the first theme. A society which denies the right to greatness and to distinctions among men deprives itself of the second theme. A society which takes love for no more than the carnal appetite cannot attach real significance even to the novel of adultery. A society which looks upon men as mere production and consumption units of interchangeable value cannot understand the subtle shadings of personality and rank of a different sort of age. The springs of the imagination thus are dried up. For a time, satire can exist by pointing out the decay of faith and heroism and love and variety; but when even the memory of these themes fade, then satire, too, comes to an end. Then boredom triumphs in life and art.”

— Russell Kirk, “English Letters in the Age of Boredom,”
Shenandoah 7 (Spring, 1956).

(Hat-tip: The Imaginative Conservative)

Panek: The 4% Universe

May 11, 2011

The 4% Universe
Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality
Richard Panek
(Thomas Allen, 2011)

320 p.

If there is a main storyline to the physics of the last one hundred years, it is the gradual revelation that the universe is a stranger place than we had once thought. In the late nineteenth century many physicists believed that they pretty much had the bag sewn up; the cosmos was more or less a giant game of billiards. Oh sure, there were a few problems here and there: the frequency spectrum radiated by a hot object was surprisingly hard to calculate, and the equations describing electromagnetic waves seemed to imply the existence of a medium filling all space and time that had impossible properties — but, these few problems apart, things were quite neat and tidy. As we now know, those odd problems were destined to overthrow the foundations of the old physics, giving us quantum mechanics and relativity, and ushering in a world in which, as Richard Feynman once quipped, physicists have to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

This book is about a number of recent discoveries and developments in astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology that seem to indicate that the world is, once again, turning out to be strange and wonderful in ways we did not expect. In a certain sense this is nothing new: the same disciplines have given us black holes, neutron stars, supernovae, the Big Bang, an expanding universe, billions of galaxies, and an unimaginably vast cosmos. But these new developments are sneaking up, as it were, from behind, and seem to be telling us not just that the universe is strange out there, not just that it is bigger and bigger, but that the whole thing, even here and now, is quite different than it has seemed.

Briefly stated, the picture of the cosmos that is emerging from a number of converging lines of evidence is that the stuff we see around us, both here on earth and through our telescopes in the night sky, accounts for just a small fraction of what is actually present. There seems to be quite a lot of something, which we can detect indirectly through its gravitational influence on things we can see, but that we do not see directly. This “dark matter” accounts, rather surprisingly, for about six times more mass than does the matter that we can see and study directly. What is the dark matter? Originally it was thought that it might be dead stars, but there is too much of it for that to be an adequate explanation. It might be heavy particles left over from the Big Bang that do not interact, or interact only rarely, with the matter that makes up our familiar world; there are numerous experiments around the world trying to detect these particles, but to my knowledge they’ve had only null results so far. It is safe to say, at this point, that no-one knows what dark matter is.

But the picture is stranger still: in addition to dark matter, physicists now talk about “dark energy”, an energy density that fills space and is inferable, again, from its gravitational influence. (In general relativity, all energy sources have a gravitational effect.) It is accessible to study principally from its effect on the expansion rate of the universe. One of the most surprising claims made by physicists working on these topics is that the expansion rate of the universe is actually accelerating; this was not expected. Amazingly, the dark energy seems to be, on the largest cosmic scales, the single largest component of the universe’s overall energy density, accounting for over 70% of the total.

The present accounting is therefore something like this: the universe consists of over 70% dark energy, almost 25% dark matter, and only about 4% ordinary (or, in technical lingo, ‘baryonic’) matter — that is, the matter that makes up stars, airplanes, bodies, and harmonicas.

Richard Panek’s book tells the story of how this picture of the world has developed in the last fifty years or so, and especially in the last few decades. He introduces us to many of the people involved, on both the experimental and theoretical sides. As in any healthy science, these developments have been driven by experimental observations, and he describes the main lines of evidence for the existence of dark matter and dark energy: galactic rotation curves, galactic cluster dynamics and structure formation, gravitational lensing, and cosmic acceleration, for instance. A big chunk of the book is devoted to describing supernovae searches, which are certainly important for determining the expansion rate of the universe, but which, in the grand scheme of things, probably do not warrant quite as much attention as they are given here.

I was impressed at Panek’s ability to convey the ideas behind the science without resorting to overly technical language. For instance, he clearly explains how the expansion rate of the universe — whether it is decelerating or accelerating — affects how cosmologists calculate the age of the universe. I wish, however, that he would have explained how, if energy gravitates, a cosmic energy density can cause the universe to expand more quickly, rather than (as one might expect) more slowly. The dark energy seems to have an anti-gravitational effect, pushing things apart rather than pulling them together, and that is bound to seem strange to the reader.

If dark matter and dark energy are posited because of a discrepancy between the predictions of gravitational theory and observations of the distribution of matter, it is logically possible that the problem is not with the matter, but with the theory — that is, it is possible that the discrepancy is resolved not by introducing new, unseen (“dark”) sources of gravitational influence, but by introducing a modification to our theory of gravity. Panek does mention this briefly, but I would have liked to have seen it discussed more thoroughly.

In addition to describing the scientific ideas, the book introduces us to many of the physicists who work on these topics. There are a lot of such people, but he does a reasonably good job of structuring the story around certain key figures, so that what emerges is really a story about people, and not just about names. There were times when I thought that too many characters were crowding onto the stage, but that is hardly his fault; he has to give credit where it is due.

I believe that the book would be accessible to any reasonably intelligent and interested reader. Panek has a style that is sometimes breezy (chapter headings like “The Tooth Fairy Twice” and “The Thing” give an idea of the tone), but this is not too distracting, and might even be appealing to some. I learned quite a lot from it, and that is probably the highest praise that can be given to a book of popular science.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.


I cannot resist adding that a good friend (who occasionally comments here) has recently co-authored a paper on dark energy measurements using the cosmic microwave background radiation. That paper, published by the Atacama Cosmology Telescope research group, is available here.