Archive for January, 2012

Conrad: The Secret Agent

January 31, 2012

The Secret Agent
A Simple Tale
Joseph Conrad
(Everyman, 1992) [1907]
317 p.

Aspiring writers would probably do well to be wary of Joseph Conrad. On the one hand, one can learn a lot from him — therein lies the allure. On the other hand, he is so good at what he does that reading him must sometimes be a near occasion of despair. He is one of those writers who wields his pen like a scalpal, capable of a precision of tone and style beyond the abilities of most writers. (And in his second language too, which is even more depressing.)

The story is about an indolent secret agent employed by a foreign government to stir up fear and anxiety among the British public. Threatened with the termination of his position if his lackadaisical ways continue, he is forced into reluctant action. He plans a bombing, but it goes horribly wrong, and he and those around him must deal with the consequences.

The book situates itself in my mind somewhere between Graham Greene and Franz Kafka. Like Greene, Conrad focuses on the motivations and relationships of the characters more than the mechanics of the plot. Like Kafka, he gives the story a faint but unmistakable whiff of absurdity. He does so, in part, by over-writing his descriptions. There is a tendency to emphasize small details, or to write grandiose descriptions of prosaic situations, or to lose the train of thought in runaway introspection. And of course there is the absurdity underlying the whole action of the story: the secret agent is a nihilist, and his whole purpose is to attack the most meaningless target possible, so as to provoke the greatest anxiety. That he fails in this effort is the book’s central tragedy.

Toward the end of the book, when the tragic fallout is all around, there comes a moment when the mist clears, the prose becomes clean and sharp, and the action is propelled forward relentlessly. In the process, Conrad writes one of the best narrations of a murder that I have encountered anywhere. It is quite an amazing performance.

Less amiably, I am not sure that I have ever read a book in which the author displays as little affection for his characters as Conrad does here. He does not seem to like any of them, and that is rare. Every single one is ruthlessly exposed as deluded, grasping, self-important, or stupid. It makes the book tough going at times.

Given that the story is about a man who tries to sow terror in London by planting a bomb, one has the nagging feeling that the book ought to have some contemporary political relevance, but to me the drawing of such connections feels forced.

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2012

January 28, 2012

To celebrate the feast of St. Thomas, here are a few aphorisms from his writings:

  • Everything evil is rooted in some good, and everything false in some truth. (ST I, 17, 4 ad 2.)
  • Although charity is necessary for salvation, it is not necessary to know that one has charity; rather it is generally more useful not to know. (Ver. 10, 10 ad 8.)
  • Just as the primary purpose of human law is to cause friendship between men, so the purpose of the divine law is to establish friendship between men and God. (ST I-II, 99, 2.)
  • The gifts of grace are joined to nature in such a way that they do not destroy but perfect it. Hence the light of faith, which flows into us through grace, does not extinguish the light of natural knowledge which is our natural inheritance. (In Trin. 2, 3.)
  • God is honoured in silence, not because we may say or know nothing about him, but because we know that we are unable to comprehend him. (In Trin. 2, 1 ad 6.)

More from 2011, 2010, and 2009.

The Tree of Life at the Oscars

January 26, 2012

I notice that the Oscar nominations were announced earlier this week. Usually I don’t pay a great deal of attention to them — I haven’t actually watched the Oscars in years — but I would like to register my delight at seeing The Tree of Life nominated in three categories: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. It ought to be a shoo-in for that last award, though I gather it is considered something of a dark horse in the prestige categories. Well, as they say, it is an honour just to be nominated.

It is interesting that both Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, Tree‘s lead actors, were nominated in the acting categories, but for their roles in other films! Pitt was nominated for Moneyball (which was entertaining but not really Oscar material, in my judgement) and Chastain for The Help (which I have not seen, and will in all probability never see). In Chastain’s case, especially, it seems a pity that her luminous performance in The Tree of Life was not nominated — although, to be fair, it is rather hard to know how much of her role’s impact was due to her acting and how much to the brilliant direction and cinematography.

Here’s to long shots!

Great moments in opera: Pirates of Penzance

January 23, 2012

The Pirates of Penzance followed the success of H.M.S. Pinafore, receiving its premiere (in New York, interestingly) in 1879. Like its predecessor, it is one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s most beloved works. It has the wit and charm characteristic of their most successful collaborations (even if, in my opinion, it is not quite as good as Pinafore and The Mikado).

The story is quite silly, as you would expect: a young man must serve a term of indentured servitude to a raft of pirates before he can marry his true love. Complications ensue.

Each of the clips below is taken from a 1983 film adaptation, starring Kevin Kline and — if you can believe it — Angela Lansbury. I am reluctant to use these clips because they are sort of odd: the voices are not recorded in a natural acoustic space, and there is something vaguely robotic about their sound. But there are not many clips of decent quality available, so I am stuck with these.

No doubt the most famous section of Penzance is the patter-song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”. It is one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s great hits, known (I imagine) to anyone who knows anything about any of Gilbert & Sullivan’s music, and much beloved.

The popularity of this song has led to many, many imitations. A few that I could find: about Obamatranshumanistspsychopharmacologists, and the periodic table.


It is sometimes not appreciated that Gilbert & Sullivan are occasionally poking fun at the operatic hits of their time. Penzance provides some good examples, and the particular target is Verdi’s Il trovatore.

Consider “With cat-like tread”, in which the pirates sing a rousing chorus about how quiet they are. This is a parody of the so-called “Anvil Chorus” in Il trovatore, which was much ridiculed for doing the same thing. It is really quite funny:

Another good example is the Policeman’s Chorus, “When the foeman bares his steel”. This is funny all the way through: it is a double-chorus, first for a group of men (the policemen) and then women (the Major-General’s numerous daughters); the men are confessing their fear at confronting the pirates, and the women are giving them, well, some sort of encouragement, I suppose. Towards the end the two choruses join forces in a contrapuntal tour de force, but the music ensnares them: they are singing about going on their way, but the music itself prevents their going. This is likely a parody of “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore, in which the same absurdity occurs. But it is certainly humorous enough on its own terms:

Where to stay in Rome?

January 22, 2012

I know a couple who are planning to go to Rome this year to celebrate their anniversary. It will be their first time in the Eternal City, and they are looking for a place to stay. The parameters are about what you would expect: a good location, clean and comfortable, and not too, too expensive. Can anyone recommend something?

Dolnick: Down the Great Unknown

January 21, 2012

Down the Great Unknown
Edward Dolnick
(Harper Perennial, 2002)
383 p.

Down the Great Unknown tells the story of John Wesley Powell and his companions, who were the first to explore the full length of the Grand Canyon by boat. They made their journey in 1869, just a few years after the end of the American Civil War. (Indeed, Powell lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh, and several of his crew were also battle-scarred veterans.) The trip was conceived as a scientific and exploratory enterprise, with the intention of producing maps and gathering fossils from this still unexplored part of the American frontier. It ended with more modest ambitions: simply to survive.

Ten men began the trip, but four abandoned the effort at various stages of the journey. (Three “jumped ship” just one day before the journey ended, hoping to walk to a nearby settlement rather than risk the dangerous rapids confronting them. They were never seen again, and Dolnick discusses various theories about what may have happened to them.) Astonishingly, none of the men had much boating experience, much less in white water. Their boats were heavy and totally inappropriate for running rapids. They were able to survive principally because they portaged or lined the rapids whenever it was possible to do so. (“Lining” is a technique of guiding the boat through the rapids from shore using a set of ropes, rather like animating a marionette.) When the six remaining men did finally emerge from the Canyon, they had travelled about 1500 km in the course of 100 days. They were threadbare and half-starved, but alive.

At least three of the men kept journals during the trip, including Powell himself, who later worked his notes up into a book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons. Powell’s prose in that work tends to be flowery and euphoric. Happily, Dolnick has also drawn on the other journals when crafting his account of the journey, which provides some welcome contrast. For example, when describing a particularly glorious canyon wall, Powell wrote,

The river turns sharply to the east and seems enclosed by a wall, set with a million brilliant gems. What can it mean? Every eye is engaged, every one wonders. On coming nearer, we find fountains bursting from the rock, high overhead, and the spray in the sunshine forms the gems which bedeck the wall.

Meanwhile, his companion J.C. Sumner merely wrote,

The white water over the blue marble made a pretty show. I would not advise anybody to go there to see it.

Reading the excerpts from Powell’s book made me happy that I had decided to read Dolnick’s second-hand account rather than Powell’s first-hand one.

I don’t know if you have ever boated through river rapids. I have done it a few times (on the Kicking Horse River in British Columbia), always under the guidance of an experienced boater. It is a scary business. The hazards are many: sink holes, whirlpools, water falls, submerged rocks, unsubmerged rocks. Every time I have gone, at least one person has fallen out of the boat (and was as quickly pulled in again). I am amazed that Powell and his men survived. I suppose they would not have if they had been less cautious about portaging. But there were times when the canyon walls — one mile high! — came right up to the river’s edge so that portaging was impossible. In such cases they got through by sheer bravery, tenacity, and dumb luck. It’s a good story, well told, though Dolnick does sometimes indulge the temptation to embellish his prose with laborious metaphors. Still, I enjoyed it very much, and it ranks with the more interesting adventure stories that I have read.

Five alive

January 19, 2012

Time flies when you’re having fun: yesterday was this blog’s fifth birthday! It has been a very good year, once again. Allow me to extend my sincere thanks to all who take the time to peer at the goings-on here. It wouldn’t be the same without you.

Some nerd-fodder: if I am counting correctly the blog had about 56000 hits in the past year, for an average of about 150/day. This is roughly 40% higher than in the previous year, which makes me think I’ve made a mistake in my calculations. About 9000 of those hits were for one or another of the posts that appeared during the Antarctica month blog-a-thon, which took place last February.

Not counting Antarctica-themed posts, the three most popular posts during the past year were all Book Notes: on Alain Erlande-Brandenburg’s Castles and Cathedrals: Building in the Middle Ages, on Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good, and on Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. As usual, I am surprised at what is popular and what is not.

I do not know how to discover the number of comments left on the blog in the past year — but I do know how much I appreciate each one of them. I can tell you that the WordPress spam filter prevented 13996 spam comments from appearing, and I appreciate that too.

Thanks again!

Ker on Chesterton

January 18, 2012

An interesting audio interview with Ian Ker about his recent, hefty biography of G.K. Chesterton. Duration is about 10 minutes.


Fr. Ker is also editor of the recent, hefty collection of Chesterton’s writings from Everyman’s Library.

Sex-selective abortions in Canada

January 17, 2012

The current (16 January 2012) edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal is raising some eyebrows on account of an editorial which draws attention to the practice of sex-selective abortions in Canada. It has been known for some time that girls are killed more often than boys. The problem is a global one, with China and India being jurisdictions of particular concern. The CMAJ editorial notes the evidence that some immigrants to Canada have brought this practice with them:

Research in Canada has found the strongest evidence of sex selection at higher parities if previous children were girls among Asians — that is people from India, China, Korea, Vietnam and Philippines. What this means is that many couples who have two daughters and no son selectively get rid of female fetuses until they can ensure that their third-born child is a boy.

What is most surprising about this editorial — and most encouraging too — is that it actually calls for action to prevent such abortions from taking place. Abortion exists in a legal vacuum in Canada — we have no law whatsoever on the matter — and experience has shown that legislative limits are not politically feasible at the present time. But the editorial makes the brilliant proposal that our medical regulatory bodies could nonetheless institute “best practices” which would tend to reduce the rate of sex-selective abortions:

The colleges need to rule that a health care professional should not reveal the sex of the fetus to any woman before, say, 30 weeks of pregnancy because such information is medically irrelevant and in some instances harmful. Doing so should be deemed contrary to good medical practice. Such clear direction from regulatory bodies would be the most important step toward curbing female feticide in Canada.

This is, as I said, a tremendously positive thing to hear, but it is also tremendously puzzling. If it is true, as we are always being told, that a woman has the right to abort her baby, then why does she not have the right to abort her baby girl? And how exactly is it that a fetus, just because it is female, somehow makes a moral claim on us that males do not? And if there are good reasons to prevent the abortion of a female child, could there not also be good reasons to prevent the abortion of, say, a Down Syndrome child, or even just a plain old inconvenient child? Why is “If you don’t like sex-selective abortions, don’t have one” not an adequate response to this problem? It really gets one thinking.

What is most interesting about this affair is that the pro-choice side has usually fallen back on an absolutist position: any restrictions on abortion are to be rejected. Time and again, even proposals for mild policy changes that would tend to protect unborn children have been rejected as intolerable. That a proposal like this, which breaches that position in a fairly significant way, and undermines its logic, has been floated from a flagship medical journal is more than a little shocking, but also very welcome. Perhaps it will open the door to a serious conversation about a matter of great importance.

The Milk Carton Kids

January 14, 2012

Trolling through a number of other ‘best-of-year’ lists over the past few weeks, I came across a description, at PopMatters, of a duo called The Milk Carton Kids. The description sounded appealing (“dueling harmonies . . . gentle, lilting acoustic picking”), and, seeing that they were listed on eMusic, I bought their record. I am glad that I did, and I am having trouble understanding why I hadn’t heard of them before.

The PopMatters blurb marks The Jayhawks as a reference point for their music, and it is indeed an apt and obvious comparison to make: those harmonies! But The Milk Carton Kids are quieter and gentler, more delicate and more shy, than The Jayhawks tended to be. On a few of the songs I think I might hear Nick Drake in the background, and perhaps even (stretching a little further) Simon and Garfunkel. On their homepage one can read an appreciative accolade from Joe Henry.

In any case, it is lovely music. Here is one of the songs from their record, called “Michigan”:

Only after buying the record did I discover that the duo (Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan) also released another album, under their given names, in 2011, and that both records are available for free from their website. Hie thee hence!