Archive for April, 2013

Hart on atheism

April 18, 2013

It might be that the “New Atheist” phenomenon has fizzled out by now — I haven’t heard much from those quarters since the untimely death of Christopher Hitchens — but if you’ve a lingering interest in such matters let me recommend this lecture by David Bentley Hart. He offers an appraisal of the leading “New Atheists” (Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris), but does us the service of viewing them in a broader historical and cultural context. He wishes they were more like the old atheists (pre-eminently, Nietzsche), and, in a nice ironic reversal, sees them as textbook examples of Nietzsche’s detested “last men”.

The lecture was apparently delivered some time ago — reference is made to Hitchens in the present tense — but it only recently made its way onto YouTube. Some of the content, including an amusing foray into the world of enthymemes, also appeared in Hart’s 2010 essay “Believe It Or Not”. The “video” below is actually just audio ornamented with a photograph. Highly recommended nonetheless.

Nostalgia for the 960s

April 17, 2013

Have you ever felt that you would have been happier and more at home if you had been born in another time? I certainly hope so. And you are not alone:

Can you imagine what it was like to have been around when Odo of Arezzo broke onto the scene? Or to have actually seen Reginold of Eichstätt live? It blows my mind that on any given weekend in the Abbey of St. Martial you could have seen St. Tutilo von Gallen, Ademar of Chabannes, or Hucbald. Hucbald! And just think how amazing it would have been to experience that unforgettable summer of 969, when it seemed like everyone gathered on the lea to circle-dance and intone around a communal fire. Yeah, it was muddy, and yeah, the food was almost assuredly rancid and diseased, but so what? Two words: Heriger and Wigbert!

(Tonsure-tip: The Chant Cafe)

Great moments in opera: Il Trovatore

April 11, 2013

My indispensable old copy of Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book has this to say of Il Trovatore:

The libretto of Il Trovatore is considered the acme of absurdity…

which doesn’t seem a good beginning, but then there is this:

…the popularity of the opera is believed to be entirely due to the almost unbroken melodiousness of Verdi’s score.

And it’s true: the music is glorious, and Il Trovatore (which, incidentally, means “The Troubadour”) is among the most frequently staged operas in the world (ranked, most recently, #21). My initial short list for “great moments” had fifteen items on it, which (you will be happy to know) I have whittled down to just four (or five).

I am not going to try to explain the story. Key events have already taken place when the curtain rises, and, though we do learn about them in a monologue, the opera never really recovers from this misbegotten start. Here is a synopsis; I’ve read it a few times, but it makes little sense to me. In the clips below, therefore, we shall focus on the music rather than the dramatic situations.

The music of the Act II aria Stride la vampa (Upward the flames) is among the most memorable and important in the opera. The principal theme recurs frequently in the score in a variety of guises, and I think of it as something like the “Trovatore theme”. It is sung by Acuzena, an old gypsy woman, and the Aria Database provides this helpful summary: “Azucena describes her mother’s death to Manrico and the crowd of gypsies. Her mother was burned at the stake for being a witch while the ones who falsely convicted her laughed and enjoyed themselves.” I’ll take their word for it:

Act III brings us Di quella pira (Of that pyre), one of the showstopping-est of all tenor arias, the forbidding reputation of which rests principally on the high C which our hero, Manrico, is called upon to deliver. It is interesting to note that the high C was not actually written by Verdi, but was inserted by a young turk in the early days, and now every tenor worth his salt has to add it too. The Kobbe book again: “The tenor who sings the high C in ‘Di quella pira’ without getting red in the face will hardly be credited with having sung it at all.” Here is Pavarotti:

In the fourth and final act we have a famous sequence which consists of a few arias, but which is sometimes grouped together as “Leonora’s scene”. It begins with D’amor sull’ali rosee (On rosy wings of love), a meltingly beautiful aria in which Leonora expresses her love for Manrico. It is followed by a choral chanting of the Miserere, of which my Kobbe Opera Book remarks that it “was for many years … the most popular of all melodies from opera”. It launches Leonora into Tu vedrai (You will see), in which she sings of her determination to remain with Manrico to the end. I gather that Manrico must be in some kind of trouble.

Here is the whole scene, in a concert performance by Anna Netrebko. D’amor sull’ali rosee begins at 3:00 in this clip, but it would be a pity to miss the preceding recitative; the Miserere begins at about 8:00 and Tu vedrai follows hard upon.

In closing, I cannot help linking to a performance of Ai nostri monti (Back to our mountains), a gorgeous duet sung by Manrico and Azucena that seems to indicate that the opera has a happy ending. Here are Placido Domingo and Fiorenza Cossotto:

Kirk: The Secret Commonwealth

April 8, 2013

The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies
Robert Kirk
Introduction by Andrew Lang
(Dover, 2008) [1692]
94 p.

Several years ago I passed a few happy weeks walking the Scottish Highlands. I was enchanted by the soft, green mountains, the shrouding mists, the mysterious ruins, and the numerous cattle. (This last enchantment was apparently mutual.) My motives in undertaking this walk were various, but I had hoped, somewhere deep down, that in the course of my journey I would catch a glimpse of faerie, that realm of mystery inhabited by airy creatures whose character is known to us only through the stories of softly-lit encounters passed down by our ancestors. I did not, in the end, see anything answering the description, or, if I did, I failed to mark it. This book reminds me of what I missed, and reassures me, to some extent, that it may have been for the best.

Robert Kirk was a Scottish minister who had a special interest in fairies and allied creatures, and who, perceiving that the world was becoming a place less hospitable to them, and noting the doubts raised in certain quarters about their nature and very existence, set out to collect and arrange the lore about these creatures for the instruction and enrichment of all. He wrote his book in the last decade of the seventeenth century, though it was not widely read until 1815 when, at the behest of Sir Walter Scott, it was first published.

It is a fascinating work. Kirk is sober and meticulous, and he presents a judicious mixture of anthropological speculation and anecdote. We learn that fairies are normally subterranean, dwelling in the fairy hills common in the Highland landscape, and — what I did not realize — that they are large creatures, comparable in size to you and me. They speak the language and adopt the fashions of human societies, and can sometimes be mistaken for humans. Yet they are, in themselves, airy and insubstantial, impossible to wound with a sword or spear, and visible best, if at all, at twilight. They are aristocratic in government, and sullen in temperament. They are impious, fleeing, for instance, at the mention of Christ, and “ever readiest to go on hurtful errands”. It is for these reasons that I was perhaps foolish to seek them out.

The faculty of seeing fairies is not granted to all; Kirk speculates in a long letter to Sir Robert Boyle that an especially keen sense of sight may be needed, or perhaps the fairies themselves can regulate their appearances to grosser mortals. In any case the faculty is one that is given, and taken away, not cultivated by any art. Those so gifted with “the second sight” reported that it was sometimes accompanied by other capacities, such as foreknowledge of death, and Kirk enumerates many examples. It is reported that seers lose their gift when they leave their native land.

Our instinct in view of such matters is disbelief. We have no fairies, and, perhaps more to the point, we will have no fairies. Maybe we are simply weary, or maybe we fondly (though falsely) imagine that science, that mighty wind, has blown away the veil of mystery and exposed the nothing behind it. In the end we have our prejudices. Even so, Kirk may yet be of value to us, for he teaches us how thoroughly our experience is mediated through our assumptions, which is surely a healthy thing for a culture professing an allegiance to empiricism.

As for Reverend Kirk, we are told that he was himself such a friend of faerie that — well, if you want to know what became of him, let me point you to David Bentley Hart’s delightful essay on the subject. If you took the time to read what I have written here, you owe it to yourself to read what what he has written there, for it is really immeasurably better.


Andrew Lang, the noted folklorist who contributed the introduction to this edition of The Secret Commonwealth, wrote this short poem in honour of Kirk:

For we have tired the Folk of Peace;
No more they tax our corn and oil;
Their dances on the moorland cease,
The Brownie stints his wonted toil.
No more shall any shepherd meet
The ladies of the fairy clan,
Nor are their deathly kisses sweet
On lips of any earthly man.
And half I envy him who now,
Clothed in her Court’s enchanted green,
By moonlit loch or mountain’s brow
Is Chaplain to the Fairy Queen.

Roger Ebert, RIP

April 4, 2013

The news has come across the wire this evening that Roger Ebert has died. Just yesterday he wrote that, though his cancer had returned, he was nonetheless brimming with plans for the future: a new web site, his film festival, a documentary on his life. It makes for poignant reading tonight.

Like many people, I first encountered him through the television programme he hosted with Gene Siskel, only later discovering that he was primarily a critic in print. I remember being fascinated by the television show, principally, I think, because I had never before heard considered judgments and articulate criticism about much of anything, still less something as commonplace as movies. It was my first intimation that there might be more to the movies than just entertainment.  Those old shows, segments of which have made their way onto YouTube, still make for good viewing.

His print reviews make for good reading too. He could almost always be counted on to give a clear account of a film’s strengths and weaknesses, often with considerable wit. (Bad films, especially, seemed to inspire his muse, and his collection of critical pans, Your Movie Sucks, makes for terrific occasional reading.) High praise from him was often enough to convince me to clear some time for a film I might otherwise have passed over. I am going to miss my weekly visit to his site.

Readers of this blog might be interested in something he wrote exactly one month ago: a short essay called “How I Am a Roman Catholic”. Those who read him regularly will know that he grew up in a devout Catholic family, attended Catholic schools, but drifted — so I gather — from the practice of the faith in his adult years. Yet Catholicism remained in his bones, and he continued to circle around it. Indeed, in this recent essay he insisted that “I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock, and barrel”. True, this confession was confused to no small extent by his admission that he “cannot believe in God”. I take him to have meant that he had doubts, that he had no firm assurance of faith. If so, he would hardly be alone in that.

In that same essay he, rather surprisingly, staked out a position on a question of current moral controversy that was not calculated to endear him to people who matter. In other words, he was true to his critical task to the end: saying what he thought, with clarity and reason, and leaning into the wind when it blew contrary-wise.

Requiescat in pace.

Easter bustle

April 3, 2013

One or two people may have noticed that things have been a little quiet around here of late. This is because things have not been quiet elsewhere, and I’ve had little to no leisure.

I have been learning that selling a house is an all-consuming activity. We were advised to “de-clutter” prior to listing the house, and so, after several weeks of sorting and sifting and packing, this past weekend we moved a fair bit of furniture and about 80 boxes out of the house and into storage. I am still trying to understand the mindset of people who consider books to be “clutter”.

With that out of the way, we turn our attention to little matters like painting, scrubbing, staining, fixing, and generally beautifying the place. It’s a lovely house, and I can’t see why someone shouldn’t want it. But it will be even lovelier when we’re through. I hope.

Did I mention that the only time I have to do any of this work is when I should be in bed?

In the middle of all this was Easter: Happy Easter! It was the tenth anniversary of my reception into the Catholic Church, and I had really been looking forward to it. It turned out to be the worst Triduum that I can remember: we had to leave the Holy Thursday Mass early because the kids were crazed, we were terribly late for the Good Friday service, and I even missed the start of the Vigil Mass (which, if you’ve never been, is the best part). Between times, when I would normally want to think about Easter, I was instead thinking about boxes and tape and cleaning supplies and when I went to the church it felt as though I had parachuted in from another realm.

But there was much to be thankful for, all the same. Our wonderful priests, who delivered some of the most thoughtful and provoking homilies that I can ever remember hearing, celebrated all of the Triduum liturgies with great beauty and solemnity. Being there was a balm. We really are blessed to have found our parish (and now, of course, we will really miss it). We are thankful for friends and family who, in the middle of all of this exhausting activity, are lending a hand when and where they can. Mostly we’re just thankful for Easter.

Happy Easter!