Archive for February, 2014

Divine comedies

February 28, 2014

The folks at Image Journal (a fairly high-brow arts journal informed by Christian faith) have put together a list of what they are calling the ‘Top 25 Divine Comedies’ — a list of films broadly comic yet concerned, in one way or another, with “questions of ultimate import”. The list is here, and some introductory comments (with a remarkably Chestertonian flavour) can be found here.

The first thing I notice, with some gratification, is that my all-time favourite comedy sits atop their list. Clearly they are on to something. I am also surprised to find that I have seen nearly three-quarters of the films they selected. That doesn’t usually happen with me. I suppose it must just be my superb comic instincts.

In years past Image Journal has produced a number of other similar lists, including a list of horror films, films about marriage, and even a Top 100 Films list.

More on Hart

February 27, 2014

There has been quite a lot of commentary on David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It has ranged from brazenly uninformed (Jerry Coyne in The New Republic) to thoughtfully engaged (William Carroll at Public Discourse). A short review of the book, by Mark Anthony Signorelli, appeared recently at The University Bookman, and it strikes me as one of the more nimble and informative overviews that I have seen. Signorelli writes, in part:

Enthralled to the mechanistic picture of reality, modern persons—even devout believers—have a hard time envisioning God’s relationship to nature through any other conceptual lens than efficient causality, positing him as the one who bestows on matter its appearance and proper functioning. Hence the ubiquitous, though irritatingly imprecise, image of God the watchmaker. But this is to turn God into only one more being among beings, robbing him of his unique status as Being itself, and the origin of all other beings, complete with the remarkable philosophical ramifications this status bears. Modern atheists, for all of their supposed fury against theistic belief, have only ever aimed their barbs at a supreme being, and thus have never “actually written a word about God.

I do wonder about that initial “enthralled to” — which surely ought to be either “enthralled by” or “in thrall to”, should it not? — but I nonetheless recommend the whole thing.

Great moments in opera: Death in Venice

February 25, 2014

Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, which premiered in 1973, was his last opera. It shares with most of his late music an understated and austere manner, and it deals with difficult subject matter.

Those difficulties are manifold. The opera, like Thomas Mann’s novella on which it is based, is concerned with the power of beauty over the life and work of an artist, or, more generally, with the power of eros in human life, where eros is to be understood in its widest connotation: as a longing directed toward the good, true, and beautiful. In his great book on love, Josef Pieper reminds us that in our tradition of moral and aesthetic reflection eros has been revered for its power to shake us out of complacency, to bring us face to face with the mystery and beauty of life, to call us out of ourselves. The touchstone philosophical text is Plato’s Phaedrus.

This is very much the theme of Britten’s opera, in which a renowned composer Gustav von Aschenbach (I almost wrote ‘Adrian von Leverkuhn’!) travels to Venice for refreshment and inspiration and finds himself shaken by an unexpected and overwhelming encounter with beauty. It is for him an occasion of profound spiritual awakening, calling into question his artistic vocation and his self-understanding.

And therein lies a further difficulty, for the beauty that so unnerves Aschenbach is the beauty of a young adolescent boy. Britten handles this delicate subject with kid gloves, so to speak, having Aschenbach refer to his “father’s pleasure” in the contemplation of young Tadzio, but subsequent developments suggest that this paternal stance was as much a result of Aschenbach’s failing resistance to his own feelings as anything else. It seems fairly clear that the love which springs up in Aschenbach’s heart is the fruit of eros in the wide sense, yes (and Aschenbach himself explicitly tries to interpret his own experience through the lens of the Phaedrus), but also eros in the narrower, sensual sense, and that gives the story an unsettling feeling. For these reasons, Death in Venice is a work that has about it a slightly sickening air — not wholly inappropriately, given the way the story unfolds.

And this is an important point: the story, though it flirts with pederasty, can hardly be seen as a celebration of it. The power of beauty to arouse passion is undeniable, and Aschenbach, who has lived a life of great discipline, is inspired by the luxurious backdrop of Venice, presided over by “the wanton sun”, to surrender himself to the beauty that he sees shining through Tadzio. He falls into a kind of frenzy, a loss of self-composure, in the presence of his beloved, and becomes a man of folly, even in his own eyes. It is a tailspin from which he is ultimately unable to free himself. So the opera, like the novella, presents itself as a forum for a great contest between eros and civilization, giving eloquent voice to the power of beauty over the human soul, but, in the end, sounding a warning about the dangers of surrender to it.

There are very few excerpts from this opera on YouTube; it is safe to say that never will a section of this opera appear on one of those “Greatest Hits of Opera” collections. Nonetheless, let’s hear a little of it.

We can begin at the beginning: the opera opens with a long monologue in which Aschenbach relates the personal and artistic cul-de-sac in which he finds himself, exhausted and without inspiration. Here is the opening portion of the monologue, sung by Hans Schöpflin in Barcelona in 2008:

Following this scene he has a series of mysterious encounters with a figure who reappears throughout the story in many guises (all sung by the same person). Under his influence, Aschenbach decides to journey to Venice for rest and renewal. Here is the scene in which he arrives in Venice, preceded by the “Venice overture”. The gondolier is the same mysterious figure he saw before.

From there the opera winds its slow way downstream. Aschenbach encounters Tadzio, is overcome with feeling, and has long discussions with himself about the experience (and it must be said that Death in Venice is an unusually wordy opera). In the second half, he learns that cholera has come to Venice, causing many foreigners to flee. Aschenbach decides to go, but changes his mind when he remembers that it would mean leaving Tadzio. Eventually, of course, he himself falls ill. Hence the title.

Here is an excerpt taken from near the end of the opera, in which Aschenbach, his strength now failing, reflects once again on the troubling connections between beauty, passion, and “the wisdom poets crave”. Britten has supplied a haunting musical line, hinging upon a repeated figure with each occurrence of the name ‘Phaedrus’. Here again is Hans Schöpflin. The text, which is a little difficult to understand, I have attached below the clip:

Socrates knew, Socrates told us. Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus? Yes, but through the senses. Can poets take this way then? For senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, passion leads to knowledge, knowledge to forgiveness, to compassion with the abyss. Should we then reject it, Phaedrus, the wisdom poets crave, seeking only form and pure detachment, simplicity and discipline? But this is beauty, Phaedrus, Discovered through the senses, and senses lead to passion, Phaedrus, and passion to the abyss. And now Phaedrus, I will go. But you stay here, and when your eyes no longer see me, then you go too.

I cannot find any other excerpts of sufficiently good quality to post here, so this will have to do. I suppose that, on balance, I have been slightly disappointed by this opera. The theme, of the power of beauty, is one that actually means a great deal to me, and I count myself an admirer of Mann’s original story, but its operatic realization is a little too thorny, and perhaps too slow, to have won my affection.

All about Septuagesima

February 20, 2014

Earlier this week was a special day in the Church calendar: Septuagesima. This is one of those days (together with Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, and Elevensesagesima) that has fallen into obscurity since the Second Vatican Council. To be honest, I’m not even sure they are still officially on the Church calendar, nor what their observance would involve.

I was delighted, therefore, to find this helpful little primer at The Low Churchman’s Guide to the Solemn High Mass:

A popular custom associated with this season is the “burying of the Alleluia.” Because “Alleluia” will not be said or sung from Septuagesima until Easter Eve, the preceding Sunday’s worship includes a special “Alleluia Office” – a variant of Solemn Evensong, differing from the normal Sunday office in that an Alleluia is sung between each verse of the Magnificat, a Te Deum with seventeenfold Alleluia is sung instead of the Nunc dimittis, and each word of the Apostle’s Creed is pronounced “Alleluia.”

I’m not entirely confident that our loyal churchman has all the details exactly right, but no doubt he’s doing his best, and I appreciate the help.

Read the whole thing.

A pop music odyssey

February 18, 2014

I suppose that everybody (with the exception of those who buy those confounded iPod Shuffles) has some way of structuring their music listening. I myself am partial to listening projects: I pick a certain period or genre or artist and focus on it or him or her for a while. I have in the past dwelt at length on Schubert’s songs, Josquin’s masses, Mahler’s symphonies, and Wagner’s operas, to name a few.

This year I’ve decided to embark upon a new listening project: a pop music odyssey. I’ve chosen a handful of singers whom I admire, or think I ought to admire, and I’ve decided to listen to their collective discographies in chronological order.

The cornerstone of this project will be the music of Bob Dylan, starting in 1962 and extending, over the course of 50-odd albums, to the present day. Interleaved with his albums I am also including the discographies of the Beatles, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and (the dark horse) Nick Cave. Actually, I’m only committing to a few of Nick Cave’s records because I’m more curious than fond, and I don’t think I’ll want to shell out for all of his records.

I thought of including Bruce Springsteen as well, but I did a Springsteen listening project three or four years ago, and I feel like there’s too much music there. This odyssey is going to be a long journey even without him.

For the record, here is the list, in order, of the records I am intending to include:

Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan (19 March 1962)
Bob Dylan – Live at the Gaslight (1962)
Beatles – Please Please Me (22 March 1963)
Bob Dylan – Freewheelin’ (27 May 1963)
Beatles – With the Beatles (22 November 1963)
Bob Dylan – The Times They are a Changin’ (13 January 1964)
Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (26 June 1964)
Bob Dylan – Another Side (8 August 1964)
Bob Dylan – Live 1964 (31 October 1964)
Beatles – Beatles for Sale (4 December 1964)
Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home (22 March 1965)
Beatles – Help! (6 August 1965)
Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited (30 August 1965)
Beatles – Rubber Soul (3 December 1965)
Bob Dylan – Blonde on Blonde (22 May 1966)
Bob Dylan – Live 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” (25 May 1966)
Beatles – Revolver (5 August 1966)
Beatles – Sgt. Pepper (1 June 1967)
Van Morrison – Blowin’ Your Mind! (Sept 1967)
Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour (27 November 1967)
Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding (27 December 1967)
Leonard Cohen – Songs Of (27 December 1967)
Neil Young – Sugar Mountain [Live] (10 November 1968)
Neil Young – Neil Young (12 November 1968)
Beatles – White Album (22 November 1968)
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (November 1968)
Beatles – Yellow Submarine (13 January 1969)
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline (9 April 1969)
Leonard Cohen – Songs From a Room (April 1969)
Neil Young – Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (14 May 1969)
Beatles – Abbey Road (26 September 1969)
Van Morrison – Moondance (Feb 1970)
Neil Young – Live at the Fillmore East (March 1970) [2006]
Beatles – Let It Be (8 May 1970)
Bob Dylan – Self-Portrait (8 June 1970)
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush (31 August 1970)
Bob Dylan – New Morning (19 October 1970)
Bob Dylan – Another Self-Portrait (1970)
Van Morrison – His Band and the Street Choir (15 November 1970)
Neil Young – Live at Massey Hall 1971 (19 January 1971)
Leonard Cohen – Songs of Love and Hate (March 1971)
Van Morrison – Tupelo Honey (October 1971)
Neil Young – Harvest (14 February 1972)
Van Morrison – St. Dominic’s Preview (July 1972)
Tom Waits – Closing Time (March 1973)
Bob Dylan – Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (13 July 1973)
Van Morrison – Hard Nose the Highway (August 1973)
Bob Dylan – Planet Waves (17 January 1974)
Van Morrison – It’s Too Late To Stop Now (January 1974)
Van Morrison – Veedon Fleece (February 1974)
Bob Dylan – Before the Flood [live] (20 June 1974)
Neil Young – On the Beach (16 July 1974)
Leonard Cohen – New Skin for the Old Ceremony (August 1974)
Tom Waits – The Heart of Saturday Night (October 1974)
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (17 January 1975)
Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night (20 June 1975)
Bob Dylan – The Basement Tapes (26 June 1975)
Tom Waits – Nighthawks at the Diner (October 1975)
Bob Dylan – Live 1975 “Rolling Thunder Revue” (November 1975)
Neil Young – Zuma (10 November 1975)
Bob Dylan – Desire (16 January 1976)
Bob Dylan – Hard Rain [live] (10 September 1976)
Neil Young – Long May You Run (20 September 1976)
Tom Waits – Small Change (September 1976)
Neil Young – Chrome Dreams (1977) – unreleased
Van Morrison – A Period of Transition (April 1977)
Neil Young – American Stars ‘n Bars (13 June 1977)
Tom Waits – Foreign Affairs (Sept 1977)
Leonard Cohen – Death of a Ladies’ Man (November 1977)
Bob Dylan – Street Legal (15 June 1978)
Van Morrison – Wavelength (September 1978)
Tom Waits – Blue Valentine (September 1978)
Neil Young – Comes a Time (2 October 1978)
Bob Dylan – At Budokan (23 April 1979)
Neil Young – Rust Never Sleeps (2 July 1979)
Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming (20 August 1979)
Van Morrison – Into the Music (August 1979)
Leonard Cohen – Recent Songs (September 1979)
Neil Young – Live Rust (19 November 1979)
Bob Dylan – Saved (20 June 1980)
Van Morrison – Common One (August 1980)
Tom Waits – Heartattack and Vine (September 1980)
Neil Young – Hawks & Doves (3 November 1980)
Bob Dylan – Shot of Love (12 August 1981)
Neil Young – Re-ac-tor (2 November 1981)
Van Morrison – Beautiful Vision (February 1982)
Neil Young – Trans (29 December 1982)
Van Morrison – Inarticulate Speech of the Heart (March 1983)
Neil Young – Everybody’s Rockin’ (1 August 1983)
Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombone (September 1983)
Bob Dylan – Infidels (1 November 1983)
Van Morrison – Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast (1984)
Nick Cave – From Her to Eternity (18 June 1984)
Bob Dylan – Real Live [live] (3 December 1984)
Van Morrison – A Sense of Wonder (December 1984)
Leonard Cohen – Various Positions (December 1984)
Bob Dylan – Empire Burlesque (8 June 1985)
Neil Young – Old Ways (12 August 1985)
Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (30 September 1985)
Neil Young – A Treasure [Live] (1985) [2011]
Van Morrison – No Guru, No Method, No Teacher (July 1986)
Neil Young – Landing on Water (28 July 1986)
Bob Dylan – Knocked Out Loaded (8 August 1986)
Neil Young – Life (6 July 1987)
Tom Waits – Frank’s Wild Years (17 August 1987)
Van Morrison – Poetic Champions Compose (Sept 1987)
Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man (February 1988)
Neil Young – This Note’s for You (11 April 1988)
Bob Dylan – Down in the Groove (31 May 1988)
Van Morrison – Irish Heartbeat (June 1988)
Nick Cave – Tender Prey (19 Sept 1988)
Bob Dylan – Dylan & The Dead [live] (6 February 1989)
Neil Young – Eldorado (17 April 1989)
Van Morrison – Avalon Sunset (6 June 1989)
Bob Dylan – Oh Mercy (22 September 1989)
Neil Young – Freedom (2 October 1989)
Neil Young – Ragged Glory (10 September 1990)
Bob Dylan – Under the Red Sky (11 September 1990)
Van Morrison – Enlightenment (October 1990)
Van Morrison – Hymns to the Silence (September 1991)
Neil Young – Weld (22 October 1991)
Neil Young – Arc (1991)
Tom Waits – Bone Machine (8 September 1992)
Bob Dylan – Good As I Been To You (27 October 1992)
Neil Young – Harvest Moon (27 October 1992)
Leonard Cohen – The Future (27 November 1992)
Van Morrison – Too Long in Exile (June 1993)
Neil Young – MTV Unplugged (15 June 1993)
Bob Dylan – World Gone Wrong (26 October 1993)
Tom Waits – The Black Rider (2 November 1993)
Van Morrison – A Night in San Francisco [Live] (May 1994)
Neil Young – Sleeps with Angels (16 August 1994)
Bob Dylan – MTV Unplugged [live] (25 April 1995)
Van Morrison – Days Like This (June 1995)
Neil Young – Mirror Ball (27 June 1995)
Van Morrison – How Long Has This Been Going On? (June 1995)
Nick Cave – Murder Ballads (5 Feb 1996)
Neil Young – Dead Man (27 February 1996)
Neil Young – Broken Arrow (2 July 1996)
Van Morrison – Tell Me Something (October 1996)
Van Morrison – The Healing Game (March 1997)
Nick Cave – The Boatman’s Call (3 March 1997)
Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (30 September 1997)
Van Morrison – The Skiffle Sessions [Live] (1998)
Van Morrison – Back On Top (9 March 1999)
Tom Waits – Mule Variations (16 April 1999)
Neil Young – Silver & Gold (25 April 2000)
Van Morrison – You Win Again (25 Sept 2000)
Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (11 September 2001)
Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (9 October 2001)
Neil Young – Are you Passionate? (9 April 2002)
Van Morrison – Down the Road (May 2002)
Tom Waits – Blood Money (4 May 2002)
Tom Waits – Alice (4 May 2002)
Neil Young – Greendale (19 August 2002)
Van Morrison – What’s Wrong with this Picture? (21 Oct 2003)
Tom Waits – Real Gone (3 October 2004)
Leonard Cohen – Dear Heather (26 October 2004)
Van Morrison – Magic Time (16 May 2005)
Neil Young – Prairie Wind (27 September 2005)
Van Morrison – Pay the Devil (7 March 2006)
Neil Young – Living with War (8 May 2006)
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (29 August 2006)
Neil Young – Living with War (19 December 2006)
Neil Young – Chrome Dreams II (23 October 2007)
Van Morrison – Keep It Simple (17 March 2008)
Neil Young – Fork in the Road (7 April 2009)
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life (28 April 2009)
Neil Young – Le Noise (28 September 2010)
Tom Waits – Bad As Me (21 October 2011)
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (31 January 2012)
Neil Young – Americana (5 June 2012)
Bob Dylan – Tempest (11 September 2012)
Van Morrison – Born to Sing (2 Oct 2012)
Neil Young – Psychedelic Pill (30 October 2012)


I have no idea how long this project is going to take, but I hope there is a reasonable chance of my finishing before I die. I am looking forward to hearing not only how each individual singer developed, but how they influenced one another, if indeed they did. I don’t think many would disagree that Dylan was an important influence on everybody else, with the possible exception of Van Morrison.

When putting this list together, I was surprised to learn that the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and Cohen’s Songs Of were released on the same day. What a day that was!

It is fair to say that most of these folks, great as they are, have declined in creativity as they have aged. I suppose there is a possibility that I might abandon the project once I reach the desolation of the 1980s, but at the outset I have the wind in my sails and a song in my heart. Happy sailing to me.

Caldecott: Secret Fire

February 5, 2014

Secret Fire
The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien
Stratford Caldecott
(Darton Longman Todd, 2003)
144 p.

This slender book is a thoughtful attempt to explore the spiritual roots and background of Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium. It draws on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, of course, but also delves deeper into The Silmarillion and the fragmentary History of Middle Earth. It is not a book for casual Tolkien fans, but is accessible to readers (like myself) who have limited acquaintance with this “background” material. (The scare quotes are only because I am not sure Tolkien woould agree that it is background.)

Tolkien was a Catholic, and Caldecott argues that “an understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien’s personal beliefs and their influence on the story for which he is famous can only enhance our appreciation of this great work of art”. Some readers might contest, or at least not understand, the relevance of Tolkien’s Catholicism to the stories he told. There is no overt Catholicism in his tales (not in the best known ones, at least) and, even more remarkable, no overt religion at all. But Caldecott has a trump card in the form of a famous letter in which Tolkien wrote:

The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

It is an authorial claim that gets one thinking, and the Christian resonances soon become more evident: Tolkien’s stories turn on themes of humility, power in weakness, the parasitic nature of evil, Providence, and mercy. And there are some specific allusions to Christianity as well: Caldecott reminds us that the date of the destruction of the One Ring was March 25, the date of the Catholic feast of the Annunciation — the date on which the power of sin in the world was decisively (if still, in history, partially) undone.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a sacramental realm as well: material things have spiritual meanings and powers. From the background mythology Tolkien demonstrates that though the material world was created good, Morgoth’s power has disseminated through it, making it subject to corruption and decay, making it subject to his will, and making the dark magic of Saruman (for example) possible. Gold and fire are especially under his dominion, which casts the One Ring and Mount Doom in a new light (or a new shadow). Of all the elements of the natural world it is water that is most outside his influence; hence the watery backdrop of Rivendale, for instance.

There are also strong Marian themes in Middle Earth. Tolkien said that his “own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity” was founded on the Blessed Virgin, and he poured that beauty into certain characters, especially the female elves such as Galadriel. Caldecott argues that the longing for beauty, especially as experienced by the elves, is a Marian element of the mythology, and that that longing is sacramentally associated in the stories with starlight (perhaps under Mary’s title ‘star of the sea’), with music, and (again) with the sound of water.

(Incidentally, Caldecott has very interesting things to say about the place of elves in Tolkien’s world. They serve as a kind of experimental forum for him: they are immortal yet are confined to an earthly life. Their love and their longing are all directed at this world, rather than, as is fitting for men, at the next. Therefore although they long for transcendent beauty, they can never actually hope for it, and their longing is inflected by “a sense of melancholy, of infinite distance or separation.” This is an aspect of elvishness which I had not previously considered.)

One of the strongest conjunctions of Tolkien’s mythology with Catholic doctrine is to be found in the Creation myth which opens The Silmarillion. This section is one of the choicest jewels in Tolkien’s treasure chest, incredibly beautiful on its own merits. It begins with song, as Ilúvatar, the One, sings the world into being out of nothing. Caldecott spends quite a lot of time on this myth, examining its stages and various aspects in concert with Christian tradition, and it is among the most rewarding sections of the book. The notion that the Valar are “living Forms” (in the Platonic sense) was arresting; this was apparently how Tolkien himself thought of angels.

I said above that the Middle Earth mythology, however infused with Christian metaphysics and redolent of a Christian moral vision it may be, is nonetheless silent on the specific claims of Christian theology. And, of course, this is quite fitting, for the events with which Tolkien is concerned occurred long before the Incarnation. Yet I was surprised to discover that buried deep within the History of Middle Earth, in a section called “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”, Tolkien wrote of a prophecy that

“the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.”

One could hardly ask for a more direct indication that the world which Tolkien created was intended as an imaginative reconstruction of a Christian cosmos. And it was just one of many interesting things I learned from this intensely interesting little book.

Nunc dimittis

February 2, 2014

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, also called Candlemas. The Gospel reading tells of how the Christ-Child, brought to the temple for the first time, was received into the arms of St. Simeon and St. Anna, and of how Simeon sang a canticle that has been set to music hundreds of times since:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Here is Arvo Pärt’s setting, sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir:

Happy Candlemas!