Archive for August, 2016

Films of the new century

August 31, 2016

The BBC polled a reel of film critics and assembled a list of Top 100 films of the 21st century (so far). I find such lists irresistible.

My first observation is a personal one: because I don’t have a great deal of time to watch movies I try to be discriminating when choosing one, and, to judge by this list, I have not been doing too badly in that respect. To wit: I’ve seen two-thirds of the films on the Top 100, including 24 of the top 25. It’s gratifying to know that I’ve not been wasting my time — not utterly, anyway.

The fact that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive came out on top has raised some eyebrows. The first time I saw it I was befuddled — a not uncommon reaction, I think, and no doubt I was even more befuddled than most. After my next foray I was dazzled by its brilliance; Naomi Watts’ performance, in particular, I thought one of the best I’d ever seen. But when I returned to bask again I found it a mess; I simply couldn’t make sense of it, and that unnerving Lynchian magic seemed to be gone. I still love Naomi Watts in the lead role, but right now I’m pretty sour on Mulholland Drive. Perhaps I need to see it yet again.

I was delighted to see Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love take second place. Has anyone actually seen this film? It’s an unusual love story, saturated with an elegiac tone and filmed with stupefying beauty. I’ve been meaning to go back and watch it again, and perhaps its high ranking on this list gives me the occasion I’ve been looking for.

Naturally, there are some head-scratching elements. How did Yi Yi (#8) crack the Top 10? Sure, it’s a lovely film, but I wouldn’t have thought it Top-1o material. The high placement of Linklater’s Boyhood (#5) annoys me, as does the mere appearance of The Social Network (#27).

I wonder which directors have the most films in this Top 100? I see the Coen Brothers have three (#10, 11, 82), as do the Andersons (P.T. at #3, 24, 75, and Wes at #21, 68, 95). And Michael Haneke (#18, 23, 42) and Christopher Nolan (#25, 33, 51) are in that elite group too. I count 5 animated films on the list, 4 of which are from Pixar. Well, they deserve it.


As an envoi, I’ll propose my own Top 10. As it must be, this is a rather personal selection. In rough descending order, and with the corresponding placement on the BBC list in parentheses, I vote as follows:

The Tree of Life [Malick, 2011] (#7)
No Country for Old Men [Coens, 2007] (#10)
Die große Stille [Gröning, 2005] (-)
Остров [Lungin, 2006] (-)
Adaptation [Jonze, 2002] (-)
Ida [Pawlikowski, 2013] (#55)
In the Mood for Love [Kar-wai, 2000] (#2)
Sudoeste [Nunes, 2011] (-)
Kill Bill [Tarantino, 2003/4] (-)
Brooklyn [Crowley, 2015] (#48)

Some others that might have made the list on another day: The New World (Malick), 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Mungiu), The Secret World of Arriety (Yonebayashi/Rydstrom), The Departed (Scorcese), Gosford Park (Altman), Stations of the Cross (Brüggemann).

Newman: Loss and Gain

August 25, 2016

Loss and Gain
Bl. John Henry Newman
(Ignatius, 2012) [1848]
432 p.

This was the first book Newman wrote after his conversion to Catholicism at Oxford in 1845, and, given its theme — about a young Oxford man, Charles Reding, who converts to Catholicism — it is natural, and probably justifiable, to see it as an autobiographical novel. It would be interesting to compare it to his Apologia pro vita sua — this is left as an exercise.

Enthusiasts for books about Oxford men named Charles who convert to Catholicism will note the similarities with their other favourite book, Brideshead Revisited. (Indeed, in this Ignatius Press edition an accompanying essay by J.C. Whitehouse uses the phrase “Brideshead Previsited”, which earns full marks from me.) But (not having read that essay) I would say that the similarities between the two books are fairly slight. Waugh’s novel is a character study in which theology hardly registers (that hilarious scene of Rex’s catechism notwithstanding), whereas Newman’s novel, though not without characters — especially in the sense of “representatives of a view” — is deeply and directly concerned with theology. The book is full of conversation set-pieces in which theology and history and ethics are discussed.

John_Henry_NewmanThere is something didactic about this, and the extent to which it is tolerable will depend on how interesting the reader finds the topics of conversation. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed almost all of them. I expect that anyone who has thought much about religious conversion, or, better, who has experienced a long, drawn-out, and at least partly intellectual religious conversion himself, is likely to find the book quite absorbing and insightful about the process.

Charles is an undergraduate as the book opens, and as near as I can determine it more or less covers the period of his undergraduate career. The Oxford of his day differs from the Oxford of ours inasmuch as religion is for him a focal point of campus life, and religious ideas are matters of general discussion and controversy. When Charles visits the room of his friend Willis for the first time, he finds:

there was much in them which shocked both his good sense and his religious principles. A large ivory crucifix, in a glass case, was a conspicuous ornament between the windows; an engraving, representing the Blessed Trinity, as is usual in Catholic countries, hung over the fireplace, and a picture of the Madonna and St. Dominic was opposite to it. On the mantelpiece were a rosary, a thuribulum, and other tokens of Catholicism, of which Charles did not know the uses; a missal, ritual, and some Catholic tracts, lay on the table; and, as he happened to come on Willis unexpectedly, he found him sitting in a vestment more like a cassock than a reading-gown, and engaged upon some portion of the Breviary.

I’m not saying this scene is absolutely impossible today, or that it was usual in Newman’s day — we know from Charles’ reaction that it was not — but it is more the specific nature of the religious artifacts that excites Charles’ attention, whereas today it would be the mere presence of religious artifacts.

For Charles religion is not about feelings or wishes, but about truth (in this he is certainly Newman’s avatar), and his spiritual journey is in significant measure an intellectual one, a journey toward right belief:

He had now come, in the course of a year, to one or two conclusions, not very novel, but very important:—first, that there are a great many opinions in the world on the most momentous subjects; secondly, that all are not equally true; thirdly, that it is a duty to hold true opinions; and, fourthly, that it is uncommonly difficult to get hold of them.

And again, in conversation with a friend, Charles contends that:

“I did not say a creed was everything […] or that a religion could not be false which had a creed; but a religion can’t be true which has none.”

An interesting issue that the book addresses is the paradox of private judgement in Catholic conversion. If one talks to converts from Protestantism, a common rationale offered in favour of the conversion is that the reign of private judgement on religious matters in Protestant circles leads to religious chaos — each man his own Pope. Catholicism is chosen as the antidote to such chaos, for the Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, dividing truth from error with Christ’s own authority. But there’s the rub: for a convert — and, in a religiously contested age like our own, for cradle Catholics too — Catholicism is chosen, which means that private judgement isn’t quite out of the picture, and indeed stands disconcertingly close to the root. Charles ponders this problem at some length:

Now it need not be denied that those who are external to the Church must begin with private judgment; they use it in order ultimately to supersede it; as a man out of doors uses a lamp in a dark night, and puts it out when he gets home. What would be thought of his bringing it into his drawing-room? what would the goodly company there assembled before a genial hearth and under glittering chandeliers, the bright ladies and the well-dressed gentlemen, say to him if he came in with a great-coat on his back, a hat on his head, an umbrella under his arm, and a large stable-lantern in his hand? Yet what would be thought, on the other hand, if he precipitated himself into the inhospitable night and the war of the elements in his ball-dress? “When the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man who had not on a wedding-garment;” he saw a man who determined to live in the Church as he had lived out of it, who would not use his privileges, who would not exchange reason for faith, who would not accommodate his thoughts and doings to the glorious scene which surrounded him, who was groping for the hidden treasure and digging for the pearl of price in the high, lustrous, all-jewelled Temple of the Lord of Hosts; who shut his eyes and speculated, when he might open them and see. There is no absurdity, then, or inconsistency in a person first using his private judgment and then denouncing its use. Circumstances change duties.

And I do think that the apparent paradox has to be resolved in something like this way: a convert’s judgement gets him so far, as it must, for at that point he has nothing else to go on — unless it be grace, about which more below. But once inside it is foolhardy, and certainly counterproductive, to be standing in judgement over every jot and tittle when his attitude ought rightly to be one of docility and receptiveness, for if the Church is what she claims to be then he can only benefit from opening his heart and letting her graces and truths form him. In the process of transition, a good deal of prudential judgement is called for to get this balance right.

And though it seems that private judgement in religion is a part of the conversion process, there is something futile and even comical about it to one whose conversion is further advanced. Commenting on the tendency of Protestants to claim to discern whether and how Catholicism has corrupted the faith, Charles’ friend makes a good point:

Willis said that he supposed that persons who were not Catholics could not tell what were corruptions and what not.

That is very well said.

Yet it would be a mistake, I think, to characterize conversion — conversion to Catholicism, at any rate — as a principally intellectual process that one undertakes on one’s own. Faith is not something one musters up or merely wills; faith is a gift. It comes to us; we are encouraged to ask for it. Charles’ friend Willis makes the same point to him:

“What you want is faith. I suspect you have quite proof enough; enough to be converted on. But faith is a gift; pray for that great gift, without which you cannot come to the Church.”

I have myself cautioned friends not to pray for faith unless they are serious, because in my experience this particular prayer has a startling likelihood of being answered, and then there’s no telling what might happen.

Even when we receive this gift, though, conversion is slow. We may have moments of particular significance along our way, but nobody, I think, can truly be converted in a moment, for it calls for a renewal and re-alignment along many dimensions, and it takes time to discover them all even when we are pliant — and we are not always pliant:

Conviction is the eyesight of the mind, not a conclusion from premises; God works it, and His works are slow. At least so it is with me. I can’t believe on a sudden; if I attempt it, I shall be using words for things, and be sure to repent it. Or if not, I shall go right merely by hazard. I must move in what seems God’s way; I can but put myself on the road; a higher power must overtake me, and carry me forward.

What I like about this passage is the sense it conveys of the convert being accompanied. Can one who truly feels alone be converted to Catholicism? The name of the Paraclete, I am told, means ‘one who comes alongside’, and in my experience this is what a prospective convert actually experiences. One has the sense of being on a road, going somewhere, but also of the road itself having been somehow prepared in advance. To my delight, Charles makes exactly this point:

He could not escape the destiny, in due time, in God’s time—though it might be long, though angels might be anxious, though the Church might plead as if defrauded of her promised increase of a stranger, yet a son; yet come it must, it was written in Heaven, and the slow wheels of time each hour brought it nearer—he could not ultimately escape his destiny of becoming a Catholic.

This is putting it a little more strongly than I would, but I think he is here undoubtedly describing the real quality of the experience that at least some converts have.

For Charles, living in the time and place that he does, the decision to become a Catholic is not without cost. He becomes estranged from his family and from respectable society. “Yes, I give up home, I give up all who have ever known me, loved me, valued me, wished me well; I know well I am making myself a by-word and an outcast.” He can no longer continue at Oxford, so departs for London, not really knowing what will become of him. In the final act of the novel he lodges in London with a friend, just prior to approaching a priest to request reception — at this point, he still doesn’t know any priests! — and Newman stages a kind of parade, as person after person, having heard of his intentions, knock at his door with the intention, apparently on the principle that someone who gives off believing one thing is ready to believe anything, of diverting him to their particular systems of belief. This section of the book is diverting, but not very successful beyond that. The finale is rescued by the final scene, in which Charles is finally received into the Church:

“Too late have I known Thee, O Thou ancient Truth; too late have I found Thee, First and only Fair.”


[Aphorism touching Church authority]
When an oracle equivocates it carries with it its own condemnation.

[Pondering the Anglican and Catholic churches]
“Now common sense tells us what a messenger from God must be; first, he must not contradict himself, as I have just been saying. Again, a prophet of God can allow of no rival, but denounces all who make a separate claim, as the prophets do in Scripture. Now, it is impossible to say whether our Church acknowledges or not Lutheranism in Germany, Calvinism in Switzerland, the Nestorian and Monophysite bodies in the East. Nor does it clearly tell us what view it takes of the Church of Rome. The only place where it recognizes its existence is in the Homilies, and there it speaks of it as Antichrist. Nor has the Greek Church any intelligible position in Anglican doctrine. On the other hand, the Church of Rome has this prima facie mark of a prophet, that, like a prophet in Scripture, it admits no rival, and anathematizes all doctrine counter to its own. There’s another thing: a prophet of God is of course at home with his message; he is not helpless and do-nothing in the midst of errors and in the war of opinions. He knows what has been given him to declare, how far it extends; he can act as an umpire; he is equal to emergencies. This again tells in favour of the Church of Rome. As age after age comes she is ever on the alert, questions every new comer, sounds the note of alarm, hews down strange doctrine, claims and locates and perfects what is new and true. The Church of Rome inspires me with confidence; I feel I can trust her. It is another thing whether she is true; I am not pretending now to decide that. But I do not feel the like trust in our own Church. I love her more than I trust her. She leaves me without faith. Now you see the state of my mind.”

[A description of Rome]
It was so dreary, so melancholy a place; a number of old, crumbling, shapeless brick masses, the ground unlevelled, the straight causeways fenced by high monotonous walls, the points of attraction straggling over broad solitudes, faded palaces, trees universally pollarded, streets ankle deep in filth or eyes-and-mouth deep in a cloud of whirling dust and straws, the climate most capricious, the evening air most perilous. [Ed. — Personally, I don’t recall the climate being all that capricious.]

[On the experience of Mass in the old Rite]
Each in his place, with his own heart, with his own wants, with his own thoughts, with his own intention, with his own prayers, separate but concordant, watching what is going on, watching its progress, uniting in its consummation;—not painfully and hopelessly following a hard form of prayer from beginning to end, but, like a concert of musical instruments, each different, but concurring in a sweet harmony, we take our part with God’s priest, supporting him, yet guided by him.


Lecture night: psychology and politics

August 23, 2016

Jonathan Haidt is an unusually interesting academic. He is a psychologist who has in recent years turned his attention to matters of public import, and has especially emerged as an advocate of greater “viewpoint diversity” in the academy. To that end, he has founded Heterodox Academy, a forum for highlighting findings that run counter to received opinion in academic disciplines, particularly in the social sciences.

Earlier this month he gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Assocation. His lecture is entitled “What’s Happening to Our Country? How Psychology Can Respond to Political Polarization, Incivility and Intolerance”, and in it he considers a number of long-term polarizing trends in American society and what to do about them.

He’s an engaging speaker. If you’re interested in understanding the Trump phenomenon, or fancy the thought of seeing a crowd of left-wing academics called out for bias by one of their own guild, this lecture might be for you. If you’re of conservative temperament, you might be pleasantly surprised to hear that an eminent academic considers you anything other than roadkill on the upward way of enlightenment. As he says in the lecture, every healthy society needs a party of order and stability as well as a party of change and progress. It sounds sensible to me (except the bit about change and progress). The lecture is about 50 minutes long, once the introductions are over.

If you enjoy this talk, you might also enjoy a TED talk he gave on the respective moral motivations of liberals and conservatives.

Books briefly noted

August 16, 2016

Usually I try to post these short notes in thematically-related groups, but I can’t spot the theme in this batch.


lyrical-balladsLyrical Ballads
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(Penguin, 2007) [1798]
128 p.

This slim volume is, by reputation, one of the heavyweights in the history of English poetry, being generally acknowledged as having overturned the then-prevailing poetic conventions and inaugurated the Romantic period of English verse.

Wordsworth and Coleridge challenged the idea that poetry should attend only to lofty subjects, writing poems instead on humble, but far from trivial, matters: a lost boy, a woman dying alone, a peasant family. Many, though not all, of the poems are narrative, and the poetic forms matched their subjects: simple forms, with clear and musical rhyming schemes, such as those characteristic of folk songs.

That, at least, describes a considerable number of these poems, but there is another type too: metrical verse on personal themes, in which we are taken inside the mind of the poet as he ponders something. If you’ve any experience with Wordsworth, you’ll be content to describe these as “Wordsworthian”, and wonderful they are. They made me realize how much I’ve missed him; it has been years since I read his long poem “The Prelude”, which I loved at the time, and perhaps I am due to revisit it, or his poetry more generally.

Although authorship of the individual poems is not attributed within the book, Wikipedia says that only a handful of the twenty-odd poems are by Coleridge. The two most famous poems in the collection are Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, being, respectively, outstanding examples of the two poetic models I just described.


classical-mechanicsClassical Mechanics Illustrated by Modern Physics
42 Problems and Solutions
David Guéry-Odelin and Thierry Lahaye
(Imperial College, 2010)
268 p.

Most symmetric potentials will be quadratic to a first approximation, which is why the simple harmonic oscillator is such a useful model in so many areas of physics, and if there were ever a book to illustrate that wide usefulness it might well be this one, in which concepts usually associated with classical mechanics — including an abundance of simple harmonic oscillators — are applied to problems in modern physics. The range of topics is quite wide: gravitation, friction, fluids, electromagnetics, astrophysics, atomic physics, relativity, and more. One of the most interesting sections to me was on experimental methods for cooling clouds of atoms: Zeeman cooling (my favourite), doppler cooling, and evaporative cooling. The problems are each marked with a level of difficulty, and the solutions are worked in detail sufficient for relatively easy comprehension. The book as a whole is very clearly written, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.


guarendi-disciplineDiscipline That Lasts a Lifetime
The Best Gift You Can Give Your Kids
Ray Guarendi
(Servant, 2003)
306 p.

A few months ago we went to hear Ray Guarendi speak on parenting and discipline. His talk turned out to be a comedy routine that was light on substance (and rather light on laughs too, I’m afraid), so I figured I’d better read one of his books if I wanted to learn something. This particular book is epistolary: he answers questions from parents, real or imagined. It’s still comedic, but the humour works better for me on the page. What I like about Guarendi is that he gives no-nonsense advice. Discipline is necessary, both for parental sanity and for kids’ formation. If you discipline, everyone will be happier in the end. He has some good ideas about techniques: blackouts, house rules, chore charts, and so on. We’re going to try a few of them. Our kids are savages.

Yonder and yonderer

August 10, 2016
  • The bump that launched a thousand papers was just a statistical anomaly, says CERN. The world of fundamental physics research may well be finding itself in the nightmare scenario.
  • Damian Thompson critiques the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ concert series, arguing that the prejudices of its planners undermines its interest.
  • Ever wonder if there might be something more to Brexit than raw xenophobia? Roger Scruton — make that Sir Roger Scruton — makes a number of good points about the possible motives of ‘Leave’-ers.
  • David Warren writes in brief appreciation of The Cloud of Unknowing.
  • The always wonderful Whit Stillman has a new film, Love & Friendship, based on a little-known Jane Austen novella. Stillman and Austen: it’s a match made in heaven.
  • Speaking of films, rumours are that Terrence Malick’s next project (after this fall’s Voyage of Time and next year’s Weightless) will be Radegund, about the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector and martyr under the Nazis.
  • Giving the lie to the notion that the Vatican moves slowly, the modest suggestion from Robert Cardinal Sarah that Catholic priests of the Roman rite return to the customary practice of celebrating the Mass ad orientem received a rapid slap-down from high-ranking Vatican prelates, including the Pope. The reasons for this are worth thinking about — try this or this, for starters — but in the meantime I recommend reading Cardinal Sarah’s full address, which is quite beautiful.
  • Rowan Williams has written a play in which he dramatizes a meeting between St Edmund Campion, a Catholic martyr under Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare, a possibly-maybe-recusant Catholic. It’s an interesting choice of subject matter for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to say the least. The play, entitled “Shakeshafte”, is playing in Swansea, Wales, and neither you nor I will get to see it.
  • Orwell submitted his manuscript for Animal Farm to Faber & Faber, and received in response a rejection letter written by T.S. Eliot.

The wind began to howl

August 8, 2016

Here is an informative exploration of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, which is surely one of his greatest songs:

(Hat-tip: The Music Salon)