Thursday, January 29, 2009

KITCHEN ADVENTURE: NOW I WORK AT THE PIZZA PIZZA. I made pizza-on-a-pita for brunch. It was not the most delicious thing I've ever cooked, but with good ingredients it's a super-easy meal.

I covered a baking tray with parchment paper and flopped a pita down on it. I thickly sliced some canned whole tomatoes, and sliced some mozzarella, and those went onto the pita. Then a bit of salt (if you put the salt in your hand and sift it down onto the food from fairly high up, it scatters more evenly across the food), lots of fresh basil, and crushed red pepper. Then all of that got drizzled with ex-vir olive oil.

I hadn't pre-heated the oven, so the cooking took longer than it would if I'd been a little more certain about what temperature I wanted earlier on. I put the oven to 400 and slid the tray in there. About ten-ish minutes later I checked up on the pita, but the mozzarella wasn't quite melty enough yet and the pita wasn't burning, so I gave it another... five? seven? minutes.

Then it came out and I sampled it. It needed a bit more salt, and I added some freshly-ground black pepper as well. Overall this was tasty, although it's kind of sad to have a pizza without real pizza crust, so I'd still say this thing's big selling point is how incredibly easy it is.

I have a bunch more pitas, so I'm going to try some other variations; I think the next one might be fried egg and habanero jack cheese. If I had today's pita-pizza to do over again I'd add rosemary, I think, and obviously more salt earlier on. I might also experiment with aluminum foil rather than parchment paper, and a slightly lower cooking temp (since my smoke alarm goes off if I get oil on foil above 400 degrees), since I think that might've led to a puffier pita base with a bit of that burnt crust I love on thin-crust pizza.
If in the beginning of your religious life, you live within your cell and keep to it, it will soon become a special friend and a very great comfort.
--The Imitation of Christ

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"WHAT LIFE ASKS OF US": Possibly the only David Brooks column I've ever liked!
Often we do not know what we can stand, but temptation shows us what we are.
--The Imitation of Christ

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

LAUGHING ALONG TO YOUR BLAH, BLAH, BLAH: If you don't care about whether there are secular arguments for things... you can skip to an exegesis of B-52s videos; family as politics; and a terrific quote from Jerry Lee Lewis, by which I mean Elvis.

Monday, January 26, 2009

THE MOST IMPORTANT WORD IN THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE IS "CREATED": So Upturned Earth picked up my "no such thing as a secular reason" post, which is good... because that was a ridiculously sloppy post, and I knew it at the time, and I'm grateful for the nudge to clarify and maybe push the conversation forward. Or, at least, be sloppy in different ways.

This is a post whose structure owes too much to Rube Goldberg. I'm going to try to sort out the parts so that they make sense, but there will be a bit of looping back and forth, for which I Apologize in Advance. It's also way too long. Hilariously, I'm reading The Imitation of Christ right now, in which the basic message is, "Have you considered shutting up?" So take this for what you paid for it.

First off, I think the argument comes in three parts (at least!). 1) There is no secular philosophy. And here, I totally didn't follow through on my promise of controversy! All I could offer was the weak, "...philosophy at its best takes part in the same eros as religion...". And even that should probably be "sister" rather than "the same."

I really like this comment, and I think its phrasing gets at some of the central issues. While I think love of Christ is a lot more than "comprehensive doctrine," Catholicism also does seem to be the kind of thing we mean when we use that clunky unaesthetic phrase, so I can roll with the phrase for the moment.

My real thing, in these posts, is that there are two levels of question: a) What is justice? and b) Which kinds of answers to a) are secular? And both are eventually going to implicate your underlying "comprehensive doctrine," if someone pushes you hard enough. Both are eventually going to require you to come clean about whom or Whom you love. You can't get out of the religious implications of a) by switching to b). I will track you down!

2) The things we can discuss in purely secular terms aren't the things we're really fighting over. For this, I'll go to the wall--I think this is a basic, obvious, and important truth about contemporary American politics.

Think of it this way: Recently we've seen a lot of fairly pathetic attempts to argue that socialism plus legal abortion is America's best hope of reducing the abortion rate. (Of over a million a year, just by the way.) This is an attempt to circumvent first-things politics in favor of we-can-all-agree-that politics.

And yet... would anyone accept this if the issue were child abuse? Would anyone really say, "Well, we all want to reduce child abuse, and I have this study saying that laws against child abuse don't actually prevent it, whereas rich people [a) beat their children less or b) don't get written up by CFS as often] so really we need to focus on the economy, and forget about the child abuse laws!"?

Or... work with me here... would your views of the underlying issues maybe, a little bit, affect your judgments both of the evidence about expedience vs. moral-legislation and of the relative importance of expedience vs. moral-legislation? In other words, I'm pretty sure you'd be both more skeptical that the expedience argument was true, and more skeptical that it was the best way to address child abuse.

So yeah: No matter how hard you try to avoid moral politics, it just keeps happening.

3) Therefore, make your political/moral/ethical points as intensely as possible, even when that requires sectarian language. This is another place where my initial post was really weak. I basically said, "Use sectarian language when it will work, and not when it won't!" This is the reverse of the Sorites Paradox problem faced by my interlocutors.

Basically many of them say, "You can use sectarian arguments, but only when there could maybe be secular reasons in there somewhere." But who decides which reasons are sufficiently secular--and why?

If I can dredge up one atheist who thinks we need to keep "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance because it reminds us to be humble, even though (let's say; I'm making this up) 99% of the people who want the phrase in the Pledge are God-fearin' believers... is this an acceptable public-square sectarian argument? How many atheists do I have to convince of any particular position (from "gay marriage is an oxymoron" to--what should be far more controversial--"human nature has no history") before it's sufficiently secular? How many atheists before it's Febreezed?

And which sects and anti-sects are sufficiently far apart? If a Cat'lick and a Prot agree on something, is that no longer sectarian? What about a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim? How close to "...walk into a bar" territory do we have to get before an argument is considered broadly-enough-accepted?

(Does it matter if the Catholic is Camille Paglia, the Jew is Naomi Wolf, and the Muslim is Irshad Manji? Because I bet I could get that lot to agree to some whacked-out things.)

If it's, "I know it when I see it," well that's fair enough, but it's hard for me when I see something different. If you think "nature" or whatever is a Jesus word that contaminates your pristine politics, I really need you to argue for that (and try to convince me on my ground from your premises, the same way I'm doing from my side) and not just assert that I'm out of bounds for saying the taboo word.

I need you to tell me what makes your abstractions boringly obvious and mine scarily sectarian, and so far, no argument I've seen has convinced me that this can be settled a) without reference to metaphysical beliefs or b) faster than we'd settle things if you just let me argue politics in whatever way comes naturally.

This is an especially knotty problem for my opponents because my whole claim is that our culture conditions us to find some claims obvious and other claims risible, and those divisions don't match up well with the truth. But I'm going to deal with the cultural-blinders problem in a moment, and tackle the parallel problem in my own position first.

In my first post, it sounded like I was basically saying, "You should only use sectarian arguments if they'll be convincing to people outside your sect!" This is an obviously silly thing to say to people who lack the Second Sight. It would be better to say that you should seek to express your beliefs in ways which should be, or maybe which you might expect to be, compelling outside your sect. (In other words, yes, I should've been more hardcore about the fact that sectarian arguments are valid.)

Pretty obviously, this is as true for atheists as for believers. The most difficult, but maybe also the most fruitful, way to do this would be to seek places where what you love matches up with what your opponent loves, and work from this shared beloved to a consensus on what that love requires.

IF MEN NO LONGER KNOW WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING AT, THERE MAY BE OTHER UNICORNS IN THE WORLD YET--UNKNOWN, AND GLAD OF IT. My whole point here, I think, is that what is controversial is not some kind of objective fixed point. Different things are controversial at different times. If I can't tell natural law from "let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel," does that really mean we have to ditch the concept of human nature entirely?

(I use that example for two reasons: a) I really can't fathom natural law, as a thing, and generally think it assumes way too much cultural consensus on teleology to be useful for us; and b) I agree with the Straussian critique that modernity is defined by the loss of a belief in a teleology of the natural world, and therefore loss of the belief in human nature--pretty sure this is coming from Natural Rights, Natural Right, though it's been over a decade since I read it--and you can't go home again, and that's bad. In other words, "human nature" is a concept I find both necessary and deeply problematic. It's one place where I find it really hard to negotiate the tensions between contingent, changing culture, and unchanging truths.)

Here, let me try this another way, a story I've told before: Before I became Catholic I went on a trip to Italy with my high school's Latin class. One of my more striking memories from that trip is of a church with a huge statue of Saint Sebastian stretched out across the ceiling of the church. Like seriously, you look up, and the guy's practically dripping blood in your face.

And I was revolted. In fact, all depictions of St. Sebastion repelled me. They all seemed so fetishistic, so much in love with suffering, so intensely what I was trying to escape in myself. ("Relativism means never having to say you're sorry.") I just literally could not see a St. Sebastian as artistically valid or interesting; my only response was rejection.

That changed after I converted. I started noticing St. Sebastians which were genuinely sublime. Not all of them, obviously; but it was an iconography which had been opened up to me. Or I had been opened up to it.

There are a lot of different possible interpretations of this change.

You could say that a work of art which requires the viewer to be Catholic already is a smaller work of art than one which commands a more universal audience.

You could say that I should've been open to more kinds of beauty and sublimity before I converted.

You could say that I should've become a Christian sooner.

(You could say that there might be a tradeoff between universality and intensity, which would make the first possible interpretation perhaps less helpful.)

But I think unless you take the first interpretation wholly uncolored by the others, you should be able to recognize that there's a place for rhetoric--political imagery, and political reasons--which may attract some outsiders and repel others, but which is explicitly embedded in a particular and controversial religious tradition.

I THINK I'VE GOT THE ALIAS--ALIAS!--THAT YOU'VE BEEN LIVING UNDER, GLORIA: This is a minor point, but maybe it's worth saying: If you get people to stop talking about the sectarian reasons for their moral and ethical beliefs, you won't actually cauterize their faith. You'll just force all of us--atheists, believers, croyantes-on-cold-nights--to hedge and fudge and talk around what we really mean to say.

Think about the bad-faith accusations in this claim:
“The idea here is to strengthen Jewish identity, but you can’t do it in an open way because you run afoul of the law,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a critic of Hebrew charter schools. “So you end up having rabbis and Jewish educators involved, and in all probability promoting Jewish commitment is exactly what they are looking to do, but they can’t do it openly. It simply will not work.”

(from here)
Ask yourself whether you want all our politics to be conducted in a kind of bubble-wrapped Kremlinology, where no one can say what he really thinks or why. Ask yourself whether that's really showing respect for one's fellow citizens.

IT NEVER RAINS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: Finally, I want to address this
America was founded on the modern liberal ideals of not delegitimizing entry points into the public debate, so to appoint yourself the determinor of what starting points are too “banal” to count isn’t just illiberal but anti-American in the most essential way.

just because it hits on one of my pet obsessions. (All my pets are obsessions.)

I think the basic mistake here is thinking that national character is determined by traits, not tensions. In my view one thing which typifies the American character is the problem of how to negotiate religion vs. politics... not one particular proposed solution to that problem. Jonathan Edwards, "The Minister's Black Veil," "Oh Freedom," and Lincoln's second Inaugural are as American as the Transcendentalists, the libertarians, and (I have to put something awesome on this side of the ledger) Invisible Man. If that means I have to accept that pop-Rawlsianism is also as American as... things that don't suck... well, okay, so be it.

And on that irenic note I will close! Fight more in my email inbox!
EDUCATION IN REVERSE: If you were in high school when I was in high school (i.e. exactly in between these two videos), it's really weird to compare the Golden Age, Sunrise on Pluto retro-futurism of this 1982 B-52s video with its dystopian/utopian retro-retro-futurist 2007 successor. I really like both of them, but the similar tropes and production values make the mood dissonance impossible to ignore.
AND IF I BUILT THIS FORTRESS AROUND YOUR HEARTH: Helen Rittelmeyer turns her politics-as-tribalism shtik, with which I usually disagree (maybe just because I'm too busy trying to build my own tribe from materials I find at home?), into a series of terrific insights, of which this
I can imagine a world in which fatherhood (or motherhood) is simply a matter of love and tenderness, but do we really want to relieve parents of the burden of leadership?

is the center. (Although the footnote is the best part.)

Go, read!

(And hey, be grateful I didn't title this post, "A Woman So Hearthless"!)
After we had been playing and jamming for three or four hours, I said, "Elvis, I want to ask you one thing before we leave. This is on my mind, and I’d just like to know. If you died, do you think you’d go to heaven or hell?" And his eyes got real big, and he looked at me, and he said, "Jerry Lee, don’t you ever ask me that again."
--Jerry Lee Lewis

Saturday, January 24, 2009

IT'S THE FEAST DAY OF ST. FRANCIS DE SALES, patron of writers and journalists! A good day to ask for his prayers for your favorite (...and least favorite) ink-stained wretches.
THE FLOORS ARE THERE TO WALK OVER, THE WALLS ARE THERE TO CLIMB: Movie reviews. My Netflix had a theme again, as I watched Brief Encounter immediately followed by The Squid and the Whale--a double dose of domestic despair.

Brief Encounter was--unexpectedly--harder to watch. It's an adultery drama from 1945, dir. David Lean. The lead actress, Celia Johnson, is pretty excellent, although to be honest all she's asked to do is stare at the camera with a look of repressed misery. But I loved her huge-eyed, oddly lumpy and jawy face. She looked raw.

None of the other actors struck me at all, though the final scene was very poignant.

My main problem, watching the movie, I think was a culture-clash problem. I was strongly reminded of the Chris Ware line from Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy on Earth--
But with the inevitable forward march of progress
come new ways of hiding things,
and new things to hide.

Because we lie to ourselves differently now, it was easy to feel that the narrator of Brief Encounter was being willful and stupid to a degree and in a way which I found totally unsympathetic. Her self-deception tricks felt alien to me, and so it was hard to feel like I was implicated in her actions. I kept thinking of the New X-Men issue "Some Angels Falling," which showed the same stages of an affair in a way which struck me as less mannered (though obviously even more genre-bound!), more queasily familiar, and therefore more powerful, more of an indictment, a plot in which I was much more complicit. (This might also be related in some way to my reaction to The Ring as vs. Ringu--?)

I liked the heavy-handed use of Rachmaninoff, though I can see how someone else might find it soggy.

The Squid and the Whale I found completely compelling and watchable, despite the fact that it's basically about four truly horrible and/or wretched people, in large part because their particular varieties of horribleness did feel so familiar. The teenager, especially, was skin-crawlingly close to home.

It's basically a soapier version of (some aspects of) Elizabeth Marquardt's Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, which you should read, translated directly onto the screen. There were occasional plot elements I found overdone (although for all I know they're taken from life--that doesn't get you a pass) but overall yeah, I'd recommend this.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

SOUL OF A NEW MACHINE: Here is an amazing video--the cheap, reductive slogan would be, "Blade Runner via the black Atlantic." It's an android auction as scored by the Fugees. It's smart and hard and everything you, as a devotee of Octavia Butler and Kanye West, might've hoped for... only more. I mean for real, are you kidding me--if you think about how to convince other people of your personhood, and if you worry that no one will listen when you try to make futures which know the past without loving it or assuming it ... this is for you. It bends gender and genre.

But for real, it's just phenomenal. Metropolis plus racial and sexual politics plus incredible angular dancing plus... look, why are you still here? Go to the YouTube link, before I beat you with a bat.
MARTY LEDERMAN TO JOIN THE OFFICE OF LEGAL COUNSEL. This is why I truly do hope that Barack Obama will in at least some ways bring this country back into accordance with Catholic teaching. Prof. Lederman is an honorable man and, if you pray, he needs your prayers.
Where do you watch the blog?
I'm not telling you, I'm asking you....

Amy Welborn says a lot of good, provocative things, although I disagree on at least two points: 1) Obviously I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is more right about hip-hop culture than Juan Williams (on the one hand, I've already heard more than one anecdote about kids essentially pulling up their pants because of Obama; on the other hand, how old and/or obsessive do you have to be to remember the slogan, "Clean for Gene"?), and

2) I really do think America's "identity crisis" is a huge deal--for us, and for the people we bomb.

Culture11 Confabulum: James Poulos shares my deep dysPepsia. Yes, you can indulge your consumerist whims! (The weirdest, for me, is that the Pepsibama banners replaced the Union Station American-history-by-decades banners. Have you noticed that Washington, DC, is an actual place, and not merely a stage for your rose-petaled commercial Ascension?)

Interestingly, I just read someone talking about how great it felt to be watching the TV all day for an event which wasn't tragic. All I can say is, I think inaugurations in this our bad age are either tragic or horrific. And after a horrific presidency, I truly hope Barack Obama's inauguration proves tragic. It's the very best I can imagine.

More, and with real hope, in the next post.
WORTH IT SOLELY FOR THE UNCANNY X-MEN SUMMARY. I can't tell you how many people have lectured me on my own oppression; or attempted to gain street cred by poking my bruises. Just... you know... in case you were wondering if I'm bitter.
YOU LOSE YOUR GRIP/AND THEN YOU SLIP/INTO THE MASTERPIECE. Conservative aesthetics; and why you should be grateful to be one of the gouged-out sculptures of God.

I guess they won't
exchange the gifts
that you were meant to keep....

Sunday, January 18, 2009

...AND HANDED THEM OVER TO THE SECULAR ARM: The comments section to this post, specifically Elizabeth Crum's use of the term "natural," reminded me of something I've wanted to write about for a while now--the fact that there's no such thing as a fully secular political argument.

Political arguments are about what is just, what is good, what is honorable, what is natural, and what is sacred. (They sometimes pretend to be about what is efficient or what is safe, but in order to rank efficiency and safety highest you must already have made a judgment about the relative ranking of the just and the good.) Those terms might seem like they're arranged in order from least to most religious, but I think really they're only arranged in order from least to most obviously religious given current philosophical mores. Even the most-neutral term, justice, is claimed by groups ranging from the American Center for Law and Justice to Jews for Justice to the Institute for Justice--these seem like groups working from obviously divergent traditions of meaning, obviously divergent definitions of the word "justice." More.

(I am reminded of the Yale man who leapt onto a table in Commons, at the height of the Panther trials, and yelled, "Justice to the Black Panthers! Death to the Black Panthers!" If ever a word was double-edged....)

What gives our words meaning?* This is, at heart, a religious question; a question of aesthetics, of whom or Whom we love.

*Yes, this is that same link I always give you. If I could think of a better way to say it, I would.

If we discard philosophical naivete, then, we can only argue that we should use the arguments most likely to be understood across a broad range of religious/reaction-against-religion-ous (sorry!) traditions. I see three reasons to support this claim, in increasing order of importance: social comity, good manners, and rhetorical effectiveness.

One of the central features of the American project is its need to simultaneously acknowledge, give meaning to, and mitigate the tragedies inherent in our status as an immigrant nation. Casting a broad rhetorical net is part of how we bring people into the American story. It's part of how we try to assimilate in both directions--immigrants changing America, even as they're changed by America. So social comity is a big deal here.

Good manners, even more important. It's uncouth to exclude someone just because you can--just because your clique has the numbers in the Homecoming Queen vote.

But rhetorical effectiveness is the most important reason to seek seemingly-neutral political rhetoric. And therefore, when sectarian rhetoric can be made so sublime that its appeal breaks over the banks of its sect, and washes across people from many other and contrary traditions, do it--this is the basic, boring lesson of the Rev. King's religious rhetoric.

The upshot: 1) "It's the right thing to do" is not a neutral statement. All virtue-words are given content by a religious tradition, a philosophical tradition, or (this is almost always the case nowadays) both. And since philosophy at its best takes part in the same eros as religion, suggesting that only the "non-religious" philosophy is valid in the public square will only make our discourse banal.

2) "Civil religion" which changes no minds and touches no hearts = stupid and useless. It's tapioca. Spit it out therefore, and seek sublime religious rhetoric of the kind which can awaken undiscovered longings even in the breast of a hardcore secularist.

3) To combine both of the above points: Neutral is boring. Neutral is banal. Neutral is also impossible, since even if you and I agree on the most efficient means of securing physical satisfaction (good luck with that!) we disagree on when, how, and whether justice, liberty, mercy, loyalty (which loyalties?), family, or sublimity should trump efficient satisfaction of wants.

In short, "You need to use secular arguments!" is bad philosophy and we should stop saying it. Show me pictures so I understand what your words mean. Don't pretend we share compatible traditions of justice or freedom or equality or happiness. And I'd rather be accommodated than implicitly excluded... but I'd rather be wooed than accommodated.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

IT'S THE FEAST OF SAINT ANTHONY. There are lots of paintings; I really like Sassetta's weird, dreamlike 15th-century one, and de Zurbarán's, which I describe here.
MINIMAL MOVIE POSTERS. Man these are awesome. My favorites of the featured posters are the Indy and Deer Hunter ones. Via... PoMoCon, I think.
The young officer bowed with easy politeness. Being strong, he was graceful in his every movement.
--Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

Friday, January 16, 2009

KITCHEN ADVENTURES: BLESS THIS MESS. A sandwich of things mostly on sale.

How-to: Set the oven to 375.

Take a roll. Cut in in half crosswise, then cut the halves in half lengthwise. (This is not as hard as it sounds. Just do what you need to do to make two smaller rolls, then cut those smaller rolls so you can fill them.)

Scoop out the flesh of an avocado. Chop up some kind of hot pepper. (I used a fairly large Mexican thing which was pale green, and hotter than your average jalapeno but definitely not on the level of a habanero.) Cut the kernels off a cob of sweet corn. Mix all of that up with a fork, mashing the avocado.

Slice a sweet onion.

Spread out two sheets of aluminum foil. Put the bottom half of one roll-half on each sheet. Spoon the avocado mixture onto the bread until it's all divided up. Top with the sweet onion, and then a slice of munster cheese, and then some cayenne pepper, and then the top halves of the roll. Wrap all that in foil and bake for 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven and plant your face in the dish.

Verdict: This was so great! Incredibly messy to eat--even messier than most of these toasted-cheese sandwiches I do--but absolutely delicious. I was worried that the roll would be too bready, and do keep that in mind; also worried that I would miss cilantro. But in the end this was just an immensely tasty and satisfying sandwich.
SO THE ECONOMY IS TANKING. I HAVE AN AWESOME IDEA!: Overlawyered has rounded up an amazing, heartbreaking bunch of links on the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, a.k.a. the I Hate Small Businesses and Also Children (But Did You Know I Love Unintended Consequences?) Act. This expansion of regulation will hurt families, entrepreneurs, and--in a twist I hadn't anticipated, but which made sense as soon as it was explained--ethnic costumers like the people who make powwow costumes.
"DEFINING THE RELATIONSHIP": My new piece at Inside Catholic. Quick summary: "Do you have a personal relationship with God?" is a reductive and kind of cloyingly Hallmark question; but it might still help us understand times when we're angry at God, when we feel abandoned by God, and when we feel an ironic distance from God.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

GONZO: I'd like to try this without the balloon!
KERMIT: Try what? Plummeting?
GONZO: Yeah!

--I aspire to be the Janis, but really I'm the Gonzo at best....

Monday, January 12, 2009

THE STREET OF CROCODILES, BRUNO SCHULZ: ...Polish interwar surrealism, I guess? Hard to describe. Very episodic. Schulz has the kind of lush, hothouse prose I associate with certain fantasy authors--Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, that kind of thing--and the book is basically a series of bizarre, creepy, sad things happening in a small Polish town with a commercial quarter. I found it so episodic that it had a hard time keeping my attention, but I'd accept the judgment that this is my problem, not the book's.

I will say that there's a bit where the mad father turns into a cockroach, which effectively proves that having one's father turn into a cockroach would be much more disturbing than merely turning into a cockroach oneself. So if anyone ever asks you which one you'd rather, you know what to tell them.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Narrator: You are entering the realm which is unusual. Maybe it's magic or contains some kind of monster. The second one. Prepare to enter... The Scary Door. Please send a man 'round back and pick up Clyde Smith, a professional gambler who's about to have an unfortunate accident.

Clyde Smith: [Smith is run over by a car, then awakes in a casino. He plays the slot machine and wins] Ha-ha-ha! A casino where I'm winning? That car must've killed me. I must be in heaven!

[wins again]

Clyde Smith: A casino where I always win. That's boring. I must really be... in HELL!

--Futurama (it then does a shout-out to "Gremlin on the Wing"! Love.)

Monday, January 05, 2009

"DOMESTIC DISTURBANCES": I have an article up at the American Spectator. It was supposed to be a wide-ranging look at the marriage movement as it stands now; it ended up as a bizarre little piece mostly given over to an interview on donor conception with the brilliant Elizabeth Marquardt.
UTILITARIAN UNIVERSALISM: The final paragraph of this article makes me wonder: If we learned that people were more polite, or more conscientious about dental hygiene, after listening to Mozart, would we then say that music exists because it makes us nice and clean?

...I mean, would we say it without feeling gross?

Of course, the particular measurements by which these studies find that "religion" promotes self-control may suggest that we have tamed the lion: I can't imagine Catherine of Siena browsing the Health section of her favorite magazine for tips on nutrition. And I'm thinking the kind of self-control required to wear a seat belt and the kind of devoted submission required to accept martyrdom are different not merely in degree but in kind. For some people they may even be directly opposed.
"How delightful and happy is the form of existence which you ladies have chosen. How beautiful and simple is the truth which is revealed by your lives. And with what mastery, with what precision you are performing your task. If, forgetting the respect due to the Creator, I were to attempt a criticism of creation, I would say 'Less matter, more form!' Ah, what relief it would be for the world to lose some of its contents. More modesty in aspirations, more sobriety in claims, Gentlemen Demiurges, and the world would be more perfect!" my father exclaimed, while his hands released Pauline's white calf from the prison of her stocking.
--The Street of Crocodiles

Via... Sparrow Fallen, maybe?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

We assembled again around the table, the shop assistants rubbed their hands, red from the cold, and the prose of their conversation suddenly revealed a full-grown day, a gray and empty Tuesday, a day without tradition and without a face. But it was only when a dish appeared on the table containing two large fish in jelly lying side by side, head-to-tail, like a sign of the zodiac, that we recognized in them the coat of arms of that day, the calendar emblem of the nameless Tuesday: we shared it out quickly among ourselves, thankful that the day had at last achieved an identity.
--Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles, tr. Celina Wieniewska

Friday, January 02, 2009

CHYPRE AT THE GATES OF DAWN*: In which I gush all over Perfumes: The Guide.

*What were you expecting? "Scents and Sensibility"?
AND MY USUAL PLEA FOR "A CIRCLE IN THE FIRE": Thread for nominating "the best short stories." I do my usual shtik. But I'd be interested not only in you all's nominations, but also your theories about why certain stories are great and/or popular, and why certain genres and media (comics but not movies, for example) gravitate to or at least accommodate the short story.

Best books read (nonfiction): Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture, Frederick Roden
The Letters of Abelard and Heloise/Heloise and Abelard, Etienne Gilson
I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, Francis J. Spufford
Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia (more)
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon

Best books read (real books): The Little Friend, Donna Tartt--I'm not sure what I can say about this other than, READ IT NOW, since even discussing its general thrust and genre would be spoilerous. But I can tell you it is a terrific portrayal of childhood; it's in some ways the opposite of The Secret History, and less addictive but just as accomplished; the ending is better, the prose is just as good (less urgent, more composed); basically this is an amazing book, part The Plague, part A High Wind in Jamaica, but mostly sui generis. If you liked TSH you owe this to yourself, but even if you didn't like it, this one is different enough that you should check it out.
Cards of Identity, Nigel Dennis
Ladies Almanack, Djuna Barnes
Penthesilea, Heinrich von Kleist
Earthquake Weather, Tim Powers--sequel to both Expiration Date and (the terrific) Last Call; the terrible gifts of the god Dionysos, Powers's usual fantasy of salvage deployed in the service of placing America in mythic tradition. Dark, painful, redemptive and expiatory... and featuring one of Powers's best characters, Cody, certainly my favorite of his women.

Best movies watched for the first time: Ringu
Tokyo Godfathers
Shock Treatment
The Way Things Go

Best blog posts (six, not five, as is traditional):
A ridiculously long post on conservatism, complicity, and things that aren't Godel--basically my position statement at the moment
How to Make Your Child a Gay Activist
Skirting the Issues (my review of the Shakespeare Theatre's all-male Romeo and Juliet)
Resurrected words battle zombie words (ridiculous, ragged post about language, leadership, philosophy, and why our political rhetoric fails so epically)
The best horror anthology never made (with bonus theology!)
Mixing memory and desire: Notes from my Theology on Tap presentation (about gay Catholic whatnot)

Best things I wrote (nonfiction, non-blog): "Theology of the Body in Pain" (on torture)
"The Weakerthans: Liturgy of the Other Hours"
"Tainted Love" (on Heloise and Abelard--see link above)
"When I Was Cruel" (review of Alan Moore's Small Killing)
"The Serenity Player" (review of Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game)
...The fragrance is a delicious Tabu-like oriental, whose claim to be a masculine is based entirely on its transience. A man is a woman consisting entirely of top notes.
--Luca Turin reviewing Old Spice, in Luca Turin and Tina Sanchez, Perfume: The Guide