two apologies and a bleg

Apology One: I wrote a post a while back about hating time-travel stories, and almost immediately after I did so I started thinking of exceptions to that rule. I mean, I’ve been praising Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself to the skies and it’s a time-travel story, though it’s also many other things. I thought of another example, and then another, and soon enough it became obvious to me that I don’t hate time-travel stories at all. I was just annoyed by one that I thought went wrong, largely because it reminded me of several others that I thought went wrong in very similar ways. So that was a classic case of rash blogging. I am truly sorry to writers and readers of time-travel stories, and I humbly repent and pledge amendment of life.

Apology Two: In a similarly fractious mood, I once wrote a screed against podcasts. But I have not given up on my search for podcasts — in part because I think the medium has so much promise — and since I wrote that post have listened to a whole bunch of them, and have developed affection for a few. So let me again repent of the extremity of my language and the coarseness of my reactions.

In another post, I’ll do some capsule reviews of the podcasts I’ve been listening to in the past year, but for now I have, as we academics say, a comment and a question.

The comment is that the one kind of podcast I absolutely cannot abide is the most common kind: two dudes talking. Or three dudes, or three women, or any combination of genders — it’s the chatting-in-front-of-a-microphone that drives me nuts. The other day I tried listening to Control-Walt-Delete, but when Walt Mossberg and Nilay Patel spent the first five minutes discussing what the sports teams of the schools they had attended were called, I said Finis, done, I’m outta here. No, I like podcasts that are professionally edited, scripted, festooned with appropriate music, crafted into some kind of coherent presentation. Podcasts like that seem respectful to the listener, wanting to engage my attention and reward it.

But one thing I’ve noticed is that the podcasts I know that do that best are relentlessly liberal in their political and social orientation. Which is not surprising, given that most of our media are likewise liberal. And I don’t even mean that as a criticism: there is a significant liberal element to my own political makeup, and if you want to know why that is, just listen to this episode of the Criminal podcast. Criminal in general is a good example of the kind of podcast I like, from its sound design and apt use of music to its strong storytelling. Even the website is artfully designed.

Which leads me to my Bleg: Does anyone know of similarly well-crafted, artful podcasts made by conservatives or Christians? I have not yet found a single one. Podcasts by conservatives and Christians tend to be either bare-bones — two dudes talking, or one dude talking with maybe a brief musical intro and outro — or schmaltzily over-produced. (Just Christians in that second category.) Anyone know of any exceptions to this judgment? I suspect that there’s an unbridgeable gulf of style here, but I’d like to be proved wrong.

UPDATE: Despite the quite clear statements I make above to the effect that (a) I really, really dislike dudes-talking podcasts and (b) I am not asking about dude-talking podcasts but about professionally produced podcasts, people keep writing on Twitter and email to say “Hey, here’s a dudes-talking podcast that you might like.” Sigh.

a public amateur’s story

There is so much that’s wonderful about Sara Hendren’s talk here that I can’t summarize it — and wouldn’t if I could. Please just watch it, and watch to the end, because in the last few minutes of the talk things come together in ways that will be unexpected to those who don’t know Sara. Also be sure to check out Abler.

One of Sara’s models is the artist Claire Pentecost, who sees herself as a public amateur:

One of the things I’m attached to is learning. And one of the models I’ve developed theoretically is that of the artist as the public amateur. Not the public intellectual, which is usually a position of mastery and critique, but the public amateur, a position of inquiry and experimentation. The amateur is the learner who is motivated by love or by personal attachment, and in this case, who consents to learn in public so that the very conditions of knowledge production can be interrogated. The public amateur takes the initiative to question something in the province of a discipline in which she is not conventionally qualified, acquires knowledge through unofficial means, and assumes the authority to offer interpretations of that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.

Public amateurs can have exceptional social value, not least because they dare to question experts who want to remain unquestioned simply by virtue of accredited expertise; public amateurs don’t take “Trust me, I know what I’m doing” as an adequate self-justification. But perhaps the greatest contribution public amateurs make to society arises from their insistence — it’s a kind of compulsion for them — on putting together ideas and experiences that the atomizing, specializing forces of our culture try to keep in neatly demarcated compartments. This is how an artist and art historian ends up teaching at an engineering school.

There are two traits that, if you wish to be a public amateur, you simply cannot afford to possess. You can’t insist on having a plan and sticking with it, and you can’t be afraid of making mistakes. If you’re the sort of person whose ducks must always be in a neat, clean row, the life of the public amateur is not for you. But as the personal story Sara tells near the end of her talk indicates, sometimes life has a way of scrambling all your ducks. When that happens, you can rage vainly against it; or you can do what Sara did.

more on social structures and imaginative work

A couple of follow-ups on yesterday’s oddball rantish thing on the social and economic structures that enable or disable genuine imagination:

First, a really thoughtful response from my friend Bryan McGraw, who can provide a political philosopher’s take on these issues. Please read it all, but here’s an excerpt:

No doubt lots of folks on the political and cultural Left will read this (or see pithily tweeted link) and cheer. See, they’ll say, the universities are being “corporatized” and here’s another casualty! Ah, but I think Alan’s point is meant to cut more deeply than that, because what our libertarian economists and socialist sociologists share is a deep, deep commitment to a modern (and post-modern) conception of human moral psychology that reduces human beings to calculating preference machines (whether those preferences emerge out of appetites, culture, whatever makes for many of our differences, but that they rule us is widely held). And since we can see “through” human beings that way, we can organize them (or allow them to organize themselves) in some unitary and unified way. That’s why we can see what looks superficially like a paradox – a society that is both more libertine (sexual ethics limited only by consent) and puritanical (don’t smoke!) – is, in fact, not and why there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remake every institution and range of human activity in the image of, well, something or someone.

In a well-known passage, C. S. Lewis writes, “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.” I think (I hope) that later ages will see almost all of today’s political thought as wrapped up in the unquestioned and even unconfronted assumption that people are simply “calculating preference machines.”

More directly to the point of my article, while Eisenhower may have wanted us to distrust the “military-industrial complex” because of its power to involve private industry in policy-making, and while that is a very important warning indeed, when government, mega-industry, and the university system all become entangled beyond the possibility of disentanglement, the flow of influence runs in all directions, but especially from the richer to the less-rich — from the patrons to the patronized. And that puts universities in the position of being shaped far more than they shape; and that, in turn, puts the artists and writers who work for the university in an even more dependent position. This worries me.

I think I’ll have more to say about Bryan’s smart response, but for now just one note: I do think the anti-capitalist left is likely to find something to cheer in my post; they and I have a good deal in common. My politics are probably too incoherent to describe, but one might say that they are sorta kinda paleo-conservative green-communitarian, emphasizing the need to renew and strengthen the institutions (especially family and local community, and schools insofar as they grow out of family and local community) that mediate between the individual and the nation-state, for the better care of people and the created order. And since the nation-state that is growing and growing and growing in power is an international-capitalist one, I end up agreeing with the left that that nation-state’s dominance is probably our largest single political problem. When I think about politics, I have infinitely more sympathy for a left-anarchist like David Graeber than I do for any National Greatness conservatism. (Bryan, set me straight if I’m leaving the true path here.)

Second: One of the reasons I want to make an argument for regenerating genuine imagination, genuine creativity, is that “imagination” and “creativity” and today almost totally co-opted by scenes like this — the happy-clappy “super excited” artificially-generated enthusiasm of the TED world that Benjamin Bratton has called, in one of the most apt phrases of the twenty-first century, “middlebrow megachurch infotainment”. If that’s what imagination and creativity are all about, may God save us all from them.

the broken-glass mystery

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke

What you see above is the portrait of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, painted in 1545 by Gerlach Flicke. It’s now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. 

My friend Betsy Childs was recently looking at this picture and noticed something curious: tiny pieces of broken glass, or perhaps chipped glass-coating, in the windows behind Cranmer. Here’s a close-up: 


(You can see a high resolution version of the painting here.) Now, this painting is a very detailed one. For instance, Cranmer is holding a copy of the letters of St. Paul and one of the books on the table is Augustine’s On Faith and Works, which together illustrate Cranmer’s commitment to the core Reformation principle of justification by faith. Other elements of the painting have obviously been executed with great care but yield no clear meaning. For instance, what are we to make of the carving on the left — right next to the little strip of paper giving the date of the painting and Cranmer’s age — featuring a naked woman whose private parts are obscured by the face of some strange beast? (The Whore of Babylon, perhaps, against whom Cranmer contended? But why in a carving, and why there?) 

But what might the broken or chipped glass mean? Betsy wondered if I knew, and I don’t have even a guess. I checked Diarmaid MacCulloch’s magisterial biography of Cranmer, and while he discusses this painting at some length (pages 338-42), he doesn’t say anything about the glass. 

So Betsy wrote to the National Portrait Gallery. One of the curators there responded that the problematic glass was only discovered when the painting underwent restoration in the 1990s, and that it is definitely part of the original composition — but they don’t know what it means either. “Artists and patrons at this time had a very refined symbolic vocabulary, much of which has been lost to modern scholars. The painting is laden with Cranmer’s personal iconography and this device could relate to that. Alternatively, there might be an as-yet undiscovered theological interpretation, or a reference to Cranmer’s own works.” 

So: a mystery! Anyone have any guesses? 

Dear Mr. Watterson

The one great impression I have from this much-lauded film — which I just got around to watching — is how imperceptive, and even incurious, it is about what makes Calvin and Hobbes the best of its genre. There are a good many vague mumbles about its being well-drawn and well-told, and imaginative, and “intimate” (whatever that means), and so on and so forth.

The film doesn’t seem to know what it’s about: the history of cartooning? The death of newspapers? Chagrin Falls, Ohio? The promise and peril of marketing?

So let’s try to get a grip on the question of the strip’s greatness. Calvin and Hobbes is about finding freedom within structures of constraint, and being able to do so through the strength that comes from knowing that you are unconditionally loved and perfectly understood, even, or perhaps especially, when the one who understands you perfectly sees your flaws and foibles as well as your charms and virtues.

The strip is therefore concerned with the interaction of complex forces that are always in tension with one another, which requires a standard visual style that is highly energetic and the creation of multiple secondary visual styles in order to illuminate particular points at which those forces intersect.

That’s enough to get us started, I think.

smileys, emoticons, typewriter art

I hate to be a party pooper — no, really: I hate it — but I just don’t think Levi Stahl has found an emoticon in a seventeenth-century poem — nor, for that matter, that Jennifer 8. Lee found one from 1862.

About Stahl and Robert Herrick. If we were really serious about finding out whether Robert Herrick had used an emoticon, we’d look for his manuscripts — since we could never be sure that his printers had carried out his wishes accurately, especially in those days of highly variable printing practices. But those manuscripts, I think, are not available.

The next step would be to look online for a facsimile of the first, or at least a very early, edition, and while Google Books has just such a thing, it is not searchable. So, being the lazy guy that I am, I looked for nineteenth-century editions, and in the one I came across, there are no parentheses and hence no emoticon:

So it’s possible, I’d say likely, that the parenthesis in the poem was inserted by a modern editor. Not that parentheses weren’t used in verse in Herrick’s time — they were — but not as widely as we use them today and not in the same situations. Punctuation in general was unsettled in the seventeenth century — as unsettled as spelling: Shakespeare spelled his own name several different ways — and there were no generally accepted rules. Herrick was unlikely to have had consistent punctuational practices himself, and even if he did he couldn’t expect either his printers or his readers to share them.

So more generally, I think Stahl’s guess is ahistorical. The first emoticons seem to have been invented about thirty years ago, and are clearly the artifact of the computer age, or, more specifically, a purely digital or screen-based typewriting-only environment — because if you were printing something out before sending it, you could just grab a pen and draw a perfectly legible, friendly, not-rotated-90-degrees smiley, or frowney, or whatever, as people still do. Emoticons arose to address a problem that did not and does not exist in a paper-centric world.

And one final note: in the age between the invention of the typewriter and the transition to digital text, people certainly realized that type could make images — but they were rather more ambitious about it.

the uses of art

John Armstrong writes about art:

The idea that art’s value should be understood in therapeutic terms is not new. In fact, it is the most enduring way of thinking about art, having its roots in Aristotle’s philosophical reflections on poetry and drama. In the Poetics, Aristotle argued that tragic drama can elevate how we experience fear and pity—two emotions that help shape our experience of life. The broad implication is that the task of art is to help us flourish, to be “virtuous,” in Aristotle’s special sense of that word: that is, to be good at living, even in challenging circumstances.

This understanding of art has been in abeyance in recent decades, but it is, I believe, the only plausible way of thinking about art’s value. Other approaches, as we have seen, must tacitly assume it, even when they deny it. To consider art from a therapeutic point of view is not to abandon profundity but to embrace it and to return art to a central place in modern culture and modern life.

I would find this argument intriguing, except … “the task of art is to help us flourish”? Not a task, or even an especially important task, but the one and only?

Why do people talk this way?

As I’ve already noted, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately in the company of Bach’s music and of some of his commentators, and in Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven John Eliot Gardiner writes,

Expanding on the celebrated formulation by the fifteenth-century theorist Johannes Tinctoris – Deum delectare, Dei laudes decorare (‘To please God, to embellish the praise of God’) – Bach had defined music’s purpose in his Orgel-Büchlein as ‘For the highest God alone honour; for my neighbour that he may instruct himself from it.’ Beneath its flowery surface, we are shown the underlying didactic purpose of his collection, one close to the twin purposes of music in the Lutheran tradition: die Ehre Gottes und des Nechsten Erbauung – for giving honour to God (the standard Orthodox position) and for edifying one’s neighbour (the slant favoured by the Pietists).

Once Bach is ensconced in Leipzig his views begin to lean towards the more ‘enlightened’ formulations of musicians such as Friedrich Erhard Niedt, embracing aesthetic pleasure as well as devotion and edification. We now find him adopting in his Generalbasslehre of 1738 a different two-fold purpose of music: ‘zur Ehre Gottes und zulässiger Ergötzung des Gemüths’ – ‘for giving honour to God and for the permissible delight of the soul’. He explains, ‘And so the ultimate end or final purpose of all music … is nothing other than the praise of God and the recreation of the soul. Where this is not taken into account, then there is no true music, only a devilish bawling and droning.’

Glorification, instruction, edification, recreation — these are all valid “tasks of art,” and they vary in importance not just according to the artist, but also according to circumstance and, for that matter, according to the needs of a given recipient at a given moment. In general I may listen to Bach’s choral music to feel more fully the glory of God, and listen to the keyboard music for pleasure — but sometimes those functions are reversed, and they are always to some degree mixed.

Anybody who has read much of my writing knows that this is a recurrent theme: I deeply dislike convenient simplifications of the richness and diversity of human experiences. This is the heart of my critique of the critique of digital dualism: it leaves us with an even more limited vocabulary with which to describe what we do and think and feel. I am fond of quoting the philosopher Bernard Williams: “We suffer from a poverty of concepts.” Indeed we do. And it seems to me that we are especially conceptually poor when we talk about art and technology.

in which this Anglican intervenes in a Catholic debate

Not really on-topic for this blog, but let me say an incoherent word or five about Dana Gioia’s essay on Catholic writing today and Eve Tushnet’s response to it. Since Eve just listed her points without trying to make an argument from them, I shall follow her excellent example.

(1) I think the story that Dana tells would look a good bit different if he had considered Christian writing, rather than just Catholic writing. His focus is too narrowly on the internal struggles of the Catholic Church and not enough on the larger place of Christianity in American society. The successes of the mid-twentieth-century Catholic writers he admires were attributable in part to a culture that was generally well-disposed towards stories grounded in the Christian narrative, and it’s arguable that Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, neither of whom were usually published by Catholics, have been more admired in the past half-century among Protestants.

(2) Dana writes, in a passage more important than it might seem, “In the literary sphere, American Catholics now occupy a situation closer to that of 1900 than 1950. It is a cultural and religious identity that exists mostly in a marginalized subculture or else remains unarticulated and covert in a general culture inclined to mock or dismiss it.” Since that earlier Catholic culture was closer in time, and indeed in spiritual formation, to the great artistic works of the Catholic past (Dante, Palestrina), I’d like to pose this question: Why should we not simply think of the generation of Percy, O’Connor, Lowell et al. as a curious aberration in the history of Catholic writing in America, one we should not expect to be repeated?

(3) Eve’s response concerns itself solely with Catholic fiction, while Dana’s concerns Catholic writing. If she looked at his whole topic she might have to readjust her thoughts a bit. For instance, in relation to her thoughts about literary cultures becoming subcultures, poets have been used to that for a long time: tiny sales, small presses, little to no representation in high-circulation periodicals. Even assuming that Eve has rightly identified the Condition of Fiction Today, it’s the Permanent Condition of Poetry.

(4) Eve writes, “Telling a young Catholic writer to go have a career like Flannery O’Connor’s is like telling a young Catholic father to get a good stable union job at the Chrysler plant.” I think this is exactly wrong: O’Connor’s career is exactly the kind of career a young writer today might plausibly have. After getting her MFA she moved back in with her mother, who lived in a low-cost-of-living area and did not need her daughter to make a full-time income. Flannery could therefore devote herself to writing, corresponding with friends (through the U.S. Mail rather than through blogs and Twitter, but that’s a minor detail), and ordering books that she had delivered to her home. Gradually her career and her thought developed along their own distinctive lines, story by story and letter by letter, though she never sold many books and would have been hard-pressed to make a living wage had she lived in a big city. O’Connor ought to be the patron saint of today’s young writers. Instead they all think they have to move to Brooklyn and do everything that all the sad young literary men (and women) do.

(5) I shall now ride a hobby-horse. Eve writes,

Donna Tartt’s new novel hits almost all of Gioia’s criteria for a Catholic novel. (The exceptions: For the sacramentality of nature, substitute that of art; and the meaning of suffering is an anguished question in the book, so it isn’t presented as redemptive.) Christianity itself does not appear, but — does it have to? Anyway, I’m just going to close with the recommendation that The Goldfinch is the best thing this extraordinary (Catholic!) author has written so far.

“The sacramentality of nature” is not a Catholic (is not a Christian) idea, it is a pagan idea. The sacramentality of the sacraments is a Catholic idea. What Eve means, I think, is “nature as a means of conveying grace,” but anything from time to time can be a means of conveying grace. What makes something sacramental is the covenantal promise, by Christ himself or by the Church speaking on his behalf, that grace shall be conveyed through it.

Climbing down from my hobby-horse, I’ll adjust my hunting jacket and add this: I have been thinking for about thirty years about what it means for a work of art to be “Christian,” to have the adjective “Christian” rightly applied to it, and I have pretty much decided that it’s a useless term. Some people argue that such an artwork needs to embody, more or less explicitly, some element of Christian teaching or belief. For others it’s enough that the writer is a Christian. For still others it’s sufficient that the work contain ideas or themes that are generally consistent with some Christian teaching or belief. “Christian art” is an almost infinitely malleable wax nose. It’s not a term I use.

“Christian writer” and “Catholic writer” are scarcely better. There’s a vague uneasy general recognition that every writer who is a Catholic is not really a Catholic writer, and that many writers who were raised Catholic but have left it behind retain some significant residual Catholic sensibilities. (Re-run that sentence and replace “Catholic” with “Christian.”) I’m not sure that when we talk this way we ever really know what we mean. If writers aren’t dealing explicitly (or implicitly but strongly) with Christian themes and ideas, and sometimes even if they are, I don’t think we could ever really how much of a mark Christianity has left on them without rewinding their lives and re-raising them without a Christian upbringing, or with a very different one. I sometimes doubt whether if Flannery O’Connor had been raised a lukewarm Methodist she would have written any differently. James Joyce’s Jesuit education may not have shaped his mind as profoundly as many critics believe.

So discussions of this kind seem malformed to me, and therefore relatively fruitless. To Dana Gioia I want to say, “Let’s strip away all the peripheral questions and ask the really key one: How is the Church forming, or failing to form, its children, and how can a stronger power of formation be cultivated?” And to Eve Tushnet I want to say, “Let’s talk about why we like what we like, especially when we discern theological and spiritual resonances that are important to us as readers, however the authors happen to be placed in relation to Christianity.” Maybe if we took those routes we would be less likely to bog down in implacably foggy terminology.