Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Secret to a Happy Marriage

I've been running silent on the blog for the last week and a half because I'm going through my busy season at work: Fifteen hours yesterday. Today was "only" ten. Tomorrow my graph filled PowerPoint goes before the CMO and hopefully I have some peace of mind for a couple days.

Thus, even when I get home before bedtime, as tonight, I don't seem to have the mental wherewithall for real writing. What's my mental level? Here's a piece of dialog which just occurred in the kitchen.

MrsDarwin, "Look, a nickel. I'm rich."
Darwin, "People always told me I should marry a rich woman. Unfortunately, I misunderstood and married one who was well endowed."

"I am a pilgrim"

We just watched Pope Benedict's last address -- possibly his last public appearance ever -- at Castel Gandolfo. He spoke for less than a minute, mostly giving his heartfelt thanks to the emotional crowd gathered below his balcony, but one thing that did stand out was that he said that he is just a pilgrim on a pilgrimage. That's certainly true now -- he gets to be just a pilgrim again, a private citizen of the church, allowed to live his life without the constant scrutiny of cameras and media. Pray for us, Benedict.

We watched his address on NBCNews because they have Fr. Barron and George Weigel as commentators. Unlike when Pope John Paul II died, we don't have cable, and so will be relying on internet streaming for our coverage. I'm hoping that the WSJ will send out a news alert during the conclave when the smoke starts rising -- I'm not on Facebook for Lent, so I can't rely on the newshounds there to keep me informed.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Adopt a Cardinal

One hears a certain amount about the high-profile papabile, but many of the other cardinals toil in obscurity. Our family been praying for the conclave and all attending, but today we were able to be more specific with the help of Adopt a Cardinal. The four oldest ones and I each entered our names and email addresses and were each randomly assigned a cardinal to remember particularly during the conclave.

Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, from Nigeria, born 16.6.1936.
He's been a Cardinal since 21.10.2003 and his function is: Archbishop emeritus of Lagos, Nigeria

Karl Lehmann, from Germany, born 16.5.1936.
He's been a Cardinal since 21.2.2001 and his function is: Bishop of Mainz, Germany

Francisco Robles Ortega, from Mexico, born 2.3.1949.
He's been a Cardinal since 24.11.2007 and his function is: Archbishop of Guadalajara, Mexico

Norberto Rivera Carrera, from Mexico, born 6.6.1942.
He's been a Cardinal since 21.2.1998 and his function is: Archbishop of Mexiko (City), Mexico

Paolo Romeo, from Italy, born 20.2.1938.
He's been a Cardinal since 20.11.2010 and his function is: Archbishop of Palermo, Italy

We've taped their photos to the wall in the living room, so it's like a mini-conclave in our home.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dot's Poetry Corner

I've made a number of tactical parenting errors lately. Once, when Jack said, "Mom? Mom? Guess what, Mom? Guess what?", I thoughtlessly answered, "Chicken butt." I've lived to regret it.

The same thing happened last night. Someone was reciting, "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick."

"...And burned his butt," I replied automatically.

I haven't heard the end of that, and now that we're watching Dot's Poetry Corner, I probably never will.

Later: Once you Dot, you can't stop.

Love the use of the Humoresque here.

Still Later: My absolute favorite. Sweden, the land of horse-meat meatballs.

"Are we dead, or is this Ohio?"

Friday, February 22, 2013

Huis Clos

I went to where we keep the old school papers and mementos and dug out my translation of No Exit, to see what I'd done with the first lines. There it was under two copies of my thesis (Towards a New Theater: A Comparison of the Ideas of Jerzy Grotowski and Karol Wojtyla), a thin comb-bound book with a teal cover -- I remember picking out the cardstock from the college bindery up near the faculty offices. And there was my maiden name on the cover too, something I haven't seen in print for a long time.

Since Bearing was commenting on Gilbert's infelicitous translation of the opening of No Exit, I thought I'd put up what I'd done with the first page. My translation was so many computer eons ago that all I have is a hard copy. What a vulnerable feeling it is -- I have the only remaining copy of my translation in the world.
A room in the Second Empire style. A bronze sculpture on the mantel. 
GARCIN: (enters and looks about him): Well, here it is. 
VALET: Here it is. 
GARCIN: It's like this? 
VALET: It's like this. 
GARCIN: I... I suppose that in the end one must get used to the furniture. 
VALET: That depends on the person. 
GARCIN: Are all the rooms the same? 
VALET: What do you think? We serve Chinese and Hindus. What do you expect them to make of a Second Empire armchair? 
GARCIN: What do you expect me to make of it? Do you know who I was? (Snorts) It's not important any more. After all, I always lived with furniture I didn't like and in false situations; I loved that. An awkward situation in an awkward chair, you know? 
VALET: Then a Second Empire drawing room won't be so bad.

Here's Sartre:

GARCIN, il entre et regard autour de lui. -- Alors voilà. 
LE GARÇON. -- Voilà. 
GARCIN. -- C'est comme ça... 
LE GARÇON. -- C'est comme ça. 
GARCIN. -- Je... Je pense qu'à la longue on doit s'habituer aux meubles. 
LE GARÇON. -- Ça dépend des personnes. 
GARCIN. -- Est-ce que toutes les chambre sont pareilles? 
LE GARÇON. -- Pensez-vous. Il nous vient des Chinois, des Hindous. Qu'est-ce que vous voulez qu'ils fassent d'un fauteuil Second Empire? 
GARCIN. -- Et moi, qu'est-ce que vous voulez que j'en fasse? Savez-vous qui j'étais? Bah! ça n'a aucune importance. Après tout, je vivais toujours dans des meubles que je n'aimais pas et des situations fausses; j'adorais ça. Une situation fausse dans une salle à manger Louis-Philippe, ca ne vous dit rien? 
LE GARÇON. -- Vous verrez; dans un salon Second Empire, ça n'est pas mal non plus.

And here is Gilbert's translation of the same:
GARCIN [enters, accompanied by the Room-Valet, and glances around him]: Hm! So here we are? 
VALET: Yes, Mr. Garcin. 
GARCIN: And this is what it looks like? 
VALET: Yes. 
GARCIN: Second Empire furniture, I observe... Well, well. I dare say one gets used to it in time. 
VALET: Some do. Some don't. 
GARCIN: Are all the other rooms like this? 
VALET: How could they be? We cater for all sorts: Chinamen and Indians, for example. What use would they have for a Second Empire chair? 
GARCIN: And what use do you suppose I have for one? Do you knwo who I was? ... Oh, well, it's no great matter. And, to tell the truth, I had quite a habit of living among furniture that I didn't relish, and in false positions. I'd even come to like it. A false position in a Louis-Philippe dining-room -- you know the style? -- well, that had its points, you know. Bogus in bogus, so to speak.  
VALET: And you'll find that living in a Second Empire drawing room has its points.

Readers might be interested to know that Louis-Philippe was the king whom the young revolutionaries were protesting at the barricades in Les Miserables, in 1832. The notes in my French version say that Louis-Philippe furniture is the epitome of petty, bourgeois taste. I translated, "Une situation fausse dans une salle à manger Louis-Philippe, ca ne vous dit rien?" as "An awkward situation in an awkward chair, you know?" because neither Louis-Philippe nor Second Empire had any resonance with my college audience, or with me for that matter.

Seven Quick Takes

1. Amy Welborn has been posting photos of some of her collection of vintage holy cards. Several of these are in French, basic enough that I can read them fairly easily, through the magic of context, cognates, and two years of college-level language.

2. I would like to read more French again.

3. My senior directing project for Theater was a production of No Exit, for which I translated the script to avoid any copyright issues for which I had no funds. It was not the world's most literate translation -- I liked to stay close to the original to preserve the sense of flow of a foreign language -- but one thing I noticed quickly was that of the small number of translations I could find, none of them made use of Sartre's own phrasing, so essential in creating from the very first lines the ennui of Hell and the cyclical feel of the plot.
Garcin, il entre et regard autour de lui. -- Alors voila.
Le Garçon. -- Voila.
Garcin. -- C'est comme ça...
Le Garçon. -- C'est comme ça.
Stuart Gilbert's translation starts off:
Garcin [enters, accompanied by the Room-Valet, and glances around him]: Hm! So here we are?
Valet: Yes, Mr. Garcin.
Garcin: And this is what it looks like?
Valet: Yes.
You don't have to know French to see that Gilbert is padding here.

4. Can anyone recommend a good book on prayer? I'm finding that giving up Facebook for Lent has not been difficult at all -- the hard part is in putting my extra time to good use, and in organizing that time so that it's concentrated for prayer. Turns out I'm not very good at praying in a sustained way. I go through my day, murmuring little prayers to myself or turning my thoughts to God , but although I do it frequently, I don't maintain it. Even at night, I start saying a decade of the rosary in bed, and either fall asleep or wander off mentally before I finish. I need to practice, to develop some staying power, but right now I treat prayer like I treat exercise: I think often of the treadmill in the basement, and I ponder all the benefits that I would derive from getting on it, and I could write for hours about it -- the one thing I don't do is go down consistently and use it.

5. I've been sitting on this one because Enbrethiliel has been reading her way through the Little House books, but since she's finally reached By The Shores of Silver Lake, I can post this: scarlet fever did not make Mary Ingalls go blind.  A recent study in Pediatrics (behind a firewall) concludes that the most likely culprit was viral meningoencephalitis. According to Laura's letters, she describes Mary has having had a high fever and paralysis of one half of her face, but there was no evidence of brain damage that a bacterial infection would have been likely to inflict. Other experts dispute the meningoencephalitis diagnosis, but there is general agreement that the cause could not have been scarlet fever.

6. We're all agog here about the news that the Vestal Virgins may not have been wearing wigs after all. Janet Stephens, a Baltimore hair dresser, has deconstructed the hairstyle as presented on busts and in literature, and has managed to recreate the style on a model. Julia in particular is impressed, and has been trying to braid up her hair in the same way. History comes to life!

Melanie Bettinelli links to Janet Stephens's video demonstrating the Seni Crines, the hairstyle of the Vestals.

7. Here's a joke. Look, I laughed, okay?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

How I Write

It would be more than a little presumptuous of me to claim to be any authority on writing based on one and a half NaNoWriMo drafts, but since my 3:30 am bedtime has left me rather unfunctional today, I thought I'd talk a bit about how I how I write my installments.

The first issue I deal with is plot. In Stillwater, I'm trying to stay essentially faithful to my source, but that faithfulness is to mood and character, and not to every particular incident. So I draw on my theater experience and dig for objectives and motivations: What does each character want? How does he or she achieve that? How do these objectives clash? How do they come together? All drama is change, so how are the characters different at the end of the scene? I consider the details of my source, and look for the best way to alter them so to fit the particular story I'm telling without warping their original significance.

When I start to write, first I focus on telling the story, then I start layering on details that convey mood or character. If a line doesn't push the plot forward, illuminate character, or convey mood, pacing, or setting, I cut it out. I've had to kill several of my darlings that way, but sometimes I find that a detail or observation that was irrelevant and clunky in one segment fits perfectly into another.  Sometimes I know that I need to fit a particular line or quote in, and I need to craft the scene to let that bit flow seamlessly from what's already happened.

For me, the dramatic arc of a scene is crucial, and since I'm writing in small installments, I have to make sure that not only the story as a whole but each segment has its own rise and fall. Sometimes, as with part 30, the dinner with Rene, I have to keep writing until I reach a certain closing point, no matter how long it takes to post; sometimes, as with part 31, I find that I'm simply not going to get as far as I wanted to without killing myself, and I need to focus on a smaller incident instead of pushing through to a bigger scene. Either way, I have to find the dramatic timing of the section so that it stands as a complete incident within the context of the larger story.

I try to make the strongest character choices possible. Is it more significant if Melly mutters a line or whispers it? What if Alys turns away when she says this? On stage, distance creates tension and often an actor conveys more truth through physical action and gesture than through dialogue. I don't have those visual cues on the page, so I try to find details to convey the subtext as efficiently and elegantly as possible. The setting of the scene can often help with this: is it intimate? Is it cavernous? Cozy? Uncomfortable? Familiar or not? Does the setting reflect the character of the scene? How different will a scene between Melly and Malcolm be if I set in in the car, a place of tension, rather than on the stairs, a place of intimacy?

When a scene involves a lot of characters, plot, and idea, I find it helps me organize my ideas to write a rough draft to get everything in place before I go back and craft it to make everything hang together. As an example, here's my first rough script for the dinner with Rene, containing lines I think should be spoken by particular characters to build my scene:

Stillwater - 31

Since my readers don't have the advantage of being able to gauge a physical book, I think it's only fair to say that we're a good two-thirds through the story now. I'd really like to have this wrapped by Easter -- it hangs over my head like the sword of Damocles, ready to fall on me any evening I try to ignore it. And yes, at the end I'll reveal the secret source, I promise, and you can all see why I feel like I've bitten off more than I can chew.

For anyone weary of waiting two weeks for new installments, here's last year's finished product for your instant reading gratification. I read it over this afternoon, and... it's kinda okay, actually. Though I laugh at my own jokes, too, so take that for what you will.


Melly stood in the stairwell, her forehead pressed against the warm red glass. She could feel the heat of the August afternoon just on the other side of the pane, and she let the authentic warmth seep through her against the artificial chill of the house. Opening her hand the slightest bit, she considered the slender box she held, its robin’s egg blue velvet stained a bloody purple by the light streaming through the colored window. Alys had given it to her — pressed it on her, really, a gift too expensive to accept and too awkward to refuse.

She had gone to the cottage that morning — Friday, the day before the ball — to have the tiara fitted. After the first glow of queenship, she was beset with anxieties and inadequacies. She had a dress, and a lovely one, but that was it. Her slippers were old and scuffed, the same pair she’d worn to the past three balls. That was no matter; no one would see her feet anyway, if she could help it. Dress, tiara, slippers — that was all she had to wear to the ball. When Sophia had been queen, she had been draped with jewelry: bracelets, necklaces, earrings, brooches, tiaras. Sometimes the Spencers had rented the pieces and sometimes she had been presented with gifts before the ball. Melly had a vivid memory of the fallout from the year that Sophia had demanded emeralds and had received a conservative strand of pearls. 

It was not that she wanted to call attention to herself — far from it! After her first transport of delight at Richard’s unexpected kindness, she had been seized by the terror of being the face of the Stillwater Ball. Everyone would look at her, and scrutinize her every move, and compare her to Sophia, and judge the house on how she stood or fell. That was what weighed on Melly: now she was representing Stillwater, and she must do credit to the house, no matter how she wanted to hide behind the curtains. Who had ever heard of a Stillwater queen without jewelry? And yet Melly had none. 

Well, that wasn’t strictly true. There were her earrings, the little gold hoops she wore everyday. And there was the crucifix Rene had given her when she was confirmed. It was absolutely beautiful, a reproduction of an 18th-century rosary cross, something Rene had found at a museum store. Melly had worn it day and night until the corpus had come loose from the cross. She had put it away carefully in her little wooden box, but not carefully enough: she had wanted to take it to Alys and ask her if she could mend it, but after having turned her box, her drawers, and her room upside, Melly, through her tears, had to face the fact that she had lost her brother’s crucifix, and that she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d seen it. Her carelessness had brought its own appropriate punishment. Instead of merely asking Alys to fix her crucifix — a minor business transaction, for which Melly had been prepared to pay — she was going to have to ask if she might borrow some of Alys’s jewelry.

She told herself fiercely that she was not too proud to ask a favor. Wasn’t her whole life at Stillwater one favor after another from the Spencer family? No, it was not the begging. It was being under obligation to Alys that would rankle. Why? Sitting on her bed with her empty box in her hand, she tried to reason out why she should find it so onerous to receive anything from Alys’s hands. Alys had made the tiara, hadn’t she? Ah, but that hadn’t been specifically for Melly — it was for the Stillwater Queen, who just happened to be Melly this year. Esther had thought she would be queen when she gave Alys the commission for the crown, though deep down inside, Melly had to admit that she couldn’t imagine Esther wearing the delicate coronet. It didn’t suit her one bit. It has no shrewd angles or sharp edges. 

Nor did she really fear that Alys would refuse her. No one could doubt her generosity. She wore her wealth lightly. She was gracious and funny and talented and pleasant and easy to talk to, a “nosegay of all virtues”, as Melly remembered from studying Hamlet with Malcolm.

Malcolm. Melly’s cheeks burned. She was jealous of Alys, that was it. Pure stupid jealousy. Alys had been nothing but kind to her from the day they’d met, but because Malcolm admired her, Melly would rather stew and make Stillwater look cheap rather than humbling herself just a little to ask a favor that Alys would gladly grant. It was stupid and immature. Malcolm would think she was a big baby if he knew about it.

Carefully she straightened her room and smoothed her hair, and then, willing herself to put on a cheerful face, she stepped over to the cottage where Alys was waiting to adjust the tiara.

But Alys had outmaneuvered her. Just as Melly had started nervously to say that had a favor to ask of her, Alys had forestalled the conversation by placing a narrow blue box on the table.

“Actually, do you mind if I go first?” she asked cheerfully. “I have a confession to make.”

Her demeanor was about as far from contrition as possible, but Melly was glad to put off her request.

“The opals in the crown — I didn’t buy them new, I didn’t have time. I just cannibalized a necklace I already had, and reset the stones.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” 

“Don’t be! I never wore it. It wasn’t my style, and anyway, it’s done. But the necklace was part of a set.”

Alys opened the box and drew out first a bracelet and then a pair of earrings and laid them on the table in front of Melly, who caught her breath in wonder. The same opals that Melly had seen the night before nested in the undulating curves of the tiara were here before her again in their iridescent glory. Alys had been right when she said that the pieces were not her style — their quiet, elegant formality contrasted against the baroque whimsy that characterized her own creations.  Melly stretched out a fingertip and gently touched the silver links of the bracelet and exhaled in wonder and longing.

“Do you like them?” Alys asked, trying not to smile too broadly at Melly’s intoxication.

“Yes, they’re beautiful.”

“Perfect. I think they like you too — at least, they like your coloring. Here,” and she was already fitting the bracelet on Melly’s wrist and closing the clasp, “let’s see how they look.”

The opalescent sheen of the gems made Melly’s pale skin luminous. Alys stepped back and cast a critical eye on the effect, then nodded decisively.

“That’s going to go perfectly with the tiara!” she proclaimed. “So it’s settled. You have to wear these to the ball, no question about it.”

Melly, startled and delighted, looked up with glowing eyes. “Do you mean it? Oh, thank you! That’s so kind! I’ll take such good care of them, and bring them right back the next morning, as good as new.”

“No you won’t!” laughed Alys. “They’re for you. You keep them.”

“Keep them!” Melly was horrified. Alys was a connoisseur of jewelry; she must know how much these cost. It was obvious that Alys wasn’t teasing, and yet it was impossible to accept such a valuable gift. It was entirely out of proportion to their friendship, such as that was. She immediately took the bracelet from her wrist and laid it back on the table. “No, I couldn’t do that. They’re yours. It’s nice enough of you to even let me wear them.”

Here followed a delicate ballet of urgings and denials. Alys laughed and protested that she hadn’t worn the bracelets or earrings forever — she’d only brought the set with her to Louisiana for parts anyway. The bracelet and the earrings were doomed if Alys kept them.

“Would you rather I cut ‘em up for parts?” she asked.

“No, you can’t do that!” Melly exclaimed, dismayed.

“Yes, I can, and I will if you don’t take them,” said Alys heartlessly. Then, seeing Melly’s continued hesitation, she adopted a more reasonable tone: “Don’t tell me you’re too proud to accept gifts, Melly. I’m convinced that you’re the sweetest person ever, and it would disappoint me no end to find that you liked to bargain like everyone else.”

She had settled the jewelry back into the slim bracelet-length box and held it out now to Melly. There seemed to be no more objections to make: the bracelet and earrings belonged to Alys; she was perfectly within her rights to give them where she would, and it clearly wasn’t going to inconvenience her to part with them. Swallowing her protestations — she would not give Alys reason to think that she was proud or ungrateful! — she accepted the gift and smiled as gracefully as she could.

“Thank you a thousand times,” she said. “I don’t know how I can ever repay you, except to remember you every time I wear them.”

“That’s all I ask,” replied Alys, smiling as she packed up the tiara for Melly to take with her. “But you’d better remember Ian too — he’s the one who gave them to me in the first place. Doesn’t he have good taste? He could have bought them expressly for you.”

“Your brother gave you this?” Melly dropped the box on the table as if it were poisoned, and backed away. “No, I can’t take it. I know you can’t really want to give away his present.”

“Why not?” said Alys with a shrug. “He won’t care. He gives me stuff all the time.” 

Melly’s agitated demeanor did not indicate that she found this a convincing reason for Alys to part with anything her brother gave, or for her to receive it. Alys drew on her not-inconsiderable powers of persuasion to sooth her.

 “Look, I doubt he even remembers when he bought this. Anyway, I’m sure he’d probably agree that it looks better on you than on me. Who knows — maybe he put me up to it.” She burst into laughter, pleased at the pretty flush that sprang to Melly’s cheeks. “Goodness, Melly, I’m joking. I’ve never known you to be so suspicious. Come on, now you have to take them as proof that you don’t think there’s anything underhanded going on.”

Somehow Melly found herself bundled out of the door with the tiara in one hand and the robin’s egg blue box in the other.

“See, that wasn’t so hard now,” said Alys, bidding her goodbye. “I hope next time it won’t be so hard to persuade you to dip into the Winter family treasury. We’re all friends, right?”

Coming back into the house, Melly had intended to go straight to her room to store the tiara more safely than she had Rene’s crucifix, but as she passed through the stair hall she felt the familiar yearning to tell her troubles to the stained glass window at the midpoint of the curving stair. Perhaps seeing the world in either red or blue would make everything clearer to her. It was nothing now to climb the steps — no pain or heaviness of limb; heaviness of heart was another matter. How, how could she take Alys’s jewelry — Ian’s jewelry? How could she keep it? How could she step out in public covered with Winter gems? How could Alys, who was so generous and cheerful and thoughtful enough to offer Melly her jewelry without making her beg for the loan, be so callow about throwing Ian in Melly’s way? For a moment, Melly wished she were a carefree fifteen again, watching her first Stillwater ball from the safety of the curtained alcove in the parlor, her frail body unable to waltz around the room under the scrutiny of the public even had she wanted to do so. Malcolm had kept her company then, and so had Rene, and there had not been the slightest hint of tension or outside forces being brought to bear. Life had been simpler then — she had been free to love Malcolm disinterestedly, if not strictly fraternally, before Alys Winter had come to Stillwater.

The door at the top of the stairs opened, and Malcolm himself appeared. Seeing Melly in their familiar haunt by the stained glass window, he grinned and joined her, and they both sat bathed in colored light on the stairs, leaning on the low sill as they had done so many times over the years.

“I might have known I’d find you here,” he said. “I was just going to look for you.”

“Were you?” She smiled back at him, enjoying the warmth of his presence. “You must have known I had to talk to you. I need your advice.”

“On what?”

She nudged the blue box toward him. “Look at this.”

Malcolm whistled quietly as he surveyed the bracelet and earrings. “What bank did you rob?”

“Alys gave them to me.”

“For the ball?”

“For keeps. But in honor of the ball, yes. I was going to ask her for something to borrow, but before I could do that, she offered me these.”

Malcolm’s eyes were turned toward the jewelry, but his gaze was soft and distant, and when he spoke, his voice was warm with approval. “Did she really? That was gracious of her.” For a moment they were both quiet. Melly gazed unseeing out the window for a moment, and when she turned back, he had focused on her. “These will look nice on you.”

“I don’t know if I can wear them.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Why? Are you opposed to people thinking you look nice?”

“No!” She twisted her hands, trying to frame her objections in a way that he could understand. “I think these are beautiful, and I’m so grateful to Alys. But… Ian gave them to her. I don’t want to take her brother’s gift.”

“Alys and Ian seem to be on the same page most of the time. You don’t think she would have given it you to if she’d thought it would offend him, do you?”

This was so diametrically opposed to Melly’s actual suspicions that all she could do was to shake her head. “I was thinking that I should give them back.”

“No, don’t do that!” Malcolm pressed the box into her hands, holding it securely there with his own. “They’re almost worthy of you, Melly, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am to see that Alys understands that, that she’s made a sincere effort to show how much she values you. We have to honor that, to encourage her to keep opening up. The last thing you should do is give her any excuse to lapse back into cynicism by rejecting her generosity. How can I make you understand, Melly? You don’t have a cynical bone in your body. Everything you do is genuine and kind. You’re the best model for Alys — don’t give her any reason to reject your example. She needs you, and I need your help.”

He was kneeling on the step before her, his hands clasped over hers, his hazel eyes fixed pleadingly on her own — Alys had once remarked on remarked on how similar Malcolm’s eyes were to Melly’s, and she wondered now, drawn deep into his gaze, if she was looking at a reflection of her own soul in his face, or merely a fraternal approximation.

“I’ll wear them,” she whispered at last. He flopped down on the step next to her, seized her in a one-armed squeeze, and sighed happily, and she closed her eyes, trying to push past the ache to find what was lovely and familiar between them.

“You’re the best,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

She contemplated the jewelry again to avoid thinking about that question. He had been fumbling in his pocket, and now he pulled something out and held it out to her, taking Alys’s open box and setting it on the stair below her.

“I had something too that I wanted to give you before the ball. That’s why I was looking for you. I wanted you to have this before Saturday.”

She found herself holding a small jeweler’s box. The red glow of the colored pane disguised her sudden flush, and the wild beating of her heart pounded in her ears. A shy glance at his face seemed to reveal no more than a pleased anticipation, so with bolder fingers, she threw open the top.

Settled snugly on a soft cloud of padding, Rene’s crucifix gleamed, repaired, polished, and threaded on a new gold chain. Melly gasped, and tears stung her eyes.

“It wasn’t lost,” she said softly, lifting it from the box. “I didn’t lose it.”

“I’m really sorry about sneaking into your room, Melly,” said Malcolm, suddenly anxious. “I didn’t know if they’d have it ready by the ball, and I wanted to surprise you, but I should have through about how upset you’d be if you found it missing. I hope you’re not angry.”

He was almost knocked over by a fierce hug.

“Angry? How could I be angry?” What he could see of her tear-stained face was glowing. “This is the only thing I wanted! I’d rather have this than all the opals or tiaras in the world. If I hadn’t promised you I’d wear them, I’d throw them out the window now.” 

“Settle down, Melly!” he laughed, taking her by the shoulders and holding her steady. “Don’t go that far! You promised, remember?”

“Fine, I promised,” she agreed recklessly. “But I’ll always always like the crucifix better because it reminds me of Rene and of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Malcolm relaxed and leaned his elbows on his knees. “It’s a pleasure to do anything for you, Melly. You accept everything so openly, and you’re honestly grateful.” He sighed. “What a relief it is to do something for someone who’s not interested in playing emotional games.”

A bellow from below made them both jump. Rene was bounding up the stairs, shielding his eyes dramatically.

“Good Lord, cher, look at those gew-gaws! You planning to open a bijouterie?”

Malcolm laughed as Melly explained how she’d acquired her new-found wealth.

“Sheesh, I’d have sold it,” was his considered response, “but I guess she don’t need the money.”

“I’d rather just wear the crucifix you gave me to the ball, but Malcolm says I have to wear the opals too.”

He shrugged. “Hey, deck the halls!”

“But the styles won’t match!”

Rene snorted. “Want to know a secret? My cufflinks don’t match! What, are we supposed to be all matchy-matchy now?”

“I wish I had the confidence to wear two different cufflinks,” Malcolm said enviously. “Where did you get them?”

“Goodwill,” Rene answered, continuing on up the stairs toward his room. “Put that stuff away, sugar, before the help gets any ideas.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Life with Toogs

Only Jack and Diana and I were home this evening, and Jack was confined to quarters for yet another incident involving poop and his underwear. The Dude is a cheerfully incorrigible little guy, absolutely confident in his mother's love. At dinner, when it finally came out that he'd been sitting in what we might delicately call "a mess" for goodness knows how long, he was utterly unrepentant.
"Are you going to spank me, Mommy?" he asked nonchalantly.
"No, Jack," I said wearily. "I'm not going to spank you, because neither that nor anything else seems to produce results."
"Okay," he said. "Are you going to make me help wash out the underwear?"
"Yes. Young man, you had stand in one spot and not move so that it doesn't go down your leg."
"It won't," he said. "See? I'm moving around now, and the poop isn't going anywhere! Am I going to take a bath?"

After the bath we all shut ourselves in the bedroom and I started to clean up, again. The bedroom is often a disaster. Five children, three beds, one room -- you do the math. It's not even as if we're short on space. We have the largest house of anyone I know, and it contains five perfectly good bedrooms: the master bedroom, the front room, the back room, the princess bedroom, and the attic bedroom. Yet three of them sit empty, collecting dust and the detritus of secret clubs, and all the small people and their toys wedge into the back bedroom. While Jack perused Calvin and Hobbes from the comfort of his flannel-sheeted bed and Diana wandered and sang and talked at me, I sat down to sort the Legos from the Duplos and put each in their own bin. The Legos and their larger brethren were scattered all over the room, pushed into corners, under the crib, sifted through several random buckets of toys. The process has a charmingly progressive feel: as I took each bucket and separated out not only the Legos and Duplos, but the train tracks, the building blocks, the castle blocks, the army men, the letter puzzles, the cars, the socks, and the miscellaneous, a pretty sense of order began to pervade the bedroom. I like to engage in these futile little tasks now and then -- picking up Legos, potty training -- to remind me that all is vanity. Today you attempt hygiene, tomorrow to dust it shall return. Even as I worked, Diana was busily pulling blocks from the bin and setting up a tower, because it's always more fun to play with the toys when Mommy too is playing put things in boxes.

Diana does not answer to her name anymore, and if you tell her that her name is Diana, she will contradict you: "I'm Dudley Do-Right." (What she actually says is, "I'n Dudley Do-Wite", but we'll pay her the courtesy of big-girl orthography.) Tonight Dudley Do-Right wore a bandolier of Daddy's old belt over her fleecy footy sleeper, and a big cowboy hat over her new Ramona haircut, and Jack's six-shooter. I pity the mustache-twirling bandit who tries to pull one over on her. Dudley has assigned various people to be her sidekicks: Julia is Nell, Jack is Horse, and Isabel, in a very suitable bit of casting, is Snidely Whiplash. That leaves Eleanor, who is often writing some story or other, as the Narrator. Me? I'm Inspector Fenwick, who is "all for putting Stokey in the pokey".

Darwin is Red Wood, the logging magnate.

Even Dudley Do-Right has to get some rest, which involves nestling in the crib with a comforter, Grandma's ducky quilt, two pacifiers, and a big Curious George anthology. Jack was already asleep, worn out with his and Calvin's villainy, so Diana and I said prayers by ourselves. She stood in the crib and snuggled against me and babbled something that sounded like it could have been the Hail Mary, if you listened closely enough.
"God bless Diana," I whispered as I made the sign of the cross on her forehead under her Ramona bangs, "keep her safe, give her sweet dreams, and make her pure and holy."
And she reached up, just like she sees her big sisters do every night, and blessed me back.

Anthropology, Violence and Relativism

This last weekend's Wall Street Journal featured a review of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon's new book Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes -- the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. The book chronicles Chagnon's decades of research on the warlike Yanomamo people, and the warlike reaction which many other anthropologists had to Chagnon's work:
From the beginning, Mr. Chagnon was astonished by the ubiquitous violence and terror in Yanomamö life. Walking into a village on his first day in the field, he was greeted by "a dozen burly, naked, sweaty, hideous men nervously staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!" The previous day, he soon learned, a second village had abducted seven women from the village Mr. Chagnon was entering, named Bisaasi-teri. Just a few hours before, the men of Bisaasi-teri had wrested back five of the women after a "brutal club fight," provoking threats of retaliation. The villagers had every reason to greet a stranger's arrival with weapons at the ready.

Anthropologists frequently give gifts to the people who haves been kind enough to endure their questions. The Yanomamö helped Mr. Chagnon in a thousand ways, and he thanked them with machetes, medicine and crackers. But sometimes the reason for his generosity was to ensure that his informants wouldn't kill him in his sleep. High among the threats was Möawä, the "tyrannical headman" of Mishimishimaböwei-teri, a thug "who had killed twenty-one men." Mr. Chagnon's relationship with Möawä began with the "selfish," "cruel" and "overbearing" Möawä demanding all the gifts Mr. Chagnon had intended for Möawä's entire village, including medicines for sick children. It ended with Möawä threatening to "bury this axe in your skull!" Parts of "Noble Savages" are among the few white-knuckle reads in contemporary anthropological literature.
For me, though, the most compelling sections involve the author's struggle to gather what would seem like the most basic facts about Yanomamö communities: the names and relationships of their residents, along with birth and death dates.... The genealogies paid off, though, when Mr. Chagnon used them to show that Yanomamö violence had a reproductive payoff. On the whole, he wrote in a 1988 Science article, village men who had killed other people had roughly three times as many offspring as non-killers.

Today, this claim may seem unexceptional. After all, genetic studies suggest that about 10% of the men living in the old Mongol Empire are descended from Genghis Khan, one of history's great killers. Why wouldn't this kind of thing be replicated on a smaller scale? But in the 1980s, Mr. Chagnon writes, "to have the lead article in Science suggesting that 'killers have more kids' was like pouring gasoline on a smoldering academic fire."
By the late 1980s, Mr. Chagnon was under siege, not just intellectually but personally. Opponents leveled ever-increasing charges of racism, data-faking, brutality toward the Yanomamö (such as taking their names) and even complicity in genocide. In 2001, a book by journalist Patrick Tierney contended, sensationally, that a medical-research group that Mr. Chagnon had assisted in 1968 may have exacerbated or even caused a measles epidemic that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of Yanomamö. (This claim seems grossly untrue; in fact, the team provided medical care to victims of the epidemic.) A special seminar held by the American Anthropological Association to discuss Mr. Tierney's book attracted almost a thousand people, who listened to a confusing, sometimes hysterical welter of charges and countercharges, many by people who had not read the work of either Mr. Tierney or Mr. Chagnon. One thing that was not provided: actual data from the Yanomamö that refuted Mr. Chagnon's ideas.

"There have been thirty or more anthropologists who began fieldwork among the Yanomamö after I began," Mr. Chagnon writes, his fury practically spitting from the page. "They all could have easily collected comparable data on [killers] and variations in reproductive success similar to the data [Mr. Chagnon collected]. Not one of them did this." Mr. Chagnon is exaggerating here—anthropologists John H. Moore and R. Brian Ferguson provided data-based critiques, for instance—but only slightly. The majority of the attacks were ad hominem.
What Chagnon had run afoul of was an approach to anthropology which had increasingly come to emphasize advocacy on behalf of "primative" cultures and a belief that cultures that anthropologists studies should not be seen as primative but rather simply different. Chagnon's suggestion that violence was far mor common in Yanomamö society than in our own offended against this set of beliefs.
[A] new group—researchers like Darrell Posey, Alcida Ramos, Roy Rappaport, Peter Wade and the members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists—saw scholars as advocates for the people they studied, most of whom were poor and had dreadful histories of mistreatment.

To practice "a politically committed and morally engaged anthropology," as Nancy Scheper-Hughes later put it, Ph.D.s needed to transform themselves from dweeby academics into "alarmists and shock troopers," fighting "the layers of acceptance, complicity, and bad faith that allow the suffering and the deaths to continue." Mr. Chagnon's theory of the formation of society, his major contribution to the discipline, was like fingernails on the blackboard to these new anthropologists. They feared that his depiction of violence as central to social identity in groups like the Yanomamö would be used to cast indigenous peoples as savages, who could be forced into reservations "for their own good."
I'd recently run into this same controversy in another backlash, in this case against Jared Diamond's latest book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?. I've read two of Diamond's books, the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel and also Collapse, his discussion of societal collapses due to ecological problems. I had a pretty mixed reaction to both. Diamond is a geographer and is seeking to tell very large, sweeping stories in which developments in human societies are almost exclusively the result of their resources and environment, not of the actual content of their cultures. I think there's a lot to take issue with in his approach, and he has a tendency to gloss over inconvenient details. However, his latest book has been attacked from an interesting quarter. In The World Until Yesterday he seeks, among other things, to discuss the evidence (also written about by Steven Pinker) that the level of violence (measured in terms of the percentage of people who meet a violent death) has declined in modern societies as compared to earlier ones. The Guardian describes the controversy thusly:
A fierce dispute has erupted between Pulitzer prize-winning author Jared Diamond and campaign group Survival International over Diamond's recently published and highly acclaimed comparison of western and tribal societies, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

The controversy threatens to expose a deep rift in modern anthropology, with each claiming the other has fallen into a delusion that threatens to undermine the chances for survival of the world's remaining tribal societies.

On a book tour of the UK last week, Diamond, 75, was drawn into a dispute with the campaign group after its director, Stephen Corry, condemned Diamond's book as "completely wrong – both factually and morally – and extremely dangerous" for portraying tribal societies as more violent than western ones.

Survival accuses Diamond of applying studies of 39 societies, of which 10 are in his realm of direct experience in New Guinea and neighbouring islands, to advance a thesis that tribal peoples across the world live in a state of near-constant warfare.

"It's a profoundly damaging argument that tribal peoples are more violent than us," said Survival's Jonathan Mazower. "It simply isn't true. If allowed to go unchallenged … it would do tremendous damage to the movement for tribal people's rights. Diamond has constructed his argument using a small minority of anthropologists and using statistics in a way that is misleading and manipulative."

In a lengthy and angry rebuttal on Saturday, Diamond confirmed his finding that "tribal warfare tends to be chronic, because there are not strong central governments that can enforce peace". He accused Survival of falling into the thinking that views tribal people either as "primitive brutish barbarians" or as "noble savages, peaceful paragons of virtue living in harmony with their environment, and admirable compared to us, who are the real brutes".

He added: "An occupational hazard facing authors like me, who try to steer a middle course between these two extremes, is the likelihood of being criticised from either direction."

But Survival remains adamant. "The clear thrust of his argument is that there is a natural evolutionary path along which human society progresses and we are simply further along it," said Mazower. "That's extremely dangerous, because it is the notion that they're backward and need to be 'developed'. That thinking – and not that their way of living might be just as modern as any other way of living – is the same thinking that underpins governments that persecute tribal people."
Stephen Corry's full critique can be readin the original here.

It's true that looking at violence in terms of the percentage of people who die violently can lead to some seemingly odd conclusions. Ten people out of a tribe of one hundred being killed may represent a higher overall death rate than Europe experienced during World War II, but the sheer scale of World War II's destruction makes us tend to revolt against the idea. On the other hand, if your whole world is one hundred people, ten dying must loom rather large. Those questions of comparison aside, it's also clear that Pinker in particular indulges in some real howlers. However, the overall thesis that modern societies have lower levels of violence than primative ones seems to be pretty well supported by evidence, and the crux of the critique being presented seems to boil down to two points:

1) Societies are simply different and it's not nice to judge one as less advanced or more violent than another, however accurate such an assessment may be.
2) If we talk about some societies as being less advanced or more violent, that will give us an excuse to oppress them.

These seem like very bad critiques of Chagnon's and Diamond's work, and to suggest that the approach of many cultural anthropologists fails both as science and as moralizing.

Monday, February 18, 2013

I Just Love Reading!

Helen Rittelmeyer at First Things says:
The better I became at reading, the less I felt like talking about how much reading meant to me, which may be a natural side effect of coming to love something that previously you only wanted to love. I used to do quite a lot of that sort of book bragging, I’m sad to say, and I don’t suppose the victims of my tediousness will be much consoled to know that I believe those years of pretension were a necessary prelude to what followed. It was also around that time that I stopped thinking that whether a person read books was the most important thing about them, or the best indication of whether we would have anything in common or whether I would like them—all of which are things I believed back when reading was more of a tribal affiliation than a passion.
I have found, consistently, that people who truly love to read will talk, not about about how much they love to read, but about the content of their reading and how that content is affecting them. If all drama is change, then reading is a great personal drama: ideas and story change the reader somehow, introducing new ideas, challenging old ones, altering mood (whether for better or for worse), broadening the mind -- or contracting it. 

I have to confess that I've dropped quotes in a conversation to see if the other person has read the same books I have, but I think that's fair as long as it doesn't hit obnoxious levels of fannishness (though I feel that way about a lot of things).

Friday, February 15, 2013

Show, don't tell

I never took a writing class, but even I'm familiar with the advice given to novice authors: "Show, don't tell." It guards, I believe, against a certain didacticism and lazy instinct to merely describe events instead of examining them through the lens of human action. This is a fair caution. And yet, it has its limitations: sometimes it seems the pendulum swings the other way -- writers feel obligated to describe every scene and conversation in tedious detail, whether or not those details contribute to the plot, mood, or character development. If art is reality distilled, this is reality stilled: bogged down in such petty effluvia as to lose all focus, direction, or purpose.

I received an email today with an essay by Fr. Robert Barron (it doesn't seem to be available on the web yet) about evangelizing through beauty:
In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time. “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s. In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.” To Brideshead comes, at the invitation of his friend Sebastian, Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, devotee of the fine arts and casual agnostic. Charles is overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Brideshead’s architecture and the sumptuousness of its artistic program, which includes magnificent painting and sculpture, as well as a fountain of Bernini-like delicacy, and a chapel that was a riot of baroque decoration. Living within the walls of the manse, Charles mused, was to receive an entire artistic education. The beauty of the place would entrance Charles for the rest of his life, drawing him back again and again.  
 In the course of his many visits, Charles came, of course, to know the inhabitants of the house, Sebastian’s strange and beguiling family. Especially through Sebastian’s mother, the aristocratic and devoutly Catholic Lady Marchmain, he became familiar with the moral demands of the Catholic Church, especially as they pertained to Sebastian’s increasing problem with alcohol. For many years, Charles joined Sebastian in his friend’s rebellion against these strictures, but in time, he came to appreciate their importance, indeed their indispensability.  Finally, at the very close of the story, we learn that Charles, the erstwhile agnostic, had come to embrace the coherent philosophical system of Catholicism and to worship the Eucharistic Lord who was enshrined in the beautiful chapel at Brideshead. Many years after entering that chapel as a mere aesthete, he knelt down in it as a believer. 
Father Barron makes many good points here, but he's mistaken in one thing: the chapel at Brideshead is not beautiful, not to Charles Ryder's trained eye. It is not "a riot of baroque decoration"; it had been renovated some twenty-odd years before Charles sees it in the Arts and Crafts style, and though Charles is hesitant to say so to his hosts, he finds it hideous. The chapel is a symbol, throughout the book, of how the falsity of poor art can stand between an aesthetic soul and God.
"You're an artist, Ryder (says Brideshead), what do you think of it aesthetically?"
"I think it's beautiful," said Cordelia with tears in her eyes.
"But is it Good Art?
"Well, I don't know what you mean," I said warily. "I think it's a remarkable example of its period. Probably in eighty years it will be greatly admired."
"But surely it can't be good twenty years ago and good in eighty years and not be good now?"
"Well, it may be good now. All I mean is that I don't happen to like it much."
Charles does learn to see God despite ugliness: at the end of the book he kneels in the chapel, before "a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design".

The on-going conversation about the engagement of Catholicism and the arts has been active lately with the advent of movies such as Here Be Dragons, For Greater Glory, and The Passion of the Christ. (I would assume that Protestants are having their own conversations about movies in the Fireproof vein.) It's telling all these movies were embraced by various stripes of Catholic media, as is presenting Catholicism in a non-hostile light were the only thing necessary to make a movie good art. Also telling is the fact that of the recent spate of "Catholic" movies, only The Passion of the Christ received anything approaching critical acclaim. The critics can always be wrong, of course, but they're also a useful standard, trained as they are to look for a certain baseline level of quality: is the movie consistent? does the plot make sense? is the acting good? does the director understand cinematic structure? is the screenplay coherent?

As Catholics, we also have standards for judging, not just art, not just movies, not just novels, not just entertainment, but every product of man's hands: Is it good? Is it true? Is it beautiful? Catholic art is much more than just slipping an explanation of dogma or a favorable portrayal of a priest into a work -- it's high quality, honest, and evocative whether or not religion is explicitly mentioned. Since God is Truth and Beauty and Goodness, what is good and true and beautiful must point to Him and participate in His life. Conversely, art that relies on wedging Catholic imagery or teachings into formulaic or unrealistic portrayals of reality doesn't do itself any favors. Not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven.

I read a Catholic novel the other day, and I'm sorry to say that it was one of the more poorly written pieces I've had the misfortune to read lately -- though as I tend not to be a consumer of pop fiction perhaps my quality level is misaligned with the general taste. It told and it showed, neither to best advantage. The premise was unbelievable, the characters were by turns too period and too anachronistic, the plot needed several kinds of tightening and crafting, and the writing shifted between being didactic, obvious, repetitive, and plain boring.  And yet it was praised by several Catholic reviewers whose taste in fiction and ability to evaluate literature I will ever after hold suspect.

Catholicism is more than an Old Boys Club or mutual affirmation society. Catholic reviewers shouldn't be afraid to insist, in charity, on quality from Catholic artists -- that's part of the role of a reviewer. Of course, it does not make one a bad person or a bad Catholic to be unable to construct a paragraph -- but it does make one a bad writer. Good writing, like all good art, raises all those who encounter it, regardless of education, and evangelizes those who love beauty without realizing that Beauty is God.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Progress and Death in Les Miserables

"Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then there will be nothing left resembling ancient history; there will be no cause to fear, as at the present day, conquest, invasion, usurpation, armed rivalry of nation, an interruption of civilization depending on a marriage of kings, a birth in hereditary tyrannies, a division of people by a congress, a dismemberment by the collapse of dynasties, a combat of two religions, clashing like two goats in the darkness on the bridge of infinity; there will be no cause longer to fear famine, exhaustion, prostitution through distress, misery through stoppage of work, and the scaffold, and the sword, and battles, and all the brigandage of accident in the forest of events; --we might almost say there will be no more events: we shall be happy; the human race will accomplish its law as the terrestrial globe does its law; harmony will be restored between the soul and the planet, and the soul will gravitate round the truth as the planet does round light."
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

Now these words are spoken by Enjolras, the consummate revolutionary, so Hugo's own views may be more moderate. Still, Hugo has a myopic optimism when it comes to Progress, and indeed, by the end of the book we see no more of society's miserables. Eponine and Gavroche are dead, Cosette and Marius are married and rich, Thenardier is paid off beyond the dreams of avarice, and Valjean, though he will not use them,  has five hundred francs for his support. No, the suffering at the end is interpersonal -- the cruelty of Marius (and the less-witting but just as culpable cruelty of Cosette) to Valjean, Valjean's self-imposed exile. Marius has fought on the barricades not so much for freedom for the oppressed but because he thinks his own life isn't worth living, and in his rejection of Valjean as an ex-convict we see that he is actually pretty callow to the injustices of society. Even Marius's generosity is ill-considered -- the thousands of francs he throws at Thenardier to send him to America end up setting up that malefactor as a prosperous slave trader.

To be fair, nor does Valjean help out by not being entirely forthright about his situation. I writhed with frustration at the end of the book -- it always drives me nuts when characters create their own drama by being evasive out of a misplaced sense of nobility. "Oh, if only you'd said something sooner we could have avoided this whole situation!" Ah, but then we wouldn't have had a pretty chapter full of reconciliation, abject apologies, and touching grief, so agreeably cathartic for the reader who has watched Valjean suffer for 800 pages.

Valjean's end is touching, but Javert's is transformative. Valjean has shown Javert, the policeman who has hounded him for years, life-saving mercy, and has enlisted Javert to help him save the life of another -- and Javert, to his astonishment and horror, finds himself compelled by justice to show mercy as well. The man of iron, rigid, upright, and irreproachable, suddenly discovers that the Divine is not merely Sacred Authority and Order, but the Glorious Chaos of the love that moves the stars, the "anarchy about to descend from on high".
He was not accustomed to have anything unknown over his head; hitherto everything he had above him had been to his eye a clear, simple, limpid surface; there was nothing unknown or obscure; nothing but what was definite, coordinated, enchained, precise, exact, circumscribed, limited, and closed; everything forseen; authority was a flat surface, there was no fall in it or dizziness before it. Javery had never seen anything unknown except below him. Irregularity, unexpected things, the disorderly onening of the chaos, and a possible fall over a precipice, --all this was the state of the lower regions, of the rebels, the wicked and the wretched. Now Javert threw himself back, and was suddenly startled by this extraordinary apparition, --a gulf above him!
And Javert realizes another appalling fact: that he is human, and that to show mercy is to learn to feel. Javert, in his cold way, dies for love, and his death is far more compelling than the death of Enjolras the revolutionary, whose marble facade never cracks. Even in death Enjolras remains himself, statuesque to the end: "traversed by eight bullets, (he) remained leaning against the wall, as if nailed to it; he merely hung his head". But Javert throws himself into the whirling vortex, something new and truly revolutionary for him -- and may God have mercy on his soul.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Benedict XVI on Ash Wednesday

We begin Lent with one pope and can reasonably expect to reach Easter with a new one.

One of the things that I've been very grateful for in Benedict XVI's papacy is his clear and thoughtful writing, often much more accessible than John Paul II's works. Thinking about this, and about what to do for the Lent which marks the end of Benedict XVI's pontificate, I'd decided that my religious reading project for Lent would be to re-read Benedict's three encyclicals.

Today I can across the text of Benedict's homily at today's Ash Wednesday mass in St. Peters. It's fairly short and definitely worth reading. This passage in particular struck me, as I think it speaks to a problematic tendency in our current culture:
The prophet says: "return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment" (v. 13). It is possible to return to the Lord, it is a 'grace', because it is the work of God and the fruit of faith that we entrust to His mercy. But this return to God becomes a reality in our lives only when the grace of God penetrates and moves our innermost core, gifting us the power that "rends the heart". Once again the prophet proclaims these words from God: "Rend your hearts and not your garments" (v. 13). Today, in fact, many are ready to "rend their garments" over scandals and injustices – which are of course caused by others - but few seem willing to act according to their own "heart", their own conscience and their own intentions, by allowing the Lord transform, renew and convert them.