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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The All Clear

Darwin and I each received a letter from CPS, closing our case. We were thanked for allowing the caseworker to talk with us about our family, as if it were a social call. I suppose I should feel vindicated to have made a good impression:
After my visits with you, together we identified that your family has many strengths, including being a good, happy family and have a good marriage.
Huzzah for "have a good marriage"!

The letters arrived right after we got back from vacation, 2 1/2 weeks ago, but somehow I just didn't feel like writing about it -- my apologies to the people who've been praying for us so faithfully and waiting for news. When I think about it, I don't feel excited or relieved. As with so many things lately, I feel a great weariness. It just seems like one more thing in a long train of parenting events, a train that stretches on past my ability to see into the future.

But shaking myself from my lethargy: this is good news, and I'm glad that the episode is officially behind us. Now, on to starting schoolwork on Monday.

The Essential Back Burner of the Mind

Years ago my brother signed up for a program which made the background cycles of the family computer available to the SETI program. Computers have the same amount of processing power whenever they're turned on, but many of the tasks we put them to only use a small percentage of their full computer power. This program would download radio telescope data that needed to be processed and use the computer's spare cycle time to look for signals, turning what would otherwise be processor idle time into work time.

The mind doesn't have the same fixed capacity as a computer, but there is a certain similarity. In addition to whatever I'm paying attention to at the moment, there's always something which is cooking on the back burner. Sometimes it seems to be doing so without a whole lot of attention. I won't be consciously thinking about a problem, but at some moment a solution to a problem will bubble up from the background while I'm engaged in some other task.

I've been thinking about this lately because I'm trying to change what's cooking on the back burner. Although we're still desperately yearning for cool fall weather, the end of the calendar year is starting to seem very soon to me. That's when I hope to start writing and posting the second volume of the novel, and if I'm going to be ready I need to get to where it's novel planning that's simmering all the time.

When I was younger and more desperate to get ahead in my job, it was always work that was simmering behind the scenes. I'd come up with news ways to solve a problem at odd times and eagerly log in to see if they would work. For the last few years it was the novel. Once I finished volume one and went to take a break, I seemed to drift for a bit, and then the last four or five months I latched firmly on to one of my old and recurring hobbies and found myself thinking about that all the time.

It's been relaxing to have that background thought focused on something entirely recreational, but because it's fun, it's proved rather hard to shake. I enjoy working on the novel, and I want to get my planning and outlining done, but sifting the not-quite-conscious portion of my mind away from recreation and back to creative work feels a bit like trying to herd my youthful self back to school in the fall. I can sit down and put in active time on the project, and I've started blocking off little sections here and there in my day to work on revising or planning, but my unconscious mind doesn't yet seem to thinking that I'm serious, and as soon as I put my laptop or kindle away, it bolts off like a kid towards recess.

What I need to figure out, of course, it a way to spread myself over several things. To make writing the constant background theme but still be able to unplug and engage in recreation at times. I think probably the way to do that is to increase the amount of active time that I'm spending on what I want to be my background topic until it somehow takes hold. It has to become a habit, the thing that I naturally turn back to when my mind is otherwise idle. But as I try to get to that point, it's as if I'm pushing harder and harder on a model train, but have not yet managed to make it jump the track and move sideways.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Three fine performances, and a deeply unstable moral core. Meryl Streep is excellent as Florence Foster Jenkins, a lady with more money than talent, who lives for music. Hugh Grant is the husband, a former actor who carefully shields her from anything unpleasant, including his own cozy secret life with a pretty girlfriend. Simon Helberg plays Madame Florence's diffident accompanist with a charm that is not destroyed by the movie's determination to lure him out of the closet. Florence evokes affection in those closest to her, and no wonder -- she has been fighting valiantly for years against the ravages of syphilis, a legacy of her more conventionally unfaithful first husband.

The effects of syphilis famously include mental deterioration in the late stages. Florence, formerly a talented amateur pianist, is now under the mostly-harmless delusion that she can sing. Mostly harmless, I say, because her great wealth leads everyone around her to lie constantly to her about the extent of her ability. Everyone in this movie can be bought, and is bought explicitly, except for the character presented to us as the bad guy, a famous critic who has as much passion for music as Florence does, who rejects the ever increasing bribes offered him, and whose scathing, honest review of the concert -- the honesty that kills her, in a sense -- is fueled by the fact that the Carnegie Hall is supposed to be a standard of excellence, not a vanity venue.

The movie just isn't sure where it comes down. "The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer", proclaims the poster. "Inspiring" is an interesting adjective here. Inspired how? Inspired to do what? The problem is that Florence Foster Jenkins the movie, while entertaining for the most part, cannot decide what exactly it is about, due to a deeply unstable moral core which boils down to the message "Don't be mean". Perhaps it's about loyalty and faithfulness, virtues stressed by Florence's husband as he persuades the pianist to stand by Florence even as her concert venues become more grandiose -- except that the husband's faithfulness doesn't extend so far as to give Florence his undivided love. "Stay the night with me," she begs him as he prepares to head out to the brownstone apartment she rents for him. (Due to her syphilis, their marriage has always been sexless -- I won't describe it as celibate because he keeps his little establishment on the side to ensure that he doesn't have to be celibate.) Perhaps it's about the dignity of people and their dreams -- but Florence's concerts are not attended by well-wishers, but by paid sycophants and people whose eyes are bright not with joy but with suppressed hysterics. One of the funniest scenes in the movie involves a young lady who literally crawls out of a concert, gasping with laughter. Florence is not respected or beloved. People listen to her to laugh at her, and it breaks her when she realizes that. The movie softens the historical record -- Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso didn't attend her concerts from affection, but because she was an unwitting comic sensation.

I'm very curious to see another recent retelling of this story, the French movie Marguerite. It, apparently, is more alive to the inherent vanity of the main character (given her name, Marguerite Dumont) and the morally debilitating effects of enabling that vanity on everyone around her. Florence Foster Jenkins could have been a much stronger movie if the motivations of her husband had been more deeply examined. Here's a man who marries a rich woman at the long end of life expectancy for syphilis -- and then watches her live another twenty-five years. A lot could have been made of that. A lot wasn't.

But it is entertaining to hear Meryl Streep hit every mangled note just as Florence did.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Project Elrond

We are all back at home, finally, after a jaunt to New York to pick up the big girls from a two-week visit to their uncle. We stayed with Anne Kennedy, whose elegant house is more homey and tastefully appointed after six weeks of residence than mine is after six years.

But on Thursday night, I had no big girls and no Darwin (who was out on a business trip just miles from the girls without being able to bring them home in the corporate jet), so we blew off steam by watching The Martian. I gave a stern injunction about how we do not use the kind of language that an astronaut under stress on Mars might be tempted to use, and we skipped the scene of space surgery, but other than that, it's pretty much the ideal movie for a seven-year-old boy. Unfortunately, he could not fully appreciate my favorite scene:

Monday, August 22, 2016

Living In Training

Coincidence served to provide us a teaching example on Sunday. Our town was hosting a 70.3 Ironman race: 1.2 miles swimming, 56 miles bicycling, 13.1 miles running. (Looking up the precise length of each part revealed to me that the 70.3 is actually a half Ironman. The full version of the race involves doubling all these distances.)

The race had begun at 7:00am, so by the time we arrived at our parish for 12:15 mass the first people were completing the race and the "victory village" just down the street from the church was bustling. Then the gospel for the day was:

Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.” (LK 13:22-30)

Of course, talk about attaining heaven while thinking about athletic training, and Paul's comparison will naturally come to mind:

All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it. Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:23-27)

The comparison seems apt to me, because last year, at the urging of my team at work, I trained for and ran a half marathon. Paul wasn't kidding. The athlete does need to exercise discipline in every way. Just to run my 13.1 miles, I had to stick to a strict schedule of running 3-4 days a week, with the week's long run an ever increasing distance. I had to go to bed earlier than I wanted at times, had to follow certain rules as to what and when I ate. And that was nothing compared to the dedication it must take to prepare for the race that was going on outside. I've known a few people who have done Ironman runs and it involves not just a huge time commitment but a willingness to remake one's life to center on the run to a certain extent.

This is rather different from the way in which many people think about salvation. It seems current at the moment to be horrified at the idea that anyone might not be saved. The assumption, I think, is that heaven is something everyone would want (or at least that hell is something no one would want) and thus that someone only fails to attain heaven if God selfishly withholds heaven from him.

It's true that salvation is a gift. It is not a prize which we 'earn' through our efforts. And yet for us to become one with God's perfect goodness surely requires training on our part. If we are to choose the ultimate good, we must build up our strength by choosing the good at every turn. If it's worthwhile to train the body through rigor of rest, eating and training in order to run a race, how much more worth while to train the spirit towards union with God? Surely this is in some sense what Paul has in mind with his comparison to athletic training.

In the ideal sense, it is the proper function of the human body to run the race. And yet, fallen as we are, sunk in inactivity or busy with other things, our bodies may not be ready to run a race well, or at all. We have to train and conform our lives to a discipline in order to have the ability to run a race reliably. In the same sense, our souls are meant, in the ideal, to embrace and conform to God's will. Yet without training we can too easily focus our lives on everything except God, and when the time comes to run our race, find ourselves unable.

Orphan Openings: Ivy

On the corner two blocks over sits an edifice of brick. It looks to be an entire apartment building, but is, as I've heard, inhabited by one elderly woman. I've never seen her, but sometimes the lights are on as I walk past, revealing coffered ceilings and wallpaper and stone fireplaces and inglenooks. The kitchen is bricked into a corner, and that light, too, is often on. I've never seen lights upstairs, but perhaps I walk by at the wrong time.

Ivy masses at the foundation, giving the house a comfortable, established air. The tendrils wind almost to the third story in that tenacious way that ivy has, sending rootlets into any available crevice. Indeed, it's crept into an upstairs window and hangs in a curtain of vines behind the glass. There are many windows set in the verdant walls, all dressed with half-curtains of eyelet, but no others have ivy inside. I study the house every time I walk past it in the evening, as I study all beautiful houses, but now I no longer try to peek into the kitchen or the luxurious front rooms. Instead, I always look at the dark window in the center of the house, where the ivy inside clings withered and dead.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Hard Work of Recapturing the Lightning Vision

Everything I want to write has been percolating in my head. Each day on vacation I had such lovely posts brewing. How we hiked 9.2 miles up and down Old Rag without realizing exactly what a "rock scramble" looked like on the ground, and survived with credit. (Fortunately, we knew enough to leave all but the oldest back at the lodge with the non-hikers.) How Darwin and I laid out on a picnic table at 2 AM like teenagers on a first date, and watched the Perseids in a brilliant Virginia starfield the likes of which I haven't seen since I lived in Virginia as a little girl learning the constellations from my father. How we went to Monticello and surveyed Jefferson's beautiful contribution to the great architecture of the world, the elegant house in which his children worked as slaves. On the pleasure of singing with your siblings, who know exactly where you're going and the perfect harmony to hit. And each evening, I did not write down the sentences taking form in my mind, and they slipped off into the oblivion of unchanneled creativity

The creativity of God is so potent that his thoughts immediately take on created form. Humans have to do a bit more work than that. Without taking the physical effort to convey our thoughts, in speech, in words, in images, we lose them. Even the intuitions that are a gift from God take a physical effort to be conveyed as a gift to others.
It is in these silent and receptive moments that the soul of man is sometimes visited by an awareness of what holds the world together: 
was die Welt
Im innersten zusammenhält. 
only for a moment, perhaps, and the lightning vision of his intuition has to be recaptured and rediscovered in hard work.
So says Josef Pieper in "Leisure the Basis of Culture", which, appropriately enough, was vacation reading for Darwin, and, now, for me. Pieper describes the opposite of leisure not as work but as acedia, or my old nemesis sloth. 
No, the contrary of acedia is not the spirit of work in the sense of the work of every day, of earning one's living; it is man's happy and cheerful affirmation of his own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God -- which is to say love. Love that certainly brings a particular freshness and readiness to work along with it, but that no one with the least experience could conceivably confuse with the tense activity of the fanatical 'worker'. 
Who would guess, unless he were expressly told so, that Aquinas regarded acedia as a sin against the third commandment? He was in fact so far from considering idleness as the opposite of the ethos of work that he simply interprets it as an offence against the commandment in which we are called upon to have 'the peace of the mind in God'.

I have had difficulty in being objective about myself and my motivation since we arrived home, because after the clarity of the fresh mountain air, my head been repollenated by Ohio's muggy atmosphere. I am tired and heavy, and everything seems hard, and I feel unvirtuous because I don't feel like doing the hard work. Isn't virtue found in doing what is difficult? But Pieper has something to say about that too, again by way of Aquinas:

In Kant's view, indeed, the fact that man's natural bent is contrary to the moral law, belongs to the concept of moral law. It is normal and essential, on this view, that the good should be difficult, and that the effort of will required in forcing oneself to perform some action should become the yardstick of the moral good: the more difficult a thing, the higher it is in the order of goodness. 
'Hard work is what is good' -- but in the Summa Theologica we find St. Thomas maintaining the diametrically opposite opinion: 'The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.' 'Not everything that is more difficult is necessarily more meritorious; it must be more difficult in such a way that it is at the same time good in a yet higher way.' The Middle Ages also said something about virtue that is no longer so readily understood -- least of all by Kant's compatriots and disciples -- they held that virtue meant: 'mastering our natural bent'. No; that is what Kant would have said, and we all of us find it quite easy to understand; what Aquinas says is that virtue make us perfect by enabling us to follow our natural bend in the right way. The highest moral good is characterized by effortlessness -- because it springs from love.  
The tendency to overvalue hard work and the effort of doing something difficult is so deep-rooted that it even infects our notion of love. Why should it be that the average Christian regards loving one's enemy as the most exalted form of love? Principally because it offers an example of a natural bend heroically curbed; the exceptional difficulty, the impossibility one might almost say, of loving one's enemy constitutes the greatness of the love. And what does Aquinas say? 'It is not the difficulty of loving one's enemy that matters when the essence of the merit of doing so is concerned, excepting in so far as the perfection of love wipes out the difficulty. And therefore, if love were to be so perfect that the difficulty vanished altogether -- it would be more meritorious still.' 
And in the same way, the essence of thought does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of 'difficulty', so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift -- the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation; it comes effortlessly and without trouble. On one occasion St. Thomas speaks of contemplation and play in the same breath; 'because of the leisure that goes with contemplation' the divine wisdom itself, Holy Scripture says, is 'always at play, playing through the whole world' (Proverbs viii, 30 f.)
First comes contemplation, and after that the hard work. The work without the contemplation is idle activity which exhausts mentally and spiritually as well as physically. 


I'm going on retreat this weekend. It seems strange to leave the family and go off by myself for 24 hours not a week after we've returned from vacation, but that's how the scheduling went. And perhaps it's no mistake. I rested myself physically and mentally on vacation, but I didn't contemplate. I didn't use my free time as leisure, for contemplation. Let me tell you about the day I had four books going from the rather random collection at the vacation house, and I didn't find any of them enjoyable. That's turning leisure time to a very poor account. That's the definition of idleness. 

This weekend I'm going to confession and adoration, and I'm going to have silent time for contemplation. I'm taking Pieper because he's functioning as spiritual reading for me. I'm taking my Bible, in which I'm currently reading through the liturgical requirements in Exodus. I'm taking my rosary because praying it is spiritual exercise for me: onerous at the time, but consistently annoying fruitful. And I'm taking a notebook and a pen, so that, through work, the "lightning vision" of my contemplation can mirror the created form of divine though.

Let me know if I can pray for anything specific for you.

After the hard work of climbing Old Rag.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Are Audiobooks 'Real Reading'?

Daniel Willingham writes about the question "Is listening to an Audio book 'cheating'?"
I've been asked this question a lot and I hate it. I’ll describe why in a bit, but for now I’ll just change it to “does your mind do more or less the same thing when you listening to an audio book and when you read print?”

The short answer is “mostly.”

An influential model of reading is the simple view (Gough & Tumner, 1986), which claims that two fundamental processes contribute to reading: decoding and language processing. “Decoding” obviously refers to figuring out words from print. “Language processing” refers to the same mental processes you use for oral language. Reading, as an evolutionary late-comer, must piggy-back on mental processes that already existed, and spoken communication does much of the lending.

So according to the simple model, listening to an audio book is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding and the former doesn’t.

Is the simple view right?

Some predictions you’d derive from the simple view are supported. For example, You’d expect that a lot of the difference in reading proficiency in the early grades would be due to differences in decoding. In later grades, most children are pretty fluent decoders so differences in decoding would be more due to processes that support comprehension. That prediction seems to be true (e.g., Tilstra et al, 2009).

Especially relevant to the question of audiobooks, you’d also predict that for typical adults (who decode fluently) listening comprehension and reading comprehension would be mostly the same thing. And experiments show very high correlations of scores on listening and reading comprehension tests in adults (Bell & Perfetti, 1994; Gernsbacher, Varner, & Faust, 1990).
[Read the rest for some examples of types of reading which an audiobook might result in better or worse comprehension than reading hard copy.]

This is a topic I think about slightly guiltily at times because it's got to the point where the majority of the books I read each year are on audiobook. I still very much enjoy getting the chance to sit down with a physical book and read. One of the things I enjoyed very much about our vacation last week was that I was finally able to read two books that had been sitting on my "to read" pile for months if not years. But for various reasons, I have very little time to sit down with a book at this time in my life. What little time I do have is snatched from potential sleep time. Yet somehow, while sitting up till one or two in the morning writing and getting 5-6 hours of sleep a night worked for me while actively composing on the novel, if I try to sit up and read until a similar time I find my vision blurring and I eventually have to give up and go to bed. Typing kept me awake in a way that reading does not, even if I very much want to stay up late reading.

The way that I try to make up for this is with audiobooks. On the average day I spend an hour in the car driving to and from work. That now becomes potential reading time. So does time spent mowing the lawn and sometimes doing dishes or other housework.

In some ways the experience of listening to books differs from reading in print -- not necessarily better or worse, just different. Particularly good readers become imprinted on a book's voice. Even if I read in print, I hear any Patrick O'Brian novel in Patrick Tull's voice, and Dance to the Music of Time now will always flow for me in the cadence of Simon Vance's tones. Because I'm reading while doing activities, particular memories of books become tied to particular places or activities: Mowing a difficult spot under the playscape is closely connected with a letter that Churchill's wife wrote to him about how he should improve the way he dealt with subordinates, putting up storm windows in the guest room is forever connected with a passage in War & Peace in which Nickolai rescues a Polish girl and her father.  It's not just that these passages of the books now remind me of these activities, but that returning to a place or activity will suddenly bring up a snatch of prose that I heard in connection with it.

Yet there is a guilty, cultural feeling that this isn't "real" reading. Perhaps this ties back to the way that we learn how to read. In my family, there was a strong tradition of reading aloud. Some favorite books (such as The Hobbit and Watership Down) I heard read aloud by my father before I read them myself. Yet even so, I went to school, filled out my BookIt forms to get pizzas at Pizza Hut, and got stars next to my name for the books I read myself. Being read to by a parent didn't count.

This is doubtless for the reason that Willingham gives in his post: children in the early grades are still learning to decode text and mentally turn that into comprehensible words. However, most people have this pretty well nailed by fifth grade or so. When I listen to a book instead of reading a printed copy, it's not because I find reading printed words difficult and listening is some sort of easy way out. "Cheating" is an idea that suggests I am somehow getting a benefit that I don't deserve. But is the audio-reader really getting an undeserved benefit by listening rather than reading pages? Is he somehow failing to put in the "work" of reading?

Not really, but it's still hard to shake that grade-school feeling that you're getting away with something.  So while this formulation of decoding versus comprehension will even more than before give me a rational assurance that I am "really reading" a book that I listen to, I doubt I'll be able to completely shake the feeling that I am "cheating" somehow.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

In Which Peggy Noonan Drives Me Nuts

There's something about Peggy Noonan's 'here's the pulse of the times' style which can really rub me the wrong way at times. She writes:

Here is a truth of life. When you act as if you’re insane, people are liable to think you’re insane. That’s what happened this week. People started to become convinced he was nuts, a total flake.
This is what became obvious, probably fatally so: Mr. Trump is not going to get serious about running for president. He does not have a second act, there are no hidden depths, there will be no “pivot.”

This shouldn't be some new revelation. It was blindingly obvious a year ago that Trump was an entertaining nutter with a big mouth and a lot of money. Nothing more. Never going to grow into presidential material. Never going to step up his game. But Noonan first had to do some pious chin pulling during the last point when Trump could have been defeated in the primaries: Maybe he understood something about this moment. Maybe it was the elites' fault. Maybe this was the pulse of the times. Maybe conservatism betrayed it's supporters. O tempora, O mores!

And NOW she announces that the guy is a nutty vulgarian as if it's some kind of news? Why, oh why, could we not have gathered around a halfway decent candidate in a year when a bland, generic republican would have stood a very good chance of defeating the tremendously abrasive Hillary Clinton before she messes our country up more?

Monday, August 15, 2016

I'm Waiting For My Kiss

Ever since I was little, my dad has composed spontaneous ditties for his children. Some of them come and go in one sitting for whichever baby he was jostling to sleep, but others have entered family tunelore and been passed down to the next generation. Such a one is "I'm Waiting For My Kiss."

I'm waiting for my kiss,
I'm waiting for my kiss.
If I don't get it, then I will cry,
And I will be such a sorry guy.
I'm waiting for my kiss.

A small thing, and yet it has soothed many children in its day. Now, all the grandchildren in turn learn it; William can sing it a pro, when he's in the mood to perform. 

For dad's 60th birthday vacation, the siblings put on a chamber concert of Dad's favorite songs and hymns, and included was Variations on I'm Waiting For My Kiss. My sister recorded a snippet of all six of us improvising in rehearsal. 

Happy birthday to Dad, and may he never have to wait too long for his kiss.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Work and Wages, Servile and Liberal

I brought Josef Pieper's Leisure The Basis of Culture along as a vacations read. It's one of those books which I'd always heard that I should read but had never got around to. My ideas of what it was about were a bit vague, and mostly inspired by the title, and so actually reading it has been interesting. In some ways, I strikes me as very much a work of a specific time. Pieper wrote it in post war Germany (it was originally published in 1952) and to a great extent he's writing it to argue against a Marxism which utterly materialistic, measuring the value of work and workers according to the economic output produced. Many were apparently trying to justify the existence of the intellectual life in a worker-based society by redefining philosophy, art, etc. as 'intellectual work' and thus those working in the liberal arts as proletarians of the intellect.

The distinctions between 'servile work' and the liberal arts, the need not to see everything as having value only to the extent of its industrial or economic 'value', seem just as important today, but the contexts in which these are argued are often very different. This makes some portions of the essay a bit odd going. Here, however, is one of the sections which struck me, in which he talks about a servile versus human approach to work and wage.

To take an example: the distinction between the liberal arts and the servile arts runs put parallel with the terms: honorarium and wage properly. Properly speaking, the liberal arts receive an honorarium, while servile work receives a wage. The existence of these words implies that in the first instance there exists some incommensurability between the performance and the reward and that the performance cannot, rightly speaking, be paid for. A 'wage', on the contrary (understood in the contradistinction to honorarium) implies payment for good work, and that the performance can be valued in terms of money: work and wage are not incommensurable. Furthermore honorarium means a contribution towards the cost of living, whereas a wage (in the above narrower sense) means payment for a particular piece of work, with no reference to the needs of the individual concerned. Now it is very significant that the extreme Marxist type of intelligence does not recognize the difference between honorarium and wage: all payment is in the form of a wage. In a sort of manifesto on the situation of the author in society today, in which literature is proclaimed a 'social function', Jean-Paul Sartre announces that the writer, who has in the past so seldom 'established a relation between his work and his material recompense', must learn to regard himself as 'a worker who receives the reward of his effort'. There, the incommensurability between the achievement and the reward, as it is implied and expressed in an 'honorarium', is declared non-existent even in the field of philosophy and poetry which are, on the contrary, simply 'intellectual work'. By contrast a social doctrine steeped in the tradition of Christian Europe would not only hold firm to the distinction between an honorarium and a wage, it would not only hesitate regard every reward as a wage; it would go further and would even maintain that there is no such thing as a recompense for a thing done which did not retain in some degree the character (whether much or little) of an honorarium, for even 'servile' work cannot be entirely equated with the material recompense because it is a 'human' action, so that it always retains something incommensurable with the recompense -- just like the liberal arts.

So it comes about, paradoxical though it may seem, that the proletarian dictator Stalin should say: 'The worker must be paid according to the work done and not according to his needs,' and that the Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno which has for one of its principal aims the 'deproletarianizing' of the masses, should assert that 'in the first place the worker has the right to a wage sufficient to support himself and his family.' On the one hand, there is an attempt to restrict and even to extirpate the liberal arts: it is alleged that only useful 'paying' work makes sense; on the other hand, there is an attempt to extend the character of 'liberal art' deep down into every human action, even the humblest 'servile work'. The former aims at making all men into proletarians, the latter at 'deproletarianizing' the masses.
Leisure, the Basis of Culture, pages 41-42

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Immediate Book Meme

Nope, it's MrsDarwin, despite the attribution. All the computers in the house hate me, it seems. I won't bore you with my electronic woes, but suffice it to say that the nice fellow at the Apple store said that repairing the keyboard of my laptop would cost $750. Thanks, William!

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

...and nothing else, because I'm not starting a new book until I've finished packing for vacation

2. What book did you just finish?

The Pauline Epistles in the new testament
Tristram Shandy! At last!
Winds of War, by Herman Wouk

3. What do you plan to read next?

I'm packing my bag, and I'm bringing:
War and Remembrance (both volumes), by Herman Wouk
The Marble Faun, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Leisure: The Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper

After vacation (because our library branch does not have these books in hardcopy, what gives?):
The Dubliners, by James Joyce
The novels of Flann O'Brien
Exodus, picking up with the law chapters where I left off to finish the New Testament.

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling as our read-aloud.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?


5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

Nothing hangs over me just at the moment. I'm probably in denial.
6. What is your current reading trend?

Let's be honest: Facebook. God help me, it's really hot in this house, and my brain has turned to mush.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child -- It's Just Not That Good

The latest Harry Potter book is not exactly by J. K. Rowling (she's one of three credited with the "original story" and Jack Thorne is credited as the playwright) and it's not a novel, but with nine years elapsed since the seventh and final Harry Potter novel, and fandom in no way abated, it's hardly surprising that the publication of a script for the two-part play going up in London of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" has turned into its own publishing event, complete with midnight release. Unfortunately, this work does not live up to the books on whose fame it draws. The spoiler free version is as follows:

The problems with Cursed Child begin with its structure. Written as two plays (parts I and II) each in two acts, it's really effectively one long play in four acts. Each act is 18-20 scenes long. One of these scenes is half a page long and consists of nothing but stage directions. The short, choppy style, heavy on spectacle (reviews of the theatrical products all rave about its special effects and sets) would serve well for a movie, but they seem a poor fit for a play. Yes, I'm sure it looks good on stage, as they spent a lot of money on setting and actors to achieve that, but well written plays actually read well on the page too. I've read and enjoyed some playscripts that I've never seen on stage. But this is not good enough to stand up well without its visuals.

One problem is the dialog. Rowling isn't a brilliant prose stylist, but her dialog is fun and snappy and fits the characters. This is mostly generic, and where's it ties to be funny or emotional it often comes off over-broad. The unfortunate Ron Weasley suffers the most from this. He is turned into an utter doofus in this play, many of whose lines are so cringe-worthy (and whose actions are so ephemeral to the plot) that the play would be better if he were just cut. There are a few lines that have a bit of a Rowling sizzle, but in general the dialog craft is very, very pedestrian.

Perhaps worst of all, however, is the characterization. The play picks up with the same "Nineteen Year Later" scene which forms the afterward of the final Harry Potter novel, and in it we have a cast of characters made up of both our now middle-aged heroes from the original books, and several of their tween-aged children. However, the adults don't act much like adults. Indeed, there are a couple of deeply painful scenes in which they act distinctly like kids, most notably a ministry of magic meeting in which everyone acts eleven and one person asks if she should smack another in the mouth now. Perhaps in a children's book where the adults are alien creatures never fully rounded because they're perceived through the lens of childhood perception, this would be barely tolerable. But here the lumbering caricatures are characters we spent seven novels getting to know. And even beyond the non-adult-adult-behavior problem, some of the characters are made to do things which simply seem out of character with their established childhood personalities. Most especially, the plot -- a father-son estrangement/redemption arc drawn out of the generic kid's book plotting hat -- hinges upon Harry Potting slipping up and, in a moment of anger, saying something to his son which I find it hard to imagine many fathers, and particularly one of Harry's particular personality and history, ever saying to a son.

Its weakest moments are in the first half, which is heavy on exposition (though there are cringe-worthy character and dialog moments all the way through) while in the second half the plot gets moving at full speed and it more or less carries the reader's interest. For its conclusion it relies on some of the more emotional elements of the Potter canon, which also helps give the ending some weight. But really, nothing rescues this lumbering creature. I think that Rowling diluted her brand and betrayed her fans a bit by authorizing this piece.

Spoilers to follow below the break:

Monday, August 01, 2016

Go Ye and Click Likewise

Let's stop being so weepy here. Some clickage for your Monday.

1. All Star by Smashmouth, as sung by Disney characters. This is a college song for me -- egads, we even bought the album.

2. Auditions for the role of young Han Solo. I love Jeff Goldblum.

3. The physics of the "hardest move in ballet".

4. A series of posts by John Cuddeback on the use of architect Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language in making a living home. I love A Pattern Language and the way that it helps break down into discrete patterns the emotional reaction a person has to a space that seems to "feel alive".

5. Look, I'm creeping nearer to forty, and I'm not going to get back the body I had when I only had four children. It's time to embrace the me I am now. It's time for: the green Mom pants.

You wear green capris with a black top: instant authority. People treat me differently in my mom pants. They move aside. They see that I am doing Important Work for society. Young men hold the door for me. Young women see their future. My slender teenage daughters are appropriately appalled by being seen with me. If I'd wanted more authenticity, I would have gone with coral, but even I have my limits. I'll never be old enough to wear coral pants.

6. I am going to a wedding in October, and I want a dress. I've been browsing ModCloth, which is full of the most lovely creations. Some of them I can reject out of hand; I know what doesn't sit well on me. But many of them are so pretty to contemplate just at the level of being glad that they exist, even if they don't benefit me personally. (C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, calls this the first stage of Eros.)

7. Finally, I have finished Tristram Shandy, after two years of trying. Brandon has a review up that pinpoints why the same qualities that make this book important also make it so frustrating in places. Up from the comments, here's my assessment:
Back when I was in acting class, one of the things we discussed was the concept of art as life distilled. Art distills life in a lot of different ways, some far more comprehensible than others, and yet for all that, distillation is always there, as it must be. Even if, say, an author goes full scatological or pornographic, those element are distilled for the effects that will most appall or titillate, and that particular filtering removes the art even further from the reality it purports to describe. 
The greatness, and the tediousness, of Tristram Shandy is Sterne's project of distilling for the absurdity of trying to describe life in a linear, orderly, tightly controlled fashion. The chaos makes a certain amount of sense. As you say, how can you fully describe a person's life without understanding their parents, and what formed their parents, etc. And yet, it gets frustrating after a time -- all right, a fairly brief time -- because one of the things we expect someone writing a novel to do is to tell a story. And telling a story is the thing that Sterne stubbornly refuses to do. He diverts. He digresses. He doesn't allow his characters to finish stories. He breaks them up with short chapters of otherness. He interrupts stories with other stories, and then doesn't finish those. I suppose the frustration becomes one of more of his bawdy jokes. 
Sterne is by no means unskilled with the innuendo; I raised an eyebrow at the sheer salaciousness of the Jewish widow making sausage. But the bawdiness grows wearing, especially when it's not connected with a story. And sincerity kills it -- Corporal Trim can barely go on with the naughty tale he's telling about his brother Tom when Uncle Toby is so affected by the unessential plot detail of the poor slave girl. His devout concern takes a lot of the zest out of Trim's tale; bawdy jokes always depend on a certain swaggering attitude of mockery. 
We get so little of Tristram himself as a child that it becomes especially glaring in the section with the sadly faulty window. Other writers would have focused on the child's reactions, sensations, perceptions; Sterne takes the chance to philosophize and nudge nudge by sending us back to the adults. To my mind, it made the story less interesting, but again, it's not about the story. 
My favorite passages also had to do with writing. Volume VI, Ch. XL: the lines representing Tristram's progress through his volumes so far. Volume VIII, Ch. II: On beginning a book. Volume IX, Ch. XIII: on curing writer's block by shaving.
8. Last but definitely least: While walking by the local bookstore on Saturday night, we noticed that there was going to be a release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the next night.  We didn't have a lot of interest in reading it, but the big girls love to dress up, so they went down.

Sybil Trelawney reads the tea leaves.
And so we ended up acquiring a copy of this... this thing. Oh, friends. Sybil here started reading it aloud when she got home, and eventually we had to beg her to stop because the dialogue was unbearable. Google tells me that most of the reviews have been glowing. We differ. Watch this space for Darwin's review.