Thoughts on “The New Pope”

The Neon Nuns will remain as perhaps the most striking visual component of this season. (Source)

I reproduce below an adaptation of the notes I took after each episode of The New Pope, which were then posted in a private Facebook group of like-minded Catholics dedicated to the series. Rather than give a full summary evaluation of The New Pope, I thought readers would find this more process-based approach to be interesting, as it shows how my reactions changed over time. That said, I may post something a bit more all-encompassing later. A word of warning: what follows is spoiler-heavy.

Thoughts on Episode 1:

1) It’s gorgeous as ever.
2) Somehow I don’t get the impression that Paolo Sorrentino is very impressed with this pontificate.
3) I guffawed at the video game scene.
4) Looks like this season is going to be, at least in part, an homage to Hadrian the Seventh.
5) I was surprised by how rooted this season is in Italy’s migration crisis
6) The music continues to be brilliant.
7) Silvio Orlando really is an underrated actor.
8) Honestly I thought to myself “Neon Baroque could be my new aesthetic.”

Voiello and companions on an uncharacteristically antique and ornate British train (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 2:

1) Sorrentino doesn’t understand the English. He has made Brannox into a French decadent, not an English ecclesiastical peer. Though this episode makes me want to see Malkovich as Huysmans.
2) Gutierrez remains the best character.
3) We start to see again Sorrentino’s spiritual tendency for short, sometimes aphoristic enunciations of truth.
4) The continuing importance of the terrorist message makes me suspect Brannox will end like Hadrian VII, only with a jihadist in place of an Ulsterman.
5) Speaking of which, interesting echoes of a lot of English Catholic literary tradition here: Hadrian the Seventh, Newman, Brideshead, even arguably Oscar Wilde.
6) I can’t tell whether the line about the Church “thinking” is a criticism or not. I suspect it’s like Greenland’s ice.
7) Loneliness remains one of the central themes of the series.

Thoughts on Episode 3:

1) The last scene(s) manage at once to be extremely Baroque and extremely Gothic. I was reminded of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis.
2) Malkopope has arrived, he’s screaming, and I am so here for it.
3) I remain surprised by Sorrentino’s political imagery here. The massacre in Somalia is not the sort of thing one is used to seeing on HBO.
4) Fabiano looks like Michael Jackson and reminded me of the Purple Man in The Violent Bear It Away.
5) It’s still all about loneliness.
6) JP3 is an interesting choice of name. In view of his two speeches, I wonder if the emphasis on “fragility” is in some sense evoking JP2 specifically. Regardless, I suspect it foreshadows something yet to come, or perhaps some secret we have yet to learn.
7) The Meghan Markle jokes were great. Sorrentino’s much funnier – or rather, telling a lot more jokes – in this season.
8 ) Love the dwarf abbess. I wonder if the scene where she’s smoking is a reference to Nasty Habits?

Thoughts on Episode 4:

1) Kind of a boring episode overall.
2) We’re in the slump of sin, where all the characters are at their lowest. Or at least will soon be.
3) Cardinal Assente dancing at the end was fun, but also strangely sad. He’s dancing alone. There is a poignant metaphor here – I was reminded of some of the sadder passages in Frédéric Martel.
4) The Marilyn Manson bit and the further Meghan Markle jokes were hilarious.
5) Return of the Willendorf Venus!
6) This is such a continental show.
7) Malkopope is really starting to grow on me.
8) Gutierrez remains the best because he repents of his sin immediately and receives sacramental absolution.
9) The scene with the gropey priest is like something out of a bad French novel of the 1760s.
10) With Sister Lisette et al., I think Sorrentino is satirizing activist nuns.

Not gonna lie, I want one of those hoodies. (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 5:

1) Really getting the impression that Sorrentino is a low-key reactionary. Giving a fair explanation of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, implicitly deriding the banality of contemporary Catholic artistic culture, discussion of jihadist attacks on Christians in Europe? Obviously this might reverse in future episodes, but it’s noticeable at this point.
2) Finally getting some proper Sorrentinean surrealism at last.
3) Favorite line in the whole episode came from Sophia – “The Pope produces symbols. The vulgar act of interpretation must fall to others.”
4) The scene with Girolamo and Don Mimmo was beautiful, and I thought, quite moving.
5) I just noticed that Sophia’s name is…well, Sophia. I’m starting to wonder if this is meaningful.
6) Pursuant to point (1) above, I think it’s telling that Gutierrez’s ongoing fling (affair?) with Freddy coincides with a relapse in his alcoholism. This is astounding, given that today the normal depiction of such a relationship would be as a celebration of liberation. Sorrentino suggests it’s the opposite.
7) Disappointed that the strategy is not to “punish” pedophiles, though perhaps the emphasis there was more on adult sexual scandals…?
8) Also Gutierrez in general has been sorely neglected on the whole. He’s not moving the plot anywhere. At all.
9) Based on what I’ve seen so far, I do think Sorrentino is commenting on church politics a good deal more here than he did in The Young Pope. Francis II, Sr. Lisette’s strike, JP3’s elevation of a manifestly corrupt Cardinal…these all have wider resonances in recent church history. And I do wonder whether the cult of Lenny Belardo is in some sense a moment where Sorrentino is reflecting on some of the reception of the show itself.
10) The “No!” at Lourdes reminds me of John Paul II’s “We want God” moment in Poland.

“Hey, hey, hey, the gang’s all here!” (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 6:

1) Fr Leopold Essence is probably the devil but he mainly reminded me of the Cowboy from Mulholland Drive. He’s literally an accuser, and he accuses by drawing attention to distorted love.
2) He’s an American, too. The only other major American character in this show, without Sister Mary, is Lenny. Is Lenny then the most intelligent man on earth?
3) Wasn’t there some 19th c. Ultramontane who made a comment about the Pope being the most intelligent man on earth because of the charism of infused infallible knowledge?
4) So God is a millipede and the devil is a cockroach?
5) Relatedly, that opening scene is so well shot. It’s just a master class in cinematic art.
6) The dancing midget nun is giving Cardinal Essente a run for his money
7) Creepy old incest mom has a German accent. This seems potentially significant. Atanasio (interesting, unusual name) has had “Nature turn against him.” All of Esther’s storyline, up to now largely detached from the main plot, feels increasingly like a parable. In any other hands it would all seem really very trite like some cheap Victorian novel. But Sorrentino somehow elevates it.
8) Voiello’s sidelining under JP3 reminds me of the similarly disastrous personnel decisions made by JP2
9) The Kabul exile of Hernandez reminds me of Bugnini
10) “There is no room left for poetry” – a great line and a cutting diagnosis. Also, the fact that this line comes where it does in that scene confirms my hypothesis about the broader point of the nuns being a satire of activist sisters as well as liberal/feminist Catholics more generall
11) I wonder if that same line can be taken as a Sorrentinean commentary on gender relations writ large? The struggle for rights has deprived us of poetry…
12) What a surprise; wealthy incest lady is also a racist. She also has a perverse vision of sanctity based on “human warmth.” Interesting.
13) There’s an interesting parallel between Brannox’s interview and Lenny’s Venice speech. Both collapse in their separate ways while their disapproving parents are (potentially) watching.
14) I called the drug addiction early on.
15) This addiction puts Brannox in an interesting parallel with Gutierrez.
16) The moment when Atanasio embraces Esther is I think when that storyline really changed. It was such a terribly sad moment…one could suddenly see past the sexuality of it and instead perceive the fundamental tragedy of the situation, the total lack of human connection and the joyous simplicity of human touch. And yet it also reinforces the underlying loneliness of all parties involved.
17) Good to see Lenny’s still a Saint.
18) Spalletta, thy name is Dziwisz.
19) Increasingly I think Hernandez was invented to de-Sodanoize Voiello for the Italian audience. Voiello in Season 2 gets to engage in the heroic acts that Voiello in Season 1 (clearly modeled on Sodano and Bertone) never could.
20) Voiello really kinda is the center of the whole series isn’t he? In sort of the same way that the bureaucracy or the civil service outlasts pontificates.
21) Brannox on evil, like Brannox on tenderness, really reminds me of JP2 in his more anti-communist and moralistic moments.
22) Sex is so sad in this show.
23) It occurred to me for the first time how silly those Lenny sweatshirts are. He never allowed himself to be photographed, so how did they get a photo of him in cope and tiara? Little details that get overlooked…

“Follow the looove” – Leopold Essence’s arrival is Sorrentino at his most Lynchian, and his most enthralling. (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 7:

1) I was struck by how Sorrentino uses motion and stillness in this episode. When we meet the doctor’s wife, she is rigid and almost lifeless. As she becomes more open to happiness again, she’s able to walk like a model again – to walk beautifully, even artistically. Yet upon her return to her son, she returns to a statuesque stillness. The difference is that now, her stillness is itself artistic – a close imitation of the Pietà, seen a few times throughout the episode. It’s as if there’s a return to suffering, but now it has been transfigured into a kind of beauty (by grace?).
2) A Pope paralyzed by his own physiological problems, surrounded by evil counselors, and unable or unwilling to respond to crimes in the church? No wonder they named Malkopope John Paul III.
3) I’m somehow strangely reassured by the fact that Lenny is the same old Lenny.
4) Really getting tired of all the magical disabled people tropes. Eric is the fourth or fifth this season alone.
5) Venice at night is so typically Sorrentinean. I was reminded of “Youth.”
6) Gutierrez remains the soundest bearer of truth. His words in the confessional were, I thought, quite moving.
7) The “Purification” scene was aesthetically stunning. It was as if Gustav Klimt and Anselm Kiefer had collaborated on a film. The second time I watched it, I struggled not to get emotional. The silent desperation, the simplicity, the beauty – it’s all so moving.
8) Eric’s miracle is the inverse of Sister Antonia’s, I think – both find death at Lenny’s prayers, but one achieves heaven.
9) The opening scene on the heavenly beach was very funny. I also think it was a kind of reverse foreshadowing of the “Purification” scene, the other moment on a beach in this episode.
10) It occurred to me for the first time how fixated Sorrentino is with the upper classes. Almost all of his work focuses on elites. One wonders if he chooses such stories in part just to film in such gorgeous locations as the doctor’s palace.

Sorrrentino never skimps on ecclesiastical finery. Would that our own prelates would take note! (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 8:

1) I applaud everything Lenny says to the nuns, which is absolutely spot-on. Sorrentino deserves more credit for his understanding of Catholicism.
2) Brannox’s comments on loneliness are one of the more movingly human moments of the series – as are the strange, not-quite-erotic snatches of intimacy between him and Sophia.
3) Voiello’s eulogy was a bit saccharine. Of all the three “speeches” in this episode, his was the weakest. But it was sort of a nice moment of growth for Voiello overall.
4) Assente is awful and I’m glad he got what was coming to him. Voiello proves himself to be that immortal archetype of Italian literature, the crafty, pragmatic priest who snatches victory from the jaws of defeat (I am reminded of Father Pirrone in “Il Gattopardo”).
5) I have reversed my evaluation of Essence. He and Bauer may instead be avenging angels rather than devils, especially in view of their ambush of Spalletta and Co.
6) Why does Bauer use such an outdated phone?
7) Sorrentino really manages to get some beautiful rooms as sets.
8) It really bothers me that the clergy were all wearing the wrong color at the funeral. Requiems – except for Popes – don’t use red! Also, the Latin was incorrect (right?), though I appreciated the effort.
9) One of the key motifs of this episode was the tease. We see moments of relational, almost erotic, teasing from Sophia in her interactions with Brannox at the chalet. Don Camillo’s trick with Assente is a kind of emotional teasing. Lenny teases Voiello with ostensible knowledge about the upcoming football season. There were, I think, a few other examples. I don’t know why Sorrentino relies upon this motif here, but it was really noticeable.

Malkopope and Cardinals in The New Pope, Episode 9. Featuring (l-r) Javier Camara, Ramon Garcia, Silvio Orlando, John Malkovich. (Source)

Thoughts on Episode 9:

1) That scene in the Sistine Chapel when Pius XIII is lined up with all the cardinals and John Paul III – an extremely powerful aesthetic. Matched only by the Neon Nuns in this season.
2) I really loved Malkovich’s speech from the balcony, which was the strongest in the episode. It was theologically rich, poetic, and delivered in that certain screaming je ne sais quoi that only Malkovich possesses.
3) It occurs to me that there are, as it were, four titular “New Popes” in this series. Francis II, John Paul III, the reformed Pius XIII, and Voiello.
4) The twist with the terrorists is a kind of inversion of Hadrian VII’s ending, which is interesting given the extent to which this season draws upon that narrative throughout.
5) Unclear to me whether Gutierrez (criminally underutilized in this season on the whole) and Brannox have in fact ended up betraying their vows of chastity? We can probably presume the young nun has. Is Sorrentino taking a left turn and endorsing love and sex for all? I don’t know. It would be uncharacteristic and a huge leap from the rest of the series. But perhaps the whole point is in the ambiguity. Isn’t that, after all, the ultimate message of Lenny’s last speech? We don’t have all the answers, and worrying about them too much spoils things.
6) Speaking of speeches, it seems that Sorrentino still doesn’t quite grasp how rhetorical binaries work. Lenny’s “Am I x or am I y” bit echoed the “Are we a or are we b” in the Venice speech on the Blessed Juana. And as then, I’m not sure it really worked.
7) Esther’s story was deeply sad. I’m not totally sure what to make of it – I no longer think it’s a parable (at least not from Episode 7 onward). But it does seem like a critique of a certain kind of an especially Italian devotionalism. It rhymes with his treatment of Tonino Pettola in Season 1, just as Francis II rhymes with Sister Antonia. Sorrentino seems to hate fanaticism.
8) On that note, I absolutely loved the Tonino Pettola call-back at the last shot.
9) I would have liked one last appearance from Leopold Essence since we got so much from Bauer. The scene with the American general was quite funny, though.
10) It seems that, in the end, most of the main characters ended their arc with some kind of love. Brannox gets his parents back. Lenny gets the love of the people, then dies and becomes a real saint. Sophia gets the love of a man she admires (though it’s unclear whether or not their love is sexual). Voiello has a new child to care for, the only love he really knows how to show. Gutierrez may be back with Freddy, but if nothing else, he seems to have kicked his alcoholism and is very happy. Our Romeo and Juliet of the Vatican are reunited with their child. The doctor and his wife are expecting a new baby. Even Bauer is going to marry his escort, like Hosea marrying a prostitute. Perhaps this is the point – the chief thing, the real happy ending, is love. If the question of the series is loneliness, the answer, insofar as we can find one (and Lenny would say the answer belongs to God), is love.
11) And thus, no one except Esther ends up lonely in the end. There seems to be a kind of narrative cruelty in this. But then again, don’t kill priests if you don’t want to go to prison.
12) What the hell was on the walls when Brannox and Lenny have their final confrontation? Very weird, disturbing art.
13) The insistence upon Don Antonio being a “good priest” is encouraging and, I think, representative of Sorrentino’s particular take on Catholicism. Alongside all the aestheticism and insistence on mystery (Pius XIII), there’s both a certain moderation when it comes to the rules (represented by both Voiello and John Paul III) as well as a recognition of real heroism and sacrifice (the various martyrs throughout this season).
14) That said, I think what I most missed in The New Pope was the witty spirituality, that sort of esprit d’escalier of the soul that Sorrentino peppered throughout The Young Pope. There were, to be sure, a few great zingers this season, but nothing that matches “The weight of God” or “Absence is presence” or “What’s under all that ice?” from The Young Pope. Which is odd, I think, since John Paul III seems like an aphoristic character.
15) I guess my other criticism of the season as a whole is that it was, at times, a little too diffuse. Part of what made TYP so powerful was the network of relations radiating out of the fascinatingly complex central character: the agon with his mentor, Cardinal Spencer, the loss of his brother, Dussolier, the foster-motherhood of Sister Mary, the rivalry with Voiello, the unfolding friendship with Gutierrez, and of course, the pain of his abandonment by the parents who leave him again in Venice. Although TYP hardly possesses a linear plot, it at least managed to dive deeply into the psychology and spiritual development of one character. It had a shape. It easily became iconic. But as good as The New Pope is, it doesn’t quite cohere in the same way. It loses itself at times, in part because it’s never quite clear whose story it is.
16) Even the surrealism has been weaker throughout. Remember, the very first scene of TYP is Lenny crawling out of a pyramid of babies at St. Mark’s Square. Where was the equivalent of the kangaroo? A dog doesn’t rise to nearly the same oddity and is thus a far weaker visual and narrative symbol. No one was lusting after the Willendorf Venus this time. No one saw all the Popes of history lined up in a semi-dream sequence (again, another great zinger – “Power is a banal platitude”), or anything like it. The closest we ever got was that absolutely wonderful, Lynchian scene with Leopold Essence and Sophia in the Vatican cantina. More of that would have been salutary.
17) On the whole, though, this was the best thing on television for the last few months, bar none. And even in view of its imperfections, I do think the show says something valuable about Catholicism, about loneliness, and about love. Although COVID certainly complicates this – and I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary – I think I would like to see a third season about Voiello’s papacy. We shall see.

Pearls from the Blessed Abbot Marmion

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A French icon of the Blessed Abbot. (Source)

Today is the feast of the Bl. Abbot Columba Marmion OSB, Abbot of Maredsous. The Irishman who served most of his priestly life (and all of his monastic profession) in Belgium is not yet canonized, but I and many others pray he will one day become a Doctor of the Church. Here are some of his words for my readers’ consideration, along with my own occasional commentary. No doubt, my readers will observe what has often been noted about the Blessed Abbot – that he combines a firm dogmatic foundation with penetrating mystical insight and the soundest of practical advice.

“We must be careful to supernaturalize our work. Never begin your studies without having prayed. Try to watch over your intention: see that it is for God and for truth…Never become the dupes of your own learning: in this life our knowledge will always be imperfect.” (Christ – The Ideal of the Priest, 79). Admirable advice for any students, though perhaps especially for those who have made the divine mysteries their object of study.

“For everything in the life of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, is full of signification. Christ, if I may thus express myself, is the great sacrament of the New Law…each of Our Lord’s mysteries ought to be for us an object of contemplation; His mysteries ought also to be, as it were, sacraments producing within us, according to the measure of our faith and love, their own special grace. And this is true of each of the states of Jesus, of each of his actions. For if Christ is always the Son of God, if in all that He says and does He first of all glorifies His Father, neither does He ever separate us from the thought of Him. To each of His mysteries, He attaches a grace which is to help us to reproduce within ourselves His divine features in order to make us like unto Him.” (Christ in His Mysteries, 232-33). Here we see Dom Marmion presenting two important points, one explicit and one implicit. The explicit note is that every act of Christ, the God-Man, is a substantive work of our salvation even as it lifts up all glory unto the Father. This two-fold movement embedded within all of Christ’s actions thus constitutes the continuing and hidden mediation of Christ as Priest and Victim. Dom Marmion’s implicit point concerns how we come to know of this mediation. As a monk whose soul was well-calibrated to the rhythms of liturgy and lectio divina, Dom Marmion stood in a far more totalizing relationship to the Sacraments and the Scriptures than most of us will ever know. But it is precisely in these, Christ’s “mysteries,” that we encounter His mediation. And the posture of the soul required of the believer is not based primarily on her intellectual capacities, but on that deeper, more personal, super-linguistic sensitivity we call “contemplation.” One could write much more about “contemplation” as an epistemology of the Transcendent, but I digress.

“Whence came this human love of Jesus, this created love? From the uncreated and divine love, from the love of the Eternal Word to which the human nature is indissolubly united. In Christ, although there are two perfect and distinct natures, keeping their specific energies and their proper operations, there is only one Divine Person. As I have said, the created love of Jesus is only a revelation of His uncreated love. Everything that the created love accomplishes is only in union with the uncreated love, and on account of it; Christ’s Heart draws its human kindness from the divine one…The Heart of Jesus pierced upon the Cross reveals to us Christ’s human love; but beneath the veil of the humanity of Jesus is shown the ineffable and incomprehensible love of the Word.” (Christ in His Mysteries, 370-71). Reading these words, I am reminded of the phrase of St. Augustine that Scripture is a tree with its roots in heaven and its fruits on earth. The same could be said of Christ Himself.

“Faith is a seed, and every seed contains in germ the future harvest. Provided that we put away from faith all that can diminish and tarnish it; that we develop it by prayer and practice, that we constantly give it the occasion of manifesting itself in love, faith places in our hands the substance of the joys to come and gives birth to unshaken confidence.” (Christ, the Life of the Soul, 141). The point, here, is that faith is not simply a propositional assent. Its effect is not automatic, as in some of the simpler Protestant ideas of it. It must be lived – it must be cultivated if it is to bear fruit.

“Soon, however, in the same measure as the soul draws near to the Supreme Good, it shares the more in the Divine simplicity.” (Christ, the Life of the Soul, 317). In context, the Blessed Abbot is discussing the practice of prayer. The closer we grow to God, the closer we move to that knowledge of Him in which words fail. For in God, all words are utterly extinguished – all words, that is, except His own divine Name.

“Let us often beseech God to give us that light of faith and strength of love which will render our obedience perfect. Thus supernaturally sustained, this obedience will become easy, generous, simple, prompt, and joyous.” (Christ, the Ideal of the Monk, 279). Although the Blessed Abbot wrote these words for the special edification of monastics, there can be little doubt that they find a wider application in the lives of every devout Christian. For all of us must render obedience to the law of God. As Dom Marmion notes, the “luminous arms” of obedience are made up of faith and charity as a sword is made of hilt and blade. And neither faith nor charity are the exclusive purview of vowed religious.

“The devil tries to trouble you by his [subtleties], so that you may cease to act well for fear of acting from vanity. We must never cease doing well for that reason, but quietly purify our intention. The best way is to unite it with Jesus Christ, and with His intentions, and if there is anything imperfect in your intentions this union with Jesus Christ will heal it.” (Letter quoted in Union with God According to the Letters of Direction of Dom Marmion, 70). Here we see the theological basis behind a point made independently by Julian of Norwich and, later, T.S. Eliot. In the words of the latter: “And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching.” That ground, of course, is Christ dwelling in us.

 

The Amish Catholic…in Translation

sky-blue-flag-poland.jpg

I’ve always wanted to visit Poland. (Source)

My review of The Benedict Option, “Benedict Shrugged,” has just been translated into Polish at Christianitas.org. I believe it is the first time any of my work has been put into any language other than English.

I must thank the lovely Natalia Łajszczak for translating what is, in fact, a rather long piece. I am sure she has done a wonderful job. I must also thank her husband, Filip, an old friend and the one who first approached me with the idea. I’m honored that they thought my review was worth the time and effort, and, moreover, that they thought it might be useful to have it in another language.

For those who can read Polish, go check out Natalia’s work!

Unfashionable Thoughts on the Proliferation of Bibles

PentecostGradualIllumination

A depiction of Pentecost (and thus Our Lady of the Cenacle) in an illuminated A from a Lombard antiphonal, 1430’s. Attributed to Stefano da Verona and now in the possession of the Getty Museum. Not a Bible, though. (Source)

Erasmus, that mercurial fellow of the Renaissance who did so much damage with such good intentions, hoped that the humanist scholarship then revolutionizing Biblical studies would produce a popular spiritual awakening. He foresaw a time when, the Bible having been translated into vernacular languages, “the farmer would sing parts of the scripture at the plow, the weaver hum them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveller lighten the weariness of his journey with like stories.” What he got was the Reformation.

Those of us Catholics who have the benefit of historical hindsight can perhaps treat Erasmus with a degree of charity. He did not foresee the storm that he was helping to prepare. At best, his image of the Word-infused society is one that we can and ought to strive for. But things have gone rather differently in what used to be Christendom. The plurality of conflicting Biblical interpretations, stemming both from theological divisions and from theologically-motivated translations from the standard scriptural texts of pre-modernity, has eroded the communion of the full body of Christians. Though by no means the only factor in secularization, this loss of even the pretense of unity significantly impaired the Church’s evangelical witness.

But of course, certain divisions along theological lines always existed in pre-modernity as well. Heretics, mystics, and scholars often disagreed with the orthodox establishment over various exegetical points, and sometimes those divisions were backed by political force. So, what made the Reformation different? Perhaps it was the material condition that stands behind Erasmus’s vision – the advent of the printing press. After all, the mass dissemination of information that the printing press spread and entrenched the Reformation (and the Catholic Reformation) as early as Luther’s first moves in 1517.

But I wish to speak less of early modernity and more of our own era. And, standing firmly in our present moment, I must conclude that printing the Bible was a mistake. Or, to be precise, the mass production of Bibles was a mistake.

An Observation

Walk into any sizeable book store – a Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million, perhaps. Wander the shelves and you will no doubt eventually come upon the Bible section, sometimes rows and rows of it. I recently did, as I have done many times before. On this recent occasion, I came upon more Bibles than I could count. There were dozens of different translations into English, often sold by competing Bible companies.

Leaving aside that variety, I was struck by the sheer overwhelming diversity of the Bibles as physical objects. I found Bibles in boxes, Bibles in plastic, Bibles in hardcover and paperback. There was an art-journalling Bible that seemed to combine the recent coloring fad with the word of God (curiously, there seemed to be no human faces in any of the images, rather reminding one of another religion’s sacred art). There was a “Rainbow Bible,” not a camp copy of the scriptures but a text pre-highlighted in various hues to illustrate thematic points. There’s a C.S. Lewis Bible for those who like to take their Jesus in leonine form. There’s a Lego-illustrated Brick Bible, and, let the reader carefully note, it’s not the same thing as The Brick Bible for Kids. Erasmus would be pleased to see that there are occupational Bibles, such as Bibles oriented to students, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police, and soldiers. There’s even an American Patriot’s Bible.

AmericanPatriot'sBible

This is a real thing. (Source)

But perhaps the greatest division beyond the inevitable Catholic/Protestant scriptural distinction is gender. Many of the Bibles (and Bible accessories such as carrying cases) are very clearly oriented to men or women. For instance, who is the intended buyer for a Bible in pink pleather binding with floral design on the cover? And who is targeted by a camo Bible carrier with the words “Armor of God” on it? One could cite similar examples ad nauseam. Again, go to your local bookstore. While you may be more likely to find a Bible section in the South or Midwest, I’d wager you could locate one in almost any part of the country. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

Some of these phenomena are not limited to Protestant Bibles, though Catholic Bible companies clearly lack the inventiveness and marketing ingenuity displayed by purveyors of Protestant Bibles. They are guilty of another sin. Mostly, Catholic Bibles just look bad. Many of them are just dumpy paperback bricks that no one wants to read, let alone have around the house. When your Bible fails even on a coffee table, you know you’re doing something wrong.

The Problem

These trappings are all deeply insidious for several reasons.

First, they enlist the Word of God in the maintenance of fallible worldly systems such as the nation, the state, the military-industrial complex, and various forms of social authority, thus stripping the Word of its critical power.

Second, they subtly encourage an unhealthy personalization of spiritual life. We are not Christians alone with God, but part of one Body of Christ. Ultimately, we can’t really own the Bible – not by ourselves. It can never be a private document, subsisting in a personalized meaning.

Third, in a perverse inversion of the last point, these trappings turn the Bible into a physical totem of a human subculture with its own recognized social-symbolic markers and status symbols. The Bible does not belong to the world of conspicuous consumption.

Fourth, the gendering of the Bible is a uniquely vicious practice, probably intended for what are innocently if cynically capitalist reasons. These Bibles sell, no doubt. But they also reinforce problematically rigid gender norms which speak to a wider cultural bifurcation of the Word of God into a Gospel for men and a Gospel for women. I have seen this phenomenon with my own eyes in both Evangelical and Catholic contexts. I have known people who have suffered because of it, some even falling away from the Faith entirely. Have we so easily forgotten the words of St. Paul that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus?” (Gal 3:28 KJV).

Fifth, these trappings commodify and trivialize the Word of God. The Bible is something to be sold. It becomes one item in the marketplace among many others. If you don’t like it in black, you can have it in any color under the sun. You can get a version that says things the way you like. The capitalist system affords the Bible no special treatment as a text; it is a book to be sold like any other book. And how it sells!

The Decay of the Scriptural Aura

There are those who will here object that I am taking too material a view of the Bible. After all, they will say, isn’t it better that the message of the Bible is dispersed far and wide, even if some of the editions are trivial or problematic? Why should it matter if some editions have silly themes or appear as commodities among other commodities? Isn’t it worth it?

I take exception with this attitude for a few reasons. My first is purely sectarian, in that, as a Catholic, I object to the unaided reading of scripture and the erection of private judgment as any kind of rule in its interpretation. The Church is the preeminent exegete, and without her, we are liable to fall prey to our own sinful reasonings. Some Protestants will find this objection unconvincing; Catholics, at least, should find it uncontroversial.

But the issue cuts deeper than that. We should treat the Bible as a sacramental. It is not just any book. The visible scriptures convey grace by summoning the heart to an awareness of what is invisible. And this precisely because we, as human beings, are sacramental. We are body and soul, matter and spirit. Our religious lives are healthier when both are brought together under a common obedience to Christ in a biune ministration of grace. The sacraments are fitted to our nature. So are sacramentals; so are the scriptures. Turning the Bible into a personalized commodity cheapens its quality as one of the paradigmatic sacramentals.

We ought not lose sight of the fact that this deadening process of commodification, however far-rooted it may be in history, has taken off with alarming speed in our own time precisely because of the cultural features of postmodernity. We live in a sign-saturated age. Both words and images fill our view at almost every waking moment, whether they be painted, printed, written, or digital. And signs, like coins, lose their value with over-production. Is it any surprise then that narrativity has become strained as well? Can we be shocked that those explanatory schemes which once held together our culture and our own personal sense of meaning have long since melted into air? Nothing has survived the thoroughly American logic of consumerist capitalism; can anything withstand the acid-bath of “innovation?” These questions have been with us since the 1970’s, when philosophers first began to take note of, as Lyotard called it, “the postmodern condition.” They have yet to be fully resolved.

One other feature of postmodernity with direct bearing on our subject was first examined by Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin notes that, in premodern conditions, art objects were imbued with an “aura,” a sense of absolute singularity and unique presence that belonged to the artifact under the eye of the viewing subject. It was this quality that bound art to its original context in ritual. Indeed, some of you may notice that this idea is latent in Aquinas’s idea of claritas, without which nothing can be beautiful. But in an age where art can be reproduced again and again, an image can proliferate, as can the experience of seeing the image, without any of the unique presence that comes from contact with the original. We have witnessed the “decay of the aura.” And since, in Benjamin’s words, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition,” then the “tremendous shattering of tradition” in postmodernity has thoroughly dispensed with the aura.

Bibles used to have an aura. Before the advent of the printing press, Bibles were expensive, rare, hand-crafted codices, often illuminated with historiated capitals and copious illustrations that drew upon pigments as rare as lapis lazuli and gold itself. So were other prayer-books – and the Bible was indeed meant for prayer. For the monks who labored over their manuscripts in their scriptoria, the Bible was not just a status symbol for the noble or prelate who had ordered it. The Bible was a liturgical book; the monk knew the scriptures precisely because of his immersion in the liturgy of the Church, which at Mass and the eight offices of the Opus Dei presented the Bible to him as the very marrow of prayer. The Bible belongs to the liturgy, for both reveal Christ.

BritishMuseumAngel.jpg

The Bible historiale, Clairefontaine and Paris, 1411. Now in the British Museum. (Source)

The Psalter, which is prayed in full by Benedictine monks each week, was yet another stand-alone portion of the scriptures that was often luxuriously illuminated as sacred art. The Books of Hours were also richly illuminated. These declensions of the Divine Office especially intended for laymen are yet another example of a scriptural prayer-book that was routinely infused with an “aura.” Those of us who have been lucky enough to see illuminated manuscripts of any sort in person can attest that they’ve still got it.

BreslauPsalterB.jpg

The letter B from the Breslau Psalter, Psalm 1. (Source)

At a certain level, the question of the “aura” is a purely natural one. But the “aura” points to a supernatural reality, the underlying sacramental possibility of all creaturely matter. Because the Word has taken flesh in Christ, matter can take on divinity – it can become theophoric, bearing God, and theophanic, manifesting Him.

The aura inspires reverence. And it is meet and right that the very book where we find unfolded before us the Face and Name of God, the Bible, should make us turn towards heavenly things. The Jewish mystical tradition provides insights into the profound holiness of the Bible. We read, “We have learned that the Holy One, blessed be He, is called Torah…And there is no Torah but the Holy One,” (“Zohar” 2:60a, Beshalach). Likewise, St. Augustine would find much to agree with in the words of the Jewish mystic who writes,

It is also true that the upper root of the holy Torah is in the highest level of the worlds that are called the worlds of the Infinite Godhead [Ein Sof]…That is why the Sages say that the Torah preceded the world, that is it preceded all worlds. For they even say that it preceded the Throne of Glory. (“Nefesh Hachaim” 4:10).

The truth at the heart of this mystery is that of the Logos, the Word who is God, manifesting himself in creation, in natural law, in revelation, and then definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, the holiness of the Bible partakes of Christ’s own divine holiness. Our starting point for any discussion of the scriptures as physical texts must be the sentiment that Louis Bouyer describes,

“No man can see God and live”: this means that the vision of God would bring death to a human being. The idea contained in this saying is a basic idea of the whole of Jewish revelation which we have lost all too completely, for with it we have lost the sense of the sacred, that is, ultimately, the sense of God. If anyone has not understood…that not only for men, but for all other creatures too, God is the Sovereign, the Utterly Other, the Pure, the Inaccessible, then he does not know what God really is. (The Meaning of the Monastic Life 41).

Once the aura has decayed, what are we left with? We are like those benighted souls described by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who “carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms.” Was there ever a more apt description of what we have done to the Word of God, materially and spiritually? For when we commodify the Bible, we commodify its message. When we objectify the Bible, we objectify its message. When we trivialize the Bible, we trivialize its message. Is there anything more dangerous in a world grown cold to the Gospel? The same can be said of the liturgy. Banality in the ars celebrandi vitiates the aura embedded in the ritual. We have a responsibility to maintain higher standards.

A Return to the Family Bible

Let me be very clear. My objection here is to both the mass proliferation and the sheer diversity of Bibles on the market. These two phenomena, even more than the underlying condition of their quality as printed material, have destroyed the aura of the Word of God. But I should note in all fairness that many Christians, at least in the English-speaking countries, used to maintain a strong sense of the Bible’s auratic sacramentality. That time-honored institution of the Family Bible, often an enormous and ornamental tome passed down from generation to generation as an heirloom and a testament of enduring faith, once preserved a kind of aura. What undermined this institution and the kind of home liturgies that once sustained it? Was it the Gideons? Was it the travelling Bible salesmen satirized so acerbically by Flannery O’Connor in Good Country People? Or was it the broader cultural force of capitalist individualism exacerbating the collapse of narrativity and traditional community, rendering the search for salvation even more personal – and thus lonelier and more consumerist – then ever before?

FamilyBible

A typical “Family Bible” of the nineteenth century. (Source)

I recognize that I am complicit in this problem. I own several Bibles, not all of which were gifts, and not all of which are very good. But I believe that most of us Christians are bound up with the cultural conditions which have produced so many and such shoddy copies of the scriptures. We can’t start to imagine a better way until we re-assess our relationship with the sacred. While it’s impossible to go back to the scriptoria of Cluny or Clairvaux, we can begin to appropriate their view of the Bible as a liturgically-grounded manifestation of the Divine Word. Perhaps we can start to produce more beautiful Bibles – even auratic ones. More depends on it than we might think. After all, the illumination of the page was always an anticipation of and metaphor for the illumination of the soul.

Elsewhere: The Prior of Silverstream on Secular Aesthetics

Ernő-Goldfinger-Balfron-Tower-London-1967-via-genericarchitecture

“Balfron Tower, London,” Erno Goldfinger, 1967. Sometimes, Brutalism has something of the quality of a stage set. It can work then. But most of the time, it is extremely depressing, and one rather wishes that most Brutalist structures were torn down. Imagine what a housing flat like the one picture here says about human life. What an insufferable, dehumanizing worldview is enshrined there! No wonder that our greatest dystopias are all cast in concrete. (Source)

One of the things I like about Vultus Christi is that it’s very un-polemical. So much of the Tradisphere gets bogged down in kvetching about the Pope, or internecine carping, or weird and generally unhelpful screeds about the modern world. One does get rather exhausted of reading that, and most of the time, VC avoids it. But when Dom Mark does raise his voice, his criticism is always tempered with a profound wisdom and grace. Such is the case with yesterday’s sermon at Silverstream, “Make His Praise Glorious.”

The sermon is clearly addressed to the abortion referendum looming in Ireland’s imminent future. But Dom Mark sees the bigger picture of what a “Yes” victory will mean for Irish culture. His argument is not a concatenation of the ordinary pro-life slogans about “a culture of life.” Instead, he makes a broader and, paradoxically, a more incisive point. What is at stake is the place of God in society. The referendum is not ultimately about human life, but human salvation.

There is much to like in the sermon. Of course, I’m very glad to see Dom Mark quoting from Fr. Dalgairns of the London Oratory, one of Newman and Fr. Faber’s early companions. Dalgairns is not much read today, though he was well respected in his own life for his spiritual writings and for his prolific pastoral work.

I was very taken with the aesthetic rhetoric Dom Mark employs. He illustrates the divergence between secular and sacred societies with an appeal to their built environment. Early on in the sermon, he explains the moral meaning of architecture.

New cities are always being constructed on the ruins of the old: these are skillfully planned in view of providing their citizens with every facility and technological advancement: schools, green spaces, clinics, libraries, museums, shopping districts, sports fields, industrial parks, and fitness centres. If, however, in these cities, there is no temple raised to the glory of God, no sanctuary, no altar, no tabernacle containing the irradiating Body of Christ, not only are such places not fit for man, created in the image and likeness of God, such places are dehumanising. In every place where the praise of God is silenced, where churches are closed, where the worship of God is forsaken, man becomes less than human.

It is anthropologically uncontroversial that the spaces we create have an effect on us. Our constructed surroundings in turn construct our souls. And when our ideas about the soul and its final end change, so will our buildings. If you seek an artistic exploration of this notion, I would recommend the two stunning documentary films Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Or have a look at Pugin’s Contrasts (1836).

Dom Mark writes of the Christian world:

The builders of cathedrals, churches, and monasteries in former ages of faith had in view only this: to make glorious the praise of God. They understood that by raising edifices for nought but divine worship, and by keeping Sundays and festivals holy unto God, they were, in effect, providing their children, and their children’s children with space to be truly human.

The Christian community makes space (and, indeed, time) for the praise of God. By contrast, the post-Christian culture not only thinks differently, but looks and feels differently as well.

The secular nation descends inexorably into a harsh and dismal unloveliness. Beauty withers in every society that marginalises God and the things of God. Look at the cities constructed by the Godless totalitarian regimes of the last century: monuments of oppression haunted by hopelessness.

The difference between the two can be summed up in that one word: unloveliness. It is a quality that inheres in society as a network of relations between the self and others, between the self and the built environment, and between the whole sum of the people and their built environment. The word succinctly describes an entire process:

1. Spiritual malaise leads to doubt whether the created world can bear eternal meaning.
2. This doubt, often expressed positively as utilitarianism, leads to an unloving and even anti-aesthetic attitude towards the built environment.
3. Subsequently, aesthetic defect characterizes the built environment.
4. The original malaise is aggravated or ossifies.
5. The cycle repeats ad nauseam.

The processional nature of “unloveliness” derives from the threefold connotation of the word it negates, “loveliness.” When we speak of something as “lovely,” we are usually speaking of a moral, spiritual, or aesthetic quality. It is an assessment that lies somewhere between the Good and the Beautiful. The Unlovely is that which expresses, inspires, or provokes something somewhere between the Evil and the Ugly.

As Dom Mark makes clear, we have the duty to choose the Lovely and reject the Unlovely. “The choice of the secular city and its values will lead to barrenness, unloveliness, and emptiness. The choice of the second will lead to the sound of jubilation in the city.” If, as Goethe famously said, architecture is “frozen music,” then we should aim to build towering hymns that lift the soul to God. But the construction of that physical space depends upon the cultural space we make for the sacredincluding human life as such.

corbusier-plan-voisin

“Le Corbusier’s 1925 ‘Plan Voisin’ planned to raze parts of central Paris and replace them with high-rise towers and highways.” Looks like posterity dodged a bullet there. (Source)

Worried About the Church? Here Are Some Cardinals Playing with Cats!

HisEminencesFriend

His Eminence’s Friend, Andrea Landini. (Source)

And eating watermelons, and throwing cakes to swans, and delightedly casting books into the fire…all courtesy of 19th century anticlerical academic painters!

andrea-landini-temptation

See this Cardinal?
He’s not worried about the Church.
Look at him.
Look at his cat.
Look at the PRECIOUS LITTLE BOW on his cat.
(His cat, incidentally, is named Dom Paphnutius).
Just look at that watermelon.
He’s not worried about whether or not the Barque of Peter can handle a dangerous destabilization of the sacrament of marriage through the undermining of Canon Law in various quasi-magisterial documents and interviews.
His only worry is whether or not he can handle the PRECIOUSNESS of his cat’s little bow.

APlateofCakes

These two fine gentlemen are out for a stroll.
There seem to be sweets involved.
The Cardinal is very cross, perhaps because said sweets have attracted a flock of unwanted water birds. Or because the liturgy wars have been needlessly reignited by Rome itself and liberal bishops’ conferences are probably going to start forcing people to say “and also with you” and “one in being” in the English Novus Ordo.
I’m not really sure why. Probably the first reason.
Anyway, he should have expected it. Water birds are notorious for their sweet teeth.
Give ’em a few bonbons and they’ll love you forever.
Though tbh I’d be more angry at the other guy for not telling me where he got that fabulous scrolly-hat.
(Note: 19th century priests were very fashion-forward.)

VibertPreeningPeacock

Speaking of which, this Cardinal is too busy tearing up the runway to care about who’s tearing up the Reform of the Reform.

ChampaigneToast

Apparently this is “Champagne Toast,” which I guess is one of those new brunch fads like Avocado Toast.
Thanks for killing EVERYTHING, Millenials.

AQuietSmoke

Oh yeah I’m just enjoying ‘A Quiet Smoke.’ Haha.
Nope, I’m not thinking about Amoris Laetitia footnotes 329 and 351 at all.
Just enjoying my Cuban here.
Yessirree.
Sure is nice.

Also, don’t ever talk to me or my son again.

George-Crogart
What’s that? Oh, this old thing? Lemme see…why, it’s a relic! A piece of the Holy Napkin of the Trastevere!

Leo_Herrmann_Entre_intimesSo then I says to him, I says, why don’t we elect an Argentinian?

TeaTime
Mmmmmmyessss of course I could tell you about the Synod mmmmmbut I wouldn’t know anything mmmmmmmmmmmbout that….

BruneryParrot

This Cardinal is deeply disturbed that his new parrot’s first word is “Accompaniment.”

LandiniChampagne

Ah Lafontaine, so glad you could come here have some Dom Perignon for your loyal service
Uh sir I’m just here to tell you that the revolutionaries have subordinated the spiritual to the temporal authorit
Haha Lafontaine, always one with the jokes
But sir the Reds are comin
JUST TAKE THE DAMN CHAMPAGNE 

CardinalEureka.jpgHis Eminence is thinking up clever new ways to show #mercy and to #meetpeoplewheretheyare and to #judgenot and to #accompany the #youth who are #unemployed in the #interiorforum and to stay #relevant while #BeingChurch, all without ever using the word “sin.”

VibertTheDietHere I am.
Just sittin’ here.
With some milk.
Overcomin’ gluttony like a BOSS.

screams internally forever

Vibert emancipation
The Cardinal stared with horror…
Before he saw the bird, he was sure that the vase had been pushed by that mysterious, frightful ghost once spoken of in legend…
The dark creature that was said to stalk the halls of the Vatican even today…

The Spirit of the Council.

CardinalLookattheTimeWell, Pancrazio, just look at the time.
Half past four.
Funny…they told us they’d sing a new Church into being hours ago.
What a shame.

VibertCommitteeThese gentlemen are enjoying a roundup of the day’s tweets from spiffy, popular Jesuits.

VibertTheSiesta

Kasper? Never heard of him…

[P.S. I’m somewhat obsessed with this artistic genre. Images from here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here]

 

 

The Orange Pope

Yesterday was the 327th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, when the forces of Protestant Britain defeated the Catholic Irishmen fighting for James II, rightful king of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It is a black day for many Catholics, in no small part because many of them descend from Irish communities that remember the oppression that followed under the penal laws. In Northern Ireland today, July 12th remains a divisive date marked by sectarian tensions and the triumphalist pageantry of the native Scotch-Irish Protestants. One wonders whether the new Conservative-DUP alliance in the Commons will have had any affect on the infamous marches of the Orange Order, founded in remembrance of today’s events.As cursed as the memory of the Boyne remains for Catholics today, it’s worth remembering that things were a bit more complex in the 17th century. I enjoy a good bit of Jacobite nostalgia as much as the next trad, but I also think a more honest assessment of history is worth exploring. Human life is a complicated thing, and the strange story of the Williamite War is riddled with contradictions.

Tremendous irony lies at the heart of the Boyne and what it represents. William of Orange, the stalwart champion of Protestantism, overthrew the Catholic James while secretly in league with Pope Innocent XI.

InnocentXI

His Holiness, Innocent XI P.M. (Source).

Innocent’s political priorities centered on maintaining the balance of power in Europe. In 1690, that meant checking the bellicose Louis XIV. Ever since the marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, the British Crown had been in an ever-closer relationship with France. James II was Louis’s only real ally, and Innocent knew it. The Pope also seems to have considered James a bit dull. He is known to have found his methods in the re-conversion of England more than a little imprudent (it was, in short, a massive failure of triangulation between the vitriolically anti-Catholic Whigs and the pro-Establishment Tories. James was not shrewd enough to manage the two, and ended up pleasing no one).

There was another threat on the table. The future of Catholic France was at stake. Louis XIV had, on the one hand, made moves designed to give him the appearance of Catholic zeal. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, though not approved by the Pope, is perhaps the greatest example. More troublingly, Louis had rammed through the Four Articles that so antagonized the Papacy by more or less establishing Gallicanism throughout the land. Innocent fought against these measures.

Things came to a boiling point when the Pope, in league with almost all the crowned heads of Europe, clashed with Louis over who would fill the see of Cologne. When the election proved inconclusive, Innocent decided in favor of his own candidate. To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Louis XIV retaliated by taking possession of the papal territory of Avignon, imprisoning the papal nuncio and appealing to a general council. Nor did he conceal his intention to separate the French Church entirely from Rome. The Pope remained firm.”

Enter the Dutch.

image.png
Willem III, Prince of Orange, King of England and Stadtholder, by Godfried Schalcken. c. 1692-97. (Source)

It is unclear to what extent Innocent might have aided William of Orange. An old legend current at the time asserts that the Pope had financed the expedition with a secret loan of 150,000 scudi. As one reporter puts it, “The sum, equivalent to more than £3.5 million today, equalled the Vatican’s annual budget deficit.” There is, it seems, some truth to this statement. The legend has been supported by more recent research, such as that conducted by the fiction authors Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. They uncovered evidence that corroborated the longstanding claims of other historians.

Which leads us to a singular painting by Pieter van der Meulen, The Entry of King William Into Ireland. It has played a controversial role in Northern Irish history. Purchased by the Unionist government of Ulster in 1933, it originally hung in the Great Hall of Stormont. After shifting locations several times, eventually the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley (of all people) hung it in his office. It is presumably the only picture of the Pope in glory that Dr. Paisley ever liked.

(c) Northern Ireland Assembly; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Entry of King William Into Ireland, Pieter van der Meulen. (c) Northern Ireland Assembly; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. (Source).

So, why would a Pope act against a Catholic monarcheven covertly?

It seems that he sold Britain and Ireland to save France…and by extension, continental Catholicism. It was a gamble, and a costly one at that. But it seems to have worked in the short run. Although France would later see a terrible anti-Catholic upheaval of its own, Louis was forced to abandon his immediate moves towards schism. He did not become a French Henry VIII. Among all the terrible things that followed the Boyne, at least that one very important good came of it.

 

 

Books I Have Finished This Summer

OldBooks

Old volumes. (Source).

I intend to keep updating this post as a running list of the books I have completed (though not necessarily started and completed) over the summer. I will include a short blurb and review for each title. Thus far:

1. The Benedict Option. Rod Dreher. 2017. Non-fiction.
An argument for focusing on Christian community-building in the face of an increasingly hostile secular liberal order. And a very flawed argument at that. But the book got me thinking about a better option, so as a provocation to thought and discussion, it works pretty well.
Score: 3/5.

2. A Litany of Mary. Ann Ball. 1987. Non-Fiction.
A lovely exposition of and meditation on various titles of Mary. Would recommend for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Our Lady, her role, and her apparitions in the modern world. Particular highlights are some of the rarer titles such as Our Lady of the Cenacle and Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament. If you have (or want) a devotion to Mary under one of her titles, this is the book for you.
Score: 4/5

3. Free Women, Free Men. Camille Paglia. 2017. Non-fiction.
The dissident feminist’s newest collection of essays. Gives a great taste of her style and scholarly concerns over the course of her long career. Topics range from The Real Housewives, “Southern Women,” BDSM, Puritanism, and all kinds of feminist spats. Her essay “On Abortion” is one of the most idiosyncratic and provocative takes on the issue I have yet read. Paglia never tires of displaying her acid wit and crackling prose. Perhaps her greatest flaw, beyond those points where she is simply wrong, is her irritating autobiographical tendency. I could do without the seventh mention of her childhood Halloween costumes. But all in all, a read well worth the effort.
Score: 4.25/5

4. The Leopard. Giuseppe di Lampedusa. 1958. Fiction.
The decline and fall of a Sicilian noble family. There’s romance, history, and a dollop of nostalgia that Lampedusa sprinkles with acerbically cynical observations about his characters. It’s uncommon to find a class commentary that doubles as a sensitive psychological portrait. The Leopard is just such a rare gem. Lampedusa has a knack for evocation. You can feel the heat of the Sicilian sun radiating from the pages; with Lampedusa, you can almost catch a faint whiff of ambergris over the rot. His style is a slow-moving delight, well-suited to his subject. There’s also a Great Dane, which is always a plus.
Score: 4.5/5

5. The Black Arts. Richard Cavendish. 1967. Non-fiction.
A helpful, if perhaps somewhat dated, exposition of occult history and practice. Cavendish presents a thorough overview of dark magic. His wry, understated humor makes it a great read (one quote: “[Éliphas Lévi’s] later books are less interesting, including his History of Magic (1860) and The Key of the Mysteries (1861), which he himself translated into when he was reincarnated as Aleister Crowley…The learned English occultist A. E. Waite, who was not a reincarnation of Lévi, but succeeded in translating the secrets of the Doctine and Ritual all the same” pg. 29). Would strongly recommend to anyone with a love of horror fiction, the macabre, Christopher Lee, the Kabbalah, Latin, and batsh*t crazy characters from the Victorian and Edwardian periods (including Montague Summers). It made me want to read Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot and watch Penny Dreadful.
Score: 4/5

6. Chickamauga. Charles Wright. 1995. Poetry.
Remarkable, luminous poetry by a professor at my alma mater. T.S. Eliot’s spiritual and stylistic successor. Reading him is like reading a mystic in motionmore ornate that Wendell Berry, more apophatic than William Blake. I cannot recommend him highly enough.
Score: 5/5

 

 

Finally, Fleet Foxes

Fleet-Foxes-Press-2017

Fleet Foxes, 2017. (Source)

The day we have waited for has arrived. Fleet Foxes have finally returned with a triumph of an album. Those of us who have been longstanding fans of the band will no doubt recognize in Crack-Up, their new release from Nonesuch Records, an expansion and deepening of the artistry that marked their earlier work. A statement released by the band reads:

From the outset of recording, we aspired to make an album that could stand alongside our previous work, venture into its own territory, and that would leave a clear horizon for us moving forward.

Crack-Up does all these things and more. It is an alternately intimate, exuberant, and cerebral collection of songs. Robin Pecknold, the band’s frontman and chief songwriter, spent four years at Columbia University after 2011’s Helplessness Blues. It’s evident that he paid attention in class. Allusions to Shakespeare and Shaw and Beowulf and Goya and Muhammad Ali and classical history pepper the poetic lyrics alongside references to contemporary political events. The rhythm of Pecknold’s words at times seems to evoke the sprung rhyme of Gerard Manley Hopkins (see, for instance, the first song on the album, “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar“). Musically, Pecknold draws from sources as diverse as medieval music (even mentioning the Dorian mode in some of the lyrics) and Ethiopian jazz. It is, needless to say, a sophisticated album.

Yet its sophistication remains understated. Fleet Foxes manage to avoid the self-important pretensions of their one-time drummer, Father John Misty. Even in songs that comment on the acid politics of our time, we never hear the kind of hamfisted preaching that FJM is so fond of. Instead, we have the sense that we are listening to creative representations, an earnest testimony of experiences and impressions filtered through disparate symbols of personal and civilizational import.

Take this verse from “Cassius,

Song of masses, passing outside
All inciting the fifth of July
When guns for hire open fire
Blind against the dawn
When the knights in iron took the pawn
You and I, out into the night
Held within the line that they have drawn

What a breath of fresh air after Father John Misty’s pompous propaganda! Pecknold never allows his own agenda to get in the way of his first duty as an artistproducing good art.

Consider, if you will, the multiple layers of meaning he invests in one of his songs.

GoyaThirdofMay

A very important painting. (Source).

The painting you see above is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya, circa 1814. The image seems to have influenced one of the best songs on the album, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara.” The music video of that song shows us a splattering of multicolored paint. As it runs across the screen in extreme close-up, we can catch a certain formal resemblance to the flow of spilled blood. Taking into account the album’s overall political orientation, I’d suggest that it’s likely that Pecknold probably sees something of our own social moment in the painting. I would further guess that, as with other songs on the album, the allusion refers to recent cases of police brutality. After all, the painting depicts a dark-skinned man with his hands up about to be killed by men in uniform. If my interpretation is correct, then perhaps the point of the song as represented in the video is to suggest that even the death of innocents can be transfigured into art.

Finding that meaning requires a coalescence of art history, lyrics, video, music, the other songs on the album, and the news. It is, simply put, a minor feat of artistic genius. Of course, Robin Pecknold has provided some rather different elucidation of his own which is well worth checking out (he has a great comment on the line about “carved ivory”). Great art bears many meanings.

There’s more to like here. Rarely is an album composed of such tightly-wedded form and content. An oceanic motif winds through the lyrics. Likewise, the music rises and falls with the rhythm of the sea, crashing gloriously and settling into glassy streams. Listening to Crack-Up is like diving into a steaming sea, only to feel deeper currents of cool water tug from below. The pelagic theme even extends to the album’s visualsits cover and the (very aesthetic) music video for “Fool’s Errand” both depict the rocky Pacific coast. And those astract arrangements of wet paint that move around in the video for “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” are probably watercolors.

 

FleetFoxesCrackUp

Album cover, Crack-Up. (Source).

Particular favorites include the haunting “Kept Woman” and the meditative and atmospheric “I Should See Memphis.” The titular, concluding song is pretty great, too. I can’t say that I have too many criticisms. A few of the songs are a bit bland. The album lacks some of the dark beauty that made Helplessness Blues so stirring. Alas. We can’t always get what we want. There is more than enough new spirit in this album to make up for that loss.

Crack-Up
Fleet Foxes, Nonesuch Records
8.5/10 stars