Wednesday, September 20, 2017

“To Trip the Light Fantastic”

John Milton’s pair of longish poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, are a beautiful depiction of mood.  The first joyful and the second meditative, sad, and even grim, they show the world—in large part, the world of nature—through the lens of two mental states which in their extremity might almost be called proto-Romantic.  They are also the source of a few phrases that the wide reader might recognize: “to trip the light fantastic” derives from the following pair of lines:

Come and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe …

… which hail, not surprisingly, from L’Allegro.

For many years I had known of the poems, but not known much about their reception or what effect they had on subsequent artists—until one afternoon when, working on one writing project or another, the baroque music blaring from my husband’s speaker system set a synapse firing in my brain.  What was that line? I asked myself.  Fortunately, in songs lines are generally repeated; the tenor gave it again:

Come and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe …

“What is this?!!” I demanded out loud.

It was George Frideric Handel.  Yes, that Handel, whose other accomplishments apparently include the composition of a “pastoral ode” entitled L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and, you guessed it, inspired by Milton’s poems.  I highly recommend the piece.  You can hear the light fantastic toe around 10:50.  (Full libretto here.)

Handel: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Gardiner,

English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir

A bit of historical trivia from the usual quick source:

At the urging of one of Handel’s librettists, Charles Jennens, Milton’s two poems, L’Allegro and il Penseroso, were arranged by James Harris, interleaving them to create dramatic tension between the personified characters of Milton’s poems (L’Allegro or the “Joyful man” and il Penseroso or the “Contemplative man”). The first two movements consist of this dramatic dialog between Milton’s poems. In an attempt to unite the two poems into a singular “moral design”, at Handel’s request, Jennens added a new poem, “il Moderato”, to create a third movement. The popular concluding aria and chorus, “As Steals the Morn” is adapted from Shakespeare’s Tempest, V.i.65–68.

Oh, Handel.  How very Aristotelian of you, to demand the addition of a moderate man!  Poor Milton is probably turning over in his grave, much like the librettist for Messiah, who (the story is possibly apocryphal, but too good not to repeat) complained that Handel had destroyed the poetry with his music.

But what music!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Discerning Censorship

When I wrote my last post here some days ago, I did not expect it to be particularly controversial.  The point seemed straightforward: that it was healthy for people to take personal responsibility for actions done in their free time; specifically, that even seemingly neutral things like entertainment promote increased virtue or stagnation (and, as C.S. Lewis reminds us through the mouth of Screwtape, in the spiritual life stagnation means going downhill).

But the popularity of Game of Thrones is such that its trees rather overshadowed the aforementioned forest; and the post, though not designed to cast shade (pun intended) on fans of the show (who number such respectable Catholics as Ross Douthat), did have the aura of a minor condemnation.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Wrong Question

Even among secular media watchers, HBO’s Game of Thrones has its mild detractors.  Among Catholics, debate about the ethics of—and the ethics of watching—the show can get heated.  I’ve seen multiple social media dumps on articles about the series: articles critiquing its violence, articles praising its realism, articles slamming its sixth commandment shenanigans, articles noting the limited virtue of various characters.

What I haven’t seen is the series itself; and I don’t plan to see it.  I don’t plan to see it because, of all the articles I’ve read on Game of Thrones, not one has made a case for the series that convinces me it’s worth my time’s investment.  I’m not saying a convincing case for the series couldn’t be made.  But the arguments I’ve read for GoT so far have been unconvincing: for none of them ask the right question.

Read the rest at the Register.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Goodnight Stories for ... Rebel Girls?

I have a reading recommendation for feminists (and non-feminists as well, actually): Andrew Lang.

Lang, a Victorian-era writer learned in folklore and mythology, put his academic knowledge to commercial use when he published The Blue Fairy Book (1889), a collection of stories which spawned a series of twenty-five books, mostly named in the same style (the last “color” book, The Lilac Fairy Book, was published in 1910, and the final book of all, The Strange Story Book, in 1913.)

Our regional library owned most of the series; and I devoured them in middle school and high school.  Weaned (I exaggerate only slightly) on Tolkien and Lewis, I graduated

… some would say regressed; but where was there to go but down?

… to fairy tales.  The Lang books were a long and largely rewarding (if occasionally repetitive) sop to my fantasy-starved mind.  And it was not an unhealthy sop: more of a porridge, really: basic, but fundamentally nourishing.

Oddly enough, the stories were also what a person sensitive to political correctness might call “gender neutral.”  Oh, not always in the particular stories, any given one of which might have featured a long-suffering damosel in distress.  But it was interesting how often meek male characters were the butt of stepfamilial abuse, or the committers of Pandora-like errors, and often a female character showed up everyone around with her courage, wit, and resourcefulness.  The fairy tale genre, if it is offensive to either sex, is, like the melancholy Jacques, an equal-opportunity offender.

Thus, when I encountered a certain video ad for Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, I found myself muttering “Gag me with a spoon.”  To be fair: the authors express laudable intentions.  In answer to the query “Why a Book for Girls?” they explain:

Because we are girls. Our entrepreneurial journey made us understand how important it is for girls to grow up surrounded by female role models. It helps them to be more confident and set bigger goals. We realized that 95% of the books and TV shows we grew up with, lacked girls in prominent positions. We did some research and discovered that this didn't change much over the past 20 years, so we decided to do something about it.

And indeed, the collection of stories of real women, from Elizabeth I to Serena Williams, looks promising (though I haven’t read it).  Nor will I attempt to take issue with the authors’ judgment that there is a high proportion of shows that fail to show women at their best.  Nevertheless, I took umbrage at the video, for two reasons.

The first is simply that, as suggested above, the video’s rhetoric is based on a flawed understanding of the fairy tale genre, an understanding that would have been corrected by a knowledge of (for example) Lang’s work.  The video begins with a cartoon man, blond, buff, and handsome in a stereotypically over-muscular Hollywood style, who is introduced as the victim of his stepbrother’s beatings and general highhandedness.  There is a ball, a princess, a rescue of this Cinderfella, and then—the warm and comforting narrator is swallowed by a black screen, supplanted by stark white text.  We wouldn’t read this to our sons.  Why read it to our daughters?

I was yelling “stop” a long time before that, right at the part where Cinderfella was submitting meekly to his stepbrother’s maltreatment.  Because—let’s be honest—while both boys and girls can be sensitive and submissive, and both boys and girls can be feisty, boys tend to be more punchy than girls.  For every Anne Shirley who (admirably) breaks her slate over the bully Gilbert Blythe’s head, there are perhaps a dozen girls who would simply have burst into tears at his teasing.  With boys, the ratio is reversed.  This Cinderfella parody had a plausibility issue from the beginning.  You can tell a Cinderella-esque tale about a male character—cf. Andrew Lang’s collections, or google any of the following: “Iron Hans,” “Puss in Boots,” “The Glass Hill,” “Billy Beg and His Bull.”  But that particular Cinderfella was inconceivable.  A jacked, jut-jawed lad who weighs double what his brothers do and could easily bench press them in one hand each, cowering under the onslaught of brooms …  The video’s creators have weighted the dice from the beginning, making the whole story feel absurd.

Of course, the tale is a clear parody not just of any Cinderella story, but of what had become, alas, our culture’s most prominent version thereof: the admittedly somewhat absurd animated film that hales from the studios of a man whose name begins with “W” and “D” and rhymes with Dalt Wisney.

Which sounds like the name of a foolish side
character from the Harry Potter franchise ...

A good deal of the ridiculousness that the video’s creators see in the tale, then, has to do with the particular version of it they have chosen to ridicule—a version in which Cinderella is, in fact, more helpless and less resourceful than she happens to be even in Perrault.  Probably if the video’s creators had been exposed to anything more substantial (dare I say, “wholesome”?) than American film growing up, they would not have picked fairy tales for their whipping boy.

This sort of cultural ignorance, of course, is not their fault.  But there are other assumptions in the video that troubled me.  Most basic of all, the presentation of the problem-solving book suggests that their notion of “Women at Their Best” may differ from mine.  Indeed, it suggests a difference in our notions of “People at Their Best.”

The collection’s title, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, may serve for a launching point.  The idea communicated is surely that women (and girls) who lead noteworthy and/or admirable lives can only do so if they are willing to stand out, whether that means bucking societal notions of what girls “should” do, or simply working really hard to develop their talents and interests.  Put in these terms, there is nothing wrong with the idea: choose almost any female saint of the Catholic Church, from Cecelia to Clotilde to Hildegard of Bingen to Margaret Clitherow to Mother Teresa to Giana Molla and you will confront a woman who stood out, in many cases defying her society.  Heroic virtue of the obvious sort (which is what it nearly always takes to be canonized as a saint) entails taking a stand when it’s tough.  And the same, of course, can be said on the male side: secular male figures and saints, like their female counterparts, are canonized because they did extraordinary things, difficult things, things that their society may not have supported, and of which it often disapproved.

Mind you, they are all saints because they loved God.
But they’re canonized saints because they demonstrated
this love in sometimes surprising ways …

Granting all that, take issue with the concept of rebel.  We are Americans, whose country was founded out of a rebellion.  We love to imagine ourselves the scrappy underdogs, the buckers of trends, etc.  We may be the richest nation on earth, but we love Jean Valjean.  We tend to forget that there is nothing inherently virtuous about being rebellious.  It all depends on what the rebel stands for and against.  Queen Elizabeth was indeed a bit of a rebel, but so was Bloody Mary Tudor; and depending on your historical viewpoint, you may regard either or both as loathsome, as readily as you regard one or the other as heroic.  Jezebel was a bit of a “rebel,” and a wicked woman.

As one character in the Hollywood film
of the same name memorably remarks) …

Lucrezia Borgia.  Wu Zetian.  Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde).  A handful of female Nazis who worked as guards in the concentration camps.  A handful of female serial killers.  And of course, this is just the women: history records the names of thousands more men who were outstanding in their fields, but frankly nasty to live (or die?) with.  There’s nothing inherently great about being a rebel.

Conversely, notwithstanding my acknowledgement of heroic virtue, there is nothing unheroic about meekness.  And herein lies the real crux of my uneasiness with the Rebel Girls project.  I suspect that any version of the Cinderella story, Disney or Lang, male or female, which seemed to praise meekness would have met with their scorn.  Meekness is an underrated virtue.  We tend to read it as weakness at best, prissiness at worst.  We cannot abide Fanny Prince.  We find it paradoxical that “The meek shall inherit the earth.”

What we forget is that meekness itself requires a great deal of strength.  Turning the other cheek and forgiving those who persecute us or even merely “trespass against us” is a terrible burden to bear.  “Lead us not into temptation!” we pray.  “Do not require us to be meek!”

The great question, requiring considerable discernment, is when to rebel and when to suffer.  The recent Cinderella movie directed by Kenneth Branagh, while in many ways excellent, could have tackled this question head-on but failed to do so, though the key line, “Have courage and be kind,” at least attempted to address the issue.  Any “realistic” or live or “grownup” adaptation of the move really does have to deal with the question of why Cinderella accepts her abuse: it’s the motive for doing so, not the fact that she does, which determines whether or not she is worthy of emulation, and embodies the final paradox of virtue: the meek rebel: the womanly woman who also outshines every man born.

For example …

Buxtehude, btw.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Scythian, Take 2

It has become faintly fashionable to complain about the Christian art scene, and specifically the Christian music scene.  I’ve made my share of complaints, and will plead guilty to possession of a possibly snobbish suspicion of any artists marketing themselves as “Christian” or “Catholic”.  So when the band Scythian was noised about a few years back, I was dubious.  Surely they were either not really Catholic, or not very good?

Well, my apologies to Alexander, Danylo, and Larissa Fedoryka; Nolan Ladewski; and Fritz McGirr. You all make solid music. And I’d be hard put to find a group of people that takes their faith more seriously.

Read the rest at National Catholic Register.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Order Our Days in Your Peace

One of the reasons for my long love-affair with the Roman Canon is the fact that every now and then a phrase I’ve heard a thousand times pops out with the singularity of a first hearing.  This time was in the “Hanc igitur.”

Hanc igitur oblationem servitutis nostræ, sed et cunctæ familiæ tuæ, quæsumus, Domine, ut placatus accipias: diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab æterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum iubeas grege numerari.

“Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of Your whole family; order our days in Your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those You have chosen.”

An interesting choice of words.  I have perhaps a too-Kantian (or is it Pelagian?) tendency to imagine that I am responsible for the ordering of my days—and in a sense, I am.  But here, as is so often the case at Mass, we are reminded that the real ability and responsibility for any good human effort lie with God; and so we ask God to order our days.

The manner in which those days are ordered is beyond interesting; indeed, the choice of words is positively curious.  “Order our days in Your peace,” says the official Novus Ordo translation.  But what is God’s peace?  And what does it mean for our days to be contained in that peace, as if peace were a bargain box or a chesterdrawers?

My first association of the phrase hails from medieval history.  “The peace of God” was the periodic fast (if you like) from war and warlike recreations such as jousting; like a New England blue law, “the peace of God” applied only on certain days and during particular seasons—Sundays and Lent were typical.

My second association of the phrase is its magisterial (in the nontechnical sense!) usage in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, when the terrifying character Sunday reveals his true identity as “the Peace of God” (and leaves the mystery of who he is still mysterious!).

Though the associations are accidental and less ancient than the text concerned, both I think shed some light on its meaning.  Both link “the peace of God” to Sunday, to the Sabbath, specifically, as the day to which God’s peace most properly belongs.  The medieval peace, among other things, had the function of insuring that God was properly worshipped on Sunday: if you’re not allowed to engage in your knightly pursuits, the “I’m busy” excuse becomes less tempting.

Come to think of it, perhaps some bishop should
revive “the peace of God” and apply it to soccer?

Chesterton’s character, in addition to calling to mind his namesake day of the week, is also linked to the original day of rest taken by God as a culmination to His creative activity.  Sunday is the ringleader of a group of benevolent spies, an anti-anarchist, a force simultaneously of playful chaotic energy and absolute authority and control.  You could hardly say that Sunday wields his power; he simply has it, and others fall into line accordingly—out of fear, before they really know him, and out of joy and the love of adventure once they do.  The peace of God, in Chesterton’s reading, is a remarkably active and in some sense a perilous matter, like skydiving with a tiller.  And might not the same be said of the Mass?  (I once hear priest giving a talk on the old Mass remark how larded it was throughout with humble pleas not to strike down the celebrant for his audacity in making the sacrifice; and while I had never quite thought of the Kyrie in that light, the description fits.)

One sense, then of “Your peace” might be simply the peace of Sunday, the Sabbath.  The embedding of these words in the key prayer of the Mass further suggests that perhaps this “peace” may be identified with the celebration of the sacred liturgy itself.  But there is another possibility—not an alternate meaning, but an additional one; for “peace” in liturgical language also carries with it a sense of final rest.  RIP, says the tombstone—a terrifying image in popular culture, until one realizes that it is a prayer: Requiescat in pace; “Rest in peace.”  And in the Catholic mind, the rest is not the merely negative rest …

… from which we hope that Carrie doesn’t rise
to wreak her revenge on our hapless selves …

but rather a positive affair, one of those delicate euphemisms by which we veil mysteries too glorious to speak lightly of.  For the Catholic, indeed, “Rest in peace” is a brief optative phrase meant to bring to mind a larger picture:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
Absolve, O Lord,
the souls of all the faithful departed
from every bond of sin.
And by the help of Thy grace
may they be enabled to escape the avenging judgment.
And enjoy the bliss of everlasting light.
May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord,
with Thy Saints for evermore:
for Thou art gracious.
May the Angels lead thee into paradise:
may the Martyrs receive thee at thy coming,
and lead thee into the holy city of Jerusalem.
May the choir of Angels receive thee,
and mayest thou have eternal rest with Lazarus, who once was poor.

Put simply, “Rest in peace” is another way of saying “Rest in Heaven.”  And as “peace” stands in for Heaven here, I would suggest too that in the Roman canon “peace” has the additional meaning.  “Order our days in your peace” is perhaps first of all a request from the harried Christian that the world not overcome him in daily life.  The second and richer meaning of the phrase seems to be a reminder that all our days and our daily work should be ordered around the Mass: that the Mass, whether we make it daily or weekly, is the pinnacle of that slice of time in which it falls.  And in this sense, the phrase is once again not a command but a comfort: a reminder that the sacred in which we intermittently participate can, if we permit it, permeate all of life, converting chronos to kairos.  In some sense, sacred time contains secular time.  The third and final meaning takes this sense to the next level.  Participation in the Mass is not merely the salvation of our sanity, nor a way of making daily life fancier and finer, or even happier and holier (though it is all these things).  Participation in the Mass is in fact participation in the life of Heaven itself; and through the Mass, then, if our days are ordered in it—defined by and around it, so that its laws and aspirations and language become a lived second nature to us—though this Massedness of daily life, daily life itself becomes a foretaste of Heaven; transpires, in some mysterious sense, inside the life of Heaven.

“Therefore, Lord, we pray: graciously accept this oblation of our service, that of Your whole family; order our days in Your peace, and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation and counted among the flock of those You have chosen.”