Friday, January 31, 2014

We're Not Dead Yet

We're not dead yet, but I have been quite sick all week. Our annual commemorative Mozart essay will come a week late, on Feb. 3. Posting will resume later today with some reflections on my illness-induced gluttony of TV. (It's all positive, really.)

Thanks as usual for staying with us!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Wanderer

The second most boring part of teaching is reviewing material, for it catches the teacher in the doldrums between summarizing and examining. Said teacher always wants to teach something new, but the students would say such is not review. True, true. So alas we must say again what was said before. And say it again and again ad infinitum. The most boring of the teacher's tasks is proctoring. Here the teacher is caught between daydreaming and that unpleasant task of policing. The other day, though, all the students had finished their tests and in the fifteen minutes before we were permitted to leave, I picked in desperation a book off the shelf to stir my stilling mind.

What I picked up was Heart of Darkness, and what I found of course and in irony was the serene stillness of Conrad's opening with its pacific water, flat sails, and seamless sky. What caught my mind, though, that is before the school bell shattered it once more, was not the quiet grandeur of the Thames or the brilliance of its description as introduction, but  Conrad's characterization of Marlow as a wanderer.

The seaman, we learn, is always at home at sea, for the sea never changes and all boats are the same. The seamen's minds are sedentary, their stories singular.  These men may move about, but on the ocean his mind is ever at home. One might say of them what the narrator says of their stories: they have a direct simplicity. They're simple, perfected, self-contained. Later, Marlow comes upon a book, reflecting again on the type:
The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real.
There is something authentic and revealing in such simplicity. Conrad's brilliant touch, though, is adding that someone had written notes in the margins of the book, and in cipher at that. Some greater intellect had come along and contributed incomprehensible commentary, muddling the simplicity as Marlow himself muddled the luminous Thames, describing it amidst its brightness as, "one of the dark places of the earth."

Marlow, in contrast to the simple seaman, is a wanderer, not with respect to body for he sails about like his fellow seamen, but rather Marlow is a wanderer of the mind. His stories are not about a simple moral but an unfolding, enveloping meaning.

Now one could surely discuss the theme of simplicity in Heart of Darkness, but I hadn't read the book in a while and I only had fifteen minutes. What was on my mind, then, wasn't the rest of the novel but a piece of music, Schubert's Der Wanderer an den Mond.

Schubert's song of Johann Seidl's text shares Conrad's fascination with simplicity. Here, the moon is simple and perfected, at home everywhere just like the seaman, even though it ranges far and wide. Opposed is the poet or speaker, who is a stranger wherever he goes. We sense this isolation in Marlow as he recounts the life of the Thames throughout history, always an observer, and sits "like Budha."

Marlow and Seidl's speaker sit at that mediating, meditative point between simplicity and complexity which stirs, perplexes, even torments the observer. Seidl longs to be at home although he lacks the simplicity of the moon, and Marlow admires the simplicity of the simple seaman untouched by the "detestable incomprehensible."

Thinkers perhaps too often idolize intellect, insisting it is edifying and unifying and not isolating, but seeing the boundaries of the comprehensible makes, as Waugh wrote, "a tedious journey to the truth," a journey, "confused with knowledge and speculation." The faithful also too often, perhaps, pontificate about the joyful universality of the faith without emphasizing the peregrinate nature of the worldly journey. The invariable existential question–compare Seidl's moon to Camus' omnipresent, impotent sun in The Stranger–leads he who walks the path of perception or faith, to a tortuous, wandering journey through seeing and seeking the incomprehensible in the light of the simple.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

So Let It Be Written

Two hundred twenty one years from the founding of the republic, in the year they called 2008, the people of the nation America turned out in record numbers to vote in a landslide victory for the first black president of the country, Barack Obama. At that time the nation was laboring in economic depression after the previous president, George W. Bush son of George H. W. Bush, also a president, had removed regulatory laws, permitting banking procedures that precipitated the crisis.

So committed to the presidency and the nation was the statesman Obama that before he assumed the office he established the Office of the President Elect, which prepared the way for the new administration. While the first speech of his administration, called the inaugural, does not survive, it was referred by the authorities of the time as being "worthy of marble" and comparable to the most ancient masters of public speaking.

Energized and empowered by his party's control of the legislature, the democratic President passed laws which halted the recession and began putting the nation's suffering unemployed back to work by funding new jobs. These measures were roundly supported by economists but pilloried by the defiant republican party who resented his leadership. Thus President Obama saved the economy by means of laws, without which the nation surely would have suffered beyond the scope of grief. In the following months, succeeding the President's efficacious recovery laws, the economy slowly stabilized and supported by further government spending, recovered slowly throughout his tenure.

After defeating the pirates East of Africa, President Obama began to reconstruct the nation's image throughout the world, which had been stained by his predecessor. He strengthened diplomatic ties with Russia, stood firm against the nuclear ambitions of Korea and Persia, called North Korea and Iran at the time, and by his most exceptional speech at Cairo renewed dialogue with the Muslims of the world, to whom he declared, "The people of the world can live together in peace." Indeed peace reigned throughout the rest of the President's administration, except for his deposition of an obscure tyrant from North Africa some years later.

Having secured stability throughout the world, President Obama sought to bring new security to America in the great tradition of progress. He drafted historic legislation which would bring affordable healthcare to all Americans. When the legislature brought the matter to the people, the people approved it. When the legislature voted, it was passed. The law was then challenged by several states whose claims came to the Supreme Court, at the time a body of radical conservatives, who eventually declared the law legal. Eventually the law took effect in 2013, after President Obama's landslide reelection, and after technical problems stemming from a foreign contractor, fulfilled its goal although healthcare costs would continue to rise due to lack of regulation.

Despite the fact that conservatives and anti-government radicals overtook the republican party and the House of Representatives, denying the president means by which further to enrich the nation, President Obama was one of America's greatest presidents. An apocryphal story best exemplifies the man and leader. When a dispute arose in the city Boston between an officer of the law and a college professor, President Obama invited the men, differing with respect to color of skin, to the White House to resolve the dispute. In the end, the professor and the patrolman by Obama were reconciled to one another, as the world was to America by that same president who was part Solon, part Solomon and whose only vice was the excess of virtue by which the nation's radical's restricted the country's final steps toward progress.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Memory is a strange word for a strange concept. What does it mean to remember? Our English word memory is not helpful, conjuring images of a faculty of remembering, as if drawing water from a well. The clunky memorize has its connotation of firing synapses, but tells us how, not why is memory. Latin's tenere in memoria is an improvement, suggesting as it does the activity of holding in memory, as does its recordare, the holding of something in one's cor (stem cord-) or heart, living spirit. We retain something of this understanding in the phrase, "learn by heart," which alas seems to be ebbing away.

As we often do, though, we turn to the Greeks, and not just to their pair of λήθη and μνήμη, forgetfulness and memory, but to the famous discussion of memory which concludes Plato's Phaedrus. This passage is often quoted by proud memorizers who revel in recollections of their favorite poems, and while it's all well and good to wag a finger at the philistine who can't quote a line of any significance, it doesn't answer much to say tritely that reading print simply weakens the memory. It even elucidates little to say that the written word is not knowledge, as pretty as the thought may be.

Plato's insight, though, comes soon after the oft-quoted and there he idealizes not the tender of letters who sows words in the garden of letters for recollection, but the dialectician who plants words in souls, not perfected but alive, potent to propagate. This claim sounds incredible, for how can an idea differ simply by its location? This is surely some ploy to lay secret knowledge in the hands of the few. Our lack of imagination often fails philosophers, but especially Plato who might jest about our mental infecundity. Here, imagine a word in a book: it does nothing. If one asks it a question, as Plato said, it responds nothing. Yet the word in the mind partakes in our activities, observes them and changes them, even perchance changing itself. It is only passed on if by, or through, a memory.

There is something of this thinking, quite unexpectedly, in Aristotle's causality wherein man, the lover of understanding, seeks that "why" of things which is both question and answer, and in understanding fulfills his nature and the promise of worldly intelligibility. Understanding, then, is a reconciliation of self and other, and to remember Plato and Bach and Horace as much as mathematics and astronomy is as much to know oneself as to know them as to know the world. To hear the words of the mass not as spoken text but as an awakening of the words within you, an awakening of words shared, transferred through time and transfigured through the sacrifice, is the reconciliation of all things.

Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
–Little Gidding

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Lost Calendar

Time is shaped or it is incomprehensible. Scientists peer in vain back at the still time before time which began time and forward through the eons to time's still termination to avoid the eternal presencing through space. A poetical thought few if any minds can live on, man seems to find it simply one damn thing after another. Man must fix time for himself. Art satisfies man as it does for it seems to tame time into something recognizable: film sculpts time, music meters time, and painting stops time. For moments these move the soul beyond the world but they cannot remove his intolerable shirt of fire.

The Christian calendar orients man's world around Christ while we dwell in the world, reconciling the corporeal and transcendent. Scripture and saintly homage, sacred remembrance and theology are all reconciled through the mass. The Christian however calendar is also gone, replaced socially by secular holidays and that most sacred bourgeois feast, the weekend, and liturgically by that ternary bloc of Advent, Lent, and Ordinary Time. The epoch of Christ's redemption, the years Anno Domini, are now the years of the "Common Era," an epithet slapped on by those so indolent, unstudied, and cowardly that they didn't even have the decency to fish for a new date from which to start their age. Even the French Revolutionaries had the decency to do that. Add to this disorder the rotation of scriptural readings and the liturgical breakdowns and we have a true loss of time, season, and center.

You'll notice that the leading image above isn't that of a liturgical calendar. How many of those round doohickies (left) do you see, taped and torn, festooned around schools and church vestibules everywhere? I've never known anyone to find it more inspiring than its color-coding. With it's arbitrary transferring and shifted observances, it's the fruit of tinkering and not tradition. The image above is that of the Labors of the Year, that is, the seasonal organization of life which results from the order of the Christian calendar.

It is no coincidence and to their credit that the online spaces of so many Catholic writers and bloggers become calendars where they mark the feasts, posting paintings, pieces of music, and prayers which they are discovering for themselves. They miss the order, surely, but also the pleasure which shaped time gives, for the calendar gives not only purpose but season to worship as does a Bach cantata or an altar cover of Bernini.

The traditional mass, its shape of and through the year, and the art of its expression are instead of interminably presencing through time, of time, man, his expression, and God a perpetual reconciliation. The alternative is one damn thing after another.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese. 2013.

J. J. Abrams burnt out Star Trek in two movies, George Lucas tinkered Star Wars to death and then gave up, Steven Spielberg missed his true calling with Indiana Jones, Ridley Scott has no taste in scripts, Tarantino and Fincher and Burton got bogged down in their own shticks, and I worry that Peter Jackson and Daniel Nolan will get bogged down in nerdy details like James Cameron.

Enter Martin Scorsese, who at 71 delivers a walloping three hour drama as his 23rd major cinematic release. Add to that Scorsese's bravado in directing a frank riff on Citizen Kane, and I think some recognition is in order. Would that it were a better picture.

Two major themes run through Wolf, the first revolving around its Kane roots and tragic arc. Alas, this theme is incomplete to the point of hobbling the movie and for four reasons.

First, we never get a clear picture of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo diCaprio) as a young man. He seems innocent enough, but tells us of his ambition and that he went to Wall Street because it was the only place big enough to satisfy them. On the other hand his first boss becomes his mentor for a short while and seems to corrupt him. Which is it, or perhaps it was the riches which seduced him?

Second, we have conflicting information as to why Jordan pursues greater and greater spoils. Here Jordan says he has a big appetite and there that it's in his nature. Early on Jordan says he is ambitious, but later he seems to pursue particular material ends. Jordan even says that he's addicted to money, a diagnoses which implies clinical analysis. Lastly, when Jordan refuses a plea deal, is this because of any or all of the aforementioned, or some other which might fit the bill, such as hubris? On top of this ambiguity, Jordan is the narrator, a fact which calls everything he says into question since we surely can't presume self knowledge on his part.

Third, the denouement fails to deliver because Jordan never has a moment of recognition. Note that while Jordan talks about the good he does with his money and yet wastes and flaunts it is dramatically acceptable: he's allowed to have contradictory ideas. We however still need to know what is going on and why. We don't need to see retribution or redemption, but Jordan has to change for anything to have happened. Whether your protagonist is Oedipus, King Lear, or Charles Foster Kane, he needs a moment of recognition of the scope of the drama so we can feel pity, fear, indignation, or anything so precise that we should take notice.

The obvious objection to this premise is the antihero, such as Scorsese's own Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Travis is infamously lacking in self awareness, but that's established and developed through the plot and is in fact the theme of the film: we wait for the time bomb to go off as Travis' disaffection grows.

In Taxi Driver that explosion is the finale, an active denouement which results from the plot's activity which is the result of his character. As such the resolution is significant. In contrast, Jordan Belfort is aware to some extent, the difference being that the script throws a bunch of explanations against the wall: appetite, ambition, corruption, and so forth. Also, because what happens in Wolf can't refer back to a definitive characteristic, see paragraph four above, the action lacks meaning and therefore so does the ending. There can be tragedy without character but not without activity.

Fourth and finally, all of Jordan's profligate libertinism which consumes the lion's share of Wolf's runtime is meaningless because it neither impacts the plot–Jordan's downfall is caused by the accidents of others, the cheapest and least satisfying of plot resolutions–nor does it have any effect on Jordan. Jordan is the kind of man he is because of his character, but what is the result of his actions? Only at the end does Jordan fleetingly reflect on how he misses getting "fucked up," at which we wonder first whether all of his antics were an escape from some fears or such, and then why that thread was never developed and only even mentioned 2.5 hours into the movie. With that lack throughout, none of the spectacles of debauchery have the power to rouse any fear or pity and thus for all of their panache, lay flat.

The other theme running through Wolf is Jordan's fascinating-yet-unexplored talent for demagoguery. Jordan has the uncanny ability to persuade and inspire. Whether he's selling penny stocks to rubes on the phone or encouraging his employees to work and improve their lives, he's magnetic. Still, this theme falters in the drama, for while his artful persuasion explains his rise, Jordan's downfall still happens by chance. Wolf would be much more interesting, and its ending significant, if it asked whether Jordan had persuaded himself as well, in which case a tragic end or redemption could be predicated on the protagonist's success or failure to repurpose his talent, as in the recent American Hustle.

Wolf's most subtle scene could have closed a powerful peroration, but fails. At the end, Agent Denham, who has dogged Jordan for years, sits on the subway riding home, the very plebeian trip for which Jordan had mocked him. Denham, committed to justice and his job, looks up at a poor pair across the car: a man and his mother. The agent we presume remembers a story about which Jordan bragged, in which he the rich man playing philanthropist paid a boy's debt and his mother's medical bills. So when the agent looks at the boy and his mother, whom does he see: people Jordan fleeced or people he might have helped with his ill-gotten gains? Yet we know the agent doesn't think that because he never expressed any sympathy for Jordan or doubts about his FBI duties. What an interesting foil Denham might have been. Scorsese is quoted as considering whether Denham had doubts, but his context excludes the aforementioned and lacks internal evidence to support the speculation even though it comes from the director.

Scorsese ends with a line from Jordan bragging about how because he's rich he even bough himself a posh lifestyle in jail, glad he lives "somewhere where everything is for sale." Is this a dig at politicians? Citizens? Why is the script throwing this in now, with no preparation or room for development?

Ultimately, Wolf of Wall Street fails because it's badly plotted and it looks like Scorsese's done himself a disservice by hewing close to the real Jordan Belfort's book. It's easy to gloss over the movie's flaws because Wolf is so energetically styled and because its lack of proper resolution seems glibly to say that nothing changes and justice was not done, but it's really just incomplete. Let us recall how high the tragic bar has been raised by the Bard, whose twisting few sentences from the end of Richard III are worth more than the whole of Belfort's sorry inconsequential tale. Here is true ambition, pride, indignation, fear, recognition, and tragedy, in but a few words.

Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No-yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why-
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself!