Sunday, June 2, 2013

Word Power, II: What's In A Name?

Fourteen years ago, a teacher told me that he didn't share his father's given name because his father wanted him to be unique. A few weeks ago, someone expressed this same sentiment and what once seemed true now seems to me rather ridiculous. Not that I mind either the seriousness of purpose or the liberal gesture, of course. Far from. In fact, it refreshes me to hear someone express care over the use of words, having as much respect as I do for words. There are, however, distinctions we must make, namely between care and superstition, and between naming inanimate objects and naming people.

Using words with precision is a virtue of both intellect and communication. Whatever suspicions our ancient forbearers may have harbored, we do not in fact control things by naming them. It would be an improvement to say that we taxonomize them.  This is surely not news. The burden is simply on us to categorize with care, and so we without much trepidation call something a com-puter because it seems to think, or a library because it holds books. Naming people, though, is a different matter.

It's a curious and persistently illiberal fact of life that we don't get to choose our names. We might avoid the fact, but our given name always retains a certain authority over us. Nicknames and abbreviations let us pretend, yet it's not what we're called by any old person or even ourselves but rather what we were named which, in some inescapable way, makes us.

So we're named, but do we really think we impute qualities to a child when we name him? Probably not, though we'd like to and we try. When you name a child after someone you hope they turn out like their namesake, the cause of their name, but we know that their name assures nothing. Naming your daughter Iris won't give her a penchant for flowers and rainbows any more than naming your son Benito will turn him into a fascist. Nonetheless, names retain identities, some with which we identify and others by which we are repulsed, and we name people (curious how serious the act sounds when defined) based on what we believe and what we hope for them.

Obtuse hopes aside, though, if you think giving own name to your child will confine him to a life of carrying the cherished hopes and expectations of his parents, perish the thought!, why not give him a wholly different name? Why is being half unique just right? Should you research your family tree to make sure no one ever had that name? Won't you eventually run out of names? Also, since many people who are not related nonetheless share a name by chance, why not make up a new name ex nihilo? Is it better deliberately to avoid naming your child after yourself and, to no purpose let him end up with the same name as a stranger, rather than find someone after whom to name him?

It's a liberal sentiment, that in giving him a "free" name you'll pass down liberty to your child, but it's also futile. If we want to pass on an idea, we need pass on not a blank slate, but that which is meaningful.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fine or Beautiful

Something curious happened to many NYC neighborhoods during the last five or so years. Houses once characterized by aluminum awnings, concrete steps, and little patches of green underwent a sudden process of prettification. Aluminum awnings were replaced with shingled ones, concrete driveways were ripped up and replaced with spiffy paving stones, and iron fences yielded to chromed replacements, because you always want your front yard to have that cozy, automotive feel. Many lawns were paved over in part or whole in deference Convenience, queen of the modern Pantheon.

Unfortunately, most of these upgrades proceeded in poor taste, resulting in prettification instead of beautification. The chrome is shiny and garish, and where once yards sported subtle sections of green, they now extend a sea of paving stones, dizzying and offensive to the eye. The materials are finer, but they're no more pleasing. The pictures over here are a prime example.

Look at all of the beautiful decorative work around the windows and doors. How subtle, pleasant are the detail and decoration, and how loud and flashy the chrome. And that deck...

My thinking is that the impetus came not only from new, younger residents bringing newer fashions but from older residents, having just paid off their mortgages, not knowing what to do with accumulating dollars. One often hears the conventional wisdom of "adding value" to one's house. Is this notion not perverse? Houses are for living, not profiteering.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila explained the phenomenon:
The bourgeoisie is any group of individuals dissatisfied with what they have and satisfied with what they are. [1]
I hope that the home of my senile self is more a simple, kept, library than a collection of congealed frippery. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Hell, No

It's always telling when people pounce on a piece news and promptly declare I told you so! So it was with much amusement that I watched the stream of giddy reactions to Pope Francis' comments about salvation. The approbation flowed mostly from liberal quarters, Catholic and otherwise, rejoicing in. . . what exactly?

They interpreted Pope Francis' statement to mean that atheists can get into heaven. Now this might seem a charitable and Christian sentiment, and indeed there is a reasonable path to such a conclusion. For example, it's possible to believe God's love so vast that it simply swaddles all of his children in infinite forgiveness, irrespective of creed or deed. That's variously problematic, though not patently absurd, but it and the assumptions about Pope Francis' recent statement, especially in the context of the ambiguities Fr. Z mentions above, are potentially troublesome.

Namely, because some people are known to be quite bad, few think that everyone is going to heaven. So one naturally then wonders what's worse than what, and then because people can reform, how you can make up for sin. There is of course a simple, orthodox answer: repent in the sacrament of reconciliation. There's surprisingly little need to consider details if you're as good and grateful as possible. Of course, since this discussion revolves around atheists, repentance is not an option. The only alternative then is a calculus computing what you can do in life to make up for sin, a calculation in which all actions are fungible and the result of which is that everyone's tally neatly balances so they end up in heaven. If you do good deeds, then God won't send you to hell just for not believing in him. If you do great deeds, then God won't send you to hell for minor sins. If you do certain good deeds, then God won't send you to hell for not doing certain other good deeds. The conclusion here is that no one's in hell except Hitler and Caligula.

The origins of such expectations are not hard to imagine: it's difficult fully to imagine the joy of reunification with God, therefore our most potent experiences with love and joy are with our loved ones. As a result, we really cannot entertain the idea that our loved ones will be punished, let alone infernally, eternally damned. Can you look at your wife, or brother, or parent, and hold in your mind the knowledge that they're going to hell? If you could, you'd probably be deathly afraid. Yet we moderns don't really fear quite so much, we fret and worry and sputter about minutiae, but we don't fear. My thinking therefore, is that, just maybe, we don't entertain rosy notions about salvation because we believe in God's bountiful grace, but because we've refused to confront our fears. Fears about what kind of people we are, fears about the implications of our beliefs, fears about the unknown.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, one of the great anachronisms of the 20th century, wrote that:
The Church was able to baptize medieval society because it was a society of sinners, but her future is not promising in modern society, where everyone believes he is innocent. [1]
Guilt: what a dismal thought it seems to the modern. To him, guilt is an accident of an insufficiently liberal system of ethics, the puritanism of some obtuse positive law, rather than part of our nature, a part inextricably bound up in our salvation. And so the modern makes paeans to peace and progress and perfection, when the medieval said with humility suscipe deprecationem nostram, and with joy miserere nobis.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Movie Review: Dr. Strangelove

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1964.

Dr. Strangelove neither sweats nor abets squishy notions about the high-ranking peckers of the political order or the sanity of anyone up and down the military chain of command. Strangelove, however, doesn't smother its subjects in finger-wagging or withering scorn, but allows the crew helming the ship of fools to shine in their own bizarre blaze of imbecility. In fact, so absurd are both the characters and the stage that I don't know whether there's a single straight line in the whole movie.

The first drops of Kubrick's inky black comedy paint General Buck Turgidson, whom we meet not at  command desk or astride one of the military's great steel steeds, but amidst his pre-coital primping. So occupied is the tumid general with his preparations, in fact, that it's not he but his squeeze-cum-secretary, Miss Scott, who answers the phone. Unmoved by the gravity of the situation, the general has Miss Scott relay to him the facts of why there are strategic bombers en route to Russian targets.

The scene plays riotously for several reasons. The first is the sight of the bikinied Miss Scott inserted into the chain of command. Second is how she seamlessly switches between proper secretarial protocol when talking to the lieutenant on the phone and shouting at the general who's in the bathroom. Third is of course George C. Scott barking questions from his off-screen orifice. The scene climaxes when Turgidson flies out of the bathroom in an open Hawaiian shirt and shorts to answer the phone. The country's in the very best of hands.

The best character introduction in the film, though, is the shortest, and it's for the absurdly proper Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, from the service's exchange program. When his base commander has ordered the nuclear strike and impounded personal radios so they can't be used to seed commands to spies, Mandrake finds one and in the process of impounding it, traipses throughout the base with the little box blaring its easy listening tunes. The scene is a perfect metaphor for Mandrake's cluelessness and ineffectual manners, and both contrast Mandrake as foil to the phlegmatic General Jack T. Ripper.

One of cinema's great characters, Jack T. Ripper is the grizzled general who, fed up with a feckless Washington and the corrupting communist infiltration which threatens not only the purity of the American polity but also the "precious bodily fluids" of her men, makes the very reasonable decision to buck the chain of command and begin a nuclear war by means of a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. Sterling Hayden's performance at first seems simply the work of caricature, but it's much more than cigar-chomping and distended faces. There's a detached quality to General Ripper which at first seems pure insanity but also reads as a hyperbolic romanticism. Ripper is concerned with the manly duties, martial virtues, and the purity of the male essence. He prefers to do things himself and is prepared to take losses. The problem is that he's trying to live his old romantic vision not with a symbolic duel at twenty paces but by means of the most powerful weapons in human history.

Still, Ripper is as much out of his mind as out of his time, for romance aside, his conspiracy theories and apparent, if occasional, understanding of the cataclysmic results of his actions, just plain disturb us. In fact we share Mandrake's flabbergasted, flat-faced response to Ripper's serene hysteria. As General Ripper lectures about water fluoridation and forcing total American commitment to the end of days, we can only look on in horror. Yet all the while his confidence, the way he seems to chisel each penile pronouncement into the Washington Monument itself, America's great endowment, gives these bizarre epigrams a lapidary profundity.

God willing, we will prevail in peace and freedom from fear and in true health through the purity and essence of our natural fluids
I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids. 
And as human beings, you and I need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids.
Frightening as it is that General Ripper has his finger on the button at farcically-named Burpleson Air Force Base, where we are frequently reminded by a grim running gag of signs that, "Peace is Our Profession," the meat and potatoes of Dr. Strangelove are the exchanges in the war room.

Here Turgidson butts up against President Merkin Muffley as they try to deal with General Ripper's atomic insurrection. Muffley, the second in Peter Sellers' hat trick of performances in Strangelove, might be the straight man here, but he's no hero. Once he's been briefed on the details of Plan R, which we discover puts all and irrevocable authority in the commanding officer, who just happens to be General Ripper, he asks who ever approved such an idiotic plan. President Muffley is gently reminded, "You approved it, sir." Once everyone in the War Room realizes there's no turning back, Turgidson delivers the bleakest line and most outrageous understatement of the movie. "The human element seems to have failed us here."

Turgidson, however, rapidly reveals himself as one nut saner than General Ripper as he compulsively stuffs his mouth with chewing gum and articulates his plan to capitalize on Ripper "exceeding his authority" by proceeding with the strike. In a chilling moment, Turgidson, amidst articulating his plan, answers a telephone call from Miss Scott. He proceeds to pacify her randy whimpering by telling her that he'll be back shortly, and then proceeds to discuss his plan for "pacifying" the world (Remember: Peace is our Profession) by reading from his binder, titled, "World Targets in Megadeaths." When an outraged President Merkin objects, Turgidson replies:

Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say... no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh... depended on the breaks.
Certainly not enough cause to let, as Turgidson cautions, "One incident invalidate the program."

Finally the Russians get involved, but only to hilarious effect. Ambassador Sadesky arrives and immediately begins taking reconnaissance photographs. The now manic Turgidson tackles him giving rise to Strangelove's most famous line:

Gentlemen you can't fight in here, this is the war room!

The heavy satire, though, lies in Muffley's conversations with the Russian president. The genius of conception here is all Kubrick's in seeing just how foolish we look when talking on the phone. Neither man takes on the gravitas of a statesman delivering an epoch-making oration but rather a frustrated, average man trying to get his take out order right. The genius of execution, however, goes to Sellers, who manages to escalate the ridiculousness of the conversation and imply of the Russian president's foolishness all by himself. Addressing his interlocutor simply as Dimitri, who the ambassador tells us has been satisfying his manly needs, Muffley talks to the man as if Dimitri is either drunk or of the mind of a child. Sellers' timing is impeccable here where Dmitri "interrupts" him and he assures his sensitive Russian counterpart that the call is not simply business and that, "Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello." The very best of hands.

Now we get the last piece to the absurd puzzle. The Russians have a "doomsday machine" which will blanket the world in a radioactive cloud if even one missile hit its target. The ultimate and perfect deterrent, with one hitch. Dr. Strangelove, Sellers' last and most outrageous creation, wheels out from the shadows to shine an incensed light on the obvious.

The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!

We seem to be averting disaster, though, when Captain Mandrake manages to decrypt General Ripper's doodles and discern the recall codes. One lone plane, however, is out of contact and its captain, Major King Kong, is going through with his orders. Never mind that he's about to start a nuclear war, he trusts in General Ripper enough to press on with the attack. Like his dense counterpart Colonel Bat Guano,  who nearly derailed Mandrake's attempts to forward the recall codes, Major Kong is oblivious to the situation. Unlike Col. Guano, though, who is simply oblivious to the obvious and impervious to common sense, Kong has been insulated by both technology and the chain of command from understanding or altering the situation.

With the unstoppable underway, the politicians in the war room seize on Dr. Strangelove's plan of last resort, wherein prime samples of the human species will be sequestered away underground to repopulate and emerge when the radiation has settled. No sooner has the end begun, though, then the politickers begin prepping the next war. What happens if the Russians tuck a nuke away and whip it out when the radiation has cleared? Better save a few.

Finally the men belie their disinterested judgment and verify their quality when they unanimously support the plan which requires them to do "prodigious service" repopulating the Earth with women selected for their "highly stimulating nature."

Best. Of. Hands.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Movie Review: Patton

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. 1970.

Since its release, Patton has split audiences into those who see in it a glorification of the military ethics and those who find  condemnation of it. Critics like to wax about what it's "really" about, but the opinion is in the eye of the beholder because Patton is a pure distillation of the warrior ethos. This is not an equivocating cop-out like the sentiment that the titular character is both "hero and villain," expressed in the Cosmo review quoted on the movie poster to the right. Instead, it's an invitation to consider the ancient warrior's virtues and his place in a liberal society. Steven Pressfield in his 2011 The Warrior Ethos pulls together examples ancient and modern to examine the question and here I'd like to look at some of the virtues he identifies through the example of Schaffner's Patton.

We already called the warrior virtues ancient, but are they modern too? Throughout Patton we see a man who identifies more with Alcibiades, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon than with his fellow commanders. On his way to the front, the general orders his driver to divert to a nearby field on which sit ancient ruins. Stepping out, Patton describes the ancient Roman sack of Carthage as if he sees it unfolding before him. He says:
Through the travail of ages,
midst the pomp and toils of war,
have I fought and strove and perished,
countless times among the stars.
As if through a glass and darkly,
the age old strife I see,
when I fought in many guises and many names,
but always me.
The poem distills from every man-of-war in every age, the warrior's ethos that pervades and unifies them all. Beyond merely identifying with his predecessors, Patton sees himself as the present incarnation of the pure warrior in a timeless continuum. Yet the warrior's ethos is no longer timeless, and everyone around Patton seems to see that he's out of place. His aide bashfully tells the general how his ideas, like his poems, just don't fit in nowadays. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), his fellow general, tells Patton with a hint of fear and disgust, "I do this job because I've been trained to. You do it because you love it." Even the German lieutenant tasked to research Patton calls him a pure romantic warrior, a Don Quixote out of time. The question to us is whether Patton has a place in our society, or whether he's chasing windmills.

From the outset Patton seems to contradict the established liberal order. His very presence with all of his medals, stars, and commendations upsets the egalitarian order of civilian life. The General is in charge and his authority not only commands fealty to a superior but it shames the raw cadets who have yet to earn any prestige for themselves. He proceeds to shame them again, taunting them that at least, should their grandchildren ever ask what they did in "The Great WW II," they wouldn't have to say they "shoveled shit in Alabama." This also fosters a sense of unity with the army, distinction from both civilians and other regiments, and of course the enemy, whose fate he describes without a hint of pity or mercy. Later on he promises to send a soldier right to the front lines: he might die, but he won't sit a coward in Patton's army. In contrast to our natural inclinations toward self-preservation, Patton's warrior ethos gives honor to the man who fulfills the mission and shame to anyone who fails.

Likewise, where we in civilian society praise individuality, he calls individuality on the battlefield a bunch of nonsense. Instead, an army functions because of the soldier's obedience to the chain of command and compunction to fulfill his duty to the mission and his comrades. He does not glorify himself but functions as part of a team.

The differences mount. Where civilians reward the guy who finagles the best of all worlds, the warrior honors the man who lays down on the wire. As Pressfield writes, where we value moderation, the warrior values aggression. Where we value luxury, the warrior prepares for adversity. You can see this all in the satisfaction on Patton's face when he looks at the carnage on the battlefield. Observing the remnants of a bloody struggle he confesses to his aide, "God help me but I do love it so."

Alongside the warrior thread, though, is Patton's arc as a highly imperfect man. More specifically, Patton's change is a coming to grips with his vanity. He wants to be the hero of the war, sometimes at the expense of the allied agreements when he taunts his British counterpart Bernard Montgomery, sometimes at the expense of his men when he presses an attack simply to make time, and sometimes at the risk of shattering the chain of command when he exceeds orders disciplining men. Patton learns a little humility after he's put on probation after the successful Sicilian campaign and the film's finale is a bloody blast through the liberation of France and Patton's counter to Germany's final, ferocious assault. Patton shines here, pressing the American technological advantage and capitalizing on the training and discipline of his unit. The question of Patton's reform and self-awareness is never taken for granted, though, and after one of his outbursts ending with, "Let no one come back alive!" his aide notes that sometimes the men can't tell when he's kidding, to which Patton replies, "It's only important that I know." Is it, or ought not those taking the orders and to whom he reports, know too?

There's also one especially good line from one of the soldiers, from whom we seldom hear, who upon hearing Patton called "Old Blood and Guts," replies, "Yeah, our blood, his guts." The line stands out but in the right way, for it's a bit too easy to get wrapped up in the Great Man telling of history.

The structure of Patton revolves around the three set pieces of the North African, Sicilian, and post-Normandy operations in France and Germany, and for a nearly three hour picture, it's pretty sleek. Yes, the battles are a tad padded with wide shots and explosions, but every scene ties into Patton's arc and the arc of the war. Unifying the whole movie, though, is Jerry Goldsmith's march. It's a simple little tune which reveals its protean nature as it occurs in various guises throughout, here exuberant, there defeated. Sometimes it's full and vigorous, other times it's truncated, echoing ruefully into the distance. Sometimes in darkness it sours the stomach after a grisly defeat and other times in brightness it presages the glory of victory. Does it have any one true face, or are the permutations of the warrior's march the permutations of the warrior?

Like Patton, has the warrior won the war but found himself antiquated? Both Patton and Pressfield seem to point the way. Pressfield concludes The Warrior Ethos with the story of Arjuna from Bhagavad-Gita, in which Krishna instructs Arjuna start killing his enemies. Pressfield writes,
The names of these enemy warriors, in Sanskrit, can be read two ways. They can be simply names. Or they can represent inner crimes or personal vices, such as greed, jealousy, selfishness, the capacity to play our friends false or to act without compassion toward those who love us.
In other words, our warrior Arjuna is being instructed to slay the enemies inside himself. [Pressfield, 80]
As with Arjuna, Patton has to turn his warrior virtues that brought him success on the battlefield and that he taught his soldiers, on himself. These are not the virtues of war, but life.

The final shot closes all arcs. The man returns home, having conquered his demons. The general returns triumphant, but having learned that "all glory is fleeting." The warrior walks past a windmill: is he still an anachronism, or will the warrior's virtues serve him, and others, in peace?

Pressfield, Steven. The Warrior Ethos. Black Irish Entertainment. 2011.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Movie Review: High Society (1956)

Directed by Charles Walters. 1956.

Since I don't wish to speak ill of the dead, I'll credit director Charles Walters for managing to cast Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra in a film, punched up by none other than Louis Armstrong and His Band, and have the whole thing turn out a dreadful bore. To start, I'll do the opposite of High Society with its ten minute swooning cotton candy overture followed up by a title song followed up by an explanation, and cut to the quick with the film's two egregious problems.

First, High Society shifts in tone from scene to scene. To start, the title song sets the stage for a pure lovey-dovey romance where exciting ex-hubby Dexter (Bing Crosby) swings back into prissy debutante Tracy's life on the day before her wedding to a dull-but-marriageable George (John Lund.) Then Tracy gets swindled into allowing a pair of tabloid photographers to her wedding so the paper editor will suppress unflattering press about her father, a turn handled so seriously we expect a dramatic consequence. The tone shifts again when the photographers arrive and Tracy and her kid sister play up their high society parts with ridiculous parodies of themselves. Satire? Once more the tone twists when, due to Tracy's machinations, her father and uncle are each pretending to be the other. Farce? A comedy of errors?

Finally the tone swerves to the serious when Tracy has cutting conversations with Dexter and then her father, who in turn tell her to have respect for human frailty and then not to be so cold "as a bronze statue." Not only do these scenes clash with the rest of the movie, but they block a flashback in which Tracy and Dexter swoon together during an evening sail. This is either tone-deaf editing or a desperate attempt to vary the visuals. Either way it fails.

Now I read a clever comment which  cautioned viewers to approach High Society as if it were an opera, forgiving its undulating plot and tone as one does an opera's preposterous twists and turns. Unfortunately, we cannot forgive High Society for two reasons. First, the tunes are dull, haphazardly placed, and far from unifying disparate material, don't even elevate any of it. Second, nothing actually happens in the first hour of the movie.

This is in fact the movie's second egregious problem. Yes, people come and go, but the plot doesn't move by the activity we see. Tracy's mother Liz talks about her husband's previous philandering, Dexter talks about his love for Tracy, Tracy talks about what and whom she likes and dislikes, and the photographers ask a lot of questions about their socialite-hosts, but nothing happens in front of you. The arrival of the Dexter and then the photographers, the swap between Tracy's uncle and father, none of this triggers a course of events. As a result the scenes just lay next to one another until we're an hour in and we have neither a plot-in-motion nor, through tone, any sense of what might, ought, or ought-not happen.

In fact, the first hour has just three redeeming bits. The first is a bit of chemistry between rag reporters Mike (Frank Sinatra) and Liz (Celeste Horn.) Even their dippy duet, devoid as it is of anything resembling music or poetry, breathes a little life. The second bit is a pair of references, to Circe and then Lord Macaulay. Had these two ever ever worked their way into a mainstream picture today would have been scrubbed out of it before anyone ever uttered their names. The last noteworthy bit is Grace Kelly walking around inexplicably dressed like a Greek goddess.

At any rate, after the midway musical number ends, Louis adds, "Now we're getting warmed up." Sort of. The second act proceeds like a better movie, albeit a cheesy one. The action weaves through the set-piece of a party where Dexter, Mike, and George all vie for Tracy, or at least hover around her. Unfortunately, although she's out of sorts we can't tell whether she's finally self-aware and angry at herself, stymied about which man to choose, throwing a hissy fit, or just plain drunk. This would be less of a problem were she not the only developing character.

Once more, of course, the tone just won't settle down. After a serious heart-to-heart between Dexter and the lonely Liz and a steamy scene between Tracy and Mike, we think a serious denouement is in the works. . . and then the two fall in the pool. . . and stagger back drunk in bathrobes. . . to Dexter and Roger, who then have words about class. What a mess.

So the wedding finally arrives and you know what, who cares? I don't know whether Dexter is looking out for Tracy so she doesn't marry a jerk or whether he wants her for himself, and I don't know anything meaningful about their relationship. I don't know whether George is a rube or a stiff or a phony, and I don't know what he really feels for Tracy. I don't know whether Mike is really in love with Tracy simply because he's drunk for the last hour of the movie. Finally, I don't know whom Tracy loves or whether I'm supposed to empathize with her as an anguished lover, scrutinize her as a spoiled debutante, or pine after her like one of the guys. Or should I be rooting for one of the guys I don't know or care about?

The conclusion wraps things up as if something significant had preceded it, but though things work out, the lack of development leaves you fairly indifferent to the outcome. Sadly, this is a first rate cast put through the hoops of a movie with flat dialogue and skimpy plotting which the director simply doesn't pull together. What a disappointment.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Charm

I vaghi fiori
Giovanni Palestrina
A heated debate followed one of The Atlantic's puffy articles this week when Benjamin Schwartz's The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men rang in the next bout of history's longest-running conflict. In fact the wrangling in the comments impresses, given the lightweight nature of the piece, and to me highlight a few points. First, no one is sure what charm is. Second, everyone thinks charm is desirable. Third, charm is lacking today and no one knows why. Let us see if we can lighten the befuddlement.

First off, while Schwartz never defines charm, the dictionary seems adequately to have done so as, a power of pleasing or attracting, as through personality or beauty. That's not half bad, for charm is certainly a magnetic force of attraction. Another definition clarifies further, saying that to charm is, to act upon (someone or something) with or as with a compelling or magical force, a property which emphasizes the natural, seemingly mystical, pull toward the charming.

A still better definition we find, though, in the more obscure source of a Renaissance treatise on beauty. Here, Florentine poet and man of letters Agnolo Firenzuola, leaning on Petrarch and Boccacio, calls our mysterious property vaghezza. From these poets he isolates three properties of what we broadly call charm: wandering, desire, and beauty. I'll depart from Firenzuola's analysis but consider myself these properties, which seem to me wisely discerned.

Rembrandt Laughing
Wandering is perhaps the most surprising of these traits, for why should that which moves itself, move us? Firenzuola wrote that what we see at ease moves us less than what we must work for, an observation which might figure into the raging gender war, but this seems at best a secondary property. First, though, we must clarify that it is not simply movement which charms us, for no one finds a swinging pendulum or spinning fan charming. Nor do we find sunsets or blowing leaves charming, although we might describe their motion as beautiful. Rather we find charming that which seems animate, that is, alive, and full of vitality. Too this is a property particular to people, for although animals move themselves we do not find them charming. It is the self-possession of an individual, moreover an awareness of his place in the world and an ease in that place, that we find charming. The charming man neither hurries or tarries, speaks too much nor too little, or suffers from want or excess.

He exists with joy in the order of the world, or even seems himself to order it, and thus we rejoice in the apparent excellence of both him and "his world." Such is why the charming are so desirable to others. The charming man extends his apparent good order around us, hence the propensity for the charming-and-devious to use their power for swindling others. We comply with charmers because we are so persuaded that the ease with which they move signifies the rightness of their order. Even the man of intelligence may be persuaded by a charming man, for in seeming to find the mean in personal conduct and himself to be happy, the charming man approximates wisdom. For this reason, charm may conceal a lack of wisdom, lead to wisdom, or flow from wisdom, and hence the various disputations about its essence and goodness.

In speaking of beauty I will quote Firenzuola, who writes that charm is, "a beauty that attracts and sparks the desire to contemplate and enjoy it." [Eisenbichler & Muray, 36] As alluded, at the personal level we seek to enjoy the company of the charming. We find enjoyment in their apparent harmony with the world and with us. Not inappropriately, we call this harmony beautiful, although not friendship per se, which has other requirements. Hence again the propensity to abuse charm, for it may simulate the appearance of friendship with simple friendly feeling.

At the aesthetic level too, though, we seek beauty. The beauty of the human face which charms us and moves eros through us may move us either toward love, friendship, and giving, or to lust and utility.

Finally, although we described charm as appropriate only to people, we might attempt discuss two potential qualifications. The first is for certain places, which are not properly called charming because they are not vital or self-possessed, but which draw us into their order and beauty. We call them charming nonetheless because we project ourselves into them and in doing so feel a part of order and beauty, and thus at peace. Hence the charm of a well-ordered farm, a cozy cabin, or a simple nook in nature where we feel at home.

The second potential qualification is for music, because a musical idea 1) exists in time, 2) has shape and character, and 3) seems to act and react. The seems there is the catch, though, for the musical idea is the will of the composer and not self-possessed. Still, though, but for that one qualification would we not call both the seductive and sensuous Adagio and the bumptious Rondo themes of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto KV.622, like Rembrandt chuckling above, charming?

Does that theme not seem at peace with itself and the world? Does it not call us?

Charm may be misconstrued and misused, but it's a call to something greater, for to charm one must know oneself and cultivate the good, and to be charmed we must be open to goodness and beauty. If we wish charm to return, that is where we ought to start.

Eisenbicher, Konrad and Murray, Jaqueline (trans. & ed.) On the Beauty of Women, by Firenzuola, Agnolo. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1992.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Flotilla of Credentials

The worst part about graduation ceremonies is not the speechifying. Nor is it the seizure-inducing bursts of photographic flashes or the heavy, thick spring air. It's not even the sight of that flotilla of vaunted credentials puffing its way through rows of parents. It's the robes.

First offending is the sheer ridiculousness of their design. All poofy and flowing they're just the wrong combination of priss and pomp. Too, could they be more elaborate than with sashes and cords and tassels and hats? And don't forget the stripes, borders, and crests. And hoods, don't forget the hoods, because academia is apparently so complicated for academics that they need to color code each other. Well, that's uncharitable. Perhaps it's simply that the reward for years of study is getting to dress like a Baroque Halloween Oreo.

Worse than this fashion faux pas, though, is the arrogance of wearing one's achievements on his sleeve. And chest, and head, and every other part of the body. If this is not the epitome of arrogance I shudder to see the real thing. All clothing has to do is suggest a quiet, kept dignity, and this sort of peacocking should be verboten and stamped into the dirt. Yes, academic work is quiet and solitary. So? Grad-uation is about promotion, not celebration, and pulling out the fancy dress because academics feel unloved doesn't serve the discipline so much as turn the ceremony into Carnivale. Then again, had Socrates the opportunity I'm sure he would have opted to look like a cross-dressing troubadour on Star Trek.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Knock Knock

Out and about today, your blogger-on-the-move stopped to observe a door. This may sound dull but it was such a fair, husky specimen of pine that I thought of all the good it did for the owner, keeping out all manner of rapscallions, hoots, and antics. Anyway, at some point during its sentry duty, this noble, woody custodian wronged a man. His crime was not being locked or damaged or anything so reasonable and invisibly remedied. No, our door committed the sin of excessive opacity, and for this crime he was sliced open and fitted with a window. Yet the invasive procedure apparently exceeded the skill of the craftsman, for instead of fitting the door with a slick porthole, they slapped a piece of clear plastic between molding on either side. But wait, the horror continues.

You see, as I observed the ingress a visitor approached and knocked. On the plastic. And as the plastic bounced around in its frame I felt the pain of the door, once a mighty gatekeeper who permitted but the faintest noises through to its owner. After this fleeting reflection on door's life,  I felt each dry, hard, clank bounce and multiply through every fiber of my being.

Duly dislodged from my pre-prandial observations, I hurried along with one thought in my head: who in his right mind would have knocked on that part of the door? Why, why I ask! Could this individual not feel the disruptive cacophony of her verberations? In the rueful position of her quarry I would have exercised my right not to answer the door.

There are many ways to get someone's attention, most of them unacceptable. Think of the pomposity which a select breed of churl conveys in summoning a waiter with two slow, deliberate, paternalistic strokes of the hand. Snapping, whistling, and shouting are all right out.  So is touching, tugging, and tapping people.

In hailing a stranger, a gentle pardon me is the only acceptable interjection. Of knocking on doors, two or three gentle raps must do. In either case, if you don' get his attention, there's a hint for the taking.

Monday, May 20, 2013


Lovers of the Latin Mass make various paths in justifying the traditional form of the Roman Liturgy. It is reverent, it is beautiful, it is time-honored. We explain its structural coherence and its sense of motion. We talk about beauty and utility of Latin. True all, but such efforts are mostly useless. What is not useless, however, is our affection for the Extraordinary form.

We just plain love it. The quiet, the focus, the postures. We love the rhythm and gravitas of the Latin. We love the music, whether the ecstasy of high classical compositions, the dense webs of renaissance polyphony, or the unadorned lines of plainchant. We love the feeling of continuity with Catholics of every time and place. We love every bit and the glorious totality of the mass in which one feels at home.

In contrast, I've never heard anyone express any affection about the Novus Ordo, let alone wax poetical about it. Yes, they may like going to an NO mass, but that's because of what it is by nature, or what they think it is, not the form it takes. They like it or respect it because they know it is important, not because its form transports or enraptures them.

They may like singing at mass, but they don't like Marty Haugen. I've never heard anyone express that they love how their lector-neighbor reads the passages, or how their hairdresser distributes Holy Communion. Never have I heard someone confess a call to universal brotherhood when the cantor raises her arm to incite invite, the congregation. I still seek the encomiastic literature praising the seventh inning stretch that is the sign of peace. Now I've never heard anyone even try to defend these practices on empirical grounds, but that's the point: without reference to a principle, the only common appeal of these practices is whim.

Of course these gestures are not intrinsic to the NO and were you to strip them and follow the letter of the reform, you would find a mass resembling the Latin. Doing so of course puts off the progressives, who never consider themselves progressives, which suggests that their loyalties are not to the law of Sacrosanctum Concilium but whatever post Vatican II version of it they first embraced. It was an emotional embrace, too . They turned, and they will not turn again. Never mention that SC promotes chant and Latin and never ask them to point out where it mentions moving altars and receiving Holy Communion in the hand. They turned, but not to SC.

The old days for sure had demerits. Yet for all the degeneration of the ars celebrandi, the old masses inspired devotion. The NO, for all of the hope that it would appeal to the ethos changing times, seems not to have. Have there been more secular generations than those born in the 1970s and 80s, generations born to the boomers who got on board the reform bandwagon?

Worse than failure is the wholesale lack of culpability, a refusal that what they supported might not have served its purpose. It was the hippies or communists or conservatives who were at fault, not the reformers. When I hear such arguments I think of Gordon Ramsay's TV show Kitchen Nightmares. In every episode, the desperate owners with their business on the verge of closing have called in Gordon, who before tasting asks them first to rate their food on a scale of 1-10 and then explain what's wrong with the restaurant. The owners invariably reply that their food is a 10 and the problem is that there are not enough customers. When he tries to change the menu they predictably reply that they don't want to alienate their customers, to which an enraged Gordon replies, "There's nobody in your damn restaurant!"

Likewise, there's no acknowledgement that a flat, languid mass in a modern church, with sappy music, in the common tongue, with disposable missalettes, untrained lectors, hand-shaking, umpteen extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, a rambling and incoherent homily, and asides tossed in here and there, might be harming people. There's no sense of reverence for what worked or responsibility to make sure that what they do is working now. Progress came, and thus improvement.

Or not. Maybe what we have is a sucking lack of vitality. Empty pews, empty coffers. We have an artistic world which can't muster for the dusty paradigm any more than pop-tune wannabes every bit as forgotten and unloved as the Toronto Mass of whenever. We may have traded in the eternal for the ephemeral, but still today the most exciting work is being done in the chant world, where interest and resources are simply exploding. Funny about the timeless.