Schwenkler considers bad children books, and immediately chops down one of the pillars of my childhood:

The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. I guess that this is a pretty common target in these kinds of discussions, but damn is it ever deserved. Tree loves boy. Boy loves tree. Boy grows up. Boy exploits tree. Tree takes it all silently, growing less happy with each lonely year. Boy gets old, tree is a stump, boy sits on tree, no apologies. I mean, I get the point: the tree loves the boy. But heck, even Jesus was able to rise triumphant when all was said and done; couldn’t Silverstein have made the love at least a little more, you know, mutual? (Other questions: Why didn’t the tree’s apples grow back? And how did the boy build himself and his family a house out of branches?)

As sympathetic as my warped communitarian heart is to demands for mutuality, I think that the story’s lack of shared charity is actually its most powerful point.  It seems to me that the story’s complexity comes from the fact that love isn’t always mutual, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee interpersonal justice.  In fact, in some cases it can demand precisely the opposite: that we give until we have nothing left, and that the only compensation we can expect is the satisfaction from having done so. When I try to imagine what it must be like to raise a severely disabled child or deal with an addicted sibling or care for a mentally ill parent, this is the only understanding of love that can suffice… The love that gives until it is spent.

As I’m writing this I see that Millman has written a very insightful post in the same direction, so I won’t spend any words going places he’s already been, but I figure I should also mention this lovely piece by Kyle Cupp on the experience of being a father of an ancephaletic child and his sense of the divine in that struggle.  It’s definitely a better articulation of Silverstein’s take on love than I’m capable of giving, and one that think explains why it remains one of the better children’s books around.


I apologize for the light posting over the last couple days… Job search stuff occasionally winds up being amazingly time consuming, especially when it seems to be productive. Unfortunately it looks like this most recent glimmer of opportunity was for nought and so I’m back to hoop jumping for at least a few more weeks.  And of course, dear readers, to blogging.

Which brings me to this essay, which Peter Lawler recommends and I am puzzled by.  So far as I can tell, its central argument is that America is aging and finding less space for the kind of expansive, manly excess that characterized the world of The Right Stuff. Instead we are getting older, finding that government dependency is easy, and sopping at the consumer trough.  All of this with nary a mention of women’s exclusion, the rampant alcoholism, the miserable children, the suicidal closeted homosexuals. (Or heaven forbid, the south.) What really mattered about that era was that a miniscule portion of the population went really fucking fast and could have killed themselves doing so, and they were real men for doing so.

But setting aside the historical blindness necessary to write this kind of essay, maybe the most bizarre part of Domenach’s thinking is the fact that the world he mourns did exist less than two years ago, on Wall Street, among bankers whose belief in their testicular infallibility drove the economy off a cliff. And its their failed heroics now forcing the rest of us, unwillingly I might add, to rediscover the values of dependence, whose gifts include such unmanly traits as gratitude and humility.  But this could only be a signal of decline, goes Domenech’s thinking, because we weren’t being manly anymore, and dammit, manliness built ‘merica.

There’s a metaphor involving heroin withdrawl here but somehow I think my point has been made. Good riddance in any case.

*Cease rant.*

Edit: As if on cue, Will finds the best Craigslist ad ever.

Cyprian ctd.

July 10, 2009

Man, the more I read his writing, the more Cyprian is becoming my new favorite church father… Who else’s eschatology is so scatological, I ask you? This quote, from an online excerpt of De Mortalitate, has really caught my fancy, though in good faith I should probably add that its disgusting in that way only historical documents can be:

This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened;–is profitable as a proof of faith. What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! what sublimity, to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod, we may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment!

Jim Harrison

Fig 1.1: A Man and his Book

There was a fantastic report on the News Hour about Jim Harrison last night… He’s been one of my favorite writers since I read The Road Home at the urging of a friend back in college.  Unfortunately the PBS folks don’t have the full video up online, but there are some shorter clips of him reading his new poetry and losing his breath here…  I’d warn any curious readers ahead of time that he is not a beautiful man and his reading, while certainly possessing, uh, character, doesn’t convey the strength of his writing terribly well. (Indeed, it sounds as if he’s been eating a steady diet of broken glass since 1983. Ah, chain smoking.) Still, very worth you while.

John Schwenkler proposes an excellent idea which may appeal to some of this blog’s readers:

So … anyone out there interested in reading the new encyclical together, a chapter or two at a time? I should acknowledge right away that I’m no expert on Catholic social teaching (though I did once research and write a long but unsigned encyclopedia article on the topic, and came away with very few sympathies for the standard Novak-Weigel-Neuhaus line), and of course I do have my own biases that I should be better about allowing documents like this one to challenge, but then again remedying such defects would be very much the purpose of the exercise.

What I’d do is post some very general talking points – perhaps on Sunday afternoons? – and then let the discussion unfold in the comments from there. I see six chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion, which would mean about two months to get through the whole thing if we really took our time. Leave a note in the comments if you’re interested; if enough people are, we can get started on the introduction for this coming weekend.

I’ve been puzzling over where to begin in writing over this thing, so fingers crossed this’ll provide adequate impetus…

Friday Linkage

July 3, 2009

Because I am writers-blocked like nobody’s business:

1.) I imagine many readers already know about A Supposedly Fun Blog, a group blog on Infinite Jest.  So far it looks quite good. (Now that I have outside stimulus, its probably safe to say you’ll be seeing more posts like my very first in the future.)

2.) Having written my undergrad history thesis on the University of Chicago’s neo-Thomistic turn during the Hutchin’s years, I was tickled to see First Principles posting a profile of Sidney Hook.  That’s probably the most press the man’s gotten this decade.

3.) Hit by a car? Having an existential crisis? Hike up your skirts and move to Uzbekistan!

4.) The first in a series of posts on Nietzsche and the New Atheists.

Inspired by the recent slash-and-burn of Hayek up over at Post Right, I decided to go look up the cartoon version of the Road to Serfdom, and was tickled by panel 16. Apparently the coming dictatorship is a fan of Tom Friedman:


Fighting over Facades

June 19, 2009

I have to second Dreher and Waugh on this one; Prince Charles’s opposition to Chelsea Barracks, if not entirely democratic, is not entirely stupid either.  I don’t know if the alternative will be pure schmaltz or not once constructed, but whatever it is I’m guessing it’ll beat Roger’s pastless modernism hand over fist, at least so far as surface aesthetics go.

But then again, how far do surfaces go? Though there are certainly great differences in the aesthetics of the two options, and in the spaces they set up, we can’t forget that this fight, for better or worse, is over facades. The underlying construction of the buildings will likely be the same modern steel-girder system with whatever cultural sensibility we might imagine tacked on top, so that whatever comes out of it will be, so to speak, modern in its bones. The kind of stone-pile architecture it’s supposed to imitate will remain as dead as it was in Roger’s design, so if we’re looking for a model of traditional architectural sensibility, of really long-lived buildings, Chelsea Barracks ain’t gonna be it.   What it may be (more livable, prettier on the eyes) should be kept in balance with what it can’t be (genuinely permanent.)

Unless of course, Quinlin Terry will actually buck the trend and build something beautiful and lasting at enormous expense. Yet somehow I doubt that.

The Fat of the Land

June 17, 2009

Here’s a new book for the traditionalist foodie crowd to gnaw on. From the review:

To browse through The Food of a Younger Land is to be transported into a time when mothers improvised recipes because of shortages of certain ingredients and fathers brought home fresh game from the woods and mussels from the ocean. The book describes the “sugaring off” parties in Vermont, where people hosted neighborhood celebrations as they finished off the annual tapping of sap from trees for maple syrup. It describes the making of persimmon beer among Mississippi African-Americans. In and around Darlington, South Carolina, people would host outdoor gatherings and serve “chicken bog,” a distinctive chicken-and-rice dish. Nebraskans loved buffalo barbecue and Wisconsin folks enjoyed sour-dough pancakes.

All I can say is that I hope there’s a section on squirrel melts.

Both Andrew Sullivan and Chris Dierkes are now using the “F” word to describe the situation in Iran.  I agree its headed that direction, and if Ahmadinejad gets his way that will almost certainly be the outcome. But having just finished Agamben’s masterful book on the subject, I hesitate to call it fascism proper. What we have now is civil chaos, which can be a decisive moment for any state. Should Ahmadinejad succeed in crushing the demonstrations, he will have proved not only his power through the law, but also his power in the absence of law, in the state of exception.  If that happens, Iran will be a genuinely fascist state, its foundations built on the intertwining of order and violence under the watchful eye of the sovereign. And that will be truly terrible thing.

However, I think the current situation doesn’t amount to that yet, precisely because the disorder has not been contained, either politically or  semantically.  Consider the images of state-sponsored violence we’ve seen through the last few days.  They are intensely disturbing, not just because of the obvious pain we made witness to, but because those crimes are being committed by the very agencies founded to prevent them.  Who is it beating people in the streets? Who is it breaking into dormitories and arresting without warrant or cause? These are plainly not the acts of a representative of the law. In lieu of that legal grounding, Iran’s authorities are mere thugs, armed thugs with big ideas and central planning. And they cannot amount to more until the government reconstitutes them, either as the hidden arm of state violence or as a reformed entity of civil society.

But so with Ahmadinejad’s thugs, so with Mousavi’s supporters, who now share that strange place between chaos and the exception. The authorities recognize they must exit the exception by containing the chaos as their own, and its this point that the protesters, in their demonstrations and their own violence, have put into question.  Whether their efforts will succeed in creating a new establishment, and how they do so, will set the course of events in Iran. Should protests stay relatively peaceful, we may see something remarkable happen in the next few weeks. Should things turn violent, truly violent, I worry we may arrive at something just as bad as the Islamic Republic; founding states on violence is a dangerous undertaking, no matter what the intentions. But just for this reason, we shouldn’t confuse the reality of the unstable state as the signs of a new fascist order; the weird equality of chaos should teach us that at a minimum.

I recognize that all this may be being overly picky, since one might at least argue that while Iran is not yet fascist is is being run (ostensibly) by fascists. Granted. Mostly I post this to air my own thoughts on the matter, less to argue than to try to comprehend what’s going on here.  And there is so much to comprehend.