Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Catch and Release"

The title of Susannah Grant's 2006 film refers to the practice of catching a fish for sport then releasing it (rather than frying, broiling, or sauteeing it). The central character Gray (played most fetchingly by Jennifer Garner) is coming to terms with the death of her fiancé and in the process learning a good deal more about him than she thought there was to know. Loosening up about two-thirds through the film "in the company of his friends: lighthearted and comic Sam, hyper-responsible Dennis, and, oddly enough, his old childhood buddy Fritz, an irresponsible playboy whom she'd previously pegged as one of the least reliable people in the world" (as it's put at, she admits that though she never told her fiancé or his friends, she abhors their practice of catching and releasing fish for sport. "If you're going to put a poor fish through the agony of being caught, you ought to have the decency to eat it" (that's a paraphrase).

"Catch and release" seems intended as a symbol of the coming to terms with the loss not only on the part of Gray, but also on the part of the fiancé's friends and mother (played effectively by Fiona Shaw). All of them have significant adjustments to make. But the association of this mental and emotional process with the abhorrent act of torturing a fish doesn't seem to me to work. The psychic process emphasizes the person dealing with loss (the fisherman, as it were), while the sport seems to emphasize the poor fish (which suffers in the catching, while the fisherman invests no psychic effort whatsoever in releasing it).

Though the film invites viewers to reflect on the patience that a significant loss demands of us that we may release and let go, it doesn't really drive the point home. Like the fishing metaphor, the film seems to be more about the catching of the next fish (a new love interest).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Good on Chris Mumma on behalf of Dwayne Dail

The front page of my local newspaper this morning carried the following photo:

It was captioned:

Dwayne Allen Dail celebrates his release after his wrongful conviction in the rape of a 12-year-old girl almost two decades ago. With him is his attorney, Chris Mumma, who worked for years to find the evidence to free Dail.
I hope you can still find the article by clicking here. Dwayne Dail was wrongly in prison for almost twice as long as Ray Krone, whose story is told in Jim Rix's book Jingle Jangle, for which, as I reported here the other day, Chris Mumma (Dail's attorney) wrote a recommendation.

When I was corresponding with Chris last year about reading the manuscript of Jingle Jangle, I didn't realize that she too had gone to bat for someone who was innocent of the crime for which he had been convicted. And now, of course, I'm wondering whether she will write a book....

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Truism...or wisdom...or...?

While visiting a friend in the hospital this afternoon who will very soon undergo multiple heart bypass surgery, I worked today's cryptoquote©1 in the local newspaper2. The answer that I got3 was:
Things work out best for people who make the best out of the way things work out. – John Wooden [the legendary UCLA basketball coach]
The Wooden statement is a gem of one of the classic figures of speech (I'm sure it is although I don't know which one), and we can enjoy it just for the cleverness of its wording. It can of course also be read as a maxim or a "key to happiness," which is probably the way Wooden intended it, since he was a teacher by all accounts ever seeking ways to impart helpful advice to the members of his teams and who knows whom else.

Or is it, aside from the figurative wording and the good intention, a truism—a statement of an obvious truth? In a word, a cliché? Everyone knows that it's useful to make the best of whatever happens, or to take whatever happens as an opportunity to gain some advantage or other, for yourself or somebody else.

If a statement's being a truism implies that "everyone" knows and acts on it3, then "Things work out best for people who make the best out of the way things work out" is hardly a truism, but more like a secret that many ineffective people have never suspected. Wooden's advice points beyond the given happening to what might happen next it if it is regarded constructively. For many people, that's a very big "if."

But is Wooden's statement even true? Some things happen in life that are very hard to "regard constructively." Maybe impossible. Things like discovering you have a couple of arteries blocked up in your heart. Being (or having a friend) in the hospital awaiting major surgery reminds you that sometimes you don't have a lot of control over what's going to happen next, except perhaps over your attitude.

But Wooden seems to be claiming more. Was he wrong, or wiser than I comprehend?
  1. I was unable to discover who owns the copyright.
  2. From today's cryptoquote (as published somewhere in Arkansas):

  3. I wonder whether someone has devised a cryptoquote of more than, say, sixty or seventy characters that has multiple sensible answers.
  4. By this criterion there may be no such thing as a truism.

Monday, August 27, 2007

"Off the Black"

Always fascinated by a performance of Nick Nolte's, I watched "Off the Black" last nigth (2006: directed by James Ponsoldt) and was equally fascinated by the performance of young Trevor Morgan. The movie opens with Trevor on the mound taking a very long time to deliver the next pitch. He shakes off two signs then seems to think forever about the next one before pitching what umpire Nolte rules a ball—the one that walks home the winning run. Though baseball is (was) the only sport I could call my own, I never heard the phrase "off the black," which I take it means close, but not a strike.

Dealing as the movie does with communication between father and son (and between father and stand-in son) and with a father's death (and with things being not quite a strike), the movie will probably haunt me for a few days. And would probably haunt you it you made a point to watch this highly commendable example of storytelling art.

And a good example, for Nanowrimo participants, of the story that dwells at home and next door.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Tied to a desktop (for Nanowrimo)

Overnight I realized that of course even a first-person narrator who hardly ever leaves his or her house can get involved in a compelling story. Miss Marple, for example (Agatha Christie's second favorite detective, after Hercule Poirot), observed and became involved in at least one murder in her quiet little village of St. Mary Mead.

I say "first-person narrator" for indeed I find myself drawn to write a story moored in the consciousness of one of its characters, if not of its main character.

Hmm, thinking of Christie just reminded me of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which she exploited an unreliable narrator by outrageously having the murderer himself tell the story (and, of course, not reveal whodunit until the end).

As I said yesterday, gearing up in public is fun. But I'm tired after dealing with some stuff that came up this weekend, so that's all the fun I'm going to have for the moment.

But if I have more thoughts on November's novel writing project today, I'll come back later and share them....

Saturday, August 25, 2007


If you've never heard of Nanowrimo, I wouldn't be surprised. I hadn't heard of it either before some friends mentioned it to me last fall, just as National Novel Writing Month (November 1-30) was about to begin. A couple of those friends participated, George producing 50,000 words that he thinks sort of cohere, Bart producing ones that he doesn't think do.

Well, Bart and George are gearing up to participate again, and they've got me to thinking about doing so as well. My first thought was what a drag it would be. I wrote a 60,000 word novel in one hundred days in 1974 (following Dick Perry's prescription in One Way to Write Your Novel, Writer's Digest, 1969), so I know the discipline it takes. I didn't like to contemplate the fact that my daily blogging would surely suffer.

But then something occurred to me.

At lunch with Bart and George, I happened to mention my writing hero when it comes to producing a novel very quickly. Georges Simenon wrote several hundred novels, in fact, and he rarely spent more than two weeks on one. He even wrote one while sitting at his typewriter behind a Paris storefront window.

Right...what I'm thinking about doing is writing my daily two thousand words and posting them on Moristotle. A way of emulating my hero. Ha! Fat chance of that. I've read a few score of his novels and each one is a gem. Simenon could not only write fast, he also had the genius to do it brilliantly. Nevertheless, the idea of pretending that my daily post takes place in a storefront window appeals to me a lot.

I discovered this week that "post-modernist" seems to apply to me. I've long enjoyed self-referentiality, not only in logical argument having to do with "God" (as illustrated in a number of my posts back two or three months ago), but also in fiction writing. I'm thinking along the lines of a "real-time" story in which the daily act of writing plays a crucial role in the plot. In three days of thinking I've already realized that I can pretend I'm writing on a laptop (I've never owned one) and thus travel to whatever fictional location the story leads me to (or wherever I lead the story).

Damn, it's fun. And if I'm actually going to do it in a storefront window, I might as well get the feel of gearing up in public too....

Friday, August 24, 2007

"Take me!"

David Lodge's comic novel The British Museum Is Falling Down improvises an opportunity for practicing Roman Catholic Adam Appleby to...practice:
[Seventeen-year-old Virginia, bartering with Adam to deflower her in exchange for one of her mother's lover's manuscripts] came towards him radiantly. "Take me, Adam," she whispered. She took his hand and placed it over her breast. Adam groaned and closed his eyes.
      "I can't, Virginia. I daren't. I haven't...taken precautions."
      "Don't worry about that, darling," she murmured in his ear. Her breath made his skin tingle. With his free hand he began to stroke her back.
      "You mean," he said hoarsely, letting his fingers slide down her spine.
      "I don't mind taking a chance."
      He opened his eyes and jumped back. "Are you mad?"
      She came after him. "I don't, really I don't."
      "Well, I do," Adam said. He sat down, feeling faint. He had nearly lost control that time. He racked his brains for some further means of procrastination. "Have you got a thermometer?" he said.
      "Yes, I think so. Why?"
      "If you really want to go through with this, you'll have to take your temperature."
      "You are a funny man." With an air of humouring him, Virginia rummaged in the drawer of her dressing-table and withdrew, from a jumble of broken combs, broken jewelery, broken fountain-pens and broken rosaries, a miraculously unbroken thermometer. He took it from her and, having shaken down the mercury, slid it under her tongue.
      "Sit on the bed," he ordered.
      She looked like a naughty child, sitting there naked with the thermometer in her mouth. Adam drew up a chair and took a paper and pencil from his pocket.
      "Now, how long was the shortest of your last three periods?" he enquired.
      Virginia spat out the thermometer. "I haven't the foggiest," she said. "What is this all about?"
      Adam replaced the thermometer. "I'm trying to determine whether this is a safe time for relations," he explained.
      "Not very romantic," Virginia seemed indistinctly to say.
      "Sex isn't," he snapped back. He plucked the thermometer out and examined it. "97.6," he announced, and wrote the figure down. He stood up and began to collect the Merrymarsh papers with the air of a doctor at the end of a consultation. "Now, if you'll just go on taking your temperature every night and drop me a line when it rises sharply for three consecutive days, we'll see what we can do."....[pp. 155-156]

Thursday, August 23, 2007

There's buff and there's buff

Our "president" may not be so buff as the shirtless Vladimir Putin, but has Putin ever said anything so brave as what Bush said yesterday (to those friendly VFW folks), that we shouldn't have gotten out of Vietnam until we'd completed the job (the way he wants us to do in Iraq)? Surely that's its own kind of buff. If Bush had been in charge in 1970 (and Rove had somehow been able to engineer his remaining in charge):

  • We might still be in Vietnam trying to "get the job done."
  • There'd have been several times the number (58,000) of United States lives lost.
  • There'd have been several times the number (350,000) of United States casualties.
  • There'd have been several times the number (between one and two million) Vietnamese deaths.
  • I'd probably be in jail by now (with a huge number of other Americans) for criticizing and ridiculing the simply ridiculous Bush in public.
Now, that's buff!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

...the less sin

At a meeting of lay Catholics, in David Lodge's comic novel The British Museum Is Falling Down, Adam explains the casuistry of sin relative to birth control:
"The trouble with using contraceptives, from the point of view of practical moral theology," Adam went on, wondering what conclusion he was going to reach, "is that it's necessarily a premeditated sin. You can biff someone on the head or seduce someone's wife at a party, and go to confession and say, 'Father, I was overcome by my passions,' and be sincerely sorry, and promise not to do it again, and do the same thing a week later without being a hypocrite. But the other thing is something you commit, in the first place, in cold blood in a chemist's shop; and once you start you have to go on steadily, or there's no point."
      "That's very well put," said Maple, as Adam recovered his breath. "But what can we do about it?"
      "The only thing I can see is to get contraception classified as a venial sin," said Adam, with sudden inspiration. "Then we could all feel slightly guilty about it, like cheating on the buses, without forfeiting the sacraments."
      This proposition seemed to take the group by surprise, and a long silence ensued.
      "Well," said Francis Maple at length, "that's a novel point of view certainly. I don't know if there's any machinery for classifying sins...But there's a general consensus which can be modified, I suppose."
      At this point the door burst open, and Father Wildfire entered.
      "Ah!" said Maple, with relief. "You come at an opportune moment, Father."
      "Why, somebody dying?" said the priest, with a boisterous laugh.
      "No, it's just that we're getting into rather deep theological waters. Adam, here, thinks that the birth control problem could be solved if contraception were just considered as a venial sin."
      "Isn't it?" said Father Wildfire, with feigned surprise. The group laughed delightedly, but discreetly, as if they were in church. "Is there anything to drink?" asked the priest, unbuttoning his coat. This was a rough serge jacket of the kind worn by building labourers. Underneath it he wore a red woollen shirt and brown corduroy trousers. The Dominicans appeared to have very liberal regulations, of which Father Wildfire took full advantage, concerning the wearing of the habit. Adam often thought that if, as seemed likely, he was eventually de-frocked, no one would ever know it.
      A cup of coffee was passed to the priest, who extracted a small flask from his pocket, and poured a generous measure into the cup. "Seriously," he said, "this venial sin–mortal sin business is old hat. Something the scholastics thought up to while away the long winter evenings. All sins are mortal sins. Or, to put it another way, all sins are venial sins. What matters is love. The more love, the less sin. I was preaching at a men's retreat the other day, and I told them, better sleep with a prostitute with some kind of love than with your wife out of habit. Seems some of them took me at my word, and the bishop is rather cross."
      Adam wanted to ask if it was better to make love to your wife using a contraceptive, or not to make love to her at all; but somehow it did not seem an appropriate question to ask Father Wildfire. He lived at the frontiers of the spiritual life, where dwelt criminals, prostitutes, murderers and saints, a territory steaming with the fumes of human iniquity, from which souls emerged, if they emerged at all, toughened and purified by a heroic struggle with evil. In contrast, Adam's moral problem seemed trivial and suburban, and to seek Father Wildfire's advice would be l ike engaging the services of a big-game hunter to catch a mouse. [pp. 70-72]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

You too, back and forth?

"Do you have any personal connection with the death penalty?"

All of the twenty-five or so of us present yesterday afternoon in 220 Phillips Hall on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill were invited to think about that by session moderator Barbara Friedman, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. We were there as part of the incoming freshman class's summer reading program to read and discuss Sister Helen Prejean's book The Death of Innocents.

When it came my turn to introduce myself, I said that, "Contrary to appearances, I am not the oldest freshman on the Carolina campus. I was a freshman forty-seven years ago." After a little polite laughter, I explained that I was there as a guest of Chris Mumma, who wrote a blurb for a book I edited on the criminal justice system. "In fact, Sister Helen wrote a blurb for it too."

Chris Mumma, who co-moderated the discussion, is an attorney, an adjunct member of the faculty of the UNC School of Law, and the executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. She explained that the book in question is Jingle Jangle, written by Jim Rix, the cousin of Ray Krone, the one hundredth Death Row convict exonerated since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the moratorium on capital punishment in 1973. "It's a great book," Chris said. [Note: Rix himself advocates neither for nor against the death penalty. He's against wrongful convictions, whether capital or not.]

At first, only a couple of the freshman thought that the death penalty affected them personally in any way. They didn't know anyone whose family included either a victim of a capital crime or anyone indicted for a capital crime. Or, as one of an impressively poised and articulate pair of twin brothers who were present said, "I've never been on Death Row, and I don't know anyone who has."

After more than an hour's discussion of the book, consideration of statistics about capital sentences, and some discussion of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, Professor Friedman repeated the question: "Do you think now that you may have a personal connection with the death penalty?"

Until that moment I hadn't said anything beyond briefly introducing myself along with everyone else and answering a question about the circumstances surrounding Ray Krone's being swept up into the criminal justice system. But now I felt compelled to say, "You know, I think that, in a way, capital punishment affects everyone of us personally. Working on Jingle Jangle made me realize—and I think that another of the blurb writers actually said this1—that if Ray Krone could end up on Death Row, it could happen to anyone." A long enough silence followed to make me think that I might have made a point.

We were asked to raise our hand if The Death of Innocents achieved its stated objective of turning us against the death penalty. I think that about half of the participants raised a hand, including myself, although it has been a few years since I came down against the death penalty. There wasn't time for me to summarize my years of going back and forth, maddeningly back and forth on the question of capital punishment. I might have said that one of the most memorable high school activities I engaged in had been debating capital punishment in English class. On the occasion, I argued against it. But over the years, I continued to go back and forth on the question. I was for it for a while, then I was against it...until my opinion swung back the other way, only to teeter there for a while before tottering back. It was agonizing. I'm not sure that I'm right today, and I don't think being right was the reason I finally decided to just be against the death penalty, period. I needed to put myself out of misery. Chris Mumma, too, told the group that she herself had previously advocated for the death penalty. She had heard about murders that made her so angry, "I could have killed the murderer myself." But today she is a North Carolina coordinator of innocence projects2.

My personal reason for finally opposing the death penalty was almost stated by one of the freshmen, who identified the reason as a religious one, though he didn't necessarily subscribe to it himself: Just as the person who commits a capital crime doesn't have the right to kill, neither do we, as a society, have the right to take a life, regardless of the crime or how sure we are the person did it. My own version of the reason would have included something about how I think that we as human beings harm ourselves by condoning executions. And I don't think of this as a "religious" reason, but as a humanistic reason.

It helps me to believe this even more easily to have been reminded by the book discussion that capital punishment very likely doesn't deter anyone from committing a capital crime (most murders are not premeditated anyway), judicial procedures involving the death penalty cost a lot more than those involving life sentences, the death penalty is administered unfairly, and mistakes continue to be made (for the reasons Jim Rix analyzes in Jingle Jangle) and lead to the deaths of innocents....

  1. Rachel King, author of Don't Kill in Our Names and Capital Consequences, recommended Jingle Jangle by saying:
    Jim Rix has written an astonishing memoir about his cousin Ray Krone's wrongful conviction for a 1991 Arizona murder. Rix meticulously details every aspect of police corruption, prosecutorial misconduct, defense incompetence, expert witness tampering and jury shenanigans that led to Ray's decade-long nightmare. But Rix doesn't stop there. He dissects each problem, then with careful research explains how it is not an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern of problems in the criminal justice system. Rix's wry humor and occasional sarcasm reveal the depths of his despair at realizing that the justice system, which he once trusted, is so deeply flawed. Scariest about this true story is that if Ray Krone, an honest, law-abiding person, could end up on Death Row, it could happen to anyone.
  2. Chris Mumma's blurb for Jingle Jangle:
    Ray Krone's story has so many of the elements we see over and over again in innocence cases—unreliable forensic conclusions, incomplete investigations and overvalued testimony resulting from "confirmatory bias" that occurs because everyone thinks they have the right perpetrator and they ignore evidence to the contrary. Once the conviction occurs, it typically takes extraordinary luck and the work of an individual or the media to get to the truth because the justice system prefers finality. There are more Ray Krones out there—there just aren't many who are lucky enough to have a cousin like Ray's.

Monday, August 20, 2007

We need religion?

Practicing Roman Catholic Adam Appleby (whose wife and their three young children, of David Lodge's third novel, The British Museum Is Falling Down, I introduced on August 11), receives some advice from a couple of his friends, who are concerned at Adam's distress over his wife's possible fourth pregnancy:
"You know," said Camel to Adam, "I think you ought to apostatize. You can't go on like this."
      "What d'you mean?"
      "Well, leave the Church—temporarily I mean. You can go back to it later."
      "Death-bed repentance, you mean?"
      "Well, more of a menopause repentance. It's not such a risk is it? You and Barbara have a good expectation of living past forty or so."
      "It' no good talking to him like that, Camel," said Pond. "There's always the bus."
      "Yes, there's always the bus," Adam agreed.
      "Bus? What bus?" asked Camel in bewilderment.
      "The bus that runs you down. The death that comes unexpectedly," explained Pond. "Catholics are brought up to expect sudden extinction round every corner and to keep their souls highly polished at all times."
      "How do you know all this?" Adam demanded.
      "Sally went to a convent," Pond explained. "No," he went on, "it's no use talking like that to Adam. We've got to convince him intellectually that Catholicism is false."
      "I wouldn't want to do that," said Camel. "I believe in religion. I don't have any myself, but I believe in other people having religion."
      "And children," Adam interpolated.
      "Quite so," Camel agreed. "I don't have any affection for children myself, but I recognise the need for them to keep the human show on the road."
      "Selfish bastard," said Adam.
      "But if you must have religion," said Pond, "why not Hinduism? Then you can have sex as well."
      "I thought you were against things foreign," said Camel.
      "Well, I think we could have a kind of Anglicanised Hinduism...get rid of the holy cows and so on."
      "No, it won't do," said Camel. "I want Christianity kept up, because otherwise half our literary heritage will disappear. We need people like Appleby to tell us what The Cloud of Unknowing is all about." [pp. 64-65]

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Einstein hero

Toward the end of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens acknowledges the modesty of his own contribution to the history of free thought:

When accused of scientific plagiarism, of which he was quite probably guilty, Sir Isaac Newton made the guarded admission—which was itself plagiarized—that he had in his work had the advantage of "standing on the shoulders of giants." It would seem only minimally gracious, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, to concede the same. As and when I wish, I can use a simple laptop to acquaint myself with the life and work of Anaxagoras and Erasmus, Epicurus and Wittgenstein. Not for me the poring in the library by candlelight, the shortage of texts, or the difficulties of contact with like-minded persons in other ages or societies. And not for me (except when the telephone sometimes rings and I hear hoarse voices condemning me to death, or hell, or both) the persistent fear that something I write will lead to the extinction of my work, the exile or worse of my family, the eternal blackening of my name by religious frauds and liars, and the painful choice between recantation or death by torture. I enjoy a freedom and an access to knowledge that would have been unimaginable to the pioneers. Looking back down the perspective of time, I therefore cannot help but notice that the giants upon whom I depend, and upon whose massive shoulders I perch, were all of them forced to their knees. Only one member of the giant and genius category ever truly spoke his mind without any apparent fear or excess of caution. I therefore cite Albert Einstein, so much misrepresented, once again.

He is addressing a correspondent who is troubled by yet another of those many misinterpretations:
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Years later he answered another query by stating:
I do not believe in the immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.
      These words stem from a mind, or a man, who was rightly famed for his care and measure and scruple, and whose sheer genius had laid bare a theory that might, in the wrong hands, have obliterated not only this world but also its whole past and the very possibility of its future.

He devoted the greater part of his life to a grand refusal of the role of a punitive prophet, preferring to spread the message of enlightenment and humanism. Decidedly Jewish, and exiled and defamed and persecuted as a consequence, he preserved what he could of ethical Judaism and rejected the barbaric mythology of the Pentateuch. We have more reason to be grateful to him than to all the rabbis who have ever wailed, or who ever will.... [pp.270-272]

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Movie review: "Babel"

Thursday night we finally watched the movie "Babel" (2006: Alejandro González Iñárritu). Wow, what a profound film, utterly engrossing. Its 135 minutes seemed only about as long as Woody Allen's perfect 87. Director Iñárritu seems to be saying that however compartmentalized and divergent peoples may be by their languages, cultures, and belief systems, they are nevertheless extremely interdependent, at least in the sense that a random act in one place can have huge consequences for individuals in others.

My first thought on the title, relative to the Biblical Tower of Babel, was that it's intended ironically, showing that contrary to the non-communication implied by the story in Chapter 11 of Genesis, everyone is nevertheless very closely linked. But if the title was meant ironically, I'm not sure that it works, for the "link" portrayed in "Babel" is rather dysfunctional, and the point of the Genesis story seems to be that the divisions among people prevent them from coming together constructively. On that reading, it appears that the movie's title isn't ironic at all but rather functions as a label to describe our dysfunctional world, in which the primary connection among disparate people is destructive, tragic.

My friend Ed commented that he
enjoyed the movie, but the odds of that many things happening, because of one rifle...well, I feel the writer entertained us, but in order to do so, we had to believe in the improbable....I was entertained, but not enlightened.
Ed made me realize that I'd been assuming that because the particular matrix depicted in the movie seemed so plausible, then "that sort of thing" must be happening "all of the time." I'm still inclined to think so, but I'd feel more confident of it if I could think of some examples.

I wonder whether an incident that my manager at IBM told me about almost forty years ago might qualify. He was commuting to work by train one morning when the train struck a section of rail that was lying on the track and the end of the rail swung up, smashed through a window, and decapitated the woman sitting in front of him. (My manager had barely recovered his composure by the time he described the incident.)

All that's needed for an "international" connection of the sort used in "Babel" would be for the workman presumably responsible for the rail's lying on the track to have been an immigrant and to have just received horrible news from back home (maybe somewhere in Asia or Africa or South America) that distracted him...the way a phone call early in "Babel" sets in motion the Mexican sequences of the film. If you who are reading this can supply other possible examples, please be so kind as to tell me about them in a comment.

Another thing that struck me about the story told by "Babel" is the crucial role that Iñárritu seems to assign to human stupidity. The father's handing the aforementioned rifle to his children to go shoot jackals with. The young Mexican (played by Gael García Bernal's) irresponsibility in trying to drive the children back to San Diego. That young Japanese girl's perilously wanton sexual behavior, utterly naive as to the provocation she was offering. Indeed, the arrogant stupidity of the American tourists blithely assuming—apparently because they're Americans—that they're impervious to mischance. I too have behaved stupidly and can only wonder at how narrowly I may have escaped much more unforgiving consequences than the ones I actually experienced.

Note: an excerpt from this review can be seen at's entry for "Babel." The Internet Movie Database welcomes reviews, so you might consider sharing there your own reactions to movies you even lets you edit your review after you've posted it.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Rove's legacy

In his August 14 op-ed piece in The New York Times, David Frum seems to me to have captured accurately what Karl Rove has mainly been about:
[Rove courted] carefully selected constituencies with poll-tested promises: tax cuts for traditional conservatives, the No Child Left Behind law for suburban moderates, prescription drugs for anxious seniors, open immigration for Hispanics, faith-based programs for evangelicals and Catholics.
      These programs often contradicted each other. How do you cut taxes and also create a big new prescription drug benefit? If the schools are failing to educate the nation's poor, how does it make sense to expand that population by opening the door to even more low-wage immigration?
      Instead of seeking solutions to national problems, "compassionate conservatism" started with slogans and went searching for problems to justify them. To what problem, exactly, was the faith-based initiative a solution?
      This was a politics of party-building and coalition-assembly. It was a politics that aimed at winning elections....
"Was"? According to Jim Rutenberg's New York Times report on August 13 of Rove's "interview with The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page is a favored outlet for...*Bush and his aides," Rove said of his leaving Bush's employ "that he had no intention of getting involved in the 2008 presidential race"—except, of course, for an occasional oracular pronouncement:
In his exit interview today, which was with the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal, Paul Gigot...Rove had a parting shot for his political nemesis, telling Mr. Gigot that he believed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the Democratic nominee but called her a "tough, tenacious, fatally flawed candidate," and predicted a Repuplican victory in the 2008 presidential race. It is the sort of political boasting that had become...Rove's hallmark.
* The ellipsis indicates the omission of "Mr.," a term of respect I cannot bring myself to use for these moral midgets, these loathsome liars.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ghost dog

My wife just came back in the house after a "walk with Wally" to report that as she started to go around the cul-de-sac she looked back to see where he was, but he was nowhere to be seen. He wasn't on the leash. When she came back to the house to investigate, there he was sitting next to the front door where she surmises she had snapped the leash around air, not around the clip on his halter. Please, please, let my wife not be losing it. I need her!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A gutsy book about a milestone criminal case

Jim Rix, the author of Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out lives in South Lake Tahoe, California, and Neighbors Bookstore there is the first bookstore to display his gutsy book about the Ray Krone case, a milestone in the annals of criminal justice.

The second store to carry the book is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Bull's Head Bookshop, which displays it alongside Sister Helen Prejean's bestselling The Death of Innocents, this year's Summer Reading Program selection for incoming Tar Heel freshmen, who will discuss the book in many concurrent seminars on Monday afternoon, August 20. The jacket of Jingle Jangle proudly displays a blurb from Sister Helen:

A must for readers of true crime and anyone wondering why so many innocent people are convicted in America. The book satisfies from start to finish, from the opening of Ray Krone’s horror story, through the compelling analysis of what went wrong and on to the startling conclusion...

Jingle Jangle is also available directly from from the publisher (, which is currently offering free priority shipping.

Shopkeeper's fantasy

In Kingsley Amis's comic novel The Folks That Live on the Hill, the Asian brothers who run the shop where Harry Caldecot ran into Popsy a while back now await opening time:
It was a bright clear sunny morning in the few minutes before the off, before the double doors from the street were thrown back and over the spotless composition floor and among the impeccably squared-off shelves, the videos sorted and spaced, every journal the precise distance from its neighbour so that the identifying signs of all were clearly visible, the greetings cards set out in their categories for every relation and relationship and contingency, including not a few wishing people well in tackling their new responsibilities or congratulating them on having passed their exams—before over that floor and among those shelves and the rest the British (or English) children came with their soiled clothing and snotty fingers, their seniors dropping sweet-wrappers, knocking piles of envelopes off shelves, holding the corner of a magazine back for a couple of seconds only but long enough to render it unsaleable at full price, dislodging and instantly treading on markers or tubes of paint or glue, putting everything they took out to look at back in the wrong place—oh, and fumbling with purses, mislaying lists, thinking about looking for credit card or pen and cheque-book and cheque-card on being told a second or third time the sum required. Howard had more than once said he would like to get everything set up one morning and then simply bloody not open the doors and let them gawp and go on gawping at what lay just out of their reach. Charles could see that was just Howard's fun (he was far too greedy to mean it for one thing) but every other five minutes he also saw what he meant.... [pp. 185-186]

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Back by popular demand

Karl Rove's Revenge

[Originally published in November 2006]

An "Obituary" of A.F. Flogger

There was a Bush hater named Flogger,
A feisty and outspoken blogger,
    Who, it turns out,
    Was, without doubt,
A double agent, a sorry hot dogger.
I received a telephone call yesterday from the widow of A.F. Flogger that her husband took his own life the day following the election, and, in his suicide note, he had asked her to tell me that he was sorry for what he had done. (I'd simply quote Flogger's suicide note, but Mrs. Flogger didn't share its very words with me because, she said, there is some question whether her husband actually died by his own hand. And she seemed to be saying that there was some possibility that the homicide detective who's investigating the case might want to talk with me....)
      My newer readers will require some background on who A.F. Flogger was (or purported to be) and what it was that he was sorry for. It wasn't any one thing that he did. It wasn't that simple.
      On July 19, I reported that "an embarrassed A.F. Flogger wished to make a statement":
Whoa! Hold on a minute. is not my website. I do not promote whipping or any other unspeakable sexual practices. The whole thing is a mistake. I mistyped the name of my registered domain when I first approached Moristotle about leaving and coming with me. He simply passed along what I typed. I didn't notice it. You know how people tend to see what they think is there anyway.
      Besides, I had told Moristotle that my website hadn't been launched yet. That's undoubtedly why he didn't check out. My website name will be "P" is for "political," of course. Or, I suppose it could stand for "‘president’" or "pissant," since the main object of my brand of political flogging is George W. Bush.
      The "" episode was embarrassing to me, at best. The reader in the world who has followed this blog longer than any other, Steve P, had just pointed out to me that seemed to be actively engaged in promoting the joys (and anguishes) of sadomasochistic sexual practices. (One of the many things that I admire and depend on in Steve P is his commitment to checking the facts. I hadn't visited before mentioning it on my blog, but he did. I'll always be grateful that he did so.)
      Anyway, Flogger had first come to me purporting to be trying to recruit me to "go with him" and do my political blogging on his blog. I liked his suggestion that the term flogging was most apt for a political blogger of my stripe (and, he implied, of his stripe as well).
      He made his very first appearance on Moristotle on July 9:
I found a comment here this morning from a man (he said) who identified himself only as "a fellow flogger" and the creator of a website (not yet launched) whose domain address he has registered as Frankly, he admitted, he wanted me to quit and come with him. He'd give me a "flogspot," he said.
      To show his goodwill, he gave me his most recent political joke and said I was free to use it (anyway, he could use the publicity), so long as I would consider his proposal.
      Okay, I'll consider it.
"What's the difference between a Texas pissant and 'President' George W. Bush?...A pissant doesn't need quotation marks."
      On July 12, A.F. Flogger warned me that if I came with him, he'd "want [me] to slant [my] poetry along political lines." And he gave me an example:
There is a throw-up word—it rhymes with ‘whoosh’—
That I want never ever shush!
    The throw-up word—first letter ‘B’
    Followed by a different three—
That I want never ever hear is ‘----’.
      Of course, readers familiar with my anti-Bush stance will understand that I had to find A.F. Flogger appealing. Then, on July 17, I reported that Flogger was predicting "that Arizona's voter lottery will provoke a Republican backlash." This seemed such a reasonable prediction (Arizona voters did reject the proposal) that it strengthened my opinion of A.F. Flogger even more.
      Then came the aforementioned revelation of July 19, unearthed by Steve P. I should have been more suspicious of Flogger's really flimsy excuse that he had mistyped the address of his registered domain. For, you see, what Flogger was sorry for—Mrs. Flogger told me yesterday—was that he had approached me with the sole object of trying to discredit me in the eyes of the blog-reading public.
      I asked Mrs. Flogger if she knew why her husband had done that. At first she seemed reluctant to go there, and she finally spoke only very guardedly, as though someone might be looking over her shoulder.
      Karl Rove had commissioned him to do it, she said.
      "That was in the suicide note?" I asked.
      "Oh, God no!" she said. "And he didn't actually say it was Karl Rove...but I heard him talking in his sleep on several occasions before he killed himself...or...."
      She went on to describe some of her husband's mumblings and how the mention of Karl Rove had actually explained a lot of things to her personally about her husband's recent political activities.
      "Karl Rove really does have his tentacles in a lot of things that are going on," she said.
      I nodded, hoping she'd say more.
      "I've been reading your blog," she said. "You know that 'pissant' joke?"
      "Of course," I said, my breath having stopped, I was so expectant what she might say next.
      "That's what Karl Rove called Bush. His nickname for Bush."
      I couldn't believe what I'd heard. "Would you repeat that," I said.
      "Karl Rove's secret nickname for Bush was 'Pissant.' You see—and this is one thing my husband did tell me when he was awake—Karl Rove absolutely hated it that Bush called him 'Turd Blossom.' Hated it. He called Bush 'The Texas Pissant' behind his back."
      I still wasn't breathing.
      "Karl Rove wrote that joke."

Monday, August 13, 2007

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Paternity's sin

If indoctrination of one's children in a religion is, as Christopher Hitchens suggests, a serious form of child abuse—and therefore a "sin of the fathers" in religions' own terms—then a child who has been religiously indoctrinated has been sinned against.

Though I had never thought of it this way, I have noticed in myself lately a significant reservoir of anger having (apparently) to do with my forty or fifty years of wrestling with religion—a turmoil that I would not have had to endure if I had not been indoctrinated. I wonder whether this anger stems from my unconscious understanding that indeed I was sinned against. Though I guess I'll never really know, there is at least a circumstantial case for this interpretation.

And it appears to me now that my early interest in philosophy (reading Plato's dialogues as a teenager, being fascinated by the procreative mystery of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass) stemmed from the intellectual problems I was having with concepts like God, sin, and salvation, from the need to understand the reality underlying life and consciousness, one version of which that same religion pretended to teach me.

I of course notice that perhaps the majority of similarly indoctrinated people just go right on indoctrinating. If they've struggled with their own indoctrination, the indoctrination seems to have won out. And after putting sometimes considerable effort into indoctrinating their own children, perhaps even encouraging them to attend a Bible college and do "missionary work," they have many reasons to be even less inclined to question and doubt. It would be just too embarrassing to disown all that they've invested in who they are to their children, their neighbors, their fellow parishioners...and, in many cases, alas, their fellow Republicans, along with whom they even believe that God Himself has counseled them to keep on supporting George W. Bush, God's very anointed Man of the Hour, which reminds me that, in fact, my anger (recognized as such by me) first arose during these years of the successful exploitation of the gullibility of the religious by Bush, who showed that the sin visited upon the fathers' children can be visited upon a whole nation.
indoctrinate...2. To teach to accept a system of thought uncritically. – The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Saturday, August 11, 2007


I'm distracted by some apprentice defects in David Lodge's third novel, The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965), but it's hard not to enjoy a book each of whose sections mimics the work of a well-known author, from Chapter 1's clear reference to the opening of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis to the epilogue's (and the plot's) use of Ulysses' closing soliloquy of Molly Bloom.

Also enjoyable is the protagonist Adam Appleby's penchant for comic soliloquy, generously reported by the third-person narrator. Adam and his wife are a married couple of the type I'm already quite familiar with from Lodge's later novels: a practicing Roman Catholic couple faithfully (but unsuccessfully) relying on the rhythm method. From one of Adam's soliloquies in which he imagines an entry for Catholicism, Roman "for a Martian encyclopaedia compiled after life on earth had been destroyed by atomic warfare":
...distributed fairly widely over the planet Earth in the twentieth century. As far as the Western Hemisphere is concerned, it appears to have been characterised by a complex system of sexual taboos and rituals. Intercourse between married partners was restricted to certain limited periods determined by the calendar and the body-temperature of the female. Martian archaeologists have learned to identify the domiciles of Roman Catholics by the presence of large numbers of complicated graphs, calendars, small booklets full of figures, and quantities of broken thermometers, evidence of the great importance attached to this code. Some scholars have argued that it was merely a method of limiting the number of offspring; but as it has been conclusively proved that the Roman Catholics produced more children on average than any other section of the community, this seems untenable. Other doctrines of the Roman Catholics included a belief in a Divine Redeemer and in a life after death. [p. 16]
"To Mrs. Green [their landlady]:
herself a widow with an only son, Adam's paternity of three young children, whom he could patently not afford to support, indicated an ungovernable sexual appetite of which [his wife] was the innocent victim. "Ooh, isn't Mr Appleby naughty?" had been her first response to [his wife's] nervous announcement of her third pregnancy; and subsequently Adam had had to endure from his landlady the kind of half-fascinated, half-fearful appraisal usually reserved for prize bulls. As he calculated that there could be few married men in Metropolitan London who enjoyed their marital rights as seldom as himself, he found this situation particularly trying....[p. 28]
Speaking of letter-A Adam, my declining short-term memory appreciates the mnemonic way that his wife and their children are named:
Adam's family lined up in alphabetical order to be kissed goodbye: Barbara, Clare, Dominic and Edward (seated). When the principle behind this nomenclature dawned on their friends they were likely to ask humorously whether Adam and Barbara intended working through the whole alphabet, a joke that seemed less and less funny to Adam and Barbara as time went on....[p. 25]
Perhaps you too have trouble keeping characters' names straight?

Friday, August 10, 2007

I dream of heaven

Though I'm rarely aware of dreaming anymore, I probably still dream most nights. I did last night. It might have been more than one dream, for there were scenes involving my parents, scenes set in a sort of Harry Potter version of Yale, and a scene involving a lost Wally (our poodle, who was bitten on a hind foot a week ago today by a copperhead snake—he's healing nicely, thank you, and even recovering his confidence, I think, for going out into the yard, where the copperhead may have a nest...).

Anyway. My parents are both dead, my father for over twenty-seven years (at ten years older than my present age), my mother for—what?, two now? In the dream about them, we all seemed to be on some sort of vacation together. I was in this place, which I guess was wherever we were staying or visiting, and they were returning from a short outing somewhere. There was something about my packing up some belongings to put in the trunk of their car to be moved, as though I were once again their adolescent boy. And I kept delaying the getting ready to pack. Perhaps I was trying to forestall the separation. I don't know. At any rate, it seemed a straightforward dream of nostalgia, or loss, an attempt to reclaim what is no longer.

Maybe the dream of Yale was the same. I've had numerous similar dreams over the years. Back on the Yale campus, if not always recognizable as the Yale campus—certainly the campus last night seemed more like a cinematic set—I was trying to locate my dorm room. I went into the wrong one by mistake, only to be greeted by three surly undergraduates who berated me for my lack of sense. Sort of doesn't seem to be an attempt to reclaim the past somehow. But maybe it is. Let's assume so. That suits my theme better. Keep reading.

The Wally dream seemed to be the anticipation of loss, for Wally is still with us. And we are still with Wally. I occasionally ruminate on the possibility that one or both of us will predecease him. I try to imagine what his loss of us would feel like to him. But given the exigencies of dog life relative to human life, I suppose that we are the ones who are going to have to deal with the loss of him. The dream last night involving Wally had us too on some sort of vacation. We weren't at home anyway. Wally went missing. I happened into this sort of kennel—on the hotel premises, I think—and as I was looking around at the grooming tables and seeing nothing but miniature or toy poodles—but all white, or cream, like Wally—I felt the actual Wally rubbing against a leg and jumping with the joy of finding me again. I knelt down as always to hug and love him, and as always the people around us oohed and ahhed at the display of affection. Wally home again.

My theme is: Did such dreams as these lead men to conceive of heaven and to construct theologies designed to explain how it could be obtained? Such posits are facile, for, as Hermione Granger says in one or another of the Harry Potter books:
I mean, you could claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody's proved it doesn't exist.
Thanks to Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, for quoting Hermione in his review of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this coming Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

An argument from undesign

Continuing to sample the child abuses of religion, I share another excerpt from Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great (which book I of course highly recommend that you read in its entirety):
As to immoral practice, it is hard to imagine anything more grotesque than the mutilation of infant genitalia. Nor is it easy to imagine anything more incompatible with the argument from design. We must assume that a designer god would pay especial attention to the reproductive organs of his creatures, which are so essential for the continuation of the species [emphasis mine]. But religious ritual since the dawn of time has insisted on snatching children from the cradle and taking sharp stones or knives to their pudenda. In some animist and Muslim societies, it is the female babies who suffer the worst, with the excision of the labia and the clitoris. This practice is sometimes postponed to adolescence and, as earlier described, accompanied by infibulation, or the sewing up on the vagina with only a small aperture for the passage of blood and urine. The aim is clear—to kill or dull the girl's sexual instinct and destroy the temptation to experiment with any man save the one to whom she will be given (and who will have the privilege of rending those threads on the dreaded nuptial night). Meanwhile, she will be taught that her monthly visitation of blood is a curse (all religions have expressed a horror of it, and many still prohibit menstruating women from attending service) and that she is an unclean vessel.
      In other cultures, notably the "Judeo-Christian," it is the sexual mutilation of small boys that is insisted upon. (For some reason, little girls can be Jewish without genital alteration: it is useless to look for consistency in the covenants that people believe they have made with god.) Here, the original motives appear to be twofold. The shedding of blood—which is insisted upon at circumcision ceremonies—is most probably a symbolic survival from the animal and human sacrifices which were such a feature of the gore-soaked landscape of the Old Testament. By adhering to the practice, parents could offer to sacrifice a part of the child as a stand-in for the whole. Objections to interference with something that god must have designed with care—the human penis—were overcome by the invented dogma that Adam was born circumcised and in the image of god. Indeed, it is argued by some rabbis that Moses, too, was born circumcised, though this claim may result from the fact that his own circumcision is nowhere mentioned in the Pentateuch.
      The second purpose—very unambivalently stated by Maimonides—was the same as for girls: the destruction as far as possible of the pleasurable side of sexual intercourse.... [pp. 223-224]

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"The sins of the fathers"...

...and of the mothers

Since "the sins of the fathers" are visited upon the sons (and the daughters) not through some mysterious metaphysical agency but by indoctrination, Christopher Hitchens's chapter "Is Religion Child Abuse?" might be the most important one in his book God Is Not Great. In this excerpt Hitchens characterizes the practice of "faithful parents":
...If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world. Faithful parents are divided over this, since they naturally hope to share the wonders and delights of Christmas and other fiestas with their offspring (and can also make good use of god, as well as of lesser figures like Santa Claus, to help tame the unruly) but mark what happens if the child should stray to another faith, let alone another cult, even in early adolescence. The parents will tend to proclaim that this is taking advantage of the innocent. All monotheisms have, or used to have, a very strong prohibition against apostasy for just this reason. In her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy remembers her shock at learning from a Jesuit preacher that her Protestant grandfather—her guardian and friend—was doomed to eternal punishment because he had been baptized in the wrong way. A precociously intelligent child, she would not let the matter drop until she had made the Mother Superior consult some higher authorities and discover a loophole in the writings of Bishop Athanasius, who held that heretics were only damned if they rejected the true church with full awareness of what they were doing. Her grandfather, then, might be sufficiently unaware of the true church to evade hell. But what an agony to which to subject an eleven-year-old girl! And only think of the number of less curious children who simply accepted this evil teaching without questioning it. Those who lie to the young in this way are wicked in the extreme. [p. 220]

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

And the winner is...

In Bennington, VT, July 20, 2007

I wasn't hungry so I didn't go into Your Belly's Deli to try to confirm that it really was the deli for my belly, but its name certainly caught my fancy.

Monday, August 6, 2007


On guard duty his last week in National Service (in David Lodge's Ginger, You're Barmy), Jonathan is reading a book:
"What yer reading?" said Earnshaw, who had left his desk. To avoid the labour of an explanation, I passed him the book. He glanced at the title on the spine [Seven Types of Ambiguity], and began to read where I had left the book open, his brows knitted.
      "What's it about then?"
      "Yer, but what's it about. Anything 'ot in it, like?"
      "It's not a story. It's literary criticism. It's—"
      "Wodjer wanner read that sort of crap for?" he interrupted, handing back the book.
      "I happen to be interested in it."
      "Won't do you any good, will it?"
      "As a matter of fact it will, though that's not why I'm reading it."
      "Why, what good will it do yer?"
      "I hope to make the study of literature my career."
      "Gerna be a teacher I s'pose. But what good will it do yer? Or the kids yer teach. What use is lit'rature?"
      I opened my mouth to launch into a defence of the study of literature...getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said...and then closed my mouth. I was not eager to return to the university because I thought my research would be of any use, to myself, or to others. All human activity was useless, but some kinds were more pleasant than others. The Army had taught me that much philosophy. There was no such thing as communication operating over the whole of society. In fact, there was no such thing as society: just a collection of little self-contained boxes, roped untidily together and set adrift to float aimlessly on the waters of time, the occupants of each box convinced that theirs was the most important box, heedless of the claims of the rest. Success did not consist in getting into the box where most power was exercised: there were many people who were powerful and unhappy. Success consisted in determining which box would be most pleasant for you, and getting into it. If you were forced to inhabit an unpleasant box for a time, then you could make it as comfortable as possible until you could get out. Luck or cunning were the most effective attributes in this world, and cunning, though it worked more slowly, was the more reliable. [pp. 196-197]

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Yesterday I revised my blog profile and adjusted my masthead accordingly. Today, newly affirmed in my status as a nobody, I find myself in one of those moods of "not wanting to die just yet." I want to lounge and luxuriate for a while in the idyll of nobodiness. I want to start again and this time finish reading James Joyce's Ulysses (I've already begun) and re-read Hugh Kenner's books about Joyce and other American, Irish, and English modernists. Already, time seems to have slowed down for the enjoyment of these activities and for savoring, too, the most trivial acts of daily routine.

I happily discovered the other day that my sense that events in my life were now repeating themselves with accelerating speed was but a foolish illusion (and one that I'd have done better to reject than to accept and pay lip-service to—"Time is passing so fast!"). I discovered this upon examining how often it seemed to be that we were once again running the automatic dish washer. It had come to seem that the time between one running and the next was getting shorter and shorter. But I discovered that this impression was quite false and had been formed because I was focusing on the days when we ran the dish washer and ignoring the days we didn't run it. And there were more days we didn't run it than there were when we did. It was as though I had been ignoring the spaces between the notes of a melody. Ignoring the silences.

As I was warming up my computer moments ago, I opened Kenner's own book titled Ulysses and, reading its thematic quotation (from Plato's Republic), felt a tremor:
And it was a sight worth seeing to behold the several souls choose their lives. And a piteous and a laughable and amazing sight it was also. The choice was mostly governed by what they had been accustomed to in their former life...
      It so happened that the soul of Odysseus came forward to choose the very last of all. He remembered his former labours and had ceased from his ambition and so he spent a long time going round looking for the life of a private and obscure man. At last he found it lying about, ignored by every one else; and when he saw it he took it gladly, and said that he would have made the same choice if the lot had fallen to him first.
            – Plato, The Republic, X-620, trans. A. D. Lindsay
What to make of this "synchronicity"? How did it happen that the first words that fell under my eye should be so perfectly apt? Mere chance? No, I don't think so. Angelic intervention, then? Again, no, I don't think so...unless the angels that intervene in our lives are the wraiths that emanate from our own psyches and hover around us continually. The haunting mists we saw shrouding the Vermont hills two weekends ago come to mind. There weren't any the day I took the photo below; alas, I had been too agog of the mists the days before to think then of photographing them.

I'll be glad to think of my psychic wraiths as "angels," for I am well-disposed toward angels and it's comforting to think that I can have them in my life still, even though I seem at last to have succeeded in cleansing my belief of "God."

For I had read this book by Kenner a few years ago, including of course the thematic quote. In fact, I had read Plato's Republic many years ago (Edith Hamilton's translation), and it is conceivable (if improbable) that the passage struck a chord with me even then—even though I don't think that the young man I was then was looking forward to becoming nobody:
And it fell out that the soul of Odysseus drew the last lot of all and came to make its choice, and, from memory of its former toils having flung away ambition, went about for a long time in quest of the life of an ordinary citizen who minded his own business, and with difficulty found it lying in some corner disregarded by the others, and upon seeing it said that it would have done the same had it drawn the first lot, and chose it gladly.
I'm glad today, and determined to be glad tomorrow, for the silences in my life....

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Trust and obey1

David Lodge's second novel, Ginger, You're Barmy, was first published in England in 1962. "It is," he explained in his introduction to the 1982 edition, "'about' peacetime National Service, as an institution and as an experience—one which most young men born between, say, 1928 and 1941, underwent." (Lodge was born in 1935.) The novel's narrator is Jonathan Browne, who, like Lodge, "was drafted into the Royal Armoured Corps shortly after obtaining [his] B.A. in English Language and Literature at London University." Like almost all of his later novels that I have read, this one too makes pointed use of religious themes:
One Sunday we had a Church parade. I presumed that even the Army would not compel me to attend church, and said so to [Corporal] Baker, with a certain challenging note in my voice which was probably my undoing.
      "You can presume what you fugging2 well like," he replied. "You'll parade with the rest of the squad. After the inspection, fall out and report to me. We'll find you something to do while the others are saying their prayers."
      When I reported to him he sent me over to the cookhouse. If there is a God, and if, as some say, He whiles away the long light evenings of eternity devising choice punishments for His creatures, He need not hesitate over selecting my particular hell. It would be an everlasting cookhouse fatigue. By the end of that Sunday I was almost weeping with misery and a sense of injustice. Whereas those on the Church parade were free (relatively speaking) by noon, I slaved all day in that stinking, greasy cookhouse. It was an old building, irremediably dirty: platoons of soldiers could not have scrubbed it clean, though the Cook Sergeant nearly drove me and my companions into the tiled floor in the attempt. I remember kicking a hot water pipe in sheer wretchedness and frustration, and the shudder of disgust that shook me as a swarm of cockroaches scuttled out over the wall. I kicked and kicked at the pipes in a masochistic frenzy until the wall was alive with the repulsive vermin. Then I retched into a nearby sink. I went over to the Cook Sergeant and said pleadingly: "I've just been sick. I feel ill. Can I leave?" He looked at my white face and gave permission with a contemptuous jerk of his head. Blessing him, I staggered weakly back to the hut, and collapsed on to my bed. Mike [Brady, the "Ginger" of the title] was less sympathetic than I expected. "You can now count yourself one of the glorious martyrs for Agnosticism," he said. Percy, sitting on the same bed, laughed. Their visit to church seemed to have put them in good spirits.
      "At the moment I'd cheerfully become a Jehovah's Witness, if it would get me out of cookhouse fatigues," I said savagely.
      "A very good idea," he replied. "Being a Jehovah's Witness would get you out of the Army altogether. They're conscientious objectors."
      "That's the religion for me," I said.
      "My brother-in-law was a Jehovah's Witness, but it didn't get him out of the Army," observed the soldier on the bed opposite to mine...
      "What happened to your brother-in-law then?" inquired Mike.
      "Well, it was in the war, like. And they wouldn't let our Ernie be a conscious objector. But Ernie said he weren't going to put on a bloody uniform no matter what they did. So they sent him to this training depot, and he wouldn't put on his uniform. So they put him in this cell in his underclothes, and threw in his uniform. It were winter, like, and they reckoned he'd be so cold he'd have to put the uniform on."...
      "And did he?"
      "Did he fugg. When they opened the cell next morning our Ernie were still in his underclothes; and on the table were his uniform—all in pieces."
      "What d'you mean, all in pieces?"
      "He'd spent the whole night taking his uniform to pieces. He never tore nothing mind you. He bit through the seams with his teeth. His socks were two balls of wool. He said with a bit more time he would have taken his boots to pieces. He could've too. He was in the boot trade."
      The story pleased us immensely.
      "They should put up a statue to that man," said Mike reverently.
      "What happened to him eventually?" I asked.
      "A few days after they came and told him his ma had been killed by a Jerry bomb. Went fuggin mad he did. Couldn't get his uniform on quick enough. Joined the paratroopers and finished the war with thirteen medals."... [pp. 63-65]

...Badmore [where Browne is stationed to serve out his clerkship] was, and always would be, the despair of any sergeant-major, because the sergeant-major is a man who works in the medium of outward appearance. His object is to make every man look identical, because if all men look alike, they will act alike, and eventually think, or rather, not-think alike. But the sergeant-major must have a basic structure of uniformity to work on. Without this he is like a theologian without dogma. The analogy is not inapposite. A regiment is like a religion. Its dogma governs the way its members wear their lanyards, the angle they wear their berets, the manner in which they perform the movements of drill. As in [Cardinal John Henry] Newman's theory of religious doctrine, developments may occur. It is the responsibility of the sergeant-major, as of the theologian, to control and rationalize such developments, to distinguish genuine developments from heresies, and ruthlessly to suppress the latter.... [p. 70]

"...Now I want you to tell me why you want to be an officer." [Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel Lancing] smiled encouragingly.
      "I feel in rather a false position at the moment, sir," I replied. "Because the fact is I don't want to be an officer." The C.O.'s smile vanished abruptly. I continued: "I told Lieutenant Booth-Henderson last week, but my name appeared on Orders for this interview, and Corporal Baker told me I should attend it."
      ..."Well now, Browne, suppose you tell me why you have changed your mind?"
      ..."Well, sir, I'll be quite frank with you. I don't like the Army. I know I'm stuck with it for two years, but I'm sure I shall continue to dislike it. I don't see how I could possibly be an officer with that point of view. Don't you agree, sir?"
      "What don't you like about the Army?"
      "Almost everything, sir."
      ...The C.O. began to look rather angry.
      "Now look here, I've been in the Army for twenty-five years. You've been in it for four weeks. I think you've got a lot of nerve to sit there and say the Army's all wrong."
      "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean to be impertinent. I quite understand that my position must seem inexplicable to you." I began to get into my stride. "I suppose it's my education. I've been encouraged to question everything, to form an independent judgment. In the Army one has to accept orders without questioning them. I feel that if I were to hope to become an officer I would have to give up too many principles."
      "When you're older, Browne, you'll discover that there must be some sort of authority which is obeyed without question...." [pp. 90-92]
  1. The hymn "Trust and Obey" was ingrained into my adolescent head as thoroughly as any other song sung at the Assembly of God Church I attended during the very years of David Lodge's national service. Its words by John H. Sammis (1887) included the refrain:
    Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
    To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
          — Courtesy of Moody Bible Institute
  2. Lodge noted in the 1982 introduction: "Working within the conventions of the day, I adopted Norman Mailer's expedient, in The Naked and the Dead, of representing the most common of the four-letter words as 'fugg'..."

Friday, August 3, 2007

Without apology

I like this passage from Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great for its frank acerbity and refusal to apologize for religious dogma, for which apology* has traditionally rationalized justifications:
This pathetic moral spectacle [exemplified by "temporary marriages" and "remissions of sins" in an earlier excerpt] would not be necessary if the original rules were ones that it would be possible to obey. But to the totalitarian edicts that begin with revelation from absolute authority, and that are enforced by fear, and based on a sin that had been committed long ago, are added regulations that are often immoral and impossible at the same time. The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey. The resulting tyranny is even more impressive if it can be enforced by a privileged caste or party which is highly zealous in the detection of error. Most of humanity, throughout its history, has dwelt under a form of this stupefying dictatorship, and a large portion of it still does…
      …The order to “love thy neighbor” is mild and yet stern: a reminder of one’s duty to others. The order to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed, as is the hard-to-interpret instruction to love others “as I have loved you.” Humans are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves: the thing simply cannot be done (as any intelligent “creator” would well understand from studying his own design). Urging humans to be superhumans, on pain of death and torture, is the urging of terrible self-abasement at their repeated and inevitable failure to keep the rules. What a grin, meanwhile, on the face of those who accept the cash donations that are made in lieu! The so-called Golden Rule, sometimes needlessly identified with a folktale about the Babylonian Rabbi Hillel, simply enjoins us to treat others as one would wish to be treated by them. This sober and rational precept, which one can teach to any child with its innate sense of fairness (and which predates all Jesus’s “beatitudes” and parables), is well within the compass of any atheist and does not require masochism and hysteria, or sadism and hysteria, when it is breached. It is gradually learned, as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it. [pp. 212-214]
* apology. A formal justification or defense.
apologetics. The branch of theology that deals with the defense and proof of [a religion].
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

On a personal note, when I left the divinity school in Edinburgh University in December 1965, I did so with a powerful sense that what had done me in there had been the nausea I experienced in my study of Christian dogmatics.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

A bush league reaction

Someone asked me a couple of weeks ago what I made of a review of Christopher Hitchens's book that had recently appeared in a periodical that bills itself as "a review of religion, politics, and culture." I hadn't yet finished reading the book, but as soon as I did I turned accommodatingly to the review. While its thirty-five hundred words told me little that is true about the book (other than the name of its author and its title: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), reading it was an interesting experience and a sort of revelation, which actually only came to me later, during the night, as I reflected on the provenance of the journal (its web site describes it as a "journal of opinion edited and managed by lay Catholics") and on the reviewer's being a teacher at Villanova University ("a Roman Catholic, Augustinian university"): the review seems to be a sort of Bush-Doctrinaire preemptive strike. Try to blow up all of Hitchens's aircraft while they're sitting on the ground (that is, before many people have read his book).

The title of the review ("This Book Is Not Good") of course tips you off that it was written to put the book down and put readers off it. The Villanova teacher seems to have approximately zero respect for the book he is purportedly reviewing. Though he makes a show at first of admiring Hitchens, whose "columns in the Nation during the first stage of the Iraq War (1990-91) are masterpieces of political analysis and moral commentary," who "with effortless versatility...pronounced on literature and art as well as politics," and whose "judgments provided an invaluable education in sensibility," he quickly reveals what he thinks of him in the context of trying to undermine potential readers' opinion of Hitchens and his book: "Hitchens proves to be an amateur in philosophy, an illiterate in theology,and a dishonest student of history." The teacher seems to regard himself, of course, a first-rate philosopher, theologian, and historian.

This Catholic hatchet job masquerading as a book review concludes with the suggestion that "if you doubt me, read this book." Since the only response to the piece is to doubt it, I will (as I would anyway) second the writer's recommendation that you do indeed read God Is Not Great. The teacher obviously didn't read the same book I did. And, of course, reading being what it is, the book you read won't be the same either. What it is for you will depend on how you read it, which may or may not be the same way the "reviewer" seems to have read it: determined not to accept a word of it but intent on explaining away or putting down everything that makes you uncomfortable.

bush league

The Dutch bosch, "woods or forest," gave us our word early on for bush, "wilderness." By 1909 American baseball fans were calling the minor leagues the bush leagues, because they were out in the wilderness, away from the cities where professional teams played. Bush league and then bush soon came to mean anything amateur.    –QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, by Robert Hendrickson

Of course, the term stands to be updated with reference to the amateurish managing partner of the Major League baseball team the Texas Rangers, 1989-1994.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Religious belief: what a bargain!

Many have been impressed by Pascal's wager* and convinced by it to go ahead and believe, what the heck! The odds are unbelievable: nothing whatsoever ventured (if you don't value your personal integrity), and you might be a huge, huge winner! From Christopher Hitchens's book God Is Not Great:
[The theology of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)] is not far short of sordid. His celebrated "wager" puts it in hucksterish form: what have you got to lose? If you believe in god and there is a god, you win. If you believe in him and you are wrong—so what? I once wrote a response to this cunning piece of bet-covering, which took two forms. The first was a version of Bertrand Russell's hypothetical reply to the hypothetical question: what will you say if you die and are confronted with your Maker? His response? "I should say, Oh God, you did not give us enough evidence." My own reply:
Imponderable Sir, I presume from some if not all of your many reputations that you might prefer honest and convinced unbelief to the hypocritical and self-interested affectation of faith or the smoking tributes of bloody altars.
But I would not count on it.
      Pascal reminds me of the hypocrites and frauds who abound in Talmudic Jewish rationalization. Don't do any work on the Sabbath yourself, but pay someone else to do it. You obeyed the letter of the law: who's counting? The Dalai Lama tells us that you can visit a prostitute as long as someone else pays her. Shia Muslims offer "temporary marriage," selling men the permission to take a wife for an hour or two with the usual vows and then divorce her when they are done. Half of the splendid buildings in Rome would never have been raised if the sale of indulgences had not been so profitable: St. Peter's itself was financed by a special one-time offer of that kind. The newest pope, the former Joseph Ratzinger, recently attracted Catholic youths to a festival by offering a certain "remission of sin" to those who attended. [pp. 211-212]
* From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
Pascal's Wager (or Pascal's Gambit) is the application by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal of decision theory to the belief in God. It was set out in the Pensées, a posthumous collection of notes made by Pascal towards his unfinished treatise on Christian apologetics.

The Wager posits that it is a better "bet" to believe that God exists than not to believe, because the expected value of believing (which Pascal assessed as infinite) is always greater than the expected value of not believing. In Pascal's assessment, it is inexcusable not to investigate this issue:
Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.
Variations of this argument may be found in other religious philosophies, such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism....