“If I’d Lived Back Then…”

“If I’d lived back then, I would be so up in arms about slavery…”

No you wouldn’t. You would have said that slavery was the best thing for the Africans, pointing to the comparison of how they lived in Africa versus how they live in America. You would have said that most slave holders treat their servants very kindly, and that most Blacks weren’t suited to anything better anyway. You would have said that slavery was, if not a good thing in itself, yet the best thing we are capable of right now and anyway there’s no practical alternative.

The same goes for any other injustice that you look back and shake your head over. You wouldn’t have been a feminist in the 18th century, or an anti-Imperialist in the 19th, or anti-fascist in the 20th. You would have been entirely in favor of everything that you now look back and loathe.

I know this because ‘look back in loathing’ is itself the equivalent to these things. Shaking your head over the injustices of the past is the default attitude of today, just as being pro-slavery was the default attitude of the antebellum South. Had you lived there, I have no doubt whatsoever you would fall into the default attitude of that time, just as you fall into the default attitude of today.

If you want to convince me otherwise, then you would need to actually question the injustices, abuses, and idiotic ideas of today: the ones that might actually cost you something to question. Like ‘does a disease that is only seriously threatening to a small portion of the population warrant the wholesale suspension of individual rights?’ or ‘maybe contempt for the domestic sphere hasn’t been the best thing for either women or society.’

If not, then your self-insert fantasy about the past is quite simply irrelevant.

Sunday Thoughts: Preparing to Prepare

I am not going to talk about the election. What will happen is completely out of my power to influence and I don’t think my, what, five readers have much influence either, or particularly care what I have to say on the subject.

There was a surprisingly good homily at Mass today (my present situation is, and has been for a while, very unsettled, so I’m not part of a parish and have two or three churches that I attend depending on schedule): on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the need to be prepared for the coming of Christ. The priest pointed out that so many of us spend our lives, as he put it, ‘preparing to prepare.’ We’re not going to prepare to meet Christ – or to start a new career or make major amendments to our lifestyles or what have you – today, but we’ll start tomorrow. Except tomorrow is always tomorrow and today is always today, so we never actually start preparing. There’s always jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today.

The difficult part of any endeavor, at least for me, is getting it through my head that today actually is different, or could be. It’s a self-reinforcing pattern: everything today seems much the same as yesterday, triggering the same responses. If we follow those well-worn paths, they will further make today seem much the same as yesterday. The cost of amendment is the discomfort of doing things differently with no guarantee how they will turn out. But there are never any guarantees in this life, only the illusion that things will continue to go on much as they have done. Since the bridegroom hasn’t shown up in the past hour, it’s odds-on he won’t show at all. No sense wasting time buying oil.

But today is not yesterday. Today is an absolutely unique creation. November 8th, 2020 never has been and never will be again. There is no reason at all it cannot be the beginning of a new life, the day when the preparations truly begin. It’s difficult to rewrite our programming (read: to change habits), but again, that discomfort is the cost of amendment. We always must die a little to come to new life.

Trust no Future, howe’re pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within and God o’erhead!

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Fear of Death

“When you remove, like even in the schools, you remove prayer, you remove God, you remove the fear of God, you create the possibility of the fear of everything else. But watch this: If you instill the fear of God, you eliminate the fear of anything else!”
https://mobile.twitter.com/zhenryaz/status/1320102253865308161

I know nothing of Kanye West, but if he’s putting out messages like this I will gladly give him a shout out. We live in odd times: the Church neglects her duties, so God raises up the rappers and playboys of the world to pick up the slack.

I bring it up because he’s quite right (Churchill said something similar): when one fears God, one need fear nothing else. Remove fear of God, fear of everything else rushes in. Particularly fear of death.

The thing about fear of death is that it amounts to fear of everything. Just about anything could potentially kill you. The Jews or the Jesuits might be plotting your downfall right now (well, the latter probably are). It may seem ridiculous to you, but there’s the nagging question: what if you’re wrong? What if you die, or you get someone else killed because you believed your own lying eyes rather than the experts? And in the final resort, death is always in reach; if your masters want your obedience, they can just put a gun to your head.

(Which is why the narrative that religion, and particularly Christianity, are means of controlling the masses and keeping the elites in power is rather silly. Which is more conducive to earthly power: the idea that all men are subject to God, who rewards each according to his works and promises paradise after death to the faithful, or the idea that this life is all there is and nothing awaits after death, putting the worst possible fate squarely in the hands of human authorities?)

The trouble is that everyone dies, and everyone dies of something. The fear of death must ultimately rule your life, and as we’ve discovered it can very easily consumed everything that makes life worth living.

We live our lives always under the shadow of death. That is simply how this world works. We Christians have hope in death. But even apart from that, it has never been the way of mankind to allow fear of death to rob of life or to deprive us of our virtue. That is cowardice, and to do right in spite of fear is fortitude; one of the cardinal virtues. Maybe the Jews are plotting our downfall. But I am commanded to love my neighbor, and it is a base thing to turn on a man whom I have never known to do wrong, so I will stand up for Mr. Schneider down the hall. If he later stabs me in the back, well, that’s on him. And if there is a deadly disease going around, so be it, but I have a duty to visit my father in his final illness. If I catch the disease and spread it, I can’t help that. I shall live as a man and die when it is my time.

That is how we ought to act. That is the human, classical, Christian way (yes, yes; there must be prudence as well, but not to the point of neglect of duty). That is what happens when we fear God more than we fear death.

Today we pray for the souls of the faithful departed who are in Purgatory. It’s a day also to remember that, sooner or later, we’ll be following them. Just how or when that happens is in God’s hands; what we do in the meantime, what sort of person we make ourselves, is in ours. Do we really want to be the kind that spent his life cowering in the shadow of the inevitable?

All Saints

The doctrine of the Communion of Saints is rather simple. It’s that Christians don’t leave the Church when they die. The work they began in this life doesn’t end when they enter the next.

We have a perspective problem in this life. In fact, it’s very like being in high school (our education system has very few good qualities, but it’s useful as an analogy). We find ourselves in a confined environment subject to many seemingly arbitrary rules, with little or no sense of the larger world that would put them into context. Everything in that little world seems all-important: winning that football game. Getting that grade. Going out with that girl. Some people excel in the system, others struggle, and those who excel often make it all the harder for those who don’t.

All the while we’re told that this isn’t the real world, that it’s only a passing phase and things will get better. If we have sensible parents they’ll remind us that the skills necessary to succeed in high school are not always the ones necessary to succeed in life. But it’s hard to believe that in the moment. The ‘real world’ seems like shadow: something that will be, while high school is what is.

As the poet Brad Paisley put it, “At 17 it’s hard to see past Friday night.”

But our parents are right. High school is four short years, compared to potentially seventy or more of adult life. How many people ‘peak’ in high school? How many of those who were popular, who were the kings of campus went on to be failures at life itself? But equally comforting, how many made a success of both? The point is that life is the important thing; high school only matters insofar as it prepares us for life. No matter how much ‘success’ we had in school, it won’t matter a bit if it doesn’t translate into adult life.

Also, adult life is where we have access to a level of agency, to the power to act upon the world in a way that we scarcely dreamed of in high school. The adult world is immeasurably larger than the high school world.

We in this world are in high school. The saints are the adults. They’ve grown up, matured, set aside childish things and live and operate in a world infinitely larger than ours, with a scope and agency that we can hardly imagine. But like adults, they aren’t ‘other’ than us; they’ve been in the same position we are now and they are invested in our success (far more than adults in our world often are, to be honest).

This is something Professor Tolkien pointed out in On Fairy Stories: we have a bad habit of talking of children as if they were a distinct class of people. We talk of children the way we might talk of, say, Japanese or Jews or women: as if there are some who are children and some who are adults, and they simply exist side by side. But a child is just a person at a particular stage of development. Everyone either is a child or has been a child.

It is the same with Saints. They are simply people who have reached the final stage. They are complete people, standing to us in almost exactly the same relationship as adults stand to children. So of course we honor them, of course we seek their help and intercession. That is what is proper to people like us, just as it is proper for children to seek the aid and support of grown ups. It’s akin to Ray Harryhausen seeking advice from Willis O’Brien, or a young baseball player asking for support from one of his sports idols. The followers of Christ in all walks of life are now pursuing their vocations in Heaven, the true vocations of which their actions in this life were but shadows, and they’re eager to help us follow in their footsteps.

Because they too are in the Church. We worship and work and praise alongside of a great cloud of witnesses, of heroes who have triumphed before us and urge us on to “be imitators of them as they are of Christ.”

Brief Thoughts on ‘The Shining’

Last night I watched The Shining for the first time with my family. Though obviously I’ve been familiar with it for a long time and I’ve seen many clips of it (which, unfortunately, meant that I kind of went in knowing more or less what was going to happen).

Quick take: it’s pretty good. I can’t say I thought it was amazing, certainly not one of my top horror films, but it’s pretty good.

The best part: definitely the camera work and set decoration. I haven’t seen a camera move as much and in the way this one does in a long time; maybe ever. Especially the way it’ll hang over the character’s shoulders, following them from room to room as though something’s watching them. The suspense scenes are very well set up as well, like when Wendy is dragging Jack to the storeroom, and we can see he’s beginning to wake up as she fumbles with the doorknob. And the Overlook Hotel is a masterpiece of design. It looks very much like a real hotel, but something about the way it’s shot and the ambiance conveys a strong sense of isolation, of that particular, specific feeling of being alone in a place meant for crowds.

The performances are great all around. Danny Lloyd, who plays little Danny is a stand-out in the ranks of creepy children in horror films. Shelly Duvall has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and props to her for pulling off the terrified wife role so effectively. I also really liked Scatman Cruthers as the kindly chef who shares Danny’s gift and tries his best to help them (his exit was kind of annoying, though: all that work and time to get him there, and he’s just bumped out of the movie). The smaller roles were excellently cast as well: particularly Barry Nelson as the hotel owner, trying to put the best possible spin on “one of your predecessors went nuts and murdered his family” so as not to scare off a potential employee, and Joe Turkel as Lloyd the bartender, who manages to be one of the most unsettling things in the hotel with nothing but a piercing smile (who was also Dr. Tyrell from Blade Runner: dang, that’s a resume right there).

(There is one big exception to the cast, which we will get to. Though you’ve probably already notice who I’ve left out)

The scares were nicely done for the most part. I thought some of them dragged on for too long (the nude woman in the bath for instance could have stood to have been tightened up a bit: come on, movie, we know something’s going to happen here). And I really liked the creeping sense of uncertainty of just what the hotel wants and what really is happening here. That famous final shot, coupled with some earlier lines, leaves us feeling we’ve touched the edge of a world of rules that we don’t understand, which is what many good horror films aim to achieve (definite Lovecraft influence there, as he was the master of this effect).

Speaking of influences, I saw quite a bit of DNA from Robert Wise’s The Haunting, especially the creative camera work and the specific scare of having a crucial door which had previously been locked suddenly be found open. Actually, upon reflection, the film is more or less the same story as The Haunting, only with a family and ax-murder angle and more heavy-handed manifestations. This is not a bad thing at all; most stories are variations on older ones. Just so long as you do something creative or interesting with it, and I’d say this one does.

The biggest liability to the film is definitely Jack Nicholson. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great actor and he’s extremely entertaining here. But that’s kind of the problem; he’s more entertaining than scary. When he goes nuts, I couldn’t help laughing because it’s Jack Nicholson gnawing at the scenery like a sugar addict set loose in Willy Wonka’s factory, bugging his eyes, arching those famous eyebrows of his, and twisting his face like rubber. Take the scene where he’s talking to his son (a genuinely uncomfortable scene, admittedly). When he says, “I would never hurt you,” I just laughed because he says it in the most insane, non-reassuring way imaginable. It wouldn’t have been out of place in a cartoon.  

Who would believe this guy could become an ax murderer?

That, and he’s too obviously crazy from the get go. If I’m supposed to be disturbed and shocked by a normal family man dissolving into an axe-wielding psychopath, he can’t start off looking like an axe-wielding psychopath. Nicholson’s many things, but he’s not the everyman. Intentional or not, he comes across like a nutjob from almost the moment we meet him (about a half-hour in I commented “this is basically ‘I Married the Joker’”).

I also didn’t care much for the roller-coaster of scares in the climax, with Wendy running around the hotel and encountering different ghosts. Throwing weird stuff at her like a guy in a bear costume giving a blow-job to a butler feels way too desperate and…well, just random. Like they collected a lot of different weird ideas and just pulled a few out of the hat. Not like, say, the Shape’s surreal tableau of jack-o-lanterns, a tombstone, and the body of one of its victims at the end of Halloween, which was atmospheric as hell while tying in with the opening and giving disturbing hints at the inner workings of its mind. This just feels like they were trying to be shocking for shock’s sake.

Actually, that’s another problem; the manifestations throughout the film are too random. They actually remind me of the scares in House on Haunted Hill: that sense of just throwing anything at the screen in the hopes of getting a reaction. They seem to me to lack any kind of thematic through line, or to have any real depth to them. They could have had with a few small tweaks, but they don’t (I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much this applies there as well). Like, the bear-costume bit could have been ten times as effective if, say, Danny had carried a teddy bear around with him or been particularly attached to such a toy. That would have linked it to the rest of the story, would have been a scare with some real bite to it, instead of just a “what the heck?” moment. Likewise the woman in the bath would have worked better if we’d established that Jack and his wife were no longer being intimate (playing on the idea of isolation and confinement), but nothing suggested that to me. Wendy is warm and affectionate to Jack, if a bit of a frumpy nag, and the friction comes primarily from his end.  

The best scares are simply the sense of isolation and cold created by the visual style: the crushing sense of loneliness, of boredom, of confinement. The film excels at this, and I think it’s the best thing about it.  

Overall, I’d call The Shining a good horror movie, but not a great one. The directing and acting are exemplary, it’s amazingly atmospheric, and it’s highly entertaining, but a lot of the scares are pretty shallow upon reflection and it’s handicapped by a tremendous miscasting in the lead role. But whatever its flaws, it’s definitely one that needs to be seen by anyone who enjoys horror films or wants to understand the horror genre.

Never going to be a favorite, but clearly canon status.  

Sunday Thoughts: Love and Unique Creation

In the beginning, God made all things and made them good. He made each thing to be itself and not another, to occupy its own particular place in creation and to reflect its own small portion of His infinity.

God loves everything that is because it is what it is. I believe it was Dr. Alice Von Hildebrand who said that to love something is to see it through God’s eyes: to perceive the particular individual nature that God has given it. Chesterton expressed this same insight in his comic novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied: “The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost. There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything quite like it to the crack of doom. I cannot believe anything but that God loved it as He must surely love anything that is itself and unreplaceable. But even for that I do not care. If God, with all His thunders, hated it, I loved it.”

Incidentally, I think one of the reasons God permits evil is that a being that has rebelled and been reconciled is a different thing than one that has never rebelled. A creature that knows it is possible to fall, and yet stands is different from one that has no idea that it is possible to do wrong at all. That particular kind of existence requires that there be those who will not be reconciled, rebels who remain rebels to the end. It requires, at least, that there be such a thing as rebellion, if only that there may also be such a thing as reconciliation.

Now, in the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas says something almost in passing that I think is extraordinarily profound:

“For the more completely we see how a thing differs from others, the more perfectly we know it, since each thing has in itself its own being distinct from all other things.”

Each thing is itself, unique, and irreplaceable, and the more we understand how it is different, the more we see it as other, the more perfectly we understand it.

This is, I think, is the core of the Catholic view of creation: not just that creation is good, but that each created thing is good in its own nature, because it is what it is. The more perfectly it embodies that ‘being’, that idea of it in the mind of God, the better that thing is. A good thing (whatever it is) is good to the extent that it is most peculiarly itself, most perfectly the reflection of that particular idea of God’s. That is why (for instance) patriotism is a Christian virtue and one reason why love is so important: to love something, as Dr. Von Hildebrand says, is to see it as God does and to have an inclination of the idea of that thing in its uniqueness. To love something, properly loving it for its own sake, is to enter in part into the life of God.

Thought of the Day

The biggest mistake Conservatives make in dealing with Liberalism in all its forms lies in treating it as an intellectual problem. We take them at their word that their views are simply an exercise of reason. A philosophy, grounded in the intellect and subject to rational investigation.

It isn’t. It’s a religion. A religion that, as part of its belief system, claims to be the result of pure reason and science. What we are experiencing and have been experiencing for the past few centuries is not a crisis of philosophy but of mythology.

The other side keeps winning because, at least on some level, they understand this. We keep losing because we keep trying to play the game they say they are playing rather than the one they are actually playing.

October 21: Blessed Karl of Austria

Today is the feast of Blessed Karl of Austria, the last Hapsburg Emperor (for now).

For those who don’t know the tragic story of this holy monarch, Blessed Karl was the grand nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph and ascended the throne in 1916 at the age of twenty-six. He was an extremely pious and kindly man, a loving husband and father, and courageous soldier (the only leader of a major power during the war to have actually fought in it. And, not coincidentally, the one who tried hardest to end it as soon as possible, but his pleas fell on deaf ears). He pursued badly-needed internal reforms, seeking to bring the various states of the Empire into a more federalist-style arrangement. Like the best monarchs – and the best leaders in general – he saw his position as one of duty to his people.

After the war, President Wilson demanded the destruction of the German and Austrian Monarchies as part of the allied peace terms; envisioning a Europe dominated by democracy. Thus the Emperor and his family were sent into exile, their property seized by the allies, and financial support blocked by the allied governments. The result of this was that Bl. Karl took ill while out buying presents for his family and died a lingering, painful death. He bore his last suffering patiently, declaring his love for his wife and offering his suffering for his divided people. He summoned his eldest son, Otto, to his bedside to “witness how a Catholic and an Emperor conducts himself when dying.” He died proclaiming the Holy Name of Jesus: “Thy Holy Will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes—yes. My Jesus, Thy will be done—Jesus.”

You can learn more at http://www.emperorcharles.org/

Me, I’m a Monarchist, which is one of the reasons I have a particular devotion to Bl. Emperor Karl. He seems to my mind to represent the best of Christendom-that-was; the great Monarchical civilization in whose crumbling ruins we make our dwelling. Arguably his deposition and death are the demarcation point of the end of that civilization: the last Hapsburg Emperor, shining as a beacon of sanctity and manly courage to remind us of just what we destroyed for the sake of what came after.

Leave it to Winston Churchill (also an unreconstructed Monarchist) to point out the obvious: “[World War II] would never have come unless, under American and modernizing pressure, we had driven the Habsburgs out of Austria and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany. By making these vacuums we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of its sewer on to the vacant thrones.”

In short, the story of the end of Christendom is that we sacrificed a Saint in the name of liberty and progress and got a monster bringing death and destruction in return.

Blessed Karl, and all the martyred monarchs of Europe, pray for us and our leaders.